The Community God Is Creating: Immanuel At Year Five

So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied. —Acts 9:31

I love Immanuel Church! I love coming to this church every Sunday. I feel that way for many reasons. I love the music. I love the laughter. I love the little kids who are going to be mighty for God in this world when the rest of us are in heaven. I love the honesty of this church. I love the unity of this church. I love the cool graphics. I love the way we sing our hearts out to God. I love it that this church is a safe place for sinners with zero pressure on anyone. I love our doctrinal statement. I love our mission – making the real Jesus non-ignorable in our city and far beyond. I love our two strategies for advancing that mission – comfort sufferers, multiply churches. I don’t even mind this old building. It keeps our motives pure, doesn’t it? Nobody’s coming here for the architecture. Why do we come? When I interviewed David and Sarah McLemore as new members years ago, I asked them, “Why do you want to join Immanuel Church?” Sarah quietly said, “Jesus is here.”

That’s what the name Immanuel means. That name comes from the book of Isaiah. It means, “God is with us.” The Hebrew is ‘immanu ’el – “With us [is] God.” That’s how this church started. That’s how we’ve grown. There is no other explanation, except “God is with us.” This name Immanuel means God is our ally. Whatever battle you’re facing, God is with you as you go into that battle, if you’ll have him. You might think God is against you. But Immanuel means he wants to fight for you. The name Immanuel is the gospel in one word. It means that God is for the undeserving, because of the cross of Christ. Immanuel means that, at the very place of your most embarrassing defeat, at the very place in your life where you’re crushed with sadness and regret, that painfully inexcusable part of you that you can’t even forgive – that is where God loves you the most. But if God seems theoretical and distant, and you’re wondering where to find him, God is very findable. He’s just down lower than you are. The Bible says, “For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite’” (Isaiah 57:15). God dwells up high, where we can’t go. God dwells down low, where we can go. But God does not dwell in the mushy middle, where everyone is just okay. No one will ever find God there. He dwells up high and down low, and Jesus proved how low. The guilty and the broken and the desperate were his favorites. The okay people hated Jesus. But he brought God down to the most undeserving. That’s the greatest thing that has ever happened. And it keeps happening. Jesus is here.

Immanuel began five years ago with a group of about 30 people longing for God. Personally, I had nothing to offer. I was depleted already. That is not a smart way to plant a church. Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, “When I come to you, I will come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ” (Romans 15:29). There is the blessing of Christ, and there is the fullness of the blessing of Christ. I came to Immanuel with emptiness. So, if you came to church today with nothing to offer, you don’t need to feel awkward around me. I get it. But far better, Jesus is here, and he’s here for you. You can come into his presence and be quiet and rest and do nothing but soak up the good news that God blesses those, and only those, who offer him nothing but need. That’s how I came to this church, and it worked. As the years have gone by, God has been gentle and kind. I’ve re-oxygenated. I think all of us original members have. The gospel puts heart back into us all. And because God has been with us, more and more people have come – wonderful people. I remember Seth and Adrian Buntin walking in during the summer of 2008. Here was a young couple! We couldn’t believe our luck. The rest of us practically assaulted them. They were so kind. And now most of us at Immanuel are on the younger end of the continuum, which we all love. Five years ago, I could not have foreseen this Immanuel. Today, we cannot possibly foresee the Immanuel of five years from now. But we don’t need to. We didn’t start with a brilliant master plan. God had a plan. We didn’t cover every contingency in advance. God was our hope. We had no denominational funding or backing. The gospel was our only asset and our only legitimacy. We said yes to the call of God and jumped into something that, without God, would have been crazy. Now look what he has done! God is a good ally.

There’s been a lot of sacrifice along the way. So, let me ask the original members of Immanuel Church to stand right now, so that the rest of us can honor you. These courageous people did a hard thing. With no guarantees except the promises of God, they launched a new church as a gift to our city. And here’s why I’m so proud of them. I’ve never once heard from these founding members a comment like, “Well, I’ve been a member of this church from the start, and what I have to say is ___________.” No swagger. Nothing but love for Jesus and for you. Immanuel Church is a gift to you.

In 2009 we joined The Acts 29 Network. God opened that up. We got pulled into the flow of this bold, young, tatted out, fun, macho, biblical, gospel-centered movement that’s compelling the attention of the rising generation. Also in 2009, Todd MacDonald, our music leader, got sick with cancer and went back east for surgery. We all suffered with him and prayed for him and were so happy to welcome him back. Now Todd is with the Lord, our first member in heaven.

In 2010 the Lord started a new work among us men. Tuesday night men’s community was meeting down at the Leaf and Ale for good cigars, good beer and good news. We were paying $50 per night for the use of their back room, and we didn’t want to pay that any more. So we moved up here. And just about then, God started breaking down the walls between us – not that we were standing aloof from each other, but we just began discovering at a deeper level how wonderful brotherhood really is. God pressed into us a new awareness of how to honor one another as men. Every man is facing something, and no man needs to stand alone.

In 2011 God guided us into 1 John 1:7: “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” Immanuel has always been about Jesus Community Mission. We’d been clear about Jesus from day one. But last year, over the summer and into the fall, we all took a step into deeper community. God gave us the gift of walking in the light. What is that? Walking in the light is an honest relationship with Jesus and one another, so that we’re free to grow. We want Immanuel to be not just the most honest church in town but the most honest anything in town, more honest than any bar. We don’t want to appear better than we are. We want to be known. So we launched our care groups, where we talk about what’s really going on in our lives. If you want to watch Christians admit their weaknesses, try out a care group. And if you’re wondering how to find God, that verse says he is “in the light,” that is, not in the shadows of denial, where we hide, but out in the place of honesty. It’s easy to find God in an honest community.

This year God has helped us define our mission more clearly – making the real Jesus non-ignorable in our city and far beyond. And how are we going to advance that mission together as a church? In two ways.

One, comfort sufferers, specifically, people coming out of human trafficking. Last Sunday night, walking through the lounge at the airport coming home from Seattle, the TV was showing the news. As I walked by, what I heard was that a sex trafficking ring in San Francisco had been broken up by the police, and “100 women had been recovered.” It’s happening here in Nashville too. After law enforcement brings these sufferers out, who is going to care for them? And what about the many men involved? Who is going to tell them that Jesus loves the undeserving? And who’s going to act like it? Think of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor. It greeted the ships filled with immigrants coming into this country. There’s a plaque on that statue that says, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Lady Liberty welcomes all who want a new beginning. She makes the meaning of this nation unmistakably clear. Even so, Immanuel Church will make the real Jesus non-ignorable by embracing sufferers who’d like to get their lives back.

Two, the second way God will help us advance our mission is multiply churches. What God is giving us here at Immanuel we want to reduplicate many times over. Last week Jeremy Rose of the Axis Church in downtown Nashville was with us. What a privilege we have to support Jeremy in planting that church. Then very soon Sean Brown will be launching South City Church in the Melrose/Berry Hill area. Have you ever seen a city with too much gospel, too much forgiveness, too much joy? There is a gospel deficit in our city, and there are two ways to fix that. One way is from above – hold big-deal events down at the Ryman with a lot of hoopla. But our city is tired of hoopla. The other way is from below – multiply churches until there are too many stories of redemption being told around town for this new movement to be ignored. Big events come and go. New gospel-centered churches just keep coming. And eventually, the real Jesus punches through the psychological threshold of non-ignorability. You can’t live in Nashville and not be aware of the Titans and country music. The Titans and country music are above the city-wide threshold of non-ignorability. The real Jesus is below that threshold. You can live in this city and not know about him. But we will multiply churches for the day when you can’t live in Nashville and not be aware of how the real Jesus is moving in this city. And until every last person is aware of what the real Jesus can do for them, we will never quit.

Here in Acts 9:31 God paints a picture of the kind of church and church movement only he can create. When we put ourselves aside and let God have his way, what does he do? He creates a community marked in four ways.

One, “So the church . . . had peace.” They were marked by peace and shalom and humaneness. Sinners were thriving. Not that their lives were easy. This verse summarizes the story from Acts 6:8 to Acts 9:30, and that story includes persecution. But the God of peace was with them.

Peace is dear to us at Immanuel. We think of it this simple way: gospel + safety + time. That environment is where we thrive. It’s the only way we can grow and change. Gospel, lots of good news, multiple exposures over and over again. Safety, an unaccused place to land, not being put under negative scrutiny, not having to wonder what’s going on behind your back, but being honored and welcomed even as we remain sinners. Then time, lots of time, because we don’t change quickly – not at a deep level – and God is patient. No one is pressured. No one has to grow on someone else’s schedule. We’re not here to manage one another. We’re here to rejoice over one another, because God rejoices over us. And we’ve been finding that, the more Immanuel grows in numbers, the better our experience of shalom becomes. Only God can do that.

Two, “the church was being built up.” In a gospel-centered church, everything going on is constructive. We lift each other up, because put-downs are nowhere in the heart of God. I remember after our amazingly fun talent show in August, Sean Brown commented in staff meeting the next week, “This is the most for-you church I’ve ever seen.” Exactly! You could have stood up here and read the phone book, and people would have cheered for you wildly. This is a for-you church, because God is for us. We are built up, not torn down. The Bible says, “So then, let us pursue what makes for peace” – shalom is not passive, but pursued – “and for mutual upbuilding” (Romans 14:19)

Three, “the church was walking in the fear of the Lord.” The fear of the Lord is not “Oh no, here comes God!” It is reverence, awe, honesty. We want to be right with God. We want to be fully pleasing to him. Here is an eye-witness account, from Korea, of what this can look like:

Then began a meeting the like of which I had never seen before. Every sin a human being can commit was confessed that night. Pale and trembling with emotion, guilty souls saw themselves as God saw them. Their sins rose up in all their vileness, till shame and grief took complete possession; pride was driven out, the face of man forgotten. Looking up to heaven, to Jesus whom they had betrayed, they cried out, “Lord, Lord, cast us not away forever!” Everything else was forgotten. Nothing else mattered. The scorn of men, the penalty of the law, even death itself seemed of small consequence, if only God forgave.

That is the fear of the Lord. It’s a powerful new beginning for anyone who knows they’re not right with God but they feel stuck with what they’ve become. I am sure that amid all this happiness today there are some whose hearts are breaking over their sins. Listen. The Bible says, “God shows his love for us in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). If you think you qualify for the love of God, you don’t. If you know you don’t qualify, you do. Open your broken heart to him. His heart is open to you right now, to forgive you and care for you.

Four, “the church was walking in the comfort of the Holy Spirit.” Isn’t that fascinating, especially after the fear of the Lord? It isn’t an either/or. It’s a both/and – both the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit simultaneously. The Lord we properly fear is also “the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). God says, “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you” (Isaiah 66:13). So here at Immanuel, we believe one of the most important ministries in this church is encouragement – because of who God is. Comfort and encouragement are not self-indulgent options. They have authority in the gospel. Comfort is embedded at the deepest level of who God is. We believe it, because the gospel declares it. As we believe it, we receive it. Then we have something to give away to others. This wonderful experience we enjoy every Sunday – we want this for more and more sufferers. I’ve never seen anyone too encouraged and too comforted in who God is. We long for our city to be melted in heart by what a comfort the real Jesus is to sufferers.

No wonder verse 31 concludes as it does. This early Christian movement, enjoying peace, being built up, walking in the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit – it multiplied! Three plus three equals six. That’s addition. But three times three makes nine. That’s multiplication. Five years ago, we were one church. In January, with the launch of South City, we will be three churches. And there are now nine Acts 29 churches in Tennessee.

God has a purpose of grace and glory for you. He wants to draw you into his multiplying community of peace, being built up, walking in the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit. God wants to draw you into what only he can do. He wants to set aside what you deserve through the cross of Christ. He wants to make the real Jesus non-ignorable through you. And what God wants to do, he is able to do. Will you open your heart to him today and say, “Yes, Lord. I give my life to you. Use me in any way you want.” This is the total surrender of your life, nothing less. Your age doesn’t matter, young or old. Your past doesn’t matter, good or bad. Your opinion of yourself doesn’t matter. What matters is that God is with you, for you, as your ally.

Present with us today are friends from other churches. We welcome and honor them. And this includes them. It includes me. It includes every Immanuel member. It includes all of us here today, because what we all long for is a movement of God in our lives and across our city. I want to pray now. I want to give my own heart to the Lord. I want you to do the same. Let’s yield ourselves entirely to what only God can do. He is with us.