"And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18, NIV)
If we read this statement of Jesus in the larger context, we can argue that the emphasis here is not so much on Peter as on his declaration of Jesus as the Messiah (v. 16). The universal church--made of all believers throughout time--is built upon this belief. This is the message declared by all local congregations as communities of faith and expressions of the universal church.
Thirteen years ago, my friends Chuck and Martha Strong saw the birth of a church built upon this profession of faith. They had a vision for a “free and faithful” church based on Baptist principles in Olive Branch, Mississippi, a growing suburb of Memphis, Tennessee. Three Memphis congregations as well as the state CBF organizations in Mississippi and Tennessee came alongside the Strongs, their daughters--Rachel and Laura, and other believers to establish the Olive Branch Fellowship.
Chuck has resigned as pastor of the church and preached his last sermon yesterday. One of the strengths of this new church start is that most of the charter members, including the Strong family, are still part of the fellowship. The church has a significant ministry in the community, there is a stable and growing congregation, they have their own building, and the founding pastor has handed off the church to a young couple—Corey and Alisha Phillips—who will serve as co-pastors.
When Olive Branch Fellowship was in its youth, the participants tried a lot of different things to carve out a niche in the community and reach potential members. Many of them didn’t work! For example, they sent out a mass mailing of 5000 postcard to the community which attracted one new person. While that person’s response was valued, the church realized that there had to be better ways to reach people and so they continued to improvise.
The Spirit has a unique way of working with us when we are open to improvisation. Although we can learn from other congregations, the Spirit opens doors when we least expect and provides opportunities for which we have not planned. Olive Branch Fellowship has grown through the leadership of the Spirit--through relationships, ministry experiences, and surprises. As a result, it is a healthy fellowship of believers.
Perhaps the greatest gift that the Strongs have given to this church has been a willingness to be open to the Spirit of God. I pray that this will always be true.