In the closing evening service of the 59th General Council Friday in Orlando, J.J. Vasquez, founder and lead pastor of Journey church in Winter Park, Florida, presented a powerfully illustrated sermon on families and the family of God.
Vasquez, who was an associate professor at Southeastern University and earned a Master of Divinity from Southwestern Assemblies of God University, served as the district youth director of the Florida Multicultural district. In 2014, he and his wife, Liz, planted Journey church, with Outreach Magazine recognizing it as the 10th fastest growing church in America in 2019.
Using his dry sense of humor and relatable illustrations, Vasquez spoke of the similarities between individuals’ families and the church family.
“We can all admit to the dichotomy of family,” he said. “There’s a part of family that’s pleasant and fun and then there’s another part of family that can be trying.”
Vasquez brought his point home by noting that some of the most powerful moments in life come due to family as well as some of the most painful moments.
“It’s so interesting to me how similar the church and family is,” he said, listing powerful positive memories frequently tied to the church, followed by some of the painful memories people may have.
“What in life can you think of that has the power to hurt you like the church, but that you keep coming back to every single week?” he questioned. “I can think of only one — family.”
Vasquez took a moment to praise the Assemblies of God “family” as a voluntary cooperative fellowship. “Our strength is not in our uniformity, but our diversity,” he said. “What connects us is the willingness to be connected, despite our differences, despite our preferences, we decide we’re going to come together no matter what . . . not just connecting to each other, but mainly connected to Christ himself.”
CONNECTING TO THE TREE
Recognizing that being connected to Jesus is what brings the church together, Vasquez quoted John 15:5 (I am the vine; you are the branches . . .).
Seeing the vine as a tree, Vasquez shared how the tree has the power to connect and bring things together, but also the power to disconnect. He pointed out that there was a tree in Genesis that led to man being separated from God and a tree in Revelation that was with God.
“If only there was another tree in the middle of your Bible that could connect my brokenness with my blessing,” Vasquez said purposefully. “Some people call that tree the branch of David. Other people call Him the root of Jesse [another name for Christ].”
Satan attempted to keep the “tree” from seed ever being planted through Pharaoh (killing Israelite babies) or the seed from growing through Herod (killing boys under two), or cutting down the tree through Pilot (killing of Jesus), but Vasquez says God used Satan to plant the tree through the Cross on Calvary.
“Now the strategy for the believer is easy,” Vasquez stated. “Remain in Jesus. Stay connected to Jesus and you make it . . . and best of all, salvation that was only reserved for the Jew now becomes open for the Gentile . . . Calvary became a family tree.”
EXPANDING THE FAMILY
Vasquez warned, however, the only reason salvation was even made possible was that Jesus was willing to connect — to step out of heaven and into the dirty, sinful soil of earth.
“Which is why if we going to expand our family, if we’re going to stay connected, the first thing we need are fathers and mothers [leaders] who are willing to get messy.”
Quoting 1 Corinthians 4:15, Vasquez emphasized “there aren’t many fathers willing to take the time and effort to help you grow up.” The reason, he believed, many fathers and mothers are unwilling to invest in others is that they devalue themselves.
“We don’t think (as a spiritual mother or father) that we have anything to offer,” he said.
Using the example of his wife sitting with one of their boys as he learned math with an online teacher. He noted how even though she wasn’t teaching their son math, she was teaching him perseverance, commitment, and to never give up through her patience and encouragement.
“She was a parent not because of her knowledge, but because of her character,” Vasquez stated. “What you know and what you have doesn’t make you a parent, it’s who you are and who you’re willing to invest in that makes you a parent.”
Applying that example to church leaders, he said too many leaders don’t feel like they’re “big enough” to get involved — not a big enough church, following, budget, staff, etc.
Picking up a seed, Vasquez introduced it as the parent of an image of a giant tree. “In our culture only big things are successful, unless you decide to be a seed,” he said. “The success of a seed is not in being big, but in birthing something that is big.”
The key for the seed to be successful is the willingness to be involved and invested — you have to be willing to get messy.
“I think that’s why when God made man, He made him out of . . .” Vasquez said as he ran his hands through a box full of soil. “Because discipleship is dirty . . . and it has to be hands-on.”
PARENTING AND PLANTING
Vasquez warned leaders that sometimes being a parent means going through difficulties, adding “You’re not really a parent if you’re not invested enough to have your heart broken, which is why a lot of us [leaders] have stopped parenting because we tried it with somebody before and they ended up hurting us . . . listen, don’t stop parenting because you fear pain, if you’re going to become a parent, expect pain.”
Parenting is risky, he admitted, noting how when planting seeds and investing in others, some of investment will land on good soil, but the risk is also there for it to be eaten, land in poor soil, or be trampled on. “But it is worth the risk,” he said. “Because if you won’t risk it, you can’t raise it (money, influence, etc.) . . . Pastor, if you want to raise diversity [in your church], you have to risk division.”
Vasquez then made a connection. “All of the seed in the world does not matter, if you don’t have some place to sow it, which is why we don’t just need fathers and mothers who are willing to get messy, we need sons and daughters who are willing to receive.”
At one time Vasquez said he used to pray for seed — people to invest in him — but now he prays for good “soil” that he can invest in. Addressing young people, he said, “It’s good to pray, ‘God send me a teacher,’ but it’s better to pray, ‘God keep me teachable.’”
In referring to the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-23), Vasquez pointed out that the only thing that changed in the parable was the soil, the sower and the seed remained the same — it was only the good soil that produced.
“Is your heart good — that’s the soil,” Vasquez said. He cautioned ministers to not value the stage over the soil or the platform over the process. “Stop defining the stages of your growth by the stage you get on,” he urged. “The goal is not to be famous, the goal is to be fertilizer.”
THE SEASON OF FALL
Using a prop of a tree with colorful fall leaves on it and scattered around it, Vasquez spoke about the fall season — the season that symbolizes, even guarantees, potentially scary changes for both families and churches.
He explained that whether a person or church is willing to change or not, change is still coming, but it’s a matter of getting through it. “We need brothers and sisters who are willing to hold on,” he said.
Using the tree as an example, Vasquez noted that to the novice, the tree could look like it’s dying, which change sometimes also resembles. “But if you go through the seasons enough, you know that it’s just a cycle, that if you hold on, you can make it.”
Vasquez then urged leaders to “hold on” not by what they see happening, but by labeling their season by what they know is coming. In America, leaders can see change as only loss — people leave, friends leave, children leave and nothing can be done to stop it. However, in the Bible, the time of year is called “early rains” in anticipation of what is coming.
In a teaching moment, Vasquez presented the idea of not just labeling things pandemic, racial unrest, hate in the world, etc., but call it “early rain.”
“I believe that this season will not be known for what happened, but what it preceded, what came after — what God decided to bring at the end of it,” he said.
Moving to a second piece of advice, Vasquez said that sometimes, to hold on, you have to let go.
“Sometimes to hold on to the people you love, you have to let the people you love go; sometimes to hold on to your faith, you have to let go of control; and sometimes to hold on to your health, you have to let go of responsibility,” he said. “. . . it’s okay to let go, because of every season of your life, God never lets go of you.”
COST OF PRODUCING FRUIT
As he began to close, Vasquez explained that the word “Pentecost” creates a different image in the minds of today’s believer than to Old Testament believers. In that era, the word Pentecost, also known as the Feast of Weeks, would have brought to mind the word “harvest.”
Vasquez recognized that most people understood the symbolism of harvest/producing fruit in biblical terms, but then he asked, “But do you know what to expect when you become a person who produces? . . . Fruit exists to feed others, so what we really need to be at the end of the day is a family who is willing to be consumed.”
After sharing a gardening illustration, Vasquez made the application: “We had no problem with pests, until we decided to grow something . . . when you got fruit, you get pests.”
Encouraging those who felt used, abused, and poured out in leadership and ministry, he explained that a minister’s role isn’t only to produce fruit, it’s for others to eat the fruit he or she produces. “You think you’re failing, but you’re not failing — you’re being used [by God]!” he exclaimed.
The service came to a close with Vasquez calling fathers and mothers willing to get messy, sons and daughters ready to receive, those willing to hold on, and those willing to be consumed to come to the altar. Multitudes responded.