From the Pastor’s Desk…
March 13, 2024

2024 Missions, “Love Thy Neighbor”, Deepens our Ties to Missions

Missions Sunday (April 14th) kicks off our annual missions theme of “Love Thy Neighbor.”  This theme will inspire us to move one step closer to becoming an intergenerational community committed to spreading the Gospel to the ends of the earth!
There are several aspects of “Love Thy Neighbor” that needs mentioning:
Our approach to Vacation Bible School in 2024 will shift to a year-long, intergenerational “Mission Vacation Bible School.”  We are encouraging people of all ages to sign up for various mission projects over the course of the year, such as volunteering with Shining Light Gardens, a beach-day clean up, and coming together for a churchwide “GROW” day of prayer and card-writing.  Each Mission Vacation Bible School project will include a VBS lesson for adults, children, and youth, and a hands-on experience for all ages. 
“Love Thy Neighbor” will also foster deeper connections with our missions partners: the Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  Years ago, our former pastor, Rev. Jim Newsome, modeled unity when he committed to attending the conventions for both partners, each year attending one then another the following year.  When I came as pastor in 2016, I continued this trend, but church events and several family commitments kept me from attending the conventions.
Then in 2018, we hired Rev. Bryce Richard, who leveraged his network with the SBC to deepen our ties, while freeing me up to harness our partnerships with the CBF.  Pastor Bryce and I worked “hand in glove” to bring the best of both missions partners to our congregation for outreach and growth. 
Upon Pastor Bryce’s departure and post-COVID trending, we are renewing our commitment to our missions partners.  In 2023, we attended a Senior Adults Retreat in St. Simons Island, Georgia, hosted by the CBF of Georgia.  Kristina and I participated in a Pastors Couple’s Retreat with the Florida Baptist Convention (SBC).  I attended the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in June in Atlanta, GA.  This year, we are planning to attend the Southern Baptist Convention in June 2024 in Indianapolis, Indiana. 
Our missions partners need our positive and proactive presence now more than ever.  We have been faithful in our giving, providing over $40,000 in missions giving to the SBC and CBF from October 2022 to November 2023 (this does not include more than $14,000.00 to our local partners and usage of assets for on-campus non-profits).  Now we have to be faithful in being present and modeling the type of unity that reflects our church’s long-held commitment to missions. 
If you have any questions about “Love Thy Neighbor”, our local and global mission partners, and Mission Vacation Bible School, please let us know: We’d love to get you involved in reaching our world for Jesus Christ!
August 1, 2023
Christ’s Church as a “hub” of Ministry
My, how times have changed.  I remember growing up in the church during a time when church played a central role in family life and in the community.  We “darkened the door” of the church whenever it was opened.  In addition to Sunday worship and Wednesday Bible study, we had Sunday evening service, RAs, GAs, Training Union, and a variety of organized ministries in between. 
Nowadays, we have some of those opportunities happening during the week, but people are tied in to other obligations beyond the church campus. 
This trend did not happen over night.  It has been a slow process over the last 40 years in which family life, career mobility, recreational sports, fluid work schedules, and greater non-profit work have competed for people’s attention. 
As it does in every generation, the church adapts, of course.  Now, rather than bring people on campus multiple times a week, we do the work the church was originally called to do: to equip the saints for ministry (Eph. 4).  It is a model of church in which the church becomes a hub for ministry rather than a physical “center” for ministry.  This hub has many spokes. 
One “spoke” is our tried-and-true ministries on campus, including our preschool, Wednesday Friends, discipleship opportunities, ladies’ and men’s ministries, worship and the arts, and outreach ministries, such as baby blankets and GROW. 
Another spoke includes the partners we welcome on campus, such as the Indian River Food Pantry, and ministries beyond our campus, such as Carenet.
And a third spoke is the one that has developed over the last 40 years: The ministry in which YOU participate off campus: This includes your ministry in your career, such as medicine, legal careers, real estate, small and corporate business, active retirement.  It also includes all of those non-profits in which we invest, like the Habitat for Humanity, Safr IRC, Gifford Youth Orchestra and Gifford Youth Center, Exchange Club of Vero Beach, the Rotary Club, the Garden Club, Indian River College, and the like.
Rather than compete with your time, we want to walk alongside you and join you in your ministry in the world today.  Let us know how you are reaching out to our community so that we can pray for you.  Be sure to join us with the ministries we do on campus so that you can keep your feet grounded, but invite us into your world too!
It is true that “church” doesn’t look a lot like the church did half a century ago, but we are just as connected!  Let’s communicate all of the ways we are connecting to others, not for our own sake, but for the sake of Christ
June 20, 2023
Our Great Nation
There are times when I play the game “Two Truths and a Lie” with my children.  Basically, you offer two truths and a lie about yourself, and then people have to guess which one is the lie.  Often, for one of my truths, I mention that I was the recipient of the Daughters of the American Revolution Award upon graduating college.  Most people consider it a lie, but its not– in college, I majored in history (as well as religion), and I was honored with the award for some work I did on the American Founding, one of my favorite subjects in school. 
July 4th reminds me of this great honor, but more so of the beauty, diversity, ingenuity, generosity, and promise of our great Nation.  It was in the throes of conflict and tyranny that our forefathers and foremothers cast a vision for a democratic republic that had never been seen since the founding of human government.  And there has never been a time in history in which a nation was able to shape its own destiny and form of government from scratch.  (France tried, but failed miserably!)
Yet, we would be remiss without acknowledging that part of this Founding Vision had biblical and Judeo-Christian roots. 
For one, our form of government– a democratic republic — came from what is called the “free church” tradition.  You see, Protestant churches, primarily “congregational” formed in England and the American colonies in which each congregation chose its own representatives to serve in committees and on the church’s governing board.
Baptists and congregational churches led the way on this: They believed (and still do!) that each church is autonomous, has the power to call its own leaders, and can enact policies by representative committees.  Our Founders took this model of governance and applied it on the federal level.  (To note: An early antipathy towards Catholicism in our nation had less to do with theological differences and more to do with differences in polity!)
Second, the Founders based our government and Constitution on the idea that God is ultimately a God of liberation and freedom.  It is God, not the power or dictates of man, that guarantees our human rights.  That is why our rights are called “inalienable”.  They are neither dispensed nor earned based on human ideas or policies.  
These rights, once again, came from a Christian worldview.  The right of free speech, petitioning of government, and the press all have religious undertones.  No monarchy or pope would dictate what the church and other communities would say!
The right of to worship freely — freedom from establishing a state religion (freedom from religion) to protecting the practice of religion (freedom of religion) — was a uniquely Baptist-Congregationalist idea.  We believe that no one coerce others to believe in God, and it is unjust to force people to pay for the support of religions to which one does not adhere.  The separation of church and state codifies the idea that Christianity is based on a voluntary relationship with Christ, and that Christianity is not simply another “world religion” among a marketplace of ideas.
Even the right of due process of law originates in Christian Scripture, acknowledging that one cannot be falsely accused without counsel or a trial.  Due process affirms that every life, which is sacred, may have the right to defend a case before one’s peers, and that one is “innocent before proven guilty.” 
There are so many other ways to point out how our faith has influenced our nations’ Founding, but we’d be here all day!  So let’s give thanks to God for our nation, try our best to cooperate and obey the law, and advocate for those who have yet to access freely and without discrimination all that our wonderful nation has to offer!
May 16, 2023
The Book of Revelation
In June, we will begin a sermon series on the book of Revelation.  When people think of Revelation, they are usually intimidated.  People have grown up fearing the book.  When they try to read it, all of the symbols, numbers, and images get confusing.  There have been many a preacher who make the book all about the “End Times” and fear.  Although the “End Times” is a major theme in the book, Revelation speaks about the past and provides hope for the present.  It is a book of history, of worship, and of encouragement.  It is not something to over-complicate; nor is it a book to take lightly.  Stick with these basics about Revelation, and you’ll be able to grasp the larger message of the book:
1.  John wrote Revelation in the midst of persecution.  John was a political prisoner displaced on an island.  Revelation, therefore, is forged under the duress of execution, trauma, and bloodshed.  It was penned for a community under duress.  The symbols, images, and visions seek to encode God’s victory in history, even over the most ruthless of enemies.  Only the artistry of language, poetry, and praise can fully express the magnitude of God’s might and the climactic clash between good and evil. 
2.  Revelation is a book of encouragement.  Revelation states that those who read, teach, and hear Revelation will be blessed.  That is because Revelation is, ultimately, a book of edification: It affirms God’s sovereignty and the triumph of Christ.  The message throughout the letter is one of encouraging: We will endure by the blood of the Lamb and word of our testimony!
3.  Revelation is a book of worship.  Many people know that battles between God and evil take up most of Revelation, but God’s people wage war by worship.  It is not a call to arms, but a call to go to our knees in prayer.  It is not a book that promotes violence, but that declares victory in Christ on God’s terms rather than our own, human-centered strategies.
As we make our way through Revelation this summer, I pray you will read it in a whole new way.  We will not be able to answer every question about it, but we hope it speaks to our church and the community around us.  Invite a friend to church, and let’s journey through Revelation together!
April 24, 2023
You are a Minister too: Volunteer!
A recent article in the TC Palm reported that voluntarism in Florida dropped from 23% to 16 % since 2019.   With a figure like that, we need a state-wide wake-up call to be the Presence of Christ in our world today!
There are so many non-profits and ministries in our area, that we have NO EXCUSE in avoiding a call to be the presence of Christ in the world today.  In fact, there are enough opportunities within a four-block radius of the church to fill up your philanthropic calendar.  There is, for instance, the Center for Spiritual Care, Carenet Pregnancy Center, United Way, the Italian and the Irish Clubs, the Veterans Affairs, Main Street Vero Beach, and several non-profits that meet at the public library.  That doesn’t include the non-profits that meet on our campus: Youth for Christ, Indian River Sports Ministry, Risk Takers for Christ, and the Food Pantry of IRC. 
Voluntarism from a secular point of view is one thing.  People volunteer out of a variety of values and intentions.  But Christ followers ought to make it their life’s goal to serve the community.  Christ calls us beyond the walls of the church to join God at work in the world. 
We do this, first, because this is a way to save souls: It is hard to be on the Great Commission (Matt. 28) if we refuse to leave Christian bubbles.  Volunteering builds bridges to people who need Jesus.
We volunteer, secondly, because we are all called to be ministers in the world today.  Do you know that we are all ministers, not just those who are ordained to full-time ministry?  That’s right!  When you become a believer in Jesus, the Holy Spirit empowers you and fills you for ministry in the world.  The Holy Spirit will give you the spiritual gifts needed to serve others!
Voluntarism is the backbone of First Baptist Church.  We do not measure fully the efficacy of our church’s evangelism and outreach based solely on what happens on campus.  No!– Instead, we measure the success of our church by how involved we all are in our community, and how much our impact and care for our neighbors allows us to be the presence of Christ.
So what about you?  How involved are you in the community?  How is Christ calling you to volunteer beyond the walls of the church?  There are many ways to plug in, from building homes with Habitat for Humanity to sustaining habitats for sea-faring friends with the Environmental Learning Center. 
Whatever God calls you to do, be sure to tell them, “First Baptist Church of Vero Beach and Jesus sent me!”
March 21, 2023
Easter is a Season of New Life!
Easter season brings to mind new life and vibrant Spring air.  I wonder over all the new flowers growing in Kristina’s garden and the butterflies that begin laying eggs.  I get out my pastel bowties and prepare to celebrate the resurrection of our Risen Savior.  And I look for new opportunities that are life-giving and affirm fresh starts.  It is also a time to re-invigorate old goals or resolutions that came during the New Year. 
What life-giving affirmations do you need this season?  How does the new life we have in Christ inspire you to turn over a new, Spring-time leaf?
I have a few goals this season that I need to make priorities.  One goal is to re-connect with family.  This past season reminded me of the importance of family.  Since the pandemic, I have fallen out of touch with some of my family in Florida.  Its been about 4 years since I visited cousins in Ft. Myers, and I’m due a trip down to Homestead to visit my aunt.  One of my cousins came up for  my birthday, and I was so blessed to reunite with him!
Seasons come and go, and all of those things that pertain to life–from doctors appointments to routines– will always be with us: But our family is the most important thing next to knowing the Lord Jesus Christ.  Often, we experience Jesus’ love through our families, and I encourage you to make a phone call or write a card to a cousin or family member with whom you have lost touch.
Another goal is to re-connect with friends.  I have not been to a Baptist meeting since arriving in Vero Beach in 2016.  It is not for lack of trying, but for the first three years in ministry, I have devoted my time to helping First Baptist build community and a missional identity.  The next three years was consumed with COVID and a capital campaign. 
What I have lacked is spending time with my larger Baptist family. There are few things as precious in life as spending moments of worship and fellowship with friends who have journeyed with Jesus and with us through life. 
I anticipate three trips this year to reconnect with friends.  This Spring, nearly a dozen of us from First Baptist are going on a retreat to St. Simon’s Island, Georgia.  It is hosted by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia and by the First Baptist Church of St. Simons.  I have deep roots with both communities, and is the CBF-GA that nurtured my growth as a minister of the Gospel.
Another two trips will connect me with Baptist life.  My family and I will vacation in Georgia in June and attend the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship general assembly, where I will reunite with close friends and peers with whom I graduated from seminary.  The other trip will be in the Fall, as I worship with fellow Florida Baptists in the Florida Baptist Convention (SBC) annual assembly.  It is good for brothers and sisters to dwell in unity!
As we celebrate new life in Christ this Easter, what connections do you need to make or mend?  How is Christ calling you to share the Good News of His love as we head into summer?  When we see every opportunity as a way of meeting Christ anew, every situation becomes a God-opportunity!
January 3, 2023
Hit the New Year running: Goals for 2023
I have always been a “goals guy”.  You know the one guy in class or in the office who plans everything, seems to be ahead of schedule, or makes numerous lists?  Yeah, that’s me.
This past week, I set out to make goals that will make 2023 nothing like 2022.  So, this year, I have set out with new personal, professional, and spiritual goals.
My personal goals include a more concerted effort to exercise and diet.  Now, I’ve been working on this a long time, but I must admit that this past year, I have let my ministry consume my time more than I should have.  I have left little to growing my ministry of health and exercise.  With this goal already in place in the last week, I have already lost two pounds!  That’s a win!
My spiritual goals are a little different too.  Last year, I organized my daily Scripture readings and prayer around a prayer book that I tried on for size.  It was rich in worship and connection, but I wanted to try something different.  This year I am reading through the New Testament in the newly released Experiencing God Bible.  It is in the CSB (Christian Standard Bible) version, which is new to me. 
I continue to read through the Old Testament (since starting again in 2020) translation by Robert Alter, which has provided rich commentary and insights along the way.  I’m in 2 Kings right now. 
And I also read a chapter of Thomas A’Kempis’ Imitation of Christ. In the version I have, each chapter includes a reflection and a prayer to go along with the text, and those prayers lead me into my quiet time with Jesus.
Professionally, I am trying to ask questions (or discovering the right questions to ask) about each ministry in our church.  With one less ministerial staff member for the time being, we have to insure that we are doing the best we can with what we do well rather than trying to “be all things for all people”.  The two questions I am asking about each ministry is this:
  • How do we articulate the “…so that…” statement?  I’d like to know how each ministry connects with our mission, values, and the people we are trying to reach.  So, for instance, we can say, “We do the GROW ministry so that we can communicate and pray for people who are unable to be on campus on a regular basis.” 

    That is great, but can there be more to it, like: “We also do GROW so that we can build connections with new guests and our local community“.  Well, if that is the case, what do we need to add to our GROW ministry to reach new people both within and beyond the church?


  • Does it bear fruit?  Another question to ask is whether a ministry is bearing fruit.  Too often, we look at numbers and “returns on investment” when we assess the efficacy of ministries.  But those are questions appropriate for the marketplace, not necessarily for God’s mission in the life of our church. 

    What if we asked, “Is this ministry bearing fruit?”  What kind of “measures of success” might we look at?  Instead of numbers, we would look at spiritual growth, connections and sharing the Gospel, and engaging our community on mission for God.  These are very different ways of looking at success of our ministry.


These are just a handful of goals I have for 2023, and I hope that you are as excited about this New Year as I am.  I’m ready to go, and to go where Jesus leads!  What about you? 

March 14, 2022
Faithful to God’s Call
Several weeks ago, while on retreat, I was able to visit a sister church very much like First Baptist Church.  I was able to join Sunday school because they use the same curriculum as we.  I was able to follow along in worship because they, like us, follow the Christian Calendar.  I even ended up meeting people who knew me (although I didn’t know them) because they have folks who served in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
The worship was alright and the music was good, but what most impressed me was that the church knows who it is. 
In every communication, bulletin, and aspect of worship, the church expressed their distinct identity as they seek to serve their community for Christ.   There was a unity there that led to a sweet, sweet Spirit in that place.  And I knew I was part of a larger family of faith!
Identity and unity are vitally important for thriving, healthy congregations.  Over the past year, we have reinforced who God called us to be as a church.  In so doing, we have leaned on our long history, cultural context, and unique missional identity.  We have defined our core values. 
Core values are like convictions: if we were to omit or change any one of our values, we would become a totally different church. Each value points to a larger piece of our identity and call.
We are Compassionate in sharing God’s love and the Good News of Jesus Christ.  You might think that this is not unique to our church and that all churches are compassionate, but that’s not always the case.  Some churches are very narrowly-focused and only show compassion to people with whom they agree.  Others are hostile and weaponize the Bible to exclude people from experiencing God’s love in Jesus Christ.
We are neither hostile nor inhospitable.  We welcome people to hear God’s transformative message of salvation in Christ, and we encourage all people to grow in Christ.  We do not add any “works” to God’s gift of salvation, assuming that only people who look like us can become a part of our family of faith.  We welcome people because God, in His gracious mercy, has welcomed us: “We love because God first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
We are Christ-centered in ministry and discipleship, with a focus on growing in God’s Word.  This core value is so vitally important because it means that we take our identity, interpretation of Scripture, and marching orders from no man or ideology, but from Christ alone.  We do not read Scripture backwards, from our theology, and then reading it back into Scripture.  Rather, we read and apply Scripture through the person, work, ministry, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and then work our way outward. 
The 1963 Baptist Faith and Message states simply, “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.”  It is Jesus’ values, commands, principles, and ethics that drive our ministry and discipleship, and we are Christ-followers concerned about the very people Jesus was concerned about.  Our Baptist identity begins with Jesus!
We are Creative in worship, communicating the whole story of God’s Plan of Salvation. When we worship God, read and preach Scripture, and determine the rhythm of our life together, we do not leave out any parts of Scripture.  We read the whole Word of God from “beginning to end”, by the Word of God–Jesus (John 1:1)– and cultivate a life-giving faith that shapes our fellowship and informs our worship.   Therefore, following thousands of years of corporate worship, we follow the Christian calendar and incorporate various textures and tapestries of tradition ancient and modern.  
We don’t identify well with shallow labels.  Rather, we shape our life of worship because of who God called us to be as a church that values tradition, celebration, generosity, outreach, and missions.  Labels devalue our community and do not do justice to the unity we share in the midst of a rich diversity of Bible-based, mission-minded believers. 
We are Cooperative in Great Commission Work through local and global partnerships.  As a hub of missions and outreach, First Baptist Church partners with a diverse group of Christian ministries.  On campus, we host some half-dozen ministries in addition to our own, including Youth for Christ, Risktakers, and the Food Pantry of Indian River County.  Beyond our campus, we support Carenet, the Treasure Coast Baptist Association, and a host of others.
What makes us most unique, however, is that we partner with multiple mission-sending partners.  We work with the Southern Baptist Convention, in all of its aspects of outreach, from church planting to disaster relief.  We work with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, engaging in missions in the Caribbean and around the world.
We have been dully-aligned for over 30 years and will remain as such!  We celebrate, for instance, that our Associate Pastor, Rev. Bryce Richard, served in Bulgaria with the International Mission Board (SBC) for many years with his family, while I am an endorsed chaplain with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  This is what it looks like for brothers and sisters to “dwell in unity”!
We do not see these partnerships in terms of an “either/or” paradigm, but as part of a larger Baptist network of missions that spreads God’s message of salvation in Christ to the “ends of the earth.”  We are a family of Baptists; and our partnerships reflect that, in this family, we may not all think the same way, but we are moving in the same direction as we follow Christ’s example and pattern for evangelism and outreach.  This is our core.
These past two years of pandemic and hardship has affirmed, for me, that our church’s identity is both sound and faithful to God’s call on us.  We are Christ-centered, Spirit-filled, Bible-believing, disciple-making, and God-blessed!  Let’s be the church God has called us to be!
November 17, 2021
Seeing no longer from a human point of view, by Joe LaGuardia
On Sunday, December 26, I challenged the church to make a New Year’s resolution having to do with spiritual eyesight:
We want you to approach the New Year with new eyes, no longer seeing others from a “human point of view” (2 Cor. 5:16), but from the perspective of evangelistic fervor and the love of Christ.
This Sunday, Epiphany, we continue that theme and celebrate Christ as the Light of the World in both services.
Epiphany will also launch the next step in vision-casting for First Baptist Church. Over the next two months, we will discern together the ways in which God is calling us into His future:
Will we respond to the Holy Spirit’s call to become an intergenerational church in which entire families experience the salvation, love, and Great Commission of Christ?
Will we respond to the Holy Spirit’s call to reach beyond our borders so our church can become a hub for international missions that reaches all people for the Lord?
Will we respond to the Holy Spirit’s call in participating in sacrificial generosity as a welcoming, worshiping, and witnessing congregation focused on much-needed renovations?
Over the next few weeks, you will hear more about our vision-casting process. This includes our “Living the Vision” theme, complete with online and prayer resources, special Sunday School programming, and calendar of events that will articulate and celebrate what God has in store for our church.
We pray you will live the vision with us as we start the New Year off right, with Jesus Christ!
November 17, 2021
The Importance of Mission, by Joe LaGuardia
A mission statement is vital to any organization committed to serving a purpose and achieving its goals.  So too with a church: The Bible states that where there is no vision, the people perish (Prov. 29:18). A mission keeps the church on track and provides a focus for sustainability, resources, ministry, and missions.
Over the past year, we have been in the process of vision-casting and seeking God’s future for our church.  We began by discussing what makes us uniquely First Baptist Church in this area.  Then we crafted core values that identify the primary threads that run through the life of our church.  Next, we moved on to updating our mission statement.
While core values provide the why of ministry, the mission provides the what of ministry.  What are we doing now for the Lord?  Who has the Lord called us to be in our community?  How do we, realistically, articulate our purpose for ministry in one sentence?
After lengthy prayer and discussion with our deacons and staff, we have defined a mission that builds upon our past and thrusts us into bold missions in the future:
Our mission is to worship God and to share the Good News of Jesus Christ through word and action with our local community and around the world.
This mission does three things:
Our mission makes the Triune God central to calling as a congregation.  Our previous mission statement, put before our church over a decade ago, began with “Our mission is the worship of God.”  Our mission still rests on worshiping this God Who is Trinity.  It focuses all of what we do in praising, honoring, and glorifying Him.  Even the rhythm of our worship–as expressed in the Christian calendar–tells of God’s character, love, and Plan of Salvation.  We are a welcoming and worship church, for sure!
Our mission focuses on evangelism and giving others the gift of Christ’s love and salvation.  We are not here to sustain a country club; rather, God calls us to be a “sending” church that shares the gift of the Gospel of Christ with others.  The Gospel, or “Good News” of Jesus, is a gift that includes Jesus’ life, teachings, ministry, death, resurrection, and salvation.  It is by His blood that we are healed and our faith in Him whereby we are saved through God’s grace.  Jesus is central in our church, discipleship, and in our acts of love. 
Our mission defines how and with whom we share the Gospel.  When we share the Good News of Jesus, we don’t just preach the Word or simply pray for others.  Our sharing is a demonstration–through both word and action–of service to others.  It is not enough to tell people God loves them, we show people how God loves them by being merciful, walking humbly, doing justice alongside the Holy Spirit.  We do this on and beyond our campus. Our hope is to extend that work globally to reach unreached people to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:11).
This Sunday, Nov. 21st, we will have a chance to recite the new mission statement as we reflect on what it means to follow Jesus on His mission to the world.  I hope that you’ll join us! 
October 11, 2021
Pastors I Appreciate, by Joe LaGuardia
Obituary of Reverend Carl HartOctober is Pastor Appreciation Month, and I find great joy in remembering the many ministers who have cultivated my call to ministry and shaped my faith.  This past season I thought of the Reverend Carl Hart, who “hired” me to be a chaplain to two retirement living facilities, Clairmont Oaks and Briarcliff Oaks in Atlanta, Georgia, 2003.
I was in my third year of seminary and looking for work.  Carl Hart inquired about students with our placement office, and we connected.  He wanted a student to shadow him as a chaplain for several high rise buildings in Decatur, a suburb of Atlanta.
My first day on the job was a bit informal.  I met Carl at one high rise, Clairmont Oaks, right across from First Baptist Church of Decatur.  We walked through the building and talked with residents and staff. 
Carl introduced me to many people that I would eventually come to know and love, but I was a bit confused at the time.  I hadn’t filled out an application.  There wasn’t any formal screening.  After a short visit there, we moved on to a local Lincoln Dealership where we did the same routine.  Then we moved on to another building–Briarcliff Oaks, a sister building under the same umbrella as Clairmont Oaks.  Then we went to lunch.
At lunch he finally got around to business–I’ll pay you $50 a week for about 4 hours a week, he said, and I will buy you lunch.  I’d like for you to consider being a chaplain to replace me when I retire at the end of the year.
And that was it.  I didn’t have any CPE training, a core curriculum for chaplains.  I wasn’t even sure I wanted to become a chaplain.  Carl explained that he was involved in “corporate chaplaincy” for years at the Southern Baptist Convention Home Mission Board out of Atlanta.  He placed chaplains all over the United States to be God’s presence in prisons, businesses, and apartment homes.  He was instrumental with another person I knew of, Rev. Bill Lee, in creating unique opportunities for ministry in recreational facilities too.
At the time I met him, Carl was chaplain for Clairmont Oaks, Inc., a few Ford-Lincoln Dealerships, and a towing company out of Covington.  He wanted me to pick up Clairmont Oaks and Briarcliff Oaks, which I did within a couple of months.  Later, when I applied to be associate pastor at Trinity Baptist Church in Conyers, Georgia, Carl Hart’s reference became instrumental of the hire–Bill Lee was a member at TBC, as well as other retired staff of the Home Mission Board, who knew Carl well.
I remember Carl fondly because he poured his passion for uncommon ministry into me.  He trusted me with the work and trusted the Holy Spirit to move me in the direction of preparedness.  He gave me a chance and mentored me over those months in meaningful and gentle ways.  He became my friend. 
He soon retired, and I served as chaplain for Clairmont Oaks and Briarcliff Oaks for over 13 years and became an endorsed chaplain with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. I found that I loved the work and loved working with senior citizens specifically, and it prepared me for the great work I am now doing at First Baptist Church.
I appreciate Rev. Carl Hart and the many courageous, creative chaplains like him serving the Lord all over the world, from corporations to the military.  Thank God for chaplains!
August 30, 2021
A Call to Revival, by Joe LaGuardia
First Baptist Church of Vero Beach joined over 20 other churches in Indian River County to host a revival service as part of a “Wave of Revival” in the county.  Leaders from Christ Church of Vero organized the event, and we were happy to be a part of it. 
Revival began on Sunday morning at worship with a sermon concerning the legacy we leave the community.  I challenged people to consider how they are a blessing to others–and how their decisions shape what kind of legacy they leave–and what “unfinished business” needs to be addressed. 
The challenge was simple: Rather than having one foot in God’s Kingdom and another foot in the world, which only causes us to stumble through life, we need to jump into following Jesus with both feet.  Jesus makes divided, conflicted hearts whole–and we need to be people of blessing as a result.
Our evening revival, also on Sunday, included great music, fellowship, and powerful preaching by Pastor Bryce Richard,  It was a moving celebration, but also a call to action in bringing revival to our community.
Pastor Bryce reminded us that revival begins with us.  We can wish revival all we want, but we have to ask the Holy Spirit to light our hearts on fire for the Lord and be witnesses to unreached people groups in our midst.
Quoting J. I. Packer, Pastor Bryce explained some of the ingredients that make for revival:
1.  God is present
2.  The Word of God pierces hearts
3.  Sin is seen, and inspires repentance
4.  The cross of Christ is valued
5.  Love breaks out
6.  Joy fills hearts and empowers the church
7.  The lost is found
Pastor Bryce said that we have to compare what the world says about Jesus and who we say Jesus is.  Citing Matthew 16:13-18, Bryce explained that Jesus’ question to Peter is one that Jesus asks us:
“Who do you say that I am?”
If we can answer that–and Jesus becomes the foundation upon which we build our lives and our church–then growth will surely follow, and “the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”
This season, we hope that you will catch the revival spirit and partner with us for reaching our world for Christ!
June 15, 2021
Four Tips on working with People of Other Faiths, by Joe LaGuardia

God calls us to be Christ’s Church together and not neglect the fellowship of believers.  Meeting as a church is fairly easy, but the real challenge is following God into a world full of diverse beliefs, opinions, and views.  

For over a decade, I have worked with people of other faiths in interfaith ministry.  Although God does not call everyone to this task, God calls all of us to be witnesses to the ends of the earth.  How do we minister to people of other faiths or no faith at all?  How might you take a step towards bold mission to reach others who don’t think or look like you?  Here are some tips:
First, reflect on God’s work in the world.  Although many Christians find the world frightening, the Holy Spirit is present in the world.   The Bible gives us an example when Paul ministers in Athens, Greece, in Acts 17:16-33.  Paul began his mission in a familiar place, the synagogue (Acts 17:17), and then went to the public market in Athens.  Paul did not berate the beliefs of others, but complimented them on their great faith (v. 22).  He then focused on their doubts and a statue to “an unknown god”.  He took the opportunity to preach about Jesus.  Paul’s ministry was relational because he believed God was already at work among unbelievers, and he did not have an “Us vs. Them” attitude.
Second, ask God to give you a passion for people who don’t know Jesus.  Paul was “deeply distressed” (Acts 17:16) when he saw people in Athens who did not know the Lord.  His heart broke for others, and his passion drove him into the streets, even in the face of criticism (v. 18) and persecution.  Interfaith work requires unyielding patience, fervent prayer, a deep abiding trust in the Holy Spirit, and a heart for people.
Third, pray for friendships across cultural and religious lines.  Before you can stand up for your faith, spend time on your knees before God asking for opportunities to meet new people.  Humble yourself and remember that you are not called to judge others, but be an eye-witness of your personal relationship with the living God.  Pray that God will place new friends in your life that need to hear your testimony. 
Fourth, be present, seek understanding, and listen.  Many Christians ask me why I do interfaith dialogue and ministry, and my response is always the same: You cannot be the presence of Christ if you’re not present.   Being present sometimes means listening, seeking understanding, and then asking God to help you witness.

Every month in Vero Beach, an interfaith group meets for lunch and facilitate dialogues to learn about one another.  I am often discouraged, however, that there are not more evangelical Christians represented.  I pray for more volunteers in this work.

February 24, 20210
A Year of COVID, God’s Promises, and Our Mission, by Joe LaGuardia
Dear Church Family,
We are coming up to a year of COVID closures across the nation, and we join our nation in mourning the half-million people who have died related to this disease.
Although it is a time of hardship, God has sustained our church ministries.  We are making an impact in our community. In 2020…
Your giving and God’s generosity we have met our needs.
The Food Pantry of IRC on campus served over 3,000 households and gave away about 300,000 pounds of food.
We have delivered over 1,100 baby blankets to the Cleveland Clinic Medical Center maternity department.
God has given us opportunities on campus for renovating some ministry spaces. Although this takes time for planning, the discernment process fits well within the rhythm our vision-casting strategic season.
So whether we are on campus or online, we are still “in business for the Lord…downtown”…
Let’s get excited about what God is doing in our church, and invite others to join us!
There are several ways to stay connected…
Watch the live-stream and weekly Sunday School lessons on our website. (After hitting the link to our live-stream, scroll down to find the video recorded or live, depending on when you tune in.)
Watch archived services on our website here.
Subscribe and share our Youtube channel.
February 11, 20210
Ways of Measuring Growth, by Joe LaGuardia

For the last three decades, people “doing church” have been trying to measure growth in a post-Christian age.  It is true: for every generation of people that pass, fewer attend church. 

Measuring a church’s growth by using the old methods do not work anymore.  The old methods  of measuring growth were, according to us Baptists, by the “Three Bs”: Buildings, Budgets, and Bodies-in-Pews.  You knew a church was successful if they had to build more, expand budgets, and count people coming to church.
That no longer works–people do not automatically “come to church” anymore.  Like politicians who fight for every vote, we Christians have to pray for every lost soul and bring people to Christ the hard way–by going out and sharing Jesus rather than waiting for people to come to us.
Buildings are no longer viable–in fact, most church starts and successful churches renovate old spaces or meet in non-traditional venues, such as store fronts.  Many churches would rather invest in missions than maintain buildings. 
And budgets are misleading.  Numbers and finances only tell a part of a church’s story.  Take First Baptist Church, for instance– We only devote a fraction of our annual budget to missions, but that number does not take into account all of the assets we use for missions.  We use our campus for missions and partnerships, including hosting the main office of IR Youth for Christ, breakfasts for the High School football and baseball teams for Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the Food Pantry of Indian River County. 
We also invest time in missions in the community–our staff serves on boards of non-profits, and many of our members volunteer in local endeavors, from Habitat for Humanity to Shining Light Gardens.  We have people who serve in Rotary and at Exchange Club.  You can’t put a number on those relationships!
So, if you can’t measure church growth by the “Three Bs”, then how do you measure growth–because churches ought to grow!!
We replace the “Three Bs” with the “Three Ss”
The first “s” is Spiritual Maturity.  We may not have a lot of bodies in pews right now, but we need to grow spiritually–to put feet to our faith, be on mission in our local community, and exhibit a “fire for the Lord” in the world.  Spiritual maturity translates into church growth–people excited about the Lord attract excitement in others, and they want to visit the church that is on fire for the Lord!  Filling our pews means we first must be filled with the Holy Spirit in demonstrations of power, in proclaiming Good News, and in modeling God’s victory in Jesus Christ in all we do!
The second “s” is Sustainability. We may not have a large budget, but we need to sustain the missions God has given us and provide for the welfare of our church, its ministries, and its outreach endeavors.  Sustainability does not come by way of gimmicks, but by being a healthy church that is a good stewards of all God provides, including using our gifts and skills for the Kingdom and utilizing the assets that make us unique in our community.
The last “s” is Shoes on the Ground.  As I mentioned, people no longer come to church in droves–we need to bring church to the people, and be Christ’s Church beyond the walls of the campus.  The only way to get bodies in pews is to put shoes on the ground and to participate in the mission of God, join the Holy Spirit, and be the Good News in our community.  Where are you called to be on mission–in family, at home, in the boardroom?  Then work as for the Lord, and bring the “shoes of the peace of the Gospel” into the battlefield and byways of life.
As we continue to devote this year to vision-casting and dreaming of our church’s future, let’s consider these three Ss and our church’s growth.  Remember–the first s, spiritual maturity, begins with YOU.  You need to make an effort to fulfill these convictions, you can’t expect others to do it for you!
November 4, 2020
Lessons from Election Day
by Joe LaGuardia
Imagining the 2024 Electoral Map After Redistricting - Electoral Vote MapIt is noon the day after the Election, and we still are unsure as to who will lead our country for the next four years.  Pollsters and prognosticators tried to avoid uncertainty; graphs and charts showed us all the various ways people vote and possible outcomes.  But people–and the science behind elections–are always approximations, and most of those folks are now humbled.
What can we learn from the election?  That whoever wins will only win by a small margin, and that our country is in fact deeply divided.  There are no tidal-waves of victories, and both of these candidates for president will have to learn to lead the entire nation, not just a portion of it.

This small margin–and the divide of electoral politics in our county–shows us the value and deeply held conviction of not getting partisan in the pulpit.  Christ’s church doesn’t choose sides, it always chooses Christ because He is our sole Lord and Savior to whom we give ALL allegiance.
The question is not whether we will enter the divisive fray–God’s kingdom stands above and against that–but whether Christ will find us faithful to the Gospel call in ministering to all people, even aspiring to bring the Gospel message as a balm of healing to a divided nation.
Our mission isn’t to get one or another politician elected, its to serve as ambassadors for Christ.  In his second letter to churches in Corinth, Paul wrote to a divided community.  He claimed over and over that they are united in Christ, and that they were to embody a “ministry of reconciliation.”  In 2 Corinthians 5, he wrote,
For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.  And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer to themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.  From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view…All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation
So while people fight, litigate, and use rhetoric of divisive politics, we rise with Christ to the “heavenly places” to demonstrate the unity of the church, the power of God’s love, and the healing reconciliation of the Good News of Christ’s lordship and salvation.
Choose whom you will serve this day!
October 19, 2020
Learning About Gifford
by Joe LaGuardia
This has been a difficult season for many reasons, one of which is social unrest surrounding race relations. 
I am no stranger to this topic, and I was involved in intentional conversations and relationships regarding race for a long time in Atlanta.  My old church partnered with minority-majority churches, and every year we would join our sister church across the street–primarily an African-American Church–to worship together.
When I arrived at First Baptist of Vero, I felt like I had to start all over again.  I did not have the social or ministerial network it took me 10 years to cultivate in Conyers.  I didn’t know where to begin.
When I spoke with other pastors–friends–about this recently, they too did not know where to begin when it came to having intentional conversations.  We knew of various movements in our nation, but movements are useless if they do not help people in local communities.  We wanted to be useful and helpful, not adding to the voices of unrest–and in many cases violence–that surround race in our nation.
This group of friends–about four of us (leadership from Pillar Church and Coastal Community Church)–began meeting for lunch and for prayer.  We started reading books to get educated, and started to talk to neighbors in Fellsmere and in Gifford. 
Our last outing was to the Gifford Historical Museum, previously Macedonia Baptist Church.  There, the curator, Jonnie Perry and her husband Percy, gave us a personal tour and told us about the history of Gifford, its victories and its hardships. 
One of the things I am most impressed about Gifford is its spiritual nucleus.  Whether you frequent a restaurant in the area, attend a Gifford Youth Orchestra event (I have become good friends with the director, Crystal), or visit the Gifford Youth Center, you’ll find that Christian values and leadership make up a big part of life in Gifford.
As my friends and I continue to meet, perhaps a mission project or new relationship will come along.  We are following God’s leadership, and we are grateful to how the Holy Spirit is opening our eyes to some of the ways we can be a part of reconciliation in our neighborhood.  Its a start!
August 24, 2020
Pray for Peace this Season
by Joe LaGuardia
This Season of Prayer has seen us pray for wisdom, back-to-school uncertainties, and hearing God’s voice. This week, we focus on praying for Christ’s peace.
For me, the opposite of peace is fear. Whatever it is we fear or fear losing has the power to dismantle peace.
Fear has vast repercussions: It creates conflict and discord, hinders prayer, and distracts us from Christ’s Great Commission. It can even adversely affect our health and shape our worldview that is neither biblical nor Christ-centered!
Sometimes fear comes from big things, but usually fear comes from the thousands of little things that peck at us.
Before we know it, we are doing and saying things that are out of character. We lose a sense of joy. Fear smothers Christ’s light from our life.
Pastor Bryce quoted Jesus in worship: “…In me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble, but take heart! I have overcome the world!” (John 16:33).
Don’t feed your fears; lay them at the feet of Jesus- He is victorious!  
June 15, 2020
grayscale photography of analog pocket watch
Making the Most of Every Minute,
by Joe LaGuarda
It has been nearly three month since the outbreak of the coronavirus, and it has created havoc on our economy, recreation and sports, and religious endeavors.  A month into the pandemic, church consultants were saying that church work as we know it is doomed. 

Now, after several weeks back into worship, I fear they might be correct: Our institutions and events have been irrevocably interrupted and, with a spike in numbers in Indian River County the last three weeks, we don’t know what the future holds for the rest of the year in case of closures, hospitalizations, and ministry in our community
Despite all the gloom and doom, however, we remember that the church is more than a building.  It is a people–Christ’s Body–empowered by the Holy Spirit to give witness to Christ’s salvation and lordship.  When persecution befell the early church in Acts, the disciples may have scattered, but their message was in no way extinguished.  In fact, persecution thrust the church into the next phase of missions–beyond Jerusalem and into Judea and the “ends of the earth.” 
A pandemic is far from persecution.  We still worship without fear of the government silencing us.  We minister and participate in missions, and our return to worship has been life-giving–and we shouldn’t complain, since there are churches in the United States who have not had that privilege just yet.
Not only that, but there has been more happening that you might not know about–ways in which ministry has reached beyond Vero Beach, that we’ve sustained despite closures and uncertainty:
  • We co-hosted an online Caregiver Support Group on Zoom last month.  We had about a dozen people participate from both Georgia and Vero Beach.  
  • We have maintained our relationship with the interfaith leadership in our county, participating in online interfaith dialogues by way of Zoom.  (Our next dialogue is June 29th at 7:00 PM, so if you’re interested in joining us, please email me to get on the invite list.)
  • We have been networking with friends in our community.  Bryce has been keeping up with FCA, Youth for Christ, and SafIR Indian River County.  I have been supporting my peers (and they have been supporting us) in conversations with the Treasure Coast Baptist Association and other clergy in the area, such as Derrick West and Roger Ball.
  • Rabbi Michael Birnholtz and I had the honor of being guests on Ralph Oko’s “Veteran’s Radio” to prerecord a show scheduled for June 20 and 21 (10:00 AM, on 101.7), on how faith communities are working together for community outreach and support.
  • We are nurturing a partnership with Pillar Community Church and Pastor Biz Gainey.  Pillar is on-campus, using the gym for Sunday worship since their host elementary school is closed for the summer.  Pillar is a like-minded church, and Biz and I have a lot in common in terms of our theology and liturgical preferences.  We are joining other pastors in a small, monthly “lunch and learn”, (beginning next week) about improving or engaging in healthy race relations in our county.
  • On campus, we have been burning the candles at both ends with the installation of our new Narthex doors, the building of the new roof on the music building, and outreach in our community.  One Sunday School class provided much-needed diapers, wipes, and clothes to a pregnant family in need.  Our ladies’ group continue to make 100 blankets a month for the maternity unit at Cleveland Clinic IR Hospital.  Our staff has reached out to home-bound and grieving families. A Boy Scout, JT Sorrell, chose First Baptist Church to bless us with new benches for our prayer garden for his Eagle Scout project.
  • We have been doing a little professional development–Dr. Carter has been reading up on new music arrangements and liturgy, and I’m currently engrossed in a book on facilitating meaningful funerals.  I just finished a book on speaking, teaching, and preaching in times of national unrest, protest, and conflict.  Pastor Bryce has been networking with missionaries who are furloughed in Vero Beach.  Pat Smith can probably pass the Florida Bar by now because of all the copyright, human resources, and lending laws she’s been reading. 
Although we’ve been busy in meaningful ways, we don’t want anyone left behind.  If you are in need of prayer or support, PLEASE reach out — we want to visit you!  We need our church to communicate with us so we can be on the front lines for OUR OWN family of faith. 
If anything listed above strikes your interest, let me know and I’ll see how we can get you involved in happenings in our county and beyond!
Blessings, Pastor Joe
May 31, 2020
How might we break silence in the face of Injustice?, by Joe LaGuarda
In the wake of recent deaths and acts of injustice against people and communities of color, our church among so many cannot afford to be silent in our proclamation and prophetic push against violence committed against minorities. 
The Bible makes clear that we are bearers of light and healing, that we are called especially to safeguard the most vulnerable in society.  This is a call to help people find salvation in Christ, but it is also a mandate to uphold and champion the dignity and sanctity of life by repairing breaches resulting from lack of trust, ignorance, and bigotry. 
With that said, how do we as Christ-followers break silence and speak out against inequality and injustice?  Here are three statements we encourage you to explore with prayer and earnest reflection:
I wrote a blog article addressing silence and what is called “prophetic interruption.” Find the article here.
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship came out with this statement.
The Southern Baptist Convention came out with this statement.
Over the next few weeks, we will explore more intentional relationships in our community to see how we can be a part of the solution to reconciliation and justice, not merely a spectator on the sideline.  I have done this before, and I look forward to bringing this skill set to bear on our ministry now.  If you have questions, concerns, or want to be a part of this exploration, please let us know!
Blessings, Pastor Joe
May 24, 2020
Coming back to First Baptist Campus on June 7th, by Joe LaGuardia
We are inviting everyone back to campus Sunday, June 7th!
Sunday School will begin at 9:30 AM.
Worship will be in the sanctuary at 10:30 AM (no 8:30 AM service for now).
Here are the precautions we are taking, and we humbly ask that you abide by these precautions when on campus:
  • Masks are required for everyone 12 years and older, primarily in-doors. Please, for everyone’s safety, wear a mask. This cuts down the transference of any infections by 75%. We will have a few masks at the welcome center if you forget it at home or need one.
  • Please practice physical distancing–at least 6 feet from other families, and wave hello. Every other pew will be closed off for your safety. There is plenty of room in the sanctuary to spread out!
  • The worship service will be abbreviated by a few minutes to reduce exposure. We will not collect offerings by hand, but will have offering boxes near the doors for you to drop off your tithes and offerings.
  • We will have directional arrows to provide “entrance” and “exit” aisles in the sanctuary. Doors will be propped open to limit hands-on contact. We will have a staggered approach to dismissal.
  • Children’s Church will be held outside in the playground.
  • We are having a rotation of singers for the choir. If you are interested in going on a rotation to sing, please contact Dr. Carter.
  • This is a NO JUDGMENT ZONE! Please come only as you feel safe to do so–there is no pressure to attend. Remember that you are wearing masks for OTHERS not necessarily for you! Others will show you neighborly love by wearing THEIR masks.
We want to note that large in-person gatherings still poses some risks. Please take your temperature before coming, and refrain from attending if you show any symptoms of sickness or if you have been in recent contact with someone with COVID 19.
We will still provide online worship and resources for those who choose not to come–however, the worship service, because we’ll be taping on Sunday morning, will not be released until late Sunday afternoon. We apologize for any inconvenience.
November 7, 2019
Project Clean helps over 15 local families!
This summer, we challenged children at Vacation Bible School to donate quarters and laundry detergent to help local families in our neighborhood. This was based on their mission lesson, in which they learned of a Baptist pastor who started a non-profit laundromat in Puerto Rico as a way to spread the Gospel.
We collected over $70 in quarters and basket-loads of travel-size detergents from VBS!
This past weekend, we did what we called “Operation Project Clean”, in which several FBC families gathered at two local laundromats to gift families with Clean Packs.  These packs contained $8.00 worth of quarters, two bottles of detergent, and a book on prayer for children.  We also placed an invite card that tells about our church.  Of course, Pastor Bryce was on hand to get to know families and pray for those in need!
Overall, the “operation” was a success and we had wonderful conversations with neighbors.  Through our children’s generosity and God’s grace, we brought smiles to so many great people!
September 13, 2019
An Open Letter Regarding Politics and the Church, by Joe LaGuardia
Dear Church Family,
It has often been said that politics do not belong in the church.  When we follow a Lord and Savior who proclaims–from the outset of his ministry–the coming of God’s Kingdom, it is near impossible not to be political.  From the earliest prophets to Jesus, we see scripture speak on issues that are political, particularly in the arenas of justice and the sanctity of life.
I think what people mean when they say this about politics in the church is that we should not be partisan.  With that, I agree– God transcends political parties, and the church is not of this world and does not endorse any specific political party platform. 
The church, instead, bears prophetic witness and hope in the lordship of Christ and the inevitable movement of history towards justice and the fulfillment of redemption upon Christ’s Second Coming.  We will all be judged at the throne of Christ, and the weight of our actions are based on our ability to do justice, walk humbly, and practice mercy before our God.
As a private citizen, I enjoy and engage in politics every now and then.  I feel it is critical to speak on issues local and national that are close to my heart and reflect my values as a Christian.
However, I want to re-affirm several promises I have made to the church, so that my work as a private citizen is not confused with my role and authority as your pastor:
1.  I promise that I will bear testimony to Christ’s activities in my endeavors to preach God’s Word.  I will bear testimony and share the truth of things that have happened to me, and I will connect them to how they apply to the life and to the Bible.  For example, several years ago I spoke about my extensive work in race reconciliation.  Some people believed this to be overly political, but not once did I promote a political cause–I simply told my story of reconciliation efforts in which I’ve been involved.
Our church allows for dissent, and we provide an opportunity for you to disagree, dialogue, correct and raise concerns about sermons on Sundays during the evening Pastor’s Bible study.  This allows sermons to be more of a dialogue and for the messages to be a learning experience for all of us–I have a lot to learn from you, as you do from me!
2.  I promise never to use the pulpit for partisan politics.  It would be a great abuse of authority if I promoted partisan politics–or even the passage of specific bills or legislation, no matter how righteous they may be–from the pulpit.  As Baptists, we are free to follow our conscience under the lordship of Christ and vote as we must; I am not going to tell you how to vote and for whom to vote.  I expect anyone else speaking in the pulpit to do the same.
3.  I promise not to confuse my position as a pastor with that of private citizen.  When I engage in politics on a personal level, I will not use church letterhead or invoke my position as senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Vero Beach as leverage in a political matter unless an issue comes before the church and we write a statement in agreement as a church.  In fact, when I write a letter to the editor, I even avoid using computers at the church!
4.  I promise that I will encourage you to be involved in our community.  We may not always agree on some political issues, but I expect you to be involved as God so leads.  There have been occasions in which I and other members of our church have publicly disagreed on certain pieces of legislation in the city and the county, but at the end of the day this does not make us enemies, but Christian brothers and sisters who care deeply for our community.  We are united not by our political leanings, but in the person and call of Christ our Lord.  As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, we are all baptized into one baptism.
I write this open letter not as a result of any conflicts or church situations that have arisen, but simply as a way to re-affirm what I have said publicly over the last 3 and 1/2 years of ministry at First Baptist.  Since politics is one of those areas of which I am passionate, I will continue to remind you as we journey together for years to come in the service of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Rev. Dr. Joe LaGuardia
August 21, 2019
Image result for child with binocularsA Vision for Being Church, by Joe LaGuardia
When we say we have a vision for a community, it usually conjures a picture of what that community will look like in the near future. 
Sometimes, we need to have a vision for what a community will be in addition to having a vision for what it does.
I have given this some thought over the past week, and I imagine that my philosophy of ministry is born out of my vision for who we are as First Baptist Church. 
Its a simple vision and a simple philosophy, but I think it gets at the heart of who we are as a church family:
1.  Our vision of community is optimistic.  We do not have a negative, fear-filled view of the world or of ministry.  Rather, we join God at work in the world and testify to our faith and convictions–and the work of the Risen Christ in our midst–with joy and energy. 
Optimism does not mean we are oblivious to the problems and complex issues around us, but it means we approach today (and tomorrow) with hope and grace.  We know that God is in charge.  We know that God pulls us into His future.  We know that neither death nor the devil have the final say.  We place our faith in Christ, and Christ gives us a spirit of power, not of fear and timidity (2 Tim. 1:7).  Let’s make sure our faces reflect our happiness in Christ!
2.  Our vision of community is based on conviction.  We have convictions surrounding our beliefs in God, in the Bible, in Baptist heritage, and in the inclusive work of the Holy Spirit.  We read culture and scripture through the lens of Christ, not from the view of a wishy-washy, fad-based religiosity. 
We do not sway to and fro with the culture and its many trends; nor do we respond out of anxiety and fear.  We know who we are as a church because we have seen Christ at work, we have experienced His love and miracles, and we will continue to keep our eyes on Him!  We have done this for over 103 years, and we will do it for another 100 years and more!
3.  Our vision of community is missional.  Although we long to see people come to our church, we know that we accomplish a majority of our ministry beyond the walls of the church.  Ministry is not the work of a select few or of clergy, it is the call of each believer who adheres to the Great Commission.  Whether we teach school, engage in commerce, or are makers of homes, our work and leisure should reflect the mission to which God has called us. 
God does not go on vacation; nor should we.  Church is more than a building; its a people on mission.
4.  Our vision of community is redemptive.  After the fall of Adam and Eve, God started unfolding a plan to redeem humanity and creation back unto Himself.  Everything that God does is redemptive, and redemption is made complete when we trust and believe in Christ as Lord and Savior.  There will soon come a day when Christ returns, all are raised before the judgment seat, and Christ ushers in a new heaven and earth.  We live with purpose–to co-partner with Christ as agents of healing, reconciliation, and redemption. 
People who seek God’s redemption explode with God’s ever-expanding love and liberation.  It utilizes Jesus’s own vision for ministry, as recorded in Luke 4:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (v. 18-19). 
This vision did not originate with Jesus, of course, but came from one of the earliest of Israel’s prophets, Isaiah.  It is a vision that guides us today. 
With optimism, conviction, mission, and God’s redemption as our guides, we will continue to be the church Christ calls us to be!
July 25, 2019
Image result for miraculous catch of fishKeep Your Eyes on the Ball, by Joe LaGuardia
Our church did a study on Luke 4:42 – 5:16 several weeks ago.  The scripture provides three stories related to Christ’s mission.
In the first story, Jesus ministered in Capernaum, and the people wanted keep him there.  Jesus declared that he must go to other cities and share the Gospel.  “It is my mission,” he said.
The second story is of Jesus recruiting Peter, James, and John.  They spent all night trying to catch fish to no avail.  The story begins in a place of lack.  Jesus commanded them to go to deeper waters and cast out their net again, and they catch a miraculous haul.  Just as they move to a place of abundance, Jesus told them, “For now on, you will be fishers of people.”
In the third story, a leper begs Jesus to heal him.  “If you choose,” the man said, “Make me clean!”  Jesus heals him.  Instead of insisting that the healed man follow Jesus, Jesus sent him to the temple and back home.  Healing consists not only of physical restoration, but restoration back into community.
The three stories are couched between 4:42 and 5:16, which act as bookends to the scripture: In both verses, Jesus withdrew to a “deserted place” to spend time with God and in prayer.  Jesus ministry began and ended with prayer and communion with his Father in heaven.
After recounting these stories, we asked what these stories taught us about our mission and the church.  We wondered why so many pews in churches across the nation are empty and how we can engage our community for Christ. 
The three stories inspired several outcomes:
1.  We have to keep our eye on the ball: that is, the mission of Christ.  Jesus is not content on staying in one place and spending time in familiar towns.  He has to “go to other cities” to spread the Gospel and meet people who have yet to hear the Gospel.  Likewise, he encouraged his disciples to travel to “deep waters,” entering places where they have not gone and the deep waters of the lives of others. We move from lack to abundance when the mission is ever before us!
But when we are comfortable in familiar, shallow waters, the mission ceases and we become complacent.  We no longer function like a church, but as a social club–and Christ is not a Lord over a social club.
2.  We have to put a high value on discipleship, confession, and obedience.  When Jesus asked Peter to go to deep waters, Peter resisted.  When they caught a miraculous haul, Peter repented.  When Christ called Peter and his friends to follow him, they “left everything and followed him.”
The miraculous haul of fish was a cash cow, and the fishermen spent all night dreaming of such a catch.  When Jesus enters their boat, they move from a place of lack to a place of abundance.  But, even then, they leave everything to obey Christ.  They want to be with Jesus more than they want to be attached to their stuff!
3.  We need to put prayer in its proper place.  Too often, prayer is something we do if we have time.  It is a by-product, or some brief activity we do before meetings or Bible studies.  For Jesus, prayer was not one more task–it was the channel of relationship from which all ministry stems.  Ministry results from prayer, not the other way around!
All that we do must begin and end with a vibrant relationship with God.  As we seek solitude and “deserted places”, we have an individual responsibility to grow with Christ; and as a community, we have a responsibility to value prayer alongside our missions and ministry, not something only tacked-on to ministry. 
4.  We need to bring healing to people who are on the margins or left out.  Jesus broke the law in healing this leper by reaching out and touching him, because the law was less important than the sanctity of this man’s life.  Jesus also knew that healing was more than reaching out, but also of restoring people to community.
Healing for Jesus was a physical transformation, as well as a transformation of belonging and identity.  This man, now healed, was welcomed back into his family and church where he was turned away.  We need to be a church that provides people with a sense of healing, belonging, and of Gospel restoration.  That means taking risks (going to deep waters), becoming vulnerable (reaching out to help people), and moving to unfamiliar places to bring people to Jesus.  That is our mission as it was for Jesus!
I think when a church values these characteristics:  Keeping our eye on His mission, confessing our sins, obeying him, placing a priority on following him rather than focusing on attachments that get in God’s way, moving out to “deep waters”, restoring people to healing and community (making a place to belong), and seeking God in prayer; then we too grow as a vibrant community seeking after God’s own heart.  Will you join us?
February 26, 2019
Letter to the Editor
In reference to the recent Human Trafficking Arrests in IRC, by Joe LaGuardia
We submitted this Letter to the Editor of the TC Palm over the weekend of Feb. 24-25, 2019.
Dear Editor,
Every Sunday at First Baptist Church of Vero Beach, we affirm the divinely-mandated relationship between justice and worship. We believe they are two sides of the same coin, and that our relationship with God is ultimately tied to our relationship with our neighbors. We adhere to the prophetic call that the Gospel compels us to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God and our community. To love as freely and as magnificently as Christ loves us.

In light of the recent events uncovering systemic injustice, human trafficking, and sexual assault in our community, we double down in seeking to provide a sacred and holy space in our neighborhood that fosters  liberation for the oppressed and justice and due process for oppressors.

We stand in solidarity with our city and our neighbors in decrying the oppression and shame this has brought upon our county, and we hope that our advocacy and prayers will help bring healing and comfort to those in sorrow. We will remain vigilant in being accessible–of nurturing a safe haven–to those who are in need and have been affected by human trafficking–to the families of both the victims and the accused. And we hope that our belief and convictions born from the Gospel of Christ will be transformative for renewal and redemption.

We also join our local partners in ministry and other non-profits in collaborating together for the sake of healing. Together we seek a deeper call for social justice that corrects the most heinous situations of exploitation in our midst. We pray that there exists a balm in Gilead and spiritual nourishment for a dry and weary land.
December 4, 2018
Image result for angel and josephGod uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things!
We hosted our first men’s prayer meeting this morning at 7:30 AM.  Beginning today, we will meet every Tuesday to pray for our families, church, community, nation, and special needs.  It is open to all men, and we go to breakfast afterward for those interested.
Our time together also included a short devotion.  This morning’s was on Matthew 1:18-20, the beginning of the Christmas story, when an angel visited a fearful Joseph.
The passage is short but powerful: Joseph finds out that his young bride is pregnant and he, being righteous and just, wants to “dismiss her quietly.”  That evening, an angel visits Joseph in a dream and tells him not to fear, that God has a plan!
Our devotional this morning focused on those short words, Joseph “planned to dismiss her.”  Sometimes we read the Christmas story so fast, we don’t get into the thick of the plot.  Joseph is anxious.  His family’s honor, reputation as a business man, and his entire community is in peril because of the potential scandal of Mary’s pregnancy.  His “planning” was not something he thought about for a few minutes.  I think it captured a season of turmoil and duress that anyone in his shoes would have endured.
The anxiety, fear, and panic was what the angel confronted: Joseph’s stress put him in a place of openness to God; his fear kept him tossing and turning at night.  His mind was at work, scheming, so dreams became more abundant.  An angel visited one such dream. 
It is as the song states, “our hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.”  Joseph is vulnerable, shaken, and stressed; but he learned that God was in the business of taking ordinary, broken individuals and using them for His glory and purpose.  Joseph and his bride was to birth the Savior of the world.  It was not cause for scandal, but for praise and celebration.
While in Cuba, our mission team joined a church for communion.  In the service, the pastor said that it was a miracle that Jesus chose bread and wine to represent something so holy and sacred.  The miracle was that bread and wine were ordinary objects.  They were readily available to peasant families, and not special sacraments or holy vessels.  God chose ordinary, everyday objects to be catalysts for a sacred event.
The Christmas story is similar–we have ordinary individuals, Joseph and Mary, who were tasked with midwifing the Savior.  God equipped these new parents, beset by fear and uncertainty, with strength to endure becoming refugees on the run from the law, outcasts who found solace in a manger, and heroes who nourished the King of kings. 
The places where your dreams meet your fears, where the unexpected seems to be happening and our vulnerability limits our “control” over the course of the events in our life, is where God’s likely at work.  Be open to God; do not neglect your fears and fragility; know that God wants to use you for His purposes–it doesn’t require a degree or spiritual pedigree; it only requires a foundation of righteousness and prayer, of trust and faith.  And then expect the extraordinary to happen!
October 16, 2018
Gearing up for Cuba Missions, by Dr. Joe LaGuardia
Twelve of us are gearing up this month for our Cuba mission trip, set for the first week of November (the 1st through the 6th).  In partnership with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Fraternity of Baptist Churches in Cuba, we will be painting and and doing light repairs with El Jordan Baptist Church in Havana (pictured above, with one of our team members, Jon from a sister church in Jacksonville, in the lower left-hand corner), as well as yard work on the Fraternity campus (also in Havana).
The trip will include missions work of this type, but also a day of cultural immersion in which the team will learn about faith and life in Cuba.  They will hear from families, worship with El Jordan on Sunday morning, and taste foods in a variety of settings.  On Sunday, we will also take time to tour historic Havana and possibly travel to the small fishing village of Mariel in order to support a small Christian church trying to feed poor families in that area.
The team is excited and proud to travel to Cuba, as this is First Baptist’s first mission trip in about 4 or 5 years.  They have raised their own funds, collected clothing and items to donate, and are ready to serve the Lord.  As this is a mission trip, not a luxury excursion, there will be no rest for the weary.  Pray for God’s provision, strength, and stamina!
We want to invite you to come and hear more about the trip, or perhaps lift us in prayer.  Our next meeting will be a packing party on Sunday, October 28th at 2 PM in the small social hall.  That Sunday morning, in 10:30 AM worship service, we will have a prayer of commissioning for the team.  Please join us!
June 30, 2018
Liturgy Sustains the Church through the Ages, by Dr. Joe LaGuardia
Did you know that the pulpit in the sanctuary is not the original 1962-era pulpit?  That pulpit is in storage.  When I first came to First Baptist, the “powers that be” gave me a choice between three pulpits: the one in the sanctuary, the one from 1962, and the one that Pastor Derrick West used in the contemporary service, a plexiglass podium-style pulpit.
I got a good look at the original pulpit, and I was overwhelmed by the sheer size of the thing.  It is three-times as wide as the current one, and its a bit higher.  I joke that I can’t see over it; and, if I were to use it, I’d feel like I was lording over the congregation.  Besides, there is a big shelf on it, and I’d be tempted to have 45-minutes worth of preaching notes on Sunday.  It is regal, however, and communicates the majesty of our church’s legacy and the architecture, but its just too big and I’d feel detached from the congregation, preaching from that thing!
The plexiglass pulpit is in our Family Life Center, and we use it for Bible studies and other events.  It communicates a teaching-style of preaching in which Pastor Derrick excelled.  That would not work for me, and I thought it too informal for my own preaching style in the sanctuary.
The one they had in the sanctuary–the one we currently use–is just right!  It is heavy enough to communicate the weight of the authority of scripture and of our preaching heritage, but it is light enough to move off the stage when we have special events.  The colors match the rest of the sanctuary, but I can easily move around it when I preach and want to “connect” better with the congregation.  It is an easy pulpit to stand in and to stand beside.  I can see over it, too.  That helps.
The Old-Fashioned Hymn Sing and Ice Cream social last Sunday reminded me, however, that with all of the pulpits and preachers that have passed through First Baptist Church, it has been the liturgy–the worship of the people and the hymnody–that has sustained our church for over 103 years.  Preaching styles and pulpits come and go, but the Word of the Lord has grounded us, our worship has united us, and the Lord has strengthened and provided for us.
Singing the hymns last night allowed this feeling of continuity to arise in my heart.  For all that makes us unique and diverse, it is our worship that makes us one Body in Christ.  And for that I am grateful, and for that I can celebrate and know that this God whom we serve has lifted us up and has carried us “through the ages” (Isaiah 63:9).
We don’t sing to be nostalgic, we sing to bring glory and honor to God’s name.  We don’t sing because it makes us feel good (though that happens!), but to declare the mighty works of the Lord and to praise Jesus for being our Lord and Savior. 
We have several opportunities to learn more about hymnody this season.  This Wednesday, on August 1st, Dr. Michael Carter is beginning a 4-week seminar series on “I Love to Tell the Story: Hymnody and the Sounds of the Church through the Ages,” immediately following supper in the Family Life Center.  And on the last weekend of August, we will have an opportunity to sing and praise the Lord again in a three-service revival.  Won’t you join us and step into this rushing river that has flowed for over a century?
May 16, 2018
A United Church is a Bold Church, by Dr. Joe LaGuardia
My sermon this Sunday is on the unity of Christ’s Church.  Based on the Pentecost reading of Acts 2:1-11, unity comes when God’s people gather to hear God’s Word, listen to God’s Word, and act on God’s Word. 
I won’t go over the whole sermon here–you will need to come to church for that!–but I was impressed that one of the results of unity (at least in Acts) is boldness in Christ.
An article by John Span states that boldness is a major theme in the book of Acts.  Luke, the author, mentions at least eight times that the Church speaks with boldness.   But it not about speaking only, but the boldness that the righteous exhibit when they are pursuing God’s purposes “on earth as it is in heaven.”
When a church is united, there is boldness to…
Announce the Lordship of Christ. The disciples in Acts needed boldness to preach that Christ was Lord and Savior because that message was treasonous in Rome.  Back then, the Caesar was lord and savior–claimed as “God’s son,” by Roman writers–and to claim that there was another who was king over Caesar was a dangerous message indeed.
The disciples preached boldly in the face of hostility and danger.  When they were imprisoned, they did not relent, nor did they try to defend themselves by way of violence.  They saw every circumstance as an opportunity to preach Christ and him crucified.
Live as Christ’s Ambassadors of Reconciliation in the world.  Another important theme in Acts is that, in Christ, God bridged the divide not only between himself and the world, but between Jew and Gentile.  Christ’s salvation is inclusive, it is not a monopoly of one ethnic, religious, or socio-economic group.  Rather, the message of Christ’s salvation is one of reconciliation: that anyone and “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21).
Christians are ambassadors of this Word.  Ambassadors are not citizens of the countries in which they venture; rather, they are citizens of a host country and go afar to foreign and strange places to bring people together and build coalitions of peace.  As “ambassadors” (according to 2 Corinthians 5), we are citizens of the Kingdom of God, sent into the world to speak on Christ’s behalf. 
We represent not the interests of the world, but the interests of God.  I am not a big fan of St. Augustine’s theology which posits that we are citizens of two worlds–the kingdom and the country in which we reside.  The Bible makes clear that once we call Christ Lord, we belong to Him and Him alone.
To Stand on the Side of Justice.  We represent Christ’s prophets, those harbingers of hope who declare what God is up to and communicate the deepest values of God in a world that has misplaced priorities.  We follow a Lord who claimed that “the first shall be last, and the last first,” and that we are not to worry as the world does.  We seek the kingdom of God first, and let all other things fall into place as God so allows.
This message of justice reaches back into the heart of the Old Testament.  From the very details of God’s Law given to Moses to those proclamations by the likes of prophets like Isaiah and Amos, justice insures that we don’t push for what is always “fair”, but for what is moral and right.  Christ plants churches in local communities to anchor those communities in the morals and values that are godly, biblical, and just.
So goes boldness in the Bible.  My sermon this Sunday will hit on boldness briefly, but I thought that this fuller treatment will provide you with something to ponder until then.  I hope to see you Sunday!
January 4, 2018
What’s so great about committees?, by Dr. Joe LaGuardia
I have met few (if any) pastors who are excited about church committees.  In fact, some churches are so frustrated with committees that they have disbanded committees and moved to other models of church polity.  But did you know that committees communicate our earliest Baptist roots and American founding in democracy and representative government?
Not many people know this, but the government of the United States was founded as a representative republic precisely because of the deepest values that our earliest churches shared in what is called a “congregational polity.”  That means that churches governed by way of representative bodies–many called committees-to make decisions on behalf of the congregation, to elect leaders, and chart a course for the future.
When our Founding Fathers and Mothers sought to carve out a new body politic, this is the model they decided to use for our democracy (along with help from the writings of John Locke and other philosophers who gleaned from our ancient Roman, Reformation Protestant, and Renaissance forebears in Europe).
We have committees not because we are obligated to have them, but because representative government is in our Baptist DNA!  And you can tell if a church is healthy by how well committees communicate, collaborate, and pray together in the life of the church.
It is true that committees get bogged down with bureaucratic nonsense when they compete and conflict with one another.  In contrast, a well-oiled machine in which committees work together helps us be “the church.”  We have to strive to achieve the latter, and prioritize faith formation so that we know how to be the church in the first place.
I for one trust in the efficacy of committees and their place in Baptist life.  They allow the congregation to have a say, and provide opportunities to resolve issues rather than complain to the higher ups.  They speak to our egalitarian ministry emphasis as we all stand under the lordship of Christ and the authority of scripture.  It allows us–together–to hear the Spirit and follow God’s leading.
This Sunday we are coming together at 5:00 PM for our annual committee reorganization meeting to elect officers, discuss plans for the new year, and be empowered for a season of ministry and missions.  It also gives us a chance to pray and humble ourselves before God who ultimately calls the shots.
So in a spirit of our American founding and democracy, lets get together with enthusiasm and practice some good, old-fashioned church business!  See you there!
December 14, 2017
The Ten Commandments of a Welcoming Community, by Dr. Joe LaGuardia
Church consultants and pastors have spilled much ink regarding how churches should welcome guests.  There is a reason for that: Churches, from veteran churches to church-starts, need to learn how to greet guests and be the welcoming community Christ calls us to be. You may be surprised to know that this does not come naturally for churches–we must instill a culture of welcome time and again!
As Christmas is that time of year when guests visit churches, I reckon its also a good idea to remind you how to welcome guests.  Here are the ten commandments for welcoming guests:
1. Thou Shalt Be Friendly.  You think that this is a given, but you many people tell me that they have visited churches that are not friendly.  People can enter and leave without someone greeting them or even smiling at them–it really happens!  I visited a church one time and the pastor passed me three times without stopping once to greet me.  This was a small church, so it wasn’t like he wouldn’t know whether I was a visitor or a member.  Be friendly!
2.  Thou Shalt Communicate Kindness. Greet guests with a firm handshake, open posture, and smile.  It is not enough to be friendly–thought that’s a first step.  Ask the names of guests and try to use their names in the course of the conversation.  Don’t forget to introduce yourself too!
3.  Thou Shalt Be Mindful of Your Surroundings.  Pay attention to who is near you in the pews.  You are the first line of greeting when a guest comes, and if you see someone new in your section of the church, follow the first two commandments, then let the nearest staff member know so we can do it too!
4.  Thou Shalt Invite Guests to Something Significant.  How do we get guests to stay and participate at church?  Invite them to lunch or coffee.  Church is not like social media, where you check in and out of people’s lives at your convenience.  We are the church and we are to make disciples, so guests need to feel a part of it to start that journey.  Invite people somewhere: to coffee, to lunch, to Sunday School, or to a gathering.  It may be inconvenient, but too bad.  Someone a long time ago went out of their way to welcome you, so now its your turn to do the same for others.
5.  Thou Shalt Help with the Children.  If guests have young children, be kind and accommodating to the family.  Point out where the restrooms and nursery are, ask the names and ages of the children, have conversations with the children–they need to feel a sense of belonging too.  Get one of the staff to introduce the children to our children and youth leaders.  If the children are vocal or playful during worship, play with them silently–don’t worry about the sermon, you can catch it online at home.  For now, focus on the children–they are miracles, each and every one, and you may be the first of Christ’s ambassadors they’ve ever met!!
6.  Thou Shalt Not Ask Too Many Questions.  When you welcome a guest, don’t ask too many questions.  For instance, don’t say, “Oh, and is this your mother?” because you may get the response: “NO!  THAT’S MY WIFE!”  If there is a single guest, don’t ask if he or she is married or what not.  Follow through on the fourth commandment, and then you may–may!–eventually get the emotional permission to ask probing questions.
7.  Thou Shalt Not Comment on Appearances (except for children).  People love to hear praises and compliments about their children, but please refrain from commenting on the appearances of adults.  It is not appropriate to say, “You are very pretty,” or worse, “Your wife is very pretty.”  If you want to be nice, be broad–“You have a beautiful family.” 
8.  Thou Shalt Not be Culturally Insensitive.   Kristina and I once visited a primarily African American congregation, and the first thing the greeter said was, “Wow, we don’t get visitors like you here often.”  We were not impressed and we never returned.  If a guest visits who may be an ethnic, gendered, or racial minority, don’t make it awkward.  Don’t say, “We don’t get a lot of your kind here,” or, “Wow, it’s nice to have you…so, as a Mexican, what do you think of that comment about immigration that Trump said the other day?” or, “Hey, you’re the perfect person to ask this: What do you think about those Confederate statues being removed from public parks?”  All of these questions are either racist or bigoted in one form or fashion.  Other questions can be misogynistic, so just treat everyone the same and be sensitive. 
9.  Thou Shalt Not Use Off-Color Humor.  First impressions are everything, and people may not share the same kind of humor as you.  Do not try to use humor to break any tension or awkwardness in the greeting.  Be yourself, but just be sensitive (see Commandment 8).  So if you feel inclined to make a joke, just don’t.  Be warm and friendly, but be professional.  The other day, someone lamented that they were afraid to joke around anymore because of all of the sexual harassment suits in the news lately: “Everyone is so sensitive these days,” he said.  Yes, that’s right–the truth is that that kind of humor has always been wrong–the fact that no one is laughing anymore is a good and godly thing, trust me.  Locker room talk is not appropriate for the Christ-following Christian.
10.  Thou Shalt Not Make Assumptions.  Do not assume that because a guest looks or talks a certain way, that you have them “pegged.”  People who visit churches are taking a risk, and there is a level of vulnerability we need to respect.  One of the ways we respect strangers is to give them the room to surprise us and perchance become our best friends.  That is what it means to be an inclusive, welcoming church: We welcome strangers into our sacred space–with all our own strangeness thrown in the mix–only to become fellow pilgrims on the journey of faith.  Since we all do not start out in the same place, our journeys vary, but as God’s creatures made in God’s image, we can all learn from each other. Plus, we don’t want to become “That church!”
Read more on how not to greet guests at Tom Rainer blog.
our August 14, 2017
Blanketing Babies with Love, by Dr. Joe LaGuardia
Last Sunday, we heard a moving Need 2 Know moment from Karen Rockhill and Becky Thorne regarding the baby blankets project by the Women’s Devotions group that meets once a month.
Nearly a dozen of ladies have been making baby blankets for newborns and their parents at Indian River Memorial Hospital over the past year.  Each blanket comes with a personalized card that expresses a blessing and word of encouragement on behalf of our church.
The need for blankets is great–there are approximately 80-100 births a month at IRMC.  The blankets, which are self-funded through the ladies’ group, require materials, cards, and other items.  Karen and Becky asked for prayer and any gifts that you may be called to give.
Since they began the blankets project, First Baptist Church has provided over 1,000 blankets to newborns in the hospital.  The Women’s Devotions group meets every first Tuesday of the month at 6:30 PM.  The blankets project is only a small part of the group, as they share devotions, testimonies, food, and fellowship.  
As pastor, I am proud of this amazing project–itis a personal and wonderful way to let people know that we care about families and that we exist to encourage and promote life.  This also allows us to recognize that our town is growing at a fast rate–young professionals and families choose Vero Beach as a place to work and live, not just vacation.  There is a mission field right outside of our doors, and we need to be prayerful and assertive about recruiting families who need a church to call home!
let’s commit to pray for the blankets project and commit to always express God’s love as we blanket Vero Beach with compassion and Christ’s call of salvation.   
June 5, 2017
Core Values: What Makes Each Church Unique!
In scripture, Jesus gives every church a basic mandate called the Great Commission (Matt. 28): To share the Gospel, make disciples of all people, and baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 
This mandate unites Christ’s Church across the globe, but the scriptures also attest that each local church serves God in different ways: We are a part of Christ’s Body, but some are legs, others arms, and yet others feet.
Each local church is distinctive from other churches in this organic make-up.  Why else have churches on every corner? 
These distinctives are also called core values — values that make up the basic DNA of a local church, unique qualities that play a major role in the local community, distinct from other local churches, and significant in the larger Body of Christ. 
These values are usually implanted in the church from its founding and do not change over time, although they may be articulated differently from one generation to another.
In Sunday worship on June 11, we briefly explored four core values–a rough draft, if you will–that make First Baptist Church of Vero Beach a unique place to worship, serve, fellowship, and disciple.  Each core value finds a home in our mission statement:
  1. The Worshiping Church: First Baptist values the worship of God in spirit and in truth, engaging people through ancient traditions, liturgical rhythms, the Christian calendar, and contemporary creative arts.
  2. The Discipling Church:  First Baptist values the discipleship of all people–men, women and children–who long to obey God, grow in Christ, and live by the power of the Holy Spirit.
  3.  The Teaching Church:  First Baptist values passing on the legacy of Baptist community by fostering the gifts of the Spirit, mentoring believers along the journey of faith, and including both men and women in leadership.
  4.  The Missional Church:  First Baptist values participating in God’s mission to the world, being the presence of Christ by advocating for the impoverished, and standing in solidarity with those who seek justice and reconciliation.
As we explore these four values in conjunction with our “Journey Through Acts” over the summer season, be in prayer about how these core values inform who we are, our common identity as a church, and the shape and scope of our missions and ministries in our neighborhood.  
Hear from God, and if there are any changes or questions that arise, come and let’s talk about it!  These are, after all, rough drafts–but articulating what makes us unique is the first step of having a laser focus in doing God’s work together!
  February 6, 2017
Sunday Conversations and the Future of our Church, by Dr. Joe LaGuardia
A question I hear often is, “So, where is our church going?” 
I appreciate this question.  It implies enthusiasm, a passion to grow and move beyond our comfort zones.  It is born out of an unyielding excitement to reach the lost and preach Good News to a world in need.
Arriving at an answer, however, is easier said than done!  A church moves as a Body, not as a result of any one person’s (or pastor’s!) agenda.  Vision and the future-casting in a church requires community involvement, discernment, intentional conversations, prayer, and a shared set of values that shape the nature and scope of ministry.
Perhaps you are wondering the same thing about our church, but attending Sunday morning service does not provide ample time to have those conversations or seek ways to help our church grow in new and creative ways.
And that is the reason we meet on Sunday night!  While many churches have done away with Sunday night Bible study or service, we are committed to meeting together Sundays at 6 PM to have intentional conversations related to the mission, ministry, and future of our church.
Last night, for instance, we talked about the Sunday morning sermon, related to having a faith courageous enough to wrestle with God in the midst of mystery and uncertainty.  As a church, we don’t seek to have all of the answers or tell people what to think.  We certainly don’t talk down to people.  Rather, we provide a safe space where people can take ownership of their relationship with God, to meet the Risen Savior rather than receive mere commentary about the Savior.
A watershed moment happened last night too: Together, we agreed that our church needed to provide a safe and sacred space for people to ask the deepest, most difficult questions related to their faith and relationship with God.  We agreed that we would not shun people or cast people out because of their search for the Spirit’s purpose in their life. 
People call this a teaching church model of ministry, in which we disciple people and give people the space to have Jesus shape their worldview, to get out of the way of the Holy Spirit and coach people in clarifying what they believe and how they are to make disciples of others.   This is something that Baptists have been doing since the beginning of the Baptist movement in the 1600s!
Young people, especially, are interested in this type of church model.  People between the ages of 18 – 40 come to church to have a first-hand faith rather than get commentary about faith.  They want to meet God, not just talk about God.  They want to wrestle with Scripture, not dance around scripture.  
Young people are seeking ways to engage their world by wrestling with causes, issues, and theological insights that will promote a radical trust in Christ and an open-ended faith that moves beyond the walls of church.  They, like we, want to walk with a Risen, Living Savior, not pay homage to a historical figure lost in the annals of time.
This takes courage and risk on our part.  We have to be willing to walk with people who are in uncomfortable places in their lives.  It means having to enter into their sacred space and find where the Holy Spirit is at work.  It means getting out of our own comfort zones in order to see God in the midst of mystery and discernment.  It means being surprised and finding a sense of wonder again (some call it revival!) where we least expect it!
Do you want to help shape this kind of community beyond listening to a sermon or attending a Sunday morning worship service?  Are you interested in engaging your world differently, to move beyond your easy chair and preferred news station or social media platform to build relationships that matter?  Then join us on Sunday evening and participate in shape the precise direction that we are heading as a church. 
It is fun, open, and lively.  We hope you’ll be a part!
January 24, 2017
Are We United?, by Dr. Joe LaGuardia
Over the last two Sundays, our church asked several important questions in our “State of the Church” series.  The first question was, “Are we united?”
Of all the things we wonder about God, being united should not be one of them.  We know that unity is pleasing to God, and there are enough verses in scripture to assure us that being united is God’s will for the church, the Body of Christ.
In 1 Corinthians 1:10, Paul wrote, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (NRSV).
Sounds easy, doesn’t it?  Well..maybe not!  I have learned over the years–and through many church conflicts–that disharmony and unhealthy conflict is habitual.  Church splits and divisions do not happen overnight.
Cultivating unity requires that we replace bad habits with good habits that promote unity, celebrate diversity, and discern the meaning and magnificence of God’s mission for our church.  Look no further than Paul’s words of encouragement, it’s all right there!
  • Paul says we are to be “in agreement.”  I prefer the King James Version here: “We are to speak the same language.”  That does not mean that we all have to speak the same things or even believe everything the same way, but it does mean nurturing the habit of speaking out of shared values that unite our church.  Sure we may differ on various theological views, but as a church family, we hold several core values in common–its what makes us First Baptist Church!
  • Paul says we are to be of the same mind.  Again, that does not mean you have to think like I think, or that we have to fight trying to change each other’s minds.  Rather, we are to seek the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16).  It means coming to a place where we seek to understand one another, but move beyond our own limited insights to seek the deeper things of the Holy Spirit.
  • Paul says we are to be of the same purpose.  The worst question anyone can ask at church is, “How do I get my way!”  Jesus did not intend for His church to be the sum of any one person’s agenda.  Rather, Jesus establishes each church to fulfill a specific mission.  This mission transcends any one person, group, or generation–it lasts for the life of the church.  We have a mission at First Baptist that is sound and worth uniting behind: 
Our mission is the worship of God. In obedience to Him, worship includes reaching out and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, equipping our members for discipleship, and demonstrating Christ’s love through ministry and fellowship.
So, are we united?  I think we are, but it doesn’t happen overnight.  It must be intentional, and it requires all of us to believe that God is at work at First Baptist Church–to convict us, challenge us, call us, and commission us for the work that lies ahead!
January 10, 2017
A Thousand Little Things, by Dr. Joe LaGuardia
After church last Sunday, I was crazy enough to do my exercise walk on the beach in 55-degree, windy weather.  The waves were breaking as far as the eye could see, almost perpendicular to the coast, and the wind was so strong the seagulls were flying backwards (or, was it that they were blowing away with grace?).
The first half of my walk took me southbound, so the wind was at my back.  I wore shorts, so I felt sand pelting against my legs.  The sand hurt, like a thousand little needle pricks on my skin.
On the walk back I had to bundle in my sweater–it took me twice as long to get back.  The seagulls and I fought the wind together.  By the time I reached my car, I felt like sea salt had settled in my lungs.
When we think of ministry–not just for a minister, but all of us–we often think of the big things we do that bring meaning to the lives of others.  Ministry and mission projects, feeding the impoverished, helping the elderly, teaching Sunday School class– those are the things that come to mind.
But I am often reminded that ministry is made up of the sum of a thousand little decisions and acts of kindness we do over the course of time.
Something  as simple as a smile can make a person’s day.  Praying for someone who “pops” into your mind while driving in the car can make a difference. Writing a short note of encouragement can move and inspire people to act in godly ways.
But the opposite is also true.  We can harm relationships and people by the thousand little ways that we prick and needle at their lives and hearts.  Words hurt, decisions not always wise can distract people from finding healing and encouragement.  We can be bad friends who are held at arms-length because we take advantage or take others for granted.
As you walk your journey path this week, consider that it is often the little things that count.  Be mindful, pray often, and keep aware of the way God shines through you!
January 4, 2017
A Pilgrimage in Downtown Vero Beach, by Dr. Joe LaGuardia

We delivered donuts to law offices in our surrounding area, the first step in connecting with our backyard mission field.

Church is more than a building, it is a movement of people who have God in their hearts and bring the Gospel wherever they go.
That’s why here at First Baptist Church, we don’t believe that our church is restricted to brick and mortar.  All our churchgoers are asked to embody the values of our church and be “on mission” in their workplaces, families, neighborhoods, and places of recreation. 
We all live the First Baptist story, one connected to the larger drama of God’s intention to redeem all of creation in Christ.
When I first became pastor in May, I wanted to get to know the church and the community.  I have been spending time visiting parishioners and getting to know them better, but I have also been walking around the downtown district where First Baptist calls home. 
I continually feel the Holy Spirit moving First Baptist to be a leader in this community as it has been for over 100 years, a hub of ministry and missions resources, as well as a safe and sacred space where healing, restoration, and justice impact our immediate neighborhood to improve people’s lives, relationships, areas of needed reconciliation, and even the local economy.
And I hope that this Spirit-led inspiration will take shape for years to come: Perhaps we can host luncheons for local business leaders who are longing to network with others in the downtown district.  Maybe God is calling us to be the “chaplains” for employees and employers who are going through rough times or are in need of spiritual direction.
Over the summer, we started to communicate with our neighbors about our intentions to connect.  We delivered about eight boxes of donuts to law offices in our area, complete with a little note telling them that we are prayer for them. 
This month, we will do the same with other businesses. 
As we walk, we bring Christ with us.  That is, after all, the meaning of pilgrimage: To follow the steps of Christ and go to places made holy by none other than the Holy Spirit.  When we connect with our neighbors, we start standing on holy ground!
In the meantime, I look forward to sharing stories with you along the way, to tell you how God is working in our neighborhood.  Please join me in praying that God will bring the Gospel beyond our campus!
December 5. 2016
Building a Missional Identity at First Baptist, by Dr. Joe LaGuardia
This article originally ran on the Patheos blog of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship on November 21, 2016.

One Sunday morning during the collection of tithes at First Baptist Church of Vero Beach, Florida, Randy (not his real name) reached in, dug deep, and padded all of his pockets in order to find money to put into the offering plate. His pants, too big for his lean body and too old to wear anywhere else, hung loosely and flapped about him as he struggled to find his treasure.  The plate passed by, and Randy was disheartened, unable to contribute.


Just four months ago Randy was someone who often asked for an offering. As one of many marginalized and displaced persons in quaint Vero Beach, Randy is well known in these parts for hanging around churches, borrowing a few bucks to get McDonald’s cheeseburgers, and getting in deep with the wrong people related to his on-again, off-again drug addiction.

Randy was one of the first people I met last May when I began as senior pastor to First Baptist. We sat and talked a while in my office, about the area, his trouble with holding a job and getting along with family.

I got to know him well, as well as some two-dozen other displaced individuals we serve every Wednesday with hot supper at the church. This ministry is called “Wednesday Without Walls” (WWW). In addition to a meal, there is a clothes closet, seasonal items like bug repellent and blankets available, and a time for a sermon or devotion by guest speakers from around town… [Read more at the Patheos Blog].

November 15. 2016
Aging in Place, by Dr. Joe LaGuardia
shesSince I arrived at First Baptist Church last May, I have met with over a half-dozen residents who moved to retirement facilities that value the concept of “aging in place.”  Aging in place means helping people progress through levels of services and support as they age.  Usually, this commitment includes utilizing different facilities and programs depending on the needs of the residents.
For many churches that are well-established in communities across the nation, there is a need for strategic and intentional “aging in place.”  Unlike care facilities that see to the “final act” of a person’s life, churches that age in place must find new ways of engaging its surroundings, share the Gospel of Christ in ever-creative ways, and revitalizing a sense of mission to reach new demographics in fresh and relevant opportunities for growth and ministry.
Some churches decide not to age in place:  Some move campuses to the suburbs or growing cities across town, while other churches close shop or merge with healthier congregations.
Churches that stay put, however–successfully “aging in place”–are intentional about who they reach and how they reach out.  It means transitioning to ministries that provide a variety of support, all the while leveraging partnerships and assets that are available within and beyond the church building.  And they prayerfully reflect on the type of community they wish to become as a result.
Serving downtown Vero Beach for over a century, the faith family of First Baptist Church made an intentional and prayerful decision to “age in place” despite unique challenges in our ever-growing secular culture.
First Baptist has adjusted to the growing needs of Vero Beach by engaging the neighborhood with greater investments in the underprivileged population in the surrounding area, by re-tooling staff and volunteers to accommodate a growing diversity in its endeavors, and by including new and seasoned members in places of leadership and education on Sunday mornings.  
As a result, First Baptist has shifted its missional footprint and is flourishing as a result.  In remaining as a steadfast presence in downtown, we have committed to bridging the gap between rich and poor, young and old, established and transitional populations.  We have committed to diversifying our worship to God by incorporating both liturgical and global sounds into our 8 AM “Celebrations” and 10:30 AM “Traditions” services.  We have committed to communicating Christ’s message of love by investing time and relationships in local businesses, non-profits, and service organizations in our immediate area.
As we age in place and join God in reaching our neighborhood, we invite you to come alongside us.  Participate in the unique opportunities only First Baptist can provide: like making a difference in the lives of people who long to experience the love of Christ, and by becoming a part of a Christ-centered community in which all people feel welcomed and safe.
For just as Christ sent his disciples to reach their neighborhood and beyond long ago, so too does Christ call us today to bridge that gap between those who are lost and those who belong by sharing in the Good News of a Gospel still impacting Vero Beach today!