64 Years in Ministry and Counting….

I have been privileged to be a pastor for about 9 years. In the first church I served at, my tenure lasted about 4 years. The second tenure lasted about 3.5 years and now I am serving as pastor of a third local church. Surprisingly, my experience as a pastor is not unique. It does seem short, but statistics tell us that the average pastoral tenure lasts about 3.6 years. To state the obvious, that’s not very long and this illustrates the unfortunate state of pastoral longevity today.

 

It was not always this way. One of my hero’s of the faith, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), grew up during a time where long pastorates were the norm. His grandfather Solomon Stoddard pastored the same church for over 55 years. His father Timothy Edwards pastored the same church for over 60 years. And had he not been forced to resign from his church after (only) 23 years, it’s safe to assume Jonathan Edwards would have served till the time of his death, just like his father and grandfather and the majority of pastors in Puritan New England. The relationship between pastor and church was kind of like a marriage – “till death do us part” was the idea. That is not to say there was never conflict, but there was a long-term commitment that was virtually unbreakable. In the three centuries since, the pastoral landscape has changed dramatically.

 

Over the past few months I have gotten to know a man by the name of Dave Lewis. Dave is a kind and humble man who loves to golf and I am told is quite competitive. Dave is a fellow pastor and when we met one morning at a local MacDonald’s I asked Dave, “How long have you served at your church?” I knew he was an older gentleman but his answer still blew me away…. 64 years! Dave started serving at Bald Eagle Alliance Church in Osceola Mills, PA way back in 1953, not long after he had graduated from Bible College. While a lot has changed during that time, and countless pastors (including me) have transitioned to other churches, Dave has stayed put. From what I can tell, he doesn’t have any retirement plans, even though he is now 87 years old.

 

I was curious so I asked Dave what the secret of his longevity was. He answered, “the grace of God and the will of God.” His simple answer hints at a profound truth. It is not God’s will for every pastor to spend his entire ministry at one church. However, in the case of Dave, God ordained that he would have a lifetime ministry at one local church. Such a long ministry was only possible through the sustaining grace of God.

 

As we continued to talk, Dave spoke to the need of every pastor to read good books and even mentioned a few authors by name. “Read Bunyan, Newton, Spurgeon, and above all Tozer” he said. Dave talked about the early days of his ministry when he heard A.W. Tozer preach on several occasions. Ever since Tozer’s death in the 1960’s, he has drunk deeply of Tozer’s works and it was almost as if he knew Tozer like a close friend. Pastor Dave is a voracious reader of Christian classics and he encouraged me in that same direction.

 

There were a few other things that pastor Dave counseled me on that are worth mentioning. Prayer for him is the “power house” of the ministry. Of course, he was simply echoing what Charles Spurgeon and many others have said before him. Having a focus on prayer is absolutely vital when it comes to maintaining a long and fruitful ministry. He also spoke to the need of every pastor to immerse himself in Scripture. While there are plenty of good titles and good authors (such as the above mentioned), there is no substitute for the Word of God.

 

When I asked Dave to tell me about his church, he had nothing but good things to say about his people. “They are the most loving and gracious people a pastor could ever ask for,” he said. Even after all these years, there was still a love affair between the pastor and his people. I have been around long enough to know that this is unique and I found Dave’s words concerning his congregation to be refreshing and encouraging. Perhaps the thing that I found most remarkable about Pastor Dave is that there is still a fire in his belly that drives him. As he shared about what he was preaching and teaching on in the coming week, there was clearly a passion and excitement. It seemed as though he couldn’t wait to share the riches that he had discovered from his study of God’s word. Even after 64 years of preaching the Word and shepherding the flock, the fire has not dimmed.

 

If you tried to look up Dave on the internet, you would find that he does not have a web presence of any sort. His church doesn’t have a website, he does not have a blog, nor does he have a twitter following. Dave is what we would call “old school” but I believe he is a model worth following and one that is all but lost in our day and age. Pease understand I am not here to put Dave on a pedestal. When I asked him about doing a little write-up on him, he was very hesitant to agree, not just because he is a humble man, but because he is aware of his own sin and shortcomings. Dave doesn’t want anyone to look to him or to any other man. Rather he would have us look to Christ (Isaiah 45:22) and His power to save. As the psalmist puts it, “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!” (Psalm 115:1).

 

Far too many pastors start off wanting to be the next John Piper or Tim Keller or some other famous pastor. It’s fine to have good models in pastoral ministry but it is unhelpful and even detrimental to aim for ministry success from a worldly perspective. This is kingdom building of the wrong kind and it happens all the time. God is simply calling pastors to be faithful (Hebrews 13:17, 1 Peter 5:1-4, John 21:15-17, 2 Timothy 4:2) and diligent (2 Timothy 1:11-12) and to serve with endurance (2 Timothy 4:6-8) knowing that one day the Lord of glory will reward them for their labors.

 

Few pastors will ever spend the entirety of their ministry at one church. Obviously, Dave Lewis is unique and I praise God for his life and ministry and the example that he has given us. Many others have served well over the years, and perhaps you have heard of them and are aware of their ministries, but it is a safe bet that most are unknown to the world, except for the people and communities they serve. We can praise God for these faithful men, however, if you are looking for the best model to follow, look no further that the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the ultimate “good shepherd” (John 10:11) who lays his life down for the sheep. Every pastor should strive to emulate him and serve in the grace and wisdom that only He can give.

 

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The Same Old Glorious Message

Ever since Christmas, we have been slowly working our way through Matthew’s gospel as a congregation. Let me tell you, this has been a lot of fun for me. After spending much of my early ministry jumping around from passage to passage and doing one mini-series after another, I have greatly enjoyed digging deep into Matthew’s gospel. This past week, while preaching from 4:12-17, I noticed a similarity between Jesus and John the Baptist. Matthew tells us in 4:17, “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.’” This was the exact same message that John preached (see Matthew 3:2).

 

Granted, while this is nothing mind-blowing, it offers us a simple, yet power lesson. Jesus, John the Baptist, Paul and all the apostles, and the great saints of old all preached the same message. Of course, Jesus would expand on this message, but from the beginning of His ministry to the very end, He had one theme – repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand! As preachers and Christian leaders, we must let this be our theme too.

 

The apostle Paul puts it this way in Galatians 2:6-7: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” This reminds us that there is only one gospel, and those who are faithful to the truth preach that same message. To distort the gospel is to deny the gospel.

 

There is a push today in our modern world to be innovative and flashy and cutting-edge. I know of one pastor who said that every three years they had a “new church” because he was constantly innovating and trying to appeal to our ever-changing world. I am not going to deny that in some ways, change can be helpful and even necessary (ie: how we use technology), but if the change involves compromising the message, then you have a serious problem. Pastors can be tempted to scratch those “itching ears” (2 Timothy 4:3) all around us, but we must always resist that temptation and be true to our Lord and Master.

 

All around the world, the Church of Jesus Christ is vast and varied, and pastors serve in countless ministry contexts. How remarkable to think that in the midst of such diversity we all preach the same message….the gospel. May we be faithful to proclaim that glorious message till our dying breath. Like Paul, may we be able to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown or righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day.” 2 Timothy 4:7-8

 

“For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.” 2 Corinthians 2:17

 

“One another” in the New Testament

Let the power of God’s Word speak for itself:

 

  1. “Therefore, welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” Romans 15:7
  2. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Colossians 3:16
  3. “But God so composed the body, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.” 1 Corinthians 12:24b-25
  4. “Therefore encourage one another with these words.” 1 Thessalonians 4:18
  5. “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” James 5:16
  6. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.” Romans 12:10
  7. “Live in harmony with one another.” Romans 12:16
  8. “Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you are doing.” 1 Thessalonians 5:11
  9. “But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.” 1 John 1:7
  10. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Ephesians 4:32
  11. Greet one another with a holy kiss.” Romans 16:16
  12. “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Romans 13:8
  13. “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another……But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.” Galatians 5:13, 15
  14. Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Ephesians 5:21

In Essentials Unity, in Non-Essentials Liberty, in All Things Charity

I live in Waverly, NY, which sits right on the New York – Pennsylvania state border. Rarely a day goes by in which I don’t cross into Pennsylvania for one reason or another. I am also a Canadian citizen and with most of my family still living there, at least once or twice a year, passport in hand, I journey back to my homeland. Border crossing is nothing new for me – it’s just a regular part of life.

 

This got me to thinking about a famous quote. “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” Originally, I thought this quote came from the Puritan Richard Baxter, but I was wrong. It is actually from a German Lutheran theologian of the early seventeenth century, Rupertus Meldenius. Having set the record straight, lets talk about its significance and how it connects with my opening illustration.

 

As Christians, there are things that separate us, just as borders separate states and countries and territories. I am part of a denomination (the Christian & Missionary Alliance) and just like every denomination, we have distinctives. While I love my Southern Baptist friends and have learned much from them, we hail from two different tribes. We share much in common, but there are some elements of emphasis and doctrine that separate us. The same could be said about other denominations too.

 

I also have some non-denominational blood in my background. The first church I pastored was an independent church in Ohio. When it comes to my theological training, I have attended three non-denominational schools – Briercrest College and Seminary, Regent College, and currently Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. Each of these schools draw students from literally dozens of denominational and non-denominational backgrounds. I thank God for these experiences, which I believe have broadened by perspective.

 

As I said earlier, there are always going to be things that separate us. Take, for example, the first church I pastored. Even as an independent, non-denominational church, we still had distinctives. We had a doctrinal statement and a mission statement along with other elements that made us unique. This is true for every church. No two churches are the same, even those that hail from the same denomination or network. I think it would be fair to say that most churches and church leaders understand this and try not to let it hinder cooperation with other bible-believing, gospel-centered churches. We realize that even though we have distinctives and unique emphases, there is a place and a need to come together for the furtherance of the gospel.

 

With that being said, let me also say there is a place for separation. The Bible clearly teaches separation (2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1) from the non-believing and the apostate. There are going to be times where it is unprofitable (and even damaging) to align ourselves with those who reject the gospel of Christ. So how do we know when to separate? When is it ok to extend the right hand of fellowship and when is it not? This takes us back to our opening quotation – In essentials unity, non-essentials liberty, in all things charity. We all long for unity, but what are the non-negotiables of the Christian faith that when violated would force separation?

 

Recently, I heard John MacArthur talk about what he calls “the drivetrain of the gospel.” By this he means the essentials of the Christian faith. MacArthur defines these as belief in “a Triune God, deity of Christ, deity of the Holy Spirit, deity of God the Father, the virgin birth, the sinless life of Christ, substitutionary atonement, literal resurrection, salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.” These essentials, along with a belief in the Bible as the Word of God, have formed the core of historic Christian doctrine for centuries. And where there is a denial of these core doctrinal elements, there can be no cooperation and there must be separation. I would also add that these are the doctrinal issues we must unite around as Christians. If there is anything we should be rallying around, it is these foundational biblical truths.

 

What about non-essentials? What would be a doctrinal issue where two Christians (or Churches) may differ on but liberty should be granted? I would suggest things like eschatology (views on the last things) and ecclesiology (views on church governance/baptism) just to name a couple, are matters that would fit into this category. It would be unhelpful and unwise to separate from a brother in Christ just because he doesn’t share your particular view on the millennium, for example. As a footnote, I would also add differences in ministry methodology to this list of non-essentials.

 

What my experience has taught me is that we need to collaborate and work together with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Surely we are better together than apart. I don’t think anyone wins when all our energies are being poured into non-essentials that separate instead of essentials that should unite us. Is there a place for standing for the truth? Absolutely! But let’s make sure we are fighting the right battles. Let’s make sure we are armed and prepared to stand against he enemy of our souls. And let’s do everything we can to unite and cooperate with our brothers and sisters in Christ for the cause of the gospel.

Love and Unity – Two Keys to a Healthy Church

John 13:34-35:  “A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  Among the many “radical” teachings of Jesus, this verse would have to be put in that category. And what was true back then is still true today – only when a heart has been transformed by the power of the gospel can we truly love another person.  A life lived without Jesus is a life lived without love.  Sadly, this is the norm in our world.  In light of this truth, Jesus knew what a powerful witness it would be for a group of people to actually “love” one another.  When the world watched these crazy people who truly loved and cared for one another, they would know that something was different about them.  So love for one another within the Body of Christ is a key element in the health of a Church.

A second key element is unity. A healthy church will be united around the cause of Christ and His gospel. Just to clarify, I am using the word unity to describe a group of people who come together for a common purpose. In the Bible, one of the metaphors most commonly used is the Body of Christ. In speaking of our physical bodies, there are hundreds of different parts that come together to form our bodies, but they are all important and all serve a specific purpose, just as God intends. This is instructive because when all the parts come together, you have a healthy, functioning, body. The same is true with the Body of Christ on earth, the Church.  If half the parts are not functioning and not being used, you have a sick body that will never perform as it was intended. However, if all the parts are working and functioning together for a common mission, you will have a healthy body that will be used to accomplish the purposes of God. Paul puts it this way in Romans 12:4-8: For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.”

There you have it – two keys to a healthy church. Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list, but in any church where love and unity are missing, you can be sure that church is not a healthy functioning church.

Not Ashamed

“I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew and then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith.” (Romans 1:16-17)

There is a gospel that is being preached today, but it is not the true gospel. It’s not that everything about this gospel is inaccurate, but it’s just not the “whole” gospel. And when you preach a half gospel, you are not really preaching the gospel at all (Galatians 1:6-7). This gospel offers a God who is loving, but not demanding; a God who gives “Your best life now,” a God who is simple, light, fun, engaging, and uplifting, but not the Lord of the universe; a God who can give a band-aid to any problem; but not the One who can truly transform your life. So the question that begs an answer is why has the Gospel been adjusted? The reason is that many churches and Christian leaders today are “ashamed of the gospel.”

We are very aware that the world finds the gospel offensive. Christianity makes exclusive claims even though we live in a very inclusive world. To claim that Jesus Christ is the only way to be saved from your sins is not a very attractive message in our post-modern world, but that’s what the Bible teaches. We are also aware that generally speaking, our churches are declining and do not hold the same influence they once held. So with an unpopular message and sagging attendance figures, church leaders have felt the pressure to adjust the message and adapt it to our changing world. Many churches reasoned that they had no other option – either we change or face extinction.

In my estimation church leaders have over-estimated the importance of the methods and means of communicating the gospel and underestimated the importance of the message itself. I am not suggesting methods and means are not important, but they are secondary to the message of the gospel. We have to remember that the gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes in Jesus. If Jesus Christ is Lord of the world then that means He is also Lord of the Christian Church and we need to let Him do the work that only God can do. Our responsibility remains what it has always been – to preach the Word – to faithfully proclaim the gospel message, no matter how unpopular that message might be, and let God take care of the results.

“For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believed.” (1 Corinthians 1:21)

Is All Truth Really God’s Truth?

Several years ago I attended a one-day pastors conference in Columbus, Ohio. The featured speaker was a pastor from Florida whose church numbered well over 10,000 people. As the day progressed, I grew more and more concerned. This pastor taught church growth principles while sprinkling in some stories along the way, but any biblical content was totally absent. I knew there was going to be a Q & A session at the end of the day, and for the last couple hours, I debated whether or not I should say something. With my blood pressure rising and a growing sense that what I was hearing from hugely problematic, I knew what I had to do. When the Q & A time came, I rose from my seat and went to the microphone. My question went something like this:

 

“Sir, you have spent the whole day teaching about leadership principles that you have used in your church. My concern is that the Bible is nowhere to be found in your presentation.”

 

I will never forget how this pastor stood up and without hesitation said, “All truth is God’s truth! Everything that I have taught today can be found in the Bible.” He briefly expanded on this and when he finished there was a chorus of cheers and amens from several of the other pastors in attendance. I humbly took my seat, having nothing to say in response.

 

Since that time, well over 4 years ago, I have often thought about that experience. It would appear in this instance that we have a clear violation of the Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura. For those of you who are not familiar with that concept, it is Latin for “Scripture alone.” As Christians, we acknowledge that Scripture is the foundation of all truth and is the sole authority in our lives.

 

The London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689) puts it this way: “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelation of the Spirit, or traditions of men.”

 

In short, Scripture is sufficient. This is not just a Baptist belief – this is a Christian belief. What is unfortunate is that most Christians (especially pastors) are willing to affirm Sola Scriptura in theory but not in practice. Going back to my introductory statements, this Florida mega-church pastor would no doubt hold to Sola Scriptura. But when it comes to growing a church, it is obvious he doesn’t believe in the sufficiency of Scripture. Instead, he has turned to secular leadership literature and the so-called “principles” he finds in the business world to grow his church. The question must be asked: is the New Testament inadequate? Is the Bible insufficient for our ecclesiology – for our understanding of the church?

 

Perhaps you are wondering, how do you get away with this departure from one of the clear doctrines of the Christian faith? Well, it starts when you take something that works in the business world and call it a “leadership principle.” Then you reason that if it works in the church (meaning: the church grows numerically) that principle is surely “tried and true.” Hence we have “all truth is God’s truth.” Admittedly, this is quite a leap, but for the past several decades, ever since the advent of the Church Growth Movement, this paradigm has been adopted by countless churches.

 

Just for the record, I don’t think it is wrong to read secular leadership books or even to attend secular leadership seminars. But the Word of God is always authoritative and it must serve as the filter by which we evaluate all truth claims originating from outside the Bible. All to often, pastors have been quick to label something “true” simply because it worked for them in their context. But this does not necessarily mean that these “principles” are faithful to the Biblical norm.

 

What is all comes down to is this – what is your foundation? Is your work built upon the sure foundation of God’s Word (Psalm 127:1), or upon something else? The pastor’s conference I attended several years ago was filled with worldly wisdom and pragmatic insights, but little (if any) biblical truth. This was justified with a flippant statement “all truth is God’s truth.” No doubt all truth is God’s truth, but we have to ask – is God’s truth really my truth? Is God’s Word my sole rule of faith and practice? One day every man’s work will be revealed for all to see (1 Corinthians 3:10-15). Was it built upon the foundation of God’s Word and in the power of the Holy Spirit? Or was it done in human strength and wisdom? On that great Day (Isaiah 7:18-25), we will know for sure.