What I Learned in My First Pastorate

A few years ago Towers invited me to reflect on what I learned in my first pastorate at Baptist Church of the Redeemer. I now post what I wrote then in this space.

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A small group of nobodies in a big room seemed really unimpressive, but I confess vanity and pride.

To be honest, I expected a lot of growth, and I expected it fast.

It didn’t happen.

Sunday after Sunday, month after month, the same four families and a few singles gathered for worship at Baptist Church of the Redeemer. As this happened, the Lord slowly disabused me of the notion that the church was going to grow because of me. It hurts to have your pride molded into humility, but it feels good, too, and how liberating! Not to mention the way others prefer humility to pride.

Through this experience, I learned that Jesus keeps His promise to build His church. I learned the power of the Word of God. And I learned – or made progress in learning – to love people.

Jesus keeps His promise His way

Jesus said, “I will build my church.” It’s His church. His glory is at stake in it. He keeps His Word. And he does it His way.

Have you noticed what a bad strategist the Lord seems to be? If you were God, and you wanted to save the world, would you do it by parading your deity or by sending Jesus to take on human flesh? And, if you chose the route of incarnation, would you go somewhere important, say, Rome or Jerusalem, or would you go to a hick town like Nazareth?

Once there, what would you do? Write some books and network with significant people? Or do manual labor for 30 years, then the big time: three more years of ambling around the Galilean countryside with smelly fishermen, preaching to unlearned crowds that happen to gather? To top it all off, would you let a bunch of wicked rebels kill you?

The Lord may seem to be a bad strategist, but His strategy is the best strategy. God accomplished salvation in Christ by the way of the cross, and Jesus calls His followers to take up their crosses, too. Jesus keeps His promise to build His church as His people follow in His steps.

Jesus gets glory when nobodies gather and love each other. Jesus gets glory when nobodies gather in moldy buildings in bad parts of town. Jesus gets glory when pastors forsake the wisdom of the world, set aside attempts to show off, open the Bible and preach it.

The power of the Word of God

David Wells says the mark of the evangelical church in America is superficiality. I am convinced that authenticity comes from the clear exposition of the Scriptures. People encounter God when His Word is read to them, explained to them and applied to them by the power of the Spirit. How do you get past the happy-smiley veneer people wear to church? Preach the Word.

Do you want singles in their late 20s and early 30s confessing anxiety about finding a mate, asking you to pray for them to trust the Lord’s providence in their lives? Do you want guys confessing their struggles with pornography as they seek to join the church? Do you want people with real problems (homosexual urges and the fallout from past sexual sin, whether lingering STD’s or guilt from an abortion) joining the church and coming for counsel in their struggle against sin? Do you want guys coming to you because they’re afraid of the way they’ve been rough with their wives and they don’t want it to go any further, so they’re seeking accountability?

You don’t get this from wearing cool clothes, having a trendy name for your church or learning to preach from comedians. If it comes – and if the authenticity about “big” sins is accompanied by authenticity about “acceptable” sins – it will come by the power of the Spirit through the preaching of the Word. The Bible convinces us to quit playing games. The Bible shows us the beauty of holiness. The Bible convicts us of the worth of this treasure, and we sell all we have – or risk exposing our sin – to buy the field in which the treasure lies.

Loving people

I can remember saying to Denny Burk when we were in school together: “I don’t want to spend time with people, there’s too much to read.” His reply came with a piercing look in tones of prophetic conviction: “Then you’re never going to minister to anybody.”

I also remember the sermon I preached on the absolute sovereignty of God, and there my sweet wife sat in the front row weeping. She wasn’t weeping because of the beauty of what I was saying; she was weeping because I was beating the people of God over the head with the club of truth in good know-it-all, seminary graduate fashion.

The people of God are familiar with us seminary types, and they have their guard up against us. There is only one way to convince them that they can let their guard down, to convince them that they can talk to us: love them. Listen to them. Let them talk. Stop correcting them. Let them explain their views, and if they don’t want your response to what they’ve said, don’t counter them. Ask the Lord to use your preaching to form their thinking. Trust him, and love the people in your care. Don’t back down from speaking the truth in love, but make sure that they sense love as you speak truth.

So did the church ever grow?

Yes, and do you want to know when? When I listened to my wife’s godly suggestion that we start a Wednesday night prayer meeting. We gathered together, sinful beggars clothed by faith with the righteousness of Christ, and we laid hold on the Lord in prayer. Drenched in His mercy, we called on the name of the Lord.

That church didn’t grow because of me. That church grew because Jesus kept His promise, because the Word of God is powerful and because we were all learning to love each other the way Jesus loved us. In spite of our insignificance, the moldy building in the bad part of town, the mediocre music and the non-flashy sermons that sought to explain the Bible, the Lord was adding to our number daily. “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to thy name give glory, because of thy lovingkindness, because of thy truth” (Ps 115:1).

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