Like shaping your soul, the work of shaping a church takes years of persistence. You can’t do it in a five-year pastorate. It takes a commitment to stay in place, to love your people, to persist when it’s painful, to preach the Word with patience, and not give up in the face of opposition. In the fifth verse of 2 Timothy 4, Paul gives four things that must be a part of a reforming pastor’s life. First, he tells Timothy to be “sober-minded.” “Don’t lose your head!” it means. Don’t get swept away by the conflict itself. Don’t let it become about you.
All reformation begins with the Word, because it is the Word that is empowered by God for the work that needs to be done. I was asked to share what God has done in one small church in Arnold, MO. And while we are not a model for anything, we have been the recipients of God’s grace that is mediated to His Church through His Word.
Paul tells Timothy that it is the God-breathed Scriptures that equip the man of God for every good work. The work of reformation, then, must begin by equipping the preacher with a solid conviction that the Bible is God’s Word of truth, that it is powerful, and that it will, indeed, do the work. As Luther said toward the end of his Reformation, “I did nothing. The Word did everything.”
I am grateful that my earliest experience of Christianity was forged at the time of the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention. I was converted right out of High School in 1981 and discipled by men who loved the Bible. They instilled in me the beginnings of that same love. I entered Southwestern Seminary in 1985 at the height of the controversy over inerrancy at the Dallas Convention where I worked in the book store. I heard the arguments in the hallways and saw how it rocked our school. Yet watching the whole thing unfold drove deep within me a conviction that the Bible is God’s Word without mixture of error and convinced me that at the heart of the pastor’s task is a commitment to faithful biblical exposition.
It was during those years in seminary that I fell in love with the faithful resilience of Martin Luther, the passionate intellect of men like Jonathan Edwards, and the deep commitment to Scripture found in so many of our Baptist forefathers as reflected in Tom Nettles and Rush Bush’s book, Baptists and the Bible. I was drawn to the teaching of men like RC Sproul and John MacArthur, though I didn’t know why at the time except that what they taught stirred my heart to love the truth. I’m grateful for that, because other things I received in seminary weren’t so helpful. It was the beginning of the church growth movement which emphasized a pragmatic approach to ‘building’ the church on principles of business management and techniques of psychological manipulation. It was all about getting decisions and increasing the number of attendees by the use of these methods.
As a result, when I graduated seminary and entered the pastorate in 1991, I carried many of these practices with me. The first thing I did was take our deacons through a study called “Equipping Deacons in Church Growth Skills.” I showed video clips from movies like Sister Act with Whoopie Goldberg to show our people how to contemporize the church and repackage our message to get people interested. We had lots of games and activities, and I guess people liked it, because we began to fill the building. But it was all so shallow. There was little depth. We would run from one new program to another so that I found myself constantly pushing to keep people interested. It was exhausting. My wife said to me one day, “You are angry all the time!” “No I’m not!” I shouted. But I was, because when it’s all about you having to manufacture something, it’s exhausting! After a couple of years, I was near burnout.
One thing kept that from happening – that deep commitment God had given me to preach His word verse by verse through books of the Bible (though certainly I didn’t do it very well). I remember struggling through places like Ephesians 1 thinking, “I know what that seems to be saying, but it can’t possibly mean that!” And yet, the Word kept pulling me forward, prompting me to question the things we were doing. I became schizophrenic in my preaching. One Sunday, I’d preach on the sovereign holiness of God, because that’s what the text said. The next I would try to entertain with a skit or other ‘clever’ innovation. But the Word of God would not let go. I didn’t know it at the time, but God was working on me. He was doing a work of reformation in my heart and mind; luring me out of my man-centered, programmatic little universe into the wider world of His Amazing Grace. I found that the commitment to preach the Word was beginning to shape the preacher even more than the church.
In 2 Timothy 4:1-2, Paul charges young Timothy “in the presence of God and of Jesus Christ who is to judge the living and the dead . . . preach the word; be ready in season and out of season.” As men who dare stand behind the pulpit, we bear a solemn responsibility for what we preach. It is not our pulpit. It is not our church. We don’t get to set the agenda. When Paul says, “I charge you in the presence of God,” he means the God who is present in every church service, every counseling session, every deacon’s meeting, every Bible study and every conversation. He is the Judge before whom we must answer for the way we treat His people and what we teach them. That’s why James 3:1 warns that not many should be teachers, knowing we will incur a stricter judgment! Since we must face this Judge, we must be careful to preach His Word, not our own.
The realization that I was accountable to God for every word I spoke in His pulpit began to have a marked effect on my preaching. He had, after all, given me a Bible rich with truth, treasure and power, and a command to preach it. I was not at liberty to squander even a second on anything less than His unvarnished truth. As Paul told Timothy, I must “be ready in season and out of season.” “Be ready” means “Take your stand!” Stand there and preach whether it’s popular or not, whether it’s received or rejected, whether they applaud you or fire you, but preach the Word. Open the God-breathed Scriptures and trust Him to work through them!
For years I have kept a journal where I record my inmost thoughts and struggles. In November of 1997, as I was working through these things, I wrote the following,
“God speaks when His word is clearly and simply expounded in faithfulness to its Author and Guide. The servant of God has no warrant to seek fame or notoriety, or reputation. His task is to know God, to know God’s word and to speak the truth in love. Let God be God!”