Yesterday was a bit of a milestone for my wife and me and our church. Eight years ago yesterday – March 19, 2006 – I preached my first sermon as the Pastor of Central Baptist Church. This was after three months of visiting and preaching and praying, during which time the Lord led both the church and me to believe that this was his will for us. Eight years later, we’re still convinced that he led us here, though we are different people and a different church as a result.
This was made clear this past Sunday when various members of our church gave testimony to the ways God, in his mercy and grace, has changed all of us. I was gratified (to say the least), especially by a few particular testimonies that echoed special efforts, burdens, and prayers that I have carried during my time here. But only a moment’s thought reminded me that for all the changes God has worked in the hearts of the people of this church, he has not been idle in the heart of their Pastor. I can’t quantify it, but I can wonder if perhaps he has taught me far more through them than he has taught them through me.
With that in mind, yesterday I sent a letter to the congregation listing eight lessons I have learned from eight years of pastoring this church. I try to keep my weekly letters to a single page, so it was little more than a list. Here, however, I lay them out in more detail and give glory to God for the way he has used his church in my own life. In these past eight years, I have learned…
This is at the top of the list for a reason, as it was and is perhaps the most needed. I have no doubt that many viewed me as arrogant and aloof when I first arrived here. (If I did doubt it, the Lord was gracious enough to allow me to hear a few people say it!) I am sure that some of this was due to my Northern upbringing; Northern efficiency often looks haughty when compared to Southern hospitality. Mannerisms that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in Michigan can be deeply offensive in Alabama. Still, the Lord knows, I am a proud person.
Yet by his grace and the patience of his church, I have learned some humility. Not all I need, for this is a school without a holiday! But I have learned more about who I am and who others are and, most importantly, who God is. I have learned more about serving for the glory of the Lord and in the strength he supplies, more about simply letting God be God.
Humility should breed patience, and I think it has. I hope every pastor serves those who cause him to raise his hands to heaven in thankfulness, but I know every pastor serves some who make him want to put his head through a wall almost every week. This stumbling, halting journey toward Christ, called discipleship, takes patience.
I was naïve enough to think that one sermon might just do the trick for someone. I somehow thought that once a lesson was learned, it would never have to be repeated. I assumed that people would flock in ever-increasing numbers to hear the word of God, worship him together, and join in prayer for the advance of his Kingdom. And I’ll admit that I’ve been frustrated (on more than one occasion) with the lack of progress I’ve observed. But the Lord soon reminds me of his patience with me, and gives me the grace to be patient with others.
Power of the Gospel
However, where I’ve seen lack of progress in some areas, I’ve seen miraculous progress in others. I have seen hearts and minds changed by nothing more than the simple, straightforward, consistent, cross-centered exposition of the Scriptures. Neither logic nor persuasive reasoning has the power to change people, but God does, and his Gospel is the means by which he advances his people to maturity.
I suppose I was surprised to learn this because I already believed it. However, when people don’t always change overnight, and overnight changes don’t seem to last, it’s easy to begin questioning one’s convictions. But God works in ways that bring him the most glory, and precisely when I wasn’t looking for it, he has shown me what he’s been up to. I shouldn’t be surprised, but I hope I never again doubt the power of God’s Word to build his Church.
Power of Prayer
Speaking of miracles, I’ve learned the truth of Hudson Taylor’s observation: “It is possible to move men, through God, by prayer alone.” I want to be careful about unduly promoting prayer, for the power is God’s. But he allows us to share in his work through prayer. I have seen God do things I could never have accomplished, even through the most well-intentioned ministry methods I know.
The more I’ve seen God answer prayer, the more I want to pray! I know that he will draw sinners to salvation; he will expose hidden sin and call for repentance; he will open up his coffers to support his ministries; he will turn No’s to Yes’s; he will put desires in people’s hearts they’ve never had before; he will heal where doctors have little hope; he will provide a table in the desert, and a family to the fatherless. Like most people, I don’t pray as much as I should, but by God’s grace I pray more and better than I ever have before.
This might sound like a strange lesson for a pastor to learn, but a proud, impatient, self-sufficient person knows little of love. I have learned to love people for their own sake, and not for their value to my self-esteem. I have learned to love them as image bearers of our Creator-God, and not numbers to be reported. I have learned to love them as temples of the Holy Spirit, and not assets to my ministerial success. I have learned to love them as fellow sufferers and strugglers, and not emotional vacuums that might suck the life out of me.
I have also learned to be loved. And Central Baptist Church is a place that knows how to show love. I have learned to love and be loved as I have watched them love me, my family, and one another. And as God’s grace flows through them, I have learned more of his love for me.
One of the most profound lessons I’ve learned over the past eight years is that leadership implies helping people get where they’re going, not rushing ahead and screaming back at them to catch up. Humility has taught me that I may not actually be ahead, and patience has taught me that some people take longer to move than others. But the Lord has taught me that leadership usually means travelling at someone else’s pace. How slowly Jesus must have walked with his disciples!
I mistook the ideals of Scripture for immediate demands. I neglected to consider that all of the correctives found in Scripture were written to people who had not yet measured up, and I arrogantly found fault with those who would have been quite at home with the saints on any page of Scripture. But the Lord has shown me that a good teacher, shepherd, parent, director, or coach must start where people are and help them move forward. In retrospect, it seems ridiculous to insist that someone be what he is not, rather than helping him become what he might.
A trip through Romans 14 sealed this one. In eight years, the Lord has changed a lot of my preferences while strengthening a lot of my convictions. By his grace, he allowed me to pastor a patient church, far outside of the spotlight of any Christian circles. No one checking up on me, no one pressuring me, no one threatening to disfellowship me. A blessing in disguise, for sure, but a liberating one.
I’ve been allowed to investigate the Scriptures on a host of debatable issues. I’ve been allowed to listen to varying voices, opinions, research, thinking, and beliefs. I’ve been allowed to query the Lord without being threatened with unpleasant consequences should his Word upend human tradition.
And perhaps more wonderful than this, God has taught me that, in many areas, not everyone has to agree with me!
The Church is bigger than Central Baptist, and Central Baptist taught me this. I came here as a wall-builder and ditch-digger, ready to isolate this most pure of local churches from those who might contaminate it. And yet every time I pulled out my trowel or my spade, I was forced to ask “Why?” One of those who forced me to ask “Why?” has now become one of my dearest friends.
He didn’t challenge me directly but simply demonstrated Christ-like love and a servant’s heart while standing in a very different place than I. Oh, he wasn’t standing outside the light of the Gospel; he was simply standing in a place I’d never seen it shine before. And I had to ask if the Lord truly wanted his people huddled in different corners, when Christ has opened the door and turned on the lights to the whole room.
I’ve learned the necessity of Christian fundamentals, the importance of local church distinctives, the relative importance of our different practices, and the non-importance of personal preferences that aren’t based upon a clear teaching of Scripture. I’ve learned that I can open my arms to brothers and sisters from different churches and enjoy what it means to be one in Christ. What could have been a very lonely eight years has been filled with Christian fellowship, and other pastors with whom I might once have never spoken, have now become allies for the Kingdom of Christ.
…There’s Always More to Learn!
Of course, I realize that these eight lessons overlap and lead from one another, but that’s because the same God has accomplished them all. He’s done so much, and there’s so much to do. I am not the same man, and Central Baptist is not the same church as we were eight years ago. And I don’t expect we will be the same eight years from now.
Glory to God for that!