God, I confess that I can’t see anything as I should without you opening my eyes. Just as the Psalmist cried out to you so he could behold wondrous things in your law (Psalm 119:18), and just as the Apostle Paul begged you to give him clearer vision of all of the blessings of the gospel (Ephesians 1:18), I ask you now to help me see my small-town church as you do. Please change my occasional glimpses of the glory of your church and the advance of your gospel to a steady gaze. Give me the gift of seeing through your eyes.
Father, help me to see my small-town church as you do. Where I sometimes see needy people, you see your chosen and beloved ones (Ephesians 1:4) in whom is all of your delight. Help me to see your precious people as you do. Where I sometimes see the problems or concerns more than the blessings, you see the church of God, sanctified and called to be saints (1 Corinthians 1:2). Where I sometimes see people that I have grown familiar with and taken for granted, you see your sons and daughters who are heirs of no less than you yourself (Romans 8:16-17)!
Spirit, help me to see my small-town church as you do. Where I sometimes see a few people struggling but striving to make a kingdom impact, you see an outpost of your kingdom, pushing back the spiritual darkness with the light of the gospel (2 Corinthians 4:4-6). Where I sometimes see a lack of ministries compared to bigger churches in larger towns, you see a church that has all of the resources it really needs because you have amply and sovereignly supplied each of the members of your church with the gifts that are needed (Romans 12:4-6). Where I sometimes see young believers who I wish were more mature in their faith at this point, you see young believers who are sealed by you (Ephesians 1:13) and who you are working in and through.
Jesus, help me to see my small-town church as you do. Where I sometimes see an unimpressive building and tired believers, you see your Bride as beautiful and resplendent, being prepared for that great Wedding Feast (Revelation 19:7-8). Just as I saw nothing but beauty in my bride on our wedding day as she walked down the aisle toward me, help me to see that your Bride, your church in this small town, is washed clean by your blood (Revelation 7:14) and adorned with your glorious gospel (Titus 2:10-11). You can’t take your eyes off of her because your love is constant and covenant-like, while my love is fickle and intermittent. Jesus, give me more glimpses of how beautiful your Bride is to you so that I can serve her better as I work with you to prepare her for yourself.
God, just as you opened the eyes of Elisha’s servant to see that you were working all around them when it seemed so dark (2 Kings 6:17), open my eyes to see that you are always working for the advance of your kingdom around us. Give me clearer vision so that I can see you and your work in my time and place. Help me to see this small place, with all of its blessings and even all of its quirks, through the lens of a big gospel and a big God!
The only way that I can see your church this way is if you brighten my eyes with your glory so that new light is shed on everything around me. God, help me to see my small-town church as you do.
To be a Christian in today’s cultural context takes courage and commitment. When we are talking with friends, relatives, and neighbors about something as personal as what will happen to them after they die, it can sound strange and offensive to them that Jesus is the only way to Heaven.
But it will help us hold firm to our convictions if we remember that they and us trust that other people in our lives have absolute certainty about life or death situations all of the time.
A pharmacist better have absolute certainty about the pills that he or she is dispensing. I have a severe penicillin allergy, and a pharmacist giving me the wrong medicine could not only hospitalize me, it could cost me my life.
An engineer must have absolute certainty about every centimeter of a bridge that he or she is planning. A bridge on an interstate over a large river near where we used to live collapsed due to an engineering error. Two cars plunged into the river, cars piled up as they slammed on their brakes to avoid going in the water, and several people almost died.
A surgeon must have absolute certainty of what they are doing, especially before he or she operates on a vital organ like your heart! Can you imagine going ahead with surgery if your doctor explained, “I think that I know how to do this heart surgery. It just feels right–to me, anyway.”
An explosives expert in the army who is deployed in the Middle East must have absolute certainty about which wires to cut!
Given that we have no problem understanding that people need to have certainty in these life or death situations, we should not be surprised that Jesus says that He is THE way, THE truth, and THE life, and no one comes to the Father but through him (John 14:6). Since Jesus claims to be the God-man come from Heaven to bring us eternal life, it makes sense that he is certain about who he is and clear that he is the only way to Heaven.
If you can trust your heart surgeon, you can have absolute certainty in the Son of God.
As Christians, we need to be clear that we have absolute certainty about who Jesus is and what he claims to have done for us if we will trust him. Of course we still love our friends and family if they reject Jesus for themselves, but may they at least always be able to say that they know we have absolute certainty about Jesus being the only Savior. It’s the very least we can do for them.
The examples I gave that everybody in our society accepts as people who need to be certain about their jobs are not even as clear of a parallel as our certainty about Jesus because we know that pharmacists, engineers, surgeons, and explosive experts do sometimes make mistakes. They are only human. But Jesus is not only human.
We can have absolute confidence in him both for our eternal salvation and as the only hope for our yet unbelieving family and friends. As John the Apostle explained, “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.” (1 John 5:20)
Father, help us to see you. We are spiritually blind without your Spirit giving us eyes to see (Ephesians 1:18) and we need to see you, first and foremost. If we can see you in all of your glory, all of your power, all of your justice, and all of your grace, then we will know that you are at work in us, for us, around us, and through us.
Father, help us to see the work you are doing in us. We so often feel like we take one step forward and two steps backward in our pursuit of you. We so often end up needing to learn the same lessons again, or struggling to believe what you have promised us in your Word. Help us to see the little victories, the little inclinations of our hearts when we lean towards you more quickly than we used to. Help us to see temptations overcome hour by hour. Help us to see that you are committed to us. Help us to see that you will complete the work you have begun in us (Philippians 1:6).
Father, help us to see the work you are doing for us. In this fallen world it is often hard to believe that you are working all things together for our good (Romans 8:28). Help us to adopt your definition of good, the highest goal of becoming more like Jesus (Romans 8:29). Help us to see that there is no greater love than your love that will never let us go (Romans 8:38-39). Help us to see how you are working for us in ten thousand ways, because as John Piper says, we can only see about three of them right now. Like the Israelites standing on the edge of the Red Sea in front of them with enemies coming at them from behind, help us to see that you will fight for us if we are still and will trust you (Exodus 14:14).
Father, help us to see the work you are doing around us. Just as you opened the eyes of Elisha’s servant to see that you were working all around them when it seemed so dark (2 Kings 6:17), open our eyes to see that you are always working for the advance of your Kingdom around us. We so often can’t see it, but you are working around us every day. People are reading the Word and coming to an understanding of who Jesus is. People are finding out they have cancer and coming to grips with their mortality. People are asking questions about you and your Son because of something they heard when they were children. Father, we need your help to be able to see the work you are doing around us, because without your light we only see darkness.
Father, help us to see the work you are doing through us, for the advance of the gospel. We are laboring in your vineyard but the sun is hot and we are weary. It seems that often where we plant seeds, weeds spring up. Father, help us to see that you are at work through us for the advance of the gospel. Help us to see that you are more zealous for your own glory than we are (Isaiah 48:11). Help us to see that you don’t just work in those places and those times, but you are at work among us and even through us today. Help us to see the single mom coming to church and growing in her love for Jesus. Help us to see the teenager sitting in the same pew he has been in since he was a baby, who is beginning to believe–really believe–that Jesus is his Lord and Savior. Help us to see the tired married couple beginning to love each other the way you tell them to for the first time, as they are discipled through your church. Help us to see the friend beginning to ask questions about the gospel, the friend we never expected would ever be interested in Jesus.
Father, help us to see you, and help us to see what you are doing in us, for us, around us, and through us. Just as Jesus touched Blind Bartimaeus when he called out to him and he gave him his sight (Mark 10:51-52), we are calling out to you and asking you to restore our sight, so we can see you and your work in our time and place. We await your touch. Father, help us to see.
A note from Tim to my regular readers: I have decided to do a book review from time to time, to point pastors and all believers to helpful resources for ministry and the Christian life.
Unlike Jared Wilson, I was not trained in the attractional-driven model of ministry. I am not trying to transition my church to a gospel-driven model because we are already a gospel-driven church and are trying to “excel still more” (1 Thessalonians 4:1). Yet, I desperately needed the message in The Gospel-Driven Church: Uniting Church-Growth Dreams with the Metrics of Grace for my own soul and for my leadership as a pastor.
I enjoy reading, but it’s not often that I highlight something on almost every page of a book. There were so many solid points and wise nuances throughout the book that I found myself doing this but also often writing comments in the margin like “Wow! Yes. So true! Important.”
Here are three reasons that The Gospel-Driven Church is not just for pastors and leaders who are thinking of transitioning their church from being attractionally-driven to gospel-driven.
1. It is important to understand the differences between a church being attractionally-driven and gospel-driven. Jared defines the attractional church as “a way of doing church ministry whose primary purpose is to make Christianity appealing.” He quickly explains that a growing church isn’t the problem. “It bears mentioning that people being attracted to church is not in itself a bad thing! But when attraction becomes the primary mission, you tend to use whatever works to attract them…the problem is that ‘doing whatever it takes to get people in the door’ can replace or undercut what we want them to be attracted to.” (25) We want them to be attracted to Jesus, who is perfectly displayed and believed in through the gospel!
Even churches and leaders who are striving to be gospel-driven can easily forget why, biblically, we do things the way we do. Wilson points out that the “operating system” of the attractional church is basically consumerism (drawing people to church primarily through what appeals to them rather than what they need), pragmatism (changing church to try to accomplish what “works” rather than what God has commanded), and legalism/moralism (“Legalism is what happens when you disconnect the Christian’s ‘do’ from Christ’s ‘done’ in the gospel.”). (28)
Wilson answers the question, “What is a gospel-driven church?” by explaining, “One that explicitly and intentionally connects its teaching, programs, ministry philosophy, and mission to the content of the gospel…A gospel-driven church knows that the gospel isn’t one feature of a church, one thing on a checklist, something useful in an evangelistic program. A gospel-driven church makes the gospel the unifying and motivating factor in everything they say and do.”
2. To not experience vision drift. Just as a church can easily experience mission drift, forgetting why they ultimately exist, a church can also experience vision drift. It is easy to slowly but incrementally forget how the gospel shapes the way we view church, which will eventually play itself out in how we do church. As a pastor, I constantly have either well-meaning church attenders or advertisements on my browser, inbox, and mailbox that tell me, “This program will show us how to do church” or “This is what we need to help us grow.” While there are many things that churches should constantly be evaluating and growing in (such as how well they are ministering to children or married couples, or if there are factors unnecessarily driving away new visitors), it is so refreshing to read a book that reminds us that God’s Word and the gospel are enough.
“The Five Metrics That Matter Most,” Chapter 3, would be worth the price of the book just by itself. As a non-attractional church pastor, this was the chapter that I read the slowest and underlined the most. I will be returning to it to evaluate our church on a yearly basis, sharing it at our next Elder and Deacon meeting, and briefly discussing it at our next Member’s Meeting. It is that important because Wilson takes us out of the numbers game and points out that whether or not you are currently growing in numbers, the first question should be, “are we growing in grace?” He explains, “the more important a metric is the more difficult it is to quantify. This is one reason why Jesus appointed shepherds for his flock and not accountants.” (54)
In Chapter 3 Wilson basically takes Jonathan Edward’s “Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God,” and explains and applies them to churches today. The five characteristics of a genuine move of God’s Spirit that he considers are: 1) A growing esteem for Jesus Christ 2) A Discernible Spirit of Repentance 3) A Dogged Devotion to the Word of God 4) An Interest in Theology and Doctrine, and 5) An Evident Love for God and Neighbor. This chapter and others serve as a good check for how our church is doing in keeping the main things the main things.
3. To be encouraged and built up in how the gospel shapes church. Jared Wilson has a gift for helping believers see how the gospel plays out in all of life. He also has a gift for helping pastors and church leaders see how the gospel plays out into church life. Wilson’s The Pastor’s Justification was a lifeline to me a couple of years ago. For two months, I would read a chapter on Sunday night before going to sleep peacefully, being reminded that as a pastor I need the gospel just as much as those I minister to. In Gospel-Driven Church, Jared now explains in a “textbook” but not too-technical way, how the gospel should shape how we view the church. I found the book to be deep enough to be read in seminary classes, but straight-forward enough for a church leadership team to read together.
Reading a book that is focused on helping pastors who are in attractional-model churches transition to a gospel-driven church model may seem that it has little to offer those who are already gospel-driven. However, I found the opposite to be true. As my heart rejoiced in how God has designed the church, chapter by chapter I was challenged and reminded of what is most important for my church and kept asking the question, “Are we really letting the gospel shape our church? Right now?”
I would actually love to see many church members who are not even in leadership positions read this book, because it will remind them of why the church exists and why we want the gospel to drive all we do, from preaching (Chapter 5), to how we plan our worship service (Chapter 6), to how we interact in church community (Chapter 7), to how we go and share the gospel in our communities and world (Chapter 8: Turning the corner from “Come and see” to “Go and tell.”).
If you are looking for a convicting, refreshing, biblical, practical book on what should drive our churches, I highly recommend The Gospel-Driven Church. No matter what your training and model has been, you will benefit from it. Marinating in the gospel always benefits us.
As Wilson explains, “Preach grace and grace alone–and don’t give up!–and then watch as the metrics of grace emerge to become the measurement of your church’s health over time. Preaching the gospel is the first and most important way to give your church the power it needs to bear fruit for Christ.”
I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. But it’s so good, I would have bought it!
When the Romans would leave unwanted newborns out to die, it was the Christians who would rescue and raise them. May our history become our legacy.
Our nation has been shocked in recent months by extreme abortion laws that seem to be hitting us one after the other, starting with New York passing a sweeping abortion law that loosened the requirement for who can be an abortionist, removed protections for unborn babies involved in violent crimes, and allowed abortions through all nine months of pregnancy.
Days later, the governor of Virginia talked about a bill that was in committee, and then calmly discussed how a survivor of a late-term abortion could be killed if the mother and doctor agreed. Then Senator Ben Sasse fast-tracked a bill protecting babies born alive during late-term abortions, saying that all US senators should be able to go on record against infanticide. It was shut down and continues to be.
I’m a pastor in Vermont, where we have been facing our own bill in state government, which some have called the most radical abortion legislation in the world. It has zero restrictions on abortion. Now they are working on passing a state constitutional amendment that would enshrine abortion as a right that “shall not be denied or infringed.” If only Vermont were alone in this. Multiple states now are considering similar legislation, even as other states are trying to protect preborn babies more.
How to Fight Such Evil
As Christians, who believe that God creates each human being — born or unborn — in his image, with the right to be protected, these swift events can be overwhelming. What can an ordinary Christian do in the face of so much evil?
1. Pray. This is first and foremost. Let’s not dismiss this as a throwaway step to get to the real change. God, in answer to our prayers, does the impossible. Let’s continually ask him to do what only he can.
In particular, Isaiah 45:9–11 hit me in a fresh way in light of legislation being considered around the nation that acts as if a fetus is not a human baby until he or she begins to breathe — or even later. At one point, God says through the prophet, “Woe to him who says . . . to a woman, ‘With what are you in labor?’” (Isaiah 45:10). Everybody knows that a pregnant woman is pregnant with a baby, a human being — regardless of what some of our legislators are proclaiming. Let’s have God’s word feed our minds and hearts, move our hands and feet, and open our mouths to speak for the unborn (Proverbs 31:8).
3. Share Scripture and your story.
Recently I had the opportunity to testify before a House committee. I not only shared Scripture with them, but I focused on the implications for those scriptural principles in our time and place. There is a time for legislators — as well as friends, relatives, or your fellow church members — to be educated on what God says about life before birth.
But we need also to think about how the fact that all human beings are created in God’s image impacts principles of law: like whether or not an abused pregnant woman should be able to seek justice for her baby, and whether or not insurance companies should be required to provide life-saving medicine and procedures to babies in the womb.
The House committee hearing was so impactful not because every person who spoke was a pastor (there were many), but also because of so many others who shared their story and expertise: women who regretted their abortion and had found forgiveness in Christ, nurses and doctors explaining their professional concerns, a lady who was conceived in rape explaining that her life matters and that the law helped her birth mom to do the right thing, and another mother, a social worker, who spoke to why women in poverty need to be encouraged toward the hope of adoption and motherhood.
4. Go testify, write, and visit your legislators.
If there is a public hearing, go on record in defense of the unborn, whether by written testimony or public speaking. I had never spoken in front of a government committee until recently. I was nervous before I got up to speak at the hearing. But when I began to talk about how the unborn have value given to us by God based on being human, not based on what they can offer, I was able to look the two co-writers of the bill in the eye confidently, and publicly declare that it is wrong to say that preborn babies have no rights. God will give you strength.
It is easy to write or call your government officials when abortion legislation is on the docket. If it is state legislation, go visit your elected legislators. When abortion decisions are being made at the US Supreme Court level, we feel there is nothing we can do other than to pray. But the new territory in the fight for life is now in your own neighborhood. You can go talk to your representatives and senators in person.
5. Support your local crisis-pregnancy center.
Your local crisis-pregnancy center does not receive tax dollars as they counsel women to consider adoption, providing them hope and help. They need our support, they need our encouragement, they need our prayers, and they need our volunteer hours. They are on the frontlines. Let’s join them.
6. Get involved with foster care and adoption.
When a courageous woman does give birth to a child who was in danger of being aborted, she and the child often need our support through foster care or adoption. This is one way we care for orphans in the United States. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (James 1:27).
7. Minister to women who have had abortions.
As a pastor, I have cried with women who tearfully have shared that they were deceived at some point in their life and had an abortion. It has been especially helpful to have women in the church who can be an additional listening ear and a reminder of Christ’s forgiveness to these women who need our love and support. Those who were considering abortion but made the brave decision to give birth also need our help in many practical ways.
8. Remember our duty to love.
Protecting the unborn is one way you can love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31). But this also includes loving those we disagree with. Abortion is an emotional issue for both sides. But even as we confront those we disagree with, and don’t back down, we don’t call them names or ever threaten to harm them. They may be protecting the “right” to kill innocent children, but our duty to them is to tell them the truth, pray for them, and — as hard as it can be in this circumstance — to honor and love them (Romans 13:7–8). We also must never forget that the gospel ultimately is what changes hearts and minds.
Not to Act Is to Act
When I spoke to the House committee, I ended by telling them,
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor during the Nazi regime. Bonhoeffer pastored during a time that his government, the Nazis, claimed that an entire segment of humanity had no personhood. Bonhoeffer audaciously declared, “Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
We are speaking, and we are acting today, and we will continue to do so for those you are saying are non-people. You will continue to hear from us until every baby is not just given their rights back, but has an opportunity to have a birthday.
The question for us as Christians is, Will we continue to pray? Will we continue to speak? Will we continue to act? As a result of the love of Christ poured into our lives and hearts, the killing of babies in the womb cannot become white noise to us.
One of my heroes of the faith is a pastor 20 years older than me. He was the first pastor I had who preached expositionally verse-by-verse. His family has been an example to my wife and I for family devotions and what godly discipline and love looks like, as they often welcomed us into their home. He officiated our wedding and preached a short wedding sermon that I still remember to this day. I have called him when I didn’t know who else I could get wisdom from for certain sticky counseling or church situations. I admire his love for missions and his willingness to go build up and encourage the church where others fear to go. If you can’t tell, this mentor and friend is someone I have looked up to and benefited from for the last 24 years of my life and ministry. I look to him as an example. But I don’t look to him to give me daily strength.
Faithful Christians whom we love and know can inspire us, but they cannot be our source of strength. We look to them, but we fix our eyes on Jesus.
My devotional life and pastoral ministry have been greatly shaped by the writings and lives of faithful men and women like Luther, Spurgeon, Corrie Ten Boom, Elisabeth Elliot, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. I look to them as examples of great faith and faithfulness. But I don’t look to them for strength.
Although faithful Christians who have gone before us can inspire us, they cannot strengthen us. We look to them, but we fix our eyes on Jesus.
As we prepare our hearts to remember Christ’s death and ultimately his triumph over death, I have been thinking about this distinction. We gather encouragement and help from others, whether our friends and mentors or people we admire from church history, and in that sense you could say they strengthen us. But only the Spirit of Jesus lives within us (Romans 8:9). He alone is always there for us.
In Hebrews 11, we have the “Hall of Faith” in which the writer of Hebrews lays out example after example for us, 39 verses, about faithful men and women who inspire us. In fact, as he turns the corner to Hebrews 12, he uses them as motivation for godly living today: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1) He tells us, “Look–they faced incredible challenges and obstacles to their faith, but they made it. You can too.”
But in those 39 verses of chapter 11, while he holds them out as examples to look to, he never tells us to fixate on them. In fact, he never commands us to look to them. They are simply mentors, guides, brothers and sisters in Christ, who were also frail, as we are. As the saying goes, they were “beggars showing other beggars where the bread is.” But Jesus is in a different category entirely.
After wanting us to consider the lives of believers who have gone before us by explaining for an entire chapter how they were able to be faithful, in Hebrews 12:2 we see a difference between them and Jesus. We run this race of life and ministry “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
My heroes of the faith, both living and before my time, are a grace from God. They are an encouragement and I can look to their lives and gather inspiration, wisdom, and hope for whatever circumstances God has me in.
But they are not always with me. They are not seated at the right hand of the Father. They never promised, and never could promise, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) Only Jesus can do that.
Look to your heroes of the faith, but fix your eyes on Jesus. He is closer than your breath. Always. “He upholds the universe by the word of his power.” (Hebrews 1:3) And at the end of the day, only he can uphold you.
When evangelicals think of gospel ministry in New England, they may think of Jonathan Edwards or the Great Awakenings. They may think of the least religious states in the United States. They may think of a region many have labeled “the preacher’s graveyard.” But what may not come to mind is what happened recently: hundreds of pastors and ministry leaders gathering with eager expectation, learning how to better advance gospel work in the small places of New England.
On March 18, Small Town Summits, in partnership with The Gospel Coalition New England, held a New England regional Summit at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with the goal of developing a theological vision for small-place ministry. Previous Small Town Summits have been hosted in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine, in towns even people in those states have never heard of. And that’s the point. Our typical summits are intentionally smaller and local, as a way of embodying our message. But it felt like a good time to gather rural laypeople and pastors from around the New England region, and many responded. (The summit was sold out.)
Small-town pastors often tell us that they struggle not only with the normal stresses of pastoral ministry, but also with the extra discouragement of ministry in a small town. Ministry in small places is often slow and not regarded highly in the world’s eyes—whether the unbelieving world or the evangelical world. But on March 18, hundreds of ministry leaders were affirmed in their callings to go to the ends of the earth, including often-forgotten small towns. Rural churches need skilled, solid, vibrant gospel ministry just as much as suburbs and cities do.
You Can’t Serve What You Don’t See
Stephen Witmer, a member of the Small Town Summits leadership team and author of the forthcoming A Big Gospel in Small Places, encouraged the packed chapel: “We need to develop a theological vision for small-place ministry so we can see small towns as God sees them. You can’t serve what you don’t see.”
The plenary speakers and workshops helped us to see small-town ministry the way God does, and also to see that understanding our context enables us to be better ministers of the gospel. Richard Lints, professor of theology at Gordon-Conwell, helped us develop a theological vision for small-town ministry (just as he has helped Tim Keller cultivate a theological vision for ministry to the city). Brad Roth, author of God’s Country, explained how the doctrine of God sends us to the small places, and Donnie Griggs, author of Small Town Jesus, clarified what gospel-shaped small-town ministry looks like in practice. The workshops focused on discipling women, soul care, church planting, church revitalization, community ministry, the pastor as public theologian, and building a healthy ministry marriage. All gave careful attention to the nuances that ministering in small places brings to each of these areas.
If small-town pastors, laypeople, and ministry leaders are to serve well, we must see that God has sovereignly positioned us in our small places and sovereignly granted us a big gospel. We must see that we’re not alone, and that there are unique privileges, not just difficulties, in our ministries. We must cultivate a vision of shepherding well no matter the size of our flock, and of evangelizing well no matter the size of our town.
Collaboration Rarely Seen
One Vermont church-planting leader commented that in more than a decade of ministry in New England, he’s never seen a movement of so many gospel-centered leaders, outside of their own tribes, working together to advance God’s kingdom. There were even some city and suburban pastors who attended the March 18 summit to know how to better encourage ministry and plant churches in New England’s small towns.
David Pinckney and Ben Ruhl, who serve on the Small Town Summits leadership team, both prayed for ministry in larger places as well during the plenary sessions. We’re not anti-city or anti-suburb or anti-large church. Rather, we’re pro-big gospel.
We want to make sure that small-town pastors, laypeople, and church leaders know and are reminded that God sees and values their ministry. It’s rare for them to hear that preaching a gospel-rich, Bible-centered sermon to 60 or 16 people in a forgotten place is important—but it is.
When a currency is revalued, its value is calculated again, often with a higher value than before. The Small Town Summits team wants to be a part of a large-scale revaluation of small-town ministry. We’re grateful for the palpable excitement in the Gordon-Conwell chapel on March 18. It indicates what we’ve already seen in our state-specific summits: God isn’t the only one who values the souls in the small towns.
Today is my 40th birthday. As I sit here with my feet firmly planted in middle age, I find that I am joyful rather than fearful. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a stoic. The other day I typed “my forties” for the first time and I felt sick to my stomach. But as I reflect on God’s goodness in my life and on what I have to look forward to in Christ, my soul is full and content, and I can’t wait for the future, gray hair and all. Here are 3 reasons.
1. At 40, I have so much to be thankful for.
As I look back over the last 40 years of my life, I am amazed at God’s hand and God’s goodness to me. I heard about Jesus and His sacrifice and love for me literally while still in utero (Babies in the womb react to singing in church!). My parents always loved me and encouraged me to follow Jesus all of my growing up years. I have a wife who loves Jesus and loves me unconditionally–but most surprising–who also likes me! I have three kids who bring such joy and laughter to my life. I get to pastor a church made up of people who love God’s Word and who love my family well.
At 40, I can thank God for His material blessings like the privilege of owning a home, but I can also see that physical things are so temporary. At the end of the day, my car is rusting and my house constantly needs repair, but the spiritual blessings God has given me, as well as the people God has put into my life, are eternal.
We sang a hymn when I was growing up, “Count your blessings, name them one by one. Count your blessings, see what God has done.” This is an ancient practice that God’s people have always done. So many of the Psalms are God’s people recounting His blessings in their lives.
At 40, I look back with amazement at God’s goodness to me. At 40, I also look back and see my sin. I don’t deserve His grace. But that is why it is called grace. I can rest in God’s grace to me through Christ, and that gives me unbreakable hope.
2. At 40, I don’t need to fear getting older. The amazing thing about the gospel is that our best days are always ahead of us. At 40, I am beginning to feel things in my body that I never knew could go wrong (I didn’t know there’s a nerve in that part of my leg?!). I still have lots of energy, but I need more sleep than I did in my 30s. I am trying to take better care of my body in my 40s than I did in my 30s. That is good stewardship. But knowing Jesus means that although I am not promised my “best body now,” I know that one day I will have my best body ever. It won’t have gray hair, creaking knees, back pain, or the fear of having more “senior moments.”
The Apostle Paul explained, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” (Philippians 3:20-21)
In eternity, there won’t be any birthdays. But there will be celebration. There will be food, but I’m sure there won’t be calories. There will be bodies, but there won’t be aging. But most importantly, there will be Jesus and all of our loved ones who have gone before us in Christ. I don’t know what my 40s hold, but I know who holds my future, both on earth and in heaven.
3. At 40, I need to hold onto Christ more than ever by remembering He is holding onto me.
So many of the things we struggle with as we age are answered in the gospel. I may have seasons or moments when I will question if I am accomplishing what God wants from me, but I don’t need to despair because I know my identity. I know my purpose. I am a child of God created to glorify Him with my life.
His word does tell us to contemplate whether or not we are living each day for Him in light of eternity: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12) I want to give God my all. But at 40, I no longer think I need to impress Jesus with my work for Him. Any sacrifice, any hard work, any daily faithfulness will be a result of leaning into what Jesus has already accomplished, not me trying to prove my worth to the One who has already accepted me in Jesus.
In Prince Caspian from The Chronicles of Narnia, Lucy sees Aslan years later:
“AsIan,” said Lucy, “you’re bigger.”
“That is because you are older, little one,” answered he.
“Not because you are?”
“I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”
My heart is fickle and I will not remain faithful to Christ if I don’t remember how great He is and hold onto the gospel. But if I remember that the most glorious One in the universe is holding onto me, I will hold onto Him with all of my might for the next forty. At 40, that is what I want for my birthday.
Pastors and wives, don’t forget that there is one time the Bible commands you to get drunk: “…Be intoxicated always in her love.” (Proverbs 5:19) God wants you to be drunk with love for your spouse. This is best for you, best for your spouse, best for your kids, best for your church, and it glorifies God. Pastors and wives face unique pressures and challenges due to our roles in the body of Christ. Here are three ways a pastor and wife can stay madly in love through all of the ups and downs of pastoral ministry.
Remember Jesus is married to the church. You are not. It is no secret that pastors often struggle with working too much. There is always more to do. Unlike a contractor who can look at a remodeling project and say it is done or an accountant who can say the books are balanced, pastoral ministry is never ever finished until Jesus comes back.
But remember, Jesus is married to the church. You are not. Don’t try to be Jesus for your church. The church only needs one Savior, and you are not Him. But you are married to your spouse. We will all stand before God and answer not only for how we loved His church, but also for how we loved our spouse.
Yes, there will be weeks and seasons that are overly busy, and every pastor and wife has to grapple with that fact and communicate, work together and show grace during those busy times. But not every season can be that way or something is out of balance, and your ministry, not to mention your marriage, will suffer because of it.
Over the years I have been guilty of prioritizing discipleship of others over prayer and Bible reading with my wife. But when I love her as Christ loves the church (Ephesians 5:22-33), including having time for her, I also love His church better. Sometimes this may mean taking a “comp day” off after an especially busy season and doing something fun together, or going home early without guilt to help with home projects if they have been neglected due to your recent ministry schedule.
Remember your friendship. Both a pastor and his wife can struggle with forgetting to prioritize their friendship. Pastors often have trouble letting go of things at church, and because ministry is a joint endeavor (as it should be), pastor’s wives can also easily prioritize ministry opportunities over their husbands.
My grandfather was a pastor for over 40 years, and he and my grandmother, who were married for 64 years, would often say that one of their secrets for a happy marriage was laughing together. Make sure you are taking all of your vacation days, and not just taking care of ministry and home responsibilities together. Play a game. Watch a funny movie that you both enjoy. Exercise together. Go outside together. Get a babysitter or do a child care swap so you can go out on a date together. Invest in each other as friends.
Ecclesiastes 9:9 reminds us that life is fleeting, and that God has given us a spouse to enjoy life with. “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that He has given you under the sun…” “Vain” can also be translated “fleeting” or “vapor.” Life is like a vapor. Enjoy and invest in your friendship with your spouse, and your oneness will grow: emotionally, mentally, sexually and spiritually. Time with your spouse is never wasted time.
Remember your first love is Jesus. When I am closer to Jesus, I am closer to my wife. I mean truly closer to Jesus, in my heart, not just thinking I am closer because I am doing the right things. Why is this?
Paul David Tripp helpfully explains in his book, What Did You Expect?, “A marriage of love, unity and understanding is not rooted in romance; it is rooted in worship…No marriage will be unaffected when the people in the marriage are seeking to get from the creation what they were only ever meant to get from the Creator.”
This applies to pastors and wives as much as anyone else. When you remember that Jesus is your first love (see Revelation 2:4-5), then His love naturally overflows out of your life onto your spouse. Rekindle your love for Jesus, and be in tune with His heart for reflecting the Gospel in your marriage. Then your marriage will be like a fireplace on a winter day that keeps you both warm, and at the same time gives warmth and light to others.
What many did not realize and still do not realize is that New York’s neighbor, the smaller state of Vermont, has been quietly doing exactly what was celebrated in New York for years, but even more extreme. Vermont is now trying to codify this, first with a bill, and then in the state Constitution. This bill, H.57, would not only codify abortion with zero restrictions into state law, it would also strip any remaining rights that an unborn child has in Vermont, effectively giving that human being the status of property (but having less rights than an animal).
While I applaud and am thankful for the voices of non-Christians who are speaking against unrestricted abortion in Vermont, I write here specifically to Vermont Christians because I am a pastor. Scripture gives us even more reasons to protect the lives of the unborn (for example, to list some, Genesis 1:27, Exodus 4:11; 21:22-25, Job 31:15, Psalm 22:10, Psalm 127:3-5, Psalm 139:13-16, Isaiah 45:9-11; Isaiah 49:15, Jeremiah 1:5, Luke 1:41, 44; Galatians 1:15).
We also have specific responsibilities as Christians to protect the vulnerable and speak for the innocent who are being harmed or even killed: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute…” (Proverbs 31:8-9)
Compare those words of Holy Scripture with the chilling words of Vermont H.57, “A fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus shall not have independent rights under Vermont law.”
We all know from the rest of the bill, not to mention current Vermont practice, that a baby just seconds from appearing outside the womb is still considered a fetus. No rights? Does this mean that he or she is property, worse than slavery, because he or she may have body parts that could be sold or used for scientific experimentation? It seems so. Many have expressed these concerns about this bill already.
The bill states: “Every individual who becomes pregnant has the fundamental right to choose to carry a pregnancy to term, give birth to a child, or to have an abortion.” Think about the audacity it took to put those words in there. Words matter, and they matter almost more in law than anywhere else, as lawyers–and lawmakers–will tell you.
Our lawmakers are admitting in their bill that would grant absolutely unrestricted abortion, that a child is the result of a pregnancy carried to term. There is something missing in this sequence: “…give birth to a child, or to have an abortion.” They are clearly saying, you either give birth to a child, or you kill that child through an abortion. The word “abortion” does not cover up that fact. It is the logical conclusion of this phrase in the wording of the bill itself.
It is time to act. Here are 8 things you can do, starting today. 1) Pray. Enough said. This is the most important thing, and what we as Christians must do first.
2) Go testify at the committee hearing THIS Wednesday, February 6th at the State House in Montpelier from 4:30-6:30 PM.Those who wish to testify can sign up starting at 4 PM, and will be given 2 minutes to speak. Even those who cannot make the drive can still testify by submitting an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Each one of these is read by the committee and becomes a public document. Go on record in support of the unborn.
3) Write and go visit your representatives. It is so easy to write or call your state representatives. Even if you don’t know what to say to them, just let them know that you are opposed to H.57, the bill that gives unlimited restrictions on abortion. A couple of sentences with your main concerns are enough to make your voice heard. Each of these letters matters.
Better yet, go visit your representatives. When abortion decisions are being made at the U.S. Supreme Court level, we feel there is nothing we can do other than to pray. But the new territory in the fight for life is now in your own neighborhood. My state representatives, one of whom is a sponsor on the bill, hold office hours in local cafes in our community. They will be visited by me, and I hope you will visit your representatives, as this process unfolds. Don’t be afraid of not knowing all of the answers. You simply need to express your concerns as a citizen. Bring ultrasound pictures of your children in their third trimester and talk about how your children responded to your voice while in the womb. They are not property or a clump of cells, which everybody knows; science even admits that they are babies. They should have rights. Speak for them.
5) Support your local crisis pregnancy center. Your local crisis pregnancy center does not receive tax dollars as they counsel women to consider adoption, and give them hope and help. They need our dollars, they need our encouragement, they need our prayers, they need our volunteer hours. They are on the front lines; join them!
6) Get involved with foster care and adoption. When courageous women do give birth to a child who was in danger of being aborted, she and the child often need our support through foster care or adoption. There are so many ways to get involved, whether it is taking a child into your home or organizing a toy or school supplies drive for foster children. This is one way we care for orphans in the U.S. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction…” (James 1:27)
7) Ask your pastor for ways you might be able to help your church minister to women who have had abortions, or who have made the courageous decision to give birth. As a pastor, I have cried with women who have tearfully shared that they were deceived at some point in their life and had an abortion. It has been especially helpful to have women in the church who can be an additional listening ear and a reminder of Christ’s forgiveness to these women who need our love and support. Those who were considering abortion but who made the courageous decision to give birth also need our help, in so many practical ways.
8) Remember our duty to love. Protecting the unborn is one way you can love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31). But this also includes loving those we disagree with. Abortion is an emotional issue for both sides, for obvious reasons. But even as we confront those we disagree with, and don’t back down, we don’t call them names or ever threaten to harm them. They may be harming, or protecting the “right” to harm innocent children, but our only duty to them is to tell them the truth, pray for them, and–as hard as it may be in this circumstance–to honor and love them (Romans 13:7-8). As Christians we don’t flinch to call evil, evil. It is hard to imagine much more evil than advocating for the death of a child up to moments before birth. But it is our Scriptural responsibility to do this in a way that still shows respect to lawmakers.
Start with one or two of the above items, and then keep working through them. If we are ever going to act for the unborn, this is the time.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor during the Nazi regime who ultimately was executed by the Nazis for speaking out against their atrocities. We still have much, much more freedom to speak than he did and really, at very little cost to us. But what he said about the murder of those who were deemed “non-people” by the government of his time applies to pre-born babies in Vermont today who are being deemed “non-people” by our government. Bonhoeffer courageously declared, “Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
Let’s speak. Let’s act. Let’s pray. Let’s love. The unborn in Vermont need our speaking, actions, prayers, and love right now.