Reflections After One Year

Today marks my one year anniversary being the Associate Pastor of Desert Heights Church. It also marks my one year anniversary of working in Christian ministry vocationally. Truly, it has been an incredible year—one in which time really has seemed to fly. I still can’t believe I get paid for it. I’ve learned some new things, through experience, and have also rediscovered forgotten loves. Below are some reflections on God, pastoral ministry, and my personal life after one year in ministry.

Providence is the theological word used to describe God’s preservation and governing of the world. God is actively sustaining the universe (Heb. 1:3), the earth (Ps. 104), and his people ( Matt. 6:25-33). His governing reach extends over the natural world (Ps. 135:5-7), kings and kingdoms (Isa. 10:5-19), and even the lives of individual people (Gal. 1:15-16).

These are truths I have readily acknowledged my entire life—belief of God’s providence is proper theology, after all. In this year of ministry, however, my knowledge of God’s providence has greatly deepened because I’ve experienced it. Intellectual acknowledgement of God’s providence is one thing, experiencing it is another.

In ministry, I’ve seen God’s directing events and people with perfect timing to accomplish his means. I’ve seen God’s leading in the direction of the church, the training of elders, and furthering of ministerial vision and philosophy. On a personal level, I've seen God’s providence at work in my coming to DHC—a story that was years in the making. I continue to see his provision in his meeting the needs of DHC. In all, I’ve seen God’s perfect, gracious guiding hand. My view of God’s providential direction has magnified greatly in this year. I have no doubt it will only increase in the years to come.

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers,” writes James before giving his reason why, “for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1). Being a pastor is a call to shepherd God’s people. That is a weighty responsibility, one people should not be cavalier about.  My last Sunday not being a pastor I had a frightening realization.  I pulled up to the church building and sat in my Jeep watching as people entered. The reality struck me that caring, feeding, and protecting the people of Desert Heights Church was going to be my responsibility soon.

From a teaching standpoint, I need to make every effort to study and make sure I’m communicating to people the truth of God’s Word. From a pastoral care standpoint, it’s easy to ascend into the heights of philosophy and theology and forget about the sheep. Good shepherds have the smell of sheep on them, and if they don’t they aren’t fulfilling their pastoral charge.  After a year in ministry, I’ve come to realize (though obvious it may be) that if I’m not being intentional in spending time with the flock, it’s not going to happen. The realization that I’m not sufficient for the task, am weak, and am totally dependent upon God’s grace (2 Cor. 12:9-10) has been liberating to me. I must strive to do my best and trust the Spirit to make the work happen.

Numerical growth can be a sign of God’s blessing (just read Acts), but it is not a definitive sign. A recurring temptation for those in ministry is to look to the numbers as a guide. Much contemporary ministry defaults to a secular model for growth—accommodation to the “customer’s” wishes and whims. It is semi-pelagian in nature with pastors and music leaders striving to create responses within people.

God is the initiator of relationships. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” Jesus taught (John 6:44). He then goes on to say, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all” (John 6:63). Clearly, no one is saved apart from God’s drawing, but God’s working in people’s lives doesn’t stop there. Paul commands the Philippians to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” He then tells them why, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13). I can’t change people. I can’t make them do anything. Only God can convict people of their sin and break their will. This is one reason why I’m a firm believer in expository preaching. My job as God’s steward (1 Cor. 4:1-2) is to explain his Word (2 Tim. 4:2). He will do the rest. Both the power and even the desire to become more like Christ comes from God’s hand. In salvation and sanctification God is the power, he is the one making things happen. Genuine growth, then, only happens at his bidding. Often his choice is the slow road. We shouldn't strive for fast growth, but should trust his way, his process, his timing.

I’m ecstatic that Desert Heights Church has as its foundation for everything it does the centrality of the Scripture. It safeguards us from pragmatism and keeps us grounded in the essentials of genuine growth: Bible reading/teaching/preaching, prayer, personal holiness, and discipleship. Desert Heights is a growing church.

One of my roles is overseeing DHC Youth. Starting a youth group can be an tough task, and often you experience growing pains. The temptation of pragmatism can surface in youth ministry by making the goal numerical and not spiritual growth. Teens are often thought of  as being obnoxious, proud, and immature. Youth Groups are then usually superficial and silly because the bar is often set low for teenagers. We have done a great disservice to them, the church, and the world by setting the bar so low.  Teenagers can and should be taught the deep riches of God's Word. They need to know that Christianity is an all encompassing worldview that pervades their entire life. Teenagers need to know that Christianity is serious, and it should change everything about them because they should be living under the lordship of Christ. They need to be taught theology, because they are already having questions about God, his ways, and the world around us.

DHC Youth has emphasized the teaching of God's Word over activities and silly trivialities that disservice our teens. Since August, we have been working through John's Gospel paragraph by paragraph. Because of this, we've dipped into deep theology and had conversations about election, predestination, lordship salvation, God's drawing, God's pursuit of his own glory, and the problem of evil. The teenagers can handle it. Their view of God is lifted and they are led to adoration in worship. 
I’ve heard John Piper speak about who his theological mentors are and they are usually old, dead guys—men like Jonathan Edwards and C.S. Lewis. Prominent theologian J.I. Packer points often to the Puritans as being both relevant and needed today. One of my professors from seminary, Mark Minnick often encouraged us students to read the Puritans. 

A real danger in pastoral ministry is the subtle exchange of the meal of Bible reading and prayer for the work of Bible study and teaching. Those in ministry spend their study time in the Bible, commentaries, and theological volumes in their attempt to get at the meaning of a text. What can happen in ministry is what often happens to seminary students, the walk with God suffers for the work for God. Pastoral ministry apart from the nurturing presence of God is uniquely dangerous ground. It is offering people a fine a meal while you yourself are starving. It is passing water to others while you are rotting in the desert. It is detrimental to your health.

The Puritans have reoriented my heart towards the primacy of pastoral ministry, namely, my relationship with Jesus Christ. During this year of ministry I’ve begun reading the Puritans. So far my reading has been pretty light, having only tasted the writings of John Owen, John Bunyan, and Richard Baxter. The experience has been rewarding. I cannot wait to plunge more deeply into the wealthy waters of Puritanism.

This year I fulfilled a dream of mine and 

attended Together for the Gospel for the first time. Hearing men like John MacArthur, John Piper, and Mark Dever preach in person was an amazing experience. These are men who have been mentoring me from a distance for years. Hearing them in person was enriching and rewarding. Additionally, singing robust hymns both ancient and modern with only a piano and ten thousand other voices was beyond description.

Conferences like T4G or Shepherd’s Conference are refreshing for pastors. They allow us to get away from the familiar, be fed by some of the best preachers alive, sing with other men, and talk theology with friends. Just being able to worship without thinking about teachers, attendance, announcements, visitors, the status of the coffee pots, and every other detail about Sunday morning is itself refreshing. Pastors should attend conferences like this. It gives them rest and keeps them sharp with ongoing theological instruction. Most pastors are book men, and these conferences give away plenty of free books as well as offer great discounts on quality books in their bookstores. Attending at least one of these conferences annually is going to be routine for me from now on.

A pastor’s tools are his books. Over this last year I’ve read some incredible books. Seminary required me to be constantly reading, but these were not delightful for the mere fact that I was required to read them! During this first year, I narrowed my reading to works dealing with pastoral ministry.   These works were outstanding and have shaped my understanding of my role as a pastor—as well as prevented me from doing stupid things in my first year.

  • The Reformed Pastor by Richard Baxter. Baxter’s book is a classic for a reason. I found Baxter to be surprisingly accessible (more so than Puritan giant John Owen). Baxter’s book is a challenge and gives me pastoral goals to strive for. 
  • Pastoral Theology by Thomas C. Oden. Oden is a favorite theologian of mine. His driving mantra is classic Christian consensus and his approach is often more historical theology oriented. While I don’t agree with all that Oden writes, his work is a stand against the pragmatism of contemporary pastoral ministry and as such is worth reading.
  • Pastoral Ministry edited by John MacArthur. This work is a diverse work including biblical, theological, and historical essays on ministry. I have found the topics helpful in my understanding of doing ministry the biblical way.  
  • The Prodigal Church by Jared C. Wilson and Ashamed of the Gospel by John MacArthur. I’ve included both of these under the same bullet because I read them simultaneously and they both concern the same topic: pragmatism in ministry. Both of these works are excellent critiques of the shortcomings of so much of contemporary ministry. Both of these works spurn the reader to returning to the God ordained means of growth.  
  • The New Pastor’s Handbook by Jason Helopoulos is a small, VERY practical book. It’s the “hey kid, here’s what to do as a new pastor and here’s what not to do. Don’t be an idiot!” book. I’ve found Helopoulos as distant mentor showing me the way. Highly recommend this work! 
  • The Pastor’s Book by R. Kent Hughes and Douglas Sean O’Donnell is a big volume dealing with different facets of ministry. It is an incredible resource volume covering topics like weddings, funerals, special services, preaching, worship, etc. It is both philosophical and practical. I turn to it often. 
I've only been in ministry for a year now. It's been one of the most rewarding years I've ever experienced. I don't want to ever lose the wonder of God, his Word, or his redemption of the cosmos. It is my prayer that will allow me many more years and many more reflections.