Schafe können sicher weiden
J. S. Bach
Schafe können sicher weiden Sheep may safely graze and pasture
Wo ein guter Hirte wacht. In a watchful shepherd’s sight.
(Sixth in a series.)
Back in 1992, I began serving my former church in Bloomington. The church-house sat in the shadow of Indiana University. It was the influence of an older couple whose lives had been that church and Indiana University that brought us there. This couple had wanted a reformed pastor. Maybe the most respected elder, the man had chaired the search committee for senior pastor and wanted me to be called (partly influenced by the fact he and his wife were Wheaton grads and thought highly of our parents’ reputations).
Over the course of a couple visits, I bonded with this elder. His love for his congregation and grief over its strife and division (which had caused the loss of several hundred souls the previous three years) touched me. Noting his tears as he prayed for his church and a safe trip for us as we set out to drive back to Wisconsin after one of the weekends at the church, truthfully, from then on, I only wanted to help him heal his church. So it was that, in time, Mary Lee and I agreed to stand for the call—and received it by the huge majority of 76% yes/24% no.
Yes, of course we accepted the call. Why would we do otherwise? Joke. Simple fact was everyone agreed that was the split of the church and no one would get any better percentage.
From the day we arrived January of 1992, the work was consuming. In the first weeks, a man got angry and walked out of the session meeting, resigning his office. The elders board had been at each other’s throats for years and this division at the top had spread throughout the congregation. Like parents and children.
The week we arrived, I preached the Sunday morning worship service. Tuesday, I received a phone call from the moderator of the elders board. He was an IU prof and he was calling to ask if I’d mind him beginning each session (elders) meeting with a time for the elders to critique my worship leadership and preaching the previous Sunday? (Session meetings were weekly.)
Foolishly, I said “sure.” Did my best to sound nonchalant.
The moderator had been opposed to my call. He was pro-abortion and had told me he hoped to lead the church to accept women elders and pastors. I’d told him I was firmly opposed to both, so when he asked if the elders could begin session meetings with a critique each week, I didn’t want to appear to be a wimp.
Four years later, I came to recognize my acceding to his request as foolish pride, copping a magnanimous posture that neither I nor the congregation could afford when this man’s wickedness had been destroying the church’s purity and peace for years. (In the end, four years later he won my removal and, in time, the church voted to approve the ordination of women.)
So beware of what you like to think of as magnanimity. It might be simple arrogance which opens the door to the sleek wolf.
Thus three days after I started serving the church, we had a session meeting which began with critiques of the senior pastor’s performance the previous Lord’s Day morning worship. The various critiques were given. One complaint was by the moderator. He didn’t like the declaration of the absolute authority of Scripture in my first sermon. Another complaint was from his sidekick who didn’t like my leading worship in a black suit. (He was an academic and sat at the table with us in a Harris Tweed with leather elbow patches.)
A couple minutes after the critiques were over, I excused myself saying I had a sudden terrible pain in my abdomen. I knew they’d think I was a malingerer, but after a couple minutes trying to grin and bear it, the pain became intolerable and I asked to be excused.
The next morning I was lying in bed in Bloomington Hospital recovering from an appendectomy. It’s the only time I’ve ever been hospitalized.
That should be sufficient for the good reader to understand how much I was counting on the wisdom and help of this older man and his wife who were the reason we’d agreed to serve this church.
Almost immediately upon our arrival, though, they left town. It shocked us.
We hadn’t known they were snowbirds who spent their winters in Florida, so the first four months or so leading the church staff and sitting for the critiques of the divided elders board, I felt my wise counselor’s absence acutely.
That first year during those months they were down in sunny and warm Florida, I learned they never missed the Ligonier Conference up in Orlando. For them it was the high point of their year. Lots of fellow Wheaton alums and friends also attended, so it was a sort of homecoming.
Knowing and sharing their reformed and presbyterian Biblical commitments, during those months of their absence I was conscientious in the pulpit ministry to proclaim God’s sovereignty in our salvation; His providence in our sufferings as well as blessings; the necessity of the sanctification without which no man will see God; and other precious truths of the Protestant Reformation. It was a jolt to the congregation when I fenced the Lord’s Table as the Apostle Paul does in 1Corinthians 11, but I was pleased that a sense of reverence in worship began to grow.
Of course there was immediate opposition. Still today I have a folder on my hard drive labelled “ECCCriticism.” It consumed my time having to respond to complaints while working to heal the prior divisions of the fellowship which had caused so many to move to other congregations. Then, of course, there was all the normal work of preaching morning and evening each Lord’s Day, teaching the new member’s class, showing up for committee meetings, leading the weekly staff meeting of the other pastors, music director, and secretarial help, counselling, and weekly session meetings which always went for many hours.
So again, this couple’s absence was hard to live with. They were unable to provide counsel and support the first months of the work, and we were all the worse for it.
Then, after a few months, they returned. And as in the succeeding years, that first year their return was announced by my receiving a call from the man asking if I had time to meet for lunch at Macris Deli?
Those post-snowbird meetings in the Springtime were always the same. This father in the faith would express concern about the way “things are going.” Some of his friends had complained about my preaching or leadership, and his counsel was always, “Tim, just love the people, and in time you’ll be able to do whatever you want.”
What he was requesting were shaggy dog stories. What he was directing me away from were any distinctively reformed emphases in the sermons. What was verboten was any preaching of doctrine and appeals to the conscience.
At first I was hurt. I’d thought I knew what he desired for his flock of sheep. I was convinced that, in time, the proclamation of God’s truth from God’s Word would bring some to depart (like the moderator of the session), but most would come to be reconciled to each other and grow together in unity and peace.
Only slowly did it dawn on me that this father in the faith for whom I had such deep affection actually wanted a pastor who shared his Biblical commitments, but only privately.
For him, his wife, and their friends, Biblical doctrine was a consumerist thing. They went and sat under RC Sproul at the Ligonier conferences, but wanted nothing to do with bringing Scripture into the light of day to reform and heal their own congregation in Bloomington. Biblical truth was a private pleasure that left them feeling superior. They loved sharing it with a certain group of Wheaton friends at the annual Ligonier Conferences, but they didn’t want it inside their church home. Biblical doctrine was to be reserved to the cognoscenti. It was a gnostic thing. A secret handshake, as it were.
Why didn’t their new pastor understand how divisive it was to preach God’s truth in a church pulpit? Florida conferences had people spending good money on registration. They knew what they would be getting and were willing to pay for it. But church was no place for truths which might be divisive. Any truth that was in any slightest way divisive was to be avoided at all costs.
As the years went by and I thought deeply about the difference between Ligonier in Orlando, and the church’s worship, I realized part of the reason Biblical truth wasn’t divisive when RC dispensed it to those who paid to attend his conferences was that he didn’t know any of them.
He didn’t know them. He didn’t know their wife. He didn’t know their daughter. He didn’t know their son. He didn’t know their parents or grandchildren. He knew nothing about them, so whatever he said went down easily. It never offended them because he wasn’t their shepherd. They never thought he was speaking to them personally.
In time, it became clear why books and conferences and radio shows and (eventually) podcasts were so popular.
The truths of God’s Word had become a consumer product and what was imperative was that these products be dispensed on a broad consumerist scale which was anonymous in the production and purchase of that product.
Pity the poor pastor who knows his flock, and then preaches to their consciences. How dare he! It’s not His job to convict anyone. That’s the Holy Spirit’s work.
Thus was born the present church where shepherds don’t know their sheep; don’t visit them from house to house; don’t shed tears with them; don’t admonish them, personally; don’t say everything God tells them to; don’t blow a certain note on their bugle; and think they’re doing sufficient good work to show up Sunday morning with a lecture that proves they’ve read a book or two by an equally inane non-shepherd.
But a non-shepherd who’s universally revered because he’s a paragon of intellectual schmooze and the wielding of a scalpel of God’s word so very dulled when on his lips that never in a million years could it divide joint and marrow.
Forget Paul. What does he know about preaching today?
We know where our people need to be scratched and have practiced our technique to perfection. Our name is Ligonier. Our name is Willow Creek. Our name is Gospel Coalition. Our name is Tim, Al, Voddie, Apollos, Kevin, and John.
But once more, can we please humble ourselves and claim our Heavenly Father’s promise?
I will feed them in a good pasture, and their grazing ground will be on the mountain heights of Israel. There they will lie down on good grazing ground and feed in fat pasture on the mountains of Israel. -Ezekiel 34:14
(Sixth in a series.)
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Image is “Jailoo” by CharlesFred, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.