My wife and I got married on December 26th, 1976. She was 18, I was 20. (Sometimes people ask me, “Preacher, would you tell our kids they’re too young to get married?” And I always say, “I’ll talk to them if you want me to, but I don’t really have any higher moral ground here.”) Not long after we came to Linton in 1997, Rae Anne and I had our twentieth wedding anniversary. (Virginia Miller used to introduce Rae Anne by saying, “And here’s his little wife of twenty years.”) The thought occurred to me: “I have been married to Rae Anne longer than I lived before we got married.” And I took great satisfaction in that thought.
I entered the ministry in June of 1978, not long after I graduated from Bible college, serving a church in Tulsa, Oklahoma as their associate pastor and youth director. The next year I took my first pastorate in rural Indiana, and I’ve been pastoring Indiana churches ever since.
I had been in the ministry for 19 years when in the providence of God we came to Linton and you called me to be your pastor. That was on August 6th, 1997. As we walked through the process of getting to know each other, asking each other questions and praying for God’s guidance, for a time we really didn’t know how God would lead. When, somewhat to my astonishment, the deacons told us they would like to proceed to a church vote in view of calling me as pastor, Rae Anne and I agreed.
I began praying then that if the Lord really wanted me to be your pastor that the vote would not be close, that it would be an unmistakable majority. And when the chairman of deacons called me that Wednesday after the vote was taken, the first thing he said to me was, “Well, you’re our new pastor.” Then he told me the vote total: it was over 94%! And I silently prayed, “Lord, I guess there’s no doubt about it. Thank You for answered prayer!”
As of August 6th of this year, all of that happened twenty years ago. Twenty years ago!
And sometime in these past few weeks, the thought occurred to me: “I have been pastor of First Baptist Church of Linton longer than all of my other pastorates combined.” And I take great satisfaction in that thought.
To say that where we are now is not at all what I imagined for our church when I thought about maybe someday passing the twenty-year mark is an understatement. In those first few years, I had many conversations with older preachers. Wes Hensley used to tell me over and over, “Preach the Word and love the people!” As God is my witness, I have tried to do just that. Only God can say just how well I have done those things. I always assumed that if I would be faithful to do those things, the Lord Jesus would build His church just as He promised (Matthew 16:18).
But we’ve said goodbye to too many dear friends and faithful church members. I wasn’t really prepared for the number of funerals I had to do since coming here. (I’ve tried to get people to only die if they gave the church office two weeks’ notice, and then only if we gave them permission, but nobody ever paid any attention to me.) Sometimes the people who died had routinely chewed me out over this, that or the other…but I still found it hard to say goodbye to them. I’d pray, “Lord, this person was an ornery, cantankerous old grouch. But they were MY ornery, cantankerous old grouch, and I wish they hadn’t died!”
I wrote a song once called “Friends of My Heart”. Here’s part of the lyrics:
“I’ve lost too many friends with the passing of time;
Some have slipped away somewhere along the line.
With others I have laughed and cried, and time and distance could not part;
Lord, I want to thank You for the friends of my heart!”
How thankful I am to have known these brothers and sisters in Christ! And how thankful I am for those who have come into the church over these last twenty years. Oh, Lord, bring some more! As we’ve said goodbye to old friends, God has brought us some new ones, and He has used them to bless and strengthen our church. Lord Jesus, grant that our light would burn more brightly, and continue to build Your church!
During these two decades we have seen church change a lot in terms of Sunday School, service times, music, worship styles, styles of dress and even preaching. We have seen a difference in attitudes and commitment to the church from one generation to another. And it is something of a relief to know that our church is not alone in facing these challenges. Estimates range from 100,000 to 300,000 churches in North America that are either plateaued or declining. I loved it when Pastor Scott Kallem told us on the last night of our revival, “Your church is not alone! Other churches are facing the exact same problems that you are, and God will help us to meet the challenges of our time!” So encouraging! How we needed to hear that!
We are at the end of an era. But we are at the beginning of an era, too. There’s no use looking back and wishing for the good old days. The Bible says, “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.” (Ecclesiastes 7:10) God has put us here, in this time and place and in these circumstances, so that we might serve Him in our generation (Acts 13:36).
The times are challenging, yes. It’s different than it used to be, no question. I have begged God with many tears and a broken heart to let my ministry be a blessing to this church, that the church might be built up and strengthened, and that we might be prepared to take God’s work into the next stage and reach the next generation of families for the Lord Jesus. And I have asked God to help me to be faithful to keep preaching the Word and loving the people.
For my part, let me say that it is still a thrill for me to be the pastor of First Baptist Church of Linton, Indiana. I remember visiting someone in a hospital in Terre Haute in 1997, and for the first time I introduced myself by saying, “I’m the pastor of First Baptist Church of Linton.” I could hardly believe it. It felt good to say that.
It still feels good, and there are times I still can’t believe it. Hardly a week goes by that I don’t pray, “Thank You, God, that I get to pastor in this place.” I have experienced some of the greatest blessings of my life since my family and I came here. I have faced the greatest challenges, and experienced some of the greatest heartbreaks of my life since we came here. And I have met and come to know some of the most wonderful, humble faithful, kind, supportive and loving Christian people it has ever been my privilege to have met since we came here. Rae Anne and I couldn’t imagine our lives without you.
I have been your pastor longer than I have been anybody else’s.
And I am so thankful to God for that.
Soli Deo gloria!