One of my all-time favorite guitar heroes is Phil Keaggy. He is a phenomenal player who has literally moved me to tears with his artistry and the sheer joy and abandon with which he plays. He was on the rise back in the early 1970s, making a name for himself in secular rock music. But he became a Christian, and to the dismay of many, he walked away from the threshold of rock stardom and devoted himself to Christian music. He has played and sung original Christian music ever since, eventually recording and distributing his albums independently of any record label. He lives in Nashville, TN with his wife Bernadette, still tours, and I have had the privilege of seeing and hearing him play live twice.
Keaggy has released over 50 albums in his career. On one of his albums released back in the 1990s, at the end of the liner notes thanking various people, Phil Keaggy wrote these words: “After all this time, I still believe.” I think I knew immediately what he meant.
After you’ve been a Christian for a while it’s easy to get disillusioned. The inevitable difficulties you face in life and the disappointing behavior of some Christian people can make you feel weary and jaded. Phil Keaggy and his wife suffered a series of miscarriages (though they did go on to have two daughters and a son). And he experienced his own frustration and difficulties with those in the Christian music business who emphasized the “business” aspect over the “Christian” part. Heartbreak, disappointment and betrayal all take their toll on your soul.
And yet, on that album, Keaggy wrote those simple, powerful words. After all the hurt, all the disappointment, all the frustration, and all the times others have promised you something and then let you down–and all the times you’ve been disappointed in yourself–the world is still broken, hearts are still sinful, people need Jesus (and so do I), heaven is waiting, hell is real, and God still changes lives with the Gospel. “After all this time, I still believe.” Amen, Phil! Me, too.
I want to echo Phil Keaggy’s words, and apply them in a specific way to the ministry and church life.
Last June on vacation my wife and I worshiped with our sister church, White River Baptist Church of Bloomfield, and heard a fantastic sermon by their pastor, Al Pierce. Later I got on their website and read Pastor Pierce’s philosophy of ministry statement. Honestly, I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever read about how to approach the ministry and church life. I believe everything he wrote, but rather than put it in my own words, since he said it so well, let me just quote my friend and colleague, Pastor Al Pierce. Here, in part is, what he wrote:
“My philosophy of ministry is built around what I believe to be the scriptural charges given to all pastors. I believe my role as pastor is to equip the saints to accomplish the work of building the kingdom of God. In many ways I am an equipper, a trainer, and a cheerleader. Although I have strong administrative skills, God has not called me to administer the church, but to pastor/shepherd the church. …The primary way I accomplish this ministry God has given me is through the preaching and teaching of God’s Word. I strongly believe in expository preaching and teaching. Although many claim expository preaching, I find that they have a misconstrued understanding of that term. For me, expository preaching is when I allow the passage from the Word of God to determine my message. I don’t go to the Bible with a message in mind and look for backup, but allow it to shape my sermons/lessons. In practice, this usually involves a systematic, verse-by-verse (or thought-by-thought) study through a book of the Bible. While I think there are times when topical preaching is useful (and you can be expository on a topic), the regular feeding of God’s people is accomplished as you work your way through a book and eventually through the Bible as a whole. This accomplishes a couple of things. First, it opens the meaning of the text and allows people to see the truth for themselves. Second, as you work through the Scriptures, people are able to see how God is moving through the Scriptures as a whole and as well, what He is communicating in the specific passage you are studying at that time. Thirdly, it stops me from ignoring passages that are textually difficult or could step on my toes!”
Amen, Pastor Al! That’s the kind of preaching I believe in, and that’s the kind of preaching I try to do. And I believe this kind of preaching builds up God’s church.
But what if it doesn’t?
I had a conversation last week with Cole Barnett of the fantastic Barnett Trio, who sang for us in the morning and evening services. Frankly, I was embarrassed at the low turnout, but he told me, “Pastor, we never think about those things.” Then he said, “Besides, I don’t know of a church that isn’t dealing with exactly the same situation.”
Sunday evening after the concert as I was helping them load up their equipment, he added this comment. He looked around at our sanctuary and said, “You know, when we first started singing with our dad (Evangelist Harlan Barnett), we would pack out a place like this on Sunday night. People would come to hear the music and listen to the man of God preach. Nowadays most people would rather stay home.” We talked then of the need for revival across our nation and in individual churches.
So what do we do about all this? Do we change our basic approach, throw over everything we’ve been doing and try something new? Or do we keep on doing what we’ve been doing, at least in terms of our basic approach? I’ve even had another minister tell me that preaching the Word of God clearly isn’t enough to build up a church. Isn’t doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results the classic definition of insanity?
Sometimes. But sometimes doing the same thing over and over with no visible results is being faithful to do what God told you to do in a hard time. Just ask Noah, or Jeremiah. Or the Lord Jesus.
Let me illustrate it this way. The principles of nutrition are sound and essential for good health. If you want to be strong and healthy, you must eat a balanced diet. But if someone doesn’t eat a balanced diet, or if they do eat and yet grow weaker and more sickly, that doesn’t mean the principles of nutrition are wrong. It means there’s something else at work.
Maybe it’s an underlying condition, like a virus or a disease. Maybe it’s because they filled up on junk food and have no appetite for good things. Maybe it’s just a stubborn, willful refusal to eat, like a small child exhibits.
Sometimes there is something that affects an entire nation or region: a hurricane, a famine, a breakout of some disease. Any of these things and more can undermine the health of an entire population. And how do they respond to such situations? They rush in blankets and shelter and medicine…and food. Lots of good, healthy food and water. Because basic needs don’t change, even when there is an underlying condition or an overarching emergency that complicates things.
The same thing applies to our nation, the spiritual condition of our churches, and to our church. We have a crying need for another nationwide revival like the First and Second Great Awakenings. There is a spiritual famine in our land, coupled with a brazen rebellion against God and the things of God. Until, God willing, we have another nationwide revival, we need to experience revival in each local church. It may be there is something hindering revival in the life of a church. Only seriously seeking God in prayer can answer that question. And it may be that individually we have much more of a taste for the things of the world than we do for the Word of God. Only honest searching of our own hearts before God can answer that question.
But none of that changes the immense value and need for feeding the flock the unchangeable, wonderful Word of God. I’ve been trying to do just that for forty years now. By God’s grace, that’s what I’m going to continue to do as long as God allows. People, churches and our nation need the preaching and teaching of the Word of God. Consistently, faithfully, week in, week out, “in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2).
So, Amen, Pastor Al! After all this time, I still believe.
Soli Deo Gloria!