Reflections on Pastoring Three Decades Downtown

The Gospel Coalition — Twin Cities | Minneapolis

Beginnings and Endings

When I came to Bethlehem in the summer of 1980, which is just a few blocks from here, the Metrodome was under construction. The first game played therewas in September of 1982. So I came when it was being built, and I will leave next year when it is being disassembled. And I’ve been thinking about the implications of that.

But mainly I’m mentioning it because of the way I responded to that felt threat. Not only did it feel threatening to our church when the dome was being built — traffic, parking, and crowds on Sunday — but when that freeway, this big junction out here in I-94 and I-35, was built in the late 1960s to early 1970s, you can imagine what devastation that felt like to a nice, peaceful community with streets that went across and nice little homes everywhere. They were just wiping them out by the dozens, moving some of them, and our church was 100 feet away. We thought, “Can we even begin to survive? Will this even be possible? Will anybody be able to get here?” The point is, how does one respond to threats?

Strong God

If you live anywhere near an urban center, change is what happens. And maybe in little rural communities, the demands of the ministry are very different. But if you’re in a city, it is just one exciting change or threatening change, or both, after another. And so here’s what I wrote. I printed an article from September 14, 1982, which I wrote for our newsletter called God Threw His Shoe on Edom, or The Dome is Dead. And the text was Psalm 108:9, which says:

Moab is my washbasin;
Upon Edom I cast my shoe.

I’ll read the first two paragraphs of the article:

Picture Edom in rebellion against Yahweh and his people. Picture them mustering thousands and thousands of warriors. Picture the iron chariots, the war horses snorting and stamping, the bulging muscles and bronze skin of the mighty men, the razor-sharp swords, the awful pointed spears, the shields flashing in the sun, the unflinching countenance of seasoned solders. Picture a horde of fierce fighting men thundering through the valley of Seir — fearful, dreadful, fierce, and powerful.

When God sees them coming he sits down. He will wash his feet. With 18,000 fighting warriors approaching like a stampede of Texas longhorns, God sits down to wash his feet! And then, as one would flick a fly, he tosses his shoe on Edom, and 18,000 soldiers fall. God never even looked, he scarcely heard the noise. The world sits stunned at the victory; God sits with his feet in the water.

That’s what I tried to show our people, and that’s what I’ve been trying to show them for 30 years. We have a massively strong God. He’s never confused. He’s never perplexed. He’s never nervous. He’s never without an answer. He’s never threatened. And so, what I’d like to take my few minutes to do is to just mention five things about that God that have marked my efforts in the city here. You will discover immediately that they are not urban specific, and that is part of who I am. That’s been the way I’ve led, but they are transferable. And they’re basic. Here are the five things.

1. The Authority of Scripture

First, I have tried to and I’m encouraging you to, submit to all of Scripture as your absolute authority and bring into being a people who do the same.

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.

Brothers, it marks the Gospel Coalition and it marks God-pleasing churches when there is an absolute commitment to his word. And what a difference it makes when you’re in conversation with people and you can smell that’s not their bottom line. It’s just not. That’s why you’re not getting on. That’s why the conflict is happening. You’re just a word guy.

It’s there. I can’t understand it all. I don’t have all the mystery solved. It’s just there, and I’m there if it’s there. You can taste that when you’re with a brotherhood who feels that way about the word of God. So meditate on it day and night.

I knew I had to do this. This morning at 9:15 a.m. I was going to be picked up. I knew I’d do the gym on Wednesday morning. I don’t usually do it as I did it. I knew I would have devotions with my daughter and my wife. I just backed everything up. The alarm went off at 5:45 a.m. By 6:00 a.m. I was at the gym, and I was home at 7:05 a.m. sweating like a loon and sitting down. My wife and my daughter tolerated me reading Colossians 1:24 to the end of the chapter. Then we were singing Come Ye Sinners. And then we were praying together. And then I went to the shower, and I had one hour left for the Book.

God, grant us to never short circuit the book. Let us meditate on it day and night. I’d love to just talk about what I saw this morning. I’m just so excited about what I saw this morning. I could preach two sermons here about just what God gave me for my encouragement after some really discouraging things recently. He just gave it to me, and that’s how I’ve survived. He just comes and he offers himself to me in the word. Lead with the Bible to be a teacher and applier of the word.

2. God-Centered Theology

Second, think through a coherent God-centered theology and build a people who breathe that vision. This is Acts 20:24:

But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.

And then he goes on to say:

And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:25–27).

I’m going to say that to my people, but what does that mean? What is the whole counsel of God. Paul said he did it, so it’s not impossible to do for a human being. It can’t mean it’s infinite because he did it. And my take is that the whole counsel of God is that cluster of truths surrounding the core, the gospel.

It is Christ crucified and risen for sinners. J.I. Packer sums up the gospel in the phrase propitiation through substitution. Around that are clusters of doctrines, and the Gospel Coalition has tried to put those in some documents. They’re not as central, but they’re supportive and they’re explanatory and they’re necessary to protect it and to explain it and to work it out. And that’s the whole counsel of God.

It’s not every word in the Bible. I have not even preached one sermon in 33 years on the Song of Solomon. I’m ashamed of that. It’s a great love story. I should have done that. But I’m just illustrating that you pick and you choose, and you realize at the end of 33 years there have been some gaps. Maybe I shouldn’t have spent eight years on Romans. But you do the best you can, right? And then somebody else fixes that. Think through a coherent, God-centered theology, and then help people love that vision.

3. Preaching the Good News and Its Implications

Third, preach the glories of that good news and all the truths that support it and flow from it. And I’m underlining the word preach, or herald. I don’t mean teach. That’s great. And I don’t mean share and discuss. That’s great. I mean herald. It’s what a town crier does; they preach. Here’s the connection:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching (2 Timothy 3:16–4:2).

That’s a weighty series of thoughts. Preach the word. And so, I’ve made the bread and butter of the Bible theology preached. Frankly brothers, there are a lot of people today who don’t think preaching is uniquely used by God, but only one of many options.

I believe that the word kēryssō in 2 Timothy 4:2 means that God has a special gift for his people in the hour of worship over the word. And when a pastor, full of the Holy Spirit, full of the word of God, heralds the glories of God in the gospel, something unique happens. Other things are also essential. Small group ministry is essential. Education is essential. Missions is essential. But something unique happens at that moment. And I believe Bethlehem has thrived, flourished, and maintained its unity through some really rocky times because something happens in those moments over and over again. People are united in the presence of the living God as they are addressed by God Almighty.

So I’m commending it to you. You don’t have to have any particular personality to do this. I mean, if you had Jonathan Edwards here and Billy Sunday here they would be really different. And they both preached. Edwards had one arm on a pillow and a manuscript in his hand, reading with blood earnestness. He hardly gave a gesture. So don’t write off preaching as a personality thing. I don’t think it is.

4. A Life of Prayer

Fourth, make prayer the visible engine of your life, and corporate prayer the visible engine of your church. Have a place and a time for yourself. Spurgeon preached a sermon on a verse that he called Robinson Crusoe’s verse. And the verses were:

Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.

God is saying, “Call on me. I will deliver you, and you will glorify me.” That’s the pattern of life — call, receive, glorify. Have your people learn that rhythm to call on him every day, to ask him for everything, to talk to him, and to continually cry out.

We love to say about him, “What shall we render to the Lord for all his benefits to us? We will…call on the name of the Lord” (Psalm 116:13). What a deal. Do you want to pay me back? Ask for more, because I’m strong and I get glory by being wealthy to my poverty-stricken people. Prayer is such a gift. Personally have your place and have your time. Don’t let anything take you from it. Kneel every day.

There’s no big trick in that. There’s just something that happens when the body once a day says, “This too Lord, this too. I’m going low before you with my body. Just going to say it that way too.” It’s like fasting and feasting. Both are good. Neither has any rules around how long or how much. It’s just it’s a good thing.

And then one of the hardest things we face is building a praying church and a corporate praying church. Bethlehem is no great model. We’ve just tried over and over again to put prayer all over the place, and then encourage the staff to be at one or two or three of those. I have, probably for 20 years, been to five prayer meetings a week. They are 30-minute prayer meetings. That sounds big, but it’s not big because three of those are before services, all right? I just show up early and pray with between 5–20 people before service for 30 minutes. And then I attend meetings on Tuesday mornings and Friday mornings. Those are my prayer times with people. And it makes a huge difference to pray with people and then model it from the pulpit.

People don’t know how to pray. They don’t know how to pray. They don’t know how to feel when they pray. They don’t know what to say when they pray. But if they hear you pray every week, like a broken-hearted, needy sinner, counting on God, crying out to a Father who loves you, they’ll learn how to pray. They will. And God will do mighty things in answer to prayer.

5. Trusting the Lord

Fifth, trust every day that God cares for you and will work for your good. This is 1 Peter 5:6–7:

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.

I think the participle — casting — means that casting our anxieties is an expression of humility. So keeping your anxieties to yourself is pride. Humble yourself, casting your anxieties on him. He’s got shoulders that can handle them, and he will be the least burdened by them. If you keep them, you’re proud. It is proud to be anxious. You look weak and frightened and nervous like a puppy, and you’re proud because you’re not saying, “Okay, you want them? Here they are.” And you give them to the Lord.

Monuments to the Faithfulness of God

I’m going to close. I’ve got two or three minutes, and I’m just going to give you examples of how God’s been faithful to me. I just sat down at my desk and said, “Bring them to my mind for what would be helpful for these guys.”

Deliverance from Demonic Oppression

I got a call — I can’t remember if it was the first or second year here — that there was a demon-possessed girl in this room. They said, “We want you to come.” I had never in my life encountered a demon-possessed person. I called Tom Stellar because the Bible says go out two by two and I believe that. And we went together at about 10 p.m. We were there until probably about 1:00 a.m. And she was like a gorilla with a knife. She has a little pin knife. It was winter, so I kept on my coat because I thought she could stick the winter coat and it wouldn’t do too much damage. She was walking around just jooging at people.

These were young Bethel students, who were unbelievably anointed and fearless. They just stood there. They wouldn’t let her out. They were standing at the door, not letting her out. She had a knife. She sounded like a demon and to make a long, horrible story short, about two hours later she passed out on the floor. We sang over her for about half an hour, and she screamed that Satan not leave her when unconscious on the floor, as far as I could tell. I thought, “Did we kill her?” We did not want this. I’ve never experienced anything like it before. This is what you get handed, right?

She woke up and her face looked totally different, and her voice was totally different. She had knocked the Bible out of my hands half a dozen times becuase I was trying to read the Bible. I handed her the Bible and asked her to read all of Romans eight, and she did.

She was in church the next Sunday on the second row, and I was scared to death that she was going to be so wild in this service. She was resoundingly converted. She was in the church for about six more months. She broke her leg playing soccer, and I visited her in hospital. We had long talks about what was behind all this. And I could tell you her story. You would not believe what she had done.

But anyway, God came to me. I’m a zero-educated person when it comes to demon possession and deliverance. What did I have? My book. I knew I didn’t have anything, but right here in the Bible is power. I just kept reading it and reading it and reading it. And then we sang it. We took the tune Hallelujah and we just put new words. We say, “Jesus is Lord. He is coming,” and then somebody would throw in another Bible truth and she would go absolutely berserk. But she was delivered. God was faithful.

Preaching with a Broken Heart

My son came home one night — I won’t say which one. He was 15 years old and he was an hour later than I told him. I had waited up for him, and I said, “What happened?” And he lied to me. I didn’t know it at the time, but in the morning he was gone. My son ran away. This was Friday morning, my sermon preparation day. I was at home with him alone. Noël and the kids were out. It was just me and him and he was gone. He left me a note under his pillow that said, “I love you. And I let you down again. Don’t worry. I’m okay. I know the city.” And he did know the city, so I wasn’t too worried, frankly, except for the fact that he was gone.

What do you do? How do you preach? How do you get a sermon ready? This is life, guys. This is what you’re dealt. And I made the decision, knowing him, that I wouldn’t call the police. I thought he knew what he was doing. I didn’t think he was suicidal or anything like that. This was a big judgment call.

I prepared my sermon, though I have no idea what I preached on. I called one man, and I said, “This is the situation. Pray with me. I don’t know what to do.” I walked into the church from behind, looking and thinking, “Maybe he’ll be here.” I was preaching, but he wasn’t there. On Monday I called the school and said, “Is my son in class?” They said, “Yes.” I said, “I’m his dad. I want to see him now.” So I drove to the school. He was walking down the hall and I was walking out of the principal’s office, and he just starts to weep on my shoulders. God is faithful. And we had the longest, best talk that night.

Serving in the Strength God Suppplies

Well, that’s 22 minutes. I’ll get three more of those. I’ll just mention them. There was a spiritual gifts battle where we were trying so hard to be a bonafide non-cessationists. Being open to all the good things God has to give us meant that there were crazies who came out of the woodwork and people who gave false prophecies that just about devastated me. But God is faithful. I didn’t throw it away. I didn’t despise prophesying. But I sure am cautious because we had some of the weirdest stuff happen in the late 1980s because we were trying so hard.

I encourage you to try hard. Earnestly desire spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. They’re all for the upbuilding of the church. Don’t let them tear anything to shreds, and don’t let them make you bitter and ugly, which was my temptation because there was a lawyer who prophesied over me that my wife would die in childbirth and that my next child would be a girl. I wept my eyes out saying, “God, is what you’re giving me? I’m trying here.” A boy was born and she didn’t die. He was a false prophet.

The moral failure in our church in 1992 and 1993 was the biggest thing we’ve ever faced. God wonderfully brought us through that. And the worship wars were hard and he brought us through that. So the last point is, trust him. Trust him. Cast all your anxieties on him. He cares for you. And here’s one more verse:

Whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.