Not by Sight: Marking 20 Years of Happy Service
Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.
It was these words from Jesus in Luke 13 that the 42-year-old preacher took as his sermon title on June 5, 1988.
Little did he know, a 22-year-old newly-wed was in attendance at the church for the first time that Sunday morning, and before long would be putting a megaphone to the preacher’s mouth so that people far beyond the humble downtown congregation could understand and embrace the truth that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.
A New Life of Joyful Obedience
That morning, the sermon came to a crescendo with the themes of repentance and faith and joy — themes that resonated deeply with this young visitor from the Western suburbs, themes on which he himself one day would seek to help others.
“I conclude that repentance involves believing God,” proclaimed the preacher, “rather than Satan’s claim that more joy can be found in sin than in obedience.” Repentance, the preacher continued,
is a “being persuaded” about the danger of impenitence and the way of escape through repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It involves grief over past sins and present sinful tendencies. This is the significance of the sackcloth and ashes [in Luke 10:13 and Jonah 3:5]. And it involves turning from evil ways.
So faith and repentance are not properly two separate things. The turning of repentance is a turning from trusting in other things to a trusting in God. And with a new trust in God as counselor and protector and provider, there is also a turning to a new life of joyful obedience.
New trust in God and a new life of joyful obedience. While it may not have been the young man’s conversion — he thinks he was born again at age 10 — something fresh and profound was in the offing.
Coming Closer to the Preacher
The 22-year-old and his wife of only two weeks knew almost immediately they had found their church home. But they had no idea what lay ahead and how deeply God was shaping them and altering the trajectory of their lives.
Two and a half years later, in January of 1991, they would move into the preacher’s basement apartment. Then two years after that, in the Spring of 1993, word was getting around that the preacher was looking for a male assistant who could travel with him and meet pastoral needs in a new way. The man now was 27. He had gleaned enough from four years of the preacher’s sermons, and two years of his home-life, to know it would be a spiritually strategic role to take. And there wasn’t much else to do with his anthropology major! Despite his limited experience, he went to the preacher and asked to be considered. Soon he had the job. It was July 1993 — twenty years ago this month.
Taking Up the Mantel of the Tape Ministry
For nine months, the young man served in his new assistant’s role, and things went as expected. What he didn’t anticipate was the retirement of Arnie and Olive Nelson. In his own words,
For 16 years, they faithfully had operated the church’s tape ministry as volunteers. They diligently ran a tape library for the congregation and managed a tape subscription service that began to grow significantly during [the preacher’s] first 14 years.
Arnie would come in every week and duplicate tapes. He was tall and slim and dignified and had a head of thick, silver hair. He was soft-spoken, and [the young man] loved to listen to him. Olive was bright, assertive, and organized. She managed the tape ministry administration by hand-typing all the tape labels (for probably 150–200 tapes per week), and hand-typing all the mailing labels. Arnie and Olive would package and mail the tapes. Olive’s database was a black notebook where she meticulously hand-recorded every transaction for every person.
Now they were retiring, and the preacher had to find someone to take up the mantel of the tape ministry. This is what a good assistant is for, he thought. The preacher popped his head into his assistant’s office and said, “We need to do something with the tape ministry. I’d like you to make it happen.”
Soon it was clear to the preacher and his assistant that the tape ministry could be combined with a fresh organizational effort to spread the preacher’s growing corpus of books and coordinate his speaking beyond the little church.
Just the previous year, the preacher had written a missions book called Let the Nations Be Glad!. He had a couple other relatively unappreciated books called Desiring God and The Pleasures of God — the new, glorified tape ministry could help breathe some new life into these. The preacher had another book in the works, called Future Grace, based on Wednesday evening messages he was teaching with the chairman of the elders, named Tom Schreiner.
So in March of 1994, Desiring God Ministries was born. At first it was just books and tapes. Eventually some distant admirers of the preacher started a website for the ministry to help distribute his books and tapes online. In the mid 1990s, few were convinced that such a website would ever amount to much, but it was worth a try. At least it came free — and the preacher liked that.
Constructing the Megaphone
And so now for two full decades, the assistant has labored to construct a megaphone, increasingly complex and substantive and powerful, to put to the preacher’s mouth and send his message far and wide.
Under this old pastoral assistant’s leadership, DGM experienced growth and expanded the preacher’s influence in the little ecosystem of Reformed evangelicalism. Iterations included compact discs, radio, multimedia, and now a refocused effort to maximize and harness the amazing potential of the Worldwide Web.
He tried to hand the reigns to another director in the Fall of 2001, but before long, in 2003, he was summoned back to the helm. He moved the fledgling ministry to a new office that same year, eventually was part of the dropping of the “M” from DGM, and has overseen entrepreneurial stallions who redesigned the website and launched a video ministry and pioneered an outreach to internationals, as God even has blessed the reach of DG now to every nation in the world through the Internet.
Focusing on the Web
Today the young-man-turned-preacher’s-assistant is the president of DG, having passed the baton of his executive director’s role in 2010 to a blonde boy from Georgia, named Scott Anderson. And he is now an author himself, and at his best when writing about the very themes he heard in that first message by the preacher — repentance and faith and joy. And this month marks 20 years since he first began working for the preacher. Next March will be 20 years since the founding of DG.
A lot has changed since 1994. The preacher completed his pastorate after 33 years and is now employed fulltime by the little tape and book ministry they started. DG has more than 20 employees, and the desiringGod.org website currently receives over 50,000 unique visitors to the site most days and saw almost 20 million visits in the last year.
But what has stayed the same is the young man’s posture of service and heart of radical generosity and risk-taking to help people everywhere understand and embrace the truth that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.
Join us in thanking God for Jon Bloom and his 20 years of happy service in the ministry of John Piper.