John, you were here 35 years ago. Now you’re back in Germany at the Shepherds’ Conference. What change have you seen since that first time in Germany?
My exposure since I’ve been here is too small to see very much, but I will give you an impression. The conference here seems remarkable to me in terms of both its numbers and the intensity of the appreciation from the younger people. That may have existed 35 years ago, but if it did, I didn’t see it. So that’s my main impression.
Perhaps one other impression is not just the number and the intensity of the interest, but how many people seem to be pursuing church planting. I don’t think that was happening 35 years ago nearly to the degree that it’s happening now. I was part of a little Baptist church in Munich, and it felt like we were very much on the periphery of things and the landeskirchen (regional churches) were everything. That may still be the case, but this feels much more. The church planting seems new and remarkable to me.
Maybe it’s of interest. This church is about 35 years old, and when you were here, they were just in the founding mode. I was just told that since then about 500 to a thousand churches have been planted through these kinds of people coming back from Russia.
That is remarkable. Who would’ve thought that from Russia would come a large church planting movement into the source of the Reformation, Germany?
What’s also in my heart is obviously that we have a lot of young men who are in the training center in Berlin and in Zurich. What would you advise them to do with what you see here? And what would you want to tell them to take from this conference and from your heart?
Well, let me mention three or four things, maybe in the order of their importance, from the most important to the least important. But they’re all important. The first would be that you know and love God with all your heart in Jesus Christ, and then the second would be that you know your Bible and have a biblically faithful, robust theology. Many young pastors don’t have a coherent vision of who God is and how he works. That is, they don’t have a theology, and I think we all need one.
And then, third, develop your gifts that God has given you of preaching and teaching and relating to people. Grow in these gifts and then. I’ll mention two more things. Love a people. Let them know that you’re not going to use them to go somewhere else or advance, but that you love them and you want them to grow in grace so that they will tell others what a good thing it is to be a part of this congregation.
The last thing I’m going to mention often in our day is put first — namely, I think you should be culturally tuned in and willing to adapt and experiment with your music and your forms and any other way that would somehow connect with the people that you’re trying to reach. We must in some way become all things to all people that we may by all means save some without becoming an echo of the world and then we’d be useless. And maybe I’ll say one other thing. It’s not an addition, it just runs through all of them: pray, pray, pray. Be desperate for God and tell him you have to have him. You have to have his power every day. You cannot do this without supernatural intervention.
John, it’s interesting. I just wrote down the word prayer because I wanted to know how important it is for us, but beyond that, Germany is known for the Reformation. We have a lot of evangelicals from America, from the Asian countries coming over and visiting the sites, but Germany is also known for this liberal theology and it has done damage in the last a hundred years. We don’t know any books basically published in Germany written by Germans that are not somehow infiltrated by that theology. What would you advise these young men to do about it?
Let me see if I can unload myself here. When I studied in the University of Munich for three years and got my doctorate there, there was very little spiritual benefit from that course of studies. It was mainly the writing of a dissertation and the getting of a degree, and my spiritual life was sustained by a small study group on Friday nights that prayed together, my worship at the Baptist Church on Sunday morning, and my own personal devotions.
I was not impressed by what I saw in the classes where world-class theologians taught young men who were 18, 19, 20, and 21 years old, who were preparing for some kind of career in the church and using methods that to my mind would produce little fruit for the church and would basically undo and destroy the church. Nevertheless, these theologians intimidate the entire world. I think these young men should be unintimidated by university theology professors and be courageous in their belief in the Bible as the whole counsel of God, and preach it and write books about it that would carry the day in the church.
Let me be more specific. I don’t know how theological education is conceived here, but if somebody doesn’t have a vision for producing writing scholars and writing pastors who do produce those books, it will always feel lame, it will always feel crippled, and you will always be saying, “Well, the professional theologians, they’re all liberal. We have to be just pastors and not write books and not handle tough academic issues.” That’s just not the case. You must not be intimidated by that layer of scholarship. There need to be people raised up among the evangelicals who believe every word of the Bible, unashamedly stand for it, and write very helpful and competent books about it.
It’s a matter of being balanced academically and pastorally at the same time, and bringing those two together.
Yeah. I just think that the theological institution needs to sow the seeds that a few, not all by any means, but a few that as they come along in every generation will become the writers. They’ll become the writers. I’ll say one more thing. The average pastor I would say, who isn’t going to write the books, nevertheless, if he does what I spoke of here tonight — namely, think hard about even his English Bible, suppose he doesn’t have Greek, just think hard about his English Bible and pray earnestly — he will see things that will be gold to their people. They will be meat for their souls. They will be like honey on their lips, and the people will say, “More!” And when they listen to the professional theologians from the university, they’ll say, “This is just ashes and husks. This man gives us meat. He gives us gold. He gives us honey because he thinks, and he works, and he prays.” You don’t need to be intimidated.
I suppose just tonight’s message in particular was like honey, the sweet stuff. It’s something that you wish everybody would hear all the time to understand that God’s word is living and sharper than a two-edged sword, and that we can use it for everything — for the ministry, for life, for everything. I think that came through well, but we don’t have this kind of preaching very often, I know at least in this church. What would you advise pastors to do to get there? I mean you mentioned something just now, but what would you pastor’s advice? In a few years, they go out in the ministry. What should they do? What should their main focus be?
The first thing that has to happen is that this word has to burn in their own souls. I think there are many pastors who preach without passion about the Bible and quickly run to stories because the Bible doesn’t feed them. It doesn’t burn in their hearts. The second thing would be that we need a huge, weighty vision of God, sin, Christ, the cross, hell, and heaven. In other words, the central, massive realities need to feel weighty.
Now, that second thing happens for most people by encountering a dead theologian with a big vision of God. Steve, who’s been preaching, told us the story in the van that, in 1991, he was at the end of his rope and desperately went, not even knowing where he was going, to Jonathan Edwards and he read the treatise on original sin, and he said it just blew him out of the water. He had never seen anything so deep, so weighty, so firm, so strong, and so solid, and he’s never been the same since.
A wise teacher in seminary told me, “Don’t try to read everybody. Find one deep, great theologian pastor and drop your bucket down in his well and keep drinking from him until you understand what he’s written.” For me, that’s been Jonathan Edwards, and I would recommend him or someone great. There are only four or five to choose from in the history of the church. Just know them. Become their peer.
Who are those five guys if I may ask?
Augustine, Jonathan Edwards, John Calvin, Martin Luther, and John Owen. That’s enough. Choose one of those. Here’s one more observation. I haven’t said anything about method. The most valuable thing I learned in seminary was a method of exegesis which is called arcing. The gist of it is that you take a paragraph from a letter and you break it down into its individual propositions, and then you try to figure out the logical relationship between each of those propositions until you can say, “Here’s the one thing this paragraph says, and here is the way each proposition contributes to that one thing.” That’s what arcing helps you do. There’s a website called Biblearc where the guys your age in our little seminary teach it.
Thank you so much, John. It is incredible encouragement from you for us to be here, for all of us. I mean you saw the people. The people who have come have grown and grown and grown in the last few days, and it’s a response to the preaching. I know that, and I’m so grateful for that, and I know all of them here are grateful.
It’s a huge honor to be here, and I’m very encouraged by what I see. I really am. I did not know what I was coming into, but I’m going out more encouraged than when I came.
Please take our best wishes and greetings back to your church. I hope to see you again obviously, and we’ll probably hear more from each other.
It would be an honor.