Reflecting on 33 Years in the Pastorate

The Gospel Coalition — Twin Cities

Minneapolis, MN

Well, we’re really, really excited that you’ve decided to stay with us for this part — for our Q&A time, hearing some reflections on 33 years of ministry from Pastor John. I just wanted to start off with something pretty basic. I’ll do sort of the first part of the Q&A, and then we’re going to open it up to the floor as we move toward the end of it.

The first thing, Pastor John, first, thanks again for being here. It means a lot to us in terms of the legitimacy you help to bring to what we’re doing, so thank you for being here. What are the three priorities you would say of us guys pastoring churches, most of which, if not all, will never reach sort of the size and scope of Bethlehem, but what would be the three sort of priorities of 33 years of ministry that you would say focus on these three things for a faithful ministry?

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” — that’s number one (Matthew 22:37). “Love your neighbor as yourself” would be number two (Matthew 22:39). And love your Bible. But let me flesh that out.

I really think if you don’t love what you’re seeing in your Bible day in and day out, you probably aren’t going to survive, or you’ll become a CEO and manage an organization. And therefore, my plea is to ask God to cause you to see wonderful things in his word every day that stun you, make you love to come back to the book every day, and then operate out of that being stunned.

The people, by and large, are just making it from one day to the next. I don’t think people go to church mainly to see a sharp, cool, organized situation with a leader. They want to see a man who’s been with God. They want to smell what that’s like. They want to see what that’s like. And so I think your top priority — and then you can filter down sub-priorities by how that happens — but the top priority is to be amazed at God, continually be amazed at Christ, be amazed at the gospel. And that means, I said to Bob, “This is my Bible.” That’s why I’ve got this here instead of a book. It’s in here. I use Olive Tree, so if it looks like, “Where’s his Bible?” This is my Bible.

Be in the word every day. Love the word. Ask God to open your eyes to the word, to amaze you with the word. Because I really believe — I’ll say this and then I’ll stop and you can press on it or go the other way. It’s amazing how many introverts go into the ministry. It’s amazing how many people go into the ministry who don’t really like to be with people.

Now, a lot of people would say that and say, “That’s a bad thing. You should repent of that and turn around and either do something else or start loving to hang out with people.” There is another way to pray about that. I wrote it down this morning. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. How do introverts love people? They don’t love people like extroverts, but they love people. At least, if they’re born again, they do so.

Plead with God to make your indisposition to be with people a blessing to people. Does that sound contradictory to you? Plead with God to make your indisposition to be with people a blessing to people. In other words, I would say after 33 years, my default after preaching is to go home and pray and read. Not to hang out for three hours over a meal. That’s my disposition.

I do hang out for an hour and pray with people, and I’m glad I do. It is rewarding to do it. But reading is more enjoyable intrinsically. It’s just however you make those distinctions in the way you’re wired and what you do because it’s good to do. So if you’re wired that way, instead of constantly praying God would make you another kind of person, pray that he would make that weird kind of person really useful for people.

I think he’s done that for me. I think there are brokennesses is in my childhood, brokennesses, in my family, brokennesses that make me the way I am. I don’t think it’s altogether admirable; it’s just reality. And so what do you do with that? You say, “Well, I’m just going to quit and not be a pastor.” Or you can say, “God, you can take five loaves and two fish and feed five thousand people, and you can take this kind of human being and take those dispositions and indispositions and make them a blessing to people.”

It might — well, I won’t go into details, but when I say be in your Bible, love your Bible, love what you’re seeing in your Bible, you can hear a little bit of my bent coming out. Instead of love people, hang out with people, spend a lot of time with people, have lots of conferences with people, you didn’t hear me say that because I don’t do it. For 33 years that’s not what I’ve done. I haven’t discipled, guys, by having six guys around me and go out to dinner with them every week. I’ve done it another way, and don’t copy the way if you’re not wired that way.

I’m just saying, love the word so much that you insist, “God, make my love of the word a blessing to people. Do whatever you have to do to make my indisposition and dispositions a great blessing to people here and around the world and including the nations.”

What would you say that would look like in terms of being a blessing? You say, “Pray that I would be a blessing.” Are there specific actions you can take on the basis of that? What would that look like?

Oh, absolutely. I believe that what people have benefited from me most is what I’ve seen in the Bible. I don’t think I’ve blessed Bethlehem much by being a good organizer or a good model of personal evangelism. I mean, I could list a lot of ways they have not benefited from me.

But if I don’t despair and say there’s been some good done, I know where it came from. It came from me taking notes over my Bible and wrestling to see how Hebrews 10:10–14 come together, that was this morning, how those two verses fit. Seeing something I’ve never seen before and walking into a staff meeting and telling them. Walking into a hospital room and telling her. Walking into the pulpit and telling them what I saw, and then going home and see some more instead of hanging out with the people. There’s no virtue in not hanging out with people.

So my answer is, you take what you see, and then if you’re a writer, you write it. I don’t want to go there because I don’t think anybody should have a big aspiration of being a writer; that can also wreck ministry. But if you write it, you write. If you’re a preacher, you preach it. If you’re a hanger outer, you tell the hanger outers withers what you saw this morning. So it’s the overflow of this through your personality with the people you are with. It’s going to overflow somehow. Given the way you function, it’ll overflow.

It seems like you’re separating that time in the word where you’re discovering things and seeing things and being thrilled by things. You’re distinguishing that from your sermon prep. Not that you wouldn’t have that experience in your sermon prep, but you seem to be talking about this sort of daily ingesting Scripture. Talk a little bit about the distinction there for you personally.

Very good question. Yes, that is what I’m talking about. I’m talking about an hour with the Lord every morning in the word and in prayer, and not letting him go until he bless you. Yes, that’s what I’m talking about. However, I got to speak at Children’s Desiring God, and of course, I used to speak every week, but now I’m not speaking every week, but I got to speak at Children’s Desiring God conference last Thursday.

They assigned me a topic and I chose a text. I had never done this before. So I’m preaching a new sermon, and it’s the same thing. Whenever I have a chance to get ready for a devotion or get ready for a sermon, those same encounters happen. I’m wrestling with God, “Show me something stunning here.”

I can’t preach to people something I’m bored with. I mean, that’s the way you die in ministry. “I didn’t see anything, but I have to preach, so I’ll say something, I’ll get out my file of illustrations or read an article and try to be funny or relevant because I don’t have anything to say from the Bible. Nothing. I saw nothing this week.” That’s really sad. That’s the end of a ministry in the making.

So whether it’s personal devotions or whether it’s preparation for ministry, you got to see something that’s really there and be moved by it and then have the overflow.

And do you think that that private time with the Lord where it’s just for your own soul’s sake, not necessarily to go speak to another person, do you think that feeds into the sermon prep?

Yes, because the sermon prep is preacher prep, and who you are matters as much as what you say. How you feel about what you say is what preaching is. It’s expository exaltation. It’s not just expository. It is you fired by what you saw, delivering what you saw. And those daily things are the making of the preacher. They’re the stoking of the engine. They’re the preservation from the evil one. They’re the growing up into maturity. They’re the dealing with your horrible sins day in and day out. You’re becoming a preacher as you deal with the living God day by day in your devotion.

So it’s yes that way, but it’s also yes theologically. My theological framework is constantly being refined in my personal devotions. I’m a Christian Hedonist, seven-point Calvinist, right? That is not a static reality. There’s core that never changes, but the pieces of it move around and the emphases move around and the edges expand and applications grow. All that theological formation is happening as I’m wrestling text after text after text.

I’m reading through the whole Bible every year, or Bible and whatever M’Cheyne gets you through — New Testament twice, Psalms twice, Old Testament once. That’s my pattern for years now. And so a theological formation as well as a personal formation is happening in those times. And the focus there is not think, “Oh, I got to reform my theology, got to refine my theology. I got to be a more mature man.” It’s, “Show me your glory.” Whatever’s here, I want to see what’s really here and see how it fits with that and that and that, and when all that’s coming together, something unusual happens.

You mentioned that there are a number of things you feel like you’ve done wrong or that you didn’t succeed at in terms of Bethlehem. You said the way you’ve really helped the people is by sharing your discoveries. Apart from sort of your laments about your personal wiring, what are some things that as you look back, you would say, “I wish I had done . . . “ Maybe it was a decision that “I wish I had made that decision at that point” — something that you might share with us that sort of is in the way of preventative medicine that we might not make a similar error.

It’s hard for me to pick out specifics because when Collin Hansen asked me, “Any regrets?” I said, “I regret everything.” And the simple fact — I mean, that’s part of my wiring too, I suppose. But what I meant was I could have done everything better, couldn’t I? Of course, I could have. Some of the things are really could have done a lot better.

I think I could have done much better in modeling for my people personal evangelism, telling more stories of my effort to do the eight houses around me, or whatever other method. So that’s one that’s always there because I feel inadequate, and even when I’m most intentional about it, I feel, “That wasn’t very good.” So that’s one.

In terms of internal church dynamics, I would pursue tensions more aggressively, and those are at Bethlehem right now. You all know the kind of thing I’m talking about. I think when you detect over years tensions between people, say between leaders or staff members, and I personally being a forceful person have the wherewithal to kind of hold all that tension together, I may not deal with it like I should. Holding it together and dealing with it isn’t the same thing.

What do you mean by holding it together?

I mean, if I have 25 pastors around me and they have significant different feelings or attitudes or whatever about this and that, and it causes tensions between them, and they may not be dealing with that directly and just see little things popping up here and there, they’re happy with me and so they live together happily.

They’re happy to be at Bethlehem, they’re happy to be on the staff, they’re happy to be in a moving church, and we have a theological core that’s so common it holds us all together now. I think the more that should be done, that’s a glue that a leader has that’s valuable. It’s a real value in a church. To have that kind of forceful gluishness about you is a good thing. It’s just not enough. Because the tribes out there will not always have you, and it can be bad.

And so I think you aggressively pursue face-to-face, and you negotiate togetherness. I think I would’ve done more of that. I would’ve said to that person and that person and that person, “I want to meet with you,” and I would ask them pointed questions and make them talk to each other about that, so that I would know better what’s going on here and they could either air or decide we can’t work together or whatever. It wouldn’t just come be there. So that’s one that’s on the front burner right now for me. I wish I had been more aggressive in dealing with perceived tensions.

How does that work itself out? When those things are sort of left unsaid that you feel like you should have inserted yourself, what ends up happening? What’s the fruit of that?

Well, I suppose it could bear all kinds of fruit that are painful, but I think Satan gets a foothold, and perspectives get distorted, and actions are taken, and you look back and you say, “How did this happen? Where did this come from?” That’s the situation we’re in right now. Everybody’s kind of looking at it saying, “What? What in the world is this?” And it seems inexplicable. It’s just too complex for anybody to quite get their hands around because of personalities.

But it’s been brewing. It’s been brewing.

Personalities, cultural differences, dispositional differences, leadership differences, and I’m not even talking sin yet. And then sin, then Satan, then world, then neglect, and you get a brew here that produces Saul and Barnabas can’t work together. I’m really thankful that’s in the Bible, really thankful, because I think Saul and Barnabas were both worthy, admirable ministers of the word.

And can you believe it? What must this have done to the church in Antioch? These were their main guys. This was like Piper and Steller. Tom Steller and John Piper, been there for 33 years together. We come to the end of our life, we look at each other and say, “I can’t work with you.” What? The people would say, “What?”

That happened in Antioch. Because why? They had a radically different perception of what happened with John Mark. John Mark went home. Paul read that in a certain way. Barnabas read it another way. Which of them was right? Luke doesn’t even go there. They just were so different in the way they assessed this action of Mark that those differing perceptions made their working together impossible.

I’m glad that’s in the Bible because I frankly would’ve happily worked with Saul or Barnabas, Paul or Barnabas. I think it would’ve been easier to work with Barnabas probably — son of encouragement — and Saul would’ve been spanking my bottom all the time. “Get going! What are you doing getting up so late?”

So those two things, the personal evangelism piece and then inserting yourself in these sort of leaders’ tensions at an earlier point hopefully to prevent the incalculable weirdness that can happen.

Okay. I wanted to move on to talk with you a little bit about Treasuring Christ Together, this church planting network. Where did your heart for church planting come from, and how did this ministry start? I heard from Brett, was it ten churches? There’s thirteen? I think it’s fair to say that just about everybody in this room is in love with church planting. We want to be part of church planting. We want to help to leverage church planting in the Twin Cities. Talk with us a little bit about your story there.

Well, I want to encourage those of you who don’t have a heart for church planting because I’m a real latecomer to this and I don’t feel like it’s top priority for me, and that doesn’t mean it’s not a priority. It’s like Bible is a top priority, study is a top priority, writing is a top priority, speaking is a top priority. Okay, here comes church planting.

So that’s just me, but I’ve got a Kenny, and God sweetly birthed in Kenny a willingness and readiness over the years to own what God seemed to be doing. I did about fourteen years ago in the turn of 2000 — Kenny can help me with the timeframe here — as we wrestled with how do you manage growth. You see, that’s the wrong way to say it. I should have been proactively thinking church planting as a way to spread rather than reactively “How do you manage growth”? That’s just not the way to do it, but that’s the way I did it.

So here I came to that that way. Read Keller and all the guys who talked about the percentages of churches per population going down and the most effective way to reach an area of plant churches. I read all that stuff and I thought, “Makes sense, I’m just going do it.” And I preached a sermon. When did I preach that sermon called “Planting a Passion”?

Okay, so that’s eleven years ago. “Planting a Passion,” which took my passion to spread a passion for the supremacy of God and said, “Well just go plant people to do that. That makes sense, right?” And so we made it a higher priority. We said though, one of the brothers was Jeff or somebody who said, “Our aim is to stay small and plant churches.” That ain’t going to happen. I don’t think so. It might, but probably not.

God loves to bless church-planting churches. There may be some churches in America that have planted lots of churches and stayed small. It’s pretty rare. So it’s not an answer to the management of growth, period. It shouldn’t be even thought that way. It’s an intrusion of the kingdom into the city and we should all go for it that way.

I have tried to just be what I am, surround myself with Kenny’s support, every vision that he has with the residency and the TCT Network and all that, and I just want to keep breathing on that. So for some of you that may be the way you are. You won’t be the guy who’s the cutting-edge visionary in the area for church planting. You’ll be the guy who wants to go home, study, and breathe on that guy, bless that guy, pray for that guy, hire that guy, and support him all the way. I see myself that way basically.

I thought it was interesting that Bart had said they wanted to stay small and plant churches and not be a megachurch. Talk a little bit more about that because not only does it seem that the Lord adds numbers to people who spread through church planting. But is there a place in an ecosystem for a resource church, for a megachurch, if there’s someone who’s gifted?

Someone who is as gifted as you are, you have this ability. God has given you this, to bring people, to put butts in seats. And that’s good as far as I’m concerned. But sometimes folks start to see the megachurch, the larger church, and they think of that as sort of somehow inhibiting the process. I’d like to hear you talk about, I think there’s a place for all those different kinds of churches, but what do you think?

I agree with that. I think there is a place for all those different kinds and different sizes of churches. When you articulate your longings and your dreams, it probably is a healthy thing to articulate them in terms of influencing for worship of God as many people as you can, rather than saying, “I want a church as big as it can be.” That little difference there is probably the difference between protecting yourself from an ego trip and a kingdom-building mentality with you as the king over against having a ripple effect for your life.

What you should not be afraid of praying is that God would make you maximally influential, provided influence means people get saved and they become like Jesus. Why would you not want that to happen to more people? Because you’ve been on the planet.

But once you’ve prayed that and if somebody says, “What’s your dream?” And say, “I would like to be a certain way, talk a certain way, study a certain way, marry a certain way, have kids a certain way, preach a certain way, lead a certain way so that I am maximally influential for God’s glory.” Something like that. Once you say that, then you say, “Well, what’s your plan?” And you might say, “Well, I’m going to pastor my church for the next forty years, whatever its size. And I’m going to be a faithful pastor. I’m going to preach the word of God. I’m going to love people. But my prayer is that he will influence me.”

I didn’t set out to write forty books. No way. It was never a dream. What that was was you drop a pebble in a pond called, say, “Desiring God.” You drop a pebble, a sermon series in the pond and you pray, “God, cause this sermon series to bless as many people as possible.” And Steve Halliday shows up in the coffee shop over at Bethel Seminary and says, “You ever thought about putting that series in a book?” I said, “No.” He said, “Well, I think I’d like to be your editor to do it.” I said, “Okay. What should I do?” “Well, get them ready and give them to me.” And so I do that and it helps a lot of people. And then some more come.

So you drop your pebble. Every week, you’re dropping your pebble in a little pool, and what you do is you go home and get another pebble ready and ask God to breathe on that pebble. “That pebble’s got to get big. That’s got to get big. I got to go on a circuit now. Got to make this book big.” I’ve never done that. Why would you want to do that? I got a sermon to prepare. I got a family. I just dropped the pebble.

And you’ve all got pebbles in your pocket, gospel pebbles. You’re dropping one this afternoon and you’re going to drop one on Sunday. You drop it. Then you go home, you pray, “God, cause that pebble to have the greatest influence on those hundred people who are there as possible.” And I’m working on my next pebble.

That’s the way I think about my life basically. I’m not a real strategic thinker, like, “If I went here, and I went here, and I did this and I did this, then I could get hired here, or I could be on that show.” I think that’s the unhealthy way to pursue mega. If mega happens because you’ve been faithful, steward mega. Mega has its dangers.

But John MacArthur said something to me thirty years ago that had a huge influence. He said, “John, sometimes churches have to get big to get small.” And what he meant was this. If you got, say, a hundred people in your church, most everybody knows everybody. It feels family, and a lot of good intrapersonal dynamics are happening.

Say you go to two hundred. At that point everybody thinks it’s happening. It’s not happening. It’s not happening. Something more intentional has to be done. You need a helper, another pastor, to come in and start to organize groups because the naturalness of the 50, the 75, the 100 isn’t happening anymore. It’s floundering. People are starting to, “Where do I fit in this 150 people? They all know each other, and I don’t fit here anymore.” And somebody’s going.

His point is, there’s a certain organizational effort that has to go into making small happen again. And that may take some growth to have the staff to make the small happen again. At least that’s the way I interpreted what he said. And that’s true. So don’t assume small means we’re doing all the one another stuff really well. You may not be. And don’t assume if you’re big, you really can’t do one another stuff very well. You might be able to.

Well, I mean if you look at the opening chapters of Acts, you have an enormous church and they seem to be doing the one another’s fairly well in the first four chapters of the book of Acts.

Well, probably not. But that’s encouraging, isn’t it? I mean, chapter six, it was just a total mess. I get encouraged from the messiness of Acts, not that they had it together. I think they were just blowing it right and left. I mean, these twevle guys, they didn’t know how to run anything, right? They were fishermen. It was just a mess. God had to do everything. He had to do it with persecution.

There was, though, in the early chapters — people devoting themselves to the apostles’ doctrine, the breaking of bread in fellowship, and the prayers. They were going house to house, sharing their meals with one another.

Some of them were.

That’s right. That’s what was happening.

I’d guess about five hundred out of that two thousand were doing it..

But even if it were five hundred, I think the point that you’re making is intimacy is not necessarily a function of size. If it were, then we would be closest with all the members of our immediate family. That’s where you have some of the lacks of intimacy. One of the questions I had was: If you’re dropping your pebble, what happens when God turns your pebble into a boulder in your case? And how do you protect your local church from being sacrificed on the altar of international notoriety? How do you make sure that local stays local if the Lord does bless you in some large way?

Well, a pathway — I won’t give you the answer, it’ll be a pathway to the answer. The pathway to the answer is to be in touch with your staff and your elders and make decisions together about what is appropriate. Take writing, for example. In the early ‘90s, I wanted to write Future Grace. I couldn’t do it in the cracks anymore of life, days off, and evenings, and whatever.

So I went to the elders and I said, “You know what? It looks like God has blessed Desiring God and Pleasures of God, and I have another one in me called Future Grace. Do you think that this might be part of my calling, and if so, would you give me a month a year? I won’t ask for a sabbatical every seven years. It’s just a month every year. And I’ll bring you a manuscript and put it on the table for you to bless. That’s my job.” And we did that every year since 1990. I don’t know when it started — ‘93, ‘94, ‘95, somewhere in there.

And so that was a corporate choice of how to do writing. He won’t be writing three days a week. He won’t be writing on Friday. He will be writing in April, and that means the rest of the year he’s not trying to produce books. He’s going to focus on a book there and he’s going to focus on the ministry here. But the principle there is it’s a collective decision with elders as to the priority of the staff. And so I would want my staff and my elders to feel good about what I’m doing.

If you are leaving behind every time you go on the road a disgruntled people and a disgruntled staff, then you’re abusing your privileges. They need to be on board, and that decision needs to be made collectively, talking that through.

It’s like a marriage. You date your wife every week, and you should ask her things like, “How are we doing? Am I home enough? How are we doing with the kids?” You should do that with your staff very regularly. “How are we doing? Is daddy here enough?” And they should be free to say, “It’s really getting out of hand, I think. It’s kind of hard to do stuff when you’re not here.”

And I think that probably might’ve been true at the end for me at Bethlehem, is that I think the pressures of my being pulled out with writing things and speaking things, and not just, but responsibilities at The Gospel Coalition, responsibilities at Together for the Gospel, responsibilities in missions things and a conference here, and the church probably felt like, “This may be a little too much absentee.”

In your preaching, did you ever feel more of an impulse to speak to a wider audience than Bethlehem because your notoriety was going up and because your influence had increased?

I wouldn’t say impulse, no. When you have enough people sitting in front of you and they’re real-life human beings looking at you, I think authenticity demands that’s who you talk to. And so I’m talking to them. The way it influenced me is I knew that this was live-streamed Saturday night, and therefore it would affect certain turns of phrase I think. That I would think —

Like, “No, Mr. President.” That one might.

That’s right. I looked right into the camera when I said that. That was clearly intentional. That was unusual though.

But that’s still an example of the kind of thinking.

But I did that very rarely. That’s the sort of thing I think you shouldn’t do regularly. I should not look into the camera and say, “You know, my real audience is out there and these poor folks just are the excuse for why I can talk to you.” I thought exactly the opposite that way. I am looking at people here and preaching to those faces and those concerns, and I think that’s why the people out there get the help they get. If you turned it around and try to be a world pastor and these people are the studio, that’s going to go south real fast. It will be rotten. It’ll be felt all rotten.

Well, I’d like to open it up to the floor now for questions for Pastor John. So just raise your hand and I’ll call on you. Just let us know who you are and what church you’re from. Yes? Your name from Hibbing, Minnesota. Steve Treichler. Yeah, Steve Treichler.

If I’m understanding you right, a lot of the folks who follow any pastoral leadership want to sort of be like that pastor. To what extent has John seen that in his ministry, and to what extent has he helped guys to try to be themselves and not try to sort of be a substitute John?

I don’t have 33 years of wisdom on that. Just I have tried in the classes I’ve taught with the guys especially to say that to them, to plead with them in their preaching, you must be you. The only authentic preacher you can be is you. If you try to be somebody else, you won’t be preaching; you’ll be playing a game. You’ll be playing imitation. And so I’m pleading with you, be you.

Now, the amazing thing is that you have in the Bible Paul’s saying, “Imitate me.” And he clearly didn’t mean become a clone with all his weaknesses and peculiarities. He meant there were traits and priorities and efforts in his life that were worth modeling because he’s being shaped into the image of Christ. And so he said, “As I imitate Christ, imitate me.”

So, I don’t doubt that influence is inevitable and a good thing, and therefore just needs to be constantly spoken to as you must be you. God made you. He didn’t make a mistake when he made you as you with all those distinct things from me. So beware.

The second thing, besides just telling them, is I think we should preach and act in such a way as to reveal our weaknesses so that people would not want to be that way. I am reading through a thick book of letters to me that the church gave me.

I read a few a day, and they’re limited to about 250 words. It is remarkable. This is now people who have been there for thirty years, ten years, five years, two years. How many of them say, “Thank you for your vulnerability about your family,” or about whatever. That’s remarkable, isn’t it? If they said, “I want to be like that,” well, that would mean, “I want to be as aware of my brokenness at home in ministry as he is,” which would be probably kind of a reverse “I’m therefore going to be different, because my brokennesses are going to be different. But he’s not afraid in Jesus to be vulnerable about his kids and his wife and his failures and this and that, and so there’s some freedom for me to be the weak me that I am.” So those two things maybe would be a way forward.

That’s great. The question is, What are some symptoms of weaknesses in shepherding in a local church? Is that fair?

It would help if I knew — I may just have to guess — what you mean by the shepherding aspect, because you obviously have something particular in mind as opposed to all pastoring is shepherding. Preaching is shepherding, but you mean more personal?

**Yes, the personal relationship with individuals.

Right. Okay. Well, from my standpoint of being a pastor for the last twenty years who don’t know half my people, the symptoms I’m looking for tend to be structural and then anecdotal. And see, if I were a good pastor, I’d probably do something much more rigorous than anecdotes. I’d do surveys and whatever.

But given the way I am, I’m looking at my staff, and I’m saying, “Are we so structured as a people that our covenant members are known and loved biblically by somebody in this church? Is the structure in place to make that happen?” People can always pull away from that, and you can’t stop them, but my job is to be accountable as much as I can to push that so that is the structure there.

I was never satisfied with my ability to put together a shepherding structure of small groups. I mean philosophically we said, “Here’s the pastoral staff, here are the elders, here are the leaders of small groups, here’s the people, and that’s the way the shepherding trickles down.” I was never satisfied that we were as rigorous about that. In fact, one of the things we were working on in the process as I left was a paper to rethink that and recast that, so structurally.

The anecdotal part is as I pray with people after services, as I get emails from people, as I visit people in the hospital or at funerals or at counseling situations where I have to, what are they saying to me? And at Bethlehem, I got a steady stream of, “I cannot believe how friendly this church is and how my life has been changed by this small group,” and I got a steady stream of, “Nobody knows me. Nobody cares for me. I can’t get connected here.”

So I was never satisfied with how we were doing. I think when you see that, you will make adaptations both personally if you’re in a smaller church, I think, to navigate that situation. And the larger it gets, the more efforts need to go into inspiring and equipping and organizing the staff in order to structure for shepherding.

So let me see if I can rephrase the question. What, Pastor John, would you say is the relationship between love for God and faith in future grace and how that works itself out in the dynamic of the Christian life? Is that fair?

Right, and so just let me distinguish. Galatians 5:6 is about loving people. “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” Don’t bite and devour one another. And so love for God is not explicit in that verse. So I’m backing up from there, because I think your real question is exactly that one. Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). So clearly loving Jesus is powerful for obedience, right? And Paul talks about the works of faith, labor of love, endurance of hope. So works of faith means works that are flowing out like love, and Galatians 5:6 flows out of faith. Jesus is saying, “Obedience to me works. Loving people flows out of loving me.”

This is what I spend most of my time doing is thinking about questions like this. If they flow from love and they flow from faith, then there must be some connection between loving God or loving Jesus and trusting Jesus.

My answer would be, there is indeed. You cannot have one without the other. I would say that these two words have a semantic field with a big overlap, like this. This is all that love means, this is all that faith means, and they relate to each other like this. And this common ground here is why they can talk that way, that obedience or acts of love towards people are flowing from love to God and flowing from faith in God.

Because think of it this way. If you love God, that doesn’t mean you now work for him. It means you have a disposition of enjoyment of him, admiration of him, delight in him, satisfaction in him, a restfulness in him because of who he is. And out of that restfulness of his kind of being, you are being freed from all kinds of stuff that keep you from loving people, all kinds of fears, all kinds of greed, all kinds of self-preoccupation is being stripped out of your life by your satisfaction in God, which I’m calling love. And therefore, this life is being disposed towards others because that’s the way he is.

Now, if that’s the way love works, then faith is if you see him for who he is and you love him, he’s trustworthy. When he talks, he keeps his promises. And if you love him, that’s part of what you love. You love the God who makes promises. You love the God who keeps his covenant, and therefore inside love for God is trusting God. And I turned it around exactly the other way. I would say, if you come to God and you embrace him as trustworthy and you try to say in that process, “But he’s not very admirable. He’s not very satisfying. He’s not like water to drink and bread to eat,” then you’re not receiving him or trusting him for who he is. So I think love is implicit in faith.

I think biblical faith, saving faith in the living God or in his Son, in his Son’s atoning work, includes as part of it a love for God. Just methodologically, here’s what I would encourage everybody to do. When you’re wrestling with a question like this, press with all your might on the meaning of those words.

Press in to say, “What is love when it’s directed towards God? What is it?” And write a half a page while you’re thinking. In your journal, say, “Well, it might be this.” And as soon as you write that you’ll get another idea. And you write that, and you get another idea, and you write that. The meaning of the love of God starts to open up.

So my answer to you is that loving God and trusting God are interwoven realities. They overlap. A right love of God includes a trusting of God; a right trusting of God includes a loving of God, and that overlap accounts for why you can have Bible passage to talk about love being the spring of obedience to loving people and faith being the spring of obedience that loves people.

Thank you. Thanks, Pastor John, for being here today. Thank you. Guys? Yes, thank you. As we close out today, just wanted to let you know about some things that are happening with Gospel Coalition — Twin Cities. Our heartbeat is to see the Twin Cities Metro find itself 8 percent of the Twin Cities metro by 2030 in gospel-positive, city-positive churches.

And by gospel-positive, we mean having an orientation around the gospel of grace and ministries that flow out of that philosophy. And then city-positive means a lot like what Bart Moseman was talking about — I thought that was wonderful — city life, caring about what’s happening with our neighbors.

And we’re going to be planning, moving into a planning cycle to try to move beyond simply convening everyone together and connecting you to one another to this catalyzing piece that Scotty talked about as we started things off. How can we catalyze church planning efforts and other things here in the Twin Cities to try to leverage what God is doing here?

I think Jeff Evans is absolutely right. There’s something really special that’s happening here in the Twin Cities. God is on the move in these sort of like-minded churches, and we just want to be about leveraging that, getting those streams together. So this summer we want to start to move, as I said, into a planning cycle. We’re also going to be trying to put together a directory, a map, a Facebook page to try to start to move this thing forward. So I just wanted to sort of keep that in front of you, keep you encouraged about that. And thank you again for coming. Scotty, I think, has a few more things to say.