Hebrews 10: 24-25: “And let us…not [forsake] the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another….”
My years in college were four of the best years of my life. Those were years that God taught me foundational truths about himself, and allowed me to experience the power of his gospel. I served as a youth pastor at Salemburg Baptist church, a co-captain of the FCA on campus, and together with my friend, J. D. Greear, led a Monday night Bible study where we were able in the power of God’s gospel to speak into the lives of college students from every imaginable background.
By the time I entered seminary, I had resigned my job as a youth pastor and was a full-time “youth evangelist.” I traveled and preached to youth and college students, calling them to faith in Christ. Those were great days. I have great memories of preaching at Camp Caswell, Crossroads Camps, South Mtn. Baptist Camp, Go Tell Camps, Camp Willow Run, and who knows how many churches.
And boy, do I have stories to tell. One of my favorites occurred when I preached at a Four Square church in South Carolina. J. D. Greear went along with me. While we were on the ride, J. D. informed me that although he had never taken piano lessons, recently he had learned how to play two songs–the hymn Alleluia and Faithfully by Journey–so that he could impress a certain girl at college. Hmmm. Before too long, we arrived at the church. It so happened that the church pianist was sick that Sunday and there was no replacement for her (at a church of about 50 people). So, after the sermon, I informed the congregation that I had brought a pianist with me and he would play the invitation hymn–Alleluia. I promptly called on J. D., and I’ve got to give it to him: He “cowboyed up” and walked straight to the piano, unfurling his two meat cleavers, and banging out the most jarring rendition of Alleluia that I have ever heard, or could ever have imagined. Finally, the invitation was over and the noise from the piano had ceased. After shaking hands and talking with some of the flock, J. D. and I found ourselves in a conversation with the two pastors (husband and wife) who were trying to anoint us with oil from a tester tube of some sort. All of the sudden, Mrs. Pastor told J. D. and I that she had a word from the Lord. I could tell that she was very excited about the prophecy to which she was about to give birth. With baited breath we waited. And then she told us: The Lord had told her I would be a “world-wide” evangelist and J. D. would be my “devoted music man.” Finally, she and her husband prayed over us that God would give us the faith of Kathryn Kuhlman (faith healer, mentor to Benny Hinn). I kid you not.
Now this is only one of the many stories I could tell of those years. There are funny ones, such as the one above, and serious ones, about the victories of the gospel. But there is one type of story I cannot tell: the story of deep relationships formed in the church of which I was a covenanted member. It is not that I didn’t have any relationships, or that I didn’t want to be a part of my church. Instead, it was the fact that I scheduled myself to be gone preaching so much that I was not in any meaningful sense a member of my church. (I preached 302 times in 1997, and earned $7,036.00. Incidentally, if I were to divide the $7,036 evenly, that would mean that I received, on average, $23 per engagement. I think my take-home average was thrown out of kilter by the nursing home gigs and FCA events that brought no honorarium.)
The church, however, is where God disciples his children. It is where we “all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love” (Eph4:13-15a). If we want to come to unity in the faith, know Christ, mature spiritually, learn sound doctrine, and speak the truth in love, God’s intention is that we do so within the covenanted community. It is true that there are cases where God calls a man out and sends him where there is no church. This type of calling allows him to be a missionary or even a traveling preacher. However, as a young man I would have been wise to devote significantly more time to my church, being discipled by men older than I, learning practice my gifts in relationship with the body, and growing up “in all things into Him, who is the head, Christ” (Eph 4:15-16).
Of course I am not saying that it is wrong to travel and preach. But I am saying that a young man should be deeply involved with his covenant community, discipling and being discipled. During my seminary years, I missed out on these things unwittingly. I missed out on teaching, fellowship, worship, and service. In fact, I visited Capitol Hill Baptist Church during this time, and spent a week there with some friends. I will never forget meeting Mark Dever, informing him of my ministry, and then realizing that not only was he not impressed, but he seemed to feel sorry for me. When he asked me in which ways I was involved in ministering to my own church, I had no answer. That was the first time I remember being forced to recognize the deep and abiding value of belonging to a covenanted body of believers.
For various reasons, seminary students are tempted not to take seriously their call to membership in Christ’s church. Some students might take their preaching schedule more seriously than their calling to church membership. Others might look down upon their pastor because his sermons are not always the “masterpiece” they expect. Still others might consistently neglect church involvement because they find their studies more important. But to neglect the body of Christ is not God’s plan and is never to one’s benefit. I testify to this from personal experience, and offer some advice to students: If you neglect your calling to God’s church, you will hurt yourself, your church, and the future ministry to which Christ is calling you.