Last Sunday was amazing. While I’ve been attending fundamental Baptist churches since I was four years old, this was the first time I’d ever heard a pastor open Sunday School by saying, “Let’s begin by singing a psalm.” Not reading a psalm. Not singing a chorus. Singing a psalm.
The congregation did sing the psalm—actually, a recent paraphrase of Psalm 1. It was instructive. It was ordinate. It was edifying. And it was just the beginning of another wonderful Sunday with a little congregation near Houston that I’ve visited three times now.
The church has a young pastor who is laboring to bring biblical exposition, careful discipleship, and sober worship into a part of the world where these things are exceedingly rare. He is a man of God whose loves include the Scriptures, careful thinking, wide reading, and the people whom God has placed under his care. While the congregation is small, God is clearly doing a work there.
This young pastor is hardly unique. Over the past several years, God has allowed me to catch a glimpse of at least one part of the future. That future consists in the labors, vision, and priorities of young pastors in small churches scattered across the country.
They are not the product of a single church or school. They have received their formal training in places as scattered as Minneapolis, Detroit, Clearwater, Lansdale, Watertown, Dunbar, Greenville, Ankeny, and Chandler. Often they do not know of one another’s existence. Each, however, is laboring in the flock over which God has made him an overseer.
Monday afternoon gave me the opportunity to meet with another one of these young pastors, this time in a donut shop somewhere in Kansas. We talked about the small pastorate that he accepted just six months ago. We also discussed the administrative position in a large institution that he had declined. He was frank about his reasons: “I just want to pastor.” His pulpit exposition and his care of souls are already exerting influence far beyond his small town.
Then there is the pastor in a small community in southwestern Minnesota. The town is dying as young people move away, and yet this pastor’s emphasis upon expository preaching and personal discipleship keeps drawing new and young families to the church. This unknown pastor in this little church in this dying town is sending out men into the ministry.
A couple of months back, a Central Seminary graduate who pastors north of Minneapolis called me with an unusual request. He was going to be traveling and he was afraid that he might not be back in time for his Sunday services. He wanted to know whether I could be there with a sermon in hand, just in case he was unavailable to preach. Well, he was home in plenty of time, so I had the chance to see both pastor and church at work. Again, sober worship was coupled with obvious pastoral care and with a strong emphasis upon expository preaching.
Without any human applause, pastors like this are ministering in places like Elko, Nevada; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Hendersonville, North Carolina; Otsego, Minnesota; Phillips, Wisconsin; Salt Lake City, Utah; Jerseyville, Illinois; Lapeer, Michigan; and Cary, North Carolina. They are scattered here and there throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Michigan. I’ve found enough of them in enough unexpected places to believe that their numbers must be significant, even if they are generally overlooked.
These young pastors are often aware of each other only within small circles, but they tend to share common concerns. One is that they care about the same things. They care about theology, for example. They want to probe and to question, to explore the parameters and intricacies of the system of truth. They tend to react against shallow revivalism and, because their main models of theological sobriety are often (not always) Calvinists, they often (not always) become Calvinistic.
They care about personal devotion. While they may hold different understandings of progressive sanctification, they react strongly against any form of rule-driven externalism. They strongly desire holiness, both in their own lives and in the lives of those to whom they minister, but they are suspicious of attempts to calibrate holiness by lists of regulations.
They care about people. They do not see the members of their churches as means to an end. Rather, the spiritual transformation of those members is their end, their telos, their goal. They delight, not only in reaching the sinner for Christ, but in seeing the ongoing fruit of repentance in the lives of those who have been genuinely redeemed. They do not throw away those who fail, and when they are reviled they do not respond with recriminations. They pour themselves into people’s lives, and they welcome older mentors who will pour themselves into their lives.
They care about preaching. They have enormous confidence in the Word of God when it is rightly understood, explained, and applied. They labor to understand the text of Scripture and they work hard to make every sermon a lesson, not only in what the Bible says, but in how to understand the Bible. They are impatient with Christian leaders who try to pass off shallow rhetoric or manipulation as preaching.
Because they realize that the responsibilities of ministry are grave, these men tend to care about preparation. Many of them pursue seminary before entering ministry. Others realize in ministry that their undergraduate training or the one-year M.A. has left them poorly equipped to face the challenges, so they return to school for additional preparation. Even if they cannot get more school, they begin to read widely and voraciously, and they take full advantage of the power of the internet to find good preaching and teaching. Increasingly, these young men often pursue advanced degrees, not so that they can teach in an academic setting, but so that they can minister more effectively in face of the complexities of the present world.
These young men are, as a class, the best that fundamentalism has ever produced. Yet they often feel like outsiders in the world of “Old Fundamentalism.” The structures, institutions, and concerns of the various branches of Movement Fundamentalism have been shaped by experiences that seem very dissimilar to their own. They often question the value of the older structures, and particularly of the organized fellowships. While they are genuinely grateful for what older generations have given them, they are also keenly aware of some of the failures of the older leadership. They tend to start out skeptical of the older leaders, and any attempt to stampede them, to twist their arms, or to dismiss their concerns has the effect of convincing them that they have little or no place within institutional fundamentalism.
Incidentally, these are not typically the fellows who are visible as bloggers on the internet. They may have blogs, and they may sometimes express concerns through them, but they are simply too full of the work of ministry to spend their time lighting up pixels across the country.
These young men highly value fellowship with their peers in ministry, whether young or old. Because they are suspicious of fundamentalist institutionalism, however, their fellowship tends to be ad hoc. They seek one another out informally and across institutional lines. They talk together, read together, laugh together, and pray together. When ministry becomes heartbreaking, they weep together.
These are not the men who are trying to leave fundamentalism. Nevertheless, they don’t really see a fundamentalism to stay in—in fact, they aren’t even quite sure what it means to “stay in” fundamentalism. They just want to pastor churches, almost all of them small and virtually unrecognized.
Certainly large ministries have their place. A church is not necessarily wrong if it chooses to multiply members and staff within a single congregation. Larger churches like Fourth Baptist in Minneapolis, Inter-City Baptist in Allen Park, or Colonial Baptist in Virginia Beach can often provide ministries that bless and help other churches. I admire such works and men who can pastor them well.
Nevertheless, I cannot escape the suspicion that the vast majority of the Lord’s work is being accomplished in little churches led by pastors whose names are seldom heard outside their own ministries. These are faithful men, laboring without human commendation, sometimes under heartbreaking circumstances. They are the ones I admire most. If there is any hope for the future, it almost certainly lies with them.
Hold such in esteem.
James Shirley (1596–1666)
The glories of our blood and state
Are shadows, not substantial things;
There is no armor against fate;
Death lays his icy hand on kings:
Scepter and crown
Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.
Some men with swords may reap the ﬁeld,
And plant fresh laurels where they kill;
But their strong nerves at last must yield;
They tame but one another still:
Early or late,
They stoop to fate,
And must give up their murmuring breath,
When they, pale captives, creep to death.
The garlands wither on your brow,
Then boast no more your mighty deeds;
Upon Death’s purple altar now,
See where the victor-victim bleeds:
Your heads must come
To the cold tomb;
Only the actions of the just
Smell sweet and blossom in their dust.