(Disclaimer: I am a graduate of Calvary Baptist Seminary and have a deep appreciation for the school, its professors, and many of its alumni. There is a definite bias in this regard. I also have appreciated the pulpit ministry of Dr. Tim Jordan, although I was never a member at Calvary Baptist Church while in seminary.)
As I walked through the doors into a very familiar building, memories came rushing back. This was the place I had spent 5 of the most intense years of my life. I didn't say 5 of the best years, although much of my experience was very positive. Seminary was, in another's words, "the best of times and the worst of times." I never faced pressures in almost every aspect of my life, marriage, family, and ministry, as I did during this period. That's probably true for most seminarians. But here I was, back at "school." I could remember where "Chief" Jordan's files were stored in a large room over to my right, now a coatroom. The remodel of the church that occurred several years ago looked very nice. Everything was modern and inviting. I began to see faces that I recognized--some came with names, some didn't! It was the first of literally dozens of reunions that would take place over the next 3 days.
It was a blessing to have my wife Deborah with me. I don't usually take my wife with me to conferences, but the seminary had arranged a low rate for alumni which allowed wives to come for free. I took advantage of that! It took us about 11 hours to drive the 600 miles or so from Indianapolis to Lansdale. The weather and roads were awful going through Ohio but cleared up once we crossed into PA. We checked into the hotel, showered and freshened up and drove to Calvary Baptist Church, about a 5-minute drive from our lodging.
And although it was nice to be back at my alma mater for the first time in about 10 years, the real reason I was here was one of discovery. Sure, I knew there would be good preaching and good fellowship, but what I wanted to know was what had changed at Lansdale. This was not the same place I had left 11 years before. For one thing, the keynote speaker was Mark Dever, the pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. I had heard Mark before at the Together for the Gospel conference at a Matthias Media conference in Chicago, but I had never heard him at Lansdale. I mean, did they know Dever was a Southern Baptist? This crossed all the lines I had known Lansdale to maintain.
Then, the music started. Pete Radford, a former classmate of mine who now teaches in the seminary and leads the music ministry at Calvary, led us from the grand piano, ala Bob Kauflin. And the songs we sang were a mix of traditional and modern hymns, P.P. Bliss and Chris Tomlin. That was different.
Then, there was the demographics of the conference. I had attended several of the Leadership Conferences that Calvary used to host in years past. This conference was different. There were many more younger men in the audience, 20-somethings. The conference was also a little smaller in number than I remembered. There were maybe 500 people in attendance, although I didn't count.
Things were a little different. I started picking up on this a few years back, when I received a letter from Tim Jordan to all the alumni basically telling us that they were changing their philosophy of music and referencing us to listen to a couple sermons on the topic. Then, I heard Pastor Tim preach at the national GARBC conference last summer in Schaumburg where his opening line to the audience was something like "Why did it take us so long to get together?"
The obvious conclusion I reached and that Pastor Tim addressed in one of his messages at the conference was this: the ministry at Calvary Baptist Church & Seminary had been on a journey over the last several years. It had stretched them and caused them to consider their ministry priorities. They made adjustments. That's pretty much it.
I do know that they have paid a price for the progress. Many people have left the church, most over music from what I heard. The seminary matriculation has been a constant challenge as more and more students from fundamental colleges flood to schools like Southern Seminary. They have been excoriated on blogs, in "open" letters, and from pulpits. Yet, they are not turning back. This is definitely the road they are sticking to. They love it.
As for the conference itself, I was enriched each time the Word was opened, whether it was by Dever, Jordan, Harbin, Doran, or Bauder. There were wonderful testimonies of salvation, lots of free books and giveaways, a gym full of vendors, and wonderfully strong singing. You can read my notes on the various sermons preached. I tried to write down as much as I could from each message, although it is not a transcript and I'm sure I made mistakes and communicated a few things not as the authors intended. I'm human. But you can read that or better still, listen to the mp3s whenever they are posted online.
Highlights to me personally:
- The preaching of Mark Dever: Mark is a gifted communicator and is able to take grand and lofty ideas from the Scripture and communicate them very clearly. He is a brilliant scholar, yet a faithful, loving shepherd to his flock. He is a leader of leaders in great demand, and yet humble enough to talk to anyone about anything. He has personally responded to my emails each time I have asked him questions about ministry. God is using him to bring about a wonderfully biblical reformation to the modern church. I use his materials with my own leadership team and pray for him regularly.
- Reuniting with friends: I have rarely attended a conference where so many of my former colleagues, pastors, students, and friends were all in one place. It was wonderful also to make some new friends. I enjoyed meeting some guys who I only know from the online world. It was great to see my friend Kevin Mungons. My former pastors, Paul Auckland and Andy Counterman, were both there. Dr. Bauder introduced me to Todd Mitchell, a pastor in Minnesota. It was great to see friends from Northland days: Dr. Ollila, Dr. Olson, Jeff and Bekah Augustus, Todd and Wendy Barton, and others. I enjoyed having lunch with Matt Jury, a faithful pastor in central PA, and breakfast with longtime friend Dan Kreger, who serves at Calvary in the missions area. It was great to connect with many of my seminary profs. Doug Finkbeiner: thanks for your really well prepared and delivered workshop on NT preaching. Steve Horine: your smile and hug made my day! You were very influential to me at an important time in my ministry development. Sam Harbin: I will always thank God for your long ministry in my life, as a kid, teen, young adult, and seminarian. And it was very special to have dinner with my grandparents who live in nearby Souderton. I know there are others too I am forgetting. Sorry!
- Dr. Bauder's message on Friday morning was one of the best I have ever heard. I knew he liked gunsmithing, but I didn't know he was such a marksman! At least with the Scriptures. I was edified greatly. I appreciate his very gentle and humble demeanor as well. Most guys wouldn't give up the presidency of a seminary to stay on staff and do research and writing. That's like taking a pay cut and a prominence cut all in one! But I don't detect much of an ego in Dr. Bauder. He has always been kind to me, even though I have disagreed vigorously on some of the aesthetics discussion online. He is a patient man, seeing the potential in others and saying just the right things and asking just the right questions to make us all think deeply about important things.
- The reformed perspective: it strikes me that I didn't hear much of the "Calvinism vs. Biblicism" debate I used to hear at Calvary. I suspect (although it wasn't stated publicly) that most of the leadership at Calvary have become more reformed over the last several years, as I have also become. One leader I spoke to at the conference told me that everywhere he goes he meets other guys who have been on this same journey but independently of each other. It seems the Lord is moving among many in fundamentalism in this regard. Whether or not you embrace some or all of the points of Calvinism, I think everyone should be encouraged that leaders are being sensitive to their own study of God's Word, even when that has mandated real change that they have had to publically embrace and take flack for. I am not seeing just "get on the bandwagon" proponents of Calvinism; they are being challenged by the Scriptures on this issue. I can tell you firsthand: it is incredibly painful to change the way you think on these kinds of issues, especially if they have been ingrained on your conscience. However, it is also tremendously liberating to believe what you have been clearly challenged by in the Word of God.
- The panel discussions: as I recorded in my postings, the first panel discussion was not really interesting to me until they finally got into a discussion of separation. The second panel was really, really good. Mungons captured some of it well over at www.baptistbulletin.org. It was just the kind of honest, loving, Christian conversation that should take place every time we get together as Christian brothers. The tough subjects were not avoided and men were not disrespected. I learned quite a bit just by listening. Excellent points were made on both sides.
So, did the Advancing the Church conference actually advance the church? I think so, on a number of fronts. First and foremost, the Gospel was clearly preached. Some may think it odd to preach the Gospel to a group of pastors; it shouldn't be considered odd. It should be normative. I need the Gospel every day of my life. It was prominent in this conference, especially in Dever's classic message on justification through the blood of Christ out of Romans 5. ATC advanced the church in the level of conversation that took place. Unity amidst diversity really did reign here. The conference hosts did a magnificent job and advanced the church by caring for and refreshing the spirits of her shepherds. Landmark sermons were presented to make the church think about who she is, where she came from, and to what she is called. I look forward to the next one in 2013.