I won't give my friend Ray Ortlund a long introduction, not to spare you, but to spare him, because I know he doesn't like it. I will just say that meeting him in Nashville, TN when I was an idiot church planter was one of the defining moments of my life and that God used Ray time and time again during those few years we were residents of the same town to restore my joy in ministry and my sense of calling. I'll forever be grateful for that. And for him. Ray is husband to Jani; dad to Eric, Krista, Dane, and Gavin; pastor of Immanuel Church Nashville, and author of some good books. He is a great man of God.
Where did you grow up and how did you come to faith in Christ?
I grew up in Pasadena, California. My dad led me to the Lord at the family breakfast table one morning when I was six years old. He explained that I was a sinner -- I understood that -- and that Jesus had died for my sins, and would I open my heart to receive him as my Savior? I bowed my head and prayed a six-year old prayer and accepted the Lord. An almost physical load of guilt seemed to be lifted from upon me. I experienced divine forgiveness.
Tell us how you knew you were called into pastoral ministry.
My freshman year in college some Campus Crusade guys got me involved in evangelism and discipleship, and I loved it. Absolutely loved it. A new thought entered my mind: "This will matter forever. I must give my life to this." That summer back in Pasadena I informed the leaders of my church of my new sense of call, and they began walking with me through the process that led to my ordination seven years later.
What are the peculiar challenges of planting a gospel-centered church in the suburban South?
Our mission field combines a weakened memory of Christianity with a strong need for impressive outward appearances. This mix would make Jesus into the chaplain of a religion almost unrecognizable as biblical in any sense. It is therefore important in communication to clarify what we aren't saying as much as what we are saying. If after coming to Immanuel Church someone thinks, "Yeah, sure, that's what I believe too," we have failed to communicate. Moreover, in addition to our message, it is equally important that the culture of our church be surprising as an environment of grace. For many people in our region, a culture of gospel + safety + time is a new experience. Exactly!
At the most recent T4G Conference, C.J. Mahaney preached on 2 Corinthians 4 in relation to the life of pastoral ministry. I found it particularly inspiring when he said we ought to ask seasoned pastors about their 2 Corinthians 4 stories. I wonder if you could tell us about a time or a series of times in your ministry when you have felt afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, or struck down. What did God teach you in those times?
I checked these words out this morning. "Afflicted" means pressured, stressed, pushed to the brink. "Perplexed" is the shock and anguish of wondering and wondering and wondering, "Where is God in this catastrophic turn of events? What does it all mean?" "Persecuted" means chased down, hounded, pursued by zealots who think they are serving God. And "struck down" is about ministry loss -- loss of position, loss of reputation, loss of confidence, laid low, utterly defeated, wondering "Will I ever rise again from this blow?"
Yes, I have known these experiences. I won't say more about it here. But, yes. Boy howdy, yes.
What did God show me? Psalm 73 is about bad people doing bad things and succeeding really well. That bothered the psalmist. It has bothered me. But here is where the Lord took me: "But for me it is good to be near God" (Psalm 73:28). It's that simple, that deep. Just to be near God, to walk with God, to read the Bible and pray every morning, to live in his presence throughout the day, to take refuge in his love, whatever others may say or do. When it seems that everything else in life collapses, God himself is still near. That re-defines the meaning of "good." It's very personal: "But for me it is good . . . ." As my dad said on his dying day in 2007: "Tell Ray, ministry isn't everything. Jesus is."
What is your hope for this rag-tag band of misfit sinners we call "the gospel-centered" tribe?
My hope is that we'll see revival of historic magnitude within our lifetimes. If the Lord is sending us such blessing, the way to prepare for it, receive it and steward it, is to stay low before him, stay humble, don't be cocky and self-dependent, stay in God-dependence and prayer, stick together as brothers and really love each other, and keep the main thing the main thing with simplicity and clarity and rugged faithfulness.
Also, keep reading great theology. Even if you've been to seminary, you know less than you're going to need to know. Keep studying until your dying day. Keep reading the Bible. Keep learning. We are less theologically educated than previous generations, less literate, less careful, less precise. It is important to feel ignorant -- and then do something about it. True leaders are lifelong learners.
What has been your greatest joy in ministry?
My wife loves and respects me. My kids are walking with the Lord, they love us and each other, and they are teaching their kids to love Jesus.
Every Monday for 5 weeks, I will feature another interview with a Pastor I Admire. I trust hearing the personal and ministry testimonies from some very different folks pastoring in different areas will be a blessing to you. Previous weeks have included interviews with Steve Benninger, Roland Mitcheson, and Steve Rahn. Next week: The man who was my first mentor in the ministry.