Silver Reminiscences and Reflections: The Long Haul

I came from a denomination where the average pastorate lasted 1.5 to 3 years. I became a part of a denomination where getting asked to go to a larger church was good evidence that one was a recognized success. Successful churches were big churches. I distinctly remember a now-mega-church pastor saw me reading Selling Jesus, What’s Wrong with Marketing the Church. He asked me,

“Do you know who reads books like that?”

I bit.


“Pastors of small churches,” was his answer.

I also remember our first association meeting, probably about 400-500 people were present. The church planters were paraded up before the audience. The director of church planting was proud of his church planters.

“What city are you in? How big is your church? What is your philosophy of ministry? What are you reading?”

Planter after planter got, named their large bay area city, told of the hundreds that were attending their 1, 2, 3-year-old church. Talked about the latest trends of ministry approaches they were trying, and then said they were reading Rick Warren, Peter Drucker, George Barna, Stephen Covey, and John Maxwell. It was finally my turn. Well, my tact in those days was less than it is today.

“I am in Minden, NV.”

“Tell us where that is.”

“How many people in your church?”

“Oh, about 75 are in Christ’s church.” – (little discomfort by the director)

“What is your philosophy of ministry?”

“Acts 2:42.”

“Who are you reading?”

“I don’t read Barna or Drucker, but I am reading Edwards.”

After we had been in Nevada for about five years, I got a letter from a church in Carmel, CA, asking me to candidate for the pastorate there. I read it to Ariel and laughed. She asked if we could at least go to Carmel and then tell them no. Just about five years ago I had two men I respect ask me about going to a large church in Portland. I told them no. They said I should at least pray about it. Ariel and I went back to the car and I said, “Let’s pray. ‘Dear Father, thank you for the time of fellowship and the kind offer. I hope they find the right pastor.” There, we can say we prayed. I have never had any desire to go anywhere else. I have never had a desire to climb an ecclesiastical ladder.

There are three reasons we are here for the long haul. The first reason is the sense of calling. This is where God called us over 25 years ago. God didn’t call me to climb a ladder, He called me to labor here. I have never been convinced otherwise. The second reason is this is my family. I have joked that other churches wouldn’t put up with me, but Grace accepts me and loves me. Why would I leave my family? Family life is sometimes messy life, but family is family. And third, I said I was going to stay. Early on I told people I was here and wasn’t going anywhere. Unless Gabriel appears, I don’t suspect that will change.

Why is a long pastorate important? Why is it important to watch kids grow up and grown-ups grow old? Why is it important to perform the weddings of the kids who grow up under your ministry, and bury those who have grown old under it? Why is it important to be able to preach seven years in one book of the Bible? Why is it important to have a life connected with others and journey together? Well, I suppose the answer is obvious, but I will state the obvious. Building the body of Christ and pouring into people’s lives doesn’t take 2 years or 5 years, it takes the long haul. The fruitfulness of ministry isn’t instant. It takes years. You can’t get to know people in 2 or 5 years. It takes the long haul. You can’t deeply minister to people unless you know them. There is a sweetness to longevity. It’s like a marriage. Sure, the honeymoon is great. Sure, the first five years can be hard. But you don’t start hitting the stride of marital joy and harmony until you’ve been married for a while, a good long while. So, long pastorates are good for the church. They are good for God’s people. They are good for pastors.

My heart’s desire was that God would build a lasting work and no matter how big or how small the church, God would give us grace through His Word to get to heaven together safely. Yep, I am here for the long haul, Lord willing.

Silver Reminiscences and Reflections: The Shaping of our Identity

I became a Calvinist in seminary. I knew much of what was going on in evangelicalism was wrong-headed at best, unbiblical at worst. I knew that shallowness pervaded preaching and entertainment was mistaken for worship. I was reading Reformed theology and knew that it had to look like something in the life of the church. Theology must be applied and lived out. I had read the Second London Confession (the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith). I had read about the regulative principle of worship. I just wasn’t sure what it all looked like in the worship and life of the church. Nothing in my past or present experience had given me a “model.” For that I am glad.

I just wasn’t sure what it all looked like in the worship and life of the church. Nothing in my past or present experience had given me a “model.”

In many ways, without a model (or cookie cutter) to depend on, we were forced to work through issues on our own. Yes, there were those who offered counsel, but we were a hot horseshoe, and the Bible was our hammer and anvil. One of the things that never changed was our theology of preaching. The Bible needed to be preached, primarily through consecutive exposition. Topical series were rare, consecutive exposition was our main diet. Application was also vital, although my view of application was not what some people expected. One of the main complaints against my preaching in the early days was that I was not practical enough, not enough application, and on occasion, that I did not preach the Gospel. What the latter complaint meant was that I did not give an altar call. The sermon is the invitation, I would say. As for application, I didn’t see it as giving people four things to do the following week, but rather, how do you take what was preached and make a highway from the head to the heart? Earnestness and passion is vital, and contagious. Application was comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

Application was comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

What were the things that changed? For one, we stopped sending our kids out of the service before the sermon. This seemed unbiblical to me if we believe that “faith comes by hearing.” So I preached on Children in Worship, distributed an excellent article by John and Noel Piper, and we implemented keeping the kids in whole service. There was some backlash. People thought the kids would be a distraction, or that the sermon would be over their heads. Some people visited and never came back because there was “nothing for their kids.” Frankly, some adults were more of a distraction than the kids ever dreamed of being! And as for over their heads, well, who learns unless they pick up their heads! I started providing sermon notes for the younger kids to help them follow the sermon (hopefully NOT training future generations to be notetakers during the sermon, but that is another story).

Another thing that changed was that we adopted the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith as our confessional standard. We still kept our statement of faith, which is Reformed, as the standard for membership, but the Confession is the standard for our teaching. We have taught through the Confession twice and are gearing up for a third time here soon. People have always responded well to it because most evangelicals have not been exposed to systematic doctrinal teaching.

There were other things that we did in our worship service. We stopped special music. We stopped the greeting time. We put announcements up front so as to not interrupt the flow of worship. We started with a call to worship, by consecutively reading the Psalms. We were picky about what we sang. I was never convinced that Reformed meant only singing hymns from the 18th century, so we have always had a blended worship service, that is, old and new combined. There are crummy old hymns, we don’t sing those (although once in a while one slips in). There are lots of crummy new songs, we don’t sing those. The source of a song is not a deal breaker, it is content. There are Catholic and Arminian hymn writers that our standard Reformed hymnal includes, but it includes them because they are good hymns. Once in a while the words are tweaked to bring a hymn or song more into alignment with our theological perspective. But the bottom line was that the public worship of God’s people should be both reverent and joyful. We have passionately pursued both over the years.

But the bottom line was that the public worship of God’s people should be both reverent and joyful. We have passionately pursued both over the years.

One of the events that shaped our identity in a more public way happened in the summer of 1998. Tom Hess asked me to do a Bible study that summer, which was held at his house in Carson City. The study would be on “An Introduction to the Reformed Faith.” He asked for 13 messages. I prepared a study based on the Solas and TULIP. Tom, unbeknownst to me, had Charlie Schreiber show up with a huge reel to reel tape recorder. Those studies were aired on Pilgrim Radio, and later on Family Radio. The response was overwhelming. Soon we had sent out a few thousand tapes of that series. This really started an important aspect of our ministry, sending out tapes, later CDs, and now Sermon Audio. We wore tapes out. Whether it was Ruth, Isaiah, Mark, you name it, people from all over were receiving recordings and over the last 10 years we have had 1,250,000 downloads on Sermon Audio.

One final dimension should be mentioned. Church life was family life. Family life was church life. We had people that were travelling from some distance and so we spent the Lord’s Day together. We would go to Lampe Park and eat during nice weather. We opened homes. We loved each other, and loved being with each other. Although we have grown over the years, that sense of family remains. For me, I would rather be at Grace Community Church and preach at Grace Community Church more than anywhere else in the world. It is my family.

Our identity was taking shape as a church that tried to be biblical. This meant practicing church discipline, governing our worship by the Word of God, preaching the whole counsel of God, and holding firmly to “Things Most Surely Believed Among Us” (i.e., Reformed, confessional theology), and trying to live out life together under the Lordship of Jesus and the authority of His Word, as a family. My prayer is that in the years to come we stay true to that identity.

Silver Reminiscences and Reflections: The Fight for Encouragement

The plan was simple. We would grow our core group and equip them with the fundamentals of what a church is. Our little group of about 12 grew to about 14 or 15. It was not very amazing. The buildup, to what is called “the launch,” was unspectacular. The launch date was March 6, 1994. We had a mailer printed up (we sure could have used Martin’s and Mark’s help in those days!). I got a few calls. One guy called and asked my views on polygamy. Strange. But we became friends. The big day approached, and we had some folks from Sierra Community Church in South Lake Tahoe come down. Some of those dear people would stick around for six months or so. Sierra Community Church was always very supportive. We had some others who wanted to help make the day special and so they joined us. We also had the “worship team” from another CBA church offer to come down and help with sound and music. We had rented the Carson Valley Middle School multipurpose room. We had a banner made. We were ready.

The day came and we had 77 souls showed up. It was exciting. The music was way, way too loud. The guy who led worship couldn’t play a hymn to save his life. The sermon was OK, as far as I remember. But we were out of the gate, off the block. That day an older gentleman and his wife came to check things out. Come to find out, they lived right across the street from us on Waterloo. Ernie and Flo Keuhnel quickly became regulars, with Ernie offering to help at every turn. Those were the early days. Each week was filled with anxiety and anticipation. Would new people come? Would I scare them off? New people did come. Sometimes it was a blessing. Sometimes it wasn’t. Sometimes God brought servants. Sometimes the devil brought wish-dreamers. (OK, I know God brought them too, but it is easier to think the devil brought them).

There we were, the Borgmans, Grabows, Keosababians, Winans, Keuhnels, Janis, Dottie, Aguileras, and some others. Those others, who straggled in during those early days, were people like Steve and Connie Schoonmaker their kids, Sean and Chanelle, Don and Jean Strachan and their seven children (some of whom you might know!), and John and Suzanne Wilber and their six children, Brent and Fran Guddat and their three darling little ones (not so little anymore). But there were others who were demanding, critical, and harsh. They had an idea of what the church should be and since they viewed themselves as big fish in a little pond, they would try to take control. Most of that stuff happened behind the scenes, in the small groups, or in the confines of a phone call. The ones who were loudest in their praise of the church on their first Sunday were the ones who left louder. There were others, who the more they got involved, the more I realized that they weren’t there to help, but they needed help. Efforts to help became consuming and yet were never enough. There were allegations that I didn’t know what I was doing (which was probably true), that Ariel was a shoplifter (which wasn’t true), that one of elders was a womanizer (which wasn’t true), that we weren’t pre-trib (which was true). I remember with crystal clarity the first time I got a phone call from a couple I had spent hours with, trying to help. They let me have it up one side and down the other. I got off the phone, sat down next to the bed and wept. Ariel sat down and wept with me, and then said, “Honey, blessed subtraction.” It didn’t help that much.

Everything that happened in those days seemed huge. When a family came, it was very noticeable. When the left, it was even more noticeable. Every Sunday felt like it could be the best or the last. The music was terrible. We had to bring our own scrapers to get gum off the floor before we could set chairs up. I hauled the fake trees to CVMS every Sunday in the back of my little Toyota and they would lose more leaves every time they were transported. Soon they looked like trees that belonged in Nevada. But we had a church. We had a group of people who loved the Lord, loved His Word, and were committed. But sometimes that was eclipsed by the harsh words of critics and my thin skin. My own insecurities as a young (26 years old), overweight Reformed guy didn’t help. It seemed like the fight for encouragement was a constant fight.

Where did encouragement come from? First, I believed that each week as I labored in the Word to prepare the sermon, that God had given me a privilege. I never felt once like I didn’t want to preach. Studying and preaching the Word kept me revived. Second, God brought people who were committed to the church and who loved me. That may sound strange, but it is apostolic (2 Cor. 12;15; Phil. 4:10, to name just two). That’s a risky thing because not all love proves to be true love, but God was faithful through faithful people. Third, Ariel helped me keep things in perspective. She’s more pragmatic than I am, and sometimes I needed to hear things from a realist’s perspective. Fourth, God gave me friends, both inside and outside the church. Friends who prayed for me, friends who sought to encourage me. He gave me friends like Ernie, who was unwavering in his love and loyalty.  Finally, the church graciously let me go to Bethlehem Conference for Pastors and later the Trinity Pastors Conference, where I would hear preaching and make some life-long friends (like Robert Elliott and Robert Briggs).

Did I ever contemplate quitting on a Monday? No. God made me stubborn. God gave me a sense of calling. God was knitting together a body of Christ. It’s was I lived for. No amount of discouragement could get the upper-hand over “I will build My church and the gates of hell shall not prevail.”