By John Frahm, Member of First Baptist of Easton, Md.
A few weeks prior to the convention in Baltimore, a dear friend encouraged my family and I to attend the Convention (our first time) since the location was so near to home and my work. She highly recommended attending the Pastor’s conference both Sunday and Monday. My wife was also invited to attend a luncheon on Tuesday, which she did. We were excited to hear the teachings, gain information about colleges for our younger son, Noah, to see first-hand Charles Spurgeon’s desk, and track through the exhibit halls all in order to glean how God is moving and leading this Christian denomination. But little did I know, like an ever growing drum beat that started afar, but drawing ever so closer and louder that the Spirit of God, using mortal instruments, was going to be heard in a profound and unexpected way, no matter what. As most know by now, the theme of the Pastor’s Conference was “Show Us Your Glory” (Exodus 33:18).
Now there is a story worth telling which hasn’t been told (as far as I can tell) that was incredibly inspiring, alarming, thought provoking, and heartbreaking all at the same time. This is a personal story of what I observed and believe to be true over a two-day period. However, the purpose of this article isn’t to simply share what the conference meant to me, or someone else for that matter. The real question to consider is the heart of this story true? Did this really all happen? And if so, what are the implications of it now and the years to come? May this story please God and enrich those who will labor to read and ponder it. Hopefully, my facts, memory, and judgments are sound. Let me ask ahead of time for God’s and your forgiveness if I failed in any aspects of what the Lord would have me share, the accuracy of it, or if I cause an ungodly offense. The fault is not His but mine alone. Secondly, let us heed the warning to not be continuous learners, merely gaining information, but never coming to knowing the truth (2nd Timothy 3:7) because we falsely believe the messages are hardly meant for us but for others. Thirdly, there always seem to be a debate between those who believe it’s best to speak to one’s mind versus those who want to speak to the heart. Honestly, I desire in this story to communicate to the soul of every reader. The part of us – the soul – that separates us from the animals, the part that is eternal, the part that longs deeply for God more than anything else.
The first sermon the pastor (oddly each pastor was referred to as a speaker, as if they are giving a talk?) called on the attendees, specifically other pastors, to spend genuine time with God alone to be refreshed, instructed, strengthened … to ensure the Lord’s will beyond anything else is preeminent. He exhorted the hearers to go up to be with God, then come down, and then proceed forward as Moses did. To emphasis the greater necessity for God and stress the need for a course correction statics were shared in this sermon, and those that followed, which provided alarming data. Such as:
a) The lack of baptisms (specifically within younger adults);
b) Infrequency of sharing the Gospel as a norm for most professing Christians;
c) Alarming rate of church closings each year;
d) Distressing rate men are leaving pastoral ministry;
e) So-called Church growth may only be happening at a particular congregation simply by people shifting between churches;
f) America is fast becoming Europe. At one point it was even stated the church is dying in America;
g) The decaying impact sin is having on the Church and culture overall.
This first pastor was warning us not to become (my words) professional Christians. What I mean by professional Christian is that one can view the church merely as an activity and/or business. An example would be one attending a Church service in order to get through it but with no anticipation of actually meeting with God. Organization can replace dependence on God. Committee meetings can replace prayer. Methodology can easily supersede the will of God. Undoubtedly, we have all heard such concerns before, but are we, by faith, prepared to do anything about it? It’s the warning, at least in part, Apostle Paul provided that one can have the appearance of religion without any divine power (2nd Timothy 3:5) or perhaps the Ephesus call to return to your first love is even better suited (Revelation 2:1-7). These concerns were threaded through the majority of the teachings. This first sermon served as a solid foundation for what was to follow.
The second pastor preached on the unity found in Christ. Now, there was observably something different about this man. I don’t mean to make too much of it. He had some sense of fear and humility in his preaching (Isaiah 66:2). It was very refreshing and godly indeed. Charles Spurgeon trembled when preaching God’s word. Before he would enter the pulpit, with child-like faith, he would repeat such words, ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit, I believe in the Holy Spirit, …’. This man was such a man. What struck me about this message is this nagging question: If we are truly Christian (which means we are becoming more like Jesus – not merely gaining more information about Him) then why don’t we behave like a Church body versus a collection of individuals? In our effort to figure out the world, others, and ourselves we may have gone beyond what scripture teaches by relying on worldly principles, traditions, and psychology (Colossians 2:8) versus letting our old nature perish, so that we may be new creation in Christ (Romans 6; 2nd Timothy 2:11). Thus, believers are netted together for and by Him (John 15:1-17). If we are followers of Jesus, should the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:1-11) being an ever-growing reality in our lives? Is that not what scripture teaches?
The final message Sunday night went against every rule of preaching. This man labored to make 25 points about God’s attributes. Such a sermon would have so many points it would be pointless! Surely no man can make so many meaningful points in a message and make it plain and clear for all who have ears to hear. To God’s glory and to our great benefit he did. And thankfully I will never read Psalms 68 the same ever again. The first sermon served as the foundation, the second made one think of heavenly things, and this sermon was the capstone causing one to think of Him who is utterly awesome (Psalm 68:35)! This man while preaching dripped with sincerity. Such authenticity and transparency is so encouraging, refreshing, and rare in the age in which we live.
But the story doesn’t end here. Do you have the strength to press on even further?
On Monday, I arrived in time to hear the two afternoon teachings with friends from First Baptist of Easton. Like the night before the messages were powerful and illuminating. I began tearing-up during the first message. I’m a printer by trade. My colleagues and I work diligently to find ways to keep our newspaper in business. As you may know, we have lost quite a few readers and advertisers in the last 10 years. It’s not just because of technology (e.g. internet, iPad); but society as a whole simply doesn’t care to read very much.
During the teaching, based on the ongoing stats provided, I leaned over to one of our pastors and said that sadly the Bible is losing readers faster than the newspaper I work for. It wasn’t meant to be a flipped remark. I was convicted deeply of the contrast of the lack of time and energy I spend to advance the eternal Gospel (consider 2nd Timothy 2:8-13), which would sadly pale in comparison to my commitment to the newspaper industry. Yes, it’s true if one doesn’t read a newspaper one may be ignorant of the world events, but how dreadful is it to be ignorant of the Savior of the World! “Rescue the perishing, care for the dying …” is what our Lord has called us to regardless of our circumstances or how difficult the journey. In the second afternoon message it didn’t get any easier, I was confronted with my sin of wasting time and encouraged all the same with the reminder sharing the Gospel should not be complicated, nor formula driven (as if one is following steps). The last sermon made me think of Jesus freeing the man from Legion, and instructing him later to go tell all what God has done for him (Mark 5). So should we. So true, so simple, so beautiful, and yes so supernatural.
There was a stark warning for pastors during this time that is worthy to mention again. The warning was people discern if a pastor is genuinely concerned about them versus simply using people as instruments to advance their ministry (career). There was dead silence after this word of caution. With fear and trembling, I believe this is worth the time for every pastor and Church leader to stop and consider.
At this point in the afternoon, I prepared to go home. My workload was heavy the next day with production demands and a client meeting. Honestly, I was tired. But how could I go home? I spoke to my wife and explained it’s best that I stay as long as I could which would get me home around 11:00 p.m. if I stayed to the end.
We arrived late after dinner, which didn’t give me anytime to walk the exhibits. I elected to walk the exhibits during the first teaching of the evening (a decision I would later regret). It gave me an opportunity to explore colleges, mission efforts, and the bookstore. On my way back to the conference hall, the pastor was praying. So I stopped and began to pray as well. He prayed a long time. To my surprise, which I can’t expound on now, something uncommon had happened. I later learned that this pastor prayed for others more than he probably preached. How wonderful!
Then the guy in a colorful shirt walked out and began to preach. That is how the pastor referred to himself as “that guy”. I believe he gave himself that title because he more than all others was to be the preacher who would serve as the town crier. A town crier is one who speaks on the authority of someone else (an official, a king), and this case God. To be fair, all the pastors beseeched (without manipulation, nor compulsion) and pleaded (without browbeating) those who have ears to hear to look beyond themselves and this world in order to see the Savior. So they were all certainly town criers. However, this guy with enormous conviction, without hesitation, and utterly unashamed labored to expound and reveal many of the truths found in chapters 32 and 33 of Exodus.
I’m not certain if watching a video of this sermon will provide the same benefit to actually being there, but I would do whatever it takes to watch, explore, and consider every sermon from the conference.
There are two things God pressed on me during this message:
First, Aaron and the people, in their idol making hearts, quickly with human hands made gods to worship (Exodus 32:4). In addition, they attempted to rob God of His glory by giving credit to what God had actually done for them to their new (dead) gods. Consider the condition of the heart and utter spiritual blindness to do such a thing. What’s alarming, as they fall into apostasy, is that they actually believed this was a good idea! It was perhaps during this part that the town crier proclaimed something to the effect that churches are dead because God’s voice is dead in them. Dear reader, could you and I be guilty of the same sins and not even be aware of it? Does that not make you tremble, just a little? I hope so.
Second, in Exodus 33 God informs Moses that He will be keeping His promise to deliver the land of “milk and honey”. However, God will not be going with them less He will “consume” them. The Lord calls them a “stiff-necked people”. There is nothing more heartbreaking and fearful to learn God is giving you or I over to the fleshly desires of our own hearts. Oh, let it never be so! Moses asked God for one thing as stated in Exodus 33:18, “Please show me your glory.” May that be the true genuine heart of every professing Christian! Oh, God don’t leave us as you found us, make us new, by Your infinite, eternal, never-changing grace and mercy! Is that our desire dear reader?
This guy, pastor, with humility and grace stated that he is personally on the path to draw closer to God, as Moses did. I came to understand that as challenging, even at times provocative and sharp witted, as his words were, it was equally challenging to himself. Then the pastor lovingly invited everyone to join him in this heavenly pursuit, and shortly thereafter walked off the platform.
During all the messages, a flood of scriptures kept flowing through my mind as they all labored hard to teach, stir, exhort, remind, and yes, even rebuke, calling on us to leave by-path-meadows (e.g. tradition, beliefs, principles, precepts, … that are not from God) and the town of vanity fair (e.g. distractions and lusts of the world that corrupts us, and blurs our vision, and competes for our affections) so that we would have true, greater affections for God. It now makes me think of just how important it is to have the full armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-20) in our pilgrimage as illustrated in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
At the end of the message there was nervous, hesitate Amens or applause (to encourage, show agreement?). It’s hard to fathom the true reasons why with thousands in the room, but the atmosphere was at best strange, and worst tense. Looking back on it perhaps it was the moment where we should have shouted out something like Acts 2:37, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
However, little did I know the worst sermon (speaking in human terms) that I have ever heard was about to begin, but it was perhaps the most divine of them all. This pastor called the previous town crier a “freak of nature” because there is no one else like him. Understand he did so with great respect, love, and humor, but I suppose little did he know that God intended for him to be the “freak of nature” that evening. God does uncommon and unexpected things all the time doesn’t He? It’s all throughout scripture God using the unlikely, overlooked characters for His purposes. And I, along with many others, never saw this coming. After all, he is the final pastor to preach. This sermon will be the capstone of the capstone! Surely this is the message all waited for all day long, and the conference hall was packed.
This was indeed the proverbial big moment and the preacher, to our shock, had nothing to add. At first, I thought for a second he came unprepared to preach. As he moved around, one could easily interpret him as being erratic. As he jumped from one thought to another, one could easily misunderstand his passion for mere emotionalism. No, to understand the message one must know what is true. This divine pastor stated several times that he did not want to take away from the previous message. All that had to be said, has already been said, he declared. It’s that simple and clear. I believe that he walked on that platform with great hesitation because he sensed God did not want him to add anything. I suspect he threw his sermon away (at least mentally). His job was to put the period on the sentence, which he faithfully did by asking all those who had ears to hear repeatedly what is it that you truly desire! And what made this message so beautiful was that this clearly didn’t fit into the program. This was not supposed to happen. After sharing his heartfelt concerns for us that something is clearly wrong, even interrupting the final prayer, this wonderful freak of nature told us to not forget what has been said here and that he would be praying for us. I believe him.
At this point where do we go from here? The one introducing the pastors, I believe to be a pastor himself, came onto the platform to close us in prayer. Many people began to leave immediately. He asked for them to stop, but many did not. He raised his voice to gain their attention, and pleaded with them to stop. He explained that we would close in prayer in a few minutes, and that worship team would keep playing as long as anyone wanted to stay in order to pray and reflect on things of God. Out of frustration he made it known those who don’t need revival after the final prayer are free to leave. I think that’s a fair assessment of what happened.
It’s also interesting to note that the following day during the women’s luncheon the ladies were reminded, prior to an inspired teaching, to not leave until after the final prayer. My wife found it odd that Christian women would need such a reminder. My main point is that this simply may show a lack of sensitivity, best case, and worst case a lack of reverence. Perhaps we have gotten to cavalier in our relationship with the Creator of Heaven and Earth? As we know, what’s alarming is the condition of our hearts behind the act. Sin doesn’t just cause us to do wrong things, but causes us to also think wrongly (consider Ephesians 2:1-10).
Now, I have read of revivals (a special work of the Holy Spirit, not of man) where it starts because people out of a love, reverence, and desperation for God refuse to leave a place. I know it may sound childish, but could this be such a moment? Simply out of a love for God and thankfulness to hear such teachings I decided to stay longer, with many others, even if it went through the night regardless of commitments the next day. Perhaps a night of honest prayer, genuine repentance, worship, and teachings, we would greet the sunrise as humble and contrite children who tremble at His word (Isaiah 66:1-2). After approximately 15 minutes there was a continuous flow of brothers and sisters leaving. Like many others I was thankful for the time, but it all ended (as others prepared for the business meeting) in about 45 minutes. I suppose there was about a hundred remaining at that time. As I exited the convention center there were groups talking from the conference, and the ballgame nearby ended at the same time with a flood of people seeking to go home. I couldn’t help but think, will tomorrow be more of the same or will the last two days be the beginning of something new? I do fear for us if it’s simply more of the same. But this is where the wall of despair has to be overcome by trusting God’s promises more than what we see, which points back to scriptures such as Psalm 68. How delightful, sufficient, and essential (consider Matthew 4:4) is God’s word to feed the Christian’s soul!
Yes, perhaps I’m thinking wrongly and narrowly. Maybe it didn’t end that night, which is one reason why I’m capturing what I believe truly happened, because maybe we need to bear witness of the fact that we truly, desperately need God. Whether we are stiff-necked towards God, even unsaved, or stiff-arming Him, either way it is not right, nor good. As Scripture states, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). Humility turns on the spigot of grace, while pride turns it off. I’ve been told of the conservative resurgence within the Southern Baptist denomination a few decades ago, but now it seems right, since only faith pleases God (Hebrews 11:6) that there needs to be a resurgence of child-like faith in Christ Jesus (consider Mark 10:15; Matthew 18:3). Is not child-like faith in the Lord Jesus Christ the mere definition of genuine Christian faith? Let us go sincerely to the Almighty God who created us. Let us embrace Him who carried the Cross. Let us repent of our sins and seek forgiveness in the Savoir who forgives. Let us ask the Lord who can truly show us the way forward. If the Christian faith is a gift from God (which it is, consider Ephesians 2:8-9); thus, it truly starts and ends with Him, doesn’t it? As the wonderful preacher said during the conference, ‘What God commands, God provides!’
“… But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (Isaiah 66:2).
Grace be with you dear reader.