By looking at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary today, one would not think that in my lifetime, the seminary was in theological crisis. When I decided to attend seminary, I sat down with my pastor and asked what seminary I should attend. I had no idea where to start and needed some wisdom. I remember his words very clearly; "if I could go to one seminary right now, it would be Southern. They have the best faculty in the world and have the most theologically rigorous program available". That settled it for me. With a lot of prayer, and in spite of my stellar 2.2 (cumulative) undergrad GPA, I was accepted. For the next 2 1/2 years, I was challenged and pushed to grow theologically more than I ever anticipated. The theological preparation that Southern provided is among the best available in the world. That is the Southern Seminary that I know... but it wasn't always that way.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Al Mohler coming to Southern as president. When he came, liberal theology was rampant. Professors were denying the inerrancy of Scripture and it seemed as though the institution that had once been a pillar for truth had been lost to compromise of and deviation from the convictional truths that it was built upon. While much ink has (and I'm sure will continue to be) spilled on the topic of Mohler's turning of the seminary, I wanted to offer what I think is a unique perspective that might help many struggling pastors.
While Mohler's story is a story of a theological institution, many lessons can be learned from his story and applied to the church, and in particular, and unhealthy church. Think of Mohler's early years at Southern as a church revitalization situation. There was a serious lack of health and that lack of health was not even recognized by many there. When one is in the throughs of that situation, it can seem impossible to see past the next crisis or see through the unhealthy attitudes to something beyond today or tomorrow. Beyond the pain to a time of fruitfulness. For some reading this, fruitfulness may seem unimaginable. Like a dream that one wakes up from only to find out it was a figment of the imagination. In those seasons, which may last for years, it is easy to get discouraged. Mohler's story is a glimpse into what might be possible if you stay and continue to slug it out for the truth.
Lessons to be Learned
There are many lessons to be learned from Mohler's experience at Southern Seminary, but here are a few I got from this video (particularly applied to church revitalization).
1. Conviction matters. Church revitalization is hard work. Men without conviction will fail because it is conviction that steadies the ship when the winds of popular opinion seek to blow it off course. Rock solid convictions for things like the importance of theology, the sufficiency and authority of Scripture, the mission of the church, the role of pastors, and many more will determine whether or not one stays the course or shifts to meet demands. The church needs men of Biblical conviction.
2. The willingness to suffer. When men of God are faithful, suffering is not far away. Many times, that suffering comes at the hands of those you are seeking to serve. Early on in my ministry at Arbor Drive, I experienced this and I remember texting my former pastor asking if people ever stop trying to kill the shepherd. I was feeling sorry for myself and was wanting some encouragement. It came in the form of a response that simply read: "did they ever stop with Christ?" That profound truth has served me well over the years. If Christ suffered on the path of faithfulness, why should I expect less?
3. The importance of your wife. Mary Mohler has been the unsung hero of Al's story. I remember hearing him talking about times that Mary wept with him, and other times when she kicked him in the pants. She supported him and endured hardship with him as a faithful helper. My wife has been the same for me. She knows me better than anyone. She knows when I need a kick in the pants and when I need to just vent. She knows when to encourage and when to lovingly rebuke. The wife of a church revitalizing pastor must be all in with her husband and be willing to suffer with him, but also be a voice of encouragement, reason, and motivation to perseverance in his life.
4. Revitalization is hard on families. Few church members consider the pain and hurt that they can cause the family of the pastor. When wars wage in church, it seems few are concerned with collateral damage. Little children might become hardened toward the church because they see the unhealthy attitudes toward their father (and even mother) as he seeks to serve Christ faithfully. Satan even uses church members to try to accomplish his work and attack the under-shepherd. Many times, that comes as passive aggressive comments that family members hear or worse, are told directly. Pastors in these situations must shepherd and protect their family. I remember one lady complained about me to my wife about a year after I got here. I pulled her aside and lovingly, yet firmly told her that if she had an issue, she was to come to me or an elder, not my wife. Protect your family.
5. Faithful perseverance yields fruit. The Southern Seminary I know is nothing like the one that Mohler knew when he first went there. The fruit of Mohler's faithful perseverance is what I know, and I have benefited from it beyond measure. The same is true of a church. You may not see fruit in the first 5 years. You may end up having a Moses like ministry where you lead a body to the edge of health and seeing God's blessing only to die and have someone else lead them into the promised land. But for may, if you stick it out and continue to love and serve the church faithfully, you will see God work. Brian Croft told me about the sweetness of pastoring members who 10 years ago were against him but now are growing in their faith. He said that nothing compares to seeing that transformation happen in someone. That transformation can happen, and God uses the faithful perseverance of men of conviction to bring it about through his word. Don't underestimate what God can do in 15, 20, even 30 years. Stay the course, love the people, trust the word, and pray like crazy that God would be pleased to move for his glory and the joy of his people.
Check out this short documentary "Recovering a Vision: The Presidency of R. Albert Mohler below.
Jon is husband to Carlee, Papa to Finleigh and Ainsley, a pastor at Arbor Drive Community Church in York, Ne, and co-host of The Pastor Discussions Podcast