Heavenward: An Interview with Scotty Smith

It's been far too long since I've done an interview, but that changes now. Today I'm pleased to interview Scotty Smith, former Senior Pastor and current Founding Pastor of Christ Community Church, Professor at Covenant Theological Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary, and author.

Transient

I'm grateful to Scotty for this interview.

You recently concluded your ministry at the church you founded some 26 years ago. What did you learn throughout this transition?

I am one of the richest people you will ever meet for the privilege of having planted and pastored Christ Community Church. During the transition, I learned a lot about rejoicing and letting go. We had an absolutely amazing transition team that loved me and our congregation well through the whole process. They gave all of us the chance to remember and marinate in God’s faithfulness to CCC through for all of our 26 years. We laughed, cried, celebrated and got excited about what God has planned next for all of us.

Actually for a guy who never thought he would be, or necessarily even wanted to be a pastor, God has demonstrated his wonderful sense of humor by using a weak, broken man like me. I actually just finished 33 years of pastoral ministry in the Nashville area, counting my time at 1st Pres., Nashville, Christ Pres., Nashville and my 26 years at CCC. That’s a third of a century of learning how much I need the gospel and discovering how much greater the gospel is than my need.

Jack Miller had a marked influence on your life. What are some of the ways you've been shaped by him?

Jack’s influence on my life was (is) immeasurable. I first met him as my advisor at Westminster Theological Seminary in 1975, and for the next 21 years he became my professor, spiritual father, mentor and gospel Yoda. His life of humility and boldness, joy and laughter, love for grace and commitment to prayer are ever before me. I never knew a freer man, a more welcoming soul, a more caring evangelist or a more playful saint than Jack. Selfishly for me, I hate the fact God took him to heaven when he was just 64 and I was just beginning to move into one of the more difficult seasons of my life as a pastor and man. But Jack married my heart to Jesus, more than to his own.

I've really appreciated your published prayers on the Heavenward blog, and in Everyday Prayers. Are you still continuing to write new prayers?

I backed into writing Everyday Prayers, another one of those sneaky providences of God. Yes, I continue to rise early, mediate through a Scripture and then write a gospel-centered prayer, for me and a wide range of folk. Sometimes I re-write old prayers, with a fresh focus and voice; sometimes I am driven in a whole new direction—born out of longings, crises and simple joys. But writing my prayers helps keep me focused and it slows down my racing ADD brain.

What's next for you and your ministry?

My wife, Darlene, and I are excited about this next season of ministry together. She has two degrees from Covenant Seminary, one being in counseling. The word “retirement” simply isn’t in my vocabulary. Refocus, renew and refueling seem to be the order of the day. We want to make shorter term commitments in this next season of ministry—opportunities that will enable us to come alongside of younger leaders or churches needing a gospel breakthrough.

I am an adjunct faculty member at several seminaries and enjoy teaching short term intensive classes on spiritual formation, worship, gospel-centered ministry and grace-shaped relationships. Darlene and I will continue leading couple’s retreats, and offer care for weary (burned out) men and women in vocational ministry. I can also see myself serving as an interim pastor in the future, as well as investing in overseas gospel ministry—perhaps caring for missionaries in the field. I will also continue writing and speaking at conferences and retreats. So… I will not be bored!

What encouragement would you give to pastors in the trenches?

As Jack Miller taught me, live as close to Jesus as you can. Constantly preach the gospel to yourself. Walk closely with a “gospel posse”. Risk or rust for the rest of your life. Love one spouse well the rest of your life. Never be surprised to discover how broken the bride of Jesus is; how immature and selfish you can be; or how much God loves you in Jesus. Ache for heaven and serve in this moment.

Theology Pub

I'm really looking forward to the Theology Pubs we have lined up this Fall.

Transient

Saturday, September 15 at 7:00 PM - David Fitch, a bi-vocational pastor and professor from Chicago, will dialogue with Craig Carter, professor of theology at Tyndale, about Anabaptism, evangelicalism, and more. Carter is an outspoken critic of some of Fitch's writings at his blog.

Monday, October 15 at 7:00 PM - Charles Lewis of the National Post will be speaking about how the numbers of religious people remain steady and even rising in some cases about our influence in the public debate is waning.

Monday, November 19 at 7:00 PM - John van Leeuwen will be speaking on how to understand Genesis 1 and 2 in relation to science.

All meetings are held at the Bishop and Belcher in downtown Toronto.

Want to come? Register here for the September pub if you want to attend.

The best way to know what's going on is to join the email list for the Theology Pub using the form below. We only use this list to notify subscribers of upcoming meetings. You know what to do.

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Hope to see you this Fall!

Saturday Links

My Bible … My Idol?

Truthfully, I don’t know that it’s possible for someone who truly believes what the Bible says to worship The Bible doesn’t allow for that, because it continually points us to the only one who is worthy of our worship—that is, our great God and Savior Jesus Christ. And I’m not sure that it’s possible to have too high a view of that which reveals Him to us.

Don't Settle for Your Mediocre Preaching

Ministry mediocrity in any form is always an issue of the heart. If this describes you, then run in humble confession to your Savior and embrace the grace that has the power to rescue you from you, and in so doing, give you back your awe.

The Pastoral Practicality Of Law-Gospel Theology

Explaining that we are a law-gospel community, I showed how pastorally this means we believe God uses his law to crush hard hearts and his gospel to cure broken hearts. The law is God’s first word; the gospel is God’s final word. And when we rush past God’s first word to get to God’s final word and the law has not yet had a chance to do its deep wrecking work, the gospel is not given a chance to do its deep restorative work. Sinners never experience the freedom that comes from crying “Abba” (gospel) until they first cry “Uncle” (law).

The Man Alive: Irenaeus Did Not Teach Self-Fulfillment

Reviewing conversations with Christians over the past half-century or so, I am impressed by how often I have heard quoted a line from Irenaeus of Lyons: "the glory of God is man fully alive" … Irenaeus is not talking about "human fulfillment."

John Frame’s Advice: 30 Suggestions for Theological Students and Young Theologians

[Question]: Finally, what advice would you offer to theological students and young theologians as they face a lifetime of theological work?

[John Frame’s answer]: Well, here are some thoughts, in no particular order.

3 Criteria of Righteous Anger

  1. Righteous Anger Reacts against Actual Sin.
  2. Righteous Anger Focuses on God and His Kingdom, Rights, and Concerns, Not on Me and My Kingdom, Rights and Concerns.
  3. Righteous Anger Is Accompanied by Other Godly Qualities and Expresses Itself in Godly Ways.

How to encourage Radically simple, beautiful prayer

Pray simply. Use normal language. And keep your prayers short. Pray for a specific request, thank God that He showed up, and move on.

The Cost of Church Revitalization

My latest column at ChristianWeek:

I've spent twenty years pastoring established churches, and the last six months planting a new one. I believe that both types of ministries are needed, and it's hard to tell which one is harder.

Transient

I'm amazed by these words by researcher Ed Stetzer in his book Planting Missional Churches: "Church revitalization does not happen much, but it does happen sometimes. I have been struck by how infrequently it actually occurs."

Talk about sobering! Church revitalization is possible, but it's rare. According to statistics, most existing churches are in a state of plateau or decline. The good news is that these churches can be turned around, at least in theory. The bad news is that most of them will never pull out of their decline.

I've been thinking a lot lately about what it takes to turn a church around. I can think of a lot of churches that are in decline, but I can only think of a few that have turned around. Here's what they have in common.

First, they got uncomfortable. I'm amazed how easy it is to drift into a comfortable life and ministry. Sadly, comfort and decline go together. Churches that become stable and comfortable have chosen safety, but it's a safety that leads to death. Churches that die are churches that have forgotten how to take risks and live dangerously in their mission.

In each church turnaround, the church made a decision to begin living on the edge again. This meant taking new, very real risks. Leaders are the first to go here. Leaders put a lot on the line when they choose to lead a church into risk and discomfort.

Second, they confronted dysfunction. Churches have a way of slipping into dysfunction over time. Because it's scary to confront dysfunction, a lot of it goes unchecked and eventually it becomes unnoticed. The dysfunction eventually begins to choke the church and its ministry. Until the dysfunction is confronted, there's little hope for a turnaround.

The cost of confronting dysfunction is high. In each church turnaround, people got angry, and many people left. In some cases, the church was almost stripped to its core. It took courage and a willingness to suffer. The payoff was substantial, but there's no denying that it cost a lot to those who were willing to confront the dysfunction.

Third, they refocused on the gospel and on mission. It's not enough to get uncomfortable and to confront dysfunction. Churches need a positive focus. In the faith communities I know that have turned around, the churches became focused on two things: the core of the Christian faith, centred on the person and work of Jesus; and the mission to take that news to others.

It's no wonder that church revitalization is rare. In each case, the turnaround took years, and the pain was significant. Both church planting and church revitalization are necessary, and both are costly and risky. But churches can be revitalized, and the cost, though significant, is more than worth it.

Take the Lazy Way

Want to really make a difference? Multipliers suggests that you take the lazy way:

I've noticed that the more important something is, the more likely a lazy man's approach will work best. When something is based on sound design, it doesn't need to be forced. It just needs the right amount of effort applied in exactly the right place or in the right way. Suppose you are repairing an appliance at home, and you need to open a casing by loosening a six-sided hex screw. You grab a pair of pliers from the drawer, and with the pliers gripping two sides of the nut, you begin twisting. You pull, you turn, but you can't get a good grip. You try the pliers on two different sides, hoping it will be easier. You break a sweat trying to loosen this nut, but you can't get it to budge. Your tool-savvy roommate sees your futile effort, and hands you a hex nut ratchet. This specially designed tool encases the nut and provides preset torque and leverage. You place this tool around the nut, and with virtually no effort, the nut turns and loosens. 

I can't help but think about how this applies to our relationship with God, and to ministry. The harder we try with what we've got, the more we come up short. The more we rely on what God has provided, the more we find that things work as they're supposed to.

I can relate to trying to turn the nut of ministry on my own. It hasn't worked so well. I can relate to those times I've used the tools God has provided. I wouldn't call it lazy, but it's worked much better. There's really no comparison.