“Most crises are not crises. When I was younger, I thought that whatever I considered important was a battle to fight for. I came to learn that if something is of the Lord, it will work out in God’s timing.”
That was Dr. Boice’s comment to me just before the congregational meeting in which we were to vote on whether or not to install air conditioning in the one-hundred-year-old sanctuary of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Boice was for it. Congregants had sweltered long enough in the summer months, but many felt it was poor use of money to be used for kingdom work. I watched Dr. Boice then moderate the meeting with a cheerful spirit. (The vote passed.) “Most crises are not crises” has carried me well through “crisis” events. It is but one of many lessons I would learn through Boice’s instruction and through his example.
James Montgomery Boice served as senior minister of Tenth Church for thirty-three years until his untimely death from cancer at the age of 61 (a month shy of 62). Tenth was his only pastorate in America. During that period his teaching ministry flourished. He became widely known as a Bible expositor through his radio broadcasts on The Bible Study Hour and the more than thirty books published of his sermons mostly, as well as theology. Giving attention to the broader evangelical church, Boice would become a leading statesman. He chaired the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy that issued the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. He later chaired the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals which issued the Cambridge Statement on the sufficiency of Scripture. Even so, however widely his ministry and reputation spread, he exemplified the church pastor who remained anchored to his church pulpit and so provided a ministry that revived a declining congregation and led to a large, flourishing church in the heart of a secular city.
Boice had opportunity enough to take other churches and head other ministries. But he stayed at Tenth in Philadelphia. What kept him there? Early in his ministry, he adopted three principles that stuck with him through his three decades. They were 1) people before programs, 2) place before promotions, and 3) a permanent commitment.
- People before programs. What often excites pastors, especially young pastors, is developing programs that are going to “make a difference” in the church. It may be a program that will revolutionize body life—a new way to do small groups or discipleship or Sunday school. It may be an outreach program that is going to really connect the church with the community, maybe that will finally get the congregation to effectively witness to neighbors.
Boice did not oppose programs but he was alert to the danger of placing value in programs over the people we pastors are called to serve. As he stated, “We ought to be concerned for the people, and out of a concern for the people come the programs.” There are two ways in which a program may be over-valued. One is that it fails to produce the intended results. Attendance in small groups has not increased. No one is coming to the church from the evangelism program. Even so, we continue with the same programs. We and others grow frustrated that there is not more support among the church members. We need to push harder. Related to that is the second clue that something is wrong. Perhaps the small groups are growing and folks are entering the church doors. And yet, perhaps subtle at first, there is also less joy, even less love in the church. Everyone is busy; everyone is working hard to support the programs that require lots of reporting and meetings. Active members start to become less active; some quietly stop attending altogether. Again, we become frustrated with members who have lost their first love of serving Christ. It is easy for any program started by the best intentions to take over a church’s life so that the people end up serving the program.
- Place before promotions. There ought to be a commitment to place. Boice did not insist that every minister must have the same commitment to place, but he was concerned that too many never give the matter much thought. One starts in a small church, then moves up to a larger church, and then a larger. Or if size is not the factor, then the opportunity to escape the problems of the existing church is inviting. But place of calling should take precedence over personal opportunity.
By place, he meant the church and the community of the church. A minister should see God’s calling to a church in the fuller sense of a place in a real location. The church is not simply a job opportunity, and so when another job opportunity arises then we simply move on. Furthermore, the church is not simply a congregation that happens to be in a particular location. God has planted that church in that community, and the effective minister cares for that community, as well as the church.
- A permanent commitment. We are not to be committed to one place “for the time being.” As Boice would point out, “It takes time to make an impact in a church where you are in the business of developing character and discipleship. Therefore, a commitment to place takes priority over our own opportunity. This means that we don’t move on simply because we have a nice opportunity.”
Ministers will speak of being called to another church. We might say that we had no intention of moving, that we were happy where we were, but then another church contacted us and we could not get it off our minds. It must be the Spirit leading us. Perhaps, perhaps not. Whatever the case, such a decision ought not to be made alone or only with one’s spouse. There should be others, especially others with the same commitment to place, who ought to be consulted. It is too easy for the lure of greater opportunity to play the role of the Holy Spirit.
In summary, it was not success that kept James Boice rooted in Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. It was commitment: commitment to people, to place, and to permanency.
- Marion Clark served sixteen years as executive minister of Tenth Presbyterian Church. He has edited two books of James Boice’s writings: To the Glory of God, a 40-day devotional on the book of Romans; and Come to the Waters, a year-long devotional drawing from sermons and writings, both published and unpublished. The latter is to be republished by P&R and is due to be out the end of October 2017.