Life and ministry have changed rapidly and radically over the past forty years. Reared in a pastor’s home, I was not, on the one hand, totally unprepared for the complexities and complications that awaited me when I accepted my first full-time ministry assignment at only twenty years old. On the other hand, no one was prepared for the sweeping changes that the next four decades would produce. Five things, in particular, caught me completely unprepared and added challenges to life and ministry that I never saw coming but nonetheless to which I had to respond.


When I was a boy, I spent a lot of time alone with older men who were members of churches my father served as pastor. They taught me to work hard, hunt stealthily, fish patiently, accurately identify plants and trees in the woods, and drive almost anything. None of them ever acted inappropriately or abused me in any way. They were kind, godly men who helped me walk toward manhood. Each of them proved worthy of the trust my parents placed in them. That idyllic childhood hardly prepared me for the hidden crimes and abuses perpetrated in many churches that would later be widely exposed and reckoned with.

Consequently, ministry today means thinking about physical safety issues and the price paid when that does not happen. Not only are churches now endeavoring to help those hurt in the past, but they also must do everything possible to prevent any crimes or even potential for such deeds in the future.

I did not foresee a need to run background checks on all church employees, leaders, and volunteer workers, but we do. Nor did I realize how much the physical security of church members and employees would factor into the design and expense of a new building, but it did. For the first half of my ministry, I never thought of lockdowns, active shooters, armed and uniformed officers in the church building, security cameras, or a policy that no adult may ever be alone with a child, but I certainly have in the last two decades. Like many others, I needed education and training to know how to protect the people whom I lead. That often meant hearing hard truths about consequences when churches and shepherds are not vigilant, stories so grievous that they made me resolve to do everything I could so it did not happen on my watch.


I remember when the public relations agenda of the gay lobby could be summed up in the word “tolerance.” They claimed that all they wanted was to be allowed to live their lives as they saw fit. No one asks for “tolerance” anymore. The demand now has moved beyond acquiescence or acceptance to full agreement and celebration.

Not only did the vocabulary of the demand changed, but so did the coalition of those demanding it. The “gay lobby” became LGBTQIA+, and the + means so many things that it’s impossible to keep up: two- spirit, non-binary, pansexual, demisexual, aromantic, gender fluid, and asexual! Who saw that coming? Not I. But the most

troubling thing is that neither did I anticipate that people who have claimed to be Bible- believing Christians for years would abandon clear biblical precepts to accept the views perpetrated on them by the contemporary culture. I did not foresee Christian colleges and universities abandoning the clear moral standards of their past and raising a white flag of surrender followed by a rainbow flag of assimilation. I could not have believed that parents would be led by their indoctrinated children on this issue rather than the other way round. I correctly assumed the world would gradually accept homosexuality, but I never imagined a wholesale denial of gender reality. Some people have always argued that they should be allowed to dress and to live however they wanted, but I could not have known that much of the world would vociferously argue that genes and genitalia do not determine sex, that men can have babies, that gender can be fluid, that people have the right to force others to use certain pronouns, or that biological men can compete in women’s sports. I never foresaw that a female nominee for the Supreme Court of the United States would be unable or unwilling—under oath—to define what a woman is.

In the entire history of the world, no previous culture has been confused on this issue. Whether pagan or Christian, rural or urban, ancient or modern, everyone has known how

to finish the sentence uttered at the birth of a healthy baby, “It’s a . . . .” I did not envisage that our culture would have the hubris to look back in smug judgment on all others and simply say, “We know better.”


My parents’ generation complained frequently about their kids’ being glued to the television. They had no idea that screens would morph and proliferate into every room, every space, and every waking moment in the lives of their

grandchildren and great-grandchildren. No one foresaw that those ubiquitous screens could simultaneously bring information and inanity, delight and danger, gospel preaching and graphic pornography. No one knew that the self-image and mental health of teens would be shaped—and threatened—by the things they saw on those screens.

Opinions on everything from sex and sexuality to Christian nationalism to fashion to theology to politics and public discourse are formed largely from online exposure. Out of the same screen come praise and cursing. I don’t think I am doing the biblical writer James a disservice by applying his statement on the tongue to our screens: “My brothers, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:10 ESV).

Screens on computers, iPads, cell phones, and TVs are relentlessly streaming values, opinions, worldviews, and images into the minds of believers and unbelievers alike at an informational rate many times over anything in the past. Parents are giving their children easy access to the internet and, consequently, giving everything on the internet easy access to their children. And parents are being manipulated and molded by those same forces as much as their children.

Christian ministries and churches have tried to use those screens for gospel purposes and have succeeded in many ways. Still, biblical truth proclaimed on the internet is—to paraphrase the great R. G. Lee—“like a fragrant gardenia in a garbage dump.” I had no idea how much of my time in ministry would be spent dealing with people discipled destructively by a screen.


I had read books or watched movies about what a global pandemic might look like, but I had never thought about what it might mean to lead a church through one. I did not see it coming, and when I did, I did not think it would last long. When it lasted long, I still held out the hope, even the belief, that an end point would come at which everything reverted to what it was before I ever heard of COVID-19. I know now that will never happen. The world changed in ways we can neither undo nor move past.

I thought the biggest problems of a pandemic would be health issues, but for me, at least, the leadership challenges were far more challenging than the three times I contracted COVID. How could I lead a church when

we couldn’t gather? How could we maintain unity in a world so fractured? How could the voice of a shepherd be heard above the din of everything else the sheep were seeing and listening to online? I had always trusted my ability to look my members in the eye and speak candidly and honestly so that they gave me their trust. I never thought about how I would lead when I couldn’t even be with them for a while or have them all together, even when we came back in multiple services. I also didn’t know that the members of my church would have such different opinions about the social and medical issues the pandemic brought.

Though the pandemic ended, many effects remain. Some church members simply disappeared, and we don’t know where they went or what happened to them. Some never came back and say they are no longer

following Christ. Habits and expectations changed. I am grateful our church made it through the pandemic without major divisions or disruptions, but it was hard, and it made me develop a different set of skills than those I relied on before.


I can name numerous evangelical leaders who shared platforms and enjoyed close fellowship ten years ago but hardly speak to each other now. Historically, theology has been the basis of Christian fellowships and denominations, but in recent years, theological distinctives have given way to myriad other issues that previously were secondary or non-existent.

Christians don’t merely disagree about theology or the best way to be Christian in a multicultural, pluralist society. They argue about politics, vaccines, the war in Ukraine, race, and a host of other matters that, though important, were once left out of church spaces.

Those disagreements lead to suspicions of a departure from faithfulness and fidelity. Those suspicions, in turn, embolden public accusations and personal animus, including labels intended to demean and dismiss someone over a single issue. Fellowship has fractured over non-theological issues like never before in my lifetime. And if that is true on the broad spectrum of evangelicalism, it is equally true in local churches.

Social media provides a public platform for everyone, and Christian charity is often the first casualty when an indignant believer feels justified in publicly correcting or calling out someone. The more outrageously the outrage is expressed, the more hits or views it generates. I confess that I did not anticipate this degree of animosity among believers, particularly between well-known leaders.

While I must admit a lack of foresight and being completely shocked by these major developments over the course of my ministry, one thing I saw very clearly, and which has only been confirmed across decades of experience, is this: the gospel of Jesus Christ is true. I have frequently been disappointed by people, even more so in myself, but Jesus has never let me down. Through all the sadness, confusion, disappointment, misinformation, and animosity around me, I still know that the gospel is the deepest need to the greatest problem in the world. I am more determined than ever to believe it, preach it, tell it, trust it, and live it than ever before—no matter what comes next.