Be hospitable to one another without complaint. As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.
~ 1 Peter 4:9-10
As I woke up the day after Shepherd's Conference 2018 my heart was full. Trials and the groanings of living in this sin-stained world were still very much a reality but if I focus there I'll lose perspective that God has granted many precious and magnificent promises (2 Pet 1:4) to His children and that not only will we one day live in His presence but we can enjoy life abundantly now (John 10:10). Circumstances cannot drive our joy like the tide of the ocean. Our God is steadfast. He is steady. He is sure and He is certain. As a brother shared with me at Shep Con, the sun is always in the sky, it's only our perspective that has changed. One day we're on the mountaintop, another we're in the valley. The sun has not moved. We have. So yes, upon rising that morning my cup overflowed because the Lord is gracious and full of compassion (Ps 111:4). His mercies are new every morning. And when Shep Con comes around the Lord fills my cup, the cup of the members of Grace Community Church, with a firehouse. It's like standing under Niagara Falls, except we never get swept away by its shear power, only awestruck by it's pure glory.
You might be thinking what is this conference? It is a gathering of around 3,500 thousand men from around the world. Mostly from North America but a total of 57 countries. These men are pastors of churches all over the world. Mixed in with them are lay leaders and men who are being trained and nurtured in leading Christ's church.
Some people believe they come just for the 8 or so speakers that will challenge them and encourage them in the task of shepherding. After all the charge is to shepherd the flock of God among you...not for sordid gain, but with eagerness...proving to be examples to the flock so that those under their care can imitate (them) as they imitate Christ and be lights in the world (1 Pet 5:2,3; 1 Cor 11:1; Phi 2:16). Yet the naysayers and disgruntled can always be found accusing these precious brothers of being mere fanboys traveling from conference to conference, receiving their injection of enthusiasm only to return to the dreary every week task of worship at their own local church. Such accusations may accurately fall upon the few but the reality is that the overwhelming majority are there for far, far more than well known Christian leaders.
These guys come year after year to renew friendships face to face. Friendships that often begin here but with the technology of social media, for one, relate to one another throughout the year. These brothers hit the campus and see beloved co-laborers in the gospel and the hugs abound. Followed by times of prayer, laughter, sharing the heart wrenching realities of the daily struggles of personal trials and ministry challenges or the joys of ministry in their home church. And they come for the volunteers of Grace Church.
You see, we don't just do speakers. We don't just sit in a cold cavernous building and serve them carnival food that breaks their wallet. And no, I'm not sure what the standard conference venue is like these days but I do recall the days of attending events at convention centers and sports arenas. But I do know I've heard this from more than one, "you guys are the gold standard", "you make us feel like we're at home", "I tell my church we want to model what they're doing at Grace Church", "there's nothing like Shepherd's Conference and it's because of the volunteers and the camaraderie of the men." Our leaders recognize the value these beloved pastors and leaders are to the church. So we dote on them. We feed them more than they could be fed on a cruise line. To the point they say, "you're trying to feed us to death" and "this is unbelievable."
No, we're just honoring you as we ought. Pouring our love out to you who faithfully labor over the flock of God day in and day out.
These guys have an ice cream shop, a shave shop, can get their shoes shined or buy a gift for their wife and children. They can enjoy the sessions in the worship center or in cabanas set up outside or the open courtyards. They can grab a Sweet Tea or Cappuccino. Stroll by the hot dog stand or grab an acai bowl. And every time they will have a willing and joyful member of Grace Church to hand it to them. They're in our house. They are our honored guests. Sit back, and enjoy being treated like kings because you know what, ministry can get messy. These dear brothers need encouragement. They should receive a little blessing from us because often our sinfulness makes their ministry difficult.
We do not serve to be noticed. We serve because Christ commanded it. As Timothy served Paul, for the furtherance of the gospel so the church should and does serve these men for 3 days. With meekness and humility the volunteers are merely third level under rowers, seeking no accolades, though these dear pastors never cease to give them. It is Christ. It is His church, His bride, His doing, His strength, His empowering, and His glory, alone!
And these guys get books. Do they get books! Solid biblical books the size of 4 Lifeway's with the content of Westminster Seminary. Ok, maybe Master's and Westminster. Not only do they get a bag of books with their attendance but this year they received the sweetest goatskin bible you'll touch, the Preachers Bible. Given to them so that they can have a clear easy to read bible to preach from and write their own notes in instead of the distractions or the eye strain other bibles will give them from the pulpit. And if they want more books, and they do, they get them at screaming low prices because, well, just because.
So what are these thoughts on Shep Con 2018? Well that's some of them. But I'll close with a few others. I've only enjoyed about 7 of these but in that time I know men who pastor churches in Texas, Virginia, New England, Canada, South Africa, England, Minnesota, Washington, Oregon and the list could go on. These guys look for volunteers now and you know what, they encourage them and pray for them, as we do them. They have a flock at home yet they know much about us as we do them, so the one another's of the body of Christ extend beyond the walls of the local church.
First timers? Ha, love those guys. They have no idea. I met a brother named Luther from Baltimore on day one before registration. He looked kind of deer in the headlights near the registration line. Alone. I approached him and learned he came out of a Pentecostal background some time ago and heard about John MacArthur and the conference so gave it a shot. I gave him some pointers. Told him to engage the attendees and volunteers and see what this was really about. After snapping a picture and exchanging phone numbers I went on my way and he on his. Then on the last day, day three, he spotted me from behind in preparation for sprint mode. Stopped dead in my tracks I extended my hand and looked him the eye, holding tight, and said, "So?" He went from a huge smile to dropping his head to his left in disbelief, saying a thousand words in one motion, before saying, "man, it's unbelievable. I'm so blessed!" Then he asked me if I knew of a meaty theological book to help him in his growth, he was after all headed for that gigantic book tent. "I know just the guy you need to see. Go to the Banner of Truth table and ask for ______. He'll take care of you." An hour later I received a text from this dear brother at Banner. He had a great conversation with Luther and helped him get the right book.
Then there's the multiple guys that stopped me or caught me at a down time and asked me about my family (and I theirs) and then prayed for me. Oh and the books, yes, the books. Two guys brought me books, just because they minister. It's what they do! And these guys thank us for serving?! No and no again. Thank you, because without you there is no us!
There's Jerry. Ahh, Jerry. He has been coming down for 11 years straight. I met him 7 years ago. Every year the Lord in His kindness makes our paths cross and we both light up. Jerry, like the grande finale of a fireworks show. That guy has more joy than a dog after his parents pick him up from the kennel following a two week vacation.
I could tell countless stories but I'll end with this. My daughter and I are leaving for the last time. The final session is starting. A man I recognize but have not met (Oh I will next year!) stops my daughter and thanks her, says she's a great blessing, that he's been watching how she serves for 7 years. Talk about melting a dad's heart!
So, Shepherd's Conference. It is the body of Christ coming together under the unity of the gospel of Jesus Christ to serve one another and be served. To love each other as Christ loved His disciples. And when Grace Church does it and these men come and do it, it is nothing short of glory this side of heaven.
He must increase,