I am making it my aim to write blogs about what’s buzzing around in my head. And so I’m sitting in the Sea-Tac airport, on my way home, reflecting on ShepCon (The Shepherd’s Conference)—what I just attended. Basically, in early March of every year, 4,000 pastors and church leaders gather for three days on the campus of Grace Community Church (where John MacArthur pastors) in Sun Valley, California for the purpose of mutual encouragement. It’s one big reunion…literally bumping into old friends who believe in God and God’s Word just like you do, for three straight days, morning til’ evening. Twelve people came directly or indirectly from our church (or seminary), making it a “home away from home” vibe. I won’t be surprised if other AGC pastors also blog their take on ShepCon, which is fine, but whether they do that or not, I thought I would spit out some personal highlights from my time there.
First of all, I love seeing old friends, and ShepCon affords this occasion. There’s nothing like sitting down with someone I grew up with and have known since Jr. High wrestling. We’ve clocked some time over the years to say the least, but since he lives in Richmond, VA this is one of the rare times to talk face to face. So, you catch up but when you’ve been friends for over 30 years, you pick up on things instinctively, tracking on the story underneath the story. It’s also fun to run into old professors who you know still see you as if you’re the sniveling 20-something year old who was struggling to pull off his semester. Looking into the now aged-eyes of one particular professor, it’s not so much what you say as much as expressing thanks, mutually acknowledging the investment he made so long ago. In fact, this retired professor’s son followed in his dad’s footsteps and is now the executive dean of TMS and was even one of the keynote speakers this week. He did very well, and not unlike how his dad looked at me, I remember when he was 18 years old, back when…
One of the unique phenomenon’s of going down to SoCal to talk to people is that you end up hanging out with Alaskans. Not the whole time but a significant amount of time. We do this because, being away from regular life demands, we can have focused conversations about life and the mission of the church. Admittedly, having to travel that far to connect might seem over the top, but it yields a neutral space where you can let go of competing tensions and assess how it’s been going and build for the future. I talked to just about every Alaskan there in a way that is harder to replicate when we are all home. These conversations with several fellow pastors or para-church leaders (from Anchorage, Soldotna, Eagle River, and Nenana) should lead to better teamwork throughout our state this year; certainly better for having had a personal connection.
Many know John MacArthur is 83 years old and that fact buzzing around the crowd made the atmosphere somewhat nostalgic in terms of this year’s conference. Respectfully, people are wondering what ShepCon will look like in a few more years. Musing like this came to the fore, when it was announced that John would not be able to open the conference keynote address because he had taken a fall and fractured his wrist. Instead, Steve Lawson would preach from Romans 9, where he tearfully opened with respect and praise for John’s influence in his life, wishing to hear from John rather than himself preaching. Incidentally, Lawson’s sermon was exceptional along with Auston Duncan (GCC associate pastor) to follow. The staff team was stepping up. The next day, John came and delivered his sermon seated in a Q and A fashion, talking off the top of his head (preaching without notes, joking that “he was prepared before”), also wearing a baseball cap because as he explained, when he crashed (helping his wife, beyond his limitations), he hit his head. When John preached the next day, he did so with his wrist wrapped and splinted, no tie, and head exposed with a serious blue and black bruise. He preached for an hour and a half, making up for lost pulpit time, talking through a several chapters from Zechariah on end-times theology. This sermon accounted for a lot of work he and a few other staffers had put in defending dispensational premillennialism, sarcastically noting how he’s trying to right the ship where reformed theology has been imprecise in this vein compared other areas of theology (such as the doctrine of salvation). So John had a clear agenda, but backed it up with clear exposition (even if some disagreed) and at the end of his sermon, everyone on the way out was handed the new OT commentary they had written on the book of Zechariah. So, kind of a class act.
The spoken theme assigned for all the keynote sermons was on the “remnant.” This is the idea that God always has had his people. The crowds may wax and wain in terms of God and his Word, but God will always call and preserve a people—always less than the majority—to believe and persevere. More than a few preachers presented how the remnant phenomenon is seen from Genesis through Revelation. I appreciated practically, in terms of the goal of preaching, that instead of preaching to build crowds, we might be preaching to refine and narrow a crowd down to this smaller remnant. For example, how Isaiah was called to preach in Isaiah 6, preaching Israel down to a “stump” (see, Isaiah 6:8–13).
A correlating theme on Christian Nationalism was taken up in a few breakout sessions. This is a trend, opposite of remnant theology, that might be labeled “reconstructionist theology.” This is the idea of reconstructing our country by Christianizing civil government, and doing so believing this is the Christian’s biblical mandate. I had just preached a sermon on having a biblical two-Kingdom mindset (see www.anchoragegrace.org for a preliminary explanation) so I found Jesse Johnson’s (TMS grad who pastors in Washington DC) seminar to be compelling and a good overview on an important topic that will probably build in momentum as we get closer to our next presidential election.
This last category is maybe the one I most value, for why I like to fly down there and “people out” for a week. That is the providential, unanticipated conversations that feel orchestrated by God for what he is doing behind the scenes. A friend of mine asked me if I was going down to the conference with any goals in mind, in particular for the sake of our church or missions or whatever, to which I responded that I didn’t. That being the case, I found myself talking up the great things the Lord is doing at our church, people being converted, baptism testimonies, someone recently coming out of the occult, our seminary growing, two short-term missions teams being sent to go serve four Alaska villages next month, just to say the least. I was asked to meet The Master’s University “Go-Team,” comprised of a handful of students planning to come serve our church and two bush Alaska camps (ministering to Alaska Native young people) this summer. This “Go-Team,” based on providential circumstances, had just been reshuffled with new leaders and a few newly-added team members the evening I met them. I’m not sure whether I was a comfort or not, as Alaskan ministry can feel intimidating. Still the personal touch seemed to help.
All in all, I found myself in settings with The Master’s Seminary, The Master’s Fellowship, The Master’s University, The Master’s Academy International, and even The Master’s media department. Some of these meetings were coordinated and some highly spontaneous. More often, conversations opened up about our shared desire to train expositors for the purpose of planting or establishing preachers (specifically expositors) in all 200 Alaskan villages. I met some people who are current students down there who are praying about transferring up here to either start or finish their seminary training with us. Why not? If you love the mission field, then we have a place for O-J-T. Still, I make it my rule to talk things up to about 85% in terms of the possible, then I take a decisive turn, where I back way off, with a smile saying, “We will trust God’s will to work itself out, in the way he desires.” I am learning how to be more measured in my approach as I talk up what God might do and have found this to be very freeing. The Lord works in his timing, whether slowly or quickly but it is nevertheless interesting as these conversations arise.
Well, I am probably about an hour away from landing back home in Anchorage, so I’ll sign off. However, I did enjoy my time away and am especially glad to get back to my family and church. There truly is no place like home. I hope this report gives you a flavor for why some of us make the trip, that you as our church make happen. In a word, I believe God is using ShepCon to help encourage our church mission (people sure do love AGC down there) and to resource us with teaching and possible materials to encourage AGC, GCS, and our TMS distance location. Thanks for allowing me to go and attend. I hope I am a better pastor for it.