How Ray Ortlund Became Foster Father to a Generation of Church Planters

Jani Ortlund still gets flustered when she thinks about the first time she saw her husband, Ray.

It was just outside the gym on Wheaton’s campus, where Jani was a freshman and Ray a sophomore.

“He was so cute,” she said. “He played football; he was a big man on campus.”

In fact, Ray’s whole world “was football, rock ‘n’ roll, and girls,” he said. “I loved Jesus, but all through college I was basically a goof-off.”

It’s still a word used to describe him, although with a different connotation.

“He’s got this goofy weightiness about him,” said Acts 29 US Southeast network director Brian Lowe. Ray’s Immanuel Church is in Lowe’s region. “Our guys see a gravitas in him, something that is weighty. He also doesn’t take himself too seriously, and if you say, ‘Man, I really respect you,’ he’ll say, ‘What are you talking about?’”

Ray Ortlund teaching at an Acts 29 event / Courtesy of Ray Ortlund

Ray’s humility, joy, and depth of faith were important in helping Acts 29 mature, president Matt Chandler told TGC. “Ray gives us a picture of biblical masculinity that is kind and compassionate and ferocious and servant-hearted.”

Ray joined Acts 29 in 2009, back when “the kids were running the house,” Chandler said of the relative immaturity of the church-planting network. Ray was “a picture of manhood different than the one we had been given—there’s no boasting or machismo in Ray, but he can hunt and fish and fix something in the house. He passionately loves and serves his wife, is serious about speaking life into women, and is an unapologetic man.”

He was the dad Acts 29 was looking for.

That “goofy weightiness” was “captivating, particularly for guys who were planting,” Lowe said. “We all are in our 30s and 40s. A lot of us see him as a bit of dad figure.”

That includes Chandler.

“I have often joked that if I could pick my own dad, I would pick Ray Ortlund,” Chandler said. “Even as a 43-year-old man, I want to grow up in Ray Ortlund’s house.”

The Ortlund house wasn’t perfect, though it can seem that way. (Ray’s four children have all grown up to be thoughtful, serious, fairly high-profile followers of Jesus.) Ray struggled through two difficult church situations before planting his own at the age of 58. Unreconciled relationships still ache. But in spite of that—or maybe because of it—his calm encouragement of and gentleness with other church planters has been enormously important.

“I don’t know how his influence could get larger” among Acts 29 church planters, Lowe said.

But it might. This month, 68-year-old Ray installed a new associate pastor at Immanuel, one who is “on track to succeed me as lead pastor.” Once that happens, likely in mid-2019, Ray will lead Renewal Ministries, which was founded by his parents. He’ll also have time to focus on what he does best—speak to, encourage, and help to train up another generation of church planters, pastors, and leaders.

“Jani and I are praying that our 70s will be our best decade yet,” he said. “We are both well, vigorous, and eager to see more divine blessing than we’ve ever seen before.”

TRICKED

Nineteen-year-old Jani was both clever and strategic. She knew Ray ate dinner late after football practice, so she kept showing up at the dining hall around the same time. And she prayed, asking God for a date with Ray.

She caught his eye the same time he caught hers. “I got to know her from afar through the grapevine, and realized that here was a drop-dead gorgeous woman with high standards and Christian integrity,” he said. “I said, ‘I have got to ask her out.’”

He did, and then asked her out again. Two years later, he told her he wanted to marry her. The request came in a moment of panic, when she said she was thinking about adding a double major that would delay her graduation.

Ray and Jani at Wheaton College / Courtesy of Ray Ortlund

“I was thinking, Whoa—I don’t want to get married until after we both graduate from college, but I am so not able to wait any longer,” Ray said. Instead, he suggested she stick with a single major and graduate early. Jani, just as eager to get married as he was, said yes.

After college, Ray and Jani set off for Dallas Theological Seminary. “I assumed I’d be a youth pastor, have fun, and keep rocking,” he said.

Until his second year, when he took a New Testament Greek exegesis course. “The professor was teaching us how to do text criticism, and suddenly I realized, Oh, this is why I’m on the planet. This is what God wants me to do. God wants me to be a serious student of the Bible for the rest of my life.”

“Then I couldn’t get enough,” he said. He would go on to author eight books, translate for both the New Living Translation (NLT) and the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible, and write the notes for Isaiah in the ESV Study Bible.

The change was disorienting for Jani.

“I married the campus football captain, and he did not care about classes,” she said. “He was a B student. I was the diligent, straight-A, smart one. Then we get married, and he can’t stop studying.”

It felt like a bait-and-switch. “I thought I had married a youth-pastor type, and really I had married a scholar,” she said. “At one point in our early years I was angry and sad, and I told Ray, ‘You tricked me!’”

“I didn’t mean to,” he told her, and asked her if they could grow and change together. (Answer: Yes.)

After finishing at Dallas, Ray and Jani served at Peninsula Bible Church in California, where Ray worked on another master’s degree on top of full-time ministry, and where Jani had a miscarriage and then three babies in less than three years.

“I was starting to drift,” Ray said. “I was starting to get too much relational and emotional enjoyment from my friends at work. It was a function of my vanity at the time, although I would not have characterized it that way at the moment.”

Jani sat him down for a talk. “She didn’t get hysterical or yell at me or threaten or cry,” he said. “I’ll never forget it. She gently, calmly said, ‘The children and I will always love you, but we’re not sure we’ll always have you.’”

That grabbed his attention. “I realized I was wrong and I had to make some changes,” he said. “I turned my psychological and emotional intensity and involvement toward my family and let go of this exaggerated sense of my attachment elsewhere. . . . Jani and I became better friends and more intimate and more solidified together.”

Then he told her he wanted to get his doctorate—in Scotland.

“I really balked,” Jani said. “We had just bought our first home—it was 950 feet including the front porch. We had to manage with one car. We didn’t have a lot of money, and we had three little kids, and he was talking about moving overseas to get a doctorate.”

Jani was dreaming of a safe pastorate, a larger home, a planned schedule, and friends and family who at least lived in the same country. But after two years of praying and considering, she saw that the University of Aberdeen wasn’t so much Ray’s plan as God’s, so she gamely packed up her toddlers for the move.

“Why did I resist?” she asks now. “It was in a beautiful valley in northeast Scotland. The Lord really knit us together as a family there. It was a wonderful experience in many ways.”

SCOTLAND

It was beautiful, but nothing about Scotland was easy for Ray and Jani.

The children were “continually sick with pneumonia, bronchitis, tonsillitis, all of that,” Jani told Revive Our Hearts and Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth. And then the money ran out.

“Two years in, the money we had invested to cover our costs was lost in an economic downturn,” Jani told TGC. Ray was on a student visa, and therefore not allowed to work. “So we had no regular income for two years.”

Ray and Jani at the University of Aberdeen / Courtesy of Ray Ortlund

They didn’t tell anybody except their parents. “We didn’t feel it was right to let people know,” she said. “We felt the Lord had called us there, and that we shouldn’t take the Lord’s tithes and offerings.”

They got $23 a week from government welfare, which bought milk, bread, and peanut butter. They sold the car, which meant Jani had to walk a mile to church with the three—and then four—kids each Sunday when Ray went early to participate in the service. (She bribed them with candy to keep a cheerful attitude during the walk.)

The family couldn’t even quit the doctoral program and fly home—the $5,000 for plane tickets was more than they had. (A surprise inheritance from an uncle eventually paid their way back to the United States.)

“Month by month, the Lord provided,” Jani said. “The kids remember those years positively, and the Lord freed me from the fear of not having enough money.”

WORST CHURCH PLANTER

In 1985, Ray was 35 years old. He had three graduate degrees, four children, and no job offers. So when a door opened for him to plant a church, he thought, Okay, this is what God wants me to do.

The Ortlunds moved to Eugene, Oregon, to start Cascade Presbyterian Church.

“I’m sure I was the worst church planter in the history of the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America),” Ray said. “I really did not know what I was doing.”

But he gave it his all, doing “everything that I knew to do. I was faithful with what I understood.”

Unsurprisingly for a pastor with a PhD, his preaching and leadership leaned toward the academic.

Ray preaching at Immanuel / Courtesy of Ray Ortlund

“God mercifully brought people around who were responsive to that, so I’m grateful,” he said. The church grew and was received into the PCA. Four years in, Ray took a job teaching Old Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School north of Chicago.

Nine years later, he moved back into the pulpit “because we know from the New Testament that the local church is the most natural location for spiritual renewal.”

His church was the 1,500-member First Presbyterian in Augusta, Georgia.

“He came as the senior pastor, after our previous pastor had been in our church for 26 years,” said Anne Morris, who was—and still is—a member there. “He knew he was coming to a hard spot, and it proved to be hard.”

Ray and Jani “were loved by the vast majority of members and elders, but they were strongly opposed by a few influential leaders who thought Ray preached too much grace,” said First Presbyterian interim senior pastor Mike Hearon, who was on staff when Ray was there.

The Ortlunds never let go of “the firm belief that, ‘Lord, you’re worth it—worth anything you ask of us,’” Morris said. “That was always their strong belief.”

After five years, Ray and Jani moved on to Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville.

FAMILY

By the time Ray and Jani hit Nashville, they were empty-nesters.

Between them, their four children earned degrees from places such as Wheaton College, Covenant Theological Seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. They headed into professorships and pastoral internships and Christian book publishing and even The Gospel Coalition.

In fact, it can be hard to move around the evangelical world without bumping into an Ortlund. Ray and Jani’s son Eric teaches Hebrew and Old Testament at Oak Hill College in London, son Dane is the executive vice president of Bible publishing at Crossway Books, daughter Krista is a former model who co-leads the sanctity-of-life team at her church, and son Gavin is a research fellow at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Their faith was nourished at home, in “an environment of talking about the gospel and Christian faith in the midst of life,” said Gavin, the youngest.

Dane, his wife Stacey, their son Zachary, Gavin, and Ray / Courtesy of Ray Ortlund

The Ortlund home was a mirror of Ray’s own upbringing.

“I grew up in a healthy Christian home,” he said. Ray Ortlund Sr. was a Presbyterian pastor with a long reach—he pastored four churches and founded Renewal Ministries with his wife, Anne. Ray Sr.’s sermons were broadcast over the radio; he hosted the Haven of Rest (now called Haven Today) radio program for almost two decades; and he and Anne wrote 25 books between them.

“My dad was the real deal,” Ray said. “He was the one who set the tone in the home.”

That didn’t mean family devotions after dinner every night. It didn’t even mean consistent family devotions at all.

“We read the Bible together after dinner every now and then, but that wasn’t nightly or even frequent,” Ray said. Instead, there was “a lovely presence of consistent Christian integrity. The Lord came first in our home. He was an unquestionable and undeniable reality.”

That “consistent Christ-awareness” was something Ray and Jani intentionally tried to reproduce.

If ultimate reality is the glorious goodness of God, “then our home should be, by his grace and for his glory, imperfectly but convincingly, a manifestation of the glorious goodness of God,” Ray said. “Something inside our home must be different from the world—more alive, more beautiful, more joyful, more humane.”

Ray would need that life—and the sanctuary of home—in Nashville. Because growing up in a high-profile ministry home does not protect anyone from trouble.

CRISIS

Ortlund took over as the fourth senior pastor of the 2,500-member Christ Presbyterian Church in 2004, after a 16-year run by his predecessor.

“My ministry at Christ Pres proved to be intense in both joy and pain,” he said. “The way it ended precipitated the crisis of my life.”

It’s still hard for him to talk about.

“Maybe the least value-laden way to say it is this: A group of people in the church made it their purpose that I would not be their pastor any longer, and they succeeded in their purpose,” Ray said. “It just about took me out.”

Ray and Christ Presbyterian split ways in February 2007, after which Ray and Jani “took about a year to try not to die, to pray, and to re-think at a profound level.”

During that year, three or four couple-friends began meeting with Ray and Jani on Sunday nights, “to comfort and encourage us,” Ray said. The fellowship grew into a Bible study, and the circle of friends expanded.

“By the summer of 2007, about 40 people were showing up—how or why they came, I don’t know,” Ray said. “There began to be some buzz going around the group about starting a church. I was really uncomfortable with that.”

It felt too fast.

“Starting a church is a more serious matter than we were all ready for at that point,” he said. “The church is sacred, blood-bought, awe-inspiring. I felt that we needed to build in a waiting time to really take that into account, as before the Lord.”

Plus, he was 58 years old.

“This is crazy,” he thought. So he called his dad.

“Dad, what would you think of this?” he said. “What if I propose to the people that we change the question? What if we change ‘Do we want to start a church?’ to ‘Does God want to start a church?’ And what if we take the time to wait on the Lord and let him speak into this?”

Ray’s dad loved the idea, so Ray took it to the people. They spent the fall praying and studying the Bible together. And in mid-November, when the steering committee handed out pieces of paper asking if people felt God’s call to plant and were willing to make a financial commitment, “the response was unanimous and sacrificial,” Ray said.

“Jani and I thought, Wow, this looks like it is of God.”

IMMANUEL CHURCH

Immanuel Church held its first public service on Easter Sunday 2008. The nondenominational church is gospel-centered and Reformed, with the confession of The Gospel Coalition as its doctrinal statement. In 2009, Immanuel joined Acts 29.

“It started steadily growing,” Ray said. Two years in, it was drawing 150 people—to Ray’s surprise, most were in their 20s and 30s—and had already planted a church in downtown Nashville. Today, 600 people regularly attend Immanuel, which has planted another three churches.

Ray baptizing a toddler at Immanuel Church / Courtesy of Ray Ortlund

“We’re just deeply, deeply grateful to God, for it really has been the most amazing ministry experience of my life,” Ray said. “We did not say, ‘Okay, God, you’re so lucky that we’re on your team—we’re so gifted and able.’ We had to say, ‘We are exhausted. We’re still somewhat confused. We desperately need your help, your intervention, your mercy. We have nothing to offer you but our need. So this is yours, for your glory alone.’

“And I think the Lord said, ‘Well, that’s a church I can use.’”

Ray started Immanuel “with the idea that ‘we don’t want to play games here. We want to be all in for Jesus,’” Chandler said. “‘If you’re broken, if you’re wandering, get in here. You’re our people.’”

“It’s one of the most vibrant, healthy churches in Nashville,” said Scott Sauls, who now pastors at Christ Presbyterian. “The community is made up of younger adults, and Ray and Jani are a rare Acts 29 couple in that they’re older, and they’ve become mother and father figures to not just their congregation, but the whole network.”

FATHER FIGURE

Ray served as an Acts 29 regional director from 2011 to 2012, but his biggest influence has been organic, Chandler said. “He’s much more of a soul-care, nurturing leader.”

“I’ve heard Ray talk about how the challenges have made him more like Jesus,” said Jeff Medders, a 33-year-old planter with Acts 29. “He has definitely rubbed off on me.”

Medders first came across Ray seven years ago, at an Acts 29 event. He still remembers the passage Ray spoke about (Eph. 3:16) and what he said. (God’s love is so powerful that unless we’re equipped to hold it, it’s like dropping white-hot nuclear fuel into a paper bag. We need to be strengthened to survive the love of God.)

“I’m 25 and hopped up on Calvinism pills, and here’s this guy talking about Jesus’s love and getting all emotional,” Medders said. “And I’m thinking, That’s what I want to be like. I don’t want to be the angry pastor. I want to be the pastor who’s really been affected by the love of Christ.”

Ray interviewing an elder at Immanuel / Courtesy of Ray Ortlund

A few years later, Medders was out for lunch with Ray and a few other guys when one, a planter whose church had failed, asked Ray for advice.

“He was still burdened about his church plant—he knew he had been unkind and unloving. He was torn up about it. He asked Ray, ‘What should I do? I don’t know how to get over this,’” Medders said. After a pause, “Ray stared into his face and says, ‘Brother, Jesus loves you.’”

“We were floored,” Medders said. “That was the advice he gave—brother, you need to know Jesus loves you.”

That’s how Ray gives counsel—not overly specifically or prescriptively. At another conference, Medders watched someone ask Ray if a pastor should use his sermon prep for devotional reading, or if it should be a separate Bible reading.

“Everyone is paying attention, because this is a frequent question among pastors,” Medders said.

Ray, who starts every day with coffee and a Bible reading that isn’t part of his sermon prep, paused.

“Let each person work out their salvation with fear and trembling,” he said. Medders let out a breath, turning to meet the eyes of his friend next to him. “Golly, that’s wisdom.”

Ray is “the most ‘Jesusy’ guy I’ve ever known,” said Midwestern Seminary director of content strategy and TGC blogger Jared Wilson. “He  always wants the best for you, wants you to succeed, wants you to feel great about God’s work and working in your life. . . . He has a way of pushing you to do more for God without leveraging guilt or moralistic pleading. I never left a meeting with him without feeling like I could walk on water.”

Ten Generations

Ray is praying for those who come after him—for as long as he can remember, he’s been asking God for 10 generations of fully committed, consistent, joyous Ortlunds.

But his legacy will be a lot larger than that.

“Without question, you look at him and go, Man, that’s somebody I want to be like,” Medders said. “Not in a dishonoring way, but in a Pauline way—imitate me as I imitate Christ.

“He said a few years ago that he thinks this decade—his 60s—might be his best decade yet,” Medders said. “I’m just about to wrap up my first decade of ministry. I don’t need to sprint. I’m not a failure if I haven’t achieved anything by worldly standards or a certain amount of growth. If he thinks his best decade is in his 60s, I need to relax and keep trusting the Lord.”

Ray is a bright example of how to finish well, Lowe said. “To see a guy—in his 50s—plant a church that is reaching hipster Nashville, who is not a hipster by any stretch of the imagination, and who is bringing the gospel to the city—that’s exciting to think about and emulate.”

“What impresses me is he’s infatuated with Jesus, and the older he gets, the more worshipful he gets,” Sauls said. “He’s not afraid to die. He’s not afraid of anything. His confidence in the Lord is so strong.”

Ray credits any success to “the grace and mercy of God. I’m not joking. . . . I’m so struck by God’s kindness and faithfulness, his steady patience through the tough years of church planting. God is so patient and so gentle, so rarely confrontational. He’s provident, thoughtful, wise. His care is amazing. I cannot explain these last ten years any other way.”

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