Earlier this summer, after 36 years of faithful service, Erwin Lutzer stepped down as senior pastor of The Moody Church and transitioned into the role of pastor emeritus. In this capacity he will continue to minister in a variety of ways, including speaking, writing, and working with Moody Church Media.
I asked Lutzer, a member of The Gospel Coalition’s Council, about his decades of ministry, future plans, and advice for younger pastors.
What was your most cherished moment in your nearly four decades of pastoral ministry?
The great pastor Charles Haddon Spurgeon once said he didn’t know what heaven will be like, but the closest he came to it on earth was in those moments when he was preaching and he experienced a special connection with God. My greatest moments at The Moody Church were during our Easter Sunday services when I had the privilege of preaching to a packed church, declaring the resurrection and the beauty of the gospel. That is the highlight of my ministry.
How have you seen things change within evangelicalism over these past four decades? Do you think local church ministry is more difficult for young pastors these days, or are the challenges about the same?
The changes in ministry over the past four decades are too numerous for comment; I’ll only mention a few. One is the change in the purpose of the gathering; it has often shifted from focusing on believers to strategizing for the unconverted (e.g., the seeker-sensitive movement). Along with this change came the so-called “worship wars,” when the purpose of singing and music was no longer to encourage contemplation. Hymns were replaced with loud bands and contemporary lyrics (not always a bad thing). A third change is the withdrawal of many pastors from speaking about the controversial and controlling realities of our culture. Finally, there is a real fear today that our basic freedoms are being taken away by judicial overreach. We’ve awakened to the fact that this is not the America we once knew.
What advice would you give an aspiring pastor who is at the outset of his training for ministry?
I would stress the need for personal integrity (witness the number of pastors who have had to leave the ministry because their character did not match their gifting). I would also encourage him to pay close attention to his marriage and family, and to choose some men to become his prayer partners. I found this to be a great source of encouragement and blessing.
How would I encourage him? By letting him know that trials will come—and the greatest will be when friends betray him. He must learn from criticism rather than react to it. And he must be certain he is called; if he is, God will match his trials with omnipotent grace.
What advice would you give him in regard to preaching? What’s the best way to approach the Bible?
I would suggest that each time he prepares a sermon he ask, Why should people’s lives be changed forever because of this sermon? And the answer should be specific. This is the question that has guided me during my years of preaching. I have always viewed preaching as more than just the communication of truth; a sermon should be constructed with a good grasp of the biblical text along with a good understanding of human need. Also, it’s important not only to preach the more “positive” passages and topics, but also the “hard” ones that deal with contemporary issues.
Few pastors remain long at the same church today. What are the the advantages and pitfalls of remaining at one post for 36 years?
I’ve always viewed a pastor and his congregation as a marriage relationship (except in this instance, divorce is allowed!). If there is harmony, and the pastor is meeting the expectations of the congregation and the elders, the relationship can continue for a long time. In my case, it was clear early on that my gifting and leadership style were compatible with the church. Even during difficult times (and there were certainly some), I always enjoyed the complete confidence of the board. Longevity gave our constituency a sense of predictability and credibility. We were able to have an aggressive capital fund campaign lasting many years, and my leadership gave the church continuity and confidence.
The downside of a long pastorate is that either the pastor or the church (or both) can stagnate, or the pastor might overstay his welcome and effectiveness. I told the congregation I would leave if I had more memories than dreams. When I did decide to leave it was at a time, as one of my pastoral staff put it, when by God’s grace no one wanted to see me go. The length of a pastorate has many variables, and both the pastor and church leadership need sensitivity to these relationships and God’s leading in the process.
You are a ministry hero to many younger men. How would you suggest a younger pastor learn from and apply lessons from the ministries of their heroes?
I do not see myself as a “hero” to younger pastors, though I do realize my extensive radio ministry and the books I’ve written might give me a measure of status in the minds of some other pastors. Here is what they must learn: God does not evaluate us on the basis of the size of our ministry. He honors integrity, brokenness, and humility. To the pastor in a smaller church I would quote the words of Francis Schaeffer: “There are no big places or small places of service; there are only faithful people and unfaithful people.”
Follow those of us who are older, but don’t idolize us. We have the same temptations, heartaches, and challenges all pastors do. Hang in there, and don’t think the end of the world has come just because everyone doesn’t support you.
What are your plans for the next chapter of ministry? You’ve been a prolific author, so will the books keep coming? Most recently, you’ve written about the Reformation in Rescuing the Gospel (Baker). What’s in the hopper next?
I expect to remain busy serving the Lord. I am asking him to help me answer a single question: How can I best invest the remaining years of my life to benefit the next generation? I certainly hope to spend more time with my eight grandchildren, but I also want to encourage pastors through personal mentoring, hosting seminars, and so on. And yes, I will continue to write books and blog posts, especially about the changes our culture has brought to us. It goes without saying that pastors today will have to deal with challenges those of us who are older could never have imagined.
Also, I’m continuing to work with Moody Church Media. Our flagship program Running to Win is on the radio in several hundred markets, and that outreach will continue under my direction.