It was hard to decide on a title for this episode, because there are two compelling parts to it—one, developing teaching in community, and two, ministering to aging adults. What Joe Novenson, pastor to older adults at Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, had to say on both topics is equally profound and helpful.
At Novenson’s church, the sermon is prepared in community. More than one pastor does the exegetical work, which is then discussed and refined in a group setting. Anyone who prepares Bible teaching would recognize humility on the part of the teacher or preacher that this would require. After years of this practice, Novenson can’t imagine presenting the Word without going through this process.
As we continued our conversation into talking about his ministry to older adults, it was as if a fire inside him fanned into flame. His insights on sharing life and Christ with those nearing the end of life are applicable to ministry to people at any age. In addition, Joe’s transparency about his lifelong struggle with anxiety and depression will be an encouragement to anyone who battles these things in the midst of ministry.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Joe: Truth is best seen in community, the benefit is just beyond words. Without having brothers and sisters look over my shoulder and go, “Are you kidding me? That’s really what you think that passage says?” And go, “Well, I guess maybe not.” It’s just too important to leave it to one broken human being. And since I struggled with fear and anxiety, I feel better knowing I have people watching over my shoulder whose exegetical skills far exceed my own. It really helps.
Nancy: Welcome to “Help Me Teach the Bible.” I’m Nancy Guthrie. “Help Me Teach the Bible” is a production of The Gospel Coalition sponsored by Crossway, a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible Christian books and tracts. Learn more at crossway.org. It’s my joy today to be sitting in the Virginia Beach Conference Center, but the really special part of it is to be sitting across the table from a friend I’ve been trying to get to sit down with me to do a “Help Me Teach the Bible” interview for a while. Maybe saying my friend, that might be stretching it but I would like…
Joe: Okay with me.
Nancy: …to be able to say my friend, Joe Novenson. And Joe, thank you for helping us teach the Bible.
Joe: It’s my honor to be here, Nancy. And it’s an honor that you would even consider calling me a friend.
Nancy: Okay. So, you’ve already demonstrated what I think of as the quintessential Joe Novenson trait which is humility. And…
Joe: It just means you don’t know me.
Nancy: That’s not true. That’s not true. I met you years ago as pastor, senior pastor at Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church on top of Lookout Mountain, Georgia right outside of Chattanooga.
Joe: Well, I’m still there. But I served as what we would call now lead pastor for 22 years. And only recently I’ve been through a transition where a younger member of our staff has become the lead pastor, and I have become pastor to senior adults. And so, I’m entering my 23rd year.
Nancy: Do you love living up there on the mountain?
Joe: I do because of the nature of the kingdom at Lookout Mountain Pres.
Nancy: Hmm. What do you mean by that?
Joe: I have to say when I arrived there, I had stereotypes that were proven wrong very quickly. The nature of that body is they are not just for their mountain they are, but they’re for their city, and they’re for the country, and they’re for the world. And I learned that very quickly. I would go places in the city and people would say, “Oh, thank you.” And I had to keep saying like, “I just work there.” But there was a renewal there in the early 1970s that took it from I would just say sort of Churchianity to Bible believing, winsomely reformed, culturally engaged Christianity.
Nancy: That’s what we all want for our churches, isn’t it?
Joe: Yes, and God brought it under the ministry of Dr. George Long and his associate pastor, Dr. Roger Gulick. And they had labored and prayed for it for years. So, it’s pretty unusual to be a pastor of a church in which there’s a way in which I’m stewarding the legacy of a renewal. And my pray-off and please don’t let me leave an implant on church history because of what you’ve done in this place.
So, it took people without being programmed to the city. Leaders of banks, people that were leaders in the medical, legal community literally took lawn mowers and went to some of the poorer sections of town and just said, “Can we mow your lawn? Can we get onto your house and fix your plumbing?” And I’m not exaggerating. No one told them to do this but Christ and his Word and off they went.
And so, the more that I was there after my first year, I was stunned that I was allowed to be there. So, I love being in a church that cares for its immediate parish community, its city, its country, and its world. One of the officers of the church is the most unretired retired person I know until only recently. He’s in now his mid to late 80s. He spent more time in either Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Eastern Turkey, Belarus.
He even said to me, “I feel more comfortable there than I do here, meeting with believers, encouraging them, and connecting Lookout to them.” And he said, “Come on, you got to come with me.”
Nancy: Have you been?
Joe: I mean, I’ll really start crying if I talk about being with the believers there for whom danger is normative. It’s just one example. I was sitting and talking with a young people and they were telling me the story of danger and persecution and I said, “I promise I won’t say your names. But I’d love to tell your story.” And they just looked at me and very simply said, “You’re not our protector.” Just like that. And I said, “Okay. I’m not even saved,” you know. I just, “Ah, okay. I’m not your protector. You’re right. I’m not.” What’s normative there isn’t here. So, I go there to get a corneal transplant.
Nancy: To see this world differently?
Joe: Yeah, yeah.
Nancy: Well, why don’t we go back? Could you tell us a little bit about your growing up and your interaction with the Bible? Did you have any interaction with the Bible when you were growing up? Or where did the Bible begin to be an important part of your life?
Joe: I grew up in a home that was not adversarial to church but not welcoming to the idea of the Word of God being authoritative or life turning on the person in work of Christ. We went on holidays pretty much. My father was the original producer of “American Bandstand.”
Joe: So, there are many ways in which it was a very exciting way to grow up. But it was not spiritually rich and robust. And in high school, I met a young woman that I tried to pick up at a dance and she wouldn’t pick because she was a believer and I wasn’t. And our stories are a little bit different about that dance. She, in my recollection, walked away from me in the middle of the dance because I was less than honorable. And I asked her why and she said, “You wouldn’t understand.” And I said, “Try me.” And she said, “All right. I’m a Christian.” I said, “So am I.” And I knew I wasn’t a Jew so that narrowed it down for me. That’s all I knew.
I kept pursuing her and eventually I married that woman after dating eight years as I could then see her at Young Life meetings and by Barb’s life, who’s now my wife, her family, Young Life. I can remember being given my first Bible by a Young Life volunteer named Barbara Willy. I can remember reading it privately and wanting so much for it to make sense and not knowing how to really get in. I’m so thankful for Young Life’s campaigners and them really beginning to school me. That was my junior and senior year of high school. And I went off to college.
My first lecture from my dorm supervisor was, “Gentlemen, everything you’ve heard about college women is true.” And I said, “I got to get fellowship fast.” I just thought, “What a horrible thing to say.” And so, I just started joining every church-related organization on campus. I couldn’t find one that was teaching the Bible. And a friend of mine was in Campus Crusade for Christ at the University of Pennsylvania. He told one of his leaders about me. And that man told someone in Rutgers University who drove to my little liberal arts college and he said, “Do you wanna be a disciple?” And I said, “I don’t know what that means, but could you teach me the Bible?”
Nancy: Oh, really?
Joe: And that was Don Harper and he started teaching me the Bible.
Nancy: Well, how did you get from there being someone who then began to teach the Bible to others yourself?
Joe: Well, I hope this will be encouraging to others because I would literally meet with Don Harper once a week and we’d go over things. And since there wasn’t a Bible teaching Christian fellowship on campus, I didn’t yet know I wasn’t old enough in Christ to know that evangelism was scary. And I just knew I needed fellowship. So, I was talking to people about Christ and my evangelistic method, this will date me, I said things like “Jesus is where it’s at.” And he used it.
Nancy: That’s dating you.
Joe: Yeah, right. And he used it. And before long, there was a Christian fellowship. And on promise, it was not more deliberate than that. And Don would teach me at the beginning of the week, and I would teach it at the end of the week.
Nancy: So, you just taught what you learned that week?
Joe: And they thought I knew what I was doing, they really did. They said, “Oh, you ought to go into ministry.” And I just thought, “You have no idea what you’re saying.” I was working in the local college radio station. I plan on following my dad in the radio and television, but the fellowship was growing. Persecution broke out on campus. And one of the school officers called us in, and I couldn’t go. I had to make commercials at the radio station and my roommate went. And when I came back, he told me what…they said to stop talking about Christ and the Word, and use expletives and deletives to describe it, and it broke my heart. And it was really, that conversation and I sat there and I said, “I don’t wanna make commercials for the rest of my life, and I don’t mean any disparagement to those who do. I said, “I wanna talk to people about Jesus.”
That was the beginning of sort of this internal/external call. And the other members of that fellowship started saying to me, “You really got to think of this. You should really consider.” And I had read Francis Schaeffer who had gotten me through philosophy, his works were game changers for me. And so, some of my friends said, “You ought to consider.” I said, “I’ll come and I’ll go to seminary for one year and it can’t hurt me. It can only help me. Where did he go?” And I learned that he had been at Biblical and Westminster. And so, I applied to Westminster Seminary. I arrived on campus with the first wave of the Jesus movement was hitting the campus. And we blew onto campus with our hair blowing in the breeze and…
Nancy: Yours, too?
Joe: Mine, too.
Nancy: You still have a lot of hair, I got to say.
Joe: Oh, yeah. It was much longer then.
Nancy: So, who were your professors?
Joe: Okay. Now, I’m gonna cry.
Joe: Dr. Ed Clowney was a game changer for me. Dr. Harvie Conn, Mr. John Frame, now Dr. John Frame, Dr. Jack Miller, Dr. Richard Gaffin, Dean Strampel. I mean, these guys, they lit me up. I flunked my first paper. I really was not prepared for grad school level. Mr. Frame, he was not a doctor then, flunked me and he took me aside and kindly met with me. And he listened to me for a while. And here’s what he said, he said, “You came here wanting to study Francis Schaeffer. We wanna make another one.”
And he said, “You want us to fill your bucket. I’m not gonna do that. I’m gonna give you a blueprint for a shovel. And you’re gonna learn how to dig, and you’re gonna fill your own bucket.” And I left there and went, “I think that was a good conversation. I’m not sure.” But that is what they gave me. They taught me to fill my bucket.
Joe: And Ed Clowney was probably the point of the arrow in so many ways because of his relational sensitivity, his scholarly profundity, his ecclesiastical passion. He loves Christ’s bride. And I put it in the present tense because he’s perfected now but boy, he loved her then. And he put a lot of that in me. And I quote him a whole lot.
Nancy: As you think about your own development as someone who gets upfront and teaches the Bible, what do you think are the most formative things? Are they people that you watched and listened and thought, “I wanna communicate the Bible like that person does, or is it some things you read or what do you think has shaped you the most in that regard?
Joe: I’m gonna guess you can identify this. When you look into the eyes of another individual and you’re talking about a truth in the Word and you see the lights go on, that was it. When I would sit and speak with an individual and said, “Can you see it? Does it make sense?” And I go, “Yeah.” And then to be able to say, “You understand that’s not because I’m a good teacher.” And they’d look at you kind of with their head cocked and say, “It’s because Holy Spirit is opening your eyes. I can’t convince you. I could teach you math. I could teach you English.” I can’t help you understand this as you’re responding now, if he didn’t do this. And being in that remarkable synergy of spiritual reality, though I couldn’t have articulated any of it like I just did to you was mesmerizing to me to see…
Nancy: And confirming.
Joe: Oh, goodness. And that was happening before any seminary education and I just fell in love with talking to people about the Word and Christ. There were some guys at Princeton Seminary that was not far from my college who loved the Word and loved God, and they had Bible study in eating clubs at Princeton and I would go up to that. And they would dump the truck. Their Bible study is… Oh my goodness. That was another place where I sat in an eating club with several hundred people cracking in. They would literally wrap around rooms, and they couldn’t even see the person teaching the Word of God and they were captivated, taking notes. And I started to say, “Okay. This thing is more than a book. This is something like I’ve never seen.”
So, one-on-ones and being with people that were teaching it and seeing the impact in lives, and my own life since my own life was so fractured. I don’t think I’m being dramatic to say, if I had not been saved, and I were not regularly in the Word, I’m not sure that I’d be alive. Because the battle with things like fear and depression and anxiety can be so intense that if there weren’t a constant to which I could anchor, I don’t know where I’d be.
Nancy: Has that always been the case for you, Joe?
Joe: I only found out after I married Barb or when I started dating Barb, because when yours is the only skin you’ve lived in, you think everybody else feels this way. And I used to be dating Barb and she’d go, “Not everybody feels that way. You’re a little bit different.” The longer we dated and then married, the more I felt safe enough with her and with Christ to say, “Okay. This is not normal then. This is the fall. This is the mark that’s in me.” And somewhere along the line, I learned the phrase and it’s more thematic to my life than almost anything, everyone must learn to be a steward of themselves.
I will often ask people when I’m alone with them, “Do you know how to be you?” And if they look at me blank, I said, “You’ve answered the question.” Most people I don’t think do. And everyone has some mark of the fall. And we are all either stewards of ourselves, and if we’re not, then we are victims of ourselves. And if we are victims of ourselves, those closest to us will become victims of us, and the shock waves will go out.
And so, learning to steward, the Parable of the Talents, with positively all the gifts God’s given, and negatively, the marks of the fall that I pray take them away. But if he says no, then it’s not an interruption in my Christian life. It is my Christian life. It’s an assignment.
Nancy: Then the question becomes how do I steward that that He has entrusted to me?
Joe: Yes, and I may need to lead a life that’s much more slow than someone else, because I can’t take in as much without it overwhelming me. But I have to fight to be a steward, or my wife, my kids, my grandkids, the staff with whom I work. Oh my, the devastation I could reap into this would be awful.
Nancy: One thing I’ve always heard about your time of ministry at Lookout Mountain Pres is something you do that I think isn’t done very many places in terms of the approach you took to teaching the Bible. And so, correct me if I describe this wrongly.
Nancy: But my understanding was that I know you had, you know, services in a couple of different settings there at the church. You had a number of pastors on staff. And my understanding is that week by week is you had a passage that you were working on, there’s a sense in which you would work on that in community with each other. Now, I can’t understand how that works in a number of ways, just practically, I guess I think about my own process of developing a message and I don’t know how that would… I do know that it is oftentimes very helpful for me to talk through with someone else some of the things that I’m seeing in the passage and especially the main point that I’m seeing and some ways that I’m going to apply that. So, I can see that. But I also think I get pretty set and that this is the way I wanna do it. And if someone at some point suggested I might…should do that another way, I might be a bit resistant to that. So, can you explain to me how that process worked and why you did it that way?
Joe: Let me start with your second, why we did it. We somewhat backed into it in that Lookout Mountain had planted a daughter church. And the man who came to pastor that church did this with his pastoral team. He would gather pastors, Bible teachers, worship leaders. And he, at that time, he was or whoever, they only had one preacher there. We had two every Sunday, would come with rudimentary exegesis done, maybe original languages, maybe rudimentary commentary work enough to do, as you said, to get the main point of the passage and break down an outline that was textual that you could see in the text.
Nancy: So, it wasn’t necessarily his homiletical outline, like, these are my three points I’m gonna make. He would’ve just done the work on the text and have that kind of outline done?
Joe: Right. And he would come and put it and offer a defense.
Nancy: Oh, okay.
Joe: And then everyone would have at it and say whatever you thought about this. You can’t do this and wear your ego on your sleeves. It’s one of the best things about this.
Nancy: To put it lightly.
Joe: The best things about this is it postures the exegesis as a humble servant next to the people of God, I mean it almost couldn’t be better. So, you’re now cultivating internally what you’re attempting to exposit verbally. And we saw the fruit of that. When Lookout began to grow, I’m fond of saying any good idea that we’ve had was pretty much like a parking place in a major metropolitan city, you always drive past it. And after you’ve gone past it, “Whoa, back there. That’s where we need to be.” It was sort of like that.
We started to grow and we saw the need of having multiple services. Most churches that do that, if they have services in different locations, go to video. But we had all these people that had been trained to preach. And it made no sense to any of us to say, “Yeah, only one of us who had been trained should be the preacher,” that’s crazy. So, what if we start sharing the preaching responsibility? So, there are three services in one location and two services in another. The two preaching pastors, one is preaching the three services in one and one who’s preaching the two and another both come with outlines, main points, they’ve done some rudimentary work and they both defend in the presence of others.
And we talk about it. The worship leaders are there. The directors of adult discipleship are there, and everybody starts asking questions and making statements, did you consider this? We try not to leave that meeting without the [inaudible 00:24:26] of the passage, the end of the passage, what’s the point, we call it the big idea and an outline. And increasingly, we’ve learned that each of us has different gifts. And some of us think so analytically and some so broadly conceptually. And those help at different times. Many of the unordained people in the discussion are frankly among the most helpful. What they bring to bear is brings us out of the ivy-covered walls of idealism and get us down to, “So what? What are we gonna do with that?” And that’s just priceless.
Nancy: Would you say that’s the main way it has impacted your own handling, and preaching and teaching of the Bible? Are there other ways?
Joe: I think all of us have become better preachers, all of us.
Nancy: Better how?
Joe: One, we no longer just think the way we think. And I have the benefit of my brothers who do not think at all like me. One of our pastors puts it ever so well when he said, “It’s a little bit like reading the four gospels.” I mean, you’re probably aware that you basically have 52 days total of Jesus’ life, 52 days, told 4 different ways by 4 people some of whom were eyewitness, some of whom discipled and they’re all talking about some of the same events. And it’s wonderful to see the different ways that they look at it.
We read the gospels and in fact, when you’re preparing a passage, you’ll look at how Matthew looks at it, how Mark looks at it. Did John pick that up? Is it only in the Synoptics? And you’re going back and forth. That same kind of wonderful synergy happens in that room, because our different personalities all come to bear on it.
Nancy: So, do you walk out having a decided upon outline that more than one pastor is gonna work from that same basic outline?
Joe: Or we have it rudimentarily established and we perfected overnight, the two then preaching agree and send it to everybody so everybody knows it. All the worship leaders are forming their service around it, and everyone knows how to pray as the person gets up because they were in the discussion. And one person is tasked with forming small group questions or small groups so the church are not required to discuss the sermon but they’re allowed to, and many do. And that person has heard all of the exegesis, has offered significantly to the process, forms the questions, sends them to the preaching pastors so the preaching pastor can refer to it in either location. We know of quite a few members who come to an A10 service preached in one location, and go to 9:30 Sunday school, and then go to the 11:00 service in another location so they can get both use of the passage. And then they go to a small group and discuss it.
Nancy: Oh. So, they’re deeply immersed in that one Word?
Joe: Oh my goodness. Nobody recommended that.
Nancy: The two messages will have been based on the same outline, but you’re saying but because it’s two different people giving it, I mean, it would seem to me…you’re still gonna drive toward the same main point.
Joe: Yes, same main point.
Nancy: But perhaps different applications, different illustrations, different emphases.
Joe: Right. And Martyn Lloyd-Jones called truth forward preaching was we’re teaching is truth forward through personality. You see the different views that come out. And then when we’re not preaching, oh, the benefit to sit and be preached to, oh my goodness, to either lead, worship, and sit there twice or three times. That’s glorious. I love it when I get to hear the same sermon multiple times.
Nancy: So, what day of the week do you have that meeting before Sunday?
Nancy: Monday. So, you as a pastor, you had to do your exegesis work for that before the previous Sunday then, right?
Joe: Either before the previous Sunday or I’m up late Sunday night or up very early Monday morning. So, like, 5:00 is not unusual for me. And if I’ve done work during the previous week…
Nancy: Let me just stop you right there.
Joe: Well, let me just say, Nancy, don’t be impressed. When you get old, it gets a lot easier.
Nancy: Well, I am fighting that a little bit. But no, it’s just interesting, you know my son, Matt. And so, I was telling him that I was gonna be talking to you. And one thing he mentioned to me was getting notes from you, because he went to Lookout Mountain Pres for a while, and that you would talk about the sun is breaking. The message will begin, “The sun is rising. You know, it’s breaking of the dawn as I sit and write.” And so, I know you’re telling me the truth about those 5 a.m. mornings because he got some of the fruit of your pastoral work even that early.
Joe: It always feels better if you’ve had time, some leisure of hard to do work the week…it always feels better and you come honest. There’s times when we’ll come and say, I’ve not been able to do anything.
Nancy: Really? You had those weeks?
Joe: Yeah. Oh, goodness. And then say, “So, I’m gonna lean on you the other pastor who’s done it,” or vice versa. And other times, I’ve done this but I’m not married to this. I don’t feel confident in these.
Nancy: Certainly, sometimes you came feeling married to it?
Joe: Oh, absolutely. I feel very strongly.
Nancy: And then when someone push back on it?
Joe: It’s really good for me. It hurts like heaven.
Nancy: You’re holier than I am.
Joe: It really hurts like heaven. And I have to say, “You know, I think you’re right, truth is best seen in community.” I really…
Nancy: You’re convinced of that at this point, aren’t you?
Joe: I really believe that. The benefit is just beyond words. Often in my own tradition, we’ll have only one person do the work without having brothers and sisters look over my shoulder and go, “Are you kidding me? That’s really what you think that passage says? Have you looked at the other gospels?” And go, “Well, I guess maybe not.” It’s just too important to leave it to one broken human being. And since I struggle with fear and anxiety, I feel better knowing I have people watching over my shoulder whose exegetical skills far exceed my own. It really helps.
Nancy: So, you’re transitioning now at Lookout Mountain Pres, and your new title, I think, is minister to senior adults, is that right?
Joe: Yes, I’m pastor to older adults.
Nancy: Pastor to older adults. There’s a lot of older adults up there on Lookout Mountain.
Joe: There are. It’s a great blessing of being there.
Nancy: So, what does teaching the Bible look like day to day for you as you interact with so many people who are at the end of life? So, maybe career has passed, raising children has passed, perhaps dealing with more physical illness before and glory, entering glory is becoming a lot more real to them, not something that’s way far off.
Joe: I’m gonna try not to talk too long with this, Nancy, but this is really…
Nancy: No, take your time.
Joe: This is really big for me. I’ve been studying aging and this is getting to an answer, I promise, but this is background, studying aging and how the Bible looks at aging, it has struck me that there are few other things in the Bible that are spoken off with as opposing views as aging. On the one hand, you have it praised as the sign blessing from God for yielded, consecrated obedience, long life. And the mark of covenant faithfulness, I bless you with long years in the earth. That’s pretty big.
And gray hair is a crown of glory and rise in the presence of the elders, and thus, honor the Lord. So, there’s laudatory picture. And then you have Paul saying of Abraham, “His body was as good as dead, and our elder man is wasting away.” In Ecclesiastes 12, we’re like a broken down house that’s coming apart and stooped over, the windows you can’t see out. The grinders are few, and so you can’t eat anymore and this very sobering picture and it struck me, “What do I do with this?” You got whiplash going from one to the… It’s a little bit like reading the prophets.
And then it struck me, our culture goes from one extreme to the other. You either have hard cynicism of, you know, the one who dies with the most toils wins, and then you die and just this horrible, cynical view. And then, among many of us as Bible believers getting old ain’t for sissies. And that’s not not true, but that cynical view isn’t healthy alone. And then the other is sort of a Hallmark card naiveté that it’s all good and neither of those tell the whole story rather.
The Bible teaches a fusion, and I’m trying to frame it this way and to say to older people, “You are to be the people in God’s kingdom who are experiencing the very worse that a fallen world has to give. You’re losing your friends. They’re gone. Your body is breaking down. You can’t think like you used to. People don’t want your opinion. They don’t bring you esteem and honor. You live with loss. And it’s going to come to a screeching halt or a tediously long and difficult one.” That’s your address.
You are meant to be the people that are experiencing the very worst a fallen world gives, and the very best the gospel imparts. So, that when the Bible says, “You are here to tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord,” I don’t think that means, “I remember the Red Sea.” I think it means, “I’ve been young and now I’m old. I’ve lost a lot but I’m gonna tell you this, not once have I seen the righteous forsaken. I say to them, you are the priest of God’s kingdom, not the prophets or the kings. The prophets are the ones who speak all the time. The kings are the ones who are taking ground and capturing the enemy. You’re the priests that are here to help every prophet and every priest be who they are. You’re to be one step back and say, ‘No matter what the fall throws at you, take it from me, Christ is enough, the Word is true.’ I’ve tested it for all these years. And we’ve given up that calling as older people.”
So much of what I am trying to teach is that you are very much the priests behind the prophets and the kings. And the culture’s prophets and kings don’t know how much of a resource they have in you. We have to re-earn our place in backing them up. Does that make sense?
Nancy: Oh, that’s fascinating to me. And just as you’re speaking, I’m thinking about some older people in my own life. And as you were describing what senior adults are facing in terms of losing health and losing esteem and losing friends and all of those assaults on sense of self, anything other than Christ that we have depended on…
Joe: Will burn off real quick.
Nancy: Burns off really quick, yeah.
Joe: I have a friend who’s in heaven now, he’s a Golden Glove boxer and he said this phrase and it’s been a banner ever since he said it, he had Lou Gehrig’s disease and he was losing all capability, but he was an incredible athlete, and he said, “Preacher, do you know why my hair is falling out of my head and coming out my nose and ears?” I said, “Oh, sure. But why?” “Listen to this,” he said, “because God wants my body to look like my soul has looked all along so I can’t lie anymore. I have to trust Christ.” I said, “Sir, I don’t think I’ve heard anything quite so profound,” and I’ve repeated it ever since.
When you get old, you can’t lie. You’re coming apart. And either Christ really has become, and this is where you learn whether or not you’ve lived by simply external sort of moral slathering on the external of your life for deeper transformation, when you get old, you can’t fake it. The pain is too great. The limits are too intense. The loss is too…just overwhelming, and you learn quickly whether you’ve planted the seeds to bear harvest later some of the most wonderfully, beautiful, magnificent people I’ve known. People think I’m a good pastor because I visit nursing homes, nothing to do with it. Since I didn’t grow up in a Christian home, I go there to learn.
You sit in a room with a person that has no earthly reason to be happy, none. Their kids have stopped coming. They don’t have much money. They’re not sure if they’ll have any left soon. And they are restful in Christ. I don’t wanna leave the room. I wanna say, “What do you eat? How do you live? Teach me. Teach me. Pray for me. Help me.” That’s why I go to nursing homes.
Nancy: I remember being in college and being challenged, it was like, you know, if you’re gonna be a missionary, don’t think you’re gonna do that later. You know, you better do it now because as you grow old, it gets harder to change. And so, I think about this thinking about ministry to older people, and I think about as we get older, it does get harder to change, doesn’t it? So, as you minister to older people, do you still find an openness to change and an openness to receive the Holy Spirit’s power to change? Or how do you present the Word in such a way that people who feel like they’ve heard everything, they’ve been taught everything, they know everything, they’ve tried everything that they can actually have hope for further sanctification in their lives that the Holy Spirit would work real change in them?
Joe: I don’t wanna sound like I know what I’m doing because I’m learning. I’m trying to learn. But I have found that I say make me work, either I’m crazy or I’m right, there’s no in between. I spent a lot of money for my seminary education, please help me use it. If you don’t think this is true, come at me. Please, tell me what your questions are.
One man recently gave me a 31-page paper on why he believes science interpreted reality sufficiently. I read it. Nancy, it was so far above my pay grade, I couldn’t even touch it. But I’m honored to serve near Covenant College. So, I called one of the physics professors, earned PhD, loves Jesus. And I said, “Would you read this paper? And then would you come with me and can we meet with this guy?” And he went, “I’d love it.”
So, I have a resource that not a lot of people have, and we went and had coffee and he answered his questions, probed and pushed on some things, gave him things to read. And then I said, let’s not make this the last time. Let’s meet again. For another, it was a little bit more direct. She was steeped in virtually every other religion other than Christianity, had been the top of her field as an educator, exceedingly gifted, loved by the community, and was being ravaged by a horrible disease. Didn’t come to our church but had a dear friend we shared in common. And the friend said, “Would you go and talk with her?” I said, “I’ll try.”
And I went to the ICU and I just said, “Listen, you don’t know me. I’ll leave in a minute. You can tell me to go. I’ve come with respect, not dishonor. But you and I have a friend and she wanted me to come. So, I’m here. I’m a follower of Jesus. I believe in him with all my heart. If you’d let me, if you would give me 20 minutes, I’ll tell you why I believe. You can stop me at any time. I’ll go right out the door. You don’t have to sit here and endure this if you don’t want to. I’ll leave now. If you want me to go, all I’d ask, could I pray for you before I go? Would you give me 20 minutes?” And she nodded her head.
I said, “Okay. You can stop me at any time.” And I began knowing all that she had believed. And I said, “Wouldn’t it make sense to you if there is a God? And there is. It would never be, ever. I’ll let you in if you measure up. Do you really think that someone who did everything here would treat what He made that way? Wouldn’t it make sense that rather He would say, ‘I will do everything that is needed for you and Me to be together, but you must trust Me. You must.’ Doesn’t that simply make sense to you?” She nodded her head.
I said, “That is what Jesus taught uniquely, singularly. That is what we would call the gospel. Now, I’ll stop now. If you want me to go further, I will. Do you want me to go further?” And she nodded her head. And then I could say, “Let me tell you what he went through to do everything.” She became a follower of Jesus as best I could tell. But that it’s different with every person. But generally I say, “I’ve come to be your servant. If you don’t believe, make me work, please. We’ll read together. We’ll study together. But let’s start, because if life is going to end soon, doesn’t it make sense that you ought to know what’s ahead?”
Nancy: I wonder how you minister the Word to a couple of other typical scenarios, I think, of older people. One is the people they have retired and they have a lot of money. And so, their lives revolve around travel and maybe seeing their grandkids and building their dream house and playing golf. What’s your ministry of the Word like to them?
Joe: My answer there is much more slow.
Nancy: And none of those things are bad things.
Joe: I would agree with you.
Nancy: Can we agree, right?
Joe: I would utterly agree with you, utterly. But the importance of stabilitas, stability, staying and being with people who are very different than us, and actually being true friends, real friends who show up when they’ve gotten a hole in one, who show up when their kids are married, when their grandkids are married, when their friends aren’t well, the retirement parties, of being real friends, and constantly praying for opportunities to simply speak the gospel into life. Because we don’t stay anywhere very long, the superficiality with which we relate to the unbelieving world is a travesty. And when I speak this way, “They said, “Well, you only believe in relational evangelism and not sharing the gospel anytime.” It’s not true.
But I do believe that people that have no relationships with unbelievers are kidding themselves, because they don’t really love them, really love them, live with them, stability day in, day out, showing up. One person that I’ve been doing this with, I’ll visit, right now she’s not well. She’ll make a statement about her illness and I’ll go, “Okay. You’re pushing my pastor button. You pushed it. I didn’t push it. Do you want me to talk or do you want me not? You pushed the button.” And she’ll often go, “Go ahead.”
But because we’re friends, I can. And I’ll look at her. And when she starts to go neutral or negative, you can look in her eyes and I go, “Okay. You’re shutting down, aren’t you?” She’ll go, “No, no.” I go, “Yeah, you are.” And then I’ll go, “All right. I’m gonna stop, but I want you to remember what I said.” And then I’ll start asking other questions. So, stabilitas is my answer. To be in a place for 22 years, people start to know you’re not kidding. You really believe it, and you really do love them. And both those things are simultaneously true. And when they say things to you that are offensive about your faith and you come back, it matters. And you stand in the storm of their disregard or disrespect, or their inquiry, it’s stabilitas.
Nancy: Another situation I see in terms of older people tends to be becoming obsessed with all of their aches, and pains, and physical issues. I was speaking with someone in that situation recently, and the opportunity opened itself. And I just asked the question, “Where is Christ in this for you?” The focus on health or lack thereof. But then also so much fear about the future. I imagine that as you minister to older adults, you’re constantly trying to apply the Word in a setting of a lot of fear about the future.
Joe: My son, Andrew, has helped me enormously here to take your question and put a cleaner edge on it.
Nancy: Okay, help me.
Joe: it’s really an important turn. He teaches middle school Bible at a Christian school. And I asked him, “What do you do with disciplinary issues?” Because he’s big. I mean because he could crush me, he could absolutely crush me. And because he’s big, often, he’ll find himself on the receiving end of helping students that have been less than keeping the rules.
Nancy: You say things so nicely.
Joe: And here’s what he says, he said, “The first thing I ask them,” he said, “Don’t tell me what you’ve done wrong because my first question, ‘What difference does Jesus make to what you’ve done wrong?’ If they answer, ‘I have no idea,'” he then says, “That’s a bigger problem than whatever you’ve done wrong. Let’s talk about that.” And if they go, “Why don’t you just forgive me so it just doesn’t matter?” And he says, “That’s a bigger problem than what you’ve done wrong. You don’t understand them.”
But he always goes back there. So, with the aches and pains, you’re in the right direction to say, “What difference does Jesus make?” And if they say, “I have absolutely no idea.” They say, “I don’t mean any offense. But that’s a bigger problem than your ache or pain, because that’s the only thing that will enable you to handle the ache or pain.” And often they’ll say, “Well, you don’t understand.” And this is why I can say, “Well, I often literally almost noisily slap my hands down on the bed or the desk in front because I crushed both my hands when I was several months married to my wife and I have traumatic arthritis.” He said, “You don’t know what it’s like to hurt all the time.” And I go, “Yes, I do.” And very frankly, this physical stuff is nothing next to the depression, anxiety, and fear. I’ll take crushed hands any day, but this never goes away. And I can tell you, Jesus is enough.
Nancy: So, Joe, why don’t we finish this way? As you look into the future, the day comes and Joe Novenson is no longer doing ministry to senior adults at Lookout Mountain or anywhere else, what do you hope that they will say has been the impact of your ministry?
Joe: I have a life mission, and the first statement is that every person that I meet will somehow, however incremental a fallen, sinful redeemed man can be used of God to cause this to happen, every person that I meet will be able to be just one step closer to either beginning to know Jesus or deepening in knowing Jesus. It’s all I want for each passage with every person. And I hope people, well, if they’re not yet believers say, but I think it’s more credible, and if they are believers, “I know Him better because He breathes there.” That would be my hope.
I asked a man in Minsk, Belarus who had been in prison in a coal mine for four years after he had fought the Nazis and came out and faced Stalin, and was immediately after defending his country put in coal mines for four years because of his faith, came out, planted a church. And I said to him, “Constantine,” through an interpreter, “please talk to me like you’ve known me all my life and all your life. Tell me what I need to know. Please tell me.” And very quickly in Russian he just rattled off a phrase, and I looked at the translator and as soon as he stopped, like, “Oh my stars, that’s it?” And the translator said, “Know Jesus better.” And I looked at Constantine and through the translator said, “That’s it?” And he leaned back and raised both hands like, “What else is there?”
Nancy: That’s everything.
Joe: And I won’t forget Constantine. And that’s how he’s lived, know Jesus better. I hope unbeliever and believer somehow will know Him just a little better.
Nancy: Well, I have no doubt, there will be many people who give that testimony having sat under the ministry and being friends with Joe Novenson. Thank you for what you’ve offered us today to help us teach the Bible.
Joe: It’s an honor to be here. Thank you for even asking.
Nancy: You’ve been listening to “Help Me Teach the Bible” with Nancy Guthrie, a production of The Gospel Coalition, sponsored by Crossway. Crossway is a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible Christian books and tracts. Learn more about Crossway’s gospel-centered resources at crossway.org.