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Image: T4G page @ Youtube

I found myself in the fifth row. My pastor, it turns out, is kind of obsessed with sitting close up to the front. And almost anything, it turns out, can be used to reserve seats: sheets ripped out of a notebook, sweaters, shoes, a Louisville Slugger bat in its box, a bag, or even a fellow pastor who accepts the solemn charge to guard the seats.

These sorts of endearing idiosyncrasies are what you learn about a person when you travel 28 hours in a minivan and spend 5 days together at Together for the Gospel. In fact, we were six in the van. Three English pastors, one French pastor, a missionary serving in Quebec, and me; whatever I am, the Lord knows—and I look forward to finding out one day.

Fun and Fellowship

Leaving around 4am on Easter Monday, we drove straight down to Louisville, Kentucky, without much to report except a heavy snowstorm around Detroit and a bad vibration in the back half of the rental vehicle at about 115 km/h. Either one of those rear tires was not well balanced or the new Grand Caravan has a rear-seat Shiatsu massage option I didn’t know about. We had a lot of fun and a lot of great conversations. We shared our stories, learned what sorrows and burdens we carried, and prayed for each other.

One pastor in our group had a daily alarm that went off at 10:02am. Jesus says in Luke 10:2, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” And so every day he prays for God to raise up workers and leaders. We joined him in the minivan together on both driving days in that prayer. He also takes an hour every week, late at night, to pray for revival. I know because I shared a hotel room with him and, as you can imagine, this was a powerful example to witness. Quiet faithfulness, steadfast prayer.

But I must say there were a lot of people. So many people. I live in the countryside now, and lately have been working mostly remotely, so I was not ready for all the people. Lines for food and lines for bathrooms and endless rows of chairs filled with people. Restaurants with 2 hour wait times. Book tables and sidewalks spilling over with people. As a Canadian, I don’t remember the last time I was among any crowd that big, let alone a crowd of gospel-loving Christians and pastors. The whole thing was surreal, like entering a parallel universe.

America, Parallel Universe

The contrast between life in Canada, not to mention Quebec, and life in the USA often left me feeling a bit like I had walked through a portal to an alternative reality where all our wildest dreams for church ministry had come true. First, the number of giant churches we drove by was dizzying, each with a sprawling campus. Next, there is the strange existence of what I can only describe as a quasi-Christian restaurant. As I sat there eating my delicious Chick-Fil-A sandwich, with instrumental versions of well-known Christian songs playing softly in the background, I thought: this is a strange place. Lastly, three from our group drove ourselves to the campus of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and walked around for a while. The chapel and library were closed, but we shuffled through a couple of buildings and enjoyed the beautiful grounds.

I later learned that those grounds were designed by the legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, the man who designed Central Park in New York City, the grounds around the Capitol Building in D.C., and the layout of the 1893 Chicago World Fair (he features in Erik Larson’s riveting book about that event, Devil in the White City). Seeing the stature and prestige of Southern Seminary, we reflected on the idea of stewardship and also on the nature of the contrast with our situation in Quebec.

This contrast is not so easy to describe, but let me try. It’s the intangibles of what it’s like to be in a setting where there is a critical mass of healthy, wise, godly Christians who set the tone for everything that happens, and what it’s like when that isn’t there. In a million little ways, that difference makes itself known and felt. It’s analogous to the idea of social capital but in spiritual, relational, and institutional terms.

It’s the difference I felt even moving from Ontario to Quebec, where there just aren’t that many ‘solid oaks’ in the memberships of the churches. It always seems to be such a struggle to find qualified elders, or to train them up, or to keep a church healthy over any length of time. While the core of it isn’t financial, it certainly is reflected also in the size and shape of budgets. Things are just particularly hard and slow going (I know things are hard everywhere, and that many places are even harder than here, so don’t misunderstand me).

It’s the reality of being a context that is closer to a mission field than what we experienced in Louisville. When I would tell people I met at the conference that I was from Montreal, they sometimes looked at me like I had said North Korea. But part of the conclusion we came to, as we walked among the beautiful buildings of that epic campus, is that it’s very good this place exists. It’s not at all wrong to study or work there. It’s a stewardship, like all our lives and all our ministries, and the call in every time and in every place is to faithfulness in the small and big things.

The Real Celebrities

T4G has been reckoning with the excesses of celebrity culture. This was evident from the first communications about the conference. Those of us who have been eager members of the reformed resurgence movement have seen too many leaders rise and fall, too many scandals burst open, and too much egotism and platform-building to be as innocent about it all as we were in 2006. Compared to those heady days, both I and the conference have matured.

The featuring of unknown speakers was a welcome tweak. Also, we never knew who would be speaking until the start of each session. The singing was glorious and tastefully done. I stood silent at times to let the wave of sound from the nearly 12000 voices just wash over me. How fitting that Matt Merker, who led the singing, quietly left the stage while we all sang the closing Doxology a cappella. In that way, the closing moments of Together for the Gospel were an empty stage and no one to look at. And here is a wonder: over the course of three days in America at a giant conference, the only time the word trump was said was in verse 4 of It Is Well with My Soul.

Yes, the conference was still big, and very American in some ways. Yes, I saw a few young guys angling to get cellphone pictures and video clips of the preachers. But I came away with the distinct feeling that there were easily a thousand men in that room who could have stood up on that stage and delivered messages every bit as edifying and insightful as the ones we heard. That isn’t to say the messages weren’t good—they were all excellent—it is to say that there are a lot of good, godly, and gifted men and women serving and leading in a thousand places that we’ll never hear about. And that’s as it should be, for their souls’ sakes and ours.

When I asked one pastor in our group if he would ever want to give a conference message like that or have that kind of platform, he hardly understood the question. It was nowhere in his thinking and had no part in how he pictured his life playing out. Quiet faithfulness, eyes on Jesus.

That is the main takeaway for me. It’s the seasoned pastor I met at breakfast in the hotel who brought some young guys with him from Pennsylvania and who wanted to hear all about the challenges in Quebec. It’s the pastor who was dealing with a crisis back home and doing ministry-by-text-message during a session. It’s the pastor who has had his small church whittled down to a handful of people through division and relocations but still wants to be a faithful minister and ever more like Christ.

Sure, all of us like good books and powerful preaching, but it is these men, and thousands more like them, who are leading God’s people with a quiet faithfulness. It is these men and their families who take the brunt of pain and discouragement that comes in ministry. It is these men who should be, if not celebrities, then at least celebrated by God’s people.