Writings by Cole Huffman


The Remnant Will Rock On

At a conference just over a year ago, the few hundred pastors in attendance were asked to stand in order to sit, beginning with those who’d served their church five years or less. Most of the room immediately sat. From there the years increased: Five to ten years in one church? Ten to fifteen? Fifteen to twenty? How about over twenty years in one church?

Audible wows and applause for the half-dozen men still on their feet. Used to be a long obedience in one church was nothing out of the ordinary. It just came with the Luke 17 territory, that place where Jesus tells His apostles to not expect thanks for services rendered: “When you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”

I didn’t interpret the conferees’ applause as romanticizing longevity, but respecting it. Most of us in ministry are aware we are our own worst enemies. We have glass jaws, fragile egos. Our attrition rates are high. We idolize the bigger congregation and better name recognition. And so those half-dozen men at the conference, each into their third decade at one church, comprise something of a remnant.

Jerry Smith is part of that remnant. He gave me my first job out of seminary. I served as his associate for five of the twenty-five years he celebrates this March at Christ Fellowship in Franklin, Tennessee.

A friend recently told a seminary chapel service he doesn’t find himself in a Google search until Page 5. He told them about the woman his wife met in their local park. They got on the topic of church. The lady’s family had visited his church. She said they liked it but opted for a megachurch because (she wasn’t aware she was talking to the pastor’s wife), “We just get so much more out of the bigger-name preachers.”

I Googled “Pastor Jerry Smith.” He doesn’t come up until Page 4. Page 1 brings us a Pastor Jerry Smith of the Christian Pentecostal Church in Irvington, New Jersey, not a “bigger-name” preacher, I suppose, but nonetheless known for his provocatively titled Palm Sunday sermon—think Jesus entering Jerusalem on the donkey here—“Bring Your Ass to Church!” To that Jerry Smith, the Jerry Smith I know would say, “Rock on!” I once told him a story in which someone’s stock response to everyone around her was rock on, and he made it his own, endearingly.

Jerry ordained me but probably wonders if he taught me anything during my years with him. I was in my late twenties when I served with him, a rookie fielder with a brand new glove. Howard Hendricks, who taught Jerry and me both, used to say more is caught than taught. To commemorate his 25 years at Christ Fellowship, I think of what I caught from Jerry, how he helped me break in my vocational glove for playing all nine innings.

I caught from Jerry that lasting ministry requires a good measure of not taking yourself too seriously. That doesn’t insulate you from suffering disappointments or make you morally haphazard. It keeps you from jonesing after the cult of personality. In a ministry context where I’m paid too much praise and deference, I’m thankful for Jerry’s “jerrying”—setting a grounding example for me. If I ever get a tattoo it’ll be those words of Jesus in Luke 17:10, emblazoned on my forearm: “Say, ‘We are unworthy servants.’” Jesus doesn’t need any of us to get anything done. Far from cheapening pastoral service, it frees me from using people to prop up my ego.

I also caught from Jerry that lasting ministry stays with the text of Scripture. We sow the Word of God as is. We don’t have a gospel without a Bible. Capable exegesis will outlast every emphatic fad. For 25 years Jerry has opened one book to the people of his church and never found himself without something of the Spirit. I know at times he preached in deep personal pain, as have I. But because it’s God’s Word it transcends doubting Mondays and even carnal motivations (Phil. 1:15-18). I noted well Jerry’s incredulity that time he told me about the theologian who shut his Bible in his later years, concluding he’d studied enough and it was time to just pray. Jerry doesn’t suffer dichotomized pieties like that gladly, and neither do I.

Finally (keep preacher tributes to three points, please), I caught from Jerry that lasting ministry learns how to take people as you find them, not as you want to make them. That’s what friendship does in essence, but I want to say Jerry has developed the quality of magnanimity, an old word hard to pronounce that means more than just being generously spirited to people in need of kindness. I recently heard a preacher describe the magnanimous person as one who has a great big soul because he loves great things. That’s Jerry. He loves the Word of God because he loves God for God. He loves the church of God because it is where Christ is being formed in His people.

In Jerry’s well-worn Bible, in the margin beside Colossians 1:28-29, I hope he’s penciled there the words rock on: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all His energy that He powerfully works in me.”

Posted by Cole Huffman at 11:28 AM
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