Greg Gilbert, Pastor of 3rd Avenue Baptist Church, Louisville, Kentucky, recently visited the UK and spoke at various Gospel Partnership events. I interviewed him about the experience...
Greg, Thanks for coming to serve us by speaking at various gospel partnerships events - we appreciate it. What have you enjoyed on your first visit to the UK?
I am a big fan and student of history, so I was amazed to see places that, until now, I have only read and heard about. The Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, the Castle in Edinburgh---amazing places! I was also in awe of the items in the "Treasures of the British Library Exhibit." To see the oldest copies of the Bible in existent, Magna Carta, the Gutenberg Bible, and so many other historic documents was a real thrill. I have to say, though, that I thought it was passing strange to see an exhibit about the Beetles sitting right next to Magna Carta and Codex Sinaiticus and Handel's Messiah. I mean, I know you're proud of them and everything, but perhaps we should give it another 500 years or so before we declare the Beetles to be a "Treasure of the British Library!" Or maybe that's just me.........
[Editor - I live in Liverpool - I won't have anything said against the Feb Four].
Anything weird you've noticed about us Brits?!
That most of you could not care less about the history around you!!! Keep in mind, the oldest things we have in America are only about 200 years old, which to you guys is absolutely nothing. You have toilets older than that! So when we see a 900 year old building, it's like we're peering into the very roots of human history. We simply stand in awe. You guys? You just brush it off and say something like, "Yeh, it's old, mate. I don't know how old. Just old. Who cares anyway?"
Lots of readers won't know you - can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your church?
I am a Texan by birth, a fact which surprises a lot of people, but one I'm pretty proud of. I did my education at Yale in the north of America, which explains my lack of a cowboy accent. I've been pastor of Third Avenue Baptist for about 2.5 years now. The church is located in Louisville, Kentucky, right in the center of the country, and it's situated right next to the campus of the University of Louisville (some might know it for its basketball fame). It's a very young church in demographic, though it's 120 years old next year---again, my dear British friends, please don't laugh. That's old in America. It's a wonderful church! We went through a tough reform about 6-7 years ago, but the Lord has blessed us enormously. It's a happy, unified, growing, energetic church where people are being introduced to the Lord Jesus and coming to faith in him. I love pastoring these people!
As you've travelled round and met lots of Christians here over the last couple of weeks what has encouraged you?
I was very encouraged to hear how many evangelical churches are growing---and growing so much they are needing to add extra services and even build new buildings. That's wonderful! I know you all sometimes feel beleaguered, living in a culture that's hostile to the gospel, but the Lord is blessing you. Big things come from small beginnings, and the Lord really seems to enjoy surprising us by doing spectacular things with slight materials. From London to Liverpool to Edinburgh to Birmingham, it was hugely encouraging to see how God is growing evangelical churches and raising up leaders to lead more churches. It will be exciting to see what happens over the next two decades!
And what would be the things that you think should concern us as the church in the UK?
In one of the talks I did at some of the Gospel Partnership conferences, I talked about Six Temptations that I think are particularly alluring to this generation of Christians---temptations to slowly and subtly drift away from a strong presentation of the Gospel of Jesus. One of those was "a temptation to think that the main thing the Gospel calls for us to do is to make our cities and neighborhoods better places to live." That often comes out in the way we talk about the mission of the church, that is, the marching orders that Jesus gave to us as bodies of believers covenanted together in local churches. Some people talk as if the mission of the church---the marching order Jesus gives us---is to engage social issues, to work for social equality and justice, to change social, political, and economic structures so that cities and the world are transformed. Now, I realize that it's somewhat dangerous to bring this up in a forum like this; it's a complicated and emotionally-fraught discussion, and there's simply not time or space here to tease it out in any detail. So perhaps it will be best if I simply point readers to the book I co-authored with Kevin DeYoung entitled "What is the Mission of the Church?" There you can dig into the issues more deeply and in greater detail if you're interested in the topic.
Even so, I'll go ahead and say here: Please don't misunderstand me. Good works are good! We are commanded as Christians to do them. The goodness of good works is really not the question. The question, rather, is what you understand the goal of our good works to be. Do you understand the ultimate end, the goal of our good works to be a) to make the world a better place, or b) to confirm and affirm and adorn the Gospel that we preach?
As I read the Bible, I think the right answer is the latter. Let me give you two quick reasons for that. For one thing, there simply is no promise in the Bible that our good works will change the world. Oh, they might! God has done that in the past at various times and in various places, and He may very well decide to do it again somewhere sometime. But there's no promise that our good works will change the world. If that's true, then there's a great danger in implying to church members that there is such a promise. That's because they will invest themselves in that promise, and then 10 years on, when poverty persists and corruption continues and neighborhoods remain untransformed, many will find themselves massively disappointed. Worse, their disappointment will not be ultimately in you, the pastor, but in the God who you promised would use their good works to change their city.
Second, just think about the book of Acts. Jesus gives the early church its marching orders in Acts 1:8, and then the structure of the entire book revolves around the early church's efforts to carry out those instructions. Their work is not to engage the social and economic structures of Jerusalem and Antioch; they do not teach sustainable agricultural practices to the people of Galatia. They preach the Word! They spread the Gospel of Jesus to Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and to the uttermost parts of the earth. They are about the work of carrying out the mission Jesus gave them of bearing witness to him and making disciples of him.
All that to say, I think we should all be careful to make sure we remain committed as churches to the well-defined mission Jesus has given us. This is not just something for UK churches to think about; we in the US similarly should re-commit ourselves to the mission. But it does seem like a rather pressing concern to me, so I'm glad that the Gospel Partnership Conferences in 2014 will afford an opportunity for more thinking and discussion about the topic. May God bless those to his Son's glory!
Tell us one thing you think American evangelicals could learn from their British brothers and sisters, and one thing you think we can learn from you?
To be honest with you, it seems to me that the British church and the American church are dealing with much the same issues. You all are probably several years ahead of us in terms of the post-Christianizing of society, so we should listen to you and learn from you about how to speak to a culture that has basically given up entirely on Christianity. You are being wonderfully faithful in that, and I'm afraid we're going to appreciate your example ever more as our own culture abandons Christianity over the next decade.
And finally - what can we be praying for you and your church at the moment?
Pray for continued faithfulness. We are seeing God do some wonderful things among us, but I know our enemy would like nothing better than to destroy this church. Pray that God would prevent him from doing so. Pray that I'll remain excited about pastoring and preaching the Word. Pray that God would cause many to hear the gospel from our members and be saved.