the glory of ordinary ministry

I’d like to call your attention to a little book by D. A. Carson. He published this book last year, a truly wonderful tribute to his father, Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor: The life and reflections of Tom Carson.

These Memoirs tell the story of every pastor, especially those pastors who lead small churches (most of us.) I have heard statistics that 50% of all churches are less than 100 in membership. If that is true, most men who enter the ministry will see long years of labour in small works with little increase. Such ministry can be very discouraging – the temptation to quit can ovewhelm.

Tom Carson served his whole ministry in Quebec. The French-Canadian aspect of his ministry adds a special wrinkle to the story, but his story can be repeated in every North American culture. I grew up in a church like Carson pastored. I served in small churches in Georgia and North Carolina during my training – the experiences I had there mirrored in many ways what I read in this book. I have been serving here in Victoria for almost 24 years, in a small mission ministry. Needless to say, the ministry of Tom Carson resonates with me. This has been my life.

Carson’s ministry in Quebec begins with energetic evangelistic work but the energy ebbs over time. What seemed a promising beginning suffers from years of slow growth, the challenge of holding converts (not, in his case, from the world, but from the pressure of Catholic Quebec), and also the pressures of meagre income and associated problems. The end result of the first church plant is failure. The church is closed. A secular job is taken (as a translator of documents for the federal government). A ministry coincides, not as the main pastor but as an unpaid assistant and occasional interim pastor. These are years that seem to make little mark on the world, but Carson exhibits godly perseverance, both in his walk with the Lord and his unswerving commitment to Quebec. He does not leave. He is never, however, a ‘roaring success’. The best years of his ministry come at a time when change is sweeping across the province and he serves under a younger man, more gifted and more energetic than himself. The ‘Quiet Revolution’ saw Quebec throw off its Catholic mantle and be transformed into one of the most secular jurisdictions in North America. But this change also provided opportunity for growth in Bible preaching churches. At last, as an older faithful second man, Carson sees a bit of growth come into the Baptist churches of Quebec. In this time he has a wonderful opportunity to be a ‘coach’ to young men coming up into the ministry as well as a wide ministry of counsel in his local church. Old age and Alzheimer’s takes his wife to heaven first, then three years later, he will follow. At his funeral, testimony after testimony was given to the impact he had on the lives of many.

Carson the son closes the story of Carson the father this way:

When he died, there were no crowds outside the hospital, no editorial comments in the papers, no announcements on television, no mention in Parliament, no attention paid by the nation. In his hospital room there was no one by his bedside. There was only the quiet hiss of oxygen, vainly venting because he had stopped breathing and would never need it again.

But on the other side all the trumpets sounded. Dad won entrance to the only throne room that matters, not because he was a good man or a great man – he was, after all, a most ordinary pastor – but because he was a forgiven man. And he heard the voice of him whom he longed to hear saying, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; enter into the joy of your Lord.’1

Of interest to fundamentalists is the retelling of an episode with T. T. Shields. Tom Carson graduated from Shields school, Toronto Baptist Seminary at Jarvis Street Baptist Church. D. A. Carson paints the picture of Tom Carson’s break with Shields quite negatively, and it may well be that Shields was wrong in the particular circumstances that are described. However, one would do well to consult other sourcess to get a full understanding of the issues and personalities involved. What is remarkable about the story, however, is Tom Carson’s godly determination never to allow the issue to make him bitter and to never complain to his son about how things came to be as they did.

In my notes, I wrote this: I am struck by the ‘ordinariness’ of this man’s life. This is who we minister to in our churches – ordinary people. This is who we are.

I used this idea of ordinariness in a funeral I conducted last week. The lady who died lived a very ordinary life. But most lives are like that. We aren’t all rising stars. In fact, most of us won’t even get Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame. We are going to have to find our soul’s satisfaction in something much bigger than ourselves because we … we are just ordinary.

Notes:

  1. Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor, p. 148. []