Twinterview: Louisville pastors
Welcome to another twinterview, sports fans!
Following the Thomas/Trueman face-off we travelled back to the UK to quiz the London Welsh. This time we head again to the US for a couple of pastors from Louisville. One is Brian Croft, pastor of Auburndale Baptist Church and author of several introductory volumes of pastoral theology, who blogs at Practical Shepherding. In the other corner is Jim Savastio, pastor of the Reformed Baptist Church of Louisville and long-term friend of the Walker family, a blogger at Main Things.
As usual, neither interviewee saw the other’s answers until both sets of responses were in, and there was no collaboration or collusion. The answers are as given, and I have not commented on them, either in terms of interest, agreement or disagreement. However, I do feel obliged to point out, in the context of Jim’s answer to question three, that I was never that short. The responses are edited only lightly for form, and the content is the responder’s own. Please feel free to engage politely in the comments section.
I am very grateful to Jim and to Brian for their willingness to participate, and I hope that they will not regret it. Please check back regularly for the next couple of twinterviews. Two are brewing in the pot, and a couple more are being slowly prepared.
1. Please tell us where you are serving the Lord in Louisville, Kentucky, and how you arrived there. Also, how did you get to know one another?
Brian Croft: I am currently in my ninth year as Senior Pastor of Auburndale Baptist Church on the south end of Louisville. I am born and raised near here and have spent all my 17 years of ministry in local churches either in Louisville, or in southern Indiana, just across the river. Jim and I found each other through some mutual pastor friends and had lunch together for our first meeting not far from his church.
Jim Savastio: I minister in East Louisville. I started my ministry here in 1990 to aid in a new church plant. At that time we met at a hotel in central Louisville (near the airport). Two years later we moved to a school in the East end and in 1995 purchased approximately six acres at our current location. I came to Louisville having just completed my ministerial training. It was originally intended to be a three month summer stint. Thankfully, the Lord had other plans!
I got to know Brian Croft five or six years ago. One of our families had their child in the same gymnastics program where one of Brian’s children were enrolled. This family thought that Brian and I would enjoy getting to know one another. I called Brian and invited him to lunch. We continued to meet sporadically over the next couple of years before solidifying our friendship in a deeper way over the past two years.
2. What are some of the particular blessings and challenges of being a pastor in Louisville?
BC: Jim and I agree that there is no city in the world like Louisville in this sense – it is flooded with solid, biblically, healthy churches, arguably more than any other city. The blessings of this dynamic are many, but one that I know Jim and I appreciate is the many like-minded pastors of which we are able to fellowship, serve along side, and lock arms for the sake of gospel witness in the city. One challenge is the sense of competition among some pastors and the temptation for church goers to church search like a consumer without them realizing it.
JS: When I first came to Louisville the city was deep in the shadows of two liberal seminaries (Southern Seminary at that time and the PCUSA school). Louisville is also home to a couple of mega-churches. There are churches on virtually every corner. The question we sought to answer at that time was, Why another church in Louisville? At that time that question was fairly easy to answer. Churches committed to historic and confessional Christianity were essentially unknown. Churches committed to expository and applicatory preaching, God-centered worship, and serious churchmanship were few and far between. There were only a couple of men within thirty miles who laid any claim to embracing the doctrines of grace.
Things began to change in the mid-1990s with the arrival of Al Mohler and the great change at Southern Seminary. It took some time for what began to be taught in the seminary to work its way down to the churches. Louisville now enjoys numerous places where the word of God is faithfully preached, where men have a high view of God, the scriptures and the church. This is a blessing to be sure. The challenges that exist are in many ways the same. Louisville has not been won for Christ. The world, the flesh, and the devil are still in full force. The dangers of taking ease, of forsaking first principles, compromise, and weariness ever abound.
3. You have various friends in the UK, and I am glad to count myself among them. Apart from the inestimable privilege of seeing me, what do you especially look forward to when you come to the UK? What makes you want to go home again?
BC: I love church history, so as an American I must own the inferiority of U.S. History compared to UK history. As much as I love history, the fellowship of older godly pastors (oh, and younger too like you) exists for myself in the UK more so than in the U.S. I am challenged and ministered to by older pastors in the UK and it becomes a spiritually revitalizing exercise when I come and experience their example. So far, my wife and children have not been able to come to the UK with me. Until they accompany me, there are always strong motives for a short trip and speedy return.
JS: For the sake of full disclosure…I first met Jeremy when he was an unconverted 13 year old (I’ll leave out the bit about his being short, chubby and having a ridiculous hair cut, because that would be cruel). My initial friendship was with his esteemed father and dear mother. I think I can lay claim to being the only man that you will interview who has wrestled you and held you over my head! I have long been an Anglophile, so coming to the UK is always a treat. I love the history of the nation, seeing the places where great men of God labored and in some cases were martyred. I love the sense of secular history, the museums and the castles. As a fan of Sherlock Holmes, I really enjoy strolling down Baker Street too. Nothing makes me want to go home more than the food!
4. Have you ever considered leaving the ministry (if that’s a painful memory, feel free to give a “Yes” or “No” answer)? What kept you there, and what keeps you there now, especially when times are hard?
BC: What affirmed to me I was called in the midst of some hard early years of ministry in some very difficult places was, when I was most in the fire, I didn’t consider leaving. There was always this resolve this is what God has called me to and no one could ever overtake that desire – even when painfully attacked. The growing burden to “give an account for souls entrusted to me” keeps me pressing on in the work and the joy of that burden reminds me there is nothing else I would rather do. There is nothing like the honor to minister the Word of God both publically and privately and see God powerfully change people. Even in the hardest of times, that Word keeps my own soul steadfast and keeps the fire burning to preach it. To quote Spurgeon’s test, “There is nothing else I could be satisfied doing.”
JS: Yes! Several times! I can remember a certain time in my ministry where my counsel to young men who wanted to enter the ministry was, “Don’t!” The two great things that have caused me to want to leave the ministry can be broken down into “them” and “me”. I have at times been discouraged at what seems to be such little fruit among the Lord’s people, few conversions among the lost, people leaving the church without discussion or warning, of being attacked for striving to be faithful. Sometimes I wrestle with my own sense of calling, my weariness, my inability to truly be a help to those in need.
Several things have kept me in the way. The first is the worthiness of my Master. I heard someone say years ago, “I stopped asking is it worth it and have started to ask, Is He worthy?” There is also something of the inestimable privilege of preaching the gospel. What a great thing to tell other people about the Savior! As a pastor I not only see the worst in people, but I see their best as well. There are testimonies of God’s grace that I get to witness, triumphs over sin and the past that I am privy to that many others do not see. I hope it is not wrong to mention that I have dear mentors in my life whom I never want to let down.
5. What advice would you give to a young man considering a possible call to the ministry of the Word of God?
BC: It is a great burden like nothing else that produces a greater joy than anything you have experienced. Paul says it is a good desire, but do not pursue it without a strong internal desire (calling) accompanied by an external calling, which is an affirmation of your gifts and calling by a local church. I believe this is the biblical model of God’s design to call out the called.
JS: I would begin by exhorting them to deepen their own walk with God and then to strive to be the kind of churchman that they want their own congregation to be one day. In regard to more practical issues I have encouraged men to read good biographies of useful saints of the past and to listen to as many modern useful preachers as they can. They need to integrate themselves among all the people of God and not just ‘hang with their own kind’. I want to see a young man develop a deep love for the Lord’s people and a heart to serve them rather than simply preach to them.
6. As you consider your development as a pastor and preacher, can you mention three of the books that been most helpful to you personally?
BC: Between Two Worlds by John Stott; The Reformed Pastor by Richard Baxter; and, The Christian Ministry by Charles Bridges.
JS: Preaching and Preachers by Lloyd-Jones, Knowing God by Packer, and Spiritual Disciplines For the Christian Life by Donald Whitney (this came into my life during a spiritual dry spell and breathed fresh hope and life into my soul).
7. Some sermons have an unforgettable impact on us (for example, as a means of conversion, a point of striking illumination, or a stirring of soul to some particular endeavour or attitude) and leave us different men. Have you had such an experience, and might you be able to identify the occasion and its particular effect?
BC: I grew up in man-centered, pragmatic churches and that was my understanding of God and the gospel. My world was shook when I was 24 years old and I heard John Piper preach Isaiah, “For my sake I will do it…I will not give my glory to another.” The shackles fell off my eyes to begin to have a God-centered understanding of God’s character and the gospel. Life-altering!
JS: There are several such instances in my life. I have been privileged to have two of my pastors be George McDearmon and Al Martin. Both men are powerful and incisive preachers. However, the ministry that most deeply affected me was a 12 part series on the life of Paul by Pastor Edward Donnelly of Northern Ireland. He taught these classes in a winter session while I was in seminary. Again, they came to me at a time when I was growing dull in my own heart (this has obviously happened more than once!). He conveyed truths about Paul’s love for and commitment to Jesus and the gospel that have never left me. I continue to meditate upon many of those truths nearly 25 years after hearing them.
8. We preach of the unsearchable riches of Christ and speak of his preciousness to the saints. What makes him particularly precious to you at this present time? What is it about the Lord Jesus that draws your heart out to him? How does your estimation of Christ show itself in your preaching?
BC: I have faced some great and sudden losses in the last few months because of death. I have found Christ so precious to me as I consider the sting of death, felt the pain of that separation and overwhelmed by it, and how He has ultimately rescued me from it. This has shown up in a real, emotional way in recent days when I preach and apply the gospel as our hope from the snare of sin that leads to death. Several times in study these last few weeks I have found myself overtaken by emotion and declared, “I’m so thankful I have Christ! What a despairing life this would be knowing what awaits us without Him.”
JS: John Newton said, “My memory is nearly gone; but these two things I remember; I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.” I spent the first fifteen years of my life a complete stranger to grace. I did not go to church, read the bible, or pray. When I came to faith in Christ I was overwhelmed by a sense of God’s love for me. While that continues to be the wellspring of my life, I find myself meditating more and more upon His great faithfulness, mercy, and patience through the years. I have failed Him repeatedly. I am not what I ought to be for all the benefits which have been poured into me. That He has not abandoned me and that He deigns to use me in any capacity is a wonder to my soul.
I believe that what makes a man’s preaching distinctively his own is not only his gifts but his experience of God’s grace. Paul says in Acts 20 that Christ sent him to ‘testify’ of the gospel of the grace of God. Not just to proclaim it, but to speak of his own experience of its truth. I believe that the wonder of His mercy to me permeates my ministry to give help and comfort to others who, like me, struggle and fail so often. I love the words of the hymn, “though for good we render ill, he accounts us brethren still!”
9. One of your flock comes to you and complains that his heart is dry and his soul is chilled. He wants to be more full of love to God and to his people, but he finds himself sadly otherwise. What advice would you give to such a person?
BC: We need to always be reminded that powerful truth can be comprehended in the mind, without touching our affections. I would encourage that person to cry out to God in prayer that God’s truth would stir his affections and love for Christ. If we earnestly pray that, I have confidence God would answer it. The other thing I would say is one that is unaffected by the hope of the gospel and the preciousness of Christ, usually has lost sight of why they should be. I would remind them of what they truly deserve as rebels against a holy, wrathful God and try to get them to remember the horrors of God’s wrath. I think this principle is a basic way to help foster gratefulness in general, especially for the gospel where it is lacking.
JS: The first thing that I would remind them is that gospel is not predicated on our love to God, but His for us. We will never love Him ‘enough’. Only Jesus did that! I would then seek to ascertain if there is anything in their own life at this time which has supplanted their love for the Savior. Have they been filling their belly with the things of the world? Is there unconfessed sin? Is it perhaps something as simple as a general fatigue? Are they attending to the means of grace despite them feeling arid and unfruitful? Jesus indicated to the Laodiceans that they could ‘remember, repent, and do the first works’ which would restore the fervency of first love. Their experience is not new. Others have sought God in the dry and weary land. They must continue to knock, and to seek, and to ask. They must not lose heart in doing good, knowing in due time they will reap, if they do not faint.
10. What would you say are some of the particular blessings your wives bring to you and your ministries?
BC: I was once told, “You can always have another ministry, you only get one wife.” I have had several different ministries, but she has always been there. As every year goes by, I grow more and more in appreciation of my wife and deep love for her as she continues to just faithfully be there. She also continues to amaze me with how she puts her own struggles aside to serve others and how God powerfully uses her in those moments of weakness is inspiring. So often, she is much wiser than I am, but graciously lets me take the credit as the one who shares the wisdom. The love she shows me that I feel and experience every day is unrivalled by anyone else in this world. She is the most fun, enjoyable person I could ever spend time with and I love to see her smile and laugh. Hard to stop…but I will.
JS: Having married the world’s finest woman, the answer to this question could go on for many pages! Several things though come quickly to mind. The first thing is that she herself is a fervent Christian woman who loves the Lord as much as anyone I know. She is an excellent mother to my four children. She has made my home a delightful place to return to and has helped to provide a happy place for other people to come to as well. My wife prays for me and supports me but is, in the right sense, ‘unimpressed’ by me. She will let me know when I’m off, and challenge me in my preaching and in my life.
11. What is the most painful and what the most pleasant thing about being a minister of God’s Word? Give me this moment’s snapshot, if that’s easier.
BC: The most pleasant is to see someone hear and receive God’s Word in faith and watch that seed fall on good soil and bear much fruit in their lives and becomes that anchor when a great storm comes. The most painful is when it is clear receptivity to that Word that is the answer to a weary soul, yet they choose to doubt it, forget it, and dismiss the bread it would be to their soul. This is especially true when you have just preached your heart out with that Word and it falls on deaf ears to those you know to be the most needy of it.
JS: Nothing is harder than feeling like I have failed to be what God has called me to be in someone’s life. I remember one time when a family had been through some deep waters and I was not as aware or as involved in being a help to them in their time of need. There is no greater joy than seeing someone come to faith in Jesus and then grow in that faith and grace.
12. How do you decide what to preach next (whether the next sermon or the next series)?
BC: I expositionally preach through books of the Bible 90% of the time. I will alternate Old Testament and New Testament on Sunday mornings. Regardless the size of the book I choose, I try to complete the book in less than a year. Hebrews took 35 weeks, 1 Samuel 33 weeks, Titus 12 weeks. This allows me to spend time in the details, and yet still move through the Bible at a steady pace. I will do a short 3-4 week series on something often between these book series. What book I choose revolves around what I haven’t preached, or done recently and what are the particular needs in the congregation that a certain book would address well.
JS: I normally preach verse by verse or passage by passage through a book. There will be breaks as I seek to discern from the people and in prayer what the needs of God’s people may be at a particular time. Sometimes there is a need for corporate encouragement and sometimes a need for corporate rebuke or challenge. I seek to listen hard to the people of God and interact with my fellow elders to determine what the needs of the hour might be.