To Backstreet and Back (Part 4)
Tim Challies Tim Challies' Blog
- Updated Aug 12, 2009
This morning I finish up my interview with Burk Parsons. Today he explains how he came to minister alongside R.C. Sproul and shares some of his dreams for the future.
How did you come to meet R.C. Sproul and to minister alongside him?
I first began listening to RC in 1994. Developing Christian Character was the first series I ever watched. In 1996 I attended my first Ligonier Ministries’ National Conference and met Dr. Sproul. For more than two years I hated Reformed theology and despised anyone who breathed words of Calvinism. I thought it was deadly, heretical, and against the very nature of God Himself. I was a serious Bible-college student, and, as such, had to study the Bible. My studies brought me to a serious crisis of faith late one night in a large field next to the parking lot of Sarasota Baptist Church when I realized that I can either believe the Bible as the authoritative and inerrant Word of God and thus accept the veracity of the doctrines of grace taught therein or reject the Bible as the Word of God. Of course, I had no other choice but to submit to the teaching of Scripture. But it wasn’t easy. It was a real crisis as I literally yelled out to God for direction and an answer. He answered me promptly with a needed admonition from His Word—my mind was immediately drawn to Paul’s stern words: “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?” (Rom. 9:20 NIV). In the end, having fought against Calvinism with all the free will I could muster, when it came right down to it, it was the clear teaching of the Word of God that convinced me—through and through. In the end, I had spent all my resistance on something, and on Someone, I could not resist. For another two years then, I began to tackle the much bigger, and much more difficult questions of covenant theology, revelation and redemptive history, Israel and the church, infant baptism, church polity, and so on. I’ll spare you the details, Tim, for the sake of your current ecclesiastical and doctrinal associations (I’m smiling).
In 1999 when I started seminary, I needed a job, and the best thing I could find was working with Ligonier Ministries in their development department making calls every night. It was tough, but I had a job. After five months I began to work on frontline (where all the toll-free calls come in to Ligonier) sharing a desk with my dear brother (and one of the finest biblical and theological scholars around) Keith Mathison, we answered theological questions, counseled, and helped students find helpful resources from Dr. Sproul and others. A year later I was invited to help serve in the editorial department along with Keith, and so the story goes.
All the while, however, I was training to serve the Lord as a pastor, and all of my overseers at Ligonier were made aware of that. I was completing my internship as a candidate under care of the Central Florida Presbytery of the PCA, under the leadership of Bob Ingram. Before I completed my internship, several men from Saint Andrew’s approached me about coming on staff, but I needed to complete my two-year internship, and so I did. But when I finished it, in 2002 I made the decision to accept the second offer from RC and the elders of Saint Andrew’s to join the staff. When I met with the elders at their monthly meeting I explained that I was committed to them, to the congregation of Saint Andrew’s, and to RC for the long haul. In 2004 I finished seminary, and on July 18, 2004, I was ordained as a teaching elder (incidentally, I later found out RC was ordained on July 18, 1965).
In 2002, when I started, Saint Andrew’s was a five-year-old congregation, with about 300 or so in attendance, meeting together in a one-year-old beautiful sanctuary. Today, by God’s sustaining grace, the congregation has continued to grow spiritually as well as numerically through the conversion and transfer of both young and old who have left other traditions, i.e. Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist (well, truth be told many are still Baptists, and we love them), and have joined us in worship, discipleship, and outreach. Two Sundays ago nearly 1400 worshiped together in our new building—(some call it a cathedral). It is an astonishing, eighteen-million-dollar project that RC and I have prayed will not be the focus of our attention but a place in which God’s people will gather until Christ’s return to focus our attention on Him—a place from which we will continue to go out into the community and all the world to draw men’s focus to Christ.
What are the two or three most important things you’ve learned from ministering alongside Dr. Sproul?
That is a terribly difficult question to answer, Tim. As you can imagine, I learn things from RC every week. But it is absolutely crucial that I also say this: I have probably learned as much from his wife, Vesta, as I have from anyone in my life. Truth be told, she’s the backbone of the entire ministry, and she is like a mother to me. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to express adequately what she means to me this side of the new heavens and new earth. She’ll hate that I said even that much about her.
Now, to attempt to answer your question: Among many things, I have learned the following three things from ministering alongside RC: Know the Lord. Know His Word. Preach His Word.
You are still young! What ministry have you been involved with and what do you think (or hope or dream) that God has got for you in the years ahead?
Good question. I am thankful to have a wife who is willing to go anywhere and serve God anywhere He might call us. I am thankful for children who have endured Uganda and are ready to do it again. I am thankful to have an overseer at Ligonier Ministries, Chris Larson, who is the most gifted and godly man whom the Lord has ever raised up to serve Him at Ligonier who wants to be faithful in supporting me in any ministry opportunities the Lord might provide me. I am thankful to have a group of godly elders at Saint Andrew’s who are dear friends and co-laborers in the Lord. There is a love and unanimity among us as elders that is hard to find. You could ask any of them, and they would say the same thing. I am thankful that I serve alongside a man who thinks more highly of me than I think of myself, really. I have a lower opinion of myself and my abilities than just about anyone around me, and I say that not because I am afflicted with false modesty, but because I am simply amazed how the Lord continues to sustain me and entrust me with more every day. We are not adequate in ourselves as to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God.
With that said, it has been RC’s express desire for some years now that I take his place at Saint Andrew’s after he has gone to be with the Lord. In fact, a few years ago I spoke with him about my anxiety of having to preach in his pulpit, and he quickly admonished me never to call it “his pulpit” but “our pulpit,” in which the Word of God is preached. If people only knew, RC has a more humble and sober opinion of himself than anyone I have ever met. Most weeks, he’s overcome at how God continues to bless the ministries of Saint Andrew’s and Ligonier. I feel the same way, we are two guys, one young (33) and one old (70) who are beside ourselves that God has chosen us to serve Him in His kingdom as shepherds of His flock. R.C. serves as an under-shepherd to Christ, and I serve as an under-shepherd to R.C.
I should also mention that in the autumn of 1999 I was on my knees praying that God would put RC Sproul in my life as my mentor, and that He would allow me to directly serve him in my life. It was an express prayer that I penned in my journal. To this day, my call is to serve him as I serve the Lord. He is my teacher, and a student is never above his teacher. My sincere prayer is that the Lord would sustain me in pastoral ministry all my life, and that I would remain faithful to God as I remain faithful to the legacy of faith of Dr. Sproul.
I am thankful to serve as editor of Tabletalk—it is a labor of love (well, I also get paid for it, thankfully)—it is something I hope to be doing the rest of my life. As the magazine continues to flourish (it’s amazing considering how many periodicals are unfortunately falling by the wayside), having well over 200,000 readers in more than sixty countries. It remains the world’s largest subscriber-based theological devotional, and it continues to gain the attentions of young and old, from 18-80, around the world—may God be praised. It is our hope to hold the line biblically, doctrinally, and ecclesiastically so that hundreds of years from now, if our Lord should sovereignly tarry (and I hope He doesn’t), that historians will look back and recognize that amid all the doctrinal turmoil of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries there was one magazine called Tabletalk that was faithful and held the line proclaiming the Word in season and out of season. Of course, the designers and other editors have a central part to play in all this, by God’s sustaining grace.
In the last few years I have had wonderful opportunities to serve the Lord in various ways, through conferences with men, such as Sinclair Ferguson and Thabiti Anyabwile (men way out of my league), and through the upcoming 2010 Ligonier National conference at which John Piper will be speaking (I’m terribly anxious; I hope someone will slip Piper some sleeping pills before I speak so that he’ll be sleeping somewhere while I’m speaking). God has given me wonderful opportunities to do some writing, writing not just to publish but to produce some things that I hope will truly help the church and meet real needs where there is nothing else available for the layperson. That’s really my desire, to help produce materials that anyone can pick up, read, and understand.
Although I was accepted to do Ph.D. work at Edinburgh in 2004, I realized that I already had a good job and didn’t think it would be wise to leave the opportunity God had provided me to serve Dr. Sproul. So a few years ago, I began a to work on a D.Min. through Reformed Theological Seminary under Steve Childers. I am just about finished with my course work. It has been a wonderful program and more rigorous and time consuming than I first thought. I encourage every pastor to pursue further studies. It forces us to interact with many authors that we likely would not otherwise (incidentally, Ligonier Ministries has just started a D.Min. program with an incredible line up of professors.)
Of course, none of us knows what the Lord has in store for us in the future, but I can tell you the desires of my heart. It’s funny, Tim, as I think about this, I already feel as if I have lived a full life, yet I have as much energy and passion for future kingdom service as I have ever had.
I hope to continue to live a simple life. My family and I live in the country, with many neighbors who still need Christ. My family and I spend a lot of time together, and I love every minute of it. I do a lot of work on our property; I still drive a truck, and I listen to old country music, bluegrass, and everything JS Bach ever wrote. I love to hunt quail and big game. I love to backpack with my band of brothers. I love to gather together with the men who are close to me, which I do on a weekly basis (they keep me honest, humble, and real, something all pastors, and all men ad women, need).
I hope that as a part of this simple life with my family the Lord will sustain me in serving Him a pastor of His flock here in north-central Florida at Saint Andrew’s as a hub for the mission field all around us (the world has come to Central Florida). I’m delighted to able to do some writing from time to time, speak at conferences from time to time, and continue to help train other ministers in the church and in the seminaries—but I am called first and foremost to serve the flock of God as a pastor to equip God’s people for ministry. That is my calling and my sincere delight.
Tim, lastly you asked about any hopes or dreams I might have. Well, here are just a few: While I have spent a great deal of time overseas teaching and preaching, perhaps when I’m in my forties, I’ll have the opportunity, by God’s grace, to spend about a quarter of my time overseas with unreached peoples and help convince many other Christians and pastors to do the same using their personal resources. Perhaps in my fifties, I will be able, by God’s grace, to establish a new kind of seminary that actually mentors, disciples, and equips pastors rather than simply gives them things to think about, memorize, and regurgitate. Perhaps in my sixties, I will be able, by God’s grace, to keep preaching in the church and help convince us that conference and para-church ministry is not ideal (something that Dr. Sproul firmly believes, incidentally), but that it is through the simple, ordinary-means-of-grace ministries of local congregations around the world that is where kingdom work is foremost accomplished. Perhaps in my seventies, by God’s grace, I will have good male friends with whom I can still talk about God and His Word and with whom I can still hunt, backpack, and change the world. And perhaps after I’m dead, something I look forward to almost daily, my children and children’s children will know the Lord by God’s grace, and that all those whom I have served will continue to point others to the Cross.
Once more I’d like to express my appreciation to Burk for participating in this interview. As you can tell, I’m sure, this was no small commitment for him.