Changing Times: Part 3 of a Conversation with Bob Russell
*Editor’s Note: Brett Seybold recently sat down with Bob Russell to talk about the state of the American church in light of current events and trends. This is part 3 of that conversation. Here’s Part 1 and Part 2.
Q. Most pastors are accustomed to being seen as the good guys in society. They’re the nice guys, seen as among the most moral, upstanding citizens of a city. That is changing for pastors who keep following the Bible despite cultural pressures, especially pressures to affirm LGBTQ ethics. What’s your advice for a pastor who is having a lot of trouble being perceived as cultural heretic, instead of that nice pastor in town?
This is a real problem for preachers. Most of us go into ministry because we like people and want to be close to them. We know that certain issues are going to trigger a negative reaction.
Oswald Sanders advised us to move from having thin skin and a hard heart, to having thick skin and a soft heart. This was a hard lesson for me to learn. I struggle with being a people pleaser. I often find myself asking, “Am I here to please people or God?” If we’re not careful, we will find ourselves shouting grace and whispering repentance.
I don’t think I’ve wavered much in what I believe over the years; I’ve kept holding to beliefs that most people—not just church people—considered culturally orthodox. Not many years ago, there was a common consensus of truth as revealed in Scripture. But recently the culture has shifted so far to the left theologically. We have to be careful not to gradually slide with the culture.
I’m reminded of 1 John 2:24:
“As for you, see that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father.”
Some of the opposition that I get from preachers for allegedly alienating the culture comes from me representing what they have strayed from over the years. It would help if we had exposure to older preachers, being mentored by association. It is a Scriptural principle to treat the older men like your fathers, not with disdain or ridicule. When I ridicule a Ben Merold (15 years my senior and much wiser than I), I don’t merely cut him down; rather I make myself look little.
Q. Our optimism for the future lies in Jesus. He is our hope. What are some encouraging signs you have seen in the American church that people are trusting in Him and He is leading them onward?
We are better off with a remnant of those totally committed rather than a mass of lukewarm fans. Jesus pared His followers down. So there are some positive signs. What we’re going through has a purging effect.
Two weeks ago, I was invited to preach at a backyard Sunday morning worship gathering with around 120 gathered for communion, worship, fellowship, and a message. I’m encouraged when I see that there are some sharp young preachers standing firm in the truth who are looking for creative ways to revitalize the church: online, outdoors, smaller home churches.
There are some sharp young preachers who have not bowed the knee to Baal. I am encouraged to see young people who are saying that Jesus means more to them than the culture. Even though I’m an older, retired minister, I’m encouraged by the fact that a number of young preachers seek my private counsel. It’s my observation that for everyone who is on the edge of bailing out, there are four or five who are doing their best to remain faithful. That being said, ministry is harder than it used to be.
If we’re not careful, we will find ourselves shouting grace and whispering repentance.
Q. What are some of the prayers you regularly pray for the American church?
I especially pray for my son who is a preacher and for the other young ministers I mentioned. I pray that they will stand firm in the truth. And that they would have a spirit of wisdom and perception, an ability to decipher right from wrong. I regularly pray for and encourage ministers of two things: be joyful and be faithful.
Q. What are 2-3 Scriptures that keep you going when things are discouraging?
Ephesians 3:20 says,
“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.”
I’m definitely a fulfillment of this verse. I grew up milking cows in Conneautville, PA. When people say that Bob Russell is a nobody, I say they are absolutely right! When I get invited to speak to corporate or intellectual groups, I leave laughing, wondering why God decided to use me. When I drive by the Southeast Christian Church complex, I laugh. There is no way I could have done this, motivating people to give and serve so much. God did this. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in ministry, but one thing I’ve done right is that I’ve not forgotten this.
And then there’s 2 Corinthians 4:16-18. It says,
“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”