Last April a friend of mine at Grace Community Church texted me to say John MacArthur was going to invite me to lead the music for some of the main sessions at the 2017 Shepherds’ Conference. I thought he was kidding.
There are a few reasons why this particular invite was unexpected. For one, I’m a pastor with Sovereign Grace Churches. John has at various times made clear in his preaching that we have a few theological differences. Also, the music at Grace Community Church, where John has served as the pastor for more than four decades, is primarily hymns led by highly skilled choirs, orchestras, and an organ. On a typical Sunday morning at Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville, I lead an assortment of hymns and modern worship songs with a small band that rehearses for an hour before the meeting.
All that to say, the invitation was a surprise.
A Delayed Invitation
When I didn’t hear anything for a week and a half, I texted my friend. Did John change his mind? No. Two weeks later, still no invite. So I texted again. Finally, an actual invitation arrived in the mail. It seemed surreal and I accepted before John changed his mind.
This was the 44th Shepherds’ Conference and my first. The theme was “We Preach Christ.” I had the joy of leading 4500 men in song for six sessions. My good friends Keith and Kristyn Getty led in the afternoons, and in the evenings the music was handled by Grace Community Church musicians, led by Clayton Erb.
The preaching was stellar. While there was something to commend in every speaker, I specifically appreciated the messages from Ligon Duncan, Michael Reeves, Steve Lawson, H.B. Charles Jr., Conrad Mbewe, and Mark Jones. The messages will be available soon here, or you can watch them now on the Shepherds’ Conference Facebook page.
A Few Things I Learned
1. Grace Community Church has fostered a gospel-fueled culture of joyful servanthood.
Everywhere I went people were serving with smiles on their faces. Over 1000 volunteers handed out free food, gave directions, welcomed us, provided information, gave rides. Many of them took an entire week of vacation (and do so every year) just to be able to serve the pastors who came. That’s grace.
2. Focusing on the most important biblical truths enables us to disagree about secondary doctrines with charity.
I don’t know if John got pushback on inviting me to lead, but I wouldn’t doubt it. But John MacArthur is passionate about the Word of God, the gospel, and the glory of Jesus Christ. He’s also humble. And that enabled him to invite me to lead despite some of our theological differences. And I’m grateful.
3. Leading from a hymnal is just slightly different from leading when the lyrics are projected.
I typically lead with projected lyrics. But at The Shepherds’ Conference we sang from Hymns of Grace, an excellent hymnal published by Grace Community Church last year. I love leading hymns, but I wasn’t used to was calling out hymn numbers before each song. By the third session, my daughter/assistant, Brittany, reminded me to say the numbers before each song, so I circled them on my music. “That will do it,” I thought. I remembered on the first song, but forgot on two of the other songs. You can hear what it sounded like below starting at 19:55 and 23:09.
4. “We Preach Christ” should be the theme of every conference and message, whether it’s stated or not.
It was a spiritual feast hearing sermons that again and again led us to behold and revel in the person and work of Christ. Implications were drawn and applications were made, but the goal was always to celebrate Jesus Christ, the Son of God who became flesh, lived a perfect life of obedience, died as our substitute to take God’s wrath for our sins, rose from the dead, ascended to his Father’s right hand, and will ever be glorified by the saints and angels in the new heavens and new earth. How rich the church would be if every sermon, whether on Sundays or at a conference, had the same focus! “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” (2 Corinthians 4:5, ESV)
5. Starting later in the morning and ending early in the evening makes for a great conference schedule.
A few years ago, the conference leaders decided to start at 10AM end the last session at 7PM or before. I heard the change was due primarily to traffic issues in Los Angeles. I never realized what a difference that would make in the pace of the conference. Guys were able to enjoy relaxed mornings and then hang out for an extended time over dinner with friends or fellow attendees. Having lunch served on site was also a huge bonus. Someone has a huge gift of administration and it served us well at the conference.
6. The mental and emotional engagement of a singing congregation doesn’t depend on the number of instruments in front.
Someone told me one of the reasons John invited me to lead at The Shepherds’ Conference this year was because of his experiences at Together for the Gospel. He was encouraged to hear the attendees belting out God’s praises with just a simple piano accompaniment. That brings home the reality that every church has what they need for engaged congregational singing: God’s Word, the gospel, and the Holy Spirit. The men at the Shepherds’ Conference sang just as loud when led by a piano in the morning as they did when being led by a choir, orchestra, and organ at night. That’s a good thing to remember whenever we think our singing isn’t as “good” as the church down the street because we don’t have the money, resources, or people to add more musicians. It’s also a good reason to vary the instrumentation we use in our church from Sunday to Sunday or even song to song.
An unexpected highlight of my time was dropping in on a rehearsal of the Master’s Chorale, brilliantly led by Dr. Paul Plew. Paul came to a WorshipGod conference years ago, and even though we come from different traditions, we share a common desire to see the Savior exalted through music. He allowed me thirty minutes to address the choir and I shared along the lines of, “Music is great, but Jesus is greater.” It was a blast.
While my favorite part of any trip is coming home to my wife, my family, and my church, it was an honor and joy to be part of the Shepherds’ Conference this year. My prayer is that every pastor who attended was encouraged and equipped to serve their flocks more effectively for the glory of Christ.
And here’s a list of the songs I led (with hymn numbers from Hymns of Grace):
Give to Our God Immortal Praise #14
He Will Hold me Fast #388
Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul #52
Oh, the Deep, Deep Love #154
Be Thou My Vision #176
How Rich a Treasure We Possess #292
See the Destined Day Arise #298
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross #290
My Savior’s Love #105
Come Praise and Glorify #44
Not in Me #405
All I Have is Christ #389
Our Great God #42
All Creatures of Our God and King
Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken (MOORE) #394
O Great God #35
Come Behold the Wondrous Mystery #184
Before the Throne of God Above #187
Behold Our God #126
I Will Glory in My Redeemer #196
My Jesus, I Love Thee #380
All Glory Be To Christ #133
Not surprised you were invited. You understand worship..which is what matters. John MacArthur is one of the greatest expositors of God”s Word I have ever heard. I listen to his sermons several times a week, despite our theological differences, as well. Thank you for sharing your incredible experience, and for reminding me today that Humility is able to acknowledge that since true worship begins in the heart, there is more than one “right way” to give musical expression to it, stylistically speaking. May the Lord continue to enrich and bless your ministry!
Great stuff! We had a woundeful time worshiping alongside you from the congregation. Honestly, not remembering the song numbers really worked in favor of breaking down any tenseness that anyone might’ve had in the congregation. It gave us all a chance to laugh alongside you and remember that our focus is on Christ! The breakout session was also worth a listen for those who didn’t make it out!
It was great to be a part of the conference via the internet. The preaching was excellent as usual and I very much appreciated the music. The men sang from their hearts! Wonderful to hear! Thanks for your part in that, Bob.
After our time in Bristol, England I was especially glad you were not only invited, but you accepted the invite. We were blessed by your ministry and we’re instructed by how you humbly responded when the hymn-number-issue surfaced. Everything in life is a test, and that was a great example of love for Christ that was filled with humility. Thanks for keeping the focus on Christ. It’s one of the biggest reasons so many of us are blessed by your ministry. Grace & Peace, Tom Mc
Thanks for your encouraging words, Tom. We have a glorious Savior!
Your presence was a blessing and your personal engagement in the worship engaged each of us as we focused and worshipped together. Christ should always be the focus of our preaching and, as you demonstrated, our worship. Thank you for ministering.
This is such an encouraging reflection. I caught some of the conference via live stream and it was a blessing. Thank you for serving and sharing.
It is good to hear about different “limbs” working together in the Body! Many thanks for your service.
One idea for calling out hymn numbers: assign someone to do it as the song gets started. You can stay focused on directing.
Thanks, John! Unfortunately, I was the only one on the platform. I remembered for the last three sessions by writing the hymn number right above the first line of the song.
Thanks for leading Bob! I actually thought the issue with the hymn numbers was a great opportunity to do exactly what you did: remind everyone (both in that room and watching from home) that the engagement in the music portion of worship is not driven by a mood, or our seamless presentation, but by the truth of what we sing as Christ perfects our offering to God! Thanks for your ministry!
It was really a blessing to be there and being led in worship by you brother. May the Lord continue to bless you, your family and ministry.
It was such a blessing to hear you speak to the Chorale, Mr. Kauflin. Greatly appreciated. Thank you for all that you do for the kingdom!
Thoroughly enjoyed being there, Jay!
God bless you Bob and thanks for sharing! The conference was incredible and the music was just amazing. I was able to participate in this even via internet, but unfortunately didn’t watch all of it :( However, I’m glad that that I got most of it, because I really needed such thing at that time. Sorry for my English skills (still learning).
Cheers from Poland, and God bless you!