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