When he was a very young man called to Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, the church had about 120 people. When he retired from being their lead pastor after exactly 40 years, the church was about 18,000. That was eleven years ago, and now they are up to about 23,000. (He must have been holding them back.)
But when he retired from Southeast Christian, Bob Russell did not retire from ministry. So when he says has ministered for 50 years, he is not exaggerating. The title of his 2016 book is After 50 Years of Ministry: 7 Things I’d Do Differently & 7 Things I’d Do the Same.
I never heard Bob Russell preach a sermon, but I was for a few months an occasional guest at lunches, sponsored by his church, for local pastors. I was able to attend because a pastor friend took me along. Those were some great meals. Where was I? Oh, yes, Bob Russell. So I did hear him speak a little bit.
From that experience, and from reading his book, my guess as to some of the reasons for his success are, in no particular order: his honesty, his humility, his respect for the word of God, a God-given ability to speak, his willingness to work hard to develop that gift, and a natural leadership. He seems to be the kind of person for whom other people feel a natural respect, and with whom they want to spend time and to follow. People who know him well, could probably add a lot of other things.
I never spoke to him, but I remember one time in which he delivered a few comments to the assembled group. He was of course at that time already nationally famous. He spoke about a time in his ministry when his two sons were quarreling at home. Bob Russell made it clear how much of a failure he felt at that time. I don’t remember how he tied that all together with his brief message to us, but I think the incident gives us a hint of his humility and honesty. You will be glad and relieved to know that the boys turned out okay in the long run, grew into mature Christians, and the family is united and loving.
After 50 Years of Ministry is a superb book. I think it would be an ideal book for at least four types of people. 1/Young pastors or potential pastors. 2/Pastors of any age at any stage of their ministry. They say “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” but maybe you can if the dog is willing to listen and learn. 3/The garden variety of Christian of any age or sex. I am not a pastor, but I loved his book, and I think any Christian on the planet would benefit from reading it. 4/Non-Christians who are open to considering the possibility that Christianity might be true. I think it is the kind of book you could hand to a thoughtful non-Christian, and say something like, “Would you do me a favor? Tell me what you think of this.” Of course we can’t force stuff on people, but there are some people who might respond favorably. Bob Russell helped his church grow from 120 to 18,000. Maybe there’s a reason. Maybe one of your friends who reads this book could become number 18,001 (albeit in a different location than Southeast Christian).
The book has a very simple and useful format. After a good introduction, Mr. Russell’s Part I is seven chapters of “What I Would Do Differently,” then Part 2, “What I Would Do the Same.” I will give the chapter titles, then I will briefly summarize or comment on each chapter. But don’t be satisfied with the summary, if the material covered seems interesting to you. The book will repay you reading it in full. It is not expensive. This morning I saw a copy on Abe Books for $1.19 plus $3.49 shipping, a total of only $4.68. Other prices are similar.
1/”I Would Minister More by Faith and Less by Fear.” Mr. Russell says that “there was no one more stunned at what started happening” at Southeast Christian in 1966, than he was. He had underestimated the power of God’s word. He underestimated his giftedness to preach. He underestimated what God could do “with even a reluctant leader.” Especially in those early days he felt such tension on Friday and Saturday about the upcoming sermon, “that I wasn’t fun to live with.” If he had had more faith, he could have enjoyed God’s blessing more. He recounted an incident in the early 90s (after two and a half decades of success) when in the providence of God late at night at home he saw himself on videotape preaching a sermon given a year previously. Watching, he realized that God had given him a gift. Although not usually much of a crier, he hurried into a nearby bathroom and sobbed. It was a confidence booster to him–remember, after 25 years of success–and he realized “God had really anointed me to preach and had given me the opportunity to preach in a fertile field. That meant I had a heavy responsibility. But I need not be afraid.”
2/’I Would Watch Less Television and Find a More Positive Way to “Gear Down” at the End of the Day.’ He “wasted so many hours watching meaningless ballgames” and other unimportant stuff. “Admittedly, I sometimes wound up watching programs I had no business watching, which subtly polluted my mind.” If he could live his life again, “I would discipline myself to do some recreational reading that would have broadened my mind.” If he had spent just a half-hour less watching TV for six nights a week, he would have spent 7,800 hours doing something more productive. This is my favorite chapter in the book. I have whined for ages about the anti-intellectualism in the church. So few Christians are willing to read. Here is a pastor saying something similar. He lists seven specific reforms he would make in his television watching. All are good. I’ll just mention one: fast from watching television at least one night a week. He would use this time to interact with his family. “We can live under the same roof with people, even sleep in the same bed with them, and actually not know them very well because we spend so little time in meaningful dialogue.”
I will plan to carry on this discussion a week from today.