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September 28, 2009

There are a vast number of ministries serving the church today. Though I am familiar with many of them (by name at least) I have often wondered what each of them offer to us, and what we can offer to them. I thought it might be useful to offer a series of interviews with some prominent ministries to ask just this kind of question—who are you?, what do you do?, why do you exist?, and so on. It is useful, I think, even to know the size of the budgets of these organizations and the number of people they employ. You may be surprised at how big (or how small) some of these organizations really are. So over the next few weeks I will be interviewing representatives from many of these ministries. I trust you will find the interviews interesting and hope they will show you how different organizations are seeking to serve the Lord in such different ways.

First up in the series is Grace to You, a ministry that I am sure is familiar to most of us as the teaching ministry of John MacArthur. In this interview Grace to You is represented by Phil Johnson, the original Pyromaniac. Kudos to Phil who (remarkably) typed this whole interview on his iPhone while flying from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Those thumbs must be throbbing.

How and when did GTY begin?
This year marks the ministry’s 40th anniversary. We technically started with a handful of volunteers on John MacArthur’s first Sunday as pastor of Grace Community Church. There was a man in the church who coordinated the recording of those earliest sermons on reel-to-reel tape. His plan was to make a few copies to send to missionaries. He would make the copies by daisy-chaining tape recorders together in his living room and duplicating tapes in real time. He was doing this on the first Sunday John began pastoring the church, and that first Sunday’s sermon is still in the GTY catalog. It’s titled “How to Play Church.”

Right away, people began to request copies to send to friends and relatives. The guy who was doing the recordings kept having to recruit volunteers to meet the demand for tapes. That was the genesis of Grace to You (known as the Word of Grace Tape ministry in those days).

John’s first Sunday at Grace was in February of 1969. By the end of ‘69 the ministry had outgrown that living room and was moved to the church and placed under the oversight of the elders.

Cassette tapes were fairly new and unknown in 1969, but the need for a more efficient way to duplicate and distribute recordings drove the elders to the new technology. The cassette format made it possible for tapes to be duplicated at high speed and distributed by the thousands.

Tapes were cheap: $1 apiece. And within 5 years the ministry was distributing a million tapes a year. (We get that many downloads in a typical month today.)

In 1978, because of the persistence of one volunteer (named Norm Sper), a daily radio broadcast featuring John MacArthur’s teaching began airing in three cities (Baltimore, Tampa, and Tulsa). Known as “Grace to You,” the program was 30 minutes long, meaning only half a sermon could air each day. Industry experts insisted the format would not work; sermons should be aired on weekends in an hour-long format. Daily programs needed to be live talk or studio-based teaching, they said. Sermons were too impersonal.

John Macarthur himself was skeptical of the format and wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about the prospects of radio at first. But Norm and a staff of enthusiastic recruits worked tirelessly to get the broadcast on the air, and it was immediately successful.

I was living in the Tampa Bay area when “Grace to You” debuted in the autumn of ‘78, and I was a devoted listener from day one.

I came to work for the ministry in 1983, and in 1985 we formally merged the Word of Grace tape ministry with “Grace to You” radio. The resulting organization became a standalone, nonprofit parachurch ministry under an independent board, and we soon adopted “Grace to You” as the name of the consolidated ministry.

Why does GTY exist? What are its chief goals and key emphases?
Our purpose statement speaks to that very point:

As believers committed to God and walking in obedience to Him, we affirm the purpose of Grace to You, which is to teach biblical truth with clarity, taking advantage of various means of mass communications to expand the sphere of John MacArthur’s teaching ministry.

We use mass communications media to expose John’s teaching to as wide an audience as possible “for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12-13).

One of our principal tasks is to protect believers from being “tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming” (v. 14). We accept the God-given responsibility of “speaking the truth in love” (v. 15) and strive for the growth of the church and glory of the Lord, rather than the praise and honor of men.

Our role is not to supplant the local church’s ministry, but to support it by providing additional resources for those hungering for the truth of God’s Word. Media ministries can never substitute for involvement in a biblical church, group Bible study, or interaction with a teacher. Yet we sense the need for more in-depth resources, evidenced by the many Christians and Christian leaders worldwide who depend on our ministry to supplement their own study.

Our desire is that God be glorified through Grace to You’s resources. The Lord Jesus Christ is the Head of this ministry, and we desire to perform our work as unto Him, to reflect Him to all those we encounter, and to operate not in our own strength but through His power (Philippians 4:13).

How can GTY serve the readers of this web site?
We aim to supplement, not supplant, the ministries of local churches by providing resources for in-depth Bible teaching. Our most important ministries have pastors and church leaders in view. We also have a vital ministry to lay people who (for various reasons) aren’t finding adequate spiritual nourishment from the weekly teaching in whatever church they attend.

Who are the key leaders within the ministry?
John MacArthur, of course, and our board of directors. We also have a 6-man management team who oversee our staff on a day-to-day basis, I lead them, and Don Green (managing director) handles most of the hands-on administration. All our staff, starting with the management team, are supremely gifted. The second-newest guy on the management team has been there more than 10 years, so it’s a very stable ministry.

How many employees does GTY have?
Around 50 full time plus 175 volunteers who donate time and energy every week.

What is GTY’s annual budget? How is the ministry financed and how do you ensure financial integrity?
Our annual budget today is about $17.9 million. GTY is funded about 85 percent by donations from our listeners; 15 percent by sales of materials. We manage costs and expenditures carefully. We have been members of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountavility (ECFA) since its inception. We follow standard accounting and reporting procedures, and we are audited annually by a large, independent accounting firm.

How do you expect GTY will be different in ten years? Twenty years?
I expect we’ll have some younger staff members and lots of new media. But we want to be faithful to our purpose statement, and to our doctrinal position. Both of those have remained unchanged for 40+ years.

J. Vernon McGee’s ministry is the model for our future plans. We intend to keep broadcasting John MacArthur’s timeless Bible teaching as long as people will listen—hopefully my successors will still be doing that even long after we’re all gone.

How does GTY work with other Christian ministries?
We obviously maintain an ongoing, informal partnership with our sister ministries, The Master’s College & Seminary and Grace Community Church. That’s a fairly close relationship, even though we are not organizationally connected in any way. It’s based on common ministry goals and strengthened by the fact that we affirm the same doctrinal statement.

We also enjoy friendly relations with a host of other ministries, such as T4G, ACE, Ligonier, Desiring God, etc. Our involvement with these other ministries ranges from conferences in which we are joint participants to staff relationships in which we often compare notes, share ideas, discuss common goals, and seek solutions to common problems.

Speaking personally, what are some of the things you’ve learned from John MacArthur while working closely with him in this ministry?
I’ve learned to appreciate the importance of diligent study, courage in the face of opposition to the truth, and various helps for better discernment. Also, I was pretty much an Arminian until I heard John MacArthur’s teaching on Ephesians 1-2, and that series convinced me that God is sovereign in election.

What are some of the ways GTY has seen evidence of God’s hand of blessing?
The long-term, steady growth of the ministry has been remarkable. No matter what crisis or financial collapse threatens the national economy, it seems God always supplies our needs. The only significant downturn our ministry has ever experienced was owing to bad decisions involving subtle compromises in our development philosophy. We have seen God supply our needs again and again, in miraculous ways, and as long as we have kept our focus on doing ministry rather than getting diverted by fundraising campaigns, every need we have is always abundantly supplied.

How can the readers of this web site serve and support GTY?
Pray for us, partner with us, and use the resources we provide to help spread God’s Word in an increasingly ungodly culture.

August 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. If you are just catching up, here are links to part one, part two and part three of the interview.

MeHow did you come to meet R.C. Sproul and to minister alongside him?

Burk 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.

Me What are the two or three most important things you’ve learned from ministering alongside Dr. Sproul?

Burk 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.

Me 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?

Burk 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.

August 11, 2009

This morning I continue my interview with Burk Parsons. You can find part one of the interview here and part two here.


MeI’ve heard rumor as well that you were the first person Lou Pearlman spoke to when he decided to begin another band he called ‘N Sync. Is this true as well?

Burk Yes, let me explain. In one sense, the second offer I received from Lou Pearlman was harder to turn down than the first. I was eighteen, a senior in high school and, by God’s grace, much stronger in the faith, leading Bible studies and many to Christ. My family had purchased a successful cabinet shop and was doing well financially (Incidentally, I worked in the cabinet shop for a few years and loved every minute I had working with wood, except for the instance when I cut off two fingers from my right hand—still missing. Most days I would get out of school early and while in route to the cabinet shop 45-minutes away I listened to John MacArthur, Chuck Swindoll, or David Jeremiah, depending on the time I left school). My sister’s anemia had taken a toll on her and the family, but it had not turned out to be as bad as the doctors predicted it might be. Strangely, I was not as averse to the pop-music scene since I had recently come to enjoy some of the contemporary Christian music that was being produced (albeit a short-lived period). Lou called me at home, and I had not spoken with him since I left him and the guys that day at his home in 1993. It was now 1995. The Backstreet Boys had just started their first European tour, if I recall, and they were just getting to be known. Lou acted as if nothing had ever happened and asked me to come to Orlando to catch up and talk about the future. His offer was completely unexpected. That Saturday afternoon I visited him we met in his game room; he sat in his big chair and I sat on his sofa; he leaned toward me and said, “Burk, I’m going to give you another chance. I’m starting a new group, and it will be better and more successful than the Backstreet Boys. We now know exactly what to do and how to create a band that will rise to instant popularity.” He then said this (I was stunned): “I want you to be the first member of this group. We will build the group around you, and you will help us choose the guys in the group. You are no longer a minor; you will need to move to Orlando as soon as possible, finish school from here. I will get you a house, a car, a salary, and any thing else you need. Within a couple of years,” he promised, “you’ll be a multi-millionaire.”

He could tell I was excited. We spoke for a while about all that I was involved with at church and how this might be God’s second opportunity for me to fulfill my calling to be a witness for Him in the world. Lou had become quite a theologian. So, he gave me one week to think about it and told me to call him by the next Saturday.

It was simple. God had opened the door again, and this time several of the previous factors were no longer a part of the equation. It must be that God really wanted me to do this—after all, He had given me time to mature as a follower of Christ and He had now presented me with a venue for ministry in the world as a strong Christian (I am laughing at myself as I write this). What is more, at Sarasota Baptist Church, where I had become even more involved, going on staff as student-ministry intern a year later, many of the dear godly people there also thought this was another open door God had provided me to serve Him in the world. I was all set to call up Lou Pearlman and say yes, I’ll do it. Still, the same questions were running through my mind, over and over again: “How can I serve God and the world? God and fame? God and money? How can I sing those lyrics, dance, and shake for young impressionable girls?” My answer was simple, I can’t, but I know the Lord will sustain me in serving Him in the world if it’s His will. Of course I was seeking His will in all the wrong places. All I had to do, at any time, was look to the simple kingdom principles set out in His Word.

It was all sort of strange what happened the night before I was planning to call Lou. I went out that Friday night with an old dear girlfriend of mine, whom I stopped dating my freshman year of high school, because I reasoned, I wasn’t going to marry her at that time—a sweet girl who knew me well. We went to see the movie The Shawshank Redemption. I trust you’ve seen it—the movie has the tendency to set one’s mind in a certain mood, and I was in a sober mood that night. As the late showing ended, we walked out and got into my truck. We sat there (yes, we just sat there), and I began to talk about my life, and I began to weep. Within ten minutes, the parking lot had cleared, all except for one little car. Then one very big guy, dressed in black, came out of the theater alone. I was sad to see him alone. He walked around for about five minutes looking at the posters for the coming attractions. He then walked slowly back to his car with a sad countenance. After he got into his car, (It was about 1:00 am. It was dark, and there was no one else around but us sitting in the rear of the lot), he started his car and instantly loud booming music filled the air. He drove off slowly as he attempted to drown out his loneliness and sorrow with loud music. This is what went through my mind as I explained it to my friend: “I want to spend my life helping people like that, people who have no one, people who are lonely, sad, with no hope in this world.” I began to cry again, and I said, “how can I entertain the world if I am trying to help the world?” And with that, I knew what I needed to do. I called up Lou the next morning and said just about the same thing I told him two years prior. That was it. Within a year, Lou had formed the group ‘N SYNC (While the name ‘N SYNC was never mentioned to me, it was my understanding that was the group I would have been a part of). I met some of the ‘N SYNC guys a few years later at Lou’s house, just after one of their albums went platinum. They did, incidentally, make millions more than the Backstreet Boys had, and over the years the Backstreet Boys sued Lou Pearlman several times for various reasons. Several of the guys, from both groups, entered drug/alcohol rehab centers, and except for Justin Timberlake, I am not sure what any of the ‘N SYNC guys are up to these days.

Me How has God confirmed to you that you made the right choice in forsaking a career in music for a career in the ministry?

Burk I could write a lot in answering this question (I’m smiling as I watch my youngest daughter out of the corner of my eye sitting beside me in her pajamas on this early Saturday morning). But I hope the following story will be sufficient in helping to answer your question. In 2000 not too long after Amber and I were married (Lou sent us a check for $150.00 for our wedding), I met with Lou and several of his managers at his restaurant in downtown Orlando. It was the first time I had seen him since 1995. Throughout our lunch together he was signing MTV contracts for his show “Making the Band” or whatever the actual name was. As we spoke, he wanted to hear all about my life and ministry; I believed then, and still believe today, that he really cared. Perhaps I am wrong. But as we spoke, a few of his managers were listening intently to hear the story about the stupid kid who passed up offers to be a part of the now rich and famous Backstreet Boys and ‘N SYNC. I felt as if they were laughing at me as I told the story (actually some of them did snicker a bit). After I told my story, much more briefly than I’m telling it here, one of Lou’s main guys said this to me, and I’ll never forget it. He said, “I grew up in the church and still have many Christian friends. I actually once thought I would be an Episcopal priest.” Then he went on to say, “You know, Brian Littrell, who took your spot in the Backstreet Boys” (and whose cousin, Kevin, took Sam’s spot in the group), “he always said he wanted to be in ministry too. He was in the youth group at First Baptist in Orlando, and he came in with big dreams to go into ministry, but that’s not what he’s doing now.” He went on to describe quite a bit about Brian, his new wife, and some of the reasons he got married. While I’m not going to give any other details than that, let it be sufficient to say that our Lord overwhelmingly confirmed, once again, that He had led me to make the right decision. I am certainly aware that Brian came out with a Christian album a few years ago, and I am also aware the Backstreet Boys are back, once again, on tour. The question that many Christians have not yet answered for themselves and their world-flesh-devil serving heroes is this: If our God is a holy God who commands us in the New Testament to come out from among the world so that we might shine as a light to the dark world in order to proclaim life, liberty, and Jesus Christ to that world, how can we actually serve God and the world, God and the fame our flesh seeks, God and money, God and self? Don’t forget, God doesn’t need us to have a big audience so that thousands or millions of people can like us so that they might get to like Him. Jesus with few in number, and He didn’t command them to gain the audience of the world by mimicking the world. He told us that His kingdom is just the opposite, and that the Gospel is what saves not our good looks, talents, or fame.

I have prayed for Brian many times over the years, but I have never met him nor communicated with him, and I hope that his profession of faith in Christ and his life serve to shine as a light to a dark world for the kingdom of God.

For years, hanging behind the door of my study was a framed picture someone had sent me of the Backstreet Boys when they appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine with their pants down, with the caption “Boys on Top” (catch the innuendo).

Under that picture were our Lord’s words: “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world yet loses his soul” (Matt. 16:26).


Read part 4, the conclusion, where I ask Burk how he came to minister alongside R.C. Sproul and about some of the things he has learned from Dr. Sproul.

August 10, 2009

Yesterday I began an interview with Burk Parsons. You can read the first part here. The interview continues today…

MePeople may have heard rumors in the past that you were an original member of the Backstreet Boys. Is this true?

Burk Unfortunately, yes, it’s true. In fact, I recall the day we were told the name of our group. Alex, Nick, Howie, Sam, and I were together in Lou Pearlman’s enormous game room (adorned with original Hollywood paraphernalia, such as a Darth Vader helmet, C3PO suit, and Starship Enterprise model hanging prominently above—everything teenage boys loved). It is there where many of our early practice sessions and conversations took place. Lou had been in collaboration with his people from the entertainment industry about the name for his new boy band. As I recall, I was sitting on the floor next to Nick Carter who was thirteen at the time, and when Lou told us our new name, “The Backstreet Boys,” we laughed so hard that we were actually rolling on the ground. We all thought it was quite possibly the worst name he could have come up with. At first, we thought Lou was joking. For years, friends of mine have mockingly referred to the group as the Back Alley Boys, Backyard Boys, Backseat Boys, and so on.

Burk Parsons with Lou Pearlman

Me How did it come about that you found yourself part of a boy band?

Burk My dear mother was involved in the entertainment industry growing up. As the second daughter of Jimmy Featherstone, a 1940s big band leader, drummer, and studio-orchestra director for WGN in Chicago, my mother was in modeling, music, and stage shows most of her life until she met my father. In fact, at the time she met my father my mother was employed as a public relations assistant to Hugh Hefner (Go figure that one out!). She was and has always been a dreamer. While my father wanted me to change the world through politics and law, my mother seemed to think I could influence the world through the entertainment industry. Alas, thankfully, God had other things in mind.

Bear with me here as I try to provide some background information as to how I found myself in a boy band and why I left. When I was sixteen, I lived in Sarasota, Florida, with my mother, stepfather, and two younger sisters all of whom had recently begun to attend Sarasota Baptist Church with me under the pastoral care of godly pastors—Dave Clippard and Greg Lester. This is the church in which I became a Christian and was baptized along with my stepfather (and, yes, I was immersed, in a horse trough no less because the new sanctuary was still under construction).

My father, however, remained in Dayton, Ohio, after the divorce. It was 1992, my father was sixty eight years old and had just been diagnosed with lung cancer. He was a WWII navy war veteran who picked up a smoking habit in the navy and quit before I was born—in Carmel, California, incidentally, in March of 1976. His cancer progressed quickly, and my father didn’t fight it. He had lived a full life, and though I have never said it before, I have always thought that he didn’t fight his cancer primarily because he wanted to go home to be with his Lord, whom he had just recently come to know. My father and I spoke regularly on the phone, and in one of the last conversations we had he urged me to pursue a law degree. I respectfully spoke with him and explained to him that I thought I would be in pastoral ministry some day. While he admitted he was pleased to hear my desire, he was concerned that I would not be able to provide for a family properly and that I needed first to earn a degree that would give me something to fall back on in case a life in ministry didn’t work out. I still think his was good advice for a fifteen-year-old kid. But as I mentioned earlier, I was a very serious kid, and I recall thinking at the time that my father was not able fully to understand the passion God had instilled within me to serve Him in pastoral ministry.

On September 20, a beautiful Sunday evening, my mother came into my bedroom when I got home from work and told me that my dad had died. For reasons I won’t mention, I never had the opportunity to see my father again after he had been diagnosed, and I didn’t get to attend his memorial service outside Branson, Missouri. It was just a few years ago that Amber, Claire, and I had the opportunity to visit his grave for the first time, where he is buried next to the first son he had from his former marriage to the daughter of automobile manufacturer Preston Tucker; his son was killed in 1969 at the age of eighteen while hunting. That death drove my father into life-long sadness, divorce, and eventually to marry my mother—and, I believe, it also drove him finally, by God’s grace, to his knees to trust Jesus. In turn, my father guided me to Jesus, and in his death I too was brought to my knees to trust God, realizing as a young man the realities of sin, death, and despair in this life but the unspeakable salvation, liberty, and peace in our Lord.

After my father’s death, my desire for ministry had grown even stronger, and our Enemy worked even harder to divert me from following Jesus onto his own path—a path of self-centered pursuits and the world’s pleasures. In the devils hands were several seeming advantages: First, my family had little money at the time. Second, my youngest sister, Callie, had a very rare type of anemia that doctors promised would take her life in her early twenties, at the latest, and any treatments, including bone-marrow transplants, would be very costly. Three, my mother had a dream to get me into entertainment, and within a couple of months of my father’s death, I was playing extra roles in movies, commercials, and so on. I thought it was all pretty neat—well, kind of, but in no way whatsoever was my heart in it—again, I was a serious kid who wrote poetry, listened to Simon and Garfunkel, loved 1960s folk music, drove a truck—you get the point. I despised the teenage pop-scene; I never went to high-school parties because I thought all those partying kids were losers; I didn’t know what the popular shows were on TV, and my favorite movies at the time were mostly in black and white. Nevertheless, when I showed up at Sarasota High School my freshman year, coming from a small Mennonite Christian school, I dated the prettiest girl on campus and was voted valentine’s king—again, all the Enemy’s tantalizing ways of attempting to pull me towards him.

After a couple of months doing bit parts in the entertainment industry, my mother made an appointment with an agent. We drove to Orlando, met with an agent for about thirty minutes, and literally as we were walking out of her office she received a phone call from an agent representing a man named Lou Perlman, and she said they were forming a boy band akin to the New Kids on the Block (all this is getting very depressing). They were looking for boys between the ages of thirteen and eighteen who met several criteria. While my mother and I stood in front of the agent, she held the phone in her hand, looked at me and said, “Can you sing?” I said, “I guess so” (I’m thinking Simon and Garfunkel). She hung up the phone and told me to be at a warehouse in Orlando in two weeks with two songs prepared to perform.

At the audition, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but I listened to my mother, whom I respected deeply, and I went into this warehouse filled with blimps (Airship International being one of Pearlman’s former businesses), sung my songs and met the agents, and then a big guy (Lou Perlman) got up from behind a big table and put his big arm around me and walked me around and spoke with me about our future together. He asked me if I knew who the Beatles were; I said yes (I knew 1960s music probably better than he did). He then asked if I knew who Paul McCartney is; I again said yes. Then he said this to me, and I’ll never forget it: “I’m going to create the next Beatles, and you’re going to be my Paul McCartney.” At that very moment I felt like laughing, and as I write this I still feel like laughing.

Two weeks later I got the call that I was officially in the band. That next weekend my mother, sisters, and I drove to Orlando. My sisters swam in the hotel pool with Nick Carter and his brother, Aaron, and I was picked up in the nicest limousine I had ever seen—myself along with the other guys hopped in with Lou Perlman and went to eat. I didn’t quite know what to make of it all, and I was skeptical from the outset, yet I went along with it for the time being. It was January 1993, and for the next several months the other guys and I met in Orlando for voice lessons, rehearsals, dance lessons, and conversations about private tutors for school and about our future together. The agents began to assign the guys stage names (it seems I didn’t need one): Alex McLean became “AJ” (he was supposed to be the bad boy of the bunch, but really a nice guy), Howard Durough became “Howie D” (a very kind fellow with an incredible voice—both Howard and Alex really carried the entire group with their voices). Nicki became “Nick,” he was the young cute kid of the group, and I was right in the middle at sixteen going on seventeen, I was supposed to be the one all the moms would like—they one they would “approve of,” so that moms would let their young, impressionable daughters buy our albums and come to our concerts (I think that’s what they told each of us).

The agents began to write bios for us detailing how we all grew up together, signing together at school and in the streets, hence “Backstreet Boys.” The word was that we were always together. Consequently, to get the buzz going, we went everywhere together throughout Orlando. We went to all the best restaurants, and spent a lot of time at Church Street Station (which Lou later purchased from the city of Orlando). If we weren’t in the limousine, we took Lou’s 1940s Rolls Royce or his brand new 1992 baby blue Rolls Royce convertible. We were living an absolutely incredible life. All the guys were great to know and I thought well of all of them: Nick, Alex, Howard, and Sam (Incidentally, Sam was an original member as well who, if I’m right in my assumptions, perhaps got a bit too old as the group began to take off in 1995-1996 on their first European tour, and Sam decided to fly solo into the entertainment world. I heard from Vanity Fair magazine a year or two ago—when they wanted to interview me on a piece they were doing on the rise and fall of Lou Pearlman—that Sam is doing well in his solo career, but I am told I can’t give his current stage name because he doesn’t want the association considering his particular audience.)

For several months we were together and I enjoyed my time with the group. Meanwhile, Lou’s attorneys were preparing contracts; his agents were lining up gigs, and his managers were beginning to work with studios, songwriters, and producers. All the while, however, especially after the initial thrill of it all wore off, I was seriously questioning whether or not it was something I should do—whether or not it was something God wanted me to pursue. Many of the Christian friends and adults around me said it seemed like it was a door that God had opened for me (herein lies the danger of “open-door” theology: Just because a door is seemingly open doesn’t mean we should walk through it, and just because a door is seemingly closed doesn’t mean we shouldn’t knock it down and walk through it). Their reasoning—almost persuasive—went like this, if God had really called me to ministry, and if God had given me certain talents, and if God had opened this door to a potentially worldwide audience, then God must want me to do it. It was an open door—why not do it? The advice from many Christian men and women, many seemingly excited and jealous for my opportunity, was to go into it and see if I could have any sort of voice for God in the world through the entertainment industry. Of course all my friends thought it was just cool and that I would be crazy not to do it. Of course, on top of all that were some of the pressing family factors that played a role in getting me into entertainment in the first place—my family had little money at the time and my sister would need major medical treatments in the future.

Me And how did it come about that you decided to walk away from it? How did you wrestle through the call to ministry versus the call to ministry through Backstreet Boys. Would that not have opened up a multitude of doors?

Burk There were several factors that lead me to walk away from it. Besides the fact that I was not into the pop-music scene and couldn’t (didn’t want to) dance hip-hop too well, I was consumed with following the path that God had set out for me in ministry. Of course, at sixteen, I thought I might be able to do this for a while and then go into ministry. It’s also important for me to confess that although it was clear to me what God had called me to do in the future, and although it was clear that I was now a Christian and that my life began to change as a result of my conversion, I didn’t know all that meant for my present situation. Moreover, some of my friends were not yet Christians, and I did not yet have one single authority in my life that was helping to direct me as to what I should do, whom I should date, and how I should spend my time. There was one man, however, whom the Lord used mightily to help me make the decision to walk away. His name is Gene Miller, he was a principal at Sarasota Christian School and recently retired in May of 2009. Mr. Miller is a godly Mennonite man and the man who asked me to lead a 500-student chapel service in eighth grade (something that hadn’t been done before and certainly something that was never tried again). I was to give my testimony and a few words from Scripture (really my first “sermon.”) I went on longer than expected and took the whole chapel time. I recall using Chuck Swindoll’s book Improving Your Serve on serving one another as students. I was fourteen (I am still embarrassed). Mr. Miller approached me one day when the word was spreading about my involvement in this new boy band in Orlando. Actually it’s not really accurate to call them a band; it was a boys singing group; to my knowledge none of them played any instruments; I was learning guitar (think Simon and Garfunkel). He approached me, gently put his arm around me, and said, “Burk, this isn’t what God has for you, my son. You can’t do this in the world and still expect to serve God faithfully.” I responded, “But Mr. Miller, how do you know what I can or cannot do? Maybe God will enable me to remain faithful to Him while serving Him in the world. Maybe this is God’s open door for me to have a voice for Him in the world.” He said, with a big smile, “Burk, it’s just not possible. You can’t serve God and the world at the same time.” And with that he walked away probably thinking his words had landed on deaf ears, but on the contrary, in God’s providence, his words were exactly what I needed to hear.

All the while, we were preparing to sign contracts in a few weeks just prior to our first photo shoot on Cocoa Beach (incidentally, the attorneys demanded that no personal photographs be taken prior to our signing of the contracts). My mother, while very pleased that I had made the cut and that I was on my way to stardom, she was growing somewhat suspicious of Lou Pearlman’s character (a suspicion which later proved to be insightful as Lou was repeatedly alleged to have had naughty associations with several young boys). Together with Mr. Miller’s well-timed words, my mother’s suspicions, my own lack of care for the pop-music scene, I was completely overcome with the following questions and concerns: First, how could I honestly serve our Lord by singing lust-filled music and shaking my body for young, impressionable teenage girls (like my younger sisters)? Second, through what venue would I actually get the opportunity to speak about the faith and my conversion to Christ when even our life stories were being rewritten and even copyrighted? Third, how could I remain faithful to what I told my late father about my call to pastoral ministry if I pursue a life in show business, a life that he would not have endorsed? (My father was of a traditional mindset about Hollywood and considered the world of show business to be a world of uneducated, trashy people who were responsible for making the world even more corrupt.) My father’s impressions were, and remain to be important to me as I still seek to please him, if that’s possible.

So, with those questions in my mind and my self-developed conclusions to those questions, I walked into Lou’s office one week before contracts were to be signed and told him that this wasn’t what God had for my life. I explained to him as he sat behind his desk, breathing heavily, that I believed God had other plans for me and that I believed I would be in ministry some day. That’s really about all I said; it was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do in my life (even to this day). Lou Pearlman, a lapsed Jew, first cousin of Art Garfunkel (kind of ironic), and self-made millionaire (or so it seemed at the time), looked at me, smiled, and said, “We love you Burk, you can’t leave us; we’re you’re family.” He knew me well enough to know that those words wouldn’t convince me, and I recall looking down as if I had disappointed him, and he went on to say, this time using the same theology that many Christians had used with me: “Maybe this is God’s way of using you. Maybe this is God’s plan for you. How do you know what He wants you to do? You just need to think about this a little more. It will all be okay, Burk. Next week things are really going to start to get exciting with our first photo shoot…” I then remember standing up and saying to him (and there was no one else in the room) Lou, I just can’t do it—I’m sorry.” He then stood up and said, “you must do it, Burk.” His face turned red and he huffed and puffed (he was a big guy; he’s not as big now, literally, since he’s been in jail for the past year awaiting his arraignment for fraud, embezzlement, and a host of other state, federal, and international charges; it’s all very sad). He then proceeded to remind me of all he had invested in me and in the rest of the group. By this time the rest of the guys could hear what was going on as they sat in the game room outside Lou’s office. He was yelling, and he was beyond upset. In tears, I thanked him for all he had done and how said how sorry I was for letting him down and leaving. I walked out, said goodbye, and waved to the guys whom I dearly came to love and care for and drove home to Sarasota. It was one of the longest two-hour drives of my life.

Go to Part 3 where I say to Burk, “I’ve heard rumor as well that you were the first person Lou Pearlman spoke to when he decided to begin another band he called ‘N Sync. Is this true as well?”

August 09, 2009

It was several years ago now that I first met Burk Parsons. If you know Burk (or know his name, at least), it is probably through a connection with Ligonier Ministries or Saint Andrew’s Chapel (where R.C. Sproul is Minister of Teaching and Preaching). At Ligonier Ministries he serves as Editor of Tabletalk Magazine while at Saint Andrew’s he is Minister of Congregational Life. When I first met him it did not take long for someone to tell me a little bit of Burk Parsons trivia that quite surprised me. A mutual friend asked, “Did you know that Burk used to be a member of the Backstreet Boys?” I assumed he was joking but snooped around just a little bit and found out that it appeared to be true; before he was a seminarian and before he was a pastor, Burk was a member of a boy band—and one of the world’s most famous boy bands of all time, at that.

This was something I had to know more about. Recently I asked Burk if he would be interested in talking about those days. The facts of what happened and how he walked away from untold worldly wealth and fame has never really been told, at least not beyond his circle of friends and associates. Yet it is a tale worth telling, I am convinced. As we did this interview, as I heard Burk tell about his call to ministry, about his desire to serve the Lord even at great cost to himself, about the wisdom, even as a young man, to realize that he could not serve two masters, I was greatly encouraged. And I hope and pray and trust that the same will be true for you. Burk’s story is interesting on a human level (how does someone get to be in a boy band and what on earth would compel someone to walk away from such fame?) but there is much interest even beyond that. His story has something to teach us all since his story is just a piece of God’s greater story in which Burk’s chapter, right here and now, gets to intersect with our own.

This tale cannot be told properly without going into some level of detail, and for that reason the interview will be posted here in a few installments. Today Burk will tell about his life and family, how he became a Christian and how he knew that God had called him to the ministry. In the days that follow he’ll talk about his days with Backstreet Boys, tell whether or not it is true that he was also made an offer by which he would be the guy at the front and center of ‘N Sync, and learn about how he came to minister alongside R.C. Sproul. I hope you will check in day-by-day.

Let’s get started.

Burk and Amber

MeTell me about yourself, Burk—your family, your job, your ministry.

BurkAmber and I have been married nearly ten years. Amber is a sweet southern Florida lady and the oldest of seven children. She grew up in a Southern Baptist home with a father and mother who pray together as a family every morning before her father (a law-enforcement officer) goes to work. By His grace, the Lord has provided me an overseer and mentor (R.C. Sproul) who is insistent that I have plenty of time to spend with my wife and our children, Claire (5 years old) and Elizabeth “Lizzy” (2 ½ years old). We hope to have more children, possibly through adoption. As you know, I serve as the associate pastor at Saint Andrew’s in Sanford, Florida, where Dr. Sproul serves as senior minister. I have served the congregation for eight years, and I have had the honor of serving churches, on staff or as intern, for about fifteen years now. I also have the great privilege of serving as editor of Tabletalk, the monthly Bible-study devotional magazine of Ligonier Ministries, where I have served for more than ten years now. Many people ask how I do both—serving as pastor and editor. It’s really quite simple, I serve the people of Saint Andrew’s all week, and I have set aside Fridays for my Tabletalk and Ligonier related meetings. On Friday mornings I go to the Ligonier offices to pray with the great group of men I have the honor of serving with at Tabletalk, and then I usually lead our weekly devotional time at Ligonier Ministries. Next, I meet with my overseer and dear friend Chris Larson (Exec. VP), and then go into planning meetings with the Tabletalk editors or designers. Often, I do my writing and editing in the early mornings and evenings. Of course, every day of the week I discuss pressing matters with the other editors, and every Wednesday I gather with RC and Vesta Sproul to discuss the ministry of the church and, secondarily, matters involving Tabletalk and Ligonier.

Me When and how did you become a Christian?

Burk I first heard the Gospel when I was thirteen. My Father (at 65 years of age) had just recently trusted Christ after having lived apart from Christ and the fellowship of the saints most of his life (incidentally, he was the son of a small-town Presbyterian pastor in Missouri in the 1920s and 30s). For my thirteenth birthday, my father told me he wasn’t going to get me a gift but that he was going to take me to hear someone speak at Farhills Baptist Church in Dayton, Ohio. The man we went to hear is Arthur Blessit, the fellow who carried the cross around the world in the 1980s. All I remember is my father’s tears after the service. In fact, every time we went to church he cried after the sermon. It always seemed to me his tears were those of a life wasted unto self. He was a very successful man in the world of politics and fundraising.

After hearing the Gospel for the first time, I began to hear it all the time, and every time I heard it I responded doing whatever the preacher told me to do—raise my hand, walk an aisle, stand up. Over and over again, I responded to the call to repent and believe—it was the only thing that made any sense to me.

Me Tell me about your call to the ministry. When and how did you know that God had set you apart for the ministry?

Burk After coming to Christ, the Lord immediately put me under the care of several gracious men who mentored me—these men came from Southern Baptist, Mennonite, Pentecostal, Charismatic, and fundamentalist backgrounds. Our Lord used them mightily in my life. They were godly pastors and teachers who pointed me to the Word and to our Lord (as I write this, Tim, it’s early morning; I’m in my study at home, and I cannot hold back my tears as the Lord reminds me of these men—it is sobering). They shepherded me with humility and wisdom.

Since the time of my parents’ divorce when I was eleven, considering all that kids have to struggle through when their homes are divided, I was forced to question everything I thought I knew—I was forced to consider the end for which God created the world and the end for which He placed me in it. These are questions every kid thinks about I suppose, but I sincerely asked them and desperately needed answers. And when the simple, clear Gospel of Jesus Christ consumed me at my conversion, my questions were answered. From that point on, the only thing that really made any sense to me was Gospel ministry. It was the only thing I could see myself doing, and it was clear in my mind what the Lord was calling me to do. At fifteen, I was a pretty serious kid, for better or worse, and I always found myself struggling with the deep issues of life and death, which is generally the case with most kids who have to endure the divorce of their parents. God used my parents’ divorce to drive me to depend on Him alone.

Go to Part 2 where I ask, “People may have heard rumors in the past that you were an original member of the Backstreet Boys. Is this true?”

July 10, 2009

On September 28, 2008, I was shocked to read these words on the blog of Terry Stauffer, a man I had met at a couple of conferences and who has long been a reader and commenter at my blog: “Last night at about 4:45 our precious 14 year-old daughter Emily was attacked and killed as she was out for a walk. We don’t know a lot of details, but we know that two young men came upon the scene right away, but it was too late for Emily. I will write more as more details come available. Please pray for us, for our church family who are meeting without us right now, and for family that is travelling. We are realizing from the inside the value of good, Gospel theology right now. ”

Terry is pastor of Edson Baptist Church in the small town of Edson, Alberta. Emily’s murder shocked this small town of less than 10,000 people—the kind of town where this crime is unheard of. I continued to follow Terry’s blog as he dealt with the aftermath—Emily’s funeral, national media attention, the arrest of a suspect and life following the loss of a child. Through it all, Terry’s faith strengthened me from afar. I recently asked Terry if he would be kind enough to participate in an interview and I am grateful that he was willing and able to do so. I offer this interview in the hope that it encourages you in the Lord who promises (and delivers) strength as strength is needed.


In a short note you posted on your blog the day after Emily’s death you wrote this: “We are realizing from the inside the value of good, Gospel theology right now.” Tell me about the value of that good, gospel theology as you began to grapple with the reality of what had happened.

In recent years, my wife and I have been learning that the gospel puts everything else into perspective. Reading good theology books, listening to gospel-centered messages and reading our Bibles with Christ at the center has become a real passion for us. God was preparing us in many ways for Emily’s death. In the past couple of years, we have been growing in our understanding of sin and grace. Submitting to what God says about our sin is essential to understanding the good news.

Perhaps the greatest power of a gospel perspective the understanding that death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person - not even the death of a child. The worst thing for anyone is to face the wrath of a holy God in his or her sinful condition. We are by nature children of wrath. Christ absorbed that wrath for us on the cross to bring us reconciliation with God. Of course, the hope of Emily’s resurrection (and ours) because of Christ’s bodily resurrection cannot be overstated - this is our sure hope and it keeps us going.

On a more personal level, on the first morning after Emily’s death, I was overwhelmed with thoughts about what her last minutes must have been like. In the middle of that desperation, I remembered, “Christ was forsaken so that Emily didn’t have to be.” In fact, I wrote that “good gospel theology” line only a few minutes after this realization. Emily’s Saviour brought her to Himself, and Emily is safe and secure, full of joy inexpressible and full of glory. That is a great comfort for us.

As you began to plan for Emily’s funeral you wrote, “The funeral for Emily will not be a celebration of her life, though she will be appropriately honoured. We desire this service to be Gospel-saturated and glorifying to Christ our Redeemer. I can honestly say that’s the way Emily would have wanted it.” How did you use the occasion of her funeral to bring glory to Christ?

We had a sense that Emily’s funeral would be well attended by the community and it was. Her murder rocked our small town - things like this just don’t happen in Edson. We knew that there would be many non-Christians there and we wanted them to hear about Christ and the life that He alone gives.

For ourselves, we just had to major on the gospel. We began the service with the song, In Christ Alone. That gave Juanita and me the strength to make it through the service. The beauty of the gospel is that it fits every need and every occasion. We were in a sense selfish in that we did what we needed to do for our own souls, that is, worship God and cling to the Gospel. But that’s just what everyone else needs, too, even if they aren’t aware of it. If someone doesn’t believe, they need to hear the gospel. If a person is a Christian, they will long for the refuge and hope of the gospel.

We did speak about Emily, we did honour her by sharing memories and a projected slide-show of her life. In her testimony, Juanita said, “I could talk a lot about Emily.” However, we needed to confess God’s glory more than anything that day.

The funeral was widely covered by the media. What kind of reaction was there to this gospel-saturated funeral?
We braced for the media’s spin, or sensationalism, but we were pleased with how respectfully they treated us and relayed the gospel message. I would have liked to have seen more, but compared to our expectations, we were relieved.

We’re still waiting to see what God is going to do in the lives of some people that we were able to talk to. We have heard stories from all over the place about how people have turned to or turned back to the Lord, and for that we are very thankful. We’re still praying for several people that need to come to Christ and hope to hear more stories of grace as time passes.

We could relay several testimonies that we’ve heard about. We’ve been brought to tears several times when we’ve heard stories of how God has used Emily’s death to point people to Christ. 

During Emily’s funeral you said, “When Emily’s death was confirmed on Saturday night, I was shocked and bewildered. All I could pray was, ‘O Lord, Help! Help! Help!’ As I was on my knees, a thought came to me: ‘If all my talk about the Gospel and God’s goodness is not true now, then it was never true.’” Tell me about that, if you would. How did these words sustain you through such pain?
In moments of despair - that first night was just one of them - it was almost as if God put His hand on my shoulder and said, “Courage, now. Go back to the truth - trust me.” I easily spiral down into my own thoughts and feelings, but God is gracious to remind me of His presence and His Word. These times of despair (sometimes they felt like panic attacks) were very humbling, but God kept bringing His Word to mind (sometimes through a song or a hymn), or He drew me to read the Psalms.

In those early days, some people would say, “You’re so strong!” I would suppress a chuckle because I knew the truth. I have never felt so weak and helpless in my life. We said - and say -that God is carrying us. That is so true, and it is deeply humbling. Though I have believed and treasured the gospel for many years, God’s truth has never seemed so utterly true! 

Tell me about the role of the church, and especially the local church, in the days following Emily’s death.
We thought we knew what a great church we have, but we really had no idea. Emily’s murder was a terrible shock for everyone, and people were so helpful and so gracious. We needed the church so much, and they came through.

The first Sunday we were back at church was two days after Emily’s funeral. People were surprised that we were back so soon, but we needed to be there. I was amazed at the tender strength of everyone involved. The songs, scripture readings and sermon faced death head on. There was no equivocating - they saw the enemy and confronted it with the power of the cross. Though we shed a lot of tears that morning, we were significantly encouraged.

People from all the churches in town served us so well, as did many from the community. We were overwhelmed by these expressions of love. Though it was hard to be on the receiving end of so much kindness, we came to realize that these people wanted to do something because they were grieving too - even people that didn’t know Emily personally.

Practical ways we have been served:

  • Meals for over a month
  • The loan of a house so we could get away to Edmonton for a couple of days in the week following the funeral
  • Housecleaning
  • Gifts for the children - money, stuffed animals, journals and books and a family swimming pass were only a few of the ways they were encouraged
  • Friends who completed a scrapbook of Emily’s life for the funeral (it was mostly done but needed about 20 layouts to complete it)
  • Friends who put together a PowerPoint presentation for the funeral
  • A friend who coordinated the mounting and presentation of some of Emily’s photography for the funeral
  • The freedom for Terry not to preach for over a month
  • Cards from all over the world - from people we know personally to complete strangers
  • Encouragements and small gifts from online friends that have been sent over the months since Emily’s death
  • Two quilts made especially for our family
  • Friends who ask “how are you really doing?”
  • Gifts of encouraging books and journals
  • Prayers of God’s people - still continuing on

Scripture tells us that one of God’s purposes in suffering is to bring both the person suffering and other believers to greater maturity. Have you seen evidence of a growth in maturity in your life, your wife’s life, and the lives of other Christians?

First the short answer, yes, yes and yes.

For me, the biggest thing is that God seems much bigger and I seem much smaller. I think I take life more seriously, and I am more conscious of my sin. If I’m honest, I think I have withdrawn a bit as well; I’m not following up with people like I know I should. Knowing my weakness is a good thing. Submitting to my weakness is sinful, considering what I’ve been given in Christ.

I am amazed at the maturity of my wife, Juanita - and very thankful. She has pressed into God even more since Emily’s death, though her devotional reading was deeper and more consistent than mine before that. I see a growing sense of sensitivity to others as a fruit of this suffering in her life, among other things.

We see fruit of gospel perspective in the lives of several people. Thanks to this question, I’m reminded that I need to follow-up on this and express thankfulness for these evidences of grace to some of these people.

Has Emily’s death given you a different perspective on heaven and eternity? Has it made heaven seem that much nearer? That much more precious?

Absolutely. This has been one of the greatest lessons and benefits of Emily’s death.

One related story: During the last three weeks of August 2008, I preached a mini-series on Revelation 21-22. This led to a great conversation with Emily in early September as we drove to Edmonton (two hours away). That conversation on Heaven and future things is such a precious memory now.

A Spurgeon quote:

“Dear friend, have you found that trouble cuts the cords that tie you to earth? When the Lord takes a child, there is one less cord to fasten you to this world and another band to draw you toward heaven. When money vanishes and business goes wrong, we frequent the prayer meeting, the prayer closet and the Bible. Trials drive us from earth. If all went well, we would begin to say, “Soul, relax”. But when things go amiss, we want to be gone. When the tree shakes, the bird flies away. Happy is the trouble that loosens our grip of earth.” - From Beside Still Waters

Did you ever wrestle with questions of “why?” Do you still?

On a horizontal level, I find myself thinking, “What a waste.” Emily was so talented, growing spiritually, so alive that her death does elicit the question, “Why?” Her murder was so random - broad daylight on a busy path in a small town. It is still hard to process sometimes.

However, God brings me back to the truth of His goodness and sovereignty. We know that Emily’s death was not outside His will and plan for good.

There is a song, So I Will Trust You, from Sovereign Grace Ministries, Come Weary Saints that helps me get back to a healthy perspective at these, “Why?” times. God made me, He saved me, I know He loves me - so I will trust Him. I sang along with that song through gritted teeth a few times early on, but I’m thankful that as I confessed those words, my heart was encouraged.

How is the police investigation proceeding? Have they arrested a suspect and determined a motive?

The police arrested a suspect a few weeks after Emily’s murder, but as for motive, I have no idea. The case is before the courts now. It will be a long process.

Would you like to speak to the man who killed your daughter? If so, what would you wish to tell him?
Perhaps some day. We’re processing what forgiveness looks like in this case. From the day we were told of the arrest, we’ve been talking about honoring God in this whole process. I just preached a message on David and Bathsheba on Sunday and concluded by saying that God can forgive anyone from any sin, even if this forgiveness offends our sense of justice.

Repentance and forgiveness can be a complicated issue. We were given a copy of Chris Braun’s Unpacking Forgiveness and have found that helpful.

In this case, we don’t want to interfere with what is happening in the courts. We’ll take things one step at a time and keep praying for wisdom and courage to do what is right. We have certainly surrendered any sense of vengeance to God, and we are thankful for God’s grace in that.

One concluding thought:

We’re learning that God gives strength as we need it. When people say, “I could never be as strong as you,” I always think - and sometimes say - “I couldn’t either.” There’s no way either Juanita or I could have been prepared for the loss of Emily, or for the attention that we have received since her murder. God gives grace and strength step-by-step as it’s needed.

Emily and Terry Stauffer

May 06, 2009

In 1997, Douglas Groothuis (Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary) published The Soul in Cyberspace. It was, as far as I know, the first Christian book that critiqued and contemplated the darker side of computer-mediated communication. Twelve years is a long time when it comes to technology (and digital technology in particular) but I recently read this book nevertheless, and was surprised by just how relevant it is, even today. Though cyberspace has changed and evolved a great deal, almost all of Groothuis’ concerns remain and almost all have grown even more pointed as the years have gone by.

I recently conducted a short interview with him, asking him to reflect on this book, twelve years on.


One of your concerns in The Soul in Cyberspace was cyberspace taking the place of real, face-to-face human contact. You wrote, for example, of those who sought in cyberspace “the emancipation from the drag of the body?” How have your thoughts on this matter developed in the past decade? Have new innovations lessened your concern? Have your concerns been proven at all wrong?

With the rise of social networking—Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc.—the temptation to avoid the face-to-face world has increased. There are more toys to distract one from this mode of being. I wrote of simulated worlds in The Soul in Cyberspace, but they had not reached the proportions of SimLife or SecondLife, which are entire “cultures” for the disembodied.

In your book you wrote, “The compulsive search for diversion is often an attempt to escape the wretchedness of life. We have great difficulty being quiet in our rooms. … Cyberspace may be the greatest temptation yet offered to humanity to lose its soul in diversion.” And this was written long before YouTube. Have things gotten any better in the intervening years? Have things gotten worse?

Yes, things are much worse. The diversions are accelerating at an alarming pace. Consider laptops. I recently had to ban them from my classroom at Denver Seminary because so many students were multi-tasking—shopping on line, checking email, and such like—while I was pouring out my soul lecturing. Now that they are illegal, students look at me and at each other more. Somehow, they still remember how to take notes by hand. However, one student admitted using his pocket device to look of the definition of a word I was using. If he could do that, he could also use text messaging and get diverted from the learning environment of the classroom.

Yes, some students will be responsible and only use the laptop to take notes on the template that I distribute or use them for genuine research related to the lecture. But given the pandemic mindset of multi-tasking, I cannot count on this kind of responsible behavior; so I banned them.

Like nearly anyone who writes on technology, you depended a great deal on the insights of Neil Postman and Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan died 29 years ago and Postman died 6 years ago (though his last book was written 10 years ago). Does either man have a successor? Who is advancing their insights to the digital age?

I would add Jacques Ellul to that distinguished roster. He died in the mid-1990s. I don’t discern anyone contributing that quality of insight today—offering anything very original in a constructive sense of social critique. However, Quentin Schulz has brought together many solid insights in his book, Habits of the High-Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age.

You wrote, “The digitized word does not abide forever.” Is there a way in which the digitizing of text has undermined, or stands to undermine, the immutability of the Word of God?

Not in the metaphysical or moral sense of Scripture as divine propositional revelation. It is objectively and eternally God’s holy disclosure of convicting, saving, and sanctifying truth. However, digitizing texts can destabilize our sense our awareness of its immutability, since texts can be manipulated so easily when they are in electronic form. Even the ready availability of Scripture on line can subvert one’s consciousness that texts are part of a larger argument, system, and narrative. We are less likely to lose the context when we read Scripture in book form. Nevertheless, having the text available for “capture” does save key strokes in my own writing. But efficiency has its trade-offs and draw-backs—something Americans are always reluctant to admit (or even recognize).

A quote from your book: “The book, that stubbornly unelectric artifact of pure typography, possesses resources conducive to the flourishing of the soul. A thoughtful reading of the printed text orients one to a world of order, meaning, and the possibility of knowing truth.” Is there a way, then, in which the printed word is inherently superior to the digital word? What do we stand to lose as we transition to the digital word?

The printed word, as a unique medium, has strengths (and weaknesses) not shared by the digitized word. I appeal to McLuhan: “The medium is the message.” Or, to dilate a bit: each communications medium shapes its content distinctively and shapes the perceiver necessarily. For one thing, we lose a sense of history when we move from books to screens. Books can be old friends, both the content (which stays in our minds) and the artifacts themselves, which we treasure. For example, I would not part with my 1976 edition of Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who is There, which I read shortly after my conversion. It was that book, those ideas, that sparked my vision for Christian ministry. Moreover, I love the cover of that edition and enjoy looking over the many notations I put into the book through multiple readings. Having the same book in a digital form, while worthwhile in many ways (for example, I could capture text and put it on my blog!), would not be the same. Much would be lost.

You said “Ours is an age infatuated with, addicted to, and voraciously hungry for ever-increasing doses of information.” Is this hunger for information in some way dangerous to the soul?

Yes, since we have limited capacities for knowledge and wisdom. Knowing what matters most—truths about God, ourself, and creation—takes time and effort. Being awash in information is not the same as gaining knowledge (truth received in a rational way). Americans are usually well-informed ignoramuses. We have oceans of facts or information at hand, but little knowledge. Wisdom is the proper use of knowledge. Americans typically have no idea how to handle all the data thrown at them: the more information, the less meaning.

“Instant access to all kinds of information may corrode a sense of coherence and meaning if the information is not put into an appropriate framework.” Postman makes the point that once we commit ourselves to technology, we feel that only technology can solve our problems. Has technology come up with an appropriate framework to understand and use information? Or do we need to look for solutions outside of technology?

Technology cannot explain itself sufficiently and does not attempt to do so typically. We get so immersed in the use of technology (and there are so many new gizmos to figure out) that we fail to ask questions about the meaning of technology: What does it do to our sense of self, of others, of God, of time, of death, of politics, and much more.

If our sensibilities are set by the capacities of hypertext, we may begin to relinquish our grip on the very notion of authority. Has hypertext changed the way we perceive authority? Has it changed the way we read and interact with text?

We tend to skip around instead of reading from point A to Z. This makes for superficiality and incoherence. We get a data-fix and move on. Moreover, most on-line text is surrounded by flashing, moving images that distract us from text qua text.

You wrote the book before anyone had heard of social media. Yet you said, “the notion that ‘community’ can thrive in cyberspace challenges the very meaning of community and the nature of our sociality.” You found it contradictory that the technologies that have isolated us from personal contact (radio, television, computer) could bring us into a global village of intimate connection. Have the years between then and now proven your fears correct? Has cyberspace brought us some kind of community? Or has it endangered true community?

Some technologies can further significant human encounters not available otherwise. For example, I met two wonderful young people in Hungary in 2007 at a conference. My emails, Skype (which I have only done once!), and instant messages have been meaningful because I met them face-to-face previously and because these technologies provide a kind of communication not possible otherwise. However, if these technologies did not exist, I could still write letters—which is becoming a lost art, sadly.

But overall cyberspace (and hardly anyone calls it this any more) has diminished community if one means by that embodied relationships bound by troth, friendship, citizenship, and physical proximity. People practice an “absent presence” constantly as they talk on cell phones while checking out at the supermarket or at Starbucks, as they send text messages during classes instead of attending to teachers and students, as they play video games instead of getting to know their spouses and children. One could go on.

This seems very perceptive in light of what I see on the Net today: “The soul in cyberspace may easily habituate itself to browsing, data-surfing, and skimming in exchange for analysis, reflection, and discourse.” Is there something inherent in the digital medium that leads us to browse, to skim, to reject real analysis, reflection and discourse? Is there anything we can do about it or is this just the nature of the beast?

I think I covered the problem above. What we can do about it is to create engaged classrooms, discussions, church services, and reflective reading of significant texts, especially the Bible. This means putting aside multi-tasking and immersing oneself in propositional communication of various forms. One illuminating exercise I require of my students is to abstain from one major electronic medium for ten days. This reorients their awareness and shows them the possibilities for unmediated communication—and for silence.

As I understand it, the ultimate purpose of your book was to try to understand how this medium of cyberspace shaped us, our families, our churches, our nations, our world. In the front of the book I jotted this, my one big takeaway from the book: “Christians are specially equipped to think rightly about technology.” Is this the case? What do Christians stand to lose if we do not understand the effects of technology in each of these areas? What do we stand to gain?

As recipients of salvation by God’s grace in Christ, we can gain a proper relationship to God and a proper perspective on God’s world. But this is not automatic. Sadly, for many reasons, Christians are often the least reflective people about technologies. Our populism and pragmatism get the best of us and we fail to step back and ask the more philosophical and theological questions of our technologies. Yet Christians should ask God to grant them wisdom to discern God’s kingdom purposes for technologies. If we fail to gain discernment, the result is simply worldliness: we engage technologies in ways that undermine virtue, make us less sensitive to good, evil, and God himself. These are no small perils. See Romans 12:1-2; I John 2:15-17; Hebrews 5:11-14.

August 05, 2008

Jim Spiegel is on a blog tour to promote his book Gum, Geckos and God (He is also author of The Benefits of Providence, a book I highly recommend). He asked if I’d like to participate in the tour and I thought that would be a great idea. So here are a couple of questions combining themes of both books.

In several of your other publications you defend a high view of divine providence. In Gum, Geckos, and God we see how you share this perspective with your kids. In what way do you think this doctrine is important for a child’s spiritual development?

I think it is extremely important for several reasons. First and foremost, it is biblical. So recognizing the sovereignty of God from an early age will help one to make sense of the many Scriptural passages—from Psalm 139 to Romans 9—which so strongly emphasize this point. Secondly, a high view of providence is a tremendous comfort during times of trial. As with any adult, if a child knows that God is fully sovereign over even a painful event, then they can know that it is not random or without purpose. And the sooner a child can begin to see God’s hand in their suffering, the sooner they will grasp the profound truth of Romans 8:28. And this is a huge boon to faith. Finally, the high view of providence encourages us to take a humble posture before God, which is essential to spiritual formation. The more readily we recognize that God is sovereign over our lives, the more ready we will be to surrender all aspects of it to him. A high view of providence encourages an attitude of self-denial. And children need to learn this as soon as possible.

Speaking of spiritual formation, how do you conceive of the relationship between God’s role and our role in sanctification?

This is one of those biblical paradoxes (or “mysteries” for those who don’t like the “p” word). I think Scripture is clear on both of these points: 1) God is fully sovereign over our spiritual development, graciously endowing us with whatever spirital gifts and fruit we have and 2) we are morally responsible for our spiritual development and must work hard to grow and become mature disciples of Christ. The Scriptural evidence for each of these points is vast, but Philippians 2:12-13 actually affirms both of these truths together, as Paul writes: “work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” Clearly, then, a high view of providence should not tempt us toward fatalism, as some critics falsely charge. Rather, it should encourage us to be that much more diligent in doing good works and practicing the spiritual disciplines (e.g. prayer, fasting, bible study, etc.), because we have this promise that God himself is behind all of these good choices and acts. How encouraging!