Ch 10: Passing the Torch

  • Author: Mark S. Mitchell

In the fall of 1975, Ray Stedman celebrated twenty-five years of pastoral ministry at PBC, an anniversary that might have passed unnoticed except that the elders remembered and brought Ray's longtime friend, Howard Hendricks, into town as a surprise. As Ray began his sermon on the morning of September 28, he didn't even notice his old friend striding down the center aisle. Finally, when Howard was standing right in front of the pulpit looking up at him, Ray noticed.

"Howie Hendricks!" he said. "What in the world are you doing here?"

"I'm taking over," Howard replied with his usual wit. "Sit down!" And he then proceeded to preach the sermon as a tribute to Ray.

Later in the service, after many words of appreciation had been expressed to Ray, he stood up and pointed to a banner prominently displayed on the wall. It was a quote from Zechariah 14:9: "And the LORD will be the king over all the earth; in that day the LORD will be the only one, and His name the only one" (NASB).

After twenty-five years of ministry at PBC, Ray's commitment to expository preaching had not changed, but the focus of his ministry now took a different direction. With the waning of the Jesus Movement, his ministry increasingly focused on discipling and teaching the next generation of leadership at PBC, encouraging and equipping young men to be pastor-teachers. Much of Ray's equipping ministry was focused on the staff that had been added to adequately disciple those who flocked to PBC during the sixties and early seventies. By 1975, twelve pastors were ministering at the church.

Bob Smith, who had been hired in 1960 to be an associate pastor, continued to serve in a variety of capacities; and more than anyone else, Bob was Ray's right-hand man in ministry. Bev Forsyth, who was Ray's administrative assistant from 1966 until 1990, sees Bob Smith's role as crucial to Ray's success: "The team of 'Bob and Ray' was a great team to work with, and I had that privilege for many years. Bob Smith was the man behind the preacher, the one who kept things running and balanced at home base so that Ray Stedman was free to do what God had called him to do--teach the Word in season and out, here and around the world. After Elaine, Bob was Ray's greatest supporter." (Bev Forsyth, unpublished document, 1992.)

Ron Ritchie, who had been hired in 1969 to oversee the growing high school ministry, was reassigned in 1974 to work with "Careers Alive," an innovative singles ministry that had been meeting in the second floor auditorium of a local restaurant for about five years. By 1974, over fifty people were attending these meetings. Under Ron's leadership, this ministry more than doubled in size within a year.(Joanie Burnside, "A Stone's Throw: Peninsula Bible Church 1948-1998.")

David Roper continued to do most of the preaching when Ray traveled, but his main focus had shifted from college ministries to overseeing Scribe School. After a year or two of training, several Scribes were ready to move into pastoral roles at PBC. Steve Zeisler was hired to oversee the college ministry; Jack Crabtree and David Smith were hired to teach within Scribe School; and Brian Morgan was hired to pastor the junior high ministry. Although Roper left PBC in 1976 to pastor Cole Community Church in Boise, Idaho, he had developed the program to an extent that Ray's dream of training pastors in the church was coming to fruition. After Roper's departure, Scribe School continued under the leadership of Crabtree, Smith, and Ray Ortlund Jr. Other members of the pastoral team included Bob Roe, Walt McCuiston, Paul Winslow, Doug Goins, and Gary Vanderet.

Despite the fact that Ray was well into his third decade at PBC and approaching the age when many men begin to think about retirement, his preaching and leadership were still the catalysts for continued growth. One of the challenges that this growth presented was inadequate facilities and parking, causing frustrated neighbors to sign petitions against the church. Ray and the elders began to think seriously about finding another facility, but they had reservations about becoming a megachurch. Ray preferred to start smaller churches throughout the Bay area to maintain smaller, more personal congregations. Already, PBC had played a significant role in starting Valley Bible Church in Cupertino, South Hills Community Church in San Jose, and Central Peninsula Church in Foster City. But PBC still continued to burst at the seams.

In 1984 PBC purchased an old church building located about twelve miles south of Palo Alto. Instead of trying to relocate the entire church on one new campus, the elders made the unorthodox decision to subdivide the current body and staff onto two campuses--the existing one at the original PBC site and the new property in Cupertino--while maintaining one elder board to oversee them both. In March 1985, after renovating the new property, PBC Cupertino (not to be mistaken with Valley Bible Church mentioned above) was dedicated, with Paul Winslow, Brian Morgan, Kim Anderson, and eventually Gary Vanderet serving as lead pastors. Ray's primary focus continued to be preaching at PBC and serving the larger body of Christ.(Ibid., 12-13.)

On the Road Again

WITH THE CHURCH MINISTRIES well organized and under the care of such a strong pastoral team, Ray was freed to broaden his own preaching ministry. By the mid-seventies and into the early eighties, he was preaching only about twenty-six times a year at PBC, with the rest of the Sundays devoted to outside speaking engagements, nationally and internationally, at retreats, pastors' conferences, organizations, Bible colleges, and seminaries.(Ray's speaking calendar from 1982-1984 reveals the extent to which he made himself available to the body of Christ at large. He spoke to various groups at retreat centers such as Mount Hermon (Calif.), Mission Springs (Calif.), The Firs (Wash.), Hume Lake (Calif.), The Ozarks (Ark.), Ridgecrest (N.C.), and Glen Eyrie (Colo.). He taught at pastors' conferences for Presbyterians in Washington D.C., Evangelical Free pastors in Florida, and interdenominational pastors in Texas, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and California. He ministered to Christian organizations such as Young Life, Bible Study Fellowship, America's Keswick, Overseas Crusade, and Challenge Unlimited. He taught at Bible colleges and seminaries such as Big Sky Bible College (Mont.), Westmont College (Calif.), Talbot Seminary (Calif.), Fuller Seminary (Calif.), Dallas Seminary (Tex.), Westminster Seminary (Pa.), and Regent College (Vancouver, B.C.). He also traveled internationally several times to Asia, Europe, and Canada.) The variety of his speaking engagements revealed his broad appeal across the evangelical spectrum. Ray's gracious style and commitment to biblical exposition earned him a welcome hearing among those with whom he might not agree on all theological matters, but with whom he could fellowship around the person of Christ and the Scriptures.

Ray's travel also gave him opportunity to develop relationships with many of the young interns, staff, and elders at PBC. Ray rarely traveled alone, but would usually invite a young man to go with him on his speaking engagements. Ray considered these young men his "sons in the faith" and often commented that he wanted them to have the opportunity to learn by watching, much as he as a young seminarian had done with Dr. Ironside. I have a personal knowledge of this. In 1979, a week after I was first introduced to Ray as a new intern at PBC, I was invited to travel with him to Brazil where he was speaking at two pastors' conferences sponsored by Overseas Crusade. My role was mostly to observe, but Ray also found opportunities for me to share my testimony and teach a youth Bible study. I quickly discovered that traveling with Ray was an adventure--especially trying to keep up with him as he raced from terminal to terminal in major city airports. Although he took his teaching ministry seriously while on the road, Ray poured much of his energy into developing relationships. Often he would not know exactly what he would teach on until a few hours before he was scheduled to speak! But he was always available to his fellow pastors, staying up late into the evening discussing and answering questions, or just getting to know them over a meal or a game of chess. There was always a great deal of laughter, and even some tears.

Sometimes, however, Ray's fun-loving spirit offended more conservative Christians. Jim Heaton, an elder at PBC, remembers making one trip with Ray, Ron Ritchie, and fellow elder Ed Woodall where Ray spoke at a pastors conference, which Jim describes as "very conservative." By the time the week long conference was over, Jim was convinced they would never invite Ray back. Besides tipping over a boat and almost breaking his wrist, Ray refused to observe the prevailing etiquette of the staff dining room, resenting the idea that staff should be separated from the conferees. One morning while reluctantly eating breakfast with the rest of the conference staff, Ray took off his shoes and socks and allowed Ron to wash his feet after the manner of Jesus in John 13. It was a way of both making a point and poking fun at what they considered to be an elitist attitude among the staff. As Jim puts it, the staff "came unglued" and it was the last time Ray ever spoke there.(Jim Heaton, interview by author, March 15,2001, Gleneden Beach, Ore., tape recording.)

Whether or not Ray and his friends took their freedom in Christ to an extreme is a matter for debate. But like it or not, Ray was always himself, without pretense, and he believed that he and his team were modeling as well as teaching a lifestyle based on the New Covenant.

Ray's ministry on the road also paved the way for a new PBC outreach. For eight years the church had hosted two pastors' conferences a year, including international pastoral teams from as far away as Nigeria. Then, in the mid-eighties, the PBC staff began to travel abroad, as well as to Christian colleges in the United States, to hold pastors' conferences. Under Paul Winslow's strong administrative leadership, Ray and the staff traveled to Indonesia, Australia, Singapore, Israel, and Africa.(Joanie Burnside, ''A Stone's Throw," 6.) These trips were an extension of Ray's conviction that ministry takes place best in the context of a team, where different people with different gifts can minister in different ways. This was true not only in the conducting of conferences, but in the everyday life of the people at PBC, who occasionally were left without pastors upon whom to depend. With the absence of the pastoral staff for as much as two weeks at a time, the ministry of the saints continued and sometimes even mushroomed. The people had already heard many times from the pulpit that the ministry belonged to them and not to the professionals; now they were called to act on it--and did.

But throughout those years, when Ray was at home he continued to faithfully exposit the Scriptures at PBC. From 1975 through 1990, he preached through the books of Mark, Romans, Job, 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Ecclesiastes, John, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Nehemiah, and Revelation. In addition to the individual sermons being available in printed form, many of these studies, as well as earlier ones, eventually became books. From 1976 to 1990, Ray published seventeen books, including, The Ruler Who Serves (1976), The Servant Who Rules (1976), Riches in Christ (1976), and From Guilt to Glory (1978).

COBE

ONE OF THE GREATEST CONTRIBUTIONS Ray Stedman made to the church at large came in the last decade of his ministry at PBC. As he traveled around the country, he became convinced that there was a lack of sound preaching in America's pulpits. He viewed this as the reason the church in America was failing to have the impact it should. "There is a serious lack of biblical exposition from pulpits," he wrote in 1986, "and a failure of people to grasp the countercultural challenges inherent in biblical truth. Thus the local church falters, and the body designed by God to be a potent force in the world presents a sad commentary on its high calling." (Ray Stedman, quoted in "Unsheathing the Sword," Eternity, March 1986, 14.)

In response to this need, Ray became the catalyst for a national movement aimed at the recovery of biblical exposition in America. With strong encouragement from his associate Bob Smith, Ray gathered a group of similarly concerned evangelical leaders to discuss the importance of biblical exposition in the church, which eventually became the Committee on Biblical Exposition. Included in this group were some of America and England's finest and most devoted expositors: John Stott, Richard Halverson, James Boice, Stephen Olford, and Howard Hendricks. This committee staged two national conferences, called the Congress on Biblical Exposition (COBE), one in Anaheim, California, in March 1986, and the other in Houston, Texas, in 1988. Several regional conferences were also held during this time and later.

The stated mission of COBE was "to motivate and encourage Christian leaders in the essential discipline of biblical exposition (which is) straightforward and powerful communication of truth from the Scriptures in such a way that speaks its message accurately and relevantly--without addition, subtraction "or falsification." (Ibid.) In March 1986, Eternity magazine gave COBE a strong endorsement:

On its surface, the Congress on Biblical Exposition (COBE) meeting this month in Anaheim, California, represents just another in the list of seemingly endless conferences and conventions in which the leadership of America's churches may avail themselves at any given moment. But a quick look inside the pages of COBE's registration kit reveals that it is undoubtedly the conference to attend in 1986. Not since Amsterdam '84 or the Lausanne Conference on World Evangelization in the early 1970s has so much theological horsepower been assembled for one event.(Ibid.)

As the chairman for COBE, the last thing Ray wanted was just another conference on how to grow a church. He deplored church growth tactics. The whole purpose of COBE was to call churches back to what he believed was fundamental to their calling: the preaching of the Word of God, without which numerical growth was nothing but a fleeting and fleshly human endeavor. To accomplish this goal, Ray and the committee gathered men and women from numerous evangelical backgrounds. Dispensationalist preachers such as Stedman and Charles Swindoll shared the platform with Reformed Presbyterians such as Richard Halverson and James Boice. Pentecostals such as Jack Hayford and Gordon Fee shared the platform with high church Anglicans such as John Stott. These individuals could have found much about which to disagree, but what they all had in common was a conviction that expositional preaching must be at the heart of the church's ministry.

At the 1986 congress in Anaheim, Ray preached in one of the general sessions on "The Purpose of Preaching," an exposition of 2 Timothy 3:10-17 in which he likened the godless cultural conditions of Paul and Timothy's day to today. "How can pastors make a difference in the midst of such decadence?" he asked. And his answer came in two points: "a model to follow" and "a message to preach." Ray spent little time on the first point, although he did mention the impact that Dr. H. A. Ironside had upon his life, both as a man and as a preacher. The bulk of his sermon dealt with the second point, and he spoke of the origin of the Scriptures as "the breathing out of God," as well as the nature of Scripture as that which builds character, imparts wisdom, and discloses the thoughts of God. Finally, he outlined the different ways Scripture produces change: teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.

Ray's style was characteristically mellow, but as he neared the conclusion of his sermon, his voice increased in intensity and with unusual passion as he promised his audience that careful and relevant exposition would bear the fruit they longed to see in their churches: "When you change a person's thinking, you change their behavior. You can't help it. Once they begin to think the thoughts of God. .. and the whole congregation begins to catch on, you'll find the behavior of that congregation automatically beginning to change. And it will result in a whole people becoming whole persons, and when that happens you will have a flood of eager workers who are ready for any good work." (Ray Stedman, "The Purpose of Preaching," sermon at COBE Conference, March 1986, Multnomah Ministries, Portland, Ore., audiotape #CB6003.)

After the congress in Anaheim, Ray was reluctant to conduct another because the first conference suffered from inadequate funding. He agreed to lead the second congress in Houston only after a prominent pastor in the Houston area guaranteed that his church would cover the entire cost of the conference. Besides Ray, the plenary speakers at the Houston conference included James Boice, Tony Evans, Howard Hendricks, J. I. Packer, John Stott, Charles Swindoll, Richard Halverson, and Ed Young of the Second Baptist Church, Houston, the host church.

In a message entitled ''A Declaration on Biblical Exposition," Dr. James Boice stated: "Preaching in the latter decades of the twentieth century exhibits a strange contradiction. On the one hand, there is acknowledgment of the need for great preaching, usually defined as expository preaching. But on the other hand, good expository preaching has seldom been more lacking. Evangelical (and even liberal) seminaries exhort their young men, 'Be faithful in preaching. Spend many hours in your study poring over the Bible. Be sure you give the people God's Word and not merely your own opinions.' But in practice these admonitions are usually not heeded, and ministers who emerge from the seminaries--whether because of poor instruction, lack of focus, a low view of the Bible's authority, or some other undiagnosed cause--often fail in this primary area of responsibility."

In addition to these two national conferences, there were also several regional conferences on biblical exposition between 1982 and 1986. These were held at Ontario Bible College in Canada, Mount Hermon Conference Center, Fuller Seminary, Wheaton College, Cedar Falls Bible Conference, Elmbrook Church, and Idaho Mountain Ministries in Boise, Idaho.

Eventually, the COBE committee disbanded. In the minutes from a conference call of the COBE board on May 9, 1986, it is stated: "Ray Stedman personally expressed the desire to cut back on the amount of leadership he could provide to COBE. It was discussed and agreed that there is no 'heir-apparent' to assume the leadership role. Without leadership, the organization cannot continue." No one knows exactly why Ray desired to withdraw from the leadership of COBE at this point, but Ray always tried to avoid institutionalizing events or ministries of any kind. Perhaps he simply felt COBE's usefulness had run its course.

Was COBE successful? Did it revive biblical exposition in America's churches? For many young pastors the answer would be yes, because COBE was the encouragement they needed to make exposition their top priority. After the Houston congress, 225 participants were asked to evaluate the experience, and the overall evaluation was positive. ''As a young pastor I have found myself under tremendous pressure," wrote one participant. "I had to compete to be successful in a culture crying out for quick fixes. Painfully, I'd almost given up the task of careful Bible study. That's what leads to practical exposition. It became too easy to rely on human cleverness and popular psychology. I'm glad for the impact COBE has made on my life." (Wade Whitcomb, "Passing of the Torch," 95)

On the other hand, one can hardly imagine that Ray expected COBE to end after a few short years and just two national congresses. Howard Hendricks, who served on the committee with Ray, remembers that COBE suffered the same plight that prayer often suffers: "You cannot promote prayer. . . . It's not until the person understands they have a need that they want to pray, which is why most of it comes out of desperation at some point. Well, the same thing with preaching. Everybody wants good preaching, but who wants to pay for it?" (Howard Hendricks, interview by author, March 15,2001, Gleneden Beach, Ore., tape recording.)

With the disbanding of COBE, Ray also began thinking that he was nearing the finish line in his ministry at PBC.

A New Base of Operations

THE 1980s BROUGHT CHANGES in Ray's personal life as he and Elaine spent increasing amounts of time in the Rogue River area of southern Oregon. Ray and Elaine had purchased a house on the river in August of 1979. Lynn and Della Berntson, close friends of the Stedmans from their days at PBC, lived on the Rogue River in Grants Pass. Lynn had been an elder at PBC, and when Ray and Elaine visited them, Lynn took Ray to see an old house two properties away from theirs. It was a badly used house, but Ray saw the potential, and he fell in love with the setting on the river. "It was at a time when he was beginning to think the young men needed him to move out so they could stretch their wings," Elaine recalls. "So when we had a week or two of vacation, we would go to the river house, and Ray would get a how-to book and work on renovation. In the late 1980s we spent as much as two or three weeks at a time there, and gradually as we approached the retirement year, as much as a month." Two of their daughters, Linda and Susan, lived in northern Oregon at the time Ray and Elaine bought the house; eventually, Linda and her boys moved to Medford, Susan and her girls to Ashland, and Laurie and family to Grants Pass. In the intervening years they had multiple family gatherings, greatly enjoying the river and one another.(Elaine Stedman, e-mail to author, January 29,2004.)

For Ray, though, the idea of retirement was hard to swallow. "I have always been sensitive about the word retirement," he remarked in his sermon "The Passing of the Torch" on June 6, 1982. "I do not like it. When I suggested a couple of years ago that I might be changing my base of operations from Palo Alto to southern Oregon, the word went out that I was retiring. Everywhere I travel around the country now, somebody will say to me, 'How are you enjoying your retirement?' No, I am not retired, and I hope I never do retire in that sense. Although it is perfectly proper for those who grow older--which I perhaps will someday--to slow down a bit, and take time to do other things, we must never forget that we have a ministry until we die. Our ministry is to be a Christian, to live as a Christian, to walk and talk as a Christian wherever we are, whatever we do." (See Ray's message The Passing of the Torch from June 6, 1982)

By April 1990, however, Ray Stedman was finally ready to make an official step toward changing his "base of operations." After forty years of ministry at PBC, he announced that he was moving on.

It is a testimony to Ray's vision for team ministry and his working out of that vision that when he retired the church did not set out to search for another "superstar" preacher or senior pastor, as a church that large and influential would normally do. For years Ray had shared leadership with the men around him, and they were more than ready to have the torch passed to them when Ray moved into retirement.

On April 29, 1990, Ray Stedman preached his last sermon as "senior pastor" at PBC from the final chapter of Revelation. In "The City of Glory" he spoke of the glories of the new heaven and the new earth, quoting from a poem he had learned as a young Christian:

There's no disappointment in heaven,
No weariness, sorrow, no pain,
No hearts that are bleeding and broken,
No song with a minor refrain.
The clouds of our earthly horizon
Shall never appear in the sky.
But all will be sunshine and gladness,
With never a sob nor a sigh.

(See Ray's message The City of Glory from April 29, 1990)

Little did Ray know that in three short years that city would become his permanent home.

Title: Ch 10: Passing the Torch Author: Mark S. Mitchell
   Date:2004
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