In their blog this week The Gospel Coalition commemorated John Piper’s famous 2000 Passion Conference message “Don’t Waste Your Life” (aka, the “seashells” talk). It not only fixed Piper’s influence in the hearts of the 40,000 twenty-somethings gathered in Memphis on that afternoon in May but also became, as the blog notes, “formative for a generation.” For many, Dr. Piper’s words were prophetic, arresting, and spoke to them in the deepest of ways. I call that kind of a message a life message. It’s the kind of message that ruins you for all the right reasons and boldly changes the trajectory of your life.
It got me thinking about my own life message. I heard a talk (also a conference message) that spoke to me in the deepest of ways. It was one of those rare moments when you read or hear something by someone who puts into words what you believed but couldn’t put into words yourself. You just can’t quite formulate it yet. It was like an essential code in the back of your mind (and the middle of your heart) always frustratingly suspended on the verge of being broken. But the second someone finally deciphered it and you beheld its long-awaited clarity in all its glory, it became the Aha! moment where you shouted, “That’s what I believe!”
My “seashells” message was given by Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan. This was before he had written his bestselling books or attained national notoriety. It was 2007. A friend of mine in NYC encouraged me to listen to “this Tim Keller guy” whenever I had the chance, so when I came across a video of his address to the newly minted Gospel Coalition in May of that same year with a message entitled, “Gospel-Centered Ministry,” I thought it something I needed to hear. I settled into my office, closed the door, and watched his 55-minute address.
I was spellbound almost from the word ‘go.’ Dr. Keller’s struggles in church paralleled mine. Yet his answer to those struggles was exactly what I’d thought but couldn’t put into words: a theology of gospel-centrality. My growing angst in ministry had finally found the answer. Indeed, as I heard him eloquently speak about not only what the gospel is but how it should intersect all ministry, especially the pulpit (as he also was a preaching pastor), I kept saying aloud, “Yes.” “Yes.” “Yes.” Although his address wasn’t significantly animated or charismatic like John Piper’s message, I was continuously moved to tears throughout it.
Finally, I had the clarity I was looking for. The code was deciphered in my head and heart. It was such a “moment” for me I watched it again. Another 55 minutes of me nodding my head, dabbing tears from eyes, and saying in my heart, “This is what I believe!” In author Jared Wilson’s parlance, I was experiencing a gospel awakening.1
The grace in it all was Keller’s ability to not only put into words what I couldn’t about gospel-centered ministry but to provide a framework and paradigm for it as well. Now that I had it (or better yet, it had me), I was dangerous because I knew what this meant. I knew this would define me, my ministry, and the local church I served. There was no turning back. I wanted to know everything I could from those who sought to keep the gospel central to ministry. In short, I was ruined.
I read a lot, studied a ton, and even chose my doctoral work based on a seminary that would deepen me in gospel-centered ministry. I began to dialogue with those who were way ahead of me. I couldn’t get enough! I even called up Redeemer and asked for their discipleship materials, and our executive staff spent weeks working through them.2 Needless to say, gospel-centrality would be a defining mark of CCCC. Indeed, ten years later, it has. In a survey a few years ago of our staff and small group leadership, when asked what makes CCCC “CCCC,” at the very top of the list was our commitment to the centrality of the gospel in all things.
So, for all my Passion friends who were marked by God through Piper’s words, Keller’s did the same for me with this message3: