Charles Wade: ‘People need Jesus more than they need anything’

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From 1999 to 2008, Charles Wade served as the executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. From deep in the heart of one Texan, he shares his background and thoughts on leading Texas Baptists.

To suggest a Baptist General Convention of Texas-affiliated leader to be featured in this column, or to apply to be featured yourself, click here.

Background

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Brownwood, Texas, where my father and mother were students at Howard Payne University. We moved to Oklahoma when I was a baby, and I grew up there in Durant, Tulsa and Woodward before going to Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee.

How did you come to faith in Christ?

As a little boy, my heart was tender to the story of Jesus’ love for me. When I thought of him dying for my sin, I felt it was only right that I should stand up and follow him. My father was preaching a revival meeting in a little town outside Durant, and he let me go with him. That night, God’s Spirit brought conviction and courage to my heart.

Why did you feel called into ministry?

As a child, I wanted to be a pastor, but I knew God had to call me to that task. It wasn’t just a choice I could make about a career. When I was 11 years old, I had a strong inner prompting that God was calling me to be a preacher. It wasn’t hard to say yes. I didn’t struggle and finally “surrender” to the call. I was glad to volunteer!

In addition to your most-noted position, where else did you serve in ministry?

Pastor of First Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas; First Baptist Church in Enid, Okla.; Central Baptist Church in Italy, Texas; Trinity Baptist Church in Baumholder, Germany; and student pastorates at five churches in Oklahoma.

When did you leave your most-noted position and/or retire from full-time ministry?

I retired from the BGCT in 2008.

How have you occupied yourself since then?

Interim pastorates; adjunct missions professor at Dallas Baptist University; pastor emeritus at First Baptist in Arlington; family activities with our four children and 10 grandchildren; skiing; golfing; reading and writing; gardening; being a spectator of Baylor basketball (men and women), Baylor football, Texas Rangers baseball, Dallas Cowboys and Dallas Mavericks.

Where do you live now, and where do you go to church?

We have lived 41 years in the same house in Arlington. I was able to commute to Dallas while working for the convention. We are active in our beloved First Baptist Church in Arlington.

Ministry/life

What was your favorite or most joyful aspect of ministry? Why?

My favorite part of pastoral ministry was fulfilling the two commands of Jesus—love God and love people. I believe worship and praise paved the way for ministry to people and gave me the resources and resilience to be there for my congregation.

I loved to preach God’s Word, and every sermon had the goal of helping believers to follow Jesus more closely and to help those who weren’t yet followers of Christ sense the stirring of the Holy Spirit in drawing them to faith.

I loved being engaged in the lives of people who were hurting, afraid, dealing with dying relationships, sick in heart, body or soul. Nothing blessed me more profoundly than being present when people prayed to commit their lives to Jesus. People want to know God, and when they discover how deep his love is for them, life begins to blossom with joy and purpose.

What part of ministry delivered the greatest heartache or headache?

When people slipped through the cracks of our caring networks and felt alienated and forgotten, I felt it personally. I take it literally that the church is the body of Christ. When one member of the body cried, I wanted us all to be able to taste the tears. A close second is the pain involved when people need what the church can be, and we fail in our efforts to minister to them and give them a spiritual home.

Name the most significant challenges and/or influences you faced during your ministry.

As a pastor and as executive director of the BGCT, the greatest challenge was identifying and calling the right persons to serve on staff.

The second challenge was how to continue to lead effectively when some vision or initiative you felt God leading you to do does not succeed. In moments like that, I learned to pray: “God, please don’t let me waste this pain. It hurts too much not to learn everything I can from it. Use even this to help us be a better church or convention.”

What element of ministry do you wish you could have changed?

I loved it all. I loved preaching the truths of the Bible and seeing people’s lives begin to change and grow. I loved teaching people about the importance and joy of giving their money and their time and their skills.

I loved the partnership I felt with lay people in our church. I loved the team spirit when the staff ministers were working well together. I loved preaching and pastoral care. I loved the way my churches cared for my family.

I loved the challenge of casting vision and setting goals and seeing people grow as they set themselves to achieve the goal.

How did your perspective on ministry change?

Since I retired as executive director and have been a church member sitting in Sunday school and worship services, I have noticed this: a good Bible lesson and a good sermon really helps the heart. The teaching and preaching of the Scripture blesses me.

I have learned that just because I am not present in every service does not mean I don’t care, or that I feel less of a church member. A lot of people only come to church once a week or even a couple of times a month, and they still are blessed, and they can be counted on. I’m not sure I really appreciated that when I was the pastor.

What would you tell the young you, just starting out in ministry?

Don’t assume you really know your people. Spend meaningful time with them. Listen a lot. Pray for them, and play with them. Don’t be discouraged if they have real difficulties. Keep working with people; they are worth it.

What do you wish more laypeople knew about ministry or, specifically, your ministry?

Ministers and their families generally love what they do in their calling. They need your prayers, your help in doing ministry, your patience with them when they go through difficult times and your friendship for their family. When they are seeking to grow the church, your faithful presence and support means more than you can know.

Be a life-giving friend, not a dream-stealer. Try to be a source of grace to them, and let them know what their ministry means to you and your family.

How do you expect ministry to change in the next 10 to 20 years?

I really don’t know. But I do know this: if it is Christian ministry, it will have drawing people to Christ and helping them grow up into his likeness as its core values.

About Baptists

What were key issues facing Baptists during the heart of your ministry?

How to be faithful to historic Baptist principles such as the Lordship of Christ, the authority of the Bible, the priesthood of believers, the autonomy under Christ of the local church, and the separation of church and state.

Our sense of cooperation began to unravel when the convention was torn by conflict between those who wanted to continue to make missions and evangelism the heart of our cooperation and those who demanded we all had to use the same language—namely “biblical inerrancy”—to describe our commitment to biblical authority.

I discovered cooperation really is based on shared vision and mutual trust. When that is lost, cooperation begins to die.

What would you change about the Baptist denomination—state, nation or local?

Most of my ministry, I took our passion for seeing people come to Christ as a given. And I sought to broaden that conviction by calling Baptist people to care about the human needs of people as well as their soul’s salvation.

When I studied the work and life of Jesus, I could not miss his passion to be with people in their needs. He fed the hungry, healed the sick and comforted the marginalized and welcomed them. He confronted the self-righteous with their pride and sin. The Bible never cites Jesus saying to someone, “I love you.” But no one was ever with him who did not know he loved them. I grew to believe the goal of the church is to help people grow up into the likeness of Christ.

I want our Baptist family to reach out passionately to people who do not know Jesus and help them know him. And I want our churches to be places where people have their needs met. Texas Baptists have been about that in powerful and meaningful ways since our beginning—founding Baptist universities, hospitals and childcare ministries. I want that to continue.

But something has happened along the way. Our commitment to meeting the needs of the whole person has taken root. But I sense across Baptist life, we aren’t as sure of ourselves when it comes to evangelism and helping people come to faith in Christ.

We can give many things to people that they really need, and we can care about a whole range of human concerns, but the one thing the church must do faithfully is bear witness to the saving power of Jesus Christ. People need Jesus more than they need anything.

Churches are eager to do missions and ministries in their own way and by their own timetable. The idea that the denomination is the only or even the main way to find partners for fulfilling the purpose of the local church has been challenged over the past two decades.

Baptist conventions are going to have to ask more than ever: “How can we add value to the vision and passion of local churches?” My own experience with Texas Baptists as a pastor was that the BGCT was the best partner I could have hoped for.

Mission Arlington could not have started without the support of the convention through the Mary Hill Davis Offering. Many Baptists understand we can do things together that we could never do alone. Conventions are going to have to listen to the churches, understand the culture and challenges, and provide networks and encouragement to help effective work take place.

About Charles

Who were/are your mentors, and how did/do they influence you?

The greatest human influences on my life would be my father and mother. My dad was a pastor, and he loved people. He wanted everyone he met to know Jesus. My mother was gentle and strong, and she believed in me. When I began to pastor churches, I discovered I knew things and had no idea where I learned them. Growing up in a healthy pastor’s home provided an atmosphere where pastoral insight was imbibed by osmosis.

My teachers at OBU impacted my life:

  • Gregory Pritchard, who taught me you can think and doubt, learn and be faithful to God.
  • Kathryn Rader, from whom I learned you can bring the best you have to the study of literature and you will live a richer life because of it.
  • James Ralph Scales, who taught that you can be both a scholar and an effective leader.

At seminary:

  • T.B. Maston taught us the gospel calls us to live with a spirit of love, justice and integrity. He taught us that how we live the Christian life indicates how grateful we are to Christ for his grace.
  • Kenneth Chafin helped us learn every person is important, and you can be an encourager to help them come to know Christ.
  • Bill Hendricks, Bill Pinson, W. R. Estep and Leon McBeth all helped me have a bigger vision of church and pastoral ministry.
  • Robert Naylor, the president at Southwestern Seminary, taught me how to love the public reading of Scripture in a thoughtful and passionate manner.

Probably the most influential pastoral influence on my life, after my father, was Jimmy R. Allen. He was a youth evangelist, Christian Life Commission leader for Texas Baptists and pastor of First Baptist Church in San Antonio.

What I saw in him helped me to believe a pastor could be both an evangelist and a pastor who was involved with his people and community, seeking to help the church to engage the wounded and hurting people all around them. I first expressed this as having a passion for both evangelism and ethics.

Later, I expressed it as having a passion for evangelism and ministry—believing that, as a Christian congregation, we were required to be involved in the needs of people (Matthew 25:40) and knowing that the best gift we have to offer to people is Jesus (John 3:16). When people begin to understand how important they are to God, they begin to believe anything is possible in their life. Mission Arlington grew out of this conviction, and what I tried to do for Texas Baptists reflected those two priorities.

What did you learn on the job you wish you learned in seminary?

I never expected seminary to teach everything. It’s important for a seminarian to be active in a local church—serving as a pastor or staff minister, if possible—because there are so many things you cannot learn except as you are in the heart of the work. I believe in the importance of on-the-job training.

What was the impact of ministry on your family?

Healthy and gracious. My family has had a great impact on my ability to minister to churches. I learned a lot about God the Father when he trusted me with four children. How much God loves me begins to take on some emotional weight. When I considered how I love my children and the joy it brought to my heart when I saw them watching after one another and loving one another, I caught a glimpse of how much joy God must have when his children love and honor one another.

There is no way to calculate how much the ministry of Rosemary, my wife of 56 years, has meant to me and to the people in our communities and churches. She is a tower of spiritual strength for me and others. She is authentic. She feels things deeply. People have been encouraged and blessed by her hospitality, her laughter, her ability to see through superficial pieties and self-righteous, judgmental attitudes. She was an amazing adult women’s Bible teacher, and for 12 years she loved and encouraged children as an elementary school teacher. She was the very definition of a pastor’s wife who was a full partner in the ministry of her husband.

Other than the Bible, name some of your favorite books or authors, and explain why.

  • Frederick Dale Bruner’s two-volume commentary on Matthew, the “Christ Book” and the “Church Book.” This commentary is helpful because he includes excellent biblical exegesis, using all the tools available to a serious and faithful student. He also does a great job incorporating historical theology and addresses current questions in our culture, including ethical and missional concerns.
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “The Cost of Discipleship” inspired and motivated me to want to be the best pastor I could be.
  • “Mere Christianity” by C. S. Lewis gave me help in witnessing and in encouraging Christian growth.
  • Fred Craddock’s “Overhearing the Gospel” is one of the finest books on preaching.
  • Two biographies by Irving Stone, “The Agony and The Ecstasy” and “Lust for Life”—the stories of Michelangelo and Vincent van Gogh.
  • Chuck Colson’s first two books: “Born Again” and “Loving God.”
  • All the novels of John Grisham.

What is your favorite Bible verse or passage? Why?

Like hymns, different Scriptures have been my favorites at different seasons of my life. As a teenager seeking to be faithful to God and to my sense of calling, 2 Timothy 1:12 spoke to me: “I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.”

Several verses in Philippians became meaningful to me:

  • “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (1:21)
  • “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. … One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (3:12–14).
  • “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (4:13).

Along the way, I became aware John 3:17 was an important part of 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” I liked to say as I preached this text: “Sin can do many ugly and destructive things in your life, but one thing it cannot do: it can’t stop God from loving you.”

When I came to be the pastor in Arlington, I said in an early sermon, “When I am through being your pastor, I want Matthew 25:40 to be as well-known in our congregation as John 3:16.” At the end of time, Jesus will want to know how we treated others: “Inasmuch as you have done this unto the least of these, my brethren, you have done it to me.” And those things he was looking for were feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and those in prison and welcoming the stranger.

The two love commands and the great sending commission became the shaping verses for our church: Matthew 22:37–39 and 28:18–20.

All along the way, a deacon’s favorite verse shaped my life: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

Who is your favorite Bible character, other than Jesus? Why?  

Barnabas was an encourager. He brought his resources to help the church meet needs, he helped make a way for Paul as a new Christian, and he didn’t give up on his nephew, John Mark, who later would write the first gospel.

Name something about you that would surprise people who know you well.  

I can relax easily and often. In retirement, I can spend time relaxing without guilt.

What do you hope for?

I hope Christians will base their hopes for Christian influence and victories on their Christlike behavior, their love for people, their holy reverence for the glory of God and the work of the Holy Spirit rather than on political power and control.

Christians need to be involved in their communities and in civil society, serving as elected leaders when possible, but their agenda needs to be seeking what is fair and best for every citizen on behalf of our God who loves us all. Angry Christians keep people from church, and they shadow the face of God.

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