Christian author and blogger Tim Challies has served his church faithfully for years, but he’s rarely the guy standing in the spotlight.
His interests in ministry have always led him to work behind the scenes, helping to disciple the people in his care.
“I love shepherding people’s souls,” Challies says, “being able to help people grow in Christian maturity, being able to help people through their struggles and problems, and offering them wisdom and support. While I never felt a particular call to preach, I certainly felt the call to shepherd—to pastor in that sense, and to help people along.”
Challies has come to view his writing—in his books and on his blog, Challies.com—as a form of ministry similar to his service in the church, focused on mentoring and discipleship. He started the blog as a place to share family photos with far-away relatives; then he began to post his reflections on Scripture and the books he was reading. People outside the family circle found his online writings by chance.
“The blog has turned out to be a place where I can help people understand God and his word and help them grow in conformity to Christ,” he says. “When I’m writing, my constant thought is, ‘How can I serve the people who are reading this?’ ”
His five books cover a range of topics, from spiritual discernment to pornography to productivity. His most recent book is called Visual Theology: Seeing and Understanding the Truth About God (Zondervan, 2016). “Mostly I’ve just written about what interests me. I’m a pretty normal person, and if I’m curious about something, generally other people will be, too,” he says.
Guiding the family
Challies finds that his focus in ministry overlaps in many ways with his role at home. “The heart of the parent’s calling is to shepherd their children; the heart of the pastor’s calling is to shepherd his congregation,” he says. “The connection shouldn’t be a surprise, since the heart of God’s work among his people is to shepherd them, just like Psalm 23 says. We borrow this biblical metaphor to point to the love and care we extend to others as we help them, teach them, train them, lead them, and protect them.”
Challies and his wife, Aileen, have three children, ages 10 through 16. “I love raising kids. I love to see them growing and grappling with spiritual realities,” he says.
“Recently I’ve been reflecting a lot on Acts 20:28: ‘Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.’ The very next verse warns about fierce wolves that will savage the flock,” he says.
“That language is easily applied to parents and children, as well. A pastor does this by preaching, to be sure, but also through one-on-one counseling or nurturing ministry. Just look a few verses earlier where Paul speaks about teaching publicly and house-to-house. Basically, God calls us to lead in the church and home, but we are to lead as loving shepherds—imitating the One Loving Shepherd.”
Challies’ own parents heavily influenced his relationship with Christ from an early age. As first-generation Christians, they learned to love Scripture during the time they spent in Switzerland at L’Abri, the faith community established by pastor and theologian Francis Schaeffer in the 1950s. Challies recalls paging through his mother’s well-worn Bible when he was young. “She took it with her wherever she went. It was taped together, and covered in her handwritten notes.”
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the opportunity parents have to shape their children’s interaction with Scripture and their conception of God, Challies says. “When you are a child, your parents and God are almost indistinguishable. They are, in a sense, the voice of God. They guide you and drive you to the Bible.”
But a parent’s window of opportunity doesn’t stay open for long. “At some point, you gain enough independence that you begin to evaluate whether you actually believe the Bible,” Challies says. “For me, that moment came when, as a teenager, I was exposed to some people who didn’t believe the Bible and seemed to live happy lives without it. And I started to deal with the depravity in my own heart. When I recognized my sin, and realized that I didn’t want to stop sinning, I came to see that I am a sinner in need of Christ.”
As a parent, Challies has relished the chance to walk with his children through similar moments. “One by one, they’ve each bumped up against the same barrier: ‘Do I really believe this?’ and ‘Why can’t I stop sinning?’ That’s an opportunity for them to grapple with the reality of their sinfulness and the solution the gospel offers.”
Nurturing the church
Challies’s call to ministry came in 2011, whenthe leaders of his congregation, Grace Fellowship Church in Toronto, asked him to become an elder. Over the years, he has served the church in number of roles, including associate pastor and counselor.
Since 2002, when Challies and his family first began attending Grace Fellowship, the church has experienced a demographic shift that brings both challenges and excitement. The city of Toronto receives a steady influx of immigrants from all over the world; in 2013, 51 percent of its population had been born outside Canada. In recent years, Grace Fellowship has become a congregation that reflects the city.
Challies attributes the church’s growing diversity primarily to its priority to faithfully preach the gospel, even if that means letting go of cultural norms and doing things differently to accommodate new people.
“In a city full of so many different ethnicities, we don’t want our churches divided along those lines,” he says. “It’s understandable for first-generation immigrants to seek familiarity in their church community, especially if language is an issue. But we hope that the second generation and beyond will join with existing congregations, so our churches can begin to reflect the beautiful diversity of our city.”
Pointing people to the gospel
This strategy of “majoring on the gospel” applies to more than ethnic backgrounds and cultural practices. Both at church and at home, it can be difficult to draw the line between primary and secondary issues. Proponents of a certain way of doing things often become entrenched in that tradition, elevating it to a higher place of importance. Scripture calls us to keep our focus on the gospel.
Challies recalls blogging about his family’s decision to have the children attend public school rather than being homeschooled. “I got a lot of pushback from the wider Christian community, and that drove me deeper into the Bible to examine my calling as a parent. Is it possible to be faithful to Scripture’s instruction to train my children up in the way they should go (Deut 6:7), while outsourcing a part of their education?” For the Challies family, the answer was “yes.” But the process of wrestling with the question—pursuing a way forward through Bible study and prayer—was invaluable.
That challenging experience illustrates the path of Christian discipleship and the role of the shepherd, whether at home or at church. “Mark Dever puts it this way: ‘What you win them with is likely what you’ll win them to,’ ” Challies says. “At times people have questioned parts of our cultural identity as a church. They ask questions like, ‘Are we going to be a homeschooling church or a public-school church?’—and the answer is always ‘Neither. We’re going to be a gospel church.’"