Pastor JR Vassar believes that modern culture is enslaved to public opinion. Engaging this generation with the gospel involves reaching people who broadcast their lives on social media, often as a way of seeking validation.
To address this growing obsession with personal platform, Vassar wrote a book, Glory Hunger: God, the Gospel, and Our Quest for Something More. “Our capacity to promote ourselves in ways that we’ve not had in the past has led to a low-grade narcissism in our culture,” he says. “This constant desire to impress people, the fear of falling out of favor—it stems from a desire to be known and admired, esteemed and respected.”
Vassar serves as lead pastor of Church at the Cross, a Southern Baptist congregation of about 600 people in Grapevine, Texas. The hunger for glory, he says, “is an innate desire in all of us. We’re made in the image of God, who created Adam and Eve and spoke a resounding verdict over their lives—‘very good.’ Those words, spoken by the ultimate person in the universe —grant unbelievable dignity, honor, and value.”
Of course, that’s not how the story ends. Genesis 3 tells how the influence of sin altered Adam and Eve’s relationship with their Creator. “Instead of commendation, they were now under God’s condemnation,” Vassar says. “What Adam lost for us in the garden, we’ve been trying to get back on our own. For them and for us today, we want a positive verdict spoken over our lives. But that ache is only going to be satisfied in the gospel. Only that can free us from obsession over everyone else’s ‘yes.’ ”
A Simple Message for Big Impact
Vassar has been on a path to ministry since he was a teenager. At a Christian concert, he was inspired by a performer who quoted the Bible extensively, and he began poring over Scripture. “The more I read the Bible, the more God stirred my heart toward ministry.”
His pastor at Memorial Baptist Church in Grapevine gave him the opportunity to preach on a Sunday night. “It was a service for the whole congregation, and my sermon was awful. But I preached on the cross and what it means for us, and the Lord was gracious and used it in a powerful way in the lives of some of our students. I came away with the understanding that if I lift up Jesus and preach his cross, God will use it.”
In 2014, after nearly 20 years of ministry, Vassar returned to Memorial Baptist—now named the Church at the Cross—and the lessons he has learned are shaping a new direction for ministries.
During seminary and in his early years of ministry, Vassar and his wife, Ginger, considered going overseas. His interest in missionary work was inspired by a class at Dallas Theological Seminary and a series of articles in Christianity Today about the persecuted church. “I had my heart broken for the church around the world, and I was gripped by God’s glory in the church among all the nations,” he says.
“Since those days, I’ve wanted to see the church prevail where it’s flagging. For a long time, Ginger and I struggled over whether we should go overseas as missionaries. But eventually we decided that our work should be with a local church here in America, mobilizing and sending others.”
Losing Small to Win Big
Vassar’s passion for the global church has affected how Church at the Cross prioritizes ministries. Home to 6 million people, the Dallas-Fort Worth area boasts several megachurches—and Vassar is not looking for his congregation to become the next.
“The local church’s vision needs to be bigger than its own buildings, attendance, and budget,” he says. “We’ve got to have a kingdom mentality. Sometimes our local church has to lose for the kingdom to win. Sometimes that means releasing resources to missions or other organizations that could have been used to launch a program or build a building here.”
Church at the Cross now relies on gospel-based decision-making as it seeks to reach thousands of people who are new to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, lured by the major corporations who call the region home. Many of these newcomers are unfamiliar with Christianity, and the church’s global vision helps shape their perspective.
“We’re trying to equip our people to think beyond having our own house in order. We want to lift our vision beyond the human-centered ‘God is here for us’ and get to a God-centered way of life, in which we are available to be useful to the Lord—to see his glory known and loved and treasured in all the earth,” Vassar says. “We want to understand our own context, but we also want to be aware of the calling on our lives to be part of seeing the gospel reach the ends of the earth.”
Personal Connections for Wide Reach
One way Vassar inspires his congregation toward a missional vision is to pray for people and situations all around the world. Prayer fosters a connection with distant people, which then paves the way for partnerships that create change far beyond what a local church could accomplish if all of its resources stayed within its own walls.
Vassar ties missional motivation to the essence of the gospel message. “We emphasize several things about our identities, specifically, ‘Who are we? Who has Jesus made us by his grace?’ We are saints who can rest in the finished work of Jesus. We are declared righteous in Jesus. We don’t have to earn his acceptance. We are called to bear witness to the person of Jesus.” Each of these identities, Vassar says, has important practical implications for believers.
“The last identity we emphasize is that we are the ‘sent ones.’ In John 20:21, Jesus tells his disciples, ‘As the father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’ Like the disciples, we are also sent to engage our neighbors and neighborhoods—as well as the nations—with the message and mercy of Jesus Christ.”
As the church began to work through these various aspects of spiritual identity, Vassar says, people “began to experience a shift away from ‘event evangelism’—where we put on a big event, invite our friends, and hope for the best—to being evangelists for Jesus. We want to be the people of God sharing life together, inviting people to see into the network of relationships that make up this local church. We want to let people see the gospel on display among people while we proclaim it.”
Scaling back big events has given Church at the Cross the resources to support the church’s neighborhood groups. “Rather than create another class or group where people come into church, we’re now encouraging Bible studies to meet in people’s homes, in coffee shops, and in their communities, where they can sit and eat together, go to their kids’ sporting events together, be a family together, and open up the word of God and fellowship together. We want to encourage vulnerability and openness. A life-group isn’t about gathering for another sermon. It’s more like a lab where people can work out what Christianity means in the real world.”
A Single Focus on God's Mission
With the release of Glory Hunger, Vassar is well aware of the irony of promoting a book that critiques self-promotion. He knows it would be all too easy to get caught up in the affirmation that comes from book sales and good reviews.
“I tried to be vulnerable about my own struggles and share some moments in my life where the Lord exposed me and called me back to finding myself in him,” he says. “I felt like God’s call was to write the book, and now I have to leave the results to him.”
For now, Vassar has no plans for a follow-up book; ministry has his full attention. “We’re busy building a team that will be at Church of the Cross for the long haul,” he says.
“We want to be a vibrant community that has stopped seeking glory in other places and finds our acceptance in the ultimate person in the universe. We want to teach the Bible and hold it up as the authority for our lives so that we live out its vision.”