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Oct 25 2012

Peter Lord: The Main Thing

Earlier this year I traded emails with Peter Lord, who was my pastor for a couple of years when I was a mid-twenty-something young man just starting out in my career.   Now somewhere around 82, he’s retired from the pastorate but still active in teaching people how to hear God and care for their soul.

Many readers won’t recognize the name. Peter Lord isn’t on the radar today of most conference event planners.  Even a younger version of himself likely wouldn’t be.  He’s neither slick nor hip.  His Jamaican accent, while perfectly understandable once you quickly get used to it, isn’t as smooth or cool as a crisp British or Australian accent.  But I recall Peter Lord seems to have one goal for himself, and for others: The MAIN THING is to keep the MAIN THING the MAIN THING.

What’s the main thing?  To love God and enjoy Him forever.

This isn’t to say he was conventional.

In the 1980′s it wasn’t yet cool to have services without invitations.  But Peter Lord rarely gave an invitation, because he didn’t want joiners; he wanted disciples.   He rejected the easy-believism and decisional regeneration that was (and is) prevalent in evangelicalism even today.  Some of us in his church had grown accustomed elsewhere to extended invitations and highly publicized decision counts in our prominent denomination, but we also were acutely aware that many people who were walking aisles in those churches did not experience any permanent, heart-level lifechange.  Peter didn’t want that.  He wanted disciples.   He wanted people in whose hearts the Holy Spirit was working; these are the people who will come down after services and ask questions.

He also succeeded in getting people thinking outside the box.

Renting out theaters isn’t uncommon today but it was in the mid 1980′s.  I recall one weekend he rented out a local theater and had everyone watch a movie.  Not a predictable, low quality “Christian” film where someone struggles through life, then prays “the prayer” and everything instantly turns around.  No, we watched The Mission, a gritty, underrated movie based on a true story, and one that is well worth watching about missionaries and slavery set in 18th century South America.  We then gathered in small groups to consider the story’s moral dilemma–that sometimes decisions aren’t always easy or cut and dry.

I remember being told that in the early days of the church he determined that he would rather have a small church of committed people than a large church of people seeking status or entertainment.  I’m told it had transitioned from a relatively large assembly of casual attenders to a smaller membership of people who wanted to go deep with Jesus and weren’t content with surface silliness.  And from that point it had grown quickly, both in depth and numbers.

Peter Lord may well have been one of the first preachers to adopt a conversational preaching style.  And I really shouldn’t say “adopt” for it wasn’t something he decided to do; its just who he was.  He didn’t pretend to have a personality that wasn’t his. He didn’t change his voice and become some kind of preacher-school animatronic, projecting a fake and stilted (or manipulative) speaking style.  He talked and taught as if he was in a living room… because for all intents and purposes, he was. A big living room called a church, filled with the family of God that was his flock.  His teaching was deep, real, and immensely helpful even though not polished or pretentious. He might even call on you to answer a question if you sat up close.  This was a place to go if you were seeking God.  It was not a place to go if you were seeking anything else.  And because it was a place to go if you were seeking God, it was a place to find God, and not anything else.

He was also an unusually transparent man.  Rarely had I ever heard a pastor admit struggles like he did.   When his college aged son was arrested for drugs in Orlando, he prayed, and others prayed.  Today that son is pastor of that same church that Peter Lord pastored for 30 years at Park Avenue Baptist Church in Titusville, Florida.

He didn’t shy away from theology; his teaching was applicational in the truest sense of the word.  It was applicational for one thing: developing a deeper walk with Christ.  Not ten tips for this, three tips for that, one tip for something else to make life more comfortable and successful.  Just a focus on the scripture to keep the main thing out in front.  Pastors like Lord who place a high emphasis on the Bible and godliness are, sadly, fading into the history books, being replaced by slick prosperity preachers and feel-good messages that focus on the felt needs, but ignore the real inner need.  Where many churches today are little more than spiritual car washes and detail shops, his was a garage where God rebuilt spiritual engines. His focused not on your personal pursuit of happiness, but on your soul and the pursuit of godliness.  He understood that if your soul is cared for, everything else follows–including happiness.  But if you neglect your soul, self-improvement is all cosmetic and has no foundation that will last eternally.

I recall my first impression was that he was a bit odd and I thought I’d be better served by a pastor who came out of the business world, where I lived.  Peter grew up in a third world country, not an affluent suburb of Houston or Atlanta.  But as I grew older I realized that I want a pastor who walks with God.  If he was odd, it’s because he was in prayer when the rest of us were watching TV.   He took his cues from the Bible, where others took them from pop culture.   He didn’t engage culture by getting stylish facial hair, angling for television appearances, or dressing like the teenagers in the church and us up-and-coming thought-we-knew-it-all twenty-somethings.  He engaged by striving to be more like Jesus and helping others do the same.  He used props and object lessons to illustrate his points when today’s popular applicational teachers were still in grade school.  They weren’t high tech, but they were effective.  I still remember several of them.

Although Southern Baptist and well connected to conservative power brokers like Adrian Rogers back in the day, he was never a big deal politically in the SBC that I am aware of.  His “bapti-costal” stripes probably had something to do with that, as in the 1970′s and early 1980′s anyone remotely sympathetic to charismatics were viewed with suspicion, not unlike how those with a Calvinist soteriology are viewed today by many in the same denomination.

He frequently tells the story of sincerely asking God to give him winning lottery numbers so he could win millions and give every penny to missions.  His sense of what God told him in response:  “If I thought gold could change the world, I would have sent gold instead of my Son.”

Although now his eighties, he still speaks occasionally on the topic of soul care and hearing God.  Below are some links to some of those messages, all of which are worth your time in an era where we tend to focus on “body care” to the exclusion of “soul care.”  We should all take some time and prayerfully listen and learn from people like Peter Lord, who have lived a great deal more of life than we have.

“Last time I was here you were in a warehouse.  And God’s given you a new “suit.”  Never forget this is not the church; it’s just the suit.  And it’s the man or the woman in the suit that makes the difference.  I’d rather you be in a warehouse and have a good soul than be in a fancy place like this and have a sorry soul.” — Peter Lord, while visiting a church that recently completed a building program

Free Peter Lord Teaching Sets from conferences recorded at Crossroads Community Church, Stokesdale NC and Calvary Chapel, St. Petersburg, FL.

Hearing God

Soul Care

About the author

Josh Riley

Husband, father, teacher, coach, business management consultant, real estate guy, program manager, children's discipleship leader, weatherbug, writer, speaker, workshop presenter, 176 other things and founder of worship.com.