An Interview with Steve Gaines
Dr. Steve Gaines is the pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. He has earned a baccalaureate degree from Union University, and the MDiv (1984) and PhD (1991) degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Gaines has also served on the State Board of Missions for the Alabama Baptist State Convention, served on the committee to revise the Baptist Faith and Message in 2000, preached the keynote sermon at the 2004 convention in Indianapolis, and served as president of the 2005 SBC Pastor’s Conference in Nashville. He is also the author of a popular devotional called Morning Manna, and in 2007 he published When God Comes to Church.
SBC Today: What are some great things that are happening in your church?
Steve Gaines: In 2007, we began a ministry called “Bellevue Loves Memphis.” It is a service-evangelism model that has helped us become more involved in community missions in our region. We try to “find a need and meet it; find a hurt and heal it.” For years, liberal churches have participated in social ministry, but they have neglected genuine evangelism. We’ve coupled social ministry with soul winning and found it to be a powerful combination. Social ministry is not an end in itself. Rather, it is a means to the end of soul winning. Social ministry opens the doors for us to verbally share the Gospel.
In the past several years, Bellevue has worked with inner-city schools repairing grounds and facilities and tutoring students. We’ve assisted the City of Memphis with clean-up efforts to remove urban blight. We’ve distributed massive amounts of food and clothing to needy people. We have also ministered to people in prison, as well as those who are shut-ins and in nursing homes. We’ve repaired facilities of inner-city churches. We have purchased and manned a mobile-dental clinic that has provided over $1 million in free dental care to those who cannot afford it. We always verbally share the Gospel with the people to whom we minister.
People don’t go to heaven because they minister to the poor. But people that are on their way to heaven will desire to engage in ministry to “the least of these.” If you don’t care about helping people in need, you have every reason to question whether or not you are really saved (cf. Matt. 25:31-46). Every local church should minister to “the least of these” in their community and couple it with soul winning. It will change you and your church.
SBC Today: What is the key to being a faithful/effective/successful pastor?
Steve Gaines: A pastor must make prayer the priority of his life (Lk. 11:1f). Preaching comes after prayer (Acts 6:4). Luther said, “He who has prayed well has studied well.” What good is a prayerless conservative, a prayerless preacher, or a prayerless professor? We must talk with God before we try to talk for God. We need daily prayer. Yesterday’s manna won’t feed us. Yesterday’s anointing won’t empower us. Yesterday’s prayers won’t help us make it through today.
A pastor should also be approachable with his people. A true shepherd will be around God’s people enough that he has the “smell” of sheep on him. He should spend time with staff and church members, scheduling lunches with them, visiting them in hospitals, performing weddings and funerals, etc.
A pastor should not be the last one to enter the church on Sunday morning and the first one to leave. Rather, he should be the first one there and the last to leave. He should walk slowly among the people, look them each in the eye, talk with them, pray with them, love them, and seek to get to know as many of them by name as possible. He should also invite them into his heart, weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice. He must embrace Paul’s method in 1 Thess. 2:8 – “Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.”
A pastor must also learn to forgive people who wrong him. Life is too short (or too long, however you want to look at it) to hold a grudge. Don’t allow mean people to get the best of you. Jesus forgave malicious people even when they didn’t ask for forgiveness (Lk. 23:34). We must as well. Forgiving them doesn’t mean that you condone what they did to you. Nor does it mean that you trust them or that you must become “best friends” with them. But it does mean that you pardon them in your heart, you release them to the Lord, and you no longer talk negatively about them. Vengeance belongs to God; He will always repay. Leave it at that.
SBC Today: What is one key mistake that you see pastors and/or church staff members making that causes them problems in their churches?
Steve Gaines: Pastors get so busy that they don’t spend enough time with God or with their families. We don’t have enough time to do everything that other people want us to do. Nor do we have time to do everything that we want to do. But we do have time to do what God wants us to do.
We must work at time management basing the use of our time on our priorities. Communing with God in prayer and personal Bible intake must come first. We should then allocate time for our family. A pastor who does not take care of his walk with God and his family relationships won’t have a ministry for long. Every need is not a call from God. Focus on God, your family, and then your church.
SBC Today: Who are two or three of your “heroes in ministry”?
Steve Gaines: Dr. Adrian Rogers was a dear friend and a beloved mentor. For almost two decades before I became the pastor at Bellevue, I met with him several times each year and learned about ministering in a growing church. When our church in Gardendale began to grow, I sought advice from him and he gave it. He graciously made time for me and helped me with his tremendous wisdom. He was one of the finest men I’ve ever known. He was (and is to this day) one of my greatest “heroes.”
While in seminary, I also met and interviewed Dr. Herschel Hobbs and Dr. W. A. Criswell. I greatly admired both of them. They both had earned Ph.D.s from Southern Seminary, and were career-long senior pastors.
To be candid, I believe that is the kind of leadership we need in the SBC today. It is essential that we have men in SBC leadership positions who have been equipped to lead others by both service and scholarship; experience and education. Theology without experience is like faith without works – it is dead. Someone with little (if any) experience as a senior pastor is limited when it comes to mentoring young pastors. Being a “scholar” isn’t enough. Serving on a church staff isn’t enough. Young pastors need mentors with significant senior pastoral expertise. They need to be taught by men who have attended multiple deacons meetings, have performed numerous weddings and funerals, and have counseled couples with marital problems. Senior pastors who have had to face the pressures of annual budgets, supervising staff members, and dealing with difficult church members, are the most qualified people to teach young pastors. It is hard, if not impossible, to lead someone to a place you’ve never been. The best SBC leaders will be shepherd-scholars – men who have been to seminary and who are also veteran senior pastors.
SBC Today: What is one of the best lessons you have learned in ministry?
Steve Gaines: As pastors, we don’t have to “out-lead.” Rather, we should seek to “out-love” others, even the difficult people with whom we must deal. Christian leadership comes through relationships of genuine love. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. A pastor must be “a people-person;” authentic and approachable.
No pastor can be aloof from people and be effective. If people are a “bother” to you, you should find another occupation. People are your ministry. On Sundays and Wednesdays, our church members are present at Bellevue. It’s a great time to be with them. When they ask me to pray for them about something, I do it on the spot. It is hard to believe that I am in my seventh year at Bellevue. The first year and a half was a period of transition and difficulty. The past five years have been some of the greatest days of my life. Bellevue’s members are very loving. They have become our family.
SBC Today: What is your approach to preaching?
Steve Gaines: I heard of a preacher who said: “When I preach, I read myself full, pray myself hot, and turn myself loose!” I like that. A preacher should study, pray, and then be himself when he preaches. A prayerless preacher has no power. A preacher who hasn’t studied has no content. A good sermon gets “hot” from the preacher’s prayers and “full” from his study.
I don’t preach other people’s sermons. A preacher that preaches other people’s sermons on a regular basis is a thief with a slothful mind and a shallow heart. God has not called us to be pirates that steal or parrots that mimic. He called us to be prophets that proclaim the Word that He has given to us. I receive my sermon ideas from reading and memorizing Scripture.
I preach verse-by-verse through Scripture texts. I also like to add verse-with-verse, utilizing other Scriptures to support my primary text.
A preacher shouldn’t preach 40-50 sermons out of one book in a single series. That wears people out. Most sermon series should be no longer than 10-12 sermons. If you preach through a lengthy book of the Bible, do it in stages.
I try to emphasize one primary idea per sermon. Any sermon “points” should relate directly to that main idea. I explain, illustrate, and apply the biblical text. I primarily preach sermons to help Christians mature. Yet, like Spurgeon, I always give an evangelistic appeal at the end. I focus on Jesus, and say the name of “Jesus” often. There is great power in His name.
At the conclusion of my sermons, I seek to persuade lost people to become Christians by giving a public invitation. Whenever the Gospel is proclaimed, the listeners should be given the opportunity to be saved. Before anyone can become a Christian, he must first hear the Gospel (Rom. 10:14), repent of his sin (Acts 3:19), believe in Jesus (Acts 16:30-31), and call upon the name of the Lord (Acts 22:16; Rom. 10:9-10, 13). No one is regenerated before he/she repents and believes. Rather, there is a nanosecond in time (Jesus called it being “born again” – Jn. 3) before which a person is lost and on his way to hell, at which he repents, believes, and calls on Jesus’ name and is regenerated, and after which he is saved forever. To “call upon the name of the Lord” is to pray. Thus, I give listeners the opportunity at the end of every sermon to meet with a counselor and to become a Christian by repenting (Acts 3:19), believing on Jesus in their heart, and praying and confessing Him with their mouth (Rom. 10:9-10). To preach the Gospel and not encourage people to become a Christian then and there is unthinkable.
That’s how I preach – prayerfully, studiously, scripturally, passionately, and evangelistically. “Read yourself full; pray yourself hot; and turn yourself loose!”
SBC Today: How do you help your congregation focus on missions?
Steve Gaines: We have an excellent missions program at Bellevue. We base our missions’ emphasis on Acts 1:8, starting in Memphis. Memphis is our “Jerusalem.” Close to a thousand of us participate in community missions each quarter on designated Saturdays for our “Bellevue Loves Memphis” workdays. We love our City! We then seek to branch out to the nation and the nations. We send out short-term, lay-volunteer mission teams around the world throughout the year. Short-term mission trips are a wonderful way to move people out of their comfort zone and motivate them to evangelize a lost world. We have an annual missions’ conference during which we highlight local and global evangelism and missions. We put much money, time, and resources into missions and it pays eternal dividends.
SBC Today: How do you balance ministry and family responsibilities?
Steve Gaines: A pastor must love his family. A pastor’s family should take precedence over the church he serves. Husbands and wives should dialog daily, date weekly, and depart on short trips periodically. While our children lived at home, my wife and I were there for them. We attended our son’s ballgames and the games for which our daughters cheered. On weeknights, Donna cooked meals and we shared time around the dinner table. For almost 25 years, Donna made sack lunches for our children every day. Until they started driving, I took them to school every morning. Donna chose to be a stay-at-home mom. She picked up the children after school and drove them to ball practices, piano lessons, ballet, etc. We enjoyed Christmas mornings, birthday parties, vacations, etc. We made home videos that we still enjoy watching.
By God’s grace, our children love Jesus. The three oldest have married godly spouses who themselves come from godly homes. Our youngest is in college and she loves the Lord. Presently, we have three grandchildren, and they are all being reared in godly homes. We never told our children to read their Bibles or go to church because they were the preacher’s children. We told them to do those things because they loved Jesus and belonged to Him.
We wanted our kids to be “normal,” so we tried to make home “fun.” We bought a boat and often went waterskiing. I took Grant hunting many times. We made sure they knew their grandparents. We had family nights, watched movies, played games, and prayed together most evenings.
I’ve said for years that I’d never take Monday off because I don’t want to feel that bad on my time. If I’m going to feel the way I do on Monday, I’ll do it on church time. I take Friday and Saturday off and it’s great. Donna and I have had a standing date every Friday at lunch for close to 25 years.
I prayerfully and cautiously accept invitations to preach outside my church. Every open door and invitation is not a call from God. Pastors that are absent often from their families and churches are not practicing the better part of wisdom. A pastor should disciple his family before trying to disciple someone else’s. I have a pastor-friend who realized he was spending more time with people who wouldn’t even attend his funeral than with family members that one day could possibly take care of him in a nursing home. A church has many men who can serve as their pastor. But a pastor’s wife and children have only one person who can be their husband and father. Don’t be away from your home and church all the time. Reach the “empty nest” with few regrets, many good memories, and a good relationship with your wife.
SBC Today: What do you do for fun?
Steve Gaines: I enjoy working out. I have a treadmill at home on which I walk and pray. I also have a recumbent bicycle on which I ride while I read. I enjoy lifting weights at a local gym several times each week. I go there instead of using our church facilities so I can be around non-Christians. I’ve been able to witness and pray with people at the gym. I also swim laps there occasionally. All of that is “fun” to me.
I spend a lot of my leisure time with my wife. In 2004, we bought a used convertible. It is my way of “getting away.” We take rides on our Friday dates. It gives me the feel of being on a motorcycle, but with a lot more protection!
SBC Today: What are your two or three favorite TV shows? Movies?
Steve Gaines: I don’t watch much television. My favorite movie is, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I watch it every year on my birthday (Dec. 31st). George Bailey learned from Clarence the angel that God is doing more in and through us than we can imagine. He is working through “the little things” in our lives. People may not realize how much the devil discourages pastors. But every pastor can be assured that God is using him regardless of how “small” his situation is. Significance comes not from where we are, but Whose we are!
SBC Today: Anything else you would like to tell us about?
Steve Gaines: Yes. Stop worrying, pray, love your family, and win people to Jesus! That should keep you busy until you see Him face to face.