Brian Tarpy is completing his training at Calvin Theological Seminary this year as president of the student body.
His improbable journey toward ordained ministry in the Christian Reformed Church began with a culturally Catholic childhood spent along the Southern California coast.
“I did the things a good Catholic should do,” Tarpy said. “I went to Catholic school. So I knew about God, just not in a very personal way.”
That changed dramatically when, at the age of 13, he heard Pastor Greg Laurie unpack the parable of the prodigal son at a Harvest Ministries Crusade in San Diego.
“He talked about how Christ wants to have a relationship with each of us,” Tarpy said. “That was transformational for me. I had never thought about faith in that way. I got out of my seat and walked down to the field so I could have a relationship with Christ.”
From that point, Tarpy’s quest for a deeper, more meaningful faith took him to an array of nondenominational churches, leading him to pursue studies first at Calvary Chapel Bible College in California and later at Multnomah University in Portland, Ore.
It was during his time in Portland that his spiritual sojourn led to an initial encounter with the Christian Reformed Church.
“I do recognize that God was in my life from the beginning,” he said. “Calvinism teaches that God comes to us first and we are irresistibly drawn. I realized that this was the more biblical approach. “So when my wife, Cassidy, and I moved to Portland, we decided to look for a church that was Reformed.”
Neither of them had ever heard of the Christian Reformed denomination, but when Tarpy pulled up Google Maps online and typed “Reformed” and “Portland” into the search bar, the website and location for Parklane Christian Reformed Church popped up.
“We visited Parklane and fell in love with the place,” he said. “They treated us like family.” Parklane’s longtime pastor, Vance Hays, identified ministry gifts in both Brian and Cassidy. The church hired Cassidy as youth director, and Hays offered Brian encouragement and opportunities to preach.
“Pastor Vance told me that if you have the gifts for the ministry, it often means you have a call to ministry,” Brian said.
Intrigued but still unsure if pastoral ministry might be a fit for him, he and Cassidy left Portland after completing his schooling at Multnomah and moved to Ogden, Utah, where he took a job delivering and installing copy machines.
“I was driving a delivery truck and listening to audio books all day,” he said. “I felt my life was not making a difference. Finally, Cassidy and I decided to respond to the call to ministry.” He knew of several seminaries in the West but remembered that Hays had told him about Calvin Theological Seminary.
“We knew it was the seminary of the Christian Reformed Church in North America,” Tarpy said. “We also knew we wanted to be part of the church because of how we experienced people in the CRC at Parklane.
“It wasn’t just the theology. Our Parklane family considered worship a 24/7 activity. It was a community we were invited into and a welcome that drew us in completely. We knew this is our place to belong and to serve God.”
Since arriving on Calvin’s campus in 2013, Tarpy has experienced a similar supportive community, along with a bracing and challenging formation for pastoral ministry and preaching.
“It’s been a journey to learn how to preach well,” he said. “The preaching classes helped give me a framework and a starting ground. My professors have shaped me in ways I couldn’t have imagined before coming to Calvin. They’ve helped me look into the text of Scripture and see it with fresh eyes.”
This past summer, Brian and Cassidy and their two young sons, Cole and Bo, lived in Manhattan, Mont., happily serving a summer assignment with the Christian Reformed community there and gaining a foretaste of pastoral ministry after graduation and ordination.
“The CRCNA has a tendency to focus on knowing instead of belonging,” Brian commented. “But we are coming into a time where the emphasis on knowing is not so much a priority.
“As Reformed people, we are body and soul too, not just minds. We honor every aspect of God’s creation.”
As he concludes his final months of pastoral preparation at the seminary, Tarpy looks forward to building a warm and welcoming church community through his preaching.
Just as the parable of the prodigal son spoke a life-changing message to him as a junior high school student, he said he hopes to share the glory of the gospel with the next generation.
Four Pages of a Sermon
All her life, Betsy Hochhalter DeVries has been nurtured in the arms of the church and the worldview framed by the Reformed tradition. Her family tree—parents, siblings, husband, even her brother in-law—is deeply rooted in full-time kingdom work.
And so a funny thing happened on DeVries’s way to the careers she initially had planned. “First, I had started college at Azusa Pacific as a viola performance major, but that was a lot of time alone in a practice room,” she said. “Then I transferred to Kuyper College for their social work program. I came to find that I wanted to help people, but I recognized that real change comes through a relationship with God, so I switched to pre-sem studies.”
Now in her final year at Calvin Theological Seminary, DeVries was invited to preach the sermon at the opening chapel service for the current academic year. She earned glowing assessments from John Rottman, her professor of preaching, with whom she’s worked closely both in the classroom and during a year-long Renewal Lab at Mayfair Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.
“She’s absolutely terrific,” said Rottman, “and Betsy is as gifted as any student I’ve ever had at using the ‘four-pages method’ for building sermons.”
The Four Pages of a Sermon is the title of a book by Paul Scott Wilson, a United Church of Canada pastor and professor of homiletics at the University of Toronto.
The principles in the book have been embraced by Rottman and his colleague Rev. Scott Hoezee, who directs the Center for Excellence in Preaching.
Each “page” represents a section to a sermon. Where previous generations of seminarians were taught a three-point formula of Explanation, Illustration, and Application, crafting sermons for congregations today follows a four-part course—trouble in the biblical text, trouble in the world, grace in the text, grace in the world.
“I’ve embraced the four-pages method,” DeVries says. “It keeps me from trying to impose my own agenda on a text. It also keeps me from getting mad at the church. It always ends with what God is doing right. I want people to leave the service having encountered God’s grace, and not leave feeling burdened or guilty.”
Hoezee notes that the structure forces the preacher to “proclaim an active God who’s doing something in the here and now, and giving you hope.”
If the sermon succeeds in its intent, Hoezee adds, “faith should be thickened or quickened—joy should happen. The Spirit is supposed to do something with the preached Word.”
DeVries and her husband, fellow senior seminarian Daniel DeVries, await with anticipation the direction of the Spirit as they stand on the cusp of taking up ministry together.
“We’re keeping an open mind to whatever options will be available to us,” she said. “But I feel strongly that part of my calling will be into a preaching ministry.”
The Center for Excellence in Preaching
The sermon long has occupied a revered and central place in worship in most churches of the Reformed tradition. Some Reformed pastors, however, are regarded as dutiful but a shade dull in the pulpit—long on information but short on imagination.
Into that gap the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary was launched 11 years ago by then-president Rev. Cornelius Plantinga. Today, the center is one of the largest and most trusted providers of distinctively Reformed sermon resources anywhere.
Much of the center’s thought-provoking work is consolidated and available anywhere at any time to anyone with an Internet connection at cep.calvinseminary.edu. The website, recently renovated and reorganized, has become a hive of homiletical tips and sermon starters. It is visited monthly by more than 13,000 pastors and lay members in search of ideas and inspiration.
“Our founding principles—and President Plantinga’s vision—was that the Reformed tradition should continue to emphasize the importance of the preached Word as a key means of grace,” said Rev. Scott Hoezee, who has directed the center since 2005.
“We want Calvin Seminary on the map to support good preaching. The second principle is that good preaching depends on good input. Preaching is output, output, output, so if nothing is coming in, the well is going to run dry.”
The center’s primary face to the public is the website, but it also cosponsors events such as the annual Calvin Symposium on Worship and the biennial Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing. In addition it stages small, intensive seminars such as “Imaginative Reading for Creative Preaching” for smaller groups of participants, as well as customized individual mentoring experiences.
The development of the center and its resources coincides with a sweeping cultural shift in the way sermons are prepared and how they are received by those in the pew. The three-point expository, authoritative homily of the 20th century has been supplanted by less formal sermons and meditations that lean heavily on local context and anecdotes with which the congregation can identify.
“We increasingly are a missional church, more and more a minority,” said Hoezee. “We not only have to be good preachers, we must be good anthropologists. We have to exegete Scripture and exegete context. We have to be good storytellers. You can’t just talk ideas and concepts and doctrines. It has to be more nuanced.”
The name of the center was chosen carefully and with deliberate consideration, Plantinga said. “I wanted to be sure we all understood that by excellent we don’t mean the capacity to dazzle or sermons that blow you away. By excellent, we mean biblically rooted, contextual, life-affirming, and engaging sermons that present the text faithfully but also engagingly.”
Ultimately, Plantinga added, it is the first role of the preacher-pastor to be obedient to the gospel. “Whether churches wax or wane is really not under human control,” he said. “Our job is to be faithful where we are.”
Does Preaching Have Future? by Scott Hoezee
The Church at Prayer for Pastors
The faithful prayers of congregations can help pastors be better preachers. Here’s a template for praying each day of the week for a pastor’s rhythm, especially the recurring task of developing Sunday’s sermon. If you know your pastor’s weekly schedule, rearrange the days accordingly.
Day 1 (Sunday): Pray that people will hear the gospel, that their hearts will be quickened by hope and joy. Pray that your pastor will give up self for the glory of God.
Day 2: Pray that your pastor will have a refreshing day away from “the office” of church ministry, for recreation, family time, personal Sabbath rest.
Day 3: Pray for your pastor’s reflection on the text for next week’s sermon, for imagination and inspiration, for flow and focus.
Day 4: Pray for your pastor’s caregiving to members of the congregation who are sad, sick, suffering, or grief-stricken. Pray that his presence will bless and bolster hearts in pain, with your specific prayers behind the scenes.
Day 5: Pray for your pastor’s actual writing of the sermon; that the Spirit will breathe into her awareness the right words and stories and pictures needed to convey the sermon’s grace and truth.
Day 6: Pray that your pastor has a mentor or honest pastor friends with whom he can be vulnerable, especially about his own preaching and ministry.
Day 7: Pray for your pastor as she puts the finishing touches on the sermon; that she may be rested and ready to open God’s Word to eager hearts.