A Life Well Lived
April 16, 1920 – November 22, 2012
On Thanksgiving Day, Nov 22, 2012 I received a phone call informing me of the homegoing of John Spencer, a longtime member and Elder of Briarwood Presbyterian Church. Immediately I had two thoughts. One, a statement from the Old Testament with New Testament meaning, “a Prince in Israel has fallen today.” Secondly, “a Saint of grace has ascended to glory.” John Spencer was an unusual Christian man who served Christ faithfully as a Christian businessman, citizen, community leader and churchman all undergirded by an undeniable love to his Savior and servant leadership in his family. His homegoing leaves behind a grieving church who will greatly miss him and his 50 years of faithful engagement and leadership. But even more so must be the grief of a devoted wife, Emalyn, three children, John Jr., Ginger and Janie along with 4 grandchildren who now deal with an extraordinary vacuum which only the Lord of glory can fill. When you love deeply, you grieve deeply.
My first personal encounter with John and Emalyn Spencer was in the fall of 1983. Having been sent by Briarwood and Mission to North America to plant Christ Covenant Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina earlier that year, I had been invited to speak for the Sunday night service of the National Missions Conference at Briarwood later that year. After having spent time in prayer with Dr. Frank Barker, I slipped into the morning service and sat beside an attractive, mature couple. They introduced themselves and I realized I was sitting next to John and Emalyn Spencer. I felt like I was in the presence of celebrity – John Spencer, well known for his leadership in the PCA as well as at Briarwood and beside him his lovely wife Emalyn, the author of Christian books and Bible Studies (one of which Cindy and I had raised our daughters with – A Woman that Feareth the Lord – a study of the Proverbs 31 woman). They were so gracious and encouraging and it began a personal relationship with John and Emalyn which only deepened after the Lord called me to serve as Briarwood’s Senior Pastor alongside of John’s leadership. But at the time I had no idea how much I would benefit from that relationship then and in the future.
On Nov. 22, 1963 there were two deaths. One most of you will remember. The tragic assassination of JFK and the other overshadowed but perhaps an even greater loss was the homegoing of C.S. Lewis. Now on the same date, 49 years later the church of our Savior blessed gloriously by the gift of God’s grace through John Spencer has lost the presence and intimacy of a great man of God which only the Lord can remedy. John Spencer, a faithful member of Briarwood for almost 50 years beginning in 1964 as he arrived simultaneously with Briarwood’s move from the Storefront to its first church building. It was not long thereafter that the church, recognizing John’s quiet yet influential leadership, made him a ruling elder which initiated a growing ministry of shepherding, evangelism and disciple-making that continued until the day Christ, the Head of the Church called him home. His strength and courage woven into the fabric of compassion and humility became a contagious hallmark of Christian leadership benefitting not only Briarwood, the PCA but also numerous organizations and ministries.
In 2006 John became an Elder Emeritus yet continued to serve the church as a commissioner to the General Assembly, the Evangel Presbytery, all the while serving on the Jethro Council consisting of senior elders who provide counsel and insight to the Sr. Pastor, the Pastoral Staff, the Session and the Diaconate upon request. Throughout 40 plus years John and his lovely wife Emalyn provided servant leadership in the church on the Global Missions Team, the Pastoral Shepherding Care Team, the Nehemiah Intercessory Prayer Partner Team, Children’s Church, Sunday School, various special initiative ministry teams and perhaps most notably every Wednesday night faithfully serving the meals for the MidWeek Dinner and Small Group Bible Study Ministry at Briarwood.
Each Saturday morning found John at either Dr. Frank Barker’s or Dr. Lamar Thomas’ prayer breakfast. John’s love for the lost and evangelism was continually exhibited in living and sharing the Gospel as a way of life and providing leadership, as well as being a Trainer in the Briarwood Evangelism Ministry. He was a teacher/trainer of the Campus Crusade “Four Laws” and then when the church moved to “Evangelism Explosion” he again provided leadership which continued in the current “Bridge to Life” Evangelism initiative.
It is impossible to identify all of the venues which were enhanced by John Spencer’s leadership, teaching, shepherding and disciple-making always unmarked by pettiness or self promotion. Perhaps one of the most meaningful was the “Men of the Covenant” small group discipleship meetings each Friday at 6:30AM.
For all of these reasons and many more, John Spencer deserves to be remembered as a man of God, a Godly husband and father, a faithful witness to Christ in the community and a dependable servant leader in our Lord’s Church. But perhaps he should be remembered for two other reasons which have blessed the church at large in general and the PCA in particular. Many of us in the PCA are a generation removed from the era when the Founding Fathers of the Presbyterian Church in America out of necessity took a clear and thoughtful stand against the encroaching and debilitating liberalism infecting the church with a vengeance in the 1940’s to the 70’s. John, along with fellow ruling elders, supported their Pastors with courage and fortitude, standing firmly yet graciously, boldly yet with humility for the inerrancy of the Word of God, the vitality of the Reformed faith and a relentless commitment to fulfill the Great Commission. He, along with a number of these ruling elders and teaching elders were the first to sign, “A Letter to All the Churches” adopted by the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America which identified a denomination unalterably committed to the Great Commission, the Reformed Faith and the Word of God as truth.
The second reason is John’s devotion, specifically to the task of Christian Education in the church. John loved all of the ministries of the church – worship, evangelism, shepherding, the Sacraments but he was specifically drawn to the initiative of disciple-making through Christian education. Even though John was well known for his excellence as a longtime employee of Bellsouth, being fully engaged in his family and the community and immersed in various leadership responsibilities he found the time to complete a Masters Degree in Christian Education at Birmingham Theological Seminary. In his teaching ministry at different times he taught Children’s Sunday School, Children’s Church, Adult Sunday School and Small Groups. John provided leadership for Christian Education Committees, not only at Briarwood but also, in the Evangel Presbytery and the General Assembly. Perhaps John’s greatest delight in Christian Education was the insightful, influential and prolific writing ministry of his beloved wife Emalyn who was the author of numerous books and Bible studies for women (published through Great Commission Publications) and used widely throughout the PCA and beyond.
Finally, as the Chairman of the World Missions Committee, early in the life of Briarwood he was instrumental in introducing Briarwood’s Faith Promise Offering commitment while supporting the Sessional policy requiring 50% of all giving at Briarwood to be directed to missionary causes outside of Briarwood in local, national, global mission and mercy initiatives. His favorite teaching ministry may well have been the Reformation and Confession of Faith course which he taught for all new members at Briarwood. John’s love for Christian Education also extended to a tenure of over 20 years serving on the Board of Covenant Theological Seminary and its various committees including the Search Committee which selected Bryan Chapell as President and promoting the Briarwood Endowment for Missions . His devotion to the Seminary continued throughout his adult life.
In the words of one of his close friends and an elder colleague, “John Spencer was a churchman in the truest sense of the word out of love to Christ, his Lord and Savior.” The loss of a man like John Spencer will be and should be felt deeply in his family, the community, his church and denomination. Men of God like John Spencer are needed in even greater numbers for the church-at-large and the PCA in particular. John Spencer, by the grace of God, was a man of God, moved out of his love to God, who ran with endurance the race set before him with his “eyes fixed on Jesus” persevering to the end with the joy of his salvation.
While he will be missed by a grateful church and denomination, a wife of 64 years, two daughters, a son, and four grandchildren, he has been welcomed into Glory where the Savior, whom He loved and served by faith, he now beholds by sight. On Thanksgiving morning, November 22, 2012, John Spencer, preparing for the day, sat on the edge of his bed, laid down for a moment, closed his eyes, “fell asleep in Jesus” and awoke in the presence of his Savior – life forevermore. John did not leave the land of the living for the land of the dead. He left the land of the dying for the land of the living! Join him through Christ – “For to me to live is Christ, to die is gain.”