John Neal, Pastor
John Neal, a Virginian born and bred, grew up in Newport News. His father, a former Methodist, didn’t attend church very often until later in life, eventually raised Neal as a Baptist. During his youth Neal recalls his father often sharing the gospel with him, but Neal was running from faith. Finally, his dad sat him down one night, during a difficult moment and simply asked, “We really need Jesus, don’t we Johnny?” This was a critical moment in John's salvation. He did not accept Christ at that moment, but it was certainly the beginning of his realization of the truth. After that his journey of faith came to a crescendo when his parents took him to a David Wilkerson Crusade. As Wilkerson shared his testimony at the event, John was able to relate to Wilkerson’s experiences. Neal experienced the conviction of his sin as well as the love of God breaking through his hardened heart. As a changed man John's whole life turned around.
Into the Ministry
John continued to grow in his faith, but he did not feel the call to ministry until about a year later while attending a bible study at his church. John's personal conviction to serve God combined with his pastor’s suggestion to pursue ministry led him to attend school at Liberty Bible College in Florida until 1980 before transferring and graduating from Eastern Mennonite college in 1981 with a degree in Theology. After graduation, John worked as a geography teacher at a Christian high school before graduating from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1985 with his MDiv. John married his wife, Shirley, that same year and began serving in a counseling capacity with Christian Counseling and Education Foundation. John went on to receive his DMin in Pastoral Counseling from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1989. While he loved the counseling role, John relates that he felt it was too focused on the remedial side of ministry – only helping to solve problems after the fact rather than working to prevent them. It was this idea which prompted him to switch from counseling to pastoring, leading John to Covenant Presbyterian Church in Richmond in 1998. He and his family have continued to serve at Covenant ever since.
For John, the gospel can be summed up into one word: Jesus. “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” 1 Corinthians 1:30-31. For John, the gospel is everything – it encompasses justification, sanctification, unification and even more than we could ever imagine. We have no ability or right to add our works to His work because the gospel is all about God’s overwhelming grace towards us. Salvation is by grace through faith, beginning with justification in the moment we are saved, continuing into sanctification as we walk along the path. Any good works we exhibit are merely fruits of the gospel’s work in our life. As John shares, we sometimes limit the gospel in its scope and power because we don’t know how to deal with sin as the source cause of our problems. The gospel is so necessary in life because it addresses the theology of the heart, in fact, what we are believing and valuing most in life. It is imperative then that we must understand all aspects of the gospel and how it impacts our lives, from understanding the truth of our old, sinful identity transformed into our new identity in Christ, to the real comprehension of God’s grace instead of our works. Once we understand this gospel, we can truly witness to others, fulfilling the great commission of making disciples of all nations as well as more perfectly fulfilling the Word’s emphasis on discipling and loving one another in the body. We are all accountable to God for those around us and under our care, from fathers and households, to brothers and sisters in Christ. We are called, non-optionally, to teach and preach the gospel as the one remedy for sin’s pervasiveness in our lives.
Vision for Covenant Presbyterian Church
John's ultimate goal for Covenant is discipleship in the truth of the gospel, teaching all those placed under his care to follow Christ whole-heartedly and faithfully in all spheres of life so that they in turn can witness the gospel to their children and others around them. Throughout his time at Covenant, John has tried to foster a model of church in which each person brings something to share, as expressed in 1 Corinthians 14:26 which says “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.” For John, church, the body of Christ is meant to be like a family, where each person comes and gives, serving a unified body to the glorification of God. At heart though, John's wish is just that all would continue to grow deeper into Christ, applying the gospel in right belief overflowing in Godly fruit.