St. Louis Pastor Confronts Progressive Culture: ‘You’re Either Going to Conform or You’re Going to Stand Out and Be Controversial’
Wes Martin is the lead pastor at Grace Church in St. Louis, where he’s led his congregation through the turbulent times of COVID-19 and some of the political debates that have shaped our society over the last couple of years.
Martin spoke to The Daily Signal about his church’s mission and why he’s boldly confronting the progressive culture that’s undermining traditional American values.
Listen to our interview on “The Daily Signal Podcast” or read a lightly edited transcript below.
Rob Bluey: Wes, thanks so much for joining us.
Wes Martin: You bet. I’m real excited to be on here with you and just talk about some of the things that are challenging us, but at the same time, stirring us up and leaning into the Lord’s faithfulness. So it’s good stuff.
Bluey: We have a loyal Daily Signal subscriber, Allen Muench, who is a parishioner and has shared some of your videos. I commend you for making them available publicly for all of us to watch and hear the inspirational message that you bring to your congregation each and every week. Please share with our listeners about your journey and what led you to become the lead pastor at Grace Church.
Martin: I’m originally from Southern Illinois. I was born again in my early 20s. I met my wife, and her and I did missions work and worked at a church out of Kansas City for years. And we met here close to St. Louis, so St. Louis was kind of always our stomping grounds, and of course our families are both in Illinois.
And we came across Grace Church years, probably been 10 years now, and Grace is one of the kind of the staple churches in the city. Been here almost 45 years. Our senior pastor, founding pastor, Ron Tucker, started the church in his 20s in his parents’ basement, just down the road from where our campus is at, in the late ’70s, early ’80s. And it grew to a bigger church right out of the gate. And Ron and Debbie’s been just some faithful shepherds here in the city for years.
And so when I began to know them and get a relationship and the Lord opened up a door for us to move here, it’s been seven years ago now, just connectedness. It’s an amazing church. It’s a very diverse church racially and age-wise. And yeah, so I jumped in with them and then over the course of the last seven years, it just became clear to all of us and the Lord put me in as the lead pastor, been over, let’s say, about two years now.
And so Ron is still here, still our founding senior pastor. We always tell people the baton has kind of been in both of our hands right now. And I’m telling the younger guys, “Hey, our future rests on honoring those that have gone before us.” So it’s been a good journey, real good journey.
Bluey: Congratulations on the success you’ve had. One of the things that we often hear about is how fewer and fewer Americans are identifying with religion or are losing faith. And yet you have seen a tremendous growth at Grace Church. What are some of the things that you’re doing to inspire your congregation and draw new people to your church?
Martin: I think that No. 1 is, in such trying times, with cultural confusion and a growing immorality in our society, you’re either going to conform or you’re going to stand out and be controversial, unfortunately. And unfortunately, it’s controversial, but it’s biblical.
And I think one of the things that I’m grateful for, for the generation that has gone before us here and even in our founding pastor, in Ron Tucker, is just a bold commitment to biblical truth, no matter the cost. And when things do get darker, the good thing about light is that light gets brighter.
And that’s our goal, that’s our hope, is that our light will get brighter as the church stands on biblical truth and biblical morality and allegiance to Jesus. And hopefully that people will begin to see that light and be drawn to it and see people get saved, lives transformed, and the goodness of biblical values go deep into families’ lives. That’s our prayer.
Bluey: One of the things that I’ve heard you say in some of the videos that I’ve been able to watch is that Ron, who you’ve talked about founding the church and being the senior pastor, really saw things coming before, I think, a lot of people did, including yourself, you’ve made that reference. What is it about his foresight that has led to this interest in Grace Church and what are you doing differently or what was he doing differently that really inspired so many people in St. Louis to pay attention?
Martin: Yeah, that’s quite the story. Ron, back in the day, in the late ’70s, early ’80s, when he was in his 20s and planning the church, the stories that I’ve heard about him, he’s always had just that intuitive spirit, just that connection with the Lord, to always be able to see things that were coming down the pike and be willing to be bold and lean into the Lord.
And so in the ’80s, for example, Grace was known as one of the leading churches in the worship—I don’t know if you want to call it a revolution, but there was definitely a brand new expression in the worship world within the church. And that’s really what put Grace on the map then. And he was at the forefront of that.
So years ago, of course, Grace has always been vocal around issues of morality as it relates to abortion, as it relates to marriage. Ron and the team were very clear on that and a lot of churches were. But then in 2020 with COVID and then George Floyd, it was just different. There was something in the air and we couldn’t put your finger on it. And we shut down like everybody else did for about a month.
But then the shutdowns wanted to continue, and then there was the debates, and then George Floyd happened, and then this rush of social justice pressure. And you couldn’t put your finger on it, but something didn’t smell right. And Ron just really began to lean in, and the Lord met him and really gave him a heads up that there was—I mean, the way we explain it is, basically, a snake in the henhouse, as it relates to a false teaching of social justice and critical theory and Marxism.
And of course, then, none of us on staff and even Ron never even really paid attention to any of those things. But he began to do a deep dive and get equipped and hear from other sources and, of course, look at the Scriptures and realized that this worldview, based in critical theory and Marxism, all throughout the social justice, Black Lives Matter, now, of course, gender theory, all of these things are just flat-out unbiblical, and not just unbiblical, but anti-gospel.
And he was able to sniff that out and I mean, just like a bird dog. And he just locked in on it. And like you said, it wasn’t smooth sailing, it was incredibly politically incorrect. So a lot of our people, including me and our staff, were kind of like, “Man, Ron, are you sure?” And praise God for his graciousness, he kind of pulled us along. And then, of course, over time, I think one of the things that’s happening is people are beginning to see it clearer and clearer and clearer.
And that’s what has brought us to this point. So for the last two years, the shift has been that we have been unrelenting in exposing what we would call a false teaching in society, poison that many churches are even entertaining. But we have just decided that we’re going to be unrelenting in calling this stuff out because this worldview is unrelenting in coming after us and our children and trying everything in its power to be an accepted worldview in American society right now.
Bluey: I give you a lot of credit and praise for that. I mean, you make no secret of it, that you’re confronting this progressive culture that is infecting so many aspects of American life and the institutions that I think Americans in the past came to as sources of trust and today are now questioning them.
One of the things that I know has happened locally is that it’s generated some headlines for you and maybe a share of controversy. But despite that, and this is something that I’ve heard you talk about, you’ve had the courage to move forward and move beyond that and not let those detractors dissuade you from seeking the truth of God’s word.
So what is it about, when you are in a situation like that, what is it that gives you the courage?
Martin: I think it’s because you have to either believe the Scriptures or you don’t. And once you have settled it in your heart that you’re going all-in with the truth of Scripture as it relates to sexuality, as it relates to gender, as it relates to marriage, and then also American history as the role of the church in American society.
Our Founders knew that this unique republic would only work if there was a morality, specifically a kind of a God-centered morality, that’s the only way it would work. And the role of the church and the Founding Fathers in the early days of America, the church is where we discussed civic engagement and policy and politics, if you will. And then somewhere along the line, the church drank the Kool-Aid that we weren’t to be political, and that separation of church and state and that whole idea has been so confused.
And many of the church, including me, and for many years of my faith, we’ve been duped by that. And so when we realize that the role of the church as it relates to the moral fabric of our nation, it’s the pulpits, it’s critical for us, in the pulpits and preachers and teachers of the Bible to be very vocal, very bold. And that has to include politics. That’s the area.
It affects all of our congregations, real policies, things that our kids are dealing with. It’s the one area that we should, in my opinion, sometimes affect the most because we want to see that biblical standard of morality in that area of life, in that area of civic engagement.
So we see the rightness of Scripture, No. 1. And then the second thing is the role of the church as it relates to morals in society and in politics. And if we see those two things as being right, then we’re locking in because it’s right.
Bluey: One of the things that you do to bring that message to your congregation and others who tune in online is have some fairly dynamic speakers come and address. And you most recently had my colleague here at The Heritage Foundation, Delano Squires, address the congregation on Saturday and Sunday.
And tell us about the unique aspect of that because, frankly, I don’t know that many churches are moving in that direction. But really, it was compelling to hear you interview him and have that conversation, which is very relevant to all of our lives in this day and age.
Martin: I tell you, I mean, Delano Squires, that guy just hit it out of the park.
So, Ron and I, for the last two years we’ve been saying this, but here’s the way it works. Sometimes people will receive a certain message when it comes from a particular person, and most preachers will understand this. You could preach on any given topic over and over and over again, and then your congregation or a few congregants will hear the same message from a different person and it’s like all of a sudden the lights turn on.
So we understand that dynamic. We’re all like that. We can receive from different people for whatever reason. So we decided this last year that we’re going to find people that are like-minded brothers and sisters in the Lord that have also been fearless in engaging the cultural wars. And we’re going to reach out to them and say, “Hey, come and help us.” Come in and be almost like, not a backup, but just another voice saying the same thing. Reinforcement, that’s the word I was looking for.
So we’ve reached out. Charlie Kirk has been here this last year. We’ve reached out and Bill Federer, David Barton, these are all guys that are speaking in the culture and also stirring the church to not be silent.
And so we came across Delano, I think he was on a podcast with Jason Whitlock and “Fearless,” and we say, “Oh my goodness, here’s a guy that’s in D.C., a black man, I think he’s 40, that is being incredibly clear and bold.” And we reached out, it worked out.
And Delano, he spent time with about 40 or 50 leaders on Saturday morning and then I interviewed just his journey of how he has come to this place of being at the point of the arrow in the midst of these cultural wars, with an incredible biblical worldview, committed to Jesus, committed to the Scriptures, and bold as all get-out.
And so we’re committed to continue it. Even looking at the schedule in 2023, we’re just going to continue to bring people in that are committed to not be silent and to be willing to take the cost. Because there is a cost. It’s very, like I said earlier, politically incorrect. But we have to. We have to stay clear to what the truth is so that we don’t begin to dilute and back away from the truth.
So I’m super grateful for Delano and super excited that he’s there at The Heritage Foundation with you-all now.
Bluey: We certainly are as well. We are delighted that he’s joined the team.
Wes, the reason that you and I first connected was actually, I heard a conversation between Ron Tucker and yourself about an event you went to with Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA. And it was really eye-opening to hear you describe it and the people that he brought together from across the country and the good work that was being done over that weekend. Can you share with our listeners about that experience and what your takeaways were?
Martin: Charlie Kirk was a guy I’ve been somewhat familiar with for the last couple years, young kid, and I knew he was really bright. He goes on these college campuses, he engages and challenges young people to think critically.
So we had him here in the spring of this year, I think it was April or May, just for a Sunday night. Had about a couple thousand people. I didn’t know what to expect, I never met him personally. The same kind of thing. I interviewed him the way I interviewed Delano.
And I tell you, just first off, I was over-the-top impressed. I mean, Charlie’s only 28 years old. He has a company called Turning Point in Phoenix, Arizona, about 300 employees full-time. Not bad for a 28-year-old. And fully engaged, just a biblical worldview, loves Jesus, committed to the Christian life.
I tell you what I was most impressed with him, though, was his character and the spirit in which he carried was very humble, very godly. The way he interacted with Ron and Debbie and just those that have gone before us in a very respectful, honoring way.
And so he told me, he said, “Hey, I’m gathering about a couple hundred pastors in San Diego in August. Would love for you to come along.” He actually had somebody underwrite the whole thing, so all the speakers, probably about 30 speakers, couple hundred pastors and our wives, they paid the bill for all of it. I mean, airfare, hotel, all the speakers for three days.
And I’m telling you, we went from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. And business leaders, bankers, a few politicians, pastors, all committed to the Lord, because in Turning Point there is what they call Turning Point Faith. I think there’s about 50 employees that are specifically engaged on helping the church to be mobilized and engaged in the cultural wars.
And so I think the biggest thing that encouraged me was seeing people, whether it be in business or whether it be in the church world from pastors, that are willing to take the heat and willing to be unpopular or have smear campaigns from various articles, or people like Vice News writing bad things about them or in their local papers, and not conforming, not bowing the knee, not backing away, but staying true to Jesus with a spirit of humility and yet confronting lies that are all over our culture.
I was inspired and lit up because courage stirs up courage. And so I went away from that weekend thinking, “You know what? We’ve been on this journey”—because sometimes you can feel you’re all alone and pastors will say, “Man, I’m glad you’re doing it,” but then kind of back away from you, that kind of thing.
But I came back from that weekend encouraged that, you know what? The Lord has people all over this nation that are bold and courageous, filled with the spirit of God and not afraid right now and leaning in.
And so, yeah, I came back from that, like you said, Ron was asking me all about it and I was definitely encouraged coming back from that weekend. He’s actually having another one, from what I hear. I think he’s doing one in Nashville coming up in May.
Bluey: That’s exciting. They’re the next generation who are going to be leading this country. And so those of us at The Daily Signal and The Heritage Foundation are enthusiastic supporters of the good work that organization’s doing. And I’m glad to hear about the experience being so positive, that’s fantastic.
Wes, what is your advice to those who might be listening or reading this interview and either are seeking a church home or maybe are that increasing percentage of Americans who have lost faith in God? What do you say to them at this time when there does seem to be so much division in our country and a loss of hope about the future?
Martin: First of all, it’s important to know that in our culture and in our country, that the Bible is growing more and more unpopular, or really, in the sense of being hostile toward a secular worldview that’s coming straight from our Oval Office, a lot of our politicians. There is an absolute test right now on the validity of Scripture. And the Scriptures have definitely lasted the test of time.
And so, as far as the integrity and the validity of the Scriptures, there’s nothing new under the sun. It’s not changed. God’s word is still infallible and trustworthy and Jesus is still saving and redeeming people, no matter the junk that we find ourselves in. That’s the good news of the gospel. However, right now, the church is seemingly to be confused and a lot of pulpits are backing away because some of these biblical truths are “politically incorrect.”
So I would encourage people, No. 1, to find a church and be drawn into a community of people that aren’t afraid to stand on the validity of the Bible, where they’re preaching the truth no matter the cost.
The Bible says that the truth will set us free. It’s not our version of truth, it’s truth that can endure the test of time. It’s truth that is based on the validity of what Jesus has spoken, what the word has spoken.
I feel so compelled right now to make sure people are finding themselves in a family of people, a spiritual family, where the truth is being spoken. Because it is this truth that will actually set us free from the entanglement of the lies that are being perverted right now so much in our culture.
At the same time, not to be afraid, for those that are on the fence in the church, Christians that are afraid of the truth because it’s growing more and more hostile, I would say this. I would say, guys, we are born for such a time as this. And when we lean in and let God help us deal with that fear of man that all of us are sometimes susceptible to, the grace of God that will touch our hearts and our minds to give us clarity, to give us conviction and boldness, will absolutely surprise us.
I’m not a kind of guy that goes looking for conflict. That’s not my personality. Yet, through this, taking a stand and being bold, I have felt the nearness of God’s presence in a way that I don’t think I ever have. And that is the Lord’s grace for anybody right now that calls upon his name and is willing to stand upon the truth of the Scriptures.
Bluey: Thank you for that. And thank you for all you’re doing to bring that message to so many people, again, there in St. Louis, but are probably across the world who tune into your videos and the other content that you produce.
And finally, Wes, I just want to give you an opportunity to share a little bit more about how our listeners can learn more about Grace Church, how they can find some of the content online, and if they are interested in either watching a service over the weekend or a guest speaker like a Delano Squires, how do they do that?
Martin: We stream just about everything we do. Every weekend is streamed on our Facebook page. You can just look up Grace Church St. Louis. Our YouTube page as well. We’ve been thrown in YouTube jail a couple times, but mostly, we’re still on there. Or just our website, www.gracestl.org. You can find the archives of different speakers that we’ve had in here. We stream live every weekend.
And I also wanted to say this as well, one thing that we’ve done with Turning Point, Turning Point Faith offers chapters, we actually have one here at Grace Church, where they will actually come and help churches to have some real practical steps on engaging their congregation within some of these hot-topic cultural issues. Great resources, a team of young people that are helping our young people to be informed and engaged. They’ve really been a help to us as we’ve taken on this journey in the last couple years.
Bluey: I know I am enthusiastic about the work that you’re doing and I hope that others follow the model that you’ve helped establish here because I think it is so critical for our churches to play a role and not disengage. I will make sure that we leave some links to your church and the YouTube page and the other content that people can certainly download and take a look at. And Wes, thanks to you, thanks to Pastor Ron, and everybody else there at Grace Church for helping us see the truth and bringing these issues to the surface.
Martin: I appreciate the time, man. I think it’s incredible just to link arms with you guys, knowing that you’re taking the same stand and being bold and courageous. So grace, grace, man. God bless you.
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