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If you are a pastor, you cannot escape the unmistakeable call of spiritual leaders, in the New Testament to “feed the flock of God”:
- Jesus commissioned Peter to do “feed my sheep”, no less than three times, in that famous scene on the shores of Galilee (John 21:15-19)
- Jesus commissioned the disciples, in the Great Commission passage to “teach them all things I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:16)
- Paul commissioned the Ephesian elders to “tend to the whole flock” pointing this example of his unwillingness to shrink from “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:17-28)
- Peter urges church leaders to “feed the flock of God among you.”
- Paul instructed Timothy, in his last letter, “these things you have learned from me, commit to faithful men” (2 Timothy 2:2). He also urged him to “guard the deposit entrusted to you” (2 Timothy 1:14; 6:20). He also reminded Timothy of the usefulness of “all Scripture” as profitable for the spiritual well-being of God’s people (1 Timothy 3:16)
- Paul, in a rebuke to the Corinthians, discusses the need for people to have both “milk” and “meat” in their spiritual diets (1 Corinthians 3:2)
- The writer of Hebrews reminds us that a good teacher is able to both handle the deep things of God, but also teach them (Hebrews 5:11-12)
Preaching styles do differ, but it’s hard to argue the unmistakeable responsibility of pastors to take the whole counsel of God and preach it faithfully. To not give our people spiritual food, to not share with them the “all the things I have commanded you” is to commit spiritual malpractice. It’s to intentionally leave our people spiritually malnourished. And yet there is a temptation for pastors–I remember facing this weekly as a pastor–to sort of skip over or nuance the very hard passages. Or, more popularly, to not preach through issues that are at the tip of the cultural spear. Issues like a biblical sexual ethic, the dignity of human life, greed, materialism, and the prosperity gospel. It’s just easier to say things like, “We just want to love on people and be all about grace every Sunday.” But my question is this: if a new convert wants to know what it looks like to live out the gospel, where will he find it if he can’t find it in his church? We live in confused times, where the way of Christ cannot be assumed in popular culture anymore. So churches who tailor their preaching and services exclusively to not offend those they are trying to reach with the gospel will starve God’s people. I find it troubling when pastors sort of nuance or skip over passages that are counter-cultural.
We should talk about grace. A lot. Over and over and over again. But unless people see their need for grace. Unless they are confronted with the good law of God, they won’t see the bigness of the mercy God offers. They’ll assume that God loves them because that’s what God should do. That’s the Jesus they’ve been sold by much of the evangelical church, a sort of hipster, friendly, easy to digest Jesus who really isn’t all that concerned with morality and righteousness.
And those who have been restored and forgiven, made new by the blood of the cross, will never find the freedom of a life with Christ–if we never have the courage to tell them what that life looks like. Real love, Paul tells the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 6, is the courage tell them they are disobeying the call of the gospel. It’s to set a brother or sister aright.
Much of this can be done in community, in one-on-one gatherings, small group studies, phone conversations, reading of good books, car rides, late night talks, etc. But if God’s people never hear their pastor discuss these difficult things, things alien to a permissive moral culture, they won’t rise in importance. Pastors must feed their sheep the good spiritual food God intends for them.
I’ve always appreciated the humor of John Cleese. So, when I saw his autobiography at the library I quickly checked it out. I’ve known about Cleese’s frustration with organized religion and so I knew that this would be present in the book. But what I’ve come to appreciate more is the reason for Cleese’s frustration.
What gets my goat is that ‘Religion’ should be the most exciting topic of all. Is there an afterlife? Can we have a real purpose to our lives? How can we love our enemy, when it seems about as easy as levitating? To what extent is self-interest moral? Is there an experience of the divine that we can achieve? All the vital questions have been dumped in favour of half-baked, po-faced rituals which are basically a form of middle-class rain dance. Still, it did give me the chapel scene in The Meaning of Life. (So, Anyway…, 66)
I actually agree with much of what Cleese says here. I’m convinced that what Cleese hates about organized religion is something that should be despised; namely, an intellectually dishonest superstition parading itself around as absolute truth.
What saddens me about this whole thing is that Cleese has been given a wonderful straw man to pummel. His “Christian” education was vapid. And his teachers seem to have assumed the gospel and likely didn’t even own it much themselves. As Cleese noted earlier in the book, “Nothing was ever explained properly.”
He is painting with much too broad of a brush and in doing so has given himself a quick out to actually dealing with not only the serious components of Christianity but also the benefits of a gathered church.
This got me to thinking about the cost of dull preaching and teaching.
What happens when we assume the gospel rather than explaining it? What happens when we aren’t enthralled by the glories of Christ but merely teach it in the same way that one would teach math or history—as unconnected facts that have little bearing on your life today?
What happens is that you end up with a world filled with men like John Cleese. Men and women who have rejected a horribly jaded and shattered mirror of the precious gospel of Jesus and then walk around assuming that they’ve tasted the real thing and found it wanting.
I do not believe it is mere coincidence that the “Christianity” which Cleese experienced was a cultural Christianity that had long since rejected the miraculous. When you believe that you can somehow reject the Christ of history and hang on to the Christ of faith it is no wonder that what results is vapidity. When you’ve thrown away the substance for the ethereal it isn’t surprising that you no longer can speak boldly, substantively, and passionately.
And so as I read through the biography of Cleese, I’m saddened but I’m also encouraged. I’m encouraged to not become a dull preacher and teacher. I’m encouraged to hang on to the offensive bloody Cross of Christ and to do so with a passion.
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Matthew 10:38-39, “And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it”
Has God called you to the ministry?
After being raised by Christian parents and attending evangelical churches for 17 years (my whole life), I repented and trusted in Christ alone for my salvation. A year later, I believed I was called to ministry, made this belief public at Gum Springs Baptist Church in Walling, TN. Following a 10 month internship, and after being called to serve at another local church as youth pastor, Gum Springs ordained me to the gospel ministry. I can remember the excitement of my first ministry position. I was amazed at the privilege of preaching the gospel, and I couldn’t wait to help other Christians use their spiritual gifts, and make hundreds of disciples. My bubble was burst pretty quickly. I soon realized that not everyone in the church wanted to use their gifts to build up other Christians for God’s glory. I also realized that I had no power to bring sinners to repentance and faith in Christ.
So, you think you’re called to the ministry? Based on my experience, and in light of Scripture, here are three thoughts to consider before you enter the ministry:
1. Don’t be naive. The Greatest Pastor who ever lived and who still lives today–Jesus Christ–was abandoned by His Church as thugs took him to be crucified. He was betrayed into the hands of His enemies by his friend (Judas), a friend who called Him “Teacher” (Matt. 26:48-49). Do not be surprised when something similar happens to you. It’s only a matter of time. Pick up your torture device (cross), deny yourself, and follow Jesus (Matt. 16:24). All Christians and their leaders are called to this living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1-2).
2. Don’t expect more of yourself than God does. Don’t put some arbitrary worldly burden upon yourself concerning church growth. There is no “quota” in Scripture concerning church growth that you must reach every day, week, month, year, ten years, etc. You must remain faithful. Don’t make ministry harder than God does. Preach the Word and love God’s people.
Furthermore, don’t add qualifications for pastoral ministry to Scripture. As long as you meet the pastoral qualifications of Paul’s letters (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9), and other believers affirm your qualifications, you’re qualified for pastoral ministry (Also see David Murray’s Article “Am I Called to the Ministry”). You don’t have to be like Jerry Vines, Steve Gaines, Matt Chandler, David Platt, etc. to be qualified for pastoral ministry. Strive to guard your strengths and strengthen your weaknesses, but don’t disqualify yourself from ministry if God says you’re qualified according to His Scripture.
3. Don’t base your joy on your ministry. You may lead a church that is growing and flourishing, a true picture of God’s will being done “on Earth as it is in Heaven”; or, you may lead a church that is more like the church of Corinth in Scripture: immoral, immature, selfish, etc. Enjoy God regardless. Don’t buy into the American Dream and read that back into Scripture. God has called you to come and die, to come and bleed for His glory, for the sake of leading His people (1 Thess. 2:7-8). Consider it a privilege and a joy, even though the average American would be miserable in your vocation. The joy of ministry is not found in what you can see and evaluate, but in Whom you serve. He is unchanging. Therefore, rejoice in the Lord always (Phil. 4:4).
A few years after I entered the ministry, a man older than me shared that he believed God had called him to preach. He wept as he shared how unworthy he was of this privilege. I rejoiced with him, encouraged him, left, and repented, for I had lost some of the awe of the privilege of shepherding God’s people. Ministry is a privilege; and God’s grace is sufficient to sustain you, regardless what your “thorn in the flesh” may be (2 Cor. 12:7-10). The “thorn in the flesh” reminds you why you’re in ministry to begin with (God’s all sufficient grace).
Moreover, pastors are called to minister in some of the most joyful and sorrowful times in people’s lives (weddings, funerals, in health, in sickness, etc). An emotional roller coaster can quickly ensue, and one’s heart can become calloused, lacking no real mutual joy or empathy (Rom. 12:9-21; 1 Cor. 13:1-8; 2 Tim. 2:22-26). You should never become too familiar with the joy or sorrow of other Christians that you are incapable of mutual joy or empathy. There needs to be a real sense that when other Christians weep, you weep; and when other Christians rejoice, you rejoice (Rom. 12:15; 1 Cor. 12:26). This reality is true for all Christians, but ministers are often more intimately involved in these joyful and sorrowful situations.
Knowing the above things are true, do you still want to enter the ministry? Then God has probably called you. Rejoice and minister for His glory alone.
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Whenever I get in a writing slump I go back to these 5 tips from C.S. Lewis. Inevitably, I’m off on one or all of these points. Of particular interest to me as a pastor is Lewis’ fourth point:
In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”
The word “gospel” is becoming the terrible and delightful of Lewis’ day. We are becoming proficient at telling people gospel but not showing people gospel. And when I say “show the gospel” I’m not saying something like, “preach the gospel and when necessary use words”. What I mean is that we insert the word gospel here and there rather than showing the gospel.
“Whoa, this is incredibly good news” should be the response of our hearers. But far too often we are merely telling people that the gospel is good news without letting the gospel do its own work.
There is a big difference between saying in your sermon, “Christian, because of the gospel you are justified” and preaching in such a way that your hearer feels the flames of hell and then the glorious pronouncement of not guilty because of the shed blood of Christ. That is the difference between telling gospel and showing gospel.
The Importance of Telling
I am not intending to say that we ought to show the gospel and NOT also tell the gospel. While “show don’t tell” is a good maxim for writing, it is incomplete advice for preaching. We need statements like “Christian, because of the gospel you are justified”.
We need statements like that because we need to have words (simple and glorious words) to identify these great truths. If we don’t, then we’ll feel the gospel in our own hearts but leave nothing to communicate these truths to posterity. If we show without telling then the gospel will be assumed. Mack Stiles is correct, “to assume the gospel is the first step to losing the gospel”.
Telling is vital. But so is showing.
The Piper Experiment
In his book, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, John Piper reflects upon a sermon he preached from Isaiah 6. Piper felt led to preach on the “majesty and glory of such a great and holy God” but to do it without “one word of application to the lives of [his] people”.
Why did he do this? He wanted to answer this question:
Would the passionate portrayal of the greatness of God in and of itself meet the needs of the people?
In other words, would it be enough for him to show without telling?
After the sermon he learned that one of the families in his church had just discovered that their daughter had been sexually abused by a close relative. Piper’s test was hitting real life. Would a passionate portrayal of the greatness of God be enough to sustain this family?
Absolutely. After one service the father confided in Piper and said the thing that held them together all those days was “the vision of the greatness of God’s holiness”.
This is what I am talking about when I say that we need to become more proficient at showing the gospel. We need to preach on these glorious truths in such a way that people feel delighted instead of told that they ought to delight in the gospel.
So when the subject of your writing and preaching is the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ ask yourself whether or not you are showing AND telling this good news.
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It should not surprise any mature believer that the good news of Christ does not seem like good news to the hearer—while it does reveal the love of God, in reality it brings conviction and an awakening that is generally not accepted in an intolerant world—it’s always been this way. The proof that Jesus is Lord dissects people to the core. However, even though Scripture informs us that the preaching of the “Gospel is foolishness” to those who refuse to hear (1 Cor. 1:18), our shared commission (Matt 28:19) is to reach the lost and love the afflicted. Using Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, let me provide for you three examples of how to share the Gospel in the midst of a hostility.
First, let me briefly provide some backdrop to what has occurred, Paul states, “For you yourselves know, brothers, that our coming to you was not in vain. But though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict” (1 Thess. 2:1-2). Acts chapter 16 notes the beating with rods and imprisonment of Paul and Silas—this never deterred Paul, as after their release they moved onward to Thessalonica to share the Gospel of God.
1. The gospel Belongs to God.
Let’s start from the beginning. Yes, the gospel is good news, but it belongs to God. Several times Paul declares, “…the gospel of God” within a few sentences (1 Thess. 2:2; 2:8, 9); this is fantastic news for the believer because all of the pressure is off —meaning, you don’t have to worry about what to say—the gospel is unchangeable—the message is crystal clear—Jesus dies for the sins of mankind. Our duty is to think of ourselves as ambassadors (Eph. 6:20); we’re sharing the message of salvation to an enemy of God. And truthfully, we are (were) all enemies of God, at one point, in our rebellion and desire to do things our own way. The world is always going to be hostile towards the Gospel. The good news that we are delivering belongs to God and is about God—and because we know what the message says, we should be persuaded all the more (2 Cor. 5:11), to present it with love.
2. Share as a Loving Mother.
When I was young I used to climb up onto my mother’s lap and feel confidently secure. This is the image Paul paints for the Thessalonians and one we should admire, he states, “We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1 Thess 2:7). The transformation of a believer’s heart is one which pulled out anger, envy, and jealousy (Gal. 5:20) and replaced it with love, joy, and peace (Gal.5:22). Paul mentions this aspect to the Thessalonians and states the reason why we share the good news of Christ is not to “please man, but to please God, who tests our hearts” (1 Thess. 2:4). Here’s one tip that I use; each time I am sharing the gospel with someone, I recite to myself, “You are speaking to the former you.” This means that if we can remember who we were, or that God has solely forgiven us through Jesus Christ—then “love controls us” (2 Cor. 5:14). We share the gospel to feed the malnourished soul.
3. Share Yourself.
Paul reminds the Thessalonians of how earnestly he desired that they know Jesus Christ. “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thess. 2:8). We must get to know people and share ourselves. As the old adage says, “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” There is truth to these words and they’re illustrated in Paul’s letter. He states that the Thessalonians had become dear to him—that doesn’t happen without building relationships. Paul “worked night and day” (1 Thess. 2:9) to provide his own way while he was there, so as to not burden them. Basically, Paul wanted the gospel to be presented in the fullness of love.
So, while this is not an exhaustive approach, nor the only approach, it is a Biblical one and can yield lasting disciple making relationships. This is an especially good model for church planting among non-believers. But, we should always remember that the world hated Christ and that we are not here to win popularity contests, but “exhort, encourage” and help people “walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls [us] into his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thess. 2:12).
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The young man was absolutely smitten by her. But I knew, and I think deep down he knew, that he was stuck in the friend zone. She considered him a dear friend but nothing more.
But she never had the painful conversation with him. She never told him that their chances of being together were about as likely as being struck by lightning and winning the lottery on the same day.
And so he stayed in limbo. She knew his intentions but she didn’t do anything with them. She left him always wondering about her intentions. As a result he was never sure if he was totally free to pursue others.
Why did she keep the door open? Why didn’t she just crush him with the truth of her intentions—or lack thereof? Truth be told she liked having him in her pocket. If they had the conversation it would change things forever. He’d move on. And she wouldn’t have him as a fall back option. So she kept him on the hook just in case her other options fell through.
Churches, sadly, do the same thing to prospective pastors.
Back in July, Thom Rainer wrote an article on five pleas from pastors to search committees. One of them got particular attention in the comments:
“Please stay in touch with me.”
In other words don’t be like the girl who keeps a good friend in her pocket just in case the other options fall through. As soon as a person is no longer considered they should be contacted via email. It’d take about 15 minutes for someone to compile all the emails of the candidates. And about 3 minutes to send a mass email to let them know they are no longer being considered.
A Personal Anecdote
About five years ago when we were moving from Missouri to Louisville a particular church was in contact with us about coming on board. They requested an audio sermon. We weren’t set up very well for recording sermons but we figured out a way to get a couple sermons recorded.
I sent the audio to the church and heard NOTHING. Of course they may not have received the sermon. But I wouldn’t know that either because they never responded to my email where I inquired as to whether or not they had received the sermon.
So my only assumption was that they must have hated the sermon, thought I was terrible and that I was a heretic. I’m exaggerating a bit, but it was incredibly discouraging.
About six months later they contacted me and I learned the truth. The search committee was smitten by another prospective pastor. They liked his sermon better and so began the process of calling him to be the pastor. They went through the whole process only to be rejected by this prospective pastor.
So, naturally, they called up their option #2. Me. They had been keeping me in their pocket just in case the other fella didn’t work out. But much to their disappointment their #2 guy had also already moved on.
I don’t believe that pastor search committees are intentionally doing this to prospective pastors. Many of them are probably new to the process of calling a pastor. And it is likely that none of them have never been a prospective pastor and so they don’t know what it is like on the other end.
We need to educate our people on how to call a prospective pastor even while we are still there. These things need to be taught because this entire process is broken and needs to be fixed. Being faithful to communicate with prospective pastors is a huge step in the right direction.
So really this is a plea to pastors. Educate your people on the process. Prepare them for your departure.
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