Archive for the ‘Congregational Life’ Category

Reformation: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

I recently read Carl Trueman’s Reformation: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.  This powerful little book offers some great  insights into various topics including preaching.  Here are a few excerpts from Professor Trueman’s book (republished by Christian Focus Publications).

The sermon: God’s Method

For those, however, standing in the line of the Reformers, humanity, even in its highest natural spiritual exercises, is in a state of utter rebellion against God, and no elaborate string of words, no compelling argument, no passionate speech will ever bring a single individual to Christ.  It is only as those words bring with them the Holy Spirit of God bearing witness to Christ that the sermon becomes adequate to its task.  Thus, we preach, we speak the words of God not because this is the marketing method most likely to appeal to the unbeliever but simply because this is God’s appointed means of coming to individuals and bringing them to faith.  Indeed, precisely because it is so weak and hopeless by the world’s standards, it brings that much more glory to God when souls are saved and lives turned round through this medium.

Of course we must use language with which the congregation is familiar; of course we must be aware that we are talking to people in the twenty-first century and not the sixteenth; and of course we must be culturally sensitive in what we say; but preach we must because this is God’s chosen means of spreading the news of the kingdom.  Preaching is not just a communication technique, and must never be considered as such; it is bringing the very words of God to bear upon the life and needs of sinners and of the congregations of God’s people.  For this reason, if for no other, the sermon must remain central in our worship…..

When preaching fails

Furthermore, it is surely no coincidence that the marginalizing of the sermon is evangelical life has led not so much to a collapse in zeal for the gospel – for there are many, particularly young people, who come from churches where preaching is not central yet have an enviable zeal – but has led to a dramatic decline among the laity in knowledge of exactly what that gospel is.  Working with evangelical students, it never ceases to astound me how little some of them know.  Yes, they love Christ and trust him for forgiveness; but ask them why they have confidence that he forgives them or what the cross achieved, and one is often confronted with a reply which speaks about some nebulous experience or feeling which they have rather than a reference to the cross or to covenant promises.

The reason for this lack is almost always their church background: fellowships where great emphasis may well be placed upon a vital and vibrant Christian life but where preaching is at a discount.  The result is that their minds are empty of great Christian truths and their faith has less than fully stable foundations, being built on pious experiences rather than a well-thought-out biblical and doctrinal worldview rooted in the identity of God himself as found in his revelation.  We need to know that we can be confident that God is faithful because of what he has done throughout history, not because we ourselves had some experience at some point in time; and how are we to know this unless somebody tells us?

The preacher’s responsibility

The first thing that a preacher needs to realize, therefore, is the seriousness of the task he is undertaking:  on his shoulders rests the responsibility of giving his people solid rock on which to build their lives; and in preaching, he is moving the divine Word of God from the divinely inspired text through the words of his sermon to the hearts and minds of his people.  He is thus handling, so to speak, the Word of God, something which is both an immense privilege and an awesome responsibility.

He must therefore take care that he gets it right and that his attitude towards the task is one appropriate to its gravity.  As Richard Baxter declared, ‘I preached as a dying man to dying men.’ The pulpit was thus no place for clowning or levity or entertaining his congregation; every Sunday it was a place where, perhaps for the last time, he had an opportunity of speaking to men and women about the great things of God.  We, of course, live in age where entertainment is one of the be-all-and-end-alls of life; but Christianity is always to an extent counter-cultural, and this is one point on which we cannot afford to be anything else.

The preaching ministry is thus something which should not be entered into lightly; nor is the sermon something which either minister or congregation should approach in a light or trivial manner.  The preacher has the responsibility of both expounding God’s truth and of doing so in a manner which confronts his congregation with the awesomeness of God’s greatness and holiness and the vastness of his grace and love.

It takes, therefore, a particular kind of man with a particular calling to perform this task.

Jack of all trades, master of none

He’s the “Jack of all trades, master of none.”  I am referring of course to the role of Senior Pastor.  As the ‘leader among leaders’ I am responsible for providing overall oversight to all the ministries that make up the First Baptist Church of Freeport.  That does not mean however that my hand is equally deep in every pot.  I certainly embrace the plural leadership model but now I digress.

I am going on year four as the lead pastor/elder at FBC, Freeport.  My main task is to “feed Jesus’ sheep” (John 21:17).  To “devote myself to prayer, and to the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:4).  To “preach the Word, in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2).  I am also responsible to shepherd the flock of God  (1 Peter 5:1-4) with my fellow undershepherds; and to provide pastoral oversight (1 Thessalonians 5:12, Hebrews 13:17, 1 Timothy 5:17).

When I graduated from seminary I sort of thought that I would finally be able to read what I wanted to read rather than simply digest what my professors asked me/us to take in.  That assumption is partially right.  For example I am currently reading Rick Holland’s, Uneclipsing the Son, Earl Blackburn’s, Jesus Loves the Church and So Should You, Douglas Bond’s, The Mighty Weakness of John Knox, and Carl Trueman’s, Reformation; Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow for my soul’s sake.  Those books or authors peaked my interest and so upon purchasing them I evidentially got around to reading them.

This might surprise you but most ordinary pastors are not seminary professors.  Very few of us are subject matter experts on anything.  I love to study church history but I am certainly no Iain Murray or Nate Busenitz.   I love systematic theology but I am no Ph D.  I enjoy studying the original languages but I am most definitely not a Bill Barrick, a Bill Mounce, or an Abner Chou.

Part of this comes back to my opening sentence.  We local church pastors are the “Jack of all trades, master of none.”  For example, over the past few years I have read Singing and Making Music, Worship Matters, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns, and parts of Christ-Centered Worship.  Why?  If I am going to provide helpful biblical oversight to a local church ministry in need of some TLC then I need to educate myself accordingly.

The same thing is true with my expository pulpit ministry.  I am currently preaching through Colossians 3:17-4:1 (the Lordship of Christ in Relationships).   When I finished my exegesis of verses 18-19 I then turned my attention to commentaries and to helpful books on marriage.  That meant over the past few weeks I’ve read or reread Feminine Appeal, Biblical Womanhood in the Home, and parts of Radical Womanhood and the Exemplary Husband.

I am also involved each year in a leadership training and development ministry at our church.   This particular ministry is exclusively geared towards our men (leaders and future leaders, per 2 Timothy 2:2).  Guess what?  That means that I need to reread the books that Pastor Steve and I are asking our guys to read.  So I am enjoying (again) books like When Good Kids Make Bad Choices, The Master’s Plan for the Church, Stop Dating the Church, Blame it on the Brain, He Is Not Silent, The New Testament Deacon, Grudem’s Systematic Theology etc, etc.

As the Senior Pastor I am also involved in various counseling relationships.  This means my wife and I may be enjoying for the eighth time the wonderful teaching of The Excellent Wife or the Exemplary Husband .  Or I may be reading with a counselee At the Altar of Sexual Idolatry or Shepherding a Child’s Heart.

At the end of the day what I thought six years ago when I graduated from seminary was only partially true.  I not only get to read what I want to read but I also read and study what I need to read and study.  That is one of the reasons why most of us pastors are indeed “the Jack of all trades, masters of none.”

Pastoral questions about the Mahaney situation

As this blog begins to grow a few gray hairs I have tried to guide the ship away from internet icebergs. When it comes to church controversies being played out on the internet, I believe the majority of the issues come down to matters of the local church. The best advice I can give a younger pastor is to stay away from controversies that are not impacting your particular church. Keep your head down, preach the Word, love the people, stay out of politics. Generally speaking, this should serve you well.The opposite of this is currently being played out on the internet and in the circles of the restless-reformed crowd. Here are a few questions that come to mind:

Where are the Elders?

When the news first broke that C. J. Mahaney was taking a leave of absence, one of my church members read his letter and asked me, “where are his church’s elders in all of this?” I read the letter too and noticed that Mahaney made numerous references to ministry boards (Sovereign Grace), outside counselors (Sande, Powlison), and pastors of other churches (Dever) but not a single word about his church membership and requisite accountability to his local church’s leadership. The biblical model for church governance is local church elders. Not a CEO, not a board of trustees, not a hierarchical system, not a senior pastor and his staff, not a Seminary president, and certainly not a deacon-run church. There are two offices and they are elders and deacons. All elders are to be spiritually qualified (1 Tim 3; Titus 1) and the main focus of their ministry is the Word and shepherding the flock (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet 5). Their authority is limited to their own congregations, which is to act as the pillar and support of the truth (1 Tim 3:15). My understanding is that no one gets an exemption from the biblical model (Heb 13:17).

Why is it public?

I believe the public way both the accusers and the accused are handling this is unbiblical. It is a sad tale that even the unbelieving world has picked-up on and are now finding yet another reason to mock the foolishness of Christians. This situation is not wholly unlike the issue of lawsuits in 1 Corinthians 6. “Is there not one wise man among you who can decide between his brothers, but brother goes against brother, and that before unbelievers?” Any pimple-faced kid with a keyboard can launch an assault from his parent’s basement but this doesn’t mean that every accusation must be answered in kind. Even when the accuser is a former pastor who should know better, it is not necessary to take a response public. This is almost never helpful and I’m trying to think of a single example where this has worked out well for anyone.

How is their theology serving them?

All this brings me to a key conclusion about this ordeal. The issue is not one of methodology but theology. It is always theology that informs methodology, whether good or bad. This situation reveals a subjective theology built on feelings, impressions, and some sort of weird contortion of the apostolic office. Jesse Johnson has written an insightful essay on these issues (see here). The letters and their responses reveal a paltry understanding of the doctrine of the Church, Spiritual Gifts, Sanctification, Forgiveness, and the basics of letter writing (that last one is a preference).

Some of the documents that have been “leaked” to the internet make Julian Assange look like a novice. The details are carefully dated and footnoted as if to say, “See we have footnotes, this makes it official!” I keep waiting any day now for an internet bombshell to detail the results of Mahaney’s latest physical exam. I guess we’ll have to wait for that one. However, what I have read has left me asking, “Really, is this it?” Is this worthy of the name of Christ? Is this what being “coalitioned” and “together” for the Gospel looks like? After decades of ministry, is this finishing well? I believe this can be turned around but it would take a reformation of ministry, theology, and practice of monumental proportions. One hopes that cooler and more biblicaly minded heads will prevail but as for now, it’s difficult to see if that will happen.

As a pastor this highlights for me, in a real way, the importance of training effective leaders, teaching biblical theology, and putting it all to practice amidst the flock. There is no need for me or anyone to aim more arrows at the situation, it’s already a mess without more sinners getting in the way. What we can do is pray, learn, and redouble our efforts in the places where the Lord of the Church has allotted us ministry.

It’s called “pastor-teacher” for a reason

In his new memoir Outsider Looking In, Gary Wills, leftist intellectual and former conservative journalist, made an interesting observation about politicians who try to become academics after they leave office.

“Politicians live for contact with people. They lose the gift for contemplation, or research, or simple reading. Being alone with a book is a way to die for many of them.”

Real shepherds know the sheep, live with the sheep, and even eat the same sheep food. This sort of life demands both public engagement with real people and meaningful private moments alone with piles of books. In churches we have code language that goes something like this. If the guy is warm and friendly but can’t preach to save his life, it is said of him that “he has a pastor’s heart.” Conversely, many wonderfully skilled expositors are nothing more than full-time conference speakers who drop into their congregations most Sundays and deliver a conference-like message. In short, if our vocation hovers anywhere near the end of Ephesians 4:11 we need to embrace the full weight of what it means to be a pastor and the commitment involved for those who are called to teach the Word. Are you a pastor or a teacher? The answer should be “both.”

Prayers for Children

Thanks to John Starke for his realistic article Teaching Children the Gospel in Everyday Prayers. In the same vein, I have penned a few dinner prayers for my children that try to accomplish a few things: 1) address various attributes of the Father, 2) teach a simple theology, and 3) focus on Jesus. For the sake of aiding memory they also rhyme and they’re short. Enjoy!

 

Thankfulness

Everlasting Father,

We thank you for the Way.

We thank you for the Truth.

We thank you for the Life . . .

Jesus, who we bless tonight.

Amen

 

Torah

Holy Father,

You teach us to love

You teach us to give

You teach us to follow

Now teach us to live

For Jesus our Lord

Amen.

 

Provision

Gracious Father,

You give us daily bread

Through Jesus we are led

Our cares and worries we bring

Help this our hearts to sing

To Jesus our Savior

Amen.

 

The Trellis and the Vine

What makes a great preacher?

Preacher types, like us, predictably toss around the phrase “he’s a great preacher” like hippies throwing a frisbee on the quad. It just sort of goes with the territory. The frequency of such statements seems to increase when Bible conferences are in session. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the phrase but it seems to mask the emphasis of Scripture.

Depending on how you understand the Greek construction at the end of Ephesians 4:11, Paul seems to be calling us “pastor-teachers.” It might even be worth meditating on the order of that. Also joining the chorus is Peter who says elders are to “shepherd the flock of God among you” (1 Pet 5:2). In sum I think it’s worth reminding ourselves that the dirty work of the sermon is forged not only in the study but in giving your life to the sheep. If we carry-out Peter’s flock analogy, do we honestly think the sheep are comforted and corrected merely by our words? The presence and detailed care of a shepherd(s) is what bolsters the weight of the various admonitions.

Think of the last time you tossed out the “great preacher” phrase. Is your favorite preacher a great pastor to his sheep? Do you even know how he treats his congregation? Do you know if his fellow leaders respect his work amongst the sheep? I realize that if you stare long enough at a Rembrandt you will discern flaws in the work no matter how excellent the piece appears. The more I have reflected on this in my own life and ministry, it seems that the men who are exemplary in shepherding and preaching are rarely on tour. They’re not out building ministries their doing ministry.Your more likely to find them sweating it out every week in their own pulpits and with their own congregations. We need to avoid a critical spirit when we think about this but wouldn’t it be great if all the “great preachers” of our generation were even greater pastors?

How to preach when your wife has cancer (or some other “distraction”): Part Two

See Part One here.

1. Review your history

As a minister of the gospel you will inevitably encounter “distractions.” The word distraction for our purposes is a fluid term. Right now, I am easily distracted by the fact that my wife has cancer. I can be knee-deep in a riveting exercise of exegetical study only to have this fact surface in my thoughts and derail the project for a spell. This reality drops in for a visit at the most unexpected times and rarely does it knock.

I realize that not everyone is dealt the same measure of distractions but they are sure to come in one shape or another.  These things, as they say, go with the territory. Our territory as ministers of the gospel is the local church. I think we can rightly infer from Matthew 16:18 that the church will persevere by the grace of God but it will also endure Hell in the process. Brother, you will endure difficulty in the ministry. Those who fail to see this are like those who believe the Army recruiter really wants them to see the world and meet interesting people. However, in fine print at the bottom of the pamphlet is something about bullets being fired at your head.

A great encouragement in persevering through pain is that you stand near the end of a long line of faithful saints. How you endure ministerial suffering today can be a reflection on your understanding of the past. It is incumbent upon us to keep our fingers on the pulse of those who endured before us. The writer of Hebrews says that we receive a kingdom that cannot be shaken from its foundation (Heb 12:28) and because of this the Lord is our helper and there’s no reason to be afraid (Heb 13:6; Psa 118:6). Exhibit A of this truth is that you can “Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith” (Heb 13:7).

In the study of our history there is a lot to learn, much to righteously repeat, and plenty to caution our present steps. C. S. Lewis, who lost his wife to cancer, likened ignorance of history to joining a conversation after the fact. He said, “If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said.”[1] Lewis furthered this idea by calling us to read old books stating, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.”[2]

So on the one hand I can struggle with Lewis in the anguish of his deceased wife (in A Grief Observed) and then keep reading backwards and find many others paddling the same boat. Lloyd-Jones and Nazi bombs, Spurgeon and his invalid wife Susannah, Brainerd and the pain of tuberculosis, Baxter grieving over the death of his bride Margaret, Luther watching his daughter Magdalene die in his arms, Calvin losing both children and his wife Idelette, and many other testimonies along the way. Real ministers have experienced real suffering (i.e., “distractions”) throughout our tangled history and there’s no forecast that promises otherwise. Read and drink deeply from these ministers who walked before you. Chances are you will find great help, counsel, and encouragement along the way.

One thing stands out to me in all this. The old saying says, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” A great illustration of this comes in 1 Corinthians chapter 10. There, the Apostle rehearses the sordid web that is Israel’s faith and failure.  Paul says, in effect, don’t think for a minute that you’re any smarter than they were (1 Cor 10:12). However, there’s a positive here as well. In verse 13 he reminds us that we’re not alone in the struggle and our temptations are the same ones that litter the roads of history. Something else should be noticed in verse 13, the faithful covenant-keeping God continues to make His name great through your endurance. Brother, as you endure disruptive elders, wayward children, sinful congregants, or physical suffering, God is making His name great through perfecting you in weakness. Keep your fingers on the pulse of history and this will always be fresh in your mind.


[1] From the introduction to St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996), 4.

[2] Ibid.

How to preach when your wife has cancer (or some other “distraction”)

I must have been absent the day they covered such things in seminary class. The professor might have addressed it the day I skipped school with my friend Eric to go snow boarding in the mountains north of L.A. However, I’m certain this topic was not covered in any preaching class. I have shelves of books on preaching and none of them seems to address my question. How in the world do you preach and minister week in and week out when your wife has stage-three colon cancer?

I confess that the reality of the question itself is still a bit surreal. This might be hard to believe but there are moments where we all forget that Julie has a killer disease. It’s surreal because she looks so healthy and is so young. At least for now, there are four small children who can’t tell any real difference between pre-cancer mommy and cancer mommy. Still, I stare down this plaguing question. How can I possibly minister to needy and sometimes hurting believers when my own wife is weighed down with massive physical and spiritual burdens?

The shape of suffering in your ministry may not take on the same form as mine but don’t think for a moment that God’s “distractions” will somehow miss you. As sure as you’re one of His sons and ministers, the arrows of God will be lovingly aimed at your ministry to keep you humble and to expose your many weaknesses. Before we complain about this we have to wonder why we would want it any other way. We tend to forget that the real pathway to life with Christ is narrow, difficult, and hard to find. If you haven’t cried yourself to sleep at night with the promises of 2 Corinthians 12:9 playing pinball in your heart then you haven’t been in ministry long enough. Give it time and suffering will come to your parsonage.

If this sounds like I’m delivering hopeless news and prophetic judgments then you need to stick around. To the contrary, this is some of the best truth we pastors can wash in. Over the coming days I want to explore this issue of preaching and ministering with “distractions” in your personal life. I’ve been thinking on this for a while now and I hope to fill-in some of the gaps missing from preaching class. Until then.

Step back, you’ll only mess things up

More than a few times I tried to “fix” something when I was a wee lad only to hear my father say something like, “step back son, if we leave it that way you’ll blow-up the house.” I’m thankful for those life-lessons along the way. Harder still is when the Lord presents us with a situation to which our knee-jerk response is to try and “fix” it. When James Montgomery Boice informed his congregation (May 7, 2000) that he had liver cancer he counseled them along these lines:

“If God does something in your life, would you change it? If you’d change it, you’d make it worse. It wouldn’t be good. So that’s the way we want to accept it and move forward, and who knows what God will do?”

%d bloggers like this: