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Convictions Must Flow from Somewhere

I recently returned from a trip to Brazil to teach a group of young seminarians the subject of apologetics.  The first part of the curriculum is essentially  an overview of the various systems of apologetics out there.  For those who don’t know about what I am writing, apologetics is essentially the defending and declaring of the Christian faith to a non-Christian world.  In many ways it is a subset of evangelism though in many ways it has become a way to gather a following and sell books.

The various schools of thought on this is not important to my article so I will spare you of a description of each.  Frankly it can be very boring as you read and interact with many writers who argue their points and then you try to interact with them.  The reason for it is simple, there is no basis for the average student to properly interact with the positions.  Read that sentence again because it is very important.  The men are being introduced to a huge subject and they usually do have sufficient knowledge to have a good, thoughtful opinion, much less a conviction.

The second part of the coursework is then a proposal for a specific type of apologetics that is borne from a sound exegesis of the key biblical texts related to the nature of man, especially due to the presence of sin, the ability of man to make a free decision unaffected by sin, and the nature of the way God converts a soul.  These are not merely theological ideas that we should place on a table and all talk about like they are objects picked up off of the seashore.  These are biblical statements and they mean something.  And again this is where conviction comes into play.

As I taught the second half of the course I watched to see what types of reactions, comments and questions were raised in light of passage after passage being unfolded and laid before them.  It is same thing I do when I preach.  I labor to unfold the biblical passage before the people and I watch.  Especially when it is on a subject over which I know there is dispute.  When I say something like, “Notice the way Paul wrote this . . .” I want to see how many look down to examine the text.  I can say that for the most part my church is eager to do so, making my job in preaching much easier than other pastors.

But I also see the one who will sit with their arms folded and are unmoved.  They are convinced and nothing will change that.  With my students in Brazil it was the same thing.  I wanted them to raise questions but I wanted those questions to flow from the biblical text.  Not some author and certainly not from their own thoughts.  And this is where I now make my point of this post.

Convictions exist in every human.  But for a Christian those convictions ought to flow from a willful submission to the biblical text.  And if it doesn’t then those convictions come from something other that God’s Word.  When you learn to submit yourself to the bible then you become a person in a consistent state of change.  As you mature and as you learn you realize that certain texts were misunderstood by you.  Others become more clear and certain and you see that your first thoughts were good but not as deep and full as they could have been.  Regardless, a healthy Christian is one whose first question on anything is, “What does the bible say?”

I remember years ago finishing a sermon and a person came up to me visible angry.  He told me that what I was teaching that night was not what the majority of the church believed.  I looked at him and asked one question, “Did I properly deal with this passage or not?”  He said that I did but that he did not like it nor approve of it.  I put my hand on his shoulder and told him that his problem wasn’t with me but with the Lord.

Convictions.  Powerful things they are.  Just make sure they flow from the Word of God and not anything of this age.

The Type of Pastor about Whom To Be Concerned

Scott Postma has a great article he posted the other day that I thought was worth my reader’s time. I have argued from the beginning of my ministry as a pastor that the problems in any church ultimately comes because of the leadership.  Perhaps one day I will actually explain that, but right now I have other things I need to do.  Regardless, here is a bit of a taste of his article.  And, by the way, those ten things he lists I agree with in every way.

Abuse, apostasy, and irrelevance are just a few of the words that keep coming up in the search for reasons for the decline. There are a variety of compelling opinions and I even have a few of my own.

But I suggest there is another area of decline more significant and perhaps much less obvious—and one that certainly contributes to the church’s decline in numbers.

And I think its likely a careful analysis would implicate the church’s leadership for this more significant issue.

In other words, I’m concerned about pastors and the role they play in the church’s decline.

By saying so, I’m not suggesting this pastor has it all together. Nor am I trying to cultivate (or ratify) some dishonest skeptics’ hate for the church. Rather, I’m hoping to raise some concerns in a conversational kind of way.

Further, I’m not claiming to be the expert in all church issues. However, I have been in some form of pastoral ministry for the last 19 years and feel I have some measure of insight about the issue.

So in an effort to pursue this conversation in a healthy way, here are 10 pastors I’m concerned about.

Read the rest here.

You Better Be Right If You Want to Preach

An email showed up in my inbox today that made me sit back and take a long, hard examination of my responsibility in preaching.  I won’t discuss the details but the issue centered around a series I did a few years back on divorce and remarriage.  I hated that series and my stomach still gets tight thinking about it.  It is one of those series you need to do but you realize you better do it right because you are affecting people’s lives in a major way.  And the  series did just that for several in the church.

Now the series is in the background and yet it still lives on because of the internet so a certain man listens to it and now writes to me for counsel.  Hard counsel.  I don’t know him, but I am now accountable for him because I decided to preach.  I will respond to him and I think my counsel will be an encouragement to him.  But it makes me do some serious thinking again about the nature of pastoral ministry, especially in the arena of preaching.

Those who read this blog consistently knows I have strong thoughts about the light and frothy preaching that so many practice in my country these days.  For too many, the Sunday gathering of people is more like an event that is planned out to create an experience rather than the careful proclamation of the Word of God to the People of God as they gather in the name of Jesus Christ their Lord.  My personal desire is to cause the people to hear the Word and be confronted with it in such a way as to force them to make a decision each week, “Is this true or not?”

But if you are going to preach you better be right in what you say.  You better work hard on the text of the bible from which you are preaching.  You better be up there in the pulpit with a confidence that you understand the text and you can teach it to the people.  But you also better remember that those people are not there because of you, at least they better not be.  They are there because they are people purchased from their enslavement to sin by the blood of Jesus.  They are His and not yours.  And therefore you better be careful with that thing you call “the Word of God” because that is what it is, God’s Word and not yours.

Realize that those people listening to you are assuming you worked hard on the passage this week.  They are assuming you know what it means and are convinced that they need to hear it and obey it by the power of the Holy Spirit.  And when you preach through the bible you will have to teach on subjects that will affect people in a major way.  How people raise their children, go to work, view their household, think about marriage, interact with people and countless other things will be affected.

So when you say from the pulpit, preacher, that “the Word says. . . .” you better be right because someone there is going to actually act on what you preach.

Now, perhaps I can get back to the sermon I am finishing right now for this Sunday.

Faithful Pastoring

I have no idea how I came across this site called Gospel Partnerships but I did and I am glad I did.  In their resources page I was pleased to find a video that was beautiful and powerful in its simplicity.  It is an interview of a vicar St Oswald’s in Newcastle, UK.

What makes it such a good interview?  Because this man chose to take up the challenge of pastoring a church that did not know the gospel.  Here is a story of what the conviction of the power of the gospel and the power of God’s Spirit working through His Word can do.  Such a breath of fresh wind in what is, at times, the stifling air of mega churches and “success” stories.

You Never Get The Best, without The Test

I was doing my morning reading of various blogs and was pointed to a church in Frisco, TX named Elevate Life Church.  They are doing a series on Life’s Obstacles and want you and I to elevate our lives upward to enjoy the best.  The title of my post is one of their “big thoughts” that I found to be rather little, so I ran with it.

They took a poll at the church about what are the great obstacles that the people attending face.  Then the top four obstacles became the basis of the “sermon” series.  Here is the breakdown, though the staff cleverly worked them into the Four F’s:

  1. Finances (84%)
  2. Family
  3. Future (Career)
  4. Fitness (Physical Health)

If you have the desire to hear the message you can go here and find the message entitled “Obstacles Series – Passing The Test of Obstacles”  It is over an hour and thirty minutes long but you can fast forward to the message but I would forward to the muscle guy who introduces the series and then the testimonies of two men who overcame their obstacles–sort of.

Below are my notes on what I heard.  Understand They are unedited and raw, but then that is what my soul was at the end.

The two testimonies do not display a spiritual issue, biblically defined; rather, we hear two American success stories that are about them, not Christ.

In the sermon about Isaac and Ishamel.  The meaning is that we got to put God first and believe his promises.  Then when Abraham built the altar he goes off on how Abraham ordered the part to build the altar.  Somehow this gets to mean that if we go to church we order our lives around God.  Somehow, because you show up to Church you are the real Christians.  When the climbed Mt. Moriah it means that when we climb the mountains of our life we have to believe God.  Pushes tithing is various ways and all I could think was how much money goes to keeping the fancy lights and sound system blasting.  Serious money to just do a service.  Wanders into the meaning 9 in the bible as being finality and therefore their fulness of time has come and God is going to bless them.  All of this because it happens to be September.

The whole description of the sacrifice of Isaac misses the point.  It is all about Abraham getting his life in order and Isaac willing to lay down his life to show God is more important than his own life.
An essentially Christless message of self-empowerment and self-enrichment.  It was moralism American-style.  Classic line at about the 1:30 mark that defines it all: “I did my part, and God did His.”  There you go, God is just hoping you do the right thing so He can.  The power of man and the weakness of God on display.

Near the end he moves back into tithing and uses himself as an example.  This then goes out in a pseudo-powerful way to “mark this down” that though the church owes a lot of money on their building that he knows it will all be paid off because he knows that he has put God first.  Wow!

I thought it was a 30 minute sermon, but only 20 minutes.  Then more singing.  I am grateful for that and grieve over the thousands who heard the American Dream and nothing of Jesus and His Kingdom.

Can You Keep from Preaching?

One of the blogs I read is done by H. B. Charles, Jr. and I find it consistently sound and enjoyable. His latest post is entitled, “If You Can Keep From Preaching , Do It.” It is a simple post that offers simple, straight-forward advice to young, aspiring preachers.  Here is a small taste of it:

One day, I had a conversation with a friend who was seeking to discern whether the Lord was calling him to pastoral or pulpit ministry. As he discussed it with me, he noted that he had mentioned this matter to me several times before without comment from me. He was right. I hadn’t responded. And I sensed that he was waiting on a response this time.

So I prayed an emergency prayer to God about what to say. And what came to my mind is what my father said to me some twenty years ago about whether I should continue in the ministry: “If you can keep from preaching, do it.”

I was about fifteen years old. And my father had given me the opportunity to preach his 11 AM service. I remember two things about that sermon.

It was the hardest I had ever worked on a sermon.

It was also the first time I received direct criticism about my preaching.

Now I will skip any real discussion about the validity of a fifteen year old preaching.  My point in this post is the common statement that if there is anything else you can do other than preach/pastor you should do it.  The rationale is that pastoral ministry, especially preaching, is hard, discouraging, and not for the faint of heart.  This was said to me and my fellow seminarians on multiple occasions and never, ever did it sound true.

When I personally heard it the first time I immediately thought of the fact that I had just had a very high paying job offered to me in another state for a great salary.  I was good at what I did and a head hunter recognized it.  Later I became a reserve police officer for the city of Glendale, CA and found out I was very good at that job as well and I was asked to come on full time.  Then there was the fact that I was a fully trained baker and had sound management skills in the realm of mid-range restaurants.  My point here is simple.  I could do a lot of different things and even succeed at them.  So was I a fool to press on in pastoral training?  Being stubborn, and noticing that in every case there was never a bible text that drove those comments about not entering the preaching ministry, I chose to push on.

Fifteen years later I am still a pastor, still pastoring the same church, and have no plans to do anything else.  So what do I think of these kind of statements?  I dislike them.  A lot.

I understand what is meant by them, but sadly what is meant is seldom actually said.  They are warning young men to really think hard about what they are entering into.  It is hard.  It is not a place for the wimpy (not if it will be a biblically driven work that is God-centered).  For every “thanks” you will have five criticisms.  Your back will get used to having knives stuck in it, etc., etc., etc.)

Not that it is a miserable because it isn’t.  I am marrying the children of those who were there when I first arrived.  I am helping those young families think through a biblical marriage and family.  I have had the privilege to help heal marriages and weep with those who lost someone.  I am humbled when I watch a person come to saving faith through my preaching and I grin from ear to ear when I watch a man stand up and be a godly man.  Good stuff.  And I get paid to do it.  I am granted hours every week to study and read.  I am entrusted to open the bible and teach it to God’s people.  I wouldn’t trade it for a moment.

But that doesn’t mean I couldn’t, because I could.  And many men I know could as well.  The point is not, “If there is something else you can do, do it.”  It is, are you will to forsake those other things if the gospel ministry requires all of you?  I said, “Yes” many years ago and there are many other friends who have done the same.  That is the question that young men need to hear because, in many ways, there is no going back.

What I Try To Do Every Week

I came across a blog post by a pastor who does a wonderful job of succinctly describing what I try to do each week when I preach.  I believe in expositional preaching but sadly that term is seen as a pox by many in the church.  This is due to pastors who don’t really understand what expositional preaching is, they are not really gifted as preachers, or they confuse exegesis, which is very dry, with exposition, which brings out the meaning and purpose of the Word to the people.

Here is part of his post:

We are called to “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2). To do so, we must take the text seriously in our preaching.

What do I mean?

  • Do not try to preach a text without doing your homework.
  • Do not call a text and then ignore it.
  • Do not spend all your time in the introduction and then rush through the text.
  • Do not use the text as a springboard for your own ideas.
  • Do not rip the text from its context to make it say what your want it to say.
  • Do not play with Greek and Hebrew words to say something novel.
  • Do not neglect the authorial intent of the text.
  • Do not major on what the text makes minor, or visa versa.
  • Do not impose meaning on the text that the author did not intend.
  • Do not treat your creative ideas as if they are more important than the dominating theme of the text.
  • Do not play on words or phrases in the text as a disconnected hook.
  • Do not use the text to manipulate emotions.
  • Do not rob the text of its punch to ensure you can whoop at the end.

Paul’s preaching instructions to Timothy are clear, simple, and applicable to those of us who have the sacred duty to preach and teach:

Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. – 1 Timothy 4:13

I am convinced t that good, proper exposition of God’s Word is the best way over time to build up a body of believers into maturity. The reason is simple, expositional preaching is going word by word, verse by verse, and chapter by chapter through a book of the bible.  What this does is force the pastor and the church to address difficult subjects.  It gives opportunity for the church to see the many subtle aspects that any given doctrine  possesses.  It covers all of the doctrines of the faith over time.  And it prevents the pastor from preaching only on what he likes.

I have three young men preparing for the ministry in one way or another.  Currently two of them and one of my elders are in a preaching class in a nearby seminary.  The pleasure I have as I watch them prepare their very first expositional preaching outline is hard to describe.  My desire is great to see them open the Word, preach it with a clear conscience and then trust that the Spirit will accomplish His will upon the hearts of the people.

What Newbies Want in A Sermon—And Many Oldies

A bit of an explanation here first.  I read this article by a young church planter who had followed the advice and paradigm regarding the place and content of preaching in the church, specifically one that is a plant.  What stood out to me was how he learned that the new believer was not happy about the reduced sermon format that limited content and limited time.  The preacher is to be a trained speaker who dazzles and draws his listeners into the story of the gospel.  Here is how he put it:

. . . nobody wants to bore saints or seekers when talking about something as exquisite as the gospel.  The intent was to call proclaimers to be humble, excellent workers who would never besmirch the Good News by bad delivery.  The problem, though, lay in the basic, internal posture we were asked to adopt when bringing the Word to sinful, human listeners: deferential apology.  As in, “I’m sorry I have to ruin the moment now, but this IS church, and we DO have to mention sin, hell, and the cross of Jesus from time to time.  This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you…”

The key is a good delivery of the good news and an apologetic demeanor when bringing up the bad news of the human condition.  Most pastors who have a love for those who are outside of the grace of God know this tension.  I remember seeing a person I knew was not a Christian come into our church for the very first time (or any church for that matter) and the sermon I was to preach was on the sovereignty of God in salvation.  Heavy on total depravity and heavy on sovereign grace.  But when you are preaching out of Romans 3 or Romans 9, that is what you have before yourself for the text.

What happens next in this man’s story though is telling.  He goes on to relate  some rather startling discoveries as his ministry took root.

About 4-5 years in, something happened that changed my faith in unadorned preaching and evangelism.  There were finally enough true converts in our congregation (God had sovereignly used our clumsy proclamation to win believers) that I could track the sources of feedback I received.  The recently lost-and-found WERE frustrated with me – but for cutting messages short, trimming content, and watching the clock!  Those who had demanded curt, topical homilies were cradle-to-grave types.  Denominational veterans claimed to be shielding newbies from discomfort, but the newcomers were clamoring for biblical depth and blunt confrontation.

The new Christian wanted to hear the Word.  A lot of it.  They wanted to be drawn into the thicker, denser parts of biblical, exegetical theology.  They wanted to watch and learn how to really look at the passage and see what God had revealed to them.  It was those who were raised in the church who wanted less.  Less content, less theology, less preaching, less everything.

In my experience as a pastor who took over the pulpit of a well-established church is that many older believers become jaded.  They have watched people come and go, and the same with the pastors who taught them.  Each comes with a plan and then eventually goes when it doesn’t work.  Perhaps they sat under many sermons that were long and shallow, which are always worse that those that are short and shallow.

For many (based off of conversations I have had) they realized that there was a real disconnect between the sermon and what the pastor and the church actually did.  Hypocrisy was the word of the day, or decade.  Others saw the pastor preach law, not grace and they felt the burden of the mill-stones being tied around their necks.  And finally, others could not walk away with any sense of why that sermon mattered.  There was never an attempt to connect the richness of the theology of the text to the richness of the Christian’s life.

What I have learned over the years is that true Christians love the Word, even when they don’t realize it.  I have taught seminary level theology classes to members of my church with faithful attendance and eager participation.  One woman told me after I taught Christology, Soteriology, and Hamartiology for over six months to her and about thirty others that she would frequently go home weeping as the impact of the verses and the theology sunk into her heart. I have watch old Christians who carry the battle scars of many in-house fights grin from ear to ear as they are stretched to see more of God.

Where am I going with all of this?  Just that every pastor, if he is to be a real pastor rather than a church grower, must be a man who preaches well, but preaches deeply as well.  He must be willing to draw the people, new and mature alike, into the deep parts of the Word.  He must be willing to stand beside them as they flounder about at times and cheer when they realize that by the Holy Spirit work they are able to even stand and flourish in the deep end.  He must not shy from the hard doctrines and he must open the whole Word of God to the people.  The new Christian wants it and needs it, the old Christian does too (even if some of them don’t know it), and those who don’t want it cannot be to whom a pastor preaches.

Docent and The Pastoral Charge

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman
who does not need to be ashamed,
handling accurately the word of truth.

(2 Timothy 2:15)

In pointing out these things to the brethren,
you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus,
constantly nourished on the words of the faith
and of the sound doctrine which you have been following

(1 Timothy 4:6)

I am a pastor of a medium, ordinary church.  Nothing exciting, nothing earth-shattering, just a church filled with people who love Jesus and seek to grow in their faith.  Along with those Christians there are also those who do not know Jesus yet as Lord.  They know it, we know it, and we are thankful for their presence and their desire to hear, consider and by God’s grace, believe.

As a pastor I have many things that pull at me, less now that I have an Associate Pastor who lifts a major load off of my shoulders, but there are still many pressures that are part of the office of ‘pastor.’  The challenge from the very beginning was what was the non-negotiable things that would control my time?  Would it be administration?  How about vision-casting?  Counseling is always a great choice for many need it and desire that face time with the pastor.  Then there is visitation, old-school style.  Why not leadership development?  I could also teach theology classes or there is the ever present need for evangelism.  I could also be the guy in town who specializes in marriages and funerals to pad my paycheck, it just needs a few well-placed phone calls around town.  The list could go on and on, but this is a small glimpse into what a pastor has before him in the way of choices on how he uses his time.  Notice that there is no mention of my wife, nor the four children in my home when I started this pastoral journey.

What was my decision?  It was real simple.  It did not come from a leadership book, no conference revealed it to me, and I didn’t pray for God’s guidance on it.  Simple put, God told me what was my primary focus as a pastor, it was the studying and preaching and teaching of the Word of God.  Not real earth-shattering, but it is the simple will of God that a pastor first and foremost attend himself to the study and proclamation of the holy scripture: “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction.  For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; 4 and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths.” (2 Timothy 4:1-4)

All of this introductory material to speak briefly about an organization that is real big in parts of the Evangelical community.  It is called Docent group and it exists to give you a ‘research assistant.’  Mark Driscoll is a big fan of this group and he was the guy who introduced me to them about five years ago. They do all sorts of stuff for the busy pastor.  They will do that nasty work that takes up the time of pastors, like researching a book of the bible, doing your exegetical research or coming up with pithy, relevant illustrations.  Need to read a book but no time for it? No problem, just  pay them and they will read it for you and provide the summary of the book.

So what is the problem?  Simple, busy pastors need to decide that their busyness cannot detract from the central, God-given task of study and sermon preparation.  What stands out for me is that the ones who tend to use this is not the little church pastor who has to do everything, but the large church pastor.  The one who has a large staff that is supposed to free him from all of those problems.  What Docent really reveals is that big church pastors are not necessarily busy with the study and presentation of the Bible to their people, but rather something else, like making the church even bigger.

Carl Trueman wrote a very compelling article on this a short time ago that is worthy your read if you are a pastor or want to be one.  Here is a taste of what he writes:

Finally, once again I find myself worrying about the normative, aspirational model of ministry which this is projecting to men in seminary, looking for a call or in their first charge.

Underlying it all, of course, is American conservative evangelicalism’s dirty little secret: the movement, such as it is, embraces mutually incompatible views of the ministerial calling which presumably must rest on mutually incompatible theologies of ministry.  There are those who think ministry is, above all else, about preaching the word in the local congregation and that that is to be the pastor’s top priority bar none, from the choice of passage to its final delivery.  And there are those for whom ministry is – well, to be honest, I do not really know what exactly they think it is.  I cannot describe it because websites such as this are just more evidence that, whatever it is, I do not have the categories to explain it sympathetically to others.

And while I do not expect major discussion of this by the great and the good on the major webpages in the evangelical world, even if such does take place, I doubt that will come to any decisive or clear conclusion. Too many feudal ties and too much at stake for big tent movements to speak with prophetic or even common-sense voices on this one.   My guess is that, if it is mentioned in some quarters at all, it will be another of those things that people agree to differ on in order to keep the big ticket names on board.  It will have that  ‘Hey, we can face the hard questions but still maintain alliances’ feel.  Asking hard questions is ironically not as hard as it is often cut out to be; giving hard answers usually proves to be quite another thing entirely.

As I see things like this, I remember Dr. Packer’s comments of a few weeks back in giving advice to young ministers: dig deep, dwell deep.

Of course, why bother with all of this deep digging and such when others are happy to do it for you?


One Reason The Church Is Messed Up

Just came across this site somehow.  Its primary purpose is to provide movie clips that you incorporate into your sermon.  But there is also the amazing side benefit that you can get sermon outlines written for you that already incorporate some of the clips.  Wow!  How great is that!  Here is what they say:

WingClips Sermon Outlines will help you understand and analyze how each clip can illustrate spiritual truths to your group or congregation. Each Sermon Outline consists of a Main Idea, Application, Correlating Scriptures, and Alternative Idea(s). Please note that not all of our clips have Sermon Outlines available.

The only thing I see in that quote that I like is that not all clips have an outline.  Notice that the purpose of the outlines center not on the biblical text but upon the clip.  This is ear tickling in an outstandingly obvious way, but sadly it sells. I wanted to see more of what they do so I signed up for a free account.  When it was activated up pops flapping wings and a “Congratulations! You just got your wings!”  If you know me you can imagine my facial expression.  Glowering would be a good word to describe it.

I wanted to search by scripture not film clip and when I did I found it ironic that one book not represented at all was Song of Solomon.  If there would be one book I could find clips for easily it would be that one.  But then, they have offered me a position. Everything costs money and their one sample PDF of a sermon outline doesn’t actually work.  But reading the summaries of the sermon outlines made it sufficiently obvious that theology, a bloody cross, a sovereign Lord, or hell simply was not the driving force.  Sad.  Reminded me of a guy who sold my daughter a car who was excited about the Sunday School curriculum his church had for adults that was based off of The Simpsons.

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