Ministry

 

Apr

15

2014

Jeramie Rinne|12:01 AM CT

How to Work Ahead on Sermon Prep

It's Saturday afternoon, and your sermon is half-done, at best. Your normal sermon prep time got crushed this week by a big funeral on Tuesday, a crisis counseling situation that consumed Wednesday and Thursday, and your wife's minivan breaking down Friday. And now on Saturday, supposedly your day off, you slump in front of the computer puzzling over the main point and application of the text, and straining for the creativity to write a clear, engaging sermon manuscript.

Ever have one of those weeks?

studying-the-bibleGod helps us preachers in those desperate moments. But clearly this kind of compressed, last-minute prep has serious drawbacks. And if we prepare our messages this way every week, we're more likely to serve junk food sermons rather than the nutritious, expository feast that our congregations need for spiritual health.

Some gifted preachers can regularly wrestle down a text and craft solid sermons on an abbreviated schedule. But most of us mortals need ample time. We need time to puzzle over interpretive issues, time to pray over application, time to pick others' brains, and time for our creative engines to produce helpful illustrations, introductions, and conclusions. We need time to marinate in the passage of scripture.

Plan for Getting Ahead

I want to share an approach to sermon preparation that for the past 17 years has given me a longer runway for getting sermons off the ground. I didn't come up with the basic concept myself, though for the life of me I can't remember who suggested it. Undoubtedly other preachers do something similar. Furthermore, I'm not suggesting this "system" is the right way or best way to prepare sermons. Every preacher is unique. But if you long for more lead-time to produce a message, I recommend this strategy.

Here's the basic concept: work on three sermons every week.

Before you roll your eyes or hyperventilate, let me explain. By three sermons each week, I don't mean researching and writing three full sermons each week. Rather, I mean working on different parts of three separate sermons.

I conceptualize the sermon writing process in three phases.

Phase 1: Research. This is where we translate, discover structure, study words and grammar, grasp the larger literary context, and consult commentaries (after we have done our own work, of course). Our goal here is to understand the main point of the text and its main applications.

Phase 2: Writing. Here we produce the sermon itself. We lay out the flow, work on introductions and conclusions, build sentences, and think carefully about transitions. Whereas the research feels more like a science to me, the writing feels more like an art.

Phase 3: Rehearsing. Hopefully we take a little time to walk through the sermon before we preach it. I go to my basement on Saturday night and preach the sermon out loud by myself several times. This process not only familiarizes me with the content, but it inevitably serves as a further manuscript edit. Written communication typically needs some adjustment so that it sounds normal as oral communication.

Here is where the three-sermon system comes into play. Let's say you are preaching through Galatians, one chapter each Sunday, starting with Galatians 1 this Sunday. That means this week you will be researching Galatians 3, writing your sermon on Galatians 2 (which you researched the last week), and rehearsing your sermon on Galatians 1 (which you wrote last week and researched two weeks ago).

Next week you will research Galatians 4, write the sermon for Galatians 3, and rehearse your message for Galatians 2. And so on.

This approach has lots of benefits. First and most obviously, it gives me three weeks to ruminate on a text. You will be amazed at how many illustrations, applications, and insights will come to you as you cogitate over a three-week period. You will have a whole week to tweak your manuscript.

Second, this rhythm always keeps the broader literary context in front of you. As you're writing a sermon for Galatians 2 you're simultaneously pondering what comes before (Galatians 1) and what comes after (Galatians 3). This plan assumes you're regularly preaching through books of the Bible, which I strongly urge you to do as the meat-and-potatoes approach to your pulpit ministry.

Third, this plan often dispels that oppressive feeling of pressure and stress that the main preaching pastor feels each week. We still have to do the same amount of sermon prep labor in a given week. And yet knowing on Monday that this coming Sunday's sermon is already written changes your outlook. It is absolutely liberating.

How Do I Get There?

When I share this concept with other preachers, I usually get two responses. First, they say, "Wow! That's amazing!" And then they say, "I could never do that." How could a preacher writing sermons week to week ever move to this model?

Here's an idea. Make it a six- to eight-month goal. In the next half-year, plan to have someone else preach for you two or three times, but don't go away that week on vacation. Ask the youth pastor to preach or swap pulpits with another pastor and just re-preach something at his church that won't require extra work for you. And then use that free week to start working on two sermons at once. And then do it again a few months later and, voila! You're now working on three sermons at once.

Inevitably crazy weeks happen, and I fall off the three-sermons-at-once pace. Even as I write this article, I'm behind on the schedule. I'm now only doing two texts at once this week. But I'm still way ahead, and in a couple weeks I will have an opportunity to catch back up.

Even if you're an associate pastor who preaches infrequently, you can use this method. If you know you're going to be preaching on a certain date, then start chipping away at your sermon three weeks ahead of time, doing one phase each week.

Give it a try. With a little discipline and patience, you can break out of the week-to-week writing pace and give your heart and mind room to breathe. Who knows? It just might improve your pulpit ministry.

 
 

Apr

11

2014

Jeremy Pierre|12:01 AM CT

Should Churches Offer Vocational Retraining for Fallen Pastors?

Does financial security prevent ministers from repenting of sin, and if so what should the church do about it? This question assumes that preparation for ministry does not easily translate to other fields, so the economic incentive to hide sin is strong. Thus, the practical question: Should churches offer vocational retraining for fallen pastors?

The stakes are high for a pastor to remain on the straight and narrow. His own testimony, the health of his family and church, and the reputation of Christ are on the line. Of course, this is true for every Christian, but there is a particular urgency for pastors because of their responsibility before almighty God (James 3:1).

unemployed-not-getting-hiredAll these things raise the motivation to hide sin. The fallout of repenting would be nuclear. His personal income is on the line, and thus the security of his family. Unlike the engineer or English professor in the congregation who can fail morally but may be able to get by unfazed professionally, a pastor's earning potential is affected the moment he's discovered.

Finding himself in such a situation, a compromised pastor will simply promise himself (and God) he won't compromise anymore, and that will be the end of whatever vice he's been indulging. But it never works. Unconfessed sin is a sure way both to invite the opposition of God (Psalm 32:3-4) and to harden into self-deception (Hebrews 3:12-13). So should a church have a pre-standing offer of vocational retraining to encourage a compromised pastor to come clean?

Why a Policy Doesn't Work

As a policy, no. The two main purposes for such a policy would be to encourage openness regarding moral failure and to show fairness to a man whose sole training was for ministry related tasks. But such a policy would fail at both purposes. First, the assurance of vocational retraining will not necessarily increase the likelihood of repentance. The genuine conviction of the Holy Spirit will jump a low or a high hurdle all the same. Second, such a policy would rob the congregation of the opportunity to actively love a fallen brother. Vocational retraining would be something he is contractually owed rather than something he is graciously given.

Let me explain both of these points a bit more. First, the promise of financial security beyond ministry will not increase the likelihood of repentance. The assurance of vocational retraining is like a safety net for a well-known tightrope walker. It may spare a broken neck, but it won't save a shattered reputation. The tightrope walker would probably take the broken neck over the negated carrier. The excruciating cost for a pastor confessing his moral failure transcends earning potential—his professional reputation, his marriage and family makeup, his sense of the meaning of his very existence. In other words, there are plenty of other reasons his flesh will find to hide if he is not sincerely convicted by the Holy Spirit.

But if he is, then the world couldn't stop him from repenting. I've watched men face withering consequences for coming to the light, convinced that any earthly consequence was tolerable if the Lord Jesus would spare them from the final judgment. This is the mark, in fact, of godly sorrow in contrast to worldly sorrow (2 Corinthians 7:10-13). In the end, no commitment by the church for vocational retraining can counter the deceitfulness of sin.

Logic of Love

Second, a policy of offering vocational retraining to a fallen minister implies fairness over love. The logic of fairness would say that since the man's vocational preparation was exclusively for the tasks of ministry—exegesis and homiletics, discipleship training and counseling—then he ought to be offered adequate preparation for a new career. It's only fair.

But the logic of love is different. It would say that this minister has fallen into a sin common to us all, but with uniquely devastating consequences. Love means considering his interests despite there being no official obligation to do so. Isn't this what Jesus illustrated by the story of a compassionate Samaritan and a pair of unwilling Jews? (Luke 10:29-37)

Love is best expressed personally, not contractually. The love that Christians should hold for one another will personally motivate them to help a fallen brother. Obviously, there is no guarantee of this love. And that's the point. Love is expressed not in contractual guarantee, but in the spontaneous overflow of covenant commitment. A church policy that offers tuition reimbursement for a fallen pastor to get an MBA is very different from a member of the church who owns a furniture business offering him gainful employment and training.

Even if the church did want to go the route of supplementing an MBA or some other training, it's best done through an unprompted act of benevolence, not from some prior agreement. This arrangement keeps the line clear between some inaccurate sense of employee fairness and a genuine act of undeserved generosity.

For those of us in ministry, we do well to plead with the Lord frequently to spare us from being that guy. We should beg Christ for the kind of love that motives our holiness far better than the fear of earthly consequences alone. But it should also be said that God is generous to sinners devastated by the consequences of sin. Psalm 38 stands as a testimony that God welcomes prayers for forgiveness for sin as well as help for the consequences we caused by it.

No fallen pastor who is a child of God disqualifies himself from his Father's promise to provide. A repentant pastor will learn this promise regardless in the end, and regardless of a church policy.

 
 

Apr

08

2014

Gavin Ortlund|12:01 AM CT

When You're Waiting in the Wilderness

If you had to pick one story in the Bible as a model of "ministry success," which would you choose? Personally, I can't think of anything more dynamic than Elijah's victory over the false prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18. In the space of one chapter, the prophet singlehandedly purifies the nation of idolatry, sparks a grassroots revival among God's people, and brings the three-and-a-half year drought to an end. Not a bad day!

But we often forget Elijah's ministry didn't begin that day. Before he could summon fire from heaven at Mount Carmel in 1 Kings 18, he had to pass through a painful season out in the wilderness in 1 Kings 17. In most of our ministries, as in Elijah's, there will be no 1 Kings 18 power without 1 Kings 17 preparation. Of course, it'd be nice if ministry meant 1 Kings 18 fire-from-heaven power from start to finish! But most of our ministries can likely relate better to the metaphors of 1 Kings 17: hanging on until the ravens come again, trusting the jug and jar won't run out tomorrow, scraping by until the drought finally ends, wondering why God hasn't removed corrupt Ahab, and, all the while, waiting, waiting, waiting.

alone-in-the-desert

Wilderness seasons are brutal. But God is powerfully at work in the 1 Kings 17 seasons of our lives. The only question is, do we have eyes to see it?

All Alone

In 1 Kings 17:1-6, God sends Elijah to the wilderness to be fed by the ravens. The Lord is sending a drought over the land—an act of judgment on the idolatry Ahab and his Phoenician wife, Jezebel, have introduced to the nation (1 Kgs. 16:30-33). God gives Elijah power over the rain clouds, but then sends him east of the Jordan to the wilderness where he must drink from a brook. Imagine how humbling this move would have been! From the heights of "it won't rain except by my word" (v. 1) to the depths of "go hide yourself in the wilderness and drink from a brook" (vv. 2-5). One who has power over the highest clouds in the sky has to stoop down to a brook when he's thirsty. The most powerful man in the nation lives in total obscurity and almost barbaric conditions.

But as the months dragged on, I bet even worse was the season's crushing loneliness. "It's not good for man to be alone" (Gen. 2:18)—yet Elijah's all alone, day after day, month after month. I picture him out there, sitting on a rock or hiding in a cave. He has no idea what's happening in the outside world (no newspaper delivery at the Cherith brook, I'm guessing). He must've felt forgotten, insignificant, like life had passed him by. It must've been like moving to rural Wyoming when you're a city person, or posting the biggest news of your life on Facebook and not getting a single "like."

Beyond the humiliation and loneliness, though, this season must have also been deadeningly boring. Elijah—the mighty, thundering prophet, unafraid to challenge kings and nations—has nothing to do but wait. He can't even work for his food! Further, he's geographically confined, since he has to stay near the brook. So Elijah faces the scorching sun, day after day. He memorizes what the surrounding trees and sand look like as the months slowly drag on. He eats the same food (bread and meat), meal after meal after raven-brought meal.

No one to talk to, nothing to do, and nowhere to go. By the end of this ordeal I picture him looking a bit like Tom Hanks on the island in Cast Away—bleached hair, bushy beard, cracked skin, and a wild look in his eyes.

And then, one day, the brook dries up and God sends Elijah elsewhere. But there's no book contract and conference-speaking circuit after the wilderness. God moves him into another season of waiting and hiding as he lives with the widow of Zarephath (1 Kgs. 17:7-24). His ministry is limited to two people, some of the least esteemed in that culture—a Gentile widow and her son. And even then Elijah isn't allowed to stockpile resources. In fact, the widow has only a handful of flour and a tiny jar of oil. Elijah must live by continual faith that the jug and the jar won't run out.

Protecting, Providing, Preparing

The hope that sustains us in wilderness seasons reminds us that God is there, doing some of his most powerful work. He's at work in Elijah's life in 1 Kings 17 in at least three ways: protection, provision, and preparation.

God was protecting Elijah since Ahab had dispatched spies to kill him (1 Kgs. 18:10); seclusion in the wilderness, then, was the only way he could be safe during this drought. God was providing for Elijah through the ravens, then through the continual supply of flour and oil at the widow's house. The ravens came daily, and the jug and jar never ran out. It may have been monotonous, but it was also a miracle. It may have felt like dying, but it wasn't death. God sustained him.

And perhaps most of all, God was preparing him. Where did Elijah get the faith and courage he needed to stand against all the false prophets of Baal in chapter 18? Those years waiting on God, experiencing his faithful care amid difficulty, must have solidified Elijah's faith and resolve like a diamond.

When we're in a wilderness season, it's easy to lose sight of God's protection, provision, and preparation. We might even wonder, How can I trust God's goodness when I'm in this desolate place? But remember Jesus! He went through the ultimate wilderness—the desolation and humiliation of dying under the curse of God. If that is the measure of God's love and commitment to us, we can trust him in our own wilderness seasons.

God-Centered Ministry Perspective

This chapter, 1 Kings 17, prods us toward God-centeredness in our evaluation as well as our execution of ministry—in both our perspective and also our performance. It reminds us "ministry success" is ultimately defined as faithfulness to God's calling, whether the calling involves harnessing 1 Kings 18 power or doggedly hanging on until 1 Kings 17 ends.

To be sure, we want our lives to be maximally fruitful for kingdom work. We feel urgently that "the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few" (Matt. 9:37). But God knows better than we do. What if Elijah had concluded that waiting for the ravens wasn't bearing enough fruit, and walked away from God's call? He'd likely have never survived to see Mount Carmel.

Faithfully executing God's calling in modest ministry contexts isn't selling out. If God's calling has led you there, then the wilderness is the surest route to real kingdom work. It may feel random, but each moment is God's design. It may seem like the end of your story, but it's really the only way the story goes forward. It may taste like death, but it's actually the path of life.

If God has called you into a wilderness season, don't give up. In that dry, choking place, in that season of barely hanging on, remember God is watching over you. Look for ravens. Trust the jug and the jar won't run out. And know he's using this difficult season to prepare for you things ahead—things sometimes far greater than you could ever achieve without the pain you're now walking through.

 
 

Apr

04

2014

R. W. Glenn|12:01 AM CT

We Proclaim Him: Signs of Grace in the Twin Cities

TGC Twin Cities

When the gospel of Jesus Christ renews churches, a spirit of cooperation and celebration replaces their tendency toward parochialism and territorialism. Churches see others proclaiming the gospel of grace and expanding their influence in a region as partners in ministry whose successes are worth celebrating. Why? Because the gospel locates our corporate identity not in the size and scope of our own ministry, but in our status as the people of God, united to Christ and other believers by sheer grace. Churches convinced by this reality become more willing to create gospel partnerships for the good of the world.

We are seeing these signs of grace here in the Twin Cities: pastors representing a wide swath of the denominational landscape have come together to affirm their desire to establish a local chapter of The Gospel Coalition aimed not merely at fellowship and mutual encouragement, but also at partnering with one another to advance the gospel in our metro area.

We are only in the beginning stages of this initiative, but one thing's for sure: the Twin Cities needs all our churches to meet the unique ministry challenges of our region. No single church has all the resources necessary to participate in the gospel transformation of our five-county sprawling metro. The Gospel Coalition-Twin Cities exists to dream together how we can more effectively serve our community with the gospel of Christ.

All the Residents Heard

Our brainstorming began in earnest in mid-March at our first official chapter meeting. The substance of our discussion was borne out of a reading of Acts 19:8-10, where the apostle Paul comes to Ephesus and ends up "reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus." The punch line is Acts 19:10: "This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks." In two years, all the residents of Asia heard the gospel. Historians tell us that the message reached somewhere between 250,000-400,000 people!

TGC Twin Cities LogoWhat if The Gospel Coalition-Twin Cities was more than a place of robust fellowship, increased camaraderie, and ministry support? What if we also pursued a vision to saturate the Twin Cities metro with the Word of the Lord such that we could say that "all the residents" heard it?

The Twin Cities has more mega-churches per capita than any metro in the United States. But even in this highly churched region, the gospel that Paul preached does not dominate the discussion. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism rules here, which means that people converse in gospel jargon they don't really understand. It's like they know the lyrics to the song, but not the tune.

We cannot control or predict who will trust Christ-that's the work of the sovereign Spirit of God. But we can control what comes out of our mouths—who we talk to and what we talk about. In 2030, about 3.2 million people will live here. How exciting would it be if we worked together, functioning as a true coalition, so that we could eventually say, "All the residents of the Twin Cities heard the Word of the Lord"?

Beginning of the Road

In preliminary discussions before our meeting, it became clear that social media would play a significant role in the advance of the gospel. So we invited Bill Evans, a 19-year veteran of digital marketing, to talk with us about gospel communication in a digital age. After his talk and a brief time of Q&A, we divided into groups and imagined what may have been Paul's strategy for reaching Asia, as well as what some of our halls of Tyrannus might be. It was a wonderful and stimulating time of discussion.

For our chapter, this is the beginning of the road, but it's a road we want to travel. Together. For the good of our city and the glory of Christ.

In the meantime, we will continue to strengthen one another for the ministry through our first annual pastors' conference on May 19-20: "We Proclaim Him: Expository Preaching and the Gospel of Grace." We have observed that it is entirely possible to preach an expository message without preaching the gospel of grace. If we are going to reach the Twin Cities, we need to be sure that our pulpits proclaim Christ every time we open up God's Word. With the help of gifted preacher and teacher Simon Manchester, senior minister of St. Thomas' North Sydney, Australia, we will reflect on how to proclaim Jesus Christ whenever we're in the pulpit. If you're in the Twin Cities and would like to join us, register at weproclaimhim.eventbrite.com.

 
 

Apr

02

2014

Eric McKiddie|12:01 AM CT

Are Your Efforts to Contextualize the Gospel All about You?

I never thought moving from one suburb to another would make me reconsider my approach to contextualizing the gospel. That stuff is for missionaries and urban church planters, right?

It turns out it's also for a junior high pastor from a formal church in a conservative Midwest suburb who takes an associate pastor role at a casual church in a liberal suburb in the South.

I immediately enjoyed adapting to my new context. Being in a progressive part of the country, I felt closer to the "front lines" of the battle for the kingdom. My assignment to teach a Sunday school class of young adults—many earning MAs and PhDs—allowed me to indulge my theological and exegetical nerdiness in a way that I couldn't with my former junior highers. The switch from preaching in suits to an open collar was a nice perk. (And I chuckled to myself when I checked the weather up North.)

Who knew contextualizing the gospel could be so great?

Then one morning the next empty box on my Bible reading plan sat beside 1 Corinthians 9. Though I had read this passage countless times, I noticed something I never saw before: sacrifice was the hallmark of Paul's contextualization. Verse by verse, the Spirit began to show me that my enjoyment of my new context—even if not in egregiously sinful ways—betrayed more of a concern for my preferences and pride, not the lost.

Although my theology of contextualizing has remained intact, since that morning I've been forced to reconsider how I go about doing it. Despite how selfless "becoming all things to all people" sounds, our deceitful hearts enable us to apply the principle selfishly.

Are you contextualizing the gospel in a way that is more about you than the people you are ministering to? The following three questions that rise out of 1 Corinthians 9 will help you find out.

Are You serving Others or Yourself?

"I have become all things to all people" (1 Cor. 9:22) is a theme verse for contextualizing the gospel. Paul determined to meet people where they are. If we are not willing to bring the gospel to unbelievers in the midst of their mess—just like Jesus met us—then it will be hard for unbelievers to see that Jesus can save them out of the mess they are in.

But when you scan your eyes up a couple verses, you see the way Paul becomes all things to all people: "I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them" (1 Cor. 9:19, emphasis added). Contextualization starts with service. Becoming all things begins with serving all people.

When you start with "becoming" instead of "serving" you run the risk of picking a context in order to acquire an identity. For example, consider urban church planting. One person has in mind the artists, the entrepreneurs, the sexually broken, and the homeless. He wants to meet their need for the gospel. Another person wants to escape what he perceives to be suburban superficiality. He is attracted to the urban lifestyle, with its cultural richness, diversity, and trendiness. Planting a church, to him, seems like a meaningful way to move to the city.

The first church planter becomes all-things-urban to serve the people there. The second becomes all-things-urban mainly to gain an all-things-urban identity. The first person is focused on others, while the second person, though perhaps not entirely narcissistic, is serving himself. Paul exposes the distinction between these two mindsets when he describes contextualization as "becoming" by serving, not "becoming" alone.

Are You Claiming Rights or Giving Them Up?

Over and over Paul shows how he set aside his preferences to see others believe the gospel. How can you know if you are serving others? The key is to give up your rights:

"Do we not have the right to . . . ?" (9:5ff)

" . . . we have not made use of this right" (9:12)

"But I have made no use of any of these rights . . . " (9:15)

" . . . I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel (9:18)

What rights might you need to give up in order to bring the gospel to others? Your right to a certain standard of living? Your right to buy groceries without being asked for spare cash? Your right to preach without a tie?

One of the ironies of the gospel is that when you give up your rights you sense that you've received more from the experience, not less. Sacrificing to proclaim the gospel is immensely satisfying.

Are You Contextualizing to All or to Some?

In every sport I've played I've been coached to stay on the balls of my feet. Back on your heels, you are unprepared to react. But if you stay on the balls of your feet, you are ready to move toward the action. For Paul, contextualization was about doing gospel ministry "on the balls of his feet." He was ready to serve anyone at any time in any way.

This is different from how I often hear people discussing contextualization. People often talk about aiming at one context: the poor, the city, the university students, and so on. But Paul was ready to contextualize the gospel to anyone at hand:

To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. (1 Cor. 9:19-22)

Wherever you live—whether city, suburb, or rural—are you willing to contextualize the gospel to all, even people you don't like so much? Or are you merely willing to become some things to some people, that by some means you might save some?

If you have an overly defined segment of the population that you are trying to reach, it is possible you are merely trying to reach people whose company you prefer.

Jesus Served Us

In Philippians 2:7, Paul describes the incarnation as Jesus "taking the form of a servant." At the outset, Jesus looked to the needs of others. Moreover, Jesus was a servant through his death, "For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:42). These bookends show that Jesus' entire ministry—from birth to death—was marked by giving up his rights as the eternally begotten Son to serve sinful people like us.

How do we respond to the way Jesus served us? By giving up our rights and serving others, whomever they may be, to bring them the gospel. It will require sacrifice, to be sure. But that sacrifice does not come without a reward, as Paul says, "I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings" (1 Cor. 9:23).

 
 

Mar

26

2014

Chris Castaldo|12:01 AM CT

Why You Must Pursue Church Unity

Ice cubes have come a long way. A century ago, they were delivered in one enormous block. During childhood, my family used ice cube trays. Today, it is even simpler. If you fill a beverage cooler before a picnic or ball game, you need not even touch a tray. Simply position your container before a refrigerator with an ice dispenser, push the button, and watch the cubes roll out the door.

unity-featureAs the ice cube has gone, so has the evangelical Protestant movement. At least in Western culture religious identity is no longer defined by the block (the Catholic Church) or the tray (a denomination in which there's a shared ecclesial structure). Instead, evangelicals often operate as individuals who roll out the door with little-to-no commitment to church membership. Here is how pastor Josh Moody of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, describes the change:

We, in conservative Christian circles, have vigorously maintained the message of the gospel but, at least in some areas and among some movements, have begun to lose any profound grasp of the community of Christ. We have rightly said that a relationship with God is a personal matter. In our context, though, it has become but a step, and a step many of us have unthinkingly taken, to acquiesce that a relationship with God is a purely individual matter. This is practical heterodoxy. Jesus said you can identify his disciples by the kind of relationship they have with one another, by the "love" they have for one another.

One Church

The history of Christian thought leaves no place for unbridled individualism. The Nicene Creed declares that we are "one church" (unam ecclesiam), and according to the Westminster Confession, such oneness has implications for our corporate identity: "The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all" (25:1). In other words, when God redeems us, he births us into his community. We are the bride of Christ. There is only one bride.

A robust ecclesiology recognizes that in uniting with other believers we constitute something greater than our individual selves, for in Christ we represent living stones that God joins to form a spiritual house (Eph. 2:19-22; 1 Pet. 2:4-10), members who are organically connected to one another (Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Cor. 12:12-31). In the words of New Testament scholar Robert Banks, "Paul's understanding of community is nothing less than the gospel in corporate form!" Insofar as our communities proclaim the message of Jesus' death and resurrection, Banks is right.

Implications for Unity

There are a few outstanding implications of the church's oneness. First, we should be leery of the kind of unity that lays claim to oneness at the expense of doctrinal substance. John Calvin said, "Those who wish to build the church by rejecting the doctrine of the Word build a pigpen and not the church of God." Authentic unity is based on specific content. For evangelical Protestantism, it is the evangel: the good news of Jesus death and resurrection, resulting in new life for those who believe, informed and applied by the whole counsel of God. Dialogue with other Christian traditions is valuable only so long as we don't forget that genuine unity is grounded in the gospel.

Second, the oneness of the church should help us to avoid the sort of provincialism and fragmentation that comes from exaggerating nonessential doctrines, personal preferences, and intramural debates. Such divisions often undermine the unity of the Spirit, which God intends for us to preserve. In Samuel Rutherford's words, "It is a fearful sin to make a rent and a hole in Christ's mystical body because there is a spot in it." To avoid this error, the apostle Paul admonished his readers to be of one mind in the Spirit, joined and knit together (1 Cor. 3:1-17; Phil. 1:27; Eph. 4:1-16), avoiding the tendency of rallying behind religious rock stars (1 Cor. 1:10-17), as is the habit of some.

Finally, it is imperative that we preserve the unity that God has established (Eph. 4:3). It was for this unity that the Lord Jesus himself prayed when he asked the Father to make us "one," just as the triune God is One (John 17:11). With this calling in view, John Murray wrote, "If we are once convinced of the evil of schism in the body of Christ: we shall then be constrained to preach the evil, to bring conviction to the hearts of others also, to implore God's grace and wisdom in remedying the evil, and to devise ways and means of healing these ruptures."

If Murray is right, pastors and church leaders should regularly consider how to heal church divisions and promote visible unity, that is, in our own congregations and across town with that other evangelical church. Anything less falls short of our calling.

 
 

Mar

25

2014

Lore Ferguson|12:01 AM CT

Leadership Is Lonely (and It Should Be)

leadership

A wise, and lonely, leader once told me, "Leadership is lonely, so choose your friends wisely." I believed him without hesitation because I saw the aching loneliness whenever he was in a crowd, the uncomfortable posture of one who longs for depth and fears it for the work it will bring.

I've been reading Paul's letters from prison thinking often of how long stretches of time alone might have been the fuel he needed to write those letters—and yet, in prison? Alone? In those days, there is no more lonely place I can think of.

Leadership is lonely. It doesn't look like it, of course, because every leader is surrounded by others, called on by others, even known, in some respect, by others. It seems like all the aching loneliness of being unknown would dissipate if only you stood with the leaders of the pack.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

One of the most helpful verses I've ever memorized is John 3:30: "He must increase, I must decrease."

Those six words have meant more to me in the swirling storms of suffering and rejoicing, lack and plenty, contentment and desire, than any other six words I know. They are the mantra of my life, and they are prophetic in a way, speaking future truth into what is not fully realized. They comfort me when I feel the aching loneliness of being both unknown and very known, a nobody and a leader, a friend and a stranger.

Leadership is lonely because decreasing is lonely. The larger the Lord of your life becomes to others, the less they see you, and isn't that what we all want? Just a bit? To be seen, known, and truly loved? To be unshackled from the collective prison of our minds and hearts, to be free to roam among other commoners, to find our place at the fire or the table, to fit in?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This morning I read an article about a couple who were removed from leadership at a school in New England. They were serving Jesus faithfully, wouldn't sign a paper demanding more from them than their faithfulness to his Word, and they were given the boot, stripped of their leadership.

And yet, not.

Because the crowning achievement of every kingdom leader is to be the least, the last, and the lowest. To fulfill their mission in the prison of lonely leadership or unrecognized leadership—a prophet who has no respect.

If you seek leadership, know that you're asking for is a life of service and loneliness. It may not look like the glamorous service you suspect. It may be the simple act of looking others in the face, hearing their stories while knowing yours is ever decreasing. It may be a life of quiet prayer. It may be behind a pulpit, which may be one of the loneliest places of all.

But, good and faithful—and lonely—servant, find your joy not in being known, but in making him known.

 
 

Mar

25

2014

Matt Smethurst|12:01 AM CT

How to Preach Books of the Bible You Don't Like

How do you preach a passage you don't particularly like? Many pastors, of course, would just find a different one. But for those committed to expository preaching, sometimes the text staring you in the face isn't one you would've picked.

"If I don't like a passage it's usually because I either don't understand it or don't see how I'm going to preach it," Mike McKinley explains in a new roundtable video with Bryan Chapell and J. D. Greear. Yet time and again, the pastor of Sterling Park Baptist Church in northern Virginia observes, "I've learned God is pleased to use things that don't impress me."

"If I understand what the Lord is saying but just don't like it, I have to learn to love it," says Chapell, pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois, and former president of Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. "I've got to try to figure out the reason God put it there and then fall in love with that reason."

"I look back on my early years and am embarrassed by how little confidence I had in the Word of God," admits Greear, pastor of The Summit Church in North Carolina. "But though there have been books of the Bible I didn't think I would like, I can honestly say I've never preached one that didn't prove to be profound and life-changing."

Watch the full nine-minute video to see these pastors discuss Monday morning terror, why Chapell bowed out before finishing Daniel, when application unburdens, and more.

Difficult parts of Scripture from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

 
 

Mar

21

2014

Ryan Hoselton|12:01 AM CT

Can Christian Theology Save the Family?

My wife and I recently returned to the restaurant where we spent our final Saturday evening before our wedding. As we settled in, our eyes focused across the room to the table where we sat 16 months ago, sharing plans of travel, butchering the pronunciations of French dishes, and preparing to create a family.

We recollected how a middle-aged couple at the bar overheard our conversation that night and turned to offer their experienced input. "Just wonderful, you two look so in love," chimed the tipsy husband. "Go large with the wedding," the wife interjected, "everything goes downhill from there." Her cynical tone and disillusioned eyes undermined her husband's every word.

images (1)Evil Hits Close to Home

It didn't take long after our wedding for us to discover that the opportunities to wreck a family are legion. "An entire army of evils besieges the life of the family," wrote the Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) in his timeless work, The Christian Family. Bavinck listed just a handful of evils that threaten the well-being of the home:

the infidelity of the husband, the stubbornness of the wife, the disobedience of the child; both the worship and the denigration of the woman, tyranny as well as slavery, the seduction and the hatred of men, both idolizing and killing children; sexual immorality, human trafficking, concubinage, bigamy, polygamy, polyandry, adultery, divorce, incest; unnatural sins whereby men commit scandalous acts with men, women with women . . . the stimulation of lust by impure thoughts, words, images . . . glorifying nudity and elevating even the passions of the flesh in the service of deity.

When "marriage loses its delight," Bavinck observed, "it turns into unbearable drudgery." The couple at the bar knew this grim reality all too intimately. The truth is that no family evades the consequences of evil.

Is the Family a Failed Project?

"There has never been a time when the family faced so severe a crisis as the time in which we are now living," Bavinck declared. During his age, scientists attempted to reduce the origin and nature of the family to naturalistic explanations. Monogamy, fidelity, and nurture had no legitimate moral or sacred foundation. Science determined the utility of the family, rendering it too flawed for modern people. Intellectuals suggested replacing marriage with free love, familial bonds with social compacts, and parenting with scientific nurturing methods.

Bavinck found that shifts in artistic expression subverted the family as well:

Today, now that realism has taken over in art . . . people take pleasure in describing life after the wedding and in marriage, presenting it as one huge disappointment, as an intolerable cohabitation, as a desperate situation of misery and duress. Poetry is then introduced into this situation by means of sinful passion, forbidden affection, unnatural lust; these are glorified and smothered with glitter at the cost of love and fidelity in marriage.

There never has been an ideal age for the family—and we certainly aren't in one today. From music award ceremonies to Woody Allen films, popular culture has not smiled kindly on the family. Even more, the hunger for financial success has brought injury to many existing families and diminished the appeal to create new ones.

According to Time magazine's Top 10 Things We Learned About Marriage in 2013, "our in-laws have an evolutionary reason to hate us," "low drama divorce is possible," and "same-sex marriage keeps winning." Number one on the list concludes: "a person could get dizzy trying to pin down the definition of a family." Dizzying indeed.

Does the problem lie in the institution of the family itself? Would the world be better off if we abandoned the family altogether?

Call for a Theology of the Family

Bavinck believed that Christian theology alone could offer hope for the family in his day and ours. He wrote, "Christians may not permit their conduct to be determined by the spirit of the age, but must focus on the requirement of God's commandment," showing "in word and deed what an inestimable blessing God has granted to humanity" with the gift of family. The following points—deduced from Bavinck's work—provide a helpful foundation toward developing a theology of the family.

God created the family beautiful and good. God is the most committed advocate for the family. "The history of the human race begins with a wedding," and God himself officiated it. He created a compatible partner for Adam as a gift, blessed the couple, and commanded them to bear his image, multiply families, and subdue the earth (Genesis 1:28). As Bavinck said, "God's artistic work comes into existence bearing the name of home and family." God created humans to reflect the relational love within the Trinity, and he appointed the family as the supreme instrument toward this end.

Sin has ravaged the family. When Adam and Eve first disobeyed God, they "sinned not only as individuals" but "also as husband and wife, as father and mother." Sin delivered a devastating blow to the home. It introduced "disunity between Adam and Eve," filled "Cain with hatred against Abel and incited him to fratricide," and it "led Lamech into polygamy." Sin poisons the health of our relationships—first with God and consequently with spouse, parent, child, sibling, and neighbor.

Christ offers the family hope. God did not leave the family in defeat. In fact, he still had big plans for it. After the fall, God promised Eve that her offspring would conquer evil (Genesis 3:15). As Bavinck writes, "In the Son born from her, the woman and the man once again attain to their calling." Jesus Christ is the only human being to never sin against his Father in heaven and his family on earth. His death for our sins offers hope for forgiveness and reconciliation not only with our earthly families but also with God our Father. Although earthly marriages remain imperfect, they represent the love between Christ and his people more than anything else in creation. Bavinck concludes his book with these hope-filled words: "The history of the human race" also "ends with a wedding, the wedding of Christ and his church, of the heavenly Lord with his earthly Bride." In Christ, the family finds significance, purpose, and hope.

 
 

Mar

20

2014

Chap Bettis|12:01 AM CT

How Pastors Can Care For Their Children

The children of pastors face some special challenges. Previously, we thought about how churches can care for their pastor's children.

But it is not just the congregation that bears responsibility in this area. Pastors also need to think and act intentionally. Our actions or inactions are powerful influences.

kids_in_churchMy young pastor wisely wanted to think about overcoming those challenges while his children were still young. So I offered him these reflections based on years of experience.

Word to Pastors

1. Think long-term. When your young children are grown, will they love or hate that you were a pastor? Will they be embittered toward the local church? God calls you to shepherd his sheep. And the closest sheep to care for are your wife and children. Passing the gospel to your children is vitally important—more important than being at every church meeting. What will your children say as adults about how you acted around your family? Did you love them when you were at home? Did you model gospel repentance? As a pastor, my children may hear my public words, but they care more about my private life.

2. Be intentional about your children's behavior on Sundays. Just because you are ministering on Sunday does not give you a free pass as a dad. You are still responsible for your children. You need to think about this responsibility not because you fear man, but because you are called to manage your household well. On Sunday, you are not just a Christian worker but also an example of a gospel family. If your children are young, should you secure help for your wife? What will your children do after the service while you are talking? Partner with your wife and your elder team in talking about this challenge. Don't overcorrect out of fear. Don't under-train out of passivity. Be intentional as an example.

3. Praise your congregation to your children. Your children hear what is said at home. Paul actively gave thanks in his letters for problem-filled churches. So can you. You and your wife are gospel warriors. In an appropriate manner recount spiritual victories around the dinner table. Deliberately articulate why you are thankful for your church. Your joy is contagious. You could also bring them along at times. The shut-in might be more overjoyed to see them than you.

4. Don't talk about church conflicts in the hearing of your children. Guard their walk and purity. In 20 years, you want them to think well of the local church. Even the most dysfunctional church is precious to Christ. And though they may not want to belong to this particular church when they are grown, you do want them to love the bride of Christ. Complaining about church problems in the hearing of your children is gossip and will sour them on the church. Problems are a part of church. Church is always messy.

5. Train and deploy the elder team. An elder team ought to have time where they can shepherd each other about any child-rearing concerns they see (Acts 20:28). Take time as a team to talk about how you are caring for your family members. Make sure none is overworking to the neglect of his family. This care should flow from an attitude of acceptance and love. Any discussion should stay among the elder team. Once you deploy among the congregation, you need to be each other's greatest defenders.

6. Focus on the heart. Managing your household well doesn't eliminate all family issues. It means you handle those issues well. It is the father, not the child, who is called to be an example. How do we handle teens who are growing into an adult body and trying to decide if they want to grow into an adult faith? We focus on the heart. We give grace for growing pains. We spend time listening to them. We show we are their biggest fan. In short, we love them more than we love appearing like we have it all together.

7. Guard your special family times. Special times like vacations and dates are a chance to build family identity and make emotional deposits in your children. They connect your hearts together. Guard those times carefully. Are special family times written on the calendar first? Do the elders have a plan to handle the inevitable emergencies that will come up during those times? God has given many gifted ones to minister to the church body. He has only given your children one father and mother.

Watching and Listening

Pastors, someday your young children will be adults. From what they see at home, would they say you love Jesus? Would they say you love them? "By this all people (including these children) will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35).  

God has called you to shepherd his flock. Your children are part of that flock. They are watching you and listening to you at home. Use that influence well.