Category Archives: Ministry

Struggling to Love in the Face of Evil

Even when life is "easy" it is hard to show mercy to our fellow sinners. When enjoying order, safety, and congeniality, serving others can still be a challenge. But when you are drowning in poverty, murder, violence, lawlessness, sickness, injustice, pain, and desperation, showing mercy to sinners amplifies the sin in yourself. As a sinner, it is difficult to love someone who doesn't return your love. So how do you respond when the one you hope to serve desires to kill you?

Our full-time team of a dozen missionaries serves in Honduras. This country is incredibly hard to live in, let alone minister to. For five years running Honduras has been the most murderous country in the world. Its people are the second-poorest in the Western Hemisphere. The average first birth occurs at 15 years of age. Hospitals are closed, police are outgunned, pastors are driven from the country, babies starve, treatable illnesses lead to death, and indifference and apathy are endemic.

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Our fences have barbed wire, our windows have bars, our yards have attack dogs. The ladies on our team are not allowed exercise outdoors or live alone. Our kids can't walk to the corner store or carry mobile phones. Missionaries on our team have suffered burglaries, armed robberies, and had guns put to our heads. Ministry is not easy in Honduras.

Better than Fleeting Comfort

How on earth are we supposed to love a culture that refuses to love itself? And, more importantly to our sin nature, how are we supposed to show mercy to a people who want to harm us? Our mission team has been studying Acts, that ghastly book that tells about missionaries like Paul and Peter and Barnabas, who get chased out of town, beaten, stoned, imprisoned, and continue to plant churches, preach the gospel, and show mercy to those who disparage them. The same book points out my sins and provides examples of a good missionary to whom I will never measure up.

The great theologians understood Christians are called to experience pain, and to endure it, because God is worth so much more than our fleeting comfort and pleasure. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the World War II martyr for Christ, described a Christian as "someone who shares the sufferings of God in the world." Augustine taught, "It is not the punishment but the cause that makes the martyr." Hudson Taylor, the pioneering 19th-century missionary to China, proclaimed, "For our Master's sake, may he make us willing to do or suffer all his will." And John Calvin explained, "You must submit to supreme suffering in order to discover the completion of joy."

Suffering is not a new concept; it is just new to us. Scripture addressed these issues long ago. God is by no means unaware of our pain (Ex. 3:7), and he calls us to endure our sufferings and continue in our service to him (2 Tim. 4:5). We know God will not give us more than we can endure (1 Cor. 10:13), and we understand the Lord prepares his servants for battle (Ps. 144:1). God knows we can endure more than we think we can in his strength. We, on the other hand, have our doubts. Some days the battle just wears us down, and even if we think we can endure another day, we just don't want to.

Not Absolved

Our doubt, pain, and discomfort do not absolve Christians of our responsibility to spread the saving grace of Christ and show his mercy to the needy. Tim Keller stated, "If you look down at the poor and stay aloof from their suffering, you have not really understood or experienced God's grace." We were never promised lack of pain or suffering, only the unwavering knowledge that the Creator of the universe loves us.

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When we struggle with safety and security and still get out of bed every morning to toil in the name of Christ, he receives an extra measure of glory from our labors. How fortunate to experience suffering that results in God's glory, pain that expands God's name, and persecution that points towards heaven! John Piper said, "This is God's universal purpose for all Christian suffering: more contentment in God and less satisfaction in the world." Indeed, our bodies and souls belong to the Lord. Our worship of Christ includes offering our entire life to God. Our joy comes in service when we obey his commands.

Be it money, comfort, family, or friends, mission work entails sacrifice. God calls us to be willing to give all we have. As with all other Christians, missionaries must die to self, forego personal gain, and submit to Christ. No matter the cost we are called to serve the Lord. "They gave our Master a crown of thorns," Martin Luther wrote. "Why do we hope for a crown of roses?"

Why Youth Ministers Need to Be Theologians

We expect a certain level of theological sophistication from our preaching pastors. They must at least know church history, systematic theology, and hopefully some Greek and Hebrew so they can properly interpret and apply the biblical text. We're confident that when we approach them with questions about the canonization of Scripture, the implications of the incarnation, and the doctrine of the body and sexuality, their learning will aid us in responding faithfully to such pressing questions in our culture.

If anything the world bears down with even greater ferocity on the fledging faith of Christian youth. So why should we expect less theological rigor from our youth pastors who serve them through teaching, counseling, and more? Every youth minister needs to be a theologian, whether formally or informally equipped to handle God's Word with integrity and care.

This new 10-minute video feature insights from David Plant, director of youth ministry at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City; Cameron Cole, director of youth ministries at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama; and Liz Edrington, who is pursuing her master's degree in counseling from Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. All three serve on the board of advisers for Rooted, which aims to transform student ministry by fostering grace-driven and cross-centered leaders through rich theological and contextual engagement.

This year's Rooted conference on "Truth in a World of Mixed Messages" runs October 9 to 11 in New York City and features Andrew Wilson as the keynote speaker.

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4 Ways to Minister to Older Saints

I thought it was just another Tuesday when I walked into the hospital to minister to people from our church. But that day would change my ministry forever. When I entered his room I saw an older man in his 80s who had that once-upon-a-time deacon look to him. I figured he had probably been in our church for 50 years and put up with at least four senior pastors and countless youth ministers. I expectd a full download on why the church today is struggling and the younger generation is to blame.

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As I sat down in the chair beside his bed, he asked me who I was, and I identified myself as the student pastor at his church. The gentleman sat up in his bed and began to open up his heart about his ministry days. He had been a pastor for more than 35 years. Now retired, he had recently become a member of our church. Rather than giving me an hour-long lecture on the state of the church, he gladly talked to me about what he learned about being a pastor for almost four decades. He talked about loving Christ, loving his family, and serving the flock that God had entrusted to him. He was more interested in listening than talking, but when he did talk it was like reading one of my favorite biographies about a Christian hero.

We're tempted in ministry to take one bad situation with an older man and apply it to the whole age group. But just as we want to be known personally and not stereotyped as a young hothead, older saints want to be known indivudally and not just as the grumpy, disinterested old men who sit in the back of the church with their arms folded. If we younger ministers would only humble ourselves and seek out relationships, we can gain untold wisdom from the many older and faithful souls in our churches.

If you desire a revival of gospel-centered ministry, then you'll need to learn from and engage the the older generation. Consider these four ways to minister to older saints.

1. Spend time listening to their life stories and learning how they were and are shaped by the gospel. Start in your church but extend this same courtesy to the pastors you criticize among your peers at a conference. It is possible that if we would be patient to listen, we may learn good reasons for why the older men hold unpopular opinions. You don't need to agree, but you should at least take the time to learn and understand.

2. Ask them how they have seen the gospel advance. The gospel is not just for our day and time. It is timeless. The good news has gone forth in every generation and circumstance since Jesus rose from the dead. Older saints in your church want to see their kids and grandchildren saved. They know the church needs to raise up younger leaders. And as I've learned from the older men in my church, they're praying for our pastors more often than we know.

You and I have many blind spots in ministry. My biggest help has been pastors in their 50s and 60s who have humbly shared what they did wrong at my age. These men lean across the table and tell me, "John, I do not want you to make the same mistake I did." These are the conversations that I reflect on regularly.

3. Ask them to serve. Even as they stand at the door to eternity, these older believers want to be used by God in their last days. You need to encourage them to stay in the battle. They have already given so much to the church. With a little love and respect, you can recruit these saints to be your strongest allies. Rather than putting them to pasture ask them to engage. They may not be beating down your door to learn of volunteer opportunities, but I have found they are eager to help when asked. It's an amazing example when younger leaders see an older man serving, no matter the job. If we have breath we have a job to do.

4. Thank them. If not for them we would not be here. Our churches and budgets exist because the generations before us bought in and sacrificed for the gospel. They were planting churches before planting churches was cool. We may disagree with some of their suggestions, but we probably would not even have the option to disagree if not for their faithful years of service.

One day we will be in the same position as they are now, and we would want the young pastors to treat us the same way---as useful and fruitful believers engaged in the same battle.

R-Rated Texts for an R-Rated World

I don't know how you set the parental controls on your cable TV. I don't even have cable, but if I did, I'd filter certain episodes to protect my three sons. Of course, we could similarly restrict some scriptural episodes due to explicit content not suitable for all audiences. Maybe that's one reason many churches censor parts of the Bible for being too crass, violent, or sexual.

Who wants to hear the sex laws of Leviticus 18 at 11 a.m. on Sunday while sitting next to your mom? Or what mom wishes to cradle her newborn as she listens to Psalm 137 bless those who dash their enemies' babies on the rocks? And what teenage girl desires to sit next to pubescent boys as she hears how Abraham circumcised his whole house in Genesis 17? What kind of church would preach this stuff?

My church has preached each of these texts over the past few years, and I want to encourage you to do the same. Why? Because I believe Christians and non-Christians alike need these R-rated texts to make sense of their R-rated world.

Christians Need R-Rated Texts

God's Word is entirely sufficient to equip Christians for "every good work" (2 Tim. 3:17). Whole believers need the whole Bible. But the principle of sola Scriptura ought to drive the vision not just for our personal quiet times, but also for our corporate gatherings. As a pastor, who am I to suppress the parts of Scripture that cause me to tremble a bit as I read them publicly? What if I'm concealing the exact words God would use to incite revival in my church? What if hiding these texts is actually creating a people so heavenly minded they are of no earthly good?

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I've been struck time and again by the responses of the children of light to the darkest parts of Scripture. Initially, the congregation becomes restless with the horrors of sin and eager for some glimmer of hope. Then, as I unveil Jesus in the sermon, it feels like he's being unleashed on the darkness. The hearts of saints rejoice as they see their Savior once again entering the shadow of death as a flash of brilliant, unstoppable, conquering light.

Non-Christians Need R-Rated Texts  

While edifying believers is our primary goal in corporate worship, we must strategically and passionately engage non-Christians as well. Have you considered that unbelievers might need the texts we're most hesitant to teach?

For example, if we avoid sexually explicit texts, how will the girl who's broken and bitter at God for being raped know he hates sexual sin even more than she does? Where will she hear of the redemption and restoration the gospel delivers or that a healthy sexual relationship with her spouse is possible? That's why I'm no longer surprised when new believers join our church and vocalize their appreciation for preaching that moves through whole books of the Bible.

I think Sunday morning boredom often results from sermons that aren't as gritty as our lives---or the Bible. God gave us R-rated texts because we live in an R-rated world. Think about it. It's hard to relate to Abraham, David, or Paul if you imagine them as spiritual Supermen living in a world without kryptonite. But a closer look at these heroes of faith reveals lives riddled with dark sins---stories that dare me to hope that if God can work through them, then maybe he can work through me. Pausing to reflect on the horrific failures of God's men excites us to look for God's man---Jesus Christ.

6 Tips for Preaching R-Rated Texts to an R-Rated World

To be sure, preaching R-rated texts is tough. I've experienced the pain of people walking out during difficult sermons. I've felt the sweet sting of brotherly correction over botched attempts. So let me invite you to learn from my failures with six suggestions for preaching these passages.

1. Be sensitive to cultural expectations of the congregation.

This caution is especially true as a newer pastor. You probably shouldn't preach about dashing babies on the rocks on Mother's Day.

2. Preach expositionally.

A complete series on unnerving texts sounds weird. Sure, I've thought about ways to do it. But people are less likely to think the pastor's a creeper if they understand your larger motivation is to preach the whole Bible---even when it's hard.

3. Label parental advisories clearly.

Parents hold different perspectives on what they want their children exposed to, and I think that's okay. At our church we print sermon cards months in advance so people can know what's coming. We also have a pastor warn parents of explicit content prior to the sermon. If you don't have a children's program during your service, you may want to organize something special for that day.

4. Call a spade a spade.

People need to know gross sins are gross. They also need to know why they are gross and how they mangle a human identity meant to image our Creator God. A world that revels in spiritual disfigurement needs to hear that gross sin is gross because it mars the intrinsic value with which God has endowed all of us.

5. Don't diminish grace.

I'm familiar with Monday morning discouragement over Sunday's failure to communicate grace. In fact, the same grace I failed to preach gets me out of bed those mornings. Friends, put your back into preaching grace. Don't preach Leviticus 18 saying, "Look at these nasty sexual sins. Moses lists these sins because this is what they were doing. Things haven't changed much, huh? Oh well. Stock up on water and crackers. Build a bunker. Stop sinning. Amen." Don't be surprised by the Israel-like horrors lurking behind the veneers of smiling faces in your congregation. They're desperate for grace to meet them in the specific sins showcased in Scripture. If we diminish sin's severity, we diminish Christ's provision. But if we shine light on gross sins while leaving Christ in the dark, we've failed as ministers of the gospel. It would be better if we didn't preach at all.

6. Avoid false hope.

The question isn't if but when justice will ultimately arrive. God fights for justice. Justice finally wins. Any progress we make in alleviating injustice in this world pales in light of the justice that will arrive when Christ returns. A healthy doctrine of Christian suffering, then, helps to counterbalance any over-realized eschatology that would erect unrealistic expectations for ushering in the justice only Christ can.

If you preach the whole Bible publicly, expect conflict. People will still walk out. But when done prayerfully and thoughtfully, expect it to bring life from death and light to the darkest places.

Why Don't Calvinists Care About Missions?

As a general principle, if we hear a criticism repeatedly, we should take it seriously, no matter how unfounded or painful it may initially seem. I had an opportunity to practice this principle when a thoughtful student recently asked in class, "Why don't Calvinists care about missions?" I believe the charge is largely unfounded, so I wish he had asked, "Why do people say Calvinists don't care about missions?'" Still, however we phrase the question, it persists. Is there something in Calvinism that weakens the urgency of evangelism? We can easily think of several answers why maybe it does.

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Calvinists and culture: Calvinists are so bent on engaging their own culture that they can neglect other cultures, and so neglect cross-cultural missions. Again, Calvinists are so bent on engaging the culture that they can fail to confront their own culture, including its unbelief.

Calvinists and a well-trained clergy: Reformed leaders insist on well-trained ministers, which prevents rapid deployment when a mission field opens. There were four Methodist ministers in America in 1771 and 2,000 by 1816. That mass had not attended seminary. Rather, Francis Asbury and his allies commissioned them for itinerant frontier work. The story in the South Sea Islands is similar. Congregationalist missionary John Williams placed native teachers, "often with the slenderest of qualifications," on remote islands in the South Pacific. The work seemed too urgent to wait for seminary grads.

Some say that the doctrines of divine sovereignty and predestination undermine the urgency of evangelism and missions. At a minimum, it seems that Calvinists are less likely than Arminians such as Charles Finney to press for a decision "this very day." In his lectures on revivals of religion, Finney said, "Revival is not a miracle, or dependent on a miracle, in any sense. It is a purely philosophical [i.e. scientific] result of the right use of the constituted means—as much as any other effect produced by the application of means." This conviction led Finney to develop a system of high-pressure evangelistic methods. The Calvinist disagrees, and, citing Romans, affirms that revival and conversion depend ultimately on the work of the Spirit. We care about means but believe that the Spirit uses a variety of means. We can take our time, too, since we don't worry that a man will die the day before he comes to faith, trusting that God will bring his people to himself.

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I'll let the reader judge whether there could be some truth in these three points. Calvinists might show their concern for missions more readily if, for example, they were more willing to commission workers to go to lands that where evangelists don't need to know the effects of the Enlightenment and World War 1 on liberal European theology.

Nonetheless, Calvinists do care about missions and evangelism. The evangelical and Reformed denominations plant churches in cities and towns that lack sound churches and sponsor many works overseas. Our seminaries send impressive numbers of grads into church planting, campus work, and missional work on all continents.

That said, Calvinists must admit that Catholics, not Protestants, first sent missionaries to Asia and the new world. The Jesuit Francis Xavier led the way, reaching India by 1542. Many followed his lead—all over the globe. Whatever their failings, they wentProtestant missions didn't really get started until the early 1700s. Early Protestants didn't talk about missions much either; the Westminster Confession of Faith famously lacks a section on missions.

But there is more to the story. The first Protestants stayed home because they saw their own countries as mission fields. German, English, Scottish, French, and Swiss Protestants knew the gospel was almost unknown in vast swaths of their lands. At the time, church services were typically conducted in Latin, so the message was incomprehensible to the vast majority of people. Even in lands with Protestants leaders and evangelical creeds and catechisms, many areas had no competent preachers, so they were Christian in name only. The reformers gave themselves to evangelism and missions in their own lands.

Consider Calvin himself. He was forced to leave France under the threat of persecution and settled in Geneva, Switzerland. He soon founded a seminary. Great numbers of his students came from France and returned to France. More than 150 of Calvin's graduates planted churches in France, under a real threat of death. By the late 16th century, scholars estimate that 5 percent to 10 percent of the French populace worshiped in Protestant churches, until persecution scattered them. Similarly, while the early Puritans didn't send missionaries overseas, they trained pastors and sent them to every corner of England, in a time when many churches had no faithful gospel preaching.

In the great revivals of the 18th century, the Arminian Wesleys are perhaps most famous for their preaching in open fields and town squares, but George Whitefield, the Calvinist, had just as much influence in his day as the Wesleys. Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, another Calvinist, were surely the leading lights of America's Great Awakening.

In short, history shows that Calvinism was missional and evangelistic at the start. By our nature, all evangelicals care about missions. The question is, are we true to our essential nature, or do we follow secondary strands that can lead away from evangelism? Are we so intent on engaging and transforming our culture that we are slow to challenge it with the gospel? Are pastors so intellectual that they are content to make disciples after others convert them? Does our proper confidence in the Spirit invite sloth? If our churches see less evangelistic fruit than we hope, we must ask ourselves these questions.

Perhaps the biggest question is this: Are today's Calvinists true to our historic nature and evangelical calling? If we are enthusiastic about God's worldwide mission, how do our actions show it? How blessed it would be to answer these questions so convincingly that no one thinks to ask; all will know that Calvinists really do care about missions.

Restoration in the South Bronx

The South Bronx of New York City is filled with loud, creative, proud, and resilient people. Yet it's still an incredibly poor neighborhood where we do all we can to get by from one week to the next. Our community is host to countless liquor stores, check-cashing spots, and methadone clinics. You'll also find a church or two, but despite the presence of a few older churches, our people don't often see Jesus as precious. Finding joy in the cross is a foreign idea. All we can see are the hard truths we face on a daily basis:

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  • Surveys reveal 37 percent of our families cannot provide enough food to feed their families because of a lack of financial resources.
  • Median annual income for Melrose and Morrisania is $8,694. Yes, you read that right.
  • One out of three South Bronx residents lives in subsidized housing (the projects).
  • As many as 98 percent of homeless families in the South Bronx are black and Latino.

These statistics give you a small idea of the daily hardships we've faced for as long as I can remember.

The question I've begun asking myself is this: What would the South Bronx look like if everybody who "made it out" didn't leave but instead made their home in the same neighborhood that formed them, where they grew up? What if instead of placing our children in a private school (that we can't afford in the first place), my wife and I got to know the teachers and parents in the school across the street? What if it were possible for a church to be "present" on the block, bodega, and parks of the South Bronx? What if the local church were actually local?

Of course, the hardships would persist. After all, no one knows the hardships our community faces better than we do. But would our neighborhood and community be better equipped to serve those needs if the local church truly became local? Would we be able to face them—hand-in-hand with our neighbors—with a stronger united force for good? Although overwhelming and monstrous to undertake, this strategy is the only way to face these needs.

Real and Hard

Contemplating that scenario ultimately instigated my desire to plant Restoration Church in the South Bronx. I read Matthew 9:36, and I was completely broken. God moved me to understand his grace in a way that I never had before. I began to see the people as Jesus sees them. Because of the real and hard circumstances in our neighborhood, we simply do not see hope or help as viable options. Then God opened my eyes to an incredible truth. Grace is hard to extend if it has never been received. Because the everyday difficulties of living in the South Bronx are indeed real and hard, it's challenging to grasp God's grace when life is seemingly absent of grace or second chances. We need someone to point us toward the real hope and help we so desperately need. I knew immediately that God was calling me to say, "Yeah, I know how you feel, but take a look at Jesus. Do you see what I see?"

So when I walk around my community, I know in my bones that this place was built for the gospel. The hope and help that comes attached to God's grace is precisely what we need to grab a hold of the good things we've made ultimate things and put them back in their proper place. Preaching the power of God's truth in the same community that I call home makes his undeserved grace even sweeter to my soul.

While there are many organizations doing amazing work around the globe, not many are doing ministry in my neck of the woods. That's why we need more men who have been called to cultivate the natural resources of a people made to create culture. My dream is that God would use Restoration Community Church to crank out men who are rightly motivated and gracefully equipped to make the South Bronx a cultural stronghold of the Christian faith in New York City.

Call me crazy if you want, but I believe God can make it happen. After all, our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases (Ps. 115:3).

Redeemer City to City helps local leaders start churches in global cities.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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We Proclaim Him: Signs of Grace in the Twin Cities

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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.