A Pastor’s Call to Defend the Gospel

I wonder if Paul were to have written his letter to Titus today if it would make it into Preaching magazine.

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Paul told Titus to do some very strong things in it. Some of the imperative verbs deal with the manner with which Titus should live and teach, but most of the imperative verbs are things Titus should do to or for the people he was pastoring. Just note how strong some of these are:

  • Rebuke (1:13)
  • Urge (2:6)
  • Declare (2:15)
  • Exhort (2:15)
  • Rebuke (2:15)
  • Let no one disregard you (2:15)
  • Insist on these things (3:8)
  • After warning him once (3:10)

When a pastor is faced with a situation where people are misunderstanding the gospel, not living in light of the gospel, rejecting the gospel, or perverting it, Paul’s call to pastors is to strongly defend its truth. This is not being hateful. It’s being intensely truthful. Strong verbs reflect the serious nature about which Titus was dealing.

You rarely hear Paul telling Titus (or Timothy for that matter) when defending the gospel to do things to and for their people like: coddle, stroke their egos, waffle, roll over, apologize, tip-toe. Can you imagine Paul writing a letter to a pastor today where the gospel was being threatened and saying something like, “Now, whatever you do, make sure no one is offended by this and absolutely everyone agrees with it before you teach it with any kind of authority. In fact, under no circumstances are you to make anyone feel like they are wrong–even if what they’re saying is absolute heresy! If anyone preaches a gospel contrary to the one I’ve taught you–no biggie!”

I’m not talking about a pastor beating his people up so he can get his way about the color of the carpet. There are wise and unwise ways to deal with those kinds of issues. But Paul’s admonition to Titus and Timothy and young pastors out there like you and me are very clear when it comes to defending the gospel: you do it strongly, clearly, without apology, and you do not let anyone get in the way of its truth. There will be people who do not like it, and who do not like you as a result. Those are scars you must be willing to bear. If my memory serves me right, there was another one who was willing to bear scars for the same cause.

The truth of the gospel is the only legitimate reason anyone has for living–the only true hope anyone has at all! In fact, if it’s not true and held as such, then your church is no longer a church and you are no longer a pastor. If we lose it, someone just go ahead and set off atomic bombs across the world and end this thing for us all. But because its true, you, pastor, must fight for it with your life. Be flexible about your philosophy, your preferences, and your style, but do not bend when the gospel is at stake. Be irrepressibly rigid.


When People Don’t Show Up

Ever since I began full-time ministry I’ve been struggling against finding my worth based on how many people show up. It doesn’t really matter what event it is: Bible study, hang out, worship service, whatever. If I’m heading it up, I feel more significant when more people come and I feel foolish when not many come and give lame excuses.

I know this isn’t right and that I shouldn’t think that way or feel that way, but it doesn’t mean the battle isn’t real.

I have picked up on something that lets me know my heart motivation is in this place. Whenever someone doesn’t come to a gathering and my initial reaction is sarcasm, I know I’ve succumbed to the lie again. Sarcasm for me is a nice way of being angry.

How do I know this is a sign I’m justifying myself based on attendance? Because the biblical response when someone is resistant to being part of the body of Christ isn’t anger, but Godly sorrow. Most of the time, I confess, I am not sorrowful that people aren’t interested in wanting to know Christ more through the class we’re offering or the program we’ve worked hard on. Most of the time I’m angry they’re more interested in going fishing than spending time with me.

That’s pride on my part. I don’t want to be that way.

And yet, I remember the truth about someone who died to justify me before God. I look to Him for freedom from my self-justification method, and ask for grace to have His heart toward those to whom He has called me to minister.

What Preaching Is Not

peter-preachingWhat is preaching? I’ve thought and studied a lot about that. It’s an important question for a Christian. Why is it so important? Because preaching is the most important 25-45 minutes a church body spends together and is one of the few things that can change the world.

Martin Lloyd Jones said:

“The most urgent need in the Christian Church today is true preaching; and as it is the greatest and the most urgent need in the Church, it is obviously the greatest need of the world also” (Preaching and Preachers, Jones, 17).

A lot of people claim to preach. Many others say they hear preaching every Sunday. But many of the people who claim they are preaching are doing something very different than others who also claim to be preaching.

Some Examples
For example: one man stands in front of a group of people on Sunday morning and shares compelling stories about loving one another, giving examples from society, his life, using poetry, video clips, and song lyrics. He also quotes a verse of Scripture about love. People leave feeling warm and encouraged, but without having been engaged with God’s Word. They know what to do, but they don’t know what God has said.

Another man reads a text of Scripture in front of a group of people, then proceeds to essentially say what the text makes him think of: other Scriptures, stories, examples from society, etc. The man hardly references his original text again and hasn’t thought once about what the original author intended to say to his original audience. Many of the things he says are good and true, but they’re just not found in the text he started with. People who agree with the statements leave happy and affirmed, but rarely challenged by being engaged with an appropriately applied passage. And the people who disagree with his talk, well, they just leave mad.

Still another man reads a text of Scripture and very meticulously points out original meanings of words and phrases, noting syntax, grammar, context, cross references and allusions throughout Scripture. There’s a lot of “What Paul is saying is . . . ” People leave more informed, certainly having confidence that their pastor “knows his Bible,” but haven’t seen what in the world the passage has to do with them.

None of these examples are preaching.

“Preaching is when the content and the intent of a passage of Scripture becomes the content and intent of a sermon.” Mike Bullmore

Why The Examples Aren’t Preaching
In the first example I made up, the content and intent of the sermon is only mildly influenced by Scripture. The preacher thought of what he wanted to say to the people, and then found a verse that went along with it. This is hardly letting the text drive the content or intent of the message. Maybe the talk was inspiring, and maybe God used it (who knows?). Maybe the talk was even necessary, but it was not preaching.

The second example seems more like preaching to some because this man is more likely to say “churchy” phrases many of us have heard growing up–true things even! And he says them with such power and conviction! “Homosexual behavior is sin!” We rightly reply, “Yes, that’s true. But what does that have to do with the text you just read?” This preacher doesn’t let the content or intent of the text guide him any more than the guy who plays videos from his iPad does. And it is still not preaching.

On to the third example. Those of us who have been to Bible College or seminary are even more likely to think this man is preaching, but sadly, he is not. This preacher does a good job at understanding the content and intent of the original author to the original audience, but he fails to make it his content and intent to his audience. This preacher says “Paul told them to repent” too much and doesn’t say “You must repent” enough. A “sermon” not directed and applied to contemporary hearers is not a sermon, it’s a NT grammar lesson. And a grammar lesson is not preaching.

What I’m Not Saying
I’m not saying I know everything about preaching. I’m very young and inexperienced and have a ton to learn!

I’m also not saying that the other kind of talks are bad or always inappropriate for every context. God can use the three examples I’ve listed, and I pray He does. These other kinds of talks aren’t bad, it just means they aren’t examples of preaching.

Another thing I’m not saying that in order for it to be preaching that it has to be verse-by-verse exposition. You can preach an entire book of the Bible in one sermon by applying the major themes of its content and intent to your congregation. Mark Dever does this. I have attempted to do this with the book of Jonah (emphasis on the word attempted). Or take Martin Lloyd Jones for example. Most of the sermons I’ve heard from him aren’t verse-by-verse exposition (which probably should be the main way preaching should happen IMO). Instead, many of his sermons are thematic–he’ll preach about what it means to have faith, for example. But even in that, he’s applying the content and intent of several passages that deal with the biblical concept of faith to his hearers–he makes the content and intent his content and intent. That’s different than saying whatever a verse makes you think about (like example #2 above)–which is what David Helms calls “impressionistic preaching” (like impressionist painters).

Fellow pastors, lets hone our skills and proclaim the text as well as we possible can, considering what it is we’re trying to accomplish from the pulpit every Sunday.

Walking With Hurt People

I’ve written before about some of the differences between revitalizing a church and planting a church. One of those differences has a lot to do with the fact that in revitalizing a church, you’re working with people who have been there a while.

When people have been at a church for 10, 20, 30, or even 40 years, they remember. And if the church has seen better days in the past, that means there are people who remember hurts.

Churches aren’t always safe places where everyone is always gracious and forgiving. Sometimes they’re unhealthy places where people assume the worst and attack one another. If you stay in a church for even a few years, you’ll start to notice warts, and even have someone say something to you that was presumptuous, hurtful, or a plain lie.

Now imagine 40 years of that. Yeah, people are hurt.

I’ve thrown around a few ideas for different programming and whatnot and had an idea or two be the thing that reminded someone of the hurts they’ve experienced. What happened at that time? All the frustration started flooding back.

It would be easy to take that frustration as an attack on me or my idea. It wasn’t. It probably didn’t have anything to do with my idea. It probably doesn’t even have anything to do with me. It’s just a hurt person remembering.

A lot of church members that have been around for a long time don’t need a ton of instruction from the new pastor. They know the Bible–I’m sure some of my members could teach me a LOT of things! What a lot of members need is someone to walk them through their hurts.

Programs come and programs go. It’s the people you’re there to pastor.


Watch Out for the Creativity Trap

imagesI fell into a trap I’m all to familiar with last night: the creativity trap.

Creativity isn’t bad for people in some occupations, but it is often a trap for pastors.

It happens when a pastor sees a need or a problem in his church. “We need more volunteers.” “We need to help our youth get past a spiritual apathy they seem to have.” “We need to win more lost people.”

Not bad things to think about, and most definitely good things to move past. But the trap comes in how I usually respond to the problem. My usual response is generally, “What creative or ingenious thing can I think of to fix this problem?”

That’s the creativity trap right there.

The creativity trap convinces us that we can use non-spiritual means to fix spiritual problems.  

It’s good to be creative. But we fall when we think our creativity is the main way God builds His church.

Spiritual people need spiritual nourishment–God’s Word. The Word of God is the guaranteed method to build Jesus’ church. It cannot fail.

Isaiah 55:10-11:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

There are people associated with your church who will leave saying, “You didn’t wow me.” Listen bro, you can spend all your energy trying to keep those people by making church cooler. More lights. Hipper graphics. Higher resolution videos. More current music. But cool does not build the people of God. God’s sheep long for the food of God’s Word.

Which would you rather have: a cool church full of people threatening to leave unless you entertain them again? Or a church with people content to be spiritually nourished no matter how uncool it is? One crowd comes for creativity, the other comes for God’s Word.

Do you really believe God’s Word will do what God claims it will do? Watch out for the creativity trap.

A Sermon Satan Loves

There are two kinds of sermons that Satan loves.

1. A Sermon Without Jesus

Charles Spurgeon said:

No Christ in your sermon sir? Then go home and don’t come back until you have something worth preaching.

Jesus is the point of the Bible. He is the embodiment of the good news. And it’s the good news that God uses to change people’s hearts. So if you don’t have Jesus in your sermon–the good news–then you don’t have a sermon that can change people’s hearts. You might have a sermon that motivates people to make temporal changes, but like a branch disconnected from the vine, changes not rooted in the grace of God will quickly wither away.

2. A Sermon Without Application

Satan has impeccable theology. He knows everything there is to know about God. But he doesn’t obey God or worship Him as God. Satan’s problem is not an information problem. It’s a worship problem that shows itself in his actions. When we “preach” in a way that does not get to the worship problem that changes actions, Satan is very comfortable. He does not care that people’s minds are informed if their hearts and lives are not transformed.

This is why simply explaining a text is not preaching that makes Satan shudder. I’m not even convinced it should be called preaching. Teaching maybe, but not preaching. Preaching is intended to change people, not just inform them. If your intent in the pulpit is to simply inform, please leave the preaching to someone else.

I will preach Christ and I will apply the text to my people. I want to preach sermons that Satan hates.

Spray Cologne Before You Leave Work

brut-cologne-by-faberge-3-4-oz-cologne-spray-plastic-bottle-unboxed-menOne day at my old workplace, Randall House, I noticed a bottle of cologne in my boss’ office. I asked Matt why he had it, and he said he sometimes uses it just before he goes home. That seemed like a strange thing to do as most people spray cologne or perfume at the beginning of the day, not the end.

I’ll never forget what Matt Markins said to me that day:

My real ministry starts when I get home.

Matt wanted to minister to his family so much that he wanted to smell good for his wife more then he did his co-workers.

On another occasion Matt told me he would periodically take naps after work so he could have the energy he needed to be fully present with his family when he got home.

Matt gets it, and he communicated something I strive to reflect even though I have a very young family: pastoral ministry starts at home.

Timothy Paul Jones said you will rarely see your ministry reflect that which your family does not model.

So go home today, pastor, but before you do, be sure to spray some cologne.

A Danger for Church Revitalizers

The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty. Proverbs 21:5

red_rectangle_danger_sign_lRevitalizing a church carries certain dangers, especially for a rookie pastor. One that keeps creeping up on me is the need to look for a magic bullet. I feel the urgency and burden of needing to see our church change, but the rate of change doesn’t match my level of urgency. So I look for that program. That volunteer. That amount of money. That style of music. That new purchase. That new design. “There has to be something pastors in the past haven’t thought of yet that will fix everything,” I think.

I’m sure there is something to be said for these kinds of things, but there is also something very unhealthy and dangerous about being hasty when it comes to church revitalization.

If a church is like a ship, then trying to turn too sharply will actually lead to capsizing the vessel instead of moving in a different direction. So too will being hasty in decisions.

There are things to change. There are old habits that need to die. There are new things God is doing in hearts. But the hasty do not see these things happen. The diligent do.

And so I remind myself of God’s Word on this. Then we turn the wheel not sharply, but slightly, looking to where God is moving us, trusting Him to be enough when the burden of ministry isn’t satisfied by circumstance.

Detroit: the most segregated city in America

I came across this map last night over at Wired. It is fascinating.

As it relates to Detroit, the dividing line between the African American community and the white community is astounding. North of 8 mile road is white people, and south of 8-mile road is black people. And the two pretty much don’t mix . . . at all.

Not sure what it means, other than the obvious segregation. I hope it doesn’t mean we’re racist, although I have my doubts. I’m certain this is not reflective of what heaven will be like.

Praying for the day when our church is so integrated that the only thing we have in common is the gospel.

Not a Seminarian ≠ Unsaved

ImageOne small adjustment I’ve had to make coming fresh out of seminary (well, still being in seminary actually) is to not necessarily be alarmed when church members don’t articulate their faith with the same theological clarity everyone in seminary does. 

In talking with my fellow church members at Central, I quickly found out that most Christians don’t know phrases like “penal substitutionary atonement” or “plenary verbal inspiration.”

For example, a friend and I might strike up a conversation about our faith or what God has been doing in our lives lately. The person I’m talking to might never use the phrase “the gospel” in describing the time they first came to Christ. They might say, “found God” or “got right” or even “got saved.”

I paused for a few days to consider whether I should wonder about the validity of their conversions in light of the lack of theological terminology. I’ve decided against it, at least based solely on those simple conversations. The reason is that just because someone doesn’t know all the terms doesn’t mean they don’t agree with them. It just means they’ve never heard of them before. A faithful church member’s ignorance of terms doesn’t mean they’re not a Christian. It just means they’re not a seminarian. And that’s OK.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been going to church as a Christian long enough to know there is such a thing as false conversions and false assurance. But just because someone can’t articulate their faith in the same way I’ve been exposed to doesn’t mean they’re not really a Christian.

It’s good to be patient, get to know people, give new friends the benefit of the doubt, build trust. Then, speak and teach at appropriate times.