All Christians should be above reproach, but elders must be

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Being above reproach means that an elder is to be the kind of man whom no one suspects of wrongdoing and immorality. people would be shocked to hear this kind of man charged with such acts. Being above reproach does not mean that he maintains sinless perfection. It means that his demeanor and behavior over time have garnered respect and admiration from others. He lives a life worthy of the calling of God (Eph. 4:1; 5:1–2; Phil. 1:27; Col. 1:10–12).

It’s critically important for an elder to be above reproach for at least two reasons. First, everyone will assume at least two things once he is made an elder: that he is an example to all the sheep in all areas of life (1 Tim. 4:12; 1 Pet. 5:1–3); and that he will receive the benefit of the doubt against uncorroborated allegations of wrongdoing (1 Tim. 5:19). Few things are worse for a church than having a man who lacks good character be able to set a bad example while also being shielded by the generosity of judgment that comes with the office.

Second, it’s critically important because an elder must be held in high esteem for his character, not for his wealth, popularity, or other worldly things. We may be tempted to grant the eldership to men on the grounds that they have made it in the business world, have a long family history with the church, or are popular and well regarded. But the apostle is not interested in any of these things. He’s interesed in a dignity of character commensurate with the office. If a man is popular in the worldly sense but is not above reproach, he will likely lead out of his popularity instead of character. He may fear man more than God (a big temptation for this office), or attempt to run the church like his business, or assume certain “rights” because of his standing in the community. And all these will cripple an eldership for a time.

All Christians should be above reproach, but Christian elders must be.

Thabiti Anyabwile, Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons, 57-58

The danger of overextending your reach

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A friend of mine recently lamented the blessing and curse of podcasts. The blessing is obvious, and the danger is equally so: podcasts can “ruin” us for ordinary pastors. There’s a dangerous temptation to treat podcasts as our pastors, and to forsake biblical community for a hyper-individualized spirituality.

But there’s another danger we don’t talk about quite as much: the danger to the pastors who are extending their reach beyond their local church.

You might be reading this and thinking, what on earth could be dangerous? After all, many pastors write books every year, podcast their sermons, and write blogs. Some even find themselves speaking at conferences, of whom the majority of attendees are undoubtedly not members of their congregations.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these things, certainly. So why do I have a concern? Because there’s a question we always should be asking: is trying to extend our reach taking away from our primary ministry? 

Now, I absolutely believe pastors should write books (at least, those who can write). I’d go as far to say as pastors are obligated to share the wisdom and insights they’ve gained with the larger body of Christ, and more specifically, with younger pastors and leaders.

But many pastors who are asked to write books aren’t asked because they’ve demonstrated they can write, or they have the accumulated wisdom of a lifetime of ministry. They just have a lot of people showing up on Sunday.

Whether or not a pastor has the chops to write a book, start a blog or start a podcast, the temptation to pursue these things is enormous. But in the pursuit of these things, it’s easy to start cutting corners, even unintentionally. Research gets reduced or outsourced. Sermon prep is virtually non-existent. Counselling and community are sidelined. The result? Once-excellent communicators become unconsciously incompetent (which inevitably leads to becoming dangerously stupid). Congregation members begin to feel neglected. Frustration builds, and eventually something’s going to give.

In the attempt to extend their reach, I fear many church and ministry leaders are in danger of destroying their ministries, and may not even realize it.

When I was working on my books, one of the challenges I faced was securing endorsements. I tried to get Kevin DeYoung to endorse Awaiting a Savior. I didn’t succeed, obviously (although I suspect it would have sold more if I had). But you know what? I am so thankful I didn’t. Why? Because his church has set up accountability structures to prevent outside activities from negatively affecting his ministry to his congregation. 

This is the kind of self-aware church leader we need more of—the kind who understands the danger of overextending his reach. Leaders who know they can’t really trust themselves to know how much is too much, and who surround themselves with men who will tell them what they don’t always want to hear.

When boundaries are swept aside, pragmatism follows

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Whenever truth, dogma, and boundary lines are swept to the side in churches, pragmatism almost always follows, just as it does in philosophical circles.… In and of itself, thinking pragmatically is not a bad thing. The problem comes when pragmatism fills the vacuum left by the rejection of biblical principles, such that pragmatism becomes the only principle. Pragmatism, by its very nature, requires us to base our decisions on visible, even quantifiable, results. But surely the utility of statistics in a Christian church is limited at best, deceiving at worst. Does a large church mean that the preaching has been sound or entertaining? It’s hard to say. How can we quantify the movement of the supernatural? How accurately can we evaluate those things that the Bible assures us can be seen only with eyes of faith? How well can we discern what’s in the mind of God?

In other words, the very things that give life and breath to the church cannot be seen or measured. A hundred Boy Scouts can meet in a room, as can a hundred Masons, as can a hundred Muslims, as can a hundred people calling themselves “Christian.” What’s the difference between these groups? Statistically, nothing. What’s the difference between them spiritually? Hopefully, everything. But spiritual differences can be seen only with spiritual eyes. They cannot be surveyed with the kinds of questions human beings are capable of answering by checking a box, at least until ministers and churches become able to discern which conversions are genuine and which ones aren’t, and whether numerical growth in the church is a sign of God’s decision in eternity past to bless a church with fruitfulness or merely the effectiveness of catchy programs.

Statistics may have their uses for churches, but the most important things about a church cannot be measured—the differences between fake and real, between flesh and spirit, between the minds of men and the mind of God. Only as we stand before God on the day of judgment will the real measurement of things be revealed. Sadly, too many pastors and churches attempt to measure their ministry by what is seen rather than what is unseen.

Adapted from Jonathan Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love, 60-61

15 signs your church is growing in the right way

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Yesterday I commented on one of the big problems we have in church ministry—that we think growing numerically is entirely dependent upon the pastor’s preaching ability. But the problem, as I mentioned yesterday, is you can’t tell if a church is healthy simply by checking the attendance.

Instead, one of the surest signs of the health of a church is to look at the growth of its people. In his book, What Is a Healthy Church?, Mark Dever writes, “When you peer into the life of a church, the growth of its members can show up in all sorts of ways.” Here are fifteen examples Dever offers to show what “growth” means:1

  1. Growing numbers being called to missions—“I’ve enjoyed sharing the gospel with my neighbors from South America. I wonder if God is calling me to …”
  2. Older members getting a fresh sense of their responsibility in evangelism and in discipling younger members—“Why don’t you come over for dinner?”
  3. Younger members attending the funerals of older members out of love—“As a single man in my twenties, it was so good to be taken in by Mr. and Mrs.…”
  4. Increased praying in the church and more prayers centered on evangelism and ministry opportunities—“I’m starting an evangelistic Bible study at work and I’m a little nervous. Would the church pray that …”
  5. More members sharing the gospel with outsiders.
  6. Less reliance among members on the church’s programs and more spontaneous ministry activities arising from members—“Pastor, what would you think if Sally and I organized a Christmas tea for the ladies in the church as an evangelistic opportunity?”
  7. Informal gatherings among church members characterized by spiritual conversation, including an apparent willingness to confess sin while simultaneously pointing to the cross—“Hey brother, I’m really struggling with …”
  8. Increased and sacrificial giving—“Honey, how can we cut fifty dollars from our monthly budget in order to support…”
  9. Increased fruits of the Spirit.
  10. Members making career sacrifices so that they can serve the church—“Did you hear that Chris turned down a promotion three times so that he could continue devoting himself to being an elder?”
  11. Husbands leading their wives sacrificially—“Honey, what are several things I can do to make you feel more loved and understood?”
  12. Wives submitting to their husbands—“Sweetheart, what are some things I can do today that will make your life easier?”
  13. Parents discipling their children in the faith—“Tonight let’s pray for Christian workers in the country of …”
  14. A corporate willingness to discipline unrepentant and public sin.
  15. A corporate love for an unrepentant sinner shown in the pursuit of him or her before discipline is enacted—“Please! If you get this message, I would love to hear from you.”

These are only a few examples, obviously, and shouldn’t be seen as an exhaustive list. But do you get the picture? A church like this may well grow numerically—their witness to the gospel will be attractive—but that doesn’t necessarily mean it must.

Look again at the examples Dever provides. Notice these measures—all derived from Scripture—have a critical factor in common: they are qualitative, rather than quantitative.

I can make a nice graph showing attendance growth year over year, but I can’t do that for growth in godliness. It just doesn’t work that way. And honestly, I don’t think God would have it any other way.

Is church growth all about the pastor?

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Yesterday, I read a provocative article on this subject by David Murrow. He writes:

Can I be brutally honest? When it comes to church attendance, nothing matters as much as the ability of the pastor to deliver good sermons. If a pastor is good at his job, the church grows. If he’s bad at his job, the church shrinks. Sounds unspiritual—but it’s true. It shouldn’t be this way—but it is. Each week is a referendum on the pastor’s ability to deliver an inspiring sermon.

Murrow goes on to say that, although it pains him to say it—he wishes that it were things like the community’s love for one another that kept people coming—”when it comes to putting men in pews, nothing matters more than pastoral quality. Every other consideration pales in comparison.”

I appreciate Murrow’s stance, his taking the “tragic reality” approach to addressing an ugly question. Pastors should be greatly concerned with the quality of the sermons they preach, and poor preaching is always detrimental to the health of the church.

But how do you define “good” and “bad” preaching? 

Based on the article, it seems that good preaching is entertaining preaching, and bad is boring. In other words, the more entertaining or inspiring (however you want to define that) your preaching is, more people will come and they’re more likely to stay.

But if your sermons are dull or don’t captivate me in the way I hope they will, then watch out. Attendance will drop and your job’s on the line.

You can see the problem with this coming a mile away, can’t you?

When our ideas about preaching are defined by the oratory skill of the one delivering the message, and not the content itself, compromise quickly follows. Some compromise by sanding down the rough edges of Scripture, as the seeker movement has often been accused of, giving people inspiring or uplifting talks that resemble the dreck spoon fed to viewers of daytime television. But others compromise by going in the opposite direction, thinking if they can just be wild and offensive enough, people will come just to see what they’re going to say next.

And, of course, it works. Sort of.

There are massive churches in America built on both of these ideals, and thousands of preachers look to their leaders to see what they “should” be doing differently. But if I were a betting man, I’d be willing to say many—perhaps even most—of those churches aren’t all that healthy. Why? Because they’ve embraced the truth as Murrow sees it and made the preacher the main attraction.

And you know something? Pastoral quality does matter. It matters a lot. But if we’re measuring on sermons, we’re completely missing the mark. You know why?

Because even a blasphemer who’s a good public speaker can deliver an inspiring message.

He can grow a church into the thousands, even tens of thousands. But what he has in oratory gifting, he falls short of in the only pastoral quality that really does matter, biblically: character.

I’ve written on this in the past, but it bears repeating: the only thing the Bible consistently holds up as the measuring rod for pastors is not their skill in preaching, though they must be able to teach. It is their character.

Who they are matters far more than what they can do. 

But we don’t like this, so we try to give measurements Scripture doesn’t for how to evaluate church growth. And it always comes back to numbers.

But we don’t have to choose that. And make no mistake, it’s we who are imposing that measure, not the Lord.

Instead, we see that the Lord shames the strong by choosing the weak things of this world. We see him bless the humble, and oppose the proud. When he speaks to the seven churches in Revelation, he rebukes all but one, the smallest and most seemingly insignificant one at that.

So, is church growth all about the pastor? Honestly, who cares? Be more concerned about the character of the man who is leading, rather than how many seats are filled. Because, really, the only one holding you to a number is you.

The gateway drug of ghostwriting

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There’s a lot of talk these days of ghostwriting, brought to the surface by the allegations of plagiarism facing Mark Driscoll. Ghostwriting is a serious issue—one that seems to be pretty clear cut, and yet many don’t see it that way.

Ghostwriting is the practice of writing books or other material where another author—usually someone who’s public notoriety can sell books, even if they’re incapable of actually writing them themselves—receives full credit. This is a pretty standard practice in publishing, one many don’t think too much of. In fact, if you’ve read an autobiography of an actor or politician, chances are you’ve read something that’s been ghostwritten.

And if you’ve read a book by a pastor, sadly, there’s a decent chance a ghostwriter’s been involved, too. A number of notable Christian pastors and leaders—among them Driscoll and John Maxwell—have employed ghostwriters over the years.

Writing a sermon and writing a book are entirely different animals. The only thing they have in common is they’re a form of communication. They require words. But how you write a sermon is not remotely like how you write a book. I remember being involved in a conversation with a big-name Christian pastor who admitted he has a really hard time sitting down to write—not do sermon prep, but actually write. It takes courage to admit that. And when he finally did release a book, he credited the person who helped shape the book, taking his sermons and making them actually make sense, as his co-author.

It takes integrity to do that.

Unfortunately, many don’t do this. They fall on the “accepted practice” clause, but fail to think through their actions biblically. The Bible doesn’t say, “thou shalt not employ a ghostwriter,” but it sure does say, “do not lie.” And using a ghostwriter and failing to credit them is lying. This is the same point Kevin DeYoung made just yesterday when he wrote:

Whether in sermons or in print, it’s not okay for pastors to take credit for something that is not theirs. Granted, the lines can be blurry. But that doesn’t mean the line doesn’t exist. And just because it feels like the sin of sloth more than the sin of theft doesn’t make it less of an error.

Randy Alcorn is even more forceful in his rebuke of what he calls the scandal of evangelical dishonesty. He reminds us that lying only begets more lying—ghostwriting is the gateway drug to larger integrity issues:

If we teach them it’s okay to lie by taking credit for a book they didn’t write, why should we be shocked if we discover they lied when they claim to have graduated from a college they didn’t, or to have fought in a war they didn’t, or to have done a job they didn’t? Isn’t it ironic that Christian publishers would consider it an ethical breach if they discovered an “author” gave them a resume containing false information, when the same publisher has knowingly led the public to believe this person wrote a book he or she really didn’t write? Which is the bigger lie?

Alcorn is quite clear: ghostwriting is lying. Period. In writing this, I realize I’m dangerously close to violating Paul’s admonition that the younger man should not rebuke the older. My goal here is not to do that. Instead, I want to ask the older men, particularly those who’ve employed ghostwriters: Why is this okay—and what does it teach those of us who are coming behind you?

To the younger, particularly those of you who are writers, I don’t have a rebuke, but I do have a plea: If someone asks you to be a ghostwriter, say no. If you have been ghostwriting, please stop. I know it pays pretty decently, but is the money worth the cost of your—and others’—integrity?

How do we fix the problem of celebrity-ism?

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Monday, after sharing a few thoughts on the latest bit of controversy surrounding Mark Driscoll, I made the following statement:

Maybe our question should really be: how do we fix the problem of “celebrity-ism” that’s seeped into the church?

I don’t think there’s anyone out there who would deny this is a problem—not just for pastors with a particularly large platform, but for laypeople, too. I think the solution really comes down to one thing:

Regaining a right view of oneself. 

I know—totally revolutionary and world-changing, right? Bear with me a minute:

How does celebrity-ism start? It always—always—begins when we forget who we are. For pastors, maybe the congregation’s grown to a size when people are starting to take notice. More people show up. Podcasts downloads increase. Someone suggests writing a book. That book sells more than three copies.

For bloggers (yeah, it happens there, too), it’s more or less the same. Traffic increases, shares are up, comments are exploding. Sooner or later, the idea of writing a book comes up and it, again, sells a few copies.

Maybe you’re in sales and rocking your quotas. Maybe you’re a mom who’s kids actually clean their rooms and stay in bed at night. Maybe you’re a barista who makes a wicked-awesome latte. Whatever your thing is, if you’re nailing it and people are taking notice, it can make you think you’re a pretty big deal.

But here’s the problem: it doesn’t matter if you’ve got a New York Times Bestseller or a blog with half-decent traffic—you’re just a person. So it’s silly to start thinking too much of yourself, isn’t it? [Read more…]

She’s done the impossible

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This weekend, Mark Driscoll broke the Internet in half. Again.

It wasn’t because he put his foot in his mouth (this time)—but because of a rather heated interview on The Janet Mefferd Show where the host spent the better part of 15 minutes accusing him of plagiarism due to insufficiently crediting Dr. Peter Jones for his considerable influence on portions of A Call to Resurgence (reviewed here).

And then things got a bit crazy online. Some Driscoll defenders declared Mefferd a liar. Some of his critics seemed ready to form a lynch mob. (Incidentally, probably the most balanced piece of coverage has come from Jonathan Merritt.) I found myself in a weird place listening to the interview. Here’s what I mean:

1. I was glad to hear someone willing to ask a high-profile Christian author challenging questions. Too many interviews I’ve read (and even conducted) have been full of softball questions. They don’t really get to the heart of a concern, but come across as the sanitized questions of someone hoping to start a bromance. Or maybe the questions you’d ask on a first date.

As interviewers, we need to do better—and a big part of that is asking meaningful questions. Let’s stop with the silly platitudes and actually deal with concerns. The benefit is you may give the interviewee an opportunity to correct himself if he’s said something in error, or you might receive beneficial clarification.

There also appears to be a disturbing lack of accountability for some pastors and authors, which desperately needs to change, something Carl Trueman points out well. Regardless of whether or not there’s an issue in their churches (and in some cases I wouldn’t be surprised if there were), those of us on the outside must be careful not to treat high-profile people as untouchable, if for no other reason than it reveals we may have a nasty case of idolatry on our hands.

2. I was surprised Driscoll lasted as long as he did on the call. Mefferd says he hung up. Driscoll says he was still there. Regardless of who is right, if it were me—and I say this as someone who has appeared on Janet’s show and had a very positive experience—I likely wouldn’t have stayed on the call as long as he did. While I get, and even agree to some degree, with Mefferd’s concern in addressing the citation (I think he could have been far more clear than a single footnote), he did something pretty unexpected: he said he’d look into it and correct the error if one was made. In fact, he said he’d do it four times.

After the first time, you’d think they could’ve moved on. Instead, it went on far longer than it should have—and I don’t believe either side will come out looking better as a result.

3. Sometimes it’s just easier to think the worst of Driscoll. This is the thing that was most troubling to me—there are a lot of people out there who, no matter what he did, no matter how sincere his apology, nothing Driscoll could say on anything would ever be enough. Some people just want to see him as the villain.

Driscoll’s done himself no favors in this area. He’s said and done, and continues to say and do, some pretty bone-headed things, even in this book (I noted some of my more significant concerns in my review). But you know what I found myself struggling with listening to this interview? The temptation to write off his comments as mere platitudes, instead of taking his statements as genuine. And that’s not okay. If Driscoll is a brother in the Lord, shouldn’t we be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt?1

At the same time, it’s clear not everyone has this reaction. In fact, I’ve been surprised to see a number of folks, not exactly rush to his defense, but show sympathy toward him. I think Joe Carter summed it up well in one of the many debates I saw (and the only one I engaged in), when he said Janet Mefferd “has done what many people would have thought was impossible: She makes people feel sorry for Driscoll.”2

In the end, I’m not entirely certain the “did he or didn’t he” question is even the right question to be asking in the whole Driscoll/Mefferd dust-up. Instead, maybe our question should really be: how do we fix the problem of “celebrity-ism” that’s seeped into the church?

The terrifying sound of silence

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The worship gathering is coming to a close. The pastor makes his final comments. “Let’s pray,” he says. Everyone bows their heads and close their eyes, and all feel the movement of the worship team taking their position on stage.

The pastor begins to pray… and before long a soothing “ha-wooh” sound emerges from the keyboard, floating through the room.

The “spirit chords” are at work.

Some of you probably never notice this, and if you’re one of those I apologize for bringing something to your attention you won’t be able to unsee (or rather, unhear). But it is something maybe we should be talking about.

Music, like nothing else, has the ability to signal to us how we should feel. Music filled with major chords and a fast tempo amps us up and gets us excited. Minor chords make us more reflective or, if you’re a fan of the Seattle sound from the early nineties, make you feel sad and drink coffee on a rainy day in a plaid shirt. When you watch a television show or a movie, you’ll notice cliffhanger moments (usually at commercial breaks) are capped by a short piece of music that gradually builds in intensity as the scene reaches its climax. For example:

Sometimes the spirit chords feel like this in a worship gathering. Like they’re intended to manipulate us into feeling a certain way—to bring about a “me and God” moment where the Holy Spirit will impress upon us the key take away from the message.

And yet few, if any, worship leader mean it that way (except those that do).

So why do we do this? I’ve wrestled with this for a while, but it wasn’t until I was speaking with some friends over lunch a few weeks back that I think I landed on an answer:

Silence is terrifying to us.

We live in a world that’s constantly trying to drown out silence. We always have music around us. When we shop, when we drive, at the gym, at the office… It’s like we’ve set life to a soundtrack, hoping that it will make the day-to-day a little more interesting.

Or perhaps it’s just an attempt to hide from what happens in those moments when silence does overtake us. When that happens, when the soundtrack is on pause, we have nothing to drown out our thoughts. We have nothing to distract us from what’s really going on in our hearts and minds. We can’t ignore the voice of our conscience—and we can’t run away from the Holy Spirit Himself.

  • It’s in those moments of silence that conviction comes upon us.
  • It’s in those moments of silence that we most strongly feel our need for repentance.
  • It’s in those moments of silence that we tend to most clearly “hear” the Holy Spirit through the Scriptures.

Is it any wonder silence is terrifying to us?

This brings us back to the irony of the spirit chords. When the soothing “ha-wooh” begins, it may be doing the exact opposite of its intended effect—instead of helping us ease into a time of prayer, they drown out the Holy Spirit.

So what can we do?

Brothers and sisters, turn off the music on the commute. Sit in the silence and take note of what you “hear.”

Pastors and worship leaders, take a break from the spirit chords for a few weeks and see what happens.

Let’s let silence terrify us a little, and maybe see conviction and repentance come about.

The lesson we need to learn again and again

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“For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Corinthians 1:25)

What the world dismisses as sheer foolishness, the foolishness of God, proves “wiser than man’s wisdom” (1:25). What the world writes off as hopeless weakness, the weakness of God, proves “stronger than man’s strength” (1:25). This is much more radical than saying that God has more wisdom than human beings, or that he is stronger than human beings—as if we are dealing with mere degrees of wisdom and power. No, we are dealing with polar opposites. Human “wisdom” and “strength” are, from God’s perspective, rebellious folly and moral weakness. And the moment when God most dramatically discloses his own wisdom and strength, the moment when his own dear Son is crucified— although it is laughed out of court by the tawdry “wisdom” of this rebellious world, by the pathetic “strength” of the self-deceived— is nevertheless the moment of divine wisdom and divine power.…

For those of us in any form of Christian ministry, this lesson must constantly be reappropriated. Western evangelicalism tends to run through cycles of fads. At the moment, books are pouring off the presses telling us how to plan for success, how “vision” consists in clearly articulated “ministry goals,” how the knowledge of detailed profiles of our communities constitutes the key to successful outreach. I am not for a moment suggesting that there is nothing to be learned from such studies. But after a while one may perhaps be excused for marveling how many churches were planted by Paul and Whitefield and Wesley and Stanway and Judson without enjoying these advantages. Of course all of us need to understand the people to whom we minister, and all of us can benefit from small doses of such literature. But massive doses sooner or later dilute the gospel. Ever so subtly, we start to think that success more critically depends on thoughtful sociological analysis than on the gospel; Barna becomes more important than the Bible. We depend on plans, programs, vision statements—but somewhere along the way we have succumbed to the temptation to displace the foolishness of the cross with the wisdom of strategic planning. Again, I insist, my position is not a thinly veiled plea for obscurantism, for seat-of-the-pants ministry that plans nothing. Rather, I fear that the cross, without ever being disowned, is constantly in danger of being dismissed from the central place it must enjoy, by relatively peripheral insights that take on far too much weight. Whenever the periphery is in danger of displacing the center, we are not far removed from idolatry.

D.A. Carson, Cross and Christian Ministry, The: Leadership Lessons from 1 Corinthians

Strike a blow against the demonic heart of triumphalism

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Sadly, too many leaders consciously or unconsciously link their own careers and reputations with the gospel they proclaim and the people they serve. Slowly, unnoticed by all but the most discerning, defense of the truth slips into self-defense, and the best interest of the congregation becomes identified with the best interest of the leaders. Personal triumphalism strikes again, sometimes with vicious intensity. It is found in the evangelical academic who invests all his opinions with the authority of Scripture, in the pastor whose every word is above contradiction, in the leader transparently more interested in self-promotion and the esteem of the crowd than in the benefit and progress of the Christians allegedly being served. It issues in political maneuvering, temper tantrums, a secular set of values (though never acknowledged as such), a smug and self-serving shepherd and hungry sheep.

We have much to learn from Paul. When in our hearts (and not merely in our verbal piety) our aim before God is to strengthen other believers, not to defend ourselves, we will not only succeed in revitalizing the church by our sacrificial ministry and example, but we shall also strike a powerful blow against the demonic heart of triumphalism, which is self in another guise. And if, with Paul, we sometimes face believers who completely misunderstand our motives, then at least we may be confident, with the apostle, that we have been speaking in the sight of God as those in Christ, and that the attacks may reveal more about the attackers than anything else. May God raise up many Christian leaders whose passion is to build up the body of Christ.

D.A. Carson, A Model of Christian Maturity

Don’t get chicken legs

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Whether in ministry or the marketplace, we all love the idea of playing to our strengths. And this isn’t a bad thing, certainly. When someone is doing something that they’re jazzed about, and they’re actually really good at, it’s pretty cool to see.

But here’s the thing: few of us get to work in our areas of strength all the time. In ministry, it’s pretty rad to be the guy preaching with conviction or be a part of the praise band. But chairs still need to be stacked at the end of the day, and kids still need to be discipled in children’s ministry. In business, it might be pretty awesome to make a big sale, but you’ve still got to file your paperwork.

This is one of the many reasons I’m thankful for the counterintuitive nature of our faith. Matt Chandler explains it well in To Live is Christ, to Die is Gain:

I know it’s very popular in the business world and even in the church world to say that we ought to only play to our strengths and spend little time on our weaknesses, but I don’t see that spirit of efficiency too much in the Bible. We don’t get that luxury in our faith. By dwelling in our weaknesses, we can linger with God and rely on His gracious love. And in sorting our strengths from our weaknesses, we can begin to develop the sort of holy discontentment that underlies Paul’s instructions to the Philippians to “press on.” (p. 116)

Here’s the thing I’ve found: our weaknesses make us better.

Imagine you’re a gym rat. You love working your biceps and triceps… basically anything that makes your arms look all beefcake, you’re down with. But you hate doing leg workouts. So you just don’t do them. What happens? You might have 18-inch biceps, but you’ve got skinny little chicken legs!

And that’s kind of a problem.

When we recognize where we are weak, we have to work at it to get stronger. Our weaknesses make us better, not just in the sense that they bring humility, reminding us that we’re never as good as we think we are; they fuel the sort of discontentment that grows us in godliness.

“Is he humble?”

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I was speaking with one of our pastors Sunday morning and a church in the Toronto area came up in our discussion. The first question my pastor asked hit me like a ton of bricks:

“Is the senior pastor humble?”

Not “is he a good preacher,” or “how many people attend the church,” or any other metric oriented question you could imagine.

Just, “Is he humble?”

It’s tempting to be a bit taken aback by the idea, but it makes total sense, doesn’t it?

What is the New Testament most concerned with when it comes to leaders in the church? Paul describes elders as being men who need to be able to teach and handle the Word rightly, without a doubt. But that’s not all he’s concerned with. More than anything else, he’s concerned about character:

…an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. (1 Tim 3:2-7)

Paul starts and ends with character. An overseer, an elder, a pastor, must be one thing: a man of integrity—which means necessarily that he’s going to be a man with some level of humility. So if this is what Paul starts and ends with, why do so many of us immediately jump to other measures first?

Why do we seem more concerned about how many people show up or how good the sermons are or how big the facility is… but not terribly concerned about character?

A few years ago, a friend gave me an unexpected, but much needed corrective. He told me that, despite my many good qualities, I tended to have the appearance of arrogance about me. It hurt to hear that, but in a good way. It made me realize how much my character makes a difference in how people perceive what I do and say. I’m certainly not perfect (as my wife and my coworkers would attest), but Lord willing, I think I’ve made some progress as a man pursuing humility.

So back to this question—”Is he humble?” We need to have this on our radars at all times, whether we’re in seminary, lay ministry or vocational pastoral ministry. Our character is on display for all to see, and no amount of skill in preaching or leadership can make up for a character defect like pride. So what would people say about you, especially those of you who are in a leadership role:

If someone asked, “Is he humble” about you, what would they say?

How well do the competing philosophies stand up?

cross-trees

In the light of the cross, how well do the raucous appeals of competing public philosophies stand up? What place does the cross have in communism? What place does the cross have in capitalism? Does systematic hedonism lead anyone to the cross? How about dogmatic pluralism? Will secular humanism lead anyone to the most astonishing act of divine self-disclosure that has ever occurred—the cross of Christ?

Does the elevation of the virtues of democracy lead men and women to the cross? In America, the founding fathers conceived of democracy as a way of establishing accountability by restricting power. If the populace as a whole did not like the executive, legislative, or judicial branches of government, the ballot box provided a means of turfing them out. Strangely, modern politicians speak of “the wisdom of the American people,” as if special insight resides in the masses. That was not the perception of the founding fathers; it is certainly not a Christian evaluation. Doubtless, democracy is the best form of government where the populace is reasonably literate and shares many common values, but even under these conditions the majority vote does not always display great wisdom. It is the best way to limit power and make government more or less responsive; it is not the best way of determining right and wrong, truth and falsehood, good and bad. Does democracy itself lead anyone to the cross? Is it not always wrong to equate “the American way,” or, more broadly, any democratic system, with the gospel?

Paul’s point is that no public philosophy, no commonly accepted “wisdom,” can have enduring significance if its center is not the cross. Whatever the merits or the demerits of these various systems, they exhaust their resources on merely superficial levels. They do not reconcile men and women to the living God, and nothing is more important than that. They cannot uncover God’s wisdom in the cross, and if that is hidden all other “wisdom” is foolish.

D.A. Carson, The Cross and Christian Ministry