Jesus frees you from the tyranny of “success”


Trying to figure out what makes ministry “successful” is always tricky business. Too often we try to determine our value based on what we would call “fruit”—or more crassly, baptisms and bums in seats. Healthy organisms grow, after all. Which is true… but so do unhealthy things. Cancerous cells spread to overcome their host. Weeds spread beyond our ability to keep up with them.

When we get too focused on the wrong things, particularly a wrong view of success, we risk going off-course. We need to get to where we think we’re “supposed” to go, and it consumes us. For most, it’s less a concern about doctrinal fidelity than about methodological consistency. More simply: we fall prey to the deadly snare of pragmatism.

This is why I so appreciate the corrective Jared Wilson offers in The Pastor’s Justification. He writes:

Don’t settle for the false heaven of a “successful ministry.” Because real success is faithfulness. Big or small church, growing church or declining church, well-known church or obscure church—all churches are epic successes full of the eternal, invincible quality of the kingdom of God when they treasure Jesus’s gospel and follow him. Jesus did not give the keys of the kingdom with the ability to bind and loose on both sids of the veil only to those who reached a certain attendance benchmark. So do well, pursue excellence, and stay faithful. God will give you what you ought to have according to his wisdom and riches. (37-38)

That, friends, is the perspective we need, regardless of our role in ministry or the size of the ministry God has called us to. Jesus frees us from the tyranny of growing attendance and giving, of gaining and maintaining “influence.” God gives you as much as you ought to have according to His wisdom—and that ought to be enough for us.

How do your favorite preachers do sermon prep?


Kevin Halloran is a blogger at and for Unlocking the Bible and loves baseball, coffee, and Spanish. You can follow Kevin on Twitter@KP_Halloran.

One practical way to improve a skill is to study the methods and practices of the skillful and see what they did to become great.
Although preaching is so much more than knowing technique, learning about the sermon writing process from today’s great preachers can be a great help and example for preachers.

Below are videos of some of today’s great preachers explaining their process in writing a sermon:

Tim Keller:

John Piper:

Mark Driscoll:

Alistair Begg:

Bonus: Josh Harris shares how John Stott prepared his sermons.

What makes for a good illustration?


Illustrations are funny things. Some people absolutely hate them. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, for example, comes down pretty hard on them in Preaching and Preachers. Others absolutely love them. A number of preachers seem to spend almost more time putting together illustrations than explaining their text.

Personally, I really appreciate good illustrations. A good illustration connects with the hearer; but don’t find it terribly interesting when a message is basically a long series of them that don’t really have a lot to do with the text being preached. They really can make or break people’s understanding of your message.

So what makes for a good illustration?

I’m probably the wrong person to try and answer since I’m not really good at them. It’s taken a lot of effort for me to get halfway decent at illustrations (and even then it’s iffy) and I generally gravitate toward literary references and try to avoid obscure ones.

But not everyone gets them, which leads to awkwardness at times.

Still, there are some pretty good clues that can be picked up from other preachers. For example, one of the best illustrations I’ve heard is one Mark Driscoll shared about the power of forgiveness.1 My paraphrase of the story is this:

Just before a couple from Mars Hill got married, the wife committed adultery. She kept it hidden from her husband for years until finally she couldn’t any longer. When she told him, he left the house, got in the car and left; she wasn’t sure if she’d ever see him again.

A while later, he came home. He asked her to undress and he put on her a white nightgown that he’d gone out to buy for her. And all he said to her was, “I choose to see you the way Jesus does.”

Matt Chandler’s “Debt is Dumb” illustration is genius:

What I love about these illustrations is they’re relatable. We’ve all dealt with struggling to forgive others. We’ve all experienced moralistic preaching that just tells us to go do without connecting us to the gospel. And that seems to be the ticket. We can connect with these stories. We can recognize our own experiences in them. And therefore they “click.”

What makes for a good illustration? Keeping it relatable. If our hearers get it, they’re coming along with us. But if they aren’t connecting, we risk talking to ourselves.

Whether you’re a pastor or lay person, what’s a favorite illustration you’ve used or heard?

3 things pastors should say to their congregations


Every so often a blogger puts together a list of things they wish a pastor would tell his congregation. And while the lists sometimes have some valid points, they more often than not wind up come across as saying, “I wish my pastor was less knowledgeable and confident in what he says.” Which, while I’m sure it sounds nice, really isn’t all that helpful, unless you’re looking for your pastor to validate an unhelpful lifestyle of being tossed about upon the waves of doctrine.

Nevertheless, there are some things I do believe congregations need to hear from their pastors more often than perhaps they do:

1. “Because I love you, I’m going to tell you the truth.”

We sometimes bristle at statements that don’t make us feel good, and so we assume that our pastors are unloving when they say something we don’t like. Yet, this attitude more often than not finds its root in our sin, not our pastors’ failure to be sensitive.

Pastors should never be afraid to express the truth of Scripture and we in the congregation need to be reminded that it’s because our pastors DO care that they tell us the truth—even if it’s something they know we’re going to reject due to our inability to hear it.

2. “Make sure I’m not wrong.”

This might be the second most important thing a pastor can say to his congregation. It takes true humility to say to your hearers, “Don’t take my word for it. Check what I say against the Scriptures. If what I’m saying doesn’t line up, don’t believe me.” Good pastors want their congregations to be like the Berean Jews of Thessalonica who examined the Scriptures daily to see if what the Apostle Paul taught was true (Acts 17:16).

This is something our pastors do exceptionally well. They work diligently to correctly interpret and apply the text they’re preaching, but they don’t assume they’re beyond making a mistake.

3. “This is the gospel…”

I love it when our pastors just have a gospel explosion in the middle of a sermon—especially when it’s completely unplanned! No Christian can ever hear the gospel too often. None of us move beyond it or out from under it. The gospel is the source of our hope and what we celebrate each Sunday when we gather together.

The gospel has the power to bring death to life, to soften the hardest heart and the “fragrance of life” to those who are being saved (2 Cor. 2:16). If there’s one thing a pastor should never leave out of his message on a Sunday or out of his counselling appointments, it’s the gospel. If it’s truly of first importance, the gospel must be clearly shared.

What are your thoughts on this? What do you pastors need to tell their congregations?

Stop trying so hard


I don’t consider myself to be naturally all that funny. It takes a lot  of work for me and usually comes across as kind of awkward (my wife can verify this).

Usually I don’t come across well because I’m trying too hard. I want people to laugh, so I spend a lot time fretting over the delivery of a joke and wind up completely butchering it.

Preaching and teaching can be like that, too.

One of the big challenges any communicator faces is holding their audience’s attention. If you’re dry as toast, no one’s going to be able to follow you, no matter how interesting the subject might actually be.

Interesting content isn’t a problem for most preachers. No one who has actually read the Bible could honestly say it’s boring—especially the Old Testament narratives (I know of at least one pastor who made a genealogy riveting, for goodness’ sake!). If the “living and active Word of God” truly does pierce the heart (cf. Heb. 4:12), woe to any of us who present it as dull.

But again, this isn’t a problem for most of us.

The problem is maybe we’re trying too hard to be something we’re not.

Many of us—myself included—spend a massive amount of time crafting a message, making sure it’s just so. We want to carry people along with our thinking and see what God’s Word says.

But here’s where we get messed up: in trying to carry people along with the message, we often wind up trying too hard to be funny, as if humor equals engagement.

John Piper says preachers should to be Bible-oriented, rather than entertainment-oriented. This is a good warning, and one all of us need to keep in mind.

If entertainment is our goal, we can come across as flippant, even disrespectful of the duty we’ve been given (to say nothing of being disrespectful to the text of Scripture). This is how we wind up with hour-long sermons that have perhaps 20 minutes of actual content, by the way; more time is spent getting a laugh than making a point.

It’s not that humor is bad, but it should be natural and textual. If our teaching comes across more like a comedian’s patter than a preacher’s plea, we might be trying too hard.

“Be fit for your work, and you will never be out of it. Do not run about inviting yourselves to preach here and there; be more concerned about your ability than your opportunity and more earnest about your walk with God than about either,” Spurgeon told his students. “The sheep will know the God-sent shepherd; the porter of the fold will open to you, and the flock will know your voice” (Lectures to My Students, p. 32).

All of us who are less-experienced preachers would do well to heed Spurgeon’s warning. Let’s be concerned about our ability—that is, we need to grow in our understanding of the Word of God and how to apply it well. But be much more concerned with our own walk with God than how we deliver a message. Our hearers know the difference. We might not be as entertaining, but we’ll be far more compelling.

The deadly snare of the debtor’s ethic


“God’s given you so much, He’s done so much for you—now what will you do for Him?”

This is the trap of what John Piper refers to as “the debtor’s ethic,” that although we’re completely incapable of ever paying back our debt to God, there’s an implicit demand that we work at it. And the result is our good deeds and worship serve as interest-only payments on a debt that can never decrease.

Such a notion ought never be uttered among Christians.

And yet it is.

How many of us have been guilty of thinking something like this—or worse, using a tactic like this to motivate a Christian to give or serve?

I understand the tension that exists. When our churches seem to have only a few dozen people who are serving and giving while hundreds seem content to be come, see and take, it can most assuredly be tempting for a pastor to find a way to motivate them, to stir them to action.

And the debtor’s ethic will work, for a little while. People will serve for a few weeks. They’ll give regularly for a few months… and then they won’t.

There has to be a better way—and there is. I really appreciate the corrective Piper offers in Brothers We Are Not Professionals:

God takes pains to motivate us by reminding us that He is now and always will be working for those who follow Him in the obedience of faith. He never stops and waits for us to work for Him “out of gratitude.” He guards us from the mind-set of a debtor by reminding us that all our Christian labor for Him is a gift from Him (Rom. 11:35-36; 15:18) and therefore cannot be conceived as payment of a debt. In fact, the astonishing thing is that every good deed we do in dependence on Him to “pay Him back” does just the opposite; it puts us ever deeper in debt to His grace. “I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me” (1 Cor. 15:10 NASB). Let us teach people that is exactly where God wants us to be through all eternity, going ever deeper in debt to grace.

Should we then stop preaching gratitude as a motivation? I leave that for you to answer. But if we go on urging people to obey “out of gratitude” we should at least show them the lurking dangers and describe how gratitude can motivate obedience without succumbing to a debtor’s mentality. (Brothers We Are Not Professionals, 50-51)

How can we motivate ourselves and others without becoming trapped in the snare of the debtor’s ethic? The key is found in 1 Cor 15:10 (cited above): It’s remembering that grace fuels even our gratitude—our salvation is all of grace, and thus our service is all of grace as well. When we recognize this and when it takes root, our mindset shifts away from us—even in our gratitude for the grace of Christand continually back toward Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith.

Faithful leaders, personality and free books for you

What’s one of the greatest challenges a leader—especially a Christian one—faces?


Because God has uniquely wired each of us with particular skills, abilities and personality types and traits, every leader tends to look a little different. Some are the super-confident, assertive alpha types. Others are incredibly engaging, leading powerfully through charisma and influence. Others still are a little more reserved, and their leadership shines through in how they relate to others moreso than what they say.


These are not bad things by any means. However, a leader always needs to be aware of how his personality is influencing the culture of his organization—whether a church, non-profit or corporation. Albert Mohler explains this exceptionally well in one of my favorite new books on leadership, The Conviction to Lead (a book I reviewed not too long ago):

…faithful leaders understand that while they will influence the organization with their personality, they must never allow personality to be the defining mark of leadership.

There are two dangers here. The first is the well-known “cult of personality,” in which the persona of the leader becomes the hallmark of the organization. Personality cults take over the culture of the organization, with the leader sometimes becoming more prominent than the organization itself. The other danger is that the leader will rely on personality as a substitute for conviction or competence. Personality is important, but it will fall flat when conviction wanes or competence is lacking. (108)

These dangers are so important for us to understand.

We can all point to examples of organizations where the personality of the founder or leader has overtaken the organization’s culture. And we can all just as easily enough think of examples of either fairly charismatic leaders or ones who lead through fear and intimidation because they’re simply not very good at their jobs.

The point of saying this (and of course Mohler’s writing it) is not to take an opportunity to point at someone else and say, “I’m glad I’m not like that guy!”

We have to remember that personality needs to be both cultivated and stewarded carefully. A leader’s personality can and should influence an organization’s culture. But leaders must be mindful of the negatives they bring to the table as well—because those will spread through the culture as well (and possibly faster than your positives).

Courtesy of Bethany House, today I’m giving away five copies The Conviction to Lead to readers of this blog. To enter, just use the handy-dandy Punchtab app below and answer the following question in the comments:

Who is the best leader you’ve met? Why?

The giveaway closes tonight at 11:59:59 pm (ET) and winners will be contacted via email shortly thereafter.

“We have become the refuse of the world…”

You and I—we’re not that big a deal.

And it’s okay.

In fact, it’s a really good thing.

In reviewing Zack Eswine’s Sensing Jesus, I mentioned that while not condemning “celebrity” outright, Eswine does remind us that even if our platform is greater than most, we’re still not excluded from the “daily grind” of the ordinary aspects of life and ministry.

This is an important reminder for us all. But there’s another danger that we face far too often, probably more than celebrity:



I don’t mean this in the sense of being ill-equipped or unprepared. God’s given us His Word that we might be “thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17). The danger many of us face in any form of vocational ministry—not just those who serve as preachers and teachers—is turning our calling into something crass.

We want to be respected by the world in the wrong sort of way—admired for our gifts and talents, all the while forgetting that this, perhaps, isn’t what God has in mind. I love the way John Piper puts it in Brothers, We Are Not Professionals:

I think God has exhibited us preachers as last of all in the world. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but professionals are wise. We are weak, but professionals are strong. Professionals are held in honor, we are in disrepute. We do not try to secure a professional lifestyle, but we are ready to hunger and thirst and be ill-clad and homeless. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become the refuse of the world, the offscouring of all things (1 Cor. 4:9-13). Or have we?

Brothers, we are not professionals! We are outcasts. We are aliens and exiles in the world (1 Pet. 2:11). Our citizenship is in heaven, and we wait with eager expectation for the Lord (Phil. 3:20). You cannot professionalize the love of His appearing without killing it. And it is being killed. (p. 2)

Seeing ourselves as professional Christians is sure to destroy not only our effectiveness in ministry, but also our love for Christ. When we think we’re a big deal, we forget that it’s only by God’s grace we’re capable of doing anything… and sooner or later it begins to show.

The updated edition of Brothers, We Are Not Professionals is on sale now for seven dollars at Westminster Books. If you don’t already have a copy, I’d encourage picking one up from WTS while this sale lasts.

Consider preschool before the pulpit


Often one of the hardest things for a novice preacher to do is find opportunities to use their burgeoning gifts for effective ministry. One place they may want to consider: children’s ministry.


Not a lot of men seem to enjoy children’s ministry, especially those who have a desire to preach. Though never voiced, some see it as somehow being beneath them… which it’s not. It just lacks the perception of glamor that comes with preaching in the wider service. But children’s ministry has a great deal to teach us about pulpit ministry, and make us more effective as a result.

For the last few years, I’ve been teaching in our children’s worship service, usually once a month (sometimes more, sometimes less). I started out teaching the kids between 5 and 8 years old, but now primarily focus on the older kids (ages 9-10-ish). My experience with both age groups has been extremely helpful. Here are three things I’ve been reminded through it:

1. Teaching children requires you to focus.

Whenever you’re teaching kids, it’s important to remember one thing: You have almost no time to get your message across. Teachers in our program are allotted around 20 minutes.

I aim for ten. And sometimes, I even hit it (I average between 10-15 minutes).

This is not a lot of time, and because kids often have short attention spans, it means I really have to focus. I need to make sure the message is easy to follow, the points are clear, and the application is super-concrete.

Which, by the way, is what we should be shooting for when preaching to adults, too. Adults need just as much clarity of thought and focus as children. There’s nothing worse than listening to (or preaching for that matter) a scattered, rambly sermon—one that has great content, but you can’t follow the flow or find the application. When we’re unfocused in our teaching, we lose our audience.

But if you can get a point across in 10 minutes, chances are you can do it in 40 if needed.

2. Teaching children requires you to be flexible.

Kids are awesome because they’re funny—but they’re also natural hecklers.

If you ask a question like, “Why did Jesus die on the cross,” you might get an answer that makes sense, or you might learn what they had for breakfast that morning. And if you’re not ready for it, you’re going to get flustered.

Teaching kids helps you to learn flexibility and forces you to rely not too much on your prepared notes and more on your preparation.

3. Teaching children requires you to be interesting—and passionate about teaching them.

One of the hardest things to do is keep a child’s attention, especially in a really wide age range.They’re the easiest audience to read in terms of whether they’re paying attention or not, and when they’re all in, you can tell. One of the best ways to keep a kid’s attention: be interesting. One of our teachers uses props pretty regularly (he often dresses up in costume). Me, I’m not a big prop guy, but I do my best to be fun and funny in a way that fits with how God’s wired me.

But it’s one thing to be interesting, it’s another thing to be passionate about teaching them. Just like in any other ministry setting, kids will forgive lame jokes or a lack of props if you actually care about them. If you’re willing to engage with them and not see them as a project, you’ll have them. So ask questions, do something silly, speak directly to them whenever you can… all of this helps you genuinely engage them.

There’s so much more to be said about the importance of children’s ministry, and this is heavily focused on one small aspect. But if you’re feeling called to preach, and you’re passionate about making disciples, consider preschool before the pulpit. Serve in a place where God has already placed you and in a ministry area often sorely in need of volunteers. Do what God has called you to do because whether those benefiting from your teaching are big or small matters less than whether or not anyone’s benefiting at all.

(Updated in February 2015)

A short reading list for every prospective minister

Yesterday I asked the folks on Twitter and Facebook to recommend two books every prospective minister should read. Obviously, the Bible should always be primary, but we would do ourselves a profound disservice to neglect the thoughtful writings of others. Two books are never going to be enough to capture everything a pastor needs to know, and so I’ve compiled the six most frequent answers into the following short reading list for every prospective minister:


Dangerous Calling by Paul David Tripp. Here are a few thoughts from my review:

Dangerous Calling is easily among the most important books I’ve read this year. Although written specifically for pastors, it will be a blessing to both leaders and laity alike as pastors are challenged to examine themselves for the good of their own souls (and the people they serve) and laypeople’s eyes are opened to the unique challenges of pastoral ministry.

Buy it at: Amazon | Westminster Books

Preaching and Preachers by Martyn Lloyd-Jones. From the publisher’s description:

Based on a series of lectures originally given by Lloyd-Jones to the students of Westminster Theological Seminary in the spring of 1969, this collection of essays on the essence of powerful preaching has become a modern classic. Lloyd-Jones defends the primacy of preaching, showing that there is no substitute, and he challenges preachers to take their calling seriously: ‘The most urgent need in the Christian Church today is true preaching.’ He also provides practical direction on the task of preparing a sermon, sharing insights on the shape and form of a message as well as covering such topics as the use of humor, giving invitations in a message and the preacher’s relationship to the congregation. If you can own only one book on preaching, make this the one you read.

Buy it at: Amazon | Westminster Books

The Reformed Pastor by Richard Baxter. From the publisher’s description:

In his introduction, “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” This charge from Acts 20:28 only is the beginning of a solemn and overarching task to be personally involved and disciple all of your congregants. Richard Baxter’s plea for shepherding his flock continues with a charge to pastors to verify their own spiritual walk and then walks them through various disciplines, strategies and goals to guide and instruct their congregation.

Buy it at: Amazon | Westminster Books

Lectures to My Students by Charles Spurgeon. Here’s a favorite passage:

That a teacher of the gospel should first be a partaker of it is a simple truth, but at the same time a rule of the most weighty importance. We are not among those who accept the apostolic succession of young men simply because they assume it…No amount of fees paid to learned doctors, and no amount of classics received in return, appear to us to be evidences of a call from above. True and genuine piety is necessary sa the first indispensable requisite. Whatever “call” a man may pretend to have, if he has not been called to holiness, he certainly has not been called to the ministry.

Buy it at: Amazon | Westminster Books

Christ Centered Preaching by Bryan Chapell. From the publisher’s description:

This complete guide to expository preaching teaches the basics of preparation, organization, and delivery–the trademarks of great preaching. With the help of charts and creative learning exercises, Chapell shows how expository preaching can reveal the redemptive aims of Scripture and offers a comprehensive approach to the theory and practice of preaching. He also provides help for special preaching situations.

The second edition contains updates and clarifications, allowing this classic to continue to serve the needs of budding preachers. Numerous appendixes address many practical issues.

Buy it at: Amazon | Westminster Books

Brothers, We Are Not Professionals by John Piper. From the opening words of the book:

We pastors are being killed by the professionalizing of the pastoral ministry. The mentality of the professional is not the mentality of the prophet. It is not the mentality of the slave of Christ. Professionalism has nothing to do with the essence and heart of the Christian ministry. The more professional we long to be, the more spiritual death we will leave in our wake. For there is no professional childlikeness, there is no professional tenderheartedness, there is no professional panting after God.

Buy it at: Amazon | Westminster Books

What other titles would you add to the list? If you’re a pastor, what books have been most beneficial to you and your ministry?

3 reasons why some churches don’t grow (that you don’t usually hear)


Don’t worry. There’s nothing wrong.

Your vision might be clear. You’ve got a good sense of what the community needs and aren’t overwhelming everyone with programs. You and the entire congregation are praying fervently. You’re passionate about reaching people and equally passionate about the gospel. As far as you can tell you’re faithfully proclaiming the Word and living in light of it… and yet your church isn’t growing.

What’s going on?

Reading some pastors’ thoughts about church growth, you’d think that if your church isn’t growing, it’s because (despite your protestations), you must have some secret sin causing God to withhold His blessing. It’s the same game Job’s friends played, where instead of comforting him, they accused him of disobedience to God.

And yet.

What’s the deal? Is a church’s lack of growth a result of some unspoken sin on the leadership’s part? Is numerical growth always a sign of God’s blessing upon a local church?

I’m not so sure.

There seems to be a lot of pressure for pastors to have “successful” ministries—and by successful, what’s really meant is to have big numbers. While numbers are not wrong (they can be very good, in fact), we’ve got to be careful about how we think about church growth, and what it means to be successful as a church. And while I don’t entirely disagree with the points raised in the link above, they’re incomplete.

There are at least three other crucial factors that need to be considered when asking why some churches don’t grow:

1. “Soil” conditions.

You might be doing all the “right” things and have the right attitude, but nothing’s happening (at least not the way the experts tell you they should). We would be wise to remember Jesus’ words in Luke 8:4-15:

And when a great crowd was gathering and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable, “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.” As he said these things, he called out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” . . . The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience (emphasis added).

Jesus is quite clear here: The Word is going to have a different effect upon the hearts of different hearers. Some will have the Word more or less bounce off their hardened hearts. Others will receive it with joy, but this joy will be fleeting. Others will be ultimately indifferent, focusing only on the cares of this world. And some will receive it and bear good fruit “with patience.”

Here’s the point: You have no control over the soil conditions. You are to sow the seed of the Word and trust that as many as have been appointed to eternal life will believe (Acts 13:48). And that’s the limit of what you can do.

2. It could be God being very merciful to you.

Our church has experienced rather explosive growth over the last several years—and it’s put us in a bit of an awkward situation. We’re currently renting the largest high school in the city and once we max it out (again), we’re stuck until we can get into a permanent facility. Our church’s leadership has done a wonderful job modelling restraint and prayerful decision making in the midst of a great deal of pressure (both internal and external) to build a permanent facility.

A permanent facility is in the works, but timing and resources are huge factors to always have front of mind, which is why I’m so thankful for their leadership on this. But depending on your circumstances, a lack of numerical growth may be evidence of God’s mercy upon your church. If you experience a major upswing in attendance, but not in giving, you’re probably not going to be able to add an addition, build a new building or rent a new facility. If you’re short on able-bodied volunteers, adding a second (or third) service may not be the best thing for the people. There are huge organizational implications that come with different attendance levels and not everyone is built to handle leading a church of that size and complexity.

And it may be God’s mercy upon you if you’re not seeing wild unheard of growth.

3. The Lord doesn’t want it to.

Ultimately, all growth is the direct result of God’s sovereign decree. He determines the times and places in which we live, and calls us to fulfill our ministries there. That means He’s also sovereign over the size of your church. If the Lord wants your church to grow to 1500, so be it. But it may be that Jesus will be more glorified if your church maintains at 50.

The fact is, if your church’s attendance is around 150 people, you’re in very good company. Mega-churches aren’t the norm; they make up less than two per cent of all churches in America. So don’t freak out. It’s okay to be un-mega. You’re probably not doing anything that’s preventing God from driving massive numbers of attendees through your doors. You’re likely just “ordinary” in all the best possible ways.

Ministry readiness and spiritual maturity


What do we mean by spiritual maturity? How do we determine whether or not someone’s at the right stage of maturity to contemplate pastoral ministry. A while back I was reading Paul Tripp’s book, Dangerous Calling, and found this enormously helpful:

We must be careful how we define ministry readiness and spiritual maturity. There is a danger of thinking that the well-educated and trained seminary graduate is ministry ready or to mistake ministry knowledge, busyness, and skill with personal spiritual maturity. Maturity is a vertical thing that will have a wide variety of horizontal expressions. Maturity is about relationship to God that results in wise and humble living. Maturity of love for Christ expresses itself in love for others. Thankfulness for the grace of Christ expresses itself in grace to others. Gratitude for the patience and forgiveness of Christ enables you to be patient and forgiving toward others. It is your own daily experience of the rescue of the gospel that gives you a passion for people to experience the same rescue.

—Paul Tripp, Dangerous Calling, p. 64 (Amazon | WTS Books)

Should Leaders Create Controversy?


I recently opened my inbox to see an article by Steven Furtick asking this very question. Over at Outreach Magazine, Furtick writes:

One of the greatest things preventing many pastors and churches from reaching their optimal level of impact is their fear of controversy. . . . They avoid criticism, which no one likes to receive. But they forfeit something far greater:

Influence. You can’t have influence if you are not willing to be controversial.

Just ask Jesus. . . . If Jesus’ ministry was controversial, why do we expect ours should be any different? . . . If you want to be like Christ, expect controversy. If you’re faithful to what God has called you to do, you are going to be misunderstood. Criticized. Maybe even hated.

But don’t worry when people are criticizing you. Worry when they’re not criticizing you. Because at that point you’ve blended in too much to be worth noticing. Personally, I’d rather be misunderstood than ignored.

So how ’bout it? Should leaders be comfortable with controversy?

Should leaders create controversy?

Well, this is a subject I’ve been mulling over for some time, and more intently since reading this article.

Our controversial message

On the one hand, it’s easy to say yes, church leaders should be willing to be controversial. Those who stand up for the truth, who proclaim the gospel unashamedly will inevitably create controversy because they are holding fast to the Word of God.

“For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing,” Paul wrote in 2 Cor. 2:15-16, “to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.”

The gospel is offensive in and of itself because it confronts us with an accurate view of ourselves—we are faced with the truth that we are hopelessly lost in our sin. We have exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worship and serve created things instead of our blessed Creator (Rom. 1:25). Left to our own selves, we are idolators whose hearts are so deceitful and corrupt we cannot even rightly evaluate ourselves (cf. Jer. 17:9).

There is no darker picture of the truth of humanity than the one we see in the Scriptures, and yet no brighter hope for our reconciliation with God. God isn’t content to leave us to our own devices to make ourselves right with Him—the price is too high, the debt is too great!

So instead, He does it for us—the Father ordains our redemption; the Son accomplishes it in His perfect life, death, and resurrection; and the Holy Spirit applies it to us, bringing life to the spiritually dead, renewing our hearts and minds in Jesus Christ.

So, if that’s the message we proclaim, absolutely it’s going to be controversial… and we should absolutely embrace the controversy that comes from it.

And yet…

Our uncontroversial attitudes

As clearly controversial as our message is, the Scriptures make it clear that Christians are to be decidedly uncontroversial in our approach to our calling. Consider what a brief survey of Paul and Peter’s epistles reveal on this matter:

…let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. (Col. 3:15)

…aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs… (1 Thessalonians 4:11)

An overseer must be above reproach . . . sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable . . . not quarrelsome… (1 Timothy 3:1-3)

[Christian leaders are not to have] an unhealthy craving for controversy . . . and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. (1 Timothy 6:4-5)

Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us. (Titus 2:7-8)

a person who stirs up division . . . is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned. (Titus 3:10-11)

…let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. (1 Peter 3:11)

…in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect. (1 Peter 3:15)

Whether inside or outside the Church, the apostolic witness is consistent and clear: Christian leaders, and indeed all Christians, are to be pursue self-control, peacefulness, and be above reproach (that is, beyond criticism, especially from unbelievers).

Just because Jesus was controversial…

The trouble with Furtick’s argument in his article is its flawed approach. It represents, at best, a half-truth.

Was Jesus controversial? Yes.

Why? Not because He was dangerous in the earthly sense.

Remember, Pontius Pilate found no fault with Him; He wasn’t a political upstart or a revolutionary in that sense. The danger Jesus represented was (and is) in His complete denunciation of our futile attempts to earn our own salvation and for His repeated declarations of His divinity.

There’s nothing more dangerous and nothing more controversial than that.

But here’s the thing… we don’t get to be controversial the way that He was.

We can’t make the claims that He did and we cannot perform the deeds that He did.

The danger of a half-truth comes when it’s presented as a whole truth. When that happens, a half-truth becomes a whole lie.

For the Christian, our call is more like that of John the Baptist—Jesus must increase, but we must decrease (John 3:30). It’s a call to humility. We don’t sacrifice influence by rejecting the notion of creating controversy. We increase in godliness as we consider others more significant than ourselves (Phil 2:3).

The only controversy that should ever come from our ministry is the faithful proclamation of the gospel. But anything else—if our methodology is stirring up division within the body, if our attitudes are creating cause for concern among believers and confusion among unbelievers, then we’ve not only missed the point, we’ve revealed we’re not fit for the ministry.

Controversy is not always wrong, but it’s pursuit is never to be commended. Influence is not wrong, but it is not something we, ultimately, can earn. It’s a gift from God given in whatever measure He deems fit. Steward what you have well and let Him worry about the rest.

Autonomous Christianity Never Works


I know it sounds strange, but sometimes the best thing a book can do is hit you square between the eyes. Paul Tripp’s new book, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry, is like that. I’ll be doing a comprehensive review soon, but I wanted to take a moment to share one of the most helpful passages of the book.

Too often those of us in any form of church leadership—whether formal or informal—can feel a temptation to hide how we’re really doing. We feel like we need to put on a brave face, or we need to be super-shiny-perfect Christians.

But what does this reveal about us? Tripp explains:

First, when people are your substitute messiah (you need their respect and support in order to continue), it’s hard to be honest with them about your sins, weaknesses, and failures. There is a second thing that kicks in as well: fear. The more separation and discontinuity there is between the real details of my personal life and my public confession and image, the more I will tend to fear being known. I will fear how people would think of and respond to me if they really knew what was going on in my life. I may even fear the loss of my job. So my responses to the concerns and inquiries of others become structured by fear rather than faith. So I do not make the regular, healthy confessions of struggle to my ministry co-partners, I do not ask candidly and humbly for prayer in places where I clearly need it, and I am very careful with how I answer personal questions when they come my way.

This all means that I am no longer benefitting from the insight-giving, protecting, encouraging, warning, preventative, and restoring ministries of the body of Christ. I am trying to do what none of us is able to do—spiritually make it on my own. Autonomous Christianity never works, because our spiritual life was designed by God to be a community project. (Dangerous Calling, p. 38)

If the Christian life is a “community project” as Tripp says, we must resist the temptation to withdraw and hide our problems, not in the played “authentic” sense, but simply making sure we’re all in intentional community. Pastors need those around them to whom they can confess their sins—and not just their wives (for that is a burden to great to carry). Pastors’ wives need safe women to be in intentional community with, who don’t expect them to be “just so.” Same goes for leaders at every level.

Leader, if you feel like ministry “has” to be a lonely thing—if you consistently pull away from any form of community—you need to ask yourself:

Is the problem that there’s no one I can trust—or is it me?