“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:

Professionalism.

brothers-piper

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.

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

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)

Winter-Church

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

dangerous-calling

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?

pastor

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

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

dangerous-calling

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?

Theological vision, and keeping the main thing the main thing

 

Center Church is shaping up to be one of the best books I’ve read on church ministry. This is in no small part due to its being (at least to this point) so drastically different from the other books available on the subject.

Rather than focusing on a doctrinal foundation or methodology, Tim Keller puts the emphasis on theological vision, which he defines as “a faithful restatement of the gospel with rich implications for life, ministry, and missions in a the of culture at a moment in history” (p. 20).

A clearly defined theological vision moves our doctrinal foundation from the abstract and informs the particulars of our methodology and allows us to keep the main thing the main thing:

Only one thing can handle being the main thing #centerchurch #fb

What the gospel is not #CenterChurch #fb

Simple, not singular

When it comes to our desire to reach people, it’s our theological vision that keeps us from running off the rails, but also allows us to see how we can faithfully explain our singular message without embracing a simplistic one-size-fits-all mindset (which is the heart of good, biblical contextualization).

I’ll be posting a comprehensive review soon, but if you’re at all curious, I’d highly encourage ordering a copy from:

Success, Faithfulness, and Fruitfulness

old-church

One of the looming questions in Christian ministry is trying to figure out how to measure whether or not what you’re doing is “working” (I hope you’ll forgive the expression). Some look at it in terms of success, which really just means numbers.

  • How many people showed up?
  • How many baptisms were there?
  • How much are people giving?

And so on.

These aren’t bad metrics and can be an indicator of God’s working in a church’s ministry, but it’s not necessarily so as many critics of the church growth/seeker sensitive movement have made clear.

Others contrast this with the idea of faithfulness alone—that all you need is to be sound in your doctrine, godly in character and faithful in preaching and ministering to people. Again, good metrics, but as Tim Keller points out on the first page of his excellent new book, Center Church, a bit of an oversimplification as it risks ignoring the competency factor. Simply, you can be orthodox, godly, and faithful, but still not be good at what you do.

Keller offers a great third option: Fruitfulness. Here’s how he explains it:

As I read, reflected, and taught, I came to the conclusion that a more biblical theme for evaluation than either success or faithfulness is fruitfulness. Jesus, of course, told his disciples that they were to “bear much fruit” (John 15:8). Paul spoke even more specifically. He spoke of conversions as “fruit” when he desired to preach the gospel in Rome “that I might have some fruit among you also, even as among other Gentiles” (Rom 1:13 KJV). Paul also spoke of the “fruit” of godly character that a minister can see growing in Christians under his care. This included the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22). Good deeds, such as mercy to the poor, are called “fruit” as well (Rom 15:28).

Paul spoke of the pastoral nurture of congregations as a form of gardening. He told the Corinthian Christians they were God’s field” in which some ministers planted, some watered and some reaped (1 Cor 3:9). The gardening metaphor shows that . . . [g]ardeners must be faithful in their work, but they must also be skillful, or the garden will fail. Yet in the end, the degree of the success of the garden (or the ministry) is determined by factors beyond the control of the gardener. The level of fruitfulness varies due to “soil conditions” (that is, some groups o fpeople have a greater hardness of heart than others) and “weather conditions” (that is, the work of God’s sovereign Spirit) as well. (Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City, pp. 13-14)

This is a tremendously helpful corrective and one that I trust will be an encouragement to many who struggle in this regard. It completely changes how we evaluate what we do. It’s not a matter of just how faithful or godly a minister is, anymore than it’s about how many people are showing up on a Sunday morning. And best of all, it takes the wrong pressures off of pastors and leaders who are competent and faithful. “When fruitfulness is our criterion for evaluation, we are held accountable but not crushed by the expectation that a certain number of lives will be changed dramatically under our ministry.”

That’s good news, isn’t it?

Do Not Stroke the Ear, Strike the Heart

holding-bible-lr

The most pernicious and debasing evil of all is, a converting our sacred office into a medium for setting forth our own excellence — prostituting the glories of the cross for the indulgence of our own pride, drawing a veil over the glories of our adorable Master and committing a robbery against him, even in the professed business to exalt him. This is to lose sight of the great end of the Ministry — commending ourselves, instead of our Master, to the regard of our people. . . Our business is to make men think, not of our eloquence, but of their own souls; to attend, not to our fine language, but to their own everlasting interest. Our duty is . . . not to stroke the ear, but to strike the heart.

Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry (as published in How Sermons Work by David Murray)

 

2 Things I Love (and 1 Thing I Don’t) About Preaching

pastor

This weekend I’m filling the pulpit on behalf of my friend Andrew Hall at Community Bible Church in Ilderton, Ontario. As I’ve been praying and preparing for this week’s message, I’ve been considering what I love and what I don’t love so much about preaching:

I get to worship God by serving others

I certainly don’t pretend to be the most gifted preacher in the world, but one of the best things about preaching is helping people see something in Scripture that they either haven’t seen before or reminding them of an important truth they can’t hear too many times. The last time I was at CBC, one of the best moments I had was a member of the congregation coming to see me after the service and sharing how the message helped her get some clarity on a difficult subject. This week, I’m preaching primarily on 2 verses (Jude 20-21) and I’m trusting that the Lord will bless my efforts to serve this congregation.

I get to worship God by doing something I love

Honestly, preaching is a lot of fun for me. It’s challenging, forces me to get out of my comfort zone (standing up in front of people isn’t my most favorite thing in the world), and allows me to invest time digging into the Word. Even though I’d probably say I’m a pretty average preacher in terms of ability, there’s few things more rewarding for me than this kind of practical worship of God.

As much as I love these things, there is at least one thing I don’t love about preaching:

Insecurity and temptations to please man

As much as I want to serve God and honor the text, it’s really tempting to seek the approval of others after preaching. I don’t know that any of us don’t like to hear that we’ve done a good job, but the danger for me is finding more value in that affirmation, rather than satisfaction in Christ.

That’s a bit of what I love (and don’t) about preaching. If you’re a preacher, what do you love about it? 

Theological Famine Relief and Christian Identity

Bridges 364

One of the things I’m so thankful for is the gift of beneficial resources God has blessed us with in North America. We have so many wonderful, God-glorifying books and resources at our finger tips and we should thank God for these things. But God has not given these things to us for our benefit alone. Thousands of pastors all around the world have virtually no access to any sort of theological education.

That’s why I’m incredibly excited about The Gospel Coalition’s International Outreach:

As God directs and equips, The Gospel Coalition’s international mission is to see thousands of congregations in Asia, Africa, South America, and Europe receive solid biblical teaching from their leaders, because of new access to theological resources, both physical and digital, in helpful languages and formats. . . .

The focus of our work is in launching Relief Projects consisting of physical and digital resources in English, Spanish, Russian, French, and other languages. The scope of the need is larger than any single ministry can fill. We are looking for partners to help us cultivate relationships, develop and deliver resources, mobilize networks, and build support. We want to connect with donors, churches, translators, publishers, missions senders, and goers who sense a call to engage in Theological Famine Relief. You can help us to create and deploy these resources where they are most needed around the world.

One of the ways they’re seeking to equip pastors is with a terrific book from Cruciform Press (the publisher of my first two books and where I work part time handling some of their marketing): Who Am I?: Identity in Christ by Jerry Bridges (reviewed here).

This is a book all about who we are in Christ, one of the most critical things any Christian needs to understand. But, as my friend Tim Challies recently pointed out, it can take years (if ever) for many of us to “get” this, depending on the teaching we receive and the books we read. That’s where Bridges’ book serves as a wonderful gift to the Church, both here in North America and around the world, as he unpacks the following eight truths:

  1. I Am a Creature
  2. I Am in Christ
  3. I Am Justified
  4. I Am an Adopted Son of God
  5. I Am a New Creation
  6. I Am a Saint
  7. I Am a Servant of Jesus Christ
  8. I Am Not Yet Perfect

I can think of few resources outside of Scripture that would be a more helpful gift for pastors in need of Christ-exalting resources to increase their own understanding and share with their congregations.

Please consider helping The Gospel Coalition make 3000 copies of this wonderful book available to our brothers and sisters in the global church by donating to TGC’s relief project.

Questions to Ask When Studying The Bible

One of the things I love about the Puritans is their commitment to the study of Scripture. When you read the works of the Puritans (and those heavily influenced by them), like Richard Baxter, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards and so many others, it’s clear that they thought deeply about the Scriptures and their application in a way that many of us—even the most committed—struggle to in the same fashion. According to Allan Harman in Matthew Henry – His Life and Influence, their approach basically took into consideration the following questions (I’ve included my own commentary with each):

What do these words actually mean?

This might seem incredibly obvious, but it’s worth noting that in periods prior to the Reformation, many Christian teachers interpreted Scripture allegorically (which is fine to do when the Scriptures themselves give you the freedom to do so). But one problem with this approach is that it can quickly lead to the obscuring of the author’s intended message. Whatever conclusions we come to about a text, we have to start with what the author originally intended his audience to hear.

What light do other Scriptures throw on this text?

No passage of Scripture should be interpreted in a vacuum. Doing so rarely leads to a right conclusion about the author’s intent in writing it and the passage’s application for us today. When we come across texts that seem to conflict with one another (say, for example, John 1:1 and Deut. 6:4), we need to remember that if the Bible is truly inspired by God, if God is its ultimate source, then, generally speaking, there is no apparent conflict that can’t be explained without jumping through too many hoops (even if it’s simply acknowledging the truth of Deut 29:29).

Where and how does it fit into the total biblical revelation?

Just as a passage of Scripture should be interpreted in light of the author’s original intent and other relevant passages of Scripture, we also have to be careful to make sure we’re clear on how it fits into the “big story” of the Bible.

What truths does it teach about God, and about man in relation to God?

This is a wonderful diagnostic question for us because, just like the ones prior, it leads us closer to the point of all Scripture. This is where so much of our interpretation falls short today, where we put ourselves as the primary object of every text, where the Bible always and consistently puts God as primary and truths we learn about ourselves in the process are always in light of our understanding of God. If our understanding of a text isn’t first and foremost leading us to a greater understanding of the God who inspired it to be written, then we’re probably off in our interpretation.  [Read more...]

“Wasted” Lives and Christian Calling

From our earliest years, we’re encouraged to pursue success—to find it in our hobbies, sports, education and, eventually, careers.

When I finished college, I had aspirations of being a successful and well paid graphic designer. (Don’t laugh—they didn’t tell us there was an abundance of designers and a dearth of job prospects.) Though I had a rough start to my career (long story), I eventually did start doing pretty well for myself.

Then I became a Christian. And Jesus told me to give it all up (cf. Mark 8:35).

So I left my job, joined the staff of a Christian ministry where I am employed to this day, took a fairly sizeable pay cut (and then took another household income reduction when Emily’s maternity leave ended) and then began to pursue the answer to a big question that’s been in the air for the better part of four years—one of calling.

Recently I’ve been reading Edmund Clowney’s little book, Called to the Ministry, and found his addressing of vocation particularly helpful:

Until we are ready to follow in the steps of that Saviour, discussions of Christian vocation are futile. Had vocational counselors interviewed Simon Peter, they would likely have directed him away from the fishing business. His gifts for leadership were wasted in a two-man fishing boat. But they would hardly have recommended a career in sectarian religious extremism, as a follower of the Nazarene. Devotion to such a cause could, and did, end in crucifixion.

From the twelve apostles to the Auca missionaries of our generation, the history of the Christian church is the history of “wasted” lives. The Christian may tabulate all the assets of his personality and take inventory of his preferences, but he casts all these at the feet of Christ. He is not seeking fulfillment but expendability. He counts not his life dear to himself, for he holds it in trust for Christ. His goal is beyond the grave; the crown of his high calling is in the hand of his risen Lord. (pp. 14-15)

This is the funny thing about the Christian life: while it’s important to use the gifts and abilities God has given each of us for His glory, we’re not called to find our fulfillment in the pursuit of such things. When I left my old job for this one, people—especially family—looked at me as though I had two heads. They didn’t get why I’d move to something where I’d be earning less. It seemed backwards.

And it is. But that’s the thing about the Christian life, and Christian ministry. Life and ministry for the believer are nothing less than counterintuitive.

Ministry is not typically the route to fame and fortune; those who pursue it as such are either naïve fools or devils from the pit. Ministry requires the giving up of our desires for such things.We think less of our fulfillment and more of our expendability for the cause of Christ. And in the process, with (as Clowney puts it) our goal being “beyond the grave” and “the crown of [our] high calling in the hand of [our] risen Lord,” we find our true fulfillment.

It might seem like a “wasted” life to some, but it’s one I wouldn’t trade for anything.

More Lessons I’m Learning from Other Preachers

I remember the first time I stepped into the pulpit. I was scared stiff. Sweaty palms, hands clenching my Bible and notes… but in the end, I did okay. Part of what helped was getting some help. The first meeting I ever had with our pastor was for him to give me some pointers. Then another friend took me under his wing, giving me the opportunity to get better.

Like writing, art, music, cooking or pretty much anything else, preaching takes practice. But it also takes a willingness to learn from others. A while back I shared a few lessons I learned from listening to other preachers. Here are a few more that I wanted to share:

1. There’s a difference between “speaking” and “preaching.”

Recently, I was at an event where I listened to a speaker discuss his vision for ministry and how he does life as a pastor. As I heard him speak, something felt off. He was clearly a gifted speaker, but as I listened, I kept thinking, “This is a man who is clearly a good leader, but he’s not a preacher.” He came across more as a CEO than a shepherd.

Perhaps it’s the context in which he was speaking that led to this, but something I’ve noticed about preachers is that what they say is rooted in God’s Word. Dever and Gilbert put it well when they wrote, “Anything that is not rooted in and tethered tightly to God’s Word is not preaching at all.” That’s the difference between speaking and preaching. Preaching is about God. Speaking is more often than not about me.

2. Preaching requires preparation.

Something I’ve become increasingly aware of in my own life is the propensity toward laziness. Once I get comfortable doing something, it’s easy to think I don’t need to put in all the work. I don’t need to practice or put together my notes in a timely fashion (timely, as in, giving myself enough time to prepare). I rely on natural ability rather than on careful, prayerful effort.

Maybe you’ve heard of this before, but I’ve found it helpful to think of raw ability in degrees of competence:

  • There are the consciously incompetent—you know you don’t know what you’re doing;
  • The unconsciously competent—you don’t know you know what you’re doing;
  • The consciously competent—you know you know what you’re doing; and
  • The unconsciously incompetent—you think you know what you’re doing, but not so much.

All of us, in whatever area we serve, move through these degrees of competence. I’ve seen it happen in the same day (and yes, it was me that did it). Those who know they don’t know much are usually the best learners and most open to criticism. The ones who think they’re awesome but aren’t tend to struggle with receiving critical feedback (in my experience at least).

Preaching requires a great deal of careful preparation. It might not take long to craft an outline or a manuscript (I’m actually getting pretty fast at this part), and some of us might be really quick on our feet, but we cannot afford to become undisciplined.

3. Preaching takes courage.

This weekend my own pastor preached another hard one, one that I shared some thoughts about very recently. Malachi’s a hard book, one that some might call a space-maker. As we’ve seen our church grow numerically, I can’t imagine the temptation that he and our elders must face. More people means our space issues become more pressing. More people in need of ministry means more leaders need to be developed. There are a lot of variables that I have no knowledge of whatsoever that come into play, but I can imagine it’s tempting to compromise on values to get things done. But preaching hard texts, ones that force people to feel the weight of their own sin, especially in the face of growth, takes courage.

Those are a few things I’m learning from other preachers—what about you?