Over the past year of ministry I’ve come to recognize a troubling tendency in myself. It’s a tendency toward what you might call vicarious faith. My confidence in the power of God's Word—of its truth, its beauty, its relevance—is far too closely tied to the visible faith of those I serve as they respond to the Word.
When people connect with what I preach or teach or counsel from Scripture—when they get it and love it—my faith in the Word is strong. When what I say doesn’t seem to resonate—when it comes off as abstract, unbelievable, impractical—my faith in the Word tends to shrink.
I call this vicarious faith because it’s mediated and indirect. It’s not faith rooted in the Word itself. It’s faith tethered to the results of the Word I can see with my eyes in the faith of others.
I was especially convicted of this problem by a fresh reading of 2 Timothy a couple months ago. It's one of Paul’s most personal letters. As perhaps his final letter, it has a clear retrospective feel, and it’s deeply introspective. Given this context, one phrase in particular stands out: “All who are in Asia left me.”
Was the apostle being hyperbolic? Almost certainly. But this hyperbole reveals his state of mind. Paul’s statement has been described as the “sweeping assertion of depression” (Donald Guthrie, The Pastoral Epistles, 135). It is the statement of a man who knows what it is to be disappointed with the results of one’s ministry.
The rest of the letter offers a few examples of what he’s experienced. He writes of Hymenaeus and Philetus, who “swerved from the truth” and opposed Paul’s message with their own speculative babble (2:16-17). Then there’s Demas, a colleague in ministry who fell “in love with this present world,” deserting Paul for the greener grass of Thessalonica (4:9). Alexander, a coppersmith, somehow caused the apostle “great harm” (4:14). And when Paul stood trial, he stood alone—“all deserted me” (4:16).
These are remarkable words, aren’t they? In a way they’re encouraging for all of us who’ve felt the sense that our work is in vain. Even the great apostle himself knew what it was to labor with disappointment. Here in this letter Paul is near to death and he knows it (4:6-8). He’s all alone. And he’s living with the realization that much of what he’d taken for fruit has withered on the vine.
The truly remarkable thing about this letter and its context is that it’s here, from this man in this condition, that we receive perhaps the Bible’s clearest and most definitive statement on the all-sufficiency of Scripture. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable...” (3:16-17).
And it’s here that Paul draws his unflinching methodological conclusion: “Preach the Word; be ready in season and out of season” (4:2).
The Word is profitable, Paul insists, even when the results have been discouraging. So there’s nothing to do but to keep on preaching that Word, in season and out of season. When Asia responds well and when Asia turns away.
Paul’s faith is in what God has said and not in what he sees. He knows the power of the Word is never under our control, like a genie in a bottle. The source of its power is the Spirit who, like the wind, blows where he will, subject to no man’s fancy. But however unpredictable, the Word is still the only power that can bring the sort of transformation people really need. I’m reminded of Peter’s words, when Jesus asked him if he too would leave: “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
Even when it doesn’t work according to our desires, or in a way perceivable by our senses, the Word is still the only thing that works. That’s the implication of Paul’s final charge to Timothy. Do you believe it? I wish I believed it more.
On the one hand, I’ve seen beautiful evidence that the Word’s power is what Paul claims it to be. On the other hand, I’ve also noticed this troubling temptation to allow my confidence in the Word to rise and fall with the extent to which others find it compelling, relevant, or trustworthy.
Surely I’m not alone. Does your personal conviction of what you preach depend on whether people connect with what you preach? Does your love for the Bible’s message vary with whether others seem to love that message or not? Do we believe the promises of Romans 8 when they seem cliché or unrealistic to the one who is suffering? Are we convinced of the power of those gospel-centered “one anothers” when the relationships aren’t restored, when the marriages don’t improve, when the anger or resentment doesn’t go away? Do we believe that God’s Word won’t return void even when our churches aren’t growing as we’d like? Too often, I wish my answers weren’t what they are.
What I’m praying towards—what Paul models for us in 2 Timothy—is what you could call a promise-driven pragmatism. It’s entirely appropriate that we should be fixated on what works in ministry. But how do we define what works? Our desire is to see individuals and communities transformed, which is to say our goals are supernatural. Only God’s power can accomplish what we want accomplished, and often, only God can see what he’s accomplishing. This means the primary measure of what works must be the promise of God, not the results we see from our perspective. His promise is that the Word is profitable, powerful enough to secure everything we really need—whether we see it or not.
[For more on the power of God’s Word to bring life and change, see Jonathan Leeman’s Reverberation: How God’s Word Brings Light, Freedom, and Action to His People.]
Matt McCullough is the pastor of Trinity Church in Nashville, Tennessee and the author of The Cross of War: Christian Nationalism and U.S. Expansion in the Spanish-American War (University of Wisconsin Press, forthcoming).
Here’s an interesting reality: lots of people want to love God today. That’s what they say. Check out the polls regularly printed in USA Today, for example, and you’ll find that most people are not in fact hardened secularists waiting to pounce like a hyena on any Christian they can find. You may pick up that impression from the news media or talking heads on TV, but that’s not how many people represent their desires. Many folks want to get in touch with God. Of course, they don’t know how, and many don’t really follow through. Without God’s redeeming grace, our sin gets in the way of our best intentions.
But the point stands: a good number of folks would at least say that they want to love God. I think you would baffle many people, though, if you extended the question to this: “Do you want to love the church—an actual, real, existing local church in your area?”
It’s at this point that a lot of people would drop out. They would argue that they’re “spiritual,” but not really religious. They believe in a living relationship with the Lord, not a ritualistic one. They can worship God anywhere, and they don’t need to be confined to a building.
Perhaps, in fact, this voices your perspective. Maybe you’ve been burned by a church. You don’t associate the local church with a place of joyful worship where you encounter the transcendent Lord of heaven and earth. In fact, there are so many people who have had negative experiences that I think it’s worth saying what the church is not:
- The local church is not a social club for gossip, albeit with pews and a slightly odd smell.
- It’s not a place where you go to observe a whole bunch of weird rules that have no connection to everyday life.
- It’s not a political organization dedicated to the preservation of “what America used to be” or to a social agenda overturning traditional American ideals.
- It’s not primarily about feeling better, thinking more positively, achieving your best self, spiritually “winning,” or getting healthier.
- It’s not a building, a place where some people go during the week to observe some old rituals that nobody really understands but that are considered valuable because they create togetherness and make people feel spiritual.
- It’s not a place where people who look like one another congregate and do all they can to keep others who aren’t like them out.
- It’s not a spiritual smoothie bar where you go when you have a sudden and unexplainable rush to get close to God, only never to return.
- It’s not a money-raising organization or a series of weekly seminars on success. The church is not a personal improvement organization such that you can climb the economic ladder, get better jobs, and become fabulously wealthy just by going there.
These are eight ways of thinking about the church that people adopt today. They all fall short in different ways of what it actually means to love God and his church. You may have experienced some form of these conceptions of the church. You may have gone to a church that was all about rules, for example, or that never really preached about the Bible.
A church may have legitimately angered you, offended you, hurt you, confused you, or bored you. I don’t know where you’re coming from, but I know that no local church is perfect, and that there are many places that are not true churches that nonetheless call themselves by this weighty name.
But what is the local church, then? Well, first and foremost, it’s a group devoted to worshiping the living God according to his inerrant Word, the Bible. It’s an outpost for weary people burdened by sin to meet God and be transformed by him. The church building may not look exciting from the outside, or it may be an aesthetic masterpiece. Whatever the building looks like, though, I can assure you that the local church truly is exciting, because when it’s devoted to God’s Word, it is the body of Christ. It’s a tangible, visible sign that God is real and working and moving in our world.
You could say it this way: the church is created by the gospel, and the church is edified by the gospel. God loves the local church. He made it, after all. It’s his brainstorm. God is super-creative. He’s the ultimate aesthete. He loves beauty and full-orbed, surround-sound faith. He wants all our senses and emotions to be engaged in weekly worship. So we pray, sing, hear the Word read and preached, eat the bread and drink the wine, and share fellowship together.
The Lord wants these blessings for us. We experience them when we join local churches (see 1 Cor. 5 and its discussion of those “outside” and “inside” the Corinthian congregation). What’s called “church membership” is very important in Scripture. Our redeemer wants every born-again Christian to be in fellowship with others so we can build one another up in the faith. He wants us to be baptized as our public declaration that we’ve passed through the waters of judgment and have risen from spiritual death through Christ. He wants us to partake of the Lord’s Supper to remember Jesus’ death on our behalf.
I didn’t grow up in a massive congregation. I grew up in a small church on the coast of Maine. There weren’t many believers around. But I was trained to see the church as an inherently dignified gathering regardless of how many people attended on Sunday. My father was steadfastly committed to the First Baptist Church of East Machias. He went every week to prayer meeting; he and my mother were faithful to the church even through troubled times. They modeled covenantal commitment to their church. I am grateful they did.
It made a mark on me.
Church was a natural part of my youth; without really knowing it, I was formed in the worldview we’re discussing here. I was being trained in the holy rhythms of a Godward life. I heard the preaching; ate the tiny little communion crackers barely visible to the human eye; sang in the Christmas choir. We weren’t a large body, but we were devoted to the Lord.
More important, he was devoted to us.
He is devoted to every church, to every local expression of the global people of Christ, however humble, however popular. So should we be.
Owen Strachan is Assistant Professor of Christian Theology and Church History at Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky and the Executive Director of the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood.
Editors' Note: This is an excerpt from Owen Strachan's Risky Gospel: Abandon Fear and Build Something Awesome (Thomas Nelson), which releases today. You can check out the book's website and watch a trailer here.
We need the church. It’s the ultimate community, created by almighty God so that people like you and me can flourish, laugh, learn, grow, weep, and love Christ together.
We’re not meant by God to be lone rangers. We’re made to plug into the fabric of a living body, one aimed not simply at life change or communal uplift but at the glory of God.
Coming to a church, a group of believers covenanted together in the name of Christ, is like happening across a crowd of people on a sidewalk. They’re all staring upward. They see something that is clearly blowing their minds. Maybe their hair is standing on end. You ask them who they are and what they’re doing, and they reply, “Seeking God.” Okay, so the analogy’s mildly weird, but that’s the point: this is a group of people who are zeroed in on transcendence. They’re not content to talk about it in their dorm rooms or book club. They can’t just name-check the Lord or wear a “Jesus piece,” as Kanye West does. They are compelled by something in them, something mysterious, to worship God.
But that’s the crazy thing: they don’t want to do it by themselves.
They have an insatiable appetite to get together with other people and worship God. Is that merely a natural instinct? You know: if we’re going to be outside burning sticks, trying to heat our dinner over an open flame, we may as well congregate?
We’re by nature sociable as humans, but there’s something more happening in the church.
Our instinct for togetherness comes directly from that same source we were just talking about: God, more specifically, a Trinitarian God. The Father, Son, and Spirit are the central reality of Christianity. The three persons of the Godhead are each fully God. There is nothing lacking or incomplete in any of them. Yet in a way that is thoroughly brainbending, they want communion with one another. They don’t each rule a separate part of the universe; they live in perfect harmony with one another, loving one another, agreeing with one another, manifesting their glory together.
Maybe you’re thinking, Whoa! We just went from 0 to 60, dude. First we’re talking about some church; now we’re on the deepest mysteries of the universe? Yeah. Kind of. But this link makes sense. We want to be together as humans because the persons of the Trinity are together as God. We’re the image of God, remember? The society of heaven has created a society on earth. We were made for communion and friendship and happiness and perfect love, because that’s what the Trinity experiences.
So that, my friend, is why we want a church. We’re social beings, like the Father, Son, and Spirit. We’re made for the church. We don’t just want togetherness; we want togetherness based on the best thing there is: God. We want to worship something. We were made for this purpose. God didn’t just want his creatures to scurry all over the place like human ants. He made us to crave, love, desire, yearn, delight in, and enjoy him.
Passion is infused in us. Love is hardwired in us.
We’re made to adore, celebrate, and shout as loud as our lungs will allow, “I LOVE YOU!” And we’re made to do it together, as a church.
Owen Strachan is Assistant Professor of Christian Theology and Church History at Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky and the Executive Director of the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood. He is the author of the forthcoming Risky Gospel (Thomas Nelson).
Note: This post is an excerpt from Risky Gospel, posted here with the publisher's permission.
Robby Gallaty is a personal friend of mine and a godly man who loves Jesus and wants others to love Jesus. His passion to help people live out the glorious Commission of our Lord is evident in his life and in this book. But friendship aside, I read his book Growing Up as a pastor looking for a good resource to challenge me and those I’m discipling. In fact, I read it with a few guys from my church (Tim, Dan, Luis) and spent an early Friday morning talking through things we liked about the book as well as things we felt were lacking.
We all agreed that Robby’s personal touch and well-illustrated writing make for an easy read. Growing Up is a resource that is accessible for just about anyone, and each of us were able to read it in a few days. It is filled with quotable lines from both Robby and others.
Growing Up is organized in two sections. The first four chapters lay out our Lord’s call to be disciples that make disciples. These chapters highlight Robby’s personal transformation through discipleship, his recommendation to be in a discipleship group (aka “D-Group,” 3-5 people committed to 12-18 months of weekly discipling meetings), and the call to train ourselves for godliness in the context of discipleship relationships.
The remaining six chapters give practical prescriptions that should mark the lives of growing disciples. These chapters follow the acrostic C.L.O.S.E.R., each letter representing a spiritual discipline that helps us develop a closer walk with Jesus.
Click here to continue reading.
Have you ever seen someone gawk at an evangelical? I don’t know if the phrase is unique to him, but I’ve often heard Al Mohler refer to this as the “National Geographic effect.” What he means is that secular Westerners—especially elites—sometimes respond to evangelical Christians about like they’d respond to rumors of cannibalistic tribes in the South Pacific: “Wait—there are still people like that out there!?”
If life can imitate art, it can certainly imitate the good Dr. Mohler’s verbal art. Enter the National Geographic Channel’s new niche reality show Church Rescue, which premieres tonight.
Think Extreme Home Makeover: Church Edition. The show features three church consultants who run an outfit called Church Hoppers: Kevin “Rev Kev” Adams, their business analyst; Anthony “Gladamere” Lockhart, the marketing specialist; and the spiritual counselor, Jerry “Doc” Bentley.
The first episode features New Hope Baptist Church outside Charlotte, pastored by Larry Roseboro. This largely African-American congregation is described as “Bapticostal”—a Baptist church where people get “slain in the Spirit” and the service lasts four hours.
The pastor’s dream, which his late wife shared, is to exchange the church’s cramped, shabby building for a more expansive facility that will draw more people. But like so many dreams, this one comes with a price tag: $1.4 million to be precise—a hefty sum for a small, rural church with only $40,000 in the bank.
The Church Hoppers begin their work with an unannounced Sunday morning audit. After experiencing all there is to experience in the morning worship service, they talk with Pastor Roseboro about his dreams and frustrations. Among the latter are a host of problems with the building: torn carpet, no air conditioner, rainwater flowing in the back door. But, Pastor Roseboro wonders, why throw money at the old building when it could be put toward a new one?
Not only that, but we learn from Roseboro and some of his congregants that he’s bearing the pastoral load alone. A deacon formerly assisted him, but Roseboro and Brother Curtis fell out some time ago.
Here a Southern, spiritualized spin on the standard consulting script kicks in. Our three consultants assess New Hope’s problems over lunch, hatching a three-point plan. On Monday they sit down for “the hardcore truth meeting” with Pastor Roseboro. If Roseboro wants his church to grow, he needs to invest in the current building, reconcile with Curtis and reinstate him as deacon, and split his four-hour service into two shorter ones featuring more focused, concise sermons.
What does Pastor Roseboro make of these recommendations? You’ll have to watch to find out.
In one sense, the National Geographic effect is up and running. The choice of a “Bapticostal” church for the first episode is evidence enough. And future episodes promise a biker church, a cowboy church, and a synagogue. Yes, a synagogue. The Religion News Service article on the show reports that the three protagonists hail from the Southern Baptist Convention, and they certainly sound like evangelicals. Yet the fact that a synagogue is in line for a “church rescue” tells you all you need to know about the show’s theological acuity.
Happily, a few moments of spiritual perception shine through. For instance, Doc remarks that the pastor’s problem is that he’s as passionate about getting his way as he is about spreading the Word. But the following comment by Gladamere is more typical: “We’re in the Bible belt, where there’s a church on every corner. To stand out, you’ve got to improve your curb appeal, so when people drive by, the church is beautiful and inviting.”
The show is well-produced and the protagonists are likeable. Somewhat despite myself, the first episode kind of made me want to see the others. And to their credit, National Geographic lets the Church Hoppers tell their own stories.
But I actually wish the National Geographic effect were in fuller swing. The problems New Hope Baptist Church faces are problems anyone can understand: soured relationships and a run-down building. So also the solutions: extend an olive branch and install new carpet. Any consultant can tell you that.
But every church’s problems run deeper. Sure, their symptoms show up in ways everyone can relate to, but the causes lie hidden from unredeemed sight. Ultimately, there’s only one church Rescuer, the eternal Son of God who became a man and died on the cruel cross to purchase and perfect his people. And the message of his rescue repairs and refreshes his church all the way to its roots.
As it is, Church Rescue is a friendly, innocuous, late-period artifact of the shrinking Bible Belt. But if the show were about the real rescue, it would give people a reason to stop and gawk.
Bobby Jamieson is assistant editor for 9Marks, a member of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and the author of Sound Doctrine: How a Church Grows in the Love and of God (Crossway, 2013). You can follow him on Twitter.
Editor's Note: this piece is cross-posted from Schaeffer's Ghost with the kind permission of its editors.
Autumn represents that time of year when high school seniors and others make final decisions about where to apply to college. Early application deadlines are due in November, while regular deadlines come in January.
What does the average senior look for in a college? People generally want to maximize the balance between a school’s academic prestige, cost, location, social life, extracurricular programs, and so forth. All reasonable variables to consider.
But how often have you heard a seventeen-year-old say, “I’m considering this college because there is a great church nearby”? Or, “It’s a good university, but I’m not going to apply because I asked around and couldn’t discover any good churches in that town.”
A godly brother looking at various graduate programs said the latter to me a few days ago. For him it meant he was rejecting a school where some of the top scholars in his field teach.
Do you think my friend is being foolish? After all, college is only for a few years. Should the presence of a nearby healthy church really make or break what school you decide to attend?
Oh, please, yes. Follow my friend’s example. I dare say, determining whether there is a nearby healthy church may not be the most important criteria for a Christian in the college-selection process, but it should be a non-negotiable. If there is no healthy church nearby, Christian, there’s another college for you, somewhere.
EIGHT REASONS WHY A HEALTHY CHURCH IS A NON-NEGOTIABLE
Here are eight reasons why:
1) We were not made to be Christians alone.
Read through the Bible and find me a Christian who is not attached to a church (minus the first convert where no church exists, like the Ethiopian eunuch). To be adopted by God is to be adopted into his family. And we “put on” that family identity—we live out the family life—in a concrete local church. Try living as a family member apart from your family. That’s the Christian apart from a church.
Apart from a church, your faith in college will probably not grow, it will most likely shrivel, and it may well die. What growth does occur will be like the young sapling that grows at an angle because it had no stake.
2) Christians need not only fellowship, but also member accountability and elders.
Christian college students have long tried to sustain their faith through parachurch groups like InterVarsity and Cru. Parachurch ministries are valuable (I work for one), but the parachurch is not the church, and the Christian life needs what a healthy church provides:
- in-depth biblical exposition;
- the accountable fellowship of church membership and discipline;
- and the counsel and care of biblically qualified elders.
Jesus is not just a Savior, but a Lord. And this Lord exercises his Lordship through biblical exposition, congregational accountability, and elder leadership. Further, these things nourish your faith, like exercise and a healthy diet nourish the body.
Our faith needs more than fellowship; it needs the shepherding and structure of a local church. (See parachurch worker Byron Straughn’s excellent comparison of church and parachurch as a family versus a soccer team.)
3) College is often when we no longer have the life-long social support of our parents’ church and faith.
For children growing up in a Christian home, their parents’ faith and church act like the support beams that hold up a house perched on the edge of a cliff. Going off to college is like removing those support beams. You’ll quickly discover, is that house firmly fixed to the rock, or will it tumble into the sea?
Now, true faith is supernatural—a gift of God—which will finally survive with our without social support. Still, removing the parental beams can do great damage unless they are replaced by a church.
4) Secular colleges and universities will denounce your faith in the classroom.
It’s no secret that secular colleges and universities have become fairly hostile to a Christian worldview in the modern and postmodern West.
To put it another way, many of your professors will treat you as silly and naïve if you don’t join them in their fabricated reality where man is God and God is dead. Expositional preaching, on the other hands, describes reality as it really is—God centered, God-directed, God-judged. And you need this weekly antidote, lest you begin to believe that the academy’s cardboard movie-set version of reality is the real thing.
Young people should have the opportunity to ask hard and real questions about their faith. There is a time to wrestle with truth. No parent or pastor can demand that a student believe what they believe, and every person coming of age needs the opportunity to take ownership of their faith for themselves. But good luck doing that objectively apart from the influence of a healthy church, because the gravitational pull of your flesh and the university world is strong and moves in one direction only—away from God. You need to be able to hear both sides of an argument to ask and answer questions well.
5) On-campus social life typically offers a make-believe social world where freedom costs nothing and sin has few consequences.
I attended a secular university in the early 1990s, and I remember referring even then to the experience as “camp without counselors.” So many of us went to college to play, to party, to enjoy everything we couldn’t enjoy openly with parents around. On-campus college life was about alcohol and sex as much as it was about anything. And as long as you use a condom, say all the university officials, there is no such thing as consequences. Have fun!
It’s an understatement to say, “You’ll face many temptations in college.” The whole social experience is built on the idea that the human being needs complete freedom to define oneself and one’s morality in order to flourish. For many, the rush of responsibility-free freedom itself is the most intoxicating thing of all. Never mind that it’s a lie.
You desperately need a strong church helping you to stand strong amidst such winds. All of us do.
6) Many shipwreck their lives, their faith, their souls in college.
Perhaps you’ve seen the statistics: 60 percent of teenagers who go into college with faith appear to abandon it coming out the other side. Only 20 percent maintain a faith consistent with their high school years.
In other words, you can assume that people with more spiritual conviction and moral idealism than you on their first day of college squandered it entirely in college. Don’t be proud. Recognize your need for a healthy church.
7) College is often a time of self-discovery and the establishing of your adult identity.
With the support beams of your parent’s home removed, you really do begin the process of discovering who you are in college. Did you get homework done in high school because dad was watching over your shoulder, or because you’re self-disciplined? What do you want to major in? How will you make use of your days when you suddenly find yourself with an excess of unstructured time?
These are questions you want to explore and answer with the help of older and wiser Christians who have gone through different stages of life. Campus ministries serve good purposes, but just about everyone in them is your age! Don’t deprive yourself of older saints as you try to figure out who you are.
8) A healthy-church-backed Christian can do great evangelistic and discipling good in college.
I attended church three times in college (as I recall). And though I named myself a Christian, I utterly squandered my college years from a kingdom perspective. Instead I pursued the world with all my might.
Yet I can point to friends who made great use of their college years, evangelizing, discipling, and doing good. Since people between 18 and 22 are still making up their minds up concerning life and eternity, it’s a good time to evangelize and to disciple. Just think: you can play a role in helping others establish good foundations that will bear fruit in their lives for eternity.
Or you can do what I did: help people harden their hearts against God and prepare for hell. Which of those two options offers a better return on your time and investment?
WHAT IS A HEALTHY CHURCH?
Suppose you agree that finding a healthy church is paramount (I thought I’d throw in a SAT word for your fun!). What exactly is a healthy church?
First, a healthy church does a number of things: it builds itself up through God’s Word and not the wisdom of the world. It looks to the Bible for guidance on how to structure itself, not the latest polls or marketing methods. More significantly, it centers the weekly gathering around meaty biblical exposition, the proclamation of the gospel, and the practical application of the gospel to all of life. A healthy church keeps track of its members, and calls them to live responsibly in the world. And a healthy church possesses a plurality of godly men for pastoring, praying, and preaching. It loves God and it loves its neighbors in manifold practical ways.
Second, a healthy church is a number of things: it is hospitable, loving, and holy. It speaks in a language the world can understand, but it lives distinctly from the world. It’s culturally different somehow. Not that the people are weird or dress funny, it’s more that they are unusually welcoming, not suspicious of strangers, personally transparent, generous, quick to laugh but sober-minded, uninterested in evil but rejoice in the truth. It’s a place where old and young, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, one ethnicity and another find equal standing and the opportunity to serve.
So get your list of potential colleges together, but then talk to your pastor, talk to Christians on the prospective campuses, check out the 9Marks Church Search, even call and visit some churches before you decide on a college. It will be one of the most significant decisions you make about college.
Friends, there's a new 9Marks Journal out. It's our second on evangelism and it features a series of practical case studies. We've been releasing the articles here one-by-one, but now it's all gathered together with an editor's note by Jonathan Leeman, and is available in PDF, Mobi, and ePub formats.
Here's Jonathan's editor's note:
Christians in the West today face growing social and political opposition. And this makes many of us nervous about evangelism. One member of my church explained how, in a prior job, he hit a glass ceiling while his evangelical friends in the firm kept being promoted. The difference? They kept quiet about their faith, while he evangelized. Now, in the new job, he was confessing his fear and asking me to pray for boldness.
In such a time as ours, we might learn from historian Samuel Hugh Moffett, who narrates the dramatic diminution of Christianity under Muslim persecution in Asia in the Middle Ages in his magisterial A History of Christianity in Asia. He draws this conclusion: “The church might have better withstood violence. Sharp persecution breaks off only the tips of the branches; it produces martyrs and the tree still grows. Never-ending social and political repression, on the other hand, starves the roots; it stifles evangelism and the church declines” (Vol. 1: Beginnings to 1500, Orbis, p. 504).
The lesson: let them fire you and maybe kill your pastors, but you keep on evangelizing. Else the church really could whither, even vanish, from the land.
In the middle of a recent elders’ discussion about something or other—the church budget, I think it was—Mark Dever leaned over to me and randomly whispered, “The more elders we have, the harder it will be to get rid of us.”
There it is. That’s the spirit.
Dever’s mentor, Richard Sibbes, offered this encouragement amidst such dour earthly expectations: “Cast yourself into the arms of Christ, and if you perish, perish there” (The Bruised Reed, Puritan Paperbacks, 63).
So, friends, let’s press on to share the gospel—winsomely, sensitively, awkwardly, boldly, charismatically, timidly, sophisticatedly…whatever. Just share it.
We thought about cultivating a culture of evangelism in the last issue of the 9Marks Journal. In this issue, we want to get even more practical by thinking about how to evangelize in different contexts: in the workplace, in your church, in your neighborhood, in a cross-cultural setting, across economic boundaries, with internationals in your own city, and without an altar call (what?!). We also address an issue of growing concern for many Christians: how do you share the gospel with a gay friend?
Cultures and nations rise and fall. The world will treat us sometimes better, sometimes worse. But whether the social trend lines are moving up or down, we must not stop sharing the good news of the one king whose promises are all true and all good.
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You’ve found yourself at the end of a series in which I’m attempting to reframe how we think about “calling to ministry.”
In my first post I pointed out that “calling” language carries a double presumption. You’re saying you think you are, or soon will be, (1) qualified to be an elder and (2) sufficiently gifted in ministry that a church should pay you to do it.
And in my second post I drilled into those two points, eldering and economics. To say you’re called is to say you desire to serve as an elder, and you want to do so as a full-time job. But it’s in God’s and a local church’s hands to decide if either of those will ever happen. So I suggested that, in light of 1 Timothy 3:1, “aspiring to elder” can serve as a more biblical frame for our thinking, and even our speaking.
In this final post I’ll round the corner and apply this perspective to how churches and aspiring ministers should assess the aspiration to pastor.
EXHORTATIONS FOR CHURCHES
I’ll start with a few exhortations for churches. Some of these land on all Christians, and some land especially on pastors.
First, don’t treat someone’s sense of “calling” like a third tablet from Sinai. A subjective sense of calling on their part does not constitute an obligation to recognize that calling on your part. Instead, equip, encourage, assess, and be patient with those who aspire to pastoral ministry.
- Equip: Pastors, create training grounds in your church for developing more teachers. Adult Sunday School and shorter Sunday evening sermons can be great contexts for this. And think about how you can personally disciple men who aspire to ministry.
- Encourage: Members and pastors, rejoice in others’ ministry and growth in ministry. Delight in the fruit others bear for the kingdom. Encourage the good efforts of young men who aspire to ministry, as halting and flawed as those efforts may be.
- Assess: Church members, and especially pastors, give your aspiring ministers feedback that is as honest as it is gracious. Elders, don’t be afraid to counsel a man to push pause—or even stop—on his vocational ministry plans.
- Be patient: Give young men time to grow and bear fruit. Be patient with faithful but clunky teaching. Who knows? Your willingness to listen to a developing teacher could bless your own church or others for decades to come.
Finally, highlight and celebrate “lay elders”—that is, pastors who work other jobs full-time. Certainly, churches should pay as many of their pastors as they reasonably can. But I don’t think Christ’s gifts to his church (Eph. 4:11) are limited to those they can afford to relieve entirely from other work (Acts 20:34-35).
But don’t just have lay elders, spotlight them. “Senior pastors,” encourage your lay elders to teach publicly, regularly. Find ways to empower your lay elders, to give away some of your authority so they’ve got more to spend. Members, seek out lay elders, not just your full-time pastors, for counseling, weddings, funerals. A pastor is a pastor whether he spends his week in the church office or an insurance office.
I think one of modern evangelicals’ most damaging, widespread assumptions is that the only real ministry is done by those who do it full-time. That couldn’t be more wrong. In a fundamental sense, all Christians are called to ministry: to speak the truth in love, to make disciples, to offer our bodies as living sacrifices. And as we saw in the previous post, all elders are called to pastor.
If churches highlighted and celebrated their lay elders, and if lay elders were equipped and encouraged to truly pastor, a weight would lift from many men’s backs. They’d see that, in principle, they don’t have to choose between a career and “doing ministry.” Of course there are only so many hours in the day, and a full-time pastor’s life is radically different from a lawyer’s. And of course some men should pursue full-time pastoring. But the Bible’s fundamental category for pastor is “elder.” How you earn your paycheck is another question, based on your gifts and desires and a church’s needs and resources.
WORDS TO ASPIRING PASTORS
Next, a few words to aspiring pastors. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: treat your sense of calling as an aspiration, not an infallible divine mandate. I’m not saying subjective guidance can’t play any role, but it’s far from sufficient.
Paul doesn’t say, “If anyone feels called to the ministry, a church is bound by God to call him.” Instead, he says if anyone desires the work of an overseer, he desires a good thing (1 Tim. 3:1). And then, for the benefit of both the aspiring elder and the congregation, he lays out the qualifications for the office. So focus on them. Prioritize them. By God’s grace, build your life from the stuff Paul says an elder is made of. Be more concerned about God’s requirements for the office than what a church might want on a resume.
Further, think of pastoral ministry more as a spectrum than an on-off switch. Pastors are not super-Christians, and having a full-time job other than ministry is not failure. God did not make us all mouths, and a foot should not feel guilty for being a foot. If we view other callings as inferior to pastoring, we lie about the body of Christ and dispute God’s wise design in arranging the members the way he has (1 Cor. 12:12-26).
Another takeaway: I’d suggest that some men who think they’re called to ministry should aspire to be lay elders instead. Or at least, aspire to eldership and let God handle the rest. If you want to teach the Word and help Christians grow spiritually, great! Sounds like you want to be an elder! If you don’t have the desire, gifting, or opportunity to do it full-time, so what?
Not everyone who wants to do ministry should change their career. Not everyone who enjoys teaching the Bible should quit their job and move to seminary. Your responsibility to provide for your own and your family’s needs is a divine given (1 Tim. 5:8). That you will do so by pastoring isn’t.
How then should you go about assessing a “call” to ministry? Every man is different, and so is every situation. But in short I’d encourage you to assess your desires, opportunities, abilities, and character—all filtered through the local church.
Do you desire the work (1 Tim. 3:1)? How strong and durable is that desire? Does your desire measure up to the actual work of ministry your own pastors do, or only the fun, shiny parts? Do you want to do the work of ministry, or enjoy the esteem of ministry?
Consider your opportunities. What pastoral opportunities do you have now? What’s there for the taking? Are you the kind of person who creates pastoral opportunities regardless of whether someone gives them to you? And has your church seen fit to give you any opportunities?
What about abilities? Are you able to teach? To lead? To shepherd? You’re not necessarily looking for fruit in full bloom, but you should at least see seeds and saplings.
And consider your character. How well do you embody the character qualifications of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1? What are your besetting sins, and how hard do you fight them? Are the fruits of the Spirit evident in your life? Are any conspicuous by their absence?
Especially concerning your abilities and character, let the church speak loudly. Consider letting others’ assessment of you outweigh your own, especially if that assessment is from your elders or the church as a whole. Be willing to hear hard things. If you’re ever a pastor, you’ll hear much harder.
As much as possible, seek the meaningful affirmation of a local church before heading off to seminary or redirecting your career. Work as hard as you can not to set out as a self-assessed, self-affirmed, self-sent pastor-in-waiting. What I’m aiming at here isn’t always possible, but the aim itself turns your heart in the right direction.
BACK TO CHURCH—TO LISTEN
In this series I’ve written from a concern that “calling to ministry” language, as evangelicals commonly use it, tends to mask some crucial presumptions. And, at least in the wrong hands, it can lead to a dangerously individualistic, subjective approach to assessing an aspiration to ministry.
I’m not sure it’s necessary or even possible to scrub “calling” language from our vocabulary altogether. So instead of banishing the term, I’ve tried to simply redirect our attention to the more demonstrably biblical category of aspiring to elder.
Whether you’re a pastor, aspiring pastor, wondering whether to pursue being a pastor, or just a “plain old” church member, I hope you’ve found something useful here. Raising up pastors is the church’s work—the whole church. So if anything, I hope this series sends aspiring pastors back to church: not just to serve or speak, but to listen.
Bobby Jamieson is assistant editor for 9Marks, a member of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and the author of Sound Doctrine: How a Church Grows in the Love and Holiness of God (Crossway, 2013). You can follow him on Twitter.
In my first post in this series, I suggested that saying you’re “called” to ministry carries a double presumption. You’re saying you think you are, or soon will be, (1) qualified to be an elder and (2) sufficiently gifted in ministry that a church should pay you to do it. “Calling” language might imply more, but it cannot mean less.
You could call these two ingredients “eldering” and “economics”: you want to be an elder, and you want being an elder to be your job. In this article I’m going to drill into those two ideas in the hope of helping us think more wisely and biblically about “calling” to ministry.
Some of you might be wondering, what’s an elder? And what does that have to do with calling to ministry?
“Elder” is simply a more common biblical title for the office we typically call “pastor” (e.g., Acts 20:17, 1 Tim. 5:17, Tit. 1:5, James 5:14). In Acts 20:28 Paul tells the elders of the church in Ephesus to care for the church in which the Holy Spirit has made them overseers. The basic meaning of that verb “care for” (poimaino) is “to shepherd.” And our English word pastor comes from the Greek word for “shepherd.” So, Paul is telling the elders to shepherd the flock; that is, to pastor the church. What do elders do? They pastor.
Peter makes the same connection with the same word when he exhorts elders: “shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Pet. 5:1-2). The office is elder, the work is pastoring. Every elder is a pastor.
This pastoral office is also referred to as an overseer (Acts 20:28, Phil. 1:1, 1 Tim. 3:1, Tit. 1:7) and, in one case, a pastor-teacher (Eph. 4:11). The terms elder, overseer, and pastor are interchangeable. They all refer to a church’s spiritual leaders: the men who teach the word and direct the affairs of the church.
I’ll say it again: to be an elder is to be a pastor, and every pastor is an elder. What might surprise some is that Scripture never uses the term “call” or “calling” in relation to pastoral ministry. What Paul does say is this: “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Tim. 3:1). Paul speaks here of desire. He speaks of aspiring to a certain office because you desire to do the work.
If you say you’re called to ministry, I don’t immediately know what you mean, or if what you mean is biblical. But if you say, “I aspire to be an elder,” I know just what you’re talking about. You desire to teach the word and shepherd God’s flock, so you desire to fulfill the office God has established for that purpose. And the apostle Paul says you desire a good thing.
But “calling” typically implies more than an office; it also implies a job. When people talk about being called to ministry, they typically don’t mean they want to be a pastor in addition to having another full-time job. Instead they mean they want pastoring to be their full-time job.
Scripture teaches that “those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:14); and, “Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches” (Gal. 6:6). And with explicit reference to elders, Paul says, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages’” (1 Tim. 5:17-18). So, when possible, churches should pay their pastors.
Notice that in all these cases, financial support is tied to preaching and teaching. All elders must be able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2), and their job description includes exhorting in sound doctrine and refuting those who oppose it (Tit. 1:9). But 1 Timothy 5:17-18 seems to indicate that some elders will be especially devoted to, and gifted in, the work of preaching and teaching. These are singled out for special honor—including pay.
It’s easy to understand why. Preaching the Word is both time-consuming and essential to the life of the church. Paul told Timothy to study to show himself approved, a workman who rightly handled the word (2 Tim. 2:15). Faithful preaching takes painstaking preparation. And without faithful preaching, a congregation withers.
So, if you think of yourself as called to ministry, here’s another biblical way to specify what you mean: “I aspire to serve as an elder. Specifically, I desire to devote myself as completely as possible to the work of preaching and teaching.”
I’m not saying that preaching is the only valid full-time ministry. What I am saying is that aiming first at the office of elder, and secondly at being especially devoted to teaching the word, is a biblical goal. Since the Bible doesn’t use “calling” in this context, “calling” isn’t tethered to Scripture. Aspiration to eldership is.
But there’s a wrinkle in this fabric: not all elders are paid, so not all elders serve full-time. In fact, Paul commended his own example of bi-vocational ministry to the Ephesian elders:
You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:34-35)
Paul encouraged these elders to follow his own example of serving others not just by pastoring, but working to provide for their own and others’ material needs. There’s no intrinsic conflict between the two, nor do you need to choose between them. Being a pastor is not more spiritual or more acceptable to God than being a plumber. And a plumber who’s also a pastor is walking in Paul’s own footsteps.
So not all elders are paid to elder, which means that you might never be. Anyone who aspires to pastor should not only be reconciled to this, but embrace it. If you desire the work of an overseer, you should be willing to do it whether anyone pays you or not.
This also means you should be willing to do the work whether or not anyone ever gives you the title. Of course some of elders’ work is restricted to elders. But if you aspire to elder, you should be developing an increasingly elder-like ministry. Encourage others with the word. Help them grow in Christ-likeness. Live wisely and give wise counsel. Pray fervently for your fellow church members. If you want to lead, go lead something. Start with a family (1 Tim. 3:4-5). The best way to tell if a man should be an elder is if he already ministers like one.
Again, you aren’t a pastor until a church calls you to be their pastor. Whether you ever serve as an elder, and whether you are ever paid to serve as an elder, is up to a church to decide. Ultimately, it’s out of your hands. This should be both humbling and freeing: humbling because you shouldn’t presume on it, freeing because you can simply serve the church and trust God to open whatever doors he wants to.
GENTLE COURSE CORRECTIONS
How does this eldering-and-economics view of “calling” inform our thinking and speaking on the subject? Here I’ll suggest some gentle course corrections. (In the next post I’ll offer a few more pointed exhortations and encouragements.)
Basically, I’m recommending a way to translate “calling” into a more biblical idiom. If you say you’re called to pastoral ministry, what I hope you mean is that you aspire to be an elder, and that you aspire to devote yourself to preaching and teaching.
There are other valid ways to serve a church full-time: counseling, administration, and so on. And there are plenty of other ministry roles in and out of the church that require full-time effort but don’t pay for themselves. But for those who feel “called to the ministry,” I’d encourage you to think in terms of this twofold aspiration.
And I might encourage you not just to think this way, but also to speak this way. At least add it to your lexicon. To say “I’m called” implies you’re passive in the matter: God has done it. It therefore implies a kind of certainty that becomes almost a sin to doubt. “I’ve been questioning my calling lately,” says the seminary student. Well, maybe you should be!
On the other hand, saying you aspire to be an elder, and to serve as one full-time, acknowledges you’re not there yet. And you’re confessing that it’s in God’s and the church’s hands to determine if you ever will be. Speaking this way won’t guarantee that you hold this aspiration humbly and you’re willing to be redirected, but it does set you on the right track.
I’m not saying these two ways of speaking are utterly contradictory or that no one should ever claim a sense of God leading them to do something. But I am saying that aspiring to the office of elder is a thoroughly biblical aim. Not only that, a noble one.
Bobby Jamieson is assistant editor for 9Marks, a member of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and the author of Sound Doctrine: How a Church Grows in the Love and Holiness of God (Crossway, 2013). You can follow him on Twitter.
What does it mean to say that you’re “called” to pastoral ministry?
It might mean that you like the idea of getting paid to study and teach the Bible. It might mean you think going into ministry is what mature Christians do, and you want to be a mature Christian, so you want to go into ministry.
I think the common language of “calling” to ministry is slippery and possibly misleading. I don’t think it’s necessarily sinful or unbiblical. But I do think it can obscure some important issues that men aspiring to ministry, and the churches that encourage and assess them, should pay more attention to.
So in this series of posts I’m going to dig into a few issues related to calling to ministry that we sometimes neglect. The first is that calling language carries, and often conceals, a double presumption.
Before I get to my main point, though, here’s a little throat-clearing that should suffice for the series. This series of posts is geared toward men considering or pursuing pastoral ministry. It’s also geared toward the churches which encourage and assess them—which, in one way or another, is every church.
I’ll focus on calling to vocational, pastoral ministry because it’s probably relevant to the most people. Much of what I’ll say will be relevant to aspiring missionaries and other Christian workers, but you’ll have to tweak the details yourself.
I write as one who’s currently walking this path, not as one who’s arrived. In one way or another I’ve been training for pastoral ministry for the past eight years, but I’m not yet a pastor, much less an experienced one. But as a recent seminary grad I’m surrounded by men who are working through the same issues. So consider this a view from the middle of the pack, not the finish line.
Calling language typically refers to a sense of divine guidance: “I think God is calling me to do this.” But whether we mean it to or not, it also has first-person implications. To say that you’re called to ministry is to say that you desire to be a pastor. It’s also to say that you think you should be a pastor—as opposed to being a plumber or painter or school principal. Which means you think you’re qualified to be a pastor.
More specifically, saying you’re called to ministry presumes you think these two things about yourself: (1) you are, or soon will be, qualified to be an elder; (2) you are, or soon will be, sufficiently gifted in ministry that a church should pay you to do it.
Unless you’re talking nonsense, claiming a divine “call” has to imply both of these things—and it can’t contradict either. But this reveals one potential problem with calling language right off the bat: if I say I’m called, who are you to contradict?
I trust that godly, humble people who use calling language would never dream of using it as a trump card against criticism or questions. But the problem is, not everyone who claims to be called to ministry is godly or humble. And the language itself encourages us to view the matter as almost a private revelation, rather than a personal desire subject to public scrutiny.
But let’s table the issues of language and guidance. If you think of yourself as called to ministry, have you taken stock of these twins the claim is carrying?
Do you think that you are, or soon will be, qualified to be an elder? Have you carefully studied the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9? Have you prayerfully pursued them? Have you asked your pastors what they think of your fitness for the office, and where they see areas of needed growth?
Do you think that you are, or soon will be, sufficiently gifted in ministry that a church should pay you to do it? What in your ministry track record makes you think that? Have your own pastors encouraged this? Has any church ever offered to pay you to do ministry?
FEELS AWKWARD? IT SHOULD
My point in raising these questions is not—I repeat, not—that you need a perfect score on them before you should take any practical steps toward vocational ministry. Yet the answers to these questions, and others like them, can help determine whether your presumption is justified.
When you talk about calling to ministry you are inescapably talking about what you think about yourself. If that feels a little awkward, it should. It should give you pause. It should turn your attention to the qualifications of the office and the demands of the job.
It should also cause you to seek counsel, not just from friends and family, but from your church, especially your church’s leaders. Don’t be content with vague approval and happy wishes. Ask your church leaders tough questions about your strengths and weaknesses, your gifts and blind spots. Ask them if, in principle, they would ever hire you—and if not, why not?
Viewing “calling” as entailing a double presumption doesn’t just mean putting on the brakes—though many of us probably should. It also means that if you’ve got a strong ministry track record, godly counselors in your corner, and deep, meaningful affirmation from a church or churches, you should have a greater confidence in pursuing vocational ministry. If your own humility causes you to question your gifts and qualification, take your church’s affirmation seriously—again, provided the affirmation itself is serious. To brothers whose gifts and character are evident yet who’ve not yet found an open door for full-time ministry, I’d simply say, press on and be patient.
THREE MORE TAKEAWAYS
I’ll conclude with three more takeaways. The first is that you should view all ministry, especially vocational ministry, as a gift, not a given. Every pastoral opportunity you receive—from teaching Sunday School to a full-time pastorate—is a gift from God and his church. Treat ministry as a privilege, not an entitlement.
Second, submit your desires to the Lord. You can’t be absolutely certain that you’re called to ministry until a church calls you to be their minister. So if you think God’s the one who gave you these desires, continually give them back to him, to do with them as he pleases.
Be willing to serve him however he sees fit. Embrace off-stage service as much as the spotlight. Be as eager to help in the nursery as you are in the pulpit. I know more than one pastor whose first years of ministry included cleaning their church’s toilets. So if your desire is to serve the Lord, serve him now in whatever ways he puts before you.
Third, submit your desires to the church. If you’re not sure if you should head into ministry, enlist your church’s help, and submit to that help. Be willing to slow if they flash a yellow light, and stop if it’s red. The best preparation for handling authority well is submitting to it gladly.
It’s impossible to speak to every circumstance, but if you’re sorting through these issues I hope at least something in here gets your wheels spinning. In my next post I’ll suggest some ways eldering and economics should reframe how we think about calling to ministry.
Bobby Jamieson is assistant editor for 9Marks, a member of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and the author of Sound Doctrine: How a Church Grows in the Love and Holiness of God (Crossway, 2013). You can follow him on Twitter.