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9Marks Explained : A Letter From Mark Dever

Five Reasons We Don’t Disciple (Part 3)

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In my last two posts, I offered three reasons Christians and churches don’t disciple. Bearing in mind that I develop programs for a career, this next one is a bit awkward to say: our churches are program-dependent.

Here’s a modern day parable, told to me by a friend at seminary. The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is (possibly) true.

A young man walked into a Christian bookstore in Chicago and asked where the bumper stickers were. The assistant said, what kind are you looking for? The man said, I’d like to buy a fish sticker. The assistant said, oh I’m afraid we’ve sold out of those. To which the man responded, HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO EVANGELIZE WITHOUT FISH STICKERS?

As Western evangelicals, we have become increasingly reliant on courses, programs, techniques, and methodologies to do the work of evangelism and discipleship.

Now, as I said, I write this post as someone whose job it is to write good programs. I’ve worked with Christianity Explored Ministries for thirteen good years, and we work hard at making our programs as biblically faithful and as easy to use as possible. I believe in their value. I’m grateful to God that they can be very helpful indeed in the right hands.

But in the wrong hands? Programs become a sub-par, plug-n-play, hearts-not-in-it, one-size-fits-no-one stand-in for genuine discipling. And what’s worse, running these courses may delude us into thinking we’re “doing” evangelism and discipleship when actually, we’re just prayerlessly and heartlessly going through the motions. We’ve come to believe that the magic is in the methodology. We buy a product and we expect it to work for us, with no further spiritual investment on our part.

This first appeared as an anxious blip on my e-dar (evangelical radar) about five years ago. We would work solidly for 18 months to produce a new course—crafting Bible study questions, writing and rewriting talks and scripts, testing the material in various places, rewriting some more, shooting and editing a DVD series—and then on the day of publication, just as everyone was having a lie-down or checking into rehab, an email would appear in my inbox. “Thanks for the new course,” it would say perkily. “When’s the next one coming out?”

Allow me to translate: “HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO DISCIPLE WITHOUT A NEW PROGRAM?”

Brothers and sisters, discipleship is possible without programs. Jesus wrote a really good book about it.

And a program—however biblically faithful—is no substitute for ongoing, personal discipling. At least not the kind of ongoing, personal discipling Jesus has in mind in Matthew 28:

“...go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matt. 28:19-20)

For a start, programs are necessarily a “one-size-fits-all” proposition. However tailored they may be to a particular demographic (literate/semi-literate/illiterate/adult/teen/child, etc.), they are not written by you, and therefore they cannot be perfectly tailored to the situation in which God has placed you. A person who always uses exactly the same set of Bible study questions with every person he disciples is probably not doing a great job. Similarly, a presenter on a DVD can never personally engage with someone the way you can. He cannot hear the specific cries of a person’s heart and then speak directly and biblically to them.

Secondly, programs can imply that discipleship is a matter of following the correct “process” rather than cultivating the correct character.

It should go without saying that a child’s character is most profoundly shaped by the character of his or her parents. Rather than doing what we say, children naturally tend to do what we do. By contrast, techniques and programs can implicitly give the impression that what we say is important, but what we do, not so important. We may begin to believe that the program we use in our church is more important than the character of the people we have teaching it.

Thirdly, we sometimes use programs in the same way a family might use the DVD screens in a Nissan Pathfinder: as surrogate parents. Yes, it’s a great way to keep the kids occupied. Yes, it means we don’t have to engage them as much on the journey. But it can compromise the quality of our parenting. It can be a dereliction of our personal responsibility to those in our care.

So my question is, have we been too ready to get the babysitters in? Have we been too ready to outsource our discipleship, and in so doing, have we forgotten how to do it ourselves?

At their best, programs increase our reliance on God and his Word. But at their worst, programs simply increase our reliance on programs. If they do, our discipleship will suffer.

Come back next week and, if I still have a job, I’ll suggest a final reason we don’t disciple.

Barry Cooper is the author or co-author of Christianity Explored, Discipleship Explored, One Life, The Real Jesus, and If You Could Ask God One Question. He blogs at Future Perfect, Present Tense and is helping to plant Trinity West Church in Shepherd's Bush, London.

Click here for parts one and two of this series.

Favorite Books on Evangelism

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Hey guys, what are your favorite few books on evangelism?

Kevin DeYoung

  • Evangelism in the Early Church, Michael Green
  • Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity, Richard Fletcher
  • Questioning Evangelism, Randy Newman
  • The Gospel and Personal Evangelism, Mark Dever
  • A Narrative of Surprising Conversions, Jonathan Edwards

 

J. D. Greear

  • To Tell the Truth, Will Metzger  
  • Just Walk Across the Room, Bill Hybels

The two must be read side by side. Hybel's book assumes the gospel too much, but it is second to none on developing awareness and "technique" in sharing your faith. Reading them together makes for a powerful combination.

 

David Platt

  • Master Plan of Evangelism, Robert Coleman
  • Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, J. I. Packer
  • The Gospel and Personal Evangelism, Mark Dever
  • Tell the Truth, Will Metzger

Ten Questions to Ask of a Song’s Lyrics

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Choosing songs to sing in corporate worship is tricky business. Everyone in the church seems to have an opinion. How then should a pastor or team of elders select music that glorifies God and serves the body?

The style and quality of the music matters, of course. (For some helpful thoughts on church music that touch more on music, see Ed Stetzer’s post here.) Yet I’d suggest that the lyrics are a primary concern—so here are ten questions to ask about the words of any song that you’re considering including in corporate worship.  

1. Are the lyrics true? Each song is like a sermon. A preacher should be committed to speaking only those words which accurately reflect biblical truth. Likewise, lyrics must be read carefully before they are selected to be sure they also communicate biblical truth.

2. Are the lyrics true but misleading? Lyrics that are technically true can still be misleading. So it is not enough to affirm the truthfulness of the lyrics; their clarity is important as well. I believe the Brian Doerksen song, “Come, Now is the Time to Worship” falls into this camp. First, to say that now is the time to worship is true, yet does it lead people to think they were not worshipping during the drive to church? Second, to say “Come, just as you are” is technically true, but does it run the risk of ignoring the important truth that we should come to God with clean hands and a pure heart?

3. Are the lyrics rich? Most of our songs should be not just a theological appetizer, but a feast. Thankfully, there is a growing demand for rich lyrics, which explains the renaissance of older hymns, sometimes set to new music, and even new lyrics with greater theological depth.

4. Are the lyrics God-centered or man-centered? This is a complicated idea. Some man-centered lyrics tend to focus on our response to the Lord’s character or work—and they can be very appropriate. But an abundance of man-centered lyrics can give the congregation a heavy dose of moralism and even discouragement.

Other man-centered lyrics tend to focus upon how we are feeling, how we are doing, or how excited we are about what God has done. Though this may be appropriate, an abundance of this kind of song can lead to shallowness (I’m singing that I feel great when really, I don’t) or pride (it’s all about me). But if the lyrics focus on who God is and what God has done, then we are drawn out of our moralism and our pride and the lyrics begin to preach truth to our hearts, leading us to think and feel the right things.

5. Do the lyrics praise God for who he is and not merely for what he has done? We should be content to sing often about God’s character and not merely about his work. God is honored when we sing his attributes as well as his actions. To sing only about his work is to imply, even unintentionally, that God is good because he saved me. And though this is true, it is also true that God is good because he is good—and we should recognize that truth in song.

6. Do the lyrics explicitly address the atoning work of Christ on the cross? Though not every song will explicitly mention the cross, the majority of our singing must be cross-centered since that is what makes it Christian. Though it is wonderful to sing the psalms, and we should sing them, we should be aware that a good Jew could sing them, if not always embracing their fullest meaning. The lyrics of our songs should specifically teach the congregation about the atonement.

7. Are the lyrics beautiful? Some writing is better than others. What makes one set of lyrics more beautiful than another is a topic for another day. But several factors should be considered: 1) the use of rhyme and assonance; 2) the use of imagery; 3) the use of elegant versus inflated or florid language; and 4) the use of repetition.

8. Are the lyrics understandable? Some of the older hymns are wonderful for theology students who spend hours reading the Puritans, yet they leave many others scratching their head thinking, “I know I should like this but I just don’t know what it means.” This is where a good service leader makes all the difference. Lines that are hard to understand can be explained beforehand. Or, simple changes can be made to the text so long as the integrity of the hymn is preserved.

9. Are the lyrics familiar? While it is important to introduce new lyrics, every congregation should have a canon of well-worn lyrics that they can return to regularly. Just as good writing rewards re-reading, repeating singing of good lyrics can drive their meaning more deeply into the heart.

10. Do the lyrics fit the theme of the day? Most good song lyrics are appropriate for any service. Can you find any sermon text in the Bible where it would not be appropriate to sing that day of God’s holiness, love, mercy, grace, or the hope we have in heaven? Of course not!

And yet every set of lyrics has one or two clear emphases. And we should choose lyrics that will underscore the meaning of the text we are about to hear preached. This should not be done by simply finding songs with the “love” in the title if the theme of the day is God’s love (though titles may be a good way to start). It is better to ask some more questions. What aspect of God’s love are we considering that day? His love as Creator? His love as Redeemer?

Aaron Menikoff is the senior pastor of Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. 

Is She Up for This? Questions for a Potential Pastor’s Wife

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Before you pursue the office of pastor, you know that you need to be ready. But have you asked whether your wife is ready?

Formally, I don’t believe there should be extra expectations placed on a pastor’s wife. There is no office of “pastor’s wife” in the Bible. But practically, being married to a pastor is a tough role. Does your wife have what it takes? Is she up for it?

Those are the questions I want to help you ask in this article.

It is critical for you to ask such questions. Men preparing for the ministry can easily become blindly ambitious, even idolatrous, without realizing it. When that happens, we risk turning our wives into means to making much of ourselves. If they get in the way of our goals, we run them over. It’s therefore critical, as I say, to stop, loosen our grip on the ministry goals, and give real honest thought to our wives.

It has taken me a long time to realize how vulnerable our wives are to us. They take our name. They live with the consequences of our decisions. And they just might have to crawl under the pew—at least in my case—when we use poor grammar in a sermon.

So please be careful. And be careful in how you use this article. I am not proposing a new law for our wives: “Honey, read these eight points. You have to be these things!”

I just want to keep some people from trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole. There are a variety of roles within the church. Knowing where you and your wife fit will bless you and the church.

My wife Cathi and I have been married for almost 30 years. Early on I discovered that I had punted beyond my coverage. No matter the situation, Cathi has been an incredible source of support, wisdom, and grace.

She never wanted to marry a pastor. She did not “feel called” to this role. But she was willing to follow me, and along the way God has proven her well suited to the position. For the last twenty-four years we have been members of one church where I have served as the senior pastor. Although she chooses not to be highly visible, she has a very important—and not easy—role.

On the other hand, another senior pastor recently told me that his wife could no longer handle the work. If someone left the church or was upset at him, she took it personally. If the church was not growing, she felt the weight of failure. The demands on his time, her feeling neglected, and the weight of the whole ministry had brought her to the breaking point. He loved to preach and certainly had been affirmed in it, but he realized that living with his wife in an understanding way (1 Pet. 3:7) meant considering what she could and could not handle. So he planned to resign.

This does not necessarily mean failure on his or her part. God may have different work for them to do, and men in such situations should encourage their wives with whatever God might have next.

Still, what questions should a potential pastor think through concerning his wife?

A WORD TO THE CHURCH

Before I answer that, a word to the church. When a church hires a pastor, the church hires a pastor, not the pastor and his wife. Granted, she is going to be a member of the church and will serve in the church like other members. But the Bible does not provide a specific job description for an elder’s wife.

So resist the urge to place additional expectations on her. Her primary responsibility is not to organize the annual mother-daughter tea, VBS, or the ladies retreat. It is to be the wife of her husband and to be his helper. That is a major responsibility. Elders’ wives are critical to helping their husbands manage their households well, and to help him providing hospitality for members in the congregation as seasons permit. The fact that a woman’s husband is in the ministry does not mean that she has more time; she probably has less.

A WORD TO THE HUSBAND

A preliminary word to the husband, too. There are differences between the role of a senior pastor and the role of other elders, which means his wife will encounter different expectations than their wives.

Here are a few that come to mind. First, the senior pastor’s wife will face increased visibility. Every time you preach on marriage, the congregation will think about your marriage. Every time you preach on parenting, they will think about your family.

Second, people tend to assume that the senior pastor’s wife knows about everything happening in the church’s life, like who is in the hospital, what time the bus returns from the junior high camping trip, and which teams are playing Friday night in the softball league.

Third, the senior pastor feels responsibility for the whole church in a way others don’t. This is perhaps the greatest challenge of being a senior pastor and, therefore, of being married to one. You may have supportive elders and staff, but your senior position means you own the church, feel the church, breathe the church. Your elders and associates are wonderful, but you feel responsible for them too! You cut the grass thinking about the church. You discuss the church at meals, on walks, and on vacation. Others may rotate off the elder board for a time, but you are always on. Others can take a weekend to go visit children or get away. But Sunday is not the weekend for you, it is the main event. And it feels like it comes every three days.

QUESTIONS TO ASK OF YOUR WIFE

How can you know if your wife can handle this? Here are some things to consider. Some of them may be tough to work through, but it is better to address these now, before you get into a ministry role.

1. How territorial is she?

First, how territorial is your wife? Is she willing to share you with people? After the Sunday service, other people may be able to hang around for a few minutes and then go home. But not you. If you preached the Word, people want to talk to you, and generally should be able to. Hopefully, your wife will see this as an opportunity, not a burden.

Is she willing to share herself? The ministry is not a profession; it is a passion. My wife is extremely organized. Her “to do” list is daunting and she loves the thrill of checking things off. But when she makes her list, she does not plan for three phone calls from women who need counsel and encouragement. When she gives herself fifteen minutes to run into the store for fresh veggies, she does not plan for long conversations with members and neighbors. Yet they happen. How does your wife handle those “interruptions”? As opportunities to serve others, or as obstacles that get in her way?

Is she willing to share your home? Does she see your home as your retreat from the world, or as a base for ministry? Your home is a wonderful tool for establishing and developing so many relationships with others—as long as your wife shares that vision.

By the way, there are times when your wife needs to be territorial, particularly when you need to be home with your kids and you are tempted to do something else “for the church.” In cases like this, she is fighting for you and for your kids and for the church, and you need her help to see it.

2. Does she really love others?

Second, does your wife really love others? Some ministry wives view the church as a burden to bear, and it shows. If your wife sees the church as a means for validation, instead of as people to serve, she will grow exhausted.

Over time, your church will sense whether your wife really loves them, or whether she is only doing what is expected. Cathi says that this is really at the heart of it all.

3. Is she high maintenance?

Third, is your wife high maintenance? Does she take herself too seriously? Is it all about her? Is she impossible to please?

If your wife thinks that everything in the church reflects on her, then she is going to be paranoid. The church is a bunch of messy sinners, who, like porcupines, tend to poke each other when they get close enough. If your wife does not handle others’ failures with grace, then life at home will be miserable, even while you attempt to put up a brave front.

Your wife needs to be able to handle her own issues with others without pulling you into them. If she has a conflict with someone, she needs to address it as Christ taught us in Matthew 18. It is neither right nor fair to the other person for you to step in.

4. Is she insecure?

Fourth, is she insecure? Of course, we are all insecure to some degree. Just because your wife has feelings of insecurity does not mean that you cannot be a pastor. No wife can match the expectations of others, especially since they are constantly changing. But there is a difference between struggling with insecurity and being owned by it. Is your wife owned by it?

One Sunday morning early in my pastorate, an older usher, a pillar in the church, stopped Cathi from entering the sanctuary. He explained that he didn’t let in “riff-raff.” Without a pause, she pointed to me on the platform and said to him, “See that guy up there? I wash his underwear. You can let me in!” He did.

5. Is she controlling?

Fifth, is she controlling? Things happen that you cannot control. How does she respond?

I once warned a member of a pulpit committee not to pursue a particular candidate because his wife had to run everything her way. Even if she was not in charge of something, she attempted to take over because no one did it “as good as she did.” She had successfully offended many other women, and I knew that no matter how well this brother preached, his wife would eventually blow things up. The church called him anyway, and, sure enough, she blew things up.

Your wife will be able to affect some changes, but can she handle the 1970’s wallpaper in the ladies restroom and not offend the decorating committee that still thinks it looks good?

6. Is she discreet?

Sixth, is she discreet? Can she pass over others’ sins silently, rather than gossiping or “venting”?

Another lady in the church once falsely accused my wife. It was ugly. This lady even came over to our home to confront Cathi. Yet I never knew it. That evening when I got home Cathi didn’t say a word to me about it.

Months later, this lady was in my office and she told me she was surprised that I was talking with her. I was taken aback and asked her what she meant. She then told me what she had done to my wife. I was able to tell her that Cathi had never breathed a word of this to me. Cathi’s restraint freed me to be able to minister to this lady. It also gave this lady a great appreciation for my wife. That evening when I asked Cathi why she never shared that with me, she simply said, “It did not involve you.”

Women in my church can trust my wife. They know that their stories will never end up as illustrations in the pulpit, because she will not share what is meant to be private.

7. Is she willing to ask forgiveness?

Seventh, is your wife willing to ask forgiveness? My wife is incredible, but she is not perfect. There have been times when she has spoken before she had all the facts, and has hurt others’ feelings. The reason why she has been such a compliment to the gospel, however, is that she is willing to own her failures, admit them to others, and seek forgiveness. For someone who sets the bar high, failing to meet the mark can be debilitating, but she knows that we can only extend grace to others as we live in view of grace ourselves.

8. Is she willing to be honest with you?

Several years ago Cathi pointed out some of my major blind spots. It took an enormous amount of courage for her to do this, and she did it with grace, hope, tears, and humility. It was hard to listen to her articulate my failures, but I needed to hear them. What is more, the church needed me to hear her.

She served our congregation that night by helping me confront some areas that I desperately needed to correct. Many of the weaknesses that she pointed out were echoed in the church. Now I could see them. Her boldness was a gift to our marriage and to our church.

SHE WASN’T HIRED, BUT YOU’RE STILL A TEAM

Pastors, our wives have a tough job. They see parts of our life that the rest of the congregation doesn’t, and they still have to listen to our sermons.

Ministry is not easy. I have been tempted to quit a number of times and Cathi not only knows it, she feels it and carries it. The church may not hire your wife, but if you’re married you’re a team. May God grant you wisdom and grace.

Bob Johnson is the senior pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Roseville, Michigan. 

How Our Elders and Deacons Work Together

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“I just don’t feel like the church cares about me.” This is hard to hear as a pastor, yet most of us have heard it. Sometimes we write it off as coming from an overly needy member who has unrealistic expectations of the pastor’s time. Sometimes, though, it’s a real problem.

The church has two offices: elders and deacons. Each local church should not only have these offices, but have them work together. However, too often elders and deacons don’t complement one another but instead contradict, overlap, or ignore one another altogether.

A measure of structure can help remedy this, but it has to foster caring relationships, not merely task-driven organization.

When I arrived at University Baptist Church in 2006, one of the first things that needed addressing was member care. The church had been through a very difficult season. There had been fractured relationships, broken trust, and a burden of financial debt. My desire in coming to a church in need of healing and reform was to first establish expository preaching and, eventually, a plurality of elders. I was content for this to take the first five years to complete, but the church was in need of care—now.

After meeting with the deacons several times, it was apparent that these men really wanted to be deacons. These were not elder wannabes or a baptized labor union. They were men longing to be led and organized to care for the church, so that’s what we did.

First, we divided up the church membership by households and assigned those households to the deacons. At the time, each deacon had about fifteen households to care for. In the early stages, we contacted all inactive members. This “family plan” helped us tremendously as we sought to reconnect with our members and, where necessary, remove from our rolls those who were unable or unwilling to reconnect.

Once the inactive members were all but removed, we focused care on the present members. Our deacons were tasked with a plan to contact their households via personal visits, phone calls, emails, and/or texts. After several relational hits and misses, we finally settled on a more balanced approach to entrusting the deacons primarily with families they had natural relationships with, some families they did not know at all, and at least one widow. This made caring for the members measurably more natural, though still daunting.

Once we established elders in the church, we implemented a second phase of care for the body, shepherding groups. These shepherding groups are led by an elder and consist of four or five deacons. Each deacon is responsible for ten or so families, therefore each shepherding group represents approximately 50-60 households.

Shepherding groups meet every 6 to 8 weeks for discipleship, family reports, and prayer. These reports alert the elders to practical needs. If there are deeper spiritual concerns, including potential discipline issues, the elder leading the group takes the concerns to the elder body at the next elders’ meeting.

This organization of care for our church has helped us meet the needs in our body, understand member concerns, and strengthen the relationship between elders and deacons. While we do not currently have deaconesses, if we moved in that direction, we would separate deacon tasks between those with household assignments and those with more administrative responsibilities. Out of prudence, only men would be assigned households.

There are many ways to organize ministry. We have found that this model of shepherding groups gives us the best chance of fulfilling the responsibilities and relationships necessary to the offices of deacon and elder in member care. It is just one way, be we have found it to be a very good way.

Mike Lumpkin is the pastor of University Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Book Review: Understanding Biblical Theology

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What is biblical theology? The question is unfortunately not as easy to answer as many would like. For some, biblical theology may activate memories of seminary assignments demanding careful historical reconstructions and taxing lexical studies. For others biblical theology evokes anything from the works of Geerhardus Vos to the preaching of Tim Keller to academic debates over theological interpretation of Scripture.

In light of this confusion, Edward “Mickey” Klink and Darian Lockett are on target when they suggest in their new book Understanding Biblical Theology that “biblical theology has become a catchphrase, a wax nose that can mean anything from the historical-critical method applied to the Bible to a theological interpretation of Scripture that in practice appears to leave history out of the equation altogether” (13). Or as Carson wryly quips, “Everyone does that which is right in his or her own eyes, and calls it biblical theology” (78).

THE SPECTRUM OF BIBLICAL THEOLOGY

Thankfully students and pastors now have a reliable guide to the various types of biblical theology on offer in today’s theological market. Klink and Lockett’s Understanding Biblical Theology defines and analyzes five major types of biblical theology along a spectrum from those more concerned with matters of history to those more focused on matters of theology.

The authors separate their work into five parts. Each part consists of one chapter defining the biblical-theological method and then another chapter analyzing the works of one of its foremost proponents. Chapters which define biblical-theological methods generally follow the same outline and address the “perennial issues” associated with biblical theology: the relationship between the Old and New Testament, the historical diversity and the theological unity of the Bible, the scope of biblical theology and whether the sources should be restricted to the Christian canon, and whether biblical theology is a task for the church or for the academy (20-21).

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I Was a Pragmatist

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Hi, I’m Jeramie. And I’m a recovering pragmatic pastor.
 
I graduated from seminary seventeen years ago and became the senior pastor of South Shore Baptist Church in Hingham, Massachusetts about two years later. Seminary gave me a solid theological foundation, sharp exegetical tools, and a firm grasp of the Bible’s storyline. That education fuels my ministry to this day. 
 
But despite my schooling, I launched into pastoral work lacking something critical: a biblical approach to local church ministry. I didn’t have what Tim Keller calls a theological vision: that philosophy of ministry that connects one’s doctrinal beliefs to one’s practical day-to-day ministry.[1]
 
Well, that’s not exactly true. I actually did have a theological vision, albeit unconsciously. It was the same ministry philosophy that serves as the default setting for so many pastors. I was a pragmatist.
 
PRAGMATISM IN PRACTICE
 
Let me define what I mean by “pragmatist.” It’s the approach that says a church can use any effective means to win people to Jesus, make disciples, grow the church, or build the kingdom. A church may adopt any structure, program, or strategy that “works” to reach people for Christ as long as the initiative isn’t obviously sinful. 
 
So that means no men’s ministry kegger and no Ponzi scheme for funding the youth mission trip. But besides dubious programming like that, a church’s ministry is only limited by its creativity. As long as you agree on a short list of core doctrines, or a handful of biblical purposes, the actual shape of evangelical ministry is up to you.
 
Pragmatism has proverbs like, “The church’s methods change but its message stays the same” and “There’s no one right way to do church.” Like most proverbs, those sayings contain a kernel of truth. But for the pragmatist, these are the rallying cries for an entrepreneurial, results-oriented, whatever-it-takes way of “doing church.”
 
Pragmatism served as the operating system for the first seven years of my ministry. I played around with lots of different ministry apps on that platform: drama, a third worship service, coffee houses, and of course lots and lots of programs. If someone had a ministry idea and energy to lead it, I tended to back it because, hey, it might just work! I’m not suggesting all of those ministry initiatives were bad, or that churches should squash new ideas, or that we shouldn’t be passionate about reaching people. But the programmatic hodgepodge that formed in the church was indicative of a pragmatic theological vision.
 
During that first seven years of ministry, the church grew steadily in numbers. People came to faith and got involved. Whatever we were doing seemed to succeed. And that’s what matters, right? But even as the church grew, something else was growing in my heart: a nagging discontent and disillusionment with how we did church.
 
FULL CHURCH, EMPTY PASTOR
 
Despite our church’s apparent success, the pragmatism left me empty and disoriented. This model for church ministry felt increasingly hollow. In retrospect, there seemed to be several reasons for my response, stemming from pragmatism’s inherent weaknesses:
 
Pragmatism Is Exhausting 
 
First, pragmatism is exhausting. It takes a lot of work to be a pragmatist. You have to keep abreast of the latest ministry trends, read the newest how-to books, and attend the conferences of the most successful churches. 
 
You must also keep your finger on the pulse of people inside and outside the church to discern what will reach them. And let’s not even talk about how draining it is to shift church paradigms every couple years. The pragmatic pastor must be part organizational change guru, part cultural analyst and futurist, part salesman, and part start-up specialist. It all left me very soul-weary.
 
Pragmatism Is Man-Centered 
 
Further, pragmatism is man-centered. I found this to be true in at least two ways. First, focusing on results inevitably means focusing on people’s in-the-moment status. Are they coming, staying, converting, giving, participating, or serving? If so, then keep doing what you’re doing because something is working. 
 
Of course good pastoral leadership involves humbly listening to the congregation. But pragmatism propelled me beyond pastoral sensitivity into the fear of man. Conversely, it didn’t lead me into theological thinking or the fear of God.
 
Second, pragmatic ministry tends to be man-centered in the way it celebrates successful practitioners. Those pastors who have cracked the code to reaching baby boomers or millennials or post-moderns or urbanites draw throngs of pastors searching for help. Even at a local level, when regular pastors get together they inevitably want to know: one, who in the group has the thriving ministries, and two, what those pastors are doing that works so well.
 
Pragmatism Is Subjective 
 
Finally, pragmatism is subjective. Pragmatism rests on a disturbingly relativistic, arbitrary foundation. Why should the church follow my ideas instead of someone else’s? Just because I am the senior pastor? Why implement this best-selling church model instead of that best-selling model? And how do we define “success” or know when something “works?” Who sets those metrics and on what basis? I sometimes had the sinking feeling that I was making ministry up as I went along.
 
RIGHT UNDER MY NOSE
 
At the end of that first seven years, my church generously granted me a three-month sabbatical. I told the elders I planned to spend the time hunting for the “right model” for our growing church. My plan was to visit over a dozen churches all over the country to find the best ministry template. It was the ultimate pragmatist pilgrimage.
 
But instead of finding the right church to imitate, I found something else on my sabbatical: the Bible.
 
To my surprise I discovered that the Bible actually had a lot to say about how to do church, far more than pragmatists want to admit. The Bible gives us more than just core doctrines or a few overarching ministry principles. It lays out a robust theological vision for local church ministry, centered on the gospel, with very practical implications. 
 
And so began a slow process of learning not to ask, “Will it work?” and instead asking questions like, “Does Scripture speak to this?” and “How should the gospel shape this decision?”  For the last seven years I’ve been reprogramming myself to think theologically about local church ministry. 
 
What has a biblical and theological vision looked like in practice for us? It looks like the primacy of expository preaching so that God’s Word sets our agenda. It means our elders transitioning from a board of directors model to a shepherding mentality. It has looked like two worship services adopting a single blended style to reflect the unity we see stressed in the Bible. It has meant (for us, at least) morphing our building project from a gym to a sanctuary.
 
As I write this, our elders and pastoral staff are wrestling through whether to continue conducting two Sunday morning services or combine them into one. Rather than simply being pragmatic and listing pros and cons for one service vs. multiple services, we’re also looking at what the Bible says about the very nature of a congregation. Can we be a body that doesn’t assemble, a church family that doesn’t gather as one, or a people in communion who don’t take the Lord’s Supper together? What does it mean, biblically, to be a local church?
 
MY COPERNICAN REVOLUTION
 
This rediscovery of a biblical vision has profoundly changed my ministry. I no longer feel adrift in the sea of pragmatism, but can chart a course using Scripture as my sextant. People’s reactions don’t throw me for a loop because I see how ministry decisions flow from a theological basis, enabling me to trust God even when people aren’t happy. But most satisfying of all, God and his Word have returned to the center of my ministry and our church’s life. It is so worshipful to open the Bible and ask, “What does God have to say about his church?”  
 
To my fellow struggling pastors trying to figure out ministry: Take heart because there is wisdom to be had. And it begins with the fear of the Lord and his Word.
 
[1] Tim Keller, Center Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 17-19.
 
Jeramie Rinne is the senior pastor of South Shore Baptist Church in Hingam, Massachusetts

Wendell Berry and the Beauty of Membership

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Once each quarter I teach a new members class for people interested in joining our church. It’s become one of my favorite responsibilities as a pastor. I’m a believer in church membership, no question. But I’ll be honest: every time I teach the class I cringe a bit along with my audience at some of the things we discuss.

Concepts like authority, exclusivity, and discipline just don’t sound right on a pre-reflective, aesthetic level. They evoke a yuck factor ingrained in us by the often unnoticed influence of our western culture—literature, film, music, pop psychology—and its celebration of the unfettered individual. (Chapter 1 of Jonathan Leeman’s The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love is helpful for tracing out examples of this influence.)

Now, I know that some of these ideas have always been distasteful to fallen humans. Self-denial is nauseating to the self-centered. That said, I don’t think we’re guilty of ear-tickling if we look for counterbalancing images, images that make sensible the beauty that’s in a community defined by the goals of membership. And to that end I’ve really come to appreciate the world created in the novels of Wendell Berry.

Berry is not the sort of author to whom you turn for help crafting your church’s statement of faith. His works aren’t the right genre and he isn’t the right author. But novels are especially well-suited for retraining our aesthetic tastes, for putting flesh on ideas that otherwise may remain sterile and abstract.

Set in an isolated Kentucky farming community called Port William, Berry’s works portray the beauty of a bounded life, a death to the options of Elsewhere, the embrace of a concrete place and its people. It’s no accident that Jayber Crow, my favorite of Berry’s novels, is subtitled The Membership of Port William. Like all common graces, a community fostered by the willing limitation of one’s horizons can turn idolatrous, breeding an insularity Alan Jacobs has recently described as unchristian. And it’s also true that there is a darker side to small town life. Those familiar with the works of William Faulkner will find the world of Port William to be an ideal world by contrast. And yet Berry’s novels are especially useful for illustrating the liberating submission that’s always involved with membership.

In Jayber Crow, Berry’s characters show what it is to belong to a community, by which I mean more than the welcome and affirmation typically communicated by the word today. To belong to a community is to be at its disposal, to have given over all you have to be used for whatever your community needs. It is to be implicated substantively, not just sympathetically, in the ups and downs of a place and its people. It is a submission of yourself—your identity, your interests, your ambitions—to the needs of those to whom you’re bound.

The book’s heroes reject the notion that you make your own identity rather than receive it. They know and embrace who they are through their connection to things larger than themselves: their community, the land, the march of history, the mysterious purposes of God. They find joy, peace, and freedom in accepting their subsidiary status.

One of the barriers to this sort of belonging, of course, is the selfish ambition that dwells deep in all of us. Rather than submitting ourselves to community, ambition drives us to subordinate all things to our personal gratification or our relentless effort to build a name for ourselves. Berry’s villains in Jayber Crow depict this impulse vividly. They’re not the sort of villains who steal, kill, and destroy. They’re characters like Cecilia Overhold, a woman who marries into Port William from the upper crust of the town next door and can never forgive “the failure of the entire population of Port William to live up to [her] expectations” (209). She’s described as a woman who “thought that whatever she already had was no good, by virtue of the fact that she already had it” (209); she lives as if “there is always a better place for a person to live, better work to do, a better spouse to wed, better friends to have” (210). In the midst of a vibrant, gracious, and happy community she is discontented, angry, and lonely.

Troy Chatham is perhaps even more to the point. His character emerges in detail as a young farmer who rejects the old ways, never imagining that “the reference point or measure of what he did or said might not be himself,” never belonging to the place but convinced the farm exists “to serve and enlarge him” (182). Throughout the story, Chatham leverages the present for the future in his all-consuming desire to “be somebody,” using and abusing all the resources he could claim in service to his exalted self-image. He is a man who utterly fails to recognize his limits or his dependence on what is outside of and bigger than himself.

Jayber Crow is a nostalgic book, and—for all its beauty—a sad one. The world it describes is for the most part a lost world. It was held together by traditions no longer valued and an isolation no longer possible. Which is to say much of its staying power rested on personal preference for its traditions and to some extent an ignorance of alternatives.

Bound in time, Berry’s world offers but a pale reflection of the local church ideal, a community where members’ submission to each other is rooted in the message of the gospel and the power of God’s Spirit. Against his redeemed community, Jesus has promised us, even the gates of hell are no threat.

But Berry’s stories bring to life truths at the heart of the community we’re aiming for when we emphasize church membership. A thriving, covenant-shaped local church requires precisely the sort of self-abnegation Berry celebrates and is opposed by the same self-exaltation he portrays in all its ugliness.

Too often we try on new churches like we try on new clothes and for much the same reason. We’re looking for style and fit, for what meets our needs and makes the appropriate statement about who we are. We put our churches in service of our desire to be somebody and our commitment doesn’t outlast the better options of Elsewhere. But this posture—beside its offense to the cross—leads to self-absorption, restlessness, and isolation.

By contrast, there is freedom in coming off the market. There is sweet rest in belonging to one people, for better or worse, and there is the opportunity for displaying costly, Christlike love. We’re called to die to our narrow interests and to what we might hope to enjoy or become on our own. But we’re called to a truer life in our identification with Christ and his body on earth. On the terms of 1 Corinthians 12, we must embrace our status as a mere hand, ear, or foot, helpless apart from the other members and happy so long as Christ is exalted and the body is thriving. This is boundedness, for sure, but it’s liberating and it’s beautiful.

Matt McCullough is the pastor of Trinity Church in Nashville, Tennessee and the author of My Brother's Keeper: Christian Nationalism, Messianic Interventionism, and the Spanish-American War of 1898 (University of Wisconsin Press, forthcoming)

Five Reasons We Don’t Disciple (Part 2)

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Last time, we looked at the biblical rationale for making disciples and asked the question, “Why aren’t we obeying the Lord’s command?” I suggested that “cheap grace” was one of the prime suspects.

TWO MORE REASONS WE DON’T DISCIPLE

Let me suggest two more reasons our discipleship is so shallow.

1. Our Churches are Seeker-sensitive, but Believer-insensitive.

First, our churches are seeker-sensitive, but believer-insensitive. No church has done more to research and develop seeker-sensitive services than Willow Creek in Chicago. They first started tailoring their church services specifically for seekers 30 years ago.

But in 2008 they published the results of a four-year survey on how effective they had been in fulfilling Jesus’ call to make disciples (Matt. 28:19). Their conclusion was that after three decades, they needed to shift from seeker-sensitive services to services which focused on enabling believers to grow in their faith: from seeker-sensitive to believer-sensitive.

What Willow Creek realized (the hard way) is that we cannot serve two masters. If our focus is always on trying to please seekers, we will not be growing disciples. Our diet as a church will be restricted to milk, and our growth will be stunted because we’ll never get to consume solid food.

The writer of Hebrews castigates those believers who have never progressed beyond “the elementary truths of God’s word”:

…though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. (Heb 5:12-14)

To be clear, I’m not saying there isn’t a place for one-off services which focus on the outsider. Carol services, for example. But if that’s our general approach every week, Christians will not be hearing the deeper things of God, their discipleship will remain shallow, and as a result they’ll be practically incapable of discipling anyone else.

We needn’t fear that in making a shift toward more believer-sensitive services our churches will no longer speak to non-Christians. We will still, after all, be preaching the gospel. And the gospel that sustains and grows believers is the same gospel that got us started.

As a result, for the benefit of believers and unbelievers alike, we should be preaching the gospel every week—in every service, whatever our text. Jesus spoke of the whole Scripture as testifying about him (John 5:39). So even if we’re lurching through Leviticus, let’s preach it the way Jesus did: as pointing to the redemption that is in him.

Of course, if we’re fixated on trying to be seeker-sensitive, there’s a good chance we won’t ever preach Leviticus anyway—or any other part of Scripture we think might startle the unsuspecting. This is not good. As 2 Timothy 3:16-17 reminds us:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

In other words, we need all of Scripture to make disciples. If we neglect certain parts of it because we’re worried we’ll drive away non-Christians, the quality of our discipleship will sharply decline.

2. Our churches are less converted.

Second, our churches are less converted. That is, our churches have fewer Christians in them, so there are fewer people able to disciple each other. No doubt the reasons for this are complex, but let me suggest two.

Firstly, it used to be that to be known as a member of the body of Christ, you had to be a Christian. That’s the assumption of the New Testament.

But now, in many churches—even in some large, well-known evangelical churches—you can become a member simply by ticking a box on a welcome card. There is little or no attempt to examine the person spiritually to try and ascertain that they are truly followers of Christ. How can we expect people who aren’t disciples themselves to be discipling others?

Secondly, the practice of church discipline has been all but lost.

This was the standard custom of the New Testament church, or at least the obedient New Testament church. In 1 Corinthians 5, for example, Paul says that we are to expel unrepentant sinners from membership in the church.

Our failure to obey Paul’s command here is spiritually deadly. It results in members who are not disciples. Indeed, they may be showing signs of being actively opposed to Christ, to the great dishonor of the Lord and his gospel. Again, we can’t expect people who aren’t disciples themselves to be discipling others.

Why have we neglected these two things?

I think there are several reasons, but here’s one of the main ones: numbers have become so important to us that we will do anything to boost them. We are desperate for people to enter, and desperate for them to stay. We have lowered the cost in the hope that more will buy.

What happens when we duck the biblical practices of church membership and discipline?  We end up with a church culture that becomes increasingly de-Christianized, denuded of its salt and light. A culture of discipleship in our churches is impossible when so many of our members are not disciples themselves. And the influence of those non-discipling church members on those church members who are genuinely seeking to follow Christ will not be benign.

To put it another way (and to borrow Mark Dever’s analogy), it used to be that the front door of the church was protected carefully, while the back door was wide open. That is, churches were careful about who they let in, and they diligently disciplined those whose lives contradicted their professions. Now, however, we leave the front door swinging wide open, and we jam the back door tight shut because we’re so afraid of anyone leaving.

If this is our mindset, then sadly we can expect to see congregations who are not discipling one another.

Next time, I’ll suggest a fourth reason we don’t disciple.

Barry Cooper is the author or co-author of Christianity Explored, Discipleship Explored, One Life, The Real Jesus, and If You Could Ask God One Question. He blogs at Future Perfect, Present Tense and is helping to plant Trinity West Church in Shepherd's Bush, London.

Click here for part one of the series. 

When Disaster Strikes...Again

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About a week ago, we posted Toby Jenkins' article on how a number of churches in his county and state rallied around his church when his community was struck by a tornado last Spring. A few days after posting, the tornado hit Moore, Oklahoma.

So if you missed Toby's article, take a look. (We asked him to re-write the intro.) It might encourage you to look for ways to serve churches in Moore or other disaster-affected areas.