A wee-little sheep breaks through a fence and runs away. But unlike most parables, his shepherd doesn’t find him (Luke 15:1-7). This little sheep wanders to and fro, far away from home, and eventually stumbles upon another flock. From that moment on, another shepherd is given charge over his life. Imagine the first shepherd picking up his cell phone and saying to the new overseer, “Hey, friend. There are a few things you should know about this wee-little sheep…”
I have no idea whether shepherds use cell phones while wandering across lush plains, but consider this point: shepherds should cooperate with other shepherds, churches with other churches, in order to wisely love the sheep entrusted to their care.
In our very mobile society, where people rarely stay put for long, you shouldn’t be surprised when a Christian stumbles through your church’s front door carrying baggage full of junk from his past. In caring for the hurting sheep, a pastor can go it alone, with nothing but what the new member tells him, or he can informally cooperate with another pastor to better care for this sheep.
CHURCHES COOPERATING: EXAMPLES
Let’s think about a couple of real-life examples.
A struggling member moves to another church. In many ways, this is the simplest and most straightforward example. A Christian who is struggling relocates to another city or state because of a job. He starts going to another church. The pastor knows there is a long history of problems, so he calls this sheep’s previous pastor to get some background and advice.
Mediation between family members. Parents are not getting along with their adult children. The parents and the kids are members of different churches. Pastor Bob is getting one side of the story from the adult kids; Pastor Jim is getting the other side from the parents. Both pastors can persist in their one-sidedness, or they can take the simple step of picking up the phone and calling one another. The pastors act as mediators between family members, with either one or both pastors involved.
A husband and wife separate. A husband and his wife are in a difficult marriage, and things are not going well. For whatever reason, one spouse separates, which often means physically moving out of the home. He or she starts going to another church, maybe in a different city or even a different state. You can choose to deal with just the one spouse in your congregation, or you can extend a hand to the other spouse, inviting them to re-engage in the marriage. His or her new pastor wants to help, and his newness to the issues makes him a little green. Both pastors talk in order to make sure they are on the same page about how to handle the marriage and move it toward reconciliation.
An adult child strays from the faith. A mother and father in your church are burdened for their agnostic adult son. He enters a crisis, and begins searching for answers, but he lives nowhere near his parents. The parents—or often their pastor—call a pastor-friend who lives and works near the adult child. “Can you do a hospital visit?” “Can you meet up with him and talk to him while he is struggling?” “Can you invite him to church?” This seems like a good opportunity to help a non-Christian who is not doing well. Maybe this is an opportunity to help him see God in the midst of his suffering?
A single woman grows interested in a man she meets online. Guy meets girl on-line through a dating service. She doesn’t know if his story is legitimate or not, but she sure hopes so, because she desperately wants to be married. She’s vulnerable, and her pastor knows that. Online dating services provide an opportunity to create a persona which may or may not match up with the real world. The guy says he belongs to First Baptist in the neighboring town. Her pastor calls his fellow pastor in order to protect his sheep: is this guy the real deal or is he faking it?
These are just a few of the many examples of informal, gospel-minded cooperation between churches. Shepherds talk to one another—as long as they have good cell-phone plans.
SIX PRINCIPLES FOR STICKY SITUATIONS
How do we navigate sticky situations like these? Six principles can help guide us.
1. A pastor should know his sheep and lovingly shepherd them through life’s challenges (John 10:14-18; 1 Peter 5:1-4). Are your leadership meetings more about maintaining church programs than shepherding hurting souls? Are you more concerned with putting on a good Sunday show than knowing your flock personally? If so, and another pastor calls you for shepherding help, he won’t get very far. He’ll ask you about someone in your church and you might see that person’s name on a list, but you’ll have nothing to say. Pastors should follow the example of the Good Shepherd, who not only knew his sheep, but was willing to lay down his life for them.
2. There needs to be like-mindedness about the gospel and other core doctrines (1 Cor. 15:3). Without a high view of Scripture and a keen focus on the gospel, ministry philosophies will be fundamentally different, which makes cooperation much harder. If the other church cares more about paying the bills or meeting felt needs or granting a divorce than they do about salvation, eternal hope, and the centrality of Christ in all things, then cooperating together just won’t work.
3. Here is yet another reason to promote church membership. Imagine a Christian landscape in which nearly all Christians had been taught and understood that being a Christian meant being a church member. This sort of cooperation between churches would be a lot easier. But to the extent that Christians float around as free agents, never committing anywhere, the examples cited above become more unrealistic. Keep encouraging everyone who walks through your doors to join a church, whether yours or someone else’s.
4. The church leaders need to trust each other (Acts 15:36-41). It goes without saying that if the leaders don’t respect one other, not much can be done together.
5. Use relational resources wisely. Weak sheep tend to over-consume relational resources without much consideration for the other sheep. They demand time. They tax pastors. They burn people out. Pastors should wisely coordinate time, energy, and effort. If Pastor Bob is talking with Jeannie this week, Pastor Jim doesn’t need to talk with her, too. There are plenty of other hurting people who need a few minutes of the pastor’s attention.
6. Don’t be afraid to over-communicate (Prov. 25:11). If multiple churches and multiple people are involved, miscommunication and assumptions can quickly wreak havoc with the process. So communication, though time-consuming, is essential to facilitating reconciliation. Imagine a husband and wife who are separated and attending different churches. In helping them, I typically have regular talks with another pastor, a counselor, the husband, and the wife. And if they are ready, I’ll also do couples counseling.
7. The weaker sheep are indispensible (1 Cor. 12:22). As hard as it sometimes is to bear with Christians who are weak, immature, and struggling with life, the apostle Paul reminds us that the weaker parts of the body are indispensible. This is a good reminder to every pastor to endure in the very hard work of caring for God’s sheep.
SHARE THE WORK
Several months ago I was helping a couple in a troubled marriage, and the wife’s new pastor (from another church) called me. He said, “I’d really like to know how your elder board is thinking about this situation.” The pastor worked at a Bible-believing congregation in another state.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because I want to make sure my counseling falls in line with how your elders want to exercise oversight over this marriage.”
Wow. I’ve been pastoring for a while, but I’ve never had a pastor from another church make a statement like this. It was clear that this man gets cooperation. And as I came to find out, he was also gracious and gospel-minded. If your church believes the same gospel as other churches, that should encourage this kind of friendly and informal cooperation.
Pastor, think about a difficult situation that you are shepherding right now. What steps could you take to cooperate with another gospel-minded church that might help both you and those you are shepherding?
Deepak Reju is an associate pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. He has a PhD in biblical counseling from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Pastor, I understand your reluctance to talk about homosexuality and same-sex marriage. I really do. It's a topic that can make enemies instead of friends--certainly enemies outside the church, but possibly inside, too. And who wants enemies?
Why the Arguments for Gay Marriage Are Persuasive, by Kevin DeYoung
The Yuck Factor, by Carl Trueman
It’s a standard trope: The young seminarian takes his first pastorate. He’s loaded for bear, brimming with theological conviction, eager to love the people. He’s ready to meet the devil on the battlefield. His first year’s sermons are planned. He’s dreaming big, praying hard, and ready to go.
And then he meets it: Torpor. Indifference. Spiritual laziness.
In his vibrant memoir The Pastor, Eugene Peterson reflects on this. In its early days, his church plant drew “A few seasoned saints who kn[e]w how to pray and listen and endure,” but also “a considerable number of people who pretty much just showed up” (128). They were “the lukewarm,” and there were many of them.
In such a situation, facing spiritual lethargy in a congregation, what should a pastor do?
DIAGNOSING THE PROBLEM
First, he should think carefully, and not reflexively, about factors that may be contributing to this sorry situation. Here are a few of the biggest.
Culture of Low Expectations
Many 9Marks readers are familiar with what happened in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in American evangelicalism. For various reasons, many churches shifted to a more pragmatic, business-friendly, consumer-attuned model. This model was good at attraction; it was not as good at engagement.
Guess what? If you treat people as consumers, that’s how they will act. If you recruit them as spectators, that’s what they will be. That’s where a good number of American churchgoers are today.
Weak Church Membership
Following closely from the previous point, many folks in the mid-to-late twentieth century did, in point of fact, join churches. The postwar evangelical boom—chronicled in Grant Wacker’s forthcoming biography of Billy Graham and seminal works like Joel Carpenter’s Revive Us Again (Oxford, 1997)—led to huge increases in church attendance and membership in the 1950s. But the aforementioned church culture meant that many people were not trained to view their congregational allegiance as meaningful or, dare I say it, costly.
In a good number of communities, you joined the Kiwanis Club, the Rotary, the Junior League, and a church. It wasn’t that church participation was an empty ritual; a good number of folks were genuinely converted in this period. But many church members weren’t trained to think of the church as the “true culture,” as Stanley Hauerwas has argued, but rather as a part of the broader culture.
Natural Human Sinfulness
The previous two points are what we could call “legacy problems.” These are realities that have shaped many of the existing churches pastors enter today. But there are also less cultural and more native problems that incline church folk to passivity and laziness.
Our modern evangelical movement, particularly the grace-loving wing (of which I am an enthusiastic part), has a tendency to take a biblical text, perhaps one anchored in God’s mercy but with some sharp edges, and to blend it all together. To make a gospel smoothie of it.
To be sure, we should read all Scripture with theological lenses, and with Christ at the center. But if we’re not in tune with the actual tone and style of the biblical authors (and not a footloose-and-fancy-free pastiche of their material), passages like Titus 1:10-16 can sound harsh to our modern ears:
For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach. One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, not devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth. To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled. They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.
Paul knew the glories of grace firsthand, yet he powerfully indicted the culture of laziness in Crete. He didn’t hold back. He made it clear that there were tendencies in this region toward idleness. He also made it clear that laziness and failure to pursue the Lord wholeheartedly and to engage the mission of God are shameful sins. These behaviors are also dangerous, because idle passivity leaves people susceptible to false teaching, particularly teaching oriented to selfish gain.
Unseen Factors: Discouragement, Pain, Need for Investment
Spiritual idleness is a sin. That’s our starting point for addressing it. Beyond this truth, though, what are some possible problems getting in the way of meaningful church involvement?
- A harsh or overbearing leadership culture might have singed fragile members.
- The unbiblical models of church life mentioned above may have genuinely convinced people they are supposed to be low-energy at church. And if people are low-energy at church, they’re not likely to bring a godly boldness to other areas of life.
- Some folks may have a desire to engage the work of the gospel in the local church, but may have no idea where to start. They need mentoring and discipling. At many churches, if you polled church members on how many had been invested in personally by a church leader at any point in their membership—some for decades—I bet the resulting negative response would stun many of us.
- In a similar way, some people need encouragement. They genuinely (and mistakenly) don’t think they can serve the church.
- Some folks come from traditions that rightly respect church leadership but wrongly obscure the “priesthood of all believers.” They think that only the clergy can serve the Lord.
ADDRESSING THE PROBLEM
We’ve sketched a few of the major reasons why people in the church are idle and passive. Now let’s look at a few ways that we can address these problems.
Preach the Word
Your first duty as a pastor is to declare the Word of God. God’s Word brought life to the dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision (Ezek. 37); the Scripture is still, all these years later, bringing life to dry bones today, including the weary, the fearful, and the idle. Declare the whole counsel of God. Mediate biblical reality to the people. As you do so, over time, the Spirit of God will convict and awaken the lazy.
With Clarity and Compassion, Indict the Sinful
In regard to the idle, further, you must not shy away from imperatives. The teachings of Christ and Paul will suffice to show that it is entirely possible to preach from a grace-saturated perspective, against the backdrop of a massively powerful God, and yet bore into the particular sins and struggles of our human nature. Your preaching should accomplish these aims: it should show the idle how great and powerful God’s grace is, make clear how dishonoring idleness is in light of the kindness of God, and lead them to repent of their passivity and practically overcome their sin.
Your exhortations should be strong, though self-aware. Consider Paul’s words to the Thessalonians:
For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. (2 Thess. 3:7-10)
Be like Paul: Call sins what they are. Identify idleness. In a spirit of courageous compassion, rebuke it.
Alongside your call for repentance, cast a grand vision of the Christian life and the church’s work. Too many churches labor under either an unarticulated mission or a small one. Not every church will be large in number, but every church is an outpost of the kingdom, a participant in the most dynamic work there is on earth, the preaching of the gospel of Christ. Every congregation goes to war against Satan, the defeated tempter of the sheep. Every believer offers acceptable service to the Lord through the Spirit in service of this great cause (1 Pet. 2:9).
Idle believers first need to repent, and then get gloriously lost in the work of the kingdom.
Lovingly Shepherd the Sheep
In addition, you’ll need to make this practical. Many of us shy away from programmatic membership which reduces everything to a sign-up sheet and a start time, but many church members will need help getting plugged into the church’s ministry. Many will not have the vision (at least initially) to figure out a course of action. This is why elders who actually know the people are so essential. It is not enough to preach against idleness and to trumpet the mission of God. The elders of the church must dig in and help people overcome their sin and struggles. This is a complex matter—really the heart of shepherding—but suffice it to say that the church’s elders must dig in, meet with members, listen to their stories, call out sin in their lives, and map out a plan for overcoming their challenges.
In the course of doing so, you will find numerous people who are walking through a unique season of life that taxes them and leaves them with little time to plug in spiritually. They may come to you feeling lazy, and it may be your call to gently help them see that they’re not lazy, just overtaxed. A doctoral student living the fever dream of the final dissertation phase; the young mother waking four times a night to feed a newborn; the construction worker pulling double shifts for a season to make the mortgage; in these and other seasons, the church can easily extend grace to the burdened. D. A. Carson—no spiritual slouch—has quoted Lloyd-Jones on the need to relieve young mothers of guilt in this area. I fully agree.
Ideally, pastoral shepherding will form long-term strategies by which to transition the overworked out of their hyper-busy state. Busyness is an easy sin for a modern people to excuse. Nonetheless, strong shepherding will distinguish between unusual seasons and spiritual lethargy, and apply gospel grace—and gospel power—to the situation.
It will also discern how to engage those who lack confidence in their ability to serve, and gently lead them to areas of need in the body which they can begin to address.
Live it Out
The people also need you to live out your exhortations. If you light a fire in the pulpit but fail to carry that fire into the week, your people will see that. They won’t know all the doctrine you know, but they will know a worker. You’ve got to show them that the work of the kingdom, the preaching of the gospel and its application to fallen lives, really matters to you, and that it drives your life.
To use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s language, you need to preach costly grace, and you need to show just how it costs you.
Pray for Change
Prayer must permeate all the work of the church. This is true for your care for the idle: you must pray for them, and ask God to change them and motivate them by the riches of his gospel. Pray when you’re encouraged by what you see; and pray when no encouragement is in sight, and you feel alone and weak like Gideon before the Midianites (Judges 7). There is no substitute for prayer. God answers it, and is often pleased to show his power not through our Unstoppable Plans for Personal Change, but through the mysterious power of his Spirit.
Trust a Great God to Act
In all of this, remember: it is not you, ultimately, who builds the church and awakens the idle. It is Almighty God. He loves your people far more than you do. He is all-powerful. He is working through you as you preach his Word. And he will reward the long-suffering, long-praying pastor who seeks by the power of God to awaken the sheep to the mission of God.
Owen Strachan is Assistant professor of Christian theology and church history at Boyce College and executive director of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. He is the author of the forthcoming Risky Gospel (Thomas Nelson, 2013) and, with Kevin Vanhoozer, The Pastor as Public Theologian (Brazos Press, 2014).
As a pastor, I fight the temptation to act as if I can be everywhere, fix anything, and know everything. Such sinful assumptions are spiritually detrimental for any pastor, not to mention his church. We are human, and we will never fully magnify God without confessing that we are not him.
Zack Eswine understands this thoroughly. Thus, in his book, Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry as a Human Being, he reminds us that “the Christian life and ministry are an apprenticeship with Jesus toward recovering our humanity and, through his Spirit, helping our neighbor do the same” (20-21).
EXPOSING AND ADDRESSING THE MINISTER’S TEMPTATIONS
Sensing Jesus is divided into two parts. First, Eswine exposes the minister’s temptation to try to be God: omnipresent (everywhere-for-all), omnipotent (fix-it-all), and omniscient (know-it-all). Second, he addresses the solution to these temptations, namely, the restoration of our humanity in Christ.
Exposing our Temptations
As pastors and ministers we want to be great. We envision doing great things for Jesus. We want to be great preachers, extraordinary counselors, outstanding writers, and remarkable shepherds. Simply put, we want to be exceptional in every way. However, if there is anything we must remember about pastors and ministers, it is that we are first and foremost exceptionally broken.
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Something is wrong with pastoral ministry—at least Dave Earley thinks so. Introducing his book Pastoral Leadership Is, he laments that in the Western world we have “adopted an unbiblical model on pastoral leadership, that is killing our churches and harming our people” (1). Pastors have become “chaplains.” In truth, God has called them to be “spiritual warriors, missional leaders, and multiplying mentors.” The situation is dire, but the solution is at hand. We must return to “what the Bible says about pastoral leadership” (2).
BACK TO THE BIBLE
The book divides into five parts that collectively form an understanding of the pastorate. Pastoral ministry is “being a man of God,” “praying with power,” “teaching the word of God,” “equipping and leading others,” and “shepherding God’s flock.” These five major divisions are further subdivided into six smaller chapters apiece, which explore the larger theme in detail.
Easley makes good on his promise to plant our noses in the Bible. Scriptural references are copious throughout, and the ministries of Moses, Jesus and Paul—understood as paradigmatic for pastors—are prominent. These ministries involved three central responsibilities: prayer, the ministry of the Word, and equipping others to serve. These tasks are the essence of pastoral work. They are tasks which “every effective shepherd simply must do” (12).
At the same time, Easley does not overlook the character of the pastor: “Personal integrity and godly character are the foundations for authentic, God-blessed pastoral leadership.” (28).
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Seven years ago Christianity Today magazine asked John Stott to assess the growth of the evangelical church. This was his reply:
The answer is “growth without depth.” None of us wants to dispute the extraordinary growth of the church. But it has been largely numerical and statistical growth. And there has not been sufficient growth in discipleship that is comparable to the growth in numbers.
Sadly, seven years on, that assessment still rings true. Although our growth has been wide as the ocean, it’s often about as deep as a puddle. Why is that? What is going wrong? Over the coming months, I’m going to suggest five reasons we don’t disciple—or at least don’t disciple well.
But first, what is the biblical rationale for discipling? There are many, but the key passage is Matthew 28:18-20:
Then Jesus came to [the eleven disciples] and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising 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...”
Now the question is, does this command (“go and make disciples...”) apply only to the eleven disciples Jesus was speaking to? Or does it apply to every Christian disciple?
Sometimes translations give the impression that “go” is the emphasis of the command—which is how the verse came to be the catalyst for the modern missionary movement. But the main verb of the sentence is “make disciples.” One commentator puts it like this: “Jesus’ commission here is not fundamentally about mission out there somewhere else in another country. It’s a commission that makes disciple-making the normal agenda and priority of every church and every Christian disciple.”
D. A. Carson draws the same conclusion:
...the injunction is given at least to the Eleven, but to the Eleven in their own role as disciples. Therefore they are paradigms for all disciples...It is binding on all Jesus’ disciples to make others what they themselves are—disciples of Jesus Christ.
Which brings me to a troubling question. If the Lord Jesus himself has commanded every Christian to “make disciples,” why isn’t everyone doing it? What is keeping our churches from being thriving communities of disciple-makers?
Let me suggest five reasons—one now, and four to follow in future columns.
WHY DON’T WE DISCIPLE? BECAUSE WE PREACH CHEAP GRACE
You’ll remember Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian. He defined cheap grace like this:
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” (The Cost of Discipleship, 43-44)
When the gospel is preached in your local church, what do your people hear? Do they hear, “Of course you’ve sinned. But now everything is forgiven. Jesus paid the price for your sin. So everything’s taken care of.”
That’s okay as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go far enough. The problem is that this gospel contains no demand for discipleship. There’s no requirement for repentance. No holding out for holiness. Isn’t that at odds with Jesus’ insistence in Mark 8:34? “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
As the old truism goes, grace may be free—but it isn’t cheap. It cost Jesus his life. And it will cost us our lives too, if we want to follow him. The invitation may be extended to all, but only those who obey Jesus’ call—deny yourself and take up your cross—have received it.
And the question is, are we teaching this gospel in our local churches? Does our gospel contain the demand for discipleship? Or do we cough loudly over Mark 8:34, and relegate it to the small print, hoping no one will notice until after they’ve signed on the dotted line? Are we lowering the cost of discipleship in the hope that more will buy?
Another, related question: do we speak of God’s love as “unconditional”? If we do, we unwittingly contribute to the problem of cheap grace. Because in one sense, God’s love isn’t unconditional at all. Listen to what David Powlison says here:
“While it’s true that God’s love does not depend upon what you do, it very much depends on what Jesus Christ did for you. In that sense, it is highly conditional. It cost Jesus his life.” (God’s Love: Better than Unconditional, 11)
If we fail to teach the “conditionality” of God’s love, we’ll serve up cheap grace. Grace that requires no radical obedience, only a sleepy nod. Grace that cannot stir, only sedate.
The gospel is not conditional (“If you obey me, I will love you”). But neither is it unconditional (“I love you regardless of whether you obey me.”). The gospel is contra-conditional (“I love you even though you haven’t obeyed me, because my Son did.”). And the obedience of the Son on our behalf moves us to love and obey. As Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey my commands” (John 14:15).
My fear is that in our evangelistic desire to get “decisions” from people, we may have rendered many of those “decisions” meaningless. It is one thing to “pray the prayer,” another thing entirely to repent and believe. It is much easier to tread the sawdust trail than to walk the Calvary road.
HOW CAN WE MAKE GRACE “MORE EXPENSIVE”?
So what should we do (if I can put it this way) to make grace more expensive?
First, when we preach the gospel, it is tempting to preach only the identity and mission of Christ (“Jesus is the Son of God and he died for sinners like you.”). But we must also preach his call: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34).
Let none of our congregation be in any doubt: a Christian demonstrates that fact by denying self and taking up their cross. That means that in our gospel preaching, we must not forget the way Jesus himself preached the gospel. He called people to repent as well as believe (Mark 1:15). The two are inseparable. We must never drive a wedge between them in our preaching, as if “belief” is necessary to make someone a Christian, and then “repentance” is an optional extra for the really keen Christians. Neither are negotiable.
Second, when people ask us how they know they are truly in Christ, let’s not point to a prayer prayed, or an aisle walked. The biblical grounds for assurance is our continuing walk along the Calvary road, bearing the cross of shame, and also bearing fruit in keeping with repentance (Matt. 3:8).
Cheap grace may be easier to “buy.” It may help our churches to fill. But we will watch them fill with people who aren’t disciples, don’t particularly want to be, and therefore have no desire to disciple others. We will have created a culture where discipleship is essentially irrelevant.
Next time, I’ll suggest a second 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 two of this series.
When people pursue faith in an unbiblical way, false converts are made, and the world is misled about what it means to follow Jesus. Pastors, therefore, need to keep an eye out for false faith, that they might separate the false from the true:
1. True faith is not deedless, but shows itself in deeds.
James asks what kind of faith is saving by asking about faith’s relationship to deeds. “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder” (James 2:19). According to this passage, knowing the truth is not enough. It is possible to know about the truth, and be deceived. So mere knowledge does not equate to a real saving faith. Rather, true faith shows itself in deeds.
2. It is not faith in yourself, but in God.
Walk into any Christian bookstore and you’ll see bestselling Christian books with self-help advice. Westerners today love talk of the God within. Yet we cannot save ourselves: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:4-5). Following ourselves and believing in ourselves will not result in eternal life, but eternal death.
3. It is not faith in heritage, but in Christ.
Growing up in a Christian home is not what saves you. Having grandparents who are saved is not what saves you. If anyone had reason to place their faith in heritage it was Paul—“circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews,” and on and on he goes (Phil. 3:4-11). But all this is rubbish, he concludes—our heritage does not save us. Christ does.
4. It is not faith in faith, but in Christ’s completed work.
Much so-called Christian TV and radio programming today panders to what peoples' "itching ears" want to hear: the promise of earthly gain. Over and over again we hear the testimonies of businessmen who "turned on to Jesus" and saw their businesses double. “If you don’t have these things,” people are told, “it’s because you are not believing hard enough. So believe harder!” Notice two problems here: stuff (not Christ) is the end, and looking inward (instead of outward at Christ) is the means. Sadly, people take their eyes off of Christ’s finished work on the cross, and put them on themselves. But true faith does not look to itself, it looks to Christ, his work on the cross, a sacrifice that we know God accepted because he raised him from the dead.
5. It does not fail to repent, but changes direction.
Apart from repentance, faith is not real and it is not saving. There are many people who say they believe in Jesus, but nothing has changed in their lives. They refuse to renounce the old way of living. Repentance is not just feeling sorry for sin. Anyone can feel bad about sin. True repentance begins with sorrow, seeks forgiveness, and then culminates in a change of direction. A person turns around and starts walking the other way.
Real saving faith is repentance and trust in Jesus Christ as a living person for forgiveness of sins and eternal life with God.
It is full reliance on Christ. He is the object.
It is the way of surrender, and evidences itself as real by the authentic crop it produces.
Ross Sawyers is lead pastor at 121 Community Church in Grapevine, TX.
The grind of preparing and delivering weekly sermons is a challenge for me in many ways, but the struggle to apply the text stands at the top of the list. At this point I’ve got more book learning than life experience. So, to borrow an image from Tim Keller, my preaching tends towards words that too rarely take on flesh. And the more obscure the passage, the more acute the problem.
About a year ago I was in the early weeks of a series on Hebrews, barreling towards those Melchizedek passages. And it was then that I received some help—at least on a conceptual level—from an unexpected source.
HOMILETICS CLASS WITH STEVE JOBS
A friend had loaned me a copy of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, a captivating read. I was especially struck by a passage where Jobs describes his product development strategy and its relationship to market research:
“Some people say, ‘Give the customers what they want.’ But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, ‘If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, “A faster horse!”’ People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page” (567).
Job’s point is that it’s not enough to offer customers what they already think they need. He wanted Apple to be a transformational influence, which meant his goal was to expose and then meet needs and desires that customers didn’t realize they had. He was aiming at things that, in the minds and hearts of his customers, were “not yet on the page.”
With a little tweaking, I’ve found this Jobsian insight to be really helpful for pushing myself out of the realm of Bible trivia and into the realm of life transformation.
THE BIBLE DOESN’T JUST ADDRESS OUR NEEDS—IT DEFINES THEM
What makes Scripture glorious is the time-tested truth that it's not only God-breathed but "profitable" (2 Tim. 3:16). Surely one step in helping our people see its profitability is to know our people well. We need to get in their lives and in their minds so we internalize their questions, empathize with their struggles, and then apply the gospel where they need to hear it in our time and place.
But there’s a danger here if we limit the goal of our preaching to so-called felt needs, those desires already “on the page.” If we limit our aim to these, we’ll be in trouble when we get to Melchizedek. In fact we're not likely to get to Melchizedek at all. Not many of us serve people who wake up thinking that what they really need to get through the day is a dependable high priest, preferably one in the order of Melchizedek.
But if the Bible is God-breathed and profitable, a covenant document preserved in total for our good, then all of it stands over us with authority to define our true condition and diagnose our deepest needs. And if this is true, preaching that submits to the Bible’s priorities and seeks to meet the deepest needs of our hearers will address needs that are not yet on the page. Part of our job as bridge-builders is to help people get a taste of their needs as the Bible defines and meets them.
Ford knew his customers wanted faster horses, but what they “needed” was the Model T. Jobs knew customers wanted thinner flip phones to leave more room for carrying around their Palm Pilots, but they “needed” pocket-sized computers that make phone calls.
We know our people want advice on how to make relationships more stable, peaceful, and fulfilling—certainly an important need which the Bible richly addresses. But we know our people truly need something even more fundamental. We have broken the relationship at the core of our lives. So we need a priest, a mediator to bridge the gap and make peace. And what we really need is a priest like Melchizedek. We need one who not only knows us inside and out but one who won’t die and pass our case on to someone else.
To faithfully communicate the whole counsel of Scripture in all its diversity, we must labor to free our people from the tyranny of felt needs so they can see beauty and life-giving goodness even in textual obscurity. It will mean looking at every text and trusting that it meets a real need of your people, and that your goal is to explain it to them. This kind of application takes work and gets nowhere without the illuminating power of the Spirit in us and in our people. But this is our target. Guided by Scripture, we go after what's not yet on the page.
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).
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I was fortunate to attend a very healthy seminary. That said, I recall being assigned a book in a pastoral ministry class that discussed the color of socks a pastor should wear. I also endured a lecture that instructed us to dress from the “upper third of your wardrobe.” While I’m confident my professor was a godly man and a wonderful pastor, this comment seems to owe a little too much to the professionalism that has taken root among American pastors. And a focus on appearance is just one facet of the professionalism which John Piper takes aim at in his recent, updated and expanded edition of Brothers, We Are Not Professionals.
This updated edition has a new introduction along with six additional chapters. The reason Piper gives for these additional chapters is that “they [have] pressed themselves on me. One for personal reasons like health (chap. 27 [Bodily Training]). One for family reasons relating to my own sanctification (chap. 22 [Act the Miracle]). Two for theological reasons where I felt I needed greater clarity or correction (chaps. 4 & 6 [God does make much of us & God is the Gospel]). And two in pursuit of being a better preacher (chaps. 13 & 18 [Bible oriented & Tone of Text])” (xi).
This re-release comes at the close of Piper’s 33 years as pastor for preaching and vision at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As Piper looks back on the ten years since the release of the first edition he not only remains convinced of the need for this book, but believes that the “pressure to ‘professionalize’ the pastorate has morphed and strengthened” (ix). As such, the book, and in particular this new edition, would encourage and instruct many Christians, but its aim is pastors.
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Seventeen years ago I went on a two-week trip to India and Korea to teach in a Bible college and some churches. Security at the airport was not as tight pre-9/11, so my family accompanied me to the gate. As I left my wife and three young children in the midst of a Michigan winter, my youngest daughter cried out "NOOOOO!" so long and so loud that the echo followed me down the jet way into the plane itself. She wasn't the only one who cried that day.
As I sat on the plane and tried to catch one last glimpse of them, I wondered, "What was I doing to my family? Was this trip really worth it? Was I right to do this? Couldn’t someone else have taught this course and preached these messages?" It was not the last time I would ask those questions.
Serving the church is not merely a job; it is an all-consuming responsibility that can threaten a family. The emergency hospital trips and the frantic calls from a heartbroken spouse never come when you are sitting at home, caught up on your to-do list, bored stiff, and hoping for a crisis to break the monotony. For most of us, our bodies may be home, but our full attention is slow to arrive.
There are always more visits to schedule, more people to counsel, more calls to make, more meetings to attend, more functions to pray at, more books to read, more emails to answer, more blogs to write (and read), more classes to take and teach, more work for the sermon(s), more degrees to finish or pursue, more, more, more, meaning that your family will get less, less, less. How many times have you come home late knowing that while you were trying to save your church, your wife was left alone trying to save your kids?
Can we really be effective pastors and good husbands and dads? Do we really have to choose between the church and our family?
In this article I’ll argue it does not have to be an “either/or.”
HOW TO LEAD WELL IN THE CHURCH AND HOME
Leading a church well and leading a family well are not mutually exclusive: “[An elder] must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive” (1 Tim. 3.4).
However, Paul is not only saying that an elder can lead both family and church well, but that he must. But how? Through the gospel! The gospel protects you from taking yourself too seriously and exposes the idols of your heart.
Don’t Take Yourself so Seriously
The gospel reminds me that I am a sinner prone to self-centeredness and self-righteousness. The fact that I am a pastor does not mean that I don’t have to confess my sin with my family when I have blown it. In fact, I need to take the lead in confessing when I have sinned against my family.
Your kids know that you are human. They see your underwear in the laundry and smell your breath in the morning. They’ve watched you try to fix that faucet, replace the water heater and drop your cell phone. You are not a perfect parent. You are going to overreact, over-promise, and forget. You are going to fail. You are a sinner. On many occasions, I’ve had to go into my kids’ bedroom and ask forgiveness for being a jerk. They forgave me. Some of my most humble moments in life have been sitting on my kids’ bed, while being patted on the back, hearing one of them say, “It’s okay, Dad. I sin too.” Respect is best earned through relationships built on love, rather than rules that can only make demands.
Christ Is a Better Savior than my Image
I am tempted to believe that if I am a perfect pastor, then others will think well of me, and I worship that approval. And in order to be a perfect pastor, I need to have perfect children. Therefore, I need to get my children to cooperate with my desires to be respected.
Thankfully, neither God nor my children have gone along with my desires. When my son was about four, we went to a funeral home to visit the family of an influential lady in the church who had died. After looking at her body in the casket, my son announced to her daughter that the lady had died because, “She ate too much.” That evening I updated my resume, believing that I would need it shortly. There were many situations with my children when I was forced to ask, “Am I more concerned about my children and the gospel, or about how their failures will reflect on me?”
Again, the gospel is clear. Christ alone is my hope, not my children. If I expect perfect behavior from them, I am demanding from them what only Christ can provide, and that expectation will crush them. They need to have the freedom to fail, so they too can experience grace. Along the way, my church family has seen our warts and imperfections. They did not have a perfect pastor, but that’s okay. They have a perfect Savior.
FOUR MORE PRINCIPLES TO PONDER
With those two things in mind, here are four more specific matters that have helped me navigate the leadership of my home while leading the church.
1. You Can’t Please Everyone.
First, you can’t please everyone. It is tempting to listen to a visitor tell you how terrible that “other church” is. They seem so sincere, so hurt. And so now, I am going to rush in and show them what a real church, a real pastor should be like. I will impress them with my sacrifice, my availability, and my attention to their needs. I can be a hero. I can restore their faith and rescue them. Really? Now, obviously, there are plenty of people who truly need care. But there are some people who do not want to actually deal with their issues; they just want attention from you. They don’t care if you sacrifice your children for them. They will take all that you offer and demand even more.
One summer, while I was on vacation with my family in Florida, a church member called to ask if I would do his aunt’s funeral—three and a half hours across the state. My wife was stunned. I am ashamed to admit that because he was new to the church, and I wanted him to think well of me, I agreed. I had to buy a suit, shoes, shirt, and tie, leave my family, and drive across the state, all to make a good impression. A few years later he left the church because he did not get to sing enough solos. Remember, if Jesus isn’t good enough for some people, what makes you think you will be?
Related to this is the reality that only God is omnipresent, not you. You simply cannot be in two places at the same time. It is tempting to break a promise to your family because, after all, “they will understand” that something has come up. The truth is, they will understand—they will understand that others matter more to you than they do.
2. Your Family Is Part of Your Church—or by God’s Grace Will Be.
Second, remember that your family is part of your church—or by God’s grace will be. Often people ask, “What is more important: your family or your church?” Yet as our kids were growing up, Cathi and I attempted to integrate our family and the church, and did things to involve our family in the church. For example, when appropriate, I took my children with me on home or hospital visits. One evening they sang to a lady who was dying from cancer in her home. Her husband never forgot this.
I discovered that while my children may have to share me with many people, they get to share in many things as well. They get to see the reality of death more than others. They get to see how a church family serves one another. They get to meet missionaries and other pastors. They get to unlock doors, turn off lights, fill the baptismal, fold bulletins, and make copies. They get to see so many things that others may take for granted, which can help them have a greater sense of ownership as church members.
If your children have professed faith in Christ and have become members of the church, they are part of your church in the fullest sense. If they are not members yet, you are preparing them for the day when, you hope, by God’s grace, they will become members of the church. In both cases, you are seeking to instill in them a love for the church.
Yet they are in the spotlight to some degree. You cannot prevent that. They are part of your qualification as a pastor (1 Tim. 3:4). But you can also help the congregation try to treat them like they would treat any other members’ children. I attempted to minimize the spotlight on my children by not using many family stories in sermons, and by ensuring that they had to play by the same rules as everyone else.
A word of caution: some people in the church will hurt you. It may be tempting to feel sorry for yourself and gossip in front of your children. There will be times when you feel taken advantage of and are tempted to play the “victim” card with your family. Please, guard them from that! In spite of the difficult days, it really is a privilege to carry water for the church and wash her feet. Let your children know what a privilege it is to serve the church. This is—or, Lord willing, will be—their family too.
3. Your Church Can Get another Pastor, but Your Kids Can’t Get another Dad.
Third, your church can get another pastor, but your kids can’t get another dad. There are times when we have to choose between an important event for our kids and an event for the church. When facing those decisions I have often asked, “Is this church event something that someone else can cover?” I also ask, “Is this event something that my child really needs me to be at?” Not every event in my child’s life is a really big deal. But if I knew the event was important to them, I did everything I could to be there.
4. Little Things Really Do Matter.
Fourth, little things really do matter. Every night when I would say goodnight to my children, I would usually pray with them and then my last words to them were, “I love you. I will always love you and there is nothing that you can do that will ever make me stop loving you.” (There were times I would have to add, “But don’t push it!”) I did this night after night, year after year, until when I started in they would say with a sigh, “Yeah, I know Dad, and there is nothing that I can do that will ever make you stop loving me.” And I would respond, “And don’t you ever forget it.”
I wanted them to know that what I attempted to do imperfectly was done for them perfectly by God through Christ. I wanted them to know their acceptance and security was not rooted in their grades, awards, achievements, and success as the world defined it. They heard this before solos, piano competitions, spelling bees, basketball and soccer games, final exams, college entrance exams, and every night before bed.
One day I was at a track meet for my youngest daughter. I was screaming loudly as she ran her event when my other daughter called from college in great distress. She was facing a test of monumental importance that would determine the success or failure of her entire degree program, and she felt that she was cracking under the pressure. Four years was resting all on this! I reminded her that she was not sufficient for this, but that her confidence and rest was in Christ. I was eleven hours away. With my fist pumping the air for my youngest who was crossing the finish line in record time, I cried with my other daughter and prayed with her to rest in Christ. Then I said again. “Remember, I love you, I will always love and there is nothing that you can do to ever make me stop loving you.” She knew I would tell her that and just wanted to hear it.
When I became the pastor here, our son was two, Cathi was expecting our second child, and our third was several years away. Now, our kids are basically grown and gone from the house. It is a bit odd that after years of frenzy, loudness, laughter, and chaos, the home is rather quiet. We used to be the young pastor’s family but are now viewed as the seasoned warriors.
Any time with our children is a joy, but there is something that is even more delightful. Recently two of our children flew halfway around the world to serve on a team attempting to reach people on an island in the Mekong River in Cambodia who had never been exposed to the gospel. They left the day after Christmas. Sure, it took away “family time,” and perhaps someone else could have done it. But on that trip, they were able to get to the island and were some of the first believers ever to do so. Today, fourteen months later, there are a couple dozen believers there.
Bob Johnson is the senior pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Roseville, Michigan.
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format, provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you do not make more than 1,000 physical copies. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be explicitly approved by 9Marks.