I tend to see much of the Christian walk as “just Jesus and me.” I often need a reality check to remind me I’m not the Lone Ranger and Jesus is not my Tonto.
I need others. I need brothers and sisters to encourage me. I need good examples of love and fellowship to follow. I need others to teach me and point out my blind spots. Just as I need others to remind me of the good news of God’s reconciliation, I need others to link arms with and share that good news together.
When it comes to evangelism, we don’t have to go it alone. We can and should evangelize together.
Evangelism is a team sport. This is why I love the little reddish book Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus by Mack Stiles. Mack reminds us that as much as evangelism is a part of personal obedience to Christ, it is also a responsibility of the church to evangelize together.
With warm encouragement and a contagious passion for the lost, Mack expresses his longing to see churches where evangelism is celebrated and practiced as a community. Chapter 2 is structured around a series of these longings for our churches’ cultures of evangelism. Here’s a sampling:
I long to share my faith in the context of a church that understands what I’m doing and is pulling with me.
I long to be with Christians who remember that people are image-bearers. I long to be with Christians who remember people’s separation from God. Most of all, I long for a culture that remembers what people can become through the gospel.
I long for a culture of evangelism that is risky in the sense that we’re confronting culture. Mostly that means disregarding what people think of us.
I long for a church where neighboring atheists and non-Christians see fellow atheists and non-Christians coming to faith—an indication that we’re part of a risk-taking culture of evangelism.
I long for a church where the Christians are so in love with Jesus that when they go about the regular time of worship, they become an image of the gospel.
I long for a church that disarms with love, not entertainment, and lives out countercultural confidence in the power of the gospel.
I long for a church where the greatest celebrations happen over those who share their faith, and the heroes are those who risk their reputations to evangelize.
I long for a church that understands the dangers of entertainment and sees it for what it is: a lion crouching at the evangelical door, ready to devour us. We need a culture of evangelism that never sacrifices to the idolatry of entertainment, but serves up the rich fare found in the gospel of Christ.
Do you long to see such a culture of evangelism in your church? Have you ever considered how evangelism is a team sport? Or are you like me and find yourself playing with toy pistols pretending to be the Lone Ranger?
You don’t have to be a pastor or church leader to long for these things; you just need to be amazed by the beauty of Christ and love him, the lost, and his church. Maybe you can join me and use this list as a prayer guide for our churches and our hearts.
Get your copy of Evangelism by J. Mack Stiles here.
The Gospel Coalition serves the Christian community by allowing saints who have different views on matters of polity to come together to discuss those matters. Polity is a difficult topic but an important one, so it’s good that we have a chance to think through those differences.
On Friday TGC posted Pastor Bill Kynes’ defense of what he calls a “small b” Baptist position, meaning, his church practices believer’s baptism, but they “also receive as members believers who have been baptized as infants.” He does this for the sake of “humility,” “charity,” and the “theology” of what baptism is. Theologically, he argues that baptism is an objective, subjective, and social sign (an excellent description, I think). And the believer who was baptized as an infant already had the objective and social components in place; and their adult subjective belief, somehow, applies retroactively to what happened to them as infants. In other words, the individual did not mean that act of sprinkling as a subjective declaration of faith then, but they mean it that way now. So that counts. Ultimately, then, whether or not we regard the infant baptism as a baptism for the believer is “a matter of personal conscience.”
I have not personally met Bill, but he is a faithful pastor of a church in the same metropolitan area as my own. He is friends with our congregation, and we pray for him and his church regularly. Praise God for his gospel ministry!
But here are two points of push back, aimed at anyone who claims to be a Baptist yet who maintains an “open membership” view.
1) You’re not actually a Baptist, but a Paedobaptist. There’s a lesson here from a U. S. Senate candidate named Abraham Lincoln. In 1858, the other candidate, Stephen Douglass, tried to adopt a position of neutrality toward slavery by leaving the matter of slavery to the consciences of each state. Lincoln responded that only a man “who does not see anything wrong in slavery” can claim to leave it to state’s consciences. After all, “no man can logically [leave it to the states] who does see a wrong in it.”
Others have pointed to this debate to characterize the double-mindedness of the pro-choice position: you cannot claim to be opposed to abortion and yet be pro-choice. You can only be pro-choice if you’re convinced abortion is okay.
The same problem besets any baptist—big or small “b”—who practices open membership: you cannot really claim to be pro-believer’s baptism and yet accept both kinds of baptisms. Either Jesus is Lord or he’s not, and either he commanded baptism for believers or he didn’t. You can only practice or accept both kinds if you’ve told yourself that paedobaptism is essentially okay. And that, I dare say, makes someone a paedobaptist, just like a pro-choicer is actually pro-abortion (even if they don’t practice abortion), and someone who claims to be neutral on slavery is actually pro-slavery (even if they don’t have slaves).
Now, please, please, please don’t say I’m saying paedobaptism is like abortion or slavery!!! I’m not. It’s just that the high stakes involved with abortion and slavery provide us with a clarity of vision concerning the poor logic of these “open” positions. But pick an issue with lower stakes and the logic is not so obvious to us. Yet I’m arguing that the logic is the same.
2) There is no objective or social without the subjective. Bill’s argument, however, is a bit more unique than the typical open membership view among Baptists. He allows for a time delay in which the subjective catches up with the objective and social.
The trouble, of course, is that the church’s social work of affirming the person’s profession of faith doesn’t mean anything if the infant wasn’t actually professing anything. The church cannot affirm what wasn’t there. (I'm aware the covenantal argument for paedobaptism are more complex than this paragraph implies. Again, I'm speaking here to "baptist" brothers and sisters who claim to share "baptist" assumptions about the nature and meaning of the sacrament.)
By the same token, the infant baptism wasn’t really an objective sign of being united with Christ either, because the infant wasn’t actually united with Christ. One could have written the words “I am a Christian!” with a magic marker on the belly of the infant, too. That would have been an “objective” sign. But it would have been a false and meaningless sign. Should the infant than grow up and profess faith at age 20, would we look at a photo of the infant with the magic marker on his belly and say, “Those words are true”? That would be strange, indeed.
Bottom line, the objective, subjective, and social are distinct elements in baptism, to be sure, but they are inseparable elements. What do we call objective symbols without the subjective realities behind them? Falsehoods.
So here's my sincere encouragement to my fellow baptist brothers and sisters: consider whether your church's practice is, at bottom, actually baptistic in nature. After all, it's possible for any of us to be confessionally one thing yet functionally something else.
And, finally, aren’t “humility,” “charity,” and “theology” finally best shown simply through obedience to Jesus?
For more on this topic, stay tuned for Bobby Jamieson’s excellent forthcoming book, Going Public: Why Baptism Is Required for Church Membership (B&H, 2015).
In a recent piece I made a case that imagination is an important and perhaps neglected tool in the church reform toolkit. On one level, imagination is simply applying faith to thinking. You may not see how your church could ever embody anything like biblical health, but God is the God of the impossible.
Which means that pastoral ministry is the art of the impossible. Which means that many pastors could afford to stretch and strengthen their imaginations. But how?
IMAGINATION TRAINING FOR PASTORS
In this piece I’ll offer a few suggestions for stretching and strengthening pastors’ imaginations. They won’t apply to all pastors equally, but I hope these will be broadly useful.
There’s more to say about pastoring and the imagination than I’ll say here. For instance, Cornelius Plantinga’s book Reading for Preaching makes a good case for how literature can enrich a pastor’s view of life and language. I’m more focused here on expanding a pastor’s ecclesial imagination—his intuitive sense of what is and isn’t possible in the church. Without further delay:
1. Read the Bible.
Yes, pastor, I know you’re the one saying this to your people all the time, but you need to hear it too. And remember that the God you meet in Scripture is the God who rules your life and your church.
What kinds of things does this God do? He speaks the universe into existence with a word. He causes an ancient, barren woman to conceive. He squeezes his people between the sea and slaughter and then splits open the deep. He sends thirty thousand soldiers home so he can win a battle with three hundred.
Over and over again God backs his people up against the impossible to show that he alone can save, and he will. He alone can win our battles, and he will. He alone can raise the dead, and he will. As Paul learned by painful experience, God does this by design, to teach us to rely not on ourselves but on God’s death-defeating power (2 Cor. 1:8–10).
Let the Bible draw for you the massive, mighty shape of what God can accomplish by his Word and Spirit. Let Scripture train in you the reflex, “I can’t, but he can.” Let Scripture condition your imagination to respond to human impossibility with, “Let’s see what God can do.”
Pray whenever you come up against something you want to make happen but can’t. Pray for the hard-hearted husband to repent of denigrating his wife. Pray for the stubborn seeker who has no reason left not to believe but still won’t. Pray that loyalty to God’s Word would uproot and displace loyalty to unbiblical traditions.
When you can’t do anything, the one thing you can do is pray. And the more you pray, the more you’ll remember that God is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think.
3. Make friends with other pastors.
My prayer is that more and more pastors would open themselves up to the possibility that God’s Word dictates a way of doing church that bursts the bounds set by our current culture of consumerist authenticity. So if you can, make friends with pastors from other cultures. Christians in other cultures operate under their own social givens, but those givens will differ enough from yours to show you that another way of life than the American dream is possible. More importantly, they show you that another way of doing church is possible.
Second, make friends with pastors whose strengths complement yours. If you’re a red-blooded ecclesiology hound who’s deeply committed to getting church right, be sure to befriend the missional pastor across town who’s equipping his people to share the gospel and serve the community in bold, daring ways. If you’re deeply burdened that Christians recapture a radical passion for Christ, befriend the sixty-year-old pastor who’s kept the flame burning thirty years longer than you.
C. S. Lewis once wrote, “Every real friendship is a sort of secession, even a rebellion….In each knot of Friends there is a sectional ‘public opinion’ which fortifies its members against the public opinion of the community in general. Each therefore is a pocket of potential resistance.”
So forge friendships that will resist the foolish constraints of unbelief. Make friends who will help your thinking take full account of the immeasurable greatness of God’s power. Make friends who will push you and prod you into obeying God’s Word wherever it leads.
4. Hop into history.
I can think of few better ways to fuel pastoral imagination than reading church history. Read biographies of extraordinary ministers like Lloyd-Jones and Whitefield. Read forensic accounts of how evangelicalism got to be the way it is, like Iain Murray’s Revival and Revivalism and Evangelicalism Divided.
Read historical ecclesiology, too, to discover how Christians in other times and places did church. Superb primary sources include Polity and Iain Murray’s The Reformation of the Church. These two are a steep hike but worth the sweat. Or let a skilled historian take you inside the lives of churches in another era, like Greg Wills in Democratic Religion or Geoffrey Nuttall in Visible Saints.
Ask what Christians used to know that we’ve forgotten. Ask not just what they did but why, and how they argued their views from Scripture. Let dead pastors and churches disciple you, just like living ones have.
I’ve often heard Mark Dever respond to the charge “But who actually agrees with you!?” by saying something like, “I know I’m in the majority—if you count everyone who’s come before.” Just as with living friendships, making friends with dead Christians can show you that you’re not crazy for breaking off from the pack. So let the history of God’s dealings with his church remind you that the present moment does not have a monopoly on the possible.
And that’s just the point: no one has a monopoly on the possible except God, the one for whom nothing is impossible.
This might sound strange coming from a 9Marks guy, but I suspect one of the least-diagnosed pastoral blind spots is a lack of imagination.
I don’t mean that pastors need to cram their sermons full of creative stories or coax a bold vision for their church out of the murky depths of their subconscious. Instead, I mean that it’s all too easy to limit what we think is right to what we think is possible. Often, if a pastor can’t see how he can lead his people somewhere right now, he may not be inclined to consider whether God in fact points him there in his Word.
Say you’re pastoring a church that has had a 9:00am “traditional” service and an 11:00am “contemporary” service ever since worship wars rocked the church back in the mid-80s, twenty-five years before you became the pastor. The demographic division this perpetuated has bothered you, but not enough to prompt you to whack at that particular hornet’s nest. You’ve had plenty of other hives to upset.
Now, though, you’re eating breakfast with a church-planter friend named Tim who’s all hyped up about congregationalism. He’s going on and on about how the Greek word for church, ekklesia, means assembly, and you can’t have an assembly that doesn’t actually assemble. So if you have multiple assemblies, you actually have multiple churches. And according to Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5, Jesus has given authority over the church to the church as a whole—the entire assembly. So those who exercise discipline over one another should be those, and only those, who regularly assemble as one body.
That’s why, unlike many church planters who build multiple services and sites into the ground floor of their planting strategy, Tim is committed to keeping his church assembling as one. To do anything else, on his understanding, would be to depart from Scripture’s normative pattern.
“Hey,” Tim pivots, “have you ever thought about combining your church’s two services into one?”
What’s your initial, inward reaction to Tim’s question? I suspect for many pastors it would be, “Yeah, I have, but it’s just not possible.” We’ll probe that response in a moment.
What I’m even more interested in is this: what do you do with the set of biblical arguments Tim’s just given you?
I don’t know what you personally would do, of course, and I’m not presuming to tell you. But I suspect that many pastors—faithful, gospel-loving, Bible-treasuring pastors—would simply ignore them.
It’s not that you open the door, enter the room, spend a few days there, and conclude that the arguments don’t add up to a biblical imperative. Instead, you simply leave the door shut. What’s the point of opening the door if it’s just going to open a whole can of worms with it?
Let’s stick with the multiple services issue for a second, though my point here isn’t the particular issue but the principle, the posture. When you think about trying to combine the 9:00am service with the 11:00am service, all you see is a train wreck. There’s no way your people will go for it.
And who knows—you may be right. But here’s where you may not be right: the fact that such a change would cause a train wreck now does not mean it would always only ever cause a train wreck.
I suspect that some pastors shrink back from even considering arguments that would lead them to alter their church’s basic structures and practices because they can’t see their way through to a happy ending. They may think—or even feel in their gut—that if they embrace the premise, the only conclusion is splitting the church or getting fired.
But of course, “no change” and “instant train wreck” are not your only options. Pastors know better than most that in the Christian life and in the church all growth is imperfect and incremental. If you become convinced that your church should meet as one gathered body, who knows whether the Lord will enable you to lead your church there? Perhaps your role will be to preach on unity, teach on biblical ecclesiology, exhort your members to consider others’ musical preferences more important than their own, and so on, for twenty or thirty years without making a single structural change. Perhaps the entire fruit of your ministry in this particular area will be that the next pastor can lead the church to make a biblical decision once you’re gone.
So take the long view. Don’t ask how much healthier things might get in the next three years; ask how much healthier things might get before your funeral.
And who’s to say change is impossible? Unlike those early disciples in Ephesus (Acts 19:2), I trust you’ve heard of the Holy Spirit. You can’t change hearts and minds, but he can.
Pastoring, like politics, is the art of the possible. You can only lead people where they’ll follow you. But pastoring is also, and more fundamentally, the art of the impossible. Raising the spiritually dead. Rescuing people from the dominion of sin. Forging unity out of division and love out of enmity. You can’t do any of this, and yet it’s what you rightly preach and pray for every week.
So apply the same imaginative confidence to church reform that you do to evangelism. Don’t effectively tell God that it’s impossible for his people to keep his Word in this or that area. That’s what the new covenant is for—enabling God’s people keep his Word from the heart.
There are other spiritual issues wrapped up with the pastoral pitfall I’m trying to put my finger on here: trust in the power of God’s Word and the effectual working of his Spirit vs. confidence in the flesh; courage vs. fear of man; sensitive concern for what the sheep can handle shading into self-preserving don’t-rock-the-boat-ism. But I think imagination and its absence deserve a place on this list too.
Imagination draws the line between what one can and can’t conceive of. So we could say that an increasingly biblical imagination involves faith expanding your view of the possible. Biblical imagination means making space for God to surprise you. It means letting God’s Word name problems you didn’t know you had and provide solutions you didn’t know you needed.
God isn’t asking you to teleport to the end-goal of a healthy church. Health is his to give, not yours to achieve. Instead, he’s asking you to put one foot in front of the other.
So will you let God’s Word lead you in a new direction even when you can’t see through to the destination? Will you step into the Jordan before you see the waters start piling up? Will you set out, maybe knowing where you’re going, but having no idea how or when you’ll get there?
Will you pastor by faith, not by sight?
Bobby Jamieson is assistant editor for 9Marks, a member of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and the author of Sound Doctrine: How a Church Grows in the Love and Holiness of God (Crossway, 2013). You can follow him on Twitter.
How do we know when evangelism is happening? Well, the answer depends on how we define evangelism. Defining evangelism in a biblical way helps us align our evangelistic practice with the Scriptures. If we don’t have biblical evangelism nailed down, we may not be doing evangelism.
For example, a housewife meeting with a friend over coffee may be evangelizing, while a brilliant Christian apologist speaking to thousands in a church sanctuary may not be. Few see it that way, but that’s because we have false understandings of what evangelism is. Defending the faith is a fine thing to do, but it is easy to give apologetics for Christianity without explaining the gospel—and we cannot evangelize without the gospel.
Here’s a definition that has served me well for many years:
Evangelism is teaching the gospel with the aim to persuade.
Sort of dinky, huh? I bet most people would expect much more from such an important theological word. But this definition, small as it is, offers a far better balance in which to weigh our evangelistic practice than looking at how many people have responded to an appeal.
Here is how amplify my definition: Evangelism is teaching (heralding, proclaiming, preaching) the gospel (the message from God that leads us to salvation) with the aim (hope, desire, goal) to persuade (convince, convert).
Notice that the definition does not require an immediate outward response. Walking an aisle, raising a hand, or even praying a prayer may tell us that evangelism has happened, but such actions are not what evangelism is. Notice, too, that if any of the four components are missing, we are probably doing something other than evangelism.
There is much sickness in the church worldwide because of churches calling something evangelism when it is not. So, teach clearly what the gospel is and what is required of a person to turn to Christ.”
Have as an aim to persuade, but to persuade without manipulation. Don’t exclude what is hard about the Christian life, however tempting that may be; don’t confuse human response for a move of the Spirit; and especially don’t lie about results. Be wary of calling people Christians without some evidence that they are truly converted followers.
Recognize the temptation to sacrifice biblical principles for results and “success.” As I look around, I see much practice of unbiblical evangelism. The gospel often remains untaught, and unbiblical words water down the poignant true meaning of sin, death, and hell, or confuse those who are genuinely seeking truth.
Promises of health and wealth deceive the most vulnerable: the poor, disadvantaged, and sick. And many churches offer a costless, comfortable, and benefit-giving “gospel” that is found nowhere in the Scriptures. In fact, the gospel is subverted with what Paul calls “different gospels,” which are not gospels at all (Gal. 1:6–7). By catering to the desires of people, churches communicate that their focus is on non-Christians, not on the glory of God displayed by his people worshiping him.
So often the church service becomes an avenue for entertainment rather than worship. Jesus was engaging, but he never entertained; there is a huge difference, one that just might be lost on the modern church. The high-pressure sales job of yesteryear has been replaced by the soft sell of self-help.
These kinds of things are the result of worldly temptations that undermine biblical evangelism.
But there is an answer to such temptations. It’s no different today than it was in Paul’s day. The solution is to fix biblically principled, gospel-centered evangelism in our minds and hearts. It is to learn how to teach the gospel with integrity and to keep the big-picture aim of true conversion in view.
So in the next post, let’s carefully “amplify” the four parts of my definition: “teaching,” “gospel,” “aim,” and “persuade.”
Note: This post is an excerpt from Mack Stiles' book Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus.
“What does your church do for middle and high school students?” A pastor friend recently asked this question.
I have no special expertise with youth, and I tend to think there is some measure of programmatic flexibility. Do you host a weekly event? Who is it for? What do you do? Special projects or trips? I will leave that for you to sort out.
But here are a few biblical principles that we should heed no matter what, and my sense is the many youth groups don’t heed them.
1) Whatever you do, maintain a clear line between church and world.
Jesus, Paul, Peter, and the rest are adamant that we draw clear lines between the church and the world, whether a person is 14 or 84 (e.g. Matthew 18:15-20; 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1; 1 Peter 2:9-12). Very un-modern! But as God was deeply concerned with who was identified with his name in the Old Testament, so Jesus is concerned about who is publicly identified with his name in the New (e.g. Ezek. 36:20-27, 36; Matt. 18:20; 28:19; cf. 1 Cor. 5:4).
The temptation of youth ministry, if I might coin a word, is to sloppify this line. You know, you got a mix of church kids and unchurched kids. Some claim to be Christians; some don’t. But who can say, really, right?
Well, that’s just the point, which is why some churches prefer not to baptize adolescents, a course of action you might consider. Whether or not you agree with this stance, make sure that your words, programs, and methods help youth to understand that "There is the church and there is the world. Period." You love your teenagers best by helping them to understand that the most important decision they will ever make is deciding which side of the line to stand on. Who are you with?
As such, don’t treat the youth ministry as a separate wing of the church where the normal rules, expectations, and identities of church membership don’t apply. Instead…
2) If you do baptize adolescents, treat them like adults.
Again, I’m not recommending that you baptize adolescents. I’m not sure you should. But if you do—and I know many of you do—you must treat them like adult Christians. They have been baptized into the family name (Matt. 28:19). Therefore they are responsible, together with the whole church, for the family name (Matt. 18:20; 1 Cor. 5:4-5). They are a part of the body, and therefore must be drawn into caring for the body (1 Cor. 12:21-26; cf. 2 Cor. 2:6).
They should have a vote in members’ meetings. They should be subject to the church’s discipline if they get caught up in the party scene at high school and begin living in unrepentant sin. They should be required to attend the main meeting of the church, and asked to pray for the church. They should be asked to reconcile any broken relationships before taking the Lord’s Supper. They need to come under elder oversight. And so forth.
After all, to insist on the full adult responsibility of membership is to insist on the basic responsibilities of being a Christian. Jesus means for all his sheep to care for the family name, to watch over one another, to build one another up in love, to be peacemakers. You don’t want to teach the youth otherwise by practicing otherwise.
Baptizing an adolescent into church membership means giving the church a kind of authority over the youth’s profession of faith that the parent does not possess. Church leaders, no doubt, should always involve the parents in ministering to him or her. But in the final analysis the parent must defer to the church when it comes to their baptized child’s inclusion or exclusion from the church. The church possesses the authority of the keys, not the parent (Matt. 16:18-19).
Should all this make you slow down before baptizing? Yes!
3) Baptized or not, integrate them into the chronologically rich life of the church.
Western business and media spends gazillions of dollars each year marketing to youth and training them to be consumers: “Hey kids, you can get what you want on your terms right away.” As such, today’s youth don’t show up at church expecting to live in an adult world, like they would have done 100 years ago. They expect to hang out with a bunch of people who are just like them--their peers.
I’d encourage you to be very cautious about playing to these instincts in your youth programming since consumerism works against the maturity of selflessness. But whatever you do, realize that making genuine disciples works best by drawing youth into the chronologically rich life of the church. Again, they need to see the whole body at work to know what Christianity really represents. They need to see the older discipling the younger, and the younger learning from the older (e.g. 1 Tim. 5:1; Titus 2:2-6; 1 Peter 5:5).
The way of Christianity is the way of unity between old and young saints in the body, and if you want our youth to take this way, show them the road.
4) Equip parents to minister to their youth.
The Bible commands parents, not youth pastors, to train up their children in the way they should go (eg. Eph. 4:11; 6:4). I’m not saying we should get rid of youth pastors. I’m saying, youth pastors, make sure your work and programming doesn’t give Christian parents an excuse to disobey the Bible, but instead facilitates the work of parents in obeying the Bible.
5) Take advantage of the evangelistic opportunity of this season.
As a church elder, I read every single membership application and therefore every testimony of people joining our church. (How joy-giving that is for my soul!) What’s striking is how many people came to faith in junior high or high school, both from Christian and non-Christian homes. This is an opportune season to share the gospel with people.
What does this look like programmatically? I don’t know. But do something!
6) Whatever you do programmatically on points 1 to 5, don’t let your manmade plans interfere with these biblical objectives. Facilitate them.
Make sure the structures or groups you have in place don't work against your young people’s involvement in the life of the congregation, or blur the line between church and world. You want them being discipled by older members, not just peers.
I’m not sure how all this works out programmatically (have I said that yet?), but my sense is that there might be some room for clean whiteboard brainstorming here. Why do you think so many parents watch their “Christian” youth go off to college and then abandon the faith? My guess is that, in many circumstances, there were two failures: a failure of discipleship, and a failure to exercise wisdom in the structural matters of baptism, membership, and discipline.
So how do you both carefully draw the line between church and world with your churched youth and help them to be evangelistic? Let’s hear some proposals!
If I’d heard the advice only once, I might have forgotten it. By the fourth hearing, though, I got it.
I was about to become pastor of a historic church that had fallen on hard times. I figured I should plot a course of change for working through as quickly as possible. But when I consulted with four pastors from quite different traditions, each independently told me the same thing:
“Don’t change anything for five years.”
If you’re getting ready to enter a pastorate, you might have your list of changes ready. Good changes, no doubt. Changes that would contribute to the health and mission of this beloved church of Christ.
YOU MIGHT NOT REALIZE WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW
Can I encourage you to tuck that list away for a while? You might not realize what you do not know.
1. You don’t know who’s there.
Maybe you visited the church a half-dozen times, and have some impressions of where the members are spiritually. But you don’t know them. So take time to know the members. This was my first-year goal.
Try to arrive early and stay late for worship. Enjoy meals with different people. Have people in your home. Do what you can to learn this body of Christ.
2. You don’t know what’s there.
The website and bylaws do not tell the whole story. How do meetings function? Who makes decisions? Which ministries are important to which people? Where are the evidences of God’s grace? You’ve got to take time to learn the church.
Spend time with leaders, both elected and assumed. Attend meetings eager to listen and learn, then discuss the meetings with congregants you trust. Ask them to identify weaknesses in your present system; you might be surprised by their responses.
3. You don’t know where they’ve been.
It’s easy to write off what happened before us because, well, we weren’t there. That is foolish. We must take time to respect the past. This will be harder if the church has strayed from the faith. But at one time it probably was orthodox. So dig into your church’s history. Quote former pastors. Listen eagerly to longtime members recounting their history with the church. When you are away, invite previous pulpit suppliers to preach, at least once. Strive for as much continuity as possible, even if you’re facing a major rebuild.
4. You don’t know where you are.
I genuinely believed my original plan of action came straight from the Bible, but in fact it was a faithful application of Scripture for one church in one place at one time. But that place and time is not my church’s place and time, but another’s. So take time to understand context, not only the culture inside the church (as discussed above) but also the community where the church exists.
To this end it is useful to read locally. Find out what periodicals people read. Go to your bookstore and pick up works by local authors. This is a great way to learn your community's values, fears, and idols.
5. You don't know what you’re changing.
Just because you aim to keep everything the same doesn’t mean you are. Your pastoral presence has more effect than you realize, and not just with your sermons. In the hospital, at the graveside, in counseling, with the hurting—everywhere your work has profound consequences, changing more than you realize. So take time to answer questions and listen.
Your ministry philosophy may be new to this flock. Give people space to ask you what you do and why. You may think nothing is happening, but God might just be changing the culture of the church right before your eyes.
6. You don’t know where you’re going.
Your general direction may be clear (e.g., meaningful membership), but the specific application is not (e.g., the wording of a church covenant). Rather than mimic what another church does, take time to study the Scriptures together.
Preach on biblical texts that inform particular decisions. Ask them to identify such passages, too. Then talk about the Scriptures together. If you impose your will by pastoral fiat, the change is only as strong as your personality—in other words, not very. But if the congregation amends itself based on an increased understanding of the Word, the change will outlast you.
7. You don’t know what your idols are.
We pastors are quick to attach our identity to the apparent success or failure of ministry. Our idolatry is manifest when we don’t take a day off, can’t find time to exercise, or treat our congregants as more important than our children. Pastoral ministry is deeply sanctifying, so take time to repent.
Name the idols of your heart: pleasure, affirmation, power, glory. Read devotionally and listen to preaching that makes you a better Christian, not just a better communicator. Find pastors who expose your idols and direct you to Christ. You lead best when you humble yourself before the Lord, acknowledge the sins of your heart, and find hope in the gospel of Christ.
8. You don’t know what God will do.
Some days may seem bleak. You look around and don’t see enough people, resources, or energy to accomplish what you think has to happen. But take heart: the church isn’t yours, and the Head hasn’t abdicated. Mounting challenges and shrinking resources are divine indicators that you need to take time to pray. Who knows what God will do for this flock?
Our church still faces a litany of issues, any one of which could sink our congregation’s efforts at renewal. We have a ways to go, and I haven’t been entirely successful in holding off changes for five years. But that golden advice has slowed me down long enough to show me what I don’t know, and to enjoy what the Spirit is doing in this body of Christ for the glory of God.
And that’s been worth the wait.
Matthew Hoskinson is the pastor of the First Baptist Church in the City of New York and director of member care and mobilization for Frontline Missions. Like Jim Gaffigan, he lives in Manhattan with his wife and five children.
So I just want to be clear from the starting block: anyone involved with the worship ministry of a church should read this book. Those interested in good biblical theology should read this book. Pretty much everyone reading this review should read this book. Let me show you why.
Peterson proposes to test the following hypothesis against the data of Scripture: “[The] worship of the living and true God is essentially an engagement with him on the terms that he proposes and in the way that he alone makes possible” (20, emphasis his).
He begins his test by surveying the Old Testament to determine its overall view of worship. The key to understanding its view, he says, is that “the God of heaven and earth has taken the initiative in making himself known.” And this action on God’s part is progressive. It was given “first to the patriarchs of Israel and then, through the events of the exodus from Egypt and the encounter on Mount Sinai, to the nation as a whole” (48). The symbols of the ark, the tabernacle, and then the temple entailed a whole system of worship that acknowledged God’s initiative to make himself known.
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Editor’s Note: We asked a handful of pastors around the world the following question: “You are familiar with American churches. Yet you pastor in a non-American context. What has your present experience taught you about how to be biblically faithful yet cultural sensitive when it comes to selecting the songs that your church sings?” Their responses are below.
When it comes to selecting songs for church, one doesn’t need to choose between being biblically faithful and being culturally sensitive. Instead, the latter helps the former. With “biblically faithful” I am looking for songs that are true and clear. With “culturally sensitive” I am looking for songs that are singable and engaging for the congregation.
Biblical faithfulness takes priority, but we don’t have to choose between them. We are always choosing a musical language, whether consciously or intuitively. If part of the aim of singing is communication, should we not aim to choose a musical language that fits the cultural milieu of our church? We are naïve if we think cultural sensitivity is irrelevant, and we will be irrelevant if our songs are untrue or unclear.
During a recent sabbatical that my family and I enjoyed in America we had opportunity to visit several churches across the country. I appreciated that the churches we visited were thoughtful about song choice; not only were lyrics true but the music served to prepare people for and respond to the sermon.
Poor lyrics confuse and mislead people, and poorly considered musical style can build communication barriers. I am not sufficiently adept with American culture to know how successful each church was in communicating songs with the appropriate musical language, but my impression was that some churches clearly thought about this issue, others less so.
What I most appreciated was that even when the musical style seemed to be dictated by long-term tradition or hindered by a lack of skilled musicians, all the congregations we visited sang with conviction and joy, and we rejoiced with them. I may personally prefer to sing “And Can It Be” to indie-rock accompaniment, but when I heard a thousand voices singing the same hymn to a traditional piano accompaniment I was encouraged and wanted to sing. God’s people singing God’s truth trumps the limitations of our musicians and the foibles of church tradition.
Murray Campbell is the lead pastor of Mentone Baptist Church in Melbourne, Australia.
I will always be a lover of the great English hymns. It’s a Christian legacy worth remembering here in South Africa. But in our many years here we have also enjoyed the rich heritage of biblically sound and singable African hymns and songs. Many African believers today, familiar only with the shallow contemporary Charismatic and prosperity gospel songs, are not even aware of their own Christian heritage of older hymns in Zulu and other native languages. Helping them rediscover these beloved and meaty songs can make an African congregation come alive in a way that Watts or Wesley may not.
I must also add that when Bob Kauflin was here last year, the African folks also loved his music and came alive. His leading is so encouraging and contagious (and expressive, like Africans), and his songs are so biblical and singable, that his music had a unifying effect in this very divided, post-apartheid country. The more communal African culture here also understands better how we can “sing to one another,” as Scripture says, ministering to one another in how we sing.
In training African pastors in various contexts, we urge them to find the most Scripture-saturated, God-centered, gospel-driven, edifying, and singable songs they can find, both old and new, and let them loose! In any culture, God’s people need songs that will teach them to live and to die for Christ.
Tim Cantrell is the senior pastor of Antioch Bible Church in Johannesberg, South Africa.
I confess that I struggle with this one. Our congregation consists of people from sixty nationalities. So whose culture and musical forms do we choose? I’m convinced that the most important element of our songs is not the musical accompaniment, but the words being sung. So we sing the best songs that I'm aware of—written by people like Isaac Watts, William Cowper, Charles Wesley, Bob Kauflin, and Keith Getty. As for the musical accompaniment, we typically use the common arrangements, with some amount of acapella. If we can add a musical instrument that is more reflective of our demographic—say, a Pakistani tabla drum—then we try to incorporate it.
In all of our music, our goal is to enhance the congregational singing, not suppress it. We also aim for congregational participation, as opposed to an entertainment focus. By God’s grace, our congregation is singing better than ever. However, I am still not satisfied with the musical accompaniment we use (I feel it’s still too Western) and I’m looking for more indigenous forms of music (Arab, African, Indian) to go along with the solid lyrics we are singing.
John Folmar is the senior pastor of United Christian Church of Dubai.
Germans love U.S. music. This is reflected in many of our churches. It is not unusual that the majority of the songs during a Sunday church service will be in English, pretty much all being “contemporary worship music.”
The problem is that while most Germans do speak some English, some don’t, and many don’t understand everything. This means that we often claim to worship God without even knowing what we are singing to him.
In order to facilitate true worship in song, we are trying to encourage the writing of new, biblically faithful German songs, the translation of solid English songs (a good number of Getty and Townend and Sovereign Grace songs have recently been translated), and the re-introduction of some old German hymns, sometimes set to a contemporary tune.
Germany has a rich treasury of wonderful hymns written by Martin Luther, Paul Gerhardt, and others, many of which have been translated into English. The one great challenge is to teach Germans to pay attention to the words. Sadly, some American contemporary worship songs have led many Christians away from true worship, and our churches have adopted these songs without even realizing this. So the greatest challenge is not the difference in culture, but gleaning the good from the U.S. while rejecting the bad, and then translating it into the heart language of our people.
Matthias Lohmann is the pastor of Freie Evangelische Gemeinde München-Mitte in Munich, Germany.
I pastor a multicultural church with people from the Asia-Pacific, the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas in Sydney. The songs we sing are a mix of old and new, reminding us of God’s redemptive work throughout history. And they also hail from as many different cultures as possible, reminding us of the global reach of the gospel.
As Australia is a cultural melting pot, an ideal scenario would be for us to sing a breadth of songs reflecting the nation’s cultural diversity. However, it’s hard to escape the dominant historical connection Australia has to the UK and American Christian culture. Therefore, many songs we sing originate from these countries. (The CCLI top 100 Christian songs from the UK, USA, and Australia are very similar). It’s also difficult to source songs from other cultures as they may have not had the same rich heritage as the UK or USA in songwriting.
Nevertheless, we deliberately select as much from Australian composers as we can to remind the congregation of God’s saving work in our own country. We also encourage those in our own congregation with gifts in musical composition to help express universal truths about God in a culturally relevant way.
Michael Prodigalidad is the pastor of Stanmore Baptist Church in Sydney, Australia.
The repertoire of theologically solid, contextually relevant songs in Hindi is very small. Most songs that have good theology have been translated from older Western hymns or contemporary worship songs. So although the words might be faithful, the music is not indigenous and the local people find them difficult to sing. Also, such songs only confirm people’s suspicion that Christianity is a Western religion.
On the other hand, Hindi songs that are musically contextualized are often light on theology, repetitive, and devoid of Scripture. Sometimes songs pick up tunes that are currently used in the temples; many new believers find these tunes very unhelpful. In our church we try to avoid both these kinds of songs.
Therefore the first thing that I look at when choosing songs is its doctrinal soundness. If a song is theologically unsound, then we won’t sing it, however contextualized it might be. And if the words are good but the tune is not Indian then we will not sing it either.
So we choose songs with Indian tunes and faithful words. Granted, there are not many songs that fall in this category. But we are slowly building our repertoire.
Harshit Singh is the pastor of Zion Church in Lucknow, India.