Mailbag #1—Lent, Mid-life Pastor, Elder Agenda
Do you guys practice Lent? Why or why not? What about the Christian calendar generally?
– Jeff, California
At Capitol Hill Baptist Church, where I serve as an elder, we don’t practice Lent. But the main reason has less to do with the particularities about Lent than it does a general aversion to following the Christian calendar, whether that’s the traditional Christian calendar (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, etc.) or contemporary versions of it (Missions Sunday, Sanctity of Life Sunday, Justice Sunday, Mothers’ Day, etc.).
We are in the realm of wisdom here, not biblical principle. So there is freedom, to be sure.
But we downplay the calendar as a discipleship imperative. The Christian life is a daily activity—a long obedience in the same direction, as it’s often remarked. Therefore we want to promote daily and weekly discipleship, not a boom-or-bust spirituality. Usually by Monday morning around 9:32 a.m., our members know they need Sunday again—and good thing Sunday is only six days away! We therefore emphasize the weekly, not the annual.
Here’s another reason: in our overnight-delivery, adrenaline-addicted, movie-theater-tears era, I think we’re all particularly susceptible to go searching for the mountaintop experience with the Lord. And the danger of these moments is that they can convince us we have made real progress in the faith when we haven’t. Real progress is a change of heart, which leads to new habits and quotidian consistencies in the hands and feet through the tick-tick-tick of hours, days, months, and years.
In other words, we don’t want Christians who know how to be generous just at Christmas or live self-sacrificially just at Lent, but who practice generosity and self-sacrifice as a daily normal. We’re trying to cultivate a new culture, not sponsor exciting events.
To be sure, Old Testament Jews celebrated three annual festivals, together with the weekly Sabbath. However, you don’t find anything like this established in the New Testament church. In fact, the annual Passover gives way to the (weekly?) Lord’s Supper. And in general, Acts and the Epistles emphasize the weekly gathering.
What’s more, the first Christians decided to gather on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2) instead of on the Sabbath. They called it the Lord’s Day (Rev. 1:10) because Jesus got up from the dead on that day. Every Sunday, in other words, is Easter Sunday! We need the reminder of Jesus’ death and resurrection weekly, not annually.
Now, bear in mind, our church will acknowledge that it’s Christmas or Easter in the course of our gathering around those dates—probably in a sermon introduction or in the welcome and announcements. We put up decorations, and try to use the season for evangelistic purposes. And there will be a seasonal hymn or two on the Sundays surrounding those two events, like “O Come Emmanuel” or “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” They’re beautiful and meaningful hymns! And, okay, it’s never a bad time to specifically acknowledge mothers. So why not do it in your pastoral prayer on Mothers’ Day?—to say nothing of the frustration you’ll cause if you don’t! But at the end of the day, these are all pastorally-gauged decisions.
What we don’t do is structure our preaching schedule around them, or use such calendar events to change anything about the discipleship activities of the church. This is a judgment call on our part, and there might be benefits we are missing by not paying closer attention to the annual calendar. My only challenge for high churchers who love the calendar or low churchers who love the special events is to ask, how are you doing at cultivating a culture of daily discipleship? And what can you do to get your members’ discipleship off the wide-eyed highs and depressing-lows of roller coaster spirituality and onto the faithful merry-go-round of daily and weekly commitment?
Do you have any advice for those called to preach/pastor later in life? I myself am mid-thirties with a decade in computers, and I’m wondering about the transition from a standard vocation with a non-theological degree, with family in tow, to more full-time ministry.
– Andrew, Kansas
Thanks for the good question. I’ve had the privilege of knowing a number of brothers who left their careers midway-through in order to enter vocational ministry. I myself was a journalist when I felt called into vocational ministry, though I did not yet have a family. Let me offer four quick thoughts:
1) Assess your “call” through the church. When I told my pastor that I wanted to quit my job at a magazine and go to seminary so that I could do what he did, he said, “Jonathan, the call to ministry is internal and external. The internal call is your desires. But the external call is a church’s willingness to affirm your character and gifting. So let’s get you more involved in our church, and we’ll tell you what we think.” What wise counsel! I spent another year or so getting more involved in the church: teaching Sunday School, leading a small group, becoming a deacon of member care, and so forth. And through all of that, my desires were tested, and the church got the opportunity to test me—my character and gifting.
Fast forward to seminary: I met a number of guys who “felt called,” by which they meant they loved talking about Christian stuff and hanging out with Christians. But they had never been affirmed by a church in any meaningful sense. And one wondered why they were in seminary because they seemed to lack either the gifting or the character.
Bottom line: submit that subjective sense of call to older and wiser men and the church as a whole. After all, you could be wrong! Invite people who know you to speak honestly into your life, and if you don’t have anyone like that in your life, that’s not a good sign.
Consider what you’re doing by entering vocational ministry: you’re asking for the saints to support your life with their income, or at least part of your income. You’re presuming that when old and sweet widow Mrs. Jones places her two copper coins into the offering plate, those coins should go to support your ministry. It’s a presumptuous claim, in a way. That’s why we shouldn’t rely entirely on an internal, subjective sense of calling. We should also rely on the wisdom of our local church and its leaders.
2) Study the Word. Brother, I don’t care if you’re 20 or 50, or if you hope to preach or work as a church administrator. You need to be a man committed to diligently studying God’s Word. I think of John, who was a lawyer for a U. S. Senator, or another brother named John, who worked in the Coast Guard, when they felt compelled to make the career change and enter vocational ministry. Both of these brothers stand out in my mind as committed to studying God’s Word. They spent the first several years after conversion giving themselves over to the study of the Word. Oh, brother, if you are going to lead God’s sheep, study the Word!
3) This study may or may not involve seminary. Both Johns went to seminary. But I can think of several other brothers, like Shai or Jamie or Andy, who made this same career switch, but did not go to seminary. They simply were avid students of the Bible. And all of them can teach well.
4) Recognize that your season of life limits options. To put it bluntly, the size of your family and bank account will limit what kind of opportunities you have for such a transition. Generally speaking, the older you are and the bigger your family, the harder it is to go to seminary, and that’s absolutely fine. The Bible hardly requires seminary. Also, debt can prevent you from going onto the mission field. That said, I’ve known brothers who had several children, but who had enough money to stop working for a few years and go to seminary. There is no “right” path in that sense. The only right path is making sure you do right by way of your wife and children. If you cannot pastor this little church, said Luther, forget pastoring the big church.
Keep in mind, brother, that you can pastor without going into vocational ministry. I know brothers who stayed in their “secular” jobs, but who turned down promotions, or who went to less demanding jobs, so that they could serve more fully as lay-elders at church. Their day-jobs allowed them to support their families, and should be ministry platforms in their own right.
I pray this is helpful.
We are clear what to with people who are unrepentant that are members of the church, but what do you do with unrepentant family members that call themselves Christians?
I have a brother, who is living with his girlfriend. He has been for years and I have talked to him numerous times and he simply has not had ears to hear. So, I am praying for him and begging God to give him a new heart. But in the meantime, he is calling himself a Christian, he is not a member of a church, and he is continually living with his girlfriend.
So, my question is, does 1 Cor. 5:11 refer only to the local church, or would this apply to all Christians who have any friends or family that call themselves Christians, yet live in unrepentant sin?
I’d appreciate any insight you might have on this. Thank you.
– John, D. C.
Thanks so much for the question. A few things:
1) You are obligated before God to love and engage with him as a blood brother. This is your common covenant obligation. And common covenant obligations are not abrogated by the obligations of church membership and new covenant realities. So, the wives of excommunicated husbands should still honor their husbands as husbands, and children of excommunicated parents should still honor their parents as parents. That being said . . .
2) You should take care not to interact with him in any way that makes him think that you think he is a member of God’s new covenant people. I would say this is your new covenant obligation. He’s not a member of your church, but if he were, you would, no doubt, have to push slowly toward excommunication should he not repent. In that sense, you will probably want to interact with him in a way that’s analogous, i.e. taking care not to treat him as if you think he is a Christian. For instance, you’re not going to ask him to pray over lunch.
In short, love him as a blood brother, but don’t treat him as a Christian brother.
As for warning him explicitly, I assume you’ve been faithful to do that directly at least once. Whether and to what extent you warn him again and again, I think, is a matter of wisdom. You might; you might not, depending on (i) how much capital you have; (ii) whether or not you think it will harden his heart even more; (iii) the presence of any providentially-arranged circumstances that may give you an “opening,” i.e. the ability for you to speak and the realistic expectation that he might be able to listen.
I pray this is helpful.
We are in the process of shifting to an elder-led church. At your elders’ meetings, do you take minutes and then read them at the next meeting? Do you take motions and vote? Do you have a financial report? We plan on praying for the church and seeking to give spiritual care and oversight to the members. Any recommendations you would have would be most appreciated.
– Dave, Georgia
A bunch of questions! My answers are determined in part by how people in our city are accustomed to conducting business, by the size of our church, as well as by our number of elders. Being in Washington, DC with about two dozen elders tasked with shepherding nearly 1000 people, our meetings require some measure of efficiency in order to get through all our business. But I’ve also been part of an elder board in a smaller church with only a few elders, where they were not accustomed to the same level of business formality we often employ in Washington. There, our meetings looked nothing like what I describe below. In other words, don’t assume that our church’s answers to your questions apply to your church wholesale.
That said, let me tell you what we do: With every elders’ meeting, the chairman of the elders distributes an “elders’ packet” four days before the meeting. The packet includes an itinerary, minutes from the previous meeting, any memos for us to discuss, member applications, and the names of everyone in the section of the church directory that we’re going to pray through. Having this packet allows us (lay-elders especially) to pray through each item beforehand, as well as discuss privately impending decisions with whoever drafted a given memo. Then in the meeting, yes, a pastoral assistant takes minutes, except during the “executive session.” During the executive session, all our guests leave (interns and pastoral assistants) so that we can discuss the most sensitive business, and one of the elder takes minutes during that time.
Whenever we have a major decision to make, there’s usually a memo. That way, nobody springs a big decision on the elders last minute and makes us decide something quickly without prayer and time to think. Some memos are simply informational, but if an elder wants us to do something, he concludes the memo with a motion. When we get to that portion of the meeting, the chairman points to the memo, tells us that it comes as a motion, and then asks for a second. If someone seconds it, we then discuss it and eventually vote on it. Majority vote carries the day on every decision save the nomination of new elders, for which we require unanimity. We don’t require unanimity on other votes because (i) it would be too hard to get stuff done with a couple dozen guys, and (ii) we expect elders to submit to one another just like we expect the congregation to submit to elders.
We don’t see a financial report in the elders meeting. Instead, the whole church sees a financial report in our members’ meeting six times a year. There’s more I could say, but I think that answers your questions.