More Lessons from the Garden

June 6th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Let me expand on my last post just a little bit. Last time out I shared ten lessons I’ve learned in my garden about the Christian life. Today I’d like to pivot slightly and share a few more lessons from the garden, but this time about ministry specifically. Here are five that come to my mind regularly.


  1. If you want to dig deep, dig wide. I’ve been planting a lot of shrubs lately, and I’ve learned an important trick. In order to get the hole deep enough for shrub’s root system, I need to make sure I dig a wide hole. I’ll never get as deep as I’d like unless I dig wide first. What does this mean for ministry? Well, I think it well-nigh impossible to go truly deep in the faith unless you are sharing the gospel widely. We often want to separate our maturity from our ministry, but the two are connected. If you’re not sharing the gospel regularly and using your gifts to serve in the body, you’ll find your growth stunted. To grow deep, you need to reach wide. This holds especially true for congregational life as a whole. Churches that focus inward exclusively (digging deep) will never get as deep as they like because God matures us through our carrying out his commission (digging wide). (Of course, the opposite is true in ministry [although not in gardening!] too: if you want to have a wide reach, you need to make sure you are going deep in your relationship with Jesus.)
  2. If you want continual blooms, keep deadheading! I mentioned this lesson in the last post, but referred it to one’s personal spiritual life only: I need to make sure I am constantly pruning whatever distracts me from my growth, even if it is good. But I think this lesson is even more important for local church ministry. Churches are famous for admiring spent blooms—programs, activities, ministries that blossomed beautifully in past generations. However, as with flowers, so with church life: if you’re not willing to remove the spent blooms—eliminate unnecessary and now ineffective ministries—you’ll soon have a withered, wilted church. Get rid of what is past its prime so that a new bloom can take its place. The next generation needs us to reach them in the here and now, not to tell stories of the way the garden might’ve looked a summer or two ago!
  3. The organic life matters most. There are lots of inanimate structures in a garden that help the garden grow as it should, such as trellises. These are often very important for the health of the garden when growing clematis or cucumbers or the like. However, as Colin Marshall and Tony Payne pointed out in The Trellis and the Vine, the trouble comes when we get enamored with the inanimate to the detriment of the organic. If you have a spectacular trellis, a gorgeous sculpture or two maybe, but nothing growing, you’re unlikely to make the cover of Better Homes and Gardens. It’s the same in the church. There are many important support structures (such as programs), but nothing matters more than the organic life of the church in Christ. If the support structures begin to inhibit the life of the vine, or if they become the focus instead of the vine, the church will soon lose its vitality.
  4. It takes a lot of work to keep a garden healthy and growing. Because gardens are organic—living, changing, growing, dying—they require constant care. If you want it to be easy, plant artificial turf instead. Pastoral ministry is no different. Paul compares ministry to gardening (see 1 Corinthians 3:5-9), and even mentions a small list of the many tasks required to keep it going, like planting and watering. A church—not the building, mind you (although that takes some TLC too!), but the people—requires constant care too. One never reaches the end of the task because the church is dynamic and ever-changing. A pastor’s work is never done. People who don’t like gardening shouldn’t plant large gardens because they require so much time and effort; in the same way, people who don’t like pouring out their lives in the service of others surely shouldn’t pursue pastoral ministry.
  5. You won’t always get to enjoy the fruit of your labor. Not too long ago I spent an entire summer working on my garden, and I had just about gotten everything where I wanted it. I was particularly excited to see a section of perennials fill in over the years, and to begin harvesting the raspberries I’d planted. But I never got to do either because we moved a short while later to start a new and wonderful ministry adventure. Not getting to see the garden grow was a poignant reminder to me that I had planted the gospel in the lives of different people at my previous church, but didn’t necessarily get to see it take root or blossom. So it will always be. People will move, or we will move. Change will happen. I can still labor faithfully knowing the bloom is far more important than my enjoyment of it. (And I console myself by trusting the family that moved into our old house is enjoying the garden in my place!)


I’m sure there are many more lessons to learn about life and ministry in the garden. What are some others you have learned?

Combating Consumerism in Worship

May 23rd, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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For my last post in this short series on worship, I’d like to comment on consumerism’s insidious influence on our worship preferences and practices. That we even need to speak of consumerism in worship represents a deep and shameful irony (and one in which I am sure Satan relishes). After all, what could be more antithetical to worship—which is meant to be wholly Other-centered, the active denial of self in the exaltation of Another—than insisting on our own way? How can self put forth its own interests in such an ugly manner at such a beautiful time? Yet, as we all know, it happens. And it happens not in the pew behind me, but in the dark recesses of my own heart.


I want my worship experience to be as I prefer.


I want it to be all about me, even as I sing that it’s all about him.


How can we mortify this sinful tendency in our hearts and lives? Looking up, fixing our attention on Jesus, will certainly help. Worthy of our worship is the Lamb who was slain, which (if I’ve read the accounts of Jesus in Gethsemane correctly) was not his preference. He died to his self-will for our sakes, and we in response take up our own crosses—crucify our self-will—for his sake.


But let me suggest that another helpful remedy is looking around at the Bride of Jesus: his beloved, blood-bought Church. When we look around at the local congregation of believers, we may not see people from every tribe or nation or tongue, but we will still see marvelous diversity—people from different genders and ages and ethnicities. God has gathered us together, and our Christ-centered, gospel-wrought unity is far greater than anything that could possibly divide.


Here are three ways looking around at the gathered church will help you mortify your consumerism in worship:


  1. It will remind you of the root issue. The heart of the problem, as others have said before me, is the problem of the heart. I am the issue. And looking around at others deeply engaged in authentic worship of a glorious God will remind me of that painful truth. I have often heard people say ridiculous things like, “I just couldn’t worship today.” The comment is inevitably aimed as a jab at the worship leader for failing to create an appropriately worshipful atmosphere. (Make no mistake, by the way: there are things worship leaders can do that inhibit worship, and we need to be mindful of them.) What always surprised me, though, was the number of people surrounding the disgruntled congregant who could worship that day. The glory of God had not departed the church because the song selection was so theologically offensive or anything like that. It was a matter of unfulfilled personal preference. And yes, sin will inhibit your worship, so no wonder you couldn’t worship that day. However, seeing others worship God at a moment when you feel worship is impossible will point out the root issue, which lies within you. Confession, repentance, and re-entry into worship should follow easily enough.
  2. It will encourage an appreciation for diversity. Heaven will be wondrously diverse, and many of our local congregations display at least a modicum of that diversity. With a group as diverse as what you’ll find in a typical church, you can expect very different musical preferences. Some will value tradition, while others will appreciate newness. Some will worship demonstratively (e.g., hands raised, clapping), while others will prefer an inward posture. Some will like rock, some country, some classical, some bluegrass, and on and on. People will have different musical abilities, especially when it comes to their singing range. Now, I would guess worship leaders hear more about key choices than song selection, but the truth is there is no good key for everyone in a congregation. Men and women, for example, sing in very different ranges, so it will be well-nigh impossible for a song to be comfortable for men and women to sing simultaneously (unless it has a shockingly limited range). Looking around at others who seem to be singing with gusto a song that you don’t really like and can’t sing particularly well will remind you that you are not the only member of the congregation. You will then have an opportunity to appreciate and embrace the diversity within your gathered church. (Parents and children will often like different music, of course, and I can only think how gratifying it would be to see your children abandoned in worship—even if you don’t care for the tune!) In fact, if your church is reasonably diverse and you have strong musical opinions, you should expect (and even hope) to like only a portion of the songs each week. And that will be a good thing—for the diverse congregation surrounding you, and for you, as you embrace that diversity for the Lord’s and their sakes.
  3. It will help you love others. This is really just the next step in the same direction. Once you appreciate the diversity of your church (and their musical preferences), and assuming you’ve crucified your self-will, you will now have the opportunity to love the rest of your church. In humble service, you can sing songs that just aren’t your favorite because you see how they are ministering to others and allowing them to experience real intimacy with their Father. In self-crucifying love, you can consider their needs as greater than your own and defer to their preferences. Let me take a practical example. Suppose the song selection that morning contains a few songs on the muted, reflective side of the spectrum. Perhaps one even contains strong expressions of lament. Now, everything is peachy keen in your life, and you’d prefer the happy-clappy (I mean no disrespect for the genre, truly) types instead. As you grow in love, you can be grateful that those who are hurting, depressed, broken that morning have words to express the deep emotion within them—even though it doesn’t resonate with you right then. It is truly an opportunity to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15), a tangible expression of our love for one another.


We put consumerism to death in our hearts because it is sin, and all sin separates us from our good and gracious God, in whom all delight and pleasure is found. But we put consumerism to death because it separates us from our brothers and sisters in Christ too. We look up. We look around. And we sing with undignified passion (2 Samuel 6:22) because he is worthy, and they are family.


What other tips would you suggest for combating consumerism in worship?

On Vetting Hymns

May 16th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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As I continue in this short series on worship, spurred in large part by two excellent posts by Tim Challies, I’d like to interact with one particular comment he made in “What We Lost When We Lost the Hymnal.” Challies helpfully points out that, when we lost the hymnal, we lost an established body of songs. Hymnals were updated only every decade or so, which means songs were chosen carefully and introduced slowly. He writes that “songs were vetted carefully and added to its repertoire only after careful consideration. After all, great songs are not written every day and their worth is proven only over time.”


Now, I have no wish to argue the point. I do think one of the great challenges facing contemporary music is balancing “newness” (Psalm 40:3?) and familiarity. We’ve seen a renewed emphasis on congregational singing, which I applaud, and the congregation doesn’t sing—and certainly doesn’t sing with gusto—when they don’t know the song. In addition, when churches introduce new songs quickly, they often shortcut the vetting process (especially if the pastors/elders are uninvolved in song selection), which has resulted in some truly awful songs entering into much wider circulation. In other words, Challies’ point is well taken.


However, I think it is important for us to note that even many of the great hymns of old have questionable moments in them. While often much richer theologically than their contemporary counterparts, the theology isn’t always spot on. I imagine there are a variety of reasons for this, which might include later scholarly developments, historical movements and traditions that weren’t as theologically robust (we seem to imagine ours is the first period in history when the average songwriter didn’t have Luther’s depth of theological knowledge), or even just simple imprecision (possibly owing to the same emotionalism that can steer lyricists awry today). I’m sure there are other reasons, but let me at least given an example of each of these.


  1. Later Scholarly Developments: I’ll give two examples here, actually, in part just because I don’t want to pick on Wesley’s wonderful hymn “And Can It Be” too much. In one stanza, Wesley writes that Jesus “emptied himself of all but love / And bled for Adam’s helpless race.” The troubling bit is the first half, which seems to affirm a kenotic Christology (a heresy). Kenotic derives from the Greek word kenoô, used of Christ in Philippians 2:7, and which means “to empty.” However, it is also used in a metaphorical sense—“to make of no effect; to make nothing”—which is its more common usage in the New Testament. To argue that Christ “emptied himself” of the attributes of divinity has no basis in the text, and is more than a little theologically dodgy.[1] Some hymnals have emended the text to read, “emptied himself and came in love,” which suggests the metaphorical reading. A much better choice, I think. The other example comes from Featherston’s “My Jesus, I Love Thee.” In the final stanza, we read, “In mansions of glory and endless delight, I’ll ever adore Thee in heaven so bright.” The trouble here is that “mansions” follows the KJV, which follows the Latin Vulgate, which doesn’t really translate the Greek of John 14:2 well. The word used signifies “dwelling place,” and given that we’re talking about the Father’s house, it’s hard to see how the house could have many mansions. Probably better to translate “rooms,” as many English versions now do. Not a huge theological crisis, for sure, but one likes to have an accurate picture of Glory. In both cases one doesn’t really fault the writer, because these were mistakes common to their era, and fortunately addressed by later scholarly research.


  1. Theologically Suspect Traditions: Many of the revivalist hymns struggle theologically, which makes sense, considering how much the revivalists struggled theologically (I’m looking at you, Charles Finney). So, for example, the beloved and simply wonderful “How Great Thou Art.” In the English translation, the final stanza declares, “When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation, / And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.” The trouble here is that when Christ comes, he is coming to establish his forever kingdom here on earth. This is the glorious moment when heaven and earth at last become one in the New Jerusalem. So, if that’s what he’s coming to do, how precisely is he going to “take me home”? If I’m around for that (and I don’t expect to be), I’ll already be home, although my home would be blessedly remade. The lyrics, as they stand, seem to imply that we’ll be taken home to an otherworldly heaven, which doesn’t jive with the teaching of Scripture. N.T. Wright suggests a better wording: “When Christ shall come. . . / And heal this world, what joy shall fill my heart.”[2] Our view of eternity—specifically, God’s remaking the world we currently inhabit—certainly shapes our present, and so it would be good to sing accurately about it. (I should add, the original Swedish lyrics do not fall into this error, so translational issues are at work here too!)


  1. Simple Imprecision: Here one would simply quibble with a bit of phrasing. For example, consider Wesley’s “And Can It Be” again, specifically the chorus: “Amazing love! How can it be / That thou, my God, shouldst die for me?” I don’t think anyone would hesitate to sing these words, because the intent of the line is understood easily enough. But one could easily imagine a young believer (or even skeptic) singing along, wondering how precisely the immortal God can die. Strictly speaking, Scripture never speaks of God dying, but only of God in Christ[3] A subtle imprecision, but imprecision nonetheless.


Now, what do we do about this? I would be the last to recommend we abandon these great songs of old (although there are many revivalist hymns that I would gladly abandon because of their insipid sentimentality). In some cases, a simple emendation might do. In other cases, sing away—but hope that the teaching from the pulpit is clear and compelling, so that truth and precision displace beloved lyrics that have taken deep root in our minds. And, above all, continue to vet songs carefully, especially the new ones. But keep in mind, a song with a moment of imprecision might still be worth singing—even centuries later!—if the substance and pathos of the bulk outweigh the slight misstep.


[1] See Peter O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991): 216-223.

[2] Surprised by Hope (New York: HarperOne, 2008): 22.

[3] See John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1996): 153ff. for a fuller discussion.

Psalms, Hymns, and Songs from the Spirit

May 2nd, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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As I mentioned in my last post, I’d like to offer a series of short reflections on worship, spurred in part by two interesting posts by Tim Challies (1 2). I don’t intend this to be a polemical series, but do want to offer some thoughts on the ongoing “worship wars.” Thankfully these have stilled for the most part, but I’m not always sure why the ceasefire. In many cases, I don’t think it has come from a sustained theological reflection, but rather simple exhaustion and a (wholly appropriate) desire for unity. But theological reflection is a good thing, so that’s some of what I’m aiming for today, as I zero in on one of the benefits Challies sees in switching from a hymnal to projected lyrics: variety.


Now, I love hymns, and believe strongly that we should be singing them regularly. I even argued in my last post that these are the songs I am absolutely sure I want my children to learn by heart, whereas my current favorite Crowder tune will only make it into the car CD player for a few weeks or so. However, there is a danger with our beloved hymns, that we will mistake style for value. What makes the great hymns great is their robust theology, deep pathos, and (in most cases, but not all) enchanting melody. Those are essential qualities. But if we’re not careful, we might begin to assume that some incidental qualities—instrumentation, presence of rhyme, song structure—belong in the essential category as well. We can see this tendency in our phrase “modern hymnody,” which seems to be applied to songs that employ rhyming and follow a set structure (no bridge being the key piece here, as far as I can tell). I’m not sure why this sets apart a song as a hymn, when other songs (that don’t rhyme, have bridges, etc.) have equally robust theology, deep pathos, and enchanting melody.


And here’s where variety comes in. When we make the incidental essential, we limit the acceptable variety among our songs. Only those that bear the incidental marks pass through the gates. Paul encourages us to speak to one another in “psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:19). Much scholarly ink has been spilled over the precise meaning of each term (though “psalms” seems pretty obvious). Whatever the difference between “hymns” (which in Greek simply means “song of praise”) and “songs” (assuming, as many scholars do, that “from the Spirit” modifies all three terms), what is clear is the presence of variety. There is something different about the three, whatever it may be. When we begin to limit variety, especially for incidental reasons, we neglect Paul’s instruction here. Our God is a God of endless creativity—as his wondrous creation proves—and we honor him when we put that same creative spirit on display in our worship.


Of course, it is just possible that “variety” should encompass songs of varied theological depth. (Gasp! Heresy!) Give me just one moment before you hurl the stones. I’m taking my cue here from the presence of that tiny word “psalms” in Ephesians 5:19. I know of no one who would seriously argue that we shouldn’t use Psalms in our worship, and many would argue (rightly, I think) that we should use Psalms as our blueprint for worship. If you’ve read Psalms, you know how wondrously diverse they are. Some are richly theological, and others are, well, a bit sentimental. Some trace redemptive history carefully (foreshadowing the cross time and again), and others focus on a single moment or issue. Is it possible that our worship today should do likewise? Isn’t there time for repetition (as in Psalm 136)—so that we can really meditate on a single profound idea, like God’s steadfast love—just as surely as there is time for rapid theological reflection (as in Psalm 107)? Isn’t there time for raw emotion (as in Psalm 126), just as surely as there is time for heady instruction (as in Psalm 78)? And, of course, the Psalms invite us not just to praise and thank, but also to confess and lament, which in itself will add much-needed variety to our Sunday mornings.


As we “sing and make music from [our] heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:20), let’s do so with a body of songs as richly diverse as the human experience and as wondrously creative as the Being they exalt, to the glory of our triune God, who is worthy of all praise. Soli Deo gloria.

One by One for Everyone

January 20th, 2015 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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I have noticed a curious phenomenon in many contemporary discipleship practices. Discipleship quite rightly involves both the individual and the community, but in business-mans-1074755-mcurrent practice we frequently flip the proper place of each. Let me explain.


In the New Testament, we see that discipleship has a communal telos and an individual methodology, by and large. The ultimate aim is not a loose collection of mature individuals, but rather a mature community. So, for example, Paul reminds the church in Ephesus,


In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (2:21-22, emphasis added)


And a bit later in the same letter, he teaches,


So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (4:11-13, emphasis added)


In both cases, the ultimate aim is corporate maturity, as the analogies make clear. Paul does not envision a loose collection of holy bricks, but rather a holy temple (composed, undoubtedly, of holy bricks) in which God dwells by his Spirit. Likewise, he sees the purpose of leaders equipping members for works of service as producing not just holy cells or holy body parts, but a holy body, with Christ himself as the Head. The apostle Peter makes a similar point, and even draws on a similar analogy, when he writes,


As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him—you [plural in the Greek] also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:4-5)


It seems clear that God’s vision for the church is one of corporate maturity, in which the entire assembly grows in holiness together for the sake of his Name. The communal telos is clear. What about the individual methodology? (A quick aside: By individual, I don’t necessarily mean one-on-one, but life-on-life, which will almost certainly include small, intensely relational discipleship groups.)


We see this most obviously in the ministry of Jesus himself. While Jesus certainly preached to the crowds, the focus of his ministry—and the greatest expenditure of his time and energy—was on the disciples. In Mark’s stunning phrase, “He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach” (3:14). Jesus called men to himself in order that they might simply spend time with him—life-on-life discipleship—knowing that through this experience they would be equipped to continue the apostolic ministry.


Paul conveys a similar approach, though he only hints at it. In reminding the Thessalonians of his ministry there, he says,


For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory. (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12)


The key phrase for our purposes is “each of you,” which strongly suggests an individual, life-on-life methodology. Again, this is not to say that Paul never preached to the crowds; Acts records many such occasions. However, it seems that the bulk of his ministry—during the “work week,” we might say—took place in his leather-working shop, as individuals or small groups of people would come in to receive training, instruction, and encouragement. We also see Paul’s individual dedication to young men like Timothy and Titus as further evidence of this approach.


So it seems that the New Testament envisions a communal telos achieved primarily through an individual methodology.


I fear that in much of our contemporary practice, however, we flip the two: that is, we have an individual telos achieved through a communal methodology.


Western society is overwhelmingly, and self-evidently individualistic, so it is easy to see how we could unwittingly adopt our culture’s values. Generally speaking, we are concerned about our personal growth in holiness. Pastors routinely ask, “How are you doing in this area?” not “How are we doing in this area?” Rarely does one hear of corporate application in a message. We see this trend especially reflected in our lack of commitment to the local church, and our willingness to switch churches upon the slightest provocation. One of the commonest reasons given for leaving a church and joining another is a desire to “get fed.” In leaving for this reason, however, the church-hopper belies an individual focus, and—quite frankly—an unwillingness to strive for corporate growth.[1] Ephesians 4:16 doesn’t come into play.


We all have a tendency to selfishness (cf. 2 Timothy 3:1), so this phenomenon is unsurprising, even if we need to challenge it more actively in our own lives and in our communities. However, our communal methodology has no such extenuating circumstances. I suspect it is driven by our peculiarly American pragmatism, and our business mindset—streamlining and efficiency—more than any systemic spiritual dearth. Whatever the case, many churches adopt a community-wide, assembly-line approach to discipleship. Rather than a life-on-life approach, we provide a uniform curriculum and depersonalized programs or classes. The large-group setting and impersonal material provides little impetus for true growth, even at the individual level. At its worst, those who complete the class get their certificate of individual achievement and proceed on their merry way, without any thought of how their growth should multiply as they serve within the community.


The New Testament provides a wealth of information and instruction regarding discipleship in the local church, and many have returned to the fount for guidance in this area. I thank God for the revival of life-on-life discipleship happening across our country—and really, across the globe. I hope and pray that many more will choose the hard, slow way of relational disciple-making—the Master’s way—as they strive to become a community growing in maturity to the glory of God.

[1] I realize, of course, that some people leave because they have striven for corporate change, but have discovered that the leadership of the church is stifling it.

The Ministry Revolution

November 25th, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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8399885739_b54424da81_z“Violent, sudden, and calamitous revolutions are the ones that accomplish the least. While they may succeed at radially reordering societies, they usually cannot transform cultures. They may excel at destroying the past, but they are generally impotent to create a future. The revolutions that genuinely alter human reality at the deepest levels—the only real revolutions, that is to say—are those that first convert mind and wills, that reshape the imagination and reorient desire, that overthrow tyrannies within the soul.”


So writes David Bentley Hart in his witty, provocative, and insightful Atheist Delusions.[1] He then points to Christianity as the most striking example of a “real” revolution, slowly but thoroughly overturning the old Western world order, permeating the whole of Roman pagan culture like yeast through dough. So thoroughly did the Christian vision shape the minds, hearts, and wills of its converts, that not even so zealous a pagan reformer as Julian the Apostate could stop the inexorable tide—and indeed, his understanding of the old pagan religion was itself subtly and overwhelmingly Christianized. That is a true revolution.


Today many of us continue to seek revolutions of various sorts. Many would love to see a cultural revolution undue the destructive influence of modernity’s unshakable narcissism, to redefine freedom within a resolutely biblical ethics, for example. Those who seek this—and I certainly number myself in that group—would do well to reflect on Hart’s insight: our revolution will not come about because of a Supreme Court decision or something equally sudden and legally cataclysmic. Democratic government reflects and adopts cultural trends; only rarely does it determine them. Instead, we need to seek a genuine revolution that converts minds, wills, and hearts through the patient proclamation of the gospel in redemptive relationships, transformative discipleship, and a winsomely prophetic voice through the pulpit and the paintbrush.


But my aim today is not to address a culture-wide revolution; rather, I would like to consider the practical implications of Hart’s historical insight on today’s church. How should we pursue a ministry revolution within a local gathering of believers?


Many churches today stand in dire need of renewal. Research indicates that as little as 5% of evangelical churches are experiencing conversion growth. Some 80-85% are in decline, while the remaining 10-15% are increasing numerically through transfer growth alone. There are too few fruitful churches left for us to celebrate and defend the status quo. Revolution is in order.


Unfortunately, evangelical churches incline towards slow adaptation. There is a legitimate conservationist tendency built into the historic faith: we are to guard the good deposit, to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to us (2 Timothy 1:14; Jude 3), which means we will forever cling to an unchanging theological foundation. There is also, however, an illegitimate expression of the same tendency, wherein we reckon our ministry practices to have been once for all entrusted to us at the same time we were given the theological foundation. Such is manifestly not the case: our preaching, our music (whether traditional or contemporary), our buildings, etc., would all appear completely foreign to the early church. They have changed because the culture has changed, and we need to communicate an unchanging message to a changing audience. This is all as it should be. The trouble comes when we decide they have changed enough, and then zealously defend a tradition that should be discarded as an old wine skin.


Granting the need for change, we now need to return to our initial question: How do we bring about that change? How should we pursue a ministry revolution within a local gathering of believers?


A wise leader or group of leaders—or even a wise congregant eager to exert godly influence on the leaders God has placed over the church—will pursue slow change through the conversion of minds, hearts, and wills. Structures, titles, logos, and programs may need to change—probably need to change, in fact—but we deceive ourselves if we think these will bring about a true revolution. They will simply paint a revolutionary veneer on an otherwise unchanged and intransigent edifice. Frankly, most of us have seen this happen—we have heard the name changes (are they small groups or life groups or fight clubs?), had the latest faddish program inflicted on us, and sorted through a bewildering array of org charts—and yet still haven’t seen a true ministry revolution. We need a different approach.


So, rather than decree change from the top down, let us stoke revolution from the bottom up. Let us convert minds through patient, dialogical teaching—including instruction in the difference between unchanging theological foundations and contextualized ministry practices; let us convert hearts through sustained prayer for gospel renewal and faithful application of the Word of God within the community of believers; and let us convert wills through redemptive relationships, slowly and lovingly cultivated in joyful fulfillment of the Great Commission.


Vive la revolution!

[1] Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009): 183.

Imitation Maturity

October 14th, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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I always enjoyed walking the streets of Bogotá because of the remarkable variety of goods available for sale by innumerable street vendors. In fact, my wife and I began keeping a list of things we saw being sold, because we were so surprised by the spectrum. From toys to housewares, from food to technology, we could purchase just about anything we wanted without getting out of our car.


There was a small danger though: we were never quite sure if we were getting the genuine article. We might purchase something hurriedly at a stoplight, only to discover when we got home that the Nike “swoosh” was going in the wrong direction, or that the new purse was a DKNV special. (Apparently Donna has a base in Nevada in addition to her better known New York line.)apple-iphone-knockoff


One may face a similar danger in the church, unfortunately. The church seeks, by the grace of God and in the power of the Spirit, to produce disciples. The genuine article bears his trademark: increasing Christ-likeness. Genuine disciples display equipped maturity, to draw on the language of Ephesians 4:11-16. They demonstrate growth in both spiritual character and spiritual abilities. In them one discerns the fruit of the Spirit in increasing measure—spiritual character; in them one also witnesses the gifts of the Spirit effectively stewarded for the sake of the kingdom—spiritual abilities. The two elements are inseparable. As one develops the ability to read Scripture rightly, one’s heart softens increasingly to the claims of Christ on our lives, leading to growth in humility and faithfulness, for example. Or as one learns to deny self and love others sacrificially, one learns simultaneously to serve in the local congregation.


However, owing to the triple threats of the world, the flesh, and the devil, local churches may begin peddling imitation wares—may settle for a version of maturity that falls far short of God’s standard. I suspect this stems from our love of systems and processes, of efficiency and convenience, though I am confident the enemy has had his part in it. Attaining to any form of maturity is hard; cultivating a disciple-making culture that pervades a local congregation, and still maintaining oversight of that culture, is a whole other beast. But that doesn’t mean we settle for an imitation article; rather, we fall on our knees in humble, dependent prayer, trusting that the Lord will provide, will supply our need.


I am sure this is far from exhaustive, but here are four imitation brands sometimes sold in place of equipped maturity. Each one contains a genuine element about it—otherwise it wouldn’t deceive unsuspecting buyers!—but none fully encompasses true discipleship.


  1. Law

In place of equipped maturity, some will substitute mere law. Jesus did not suffer the agony of the cross so that we would keep a list of dos and don’ts. He endured God’s wrath so that we could enter back into full fellowship with the triune God—adopted to sonship through Christ—and then live in the light of that vital relationship. Training people what is kosher and what is forbidden is moralism or legalism, not discipleship (and certainly not the gospel!). This happens in many “fundamentalist” churches, of course, where legalism replaces gospel, and socially acceptable behavior—“don’t drink, smoke, gamble, or go with girls who do”—replaces discipleship. This also happens in many “seeker-sensitive” churches, however, with the moralism of Oprah and Joel Osteen substituted for gospel-centered discipleship.


  1. Activity

In place of equipped maturity, some will substitute mere activity. The end goal in this scheme is to have people actively participating in the local congregation: serving in a ministry, fellowshipping in a small group, and giving cheerfully and sacrificially to support the church’s ministry. These are all good aims, of course, provided they are not regarded as the final aim. One could serve, fellowship, and give actively, and yet not even know Jesus truly. These are all aspects of equipped maturity undoubtedly, but if taken as markers of discipleship themselves, they are liable to deceive. What if someone gives to ease a guilty conscience or to win God’s favor? What if the small group is a glorified social gathering? What if the service offered is the same as coaching your child’s soccer team?


  1. Information

In place of equipped maturity, some will substitute mere information. Churches that emphasize the life of the mind, usually for historic, denominational reasons, are particularly susceptible to this imitation product. The sermon becomes mere data transfer; small groups are only Bible studies; devotions center on knowing more about God, his Word, and theology. Now, anyone who reads my blog knows how much I value the life of the mind; nevertheless, information is not the same as equipped maturity. There are many scholars living in active, cheerful rebellion against God who have much more information than I will ever have. If information is not sought in service of transformation, as in Romans 12:1, then it is inimical to growth in grace—knowledge puffing up, where love would do the better work of building up.


  1. Leadership

In place of equipped maturity, some will substitute mere leadership. If leadership is defined carefully, it may mean equipped maturity, in which case it should be the genuine article. This is not always the case, unfortunately. What makes a leader? Sometimes churches will elevate someone to leadership because they are willing to do the job, which is really just an extension of replacing discipleship with activity. Often we select leaders because they have the requisite abilities, while paying but cursory attention to their character. I suspect one reason why “leadership development” and discipleship are so rarely synonymous is because discipleship places a great deal more emphasis on following, not leading. Leadership is an unexpected, unsought, reluctantly accepted consequence of learning to follow. To make it the center of the target will likely turn that truth on its head, with leaders begrudgingly learning to follow instead.


Jesus Christ gave us a clear commission, to make disciples. We would do well to examine the sort of disciples we are making, lest we discover—too late!—that we have been producing but a pale imitation of Christ’s glorious desire for us all.

Talent without End

September 22nd, 2014 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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In winning the World Cup this year for the first time in 24 years, and a major trophy for the first time in 18, the German Football Association (DFB) reaped the harvest of a seed planted at the turn of the millennium. You see, in 2000, when an aging squad whimpered out of the European tournament in the first round, the Germans made a decision: no longer would they rely on the mercurial presence of a “golden generation.”


I need to pause here and explain some things to my largely American readership.[1] A golden generation refers to a serendipitous convergence of unthinkable talent according to birth year. Because professional athletes have such a small window of peak performance—especially when the biggest tournament happens only once every four years—it is not unusual to find yourself wishing you could assemble a team from several different generations in order to plump out some thin positions.


(In fact, that’s precisely what Germany did in 2000, relying on members of a previous generation—the 39-year-old Lothar Matthaus, for example—because there were no younger players making the cut at that time. The experiment failed.)


However, every once in a grand while, all eleven starters—plus a bit of squad depth—are truly world class, and for a tournament or two we hail the golden generation. Spain just enjoyed almost unparalleled dominance in Europe across two European finals and a World Cup owing to their golden generation. They then relied on them at this World Cup despite the age and decline, and it didn’t go so well. So Germany in 2000, which brings us back to my point.


Instead of hoping for the emergence of another golden generation, the Germans opted to try a new strategy: “talent without end.”[2] The premise is simple: by putting strict standards of youth development in place throughout the country, the DFB would soon have a seemingly unlimited pool of talent from which to draw for tournaments in perpetuity. No more crossing of fingers before making a squad selection; instead, with all the efficiency and industry for which they are famous, the Germans would produce what they needed. They took matters into their own hands, and when Schürrle and Götze combined in extra time to win the World Cup, they reaped what they had sown.


Disciple-Making Deutschland-Style

We reach an odd moment now. Those who have been enjoying my first post on soccer will find themselves dismayed to see that I’m turning to the church, as I’m wont to do; those, contrarily, who hoped for another article on disciple-making (which this is) will probably not have made it this far. Inevitably, then, I’ve left everyone disappointed. Apologies all around. I’ll do better next time.


So what does the DFB have to do with disciple-making? The answer, I believe, lies in the notion of talent without end.


The average church today does not concern itself much with leadership development. Few churches have a clear picture of what a mature, equipped disciple is, and fewer still have developed a clear strategy for producing a steady stream of them. We are not, by and large, Great Commission churches.


Instead, we have relied on our own version of the golden generation. If we get a volunteer to lead part of the children’s ministry, for example, we lean heavily on her, with little or no thought to what will happen should she move on or burn out. The enduring success of the ministry depends entirely on her continued presence.


Far better to have a plan in place for to develop and train a series of potential replacements! At worst, should she continue in ministry, we will have equipped a group of men and women who are now mature leaders, able to serve in a variety of roles according to gifting and personality. As it stands now, when a vacancy arises unexpectedly, we tend to have to fill it with whatever warm body is available, and training takes place on the job, to the detriment of the ministry. Christian maturity sometimes doesn’t even factor into the decision, because it is a luxury we can’t afford.


Unfortunately, when it comes to vocational ministry, a similar pattern emerges. In churches large enough to support more than one full-time pastor, the senior pastor rarely focuses on training and developing his associates with an eye to possible succession. Ideally, because it takes so much time and energy to understand the values and appreciate the uniqueness of any given church, a good number of succession candidates would be in-house.[3]


To ensure I keep no one happy with my analogies, let me switch to baseball to explain. Churches today—especially those which are large and affluent—have adopted the same front-office philosophy as the Yankees: buy the very best talent available when you need it. Thus, when a pastor departs, we hire a search firm or post on a ministry job site in order to find the best on the market (within our price range), and then bring him in and slot him straight into the starting lineup. This approach will win you pennants, obviously, but there’s a reason so many people hate the Yankees: it doesn’t seem fair. And in the church especially this feels a bit too much like the marketplace, too little like Christ’s patient approach with his emerging leaders.


Much better, I would aver, to build the best possible farm system. Your church should be filled with prospects, and you should have the very best coaches working to develop them in the lower leagues. In fact, those coaches will probably have a greater impact on the enduring fruitfulness of the ministry than any star you sign in a blockbuster deal. As much as it pains me to say it—and the pain is real and physical—this has been the commendable approach of the St. Louis Cardinals, who have won more than their fair share of pennants as well. (Mind you, they have their reward in full, whereas we Cubs fans will enjoy ours in eternity.) Really, I can think of few analogies that better capture the heart of a church-wide disciple-making ministry than the farm system. That’s the idea in a nutshell.[4]


Our purpose as a church is to make disciples, to help those around us move from unbelief to equipped maturity. The equipped and mature then serve as disciple-makers themselves, reaching the lost and equipping the save, and the ministry multiplies to the glory of God. We short-circuit this process when we depend on a golden generation of volunteers or staff. As churches, we need to reclaim Christ’s original emphasis, to adopt (and redeem!) the ethos of the DFB, in order to accomplish our purpose: an unbroken stream of mature and equipped Christ-followers, serving in his kingdom for his glory. Talent without end.


Some Questions to Consider Going Forward

  1. How do you define “mature and equipped disciple”? What character qualities will this person have? What skills will they have developed?
  2. How does your church move people from unbelief to complete maturity? Given that programs are almost wholly unsuccessful in accomplishing this, how will you create and sustain a culture of relational disciple-making at your church?
  3. If you are actively serving in ministry—especially if you are in leadership of any sort—whom are you equipping to take your place?
  4. If you are a pastor or staff member, who will succeed you in ministry? How are you equipping them to take your place? Does the church have a tentative succession plan in place that all understand and agree to?


[1] I realize I shouldn’t use “large” and “readership” in the same sentence, but forgive me just this once.

[2] Astute footballing fans will see that my dear old England have employed a similar strategy, that of “talent without beginning.” Hence the many tournaments won since 1966.

[3] I realize the New Testament provides a lot of support for the notion of “itinerant” ministry, that is, vocational pastors moving from one church to the next. This is not an either-or argument; it’s a call for a genuine both-and approach, when functionally it seems we have often opted only for the itinerant approach.

[4] Second basemen goes down injured? No worries: we’ve got a bunch of guys producing in the minors. Small group leader steps down unexpectedly? No big deal: we’ve got plenty of depth at that position.

Why I Preach Expository Sermons

June 3rd, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Sermon PreparationAttend a few different churches in your area in rapid succession, and you will undoubtedly discern some striking differences. Some sing hymns with organ accompaniment, others choruses with a rock band; some follow a traditional liturgy, others follow the modern liturgy of sing-sermon-sing again.


At some point someone will stand up to preach a sermon. That’s a widespread similarity. But once he starts talking, we face a whole new slew of differences. Is the series based on a passage from Scripture or a topic from life? Does he proceed methodically through the text or does he use the passage as a launching pad for reflection? Do his points follow the structure of the text or does he reorganize the passage to fit his points?


In a nutshell, where does he land on the spectrum from topical to expository sermons?


What Is Expository Preaching?

For the sake of simplicity, let’s define expository preaching as preaching that is not only based on but driven by the passage at hand. Once a pastor selects his passage—whether in an expository or topical series—he works diligently to determine the structure and thrust of the passage in its original contexts (historical, literary, generic) and then contextualizes that message for his modern audience. He does not know what he will say on the subject—again, whether in an expository or topical series—until he first completes his exegesis of the passage. Once he preaches, he follows not only the emphasis of the passage, but the structure as well, trusting that God inspired the message and the medium.


How Do I Know If It’s Expository?

Determining if a pastor is preaching an expository sermon is not difficult. It doesn’t take technical training or special insight. A few key questions will usually suffice.


  1. Does the pastor read the whole passage (either all at once or in chunks) instead of merely alluding to key points along the way?
  2. Do his points follow the structure of the passage (e.g., verses 1-7 for point one, verses 8-12 for point two, and verses 13-19 for point three) without omitting or reorganizing any verses?
  3. Does he proceed methodically through the passage, commenting thought by thought (clause by clause, verse by verse, or paragraph by paragraph, depending on the scope of the passage) rather than drawing implications from the whole only or with indirect reference to the thought-flow of the passage?
  4. Does his sermon closely resemble not only the message of the passage but also its tone and approach? That is, does he warn from warning passages and encourage from encouraging passages rather than remaking the message according to his determination?
  5. In some ways, the easiest question to answer is simply: After listening to the sermon, do I feel like I could explain the original sense of the passage to someone else easily and clearly?


I’m sure there are other indicators, and I’m sure someone could answer those questions in the affirmative and still be guilty of rank eisegesis[1]. But overall those are good gauges.


Why I Preach Expository Sermons

Of course, determining what sort of sermon you’re preaching/hearing is very different from determining what sort of sermon you should be preaching/hearing. Does it matter which preaching approach we take?


I won’t speak for everyone, but here are seven reasons why I preach expository sermons. (This list is not exhaustive, nor is it in any particular order.)


  1. I believe the Word alone is living and active. I have read a lot of good books and heard a lot of good messages in my life, and some have left a lasting impression on me. And yet only the Word of God is living and active, capable of bringing about the transformation we seek (Hebrews 4:12). God does not promise that any other word will accomplish its purposes, but he does promise that of his Word (Isaiah 55:11).The Word of God alone is God-breathed and therefore useful for the full equipping of every Christian (2 Timothy 3:16-17). God speaks—which is a wonder in itself!—and what he says we need to hear. Why would I think to offer a congregation of believers (and unbelievers, undoubtedly) anything else on Sunday morning? What do they need to hear more than this?
  2. I don’t trust myself. I am far too aware of my own shortcomings—and based on conversations with those who have been at this far longer than I, that isn’t going to change before glory. I don’t know enough, I’m not wise enough to speak to the many issues the average person faces every day. So why would I trust myself to say what needs to be said on any given topic? Quite simply, I don’t. I don’t want to teach, correct, rebuke, train, warn, promise, encourage except what comes directly from Scripture. I have no authority in myself, and I know it. But if I faithfully teach the Word of God—as faithfully as I can, given how prone I am to misinterpretation and carelessness—I can speak with derivative authority at least. The authority of any preacher is directly proportional to how faithful to God’s Word he is.
  3. I have my hobby horses. I have axes to grind, and left to my own devices, I will grind them every single week. Certain sins appear to me more heinous than others, undoubtedly because they are related to my greatest strengths or my greatest weaknesses. Even as an expository preacher, I suspect many in my audience would quickly discern what these are: relational disciple-making and the importance of the mind on the side of my strengths; sins of pride and lust on the side of weakness. I’m not sure I’ve ever preached a sermon that didn’t touch on at least one, and more often all of these. But if I bind myself to the passage at hand, I am far more likely to broaden my horizon, to see without my own personal filter, to address what God sees as most important at that moment.
  4. I think the message and the medium belong together. This may spring from my artistic temperament, but I don’t think one can divorce the message and the medium. I think certain musical styles and tunes are inappropriate for certain lyrics, as an example. The same is true—much more decidedly so—of God’s Word. There is a reason God reveals himself in a wide variety of genres: narrative, poetry, apocalyptic, prophecy, reasoned argumentation. In marked contrast to this wondrous diversity, we tend to preach everything like an epistle (or worse, like an Enlightenment lecture). I think this can be especially true when it comes to tone. I, for example, find my emotional tone ranges from sobriety to indignation (I have lots of issues, obviously); I don’t preach wonder well. But if I can imitate the tone of the passage, I can paint with the full biblical palette of emotions—a richer portrait indeed. When we strive to match our sermon to the message and the medium (tone, style, structure), we express tacit confidence in God’s modes of revelation. (And I suspect our hearers will appreciate the variety too!)
  5. I want to preserve the tension. I wrote recently about tendentiously preserving the tensions that run throughout God’s Word. Expository preaching more than any other exercise will help us do just that. Imagine, both Reformed and Arminian preachers have the privilege of preaching Hebrews 6:4-6 one week, and then Hebrews 7:25 a short while later. That will surely temper our hardline approaches to the assurance debate! Pentecostals and cessationists get to preach 1 Corinthians 13 before coming to tongues and prophecy in the next chapter. Those strong on sanctification (would-be legalists) spend the first four chapters of Galatians declaring the wonder of salvation by grace alone through faith alone; those strong on justification (would-be libertines) then get the final two chapters to expound on what it means to keep the Law of Christ. I don’t want to preach only half the counsel of God on any subject—and expository preaching keeps me in line.
  6. I can tackle hard issues with less fear. Some topics preachers never want to bring up. What pastor wants to preach on supporting pastors financially (Galatians 6:6; 1 Timothy 5:17-18)? It sounds unconscionably mercenary. There are many topics that we would gladly shun because we know they will open up a floodgate of angry e-mails regardless of how faithfully we preach the text. It’s like touching an electric fence: I don’t care how much you desire to honor God, you’re going to be wary of grabbing hold a second time! But if you are preaching expository sermons—and expository series especially—you have no choice. You can’t get to the next pasture without passing by the electric fence, shocks and all. You have to face your fear, reaffirm your faith in God’s wisdom, and trust that your congregation needs to hear the whole counsel of God—even when the subject is touchy.
  7. I get to interrogate the text. Expository preaching forces the preacher to exegete, interpret, and expound on whatever passage lies before him, no matter how opaque, unfamiliar, or superficially uninteresting. In other words, the parts we skip over or skim quickly in our daily reading, we now have to face with microscope and megaphone. We have to interrogate the text to know why God included it in sacred Scripture and how it relates to our hearers today. Without question, the passages I know best are the passages I have preached. What a perk for pastors! And yet, if we eschew expository preaching, we cut ourselves off from this tremendous spur to deep understanding. If I weren’t blessedly forced to wrestle with new passages, I would soon find myself running to the same passages time and again; soon, I would have nothing new to say at all (just repackaged in the latest buzzwords). I thank God for any impetus to greater depth and breadth of true understanding.

[1] A preacher engages in eisegesis (from two Greek words meaning “lead” and “into”) when he invests the passage with his own meaning; in contrast, preachers should strive to do exegesis (from two words meaning “lead” and “out of”), drawing out the meaning of the passage and then contextualizing it appropriately.

The Accountable Heart

April 9th, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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There is a lot of buzz about “authentic community” these days, stemming from either a robust reflection on key biblical teachings or millennial chutzpah about how much better at relating they are than previous generations. Regardless, the writers of Scripture place a transparent emphasis on genuine, biblical fellowship. This is a central component of life in the Spirit—and central to authentic community is the notion of accountability.


Accountability simply means inviting others to examine your life in the light of Scripture, to call you out when you stray from the right paths, wittingly or not. We act as living mirrors in each other’s lives (James 1:22-24), speaking the truth in love to one another (Ephesians 4:14-15), gently and humbly restoring those caught in sin (Galatians 6:1).


The trouble with accountability, though, is that it is only as effective as our hearts are open. So what does an accountable heart look like? David paints a fine picture:


                I call to you, LORD, come quickly to me;

                                hear me when I call to you.

                May my prayer be set before you like incense;

                                may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.


                Set a guard over my mouth, LORD;

                                keep watch over the door of my lips.

                Do not let my heart be drawn to what is evil

                                so that I take part in wicked deeds

                along with those who are evildoers;

                                do not let me eat their delicacies.


                Let a righteous man strike me—that is a kindness;

                                let him rebuke me—that is oil on my head.

                My head will not refuse it,

                                for my prayer will still be against the deeds of evildoers. (Psalm 141:1-5)


David begins by pleading for grace. He knows that he cannot have what he seeks apart from the gracious intervention of the sovereign Lord. But what does he seek specifically? He wants to keep himself from evil, from wicked deeds (especially sins of the tongue, it seems, based on his opening two petitions). These are prayers many of us have prayed many times, I would guess. Nothing out of the ordinary here.


But what comes next caught me off guard. David expects grace might come in the form of authentic community. In effect, he says, “Should you choose to answer this prayer by sending me someone to rebuke me, I would welcome that, Father.” Because his desire for sanctification is strong—his prayer is still “against the deeds of evildoers”—he is a glad participant in the ministry of accountability. And he is truly glad: it isn’t just that he would accept rebuke when it comes; he will receive it as a kindness, as precious as an anointing with oil.[1]


I wish we had a good chronology for the Psalms. Did David write this after his experience with Nathan the prophet (cf. 2 Samuel 12:1-14 and Psalm 51)? Had he already experienced the grace of rebuke? Is that why he celebrates and seeks it here? We will never know—but we know how powerful the ministry of accountability is when the heart is open to receive it.


So let us open our hearts to receive it now, pleading with God for this grace . . . just like David.

[1] See Psalm 133:1-2 for a good sense of just how precious oil on the head is to David!