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?

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.

I Am My Own War Horse

April 4th, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Israel had trust issues.


Despite God’s unfailing love, unrelenting faithfulness, they so rarely managed to trust him for salvation. Had he rescued them from captivity in Egypt? Of course—dramatically. Had he delivered them into the Promised Land despite the size and strength of the inhabitants? Yup. Had he saved them from foreign yokes? Time and time again, whether Moabite, Edomite, Philistine.


And yet, whenever trouble threatened, they couldn’t seem to remember how faithful he had been. Rather than trust him, they put their trust in the flesh—treaties with Egypt or Assyria, size of the standing army, diplomatic bribes.


The unnamed author of Psalm 33 points out the folly of this approach:


The king is not saved by his great army;

                                a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.

                  The war horse is a false hope for salvation,

                                and by its great might it cannot rescue. (33:16-17, ESV)


Now I’m not much for trusting in standing armies or looking to foreign powers for deliverance, but I still see this Israelite tendency in my own heart.


You see, I am my own war horse.


I trust in myself. I trust that I can handle what comes my way in the strength of my flesh. I trust I can carry out my God-given responsibilities—husbanding my wife, parenting my children, shepherding my church—on my own. I trust in the earthen vessel, not the treasure within.


I can prepare an adequate sermon because of my theological training. I can structure a discipleship ministry through my past experience. I can instruct and discipline my children based on any number of books I have read.


I am my own war horse. God help me! What hope do I have if I depend on myself?


If I trusted in God and not myself, I would pray more. I would dwell in his Word more. I would humble myself more. I would seek his face before I sought an answer or action step or vision or strategy.


The battle is the Lord’s, the victory is his, and the fame will rightly be his too.


“But the eyes of the LORD are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love” (Psalm 33:18, NIV).

What Is an Elder?

December 19th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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This seems like a straightforward question—and one that may even have a straightforward answer. He is “above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money” (1 Timothy 3:2-3, NIV). We’ve got that much. Beyond that things can get a bit shaky.


It is important that we use biblical language biblically. Constant use frequently transforms language in subtle ways. Nice used to mean foolish but now means polite; silly (seely at the time) used to mean blessed but now means foolish, ridiculous, stupid. What about elder? Would Peter and Paul still recognize how we use the term elder today?


Just like yesterday’s post, I want to offer a few suggestive comments. This is not meant to be an exhaustive discussion by any means.


  1. The New Testament uses elder interchangeably with a dizzying array of other terms. In Titus 1:6-7, Paul moves from elder to overseer[1] seamlessly. He writes, “An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless” (emphasis added). Paul doesn’t seem to be switching topics abruptly, so we might assume both terms refer to the same office. Peter, in offering his exhortation to the elders, writes, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care” (1 Peter 5:1-2). If his primary admonition for elders is to act as pastors (i.e., to shepherd), could we be forgiven for assuming they are the same office? Paul reaches the same conclusion from the opposite direction, as he lists “able to teach” as one of the qualifications for an elder—even though “teacher” seems to be related to the pastoral gift (cf. Ephesians 4:11, debates about the Granville Sharp rule notwithstanding). Hebrews 13:7 and 17 simply refer to leaders (Gk. êgoumenôn). Romans 12:8 mentions providers (Gk. proistamenos). 1 Thessalonians 5:12 describes those who are “over you” (proistamenos again) in the Lord. Should we find any difference in these categories? I suspect not. These are many ways to refer to the same group of people, each highlighting a different aspect of the work to which they have been called.
  2. There is no distinction between elders and pastors. It follows from the first point that the rigid distinction we make between elder and pastor is in fact a false dichotomy. Elders shepherd the flock and pastors function in the same role as elders. This entails some important practical implications. Here are two:
    1. First, some of the phrases we bandy about require thoughtful examination. For example, to say a church is “elder-led and staff-run” may be faithful to Scripture—depending on what we mean by it.[2] Is the phrase meant to imply that unpaid elders lead the church while the paid staff run it? That would seem to be a strange division. Or does the phrase simply mean that elders (including vocational elders, which we alone refer to as pastors, somewhat inexplicably) lead the church, while the staff (including vocational elders) handles the daily tasks necessary to keep the organization running smoothly? This scheme—a Venn diagram with vocational elders occupying the overlap—has more to commend it.
    2. Second, if indeed the terms refer to the same office, we should be wary of creating two distinct roles instead. What God has joined together, let no church constitution rend asunder. This has implications for both “pastors” and “elders” (as we use the terms today). A church simply cannot place someone in the role of pastor—asking them to shepherd the flock, minister the Word, and provide ongoing leadership—without also thinking of him as an elder. That would seem to be beyond the bounds biblically. Similarly, we cannot ask someone to serve as an elder without requiring them to shepherd the flock, minister the Word, etc. An elder cannot function simply as a board member—managing the “household,” viz., making sure finances are in order and attendance is up—and not as a pastor. Paul certainly acknowledges differences in gradation: some pastors—those particularly gifted or those who could do it vocationally—handle a greater share of the preaching and teaching load (cf. 1 Timothy 5:17); nevertheless, we cannot maintain a rigid distinction where Scripture acknowledges none. Which leads me to my next point.
  3. We need to take “able to teach” and “be shepherds” more seriously. It follows that if pastors and elders (leaders and providers) are the same category of people, they should perform the same tasks. (Someone should probably make a “Captain Obvious” joke at this point.) The qualifications for an elder focus on character, but elders need to do more than simply have exemplary character by the grace of God. They have been given specific responsibilities: “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be” (1 Peter 5:2). Shepherding demands more than managing the affairs of the organization; it requires going, baptizing and teaching in order to make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20); equipping God’s people for works of ministry (Ephesians 4:11-16); silencing false teaching and promoting pure doctrine (Titus 1:10-2:15); and especially prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:2). Every one of those tasks necessitates a thorough knowledge of Scripture—hence the qualification “able to teach.” How many elders today could explain the dangers of a popular book—take Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling as an example—when a congregant mentioned they were reading it? But that is precisely what Paul’s letters—to Timothy and Titus especially—ask of elders. The church needs to take this more seriously, offering more robust teaching and training.
  4. Our elder meetings should reflect our role as shepherds. If our elder meetings look suspiciously like board meetings, we should be concerned. Is prayer perfunctory or central? Do we spend more time on finances, buildings and grounds, and the like—or on a prayerful discussion of the spiritual needs of the flock and how we intend to meet them? Do our meetings burst with Paul’s pastoral burden: “Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28)? For more on elder meetings, see these excellent discussions by Jim Elliff and Andrew Davies.

[1] Bishop in earlier translations.

[2] One danger in the phrase is the extrabiblical term staff, referring to those who serve vocationally at the church, whether pastors or not.

Words for Young Pastors

December 18th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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I am a young pastor. I graduated from seminary at age 24 and launched immediately into full-time ministry, which means I have no adult experience separate from my preparation for and participation in ministry. I was ordained by my sending church at age 26, so at least some would consider that I hold the office of pastor (if such a thing exists, if ordination has any place in the church, etc.). I am now 32, so I think I still qualify as a young pastor in the eyes of many in my congregation—and indeed in my own eyes.


There are some peculiar challenges facing young pastors though—challenges I have lived, which have left me feeling battered and bruised occasionally, and which at other times have left me battering and bruising others.


Foremost among them is the tension between age and calling. If the terms pastor and elder are interchangeable—as most scholars agree (cf. 1 Peter 5:1-5)—then what does it mean to be an “elder” (in terms of office) when one isn’t an “elder” (in terms of age)? The office gives authority that our age and inexperience doesn’t win in the hearts of many we are called to serve.


God foresaw these challenges, and, in his gracious providence, included three letters written to young pastors in his Word. How do we navigate these tempestuous waters? How do we demonstrate humility appropriate for our age and exercise authority appropriate for our office? How do we submit to and respect our elders and still command and correct as needed? Paul encourages his young charges in these very areas. Here are a few brief comments about his advice to Timothy and Titus; they are intended to be suggestive, not exhaustive.


  1. A young pastor has the responsibility to command and correct those who would lead the flock astray (1 Timothy 1:3-7; Titus 2:1-15). Paul encouraged Timothy to stay in Ephesus “so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer” (v 3, NIV, emphasis added). There is no discussion here of age or experience or influence. Part of what it means to shepherd a flock is protecting it from wolves; one cannot claim to be a pastor and not do whatever it takes to see the church safe from false teaching that would destroy it. Those whom God calls to pastoral ministry he equips for the work, which should include a profound understanding of the gospel and the Word of God. (If a pastor doesn’t have this, it begs the question if he was really called to the ministry.) For this reason especially even a young pastor needs to command and correct when it comes to false teaching. Those who are older may have strong opinions borne of experience, but if it is in contradiction to Scripture, it should be refuted: “They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm” (v 7, emphasis added). To give one example about which I have written recently, an older Christian may confidently affirm a pragmatic approach to ministry completely at odds with a scriptural approach. A young pastor should feel free to correct this error even though he is younger. Paul puts it in strong terms when addressing Titus: “Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you” (2:15).
  2. A young pastor should nevertheless correct humbly and gently (1 Timothy 5:1; 2 Timothy 2:25-26; 4:1-5). Some young pastors—those with my brash personality, for example—relish the opportunity to correct their “elders” (in terms of age), and may do so arrogantly. But God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble, and so I know to which group I would rather belong! Paul says, “Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father” (1 Timothy 5:1, emphasis added). The man in my hypothetical example, espousing ministerial pragmatism, is not my enemy; he is a member of my family, for whom Christ’s blood was shed, and who is as much an heir of the gracious gift of life as I. That should color my response to him. My words would be seasoned with grace, to say the least—and if they are not, no matter my depth of knowledge and insight, I have sinned in treating him thus. As Paul reminds Timothy in another letter, “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2, emphasis added). Some of us err on the side of correction and rebuke without patience and care; others on the side of patience and care without correction and rebuke. In God’s estimation, though, grace and truth are always wedded.
  3. A young pastor has much to command and teach people of every age and gender (1 Timothy 4:11-16; Titus 2:1-8). Paul encourages Titus to “teach what is appropriate to sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). This includes teaching the older men (v 2) and older women (v 3) and young men (v 6). Those whom God has called and equipped should exercise their gifts faithfully for the sake of the congregation. Pointing out sound doctrine and practice is the mark of a “good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed” (1 Timothy 4:6). So Paul exhorts us, “Command and teach these things” (v 11). But Paul is no fool: he knows that some will refuse to listen because of our age and inexperience. So he continues, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity” (v 12).[1] Timothy had a hard time ministering in Ephesus, and was apparently dismissed and disparaged because of his age—an experience many young pastors, including myself, have shared. So Paul transfers his full authority to Timothy via this letter. Beyond that, though, he encourages Timothy to follow Jesus so single-mindedly that it becomes impossible to disparage him. Like Paul, we must be those in whom “Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life” (1:16). Everyone should be able to see our progress, our growth in grace (4:15). Of course, this comes not only through our righteous character, but through our teaching and preaching as well (vv 13-14). Mere scriptural knowledge does not a pastor make, but it is still a sine qua non of biblical leadership! 
  4. A young pastor, as a vocational minister, seems to have some authority over the elders (1 Timothy 3:1-7; 5:17-21; Titus 1:5-9). I tremble to write these words, and present them to you as the seeds of the beginnings of thoughts on the subject. I will write more tomorrow on the relationship between pastors and elders, but it does seem that those who have been given to the church as pastors (Ephesians 4:11) have a clear role to play in the selection of elders. Paul tells Titus specifically to “appoint elders in every town, as I directed you” (1:5), before listing the qualifications of an elder. The list of qualifications appears in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 too, raising the question of why Paul includes the qualifications in two letters to young pastors only. The answer, it seems, is that these young pastors selected or helped selected the elders. In addition, they probably helped train the men of the congregation, playing a significant role in their development as leaders (cf. 2 Timothy 2:1-2). Moreover, Paul encourages Timothy to give “double honor” to the elders directing the affairs of the church, “especially those whose work is preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 3:17). How precisely should Timothy accomplish this? I haven’t the faintest idea, but it includes evaluation of their ministries at the very least. Finally, and most poignantly perhaps, Paul tells Timothy, “But those elders who are sinning you[2] are to reprove before everyone, so that the others may take warning” (v 20). The ministry of evaluation extends to public rebuke as necessary. I will not press on whither angels fear to tread, but these verses challenge many of my cherished beliefs and practices. (If you have any thoughts or reflections, please comment below!)


“But you, man of God,” young pastor that you are,


pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which God will bring about in his own time—God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen. (1 Timothy 6:11-16)

[1] In contrast to popular misconception, this verse is intended for young ministers, not kids in children’s or student ministry—though I’m sure we could extend the application!

[2] The word for “you” is singular in the Greek, referring to Timothy only.

How Pragmatism Destroys the Church

November 5th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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If, as I argued earlier, thoroughgoing pragmatism amounts to blasphemy, then we would expect ministries driven by this philosophy to produce little in the way of genuine fruit. God doesn’t often bless those who blaspheme him. (Scripture abounds with counter-examples, of course, like the Assyrians and Babylonians, whom God blessed to such an extent that it drove prophets like Habakkuk apoplectic.)


Unsurprisingly, ministries centered on pragmatic means and measurements produce fruit of a sort: numbers. Attendance will always swell when we entertain, titillate, market, build, placate, and coddle. But is this Spirit-wrought fruit or the cheap plastic stuff used to decorate model homes? Paul recognized long ago that “successful” ministry might not stand under God’s scrutiny. Right after he reminds us that God alone can cause the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6-9), he paints a vivid picture of God’s future judgment of ministry leaders (3:10-15). Some leaders build carefully, and their “work”—the people they have served over the years, as verse 9 makes clear—survives into eternity; the Spirit has brought about genuine renewal. Conversely, other leaders build haphazardly, content with the structure and not the substance; when judgment comes, their building—again, the congregation they have served—perishes in the flames. The stakes seem pretty high.


How precisely do pragmatic leaders bring about the destruction of the churches they serve? Not because they are malevolent, but because they are deceived. Specifically, they are deceived into thinking they can do it. It’s taken care of because it is in their hands.


Look at how this works.


We live and serve in tension. God has called us to faithfulness, but he alone can produce the fruit; we have a responsibility, but God brings about the result. If we were to represent this graphically, it might look like this:

Figure 1

Pragmatic leadership assumes part of God’s role. That is, they place themselves in charge of (some of) the results as well as the responsibilities, the fruit as well as the faithful service. In so doing, of course, they cut themselves off from the Spirit’s power, leading to fake fruit: spurious conversions, consumers instead of disciples, etc.


Figure 2 


In addition, pragmatic leaders assume the role of the congregation too. Instead of equipping the saints for works of service (Ephesians 4:11-12), they skip the equipping and do the ministry themselves. Instead of training congregants to engage in personal evangelism, they tell them to bring their friends to the service to hear the gospel proclaimed, for example. Ministry becomes centralized and human-centered. This leads inexorably to consumerism. Once the congregation has been trained not to minister, they become passive spectators at best, and more likely become thoroughgoing consumers. They will then evaluate churches and ministries along pragmatic and consumerist lines—e.g., “Do my kids like the youth group?” instead of “Does the youth group faithfully engage in relational disciple-making, which I know my children need?”—and the cycle perpetuates.


Figure 3 


Pragmatic leadership produces fake fruit and consumerist spectators, instead of vital, flourishing, disciple-making followers of Christ. This destroys the church. Paul offers slight comfort to those building thus: “If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames” (1 Corinthians 3:15). But escaping through the flames will provide little solace to those who genuinely love the congregations they serve, for they perish in this scenario. May it never be so!

Pragmatism, Blasphemous Pragmatism

October 22nd, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Not too long ago I made the comment that pragmatism in ministry amounts to blasphemy. My interlocutors thought this characteristic overstatement—I’ve been known to state ideas in the strongest possible terms on more than one occasion!—and dismissed me with a merry round of justifiable laughs. But the more I thought about the issue, the more I agree with my initial assessment. Pragmatism in ministry really is blasphemy.


I should probably define my terms before I move on to the argument. By pragmatism I mean the philosophy championed by John Dewey that assesses the truth of a belief or opinion on the basis of its practical success.[1] In other words, we answer the question Is it true? by answering the (synonymous?) question Does it work? Applied to ministry, pragmatism involves determining a philosophy of ministry based on the success of that ministry.


Blasphemy, on the other hand, has to do with belittling God—treating him with irreverence, usurping his place, etc.—and thereby maximizing something or someone else. For example, when Jesus heals the paralytic lowered through the roof, he also forgives the man’s sins, prompting the religious leaders to charge him with blasphemy (Luke 5:2-21). Jesus claimed to act in God’s place, and the religious leaders rightly denounced this as blasphemy, had Jesus not in fact been God.


Now we can see what makes pragmatism blasphemous. When we allow pragmatic concerns to shape our ministry—when we ask What works? instead of What is right?—we claim to do God’s work, to be acting in his place, which is blasphemy. Jesus said he forgave sins, which only God can do, so he was either God or speaking blasphemously. We are manifestly not God, so if we claim to do what only God can do, there is only one option left to us.


An example will help put some flesh on this skeletal argument. Many ministries today set quantifiable goals for themselves. There is nothing inherently wrong with goals, and, frankly, most of the goals worth setting need to be quantifiable. The danger comes when what quantify is no longer input variables but output goals. We may set a goal of having one evangelistic conversation each week; this is a worthy goal—and blessedly quantifiable. So far, so good. But sometimes another goal creeps in unexpectedly: we want to lead 52 people to Christ in a given year. Now we’ve slipped into blasphemous pragmatism. You see, we cannot effect the salvation of anyone; that work belongs to God alone. To set a goal for ourselves or our ministry or someone under our oversight that includes conversion growth is to claim that we can act in God’s place. That is blasphemy.


The pervasive appeal of pragmatism evidences in our language of building/growing the kingdom/church. Make no mistake: I long to see the church grow, the kingdom come in power, and I labor to that end. Nevertheless, I must be careful not to deceive myself into thinking that I can build the kingdom or grow the church. Jesus was clear: “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18, emphasis added). He commissions us to make disciples—going, baptizing, teaching—but the building of the church he takes care of himself. Paul affirms as much elsewhere: “I  planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow” (1 Corinthians 3:6, emphasis added). We labor, yes, but God brings about the growth. Without his quickening presence, our ministry would be as effective as planting rocks: no matter the care we take in watering them, we will see no fruit!


This is not to advocate a complacent, lazy, “let go and let God” approach to ministry. The master harshly condemns the servant who took that approach with the talent he was given (Matthew 25:26). He commends faithfulness to our commission—but a humble faithfulness. Paul says it well: “Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:2). We must prove faithful in our ministry—and our goals should hold us to account in this regard—but faithfulness needn’t degenerate into pragmatism.


The added danger in this blasphemously pragmatic approach to ministry is a descent into consequentialism. Consequentialism is an ethical system that evaluates an action based on the consequences of that action. We cannot know if an action is right or wrong until we see what comes of it. One cannot say, for example, “Thou shalt not murder,” because the person we murder may be the next Adolf Hitler. So even though we killed him to steal his wallet the consequences of our actions were positive, so the action was good. There is a certain appeal to this system, undoubtedly, but the Bible points us in another direction: what God says is good is good, and what God says is evil is evil.


If, however, we resort to pragmatism, we will soon slide imperceptibly into consequentialism. The two are linked in an unholy union. Pragmatists determine a philosophy of ministry based on what works, and consequentialism then tells us that this is right. That this sounds the death knell for faithful ministry seems evident enough. Consider, for example, how to preach. What works in preaching? Jeremiah thundered the Word of God for decades, but just about no one listened to him, and he spent a good portion of his ministry in a cistern. Pragmatically speaking, then, he was unsuccessful, and probably should have been removed from his ministry. Heretical preachers, on the other hand, usually draw large crowds—witness the prosperity preachers (they’ve even got their own reality show now!) and the self-help preachers. What they are doing seems to work better than faithful exposition of the text. They are growing their churches (numerically, anyway). So, in order to meet our artificial and blasphemous goals, we distort true gospel ministry into an ungodly perversion. Satan smiles as we tickle itching ears.


Enough of this. Let us labor faithfully and humbly until the day Christ calls us home—and then says to us “Well done, good and faithful servants.” He’ll take care of the rest.

[1] There is a soft definition of pragmatic that means something like “practical.” We might make a pragmatic decision about how to handle overcrowded parking lots, for example. What I am critiquing, however, is the hard definition given above.