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?

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.

Homiletical Relativism

October 15th, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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A Tale of Two Sermons?

I recently heard two close friends give their opinion of the same sermon—a sermon I did not hear, delivered at a church I have only attended once. These were both seasoned believers who genuinely love God and seek to follow him. One raved about the sermon, touched by the pastor’s humility (and self-deprecation) and the liveliness of the delivery. The other actually preacherwept at the conclusion of the message because she was devastated by the pastor’s self-centeredness and twisting of the text. I was so astonished by the conflicting reports that I wondered if they had even heard the same sermon!


In thinking about these two comments, and many more like them given through the years, I began to wonder if there isn’t a touchstone for sermons. Are we hopelessly adrift in a sea of personal preferences, or are some sermons actually better than others? It was a dangerous thought, and one I really didn’t want to pursue—especially since preaching is my craft—but the question has nibbled at me since then, and I feel compelled to reflect (incompletely, imperfectly, with fear and trembling) on it.


The Sermon: Your Way, Right Away

We live in a consumerist culture. People want what they want when they want it. If the store doesn’t have what they want, they will go elsewhere—online, if they have to, because you can find everything online. No compromise necessary. Your way, right away.


Consumerism’s penetration into the church has been widely documented and loudly bewailed. The great contribution of modernity and its obstreperous stepchild, postmodernity, is the elevation of the autonomous self.[1] In the space of a few short centuries, we moved from “In the beginning, God” to “I think, therefore I am.” That this emphasis on self-determination should permeate a group of people who have committed to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Another strikes me as both ironic and chilling.


But it has, and the effects have been discouraging.


Since the 1990s, the consumerist approach to Sunday services has tightened its grip on the Western church. Congregants increasingly evaluate the sermon according to individual preferences, rather than an objective standard. Now, let me be the first to admit that some aspects of a sermon may vary according to preferences. For example, how long should a sermon run? I see no command in Scripture suggesting a divinely established length. Jonah’s preaching was blessedly short (Jonah 3:4), whereas Paul occasionally waxed protracted (Acts 20:9).


Nevertheless, there are other aspects of preaching that are non-negotiable, and we would do well—as preachers and as congregants—to remember them. The practice of these principles can and should vary from congregation to congregation (see #6), but the principles themselves should never change.  In other words, we do not want to be guilty of homiletical relativism. We do not want to make ourselves the locus of judgment: “what I deem to be a good sermon is a good sermon; what I deem poor is poor.” Just as we submit our lives to the judgment of God’s Word (cf. Hebrews 4:12-13), so we submit our sermons—those we preach and those we hear—to its judgment.


A brief caveat before I outline some of the principles: no preacher will do this perfectly every time out, because we are all fallible and finite—myself chief among them! However, we will practice these principles intentionally as surely as we practice them imperfectly.


What Makes a Good Sermon?

  1. It centers on God’s words. We need to hear God’s words, not a preacher’s words, because only one has power to transform. God describes the efficacy of his word in a famous prophecy of Isaiah: “It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (55:11). God’s words accomplish his purposes—warning, correcting, teaching, promising, inspiring faith—perfectly and without fail. What preacher among us can say the same of his words? The word of God is “alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). My words, however, are dead unless God gives them life; they lack the precision, power, and perfection to cut to the heart of my audience. God’s words never have that problem. A good sermon proclaims God’s words in God’s power in order to accomplish God’s ends.
  2. It points to Christ no matter the text. This follows necessarily from the first point. If, as Jesus himself taught, every text points to him (Luke 24:27; John 5:39), then every text we preach will point to him as well. A narrative from the Old Testament, an exhortation from the New Testament, a psalm or proverb—these all point to or are grounded in Christ’s finished work. To preach the narrative or exhortation, psalm or proverb, without preaching Jesus, is to miss the heart of the message. To be sure, this must be done carefully. Some preachers will do the “Jesus bit” in every sermon, but fail to remain faithful to the text at hand. If every passage points to Christ, then a preacher should be able to unearth what is already in the text, without having to import Jesus from somewhere else. Gospel threads—rest, exile, temple, kingdom, exodus, covenant, wisdom, and many others—run throughout Scripture. A faithful sermon will see the thread running through the passage at hand and draw it out for the sake of the congregation.
  3. It proclaims the gospel. As a sermon draws out the gospel thread, it will proclaim the richness of the gospel week in and week out. Paul’s resolve at Corinth—to know nothing while he was with them “except Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2)—sets the standard for every sermon. The gospel is the power of salvation for all who believe (Romans 1:16). A faithful sermon proclaims the twin graces of the gospel—justification and sanctification—in delicate balance. As Paul writes to his protégé, “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good” (Titus 2:4-8; cf. Ephesians 2:8-10). God saves us by his mercy, not according to what we have done—we are justified by grace; God renews us by his Spirit so that we devote ourselves to doing what is good—we are sanctified by grace. Preaching justification alone leads to libertinism: spurious salvation by cheap grace alone. Preaching sanctification alone leads to legalism: climbing a ladder of our own making to reach a heaven of our own imagining. Preaching neither at all is just self-help, moralism, or banal psychotherapy. Would to God we heard the gospel instead!
  4. It proclaims a multi-faceted gospel. The gospel message is clear, simple, and unchanging on the one hand, but it is endlessly rich and multi-faceted on the other hand. Scripture presents not only a wide array of gospel threads, but also a variety of “atonement grammars,” as Tim Keller calls them. Given our cultural heritage in the West, today we are most familiar with the “legal” grammar: Our sin demands a righteous judgment, which Christ Jesus takes on himself; he is declared “guilty” in order that we might be called “righteous.” This is a powerful grammar, and one that we need to hear regularly. Nevertheless, it is not the only way to speak of the atonement! Throughout the Bible, we read of the atonement in language taken from the battlefield (Jesus has secured our victory), the marketplace (Jesus has purchased our freedom from slavery), the temple (Jesus purifies us so that we can draw near to a holy God, cleansing our guilty consciences), and the exile (Jesus was cast out so that we could be brought in, welcomed back home).[2] Different grammars speak to different people; different texts highlight different grammars. If every sermon drills the same theme, it will likely speak to only one segment of the congregation, and will only address one element of our despair apart from God. If the gospel is endlessly rich, each new sermon should sound a different note that resonates with a hitherto untouched corner of our hearts.
  5. It strikes the heart. Jonathan Edwards rather famously emphasized this aspect of preaching. He saw that in his day too many preachers aimed at our thoughts, feelings, or will, rather than striking the heart, which is the source of all three (cf. Proverbs 4:23; Matthew 15:18-19). Sermons that strike the mind only produce a dead orthodoxy. Sermons that strike our feelings only produce a shallow emotionalism. Sermons that strike the will only produce moralism or legalism, and ultimately despair. However, sermons that strike the root of all three—the heart—will lead to transformed thoughts, feelings, and wills, producing theological orthodoxy, relentless joy, and loving obedience from the inside out.
  6. It addresses the audience. No sermon is preached in a vacuum. It addresses real people at a specific time and in a specific place. Even in our shrinking world, with the advent of technological globalization, differences between cultures and sub-cultures are marked. Preaching the same passage in the same way regardless of the audience is sheer folly. The urban intelligentsia in Manhattan does not need the same message as migrant workers in rural California. A faithful sermon considers its culture carefully, and contextualizes the unchanging truth for a changing population.


As always, I’m sure this list is not only incomplete, but also imperfect. Nevertheless, I hope it will stimulate sustained reflection and increased discernment—never a critical spirit—and ultimately charitable engagement.


[1] Some would prefer to speak of “late modernity” instead of postmodernity, because both modernity and postmodernity share this fundamental characteristic. Views on epistemology have shifted, yes, but at their individualistic core, they remain the same.

[2] Timothy Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012): 131.

One Size Fits All?

September 25th, 2014 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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My kids are at that point in their lives when they have to buy uniforms—lots and lots of uniforms. Inevitably, a handful of these uniforms are “one size fits all.” I’m not sure who came up with this concept, because it is manifestly absurd. The children who need these uniforms are very different dimensions, and my peanut-sized children often swim ridiculously in clothes that fit other children quite nicely. I am not a fan of the one-size-fits-all approach—neither for children’s uniforms nor for gospel ministry.


8589130452787-kids-playing-at-school-wallpaper-hdThe gospel contains truths about the triune God—his character, his work, his purposes—that are fixed, timeless, and supracultural. With an unchanging message, one would suspect the method of communicating the message would be similarly fixed. We could adopt a one-size-fits-all approach here, even if it doesn’t work for children’s soccer teams. Unfortunately, such is not the case, for a simple reason: truths that are constant regardless of time or place or people must nevertheless be shared with a particular people at a particular time in a particular place. This requires contextualization.


Contextualization is, in Keller’s fine definition, “giving people the Bible’s answers, which they may or may not want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking, in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them.”[1] Let me make two quick points on contextualization before returning to the issue at hand.


  1. Contextualization is inevitable. As soon as gospel ambassadors choose a language in which to speak, they have contextualized the gospel, reaching a certain group (who speak the same language) while excluding others (who cannot speak the language). When we make decisions about our ministry practices—length of service, preacher’s clothes and preaching style, building and grounds, worship music style—we are contextualizing the gospel for our community. The fact that many of us do so unwittingly, and regard our ministry practices as fixed and supracultural like the gospel, may explain why the overwhelming majority of churches in the United States are in a state of decline.


  1. Contextualization is biblical. The book of Acts provides many examples of gospel ambassadors—notably Paul—contextualizing the gospel for the audience. Compare Paul’s speeches to God-fearers in Antioch (Acts 13:13-43), rural pagans in Lystra (Acts 14:6-16) and the philosophical intelligentsia in Athens (Acts 17:16-34), and you will see how he contextualizes unchanging truths in a changing culture. In fact, in his letter to Corinth, Paul outlines his approach to and reason for contextualization explicitly: “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:20-23).[2]


Now we see why a one-size-fits-all approach to gospel ministry is foolhardy: by assuming a consistent culture (or neglecting to think of culture at all), it adopts a consistent ministry. A quick glance at demographics across the country—never mind the globe—exposes the fatal weakness in this tactic. I’ve lived in three different suburbs in Chicago, and no one of the three bears more than a slight resemblance to the others demographically. And that was just within the suburbs of one city! Imagine how different the culture and sub-cultures would be moving from a suburban to an urban or a rural environment, or from Chicago to New York or L.A. or Portland or a city in the Bible belt, or from the United States to Colombia or Sri Lanka or Uganda.


All of this presents a very practical challenge for those of us who seek to minister the unchanging gospel compellingly to a particular people at a particular time in a particular place. Have we unconsciously adopted a one-size-fits-all mindset? Have we brought our ministry practices with us wherever we go—the preacher has to wear a tie (or has to wear jeans and flip-flops), the music should be lively (or reverent) and traditional (or contemporary), adult education should meet at this time and cover this material, small groups should follow this model, and don’t forget AWANA on Wednesday nights!—even though we might have gone to some very different places?


This lesson has come home to me recently. In the past few weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on my ministry practices. In my first ministry position, I served as a chaplain in a small Christian school in Bogotá, Colombia. After seven years, I left to become the discipleship pastor at a medium-sized church in suburban Chicago. Although I made some adjustments to my ministry practice owing to the switch from school to church, I thought very little about the difference between Bogotanos and Napervillans, and my ministry suffered accordingly. Little by little I made tiny alterations until the “uniform” fit, so to speak—or at least fit better.


What about you? Are you doing what you’ve done everywhere you’ve gone? When you arrive somewhere new, do you immediately implement the same basic practices and procedures, even before you’ve done the hard work of learning your new community and contextualizing the gospel within it? By the grace of God, for the sake of the gospel, I hope we will all strive to become all things to all people—and to become this thing for this people—so that by all possible means we might save some.


In other words, one size does not fit all. It never does.


[1] Tim Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012): 89 (emphasis his). For much more on contextualization which I couldn’t say here, see pp. 89-134.

[2] Interestingly, especially in light of the common charge that contextualization ineluctably distorts the gospel, Paul says he contextualizes “for the sake of the gospel” (v 23). Contextualization is in service of—not in opposition to—the gospel.

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.

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.

The Office of Preaching

February 19th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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I wrote recently about the “flip principle” as regards church leaders and the congregation: the congregation desires authority which by grace has been given to the leaders alone; the leaders alone perform works of ministry which by grace have been asked of the whole congregation. I trembled as I wrote the words—as I tremble when writing almost anything pertaining to God, his Word, and the life of the congregation—for fear that I had gone too far, had spoken too directly, had diminished the priesthood of believers in order to exalt an office I hold.


Then I read Bonhoeffer, as I am wont to do, and found my words soft, indirect, even diminishing the office of preaching in the face of the congregation—perhaps because of my own acquiescence to American democratic egalitarianism!


In his magisterial Ethics, he writes concerning the commandment of God in the Church:


[The office of preaching] is instituted directly by Jesus Christ Himself; it does not derive its legitimation from the will of the congregation but from the will of Jesus Christ. It is established in the congregation and not by the congregation, and at the same time it is with the congregation. When this office is exercised in the congregation to its full extent, life is infused into all the other offices of the congregation, which can after all only be subservient to the office of the divine word; for wherever the word of God rules alone, there will be found faith and service. The congregation which is being awakened by the proclamation of the word of God will demonstrate the genuineness of its faith by honouring the office of preaching in its unique glory and by serving it with all its powers; it will not rely on its own faith or on the universal priesthood of all believers in order to depreciate the office of preaching, to place obstacles in its way, or even to try to make it subordinate to itself. The superior status of the office of preaching is preserved from abuse, and against danger from without, precisely by a genuine subordination of the congregation, that is to say, by faith, prayer and service, but not by a suppression or disruption of the divine order by a perverse desire for superiority on the part of the congregation.


All this seems well in line with the teaching of Scripture, especially in its emphasis on true church leadership and the distinction to be maintained between leaders and congregants, the priesthood of all believers notwithstanding. (Indeed, I think the strongest statement of the priesthood of all believers comes directly after Paul’s distinguishing leaders from congregants in Ephesians 4:11-6.)


But Bonhoeffer presses on, as he is wont to do, and challenges our reactive Reformation approach to the Scriptures within the congregation:


The office of proclamation, the testimony to Jesus Christ, is inseparably bound up with Holy Scripture. At this point we must venture to advance the proposition that Scripture is essentially the property of the office of preaching and that it is the preaching which properly belongs to the congregation. Scripture requires to be interpreted and preached.[1] By its nature it is not a book of edification for the congregation. What rightly belongs to the congregation is the text of the sermon together with the interpretation of the this text, and on this basis there is a “searching of the Scriptures, whether these things be so” (Acts 17.11), that is to say, whether they are really as the preaching has proclaimed them to be; in certain unusual circumstances, therefore, there arises the necessity for contradicting the preaching on the basis of Holy Scripture. But even here it is presupposed that Holy Scripture belongs essentially to the office of teaching. If individual Christians, or groups of Christians, seize hold of the Bible, appealing to the equal right of all Christians, to the right of the faithful to speak for themselves and to the self-evident truth of the scriptural word, it is by no means a sign of special reverence or special scriptural understanding for the essential character of the divine revelation. In this lies the source of a great deal of presumption, disorder, rebellion and scriptural confusion. Respect for the holy character of the Scripture demands recognition of the fact that it is only by grace that a man is called upon to interpret and proclaim it and that it is also by grace that a man is permitted even to be a hearer of the interpretation and proclamation. The book of homilies and the prayer-book are the principal books for the congregation; the Holy Scripture is the book for the preacher; there can be little doubt that this formulation correctly represents the divinely ordained relationship between the congregation and the office. It must at the same time be borne clearly in mind that these ideas do not spring from a clergyman’s desire to schoolmaster the laity; they follow from the revelation of God himself.[2]


These are tough words, flying in the face of much contemporary thinking, but I suspect Bonhoeffer’s last assertion is true: this is the revelation of God himself throughout the New Testament. Many of the errors of both theory and practice in the local church spring from a diminished view of the office of proclamation and an elevated view of the role of the congregation.


One needn’t agree with every jot and tittle of Bonhoeffer’s work in order to gain mightily from reflection on the problem he exposes. To that reflection I challenge you—both preachers and congregants—to commit yourselves.

[1] A future series will detail the many ways we can misconstrue Scripture, and why interpretation and proclamation proves so necessary.

[2] Ethics, trans. N.H. Smith, 1st Touchstone ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995): 289-290. Emphasis is his throughout.

Wise and Innocent

February 5th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16, ESV).


I find it interesting that Jesus enjoins his followers to be like serpents and doves—two animals with a rich biblical history. When coming to this verse, what reader will not think of the serpent in Eden, Satan tempting humanity to death and disobedience (Genesis 3:1ff.)? And who will not think of the dove descending upon Jesus at his baptism, the Spirit of God alighting upon him as he begins his ministry (Matthew 3:16)?


So what is Jesus really asking of us, except that we be as wise as the enemy who attacks us and as innocent as the Spirit who indwells us? If we are to withstand the onslaughts of an enemy bent on our everlasting destruction, we cannot be naïve and unprepared; we must be shrewd, even crafty, in our opposition to him and ministry to those he still holds in his grasp. But we do so without guile or sin, without resorting to his deception and violence. Instead, we minister with the gentleness and purity of the God who lives within us and leads us into victorious purity (Romans 8:9-11).


Let us be as wise as the enemy who attacks us, as innocent as the Spirit who sanctifies us.

Measuring Growth That Matters

October 5th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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The last in a three-part series on measurable growth in the church—and whether it matters.


God does care about numbers. That much is clear from the book of the Acts—and makes sense considering that each number represents a person receiving grace, being regenerated in Christ. At the same time, some of the numbers that bring us elation (and even pride) receive more attention than they merit. Attendance, while necessary as we strive to bring people under the ministry of the church, is by no means a sign of grace received and applied—and therefore cannot be a driving goal in our ministry.


So what numbers should drive our ministry? When should numbers show up in our reports of God’s work in and through our ministry as a sign that (1) we have been faithful gardeners and (2) he has graciously provided the harvest?


This is an essential question to ask. Too many ministers today shudder to measure growth. This is especially true of those from my generation, those just postmodern enough to be skeptical of everything quantifiable as somehow less than genuine. But God expects and has promised growth, including growth in ministry—because his kingdom will continue to grow until Christ returns to bring it to consummation.


Make no mistake: God will judge those he gave as leaders of the church according to the quality of their work. Some will labor tirelessly but purposelessly. As a result, their ministry will bear no eternal fruit. To use Paul’s analogy, they build the edifice of the church with wood, hay, and stubble—elements that will be consumed in the final judgment (1 Corinthians 3:10-15). Paul makes clear that the “building” under construction is the congregation (verse 9), so this implies that some will minister for years to a completely unregenerate congregation, none of whom will be saved (even if the pastor is). Others, contrarily, will build with gold, silver, and costly stones, seeing the Spirit empower their ministry to bring about genuine, eternal life transformation.


I want to strive with all of my being to belong to the latter category. If that means evaluating my ministry routinely, even quantifying the growth I hope to see, then I will certainly do so.


At the end of time, I hope to hear one response to my years of service in God’s kingdom: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Of course, these oft-repeated words have a context, and one that bears examination. In this parable Jesus commends faithful service to the master (25:14-30)—unquestionably Christ, who is coming again at some unknown, imminent date. In the light of his coming, we must work diligently, using the resources and gifts he has given us in his service. As the Greek word talent now covers a variety of “secular” skills in the English language, we might be tempted to read this as glorifying any sort of work. This is not quite the point. After all, the parable has a literary context. It begins abruptly with the word “Again,” suggesting an indissoluble link with the preceding parable. That parable begins, “At that time the kingdom of heaven…” (verse 1). These are kingdom parables; the king who is coming is Christ. We use the talents he gives us to build for his kingdom to glorify the King.


I commend the recent edition of the NIV for translating “talent” as “bag of gold.” This better conveys the meaning of the passage, especially considering our unbiblical definition of talent. The bags of gold represent all that God has given us to use for his service: talents, yes, but also the Spirit, the Word, prayer, fellowship and community, etc. The question, then, is have we used all that God has given us to build for his kingdom? Some do, but others do not (verses 24-25).


I fear that many of us have missed the frightening implication of this parable: while some will hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” others will hear, “You wicked, lazy servant!” (verse 26). I fear that many of us assume that just because we labor, we will hear the treasured accolade; in fact, this parable teaches that we will only hear Christ voice his approval if we labor well. The very fact that Jesus says some work well implies that one may work poorly—else the judgment would be comically immaterial.


So how do we distinguish between the faithful, effective service of which God approves and inadequate, ineffective service?


In truth, different ministries will have to measure growth differently. A church-planting pastor in a completely unbelieving mission field may not see numerical growth. He may have to measure growth in other ways—especially his faithfulness to complete the “input variables” he has discerned God calling him to. As he faithfully proclaims the gospel, he may have to trust that God is changing the soil and climate even when he cannot yet see new growth on the vine. But he can still measure his service: Do an increasing number of people understand the basic message of the gospel even if they reject it? Does the community know his love for them, demonstrated in tangible ways? Are key members of the community softening in their response to his ministry, potentially opening up the mission field exponentially?


A pastor ministering in a typical church, however, would expect to see greater measurable growth. Because the climate and soil are already conducive to growth, he would expect to see dynamic change in his congregation and outside the church’s walls. Is the church growing or dwindling in number? If there is growth, is it ongoing conversion growth or merely transfer growth? Are an increasing number of people going through a rigorous discipleship course with demonstrable change in their lives? Once discipled, are those same people multiplying the work by discipling others?


The specific questions may have changed, but the fundamental measurement remains the same. Is the ministry growing deep and wide under your leadership? Both depth and width are necessary for a healthy organism. A tree with deep roots will necessarily grow increasingly wide. A tree spreading wide needs increasingly deep roots to sustain the growth; without deep roots, it will soon see the outer branches turn dry, withered, and dead. (From the agricultural analogy we discern an important spiritual truth: depth precedes width. Churches that seek width before depth will produce dry and withered pseudo-disciples.)


Without measurable goals, it can be difficult to answer the “growth question” honestly. The tendency to deceive ourselves—especially with concepts as important and nebulous as ministry and spiritual growth—is simply too strong. Paul’s warning for all believers applies to ministry evaluation too: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you” (Romans 12:3). Measurable goals help us judge ourselves soberly, to adjust our ministry to make it as effective and powerful as possible, so that on the final day we will hear, “Well done, good and faithful servants.”


“Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20).