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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Why You Should Make A “To NOT Do” List

Brian Jones is very focused and exerts a lot of self-discipline.  I have gained much from him concerning these two qualities the last few years.  He blogs at Senior Pastor Central . . . 

Bob Goff says he makes it a habit to quit something every Thursday. I think Senior Pastors would benefit from doing this annually.
There are two things I know for certain about people like you and me:
  1. We routinely do things that self-sabotage our health, emotional well-being, and ministry effectiveness.
  2. We know these things exist, but don’t address them, because we refuse to take time to catch our breath, prayerfully write them down, then drive a stake in the ground and say, “NO MORE.”
Last week I finally made time.
Below is my 2018 “To NOT Do” list.
It’s all the things I’m NOT proud of that I did in 2017.
I’ve asked each of my staff members to create a similar list and bring it to an upcoming staff meeting. We’ll share our lists with each other, then pray for strength to leave our self-sabotaging behaviors behind for good.
I want to encourage you to do this with your staff, and then if you’re willing, share your list on social media. If you do, please tag me.
To make going public easier, I’ll go first…

Brian Jones’ 2018 “To NOT Do” List

  1. I will not allow myself to emotionally eat when I’m under extraordinary amounts of pressure like I did in 2017. I will pre-plan healthy eating options and healthy ways to blow off steam other than eating food, watching television, or surfing the web.
  2. I will not allow myself to view my ministry here as “my” ministry. As the church gets larger, I will work harder to make sure my wife serves alongside me and has ample opportunities to express her giftedness.
  3. I will not allow day-to-day matters to keep me from planning the most compelling sermon series’ possible. Plutarch noted that Spartan mothers used to tell their sons, “Come back with your shield – or on it,” as they went off to war. Because preaching is more important than everything else I do, combined, I will go off-site to engage in advanced study with the same warrior-like intensity and valor.
  4. I will not allow C leaders to pressure me into meeting with them during the week when I have more important priorities to accomplish. I will learn to say no to C leaders so I can say yes to developing the A leaders who will love and lead them.
  5. I will not give out my cell phone number and private email address to people who shouldn’t have them. I will risk looking like I don’t care so I can avoid being pulled in 50 directions.
  6. I will not ignore planning my week’s top 5-6 priorities on Sunday afternoon. I will not allow myself to push them aside when “more important” matters arise. I will make a note of these new issues and incorporate them into next week’s focus.
  7. I will not sacrifice theological integrity to grow this church. I will not play to the theological bottom line, no matter how much pressure I feel as the church grows. I will keep 1 Timothy 4:16 before me at all times.
  8. I will not allow myself to ignore preaching on hard things for fear that people will leave. I will trust that winnowing the presence of people offended by the gospel will only make us stronger. “The weight of this sad time we must obey. Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” – King Lear, Act 5, Scene 3.
  9. I will not accept mediocre sermon content from myself when I know I’m capable of preaching excellent sermons every week. I will prepare for each Sunday like it is Christmas Eve or Easterbecause, for someone far from God, it is.
  10. will not work on Fridays and Saturdays. I will trust that consistently working 60 hours a week Sunday through Thursday will be sufficient to ignite long-term kingdom impact.
  11. I will not allow myself to not have a life. I will “pick my head up” from the heat of battle each day and relax, be the kind of friend that others wish they had, and enjoy the journey more.
  12. I will not allow myself to keep unproductive staff on the team because I’m always thinking “I can fix them.” I will remind myself that keeping people who shouldn’t be on the team not only hurts the church, and our staff, but most importantly, them.
  13. I will not allow myself to ignore holding 3-4 Leadership Evangelism meetings a week with the 100 most influential leaders in our region. I will play the long game by investing now in non-Christian leaders who won’t impact our church for 5-15 years. I will remind myself how easy it is to ignore the Saul’s around me, not realizing they are Paul’s in the making.
So, that’s my list.
What’s yours?

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

A Testimony of Restoration

Another article from the 9 Marks blog.  This is a series on church discipline that I am posting.  I am starting with a testimony . . .

Many years ago, I was excommunicated from my church, and I’m thankful to God for it.
You probably wouldn’t expect to hear that reaction. But if the church had not honored God’s Word, I’m afraid to even wonder what the state of my life—and more importantly, my soul—might be in today. My removal from church membership directly led to God’s restorative work in my life. So now, I’m a cheerleader for church discipline. As you consider my testimony, be encouraged to appropriately exercise loving, biblical church discipline when a fellow church member is no longer walking in step with his confession.

MY STORY
My story is like so many others. I grew up in a faithful Christian home. I attended a gospel-preaching church. In every way, I looked and acted the part of a good Christian kid. I confessed my faith in Christ at an early age and was baptized a few years later. I was a popular member of our youth group and played on the worship team. I even would have affirmed the gospel and my own conversion.
But in a state of cognitive dissonance that only the deception of sin can explain, I was simultaneously pursuing pleasures of the world. What started as an obsession with pornography and masturbation led to increasing degrees of immorality and fornication. But the double life was exhausting, and eventually my transgressions were exposed. At first, I manufactured remorse when I was confronted by other Christians in an attempt to convince them that I was repentant. But as I continued to pursue my lusts, my heart became more hardened, and I no longer bothered to cover my sin. My hypocritical life was known to many members of my church, and I didn’t want or know how to change.
Here I was, claiming to be a Christian, faithfully attending church, and continually fornicating with little hope of repentance. The elders, many of whom had known me for most of my life, patiently loved and pleaded with me. But I continued to embrace my sin, and my church made the hard, biblical decision purge the evil person from their flock (1 Cr 5:13).
The next six or seven years were sad. I tried to find my satisfaction in the approval of others and physical pleasure. However, after my father died, I accepted an invitation to attend a gospel-centered church where membership and discipline were practiced with fidelity.
When I started attending this new church I was quick to disclose the fact that I was still technically under discipline at my old church. The elders of both churches conferred and my new church agreed to take on the stewardship of my soul. Both churches modeled Paul’s exhortation in 2 Corinthians 13 to aim for restoration. I was reading my Bible, attending service, and trying to pray. I moved in with two brothers from the church.
Still, I never thought I would be able to say no to the sin that had ruled my thoughts and body for so long. Even when it had been months since my last dalliance, I was terrified. I thought it was inevitable that I would return to my sins of the past. I’ve never been addicted to drugs or drink, but the compelling urge to be intimate with a woman, any woman, was a cruel master. And yet, for the first time in a decade, I didn’t have sex. Weeks of celibacy turned into months—and I trudged ahead. As though against my will, I stayed on track. That narrow path was hedged by loving friends and elders. Even after 10 months of outward repentance, I wasn’t convinced my heart had actually changed. I claimed that I wanted to love Christ more than my sin but years of falling taught me to doubt myself.
My eventual membership interview was a turning point. The presiding elder listened to my rambling, defeatist story and then had a simple observation that still rings in my ears: “Brother, what you’re describing is called repentance. I’m going to recommend you for membership.” These words fell with the effect of a grace bomb. Doubts diminished, and hope flooded my heart. I could see so clearly my efforts that would never save me. In fact, God had been at work in spite of me.
By God’s grace, I continued to turn from my sin and my new church affirmed fruit in keeping with repentance. I was voted into membership and began to serve and thrive. A few months later, I was invited to my old church to share on a Sunday morning. I’ll never forget the moment that I was publicly invited to share the Lord’s Supper with them. This was a picture of the restoration Paul celebrates in 2 Corinthians.
My experience of church discipline leaves me with a few observations and exhortations:
For Church Leaders
Church leaders, honor God’s Word. Expel the immoral brother. You have to give an account (Heb. 13:17) and you do not want to be a shepherd who allows a wolf to live and feed among your flock. Teach your congregation to regard God’s Word as holy, regardless of how uncomfortable or unpopular church discipline is. Show them that in order to have gospel unity, we must also be willing to part with those who are walking in ways that bring dishonor to Christ.
For Church Members
Church members, honor God’s Word. Expel the immoral brother. But don’t wash your hands of them.
I remember a moment not long after my excommunication. I ran into my friend Rebecca in the middle of the student union. We had been friends in church for years. Youth group, retreats, college ministry, we were old pals. But this time was different. Instead of a typically familiar conversation, she asked me about my soul. Somehow, she graciously and quickly broached questions about my belief in the gospel of Jesus Christ. About repenting of my sin. It was strange. But it was loving and biblical. I felt loved by her even as I recognized the nature of our friendship was fundamentally different because I was no longer her “brother.”
PRACTICAL MATTERS
Briefly, here’s how to love someone under discipline:
  • Speak the truth.
  • Be clear that your love for the friend has not diminished, but that love is now focused on one thing: the preservation of their eternal soul.
  • Invite them to dinner but not to parties.
  • Don’t call them “brother” or “sister.”
  • Welcome them, but make it clear that only believers “belong”
Looking back, it strikes me how church discipline benefits not only the unrepentant believer, but also the faithful church. It’s good for Christians when the Word of God is revered and obeyed, even when it’s hard and unpopular.
By nature, Christ’s true church is for blood-bought followers of Christ. Even though church discipline has been painted as heartless and divisive, it actually cultivates unity because it clarifies who’s on what “team.”
To this day, I don’t know if I was a backslidden convert or if I was a deceived non-Christian. Either way, church discipline served to expose my hypocrisy. It forced me to deal with the claims of Christ. God used membership and exclusion to show me that life in the world without God is miserable, and my only hope is Christ
.

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Gospel and the Twitter Wars

A very thoughtful post on twitters wars within evangelicalism by Alistair Roberts blog. . . 
Progressive versus conservative evangelical spats are one of the very worst things about Twitter, which is really saying something. Such arguments illustrate just how poor a medium Twitter can be for productive conversation, not least on account of its tendency to foreground some of the shrillest and most antagonistic voices on both sides and privilege reactive instinct over considered response. What results is generally more of a predictably polarizing exercise in group psychology than an illuminating exchange. The issues get lost behind the personalities, the party politics, the outrage-mongering, and the emotionality and, rather than making progress, we all end up that bit more alienated from and frustrated by each other.
This is extremely unfortunate, not merely because of the animosity it excites, but also because issues of no small importance become snarled up in the instinctive antagonisms and alignments of a crowd of people who really shouldn’t be in the same room. The form of historic communications media meant that participation in theological discourse was generally heavily restricted to people with extensive learning or significant qualifications, to people who were expected to be able to defend their claims without erecting human shields around them, and to people who were subject to a code of discourse. By contrast, the Internet gives prominence to people who lack either the learning, the self-mastery, or the character to engage in a calm and effective conversation. It gives the young, the popular, and the polarizing an unhealthily high profile. It also has the unfortunate tendency to bring out the worst in people who actually have something to say that is worth hearing.
It is easy to blame individuals for this. However, this is exactly what we should expect when we radically democratize theological discourse. It is also exactly what we should expect when we put a lot of people with very different personalities, beliefs, and levels of intelligence and learning in one single place without clear boundaries between them. A few exceptional people can keep their cool and think non-reactively in such settings. But most, even among highly intelligent and learned people, can’t. The medium is not a healthy one and, save in the case of unusual people who have developed strong antibodies to its dysfunctional tendencies, most people will fall prey to its disease. Indeed, the prevailing culture will usually be one dominated by people who have succumbed to the disease. Every time I briefly revisit Twitter, I am struck by how much it is has become a vast exercise in trench warfare between hostile sides, each demonizing and hating the other. And that this posture infects even many of the best people on all sides.
Seeing worthy conversations lying beaten and bruised on the side of the road of social media, I think we ought often to have mercy upon them, tend their wounds, give them shelter in our inns, and send them restored upon their way. The conversation about evangelicalism and the gospel occasioned by Tim Keller’s recent tweet is a case in point:
The uncharitable and reactive tendencies of the Internet were powerfully evidenced in the conversation around this tweet, along with many failures in basic comprehension and Christian charity. The perennial discussion about the meaning of the term ‘evangelical’ was rolled out again, this time in the context of racial polarizations that have escalated on all sides in the social media climate, in no small measure on account of the dysfunctional character of Twitter’s conversational terrain, which rewards outrage, privileges words to the eclipsing of actions and character, and, on account of its alienation from locality and particularity, privileges totalizing ideology and absolutized political antagonisms over prudence, compromise, collaboration, and the humanization of people who disagree with us. Those wondering at the growing sickness of our social life might want to consider the possibility that one of the contributing factors is that we have built our virtual neighbourhood on a swamp. Until we all begin to appreciate that the context of social media itself is one of the greatest enemies to a productive conversation about race (among many other issues), and consider contexts that are more conducive to conversations that make progress, we will only become more alienated from each other.
In Jonathan Leeman’s TGC post, the response to the discussion swirling around Keller’s tweet plays out in a manner that will be familiar to most of us, with a careful articulation of the relationship between corporate and individual, social and personal, dimensions of the gospel, distinguishing between the primary and the secondary problems it addresses, and calling for the importance of maintaining ‘gospel unity’ by protecting Christian liberty.
Leeman makes several important points along the way, perhaps especially when it comes to the need for charity surrounding political differences. There is a huge need to properly maintain the prudential character of political judgment in the contemporary context. On the one hand, people too easily render Christian political duty partisan or conflate ends with means. For instance, the concern for the poor that all of us must show should not be confused with the duty to support particular prudential policies, which are often unwise or misguided, even when driven by good motives. Conversely, our opponents’ support of policies that may end up hurting the poor may be a result of ignorance or failure to consider their unintended effects.
It is imperative that we recover the issue of prudence in our political discourse. This will cool down our arguments by helping us to appreciate that people with whom we strongly differ on questions of means can substantially agree on questions of ends and in substance of character. It will force us to engage closely with the arguments for and against specific policies, rather than assuming that our good intentions will suffice to ensure their efficacy. More generally, a form of politics that focuses on contextual prudence of judgment, rather than correctness of abstract totalizing ideology (and implied moral virtue), forces us to be attentive to the complexity and specificity of reality in ways that tends to blunt ideological stridency.
All of this is a very lengthy preamble to the issue that I particularly wish to highlight briefly here: the question of the meaning of the term ‘gospel’. This, I believe, is an area of weakness for most evangelicals—somewhat ironically, because the term ‘gospel’ is so central to our theological self-expression.
Andrew Perriman puts his finger on the problem here: the squabbles between progressive and conservative evangelicals are compounded in large measure by our forgetfulness about the particularity of ‘the gospel’. In our world, ‘gospel’ has become a heavily-charged floating signifier, which has become unmoored from its biblical particularity. Christians can treat the specificity of the biblical narrative as if it were a launch pad from which the rocket of a universal and deracinated ‘Gospel’ were propelled into the orbit of the earth. While the biblical narrative is one of a very particular people and God’s historical dealings with them, the ‘Gospel’ is a departicularized and dehistoricized declaration of justification by grace through faith alone for the individual in need of salvation. The word ‘gospel’ then becomes attached to all sorts of other terms in various forms, to give them an added oomph of piety (e.g. ‘gospel-centred’).
Yet this doesn’t work. The biblical gospel is a highly particular message. It is a message that comes at the fulness of time, to a particular people, and has a highly specific context and content. It isn’t about a timeless mode of salvation or a universal soteriology of grace, but about the particular declaration that God has visited his people in the Messiah, bringing forgiveness and judgment to Israel, that his kingdom has been inaugurated and that it will be established over the whole world. All of this is summed up in the gospel proclamation: ‘Jesus is Lord!’
While forgiveness and restoration in fellowship with God for persons of all nations is an implication of ‘the gospel’, the gospel itself is the declaration of God’s reign in Israel’s Messiah. The forgiveness spoken of in the gospels is primarily a forgiveness extended to the people of Israel, not to detached individuals of all nations. It is about God’s gracious restoration of his people.
The story of the Church, in its turn, grows out of the story of Israel and does not cease to be a story rooted in and springing out of that particularity. As Gentiles, we are grafted into the olive tree of Israel, which isn’t simply the tree of personal salvation (God-fearers outside of Israel were saved in the old covenant), but the tree of God’s chosen people. We are saved by Israel’s Messiah, as part of the seed of Abraham by faith in the Christ. We are, at the fulness of the ages, made members of the people of the Messiah, anticipated since the world began. In all of this, God is addressing the cosmic crisis, but he is addressing it from a very particular place within the cosmos.
The salvation announced by Christ and his apostles in the first century AD, furthermore, was articulated primarily against the horizon of judgment in AD70, rather than the final judgment, or even against the personal eschatological horizon of death. This doesn’t mean that those horizons are absent or unimportant, just that they aren’t anywhere near as prominent as most believe that they are.
Once we take all of this into account, what evangelicals typically term ‘the gospel’ doesn’t merely vanish in a puff of biblical theology. Certainly not! However, it is decentred, placed against the backdrop of a far greater canvas, in which the historical, particular, and cosmic character of God’s salvation are far more clearly perceived. We must also learn to speak of it in different, more carefully chosen, terminology. Individual conversion is part of a much bigger picture and not the central element of it. Again, this doesn’t mean that we stop calling people to repentance and faith, or that we simply jettison our theologies of grace. It means that we must more correctly situate them and not lose sight of the bigger picture, nor of the ways in which the gospel is about catching us up into a greater story, rather than merely impacting upon and turning around our individual narratives.
Again, as we appreciate this, we will be better situated to consider questions of ‘social justice’. Both progressive and conservative evangelical accounts of the gospel get us off on the wrong foot here. Jesus’ message was neither a generic message of social justice, nor a generic message of individual salvation. It was a message deeply rooted in the particularity of Israel’s life, history, and peoplehood. This particularity can be a stumbling stone both to conservatives, who desire a universal message for individual salvation, untethered from historical particularity. It can also be a stumbling block to progressives, who desire a message of social justice freed from the unwelcome particularity of the gospel message, which prioritizes a particular peoplehood and ethical mainspring in ways that cause problems for the universalism and religious deracination of the liberal sentimental humanitarianism it seeks to underwrite, also establishing tensions with the secular political movements with which it seeks to align itself.

Friday, January 12, 2018

5 Steps for Finding the Point of Any Passage in Scripture

From the 9 Marks blog:

“How do I find the point of a biblical text?”
This is a question I often hear from small group Bible study leaders and student leaders in the church where I serve. And nothing would give me greater pleasure than telling them (and you) that I have a magic formula that will take them from their text directly to its point, or better yet, its application.

I don’t have that magic formula. I do, however, think there are a handful of things that you can try to find in your text, no matter where you are in the Bible, that will help you find the point.
1. STRUCTURE AND EMPHASIS
First, consider the passage’s structure and emphasis. I like to start with the structure, or how my passage breaks down into different sections of verses that work together.
Of course, how we find the structure will depend a bit on the type of text. If I am looking at a narrative, plot and characters are helpful. I will look for the setting, the climax, and the resolution. If I am looking at a speech or letter, I will look for a flow of ideas with a logical point. If I am looking at poetry, I will try to identify the different stanzas and begin to summarize them.
And no matter what section of the Bible I am in, I always, always, look for repeated words and ideas. A literal translation will help you here. The diagnostic question I like to use is: “How has the author organized this passage?” And once I have started to sketch out a structure, I ask myself what emphasis is being revealed by this structure.
2. CONTEXT
Second, consider the context. No passage of the Bible exists alone. Rather, every text is part of an argument, story, or collection of passages that has purposefully been arranged by the author.
What comes before my passage and what comes after are important, and will help me to understand what is in my passage. It may help to realize the topic the author is addressing. It may help me to see a larger section in my book. It may provide a helpful correction to something I have been misreading in my passage. It may even help me to understand the historical situation of the first audience.
Context is key. And my diagnostic question is: “Why has the author put this passage here, at this point in the book?”
3. BOOK THEME
Given what I just mentioned about context, it only makes sense to zoom all the way out and ask about the book. What is the author’s agenda with this book?
Of course, it takes some work to really understand the theme of a whole book.  Nevertheless, I think it is an important step to ask: “How does my passage—and particularly that emphasis I found in the structure—relate to this bigger theme of the whole book?”
4.THEOLOGICAL REFLECTION
In Luke 24:13-49, Jesus teaches that the whole of Scripture points to his death and resurrection, and the results of this gospel are repentance and forgiveness of sins. Without understanding this, we run the risk of interpreting a passage only moralistically or somehow separated from the gospel.
So, it is important to use all the tools of theology (especially biblical theology) to ask: “How does my passage relate to the gospel?” Of course, there are a lot of ways to do this badly. So, it is important that we make legitimate connections between our text and the gospel.
5. SYNTHESIZE
Once you’ve done your work in structure, context, book theme, and theology, it is time to start synthesizing. Whether you call this the main point, the theme of the passage, or the big idea, it is important to take this final step. The question I like to ask myself is this: “What is the author trying to teach his first audience?” What is he saying? What’s his main point?
Don’t kid yourself: this is not an easy process. For me, this represents an hour or two of preparation for a small group—and probably 12 hours of preparation for a sermon! But whatever time you have, I think it is helpful to work this way.
Of course, once you’ve discerned the main idea, you still need to think through application. Still, as far as working on the text, this is where I start:
  1. How has the author organized this passage?
  2. Why has the author put this passage here, at this point in the book?
  3. How does my passage relate to the theme of the whole book?
  4. How does my passage relate to the gospel?
  5. What is the author trying to teach his first audience?
For a little more on this process, see David Helm’s book Expositional Preaching: How We Speak God’s Word Today (Crossway, forthcoming April 2014).

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Gospel-Centrality: A Warning and a Recommendation

This article from 9 Marks talks about the need to be gospel-centered but how easy it is to lose the centrality of the gospel.  I have seen this in my own ministry and in the ministry of others.  Hope it is helpful. ~ David

How do you move beyond the gospel without moving on from the gospel? On the other hand, if the gospel is so all-important, do we need to “move beyond” the gospel in any sense at all?

Those are two of the questions which are raised by this increasingly audible gospel-centrality movement among evangelicals.


Last week I looked at one possible objection to this movement. In this post I’ll tackle these two questions. One yields a recommendation, the other a warning.

First, I should say that I think evangelicals’ apparently increasing focus on the gospel is a wonderful trend. These many voices are right to tell us that the gospel is central to sanctification, that the indicative grounds the imperative, and that we don’t move beyond the gospel but deeper into the gospel. These are all deeply biblical arguments.

TWO EVANGELICAL “ISMS”: ESSENTIALISM AND REDUCTIONISM

But, someone might say, “If the gospel is so all-important, do we need to ‘move beyond’ it in any sense at all?”

Evangelicals are deeply essentialist. For a variety of historically conditioned reasons, we like to boil things down to their road-ready minimum and get on with life. As I’ve often heard it said, we tend to have two speeds, essential and unimportant.

One danger with this new movement, then, is that if the gospel occupies the “essential” category (and it should!), then everything else will be consigned to the “unimportant” bin.

Once in a while I’ll hear little hints of this in warnings not to let anything eclipse or overshadow or marginalize the gospel in our lives and churches. Such warnings are necessary and on the mark, but if we don’t carve out a third space between essential and unimportant, the gospel itself will be in danger. You can’t preserve the gospel merely by focusing on the gospel. There are all kinds of God-given doctrines and practices which are necessary to that end, and we neglect them to our own peril.

For example, the doctrine of the Trinity is inseparable from the gospel. Father, Son, and Spirit each fulfill distinct roles in salvation, which means that any distortion of the Trinity is a distortion of the gospel as well.

Another example: the truthfulness of Scripture presents a firm epistemological foundation for the gospel. Our trust in Christ is grounded in the truthfulness and trustworthiness of God’s Word.

As to gospel-protecting practices, consider church membership and church discipline. As Jonathan Leeman has said, church membership shows the world who represents Jesus and church discipline protects the name of Jesus.

Church membership marks off the body of people who belong to the gospel. It shows the world, “This is who the gospel people are. This is the new people which the gospel creates.”

And church discipline guards the image of the gospel which the church displays to the world. It keeps the church from presenting a false picture of the gospel to the watching nations. It does this by saying what a Christian isn’t: “This is not the life which flows from the gospel.”

Further, as someone has said, church discipline is the gospel in action. In Christ, God doesn’t leave us in our sin. Nor should we leave our fellow church members in their sin. Instead, we should move toward them with loving rebuke and Christ’s free offer of forgiveness.

These doctrines and practices, along with many more, are closely related to the gospel. They’re organically connected to it. We can’t neglect them without doing some kind of harm to our understanding of, and witness to, the gospel.

So now my warning: don’t let your gospel-centrality become gospel essentialism, which leads to gospel reductionism. Yes, make the gospel the center of your life, and your church’s life. But don’t make it sound as if the gospel is the only thing that matters.

CONNECT THE DOTS

On to the first question: how then do we move beyond the gospel without moving on from the gospel? In other words, how do we preach and practice these things without leaving the gospel behind?

Here’s my recommendation: we do this by constantly connecting the dots between the gospel and our doctrine and practice.

We’ve done that already in this article. The Trinity, biblical authority, church membership, and church discipline are organically connected to the gospel. And so are dozens of other crucial doctrines and practices.

The way for a church leader to move beyond the gospel without moving on from the gospel is to make those organic links explicit in your preaching and teaching. The way to focus on other matters without losing our focus on the gospel is by tracing out their relationship to the gospel.

So teach about church elders and parenting and eschatology and dating and baptism in light of the gospel, and in a way that shows how each of these things link to the gospel. That way, other doctrines and practices won’t compete with the gospel. Instead, they’ll link arms with it.

Don’t let your gospel-centrality become gospel reductionism. Instead, connect the dots between the gospel and everything else, including the structure and corporate life of the local church.

Monday, January 8, 2018

5 Common Evangelism Excuses

I have at times been guilty of some of these excuses.  From the Crossway blog . . .

Why Don't We Evangelize?
A. T. Robertson was a famous Bible teacher and a beloved seminary lecturer. He was also known as a tough professor. At the time, students would stand in class and recite from memory long passages from their assigned books. Sometimes it went well for students; other times it didn’t. Once after a particularly poor performance, Dr. Robertson said to a student, “Well, excuse me, brother, but all I can do for you is pray for you and flunk you.”

Jesus calls people to be fishers of men, but we prefer to watch.

“Flunk” is a word we don’t use much anymore. It’s a hard, sharp, inflexible kind of word. But it’s probably a good word to use to quickly summarize how most of us have done in obeying the call to evangelize. Jesus says to tell all nations the good news, but we haven’t. Jesus calls people to be fishers of men, but we prefer to watch. Peter says to always be ready to give a reason for the hope that we have, but we are not. Solomon says he who wins souls is wise, but we flunk.

But if you’re anything like me, you’re probably not quite so blunt about your failures in evangelism. You’ve altered your mental records. In fact, even at the time you’re not witnessing, you’re busy spinning, justifying, rationalizing, and explaining to your conscience why it was really wise and faithful and kind and obedient not to share the gospel with a particular person at that time and in that situation.

Throughout the rest of this article, we want to consider some of the most common excuses we use to justify our nonevangelism. Generally, those excuses just come into our minds, save us from having certain conversations, and then quickly pass by. In this article, we want to slow down our excuses and keep them quiet for just a moment so that we can talk to each of them.

Of course, there are thousands more excuses than those listed here, but these are some particularly popular ones.

Excuse 1: “I don’t know their language.”
Now, a language barrier is an impressive excuse. If you’re sitting next to people who only speak Chinese or French, you don’t have much of an opportunity to share any news with them, let alone news about Christ and their own soul.

Of course, you can work to learn another language and so be able to share with many other people. You can keep around Bibles or evangelistic literature in other languages to give away as you have opportunity. But ever since the Tower of Babel, “I don’t know” has been one of the most legitimate excuses we could imagine. Paul warns the Corinthians of the uselessness of speaking words that are unintelligible to someone (1 Cor. 14:10–11, 16, 23). After all, the whole point of our using words is to be understood!

Excuse 2: “Evangelism could cause problems at work.”
Even in countries where evangelism is legally allowed, many of us have jobs for which employers are paying us to get a certain amount of work done, and they have a legitimate expectation. During those work hours, it may be that our evangelism distracts people, or reduces our productivity, or does other things that can cause our employers valid concern.

We certainly don’t want the sharing of the gospel to bring us or the gospel into disrepute for any reason other than a disagreement with the message itself. We understand that everyone is, by nature, at enmity with God; but we simply don’t want to give people other reasons to oppose our evangel. We don’t want our evangelism to stand in the way of the evangel—the good news.

Excuse 3: “Other things seem more urgent.”
There is so much else to do in any given day. We’ve got to care for our families and plan for our weekend. The job has to be done, and the bills have to be paid. Studies, cooking, cleaning, shopping, returning calls, writing emails, reading, praying—I could go on and on about all the good things we need to do. And many of these things are time-sensitive. If I have a misunderstanding with my wife, I need to take care of that immediately. If the baby is crying, I need to get her home now. If the paper is due tomorrow, I’ve got to get the writing done right away. If we’ve got no food for tonight, I’ve got to do some shopping and cooking now.

It is legitimate for me to make and fulfill many commitments in life other than evangelism. But do our other commitments sometimes become so numerous—or do we interpret them so—as to leave no time for evangelism? If we are too busy for that, what things are we managing to make time for?

Excuse 4: “I don’t know non-Christians.”
Isolation from unbelievers may be the most common excuse for a lack of evangelism. This is the excuse of choice for mature Christians. When I’m honestly reflecting on my own life, I see that I have fairly few significant relationships with non-Christians. I’m a pastor. I’m not around non-Christians much as part of my job. I am busy writing sermons, counseling, planning, training other Christians, returning phone calls—even writing a book on evangelism! I’m generally unavailable to people except for my church members during the day or my family in the evening. I’m really absorbed with Christian relationships, and I think that I’m called to be.

But in cases like mine, how does evangelism fit in? If you’re a young mother at home with her children, or an older Christian, retired and not easily able to build new relationships, then you, too, know something of this challenge. If you’re a new Christian, you’ve probably been advised (wisely) to build new, significant friendships with Christians. And if you’ve been a Christian for a while, then you’re probably busy with service in the church and spending your time discipling younger Christians. One of the best decisions we can make is to pray and talk with a Christian friend about how we can legitimately fulfill our roles in the church, in our family, and in our job while also getting to know and speak with non-Christians.

Excuse 5: “People won’t listen, much less believe.”
Another set of excuses has to do with problems you and I think that others will have with our witnessing to them. How many times have I had these more subtle and advanced excuses assemble in my mind as I’m thinking about sharing the gospel with someone? “People don’t want to hear.” “They won’t be interested.” “They probably already know the gospel.” “It probably won’t work. I doubt they’ll believe.” I don’t think about how powerful the gospel is. I get myself in a wrongly hopeless mindset.

Of course, I should consider how faithless all this is. As Paul said to the Corinthians, “Who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7). Why do we think that we would respond to the gospel, but someone else wouldn’t? Haven’t you found that God saves some of the most unlikely converts? If you aren’t sure about this, consider some friends you’ve seen converted. Consider your own conversion. Jonathan Edwards called one account of the Great Awakening A Narrative of Surprising Conversions.

Of course, in one sense, all conversions are surprising: enemies are loved, the alienated are adopted, those who should be punished inherit eternal life instead. But it is exactly this radical, surprising nature of conversion that should encourage us in our evangelism. God may save anyone. And the more unlikely it appears, the more glory, we might even reason, he gets to himself when it happens!

The Heart of the Matter: Plan to Stop Not Evangelizing
Here we are getting down closer to the heart of most of our nonevangelism. What’s going on with us when we don’t evangelize? Let’s think about twelve steps we can take: pray, plan, accept, understand, be faithful, risk, prepare, look, love, fear, stop, and consider.

Pray
I think many times we don’t evangelize because we undertake everything in our own power. We attempt to leave God out of it. We forget that it is his will and pleasure for his gospel to be known. He wants sinners saved. Simply put, we don’t pray for opportunities to share the gospel, so how surprised should we be when they don’t come? If you’re not evangelizing because you think you lack opportunities, pray and be amazed as God answers your prayers.

Plan
As we’ve already considered, sometimes we don’t evangelize because we think, “I’m busy with other good things. Those other things are legitimate ways for me to spend my time. So I just don’t have time for evangelism right now. When my health improves . . . after my paper is due . . . when my son is in school . . . when my husband retires . . . when I get that promotion . . . when she’s in a better mood, then,” we say, “I’ll share the gospel with her.”

To fight such excuse making, we can plan to make time to build relationships or to put ourselves in positions where we know we’ll be able to talk with non-Christians. We plan for so many less important things; why not plan for our evangelism?

Accept
We have to accept that this is our job. Sometimes we don’t evangelize because we think it’s not our job. It’s the job of preachers, we think, or someone else who is trained and paid for it. But if we are going to evangelize, we have to realize and admit how we’ve been dodging our duty and adjust ourselves to accept responsibility for evangelism.

We might be the closest Christians to a particular unbeliever. Maybe he has a Christian uncle or aunt, friend, or employee who has been praying for him. Maybe we are the answer to those prayers. We must accept, we may accept, we get to accept the wonderful role that God has for us as evangelists in others’ lives!

Understand
Part of our failure to evangelize comes from a lack of understanding. God uses not so much gifts for evangelism (though there is a biblical gift of evangelism) but the faithfulness of thousands and millions of Christians who would never say evangelism is their gift. Your conclusion that you are not gifted for a particular task does not absolve you of responsibility to obey.

You may conclude that evangelism is not your gift, but it is still your duty. Not having the gift of mercy in no way excuses us from being merciful. All Christians are to exercise mercy; some will be particularly gifted to do this in special ways at certain times, but all are to be merciful. So with evangelism. God may unusually bless and own a Peter and a Philip, a Whitefield and a Spurgeon, a Hudson Taylor and an Adoniram Judson, but he calls all of us to share the good news.

Be Faithful
Perhaps we need to rebalance our allegiances. Maybe we are too polite to be faithful to God in this area. Maybe we are more concerned about people’s response than God’s glory. Maybe we are more concerned about their feelings than God’s. God does not like having his truth suppressed, and that’s what the non-Christian is doing (Rom. 1:18). Good manners are no excuse for unfaithfulness to God, but we have, too often, used them so.

Risk
Related to being faithful is being willing to risk. Let’s obey, even when we are not exactly sure of the response. Maybe you don’t evangelize sometimes because you’re shy. You don’t really enjoy talking to others that much, especially about things that may upset them. It seems tiring and dangerous. Maybe you would rather let someone else, someone who seems more comfortable, do the evangelizing.

But could you invite unbelievers to a meeting where they will hear the gospel? Can you share with them a useful book or a story from your own life? Can you befriend them so that you may be able more naturally in the future to share the gospel with them? We must be willing to risk in order to evangelize.

Related to being faithful is being willing to risk. Let’s obey, even when we are not exactly sure of the response.

Prepare
Sometimes we don’t evangelize because we think we are unprepared or ill-equipped. Maybe we don’t know how to transition the conversation. Or perhaps we think that in our ignorance we’ll fail at this and actually do spiritual harm to the person by discrediting the gospel in their eyes. We fear our ignorance. We think that it’s up to us to make the gospel seem sensible to them or to answer all their questions. And, so, having inflated these expectations, we decide we can’t meet them and so neglect evangelism.

Instead, we could prepare ourselves by knowing the gospel, working on our own humility, and studying more. Just as we might plan to have time, so we might prepare to be able to use the opportunity well when it comes.

Look
Have you ever prayed for something and then been surprised when it comes? I know I have. And I guess that means I really must not have been expecting God to answer that prayer request. It may be the same with my evangelism.

Maybe I’ve prayed for opportunities but then not really looked for them. Perhaps I’ve been careless when they’ve come. The way I’ve been careless can vary. Sometimes I don’t see the opportunities because I’m busy. Evangelism can, after all, be time consuming and inconvenient. Or maybe I’m too tired. Perhaps I’ve used up all my energy on entertaining myself, or working, or on everything other than this non-Christian whom I could talk to. And therefore I don’t even notice the opportunity.

Maybe my neglect of opportunities is more habitual. Maybe I’m lazy, caring more that I not be hassled or hurried than that this person hears the gospel. Maybe, when it comes right down to it, I’m simply selfish. I don’t see the opportunities because I’m unwilling to be inconvenienced. I guess that means that I am, finally, apathetic. My blindness to God’s provision is voluntary. I don’t consider the reality and finality of death, judgment, and hell. So I don’t notice the reality of the person and their plight before me. We must not only close our eyes in prayer for opportunities, but we must then open our eyes to see them.

Love
We are called to love others. We share the gospel because we love people. And we don’t share the gospel because we don’t love people. Instead, we wrongly fear them. We don’t want to cause awkwardness. We want their respect, and after all, we figure, if we try to share the gospel with them, we’ll look foolish! And so we are quiet. We protect our pride at the cost of their souls. In the name of not wanting to look weird, we are content to be complicit in their being lost.

As one friend said, “I don’t want to be the stereotypical Christian on a plane.” That attitude too often characterizes me. My heart is cold to other people. I have a distorted self-love and a deficient love for others. And just to drive this home, as I’ve been writing this, a non-Christian friend called and wanted to talk to me. We chatted for about thirty minutes, the whole time during which I was impatient to get back to writing this book on evangelism! Aargh! Wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from this body of indifference? If we would evangelize more, we must love people more.

Fear
We should also fear. But our fear should be directed not to man but to God. When we don’t share the gospel, we are essentially refusing to live in the fear of the Lord. We are not regarding him or his will as the final and ultimate rule of our actions. To fear God is to love him. When the One who is our all-powerful creator and judge is also our merciful redeemer and savior, then we have found the perfect object for the entire devotion of our heart. And that devotion will lead us to share this good news about him with others. We should pray that God will grow in us a greater love and fear of him.

Stop
We should stop blaming God. We should stop excusing ourselves from evangelism on the basis that God is sovereign. We should not conclude from his omnipotence that our obedience is therefore pointless.

We should instead read from the Word that God will call a great number to himself from every tribe, tongue, and nation, which will encourage us in evangelism. It encouraged Paul in Corinth when he was discouraged (see Acts 18). Again, if you will realize that conversion always accompanies proclaiming the gospel and the Spirit’s work, then you will stop trying to do the Spirit’s work, and you will give yourself to proclaiming the gospel. Just because we don’t know everything doesn’t mean we don’t know anything! We can’t answer all the questions of how God’s sovereignty and human responsibility fit together, but we can certainly believe that they do. It was Paul who wrote one of the clearest biblical passages about God’s sovereignty (Romans 9) and then went on to write one of the most pointed biblical passages about man’s responsibility in evangelism (Romans 10). He certainly believed both these things to be true. So who are we to blame God for our sinful silence?

Consider
The writer of Hebrews said, “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb. 12:3). When we don’t sufficiently consider what God has done for us in Christ—the high cost of it, what it means, and what Christ’s significance is—we lose the heart to evangelize. Our hearts grow cold, our minds grow smaller (more taken up with passing concerns), and our lips fall silent.

Consider that God has loved us as he has. Consider that God is glorified by our telling others of this amazing love of his. And consider that instead of gossiping about God’s goodness and the gospel, we engage in a conspiracy of silence. We reveal ourselves as being cold to God’s glory.

If we would be more faithful in evangelism, we should fuel the flame of love toward God within us, and the flame of gratitude and of hope. A fire so enflamed by God will have no trouble igniting our tongue. As Jesus said, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34). How much evangelism do we find flowing out of our mouths? What does that suggest about our love for God?

This article is adapted from The Gospel and Personal Evangelism by Mark Dever.

Friday, January 5, 2018

What Makes a Good Sermon? Five Questions to Ask

From the 9 Marks blog . . .

Over the years I’ve heard a number of sermons that have moved me to tears, and yet, upon closer review, I discovered that significant elements of a good sermon were absent. Despite all my training, I recently realized I didn’t know a good sermon when it smacked me in the face.

I recently discovered this glaring flaw while listening to a number of our pastoral interns preach. I created a rubric with important elements of a good sermon to give thoughtful feedback to students on how to improve. I noticed that occasionally I’d hear a sermon that I categorized as “not that good” merely on feel. But once I began considering the elements of a good sermon, I recognized some “below average” sermons were actually quite helpful. My instincts alone had simply failed.


DO YOU KNOW A GOOD SERMON?

So what about you? How do you know when you’ve just heard a good sermon? Did it make you feel really good or really bad about yourself, others, or God? Can you trust your feelings? Do those feelings ever lie to you? How do you know when to trust your feelings?

Or maybe it’s not your feelings that cause you to categorize a sermon as helpful. Maybe it’s your impression of how others—like your non-Christian family—might receive it. You know they need a message that’s funny enough to take the edge off but clear enough to call them to repentance and faith in Jesus.

Or perhaps you just have a really good gut that tells you when you’ve heard a “word from God” as opposed to all of those lesser words that are just posers.

Are you sure you know a good sermon from a bad one?

DEFINITION OF “GOOD”

First of all, I suppose I should define “good.” I’m using that flexible adjective as a placeholder for sermons that will mature and strengthen your doctrine and life over time, sermons that will sanctify and transform both individuals and churches—perhaps not after just one Sunday, but almost certainly after years and years of Sundays.

Just to be clear, only God can create “great” sermons and “great” preachers. God alone creates the unique kind of responses Charles Spurgeons preaching evoked, and we should celebrate these unique movements of the Spirit. But we should also support and celebrate faithful pastors who work hard, preach faithfully, love their people, and endure with patient faithfulness. Most pastors are more like Charles Simeon than Charles Spurgeon, whose early years of ministry included tomatoes to the face and empty pews. Both preached faithfully; only one received adulation.

With that in mind, here are five important questions to help you detect a good sermon.

1. Is God’s Word the most important part of this sermon?

I’ve recently heard a number of sermons that were rhetorically strong but theologically weak. As you listen, be careful not to trust your emotions too much. Not only have I initially labeled a good sermon bad, I’ve also found myself gripped by a rhetorically strong but man-centered message that upon closer inspection espoused unbiblical theology.

I’m not saying that ethos and pathos mean nothing. But Paul says pastors are to preach the Word, not move the soul, heart, or mind. So it’s worth asking the question: is the Word what drives your appreciation for a sermon? Are you more interested in the preacher’s stories than you are his God? That may sound obvious but do you really treat it that way experientially when you’re evaluating the significance of the preached Word?

2. Do you leave understanding the main point of the text?

In other words, do you understand your Bible better because you heard this sermon? And do you see that the pastor crafted his message in such a way that the main point of his message was the main point of the Scripture he is preaching from?

Maybe you sense that he missed it. But did you sense that he labored to understand the meaning of that text in its particular context and to make God’s agenda his agenda rather than vice versa? Good preaching elevates God’s Word above man’s ideas. Good preaching—predominately but not exclusively—is expositional. Good preaching goes verse by verse through books of the Bible in order to reveal the whole counsel of God. Too many preachers preach ex cathedra, like the bishop of Rome offering authoritative pronouncements, expecting people to trust their words rather than pointing them to God’s.

3. Did the preacher preach Jesus?

I hope this question sounds strange to your ears. What evangelical church would leave Jesus out? Well, over my recent sabbatical, I listened to a number of sermons on Old Testament texts preached in large, conservative, evangelical churches where Jesus’ name was not mentioned. A sermon preached in Christ’s church failed to mention Christ. It would have fit neatly into any local synagogue. Would you notice if Jesus wasn’t the hero of the story week in and week out?

But we should not only ask if Christ was preached, we should also ask how Christ was preached. Were we exposed to the biblical Christ from both Testaments in a way that doesn’t treat Jesus as an obligatory appendage to an otherwise good Jewish message? Did the preacher make it sound like Jesus came and died so that you could have a better marriage and more obedient kids?

Christians and non-Christians both need nothing less than the resurrected and living Christ. This seems to be how Philip responded in Acts 8 to Ethiopian eunuch reading Isaiah. It seems to be what Jesus himself did on the road to Emmaus as he opened up all of the Scriptures and showed how they spoke of himself. In fact, just read through the New Testament and see how tenaciously Christ-centeredness its authors are.

We need preachers who preach like Jesus, Peter, and Paul.

4. Did the preacher apply the sermon to my life?

Conviction is the work of the Holy Spirit. But the Holy Spirit gifts preachers and teachers to help Christians apply God’s Word. Did you sense that the preacher prayerfully seeks to know you? What about the other Christians in the room who might be different than you?

Christ is building his church with diverse people from all walks of life. Does the pastor only speak to and about middle-class families? Or does he take into account non-Christians and nominal Christians, old people and young people, black people and white people, rich people and poor people, single people and divorced people, married people and widows?

The list could go on, but the point is simple: Is the preacher thinking pastorally through the text about specific ways God’s Word matters to diverse people in his context? Or does he preach past the congregation he has to the congregation he wishes he had? Does his application reveal a Spirit-driven care for the souls he shepherds? Or does it reveal something else, like laziness or narrow-mindedness or thoughtlessness?

5. Does he speak as one who knows God or knows about God?

Notice that up until this point I’ve spoken almost entirely about presentation. That’s because communication matters. But it can also be overdone and distracting.

On this question, it’s crucial to remember that preachers will act differently in the pulpit because preachers come from all different kinds of people. Some will have big and bombastic personalities, while others will be more restrained. Some will tell jokes, while others will not. The point here isn’t to be prescriptive on those matters of preference. Rather, I simply want to make the general recommendation that preachers should use the appropriate emotion for the appropriate text. Does he communicate joy when he’s talking about good things and sobriety when he’s talking about horrible things? In other words, does he describe the Christian experience as though he’s only heard about it in a book, or does he express it as one who has actually walked with God?

I’ve included the evaluation sheet to help you listen better. I suggest you read the questions on the questionnaire first, then take notes as you listen, and only fill out the evaluation form after the sermon is over. I would also encourage you not to use these every Sunday. They are best used to help you develop healthy categories to help you appreciate faithful pastors or to help you choose a healthy church for you and your family.