Friday, December 31, 2021

Pastors Should Have Friends in Church. Do They?

I was told by a leader at the seminary I went to during a chapel that pastors should not have friends in the church they pastor. It did not sit well with me at the time and never has. It has been challenging at times as all relationships can be. Here is a good article from TGC. . . 

Before podcasts and blogs there was radio, and Paul Harvey was one of its iconic voices. Harvey brought an idyllic voice and a distinct delivery to his listeners for nearly 60 years. Each episode featured a mixture of news, commentary, and human-interest stories that not only informed but entertained.

Of particular interest to me were his five-minute broadcasts called “The Rest of the Story.” These small historical vignettes often offered a surprise ending, and he would close with his trademark “And now you know—the rest of the story.”

These words came to mind as my wife and I reflected on my article, “Yes, Pastors Should Have Friends in the Church.” I believe and stand by what I wrote, but now — for the rest of the story.

Pastoral Ministry Can Be Lonely

Yes, pastors and their wives should have close friends within the church, but this doesn’t mean they will. Such a sentence is hard to write; it is an even harder reality to face. Friendships within the church are so often difficult for pastors and their families. The loneliness is even enough to drive some to despair.

Friendships within the church are so often difficult for pastors and their families.

It is difficult to separate the person from the position. While specific reasons may vary, the root of loneliness often results from the inability (often unintentionally) of pastors and congregants to separate the person from the position. This reality manifests in the life of the pastor’s wife as well.

Every random encounter, lunch appointment, coffee meeting, and extracurricular event falls under the umbrella of the pastor-member relationship. Most of these encounters inevitably lead to conversations circling back to the church—its business, its programs, its politics. Such conversations then become brick and mortar for Jericho-like walls, hindering the development of genuine friendship.

Let’s not confuse church talk, however, with discussing the chosen, adopted, forgiven, and gathered people who have been lavished with God’s grace and united together in Christ. There is a difference between discussing the business of the church and discussing Jesus and his bride. Solely discussing the institution, while necessary at times, can be spiritually draining and can alienate us from the possibility of genuine friendship by establishing a person-position dichotomy.

For members of a congregation, the pastor may be seen as a professional expected to fill a position, not a person to be truly seen (much less befriended). Conversations about Jesus and his work in people, on the other hand, provide life-giving energy, foster spiritual intimacy, and deepen the unity we share in Christ. Conversations centered on these truths provide the foundation for friendship established on the person of Christ, not the profession of the pastor.

Close Friendships Aren’t Certain

Friendships come with various levels of intimacy. Some will only scratch the surface, while others will flourish as a result of common interests, shared desires, and mutual trust. While every level of friendship is important, few will provide the depth so many of us seek.

The church a pastor is called to serve may not meet his or his family’s longing for deep friendship, but this doesn’t mean his congregation doesn’t care. Nor does this mean friendships cannot exist within the church. Your church family may simply be unable to meet your personal longings for friendship. Should this occur, we as pastors must be careful not to project our frustrations as their failures.

Your church family may simply be unable to meet your personal longings for friendship.

Rather, may we give God thanks for the friendships he has provided. May we ask the Lord to provide the desires of our heart, but recognize he may not answer in the way we expect.

Perhaps he desires for us to acknowledge the relationships he’s graciously provided so that they may be intentionally nurtured, fostered, and developed. Perhaps our desire for close friendships will not be met through one or two persons, but rather through the collective membership of the body.

Jesus Sticks Closer

As the author of Proverbs writes, “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24). Jesus is this friend. He is the one who knows and is able to meet our deepest longings. Plain and simple, Jesus is enough.

God will always provide exactly what we need, when we need it. Let’s fight against our tendency to build relational walls that stand in the way of receiving his blessing. Let’s not expect the church to provide the intimacy and validation only Jesus can provide. After all, it is our vertical relationship with him that enables friendships with others to flourish.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

When Members Leave: How Pastors Can Guard Their Hearts

Over the years I have experienced both pain and numbness to people leaving. Here is some helpful advice.

After the presbytery of local pastors interviewed me for ordination, each member offered a word of counsel. Always preach the Word. Be a holy man. Someone else told me, “Don’t get close to your people.” While no one corrected him, the Holy Spirit set off alarm bells in my heart. His comment exposed his own raw nerves and wounds that cut deeply into his life, leaving him cynical about pastoral ministry. At the time, I was young, a long way from spiritual maturity, and hadn’t served as a lead pastor. But I knew I couldn’t shepherd people without having them in my heart.

One paradigm will not fit every church-and-pastor relationship. Personalities, interests, and styles, coupled with doctrine, methods, and change, sometimes unsettle the church atmosphere. Yet the Lord gives the appropriate prescription for each. It’s found in the ample “one another” passages, reminding us of the battle to maintain harmony and faithfulness in the local church. We’re all called to faithfully love, accept, encourage, and show kindness to one another (John 13:35Rom. 15:71 Thess. 5:11Eph. 4:32).

I could not shepherd people without having them in my heart.

Amid this, the Devil throws strained attitudes, disharmony, apathy, discontent, and a host of fiery darts (Eph. 6:10–20). Add the world’s influence, social media’s massive footprint among members to foment greener-pasture sentiments, low views of the church, even lower views of pastoral ministry, and the dangerous substitution of “online church,” and a recipe for discouragement is served. In this kind of atmosphere, Jesus Christ calls pastors to shepherd the flock (Acts 20:281 Pet. 5:2). He added no caveats to “shepherd.”

Over the years, I’ve experienced painful times of members departing. Some disagreed theologically. Others left simply because a friend left. Some preferred other churches’ ministries. Still others changed jobs and relocated elsewhere. Whatever the reason, people I loved and served, whose fellowship I enjoyed, with whom I had laughed and cried, left. At times they left in rapid succession; other times a dribble here and there. How could I keep giving my heart to people who might not stay?

Regain Equilibrium

When members leave, it’s easy to feel you’ve been spun in a centrifuge. You’re dizzy, wondering, hurting, at a loss. Yet Jesus called you to shepherd the flock he purchased by his own blood (Acts 20:28). Shepherding calls for close contact, ground-level exposure to the flock. You cannot shepherd them without being close to them. Yet being close to them may mean being hurt once again. Vulnerability accompanies pastoral ministry. Yes, you will be hurt—again. Sometimes it’s your closest friends who abandon you—I know about that personally and so does Jesus.

How could I keep giving my heart to pastor people who may not stay?

How do you regain equilibrium? When the seventy put their joy in ministry success, Jesus told them not to rejoice in it, “but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Find your joy in Jesus, not in your ministry (Luke 10:17–20). If your joy is fixed on him, then even fickleness in the flock, although hurtful, will not daunt your courage to continue pastoring those under your charge. Keep your heart warmed on him.

It’s the Lord’s Ministry; Don’t Lose Heart

While we often use the personal pronoun “my” to refer to our ministries, they really belong to our Lord. Although Paul witnessed the pain of departures and opposition, he also spoke of ministry as being received from the Lord. He didn’t create it. Jesus did. For that reason, he could write, “We do not lose heart” (2 Cor. 4:1–6).

He did not lose heart because, despite difficulties and struggles, he knew God finds pleasure in the preaching of Jesus Christ’s gospel. In other words, Paul realized (maybe he struggled to reach this point) that ministry was not about him or his performance or even his comfort. It was about preaching Christ faithfully, then relying on the Lord to work and accomplish his redemptive purposes.

But what happens when some who’ve received the Word through our ministries leave? It may be through painful exits of those we’ve loved and invested our lives in that the Lord has a work to accomplish in us.

One rash of departures showed me how much I wanted the congregation’s approval instead of the Lord’s. I needed that radical, inward change in disposition to endure long term in ministry. He may deepen dependence on him. He may teach us to love unconditionally. He may strip away vestiges of self-importance we didn’t realize lurked under the surface. He may order suffering so that we more faithfully empathize with those we shepherd.

It’s his ministry. Don’t lose heart. The Good Shepherd knows you.

Serve the Flock Entrusted to You

The remaining members who didn’t leave need your attentive shepherding. You can become easily distracted by departures. Your mind can become paralyzed, absorbed with those who left, and unconsciously miss out on the joy of pastoring. The congregation suffers, too, from a less-than-focused pastor. When the multitudes left, Jesus did not blink (John 6). Even some numbered as his disciples left, grumbling in the process. Jesus relied on the Father’s sovereign purposes, even in the departures (John 6:65). Without hesitation or complaint, he kept shepherding those who remained.

A rash of departures showed me how much I wanted the congregation’s approval instead of the Lord’s.

I don’t minimize the pain of people leaving the church. Years ago, during a three-year period about 65 percent of our congregation left. It was hard. But I learned good lessons, and out of it, grew closer to those who remained. We picked up the pieces and moved ahead, much stronger in Christ, humbler about ministry, and more confident in the wise providence of the Lord. I learned to keep pastoring, keep giving myself to others in service, and keep trusting the Lord with the pains along the way.

Overlook Offenses

Just as we encourage our congregation members to be quick to overlook offenses, we must overlook them too (Prov. 19:11). Bitterness over those wounding you—intentionally or not—will only intensify. Instead, in love, you can cover the sins done to you (1 Pet. 4:8). As you do so, pray—not with imprecatory pleas but with grace.

I grew close to a brother who, along with his family, attended our church the day we began. He became a leader, encourager, and friend. He was the first church member to visit the hospital right after our fourth child’s birth. One day he came in to tell me he was leaving. His reason: “You know I like to be around successful things; and this is not successful. I’m leaving.”

That was it. Ten years brushed off in a moment. God gave me the grace to forgive him and keep praying for him. In subsequent years, I’ve had opportunities to minister to his family. He’s reached out to encourage me. He had no biblical reason to leave. But he did. With that, I learned not to dwell on the past but press on with grace and kindness.

None of these practices comes naturally. Instead, they overflow from learning to find our deepest satisfaction in Jesus. While much joy can be found in serving our church members, he far exceeds what a church member can give us. We can easily expect more from them than God intends us to receive.

Shepherd the flock. Keep them in your heart. All the while, find that Jesus is enough.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Driscoll, Schaeffer, and Packer on the Size of Your Church and the Idolatry of Your Heart

Must read for every driven ministry leader from Justin Taylor at TGC. I have just finished The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.  Well worth listening to by every ministry leader also . . .   

Mark Driscoll, from a sermon in 2006, eight years before he abandoned the church discipline process from his elders, resigned the church after ostensibly hearing from God, and eventually saw Mars Hill Church dissolve completely:

I’m a guy who is highly competitive.

Every year, I want the church to grow.

I want my knowledge to grow.

I want my influence to grow.

I want our staff to grow.

I want our church plants to grow.

I want everything—because I want to win.

I don’t want to just be where I’m at.

I don’t want anything to be where it’s at.

And so for me it is success and drivenness and it is productivity and it is victory that drives me constantly.

I—that’s my own little idol and it works well in a church because no one would ever yell at you for being a Christian who produces results.

So I found the perfect place to hide.

And I was thinking about it this week.

What if the church stopped growing?

What if we shrunk?

What if everything fell apart?

What if half the staff left?

Would I still worship Jesus or would I be a total despairing mess?

I don’t know.

By God’s grace, I won’t have to find out, but you never know.

Francis Schaeffer:

As there are no little people in God’s sight, so there are no little places. . . .  Nowhere more than in America are Christians caught in the twentieth-century syndrome of size. Size will show success. If I am consecrated, there will necessarily be large quantities of people, dollars, etc.

This is not so.

Not only does God not say that size and spiritual power go together, but He even reverses this (especially in the teaching of Jesus) and tells us to be deliberately careful not to choose a place too big for us. We all tend to emphasize big works and big places, but all such emphasis is of the flesh. To think in such terms is simply to hearken back to the old, unconverted, egoist, self-centered Me. This attitude, taken from the world, is more dangerous to the Christian than fleshly amusement or practice. It is the flesh.

—Francis Schaeffer, No Little People (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1974), 18.

J. I. Packer:

I have found that churches, pastors, seminaries, and parachurch agencies throughout North America are mostly playing the numbers game—that is, defining success in terms of numbers of heads counted or added to those that were there before.

Church-growth theorists, evangelists, pastors, missionaries, news reporters, and others all speak as if

(1) numerical increase is what matters most;

(2) numerical increase will surely come if our techniques and procedures are right;

(3) numerical increase validates ministries as nothing else does;

(4) numerical increase must be everyone’s main goal.

He detects four “unhappy consequences” of these assumptions:

First, big and growing churches are viewed as far more significant than others.

Second, parachurch specialists who pull in large numbers are venerated, while hard-working pastors are treated as near-nonentities.

Third, lively laymen and clergy too are constantly being creamed off from the churches to run parachurch ministries, in which, just because they specialize on a relatively narrow front, quicker and more striking results can be expected.

Fourth, many ministers of not-so-bouncy temperament and not-so-flashy gifts return to secular employment in disillusionment and bitterness, concluding that the pastoral life of steady service is a game not worth playing.

Packer then offers his assessment:

In all of this I seem to see a great deal of unmortified pride, either massaged, indulged, and gratified, or wounded, nursed, and mollycoddled. Where quantifiable success is god, pride always grows strong and spreads through the soul as cancer sometimes gallops through the body.

Shrinking spiritual stature and growing moral weakness thence result, and in pastoral leaders, especially those who have become sure they are succeeding, the various forms of abuse and exploitation that follow can be horrific.

Orienting all Christian action to visible success as its goal, a move which to many moderns seems supremely sensible and businesslike, is thus more a weakness in the church than its strength; it is a seedbed both of unspiritual vainglory for the self-rated succeeders and of unspiritual despair for the self-rated failures, and a source of shallowness and superficiality all round.

The way of health and humility is for us to admit to ourselves that in the final analysis we do not and cannot know the measure of our success the way God sees it. Wisdom says: leave success ratings to God, and live your Christianity as a religion of faithfulness rather than an idolatry of achievement.

—J. I. Packer, A Passion for Faithfulness: Wisdom from the Book of Nehemiah (Wheaton: Crossway, 1995), 207–209.

(Packer says that he would like to see Kent and Barbara Hughes’ book, Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome, “made required reading for every pastoral aspirant.”)

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

9 Things You Should Know About Sermons

I have not posted in a while as most of my posting has been on my church's FB page but I find often material that is broader than just for my church and other Christians and helpful for leaders so here is one today I found by Joe Carter on TGC. . . 

Tomorrow marks the 400th anniversary of the first recorded sermon on American soil and the first printed here. Since there were no ordained ministers to come to Plymouth colony aboard the English ship Fortune, a deacon named Robert Cushman delivered to the Puritan group a sermon on 1 Corinthians 10:24.

In honor of this anniversary, here are nine things you should know about sermons.

1. Defining what a sermon is can be surprisingly difficult.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines a sermon as “part of a Christian church ceremony in which a minister gives a talk on a religious or moral subject, often based on something written in the Bible.” Such definitions provide a useful starting point but exclude much of what has constituted a sermon throughout church history. A more useful, though still too narrow, definition was proposed by Austin Phelps in his 1895 book The Theory of Preaching. Phelps says, “A sermon is an oral address to the popular mind, upon religious truth, as contained in the Christian Scriptures, and elaborately treated as a view to persuasion.” W. E. Sangster adds the helpful clarification that “an address is man talking to men; a sermon is a man speaking from God” [emphasis in original].

2. Homilies can be sermons, but not all sermons are homilies—and both are related to homiletics.

A sermon is the work produced or created by the art of preaching, which is called homiletics; homiletics includes both the composition of sermons and their delivery; a person who practices homiletics is known as a homilist or preacher; a homily is similar to a sermon but is typically shorter and more devotional; sermon studies is the interdisciplinary field that explores the historical, literary, and social aspects of sermons.

3. Sermons are found in the Bible, even though the word “sermon” is not.

Determining what constitutes a sermon in the Bible is made more difficult since the word “sermon” is not used (in English it is derived from an Old French word meaning “discourse”). The best-known sermon in the Bible—the Sermon on the Mount—was not called that by the biblical author (Matthew) and only picked up that moniker later in church history. Identifying sermons in the Bible therefore requires looking for occurrences of preaching. Using this standard, the longest sermon series is by Moses in the book of Deuteronomy. The book with the most sermons mentioned is likely Acts, which refers to 19 sermons by Peter, Stephen, Philip, James, and Paul.

4. Expositional and topical are the dominant forms of modern sermons.

Throughout history, sermons have been used for a variety of purposes and taken on a variety of forms. But the two primary categories today are topical sermons and expositional sermons. Topical sermons are those in which the preaching is centered on a specific topic rather than a specific biblical text.

An expository sermon, as Mark Dever explains, is based on preaching in which the main point of the biblical text being considered becomes the main point of the sermon being preached. A topical sermon can also be expository. ​​Topical expository sermons, Timothy S. Warren notes, ground their message in two or more different texts or units in their individual contexts that share a common subject. And as Tim Keller points out, “all expository preaching is partially topical. Then again, any topical sermon that is faithful to the Scripture will have to consist of several ‘mini expositions’ of various texts.”

5. There was a “golden age of sermons” in the modern West.

Some scholars in the field of sermon studies have identified the period from 1689 to 1901 as the “golden age” of sermons. During this period, printed copies of sermons were one of the most dominant forms of literature. Throughout the 18th century, about six pages of sermons were printed for every one page of fiction. The “sermon event” (the experience of a congregation hearing a preacher) was one of the dominant forms of public discourse. According to the Oxford Handbook of the British Sermon 1689-1901, “In total, a quarter of a billion potential sermon events [within the British Empire] between 1689 and 1901 is probably an underestimate.”

6. Catholic sermons are shortest while black Protestant sermons are longest.

Pew Research performed a computational analysis of nearly 50,000 sermons posted online between April 7 and June 1, 2019, a period that included Easter. The study found that the median sermon sampled from congregational websites is 37 minutes long. Catholic sermons are the shortest, at a median of just 14 minutes, compared with 25 minutes for sermons in mainline Protestant congregations and 39 minutes in evangelical Protestant congregations. At 54 minutes, historically black Protestant churches had the longest sermons—more than triple the length of the median Catholic homily.

7. In America, evangelical sermons are more likely to mention “sin” and “eternal hell” than other traditions.

The Pew Research study from 2019 also found certain words and phrases are used more frequently in the sermons of some Christian groups than others. Some words—such as “know,” “God,” and “Jesus”—were found in sermons at 98 percent or more of churches in all four major Christian traditions included in the analysis. But evangelicals were more likely to use words such as “eternal hell,” “lose . . . salvation,” “trespass . . . sin,” and “home . . . heaven” than other groups. Words used most distinctly in historically black Protestant congregations included “powerful hand” and “hallelujah . . . come.” The latter phrase appeared in some form in the sermons of 22 percent of all historically black Protestant churches across the study period.

8. Black Protestants in America say inspiring sermons are more important than denominational affiliation.

An overwhelming majority (77 percent) of black Americans say inspiring sermons would be a very important factor when looking for a new house of worship. In comparison, that is more than double the number who say staying in their current denomination would be very important if they were looking for a new congregation, and three times more than the number who say it is very important for leaders to share their race or ethnicity (14 percent) or that most people attending share their race or ethnicity (13 percent).

9. U.S. churchgoers are mostly satisfied with the sermons they hear.

A survey taken by Pew Research in 2019 found that 90 percent of Christians who attend worship services at least a few times a year are satisfied with the sermons they hear. Six in ten evangelical Protestants (61 percent) say they are “very satisfied” with the sermons they hear, almost twice as many as those who say they’re “somewhat satisfied” (32 percent).

Joe Carter is an editor for The Gospel Coalition, author of The Life and Faith Field Guide for Parents, the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, and coauthor of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. He also serves as an associate pastor at McLean Bible Church in Arlington, Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter.