Archives For Pastoral Ministry

Prayer before preaching is essential because, without God’s help, we are useless.

In Deuteronomy 32 Moses is no doubt feeling quite a burden. You see, Moses is about to die–and he knows it. He is going to look into the eyes of the covenant community once again. He is going to preach and plead God’s character, promises, and threatenings to them.  In the ensuing words of chapter 32 he uncorks one if the heaviest, pastoral, and most passionate sermons in print. Remember, it was this chapter that proved to be the sermon text for Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.

How does he begin?

May my teaching drop as the rain….For I will proclaim the name of the Lord; ascribe greatness to our God! Deu. 32.2-3

The preacher’s burden has never changed, therefore his prayer remains the same. God–may you be pleased to use my words to magnify your name!

Moses knew himself, a dying man preaching to dying men (to use Baxter’s phrase). As a result, he did not long for such temporal and base things like what the crowd would think of him, how they would remember him, or how he would feel saying what needed to be said. Instead, he pleaded the living word of the living God! And in his prayer he struck the flint for God to light up his people with an awareness of God’s awesomeness and sin’s repulsiveness. Oh, that more preachers would preach a deep awareness of their own mortality as well as God’s eternality!

Whether you are stepping into the pulpit tomorrow or will be in the pews tomorrow, this is they type of prayer that you can pray for the sermon: “May this teaching drop as the rain…may the name of the Lord be proclaimed, may he ascribe greatness to our God!

The best part about this: God answered the prayer. Read the sermon; it drips with God-centeredness.

How do you deal with difficult passages in the Bible? Thankfully the Bible is straight-forward and understandable. The most important things are the most clear. However, there are passages that are more difficult, requiring more work by the interpreter.

I remember about 12 years ago as I worked as a pastoral intern at a church. I was teaching through a passage and my pastor gave me some feedback. “You are calling out audibles like a quarterback.” I was working through a difficult passage and in order to prove my interpretation I marshaled some other (many) verses. Like Peyton Manning yelling “Omaha! Nascar! Bradshaw! Montana! Hut Hut!” I was calling out Bible verses from everywhere.

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I grew up playing and watching a lot of baseball. It was almost a religion for me and Fenway Park in Boston was my church (so to speak). To further the illustration, the elders and leaders were players on the Red Sox. I think of Roger Clemens, Dwight Evans, Jim Rice, and Carl Yastrzemski. When I would arrive at Fenway I can remember walking out of the tunnel and being overcome by all of the images and sounds. There was the fresh cut grass, the 37′ wall in left field, the Prudential Building, and the sight of the players warming up. I was absolutely invested–I might have even secretly felt like was on the team.

Several years ago one of these players, Roger Clemens, was investigated for cheating. He was found to have used performance enhancing drugs, or banned substances. Clemens, along with a bevy of other players, have received something of an asterisk on their career because they have dishonored the sacred tradition and integrity of the game.

As a baseball fan I can appreciate the way the league, players, and fans have renounced the way these guys tried to take a short-cut. Some players cared more about themselves than the game. This, according to baseball is unacceptable.

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Lately I am learning of the indispensability of personally listening to sermons. Let me explain. Over the last several years I have preached, on average, nearly 50 Sundays per year. The times I have not preached I have been on vacation or traveling. As a result, I very rarely sit under preaching. I am making a distinction from listening to sermons and sitting under preaching. I listen to sermons all the time but rarely sit under the preached word live.

I believe that this has not helpful to me. In fact, I need to sit under live preaching.

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“He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness.” (Hebrews 5:2)

The word translated “deal gently” has the idea of being balanced on the spectrum between anger and grief. It was the healthy mid point that allowed the person to not be so indifferent that they were unmoved by grief but not so emotional that they could not be firm on sin. What was to result was a spiritual rock, one who could compassionately identify with weak people to bring them help.

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Pastoral ministry is hard and there are a lot of ways that someone can go awry. This is brought to the fore in an article in Christianity Today noting that Mark Driscoll is retracting his best-seller status and “resetting his life.” This due to the fact that controversy seems to be as much a characteristic as blessing in his ministry.

As a pastor you can become inflated with pride and bang your head on the door frame, because you believe the lie that all of the good things that are happening in your ministry are because you are awesome. On the other hand, you can be thrown into the depths of despair because things are not progressing as well as the other guy or whatever your expectations might have been.

The danger on both sides is that our identity, standing, security, approval, etc are based upon us. Attendance is up? I feel good. Attendance down? I feel like a failure. Excitement over ministry? I’m excited. Issues of discontentment or discouragement? Suddenly I’m sullen. You see, pastoral ministry is hard because I am selfish.

I can relate to Driscoll. I don’t agree with everything he says and does but I see how he got where he is right now. And, if you’re a pastor, you should see it too. The idol self-approval is deadly. Whether you have 30 people or 30,000 people in your church, you are prone to this and so am I.

I don’t pretend that all of Driscoll’s issues should be swept under the rug now that he has owned up to some of what has happened. However, I am saying that of all people, pastors should be able to identify with him and be rooting for him to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. This we do while looking to ourselves lest we too be tempted–because we know we already can.

How can you tell that your pastor loves you? This could get tricky. We might be tempted to exegete his facial expressions, evaluate his manners, or consider whether or not he sends you a birthday card. However, the Bible actually gives several ways that demonstrate this love.

One of the ways the pastor shows his love is by feeding the flock (the church) the Word of God.

Where do we get this from? There are many places in the Bible, but a good place to see this is in John chapter 21.

“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.”” (John 21:15)

Jesus tells Peter to feed his lambs. He says the same thing in verse 17. The word has to do with caring for or looking after the flock. In the Middle Eastern agrarian culture the shepherd would lead his flock to food and the still waters of refreshment. He ensured that they were properly fed.

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Truth and Tone Go Hand-in-Hand

Erik Raymond —  February 10, 2014

Click on image for Photo Credit.

There are many different ways a pastor may be derelict in his duty. The most common and obvious would be his morality. If a man is not reflecting the doctrine that he is teaching then his ministry is a sham. We know that there are moral qualifications for the office of elder (1 Tim. 3:1-8). At the same time the pastor must be biblical in his doctrine; he must have a firm grasp on the truth. If he is in error doctrinally then his congregation will suffer. As a result Paul gives many encouragements to this end in 2 Timothy alone (2 Tim. 1:6-7, 13-14; 2:15; 4:1-4, etc). This culminates with the pastoral inclusio to watch your life and your doctrine closely (1 Tim. 4:16).

There is another aspect where a minister of the gospel may go wrong, and I fear it is becoming increasingly neglected or at least overlooked. He must give attention to his tone. The pastor is to be firmly committed to the truth while maintaining a tone that is consistent with the truth. In other words, truth and tone go hand-in-hand. If I might take some liberty, “what God has joined together, let no man separate.”

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I was greatly impacted by a meeting that I had nearly 15 years ago with my pastor at the time. During the meeting I was talking about my desire for ministry and a great burden for the gospel to be clearly preached and central to all that we do.

In the midst of the conversation the pastor got annoyed. His annoyance seemed to be connected to my burdens and how they communicated a referendum on his ministry.

At one point in the conversation he said something that left a tremendous impact on me. He said baldly:

When you get old you come to see that things don’t work out so neatly. We’ll see if you have the same passion in 10 years.

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Delayed adolescence is a reality in American families. There is no disputing the massive increase in number of young people that choose to live with their parents late into their 20’s and in some cases into their 30’s. Insurance companies have taken notice of this and have extended coverage of “children” well into the mid to late 20’s. There is no surprise then that while adolescence is prolonged the expreriences that correspond with being an adult are decreasing. Marriages are decreasing while video games sales are increasing. The delayed adolescence of the American youth is a fascinating and increasingly troubling trend.

But I am not a sociologist. I am a pastor. My concern is with the attitude and culture of delayed adolescence in the church. More specifically, I am not here thinking primarily about the evangelical culture that tends to awkwardly squirm away from and therefore curiously mute the conversation of male leadership in the church. I am thinking far more broadly than even this, to the philosophy and theological vision of churches that cultivate and promote a delayed doctrinal adolescence in the church.

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I recently came across an article about Nick Saban, the head football coach at the University of Alabama. I am more of an admirer rather than a fan of Alabama and Saban. I’m overall very intrigued by college football coaches. I enjoy watching what makes them successful and what is detrimental to their leadership.

The Saban piece was fascinating. Of particular interest is the coach’s eating habits. Each day he eats the same thing for breakfast and lunch: “for breakfast, he eats two Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies; for lunch, a salad of iceberg lettuce, turkey, and tomatoes.” Why? “The regular menu, he says, saves him the time of deciding what to eat each day…”

If the coach is thinking about what to eat then he is not thinking about or doing something else. In Saban’s case it is the game plan, recruiting, or some other aspect of his leadership. This is a guy who has intentionally, some may even say fanatically, ordered his day by his commitment to his priorities. You don’t ascend to the height of a highly competitive field and stay there by accident. There is a tremendous amount of intentional ordering, reverse engineering, focus, discipline, and sacrifice.

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This past weekend I preached a sermon on giving. As I was preparing the sermon I realized that in over 8 years of full-time ministry I have never preached a sermon on giving. My first response was a self-congratulation. I am not like those unbalanced, prosperity guys nor like the manipulating, arm-bending preachers who guilt trip those who don’t tithe.

Amid the back-patting I was convicted. The Bible talks a lot about giving and Jesus rings the stewardship bell quite often himself. How is it that I have gone through this many sermons without addressing it?

So why don’t we preach on giving?

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There is no doubt in my mind that technology is a win for the kingdom. We are able to disseminate truth, communicate, promote ministry, and testify to the gospel. This is a major gain.

At the same time there is a potential danger with this media. And maybe the danger reveals an underlying issue. The danger is that people may perceive that pastors sit around doing nothing all day except snapping pictures of their food, recreation, and relaxation. Again this may be the reality–which is a bigger problem.

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With the rapid development and deployment of technology Christian readers must leverage it for a win for our sanctification. This was my conclusion about 36 months ago. I approached the task like I was writing a paper. I spent time talking with people, reading articles, trying products, and stubbing my toes (or swiping thumbs). Now, 3 years later, I feel like I have settled and have something of a battle plan and philosophy.

Before sharing it, just a disclosure: I am a pastor who has to read and likes to read. I read for information, transformation, and recreation. My issue has always been time and more recently medium. Should I buy e-books? Hard-copy? Use the Library? Borrow friends? The possibilities are seemingly endless.

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I remember sitting on my couch when it hit me. It was one of those rare moments of clarity amid the dense fog of dejection. I was fretting a bit about my sermon a few hours earlier. I felt like the wife or mom who kept on cooking up the same meals, the same way each week. The balance of spiritual proteins, carbs, and vegetables were not out of whack, but the flavor was. My homiletical seasoning had become flavorless and predictable. In short: my illustrations and word pictures were becoming bland and boring.

It hit me as I sat rubbing my head like I was attempting to coerse a migraine to leave. Jesus commented that “…out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Lk. 6.45). What was coming out of my mouth in my sermons was precisely what was filling my mind and heart throughout the week.

Think about it for a second. In sermon prep the preacher works hard to get the text into his soul. He pounds it in via reading, meditation, prayer, study, and thinking. What comes out is how the text has been received, processed, integrated, and applied personally. To put it another way, it is like the preacher drops a fishing line into his mind. Attached to it is the meat of the text. As he drags the line through the water of the mind he attracts some objects. You only pull out what is in there. If you go fishing and your hook gets caught on old boots, tires, coke bottles and weeds, it is because that is what is in the water. If your sermons consistently pull out illustrations about sports, your family, running or blowing things up it is because that is what is in there. In my case I was constantly referring to sports, my family, and (strangely) things that detonate. This works for awhile but eventually it becomes a tired old boot on the line.

So how do you spice up bland sermons? If we may apply Jesus’ logic here, then we need to fill our hearts and minds with more stuff. In particular we need to fill it with more homiletically helpful stuff.

Here are my suggestions that I have found personally helpful:
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Recently my family of 8 packed into our mini-van for an early Spring vacation. When I say “packed in” you may be thinking in terms of seats (i.e. a Honda Odessy only has 8 seats, therefore, we were packed in). This is not what I mean. We were packed in. The trunk was filled to the top, the floor had shoes, books, bags, and blankets. The front seat was full of distractions for the little kids as well as entertainment for adults and big kids. We were packed in. But then when we got closer to our destination (10 hours away from home), we went to Costco to buy food for the week. In this we were now officially fully packed in. Kids balanced cartons of eggs, coffee, vegetables, and milk while we finished our course.

The vacation ended and my normal duties resumed last week. I prepared a sermon and then delivered it on Sunday. After I was finished I was reflecting upon it and critiquing various elements of it and I was drawn back to our road-trip.

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In retrospect, prayer meetings are romantic. After all, what seems to be common to every revival and season of gospel renewal? People praying. God moves a few people to begin praying and then he powerfully answers them. Consider Charles Spurgeon, arguably one of the most influential preachers in church history, when asked about the secret to his success, he reportedly said, “My people pray for me.” God uses prayers. God uses prayer meetings.

If they are romantic in retrospection then prayer meetings are also intimidating in planning and seemingly complicated in execution. Several months ago I wrote a post arguing why prayer meetings were important and why pastors should lead their churches by insisting on regular meetings of prayer (Why You Should Attend a Prayer Meeting). I received a lot of feedback, none negative but most discouraged. People universally agree on the need for the meetings but get discouraged by the tone or the direction of the time.

In this post I want to highlight a few areas that I believe are important to helping get a meeting off the ground. These are items that grew organically out of our own context as we wrestled together with what we are trying to build. I sat down with another one of our pastors and we analyzed why our meeting was not being well attended and thriving. We had to ask and answer some hard questions. A lot of it came back to us as leaders. In the last year we have seen our group steadily increase and become a vibrant band of men who regularly sacrifice time to meet early in the morning for the purpose of frontline prayer. It is awesome. God is using it greatly!

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We like shortcuts assuming that they get us to where we are trying to go. If they do not then they are dangerous, unproductive detours. In his book The Priority of Preaching, Christopher Ash argues that there are no shortcuts for preaching with authority. He writes, “The authority is a wonderful authority, but it is an authority borrowed only at great cost. This is why there are no shortcuts that work.”

Ash then helpfully warns preachers of three common shortcuts that preachers are tempted to take. I’ll state his points and briefly summarize them.

1. Beware of the shortcut of individual interpretation. This is the notion that we can just beaver away at the passage like we were the first person to ever read it. Many, many Christians have gone before us and wrestled with these same passages. No matter how trendy it is today to have our own interpretation of things Christians preachers must know that they we are accountable to God and one another to hear what the passage really means. “We must not be lazily idiosyncratic.”

2. Beware of the shortcut of second-hand interpretation. When listening to others we must not just copy others. Ash tells the story of how early in his ministry he heard a famous preacher nail a sermon and figured that he and his hearers would be better served if he just copied the sermon and delivered it as his own. The result was a true failure. Why? First the context was completely different, so the style didn’t translate well. Secondly, the sermon was terribly superficial. He had not been gripped and shaped by the passage. In short it wasn’t in them. You can’t expect to put the sermon in someone else if it is not in you first.

3. Beware of the shortcut of mystical authority.“We need desperately the fresh filling of God’s Holy Spirit when we preach, and can accomplish nothing without his sovereign power; but that power does not in general come upon preachers who have not bothered to prepare, and the filling of the Spirt is not a God-given compensation for willful idleness.” In short: Get to work bro, God will show up in your study too. Don’t presume upon God’s mercy and grace while serving your laziness.

Good reminders. More from Ash’s book here.

This past year I ran my first marathon. As I ran I continued to chart my progress and endurance. Each mile marker rendered judgment against my goals. How am I doing? How will I finish?

The marathon is a fitting analogy for life. With the passing of each year there is a mile-marker of personal evaluation. There is an opportunity to take inventory, evaluate progress, and look ahead toward the finish.

To be honest, I have not done a lot of the latter. I have not looked ahead to the finish line and estimated my time. Like so many others, I like to live “mile-to-mile” making quick adjustments, taking advantage of quick bursts to make up for moments of laziness on the hills of life. While these inventories and adjustments are an integral part of doing what we set out to do they will not compel us in the same way as look at the end.

A look at the end of our life, the finish line, will bring a couple of things into focus:

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Over the last 15 years I have gone through many variations of personal fitness goals. As I look back at the years and the goals I can see a common thread: I stick with what works and get frustrated with what does not seem to work.

I suppose there is nothing wrong with this; if we are not meeting the clearly defined goals then the process or technique should be reevaluated. At the same time, sometimes it requires a little more time and patience in order to see goals met. Smaller, incremental goals are quite helpful in evaluating the overall progress.

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