To the Preacher

November 14, 2019

In my preaching journey I have made numerous mistakes, but I have also learned a few things though along the way. Call it growth or survival, but I have managed by God’s generous grace to make it so far. I would encourage anyone who has the giftedness and passion to pursue a life of ministry. The church needs to continue to develop and produce solid preachers.

If preaching is your call; if serving God and his people through ministry is your passion–God bless you! We can use you, but please give all diligence to make sure your life and approach to preaching is healthy. Some of the best advice I ever received was simple and biblical–just continue to read the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus) and allow the Holy Spirit to guide and speak to you through these letters. They contain sound, divine instruction for the preacher of God.

In addition here are a few things I have discovered as essential for healthy ministry. I have at times failed in all of these. That is one reason why I share–maybe you can avoid my mistakes:

  • Preach Christ first and foremost. The Corinthian church had assorted and competing agendas at work within it. The apostle Paul’s solution was to focus primarily on the cross and simply “preach Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). We will never go wrong following that example. Lifting up Christ in our ministry and preaching will create the kind of atmosphere in which churches will be healthy, will grow, and will represent the kind of kingdom community God desires. Preachers should avoid the snares of other agendas–they can be divisive and counterproductive to the work of God and the church. We all need to make sure our preaching is anchored in Jesus as we speak truth in love.
  • Don’t Bash the Church. All too often I hear a negative focus when it concerns the church–even from among the ranks of preachers. Sure we have all been there–our church is not where we think it should be; we are frustrated by lack of passion, growth and involvement; maybe the church has even hurt us, but bashing the Bride of Christ accomplishes nothing constructive. Certainly we are to–as Scripture teaches–reprove, rebuke, exhort, but nowhere on this list is to tear down and harm. Just because our church is not exactly what we want it to be, there is no reason to attack it and those in it. God sees his church–even with all of our faults–as radiant. So should we. I get that we all need to vent–preaching is fascinatingly frustrating, but guard against the kind of bitterness which can lead to tearing down instead of building up. God detests that (see Proverbs 6:16-19).
  • Love the Brotherhood. This is a biblical mandate (1 Peter 2:17). It speaks of the broader love for God’s people everywhere–not just those in your church. Once I asked a brother preacher about another congregation in his city. He replied in what I considered to be a demeaning tone, “We are not like them.” I understood. His church had a more progressive outlook. He considered the other congregation too restrictive and old school, but aren’t we all saved by the grace of God? Shouldn’t we love the entire brotherhood of believers and lift up one another in Christ? Too often I sense a spirit of competition between churches and even between preachers. As Paul taught the Corinthians, we are all “of Christ” (See I Corinthians 3:23). We may not always agree on all things but in love we should do our best to accept each other in Jesus (Romans 15:7). This should be the kind of welcoming, healthy spirit we desire in our churches.
  • Do not disqualify yourself (I Corinthians 9:27). Paul spoke in this text about personal integrity–about living the lifestyle to back up the calling. While we do not claim perfection, own up to mistakes, and rejoice in the grace of God, we as preachers must be careful to “watch our life and doctrine closely” (1 Timothy 4:16). All kinds of minefields exist to undermine our credibility as ministers of the gospel. From sexual sins to being irresponsible with words, money and time–we must be on guard. Lazy preparation and preaching is never a good look. We must be alert to allowing some unhealthy agenda to overtake us. It is true that on occasion we may be unfairly held to a higher standard than the rest of the church, but to a degree it does come with the calling. Perhaps this is why Scripture says it is not for everyone (James 3:1).
  • Be Patient. One of the very most difficult challenges in ministry for me personally. I want it done yesterday, but the church simply does not operate like that–and usually for the best. Impatience in ministry can do damage to people and churches. So we have to learn how to operate in our church setting to implement ideas, build consensus, seek input and council, inform and share while bringing folks along with us. That takes work and time, of course, but it is well worth it. Typically the outcome is far better than imagined. Learn to be longsuffering and your ministry will be strengthened as a result.
  • Don’t Grow Stagnant. Just like in other professions–there are peaks and valleys in preaching. Our challenge is to never tarry too long in the valley. We must strive to stay fresh in our spirit; in our preparation; and in our outlook. Make sure to make time to read, to consider the scholarship of others; to find places of encouragement. We cannot preach from an empty well.
  • Be magnanimous (see Philippians 4:5)*. Ministry and conflict; ministry and disappointment; ministry and failure; ministry and hurt all do happen together. It is just a given that in ministry, you will take some lumps–sometimes fairly and sometimes not. All of us in ministry know preachers who have been unjustly treated and have a few stories of our own. However the natural way to react to these is not usually the best way. Rather we should learn to be magnanimous–to forgive and, at least from our perspective, do our best within those situations to be led by the spirit of Christ. It is always better to be generous with God’s grace than to be vindictive, return hurt for hurt or to allow bitterness to take root. Being magnanimous gives God the glory and defines our ministry as being led by him.

I love preaching and preachers! To us all I say–don’t lose heart while we do our best to “discharge all the duties” of our ministry.

I will conclude with a text from 1 Timothy that I referenced earlier. I think it is a fitting way to conclude:

Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress.  Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. (4:15-16)

May God bless our ministry for him.

 

 

*Thanks to Cecil May III for helping me see this text in a better way.

 

 


What Healthy Church Leadership Looks Like

October 25, 2018

HCL

What healthy church leadership looks like. This is one way to consider Paul’s first letter to Timothy in the New Testament. Paul’s beloved church at Ephesus—the one he personally spent three years nurturing after its troubled beginning (Acts 19)—was in more trouble. Just as he had foreseen (Acts 20:29-31) “wolves” even from their “own number” had arisen to “distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.”

Unable to go himself, Paul sent young Timothy to counter these false teachers and restore the Ephesian church to health. It was a tough task. In the letter Paul continually urged Timothy to “fight the good fight;” to not “let anyone look down on you because you are young;” to “command, and teach;” and to “set an example” to the church. Paul knew Timothy needed such encouragement. To counter established and embedded leadership within in a church—especially if that leadership is unhealthy—took courage and persistence. Timothy struggled. The task even seemed to make him ill, but Paul prodded him to persevere.

Truth had been distorted by the unhealthy leaders in Ephesus. Their worship time was affected. Certain restrictions were being enforced that were unhealthy and unauthorized. Some women of the congregation had been negatively influenced, exploited and were acting out in unhealthy ways. Benevolence was being mishandled and taken advantage of. People in general were being mistreated. Leadership’s love for money was a driving force in the unhealthy spirit.

Timothy was to avoid all of this, speak soundness into it, while living out a contrasting healthy leadership style before the church. This was Timothy’s task—to teach about and to live out what healthy church leadership looks like.

The Character of Healthy Leadership

Since the church in Ephesus had such a distorted and unhealthy leadership structure, they needed clarification on the kind of character God values in his leaders. This is where Paul’s instructions in 3:1-12 are so important. Paul shares character sketches of the kind of people God is calling to lead his church both as shepherds and special servants. Leading God’s people is noble—highly needed and valued, but only for those who feel called and those who have the right heart and character.

Paul first speaks to elders. He outlines how those who desire to shepherd the flock must have a character beyond reproach. This character must be seen not just at church but also at home—in his commitment to his wife and family—and in the community. He must have the right temperament; the ability to discipline himself in all situations; know how to treat and welcome people and know how to teach. He should have healthy motivations; not given to addiction, extremes or flattery. He needs experience and sound judgment. These are the kind of men God needs—healthy and servant-minded—to shepherd God’s flock. Healthy leaders who will produce healthy churches—something not happening at Ephesus.

Next Paul offers a similar description of the healthy character of deacons (and either their wives or deaconesses). Those who serve the church in this way are also to be people who are worthy of respect; self-controlled, honest, clear minded and properly motivated, experienced in serving, trustworthy, not trouble makers—demonstrating their faith at home within their family.

All of this is what healthy church leadership looks like. It is the way leadership “ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth,” Paul remarks.

Again, contextually this is not what leadership looked like in Ephesus. Again, Timothy’s ministry there was to change that. To take Paul’s teaching, live it out, teach it, and bring about the changes needed within that church.

In our context we read and learn; we also are to live it out and teach it. Healthy church leadership is all too vital. As leadership goes, so goes the church. Ephesus is an example of what happens when it all goes bad. We do not ever want to be there. That is why Paul’s teaching remains ever crucial. It remains crucial when churches look to identify and add leadership. It remains crucial for those who are called to leadership. It remains crucial if churches are to be healthy.

Practical Applications

Lived out, this kind of healthy leadership also includes being:

  • Purposeful: Healthy leadership understands their purpose—to shepherd the flock—and intentionally lives that out. They are purposeful in protecting, nurturing, guiding, loving and caring for the sheep.
  • Progressive: In that, they have vision for the sheep and plan for ways to continue the growth of the sheep. They are forward thinking. They do not let the sheep remain in same pasture until there is no more food to sustain them.
  • Present: Shepherds stay with the sheep. The only reason they leave is to go find the one lamb that has wandered away. This is the only way the shepherd will know the sheep and they will recognize his voice.
  • Prayerful: This may be obvious, but it still needs stating. Healthy leaders spend much time in prayer for those they lead.

Healthy leadership like that Timothy was to teach and demonstrate (and what we continue to need in churches now) is to be:

…diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Preserve in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. (4:15-16).

This is what healthy church leadership looks like.


When Bad Things Happen to Good Churches

January 23, 2015

Being in the preacher world I am well acquainted with bad things happening to good churches.

Division; immorality; financial difficulties; unhealthy leadership; strife and friction; ungodly agendas; even false teaching are among the bad things that often happen.

All are devastating. All are hurtful. All threaten to undermine the work of God’s kingdom. All happened to churches we read about in the Bible.

Just pick one: Corinth? Rome? Ephesus? Galatia? Colossae? They were all familiar with bad things.

Allow me to pick one–Ephesus–and roll with that (mainly because I am leading a study on Timothy at my church right now). We know quite a bit about this church. The first-century historian, Luke, details its riotous beginning in Act 19. The apostle Paul shares a rather emotional moment with its leadership in Acts 20. Later he pens letters both to the church and his protégé, Timothy, who was serving there (listed in the New Testament as Ephesians, 1 & 2 Timothy). And then this congregation is the recipient of one of the seven letters written to churches by Christ as recorded in Revelation 2:1-7. In terms of information about them—we have a broad context.

A broad context of bad things happening.

Bad things not only happened to the Ephesian church, but were first predicted to happen to them (see Paul’s statement in Acts 20:25-31). Ouch!

Turns out Paul was right—what he foresaw happened and it was bad. Unhealthy leadership with ungodly agendas did a number on this fledgling body of believers. Read 1 Timothy in particular, and you will start getting the picture. It is a picture of bad things.

To counter these bad things Paul sent Timothy. After Timothy got there and saw just how bad things were, Paul had to write a stay-there-and-do-the-job-I-sent-you-to-do type of letter. Hey, I have been a preacher at a good church when bad things were happening. Believe me when I say Timothy needed this kind of encouragement!

Of course, Paul gave him specific advice on how to handle the various bad things occurring, reminded him that he definitely was the man for the job, and encouraged him to keep his own nose clean as he sorted through the mess.

It is worth noting that in the midst of all of this instruction and confidence building, Paul uses the exact same phrase twice to preface a major point. It is:

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance. (1 Timothy 1:15 and 4:9)

Interesting. Various ideas have been floated out as to exactly why he turned this phrase, but I like to think it is one of those okay-now-listen-up-because-what-I-am-about-to-tell-you-matters-a-little-bit-more type statements. It is similar to when a parent calls the kid by his full name. Now it is time to pay closer attention!

So what was this crucial information Paul wanted to share and how does it help good churches currently dealing with bad things?

It all has to do with Jesus.

In both contexts Paul follows his preface with strong affirmations about Christ, forgiveness, and hope.

Could there be any more important information or any better way to counter the bad things while leading the church to a healthier place?

It all has to do with Jesus.

When bad things happen to good churches just double-down on the Christ! It may sound over simplistic in the always complex consequences of the bad things, but no surer foundation exists upon which to rebuild.

Bad things have a way of distracting; of bouncing off in all directions; of creating confusion in such a manner that we lose sight of the blessings of Jesus. He gets lost in his own church! The bad things discourage us; disappoint us; and divert us away from him and the hope he promises. They create a debilitating fog that clouds the joy of Christ, which prevents him from being exalted in his church.

Little wonder then in his letter directly to the church in Ephesus, Paul’s prayer was for them was “that you may know him better” in order to more fully realize the hope Christ offers by having the “eyes of your heart…enlightened” (see the entire context of Ephesians 1:15-23).

Discouraged because bad things are happening at your church?

Fix your eyes on Jesus more than ever! Get to know him even more. Teach, preach the forgiveness and the hope found only in him. Exalt Christ!

Not only will he provide you the strength (right, Timothy?) to navigate the bad things; he will create the healthy focus enabling your church to rediscover the good things.

He was the answer to the Ephesian church crisis.

It reminds me of what Paul “resolved” only to know while dealing with the bad things in the Corinthian church.

It was all about “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2)

When it truly is all about Him, bad things will not defeat good churches. They will hurt. They will disappoint. They may even discourage for a season. But better days are ahead. That is the essence of the hope Jesus offers.

Remember that letter Jesus wrote to the Ephesian church recorded by John in Revelation 2:1-7? Hear what he says to them then:

I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance… You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. 

Wow! Seems like the bad things were in their rear view mirror. They did not allow themselves to be defeated. This good church overcame the bad things in his name!

If (and God forbid) bad things ever happen to your good church cling to Jesus!

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. (Ephesians 6:10)


“Life that is Truly Life”

January 20, 2015

LifeTruly_lThe title is a little phrase snatched from the context of the apostle Paul’s concluding statements in a letter he wrote to his young protégé, Timothy the evangelist, who at the time was in the ancient city of Ephesus trying to sort out a mess of a church.

To many people across the world this letter we call 1 Timothy is likely unknown or obscure. Certainly Christians are more familiar with it, but even to many of them this phrase (from 1 Timothy 6:19) is probably not something they often consider.

It is just there in Paul’s instructions to Timothy on what to teach to the wealthy members of the Ephesian church. Apparently, among the other problems facing this infant church, an unhealthy attitude toward money existed.

Reading the immediate context you get the idea those with money were not using it to God’s glory or to further God’s kingdom. Reading the greater context, you get the feeling others in that church were using the church for their personal profit. Either way, it was not good news.

So Paul instructs Timothy to work to redirect some hearts and practices by encouraging them to “take hold of life that is truly life.”

By making this statement Paul is necessarily indicting the “life” being lived by many (rich included) in the Ephesian church. It is a contrast statement. Their (the Ephesians) approach to life was not “truly life.”

That is a fairly bold statement. How would that come across in our culture? Probably as judgmental and unwelcome. We pretty much pride ourselves on making our own way—rugged individualists that we are.

Who is some long dead, dusty old preacher or anyone else, for that matter, to tell me what life is all about?

Yet, if we ever honestly (brutally so) take personal inventory, how is that really going for us? How really is our life?

Contextually Paul shares three points that I think connect to his “truly life” statement.

  • It has to do with contentment. “Godliness with contentment is great gain” (6:6) is how he put it. Again, this was a contrasting statement—set up against the confusion; friction; and hurt put upon that church by people who were anything but content. The point? We can have it all, but without a God-laced contented spirit, can we enjoy it?
  • It has to do with hope. Real hope as in something true and meaningful after we are done with this world. This is found in one place- “God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment (what a great statement—6:17). Everything else is uncertain and temporary. Which is better to build a life upon?
  • It has to do with helping others along the way. Serving, sharing, being generous—that is part of “truly life” according to this teaching (6:18). Self-absorption; self-consumption; and self-centeredness isn’t.

“Truly life” leads us to “lay up treasures” as a “firm foundation for the coming age.”

Awesome.

So, if Paul is to be believed—“life that is truly life” not only allows us to live now in the abundance of the blessings God has given for us to enjoy, but shapes us to do so with a contented spirit and a generous heart in full certainty of an even better future ahead. And it also helps us to avoid many unpleasant situations, which rob us of peace and joy.

Where can I sign up?

Oh yeah, at the foot of the cross.

“ For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?” (Mark 8:36-37)

 


Sex and Food

December 2, 2014

The little first generation church in the ancient city of Ephesus was (to borrow a current not-so-ancient phrase) a “hot mess.” Unhealthy leadership created the situation. They were promoting “controversies rather than God’s work” according to the Apostle Paul. He was well acquainted with this church and her leaders (see Acts 19-20) and sent his “son in the faith,” Timothy, there in an attempt to repair the damage brought on by those who “have wandered away” and “turned to meaningless talk.” We can read all about it in 1 & 2 Timothy.

Part of the mess these “certain men” created included unhealthy ideas about and manipulative use of two of our most human desires–sex and food. “They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods” is exactly how Paul stated it (1 Timothy 4:3). Their motive in doing this–as detailed in 1 Timothy–is likely not surprising. They sought power, control and… money (which brings power and control). What might be surprising is that they used unhealthy approaches to sex and food to gain it.

Or maybe not.

Upon further review there seems to be quite the pattern within just the New Testament alone of sex and food being used to create other messes in both the Jewish and Christian communities. Just run these (not exhaustive) references: Matthew 12:1-2; 19:3; Acts 6:1; Romans 14:2-3; 6; 1 Corinthians 5; 6:12-13; 18-20; 7:1-40; 8:1-13; 10:23-33; 11;17-33; Ephesians 5:31; Colossians 2:16;21-23; 2 Peter 2:13-14; 18 & Jude 4.

While each of these contexts certainly are different they do illustrate how sex and food have repeatedly been the targets of folks (as we say in the south) “up to no good.”

Sex and food. Both are powerful human desires. Both were created by God as healthy and good–blessings for us to enjoy. Yet both remain targets of corrupting influences that appeal “to the lustful desires of sinful human nature” (2 Peter 2:18) rather than to God’s wonderful design for these gifts. According to God:

  • Sex is to be fully enjoyed and explored within the context of marriage (Hebrews 13:4). It is how a man and woman become “one flesh” in the sight of the Lord (Matthew 19:4-6).
  • And food? All food is to be viewed as a gift from God. We are to accept it with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:3-5; 1 Corinthians 10:25-26).

If you did run those earlier scripture references then you already know this was not the sex and food message many heard in those early churches. In somewhat of an oversimplification-both were either overly restricted or overly indulged. Neither approach helped anyone–except those “certain men” using them for their own agendas. They prospered in the messes they created, but the churches did not. (If you think Paul had nothing for them–check out what the Apostle Peter thought in 2 Peter 2. Wow.)

Sex and food? How is that going for us now? Anyone still out there trying to control and direct our attitudes and actions toward them? Do they continue to be used to further ungodly agendas? What kind of messy consequences continue as a result?  Anyone profiting from these consequences? And just what kind of reception does God’s message on these two get?

Sex and food. Most of us are not going without them and our desire for both can lead us to enjoy them in God’s healthy context or consume them in our own lusts.

I guess it all depends upon what sex and food message we are hearing.