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Free Stuff!!!

I’m a software junkie and I’ve been fooling around with some different programs for blogging. Yesterday I pressed the wrong button and posted what I had planned to post today. So I thought I’d post about some free stuff that comes my way and might not be familiar to you.

The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has some excellent resources. You can subscribe to their newsletter (which contains most if not all of these). I found some good articles on preaching, and with Al Mohler at the helm of the school, you can count on some superb analysis of contemporary culture and issues.

Years ago, we did not have access to many Study Bibles. I remember the Scofield Reference Bible, which featured notes from a Dispensational perspective, and the Thompson Chain Reference Bible. In our day, we are blessed with many helpful Study Bibles. While I have Logos Bible Software and Accordance on my computers, I have been using Olive Tree Software on my iPad and phone. Some modules cost, though they have periodic sales. But if you want something free, the study notes from the MacArthur Study Bible are available for free for both IOS and Android. You can swap between the King James Version (KJV), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), and the English Standard Version (ESV).

I used to live about 10 minutes from Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, PA. When they had an on-campus bookstore, I visited regularly to see what was new. Today they are a web-only enterprise, but if you log on to their site and sign up for the free newsletter, you’ll get info about new books, special deals, and other sale items. The link to sign up is at the bottom of the page.

If you’re doing some research – or just want to keep up with current theological trends, this site takes you to the home of Themelios, the journal of the Gospel Coalition. You can search hundreds of articles from the beginning of the journal’s publication. The journal contains book reviews as well. I find it helpful.

Another excellent online journal is Credo Magazine. You’ll find up-to-date podcasts and articles and an opportunity to have the latest issue sent to your email. A form to subscribe (for free) is on the above page.

Maybe there’s something new here for you. I’ll post articles like this from time to time. Do you have any favorite free resources?

A Minister’s Preaching, Part 3

On Fridays we’ve been looking at a prayer from the Valley of Vision titled “A Minister’s Preaching.” Today we’ll look at this section:

Give me assistance in preaching and prayer,
with heart uplifted for grace and unction.
Present to my view things pertaining to my subject,
with fullness of matter and clarity of thought,
proper expressions, fluency, fervency,
a feeling sense of the things I preach,
and grace to apply them to men’s consciences.
Keep me conscious all the while of my defects,
and let me not gloat in pride over my performance.

In an earlier post on Expectations, I told about a man who said that he wished he could be a pastor so he could study the Bible all day. Obviously, there is far more to pastoral work, and my response to him was that I had to fight for the time to study. You may feel that way too. But there’s another battle that we fight: the battle to include God in our study.

See, it’s easy to pull the books out, fire up the computer, and work on the passage we’ll preach and crafting the sermon. But the Puritan writer reminds us we need God through the entire process. We know this, but it’s good to be reminded. It’s good to have the opportunity to recalibrate our habits if we’ve gotten used to launching out on our own.

There are several requests in this part of the prayer: First, there is the confession that we need God’s help. It rightly acknowledges our insufficiency to delve into spiritual truth without God’s aid.

Having done that, he next asks God for specific ways in which we need help. He asks for insight, for an understanding of the passage. He asks for guidance in choosing the right way to express what he has learned. He wants to apply the passage to his own life, and he wants God’s help in applying it to the lives of the people. He desires to do more than educate. He wants to stir his listeners, to reach into their hearts.

And finally, he asks that God would protect him from pride. Pride is a killer.

Early in my ministry there were two young men in our church who were preparing for pastoral work. They spoke in our prayer meeting on successive Wednesday nights. The first spoke humbly. The second, well, he did not. Who do you think was most effective?

There’s an old story about a young man who preached for the first time. Perhaps you’ve heard it. He entered the pulpit with an air of self-sufficiency and it went downhill quickly. At the end of the service, the veteran pastor met him and told him “If you had gone up like you came down, you would have come down like you went up.”

Public people are subject to pride and self-sufficiency. Involving God from the time we first open our books to prepare through the time we close our sermon is a help not only in beating back that monster, but in having God speak to our people.

I hope you’ve had a great week of study and that on the Lord’s Day you will experience his help in ministering his word. God bless you!

Get the Gospel Right While You are Young

“With every head bowed, and every eye closed, if you want to receive Jesus as your personal Savior, raise your hand.”

Those words are a part of the church experience of my youth. Most sermons closed with this kind of invitation. Usually it would include a call to come forward, talk to the pastor, and pray a prayer. If you prayed the prayer and meant it, you would become a Christian. It was very similar to the approach that Billy Graham used for his crusades.

The Jesus Movement hit the Christian world in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was the time of Hippies, Woodstock, the drug and sex revolutions. Older people were disenchanted. Younger people were experimenting and looking for purpose. As a result, Jesus was presented as the remedy for unhappiness, bad marriages, and finding satisfaction.

The so-called Seeker movement of the late 20th century and the early years of this century followed in this tradition, presenting Jesus as someone who could fix life’s problems and be a friend in an uncertain world. Many claimed that the Seeker movement avoided the hard parts of the Gospel message so that people were not turned off. If they were, they would stop coming to church.

The Gospel-Centered resurgence (sometimes called the Young Calvinist movement) of the early 2000s sought to restore the clarity of the Gospel message. There was a renewed effort to express the gospel fully and accurately. Doctrinal themes and biblical terms that had been regarded as difficult to understand were now at the forefront of Gospel preaching.  

Here’s my point: I’m realizing that over the last 50 years the way we have expressed the Gospel has changed several times. And I don’t think that’s a good thing.  

Now before I go on, let me say that no one should be a Gospel Curmudgeon. A Gospel Curmudgeon is someone who takes delight in being critical of others who don’t dot every “i” and cross every “t” the way he or she does. Some of these people have websites. Their sites are the children of the “Fighting Fundamentalist” newsletters from the days before the Internet. Man, were they wild! You and I don’t want to be one of “those” people.

Yet I believe that it’s essential that those of us who preach and teach a) understand the gospel, and b) express it in ways consistent with the biblical message. As I became more influenced (and for this I am thankful) by the Reformed Resurgence, words like “imputation” and “justification” were often used and explained often in our church. In fact, I semi-jokingly told our congregation that if I called any of them at 3am and asked them to tell me what it meant to be justified by faith, I hoped they could do it. 

I never tried that. Though I kind of wish I had.

How should we present the Gospel? Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve observed that something is lacking in some Gospel preaching that I have heard over the last few years. Too often it seems like I’ve heard the facts of the Gospel presented accurately. But I’m missing a call for people to believe it.

Believing is the way we respond to the Gospel. If people don’t believe the Gospel, they aren’t believers.

Can we say we’ve accurately and adequately presented the biblical Gospel if we haven’t called for a biblical response? The Gospel message always includes responding by faith or believing.

It should be rare that a sermon or lesson does not have a connection to the Gospel. Others have written far more eloquently and persuasively than I can that teaching the Bible without a Gospel or Christ-centered focus leads to moralism. But presenting the facts of the Gospel without appealing to people to believe is not sufficient. We haven’t finished the job.

Most of the people in our congregations may be believers. It’s possible there are some who were warming themselves by the Gospel fires but have never trusted Christ. But in most cases our audiences are predominantly Christian audiences.

Yet we should still call on them to believe when we come to the content of the Gospel. In fact, without being manipulative, we should urge them to belief/faith as the way to respond to the Gospel.

Is that “preaching to the choir?” No!

We don’t know people’s hearts. We don’t want people to assume that they are Christians just because they are hearing the Gospel message. And we shouldn’t want any to answer the question of “How do you know that you are a Christian?” by saying, “Because I prayed a prayer.” or “Because I went forward at an invitation.” or “My life was a mess so I turned it over to Jesus.”

May I encourage you to check your preaching and teaching? The Gospel message includes a call to respond. Be sure that your Gospel presentations and explanations ALWAYS include that appeal to believe the Gospel, to put faith in the finished work of Christ.

You have your whole ministry life ahead of you. No matter how large or small your church or class is, you’ll speak to hundreds of people if not thousands over the years. Let me encourage you to get the Gospel right while you are young.

Companions for the Journey

I was hooked. I was watching previews for upcoming films and a preview of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first installment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy flashed on the screen. I would have to wait until the following Christmas, but this was my kind of movie.

I had never read the series, but I determined that I would do so by the time they released the first movie. I devoured the books. And while the films deviated in a few places from what Tolkien had written (thoroughly upsetting some purists), I loved them.

There are innumerable memorable bits of dialogue and some very unforgettable characters in The Lord of the Rings. And there are many great themes in the series. To me, one that stands out in particular is the friendship between Frodo and Sam. And by the way – if you don’t know the story, it’s a great read!

I’m writing this early on a Sunday morning, and this morning’s routine was the same as most other Sundays. I get my cereal and tea, check the Phillies’ score (alas! – last night was painful), and text two of my closest friends. One is preaching for the other who is enjoying the first Sunday of his sabbatical. I pray for both of them throughout the week, but especially on Sunday. And I know they pray for me.

For well over a decade, we have been meeting monthly for lunch. We’ve sometimes rescheduled, but we’ve rarely missed a month. Each of us has gone through both good times and hard times, but we’ve been able to rejoice together and encourage each other. Along with two or three others these men have laughed with me and cried with me, counseled and challenged me. I have friends outside of ministry, and I am grateful for them. But having friends who understand my world has meant much to me.

The two most significant traits among my ministry companions are their confidentiality and their lack of a competitive spirit. I know that I can bare my soul to these men and not fear that it will come back to haunt me. And there was never a sense that our church’s size made any difference, or that one of us had to have the upper hand.

We find ministry friends throughout the Bible. Paul had a bunch of them. Read the closing paragraphs of his letters and you’ll find them being singled out time and time again. And I can’t help but think Jesus’ disciples were more than a group of guys he was shaping into future leaders. We do an injustice to our Lord’s humanity if we imagine that he had no need for human companionship.

No doubt you have friends. But do you have ministry friends? Do you have men in your life who do what you do, who understand the challenges and the joys of pastoral work? If not, let me encourage you to reach out to some other pastors in your area. Have lunch, talk, and ask God to help you discerningly build one or more friendships that will enable you to encourage each other along the way.

Have you benefitted from these kinds of relationships? Or has it been a struggle to develop ministry friendships? I’d enjoy hearing from you.

A Minister’s Preaching – Part 2

“Yet I long that people might be edified with divine truth, that an honest testimony might be borne for Thee.”

So reads the next section in the prayer “A Minister’s Preaching” in the book Valley of Vision.

Why do we preach? We preach because people need to hear from God. We, like the writer of the lines above, long that people might be edified with divine truth. We want to see them grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ, to see them mature in their faith, to see them live out the truth of Scripture in their lives.

Spiritual growth – in our own lives as well as in the lives of others – takes time. I used to compare what we do when we preach to the way layers of newspaper and paste become a paper mache creation. Change is imperceptible, but as layer upon layer is added, the object takes shape. So it is with preaching.

And by the way – let that encourage you. Watching our people grow is like watching children grow. You don’t see much of anything if you look day after day, but over time, it becomes visible. Often we get discouraged because it seems like nothing is “happening.” But we don’t see the hearts of our people, and we don’t know what God is doing in them.

The goal of preaching is that people grow to be like Christ. That’s what the author of this prayer means when he expresses his desire that his people to be edified. Pray that God will do that in your life and in the lives of your people as you preach and teach this Sunday. May God bless in your work.

P.S. Tim Challies links to a solid book on preaching in his A La Carte today. Preaching by Alec Motyer is on sale for $2.99 (Kindle).

What if I Don’t Like My Pastor’s Preaching?

When this blog was still in its prenatal stages, a young friend sent me over forty questions he thought younger pastors would have about ministry. Many of them, like this one, are rather provocative. Perhaps you find yourself in this situation or know someone who is.

My answer assumes that you’re an Associate or Assistant Pastor. And the first part of my response will not be very helpful to you if you’re stuck in this situation. But it might help someone contemplating taking a position in a church.

If you are considering serving on the staff of a church, I would suggest that you listen to several – and I mean several – sermons before you accept the position. It might be a very attractive opportunity. But you and your family will also be attending the church, so you also want to consider the same factors you would if you were not in ministry and you were looking for a home church. And that includes the quality of the preaching you’ll hear each week.

But you’ve made the decision, and you find yourself in a position where you are regularly struggling with the preaching. What do you do?

First, some things not to do:

Don’t stage a coup
You may laugh or recoil at the mere suggestion, but it’s not that far-fetched. You can unintentionally plant seeds of discord in your church by sharing your thoughts with the wrong people. You (and your wife) cannot risk saying anything to people within the church.  If you do plan to talk about it, you need to find someone who can keep the matter in the strictest confidence. Never put yourself in the place of undercutting your pastor. That means that you don’t entertain other people’s criticisms of his preaching, regardless of how you feel. Certainly James 4:11-12 applies here.

Don’t give him books on preaching. 
That’s just not gonna cut it.

So what can you do? What are your options for dealing with this?

First, check yourself. 

What I mean is check your own heart. Is it just a matter of preference, or do you feel you could do a better job? You know what? You might! But nurturing that attitude will do nothing good for you or your church. It will affect your relationship with your people, your relationship with your Pastor, and God’s blessing on your own preaching. Run from this!

Second, identify why you dislike his preaching.
Look, every preacher has a different style, you included. That’s why we all have favorite preachers. How we preach is the product of several factors: what they taught us in school, what we picked up (often unwittingly) from other preachers, and our personality, just to name a few. If you don’t resonate with his style, remember that you can still learn and grow if he is teaching the Bible clearly. And try to avoid comparing him to one of your favorites. You wouldn’t want someone comparing you in that way.

Next, pray for him. 
Preaching is hard, and like athletes, pastors go through slumps too. From my experience and from talking to other pastors, sometimes our sermons just seem to fall flat. As you know, most pastors have a lot to do besides preach. Sometimes those other responsibilities end up impacting our preaching. And then there are personal things that the pastor is going through, or church problems he is dealing with.

But remember: God prospers the preaching of his Word. Your pastor might not be the greatest orator or the greatest theologian. But if he is faithful to the text, God will use him. You don’t have to love his style of preaching, but challenge yourself to find something to take away from the sermon.

If you still feel that the preaching is seriously deficient, I believe that the best response is to begin (quietly) to look for another place to serve. Senior Pastors have a right to expect loyalty from their associate staff members. In most cases, the Senior Pastor will have been there longer than you have.

Your job is not to rescue the church from what you consider less-than-stellar preaching.  If you are talking about preaching heresy that’s one thing.  But if you are unhappy with the “how” of your Pastor’s preaching or the things he emphasizes, that attitude will only deepen with time. Sooner or later that will make itself known. And you don’t want that.

If you can’t cheerfully live with the situation, then pray for an opportunity to move on, be humble and respectful, and be open to the possibility that what you consider deficient is not so much deficiency but a difference of style or personality. And if you leave, don’t drop a bomb by criticizing the preaching. Keep that to yourself.

In the meantime, guard your own heart and pray for the man God has placed in the role of preaching each week.

About Expectations

He was between jobs, and as he sat across from me in my office he was pondering his future. “I wish I could be a pastor so that I could study the Bible all day.”

It wasn’t the first time someone said that. Hey, I might have thought that way myself when I was in Bible College (back in the antediluvian period). I don’t recall what my expectations were. But I learned fast that pastors did more than “study the Bible all day.” So I told my friend something that has often been true. I said, “To be honest, I often have to fight for the time to study.”

Has that been true for you? While preaching and teaching is likely the primary responsibility of most of us, it’s not our only responsibility. I’m sure you know that already. But has that knowledge affected the way you plan your time? And has it affected your availability to people? Because people are probably the biggest “interruption” we face in our preparation. Let me encourage you to welcome those interruptions.

When I first started in ministry, a church near us had called a new pastor. Shortly after he came, a young woman in the church went through a very painful broken engagement. Her dad, wanting to get her some pastoral counsel, took her to see the pastor. Instead of welcoming the opportunity to minister, the new pastor said, “I did not come here to wipe your noses.”

News of that encounter quickly got around the area. He didn’t last long. No surprise there.

It can be frustrating to have a drop-in visitor or take a phone call when you’re deep in study. But spending time with people is rarely a waste of time. In fact, how we handle people’s interruptions can enhance or diminish our effectiveness as preachers and teachers.

Let me offer some suggestions:

First, if you work in an office environment, keep your office door open as often as you can. People will stop into the church office for a variety of reasons and often they will pop in. Sometimes it’s just to say hello. Other times those visits will lead to spiritual discussions and opportunities to pray with and for our people. Those are good times. Christ is present in those moments.

Second, recruit your secretary to help you. I was blessed with three different secretaries who were great at this. Generally, I wanted to be available if any of our church people dropped by. When I closed my office door, they knew what I was doing, so they knew if they could interrupt me or not. Occasionally a missionary would stop by to drop off literature as they sought support. In most cases, our budget prohibited us from taking on more missions commitments. But support raising can discourage, and I wanted to hear about them and pray with them whenever I could.

On other occasions someone would stop by to see me wanting to sell me something. My secretaries handled those drop-ins so well. They would take literature and promise that I would call the salesman if I was interested in the latest video that would double our church attendance and/or turn people into mature believers in 12 weeks. My sarcasm may reveal the fact that I rarely, if ever, returned those kinds of calls.

Third, don’t cram so much into your weekly plan that you have no time for people. If your church members see you rushing around, it will communicate that you are too busy for them. Slow down. Not every project has to be finished in a day. Spread your sermon prep over a couple of days so that if a day goes haywire, you aren’t up all night on Saturday night trying to cobble a sermon together.

Finally, consider taking your study off premises. I’m going to write about this at some other time, but if you find the office environment to be too full of interruptions – or even a source of temptation to draw you away from your work – get out of there!

When you spend time with your people, you are letting them know that you care for them. You are telling them you are interested in their lives, even in what might seem mundane. And you are telling them you are glad to be their pastor.

If your expectation was that you came to preach and teach, you’re right. But you also came to “wipe noses.” Ministry is about people. Expect them to “interrupt” your day and welcome the opportunities those interruptions provide.

Is ministry what you expected? How have you done at adjusting your expectations? Leave a comment or send me an email. I’d love to hear from you!