Prayer and the Ministry of the Word

The church was growing. The threat of persecution could not stop it (Acts 4). The threat of corruption could not stop it (Acts 5). But the enemy still had another trick up his sleeve: internal division.

The Greek-speaking Jews complained against the Hebrews that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. The apostles called the church together and directly addressed the matter:

“It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.” – Acts 6:2b-3

What would the apostles do as this plan was carried out?

“But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” – Acts 6:4

This statement succinctly summarizes the job description for pastoral ministry: prayer and the ministry of the word.

Prayer

The apostles were devoted to prayer. It was their duty to pray. Prayer was not what they did as they led the church. It was essential to their leadership. They had no dichotomy that separated work and prayer. Prayer was their work! This is what the church needs today.

First, spiritual leaders must be devoted to private prayer. Communion with God in prayer should characterize our lives. It has been well said that what a minister is in his prayer closet before God alone is what he is – nothing more, nothing less. This is why the devil would have leaders do a hundred different wonderful things if he can stop of from praying. Spiritual leaders can only minister effectively when we pray consistently.

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Furthermore, spiritual leaders must be devoted to public prayer. The proclamation of the word is the most public thing that pastors do. But Acts 6:5 places prayer right alongside of the ministry of the word. It indicates that spiritual leaders are to be just as committed to leading the church to pray as we are in leading the church in the ministry of the word. The act of leading your congregation in prayer is a teaching opportunity we dare not approach negligently. We should do our best to prepare ourselves to lead the saints in corporate prayer.

The Ministry of the Word

Acts 6:1-7 is often considered the institution of deacons in the church. But the word “deacon” is not used in this text. Its related term “ministry” is used. But it does not apply to the office of deacons. And it is not used to describe the seven men selected to wait tables. It is used to describe the work of the apostles’ devotion to “the ministry of the word” (verse 4). Every Christian is a minister of Christ. But pastoral leaders have a unique calling. We serve Christ as ministers of the word. We are servants of the word.

Some people think pastors-teachers do very little work. They think we play golf all week and get up when its time to preach and let it rip. But those who do that are not true men of God. Indeed, some men make their pulpit work look so easy that you would think that it did not cost than any effort. But they have to work hard to make it look easy. The faithful ministry of the word requires preparation as well as proclamation. Really, the proclamation is the easy part. It’s the fun part. The burden is in the preparation.

Bible exposition does not grow on trees. God does not speak to preachers and supernaturally give them the exegesis of the text. Clear, faithful, and consistent preaching and teaching is usually 90 percent perspiration and 10 percent inspiration. You do all you can do and then God does what you cannot do. Paul instructs, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).

Editor’s Note: This originally published at HBCharlesJr.com



When Nightmares Become Reality

Have you ever awakened from a dream so painful, so vivid, that your pillow soaked through with tears? The kind of dream that caused your heart to ache long beyond your waking? Even if you are not the kind of person who dreams (or remembers them), have you ever been startled by your negative emotional response to something?

I woke up sobbing recently, and I have not yet been able to shake what I saw behind closed eyes. Moving on from a terrible dream with no grounding is one thing, but trying to rightly process struggles that are still real in the light of day is quite another. For me, it was the latter.

Just as in sleeping, feelings of anger, regret, or sadness sometimes seem to slip into the mind without permission.

It should not come as a surprise when the brokenness of the world attempts to seep into our thoughts any more than it should surprise us when the brokenness of our minds seeps outward into the world. Sometimes this is a tactic of the Enemy–tempting us to yearn for something ungodly. Sometimes it is just our sinful flesh revealed. Always, it is a result of the Fall presented in Genesis 3. The shadow of this narrative is not just a bad dream; it is reality.

As immediately as Adam and Eve felt pain in their bodies and brokenness in their relationship, the whole world began to groan under the weight of sin (Gen. 3:16-24; Rom. 8:19-23). Just as God cast them from the Garden of Eden, so too were we all separated from God by our iniquity (Is. 53:6). Now, no matter how tightly we shut our eyes or grasp for comfort, humanity must face the existence of fallenness within and without.

No one is exempt from experiencing the effects of sin in our being, our relationships, and our world (Rom. 3:23). Humanity will slog on continuously when we trust in our efforts or solutions; we will toil in a slumber of death from which we cannot wake. A death that, if attempted by our own hands to escape, will be eternal.

Yet through the darkness, there is a beam of hope:

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:4-5).

From the displaced refugee searching for hope, to the rich man caught in the snare of a thousand mistakes, to the girl sold into a life of inescapable slavery, the eye of the Lord rests upon them. The hand of the Lord is not short to save. The Lord extends love in Jesus to every broken mind, every bloody hand, every busted-up heart. Including yours. Including mine.

By grace, through faith in Jesus, one may be saved (Eph. 2:8). This salvation is not a promise of deliverance from every bad or hard thing on this side of eternity, but it does secure our eternal life in Christ. If you “heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him,” then you “were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:13-14). This truth should bring immense comfort.

But what does someone who loves God do when face-to-face with the nightmarish realities of life now? How should we react when the worst fear comes true: the abuse uncovered, the terminal diagnosis given, the relationship severed?

When Corrie ten Boom, imprisoned for helping hide Jews during World War II, experienced “too much misery, too much seemingly pointless suffering,” pressing in on her and others at the Nazi concentration camp, she said this:

“The blacker the night around us grew, the brighter and truer and more beautiful burned the Word of God. ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us’ (Rom. 8:35,39).”[1]

The truth that God’s love is present with us in our pain now is just as real as the promise that we will one day dwell in his presence forever.

One day we will awaken in glory, and God “will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore” (Rev. 21:4). Every nightmare will cease, and all shadows will dissipate in the light of his presence (Rev. 21:23). Every sad thing will come untrue.[2]

For now, God’s Word comforts. God’s Spirit guides. Fear dissolves in the light of truth, and the heart steadies in the grace of trust. We can hold onto the promises our eyes cannot see and the hope our souls know to be real. Even when nightmares become true, God’s love is the enduring reality.


[1] Excerpt from The Hiding Place: The Triumphant True Story of Corrie Ten Boom

[2] This phrase comes from J. R. R. Tolkien’s character Sam Gangee in The Lord of the Rings, chapter 4 of book six

 

 



Lament For The Man In The Mugshot

I scrolled through Twitter and recognized a face. My eyes were tired, and I was just about to close the app and go to sleep. It was a mugshot of a man I once knew tied with a news article that said “Youth Pastor Among 18 Men Arrested in Tennessee Human Trafficking Operation.” 

Not just “Youth Pastor,” a descriptive title many hold, but my youth pastor. The man whose family I knew, who made me his intern, who I cried over when he moved away. He discipled me, taught me about Jesus, gave me opportunities to serve and lead, and he declared God’s Word as truthful and powerful every week. Over a decade later and his face filled my timeline with a horrific accusation. 

I’m not a lawyer, an investigator, or an expert on sexual abuse. I am not a personal victim of abuse. I don’t know what constitutes a “crisis” or how pervasive the problem really is in our churches. But twice now I’ve sat in front of a screen and read about a man I loved, trusted, admired, respected, and knew who threw obedience to the wind and chose to elevate his desires while exploiting fellow image-bearers. Within 24 hours of sharing the article, two friends reached out and told me stories of youth pastors who abused their friends. 

I know we’re not unique in our experience. To discover that someone who was called to shepherd you betrayed that calling by seeking that which brings them pleasure is unnerving and all too common. I hope and pray this is never your experience. But if you have felt the pain of a family member, mentor, teacher, pastor, or friend who has sinned in this way, I do not dare to offer empty words of empathy or bandages to cover the wound.

There are no easy answers. I’ve felt betrayed, numb, appalled, powerless, shocked, overwhelmed, and downright angry. I’ve asked, “Why?” and “How?” and come up with no good response. 

In moments like this, I want to fast forward to a happier place where the hurt is gone. I don’t like emotions, and I especially don’t like this kind. 

Speeding past the pain removes an opportunity to lament. We, as children of God, do not build our entire lives upon lament and sorrow. We do, however, take up temporary residence in a broken world. If our eyes are fixed forward on the promise of eternity, we can both mourn and have hope. We can be sorrowful and comforted by the Holy Spirit. We can be “grieving, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). 

This, then, is my prayer of lament for my former youth pastor, all those wounded by his actions, or for anyone else marred by abuse.  

May You enact justice for those exploited.

May You avenge Your children,

Comfort them in the perfect love You offer,

And heal their wounded hearts.

 

May evil men be sentenced,

May those who carry out justice on earth

Be strengthened in all wisdom,

And let wrongdoing be punished.

 

May You bring about repentance, 

May true sorrow come from wrongdoers.

Point them to Jesus,

And keep them on the narrow way.

 

May objectification cease in our land,

May we view others through Your eyes.

Remind us of Your Image,

And help us love as those redeemed.

 

May Your churches be intolerant,

May Your children protect the vulnerable.

Give us eyes to recognize sin,

And swiftly confront what we see.

 

May You come and bring us home,

May our sorrows turn to joy.

Return and gather us, O Lord,

And make the world perfect again.



What Nature Can (and Should) Teach Kids About God

In my house, my children call me “The Lorax.”

I like nature and the outdoors. During church services whilst listening to sermons and taking notes, I also sketch and usually am sketching trees and mountains. When I travel, I am always looking for ways to see what is nearby in nature. My favorite color is green. When my son is building spaceships out of Legos, I build trees.

The Lorax, of course, is Dr. Seuss’s character that speaks in defense of nature, “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.”

But, the funny thing is, in our world, in so much as trees represent all that God has created, they do have “tongues”—or at least they can speak and do speak for themselves.

For kids, I have found that pointing them to the world God has made, to hear what they are saying, a wonderful tool for teaching them true things about God. As Psalm 19:1 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.”

God’s creation does speak, yet we know there is a limit to what creation can say. Christians need, then, to help kids understand and interpret the world around them based on biblical truth, especially when there are many voices in the world telling them contradictory things. Therefore, what does creation say? Why does creation say it?

Christians have formulated answers to these questions through the biblical doctrine of General Revelation. Though God’s revealing himself through creation has limits—it does not give the way of salvation through Jesus Christ—it does point humans to God and reveals to them parts of God’s attributes and character.

God is invisible (1 Tim 1:17), but he has made his invisible attributes known to the world or made visible through what he has made. As Romans 1:20 explains, “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”

For believers in Jesus Christ, General Revelation calls them both to praise God and proclaim God. Thus believers, armed with God’s Special Revelation—the Bible—are to help others, especially children, understand what they see in creation and how that is meant to point them to God.

This has been a family project in our home in recent years, so much so that my youngest children crafted a song about nature and God’s work in creation that served as the inspiration for a family book project.

The aim of our book is to point the youngest readers and listeners, and those reading to them, to God and help them grow in their understanding of God and how he wants them to understand the world around them.

When seeing the world this way, believers are like a redeemed Lorax—they are speaking for the trees and all creation, based on the singular truth in the revealed word of the Creator, proclaiming his glory and the good news of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth.

Nature can, and should, teach kids about God. For looking to nature, and then to the Bible, to learn something new about God equips children (and adults) to find joy in the world God has made and in the grand task of making Him known to the world.



Walking to Death: Isaac and Jesus

How beautifully and intricately the Old Testament prefigures Christ. Today I read the following words concerning Abraham and Isaac walking to the mountain where Isaac was to be slain. Some, not all, believe this to be the same mount where the Temple was later to be built and close to the very place where Jesus was later crucified.

“Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son, and he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together” (Genesis 22:6).

Isaac, clearly a type of Christ in his death and resurrection as the writer of Hebrews states (Heb 11:17-19), carried his own means of execution, just as Jesus bore his own until he could do so no longer into the darkness of his death. John said succinctly, without mention of Simon of Cyrene’s eventual help, “They took Jesus, therefore, and He went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha” (Jn 19:17).

The wood for burning and the wooden cross for crucifying was laid on Isaac and Jesus. The son Isaac walked along with his father, Abraham, just as the Son Christ walked with his Father in perfect unbroken union as He had always known for all the eternal past to the place of his impending death. It is there that the great separation death brings was to be experienced.

Isaac rose from his near-death at the voice of “The Angel of the LORD,” a term often chosen for the pre-incarnate Christ when he appeared in the Old Testament. It is precisely the term used in the Genesis passage so that we might make this connection between Jesus as the later Isaac and Jesus as the deliverer. Jesus was the one who cried out to Abraham to stop his knife, and he was also prefigured in the ram caught in the bushes provided for Abraham as the substitute sacrifice. Beyond what happened to Isaac, yet similar, Jesus rose after fully dying for the sins of those he came to save. Imagine how the eternal Son must have contemplated his death in those Genesis moments, and that deliverance of Isaac, which he would someday experience himself in a much more profound way.

Editor’s Note: This originally published at Christian Communicators Worldwide.



Dependence On Christ For Pastors

That which makes us weak in ourselves makes us dependent upon Christ.

This paradoxical truth is at the heart of Christianity and applies to all believers. After all, is true faith characterized by having circumstances comfortable and relationships trouble-free, or is faith about the ability to trust through times of chaos and challenge? I think you know the answer. Just re-read Hebrews 11 if you need help.

Yet, many of us would prefer a pain-free kind of existence— which means, according to the Word of God, a faith-absent kind of life. We would instead embrace comfort in life’s circumstances and adequacy in our own resources. Life this way is simpler and easier, but it is not a life of dependence upon Jesus.

What is true for all believers is amplified to a greater degree for those in vocational ministry— particularly pastors. That’s because when you are involved in daily “spiritual” work there are expectations for proper behavior among Christians and for proper functioning of the church. It’s unlike any other job on the earth. Ministry is filled with complexities, tensions and spiritual ambitions, and the vast majority of well-intentioned pastors carry deep burdens for the health of their churches and the spiritual welfare of their people. They want to be effective in the Kingdom of God and they desire their people to walk in a manner worthy of the gospel.

For pastors, there are unique points of dependence upon Jesus that should be highlighted. Bringing them to the surface helps them pray over these areas (and their people for them); helps normalize these matters (there is strength in knowing you’re not the only one facing them); allows pastors to become more self-aware of the emotions they battle (that which stays in darkness gains more power to harm); and navigate these spheres of trust by the Holy Spirit’s power.

The Now and the Not Yet

Nothing created more discontent in me as a pastor than believing in what was possible to achieve and then having to wait for it to come about. I had to grow comfortable with the tension between embracing the good of the now and the yearning for the not yet. There never seemed to be enough human and financial resources in the moment. Yet in time, God provided both. It may have not been everything wanted in the present tense, but it was everything needed. For me, it was a matter of trusting God by being patient and being OK with the difference between what I’d like to see done and what can be done in the moment. Pastor, trust God in this tension.

I Can’t But He Can

Surveys reveal that most pastors feel that they are inadequate when it comes to the skills, leadership, and emotional resources necessary for the job. Exactly! The partnership between us and the Holy Spirit means that we do our very best with what God has already given us in the form of competencies, and we trust Him to do that which is beyond our ability. Better said, our skills are expressed in the power of the Holy Spirit and when we feel our portion falls short, God works through our inadequacies and continues His eternal work beyond them. This is specifically the place of trust where the Father wants us to reside. I can’t, but He can. Ultimately, our confidence is not in our abilities, but in the God who works beyond them.

Faithfulness vs. Fruit

While the vast majority of pastors are sincere and altruistic, there are moments when desires to succeed in ministry can become misguided and more about self-ambition… even without knowing it. For me, this became expressed in seasons of subconscious striving and crossing lines of trying to make things happen. It was the difference between being driven, which is of the flesh, and simply expressing my gifts, my love, my energies, and resting in God for the results. It’s about the need for control and the focus on faithfulness or an obsession with fruit. Here are some ways this preoccupation with outcomes is manifested:

  • A focus on what works as opposed to what’s right (moral shortcuts)
  • False courage where that which labeled “faith” is actually presumption— not trusting God, but testing Him.
  • The urgency of now and the inability to wait.
  • Energies and priorities toward numeric growth as opposed to spiritual health
  • Obtaining a following as opposed to remaining obedient to God
  • Attracting church attenders instead of developing disciples of Jesus

Trusting God here means focusing primarily upon and falling in love with the process of pastoring, and being content with the idea of letting God bring fruit. While never used as an excuse for laziness, not growing or learning new skills, your job pastor is faith and faithfulness. God’s job is fruit.

Conflict and What To Do

Nothing emotionally drains pastors more than the matter of conflict in church. It is the primary reason many leave churches or ministries altogether. It is a regular part of congregational life as it occurs between people in the church, between staff members… and between people and staff with the pastor. My strongest moments of dependence upon God came in times when I had to decide whether to engage in conflict or not and moments when I actually did. I prayed for courage, wisdom, calm, the right words to say, and the right heart to say them. Pastor, your intimacy with the Father and your faith in Him to see you through will be deeply enhanced through conflict. See conflict with spiritual eyes. Go into it with bold courage confident in the fact that the Father is with you. Learn from it. Grow from it. Trust God in it.

Failure and Success

Many pastors struggle with the feeling of failure in ministry. This is mostly due to harmful patterns of comparing, contrasting, and competing with others in ministry. Beyond that, there are real moments when we fail as pastors and leaders. Times when we didn’t live up to our own expectations or those of others. Times when we blew it and experienced major blunders. Pastor— you’re human. People will expect perfection from you. You might even expect it of yourself. You will mess up. At times, problems will be your fault. Confess quickly. Let God forgive you quickly. Forgive yourself quickly… and move on. Trust here means applying the ointment of God’s grace to your soul and finding power in Christ to put the mistake behind you. Satan wants your blunder to stay lodged in your heart. Don’t let it.

The above represent tensions to manage, not problems to solve. Where you will not find resolution, but instead strength. Yet, they are exactly the matters where trust in Jesus can be most evident and where God’s glory can be manifested in you. Unresolved, ambiguous, and sometimes anxiety-ridden areas are precisely the places where God meets you. By faith, you will see God’s glory through them.



I, Yet Not I: A Man’s Personality, Spiritual Gifts, and the Glory of God

Who are you? What gives a man his identity? Answering those questions truthfully is essential to living a life of purpose and significance.

The great English Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon’s book, An All-Around Ministry, contains Presidential Addresses he delivered at the Annual Pastors’ Conferences (1872-1890). One of the lectures that has profoundly impacted me is titled, “Individuality, and its Opposite.” He explained his topic saying,

I want to show that each one of us is a man by himself, and then that no one is alone by himself. Our individuality and our fellowship, our personality and our union with the Lord, our separate existence and our absorption into Christ;—these are the themes upon which I am going to dilate (An All-Round Ministry, Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 60).

Spurgeon points to Paul’s assertion, “I worked harder than any of them, yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (1 Cor. 15:10b, CSB). He notes that Paul’s “I, yet not I” is a helpful way for a man to think about his unique God-given personality and gifting. Consider how thinking about our life in this way can unleash a man to live for God’s glory.

Individuality – I

Spurgeon warns against prideful egotism but advocates what he calls humble egoism, which he describes as “honest selfhood” (62). He explains, “We hope that each man will recognize and honorably maintain his personality” (62). He warns that it is a tragic thing for a man to live with a “counterfeit voice” (72). Spurgeon explains, “Men are not cast in molds by the thousand; we are each one distinct from his fellow” (73). He further exhorts, “Be yourself, dear brother, for, if you are not yourself, you cannot be anybody else; and so, you see, you must be nobody” (73).

Every man must commit himself to the reality that his life constitutes his own unique and strategic ministry opportunity. Paul unjustly imprisoned asserted, “what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel” (Phil. 1:12). Satan desires us to live in abstraction and a fantasy world of “what if?” and “if only?” but the Scripture admonishes us to live for Christ in the unique and concrete reality of our daily lives. Nobody else can be you—surrendered to Jesus.

Its Opposite – Yet Not I

Spurgeon then states he wants to talk about what “is not the reverse [of individuality], but the converse” (80). He reminds his hearers that though they do have unique work to do in the world, “Brother, you are not the only lamp to enlighten earth’s darkness, . . . You are only one member of the mystic body, one soldier of the grand army” (80). We must remember, “You are not alone in sounding the praises of Christ, your voice is but one of a mighty orchestra” (81) and “although we are individuals, and must keep up our personality, we are only instruments for the accomplishment of the Divine purposes” (83).

Spurgeon notes that all believers share the experience of the Spirit of Christ dwelling within us. God spiritually gifts each believer (Rom. 12:6-81 Cor. 12:4-1128Eph. 4:11), but spiritual gifts are not given for self-promotion or to magnify our individuality. Rather, they are given for the common good of the church (1 Cor. 12:714:1226). Since spiritual gifts are given for the benefit of the entire body, it would be foolish to boast about them and call attention to ourselves. Rather, we use them to serve others and call attention to Christ.

Men, be you—surrendered to Christ. No one can do it for you because no one else has your unique and strategic ministry opportunity. But never forget that you are united to Christ and a member of his body. Apart from Christ, you can do nothing.  Your spiritual gifting is to point to him and build up his church. God does not need you, but by his grace, he has uniquely called you and gifted you, spend and be spent for his glory.

Editor’s Note: This originally published at Prince on Preaching.



4 Unmet Emotional Needs of Pastors: Friendship

Confession: This article is written by a man with a lifelong addiction to achievement. Prioritizing friendship has never been my strong suit.

In the 5th grade, I discovered that straight A’s were a surefire way to separate myself from the pack, to get ahead and to chase a dream. While my passion for learning has opened up doors along the way, it has also been an obstacle in forming deep bonds with other men.

I don’t think I’m alone in this, and it seems especially prevalent among pastors. As I’ve opened up with church leaders in this area, I’ve discovered several reasons why pastors are friendless in the ministry.

There’s a Masculine-Fueled Reluctance to Be Vulnerable.

In Disciplines of a Godly Man, Kent Hughes writes:

We all know that men, by nature, are not as relational as women. Men’s friendships typically center around activities, while women’s revolve around sharing. Men do not reveal their feelings or weakness as readily as women. They gear themselves for the marketplace, and typically understand friendships as acquaintances made along the way, rather than as relationships.

I agree with Hughes, and I see this tendency in myself. In order to bond with a brother, I have to be willing to share uncomfortable feelings such as fear, shame, guilt, and sadness. These emotions are not feminine, but human, and true friends are able to open up when experiencing them.

Over the years, I’ve noticed how awkward men can be at church events. The conversation usually revolves around surface-level topics like sports, hobbies, and recent purchases (boats, fishing poles, tools, etc.). Rarely does a man lock eyes with another and say, “I’ve been experiencing a tremendous amount of fear the past few months,” or “I’m walking through a grief process since losing my job.” These kinds of statements are a glue that brings men closer, but are rarely used.

Pastors especially struggle to display vulnerability. The pastor is expected to lead a life worthy of imitation, which includes the fruits of the Holy Spirit (love, joy, peace,etc.), so it’s expected that he focus on the positive and be strong for the weak. But what if he’s the one feeling weak? In that case, he–along with his wife–assumes they had better keep the struggles under wraps.

Vulnerability matters in leadership. Pastors often think success looks like running the perfect staff meeting or leading a growing church. But sometimes success is going into that staff meeting and saying, “Hey, can I let you all in on some of the battles raging in my heart?” Likewise, vulnerability matters in community. Vulnerability is necessary to move anyone from “acquaintance” or “colleague” into a deep, meaningful friendship.

Here’s another challenge for you: Identify three other local pastors, even if you don’t know them well–or even at all–and invite them to lunch. Who knows? Maybe they’re in the same boat. And you just might find they are a safe place for you.

There’s Constant Pressure to Grow the Ministry.

“How many are you running?” a Bible Belt native recently asked a West-coast church planter. The planters confessed to me that the question activated a shame cycle that took days to deactivate.

Whether we like it or not, America’s focus on franchising and scaling creates an unhealthy scorecard for church leaders. In order to “get a trophy” in our context, your church needs to be highlighted in a magazine for steep spikes in attendance or baptisms. While we all agree that multiplication and growth are grounds for celebration, the size of one’s church is not a healthy measure of God’s favor. Many times, the church’s growth is related to factors outside a pastor’s control.

What does this have to do with friendship? A constant feeling that “I am not enough,” or “my church is not enough” causes pastors to put their personal needs behind the needs of his feeble flock. The sermon could be a sizzler with just a few more hours of study. The staff will be stoked with a more carefully prepared meeting. The church will be challenged if  one more person is won to Christ, and that story can be told on Sunday.

Please hear me: Sizzling sermons, inspired staff meetings, and souls won for Christ are answers to prayer! These are the moments a pastor lives for. But the constant pressure to do it again, and again, will ultimately lead to a shallow way of life. When is enough enough?

According to Jesus, we are already enough (Rom. 8:1). Here’s a critical truth: We need close friends in order to be emotionally and spiritually healthy. We can’t lead our churches well if we’re leading out of burnout and loneliness.

Earlier, I mentioned the importance of befriending other pastors. But before you discount church members as friends, remember this: It’s easy to let church business disconnect you from the people you serve. An emotionally healthy pastor is connected with his flock.

There’s a Challenge in the Scriptural Command to Manage the Home Well.

This rarely gets talked about, but I felt this pinch often as a pastor. There’s an underlying expectation that the pastor’s kids are a model to follow, that his marriage is free of all contempt. The Bible says a pastor must “manage his own household competently, having his children under control with all dignity (1 Timothy 3:4).” Who is sufficient for such a task!?

Leading at home is often harder than leading at the church. We think: What if the deacons discover that my kid is walking through a hard season, or that my marriage looks like a long stretch of Kansas interstate? These are real insecurities that cause pastors to focus intensely on home and less on friendships.

We have four kids, and while they are certainly not perfect, we are tremendously proud of them. My wife, Lynley, and I are heavily invested in helping them mature into followers of Jesus. But it’s messy. It’s three steps forward and two steps back. Parenting feels more fragile than we would prefer, and it requires the vigilance of a private detective. At any given time, least one of our kids is moving into a season of struggle, needs help processing a hurt, or has been notified that the basketball roster did not include his name.

Making time for male friendship, as a pastor, comes after family. This is biblical and right, but the stakes seem higher for the preacher on a platform. Dating his wife, finishing his sermon, coaching a soccer team, managing tense relationships with his church staff, and responding to unfair social media posts are more urgent. That means “playing golf with Joe” remains #14 on the to-do list.

If you’re still reading, you’re probably a pastor who longs for meaningful friendship. When the Lord said, “It’s not good for man to be alone,” this applied first to Adam’s need for Eve, but it also speaks to deep longing in everyone for community. Open up to your wife about your desire to build a strong friendship or two. Explain your need and ask for her help in making friendships a priority. Invite her accountability on this.  Involve her in the friendships; plan double dates with other couples. Make sure to include ministry couples who share your struggles and can speak truth and life into the two of you.

Don’t be an island or a work machine. Be a human. Be a friend. We all need community; pastors are no exception. Authentic friendship is risky because it requires vulnerability. But it’s well worth it.

 

 



An Agent of Usefulness: William Wilberforce

The story of William Wilberforce is fairly well-known, especially since the renaissance of popular interest in him birthed by the movie “Amazing Grace.” But it is his spirituality, his personal walk with Christ, that is less known or appreciated. We learn much of this primarily from his own Spiritual Journals, which I will publish for the first time later this year, with Christian Focus Publishers.

William Wilberforce was born in Hull, England in 1759, the son of a wealthy merchant, enjoying all the privileges that wealth and position afforded him. He became a member of Parliament but until his evangelical conversion in 1785/6, he had no real driving passion except pleasure. Once converted Wilberforce would never be the same. He was counseled and mentored by the likes of John Newton and John Wesley, and soon became the leader of the parliamentary campaign for the abolition of slavery. He saw the slave trade abolished at age 47, and slavery itself at age 73, dying only three days after it was achieved.

In his initial speech on slavery and abolition that he gave to Parliament in 1789 he said, “When I consider the magnitude of the subject and when I think at the same time on the weakness of the advocate who has undertaken this great cause, when these reflections press upon my mind, it is impossible for me not to feel both terrified and concerned at my own inadequacy to such a task. As soon as ever I had arrived this far in my investigation…I confess…so enormous, so dreadful did its wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for the abolition…let the consequences be what they would, I from this time determined that I would never rest till I had effected its abolition.”

I am convinced that his words, passion, drive, and character are needed now more than ever, especially when one thinks, for example, of such issues as abortion and human trafficking. At the same time, I believe Wilberforce has been a massively neglected Christian voice, that, as JI Packer rightly stated, we would be foolish to neglect: “William Wilberforce was a great man who impacted the Western world as few others have done. Blessed with brains, charm, influence and initiative, much wealth…he put evangelism on Britain’s map as a power for social change. To forget such men is foolish.”

As a believer, Wilberforce reflected much on his walk with Christ, especially his prayer life, and in all his self-assessment and introspection, he was his own worst critic. His very detailed journals were his way of keeping a detailed check on his life, character, and spirituality. He loved to read Scripture, learning much of it by heart and in Greek. His constant fear and battle was that people might see him as he saw himself, a man constantly failing in his own spiritual life. He loved to read, so when he was unable to do so because of his eye disease, or when he was getting ready in the morning, he hired ‘readers’ to read Scripture and Christian books to him—these became the equivalent of 18th century podcasts for him.

Wilberforce recorded in his Diary that God had set before him “two great objects”: the abolition of the slave trade and the reformation of manners—an incredible Christian impact on the culture of his day. Pursuing those became his focus for the rest of his life: he sacrificially gave all he had—time, wealth and health—and never took the easy road. Wilberforce became a very active, involved, determined, and sold-out Evangelical at the very time he was needed, and he never gave up! When the opposition he faced was fiercest, he simply relied all the more on Christ.

Wilberforce had powerful enemies and he experienced actual physical assaults, in addition to receiving several death threats, necessitating him traveling with an armed bodyguard. He had numerous lies told about him, including that he had secretly married a black slave and had children by her. He also battled the sickness and frailty of his own body, which included Ulcerative Colitis, a genetic and debilitating eye disease, an opium addiction because of the pain, and a painful curvature of the spine.

Wilberforce was generous to a fault, illustrated by the fact that because he was unable to fire servants when they became old or infirm, his house soon resembled an unofficial retirement home. He also funded so many causes, much of it done without fanfare or public knowledge. In the end Wilberforce died in a house that was not his own, having been forced to sell what he had owned to pay debts that were not his but those of his son, William Jr.

Wilberforce assembled around him or, maybe more accurately, attracted a group around him that would become his encouragers, mentors, supporters, and enablers in all the causes he championed. This ‘Clapham Circle’ believed exactly what Wilberforce wrote in his only book Real Christianity, that, “It is the true duty of every man to promote the happiness of his fellow creatures to the utmost of his power.” Little wonder then that Wilberforce was always looking for ways to share Christ with friends and influencers.

He was also an incredible family man who loved his children and loved kids generally, being described by several who knew him as childlike but never childish! He chose a wife with a similar-outlook as he—a committed Evangelical—that they might encourage each other and bring up their children in a house of faith. He was 37; Barbara was 26. He proposed after only eight days and they were married within a few weeks, and so began in his own words, “thirty-five years of undiluted happiness.” Within a decade they had four sons and two daughters and he was devoted to all seven of them! Guests were amazed as the children treated him as one of them, as he joined in their various games: marbles, Blindman’s Buff and running races, and all this in a day when fathers rarely even saw their children.

His family and the cause of abolition took much of his time, but he was also very active pursuing the second of his “great objects,” impacting society with the gospel. He was an active creator, member, leader, or supporter of at least 69 very active societies. He campaigned for the poor, for chimney sweeps, the uneducated, and for children in mines and factories. He helped found the Church Missionary Society, the British and Foreign Bible Society, and the London Missionary Society, which would send Eric Liddle to China and Livingstone to Africa. He sacrificially supported dozens of evangelical and humanitarian institutions including fever hospitals, asylums, infirmaries, and prisons. He founded schools for the deaf and the blind, lending libraries, and schools for the poor. He helped to found the School for the Blind in York, the National Gallery in London, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution—all four of which are still flourishing. He financially supported the artist William Blake; Patrick Bronte through school; Mrs. Charles Wesley in her widowhood; and many missionary and ministry candidates who were too poor to finance themselves.

Within hours of his death, more than 100 high-profile figures in Britain, wrote to request the highest honour Britain can afford someone, that they be buried in Westminster Abbey, and there he lies today.

As we reflect on his life and impact, we should see Wilberforce as being an example for believers today that we should:

  • Give our all to Christ: time, talents, and treasure.
  • Use every opportunity to share the gospel.
  • Discern God’s direction for our lives, and be obedient to whatever we are called to do, including the very important work of politics.
  • Seek out mentors, encouragers, prayer-warriors, and accountability partners.
  • Expect opposition and suffering.
  • Repent as soon as we fail, then continue to follow God.
  • Nurture a Christian home and family.
  • Be generous and a blessing to all.
  • Be winsome.
  • Never give up, and having done all, to stand.
  • Be faithful in meeting with other believers for worship.
  • Read and memorize Scripture, and read challenging and encouraging Christian books.

Wilberforce referred to himself an “Agent of Usefulness.” What an understatement that turned out to be!

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the Spring ’21 edition of Midwestern Magazine. The full issue, entitled They Still Speak: Wisdom Today from the Voices of Yesterday, is available free online at mbts.edu/magazine.



Don’t Assume Anything In The Pulpit

“You remember the three Hebrews boys in the fiery furnace…”

“You remember when Jesus stilled the storm on the Sea of Galilee…”

“You remember what Paul said about justification by faith alone…” 

My sermons were filled with statements like these, as a young pastor. I took for granted that the congregation knew and understood these passing references. So I skipped the explanation and rushed to the point I wanted to make.

That all changed with a conversation with a member. I considered her one of the most mature young adults. But I had to hide my surprise when she told me…

“You know, Pastor. When you say, ‘You remember…’ as you are preaching, I want to stand up and say, ‘No, I don’t.’ I don’t know many of the Bible stories you mention. And I am learning a lot from your preaching.”

She meant it as a compliment. It hit me like a ton of bricks. As a result of that conversation, I determined not to assume anything in the pulpit.

Beware of three common assumptions we tend to make as we preach and teach the word of God…

  1. Do not assume people know the passage. Preachers tend to avoid famous passages, assuming people already know them. This is not wise. We live in a day of rampant biblical illiteracy. Many people do not know the major characters, classic stories, or fundamental doctrines of the Bible. Don’t bemoan the demise fall of Sunday School and Bible study. View this as an opportunity to introduce your people to the Bible and teach them the scriptures.
  2. Do not assume people understand the passage. People may know the passage you reference. But that does not mean they understand the meaning of it. It is one thing to know Psalm 23. It is another thing to know the Good Shepherd. Familiarity with the wording of a text does not guarantee spiritual illumination. Dig deep in your sermon preparation to help them see beyond a superficial understanding of the text.
  3. Do not assume people believe the passage. A person can know the text. That person can also understand the intended meaning of the text. But do not assume knowledge and understanding translates into faith. Many congregants have been squeezed into the world’s way of thinking (Romans 12:2). Their theological, ethical, and moral views have been shaped by popular culture more than biblical truth. Faithful preaching must be apologetic. We must be ready to give the reason for our hope in Christ to our on congregations (1 Peter 3:15).

Editor’s Note: This originally published at HBCharlesJr.com