Our Father Almighty

Remember the old school-yard debate? “My dad could beat up your dad.” In a boy’s eyes, no one is stronger or mightier than their dad. It should be this way. Dads are strong and mighty. But though our earthly fathers wither and fade, God never can and never will. In fact, as time goes on, God grows mightier. The prophet Isaiah said of the coming Messiah, “Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end.” In other words, the reign of Jesus, the Son of God, will, under the fatherhood of God, only increase forever. Time will not weaken him. As more people enter the world, as more governments create their kingdoms, as more tribes form their cultures, the ruler-ship of God only grows ever wider. In other words, God’s fatherhood capacity has no limit. The number of children he can take in has no end. He is boundless in fatherhood. He is almighty.

But we tend to think at some point, God will overlook us. Something will come into our lives—maybe some great sin—and he will be done with us. God knows that fear of separation remains in our hearts. What is his response? In Romans 8:31-39, we hear these comforting words from our Almighty Father.

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

If God turned the cross from an instrument of torture and death to an instrument of redemption and new life, can he not deal with your problems? You have no weak father. You have One sovereign over all, ruling and reigning on behalf of his children, and he’s bringing you to glory. He is, as the prophet Zephaniah says, “a mighty one who will save.” But not only that, “He will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17). The Father Almighty loves his children with all his almighty heart.

Editor’s Note: This originally published at Things Of The Sort

The Depressing Dead End of ‘Your Truth’

In her lifetime-achievement-award acceptance speech at the 2018 Golden Globes, Oprah Winfrey said, “What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.”

Your truth. Those two words are so entrenched in our lexicon today that we hardly recognize them for the incoherent nightmare that they are. Among other things, the philosophy of “your truth” destroys families when a dad suddenly decides “his truth” is calling him to a new lover, a new family, or maybe even a new gender. It’s a philosophy that can destroy entire societies, because invariably one person’s truth will go to battle with another person’s truth, and devoid of reason, only power decides the victor.

Our post­-truth age pitches the individual self as the primary source of truth: “follow your heart,” “live your truth,” and so forth. Authenticity and expressive individualism are ultimate values. Authorities of every kind outside the self are now being questioned, their value seen only insofar as they serve and validate us. Institutions now exist to merely affirm us, not to form us.

And yet we follow our heart—which is “deceit­ful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jer. 17:9)—at our peril, becoming subject to the whims and contradictions of our fickle emotions. It sounds freeing to just “live your truth,” without the restrictive boundaries of moral police and stodgy institutions. But in reality it’s a burden.

Depressing, Lonely Path

“Your truth” also puts an incredible, self-­justifying burden on the individual. If we are all self­-made projects whose destinies are wholly ours to discover and implement, life becomes a rat race of performa­tive individuality. “Live your truth” autonomy is thus as exhausting as it is incoherent. As French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg points out in The Weariness of the Self, the self­-creating person turns out to be fragile and “weary of her sovereignty.” Depression is the inevitable result and “the inexorable counterpart of the human being who is her/his own sovereign.”

“Your truth” autonomy invariably leads to loneliness. It errone­ously suggests we can live unencumbered and uninfluenced by the various structures that surround us (families, churches, cultures, biology, etc.). But it becomes impossible to form community when everyone is their own island, with no necessary reliance upon larger truths or embeddedness within a bigger story.

‘Your truth’ autonomy invariably leads to loneliness . . . It becomes impossible to form community when everyone is their own island.

These ideas were unfathomable in former eras, when to “go it alone” in life was seriously dangerous. In agrarian cultures the power of the communal is essential. Everyone plays a vital, interdependent role on the farm. You need each other to survive. Each person’s iden­tity is naturally understood in terms of how it relates to the whole. The idea of total autonomy is not only foolish and foreign; it’s deadly.

Formed By Others

In his excellent book, The World Beyond Your Head, Matthew B. Crawford challenges the idea that everything outside one’s head is a potential threat to the self. His thesis is that the environments we exist within constitute rather than compromise the self. Humans are not just brains in vats. We are situated in real worlds we didn’t make up, and we know ourselves not through abstract projections or self­ conceptions, but in our “situatedness”: “We live in a world that has already been named by our predecessors, and was saturated with meaning before we arrived.”

From cradle to grave, we are formed by others. Contrary to what a “look within” world would suggest, the world outside our heads defines our existence in ways we are foolish to ignore. Rather than seeing this as oppressive, or simply pretending (foolishly) this isn’t the case, we should accept this situation as a gift: truth comes, in large part, from outside ourselves.

We can choose the sources of where we look for truth. We can choose how we synthesize truth and apply it as wisdom in everyday circumstances. But we don’t get to choose whether or not something is true. We don’t invent truth. We don’t determine it. We search it out and accept it with gratitude, even when it’s at odds with our feelings or preferences.

Thanks be to God.

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared at The Gospel Coalition blog.

Loving The Legalists

“You never really know when God accepts you. You just keep working until you die.” This was my pastor’s response to a question that I asked in a Bible study. The question was, “How do I know when God accepts me?” I was coming off concurrent nights where I lost sleep over a recurring fear – that I would die, and God would reject me, leaving me to suffer in Hell for eternity. Emotionally frayed and physically tired, I went to the Bible study looking for comfort.

What I got was, “You just keep working until you die.”

My pastor went on to give an analogy of a dirty rag, one used to clean a greasy kitchen. He went on to explain, “We’re all dirty rags. We try hard to be clean, but we know that we will never be clean. However, when you die, even though you will be dirty, God will accept you.”

The clarity with which I can recall his response directly correlates to how this interaction shaped me for the coming years. If I was never going to be clean, I had to keep working. In my legalistic church, this meant volunteering at the church for over 20+ hours a week, making sure that you avoided watching R-rated movies, not drinking, making sure your hair was in an acceptable style, and scrubbing your vocabulary free of all vulgar words.

After toiling under this burden for years, I finally heard and believed the Gospel. God saw fit to pluck a poor sinner who lost sleep while constantly questioning his salvation, and allowed that feeble man access by faith into His grace. I fought hard to shed the persistently clinging shackles of legalism. I read books about soteriology. I became a Calvinist. I stood in awe at the Gospel. All of this made me…prideful and arrogant.

You would think that it would have the opposite effect. In fact, the Apostle Paul thought it would have the opposite effect. “What becomes of our boasting? It is excluded.” (Romans 3:27) However, knowing the Gospel did not make me humble. In fact, knowing the Gospel made me want to prove everyone at my church wrong.

Every theological conversation became an attempt to prove the other person wrong. I memorized Bible verses – not to feed my soul, but to make sure my weapons were sharp should theological conflict arise. I am a lover of confrontation and can direct most conversations toward that end. Once they came, I would unleash my arsenal of arguments and verses. I made quick work of some. Others would put up a fight. It is my shame to say that verbal debate, not Gospel zeal, motivated me.

I failed to see the person as another soul caught in the snare of legalism. I failed to wonder about their sleepless nights. Did they face the same persistent fear in the early hours of the night? Did they lie awake, wondering if their day’s work was ever enough? Did they have a strong and perfect plea before the Throne? None of those things mattered to me at the time, theological debate was invigorating. Their inability to answer my questions and to counter my position was all the satisfaction I needed.

I heard a story about an elderly woman who spent many years at that church. She was a dedicated servant, and known as a woman of godly character. As her health declined, she was admitted to the local hospital. I remember hearing a story about her final days before her death. Those who visited and knew her said that she went to the grave, with a dreadful fear of Hell. Such is the plight of those who do not rest in the Gospel, and I saw them as verbal sparring partners?

“What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Corinthians 4:7) It is strange that the people who have the strongest intellectual grasp of a biblical soteriology boast as if they climbed to those dizzying heights without aid. Legalism is a scourge. It is to be repudiated. With more resources available online, there are more Christians young and old emerging from behind Sisyphus’s rock, and seeing that their efforts to reach the mountaintop through their works is a fool’s errand. There are more Christians who are recovering legalists. If that is you, allow me to ask two questions: Do you still bear the marks that legalism left? If so, do you have compassion and love for those who are still under that lash?

This is not an argument to endure legalism or a legalistic church. If God has opened your eyes, leaving is a legitimate and often only option. However, even as you think of those who are still there, who are still trying to self-justify, do you weep that there are those who will never know the Gospel? Only eternity will reveal God’s judgment or mercy on them. As you grow in delighting in the Gospel, as you consider how you slip into old legalistic tendencies, consider that the freedom you experience is not known by those who are still serving that false god. There are those who will go to the grave fearing Hell, while you know that you have a Great High Priest who ever lives and intercedes for you. When you draw near to the throne room, there are those who you know that shrink back since they know that they cannot stand on their inadequate works.

Christian, if you have been freed from legalism, is your posture one of a prince or pauper? The next time you think of that fundamental church you used to attend, may your heart break for the darkness and bondage legalism brings, and may you pray that the Lord sets them free.

Dads, Shepherding Sons in the In-Between Times

Transitions are important in life. We often mark transitions with special events, ceremonies, and meals, and rightly so. These kinds of actions remind us that transitions must be acknowledged, prepared for, and faced with courage. A failure to do so often leads to fear and insecurity. The in-between times in life are formative for both good and bad.

Dads, one important job you have is to prepare your sons for the transitions they will face. The apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Cor 3:7). His advice to the church provides dads a good perspective on raising our sons. We are dependent on God’s work and grace, but we are to plant and water.

Guiding our sons through transitions is a vital way that we plant and water our sons. We must set the example we want our sons to follow. We should be willing to say to our sons what Paul said to the church in Corinth, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). In our son’s transitional seasons, we must be intentional about teaching and training them. And when our sons make strides in the right direction we must celebrate with them.

Manhood is not easy, and biblical manhood is harder still. We must teach our sons this fact and train our sons with this fact in mind. Laziness is a sin our culture has deemed as acceptable, but as Christian dads, we must teach our sons that laziness is wicked. Our sons must be trained that it is not acceptable to just float along with no clear goals and live as consumers rather than workers and servants.

One thing I do with my sons is taking them on a manhood retreat around age twelve to fourteen years of age depending on their maturity. During this retreat, I begin the process of intentionally ushering them from childhood to manhood. After this retreat, I refer to my son as a young man. I do not use the term teenager because the Bible speaks of childhood giving way to a transition into manhood and womanhood.

Also, after our manhood trip, I institute the direction rule. The direction rule means that whenever I ask my sons from that point on, “What do you plan to do with your life?” they must have an answer to the question and not say, “I don’t know.” At the end of the day, I often ask, “How did you honor God today in the pursuit of your career goal?” I do not care if it is a different goal on Thursday than it was on Wednesday, just that they have a goal they are working toward to the glory of God. I tell them you have to be headed somewhere to get anywhere.

The goal is to create a culture where the transition from childhood to adulthood is marked is by intentional action and not by apathy. When Paul exhorts, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31), he is calling for purposeful action. Dads, your sons will experience significant transitions from stage to stage in their development, the only questions is, who will guide, lead, and celebrate those transitions? For God’s glory and your sons good, let it be you.

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

The “Bad Math” of Derailing Spiritually

C.S. Lewis famously said that when we read history, we find that those who did the most for the present world are also the ones who thought the most of the next. In other words, the more heavenly minded we are—the more our heads and hearts are fixed on Jesus, his kingdom, and his purposes—the more earthly good we will be. And the more happy and healthy and whole we will be as well.

But if we are being honest, many Christians struggle to keep their minds and hearts fixed on what Lewis calls “the next” world. With goals to chase, degrees to earn, careers to pursue, friendships to enjoy, families to raise, retirement accounts to build, and more, we are easily distracted from our chief purpose as human beings—to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

In practical terms, how many of us have the time and energy to do what it takes to be heavenly minded? Who has the bandwidth, the focus, or for that matter the incentive to “set (their) minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:2)? Who has the interest or ability to stop worrying about the details and concerns of here and now, and instead to “seek first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33)?

According to Scripture, the only way we can live a full and fruitful life in the here and now—the only way that things like career, family, friendship, and other pursuits can lead to healthy and life-giving outcomes—is to remain fixated on Jesus, his kingdom, and his purposes through each one of these pursuits. Jesus must be the sun around which the solar systems of our lives find their orbit. He must be our single non-negotiable, our “true north,” and the wind beneath our sails. Otherwise, by moving Jesus to the periphery and centering our lives on anything else, even our best and most noble earthly pursuits will backfire on us. When we turn good things into our ultimate things, they will go sour for us. When we plug our emotional umbilical cords into anything besides Jesus and expect them to give us life, they will steal life from us instead.

We each have something at the center of our souls that we treat as our functional treasure, as the ultimate source our own happiness and significance and flourishing. Whether it’s Jesus or someone, someplace, or something else, we all depend on these treasures to save, sustain, and govern our lives as functional lord and savior. We tell ourselves, “If I can have this, then it will be well with my soul. If I can hold on to this, things will be okay. If my thoughts, words, and deepest commitments are centered on this, my life will be worth living.”

When we think this way, we become like the rich fool in Jesus’ parable, who like Ebenezer Scrooge counts up all his money and material goods and preaches a mini-sermon to his own soul: “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God preaches a contradicting mini-sermon to him, saying, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be” (Luke 12:13-21)?

What makes this man a fool? First, he is shortsighted. With the mortality rate being one person per every one person, sooner or later he will die. When he does, he will not be able to take his things with them. They will offer no comfort, no support, and no salvation for him. As another rich, yet much wiser man once said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).

He is also a fool for depending on created things to do for him what only his Creator can do. As Blaise Pascal once said, in each of us there is an “infinite abyss (that) can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.” Every pursuit of ultimate satisfaction outside of God himself will lead to less satisfaction.

It’s simple math, really. Everything minus Jesus equals nothing, and Jesus plus nothing equals everything. With Jesus, every other person, place, or thing we are given to enjoy is bonus—not something to plug our emotional umbilical cords into, but rather something to offer thanks for to God.

As the Puritan, whose possessions were reduced to a single piece of bread and a single glass of water, said:

“What? All this and Jesus Christ too?”

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

Navigating the Preaching Rut

When I was growing up it was always a treat to be taken to the farm with my dad. I was less than helpful, but he graciously let me tag along and explore. It was on that old family farm that I first learned how to drive. My dad, often courageously, let me out into the pastures in his pickup truck to trek the grassy fields with freedom. Whether it was the early days of learning to drive simply by steering that truck while sitting on his lap or the later years when I could reach the peddles myself, the instruction was always the same: stay on the roads. By roads my dad meant the two tire ruts that had killed the grass and been driven into the dirt over many years. Those ruts had been made by my grandfather, my uncle, my dad, and then by myself. There were many canyons and varying terrains on that farm, but as long as I stayed in those ruts, I would be safe.

Unfortunately, not all ruts are equal. Ruts on the farm can keep you from driving into a hole. But what about when you feel like you are in a rut when preaching?

Preaching is simultaneously an astounding privilege and a weighty burden. Most preachers actually love to preach. It is difficult for a preacher to go too long without standing behind the pulpit declaring God’s Word. However, the weekly grind of preaching can also prove itself to be difficult. Not only are there many demands on a preacher’s time, but the ever-impending deadline of Sunday morning quickly approaches week after week. Once finished preaching, the preacher must then begin again. This inevitably leads to preaching ruts: those seasons of preaching when communication is difficult, the soul is uniquely distracted, connection with the church is elusive, and gratification for the preaching task is often choked out with feelings of inadequacies and squandered opportunities.

The Preaching Rut isn’t a path of safety, but a hindrance to the preacher. It is often a place of difficulty that no preacher delights to live in. Yet, it can yield the disciplined fruit that proves good for the future of a preaching ministry. What is a preacher to do? Here are four tips for navigating the preaching rut.

1.) Remember That Its God’s Word Doing the Work, Not You

The temptation for preachers is to think that all the fruit and success of a preaching ministry falls squarely onto the preacher’s shoulders. The truth is that very little of it actually does. Yes, the preacher must be faithful in study, preparation, crafting, and delivery. But, none of those things are guarantees of a successful sermon. Rather, the fruit of a preaching ministry is entirely up to God. The reasoning is simple: preachers cannot persuade, convince, enlighten, or change the hearts of human beings. That is a work that God alone does. However, we can trust His promise regarding His Word: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My Word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, but is shall accomplish that which I purpose and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:10-11).”

This Word that comes from the Lord is both written and Incarnate (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16 & John 1:1-3). Both self-disclosures of God accomplish His purpose of changing the hearts of humanity. Preachers have to trust that if their words aren’t connecting or are jumbled in their mouth, God’s Word is not; and His Word is the one doing the real work in preaching.

2.)  Remember That Faithfulness and Discipline Matter

If a preacher finds himself in the Preaching Rut, sometimes he just needs to keep preaching through it. In other words, keep trusting God’s purposes in His Word and keep faithfully and with great discipline giving it to His people every week. This can prove exhausting in the moment and even burdensome to the preacher’s heart. But it cultivates a long-term discipline in the preacher’s practice to not rely so much on his feelings of disconnect, but to trust in God’s blessing of His Word. It also serves to teach God’s people that even in the difficult seasons of preaching it is God’s Word being faithfully communicated that matters. It isn’t cleverness that is needed, nor sound bites or lofty speech, it is clear teaching of Scripture that we need.

3.) Be Honest with Yourself and Your People

I’m not sure if it is harder to be honest with God’s people or harder to be honest with ourselves. Truth be told, people rarely like either. It is easier to self-justify, dismiss, or redefine our inadequacies and inabilities. But it is good for God’s people to remember that preachers are people too. And as people, they are subject not only to the same temptations, but also the same complex emotional struggles as everyone else. This means that not every sermon can be a home run. In fact, more than is wanted, our sermons aren’t even singles. Most pastors walk away from the pulpit feeling as if they have struck out. In my experience, it isn’t always a bad thing to confess this to your people. In doing so, you often gain their prayers and encouragement. That is not to say that preachers should stand behind the pulpit and grumble or complain every week. No one likes a whiner. But it is never bad to confess to your people your need for their prayers because you sense that you are in a spiritual rut. After all, it isn’t about propping ourselves up as awesome communicators of God’s Word without any needs or struggles, it is about communicating God’s Word to God’s people with God’s help for God’s glory. But more than that, preachers need to be honest with themselves about their inabilities and grow in their dependence on Christ. Remind yourself that you don’t have it all together and are utterly reliant upon God for even one Word of clarity and faithfulness. You are preaching about things and a Person whom you cannot fully comprehend. To think you are adequate for the task is foolish.

4.) Look to Jesus Constantly

One of the most important lessons I am learning in life is where to set my eyes. Colossians 3 tells us to set our minds on the things above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God (Colossians 3:1-4). If we fix our eyes on ourselves, or even on God’s people, we will often find that our barometer of success is wildly off. We slowly begin to measure and live by the wrong standard. But, if we set our eyes constantly on Christ, we not only have a perfect example, but we are also reminded of our heavenly calling and purpose. Preaching isn’t about making a good name for ourselves. Preaching is about exalting Christ and His truth in Scripture. Setting our eyes on Christ helps us preach better, trust Him in the dry seasons, and point our people to Him with greater faith and adoration.

Armor Bearer Is Not A Biblical Church Office

He picked me up from the airport. We headed straight to the church.

I wanted to look over my manuscript once more before I preached. But I took a few minutes to chat with my driver.

I asked my standard questions, including, “Where do you serve in the church?”

“I’m pastor’s chief armor bearer,” he said proudly.

I summoned all the self-control I could muster. But I couldn’t resist. I had to ask. “What does that mean?”

He explained the various ways he serves his pastor. “I am basically pastor’s right-hand man,” he concluded.

I changed the subject.

But there was another question I wanted to ask: “You do know that armor bearer is not a biblical church office, don’t you?”

This time, self-control prevailed. Thankfully.

I read Terry Nance’s book, God’s Armor Bearers, when it was first published some years ago. I found it interesting. Then I forgot it. I never expected it would get so much traction. Yet there is a now a movement of “armor bearers.” And I am not sure it’s a good thing.

Let me be clear. It is good for men to have hearts and hands to serve in the church. And it is good when men are willing to serve their pastor. Every man should have another man in his life that he submits to. But I wonder if all this “armor bearer” stuff is taking things too far.

Christians are commanded to honor their pastors. At the same time, however, pastors are commanded to be servant-leaders, not celebrities.

  • Do you really need security with earpieces to protect you from interaction with your congregation?
  • Do you really need someone to carry your Bible, manuscript, and anointed handkerchief to the pulpit for you before you preach?
  • Do you really need the men in your church who have a servant’s heart to be used as your chauffeurs and butlers?

But there is a bigger question: You do know armor bearer is not a biblical church office, don’t you?

There are two biblical offices in the New Testament church: elders and deacons. Elders serve by leading. Deacons lead by serving.

Unfortunately, many pastors and congregations resist the hard work of developing biblical church leadership. Most would not dare consider establishing elders. And pastors and deacons often have a love-hate relationship, as they wrestle for power. (Trustees are not in the Bible. And they should NOT have final authority in the church, just because they handle the money.)

Brothers, if we are going to disciple men for Christian growth, service, and leadership, why not use the terms and offices the Lord has ordained? The church needs godly elders and faithful deacons, not ecclesiastical rent-a-cops.

Come on, if you are going to fight what that armor, can’t you carry it?

As pastors, we should model Christlike humility and servanthood. We should labor to nurture biblical church leadership. Our goal should be congregational health, not personal comfort. We need Christian soldiers that will lead the army of God into spiritual warfare.

And may we do so dressed in the whole armor of God (Eph. 6:10-20), so we won’t need anyone to bear our armor for us!

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

Church is Not a Business

Nothing feels better than success. Seeing a church grow in number, welcoming new visitors each Sunday, building new state-of-the-art buildings, having an exciting and dynamic worship atmosphere, hearing about constant “decisions” to follow Christ, and many other facets are how the modern-day church oftentimes determines success. But here is the gospel reality: none of these are at the heart of what the church is supposed to be. In fact, a successful church, as defined by Scripture, wouldn’t necessitate any of these. Far too often, we determine success according to a business model rather than a biblical model. Businesses define success according to profits, employees are oftentimes treated as only parts of a machine, and power reflected in leadership is wielded with a me-centered mentality.

There is nowhere in Scripture that defines success as a top priority of the church. Let me take a brief pause to say that this does not mean the church should shy away from gospel effectiveness. But even gospel effectiveness is not measured solely by what man sees. Church membership, conversions, and baptisms are all wonderful gifts that point to gospel effectiveness, but when church membership is treated like a country club membership, when conversions are inauthentic as a result of easy-believism, and when baptisms are spontaneous with little to no meaning, this is anything but gospel effectiveness. It is a mirage of gospel effectiveness.

The Dangers of “Successful” Church

Treating the church as a business has never been a biblical model. Businesses are all about profits, marketing, advertising, and being innovative. If anything, this is the total opposite of what the church is meant to be because the business mentality is man-centered and the church is God-centered. For business, customer is king. For church, Christ is King. This means the church is wholly different than any business, even a “Christian” one. It is my pleasure to say that Chick-fil-A has a business model, not a church model. And they should because they are not the church. Sadly, the church frequently adopts a business mindset and there are several dangers that accompany this mindset.

Fear of Man Over Fear of God

There is such danger in valuing what man says, or how man will respond, over what God has already said. Proverbs 29:25 says, “the fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe.” Psalm 119:120 says, “My flesh trembles for fear of you, and I am afraid of your judgments.” King Saul in 1 Samuel 15:24 says, “I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice.” Or perhaps the clearest example is John 12:42-43 that says, “Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.”

When we are more concerned about man’s response rather than worship of our God, we are ignoring God’s Word completely. Church leadership that is guilty of reactionary leadership is holding the fear of man as supreme. Reacting out of fear of what man will think is not church leadership at all. However, responsive leadership that does not just tell people what they want to hear loves both God and His church. Responsive leadership glorifies God and at the same time doesn’t ignore the members. Also, fear of man places no value in humble confrontation of sin.  Church members are called to hold one another accountable. Church members have the responsibility to represent the gospel in their relationships with one another. The fear of man always shies away from this responsibility because man’s opinion is most important. We must quit bringing a business-like fear of man into the church.

Numbers Over Depth

Jesus’ miracles attracted crowds. But at the end of Jesus’ miracles, He reveals that many in the crowd did not actually believe in Him. Towards the end of Jesus’ ministry, He led his disciples toward Caesarea Philippi. It would have been extremely dangerous for anyone to follow Him to this region. The crowds dwindled more and more until only the twelve were following Him. There in Caesarea Philippi, Jesus clearly told His disciples for the first time that He was going to die.  Jesus knew the cost of following Him and continually expressed this cost. He was not concerned with the crowds that followed because “he himself knew what was in man (John 2:25).” For the church to be consumed with numbers rather than depth is being less Christ-like and being more business-like.

Yes, church, we desire for people to come to a saving knowledge of Christ, but we also desire for them to mature in that relationship and continually put to death the works of the flesh and walk by the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-26). This is the opposite of a numbers-focused method. Valuing depth over numbers also means holding high church membership. Church membership is more important than church attendance. Church membership opens the door for depth in relationships rather than just the surface-level relationships of non-committal attendance.

Entertainment Over Discipleship

Having an attractional ministry has become the norm in churches today. Doing life together is less appealing to people than creating a fun and entertaining environment. When looking in Acts 2, entertainment and fun are nowhere to be found. Commitment to one another, commitment to worshipping together in unity, and a commitment to giving, are all at the forefront. This mentality of getting people in the door with something other than the gospel in order to tell them about Jesus is not biblical. A bait and switch is a business trick that we should not employ in the church.  It displays a lack of faith in the gospel itself. The popular phrase, “what you win them with, is what you win them to,” is overused but helpful. Do we really think the gospel isn’t good enough so we need to add bells and whistles?

We should care more about theology than we do a dynamic worship experience. We should care more about worship than we do relevance. We should care more about discipleship than entertainment. Not one person should walk into a church without walking out knowing more about what it means to be a follower of Christ. There should always be a worshipful response from a church focused on making disciples of Christ. The same cannot be said about a church focused on entertainment.

The church cannot continue to misrepresent the Church by looking more like a business. The Church exists for worship. We must hold high corporate worship. We must display the significance of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. While a business would say people are merely numbers, tools, or consumers, the local church must say they are image-bearers of God, made to be like Him, and offered restoration only through the death and resurrection of His Son. May the church uphold the gospel because that is her call.

On Sermon Conclusions

“So how was your flight?”

When I am asked this question, I typically respond by saying it was a good flight. I speak positively about the flight for one reason. It landed. I may not like my assigned seat. There may have been no room for my bag in the overhead compartment. It may have been a bumpy flight the whole ride. But none of that really matters as long as the flight lands safely.

The same is true of sermons. It may get off to a bumpy start. You may have to play catch up to stay within the allotted time schedule. The people on board may not like where it is headed. But all will be forgiven if you can safely land the sermon at its intended destination.

Here are seven tips on landing the sermon safely with a strong conclusion.

Give a true conclusion. Don’t just stop. Don’t let the sermon trail off. Don’t preach until you hit your time limit. Don’t go until you run out of material. Don’t simply end by saying a prayer or extending an invitation. Conclude the sermon intentionally. View the sermon as a unit with an introduction, body, and conclusion. Work to craft a conclusion that is clear, compelling, and climatic.

Only conclude once. Paul says, “Finally,” several times in Philippians. But Philippians is divinely inspired. Your sermon on Philippians is not. So when you say, “Finally,” mean it. Avoid serial conclusions. You will only make the congregation nervous if you keep circling the runway. No skilled pilot plays with the landing gear. And flight attendants don’t promise to land early just because the passengers look bored. So don’t go into an unnecessary holding pattern by introducing new material at the end. Land when it’s time to land.

Know your destination. Where is the sermon going? What’s the point? How should the congregation respond to the truth of the text? The answers to these questions will determine how to end the message. A conclusion cannot reach a place where the sermon does not go. You should take off with a predetermined destination. And the navigational devices of the message should head in that direction and lead to a logical conclusion. A good conclusion is the result of a sermon that had purpose, unity, and movement.

Review the message. It is often said that a speaker should tell the audience what he is going to say, say it, and then tell them what you said. That may be a cliché. But it works. An effective way to conclude a sermon is to review the major points of the message. Don’t just repeat the main ideas. Restate them. Enforce them. Apply them. Illustrate them. Celebrate them. View the conclusion as the introduction in reverse. Close by making the point again.

Issue a call to action. Application should take place throughout the sermon. But the conclusion is a good place to emphasize it. It is self-deception to hear the word without doing what it says (James 1:22). The goal of preaching is application. So end there. Challenge the congregation to live out the teachings of the faith. Exhort them to be doers of the word. Explain why obedience matters. Show them what following Jesus looks like in practical terms.

Run to the cross. Jesus should be the hero of every sermon. And the conclusion is a good place to point your hearers to Christ. Of course, the message should be saturated with the gospel. Christ is not honored when he is mentioned at the end of a message that ignores him throughout. But there is power in concluding with a clear declaration of the gospel. Run to the cross. Call the hearer to repent and believe. End by exalting the sufficiency of Christ’s Person and Work.

Leave a good impression. First impressions are lasting impressions. But so are closing ones. A message that starts with a bang but ends with a whimper loses credibility. A poor conclusion can trump a good introduction and strong main body. So finish strong. Practice clarity. Use variety. Use variety. Make it memorable. Strive for an economy of words. Don’t ramble. Write it out. Be familiar with it. Think of the conclusion as a lawyer’s closing argument. Don’t leave any reasonable doubt. Preach for a verdict.

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

No Greater Can Be Thought

Life in and of Yourself,

You are greater than can be thought—

far greater than this vessel wrought

with sin can fathom.

Lord, bridge this chasm

of exploration and belief;

still my soul and meet my grief

with Your immense splendor.

O Blessed Truth, help me remember

Your extent and Your immensity.

Rid me of propensity

to run from beauty and light.

Grant me grace and give me sight

beyond seeing. Consume my being

with Your ineffable goodness.


Editor’s Note: This poem formed from meditation upon Anselm’s Proslogion and course materials from Theology I with Dr. Matthew Barrett.