Saturday, December 30, 2006

"The metric of Christian growth"

John Schroeder takes issue with the "ecclesiastical ladder of success."

Word over world

How should we study the Bible? Not as if preparing for a multiple-choice exam, but for an essay test:

In other words, after all the years of studying Scripture, do we know more than superficial facts and associations; can we speak with some sense of reason and intelligence about the point of all things? Essay tests are harder because they demand we express a genuine understanding of the matter being tested. As a Christian, who has been carrying Bibles around for decades, I would like to think that I am at least striving to get the point of all things. As a member of a brotherhood of believers who have frequently touted our insistence on strict adherence to the Bible, I would hope I am among a people who get the point of all things.

If Christians do learn to make the Scriptures our own, then perhaps we can begin turning to the Word and not the world for our help, hope, and strength.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Forum: Friendship and fidelity

If you preach week-to-week with a congregation, you know the challenge of being both faithful to the incisive power of God's Word and cordial with the members. To be true to his calling of proclamation, a preacher must walk the fine line between simply being well liked, preaching comfortable words to make folks feel good, and preaching soul-piercing words of repentance, words guaranteed to make significant portions of the congregation want you to shut up and leave. (If you've read this post you'll know why this topic is on my mind lately). On the one hand, congregations will listen to a preacher only if they respect and trust him, and to a great extent the preacher must do his part in developing a warm relationship with the members. On the other hand, the truth a given congregation needs to hear, at least some of the time, is precisely what many members do not want to hear.

So I ask: What do you think? Through the past couple of years I've benefited from the wisdom of those of you who read this blog. Whether you yourself are a preacher or not, please share your observations and insights on how a preacher can stay on good terms with his congregation and still preach the transforming Word of God.

Update: If you want to see the real treasure of this post, have a look at the comments. Thanks to all of you who shared your insights.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Literacy and discipleship

David Wayne has some thoughtful reflections on emerging churches, images, and literacy.

From doubt to dynamite

Like it or not, doubt at times accompanies faith. But how we confront that doubt determines the quality of our discipleship. A recent post at Monastic Mumblings sheds helpful light on doubt, witness, and the Apostle Thomas:

How many of us have doubts but for fear of other's disapproval, won't admit or explore them? Thomas did . . . and from that day forth Thomas served the Lord with all his heart. It appears that he may have ended up as far as India preaching the Risen Christ, for there is a group of Christians (the Kerala district) that claim descent from Christians converted by the the preaching of Thomas.
Like so many negatives in our lives, doubt can be a stepping-stone to strength (re. Rom. 8:28). The painting at MM, by the way, is an updated version of Caravaggio's moving "Incredulity of Saint Thomas."

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Keys to studying Proverbs

Expository Thoughts is loaded with solid ideas this month; Paul Waymeyer's three-part series on studying the book of Proverbs is especially helpful. Here's a sampling from Part 3:

Proverbs are not to be understood as unconditional promises but rather as practical principles to follow as one seeks to fear God and live wisely. In other words, they are poetic guidelines for behavior, not legal guarantees from God, for proverbs state what generally takes place in certain circumstances, not what always takes place in those circumstances.

Part 1 and Part 2 are also helpful.

Boldness in and out of the pulpit

Tim Bayly has been writing about pulpit persona in a couple of recent essays at BaylyBlog. The first one included this assessment:
When a man steps into the pulpit and adopts a different tone of voice, vocabulary, and syntax than he uses with his flock and family the rest of the week, he's either a pompous ass all the time, or he has displaced God's glory with his own, and his flock will leave the sanctuary hungry still.
Mr. Bayly's follow-up post is more nuanced but no less insightful:

Evangelicals expect our pastors to be bold in the pulpit. We expect them to bark. We expect them to speak out against the evils of Hollywood and liberalism and Gay Marriage and Alcohol and Gambling and even Planned Parenthood. But all of that is safe. Preachers are willing to say hard things as long as they are hiding behind the insulation of the pulpit. After all, it is what we pay them to do: make us feel bold because our pastor is willing to be bold in the pulpit. . . .

Of course, pulpit boldness without in-person boldness is not bold at all. It is tremendously safe. It gives a pastor what he wants: a soothed conscience without the discomfort of "meddling."

Amen. So how should a preacher carry himself both in and out of the pulpit? As Mr. Bayly concludes, "Is it appropriate for him to be urgent and intense and vibrant and bold? Absolutely. But only if he is all of these things in person."

HT: Expository Thoughts

Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas meditations

Thanks for stopping by. On a day when folks are spending time at home with their families, I'm touched that you have chosen to make what you find here a part of your Christmas day. I'd like to share with you two of the best Christmas meditations I've run across this year. Kim Fabricius exclaims, "It's a boy!" while Doug Floyd brings new life to a couple of overworked phrases: wonder and the spirit of Christmas.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Knowledge of the whole breadth

I was preaching on Matthew 4:1-11 today and was thinking about the way Jesus used Scripture to assault Satan. It occurred to me that Satan used the Scripture, giving a good example of how even Scripture can be used to entice us to sin. Just because you know Scripture does not mean you understand it, nor does it mean that you know how to rightly use Scripture.

Jesus, on the other hand, used Scripture in a way very much akin to the way systematic theologians use Scripture. His command of Scripture revealed a knowledge of the whole breadth of Scripture and He was able to bring multiple Scriptures to bear on particular situations and topics - which is simply the way that systematic theologians engage in Bible study.

A little perspective

Disentangling the cultural from the eternal is always a challenge for the church. Here are a couple of writings that help give some perspective on the North American culture of the commercial. The first is from William Willimon on "resisting the clutches of consumerism":
. . . the “user friendly” approach to church won’t work. There is no way to entice people off the streets with hymns that are based on advertising jingles and end up with the cross-bearing, self-sacrificial, burden-bearing Jesus. Evangelism cannot be based upon our basic selfishness (“Come to Jesus and get everything you want fixed.”) and end up with anything resembling historic Christianity.

One of the reasons why Church is difficult is that the modern media culture (a culture which has no other purpose than giving us what we want, since “getting what we want” is the main purpose of life) has been so successful in forming us into such consumers.
Amen. Douglas Groothuis has also written a scathing little post on "YouWorld."

Thursday, December 21, 2006

New 1 Corinthian sermon texts now online

Now that I have a little more free time, I've posted a few more sermon texts at To the Word from my 1 Corinthians series: 1:1-9 (an overdue addition), 11:2-16, 11:17-34, and 12:1-31.

Discipleship and success

Blogotional's John Schroeder has hit the nail on the head in his writings today on Christian success:
Becoming a Christian is not a means to an end. It is not a way of achieving what we want. Being a Christian IS the end, completely recalibrating what we want. Of course, it takes a while for any Christian to grow into that understanding, but my issue is why do we "sell" the baby steps instead of the whole package?

I think it is a tad bit deceptive to sell personal gratification when what we are offering is personal transformation. That such happens cannot be doubted - what else explains the revolving door that is so many ministries? What else explains how many go to church, but how few are active in church? What else explains the countless that went through a Christian "phase"?

I think the "why's" are pretty straightforward. Actually, it is just one "why." We do not understand the depth and radicalness of what we have a hold of much more than the people we are trying to give it to. What else can explain why we measure the success of ministry on worldly terms, not God's?
Right.The past few months I've been studying Matthew's gospel. Jesus' call throughout the narrative is simply "Follow me." Not until chapter 10 do we learn what that following really entails: "Whoever doesn't take up his cross and follow me isn't worthy of me" (Mt. 10:38). Ouch.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Genuinely weak

Jim Martin reminds Christians of the value in recognizing our genuine sinfulness and desperate need for God's love.

Lectern or pulpit?

My first preaching job came about when the preacher retired at the small congregation where I had been serving as youth minister. When I first "stepped up" into the pulpit (a lectern, actually), I told the congregation I wasn't really a preacher but a teacher. I suppose at that time in my life I couldn't see myself taking on the responsibility of proclaiming the Gospel.

It didn't take long before I was forced to confront my evasion. A few Sundays later a little girl, about four years old, looked up at me earnestly and asked, "Are you my preacher?" What should I say? How could I explain my thoughts about the priesthood of all believers, the scriptural principles of shared leadership, the anti-clerical views I had developed and honed over the course of more than ten years as a Christian? I looked down into that little girl's upturned face and said, "Yea, I guess I am." For the past ten years I've been working on growing into that affirmation.

Today I cherish the pulpit at least as much as the lectern. I certainly respect one of my favorite bloggers, however, who has a different perspective:

Given the choice between a lectern (or even a really sturdy music stand) in a classroom and a pulpit in a sanctuary, I'll take the lectern every time. I'll also opt for the one-on-one ministry of the Word over sermonizing, too.I think Keith and I agree that the church needs both the public and private ministry of the Word.
Isn't it wonderful that our Father has equipped his various children to do and enjoy each?

Sunday, December 17, 2006


Well, yesterday morning I was told that the men of the congregation no longer want me to preach in Lexington. In Churches of Christ there's no denominational structure above the congregational level, so when the congregation wants you out, you're out. It's been quite a ride these past eighteen months. Please pray for my family as we wait upon the Lord and seek his will for the next step.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Still overloaded

Well the semester is almost, but not quite, over. I still have papers to grade on top of the work of the church. So I won't be blogging today or, probably, tomorrow. Thanks for stopping by.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

"Joyful subservience to the Word"

Faithful preachers exist in an ambiguous, potentially contentious relationship to our congregations. The congregation is the Body of Christ, that gathering whom God has convened to hear the royal proclamation, but the congregation is full of the same incomprehension, cowardice, disbelief, and rebellion that is found in any human gathering when it is assaulted by the Word. We preachers meet no resistance to the Word that was not first encountered in our own hearts, and in the hearts of our most regular listeners. . . . Though the church may say it wants to hear the Word of God--to be addressed by its Lord and Savior--the church lies. Perhaps resistance to the Word is even more pronounced in the church because the church knows firsthand that God's word is always a summons, an address, a vocation and an obligation; and that God has great work in mind for the church, and therefore the church is justified in feeling some fear and consternation in the face of that vocation and therefore is full of resistance to that Word. Church thus tends to be not only training in discipleship but also in various techniques of avoiding the transforming Word of God. . . .

Preaching is the peculiar speech of the church, but it is not authorized or dependent upon the church and therefore may often be experienced as against the church, in order to be for the church. The words of the sermon are not a congregationally derived Word; that Word comes from God to the church. Preaching is what God says to the church, not what the church musters on its own behalf. Therefore, preachers must be willing to risk conflict, resistance, and rejection by the church in order to be faithful to the church's peculiar vocation: joyful subservience to the Word. Preachers are to serve the Word, not to be acquiescent to the congregation.
-- William H. Willimon, Journal for Preachers

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Clear thinking on "The Call"

Kent Brandenburg has done some amazingly clear-headed writing on the "call to ministry."

Staying Christ-centered at Christmas

More advice on how not to preach at Christmas:
The Christmas passages are not about the greatness of Joseph, Mary, the Magi, or Zechariah. The focus is about God. The Christmas story is a pivotal moment within redemptive history. Who would think that God would become one of us in order to save us? That, not the virtues of the other characters, is the main focus of the story.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The spiritually mature as hindrances

Blogotional has posted a powerful, hard-hitting quote from Dallas Willard and Jan Johnson on congregational leadership and spiritual formation.

Not yet Christmas

I like the season of Advent, the time of anticipation before the festival of Christmas. Christians in the United States have largely followed the commercial powers and principalities into celebrating Christmas early and have all but forgotten the accompanying season of Advent.

It's gratifying, however, to see that many bloggers have not. John Frye, for example, writes about Advent awareness in the USA, while in South Wales Richard Hall considers Advent, Mark 13:24-37, and hope. And Doug Floyd has composed a beautiful essay proclaiming that, while creation is fallen and violent, Advent reminds us peace is coming.

If you're a Christian who eschews recognizing seasons of the church, I recommed Dan Edelen's article on regulation, ritual, and remembrance:
I don't understand Evangelicalism's obsession with wiping out the past. In many parts of the American Church today, a flagrant disregard for what and who has come before us dominates all expression toward God. It's as if today's Christians must live in a self-imposed vacuum. . . .

Children grow up without rituals that root them to all of Christendom before them. Today's Evangelical children float in a secularized sea, cast there by well-meaning Christian leaders who employ "regulations" that denounce rituals or scry pointless contemporary "alternatives" to tradition. Is it any wonder that our children reach age eighteen and have no roots to keep them from being torn away from the Faith? How easy is it to depart from God when the experience of God one's been fed has been solely intellectual, tradition relegated to weepy-eyed emotionalism by people who rarely weep!
Whether or not you agree with everything Dan has to say, one thing is certainly true: if the church doesn't provide traditions for Christians, the world will.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Insights on the book of Jonah

Claude Mariottini has posted a fine essay on the book of Jonah. It's full of good historical, theological, and biblical perspective and should be a help for preaching or teaching Jonah.

The need for biblical theology in preaching

Graeme Goldsworthy offers some spot-on observations about how congregations suffer when preachers don't understsand or teach biblical theology (HT: Eucatastrophe).

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Not "You should" but "He is"

At In the Clearing, Bob rants mildly against preaching that seems to have lost the point. What he says is so good, I'm taking the liberty of excerpting a major portion his post:
I heard a sermon recently about Joseph, the husband of Mary. The message, in a nutshell, was all about courage. Joseph was a man of courage and faith. We ought also to be people of courage. Joseph had faith. We ought also to have faith. You get the idea. Now, it's my funny little notion that sermon's ought to be primarily about the business of revealing the heart of God. . . .

The primary purpose of a sermon, then, is not exhortation. It's not, "you should be brave," or "you should be loving," or "you should have faith," etc. These exhortative sermons leave me feeling rather ornery. Pastors, by all means preach about Joseph, yes indeed, but let your purpose be to show us God's heart, not Joseph's. And then, if you have preached the truth, you will have helped to make me, perhaps, a little more courageous, faithful, loving, etc.

Tell it!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

A simple, five-part story

If you're interested in understanding the broad scope of the Scriptures, you might be interested in Eddie Arthur's series on the purpose of the Bible: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Staying theocentric at Christmas

At Theocentric Preaching Daryl Dash has begun a series on how not to preach at Christmas:
Preachers face temptations to go anthropocentric at Christmas. There are lots of angles you can take with the Christmas story, but there are also lots of ways to be a little too creative. That can get us into trouble.
How can we stay out of trouble?
Two of the most important questions we can ask in keeping sermons theocentric are, “What is the purpose of the text?” And, “How can I preach a sermon consistent with that purpose?”

Monday, December 04, 2006

Learning about things that matter

You may have heard by now of Ellison Research's findings about ministers and their knowledge of popular culture. As rich as the findings themselves is Ben Gray's take on them:
1. Pastors need to brush up on their pop culture if they ever plan on reaching a generation of people who are entrenched in it. You have to be able to teach in relevant ways or else your message will be lost.

2. The average church-goer needs to spend considerably less time studying pop culture and more time learning about things that matter.

Insights into the Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 includes both some of Jesus' best-known and least-understood teachings. One of the best articles I've ever found for interpreting the Sermon is Glen H. Stassen's "Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount" (large .pdf file) from the 2003 Journal of Biblical Literature.

Dr. Stassen's insights into the structure of Jesus' teaching in Mt. 5:21-7:12 shed light on some of the Savior's hardest teachings, including those on anger, oaths, and non-retaliation. If you're planning to preach or teach from the Sermon, you really ought to be familiar with this article.

Update: If you have a slow connection, you might prefer this link to Dr. Stassen's article