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Three Ministry-Shaping Sentences

John Piper once wrote, “Books don’t change people; paragraphs do. Sometimes even sentences.”[1] Though true in every dimension of my life, three sentences related to pastoral ministry have been meaningful to me that I would like to share with you.

Sentence 1

The first morsel comes from Andrew Purves: “Ministry kills us with regard to our ego needs, desire for power and success and the persistent wish to feel competent and in control.”[2]

Here’s the backstory.

In 2013, my family and I sold our home in Florida and moved to a small, rural community in northern Iowa, where I began my first pastorate. Though once a thriving church, by the time we arrived it had been in decline for more than a decade. On a good Sunday, we had forty people.

In the weeks leading up to the move, we attended church like we always do. I don’t remember much of the pastor’s sermon that morning, but I know that toward the end of his message he invited the congregation to write down one prayer request, and trust God to answer it in the upcoming year. I wrote down, “I want to feel competent as a pastor.” (Cue laughter track.)

Feelings of inadequacy plagued me even after four years of Bible College and three years of seminary. If anything, the long season of preparation made it worse. I felt pressure to justify my seven-year investment and didn’t want to disappoint my family, friends, mentors, and those who had supported us financially. To top it all off, I had serious doubts about my ability to revitalize a dying church—to bring it back to its glory days, when “it was a race to the back pew,” as one member jokingly put it. It felt like the future of the church was riding on my ability to increase attendance and expand the budget.

Well, that didn’t happen. I soon realized that I was unprepared for the task and had no idea what I was doing. (The members caught on to this quickly.)

Truth be told, I didn’t just feel incompetent. I was (am?) incompetent. But Andrew Purves’s quote helped me see that God was providing me with an opportunity to forsake self-reliance and role my cares on to the resurrected Christ (Ps. 55:22; 2 Cor. 1:8–9).

I now see that my plea for competence was really a desire for control. But I’m not in control. I can’t control results. I can’t control what others say. I can’t control people’s responses. There’s a whole bunch of things I can’t control! Thankfully, grace flows downhill (nod to Jack Miller).

Sentence 2

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) penned my second ministry-shaping sentence. In the course of outlining how a pastor should relate to his congregation, he wrote, “When a [pastor] becomes alienated from a Christian community in which he has been placed and begins to raise complaints about it, he had better examine himself first to see whether the trouble is not due to his wish dream that should be shattered by God; and if this be the case, let him thank God for leading him into this predicament.”[3]

You’ll need to replace Bonhoeffer’s phrase wish dream with today’s concept of visionary leadership to appreciate his counsel. Contrary to nearly all pastoral leadership books currently on offer, Bonhoeffer urged pastors to receive their congregations, not envision one. Yes, pastors should have a biblical vision for their church. And no, Bonhoeffer’s admonition doesn’t preclude pastors from praying that a gospel culture would flourish in their midst. But it does mean that pastors should love the people in their congregation more than their vision for the congregation.

This rang true with me when I first read it, and still does to this day. Yet many of the books that I’ve read on leadership gave the impression that I should be willing to sacrifice the people currently in my church for the sake of “the vision.” But that counsel never sat well with me. Further, in talking with congregants led by “visionary leaders,” I’ve discovered that most of them feel like they’re just along for the ride. They don’t feel served by their pastors; they feel used by them. And usually the pastor’s “visionary leadership” just leaves congregations busier and more tired.

Bonhoeffer’s quote reminds me that my calling is to lead God’s people to love him with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love their neighbors as themselves. That’s the biblical vision. That’s what we work and pray toward. But I have no power to make it happen (see sentence number 1!). My calling is to plant the seeds of the gospel and then stick around long enough to see if anything happens.

Sentence 3

My third ministry-shaping sentence comes from Eugene Peterson: “Pastoral work . . . is that aspect of Christian ministry that specializes in the ordinary.”[4]

It’s embarrassing to admit, but I was resistant to this idea initially. It felt like such a letdown. It seemed too . . . well . . . ordinary. What about all the glitz and the glam? All the pastors I followed on Facebook and Twitter couldn’t wait to get to church on Sunday for their “epic” and “extraordinary” services and preach their “life-changing” messages. These status updates included pictures of them standing on a platform preaching in front of hundreds and thousands of people—all eager to hear their pearls of wisdom. Let’s just say that was not my experience.

I know the comparison game is deadly, but it was hard to resist. If successful pastors lead large and extraordinary churches with countless conversions taking place each Sunday, then it was clear where I stood. For my own sanity, I needed to change my outlook—and delete my social media accounts. Peterson’s words helped me not become another statistic—quitting the ministry in my first five years.

I had to learn that ministry is made up mostly of ordinary days, working with ordinary people, who face ordinary struggles, work ordinary jobs, have ordinary marriages, ordinary kids, and ordinary struggles. They wash dishes, take out the trash, change diapers, and raise kids. That’s life. It’s filled with blessedly mundane moments. My calling is to help God’s people notice the subtext of their lives—to pay attention to how God’s fashioning them into Christ’s image in the midst of it all.

I like to say that ministry is meandering through life with people. I’m not qualified to lead them into the Promised Land, but I can walk with them through the wilderness years. And by God’s grace, it’s what I plan to give my life to.

Conclusion

In the swirl of a life always in motion, it’s hard to see how God is penciling his character into our souls. But when I reflect on how God dropped these three gems into my life right when I needed them, I can only say: God is generous beyond calculation. He is sovereign over all the details of our lives, including what we’re reading.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

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[1] John Piper, A Godward Life: Savoring the Supremacy of God in All of Life (Sisters: Multnomah, 1997), 13.

[2] Andrew Purves, The Crucifixion of Ministry: Surrendering Our Ambitions to the Service of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2007), 21.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christianity Community (New York: HarperOne, 1954), 29–30, emphasis mine.

[4] Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 112.

Light and Heat: John Owen on Spiritual Health and Its Application for Us Today

Introduction
I love reading John Owen (1616–1683). Like other Puritan pastors, he wrote theologically weighty tomes and spiritually affecting treatises. Over the past three years, I have read three of Owen’s theological works—his Discourse on the Holy Spirit, The Person of Christ, and Meditations and Discourses Concerning the Glory of Christ. After finishing these dense volumes, I shifted to one of his more spiritual works: Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually-Minded.

The book is an extended meditation on Romans 8:6, which the King James Version (the translation Owen used), renders: “For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.” Owen explains and applies the entire verse, but I will focus on his treatment of the latter portion of the text.

Owen on Spiritual-Mindedness
According to Owen, to be “spiritually-minded” is to “mind the things of the Spirit.” What does that mean?

Owen examines the Greek word for “mind,” (it’s phrónēma, for the Greek scholars out there), noting that it’s associated not only with thinking, but also with the “faculty to conceive of things with a delight in them and adherence unto them” (Grace and Duty, 269). But he doesn’t stop there. He brings out a unique feature of the term, revealing that “Nowhere doth it design a notional conception of things only, but principally the engagement of the affections unto things which the mind apprehends” (269). Translation: It’s not simply about contemplation per se, but exulting in what we are pondering.

Such an experience requires God to act. Why?

The Need for Regeneration
Since prior to regeneration fallen sinners “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18), spiritual-mindedness is a result of the new birth: “the ‘minding of the Spirit’ is the actual exercise of the mind as renewed by the Holy Ghost, as furnished with a principal of spiritual life and light.” Translation:  A believer’s relishing, savoring, and delighting in biblical truth is the result of a divinely wrought heart transplant (Ezek. 36:26). Think of it this way: A spiritually-minded person doesn’t merely talk about God’s grace; rather, they “experience that God is gracious, and that the love of Christ is better than wine, or whatever else hath the most grateful relish unto a sensual appetite” (Grace and Duty, 270–271). We might say that the Holy Spirit awakens our spiritual taste buds.

Thinkers and Feelers
Like all of us I assume, Owen knows that some people are thinkers while others are feelers. We all tend to lean in one direction. Either proclivity has its own perils: “Where light [knowledge] leaves the affections behind, it ends in formality or atheism; and where affections outrun light, they sink in the bog of superstition” (Glory of Christ, 401).

And yet, what Owen writes next may surprise some of us—it certainly did me: “But where things go not into these excesses, it is better that our affections exceed our light from the defect of our understandings, than that our light exceed our affections from the corruption of our wills” (Glory of Christ, 401, emphasis mine).

Did you catch that?

While Owen wants people to grasp biblical truth and value theological precision, if you’re going to fall off one side of the fence, opt for lively affections over a dead, lifeless orthodoxy. Owen wants people to feel the truth deeply.

Owen on Spiritual Health
Spiritual health, for Owen, therefore, is “when our light of the knowledge of the glory of God in Christ doth answer the means of it which we enjoy, and when our affections unto Christ do hold proportion unto that light” (Glory of Christ, 401). Translation: Spiritual health is when there is an alignment between head knowledge and heart ravishment. Our affections, loves, and delight, should be in proportion to the glory and beauty of what we’re reading and meditating on in Scripture.

Here, as always, Christ is our example: “The pattern which we ought to continually bear in our eyes, whereunto our affections ought to be conformed, is Jesus Christ and the affections of his holy soul” (Grace and Duty, 468).

Application
What does this mean for us? It means we need to pray.

First, pray that your affections would be in proportion to the beauty and wonder of God’s truth. Let us not be content to simply read and hear that God is good. Let us also pray to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). With Paul, let us pray to know and experience the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge (Eph. 3:19). Owen prods us: “[B]e not contented to have right notions of the love of Christ in your minds, unless you can attain a gracious taste of it in your hearts” (Glory of Christ, 338).

Second, pray that you would be satisfied in God. We sin when we try to satisfy eternal longings with temporal pleasures. It doesn’t work. Our prayer must be that God would give us a joy and delight in him that triumphs over all other lesser joys.

With Owen, I want to be able to say:

Herein would I live;–herein would I die;–hereon would I dwell in my thoughts  and affections, to the withering and consumption of all painted beauties of this world, unto the crucifying all things here below, until they become unto me a dead and deformed thing, no way meet for affectionate embraces (Glory of Christ, 291).

I love how the Puritans—and Owen especially—combine rigorous thinking with heart-warming piety. They were never content with bare information transfer; they were not satisfied with abstract concepts left unapplied. Instead, they eagerly sought to apply the gospel to every mundane moment, joyful circumstance, and harsh providence.

May we do the same.

Three Challenges to Having Meaningful Conversations on Social Media

A concerned family member recently asked me to intervene in a political discussion gone sour on Facebook between two relatives.

“I can’t,” I responded, “I have a root canal scheduled.”

“Really?” she replied.

“No, but I’d rather have that than log on to Facebook,” I said.

The concerned family member shared some of the snide remarks between the two people shouting at each other online. I was saddened and disheartened.

But then a question came to mind: Why is it so difficult to have meaningful conversations on social media? The answer is quite simple: The medium is not conducive to such an end.

Here are three reasons why:

Meaningful communication requires empathy. A genuine exchange of ideas means learning to see things from the perspective of our conversation partner(s). Doing this well entails asking questions and listening intently. Social media, however, doesn’t foster this kind of discussion. Rather, it leads us to reduce our friends and family to nothing more than the position(s) they hold. The result is failing to acknowledge others’ humanity. To the extent that we are guilty of this, we must repent and aim to do better. The True Human calls us to treat others humanely.

Meaningful communication means thinking carefully and responding thoughtfully. To do this, we must read and think for an extended period of time. But this is nearly impossible on social media where everything is reactionary and everyone is in Refutation Mode.[1] The goal on social media, it seems, is to dominate and demean rather than learn and understand. To make matters worse, most people’s responses aren’t well thought out or well written. First drafts rarely are. Which reinforces my point: Meaningful communication requires patience because thinking well takes time. It cannot be rushed.

Philosopher James W. Sire is right:

Thinking takes time—at least for most human beings. Unlike a giant computer that grinds out inevitable answers according to programs, [human beings] are both limited and fallible. Bias, preconceived but erroneous ideas, hasty skipping over relevant details, inordinate desires for a given outcome, fear of the implications of an idea, unwillingness to accept the consequences of correct reasoning: all these and more stand in the way of the mind’s reaching worthy judgments.”[2]

Our responses to those with whom we disagree, therefore, must be the result of patient reading, and a non-anxious inner calm or interior life.

Meaningful communication requires engaging others wisely. Proverbs 16:21 reminds us that “sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness.” The inverse is also true: Harsh and condemning language is ineffectual and deepens division. Increasing persuasiveness, then, calls for showing a genuine interest in the lives of others—especially of those with whom we disagree. And remember: Vulnerability invites intimacy. Rather than trying to be right, maybe we can let our defenses down and try to connect with our conversation partner at the heart level. And there’s the rub: We can’t do that on social media because we can’t look our friends in the eyes.

I believe conversations matter. I want mine to echo into eternity. For this reason, I believe face-to-face is best. But even as I do this, I must remember that my identity isn’t found in being right, but in being righteous in Christ.

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1] Alan Jacobs, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (NY: Currency, 2017), 18.

[2] James W. Sire, Habits of the Mind: Intellectual Life as a Christian Calling (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000), 83–84.

On the Rise and Fall of Mars Hills: Unoriginal Solutions and Unpopular Suggestions

Christianity Today’s (CT) documentary “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” is all the rage these days in the evangelical world—and understandably so, given the influence of Mars Hill and Mark Drsicoll, and the quality of CT’s production. The host, Mike Cosper, skillfully weaves together storytelling, interviews, and analysis, as he unveils the backstory of the church’s founding, chronicles its exponential growth, and details its eventual collapse.

Some evangelicals are avoiding the podcast altogether, likening it to an op-ed hit piece. I sympathize with the sentiment. But I hope the documentary generates healthy discussion among church leaders regarding issues like pastoral training, credentialing and ordination, church polity, Christian celebrity, and abusive and narcissistic leadership. And may the fruit of these discussions lead to solutions.

I make no claim to dispensing much sought-after wisdom in this post. But I would like to address two of the issues listed above and offer some unoriginal solutions.

The first issue is the importance of church membership, pastoral training, and credentialing and ordination, while the second is the danger of Christian celebrity, and how pastors might actively avoid it.

Related to the first issue: I found it troubling that Mark Driscoll planted Mars Hill at age twenty-six, having never been a church member or properly ordained by an official ecclesiastical body. You don’t have tell me that this cannot prevent abusive leadership or moral failure. I know that. But it can provide oversight, structure, and accountability for pastoral candidates.

I believe this is important because the local church is where aspiring pastors and church planters make trial of their gifts (to use the language of the Book of Church Order). We need to remember that aspiring ministers of the Word must prove that they can faithfully handle the Word of God (2 Tim. 2:15) and that they meet the character qualifications found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. And here’s the thing: This takes time. This is a lengthy process.

I believe this model is resisted by aspiring pastors and church planters because it goes against the instant gratification, have-it-your-way, entrepreneurial spirit so prevalent in American culture. (For more on this point, I highly recommend reading Nathan Hatch’s award-winning book The Democratization of American Christianity).

Credentialing and ordination are a lengthy process—and intentionally so. It tests one’s patience. I know it did for me. I made my aspirations to the ministry known to the pastors of my church at seventeen. I was not ordained until thirty-one! While a tedious process, I now see that God was chipping away at my pride, teaching me humility, and refining my character. I am thankful I stuck with it.

Would this process have altered the outcome of Mars Hill? I don’t know. But I think aspiring pastors and church planters should join churches, submit to their elders, and serve humbly and quietly. Read the pastoral epistles (1 & 2 Timothy, and Titus), and then read them again. Cultivate your love for God by reading the Bible and the classics of the Christian tradition. (See my reading recommendations below.)

Related to the second issue, the podcast disclosed a disturbing revelation: After delivering a series of lectures in England, crowds of people surrounded Driscoll and one of his associates—to the point that they had to be escorted to a vehicle waiting to whisk them away from the mob. When they plopped down in their seats, Driscoll turned to his friend and said, “I’m kind of a big deal.”

We might chalk up the statement to nothing more than playful banter between friends. But I’m not so sure. Everyone wants recognition and pastors are no exception. (My counseling professor in seminary said, “Pastors are people whores.”)

I believe pastors must do more than merely resist celebrity and fame. I believe pastors must proactively take steps to avoid it.

Here are two unpopular suggestions:

First, I strongly urge pastors to permanently deactivate all of their social media accounts. Churches may use Facebook and others social media outlets to post pictures, announcements, updates, prayer requests, and livestream their services. Fine. But someone other than the pastor should oversee this.

Pastors might push back and say, “But I use social media to encourage people by posting a Scripture or a quote from a book I’m reading.” Fine. But why not send these directly to people in your church through an email or text?

Second, I would encourage younger pastors (particularly those who desire fame) to consider serving in a smaller, struggling church in relative obscurity. Run away from a church where people will fawn all over you and run toward the one where the people aren’t impressed by you.

Avoid a church where everything will be handed to you on a silver platter and opt for the one where you’ll have to chase down and cajole the treasurer to purchase a new printer.

Steer clear of a church where the young people regard you as a celebrity and serve the one where they look bored on Sunday mornings—and pray that the Holy Spirit will quicken their love for Christ (even though they’ll probably still doze off in your sermon).

I guess what I’m saying is: Go to the church that will relieve you of your messiah complex. After all, we already have a Messiah.

My suggestions probably don’t count as exciting, but maybe they’ll help aspiring pastors answer a crucial question: Do I actually want to be a pastor? If the Mars Hill fiasco teaches us one thing, it’s that something has to change. And maybe—just maybe—retrieving the older patterns of church life would help.

**You didn’t ask for my suggestions, but If I taught a class on pastoral ministry, I would require students to read the following books and articles:

Barbara Miller Juliani, ed. The Heart of a Servant Leader: Letters from Jack Miller.

Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel.

Matthew Henry, The Quest for Meekness and Quietness of Spirit.

Kent and Barbara Hughes, Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome.

Paul Tripp, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry.

Zack Eswine, The Imperfect Pastor: Discovering Joy in Our Limitations through a Daily Apprenticeship with Jesus.

Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan, The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision.

Andrew Purves, The Crucifixion of Ministry: Surrendering Our Ambitions to the Service of Christ.

Douglas A. Sweeney, Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word: A Model of Faith and Thought.

Scott Hafemann, “A Call to Pastoral Suffering: The Need for Recovering Paul’s Model of Ministry in 2 Corinthians,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 4:2 (Summer 2000): 22–36.

William R. Edwards, “Participants in What We Proclaim: Recovering Paul’s Narrative of Pastoral Ministry,” Themelios 39:3 (2014): 455–469.

Aligning Our Desires with God’s Revealed Will

One of the books we recommend in our weekly Gospel Encouragement is Paul Tripp’s devotional New Morning Mercies: A Daily Gospel Devotional. Each morning provides readers with a dose of conviction and encouragement. The last two Mondays (September 6 and 13) were particularly convicting. Both were about prayer. Here’s how last Monday started:

What do you define as blessing? What do you identify as a sign of God’s faithfulness and care? What fills your picture of the “good life”? When you say, ‘If only I had __________, then I’d be content,’ what goes in the blank? When you are tempted to envy the life of someone else, what are you envying? What causes you to question God’s goodness and love? What tempts you to be disappointed with your life? Be honest—what do you want from God?

As a seasoned counselor, Tripp knows that most people want control, success, acceptance, comfort, pleasure, and material blessings. Thus, he concludes:

Now, none of these things is inherently evil. It is not wrong to desire any of them. The question is this: ‘What set of desires rules my heart?’ This is important because the desires that rule your heart determine how you evaluate your life, how you make small and large decisions, and, most importantly, how you think about the goodness and faithfulness of God. . . . [M]aybe your struggle of faith comes from the fact that you don’t really value what he’s working to produce in your heart and life? (italics are mine).

I said ouch as I read those italicized words. The longer I ponder them, the more I see that I do not value what God is working to produce in me. What I count as a blessing and identify as signs of God’s faithfulness and care all center around . . . wait for it . . . me! My wants, my so-called needs, my desires, and my goals.

Setting those reflections against the entirety of biblical revelation, we recall that God invites us to make our needs known to him (Phil. 4:6) and pour out our hearts to him (Psalm 62:8). We do so, however, in a spirit of humility, submissiveness, and willingness to receive how God answers those prayers. We pray with a posture of trust-filled surrender, believing that God knows best.

Speaking personally, I plan to petition God to align my desires with his revealed will in Scripture. I think God wants me to surrender my life to him and demonstrate greater concern for what he’s doing in the world. I also sense that he wants me to be holy, submissive, loving, caring, and caught up in his ever-expanding reign in this world.

Will you consider praying the same for yourself and for your brothers and sisters at Crossroads?