“A church that doesn’t provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed, what gospel is that? Very nice, pious considerations that don’t bother anyone, that’s the way many would like preaching to be. Those preachers who avoid every thorny matter so as not to be harassed, so as not to have conflicts and difficulties do not light up the world they live in. They don’t have Peter’s courage, who told that crowd where the bloodstained hands still were that had killed Christ: ‘You killed him!’ Even though the charge could cost him his life as well, he made it. The gospel is courageous; its the good news of him who came to take away the world’s sins.”
Archbishop Oscar Romero – 1978
Are 18 hours of travel, a temperature jump from 0 degrees to 81, a missed connection courtesy of Delta, a mad dash from Ft. Lauderdale to Miami, a divine intervention with LAN & TSA worth it for 8 days in a foreign city in a foreign nation where I can’t drink the water? Bucaramanga, Colombia, a city of 1.2 million people is not a vacation spot or a tourist destination but that’s not why I went. I went to see God at work and I was not disappointed!
During our 8 days, we visited a women’s prison (including some babies and kids), a neighborhood school (where the visiting “gringos” were treated as celebrities and asked for pictures and autographs), a church sponsored day care, 3 local churches and went house to house in a nearby town praying for people. We were also able to pray for pastors and leaders. I was amazed by the openness to God and the willingness to receive prayer even in the street. The worship music was loud & enthusiastic but passionate. The leaders are young and I was impressed by our interpreters who helped us – they are college students and emerging leaders in their nation. Most special to me was to see them stretch themselves and watch God work through them.
I could make a long list of how God showed up with his power and love. A few examples will suffice: 2 women we prayed for felt sadness leave them. A young lady with pressure in her right ear reported it disappeared. 2 older men with little vision said they were seeing much better after prayer. Serious back and abdominal pain left. In contrast to usual results in the U.S. these happened quickly, easily and were repeated in the testimonies of other team members and many had far more dramatic healing to report. In contrast, praying for people in the U.S. is tough & visible answers are rare. Why that is of course the million dollar question. The U.S. Church is still so dominated not only by skepticism and unbelief that stems from the legacy of Western enlightenment rationalism, but the entertainment oriented pro-technic “big show” way of church expected by consumers leaves little room for God to act, besides show up.
There is nothing quite like being in an environment where God is visibly active & people are being transformed by his power. While I went to see what God would do for others, God was working on me. My heart is all too easily weighted down by people’s seemingly intractable problems, the lifelessness and sterility of the church, my ragged track record of leadership, my own struggle with self-worth and my myriad other short-comings. So even as I watched others encounter the living God, I did as well.
There is also real need in Colombia. I know a few days does not make me a missiologist and forgive me if I’m presumptuous but I saw quickly that new believers need to be grounded in the faith. There is a need for an understanding of how God heals the wounded heart since there is a sad legacy of all kinds of abuse and abandonment from the distorted masculinity of “machismo.” However, God’s Spirit is burning brightly and the fire will grow and intensify.
Sadly, there are some self-appointed critics who feel they need to pontificate about the short comings of short-term mission trips & feel their calling is to discourage anyone from trying one. I believe the benefits far out way the supposed detriments. The blessings of short-term mission trips include:
-establishing unity in the body of Christ in different nations;
-breaking down stereotypes and walls between believers of different cultures;
-exposure to the realities of life outside the comforts of the First World;
-enabling more effective prayer for the church in the nations after first hand experience;
-challenging one’s faith beyond consumer churchianity;
-awakening an understanding of the reality of spiritual conflict and the victory of Jesus Christ and his power and authority;
-encouraging and assisting emerging leaders in stepping out of their comfort zone;
and last but not least…
– doing the stuff Jesus did.
Don’t let the nay-sayers stop you from what most likely will change your life!
One of our family’s current TV show favorites is “Chopped” in which top chefs compete to make the best meal for a panel of judges. Those whose dishes are not up to par are “chopped” or eliminated from the competition. I thought maybe some kind of similar competition for preachers would be fun – something along the lines of the old Gong Show format. I’m not sure what to call it though – preachers out of favor in the old days would be stoned, beheaded, jailed, exiled, or dismissed but none of those sound good for a show name.
A bigger problem is what criteria for judging would be used? On “Chopped” the criteria are creativity, presentation and technique. No such criteria are agreed upon for preaching – though more & more its seems hair, dress, laughter and “hipness” seem what grabs popular attention. In contrast, John the Baptist was the first wild man with a perpetual bad hair day, Jonah preached covered in whale vomit, and the apostle Paul was dismissed as unsightly & boring. Probably no telegenic smiles in that bunch!
Charles Spurgeon in his “Lectures to My Students” reviews some of the pitfalls of preaching styles and mannerisms oh his own day. While my meager observations don’t come near his classic work, here are a few styles & pitfall I’ve noticed:
“The Hobby Horse Rider” is the preacher that has one or two favorite subjects and no matter the text or the season returns to them again & again. Sadly, these are usually pet peeves such as politics, the End Times, moral issues or what ever is the obsession of the month. Is it “Communion Sunday”? Gog & Magog dominate the message. Christmas? The evils of Federal Bureaucracy dominates. Easter Morning? A refresher course in dispensational theology is offered up. The gospel of the cross and the victory of the resurrection is buried beneath what ever irks the preacher.
“The Machine Gun Preacher” – This is the preacher that unloads at full volume, full speed and full load. He takes no hostages and hardly a breath as well. Its hard to follow what’s been said because the delivery is overwhelming. This specimen is rare but still around – if you encounter him – duck!
“The Marshmellow Preacher” – A marshmallow is sugar plus air & this preacher’s message is about the same. Stories, jokes and a nice feel good moral make up the bulk with the emphasis on “make ’em laugh” or “make ’em cry.” Just like a marshmallow provides no nutritional value, so the message of the marshmallow preacher is hard to remember 5 minutes after consumed.
Preaching has always been considered foolishness (1 Cor. 1:21). Its futility, obsolescence & eventual demise has been repeatedly pronounced from generation to generation in favor of the techno-gadget innovation of the moment. Yet, God chooses the foolishness of preaching and preachers to deliver the good news of his saving power.
How is it possible to judge success the success of preaching or a preacher? What criteria would be used? Popularity? Applause? Crowds? The prophets of old were told that their message would be ignored & rejected by listeners with deaf ears, blind eyes and hard hearts. It is a work of grace and the Holy Spirit to change the blind, deaf and hardened to hear and believe God’s truth. God could have chosen so many other ways to get his point across – but he didn’t. God chose the foolishness of preaching to deliver the saving message of the cross. While a gong show for preachers might be entertaining, it would miss the point. Its not about the messenger – its about the message, Jesus, the glory and revelation of God’s saving power.
“The preacher of the gospel is like the sower. He does not make his seed; it is given him by his divine Master…He has to leave the seed in the care of the Lord who gave it to him, for he is not responsible for the harvest, he is only accountable for the care and industry with which he does his work…Our duty is not measured by the character of our hearers, but by the command of our God.”
Some churches, tired of their Nativity “baby Jesus” disappearing, stolen by local Grinches, have installed GPS trackers so they can track his whereabouts. The real Jesus is not so hard to locate or so easily lost. Though the darkness of sinful man or the wrongly directed affections of the human heart may at times obscure his light and glory, he is always present in the saving power of the Gospel the angels announced and he came to proclaim & entrust to his disciples. He is always present by the eternal Spirit in his people and in his ongoing work of calling and transforming people into citizens in his kingdom. Those who confess faith in him do not worship simply a baby in a manger but rather the incarnate, crucified, resurrected, glorified Son of Adam, Son of Abraham, Son of David and the eternal Son of the Most High – he is True God & True Man.
“Let earth receive her King!”
For the last 2 years I have been a “bi-vocational” pastor – I work at least 40 hours a week as a substance abuse counselor and pastor a church “part-time.” I have found it rewarding and challenging but it has required me to think about the assumptions, myths and distortions about what constitutes pastoring and ministry.
I began working part time initially because our family needed more income that our small church could not provide. Our family home schools and my wife and I have felt that since that is our priority we have tried to have only one of us employed outside the home. I also needed a different challenge. I have always chaffed at traditional limitations, thinking & expectations in regard to pastoring, the church and ministry when they are limited to Sunday morning building oriented activities or inward focused, pleasing member demands. I’ve seen too much of what God is able to do to limit his power or reduce the Gospel to that.
I was able to dust off some counseling skills and found that I enjoyed my new job and was getting good feedback from my employer, eventually leading to full time employment & certification. I understand a lot better how it feels after working all day and then to try to find the energy for a board meeting. I also have learned a lot about people from all walks of life who have wreaked havoc with their lives from addiction but who would never think about walking into a church building and talk with “the Pastor.” I have listened to the stories of women & women who have been assaulted as well as men and women who have done the assaulting and served time for it; who have stolen medications and money from their family for a fix, who have neglected or abandoned children for another high. I work with parole & probation officers, child protective services and court officials. You could say I ran into life in the raw and not the Sunday morning “put on a happy face to go to church” variety.
I have also seen God work in people’s lives – Holy Spirit directed words of comfort, wisdom and encouragement, the forming of real community as burdens and tears and “breakthroughs” are shared, and the birth of hope – the realization that there is another way to live and a future that is more than a repeat of the past.
However, I as a result of my new official ecclesiastical status, I have run across a number of myths, assumptions and distortions. The first is that a bi- vocational pastor is not a “real” pastor or successful – real and successful defined as compensated fully or employed full time by a congregation. I wanted to go to a retreat years ago and applied for financial assistance but was told by the ministry in charge that I was not eligible for the aid since I worked another job. I guess the Apostle Paul wouldn’t have qualified either since he made tents to support himself!
I have also run into “church shoppers”who look down their nose at a congregation with a bi-vocational pastor. The underlying assumption may be that a real or successful congregation is one that can afford the salary and benefits required for a full time employee who will then take care of member’s needs. However, most pastors, if full time, survive if married, by their spouse working. Despite the claim of “family friendly,” (and unless your Steven Furtick) many congregations provide a low level income that requires extra income to survive and qualifies for food stamps.
Another distortion that usually tags along with the assumption that successful = full time is that the pastor is the only real minister since they are “the professional.” Besides the mistaken belief that a degree alone makes one a capable and godly leader, this undercuts developing the spiritual gifts and ministry of other members of the local body. It prevents the development of quality spiritual leaders whether deacons or elders. It also usually leads to leadership boards that do not lead and do not serve but manage and control. It often joins with the distortion that “real” ministry occurs only on the church property or during Sunday morning or office hours or other stated times of gathering on church real estate. The truth is that real ministry occurs where ever Spirit filled, Christ loving believers go. A truly functioning body requires that all its members exercise their God ordained function – a wonderful opportunity to develop a multi-gifted eldership that can expand and diversify the work and service of a congregation.
There are real benefits for the bi-vocational pastor and the congregation they work with. These include understanding the pressures and demands of people and families instead of becoming myopic about what defines ministry and mission; freedom from control and manipulation when the big givers try to use their financial clout to stop change or control true leadership; freeing up money spent on high cost benefits such as health insurance & the opportunity to influence the community to a higher level by being “salt” in everyday life.
There are also challenges – the most obvious is time. I have less time to study and write. I have to manage my minutes. I have less time to waste. As has been pointed out by numerous spiritual giants of yesteryear, pastoral ministry can provide a temptation for sloth. It is all too easy to confuse and justify “busyness” and a full calendar with genuine spiritual progress. I have to delegate and share the load of caring for people instead of trying to indulge my own need to be needed. I have to challenge my own assumption that “its all up to me” or that ministry doesn’t happen unless I show up. In other words the challenges of being bi-vocational are tough on my own sinful self but good for my sanctification & I pray ultimately good for the mission of the church.
Will I continue serving this way? Only God knows. Some believe”bi-vocational” ministry will become the norm for the future in our post-Christendom age. Its not for everyone. I see fruit in what I am doing. I don’t see think its realistic that society or the church will return to how it used to be 40 or 50 years ago. The missional status of the church is clearer than ever. What is needed is an apostolic spirit to match – and that requires thinking beyond how how pastoral or congregational ministry and success has been defined – by employee status.
I am thankful for many things. This Thanksgiving I am particularly thankful that over the years I have encountered many men & women who were able to “speak to my condition.” There have been many. Some names I recall, others I don’t but here are a few…(first names only so as to protect the identity of the innocent)
Your words were important but more so your presence. God worked through you to give me encouragement, life and hope especially when I felt I had little to offer or little faith. I try to pass the blessing on.
“Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweet to the taste and healing for the body.” Proverbs 16:24
I come across church ads that boast of their “authentic worship” –
In distinction to what – “inauthentic worship” ?
And how is that defined?
Inquiring minds want to know!
My first official dance lesson was a rite of passage as well as part of 1970’s grade school tradition. It was exciting as well as scary – the female of the species seemed to have lost their “cooties” and taken on a strange alluring, magnetic attraction. Our teachers acting as chaperons kept a close eye on the proximity of our hormone laden bodies that seemed to have the instability of nitroglycerin. The awkwardness of physical contact eased after repeated attempts to get in step with the instructions of the teacher & the rhythm of the music, eventually, 2 pairs of adolescent feet found an uneasy synchronized pattern. Missteps and falling out of step were often but given the simplicity of the Foxtrot getting back in step was easy along with an awkward smile. After time, the fox trot became routine, the watchfulness of the chaperons relaxed, and as music changed keeping in step gave way to circulating in proximate orbits of movement.
Keeping in step was easy for the fox trot but it has rarely been so for me in regards to anything else. Bandwagons have had little appeal. I tended to be the one who in the midst of a wave of group think raised his hand and asked “but what about…?” which is usually as popular as a skunk at a picnic. Having tried to be an institutional, denominational pastor for over 20 years still hasn’t changed me that much. Movements, revolutions and reformations run out of steam, money or hype. As it seems to have turned out most of us were not history makers or nations changers. Having tried to pastor for over 20 years still hasn’t changed me that much. I still let ecclesiastical bandwagons pass me by – these days they look all too familiar – recycled with a fresh coat of paint that doesn’t look like it will hold out under the bright sunlight or a heavy rain. I’ve seen this part of the parade before and it usually leads to the same end – distracting detours, deceptive dead ends and doctrinal disasters.
As far as I can tell, Jesus was never concerned about dancing to the tune of his generation. When it comes to faith, it’s easy to get side tracked. Peyton Jones, in his book “Church Zero” calls the mistaken priorities of the church as a dance with 5 easy steps:
1) Get more people
2) More people = more money
3) More money = more toys
4) More toys = More ways to get more people
5) Get more people (rinse & repeat)
That’s like replacing an entirely different dance with different steps – you end up a tangle of feet or dancing alone. However, there are a few things I recall from my early dancing days that correspond with which tune church dances to today and the missteps that are possible:
1) It’s not about the building – Dance lessons were not in a mirror lined studio with polished wood floors but in the school lunch room, with the tables pushed to the side and the aroma of that day’s lunch of tater tots and mystery meat lingering in the air. So much for ambience and atmosphere! But it didn’t matter. We didn’t need a lot of techno-wizardry or designer dazzle. That wasn’t what we were there for.
2) It’s not about the music – I remember some of the bands such as “Bread, “The Guess Who” and “America” and even some of the song titles that were spun on the 45 rpm record player. We listened to the same tunes on the radio at home. That’s not what we were there for.
3) It’s not about getting more feet in the door or on the floor – We weren’t keeping count. We were on the look out for that special someone to dance with and more bodies just got in the way.
What were we there for? For the encounter – to be with the other -even if for a few moments – even a choreographed one – with the person of our desire. Most young men in their early teens wouldn’t be caught dead expressing an interest in dance for dance sake. But this was different. We were willing to be stretched out of our usual comfort zone, to even look like clumsy fools simply for an encounter with that special other.
A dance has basic steps that form the pattern for movement. Faith does as well. Faith is more than knowing certain facts or performing certain actions. First and foremost faith is an encounter with the Triune God. Being a disciple of Jesus means first and foremost not following principles but a person. Preachers of another age used the term “experiential” or “experimental” because faith involves an interaction with each member of the Trinity. Patristic theology uses the Greek term “periochoresis” (to dance around) to describe the interrelations and interactions of the persons of the Trinity. Peter Leithart points out that the word’s verbal form, besides providing the root for the English word “choreographed” was also used as a metaphor of how the members of the Godhead dance around and with one another, what St. Maximus called the “eternal movement of love.”
Through the sacrifice of the Son and the power of the Holy Spirit, the Father has made it possible for us to join in their relationship in a way that is beyond metaphor – to join in the divine fellowship. In John 17:21-13, Jesus prayed for his disciples that “all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity.” This is a unity in which the uniqueness of persons is not absorbed or erased but allows them to interact with one another in genuine communion or “koinonia” and with one another. A holy, circling dance is a fitting image.
I know for some that dance is not going to be a popular or appealing picture especially if you hold to the old-time adage “the praying knee can’t belong to a dancing leg” (of course thankfully, Miriam & King David did not know that!). Other metaphors of the spiritual life that focus on warfare or conflict or battle are far more appealing especially to the male of the species especially when fueled by images of “Brave Heart,” Gladiator” or those who think the church’s confession of faith should sound like “THIS IS SPARTA!”
God’s not asking us to stretch our awkward frames into pink tutus but we are commanded to “keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5: 16) which speaks of following the lead of the 3rd member of the Trinity. If I as a pastor or leader or believer am trying to dance to the tune of my or another generation or the demands of institutional priorities or the expectations of the current cultural despisers of the faith then I am not following the right steps. I will be moving to a foreign tune that will be out of step with the Holy Spirit.
The Triune God has made it possible for us to join in his eternal movement of love. It also means we join with other believers as part of the divine choreography as we encounter the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That’s worth staying in step with.
An inadequate view of sin indicates an inadequate view of God. In light of the Supreme Court decisions this last week redefining marriage, consider Stephen Charnock’s (from “Practical Atheism – The Existence and Attributes of God”) view of human sin as a denial of God’s sovereignty.
In sins of omission we own not God, in neglecting to perform what he enjoins; in sins of commission we set up some lust in the place of God, and pay to that the homage which is due to our Maker. In both we disown him ; in the one by not doing what he commands, in the other by doing what he forbids. We deny his sovereignty when we violate his laws ; we disgrace his holiness when we cast our filth before his face ; we disparage his wisdom when we set up another rule as the guide of our actions than that law he bath fixed; we slight his sufficiency when we prefer a satisfaction in sin before a happiness in him alone ; and his goodness, when we judge it not strong enough to attract us to him. Every sin invades the rights of God, and strips him of one or other of his perfections. It is such a vilifying of God as if he were not God; as if he were not the supreme Creator and Benefactor of the world ; as if we had not our being from him ; as if the air we breathed in, the food we lived by, were our own by right of supremacy, not of donation. For a subject to slight his sovereign, is to slight his royalty ; or a servant his master, is to deny his superiority.
Heading back home via Lansing in early June, I was able to stop and worship at University Reformed Church. The pastor, Kevin DeYoung is a prolific writer (Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion; The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness; The Good News We Almost Forgot: Rediscovering the Gospel in a 16th Century Catechism) and having heard him preach at “Together for the Gospel” in 2012 I was looking forward to hearing him again but this time in a church setting. I was not disappointed. He preached through Acts 12 and handled the text with precision, care and detail as well as humor in his delivery. The church also ordained their new elders and deacons that morning. Its one thing to preach a message or listen to one at a large gathering. It’s far more challenging to preach week by week in the worship & life of the local church. Despite all the panic in the blogosphere about resurgent Calvinism, Pastor DeYoung is part of a historical Reformed denomination and does not seem to be aiming for celebrity but faithful service. He is a fine example of how to meet the challenge of regular preaching and as far as I can tell real pastoring. May his tribe increase.