Thursday, May 23, 2024

Role models for ministers

In my reading last night the author shared some of the role models, or mentors, a number of well-known ministers had that shaped them and their ministries. He then concluded that every minister must have a role model or mentor who inspires and instructs them. That made me begin thinking of the persons who have shaped my life and ministry. Most of these people I never met, but I have drank deeply from their writings.

Charles Swindoll has influenced my preaching. I have several of his books in my library, and I have listened to numerous sermons he gave while pastor at First Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton, CA. He shared stories and used humor to illustrate his messages, and I have followed his example. He is an excellent communicator whose example has helped me be a better speaker.

I have an entire section of leadership books in my library by a number of different authors, but no one has taught me more about leadership that John Maxwell. His books fill an entire shelf. There is no better book on leadership than The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership which was my introduction to Maxwell. He has taught me more about leadership than anyone else I know, and this has had an enormous impact on my ministry.

Another large section of my library is naturally dedicated to ministry and books on pastoring. The person who has most impacted me in this area of my life is Gary McIntosh. I am constantly going to his book What Every Pastor Should Know for insights on different aspects of church ministry. I appreciate his practical approach to ministry and his love and commitment to the church. I had the opportunity to meet Gary at a conference in which we were both speaking. During a time when we had no obligations we spent time talking about the church. His insights were so helpful and continue to be so.

William Lane Craig has been a mentor to me in the area of apologetics and theology. As a judicatory minister for 14 years I spent a lot of time driving to my various churches. I would download podcasts on my I-Pod to listen to while on the road. One of the podcasts I followed was Craig's. I will admit that he is sometimes over my head, but that helped stretch my thinking on the topics he would address. He also helped me understand how important it is that I can defend my Christian beliefs, and how important it is as a pastor that I help those I serve be able to defend their beliefs.

The Cathedral Quartet, a Southern Gospel quartet, has inspired me to be faithful in ministry. Glen Payne and George Younce were the founding members of this group who performed from 1964-1999. I was in attendance at the National Quartet Convention when Glen Payne called from a hospital to thank the people for their support over the years. A few weeks later he passed away. That night I felt God telling me that was the kind of faithfulness to my ministry that He wanted me to have. At the convention the next year a print of these two gentlemen was offered for sale. I have a copy of it hanging in from of my desk to remind me to be faithful to the calling God has given me.

Others who have mentored me through their writings, lives and sermons would include Tim Keller, John MacArthur, Jr., Billy Graham, Thom Rainer, Ed Stetzer, Jerry Falwell, Elmer Towns and others. I may disagree with some of them on some points, but they have greatly impacted my ministry.

Upon whose shoulders do you stand? Have you thought about the persons who have mentored you in your journey? Here's one more question: Who are you mentoring?

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The Pastor Theologian

 A common criticism often directed at many church members is their lack of knowledge of basic Bible doctrines. I have often been amazed at the number of Christians who did not know even basic Christian teaching. Some of these individuals faithfully attended church and even Sunday school but had little knowledge of theology. It makes one wonder what they have been hearing from the pulpit. Many sitting in the pews have been fed a steady diet of self-help messages, sermonettes that could have come out of Reader's Digest, or the pastor's weekly rant, but they have not been fed a steady diet of theological instruction. They have been fed milk, not meat, and now many prefer the milk.

Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson wrote a book I read when I first found it titled The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision. It impacted me greatly, and, I must admit, convicted me. They point out in the book that the pastor is the theological leader of the church. They write, "As goes the pastoral community, so goes the church. Assuming sufficient tenure, show us a pastor with robust theological depth, and we'll show you a local church with a corresponding theological depth. Likewise, show us a pastor who lacks the capacity to think meaningfully about the gospel, and we'll show you a church that lacks the same...The theological integrity of a local church will never rise above that of the pastor."

These are serious words a pastor must consider as he or she reflects on his or her preaching. If people sitting in our pews do not even know the difference between the Old and New Testaments or that there are four Gospels that is on the pastors who have served that church. Likewise, if our congregations do not understand the importance of the various attributes of God and how they impact our lives and faith and do not know how to lead someone to faith in Jesus Christ, that is also on the pastors.

The authors point out the difference between academic theology and popular theology. Academic theology is the theology one studies in seminaries I visited a church one Sunday whose pastor was working on his PhD. His sermon contained excellent theology which no one in his church could understand or relate to. Sitting there, I wondered if he was repeating what one of his professors taught in a class that week. Popular theology brings sound theology down into the world where people live. It addresses such issues as marriage, finances, leadership, worship, family life and much more. Yes, the Bible has much to say about each of these areas, and much more, that are important to ordinary people.

Many who reject the church and the Christian faith accuse both of being irrelevant to their lives. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Bible addresses virtually every area of life experienced by ordinary people. Unless they can be shown that this is true, they will continue to consider the church to be irrelevant, and that very belief can keep them from finding faith in Jesus Christ.

Pastors, we are the resident theologians in our churches. The depth of our congregation's theological understanding is totally dependent upon us. This is a role we must take seriously. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Why do people visit a church for the first time?

 Why do people choose to visit a church for the first time? When you stop to think about it, they may have passed a dozen or more other churches on their way to your service. Why didn't they stop at those churches? There are dozens of possible reasons, but the primary reason is that someone they knew invited them to your service.

Studies consistently find that about 83 percent of the people who attend a church worship service for the first time do so because a friend or relative invited them. Less than 10 percent visit a church because they were invited by the pastor. A church grows when the congregation understands that they are the ones most responsible for inviting people to church.

The church I currently serve recently had a Big Event on Mother's Day. We printed up invitation cards for members to pass out to people they wanted to invite to the service. We posted a large banner in front of the church announcing the Mother's Day service. Every family attending that day received a copy of Lee Strobel's book The Case for Christ. I began a series of messages on family life that will end on Father's Day. Our attendance that day was nearly double our normal attendance, and almost all who were there that day could attend every Sunday if they chose to. Friends and family members of our congregation made up most of the increased attendance. But, the following Sunday our attendance was back to normal.

This points out in a very real way the importance of our church members regularly inviting people to church. So often, a pastor is called and expected to grow the church. If it doesn't happen, people complain, and the pastor may be let go for the lack of growth. Let me be as gracious as I can: It's not his or her job to grow the church! Ephesians 4 teaches us that the work of the pastor is to equip the saints (Christians) to do the work of ministry. Go back and read the second paragraph again. 83 percent of first-time visitors attend because they were invited by a family member or friend; less than 10 percent attend because the pastor invited them. The math is clear.

As a regional minister I was once invited to a church whose leadership was unhappy with the pastor over a lack of growth in the church. The pastor had been there about three years, and the church had not grown in that time. Knowing the history of the church, I was not surprised by that. As the leadership began complaining about the pastor I stopped one of them and asked how long he had been in that church. He answered he had attended there for over two decades. I then asked how many people had he led to the lord or brought to the church. He was reluctant to answer but finally admitted none. I pointed out they wanted to fire the pastor for not doing in three years what they had not done in over 20 years. The meeting ended soon after.

If churches want to grow as most claim they want to do, members of the congregation must begin inviting their unchurched friends and family to attend with them. This invitation must not wait for special days or occasions but must be done regularly and constantly. Please pray about who you can invite to church next Sunday.

Thursday, May 2, 2024

Cut Flower Christianity

 I forget the last time I bought a bouquet of flowers for my wife. They were beautiful. We enjoy them, but they don't last long in our house. We placed them in a vase with water and enjoyed them for a season until they began to droop. A day or two later they lost their beautiful color and fragrance and had to be thrown out. Cut flowers can only hold their beauty and fragrance for a few days because they have been cut off from the roots that sustains them.

We often hear about cut flower Christians. These are people who have been cut off from the roots of their faith. They appear to live for Christ for a time, but because they have no roots they soon begin to dry up and lose the beauty of their faith. Such people never mature as Christians but remain baby Christians throughout their entire lives. They contribute little to the Kingdom of God, and, in fact, may often be a hindrance. These are the ones who create the most problems within the church.

Unfortunately, we can go further and talk about cut flower churches. These churches have had the roots removed as they have abandoned the clear teachings of Scripture. On the surface, they appear to be churches. In their worship services they sing hymns, they employ seminary-trained ministers, they have prayers and may even perform baptisms and partake of the Lord's Supper, but there is a deadness in all they do. They go through the motions, but there is no life in what they do. They long ago abandoned the faith and Ichabod (the glory of God has departed) is written above their door.

Unless an individual or church remains rooted in the Word of God, they become a cut-flower Christian unable to bear fruit for the Kingdom of God. Jesus makes it clear in John 15: 4-5, "Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless  you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing."

It does not get much more clear than that. Unless an individual believer remains rooted in Christ, he or she will accomplish little for the Kingdom of God. The same is true of churches. Cut flowers look good for a time, but they soon will dry up and die. The same is true for Christians and churches.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

What is truth?

 During the trial of Jesus, Pilate asked one of the most important questions of our time: "What is truth? In the postmodern age in which we live, truth is whatever one chooses to believe. What's true for one person is true for them even if it is 180 degrees different from what is actually true. To tell someone their belief is wrong is one of the worst things anyone can do in our "woke" society.

As we enter into an election year we are presented with a lot truth claims. This is the time when the old adage of "Figures don't lie, but liars figure." becomes extremely apparent. Truth claims are spun to the point that it becomes difficult to determine what is true and what is not true. No political party has a claim on truth because both will spin every story to make themselves look good.

I grew up in a time when journalism was a respected profession. In our home we watched Walter Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley and generally felt that we were getting a true perspective on what was happening in the world. For years, as an adult, I watched about three hours of news every night, both local and national. I often read three newspapers every day, one with a liberal bias and one with a more conservative bias, and our local paper. Today, I seldom watch any news and I've cancelled my newspaper subscriptions. I have found I cannot trust any of them to tell me the truth about anything. If you want to read a very interesting book on the news media in American today I would recommend Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy by James Fallows. Fallows was the editor of U. S. News and World Report so he is well qualified to report on the state of journalism in America today. As he explains in his book, the national news media no longer reports on the news of the day, but determines what news they will present to the public and how they will spin it to fit their agenda. It is one of the most eye-opening books I've ever read. 

There remains one bastion of truth in the world today, and that is the Bible. This inspired Word of God is God's revelation of Himself to mankind and His purpose for our lives. It teaches us how life is to be lived, and it points to a life beyond this one. It tells us how our sins can be forgiven and eternal life can be ours because of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross and His resurrection three days later. It teaches us how families can thrive in the midst of a sinful world. It addresses every aspect of human life, and the principles it teaches will improve the life of every person who applies them. Contrary to the postmodern worldview, it contains absolute truth that leads to a better life here on earth and eternal life when this one has ended.

I encourage you to read it for yourselves and begin to apply its teachings. I believe your life will improve as mine did. Find a good Bible-believing church to help you better understand what you are reading. You'll be surprised at how your life will change.

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Overcoming adversity

 I recently preached a funeral service for a young lady whom I did  not know. I had learned very little about her before the service except that she had battled a number of illnesses for much of her life and what I learned from the obituary. My approach to a funeral message is to include personal information about the individual so my lack of knowledge was a concern before the service. Fortunately, three people asked to speak prior to my message. All of them spoke with passion about her courage and positive attitude. They spoke of her encouragement to others, her desire to serve others and of her faith in God. By the time it was my turn to speak I thanked them for making my job easy!

We seem to live in a time when everyone's a victim. There seems to be no lack of things to protest and complain about. Almost everyone is offended about something, and they demand some type of satisfaction. Billboards and commercials suggest that many people "may be entitled to substantial compensation." Nothing is the fault of the individual. It's always somebody's else's fault. 

As I thought of what the people were saying about the lady whose funeral service we were doing I thought how easy it would have been for her to have become a perpetual victim. She could have used her illnesses as an excuse for developing a bitter attitude, to announce that she was helpless and needed others to care for her, but she chose not to do any of those things. She understood her calling in life, pursued a degree that helped prepare her for that calling, and then lived it. When illness set her on the sidelines for a season she accepted it with courage and told all who would listen that "Things will get better."

I cannot tell you how much I came to admire this woman I had never met. She overcame every adversity life threw at her with dignity and a joy that spoke to all who knew her. I have no doubt that her faith in God was a major reason she lived her life as she did.

There is nothing in the Bible that suggests that becoming a Christian provides us with an escape from life's problems. In fact, Jesus makes it clear that to follow Him is to enter a life that is often challenging and difficult. The One who wore a crown of thorns never promised us a rose garden. What He did promise is that He would never leave us when we walk through the valleys we will encounter in life. The God Who spoke this world into existence promises to be with us every step of the way throughout this life and to receive us into the life to come. Such a promise does not make adversity easier, but it does make it possible to overcome every adversity.

Few people, if any, will escape adversity in this life. Some will be overwhelmed by it. Others will overcome it with faith and courage. We each get to choose which group we will be in.

Monday, April 29, 2024

Ministry and suicide

I just finished reading an article about another pastor who took his life. I'm sure both his family and congregation are struggling to understand why this happened. They are probably also wondering how they missed warning signs. Over the next few months they will deal with a lot of mixed emotions while dealing with the loss of someone I'm sure they loved very much.

I never met this pastor, and, in fact, had never heard his name before reading the article. I don't know what was going on in his life, what struggles he might have had or what prompted the decision to end his life. None of us are in a position to judge his actions.

Two pastors I have known have taken their lives. One was actually a childhood friend. I do not know why either one ended their lives. No doubt they were struggling with issues that led them to that decision. I wish either one of them had talked to me about whatever their issues were.

Much has been written in recent years about the pressures of being in the ministry. Many pastors have left the ministry because of those pressures. Certainly, the ministry does involve pressure. As a pastor and a former regional minister, I have felt those pressures many times. Once, the pressure became so overwhelming that I fell into clinical depression and sought counseling to understand what was happening and how to overcome it, and I did overcome it. I also learned better coping strategies to ensure I would not experience depression again. Even in my deepest depressed state, I never considered suicide as an option. Perhaps, that was because of the support I was receiving from my family and my counselor.

To any minister, or anyone else, reading this who is thinking about taking his or her life due to the pressures of living, seek help. Tell someone what you are thinking. Call a counseling center as I did. Talk to your family doctor. Call the ER. Tell someone. I've known pastors who seriously needed to enter counseling due to depression or another mental illness who refused to do so. They didn't want to appear weak. Some have the misguided belief that seeking outside help would demonstrate a lack of faith in God. Let me be blunt: That's stupid! If you broke your leg I'm sure you would see a doctor to repair the damage. Seeing a counselor for depression or to avoid suicide is no more a lack of faith than having a doctor repair a broken leg.

Committing suicide does not relieve the pain a person is feeling. It just passes it on to others who loved that person very much. Please, talk to someone before ending your life.