What Steals Your Joy as a Leader?

So let’s get started with a key question: What steals your joy as a leader?  Low numbers for your events?  Criticisms?  Too many meetings?  Preparing a sermon (or three) each and every week?  Concerns about the future?

I understand completely.  In talking to my buddy and NAMB representative Dave Howeth, he shared that pastors often look at the blade of grass rather than the entire forest.  Sometimes, those blades of grass loom awfully large the closer you are to that issue.

The apostle Paul expressed an anxiety that he has over his churches (2 Corinthians 11:28)–this after expressing how much physical torture and suffering he faced in his day-to-day ministry.  Concern for the health and future of churches brought an anxiety that equaled or even surpassed the physical issues he endured.  Quite telling, wouldn’t you agree?  But all who serve as pastors of their local churches understand this acutely.

Reading through Hebrews 13:17, we see that church members are to “Obey [their] leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over our souls, having to give an account.  Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”  Keeping watch over their souls?  My, no wonder Paul felt such anxiety!

Leaders have an industrial-strength calling: to keep watch over the souls of those to whom God has entrusted them.  Why?  We’ll have to give an account.  So the Spirit tells the congregation to “let them do this [watch over our souls] with joy and not with groaning.”

In looking at this passage, pastors and leaders could put all the onus on the congregation:  “OK, people, obey me and submit to me.  I gotta watch over your souls and give an account for you.  So don’t make this difficult.  The better you obey and submit, the more joy I will have.  That’s what God says.  Amen.”

So, is it all on the congregation?  Does the call of God to lead the church give us a bulletproof vest? No! No! No!  Joy comes to the leader when they see God’s children walking with Christ.  The apostle John in his third epistle notes, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 4).

So this leads to the question: what steals our joy?  Is it the congregation that refuses to “obey and submit?”  Is it your own personal expectations that rob you?  What other things at play?

What steals your joy?  According to Scripture, what may steal our joy is the inversion of what John wrote:  few heartbreaks exist like seeing those in our churches not walking in the truth.  This is why Jesus instituted church discipline (Matthew 18:15-17; 1 Corinthians 5:9-13) in order to bring about repentance of sin and restoration to Christ and His body.  We must desire to pour ourselves out to help others walk in the truth.  And that we ourselves walk in the truth.

What steals your joy?  Share with us in the comments section.

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Three Things For Which I Asked My Church to Pray

This past Sunday night was our monthly Family Conference (a.k.a., business meeting).  Since we’re now doing Connect Groups in various homes on Sunday, our Family Conferences have taken on a different flavor (at least, that’s the idea for which we are striving).  They seek to not only be a time of exhortation from the Word, but a time of prayer over a specific issue related to that exhortation.

This past Sunday, I shared from 2 Timothy 2:1-2.

You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

This serves as a great definition of discipleship.  Healthy churches and healthy Christians make disciples.  Unhealthy churches are more interested in maintain programs than making disciples.  Churches tend to gravitate toward formulas and programs because they are more easily managed.  People and relationships are often messy.  With programs, you can attend the event and that’s it, and you can walk away from that event feeling good at having attended said event.

But investing in people?  Discipling new believers or not-so-new believers?  That’s difficult!  You know them better, and they know you better–and you both get to know Jesus and His holiness better, and you know your sinfulness more acutely.  That’s what makes it difficult.  Christianity no longer becomes a set of tasks to accomplish and events to attend, but it becomes a lifestyle of pouring into others, and others pouring into you.

In light of this, I asked my church to pray for three things that evening:

  1. Pray that God would open up His avenue of pouring into our community.  Our church can’t do everything, but we can do something for the Kingdom.  Individual believers in our church can pour individually into various ministries, but we need to see where God would have us pour into in our community.  And He will make it clear!
  2. Pray that God would have you forgive a past pastor that has hurt you.  Sadly, many churches are reactionary.  When pastors hurt their churches (either through splits or being more ‘warrior pastors’ rather than ‘shepherd pastors’), an anger and animosity develops in the hearts of people that spills over into successive pastors that come along–especially if successive pastors do or suggest something that reminds them of that past pastor.  We are then held prisoner by our unforgiveness, and then hold our churches prisoner by not being able to move forward as Great Commission people.  
  3. Pray that God would give you someone to pour into.  Healthy churches make disciples.  Healthy disciples reproduce healthy disciples.  Who can we pour into?  Just getting together with them to talk about the sermon, to talk about a study, to go over a passage of Scripture (the Sermon on the Mount is a great place to start), we see the value of sharpening each other.

What are some things for which you ask your church to pray?

What God Accomplishes Through Preaching

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Many churches struggle with the role of preaching on Sunday mornings.  Some want practical, topical sermons that help them get through the day.  Others want deep sermons that tackle dicey, theological topics.  Others believe that a man standing up and preaching is a task that no longer serves in our contemporary culture, so it is replaced by drama, music, or a devotional that lasts 10-15 minutes (rather than a 25-45 minute sermon).

Even in churches that see the priority of preaching believe sermons should accomplish certain things.  Some see that every sermon should be evangelistic, that is, every sermon should be exclusively about how to come to Christ.  Others see this act of preaching much differently, wanting to hear the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:24-28).

My heart chimed with Michael Horton in his book, A Better Way:

Notice that I did not say that through this preaching God merely describes our fate apart from Christ, or that he thereby explains what we need to do if we would be saved. Preaching is a lot more than that: Through it God actually accomplishes what is threatened in the law and announced in the gospel. Through these two edges of the one sword, that double action essential for our “rescription” occurs: judgment and justification. Hence, Paul contrasts the ministry of Moses and the law with that of the Spirit and the gospel (2 Cor. 3: 1–4: 6). “For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life”(3: 6). Both are needed, so that we lose confidence in our own resources and throw ourselves wholly on Jesus Christ as “our righteousness, holiness and redemption” (1 Cor. 1: 30).

So preaching not only describes our eternal destiny, but God uses it to accomplish same said destiny.  The sword of the Spirit (that is, the Word of God) brings about a confidence in the resources of Christ and a lack of confidence in our own resources. How encouraging this is for small churches in need of revitalizing, and for souls in need of reviving: the preaching of the Word!  Ever relevant, ever revitalizing!

Seek His Face, Set the Pace, Make the Case: Five Ways to Cast Vision Biblically

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Pastors, you must set the pace and make the case biblically about how to fulfill the Great Commission.

We must be sure theindicatives of what Christ has accomplished and declared via His bodily death and same bodily resurrection fuel the imperatives (commands) in putting what Christ has done into action.

Why?

1.  Without the indicatives, all that matters is what you do.  Granted, believers need to do more.  James gives us numerous warnings that ‘faith without works is dead’ (James 2:14-25).  It’s not a faith-plus-works, it’s a faith that works, bearing fruit based upon what Jesus has accomplished.  Matt Chandler has reminded us repeatedly that the gospel must never be assumed, but must be explicit.

2.  Pastors must set the pace.  Is our ministry based on our busyness?  Is our ministry based on our titles, activities, meeting attendance, or giftedness in preaching and teaching?  We may be setting the pace for our people that it is about the imperatives, for we are taking little personal time in the Word to look at the indicatives and promises God has kept in Christ.  Our congregations follow our lead (or lack of leadership) whether we like it or not.

3.  Pastors must make the case.  Pastors must cast a vision that smells and tastes of God’s revelation (Scripture) both in broad and specific terms.  In broad senses, your people should know and be able to state in a sentence or two who you are, what you believe, and where you’re going.  The brief, broad understandings then seep into the rest of the specifics.  When your people understand the broad, they will use that as a filter and a paradigm for their respective tasks moving forward.

4.  Pastors must make the case biblicallyDo we believe that the Bible is sufficient and clear in its prescription of what His church should be and do?  Many times, we approach meetings assuming that the Bible is in play, but set it aside in the day-to-day meetings.  Does the Bible have something to say about the vision of the church as relates to, say, stewardship and finances?  Security?  Playing the organ?  Decorating?  Fellowship Teams?  Systems analysis?  I contend that it does, thus connecting the broad vision and the specifics with the lubricating Word that keeps the train moving in Jesus’ name—literally.

5.  Pastors, pray for your people.  Influences pervade every facet of our lives—often unawares.  Pray that God would help your people recognize those influences for what they are.  And as the Scriptures reverberate in the warp and woof of the life of the church and the lives of individual believers, they will be able to see what is in harmony with God’s Word, and what is not.  That mature discernment is markedly absent in many believers (Hebrews 5:11-6:3).

Seek His Face.  Set the pace.  Make the case.

Define, Clarify, Sharpen, Repeat

I’ve never served in a brand new church plant.  I’ve served at churches that have started in 1785, 1877, 1912, 1938, and now in 1960–none later.  No 1990s or 2000s starts, only churches that had been established where the culture I inherited had long been, well, established.

In my almost four years at ARBC and my eight years at Boone’s Creek in Lexington, KY, and in 23 years of ministry, I believe I’m starting to understand God’s purpose for me in these churches.  And I couldn’t be more thankful.

Defining the terms:  We use the terms worship, leadership, scholarship, fellowship, partnership and the like in so many ways.  What do they mean?  Is biblical fellowship just hanging out with each other?  Is worship just walking out of the assembly feeling good?  Is church membership just a name on a roll and attending a few times?  Define the terms in the way the culture of your church uses them.

Clarifying the terms:  Part of a pastor’s job is to lead the church to understand these terms biblically.  Over time, these words develop new definitions and connotations–we must recognize the culture in which bred these terms, then put that up with Scripture.  The hope is, if they are using the terms rightly, God be praised.  If those terms have evolved over the years into something more or less biblical, God be praised that the Spirit made us aware.

Sharpen:  We then take the biblical terms now clarified and sharpen them to see what that looks like in our context. Obviously, some things universally transfer, but others will look differently depending on your place of service. For instance, we want folks to come in an worship, that is, to exalt Jesus and encourage/edify those around us. Since music and preaching are involved in this, the music in Denver, CO will be different than that in Lexington, KY.  Fellowship is not just hanging out, but has an aspect about it where we protect each other in the faith and from false gospels.  Again, here in Denver, the false gospel issues may be different than in New England or in Madrid or in Indonesia.  We take the biblical principle and sharpen it for our people, so they will stay sharp.

Repeat:  “Well, Matt, we did this process ten years ago.”  Great!  Since you know the way, do it again!  You’d be surprised what accumulates over that amount of time.  You don’t say, “Well, I sharpened my knives 10 years ago–I’m good.”  No, knives grow dull with use.  Without an intentionality about be Word-centered, truth-driven, Great Commission people, we will grow dull.

So this purpose is not ‘sudden,’ just more clear as the days go on.

May God give us grace to be intentional.

Technical Change vs. Cultural Change: A Key Reason Why Established Churches Resist Change

I pastor an established church.  By that, I mean that I am the lead pastor of a church founded in 1960–an old church in Colorado terms.  In fact, every church in which I’ve pastored or served on staff has been labeled an established church:

  • Pleasureville Baptist Church, Pleasureville, KY, where I served as Minister of Music.  Founded: 1877.
  • First Baptist Church, Clewiston, FL, where I served as Worship and Youth Pastor.  Founded: 1938.
  • Cox’s Creek Baptist Church, Cox’s Creek, KY, where I served as Music and Youth Minister.  Founded: 1785.
  • English Baptist Church, where I served as lead pastor (weekends only).  Founded: 1912.
  • Boone’s Creek Baptist Church, Lexington, KY.  Lead Pastor.  Founded: 1785.

First of all, yes, I served at two churches that were founded months apart in 1785–230 years ago.

Secondly, the newest church where I’ve served is the one where I currently serve–and it’s 55 years old.

Needless to say, the older the church, the more of a culture has developed in those particular churches, and with that the more unwritten rules you have.  So, when a new pastor comes in, he looks at the Bible and looks at the by-laws and believes he has a good grasp of the warp and woof of that church.

This is why change on any level is difficult in any church. Pastors believe they have the culture figured out, when in reality the pastor received a Masters-level education every week regarding the culture of their church.

And those classes are mandatory.

I picked up a book a read last year by Sam Rainer III called Obstacles in the Established Church: How Leaders Overcome Them (get this book now).  This short book deals with the obstacles of criticism (“I Love You Pastor, But…”),  comfort (“We can’t do that!”), expectations (“Why didn’t you visit me?”), etc.  Yet, chapter 2 is pertinent to this discussion: change (“We’ve never done it that way before!”).

In this chapter, he gives four reasons why established churches resist change.  Let me pass along reason #2: leaders do not properly recognize the difference between a technical change and a cultural change.  An excerpt:

When many people say they want change, they often mean technical changes.  Technical problems require a specific expertise. For many, pastors are seen as the hired expert on hand to work through technical problems.  People desiring technical changes ask these types of questions: Can you make sure my curriculum is in my room? Can you see that the church is not so hot in the summer? Why haven’t I received my newsletter? These questions involve small technical changes, but often people desire large technical changes too, like a new building (19).

How helpful is this going into a new pastorate or a new church!  However, Rainer rightly notes that “few people understand that lasting change is culture, not technical.  Cultural problems are not solved by just a technical expert, but rather these changes involve a general acceptance of everyone” (19).  And this, sports fans, is where the resistance comes.

You see, leaders identify cultural changes.  They won’t just go with the status quo.  Churches develop the unwritten rulebook written with invisible ink over the generations until everyone abides by them and find comfort in them–almost to the point where the personal preferences become tests of faith and trump all else.

What does Rainer recommend?  I love his honesty:

I wanted them to change, but rather than doing the hard work of dealing with the culture in the church, I decided to force-feed technical changes.  Most technical changes are relatively easy compared with the harder work of leading cultural change (21).

Whether you are a new to pastoring, new to the church, or have served in your church for years and years, Rainer gives some very helpful advice here on understanding the different types of changes.  When people say they want change, you as a pastor and they as a church may see two different angles of what changes means.

But as a shepherd of God’s people, you are called to work diligently to understand this.  And I’m not saying this as a expert who has it all figured out (a laughable concept), but I write this as a reminder mostly to myself.  Lead with the Great Commission and Great Commandment always as your grid and guide, but also lead with patience and understand as best as possible where your people are and what their particular grid and guide is.

May God put us all on the same Great Commission/Great Commandment page.  Now that will help us lead with joy!

Be Encouraged, Dear Pastor: Nothing Frustrates God’s Plans

Our God is in the heavens;
he does all that he pleases (Psalm 115:3)

During the sermon on September 27, I shared with you about my experience in Hungary, preaching the Word to the house church that met at Larry and Melinda Ewing’s, who serve as IMB missionaries there. I would preach, with Agi translating for me.  She has a wonderful grasp of the English language, and I felt honored and humbled to preach in my native tongue, then hear the Word of God in the Hungarian tongue.  The gospel truly does transcend every culture.

I have a saying I tend to use at the end of my sermons here in the States, and I used it in Hungary as well.  In essence, I appeal for us to “do business with God while the Word is fresh, while the Spirit is here, and while believers are praying for you.”  Csaba (pronounced CHAH-bah), a Hungarian with an infectious personality that’s been gripped by our Lord Jesus, knows English and Hungarian well, told me after the sermon that the first time she translated “do business with God,” she translated it as, “negotiate with God.”  But then she translated it better the second time: be sure you interact with what God has said and respond to Him by faith.

We read from Psalm 115:3 that “Our God is in the heavens.”  Aren’t you glad, dear Christian, that God is our God?  Through Christ, we are His people, and God himself is our God—and this happens through Christ, for no one comes to the Father except by Him (John 14:6).  As we come to Christ, and as the Spirit stirs in us, we see that God is most certainly our God, whose throne is ‘in the heavens,’ meaning that He is above and over all.

“He does whatever He pleases”? Let that soak in.  Whatever God wants to do, He’ll do.  Not one person on the planet frustrates His plans.  Now, you may say, “Wait a minute!  Didn’t God change His plans regarding Nineveh, as told in the book of Jonah?”  (If you’re not familiar with the book of Jonah, it’s toward the end of the Old Testament and takes about 15 minutes to read.  I can wait here if you’d like to read.)  Didn’t Moses change God’s mind in Him destroying  the people of Israel when they sinned (Exodus 32:14)?  After all, it does say he “changed his mind” or “relented.”  How does this correlate to the fact that God does whatever He pleases and that he doesn’t change (Malachi 3:6; James 1:17).

Great question!  Matt Slick of Christian Apologetics and Research Ministries  makes a great point that God does not change His mind based on new information He learned.  He goes on: “We see that the Hebrew word for ‘repent, relent, change,’ etc., is nashash, which has a scope of meaning, which we see in other translations, that can infer God’s change of direction and purpose towards a people.”

Yet, God changed His purpose and direction based upon the intercession of Moses (Ex. 32:12-13).  Moses is a foreshadowing of the Messiah to come, Jesus (Deuteronomy 18:15).  And so, when Jesus intercedes for us, the Father listens to His perfect Son to accomplish His perfect will and plans for our lives (Romans 8:26-30).

What is God’s will for our church?  In putting together the Great Commandment and Great Commission, the answer is simply this: “Gather to Go.”  We gather intentionally to go intentionally.  For our church, the values are to:

  • Grow in the Word (2 Timothy 3:16-4:5)
  • Love one another (John 13:34-35)
  • Serve our neighbors (Matthew 22:37-40; Acts 2:42-47)
  • Go to the nations (Matthew 28:16-20; Mark 16:16-20)

Keep it simple, dear pastor.  When your people gather, grow in the Word and love each other from the truth of that Word.  When you go, serve your neighbors and go to the nations.  Here in Denver, the nations have come to us.  What are ways you can fulfill God’s commands?

Heart and Head Not Enough: Preaching from Your Toes

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Over and over, I hear that preachers need to preach from their heads (meaning that the content found in sermons needs to be weighty with Scripture) and/or from their hearts (sermons need to be passionate and compassionate, showing the shepherd’s heart for his people). 

While head and heart receive the majority of the press, I believe the toes need their 15 minutes of fame.  What do toes have to do with preaching?

Preachers need to preach on their toes.  Preachers who preach on their heels or in a ‘settled’ position convey the lack of importance and urgency in proclaiming God’s Word.  Preaching ‘on your toes’ in the ready position conveys that the sermon is not something you are simply preaching, but has captured you as well. 

Preachers need to be on their toes regarding biblical worldview (and other competing worldviews).  I’ve said elsewhere that pastors and preachers need to be the most well-read individuals on the planet.  Pastors must not settle on their heels education-wise.  We must not simply draw from past wells that may go dry, but continue to dig new wells that bring new water to nourish in the now.  Stay on your toes in what you believe, but also in what your parishioners are being exposed to as well. 

Preachers need to stand on their tiptoes to learn from the rarefied air of pastoral giants gone by. Oftentimes, we have to stand on our toes to reach up for that book or commentary (at least this 5’8” preacher does), and what an apt metaphor.  While the Scriptures must be our first and last textbook we use in our preparation and devotion, we can learn from the men of faith from days gone by.  Richard Baxter lived in the 1600’s, but what a glorious pastoral ministry he had that t still speaks today.  John Calvin lived in the 1500’s, but his systematic theology puts the doctrines of the faith on the bottom shelf for us to still draw from.  Even Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John Stott, Charles Spurgeon, and A.W. Tozer (among scores of others) bring much to the table from which we may dine and be nourished.