Episode 02: Success in Ministry

Join the Caffeinated Theology crew as we discuss what you need to know about measuring pastoral success.

  • How can pastors gauge success in their ministry?
  • Is context something to consider when evaluating ministry success?
  • In your own ministry, what were some markers that made you say, “That’s a success”?

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Episode 01: What Pastors Need to Know about Personal Devotions

Join the Caffeinated Theology crew as we discuss, what you need to know about personal devotions as a pastor, theologian, or Christian.

  • What does your personal time with the Lord look like?
  • How are you making time for that during the week? Is it the same as your sermon prep?
  • How are you encouraging your congregation or family to do the same?
  • What value do you see in this?
  • What are some common misunderstandings about having personal time with the Lord?

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@anthonysvajda
@davidgnorman
@seanwegener

What Does a Preacher Look Like?

For several years, I traveled a lot for work. I flew all over the country meeting with various Bible colleges, Christian universities, and seminaries. As such, I spent a lot of time on airplanes. And any time you fly, you inevitably have that awkward conversation as they pack you into seats made for people smaller than the average American.

First you offer your name and they respond with their’s. Then the question of whether you’re traveling for work or for personal reasons comes. And then, the question that always provides the most interesting responses. “So what do you do?”

And every time I’ve answered that I am a pastor, I’ve received quizzical looks. Apparently, I don’t fit the general image in most people’s minds as to what a preacher is supposed to look like. I don’t know if it’s the shaved head, the beard (I had grown it out quite long for a while and looked like a bald cousin from Duck Dynasty), or that I don’t normally wear a coat and tie, but almost no one has ever heard me say, “I’m a pastor,” and said, “I can see that.”

Images of the Minister

Even as we think of the images associated with ministry, we generally approach the task with a particular image or images that guide us in our day-to-day actions. Those who view themselves as shepherds or prophets or teachers or evangelists or spiritual gurus or life coaches or servant leaders will all approach ministry in distinct ways. The one who sees himself as a shepherd is more likely to spend extended time with his people and view time locked away in a study preparing for a sermon as wasted time.

The one who envisions himself a teacher is almost the opposite. He would rather study and read and prepare his sermons, viewing the preaching ministry as the best manner through which to love his congregants.

The same is true as we approach the more specific task of preaching. How we view ourselves as we approach the pulpit determines a lot about what we will value and choose in the sacred task.

Images of the Preacher

The Pastor

Those who view the preaching task as primarily pastoral in nature concern themselves with the care and needs of their hearers. As they approach sermon preparation, they are acutely aware of the needs of those in the congregation and they aim their sermon carefully to meet those needs. Their preaching is targeted first and foremost at life-change.

So, they begin with the need and seek to bring God’s Word to bear upon it—What does the Bible say about this particular need or that particular need?

Before moving on, I think it is important to note that this is not a bad thing in itself. Many of us can learn something from this image and be reminded of the importance of the congregation in our preaching. I’ve met too many young preachers that handle the text well and preach a good sermon, but fail to connect it with their hearers—whether that be by speaking over the heads of their congregation by using too much technical jargon or quoting from their favorite lexicon or by using illustrations that were clearly intended for another kind of hearer.

Ultimately, though, I fear that the emphasis of the image of pastor opens us up to a host of potential downfalls, most notably that it lends to the authority of the sermon residing in the preacher himself. He is the one who discerns the needs of the congregation. He is the one who determines which passages speak to those needs. And, in order to avoid potential conflict and/or hurt feelings, he is the one who may decide to avoid difficult or controversial passages of Scripture.

So while the image of the pastor has some points to keep in mind, ultimately, it can lead to drift because the Word and the preacher can come to exist for the sake of the congregant.

The Poet

In college, I thought the Lord had called me to music ministry. So I majored in music right up until I realized that I wasn’t being trained for the ministry—I was being trained to do music and ministry was merely the outlet for it. So, I flipped my major and minor and became a religion major with a minor in sacred music. I had a friend who wanted desperately to become a famous youth-evangelist. That was his heart. But it struck me as odd that he wasn’t a ministry or religion major. He was a speech communications major. As he informed me, he didn’t need the tools to rightly divide the Word—he felt he had those. He needed to be a better communicator.

My concern was that he might become a better communicator of the wrong thing!

There are some who are so excited about the preaching task that the sermon becomes the central component to their overall ministry. For them, the Word and the congregation exist for the sake of the sermon.

They love Rhetoric! They love books on crafting illustrations and coming up with just the right play on words for each point in the sermon. The Word is the tool he uses to craft the sermon and the congregation becomes little more than his audience.

You should study Rhetoric. You should learn to craft better illustrations and select just the right turn of phrase. But not for the sake of highlighting your own creativity. Instead, you should equip yourself to better communicate the word of the King.

The Herald

I will make it easy for you—I am convinced this is the proper image we should view the preaching task. Before there were newspapers and headlines, the herald was the one sent into the kingdom with the message of the king. When he opened his mouth, he spoke with the king’s authority because he was sent by the king with the king’s words. But that authority was derivative. His words only had authority as they communicated the words of the king.

He was entrusted with the message and charged with keeping the integrity of that message. And those who failed to maintain the purity of the king’s words did not keep their place long. They were sent as the emissaries of the king.

That, my friend, is the image I want you to have in mind as you stand and deliver het Word of God. You have been sent into your particular congregation with a message from God. But you don’t have to devise that message, discern the thoughts of the king. You have his written Word. And your task is to re-present that Word.

As such, Dr. Steven Smith used to say, we don’t preach sermons. We preach texts. The Word is the central component of the preaching task. The preacher is merely the mouthpiece; the congregation is the recipient of the Word and their’s is the responsibility to live in response to that message.

Now, I am not saying that the herald’s words are God’s words ex operato. The herald’s words are God’s words only as long as he faithfully and accurately presents them. Our God is a God who speaks. And we have the responsibility to speak his words after him.

In Jonah, chapter 1, we read that the Word of the Lord comes to Jonah and he’s instructed to go to Ninevah and preach against it. We all know what happens next. He goes the wrong way, away from Ninevah, gets swallowed by a great fish, and three days later vomited out on shore.

And then, in chapter 3, we read that the Word of the Lord comes to Jonah a second time. And this time, he is instructed to “call out against the message that I tell you.” The language there is unique in the Hebrew. The same root is used for the verb and the object.

The Lord is being decisively clear on this point. He’s saying, “Jonah, go to Ninevah and preach the proclamation that I am proclaiming to you. Speak the speech that I am speaking to you. Talk the talk that I talk to you. What I say, Jonah, you say.”

That’s what it means to be a herald.

One of the benefits of the image of the herald is that it gives confidence to the reluctant. We all know that ministry does not necessarily mean preaching. Preaching is a component of ministry. Preaching is a specific responsibility given to some ministers, but not all ministers preach.

Which means that some of you don’t feel called to preach. Some of you dread the thought of standing before a group of any size, opening the Bible, and preaching. That’s okay. The key is to communicate God’s Word faithfully and accurately. As long as you do that—and that’s what we’re here to work on—you are standing not in your own authority, but with the authority of the Lord.

For others, however, the idea of standing on a stage is a bit too enticing. Our pride yearns for it to be about us. And to be given such a platform and the image of having the authority of God?!

The image of the herald emphasizes the holy responsibility of the preacher. Each week, the preacher stands before a congregation with the sacred task of bringing God’s Word to bear upon their lives; this is no small thing. There is no greater task, nor a greater responsibility. In that moment, the congregation’s ears are attuned to the voice of the herald in order to hear what the Lord says.

Many preachers, however, fail to grasp the magnitude of this moment and this responsibility. Striving to gain an audience and seeking to endear the congregation to themselves, rather than to God, they toy with foolish remarks and playful stories. They play tricks with words and spin phrases that diminish the gravity of the proclamation.

Each time the herald of God opens the sacred text and speaks, eternity hangs in the balance.

Only the herald who bears the Words and the authority of the king feels the weight of the responsibility that accompanies that task.

Four Things Every Southern Baptist Owes Adam Greenway

Yesterday, the presidential search committee of the trustees of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary announced their candidate for the ninth president of the institution—Dr. Adam Greenway. The trustees have called a special meeting, scheduled next week (26–27 February), for the purpose on voting for his candidacy.

At present, Dr. Greenway serves as the dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Ministry at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. He is a graduate of Samford University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDiv), and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (PhD). Additionally, he earned a masters degree in nonprofit administration from the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame in 2016.

His friends and colleagues speak very highly of his qualification and his character.

Dr. Paul Chitwood—the newly-installed president of the International Mission Board—said, “Both Adam and Carla love the Lord and walk in integrity before Him. Should the Lord call them there, the Great Commission and the local church will be front and center at Southwestern Seminary and I will be praying, ‘Thank you, Lord, for answering my prayers and the prayers of Southern Baptists by giving us one of your best to lead us!’”

Likewise, Dr. Albert Mohler—president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary—is quoted as saying, “I’ve had the joy and privilege of working with Adam Greenway for well over a decade now. He is a remarkable Christian with a demonstrated heart for ministry, a clear vision for theological education, and he represents all of the convictions and character that Southern Baptists look to in a national leader.”

In 2011, I published a series of posts expressing my reasoning for returning to seminary in general, and Southwestern in particular. My affection for Seminary Hill is well-known. I have been blessed with the opportunity to build deep friendships with many of my classmates and professors. After earning an MDiv in 2014, I completed the PhD program in 2018. Today, I have the honor of teaching on campus in an adjunct capacity.

And so, with an abiding appreciation for my alma mater and a desire to see her flourish into the future, I’d like to offer four things I think every Southern Baptist owes Dr. Adam Greenway should the trustees approve him as the ninth president of the seminary.

We owe him (and his family) our prayers.

Dr. Greenway will be taking on the responsibility of leading an institution that has faced various difficulties in recent days. Some will take that as an opportunity to cast blame upon the former president or the trustees—something I refuse to do, in part because I not find it neither warranted nor helpful. Rather than seeking to attach blame, it would be much more beneficial to offer our prayers on the new president’s behalf. Let us pray that the Lord will give him wisdom and discernment—that he will be empowered to make changes deemed necessary and prudent and that he will be strengthened to resist the throngs of those offering opinions and making demands without the requisite information.

Let us pray that the Lord will guard his heart and his family, There is not much greater responsibility than the oversight of thousands of men and women who will proclaim the gospel in churches across Texas, the United States, and the ends of the earth. And we know that those entrusted with the greatest responsibilities are the prime targets of the Enemy and enemies of that glorious gospel.

We owe him our encouragement and confidence.

As we should speak to our Father in heaven privately on Dr. Greenway’s behalf, we should also speak to Dr. Greenway (and of him) with words of encouragement. In the press release posted by the school of his candidacy, words of affirmation are offered by Mohler, Chitwood, O. S. Hawkins, and the chairman of the Presidential Search Committee, Danny Roberts. In coming days and weeks, may each of us offer our encouragement to Dr. Greenway as he takes the helm.

We owe him our availability.

It is one thing to offer encouragement. Doing so merely costs us words. But we owe the next president of Southwestern more than words. We owe him our availability—our readiness to step in and join him in the task of leading the school in whatever manner necessary. For some, that will entail an availability to send students. For others, that means helping encourage other Southern Baptists to fund the work of the seminary. For others still, it may mean special gifts or invitations to him to speak or anything else. That which is important is an availability and willingness to step into whatever gaps he identifies and needs us to fill.

We owe him our patience.

Southern Baptists have never been known to withhold our opinions. Yet, I’m reminded of James’s instruction, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (James 1:19, CSB). When a young pastor asks me what changes he should make during his first year at a church, I tell him to take the first 9–12 months as an opportunity to learn about the church and understand why they’re doing things the way they are. Any changes he chooses to make during that period are made without a good understanding. And yet, many new pastors feel the pressure to change something—to make an impression—during those first months. Often (not always, but often), that pressure comes from families in the church who have a pre-existing agenda and view the pastor’s first months as an opportunity to make their move. While a seminary is not a church, it is not unlike one in that manner.

Let us offer Dr. Greenway our patience as he settles into the President’s Office. Let us offer him the time necessary to discern the state of the seminary and to search the heart of God for the best way forward. That may very well take a different path than some of us (any of us?) believe it should. When it does, we owe him our patience.

We owe the next president of Southwestern our prayers, our encouragement and support, our availability, and our patience. The Presidential Search Committee of the trustees has made a unanimous selection. The trustees will vote next week. Should the Lord call Dr. Greenway to the office of the seminary president, may every Southern Baptist be willing to extend these four things to him.

Southwestern press release

The God who Speaks and the Task of Preaching

Everything we know of God has been revealed to us by God. Humanity has not come to an understanding of who God is by its own efforts or study. Instead, everything we understand has come as the result of his own self-revelation. He is the God who speaks.

As we look at the world around us, we can see some evidences of God’s grandeur and majesty. How often have we stopped and marveled at the beauty of a sunset—whether that be over the ocean waves or the mountain-tops? How often have we shuddered to think of the terrific power of “natural disasters”—tornados, tsunamis, and hurricanes—which we categorize more properly as “acts of God?”

Each of us have an understanding of right and wrong, based on the power and conviction of our consciences. Intuitively, we know that hatred is wrong. We understand the value of human life. We have to be taught to ignore those instincts (and many of us are), but we are born with them nonetheless.

But it is important to recognize that we know nothing of the love and mercy of God apart from divine revelation. We may know that a god exists, but we do not understand his character nor do we know his name apart from his own self-revelation. We know nothing of the three-in-one, Triune Godhead apart from divine revelation. And we know nothing of the hope of our salvation apart from his own attestation. Eternity hangs in the balance of his voice and he is not silent.

In the Old Testament, he speaks into the empty void and brings something out of nothing. He calls out to Adam in the Garden and tells Noah how to survive the flood. He gives Abram his marching orders and calls Moses from the burning bush. He thunders from the mountain, shows his power in the whirlwind, and whispers in the silence.

In the New Testament, he sends his Son—the eternal second person of the Triune Godhead, the Living Word, and active agent of all creation—to clothe himself in humanity and live a sinless life. He preached the arrival of the Kingdom of God and died a sacrificial, penal substitutionary death, and rose on the third day defeating death, hell, and the grave granting eternal life to whosoever believes. His invitation lingers, “All you who labor and are heavy labor, and I will give you rest.”

Our God is a God who speaks.

And because our God is a God who speaks, his words—the form of his communication—the Living and Inscripturated Words—matter . . . and they move.

Notice that in Acts, as the church is born and begins to expand, the Word of God is seen as the active agent: “the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied . . .” (Acts 6:7), and, “the word of God increased and multiplied” (Acts 12:24). Yes the Word is preached by the Apostles, but it is no mere passive instrument in the establishment of the Christian church.

As we approach the task of preaching, then, we must understand the centrality of our convictions concerning the Word of God in our doing so. That which we believe about the Bible will determine the manner and method of our preaching. If it is nothing more than a book of pithy moral teachings or a collection of mythological tales, the manner in which we approach the pulpit will follow and the Bible is nothing more than another collection of the stories of Zeus or Apollos or Odin or any other mythological deity.

But if the Bible in our hands is what it claims to be—the very Word and words of God—then the pulpit becomes the Sacred Desk and our task becomes a sacred task.

The Bible is inspired.

In 2 Timothy 3:16, Paul writes that all Scripture is θεόπνευστος (inspired, or literally, “God-breathed”). Of course this refers to the Old Testament writings that were read, studied, and taught by Jesus and the apostles during the New Testament, but it is extended to the New Testament as well. Peter wrote that in Scripture, “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21). And Peter himself placed the words of his contemporary, Paul, on par with those found in the Old Testament, writing, “There are some things in [Paul’s writings] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Pet 3:16).

The Bible is not man’s words about God nor mere words about man’s interactions with God. The Bible’s source is the very breath of God. We have a God who speaks. And the Bible we hold in our hands is the very words and Word of God. And if it is God’s Word—breathed out by him, it must be inerrant.

The Bible is inerrant.

If the Bible is the actual words and Word of a holy and righteous God—himself the standard of perfection and glory—it cannot mislead, but rather must be “truth without any mixture of error.”

Lest there be any doubt in our minds, consider Jesus’s approach to the Old Testament. By all means, he considered the statements of the Old Testament as factual, chronological, and historical. Jesus compared his eventual death, burial, and resurrection to Jonah’s experience in the great fish (Matt 12:39–42). To cast the shadow of doubt upon the historicity of Jonah is to do the very same to the death and resurrection of Christ! Though he often corrected the interpretations of the religious leaders of his day, not once did he correct the words of the Hebrew Bible. Modern disputes as to the authenticity, dating, and authorship of the Old Testament were never hinted at in Jesus’s teachings.

If the Bible is God’s Word, it is inerrant. And if it is inerrant, it must also be authoritative.

The Bible is authoritative.

If the Bible in our hands contains the very words of God, it must therefore be true. God is not the author of confusion, but of order. Therefore, if God’s Word is inspired and inerrant, there is no other proper response apart from our submission to it. We are not called to correct or adapt the Word of God, but rather to conform our lives and doctrines to stand in accord with it.

For those who love theology—who love to read heavy, dusty books written by dead guys—that means that we dare not explain how this verse “fits” into our theological grid. But rather, we must show how our theological framework incorporates and adapts itself to the text of Scripture. We must be submitted to the text. The text is the authority because the text (and not our own interpretation) is without error.

The Bible is sufficient.

If the Bible is inspired by God and, as such, is absolutely true and trustworthy in all that it claims; and if the Bible is true in all that it claims and, as such, we must be submitted to all that is taught therein, then it must be sufficient for salvation and all that is necessary to live a life pleasing to God. The Scripture is all that has been given or needs to be given in order that we know the way of salvation and the path of obedience.

We do not need more special revelation. The canon is no longer open. Because while God still speaks, he does so through the preaching of his servants.

Martin Luther has written that “Every honest pastor’s and preacher’s mouth is Christ’s mouth, and his word and forgiveness is Christ’s word and forgiveness. . . . For the office is not the pastor’s or preacher’s but God’s; and the Word which he preacheth is likewise not the pastor’s and preacher’s but God’s.”

In like manner, John Calvin stated, “When a man has climbed up into the pulpit . . . it is [so] that God may speak to us by the mouth of a man.”

To be clear: the preacher’s words are not God’s words ex opere operato. Just because it is stated from the pulpit does not stamp the authority of God upon it. The preacher’s words are God’s words only as long as they are faithfully and accurately proclaimed.

Conclusion

Our God is a God who speaks, and preachers of the gospel—those tasked with the accurate and faithful proclamation of the Word of God—are the means by which we still hear his voice. Such a task—proclaiming God’s very words—should cause the preacher to tremble under the magnificent weight of his responsibility. Nevertheless, the preacher must stand confident that the Holy Spirit will overcome the failures and faults of such a brittle mouthpiece. The One who has given us this sure Word will ensure that it does not fail.

Merry Christmas

Wishing y’all a very Merry Christmas from our little corner of the internet.

For this reason was He both born and manifested as Man, for this he died and rose, in order that, eclipsing by His works all other human deeds, He might recall men from all the paths of error to know the Father.
St Athanasius, On the Incarnation

If You Really Believed God Wrote a Book . . .

Each year at UNC Chapel Hill, Bart Ehrman begins his class with an exercise. He asks the class, “How many of you believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God?” A majority of hands raise all over the room. Then he asks, “How many of you have read [and he’ll select the popular novel of the day]?” Usually at that point, almost every hand is raised, with very few exceptions. Then, Ehrman asks a third, very important question: “How many of you have read the entire Bible?” And almost every hand in the room stays down. At which point, Ehrman—who despite teaching the New Testament, does not believe it to be God’s Word—makes his point: “I can understand why you would read [the popular book]. It’s entertaining. But if you really believed God wrote a book, then wouldn’t you want to read it?”

Many of us who grew up in the church were encouraged and challenged to make daily Bible reading a part of our lives, but how many of us live out our belief? If we really believe that God wrote a book, why wouldn’t we want to read it? Why wouldn’t we make a plan?

“Every Christian worth his salt ought to read the Bible from cover to cover every year.”
J. I. Packer

I remember the first time I committed to read through the Bible; it was more than a decade ago. I had run through several devotionals and each of them had the same pattern. They would offer up a verse or two, followed by two pages of someone else’s experiences and thoughts on that snippet of God’s Word. . . . And those were the good ones! Some offered up the same cursory verses, but highlighted someone else’s story that had a similar theme. At some point, it struck me that, in my quiet time—in the moments I had set aside to hear from God—I was reading someone else’s words.

That was enough for me. I chucked the devotionals aside and picked up a one-year Daily Message Bible. (And for anyone throwing shade at me for choosing The Message, I would encourage you to check out my post on Eugene Peterson’s intent behind that paraphrase). I would read each day’s portion in The Message and then switch over to my HCSB to highlight verses and take notes.

The important thing was committing to a plan.

At the bottom of this post, I’d like to offer you two plans to consider for the upcoming year. There is no limit to Bible reading plans, but I’m going to give you the one I have found most useful and then the one I’m going to try next year. But first, let’s talk about what making the commitment to a Bible reading plan isn’t.

Committing to a Bible Reading Plan isn’t Normal

That you’ve read this far into the post is a testament to your oddity. Making the commitment to read the Bible through in a year is not something most people do. Should it be? Of course. But without a plan, we’re destined to get stuck somewhere between Leviticus and Numbers. And that’s why so many choose NOT to make the commitment. They’ve tried (even if half-heartedly) before and failed.

Committing to a Bible Reading Plan isn’t Legalistic

I have heard some argue that making a plan is legalistic. It’s impressing someone else’s standard upon our schedule and time. I’ve heard some argue that it stifles the Holy Spirit’s ability to lead you to the portion of God’s Word that he intends you to read on a given day.

Simply put, the only people who believe that have never read their Bible through in a year.

Anything worth doing is worth counting the cost and making a plan. And, as the old adage goes, “failing to plan is planning to fail.” (Not Scripture, but true nonetheless.)

Committing to a Bible Reading Plan isn’t Difficult

So let’s get into the nitty-gritty of it. Here’s how I read the Bible.

Spoiler alert: I use my iPhone. It goes wherever I go. I’ve forgotten my wallet more times than I’ve forgotten my phone. So I use my phone. If that bothers you, as I know it bothers some, just add the step of opening your print Bible.

Download the Reading Plan app

This app is incredible. It connects to many Bible apps, which means that you simply open the app, click on the reading for the day, and it opens your preferred Bible app to that passage. It offers a litany of different Bible reading plans, but I’m going to suggest two: the one I’m finishing up and the one I’m planning to use in 2019.

I love the Book at a Time plan. I believe that context is extremely important in good biblical interpretation and that means reading larger portions of the Bible at a time. The Book at Time plan encourages that kind of reading, setting you for in one book for chapters at a time, usually followed by a single chapter from the Psalms or Proverbs. Also, it moves back and forth from Old Testament to New Testament, so you need not worry about getting lost in the wilderness for forty years.

In 2019, I’ll be trying something new—the 5x5x5 plan. It’s described as a simple New Testament plan, requiring only five minutes each day for five days a week. You read one chapter a day. Does that seem like too much? Surely not. Then again, if that seems too little, you can up the ante a bit and read it in the Greek text. (NOTE: If you’re up for this, reach out to me and let’s create a GroupMe or WhatsApp group to help one another along.)

If we really believe that God wrote a book, why wouldn’t we want to read it?

Making Room for Advent this Christmas Season

In a society that sprints past Halloween and Thanksgiving in order to get to the Christmas season, it should come as little surprise to recognize that we are not good at waiting. Our’s is a generation that has learned that good things come to those who refuse to wait. We have access to more information on the phones in our pockets than our parents and grandparents had in their local libraries. Everything is instant—riches, celebrity, coffee—and if you don’t believe me, just listen to the comments made the next time the wifi gets slow.

With such an embarrassment of riches, more eccentric subsets of our society have embraced a slower, more deliberate pace. They have learned to shave like their grandpa with a safety razor and boar’s hair shaving brush. Others have embraced the slow art of growing a manly beard. Albums available instantly in digital format are eschewed for those etched in vinyl.

But these exceptions prove the rule—as a society, we demand instant gratification. Which helps explain why Advent is so foreign to our understanding.

Advent is a four-week period of preparation in churches—usually of the more liturgical stripe, but has become more popular in recent years—leading up to Christmas.

This Sunday, December 2 is the First Sunday of Advent.

Many churches—perhaps even most churches—will begin to lean into some of the more familiar Christmas hymns this Sunday. Perhaps they’ll sing “Joy to the World” or “Hark the Heralds Angels Sing.” And those are wonderful hymns with a rich history. But like those who camp out on Thanksgiving morning in order to be first in line on Black Friday, they rush to Christmas morning too quickly.

And that temptation is so very real, isn’t it? After all, the Christmas season is a time for joy and laughter, friends and families, gifts and cards. But according to the Christian calendar, that season begins on Christmas morning. It doesn’t begin on the day after Thanksgiving.

Now, I am not a high-church liturgical worship guy. Not even close. But I think there are some aspects of worship found in the Christian calendar foreign to most churches. I am merely suggesting that if that is the case, perhaps it’s worth examining why believers in the past saw this as important and why we don’t. Or, even more indicting, why we may think it important, but not something we want to think on often.

During Advent, We Reflect upon Israel’s Longing

Advent is the season of expectation. It is the four weeks that Christian churches reflect on the silent inter-testamental period. In the Old Testament, we read of God’s activity and proclamation on each page. We see him in Creation and in the Garden. He sends a flood and confuses the speech of the builders of the tower at Babel. He speaks from the bush, thunders from the mountain, demonstrates his power in the whirlwind, and whispers in the stillness. He rules through judges and kings. He pits nation against nation. He raises a nation to discipline his own people, sending them into exile and bringing them back again.

And then, silence.

History is not silent. The inter-testamental period is a fascinating era filled with intrigue and uproar, but there was no revelation from God.

He was silent.

And year after year, they looked for a prophet to come. And year after year, none came. There were some who claimed to have a word from God. There were others claiming to be the Messiah himself. But they did not and they were not. God remained silent.

Years turned to decades; decades to generations; generations to centuries. Prayers were offered, but God was silent.

And the people of God knew that things were not right in the world. They felt the injustice of their situation. They knew their Scripture well enough to know that this was not the way things were supposed to turn out. And they longed for God to come set things right.

Can you imagine?

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel

During Advent, we remember Israel’s longing for their Messiah. And while it is a period of remembering, it is also a season of waiting ourselves.

During Advent, We ‘Feel’ Our Own Longing

Many of us, when we sit still long enough and think about the world, can not only appreciate Israel’s longing—their desperate sense that things are not the way they are supposed to be—we feel it too. We look around us and the world seems to be spinning out of control. It doesn’t matter which news station we turn to, the news is bad.

Wars and rumors of wars? Check.
Earthquakes and natural disasters? Check.
Increasing hostility to the people of God? Check.

Everywhere we turn, the reports are negative. The only difference is who gets blamed.

And so politicians of every stripe promise us solutions. False prophets tell us that our faith, or lack thereof, is holding us back and that if we’ll just sow a financial seed of faith into their ministry, we too can experience the blessings of God. But deep down, we know that their promises are empty.

We know that only one thing can set this right.

And that’s what sets Advent apart from hopelessness. There is hope. There is assurance that despite all appearances, the world is not spinning out of control. Christians have the promise that God is not finished with his Creation; he has not washed his hands of our dust. But rather, he is patient and good and at the right time, the Son will rise from his throne and return to this world. But rather than coming in the humility of a child in a manger, he will come in the clouds with power and put all things under his righteous rule.

And so we long for our Messiah. We yearn for his return. We ache to see all that is wrong with the world made right. And that sense of desperation—that groaning that we feel each time someone we know receives that terrible diagnosis, each time a friend receives that call in the middle of the night that we all fear, each time we lay a loved one in the grave—that is Advent.

A Humble Appeal

I am not suggesting that you scratch your Christmas songs this week. I am not suggesting that you adopt the liturgical calendar and invest in a set of candles to light during the worship service. Instead, my hope is that you will remember the silence and darkness that characterizes Advent—that you would feel the hope and longing. And this, in part, because we are so prone to avoid those emotions in worship. They make us feel uncomfortable. In those moments, our Christmas hymns, so full of joy, can create such dissonance with the longing.

But when we allow that longing to settle upon us, when Christmas morning comes, the Incarnation of our Lord reminds us that even in the silence, our prayers have been heard. And our longing turns to joy.

My appeal to you is to make room for Advent in your worship. Perhaps that’s a single sermon (might I suggest Micah 7:1–11 for your text). Perhaps you might choose an entire Sunday morning to feel it. But make room for Advent.

There will be the temptation to rush to sing the happy songs and avoid the darkness. But I’m reminded that almost every year, in order to see the culmination of the candlelight service, we turn the lights down in the sanctuary to experience the light.

That’s the Spirit of Advent.

Lessons from a Modern Martyr

Much has been written about John Allen Chau—the American missionary seeking to proclaim the gospel to a remote tribe on North Sentinel, an island off of the Indian coast. By all accounts he was aware of the dangers he faced, having paid local fisherman to bring him near the island under the cover of darkness. Even that action seems to break Indian law which forbids engaging the Sentinelese at least in part due to certainty that those who do are almost universally met with a hail of arrows. After being brought near the island, Chau paddled to shore with food and gifts to offer the islanders in the hope of gaining an audience to share the gospel. According to the local fisherman, he attempted to make landfall several times and was met with a number of arrows each time.

His diary records that he “hollered” in a foreign language, “My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you.”

He wrote of his first encounter in his diary before returning. He had gotten “within inches” of a tribesman and offered his gifts only be met with hostility, including an arrow piercing his waterproof Bible. The fisherman who had taken him into the waters around North Sentinel reported that two days after his initial attempts, they saw the Sentinelese bury his body on the beach.

Reflective of the immediate and extreme nature of social media, reports of Chau’s death was hailed as that of a humble martyr carrying the gospel to the unreached nations by some. Others, however, showed little sympathy for the young Westerner who dared attempt to force his culture and religion on an indigenous people.

The impetus to comment ensured that few were willing to exhibit patience enough to allow more news to come to light and think carefully about the meaning of his death.

For Bible-believing Christians, some aspects of his story merit discussion.

Taking the Gospel to Every Tribe and Every People Remains a Biblical Imperative

Reading the accounts of those who made up the very first Baptist Missionary Society in history—the very men who initiated the modern missions movement—who were challenged to “expect great things for God,” and to “attempt great things for God,” I am often struck by their willingness to forsake all for the sake of the gospel. I am moved with gratitude for those who left home and hearth for the sake of the heathen. Their intentions were not selfish. In fact, whenever I lecture on the Serampore Trio or those holding the rope at home, I remark of their repeated emphasis on their calling to share biblical Christianity, not British Christianity.

Make no mistake, non-believers have accused Chau of colonialist intentions and have vilified him for even attempting to introduce the people of North Sentinel to biblical Christianity. But Christians must, at the very least, take note of his willingness to count the cost and determine that the proclamation of the gospel was worth his very life.

Chau’s concern was clear. He may have had a history of thrill-seeking and adventure, but his diary revealed a heart shaped by the love of God: “Lord, is this island Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?”

“This is not a pointless thing—the eternal lives of this tribe is at hand and I can’t wait to see them around the throne of God worshiping in their own language as Revelations [sic] 7:9–10 states.”
John Allen Chau in a letter to his parents

Extreme Measures are Necessary

There are a number of Christians who echo Rod Dreher’s thoughts concerning Chau—“even though I share his faith, Chau had no business going to those people. It gives me no pleasure to say this, but I believe it.” It strikes me that virtually all of them do so from the comfort of their office or home; few do so from the mission field.

We might all be better-served by allowing Chau’s willingness to die for the sake of the gospel to challenge us—what are we willing to risk that others may hear the eternity-changing hope of Jesus Christ? When faced with criticism concerning his methods of reaching people with the gospel, the great evangelist D. L. Moody once quipped, “I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.” No doubt, many of those criticizing Chau prefer their way of not proclaiming the gospel to his way of doing it.

Some have averred that Chau’s motivation is inspiring, but his methods were flawed—at first it was observed that he did not seem to have been partnered with a missions organization. That information was incorrect in that he was commissioned by All Nations after having “studied, planned and trained rigorously since college to share the gospel with the North Sentinelese people.” Nevertheless, he was facing a significant language barrier. The language barrier that some believe to have been insurmountable is, in many ways, reminiscent of another age of missions when every language barrier appeared impossible to overcome.

Perhaps Chau was naive enough to believe that if he merely “hollered” the name of Jesus loud enough, the Sentinelese would bow the knee in faith. Perhaps it was his hope that, like in Acts 2, the Lord would ensure that they heard the message in their own language. Perhaps his was a story of youthful exuberance lacking wisdom. But have we forgotten those who settled among unreached peoples who spoke unknown languages and learned their language over time, enabling them to share with them the hope of Jesus Christ?

Is this the norm?
Certainly not.
But unreached peoples are generally unreached for good reason.

A Lesson from a Modern Martyr

However we feel about the methods used by Chau, may each of us be challenged by his willingness to go to the ends of the earth for the sake of the gospel. May we remember that the Great Commission is still our commission. We are commanded to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations (τὰ ἔθνη), baptizing them in the name of the the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that [Jesus] commanded [us]” (Matt 28:19–20).

Likewise, in Acts, Jesus promised the disciples that they would “receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” but then he added, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). I’m often struck by the manner we interpret this particular verse. Many of us read Jesus’s promise of the Holy Spirit and our faith in Jesus gives us assurance of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives. The substance of Jesus’s promise is clear: the Holy Spirit.

All too often, however, we miss the other promise found in the verse.

Jesus’s statement that the disciples will be his witnesses even to the ends of the earth is his promise to those who have not heard of the name and work of Jesus Christ. He is promising that the Good News is on its way. And his disciples—those in the book of Acts and those in our churches today—are the substance of that promise to the ends of the earth.

Perhaps the lesson we need to learn most from John Allen Chau—the modern martyr—is the reminder that there are still those who have not heard and it’s time for us to get back to work.

Update: Corrected information about Chau’s missions sending agency. See here for more information. HT: Regan King.