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.

Pastor, How Do You Know What Hill To Die On?

The past few weeks have proved to be an interesting season for me in ministry. While the season has been fruitful for my congregation, I have received several calls from fellow pastors who are new in their churches and currently facing difficult decisions in their churches.

It was nostalgic as I can remember those years in my first pastorate when I was faced with a difficult decision that could potentially blow up in my face for one reason or another. I remember looking for answers as I reflected back on the ministries of the former senior pastors I had served under who would either attack the situation or ignore the situation altogether. I remember feeling the burden in knowing that I needed to make the correct decision. I understood that the decision would ultimately have an eternal impact for the Kingdom and an immediate impact on my ministry at the church.

The longer I pastor, the more I realize that there are problems that need to be addressed with a heavy hand and a firm stance, and there are other situations that cannot be fixed with anything but the passing of time.

As I have reflected on this process, I have come up with a series of questions to ask yourself. My hope is that these questions would form a filter to process these situations through.

Pastor, if you’re in a situation that you feel may need some serious attention work through this series of questions before you engage in battle.

Is the Issue a Temporary Issue or an Eternal Issue for my Church?

Many times we are so heated at the moment that we do not understand how temporary the consequences of the decision are.

I can remember a heated church meeting at the beginning of my church involvement when two church members were arguing passionately over the best practice of promoting the upcoming Vacation Bible school. Honestly, looking back on the meeting, it was so insignificant because I cannot remember who won or even what the positions were. However, as a relatively new Christian, I do remember the meeting. Each party was so passionate about their position that they were willing to drag out all the stops to make sure it was done “right.” But truth be told, it was a temporary thing, and if I went to them today, they probably would agree that it really didn’t matter all that much now looking back on it.

My point is that when a pastor is tempted to engage in an argument, he must ask if the effects are going to last into the future or if this is ultimately insignificant? If the topic has no future impact on the church or your ministry, that hill is not worth dying on.

Will the Issue Keep the Lost from Getting Close to Jesus?

We have all heard of the horror story of the church where all the men wear suits every Sunday. One day when a lost man came to the church in his work clothes, and he was quickly rejected. Although the man didn’t own a suit, the men of the church told him not to come back until he was able to wear a suit on Sundays. This is obviously tragic for many reasons. But the big reason is that they put a huge roadblock in front of the man who wanted to get close to Jesus.

Christians must be conscious of how their actions can establish religious barriers and their decisions could potentially create obstacles for others to come close to Christ.

For example, the men of the previously mentioned church at some point made the decision that wearing a suit on Sunday is a requirement for worshiping God. This decision was not biblical and yet it had implications on how the church dealt with people who needed to get close to Jesus.

My point is when a pastor is tempted to engage in an argument, he must ask if the decision going to cause roadblocks for others to get close to Jesus? If the topic has the potential of keeping people from getting close to Jesus, that is a hill worth dying on.

Will the Issue Keep my Church from Reaching People for Jesus?

An issue that is prevalent in our day among pastors is the use of alcohol. While many will claim that they have freedom in Christ giving them the ability to partake in the drink, they would be hard-pressed to say that their indulgences do not affect their witness for Christ.

While alcohol is a hot topic right now, this principle can be applied to anything of moral questionability in Christian life. Anyone can understand that it would be difficult to share the gospel while using obscene language or living an immoral lifestyle. The same can be said of a church that indulges in the things of the world instead of being set aside for Christ.

My point is, when a pastor is tempted to engage in an argument, he must ask, is the impact of this decision going to hinder the witness of my church for Christ? If the topic could keep the church from reaching people for Jesus, that is a hill worth dying on.

Will the Issue Provide an Accurate View of who God is through the Church?

Whether we like it or not, churches have a reputation in their community. Your church may be seen as loving and accepting, or judgmental and full of cliques. Every church has a reputation in their community and that is established in the manner in which the church interacts with the community. Every pastor must come to grips with this reality. The city you serve is making judgments about your church and those judgments are based on how your church serves your community.

Ultimately, the church must understand that they are a representation of God in their community. The people of the community will make assumptions about who God is based on how they see your church. If you have a loving church, the community will perceive that God is loving. Consequently, if you have a judgmental church, the community will perceive that God is distant and condemning.

My point is, when a pastor is tempted to engage in an argument, he must ask if the impact of this decision is going to offer an accurate view of God? If the topic relates to communicating an accurate view of God, that is a hill worth dying on.

Conclusion

If I were to sum all of this up, before engaging in a dialogue that has the potential to be tense, I need to ask myself:

1) Is this worth arguing over or is it insignificant?
2) Will this set up a roadblock for people to get closer to God?
3) Will this keep my church from sharing the gospel?
4) Will this communicate an accurate or inaccurate view of who God is?

Pastor, understand that churches have issues and people are going to argue. Let us make sure that we are discussing the things that matter and let us fight for the hills that are worth dying on.

On the Proper House-Training of your Youth Pastor

A few years ago, our family adopted a puppy. He was rescued from a parking lot in the rain and our kids were desperate for a dog with which to run and play. Once we saw his paws, though, we knew this would not be a small dog for long. But whereas we thought he might grow to reach 50 pounds or so, he’s give us abundantly more than we could have asked or imagined in an 80 pound dog.

Shortly after adopting him, we left him crated at home only to receive a call from our neighbor who explained that our dog—Captain America (we have four boys and only one girl)—was not crated. In fact, he was looking out of the broken blinds in the master bedroom of our house.

When I came home, not only had he broken his crate and gotten into my bedroom. He had apparently pushed the door behind him and become panicked. He destroyed my bedroom—the comforter, the sheets, the pillows, the blinds, and that smell . . .

I still have nightmares involving that smell.

Seriously. As recent as last week.

And as frustrated as I was in that moment—deep down, I knew that he was a big puppy who just wasn’t house-trained yet.

Today, he’s calmed down for the most part and become a reliable protector of my kids. He cannot stand for them to be outside without him. And he guards them like I might. He’s gentle with them and vicious toward any dog (or person) who might dare threaten them.

The puppy who gave me nightmares now gives me confidence when my kids play outside.

The Puppy-Stage of Ministry

Some years ago, when I was in the puppy-stages of ministry, I was invited to serve as a youth pastor at an established church. I was finishing up college and, despite my complete lack of experience or wisdom, I was absolutely certain as to how I wanted to “do” youth ministry.

I never let myself into a room and destroyed it quite like our family puppy had, but I may have given my senior pastor a nightmare or two.

And, in retrospect, I have come to understand that I learned more from the grace and patience he gave me during those early years than I ever understood at the time. I have no doubt that he had moments when he experienced a similar consideration as I did when I encountered our dog in the wasteland that was my bedroom, but his decision to use those moments as opportunities for growth and instruction have had a dramatic influence on my life and ministry.

It’s common among churches to hire ministerial pups as youth pastors. Often, we do so with the understanding that many youth pastors are not “lifers,” in that they don’t plan to retire a youth pastor. Most likely, they’ll cut their teeth in youth ministry before stepping up to the pastorate. As such, it really shouldn’t surprise us when they make a mess, should it?

So, what do you need to do in order to house-train your youth pastor?

Give him opportunities

He’s energetic and hungry. Point him in a good direction and give him opportunities to lead . . . and not only with the youth. Give him opportunities to preach on occasion, even if only on those “special” weekends when you don’t anticipate a large crowd.

Give him events to take the lead on. Use his energies for the sake of the church. It will benefit the church and give him some much-needed interaction with grown ups.

Give him resources

This goes hand-in-hand with opportunities. Give him the resources he needs to succeed. I realize that the money’s tight and that the church is in a budget-crunch. I understand that we all need to “tighten the belt” and make things work. I’m not asking you to go overboard.

But give him what he needs to succeed. And if the number that the budget committee returns with falls short of what he’s been asking, give him some options and suggestions for making every ministry dollar stretch. The pace with which he runs and the ministry he leads has a lot to do with the investment your church makes in him.

Give him coaching

One of the most important investments your church can make in him is through you. Pastor, you have experience in ministry. You have experience with people. You have wisdom to share. Can I just encourage you to coach your youth pastor?

He doesn’t need you to micro-manage him (probably). Doing that will only ensure that you’re overloaded with responsibilities. But he needs someone to chat with on a regular basis and discuss how things are going and what he could/should do differently next time around. You need to be that person.

Remember, he’s serving a subset of your congregation. You’re the youth’s senior pastor. And the best way you can ensure that they’re receiving the best care and attention they need is by investing and mentoring him.

Will that be a costly investment? Up front, it will. But in the long run, the entire church will benefit.

Give him leaders

A youth ministry without good volunteer leadership is an unhealthy youth ministry. Pastor, you need to take a major role in recruiting leaders for the youth ministry. Don’t send him down to the basement of the church without any strong volunteers. Speak highly of the youth ministry from the pulpit. Tell stories of how God is moving among the teenagers of your church and invite adults to find an avenue for leadership in the youth ministry.

Give him patience

He will do something stupid. He very well may do several things that leave you frustrated and shaking your head. Give him patience. If it’s not a moral deficiency or sin, make it a learning opportunity for him. Allow it to direct your guidance for a bit. He feels the weight and responsibility of ministry and his decisions. Rather than using it as an opportunity for chastisement, help him make better decisions in the future.

Last thought

Youth pastors are important to the ministry and work of the church. A good youth pastor is hard to find. He’s much easier to raise. But you’ll have to get past the stage where he chews up the furniture and pees on the carpet. And that takes time and perspective.

May God give us eager young ministers of the gospel. And may he give us wisdom and courage to help them grow. And may he give our church’s custodians patience and a good sense of humor.

Just remember 3-1-6

For as long as I have been a born-again follower of Christ, I can remember witnessing. My pastor took me out witnessing regularly. Usually, I was a wreck. At first, I would fumble the presentation and only get the message out clearly on occasion, but my delivery improved over time and with proper instruction.

Once I had been studying a particular gospel presentation that my pastor had given me in order to help me learn the necessary steps and to give me a method of sharing the entire gospel with another person. I was standing on a front porch, hands sweating from nerves and mouth so dry that I could barely even get out the word, “Hello.” I found myself talking about everything except Jesus. Finally the lady to whom I was presenting the gospel said, “Spit it out; share something!” And with her encouragement, I managed to share the gospel with her and, with the assistance of my pastor, I had the joy of leading her to saving faith in Jesus Christ. 

I will never forget the exhilaration of that first soul-winning moment. I watched as the light of God filled her heart and the light of life came appeared in her eyes. That day, my pastor’s prayers and investment resulted in my heart being transformed into the heart of an evangelist. I couldn’t wait to share the gospel with others again and again. And I learned a valuable lesson that day. Don’t wait; share something.

There is always another soul in need of hearing this message. And the message is not especially difficult. But it must include the sinless life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, the Son of God. And once you have established that each of us is a sinner separated from God and that Jesus paid the penalty for our sins, the rest is simply providing the listener an opportunity to respond to God’s call. 

It really is that simple.

Why, then, do we not share the gospel?

Brothers and Sisters in Christ, why then are not all of us sharing this life-saving, eternity-altering message with the lost among us? Is it fear? Is it lack of time? Is it lack of concern? Is it lack of knowledge of the gospel message?

Matt Queen, a Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professor has said, “If you know enough of the gospel to be saved; then you know enough of the gospel to share it.” Every Christian came to exercise a saving faith in Jesus Christ because the gospel message was shared with them clearly and an opportunity to make a decision to follow Jesus as Savior and Lord was given to them. In fact, I have serious questions about the sincerity of one’s faith in Christ Jesus if they never share their faith with the lost around them.

In my experience, to deny one something they need so desperately is cruelty, not kindness. Why, then, would we take comfort denying others an opportunity to hear the life-saving message of the gospel?

I plead with local churches to offer evangelism training in and for their churches. Pastors, model evangelism to their congregants by sharing stories of your evangelism encounters from the pulpit regularly. God forbid that the reason our churches aren’t sharing the gospel outside the walls of the church is because our pastors aren’t sharing the gospel outside of the pulpit.

Not everyone has believed our message. Not everyone will. This is not reason for discouragement, however. Many have and many will. And presenting the gospel message to others is an enrichment exercise for a Christian. As the message is presented, God engraves the gospel upon a Christian’s heart every time they share.

Remember 3-1-6

In my last post, I promised to offer an evangelism tool that I’ve found helpful in keeping me pursuing the lost. It’s called 3-1-6. Here’s how it works.

Ask the Father to impress 3 people on your heart who you believe need the gift of salvation. Write their names down. Pray for them 1 time a day for 6 days, asking the Lord to give you an opportunity to share the gospel message of Jesus Christ with them in that week. I have found that when I pray earnestly and ask God to honor this prayer, I have been empowered with God’s love and affection for those precious souls and many more times than not, been given that opportunity.

And when you pray that prayer and the Lord grants you the honor of sharing the hope of Christ with them, don’t hesitate. Remember those words that shocked me into action that day: “Spit it out; share something!”

Re-Surrendering to Ministry

I remember sitting in the auditorium among a few hundred other college students who had surrendered to the ministry. The professor onstage told us to look around—to the people next to us. He wasn’t trying to dissuade us from our calling, but told us that the statistics said that 3 out of 4 of us would not retire in the ministry.

I remember the faces of the guys around me.

I remember discussing with them how unbelievable those numbers were—how surely we would be the exception.

And then, over the course of years, I saw friend-after-friend walk away from the ministry. Some lasted years; some less. Many of them still play important roles in their churches, but they’re not serving in full-time, vocational ministry as they had once committed themselves. (And while there’s an entire post to be written concerning the positive manner in which they continue to serve in a number of capacities, this is not that post.) They had made an initial commitment, but for whatever reason, were unable to fulfill that calling.

In light of the number of pastors and ministers stepping away from pulpits around the nation due to moral failures (and before you fire off that email, I am not equating one leaving the ministry with a moral failure), it seems reasonable to believe those statistics have only worsened.

But, in a sense, I think this is the result of only surrendering to the ministry once.

Hear me out. However difficult it may be to make that initial decision—however much wrestling was involved in your call to the ministry—that was the easy part. Whether you left a lucrative role in the business world or stepped into ministry fresh out of college, the decision to lay down your desires and embrace God’s calling for your life was the easy part.

The Scale of Small Decisions

Big decisions are often like that. Deciding to be something or do something begins with that initial move, but the hardest part comes with the hundreds of smaller, daily decisions that follow.

This is why every January millions upon millions make the commitment to lose weight. Having worked at a gym, I can tell you that January is unlike any other month in the fitness industry. People join the gym in droves, waiting lines form behind treadmills, every aerobics and spin class is filled to capacity. But those crowds dissipate in the weeks to follow and disappear within a month. Why? Because the initial decision is so much easier than the daily decision.

It’s one thing to surrender to the ministry; it’s quite another to re-surrender to the ministry every day—to wake up each Monday and, despite the events of the previous day, make the decision to continue serving this particular flock in this particular place.

But that daily-discipline—that habitual laying down of your will, of crucifying your flesh (Gal 5:13), that taking up your cross every day (Lk 9:23)—is necessary for enduring in our calling.

Each time I hear that another pastor has stepped away from the ministry and every time that I learn of another moral failure, I grieve. But I’m not foolish enough to believe that their departure began on the day the announcement was made. Their departure from the service of the Lord took place over the course of many days, one after another, during which they refused to surrender themselves and give themselves over to their calling.

I don’t know what you’re facing in ministry at this moment in time. I don’t know what struggles or difficulties—what hurts or pains—you might be facing. But my encouragement is to find someone to talk to. It can be another pastor or a trusted friend, but talk to someone; share your struggles. Because just as our church members often put off seeking help until they’re well-down the path of sin, many of us do the same with our hurts.

Find someone who will help you surrender to the ministry again . . . and again . . . and again until you hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Let’s Talk about the Pastor and Alcohol

Any discussion of alcohol among those submitted to Scripture must begin with an acknowledgement of the sin of drunkenness. In Romans, Paul urges his readers to “walk with decency, as in the daylight,” which he contrasts with “carousing and drunkenness” (Rom 13:13). In Galatians, drunkenness included in Paul’s list of works of the flesh alongside “sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy . . . [and] carousing” (Gal 5:20–21a). These are the works of those, who according to Paul “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:21b). Further, Peter assumes such behavior to be beneath believers, listing drunkenness as one of the behaviors of those apart from God. “They are surprised,” he writes,” that you don’t plunge with them into the same flood of wild living” (1 Pet 4:4).

In light of such passages, any attempt to discern a biblical position on the use of alcohol must begin with a common understanding concerning drunkenness. Only then can the discussion move forward concerning the use of alcohol. Whereas some advocate that believers abstain completely, others argue that the use of alcohol is permissible in moderation. Sadly, the conversation on this topic rarely resembles a fraternal discussion and often devolves into ad hominem attacks, overstatement, and misunderstandings.

Many preachers of abstinence are incorrect in their assertions that οἶνος (oinos) in the New Testament always refers to unfermented grape juice rather than wine (the more common translation, by far). In John’s account of Jesus’s turning the water into wine (John 2:1–11), one notes that the chief servant stood in astonishment that, unlike most parties where more-intoxicating wine is served initially and replaced with wine of lesser value, the wine which Jesus had created was contrasted with this and was considered “fine wine.” Further, in the account of the Day of Pentecost, Luke writes that the scoffers who heard the disciples accused them of having been “full of new wine” (Acts 2:13). It hardly seems likely that they would have accused the disciples of being intoxicated if new wine in the New Testament period referred to unfermented grape juice.

Also, one must note that the prophets and apostles imbibed without reluctance with the condition that drunkenness was avoided. However, it is incorrect to argue that Scripture does not include any restrictions concerning alcohol. Those who were wholly separated for God and performed a Nazarite vow were prohibited from any use of wine whatsoever (Num 6:3; Judg 13:4–7, 13–14). Further, Paul instructs the Ephesians to “be filled by the Spirit,” in contrast to getting “drunk with wine” (Eph 5:18). While noting that the restriction is against drunkenness, the discerning readers should note Paul’s juxtaposition of becoming intoxicated with wine and being filled by the Spirit. Is it possible to pursue both? Or does the active pursuit of the one negate any pursuit of the other?

In 1 Timothy 3, Paul writes that an overseer (or elder/pastor) must be “above reproach” and “not addicted to wine.” Deacons, likewise, must be “not drinking a lot of wine.” Once again, often these passages are interpreted according to the presuppositions of the reader. Those advocating for abstinence interpret each as restricting alcoholic consumption entirely and those advocating for the use of alcohol in moderation focus on “not addicted” and “not . . . a lot.” Moreover, in the very same letter, Paul instructs young Timothy to “use a little wine because of [his] stomach and [his] frequent illnesses” (1 Tim 5:23). However, one observes, this is clearly a medicinal use of wine and not merely a recommendation for Timothy to come home at the end of the day, pop-a-top, and put his feet up.

How, then, does one move forward in discerning God’s will for his life concerning alcohol? Further, how should churches handle the use of alcohol among their members and leaders?

Among church members, there should be freedom of conscience (Rom 14:1–23). In light of the biblical text, drunkenness should be condemned and declared a sin. Those who fall under habitual drunkenness should be disciplined in accordance with Matthew 18. The responsible use of alcohol in moderation, however, should be allowed among church members.

Among church leaders, however, one should note that Paul was not hesitant to establish a higher standard of living for those in positions of authority over the congregation. In his teaching that overseers should be above reproach, Paul provides a helpful aid in understanding his other admonitions. The descriptor “above reproach” literally means that accusations against an overseer should have nothing to stick to. Anyone attempting to take hold of him in order to make an accusation should find no handle to take hold of. One is reminded of Paul’s instruction elsewhere to “Stay away from every kind of evil,” or, as the KJV reads, “Abstain from all appearance of evil” (1 Thess 5:22).

The easiest path for a church leader to be above reproach in terms of alcohol is simply to abstain entirely. (NOTE: This was the point of Sean’s post earlier this week reflecting on the Kavanaugh hearing.) If an elder or pastor (or deacon) chooses not to use alcohol in any sense, any accusation of drunkenness or sin has no evidence or support. This position is strengthened as one considers the words of Paul to the church in Corinth: “Everything is permissible for me, but not everything is helpful” (1 Cor 6:11).

The question church leaders must ask of themselves is that of value: do the benefits of the use of alcohol outweigh the potential negatives of doing so? In light of this question, many will discern that, while Scripture is devoid of any definite mandate of abstinence from alcohol, wisdom dictates that one commit himself to abstinence nonetheless. In doing so, one may avoid the pitfalls of misinterpreting Scripture while also pursuing God’s wisdom for Christian living.

The Benefits of Prohibition

We’ve all heard of the slippery slope argument—that if one were to take one step past a particular line, the downward tumble is inevitable. Sometimes we can dismiss the slippery slope argument as mere conjecture, but during last week’s trial of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh (of course, it was only a Senate judiciary hearing, but it certainly took on the spirit of a trial) one particular slippery slope argument was raised. When asked if he drank alcohol during his high school years, Kavanaugh replied, “We drank beer. My friends and I, boys and girls, yes, we drank beer. We like beer. I like beer. I still like beer. I drank beer.”

After admitting to crossing the line, the slippery slope question followed, “Have you ever passed out from drinking?” Alcohol—can a little impairment cause a big slip while walking a strait line?

Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise. Proverbs 20:1

The Mocker

For quite some time, I have read in Christian magazines of the success some churches have had brewing their own beer, placing kegs outside prayer tents, and using alcohol to hang out with friends or talk to non-believers. One need only google alcohol and Christianity Today, the top results: “The Church that Drinks Together,” “A Toast to My Journey with Wine,” or “Why So Many Christians are Relaxing Over Drinks.”

Many pastors are now envisioning a church where alcohol and outreach are successful partners. Somehow, we’ve come to think alcohol will open doors in a post-Christian society. I suggest we allow the Kavanaugh line of questioning to bring us out of this stupor. Even the world knows good judgment and alcohol don’t mix.

Pairing the Spirit’s work with impairing spirits makes a mockery of the gospel. There is only one Spirit who has never caused Christ’s Bride to stumble—let his holiness set your church apart.

The Brawler

It’s time for a sober discussion concerning the evil effects of alcohol on our society. We have heard from Christine Blasey-Ford concerning her abuse at the hands of impaired men. Whether or not her accusations against Kavanaugh are true, we have to admit they are not unique claims. While pastors are crying out for alcohol’s freedom, how many women are crying out from alcohol’s abuse? What is alcohol’s effect on the children in our communities? The church and her ministers ought to be safe places from the tyranny alcohol brings into the world.

We can brawl all day over whether Scripture permits church leaders the freedom to drink, but consider this: the United States is wondering, “does a man who possibly abuses alcohol have the temperament to judge well?” Proverbs 31 answers the question for us, “It is not for rulers to crave beer, lest they drink and deprive the oppressed of their rights” (Prov 31:5).

Alcohol is not known for treating women well. Alcohol does not restore broken families. Alcohol doesn’t give wise counsel.

The Fool

How much can a person take before it can be described as stealing? How many words must be false before it is considered lying? How many glances can a person make before it is better termed adultery? Slippery slope questions are always foolish. Yet, when we read Ephesians 5:18, “Do not get drunk on wine,” we prefer to ask “how many drinks renders one drunk?”

Jesus came so that we might have life abundantly. The picture Scripture gives of Christ is a fellow-sojourner who calls us to follow him. He is the Faithful Shepherd. By contrast, Scripture presents alcohol as dragging people away into debauchery. Alcohol is a fool’s friend and deceitful by nature.

The world is stumbling in the darkness of a post-Christian world. As it searches for leaders, it continues to find abusers.

The Benefits of Prohibition

I made a rule for myself in Middle School—never drink. Upon personal reflection, I knew I couldn’t trust myself not to slip, if I crossed the initial line. And to this day, I have never drank alcohol. My testimony is this: there is one great benefit to drawing a personal prohibition line and never crossing it—no accusation of drunken behavior will ever stand in trial against the Lord’s reputation.

The Bible makes the contrast very clear, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit” (Eph 5:18). Those who drink, their glass is always emptying. Those who walk with God, their soul overflows.

When the Words Just Won’t Come

Have you ever had that terrifying moment? You sit down with the need to put pen to paper words on the screen and you draw a blank. The issue at hand isn’t that you have nothing to say. Not at all. The problem is you can’t focus your thoughts on just one.

Your head is teeming with thoughts, but nothing that will endure long enough to work through. Like a mirage of an oasis in the desert, one appears, but fades away as soon as you try to grasp it.

There are only a few occupations/professions/vocations that experience the pressure of that moment. Generally, people view artists as frustratingly-unwilling to be bound by time and space, working only when inspired. Authors are depicted in film as being almost painstakingly reticent to sit down at the typewriter or keyboard until that moment when everything makes sense in their heads and then the full-length manuscript appears overnight.

And while I would not ever argue that the work of the artist or of the author are meaningless, the weight of their responsibilities pales in comparison to that of the preacher.

He is charged with bringing forth the Word of God.

He is tasked with the responsibility of breaking open the Bread of Life and offering it to his congregation piece-by-piece. And each week, he sits down in his study, opens his Bible, and pulls up a blank page on his computer. And after a few minutes, while he knows that the blinking cursor on the blank page is nothing more than a decision a programmer made decades ago, it begins to feel as though it were mocking him—counting down the time until he stands before the people of God once more.

Perhaps he has good reason to be stuck. Perhaps this week’s text is a story that he knows that many in his congregation have heard since their time in the church nursery, such as the story of Noah, or David and Goliath, or Daniel in the Lion’s Den. Maybe, it’s a narrative passage of Scripture that he is resisting the urge to squeeze a moral lesson or allegory from. Or, the passage could pertain to a difficult subject that he knows will result in a few angry emails at the very least.

Maybe it’s something else, though. His church could be walking through a difficult period of time. The words don’t always flow to the page when the church sanctuary is used for a funeral during the week, or when a particular point of disputation arises at each congregational gathering.

In that moment—sitting in his study, staring at the mocking cursor—what do you do when you have nothing to say?

Before answering, let me first acknowledge that I don’t have the answers as to what you should do; no one does. Your experience is your experience, but I can offer you what I have found to be helpful for me.

Pray

Come on, preacher. Did you expect that not to top the list? Take your concern and your frustration to the Father and ask him to give you clarity of thought. Ask him to impress a message for his people—after all, they’re his people. Ask him to remove anything from your heart and from your thoughts that is blocking his Word from giving words to you.

Related to that, being stuck in sermon preparation is not necessarily due to sin, but it could be. Search your heart and confess any sins to the Father. Perhaps your heart was that which was blocking the words.

Read Scripture

Now, I know you’re thinking. “Read Scripture?! My Bible is open!” I know. But remember the first thing we were all told when we began preaching: Don’t confuse your sermon preparation and study with your personal devotions and quiet time? That’s what I’m talking about.

Read Scripture.

Read your passage one more time, but then turn the page to another passage that you’re not intending to preach. If you’re preaching through Galatians, turn to the Old Testament. If you’re preaching through one of the Gospels, turn to the Old Testament or to one of Paul’s epistles.

Get away from the passage that you’re breaking down semantically and read broadly—chapters, perhaps even books, at a time. Why? Because you need to step back from sermon preparation and fill your heart and mind with the Word of God. I can’t count the number of times that God has, in this process, impressed something upon me that I wasn’t expecting.

Read Fiction

After spending time in prayer and reading broadly in God’s Word, if the words still aren’t coming, it’s time to get extreme. It’s time to break away from the forced study. (Of course, I’m assuming you’re preparing your sermon long-before Saturday night. If I’m wrong, well, that’s an entirely different post.) Grab a work of fiction.

Those who know me well might accuse me of hypocrisy on this, because I’m notoriously impatient when it comes to fiction. I’m not the whimsical type. I prefer serious study on serious things. But, as my friends who are more inclined toward reading fantasy and fiction remind me, it’s important to let your imagination run—to give it room to breathe and explore. Perhaps your mind just needs to be stretched a little.

Get Out of the Study

One of the lessons that I’m trying to learn these days is that there’s no such thing as saving time. I don’t save time by skipping a meal or hurrying through a task. No matter how much time I try to save, the time ticks away. Despite my best efforts, the second hand on my watch never stops moving. And if you can’t save time, the best you can do is maximize it. Use it for something.

Sitting and staring at the cursor is not going to put words on the page. Getting anxious and worked up over it doesn’t actually accomplish anything. The time ticks away and you’re not drafting a sermon as it does. You’re not actually doing anything but getting angry. So get out of the study.

You’ve prayed and sought the face of the Lord. You’ve read broadly in Scripture. You’ve even picked up your favorite copy of Tolkien or Lewis (good, approved Christian fiction) and thumbed through a few pages. But the words still aren’t coming.

Go play with your kids.

Go drink coffee with your wife.

Go for a run or a workout.

Go watch a mindless movie with lots of explosions.

Get out of the study and let your mind relax.

Write Now; Edit Later

Now, this particular point doesn’t come in succession as the others had. And while it’s not a method I recommend for sermon preparation, it’s the exact method I’ve recommended to doctoral students working on a dissertation.

Put words on the page.

They don’t have to be good. They don’t have to be well-constructed. They don’t have to flow. But put words on the page. When your mind is working at a more efficient rate, you’ll be able to piece those thoughts together and edit them into a comprehensive whole, but for the time being, put something on the page. In actually sitting down and writing, you’ll begin to discover that the words begin to flow more freely the more you write.

Writing begets writing.

So write now right now. (I’ve just wanted an excuse to write that sentence.)

Don’t be afraid to write something that you don’t use. Just write it down and clean it up after the fact.

Maybe you’ve never experienced this terrifying moment. Maybe it’s just me (which would give credence to my greatest fear. Super). Or maybe it’s more common than any of us want to acknowledge.

What do you do when the words just won’t come?

Drop a comment below or hit me up on Twitter and let me know.

Ministering through the Muck

A pastor’s job is not one that would generally make anyone’s list of most difficult professions (unless the person making the list were a pastor or a pastor’s wife). We’ve all heard the dismissive comments about how nice it must be to only have to work one hour each week. And, if we’re being frank, more pastors fit this sad perception than we’d like to admit.

It’s not that we only work one hour per week—me genoito! (there’s a super-nerdy Greek joke for you)—but if the ministry survival rate means anything, at the very least it means that there are many who understand the pastorate in such a way as to believe that anyone could do it, only to then discover the foolishness of such thinking. For too many, the pastorate is seen as a introvert’s dream career—a quiet, secluded, air-conditioned desk job that requires very little heavy lifting apart from old, dusty books in order to prepare a thirty-minute lecture each week about how everyone else is wrong.

But that make-believe world gets shattered into pieces once ministry begins. Ministry is messy. Even the best weeks require hard work and grit and discipline. Even the best weeks demand that we say “No” to certain opportunities in order to maximize our time and fulfill our vocation. But during those weeks, we get to see lives changed by the very gospel we preach, we get to hear stories of our church members leading others to Christ, we get to experience the Body of Christ caring for one another.

Other weeks—tough weeks—we experience the muck. That family that you thought was rock solid and you were planning to invite them to lead a small group? It turns out that they’re on the brink of divorce. That person that you’ve been counseling each week, patiently removing barrier after barrier between them and Christ, learns of the hatred of some other believers and decides that the way of Christ isn’t the path he desires. That new Christian stumbles . . . in a massive way. Your family needs more of your attention than usual. And to top it all off, you have no idea what to preach on Sunday and your prayers seem to bounce off of the ceiling.

What then?

How do you minister through the muck?

Whatever you do, do it from the heart, as something done for the Lord and not for people, knowing that you will receive the reward of an inheritance from the Lord. You serve the Lord Christ.
Colossians 3:23–24


Slaves, obey your human masters with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as you would Christ. Don’t work only while being watched, as people-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, do God’s will from your heart. Serve with a good attitude, as to the Lord and not to people, knowing that whatever good each one does, slave or free, he will receive this back from the Lord.
Ephesians 6:5–8

Whatever is happening down in the muddy trenches of ministry, it is imperative that we remember that we are not serving ourselves, nor are we merely serving our church members; we serve the Lord Jesus Christ. And every activity we undertake, every ounce of effort we apply, has a singular telos—the glory of God. And in my experience, when the muck seems the deepest and the work seems the hardest, it comes as the result of my believing that the results of my efforts—and not the efforts themselves—are that which bring him glory. I mistakenly believe that I have to get it done to honor Christ.

And that simply isn’t true.

The results of our efforts rest in his hands. Why else would we ask him to bless our efforts? Why else do we come to him in prayer, asking that he give us success? Is it not because we know that, ultimately, the results are his arena?

So how do we minister through the muck?

We work to the glory of God and trust him with the results.