Monday, December 18, 2006

What A Good Pastor Is To Do, 9

"Practice these things, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress" (1 Timothy 4:15).

I've been "struck" by the rather strong words the apostle uses in this section of the letter in his instruction and encouragement to Timothy. "Devotion" appears several times throughout the chapter, whether it's the devotion that some will show to "deceitful spirits" or the contrasting devotion that Timothy is to have to public Scripture reading, exhortation and teaching. Also, Timothy is to "train" himself in godliness, to toil and strive. The image of sweaty exertion is strong. The ministry is labor. It's work. If we approach it thinking of ease and self-centered convenience, we will be run over and flattened by the rushing traffic of responsibility, hardship, difficulty, sin, disappointment, apparent failure (ours and others), death, disease, and all the other things that accompany fallen human life. Ministry is labor.

And like any labor, it requires routine, trial and improvement. Paul says to Timothy "practice these things." By these things I take him to mean the things that he mentioned in the previous verses:
  • Warning the people of false teachers;
  • Avoiding false doctrine and myths;
  • Training himself in godliness;
  • Hoping on the living God;
  • Commanding and teaching;
  • "Keeping his head up" as a young pastor;
  • Setting an example in life;
  • Public reading of Scripture, exhorting and teaching again; and
  • Using his gifts.
At the end of this litany, Paul says "practice" and "devote yourself" to them. I take this to mean, both from the text and from my own experience, that some or all of this will not come naturally to pastors. We will find ourselves perhaps consistent and capable at some things, while tending toward lack and difficulty in others. If we think all is to be easy, we will despair of ever "being fruitful." And if we think that all is to be difficult, we may never even try, neglecting our gifts and calling, and failing to see the grace of God in both our successes and our difficulties. Focus, a good and godly focus, on the correct things is crucial.

One way to maintain a proper focus is to realize that ministry takes practice. It takes concentration, meditation, action, and evaluation. And good practice requires strong devotion. Anyone with a child who begged to play a musical instrument knows what I'm talking about. My high school basketball coach always chimed, "You will play the way you practice." It goes without saying that our practices were rigorous affairs. And we probably watched as much film of our practice as we did our games. We were to be focused, prepared, on task, and this is critical... willing to be coached or evaluated. All of that comes under the header of "practice." If we take Allen Iverson's attitude toward practice (sorry non-sports fans), our ministries will stall, lag, falter and decay and we will not win the prize, because we lack the necessary preparation, focus and evaluation.

Some thoughts about "practice" in ministry.

1. Approach the study as though it were the game.

The study is not optional. We will pastor the way we practice. In the study, we're to be running the routines and plays that make our "game time" performance smooth, efficient and effective. When my study if off, so is the rest of my game eventually. My counseling isn't as sharp or rigorously biblical as it should be. I find myself at a loss for how to respond to things I know I know. When my study is off, my discipling of other men tends to be shallower. When my study is off, my preaching is more self-reliant and wrongly emotional. I can preach to some effect, deliver more-or-less wise counsel, and come alongside men when my study is off. But if I do, it will sooner or later show up in the "game" of their real lives; I may be eloquent but I will not be useful. A good pastor needs to approach the study as though it were game time because "game speed" in ministry requires someone that is focused, prepared, and well coached.

2. Find yourself a good coach.

This is essential. There is no deserted island like that of pastoral ministry. For many of us, being on the island alone is lonely; some of us are just find with our own company. But for all of us, the deserted island creates a most tragic condition: little or no evaluation of our work. We're left to the cruel clutches of self-evaluation, which is notoriously one-sided. Few of us offer balanced appraisals of ourselves. We're prone to fall off one side or the other--either everything is great and everyone else needs to get on board, or everything is terrible and the sky is falling. Neither is accurate. And neither is good evaluation. A good coach, a godly older man in the ministry, a godly and discerning peer in the ministry, who will give us unvarnished but loving feedback on our habits of thinking, our preaching, our counseling, our services is essential. To practice, as Paul says here, we need to "watch film" with someone who knows the plays and can point out strengths and weaknesses. A good pastor seeks that kind of feedback. He meets up with other pastors for this purpose.

3. Cultivate humility.

Since I'm working on this myself, let me just make one observation and one recommendation. My observation of my own heart and mind teaches me that this is harder than it sounds. Pride is a hydra-headed monster that asserts and inserts itself in so many diverse ways and at so many varied times. At times it can feel a little like trying to nail Jell-o to a wall. Warring against it, for me, will be life-long. I have some imperfect knowledge of my own heart... and from what I can see, pride has deep roots there. Given my observation of my own heart, one suggestion. I would urge every pastor to get to know the Sovereign Grace pastors in their area. Spend time with them. See how they build accountability into the very fabric of their churches. Watch how they model warring against pride and cultivating humility. C.J.'s book, Humility: True Greatness, is a must-read, but walking with some of these men is even better. If you don't live near any Sovereign Grace churches... move! Just kidding :-) Look around the area very intentionally and carefully for men who are evidently and universally regarded as humble. They're probably not leading the new, hip, fast growing church in the area. They're probably laboring quietly in relatively anonymity... which is probably partially why they're on speaking terms with humbleness of heart. Cultivate humility by watching these men, following them as they follow Christ, and confessing/exposing your pride to the light of Christ's face. The practice and the coaching will not be the aid it's meant to be, if we're not teachable and able to receive godly feedback... in other words, if we're not humble.

Well, a good pastor does all of this, we're told, "so that all may see [his] progress." A couple observations to conclude.

1. If all are seeing the good pastor's progress, it suggests that his people already knew some of his imperfections and flaws. A good pastor must delight in that! It's liberating to know that others know you are not "da man." You can go on with the project of being a fallen creature redeemed by grace. Don't cover your faults, wisely, with godly edification in view, confess them. Let the people know you had a life before Christ, and that since coming to Christ, you've discovered how much you need to grow in grace and holiness. They know that. Remind them of it, and in most cases you will find added liberty and grace, especially if we extend the same to our people.

2. A good pastor is to be progressing. That's obvious, I know, but it's helpful to state it. Growth is normal in the Christian life, and that's no less true for the good pastor. We should be growing. If we're not, we should be exploring potential reasons with our coaches and trusted saints. We should pray fervently for a reversal of course and pick up good books like Don Whitney's Ten Questions to Diagnose Your Spiritual Life or Octavius Winslow's Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul. A good pastor is to grow and to aim himself at personal growth. On that point, a good pastor would work to make sure that the church's budget reflects this desire for growth by supporting participation in a couple of great conferences a year (check out Challies for an excellent list) and by offering a good "book budget" to fill out the library and reading diet.

3. A good pastor's growth is to be seen. "All" are to see his progress. I think this is part of what it means to set a good example. A good pastor wants his people to grow and so he should grow himself. This is the purpose statement for why a good pastor practices and is devoted, "so all may see his progress." Perhaps this suggests that one thing we should hear at the doors after service or in conversation with people is that they can see how we've grown over time with them. Now, of course, this means good pastors need to stay in one place so that people will have time to see the progress. But having stayed, folks should be able to see his growth in godliness, grace, preaching, spiritual strength, love, faith, and the other things Paul calls to attention in this passage.

Let us be devoted and practice the essentials of the ministy so that we might grow and set a good example for our people.

1 comment:

John said...

We all need to be, in his second analogy at the end of verse 7, trained for godliness. We are trained for godliness like an athlete is trained for competition. Exercise yourself for God, for a reverence toward God in which the conscience is still sensitive to His slightest move, in which our spiritual ears are tuned to His whispers. Train to be reverent, that mingling of fear and love that dare not turn away from His leading, that dare not toy with sin, that keeps drawing you back, and setting your hope on the Lord. It begins with the revolution of Christian conversion from self-centeredness to God-centeredness and continues in a life of contrite submission to Him. You give thanks for every meal not because you want to show off to people in a restaurant how religious you are but because you really believe that your food is a gift from God. You read your Bible, pray, attend worship and Sunday School not because you are building up a record with God that you think you can trust in but because you really want to be trained to be godly, you want to make the “progress” he writes about in verse 15, to grow. This is what church is for, as the Apostle Paul himself describes it in that last paragraph, from verses 11-16. There are at least eight commands there, coming in rapid succession, like bullets from a machine gun. They all tell Timothy what he needs to be doing to make the church into what it is supposed to be, a gymnasium of godliness, a place where people go to be trained to be reverent before God, to be made more like the Lord and to worship Him sincerely, to glorify God. If you want to come and just chat and have everyone accept you as you are in your sin, without challenge, without accountability, you’ve come to the wrong place. You might want to try one of the bars in town. That isn’t the church. We are a gymnasium of godliness. It is a place you go to be changed.

There are two elements to this gymnasium of godliness that are necessary to make it effective. We need two things. The word and the witness. We need the Word of God preached and taught. That’s why I am doing what I am doing right now. First, in verse 11, “command and teach these things.” In verse 13, we are to devote ourselves to the public reading of scripture, to encouragement to obey it, and to teaching, to exposition, explaining the meaning of scripture. The Word nourishes us, it trains us. We cannot be a gymnasium of godliness without it. And we need the witness, the example, of godly lives. In verse 12, he tells Timothy not to be intimidated by older people who won’t be trained but instead simply to keep up the good example in every area of life: in words and actions, in “love” (the pre-eminent Christian grace), in trustworthiness, “in purity”, Christian self-control.

We are to have a culture of high expectations in our church, especially in our leaders, where we see practically, in the lives, the attendance, the punctuality, the eager earliness, that we really are reverent, that we really believe that the Word and worship of God is the most important thing in life. The only way we can be a gymnasium where reverence is exercised and strengthened is if we expect each other to live with a passion for God. Because our expectations determine the behavior we aspire to. If we don’t have the example, if we don’t have the witness in actual practice, we then pull down with our lives what we lift up with our words. And we eventually become not a training room for reverent, worshipful lives but a lounge for indifferent, cool religion.

Hence, we must keep a close watch, he tells us in verse 16, over both ourselves and our teaching. Our lives and our doctrine. It is not good enough to have either doctrine or lives supposedly right and the other neglected. Both are intertwined. Inseparable. And only by getting both right can we be a place where people are trained for godliness, where we will be saved and we will bring to salvation those who see and hear us. Now, it is not that we can build a religion of theology and practice, orthodoxy and orthopraxy, that will save us and gain merit for others. We do not earn our own or anyone else’s salvation but we do show our salvation is alive with our works and so commend the gospel to others. Salvation always originates not in us but only in the grace of God. Nevertheless, the reality of our salvation has to be demonstrated in good works of love. We are saved through faith alone but faith that saves is never alone. That’s why Paul tells us to ‘continue to workout’ our salvation with fear and trembling. We come to church so we can “workout” spiritually and then work out our salvation outside, in the world, at home, at work.