Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Pastor's Heart in Paul's Letters, 5

As of this past Tuesday, I have a new favorite passage from Paul's letters re: the pastor's heart. I had the privilege of hearing John Piper deliver a chapel address at Southern Seminary called "We Work with You for Your Joy" (2 Corinthians 1:24-2:4). Powerful. Fresh wine. Challenging.

Piper encouraged the seminarians and prospective pastors to tell the search committees and prospective congregations "I have a dangerous message for you: I'm here to work for your joy." Why would that be dangerous? Listen to the address.

He also spoke today, but I've not heard it yet. Go here to listen to the addresses (you'll need to scroll down a little).

Friday, March 23, 2007

The Pastor's Heart in Paul's Letters, 4

Why am I a pastor?

Why are you a pastor if you are one?

If you're not a pastor, why do you submit to one? Why do you love one as "your pastor"?

I suppose there are various answers one could give to these questions, ranging from the answers that grow out of practical circumstances to more profound spiritual reasons. If I had to give in one sentence why I am a pastor and not a policy wonk or a basketball coach or a garbage man or a teacher or a criminal or a full-time World Series of Poker wannabe... it might be this:

Having been loved by Christ, and having had that love supernaturally excite love in me for the Savior and love for His people, the Lord has put it in my heart and burdened me with a desire to love and give myself to Him and His people by watching over, teaching, and living with them.

At God's initiation and by His design--because following my own preferences and wisdom, I ran from pastoral ministry for a good little while, so I can't take credit--I earnestly want to be poured out, to be spent for the people of God.

Paul's letters helped clarify that for me. Seeing Paul's heart for the churches he corresponded with not only caused my heart to resonate with him but shaped my understanding of a pastor's heart... perhaps what it should be.

It was statements like:

"O Corinthians! We have spoken openly to you, our heart is wide open" (2 Cor. 6:11).

"You are in our hearts, to die together and to live together" (2 Cor. 7:3b).

I find these some of the most beautiful statements in the Word of God. The vision of reciprocal love between a faithful shepherd and loving sheep is sweet. Here's a man betrothed to Christ... which includes betrothal to the Lord's body, His people. Here's a man whose commitment and love for the church spanned this life and the next... to live together and to die together.

Here's how Paul put it to the saints in Thessalonica:
"For neither at any time did we use flattering words, as you know, nor a cloak for covetousness--God is witness. Nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, when we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, just as a nursing mother cherishes her own children. So, affectionately longing for you, we were well pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us" (1 Thess. 2:5-8).

It was contemplating this passage that settled my heart and mind in coming to the wonderful people of FBC Grand Cayman. Particularly v. 8: "affectionately longing for you, we were well pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but also our own lives." And here's the reason: "because you had become dear to us." The Lord had enlarged our hearts for the people here and filled it with affectionate longing, pleasure in preaching the gospel, and a desire to give our own lives to them.

Certainly not that my heart is by any means perfect or that there aren't times when my flesh seizes the reins... but I find it uncommonly sweet to be able to give my life to dear ones here, beloved in the Lord. And this example of Paul has become my desire for the pastorate the Lord has entrusted me with. For me, Paul's heart expressed in 2 Cor. and 1 Thess. is foundational to the pastor's heart: jofully self-giving affection for those Jesus has purchased and entrusted to their care.

So many pastors and congregations have found themselves with their hearts only slightly open. Pastors and congregations have at times completely closed their hearts to one another, speaking only guardedly and secretly. In some situations, the congregation has ceased to be dear to the pastor and vice-versa. What a mournful tragedy to live together and die together without mutual affection in the heart.

I pray that every church could be as the Macedonian churches who "first gave themselves to the Lord, and then to us (Paul and his companions) by the will of God" (2 Cor. 8:5). May the Lord be pleased to unite the hearts of pastors and congregations in uninhibited, holy affection each for the other--for their mutual blessing and the glory of Christ, the Chief Shepherd.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Pastor's Heart in Paul's Letters, 3

A boasting pastor is a hard thing to withstand.

A man in the pulpit that is taken with high estimations of himself and his efforts will shortly shipwreck the faith of others and perhaps crash on the jagged rocks of humiliation himself. Pride goes before a fall. God opposes the proud. It's horrifying to contemplate the opposition of God poured out against one of His ambassadors.

And, therefore, it's surprising to find the Apostle Paul boasting. If there is anything worse than a boasting pastor it's a boasting apostle.

However, what Paul boasts in makes all the difference. We may see one of his boasts in 2 Cor. 1:12--"For our boast is this: the testimony of our conscience that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you." Then the apostle moves on to say, "I hope you will fully acknowledge--just as you did partially acknowledge us, that on the day of our Lord Jesus you will boast of us as we will boast of you" (vv. 13b-14).

In this passage, two boasts are appropriate for the pastor.

First, conducting ourselves in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity by the Grace of God toward our people is a worthy "boast." That's the gist of verse 12. Paul could say that his conscience was clean when it came to his behavior both in the world and toward the Christians at Corinth.

I read and re-read this passage, and I ask myself, "Could I write to the congregation the Lord has put in my charge and say with a clean/agreeing conscience that my life in the world and especially my treatment of the congregation is marked by simplicity and godly sincerity?"

Can I with confidence say I deal with people with singleness of mind (simplicity)? Or, have I been duplicitous in some way? Does my conscience produce evidence of sincerity that comes from God? And is all of this amplified toward the congregation ("supremely so toward you")?

Certainly not apart from God's grace. For the apostle is aware that the semblance of these things can be manufactured by "earthly wisdom." Am I trying to "fake it 'til I make it," but still faking it. Is there anything of the power of God, not mere form, in my interaction with the world and the saints? The life the apostle is here "boasting" in is the life of God in the soul. It's the genuine article produced by the grace of God, not a form denying the power thereof.

At least two things seem necessary from verse 12. First, it's necessary that I am listening to my conscience as it inspects my actions and my motives. Severing the conscience is an egregious attack against the self and the saints. Repudiating conscience destroys the ground of confident "boasting;" perhaps this is why the unexamined life is not worth living. The unexamined life provides no testimony of conscience and therefore no evidence of simplicity and godly sincerity, no account of integrity that springs forth in joyful assurance.

Our lives need examining. And yet my pride wars against examination. Better to assume I'm okay and doing all things well. This is a challenging passage for me. I'm aware of the interactions where I'm tempted to take the low road of compromise, to fear man more than God, to seek comfort in this life rather than holiness. And conversely, I'm aware of how even my more zealous moments are sometimes salted with self-righteousness, arrogance, unforgiveness, and the hellacious "pleasure" I derive from being right. And I'm aware of the pride that even now says, "If you play the grace card, you're actually participating in cheap grace." Which brings me to the second thing that seems necessary.

Second, it's imperative that my conscience be shaped by the word of God. It's entirely possible to inspect our lives with a poorly informed or misinformed conscience. For some, the conscience is too sensitive. For others, it's filled with "earthly wisdom" but not the knowledge of God's grace in Christ. Still others have a conscience ordered by all kinds of standards and expectations that have nothing to do with what Christ requires of them. So, shaping the conscience by the word of God is as important as listening to the conscience in self-examination. It's how we know which grace is costly and which cheap, what's zeal according to knowledge and what is not, worthy boasting in Christ and worldly boasting in self.

A second boast: "on the day of our Lord Jesus you will boast of us as we will boast of you." There is to be on that Great Day a mutual boasting before the Lord between pastor and people. In this life and the next the pastor and the saint can expect to fellowship together. In this life, they were his commendation, epistles written on the heart by the Spirit of God (2 Cor. 3:1-3). And in the next life, raised together with Jesus, the apostle expected to be presented together with the saints at Corinth (4:14). This is ministry today in light of eternity.

And this is Corinth Paul is writing to! Despite all their terrible failures, elsewhere he could say that they were the seal of his apostleship!

Surely it must be in the pastor's heart, no matter the condition of his people, to live well before the world and his people and to boast together in heaven with his people. Over the years I've kept coming to this passage. As a pastor, I want to live this kind of life and I want to rejoice together with my people in mutual testimony of faithfulness and godliness on the Day of our Lord. I love Paul's heart and pray for one like it by God's grace.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Which Provokes More Awe: An Evangelical Church Service or the U.S. Marines?

Many have remarked on the absence of reverence, awe, majesty or a sense of the transcendent in typical evangelical services. A. W. Tozer, writing in The Knowledge of the Holy (1961), put it this way:

The church has surrendered her once lofty concept of God and has substituted for it one so low, so ignoble, as to be utterly unworthy of thinking, worshipping men. This she has done not deliberately, but little by little and without her knowledge; and her very unawareness only makes her situation all the more tragic. This low view of God entertained almost universally among Christians is the cause of a hundred lesser evils everywhere among us. A whole new philosophy of the Christian life has resulted from this one basic error in our religious thinking.

With our loss of the sense of majesty has come the further loss of religious awe and consciousness of the divine Presence. We have lost our spirit of worship and our ability to withdraw inwardly to meet God in adoring silence. Modern Christianity is simply not producing the kind of Christian who can appreciate or experience the life in the Spirit. The words, "Be still, and know that I am God," mean next to nothing to the self-confident, bustling worshipper in this middle period of the twentieth century.

This loss of the concept of majesty has come just when the forces of religion are making dramatic gains and the churches are more prosperous than at any time within the past several hundred years. But the alarming thing is that our gains are mostly external and our losses wholly internal; and since it is the quality of our religion that is affected by internal conditions, it may be that our supposed gains are but losses spread over a wider field.

In response to this absence of reverence in some evangelical services, some people have moved to high liturgical traditions because ritual provides for them that missing sense of reverence.

Well, what should we think when the U.S. Marines evoke more awe than a Christian service, even a Christian funeral? A thought-provoking comparison in Touchstone Magazine. (HT: Ray Van Neste by way of Jim Hamilton)

Around the Blog in 80 Seconds

The best statement on the blog I've read so far this week:
If I am committed to my sin above a humble, self-revealing honesty, then I can't rely on any accountability structure or loving friendships to expose my sin and protect my soul. I must remember that if I am to war against sin, I must labor to be embarassingly transparent.

(Read the whole thing: Two Painfully Learned and Immensely Important Lessons. HT: Justin)

I'd hate to be this guy: Oops! Techie wipes out $38 billion fund.

Humble Orthodoxy offers a helpful look at how to evaluate books before recommending them to others and ruining their souls. See here.

DG reprints an earlier article from Piper called "Being Loved and Being Hated." A brief excerpt: "Would you pray with me that hundreds among us would embrace being hated for the sake of love? If your driving motive in life is to be liked and loved, you will find it almost impossible to be a Christian. "

And from the DG blog, a listing of provoking and helpful quotes regarding television and our spiritual lives.

And Dan Edelen at Cerulean Sanctum wants to know what ever happened to the Holy Spirit in the church.

The Pastor's Heart in Paul's Letters, 2

In the last post, we began a series of reflections on the pastor's heart in the letters of Paul. Really, I'm just skimming some verses that have made a major impact on my own heart over the years. In my travel Bible are passages highlighted with an orange marker... a color I reserve for these verses that prick and prod and ply and pry my heart each time I consider them. We come to a second sch verse today.

If you were boiling pastoral ministry down to a word, what would it be?

A good number of candidates exist, I suppose. But one passage in Paul's letters has been formative for me. "This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy." (1 Cor. 4:1-2).

The pastor should be regarded as a servant of Christ and a steward of the mysteries of God. That's what Paul desired to be known as, and it seems fitting for every pastor as well.

But the part that's been blazed on my heart is verse 2-- "it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy," or "faithful" in some versions. Of all that might be demanded of stewards, it boils down to this one quality... faithfulness/trustworthiness. Am I worthy of my Lord's trust? Am I one who will carry out my charge with loyalty, constancy, devotion, and thoroughness? Will I keep my vows to the Lord, taken at ordination, to shepherd the flock of God and preach the gospel in season and out?

Our stewardship is measured by our faithfulness. Which makes you want to cry out with the Apostle, "Who is sufficient for these things?"

But what would our service be if it were not faithful or trustworthy? What would be the value of all our preaching and exhorting if we were not faithful to the Word of God? What kind of stewards would we be of the people of God were we not worthy of their trust in prayer? If we slept rather than watched over their souls, of what benefit would it be to the blood-bought children of God? Should we be pleased with ourselves if we only demonstrated fidelity to the commandments of Christ in 50% or 75% or 90% of the time?

I'm not advocating perfectionism here. I'm not here addressing our frailty and inability and corruption, as though we could escape those in this life. I'm interested in how 1 Cor. 4:2 addresses the pastor's heart, his motives, and how those motives work themselves out in his public and private life. In other words, is faithfulness or trustworthiness a defining or consuming part of how we approach the pastoral task as stewards?

Paul wished to be regarded as nothing more than a steward and servant of Christ Jesus. And in that role, he wanted to meet the one requirement of faithfulness. And boy, didn't he seem to give himself wholeheartedly to being faithful? It didn't matter whether the impending outcome was the conversion of hundreds or being stoned and left for dead, Paul sought to be loyal to His Lord and trustworthy in his ministry.

What about me? Am I wholehearted in my pursuit? Am I discharging the ministry entrusted to me?

One thing I'm certain of amidst all my failures and ambitions... trustworthiness isn't acquired by osmosis. It doesn't just ooze into the pastor's heart while he sleeps. The world, the flesh, and the devil conspire for a different result. So, faithfulness requires purpose, intention, reflection and deliberation.

I'm not always faithful. A few things break my heart more than realizing in some situation or decision or plan that I've been less than faithful. I rely on the Lord's grace and the pruning work of His Spirit in those times. And I've learned to ask myself some questions, to inspect my heart and mind, depending on the Spirit to show me my heart and to enlighten me by God's Word. A few that I ask:

1. To what extent is trustworthiness/faithfulness to Jesus Christ, the Head of the church, motivating or informing my ministry?
2. How might a faithful/trustworthy steward respond to this question or need?
3. What practices of my ministry (or the church) need strengthening or reformed in order to trustworthily handle the mysteries of God?
4. Who can I trust and depend on to encourage me in faithfulness to the Lord?
5. Where am I tempted to compromise with God's Word and the Gospel and why?
6. When is my claim to "faithfulness" really/likely a mask for inflexibility and impatience?
7. Have I properly (that is, in light of Scripture, the Lord's requirements, and pastoral practice) considered the implications/consequences of faithfulness or unfaithfulness in various situations? What toll is likely to be paid by this sheep or the church or my family if I'm not trustworthily stewarding the gospel of Christ in any particular situation? What is the likely result, good or bad, for faithfulness?

On that day, I greatly desire to meet my Savior, and for the people of my charge to meet our Savior, and hear Him say those lovely words: "Well done, my good and faithful servant."

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Pastor's Heart in Paul's Letters

For a couple of years now, the Lord has been forming and reforming my view of the pastoral ministry through the letters of the Apostle Paul. Obviously I'm not the first to be struck by Paul's writings in general and his view of the ministry in particular. But I count myself in the line of men who have been humbled, inspired, convicted, instructed and made hopeful by God's Word through Paul.

So, I'm going to spend a little time just meditating out loud (or on the blog anyway) about some of the things I am drawn to again and again, things that seem to me to be foundational to the pastor's heart, and that have become a large part of my hope/vision for pastoral ministry.

We start today with one of the first verses I ever memorized. I can recall where I was when I first read it, and it was one of those verses that I understood by God's Spirit immediately, as if (I know it's a cliche) I were struck by lightning. Romans 1:16--

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

I said I understood this verse right away. That's a bit of a mis-statement. I understood in that "deep knowing" sorta way that leaves you without doubt about the certainty and truthfulness of the thing, though you'd be peeling the layers of meaning for years. That's been my experience.

Here's what struck me right away:

1. Not ashamed. Paul was not ashamed. I was at the time... in subtle ways... ashamed. When I read this there was no doubt that I shouldn't be and that I wouldn't be any longer. The statement sounded to me as much a resolution as a statement of fact. Somehow just by reading this verse my faith instantly became profoundly and unabashedly public; its proclamation moved aggressively to the center of everything, or at least the proclamation of the gospel made its claim to the center of everything. The years that followed have been the outworking of that claim.

2. The gospel. I was a young Christian when I first read this verse and the fact that Paul was not ashamed of the gospel just screamed "know the gospel well!" It's quite easy to be "ashamed" of things you don't know well. The very state of not knowing puts you in a slightly cowering posture, provoking doubt and hesitancy. But knowing the gospel, knowing that it is the Truth... well that emboldens and strengthens.

3. The power of God for salvation. Here's the basis of Paul's resolution against shame--this message about Christ is itself power... God's power... entailing the glorious end called salvation. Power. The gospel is power. That demands pondering. The message, the good news, is itself explosive, potent, effectual. Recently I heard Canadian evangelist T.V. Thomas say that he thought the greatest hindrance to the gospel today is that many Christians no longer have confidence in the message. I think that's probably correct. But here we're confronted with this grand truth that the power of God resides like so much gunpowder inside the keg of the gospel! That demands confidence. And it was something like confidence that I remember overtaking me on that bright day back in N.C.

4. Salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. Salvation to everyone who believes. That's good news. Here's where my affection for the apostle Paul really grew. He intentionally related to others the applicability of the gospel to all peoples. Jew and Greek or Gentile. This was the primordial stuff of my view of the church. The same gospel saves all, and over the years I've been wrestling with how it unites (or should unite) all in the body of Christ, or at least how ethnicity shouldn't be an impediment to unity in this great salvation.

So, for ten years or so, Romans 1:16 has been shaping my view of the pastor's heart. The pastor is one who is not ashamed of the gospel, who builds his ministry on the gospel and relies on the gospel's power rather than worldly techniques, and who through the gospel has an expansive love for all people. There's much more that could be said about a pastor's heart, but the centrality of the gospel and confidence in its power should be in the marrow of the man.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Some Reflections on the Ligonier Conference

I’m thankful for the Ligonier webcast of the conference happening right now in Florida. I’m thankful for the opportunity to watch, listen and learn from some of the best apologetic, preaching, and theological minds in our day.

I’ve not been able to catch all the sessions, but what I have seen has been thought provoking. Just a couple of reflections so far, both from Piper’s sessions.

First, the Thursday evening talk on apologetics struck me again with the necessity of loving Jesus for who He is. Piper’s task was to define faith. And in his characteristic way, he went beyond typical definitions and analogies to underscore the indispensable place of affections for and highest valuation/esteem for Christ. Piper questioned whether a person really had faith if they had not received Christ, that is come to prize Christ above all things and for who He is instead of “receiving” Christ as an effective solution to fear, comfort, safety, escape from hell, etc.

Pastorally, I’ve often wondered about individuals who “confess” Christ but seem to have no genuine affections for Him. The number of people who say “I believe in him” as though assent were all there was to following Christ, and at the same time say or demonstrate that their affections reside elsewhere, is really quite concerning to me. It’s as though the gospel nestles in the ear or in the mind but doesn’t worm its way into the core, the heart, of the person.

And I was reminded of how many times I’ve been guilty of distinguishing between “head religion” and “heart religion” but construing the difference as a matter of whether or not “heart religion” was reflected in service to the church and various other outward displays that were supposed to indicate being “on fire for Christ.” I’m thankful for the ways that Piper and others have helped me draw, I think, a better distinction. The head may give intellectual assent, but true faith is a work of the Spirit that opens the blinded eye and stirs the heart of man with rejoicing, pleasure, and deep, centralizing affection for Jesus as He really is. The person with such a heart has “heart religion,” genuine saving faith.

Second, I was struck with Piper’s meditation on the effect of relativism on the use of language. Language when used to describe objective truth has a high, noble and glorious purpose. But he described how relativism is used to actually hide the truth, counterfeit reality and to evade real commitment and conviction. In a relativistic culture, language becomes ultimately about spin, about appearing to believe or hold the same truth but actually masking either shallow understanding or real denial of the truth.

It provoked me to think about the use of language in preaching, to be sure that my speech in the pulpit and outside the pulpit is plain and granite where the Truth is concerned. That doesn’t do away with the need to be loving, etc., but the Truth needs to be in al our speech.

I missed his first couple points in this sermon. But I caught a couple other effects of relativism. Relativism…
  • Cloaks greed in the guise of flattery.
    Cloaks pride in the guise of humility. “All over the country relativism is being sold in the currency of humility.”
  • Enslaves people. “If we create a kind of Christianity that says there is no truth we will simply create a kind of Christianity that colonizes slaves.”
  • Leads to brutal totalitarianism. “When relativism holds sway in a society over time sooner or later more and more people do what is right in their own eyes. And when enough people do what’s right in their own eyes we call it anarchy. There are only two solutions to anarchy. One is revival. Or a dictator.”

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Rest, Relaxation and Recreation

I'm tired this morning. I've been tired all week. And things appear to be getting busier. I think that's par for the course for pastors--and it's a peculiar joy to be able to give yourself to labor with eternal reward! But I'm still tired.

So, here's my question for fellow pastors... what do you do to rest? How do you keep things in balance?

Here's my question for non-pastors... what do you do to rest? How do you encourage your pastors to rest and maintain a good pace/balance?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Mother Bethel and Homosexuality

I'm going to turn my attention away from writing about reforming the African-American church for a while. The comments and engagement both on the blog and by email were thought-provoking and encouragement.

But one last piece of evidence for why we should be praying and urgently laboring for reform is this Black Church Summit recently held in Philadelphia. The first line in the press release:

"Newly out-as-gay former NBA player, John Amaechi will make a special guest appearance...."

A description of some of the conference's workshops:

"Some of the topics covered during the summit will include how to build effective HIV ministries; how to create gay affirming congregations in order to end spiritual homophobia; how to interpret scripture in regards to homosexuality...."

The conference is being hosted at Mother Bethel AME Church, the birthplace of the first independent African-American denomination in the country. I wonder what Richard Allen, Daniel A. Payne, Morris Brown and others in that denomination's rich history would think.

Actually, there's no wondering about it at all. They wouldn't recognize this as the church they founded, the gospel they preached, or the community they sought to build. It's a tragic betrayal of a rich and wonderful heritage.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Quotes for Monday

While skimming through Bridges' Christian Ministry again, several quotes jumped out at me. Some are quotes Bridges lifts from other saints. I hope they're an encouragement and challenge to you this Monday!

"The most effectual hindrances, therefore, to our work are those which impede our personal communion with the Lord. When the great enemy thus successfully intercepts our spiritual supplies, the work of God in our hearts, and connected with it, the work of God in our hands, languishes fromt eh want of its accustomed and needful support. We have great need to watch, lest public activity should be considered to atone for neglect of privated intercourse with God; and thus our profession should become a snare to ourselves, and divested of all spiritual savour to our flock" (Bridges, p. 150).

"Men frequently admire me, and I am pleased; but I abhor the pleasure that I feel" (Henry Martyn in Bridges, p. 153).

"They are not our best friends, that stir the pride of our hearts by the flattery of their lips. The graces of God in others (I confess) are thankfully to be owned, and under discouragements and temptations to be wisely and modestly spoken of; but the strongest Christians do scarcely show their own weakness in any one thing more than they do in hearing their own praises. Christian! thou knowest thou carriest gunpowder about thee.--Desire those that carry fire, to keep at a distance from thee. It is a dangerous crisis, when a proud heart meets with flattering lips. Faithful, seasonable, and discreet reproofs are much more safe for us, and advantageous to the mortification of sin in our souls" (p. 153, footnote 1).

"Verily, it is the common danger and calamity of the Church, to have unregenerate and unexperienced Pastors, and to have so many men become preachers, before they are Christians; to be sanctified by dedication to the altar as God's Priests, before they are sanctified by hearty dedication to Christ as his disciples; and so to worship an unknown God, and to preach an unknown Christ, an unknown Spirit, an unknown state of holiness and communion with God, and a glory that is unknown for ever. He is like to be but a heartless preacher, that hath not the Christ and grace that he preacheth in his heart" (Richard Baxter, p. 155-156).

"Like John the Baptist, we should point out the Saviour to our people from our own perception of his glory and love" (Bridges, p. 158).

"We cannot live by feeding others; or heal ourselves by the mere employment of healing our people; and therefore by this course of official service, our familiarity with the awful realities of death and eternity may be rather like that of the grave-digger, the physician, and the soldier, than the man of God, viewing eternity with deep seriousness and concern, and bringing to his people the profitable fruit of his contemplations" (Bridges, p. 163).

"The leaven of Antinomianism is indeed most congenial wiht the corruption of the heart; and its deadly influence is but too apparent in the inconsistent lives of its professors" (Bridges, 227).

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Around the Blog in 80 Seconds

John Piper has written a moving account of his time with his father as the elder Piper went home to be with the Lord. I'm giving God praise for such a faithful evangelist, husband and father in William S.H. Piper.

Mark Dever has some well-deserved words of praise for Don Carson. Carson's forthcoming book sounds really interesting as well.

Speaking of Dever, the 9Marks crew continues its work on elders in the new issue of 9News Journal. I'm really looking to diving into Lig's piece on training elders and into the 4-parter on lessons in leadership.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Can the Predominantly African-American Church Be Reformed? 8

The short answer is "yes."

The longer answer is: "but we can't start by assuming that what is popularly referred to as the 'Black church' is a true church by any historical definition. So, yes, but reforming her is closer to reviving her and may mean the end of the 'Black church' is we know her."

But having said all of that, the people of God have every reason to trust that He will beautify and reform His people, His church. And there are encouraging signs of reform already available to us.

Tyrannus Hall is a pastor development initiative launched by Elliott Greene. The effort is currently working in four cities across the United States. We should pray that others would create similar efforts and that much support would be given to this work.

The Council of Reforming Churches (site under development) is a new cooperative organization dedicated to networking like-minded people and resources in the cause of strengthening the local church. Many of you will know Anthony Carter who blogs at Non Nobis Domine and brothers Michael Leach and Lance Lewis. They are laboring together to launch this effort. Networks of reform-minded African-American pastors are rare, in my experience. There are lots of personal relationships, but these can only benefit from a more organized symposium of sharing and learning.

The growth of conferences with this concern and theme is encouraging. Ricky Armstrong's efforts with the Miami Pastors' Conference at Glendale Baptist Church and Lou Love's and New Life Church's annual conference in the Chicago area are two events that have been growing. In addition to these, I'm hopeful that more reform-minded African-Americans will participate in the host of conferences offered by our brethren in predominantly white organizations (see Challies' list of conferences).

This is a sampling of what I pray are early tremors in a seismic shift in the church world.

But why should anyone care that the African-American church be reformed?

There are many reasons I suppose. Folks will have varied interests. But here is the one that grips me.

In the first post, I suggested that at its best, African-American Christianity was perhaps the most complete expression of Christian discipleship in American history. We put it this way:

"The African-American church" was once the home of the purest form of Christianity practiced on American soil and she can be the fulcrum of reform in not only the African-American Christian world but the larger Christian world as well."

I really believe that bit about the "fulcrum of reform." Though it's rarely spoken, in many people's minds, the African-American church is the weakest member of the evangelical family. She's like that cousin who can't seem to stay out of trouble with the law, who lives a wanton life and always looks to be bailed out by the rest of the family.

I don't know if she is the weakest part of the family, but I do know that even in her weakness she is a powerful behemoth. The problem, in my mind, is she exercises that influence in all the wrong places and for all the wrong causes. If we could steer her back to the Gospel, back to biblical faithfulness, back to a concern for discipleship and growth... the landscape of American Christianity and culture could change quite dramatically.

In earlier posts, I've lamented the too-close connection between racial identity, culture and the church. I still think that's a problem to be addressed. But looking at the diamond from another vantage point, there is great opportunity here as well. African Americans, particularly Hip Hop and youth cultures, exert a lot of influence on the cultural scene in the U.S. and worldwide. While riding through a quiet street in southeast Asia a couple weeks ago, what did I see tagged on the wall of some villa? Grafitti styling of "G-Unit" and "50 Cent"! Even in the Middle East Hip Hop has pull!

The destiny of the wider church and world culture is more connected to the spiritual condition and outlook of teenage and 20-something young people in Brooklynn and Long Beach than we can imagine. Now, if we care about the "culture wars," especially those involving young people, if we're concerned about slowing the tide of materialism, violence, and sexual immorality, for example, we must be concerned about the state of the African American church. I can't think of a platform that has as much ready potential for engaging these issues and the cultural trendsetters than the African-American pulpit. But she has to do so from a position of biblical integrity and strength, not a pragmatic position that settles for "gettin' along" with the culture.

I think the benefits of reforming the African-American church are exponentially more than we can imagine. She is a great fulcrum for change... but she desperately needs fixing.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Can the Predominantly African-American Church Be Reformed? 7

Well, it's time to revisit and complete this series of posts. Lord willing, in this post, I'll offer some preliminary thoughts or proposals to advancing reform. In tomorrow's post, D.V., I want to make a case for why the African-American church may be the fulcrum in a much larger reform movement.

Here's what I'm assuming in the strategies below:
A. We want churches committed to the faithful preaching of the gospel and the teaching of sound doctrine.
B. We want pastors who are well-suited for the task, who have a high view of pastoral ministry and the local church.
C. We are laboring intentionally for not just the African American church but the entire church, which means our focus though starting in one ethnic church is ultimately multi-ethnic.
D. We want to reform the church such that her practice is increasingly in line with the Word of God, her people increasingly reflecting the likeness of Christ, her mission is all nations in scope, and her witness vibrant and loving.

How do we go from where we are today to where we'd like to be? Here's a brief list of proposals--five P's of Reform: Pastors writing, Pastor training, Popular education, Partnerships, and Planting churches. I welcome everyone to jump in with thoughts--a lot of thought and exchange is needed on this issue.

1. Solid African-American pastors must write. This, I think, is the cornerstone of the reform strategy. Historically, African-American pastors have not been writing pastors. Lost to us, then, are volumes upon volumes of sermons and addresses that would be helpful in defining and defending the faith and shaping the church. In that void has stepped writing academics, almost all of whom are advancing a theologically and socially liberal agenda. They've created a certain zeitgeist that downplays the biblical gospel, elevates social and political concern, and reduces the local church to a service organization. All of this is wrapped in a rather selective reading of African-American history and provides the default understanding of the Black Church. Unless the Lord raises up pastors committed to writing (sermon manuscripts, essays, lectures, even blog posts) we won't have a legacy to leave following generations and we will not counter the prevailing message in any sustained, critical, and effective way. Right now, if you're in seminary somewhere and you want to read works by African-American authors, 75% or more of what's available to you will not be evangelical or Reformed. But if we can leave a written legacy of collected sermons by sound expositors, critical works engaging the issues of our day, sound pastoral instruction and reflection, commentaries, etc., we can define for subsequent generations what 'good preaching,' pastoral ministry, sound exegesis and interpretation, and the mission of the church looks like. That's done by writing. We must write.

2. We must take over pastoral training. This can happen in a couple of ways. First, we must recover the idea that it is the local church that trains pastors. The professionalization of the pastorate has meant that men are shipped off to the local HBCU divinity school or seminary and received a thorough-going liberal education. If theologically conservative, evangelical and Reformed pastors would reverse this trend, perhaps the easiest way to do so is to organize and operate internship and pastoral training programs housed at the local church. The advantages are numerous: 1. Cost would at least be comparable if not cheaper than sending the would-be pastor off to school; 2. could more easily train the non-traditional student (the 40 year old with a family to feed); 3. the training would occur in the practical setting of the local church, so folks could both learn and see the church at work; and 4. the instruction would be consistent with the theological distinctives of the local church. I understand that this would be more difficult in denominational settings with specific educational requirements. But those who have the lattitude to do this should consider it prayerfully. If we could organize 6-12 such churches around the country, we could slowly begin raising up a crop of pastors for succeeding generations. We should check out Capitol Hill's internship program, Bethlehem's pastors' institute, and Sovereign Grace's pastors' college--three models for equipping future generations.

In addition to the above, we need more solid pastors to consider teaching posts at area seminaries and universities. Not as alternatives to pastoral ministry, but as an extension of that ministry. Honestly, I need more faith to be able to imagine that historically black divinity schools and seminaries could experience the kind of resurgence we saw in the SBC a couple decades ago. I believe, and I'm asking the Lord to help my unbelief. But reform must also happen at these schools.

3. Popular education. We need to figure out a way to provide air cover for those soldiers on the ground laboring for reform. That "air cover" comes, I think, with popular education. How many of you reading this post came to a Reformed understanding of the faith through Ligonier Ministries--their radio broadcast or TableTalk magazine? My journey began there. Well, how does Ligonier see themselves? As providing education somewhere between Sunday school and seminary. In other words, it's a solid effort to reach the average Christian with educational resources that create the ambient atmosphere for growth and change. We need to do two things, I think. One, we need to figure out a way to get more Ligonier material and other material like it to our congregations. We don't have to replicate everything. Use the good stuff already out there; introduce our people to great teachers and their resources rather than letting the local Christian bookstore stock their shelves with the cotton candy that sells and passes as Christian literature these days. Two, on some issues really pressing to African-American churches, we've got to figure out a popular education and dissemination strategy for addressing those issues. The Miami Pastors' Conference and the annual conference in Chicago are good starts. We've got to promote these and add other opportunities (again, I think written is critical) for the average Christian to be exposed to reform issues.

4. Partnerships. We must partner with "non-Black churches" (I hate the label!) in the pursuit of reform. There are like-minded brethren across the ethnic spectrum that we should be locking arms with in this effort. My guess is there are not two better persons to talk seminary reform with than Al Mohler and Paige Patterson. Shame on us if we don't learn from them. I've already mentioned Piper, Dever, and C.J. as models for training pastors. We've got to beg, borrow, and steal from their work to speed along our efforts. The FUBU (for us, by us) mentality among African Americans is killing us! We need to recognize it as immature, proud and antithetical to the unity of the body of Christ. And after repenting of it, we need to get on with the gettin' on and learn from, accept resouces and help from, and trust others.

5. Plant churches. Here, I mean the establishment of more multi-ethnic churches that leave behind some of the baggage we're laboring under in historically ethnic churches. We need a both/and strategy. On the one hand, we should work for reform in predominantly African-American churches. And on the other, we should be unapologetic in the creation of new churches that better reflect the unity and diversity of the body of Christ across ethnic lines. We should oppose replicating in new churches the issues and problems we all currently lament.

And while we're on church planting, not every group that goes out from our churches should be seeking to start a new church. Part of our "church planting" strategy (perhaps the major part?) in countries like the U.S., should be sending teams from predominantly white, Asian, Black, or Hispanic churches to join already existing churches made up predominantly of some other ethnic group. We don't want to overwhelm another congregation with a mass of folks and cause them to feel "invaded" or "taken over." But, a slow trickle of folks to another congregation, integrating their lives there, diversifying the local body, contributing to the health of a congregation would be a good strategy in my mind.

Thoughts? Help? Partners?

Friday, March 02, 2007

Reflections on the Recent Trip to Southeast Asia

Well, I'm trying to get back in stride here at the church and with life in Cayman. It's been a great couple of days back. I returned to the same loving family and congregation that sent me off nearly ten days ago. It's wonderful to return to such love and care.

I also returned in time to see a precious young couple from our church leave for a life of overseas service in the Gospel. We had their ordination service the Sunday we left for southeast Asia. And yesterday, we met them at the airport for a time of prayer and send-off. The young man look at me and said, "I feel like we're tag-team wrestling for the Gospel as you're returning and we're leaving." I love the image... tagging one another, taking turns combatting darkness with the light of the Gospel. And it's such a tremendously humbling, encouraging, faith-building, worthy, sad and joyous thing to see men and women give their lives for the Gospel in so committed a fashion. What a privilege.

The 10 days or so in southeast Asia were packed! The first night there was the night of the Christian-Muslim dialogue. We were discussing the question "Who Is Jesus Christ? In Light of the Bible and the Qu'ran". This is a topic that the muslims insisted on... and so we happily obliged! As far as the folks there are aware, this is the first time that this question has been openly discussed in a public forum by Christians and Muslims in any country in that region. A couple hundred folks (90% Muslim) turned out on just three days advertisement. Nearly 100 ESV Bibles were distributed. And to be sure, this is the first time most of them have heard the Gospel proclaimed in person.

The rest of the week was a blur! We spent several days interacting with college students on two campuses in the region. I had the privilege of preaching two sermons and doing a Q&A session on the dialogue at a local church. It was wonderful rejoicing in the Gospel with about a 1,000 believers from all nations in that region! It was just powerful looking out on so clear a manifestation of the Gospel's power as reflected in the tremendous diversity and unity of that body in Christ. And we ended the trip with a church-sponsored conference on evangelism. T.V. Thomas, an evangelist who now resides in Regina, Canada, served as the keynote. Due to another speakers' illness, the privilege of pinch-hitting on the topic "How to and how not to witness to Muslims" fell to me. That was a lot of fun.

Aside from the joy of serving with brothers and sisters there, I've left southeast Asia still processing several impressions and thoughts. Without much elaboration and in no particular order, here they are:

1. Islam is not impregnable. The Lord is at work! We need to pray for more laborers and that they would be bold to open their mouths with the gospel as they ought, but we really need to drop any impression that Islam is a steel door shut tight to the Gospel. It certainly is nothing of the sort.

2. There are many who are paying high costs to follow Jesus. Being there and interacting with a number of people who have come to faith in Christ out of Muslim backgrounds really blazed that across my mind. Our conversations weren't about whether God wanted them to take this or that job or NPP or emerging/emergent. They were counting the costs of telling family and friends that they were followers of the Lord--costs that ranged from being disowned to being killed by those same family and friends. To see their faith and commitment in such circumstances impressed upon me the shallowness of my own service to and identification with the Lord.

3. In the words of Piper, "risk is right." There's no two ways about it. It is good and right for us to take bold, faith-filled risks for God's glory and the spread of His name to all nations. And in point of fact, we're the only ones who can safely take such risks because we actually risk nothing eternal and can only receive glory with our Savior.

4. The Gospel is the power of God. Be confident in it. T.V. Thomas at one point in the evangelism conference stated that he thought the greatest risk to the gospel was that so many were not confident in it. I think he's on to something there. Romans 1:16 is still true. What vascillates is our confidence and reliance upon that truth.

5. I mentioned this earlier, but I was struck afresh by the glories of God revealed in His church. And I'm struck with the rightness of a church comprised of people from every nation united in their worship of the one true God. The church is a secondary doctrine, but the life of the church together is anything but secondary! There is a difference between the importance of the doctrine (formal systematic and biblical statements) and the living, abiding thing itself. And doing the living, abiding thing well is of utmost importance

6. I fear too much and am too often in fear.

7. Regard no man from a worldly point of view. My friend Mack, who also spoke at the evangelism conference, did a fabulous job of expounding 2 Cor. 5. I was convicted at how often I think of men in fleshly terms, and how often that prevents me from regarding them from God's vantage point, and how often that causes me to bottle up the Gospel and love from them. How easy it is to see the beards, the robes and head gear, and to think of them with something less than God's viewpoint. Lewis' words kept ringing in my head: "You have never seen a mere mortal." Amen. And I need to stop regarding men from a worldly viewpoint

8. Hold the rope. You all will know the famous story of William Carey and Andrew Fuller. Carey went to India to reap a Gospel harvest and Fuller stayed behind to excite support for the missions effort. Fuller's words: "We saw that there was a gold mine in India, but it seemed almost as deep as the center of the earth. Who will venture to explore it? "I will go down," said Mr. Carey to his brethren, "but remember that you must hold the ropes." We solemnly engaged to do so; nor while we live, shall we desert him."

9. Darkness is really dark indeed. This was so evident in some of the conversations I had with Muslim friends. They were lost in the darkness of their own minds and hearts. Their reasoning was confused, proud, and self-serving. This, of course, was not because they were Muslims but because they are like all of us who once walked according to the ways of this world, according the prince of the air, as children of wrath. That darkness is deeply dark and nothing but the light of Christ can pierce it. See #4.

10. Love is necessary. On the plane ride back, I began reaing Alexander Strauch's little book, Leading with Love. So much of the ministry in southeast Asia and the ministry in the local church would be "clanging cymbals" if it lacked love. At times, the Lord allowed me to see plainly when I was moved with love and when I was moved with pride or fleshly comfort. I could hear the clanging by God's grace. I'm struck by how love for Christ, His people, and the lost are so essential to everything. And I'm struck by how much farther I have to go in having and demonstrating the love of Christ.

We'll know in eternity what this labor produces to the glory of God. But right now, I'm thankful to all of you who sent notes of encouragement and to all of you who prayed for the trip. And right now, I'm more sure than ever that the Gospel ministry is the most important service to mankind and that our selling all for this great treasure is the wisest investment. May the Lord bear much fruit!

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Life Is Stranger Than Fiction

I've just returned from almost two weeks in southeast Asia. I was going to write a brief summary of the trip with some reflections, but this article (Sharpton's Ancestor Was Owned by Thurmond's) is the first thing I saw in my email box! I'm pondering this in light of all the recent posts on race, Christianity and church... seems we really are closer than we think... and real life really is stranger than fiction.

For once, Sharpton looks stunned and silenced.