Gordon Fee’s Admonition to Preachers – Don’t Become “Professional”

Another post from Listening to the Spirit in the Text by Gordon Fee. Fee’s admonition is on the danger of ministers getting out of touch with God and their task becoming routine and “professional” rather than seeing ministry as a spiritual and vibrant activity,

“I regularly tell students: Have the touch of God on your life. Live in fellowship with him; be among those who cry out with the Psalmist, ‘my soul and my flesh long for you’; ‘O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you. My soul thirsts for you; my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.’ If those who teach and preach God’s Word, which preaching must be based on solid exegesis of the text, do not themselves yearn for God, live constantly in God’s presence, hunger and thirst after God – then how can they possibly bring off the ultimate goal of exegesis, to help to fashion God’s people into genuine Spirituality?

A great danger lurks here, you understand, especially for those who have been called of God to serve the church in pastoral and teaching roles. The danger is to become a professional (in the pejorative sense of the word): to analyze texts and to talk about God, but slowly to let the fire of passion for God run low, so that one does not spend much time talking with God. I fear for students the day when exegesis becomes easy; or when exegesis is what one does primarily for the sake of others. Because all too often such exegesis is no longer accompanied with a burning heart, so that one no longer lets the texts speak to them. If the biblical text does not grip or possess on’e own soul, it will likely to very little for those who hear.

All of this to say, then, that the first place that exegesis and Spiritual interface is in the exegete’s own soul – that the aim of exegesis is Spirituality, which must be what the exegete brings to the exegetical task, as well as being the ultimate aim of the task itself.”

Few ministers are unaware of this point. It is just important to be reminded of it time and time again. Keeping our heart connected to God in ministry is essential to longevity, to growth and to effectiveness. The danger of routine ministry is great. One thing that helps keep ministers from getting in a rut is to continuously remember that God is working in us and through us to make an eternal difference in the lives of others…that is hardly ordinary or routine! Remembering that and living in light of that is the challenge.

The Real Agenda of Advertising & God’s Counter-Narrative

The goal of advertising is to convince you that you need something that is non-essential to your survival. 100% of commercials are about non-necessities. Why? Who has to advertise something everyone actually has to buy to survive? Right? So by the very nature of commercials, they are trying to sell you something you can live without, otherwise they wouldn’t need to advertise it because you would have to purchase it eventually anyway. The trick in advertising is to take these non-essentials and make them appear to be essential.

The underlying narrative of some advertising is that we aren’t good enough unless with have X, Y, and Z. They are selling a narrative, often even more than they are selling a product. That narrative is often that you haven’t made it until you dress like this, own this, or drive that. That is how they make these things appear to be essential when they aren’t.

God tells us we have inherent value apart from the products we own. We are made in the image of God. What is more God also tells us that he has already provided everything we actually need! Christian – you are redeemed by the blood of Christ. Nothing is more important than the love God has for you. Bottom line – God is enough. God satisfies. So we find contentment only through Christ…in spite of the messages of discontent the world sends us every minute of every day.

Spiritual Transformation: More Information is Not the Answer

The Jews had the Law for 1300 years before Christ came. There were all kinds of details in the Law about how to live, what to do in various situations, and how to maintain holiness and deal with sin. As we know today, the Law was not sufficient. What did God do in its place? He could have just handed down more legal code. God could have had people pen more and more words and bombard the world with oodles of information via text. God chose to do something else. Instead, God sent his son, Jesus Christ into the world to embody/show us how to live and what the kingdom of God is really like. John 1 tells us that the word became flesh and dwelt among us.

I am afraid that we haven’t taken this example very seriously. When we are presented with a problem or issue in the church our knee-jerk reaction is more teaching when the reality is people still need to see the biblical kingdom priorities lived out among them. We think somehow if people hear about something more that change will happen automatically. Mike Breen says it like this,

“This is my fundamental issue with the ‘go deep’ kind of people. If I can make  mass generalizations for a moment, I see them this way: They want to go into the endless minutiae of scripture, which can be a good thing, but they rarely want to do anything with it. They think that knowing about something is the same thing as knowing something. They have bought into the lie that knowing more scripture changes you.

It doesn’t.

Doing what scripture says and responding to God’s voice changes you…If you are not actively seeking to live in it, you don’t really believe it.” (Breen, Multiplying Missional Leaders, 23)

We have a whole generation of young people who sat in Bible class twice a week who are no longer with us. If information was the solution they should have been rock solid. Information is foundational but left to itself, non-incarnated in the Christian community it is not enough. If we followed Jesus’ example we would develop people through more than Bible class. We would take time with people to walk alongside them, teach them, train them, and send them. That takes time and investment and that is what makes it difficult. But let me ask you this, how well has the time we have invested in our current model made disciples? (I probably subconsciously stole that question from Breen’s book somewhere). Breen’s approach has been to use information as well as apprenticeship/imitation of a more mature disciple. That is huge. That is the missing piece in much of the work we try to do to make disciples. Many of us have bought into the lie that more information = greater disciples to the neglect of time in the trenches with those we are discipling with the intent of launching them out. Much of our discipling works fosters too much dependence on a sole leader rather than maturing people to be, as Breen would say, leaders rather than program/ministry managers.

If this is something you would like more specifics on or have struggle with this yourself, I cannot recommend enough these two books:
Multiplying Missional Leaders
Building a Discipling Culture

Assuming You Are Relevant Can Be Dangerous – Have We Gotten Lazy?

In Dallas Willard’s Book Renovation of the Heart he talks about the confused state of the world and how that confusion (about life, spirituality, purpose, etc) that surrounds us can so easily influence our own thinking that spiritual transformation becomes difficult. He goes on to say that the church has not adequately addressed people’s confusion. Here is what he wrote,

“Frankly, our visible Christian world is not too far from helter-skelter (confusion) with reference to its understanding of the makeup of the person and therefore of the spiritual life and spiritual formation. We need to access the fullness of biblical teachings on these matters. We suffer far too much from the influence of a surrounding culture that thrives on confusion…This may seem like a harsh thing to say about our ‘Christian world,’ and I am sorry to say it; but the issues here are too important to mince words.

Accordingly, much of what we do in Christian circles with very good intention–hoping, we say, to see steady, significant growth in Christlikeness–simply makes no sense and leads nowhere so far as substantive spiritual formation is concerned. What a brutal thing to say! But we need to recognize this, or show why it is not the case.”, 44

In a couple of sentences Willard has summed up one of my greatest frustrations with modern Christianity. We have grown to assume a comfortable position of relevance in a world that views us as increasingly irrelevant. Now in some ways it is to be expected that the world hold the church at arm’s length. It did it to Jesus and Jesus said the world will hate us because of Him. But what I fear is not so much that we are relevant in developing the souls of those around us but the world doesn’t get it. I fear that we actually have lost much of our relevance and the outcome is a decreased impact on the world and community all around us. Our salt is losing its saltiness and our light is growing dimmer and dimmer.

There are several reasons I think this is true. We aren’t reaching people like we used to. If there was ever a kingdom that shouldn’t be in decline it is the church. We have the answers to life! And yet the Western church is steadily declining. What is more people have stopped investing their time in ways that advance the kingdom and give more and more of their time to distractions. For instance, we aren’t studying one-on-one with people like we used to. Instead we have gotten passive. How many hours do we spend watching TV compared to how many hours we spend nurturing the souls of our children and others in our lives (please realize, I am speaking to myself as much as anyone else here)? How do our actions show our priorities and are the priorities we find godly? Have we gotten lazy?

I think there is a dangerous assumption that floats around that as long as the doors are open we are relevant. Can we prove it? I think the church today has some parallels to the church in Sardis in Revelation 3. Do we have a reputation for being alive? Is that reputation founded on the truth or like the church in Sardis is it a reputation that is not based on the fact. Christ told them that they had a reputation of being alive but the spiritual reality was they were actually dead (Rev 3:1). Maybe we need to hear Christ’s call to the church in Sardis again today, “Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. 3 Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.” (Rev 3:2-3).

There is hope. I believe more and more people are realizing this and are moving to action. Jesus told the church in Sardis there was still hope for them, “Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. 5 He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels. 6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Rev 3:4-6). Jesus tells them that all is not lost. There is still hope. There are still those who keep the light burning, keep the salt salty and are still strong in the faith. The call remains to the rest, “Wake up!” and obey what Christ commands of us. I think we need to hear those words today just as much as those in Sardis needed to hear it then.

I have so much hope for the future of Christianity but I think we run a great danger when we assume relevance rather than demonstrate it. We can’t assume any of our ministries are relevant just because they exist, have an official title and are run by a deacon, elder or minister. It is important that we demonstrate our own effectiveness and relevance to the broader mission of the church.

So what do you think? Am I just paranoid or have you had similar thoughts? If this is accurate what do you believe the church can do to regain and maintain its relevance in the transforming work of Christ on the world?

God’s 53 Questions

I am sure you remember the story well. Job was an upright man. Satan thought Job only worshipped God because he had it made. So God allowed all Job had to be taken away in order to find out if man would serve God only because of God’s blessing or because God is God. Job wanted answers. Why had all these bad things happened to him? He subpoened God to court. Witnesses were called, the time arranged, and God showed up! But it wasn’t Job who got to ask the questions. It was God who did the asking. Job took the stand and God rattled off his questions. Unlike a court of law, these questions were not intended to learn what Job knew but to teach Job something about God. God began his series of 53 questions with this (Job 38:2-5),

“2Who is this that darkens my counsel
with words without knowledge?

3 Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.

4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.

5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?

And my personal favorite…

19 “What is the way to the abode of light?
And where does darkness reside?

20 Can you take them to their places?
Do you know the paths to their dwellings?

21 Surely you know, for you were already born!
You have lived so many years!

The focus of these questions is on who is sovereign. The obvious conclusion is God is and Job is not. The point God is making here with Job is that even though things get rough, trust is key. Satan likes for us to focus on ourselves when things get tough. We can get so self-focused and self-centered in bad times that we stop looking at the only one who really is sovereign and that is God. We aren’t like him. We can’t compete with him. We don’t know what he knows and can’t do what he can do. When it is all said and done we have to trust him in good times and bad. When things get tough one of the best things we can do is ask ourselves this question, “Who really understands what is going on here?” The answer is God. Or, “Who is able to fix this broken and miserable mess?” The answer is God. Instead of getting down and depressed that we can’t fix it, why not turn to the one who can? I think that is what God was trying to get Job to see and I think that is what God wants us to see as well.

In Job 38-39 God asks Job 53 questions that give Job perspective to remember who is really in charge.

Praying Against God’s Best Interests

If the top 5 most spiritually shaping moments of my life were times of great difficulty why is it I often pray against those very things from happening? The death of loved ones, accidents, and health difficulties are things most of us pray against regularly and yet when most Christians are asked what their most formative times were spiritually these events are often the centerpiece or catalyst for that growth. That doesn’t make it wrong to pray for our loved ones to be safe when they travel or to be free from illness but even more than that we should be praying for each other’s souls and spiritual well being.

Ten Reflections on the Importance of Scripture

I really do love the Bible. It has meant so much to me in both the peaks and the valleys of life. It is like a long standing relationship that just gets better and better with age. I have had the times when the Bible fell open to just the right text at just the right time and felt God was telling me something. When my grandmother was dying of cancer and in her last days I sat in Bible class that Wednesday night with tears in my eyes. I opened my Bible straight to 2 Cor 1 about the God of all comfort. There has never been a moment in my life where the words felt more like in some small way God had me and countless other people in mind when he inspired the opening words to the second letter to the Corinthians. I have had times when I wrestled and wrestled with a text and couldn’t get much out of it that seemed applicable at all but somehow I knew I was better for the experience of trying to hear what those ancient words had to say to my modern ears.

The Bible has served as a mentor to me. There are the times the Bible has humbled me into recognizing I was wrong or needed corrected. Then there are the times scripture has jumped up right in front of me, come to life, and was responded to with “Aha!” The pieces finally clicked together. They had been there all the time but maybe a new insight, a new piece of information or life experience made an old, much read verse, come to life in a new way. I am sure you know what I am talking about. You have almost certainly been there yourself.

A few reflection on scripture:

  1. The Bible stands there and says what it says and I have to deal with it. If I get my priorities out of whack I can try to manipulate what it says to suit my ears but cherry picking Greek glosses and lexicons or by coming up with some obscure interpretation. But if I am humble enough to let God’s Word change me rather than me change it I will experience something powerful in its study. It is like getting a letter from a friend about a problem. You can’t argue back with a letter. You have to take it all in first and read what is there, even re-read it.
  2. Because the text is living, breathing, and sharp (Heb 4:12, 2 Tim 3:16) and because my life isn’t static, the Bible often encounters me at different times in life in different ways that it ever has before. I certainly read the Gospel of John differently now than when I was 13. Knowing the themes, the signs, the theology, purpose, and where John is taking the reader the text has become so much richer for me than it used to be and things now seem obvious that were buried for the 13 year old version of myself. I love the richness that brings to the text as the words on the page are the same but the conversation changes as our maturity and readiness to hear what it is saying changes.
  3. We are looking back on what many looked forward to and so we take much for granted. 1 Peter 1:12 tells us that the Gospel that has been revealed to us was concealed even from the angels much less those who went before the church and ministry of Christ. So there is much to be appreciated about being the recipients of the complete message of God/Christ through the Gospels and letters of the New Testament but also through the Old Testament (more on that another time). This gives us a privileged perspective of faith resulting in great responsibility. For instance, when Mary and Martha are upset with Jesus for not getting to Bethany to heal Lazarus any faster we know he is going to raise him from the dead. They don’t. That doesn’t mean we don’t have any faith struggles because our picture of God can be more informed than those who just had this piece or that. But it is still a blessing nevertheless!
  4. God knew I was thickheaded enough to give me the Gospel in four formats. I love the differences in perspective of each of the Gospels. God was so wise to preserve that for us! Mark is action packed. Matthew is so detailed in how this story fits the rest of the story. Luke is compassionate. John is intimate…an inner circle view of much of the goings on and explanations of Jesus’ ministry with the sole intention of producing faith in the reader.
  5. Scripture is rich in the variety of genres and approaches it takes to speak to me the words of God – poetry, geneology, narrative, letter, and everything in between.
  6. There is always someone to relate to. Whether I did something good or bad there is always someone to relate to. The Bible isn’t interested in painting the good guys as the good guys. The Bible is interested in pointing imperfect people toward a perfect God. The result is I realize I am in the same boat as everyone from those who barely got it all the way up to the “heroes of the faith.”
  7. Scripture brings me hope no matter how imperfect I find myself to be. Man after God’s own heart and murderer, shepherd of God’s people and murderer, stepped on the waves and denied him three times. Yet all were received back into God’s grace in the end. That gives me hope.
  8. Scripture is effective in leading me toward life and righteousness. Philippians 4:8 says, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” I can’t think of anything to think about that fits those criteria better than scripture itself. Jesus said his words are spirit and life (John 6:63).
  9. As Donny D says often, you will never do what the Bible says and wake up with regrets wondering why on earth you did something so foolish. It doesn’t get much more practical than that.
  10. The One whose hands knit me in my mother’s womb also produced the words contained in scripture. His words really are life.

What has scripture meant to you whether you have studied it all your life or even just a short amount of time?

The Benefits of Taking a Break from Bible Class Teaching

It is very important for Bible class teachers, even ministers on staff, to have a break from time to time. At least one quarter a year for paid ministers and two quarters a year for those not on staff need to be spent learning from others. For the first time in several years I am not teaching on Sunday morning and it is very refreshing. I am getting my cup filled and wake up with quite a different perspective on Sunday’s this quarter. There are benefits to both the teacher and the class when teachers are also educated by others. This time away from teaching on Sunday has allowed me to reflect on a few things I would like to share here.

Benefits to the Bible class of a teacher rotation:

  1. Multiple perspectives – It is important that people get a variety of perspectives from mature teachers.
  2. Teaching styles – When a class is blessed to have a teacher rotation they are more likely to get a wider variety of teaching styles and approaches. One teacher my be a great lecturer but struggle with discussion while another might fear having to lecture but be skilled at getting the class talking. It is important for the class to experience a variety of teachers
  3. Learning styles – Different teachers have different styles and often those styles can incorporate a variety of learning styles. This is far more likely to happen when a class has multiple teachers.
  4. Connecting with the WHOLE class – Different teachers connect with different class members. When you have multiple teachers it is far more likely that people in the class will connect with at least one of them and get more from the class.
  5. Range of topics – With a variety of teachers you are likely to get a wider range of expertise. When you only learn from one teacher all the time it is likely they get on the same soap boxes and pet issues from time to time. This is minimized with multiple teachers.
  6. Benefiting from the overflow – When one teacher teaches the same class for years at a time it is likely they will feel drained and as if they have little more to offer from time to time. By default they continue to teach because that is what is expected of them. Multiple teachers allow the teachers to teach from the overflow and not from the position of being drained and burned out.
  7. Teaching experience – Allowing others to teach gives other class members experience teaching which often results in them growing in their faith and knowledge. If we have control issues and think we are the only one’s capable of teaching we are missing out on equipping others and make the class dependent on ourselves for its spiritual sustenance. That is not healthy.

Benefits to the Bible class teacher of a teacher rotation:

  1. Benefiting from the overflow – Teachers need to have energy and the only way to have that is to be fresh and ready to teach. Teaching continuously for years on end often results in burn out and that often results in lackluster teaching. Teachers need to be taught. They also need education and a break from the Sunday or Wednesday Bible class teaching scene.
  2. Retooling 1 – When a teacher sees another person teach from time to time they can see how the class responds both positively and negatively to teaching methods. They learn what to do and not to do based on being a participant in someone else’s class.
  3. Retooling 2 – Being taught also results in the teacher getting their cup filled so they can teach from the overflow.
  4. Learning from someone else’s perspective – We need to learn that other people have a good perspective on things and that we are not the sole source of wisdom in a congregation. That often takes taking a step back and allowing someone else to take the lead.
  5. Getting refocused – If you are used to teaching every week it is really quite refreshing to be able to go to Bible class with Bible in hand, ready to learn. The pressure is off and that is healthy.
  6. Creating a sustainable Bible class or ministry – If we want something to fall apart it is imperative that it completely rely on one person to be successful. If we want something to be sustainable it is imperative that we allow other people to take ownership in the process. A Bible class should never depend on one person to exist. If we aren’t growing sustainable ministries and classes then we are spinning our wheels.

Hopefully a few of these have been helpful to you if you are a Bible class teacher, elder, minister, etc. Last, it is important to realize if there are control issues when it comes to who is teaching and how often. It is unhealthy for anyone to think it all depends on them or that no one else is able to teach or get the job down as well as they can. It is far more important for a ministry or Bible class to be sustainable than for it to rely on the control issues of someone who thinks it should all depend on them.

John 9 – Mud in the Eyes Christians

After reading and re-reading the story of the man born blind in John 9 today I am struck by the power and authority of Jesus combined with the blind man’s willing obedience. Our faith is a partnership of unequals. We can’t even take credit for listening and doing because without his command we wouldn’t have a clue what to do. He alone heals and restores. And yet he expects us to listen and to do. Otherwise we just stand there blind with mud in our eyes wondering why we still can’t see.

I wonder how many “mud in the eyes Christians” there are in the world. They believe they have heard the Word of God and are saved but their unwillingness to wash the mud from their eyes so they might really begin to see has kept them in spiritual darkness. It is an incredibly tragedy when God has done 100% of what needs to be done to help us see and yet we are unwilling to trust him enough to follow through and do what he has asked. I know this gets into the murky waters of the sufficiency of grace and all the rest (not really if you are tracking with me here and are familiar with past posts like this one). But my point is, without action on our part, we stand there blind with mud in our eyes. God certainly has more in mind for us than that. You notice Jesus didn’t say, “Sit here while I run to Siloam, get some water and pour it on your eyes for you…don’t lift a finger! BRB!” and off he goes. I think there is a reason for that. While we don’t merit our salvation God certainly wants us to be invested in the process!

Two Free E-Books for Men Struggling With Pornography and Sexual Addiction

Pornography and sexual addiction is the elephant in the room in many congregations around the country. I heard one statistic that as many as 50% of Christian men in America struggle with some form of sexual addiction. How many men is that in your congregation if that statistic is true? That adds up pretty quickly. What is more, many ministers are also wrestling with this issue. We will be reaping the destructive results of these addictions in the church for many, many years.

It is important that Christianity puts its collective foot down on this issue and begins to educate local Christian communities with a biblical view of sex and sexuality.

I am going to talk about that more in some future posts but for now I want to make any of you men out there who struggle with this two free e-book resources that you might find helpful.

Mark Driscoll’s Porn Again Christian – This book is pretty hard hitting, straight forward and doesn’t hold back on much. It answers many questions that people might be afraid to ask and deals with the issue of how destructive pornography is and how it fights against God’s ideal of sex within the context of marriage.

Tim Challies’ Sexual Detox – This is the compilation of the posts I mentioned earlier in one pdf. While the first book I would only recommend to those who struggle with pornography, this one is something I think would be beneficial for all Christian men to read.

I have no way to know who is downloading these, it is completely anonymous. So if you need to read either one of these please do so. Don’t be so proud as to think you can deal with these things on your own and walk away with a healthy view of sex or a healthy marriage if you are currently wrestling with pornography or other sexual addictions.