Humility Optional?

If you look around Christianity you will find humility is a fairly common thread, at least in theory.  Humility is in the DNA of salvation, for we cannot be saved unless we humble ourselves before God’s loving provision in Jesus’ death on the cross.  Humility is a staple ingredient in spiritual growth, for we cannot stand proud and still find the growth that is needed in the spiritual life.  Humility is a requirement in leadership, for we cannot successfully replace the servant leader model so central to Christian ministry.

And yet this thread which weaves through all theoretical Christianity is often more sparse in the real Christianity we observe.  There are always gospel presentations that appeal to self-interest and doing what is best for yourself.  There seems to be a never-ending stream of spiritual growth models that focus on our success oriented efforts to sort out our weaknesses and try harder to be good.  And for every humble leader in the church, we tend to find another that reeks of arrogance and pride.

It is clear that humility is woven through the fabric of our faith, but there is also a strong tendency toward pride that saturates our fallen flesh and inclines us to find ways around humility in the Christian life.

Is humility optional?

Humility is not just a preference.  It would be possible to view humility as a divine preference, one item on God’s wishlist for his people.  I like potatoes, but if someone in my family wants to cook a meal for me, they know that they can cook a meal without potatoes and I will still enjoy it.  Potatoes are a preference, but not really a requirement.  Is this how God feels about humility?  Is it a nice touch when he sees it, but not really a problem if it happens to be omitted?  No, humility is not just a preference.

Humility is not an arbitrary demand.  It would be possible to view humility as something God requires, one item on a harsh list of demands for his people.  If I were a tyrant in my home, then I could make a list of demands on my family members.  They might be able to satisfy my demands in some respects, but they might recognize that they could never do everything on my impossible list.  They might hope that I would not pay attention to the missed demands if enough of the others were satisfied.  Is this how it is with God?  No, humility is not an arbitrary demand.

Humility is not a contrast.  It would be possible to view humility as something God requires because it is the complement to his personality.  Again, if I insisted on being the focus of all attention in my home, then I might require humility of everyone else so that nobody else would ever threaten the spotlight in which I insisted that I live.  Is this how it is with God?  No, humility is not a contrast to God’s character.

Humility is not just a preference, an arbitrary demand, nor a contrasting quality to God.  Humility is in the DNA of Christianity because it is a distinctive feature of God’s character.  We were created in God’s image, made for profoundly other-centered relationship, but when we fell into sin something profoundly corrupt perverted our core inclinations.  As fallen humans we are turned in on ourselves, we are proud.  We believe that we don’t need God or other people and we default to trying to be independent in any way that we can.  The pull of that fallen tendency continues to exert force on every one of us.

Yes, Jesus entered our world and rocked our world with a profound contrast – willingly humbling himself not only to wash feet, but even to die a humiliating death in our place.  God is nothing like the pride in you, or me.  So we are invited to humble ourselves before the cross and find true life, not by our own achievement, but by the gift of God’s grace.  We know that, and yet even as Christians, we still feel the tug toward prideful independence.  Subconsciously we will drift toward self-effort and self-elevation.  Our view of spiritual growth will tend to have the aroma of arrogance, and if we are not careful, then our efforts at Christian leadership will often be tainted by the stench of self-promotion.

Humility is not just something God prefers, as I like potatoes, but am fine without them.  Humility is not an arbitrary demand we can hope to bypass.  Nor is humility a contrast to God’s supposed demand for the spotlight.  Humility makes sense in every corner of our Christianity.  It makes sense because it is a key aspect of God’s character.  It makes sense because he has rescued us, and is rescuing us, from our fall into pride.  Humility is always a heaven-ward step.

What role does humility play in your spiritual life?  What role does it play in your ministry and leadership?  And I don’t just mean in theory.  I mean in actual practice…

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Pondering Pre-Sermon Position

Over the years I have been a visiting speaker many times in churches.   While there is no such thing as a typical church, there are some things that are common to many churches.  Take, for instance, the pre-sermon logistics for the visiting speaker:

Before the Service – Upon arrival the visiting speaker is typically greeted by one of the church leaders and then invited back into a small room to pray with that leader or the leadership team.  Thus most of the time before the service is spent in prayer.  This is a good thing, of course, as we need to declare our dependence on the one apart from whom we can do nothing.  It is good to sometimes be able to hear the heart of leaders for their church.  It is good to settle the heart and prepare to preach.

During the Service – Then just before the service begins, the preacher is often ushered to the front row, or even to sit on the platform facing the congregation.  The latter option will be more typical in more formal churches (sometimes with a more formal arrival to that position too).  Up front in one way or another just seems more practical.  It avoids a long walk down the aisle after the speaker introduction, for one thing.

A lot can be said, both practically and spiritually, for these two standard practices.  Maybe they should remain standard practice, but I just want to ponder them for a moment.

Before the Service – When the speaker arrives at a church, the minutes before the service begins are the prime opportunity to get to know the congregation that will be hearing the sermon.  While some people praying will reveal helpful insight into the congregation, many don’t.  But spend fifteen or twenty minutes chatting with the guy on the sound desk as you collect your microphone, and a handful of other people you can strike up a conversation with, and you tend to learn a lot about a church (especially if that is your goal).  Should we not pray?  Of course we should, and hopefully, we all have.  A lot.  But does an extended time of prayer right before a service outweigh the value of that interaction time?  Typically, I’m not convinced.

During the Service – Then what about the pre-sermon placement of the preacher?  Each to their own preference, I would say.  My preference?  I like to be at the back of a congregation.  It allows me to feel the temperature in the room.  Are people distracted?  Are they engaged?  Again, more opportunity to become aware of the listeners.  Are there some obviously awkward first-timers?  And what about the awkward walk up the aisle after the speaker introduction?  Not a problem.  It is relatively inconspicuous to move to the front row during the last song before the sermon.

I know this is my own preference, but I have found sitting on the front row you can feel watched, unable to properly look at your notes or the Bible, and unable to look around and observe the people.  And sitting on the platform facing everyone?  This feels like hard work because so many eyes could be inquisitive about every sip of water, look at the Bible, posture, facial expression, etc.  Maybe you can see everyone’s faces, but you lose all freedom to observe them, check notes, adjust radio microphone, or whatever.  It is the shortest walk to preaching position, but often you can feel the least prepared when you arrive!

This post is purely subjective ponderings.  I certainly wouldn’t want a church to change its practice just because I am preaching – I am very used to all the options and happy to serve in whatever pattern is preferred.  What do you find helpful when you are not in your own familiar church environment?

Never Run Dry

The first time someone is scheduled to preach they typically wonder if they will have enough to say.  It doesn’t take long to discover that the real challenge is not filling time, but knowing what to cut out to fit the time you have.  However, over the long haul of ministry, the risk of running out of things to say becomes very real.

Here are several “wells” that may run dry for us:

1. The Well of Training.  If you have had the privilege of formal study then you know that it can be a great source of content for future ministry.  What is poured into you during your training should be flowing out of you in the years that follow.  Some might assume that three or four years of lecture material will provide a lifetime of sermons to preach.  Not so.  The training content has a limited shelf life.  It decreases over time unless it is mixed and stirred into further study and growth.  You might come out of Bible School, or even a great conference, with material that can be preached for the good of others.  But that same material, if pulled out years later, will be stagnant and far less effective.  It is not just that time has passed and the information has become outdated (this may sometimes be true), rather it is that you have not engaged with that material and grown in the meantime.  Stagnant truths offer little life to listeners.

2. The Well of Experience.  Over time we gain experience in life and ministry.  This can and should enrich our ministry.  We should grow deeper yet clearer, sensitive yet bolder, more spiritual and yet more relevant.  And with experience should come an increasing store from which to speak to others.  But there is a problem here too.  Experience is not simply a matter of the passing of time.  Nor is maturity.  It is possible to grow older, to gain experience, and at the same time to have less and less to say.  If we are merely cruising along we are losing our cutting edge.  If we are standing still, time may move us forward, but we can still be fading backwards within.  Experience is valuable, but it cannot become a well we trust to consistently provide helpful material for others.  I have known some very experienced people whose input to others is profoundly unhelpful at times.  Experience does not guarantee maturity, nor does it guarantee accurate perspective or helpful insight.

3. The Well of “Old Notes.”  There is nothing wrong with preaching a message more than once.  Jesus did.  The danger comes when we trust in a set of old notes because the message seemed effective before.  Old notes are a great head start, but we need to refresh each message we preach.  We cannot rely on past effectiveness any more than we can ultimately rely on our Bible school teachers or our years of experience.

4. The Well That Never Runs Dry.  Truly there is only one well from which we can draw fresh water for a lifetime of ministry.  Let’s appreciate our training, process our experience, refresh our past ministry materials, but most of all, let’s be sure to draw from the well that will never run dry – the well that is Jesus himself.  If we want to have a fresh and helpful ministry that will last for a lifetime, and have an impact for eternity, then we need to continually spend time at the feet of Jesus.

Planning for Christmas Now

The summer is over and the busy autumn schedule is in full swing.  Before you know it, it will be Christmas.  I know, this is where most people moan about consumerism and advertising, but for church leaders now is the time to be thinking beyond the shopping to the church plans.

Christmas is a season that rolls around very quickly.  What will you do this year?  For some it is a festival of special events that require lots of planning.  For others it is a quieter season with the special carol service and maybe even a lighter load.  Whichever way you plan your church Christmas schedule, you do need to pray for sensitivity to a set of potential people present:

1. Seasonal visitors – some people will go to church because it is Christmas.  They typically are not expecting a life changing experience, but we can be praying for that. We also need to make sure the welcome, the experience of being at church, the message and so on are all conducive to motivating them to even consider coming again, finding out more, etc.

2. Family and friends – some people will go to your church because it is Christmas and they have a connection to someone in your church.  Maybe a family member visiting, or perhaps a friend from work.  They need everything the seasonal visitor needs, but it is good to also recognise what their experience means to the person who brings them – it can cost a lot to bring someone to church.

3. Church regulars – some people will go to your church because it is their church.  Don’t forget them.  It is easy to rely on them for extra manpower in a busy Christmas season, but pray that they will also be touched afresh by the wonder of the incarnation and God’s great rescue mission.

So as you think about the different categories of people, think also about these issues (all of which need planning before the tinsel is visible in the shops) …

Experience – The experience of visiting church begins with how people hear about the church (advertising, invitations, etc.), and continues in the car park, and into the building, etc.  Perhaps get a small group to think it through from the perspective of a first timer!

Message – Will you do an advent series?  How will you make each message work on its own?  How will you combine satisfaction of traditional expectations with fresh material for regulars and guests?  (Can I also suggest my book, Pleased to Dwell: A Biblical Introduction to the Incarnation (Christian Focus, 2014) … it contains a lot of potential message material!)

Follow-Up – With all the energy going into the Christmas events, it probably feels like a stretch to run a “just looking” course in January, but it may be ideal timing!

 

7 Ways to Stay Gospel Sharp – continued

Continuing yesterday’s list (I won’t repeat the explanation, please click here if you didn’t see it)…

2. Purposefully pray beyond your own sphere – be sure that you invest time in prayer that is not focused solely on your life, your ministry, your family, your church, your country. Pray for the lost. Name some.  Pray for the cross-focused mission of the church both locally and globally.  Pray for some people you will never meet in this life.

3. Sacrificially give to gospel-specific mission – recognize that many good causes can and do raise money from outside (and inside) the church, but who else will give to support evangelistic missions work, Bible translation, church planting, introducing the unreached to Jesus? Giving tends to focus our hearts. If you can, lead your church to give to something outside themselves that only spiritually alive Christians would give to.

4. Read something stimulating – as a preacher we can easily spend a lot of time reading commentaries, and perhaps we make sure we are reading in order to stay current and understand our culture. But what about a missionary biography like God’s Smuggler by Brother Andrew, or Through Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliot? You may even have a classic or two on your shelf (there are some great newer ones too, of course!)

5. Identify and persist with a gospel target – I have worked for years with Operation Mobilization, a missionary organization that traces it roots back to one elderly lady who prayed for years for the high school across the street. She could not reach those thousands of students with the good news about Jesus, but she knew who could, so she prayed to Him. She knew what they needed was more than a better school, so she prayed.  She sent a gospel of John to a notorious student, and he got saved and co-launched a global missions movement that has impacted millions of lives.

6. Exit your bubble – Prayerfully ask God to help you see the bubble that exists or is forming around your life and ministry. Can you go into the city-centre and see some genuine gospel mission in action? Can you stay in touch with a friend who is overseas telling people about Jesus?  Can you visit?  The mission of God required and requires the crossing of cultural and national borders … even if your ministry is local, look for ways to cross borders and boundaries so that your bubble does not become a cocoon.

7. Preach bigger than you can achieve – I have deliberately left preaching until the end of the list. If we are to stay gospel sharp it begins in our personal lives, not in our pulpit presentations. But when you preach, don’t settle for achievable goals (such as informing, educating, encouraging, leading, etc.)  Be sure that in some way you present Christ and him crucified such that listeners might be saved, and believers might be stirred.  True preaching must go beyond what our abilities can achieve and rely on the Spirit of God to bring new spiritual life and new spiritual fruit!

What else would you add?  What have you found helpful to avoid gospel drift in your life and ministry?

7 Ways to Stay Gospel Sharp

The history of the church as well as observation of the contemporary church show that God’s people always suffer from gospel drift.  That is, the church slowly but surely tends to move away from the gospel just as our bodies slowly but surely move away from health.

God so loved the world that he sent his Son on a rescue mission to lead people from death to spiritual life.  His mission required a flint-like focus on destination Calvary.  Yes, there are many other aspects and facets to that mission, but if you lose the cross you lose the mission.  As the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus sent his followers … into the same spiritually dead world, with a message to speak that souls might be rescued, disciples made and multiplication of the mission maintained.  But the church drifts.

We drift into lesser projects and, if we are not careful, we start to call them the mission.  After all, it always feels better to be successful at something we can do, rather than keeping focused on something we struggle to do.  The lesser projects are often not unimportant.  The lesser projects should be supportive of the great mission. But when they become identified with the mission, that is a sure sign that drift is occurring.

How often do churches become so consumed with a building project that they lose sight of the greater mission?  What about making the church program the best it can be? What about trying to live good lives as a silent witness (and therefore, eventually, no witness at all)?  What about improve-human-life projects so that the poor can be less poor?  What about political activism that seeks to right wrongs somewhere?  Every one of these things is important, and hopefully Jesus would be central to our motivation for each one, but if we are not careful, we will lose Christ’s flint-focus on the mission.

As preachers, we lead and influence.  So here are 7 quick ideas to stay gospel sharp in your ministry:

1. Restore your gospel focus in your Bible reading – if you are in the Old Testament, watch the gospel trajectories that lead to Christ; if you are in the Gospels, watch Christ’s mission unfold; if you are in Acts, watch the message spreading; if you are in the epistles, watch the application of the gospel to the challenges facing the church.

Tomorrow I will complete the list…

Pride and the Preacher

One of the greatest problems for preachers is pride.  It is an insidious and relentless foe that will look to creep in at every stage of a life spent in ministry.  What might we be proud about?

1. Knowledge.  The preacher is a public speaker who is seen as an expert.  Whether you have a PhD in theology or have simply studied a couple of resources, your listeners will tend to perceive you as an expert.  And while knowledge is not a bad thing, what does knowledge do?  It puffs up.

2. Ability.  Whether it is spiritual gifting, or natural charisma, or learned skill, preaching involves some ability in public speaking – something many people dread deeply.  Thus, there will be countless opportunities for pride as we speak to others.

3. Position.  It may be elevation on a 12-inch podium before less than a dozen listeners, or it may be a prized pulpit for years on end, but pride in position is always knocking at the door of our hearts.  Society may not revere the Reverend anymore, but many in our churches will certainly reinforce the honour of being a guest speaker, or a pastor, or a leader, etc.

4. Influence.  Whether there is position or not, preaching implies influence.  Preachers can influence lives and how they are lived.  Preachers can influence emotions and create all sorts of churning in the hearts of our listeners.  There are guilty folks convicted, there are vulnerable folks attracted, there is plenty of potential influence, both for good or for bad.  Pride seems to be a lingering smell where influence is involved.

As well as what might be a source of pride, there are also some occasions that may provoke it:

A. When preparing.  Do I need to invest the time in textual study?  Do I need to invest the time in preparation of the sermon?  Do I need to invest the time in prayer?  Maybe old notes, or old knowledge, will see me through?  Preparation should be a season of humble study and personal application, but it can easily drift into prideful self-trust instead.

B. When criticized.  How do you feel when someone pokes a hole in your message?  What if they aren’t particularly educated?  What if they are a younger believer than you?  What if their criticism is wrong?  What if they are right?

C. When praised.  This can be worse than criticism.  The best message they’ve ever heard?  Knowledge may puff up, but what then can praise do?  Just as we need to have a plan for criticism, we also need a plan for handling praise.  Both can stir profound pride problems within the preacher.

D. When ignored.  What if your listeners sit through your message and then don’t even begin to apply it?  What if their lives continue as normal?  What if your careful study and exegesis is considered merely your opinion?  What if the follow up conversation is still just about the weather or a TV show when you have poured your life out for their benefit?

What else may stir pride in the preacher?  When else might we be vulnerable to this great enemy?

Is Our Goal Transformation?

It depends on the point of contrast.  That is, if transformation is contrasted with education, then yes, it is certainly closer to our aim as preachers.  We don’t want to merely inform, we want to see transformation.

If the contrast point is conformation, then I would argue that transformation is a better goal than simply pressuring people to conform to certain behaviours.

But what if the contrast point is relationship?  I have suggested on here before that preaching is about three relationships: the first being the preacher’s relationship with God, the second being the preacher’s relationship with the listeners, and the third is the goal: the listeners’ relationship with God.  In this context I would argue that our goal should be relationship and not just transformation.

Here is the potential problem with transformation language.  If we don’t include the key concept of relationship, then we can drift towards settling for behavioural change or lifestyle change.  The reality is that being in relationship with Jesus is not just the end goal of ministry, but it is also the means by which genuine transformation occurs – or perhaps we could say the intermediate goal as well as the ultimate goal.

True transformation in gospel ministry is a matter of relationship.  But in our fallen world, we naturally believe that an individual can be transformed simply by a change in how they think or what they choose.  It is this fallenness that makes me suggest we be careful with the language of transformation.  Too many in our churches settle for life tweaks without the heart-changing transformation that comes in the context of genuine relationship with the Father through Christ and by the Spirit.

Ears to Hear – Parable Reflections part 4

In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus offers a second parable about prayer – we call it the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  Again, I am not going to write about how to preach the parable, but want to provoke some thoughts for us as preachers in light of this parable.

1. The Gospel is shocking.  The story of the two men going up to pray is not immediately understood because of cultural shifts and lack of biblical understanding. The Pharisee was not seen as “one of the bad guys that killed Jesus” and the Tax Collector was not someone looked at with a “soft spot … since another one gave us half our Christmas readings, and another one climbed trees to see Jesus.”  The Tax Collector was a hated traitor, and the Pharisee was the model citizen.  This makes the final verse shocking.  This man, and not the other!  We can so easily drift into a “nice” gospel where God’s benevolence is offered to decent people.  Not so!  We are all bankrupt before God and His offer of life is 100% undeserved.  Let’s never lose the shock of the gospel in our own hearts as we preach it to others.

2. Pride is frightening.  The Pharisee’s confidence was born out of his own performance.  We easily fall into that too.  A good week, a good sermon, a couple of encouragments and we can march boldly into prayer.  We should be bold, but never based on our personal right to be confident.  Our boast is all in Christ.  Yet, if we listen to our prayers, do we find traces of the Pharisee’s pride?  I am not like others…I do this and that…I go above and beyond what is required.  Pride is frightening and it is often not hard to find it in people that preach.  If anyone is a candidate to be a Pharisee today, it is probably you and me – educated, ethical, respected, maybe even impressive.

3. Brokenness is required.  The Tax Collector’s brokenness is key to the parable.  His posture, his clarity, his self-evaluation are all significant.  He knew he was absolutely sinful and called himself “the sinner.”  As such, he knew he brought nothing in his hands to God, but instead had to rely totally on the atoning mercy of God himself.  The same is true for us.  When we feel that in all its fullness, then maybe we are in a better place to preach a gospel that will not drift into evangelical pride and Pharisaism.  Furthermore, maybe our churches will have a bit more reality in them too – the church is the place where sinners should be open and real about their brokenness.  Is that true in the church culture your preaching has shaped?

Ears to Hear – Parable Reflections part 3

In Luke 18:1-8 we have the first of a pair of parables about prayer.  In this case it is the persistent widow and the unjust judge. I am not going to talk about how to preach it, but rather think about some of the implications of the passage on us as preachers.

Here are three things that matter:

1. Prayer.  This was a parable Jesus told to encourage people to pray and not give up.  Simple enough.  We know that persistence in prayer is a biblical idea.  But for many of us, we don’t live with the pressures of survival and injustice that might nudge us to more persistent prayer.  To be honest many of us live in the top 5-10 percent of the world’s wealthiest and the danger is that our comfort undermines our awareness of our need to pray.  What’s more, as those involved in leadership and ministry we can easily let our prayer lives drift because of the constant demands on our time, ever-beeping technology, etc.  Remember Acts 6:4 – church leadership, like the apostles, is primarily about the Word and prayer.  We need to pray persistently.

2. View of God.  This matters massively.  Jesus used a totally ungodly judge to prove his point, then amplified his point with the character of God.  Sadly, though, many think God is a lot like the judge in the story, only less persuadable.  Our view of God is the most important thing that can be said about us.  And the pressures of ministry, the struggles of interpersonal conflict, or even apparently unanswered prayer can secretly sour our view of God, even while we still preach good truth on Sundays.  This parable says that your view of God really matters.

3. View of time.  Following on from point 2, many of us can easily get so caught up in the present that we lose the eschatological edge that should cut through every situation we face.  Jesus is coming back.  Through busy lives, unhelpful “baby out with bathwater” theological reactions to sensational teaching, and a lack of attention to Scripture, we can easily start to think that today is as predictable as yesterday, and that there is no radically different tomorrow to influence how we live and how we pray.  But there is a different today that comes from living in light of that tomorrow that will come when Jesus returns.  Will we remain faithful: trusting and praying for situations that seem so unjust, and looking for his coming?

There’s plenty more that could be added, please do so in the comments below!