The Pastor’s Job – Jonathan Thomas

Last week I interviewed Jonathan Thomas, pastor of Cornerstone Church, Abergavenny (Wales).  I’m linking to a clip from this interview because I think you will really appreciate what he has to say.

Jonathan talks about how easy it is to reduce ministry down to a litmus test for evangelical orthodoxy, but then tells his own story of growing into a fuller appreciation of the magnificence of Jesus.

To see the full interview, you just need to sign-up to the Cor Deo mailing list and we will make the full interview available to you!  Click here to sign-up – http://eepurl.com/drPqj1

Who Will Be There After Lockdown?

We don’t know how long we will be locked down, but it will be longer than any of us would prefer.  I think it is important for us to think and pray about the gaps that this unique season will create in our churches, as well as the new people that could be added.

For the first couple of weeks most churches have leapt into action learning how to livestream Sunday services and how to create some sort of face-to-face replacement for home groups.  Some have thought about offering extra resources for people stuck at home.  But as this situation wears on, we will become more and more aware that when we are allowed to come back together as a church, it will probably not be with the same people as before.  Let’s prayerfully ponder these two lists and consider what steps we can be taking now that will change the face of our regathering:

Gaps Created

  1. Some may be promoted to Christ’s presence.  Statistics tell us that this will most likely be the vulnerable through age or underlying medical conditions, but in human terms, nobody is as safe as we used to feel.  Let’s pray about how to support not only those who feel fear at this time, but also for those who may come to the end of their time here during this time, and also the families of any that are lost to this disease (or to any other cause during this time of separation).
  2. Some may drift and grow cold.  The burning coal, when separated from the other coals, will quickly cool down.  Pray about how to pursue, support, encourage and maintain the connection of younger or less-well-rooted believers who are more prone to drift.  We all know people who don’t have the same convictions about the need for fellowship, teaching, worship, community, etc.  The casual approach may seem to work in comfortable times, but it may be seen in its true light under these pressures.
  3. Some marriages may implode.  It would be naive to think that every Christian couple are thriving under lockdown.  We have a newly married couple living opposite us and it is fun to watch them learn to skate together and playing games, but this is no honeymoon for the vast majority of couples.  Some are desperately struggling already and don’t have the release valve of work or time apart with friends.  We have to pray about this and be proactive in supporting every couple in our churches.
  4. Some may grow embittered or lose heart.  The constant bombardment of negative news will overwhelm any of us.  I pray that people in my church will see God answering prayer in specific ways, but what if some don’t?  Pray for the people in your church who are more likely to dwell on the negative news than feast on the hope in God’s Word.  They are extra vulnerable without church fellowship to influence them.
  5. Some may be beaten down by circumstance or enemy attack.  Remember the parable of the soils.  If only everyone in our churches were good soil and now leaning into this crisis ready to bear multiplied fruit.  Sadly some will find this season is the time where the heat of the day, or the seed-theft of sinister birds will undo their apparent participation in the community of God’s people.  Perhaps it is helpful to reveal those who aren’t really truly receptive, but pastorally it is painful to see it happen.  Let’s pray for the spiritually vulnerable and pray about how to pursue the straying sheep – whether they are already saved or not, they need Jesus.

Gaps Filled

  1. Returning drifters need somewhere to land – There are people who used to be actively involved in the life of the church, but life took its toll and they drifted.  Whatever their state was spiritually, this shaking of their world may be God’s tool to draw them to Himself.  Pray about how your church can not only be church to each other during this crisis, but how can you be welcoming and inviting to others who may be looking to reintegrate into gospel community?
  2. The lost can be found – God is an expert at winning the hearts of those who have been hard to Him.  Again, pray about how your online church can reach people – not only the formal streaming (is that accessible?), but also evangelistic resources that your people can share with those who may be open in a new way.  We can’t just expect people to flock to church some months down the line when our doors open again, we need to be proactively welcoming and engaging with people now.  Wouldn’t it be awesome to look back on this as a season of wonderful evangelistic fruitfulness for our churches?!

Who else would you add to this list?  I am not offering answers, but my prayer is that this post can help us to pray and adjust for the sake of the people in and around our churches at this time.

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This Bible highlight from last week relates to this post:

7 Ways Our World Has Changed, But God Hasn’t

We are gradually coming to terms with the massive changes that have gripped our world in the last few weeks.  I have written about 7 temptations we will face in isolation, 7 spheres in which we should be confident in God’s Word during this time, and 7 tips for preaching online.

Now, here are 7 changes that we should pray through at this time:

1. New restrictions on travel– My calendar has suddenly cleared for several months. It used to be so easy to jump in the car and drive, or to book a flight and visit another country.  Hopefully this restriction will ease in time, but let’s not simply focus on what we are missing.  God remains omnipresent, even if our attempts to be omnipresent are thwarted.  Maybe this change can stir us to pray more fervently for situations we would love to influence, and to be more present where God has put us (our families are our primary ministry, after all).

2. New humility in plans– Will we be able to hold that conference next year? Will we be able to fulfil that preaching commitment in October?  We don’t know. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring.  So we ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will … do this or that.” (James 4:13-17) God knows what is coming; He always has, and we never have.  Maybe this can stir a greater humility in us all, even when restrictions ease.

3. New uncertainty of life– What James writes in 4:13-17 includes reference to our lives being like a vanishing mist:  “If the Lord wills, we will liveand do this or that.”  When this crisis started, so much was said about only the over-70s or people with underlying health issues dying from COVID-19.  Somehow many people felt relieved, until they started to think about who that might include.  Now we are hearing more stories of younger, healthy people dying from it.  In actuality, death has always been a real and present threat for us all, even before this crisis. And God has always been God.  We may well be immortal until His work for us on earth is finished, but it probably doesn’t hurt us to feel our mortality more and to let that drive us to our knees.

4. New concerns about money– Will we be able to survive these next weeks?  Will our income disappear?  Will government help be enough?  Will our countries recover after this?  The certainty we felt financially just a few weeks ago has evaporated for many of us.  Whether we have a stable salary, or live on completely unpredictable support from others, let’s remember that God is our provider.  He always was, and He has not changed.  Our lives may change.  Our fervency in prayer may change.  But remember John 21, when the disciples were getting used to the fact that everything had changed for them following the death and resurrection of the soon departing Jesus, and then Jesus cooked them a breakfast of bread and fish beside the Sea of Galilee …I provided miraculously when we fed the 5000 here, and I continue to provide for you now.

5. New recognition of need in our churches– I remember a few weeks ago when I could say, “Things are going well in our church … of course there are one or two difficult situations, but generally things are going well.”  Seems like a long time ago now.  Now every family unit that I think about is facing threat of death, loss of income, no work or overwhelming work, marital tensions, parenting complexities, loneliness, etc.  God has always seen our need as it really is.  Maybe this crisis is making vivid to us all just how needy the flock of God’s people really are.  Perhaps this insight should go with us as we carry our people before God in prayer, whatever a future newfound cultural complacency may suggest.  Our people need God.  So we pray.

6. New feelings of restriction and inadequacy in ministry– As the five previous changes hit us, we realise not only the difficulties of those we serve, but also our own inadequacy to really help.  We don’t even have regular church meetings for face-to-face fellowship and those opportunities to sense that someone isn’t doing so well.  As people who minister to others, we should be feeling a profound sense of inadequacy at this time.  We can’t protect anybody from the virus (although we can help by not breaking government guidelines).  We can’t financially carry every situation in our church (although we are called to stand together and share what we have).  We can’t do the job of doctors, nurses, vital delivery drivers, etc. (although we can support them in prayer and encouragement).  We are significantly limited.  But our God is not.  He never was.  He hasn’t changed.  Our experience has just clarified to us that we are not God.

7. New awareness of gospel need all around –Remember when people were comfortable, secure, invincible, and happy in their hobbies?  Now we are surrounded by people with a genuine fear of death, combined with genuine concerns about how they will provide for their families in the coming months.  Our continent is humbled.  And we are stuck in isolation with some restrictions on spreading the gospel.  But God’s Word is not chained.  Over the garden fence, through the internet, by phone call … the good news of Jesus has always flourished most in times of real struggle.  God has faithfully carried His people through pestilence, plague, persecution, and war all through history. And all through history it has been the most difficult times that have led to the greatest growth in the church.  It feels like we are living a key moment in history right now – may it be a key moment in the history of church growth too!

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During this Coronavirus crisis I have started making short Bible reading highlight videos. If you find these helpful, please share them with others.  Thanks.

5 Aspects of Feeding the Flock

One of the main responsibilities of the shepherds of a local church is to feed the flock.  What does this involve?

1. A biblical diet, not a provision of pastoral personality – Some pulpits have degenerated into a weekly opportunity for the flock to enjoy the pastor’s eloquence or humour.  He may be a godly man, an inspiring man, a kind man, or whatever, but his job is to point the flock to the Word of God, not his own brand of pious oratory.

2. A consistent diet, not a sporadic scattering of random teaching – Some churches receive an incredibly inconsistent diet – some from the same preacher who shifts and changes with the wind, others from multiple speakers who visit to preach but can never lead.  It is good for a preacher to include variety and to keep learning.  It is good for guest speakers to be used judiciously by a church leadership.  But if the net effect of either approach is an inconsistent diet, then the flock will not be properly fed (and the flock will also not trust the church to be a safe place for bringing guests – an important side effect of inconsistency!)

3. A cumulative diet, not a hodge-podge of unordered repetition – Some churches get to digest a diet that has no cumulative structure.  That is, each Sunday the pastor or varied speakers offer whatever they feel led to bring on that Sunday.  Again, there is place for space in the schedule – buffer weeks to allow for teaching that was unplanned months before but is on target in the moment.  However, when churches lean too much into this approach what they end up getting is not a balanced diet, but an overload of certain favourite subjects and passages.  Repetition can become the name of the game.

4. A healthy diet, not a toxic overload of fast food entertainment – Listeners love to have itching ears scratched with entertainment, experience and surface level applicational teaching.  The shepherds of a church need to recognize that the sheep may not know what is best for their diet.  Too much sugar will poison a person, and too little healthy teaching will do profound damage to a church.

5. A Christ-focused diet, not a pseudo-Christian selection of self-help nibbles – Building on the previous point, people love to nibble on self-help top-tips wrapped in Bible stories and garnished with proof texts.  However, if the preacher is pointing listeners to themselves, to their efforts, to their application, to their discipline, then that preacher is not primarily pointing people to Christ.  The preaching may feel very churchy, but is it actually Christian?

Feeding the flock is an important responsibility.  Let’s look at our own preaching, as well as the preaching plan for our churches.  Let’s prayerfully consider whether we are offering health to our listeners.  Like a good parent you won’t be able to serve up a feast at every meal, but you will look to offer health at every opportunity.

Preaching Myths – Part 3

The whole idea of a “good sermon” is a tricky one.  While some feel it is inappropriate to evaluate, others base that evaluation purely on positive fruit.  Here is another evaluation myth:

3. If a sermon is really good then listeners will not be offended

This is not so much the presence of positive fruit, but the absence of apparently negative fruit.  There are many conflict avoiders amongst us.  Probably most of us would rather not see people upset or offended in the church – it certainly makes ministry easier when everyone is smiling.  But we need to probe the premise here: is a sermon really failing if some get offended by it?

By that measure, Jesus’ ministry was incredibly ineffective.  Jesus knew what was going on inside people and therefore seemed very willing to offend by what he said and what he did.  We certainly do not have perfect insight into human hearts, but it would be utterly naïve to assume that everyone is in some sort of happy neutral state.  Good preaching should disturb the comfortable and not just comfort the disturbed.  There are people in our churches who should be profoundly bothered by the gospel.

But there are some important caveats to make explicit here:

A. Make sure that people are offended by the right things.  If people find the grace of God scandalous, or the glory of the gospel, or character of God, or the depth of their need, then it is probably a good offense.  But if people are being wound up by your personal ministry soapbox issues or legalistic preferences, if people are being upset by the promotion of a certain Christian sub-culture, then I would argue that the offense is not life-giving.

B. Make sure that people are offended by the right person.  If people find your tone objectionable, or your manner distasteful, or your character un-Christ-like, then they are being offended by the wrong person.  Good preaching will offend some, and they may well pin the blame on the preacher, but at the heart of the offense is the Holy Spirit’s work of conviction and shining a light into their hearts.  They may lash out at you, but the bothering is being done by God.  It is so hard to evaluate this as we have a seemingly infinite capacity to self-protect and justify what we do.  Ask God, and ask trusted others, and make sure that your ministry has a graciousness and gentleness befitting a spokesman for Christ (as well as the courage and boldness to speak the truth that His spokesperson should demonstrate too).

C. Make sure that offense is a text-response. If people are angry at your illustrations, your anecdotes, your explanations and your applications, then there may be an issue.  Ideally, the offense should be caused by the biblical text itself rather than your departure from it.

A positive-response-only expectation is not realistic for true biblical preaching.  We should be seeing some apparently negative-responses, but we need God’s help to make sure that what provokes these responses is life-giving biblical preaching rather than our personal rudeness, pastoral insensitivity, or whatever else we can manage as a misfire from the pulpit.

7 Things Preachers Never Say – pt.4

Here is the fourth in our series of things preachers tend not to say:

4. I feel the force of real temptation, and I am not always victorious.

This is a tricky one, isn’t it?  We are told that people love to hear a preacher being vulnerable and authentic.  At the same time if the preacher simply lays it all out there, then credibility tends to fade through the floor.  One person suggested on this site that it is not good to be vulnerable about sin that is currently still in process.  Work it out and then share appropriately.  That is probably wise.

But whether we tell recent stories or not, there is a struggle with temptation that is current and that is real.  Some preachers may be struggling with their fleshly reaction to others.  Some preachers may feel like lust is in full attack mode.  Some preachers may feel like their victory over some private temptation is less than all-conquering.  That is not to say that the preacher is therefore living in sin.  They may be living in victory and yet still feel worn down by the constant temptation.

We tend to focus talk on sin in areas of overt misconduct – lust or theft or whatever.  But what about the more “sanctified” sins … the popular churchy ones.  It is not easy to talk about ongoing struggles with pride, or poor self-worth, or unresolved conflict, or temptation to gossip, or whatever.

The truth is that while there may be no disqualifying disaster sin lingering like a skeleton in your preacher’s closet, there is a daily and weekly battle with temptation that is wearying and real.  We may not be losing control and assaulting others in fits of drunken rage, but there may be some self-protective habits in life, and there may be some tensions in the home or the church that tempt us to lash out, or numb the pain, or escape, or whatever.

Sometimes people treat the preacher in such a way that the preacher is the only person in the church who feels unable to share their struggles.  After all, not only is the preacher potentially not being vulnerable, but in some churches there is nobody else creating hope of grace and love if the preacher were to express their own struggle or failure.

Preachers struggle with temptation too, and preachers sin too, and it would be really helpful to get some real conversations going.

7 Things Preachers Never Say – pt.3

What do preachers feel unable to say?  We’ve mentioned the burden of expectation, and the pain that can come from responses of criticism and apathy.  Here’s another to throw into the discussion:

3.  My family is not the picture perfect family you think it is or wish it were.

Real families have real struggles.  Preachers have real families.  Therefore our families struggle.  That means that sometimes there are real challenges in a preacher’s marriage.  I am not talking about the petty disputes over toilet seats that are easy to reference in the pulpit.  I am talking about the incredibly tense interchanges that you don’t mention in a sermon.  Husbands and wives can really clash, or really drift, or really struggle, and that is really true for preachers too.  It is easy to assume that a preacher’s marriage is healthy and easy, but healthy marriages are not usually easy.  If there is a healthy marriage then that is the fruit of God’s grace to overcome lots of sin, and it is the result of lots of difficult decisions along the way, including lots of forgiveness in both directions.  Only the most naïve can say, “you’re lucky, you have a good marriage.”  And sometimes they will say it.

And then there is parenting, another great arena for luck!  “You are lucky, you have easy children.”  Guess again.  Some children may be more compliant than others, but every child needs parenting.  And parenting involves heartache.  The preacher’s children throw tantrums, sin foolishly, and sometimes rebel along the way.  I think there are times when a preacher would do well to pull back from preaching ministry to give their energy to parenting ministry, but there is never a time when a preacher has an easy life as a parent.  Parenting includes heartache, and real fear, disappointments, concern, sleepless nights, and so on.

And it needs saying that the “problem” is not always with the non-preaching spouse or the children.  It could be, but it could also be the other way around too.  Sometimes a preacher may not be a good spouse or a good parent.  There may be times when the preacher vulnerably acknowledges their personal weakness or the challenges at home, but no congregation wants a weekly update on the preacher’s family soap opera.  And typically no preacher wants to expose their family so that everyone knows the struggles they face at home.

Am I saying that all you see is false?  Not at all.  What I am saying is that the preacher’s family is a real family, with real sin, real tension, real disagreements, real weaknesses, real discussions, real disciplining, real parenting and real inadequacy.  If the fruit that is visible is good, then praise God, not luck.  (If the fruit is obviously not good, maybe the preacher needs releasing from some burdens to be able to prioritise their ministry at home.  I can never fathom churches watching helplessly as their pastor’s marriage collapses or their child goes off the rails!)

The preacher’s family life is real, whether you get to see the inner workings or not!

7 Things Preachers Never Say – pt.2

This series looks at seven things preachers never say.  Last time we thought about the burden of expectation.  How about this for another:

2. Both sides of negative response can really sting, that is, both criticism and apathy.

As a preacher, there are hosts of factors at play in my ministry.  There are tangible and intangible costs to what I do.  There is the immediate and the long-term.  As a preacher, I may spend hours during the week praying for the people and preparing to preach to them.  As a preacher, I may be forfeiting a number of other paths I could have walked down in life.  At times I will see the positives that come from being in a preaching ministry.  Believe me when I say it is one of the greatest privileges imaginable.  At the same time, some negative responses really can sting.

It hurts to be criticized.  It hurts when people criticize your motives or lie about you to others.  It hurts when the preacher is being roasted more than the joint of beef during Sunday lunch in every household of a congregation.  It hurts when people throw stones and storm out of the door.  It hurts when people’s grievances seem to inevitably hit the most visible targets in the church, which tends to be those who lead and preach.

Sometimes criticism is justified.  But it still hurts when instead of coming to you, those with grievances decide to broadcast their complaints to others instead.  It hurts to have to always be the mature one when others are being profoundly immature.  When sheep go on the attack it can really hurt!

But there is another side to negative response:

Apathy also hurts.  When you pour out your heart in prayer and burn the candle at both ends in preparation, only to be met with polite apathy, it stings.  The polite comments that amount to “nice sermon” when you have just given everything you had to preach it can really sting.  When year after year of preaching is met with the expectation that you will just be ready to do it again next week, but without much gratitude or apparent responsiveness, that stings.

We don’t preach for human affirmation.  Preachers tend to be like parents – our goal is not to be liked, it is to lovingly give what is needed by the people we love.  But preachers are also like parents in that both criticism and apathy can really hurt.  We preach for our audience of One, but that doesn’t give us infinitely thick skin.

How Do You Pray for Fellow Believers?

PrayingHands2There is a strange phenomena in the church when it comes to praying for people.  Obviously this is a generalisation, but I have observed it enough to suggest that it may be a pattern.

When people become followers of Jesus our prayers for them seem to change.  Before they are saved we pray for God to work in their lives and circumstances, for their hearts to be drawn to Christ, for the spiritual blindness to be taken away, etc.  Once they trust Christ and are in the family, then what do we pray for? Often it seems to shift to the more mundane matters of health and career.

This is not just the case in church prayer meetings, but also among leaders too.  I know that I am tempted to pray more fervently and more “spiritually” for those who are outside God’s family, or for those who are on the fringes.  But for those who seem to be doing well in human terms?  It is tempting to assume all is well.

Take a look at Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians in 1:15-23.  He begins by referencing how thankful he is for their faith in Christ and love for the saints.  These are healthy believers – they have a vertical relationship that is spilling into their horizontal relationships.  These are the kind of people I am tempted to bypass as I pray.  Not so for Paul!

The One Thing – He goes on to make clear the one thing that he prays for them: that the Father might give them the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him!  That is, Paul prays for these believers to know God.  Simple.  Or is it profound?

Clearly he doesn’t mean that he wants them to “come to know” God, but to grow in their knowing Him.  He wants their relationship with God to go deeper, that the union they have with Christ should become more vibrant and developed.  (Remember that “in Christ” occurs almost forty times in Ephesians – union with Christ is a massive theme in the letter.)

I suspect many of us who have a passion to see the lost brought to salvation may fall into the trap of then missing the growth potential that exists for a believer.  There is so much more than just getting saved and then telling others, there is massive potential for spiritual growth and maturity.

The Three Things – Paul spells out this one prayer request with three specifics.  He wants God to enlighten the eyes of their hearts to know three things.

First, he wants them to know the absolute certainty of their calling in Christ.  We have churches filled with people who carry the label of Christian, and yet have all manner of uncertainty and confusion over God’s calling on their lives.

Second, he wants them to know that they are God’s inheritance – an inheritance He considers to be gloriously rich!  This is not something new believers readily grasp.  Just as it takes a wife many years to truly believe that her husband really loves her, so it is with God’s people.

Third, he wants them to know how much power there is toward them as they trust God for it.  That is, is there enough power for a life like mine to be truly transformed by the gospel?  Is there enough power for me to be raised from my sinful state of death to do the works God has prepared for me to do?  There is if that power is the same power that raised Christ from the dead, seated him in glory, put all enemies under his feet and made him head over the church!

Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians is incredibly encouraging for us to read.  More than that, it is deeply challenging to recognize that this prayer was prayed for those who were already faithful and loving.  Let’s not bypass those that seem healthy and established in our churches and in our ministry spheres.  Let’s pray for them, and for ourselves too, to be growing in our relationship with God, knowing more profoundly the reality of our hope, his inheritance and the abundance of power available!

Biggest Mistakes Preachers Make – pt 3

Slip2In this series we aren’t looking to tweak at the fringes of preaching, but rather to get a big wrench to the major parts of the ministry.  We’ve thought about “harvesting imperatives” and “not preaching the passage.”  Here’s another:

Mistake 3 – Not Preaching to the People Present

Preaching is a pastoral role.  We are not being called to perform, but to shepherd.  We can, and must, do the role of a shepherd as we preach.  A shepherd feeds, leads, cares and protects his sheep.  In order to pastor through preaching, we need to know and love the people we are preaching to each Sunday.

Obviously if you are visiting a church, or speaking at a special event, then you may only have half an hour to get to know the specific group of people present.  Do what you can.  It is also important to know people in general, so that you can preach to people in particular, but always seek to preach to those who are present.

Here are some alternative listener profiles to root out of our preaching.

Don’t preach to people who are missing.  Some preachers seem to have allowed the richness of the gospel to evaporate into a duty of church attendance. These preachers are then liable to preach frustration toward those who “should” be present, but aren’t.

Don’t preach to an audience your favourite preacher attracts.  You might have a favourite preacher who preaches to a cool crowd in some other city in America or somewhere, but if your listeners are from rural Somerset, they aren’t a “Seattle” crowd.

Don’t preach to a culture that isn’t in your church.  The culture may be increasingly postmodern, but lots of church congregations aren’t.  Don’t seek to overcome issues that your listeners aren’t facing in any meaningful way.

Don’t preach to land another job.  I hate to say it, but there are some preachers who are preaching so that their sermon is attractive to a “better” church they’d like to get a call from.  Be faithful to your congregation and God will help you adapt if you need to move church for some reason.

Don’t preach to spar with foes.  It is very possible to preach targeted comments toward people acting likes foes in your congregation, so technically they are present, but still this isn’t wise.  But don’t waste energy preaching to foes not present.  Having a go at a high profile atheist doesn’t achieve much.  By all means equip your listeners to handle what they are hearing in the media, but that would mean preaching to them.  Taking pot shots at people not present isn’t impressive.

Get to know and pray for the people you are preaching to each Sunday. Then your preaching can pastor their souls. If you don’t care about them, don’t preach to them.