Kingdom Opportunities Means Kingdom Adversaries (TGC)

Kingdom adversariesPaul’s ministry philosophy never ceases to surprise me. Toward the end of his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul wraps things up by informing them of his plans to come to them soon, but not yet: “But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries” (1 Cor. 16:8-9).

Paul says he’s going to stay in Ephesus because there’s a wide door open for effective work. Apparently people are responding to the gospel, being discipled in the way of the Lord, built up into the image of Christ, developed into community, and trained as elders. The kingdom is moving forward.

Also, “there are many adversaries.”

I don’t know why, but that little phrase stopped me short. I suppose that despite everything I’ve seen, read, and been told about Christian ministry, I still have this sense that if God is for a thing, there shouldn’t be any opposition; if it’s a real opportunity for the kingdom, that will automatically mean the field is clear and there are no obstacles or enemies. My assumption seems to be that if God is with me, then everything will go smoothly and all will embrace me.

And yet nothing in the story of Scripture leads us to believe that’s true.

You can go read the rest of my article here at The Gospel Coalition.

Christian Wonderland: How Parachurch Ministries Can Serve the Church

wonderlandI work with college students at a local church. I’m the college guy. Aside from Bible studies and coffee shop conversations with local students, my job is prepping those who head off to college for a life of faith of their own. Can I say just how much I appreciate upon their return, hearing about the wonderful campus ministries they’ve gotten involved in? I love the great parachurch ministries like Campus Crusade, or FCA, or Navigators that shepherd and disciple our students while they’re away. I love the campus life ministries on Christian campuses that get our students involved in studies and missions. I love the summers of deep growth that happen when a student goes off to work at a Christian camp.

But if I’m honest, I have one significant issue with these ministries: all too often they are unintentionally setting our students up to fail in the local church.

See, in a lot of ways, ministries like this are better than church in their eyes. I mean, here, you have a lot of people your same age, asking all the same questions, and struggling with all the same issues. They’re all worshipping to the same G, C, D chord anthems, sold out for the same causes, excited, ready to go, full of life, and earnest. Special speakers who specialize in dynamically communicating to their niche segment are brought in for chapels or special events. The leaders’ sole interest is the spiritual life and vitality of 18-20-somethings and the meeting hours are designed around college students’ schedules. It’s beautiful. It’s what I call Christian Wonderland. It’s a magical place to visit, but doesn’t entirely reflect the reality of commitment to the church.

Over at Lifeway Christian Leaders Blog I talk about how parachurch ministries can turn that around and really prepare our students for life in the real church. You can read it here.

Soli Deo Gloria

I Probably Got It From Tim Keller (Or, A Ramble on Plagiarism)

I'm going to re-preach whatever he's saying right now.

I’m going to re-preach whatever he’s saying right now.

My old pastor Mike Erre used to say, “I’ve never had an original idea in my life. I thought I had one once, but then, unsurprisingly I found it in C.S. Lewis.” He was always declaiming the originality of anything he was saying all the while preaching some of the most helpful, creative, biblical sermons I’d ever heard. At first I thought he was just being modest, but as I grew older, read a bit more, and finally had the responsibility of teaching myself, I began to see what he was saying. When it comes to preaching and teaching the Bible, theology, philosophy, or what-have-you, almost everything has been said once before by somebody. I mean, just the other day I was re-reading an old grad-school paper and realized I’d been arguing for something like Calvin’s double-gift theology without ever having read a lick of Calvin.

I bring this up simply because I’ve been thinking a bit about the issue of plagiarism lately. Most of us in the internet blogosphere have. In light of the big plagiarism scandal with several of Mark Driscoll’s works either not attributing clearly-demonstrated dependency on the work of others, or just straight lifting passages, the thing was ugly. What’s more, recent reports seem to indicate that the plagiarization of sermons is on the rise. Pastors are just finding sermons online and  rereading them, or simply parroting their favorite podcasts, effectively doing the same thing.

Now, this raises a number of questions and thoughts for me, so in the, hopefully coherent, ramble that follows, I’d simply like to ask some questions and raise some points for consideration when it comes to the issue of “plagiarism” in blogging, writing, and preaching.

First of all, on the alleged rise in plagiarism, in general, I’m not so sure. I mean, the internet has made it easier to access tons of material and do that sort of thing, but when people talk about the recent rise in it, I’m wondering if certain things aren’t being forgotten. For one thing, we’re more aware of that issue and people are probably paying greater attention now to it. It’s also probably easier to track now than in was before as well. Still, there were plenty of audio tape ministries that probably fed a lot of smaller church pastors with sermons back in the 80s too. Also you gotta consider that because of the internet, Evangelical book/celebrity culture, and so forth, more people are hearing, listening, reading, digesting, and regurgitating the same voices. If that’s the case, it’s not unusual that you’re going to hear the same themes repeated in various sermons in various contexts.

Which raises the issue more formally: what counts as plagiarism in various contexts? Let’s be clear that direct quotes from other people that I lift, copy, and then claim credit for seems to be straight-forward plagiarism. Still, there seem to be some gray areas of confusion. Take citing your sources in preaching. Now, I’ll admit, I tend to like quoting people in sermons because I want my kids to get a desire to read books, it gives some weight, and it’s force of habit from grad school. Still, do I have to mention Tim Keller every time I talk about a “Christ-centered” reading of the texts even though l learned it from him and Edmund Clowney? Or what if I mention the anti-imperial thrust of a certain Pauline text without citing the N.T. Wright commentary I got it from? That doesn’t sound quite right.

Maybe that’s just a function of the preaching context. When you’re preaching, you may not want to go citing a bunch of names and sources because it seems too cluttered. A sermon is not a lecture is not a seminary paper. Your point, in any case, is to preach the text, not Wright’s insight into the text. Or again, in the heat of a sermon, you might make a point about a text and forget who said it so you just preach it. Or what if you have in the general course of study preparation, and so forth, you strike upon an idea, write it down, and completely forget that you originally heard that in a sermon by a popular preacher last year?

A single sermon point might be one thing, but what about a whole sermon structure? For instance, I’ve found myself, at times, hearing a preacher exposit a text in a certain manner that I find compelling and I think, “That right there is something I’m going to preach to my students.” In the few times I have found that I’m following someone else’ basic outline, I think at that point it’s appropriate to say something along the lines of “Joe So-and-So gave me the premise of the sermon I’m preaching this to you today”, or something even more clear. Now, to be honest, I don’t think this should happen very much because it could become a habit you don’t want to fall into. Generally speaking, even when you’re using others’ insights into the texts, you need to be prayerfully working on applying them to your own context anyways. Joe doesn’t know your people and wasn’t called to your church, you were.

More briefly, how do those considerations play out in writing? It seems that a number of those points above would call for some sort of explicit reference. But what about general, widespread concepts, or biblical truths? I’m thinking, for instance, of C.S. Lewis’ analogies in Mere Christianity and his explication of the difference between begetting and making in his section on the Trinity. Lewis got most of that from Athanasius and the other Fathers but he doesn’t do much crediting at all. Is it plagiarism to use the same analogy without referencing them, or just prudence in not wanting to get bogged down even in the writing format? At that point I’m not so sure. Maybe there’s a point when an explanation, or articulation of a text has become the common inheritance of the Christian tradition such that specifying its origin becomes pointless, especially when that’s necessarily where you first heard the point.

At this point it seems prudent to end my ramblings. I suppose it makes sense at this point to issue my own version of my pastor’s disclaimer: if you find me saying anything of intelligence, worth, truth, or edification that I don’t cite outright, just assume I got it from Tim Keller. Beyond that, for other pastors, the best concrete advice I have is do your best to be honest. If you’re worried about a certain instance, err on the side of caution and cite it.

If you have any insights to offer on the subject, please chime in below. This was as much a comment as an invitation to further discussion.

Soli Deo Gloria 

Is it Okay to Pastor the “Small” Problems Too?

single personLast week I had a piece published at the Gospel Coalition on the subject of gluttony, though not the typical gluttony of excess, but rather the gluttony of nice things. I also noted the temptation to that sort of thing present in craft beer, organic, kale, etc. foodie trends that are popular (and that I mostly enjoy!). Well, while it was largely well-received, there were a few nay-sayers.

Why the protest? Well, a few reasons, but the one that really got my attention was the challenge along the lines “You know, you really ought to be dealing with the bigger issue here which is the gluttony of excess. You sit here nit-picking foodies and people who care about their health, but you don’t go after the real obesity epidemic connected to fast food a cruddy foods.” Or again, one that came up a couple of times, “This is the kind of sin that only wealthy, American hipster types with disposable cash would care about.”

What do we say to this? Well, my first retort in a couple of cases was the all-too-obvious “methinks the lady doth protest too much” factor. When you step on someone’s idol–organic or not–they tend to react defensively. But we’ll leave that sort of ad hominem, though likely accurate, argument to the side. Pushing deeper, my question then becomes, “Okay, say the gluttony of excess is the bigger problem. Also, let’s concede that the gluttony of daintiness is the sort of thing that only a middle-class, hipster kid with disposable cash is tempted by. What of it?”

In essence, my question becomes, “Is it okay to pastor the small sins too?”

There is a sort of pragmatism that I find can infect our thinking about pastoral care, preaching, or the witness of the church in these cases. We have this sense that, if the sin isn’t “big” enough, or effect enough people, then we shouldn’t waste our time thinking about it, or addressing it in print. I think this is, quite frankly, nonsense. As a pastor and preacher of the Word of God, I have responsibility to deal any and all issues, big or small, that tempt or draw our hearts away from the Lord. If I only ever addressed the “biggest issues”, I’d probably have to spend every week preaching about sex and money and never get to anything else the Bible addresses, leaving large swathes of the human heart un-addressed.

Beyond that, I have responsibility of thinking of my context. I happen to pastor in an area that has a good chunk of upper middle-class, hipster types with disposable incomes who deal with these sorts of temptations. Am I allowed to address a pastoral word to them? Or do only the majority of Americans, or maybe global citizens need God’s Word addressed to their hearts? Obviously, the question is answered as soon as it is asked. If I followed the logic of only addressing the issues that the majority of people face, I’d never address the challenges that employers, or business owners have, since the majority of people only struggle with the challenges of being an employee. We could follow that logic out in a number of different directions.

The one danger that I would say that pastors need to beware of is using some of these “smaller” issues, or more specific issues, that ding less of your congregation, in order to preach hard on sins that most of your people don’t struggle with. That is a real danger and that’s been at the heart of some of the challenges of inconsistency on the part of progressives on sexuality with respect to same-sex marriage. If you’re going to preach about same-sex sin, you better be challenging your congregation on fornication and divorce as well. And I suppose, if you’re going to talk about daintiness, you better address excess.

Still, that said, don’t be afraid to address the “small” sins. Somebody in your congregation probably struggles with them, others might be tempted by them, and often-times you don’t know the way addressing “smaller” issues will shape the way your people will respond to your preaching on the larger ones.

Soli Deo Gloria

Five Reflections on #T4G 2014

t4gWith thousands of others from across the country, and indeed, world, this last week I had the privilege of attending the 2013 Together for the Gospel conference in Louisville, Kentucky. Far too much happened for me to adequately give an account for it all. Still, I had a few brief reflections on my experience I figured were worth sharing:

  1. Hospitality and Generosity - I only made it to T4G because of the generosity of others. I couldn’t have afforded it myself. From my friends on twitter lobbying to get me to the conference, to my gracious benefactor providing the ticket, my parents helping with airfare, and good friends giving me lodging, every single bit of this trip was due to the gracious giving of others. Along that same line, I was deeply struck by the hospitality of friends, in particular that of my hosts, the Clarks. Richard (my editor at Christ and Pop Culture) and his wonderful wife Jen put me up–and put up with me–for the whole of the conference, providing me with lodging, rides, and the warmth of their care. All of this without us ever having met in real life! I told them a number of times, either I have really low standards of hospitality, or they are champs at it. The entire experience left me with a deep, concrete picture of our generous, hospitable God who gives abundantly and makes undeserving sinners welcome in his home.
  2. New York Calvinists – I find I tend to live a parochial existence in my head. As much as I might affirm the existence of a global church where every tribe, tongue, and nation will one day (and even now) worships King Jesus, I don’t think I have a thick, lived sense of it most of the time. This is why it was such a delight to have the opportunity to meet, if only briefly, brothers and sisters serving, preaching, and teaching the same gospel all around the nation. I think of one brother I talked with briefly, serving young adults in a difficult area of Baltimore. Or again, of the pastors from Albany I ran into, talking in thick New York accents in the airport terminal about the love and wrath displayed in the cross. Or finally, my brother Johnny from New Jersey, serving youth in Detroit, who prayed with me for my college students as I was away from them on Thursday. God-centered ministry is happening in sorts of places that it never occurs for us to think of as centers of gospel-work.
  3. Hey, I Follow You on Twitter – Following off that point, I met a bunch of people I follow on Twitter (and occasionally, those who follow me.) I think I noted this last year after the TGC conference, but it’s lovely to find out that the people you see tweeting and blogging all of this encouraging material actually believe it and are living it out. Beyond that, fellowshipping in the flesh with them made me realize both the blessings and the limitations of technology. I love that I know, laugh with, and am stirred up to service by so many that I know only through social media. That said, being in the same place, able to shake hands, embrace, and grasp hands in prayer made me keenly aware of the blessing of physical presence. As I think of the new friends I’ve made, and older friendships deepened, I begin to feel the weight of Paul’s longing to commune and worship with his brothers and sisters he can only write to and pray for in a new way.
  4. Evangelism is Awkward – So, the conference topic was evangelism and I have to say it was convicting and encouraging. I got on the plane Friday morning looking for new ways to engage my fellow passengers, or fellow travelers in the airport with the gospel, and you know what? I didn’t really get to. I mean, I’d strike up conversations, keen to look for opportunities to mention the gospel, and try as I might, I hit wall after wall. I don’t know if it was that I wasn’t bold enough, prayerful enough, or these were particularly difficult crowds (I mean, once people find out you’re a pastor, things either open up or shut down fast), but it just didn’t go anywhere. Why do I share this? Shouldn’t I wait until I have a nice little story with a bow on it about converting the atheist or the Muslim in the seat next to me? Maybe, but we need to be prepared to hit some difficulties along the road when it comes to sharing the gospel. It’s easy to get discouraged by one or two failed encounters and stop trying to find ways of sharing the news of Jesus. It’s also simple to fall into the trap of thinking this sort of thing just happens naturally and easily for pastors. It doesn’t. We have to work on it too. But remember that God is at work even in our “failed” attempts, working in our own hearts and lives, preparing us for greater service in his kingdom. God is a father who is pleased even with our stumbling efforts in his name.
  5. We Don’t Really Want What We Pray For – Finally, I’m once again reminded of God’s sense of humor. I rarely miss a college group, or am missing for it, so I tend to get a bit anxious the few times I have been away. This week was no different. Though I had my very trustworthy and capable buddy covering for me, great volunteers, and a pretty normal week, I was still kind of worried. That night, though, I prayed with a friend that God would show me that he could glorify himself in the group without me—that he remind me of my essential unnecessariness (not sure that’s a word) in his works. Well, about an hour later I call and check with my wife who tells me the group packed, there are new people, things are bumping, and my first reaction is to think, “Oh great, the one week I’m not there to run things…” Then the thought struck me, “Isn’t this what you prayed for? For things to go smoothly without you? For God to show you he’s perfectly capable of handling things without you there?” And that’s when I was reminded of the reality that so often I don’t actually want the sanctification I pray for. I pray for patience and resent the situations that build it. I pray for compassion and try to harden my heart to opportunities to demonstrate it. Thank God that in his faithfulness, he answers according to our actual needs, not our whims.

As always, there’s more to say, but I’ll cap it there. All in all, the conference was another good gift from God’s hands whose blessings I can’t begin to number.

Soli Deo Gloria

Thistles and Thorns in Ministry (Leadership Journal)

thorns

Thistles and thorns—that’s what the earth gives up to Adam this side of Eden. Adam’s work is no longer a pure good undertaken in delighted obedience to his Creator, but a toilsome chore. The sweat of his brow mingles with the dirt as he engages in the mighty contest, hand to the plow, wrestling life from sandy soil. Life after the Fall is hard and nothing comes easy. Reflecting on life under the sun, without the hope of redemption, Qohelet’s question in Ecclesiastes rings true today, “Who can make straight what he has made crooked?”

Basically, if you’re breathing, you’re frustrated.

Thorny questions

For some reason, I forget this when it comes to my ministry.

Groggy with exhaustion and the mildest tinge of depression, I roll out of bed after a night of ministry with my students. I wander over to the coffee machine for the fix that will get me through my devotions. After a passage from John and a little commentary by Calvin, I stumble into my prayers. I thank God for the good things he’s given me; my adoption, my wife, and my call to ministry. Still, eventually the questions come:

God, what am I doing wrong? What needs to change? Why is it so hard? Where are the people? I did the thing the guy in the book said. I did the stuff the guy on the blog said. Why are the ones I have not growing up? I thought you wanted this to work?

You can go read the rest my reflections over at Leadership Journal.

“Give Light, O Lord” (A Prayer for Preachers)

lightBryan Chapell tells a story that should convict and encourage the heart of any preacher:

In one of the key debates during the formulation of the Westminster Confession of Faith, one scholar spoke with great skill and persuasiveness for a position that would have mired the church in political debates for many years. As the man spoke, George Gillespie prepared a rebuttal in the same room. As they watched him write furiously on a tablet, all in the assembly knew the pressure on the young man to organize a response while the scholar delivered one telling argument after another. Yet when Gillespie rose, his words were filled with such power and scriptural persuasion that the haste of his persuasion was not discernible. Gillespie’s message so impressed those assembled as the wisdom of God that the opposing scholar conceded that a lifetime of study had just been undone by the younger man’s presentation. When the matter was decided, the friends of Gillespie snatched from his desk the tablet on which he had so hastily collected his thoughts. They expected to find a brilliant summary of the words so masterfully just delivered. Instead, they found only one phrase written over and over again: Da lucem, Domine (Give light, O Lord.)

                Over and over Gillespie had prayed for more light from God. Instead of the genius of his own thought, this valiant Reformer wanted more of the mind of God. His humble prayer for God to shed more light on the Word is the goal of every expositor. We pray that God will shed more light on his Word through us. We know that what we say must be biblically apparent, logically consistent, and unquestionably clear if we are to be the faithful guides God requires. It is not enough for our words to be true or our intentions to be good. To the extent that our words obscure his Word, we fail in our task. To the degree that our words illuminate the pages of Scripture, God answers our and our listeners’ prayers.

–Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, pp. 126-127

“Give light, O Lord.” May that be the prayer on the tongues of our people in the pews, and our preachers the pulpit.

Soli Deo Gloria