Four Helpful Words Before You Preach That Awkward Word

awkwardEvery pastor has sermons that they hate to preach, especially when it comes to cultural flashpoints. Unless you’re a glutton for conflict, or you’ve got nerves of steel, the thought of misunderstanding, rejection, or turning someone off from the Gospel because you’ve got to preach on that subject this week when Joe happens to be bringing his 10 unsaved, unchurched friends might just cause you some nerves.

The tension is there for various reasons. First, you want to be faithful to God’s word. You don’t want to hem or hedge or cover over what God has spoken. It’s God’s word and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s truth that, even when it cuts, leads to the beautiful healing brought about by the Spirit. Then again, you also want people to properly hear what was actually spoken, as opposed to what they’ve been culturally-trained to hear as soon as a couple of key buzzwords are dropped. As wonderful as the Word is, aside from our own natural resistance, people have mishandled it, creating a natural, understandable hesitation about certain hot-button topics.

In these situations, I have found that it’s helpful to say a few words before, or with, or after, those words we’re a little worried to utter or expound. Consider them framing words. They help set up, frame, or prepare your people to process what you’re about to say. To use an odd, distracting image, it’s like trying to clear some wax out of the ears before putting in headphones. You want as little hindering your people as possible. What’s more, these are the kinds of helpful conversation-framers that teach your people how to talk to outsiders beyond Sunday morning in the pews. By the way, at the outset, you need to know that I probably got all of these from Tim Keller at some point.

So what are these ‘words’?

1. Culture changes, so do our presuppositions. The first point is that our moral intuitions, while there for our good, are culturally-shaped, and therefore pretty malleable. Things that just “felt wrong” to people 60 years ago, didn’t feel wrong 60 years before that, and vice versa. Or again, things that just “seem obviously right” to someone in the Middle East, will “seem obviously wrong” to someone in downtown Chicago. Yes, there is a fundamental human nature, with instincts for the basic shape of right and wrong, but like our sense of fashion it’s got a certain sense drift. We’ve worn jeans for a while now, but in the 90s they were baggy and under your butt. Now, they’re skinny compressed. At both times, they “feel right” as pants, despite their wide difference.

In a similar way, some of the Bible’s answers will make intuitive sense to people out in the culture and sometimes they won’t. Right now the Bible’s answers about grounding the nature of human rights, cultivating empathy, compassion and forgiveness, all resonate with our culture even if they don’t buy the story. In other areas like sex and money, the Bible’s message is going to grate. Sometimes, then, the Bible’s answers are like an odd image on puzzle-piece. It’s only when you’ve placed it in the broader picture, that it will make any sense.

2. The Unchanging Cultural Universal. The next truth that goes hand in hand with the last point is that no culture has ever been universally right on every point. Every culture has blind spots. As Lewis has pointed out before, we might look back on the Medievals and judge them for their violence and love of marshall conquest, while they would look at an age like ours and wonder at our cheap view of sex, or physical cowardice. Compassion towards outsiders might be a premium we champion, but our lack of loyalty in marriage, or our workaholism and materialistic consumerism are things that other ages and cultures would look at us and shake their heads at. Just like human individuals, the Bible teaches that human cultures are both filled with common grace truth and yet broken by sin. If that’s the case, if the Bible is the transcultural truth of God, wouldn’t we expect for it to affirm and challenge each culture and age in different spots?

3. First Things First.  Next, and this one is mostly for the skeptics or newbies checking out the faith, keep first things first. As Keller asks in The Reason for God, “Surely you don’t want to say that just because you don’t like what the Bible says about, issue x (women, same-sex marriage, etc) you don’t believe Jesus rose from dead? You wouldn’t want to make such a non-sequitur.” The point is this: Figure out the main things first and then come back for the tough, but peripheral stuff. There is an order of importance in the Christian faith for which beliefs ground other beliefs. In other words, who cares what the Bible says about contraception or gender roles if Jesus never rose from the dead? If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then, as Paul says, “your faith is futile and you’re still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:12-20), so who cares right? So, if you’re troubled and new and don’t know what to think, that’s okay. Read and learn. But first, tackle the bigger issues like God, Christ, the nature of salvation, and then wrestle with what the Bible says about your pet issue.

4. If Jesus Did Rise… Now, for those of us who have come to the conclusion that Jesus did rise from the dead and he’s the Creator of all things and Cosmic Lord of the Universe, well, then it’s time to wrestle with the Bible he affirmed as true and authoritative. It’s not possible to say to him, “Jesus, you’re my Lord, my Savior, and I trust you with my eternal destiny when I die” and then turn around and add “but right there, what you said about my bank account (sex life, marriage, time, etc), is kind of off, so I’ll have to pass.” It just doesn’t work. Now, you may take a while to study and figure out what the Bible is saying, but after you’ve said yes to Jesus, straight-up disagreement is not an option.

So there you go. Obviously, you don’t have to frame them the way I did. And, it would probably be a good idea to go cruise through Keller’s Reason for God at some point if you haven’t, just to get the clearer version of all of these. Still, points like these are worth making. And now that I think about it, they’re good, not only during the particular sermon in question, but regularly, during all sorts of sermons. You often need to be tilling the soil long before planting season if it’s going to be ready to receive the more difficult seed you want to sow.

Of course, above all, trust God himself to be at work in the Word by his Spirit.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Most Important Thing You Can Ask for in Ministry

Ever since I was a kid, the story of Solomon’s prayer for wisdom has been a favorite of mine. My mom would read it often to me and recall it to mind when we were talking about pretty much any subject, so that I should always seek wisdom from God before anything else. I think she knew I was going to need it.

For those of you who don’t know the story, the first half of 1 Kings 3 recounts the story of God appearing to the young Solomon in a dream after the death of his father King David. God grants him one request at the beginning of his reign. To God’s great delight, Solomon replies:

And now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of your people whom you have chosen, a great people, too many to be numbered or counted for multitude. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?
(1 Kings 3:7-9)

Understanding, wisdom is Solomon’s request. God has put him in charge of a great people and he knows that he needs wisdom in order to administer justice among them for he is only a young man. God hears this and is greatly pleased and tells him that because he did not ask for money, power, the defeat of enemies, or anything of the like, but rather wisdom to administer justice, he will have all of these things and in spades. Not only will he be wise, but he will be wiser than any that have come before and any that follows. Beyond that, God will bless him with peace, wealth, and general prosperity in a way that Israel will not experience under any other king.

Ruling a Great and Mighty People I come back to that story now as a young guy starting out in ministry and I read it with new eyes. As a minister of the Gospel, I’ve been called to “rule”, administer, and care for the people of God. Call it what you want, there is an authority and a responsibility to shepherd God’s flock given to those of us who work in the church, paid or not. This is a scary task. Many of us don’t stop to think about it, but we are taking care of GOD’s people. They’re his. He cares about them. They are his blood-bought  people, so for him to place them in our hands is a weighty thing. It’s the kind of thing that we probably need a lot of understanding to accomplish.

When I read this story it is humbling and kind of convicting to think about my prayer life (and, at times, lack thereof.) What am I praying for as a minister? Working at an North American church it’s really easy to get caught up in asking for all sorts of things besides wisdom. We can get caught up asking for numbers so the attendance sheets look full and your ministry seems effective. Or how about funding? It’s easy to think that if I just had a bigger budget, I’d be able to buy the right tools to make my ministry cutting-edge, or position us to host the right events, etc. Or maybe we pray for more leaders? If I just had a little more help this thing would come together, more people would be ministered to, and the Gospel would go forward.

Now, all of these things would be nice. They’d be great. It’s no shame to ask for them. In fact, you probably should be praying for these things. Funds do help. The harvest is plentiful and we need more workers in the field. Numbers are not a bad thing. A lot of really “spiritual” Christians think that it’s a virtue to not care if your church is empty. It can be when that means fidelity despite unpopularity, but otherwise we should want people to be joining the family of God in our congregations. Still, none of these things means anything if you don’t have the wisdom to know what to do with them. Without wisdom you will spend your cash foolishly, your leaders will fail, and people will walk in and then walk out the doors–or worse still, remain in your church unchanged.

We need to be praying for wisdom. Much of Solomon’s wealth, success, and the peace of his kingdom came as a result of his wisdom. Wisdom helps you find good leaders, work with the funding you have, and know what to do with your people when you get them.  Thankfully, God is rich in wisdom and generous with it. He gives it to any who asks in faith. (James 1:5) So, just ask.

(What are some things that you pray for your ministry about? What do you usually feel is the most pressing need? Why? How good would it be without wisdom?)

Wisdom is Needed Even for Two  Something else to realize is that this goes for you–whoever you are. Everybody needs to be asking for wisdom to care for the people of God, even if you only have a congregation of two.

That’s one of the things we see in the final story of the chapter, with Solomon’s famous decision about the two women and the child. (1 Kings 3:16-28) Two prostitutes who were room-mates bore children within days of each other. One woman’s child died in the night and so she switched the two babies, claiming the live one was hers. They came before Solomon with a plea for justice. Solomon came up with a way of determining who was the true mother by offering to chop the baby in half and give each a piece. The true mother said to give the child to the other mother in order that it might be spared; the other one didn’t care. Solomon then gave the child to the one with compassion. Scary, kinda gruesome, but wise.

In context, the story shows Solomon’s wisdom was sufficient for administering justice within the whole of the nation. But here’s the thing, essentially the problem occurs between two women. That’s all it takes. Small-group leaders and one-on-one disciplers need wisdom just as much as mega-church pastors running congregations of thousands, because people are people no matter the size of the group.

Really Ask for Wisdom A final point when considering this story: we really need to be asking for wisdom. No, this is not just pointless repetition. One bad way of reading this story is to think that if we ask for wisdom, God will automatically give us all these other things. No, that’s not how it works. You can’t trick God into giving you a bigger budget or a bigger congregation. If your real desire is these things, wisdom will not come because you’ll fall into the foolishness that comes with obsessing over these things. Worry about getting wisdom first, seeking righteousness in the way that you care for the flock of God, and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matt 6:33)

Soli Deo Gloria