Pastors, You Are Friends of the Groom (Preach Accordingly)

companyThis last week I had the immense privilege of preaching at my church. Which means I had the joy of prepping a sermon. As I sat there studying the text, trying to analyze it, discern the themes, and figure out where I needed to go with it, I was having a hard time. There was so much to talk about, but I didn’t want to “preach” some winding lecture through text. It needed to be an actual sermon.

In the middle of the struggle, though, as I was wondering “How am I going to preach this text?” that I was struck with the thought, “What else would I preach but this text?” In other words, “What else do you get up there and preach on a Sunday if not the Bible?”

I mean, theoretically, I know it happens all the time. Pastors get up there and give some therapeutic talk about the self, or family, or finances, or what have you, sometimes loosely rooted in a text, or other times without even that pretense. And people show up every week to listen to them.

My question, I suppose, is how do you come up with this stuff? Where do you get your message? And why should anybody care about your message? Who are you anyways, that people should show up every week to hear your thoughts plucked out of the ether?

Or rather, just what do you think you’re doing up there?

I was reminded of this later this week when working my way through Scott Manetsch’s excellent work Calvin’s Company of Pastor’s, a history of the pastoral ministry in Calvin’s Geneva (I highly recommend picking up the new paperback). In one section, he outlines the conception Calvin and his colleagues had of the call of the pastor, and one of the main images they fixated on was that of “friend of the Bridegroom.”

Manetsch calls attention to this instructive quote from Calvin’s commentary on John 3:29:

It is a great and lofty distinction, that men are appointed over the Church, to represent the person of the Son of God. They are, therefore, like the friends whom the bridegroom brings with him, that they may accompany him in celebrating the marriage; but we must attend to the distinction, that ministers, being mindful of their rank, may not appropriate to themselves what belongs exclusively to the bridegroom. The whole amounts to this, that all the eminence which teachers may possess among themselves ought not to hinder Christ from ruling alone in his Church, or from governing it alone by his word.

While Geneva’s pastors had a high sense of their calling, they knew they were supposed to have a derivative place in the hearts of their congregation.  As friends of the Bridegroom, their purpose was to prepare the Bride for the Bridegroom. That means cultivating their love for him, their trust in him, their conformity to a way of life suited to their great Love.

In other words, Jesus calls pastors not so that his Church can fall in love with the pastor, trust the pastor, pray to the pastor, be dependent on the pastor, or allow the pastor to be the center of their spiritual lives.

Most people entering ministry probably know this in their heads, or would affirm it in the main, if asked. But sadly, it’s simply all too common to find pastors (especially the younger ones) who enter the ministry with a strong desire to be the center of the attention. Pastors who strive to be liked, to be loved, to be thought a good pastor for the sake of propping up their self-esteem.

While this can pop up all over your ministry, I think it tends to show up in your preaching in a few ways.

First, you have a tendency to over-insert yourself into your sermons. Stories and illustrations are fine as they help you make a point, or let your hearers connect to the text, but if you’ve got yourself as the main illustration of every other sermon point, or somehow your spiritual struggle is the highlight and resolution of the sermon, you just might be subconsciously trying to steal the Bride for yourself.

Second, think through whether the text you’re preaching (assuming you’re preaching a text) is the obstacle or the means to getting your point across. That’s a clumsy way of putting it, but do you regularly struggle to say what the text is saying, or struggle with getting the text to fit what you’ve decided needs to be said on a given Sunday? It’s rarely that bald of choice in people’s heads, but every preacher has had that moment where you catch yourself wishing Paul had said this instead of that and then having to rewrite your sermon outline to actually fit the Bible. If you never find yourself rearranging your sermon to fit the text, you’re either an amazing biblical preacher, or you may want to start checking your heart.

Finally, and this may be more of a personality or experience thing, if you yourself spending more of your sermon prep time thinking through the embellishments (should I put a joke here?, etc) than the structure or clarity of making the biblical point, your heart is probably more concerned with being liked at that point than is healthy for a preacher. Or, at least, that’s something I notice for myself. But given the preaching I’ve watched over the years, I’m sure there’s more than a few others who struggle with that as well.

I’m sure we can all think of other signs, but they all point to one underlying concern: if you are truly just a friend of the Bridegroom, it his words that you’re worried to communicate to the Bride.

A personal story by way of illustration (possible irony alert!): when my sister got married, I got to be in the wedding as a groomsman. My brother-in-law, Shawn, wrote my sister a series of notes filled with memories from their relationship and had me run them over to her dressing room while they were both preparing for the wedding. The point of the notes was to emphasize their mutual love, his care for her, and the anticipation of their joy. Now, it would have been beyond absurd if I would have taken them, and then getting to the room, insisted on reading them in the most dramatic, attention-grabbing manner possible. Or even worse, merely held them in my hand simply just told her what I figured Shawn would say. No, I was there to deliver the Bridegroom’s mail and then get out of the way.

The same thing is true for us preachers. Your call is to make him look good, not yourself. In which case, your deepest concern is that the Church would understand Jesus’ life and work, Jesus’ promises and commands, and therefore Jesus’ words to the Church given in Scripture. You’re up there to deliver the mail and then get out of the way.

Soli Deo Gloria

5 Wrong Ways to Talk About Sin (TGC)

sinChristianity is inextricably bound up with the notion of sin. The Bible tells the story of the triune God’s rescue mission to redeem rebels out of their sin and guilt, which alienates them from his shared life of light and love. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the central message of how the Son came in the power of the Spirit to conquer sin and death through his own life, death, and resurrection. Without seriously considering the weight of sin, as Anselm so famously urged us to do, we can’t possibly understand the glory, goodness, and mercy of God’s liberation. Neither can we respond to it appropriately with repentance, faith, and worship. This is why Christians have historically spent so much time talking about sin.

If you’ve been around church long enough, though, you know there are plenty of ways to “talk about sin” that fall short of considering its full weight. I can think of at least five.

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

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: What is Christ-Centered Hermeneutics?

Mere FidelitySo, we’ve all see that phrase “Christ-centered” pop up on the blogosphere before. “Christ-centered preaching”, “Christ-centered theology”, “Christ-centered dog washing”–but what does that even mean? Especially when it comes to interpretation, what does it mean to have a truly Christ-centered hermeneutics? Does that just mean doing typology all day long? And is there a right way or a wrong way to do typology? Do we stick to only the types authorized explicitly by the apostles, or can we expand? And if we expand, how do we stop before we fall into typological excess? And what about Tim Keller?

Alastair, Andrew, and I go into all this in this week’s episode of Mere Fidelity. It was a fun one. I hope you enjoy and pass it along.

By the way, if you’d like to review and rate us over at iTunes (if and only if you like us), please feel free to do that here.

Soli Deo Gloria

It Takes a Hard Forehead and a Heavy Heart to Preach (For the Church)

takeshardforeheadThinking about preaching while reading the prophets is a sobering thing. Whether it’s Isaiah’s commission to preach to a deaf and blind people, or Jeremiah’s call to go preach without fear to those who threaten his life and reject his message, the prophets don’t exactly make good promo material for aspiring seminarians.  (“Preaching God’s Word–Learn how to do it without getting killed.”) Nevertheless they are essential reading for anyone trying to engage in ministry within the church, especially the ministry of the Word. I was reminded of this again this week as I came to Ezekiel in my devotional.

Ezekiel’s Assignment and Ours

In Ezekiel 2-3, Ezekiel receives his commission to preach to the wicked, rebellious house of Israel in a vision. The basic call was to persevere in preaching the word of the Lord no matter what because through him God will make them know that “a prophet has been among them.” (2:5) This seems tough, but encouraging right? I mean, he is told that it will be evident that Ezekiel is God’s anointed prophet. God will be with him powerfully. That’s gotta be good?

Eh, not so much. There’s more.

See, while promising to be with him, God also makes it clear he’s not going to be greeted with a lot of success. He is going to be rejected. His message will fall on rebellious ears and stubborn hearts. He says that he’s sending him to a people who are so stubborn that, even though the message is not hard to understand, and the language is not a barrier, even so, they will reject it because they continually reject God. (3:6) Yet still, God calls him to be a “watchman” over the house of Israel (3:17), preaching a warning to God’s people so that they might turn, repent, and not come under judgment. Knowing that the people will rebel, knowing that they will reject him, knowing the difficulty he is still to preach the word of the Lord.

How are we to preach under conditions like this? What drives faithfulness in situations like this? How do we bear up under the pressure? Most of us don’t think about this going in. I mean, we might “know” it’s going to be hard. We might “know” that if we faithfully preach the word, not all that we say is going to be received well. Nevertheless, coming face to face with recalcitrant members of the body, people who won’t repent, members you’re intimidated to speak honestly to for fear of causing them to leave, can catch some of us off guard and make us lose our nerve. Even with the Spirit of God indwelling the hearts of believers, nobody likes being told to repent. The house of Israel can still be a rebellious people this side of the Cross.

You can read the rest of the post over at For the Church.

Soli Deo Gloria

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 ‘Technical Stuff’ Matters in Preaching (Or, Theology is Unavoidable)

Matthew Levering makes a point I’ve seen confirmed time and again in my own preaching and teaching with college students and young adults:

Most Christians contemplate God liturgically and through personal prayer and study, rather than also by developing the intellectual habits proper to speculative theology. Nonetheless, attempts to speak about God (not merely to fellow theologians, but also and perhaps especially to persons in the pews) require some understanding of “technical” issues. Anyone who has ever heard a sermon on the Trinity – Catholics will attest to the painfully awkward experience that is “Trinity Sunday” – will admit that talk about the three Persons quickly becomes horribly thin unless the preacher has some metaphysical understanding (without denying the unfathomable mystery) of how the Persons are perfectly one and yet distinct. Simply put, no one in the pews wishes to hear about three gods. There is an expectation, rooted in Christian faith and the practices of faith, that the mystery must possess some intelligibility, that scriptural and metaphysical modes of reflection cannot ultimately be opposed. There must be some way of distinguishing the three Persons from the multiple gods of polytheism, beyond simply asserting that this is “not polytheism” and that the three are “one God,” whatever that might mean.

–Matthew Levering, Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology, pg. 6

Bold Theologian.

Bold Theologian.

Just the other night in Bible study with a group of young adults, working our way through Gospel of John, we had to stop and begin to parse doctrine of the Trinity in some detail. This wasn’t my own theological orientation jumping at the opportunity to explain eternal generation. We were forced by the logic of Jesus’ own words to attend to the trinitarian grammar of what Jesus was explaining to his disciples. Without a proper doctrine of the Trinity, or a working Christology, I don’t believe you can make it through half of Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees, or dialogues with the disciples in that Gospel.

I mean, think about it. You can’t even make it past the most bottom-of-the-barrel proclamation represented by that guy holding up the poster of John 3:16 at the football game without encountering “the technical stuff”:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Well, okay. But what does it mean that God “gave his only Son”? God has kids? How? Where is His Wife? Why does Mrs. God get no headlines?

You see where this goes?

All that to say, at some point, for everyone, the “technical details” matter. It doesn’t matter that all you want to do, young pastor, is “preach the gospel” or “just love people.” If any of that involves more than the most shallow truisms and generalities, you’re going to have to do some theological digging. What’s more, for those who think you had all that handled in seminary, aside from the fact that there’s no way you covered all that questions you’re going to face in ministry, or that arise when worshipping an infinite God, just realize that while our basic theology may stay the same, the popular landscape is always shifting. More study is always required.

So roll up your sleeves and get to reading. We’ve got some work to do.

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