Is It A Good Thing To Want To Be An Overseer?

For a while now I’ve assumed that every Christian man ought to aspire to church eldership. Look at 1 Timothy 3.1:

“The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.”

On first reading it sounds like Paul is saying something to the effect that the men ought to desire eldership, that this is a good and noble desire. But I think my reading has for a long time been coloured by the way I’ve heard this passage preached, where the ambition to leadership is held up (like a rabbit before a pack of greyhounds) as something to help motivate men to grow up and mature. In fact, I’ve preached it this way myself.

But on a second reading I’m not at all sure that is what Paul’s saying. For one thing, he’s not addressing all the men in the room, but only a selection — notice the “if”. And furthermore, by saying “he desires a noble task” he is not necessarily saying “his desire itself is noble”. I think the meaning is not so much an affirmation of ambition, but an affirmation of the dignity of the role. It’s like saying: “If anyone wants to climb Everest, he has set his sights very high.”

The qualifications that follow in verses 2–7 are then not so much to be treated as goals to attain, though they are worthy goals for any Christian, but rather as a checklist before daring to step into such a role as eldership. So, the overall meaning is like this: “If you want to climb Everest (which is very high) you had better be fit, well-funded, well-trained, and well-bearded.” There is not, to my mind, any comment on whether someone ought to make this a goal in the first place.

What of the ambition to lead? The reality is that many men in churches do want to be elders, and that this desire can spur them on. Is this ambition good, or is it bad?

Calvin thinks that Paul is gently permitting the desire to eldership (the very fact that Paul is addressing such men shows a tacit acceptance of the desire; he doesn’t say the desire is wrong, after all). But Calvin adds some helpful words of caution and advice:

“If ambition is condemned in other matters, much more severely ought it to be condemned in ‘the office of a bishop.’ But Paul speaks of a godly desire, by which holy men wish to employ that knowledge of doctrine which they possess for the edification of the Church. For, if it were altogether unlawful to desire the office of a teacher, why should they who spend all their youth in reading the Holy Scriptures prepare themselves by learning? What are the theological schools but nurseries of pastors?”

So there are men whose passions and interests have led them to pursue vigorous study, and if that is coupled with desire, it may be a good thing for them to find outlet for their gifts for the benefit of the church. He goes on:

“Accordingly, they who have been thus instructed not only may lawfully devote themselves and their labours to God by a voluntary offering, but even ought to do so, and that too, before they have been admitted unto the office; provided that, nevertheless, they do not thrust themselves forward, and do not, even by their own wish, make themselves bishops, but are only ready to discharge the office, if their labours shall be required.”

That is, if a man has been trained he should start finding any and every opportunity to use what he’s got long before he gets ordained. But don’t push for ordination, wait for a summons.

“And if it turn out that, according to the lawful order; they are not called, let them know that such was the will of God, and let them not take it in that others have been preferred to them. But they who, without any selfish motive, shall have no other wish than to serve God and the Church, will be affected in this manner; and, at the same time, will have such modesty that they will not be at all envious, if others be preferred to them as being more worthy.”

This is undoubtedly the test of whether ambition for leadership is well-motivated or not: how a guy reacts when he’s refused the place on the leadership team. Will he have this modesty and complete absence of envy? Will he take it as God’s will?

This post first appeared over at ThinkTheology.

Holiness and your personality type

Because we are all wired up differently our unique proclivities and preferences in life are bound up with the vulnerabilities we face towards temptation. In other words, Satan will target your weak spots. And a good part of your counter-attack is figuring out where you are vulnerable and strapping on extra armour in the right places.

While the descriptions of personality types have multiplied over recent decades and psychologists can’t agree on how best to group us, I came across some super helpful insights from JI Packer. He acknowledges the modern psychological terms, but then says that the Ancient Greek categories are probably the most useful. He describes them like this:

(1) the sanguine (warm, jolly, outgoing, relaxed, optimistic);
(2) the phlegmatic (cool, low-key, detached, unemotional, apathetic);
(3) the choleric (quick, active, bustling, impatient, with a relatively short fuse); and
(4) the melancholic (somber, pessimistic, inward-looking, inclined to cynicism and depression).

It’s not hard to identify yourself in one these descriptions (or a combination of a couple). And what do you do when you have? Packer writes, “The assertion that I now make, and must myself face, is that I am not to become (or remain) a victim of my temperament.” So, while your personality might make you prone to particular sins, it’s your job to fight twice as hard to overcome those tendencies. Packer then goes on with this brilliant summary of what holiness will look like for each of the four main types:

“Holiness for a person of sanguine temperament, then, will involve learning to look before one leaps, to think things through responsibly, and to speak wisely rather than wildly. (These were among the lessons Peter learned with the Spirit’s help after Pentecost.) Holiness for a person of phlegmatic temperament will involve a willingness to be open with people, to feel with them and for them, to be forthcoming in relationships, and to become vulnerable, in the sense of risking being hurt. Holiness for a choleric person will involve practicing patience and self-control. It will mean redirecting one’s anger and hostility toward Satan and sin, rather than toward fellow human beings who are obstructing what one regards as the way forward. (These were among the lessons Paul learned from the Lord after his conversion.) Finally, holiness for a melancholic person will involve learning to rejoice in God, to give up self-pity and proud pessimism, and to believe, with the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich, that through sovereign divine grace, ‘All shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’ ”

(JI Packer, Rediscovering Holiness, location 289 in Kindle)

Commit Fewer Abominations

I’ll readily admit that, from time-to-time, Dr Lloyd-Jones was a little too trigger-happy with his use of the word ‘abomination’. (Few would agree that collecting illustrations on index cards for use in sermons is truly abominable.) But his resolute determination to live and preach and pastor as though God is real is often the underlying motive behind his strong language. He had no time for methods in ministry that were more reliant on human ingenuity than any dependence on God to act.

This is a Biblical concern. Just before Ezra makes the vast and dangerous journey back to Israel from Exile with his companions and resources to start the rebuilding we read this:

Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods. For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king, “The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him, and the power of his wrath is against all who forsake him.” So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.

Ezra 8.21–23

Ezra tells Artaxerxes he doesn’t need his protection, and he does so as a statement of faith and confidence in God.

This impulse is seen in many stories in the Bible — the resolute desire not to rely on men but to prove God by taking a decision in which, if he doesn’t act, failure is certain.

If I had to articulate one hope for Grace London it would be something down these lines. A passionate desire to demonstrate that God is true to his word, that his gospel works, and that it’s enough. There are few things that dismay me more than churches where the fruit is so explainable to a watching world. I’m not sure God is glorified when churches grow through our clever marketing, entertainment, and watered-down gospel-lite. Perhaps this really is an abomination to God.

Anyway, I attempted to explain a little more of this last Sunday and the summary of the message is here.

Nine forms of fasting

Fasting – the most resented of all spiritual disciplines, but the one most likely to be embraced by Californians in search of their beach bodies – is more important in the Bible than we often acknowledge. If you haven’t heard you pastor preach on fasting, it’s probably because he doesn’t want to be a hypocrite. We ought to talk about, and think, and engage far more with fasting as a means of spiritual renewal and of seeking God’s face. Donald Whitney (in Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life) lists no less than nine forms of fasting that he’s helpfully categorised for your condemnation conviction:

1. Normal fasts – abstaining from food, but not from water, for a set period of time. Think Jesus in the wilderness.

2. Partial fasts – limiting your diet to certain simple food groups. Think Daniel and his three friends.

3. Absolute fasts – not eating or drinking at all for a very limited time (e.g. 24 hours). Think EzraEsther, or Paul.

4. Supernatural fasts – not eating or drinking for a time, beyond what is naturally possible. Think Moses on Mount Sinai.

5. Private fasts – fasting while smiling and smelling good so that nobody notices. Think the teaching of Jesus.

6. Congregational fasts – fasting as God’s people together for a purpose. Think the call of Joel and the elders in Antioch.

7. National fasts – when a nation gets desperate for God’s help. Think Judah under Jehoshaphat.

8. Regular fasts – prescribed under the Old Testament law. Think Yom Kippur.

9. Occasional fasts – special needs call for special measures. Think the guests without the Bridegroom.

Self-pity: the sin behind the sin

Sins cause other sins. Sometimes that’s because the circumstances brought about by one sin create the perfect circumstances to go ahead and commit the next one (as when David began down the slippery slope by staying home that fateful Spring time and letting his eyes linger a while on Bathsheba). But sometimes the progression from one sin to another takes place imperceptibly in the chambers of the heart. There’s a kind of chain reaction as one sin leads to another, sometimes in the blink of an eye, as when pride produces anger in reaction to embarrassment. Sometimes the progression is much slower, as when anger settles into bitterness, and bitterness festers into hatred. But trace the line back far enough and you’ll find the trigger, the sin that gave birth to all the rest.

Perhaps then you could talk about some sins being ‘mothers’ to other kinds of sin – where the offspring are sometimes lesser, and sometimes greater. There are a lot examples of this. Idolatry (whether worshipping yourself or other ‘gods’) always gives birth to some other sin, for example, Mammon worship makes you greedy. Pride has many children, since it leads to anger, unclean ambition, superiority, and much else besides.

Now, in some ways it feels a bit silly to talk about sins as though they were particular apps loaded onto your brain software, each self-contained but with some interaction between each other. The reality is so much more complex and intertwined. For example, it’s not as though you can always separate out the sins of anger and pride when they are in so many situations horribly overlapping. But the Bible names particular sins by showing us their typical patterns and characteristics and treats them as entities to be identified and killed. “So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander” (1 Peter 2.1). So, it seems worthwhile thinking about the rarely acknowledged sin of self-pity.

We need to stress, of course, that there’s a difference between being sad and being self-pitying. I don’t think that every time you feel down you’re indulging in self-pity. That would be a ridiculous conclusion. But there’s a line we cross somewhere when we’re weighed down in the circumstances of life that takes us from sadness to something uglier and altogether more dangerous. It’s not easy to explain the difference, and it’s even harder to identify the difference in your own heart and mind. But there is one evidence that always shows when you’re settling into self-pity, and that’s to look at the fruit. Are you beginning to look for comforts outside of Jesus? Are you beginning to consider sin as a way of getting your joy? Are you doubting that God has your best interests at heart, that his will is “good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12.2)?

And so I’m convinced that the root of self-pity causes so much trouble in our hearts. It seems to be a particularly fertile kind of sin. From self-pity spring so many sins of self-indulgence. Self-pity lays down the conditions of the heart in which all kinds of illegitimate comforts become more appealing. When you’re wallowing in a state of self-pity you can begin to feel like God is withholding good things from you. You can begin to feel a sense of entitlement, that you deserve more. You start looking for comforts to touch your sorrow. You find avenues of escape that allow you to feel better if only for a while.

John Piper gives the example of a Christian leader who’s drawn towards adultery because of self-pity. What on earth is he thinking? Perhaps, Piper suggests, something like this:

“Nobody else understands my pressures. Nobody else seems to feel for me in my loneliness the way she does. If any of them knew what I was going through in this leadership role, they would understand why I need this kind of embrace, I need this kind of ‘unconditional acceptance’. I have borne enough of the burden of being everybody’s spiritual example, I can’t take it any more. And I don’t care if they don’t approve.”

Even if the result is not as extreme as adultery, hasn’t self-pity been the cause of so many other forms of greedy self-indulgence — from buying stuff you can’t afford, to wasting time on some form of entertainment, to over-eating, to laziness, to dating that person who’s no good for you.

I wonder how many people who battle with particular recurring or habitual sins are failing because they haven’t taken out the root of self-pity.

Self-pity is sin for two big reasons. First, because it’s saying something about the character of God, saying that he’s not good or loving or kind since he must be withholding. Second, self-pity is sin because it’s saying something about your importance, your entitlements, your rights. Perhaps, then, self-pity is not the root at all but rather springs out of our unbelief (towards God) and pride (towards ourselves). Even so, it’s a particularly powerful expression of these other sins; a concoction that always produces a reaction.

There is an antidote to self-pity, and that is gratitude to God.

It is the conscious decision to thank God for all he’s done for you in Christ. In being grateful we take the axe to the root of unbelief (saying God’s not good) and pride (saying I deserve more). In being grateful we find there’s power to climb out of the hole of putrid self-pitying and kill all of the accompanying temptations by simply discovering happiness in God.

“Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. (James 1.16–17)”

I find it interesting that the world is awakening to the power of gratitude, though sad that nobody knows who to thank — something Paul understands to be the cause of man’s rebellion: “For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him…” (Romans 1.21). As Christians we not only know who to thank, but have a profound duty and privilege to do so. As J.I. Packer puts it,

“No religion anywhere has ever laid such stress on the need for thanksgiving, nor called on its adherents so incessantly and insistently to give God thanks as does the religion of the Bible.”1

“Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (Col. 2.6–7).

 This was originally posted at ThinkTheology.

Footnotes

1. J.I. Packer, A Passion for Holiness, Crossway Books, 1992, quoted by Terry Virgo in The Spirit-Filled Church, Monarch Books, 2011, p.65.

It's all about the cross

A long time ago I heard CJ Mahaney refer to a book that, he said, “defines Christian ministry for me”. Whatever problems Mahaney has faced in recent years, I’ve always admired his relentless focus on the Gospel. I heard him speak at a major leadership conference with thousands of church leaders present, and rather than offer up your typical conference message guaranteed to get the crowd going, he instead chose to preach on Golgotha. His little book, The Cross Centered Life, changed the way I understood my faith. It radically refocussed my life (along with The Discipline of Grace by Jerry Bridges and a series of messages on grace by Terry Virgo). So, when Mahaney said that a particular book definedChristian ministry in his mind, somehow that lodged in my mind.

But for whatever reason I never got around to picking up that book until a few days ago. It’s The Cross and Christian Ministry by DA Carson. In this book he’s explaining a few sections of First Corinthians. It’s absolutely brilliant. There are echoes of Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones (but with a little more balance). Here are a few selections well worth thinking about.

On the temptation to pursue ministry strategies v. preaching the cross:

“At the moment, books are pouring off the presses telling us how to plan for success, how ‘vision’ consists in clearly articulated ‘ministry goals,’ how the knowledge of detailed profiles of our communities constitutes the key to successful outreach. I am not for a moment suggesting that there is nothing to be learned from such studies. But after a while one may perhaps be excused for marveling how many churches were planted by Paul and Whitefield and Wesley and Stanway and Judson without enjoying these advantages. Of course all of us need to understand the people to whom we minister, and all of us can benefit from small doses of such literature. But massive doses sooner or later dilute the gospel. Ever so subtly, we start to think that success more critically depends on thoughtful sociological analysis than on the gospel; Barna becomes more important than the Bible. We depend on plans, programs, vision statements—but somewhere along the way we have succumbed to the temptation to displace the foolishness of the cross with the wisdom of strategic planning.”

On the tendency to platform celebrities to make our churches seem more credible:

“Why is it that we constantly parade Christian athletes, media personalities, and pop singers? Why should we think that their opinions or their experiences of grace are of any more significance than those of any other believer? When we tell outsiders about people in our church, do we instantly think of the despised and the lowly who have become Christians, or do we love to impress people with the importance of the men and women who have become Christians? Modern Western evangelicalism is deeply infected with the virus of triumphalism, and the resulting illness destroys humility, minimizes grace, and offers far too much homage to the money and influence and ‘wisdom’ of our day.”

These first two quotes come from his comments on 1 Corinthians 1.18–2.5. This final one, from later in the book, rounds the ideas off well. He’s making the point that a church must be built on the foundation of the Gospel or it isn’t a church.

“If we see this clearly, then many other things will fall into place. We will perceive that it is God’s revelation to us of his Son that is of paramount importance. Recognizing the need for the Spirit of God to illumine the minds of men and women who otherwise will not grasp the gospel, we will emphasize prayer. We will live and serve in the light of the final judgment, for we must give an account of our ministry. It is not that we shall refuse any practical help from those who have something to say about technique or sociological profiles; rather, we will remain utterly committed to the centrality of the cross, not just at vague, theoretical levels, but in all our strategy and practical decisions. We will be fearful of adopting approaches that might empty the cross of Christ of its power… and the only approval we shall seek is his who tests the quality of each builder’s work on the last day.”

How shall I stand if such mighty pillars have been cast to the ground?

Nothing is sadder or more destructive for the church than when leaders crash to the ground in a public way. It can be so disillusioning and disappointing for those of us who have loved and admired them (a point Matthew Hosier makes so well here). I know very little of the circumstances surrounding the decision of the Acts 29 board to remove Mark Driscoll and his church, Mars Hill, from the network. But I feel the crushing disappointment of the whole thing, given how much admiration I feel for the ministry of Driscoll.

This morning I read these unbelievably relevant words from John Owen in a book of daily readings. Read this slowly and carefully:

“It is the great duty of all believers to use all diligence that we do not fall into temptation. Adam was created in the image of God, full of integrity, righteousness, and holiness. He had a far greater inherent stock of ability than we, and there was nothing in him to entice or seduce him. No sooner had he entered into temptation but he was gone, lost, and ruined, and all his posterity with him. What can we expect if we also enter into temptation? We, like him, have the temptation and the cunning of the devil to deal with, but we also have a cursed world and a corrupt heart to increase the power of temptation. Abraham is an example for all believers to follow, and yet he entered into temptation about his wife and was overpowered to the dishonour of God. God called David ‘a man after God’s own heart’, yet what a dreadful thing is the story of his entering into temptation! I might mention Noah, Lot, Hezekiah, Peter and the rest, whose temptations and falls are recorded for our instruction. Certainly any with a heart for these things will cry out ‘How shall I stand, O Lord, if such mighty pillars have been cast to the ground? If such great cedars were blown down, how shall I stand before temptation? O keep me that I do not enter into temptation!’ Are any without a wound or blemish that have entered temptation? How will we fare? Assuredly, if we see stronger men fail, we will seek to avoid the battle at all cost. Is it not madness for a man who can barely crawl up and down (which is the case for most of us), if he does not avoid that which has brought down giants in the undertaking thereof? If you are yet whole and sound, take heed of temptation, lest it happens to you as with Abraham and the rest who fell in time of trial.”

(John Owen in Voices from the Past, edited by Richard Rushing, p.96)

On the back of this, three pieces of counsel come to mind.

1. Try not to judge that which you know nothing about

None of us have been privy to the discussions that have happened behind doors regarding all the issues surrounding Mark Driscoll. I trust the Acts 29 board because, from what I know of them, they seem to be a well-rounded and wise bunch of men. But I’m not going to dismiss Driscoll or write him off. On the contrary, my hope and prayer is that he would come through this stronger and more effective. God knows many of us have been inspired and helped by him.

2. Look at your own life and make a double effort to root out the sins of your heart

For those of us who are in positions of leadership in the church, or aspire to get there, the sentiments that Owen expresses here are poignantly relevant. I am not a pillar or a cedar, and if even they can come crashing to the ground, I had better take a look at my own life and root out the sins of my heart by the grace of God.

3. Avoid the battle of ‘entering into temptation’ at all costs

This is Owen’s main point. He’s not talking about the battle of the Christian life (which we are all engaged in), but the battle of facing down temptation, of ‘entering into temptation’. This is a situation in which the lusts of your own heart meet timely opportunities to sin, and the outcome is your inevitable downfall. Just as Jesus told us to watch lest we enter into temptation, Owen wants Christians to see that, rather than just avoiding the sin itself, we need to make every effort (through prayer and wise choices) to avoid entering into temptation. Don’t go there. Flee. Make it impossible to get tempted in the ways you know you’re vulnerable. Of course, how you do that will depend on your makeup and your situation, but we can learn from what little we know of Driscoll’s circumstances, and the far greater knowledge we have of our own hearts, to make sure we are careful in this.

Church growth: Why numbers don’t tell the whole story

It is fashionable these days to judge the success of a church or ministry based on its size. Typically, the men on platforms at Christian conferences are the guys with the biggest churches. Pastors flock to hear their methods and imitate their strategies. I’m not sure when this trend began, but it doesn’t seem to be a strong theme throughout the history of the church, and least of all in the New Testament. I have a number of problems with this extremely narrow view of success.

For one thing, it’s possible to build big, and build badly. Paul says very clearly that it is the quality of your work that will be proven through the judgment, not the size of it. “Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw – each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.”

We can also see that some of the biggest churches are not churches by any Biblical measure. If we’re going to use numbers as our measurement, then we’d have to say that some of the churches experiencing the most success internationally include those who pray to Mary, those who preach prosperity as the message of Christ, and all other kinds of bizarre and unbiblical practices. In other words, numbers, in and of themselves, tell you very little about whether the church is even Christian.

Further, you can build big with a fairly narrow gift set. When you read the NT it’s not at all clear that the apostles had the kinds of gifts that could have built a mega-church in today’s world. They had little to no concern for marketing, executive leadership skills, or rhetoric and excellence in the church service.

In fact, we have to confess that big church is sometimes the fruit of consumerist culture. The biggest churches are so often those that serve up a palatable diet of easy-eating, with no bitter edge and no roughage to clear out the system. It’s junk food for a spiritually flabby age, and we are playing right into the spirit of consumerism when we conform our church life to a model that draws in more customers, but doesn’t make disciples.

Now, consider this. Jesus had a penchant for driving people away rather than attempting to gather a large crowd of fans. So often in the gospels we see large numbers gathering, and Jesus responds by trying his hardest to offend them, and he usually succeeds. He tells them to “eat my flesh and drink my blood” and they think he’s into cannibalism. He rebukes them for seeking miracles rather than true spiritual life. He simply isn’t impressed by numbers, and he finds great success in repelling them.

And it goes without saying that Jesus left comparatively few disciples, so that, if we looked at the numbers alone we’d have to conclude that he would not have earned a place on any platform at any major Christian conference today. He would be an unknown provincial preacher with modest influence.

Despite all of this, I do believe that church growth is a vitally important aim and desire. If you don’t want your church to grow, you don’t care about the lost or about the glory of Christ. There is a special kind of pride that glories in being small and ‘faithful’, and I want no part of that.

But the problem is that we have become so enamoured with numbers that we judge success or failure by them, we platform guys because of their large churches who often have very little to say, we make heroes of men who may well be trimming their message to appease the masses, and we take pride in growth as though we achieved something, when the Bible is perfectly clear: one guy plants, another might water, but God gives the increase.

Why preaching from memory or reading your notes might not be a good idea

This brief article by Lisa Evans from Fast Company covered a few mistakes people make in public speaking. There’s a section in there that just about perfectly captures my own concerns when preachers attempt to memorise their message, or worse still, read it out. The article is summarising some of the tips from Laura Sicola, founder of Vocal Impact Productions, and the first problem she identifies is the tendency to sound disengaged from your message. Quoting Sicola, Lisa Evans writes:

“ ‘If you don’t sound like you’re interested in your own words, why would anyone else be interested?’ asks Sicola. Too often, she says, managers will jot down meeting notes and read them off, or attempt to memorize them. The problem is, she explains, trying to get through a list of words often distracts the presenter from their meaning and causes them to sound disengaged.

“ ‘It’s not that you have to be Tony Robbins jumping up and down and trying to convince and compel, but you have to sound like you’re at least listening to the words that are coming out of your mouth,’ says Sicola.”

I think a lot of preachers are aware of this danger and so they attempt to make up for it by injecting some passion and variation in their tone of voice. The problem is, very few guys manage to sound authentic when they’re accessing their memory bank or reading their manuscript (though there are some notable exceptions, including John Piper and Mark Dever who preach from very full manuscripts).

It seems to me that the reason guys feel they have to write a full sermon and regurgitate or read it comes down to the fear of what might go wrong otherwise – they might preach too long (a real problem when you use less notes); they might speak heresy (yes, I’ve heard that one before); they might get their words mixed up; they might forget what to say; they might repeat themselves too often. But all of these potential problems can be overcome through determined practice.

Mark Driscoll says that learning to preach is like learning to drive a clutch; you have to keep trying until you get it right. I think it’s worth working hard to overcome the fear of speaking with fewer notes because the experience and effectiveness is so much greater in the long run. It’s probably going to result in some embarrassment along the way, but that’s ok. (And that’s one more reason why churches should probably think twice about putting every sermon online – there’s just no room for mistakes.)

Worship and evangelism are basically the same thing

Think of the last time you went to a really great restaurant. You might have praised the owner or the waiter who served you, telling them how amazing the food was. But after you left the restaurant you most likely told a friend that they just have to go try it.

Speaking to the owner or waiter was worship; speaking to your friend was evangelism. You may have said the exact same things, but your words were addressed to different audiences.

One of the reasons God saves you is “that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2.9). In other words, he saved you in order to turn you into a proclaimer. And your proclamation is going to be pointed in two directions: it will be directed towards God as worship, and it will be directed towards others as evangelism.

I think evangelism can be made a lot more complicated than it needs to be. We make it hard by assuming that we have to have comprehensive knowledge of the Bible, training from experts, familiarity with apologetics and philosophy, and the ability to persuade people. All of these things can be useful, but it’s sad when Christians feel they can’t evangelise.

If you can talk about your favourite restaurant, film, city, beach, comedian, coffee, artist, shop, designer, actor, band, programming language or book, then you can evangelise. Worship is the outflow of enthusiastic and passionate admiration. But when you think of it, so is evangelism.

A little while ago my sister-in-law told me of a conversation she had with a guy at her church. He was pretty vocal about his favourite clubs and music, but he said that evangelism wasn’t his thing; he couldn’t tell people about Jesus. She told him that if he could enthuse about the things he loved, then he could tell people about Jesus.

When worship is the outflow of your heart because you really love Jesus, and you want to thank him for all he is and all he’s done for you, then evangelism need not be any more complicated or difficult than letting others overhear something of that passion. I once heard one of country’s foremost apologists, Amy Orr-Ewing, put it somewhat like this: “We just need to go and tell people how amazingly wonderful Jesus is. It’s as simple as that.”

The questions Jesus asked

Jesus was able to do more with a question than others can manage in hours of speaking and persuading. With his questions he had the power to undo men, or put them back together. His questions cut through all pretense and hypocrisy. His questions expose and often wound. They also minister faith and strength to those who lack it. Jesus chose his questions carefully with the wisdom of one whose mouth was well taught, and in an instant accomplished great damage against an enemy, or great help to a friend.

Jesus used questions in his teaching to arrest the attention of the listener, and enable them to be honest with themselves. He also used questions as weapons against his accusers. They were unable to hide their true motives, or their sheer ignorance, when he turned his great mind and insightful heart upon them and asked them the question they did not want to hear. Their logic was overturned, their safe place exposed, and their self-assurance destroyed.

A question punches through your certainty. It knocks you off balance. It exposes your bluff for what it is. It makes you doubt your doubts and question your assumptions. A well-placed question is like an ear worm; it gets inside your head, and it’s difficult to shake. It gnaws away at your foundations, and exposes your inconsistencies. It makes you panic. A question might also enable you to catch a glimpse of light when all is darkness.

To the anxious Jesus asks: “And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” To the hypocrite, so sure of his good standing before God, he asks: “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” To a cripple who has grown accustomed to a life lived in dependence on others he asks: “Do you want to be healed?”

To man-pleasers he asks: “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” To the fearful, cowering adulteress he asks: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” To vindictive and envious religionists he asks: “I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?” To the overconfident Big Fisherman he asks: “Will you lay down your life for me?”

A selection of some of his other questions:

Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?
Why do you question in your hearts?
I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?
If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you?
Can a blind man lead a blind man?
Where is your faith?
What is written in the Law? How do you read it?
And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?
Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?
And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?
David thus calls him Lord, so how is he his son?
When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?
Why do you think evil in your hearts?
How can you speak good, when you are evil?
Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?
Who do people say that the Son of Man is?
But who do you say that I am?
Why do you ask me about what is good?
What do you want?
What do you want me to do for you?
Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?
What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?
Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’?
Have you never read…?
Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?
Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?
Why does this generation seek a sign?
For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?
For what can a man give in return for his soul?
What were you discussing on the way?
Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again?
Why do you call me good?
Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.
Why put me to the test?
So, could you not watch with me one hour?
Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me?
Would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

And, to the guilty betrayer and coward he offers an opportunity for redemption, for saying things not said, when he asks: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?… do you love me?… do you love me?”

There's no such thing as 'practice preaching'

A few days ago I was talking with a friend who is learning to preach. As part of his learning, the guys involved preach to one another on set passages, and then sit down and talk about how well they did, what they could improve, and so on.

To my recollection, I have done this once (many years ago) and decided never to do it again. Why?

I begin with the understanding that preaching is only preaching when you stand there with authority. It’s not your own authority, it’s derived from the word. But you still have to regard what you’re doing as delivering God’s word into the present context. That is how I understand the force of Peter’s encouragement to speak “as one who speaks oracles of God” (1 Peter 4.11). So the preacher has to have the correct self-understanding. Now, I grant you, there’s room for error here. The preacher might think that in order to speak the oracles of God he needs to adopt a foreign tone, or work it up. But it seems to me that despite the possible mistakes and errors a preacher can fall into, the most important thing is that he has a deep-seated conviction that he’s speaking God’s word. If he’s not delivering it in that way, with that conviction, and with that authority, I doubt he’s preaching at all.

So when we think about trainee preachers gathering together to preach to one another, and then offer critique, it seems to me that this is training in how not to preach. The guy stands up with his material and delivers it in the most technically correct way he can (right intro and flow, strong and clear points, good illustrations, perfect landing). But the artificial environment makes it near-impossible to stand there and deliver a message with the authority of God and his word, the very thing that makes it preaching in the first place.

The result can be that the trainees are technically capable, but they don’t really know what it means to speak God’s oracles. So, as I said, they’re being trained in how not to preach.

I would suggest that the only way a person can learn to preach is by preaching; not for critique, but for edification; not focussed on technique, but on delivering an actual message.

Now, I don’t want to set up a false dichotomy here. It’s possible to learn to preach well (with a mind to technique) and receive critique after the event, whilst also preaching a message with the necessary authority and boldness. But I doubt it’s possible to do this with a bunch of mates who are gathered for the sole purpose of offering you feedback, and I would reckon that this is counterproductive in the long-run if the goal is to train an actual, bone fide preacher.