Rarely do we hear these days of a church that is distinguished primarily by its faithful, powerful, expository preaching. Instead, when we hear persons speak about their churches, they usually point to something other than the preaching. They may speak of its specialized ministry to senior adults, or its children's ministry, or its youth ministry. They may speak of its music or its arts program or its drama, or of things far more superficial than those. Sometimes they may even speak of the church's Great Commission vigor and its commitment to world missions--and for that we are certainly thankful. But, sadly, it is rare to hear a church described first and foremost by the character, power, and content of its preaching.
"Lord, you gave me this for a reason. Let me run with it, and do the best I can with it."
In the end, our calling as preachers is really very simple. We study, we stand before our people, we read the text, and we explain it. We reprove, rebuke, exhort, encourage, and teach--and then we do it all again and again and again.
It is now common practice in most evangelical churches to offer the people, especially the young people, a maximum of entertainment and a minimum of serious instruction. It is scarcely possible in most places to get anyone to attend a meeting where the only attraction is God. One can only conclude that God's professed children are bored with Him, for they must be wooed to meeting with a stick of striped candy in the form of religious movies, games, and refreshments.This has influenced the whole pattern of church life, and even brought into being a new type of church architecture designed to house the golden calf.So we have the strange anomaly of orthodoxy in creed and heterodoxy in practice. The striped-candy technique has been so fully integrated into our present religious thinking that it is simply taken for granted. Its victims never dream that it is not a part of the teachings of Christ and His apostles.Any objection to the carryings-on of our present golden calf Christianity is met with the triumphant reply, "But we are winning them!" And winning them to what? To true discipleship? To cross-carrying? To self-denial? To separation from the world? To crucifixion of the flesh? To holy living? To nobility of character? To a despising of the world's treasures? To hard self-discipline? To love for God? To total commital to Christ? Of course, the answer to all these questions is "no."
When I stand to welcome the people to worship on Sunday morning, I know that there are William Cowpers in the congregation. There are spouses who can barely talk. There are sullen teenagers living double lives at home and school. There are widows who still feel the amputation of a fifty-year partner. There are single people who have not been hugged for twenty years. There are men in the prime of their lives with cancer. There are moms who have carried two tiny caskets. There are soldiers of the cross who have risked all for Jesus and bear the scars. Shall we come to them with a joke?They can read the comics every day. What they need from me is not more bouncy, frisky smiles and stories. What they need is a kind of joyful earnestness that makes the broken heart feel hopeful and helps the ones who are drunk with trifles sober up for greater joys.
If nothing will do unless I make of my conscience a continual butchery and slaughtershop, unless putting out my own eyes, I commit me to the blind to lead me, as I doubt not is desired by some, I have determined, the Almighty God being my help and shield, yet to suffer, if frail life might continue so long, even till the moss shall grow on mine eyebrows, rather than to violate my faith and principles.
One of the signs that an object is functioning as an idol is that fear becomes one of the chief characteristics of life. When we center our lives on the idol, we become dependent on it. If our counterfeit god is threatened in any way, our response is complete panic. We do not say, 'What a shame, how difficult," but rather "This is the end! There's no hope!"This may be the reason why so many people are now respond to U.S. political trends in such an extreme way. When either party wins an election, a certain percentage of the losing side talks openly about leaving the country. They become agitated and fearful for the future. They have put the kind of hope in their political leaders and policies that once were reserved for God and the work of the Gospel. When their political leaders are out of power, they experience a death. They believe that if their policies and people are not in power, everything will fall apart......In the biblical view of things, the main problem in life is sin, and the only solution is God and his grace. The alternative to this view is to identify something besides sin as the main problem with the world and something besides God as the main remedy. That demonizes something that is not completely bad, and makes an idol out of something that cannot be the ultimate good...
The question we ask of ourselves must be reframed. We need to quit asking, "Am I parenting successfully?" And we most certainly need to quit asking, "Are others parenting successfully?" Instead, we need to ask, "Am I parenting faithfully?" Faithfulness after all, is God's highest requirement...If we are graded [as parents] instead on an absolute scale--as I believe we are--we fail even more miserably. But this is why a Savior was provided, and gifted to us through grace, through faith--"and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-not by works so that no one can boast" (Eph. 2:8-9). If even our ability to believe in God is given to us by God, then how much of parenting can we perform on our own? We must proceed then, on our knees first, beggars before the throne, if we are to parent well...We will parent imperfectly, our children will make their own choices, and God will mysteriously and wondrously use it all to advance his kingdom...We are not sovereign over our children--only God is. Children are not tomatoes to stake out or mules to train, nor are they numbers to plug into an equation. They are full human beings wondrously and fearfully made. Parenting, like all tasks under the sun, is intended as an endeavor of love, risk, perseverance, and, above all, faith. It is faith rather than formula, grace rather than guarantees, steadfastness rather than success that bridges the gap between our own parenting efforts, and what, by God's grace, our children grow up to become.
I want to be up to my eyeballs in lost, hurt people who are coming to Christ... but that's not what I spend most of my day doing. I prepare sermons. I counsel people. I disciple believers. I periodically blog. I try to love my wife and shepherd my kids.
And sometimes I get frustrated that I spend so much time doing things that seem so... ordinary. Not really glamorous. Not really the stuff that makes you feel like an awesome, successful pastor.
But lately I've come to realize something... the people in our church who are doing the "exciting" ministry (planting churches, preparing to be missionaries, starting food pantries, evangelizing the lost) are people who were raised by caring parents or well-taught in good churches or discipled by an older believer. Someone took the time to do "ordinary" ministry in their life, and now they are bearing a lot of awesome, exciting fruit.
So maybe, just maybe, I won't be able to immediately see all the fruit of our church's ministry. Maybe the lost that will be won aren't all here right now, but they are in foreign nations where a child in my congregation will someday go. Maybe they are waiting in the office building of a college student I'm discipling. Maybe my efforts today, caring, teaching, and shaping are an "exciting" investment after all.
The growth of the trellis is not the growth of the vine. We may multiply the number of programs, events, committees and other activities that our church is engaged in; we may enlarge and modernize our buildings; we may re-cast our regular meetings to be attractive and effective in communicating to our culture; we may congratulate ourselves that numbers are up. And all of these are good things! But if people are not growing in their knowledge of God's will so that they walk ever more worthily of the Lord, seeking to please Him in all things and bearing fruit in every good work, then there is no growth to speak of happening at all.There are many ways to get more people along to your church. In fact, some of the largest churches in the world are the least faithful to the gospel and the Bible. The Bible itself warns us that people will congregate wherever there are teachers who are willing to tell them what they want to hear (2 Tim. 4:3-4).Numerical or structural growth is not necessarily an indicator of gospel growth.
We must be happy to send members off to other places so that the gospel may grow there as well. And be warned: this will happen if you take gospel growth and training seriously...A commitment to the growth of the gospel will mean that we train people towards maturity not for the benefit of our own churches or fellowships but for the benefit of Christ's kingdom.
We see people not as cogs in our wheel, or as resources for our projects, but as individuals each at their own stage of gospel growth. And our goal for each person is that they advance, that they make progress, that they move one step forward from where they are now: outreach-->follow up-->growth-->training.
If you want yet another way of expressing the same point, what we are really talking about is a Bible-reading movement--in families, in churches, in neighborhoods, in workplaces, everywhere. Imagine if all Christians, as a normal part of their discipleship, were caught up in a web of regular Bible reading--not only digging into the word privately, but reading it with their children before bed, with their spouse over breakfast, with a non-Christian colleague at work once a week over lunch, with a new Christian for follow-up once a fortnight for mutual encouragement, and with a mature Christian friend once a month for mutual encouragement.It would be a chaotic web of personal relationships, prayer and Bible reading--more of a movement than a program--but at another level it would be profoundly simple and within reach of all.