- 2020Jan 15
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It’s good to stop and look around sometimes and ask ourselves some questions. Where are you going? How did you get here? Are you doing what the Lord intended when He sent you here? Can you do it better? How can you do it better? Are you preaching grace, the cross of Jesus, forgiveness, and love or something harsh and unyielding? How would someone who had never heard of Jesus react to your message?
On and on. There is no end to the questions. But I am not suggesting that we burden ourselves with a constant barrage of self-doubt. I’m only encouraging that, once in a while, we should stop and take inventory.
Here are five questions that occur to me for every minister to ask ourselves:
Question #1: Do I have answers to the difficult scriptures in the Bible? Or do I skirt around them?
If someone replies that there are no difficult scriptures, then we know they are not honest or do not know their Bible.
Even the Bible admits to this difficulty.
...our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. – 2 Peter 3:15-16
And no, we will not be compiling a list of difficult Scripture texts here. What is hard for one might be simple for another. We will each have our list, no matter our doctrinal position. The question is: What do we do with this? How do we answer them?
Once in a while–not often, but sometimes–the pastor might consider a brief series of sermons on Difficult Texts of the Bible. But only as the Lord leads.
Question #2: What do I do with difficult brothers and sisters in the Christian faith?
These “difficult” people come in all varieties and styles. Some may be TV preachers who clearly love the Lord but proclaim weird interpretations of God’s Word in places. Some are members of your church board who are focused on making ministry hard for you. What to do?
I had a deacon who led the movement to oust me from the church. When he saw he did not have the support he had anticipated, rather than accept this, he said to me in private, “Joe, this is not over. It will never be over.” He was determined to get rid of me. And yet…
The man could be generous. My family borrowed his mountain vacation home on several occasions. A Sunday school teacher, he was highly respected. And when he prayed in public, you were impressed that this man knows the Lord. But according to one minister who had known him through the years, he had opposed every pastor he had ever had.
What did I make of the man? Thankfully, the judgment was not mine to make. He’s with the Lord now, I presume, and the sorting out falls to the Heavenly Father.
Every pastor has such members to deal with. They can irritate and wear you down, but the Lord can also use them to make you stronger.
Question #3: What about people who are saved under the ministry of an imposter?
Or under a charlatan, or someone who later admitted being unsaved? In the days before the fall of the USSR, we would hear of Christians with no Bibles listening to a weekly radio program in which the official atheist officer would read Scriptures to attack them. Believers tuned in to jot down the verses, which they then treasured and taught.
After all, even if a devil out of hell were to read the words of the Gospels, God’s truth would still be true.
Question #4: How do I connect with members of religions that seem cultish?
Let’s say you become acquainted with some members of a religion you consider a cult. Their doctrine is so far off base it’s not funny. And yet, you are now meeting some wonderful people in that group, some of whom give every evidence of knowing Jesus Christ. How do you figure that?
My own answer is that people can be saved in spite of their flawed doctrine and not because of it.
If you answer it that way, it might caution you against a harshness in condemning certain aberrations of the Christian faith in order not to wound the weak. It’s a lesson I’m still learning. My tendency is to condemn the cults, period.
Question #5: How’s my preaching?
Your Sunday message appears to be finished and you still have a couple of days before preaching it. You have time to back off and look at it objectively, asking yourself questions like:
Am I missing anything here? Am I assuming something that isn’t so? How does the cross of Jesus figure in this sermon? Would a first-timer be drawn to Jesus by this message? Would a rebel come under conviction of the Holy Spirit? Have I prayed over this sufficiently? Does it tell a lost man how to come to Christ?
The unexamined life is not worth living, they say. We would add that for ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the work we do for Him should be examined also.
God bless every pastor. Give it your best, friend.
- 2020Jan 08
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Liia Galimzianova
I hate the way these things work, but it is what it is. I’ll write something such as “the three best decisions I ever made in the ministry” and few people will bother to look at it. But come out with “the worst decisions” or “the meanest deacon” or “my biggest regret” and it gets all the attention. Human nature, I suppose.
Motorists slow down to gawk at the wreck on the highway, but no one bothers to study the driver who did well. Obviously.
So, rather than announce “five great decisions preachers make in choosing sermon material,” we will talk about errors. I hope you find encouragement in knowing that I’ve made all these mistakes, so I can pass on the lessons.
Here are five that come to mind. Only five you might ask? Answer: One can make these articles only so long.
1. “I had this great idea.”
Good for you. Great ideas are often the product of a fertile, imaginative mind. I hope you have one. It’ll come in handy along the way.
The best way to see if that “great idea” was from the Lord is to administer two tests: Time and Scripture.
Time: let it marinate.Reflect on it. Jot down notes that occur to you.
Then, Scripture: ask yourself if there are scriptures that speak to that issue, whether anyone in the Bible illustrates its lessons, positive or negative.
A great idea could well be the spark leading to a great sermon. Or not. Wait on the Lord. As the song says, “See what God hath done.”
2. “This is a huge conviction of mine.”
Caution signs should be erected around your convictions. Those things are not to be the main body of what you preach. Preach the Word.
The preacher who cannot tell the difference between political convictions and God’s Word is in trouble, and will pass it along to the congregation.
I suspect there are a lot of pastors out there today filling their pulpit time with sermons on politics and politicians, Democrats and Republicans, impeachment and exoneration, all because the pastor “has these convictions.”
We say about your convictions what the Lord told the preachers of Jeremiah’s day concerning their dreams: “Whoever had a dream may preach it; but whoever has the Word of God should preach that. After all, what does straw have in common with grain?” (Jeremiah 23:28)
3. “I preached two years in 1 John.”
I’ve known more than one pastor who did this. Lord help the congregation. They are to be pitied.
The pastor who spends a year or more on one book of the Bible will bog his preaching down in minutiae and his people in quicksand. No one will ever love 1 John again, I guarantee. Let the next pastor announce he’s beginning a series on 1 John and they will head for the doors. The previous pastor forever inoculated them against loving that wonderful little epistle.
In the same way, I doubt that preacher will ever want to preach through that book again. Even with a file cabinet full of material, the very idea will seem burdensome.
It’s not necessary to do it. There are ten thousand better choices. Ask the Father. He is the Source of good sermons.
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4. “I decided to preach through the entire Bible.”
It can be done, but it has to be done right and well. And not all preachers can pull this off.
For one thing, even though it’s all God’s Word, it is not all created equal.
For example, the United States of America is a great country and lovely in a thousand ways, but part of it is desert. Even that has its beauties and its life, but it is not to be compared with the glories of the rich Mississippi Valley, the delights of the western coastline, or the majesty of the Rockies.
There are pastors who boast that they have preached on every verse in the Bible. I ask one question: Where in the New Testament do you find anyone doing that? Where do you even find the authorization to do such? Where in the NT does it urge us to preach through every OT book? Sure, you can find a few sermons from the more obscure books, but we should not burden our people—or force our preaching into this—by a verse-by-verse study of every book of the Bible.
Some of my generation began preaching through the Bible a half-century ago when W. A. Criswell of Dallas announced that he was doing it. If anyone was well-qualified to do it, Criswell was the man.
But the typical pastor who heard him was not.
These days, I hear of pastors bringing one or two sermons on each book of the Bible. I suspect they know their limitations and the capacity of their people.
5. “I read a great sermon and decided to preach it.”
Hold on just a minute here, preacher. You heard someone else do a great job and that inspired you, yes. It encouraged you to give your best to studying more, praying harder, and preparing better to deliver your own sermons. But please don’t preach someone else’s sermon just because it was great. That’s his sermon, not yours. God gave it to him, not to you.
It’s very possible–likely even–that God can and will use that sermon to inspire your sermon, motivate you, and enrich your own sermon.
But there is no Scriptural precedent or allowance for one preacher entirely copying what another preached.
These are five of many likely and understandable errors—in my judgment alone—that pastors make in choosing sermon material. Each of us will have our own list of ways we got it wrong or have seen it abused.
In the Jeremiah 23 passage cited at the beginning of this article, the Lord said something to those false (or lazy) preachers that all of us pastors today would do well to hear:
I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran. I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in My counsel, and had caused My people to hear My words, then they would have turned them from their evil ways, and from the evil of their doings. (Jeremiah 23:21-22)
Therefore, behold, I am against the prophets who steal my words every one from his neighbor, who use their tongues and say, ‘He says.’ (Jeremiah 23:30-31)
That’s the idea. Get into the Word and never leave it.
Pastors go through so much material, particularly if they are preaching two or three sermons a week, that “feeding the appetite” can become the problem. So, an idea presents itself, you think of a good illustration and a couple of scriptures, and you’re off.
Surely, you think, this was the Lord’s will since He knows what you are doing, is responsible for your doing it in the first place, and after all...don’t you continually ask Him to show you what to preach? Isn’t this obvious it’s His will? Maybe so, maybe not.
Check with Him. Wait for His approval.
The bottom line for me is to always feel conviction on this: that what I am declaring before any congregation is the message that the Living God gave me for that day. Nothing else is so important.
- 2019Dec 31
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He sent them out two by two. He added to the church those who were being saved. It is not good for man to be alone. And a lot of scriptures like that.
Sometimes I look back. It’s what you do when you get as many years behind you as some of us have accumulated. I think of several instances when I suffered or my work was weak because I insisted on being a lone ranger.
People would have been glad to help me. But I didn’t ask.
Looking Back, I Wish I’d Asked for Help
I’m reading the most amazing book: I Wanted To Write is sort of an autobiography. It’s written by Pulitzer-Prize winning author Kenneth Roberts, whom you may never have heard of. A friend who was visiting us introduced me to him, and I’m now hooked. Kenneth lived from 1885 to 1957.
The book’s subtitle is: An Intimate, Entertaining Account of How An Author Lives and Works. Every would-be novelist, of which I’m not one, would benefit from reading it.
When Roberts was deep in the throes of trying to write his historical novels—genuine history with fleshed-out stories of the actual persons—he struggled mightily. That’s when a friend stepped in.
Novelist Booth Tarkington was some 20 years older than Roberts and a neighbor in Kennebunkport, Maine (later the home of President George Bush the first). Tarkington would come over and say, “Read me a few chapters of your book.”
Now, what makes that special is that Booth Tarkington, remembered by few today, was as popular as Mark Twain in the early decades of the 20th Century. His book The Magnificent Ambersons was made into a movie and is considered one of the all-time best all-time by people who rate these things.
Booth Tarkington Helped Kenneth Roberts Write
Over the years, whenever Tarkington sensed that Roberts was mired in the process of plotting and writing and was driving himself nuts, he would phone him. “Can you come over and read me a few chapters of your book?” For hours at a time, Roberts would read and Tarkington would listen, interrupting occasionally to discuss a sentence or paragraph and ways to improve.
Roberts made notes, then returned home and rewrote sentences, paragraphs, chapters. Once in a three-month period, Roberts read to Tarkington 57 evenings. I find this simply amazing. And so impressive. Everyone should have such a friend.
So, back to my own story. Here are five times in my life when I needed a friend to “come along beside me” and help me. But because I never asked, I limped along without the help and dealt with the consequence. I hope my five stories might strengthen you to ask for the help you need:
1. Ask a Friend to Help You Overcome Fear
When I was in college, I was taking swimming (intermediate, then lifesaving) but never learned how to dive. At the final exam for lifesaving, when I belly-flopped off the side of the pool into the water, I heard a collective “ooooh” go up from everyone around the pool.
I worked at it. I really did. But I never conquered my fear of diving.
And yet, if I had approached the swim coach or another classmate and said, “Can you help me learn to dive?” they would have been glad to help.
I know how to swim. But since I don’t really enjoy it, I rarely do. And I regret that. I feel I’ve missed something important in life by knowing how to swim but not enjoying it.
2. Converse with Others to Help You Learn a New Language
At the same time, during college I took French and did poorly. By then I was living off-campus with a friend who was not in school. Anyone can tell you that it’s almost impossible to learn a foreign language in isolation. You need to hear someone speak it, you need to speak it back to them, and to help each other.
I made Bs and Cs and still love the French language. It’s so musical! But I could have gotten so much more from that class to enrich my life, had I asked a friend to converse in French with me.
3. Ask Others With Sermon-Building Experience to Help You Build Yours
Soon after college, I began preaching. For two years before going to seminary, I preached and pastored a tiny church while working full-time in a cast iron pipe plant. All this time, I struggled with sermon-building.
I’d been in church all my life and heard a few hundred sermons, but I’d not paid attention to how they were built. I was so clueless.
Each week I re-invented the wheel. Sermon-building was so painful, and my attempts at preaching were embarrassments. And yet, almost any veteran preacher would have been delighted to assist me, to hear my sermon idea or texts and advise me.
They didn’t advise, because I didn’t ask. And my sermons suffered as a result.
4. Plan to Ask for Help with Childcare
During seminary, I needed help with Greek. The year previously, a classmate had asked if I would help him with Hebrew. We studied together several evenings each week and both did great. So, you’d think I would have learned from that.
The semester I began studies in Greek, our child was sick from time to time. And because my wife worked in the campus bookstore, it fell to me to take him to the doctor or stay home with him. I missed several Greek classes and never recovered.
I loved the Greek language and enjoy to this day learning the root meaning of a significant word that brings special meaning into our Bible studies. But I envy preacher friends who can pick up their Greek New Testament and read it on the spot. I cannot do that, and regret it immensely.
5. Seek Counseling
In the early years of our marriage, I needed counsel on being a husband and father while juggling all the other responsibilities: seminarian, pastor, denominational worker, community leader, writer, guest speaker, etc.
When we’d been married perhaps six years, Margaret asked me to go to counseling with her and I refused. To my lasting regret. She went without me, which proved to be a good thing. The pastor whom she consulted later became my mentor, and would gladly have counseled me on how to handle all the demands and burdens of pastoring while being a loving husband and faithful father.
But I didn’t ask.
Then, when we were in our 17th year or marriage, Margaret laid down the law. Either we get counseling and make our marriage work or she was through. That got my attention.
For a solid year, we drove 180 miles (round trip) twice a month for two-hour sessions with a pastoral counselor. It saved our marriage, and later became the feature of a full spread in a denominational magazine.
A number of ministers wrote to say our story inspired them to seek counseling, thus saving their marriage.
I could have been better, stronger...earlier. If I’d humbled myself and asked for help.
Only the strong can ask for help.
Only the strongest can humble themselves.
Be strong, friend. Don’t make the mistakes I have.
And then, look around for someone who needs a helping hand, a counselor, an adviser, a listening ear. Make yourself available to them.
When you learn how getting help strengthens you, you can offer to be a Booth Tarkington to the next Kenneth Roberts.