Category Archives: Church

A Rookie’s Guide To Teaching Topically

Usually when I post rookie’s guides, I’m writing to help rookies as someone who is a little less rookie myself. This is not the case with topical teaching or preaching. I’m far more comfortable with preaching expository sermons or writing Bible studies that work through books of the Bible.

So when it comes to topical teaching and preaching, I’m a rookie too. I’ve had quite a lot of opportunities to do it, particularly in my preaching, but I don’t consider myself to have even come close to getting the hang of it.

Therefore as one rookie to another, here are some tips that I’ve found helpful.

1. Work out your approach

Topical teaching requires a decision regarding how you’re going to use Scripture. Since your teaching surrounds a topic, not a text, you have to work out which texts and how to use them.

There are probably four ways you can approach a topical. I’ll list them below in order of least to greatest difficulty.

a. Anchor in one passage

Instead of trying to do everything from every part of Scripture, just choose one and stick close to that one. This is my recommendation for new preachers and those least experienced with topical teaching. Find a passage and basically do an exposition of that.

For example, if your topic is repentance, you might just want to keep yourself to the classic repentance passage of 2 Corinthians 7:10 and surrounding verses. You can draw on other supporting passages, but your anchor is in this one text.

Clearly there are disadvantages to this approach. You don’t get to cover the breadth of a topic. You can actually end up ignoring the key issues raised by a topic and end up skimming the surface of a topic. But you know what? I reckon it’s better to do a good exposition of a passage that’s relevant to a topic, than to do a bad job of the other approaches below.

b. Biblical theological

Some topicals lend themselves really well to tracing that theme through the progressive revelation of the Bible’s storyline. This can be really refreshing and helpful, especially if you’re teaching those who don’t have a good grasp of Biblical Theology. It also has the added advantage of imparting a method of reading the Bible and approaching a topic to those whom you’re teaching.

An example is the topic of ‘worship’. Tracing this idea through creation, fall, redemption, and new creation is one obvious way of teaching it.

c. Systematic theological

Other topicals can fit so well with classical Systematic Theology categories that it’s most helpful just to teach that aspect of Christian doctrine. Keep your Grudem (or your ST of choice) handy and use that as a basis for your preparation.

d. DIY synthesis

Now I know that both (b) Biblical theology and (c) Systematic theology are themselves methods that require synthesis. After all, any kind of theological approach requires synthesis. However, in (b) and (c) you get the advantage of utilising synthetic approaches that have been done for you, whether it’s applying Goldsworthy’s biblical theological schema to your topic, or canvassing Grudem or Horton for what they say about the topic.

Some topicals, however, require you to do that task of theology yourself. This is hard work, and requires a level of theological reasoning that most won’t be able to pull off (myself included), but it’s worth keeping it as an option in your arsenal. If your topic is something that leans towards theological ethics (e.g. abortion, politics, same sex marriage etc.) or current affairs (e.g. radical Islam and terrorism), this is probably the approach you want to take.

However there’s a reason why this is last on the list. It’s not easy. I wouldn’t recommend any fresh preachers/leaders to try this method.

2. Interrogate your topic

If you’ve been given a topic to teach, you really need to explore that topic well. This is where those trained in expository teaching tend to fall short.

In an expository sermon, I’m not supposed to just ‘springboard’ off the text. I’m supposed to spend my time exposing the text and let it speak for itself. And so my introduction, illustrations, and conclusions are there in a supportive role to my exposition. Read my post here for what I mean by this.

In good topical teaching, and especially if you use method 1(a) above, you more or less have to do the opposite. In topical teaching, you basically need to exegete the topic and use the text in support. More often than not, you have to springboard off the Biblical texts rather than delve deeply into them. Your introduction needs to really open up the topic, raise questions, anticipate objections and questions, and then lead from the topic into the body of your sermon/Bible study. Therefore your introductions may need to be much longer. Again, it’s not something you would ordinarily do in an expository sermon.

Now of course I’m not saying that we’re at liberty to teach passages out of context, or be indulgent with our introductions and illustrations. The point is simply that in order to do a good job teaching about the topic, you need to exegete the topic in a way that does justice to the topic.

3. Be very explicit in your logic

Following someone’s train of thought in an expository sermon is important, but in some ways, the way you present that logic depends greatly on the genre you’re preaching. Teaching a psalm or narrative in a rigid three point sort of way can sometimes strip the text of its beauty.

In topical teaching, however, I would argue that a clear and logical step-by-step organisation of your sermon/Bible study is vital. Even if you baulk at the idea of an 8-point John-Piper-esque sermon for your expository teaching, you’d probably want to head in that direction for your topical. In some ways, your topical sermon is structurally more like an essay or a persuasive piece of writing. In order to persuade me, you need to ensure that I follow your train of thought and argument well. And if you’re not in the habit of doing so, give your hearers detailed paper outlines if you can.

4. Don’t try to do everything

A 30 minute sermon, an hour-long Bible study – it’s impossible to adequately canvass most topics with those time limitations. Therefore we need to be realistic with what we can achieve in one session.

If you have any control over the teaching program, consider breaking the topic up into a teaching series that stretch out over a number of sessions. If, however, you don’t have that luxury, then don’t be afraid to just teach what you can teach in that one session, and give your hearers some resources they can follow up with.

I generally don’t do Q&As after normal sermons, but with topicals (and in particular thorny issues), it’s worth doing some. This can liberate you from having to cover everything in your sermon / Bible study. You can read widely, teach on one aspect, and allow people to raise issues that are pertinent to them.

What are some of your tips and suggestions? I’d love to read them. Comment below.

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What Wearing Lycra Taught Me About Christian Ministry

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Yes it’s true. MAMIL. I’ve become one of them.

For the uninitiated, MAMIL stands for ‘Middle-Aged Men In Lycra’. We’re not your casual cyclists who only commute to work and casually cruise beside your favourite picnic spot. We ride expensive road bikes. We have specialised cycling paraphernalia. We (supposedly) adhere to a rule book that makes the Old Testament look like a pamphlet. We ride in groups on weekends and hog up your cafes. We wake up before dawn. Our wives and girlfriends feel like widows. And of course, we wear lycra. The tight, crotch-enhancing, mankini-looking ones. MAMILs.

And I’ve become one of them.

It didn’t start out like that. When I got into cycling, I had a bike with normal handlebars. I mocked my MAMIL friend and colleague and his love for lycra. I wanted to cycle for exercise and leisure, but I didn’t want to be one of those guys.

But then the ‘turning’ happened. It didn’t happen all at once. But it happened fairly quickly. Now I’m one of them. And proud.

Now I know that some of my fellow MAMILs are reading this with unbridled (or should I say, unsaddled) delight. But I imagine for most of you, you’re cringing and cursing the mental image of me in tight bike-pants. So let me cut to the chase. This thing, this lycra-wearing-becoming-a-MAMIL thing, has actually taught me a lot about Christian ministry.

Let me share them with you:

1. It’s hard being a newcomer

When I went on my first group ride, it was such a disorientating experience. Not only did I not have the right lycra, I didn’t know the rules of group riding. There are a host of cycling etiquette rules and hand-signals that group riders use to keep one another safe.

Add to that a bunch of blokes you’ve never met, riding at a time when you’re usually in bed, going distances that make your muscles cramp and seize up… all of this makes for a very tough initiation.

Kind of like church for an unchurched person, right?

Do you remember what it was like? Walking into a religious building, with particular unspoken rules like when to stand, when to sit, what to do. There’s singing and praying; there’s reading from the Bible (where do I find Lamentations?!!!); there’s liturgy and creeds. There are new people all around you. It’s so disorientating as a newcomer. But then….

2. That one friend makes a huge difference

The MAMIL friend who introduced me to the cycling group was my safety net. Even before my first group ride he rode with me. He gave me a handle of some of the basic rules. He encouraged me. He introduced me to other guys in the group. He stayed with me at the back of the pack when I was dying up those hills.

That made a huge difference

And that one person can make all the difference for newcomers to our churches. Talk to any newcomer who’ve worked through the initial disorientation and have decided to stay (even if they haven’t yet become a Christian). There’s always that one person, or maybe a couple of people, who’ve welcomed them, explained things to them, introduced others to them. Don’t underestimate the power of this sort of ‘ministry of the pew’. It’s the key way to keep the backdoors of our churches closed.

3. Make the main thing the main thing

I hear there are some cycling groups that will make the newcomer really feel like a ‘noob’ (cool talk for ‘newbie’). If you ride a non-branded, non-carbon bike with cheap components, you’d feel it. If you don’t know how to talk the talk, you’d feel it. If you struggle up those climbs, you’d be dropped. If you have a puncture or mechanical problem, you’d have to learn the hard way and DIY (and then get dropped).

The group I ride with has some serious riders, but they never made me feel any of that. Why? Because for them it’s not just about the gear and the other badges of belonging. It’s all about the passion. It’s all about cycling. It matters very little what you ride, you just have to love cycling. And that’s enough.

When it comes to our churches, we have to be exactly the same. Because what happens when we major on the other good-but-not-central stuff that makes for church, it confuses newcomers and creates unnecessary barriers for them to really know Jesus.

Yes music and singing is important. Yes serving is important. Yes morning teas and socials are important, as is creche etiquette and bringing your own Bibles and a whole host of other stuff. But what’s the main thing? Isn’t it the gospel? Isn’t Jesus the reason why we’re there, gathered in worship and service?

So do we make Jesus our passion? And is it clear to the newcomer?

Do we give off the impression that they have to be ‘more like us’ in order to belong? Or is it enough that they want to know Jesus better, and so we make every effort to encourage them to do that?

Churches that make the gospel and keep the gospel central are infectious.

Just like my cycling group.

And that’s how I became a MAMIL. Their passion for cycling, their ability to welcome, their openness to include newcomers – all of that drew me in. It got me to feel comfortable with the hand gestures, and the bike talk, and the early morning rides, and of course, the lycra. I’ve grown to love the lycra. I’ve become one of them.

Which leads to my final point:

4. Shared experiences are powerful

Watch MAMILs on the road. They nod or wave at each other when they pass. They’ll stop to help a stranger change a flat. They’re a big lycra-wearing family.

Don’t for a moment think that this only happens at church. It’s a sociological phenomenon. Shared experiences are powerful. And the more transforming the experience and the greater the cost of the experience (think tragedy or suffering), the more powerful the bonds it creates.

The gospel is our shared experience. It is uniquely transforming and costly (for Jesus). What a tragedy when some of our churches feel less like family than a weekend cycling club!

So there it is, my journey to MAMILdom is nearly complete. Hopefully it’s not just a fad. But even if it is, I want these lessons to remain.

And so I can’t wait to invite a fellow MAMIL to church and tell him, ‘Yep, it’s a little strange to begin with, but just like our cycling group, we’re really just about one thing – one PERSON to be precise. And that’s enough. Come and check him out. I’ll help you with the rest.’

Keen On Full-Time Ministry? Beware Of Your Brave New World

I believe there are unique dangers in the social media age we live in; dangers that young men and women keen on full-time Christian ministry face in particular.

Before I head into the warnings, just a bit of background, so you know this isn’t just a baseless rant from a middle-aged pastor who’s out of touch.

In my role as a pastor and church planter, and a leader in the RICE youth movement, I am constantly in touch with young adults. Some of these are young men I am personally mentoring and walking with towards full-time ministry.

One more thing: I myself headed towards full-time ministry as a young man (I was 23 when I started Moore College; 21 when I started MTS). And while what I have to write below in terms of warnings for young men are equally applicable to the 20-year old me (from the late 90s), I believe there are unique challenges and temptations in the ever-changing world that our young men and women find themselves today.

Almost all of them have to do with the social media phenomenon of Facebook, Twitter, WordPress and so on.

1. Greater opportunity to indulge in narcissism

Yes it’s an over-used word nowadays – ‘narcissism’, but I can’t think of another word for now. We are all, in our sinful natures, narcissists to a certain extent. However, with social media, it’s much easier to feed that aspect of our old selves.

While your friends post up endless selfies, the keen young person wanting to head into ministry is tempted to self-obsess in other ways.

You have a blog? How important is it to you to track how many people read it? You have a social media profile? How important is it that you present the perfect image, have that perfect DP – you know, the one that balances your fun-loving casual youthful self with your desire to be taken seriously as that up-and-coming theologian or pastor?

When the Apostle Paul tells Timothy to ‘flee the evil desires of youth’ (2 Tim. 2:22), I wonder if what fleeing our narcissistic selves might actually look like in this day and age?

2. Over-inflated sense of influence and importance

People reading and liking your posts, subscribing to and sharing your blog posts can create an illusion that you are more influential than you actually are. Before this brave new world of social media, if a young person wanted to influence others, the most he or she could hope for is an itinerant speaking gig somewhere. Not now. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, could be liking and sharing your posts, giving you the illusion that you have a group of others (mostly peers or teenagers) who are hanging on your every word.

It’s easy in this situation to get a big head. Your writing started off being less assertive because you’re not as sure about yourself and what you’re writing. But as you pick up more followers, likes, and shares, you soon gain more confidence, make more certain pronouncements about life, the Bible, and ministry. You start getting into endless arguments on your page or others’ defending your point of view. And why? Because deep down you’re beginning to think you’re more important and influential than you are.

3. The Shallowness of “wiki-theology”

Now more than ever, keen young leaders have open access to theology and sermons online. That’s mostly a wonderful thing. But we must remember that wiki-theology tends to be shallow; like getting your news from your Twitter-feed.

It grieves me that some young men wanting to head into full-time ministry talk about formal theological study as some sort of outdated hindrance to actually getting your hands dirty in ministry. I wonder if a lot of that is due to the prevalence of “wiki-theology”.

Don’t be fooled in thinking that reading lots and lots of stuff online is a substitute for serious theological study. That’s why I’m encouraged by Joshua Harris’ recent decision to do just that – to take some time off and study theology formally.

4. Devaluing the local church

The world-wide-web-“church” (if we can even call it that) seems far more exciting than the local church. Your ideas of church growth, church planting, church ministry, theological discussion and education comes more and more from ‘out there’ than from your local church (or local denomination or training college). It’s easy to develop an insatiable appetite for that which is ‘bigger’ and ‘better’ somewhere else in the world. And so you begin to slowly (and sometimes unconsciously) devalue the small, struggling, one-pastor congregation you’re part of. You begin to see churches and pastors simply as those who will aid you or hinder you in your personal growth as a young man or woman heading into full-time ministry.

5. Devaluing personal mentors

Related to the above, it’s easy to think that podcasting Tim Keller, reading R.C. Sproul, and following David Platt is enough to guide you into becoming the Christian leader you want to be. And so you devalue the vital mentoring and training that can only happen when a local older man or woman in full-time ministry walks with you over the course of years, in the context of a local church.

Conclusion

The last thing I want to do in this post is to discourage young men and women from heading into full-time ministry. I love that one of my roles is to walk with some of the best and most gifted young men I’ve ever met in this crucial stage of their lives.

Neither am I without guilt when it comes to some of the very things I’ve identified. I’m tempted – even as I blog – to indulge in narcissism, and develop an over-inflated sense of my importance and influence.

I write this because I believe it is a different world for keen young leaders than the one I grew up in. You’re immersed in this online social media-saturated world in a way I wasn’t. And so it’s more likely that you’re less aware of its dangers and deceptions. Call me old and old fashioned, but I’m hoping that a word of caution from someone in your world but a standing a little outside of it, will be helpful for you.

Signing off so I can go meet with the saints at my local church.

Dear pastor (an imaginary letter)

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Dear pastor,

I’m writing this letter to you not because I don’t value you and thank God for you. Quite the opposite. You are God’s gift to us at church. Your leadership and love and teaching have been used by God in many ways to help me and those around me to grow.

I’m writing because there are some things that pastors tend to do and say that perhaps have unintended effects on those they lead. So please read this in a spirit of charity. Some of my generalisations may be wrong. But I hope raising it with you will help you be even better at ministering to the people God has placed under your care.

So here goes.

Dear pastor:

When you frequently refer to the Greek and Hebrew (or the ‘original’) in your teaching, it can make me feel like I’ll never really understand the Bible I’ve got in front of me.

When you speak or post on Facebook about your wonderful wife and adorable kids, it makes me feel like a failure because my marriage is a struggle and my kids aren’t that gorgeous.

When you elevate the importance of full-time Christian ministry, it makes me feel like there’s not much I can do to serve God in my secular employment except to give money.

When you emphasise the importance of Word ministry but come under-prepared to teach and preach, it makes me wonder how important it is to you.

When you ask us to invite unbelieving friends to church, but when they come, you don’t really make an effort to meet them and greet them, I feel a little betrayed.

When you guard your day off as something so sacred that you can’t even take a phone call, and yet our church regularly schedules activities and meetings on everyone else’s days off (i.e. weekends), I feel it’s quite unfair.

When you appeal to cleaning or morning tea rosters needing to be filled or finances needing to be raised but never appear to be leading by example, it makes it hard for me to joyfully serve and give.

When you push the importance of training but don’t demonstrate growth in your own skills in leading, counselling, preaching or teaching, it demotivates me to take time out to upskill myself.

When you always appear tired and busy, it makes me afraid to approach you for requests, trouble you for a conversation, and feel like I have a right to take up your time.

When the only times I hear from you is to plug an event or organise a meeting (including on Facebook), it makes me feel a little used in our relationship.

When you talk about the importance of confession and repentance, but never share about your need for grace, it makes me wonder if you need the gospel as much as you say we do.

Dear pastor, I understand that some of these things will be really difficult for you to read, because they are intensely personal and probably mostly unintended. But I write them because I know that while God gave you to us as our leader and shepherd, you’re also our brother in Christ. And so part of our role in the body is to help you as much as you’ve helped us.

Thanks for reading.

Your faithful member, brother, and friend.

Why Privilege Preaching?

An interesting opinion piece in this morning’s Sydney Morning Herald, ‘University Lectures Are A Legacy of Our Pre-Digital Past’, got me thinking about preaching. Is preaching as a medium of communication also a legacy of the pre-digital past? This one-person monologue, delivered in countless churches week-by-week – isn’t it also something we should reconsider given the proliferation of the type of instant, multi-sensory digital means of communication that we are consuming every other day of the week? If university lectures need re-examination, then surely so does preaching, right?

I guess a broader question is: of all the different kinds of valid means of reading and teaching the Word of God (e.g. public reading of Scripture, personal encouragement, one-on-one Bibles study, small groups, video and net-based ministries), why privilege preaching?

In the next series of posts, I thought I’d rehash a seminar I delivered at a preaching conference last year and get the conversation going (so please comment away).

In this first post, I’d like to begin with definitions. What do we mean by Biblical preaching?

Here are a number of definitions I came across:

  • Sociological: ‘A public formal monologue to the congregation.’
  • Peter Adam: ‘The explanation and application of the Word in the assembled congregation of Christ.’
  • John Stott: ‘To open up the inspired text with such faithfulness and sensitivity that God’s voice is heard and God’s people obey him.’
  • Phillip Jensen: ‘Preaching the gospel by prayerfully expounding the Bible to the people God has given me to love.’

Not ever content with just going with what someone else said, I feebly attempted my own amalgam of the above and came up with this as a definition of Biblical preaching:

Biblical preaching is declaring God’s Word to people by faithfully expounding the Scriptures through the power of the Holy Spirit for the glory of Christ.

With my definition I’m trying to capture three elements:

1. I want to define BIBLICAL preaching. Preaching as a means of communication is pretty universal. Parents can preach to their kids; sales-people can preach to their prospective buyers; other religious leaders can preach to their congregants; motivational speakers are preachers too. But I want to attempt to capture what Biblical preaching is. It is, first of all then, tied to faithful exposition of the Scriptural text.

2. I want to capture the VERTICAL dimension of Biblical preaching. God is actually speaking his Word through the preacher. There is therefore a power that must be at work for hearers to change. I guess this vertical dimension is what old-school preachers (like Martyn Lloyd-Jones) would call ‘unction’ or ‘anointing’. John Calvin wrote:

It is certain that if we come to church we shall not hear only a mortal man speaking but we shall feel (even by his secret power) that God is speaking to our souls, that he is the teacher. He so touches us that the human voice enters into us and so profits us that we are refreshed and nourished by it.

3. I want to capture the HORIZONTAL dimension of Biblical preaching as well. The preacher is preaching to God’s people in order to edify them. As he expounds Scripture and applies it, he is simultaneously exhorting his hearers (Peter Adam). Both the vertical and horizontal dimensions are key. Without the vertical, preaching is powerless. Without the horizontal, preaching won’t grow the church and bring about conversions.

Put simply I believe that Biblical preaching is PROPHETIC TEACHING. By this I am referring to prophecy in the broadest terms. (Note: I do believe in the continuation of the gift of New Testament prophecy as a smaller subset of this, but that’s for another post on another day perhaps). Here I simply mean prophecy in the ‘men spoke from God’ sense of the term (2 Peter 1:21). This is the vertical dimension in operation.

But preaching is also teaching because of that horizontal dimension. Therefore preaching is anchored in study, preparation, understanding and analysis of both the world of Scripture and the world of the hearers (John Stott).

Now the mix of prophecy and teaching can vary from preacher to preacher or even from sermon to sermon. It’s unimportant to distinguish which bits of a sermon correspond to which. However, I believe that Biblical preaching must have both elements. In other words, it is not just a spontaneous prophetic message; nor is it just a prepared lecture or seminar or workshop. It is God speaking to his gathered people through a prophetic teacher who expounds and applies the Bible. Nothing less than that will fulfil God’s mighty purposes for this ministry for the glory of Christ.

(Another note: different church traditions seem to privilege one over the other. Charismatic/Pentecostal traditions tend to emphasise the prophetic element of preaching and will tend towards spontaneity and less systematic exposition of the Biblical text, while Reformed Evangelical traditions tend to emphasise the teaching element of preaching and will sometimes be indistinguishable from a lecture. Which does your church tradition lean towards?)

So why privilege preaching? Well, I’m not quite at a full answer just yet. Next post I’ll be proposing that preaching as a mode of communication best reflects God’s own primary speech-act. But in the meantime, I’d love to hear your comments and critiques, so fire away!

Five Most Challenging People You Will Minister To

The longer I’ve been a pastor, the more I find that not everything nor everyone is as it seems. Call it naivety or inexperience, but my view of people in earlier times tended to be far more black-and-white. Now I find that layers of complexity tend to lie beneath almost every person that I meet and minister to.

However, if I had to put into categories, these five kinds of people below are the ones I find most challenging to minister to. They can be vastly different to one another, and yet simultaneously, a person can fall into more than one category. What’s common to each of them is the fact that all of them are more than they appear to be. In each case, there’s the person you meet and perhaps even come to know, but there’s something more that lies beneath the surface. And in each one of these cases, what lies beneath the surface tends not to want to be addressed or ministered to or challenged.

Ok, it’s getting a bit too conceptual so here are the five types of people I’m thinking of:

1. Religious but unregenerate

There are loads of these in every church: those who appear to be Christian, have been baptised/confirmed, receive the sacraments, confess the right creeds, are church members, active in church, and yet beneath it all, they’re simply not born again. The difficulty with this group is that they will deny that they are unregenerate. In fact, when put under pressure, they will gladly give the right answers and cite their Christian resumes to demonstrate that they are ‘really Christian’ but show little or no evidence in changed hearts, behaviour or lifestyle.

2. Converted but undiscipled

By this I don’t mean the newly converted who need to be followed-up on but those who have been Christians for years, perhaps decades, but  have never really ‘grown up’ in the faith. And almost always, they’re still immature because they weren’t properly discipled when they were first converted or first understood the gospel. These Christians may have drifted from church to church, with prolonged periods of absences between churches. They will be semi-regular in their attendance and you will see some latent desire to be godly, but because they’ve never known anything but spiritual immaturity, in all sorts of ways, the Word of God will more often than not be choked out by the worries in their lives. Their thinking, feeling and doing have never been properly shaped by Christian discipleship, the church community and healthy modelling. And it’s more difficult because these spiritual babies are really hard to motivate and encourage years down the track to form discipleship relationships, because by now, they are busy parents with young or school aged kids, and spiritual immaturity and laxity in church involvement have become hard habits to break.

3. Hurting but hiding

These Christians know the church too well to be honest with their pain. Theirs is the ‘stained glass masquerade’, often because they’ve tried to be vulnerable and have been shot down with judgement or moralism in the past. They’ve become resigned to the fact that no one will understand, no one will still accept them if their secrets were shared, and in fact, they’re the only ones struggling the way they are. It’s very difficult to identify who they are, let alone gain their trust in order to minister to them, because they’ve become so adept at hiding.

4. Keen but conniving

These are seemingly mature and zealous Christians, probably in leadership, whom you only find out later have been at it with their own agenda in mind. Because they’re keen and want to serve (and often have leadership gifts), they are sought after and placed in positions of responsibility. Only later do the pastor or elders find that that they are anything but servant-like. They’re proud, unteachable, don’t submit to loving authority, have their own agenda, gather their own followers, are great at talking behind people’s backs, and basically undermine the unity of the church when the decisions made or directions taken don’t suit them. What’s difficult about this group of people is that you often don’t know until it’s too late.

5. Busy but barren

Finally there are those who are busy serving in many ways, sometimes in leadership, but have been in a spiritual desert for years. They are the reliable and dependable people you keep turning to, and you turn to them because they rarely say ‘no’. But all the while, they’ve been serving out of duty without any delight, and their spiritual journey is like a car without fuel rolling down the hill towards a brick wall. A spiritual car-wreck is on its way but no one – not they, nor those who ask them to serve – is willing to pay the price of pulling them out of ministry and ask the hard questions. Usually these people will give out subtle ‘cries for help’ or send signals that things aren’t well, but their busyness and yours keeps them going ‘for just a little bit longer’ until the ministry they are serving in is in a better place and they can take a break. By then, it’s too late.

So there they are, and here we are. If you’re reading this and you fall into one (or more) of these categories, please know that nothing would please your pastor more than for you to allow him to minister to you, beneath the surface. This hasn’t been written out of frustration or to shame you. It’s just one pastor sharing to others about his desire to minister better to people like you, but being honest about what prevents it from being done as well as he would like.

But if you’re reading this and you’re a pastor or a church leader, I guess like me, you know how it feels to want to love and serve these people but feel helpless along the way. My encouragement would be to (and I need some of this encouragement too): pray more for them, persevere in ministering the gospel to them in the context of relationship, recruit and train others to look out for people like them and help you in your ministry towards them, and trust that the gospel can reach down deep enough to transform them.

Punishment, Discipline and Grace

Thinking aloud here:

  • Discipline is different to punishment.
  • The goal of discipline is restoration and growth; the goal of punishment is retributive justice.
  • Therefore discipline, when exercised correctly, is always in the context of grace, regardless of how harsh it may appear to be.
  • It is grace because restoration of relationship is always the goal. Justice does not and can not take into account relationship, or it would not be just.
  • Discipline stops when a person is restored. Punishment only stops when justice has been served.
  • The God-given role of government is primarily that of retributive justice (and therefore ‘punishment’). There may be disciplinary and restorative elements built into a compassionate legal system, but justice must be its primary function. Cf. Romans 13:4.
  • God’s stance over his children is always grace, and therefore he does not punish us for the sins that Jesus has already paid for but disciplines us for our good. This is not in opposition to grace, but because of his grace. If God were to punish us, then there would be no possibility of restoration and he would simply ‘give us over’ to our sins and let us suffer their consequences (cf. Romans 1:18-32).
  • Part of God’s discipline for us may be for us bear the legal ramifications (i.e. punishment) of our actions (e.g. when we commit a crime), but as far as God is concerned, he is exercising grace in his relationship toward us, because he is seeking our repentance, restoration, and growth.
  • Church discipline and parental discipline are mirrored on God’s discipline. We don’t punish our church members or our children for the sake of justice, we discipline them out of love. This is grace. Cf. 2 Corinthians 2:5-11.
  • To ask: ‘How do I show grace in discipline?’ is the wrong question. To discipline is to show grace. Seeking a person’s restoration after an offence is always more than that person deserves.
  • Therefore parents and church leaders need to remember that the same hand that deals discipline is also simultaneously dealing grace. They are not in opposition to one another; and you do not undermine discipline by showing grace, nor undermine grace by exercising discipline.

Pastors: Tenure or Contract?

One of my pastor friends in ministry was recently notified that his contract as pastor with his church would not be renewed. I’m not privy to the inner workings of the church and their decision-making process and so I don’t want to comment on that, nor do I want to defend either him or his church in this post.

I do, however, want to examine the pros and cons of the contractual nature of many independent churches’ call for their pastors. I know my Anglican and Presbyterian friends don’t have to really deal with this issue, as their pastors basically have tenure. However at my own church that I’ve been serving at for the past 7 years, pastoral staff are called with terms of either 3 or 5 years. It hasn’t been an issue for me and I’ve been quite happy having my term renewed every 3-5 years. Even though I don’t have tenure, my church has never given me any doubt that they would keep me as long as I’m willing to serve there (provided moral or doctrinal failure doesn’t disqualify me).

So here’s an attempt at a working list of pros and cons to contract / limited term callings for pastors:

Pros

  • It’s an automatic mechanism that ensures pastors get reviewed by the leadership in terms of suitability and performance. Many times pastors with tenure get too comfortable and just keep the ministry on ‘cruise-control’ because there isn’t a likelihood in their lifetime of losing their “keep”.
  • It’s a safety net to rid a church of pastors who may have more serious doctrinal and personal problems in an easy way. Denominations with tenure tend to cement in bad teaching or doctrinal compromises that don’t disqualify one from the ministry (because definitions and doctrinal statements can always be flexed and re-interpreted). Within a generation liberalism and real heresy creeps in and then it’s nearly impossible to change the course of that church. Many denominations then have to put up with a diversity of parishes within its region/diocese – i.e. some high church, some broad church, some liberal, some charismatic, some conservative.
  • It’s a way for congregational-model churches to make sure the balance of power still lies with the laity rather than the clergy. Without tenure, the clergy are very aware that they are there to serve the congregations and must empower the congregations to make the right choices. Democracy isn’t perfect, but it’s a good system when we know that all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
  • It gives the pastor a chance to re-examine his calling to that particular ministry every few years without leaving the congregation with the uncertainty that he will just up and leave with 3 months notice. Contracts cut both ways. The pastor is forced to re-think whether God wants him to stay in his particular church after a contractual term expires. It’s always a good thing for pastors to think about getting radical rather than comfortable, and this may be a good mechanism for reflection.

Cons

  • The ‘automatic mechanism for review’ doesn’t work very well in actuality. Most church boards will rely on the automatic mechanism to relieve the pastor of his duties rather than actually face the pastor and do a brotherly and detailed review. It becomes a ‘cop-out’ way of terminating a pastor’s call without actually ‘speaking the truth in love’. Furthermore, by the time his contract has expired, usually the level of dissatisfaction in a church board has already risen to boiling point because an issue that should have been resolved earlier has been left to simmer. It’s easy just to think: ‘Let’s all save ourselves the trouble and save him face by just not renewing his contract in a year or two’s time.’ This isn’t how a church should operate.
  • The contract renewal can be used as blackmail and control. I know of pastors who have essentially been asked to ‘tow the line’ on a non-doctrinal or Biblical issue or else his contract will not be up for renewal. That’s pretty despicable but yes, it does happen!
  • In actual fact the congregational nature of the church gets eroded though the system is supposed to protect it. The reason is because most churches with contract terms put the renewal of contracts in the hands of the board, rather than the congregation. In other words, if the board decides the pastor shouldn’t be up for renewal, the congregations can’t really do anything about it short of sacking the board by a big majority vote. So even though the congregations have to vote to approve a pastor’s renewal of contract, the actual motion to renew lies in the hands of a few, not the many. Ironically what is supposed to protect congregational power actually undermines it.
  • The pastor can be encouraged to be a people-pleaser every time his contract is up for renewal. In an ideal world pastors don’t have to ever bow to the pressure of people. In reality the longer a pastor has been in ministry, the less likely he is able to find secular work and the more likely he has a family to support. Furthermore the older he becomes, he is also less likely to have other churches knocking on his door offering him a job. This can create a situation whereby the pastor will decide to compromise rather than fight in order to retain his job. So churches have to really ask the question: do you want a pastor who is potentially going to be a people-pleaser every time renewal comes around?

Solutions?

Given that there are pros and cons, what may be the solution for independent churches who don’t have to lean one way or another on the issue of tenure?

One solution is this: offer tenure to the most senior pastoral leadership but not all pastoral workers. In other words, lead pastors and associate pastors can have tenure, while fresh-out-of-college graduates and others can be on a contract basis with a view to becoming an associate with tenure at a later date. This creates a balance whereby the ones who are required to really lead and guide the church can have security in doing so, even at the expense of popularity. Jonathan Edwards’ example shows us that some difficult decisions that are vastly unpopular were in fact the right ones. It’s a pity for a pastor to be easily ‘sacked’ over any decision that can be unpopular in the here-and-now.

However if any pastor is given tenure, then the process leading to his appointment must be given due care. It can’t be easy to ‘hire’ a pastor just on the decisions of a few. It should be a process that involves the whole leadership and the whole congregation, with lots of time for examination and prayer. The flip side is also true. If a pastor is found to be unsatisfactory on grounds other than doctrine or personal morality, then it should be equally ‘difficult’ to get rid of him. Again, the mechanisms must be in place to be able to take these issues to the congregation for careful examination and prayer.

What about accountability then? In order to safeguard accountability (and with it, doctrine and practices), the church should have in place a good policy of periodic review of each pastor’s personal life and performance. This means that he is given a brotherly examination by the board and other lay (and staff) leaders whether there is a ‘problem’ or not, and this must happen periodically (at least annually). In this way, he knows if he is under-performing in some way when measured against the (written) expectations of his calling when he was called. It also means that neither the congregation or the pastor can use the contract as a ‘cop-out’ so that no contentious issues have to be really dealt with because the contract is coming to an end soon anyway.

As I said, I haven’t worked all of this out. I would be interested in your thoughts and opinions on this matter. As you can tell, I have assumed that there is no particular Biblical mandate for either tenure nor contract when it comes to the appointment and calling of full-time church-funded workers of the gospel (thus you might have noticed the utter absence of Bible-references in this post). You might think differently on that and if so, I’m happy to consider your arguments as well.

Crafting Better Wedding Sermons

We’ve all been there. A gorgeous wedding. Perfect day. Bride and groom look sparkling and splendid. Guests are enthusiastic. Wedding service goes off without a hitch. Then… the wedding sermon ruins everything.

It’s too long. It’s too preachy. It’s too generic. It’s too vague. It’s too specific. It’s too cringe-inducing. It’s frankly just soooo boring.

Now it is a wedding so out of politeness, people will put up with it. But chances are there are a large number of unchurched in the congregation as well. And their impressions of the church, your church, and especially the preached Word can be seriously damaged by that one bad wedding sermon.

So what do we do as preachers?

Well, I don’t have all the solutions. But I did have an excellent mentor when it came to teaching me how to craft better wedding sermons. My MTS trainer Dominic Steele of Village Church Annandale and Christians in the Media preached at our wedding in 2000, and since my very first wedding sermon in 2005 (I’m now up to sermon #24 this weekend), I’ve been rigorously applying his ‘formula’.

So maybe it’s time to share what I’ve learnt in the hope that it would improve this very important public ministry of our churches.

  1. Keep it short. A wedding sermon should be no more than 15 mins (Dominic went for under 10 mins at my wedding!). No matter how accommodating the bride and groom are (or even if they request a full 30 min sermon), resist the temptation to go for more than 15 mins. No matter what you tell yourself, no one’s interested in anything longer.
  2. Be realistic about your aims. Your aim is not to exegete a passage or lay-out Two Ways To Live. A more realistic aim would be to plant a gospel-seed in the hearts of unbelievers there, or perhaps give a glimpse of God’s wonderful blueprint for marriage, or maybe even both. But whatever it is, be modest in your aims.
  3. Be winsome, humorous, and don’t be preachy. Treat it like an evangelistic sermon that you’ve been invited to speak at. Don’t take audience interest for granted. Help them ‘get aboard’ the train before you go on your sermonic journey.
  4. Try and steer clear of Ephesians 5 and 1 Peter 3 Biblical submission passages. It’s not that we don’t believe them or are shy about standing up for male-headship in the home. However with a 15 min wedding sermon with lots of unbelievers and believers from all walks of life present, you have to cover a lot of ground to make sure people see these passages as God intends. You are fighting a defensive battle from the get-go from the moment these passages are read aloud. I’ve preached wedding sermons on them, but I strongly prefer not to.
  5. Choose instead a passage that highlights marriage themes such as love, grace, commitment etc. It’ll also be easy to then take that nugget of an idea and relate it to the gospel. And of course it means that we must…
  6. Preach the gospel. Regardless of what your other aims are, the wedding is an excellent opportunity to speak about Jesus and plant that ‘gospel-seed’ in people’s hearts.
  7. Personalise the wedding sermon around the couple’s courtship and relationship. This is the most important thing I learnt from Dominic. I find out as much about the couple’s courtship as I can, especially details like first impressions, how they first starting dating, funny stories, engagement stories, how they’re different etc. Then I weave their story into the main idea of the Bible passage and use their story as an extended introduction to the idea of the passage. This is quite a lot of work, especially initially. I do it via email. I ask the couple the same set of questions and get them to email me back detailed answers separately (it’s more fun if they don’t show one another). Then I do the hard work of integrating the relevant bits into the sermon. Sure it’s more time and effort, but I see it as my personalised gift to the newlyweds. Also be assured that you’ll have all of the congregation still with you when you bring their attention to how this story (of the couple) relates to a bigger story (of the gospel).
  8. Did I mention, keep it short?

Happy preaching!

The Shape of Chinese Ministry in the Next Few Decades

When I was in high school in the early 90s, Japanese was the language to learn. Given Australia’s proximity to Japan in the Asia-Pacific region, and given the economic and technological leadership that Japan had provided the world in the previous decades, it was the obvious choice.

Now, Mandarin Chinese is the language to learn. On the 100th anniversary of the birth of modern China (see Xinhai Revolution), China has eclipsed Japan and almost every other nation to be the global and economic powerhouse in the world. In the sci-fi futuristic film Serenity, the common speech is a combination of English and (bastardised) Mandarin Chinese. This is not so hard to imagine now that China is on the ascendancy and the U.S. is on the wane. Who knows what the world will look like in 50 years?

So I’m writing as a bit of a ramble, but not in any sense of being Chinese and feeling pride about it. In fact, China’s ascendency can be somewhat of a worry, since there’s no Christian worldview that undergirds its morality (unlike the post-Christian West), and the influence of Christians in China, though they number millions, is a shadow of their influence in the West. In other words, I worry that the growth of China in the world stage is not happening with any checks and balances that even a post-Christian worldview can provide. That’s a matter of prayer.

What I want to ramble about is Australia and Chinese ministry in Australia over the next few decades. In a conversation with RICE director Steve Chong, former Deputy PM John Anderson commented that the importance of a ministry like RICE, with its networking of Asian churches, lies precisely in the ascendancy of China in world influence, along with the strategic placement of Australia as a nexus between East and West in the Asia-Pacific region. And so I wonder if churches in Australia have thought about Chinese ministry in light of that.

My impression is that many churches are hopping on to Chinese ministry and perhaps even working with Chinese churches in order to reach the growing migrant and international student population flooding our shores. But most, as I understand it, see it primarily as meeting a current need. Rather, I think the tide of world events should make us prayerfully think about Chinese ministry in terms of the future. If, as John Anderson predicts, Chinese influence is only going to gather momentum both in the Asia-Pacific region and in the world, then doesn’t it make sense to invest heavily in Chinese ministry in order that Chinese Christians can be placed in positions of leadership and influence in the secular world both here in Australia and in China? If Australia, geographically and politically, as a nation bordering the East and West is going to be strategic for this next phase of development, then doesn’t it make Chinese ministry in Australia even more important, not just because of the needs now, but because of the possibilities in the future?

I have no idea what this might look like in detail but here are just some general initial ramblings:

  • More genuine partnerships need to be forged between Chinese churches and Aussie churches; between the RICE network and other movements and networks.
  • We need to raise up the next generation of Chinese leaders within the church, especially those who speak or are willing to learn Mandarin.
  • Strengthening weak and under-resourced Chinese churches, rather than just taking away the best of their leadership in order to serve Anglo churches, may actually be an important strategic move for the next few decades, as bridges to the Chinese community and the key influencers there are more likely going to come from Chinese churches than Anglo churches.
  • Australian-born or -raised Chinese who are part of Chinese churches ought not feel defensive or ashamed about their churches. Rather, they ought to see the opportunities advantages that lay  (perhaps dormant) within their churches. In other words, I’d love some to decide to stay in Chinese churches not out of personal preference but out of a desire to be strategic in where they serve.
  • Allowing Chinese congregations in Anglo churches which are growing and outgrowing other congregations not just to play ‘second-fiddle’ but actually to take the lead and drive the ministries of the entire church has got to be a consideration, though it might be met with resistance.
  • We need to give existing Chinese churches a vision to reach beyond their own ethnicity, especially to cross into other minority cultures, in order to allow God’s blessing to them to overflow to others.
  • Promoting and investing in Chinese (language) theological scholarship both within Asian seminaries and Western ones.

Okay, enough of my rambling. What are your thoughts? I’d genuinely love to read some interaction along these lines.