Category Archives: Pastoral Ministry

Deeper Still

“If you are not holding down a little church merely until you get a big one, but really care for people, at least as much as you care for your own life and children, then you must convey to them a real awareness that you are interested in their problems.  If you are not interested in the problems of sincere, ongoing Christians you ought not to be in the work of ministry at all” (p42).

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(William) Still Waters Run Deep

“You may have heard the story of the man who went to the psychiatrist and told him that his problem was an inferiority complex.  The psychiatrist did his best with him, and then brutally, perhaps too brutally, gave his considered opinion.  ‘Your trouble is not inferiority complex,’ he said, ‘but just that you are plain inferior.’  Cruel, but probably true!

“There is a lesson here.  Some meddling ministers want to sort out everybody.  God is not so optimistic.  There are some who will die mixed-up personalities, and they may be true believers. (In some ways perhaps I am that, and hove no hope of ever sorting myself out.  Indeed, my salvation is to live with my oddities and partly put up with them, not to say help other people to put up with them, and partly rise above them to show that grace is better employed wrestling resignedly, realistically, cheerfully with our problems than demanding from God heavenly solutions on earth.)  Don’t try to do the impossible” (pp38-39).

Easy Come, Easy Go, Easy Come

“. . . the American church has not treated [growth in Christ] with an equivalent urgency [compared to evangelism].  The American church runs on the euphoria and adrenaline of new birth–getting people into the church, into the kingdom, into causes, into crusades, into programs.  We turn matters of growing up over to Sunday school teachers, specialists in Christian education, committees to revise curricula, retreat centers, and deeper life conferences, farming it out to parachurch groups for remedial assistance.  I don’t find pastors and professors, for the most part, very interested in matters of formation in holiness.  They have higher profile things to tend to” (Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection, p5).

Customer service is always the best when the customer is new.  The new customer gets the best deal, latest program, most attention and grandest promises.  Maintaining loyal customers takes far more hard work than finding new ones.  Let the disgruntled, underserved old customers leave.  We’ll find three new ones to replace them.

You can always find someone new to buy what you’re selling as long as the sales pitch is relevant and right.  A regular influx of new customers gives the appearance of a vibrant, healthy business and we love appearances more than substance.  We want to know how much we’ve generated new business, not how much we’ve retained and cultivated old business.

This mystery is great, but I am speaking with reference to American business and the church.

This is the Americanization of congregation.  It means turning each congregation into a market for religious consumers, an ecclesiastical business run along the lines of advertising techniques and organization flow charts, and then energized by impressive motivational rhetoric (Ibid., p24).

We need look not much farther than a church’s membership roll to see the effects of this “Americanization.”  Churches attract thousands of members (customers) with slick programming and irresistible sales pitches.  And over time those members regularly drift into obscurity with little to no accountability or spiritual formation.  The church is then awash in pragmatism, having to keep up with the market to stay alive.

There is little to no concern because thousands have come in to replace them.  And so on and so on.  Not until there is a down trend in new customers will there likely be any angst among the ranks.  Therefore, pastors shepherd a number rather than individual sheep and churches pride themselves on new “customers” despite the overwhelming number of old “customers” they were glad to see drift away into the wolves’ land.  Who cares which 2,000 sheep we have as long as we kept 2,000?  Who cares if 500 members went AWOL last year if we added 1,000 new ones?

All the while, our Great Shepherd would not stand for replacement sheep (Lk 15.3-7).  If even only one strayed from the flock he would not find a replacement.  He would leave ninety-nine secure sheep to retrieve the lost one.  He wouldn’t have just any old hundred sheep, but the one hundred he knew by name.

It is God’s will that all those given to Jesus will be raised up by Jesus on the last day (Jn 6.39).  Jesus will not lose one of them, which is a good thing because we lose them all the time.  Our Lord is not content to lose one of his children.  Yet, our flippant, weak view of church life (“congregation” to use Peterson’s word) implies he just might.  It implies Jesus cares only about those who seemingly start well rather than those who finish well. He’ll simply replace those who wander rather than bother with finding and retrieving them.

If Jesus will not lose one of his own on the last day, then let us resolve not to lose one on this day.

A Love to Shepherd or To Be Heard?

When considering pastoral ministry I’m confident it was neither pastoral nor ministry at all I was considering.  I wasn’t driven by a deep desire and compassionate love to shepherd souls through the ministry of the Word and prayer.  I was driven by the egotistical desire to be heard.  If you love preaching but don’t love those to whom you preach then you simply love being heard.  You love people listening to you.  You have little patience listening to them, but assume it’s their biblical responsibility to listen to you.

Mark Dever reminded us at a recent conference that no one is called to preach.  One is called to preach the Word.  In other words, there is no preaching that is not saturated in, devoted to and exposited from God’s Word.  It is not our voice that we want folks to hear, but God’s voice.

I would add that one is “called” to preach God’s beloved Word to God’s beloved people.  As much as preaching is a love for expounding on God’s Word it is also a love for the people who hear it.  We are not disinterested shepherds who simply throw out feed and retire to more important matters while the sheep fight for the food.  We must also take the food in hand and – sometimes gently, sometimes forcefully – hold it before the sheep’s mouth because we love that sheep in particular.

William Still says it much better:

“If you are not holding down a little church merely until you get a big one, but really care for people, at least as much as you care for your own wife and children, then you must convey to them a real awareness that you are interested in their problems.  If you are not interested in the problems of sincere, ongoing Christians you ought not to be in the work of ministry at all.

“Of course, you have to deal faithfully with those who are attracted to you and want to be that little bit farther in with you than their sparring partners, and you will have to deal with those who like attention and who manufacture problems, or even excuses, to draw inconsiderately on your time.  Some even love to see a queue waiting to speak to you after a service and maliciously drag out their story to keep others waiting.  But, remember, when you are brokenhearted about the sheer cussedness of some, and bitterness, enmities, jealousies, grudges and feuds seem to rock the boat, remember that, in time – you don’t need to go out of your way to dot Mrs. Brazenface on the nose from the pulpit! – in time, it will all be dealt with by the systematic preaching of the Word.  The answer to every problem, even the ones that have no full and final earthly solution, is in the Word.  Pin your faith to that.  Let the Word solve or settle all” (William Still, The Work of the Pastor, pp42-43).

When we hear of someone “called to preach” we must ask if they have a deep love for God’s people.  If they do not demonstrate a “real awareness” of interest in the problems of people then they have little awareness of what it means to be pastor. As much as we should examine and encourage their preaching skills we should equally test their shepherding skills.  How patient are they with the elderly?  How compassionate are they toward the grieving?  How joyful are they with growing saints?  How eager are they to invest in people?  How willing are they to be interrupted by souls seeking Living Water?

Imagine a young culinary upstart demanding to be your family’s personal chef.  He wants your family to enjoy his finest creations.  But you have a diabetic child.  If that young chef has no concern for that child then you’re not to trust him, no matter how great a chef he might be.  He may love to cook, but he doesn’t love you.  Likewise, if one feels the “call” to preach but demonstrates no real love for God’s people then he cannot be trusted to provide decent meals that edify, encourage and equip the saints.  He simply loves to preach with little regard for those to whom he preaches.

Where is one to develop this “real awareness”?  It can only be developed in the life of a local church.  It comes from riding in the front seat of roller coaster lives.  It comes from crying with the broken-hearted and rejoicing with the glad-hearted. The finest homiletician in the finest seminary in all the world cannot teach this “real awareness.”  It is born by the Spirit in the heart and cultivated by the church in loving relationships informed by Scripture.

Are you called to preach?  Then make sure you’re called to love or else you will be nothing but a clanging cymbal (1 Cor 13.1).

The Work of the Pastor, William Still

“God has caused you to become pastor to some souls here who are as valuable to Him as any in the world – your quiet persistence will be a sign that you believe God has a purpose of grace for this people, and that this purpose of grace will be promoted, not by gimmicks, or stunts, or new ideas, but by the Word of God released in preaching by prayer.

“There will soon be evidence that God is at work – and the devil will rouse himself too! . . . There will be opposition, and you may be quite surprised at where it comes from – notably those who have been ‘running the church’ and who have turned the church of Jesus Christ into their private preserve and hobby.  Those whose daily lives do not match up to their profession will begin to be disturbed.  Those who maintain class distinctions, social or intellectual, in the congregation, and all who put up with the fulminations of a young minister as along as he does not seriously interfere with their status quo, will begin to panic.  Amidst all this, consciences will be stirred and lives will be searched, home life, business, church activities examined.  People will begin to take sides, objections to you and to what you preach, and how you preach it, will become increasingly plausible (but quite irrational when you consider them).  Your manner, length and style of preaching, etc. will all be torn to pieces.

“In this work we must not be afraid of upset.  We must not go out of our way to create it; we don’t look for trouble, but seek peace.  But if we are going to be faithful to God and to men, there will be upset.  The great thing to know is that God is at work creatively, through His Word, in answer to the prayers of His people.  There is not a greater task a man can perform in the whole world than this, that he is being used to release the all-searching Word of God upon a company of needy souls.  It is the most amazing thing.  It works!  God works.  His Word works.  Prayer works. The Spirit Works.”

(William Still, The Work of the Pastor, pp25-27).

PhD in [Your Church] Studies

Recently, John Piper answered the question, “Should pastors get PhDs?”  His tempered and pastoral response provoked some contemplation here at BMF.

Virtually every pastor I know has considered whether or not he should pursue further studies.  Whether or not a pastor should pursue a PhD is up to that pastor, his God and his church.  He must determine if his efforts will ultimately result in more faithful ministry to the local church.  Often it does and the church is better for it.

As one who likes the idea of holding a PhD more than actually earning one, I’d like to encourage all pastors toward a PhD nonetheless.  A PhD in their local church studies, that is.

A PhD is designed to identify a person’s mastery of a certain discipline and verify their competence in teaching it to others.  They are experts in their field.  Should not pastors apply that same, if not more, expectation and discipline to their local church?  Before a pastor considers a PhD in anything, he should first devote himself to becoming the expert of his local church.  In my case, I should want to earn a PhD in Unity Baptist Church Studies.  We should want to master all that can be known about our church and the people in it.  We should ensure no one on the planet knows more about our congregation than we do.  No one should be more qualified to speak on our local church than those who shepherd her.  There are dozens, hundreds and thousands of PhDs in any given discipline, but only few (or one!) in your local church “studies.”  I’d say that is a very special PhD and unlike any university PhD in the world!

Earning this PhD means to master the material of the souls in your local church.  What are the requirements to that end?

  1. Read and study your people.  As university PhDs immerse themselves in the writings of all those influencing their discipline, so pastors immerse themselves in the lives of their congregation.  Know what they think, how they’re influenced, where they live, and who they admire.
  2. Interpret your people.  As university PhDs critically interact with all the angles of their discipline, so pastors must know all the angles of their congregation.  Know how to best encourage, confront, comfort and motivate them.  Paul explained this in terms of becoming all things to all people (2 Cor 9.22).  Pastors do not apply a one-size fits all strategy but tailor their tone and counsel to the particular soul.
  3. Be jealous for your people.  As university PhDs protect their dissertations like one of their children, so pastors must guard the knowledge of his people with great care.  Paul asked the Corinthians, “Who is weak without my being weak?  Who is led into sin without my intense concern?” (2 Cor 11.29).  In other words, pastors are jealous to know what’s happening in the lives of his sheep whether it be weakness, sin or joy.
  4. Teach your people.  As university PhDs are the resident experts in the academy, so pastors should strive to be the resident biblical scholars in their local congregation.  Teach the Bible.  Train your people to study the Bible.  Don’t settle for biblical and theological mediocrity.  Pastors are theologians training other theologians.

There are some distinctive features of this PhD program, however:

  1. It takes years to get started and decades to improve.
  2. It will never be completed because the objects of study are always changing.
  3. The graduation ceremony will coincide with your funeral.
  4. There will be no piece of paper awarded but you might a watch after fifty years.  There will be a crown, though (2 Tim 4.6-8).
  5. No university will recognize your work, but Jesus will.

Should a pastor pursue a PhD?  Absolutely.  He should become the world’s foremost expert in matters related to his local church and the souls therein.  He should make sure no one knows more about his church than he does.  If he does, he might find it far more satisfying and infinitely more rewarding.

Not only must the children of the redeemed family be born, but they must also be fed, watched, guided, and nourished up to manhood.  The growth of the heirs of immortality in grace and knowledge must be an object of deep solicitude with the faithful pastor.  His children in the faith are not glorified as soon as converted, but are carried through a probation, and often a long one, of conflict, trial, and temptation; and it is his business, by the instrumentality of the truth, deeply searched, carefully expounded, and appropriately applied, to conduct them through the perplexities and the dangers of the divine life” (John Angell James, An Earnest Ministry, 40).

Strive to Be Ordinary

Today I had the privilege of sitting in the shadow of ten giants of the church.  Ray Van Neste and nine pastoral ministry students at Union University graciously and patiently endured my rambling thoughts on pastoral ministry.  For those (or the one) so interested here is the manuscript.  Sweet dreams.

Local Church School of Theology

The New Testament describes a Spiritually communal approach to developing and incarnating a sound biblical theology.  The Bereans didn’t care how famous the dynamic duo Paul and Silas were (Acts 17.10-11).  They were as eager in their scrutiny of the apostolic witness as they were in receiving it.  The Corinthians themselves would be responsible for validating prophecy shared in their assembly (1 Cor 14.26-33).  They wouldn’t write down all the prophecies and overnight them to Paul before passing judgment.  They had to do the hard work themselves.

We consistently find that the local church is responsible for its own theological maturity and expression.  It would not be apostolic succession but apostolic confession that would sustain the church long after the apostles died.  It’s the local church’s responsibility to maintain that confession (Heb 3.12-14; 10.23-25).

In what way does the local church provide the best context for developing a sound biblical theology?  (By “local church” I mean the gospel-forged relationships with those with whom I live out and before whom I am accountable to the Christian faith.)  I’ll approach an answer by way of an illustrative detour.  Bob attends Main Street Baptist Church in Smalltown, USA.  He sits weekly with his family and other church members under the authoritative preaching of God’s word.  He appreciates his preacher and enjoys the church’s fellowship.  But his real consideration of Scripture comes from John MacArthur’s study notes and listening to John Piper’s sermon from last Sunday.  Then he can tweet and chat with other anonymous folks about it.  He enters a pseudo-community where you know everybody and nobody at the same time.  He really isn’t concerned with how his MSBC brothers and sisters benefited from their preacher’s exposition.  He sees little need in consulting his pastor when he can easily Ask Pastor John.  He really has no idea if his brothers and sisters are holding fast the confession of faith.

In no way minimizing the gift these pastoral and theological giants are to the church, the primary field in which our soul’s graze is our local church.  It is to our local brothers and sisters we owe primary attention.  It is with them we must work out God’s word and share common convictions and confession.  What Piper, MacArthur, Driscoll, Sproul or you-name-him thinks about an issue is important, but not nearly as important as what our local church thinks about it.  Unless we’re members of Bethlehem Baptist Church John Piper is not commanded to keep my brothers and sisters from evil, unbelieving hearts that fall away from the living God, nor we him (Heb 3.12).  We as members of our local church are commanded to do so for our brothers and sisters with whom we’re covenantally committed.

Rather than immediately wonder what Piper might think, we would benefit far more by asking what our brothers and sisters might think.  If I’m commanded to help my brother hold fast his confession then I’d better know what he confesses! How will Bill work out this week’s text in his marriage?  In what way did Bonnie see Christ in the text this week?  How do we as a church work through Jesus’ teaching on divorce or Paul’s teaching on communion?  Do we insist on independence and autonomous self-study (hyper-priesthood of the believer) or do we want to work out and share convictions within the biblical community?

It matters what “those” guys think in the big picture scheme of things, but not nearly as much what “these” guys in my life think.  These guys with whom I share the same cup and loaf.  These guys who know my children and cry when we’re hurting.  These guys who see me sin and fumble the faith.  These guys who know the right ways to encourage and confront me.  These guys are the theologians from and about whom I should most want to learn.

In what way does the local church provide the best context for incarnating a sound biblical theology?  Back to Bob.  Bob listens to Piper’s sermon and assumes the proper application of the text is to do what Piper and Bethlehem do.  Start a worldwide adoption fund.  Plant six new churches among unreached people groups.  Multiply campuses.  Bob gets quickly frustrated because his church does none of those things.  His church only cares about a little clothes closet and sewing blankets for foster kids. He then becomes critical that his church is not faithful and that maybe he should lead his family elsewhere, where the people are “serious.”

The best application of Scripture is however your local church attempts to obey Jesus.  John Piper does not live in our community.  John MacArthur has no idea about our local gospel soil.  What they do in their contexts is what they should do. The church is far better and healthier for their efforts.  However, what we do by faith in our contexts is what we should do.  Discerning what that is demands a deep commitment to working out our salvation within our community of faith.

Do I care more how John Piper handles his cancer or how Mrs. Smith, who sits three rows behind me, is handling hers? Did I even know she has cancer? Do I spend more time parsing MacArthur’s view on suicide than I do encouraging Penny who sits across from me and nurses suicidal thoughts?  Am I caught up in the Manhattan Declaration fuss or caught up in my brother who considers divorce or sister who suffers post-abortion guilt? Do I care more about what Mark Driscoll thinks about sex than I do what my pornography-addicted brother thinks about it?  Am I jealous of the celebrity ministries or jealous for my church to be faithful in worship, love and service?  The best context in which I can incarnate a biblical theology is to invest in the brothers and sisters in my local church.  It is among them I learn how to confront sin, encourage biblically and counsel wisely.

How will we live out the Christian faith together in our local community?  Maybe applying last week’s sermon in your local church is not launching a global missions initiative.  Maybe it’s writing an encouraging note to a sister who wonders if anyone cares about her.  Maybe it’s buying a year’s supply of thread for those blankets.  Maybe it’s visiting a brother at the job he hates and just wants some light to shine during the week.  Maybe it’s paying attention to the folks no one else pays attention to.  Maybe it’s praying for and encouraging the church down the road everyone in town gossips about.  Whatever it is, work it out in your local church and embody the biblical theology you confess together.

I don’t suggest ignoring the large-scale, public affects of uniquely-gifted pastors and churches.  I am suggesting that we not substitute them for Jesus’ prescribed means of loving and obeying him: the local church.  But then again, a small town, small church pastor would say that, wouldn’t he?

Cry for Her Now (or Thoughts on Ministry to Widow(er)s)

Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of God and Father is this: to visit . . . widows in their distress (Jas 1.27).

It happens every time.  Dad asks me to eat breakfast with some widowers from his church and I hem haw around.  I eventually and reluctantly agree and belly up to a Buttermilk Five.  And every time I leave wondering why I would ever waffle on one of God’s richest gifts of grace.  Wretched man that I am.

My dad is in his twentieth year of widowhood and recently started a breakfast club for other widowers.  Some buried their wives decades ago, some weeks ago.  But they’ve all suffered the same sting (1 Cor 15.56) and live to tell about it.  I hope I’m listening well.

In today’s world of the “power pastor” we easily overlook what James considered essential religion: care for widow(er)s in their distress.  Who has time for such mundane ministry when programs need administrating, numbers need reporting, buildings need repairing, neighbors need evangelizing, twentysomethings need discipling and services need choreographing?  My own hesitations toward a simple breakfast with some widowers proves my point, at least for me.

I’ve been a terrible pastor to widow(er)s and it’s high time I repent from clear rebellion against God’s commands.  This morning’s breakfast along with seeing two women widowed in the last two weeks compel me to write.  For what little they’re worth, I offer these “lessons” in no particular order to strengthen atrophied pastoral muscles.

1.  Widowhood is one of, if not the, most painful experiences of life in a fallen world.  Men who suffered the Great Depression, confronted Nazi Germany, lived in Vietnam jungles, killed national enemies, endured cancer and buried their children don’t cry like they cry when thinking about their wife.  These are hard men who readily confess nothing is harder than losing his wife.

Lesson: Learn to be a better husband from men who aren’t anymore.  There is great benefit from the flood of new marriage books on the market.  Slick covers depicting Tintselesque couples helping suburban families navigate the American dream.  Read them, learn from them, practice them.  But then go sit down with a Christian man who served his wife faithfully for decades but now sleeps alone.  Watch him cry.  Listen to him laugh.  See his pictures.  Enjoy his stories (again!).  Imitate his faith.  Make sure the thought of your wife makes you cry now so that you can cry without regret later.

2.  Effective pastoral care begins after the funeral.  Arranging funerals is an extremely busy time.  People are constantly around.  There is little time for contemplation and mourning beyond the trite platitudes we might expect.  But that time will come.  His clothes might still be in the closet.  Her favorite coffee cup might still be in the dishwasher.  He always took care of the car and it’s time for an oil change.  She always took care of the laundry and a shirt needs a new button.  He always drove and the doctor’s appointment is tomorrow.  She always wrote the checks and the utility bill is due.  It’s those simple times when the reality of loneliness sets in.

Lesson: Make sure we regularly visit widow(er)s.  They don’t need a sermon every time.  They need light bulbs changed and furniture moved and yards mowed and rides to doctors.  It’s just that simple.  They don’t need someone profound, just around.  You don’t always have to have something to say.  Besides, you’ll find they have far more to teach you than you them.

3.  In our suffering-averse culture, we do anything to escape pain.  Rather than retreat to the gospel we retreat to anything else.  Our impulse is to help everyone we can out of their distress.  Yet, James commands us to visit widows in their distress.

Lesson: Widow(er)s have lost someone, not something.  Helping them is not as easy as encouraging a new hobby, replacing their time or keeping them busy.  They cannot substitue for what they’ve lost.  They have a new normal now and things will never be the way they used to be.  We shouldn’t encourage a hermitic lifestyle, but we must be sensitivite and patient.  So play checkers with them, but get them talking about their wife during the game.

Lesson: Death is hard and is not supposed to be easy.  Jesus wept at Lazarus’s tomb  knowing he was about to raise him from the dead (Jn 11.35).  The gravity and extent of the Fall is a painful reality and only the sovereign grace of God can make it easier.  A dear friend who recently buried her son confessed in a hug, “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”  That’s right, it is.  And it must be so that we will grope for grace.  It must be hard so that our God can be big.  We must hate the grave so that we can love the resurrection.  God must leave us speechless so we might finally hear him.

Lesson: Widow(er)s are not afraid to talk about their deceased spouses.  In fact, they love to!  They fear not talking about them.  They fear folks forgetting them.  They fear folks acting like nothing has happened.  It’s not taboo to bring up memories or ask about pictures.  It’s actually helpful.

4.  We’re obsessed with answers and demand explanations.  We want a black-and-white world where everything is either right or wrong.  We often fail to realize God’s mysterious providence.  The gospel demands we trust a Sovereign Savior who doesn’t owe us explanations.  The cross is a sufficient witness that whatever he does he does in infinite love and for our eternal benefit.  He may hide his specific reasons, but he has put the cross on glorious display to alleviate all doubt that he is good.

Lesson: Be careful of ascribing right/wrong distinctions to a widow(er)’s decisions.  I don’t mean decisions involving sinful or dangerous behavior, but decisions involving mourning and comfort.  In 1990, my dad buried Mom in her hometown of Itta Bena, MS.  Fifteen years later he hated not being able to visit her grave as often as he wanted.  So he had her casket moved to where they spent their whole married life together.  He asked me if that was right or wrong.  It’s neither, Dad.  He doesn’t deny the doctrine of the resurrection.  He doesn’t doubt Jesus will raise her from the dead, whether her body be in the Delta or down the street.  He doesn’t think there is a ghostly power associated with her body.  He’s just a widower who wants to visit his wife’s grave and remember their 38 years together.

Widow(er)s make many decisions along these lines.  Maybe he keeps her clothes in the closet for a year.  Maybe she goes back to work soon.  Maybe he doesn’t go back at all.  Maybe she still wears her wedding band.  Maybe he keeps her car in the garage.  Maybe he keeps her perfume on the kitchen sink.  Maybe she keeps his work shoes outside the back door.  It doesn’t matter what you would do in their situation.  They don’t need to explain why because it’s often the cry of their heart rather than the reasoning of their mind.  It’s not a matter of right or wrong, but of comfort and consolation.  Simply be there and listen and help.

Now, when is that next breakfast?

The Kohath Privilege and Pastoral Temptation

Then Yahweh spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, ‘Do not let the tribe of the families of the Kohathites be cut off from the Levites.  But do this to them that they may live and not die when they approach the most holy objects: Aaron and his sons shall go in and assign each of them to his work and to his load; but they shall not go in to see the holy objects even for a moment, or they will die’ (Num 4.17-18, 20).

Not only am I not a tabernacle expert, I’m not worthy to untie the shoes of one.  I am nevertheless intrigued (probably naively so) by the role of the Kohathites in the tabernacle administration.  Kohath was one of Levi’s three sons and therefore part of the priestly function in Israel (Num 3.17).  Each on of these sons and their lineage would have particular responsibilities for the administration of the tabernacle.  The Kohathites were in charge of the “most holy things” (Num 3.31; 4.4).  When Israel would pack up and move the Kohathites would chauffeur the most important items: the Ark, the Table of the Bread of the Presence, lampstands, altar and all the utensils.  They were an indispensable part of safely moving the tabernacle in a way that protected God’s holiness and Israel’s worship.

But as important as their function was, no Kohathite son ever set eyes on the very things he was raised to carry.  Imagine carrying the most holy objects in all of Israel, but never being allowed to see them “even for a moment” (Num 4.20). Only Aaron and his sons see them.  By the time you are called in for your assignment Aaron and his sons have already covered them up under several layers of protective skins and cloths (Num 4.5-15).  You don’t poke your head in to see how Aaron was progressing.  You don’t sneak a peek when the wind blows up a corner of the cloth (perhaps why heavy porpoise skins top the items).  And although you must not see them, you must carry them.  It’s like an Air Force One pilot who will will be shot on sight should he ever see the President out of the corner of his eye.

God charged Moses and Aaron to make sure the packing job is done perfectly well so as to protect the Kohathites (Numb 4.17-19a).  If Aaron misses a button or slips a knot then a Kohathite life is at stake (v20).  God is supremely holy and no one sneaks a peek at God’s holiness.  No one treats God’s holiness like a giggly schoolgirl who wants to see what her boyfriend got her for Valentine’s Day.  God’s “otherness” is not be trifled with.  Like it or not, God decides who sees him and how.  If you’re a Kohathite you do your job of carrying holy things because your life (literally) depended on it.  You leave them at the entrance of the tabernacle and joyfully go home thanking God for the privilege.  You praise God for what he allows you to do without resenting him for what he restricts you from seeing.  Any peek at the goods would lead to pride rather than worship.

It may be a stretch, but a helpful one to consider how the Kohathites might help pastoral ministry.  We tend to most holy things.  We deliver them to God’s people so they may worship the right God rightly.  We’re not the priests, but agents of the High Priest to make sure his things get to his people unprofaned and intact.

But Monday always comes when we’ve dropped off the most holy things at the hearts of men and women.  We’ve gone home to leave the unpacking of those goods to Someone else.  And what God may do with them is above our pay grade.  Yet I demand that God show me exactly what it is that he is doing through my service.  If he would have me preach then he owes me a peek at what lies under his mysterious providence.  If I’m going to carry the most holy things then I deserve to see some affect of doing so.  It’s not enough that God grant the sheer privilege of tending to the most holy things.  I deserve see what no one else is allowed to see.  Let me peek under the cover to see more people, more commendation, more money.  All the while, God restrains such insight for our own good and maybe our own lives.   Any peek at the goods will lead to pride rather than worship.

We must not insist on seeing what God hides under the surface of our ministry.  We deliver the gospel as God has packaged it in Christ.  We care for the gospel with acute attenion and keen consciences so that men do not die.  We take no credit for the gospel or the privilege of preaching the gospel.  “For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor 9.16).  The Kohathites received no praise for carrying the most holy things so well.  They were a means to an end: the honoring of God’s holiness among the people of God.  Likewise, we get no praise for preaching the gospel.  We’re errand boys.  We’re couriers.  We merely bring God’s truth to God’s people and leave whatever progress that truth makes to the Most Holy God (1 Cor 3.6).

So what did God do yesterday in our preaching?  Did he convert a soul?  Did he convict a tempted believer?  Did he encourage a faint heart?  Did he prosper a gift?  Did he amaze the masses?  I don’t know.  And as much as I want to know, I cannot know and must not know lest pride sow its sneaky seed.  Our assignment was simply to pick up the gospel as God has packaged it in Christ and deliver it safely to God’s people.  How and when he unpacks it is up to the High Priest to do with it what he wills.  In the meantime we go home joyfully, thanking God for the privilege and waiting for our next assignment.

“For not man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. . . . but each man must be careful how he builds on it” (1 Cor 3.11, 10b).

The Incredible Shrinking Church

Mark Galli wrote a provocative article at Christianity Today entitled “How to Shrink a Church.”  As one who has been part of “growing” two churches to half their original sizes, I was especially intrigued.  I could not agree more with Galli’s “dilemma” (pg 2).  We’re (sinfully) conditioned to assume bigger is better and more equals health.  Consumerism has hijacked the church so that we evaluate ministry like we would a nation’s GDP.  God has a different economy, however.

It’s terribly difficult to “sell” the notion that smaller might very well be better. It’s hard to rejoice over empty pews and even emptier coffers.  It’s hard to convince folks that we did the right thing by doing the hard thing.  Yet God’s pleasure is most often toward and his power most often displayed in the faithful few rather than the mighty many.

Therefore I could not be more encouraged by Galli’s exhortation:

The more strictly you adhere to the teachings of Jesus, the smaller the church will “grow.” One of the most crucial skills of a military commander is, in the face of defeat, to lead a retreat that doesn’t turn into panic or a massacre. And one of the most crucial skills for pastors and church lay leaders is to manage church decline when people are leaving because they see, finally, what Jesus is asking of them. This is not a job for the faint of heart, and will require great wisdom to manage resources, personnel, and morale in such a time.

It will take great wisdom, indeed.

“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy” (Jas 3.17).

T. David Gordon in Latest Touchstone Mag

T. David Gordon wrote a powerful article in the latest Touchstone Magazine entitled “Sermon Pointers” (pp14-16).  It’s aimed at the obsession of “relevance” in contemporary preaching.  “You gotta meet them where they are” is the tired mantra of the modern pulpit.  I couldn’t resist a few excerpts to embolden my preaching and encourage your subscription to this great publication.

To borrow language from the Lutheran tradition, the preacher declares both law and gospel.  “Where they are” is this:  Our hearers are law-breaking rebels who have revolted against the majesty of God (both in Adam and in themselves), and who therefore justly have fallen under his judgment and curse.  This judgment and curse are not merely the source of the other “where they are” circumstances; they are those circumstances.

People may indeed be lonely, because of Genesis 3; they may be depressed; they may be dysfunctional; they may  be neurotic, or anxious, or a host of other things.  But none of these things constitutes “where they are.”  Where they are is under God’s judgment and curse: “And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account (Heb. 4:13).  Our universal circumstance is this: We must give an account to God.  Outside of Christ, we, like Adam and Eve, are “naked and exposed” to God’s all-perceiving sight; only in Christ are we clothed with a redemptive covering.

Apostolic preaching did not discern “where they are”; apostolic preaching declared “where they are.”  Further, “where they are” was not individually considered, but corporately considered.  The apostles did not attempt to discern the particular “where they are” of each individual, but the general or corporate “where they are” of the entire race.

People do not ultimately need to be delivered from their dysfunctional families, their media-saturated culture, their Oedipal urges, their neuroses, or their various alienations; they need to be delivered from God’s judgment and curse.  And their perception that all of these other matters are more important or relevant than God’s judgment and curse are merely evidence that they are under his judgment and curse, and that they need to repent of these very misperceptions.

I confess the temptation to compete with Dr. Philism for the attention of my congregation.  But zingers, one-liners and platitudes are not the power of God unto salvation for all who believe.  The gospel is.  God help us.