Thursday, July 14, 2016

5 Lessons in 5 Years of Ministry

This month marks my fifth year in pastoral ministry. I understand this is not long compared to the decades of my preaching heroes—Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John MacArthur, Alistair Begg—but it has been long enough to learn some lessons along the way. Here are five lessons I’ve learned as I reflect on the past five years. 

Prayer is just as important as preaching. I put some decent sweat, sacrifice, and many a sleepless night to get through seminary, in order to be equipped as a preacher. My assumption was that in pastoral ministry the most important thing is preaching. I was half-right. In Acts 6:4, the early church leads by example, being devoted to both prayer and the ministry of the word. I initially underestimated the power of prayer in ministry when I first started. I’ve come to realize just how important my own prayer life is, and how effective ministry can only be built on the prayer life of the entire church. 

Pursue godliness over greatness. I think every pastor begins ministry hoping that God will use his ministry to do some great things. I still hope for that. Yet I’ve come to learn that should not be the priority for me. The sobering reality is that at least five younger, very gifted and talented pastors have been removed from their ministry recently by character disqualification and moral failure. There is a good reason that a wise professor in seminary had us memorize the following verse, “Pay close attention to your life and your teaching; persevere in these things” (1 Tim 4:16 HCSB). 

Always remember that God’s Word is enough. There are a lot of trends to chase out there in ministry. Attend any leadership conference and you will find conversational buzz about the latest strategy that will help grow your church. In this digital age, I sense a subtle but growing pressure for pastors and churches to be innovative if they want to have a productive ministry. There is a place for all of this, but it does not replace the power and sufficiency of God’s Word. Paul gave Timothy a simple directive for productive ministry: preach the word (2 Tim 4:2). The Word of God is enough for our evangelism and discipleship. 

Even a smaller church can have a global vision. I came to realize that my name does not have to be David Platt and I don’t have to lead a megachurch to have a strong missions focus. Every church—even smaller ones in rural areas like mine—can have what I call a GGV (Global Gospel Vision). I’m thankful that our church has gone along with giving sacrificially for the advance of the gospel among the nations. I’m happy that our congregation has been able to help support and send people overseas to places like China, Kenya, Amsterdam, Philippines, Taiwan, and North Africa.

Betrayal and indifference cause the deepest wounds. On a more personal note, I learned that the early years in the ministry of a newly minted pastor is spent learning self-awareness. A pastor fresh out of seminary needs to learn his strengths and weaknesses, his rhythms of work and rest, and how he works most efficiently. He will need to learn how to properly handle stress and the ebbs and flows of church life. He will also learn quickly that every leader faces critics. I’ve learned that criticism for me is like a bee sting. It initially hurts really bad, but the pain does not last too long. 

But what cuts me deeply is when I have been betrayed, or when people respond indifferently to the Word of God. I still have scars from the few times I’ve experienced betrayal in ministry. Similarly, when I sense that people show little concern for the ministry of the church, or have a low-level commitment to Christ and his Word, or when commitments are not made or kept because it requires too much personal sacrifice—these things can cut me deeply.

I’ve learned that in these moments of betrayal and indifference, I need to remind myself of how my Savior spent his final hours on this earth. He was betrayed, and the world stood by indifferently as he hung on the cross out of the greatest act of divine love ever to touch this earth. I’ve learned that ministry, at some level, will always involve a death to self. 

“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known” (Col 1:24-25 ESV). 

Monday, June 27, 2016

Discipleship Lessons

This year I took our congregation through the New Testament letter of James. To make application easy to remember, I summarized each message with one main discipleship lesson. James is all about practical discipleship. His letter encourages disciples to live under the lordship of Jesus Christ in all of life. So most of these lessons are very action-oriented. Some also call for self-examination. Together, these lessons help us mature in Christlikeness, as we aim to be doers of the Word (1:22).

  1. Be joyful because God is using our trials for spiritual transformation (1:1-4). 
  2. Pray confidently with a stable, God-centered faith (1:5-8).
  3. Reverse your thinking in how you view yourself and others (1:9-11).
  4. God is completely sovereign and yet we are fully responsible (1:12-18).
  5. The evidence of our discipleship is found in our godly speech (1:19-21).
  6. The evidence of our discipleship is also found in our obedience to Jesus (1:21-27). 
  7. The glory of Christ should grab our gaze, not gold and garments (2:1-9). 
  8. The only cure for our sin is obedience to Christ that rests on his mercy (2:10-13).
  9. No one can separate genuine faith from active works (2:14-26). 
  10. Your tongue is evidence of who controls your life (3:1-12). 
  11. Jealously and selfish ambition will destroy your discipleship (3:13-18). 
  12. Sinful pleasure and pride will also destroy your discipleship (4:1-6a). 
  13. Pursuing humility is the way to repair our discipleship (4:7-10). 
  14. Disciples are cautious when talking about people and future plans (4:11-17).
  15. Living in luxury and self-indulgence carries eternal consequences (5:1-7).
  16. There is a great reward when you persevere in your discipleship (5:7-11).
  17. Prayer is the lifeline of our discipleship (5:13-18).
  18. Discipleship must be carefully grounded and guarded in the truth (5:12,19-20).

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

5 Lifeline Lessons on Prayer

At the end of James, an entire section is devoted to the importance of prayer (5:13-18). Prayer is encouraged in all occasions, must be fervent, and persistent. Followers of Jesus Christ know that sustained prayer can be difficult at times. That is why there are so many admonitions in the Bible about prayer. But for faithful discipleship, ongoing prayer is vital. It is the disciple’s lifeline. Here are five lifeline prayer lessons to encourage a stronger prayer life. They only work if you put them into practice, as a doer of the word (Jas 1:22). 

1) Pray Scripture constantly.  The best way to stay connected in prayer is to connect it to your daily Bible reading. Take a verse or a theme from what you read and turn it into prayer. The Psalms work well this way. Also, a helpful book that encourages this is Praying the Bible by Don Whitney. 

2) Have a widening circle of prayer.  One of the easiest ways to get stuck in a prayer rut is to pray with a short daily routine that only includes trivial needs. Christians should aim at a widening circle of prayer concerns and prayer groups. Practically, get outside of yourself in prayer; pray about, with, and for others. Pray for what God is doing in the world through global missions. Get past the sick list. Pray for spiritual growth for yourself and others. Join in prayer groups if you can. This is the nature of basic discipleship.

3) Keep a prayer journal.  This is not for everybody, but it can be useful for many. My wife has kept something of a prayer journal for years, and it is encouraging to look back and see what God did through prayer a decade ago. The prayer journal can be used to record prayer requests, answered prayer, Scripture, encouragement, and trials of faith. A prayer journal may be the added accountability for personal discipline that some need. 

4) Remember that sin is the stumbling block to a vital prayer life.  I don't need to go into much detail on this one. One example of this is found in 1 Pet 3:7. If husbands don’t treat their wives well, God will not hear their prayers. Simple enough. You cannot have an amazing prayer life if you are not submitted to Christ in obedience (Jn 15:7). 

5) Don’t ever stop praying (Lk 18:1).  Jesus told his disciples a parable “to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” This seems to be the point of another parable Jesus told in Luke 11:5-13 (ESV): 

 “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.”

Prayer is so vital to discipleship. For it to mature and work, perseverance and persistence are needed. So keep on praying. Don’t let go of your lifeline. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Forms of Pride

James teaches us how dangerous pride is since we are reminded that “God is opposed to the proud” (Jas 4:6). Here we get a general statement about how God views our pride, but the Bible gives some specific examples of what forms our own pride can take. The problem with our pride is we are often blind to it. We don’t realize that pride exists in us because we are not aware of the forms. 

Here are a few of the forms pride can take.  

Moral Pride: Moral pride is a feeling or attitude of superiority towards others. It can take the form of condescending words directed at those we think are morally below us (Jn 9:34). The Pharisees are the clearest example of moral pride in the Bible. To see how God is so opposed to moral pride, we have the parable Jesus told about the Pharisee and Tax Collector (Luke 18:10-14). It’s worth reading and meditating on. 

Intellectual Pride: This form of pride is found in those who think that knowledge is supreme at the expense of love. Intellectual pride begins to creep in when we think we’ve arrived at spiritual maturity simply for reaching a certain level of knowledge. It is found in 1 Cor 8:1 “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” It takes place whenever knowledge is prized above love (1 Cor 13:2). 

Independent Pride: There are several variations. Independent pride can be refusing to look to God for help or seek him for strength (Obadiah 3). Not praying is a sure sign of independent pride (Ps 10:4). It can also be found in a rebellious, unteachable attitude, what the Bible calls “stiff-necked” (Ex 32:9). 

Pride has no place in the disciple’s life, so let’s be sure our aim is to seek Christlike humility. 

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Best Path to Leadership Growth

Over the past few years I have spent a good chunk of time pursuing leadership growth and development. I’ve read leadership books, invested time perusing blogs, articles, and listening to podcasts. My desire has been to grow as a leader in order to be a better servant of Christ’s church. My guess is that the time investment has been helpful at some level. 

I think leadership growth can be boiled down to growing in wisdom and knowledge. Leadership takes a certain level of skill, and that skill is built on wisdom and knowledge. Fools lack knowledge, do not make not good leaders, and therefore should not be followed (Prov 14:7). So it makes sense that leaders, especially spiritual leaders, should want to grow in wisdom and knowledge.

In my Scripture memorization I came across Colossians 2:3 recently. It reminded me that it is Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” What a relief and hope this word is for leaders! We don’t need to read all the bestselling leadership books on the market to be effective leaders. We don't need to be connected to all the popular leadership podcasts or blogs. Those things may be helpful, but they are not essential.

It hit me later on as I thought about church history. God used many men in great leadership roles, from Athanasius and Augustine, to Luther and Calvin, to Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones. The surprising thing is that they all actually lived in the days before the current leadership buzz. They ministered before there was a mass push to publish and produce leadership material from the “experts.” These godly guys somehow greatly influenced the world with the gospel, and yet never attended a conference or breakout session on coaching, mentoring, or organizational leadership. But these men had access to all the leadership material that God saw they needed: wisdom from above (Jas 3:17) found in Christ. These men studied Christ and he was sufficient for their personal leadership growth and development.

I’m thankful that the same is true today. Truth be told, all the leadership stuff out there has a pretty short shelf life. Blog and podcast content quickly disappear from memory, at least for me. The latest leadership bestseller will eventually be sold at steep discount on Kindle for $2.99 when the new stuff rolls out. On the other hand, the eternal and enduring Word of Christ does not have a short shelf life. It has been powerful and effective to lead leaders throughout church history (Col 3:16). Simply put, the source of wisdom and knowledge in Christ has proven the test of time. It is still the most certain way to grow gospel-centered leaders who trust God that their work has eternal rewards. 

Monday, March 28, 2016

Jerry Bridges: a gospel-centered author to read for discipleship

A gifted Christian author went home with the Lord recently. On March 6th 2016, Jerry Bridges went to be “with Christ” (Phil 1:23). In case you are not familiar with him, I wanted to introduce you to a few of his writings by tracing when I was introduced to them, and how they shaped my life over the years. 

The first book I read was The Discipline of Grace. Someone recommended this to me when I was a young Christian. It was remarkably helpful since I didn’t fully understand the true depths of grace. He has a principle in that book that I love and try to live by: 
“Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God’s grace. And your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God's grace” (p.18). 
In other words, every day we desperately cling to God’s grace. This helps us keep our focus each day on the gospel. This is the foundation for a life of discipleship. 

The second book I picked up was The Pursuit of Holiness. There was a study for college students that I was part of, and this was the book that we tackled. His basic call is for Christians to take the practice of holiness very seriously. This is probably his most popular book and I think and a good place to start if you are not familiar with his writings. Holiness is essential for discipleship growth. 

The final book of significance was Trusting God. The timing of this was fitting. I was just finishing up my undergraduate work in South Carolina. I was newly married and my wife was pregnant with our first child. At that time she was working full-time to get me through school and I was a full-time student. When our son was born, my bride had to stop working and we literally had zero income for several months until I graduated. Our small group at church studied Trusting God and it became a great theme in our life during that season. We saw God’s amazing provision as we learned to trust him. Trusting God was another essential discipleship lesson I needed to learn.  

Although I have not read them, other popular books of his are Transforming Grace and Respectable Sins. I have never been disappointed with any of his books. They are great for both personal study and small group discipleship. I thank God for Jerry Bridges and how his writings have helped so many in their Christian growth as they have for me.

*I originally wrote this for our church's monthly newsletter to honor Mr Bridges and to introduce others to his writings. Since then I have picked up Respectable Sins and in my opinion it is probably one of his best writings. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

Your Identity in Christ

James begins his letter by introducing himself, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ (1:1).” As we make our way through the letter, James shows us what it looks like for us to live as servants of God and Christ. 

Some English translations (HCSB & NLT) translate the word servant as slave. This may actually be more helpful in understanding how we are to see ourselves. John MacArthur has an excellent book devoted to studying that single word. The book is called Slave: The Hidden Truth About Your Identity in Christ. In it he lists five truths about what it meant to live as a slave in first century Rome. So people who were reading James would have made the connection to what it looks like to be a slave of Christ. Here are the five (p.44-53 in the book). 

  1. Exclusive Ownership. According to Roman law, a slave was considered “property in the absolute control of another.” Servants of Christ know they are not their own, but have been purchased by the blood of Christ and he has exclusive ownership. 
  2. Complete Submission. Slaves were to give their master unquestioning obedience. In the same way, disciples give Christ unquestioning obedience. There is no part of his Word that can be taken lightly. 
  3. Singular Devotion. Jesus told his followers how impossible it is to serve two masters (Matt 6:24); he warns the many people who call him Lord but do not really know him by their actions (Matt 7:21). To be Christ’s follower is to be singularly devoted to him and his will.  
  4. Total Dependance. Slaves were able to be confident that everything they needed would be provided for them. They simply did not have to worry about basic provision in life. Those who are in Christ can trust their Master with everything from salvation to sustenance. 
  5. Personal Accountability. Slaves understood that they worked for the pleasure of the master. They all had to give a personal account of how they lived and labored. In the same way all believers will give personal account, down to the very use of words (Matt 12:36-37). 

The main hope for all true followers of Jesus is tied up with the words they will hear someday, “Well done good and faithful servant…Enter into the joy of your master (Matt 25:21).”