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Book Review: Real Church

Most books, in one way or another, are about giving answers.

Not so with Larry Crabb’s new book Real Church. It doesn’t give answers as much as it asks questions.  Good questions, important questions, about the nature of what Jesus envisions the church to be.  The kinds of questions that are rarely asked nowadays in the evangelical church, mainly because we assume we’ve already got those questions answered, and the questions we concern ourselves with now are about how to do everything we are already doing better.  We ask “One service or two? Contemporary or traditional? Sunday School or small groups?”

This book, however, is about entirely different questions, questions that go much deeper: “Why are mature people who love God drifting away from church?  Why do people who have little commitment to Christ enjoying church, and why are they not growing?  Why is it not enough for a church to call people to belief in Christ and to lead moral lives? What are the marks of a church that creates people & community that are truly supernatural?”

In his preface, Larry himself writes:

What church would compel me to attend? What kind of church service would I hate to miss? What church would I feel privileged to be part of? I had a hard time coming up with an answer. So I decided to think more about it. I think best with a pen in my hand. Hence this little book.

By the end of the book, he hasn’t come up with pat answers, but he has asked some penetrating questions (in fact, twelve of the chapter titles are questions, such as “So What Is It that Makes a Gathering a Church?” and “It Will Offer Salvation and Help for Righteous Living: Is that the Deep Change God Wants?”).

Larry does, however, lay out four marks of a church that he would want to be part of:

  1. Understands and encourages dynamic, transformative Biblical truth
  2. Understands and encourages spiritual formation
  3. Understands and encourages spiritual community
  4. Is energized to do the missional work of the Kingdom

So, what did I get out of this book?  Besides taking a ton of notes & quotes, Real Church gave me new perspectives and categories to think through what it truly means to “do church,” as well as my own private spiritual formation.  If you want to think seriously about the church and the Kingdom then read this book.

Book Review: Gilead

John Ames is dying.

He has lived seventy six years in the small Kansas town of Gilead, most of those pastoring the small country church his father & his grandfather pastored before him.

He watches his seven year old son, the son he never thought he would have, playing at his feet, and realizes he will never see him grow up.

And so he writes, trying to distill his soul into words, to tell his son everything his heart yearns to but knows it will not live to do.

*************

I rarely read fiction.  I have no desire to be entertained by a book.  Instead, I want, no, I need a book to grab me by the throat, wrestle me to the ground, and hold me there until I am so overwhelmed by the goodness of God that I am weeping.  And so I read men like Piper & Eldredge & Chan & Crabb, because they can do that to me.

It is rare that a book of fiction has that capacity.  Gilead does.

It is a work of stunning beauty & grace & wisdom.  I had underlined many passages and shed many tears by the time I turned the last page.  It is no surprise to me at all why Marilynne Robinson won the Pulitzer for this novel.  Read it.  It will bless your socks off.

What Will Your Grandchildren Say They Learned From You?

I read today a list of five things a grandson states he has learned from his 90 year old grandfather.  He penned this short list with obvious admiration and sincerity.  Here is what he wrote:

1) Humility: He (his grandfather) has always been keenly aware that God is God, and he is not. He has always been conscious of his smallness and God’s bigness, his imperfection and God’s perfection.

2) A love for the Gospel: He has always had a deep sense of his own sin, which has led him to a deep love for his Savior. He has always exemplified the sweet reality that you can never know Christ as a Great Savior until you first know yourself to be a great sinner. God’s amazing grace still amazes him — and that amazes me!

3) Faithfulness: Although he has had the opportunity to do many things, he has never wavered concerning God’s call on his life to be an evangelist. He knows he’s not a scholar or a theologian; he’s never tried to be. He has always remained true to God’s calling.

4) Never show favoritism: I have been with him in numerous places with numerous people, and I have never, ever seen him show favoritism. He treats all people the same, whether they are rich or poor, weak or powerful, socially significant or socially insignificant.

5) Be real: He is normal! He gets mad; he gets sad; he’s fun to be around. His favorite restaurant is Morrison’s Cafeteria. His favorite movie is “Crocodile Dundee.” His favorite drink is orange juice, and he loves catfish. He’s just another man with all of the limitations and idiosyncrasies that the rest of us have — and I love him for it!

When I read over this list, I thought, “When I am 90 years old, what will my grandchildren say they learned from my life?  What is my life teaching those closest to me?”

Think about it: what five things do you want your grandchildren to say they learned from you and your life?   What do you think those closest to you would say they are learning from your life today? Why not make a list of five things you want to pass on, and then make a list of five things that need to change in your life so that you can have that heritage for your grandchildren and all those in your life.

By the way, that list was written by a guy named Tullian Tchividjian (I found it here).

You might know his grandfather, who turns 90 this week—  Billy Graham.

Twelve Qualities Every Church Needs in a Pastor

leap of faith steve martinAlthough most of us wouldn’t pick Steve Martin, all of us do have a list of what we want in a pastor. The list may be short or long, general or detailed, but we all carry a set of expectations with us every time we go to church. Some of our lists may even look like this old one:

–The ideal pastor preaches exactly 10 minutes.
–He condemns sin, but never hurts anyone’s feelings.
–He works from 8AM to midnight, and also serves as the church janitor.
–He makes $40 a week, wears good clothes, and donates $30 a week to the church.
–He is 29 years old and has 40 years of experience.
–He makes 15 house calls a day and is always in his office.

Ok, so what makes that list funny? Because we see the nugget of truth in the joke, that everyone tends to have some unrealistic expectations of their pastors. What the list also hints at is that there may be a real difference between what we want in a pastor and what we need in a pastor. Which begs the question, what qualities do we actually need in a pastor? How can we tell?

Unfortunately, history amply demonstrates that people don’t always know what they need in a pastor. From past glaring examples of leaders who poisoned kool-aid to the disgraced pastors who make the news almost every day, we know that giving people want they want or can be convinced of is not the same as what they actually need.

However, we don’t need to speculate or wonder or argue over the qualities of the ideal pastor: the Bible gives clear guidance regarding what a church needs in a pastor. One of the best pictures occurs in Acts chapter 20, where Paul is meeting with the leaders of the church in Ephesus. In a few short words, he lays out what he sees as the critical roles that a godly pastor must fulfill. You might even call it “Paul’s Picture of the Perfect Pastor.”

Here’s the background: Paul is traveling by ship back to Jerusalem. He is passing near to Ephesus, where he started a church and pastored it for three years before moving onto other cities. He has retained a special care and concern for this church, since he spent longer in Ephesus than any other city he traveled to. He is under a time constraint, trying to return to Jerusalem before the feast of Pentecost, but his ship is passing the shoreline within about 20 miles of Ephesus. So he puts to shore, and has the elders of the church to come and meet him, for what he believes is his last time before his death.

Paul has one last opportunity with them, one last time to impart wisdom and encouragement and warning to the leaders of this young church. What does he say? He focuses on the kind of man a pastor should be to his church, using himself as an example. He knows that the whole health of any church hinges on the kind of men that are leading it and the kind of ministry they are committed to.

Why is this important to you and me today? If you are in any kind of teaching, eldership, or leadership position in your church, this is your biblical blueprint for how you are to live out your life. If you are a member of a church, then this is your blueprint as to what to look for in your pastors, what to appreciate about their ministry, and how to pray for God to lead and strengthen them.

Paul immediately starts out by challenging these leaders to remember what kind of man he was and what kind of ministry he had in verse 18, “You yourselves know how I lived…” He then sets out his list of what they should focus on:

First and foremost, Paul states that a church needs pastors committed to serving God (verse 20). Unless a pastor is looking only to God for direction, strength, and approval, he will be tempted to follow whatever course will give him the most popularity from others. Paul mentions two keys to a life of serving God: a humble heart (before God and men) and a broken heart (for the glory of God and the needs of men).

Paul also knows that a pastor must be committed to teaching people (verse 20). If a man does not truly love people and love teaching them, he may become a capable administrator or leader, but he cannot be a pastor. In verse 20 Paul states he taught both in public proclamation and in group discipleship. Every church needs both types of instruction by the pastors and other gifted teachers in the church.

Paul goes on to say that a pastor must be unafraid to cut across racial and social barriers (verse 21). Paul often found himself in the middle between squabbles and outright hatred between Jews and Greeks, but refused to concede to the either side, firmly loving and promoting reconciliation between them. Pastors must follow Paul’s example, and draw all people to Christ and to each other.

Also in verse 21 Paul reminds them that he was unafraid to tell the hard truth of the Gospel. Paul never shirked or side-stepped away from the necessity of teaching “repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ,” even at the cost of beatings and imprisonment. Paul well knew that people do not like being challenged on their need for repentance and for Christ, but he also knew that there was “no under name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

To sum up this need for courage, Paul stated, “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” (Acts 20:24) Paul’s bottom line was that a pastor values his ministry more than his own life. The preacher Charles Spurgeon advised young men that if there was any other career they could do besides the pastorate, then they should do it. True pastors are not in it for the money or because they enjoy it or because it seemed like a good idea: the true pastor would rather die than fall short of the ministry he knows God has called him to.

Paul throughout the passage challenges them to consider how he did everything he knew to do for them while he was their pastor. In short, Paul knew that a pastor needs to have a clear conscience. Paul knew he was not perfect; in fact, he once called himself the chief of sinners in 1st Timothy 1:15. But Paul also knew that he had given the ministry his all: at the end of his life he wrote in 2 Timothy 4:7, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

Paul also reminds them that a pastor remembers the source of His calling. In verse 28 he says, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” They did not choose their calling; they were chosen by the Holy Spirit. Keeping that reality firmly fixed in their minds was vital for their success, when struggles, frustrations, and trials would tempt them to give up or compromise.

Paul next reveals himself as a pastor who values the preciousness of the church. Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven being precious enough that a man would sell all that he had to obtain it (Matthew 13:44). A pastor has to regard his flock as that precious, because their value is determined by Jesus shedding his precious blood on their behalf (verse 28). Three hundred years ago a young German college student was in an art museum looking at a painting of Christ with his crown of thorns. Beneath the painting was the inscription, “I have done this for you, what have you done for me?” Broken by the preciousness of Christ’s blood, he went on to become one of the founders of the Moravian church. Every pastor should look with broken heart upon his church as purchased by the precious blood of Christ.

Because of the preciousness of the church, a pastor is aware of the danger of false doctrine & the need for persistent vigilance against it. In verse 29-31 Paul warns them of a future where “fierce wolves” will try to lead the flock astray. Twenty centuries of Christian history have proved Paul right, and the need for a faithful pastor to be faithful to true doctrine is ever more important today.

Of course, there is only one way to be faithful to true doctrine: for a pastor to be a man of the Word. In verse 32 Paul blesses these early church leaders by commending them “to God and the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” There is absolutely no substitute for a pastor immersing himself in the Scriptures. Charles Spurgeon once described John Bunyan as being so full of the Bible that, “Prick him anywhere; and you will find that his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him. He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his soul is full of the Word of God.” Every pastor should strive to be described so.

Before ending his teaching, Paul once again points to his own ministry to emphasize that the church needs a pastor who is free from materialism. Jesus bluntly taught that you cannot serve both God and money in Matthew 6:24, and Paul reiterates that a pastor’s lifestyle must demonstrate a heart that does not covet either his flock’s money or their possessions. His flock should never have a reason to doubt the selflessness of his motives toward them.

Finally, Paul’s instructions reveal that a pastor must have a heart of a shepherd. The care and concern of a shepherd is woven throughout Paul’s discourse, but is summed up in verse 35 where he speaks of working hard to help the weak and to remember that it is more blessed to give than to receive.

What happens when a church has a pastor like Paul? They love him. The chapter closes with the men embracing Paul and kissing him, praying with him and weeping with him. When a faithful pastor and a faithful church bond together for the glory of God, there is no end of the good that is done for the Kingdom of God.

Jesus Saw

Matthew spent three years with Jesus, listening, watching, working, & walking with Him.  As you read his Gospel, one picture, one phrase, appears over and over.

“Jesus saw.”

In Matthew 4 Jesus saw two fisherman, casting their nets.  But the Master saw much more than men on a boat; he saw men with spiritual needs and a spiritual destiny.  In a few short words he woke their souls to eternal truth and changed their lives forever.  

In Matthew 5 Christ saw crowds of people seeking truth, and He taught them as no man ever had.  In Matthew 8 He saw Peter’s mother sick, and healed her. In Matthew 9 He saw the faith of a man and his friends, and forgave his sins and healed his legs. He saw Matthew himself and went over to talk to this despised tax collector, and made him a new man.  He saw a woman with an incurable disease and both healed and encouraged her.

Finally, in Matthew 9:36, Jesus “saw the crowds, He had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”  And He sent Matthew and His other disciples to minister to them, to every town and village.

The memory of that first time his eyes met Christ’s the day he was collecting taxes must have comforted Matthew for the rest of his life.  When he struggled with persecution or rejection or just the ordinary nuisances of life he could always remember “Jesus saw me.”  He could remember, and realize that Christ’s tender shepherding care of him had not ended, and that Jesus was still watching over him and meeting his needs.

And the memories of Jesus seeing other people in need, and being moved with compassion to respond to their needs, must have challenged Matthew every day as he walked the earth. When he was tired or discouraged, he remembered Christ’s words, “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”  He would pause, and see people, really see them the way Christ had taught him, and then remember the ministry Christ had called him to fulfill.

Should it not be the same with us?  This picture of Jesus seeing people, seeing us, can surely comfort us when we are struggling under a heavy load.  And when we are simply focused on ourselves, that picture can remind us of why we are here, and the ministry to others that Christ calls us to fulfill as well.

 

Loving Ministry More Than Life

Note: The following is article #23 in a series reflecting on chapters in John Piper’s book Future Grace. More information on the book from Amazon.com is available here. A list of all the articles in this series so far is available here

William CareyWilliam Carey: tried to convince people for years that people in India needed to hear the gospel, founded the first missionary organization, sailed to India himself with his family against British law in 1793, lost his five year old son, lost two wives (one to insanity), worked for years translating the Bible only to see all his work lost in a fire, stayed in India forty years without furlough.

Adoniram JudsonAdoniram Judson: went to Burma 1814, lost infant son, lost wife, spent over a year in a “death prison”, after seventeen years had only ten converts in a country where converting from Buddhism carried a legal death penalty, yet when he died from infection at age 61 there were 100 churches with 8000 believers.

Evelyn BrandEvelyn Brand: went to India age 34, lost husband, suffered from recurrent malaria, sickness, multiple fractures, at age 67 after a broken hip her son asked her to retire for her health’s sake.  She replied, “Why preserve this old body if it’s not going to be used where God needs me?”  When her missions agency retired her anyway, she refused to go home, moving up into the remote hill country loving and serving people until she died at age 95.

What did these three people have in common?  They loved ministry more than life. They were convinced that fulfilling their ministry was more important than anything else in the world, even staying alive.

Oh, we say, that’s all well and good if you’re off in a foreign country somewhere, but I’m not really in “ministry” like they were.

But what is “ministry” anyway? Dr. Piper defines ministry as “a lifestyle devoted to advancing other people’s faith and holiness.”  Guess what? That’s everyone’s lifestyle if they are a true follower of Jesus Christ.  Doesn’t matter where we live, how we earn a living, what people we have contact with, we can still have a lifestyle devoted to advancing other people’s faith and holiness. And not only can we have such a life, we are commanded to live such a life.

How can we live such a radical life? Only by relying on God.  In 2 Corinthians 9:8 Paul says,

And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.

Dr. Piper observes that this grace that “abounds” for “every good work” does not mean every possible thing that could be done, but that God will supply everything that we need for what God has individually appointed for us to do, day by day, moment by moment. 

Through faith we trust that God’s grace will be there when we need it, for what we need it. Dr. Piper cites Ephesians 4:29 (NASB), “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.”  He notes that as we trust God and allow His grace to flow through us that we will be able to build each other up in grace.

He states in Chapter 22:

Before this day is done, there will be an occasion in your life which Paul calls “the need of the moment.” Someone will be positioned to benefit from your words. If you put your faith in future grace and serve in the strength that God supplies, you will become a channel of that grace. When it comes–to you and through you–the satisfaction is so deep, you will know why you were created and why you were called.

After I re-read that passage, I prayed for God to use me somehow, somewhere, to someone this very day as a channel of grace.  And he did, completely out of the blue, in a way I never imagined.  What if I prayed that prayer every day?  What if I humbly sought to be a channel of God’s grace, to structure my life so that my #1 priority was advancing others’ faith and holiness?  What would change in my life, and other lives? What would I have to look back on at the end of my life?  What is stopping me?

 

Love Like There’s No Tomorrow

Make the most of life that’s borrowed, love like there’s no tomorrow. 

That little couplet from the Stellar Kart song “Me and Jesus” has been sticking in my mind the past few weeks, especially since I’ve also been looking at the new Don’t Waste Your Life Group Study Kit to go through with my son.

What does a life that is not wasted look like? How do you know if you’re doing it right? Sure, if you’re in “vocational ministry” you’ve kind of got a plan handed to you on a platter, but what about people working 9 to 5? How do the rest of us make the most of this life that is “borrowed” from God (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)?  How do we actually, day by day, “love like there’s no tomorrow” (1 Peter 1:22)?

This morning I read an email from a friend— we’ve started discussing the differences between Sikhism and Christianity.  Emailed another friend telling her that a mutual friend’s house burned down yesterday.  Had lunch with another friend. Spent some time with another friend who had been brutally and unfairly fired last month; watched some NCAA basketball with him.  Talked to another friend about weekend plans.  Counseled another friend who is going through one of the most difficult experiences of his life, and can’t reveal it to anyone at his church. Talked (ok, listened) to my 82 year old Dad for half an hour.  Spent some time with my kids. Emailed Centuri0n asking him what he thought of Marvel killing off Captain America (his reply was not a suprise!). Watched my beautiful wife’s face light up when I bought her something she had been wanting for years.  And in between all that, saw some patients, went to the bank, took out the trash, and listened to that song while running in the neighborhood.

Yea, that about covers it for today.  All of those people I mentioned I loved, and chose to be a part of their lives.  Oh yea, to do all that I had to miss American Idol.

Make the most of life that’s borrowed, love like there’s no tomorrow

 

What is Ministry?

In the summer 2005 edition of Today’s Christian Preacher, Mark Vowels writes a short article “What exactly do we mean by ministry?” He speaks of the easy tendency to separate life into “ministry” activities vs. “nonministry”. He states:

This is a false dichotomy. Whatever my responsibilities are, I have only one primary task each day. That task is to please the Lord…Pleasing God is not something separate from the ministry of the man of God. Pleasing God is his ministry. That is all that God expects from man each day…so ministry is very simply the pursuit of pleasing the Lord.

Are You a Flash Flood?

Are you a flash flood around people?

That is, does the impact of the “good deeds” you are doing in the name of Christ have the same effect as a flash flood?

See how many of this list you can check off:

Often comes suddenly after a drought—are you neglectful of people in your life, then suddenly realize it and have a sudden cloudburst of good deeds to “try and make up for it” and assuage your guilt?

Often accompanied by thunder & lightning—or do you like to throw some guilt around, remind people of how good you are for doing this for them or reminding them of their need for Christ or even firing off some “fire and brimstone” their way?

Much of the water goes to waste—ever notice that if someone experiences a sudden deluge of good deeds their way after a long drought that it can be overkill and become unappreciated?

And can even do some damage—or the person may even view it with suspicion and wonder if you have alterior motives (do you??)?

I don’t want my impact on the lives of my friends, family, and contacts to be a flash flood.  I want to be a gentle soaking rain, with my daily words and deeds soaking down beneath the soil, into the roots, and nourishing the people in my life for Christ’s glory.

WIGD

Years before the WWJD craze, Dr. Walt Larrimore was teaching in his excellent seminar The Saline Solution an acronym he used in his medical practice, WIGD.

WIGD stands for “What is God Doing?” Simply put, when he was with a patient, the framework in the back of his mind was “What is God doing in the life of this person and how can I help them see God and His work in their life?”

Asking the question doesn’t obligate God to give you an immediate special revelation, but it does put you nearer the frame of mind where the Spirit can work and advance the Kingdom.