Tuesday, January 20, 2015
TRANSCENDENT VALUES IN THE TANGIBLES
I have just read an article by Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr. entitled, “Preaching with the Culture in View,” which is a chapter in the book, “Preaching The Cross,” a ministry edition from Together For The Gospel. In this article he discusses the ideas of H. Richard Niebuhr compiled in the book, “Christ and Culture.”
“Christ and Culture” is a book which Tim Keller refers to when he writes or discusses culture, and a book which I had to read as a student at Covenant College, many years ago. All three of the aforementioned men are brilliant and the subject is one with which Christians need to come to grips. Just how do we Christians react or respond to the culture we live in, and how do we preach and live out the Gospel in it, and how can we remain faithful to Scripture as we (our lives, our integrity, and our faith) are affected by it?
I do not intend here to rehearse the various strategies outlined by Niebuhr from his lectures, nor the conclusions of Keller or Mohler in response to them. I do want to think a little about what Scripture calls on us to do in the world in which we live, and I reflect on these things around the time of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I don’t have room here to go into depth but I do want to make a few points and ask some questions.
The first is that there may be something missing in the arguments I read or hear concerning this issue, and that is the observation that the Gospel does affect culture. Another is that transcendent values ( being things such as Justice, Mercy, and Love) do affect tangible institutions. Another point is that we should want that to happen because, I believe, God wants it to happen. One more point would be that it does not matter if the changes in such institutions are permanent, but rather that the values are eternal and each mark of them, for as long as they make that mark in history, do give glory to God.
Most arguments about culture from preachers seem to concern a conflict between preaching the Gospel and being distracted from it by attempting to fix things in the world. If one does substitute or replace the Evangelical concept of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for social reform then of course I would have to agree that is an error. The historic heresy of the Social Gospel was such an error. It is also an error to assume the Gospel does not affect society, or that it was not designed to do so.
The question for me is, just how “Wholistic” is the Gospel we are preaching? I am not advocating for moralism, only Biblical obedience and practice. While all nations and cultures will be forever changed in the new heavens and the new earth we understand that acts of love, justice, and mercy in the behavior of human beings, or the violation of those values, will be judged by Almighty God. We also believe that the exhibition of those values bring eternal glory to God, are a witness to his work among men, and something about which God cares. If he cares about them then how can the church be silent about them?
What right did John the Baptist have to tell people, even government agents, that they should do their work with integrity and justice? He called them to true repentance, not just good behavior, and he was specific about how they should act. Do we have the right to articulate to whatever culture we live in that God has expectations for how people behave?
Do we just gloss over acts of injustice, racism, social oppression of various sorts because we know people are just sinners and we should expect nothing else of them? Is our job simply to articulate the love of Jesus, and the death of Jesus for sinners, and call them to believe so that their hearts and character would be changed? Of course sinners sin, and no we don’t expect them to have the power to change their own hearts, but I never find God excusing injustice because people are totally depraved. In fact his anger about it is a cause for people to ask, “what must I do?”
We have to preach God’s expectations, those transcendent values, to everyone. We are to be salt and light, are we not? What does that mean? What does it mean to do our good works before men? When the church does live out its light and salt, when the church loves the poor, when the church boldly proclaims what is right and what is wrong, culture is affected. When the church lives righteously culture is transformed, if maybe only for short times, but those short times are important and bless everyone. Sometimes such preaching and behaving brings about persecution, but even that is used by God to change cultures.
Maybe if people stopped looking at the concept of transforming culture as a post-millennial progressive effort toward the Kingdom, and saw it as “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” they would begin to get it. Maybe if Christians saw Biblical ethics separate from political ideologies and political parties, (sometimes in agreement and often not), maybe they would not be so hesitant to preach about them.
I think a lot of preachers and folks who dismiss the idea of transforming culture end up dismissing a call to justice. They end up standing on the sidelines of social issues sincerely wanting to preach spiritual salvation and end up stifling a prophetic call for justice that pushes people to realize they need spiritual salvation. That may be one reason they stand on the sidelines, but another admittedly might be that they are complicit with cultural sins. Perhaps cowardice has stopped some preachers from preaching about sin, especially sins which are cultural or societal, and admittedly that borders on the political.
I am afraid too many Evangelical preachers have abandoned preaching and teaching ethics because they don’t think non-Christians have a hope of being ethical. My view is that it doesn't have anything to do with the incapacity of non-Christians but rather with the demands of a holy and just God We dare not give up the preaching of the cross of Christ, nor how necessary it was for him to shed his blood, nor the necessity of repentance and faith.
If that substitutionary atonement, justification by faith alone good news is preached in the context of God’s concern for human life and dignity, for the call of all people to be just and merciful, then you create an ethical dissonance that reveals the need for a Savior. When you preach the gospel in that context the local church begins to stop being irrelevant to the context in which they live.
The church needs to take the suffering of all people seriously because God obviously does, or else the Scriptures are wrong in the way it describes his response to the injustice of nations. The church has sinned when it has lost its commitment to the Gospel, and it has also sinned when it was silent about injustice. “The lion has roared—who will not fear? The Sovereign Lord has spoken—who can but prophesy?” Amos 3:8 (NIV)
I end with this admission, the wisdom to know what is just and unjust, what is righteous and unrighteous can be difficult to discern. It is far too easy to assign motives to others recklessly, to get caught up in politics, to be unaware of our own bias. It is the Word of God which is our safety and the character of God which ought to be our cultural standard for the behavior of people, governments, and nations in the world.
Tuesday, January 13, 2015
SIGNIFICANT PARTICULARS OF THE PASTOR-SHEPHERD
By Randy Nabors
I offer this not as criticism to any pastor, except maybe myself, for my failings were many. I thankfully confess that I was privileged to have one of the greatest callings in life, in one of the greatest congregations I can imagine, and that by the mercy of God I had that job for an extended period of time. How blessed I have been, and I give God praise for it.
Now I am a Pastor Emeritus and work for my denomination to help plant and nurture other congregations, especially in the areas of racial reconciliation and mercy ministries. I have a great job, but it is not as great as being a pastor. Though my present work has its challenges it is not as hard as being a pastor. I’m where the Lord wants me at this point in my life, but I am able at various times to reflect on what I consider to be a position essential to the welfare of the people of God.
In an attempt to keep things simple I would like to suggest that we can think of the role or “job” of the pastor as consisting of three main areas. These would be Preacher, Leader, and Engager. Here I will just make a few comments on these three components.
I have always felt that this is an essential skill and practice for every pastor. Preaching is not just a duty to fill time on Sunday morning. If one believes that the Word of God is true, that it is life giving, and in fact that it is holy than one will have a certain reverence and awe in not only approaching it and understanding it, but in communicating it to God’s people.
The skill of preachers may vary, but every preacher should understand that so many leadership issues in his congregation are solved by good preaching. Preachers should realize that so many counseling issues are solved in good sermons that are effectively preached. I hope you saw that combination, you may have a good sermon but it becomes so much more useful if you can communicate not only well, but powerfully.
Our influence in a congregation is often tied to the effectiveness of our preaching, backed up by a life that makes it credible. Congregations will forgive us for a lot of our foibles, but if the people are hungry to hear us preach their patience with us seems to last longer. Some preachers are very good communicators, entertaining, funny, even insightful. Without a Biblical and theologically accurate sermon that skill may even be a problem, as it may hold listeners while spiritually starving them. On the other hand brilliant, scholarly, theologically astute, and correct sermons turn to dust in the mouths of lazy and boring communicators. Some preachers are tremendous in the study, and somehow think it is the fault of their listeners for others not to be as excited as he has been in his preparation, when the fault is with his delivery.
All of us preachers should constantly be studying the Word, and our craft, and we ought to be reflecting on how we are doing, humbly receiving criticism (even seeking it), and praying to get better at delivering “as an oracle of God.”
I don’t mean to make this a paper on preaching, but it is an essential part of being an effective pastor and must not be neglected. I don’t care if you get sick every time you preach, or if it scares you to death, or if you feel emotionally naked after a sermon (this is my constant problem), this is your calling and is your most powerful and effective tool by which to pastor your people. Get better at it, and throw yourself on the Spirit of God so he can carry you as you preach.
If you are called to be a pastor you are a leader in the household of God. Leadership is a mantle that has to be picked up and is not to be constantly ducked and avoided, which is the tendency of some pastors. Being a pastor is not license to be a petty dictator. Nor does our leadership consist in being a simple “yes” man or people pleaser. The pastor is not a politician who governs by testing which way the wind is blowing; we are not there to simply exercise the will of the majority. We are there to speak clearly the Word and will of God.
However, we are not the Holy Spirit. Our authority doesn't consist in us being an expert in every area of life, or even right about every decision that must be made to lead in the affairs of church life. Our role is not to be autocratic nor in being manipulative to get our way.
You are to be a servant leader, and submissive and humble before your brethren who are Elders in the church, but that does not mean you don’t take the risk of leadership. You absolutely must cast vision, make decisions, and take stands on various aspects of the work of the church. Once you take a stand and face opposition, or even defeat in the reality of losing a church decision, you have to own up to it and not blame it on others, or throw staff or others under the bus to somehow avoid being accountable.
If you always have to win in every encounter you won’t have a long shelf life as a pastor, nor gain much respect. At the same time if you don’t have the courage to stand up for what you believe to be right when everyone else is against it then just why are you there?
Pastors are often called to lead not simply in and through their Session, or in the congregation, but sometimes in the local community, or in the more extended courts of the church, or even in broader society. If you are pastoring among poor people then the local church is one of the few places that has any power to speak for them, or to bring resources to help them, and your leadership must extend to the community or you will be irrelevant to it.
The middle class usually do not require much local community leadership from their pastors, and might even resent you for engaging in it. On the other hand those pastors who have great preaching or writing reputations, or are pastors of wealthy churches, may be expected to give their influence even on national or international levels.
Each pastor has to be careful how much work he is doing out of his own congregation (to include Presbytery or denominational work), even if it feeds his ego or his pocketbook. The sad fact is that some pastors take denominational responsibilities, other ministry positions, or outside speaking engagements because they don't feel fulfilled (or respected) in their own place of calling. The pastor who takes every invitation and has no discipline to protect the time he has for his own people, and sometimes even his own family, is being foolish. Just because a pastor starts being popular as a speaker or writer doesn't mean he actually has any credibility.
The pastor must lead his own family, his church officers, his staff, and his congregation. He does it through his preaching, his modeling (example of life, humility, passion, and example of his study and skill at ministry), and his active mentoring by raising up new leaders. He doesn't lead by doing everything by himself, but by having the determination to bring others with him.
The pastor is a shepherd and if he does not know his people, speak with them, listen to them, visit them, cry with them, celebrate with them, or engage with them then he is not much of a pastor. Great preachers sometimes seem to give the impression they are too important to really know the people they are called to shepherd, this is amazingly short sighted.
There is no better context to know and understand the application of the Word of God than the lives of the people among whom we are to pastor. There is no better preparation for the people to be ready to hear the Word of God from our lips than the conviction that they have that we love them. Can the Word have power among them without any relationship with us? Certainly, we can all be blessed by hearing a sermon on the radio, or even reading one from a book. This is not “full court” pastoring however. That takes the kind of relationship where there can be give and take over sermons preached, where a pastor can put the touch on someone directly.
I wish I had been in more homes, had more people in my house. I wish I had been better at visiting the sick, or just sitting with folks at the time of the dying or death of a loved one. I was thrilled when I did have time and opportunity to do that, thrilled to know that people have said they felt loved by me. It became harder as the church grew, as more things grabbed my time and attention, but it is important to never think of yourself as too important or too busy for your people, nor to let events give the impression that this is what you think. If you are not engaged with your people you might as well simply be on television, and those kind of preachers are not pastors no matter how some pretend that they are.
I think we can put many of the specific ministry skills of pastoring under these three headings. I hope it might give you some clarity in analyzing how you are doing.