Why people need more than the bottom line.
Lee Eclov, PreachingToday.com
Rob, a stockbroker, thought sermons should be 20 minutes. No longer. To him, a good sermon was what others call the conclusion. “Cut to the bottom line,” he said. “That’s what I expect at work, and that’s what I want at church.”
Stan, a preacher, didn’t see length as the issue, but he was determined every sermon be “practical.” He preached on five principles of friendships, six secrets of managing money, and four ways to win over worry. He believed in sound doctrine, but he felt he had to give people something they could take to work on Monday morning.
These men illustrate two fallacies about biblical preaching: The Bottom Line Fallacy and the Practical Fallacy. Both reveal a misunderstanding, not merely of preaching, but of the workings of Scripture.
Picture a wilderness. A pioneer carves out a path, chopping away brush, felling trees, marking the way to a new outpost. As years pass, that path is traveled a thousand times till it becomes a wide, paved road. From it, other trails branch off, leading to other new outposts. Trails intersect, becoming crossroads. More outposts become towns. More trails become roads. More links are made till what was once wilderness is civilized.
Preaching is the work of spiritually civilizing the minds of Christian disciples. Preaching — especially expository preaching — cuts truth trails in the minds of our listeners. Our task is not only to display God’s “point,” but to instill God’s logicÂ—how he gets to that point.
For example, we do not simply preach the conclusion of 1 Corinthians 13 — that “the greatest of these is love” — but we move people through the dimensions and definitions of love in that great chapter. We show that Paul intended such love be not only at weddings but also at church meetings as well. In other words, we not only establish the outpost — “the greatest of these is love” — but the truth trail as well.
But here is where we confront the fallacies.
Bottom Line Fallacy
When our goal is to “bottom line” our preaching, we look in our text for the “so” and preach that conclusion. For example, our sermon drives home the truth that we need not be afraid. If we have been effective, our brothers and sisters go home with this outpost of truth established or enlarged in their thinking. But here’s the rub. On Tuesday, when some frightening crisis looms in their lives, they may remember, “the Bible says we are not to be afraid,” but they don’t know how to be strong. They don’t know the trail, the process the mind and heart follow to fearlessness. We exposed them to the conclusion without the thinking that makes that conclusion work.
Perhaps you have read an abstract of an article — a short summary of a longer work. After you read it, you know what the article is about. You know what the point is. But you haven’t been exposed to the careful reasoning, to the illustrations, to the step-by-step logic and careful writing of the author. The abstract may interest you, but without the author’s careful development, it is not likely to convinceyou. Nor is it likely to be important or memorable in your thinking. And you can be sure the author will not think you know what he wrote.
Sermons that are abstracts of Scripture may properly summarize a biblical truth, but they are unconvincing. They do not reorient our thinking. We may know the bottom line, but we don’t know how to live what we know. Without a truth trail, people cannot find their own way to the outposts of truth in their own hearts. Sometimes laying down that truth trail, showing the step-by-step thinking of a text, simply cannot be done in 20 minutes.
I only vaguely recall the world of geometry — axioms, theorems, conclusions. I do remember the inevitable question: “Why do we need to know this stuff?” And I remember Mr. Cermak’s answer: “Whether or not you use these formulae, geometry teaches you to think logically.”
Some preachers are afraid of the question, “Why do we need to know this stuff?” so they try to make every sermon “practical,” meaning it is about everyday issues like money or kids. Doctrinal preaching, or the week-by-week exposition of a biblical book appears not to scratch where people itch. People want sermons about things they can use on Monday. Like the sophomores in my geometry class.
But Paul tells us, “All Scripture…is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” All Scripture. All Scripture is practical. It is practical, not because it all addresses everyday concerns, but because it all “civilizes” our thinking.
As I preached my way through Colossians, for example, we gradually tromped out a wide path to the truth that simply trusting Christ equips us with greater wisdom and righteousness than any counterfeit wisdom can offer. Put that way, it seems like an esoteric, impractical truth, far removed from the water cooler and van pool. But it was Paul’s purpose, and therefore mine, to show just how practical this is for the believer. How freeing, simple, and safe. When we eventually arrived at the “practical” passages later in the epistle — “clothe yourself with compassion,” for example — we could see not only the command but we had come to better understand the spiritual thinking that makes Christian compassion possible.
The Bible spends much more time on shaping the spiritual mind than commanding particular behavior. We need far more training in the ways of grace, of spiritual perceptions, and of what God is really like, than we do in how to communicate with our spouse. Understanding the glory of Christ is far more practical than our listeners imagine. Properly preached, every sermon based on a passage of Scripture is fundamentally practical. Every author of Scripture wrote to effect change in God’s people. It is our job as preachers to find the persuasive logic of that author and put that clearly and persuasively before our people through biblical exposition.
The Ready Mind
It may seem to us sometimes that the Christians to whom we preach are not interested in the truth trails of Scripture; or worse, that they won’t get it. We hear so much about the postmodern mind that we assume our postmodern people will reject the absolute logic of the Bible. It is true that our listeners are susceptible to relativism. It is true that we must not only make clear what is true from the Word, but also demonstrate that other ideas they may hold are not true. But we may forget that converted people have transformed minds. Preaching biblical truth to unbelievers (in a seeker service, for instance) is an entirely different matter than preaching to believers. The truth isn’t different. The capacity of the listener is.
God promised Jeremiah that in the New Covenant he would “put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” New believers, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, almost immediately begin to understand spiritual realities that eluded them before. It is like a gifted child. Sometimes, even before a child starts school, we realize “that kid has a mind for numbers,” or music, or science. We say that because when they are introduced to something new in that sphere they understand it much more quickly than other children. It is like they are already wired for that kind of information. Christians are, from the moment of their new birth, wired for spiritual, biblical information. We “have a mind for it.”
Thus, when a preacher stands and opens before them the logic of the Scriptures — the contemplations of a psalmist or the doctrinal logic of an epistle — they understand it, like a gifted child. And the logic of that text gradually becomes the logic of their own minds.
Truth trail preaching, the careful and persuasive exposition of Scriptural thinking, shapes ready Christian minds for the everyday decisions unscripted in Scripture. When we face an ethical dilemma at work or a discipline problem at home, our minds walk the truth trails we have learned and we are able to reason our way, by the help of the Holy Spirit, to a biblical conclusion, even when no verse of Scripture directly addresses our situation.
When we preach only the principle, the bullet points, the bottom line, or when we try to make every sermon about an everyday problem, we may set truth in the minds of our hearers, but we do not set the logic and pulse of God into their minds and hearts. On the other hand, biblical exposition that lays out the Lord’s own logic and heartbeat shapes “doers of the Word and not hearers only.”
It’s not so much your method as what you’re dispensing.
Lee Eclov, Leadership Journal, February 2014 (web only)
“Recently I have become really confused about ministry,” the email said.
It was from a pastor with 15 years of ministry experience. He said he was unsettled by the “wide variety of methods when it comes to shepherding and leading a church. Many have asked me, ‘Are you more of a Willow, Piper, North Point, or something else?'”
Maybe you know the feeling. We pastors have this yearning to find some way to distill our work to its essence. If we could just bring an “aligned vision” to our unmotivated, ADD-addled churches then we wouldn’t be so frayed around the edges and ministry wouldn’t be so frustrating. And, of course, our churches would grow like Willows.
The pastor’s email continued, “All the competing voices, needs in the church, and the tugs from within, have left me very confused about how to conduct a ministry that would honor Christ and love people. I have friends who are pastors who are praying, ‘God show me who to shepherd.’ Or ‘Show me where to shepherd.’ I have been praying, ‘God, could you please tell me how to shepherd?'”
For that, perhaps it would help us all to review what we learned in our first pastoral training class—Paul’s mentoring letters to Timothy and Titus. If you’ve been trying to earn your ministry chops by reading leadership and church growth books alone, Paul’s letters are both a relief and a kick in the pants. If God has called you to shepherding, reading about the centrality of faith building, prayer, godliness, and unity is like hearing your mother tongue in a foreign land. Here is where disoriented pastors get back on track. He tells us how to shepherd. Read it for yourself and see.
Getting Our Bearings
I suspect Timothy was disoriented by the ministry. Who can blame him? He dealt with heretics on the right of him, hungry widows on the left of him, and someone forever reminding him how young he was. No wonder his stomach hurt! What pastor doesn’t know that feeling?
With that in mind, look at how Paul reorients him to the how of his pastoral ministry:
Remember your calling. Paul tells Timothy to remember “the prophecies once made about you” (1 Tim 1:18). I don’t know if anyone made prophecies about my ministry when I was young but people did tell me in various ways that they saw pastoring as my future. God laid a gift of shepherding across my shoulders, beautiful like Joseph’s ornate robe. So Paul says to Timothy, and me, and all my fellow shepherds whose ministries are fizzling, “fan into flame the gift of God … For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us (gives us, mind you) power, love and self-discipline” (2 Tim. 1:6-7). That triune gift, compliments of God’s Spirit, is what makes a good pastor. Pastoring is a grace to us as surely the gospel is.
Secondly, “fight the battle well” (1 Tim. 1:18-19). Paul is talking, of course, about fighting for the gospel, which is not the reason a lot of us are bloodied. In order to defend the gospel, Paul says we will need both hands: “hold on to the faith and a good conscience.” Clutch the gospel and don’t sin. He puts it another way later: “Fight the good fight of faith.” Sometimes we battle sin and sometimes sorrow. Sometimes lies and sometimes lures. Sometimes we’re besieged and other times ambushed. Some battles are around us and often the toughest are within.
Finally, be grace givers. The Great Grace is when we lift high the “trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15). But it is also grace when we do the other things these letters teach us: when we choose leaders wisely and treat our fellow believers with the respect due fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, when we are content with what we have, when we ourselves pursue godliness, and when we are always ready to “preach the Word,” even when we’re not in the pulpit.
I’ve written before about a man in my former church named Jim. He was a gangly, grinning, retired blue-collar worker with the goofiest sense of humor I ever encountered. He had come to Christ in his 60s and, oh, how he loved Jesus. His official ministry was usher and he was born to do it. What especially endeared Jim to the church was that every Sunday, when the service was over, he would be waiting by the rear doors for the children. His jacket pockets bulged with Smarties, little rolls of candy, and every child got one. He loved them so much that when he gave out that candy it could break your heart to watch. And we all watched.
Grace isn’t candy, I know, but that is a wonderful picture for pastors. Grace isn’t always about sin. Grace is God’s favor lavished on those who couldn’t get their hands on it by themselves. Meet people with your pockets bulging with grace. A pastor whose pockets are full of grace is likely to see his flock spread grace, too. God’s grace is contagious. Being around grace is like being near someone who can’t stop laughing. Pretty soon, you’re laughing too.
The Bottom Line
How to shepherd? Understand your role as a grace-dispenser, and discharge itexcellently.
When pastors of smaller churches commiserate, the mantra we often repeat to each other is, “Well, God just calls us to be faithful.” (I’ve wondered if the pastors of big churches ever say that to each other.) God does call us to be faithful, of course, but that feels a little anemic to me—perhaps it reminds me too much of the way a coach of a losing team says, “Wow! You guys played with a lot of heart.”
Faithful pastors keep their Spirit-given gift burning bright, we fight for the faith when we must, and we don’t go anywhere without our pockets full of God’s grace.
Lee Eclov is pastor of Village Church of Lincolnshire, Illinois.
Copyright © 2014 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
Forget metrics. The pastor’s job is to find success when it’s invisible.
Lee Eclov, Leadership Journal, Summer 2015
In the classic movie based on a true story, Remember the Titans, Coach Herman Boone takes a deeply divided high school team and builds them into champions, beginning with an intense, exhausting two-week camp in the heat of August. At the end of the ordeal, the boys start to gel as a team. Picture them in full gear, sweating under the hot sun, in long rows. They are running hard in place, glaring straight ahead as the camera moves up and down the rows with the coach. He yells, “What are you?” And they shout back, “Mo-bile! A-gile! Hos-tile!”
He yells, “And what is pain?”
They shout back, “French bread!”
He yells, “What is fatigue?”
And they shout, “Army clothes!”
Then the coach brings it to a peak: “Will … you … ever … quit?”
And they bellow, “No! We want some mo’! We want some mo’! We want some mo’!”
I wonder if we should do that drill in seminary. There are a lot of pastors who most definitely don’t want any mo’. Pain, fatigue, and all manner of hard hits have left us wishing we could just get off the field for a while.
I’ve read that only 10 percent of those who begin as local church pastors will stay with it until retirement. Of course, those aren’t all people who couldn’t take it anymore or who failed. But I read in one survey that 50 percent of pastors have been discouraged enough that they would have left the ministry if they could.
I love being a pastor and I serve a gracious church, but this is a brutal business. I’ve been at it for 35 years, so I know what people mean when they say, “No hurt hurts quite like church hurt.”
I suspect that every experienced ministry friend I know has been traumatized at one time or another in ministry. Travis Collins, in For Ministers About to Start … or About to Give Up, writes that “75 percent [of ministers] report severe stress causing anguish, worry, bewilderment, anger, depression, fear, and alienation at some point in their careers.” One friend who left ministry for a season told me one of his elders actually said to him, “I consider you lower than an animal.” That brother had pastoral trauma.
Among our colleagues are near-martyrs who have sacrificed their ministry lives to serve Jesus. I realize that sometimes pastors are at fault, but even for the best of us, shepherding can be downright dangerous. Ask Moses. Ask David or Jeremiah. Ask Peter, Paul, Timothy, and John. Ask Jesus. A lot of pastors echo the martyrs beneath heaven’s altar, “How long, O Lord?”
The Weary, Wary, and Worn
Ministry trauma is unmistakable, but ministry weariness is subtle. Paul writes to all believers in Galatians 6:9, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” That’s a tall order, at least when it comes to shepherding a church. Paul knew that. Weariness comes at us from all directions.
We grow weary of the emotional drain. Loving our flock isn’t easy. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 11:28-29 about the “daily pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?”
Ellis Peters, in her Brother Cadfael mystery, The Raven in the Foregate, tells about a eulogy for a beloved monk, Father Adam. “‘A sad, kind man,’ said Cynric … ‘a tired man, with a soft spot for sinners.'” The author tells us he was “A sad man, because he had been listening to and bearing with the perpetual failures of humankind for seventeen years, a tired man because endless consoling and chiding and forgiving takes it out of any man by the time he’s sixty, especially one with neither malice nor anger in his own make-up. A kind man, because he had somehow managed to preserve compassion and hope even against the tide of human fallibility.”
And all pastors murmur, “God rest his soul.”
We wear ourselves out trying to make exciting things happen. Every pastor worth his salt is engaged in starting difficult things, church cheerleading even when we’ve gone hoarse, and plugging the leaks in a grand plan. Doing the ordinary gets old, of course, but so does attempting the extraordinary. Building programs, staff searches, and strategic planning can suck the energy out of a person. One reason I left my previous church was that I saw another building program looming and wasn’t sure I was up to it.
We get tired of being average and inadequate. We all have our ministry sweet spots that energize us, but most of us also have significant duties that don’t come naturally. Sooner or later those inadequacies start to burden the church. If we’re weak organizers, people get frustrated over lost details. If our best preaching strikes congregants as tedious, people start to check out other preachers.
A friend told me about a pastor who loved his people wonderfully but was pushed out by his leaders because, they said, “we need someone who can take us to the next level.” I shuddered and looked behind me.
We exhaust ourselves trying to be role models. Paul said, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” I admit I sometimes get tired of having to be the good example. During a particularly difficult time years ago, I remember thinking, Why do I always have to be the good example around here? How about one of these other guys be the good example for a while?
I sometimes sense this in myself during sermon preparation. I have to apply the stress test of each text to myself ahead of the congregation or I couldn’t preach it with integrity. Not long ago I preached through James. The book’s relentless scrutiny just about killed me. God humbled me and gave grace, just as he promised, but it was tough going.
These pressures are dangerous to our spiritual integrity. We become too guarded, wary of the people we are called to love. We are tempted to play the part of the pastor, putting on our preacher voice and handling the holy as if the fire had gone out.
Taking care of ourselves is serious business, a stewardship of the highest order. The good news is that our casualties haven’t gone unnoticed. Jesus sees, and he has commissioned a whole battalion of ministry medics for the wounded. These tender healers offer counseling, retreats, prayer, books, and articles. Though ministry can be lonely, few pastors have to go it alone if we will reach out for help. A few years ago, an elder in my church who was also a counselor came in, closed the door, and after a few minutes of small talk, said, “Lee, you’re depressed, you’re angry, and you need to get some help.” I certainly did.
Looking for Success in Out-of-The-Way Places
One reason we lose heart is because we don’t know success when we see it. Many of us serve in a culture that puts a high value on metrics (what we used to call numbers). Even though numbers are never mentioned in the New Testament after the birth of the church, we keep counting. Numerical growth is the ministerial version of Yukon gold. Like prospectors dreaming of the mother lode, pastors will brave grueling deprivation hoping they strike it big.
When it comes to success in ministry, the Bible’s approach is counterintuitive. In an ultimate sense, numbers are striking and overwhelming, not a precedent for church leaders to strive for: “a multitude that no one could count … standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”
In the meantime, there are measures of success that matter more.
Successful shepherds of a faithless flock. Some shepherds must lead a faithless flock through a wilderness of testing. That was Moses’ job for 40 years. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit now kindles the kind of faith in believers that was almost unknown among Moses’ congregation.
God calls us to work with less-than-perfect believers. They crumble and grumble under pressure. They grouse about their God-given food. They can be misers of God’s gifts on one hand and spiritual paupers on the other. They’d sooner go back to slavery than trek through trials to the land flowing with God’s promises. Still, God gives them a shepherd after his own heart, an agent of grace for Christians who barely know their birthright.
For many pastors, it may be all they can do to keep their jobs. Moses learned that some votes of confidence require divine intervention. Moses offers such pastors his own lament to God: “What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me?”
Success for these pastors may be the restraint not to hit people over the head with the rod of God. Success for them is simply not giving up on God’s people. Above all, success for them is pleading for their people in prayer. It turned out that Moses’ main ministry was standing in the gap, mediating for God’s grace. He trusted God for them until they finally learned to trust God for themselves. Moses was at his best when he prayed, even as the Israelites picked up rocks to stone him: “In accordance with your great love, forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now.” Thank God that Jesus is a “better mediator.” Thank God that the Holy Spirit groans along with us as we pray and persist through wilderness years.
God’s reward for such faithful pastors, who often serve in small, visionless churches, will be great.
The successes of weakness. Success for many pastors lies in the dubious distinction of being the congregation’s lead comforter. Pastors often can’t help but hurt in public. The flock watches the long illness, the blasts of criticism, the family heartbreak, or the depression. In 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 Paul retraces his own unlikely path to strengthening fellow believers. He says he suffered terribly—nigh unto death—and God comforted him. The Greek word for comfort is more than a mother cooing, “There, there,” to her crying child. The word has bigger arms than that. It is rooted in Jesus’ familiar name for the Holy Spirit—the Comforter, the Advocate, the Paraclete who comes to our side to help in every possible way.
Several years ago Linda, the wife of my dear friend Bob, died at age 60. He called and we talked about this passage. Bob, a very perceptive pastor, said, “With God it is not just comfort; it is comfort with strength in it—with teeth.” He told me, “Last fall, when [we learned the extent of Linda’s illness] I realized what was ahead, I knew I’d need to learn how to be a servant to my wife in ways I had never done, and I wasn’t sure I could do that. Now I look back on all that I have done for her and I think, Wow! God gave me grace to do all that.“
The Comforter came alongside him, bringing the treasure of Christ’s surpassing life into Bob’s clay vessel. Even when Bob was desperately weak, he was like a new Adam, slowing rising from the dust of the earth.
As a result, this son of second Adam had a capacity for life-giving within him, a kind of Midas touch for the dead. Thereafter when he pastored his suffering people he was even more of a comfort carrier than he had been before. He not only taught about Christ’s life, he not only demonstrated Christ’s life out of his own inward dying and his hope of Linda’s resurrection, but he conferred Christ’s life to the people he shepherded. As Paul predicted, that produced in Bob’s congregation “patient endurance in the same sufferings we share.”
Successful pastors die. They are weakened by the poison arrow of Satan, with a message wrapped around its shaft reading, “You’re as good as dead.” But when that pastor (indeed, any Christian) lets Christ’s comforting life invade their tomb, angels come again to repeat their good news: “He is not here. He is risen!” Sometimes in a church’s life that is the single ministry that matters most.
The inglorious success of holiness. Nothing is more important to a church than holiness. Even thought it’s hard to find among many proposed measures of pastoral success, you can’t miss it in. Thanks to Jesus Christ, there are many holy churches, small and large, and many pastors, both prominent and unknown, who share with Jesus a desire to “present to himself a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”
A Christ-like church creates a kind of gravitational pull toward the gospel. A holy church will necessarily be the most successful in offering theological wisdom, evangelism, championing compassion and justice, loving fellowship, and worship. But there’s no guarantee that a holy church will get bigger, nor that their pastor’s reputation will grow.
The high and holy God resides among the lowly and contrite in heart. Children, regardless of age, are the most at home with Jesus. On this side of heaven the beauty of holiness is often understated.
Like most of my pastoral colleagues, I’ve done all manner of things to help my church grow in grace and the knowledge of Christ. Last summer, many in our church read through the New Testament in eight weeks. I know we grew in holiness, but I can’t tell you how. Currently, we’re trying to find ways to share Christ more effectively, not only for the sake of the lost, but for our own sake as well. It is hard to say just how we will be different, but I have no doubt we will be more like Jesus.
My Simple Measure of Success
In The Pilgrim’s Progress, Part 2, Christian’s wife, Christiana, along with their children, make their way to the Celestial City. They come upon “a man with his sword drawn, and his face all bloody, who tells them, ‘I am one whose name is VALIANT-FOR-TRUTH. I am a pilgrim, and am going to the Celestial City.'” He becomes their rear guard lest “some fiend, or dragon, or giant, or thief, should fall upon [them], and so do mischief.”
I want to be like that man. A pastor, the guardian of God’s homeward bound pilgrims, the sword of God’s Word in my hand. That would be success.
Lee Eclov pastors Village Church of Lincolnshire, Illinois.
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
One of the most meaningful things a pastor can do is short, sweet, and biblical.
Leadership Journal, Spring 2015
In her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Gilead, Marilynne Robinson’s fictional narrator is an elderly pastor named John Ames living in the small Iowa town of Gilead. His best friend, Boughton, is also a pastor in that town. They are so close that Boughton names his son after his friend: John Ames Boughton. But the boy grows up to be a disappointment—a scoundrel and a disgrace to his name.
As his father is dying, that prodigal son comes home to visit. Things don’t go well, and he decides it is best just to slip out of town. Pastor John, his namesake, meets up with him and walks him to the bus depot. He gives the younger man a little money and they wait for the bus. Here’s what happens next:
Then I said, “The thing I would like, actually, is to bless you.”
He shrugged. “What would that involve?”
“Well, as I envisage it, it would involve my placing my hand on your brow and asking the protection of God for you. But if it would be embarrassing—” There were a few people on the street.
“No, no,” he said. “That doesn’t matter.” And he took his hat off and set it on his knee and closed his eyes and lowered his head, almost rested it against my hand, and I did bless him to the limit of my powers, whatever they are, repeating the benediction from Numbers, of course—”The Lord make His face to shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee: The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.” Nothing could be more beautiful than that, or more expressive of my feelings, certainly, or more sufficient, for that matter. Then, when he didn’t open his eyes or lift up his head, I said, “Lord, bless John Ames Boughton, this beloved son and brother and husband and father.” Then he sat back and looked at me as if he were waking out of a dream.
“Thank you, Reverend,” he said, and his tone made me think that to him it might have seemed I had named everything I thought he no longer was, when that was absolutely the furthest thing from my meaning, the exact opposite of my meaning. Well, anyway, I told him it was an honor to bless him. And that was absolutely true. In fact I’d have gone through seminary and ordination and all the years intervening for that one moment.
This sort of blessing has been practiced by Christians of many traditions throughout history, albeit sparsely these days. But I’ve come to believe this is a powerful “tool” of ministry that should be more regularly practiced even today.
The Ungiven Gift
Bestowing God’s blessing is to step into a holy mystery, much like serving Communion or baptizing someone. We associate it, of course, with the benediction, the going-away gift many of us give our congregations as they prepare to leave the worship service. But I’m surprised how few pastors I’ve talked with use a benediction elsewhere—like at a bus stop—and some never use it at all. They’re missing something precious and ducking their duty.
Blessing God’s people began when the Lord said to Moses, “Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them:’The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.’So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them” (Num 6:22-27).
Only the priests spoke those words. They themselves didn’t bestow the blessing. God did. They were intermediates, from God’s mouth to their ears. 1 Chronicles 23:13 says, “Aaron was set apart, he and his descendants forever, to consecrate the most holy things, to offer sacrifices before the Lord, to minister before him and to pronounce blessings in his name forever.”
“The LORD bless … The LORD make … The LORD turn … So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.”
The six-line Aaronic blessing is not the only way of communicating God’s blessing but, as Mark Buchanan put it, “All [our] blessings are a species of the Aaronic blessing.” Break down Aaron’s words by phrase and all our national treasures lay open before us. To bear the LORD’s name is to own all the benefits of his salvation and to be safely kept in the shelter of the Most High. To bear the LORD’s name is to enjoy God’s bright delight and his countless graces. To bear the LORD’s name is to have God’s constant attention and his shalom now and forever.
I believe we should watch for opportunities beyond the end of the worship service to bless God’s people. I teach “Introduction to Counseling” at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. I require my students to memorize Aaron’s blessing, word perfect. It’s on the final exam. What better place to use it than with the brokenhearted or confused people who come to us for counsel?
What is this Blessing?
I’ve puzzled for a long while over just what those words are. They are not exactly a prayer nor a prophecy. They are certainly more than a wish, a greeting, or a farewell. So what is this blessing? What happens when it is pronounced over God’s people?
I was asked to offer a special prayer at Kelvin’s surprise birthday party. When my turn came, I thanked God for him and for his wonderful qualities and gifts. Then I put my hand on his shoulder and blessed him in God’s name: “The LORD bless you and keep you….” That, in particular, was what he and his wife thanked me for.
A birthday is the perfect occasion because the Aaronic blessing is our birthright. When we are born again and adopted by God through Christ, these privileges become our possession. They come with the new name written in heaven.
I only recently sorted that out. At the end of the service recently I asked everyone to stand for the benediction. While they waited I said, “These words are your birthright. Peter said of us, ‘Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God.’ These are the privileges of being God’s people. This is who you are, thanks to Jesus Christ, and why we are different from all other people.” Then I raised my hands over them and blessed them.
A few minutes later, Katerina waited for me in the foyer. She gripped my hand and with shining eyes said, “I have always heard the blessing at the end of the service, but this time the word birthright really got my attention. It changed the way I listened and received the blessing.” She went on, “It made me feel so special. I saw myself like a child just born to a King, now entitled to her Father’s riches. Thank you for saying that!”
A couple in our church, Ted and Margaret, have a beautiful little grandson whose middle name is Ziga. That name reflects the Rwandan heritage of his mother. It means, “Remember Who You Are.” To speak God’s benediction over his people, no matter what the occasion, is like saying, “Remember who you are.”
Sometimes, it seems, God can hardly give his blessing away! In that Gilead story about the forlorn son blessed at the bus stop, I’ve always wondered if he received the precious gift given him. That’s why I like it when people hold out their hands, palms up, when I speak the blessing.
Bless the Unbelieving?
Once I was doing premarital counseling for a couple who were not believers. I will marry unbelievers but it was long my practice to tell the couple that I would not pronounce the benediction over them at the end of the service. My reasoning was that if they didn’t want Christ, I could hardly offer them God’s blessing. I’m sure most couples wouldn’t even notice the omission if I didn’t bring it up, but I confess I wanted to shock them, so that perhaps they might realize what was at stake. But when I explained this to the couple, they gave me a blank stare, and then she said, “But is it okay if our photographer takes pictures during the ceremony?” God’s blessing was of no importance to them at all. Echoes of Esau.
I’m more inclined now to offer God’s blessing to such people. After all, the God-blessed Jacob blessed the Pharaoh twice, going and coming (Gen. 47:7,10). When Jesus sent out the 72, he told them, “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you” (Luke 10:5,6). God’s blessing may be the first sound of the gospel someone hears. The Spirit of God may stir them toward Jesus. And if they don’t prize it, it will come back to me.
That said, I don’t think pastors should be too quick to speak such weighty words. It is not some kind of professional courtesy. It would be a tragedy if such words begin to lose their meaning to us or to those who hear them. (At my coffee hangout the other day, I sneezed and a woman two tables away said, “God bless you.” It was nice to be noticed, I guess, but not much of a blessing.)
We are, after all, putting the LORD’s name over his people and we dare not do so casually.
It’s significant that Jesus himself pronounces blessings to unlikely recipients. Like children. Mark 10:16 says that Jesus “took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.” How do I, ministering in Christ’s name, follow his example?
Ten days after he was born on Christmas Eve, Haim’s parents brought him to church, all bundled up against the cold. Till he whimpered a bit and was taken out, he was there in the third row with his parents and grandparents, who had come all the way from South Korea. After the service, standing in the foyer, Haim’s father said to me, “Would you bless him?”
I remembered that my friend, Dr. Peter Cha, had told me that in Korean culture the pastor is often invited to homes and new businesses to bless important beginnings. So I agreed and we gathered in a tight little circle. I put my hand on that tiny head, and spoke the blessing that transcends our languages, “The LORD bless you, Haim … and give you peace.”
Jesus’ Departing Gift
Aaron was the first to pronounce those words, but then they became the Wordwork of every priest thereafter, right up to Jesus. He was God’s priest, voicing the birthright upon those to whom the kingdom of God is given.
There was another time when Jesus spoke his blessing. The very end of Luke says of Jesus, “When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them.” According to Leviticus 9:22, that was what Aaron did. He “lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them. And having sacrificed the sin offering, the burnt offering and the fellowship offering, he stepped down.” Aaron was a prophet.
And so it was that Jesus’ last act on earth was to speak his benediction. Imagine Jesus’ nail-scarred hands stretched out over his wide-eyed disciples (and with them, us as well), “bless you … keep you … make his face shine upon you … be gracious to you … turn his face toward you ….”
Luke says, “While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.” Jesus’ disciples watched him rising into the cloud and the last thing they heard was, “And give you peace.”
I think the sweetest and perhaps most important time to bless God’s people is when we part. When it is someone’s last Sunday in our church, I single them out at the end of the service, and though I am often choked with tears, I sing Aaron’s benediction over them. I’ve said it in hospitals and over mourners at gravesides.
Even when someone leaves because they’re dissatisfied with our church, I usually try to bless them. Though I don’t always feel like doing so, I handwrite notes to most people who leave, and I always end with the LORD’s gift. I hope they receive it. I know it is important for me to give it.
Not long ago a woman who has been “like a mother to me” came to see me. She hadn’t been in church in awhile. We chatted and reminisced. Finally, I said, “So what’s up with church?” She fumbled for words and finally told me my sermons just didn’t speak to her and that she was attending elsewhere. I ached and I argued a little. But in the end, I pulled my chair near hers, took her hands in mine, and prayed for her. Then, for her sake and mine, I blessed her, “… The LORD turn his face toward you, and give you peace.”
Lee Eclov is pastor of Village Church of Lincolnshire, Illinois.
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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Keeping your soul fresh with God—week after week.
PreachingToday.com | posted 9/29/2014
Picture a lone prospector peering into a cave on a barren Arizona mountainside. He’s heard “there’s gold in them thar hills” so with nothing more than some grub, a lamp, and a pickaxe he’s come to this mountain looking for a vein of gold. He lights his lamp and heads into the darkness in hope of striking it rich.
Preparing to preach is like that. For most of us it is quiet, solitary prospecting. In school we learned how to study the Bible, the pickaxe work. Diligent study is harder and longer than most people imagine. If we are decent preachers the Word seems so clear by the time our people hear it they might be inclined to think that we just found scriptural nuggets glittering on the ground.
When we prepare our souls as well as our texts, Jesus walks with us incognito, the way he did with the two Emmaus-bound disciples in Luke 24.
As difficult as study is, I at least know what I’m doing in that realm. I was taught well in the skills of exegesis, hermeneutics, and homiletics. But intertwined with our preparation of the Word is the weekly preparation of our own souls. I don’t know which part takes longer but soul work for me is more unpredictable and often troublesome.
Once I asked several pastors just exactly how they prayed for their sermons. A common response was, “Well, before I start I ask God to help me and to bless my work. Then I get at it.” That’s a good start but it doesn’t have much to do with the preparation of our souls. Apart from suffering, sermon preparation is the most rigorous soul work I know. Although there are exceptions, I suspect that sermons only go as deep into the hearts of our hearers as they have into our own.
Nothing inhibits my study more than the noise within. Spiritual work cannot tolerate many distractions. My “do list,” emails, and Post-It notes chatter on in my head so that God himself can hardly get a word in edgewise. What’s more, my dull-headed weariness drones on like a 4 p.m. lecture. “Be still and know that I am God” is no small command. Prayer, at this stage, isn’t a matter of what we say. It is just trying to quiet the relentless yapping inside.
Besides that, every single time I sit down to study I feel I’m already behind. Too much to do; too little time left to do it. I always feel like the White Rabbit who raced by Alice dithering, “I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date.” When we feel like that, prayer can seem terribly inefficient; a luxury even. “I’d like to pray, of course,” I tell myself, “but God understands. I have got to get this done.” God does understand and he will help. But I just can’t hear him very well if I don’t quiet my soul. I study the words but miss the message. “Though hearing, they do not hear or understand.”
When our son was young we would take him to a nearby park to play on one of those huge “recreational structures,” a wooden wonderland full of passages and hideouts, swinging bridges and towers. A guy could get lost in there. Or in my case, stuck. It was an environment meant for small people. God’s kingdom is like that, as is the study of Scripture. You have to be small to maneuver without getting stuck or banging your head. Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The gate into every passage of Scripture is low and narrow. We can try to squeeze in, big lunks that we are, or we can allow the Holy Spirit and the sacred text to make us small. Every passage carries a kind of humility potion. Every role Scripture takes—”teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”—resizes us if we drink it down. Ifwe let the Word work itself into our hearts.
To begin with, take stock of your heart. That can be like asking a shifty-eyed eight-year-old what he’s been up to. You’re not likely to get a straight answer at first. Persistence is necessary. Not all our sin and dishonesty lays brazen on the surface. We don’t always see how swollen we’ve become inwardly. It’s not easy to tell when you’ve gotten too big for your britches. So we pray often, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.” God will use your text like a stethoscope.
Our pastoral work—especially preaching—should make us great-hearted but it can backfire and just make us big-headed. You can start to think, “All these people came to hear me.” We can become like a kid with a Superman cape ready to jump from the roof. Of all the Bible’s failures, Samson is the one who makes me most twitchy. I have never forgotten a time many years ago when I got up to preach even while sin, like Delilah, snipped away at my God-given strength. My words that day had no lift, no life, no muscle. I do not want to ever forget the ominous shadow of the sightless Samson.
Besides making us right-sized, humility is a relief. Humility is rarely comfortable, but it is a relief. It’s hard to hold in all that spiritual helium. A humble soul can maneuver gracefully in the passages of the God’s Word. Small preachers are the best preachers.
Work with me
We never come to sermon preparation in a neutral frame of mind. Frustration or enthusiasm, weariness or worry, all crowd up to the desk with us when we study. Such things are actually part of our soul’s preparation. God intended you to preach this text in the midst of this week. Thus, I cannot ignore what is happening inwardly. Good sermons, like pearls, are often God’s beautiful Word coating an irritating grain of sand.
Gordon T. Smith writes about a time when he was frustrated with some colleagues. His spiritual director told him, “Well, Gordon, it is sometimes helpful to remember that ‘difficult people are the faculty of the soul.'” Sometimes before I can preach I have to deal with the toxins that have built up inside. That soul work brings an authenticity and thoughtfulness to my sermon.
Prepare to serve
You’ve been in a restaurant where your waiter greets you, “Hi. I’m Jack, and I’ll be your server this evening.” Serverdidn’t used to be a word. I think restaurants made it up because most waiters are not willing to say, “I’ll be yourservant this evening.”
Many of us love preaching God’s Word so much that we’re sort of amazed anyone would pay us to do it. We want to serve Scripture. We love the privilege. However, Scripture doesn’t always let me say what I want to say. Have you ever hammered out part of a sermon only to hear your Bible whisper indignantly, “That’s not what I’m saying”? Has the Holy Spirit ever scolded you, “Enough with the clichés!” or “That story you want to tell is more about you than me.” Scripture can be a tough customer.
Paul wrote in Col. 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom …” Stop. Look at it again.
Let the Word of Christ. That is our text, whether it is from Deuteronomy, John, or Hebrews. Jesus Christ is speaking and he is the text come alive.
Dwell. Like the God in his wilderness tabernacle. Like Jesus incarnate in this dark world.
In you. Like manna or the bread and wine. Like the Spirit at Pentecost.
Richly. In all its glory. Filling you till it is fulfilled in you.
A prepared soul requires the rich residency of the Word. Then we are ready to teach and admonish. Not before.
Paul continues in that verse, “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” When we have served Scripture well teaching and singing are hard to tell apart. Good preaching has a kind of melody, like harmonizing with the Lord. When I was a boy standing next to my mother in church I’d hear her singing alto during the hymns. I still remember when I figured out how to do that—how to find the pitch a third below the melody and harmonize. Prayer during sermon preparation is how we find our pitch and bring our voice into harmony with God’s Word. It’s a beautiful thing.
Being a servant also requires me to consciously serve my congregation. They are not sitting out there for me. I’m there for them. Whether it suits me or not, I must meet them where they are.
Recently a couple of my most gifted women’s Bible study leaders came to me in frustration. Most of the women in the group they lead just won’t participate. Neither of these two experienced leaders could get them to respond or share. The leaders were thinking about starting another group for women who would do their homework and participate. After we’d talked awhile something dawned on me. “You know, we should thank God that they’re coming,” I said. “These are women who love the Lord and make it a point to be there. Even if they don’t say a word or prepare as we’d like, we would rather have them there than not coming! After all, we’re the servants.”
A couple days later one of leaders wrote me that she’d been reading in Luke how the crowds came to Jesus. She wrote, “Jesus didn’t turn them away just because the people had a different agenda than he did. No, he welcomedthem.” She went on, “Here’s where the ladies’ study comes in and where I think God is taking me: I need to get over myself. It’s not all about me and me not using my gifts. These women are coming, I need to welcome them, and share with them about the kingdom of God.” Now her soul is ready to take up the Word.
Some parts of faith come easily to me as I study. For example, I trust that Scripture is really God speaking and that these are the words of life. I trust that God will use me to preach, a gift of grace. I trust that the people who listen will become better disciples of Jesus by listening. Those things are usually easy for me to believe.
The hard part of faith is often more subtle than those things. Faith isn’t only thinking a thing is true. Faith is also the spiritual openness—vulnerability—to draw that truth into my actual thinking and actions. For example, I believe Jesus when he said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.” But before I can preach it I need to believe it enough that I feel the hunger pains and realize how parched for righteousness I am. That is where faith isn’t so easy. Getting my soul situated can take more time than reading commentaries! In that sense, soul preparation means putting off my laziness and taking up my spiritual responsibilities because I believe that will lead to the God-blessed life. I believe that if I love Jesus I will obey him.
Recently I saw a more elusive side of faith in the story of Martha, Mary, and their houseful of guests (Luke 10:38-42). The sisters had disciples to feed and the Lord Jesus himself to serve. Just like me when I get up to preach—disciples to feed and the Lord Jesus himself to serve.
Let’s assume for a moment that Martha would have loved to listen to Jesus but her sense of responsibility overruled. Luke says Martha was “distracted by much service.” I suppose Martha should have remembered how Jesus fed the five thousand and sat down next to Mary. But unless Jesus did that again, her guests were going to go hungry. Duty called. Responsibility snapped its fingers. I know that feeling. The responsibility of preaching—of feeding all those disciples and pleasing the Lord Jesus—stresses me out, too.
The thing Martha never imagined was that Jesus wasn’t her guest. She was his! She wasn’t there to serve Jesus. He was there to serve her. I don’t know how Mary, who I assume was as responsible a hostess as her sister, showed such extraordinary faith that she could stop to listen. Not one in a thousand responsible people would have done what she did. Somehow she trusted that Jesus wanted to feed her even more than she wanted to care for him and his followers. Which of those two sisters would you rather hear preach?
To prepare our souls to preach we must allow Jesus to serve us. And that takes a unique stretch of faith—faith enough to shift the weight of responsibility from me to him. Faith enough to be quiet and listen.
When we prepare our souls as well as our texts, Jesus walks with us incognito, the way he did with the two Emmaus-bound disciples in Luke 24. He meets the yearning of our hearts with Scripture till we know what they meant when they said, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us”?
Like the prospector we go alone into the mine with our lamp and pickaxe. Jesus said in Matt. 13:52, “Every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” When we prepare our souls as thoroughly as our text God’s people receive great and godly treasures. But they also hear us shout for joy, “Eureka! Look what I found!” That is a rich congregation.
Copyright © 2014 by the author or Christianity Today/ PreachingToday.com.
Overcoming the pain of not getting that new position
Leadership Journal, Winter 1998 (Name Withheld ... then. But it was me.)
I was sitting in a restaurant with an old pastor friend, catching up on the news. He asked about a church that had my rèsumè.
“I made it to the final three,” I said, then admitted, “… but I was passed over.”
I started listing every church I’d talked to in the past dozen years. “I was one of seven over there. I made the final cut to two here… But none of them worked out,” I added nonchalantly, “so I think I’ll stay put for a while. No big deal.”
He said, simply, “That must have really been painful.”
To my surprise, tears came to my eyes. No one, not even my wife, had sensed the effect of multiplied rejections on my ego.
The first rejection
I’m in a great church, larger than most. I’ve served here for nearly fourteen years, and we’ve seen significant things happen.
The night the congregation voted on me, my wife and I were waiting across town in a restaurant. We got a phone call to return, and in the time we had been gone, they had decorated the church for a wedding. We walked in, and standing at the front, smiling, was the chairman and other church leaders. Someone escorted my wife and me down the aisle. They had modified the wedding vows so they were both serious and fun. There was a reception. We were excited to get “married.”
That setting has always reminded me that we made promises to each other, and I’m here till God makes it clear it’s time to go elsewhere. But through the years, I have occasionally felt it might be time to move and have been open to inquiries from other churches.
“I won’t get my hopes up,” I tell my wife, but I always do. There’s something about a new challenge that invigorates. But reality says all but one candidate will be rejected.
My first rejection came when I was in my early thirties. I had heard about an exciting church plant that already had seventy people attending. The district superintendent told me I was the right person, and I agreed. I could see how God had prepared me for that time and place. My wife and I went for an initial interview, and I preached. I thought the sermon and visit went exceptionally well, and I expected a call.
When it didn’t come, I decided to call them. The people were nice, but it finally came out: they didn’t think my preaching was that strong. If they had said, “You’re not a good enough pastor,” or “You don’t have enough experience,” I could have lived with their assessment.
But my preaching? That cut to my heart, because I consider preaching to be one of my best ministry assets. I was sitting on the bed when I hung up the phone. With tears streaming down my cheeks, I wondered, Will anybody ever want me? It wasn’t the last time I’d think that.
Why it hurts so much
Since then, I’ve learned that the farther you go with a search committee, the harder the blow when you get turned down. It’s heightened when you’re in a bad situation or at a stage of life when you feel a little desperate. Early on, you can convince yourself there are plenty of other churches out there and this one doesn’t really matter. But there comes a day when you realize, This could be my last chance.
Most churches have fewer than a hundred people in worship on Sundays. Some pastors think of these churches as entry-level positions. In reality, that’s where a lot of people are going to serve their entire ministry, and that can be hard to face.
Then, it’s painful when you feel the committee didn’t get their facts straight. You hear something like, “Well, we went with another candidate because we figured you wouldn’t like the weather here,” or “We were afraid you might not be decisive enough.” You think, You’ve got to be kidding. You missed it by a mile. That’s really hard. But I also know that somebody’s foolish decision doesn’t foil God’s plans for me.
But the primary reason rejection comes so hard is because I consider myself to be gifted. I’m good at some things; I’m ready for the big leagues. It’s hard to understand when a committee doesn’t agree. I was shocked last Christmas when a church I thought was “the one” turned me down. The chairman, a friend, said, “You were one of seven. Then we cut to three. You’re not in that group.” He added quickly, “But we felt you were the best preacher.”
That’s like being named “Miss Congeniality.” I couldn’t understand why, if I was the best preacher, I wasn’t in the top three.
Becoming more selective
One way I’ve lessened the pain of rejection is in becoming more selective about which churches I even enter the race with. Pastoral ministry isn’t just a job. It’s a calling, a strategic investment of my life, and I want to make the wisest choices possible. I’ve learned to ask myself certain questions when deciding whether to become a candidate:
Is the greater need for wisdom or energy? I’m much farther ahead in the wisdom department than I was in my twenties, but with half the energy. Some pastorates call for more energy than I have, so I know not to allow them to consider my name.
Am I willing to fight the new church’s battles? Some battles I won’t fight anymore. For example, I need to be part of a creative worship service, so I’m not interested in going to a church that hasn’t begun to move in that direction.
Is this a good season in which to consider a change? Any pastoral search is a lengthy process. For months, I’ll be thinking about this prospect—a lot. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, kind of an emotional adultery, because it keeps me from fully engaging in ministry where I am. It doesn’t cause me to love my people any less, but it’s hard to move ahead when I believe I won’t be there long. If there’s a problem, it’s easy to think, I don’t need to confront this person. I may not be around in a few months.
Once, I was so sure I was leaving that I planned my final series of messages. The worship planners were working with those texts but didn’t know what I was doing. When the call didn’t materialize, that became my worst series of sermons ever.
Becoming the yardstick
Another way I lessen the pain of rejection is through a change in perspective. It sounds strange, but I’ve come to regard not being selected as a ministry.
I call myself “the yardstick man.” When a search committee is trying to sort what’s important, the yardstick man becomes the standard against which other candidates are measured. Search committees are usually composed of rookies, so they look at someone like me and say, “Here’s a healthy candidate with reasonable gifts. Now, how do these other candidates compare?” I become the gauge that helps them make a better decision.
It dawned on me one day that this is a service to the kingdom. Somebody’s got to do it. Why shouldn’t it be me? They can see, “Jim is stronger than Ray at pastoral care,” or “Now that we think about it, we really value A over B.” This is a quiet ministry, but I take some comfort in it.
Becoming more aware
Being passed over has sharpened my understanding of who I am and where I need to grow.
Several years ago, my name was submitted for a top executive position in our denomination. A friend with considerable influence had submitted my name, so the search team sent a letter asking for information.
As I considered the position, I realized there were two reasons I couldn’t do that job. One, I didn’t have the skills. There’s no shame in that. But two, I realized I didn’t have the character to hold that position. That was sobering. I thought, I don’t have it, but I want it. What will I have to do to grow?
Considering that position also clarified my calling. I asked myself, Could I really do something outside the pastorate? I’ve come to realize that I have to preach. That led me to say, Okay, if I want to be a great preacher, then what am I doing so that twenty years from now, I’m not still preaching at the same level?
I started improving my skills. I assembled a team of people to pray for me every week. I created some self-evaluations. That one encounter focused my plans for growth in both character and competency.
I can’t be in a perpetual state of looking—it’s too draining. But our church is currently in a season in which a change makes sense, and I’ve given myself permission to look around. I’ve been in contact with another church and have been invited to candidate. It looks good so far.
But if nothing happens, I will settle in and say, I must assume that a non-call to go there is a re-call to stay here. Go read Eugene Peterson’s Under the Unpredictable Plant again and get back to work.
And I’ll allow myself to grieve the pain of rejection appropriately, without shame.
[This article appeared shortly before I was called to the Village Church of Lincolnshire.]
from PreachingToday.com, October 2007
Learning to listen is the first step toward preaching for spiritual formation
Awhile back evangelicals like me began climbing rickety stairs to rummage around in the attic. There, under the eaves and covered in dust, we found boxes of stuff labeled “spiritual formation.” We thumbed through old scrapbooks and journals. We puzzled out Latin phrases like lectio divina and wondered if we could create a spiritual labyrinth in the fellowship hall. We came across very non-evangelical sounding names such as St. John of the Cross, Bernard of Clairvaux, Teresa of Ávila, and the Desert Fathers.
When we hauled all this stuff down to our studies, we discovered we had our own spiritual geek squad—folks who never showed up for our big conferences and who despised our leadership seminars, but who actually knew these dusty writings. When they spoke of spiritual disciplines, they didn’t just mean a morning quiet time with Our Daily Bread.
We are our people’s best hope for someone with soul sense—especially when we preach.
Spiritual direction became cool, in a retro kind of way. I wondered where I could find a spiritual director. I imagined entering Father Mike’s austere cell. I’d have the blurts; all kinds of random spiritual reflections and struggles would tumble out of my head. Father Mike would listen like one of those safecrackers with his ear to the vault door as he slowly turned the tumblers on my heart. Then we’d sit through three trimesters of pregnant silence. Finally he would ask a question—one pithy question—about my soul, and scales would fall off my eyes, or he’d make one keen observation, and my heart would burn within me.
I suppose it doesn’t really work that way, but I do think we are all hungering for someone with soul sense. Developing soul sense—a deep understanding of the inner person—is a crucial task for pastors who intend to preach for spiritual formation. As pastors, we are spiritual directors. We are our people’s best hope for someone with soul sense—especially when we preach.
Yet from what I have seen, one surprising aspect of the recent spiritual formation movement has been how little emphasis it has placed on the role of preaching in spiritual formation. For our part, I don’t think we preachers have thought much about preaching that works its way deep into souls. A few years ago I was at a big conference on spiritual formation. After one of my heroes spoke, a man of great godliness and insight, I waited in line to ask him my question. When my turn came, I asked him, “I know all biblical preaching is good for the soul, but it seems like some sermons are just more soul-aware than others. Have you ever given any thought about preaching as spiritual direction?” To my surprise he said, “No, I haven’t thought about that.” In that whole conference packed with plenary sessions and workshops, there was not one sermon.
“A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver,” says Proverbs 25:11. My friend Shelly Riemersma, a spiritual director, reminded me that we must listen intently before we can speak the apt word. Sermons that go deeply into souls come from preachers who have listened to people carefully.
When we listen to others, we need to remember that souls talk out of both sides of their mouths. From one side, the soul speaks sin-addled confusion. It speaks hurt’s misdirected accusations and pride’s nuanced rationalizations. The soul mutters the dark prejudices of its ignorance. Most of this soul talk is masked; you don’t hear it in plain language. But good pastors listen to people deeply and then preach sin’s dirty little secrets with Spirit-given skill.
From the other side of the soul we hear the yearnings of the Holy Spirit, like prayers overheard outside a church. We hear how much God’s people want to trust him, how badly they feel about their sin. We hear about their genuine, yet fickle, love of Jesus. In our sermons, we speak out these deep, shy desires, and people nod their heads in recognition. They are relieved to finally hear someone say what they couldn’t articulate themselves.
After listening deeply to people, we find stories and word pictures to describe what the inner person is really like, beginning with the whispers of our own hearts. We show our congregation how the people in the Bible felt the very things we have felt. We help them hear what God hears coming from their hearts. When we speak at that depth, our people may respond with surprised recognition: “That’s exactly how I feel. Yes! I do think that way.” In this way, people’s souls are sensitized to the shaping work of the Scripture you stand to deliver.
A few months ago, I preached a sermon on Psalm 52, in which David prays his heart out about the dastardly Doeg. I called it “Praying with a Knife in Your Back.” If this text was to shape people’s hearts, they had to identify with David’s feelings of betrayal, so I tried to articulate what I’d heard coming from people’s hearts. “When you’ve been betrayed,” I said, “you’re plunged into a midnight of misery and disbelief. Of all people, you?! How could I have been so stupid? I’m so embarrassed. I’ll never trust anyone again. How could God let this happen to me? I have never felt so angry. I will get him back if it is the last thing I do!” When people hear themselves thinking, they want the antidote of David’s prayer to heal their snakebite of betrayal.
Before we can give the apt word, we must listen intently to both the honey-dipped lies and the Spirit-shaped yearnings of people’s hearts. That which is deep inside a person needs to be brought to the surface so they can hear how well God’s Word knows them.
Preaching for spiritual health
My dental hygienist said something strange. When she noted an unusual build-up of plaque on my teeth, I braced for the “floss more” speech. I’ve heard it before, and I’m tired of it. I can preach it better than she can. But she surprised me. She asked if I had been under unusual stress lately. Apparently stress stimulates a kind of body chemistry that cranks up the production of plaque. She didn’t just want my teeth to look good. She wanted me to be healthy. That, I think, is the point of spiritual formation preaching. It is easy—and it is right sometimes—to preach “floss more” sermons, but if we want God’s people to be healthy, we need to be sure we’re listening well.
Probing the mystery of “the anointing” in a sermon.
from PreachingToday.com, November 2001
In his novel Paul, Walter Wangerin, Jr., has Barnabas describing the great Apostle’s preaching: “He had such a thing to tell them, and such a need to say it soon, to say it fast, that the reasonable tone of his voice would change to urgency. So then his sentences got longer, and the words burst from his mouth like flocks of birds, and the faith of the man was a high wind at the hearts of the people, and some of them gasped in delight, and these are the ones who rose up and flew; but others were insulted, and others afraid of the sacred passions.”
I imagine unction like that.
Unction means the anointing of the Holy Spirit upon a sermon so that something holy and powerful is added to the message that no preacher can generate, no matter how great his skills. At the center of Pittsburgh two rivers, the Monongahela and the Allegheny, come together at The Point to form a new river, the mighty Ohio. That, I think, is how we envision unction working—the sermon and the Spirit meeting to form a spiritual torrent, Jesus’ voice “like the sound of rushing waters.”
I have occasionally been asked to evaluate sermon tapes, using a simple set of questions. One question—”Would you describe this sermon as having unction?”—often stumped me. What does unction sound like? What would I hear, exactly? Can unction even be discerned on a tape or do you have to be there in person to sense the Spirit’s unction?
Generally we regard unction as the Holy Spirit’s anointing of the preacher as the sermon pours from his lips. Surely God does wonderfully and mysteriously anoint preachers, but I’ve been intrigued with two other “targets” of the Spirit’s unction—the very process of baptized rhetoric, and the inherent anointing upon God’s Word itself.
We equate unction with a power that lifts words and sends them a-soaring, but there is power something like that in simply good rhetoric. Consider the Gettysburg Address, for example, or the speeches of Winston Churchill. Edward R. Murrow said of him, “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” Surely those speeches had something unction-like about them. Or when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., cried out across the mall in Washington, “I have a dream,” was that unction? He was a preacher, after all. But that is also great rhetoric.
Aristotle’s classical rhetoric identified three essential ingredients of a great speech: logos (what we say), ethos (who we are) and pathos (the passion we bring to the task). But it is only when the Holy Spirit is added to the equation that we have unction. When those qualities are combined in a godly and passionate preacher, steeped in a text of Holy Scripture, great rhetoric is kissed with unction. Kent Hughes, in the preface to his commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, says these three in a holy combination are in fact what make for “the Holy Spirit filling one’s sails, the sense of his pleasure, and the awareness that something is happening among one’s hearers.”
God’s Spirit has surely “filled the sails” of poor sermons and embarrassing preachers from time to time, but for consistency, when logos, ethos and pathos are baptized into Christ, unction results. When both the sermon and preacher are carefully prepared, the Holy Spirit is poised to pour out his fire.
It appears to me that in the Bible, it is the message that is anointed by God as much as the messenger. Unction seems to live in God-given messages, as fire dwells in lava. The fire is in the message and the warning to the preacher is not to let it cool. Unction is not so much poured out as lifted up and delivered.
Here are four biblical examples where unction is in the message.
1. The Turning Point
When everything hangs for God’s people on which way their next step turns, God’s message will have a fiery intensity. People must have trembled to hear Moses boil their choices down to this: “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life!” Or when Joshua, at the end of his career, cried, “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve.…But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Those words have unction; we tremble before them even today.
It is a preaching truism that every sermon should call for some kind of response, but there are clearly some Sundays, some messages, that are turning points for a congregation. Ahead of them, “two roads diverge in a yellow wood,” and it will make all the difference where they step. God may thunder or whisper his message, but his Spirit is poured out in pleading and pointing on such Sundays.
Count on it! You will have unction when you speak to God’s people with Jeremiah, “Stand at the crossroads and look.”
2. The Purified Preacher
The ethos of a preacher requires godliness. Every preacher should step to the pulpit with a heart that has been God-tested and blood-bleached. But there are times when preachers have an experience akin to Isaiah’s, when it seems as though a burning coal from an angel’s hand has cauterized our tongue. The solitary preacher himself has heard a message full of unction, all for him, sterilizing his head and heart. So when he stands to preach—whatever the text before him—he very nearly breathes fire from his own flaming heart.
The preacher has prayed,
Take what I offer thee, O Lord, and teach me to give them all.Breathe on the kindled flame within, O place on my tongue your white coal.
He is the man whose heart has been broken till “all the vain things that charm me most” have been emptied out, and he waits to speak from a holy hollowness, having for the first time a great capacity for God. She is the speaker whose eyes somehow that week saw the undisguised hopelessness of the lost, and she cannot bear any more silence. He has somehow seen the Lord, high and lifted up, till his knees went weak and his tongue tied. Yet when he preaches—gasps, really—the sermon burns with holy oil.
3. Preaching Christ
Every sermon should preach Christ, of course. After all, what time do we have for small themes and side trips? But there are those times when the glory of Christ, the astonishing accomplishments of the Son of God, come to spontaneous combustion in a preacher.
Such a holy outburst usually comes from long contemplation of the Savior. We stare for long hours upon some biblical masterpiece like Isaiah 53—”The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Or we circle Philippians 2 like a great monument—he “did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped.” Or we feed our choked imagination with Revelation’s images—”His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself.” And we begin to smolder with some inward poetry, some lyric that fairly jumps from our lips on Sunday. In such moments, another’s quotes won’t do, nor another’s verse. We may not speak in rhyme, but we have become poets nonetheless.
There are times, too, when the sole sufficiency of Christ very nearly takes our breath away. The Scriptures crack our shell and we see with digital clarity that all else is ashes without Jesus. An urgency comes upon us: “You must—you must—trust Christ.” And we plead as though their lives depended on it. The suits and smiles in the pews fade before our eyes and we see instead prisoners through their bars; we see the sunken cheeks of the famished; we see the pallor of the dead, right there before us where ordinary people sat a moment ago, and we must give them Jesus! They must be redeemed!
Dave Hansen wrote in Leadership (Winter 1997) of the suffering of his ministry mentor and friend, Bob Cahill. Pastor Cahill told Dave, “Since my cancer I preach as a dying man to dying men. When I look out at the congregation, I see people whose lives are passing away and who need Christ. You can’t imagine what this does to your sense of unction.”
4. Preach the Word!
In 2 Timothy, Paul does not urge Pastor Timothy to seek unction, but he does say, “All Scripture is God-breathed.…Preach the Word!” The unction is already upon the Scriptures. The Bible is already drenched in sacred oil. When I preach, I love those inexplicable moments when I find myself soaring, when the Word is like honey to me, and fire. But what I have learned from Paul’s last admonitions to Timothy is to trust the unction that is always upon Scripture even when my words seem clumsy or common.
When we take up the Scriptures to “teach, rebuke, correct or train in righteousness,” unction is ours. When we show how the Scriptures make one “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus,” that is anointed preaching. When we offer “careful instruction,” we have God’s own blessing. That Word, so long as we are faithful to it, is living and active.
I told a seasoned preacher friend I was thinking about unction. “It’s hard to explain,” he said, “but I know when I have it.” I know what he means, but I’m not sure he’s right. If he means, “I can feel unction when it comes upon me, when my words turn to hammers or lightning or medicine,” well, I’m not sure we can always tell. Sometimes unction is simply received by faith, without feeling the wind or the heat. We go home to our Sunday afternoon nap deflated and disappointed that nothing seemed to happen. But when with a pure heart, a Christian preacher declares the Scriptures, or proclaims Christ, or calls for repentance and holiness, his words are surely anointed.
So does any declaration of Scripture carry unction? Does a tedious but true lecture, a plagiarized sermon, or an insincere Bible preacher have the Spirit’s anointing? Yes, I think so, but dimly, cooly. It is a fire blanketed, a barely smoldering cinder. The Spirit has been quenched. God has been known to use his Word even in such cases to touch a life. The Word truthfully told always has unction, but when a preacher has ducked the Spirit’s holy oil himself, the very Word of the Almighty is muffled and muted. It is a treasure not easily trusted because it is in the hands of a huckster.
Staying Off the Midway
I must admit that unction hasn’t always had an altogether positive connotation for me. It is a word that somewhere in my past was hung like a sideshow banner over a sweaty, pulpit-pounder caught up in a frenzy of conviction. He is a preacher I resent—for not preparing well, for running on emotion and guilt, for crying too easily, for thinking there is something superior about being a primitive preacher. He gives unction a bad name: unctuous.
But when we faithfully reiterate Scripture, when our exposition exhales what the Lord has breathed into it, when our hearts are impassioned with Bible truth and our characters are refined by its heat, there is unction.