4 Posts from August 2009

Let Go!

Can you remember when life was joyful? Even funny? When did everything get so serious?

When did a well-exercised sense of humor get sacrificed on the altar of adulthood? Who says becoming a “responsible person” means a long face and an all-serious attitude toward life?

A very precocious ten-year old asked, “How old are you, Grandma?”

“Well, honey, when you’re my age, you don’t share your age with anybody.”

While Grandma fixed supper, the girl came across the contents of her grandmother’s purse and dumped them on the bed.

Finding Grandma’s driver’s license, the child announced, “Grandma, you’re seventy-six.”

“Why, yes, I am. How did you know that?”

“I found the date of your birthday here on your driver’s license and subtracted that year from this year. You’re seventy-six.” Looking down at the license, she added, “You also made an F in sex.”

Even Christians can make Fs in the abundant life Jesus came to give us. Died, age thirty. Buried, age sixty. An appropriate epitaph for too many.

A lot of adults I know are as serious as a heart attack. Our vocation as pastors is among the most serious of all professions. As a minister of the gospel and senior pastor of a church, a week doesn’t pass without my dealing with life in the raw. Needs are enormous, endless, and heartrending. It’s easy to become grim.

I know of no greater need in our ranks today than the need for joy. Unexplainable, contagious joy. What is the sum and substance of all this? The secret of living is the same as the secret of joy: both revolve around the centrality of Jesus Christ. The pursuit of happiness is the cultivation of a Christ-centered, Christ-controlled life.

To you, my fellow pastor, I say, “Let go!” Let go of your habit of always looking at the negative. Let go of your need to fix everybody else’s unhappiness. Let go of your drive to compete or compare. Let go of needless inhibitions that keep you from celebrating life. Quit being so protective, so predictable, so in control . . . so proper.

To remain perpetually super-serious and fill one’s mind with only the harsh and painful realities of life keeps the radius of our perspective too tight and the tunnel of our hope too long. Every day I try to find at least one thing to laugh about, something to prompt a chuckle.

When Christ becomes our central focus—our reason for existence—contentment replaces anxiety, fears, and insecurities. Most people think that happiness is something that happens to them rather than something they diligently pursue. Joy comes to those who determine to pursue it in spite of everyday circumstances.

These minds of ours are like bank vaults awaiting our deposits. If we regularly deposit positive, encouraging, and uplifting thoughts, we will withdraw the same. And the interest paid will be joy—abundant life. So, please . . . let go!


The Goal of Our Preaching

Application of the Bible is a priority in my preaching. I never leave the congregation to guess how the text applies. I plan the application of the message just as carefully as I work through its introduction and exposition.

I have discovered that if you cannot summarize the application of your sermon in a sentence or two, you don’t have a sermon. You may have a number of interesting and accurate thoughts, but you won’t have it drawn together into a cohesive whole. The result? No one will remember what was said.  You ought to be able to give your message in one or two sentences. Here’s an example: Christ has set us free, and we should enjoy the liberty that He’s provided for us through His death and resurrection.  Your message should state and restate that thought from various angles so that the theme pulsates through your sermon. 

Apply this outside the message as well. It’s wonderful if you have a sensitive minister of music who can weave that theme like a thread through the anthem the choir sings, or the arrangement the ensemble plays, or the song the soloist brings, or the hymns and choruses through which the congregation worships. By doing that, the whole service underscores and affirms the message—not just your preaching. People leave with the application ringing in their minds, almost like a tune you can’t get out of your head.  

I always suggest timeless principles at the end of a message . . . lessons the listener can carry home and use. Really use. I learned from Dr. Stan Toussaint, one of my professors when I attended seminary, that it’s helpful to put the application toward the end of a message.  There’s something about ending a message with a clincher that makes it more effective.  For example, I will often say, “There are three warnings here that all of us would be wise to heed.”  Then I list each one in a brief manner, explaining how they can be applied, and then I repeat them. I often ask the congregation to write down the principles. Why write them down? I learned a little saying many years ago that I have found helpful: “Thoughts disentangle themselves over the lips and through the fingertips.”  In other words, when something is not clear, it’s often helpful to talk it out and also to write it down. That brings clarity.

Don’t skimp on the application of the message. Don’t spend all of your time explaining the text without explaining how the text applies. One of my mentors, Dr. Howard Hendricks, offers a poignant warning:

Every time you observe and interpret [the Bible] but fail to apply [it], you perform an abortion on the Scriptures in terms of their purpose. The Bible was not written to satisfy your curiosity; it was written to transform your life.1

Pretty blunt, but his point is true: the Bible was meant to be lived—not just studied.

Application is the ultimate goal of our preaching. Go there . . . every single time.


1 Howard G. Hendricks and William D. Hendricks, Living by the Book (Chicago: Moody Press, 1991), p 284.

Marks of a Mentor: Releasing Others

In my almost fifty years in the ministry, the Lord has brought in and taken away many friends and coworkers. As hard as it always is to lose those I have mentored and developed—both staff and laypeople—I try to affirm their decision to follow God elsewhere. That’s what the church in Ephesus did for Apollos when he sensed God’s leading to leave:

And when he wanted to go across to Achaia, the brethren encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him; and when he had arrived, he greatly helped those who had believed through grace, for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, demonstrating by the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.

Acts 18:27–28

Please observe, when he was led to leave, they “encouraged him” to go. We pastors need to realize that God does not intend for all the faithful folks to stay at our church. We want that, but God’s plan is greater than ours. We never need to pour on the guilt or try to manipulate someone who senses the need to follow God elsewhere.

We don’t own them. They belong to the Lord, not us. Don’t ever call the congregation, “my church,” or refer to the flock as, “my people.” They’re God’s people. We are simply shepherds. Our purpose is to help them reach their full potential, whatever it may be . . . and wherever it may lead.

I have a long-standing commitment never to talk anybody into coming or out of leaving the church—whether a staff person or layperson. If an individual is led to leave, I find a way to help make that happen. If an individual is led to come, I find a way to help them make the change. Hold everyone loosely.

“Move ahead,” the Christians encouraged Apollos. “Of course, we don’t own you here in Ephesus.” And you know what happened? Paul would later write to the Corinthians:

I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth.

1 Corinthians 3:6

I love it! The Lord took Apollos back to Corinth, and he became so effective that he watered the seed that the apostle Paul had planted. The Christians in Ephesus get part of the credit for that success. Why? They recognized that God’s work extended beyond their own church . . . and they released Apollos.

We pastors must do the same.


Marks of a Mentor: Addressing Weakness

Last week I shared with you one of the marks of a mentor that we all enjoy: affirming others with trust. But there’s another side of the coin that’s just as important. Good mentors also address weaknesses. For example:

Now a Jew named Apollos, an Alexandrian by birth, an eloquent man, came to Ephesus; and he was mighty in the Scriptures. This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he was speaking and teaching accurately the things concerning Jesus, being acquainted only with the baptism of John; and he began to speak out boldly in the synagogue. But when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately.
Acts 18:24–26

When Aquilla and Priscilla heard Apollos preach, they detected some things lacking. There was nothing in Apollos’s words about the work of the Spirit. No mention of the body of Christ . . . the Spirit-filled life . . . how Christians can live as conquerors . . . nothing. They only heard about the baptism of John and the ministry of Jesus. That’s all Apollos knew. Accurate . . . but incomplete.

A discerning mentor addresses weaknesses that need to be strengthened and wrongs that need to be corrected. That’s one of the greatest benefits of good mentors. They won’t let us get away with staying like we are. They won’t let us keep making the same mistakes over and over again. They love us too much. 

Mentors spot flaws and, like Aquilla and Priscilla, they don’t embarrass us publicly. They don’t nail us on the spot. But behind closed doors they say, “I need to mention something I notice that you do . . . or that you don’t do.” They care, because they’re discerning. They spot the area of need, and they put their finger on it like on a nerve.

The benefits? Reproof causes the one being mentored to remain teachable and accountable. Both are important. But it’s also vital that when we are the ones doing the reproving, we make sure we also are loving. Paul said it well:

Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but rather appeal to him as a father, to the younger men as brothers, the older women as mothers, and the younger women as sisters, in all purity.
1 Timothy 5:1–2

I also admire Apollos’s response. He listened to them. One of the best things we can do when someone corrects us is to pay attention to their corrections. Do you do that? I hope that your biblical knowledge has made you more approachable and less untouchable. Mentors have nothing to gain by correcting us. We have everything to gain. We are better people if we take reproofs personally. (Sounds like a proverb, doesn’t it?) I could name some corrections my mentors gave that stung me to my core. And you know what? I knew they were right. I felt a little humiliated, but they turned it around into something positive: “Once you correct this, you’ll be even more effective.” It was true.

As mentors, we should be good at addressing weaknesses—at giving reproof. We should also be good at receiving it. It makes you a better pastor.

For that matter, it also makes you a better husband and father.