Many of you earnestly desire to hear your pastors preach better sermons. While you can tell that he labours away, you long for more passion, more earnestness, more deliberateness, or more clarity. That’s understandable. Most preachers would like to grow in these ways as well. (And the ones who don’t really need prayer.)
One of the best ways you can help your pastor’s preaching is by praying for him. But did you know you can do even more than that? And it’s not that difficult, either.
Let me say this plainly: I love the people of Grace Fellowship Church. I totally felt what John Piper was saying in a recent interview on his experience as a pastor at Bethlehem:
I never felt that I was the church’s privilege, but that she is mine. To be at Bethlehem was gift, all gift.
I have felt that to be my reality in increasing measure since we planted, almost three years ago now. And I know that Paul, my fellow pastor, feels the same way.
That being said, I have known enough churches and enough pastors over the years to realize that the relationship between pastor and congregation isn’t always exclusively a love-in. Even in the privileged ministry that the Lord has given me, there have been opportunities for anger, strife, malice, bitterness, and all the rest of that to take root.
So how do we fight those temptations when they come? Here are some ways I’ve found helpful to grow in love for the members of the church:
1. Eat with Them
Erik Raymond wrote an excellent post last year commending the practice of eating lunch regularly with members from the church. Here’s some of the benefit:
This is your opportunity to hear them. Ask them questions that help you to better know them. Ask them about their families, hobbies, jobs, etc. Ask them about how they met their wife, where they are from, what they do for work, what their extended family dynamic is like. Ask good questions and just listen.
I would add my ‘amen’ to that. When you hear about someone’s life and get into their world, you can’t help but find your love and compassion for them increasing.
What is the likelihood you’ll be at church on Sunday? 50%? 75%?
Recently, I heard an experienced urban minister reflecting on the reality that in most urban contexts, among most young Christians — even reformed evangelicals — church attendance peaks at around 2-3 Sundays per month.
Before you judge, honestly evaluate your own attendance over the past little while. I say that because for most of these young people, if you were to ask them, they would indicate that they are very committed. In their own perception, they are more likely to be there than not, whether or not the facts bear that out. Many think they are more faithful than they are.
That’s been on my mind today because I’ve been studying about Jesus. Here’s what I read:
And he came to Nazareth, where he had been raised, and he entered the synagogue as was his custom on the Sabbath day and he rose to read… (Luke 4.16)
Four little words stuck out to me. Did you catch them? ‘As was his custom.‘
If there are things we tend to not like as younger people, particularly younger evangelicals, it is commandments and customs. We don’t like to be told something is necessary. But if something is good, shouldn’t it be customary? If Jesus made it his custom to go and hear the reading and explanation of the law for the first 30 years of his life before beginning his ministry, shouldn’t that inform some of our customs?
I was further rebuked by this statement from Josephus:
‘He [Moses] appointed the Law to be the most excellent and necessary form of instruction, ordaining, not that it should be heard once for all or twice or on several occasions, but that every week men should desert their other occupations and assemble to listen to the Law and to obtain a thorough and accurate knowledge of it, a practice which all other legislators seem to have neglected’ (Ag. Ap. 2.17 §175).
It seems that with the rise in numbers of young, broadly-reformed Christians and pastors in recent years, there has also been a large increase in the seeming importance of conferences. Here you have people who love theology, love good preaching, love fellowship across denominational lines, and love the overall experience of getting away and being blessed through deep study of the word for a few days.
What could be wrong with that? Right?
Many of the dangers of conferences (celebrity-ism, seeking life in emotional highs, finding identity in being a ‘conference person’, etc.) have been well-chronicled already. I’ve considered those potential pitfalls, and seen the danger in them. But yet, I’ve still remained largely in favour of conferences.
But recently I’ve been thinking about another problem with conferences — one that is in large part bound up with the celebrity-pastor and church-by-podcast Christian culture of 21st century North American evangelicalism.
The problem is bound up with our ecclesiology (our theology of the church):
Unchecked, conferences can both reflect bad ecclesiology and lead to still worse ecclesiology.
A Leave It to the Experts Mentality
Our culture is a culture of experts. Multiple post-secondary and even graduate degrees are required for just about everything. Specialists, rather than generalists rule the day. If we are not careful, our broader church culture will reflect the same thinking. The voice of the local pastor is drowned out by the thunderous boom of the voice amplified to thousands of conference attendees and broadcast live across the web to many more.
In sermon preparation this week, I’ve been struck again by the simplest of realities. (Why is it always the simplest things that I have to re-learn the most often?) As I was praying over my study for the day — with my mind wandering from sustained prayer to thoughts about the text, and then back to prayer again — I found myself burdened with this reality:
The point of the text is the God of the text; apart from knowing the God who breathes the words, the knowledge of the meaning of words means nothing.
What does it profit a church-goer to gain a whole dictionary of knowledge, but forfeit the opportunity to know God? It is God himself who is exceeding joy, and whose love is better than life (Psalm 43.4; 63.3). It is God who is our refuge and strength, and God alone who proves himself to be for us when all else seems against us (Psalm 46.1; 56.9).
Don’t get me wrong. Rigorous study is an absolute must and precise attention to grammatical and contextual and historical detail is absolutely essential, lest we misunderstand what God is actually saying. But in the midst of the grammatical trees, we must not miss the covenantal-relational forest: Our God has revealed himself to us! He gave us these words that we would know him, and love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Deut. 29.29; Mark 12.29-30).
The reason any person speaks is for the purpose of being known. Our God speaks that he might be known, and that we might live in covenant with him. If my sermon — or any sermon — explains the words of the text, but doesn’t bring people face-to-face with the living God who spoke the text, it must ultimately be deemed a failure.
We must work with all diligence to discern the meaning of the words of the speaker, so that the speaker might be understood, cherished, and loved. May God make that true of me this week and every week!
A Good Pattern to Follow
When we planted Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills there was very little that we wanted to do differently from what we had seen. You might have been able to tell from the name that we chose (we were planted by another Grace Fellowship Church), but we firmly believed — and still believe — that the pattern that had been established for us was a good one.
That church prioritizes the word, exalts Christ, depends on God in prayer, worships him with authentic and theologically rich singing, and lives out some genuine New Testament fellowship. She is led by godly elders and served well by deacons that look an awful lot like Jesus in their Christ-like serving. All the essentials are there, so there really was very little to change when we planted.
That being said, we didn’t simply want to copy & paste, or go with a church-in-a-box mentality either, so we carefully investigated just about everything so that from top-to-bottom we were making sure that we weren’t just assuming essentials.
We wanted to act out of conviction, not convention.
Taking a Different Turn
One place where we decided to head in a different direction was in our Statement of Faith. While we believed (and still believe!) everything in the Statement of Faith from our planting church, we wanted something a little more. Our desire was twofold for our Statement of Faith:
Why should I go to church?
It’s a question that every Christian has asked at some point or another. Whether it’s because we’re sick, tired, having a hard time seeing the point, or at relational odds with someone there, we’ve all asked the question.
There are, of course, many ways to answer. The simplest is that we’re commanded to (Heb 10.24-25) and since our lives are not our own, but were bought with a price, we must obey. But for the Christian who wants to reflect on it more, there is much more to be said.
A few years ago I heard Matt Schmucker from 9 Marks say that absence from church (in an ongoing or regular sense) is either a result of sin or a gateway to sin. I wholeheartedly agreed with him on an anecdotal level. This was true of all people that I’ve known. But why is that?