Always talking, never doing

One of the great tensions we face in the Christian life—and the Christian faith—is the tension between belief and action. When you see discussion of topics like antinomianism, of the relationship between law and gospel… at the heart of these debates and discussions is this tension.

In The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan gives voice to this tension through the meeting of Faithful and Talkative. As his name suggests, Talkative loves to wax eloquent about any number of subjects, but especially that of religion and piety. Indeed, he talks a good game. But his talk isn’t enough. Bunyan writes:

talkative

“…to know is something that pleases talkers and boasters, but to do is that which pleases God. Not that the heart can be good without knowledge, for without knowledge the heart is empty. But there are two kinds of knowledge: the first is alone in its bare speculation of things, and the second is accompanied by the grace of faith and love, which causes a man to do the will of God from the heart.

“The first kind of knowledge will serve the talker. But a true Christian will not be content until his knowledge results in sincere works that please God. ‘Give me understanding, and I shall keep Thy law; yea, I shall observe it with my whole heart.’”

Talkative protested, “You are trying to trap me again; this is not edifying.”

Many of us have a similar response to the idea of obedience that Talkative does. We don’t like the idea that “a true Christian will not be content until his knowledge results in sincere works that please God.” It’s offensive and doesn’t feel terribly edifying to talk about.

But it shouldn’t be, not really. After all, Jesus Himself said, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matthew 7:24). In other words, Christ’s people don’t just hear, they obey.

Their belief flows into action—right action that pleases God. Their knowledge is “accompanied by the grace of faith and love, which causes a man to do the will of God from the heart.”

Talkative was content to talk a good game. He could speak truthfully, to be sure—but his lifestyle revealed the truth of his state before God. He was “a man whose religion is only talk and your conduct is at odds with what you profess with your mouth.” In fact, he was one who caused many to stumble by his example.

He professed faith but did not possess faith.

Many of us are not that much different. Our talk is good and right and true, but that’s about as far as it goes.

We are always talking, but never doing.

But we must be about more than talk. We must embrace the tension we perceive in the Christian faith, understanding that, really, there is no tension at all according to Jesus. We must not be one who simply hears and parrots, but one who hears and does.

 

Is church growth all about the pastor?

church-seating

Yesterday, I read a provocative article on this subject by David Murrow. He writes:

Can I be brutally honest? When it comes to church attendance, nothing matters as much as the ability of the pastor to deliver good sermons. If a pastor is good at his job, the church grows. If he’s bad at his job, the church shrinks. Sounds unspiritual—but it’s true. It shouldn’t be this way—but it is. Each week is a referendum on the pastor’s ability to deliver an inspiring sermon.

Murrow goes on to say that, although it pains him to say it—he wishes that it were things like the community’s love for one another that kept people coming—”when it comes to putting men in pews, nothing matters more than pastoral quality. Every other consideration pales in comparison.”

I appreciate Murrow’s stance, his taking the “tragic reality” approach to addressing an ugly question. Pastors should be greatly concerned with the quality of the sermons they preach, and poor preaching is always detrimental to the health of the church.

But how do you define “good” and “bad” preaching? 

Based on the article, it seems that good preaching is entertaining preaching, and bad is boring. In other words, the more entertaining or inspiring (however you want to define that) your preaching is, more people will come and they’re more likely to stay.

But if your sermons are dull or don’t captivate me in the way I hope they will, then watch out. Attendance will drop and your job’s on the line.

You can see the problem with this coming a mile away, can’t you?

When our ideas about preaching are defined by the oratory skill of the one delivering the message, and not the content itself, compromise quickly follows. Some compromise by sanding down the rough edges of Scripture, as the seeker movement has often been accused of, giving people inspiring or uplifting talks that resemble the dreck spoon fed to viewers of daytime television. But others compromise by going in the opposite direction, thinking if they can just be wild and offensive enough, people will come just to see what they’re going to say next.

And, of course, it works. Sort of.

There are massive churches in America built on both of these ideals, and thousands of preachers look to their leaders to see what they “should” be doing differently. But if I were a betting man, I’d be willing to say many—perhaps even most—of those churches aren’t all that healthy. Why? Because they’ve embraced the truth as Murrow sees it and made the preacher the main attraction.

And you know something? Pastoral quality does matter. It matters a lot. But if we’re measuring on sermons, we’re completely missing the mark. You know why?

Because even a blasphemer who’s a good public speaker can deliver an inspiring message.

He can grow a church into the thousands, even tens of thousands. But what he has in oratory gifting, he falls short of in the only pastoral quality that really does matter, biblically: character.

I’ve written on this in the past, but it bears repeating: the only thing the Bible consistently holds up as the measuring rod for pastors is not their skill in preaching, though they must be able to teach. It is their character.

Who they are matters far more than what they can do. 

But we don’t like this, so we try to give measurements Scripture doesn’t for how to evaluate church growth. And it always comes back to numbers.

But we don’t have to choose that. And make no mistake, it’s we who are imposing that measure, not the Lord.

Instead, we see that the Lord shames the strong by choosing the weak things of this world. We see him bless the humble, and oppose the proud. When he speaks to the seven churches in Revelation, he rebukes all but one, the smallest and most seemingly insignificant one at that.

So, is church growth all about the pastor? Honestly, who cares? Be more concerned about the character of the man who is leading, rather than how many seats are filled. Because, really, the only one holding you to a number is you.

Courage and the Christian life

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A couple weeks ago, a news story broke where a waitress who identifies as a lesbian claimed a family refused to tip her because they don’t agree with her lifestyle. The other day, the story returned to the news with a twist—it turns out the server lied.

While there’s a great deal one could say about the whole story, one of the things that struck me about it—even though it turned out to be false—was how much more difficult a story like this makes it for us to be effective witnesses to the gospel in the public square. Because Christians are typically depicted as backwards, hate-filled and homophobic by the media, stories like this make us want to stay quiet. We don’t want to speak up about anything.

And yet, speaking up isn’t something we can avoid—love won’t allow it. And so we need courage. Owen Strachan explains in his excellent new book, Risky Gospel:

…here’s the thing we must remember if we are to have a bold public witness: calling sinners out of sin is not hateful. It’s loving.

This is true of the gospel itself, right? It’s loving for someone to have shared the good news of Christ’s sacrificial death and life-giving resurrection with us. It’s unloving for a Christian not to share this message of hope. In the same way, it’s unloving for us not to speak the truth, whether in public or in private, about homosexuality—or adultery, lying, fear of man, pride, or lust.

It’s not hateful to tell your neighbor that he or she is trapped in sin. It’s kind and compassionate, and especially when you do so in a gracious and kind way. You can do it poorly if you speak without awareness of your own sin, of course. But if you’re humble and empathetic, and you courageously speak the truth about sin, you are by definition being loving. (190)

When the world calls “evil” “good”—whether we’re talking about homosexuality, lust, greed, adultery, pornography—it’s not unloving for us to say we disagree. There is a way to do it which is unloving, but what’s more unloving is for us to say nothing.

If we are Christians, we don’t have the option of being silent, no matter how uncomfortable it might be. If we love our neighbors, we must speak.

See it. Hear Him. Thank Him. Ask for more.

Source: NASA

Source: NASA

As the earth screams through space, balanced exactly on the edge of everyone burning alive and everyone freezing solid, as we shriek through deadly obstacle courses of meteor showers and find them picturesque, as the nearest fiery star vomits eruptions hundreds of times bigger than our wee planet (giving chipper local weathermen northern lights to chatter about), as a giant reflective rock glides around us slopping the seas (and never falls down), and as we ride in our machines, darting past fools and drunks and texting teenagers, how many times do we thank God? We are always in His hands, but we often feel like we are in our own. We can’t thank Him for every breath and every heartbeat, but we can thank Him every day for not splatting us with the moon or letting us drop into the sun.…

In a bed or on the battlefield or on asphalt in shattered glass beneath a flashing light, we are God’s stories to end. How many drunks has He spared you from? Thank Him before you ask to be spared from another. How many breaths have you drawn? How many winter winds have tightened your skin? How many Christmases have you seen? How many times has the sky swirled glory above your head like a benediction?

See it. Hear Him. Thank Him. Ask for more.

Search for moments in your story for which you can be grateful.

N.D. Wilson, Death by Living, 139-140

How do we fix the problem of celebrity-ism?

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Monday, after sharing a few thoughts on the latest bit of controversy surrounding Mark Driscoll, I made the following statement:

Maybe our question should really be: how do we fix the problem of “celebrity-ism” that’s seeped into the church?

I don’t think there’s anyone out there who would deny this is a problem—not just for pastors with a particularly large platform, but for laypeople, too. I think the solution really comes down to one thing:

Regaining a right view of oneself. 

I know—totally revolutionary and world-changing, right? Bear with me a minute:

How does celebrity-ism start? It always—always—begins when we forget who we are. For pastors, maybe the congregation’s grown to a size when people are starting to take notice. More people show up. Podcasts downloads increase. Someone suggests writing a book. That book sells more than three copies.

For bloggers (yeah, it happens there, too), it’s more or less the same. Traffic increases, shares are up, comments are exploding. Sooner or later, the idea of writing a book comes up and it, again, sells a few copies.

Maybe you’re in sales and rocking your quotas. Maybe you’re a mom who’s kids actually clean their rooms and stay in bed at night. Maybe you’re a barista who makes a wicked-awesome latte. Whatever your thing is, if you’re nailing it and people are taking notice, it can make you think you’re a pretty big deal.

But here’s the problem: it doesn’t matter if you’ve got a New York Times Bestseller or a blog with half-decent traffic—you’re just a person. So it’s silly to start thinking too much of yourself, isn’t it? Read More about How do we fix the problem of celebrity-ism?

When you’re gun-shy about discipling others

word-balloons

There’s this young guy I talk with most mornings at my daughter’s bus stop. He’s a really nice kid, not quite 25… but, man, is his life a mess (the details about which I won’t get into because, well, they’re none of your business). He’s also a professing Christian, and one who’s extremely young in his faith at that.

Both Emily and I have spoken with him regularly over the last several weeks. When I talk to him about things going on in his life, I tend to probe to find out how aware he is of what it means to follow Jesus, does he know what the Bible says on particular subjects, how aware he is of how his background affects his decision making.

He’s a really nice guy, and typically very forthcoming. For example, today Emily learned he plays Bible Roulette. Crack open the book, read wherever it falls. So she asked if I had a book I could give him on how to read the Bible.

But when she asked, I realized, reading a book on his own may not be the most helpful thing. What he needs is someone to actually work with him in learning how to read and study the Bible.

In other words, he needs someone to disciple him.

If I were doing this what would I work through with him? Francis Chan’s Multiply. As I said when I reviewed it at the beginning of the year, this isn’t really a book for individual reading—it’s a discipleship tool, and a really good one at that.

But can I be really honest? I’m terrified of even suggesting the idea to him. Why? Because discipleship is hard. There’s the time commitment, sure, but it’s the emotional investment… and the risk of failure. I’ve had mixed results in my efforts to disciple some other young men in the past (some of which I absolutely have to own), so it’s got me a bit nervous. What if I fail with this guy, too? What if he sees what the Bible says about any number of areas of life and says, “yeah, no”?

But maybe I’m overthinking it. And maybe this fear also brings to light something I need to remember myself: the results of any sort of discipleship relationship are not in my control. When I worry about “failing” this guy, what I’m really saying is I want to control the outcome. Or at a minimum, I want a guarantee that things will work out alright.

But God doesn’t give us those kinds of guarantees.

Nowhere does the Bible say that every relationship is going to result in good fruit. After all, the apostle Paul experienced this when men he considered his brothers in the faith and co-laborers abandoned him and turned against him—including Hymenaeus and Alexander whom he “handed over to Satan” so they might learn not to blaspheme (1 Tim. 1:20).

So why would I expect to have greater success than one of the authors of Scripture?

The thing I have to remember, again and again, is that I’m not responsible for the results of my efforts in this area. I can sow the seed, I can water, but only God is going to give growth. So that should probably be enough for me, shouldn’t it?

Get serious about your studies: how should you read the Bible?

Get-Serious-About-Your-Studies

This might seem like a strange subject to bring up at the (possible) end of a series, but it’s an important one.

A great deal of the discussion surrounding getting serious about our studies has been focused on different tools and learning aids—study Bibles, systematic theologies and technology. There’s so much I’ve not touched on (yet) including commentaries, original languages (although I’ve dealt with that elsewhere), Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias…

But there’s one thing I’d be totally remiss if I didn’t address this critical question:

How should you read your Bible?

What I’m talking about here is the science of hermeneutics, which is a big fancy word for “rules and principles for reading the Bible.” Whether we realize it or not, we do this every time we pick up our Bible—and the rules and principles we hold to drastically affect what we believe the Bible says. For example:

  • Whether you believe pastoral ministry is for men only or is open to women as well stems from the interpretive decisions you make.
  • How you approach the “God-hates-yet-loves-sinners” paradox is heavily influenced by your hermeneutical approach.[1. In fact, that I call it a paradox and not a contradiction itself is revealing of the interpretive rules I use!]
  • How you understand the world to have come into being and how this world will end is drastically affected by the principles you use for interpreting the text.

I could go on with numerous examples, but I trust you get the drift. Hermeneutics really, really matter—we all use rules and principles of interpretation so we are obliged to do our best to make sure the rules we use are sound. Read More about Get serious about your studies: how should you read the Bible?