How Pastors Can be Built to Last

Pastors are not quitters. Or at least, they don’t plan to be. Yet about 250 pastors leave their pulpits a month.

Most pastors don’t plan on quitting, but they also don’t plan not to. Unless pastors are built to last, they might find themselves burned out and beleaguered long before they planned on stepping down.

An aging and soon-to-be executed Apostle Paul once wrote to Timothy, his young protégé, to paint a picture of a pastor that’s built to last:

Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. — 2 Tim. 2:3-6

Paul challenges the young pastor to endure for the sake of the gospel. Paul knew that Timothy was going to face great resistance to much of what he had been commissioned to do. He knew Timothy would suffer for proclaiming his faith and telling people that Jesus was the only way to heaven.

So Paul gives Timothy three illustrations to help flesh out the kind of endurance he’s talking about. Paul paints pastors using the analogies of the dedicated soldier, the disciplined athlete, and the hardworking farmer. Each of these illustrations tells us something about what it takes to be the kind of pastor that’s built to last.

Read the rest of my article at Gospel-Centered Discipleship

3 Principles for Passing on the Gospel

Their stricken faces said it all. The men and women of the U.S. Olympic 400-meter relay teams were disqualified and in disbelief.

The U.S. had owned the 400 relay in years past. Now, in 2008, the teams hadn’t even qualified.

In just a thirty-minute span, both teams’ hopes were dashed at the fumbling of the third and final baton handoff. When you’re running a relay, the handoff is critical. Runners take extra care to ensure a smooth handoff because when they drop the baton, they don’t finish the race.

Christians have an even more important handoff to make: passing the gospel on to the next generation. Paul, arguably the most skilled believer aside from Christ to ever hand off the gospel, once instructed his young protégé Timothy in how to pass it on well, saying, “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).

Paul is challenging Timothy to pass on what he has heard to faithful men and women who also are able to pass it on. What has Timothy heard from Paul? The gospel. The truth of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

By this time in their relationship, Timothy would have seen Paul testify to this gospel hundreds of times. He also would have seen Paul pass it on hundreds of times. Paul understood the gospel does the next generation no good if it never receives it. The gospel is like a relay race; we’re either fumbling the handoff or ensuring it’s passed on with care.

In 2 Timothy 2:2, Paul summarizes his most critical advice for passing on the gospel in three principles.

Read the rest of my article at Gospel-Centered Discipleship

The Essence of a Gospel-Soaked, Faithful Teacher

How did we get to a place where Christians turn against Christians in the name of political power?

How did we get to a place where we demonize one another by oversimplifying our beliefs and convictions?

How did we get here? By quarreling over words and secondary matters to the neglect of what matters most; by not faithfully teaching and demonstrating those things which matter most. Without faithful teachers, God’s people have few, if any, guardrails against worldly pursuits and thinking.

But what does it look like to be a faithful teacher of God’s Word? In 2 Timothy 2, Paul paints three compelling pictures of a faithful teacher for his young protégé, Timothy: the unashamed worker, the clean vessel, and the Lord’s servant. Taken together, these three pictures convey the essence of a gospel-soaked, faithful teacher.

Read the rest of my article at Gospel-Centered Discipleship

Racism and Our Need for Repentance

At the T4G Conference this month, David Platt preached a sermon based on Amos 5:18-27 titled, “Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters: Racism and our Need for Repentance.” Be sure to read the verses in Amos before moving on.

Though he would prefer to talk about ethnicity instead of race, Platt spoke specifically about the white and black divide in America. According to one conference attendee, reactions were mixed. Mine was not. Platt simply called himself, his church, and evangelicals to live lives worthy of the gospel we have received (Philippians 1:27).

He asked long-overdue questions like, “Why is my church so white? Why is the missions organization I lead so white? … Why is this conference so white?”

Platt’s exposition (or interpretation of the text), indictments against and exhortations for the church are worth examining.

3 Indictments Against God’s People in the Face of Injustice

Amos, a shepherd-turned-prophet, indicted Israel, God’s people, on three primary offenses, according to Platt:

  1. They were eagerly anticipating future salvation while conveniently denying present sin.
    • It is possible to anticipate salvation tomorrow while turning a blind eye to sin in your life today.
  2. They were indulging in worship while they were ignoring injustice.
    • People who truly worship God above them will sacrificially work for justice around them.
  3. They were carrying on their religion while they were refusing to repent.
    • God is not honored by mouths that are quick to sing and hands that are quick to rise in worship when those same hands and those same mouths are slow to work against injustice.

These indictments led Platt to ask if we have been slow to work for racial injustice around us. His answer is “yes.” (Note: Platt was speaking directly to pastors.)

The Church Has Been Slow to Work for Racial Injustice

On a whole, Platt said, pastors and churches in America have widened and are currently widening, instead of bridging, the racial divide in our country. Here’s why he says that:

  1. It matters whether you’re black or white in America today.
    • “Why is it that I would say that Arthur Price is an African American pastor in Birmingham, instead of just saying that he is a pastor in Birmingham? I have never introduced John MacArthur as a caucasian pastor.”
    • Black Americans are much more likely to be unemployed than white Americans; income inequality today is 50% wider (worse) than it was 40 years ago; African American babies die at over twice the rate of white babies; African American mothers are 4 times more likely to die giving birth than are white mothers; young African American males are 6 times more likely to be murdered than young white American males.
  2. Over 95% of white Americans attend predominantly white churches; over 90% of African Americans attend predominantly African American churches.
    • Could it be that as much as we like to think about the church as a force for countering racism, right now the church is actually a force for continuing it?
    • “We cannot be comfortable as the people of God with a clear white/black divide in our country, and we can’t be content with deepening that divide in the church. It is not just, and it is not right. And we will not be found to be worshiping God if we ignore injustice, or far worse, increase it.”

6 Exhortations for Repenting of Racism in the Church

Based on his understanding of Amos 5 and the cultural analysis above, Platt offered six exhortations for the church.

  1. Let’s look at the reality of racism.
    • (The section above is what Platt covered here.)
  2. Let’s live in true multi-ethnic community.
    • I look at my life and ministry and in so many ways my world has been so white. … Why have the churches I’ve been a part of and led in been so white? Why is the missions organization I lead so predominantly white? How can I, with supposed zeal for the nations, be so blind to such injustice among peoples in my own nation? These are questions that I have, for far too long, ignored.” (Really appreciated his transparency here.)
    • “We all hate slavery. We all hate Jim Crow laws. Certainly, we cannot be content, then, with churches, seminaries, missions organizations, and conferences that look like time capsules preserving the divisive effects of the past.”
  3. Let’s listen to and learn from one another (in the context of true multi-ethnic community).
    • Most white and black people in the church disagree on what they think the causes of racism are, and Christians are farther apart in their understanding than non-Christians.
  4. Let’s love and lay aside our preferences for one another.
    • We want the kind of churches that cause people to say, “How are those people together?”
    • We can’t prioritize church growth over ethnic diversity.
    • Most multi-ethnic churches in the U.S. are still dominated by white cultural norms.
    • “We will not be found faithful before our God if fear of man and fear of losing the crowd keeps us from proclaiming the totality of God’s Word.”
  5. Let’s leverage our influence for justice in the present.
    • On a whole, white churches have been complacent during every stage of racism (slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, etc.).
  6. Let’s long for the day when justice will be perfect.

Reflections on Racism and the Church

Here are, in no particular order, some of my thoughts on Platt’s sermon and the concerns it raises. (Note: I’m a white male, so I’ll be speaking from that perspective, and for that reason, will only touch on what white Christians can do to repent of racism in the church.)

I think Platt was spot-on in his indictment of evangelical churches. For too long, our churches have furthered the divide between white and black brothers and sisters. White ignorance of the black experience has fueled the chasm between cultures.

Building a church culture that prizes diversity requires radical grace without losing the truth. I have been blessed to be at a church that’s far more diverse than many of the others in my area. The diversity stems from a culture saturated in the knowledge and practice of grace that accepts everyone who walks through the doors. Crafting a culture like that takes a relentless focus on grace, but in a way that doesn’t lose the truth in the process. An overemphasis on grace at the expense of the truth (or the commandments of Scripture) leads to what Bonhoeffer called cheap grace: “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”

White evangelicals must be shepherded through engaging their black brothers and sisters by servant leaders who will show them how. To Platt’s credit, he said that the final verdict on what white Christians in America do with the knowledge that we live in a culture of systemic injustice against people of color is not how loudly we clap or how many “amens” we shout, but how we sacrificially work for injustice around us.

But here’s the thing: most people have no idea what that means or what it looks like to work against injustice. They think that’s something for a professional or legal organization to do. What is needed are servant leaders who will display what it looks like to work against injustice by living it out in everyday life. We need white pastors who are willing to plant churches in non-white areas or to partner with black pastors and leaders to plan and fund their church plants. We need white families to open their homes and live out radically ordinary hospitality that gathers people of all sorts of backgrounds and colors around the table and the Word of God. We need young white men to seek out older, wiser African American mentors, and older white men to seek out young, African American men to mentor.

I have been working to address my white-washed experience for the last two years. The Lord has blessed my family the last couple of years as we’ve sought to diversify our life and relationships. For over a year, I walked through the truths of Scripture and a bible study curriculum with an African American brother who I count among my dearest friends. I learned how he fears for his son to be pulled over or questioned by police, a fear I have never felt. My wife and I attended an anniversary party with his wife, family, and friends where I was maybe for the first time in my life the unquestionable minority. It was an unequivocally good experience that left me with a deeper understanding of my brother and his background. I’ve been to his home, prayed for his kids, and texted him with running questions.

Around the same time, I sensed the need for a spiritual mentor in my life, and the Lord was good to send me to an older, wiser African American man who turned out to be my middle school guidance counselor. We’ve been connecting every other month or so for about a year. He walked with me through a career change, which was one of the most stressful periods of my life.

In our neighborhood, we’ve befriended an Indian family and shared meals in each other’s homes, and have learned how similar we are despite our differences. We’ve had a mother from Puerto Rico and her three children live in our home for a few weeks, which opened our eyes to the discouraging, bewildering worlds of public and social services.

I’m not holding myself or my family up as an example. I only share this to encourage others to pursue diversity in their own lives, because it’s a pursuit God will bless. Pray specifically for opportunities to diversify your life and for God to open your eyes to the opportunities that already exist.

Like Platt, I long for the day when justice is no longer a trickle but a torrent rushing through our lives and nation. Even more than that, I long for the day when people from every nation, tongue, and tribe gather around the throne of the Lamb as one race—the human race—worshiping our Creator in perfect peace.

Justice Will Roll Down

Sandra McCracken wrote a beautiful song from the same verses in Amos 5 called “Justice Will Roll Down.” I’ll leave you with the lyrics:

Oh my love, you have grown so cold
To the world outside, to the house next door
She who has been loved much, has so much to give
Mercy is the fragrance, of the broken

Justice will roll down, oh justice will roll down
From high upon those mountains with a mighty river sound
It will roll down
It will roll down

Oh my child, I will be your light
In your secret pain, in the dark of night
No enemy, no conqueror, will steal your life from me
I am your salvation, and your victory

Justice will roll down, oh justice will roll down
From high upon those mountains with a mighty river sound
It will roll down
It will roll down

Soon oh soon, when the trumpet sounds
Every knee shall bend, every heart will pound
I have made a new world, where the servant is the King
Oppression will be over, and the slave set free

Justice will roll down, oh justice will roll down
From high upon those mountains with a mighty river sound
It will roll down
It will roll down

 

Why Those Wise Men Shouldn’t Be in Your Nativity

And what this says about how we read the Bible

We all have one in our homes this time of year—a cute, cuddly nativity scene. There’s baby Jesus, of course, right in the middle, flanked by Mary and Joseph, a collection of donkeys and sheep, a few shepherds, perhaps an angel above, and, last but not least, the three wise men.

Let’s talk about those wise men. See, the thing is, if your nativity scene has wise men in it, it’s wrong.

Let’s revisit the story.

Revisiting the Christmas Story

Mary, fully pregnant and ready to give birth, finds herself riding a donkey beside her faithful husband, Joseph, as they make their way to Bethlehem in Jerusalem. After arriving in Bethlehem, they find there’s no room for them in the local inn, but there is a manger, or stable, that has some room.

Having nowhere else to go, Mary and Joseph cozy up in the manger alongside what would surely have been a variety of animals. Once inside, Mary gives birth to her firstborn, a son. But not just any son. This was the very Son of God. They name him Jesus after having received earlier instructions to do so.

Shortly after, angels appear to nearby shepherds and announce the good news that the Savior of the world has just been born. A choir of angels then appears and explodes into song, singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” Then, just as quickly as they came, the angels disappeared.

Understandably curious and awe-struck, the shepherds head off to Bethlehem to see this newborn boy. Once they arrive, they find the boy lying in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes.

Then, the wise men see a bright, shining star and start heading east, following it towards Jerus—not so fast.

The Case of the Missing Wise Men

This is where things go wrong. We assume the wise men were there at the manger because their story directly follows the birth narrative of Jesus in chapter 2 of Matthew’s Gospel. But our assumption leads us astray because the Bible never says the wise men were present at the birth. Instead, it says they visited Jesus when he was about two-years-old.

We know this from the tragic and gruesome details of Herod’s slaughter of young boys in Matthew 2. The wise men, in an epically unwise move, go to King Herod in Jerusalem to ask where the baby boy who is the new “King of the Jews” has been born.

Immediately sensing the threat to his throne and an opportunity to snuff out this newcomer, Herod plays along with the wise men. He tells them to go to Bethlehem and find this new King, then report his location so he could come and worship kill him. The wise men did find the baby boy, and, indeed, they brought him gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh. But they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so they went home a different way.

Herod, realizing he’s been duped by the wise men, then does what all dictators do when things don’t go their way—he starts killing people. Since he didn’t know which little boy to have killed, he orders every boy two-years-old and under to be killed.

This is how we know when the wise men came to visit Jesus: Herod ascertained the time when the star the wise men had been following appeared, then calculated how old the baby King would be. The answer was two-years-old, perhaps a bit younger.

See for yourself:

“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.” – Matt. 2:16

Okay, so now you know your nativity is wrong. At the end of the day, I’m not really concerned with whether or not you have the magi in your manger.

What I am concerned about is what this error reveals about how we read the Bible. In particular, it reveals three common problems with how we approach Scripture: we don’t read it for ourselves, we assume other people have read it for themselves, and we don’t see what we read.

We Don’t Read the Bible for Ourselves

Bible engagement is, to put it bluntly, abysmal, even within the church. You might even call it an epidemic. In my American culture where unfettered access to the Bible exists in a variety of formats, more than half of Americans have read little or none of the Bible. LifeWay Research, after their recent study of Bible reading, concluded Americans are fond of the Bible but don’t actually read it.

Scott McConnell, Executive Director of LifeWay Research, highlights the problem, saying, “Even among worship attendees less than half read the Bible daily. The only time most Americans hear from the Bible is when someone else is reading it.” In my experience, “when someone else is reading it” means when they hear a few verses read aloud as part of a weekend sermon.

The reason most of us think the wise men were at the manger is that most of us haven’t read the Bible for ourselves. We haven’t exposed ourselves to the text first-hand, let alone examined it. Most Americans seem content to live in Old Testament times where God’s Word had to come through the mouth of a prophet. Remarking on this trend, Francis Chan writes,

“A mentor of mine lives in India. Last year, he called me on the phone crying, distraught over the state of the church in America. ‘It seems like the people in America would be content to take a selfie with Moses. Don’t they know they can go up the mountain themselves? Why don’t they want to go up the mountain?’”

One of the reasons we don’t want to go up the mountain is because we assume the people we hear the Bible from went up themselves, which leads us to our second problem.

We Assume Other People Have Read the Bible for Themselves

Millions of people missing a small detail of the manger scene is only possible when those people assume others have read the Bible closely and will tell them what they need to know. Perhaps this is why “good Bible teaching” is most important to American churchgoers—we need good Bible teaching or we won’t get any Bible for the week.

Whether it’s teaching in a weekend service, small group, or Bible study, we assume the people talking the most have read the Bible for themselves. That assumption leads us to believe we can trust what they say about it. And even when they say something that sounds off, we haven’t read enough of the Bible to know where to check their understanding.

One of the big takeaways from LifeWay’s recent study was that “people who really like the Bible don’t necessarily really read the Bible.” If the statistics are true—and if we care deeply about our eternity—we would be wise not to assume people talking about the Bible have actually read it.

But what about those of us who do read the Bible? How have we read the birth narratives in Matthew 2 and Luke 2 without noticing the time gap between the shepherds and wise men? Because even when we read the Bible, we don’t see what we read.

We Don’t See What We Read

Of the small percentage of Americans who read the Bible, an even smaller percentage actually know how. Literacy—knowing how to read—is not the only skill needed to read a thousands-year-old collection of books written in ancient cultures by people from a world that looked vastly different than ours. Hermeneutics, or the science of interpreting ancient documents, is necessary for people in America in 2017 to read a book written in Rome or Israel thousands of years earlier, even if it doesn’t go by that name.

At a basic level, everyone in the church should have access to other, more mature believers who can show them how to rightly handle the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). The value in teaching something like hermeneutics is in helping Christians properly interpret what they’re reading in the Scriptures. The real goal, though, of hermeneutics is to train people to see the Bible.

Most of us read things at such a speed that we don’t notice much of what’s there. We miss context, innuendo, previous references, etc. We see so little because we don’t give ourselves time to look. We read through our passage so we can check the box on our reading plan, or swipe right in our Bible app.

If we want to learn to read the Bible, we must learn to see the Bible.

A Way Forward

Do you need to throw away your nativity if it has wise men? No. But you might need to chart a way forward with your own Bible reading habit. There are a few ways to get started.

First, read the Bible. Just read it. You won’t learn to love the Bible until you learn to read the Bible. So, tolle lege—take up and read!

Next, find someone to teach you how to read it well. If that’s not an option, make use of one of the great online resources available, like David Platt’s Secret Church on How to Study the Bible, or Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s class on Interpreting and Teaching the Bible.

Finally, pray for God to give you a hunger for the Bible. Ultimately, we don’t read the Bible because we don’t delight in reading it. Pray for that delight as you continue to immerse yourself in the wonders of the Word.

Please, don’t put your eternity in someone else’s hands. Read the Bible for yourself.