Category Archives: Preaching and Teaching

When Preaching Fails

One of the books I’m reading for my upcoming class is a book that my teachers, David E. Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw, wrote titled Prodigal Christianity. One of the stories they tell in the book is about watching this street preacher stand for the truth (as he understand it) with boldness as he preaches, only to be rejected by the people he is preaching at. So the authors make this very good point:

“We acknowledge the need for grounding in truth, but when we are too quick to make bold pronouncements, we compromise our ability to witness because we have not truly entered into the cultural world to be with people: to listen to, seek God with, an learn from those with to whom we are witnessing” (p. 53).

Thanks to another preacher, John Dobbs, here’s a video of some other preacher that helps illustrate their point:

Similar to Fitch and Holsclaw, my friend Fred Liggen says that leadership requires listening, learning, and loving. He’s right. They’re right. Before were can lead others some place, which is what preaching seeks to do, we must listen to them, learn from them, and love them.

Preaching Christ!

I’m a preacher, so call me biased but I believe there’s a need for preaching in the church regardless of the logistics involved. I don’t believe that preaching alone is sufficient for making disciples of Christ but I do believe preaching necessary for the purpose of forming Christ in us. The question is then what kind of preaching fosters the formation of Christ in us?

Last week I was asked to speak to some other preachers on this very question. So some of what follows is condensed version of what I said.

We’ll begin with the assumption that preaching must be based upon the scriptures and faithful to what the scriptures say. But is that all? Certainly not! Preaching must always proclaim Christ!

One of the first professors I ever had at Harding University, Dr. Dan Stockstill, used to say, “What we win them with is what we win them too.” In twelve years of ministry, I’ve seen nothing to suggest he was wrong. I remember a man who wanted me to know that his church was the only right church because they read from the King James Version only and interpreted the apocalyptic passages from Daniel and Revelation correctly. He obviously seemed won to his particular dogma or hobby-horse rather than Christ because that is what animated him, what he wanted to talk about and convert me to. We have to remember that if we are going to make disciples of Christ and expect preaching to foster the formation of Christ then our preaching must proclaim Christ!

The goal here is the proclamation of Christ so that God may call his people into the life of Christ as participants of the story Christ reveals to us which is the redemptive mission of God. There’s a lot there and it seems like a tall order to fill because it is. However, here are two criterions which I believe can help maintain preaching as the proclamation of Christ requires:

  1. Gospel-Centered. According to 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, the gospel is of “first importance” because it is about the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ “according to the scriptures.” That is to say, the gospel belongs to the story of which the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ is the climax. Gospel-centered preaching always connects the text to this larger story in light of Christ himself and the life he lives. Gospel-centered preaching is always rooted in this story so that it may point us toward our role and responsibility within this story as we become a living embodiment of all that the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ is. And yes, it’s an ongoing endeavor.
  2. Grace-Oriented. According to Titus 2:11-14, it is the grace of God that teaches people to say “No” to sin and live godly lives filled with hope and eager to do good works. Fear may temporarily motivate us to renounce sin and pursue righteousness but fear only works so long as fear continually employed. Further more, fear does not develop maturity where we learn to live as participants in the gospel story because it’s what we believe in and what we desire in our hearts. right themselves simply because it pleases God. Grace oriented preaching always remind us that it is God at work, who is bringing this story we are participants of to its final conclusion (telos). It is grace-oriented preaching that helps us learn to follow Jesus further into the gospel story as we trust him and obey him; obedience is always a response to the grace of God, not a condition.

It’s not always easy to preach Christ as I have described here. I’m still learning how to do it consistently but I believe such preaching is ever so needed in churches today. I’ll end by recommending one book that I believe is very helpful in helping us learn preach Christ as I have in mind here: John W. Wright, Telling God’s Story: Narrative Preaching for Christian Formation, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007.

This Is God!

I’ve not blogged much of late because I’m very busy working on a paper for a class. But I thought I would share with you a video of me preaching :-).

This is a sermon I preached before the Picayune Church of Christ in Picayune, Mississippi on Sunday, April 13, 2014. The message is titled “This Is God!” and it is based on the text from Exodus 3:1-10.

“The good news comes to us as a promise so that we can endure with hope. And we’re able to endure because we know that suffering and death will not be the final word of life. Jesus has not only died but Jesus has been raised from death and has been exalted as the Lord. And therefore the last word, the word that endures is the promise of life in Jesus Christ.

“…So I don’t know what you’ve been told about who God is but right here in this passage in the Bible, God does tell us who he is. And God reveals himself as the Holy Creator, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, who comes to deliver, to rescue, to redeem!”

A Good Minister of Christ Jesus

When I was a student at Harding University, I belonged to the “Timothy Club.” [1] This was a group for those preparing to serve as ministers of the gospel named after the Apostle Paul’s protégé Timothy. The club provided further encouragement and mentoring for ministry students beyond the college classroom. And all of these students, including myself, believed God had called us to serve as ministers and was preparing us for that task so that he may send us out. [2]

Leaders Among the Church

Paul wrote Timothy saying, “If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching you have followed” (1 Tim 4:6). Space will not permit much analysis of what “these things” are. However, the passage hints at the great responsibility Paul expected of Timothy and under different yet similar circumstances, I believe Paul expected the same of Titus.

Whether we call them ministers, evangelists, or else, the work of Timothy and Titus was a continuation of what Paul began in helping establish the churches in Ephesus and Crete.  From a cursory reading of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, this ministry involved preaching and teaching as well as administrative work, all for the purpose of building up the churches as God’s holy people. For example, when it came to addressing the concerns of widows, Paul told Timothy to “Give these commands” [2] to the church (cf. 1 Tim 5:7, NRSV).

As a minister of Christ Jesus, this responsibility comes from Jesus himself. While all good ministry involves communal discernment, it is not a responsibility subject to the church’s approval but for the sake of the church — so that the church may continue participation in the mission of God. Both Timothy and Titus were sent as leaders among the church… not the only leaders, as they were to appoint elders and deacons (cf. 1 Tim 3:1-13; Tit 1:5-9), but leaders nonetheless.

The Need for Ministers

Churches today find themselves among a drastically different historical context and sometimes facing very different issues. Nevertheless, even though the circumstances are different, churches still need a minister of the gospel like Ephesus and Crete needed Timothy and Titus. Churches need ministers who spend time drinking from the deep well of God’s word so that they may preach and teach the scriptures, always pointing the church in the way of Jesus. Likewise, churches need these ministers acting administratively so that God’s people may, as followers of Jesus, increasingly become living expressions of the scriptures.

Whether a minister serves in the role of a “lead” or “senior” minister or in other specialized roles, such as a“youth” or “children’s” minister, they serve with the church as ministers called and sent by God to the church. Whatever fiscal arrangements are made for supporting a minister, these provisions should not bear upon the minister’s spiritual responsibility. This is not to suggest that there are never circumstances in which a minister has lost the ability to serve but to say that a minister’s service should not be reduced to employment.

Like elders, deacons, and even the church, ministers are not perfect. However, a good minister, one who understands the responsibility as working for God, has spent years learning and continues learning. Like Timothy, a good minister nourishes “on the truths of the faith” and has a good sense regarding what is necessary for building the church up. Likewise, a good minister is not defined by the approval of the church but whether or not that minister remains committed to that “good teaching” from the word of God.

A Final Word

There is so much more to say about the responsibility of a minister. However, in closing this essay, remember Paul’s encouragement to Timothy saying, “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God…” (2 Tim 2:6). The greatest service a minister can offer the church is to do just this.

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  1. This post is dedicated to my fellow Compadres (you know who you are), who serve God and the church as ministers of the gospel. Keep up the great work!
  2. A similar article is published as the same title in Connecting 29 (March 20, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ.
  3. The word paraggellō involves making an announcement and is an expression used throughout the New Testament in an authoritative sense, see Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3d ed., rev. Frederick William Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 760.

Combative Emails: How Do We Respond?

Last Sunday you preached a real challenging message, taught a Bible class that really challenged a long-held traditional belief on a particular passage, made an announcement that is not appreciated by everyone, etc… Now you open your church email account and in your inbox is one of those emails. You know the kind of email I’m talking about… The email comes from a church member who means well but nevertheless is chocked full of emotion and criticism, correcting your wrong interpretation of scripture with enough proof-texts to create a topical index of the Bible.  I call them combative emails because they’re usually the critical kind of emails that are screaming for a combative response.

Don’t!

Let me say that again: Don’t!

Sympathetically, I don’t envy you one bit. I’ve received my share of combative emails during my ministry. It’s easy and very tempting to fire back a response, defending your message and correcting this person’s take on things. That’s a natural reaction because for many people, including myself, our response when challenged is to go on defense. But I have learned that this is normally a poor-defensive strategy and one that is likely only to create further problems. So what should the response be?

There are several things to consider before making any kind of response:

  • Wait awhile! The first and most important thing you can do is wait. Give yourself some time to think and reflect on what the person is and is not saying. This way you avoid making a reply that is emotionally reactive and likely only to make matters worse.
  • Let it go! Not every battle is worth fighting. This is true of any relationship, like our marriages and it is certainly true for ministry as well. Some issues are not worth the time it takes to discuss them and sometimes, the battle is not worth the price it will cost in the end. Furthermore, there’s not much wisdom in discussing a matter with someone if that person has proven themselves to be unreasonable and close-minded.
  • Tell ‘em thanks! In most cases, the writer of an email like this would at least like to know that you received the email and read it. So a short and simple reply telling the person “Thanks!” will help a lot. You might even suggests that after having some time to think about their concerns more, that perhaps they would like to get together and talk over some coffee or lunch. In all likelihood, the person who sent you the email just wanted to be heard and this will oblige him or her while defusing something that could become very disastrous. And use discretion about any further engagement by emails.
  • Talk face to face! There are occasions where things are said and done that must be addressed. Whether it’s a misunderstanding, an accusation, or else, if it is possible then the best way to handle the matter is to arrange a time to sit down and talk face to face. Generally, I think it’s ok to arrange such a meeting by email or phone but that is it. Save the discussion for some conversation over a good cup of coffee or a warm bowl of soup. In this way, by seeing each others face, you remind each other that this is a conversation between two Christians and that allows you to speak in ways that builds each other up.

These I have learned the hard way… And I’m still learning.

There is one more suggestion I have and it has to do with fostering immaturity. I have found that these combative emails of reflect immaturity on the part of the sender, especially when the emails are accusatory and are full of incoherent arguments that proof-text the Bible at will. It’s unfortunate that such immaturity exists among Christians but the greater tragedy is to foster such immaturity by resorting to the same tactics in response. My suggestion is don’t! By doing so, you are simply telling the other person that it’s ok to act this way and it will not serve any purpose except to create more problems… including a giant headache. There have been a couple of occasions, where I refused to even respond and acknowledge my receiving of an email, choosing instead to go directly to that person. If they can’t handle that then there isn’t any conversation to have on the matter they want to address.

So what suggestions do you have for responding to people who send combative emails?

Repost: Those Noble Bereans

I’ve been really busy this week and have not had the time to blog much, so let me share a post from a few years back titled Those Noble Bereans. The post is about how we read our Bibles, a subject that is of interest to me.

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In the Churches of Christ, there has been a great admiration for the Bereans. We have admired these Bereans for their “back to the Bible” legacy and for good reason. In Acts 17.11-12 we read:

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. As a result, many of them believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.*

For clarification sake, it should be noted before going any further that the scriptures these Bereans were examining was what we Christians refer to as the Old Testament. There wasn’t any such thing as the New Testament yet.

So this passage in Acts 17 has been the oft cited proof-text encouraging the examination of the scriptures to test whether what is being preached is truth. Like I said, there is good reason for carrying on the legacy of these Bereans and I want to encourage every one of us to read the Bible, study the Bible, and let the Bible reveal the living God and his will to us.

However, it also seems that this passage has been cited for the wrong reasons at times too–not all the time, just sometimes. Here is what I am getting at. While praising the legacy of the Bereans for their examination of scripture, there has been a tendency to overlook the disposition of the heart with which the Bereans examined the scriptures. Let’s read our passage again but pay attention to what else it tells us (which I have emphasized in italics):

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. As a result, many of them believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.

These Bereans were both listening to the message being preached by Paul and Silas as well as examining the scriptures with an open mind and open heart. That is why they were able to receive the message “with great eagerness” and “As a result” come to belief. This means they were not examining the scriptures just to prove Paul wrong.

As a Christian, I believe we should be reading our Bible’s but I also believe it should be done with an open mind and heart. That is the legacy of the Bereans. However, I fear that this passage is sometimes cited–and I’ve heard it cited nearly all of my life–to justify an approach to scripture that simply seeks to prove others wrong. If this is our approach to scripture, I think we will succeed in accomplishing our goal every time we try. One of the things I’ve learned over time is that when we open our Bible just to prove something or someone wrong, in almost every instance we will find what we are looking for whether the Bible really says it or not.

Thus, as I said in my last post, “As Christians we can be people who have a strong faith in Jesus Christ but are humble enough to remain learners and know that some of our views regarding the Christian faith might be wrong. This requires us to never become complacent about what we’ve learned or where we are at in the way we live in the footsteps of Jesus. It requires an openness to God’s work through the Holy Spirit as we pray, read scripture, join in fellowship with other Christians, and listen to other voices so that we can hear a word from God that we have yet to hear.”

This is what it is to honor the way of the Bereans. So yes, be like the Bereans, reading and studying our Bibles but also be like the Bereans, reading and studying our Bibles with an open mind and heart.

Preaching and the Mission of God

Per the request of a few people, I am uploading the paper I wrote for my first Doctor of Ministry class at Northern Seminary, Missional Ecclesiology, with Dr. David Fitch. I have reformatted the paper as a single-space, 13-page pdf.document.

This paper, which I have titled Preaching and the Mission of God, critically examines my own practice of preaching within the Columbia Church of Christ as we strive to participate in the mission of God. I begin by describing the doctrinal and ecclesiological formation of the Churches of Christ in order to understand how this bears upon my own preaching. Following this, I explore this formation in light of the cultural transition from a modern and Christendom culture, which the ethos of the Churches of Christ emerged in, to a postmodern and post-Christendom culture. The paper the turns with a focus on the mission of God and the role the church is to play within this mission in order to understand how I must engage in the practice of preaching.

Though the paper focuses on my own practice of preaching, I hope it will help others think critically about the practice of preaching — especially those who minister among Churches of Christ. So here is the paper:

Preaching and the Mission of God