Category Archives: Leadership

A Little Musing on Sermon Preparation for Pastors and the Church

I’m a pastor who preaches. Like many other pastors, most Sundays I will be preaching a message to the church I serve. I’ve been doing this for over twenty years now and still love doing so. Although I cringe sometimes when I read some of the sermons I wrote when I was younger, I’m thankful to God for his grace upon both myself and the churches I have preached to.

preaching-errorsAlthough my approach to preaching has changed over the years, the message strives to faithfully take what the scripture says and bring it to bear upon the life of the church. This is so much more than just exegeting a passage of scripture. You see, I believe that preaching is a way of helping lead the local church in following the way of Jesus by proclaiming the word of God as both a pastoral affirmation and/or prophetic declaration that is an invitation and challenge spoken in love and seasoned by humility, grace, and truth.‬ While that work is dependent upon the Holy Spirit, it does require sermon preparation on both the part of the pastor and church.

Preparation in preaching begins with following Jesus. Both the pastor and church must share a commitment in living as a community of disciples. How can a pastor lead people in following the way of Jesus if the pastor isn’t striving to follow Jesus? How can a church follow the way of Jesus if those who gather together on Sunday as the church are not following Jesus? I begin here because we all know examples of nominal Christianity in America, examples of Christianity in which consumerism, nationalism, and traditionalism have eclipsed the mission of God. Such idols obscure our eyes and hears from seeing and hearing the gospel. So good sermon prep begins by following Jesus in seeking first the kingdom of God (cf. Mt 6:33).

Preparation for the pastor also involves listening to people and reading books. First, let me say that reading theology, philosophy, etc… does not mean ignoring scripture or regarding the Bible as deficient in some manner. What reading does is allow the consideration of perspectives that otherwise might go unnoticed, cultivating a depth of knowledge and wisdom that shapes the message being proclaimed. In my own experience, such reading opens space for seeing more clearly how God might be at work in the world so that the church might continue participating with God in that work. However, in addition to reading and the exegesis of scripture, I am convinced that good preaching requires time spent with people, listening to their desires, struggles, and so forth. Listening to people is how the Spirit, in revealing the things of God (cf. 1 Cor 2:10), enables us to hear the word of God as a word to the people who will hear his word preached.

As suggested earlier, good sermon preparation isn’t just the work of the pastor. The believers who will gather for worship to hear the word of God proclaimed also have some preparation to do as well. The, whether as a monologue or dialogue, is not a passive occasion just to receive a “booster shot” for the week ahead. If preaching, as I contend, is to help the church follow in the way of Jesus, then our preparation as hearers of God’s word begins with the regular prayer of the psalmist, “Teach me your way, Lord, so that I can walk in your truth” (Ps 86:11).

Good preaching will always proclaim the word of God that we need to hear, which is not necessarily the word we will always want to hear. While hearing that word of God is impossible apart from the Spirit, preparation is a means in which the Spirit works so that pastors will have a message to preach that the church will hear. 

Like A Servant: The Necessity of Character in Christian Leadership

If you’ve know me, then you know I read a lot. Mostly a wide range of books relating to theology and Christian ministry but some philosophy and social-culture too. Most pastors I know are also readers and frankly, it’s hard to imagine serving as a pastor without reading. I say this because reading a book is like having the author as a conversation partner forcing you to consider an idea or perspective that otherwise might remain hidden.

Leadership Concept

So within the broad category of theology and Christian ministry, I aim to read at least one book per year on leadership that I believe will help me serve as a better pastor. Of the books I’ve read, the best is Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve, 2007. Besides Friedman, other authors I’ve read and recommend include Alan Roxburgh, Mark Lau Branson, and Ruth Haley Barton.

Reading books on leadership increases an understanding of the challenges as well as the practices and skills to navigate those challenges. That said, as necessary as good practices and skills are to leadership, equally necessary for good leadership is good character. We live in a time when there are numerous examples of leadership failure, in churches and other segments of society, that seem rooted in a lack of character. Sometimes it almost seems as if character is unimportant so long as competency is evident. I don’t want to devalue competency but let’s be certain that a lack of character is a recipe for disaster.

By character I’m talking about the qualities a leader exhibits, especially in relation to the community organization he or she serves among. The word “serves” is of utmost importance for the character of Christian leadership. I say that because my point of departure for the way pastors and other Christian leaders serve is Jesus, whose life was that of a servant. Rather than employing top-down coercive or manipulative tactics, Jesus led by example and invitation.

During the last Passover Meal Jesus shared with his disciples, he heard them arguing about who among them was the greatest. So Jesus quickly responded saying in Luke 22:25-27, “The kings of the Gentiles rule over their subjects, and those in authority over them are called ‘friends of the people.’ But that’s not the way it will be with you. Instead, the greatest among you must become like a person of lower status and the leader like a servant. So which one is greater, the one who is seated at the table or the one who serves at the table? Isn’t it the one who is seated at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”

Just think about the difference between leaders who see themselves first as a servant and those who think their position ranks them above others. A servant leader seeks what is best for others rather than what serves his or her own agenda. A servant leader seeks to build others up and equip them for service, the other one often see others as just a means to their own end. Such a disposition doesn’t hinder the servant leader from taking a stand for what is right, it just means the stand isn’t self-serving.

To lead as a servant also impacts the way the leader relates to others. A servant leader isn’t concerned with stroking his own ego. The servant leader sings the praises of others, sees the potential in others and seeks to draw that out for the sake others. When mistakes are made, the servant leader take responsibility rather than blaming others. And let’s not be naive, there will always be someone who criticizes the decisions and actions of a leader. Rather than belittling and disparaging the critics, the servant-leader presses forward with discernment. If the servant-leader realizes the criticism is warranted, her or she owns it and if its unfair or baseless, the servant leader lets it go and moves on.

The character of good leadership begins with becoming a servant. And this is especially so among the church, where all serve under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, who said those who lead must become “like a servant.”

Reflections on Church Leadership During the Covid-19 Coronavirus Pandemic

More than a month has passed since the church I serve, the Newark Church of Christ, decided to stop gathering together during this Covid-19 Coronavirus pandemic. I must admit that when we first made the decision, I wondered what would become of our church. If we are not able to gather together for several months, I wondered if there would we even be a church left. Of course, as soon as this wave of anxiety came over me, so did my leadership reflexes.

Worship Center

The first rule of good leadership is don’t be anxious. Don’t panic and don’t give a foothold to the devil of anxiety. Yes, what we are going through makes for more difficulties but panicking amid anxiety either results in doing nothing or making an anxious decision. Neither of which is helpful and most likely would only make matters worse.

Like many churches, we began streaming online worship gatherings. However, as important as worship is, there is more to living as a church than just worship. If we’re to bear each others burdens, love our neighbors, and join in the work we see God doing—participating in the mission of God—then we remaining connected with each other was paramount.

So one of the things we’ve done as a church is begin including two short videos of different people from our church in each online streaming of worship on Sundays. These videos have allowed us to hear from each other and have helped remind us that we are a community, a family of believers called “church” in this life together. We have also began organizing online connection groups so that we could meet during the week for encouragement and continue growing in our formation as followers of Jesus. So using Zoom, Google Meet, etc… we spend some time checking in on what we are thankful for and concerned about, and then we spend some time in scripture but not just for the sake of Bible study. Instead, as we come to understand what God is teaching us in scripture, we want to embody that teaching in the way we live.

     “But I have been reminded that church is neither a building, place, or time. Church is people following Jesus and that’s what we are.”

In the meantime, our church still seeks to love our neighbors. Loving God and each other through worship and fellowship matters but so does serving and caring for people in our community. One opportunity was preparing sack lunches for people who might otherwise go hungry. Now our church is receiving shipments of masks that we are going to distribute within our community where there is need. And as we see other opportunities to the good works that God is doing, we’ll gladly do so as followers of Jesus.

Oh me of little faith… I initially wondered if we would even have a church after this pandemic. But I have been reminded that church is neither a building, place, or time. Church is people following Jesus and that’s what we are. So as a pastor, even though helping lead the church during this pandemic has required some adjustments, I have also realized that leadership is still much the same. That is, I serve as a minister of the gospel and so my role is still that of what any pastor’s role should be: helping the church hold to the gospel and allow the gospel to frame our way of life as a church. As that happens, we will continue participating in the mission of God as followers of Jesus.

What the results are is neither in our control nor something we need to worry about as church. The same is true for the church you serve among too. But perhaps the eyes of those living in our local towns and neighborhoods will be opened to see real community taking shape among our churches as we embody the gospel. And if that’s the case then we’ll see the church growing as it should, with the seed of the gospel pollinating and blooming anew.

The Witness of Preaching The Word.

If you’re a pastor then one of your responsibilities likely includes some preaching and the same is true for me. You may not preach every Sunday or maybe you’re a student pastor who speaks at a gathering of high school students every month. Whatever your role as a pastor among your church is, you understand the importance sharing a word from God in the scriptures when the time comes. As the apostle Paul says, “Preach the word…” (2 Tim 4:2).

preachingWhen it comes to preaching, most of us understand the importance of preparation. We’ve read a few books on the subject of homiletics, we’ve learned the skills of exegeting a biblical text and reflecting theologically on that text. More importantly, we know that tending to our own faith is important if we are to preach from a life of authenticity. That is, we know that we must be disciplined in living as a follower of Jesus ourselves if we are going to preach messages that ultimately are asking people to place their trust in Jesus and follow him.

That’s all good and I don’t want to diminish the importance of sermon prep and tending to our own faith at all. However, I do want to talk about another aspect of good sermon prep that doesn’t seem to get as much attention. I’m talking about the being with other people, which is both very pastoral and, as I will try to explain, necessary for good preaching.

In his book Faithful Presence, David E. Fitch writes about the way God is present in the world and the church is the people whom God works through to make his presence known. That’s because the presence of God isn’t aways obvious and so “he requires a people tending to his presence to make his presence visible for all to see” (p. 27). Later in the book is a chapter devoted to the discipline of preaching and a part of that chapter is about the preacher.

The preacher must not stand over the community but must stand as one among the community being present to the people in the community’s midst, for it is in this space that Jesus is found. From this posture comes the practice of proclamation. This is not a rhetorical performance. This is proclamation of the gospel for the people gathered in Christ’s name in this space and in this time (p. 100).

In times where we hear too many stories of pastors who stand over the people as authoritarians because they have a large platform, that is worth reading again and again but I digress.

Besides taking time to engage in some exegesis of the text, an important and critical aspect of sermon prep is spending time with people. Whether that’s visiting someone in the hospital, spending some time in a local coffee house with a college student, or just enjoying some food and fellowship with a small group, this time spent with others is invaluable to preaching. Not only will it (and should it) help shape the focus and function  of our message (cf. Long, The Witness of Preaching, 3d ed., 2016) but it will also help us discern what biblical texts we might preach, whether we’re selecting from one of the lectionary readings or planning a themed sermon series.

When we spend time with others, listening to them we are able to discern where God might be working. This opens space for the intersection of the gospel with the lives we are living so that we all might reimagine how God is working in our lives both individually and as a church. This is why Fitch rightfully says that “Proclaiming the gospel is always contextual” (p. 103).

Now as a pastor, I understand that it’s impossible to spend equal time with everyone but spending time with people is more about the quality of that time than quantity. Are we attentively listening and observant as to how God might be working when we are with people? Another important question is to ask if we are even spending time with people? I don’t know that it’s a given practice of serving as a pastor anymore, which is a shame. But if you want to preach good sermons that help lead others in the way of Jesus, spend time with those people. Yes, still take the time to care for your own faith and carve time out in your schedule for engaging the biblical text exegetically and theologically but also take the time to be with the people whom God has entrusted to your pastoral care as you preach. When we do, we are able to be the witness in preaching the word.

A Word To The Church

The church has a problem with discipleship. But that’s nothing new. Most of the pastors I know are aware of the discipleship problem facing Christianity in America. What some may not realize is that the problem isn’t unique to us. Peek behind the curtains of the church from any time and place in history and I think we’ll see that discipleship was a challenge then just as it is now. Even in the New Testament this challenge existed, just go reread the apostle Paul’s letters we call Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, and Galatians.

youth-group-lessons-on-discipleship

Why is this important? It matters because it seems easy, perhaps even en vogue, to romanticize churches from other locations or periods of history as material for comparison against the worst problems of church in America. This is one of the major complaints I have regarding Francis Chan’s latest book Letters To The Church, 2018. Throughout the book Chan compares the attractional megachurch model in America with the cell-church or house-church models he has encountered in other countries, particularly throughout Asia. The problem is the idealism with which he paints the later so that he can contrast the seemingly worst characteristics of the attractional megachurch model in America with his romanticized view of the cell-church or house-church models.

Comparing the best against the worst of another is hardly fair but Chan also does so with little more than anecdotal evidence and an ad hoc (perhaps even post hoc) use of scripture. The result seems to suggest that if Christianity in America would just change, embracing the idealistic picture of the cell-church model, that churches would be making and forming disciples again. Now Chan, to his credit, seems to warn against reading his book like this (pp. 199-200) but it’s difficult to imagine how else we might read the book.

I’m not upset with Chan. I love his commitment to following Jesus which also, in his case, has meant a commitment to serving as a pastor. As a pastor myself, I know how trying this commitment can get at times. So my hat is off to Chan. I also agree with him that discipleship is a real challenging issue right now for Christianity in America. Consumerism, individualism, relativism, and probably a few other isms are a hinderance to following Jesus and we all, myself included,  struggle with these obstacles.

So what’s the solution? How do we face this challenge so that we might take more serious the call to live not just as church-going believers but as believers who are learning to follow Jesus on a daily basis?

Well, I don’t think we can just wipe the slate clean, so to speak, and start over. That is a myth inherited from the Enlightenment but no matter how much we try, we will still be shaped by the circumstances of our particular context. So although the Newark Church of Christ, whom I love serving as a pastor, is far from being the attractional-megachurch, it is still a more traditional church that gathers on Sunday’s in a worship space and then finds other opportunities for gathering together in prayer, community service, etc… And that’s okay! Could we do better? Of course, but God is still at work in this church through his Spirit, so I can’t just write off what God has done and is still doing.

Here’s what I can do and what you can do where you’re at, with the churches we participate among. Begin by observing how God has been at work and share those observations with a few others while considering what God might doing now and how the present work of God connects with the past for the hope of the future. In pastoral theology, this is called Appreciative Inquiry (recommendation: Mark Lau Branson, Memories, Hopes, and Conversations, 2004). When we begin to have a bigger sense of what God is doing among our church and where we sense that might be leading, consider how we might participate in that work as followers of Jesus and invite those others to join us on this journey. Let this journey be filled with prayer and scripture but let it also begin with where we’re at instead of succumbing to the apathy that gives up on our churches, writing them off as a hopeless cause. The apostle Paul never did that and neither should we.

I know what I’ve just suggested isn’t any quick-fix solution to the challenges we see in our churches and other churches. That’s because there aren’t any easy quick-fix solutions. The challenge of discipleship is great and requires more than just another simple step 1, 2, and 3 solution. I can’t promise that the road ahead will be easy because it probably won’t be but it is the way forward and the way of taking control over the one thing that God gives us the control over: our own decision to follow Jesus. So live as a follower of Jesus, serving as a pastor or whatever vocation God has called us to serve in, and as we invite others to come along the journey with us, they will come. Then we’ll be surprised at what the Lord has done in us!