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6 Reasons Pastors Need Learning Communities

Most pastors understand the importance of learning continually. There’s just so much you have to know to be an effective pastor, and the rapid pace of change in the modern world has only made that more difficult. So the pastors I’ve known all push themselves to keep learning and growing. Excellent.

The problem is with their approach.

Focused student reading book

With just a few exceptions, most of the pastors I know take a self-directed, independent approach to their continuing education. They stay sharp by reading books, listening to sermons, and preparing to teach others. They’re constantly learning, but mostly on their own.

And there’s nothing inherently wrong with independent learning. Most of the greatest minds in history did the bulk of their learning on their own. I do the same.

Interestingly though, few pastors would advise the average Christian to do the bulk of their studying/learning alone. That’s why we encourage people to join small groups, Bible studies, Sunday school classes, and more. But as pastors, we seem to think that we’re above all that, skilled enough to do it on our own. Sure we’ll throw in the occasional pastors conference, but that’s about it.

And although there’s tremendous value to independent learning, there are some inherent dangers as well. Dangers which suggest that we should supplement our independent learning with some good, old-fashioned group learning. In other words, pastors need learning communities too.

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When Servant Leadership Goes Wrong

Christian leaders are called to be servants. We understand that. After all, Jesus made it pretty clear that he wanted leaders who would follow his example as one who touched lepers, washed feet, and bore the burdens of a broken world.

But what if being a servant isn’t always a good thing? Or, said a little differently, what if there are various ways to be a servant, and some of them aren’t quite what Jesus had in mind?

A while back I asked a group of teenagers to discuss which of Marvel’s Avengers best exemplified the biblical idea of a servant. And quite a few of them went with Tony Stark (aka Iron Man). After all, he dedicates a considerable portion of his wealth to helping humanity, and he routinely puts his own life on the line to save random strangers. And to top it all off, at the end of Avengers (spoiler alert!), he sacrifices his own life to save the world. You can’t get much more Jesus-like than that! (Granted, he didn’t actually succeed in sacrificing his life, but he gets points for trying.)

For many of my students, then, Tony Stark exemplifies servanthood. But here’s the problem: Stark only exemplifies a particularly dangerous and toxic form of servanthood, but it’s the one that we often find the most attractive.

[This is the beginning of my most recent post over at Pastors Today. Check it out and let me know what you think.]

The Danger of the Overly Simple Sermon

Simplicity concept.Many sermons are a lot like popular sitcoms. And I’m not referring to the fact that pastors seem to think that a good sermon has to start with something funny, although that’s an interesting connection in its own right. I have something else in mind, something deeper.

As many have pointed out, sitcoms are great for suggesting that even the most complex problems can be resolved in just 30 minutes. It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s betrayal, innocent suffering, finding a soul-mate, or social injustice, give a sitcom thirty minutes of your time and they’ll present you with a gift-wrapped solution for whatever ails you.

Of course, we’re smart enough to recognize that sitcoms are more about entertainment than edification. So we don’t worry too much if they over-simplify the complexities of life.

But what about when we hear the same thing in a sermon?

That’s the beginning of my most recent post over at Christianity.com. Check it out and let me know what you think. Thanks!

We Won’t Solve Biblical Literacy with Bible Trivia

For some time now, people have been rightly concerned about the trajectory of biblical literacy. Talking to those who have been teaching Bible/theology for many years, they all say that one of the greatest challenges they face is that people just don’t know the Bible like they used to. So they spend far more time teaching basic biblical literacy and consequently less time building on that foundation.

And it’s a real problem, one that affects people’s ability to understand the whole scope of what the Bible has to say, how that relates to individual stories and verses, and how all of it connects to the challenging issues that people face every day.

But it’s a problem that we will not solve by mastering Bible trivia.

from Wikipedia

from Wikipedia

I had a conversation a while back with someone who was a little frustrated after hearing a Bible teacher lament the decline of biblical literacy. The teacher had asked the study group a few questions, and after no one seemed the know the answers, made several comments about the state of the church and lack of attention to solid Bible teaching. But the person I was talking to was frustrated and confused because she had grown up in a church with solid Bible teaching and did not consider herself to be biblically illiterate. So what was going on?

The problem was that the teacher was focused more on mastery of Bible trivia than real biblical literacy. For example, one of the questions he asked was which gospel is the only one to record the parable of the workers in the vineyard (the one where they all get paid the same). I can’t remember all of the other questions, but they were along the same lines. For this teacher, failing to know details like this means that you don’t really know your Bible.

I have at least three problems with this.

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Don’t Outsource Your Sermon Prep

BrainstormingWe’ve all experienced that “back against the wall” scenario: a week that didn’t go as planned—crises appearing from nowhere as crises are most likely to do—and study time set aside in the face of more urgent tasks. Now exhausted and distracted, you sit at your desk staring at a stubbornly incomplete sermon. You may even begin to wonder if people will notice whether you just rehash a sermon you preached a few years back. Change the title and some key illustrations and surely they won’t notice. Right?

Sunday looming, another solution presents itself. With just a few clicks and some creative searching, you could access the entire wealth of the internet: blog posts, commentaries, even entire sermons. You could be done in less than an hour, leaving space for some badly needed time with your family.

Maybe just this once.

This is the beginning of a guest post I wrote for Pastors Today, a new blog for pastors from Lifeway. Head over there to read the rest and interact with some thoughts from Augustine on outsourcing sermon preparation.

On Preaching “To the Men”

I want you to imagine something with me. Pretend that I have a son and a daughter. They’re very different people, but they’re both amazing. And they both need to hear something important.

son and daughter (550x367)

So every year I sit down with them for a family chat. I know they’ve heard this before, but it’s a big deal. So I emphasize the need to listen, and then I plow right in.

Son, men are important. They matter. They have an important role to play in church, family, and society because God has called them to be godly leaders in the world. So you need to find men who will encourage you toward greater godliness. You have a tremendous responsibility.

And honey, you need to pray for your brother because of the challenges he faces.

I’m sure you see the contrast. You may agree with everything that I said, but you’re still wondering: Why would I take time out to emphasize that my son is important and that God has called him to godliness without saying anything similar to my daughter? What kind of father would do something like that year after year?

I don’t know. But I see it in churches all the time. And it needs to stop.

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Accidental Worship Heresies

mistake (200x300)aYou know that moment when the words leave your mouth and there’s nothing you can do to get them back? You’re not alone.

In a post over at The Village Church, Michael Bleeker shares what happened when he asked worship leaders to tweet stories of their “accidental worship heresies,” things they’ve either said or sang in a worship service that didn’t exactly come out the way they intended. And it’s an impressive list.

Among my personal favorites:

  • Misquoted Col. 3:16 as, “psalms, hymns and spiritual thongs” while officiating one of my best friend’s wedding. (I don’t even want to think about what a “spiritual thong” would be.)
  • “I thy great father and thou my true son,” during Be Thou My Vision. (For some reason, I don’t think the church has ever officially declared it a heresy to claim to be God’s father.)
  • “I’d rather have silver than Jesus or gold.” (Now that’s just silly. Who would rather have silver than gold?) Continue Reading…

4 Reasons You Preach on Poverty at Your Own Risk

Some topics intimidate preachers. And that’s actually a good thing. When preachers realize they’re handling a difficult issue, they know to be careful, aware of the hazards on every side. The problem comes when someone launches confidently into a sermon without realizing the complexities of their topic. That’s like boldly flying your spaceship into an asteroid field, blissfully unaware that your odds of survival are only 3,720 to 1.

poverty poor homeless wealth money economics

In the last few weeks, I’ve heard several people do this with sermons on poverty. It’s as though we think poverty is a relatively simple topic, something that you can handle in a single, 30-minute sermon. Just offer some thoughts on the importance of hard work, make sure you point out that we’re supposed to be nice to poor people, and you’re good to go. After a clever introduction, several amusing anecdotes, and some interesting asides, you should be able to handle the issue of poverty in the twenty minutes you have left.

At that point, you’re not just flying through an asteroid field, but you’re doing it at the fastest possible speed. Don’t be surprised when you get crushed into oblivion.

Here are four reasons that preachers should include poverty on their list of topics to handle with extreme caution. I’m not suggesting that we avoid the topic, quite the opposite. I think we should preach on poverty regularly. After all, God has a lot to say about the subject. But it’s far from a simple topic.

This is the beginning of my most recent post over at Christianity.com. Please head over there to read the rest.

Use Your Analogies Wisely

stuffed animal toy analogy metaphor preachingAnalogies are tricky. Used properly when preaching, they illuminate. But they can also mislead. That’s because every analogy has the ability to say more than we want. If my daughter says that I’m a bear, she may only mean that I’m big and cuddly. But someone could hear that analogy and conclude that I sleep a lot during the winter, mark my territory by leaving big claw marks on nearby trees, or eat hikers when I get bored. If she’s not careful about how she’s using the analogy, people could walk away with all kinds of weird ideas.

Every analogy is an opportunity for both insight and confusion.

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If You Can’t Explain Something Simply, Maybe It’s Not Simple

Simplicity is often the handmaid of clarity. I spend much of my time encouraging students toward greater clarity in writing. And that usually means shortening sentences, eliminating paragraphs, and sometimes slashing entire sections. In communication, less is usually more.

But sometimes I think we forget that in this relationship simplicity is the servant, not the master. When we make simplicity a goal in itself, it becomes the enemy of clarity.

Einstein’s Dictum

We’ve all experienced it: the belabored “explanation” that confuses more than it clarifies. I remember my high school chemistry teacher explaining a concept. It was something I’d actually learned about in a math class the year before, and thought I had a pretty good handle on it. But by the time he was done, I was thoroughly confused. That’s right, his explanation was so bad it actually caused me to un-learn something.

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