Whether from the outside or from the inside of the church, the Adversary will stop at nothing to try to disrupt and dismantle the body of Christ. But these struggles are not the demise of God’s people. On the contrary. They are our opportunities to apply biblical principles and priorities—the only solutions to the challenges we face.
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We must keep our fingers on the pages of Scripture like a boat moored to the pier in a raging storm. While we do not worship the print on the page, the paper and ink lead us to the knowledge of the One whom we do worship—Jesus, our Master and Savior.
We need to stay on our knees. As I wrote last week, prayer is a radical interference with the status quo. It is the means by which God grants power to those who rely on Him. This dependence never changes. Even as a sixty-something-year-old man who had been preaching faithfully for years, the apostle Paul continued to walk in a state of dependence on God. You have to love Paul’s humility.
Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving; praying at the same time for us as well, that God will open up to us a door for the word, so that we may speak forth the mystery of Christ, for which I have also been imprisoned; that I may make it clear in the way I ought to speak. (Colossians 4:2–4)
There was no pretense with Paul. No degree of success or number of years in the ministry gave him a false sense of ultimate accomplishment. He knew he had not yet arrived. He remained dependent on the Spirit of God. And so with a genuinely thankful heart, he entreated his fellow believers for their prayers. Can you see the power of that kind of attitude? Very refreshing in the first century. And very rare in the twenty-first. No wonder the man made such a lasting impact for Christ! The Lord honored and blessed Paul’s ministry because he upheld prayer and promoted God’s Word.
Rather than trying to ape the world’s system, God points us in another direction. It’s a way of life that stays out of step with the world and yet is not aloof from those in the world.
The early church didn’t ask God to bless their gimmicks. So, the church today doesn’t need gimmicks to attract people—it needs pastors who lead prayerfully, biblical truth preached passionately, and Christianity lived out authentically.
See also: The Praying Pastor, Part 1
In spite of a growing church and urgent needs, the apostles continued to maintain their priorities. How? By devotion “to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).
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May I point out something obvious? Notice which one came first. Prayer is to be top priority. “First of all, then,” the apostle Paul wrote to young pastor Timothy, “I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men” (1 Timothy 2:1, emphasis added). I picture Paul’s stylus pressing hard into the parchment as he penned those words: “First of all, then, I urge . . .” Prayer should occupy the place of priority among the leadership of our churches. In yours as well as mine.
I have the privilege of pastoring a church whose elders and other church leaders are people of prayer. Our meetings are punctuated by prayer. Before one agenda item gets discussed, we pray. As the meeting proceeds and issues arise that are too difficult for us or that require special wisdom, we pause right then and lift them up to the Father. When we look over the financial report and witness how God has provided, we deliberately stop and give Him our praise in prayer. We never conclude a meeting before giving thanks for the congregation, the staff, and all in leadership. We spend valuable time in prayer . . . minutes that a “corporate model” for ministry would consider a huge waste of time.
I love the writings of the Civil War chaplain, E. M. Bounds. His insightful words, written over one hundred years ago, still read today as if the ink were wet on the page. Read them slowly. Read them thoughtfully:
We are continually striving to create new methods, plans, and organizations to advance the church. We are ever working to provide and stimulate growth and efficiency for the gospel.
This trend of the day has a tendency to lose sight of the man. Or else he is lost in the workings of the plan or organization. God’s plan is to make much of the man, far more of him than of anything else. Men are God’s method.
The church is looking for better methods; God is looking for better men. . . .
What the church needs today is not more or better machinery, not new organizations or more novel methods. She needs men whom the Holy Spirit can use—men of prayer, men mighty in prayer. The Holy Spirit does not flow through methods, but through men. He does not come on machinery, but on men. He does not anoint plans, but men—men of prayer!
But in addition to prayer itself, let me quickly add that it matters greatly what we pray. Only the Scriptures tell us what to pray, when to pray, why to pray, how to pray, who to pray for, who to pray to, and what to pray through! A prayer by any means other than submission to the objective, historical, body of truth revealed in the Scriptures is a heretical prayer. A “wrong opinion” is just that—it’s wrong. And as such, it will never be the right path to pursue for those who call themselves part of the body of Christ.
Unity was never to be sought after at the exclusion of truth. In fact, Jesus saw no contradiction between the two pursuits (John 17:17–23). Rather, they are part of the same Christian walk.
I would like to talk about self-control.
My words to you this week come in video form . . . from a message I gave at a chapel service at Dallas Theological Seminary.
So grab a cup of coffee and your Bible. Let me both encourage and challenge you about an essential trait we all need for longevity in ministry—self-control.
When someone says to me, “Chuck . . . I got a lot out of the message,” I usually try to respond in a way that allows him or her to be more specific.
After I say, “Thank you, I’m glad it was helpful,” I’ll usually ask, “Did it make sense?”
“How did it make sense?” I’ll probe. It’s very interesting to hear people say, “Well, in this way . . .” I find that their response often connects just as I had intended. And that’s a good feeling.
But it’s a terrible feeling when they tell you something quite the opposite of what you intended.
I’ll never forget my preaching on divorce one time to a large congregation in Texas.
If I have one strength in my teaching it would have to be the application of Scripture. For the life of me, I don’t know why that’s true. It might just be a habit of my life that I can’t let the text rest until it’s been applied. But I appreciate others telling me that it’s one of my strengths. I think it can be yours, too.
For this blog entry on application, I want to get very practical. Let me share with you in three short lists what I have found to be helpful in the process of drawing application from the Bible.
If I make one mistake more often than any other as a preacher, it is assuming more than I should about my congregation.
- I assume people want to know what the Bible says.
- I assume they know I have their best interest at heart.
- I assume they understand the context.
- I assume they have a theological frame of reference.
And having begun on those shaky assumptions, I begin building a great big sermon when the foundation has not been laid. I’ve discovered it’s better to keep the message simple (but not simplistic), to take it a little slower and to establish a good, firm foundation. Then I can build my case.
I’ll never forget when I was asked to speak to an audience who didn’t have a lot of biblical knowledge.
I am a glutton for illustrations. I have boxes of illustrations that I save and keep on file (and occasionally, lose). They are priceless to my preaching. A good illustration is worth every minute it takes from your sermon.
I didn’t always think so. I used to think an illustration was a waste of time. I no longer believe that.
Some of us who are evangelicals seem to think that because we’re teaching the Bible we can bore people with it. And that there’s something wrong with the audience if they go to sleep on us. I know a great Hebrew term for that line of thinking: Hogwash!
A good communicator is interesting. Look at how Solomon put it:
The Preacher sought to find delightful words and to write words of truth correctly (Ecclesiastes 12:10).
Did you notice, “delightful words”? The preacher sought to find that which would bring emotional delight. How about that! I take that to mean he’s looking for clarity as well as an interesting, even captivating use of terms.
I heard a true story that theologian Carl F. H. Henry told as he spoke to a group of radio broadcasters.
If sweat were blood, my study would be red. So would yours. As pastors, part of what helps us become good communicators is paying the personal price for being well-prepared. That takes hard work.
“The Preacher,” Solomon tells us, “also taught the people knowledge”—and this occurred by “pondering, searching out, and arranging” his thoughts (Ecclesiastes 12:9). These verbs are in the intensive stem in the Hebrew. In other words, in becoming well-prepared, you have to sacrifice. The cost is high! Both in time . . . and in tools.
Get Good Tools
Buy books that help you understand the Word of God. Some of my best books are what I call my “blood” books. When I was in seminary, I used to donate a pint of blood and in return receive twenty bucks.
- I bought the Old Testament series by Kyle and Delitzsch with blood money.
- I bought Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament with blood money.
They were supposed to take my blood only every six weeks, but I’d occasionally go in after five weeks. One time I pushed it to four weeks! Cynthia told me, “I think you’re kind of pressing it on this thing with your library.” And she was right.
But hey, where else can you have 100 scholars at your fingertips when you’re stuck away in Fargo . . . or Frisco! Get and use good tools.
Be Willing to Dig In
You’ll have to deal severely with the temptation to dance around a passage rather than to dig in deeply—especially when time is of the essence. Here are three suggestions:
- Start early. We both know that Saturday night panic doesn’t yield quality stuff on Sunday. “A mist in the pulpit puts a fog in the pew” is another way of saying it!
- Write stuff down. I would encourage you to write down more of your ideas. Don’t rely on your memory. Write down those fleeting thoughts that come to you in the middle of the night. Many times I have gotten up to write something I didn’t want to lose. Those times that I didn’t do that, almost without exception, I forgot them by the next morning. I must go through half a yellow tablet of paper per sermon writing things down. I have discovered that it is in the writing of my thoughts that my ideas take shape and narrow into understandable terms. It is in the “pondering, searching out, and arranging” of thoughts that the preacher is well-prepared.
- Use Notes. Please . . . don’t feel bad about taking your notes and outline into the pulpit! (They never told you that at seminary, did they? Me either.) What could be more frustrating than being well-prepared to communicate only to forget half of it after the choir sings? The best expositors I’ve heard use notes.
Changing lives is God’s job. We rely on Him for that—unquestionably.
But being well-prepared . . . that’s our responsibility.
I don’t mind being called a preacher. One of my lifetime goals has been to be a good preacher. That takes hard work. You know that. Good communication is never automatic.
Sometimes you may think you’re coming through clearly only to be surprised when a member of the congregation, or even your wife, without your asking, shares with you that your message didn’t come through. We’ve all been there!
I want to write in the next few blogs about helping your message come through. Today, let’s take the first step.