Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Peace, Purity, and Unity?

Recently, I ran across a couple of different blogs discussing some loosely related topics.

The first was an article on rampant Calvinism popping up in historically non-Reformed and non-Calvinistic churches which you'll find here.

The second article was a response of sorts to a pastor who thought himself slighted by Carl Trueman and Todd Pruitt in their light-hearted prodding of Baptist ecclesiology.  You can find that here.

In short, I found these two articles quite unfortunate in their tone and substance because I believed they had their good points.

Just for some background, one of the highest charges of a pastor is to keep "the peace, purity, and unity of the church".  That's because this is Christ's church.  He's the head, the King, and the church is His bride.  Hence, to divide the bride of Christ is an unacceptable outcome for any pastor.

The problem is, things get complicated when dealing with people.  Sometimes the lines between dividing the church and keeping it pure can be muddled.

One may have the motive of keeping pure the church as a reason for division.  Others may understand that their sense of unity is so precious that it can cause friction among members who wish to seek change.  It's an unfortunate reality that is seen quite frequently be it among 1st generation churches or established American churches or any other church in the world.

To the first article's point, there is a lot of wisdom in understanding the context of a church and it's history.  Just because you go to a Methodist or Presbyterian church doesn't mean you can teach whatever you want.  In fact, that's why confessions and books of church order are important.  They provide the rubric with which one must take vows and have a clear guide as to what constitutes their understanding of Biblical teaching contra what would be considered anathema to them.

On the other hand, there are many good people who cause a stir in their churches because their view of what is "biblical" has changed (Read Rachel Held Evans and Anthony Bradley's response for more).  We live in a postmodern and post Christian culture after all.  Now, I don't know how rampant Calvinism is in non-Reformed churches (Frankly, it's a problem I wish we had in the Bay Area and Chinese churches in general), but I do know that Calvinism doesn't simply comprise of the Canons of Dordt.  In fact, John Calvin gave us a pretty thorough work on the subject.... The Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Why bring this up?  Because I agree that people need to know.  Knowledge is a powerful thing.  And along with great knowledge and power comes a great responsibility.  In the church, that can either mean that you can't teach a convictions because it'll divide your church, or you gotta leave it to join the part of the body of Christ that you're in agreement with said convictions.

Granted, you will never fully agree with the teaching of the church... or any church.  That's a sub point to the 2nd article.  Every church wishes to do their ecclesiology "a little" differently... because they're different people.  Do I necessarily agree with this?  To an extent no (Note:  My above point with confessional theology).  A little can mean various degrees to various people.  To that, I leave pastors to their use of wisdom in such matters.

However, when things are clear they're clear.  If you're serving in a church and there's a line you can't cross... don't cross it.  If you HAVE to cross it due to your convictions, it's time to weigh that conviction.  Is it something to divide the church over?  Will you stumble others and cause damage to the attitudes of faithful servants and community?  Is it worth it?  To you, maybe it is... but at the end of the day you can't expect a church to change the confession they believe in.  The pastor is still God's man.  Maybe it's time for you to leave in peace.  I know I've had to make such decisions while in pastoral ministry.

But that's why we complain about these "labels" within the church, isn't it?  Sorry Tom Chantry if I offend you, but in all seriousness, if your denomination allows for elasticity in the way you conduct your church business you must grant the same on the other side.

Everyone thinks they're an exception to the rule.  But, exceptions do no make the rule rather they are under the rules... and if your church falls under them and the claims against them are rooted at those rules then they are fair.  The question is, whether or not that is the case.

To be sure, pursuing this idea of the peace, purity, and unity of the church is not easy business.  I do not envy the task of such people as I who are called to navigate these waters.  But let's be careful how we do it... or at least try.  There's only one Savior King of the church after all... and that certainly isn't you or me.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Pastor Stuff: Preparing the Preaching Schedule

As a pastor one of the most gratifying things for me is preaching.  However, as with most of us young guys, it's also a cause for a lot of other emotions as well ranging from joy to utter pain from stress and fear.

Preaching, to be sure is one of the important tasks of the minister.  His role is to stand there in the place of Christ to deliver God's Word to His people.  As some of my professors from Westminster pointed out to me, one of the translations for Romans 10: 14 says,

"How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed?  And how are they to believe in him FROM whom they have not heard?  And how are they to hear without someone preaching?"

That translation is important as it is consistent with the role and character of the minister.  He is to be "God's man" as the Hebrew implies that the "man of God" is a much closer relationship than those words carry.

Jesus, being the greater High Priest (Hebrews 7: 15-16) who lives forever, is the one who properly stands where today's preachers do.

So how do pastors plan on what to preach?  This being Christ's church, Christ being the head of the church and we being the servants, how do we discern God's will for our congregation?  Do we do the lectio-continua thing only for a consistent teaching trend?  Or do we need to do topical preaching because it seems more "practical" for our people?

Well... suffice to say, every pastor is their own man.  We're unique.  I am no exception to that rule.  We all prepare differently (in another blog I might go into how I sermon prep a little).  I am certainly NOT the best preacher I know.

That being said, this is what I do and think about when approaching a preaching schedule:

  1. I ask the question, "What is the long term spiritual direction the church needs to go?"  This is an important question.  Each church has their own strengths and weaknesses.  As pastors, our duty is to see God's long term will for the church and figure out what steps need to be taken to get there.
  2. Figuring out the long term goal of the church and factoring weaknesses I ask myself, "What are the annual themes for the church?"  I think about this because if you have a goal it only makes sense you set the trajectory you need to travel in order to get there... regardless of whether or not YOU will be there.
  3. The quarter system.  In terms of preaching, I break my year up into quarters... because that's what everyone else in the real world does.  People have a rhythm they like to follow.  Quarters represent a finite portion of time in which certain goals get accomplished.  Knowing this, I figure out broadly what books to preach from (that's right... books!).

Considering the fact that I preach about 10 times per quarter that doesn't leave a lot of room to cover a book of the Bible.  This is absolutely true.  However, there are many benefits to switching so often:

First, there is variety for your people.  The minister is called to preach "the whole counsel of God".  That means we cannot neglect the rest of Scripture as we focus on a book.  Rather, our call is to give our people ALL of the teaching of the Word (Matt. 28: 19-20).  By going back and forth between OT and NT in the yearly rhythm of quarters I try to keep things fresh while giving them a broader understanding of how Scriptures comes together.

Second, there is a treasure trove of future sermons in preparation.  Part of sermon preparation through the book is getting to know it.  That means, as pastors it forces us to read the greater strokes of what a book of the Bible teaches.  In pursuing different books in my own preparation I've come across sections of Scripture I read and say, "I will get back to this down the line."  In fact, I'd say that my preparation often yields 3x the sermon treasury than if I'd stuck with one book.  So for every year of preaching I'd get 3 years of future sermons to preach.  Plus, with the legwork you do in the book it'll be easier to go back to it later.

Third, it challenges me to grow in faith.  That's good because in our preparation we come across passages we want to preach, themes which we want to cover in the future, and richness toward our own spiritual growth.  That's not only challenging, but important for the minister.  One of my philosophies of ministry is, "If we are not growing then we're not going.  If we're not going anywhere people aren't following anywhere and growing either."  God's people are always moving... we're never static.  The moment we are static in our pursuit of Christlikeness is the moment we are doing more harm than good to God's people.

Fourth, I find there is greater focus in my preaching.  One of the greatest pitfalls of a young minister is the lack of patience in the pulpit, not only with people, but with the substance of our preaching.  Since I'm following a particular theme for the year it must reflect in the preaching.  That means I will end up over preparing research for my sermon.  I will have different themes that rise out of the text, but I understand the annual theme is there for a reason.  In God's wisdom He has given us discernment to determine how we are to follow that theme.  Practically speaking people like it when you stay on point.  It makes it clearer and easier for you to understand and build unity among the minds of your people.  Even Paul knows that we are to be united as such (Philippians 1: 27, 2: 2; 1 Cor. 1: 10).

There may be even more benefits I have not accounted for, but this is what I've seen thus far.

Like I said, everyone is different.  My hybrid topical-lectio continua model may not be what your church needs.  That being said, I am my own man as God has created me as such.  I have been called to the people at my church and using the discernment God has given me to do the best I can for His name's sake and His church's sake.

If you're a pastor with a unique strategy on sermon planning comment below.  I think this sort of stuff can only benefit others ministers serving the body of Christ.