On finding yourself in a burning building (or on a sinking ship)

“Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be…” (2 Peter 3:11)

The issue of faith, whether or not to believe, says John Ortberg, “is never just a question of calculating the odds for the existence of God.  We are not just probability calculators. We live in a burning building.  It’s called a body. The clock is ticking.”  (“Know Doubt,” p.32)

Ortberg doesn’t mind mixing metaphors.  We live in a burning building; the clock is ticking.

So true.

Yes, and the Titanic which we call Earth is sinking (with too many of us spending our days re-arranging deck chairs). The universe is winding down.  The sun which supports life on earth and is the center of our solar system has an expiration date, scientists say.

The physical creation has a known shelf life. (Note: “Known” refers to the shelf life, not to the expiration date.)

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Your sermon offended? Good. It was supposed to.

“Lord, do you know the Pharisees were offended by your sermon?” –Matthew 15:12

Let me say up front that no church can long endure a steady diet of negative preaching.  No Christian, no matter how faithful, can withstand an unending barrage of sermons directed toward straightening them out. On a regular basis, we need messages reminding us we are loved, God is faithful, Heaven awaits, and there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.

But sometimes the minister enters the pulpit with a burdensome task: to attempt a diagnosis, surgery, and amputation all in a 25 minute message.  At those times, the sermon must cut deeply.

At those times, the message hurts.

How the Lord’s people ever came to expect their pastors to declare the riches of His Word without offending wrong-doers is beyond me.

It cannot be done.

“Offenders will take offense.” Remember that. As columnist Dear Abby put it, “You throw a rock in among a bunch of dogs. The one that hollers got hit.”

Delivering the commands of Scripture on how to live and think, how to re-prioritize our lives and change our behavior, and bring every detail of our existence under the Lordship of Jesus Christ without treading on anyone’s toes is expecting a little much of the preacher.

George Whitefield, the great British preacher of the 18th century, gave us an unforgettable line on this….

“It is a poor sermon that gives no offense; that neither makes the hearer displeased with himself nor with the preacher.”

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Setting new records in the ministry

What follows is a blend of the funny and the serious, what some call “peanut butter and jelly,” the PB for nourishment and the J for delight.  Please bring a sense of whimsy and expect to receive no sermon ideas from this! Thank you. –Joe

In the January/February 2015 issue of Preaching, executive editor Michael Duduit (and my longtime friend) tells of a fellow in Florida who carved out a slot in the Guinness Book of World Records with a sermon that lasted 53 hours and 18 minutes.  Well, actually, it was 45 of his old sermons stitched together, not just one.  Michael says the guy used 600 PowerPoint slides and basically covered the entire Bible, from Genesis to the concordance.

All of that tickled Editor Michael’s funny bone, as oddities in the ministry usually do.  This started him thinking, “What other record-breaking attempts could be made by preachers?” After relaying his suggestions–with some parenthetical notes from moi–we will have an idea or two of our own.

Okay.  Michael suggests the Guinness people might want to look at:

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Where do we find all these church jobs in Scripture?

A friend messaged asking for my “take” on all the different pastors in the church these days. Senior pastor, student pastor, worship, adminstrative, children’s, and executive pastor–the list is endless.

He said, “Why don’t we have just one pastor?”

The quick answer, of course, is that pastor means shepherd, and these various ministers are shepherding a part of the flock. The larger the flock, the more shepherds are needed.  It’s a noble concept and has the full support of scripture.  Whether one could blame the Bible for the “senior” business or “executive pastor” thing is another question. (But if a church wants to label its ministers that way, personally I’m good with it.)

I do think it’s almost funny how the pastor of some tiny flock somewhere will list himself as “senior pastor.”  But we laugh only to ourselves.  It’s his business and not ours.

An angry commenter–responding to something someone wrote about the “administrative assistant” in their church–took off on the unscriptural nature of that position.  “Show me an administrative assistant in the church,” he said, with the complete confidence they couldn’t do it.

He didn’t ask me, but I could have.

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The best leadership verse in the Bible?

“That the leaders led in Israel, that the people volunteered, O bless the Lord” (Judges 5:2).

Scripture gems show up in the unlikeliest of places.

Deborah became a hero by default.  She describes herself as “a mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7).  Earlier, she was identified as “a prophetess” and one who “judged Israel at that time” (4:4). She was thus a woman of great spirituality, excellent understanding, and keen insight. People trusted her.

Deborah summoned Barak to her location.  She had a disturbing question for this leader of Israel.  “Hasn’t God called you to lead His army against these oppressive Canaanites?”

For over two decades, the murderous Canaanites had run over Israel and God’s people had been praying for Him to intervene.

Now the Lord told Deborah that He had called Barak, but he was reluctant to obey. He was not the first and certainly not the last to need prodding to obey God’s instruction, to answer His call.

The sheepish Barak told the woman of God, “I’ll go–but only if you’ll go with me”  (4:8).  Is he saying “I’ll go if you will hold my hand?”  Like the great warrior needs his mama along?  It appears that way.

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Joe’s 10 Iron-clad Rules for Success in Ministry (some of which need more ironing than others)

So, you’re new in the ministry?  And you want to get this right, of course. You have definitely come to the right place, friend.  Pull up a chair and get ready to take notes.

Some alternative titles for these ten little gold nuggets (aka, iron pyrite) might be “How not to rock the boat.” “How to last 50 years in the ministry without creating a ripple.”  “How to please everyone and secure a good retirement.”

Tongue firmly planted in cheek, seat-belt fastened, sense of whimsy intact…..

1) You’re going to need sincerity to make it in the ministry. If you can fake that, anything is possible.

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Playing our little preacher-games with Holy Scripture

“I did not send these prophets, yet they ran with a message; I did not speak to them, but they prophesied” (Jeremiah 23:21).

What if we sliced off a bit of scripture here, pasted it in there, omitted a reference over yonder, and pretended the result is what Jesus actually said?

That happens.  (Fortunately, it happens rarely.  But it is done often enough to make it a concern to those who value God’s word and our integrity.)

Here’s my story….

At a preachers conference, we heard a stem-winding brother drive the several hundred of us to our feet in a shouting, hand-clapping final eruption of praise and joy.  He was good, I’ll give him that.

His text was Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today, and forever.”  His theme was that God’s people today have no trouble with Jesus Christ being “the same yesterday”–His birth in Bethlehem, His miracle-working ministry across Galilee and Judea, followed by His sacrificial death and His divine resurrection–and no trouble with Jesus Christ being “the same forever”–as we proclaim His return to earth, the judgment, and His forever reign.

The problem present-day Christians have, said the preacher, is with “Jesus Christ today.”

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What those who are in the flesh resent

“For the mind set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not subject itself to the things of God, for it is not even able to do so” (Romans 8:7).

It’s not that believers and unbelievers think in different ways.  Rather, it’s that spiritually-minded Christians and carnally-minded church members (Christians? Let’s assume they are, but it’s hard to know) think and act and value in opposite ways.

Let the church take notice.

In an article on sacrificial giving, I made a statement that attracted some attention: Those who are in the flesh resent being told they are in the flesh.

More than one reader reacted to that in anger.  (Thus proving the point, some might conclude.)

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When someone mystery-worships your church

A number of years ago, a college classmate contacted me to see if I would be willing to serve as a mystery-shopper for Seiko watches.  His marketing firm had with a contract to see that salespeople in jewelry stores put Seiko ahead of the competition.  So, I would enter a store and tell the clerk “I’m looking for a man’s watch in a medium price range.”  If I was taken immediately to the Seiko display, I’d say, “Congratulations. I’m the Seiko mystery shopper and you just won 10 dollars.”  (This was back with 10 dollars was maybe 25.)  Then, I’d get their signature and fill out a report.  For each store, I was paid 5 dollars.

Mostly I did it for the fun of it.

A few weeks ago, when we mentioned mystery worshipers on this website, a number of readers wondered if I had a list of questions for people enlisted for this role.  I didn’t.

But now I do.

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The day I got tough with our deacons. Finally.

(Readers need to know I love deacons. And yet, I bear scars from run-ins with a few members of that fraternity over the years. My son is a wonderful deacon. These days, I’m writing a series on “My Favorite Deacon” for Lifeway’s Deacon Magazine.  So, let no one interpret what follows as a putdown of deacons. It is not. I am, however, aware that many pastors fight ongoing battles with some who insist on controlling the church. My heart goes out to them. This is sent forth with them in mind.)

Deacons and pastors were given as servants of God’s people.  Ephesians 5:21 urging that we “submit to one another in the fear of the Lord” applies to both groups in the same way it does to the entire congregation.

There is no place for bigshots and autocrats in the family of the Lord.  Jesus Christ is Lord of the church (see Matthew 16:18), and Scripture warns pastors not to “lord it over the congregation” (see I Peter 5:3).

What then is the pastor to do when the deacons insist that their job is to run the church?  That was the situation I came into in 1990 as a new pastor.  Now, not all deacons were infected by the ruling virus, but at least half of the group of 24 were, enough to thwart anything the pastor tried to do that smacked of upsetting their little apple cart.

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