Results tagged “Ministry” from Reformation21 Blog

When to Speak Out? A Pastor's Engagement with Current Issues


For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. . . .a time to keep silence, and a time to speak. (Ecclesiastes 3:1,7)

A pastoral colleague recently bemoaned, "It feels like I get hammered if I do, and hammered if I don't."  He was referring to the constant pull of our culture these days to "make a statement" about the current "hot topic" trending on the 24-hour news cycle or on social media.  The pull to "use your platform" from the pulpit to the blogosphere is an interesting dance for the contemporary pastor because there exists some inherent tensions in pastoral ministry in shepherding the flock, teaching the gospel of grace and truth, and modeling winsome cultural engagement in an increasingly fragmented world.

On the Value of Statements 

I was initially ordained in a mainline church which, for several decades, felt comfortable occupying space near the center of American culture.[1]  For most of my lifetime, the chaplain of the U.S. Senate has been a Presbyterian (from 1969 to 2003).  The ethos of Presbyterian cultural engagement for several decades seemed to carry an attitude best portrayed by the famous TV commercials in the 1970s and 1980s with the line:  "When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen."  In the commercials, the entire room would stop - in silence - and lean in closely to hear whatever E.F. Hutton had to say.  The luxury of Christian cultural engagement 40-50 years ago was that people listened to the church.

That time has passed.  Case in point:

  • Only a few years ago, my former denomination, the PC(USA), spent time and energy outlining a peace resolution for Israel--Palestine.  Oh the hubris of it all!  Was the world (or even the Middle East) really listening and paying attention to a bunch of (predominately white) American Presbyterians thousands of miles away?  What was the value of all that time and energy spent on statements about Israel-Palestine by a bunch of American Presbyterians? 

  • A short time ago, a prominent blogger was calling for Christians to "walk out of their churches" en masse if the priest or pastor didn't speak out against the separation of children from their families at the US-Mexico border.  I personally wonder whether such vitriol reflects an ache and a longing to restore the primacy of Christendom's authority.  Surely the culture is listening to the church....right? 

Yet, as the church has been pushed from the center to the periphery of American culture, its cultural engagement radically (and necessarily) changes in tenor and tone.  Recognizing the massive shift from a Christendom mentality to a post-Christian era mindset is indispensable for guiding pastoral discernment for wading into cultural engagement in the contemporary world. 

Ever since Theodore Roosevelt coined the term, US Presidents have been known to use their "bully pulpit" to trump up favorable public opinion for high-profile initiatives.  A hot-button topic will arise in the country, and the president will inevitably begin communicating far-and-wide about the issue in hopes of swaying public opinion. 

Yet George C. Edwards III, the presidential historian at Texas A & M, after conducting a massive study on the "bully pulpit" over the last six decades of American history suggests that the steady stream of statements from US Presidents have almost always failed to move the needle of public opinion or translate into significant legislative victories for presidential policies in Congress. 

"It is true for all presidents. They virtually never move public opinion in their direction," Edwards tells National Journal. "It happened for Ronald Reagan. It happened for FDR. It happens all the time. You should anticipate failure if you're trying to change people's minds. The data is overwhelming." [2]

A Biblical Tension Built into Pastoral Ministry

It was the Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper who famously declared, "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!"  The Kingdom has already come in Christ.  As a Reformed pastor, this knowledge leads me to believe that Jesus cares deeply about the racism of our society, the treatment of immigrant families, the character of our political discourse, and the integrity of those who govern.  This is not how it's supposed to be.  Christ wants to cry "mine" over the injustices of our day, just as he prophetically decried the injustice of his day.    

Yet Herman Ridderbos (another Dutch Reformed theologian) reminded us of "the coming of the kingdom".  The kingdom is not yet.  There is an eschatological tension inherent in the proclamation of Christ's kingdom.  One day there will be a reckoning.  Martin Luther once said there are only two days: "today" and "that day".  The Kingdom of Christ also cries "wait" - because on that day "there will be no more mourning or crying or pain" (Rev. 21:4). 

So how does a contemporary pastor shepherd the flock within this tension? 

A Few Guiding Thoughts

1. Nobody is listening in today's world.  So maybe the most radical prophetic posture for a pastor to take is to...listen.  Listen to the congregation: for their hurts, for their scars, for their aspirations. Is there a kind of prophetic listening that contemporary pastors can develop which actually precedes speaking?  Might prophetic listening actually be more effective than prophetic speaking in many cases in our divided and broken world?  I believe that deep listening begets strong wisdom.  We need contemporary pastors to listen to the myriad of ways congregations have been spiritually de-formed over the years in order to shepherd effectively in today's divided world.

2. I'm convinced that people who chide pastoral leadership for "not weighing in" are typically asking for a "bully pulpit" rather than a "prophetic witness".  A bully pulpit is typically aimed "at the other guy" who sits "across the aisle". Most of what passes for prophetic statements today are really just regurgitated "hot takes" from political pundits. A true prophetic witness is likely to have all of us on our knees asking for repentance.

3. Prophetic statements without prophetic action can be meaningless.  Not always.  And not in every case.  But our human condition is all-too-easily deceived into smug self-righteousness just because we share a carefully worded statement decrying the latest injustice in our world.  Be careful: one's righteousness does not depend on what you are against (or whether you use your "platform" - which everyone erroneously thinks they have in today's social medial world - to weigh in on current events).

4. The way of wisdom may be silence.  I know very few people whose expertise or vocation qualifies them to speak with proper nuance on every contemporary issue of the day.  Pastors, like most people, only have a limited amount of time to get properly informed; by the time one has researched the issue carefully, the current "crisis" has probably moved onto something else.  Humility and wisdom are often displayed in not weighing in on every controversial issue.  

5. Dialogue or Statements?  Furthermore, nagging contemporary issues are often addressed in the church most effectively through conversational dialogue rather than pulpit pronouncements.  Again, not always.  And not in every case.  Yet, often these issues are best tackled through the slow discipleship of individuals within the flock.    

6. Pastoral ministry is guided by the Word of God.  There is a temptation to let the 24-hour news cycle set the agenda for pastoral ministry.  Yes, there is a place for winsome cultural engagement. Yes, the church should not be afraid to address "what people are talking about" in our culture.  Yet the culture doesn't set the agenda for pastoral ministry.  In fact, I firmly believe that many souls are being distracted spiritually (or even lost entirely) by an inordinate amount of attention paid to the 24-hour news cycle.  We've reached a tipping point in American evangelicalism wherein even we in the church are more fascinated with the Mueller Report than we are with the reports of Matthew and Mark.

Pastoral ministry, in this sense, is counter-cultural and prophetic in its insistence that people encounter the Word of God.  As people are "rooted and built up" in Christ and "strengthened in the faith" (Col. 2:7), pastoral ministry unleashes an equipped body of believers to be salt and light and carry a biblical worldview out into the world to make more of a difference than any "bully pulpit" could ever hope to achieve. [3]


[1] Perhaps it was the case that the mainline church was always just a mirror that reflected the moral "center" of the nation.

[2] See George E. Condon Jr. and National Journal, "The Myth of the Bully Pulpit: Presidents can talk all they want (and they do), but it won't get results", The Atlantic, April 4, 2013:

[3] This article originally appeared on Dr. Carter's blog. 

Rev. Dr. Jason A. Carter (Ph.D., The University of Edinburgh) is Lead Pastor of Trinity Wellsprings Church (Satellite Beach, FL), blogs at "Gospel-Centered Shepherding", and is the author of Inside the Whirlwind: The Book of Job through African Eyes. 

Related Links

"On Pulpits and Polemics" by Carl Trueman

"The Pulpit Direction" by Ryan McGraw

What is Biblical Preaching? by Eric Alexander

Reformed Preaching by Joel Beeke

Preaching the Gospel ( Audio CD  |  MP3 Disc  |  Download )

City-to-City Evangelism

Many of us who grew up in the D. James Kennedy era of Evangelism Explosion embraced the idea that spiritually mature Christians should be involved in formal and methodical one-on-one evangelism. The same is true of those who were influenced by the Way of the Master approach, spearheaded by Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron. I have personally benefited from both of these ministries at different times in my Christian life. As a young Christian, I had a compulsive zeal for door-to-door evangelism, as well as to preach extemporaneously in public settings. In seminary, I used to go with a friend to knock on the doors of the houses around the school I attended. On a rare occasion, we saw someone come to church with us and make a profession of faith. Additionally, my wife and I spent several summers working at the Boardwalk Chapel--an evangelistic ministry of the OPC in Wildwood, NJ. We would go out on the boardwalk many nights throughout the summer and talk with others on the boardwalk about the Gospel. I frequently preached from the stage inside the chapel to those passing by on the boardwalk. Once or twice, I tried my hand at open air preaching on the boardwalk. The last summer we were at the Chapel, a group of the staff members told me that a young man had come by asking for me by name. He told them that the summer before, he had heard me preach the Gospel and was, by God's grace, converted. 15 years later, I think of that with hope that he truly trusted Christ. I sometimes even wonder what it will be like for us to be in glory together for all of eternity. While he knew my name, I still don't know his. The Boardwalk Chapel was a special ministry tied to a wonderful local church. We need more ministries like it.

That being said, I have undergone something of a shift in my understanding about both door-to-door evangelism and open air preaching. For several reasons, I am not sure that they are as important or effective as I once believed. Most proponents of door-to-door evangelism appeal to Jesus sending out the 12 (Mark 6:7-13) and the 72 (Luke 10:1-5) into the cities and towns to which he was planning on going throughout Israel. Proponents of door-to-door and open-air evangelism have long insisted, "Since this was the example of the early disciples it ought to be the practice we follow." The same line of reasoning is, interestingly, made by Charismatics with regard to many of the supernatural practices descriptively outlined in the book of Acts. Anyone reading the Gospels or the book of Acts must surely recognize that these were no ordinary times. Many of the methods and activities of the early church were circumstantially unique to that time in redemptive-history. There is, however, another factor to consider when seeking to understand whether or not Jesus commissioned door-to-door evangelism in the Gospels--namely, whether the text actually teaches that  the disciples went door-to-door. 

Luke 10:1-12 is one of the great passages about the evangelistic ministry of Jesus. The kingdom of God had come and was growing and spreading. Jesus had already sent out the 12; now he is sending out 72. The number 72 is a symbolic number, drawing from the Old Testament leadership in Israel. However, it is also a multiple of 12. Minimally, we are to understand that Jesus is multiplying laborers for the spread of the Gospel. In fact, Jesus prefaces his commission by saying, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few." The Savior is equipping more laborers by giving them instructions about how they are to conduct the work of evangelism. He is also telling them what sort of outcome to expect. He sends them into the surrounding cities and towns. In a very real sense, Jesus is commissioning city-to-city or town-to-town evangelism, rather than door-to-door evangelism. In verse 7, Jesus says, "Do not go house to house!" I have sometimes jokingly said, "Jesus forbids door-to-door evangelism." What is the point of Christ telling the disciples not to go house to house? Simply put, he is telling the disciples that there will be cities and towns that will be receptive to the preaching of the Gospel and to His messianic ministry, and there will be others that are not. Being welcomed into homes in receptive cities and towns served as a sign that the Lord wanted them to stay and labor there. This is clearly a redemptive-historical provision for a special work to which Jesus was calling the disciples. Yet, some aspect of it continues to be paradigmatic of the advancement of the Kingdom of God until Christ comes. 

What then we do with the example of the Apostles in the book of Acts? Clearly, the Apostles were engaged in open-air evangelism. No one can read those sections of the book of Acts in which the great sermons of Peter, Phillip, Stephen or Paul are recorded and come away denying the role that extemporaneous preaching in public settings played in the advancement of the Kingdom after Jesus' ascension. I once held to the opinion that this was normative for the church and that, if we are faithful, we too would follow this example. What I failed to understand as a young Christian was that the intertestimental period was a transitional period during which the New Covenant church was being established among unreached people, primarily through the instrumentality of open-air, evangelistic preaching. As the church was formed and ecclesiastical government was established, we find less of this approach and more of the shepherding preaching within the context of the local church. This does not mean that it is wrong for men to be zealous to engage in open-air preaching. It does mean that we need to account of the uniqueness of the circumstances. The Apostle Paul, for instance, went into the Areopagus and reasoned with the philosophers and teachers there (Acts 17:16-34). The people there had never heard the Gospel before. There was no New Covenant church in Greece that could carry out the Great Commission. Perhaps the university campuses of our day would be analogous to the Areopagus; but, it would be impossible to carry over the exact cultural context of Athens in Paul's day into the 21th Century in our North American context where solid local churches have been established and are being planted. 

This necessitate a few further qualifications and thoughts. First, I do not believe that we have adequately committed ourselves to the teaching of our Lord Jesus about the evangelization of the world. What I have said above ought not diminish a zeal for evangelism. We can too easily write off our responsibility to bear witness to Christ because of methodologies with which we are uncomfortable. Rather, this ought to encourage us to think through ways that are consistent with Scripture and our own context to carry out the Great Commission faithfully. What would that look like in our context? I believe that the Great Commission should be properly carried out under the oversight of the local church. It should, first and foremost, be obeyed by ministers of the Gospel. The Apostle Paul told Timothy, "Do the work of evangelist" (2 Tim. 4:5). Evangelism is hard work. It take time, prayer, thoughtfulness and diligence. It is too easy to lag off with regard to an evangelistic zeal. It is too easy to write it off under the notion of other priorities in the local church taking precedent. We have to think through both the foreign and home missions aspect of the Great Commission. 

William Carey is a great example of what a modern day evangelistic ministry among unreached people should look like. He opened his home, started schools, planted churches and trained pastors to carry out the Great Commission. The carrying out of evangelism must begin with the minister of the Gospel himself having a vision for an evangelistic component built into the life of the local church. In some sense, it is a long term vision; whereas, door-to-door and open-air preaching can be a quick fix approach. 

In our own context of home missions, it would look like equipping a congregation to be outward focused, intentional about inviting unbelievers into their home and ultimately to sit under the preaching of the Gospel in the local church. It would look like committing to planting new churches where there is a need for a biblically faithful church. The people who say, "We have too many churches. There is a church on every corner" probably don't go to any church on any corner. My dad used to say, "Christ would be pleased if there were solid local churches in every neighborhood in every community on the face of the earth!" It might look like having a Christianity Explored course offered sometime during the week at the local church. It might look like hosting a Mother's of Preschoolers group in which the Gospel is taught to women who participate from the community. It certainly might include building out local church Bible studies in which the members are encouraged to invite friends, neighbors or co-workers. We have to think categorically about those with whom we rub shoulders on a daily or weekly basis. These, it seems to me, are far more effective methods than going door-to-door or to engaging in open-air preaching. 

While the disciples and Apostles did exercise their gifts of preaching and teaching among the unreached in unique ways and circumstances, they did so with the goal of establishing local churches. The local church, in turn, became the typical way in which the world would be reached with the Gospel. The city-to-city approach of Jesus supports the conclusion that the Savior is establishing His kingdom in communities and not simply among individuals. It would serve us well to rethink the biblical call to city-to-city evangelism, bolstered by the ministry of the local church in which we are committed. 

Editor's Update: Al Baker has written a response to this article, which can be read here.

The Disease of Ambition


Herman Melville's Moby Dick is an intense and rather gothic tale of seaman Ishmael's experience whaling under captain Ahab. It's a well-known story of obsession, revenge, mania, and ruin--the typically edifying material or a great American novel.

As everyone familiar with American literature already knows, the story centers on Ahab's pursuit of the white whale, which is indeed a rather theological beast. The whale is not God; God is an unassailable sovereign throughout the novel, the creator of the land and sky and seas and all that stirs and broods in them, including the leviathan of Ahab's obsession. God not only shapes the course of men's lives, in Moby Dick, but he haunts their profoundly troubled minds--and, according to Ishmael, all people are so troubled or cracked, not just Ahab.

Ahab is Melville's picture of mortal greatness in the world, a man defined by ambition that only he and God seem to know. This is precisely how Melville introduces Ahab. The first we hear about him is from Peleg, a Nantucket Quaker, former whaling captain himself, and now, along with Bildad, majority owner of the Pequod. He describes his captain of choice to Ishmael, the aspiring whaler, like this:

He's a grand, ungodly, god-like man, Captain Ahab; doesn't speak much, but, when he does speak, then you may well listen. Mark ye, be forewarned; Ahab's above the common; Ahab's been in colleges, as well as 'mong the cannibals; been used to deeper wonders than the waves; fixed his fiery lance in mightier, stranger foes than whales; His lance! aye, the keenest and surest that out of all our isle! Oh! He ain't Captain Bildad; no, and he ain't Captain Peleg; he's Ahab, boy; and Ahab of old, thou knowest, was a crowned king!

It's a fantastic description in a book where there is nothing deeper on earth than what lies beneath the waves and no mightier foe to combat than the whales that play in those mysterious deeps.

Ahab is on his own quixotic quest for a kind of greatness that is defined from within him, and it is about much more than wrestling whales or slaying a particularly infamous one in revenge. Like Job, Ahab has a complaint against God; like Jonah, Ahab dares to defy God. Unlike either, however, he refuses to bow before God, even when God turns his fury on him in Moby Dick.

The Disease of Ambition

Like God, Ahab is a mysterious being who "doesn't speak much" but when he does his words are able to upend everything casual and common to men, even the seagoing whaling sort. Neither God nor Ahab is well understood by others yet both haunt and torment the troubled minds of those who encounter them. But Ahab is an ungodly man of demonic dimensions, driven by the very ambition that makes him great and god-like in a most ungodly way.

"Be sure of this, O young ambition," Melville--or Ishmael--warns us just before we first hear of Ahab: "all mortal greatness is but disease."

Ahab's ambition is, for Melville it seems, the defining quality he has in common with the "Ahab of old," the "crowned king." Captain Ahab is an embodiment of the "demonic" sort of ambition that, according to James, upsets the world and is a source of everything vile (3:15). God opposes this kind of ambition and those animated by it--the selfishly ambitious who discover that God, who refuses to bend to our will or reward our arrogance, is their mightiest foe.

The biblical Ahab knew God was against him--could not possibly be for him given his life's ambition--and so does captain Ahab. Not only this, but they both realize their twisted ambition, whatever it may be, will eventually cost them their lives. So Captain Ahab, like king Ahab--and even Satan himself, it seems--gives free rein to this self-destructive disease. Unable to lay hold of God, Melville's Ahab vents the rage of his frustrated passions on the proxy-god that seems to be within reach: The White Whale.

Demonic Ambition

Arrogant, striving, self-serving and self-aggrandizing ambition is demonic. James is quite blunt about this:

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice" (James 3:13-16).

Selfish ambition (eritheia) is the opposite of love and meekness; selfish ambition is a kind of passion that insists on its own way in the world and will be met with "wrath and fury" from God (Rom 2:8). It is the disease of greatness, but it is also common to all men. And it must be mortified in the minister of Christ (and everyone else pursuing holiness), or it will be wreaking havoc at home, in the Church, and wherever else he goes.

Yet, not all ambition is demonic. Paul writes to the Romans that he makes it his ambition (philotimeomai) to preach Christ where Christ has not already been named (Rom. 15:20). Paul's ambition, however, is rooted in the particularities of his call to suffer many things for Christ's sake as an apostle to the Gentiles. It is nearly the opposite, in application at least, of eritheia.

Godly ambition does not promote any cult of personality, but selflessly serves Christ and his Church, and seeks no other prize than his glory and what he has promised in the Gospel. Paul's ambition, therefore, drives him to acts of profound and costly self-denial in order to fulfill his mission: To become all things to all people, that he might save some. Paul's ambition--godly ambition--can join John the Baptist in declaring that Christ "must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30). Godly ambition, in other words, mortifies selfish ambition.

The Subtlety of Eritheia

I suspect we do a poor job distinguishing between the two types of ambition, or of recognizing the perversity of eritheia. Selfish ambition, at least to a certain degree, is not only an acceptable sin in our culture but a seemingly necessary one for success. It may also be incentivized in a church culture caving to the temptation of elevating a public image of success above qualities like quiet, steady faithfulness in relative obscurity; a work-ethic rooted in giving and helping rather than getting and keeping; a willingness to go without and sacrifice for the good of others.

We cannot esteem worldly success without neglecting godliness and overlooking spiritual maturity. Worldly success is not a bad thing, but it is not to be confused with being above reproach or enjoying a good reputation, and it may indicate little more than selfish ambition (the disease of greatness). In ministers and congregations it may even dress itself in claims of kingdom growth, public witness, administrative acumen, evangelistic fruitfulness, entrepreneurial spirit, and so on. These are all highly desirable objects, but sin can twist each one into a pious-sounding cover for eritheia.

Our hearts are slippery things and may permit many things to pass for godly ambition that on closer inspection belong to the selfish, striving sort that stirs up envy and feeds jealousies, rivalries, and "every vile practice." This is the disease of Ahab and of all human striving after greatness by our own design and measure. It comes from setting and pursuing our own agenda in the world rather than submitting to the Lord and one another in Christ.


We see this striving ambition surface among the Disciples from time to time as they quarreled over greatness. They were disabused of it, it seems, when confronted by the reality of Christ crucified. There is the death of eritheia, the cure for the disease of striving after greatness on our terms. There the ambition of Christ is disclosed, an ambition that exposes and destroys every other ambition in us.

After the cross, the Apostles no longer quarrel about greatness. Neither did they find the message of Christ crucified nor the vessels of his church ill-fitted instruments for the work of the ministry. If we do, then the issue may well be our ambition rather than some wrong-headed piece of polity we are tempted to blame, much less our dim-witted brothers we cannot bend to our will or way of seeing things.

The ordination vow Presbyterian elders take to submit to our brothers in the Lord, like the call of Christ to take up our cross and follow him, is a call to kill the disease of demonic ambition that aspires to be great in the world, even "a crowned king." And there is some urgency to this: If we are not actively killing Ahab within us, then Ahab will surely carry us out to sea and leave us a wreck adrift on the waves of the deep.

The True Measure


Big works of God in this world begin small with ordinary people of God working for the glory of God. Many hands make light work. And many hands accomplish much work. This is how revivals begin, Reformations are launched, churches are established, missions are founded, and cities and countries and the world are changed. The ordinary people of God working for the glory of God.

Every member ministering according to our ability is the calling of the church (Nehemiah 3, Romans 12, Ephesians 4, etc.). Every member! We easily fall into the trap of thinking the work of God is specialized work for those who possess a special calling. Yet, the Scriptures make it clear that all are called to service. We all serve as ministers of the gospel and all have our part to play. In fact, as Paul points out in Ephesians 4, pastors and teachers are simply to "equip the saints for the work of the ministry." We are all to engage in the work. And when we do, mighty things are accomplished.

But as James Montgomery Boice once said, "It is said that today the churches resemble more than anything else a football game played in a large stadium. There are 80,000 spectators in the stands who badly need some exercise, and there are 22 men on the field who badly need a rest."1

Now, some may not have the gifts of others. All cannot be the eye or the ear. Some members remain less visible than others in the body, but none are less important. All are needed--doing their best to labor for the sake of the Kingdom according to their gifts and stage in life.

John Newton wrote a helpful letter along these lines. In his day, George Whitefield was the great celebrated pastor. God used Whitefield mightily and his was a household name. In a letter John Newton wrote to a fellow pastor, he commented:

"One man, like Whitefield, is raised up to preach the gospel with success through a considerable part of the earth. Another is called to the humbler service of sweeping the streets, or cleaning this great minister's shoes...." 

He then said the following:

"I am inclined to think that if you and I were to travel in search of the best Christian in the land, or were qualified to distinguish who deserved the title, it is more than two to one we should not find the person in a pulpit, or any public office of life. Perhaps some old woman at her wheel, or some bed-rid person, hid from the knowledge of the world, in a mud-walled cottage, would strike our attention more than any of the doctors or reverends with whom we are acquainted. Let us not measure men, much less ourselves by gifts or services. One grain of grace is worth abundance of gifts. To be self-abased, to be filled with a spirit of love, and peace, and gentleness; to be dead to the world; to have the heart deeply affected with a sense of the glory and grace of Jesus, to have our will bowed to the will of God; these are great things more valuable, if compared in the balance of the sanctuary, then to be an instrument of converting provinces or a nation."2

I love the line, "Let us not measure men, much less ourselves by gifts or services." It is not what we do for the Lord but what we do with what we have for the Lord that matters. Many of us are consumed with desiring greater gifts, better opportunities, extended time. All the while we neglect what we have been given. We long for much when we struggle with little. Let us simply labor according to the strength and grace the Lord gives us. We need no more or we would possess it. Whatever is before us today, let us tackle it. Whatever gifts we possess today, let us exercise them. Whatever opportunities present themselves today, let us seize them. Let us work hard in our little spheres and see what the Lord does. O, what monumental things the ordinary people of God can do when they simply use what He has given them for the glory of God.

1. James Montgomery Boice, Nehemiah: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005) p. 47

2. John Newton, The Works of the Rev. John Newton (New Haven: Nathan Whiting, 1824) p. 339

Jason Helopoulos is senior pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan, and is the author of A Neglected Grace: Family Worship in the Christian Home (Christian Focus, 2013).

Fences and Fellowship


I've tried not to be, but I can't help it...I'm a Baptist. I've read all I could about pedobaptism, I've talked to many friends, I've prayed for wisdom and clarity, and in the end, I've been all the more convinced of Baptist principles (of the 1689 London Baptist Confession variety). The truth is, Reformed Baptists (or Particular Baptists, if you prefer) have far more in common with confessional pedobaptists than we often do with others who identify as Baptist. We share a very similar confessional heritage and an overwhelming percentage of our doctrine is identical. There is no good reason why confessional Baptist and confessional pedobaptist brothers and sisters cannot enjoy intimate ecumenical fellowship with one another.

I have several friends with whom I cannot fellowship. Some of my friends aren't Christians, and others are acquaintances whom I have not had the opportunity to invest much time. Fellowship is only fellowship when friends are committed to a common cause or goal, and it flourishes through our common pursuit of that cause or goal. For the Christian, the shared goal ought to be the glory of God and the proclamation of the gospel. Without a conscious effort to utilize our God-given relationships to achieve such an end, we may have friends, but we don't have fellowship. However, I don't believe true fellowship exists only among those with whom we share complete agreement on every issue. Baptists and Presbyterians can, and should have true fellowship with one another (in addition to other relationships with Christians in other faithful circles).

A lot of reformed believers seem reluctant to use the word ecumenical, and often for good reason. We are confessional for a reason: we don't abide by the namby-pamby spirit of everyone just getting along for the sake of getting along. Our distinctions really do matter. What we believe to be true from Scripture is worth maintaining and standing on. Every Christian's conscience and every church needs to be conformed to the truth as we understand it. It would be wrong to assume that fellowship requires a Baptist to baptize their infants, or a pedobaptist to withhold what they believe to be a sign of the covenant for their children. Our authority is the Bible and we must submit to it lest our actions not proceed from faith (Romans 14:23).

Fences Make Good Neighbors

Anyone living in a neighborhood understands the blessing of a fence. We can have the best neighbors the world has to offer, but without a fence, we can sometimes run into difficulties. Where does one person's property end and the others begin? Who's responsible for the patch of grass between the two, and what happens when one neighbor wants to plant a new tree but we don't know where the property line is? Boundary markers are useful and important, but the distinction between what's mine and what's yours doesn't mean we can't love each other, don't care about what's going on in each other's homes, or won't lend a hand to our neighbor just because their yard isn't ours! It is because we have boundaries that we can be better, more loving neighbors without reason for discrepancy or upset.

Reaching Over Fences

The desire for ecumenical fellowship sometimes exists, but working through it practically may be difficult. How do we foster healthy, ecumenical relationships between churches? In most instances, the most probable avenue is through healthy ecumenical pastoral fellowship. Some of my best pastor friends do not share the same confession of faith with me, but our hearts beat together on most matters. As a result, we've been able to engage in various endeavors together: Preaching at each other's conferences or special events, pulpit swaps, or even joint vacation Bible schools or youth camps. We've even had others join us in some evangelistic efforts in the city. I've benefitted greatly from being able to talk to other pastors face-to-face about members who have left our church to go to theirs or visa-versa. It has been a blessing to be able to share resources and ideas with men who aren't entrenched in my context. Every Lord's Day, I am sure to pray publicly for a church in our network (Reformed Baptist Network) from other states and nations, but I'm also sure to pray for other faithful local churches and their pastors. When God's people can follow a pastor's leadership and shed territorial spirits, there is greater opportunity for unity and less church swapping and accountability avoiding in the entire community.

We should work toward fellowship when we share the common goal of God's glory, even though doctrinal disagreements exist. We know where the line is, so instead of spending our time determining who needs to rake the leaves, we can focus on the things that unite us. With all sincerity and love, we should be able to say to other brothers and sisters in different, yet very similar churches and denominations, "We thank God in all our remembrance of you, always in every prayer for you all making our prayer with joy, because of our fellowship in the gospel of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:3-5). No doubt, there are churches that are only churches in name, but there are others who are deeply committed to the things that matter. We don't need to change what we believe to join together in meaningful ways to bring the gospel to our communities.

Can you and do you give thanks to God for your brothers and sisters in Christ, not just in your local church, but around the world? Throughout your community? Fellowship is not easier outside the local church than it is inside, but it's worth the effort for the sake of God's name, for the health of His church, and for the growth of His people.

Easy Like a Midweek Small Group


Consistent throughout Scripture is the idea that the impossibility of perfection does not loosen its claim on us. God's vision of the bride of Christ, as of a people without spot or blemish, translates to an annoying shortage of loopholes. That means that when someone complains: "Shouldn't we be doing more in evangelism?" One cannot respond, no matter how many church profiles have been filled out, "I'm sorry, that's not in our target marketing zone." Everything is in your target zone. In a sense, every gospel believing church owes a debt to every person in the world, and to transform every facet of life to the glory of Christ.

If you think this is an exaggeration, listen to Paul's description of why God has given an assortment of gifted people among his churches. The point is: "to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ." (Eph 4:12-13)

Pretty simple, right? All your church needs to do is make sure everyone, everywhere attains the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. With such a lofty goal, one might fear that many churches would throw up their hands and say, 'Who is sufficient for such things?' and start praying for the grace of Christ and the power of His Spirit. Don't worry, it rarely comes to that. Rather, the answer lies in more programs, more committees, more ministries. Once you create a 'unity of the faith committee', a 'knowledge of the Son of God committee', and a 'mature manhood committee', you'll be well on your way.

After we've finished poking holes in our excuses of abdication, and our short-sighted self-sufficiency, where are we left? Church leaders and Christian believers must still wrestle with a calling to be all things to all people, combined with the inadequacy of a programmatic response, which leans toward an ingrown experience of meetings for the sake of meetings. How can the church avoid the freeze of indecisiveness and take meaningful steps toward an impossibly broad calling?

The answer lies, in part, in small groups. The universal actuality of small groups at every church, whatever name they go by, speaks to an inescapable awareness that this must be a vital part of what it means to be the church. Once a church affirms a need for small groups however, their implementation and execution spurs as much diversity as there are churches and denominations. Not only is that right and good, but it confirms the purpose of small group ministry, which is nothing more or less than being the church in at all times, or 'building up the body of Christ.'

Though most iterations of small groups offer some value, the best model comes in the form of same-sex groups of no more than six men or women, who meet weekly. Randy Pope terms this 'life-on-life discipleship'. Perhaps relieving the burden of the church's massive commission through small groups only kicks the can one step farther down the road. Yet it does provide a structure and context, and unleashes localized sovereignty in tackling the charge to all Christians: to make disciples of Christ.

Why small groups are hard

Small groups are the hardest things in the world. This is so for two reasons. First, because they are supposed to do everything. Secondly, they require relationships.

Not a single element of 'church'--with the possible exception of sacraments--drops out between Sunday morning gathered worship, and your Tuesday night small group. And yet it's hard to imagine two linked experiences, which share the same ultimate goal and values, feeling more different. That's why the complement of these two ministries, corporate worship and small groups, when healthy, compose virtually the entire body of church life. It's also why the ceiling for the small group's mission climbs to a spectacular, even unattainable height - the call is to do it all.

Take the three basic categories of a church's mission to see how small groups fulfill these in distinction to corporate worship:

  1. Exalt God's glory - Hearing God's Word unfolded and his grace extolled is one thing coming from the 'professional, polished Christian' at the pulpit, but it comes with quite a different force when it comes from the mouth of Sally, the swamped mother of three, who's been sick for the past month.
  2. Equip God's people - You may find it easier to ignore the prompting of the Holy Spirit when you can slip out the back after the sermon, and drown out the call to repentance and grace with brunch and a nap. That resistance proves harder when God speaks his knowledge and love for you through a friend who sees your habits, patterns, and dirty laundry, and offers counsel with compassion.
  3. Extend God's kingdom - "I hear there are human souls headed for judgment and damnation, and I want to care... but I can't be a missionary; after all, I dropped Spanish after two years." Small groups contextualize missions, service, and evangelism in such a way that members can see it as an opportunity, not a burden.

Small groups are the hardest thing in the world because, when done properly, they strip away the veneer of 'playing church', and press us to, as James says, to "not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves, do what it says." (James 1:22)

The evolution from hearing to doing comes on account of the second scourge of small groups: other people. Small groups, presume the presence--or at least the development of--real relationships. There's the rub. If the promise and potential of small groups sound too good to be true, that's because what has been glossed over is the actual messy spadework of building spiritual friendships, which will have to take up ninety percent of your time. As soon as someone can condense and systematize the process of spiritual friendship formation, we won't need anymore books, blogs, or conferences on discipleship.

In the meantime, however, these rare monuments of spiritual friendship are built, rather than discovered. Brick by brick: through transparency, weakness, repentance, grace, dependency on Christ, and refreshment in the gospel. Small group members cannot feel content to function as a shared interest group, a mutual admiration society, a social club, a learning lab, or merely a refuge to unburden. That's the challenge. All of those are good pieces, or fringe benefits, but each by itself falls short of the best: to grow collectively more and more into the image of Christ. Or to put it in C.S. Lewis terms, when it comes to small groups: 'We are too easily satisfied.'

A good small group requires people you're comfortable with getting uncomfortable with one another. We all have to grow in giving ourselves freely and without defensiveness, and also receiving feedback with humility, grace, and compassion. That's why small groups are the hardest thing in the world: we have to want the good that comes through the hard.

Why small groups are easy

Imagine your church published one of those handy little instructional pamphlets titled: "So you want to be a small group leader?" The packet sits with its topical comrades of vocational advice and hobby-building, such as: 'Mastering the art of real-estate' and 'Maintaining mindfulness through Chinese Checkers'. When you open the pamphlet, you are greeted by images of the small group leader amidst his daily tasks: saving souls, visiting the sick, caring for orphans, revealing fresh Biblical insights, leaping tall buildings, rebuking the Scribes and Pharisees, restoring a broken marriage, throwing a killer party, mentoring each member one on one, and then praying for them all throughout the day.

You may begin to wonder, not only if you're cut out for small group leadership, but whether or not Jack and Diane's Tuesday evening prayer and fellowship with ice cream and decaf coffee is meeting as many of your needs as it should. Such is the dual blessing-curse of leadership idolatry, which we might claim as the unique property of 21st century American evangelicalism. Of course that's not the case:

Isaiah 30:1-3 "Ah, stubborn children...who set out to go down to Egypt, without asking for my direction, to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt! Therefore shall the protection of Pharaoh turn to your shame, and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt to your humiliation."

We are always prone to set up leaders, whether in the church or in the world, as demi-gods, as Jesus-icons. Such misplaced hopes always end in disillusionment and frustration, for both leader and follower. The more we cling to human power instead of the God who saves, the more we set ourselves up for humiliation when he/she fails.

We set up a glass ceiling of leadership which seems impossibly high from underneath, and then when someone magically pops up on the other side, the temptation is for them to hoist themselves up by raising the ceiling still higher. We want more small group or ministry leaders, but then we wonder when no one signs up for a job description that sounds like bench pressing small vehicles.

In reality, small groups are easy. At least, they should be easy. John Butler describes the work of a small group as: 'representing the practical application of a church's beliefs.' Acts 2:42 describes what was happening in early small groups or house churches in similar terms: "And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." Turns out that the small group formula of: Bible, prayer, and snacks may not need quite as much reconstructive surgery as we think.

As referred to earlier, in examining the challenges of small groups, it takes effort to elevate a small group meeting from mere Bible study or hang out time to genuine fellowship-koinonia. However, that challenge mainly takes the shape of developing a culture of authenticity, not how many commentaries the leader consults each week. Our reformed culture tends to make the error of equating leadership fitness with one's ability to recite creeds and catechisms.

In synopsis, a small group has one chief objective each time it meets: take a living faith in Jesus, and apply that to life. Or if that's too long, you can simplify it to one word: apply. Apply. And then apply some more. The Holy Spirit bears the ultimate responsibility for doing this work in a believer's life, which happens through Sunday morning worship, as well as in all the other individually received means of grace. However, small groups can offer a context to receive this grace of transforming application in a more direct and wholistic manner than anywhere else, as members open up their lives, complete with sorrows, joys, struggles, and hopes. We grow in giving and receiving the trust, love, and Biblical counsel which incarnates how we receive Christ himself.

If we comprehend this objective of applying faith to life, the whole dynamic of a small group changes. No longer is the goal to extract an obscure nugget of Biblical truth or to make a new friend. The dominant question during preparation or discussion time should be: how does 'x truth' about Jesus and his grace meet me where I am today? How does God's word reshape my actions and perspective within this particular desire, success, or failure? Though it's far more desirable to shape our needs to God's Word, rather than searching to find God's prescription for our needs, the latter approach, if executed faithfully will still lead us to Christ and His grace. In fact, if your group accomplishes nothing except to read a psalm, openly share meaningful prayer requests, and then pray, you'll still be ahead of ninety percent of the pack. None of these exercises requires anything but a willingness to open our lives to God and other believers.

In 1869, the German physiologist, Friedrich Goltz, published a series of conclusions from tests he performed on frogs. In his book, Beitrage zur Lehre von den Functionen der Nervencentren des Frosches (Contributions to the Theory of the Functions of the Nerve Centers of the Frog), Golz revealed that he had put a number of frogs in a pot of water and heated it to 78.8 degrees Fahrenheit. At that temperature, the frogs obviously made efforts to get out. Golz then slowly turned up the temperature until the frogs died of at 107.6 degrees Fahrenheit. When he ran the experiment on decerebrated frogs, Golz discovered that the decerebrated frogs remained calm until they were fully cooked in the boiling water. I relay this story at the risk of offending both PETA and little boys who love frogs, in order to draw an analogy. In "late modernity," believers are in danger of becoming just like decerebrated frogs in the kettle. As the temperature of cultural wickedness increases around us, we remain motionless--until it's too late. While we silently tolerate and seek to negotiate with a culture in which abortion, sexual immorality, idolatry, materialism, abuse and every other form of wickedness runs ramped, we are being cooked. I am not suggesting that we become bombastic cultural warriors. I am, however, suggesting that we need to wake up to the reality of the wickedness in the culture in which we live and be willing to live as the faithful, God-honoring, sin-hating, righteousness-loving, truth-speaking believers Christ has redeemed us to be--no matter the cost. 

Jesus teaches us that there will be evidences of God's grace in the lives of those he redeems. The recipients of God's grace are marked as being poor in spirit, mournful, meek, merciful, peacemaking, pure in heart and hungering and thirsting for righteousness (Matt. 5:3-9). They will also be those who are "persecuted for righteousness sake" (Matt. 5:10).  Righteousness is not a culturally defined concept--something determined by statist ethics or media-driven agendas. As one theologian rightly explained, "What God says is right is right because he says it and He says it because it rests on his holy nature."1 This means that we must have our ethics shaped exclusively by Scripture. 

Recent exposés related to Rachael Dehollander, and other victims of sexual abuse, have served to prove how willing society--and, regrettably, even the church--has been to tolerate, cover and accommodate wickedness. If we have learned anything from this tragic situation, it is that we must wake up to the reality of wickedness in the world in which we live; and, be willing to call sin what it is. In order to do so, it is incumbent on us to defend the "straight line" of righteousness. Denhollander appealed to C.S. Lewis' reflections in Mere Christianity on the "straight line," as she faced her abuser: 

"I can call what you did evil and wicked because it was. And I know it was evil and wicked because the straight line exists. The straight line is not measured based on your perception or anyone else's perception, and this means I can speak the truth...without minimization or mitigation. And I can call it evil because I know what goodness is. And this is why I pity you. Because when a person loses the ability to define good and evil, when they cannot define evil, they can no longer define and enjoy what is truly good."

What a powerful word there is in this for us. We must seek, by a diligent use of Scripture, to appropriate into our own thinking, consciences and lives the "straight line" of righteousness. When we cease doing so, we will inevitably begin to accommodate evil. This is not simply a call for us to stand up for victims. It is a call for us to reject all unrighteousness. We must disabuse ourselves of the notion that something is wrong only because it hurts someone else in a perceptible manner. Sin is, first and foremost, rebellion against the King of Heaven. As R.C. Sproul put it, "Sin is cosmic treason...against a perfectly pure Sovereign." When King David finally acknowledged his sin of adultery and repented of it before the Lord, he confessed, "Against You and You only have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight" (Psalm 51:4). Accommodating culture on the horizontal plane is the inevitable result of downplaying the severity of sin on the vertical.

By nature, men and women approve those things that they know are abhorrent to God. The Apostle Paul--after opening the catalogue of natural depravity ranging from sexual immorality to unmercifulness (Rom. 1:29-31)--explained the science of cultural accommodation. "Who knowing the righteous judgment of God," he wrote, "that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them" (Rom. 1:32). Our natural instinct is not only to tolerate but also to practice and to approve evil in the lives of others. Accommodation can happen either explicitly (through vocal support or active engagement) or implicitly (by downplaying its severity or covering it up). When we accommodate societal sin in these ways we become just like the decerebrated frogs in the kettle. 

It is a travesty of the highest order when ministers publicly castigate fellow ministers for speaking out on such things as abortion, marriage, homosexuality and gender identity, while silently refusing to speak out on them. Appealing to kindness and ecclesiastical procedure--in attempts to censure vocal denunciation--is often nothing less than a smoke screen for fostering cultural accommodation. Rhetorical sophistry is par for the course, these days, for those who--wishing to blur the "straight line" of righteousness--silently promote ethical compromise.  

Believers are not to be zealous to uphold the "straight line" because we are better than others. God only justifies "ungodly" men and women (Rom. 4:5). Rather, we do so out of a desire to glorify the God who redeemed us and to reflect His image in a wicked and perverse world. We do so also for the sake of the Gospel. Jesus died for sin. It is impossible to hold out the abundant and lavish grace of God in the Gospel unless we first uphold God's holiness and standard of righteousness (Rom. 5:20). The law makes sin exceedingly sinful so that men and women will see their need for the forgiveness and reconciliation that is only found in Christ (Rom. 7:13; Gal. 3:22). 

There will, of course, be a cost if we decide to do what is pleasing to God and stand for the "straight line" of righteousness in a world that approves and promotes wickedness. Rachael Denhollander learned that painful truth. Though the cost may be great, we must remember that there is true blessedness in upholding God's standard of holiness. After all, Jesus didn't say, "Blessed are the cultural accommodationists, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." 


1. Van Til, C. The Defense of the Faith (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008).

As Jesus Sees It


One of the benefits of having young children while being a pastor is that it affords you the opportunity to get plugged into the local school system. When we first met with someone who worked at the school, we told them the name of our church. Their immediate response was, "Oh we used to go there! It's a great church! But...there just weren't enough teens for my kids to have friends." I also heard this from another person who had visited our congregation.

When I shared this with a friend of mine, he told me that he has had similar experiences. He noted that he had followed up with two families who had visited the church he pastors; but, that they ultimately decided to go elsewhere. Their reasoning was the same. The sound preaching of the Word was there--and that was the most important thing for them--but there just weren't enough young couples their age with whom they could connect.

As I was relaying these two episodes to a mentor, who is himself a retired pastor, he wistfully looked to the corner of the room and mused to himself, "You know, if every family that complained we didn't have a big enough youth group had just stuck around we'd have had the biggest youth group in town!" If I didn't laugh, I would have cried.

There are a lot of things that people look for in a church. Those things can be superficial (e.g. "the building needs to be beautiful"). They can be substantial (e.g. "The Word needs to be preached faithfully"). Others are understandable (e.g. "I want people my age with whom I can connect"). Often the things for which visitors are looking are things that lie outside of their control. For instance, a visitor may like certain things about a local church but cannot change the pastor's preaching. But, when visitors leave a church because of its composition (e.g. young, old, racial or otherwise) they are giving up on a church because of one aspect of the life of the church that they actually have the ability to do something about.

What amazing things would happen in local churches all over our nation if people attended solely for the sound ministry of the Word of God and then contributed their time, talents, and treasures to help make the church what it could be in other areas that are secondary, tertiary, preferential or understandable. What if, instead of seeing the church that isn't there, we saw the church that is there?

One of the things that the Apostle John sets out for us in the book of Revelation is how Jesus views seven churches. He views some as faithful but small (Rev. 2:9). He views some as needing to repent over serious issues (2:16). There is one church that Jesus sees as having a great reputation and seeming healthy on the surface, but which He explains is actually dead deep down (3:1). This last church in particular shows us that first impressions are often deceptive. If someone had shown up at the church of Sardis they would have said, "This church is respectable. They have a good reputation. They look good. And wow, check out that youth group. Sure, they're a little spiritually sleepy (3:3), but you know, every church has its problems."

When we consider the seven church that Jesus addresses in the book of Revelation, we find that He takes issue with almost all of them; and yet, He doesn't simply walk away from any of them. When it comes to the secondary issues, what if we all started seeing the church that Jesus sees? What if we all said, "You know, the church isn't what it should be or could be...yet; but, maybe the Lord will use me with my time, talents, and treasures to make it a place that can meet the needs of the saints? Instead of seeing the church as a place where people serve me, what if we all started to see the church that Jesus sees-a place beloved by Him (that may not be where it should be yet) and in which God may use me to build it up?

Jesus and the Victim Card


All men share in the common experience of being image bearers of God, in having descended from the same first parents, of being fallen in the same federal representative and in needing the same salvation in Christ. However, no two people have exactly the same experiences or conditionings in their lives. Even siblings who have grown up in the same home--who have experienced the same love and the same sinful dysfunctions of their parents--have many different life experiences. This fact is profoundly intriguing when we consider the way in which our unique God-ordained personalities and our unique God-ordained circumstances intersect. However, it can also be a profoundly dangerous thing when one seeks to use uniquely painful experiences in order to hide our sin. It is this danger to which I wish to focus our attention.

We are all masters at latching onto any and every excuse in order to dismiss our sinful actions and words. Like our first parents, we are natural born experts at blame shifting, covering ourselves and downplaying the severity of our sin when it comes to light. One of the most sophisticated ways that we can excuse our sin is by hiding behind the painful experiences of our lives. It is actually quite easy to adopt the persona of a victim. We have all--at some time or another--been the object of unjust actions or words. Accordingly, all of us have an ample supply of experiences with which we can play the victim card.

This problem is often compounded by the fact that God has commanded His people to bear one another's burdens. It is one of the greatest of all Christian virtues to sympathize and empathize with those who have suffered (physically, sexually or emotionally). When someone begins to share their burdens in the context of the church, they inevitably draw the attention of deeply compassionate church members. They immediately identify those who could give them the attention for which their hearts have longed. Love for approbation and affection then leads such a person to nurture his or her sin struggles by constantly linking them to past experiences of suffering. One of the evidences that this has happened is that he or she will talk about these struggles ad nauseam. No amount of friendship or counseling ever helps. Rather than experiencing growth in grace, they paralyze themselves by nurturing self-pity. Instead of going to the Scriptures and to Christ, they form an unhealthy dependency on others.

When we find ourselves in a situation in which we are seeking to help someone who is playing the victim card, we must remind them that Jesus also had painful experiences. The Scriptures tell us that Jesus wasn't particularly physically attractive (Is. 53:2). The Evangelists constantly draw our attention to the fact that he was ridiculed by His brothers (John 7:3-5), mocked by his fellow church members (Matt. 9:24), forsaken by his disciples (Matt. 26:31; 56), falsely accused by powerful government officials (Luke 23:6-12)  and crucified with criminals (Mark 15:27-28). As a boy, Jesus was most likely scorned by His friends on account of the fact that his mother conceived out of wedlock--though she was a virgin (John 8:41). We can be sure that Jesus had many other painful childhood experiences. Yet, he never adopted a victim mentality. Jesus never played the victim card. He never allowed his past circumstances keep him from pressing on in order to accomplish the will of His Father in Heaven.

The writer of Hebrews brings the experiences of Christ to the forefront of the secret of Christian growth in grace when he tells us that Jesus "was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin" (Heb. 4:15). On account of that, he can sympathize with us in our weaknesses. We have a great High Priest who was touched with the feelings of our infirmities. This is what qualifies Jesus to be the perfect helper in our time of weakness. No one will sympathize with us like Jesus. No one has power to change us but Jesus. Jesus became the man of sorrows in order to help His people in their time of sorrow. He never allows us to live in our sin, and never turns His back on us when we come to Him for grace and mercy to help in time of need (4:16).

While God calls us to be compassionate and sympathetic toward those who come to us with their burdens, we must also ask whether we are helping them or not. We may actually be enabling others to hide their sin behind their painful past experiences. At the end of the day, our job is to point others to Scripture and to the Savior who is revealed in Scripture. We must resist the snare of putting ourselves in the place of the Redeemer in the name of "being there" for those who are hurting. Our job is to point others to the only one who is able to give both us and them the grace that we need to change.

Moving Prayer to the Center of Ministry

God's people need to be prayed for. They need to led in prayer. They need to be taught how to pray. We all believe that prayer is important. Nevertheless, working our convictions about prayer into our practice of ministry is challenging. The Apostles declared "But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word" (Acts 6:4). Have you noticed that prayer actually comes first in this sentence, but that most often in conversations ministers will speak of "word and prayer." There may be something to this inversion of order in our speaking. Too often we expect that prayer will happen organically or accidentally, or to frame it more spiritually, providentially. And yet, we don't expect other aspects of ministry to unfold without intentionality, planning and leadership. Let us make sure that we are giving the ministry of prayer the same intentional focus that we are giving to preaching, teaching, worship, evangelism and discipleship. Below are five relatively simple, manageable and non-radical (ordinary Christians can do this!) ways to incorporate more prayer into your leadership and ministry. 

1. Pray for Officers--Most pastors already pray for the officers of their congregations. But often I find that our prayers are not specific enough or don't reflect the concerns that the officers have about their own lives. It is a peculiar challenge of ministry that it can be difficult for a pastor to maintain a spiritual fellowship with his officers, especially his elders. Conversations with elders tend toward routine assessments of ministry or analysis of problems in the life of the church. Pastors and elders frequently call each other with matters of concern about the church; matters concerning the soul are much less frequent. 

To move toward specificity in ways that are meaningful to the men you shepherd, ask your officers to write down on an index card how you can pray for them. Offering some categories may be helpful: career, family, fruit of the spirit, etc. Pray daily for these items, adding your own prayer emphases as well (emphases that you may or may not chose to share). At some regularly interval, ask again using the same plan. An intentional plan for prayer provides a clear way for a pastor to insure that he is ministering to his elders, and not simply with his elders. If there are differences in emphases or philosophy of ministry, a pastor's prayer for an elder will help keep his heart soft toward him as a brother and fellow elder. 

2. Make Corporate Prayer part of Your Stated Session Meetings--Prior to your stated meeting gather requests for prayer from the congregation, officers and staff. Before moving toward proposing ideas or developing plans for ministry, bring the life and ministry of the church before the Lord in prayer. Do a very brief devotion from Scripture to set the trajectory for the time. Twenty to thirty minutes in corporate prayer is a tangible way to keep in step with the Spirit as he seeks to minister Christ to the church. There may be concern over making the meeting longer, especially if you have a busy docket. However, praying together about ministry tends to shorten meeting. We are more likely to agree in the Lord with one another when we have sought the Lord with one another. Struggles for power and influence tend to dissipate when there is a shared sense that God is present and moving us forward. 

3. Have a Monthly Prayer Meeting for Elders to Pray for the Church--"Once a month!" you say. "Shouldn't elders pray daily for the church?" Yes. But this meeting is different. A monthly meeting provides a clear space in the life of the church where the congregation knows that the elders are praying specifically for them. Elders ask members to provide requests for prayer so that the elders can intercede for them. Elders can personally initiate with folks in the congregation, asking them how they can pray for them at the monthly meeting. Each elder can write a hand written note to the people that they prayed for. A stated monthly meeting also provides a place for elders to pray with people in times of crises or distress. A significant amount of prayer can take place in 45 minutes. No preaching. No Scripture reading. No discussion of ministry. All those things are already happening elsewhere. At this meeting requests that have been prepared beforehand are distributed quickly and prayed for. 

4. Have a Weekly Congregation-Wide Time of Prayer--For reasons we won't discuss here, let's acknowledge that it is difficult to get people to come to meetings designated for prayer. However, while folks won't come to a meeting to pray, they will pray when they come to a meeting. People will come to a meeting with good Biblical teaching/preaching and singing. Taking 15 minutes for corporate prayer in an evening service or mid-week meeting can be transformative in the life of a congregation. This time is led best by a pastor who sets the site of the congregation upon the kingdom of God. Prayers for the sick will inform the time, without overwhelming the meeting. The scope and gravity of the matters considered will be on par with the New Testament's own emphases for prayer. Consider having folks form small groups for prayer in this time. There are few things more encouraging than hearing the quiet rumble of a room full of folks praying. 

5. Lead with Prayer--Each one of the occasions for prayer listed above becomes an opportunity to pray for God's mission in and through the church. If you have a burden for your church, lead spiritually by praying with others before you develop plans for ministry. "Let's pray that God would draw young people in our city to Christ" is a burden. "I am starting an evangelistic Bible study downtown at Starbucks" is a plan. People in the church can be genuinely impressed with plans and supportive of our ministry without ever becoming partners in ministry. A principal form of partnership in ministry in the New Testament is prayer. Pray and lead with prayer in such a way to allow folks to become partners in ministry with pastors, elders, and ministry leaders. 

There is certainly more than one way to pray more in your ministry. We have found these five practices to be a blessing in our congregation for a number of years now. We have also seen how God has acted in very tangible ways among us as a result of moving prayer more to the center of ministry in our church. God delights to hear the prayers of his people and will bless your congregation as you move prayer toward the center of your ministry. And, it may be a lot easier than you think. For starters, you can share this post with some elders and pray about it!              

Jay Harvey is the senior pastor of Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Newark, Delaware. Jay has written articles for Tabletalk Magazine. He is also a contributor to Don't Call It A Comeback: The Old Faith for a New Day.

Church Revitalization


Effective Strategy? Biblical Mandate? Both! 

In 1980 a young Pastor, fresh from seminary, arriving at his first pastorate encountered some startling realities. Thinking he was informed as to the condition of the church, he soon learned just how uninformed he was. When you get "onsite" you soon gain "insight." Church attendance had diminished from over 1,000 to an average of 55. There were no children's Sunday School classes because there were no children. The average age in the congregation exceeded 70 and its past had become glorified nostalgia. On his first Sunday, the service ended at the expected 12:00 hour. As he and his wife made their way to the lobby. Amazingly, in spite of the infirmities of age, the congregation had exited and rapidly emptied the parking lot. The church attendance box for the week had been checked and they were ready to move on. There were no sounds of fellowship from lingering crowds only an empty sanctuary and parking lot within five minutes of the benediction. He went outside to try and speak to the departing congregation before and found himself embarrassingly locked out of the church building by the equally rapid exit of the part-time church janitor. After breaking into his own church to obtain his Bible and car keys, the pastor and his wife looked at each other with the sudden realization of just how enormous this pastoral challenge would be. But, there was more to come.

While all other churches in the area had monthly accounts at the local office supply store he soon learned his church was excluded and designated as "cash only" due to past payment delays. The first Session meeting revealed that not all of the elders had a personal saving relationship with Christ. They seemed to be well-meaning but did not "know the Lord." Of the two elders who exhibited some spiritual maturity, one was transferred within three months and the other died of leukemia. The church had not met its budget in years. Perhaps the most startling event was a phone call from one of the previous nine pastors revealing a tumultuous past. This pastor, while graciously welcoming the new pastor to his charge asked a strange and probing question. "Did you pray before you accepted this call?" After answering "yes" the obvious question was, "Why did you ask?" The answer was stunning. He informed the new pastor that he believed the church "had the mark of Satan upon it."

He then began to share the "horror stories" of what had happened to the previous pastors. All of which was not encouraging for a new pastor in his first pastorate. So what do you do?

While grateful for his seminary education he realized he was unprepared for this moment. But thankfully his seminary preparation had been framed by a relentless commitment to the inerrancy and the sufficiency of God's Word. So to his study and to the Scripture he went. I can verify all of the above since I was this young Pastor. So how would God's sufficient Word (which cannot be broken) instruct me to respond?

Here was a church in decline and its demise imminent. It could be said one flu season would put the church out of business. The Presbytery's counsel was to sell the property and use the proceeds to plant another church. Yet the neighborhood was full of unreached people. The daily vandalizing of the church revealed two factors. One, the neighborhood viewed the church as a derelict unused building. Two, there were people to be reached. Could this church be revitalized?  The Word of God was clear that I must preach and pray for revival but only the Lord could bring it. But I soon discovered a Biblical roadmap from Christ as to how pastors can lead a church back to spiritual vitality? Here is how that happened.

As mentioned, this took place in 1980, a year which also witnessed the rise and proliferation of "church growth" publications. Clearly, these resources were of interest to me and I devoured them. In doing so a few things became obvious. First, the writers of these publications were intelligently insightful and well-meaning. Second, most of the proposed remedies were "best practices" drawn from psychological, sociological and demographic ministry analysis. Of course, all of the recommended practices were "checked out" against the Scripture to make sure that no Biblical truths were being violated. Yet, few were actually derived from the Scripture. They were commended with the assurance that they would produce "statistical church growth" which surfaced another concern. While the Bible, in the book of Acts, records "statistical growth" in the church there is no indication that the leadership focused their ministry philosophy upon statistical church growth. The clear evidence is that 1st century church leaders focused on the spiritual vitality and health of the church with "statistical growth" recorded as a consequence of the apostolic ministry, not the objective of their ministry.

Furthermore, in my study, I was intrigued by the recorded expansion of the Kingdom of God through the church and the strategy employed by the Apostle in the Book of Acts.

First, the Gospel of the Kingdom proclaimed in Jerusalem by the Apostles established the church of Jerusalem (Acts 1-8). Then the Kingdom powerfully expanded as promised by the Lord to Judea and Samaria resulting in the church at Antioch (Acts 9-12). This eventually expanded the Kingdom to the world through another key church at Ephesus (Acts 13-28). At each step of the ever-expanding Kingdom through vibrant and healthy churches, statistical growth was a result of Gospel vitality furthered through the effective ministry of Gospel-healthy leaders and churches.

In Acts 13 Saul (soon the Apostle Paul) along with Barnabas are sent by the Church at Antioch on the first missionary journey. They employed a four-fold Gospel ministry strategy expanding the Kingdom to city after city. This recorded strategy was:

  1. Gospel evangelism and discipleship
  2. Gospel Church planting
  3. Gospel deeds of love, mercy and justice
  4. Gospel leaders multiplied and mobilized (at times they would leave leaders from their team because of the importance of leadership in the church.)

Later in Acts 15:36-16:5, after the conclusion of the first General Assembly of the New Testament Church in Jerusalem, Paul suggested to Barnabas that they take a second missionary journey. The narrative records their "sharp disagreement" as to whether John Mark should accompany them. The result was two mission teams instead of one. John Mark and Barnabas depart on their ministry while Paul takes Silas and later recruits Timothy on his second missionary journey. Now what would he do on this second missionary initiative?

Paul, repeated his four-fold strategy of expanding the Gospel of the Kingdom and he intentionally added another strategy - Gospel church revitalization to fulfill his repeatedly stated objective "let's return and strengthen the churches" - the same churches they had planted on their first missionary journey.

Gratefully Paul's strategy of church planting has been received and embraced with passion and energy but his emphasis on a strategy of intentional church revitalization is not embraced by today's denominations. For the most part struggling churches are left to fend for themselves and in some cases I have encountered they are encouraged to close the church while the denomination energetically pursues the planting of churches. But Paul, while remaining committed to church planting also intentionally and strategically sought to "strengthen the churches" who were stalled, plateaued or declining by leading them to spiritual health and vitality.

A Closing Challenge

In the book of Acts there are thirteen words uttered in frustrated anger from an enemy of the Gospel in Europe less than 25 years after the Ascension of Christ which I would love to hear once again - "these people who have turned the world upside down have come here also." We know who turned the "world upside down" - the people of God empowered by the Spirit of God. We know what turned the "world upside down" - the power of the Gospel. We even know how they turned the "world upside down" -- Gospel evangelism and discipleship; Gospel church planting AND church revitalization; Gospel deeds of love and mercy; and Gospel leaders multiplied and mobilized. We are not in need of new strategies we simply need to implement the Apostolic strategy to "turn the world upside down." So let's be specific. To reverse the two decade decline in the number of churches each year the evangelical church needs to do two things.

Focus upon the means of grace to produce Christ-exalting, Spirit-filled, prayer-saturated Bible-shaped, Gospel-healthy churches which are on mission, message and ministry.
Every church, presbytery, association and denomination ought to be fully committed to a two-fold Gospel ministry of church planting AND church revitalization. Not to do so is to embrace continued failure. More importantly not to do so is to at best ignore Christ and His Word and at worst to disobey Christ and His Word as well as the tried and true Apostolic strategy to fulfill the Great Commission. Let's plant more by closing fewer.

So what is church revitalization and how is it done? Glad you asked. In the next blog let's examine the church revitalization roadmap revealed by Jesus for us in His sufficient Word.

Dr. Harry L. Reeder, III is the Senior Pastor of Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, AL. Harry completed his doctoral dissertation on "The Biblical Paradigm of Church Revitalization" and received a Doctor of Ministry Degree from Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina (where he serves as adjunct faculty member). He is the author of From Embers to a Flame: How God Can Revitalize Your Churchas well as a number of other published works.

During a recent evening worship service at our church, the Rev. Scott Cook was ordained to the gospel ministry.  Scott is a recent graduation of RTS (Charlotte) and had previously been an outstanding intern at our church.  I had the enormous privilege of preaching from John 3:22-30, on the theme, "The Friend of the Bridegroom."  Ordination services are important, and I'd like to note just a few reasons why I love them.  

  1. The Church.  An ordination service reminds us that the church is not just a social body where we have all decided to hang out for a while.  Rather, it is the household of God and the repository of the means of grace.  God is always acting in the church through the means of grace, but in an ordination service we especially see God's hands resting on the man he has called.  It reminds us of God's presence in all that we do according to his Word.  An ordination service also reminds the church members that it is Christ's church more than it is their church.  Few things helps communicate to the church better than an ordination service the spiritual authority invested in the church, to which Christians are to yield proper submission by receiving God's Word from the minister's mouth.  It is also most wholesome in these gender-confused days for the church to see faithful and loving men exercising biblical leadership for the good of the whole church.  (My wife says that ordination services are her favorite: "It makes me feel like a woman to see all those faithful men in God-given authority," she says.
  2. The Gospel Ministry.  An ordination service involves the exalted Lord Jesus' on-going fulfillment of his promise to provide ministers to his gospel.  Paul writes that when Christ ascended into heaven "he gave gifts to men" (Eph. 4:6).  Among these gifts are "the pastor/teachers" (Eph. 4:11).  So to see a faithful man called and ordained into Christ's gospel ministry is to realize that our Lord continues to provide for the needs of the gospel in this world.  It gives me chills to lay hands on a new minister and to realize (without imbibing any Romish apostolic succession theories) that we are today carrying on a divine provision that goes back to the apostles and to Christ himself.  It reminds us what history is really about.
  3. The Gospel Minister.  An ordination service speaks extremely powerfully to those already ordained.  It reminds us of our high calling and its divine origin.  It points out to us the privilege and thrill of being a minister of the gospel.  It also invokes a fearful sense of responsibility and inadequacy that drives us to the grace of our Lord for our lives and ministry.  Just as, when conducting a wedding, I always make eye contact with my wife when the bride comes down the aisle -- seeing with crystal-clear memory the glory of my own wedding day -- during an ordination service I lift my eyes to my Savior and Master, letting him know that I do realize the privilege and obligation that he has given me by making me a steward of his grace.
TimWitmer.jpg, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals newest web site, is the result of Alliance members who see the need to build up leadership teams that truly shepherd their churches. Be sure to bookmark the website and come back often. Pastor-scholar Tim Witmer will provide regular insight and on-going coaching material for church leaders. His system contextualizes biblical principles for the specific ministry roles and needs found in today's Church.

Dr. Witmer's book, also titled The Shepherd Leader, has been tremendously helpful to pastors and church leaders around the world. Expounding on his leadership-themed books, Tim's blog will provide further instruction and furnish ministry materials to impact those in leadership and to encourage and equip pastors. You will also find a speaking schedule and free resources that will greatly benefit your ministry.

The fundamental responsibility of church leaders is to shepherd God's flock. The aim of is to provide a practical guide to shepherding in your church. Subscribe to today 

The Shepherd Leader give away is now closed. You may purchase a copy at

Winners of The Shepherd Leader

1. Thomas H, Colorado Springs, CO
2. Matthew P, Blandon, PA
3. Alex S, Apex, NC
4. Scott H, Vermillion, SD
5. James P, Globe, AZ
6. James R, Winona Lake, IN
7. Doug N, Brunswick, GA
8. Mark H, Bentonville, AR

Text links

A Tired Church or Tired Christians?

Which ministry-related programs are available at your church? Generally, whether reformed or not, many churches have Sunday school, a men's and women's group, perhaps a mid-week Bible study or small group, VBS during the summer, nursery, youth group, music ministry, and a homeless outreach. If you are a larger church, and depending on your location, you may have a ministry to military personnel, counseling center, outreach to high school students, AWANA, young mothers ministry, and/or short term missions. Each of those programs can require a significant amount of time and energy.

While I am not writing to advocate for or against certain ministry-related church programs, it has been my experience that churches with a variety of programs often shuffle the same people throughout those ministries to ensure the programs remain available and are running somewhat smoothly. It is the old 80/20 rule. Eighty percent of the work is accomplished by twenty percent of the people. 

When this occurs--and I have seen and heard numerous stories like this--it has the potential to produce a tired church. In other words, the saints, along with their children, as a recognized visible institution, are worn out. They are weary, but since they are intent on keeping all the programs afloat for consumers, they stay in a state of fatigue, especially considering help from the majority of the congregation does not exist.

At this point, ministry leaders begin to triage all church-based programs. The important ones remain while those that seemingly do not produce much fruit or never really got off the ground cease. Unfortunately, if the church is a highly programmed entity, the ministries that were cut will only be replaced by other ministries. The new ministries will be staffed by the same people thereby repeating the cycle of creating a tired church.

There are times, however, when the church is not tired, but Christians are. Perhaps one's church adequately staffs the various ministries it maintains and has overthrown the 80/20 rule, yet the people still seem a bit lethargic? Why is this occurring? While some Christians may not be in a  program-based church, a church that has many ministries, or a church that is experiencing the 80/20 rule, their lives are often program-led. I have observed this primarily with families with several children. 

Although this does not have to be the case, it seems that many families are consumed in the extracurricular activities of their children. On Mondays, they have soccer practice. On Tuesdays, one child has piano lessons while another child has to be dropped off at swim class. On Thursdays, the oldest son has martial arts training. On Fridays and Saturdays, depending on the age of the children, many of them spend time with their friends. This is not often downtime for parent(s). They have to catch up on things they did not accomplish throughout much of the week because they were chauffeurs for their children. Or what normally happens, depending on the financial predicament of the family, the mother is the chauffeur because the father/husband is working all day. She, therefore, is exhausted by the time the week comes to a close.

Then, there is church. What can tired Christians give to the church? They are exhausted when they walk in the front door and perhaps they are more tired when they leave. Yet, their day is not complete because Sunday is assigned for grocery shopping. Life continues and church is simply another thing added to the list of to-do's for the tired Christian.

There are tired churches and there are tired Christians. While some seasons in the church and/or in our lives may be busier than others, producing a sense of fatigue, I hope that the sense of weariness, in God's good providence, comes to an end, and you begin to develop a vibrancy to serve both in your home and in your church. That may take a bit of re-prioritizing at church and in the home, but it is possible to avoid being a tired church or a tired Christian.
On numerous occasions, I have heard pastors and parishioners remark, "Your wife is your first ministry." The aforementioned statement can easily be expanded to, "Your family is your first ministry." However, for the purposes of this brief post, I will focus specifically on the former.

At its basic level, ministry simply means, "service," or a "period of service." When a pastor is ministering, he is serving that individual or congregation. The form of service takes a variety of shapes. Pastors counsel; they preach; they pray for; they witness. While they minister in many other ways, this is one of the great joys of pastoral ministry--service. In a general sense, pastors model their savior. 

Where we fail in modeling our savior, however, is when ministry turns into something much darker than service. Instead of being something in which we, as pastors, find great joy and delight, something that requires sacrifice and prayer, ministry merely becomes a task to be accomplished, a person to be fixed, a thing to occupy your schedule, a box to be checked on your to-do list. From this perspective, one's heart can easily be absent from ministerial responsibility. Furthermore, with this outlook, ministry can evolve into a burden. You would much rather be doing something else, something that brings you joy.

Pastoral ministry can assume all of those categories. From one moment to the next, it can be joyful and a burden. One can have his heart somewhat committed while two weeks later his heart is not in it. Perhaps, in this life, those dynamics come with the territory. One day, however, we will not have to worry about the personal peaks and valleys of pastoral ministry and how they affect us. We will all be non posse peccare and delighting fully in our savior and the service of others.

In the meantime, pastors, like all others, fight to conduct their ministries in a way that is glorifying to God. Most would acknowledge, it seems, that a pastor's ministry includes much more than his congregation, though. It also includes his wife. According to the Holy Spirit, husbands are to "love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word..." (Eph. 5:25-26). Yes, this should be every husband's desire. It should also be every pastor's desire (1 Tim. 3:4), but that does not always happen.

Pastors, like others, miscarry. We do not love our wive as Christ loved the church. We do not serve and nourish her in the word. More particularly, and perhaps surprisingly, we do not do these things even when our spouse appears to be our first ministry.

You see, when our spouse simply becomes a task to be overcome, a place holder on our busy pastoral schedules, a line item to be checked, we are serving her but in the wrong fashion. We may be giving her the time she desires all the while doing so with the wrong heart motivation. Put differently, our body is present with our wife but our heart is far from her. Our time with her has devolved into another item on the docket. In this sense, making our wife our first ministry is not good.

Many times our spouse can discern this. There are other times when she may not. It is something buried deep within a pastor's heart that must be changed. Thankfully, if we walk down this path, there is hope. Christ, our savior, not only forgives our sin and imputes his perfect righteousness to us based on his birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, but he equips us, by the Spirit, to truly love and serve our wife. She truly becomes our first ministry. She is our delight and joy! We love serving her because she is a part of the bride of Christ and our wife. Our hearts, therefore, are in it when we serve and love her. She is more than a task to be accomplished in ministry (e.g., email); and besides Christ, she is our life.

I do believe our spouse should be our first ministry, but with all the different emotions and characteristics that ministry takes in a pastor's heart, we must be careful that she does not occupy that dark space that merely treats her, whether she knows it or not, as a person to fix, a burden to be overcome, or a place on our schedule from which we can move on once accomplished. That is what ministry can turn into even when we, as pastors, seem to present our wife as our first ministry. We want to take the high road and love our spouse making sure our hearts are in it because she is much more than a line item on our session docket. 

A Letter to Lecrae and Andy Mineo

Dear Lecrae and Andy,

We have never met, but I thought I would take the time to share some things with you. Your names have been floating around Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube quite a bit lately. As I am sure you know, not all of it is good. Apparently, it comes with the territory. The more one is elevated in the public sphere, the more one is susceptible to criticism. I hope in the midst of such criticisms, the Holy Spirit will sustain both you and your families.

The primary critique that flashes across my Facebook newsfeed is that you have abandoned so-called Christian Hip Hop (CHH). From what I gather, your lyrics and some of your public comments are not saturated enough with the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Some suggest, therefore, that you are compromising the essence of CHH. You are ashamed of the gospel. From my perspective, those critiques seem a bit harsh, but I am unaware as to what validates hip hop as Christian. Is it the amount of times you mention Jesus? Must the gospel be presented on every track much like a sermon? Here I reveal my ignorance.

Despite my lack of understanding as to the criteria that qualifies what is and is not Christian hip hop, I am a bit saddened by some of the criticisms I have read about your music. The tone and balance are unbecoming. People seem unnecessarily harsh and cynical. Many of the responses I have read lack grace, love, and gospel-edification. No one is beyond criticism, but when it comes, one must not only present law (i.e., this is what you are doing wrong), but also provide hope for change (i.e., in Christ, he restores and renews). At this point, I have not seen much of that. I would add that the best place for accountability, discipleship, and growth in Christ is the local church, not the public square. From what I understand, you brothers are connected and committed to a particular church. I would like to believe you are receiving the accountability required from your elders, deacons, and parishioners in your local congregation to help you along the way as you continue to produce music.

I hope Christians will be much more careful when offering comments, specifically negative ones, about your music. I, for one, am thankful for the music that I have heard from you. Some of the youth in my church listen to it; they are thankful as well. In God's providence, I can only imagine the doors that have opened for you as a result of your music. You have access to people with whom you can share the gospel and talk about the glories of Christ's Church that I will likely never have the privilege to talk to. I praise God for that! He is presenting different venues for his message to be shared. I only hope that as opportunities present themselves the Spirit of the living God will strengthen you and grant you clarity of speech to share the beautiful truths of the gospel.

I know how hurtful people can be in their criticisms. Pastors are not exempt. However, I pray God will continue to preserve you and your families in the faith. While I know your faces are in the spot light, your families are affected as well when charges are leveled. Whatever happens from this point on in your ministry, I pray the Lord bless you and keep you, may his face shine upon you and give you peace.


Pastor Leon Brown

The Crucifixion of Ministry

As I prepare to gather a core group (or "launch team," depending on your perspective) for a church plant in Richmond, Virginia, I am attempting to get ahead by developing a leadership training manual. Thankfully I have many resources from other churches in NAPARC member congregations. That takes a weight off my shoulders that I do not need to reinvent the wheel.

One of the most beneficial books I have read on ministry is Andrew Purves' The Crucifixion of Ministry: Surrendering Our Ambitions to the Service of Christ. It revealed many of my self-centered ambitions in ministry while at the same time providing hope for change in Jesus Christ. If the Lord wills that I plant this church, I definitely hope to have this book on the reading list for leadership training. 

Here are some quotations from the book.

"My goal in this book is to offer a perspective on ministry and illustrate a practice that liberates ministers from the grind of feeling that 'it's all up to me.'" (11)

"The ministry of Jesus the Lord is displacing me from the throne of 'my' ministry. In truth it was never mine. We refer to our ministries as if we own them and as if they are all about us. We deeply invest in our own success, although we wrap it up in pious language to soften its prideful aspect. We wish for professional preferment and fulfillment. We enjoy the applause and warm affirmations when they come. We are human, after all." (25)

"To ministers let me say this as strongly as I can. Preach Christ, preach Christ, preach Christ. Get out of your offices and get into your studies. Quit playing office manager and program director, quit staffing committees, and even right now recommit yourselves to what you were ordained to do, namely the ministry of Word and sacraments." (44) 

"Is ministry something we do, or is ministry something Jesus does? The answer, of course, is Yes. We have a ministry, but it is a derivative. It depends in every way upon the continuing ministry of Jesus. His ministry is in the present tense. This is the good news. He is not Lord in name only, but also in act, and not only in the past act, but in the present and future act." (52)

"Ministry is not a matter of a minister working hard, preaching relevant sermons, being a super-efficient congregational administrator, attending those who are sick, downcast, grieving and lonely, all the while growing the congregation and charming the people with a winsome and attractive ability to relate warmly. Outside of abiding in Christ, we have no ministry. It matters not how full our pastoral tool bag is and how much energy we bring to the tasks of ministry. We can do nothing apart from Christ. (119).