Pastors, Please Enjoy Christmas with your Family

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One December I spent 22 nights away from home leading up to Christmas Day. Then I repented and never did that again!

The December schedule is fast-paced for many but perhaps more so for pastors. Class Christmas parties, community events, special Christmas services at church – if you try to do it all it can become too much. This year Christmas Day is on Sunday, so even that day cannot be fully devoted to your children and family. While many travel to be with family on Christmas, pastors rarely do so because Christmas is too important to miss, including the traditional “Christmas Eve services” many churches have. For 25 years I never went “home” for Christmas. I’m not complaining about that, and I don’t have any regrets about it. It’s just reality for a pastor.

Please don’t misunderstand, I love and loved all that we do in our churches for Christmas. I love to sing the traditional Christmas songs. Joy to the World is my favorite. Christmas Eve services can be truly special times of worship, marked with tenderness and wonder and joy. And Christmas provides our churches unique outreach and ministry opportunities. But pastors need to be careful not to neglect their families during this meaningful time of year, and church members need to help them in this regard.

So, what is a busy, conscientious pastor to do? Here are a few things to consider. First, prioritize your children’s Christmas activities. Attend their school Christmas events. If you don’t have children, or if your children are grown up, you might have grandchildren activities to consider. Family commitments change with the seasons of life. Churches should understand that a pastor with children in the house has obligations (and opportunities) that older pastors may not have.

Second, as your children grow, and are able, involve them in the special Christmas ministry opportunities of the church. One church I served prepared and delivered meals on Christmas Day to hundreds of homes. We delivered meals to widows and shut-ins that had no one to spend Christmas with and we delivered meals to poor families. One thing I was impressed with was how many families made this a Christmas tradition with their children. Parents used it as an opportunity to teach their children the importance of serving others, especially the poor and lonely. Some churches sing Christmas carols in nursing homes and other places, which gives families an opportunity to sing and serve together.

Third, take some time away after Christmas. And churches, be generous with your pastor concerning his vacation days and time away from the church field. It’s difficult for pastors to truly get a “day off” unless they leave town. I know that was true for me (and with cell phones it’s next to impossible!).

There are other things you could add to this short list. And please do. My main point is this – a big part of a pastor’s responsibility is to model family-life for the church. One way we do this is by taking care of ourselves and our families. Our wives and children will understand when a pressing matter or crisis takes us away, as long as it is truly a crisis event and not us constantly scheduling them out of our lives.

Things happen. Pastors and parents make mistakes. We all do. But when we do, we need to repent and change course. That’s what I did in December 1995 when I spent 22 nights away from home leading up to Christmas. I’ve had to correct course since then as well, but I won’t quickly forget what I learned 21 years ago.

Checklist for Planning a Worship Service

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Recently I led a seminar for the Columbia Basin Baptist Association on planning a worship service. The following is the handout I used and I thought it might be helpful to others who plan worship services.

A classic and helpful understanding of corporate worship was given by Soren Kierkegaard more than 150 years ago. He said that in a service of worship God is the audience, the congregants are the performers, and the pastor is the prompter. If this is a correct, and I believe that it is, then worship needs to be directed toward God with the intent of pleasing Him. Worship leaders are to lead congregants to “perform” for God, to engage with God, in thought and heart and behavior. Worshippers are not consumers of religious products and the worship leaders are not the suppliers of such products.

This in no way infers that worship leaders should ignore the presence of unbelievers and church guests attending a service of Christian worship. Worship services are a major entry way into churches and into the Kingdom for the unbeliever. As missionaries have identified, unbelievers experience two “conversions” as they come to Christ. First, they are converted to us. Second, they are converted to Christ. They first ask the question, “Do I like/respect these church people?” If they do, then they will listen to what we say about Christ. Worship leaders must guide the congregants with clarity and understanding, much like a Holy Land tour guide explains each step of the pilgrim’s journey through Jerusalem. With this in mind, the following checklist is helpful in worship planning.

1. Prayer

a. For what do we need to pray? What do we need to say to God? What do we need to hear from God? Even as the pastor prepares his sermon, he should prepare to lead the congregation in prayer by making a prayer list as the week passes.
b. When will we pray? Beginning of the service? Pastoral prayer? End of service?
c. Who will lead in prayer? Methods of praying that will be employed?

2. God’s Word, the Bible

a. What passages will we read and when will we read them?
b. Who will we select to read God’s Word? (Pastor/preacher, men, women, children)
c. Is the reading of God’s Word a central act of our worship?

3. Music/singing

a. What do we want to teach through the song(s)? Does the song teach biblical truths?
b. Does the congregation know the song?
c. Is the song singable? Is the music in a range that men and women can sing?
d. Does the song magnify God and exalt Jesus Christ?
e. Do any of the songs mention Jesus? The gospel?
f. Does the music leader engage the congregation and lead them to sing? (eye contact, facial expression, smile, good use of transitions between songs)
g. When using a “praise team,” does each member sing every verse? If not, what does this communicate to the congregation?
h. Caution: worship music can sometimes become performance rather than leading the congregation to participate, making the congregation the audience rather than God.

4. Testimonies

a. Is there someone who can share a testimony that connects to the theme of the message and the Scripture?
b. Has someone experienced God and the church would benefit from hearing their story?
c. New believer testimonies, including young people?
d. Testimonies of sharing Christ with a lost person?

5. Message/sermon

a. What biblical text does God want me to preach/teach?
b. What is the central truth of the text?
c. How and when will I read the text? When I do, how should I hold the Bible?
d. How will the text and its truth be communicated and applied?
e. Big Question for the preacher – Do you believe what you say, or is this just helpful information or good advice?
f. Am I preaching to those present?
g. What do I want the congregation to know, believe or do as a result of the message?
h. Am I aiming for the heart and not just the head?
i. Who attending needs to know Christ as Savior or follow Him in baptism?
j. Is PowerPoint helpful?
k. Is the message internalized?
l. What level of eye contact do I seek to maintain (at least 80 percent)?

6. Opportunity to respond to God’s call

a. How will we give people the opportunity to say “yes” to Christ?
b. Methods of response/invitation? Will we use multiple methods?
c. How will we share with the congregation decisions for Christ that are made in the worship service?
d. How will we welcome new believers and new members into the church?

7. How will you receive the offering (the correct word is “receive,” not “take”)? How can we do stewardship education as we prepare to receive the offering? Is there information we can share about how this offering will be used in God’s work?

8. Is there something we can celebrate or highlight as we worship?

9. Is our worship “indigenous?” i.e. using the gifts and talents of the people God has given us?

10. If a lost person, or a person unfamiliar with our church, attends today, would he know what to do during every aspect of the service? Are we assuming people know how to find a biblical text, have a Bible, or that they know the stories of the Bible, or that they know when to sing, etc.? How can we make everything clear and helpful to a guest?

11. How do we give new people an opportunity to learn about Christ and our church?

12. Are there opportunities to express joy and gratitude as we worship?

The pastor/preacher is the worship leader of the church because he is the church’s theologian by the call of God, spiritual gifting, educational training, and the call of the church. As a part of his calling, therefore, the pastor must give direction as to the content and flow of the worship service. Worship planning can be done as a team, and it’s generally best to do it that way. But the pastor knows what he’s trying to accomplish through the message and the worship service should flow from that.

In addition, wise pastors know that vision transfers through people not paper. The vision that God gives a pastor (the source of the vision must be from God) must be transferred into the hearts of the people in order for it to become the vision of the church. This is a key job of the pastor as servant-leader. The worship service provides the pastor his best opportunity to lead the church into God’s preferred future.

The Praying Pastor

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When the congregation gathers it doesn’t need nor does it expect “cool” and “hip” in the pulpit. What the congregation needs and wants (whether or not they articulate it) is a word addressed to God and a Word from God.

That thought came to me this morning as I was praying and thinking about our churches. I have written about this before, but I am really burdened by the need for more prayer in our church gatherings. The prayers offered are usually quite brief, lacking depth and breadth in terms of Kingdom matters. I realize that sounds judgmental, but please know that I am too often guilty of the same. Too often when I consider myself and my ministry there is more doing than praying, and, even worse, there is doing without praying.

I know the Bible well enough to know that God’s people experience utter disaster unless He shows up and takes action. I believe Paul expressed something similar about himself when he said “I am unspiritual” (NIV) or “I am carnal” (KJV) (Romans 7:14). What did an unspiritual Apostle Paul do? I think he sometimes acted without prayer or made decisions based on experience or human reasoning without seeking God’s mind on matters.

So what do I mean by the congregation needing to hear a word addressed to God? I mean that they need to hear God’s man speaking to God on their behalf, leading them to the Throne, confessing sin, asking for forgiveness, interceding for the lost and the persecuted and the missionaries and the leaders and the servants of God. God’s man pouring his heart out to God as the congregation listens and engages with their hearts. It’s not that others cannot and should not lead in prayer when the congregation gathers, but the pastor must do so. No one prepares and plans for the Sunday meeting like the one who occupies the pulpit.

Leonard Ravenhill tells the story of a special worship gathering involving many pastors. Each pastor was to do only one thing. One would pray, one would read the Scriptures, another would preach, and one would appeal for the offering. Charles Spurgeon was chosen as the one to preach, but as he heard explained how things were going to work, the famed preacher said, “If there is only one thing that I may do tonight, I want to offer the prayer” (Revival Praying, p. 80). Wise man.

We preachers must lead our people in prayer and teach prayer, and we teach prayer by praying with and for our people. We hear a great deal today about great preachers. We need to hear more about preachers who pray and who lead their people to pray for the great concerns of God’s Kingdom.

Without question, pastoring a church is more difficult today than at any time in recent memory. We have churches in the Northwest that are discussing whether to admit into membership, or employ in the church (yes, I’ve had one phone call about this), individuals involved with marijuana in some way. Our churches and church members are dealing with same-sex marriage and transgender issues. We are in the midst of a presidential election campaign with two deeply flawed candidates, and this too is causing discord among Christian leaders and in some churches.

All of that is to say that pastors need prayer, and need to pray, more than ever. If you’re a lay person, please pray for your pastor and be his friend. More than once the encouragement of a layman helped me to do the right thing when I was a pastor. Pastors, more than any other person, earnestly strive to speak the truth in love and dispense grace, while also being faithful to reprove, rebuke and correct us when we go astray. They need our prayers.

If you’re a pastor, do not delegate all of the public praying to others. If the pastor is to lead in only two things, it would be the teaching of the Word of God and prayer. No one is better positioned to know the needs of the church and community than the pastor. And no one cares more, or thinks more deeply about Kingdom matters with each approaching Sunday, than the pastor. As you study to prepare the Sunday sermon, think also about the matters you want to address in prayer that Sunday. Take notes, make a list of those matters with which you want to approach God while worshipping with your people.

One final question – who have you heard that really knows how to pray? I can think of a few, but too few. That bothers me less, however, than wondering if my name would come to anyone’s mind when asked that question.

Lord, have mercy, and teach me to pray.

Collaborative Ministry Vibrant in the Northwest

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In the past few weeks we have witnessed the abundant fruit of collaboration among our Northwest Baptist churches. It’s been very encouraging! On April 12 the semi-annual meeting of the Central Washington Baptist Association focused on missions. Wapato’s First Baptist Church was nearly full as pastors and church members gathered to share stories of new church plants, collegiate ministry, and various mission trips that Central Association’s member churches are doing. One thing I learned is that Wapato, a town of about 5,000 souls, is 76 percent Hispanic. Spanish is so dominant that the menu of the restaurant in which Paula and I ate was in Spanish – with no English translation. Who would have guessed it?

On April 21 the semi-annual meeting of the Inland Empire Baptist Association also focused on missions. Dayspring Baptist Church in Rathdrum, ID hosted the meeting which nearly filled the church. Several churches set up displays highlighting their mission’s involvement. Reports were given about associational camps and ministries, demonstrating that when churches work together we can accomplish ministry that has far-reaching impact.

On April 23 we had a truly historic one-day training event at our NWBC building in Vancouver, WA, in which 160 mission team members, from over 30 Northwest Baptist churches, gathered to prepare for our East Asia mission trip this summer (July 28 to August 11). Our convention of churches will serve all of our East Asia IMB missionaries and their children. This is their first such retreat since 2009, and with all of the changes at the IMB (1,132 missionaries and staff leaving the field in the past few months), this retreat is extremely important. More than 140 missionaries in East Asia have left the field, but still we expect about 1,200 missionaries and children at this retreat. The response of our pastors and churches to this unique opportunity has been overwhelming and truly humbling. No one church could do something like this, but together, collaboratively, it’s amazing what God can do with us. Even if your church is not sending a team member, your prayers and Cooperative Program missions giving make you a part of the team that will minister to our East Asia missionaries.

On April 25-27, 268 church planters, spouses, children, and a wonderful group of volunteers (who provided VBS to the 105 children of our church planters), gathered at Cannon Beach for our annual Church Planter’s Retreat. The focus was on evangelism. It involved both training and inspiration, reminding each of us that new churches are intended to be gatherings of new believers, not new gatherings of longtime Christians. We are grateful to God for leading these families to plant their lives in communities and neighborhoods that are underserved with gospel witness.

On April 15-16 our annual NWBC Women’s Summit hosted 153 women from 48 churches. Twenty-two breakouts were provided, focusing on the theme “Go Deeper with God.” Nancy Hall leads our women’s ministry as a volunteer and provides outstanding service to our churches and our women.

In addition to all of this, Riviera Baptist Church in Eugene hosted a Region 4 leadership training event on April 9 in which 61 preschool and children’s workers received training, as did several others. A similar training event will be hosted by Airway Heights Baptist Church on May 14 for churches in Region 5.

April ended with our annual Student Conference, in which more than 400 young people and their leaders, from 31 churches, gathered at Greater Gresham Baptist Church. About 30 made decisions for Christ!

As I think back over the last month, gratitude fills my heart for the pastors and leaders of our churches. They are doing the frontline work of ministry. They are walking by faith. And they are walking together with their ministry brothers. Their churches are cooperating associationally and within the convention to do missions and evangelistic work.

Which reminds me – on May 23-25 we have our biennial “Oasis Retreat” for pastors, staff and wives in Seaside, OR. Over 200 have enrolled, which we believe is our largest group ever (though it goes back 40 years so we aren’t certain of that). Paula and I have been preparing for the past couple of months to minister to our pastors and wives during these days and we are praying that each participant will experience true spiritual refreshment. Please pray for our Northwest pastors and spouses. They are godly people who love Jesus, love His Church, and want to hear from Him, “Well done, good and faithful servant” on a day soon to come.

This Side of Glory

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“It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things” (1 Peter 1:12).

This amazing statement acknowledges the tremendous privilege that belongs to those who have lived on this side of Jesus’ earthly life. The Old Testament prophets “predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow” (1 Pet. 1:11b), but their knowledge was partial. They spoke out of the darkness of the light that was to come, and in this sense they served us rather than themselves. Indeed, even the angels were “in the dark” before the glory of Christ was revealed in Bethlehem and Galilee and Golgotha.

Sometimes we think of “glory” as that which is yet to come, forgetting the glory that is ours in the present. Can you imagine what life would be, with all of its suffering and struggles and victories too, if we did not have Jesus and all that He is to us? For 2,000 years, up to the present moment, believers have uttered the simple prayer, “Help me Jesus,” in moments of despair and confusion. Martyrs are today dying with “Jesus” on their lips, sometimes quoting Jesus’ own words as He faced His killers, “Father, forgive them.” The privilege of prayer in Jesus’ name, with all that means, is glory.

It’s hard to fathom how life would be were it not for knowing “The Sermon on the Mount” or the “The Farewell Discourse.” Untold thousands have been sustained by Jesus’ words, “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and falsely say every kind of evil against you because of Me. Be glad and rejoice, because your reward is great in heaven” (Matt. 5:11-12a). Seeing how Jesus spoke to the “Woman at the Well” and the woman who wept on His feet has enriched the entire world. Which has brought us greater blessings, deposits of gold mined in the hills, or Jesus’ “Parable of the Prodigal Son?” How can we compare the beauty and glory of the most precious gems to that of Jesus’ words “For God so loved the world ….” Give me “I am the bread of life” and you can keep “riches untold.”

Recently I read a fascinating book titled The Man Who Touched His Own Heart by Rob Dunn. The book describes man’s relationship and investigation of the human heart from ancient times to the present. One thing that struck me is that early pioneering heart surgeons often despaired to the point of quitting as their patients died while they strived to develop lifesaving methods that are commonplace today. Jack Gibbon, the inventor of the iron lung, only used it a few times. His last two surgeries were on 5-year-old girls, both of whom died. He never again performed a surgery. His invention, and its perfection, has saved hundreds of thousands of lives, but he lived on the other side of “glory,” unable to fully see what his work would one day mean.

The glory of knowing Jesus and the New Testament witness brings us a “living hope,” as Peter calls it (1 Peter 1:3). It is living because it is founded upon the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The glory that is ours because we have a living hope is greater than every other thing we could know or have. It’s better than our jobs, our families, our ministries, everything. The Old Testament prophets predicted it, as looking through the darkness, but we possess this living hope. We see clearly the glories of Christ. When our eyes are rightly focused, we see all that there is to see through the lens of Christ’s glory.

To see the glories of Christ is to know that Jesus is worth everything. Are you suffering in your service to Jesus? He is worth it. Do you lack “stuff” because you have chosen to serve Jesus? He is worth it. I’ll always remember sharing Christ with a man in Bangladesh, my youngest son Luke with me, and the man told us, “If I do this, I might get killed.”   He meant that if he received Jesus he might die. What could we say to him except that Jesus is worth it? Jesus is worth everything. This side of glory, with all that Jesus said and did, we know that Jesus is worth everything.

I think it would have helped those pioneering heart surgeons if they could have seen what would become of their work. It would have blessed Isaiah and Jeremiah, and even the angels, had they seen the glory that is Jesus. We have seen Him. His words give us life, shape our thoughts, and enrich our lives beyond expression. What a privilege is ours to live this side of glory!

Raising Preacher Boys

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We used to call them “preacher boys,” but increasingly we are seeing grown men called to preach and pastor, often in their “second career.” One pastor I met was called to his first church when he was nearly 70 years old. And he’s doing a good job! Many others were in their 40s or 50s and had retired from the military or teaching school.

The growth in the number of “preacher men” is a great thing for many reasons. These men come with real-world experience and are highly motivated to “serve the Lord.” They are not thinking career. Their passion is to obey Christ. And preacher men are often largely self-funded because they have another job or retirement income. One pastor in southern Oregon has several such men in his church. He is discipling them and training them for whatever God might have them do.

I have written before that our greatest need in the Northwest is for more pastors, especially bi-vocational pastors. This means that a primary job for churches and pastors is to identify and train-up “preacher boys,” or “preacher men,” for ministry leadership. The local church reaches more people when it has more leaders. As a convention of churches, we will reach more people for Christ as we have more pastors and more churches. Leaders reach people. It’s mathematical. One man cannot do the work of ten. Ten men of equal ability and context will reach ten times the number of people that one will. Likewise, all things being equal, ten churches will reach ten times as many people as one church.

To help facilitate the training of pastors and other ministry leaders, the NWBC has started Contextualized Leadership Development (CLD), which is a branch of Golden Gate Seminary, designed to train ministry leaders. To take CLD classes a student does not need a high school diploma or a college degree. They simply need a strong desire and calling to serve Jesus Christ. Our first CLD location was Portland, which began in January 2015 with a class on preaching. Pastoral ministry will be taught in Portland this fall. I say, “our first CLD location,” but we have other CLD centers operating in the Northwest that were started independent of the convention, which is great. Our desire as a convention of churches is to increase the number of CLD centers, and to start some in areas and among peoples that do not have a CLD center. Two of the current centers are non-English (Russian and Burmese, with a third likely to start this year in the Tagalog language).

Our biggest need in order to expand CLD was to find someone to direct the program in a part-time role. We now have that man. I am very excited about this as he will connect with pastors and Directors of Missions across our convention, helping you to create your own CLD Center. I can’t announce his name yet, but that should be forthcoming in about a month.

This week I spoke to the national CLD leader for Golden Gate Seminary, Don Beall, and Don told me something that might help many of our churches to better train their preacher boys. Many churches don’t have regular worship services on Sunday evening or Wednesday anymore. It is difficult for the pastor to give up the pulpit on Sunday morning with regularity, so that his preacher boys can learn. Don said that one church he knows has scheduled worship one Sunday evening per month as an opportunity for someone other than the lead pastor to preach. I thought that was a great idea and it’s something you might consider.

Lay leaders, let me encourage you to allow your pastor to do what it takes to train up the preacher boys and men in your church. When I was a pastor I felt the pressure to always be in the pulpit on Sunday morning and Sunday evening. But I was wrong. I should have given more opportunities to others in the churches I served. If I had it to do over again, I would seek to educate our church that a part of my responsibility is to train future pastors, and I would give them more opportunities to preach. That said, there are many nursing facilities that would love to have someone lead a worship service on Sunday, or on another day. In my first three years of preaching ministry, ninety percent of my opportunities to preach came in nursing homes. It was there I learned to “speak up” so they could hear me. And it was there that I learned not to be offended when they fell asleep!

We need more ministry leaders in the Northwest. And we need to call them out from our churches and train them up. With all of the political and moral turmoil in our nation, it is a good day to serve the Lord!