Archive for January, 2014

From the mail bag

I was recently asked, via email, for my answer to two questions regarding the multiplication of healthy churches. Given the nature of email, I composed a relatively quick, but hopefully helpful reply. I’m going to reproduce it below and perhaps tease it out some more in the days ahead. I suppose a test of whether anybody is still reading this blog would be to ask those with questions about any of these statements to send me an email via the mailbag function. Anyway, here goes:

What do you see as long-term consequences of failing to produce healthy reproducing churches?
(1) Disobedience to Christ!
(2) Existing churches become ingrown, consuming all resources on themselves instead of mobilizing them to advance the Great Commission.
(3) Eventual decline as existing churches age and begin down the backside of the health cycle.
(4) Failure to develop a new generation of leaders because existing leadership slots are all full.

What in your analysis are the causes for the failure to produce healthy reproducing churches?
(1) Tendency to view the focal point of the Great Commission as merely evangelism rather than making disciples and forming congregations. Net result is lots of professions, but no deep level commitment to spiritual transformation and building leaders.
(2) View of church growth that focuses drawing more and more people into a single congregation which results in more and more resources being consumed to serve and house that congregation rather than spread out by planting new congregations. Net result is that resources that could be unleashed for church planting and missions are tied up in facilities and support ministries.
(3) On the mission field, failure to adopt reproducible strategies for church planting (e.g., using missionary funds to build a church building that the indigenous people cannot afford, thereby sending the message that they can’t really plant churches themselves). Really, this is merely a variation of the same problem happening on the field that was described in the point before this.
(4) As congregations become more ingrown, they become less effective in evangelism and discipleship, resulting in fewer converts, increasing pessimism about being able to give up resources (money, people) for church planting, and growing distance from the culture around it.

I suppose I could tease this out a little more, but I think these are the big roots.


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Spreading the Word in Metro Detroit

I hope you have gotten off to a good start in 2014. One of my goals for this year involves being more active on the blog–which is why you may have noticed some activity during the first two weeks of the year. I’m actually away on vacation this week, but did want to pass along a link to the new ministry we are starting this summer. I announced it a couple of months ago, so it’s not totally new news, yet the website helps fill in the picture more clearly.

Our desire and prayer is that Spread the Word 2014 will be used by God to ignite a gospel-centered movement to plant churches in this region. Only God can do what needs to be done, but we want to faithfully use the means He has promised to bless. Metro Detroit is a huge field ready for harvest. Please pray that God will do a great work for His name’s sake.

If you know anybody that might be interested in serving with Spread the Word this summer, please pass along the link and encourage them to prayerfully consider it. Application information is on the site. Thanks.

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Feeding and Leading

The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.
1 Timothy 5:17

Although it has been overused, there is some truth to the adage, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” The New Testament is clear that one mark of a healthy congregation is godly leadership. The Apostle Paul’s church planting strategy included seeing that godly and gifted men were in place to provide spiritual leadership and biblical teaching for the new churches (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5; cf. 1 Ths 5:12). When Paul writes to Timothy about “how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God,” high on his list of concerns are the qualifications and function of pastors. The church is healthiest when its spiritual leaders function as God commands.

The godly Puritan pastor Richard Baxter also saw the connection between the proper function of godly leaders and the health of the church: “If God would but reform the ministry and set them on their duties zealously and faithfully, the people would certainly be reformed. All churches either rise or fall as the ministry doth rise or fall (not in riches or worldly grandeur) but in knowledge, zeal, and ability for their work.” Baxter simply reflects biblical wisdom here—godly and gifted shepherds are needed to guide God’s flock into spiritually green pastures and guard them from spiritual harm (cf. Acts 20:28-32).

Yet, we live in a day where the idea of spiritual leadership in the local church has shifted away from its biblical moorings. Both the church and pastoral ministry have felt the eroding influence of secularization. I share John Armstrong’s concern on this:

The way evangelical ministers presently deal with scriptural authority leaves them in a profoundly vulnerable position. While affirming the Bible’s authority, large numbers of pastors now se it ever so lightly (inconsequentially) in preaching popular sermons aimed at restoring the emotional and spiritual health of their flocks. They counsel with profound dependence upon the newest fads and popular psychological books while they lead with the sharpest managerial techniques of the most successful corporations of our age (“Semper Reformanda” in Reforming Pastoral Ministry [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001], p. 25.).

Here’s the sinister nature of secularization in the church—pastors still to do what God says to do (feed and lead), but they do it according to secular rather than biblical principles, and they use secular rather than scriptural methods. Complicating the problem, our American preoccupation with visible and immediate success blinds us to the fact that the church might be “succeeding” by secular standards, but failing by biblical ones. The church is larger, but is it healthier? Pastors are popular, but are they faithful?

At least one step toward reclaiming the pastorate from this secular stranglehold would be to renew our commitment to the principles taught in 1 Timothy 5:17-18, “The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘YOU SHALL NOT MUZZLE THE OX WHILE HE IS THRESHING,’ and ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages.’” Paul’s concern for the health of the church leads him to urge Timothy to see to it that faithful pastors receive appropriate honor for their ministries.

God’s plan for the church calls for godly men to direct its affairs, “let the elders who rule well.” The biblical term elder is synonymous with overseer and pastor (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-4; Titus 1:5, 7). All three are used to describe those men who serve as spiritual leaders for the local assembly of believers. All elders are overseers and pastors, and all pastors are elders and overseers. We know that these are men because of what Paul says earlier in this letter about their responsibility to manage their own homes (1 Tim 3:4-5), and also how Paul restricted women from exercising authority over men in the church (1 Tim 2:11-12). The word translated rule “is used here of one who has been placed before, or at the head of the church, and who has responsibility in that position both to ‘rule, lead, or direct’ and to ‘be concerned for and care for’ the church” (George W. Knight III, Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, NIGTC [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992], p. 232).

Elders who excel in their duties are worthy of double honor, “elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor.” The idea of well here is that their service meets “high standards of excellence or expectation” (BDAG, p. 505). It would be incorrect to view this as comparing one elder against another since that is not the point of the text. The sole issue here is whether an elder excels in his God-given responsibilities, not that he exceeds the performance of others. The spirit of competition which marks our culture is contrary to the biblical nature of ministry (cf. 1 Cor 3:4-9). Comparisons like this are arrogant and foolish (2 Cor 10:12; cf. Matt 20:25-28).

There is some debate about what double honor means. Verse 18 makes it clear that financial remuneration is involved, and it supports this from both the Old and New Testaments. The instruction about not muzzling the oxen is a quotation of Deuteronomy 25:4, which Paul also quotes for the same reason in 1 Corinthians 9:9. Paul also quotes the Lord’s teaching, which is recorded in Luke 10:7, about the laborer being worthy of his wages. Clearly, the honor that Paul refers to in v. 17 includes a financial dimension, but how should we understand the word double as used here? Some suggest that it means double pay, but it is probably best to see it as tying together the ideas of respect and compensation. Elders that rule well are to be both honored and cared for financially.

The priority for elders is their ministry of God’s Word, “especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.” This portion of the text has been a point of real debate between the various forms of church polity. Some view it as the basis for two classes of elders, ruling and teaching (e.g., Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership, rev. ed. [Littleton, CO: Lewis and Roth, 1995], pp. 207-210.), but this reads into the text something which is not there. Instead of naming a second group of elders, it is further specifying those elders which are worthy of double honor. Since all elders must be “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2) and “able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9), it is not likely that Paul is splitting the tasks here.

The key here is to recognize what Paul is commending—ruling well and working hard at preaching and teaching. In other words, he isn’t setting up a two-fold office; he is detailing the characteristics in elders that are to be honored. Among all elders, those that rule well are to receive double honor, and this applies especially to those who work hard at preaching and teaching. By stating it this way, Paul actually elevates the task of preaching and teaching to the place of prominence among the elders’ responsibilities. This is consistent with Paul’s other admonitions about preaching and teaching (cf. 1 Timothy 4:6, 16; 2 Timothy 2:15; 4:2; Titus 1:9; 2:15).

The church in the United States is facing enormous challenges within and without. We are faced with an important choice. Will we stick with God’s plan for the church and its leadership, or will we adapt the church and its leadership to the culture? Gauging by the popularity of church growth strategies and marketing plans for churches, the sad answer seems to be that the American church is becoming secularized. Too often, the pastors that are applauded in our day are religious entrepreneurs and pop psychologists. Success is being defined by the marketplace rather than by the Master. God’s call for pastors is to lead and feed His flock, not build a business!


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A reminder for the start of the year: get low and stay low!

Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you (James 4:10)
Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time (1 Peter 5:6)

The message of these verses is often summarized in the simple statement, “The way up in God’s program is down.” That is a good summary of a powerful biblical principle. As the passage in James says only four verses earlier, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (4:6). Unless we want to take on God, we better humble ourselves before Him!

These verses also raise a more complicated question about humility and exaltation. How can the promise of exaltation be a proper motivation for humility? Isn’t that self-contradictory? Yet, the text is very clear (especially in Peter), “humble yourselves…that He may exalt you.” It would not be wrong to translate the Greek “in order that He may exalt you.” The promise of exaltation is the motivation for humility—doesn’t that seem strange to you? I know it has stirred me to much mental and spiritual wrestling with it. I do not claim to have it all figured out, but allow me to offer two statements that I believe point us in the direction of the right answer and then point out the greatest illustration of this principle ever.

First, being “exalted” as these texts promise is rooted in grace, not human merit. That is why James instructs us that God “gives grace to the humble.” We humble ourselves so that we can receive grace from God and grace is what raises us up, not our human efforts. Second, since we are being motivated by a promise of God (that He will exalt you), we are also dealing with the realm of faith. “The way up is down” should not be viewed as a carnal strategy for getting more out of life. It is a principle that can only be consistently lived by faith that God will “exalt you at the proper time”, and that time very well may be after this life, not during it. This text is no guarantee that humility will help us up the corporate ladder or obtain all of our temporal desires. This is God’s promise for the eternal joy of His children.

You may have guessed the illustration already; it is Jesus! Philippians 2:5-11 clearly tie humility and exaltation in a cause-effect relationship. God’s Word says, “He humbled Himself… For this reason also, God highly exalted Him” (vv. 8,9). That Jesus is exalted to the right hand of the Father is final proof that God will keep His promise to exalt those who humble themselves, and it should be strong motivation to have the same attitude that was in Jesus (Phil. 2:5)!

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