Saturday, January 20, 2018

Some Thoughts on Preaching

Three disclaimers: First, I don’t consider myself to be any better than average as a preacher. Second, aside from the preaching I hear at the church I attend, and the occasional conference, I don’t listen to much preaching. Third, no one has ever hired me to teach homiletics. Nonetheless, I’ve heard a lot of preaching over the last forty-some years, and I try, in my exegesis classes, to give the students some instruction in how to preach the passages we deal with.

Some preachers seem to be confused about some basics. A sermon is not the same thing as a theological lecture. Some preachers don’t seem to understand that, because their sermons focus exclusively on pouring out information about the text, more like a commentary than a sermon. A sermon is the explanation and application of a particular passage/topic/doctrine of Scripture. As such, the two key elements are the clear explanation of the text and the direct application of its message. It is not an exclusively intellectual exercise, but is intended to get to the heart through the head.

On the other hand, a sermon is not merely a means of moving the emotions of the congregation. Some preachers don’t understand that, as their sermons seem to focus on moving the emotions almost in a way that seems manipulative. Instead, both the head and the heart of the hearer must be involved.

Sermons are less about rhetoric than they are about connecting the text to the listener. I know that sounds vague, so an illustration might help. A number of years ago, I heard a sermon at a conference. It was clear that the preacher understood his text. He didn’t miss the main point. It was well-organized and clear. The preacher had obviously worked hard on the sermon. It was a rhetorical tour de force. But it was emotionally cold. It had not connected with the audience, and I heard very few commendations of the sermon afterwards. Another year, another conference, a different preacher. This time, the preacher had been assigned a topic common in Reformed theology. If you were to go to, and search for this topic, you would find many sermons on it. Most of them would use the same primary texts, and the outlines would be interchangeable. This man took a different approach. He didn’t take one text, he took many (sort of like the Book of Hebrews) and he came at the topic from an entirely unexpected angle. He, too, had clearly worked hard on the sermon. As with the other, it was well-organized and clear. The difference was that it was emotionally warm. By taking a different approach, coming at the topic from an unusual direction, he had made the topic clear, fresh, and applicable. He also, I think, had a clearer sense of his audience than the first speaker. I heard some complaints (from professors) about the approach he had taken. But I heard many more commendations of the message.

My own sense is that pastors, on the whole, spend less time in prayer and meditation over their sermons than they should. The sermon only begins with the exegesis of the passage or topic. It is brought to flower by being the subject of much reflection, much prayer, and an intimate knowledge of the congregation.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

On Pastoral Praying

Hundreds, if not thousands of books have been written on prayer. Countless sermons have been preached on prayer. But the reading of books on prayer makes no one a praying man. The essence of prayer is in the praying. As Nike says, “Just do it!” It doesn’t matter how articulate the prayer is. What does matter is the praying itself.

All Christians must be pray-ers, but the pastor especially must be a man of prayer, and this in two aspects: in private and in public. The private prayer of a pastor also has two aspects. There is first his praying for himself and his family. This prayer is the essential foundation to any other prayer. The man who prays for himself prays out of a sense of need, out a knowledge of his inability and his unworthiness. The man who does not pray for himself, whatever his claims to the contrary, thinks he does not need prayer. But a man must also pray for his family. To do this adequately, he must know his family—their needs, their cares, their concerns, their fears, and their frustrations. Many pastors have sacrificed their families to their ministry, thinking the latter to be more important, but the family must come before the church or the ministry. It is one of the essential qualifications for the office.

The second aspect of a pastor’s private prayer is prayer for his church. These prayers must not be vague and general. There are of course, general concerns and cares that are reflected, for example, in Paul’s prayers for the churches. But it does little good to pray for the growth in grace of John Doe if the pastor is not aware that John Doe’s wife is threatening divorce, or that John Doe fears that he will lose his job. This sort of information the pastor only knows if he is indeed pastoring the flock. In addition to the prayers for the individual congregants, there is prayer for the congregation as a whole, for its growth, for its strength, for its unity.

The pastor’s private prayer is fundamentally a matter of discipline. He must set apart time for the exercise of prayer, and that time should be regular. I make no prescriptions as to when, or where, or how long; only that it must be done, and done regularly.

The pastor’s public prayer is a matter of preparation. In the Puritan period in England, there was a great deal of debate between those who preferred the set prayers of the Book of Common Prayer, and those who argued for extemporaneous prayer. Both sides had a point, but the points got lost in the heat of the debate. Public prayer, the pastoral prayer that forms a part of public worship, should be planned. It need not be written out ahead of time, but the pastor should have carefully thought through the themes and points of the prayer before he prays. Many pastors are particularly weak on this. There are three books, then, that I recommend for pastors as they consider the public prayers of the church. The first is Samuel Miller, Thoughts on Public Prayer. The second is Matthew Henry’s A Method for Prayer. This is available as A Way to Pray, edited by O. Palmer Robertson, and as A Method for Prayer, edited by Ligon Duncan. The third is Hughes Oliphant Old’s Leading in Prayer. All three of these are excellent resources for the pastor who desires to improve in his public praying.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

On Pastoral Reading

I know many pastors. Some of you don’t read much. Perhaps you don’t read well. Perhaps the busyness of ministry and family inhibits your reading. Perhaps you have little interest in reading beyond what is necessary for sermon preparation and the occasional counseling issue. Others of you read a fair amount. I’ve seen your plans on Facebook. You’re going to read Bavinck this year. You’re going to read Calvin’s Institutes again. Perhaps you’re going to dive into the two-volume Banner of Truth reprint of the works of Jonathan Edwards. Or you’re going to read the collected works of John Piper in sixteen volumes that Crossway recently published. At any rate, you have plans for reading this year.

I would encourage those of you who read little to read more. Spend less time on social media. Maybe listen to fewer podcasts, and replace them with reading time. Spend some time thinking about how you spend your time. Surely time to read can be carved out for even the busiest pastor. Even ten pages of reading a day can get you through Calvin’s Institutes in five months. You can get through Bavinck in less than a year.

Whether you realized it or not, pastoral work is, among other things, reading work. You don’t know everything you need to know to be an effective pastor. You barely begin to lay a foundation for that in seminary. You consult the wisdom of the ages by reading. Take C. S. Lewis’s advice and read old books ( Maybe replace the latest Paul Tripp book with some dipping into Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor. (This is not a hit at Paul Tripp. It’s just an example.) At any rate, read. Improve yourself as a pastor by reading.

Especially, however, read the Bible. It’s relatively easy to read theology and church history and not be particularly rebuked about your sins, or, for that matter, even particularly encouraged about your successes. If you read the Bible, you will regularly be rebuked for your sins. You will wade through Jeremiah and be reminded of your sins and the sins of your church (both local and denominational). But you will also be encouraged; you will be reproved; you will be corrected; you will be trained in righteousness. The more you read the Bible, the better you will know it. The better you know it, the more well-trained you will be in righteousness.

I hear men examined for licensure by presbyteries. It is disappointing to me how poorly most men do on the English Bible exam. That poor performance reflects poor preparation—not so much a lack of cramming before the final, but a lack of regular faithful reading of the Scriptures.

With all your reading this year, discipline yourself to read the Bible—prayerfully, attentively, meditatively. You’ll be pleasantly pleased at the end of the year not only with your own progress in righteousness, but with that of your church as well.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

PCA GA 2017

Debate on the Report of the Ad Interim Committee on Women Serving in the Ministry of the Church. This committee was formed at the behest of last year's General Assembly, amid concern that women were not getting their rightful due in the PCA. The Committee was appointed and did a great deal of hard work over the last year to get the report ready. For that, they are to be commended. There are three parts to the report. There is first what is called the narrative part of the report. This consists of the following chapters: I. Introduction, which explains the origin of the committee and its purpose; II. A Biblical Foundation for the Roles of Women in the Church; III. Ordination--A Definition, With Special Reference to the Office of the Diaconate; IV. Encouraging a Robust and Gracious Complementarian Practice; V. Pastoral Letter and Recommendations. This portion of the report is about sixty pages, so it is not a brief document.
The second part is the recommendations. The third part is the rationale that the committee provided for each of the nine recommendations.
Ordinarily, with aa report such as this, if it is approved, the report and the rationales are preserved in the Minutes of the GA, while only the recommendations are sent down to the presbyteries for implementation. The first recommendation was a matter of procedure and was unexceptionable. The remaining eight recommendations are debatable. There was first a substitute motion to send the whole report (narrative, recommendations, and rationales) to the presbyteries for study and debate. That motion was defeated. The first recommendation was approved. The remaining eight recommendations could have been approved omnibus (all together) or each debated and dealt with separately. The vote was to deal with each separately. Recommendations 2 and 3 were debated but eventually passed. The Assembly was debating Recommendation 4 when it became apparent that we would not finish the debate before the order of the day, which was worship (4:30 PM). In parliamentary procedure, an order of the day item is fixed, and cannot be postponed. The Assembly thus recessed about 4:20. We will continue to deal with the recommendations when we reconvene tomorrow at 9:30 AM. If you are interested in the text of the Report or the Recommendations, you can PM me on Facebook.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Praying the Bible #2 Genesis 2

O Lord God, we praise you that you have made us, that you have breathed into us the breath of life. We thank you that you have established for us the pattern of six days of labor and one of rest. We thank you for the day of rest, that it is not simply a day of relaxation, but a day blessed, a day sanctified unto you, a day in which you are the object of our praise and our consideration.

We praise you that you have given us the gift of labor, that we are not called to idleness. Enable us to praise you with the work of our hands, that we may labor as unto you and not as eye-pleasers. We pray especially for those who labor in tilling the soil, for those who provide the bread for our tables. Bless them in their labor. Make their labor fruitful for the good of all.

We thank you for the gift of marriage. You have given man a helper suitable to him. The two you have joined together as one. We pray for all those who are married, that we would treasure this gift, that we would cultivate our marriages as the farmer cultivates the soil, ass the shepherd cares for his flock. We pray for those who are unmarried, yet long to be. Provide for them according to your wisdom. We pray for those whom you have called to be unmarried for the work of the kingdom. Strengthen them that they might be careful for the work of the Lord.

We ask all this in the name of Jesus, who carried out all his labor for your glory and for the sake of his bride, the church. Amen.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Praying the Bible #1

The chapter divisions of the Bible are not inspired. In some cases, they seem downright loony. But they do present a convenient way of breaking the text down into smaller, more manageable units. Those of you who follow me on Facebook will know that I have been posting brief prayers of the day for several months. I will continue to do that. But I will occasionally post a longer prayer, based on, or drawn from, a chapter of the Bible. There are 1189 chapters in Protestant Bibles. I would eventually like to post a prayer based on each one, but that will depend on the length of life God is pleased to grant, since I won’t be posting one a day. I will proceed sequentially through the Bible, so the prayers from Leviticus and Numbers might be interesting. At any rate, here is a prayer based on Genesis 1.

O God, you spoke and it came to be. Everything. Then you spoke again and the everything began to be divided into somethings. You made light. You made the day and the night. You separated the waters and gathered them together into seas. You populated the sky and the sea and the land with creatures adapted to each. We scan the skies and the seas and the land and we are astounded by the diversity and the beauty of the lives that you created. We look at the sun and the moon and the stars and we know that however immense is the universe, it is not immense to you. The intricacy of the systems you created overwhelms us, yet they are not overwhelming to you. On the sixth day, you created man male and female. We wonder what is man, such a small part of such a great creation, yet you have made us in your image. You have called us to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth, to subdue it, to have dominion over it. Make us equal to the task. Make us faithful to our calling to be the stewards of your creation. Most of all, let us remember that we are not our own. We are your creatures, created for your glory. Help us to seek that glory in all that we do. We ask in the name of Jesus, by whom and for whom all things were created. Amen.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Twenty-five Years in the Seminary Business, Part 3: What to Expect From Seminary

When I started seminary almost forty years ago, I had no idea what to expect, and probably had not really thought about it. I had just graduated from college (having crammed my four years into six) and most likely considered seminary as just another three years of college. The church I attended was in transition, and I did not know the pastor very well. He told me nothing about seminary. The candidates committee of my presbytery was also mum on what to expect from seminary. I have the distinct impression that most students attending seminary today are in the same boat. They have vague ideas about classes, and being prepared to be pastors, but beyond that, they are clueless about seminary. As a result, many find themselves feeling overwhelmed in their first pastorate, and blame their seminary for not properly preparing them for the rigors (or even the day to day trials) of pastoral work.

My first recommendation on what to expect from seminary is to keep your expectations low. No seminary can possibly prepare you for pastoral work. All that most seminary curricula do is to give the student an introduction to basic tools and skills necessary for pastoral work. The student will need some knowledge of the biblical languages and principles of interpretation in order to prepare sermons that are actually based on the text of Scripture, and are not just flights of fancy. Some knowledge of church history, including denominational history, is also necessary. Systematic theology is needed to help men differentiate between truth and error. Instruction in preaching and counseling and education and missions also form part of the curriculum. And there you have three years of seminary. Most seminaries also require an internship in a local church. This is ostensibly where the student learns to use the tools that the classes have given him. Whether it does or not is another issue and that is usually out of the hands of the seminary and in the hands of the session of the church where the internship is done. Some internships are very good; some are not.

My second recommendation is that you use seminary to figure out your strengths and weaknesses. If you’re not a self-starter, you probably will not do well as a solo pastor. Are you thin-skinned? You won’t do well in the pastorate because Christians can be astonishingly hateful. Intellectual ability and an interest in theology will not necessarily make you a good pastor. Make use of your professors, fellow students, spouse, and pastor in figuring out whether you really are gifted for pastoral ministry.

My third recommendation is that you be generous to your professors. Recognize that some of them will be very able, others will be merely competent, and some (hopefully few) will be borderline incompetent. Most seminaries try to hire faculty who have spent some time in pastoral work so that they can bring some practical considerations into their lectures and assignments. But just because they spent some time in the pastorate doesn’t necessarily mean they were very good at it. Their interests and aptitudes may be more scholarly or esoteric than pastoral.

Fourth, don’t be in a big hurry. Make good use of your classes, especially those you despise or think lightly of. You’ll be surprised how often that knowledge will later come in handy. It may be that due to family pressures, financial considerations and other factors, you have to take an extra year or two to finish. That’s part of God’s providence. Your being “late” to the pastorate is not going to delay the coming of the kingdom, and it may save you some heartache later on.

Finally, “Be humble, carry low sails, walk softly all your years. Be not proud of your gifts, graces, privileges, or attainments: but remember ye were children of wrath, even as others.” (Thomas Boston, Human Nature in Its Fourfold State.)