4 Keys to Faithful Preaching

I recently met with our Pastoral Residents to discuss preaching. Faithful preaching is a crucial part of a healthy church, and we are trying to help these guys develop into faithful preachers. This raises the question, “What makes up faithful preaching?”

faithful preaching

I think there are at least four marks of faithful preaching and, conveniently, they begin with “P.” Additionally, failure to be faithful to each of these things leads in some disastrous directions.

1. Faithful to the Passage.

Faithful preaching accurately interprets the text of Scripture. This means that the author’s intended meaning for the passage is understood and proclaimed. Additionally, faithfulness to the passage means that the tone of the sermon is consistent with the passage (i.e. a sermon on a threatening passage doesn’t feel lighthearted) and the confidence of the sermon is in line with the clarity of the passage (i.e. dogmatic where the text is clear). Sometimes preachers emphasize ideas that are biblical but are not coming from the passage under consideration. This is not faithfulness to the passage.

Faithful to the passage also means understanding God’s missional purpose for the text. Scripture is not there just to proclaim truth or record history, but to shape a missional people who represent God to the world through their deeds and words.

Without this, preaching lacks authority. It’s powerless and relying on the preacher’s ingenuity rather than the authority of God.

2. Faithful to the People.

Faithful preaching lovingly understands the people in the audience. The context that people live in matters. A faithful preacher would not preach the same way with the same illustrations and emphasis to Jr. High students as he would to a group of young moms. One way I seek to address this in my weekly preparation is by creating a half-sheet with photos of people from our congregation. I look at this throughout the preparation process asking, “How would this sermon connect with him, her, etc?”

Without this, preaching is irrelevant. Not that the message is irrelevant, but it is perceived that way by people who don’t feel the preacher understands them.

3. Faithful to the Preparation.

Faithful preaching takes preparation seriously. Preachers vary in terms of how much time they want and need to faithfully prepare. The more experienced you are, the less time it often takes. On the other hand, Tim Keller suggests that preaching in a post-Christian society takes more preparation. Each preacher will have to decide what it looks like for him to create consistently strong sermons and then work to be faithful to that process.

Interestingly, I’ve heard a number of interviews lately with Peyton Manning and Mike Krzyzewski where people have asked them about how much time they have left before retiring. Both said that they “still enjoyed the preparation,” and that when that wasn’t enjoyable, they would stop.

Without this, preaching is shallow. It takes time and work to create sermons that apply the gospel to the heart.

4. Faithful to your Personality.

Faithful preaching is consistent with your personality. Each preacher is different and has a different personality. Justin Anderson argues that your sermon voice should be a notch or two above your regular voice but not so different that your kids can’t recognize you. One of the big mistakes young preachers make is imitating (often unintentionally) the preachers they listen to. Finding your voice takes time, but faithful preaching requires that you are faithful to who God has made you to be.

Without this, preaching is inauthentic. It feels forced and awkward if it is out of sync with your personality.

Every preacher I know wants to be faithful, and I’ve found this grid helpful for analyzing both individual sermons and the course of my preaching ministry over time.

Avoid Ministry Porn

For most pastors, it usually starts with the opening of a laptop. Sometimes it’s on a smartphone or tablet. Often, another pastor recommended it.

With a few simple clicks, the video rolls or the sound begins. The faces and voices are familiar, but the settings change. The best sites have fresh content. New things never before tried or seen. The more shocking, the better.

Hours go by. Work is ignored and relationships are minimized as the pastor is sucked in.

Ministry porn.

It’s seductive, addictive, and pervasive among young pastors.

ministry porn

The good news is that I’m not talking about pastors who consume actual pornography through sexually illicit content (though statistics show this is too common).

The bad news is that I am talking about something that is hurting church planters and pastors everywhere, killing their creativity, work ethic, and productivity. By extension, this problem is afflicting the churches these men lead.

So, what is “ministry porn”?

Ministry porn is voyeuristically viewing how other pastors and churches do ministry, fantasizing about their lives and situations, and, thus, avoiding the real work of leading people and building your own ministry.

Take a few moments to consider the problems with actual pornography and you’ll see why this idea is dangerous for pastors.

1. Porn is an escape. People use it to escape their stressful lives, difficult marriages and personal insecurities. Similarly, ministry porn provides an escape from leading real ministry, which is often filled with tough decisions, unrealistic expectations, and difficult people.

2. Porn is a way to avoid real intimacy. It is a “false intimacy,” offering the illusion of being loved, wanted, and enjoyed while the user is actually alone, ashamed, and afraid of real relational depth. Similarly, ministry porn offers the illusion of impacting people while the pastor is actually avoiding real relationships where he could make a real difference.

3. Porn is unrealistic. It involves not-even-close-to-ordinary people doing things that most real people do not do. Similarly, ministry porn involves out-of-this-world leaders who are often in very unusual ministry situations. Comparing your ministry to the top 1% of church leaders and their churches—filled with more money, talent, and resources than you can imagine—will inevitably leave you feeling dissatisfied with reality.

4. Porn is distractingly available. Technology means porn is available anywhere at anytime. Those struggling with porn find this to be an almost-constant distraction. Similarly, technology has allowed pastors access to ministry porn they would have never had 20 years ago. Blogs, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook provide persistent opportunities for distraction from real ministry and real people.

5. Porn is deceitful. One time an engaged guy told me he needed to watch porn to do research on how to make love to his future wife. Terrible idea. Total deception. Similarly, pastors can succumb to ministry porn while convincing themselves they are doing research or just trying to learn. There’s obviously a better argument for this than the one the engaged guy was making. But pastors should be careful. What starts as genuine learning can easily turn into you being a busybody, keeping up on what the celebrity pastors are up to.

In my experience of church planting, I’ve fallen into ministry porn too many times. I love to learn, I’m well connected, and I’m pretty good with technology, making me an easy target. But, too often, I’ve wasted time and energy following what other guys are doing more than actually developing what God has assigned me to do. Thus, I’ve had to closely monitor how much time I’m spending watching talks, reading blogs, and skimming social media feeds. At times, I’ve had to take a break or significantly trim my subscriptions.

Doing ministry well is hard work. It demands big buckets of emotional energy, time with people, intense study, and strategic thinking. In church planting, everyone you lead is a volunteer—making your work even more challenging. All of this can make you want to escape.

Don’t do it. The joy of ministry comes when real people have been impacted by real work, time and relationship.


5 Dangers of Success

Everyone wants success, but few consider the dangers that come with it. Wise leaders — especially those experiencing some measure of success — should be aware.

This came to mind most recently on a vacation in Flagstaff when I was walking through a bookstore and came upon Wooden: A Coach’s Life by Seth Davis. The quote on the front page was so striking that I took a photo of it:

danger of success

Very interesting. Wooden seems to be saying that some success is great, but a lot of success is such a dangerous challenge that you’d only wish it on your enemies. By the way, Wooden would know — he won ten national championships in a 12-year period, including seven in a row.

After seeing this quote, I was preparing some messages for a men’s retreat related to the Joseph story. In reading Tim Keller’s study guide about Joseph, Living in a Pluralistic Society, he makes the point that the success Joseph had in Potiphar’s house inevitably led to the temptation from Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39:5-7). Then he described five dangers that come from success:

1. Success breeds an over-confidence in one’s opinions. Successful people have had their hunches pay off very well. As a result, they now over-trust their hunches in almost every category of thought and life. Though they may have been successful in one area, they tend to feel that they are experts in other areas as well. (Temptation to pride)

2. Success breeds spiritual sluggishness. We feel secure in our money or our acclaim and this masks our need for God. As you get older, you may learn that success does not make you immune from heartache, disease, death, broken relationships — and you are as helpless and in need of God as anyone else. But at first, success makes you feel you don’t need God. (Temptation to indifference)

3. Success attracts envy and resentment on the part of others, who will try to use you and manipulate you or bring you down. Often you will find that success has brought you into strategems that you did not have the wisdom to handle. Successful people can become extremely mistrustful of people as a result. (Temptation to cynicism and isolation)

4. Success makes you completely unprepared for inevitable failures. It lures you into thinking that life will be a bowl of cherries. (Temptation to naïveté)

5. Success in money or fame inevitably leads to sexual temptation. Many people are attracted to power and success and will throw themselves sexually at you if you have it. (Temptation to impurity)

What’s the conclusion? Should leaders sandbag their gifts and strengths and aim for mediocrity? Should we bury our talents?


But we should be very careful to heed the Apostle Paul’s warning in 1 Timothy 4:16 to “keep a close watch on yourself.” We should surround ourselves with trusted friends who can see these dangers in us and point them out. We must be aware of these dangers and fight them.

What I Learned from a Weekend with Ex-Cons

This past weekend I spoke at a men’s retreat for Desert View Bible Church. There were about 140 men, mostly guys who attend the church. One of the men works with Alongside Ministries, a ministry that provides Christ-centered mentoring to the incarcerated community. He brought about 15 men who have been released from prison in the last year and now live in a transitional discipleship home, where they are learning to walk with Christ “on the outside.”

Alongside Ministries

The retreat was a blessing for many reasons. But one of the highlights was spending time with these ex-cons. They all thought I was the teacher for the weekend, but I think I learned a lot more from them:

1. Realizing the depth of your sin makes you more grateful to God. These men were grateful. Thankfulness oozed out of them everywhere. They loved singing praise songs and jumped right in, even if they didn’t already know the songs. They loved walking outside in the cool mountain air. They loved the camp food. They loved all the fellowship. There was an appreciation of the small things that was convicting and refreshing for me. And it comes from knowing, with clarity, what they’ve been saved from.

2. Broken people are accepting people. At meal time, it was open seating and I moved around to a bunch of tables to meet different guys. The most friendly and accepting guys were the ex-cons. They know what it’s like to be looked down on and avoided, and they go out of their way to make sure others don’t feel that way.

3. Jesus truly makes people new. A number of these guys had been in prison 20+ years, but they were new men in Christ. Except for their passion for Jesus and gratitude for everything, you wouldn’t have even realized they were ex-cons.

4. The Bible is a rich well for those who will take the time to drink from it. Many of these men knew the Bible really well. I think that’s partly because they didn’t have a lot else to do, but it’s mostly because the depth of their salvation makes them hungry for God’s word. One guy practically recited my sermon notes to me before I spoke just because he knew the Bible so well. I said, “Maybe you should teach this.” How much spiritual richness do we forfeit because we are too lazy or too busy to soak up Scripture?

5. What man intends for evil, God intends for good. The theme of the weekend was “Faithful,” as we looked at the faithfulness of God in the story of Joseph and Judah (Genesis 37-50). The key verse is Genesis 50:20, where Joseph tells his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” One of the men told me he shared the gospel with 14 cell mates and 6 came to faith in Christ. He started praying, “God, I’ll gladly stay in prison if it means you’ll use me to win more people to Christ.” At the end of the story he said, God meant it all for good. I don’t know the specifics of the crime that landed this man in prison. But what he intended for evil, God intended for good.

6. It’s really fun to preach and lead when people are fired up. I already knew this, but what a great reminder. What a blessing to teach people who are eager to learn and hungry for God. May we give this gift to those who lead us.

7. It’s challenging to have your identity be in Christ instead of your past. Many of these men are now struggling to figure out how to have their identity be in Christ, rather than what it used to be in — their crime(s). They are no longer inmates, but this identity clings nearby. Ironically, it reminded me of the many former athletes I know who struggle to integrate into normal life after being set apart for so long. Just goes to show that all of us struggle to find our identity in Christ instead of what we do or have done.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” That’s what I saw this weekend.


Visionary Leadership Answers These 6 Questions

Visionary leadership is crucial in today’s world. Every leader has a vision. Some visions are clear, others are fuzzy. Some are well-developed, others are sloppy. Some are compelling, others are forgettable.

visionary leadership

How can a leader gauge the clarity and effectiveness of his or her vision?

The most obvious way is to measure the people who eventually get on board and follow, but this feedback comes too late.

In order to assess the clarity of the vision on the front end, a leader should evaluate how clearly his or her vision answers the following questions:

1. Where are we now? If a vision paints a picture of a preferred future, then it must begin by clearly defining reality now.

2. Why can’t we stay here? It’s not enough to assess where you are, you must also make the case for why staying here is not an option.

3. Where are we going? This is the picture of a preferred future. This is the there you’re trying to move people toward.

4. Why must we go there? A vision must demonstrate why there not just a good option, but a necessary one. This is similar to #2, but more positive.

5. How will we get there? Moving from here to there is scary and sounds painful, so a compelling vision not only shows the destination but the path to get there.

6. Why now? A compelling vision shows people why there is an urgency to this new direction.

Take a moment to consider your vision and run it through this grid. Where is it currently getting tripped up?



Three Areas I’m Trying to Grow in as a Leader

As leaders, we must keep growing. We are not yet fully conformed to the image of Christ (Rom 8:29), so God isn’t through with us yet. Sadly, growth is often very slow. Slower than I would like. But I keep striving, by faith, to move forward and grow as a leader.

grow as a leader

There are three areas of my life and leadership that keep coming to mind as I pursue growth in godliness. Hopefully sharing them comforts you that you’re not alone as well as encourages you to intentionally identify areas where you need growth.

1. Courage

I recently attended an event where I heard a leader say, “Leadership is not about knowledge, but about courage.” That’s true. We often know what the right thing to do is. The challenge is having the courage to do it. The nature of leadership is about courage, because a leader is, by definition, taking people somewhere new. We’re “here” and we’re leading people “there” and it can be scary.

Whether it relates to my growing family, our growing church, the responsibilities I have in leading our residency, or a host of other things, I need courage.

2. Dependence

Having been in pastoral ministry for about 10 years, I’m quite competent. I’m not an expert and have a long way to go (hence, this post), but I’m not a total ignoramus. In fact, I have just about enough natural gifting and training to do ministry fairly well without God. That’s terrifying. Additionally, I have some bents toward the practical and the pragmatic, leaving me prone to focus on the system or method more than the God behind all of it.

I’m thankful that God continues to put me in new and difficult situations that highlight what is true even in the familiar and easy situations — I need him. God is growing me to see and feel my need for him more and more. This often takes the shape of prayers directly expressing my need of God (here’s a song I sing often).

3. Encouragement

I’m a leader who equips people in ministry. This, by definition, means that I am always looking to make progress and I’m always seeing the holes in something that need plugged. These things are important. But they leave me prone to forget to encourage people. I’m not a natural encourager. But I’m working at it.

We all need encouragement, especially in ministry. The elders, staff, and volunteers around me are working very hard and facing many difficult challenges that come with leading and serving people. They need me to see the good they’re doing and encourage them for it. We all need a culture of encouragement. I think I’m making some progress here, but want to do even better.

It’s not especially fun to admit these areas of weakness that need growth. But when a leader admits his or her weaknesses, it’s never new information to those being led. So it’s better to acknowledge them, pray for them, and work toward growth.

How Long Could You Do Ministry Without God?

This is one of the most important questions a leader can ask, and Geoff Surratt’s post about it is one of my all-time favorites. Worth reading over and over. In one part he says:

Israel created an elaborate and efficient church that ran very well without God. The priests and Levites excelled at their roles, the sacrificial system was geared to handle the crowds at Passover efficiently, and the Jewish people knew their needs were met with consistency and care. 400 years after God stepped away the Jews no longer missed him. They had created a church without God.

And then one weekend he showed up. He ignored their service run down, he tore up their resource table and he violated their policies and procedures. Every time he came to a service havoc ensued. Finally they had to either completely change the way they did church or kill God. They chose to kill God.

Read the whole thing here



Lessons From a Weekend Alone With the Kids

home-alone-featureThis past weekend, Molly traveled to Ohio for a baby shower for her brother’s wife. She was gone Thursday-Monday and I was home alone with our 5 and 7 year-old daughters. We had a great time and I learned a few important things.

1. My kids are a lot of fun. They are creative, funny, smart, and kind (98% of the time). We had a great time taking a bike ride, playing Monopoly, climbing at Riverview Park, and trying to do cartwheels (harder than I remember). Additionally, I went to visit a friend in the hospital on Saturday night and was able to leave the girls in the waiting room by themselves, knowing they would be respectful and patient enough to handle it.

2. Being a single parent is tough, especially without some help. Fortunately, my parents are around and were able to take the girls a few times when I had some things I needed to do alone. I needed their help more than anticipated. Gave me a new level of compassion for single parents, especially if they don’t have family around.

3. My wife works really hard. Molly is a “work-at-home” mom (I like that phrase), meaning her “full-time job” is to care for our kids and home. She’s amazing at it. And this weekend showed me (and the girls) how much work it takes. At one point, Abby was folding some laundry and exclaimed, “Boy, maybe I should help mom with this! It sure is a lot of work!” I felt the same thing as I loaded laundry, cleaned up, and tried to keep the house from looking like a bomb went off. I appreciate her at a whole new level.

4. Electronics are an easy (and sometimes really helpful) distraction. It’s easy to rail on electronics and we all know the many ills and temptations that come with them. Too many parents’ parenting strategy seems to be to plop a kid in front of a screen to distract them. This weekend showed me why this is such an attractive option — it’s hard to match energy levels with kids. And it’s a lot easier than helping them figure out how to play together. At the same time, I thank God for Minion Rush on iPhone. There were a few moments when it was wonderfully helpful to have a few moments alone to gather my thoughts while they clamored over the game. Used sparingly and intentionally, electronics are great.

5. I love my wife. It’s not the same without her. She’s an amazing fit in my life and I’m weaker without her.


How Special Should Easter Services Be?

Easter is just days away and, by now, most church leaders are pretty squared away on what their Easter services will look like. At least I would hope so.

Easter Services

Though Easter is undoubtedly special, as it celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, churches should beware of making their Easter services too special — or more specifically — too different.

My philosophy is that the Easter service should be a very good version of what you normally do.

If Easter really goes well, then many of the guests who came will come back the next week. But what if they did? Would they recognize the church?

  • If they really liked the 10 minute sermon, how will they feel about the 35 minute one?
  • If they really liked the 30-person chorale, how will they feel about the 5 piece band?
  • If they really liked all the extra fun for kids, how will they feel about it going away?

This is also why I don’t think it’s wise for churches to meet at another location on Easter, renting out an amphitheater or a hotel. It’s just too foreign of an experience from what you typically do to make it very enticing for guests to return.

Additionally, some churches spend so much energy on Easter that they’re out of gas the next week.

Now, to be honest, I probably broke this rule last year I did a 25-minute sermon that was only memorized Scripture. It was more of a dramatic presentation with art work displayed on the screens. The next week was surely a letdown. At the same time, I felt comfortable doing it because I thought it would communicate our commitment to God’s word, one of our values.

Easter is a special day, but it’s got to move the ball down the field for the church. And making it too special will actually be counter-productive.

Preaching the Bible vs. Using the Bible

On a regular basis I will hear a shocking phrase from somebody who is new to our church.

It’s great how you guys actually teach the Bible.”

What a bizarre idea. A person experiences our ministry and is refreshed because we actually teach the Bible. What is everyone else doing?

This used to strike me as odd because any time I would visit an evangelical church, the preacher had a Bible in his hand. He wasn’t preaching from the newspaper or Sports Illustrated. So, you have two pastors, and they both hold Bibles. They both read from Bibles. They both talk about things in the Bible. But one is actually teaching the Bible. What’s the difference?

The difference — and it’s a big one — is that one pastor preaches the Bible and the other just uses the Bible.

What are some marks of preaching the Bible that make it different from just using it?

1. The preacher gives the sense that he and the congregation are joyfully under the authority of the Bible. I say “sense” because this is often more felt than explicitly stated. Men who preach the Bible feel excited about the Bible and feel like it’s really important. These feelings spill onto the congregation.

2. There is a biblical text being considered. I’m not against thematic or topical preaching. But it’s best done when considering a primary text that informs our understanding of the topic. When a preacher pulls many proof-texts together around a topic (especially using multiple translations), it feels like he is using the Bible, not preaching it.

3. The point of the sermon is consistent with the author’s intended meaning. Preaching the Bible means that the preacher works hard to understand what the biblical author was saying to his intended audience. Rather than the preacher just using the Bible to say what he really wants to say or to prove his clever point, preaching the Bible happens when the preacher is directed by the biblical text itself.

4. The truths emphasized in the sermon come from the text under consideration. I know this sounds like I’m repeating what I just said, but I’m really just drilling down further. Many times I hear sermons where a preacher says something that is biblically true, but it doesn’t actually come from the passage under consideration. An example: A preacher considering Romans 5:1-11 (Peace with God Through Faith) makes a big deal about how Jesus is the only way to have peace with God. That’s a true point. Jesus is the only way to peace with God. But it’s not a Romans 5:1-11 point. Romans 5 is not about the exclusivity of Christ, it’s about all the incredible riches that come to Christians who trust Christ by faith.

5. The tone of the sermon is consistent with the tone of the text. Preaching the Bible means that the attitude and level of urgency of the sermon is also dictated by the text. Texts that challenge should lead to sermons that challenge. Texts that comfort should lead to sermons that comfort. Texts that celebrate should lead to sermons that celebrate.

I don’t have anything to say if I’m not preaching the Bible. Without the authoritative power of God’s word, I’m not wise, creative, clever or powerful enough to say things that will takeover of the heart of sinners.

Additionally, I might argue that the ultimate goal isn’t really to preach the Bible as much as it is to preach Christ. But you’ll never preach Christ with authority if you don’t start with a commitment to preach the Bible.

What are some other ways you’d distinguish between preaching the Bible and using the Bible?