June 8th, 2009 — Church, Ministry, Sermons
Because elder-leadership is so critical to the life and health of the church, and in light of a recent sermon I preached on Titus 1:5-16, I would like to draw out a few implications and offer several exhortations to you as it relates to engaging with the elders of your church. These comments were originally intended for the congregation of Calvary Memorial Church, but they apply equally well, I would think, in other church contexts.
First, obey your elders for your own spiritual good. Listen to Hebrews 13:17: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” What this passage reminds us all of is that God puts leaders into our lives for our own good. We are to obey our leaders and submit to them because they have been entrusted with the care of our souls; and indeed they, as this passage says – a most terrifying thought – will be judged by God as to how well they did in keeping watch. So, the logic of this verse goes, make every effort to help this be for them a joy and not a burden, because you only stand to gain from their work.
Second, pray for your elders that they would have discernment. I’ve been reading through the Bible, as some of you have, and just this week read the passage from 1 Kings, where Solomon, as the newly installed king of Israel, prays to the Lord: “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?” (1 Kings 3:9). The ministry of an elder within the life of the local church is a kingly ministry: a ministry of overseeing and governing and ruling and leading. There are weighty and difficult decisions to be made at every turn. There are complex issues for which there seems to be no easy answer. There are difficult circumstances that require careful navigation. All of this requires, therefore, “an understanding mind to govern,” as Solomon prayed; that is, the ability to discern between good and evil. So, as Solomon prayed for himself, would you pray for your elders: “Oh, God, would you give our elders understanding minds and discerning spirits that they would be able by your Holy Spirit to govern and lead and serve this church well.”
Third, take seriously the preparation and appointment of future elders. This is of course one of the main upshots of this passage in Titus: Paul is admonishing Titus to take seriously the preparation and appointment of future elders because the long-term health and vitality of the churches in Crete depend upon it. Similarly, he says to Timothy: “what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). This is a call to be highly intentional about raising up and then deploying new elders-leaders within the church, faithful men who will be able to minister the word to others. This church, as with any other church, will only survive if there is a continual, fresh infusion of godly leadership. So it is incumbent upon us all – and especially upon me as the Pastor and the other elders – to be identifying, cultivating and training future elders. And it is incumbent upon you, the congregation, to encourage and support this work and then, when the time comes to nominate and appoint new elders, to engage the process both thoughtfully and prayerfully.
Fourth, honor your elders for their labor of love on your behalf. Paul says to the Thessalonians: “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (1 Thess. 5:12-13). And to Timothy Paul writes: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor” (1 Tim. 5:17). We honor our elders in a variety of ways: with respect, by speaking well of them, by imitating their way of life, by heeding their instruction, by encouraging them in their work, by expressing words of thanks, and, most importantly, by praying for them.
June 6th, 2009 — Church, Ministry, Outreach, Postmodernism, Sermons, Theology
As you may know, the term ‘missional’ has become something of a buzzword. It’s a neologism I personally quite like; it’s the adjectival form of the noun ‘mission’ and thus serves as a catchword for a certain way of both being and living in the world vis-à-vis the non-Christian society around us.
There’s a lot talk these days about being more missional. But in my experience these conversations tend, frankly, to focus more on form than substance. All too often I find myself left with the impression that being missional has more to do with lighting candles, playing cool music, growing a soul-patch, preaching in jeans, and generally being just a bit edgy – than it does with living a life that is “self-controlled, upright and godly,” as Titus would have us (2:12).
I’m sensitive to not overstating my case, so let me ask: When was the last time anyone attended a conference for ‘missional’ churches and church leaders and discovered there that the key to missional outreach is the renunciation of sin and the full-throttled pursuit of holiness?
Yet, as I read Titus, here’s the irony. According to Titus, the most effective missional and congregational outreach is a corporate devotion to good works. As New Testament scholar Gordon Fee has rightly observed, the letter of Titus is thoroughly evangelistic in its thrust: throughout this letter Paul encourages behavior that will be attractive to the world; thus good works are for the sake of outsiders.
So while I’m on board with the need to be more missional – that is, to take seriously the cultural chasm that has developed between contemporary forms of Christianity and the surrounding post-Christian culture – I’m nevertheless increasingly convinced that the most effective prescription for being and becoming truly missional in any recognizably New Testament sense is to cultivate zeal for good works within the life of the church of Jesus Christ. Zeal for good works is as missional as it gets.
Our study in the book of Titus will, then, help us as a congregation learn how better to do that most missional of things: “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (2:10). So that the gospel of God looks more attractive and beautiful and winsome and ultimately compelling to outsiders.
June 4th, 2009 — Church, Ministry, Outreach, Personal, Postmodernism, Sermons, Theology
The second reason why we need to hear the message of Titus is because we as evangelical Christians desperately need to close the credibility gap.
I trust everyone is aware of the fact that evangelicals have what one might call a ‘public relations’ problem, a problem with our image, with how we’re perceived. The recent study by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons entitled, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity, has underscored this point sufficiently enough. As you are doubtless aware, the word on the street is that evangelicals are hypocrites. And, of course, in some cases, as I think we would all agree, the charge of hypocrisy is entirely (albeit regrettably) justified.
However, let me say plainly that I don’t believe our chief problem is hypocrisy. Rather, it’s credibility. At least my experience has been that for the vast majority of us evangelicals, our problem isn’t that we say one thing and then knowingly do another (i.e., hypocrisy). Instead, it’s that we say one thing and then unwittingly fail to let that shape the rest of our life; thus, we create a credibility gap between our professed convictions and our actual practice.
To use a metaphor: we don’t have a heart problem, but a circulation problem. It’s not that our heart isn’t pumping blood as it ought; it’s just that the blood doesn’t seem consistently to reach the extremities of our daily lives. Hence, our credibility problem. For we leave outsiders who observe our lives with that niggling question in their mind: “Do they really believe what they’re preaching, since it doesn’t really seem to penetrate the practicalities of their daily life? It’s as if they’re peddling a soda they themselves don’t really enjoy drinking?”
Despite the air of cynicism toward religion that pervades our culture, people are nevertheless surprisingly willing to give credit to a person who actually lives by his or her convictions, almost regardless of what those convictions are! In this day and age of virtual-this and virtual-that, where everything is accessible, but nothing is real, we’re increasingly hungry for just that: something real, something authentic, something credible, something – indeed, someone – believable, someone who actually practices his or her own convictions.
Here’s where the book of Titus comes in. For it is written to help the believers on the island of Crete, and the church of Jesus Christ ever after, to address this issue of credibility in the eyes of outsiders. For the burden of the argument of the book is that we are to devote ourselves to good works for the sake of outsiders, in order to “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (2:10) and thus commend the gospel in and through a life of holiness and godliness and gospel-centered consistency.
June 3rd, 2009 — Church, Ministry, Outreach, Postmodernism, Sermons, Theology
At Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, where I serve as the pastor, we have recently begun a sermon series on that seldom-preached New Testament epistle, Titus. (Incidentally, I asked for a show of hands of who has ever heard a sermon series on Titus and don’t recall seeing any!).
In this and the following two posts I would like to mention several reasons why we need a series on Titus.
The first is our need to make-up for what I will call a discipleship deficit. It has become a well-worn cliché to describe North American Christianity, in particular, evangelicalism, as a mile wide and an inch deep. That is a rather unflattering way of acknowledging that even though forms of evangelical Christianity are widespread in American cultural and society, the actual depth and substance of our lives is rather thin. Although we’ve been good at winning converts, we’ve not been so good at making disciples. We can fill big churches, but we struggle to grow godly men and women. This is what I mean by our discipleship deficit.
For years Dallas Willard has been emphasizing this very point. In fact, listen to what he says in an article written in 1980 for Christianity Today (included in his Spirit of the Disciplines):
For at least several decades the churches of the Western world have not made discipleship a condition of begin a Christian. One is not required to be, or to intend to be, a disciple in order to become a Christian, and one may remain a Christian without any signs of progress toward or in discipleship.
He then concludes:
So far as the visible Christian institutions of our day are concerned, discipleship clearly is optional.
Why is this? There are doubtless a variety of reasons: some social, some cultural, some historical. But, ultimately, I believe the reason for our discipleship deficit is theological: too many preachers and Bible teachers have taught a truncated gospel, one that fails to draw any real link between faith and obedience, or between grace and good works. Again, I think Dallas Willard nails it when he writes: “Obedience and training in obedience form no intelligible doctrinal or practical unity with the salvation presented in recent versions of the gospel.” The effect is that we can “believe” the gospel but not live like Christians, or “trust Jesus” even though it has very little impact on our life.
The book of Titus, and I hope and trust this sermon series on Titus, will help redress this discipleship deficit by reminding us that the gospel is fully orbed and to embrace grace is to be transformed, necessarily and inevitably, into a doer of good works. For that is what grace does: trains us to renounce a life of sin and seek a life of righteousness (Titus 2:11-14).
Willard, Spirit of Disciplines
, p. 258.
Willard, Spirit of Disciplines
, p. 259.
Willard, Spirit of Disciplines,
p. 259 (emphasis added).