I'm gonna hope that the holiday weekend had something to do with that and ask again for you to share some thoughts on what books you would suggest for pastors to share with their congregations. You can comment here or email me at email@example.com. Your contributions are appreciated.
Some blogs, including Tim Challies' site, are reporting the results of a Barna survey on what books have influenced pastors. The results are pretty discouraging if not downright scary. Keith Plummer rightly asks, "If only 9% of pastors have been influenced by a theological book in the past three years, how much less the average layperson?"
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a recommendation or two in these categories and I'll post the list next week.
1. Bible reference (background, dictionary, etc.)
2. Basic theology reference
3. About God and salvation
4. About following Christ
5. About home and vocation
Looking forward to your thoughts.
I was in Bible College back around the time when the Wright Brothers were still making paper airplanes. Ok. It was the late 1960's and early 1970's. But it seems long ago. My church operated a large Christian bookstore that supplied Christian literature to hundreds of churches and (presumably) thousands of people in northern New Jersey. At the time there were only one or two other stores around the broad area.
When you walked into the store you encountered a long wall filled floor-to-ceiling with commenaries. It ran the entire length of the store - probably 60 feet or more. I remember a couple of display shelves that were situated in the middle of the store - holding a large selection of missionary biographies, theology, practical Christian life books, and Christian fiction. I was there when the Living Bible was released, followed shortly by the New American Standard Bible. Those were the days when The Late Great Planet Earth (Hal Lindsey) was a best-seller, but so was Competent to Counsel (Jay Adams) and some of Francis Schaeffer's books.
Our store, because it was a church-run store, only stocked books that fit with the doctrinal statement of the church, with the exception of commentaries where you could get anything that was evangelical. While that might seem a bit narrow, it prevented people from being exposed to books that were potentially harmful or just plain unhelpful.
Oh, we had a collection of trinkets for Sunday School prizes, as well as plaques and pictures, but the heart of the store revolved around Bibles and Bible-based books. And because the pastoral staff was highly involved in what the store carried, people were protected from unhelpful and sometimes hurtful literature. Whoops - sounds like censorship.
What happened? Well, the small independent publishers sold out to bigger corporations, not necessarily run on the ministry motive and not necessarily overseen by believers. Profit supplanted ministry, chains overtook the mom and pop stores, and what you see today is what you get. Christian bookstores that sell anything that has a "Christian" orientation. And as Michael correctly observes, most of it is worse than fluff. It would be almost comical if it weren't so harmful.
Michael and some of those who commented make reference to the failure of and need for Pastors to get involved in this. I agree. But the issue is larger than just Christian bookstores. As the title of this piece says, our sheep are being fed in other pastures.
In our culture celebrity is equated with authority. That's why the opinions and views of a sit-com actor or a musician mean more than yours and mine. Unfortunately that same cultural trend carries over to the local church. As a pastor (and I don't claim to have the last word or be the final authority), I have to compete for the ears of my flock, because there are those with radio programs and multimillion-copy best sellers whose celebrity has made them authorities.
You see, I can talk about justification by faith alone for weeks, but let some Christian "leader" blur the differences between biblical Christianity and Roman Catholicism (hey folks, don't melt down - read their catechism) and what happens? I can urge us to live as if heaven were our real home, but then D. James Kennedy troops out the Founding Fathers and talks about reclaiming America, and who gets listened to? And I can talk about the cost of following Christ, but if my folks go into Christian bookstores and purchase Warren and Osteen and Wilkerson and all of the others, what message are they going to get?
Personally, I'm not giving up without a fight. I'm not going to froth at the mouth, but as opportunity arises, I'm going to point out some problems, name names, and warn. I can't read Acts 20:17-38 without a keen sense that warning people of what is harmful is close to Paul's heart.
Maybe I overstate the problem, but I don't think so. Someone is buying those books and someone is listening to those radio speakers. If our sheep are being fed in other pastures, we need to find out what nutritional value they offer, and when it's no better than a stale Twinkie, we need to point them to the banquet of God's Word and the rich resources that good authors have provided.
Ephesians 2:1-10, ESV
We manage to mix up the Gospel message so often. Any informed Christian would certainly decry the idea that faith is merely intellectual assent, but some of our techniques and approaches show a distrust for the Spirit's work. I wrote about this last week. I am not fundamentally against giving an invitation under certain circumstances, I lean away from it because I don't want to confuse faith with a human act of response that in the end becomes the source of hope for a person's salvation. The answer to the question of what makes me right with God is not that I went forward to receive Christ, that I prayed a prayer to receive Christ, etc.
I had the neatest experience this week. There is a young woman in our small group who has been attending our church since December. She and her husband are new to the Christian faith within the last year. As we discussed the meaning of Romans 3:21-26, it was so cool to hear her articulate - not in perfect theology-text language - the meaning of justification and the imputation of Christ's righteousness, and her realization that in order to be right with God she needed to do nothing but wholly embrace Christ by faith as her hope of righteousness. Those of you who minister will understand it when I say that I had a profound sense of joy - not in me, but in the power of the Word in the hands of the Spirit.
When I preach tomorrow, unencumbered by the need for statistical success or immediate outward response, I preach with freedom, knowing that God uses His Word and that the Holy Spirit does a far better job of pressing home the Gospel than I can.
I look at Sunday as a gathering of the Family, and in that time Family business needs to be cared for. While always open to guests, it seems that the primary teaching time that the church has available has to focus primarily on those in the Family.
The pastoral mandate involves feeding the flock, shepherding the sheep, building the saints. If Sundays are sacrificed to another purpose, we've lost our best shot. I wonder if Paul's words in 1 Cor. 14:20-25 help us here. It seems that in Paul's thinking, the gathering of the church was for the church, but that in the process of being the church those who were not converted could be reached.
This may be simplistic in our day, but my contention is that if we preach God's Word faithfully and point to Christ, the Gospel will reach both saved and lost.
Maybe it is judgmental to say this, but we evangelicals are not very deep in our understanding of the Gospel. I pointed out that we need to know what salvation is all about for several reasons, one of them being to understand where our security lies. I've heard too many people question their relationship with God on the basis of either not knowing if they "really believed," were "really sincere," or "really understood" when they prayed a prayer, went forward in an evangelistic meeting, etc. How liberating to realize that our standing before God is not based on what we did, but on God's unchanging declaration that we are righteous in His sight on the basis of the sinless life and substitutionary death of Christ, and our faith in that alone!!
I hope that those of you who ministered God's word today were encouraged in your ministry, and that those of you who sat under the ministry of God's word were likewise blessed!
One of the biggest problems I have with younger preachers whom I am called on to critique is to get them to quote the parts of the text that support the points they are making. It makes we wonder if they have been taught that you should get the drift of a text and then talk in your own words for thirty minutes. The effect of that kind of preaching is to leave people groping for the Word of God and wondering whether what you said is really in the Bible.
Instead, in the literate Western culture we need to get people to open their Bibles and put their finger on the text. Then we need to quote a piece of our text and explain what it means. Tell them which half of the verse it is in. People lose the whole drift of a message groping for where the pastor's ideas are coming from. Then we should quote another piece of the text and explain what it means. Our explanation will draw in other passages of Scripture. Quote them! Don't say general things like, "As Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount." And along the way or at the end we should urge it into their consciences with penetrating application.
This quotation relates to the issue of biblical literacy, something that all of us who preach, teach or study God's Word are certainly concerned about. When we preach a message without much reference to our Bible, to what authority are we pointing our people? Is it our words? Is it some vague sense that what we are saying is in the Bible? Or is it to the Word of God itself?
I use Powerpoint with every sermon. Nothing fancy, because I don't want the medium to distract from the message. My practice is to have people turn to passages of Scripture rather than simply display them (I will show a verse on occasion, but it is not my typical approach). I want them to learn how to use their Bible. Using a Bible means bringing it, of course. If we rely too much on our words, too much on visuals, we make it unnecessary for people to even bring their Bibles with them to church. Maybe that's why the illustration from my post a few days ago is so true - that a good percentage of incoming Christian college freshmen could not identify Acts as the book in which Paul's missionary journeys are found.
The point that I am trying to make is that we need to constantly remember where truth and authority lie. Let's make it necessary for our people to use their Bibles.
Check out Milton Stanley's remarks about preaching, pointing to a couple of good thoughts.
Most of us in ministry recognize that congregational biblical illiteracy is a major problem. But what about pastoral biblical illiteracy? I wonder how many of us are theologically fluent, but not as strong in biblical knowledge as we ought to be. I'll raise my hand and say that I wish I knew some sections of the OT, for example, better than I do.
John Piper quotes Jonathan Edwards in The Supremacy of God in Preaching (p. 89). Piper writes, "One has to stand in awe of how thorough Edwards's knowledge of the whole Bible was, especially in view of the fact that he was also conversant with the best theological, moral and philosophical learning of his day. As a student he made this life resolution: Resolved, To study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive, myself to grow in the knowledge of the same."
Piper adds that "His practice was to take hundreds of notes on the Scriptures and pursue any thread of insight as far as he could."
Maybe we ought to adopt a similar resolution, and those of us who connect via this medium could pray for each other that such a resolution would be reality in our lives.
The key to the message in Romans so far, from what I see, is not that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, but that you and I are standing on the precipice of eternal judgment and facing a God who is not at all impressed with whatever paltry goodness we offer Him. Thankfully the message continues with the words of 3:21 - "But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law . . . the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe."
Certainly we want lost people to think about their lostness. But is it good for Christians to consider this from time to time? I think so. I think this is what hymnwriter Robert Robinson captured in these words:
I don't believe that we fully understand what we have or who we are in Christ unless we remind ourselves from time to time of what we would have gotten without Him.O to grace how great a debtor daily I'm constrained to be!Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to
Prior to assuming the responsibilities of Senior Pastor here at Faith, I spent nearly 23 years working primarily with adults and doing a lot of small group leading and classroom teaching. While I prefer to develop my own discussion questions (in fact, after this post I'm going to write the questions that our small groups will use this week, based on the text on which I preached this morning), I find that there are some very good resources that can help you if you get stuck.
Search the Scriptures (Revised) - originally edited by Alan M. Stibbs, this book from InterVarsity Press takes you through the entire Bible in three years. Most of the questions are content-oriented, but each day closes with an application question. Highly recommended.
Serendipity Bible - Zondervan publishes this massive NIV translation with discussion questions in the margin. The questions tend to emphasize more application than content, but if you are developing a discussion, they can trigger some ideas that can be of help if you get stuck. Recommended.
Life-Change Bible Study Guides - NavPress has a full selection of studies that are inductive in nature. They foster good study skills and provide a good balance of content and application. We've used these guides with our adult program, and generally they have been received well. Recommended.
There are a ton of discussion resources available (that may in fact be literally true). If you are leading small groups, you can find both topical and book-related study guides available through such retailers as CBD.
But have you considered writing your own? As I said earlier, our groups study the same text that I preach on the previous Sunday. There are pros and cons to this, of course. Some may feel that they are getting warmed-over sermon, for example. But since I'm writing the questions and can easily recall what I said, I can make sure that what we do in our small groups does not inappropriately overlap what I said on Sunday. In other words, I don't want our people to be discussing the sermon - I want them to discuss the text on which the sermon was based.
There are a couple of guidelines that I try to use in developing questions for small group discussion:
- I want to lead the group into an inductive study of the text - we want to see what the text means.
- I try as much as possible not to focus on controversial areas. In fact, I often put a note to the leader in the questions about this very thing. I am Reformed in my orientation, but I have people in my church who are not. I don't want a discussion of election to occupy a small group for several reasons: first, there is usually more heat than light; second, when opposing and strongly-held or emotionally-charged opinions are shared in a debating style, it makes it hard for everyone to experience true Kumbaya (HA!). Seriously, having members of a small group suplexing each other off of the end tables is generally a good thing to avoid. I have no problem talking about areas of potential controversy in my sermon. But a small group is not the place for debate.
- Work the questions so that the application to the original readers is discovered. That prevents us from making misapplication. While circumstances differ because of time and culture, we still want any practical application to be drawn from the applicational intent of the author.
- Make sure that you ask questions that allow the group members to relate the meaning of the passage to their lives. This is where I probably overlap my sermon, but that's ok.
- Point to Christ. If we preach redemptively, we need to discuss redemptively. There is no reason why the Fallen Condition Focus idea that Bryan Chapell writes about in Christ-Centered Preaching.
I personally think that it is highly beneficial for pastors to lead small groups. There are ways around the "I want to be in my pastor's group" celebrity cult response. Telling people that you don't bathe after Sunday helps, for example. Maybe I'll post about that at some point (pastors leading, not our sanitary habits), but I have found that my small group experience is a vital part of my ministry and my Christian walk.
I hope you had a great Lord's Day. The service went well, I had a decent nap, the Phillies won, it's a nice spring afternoon. But most of all it's a privilege to serve Christ! Amen??