Over the Hill

Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.
~ 1 Timothy 4:16

I sat in the small, mostly white room. You could say it had a mauve accent. It was cold, though I wasn’t chilled. But, it was cold enough that everything felt almost damp. The cleanliness of the room was not in question, but I still wanted to touch as little as possible in there. Directly across from the straight, vinyl covered chair was a wall poster of a blackened lung that belonged to a longtime smoker. It reminded me of warnings against smoking from junior high.

I would again be reminded of junior high when the doctor came in and asked me questions I didn’t want to answer and scolded me about stuff I didn’t want to do. At least there was no paddle. The doctor came in and spent more time looking at the infamous chart and typing on the computer than making eye contact or giving me visible assurance I was being heard. As the doctor shuffled the file and the computer, I glanced at the chart. I don’t know why I felt so guilty about it, as if I were cheating on a test or something. I noticed my chart with my name on it was marked, “Prime of Life.” I almost laughed. I wanted to ask, “Does that mean this is the best it’s going to get for me?”

Have you ever noticed a lot of doctors don’t have much of what us civilians call a sense of humor. I suppose it’s the rigors of the work and all that. Once again, I’m back to junior high when the principal has serious concerns about my actions and I try to point out the funny in the business. Inevitably, they, and I quote, “Failed to see the humor.”

Middle Age is Also Middle Danger

Prime of life sounds nicer than middle-aged, but it doesn’t soften the realities that come with it. We could also say I’m at the top of the hill looking down the other side. I appreciate the attempts at positive spin, but I’m not bothered by it. Middle age frightens me, but not because of reduced energy levels, increased blood pressure, gray overtaking what’s left of hair, or more time spent in that little room with the doctor. Middle age is dangerous, particularly for a preacher, because being over the hill means it’s effortless to coast down the other side. The allure of easy chairs, TV sports, warm beds, and food and drink becomes stronger, or maybe the man is weaker.

As a young preacher you cannot easily see this fork in the road coming up. You’re full of fire and energy and can never imagine having to make a choice between leisure and work. You have so many things to learn and do you can’t imagine a strong desire to relax and do nothing. What’s unimaginable at 25 can become a daily battle at 45. Several years ago an older preacher asked me what hobbies I enjoyed. I don’t remember my reply, but the one in my head ran on this wise, “Hobbies? I ain’t got time for no hobbies. I got work to do.”

Young preachers all know older preachers they do not want to be like. They’ve seen the preacher who might as well advertise, “Have sermons, will travel.” He has his kit of sermons he’s preached hundreds of times and has warmed over so many times he could deliver them comatose. Young preachers see the cranky, bitter, ill-spirited old preacher who can instantly rain on any parade. They’ve seen the greasy salesman preacher always buttering everybody up and, as C. S. Lewis once said, if the biblical text had smallpox, his sermons would be in no danger of catching it. They’ve seen the politicking old preacher who is always calculating and being in the right place at the right time with the right people. They’ve seen the weeping preacher who’s not like Jeremiah, but rather is weepily pouting in the corner and continually licking his thirty year old wounds. They’ve seen the Elijah-under-the-juniper-tree preacher. He’s convinced he’s the only one faithful left and all these whippersnappers ain’t much.

Young preachers see these older specimens and don’t want to be like that guy. I doubt most of those older preachers started out that way. They probably weren’t so different from the young preachers today. I venture to guess that decisive turn came in middle age for them. That’s the time when it’s easy to think you’ve laid up enough goods that you can relax and live off the store. That’s the time when it’s deceptively easy to stop making progress in the ministry.

A Call to Preach is a Call to Work

In the interest of Fair Use, I disclose I’m about to paraphrase and fool about with something John Stott said somebody else said in his book on preaching, Between Two Worlds. When men stop making progress in the ministry, stop reading and thinking, it begins to show around the age of 45, or middle age. Their coasting typically deposits them on one side or the other. They become a bigot or a sentimentalist. The bigot resorts to the points of his dogma and hammers those nails until the heads are shiny at first, but soon they’re worn clean off. The sentimentalist is a widower who can’t let his deceased wife named Tradition rest in peace. He’s always digging her back up and bemoaning how they don’t make ’em like they used to.

Whatever you or I think about Stott’s thoughts about somebody else’s thoughts, there’s something there. A call to ministry is a call to serious, strenuous work marked by progress (1 Timothy 4:15). Paul told Timothy to give himself “wholly” to this work and continue to do so (1 Timothy 4:16). Paul explains what it takes to be “a good minister of Jesus Christ.” Spoiler alert: it takes a whole lot of continued, really hard work (1 Timothy 4:6-16). Just like the guy riding the pine wants to the be the star of the game but doesn’t want to practice, everyone wants to preach well when in the pulpit, but not everyone wants to work hard every day in the study.

Middle age comes and brings a lot of dangers, but it should not be the top of the hill for the preacher. He should continue to climb and make progress until death comes, or he is no longer physically able to climb. Young preachers will face this Hill of Difficulty at some point. It will be tempting to coast. Remember the warnings and persevere, brothers, persevere.

A Joke, Three Points, and a Poem

And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.
~ 2 Timothy 2:2

When all you need is just one more “P.”

John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is one of the most famous English novels. It is a literary classic. The book has a quest plot structure. Christian is trying to get from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. It has many tropes of the quest, such as obstacles, dangers, temptations, setbacks, false helpers, and true helpers.

The quest is a common plot structure throughout literary history going back to The Epic of Gilgamesh and Homer’s The Odyssey. The quest begins with some lack in the protagonist or some need the protagonist has to meet. If it’s a journey quest, there is a destination the protagonist has to reach. If it’s a personal quest, there is something that has to be learned or some skill that has to be acquired and mastered. The common thread is that the protagonist has to do something he doesn’t know how to do. The story unfolds as the protagonist encounters obstacles he has to overcome to reach the end goal.

Quests are popular and resonate with people because we all have things we need to accomplish, but don’t know how to go about it. The protagonist needs help and finds it in the stories in various forms, often just enough help at the right time to get them over the present obstacle. Helpers come in various forms in quest stories. Sometimes it is a single helper in the form of some wizened, curmudgeonly man who is a little grouchy and talks in riddles. There can also be various helpers along the way, and danger in the form of false helpers who misguide the protagonist.

Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress has helpers in the form of The Evangelist, The Interpreter, the Shining Ones, the palace damsels, etc. Helpers are one of the reasons quests resonate with people so well. We feel the need for helpers, people with the knowledge to propel us forward at just the right time. We often seek helpers in our life, but we also can end up frustrated and disappointed with what we find.

Young preachers are fresh-faced protagonists in their own quest. The young preacher has a job to do. He needs to preach the Bible to feed people and to equip them to do the work they need to do (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2; Ephesians 4:11-16). In a sense, the young preacher is on a quest to become a helper for other people on their quests, like the shepherds of the Delectable Mountains, Knowledge, Experience, Watchful, and Sincere. The young preacher’s quest is not to preach great sermons—open with a joke to get their attention, alliterate three points to make it memorable, and close with a poem to affect their emotions. No, the young preacher’s quest is to become a shepherd to people and to care for their souls by feeding them the Word of God.

Finding Helpers

Though I’ve never looked the part, I was a young preacher once. I can remember the treading water feeling while I tried to figure out what I was doing and should be doing. I was always looking for help. I found help here and there along the way and I’m thankful for all I have had. I still look for help, but I suppose I’m a little better at finding it today and a little quicker in sorting good from bad.

I’ve had different conversations with other pastors about the struggles we faced as young preachers and the help we did have and the help we wanted to have. I’ve seen pastors have a heart to help and encourage young preachers. We’ve talked about how to do it, and finally somebody said, “Let’s do it.” A few different pastors working together and brainstorming came up with the idea for the Sovereign Grace Baptist Pastor-Teacher Seminar. The seminar will be November 30 to December 2, 2017 in Richmond, KY at the Best Western Hotel conference room. A Facebook page has been set up for information and updates about the seminar. Let me tell you a little bit about it and see if it will be helpful and encouraging to you.

The Facts

We do have a purpose statement for the seminar you can view by clicking the image below.

The seminar will focus on the preaching ministry. We know there are a host of topics that would be of interest, but we also realize we can’t cover everything. We decided to focus on the particulars of preaching regularly to a congregation. We also know there are many preachers who have something to contribute to help young preachers, but we can’t have everybody in the limited time and space we are working with. What we do have are preachers with a heart to help and encourage young preachers and an understanding that that’s the primary aim of the seminar. If you are a preacher with fewer than ten years in ministry, a pastor in your first pastorate, a preacher not yet pastoring, a man wrestling with a call to preach, or even a Bible teacher in your church, then this seminar could be some help to you.

We have put a schedule together you can view by clicking the image below.

The schedule might change some, but it will be very similar to this. We have five different speakers who will present seminars on the various topics listed during the morning and afternoon sessions. These seminars will be practical and interactive. It will be more of an informal classroom feel than a formal lecture feel. There will be handouts and free books and such for those who register. You can register by filling in the online form here. There is no cost to register and attend.

The evening sessions will have sermons. So you will have seminars by five different speakers that pertain to the preparation and delivery of sermons and you will also have one sermon from each speaker to hear an example of how they bring it all together. The goal is to present you with different perspectives from preachers who have different gifts and methods of preparing and preaching sermons. We are not trying to promote “one way” of preaching, other than being faithful to the text of Scripture in all preaching. The different methods and styles will give you the opportunity for consideration and hopefully take away what is helpful to you.

We will also have a Q&A session on Saturday to answer questions submitted ahead of time by those attending. The questions can be anything related to preaching or pastoral ministry. We will give preference to questions that are most relevant to the seminar theme and the most likely to be helpful to a greater number of people. Be watching for more information about submitting questions.

The seminar will be held from Thursday, November 30 to Saturday, December 2, 2017 at the Best Western conference room in Richmond, KY. The hotel has given us a group rate for rooms at $75 per night, if you mention you are with the SGB Pastor-Teacher Seminar when you call to book your room. Obviously, doubling up on rooms and splitting the cost is a good idea. The hotel will provide a full breakfast to those staying there. You will need to be prepared to cover your own meals otherwise. You do not have to stay at the hotel to attend the seminar.

You can watch the Facebook page for updates and information. Feel free to ask any questions you may have about the seminar.

This is Your First Rodeo

Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.
~ Acts 20:28

How to take your first church

After preaching a while, you will be called to your first church. You will not be ready. Depending on the quality of mentoring, some of you are more not ready than others. Before being called, the church, or someone from the church, will ask you questions and those questions can be anything. It’s hard for me to help prepare you for that other than to say be ready for anything. If the church went through a bad experience with their previous pastor, you will probably be asked a number of odd questions that are mostly designed to make sure you are not like him. If the church’s previous pastor was unhealthily venerated, the church will ask you many questions mostly designed to ensure you are just like him.

Be ready for anything is the best I can do from this side of the process. You cannot control what a church says or does in communicating with a prospective pastor. But, you can control what you do in the process and you should remember you are interviewing the church just as much as they are interviewing you.

The Questions You Should Consider Asking

I am not promising the definitive list. I’m sure others with more wisdom and experience can add to this list. My goal is only to list several things you should consider about a church before you accept the call. And we’re off.

  1. Church Documents
    You will want to ask for a copy of their church documents, i.e., articles of faith, constitution and bylaws, covenant, etc. You need to learn about their doctrine and practice. If the church doesn’t have these documents, or if they’re vague or very brief, you will need to ask questions to find out the sort of things that would be in such documents, if they had them.
  2. Church Officers and Staff
    You need to know every position the church has and who holds those positions. You need to know if those are paid positions and what the responsibilities of those persons are. In this area, you need to know things like the handling of finances, cleaning and property maintenance, etc.
  3. Church Membership
    You need to know how many members the church has. You need to know how faithful those members are to the services and such. You need to know if the church maintains members who are not in the area. You need to know the church’s position on attendance and how problems in this area are addressed. You need to know if the church has any special needs members, such as elderly, shut-in, nursing home, etc.
  4. Church Calendar
    You need to know what a typical year in the life of the church looks like. What events does the church have? What special services?
  5. Church Missions
    You need to know what missionaries/ministries the church supports financially. You need to know what outreach the church does locally.
  6. Church Expectation
    You need to know what the church expects of a pastor. Their expectations may be biblical or not, but you need to know what those are. This would include anything and everything they expect a pastor will do.
  7. Church Pay
    You need to know the salary they’re offering, how it will be paid, etc. If they have a parsonage, you will also need to know their expectations regarding it.
  8. Church Problems
    You need to know if there are any current problems within the church membership or between them and other churches. You need to know what you’re stepping into as much as possible.
  9. Previous Pastor
    You need to know about the previous pastor and what happened with him. I am not suggesting nosiness, but you need to find out relevant things to pastoring this church.

No Perfect Churches

Again, that list is not the definitive list, but it is a list that touches on many areas and discussing these things will probably bring out what you most need to know. It’s better to eliminate surprises as much as possible. Some things that come up will need an immediate conversation, while others you just need to be aware of. Answers to these questions will affect the way you do things. I am not suggesting that any bump in the road here means you have to run away. Remember that things are not always what they seem and there are no perfect churches, or perfect pastors.

Crumbs from Spurgeon’s Table

The preacher sought to find out acceptable words
– Ecclesiastes 12:10

Important lessons from Spurgeon’s sermons, or, Crusts of bread from the prince of preachers to the poorest of preachers.

I‘m sure you’ve heard of Charles Spurgeon, right? He was a Baptist preacher in London in the nineteenth century. Bell rung? In the early days of internet usage I found “The Spurgeon Archive” and spent many hours reading sermons. In the days leading up to being called into ministry and in the early years of ministry, I read more Spurgeon than any other single author. I mostly read his sermons in those days, though I did read some of his other writings. When I go back to my earlier sermons, I see more of Spurgeon’s influence on my preaching than I realized at the time. It was Spurgeon’s sermons that gave the structure to my own sermons, which I still use to this day.

I’m not an expert on Charles Spurgeon. I have read a lot of Spurgeon and have much appreciation for him. There are many places to seek out the superlatives of Charles Spurgeon, so I’m going to bypass that for now. I want to look at a Spurgeon sermon and point out some lessons we can learn to help our own sermons. I went through an index and picked a sermon on Hebrews 2:10, titled: Christ—Perfect Through Sufferings. It was preached at the Metropolitan Tabernacle on November 2nd, 1862. I picked this particular sermon for two main reasons. First, I glanced at it and saw that it had the essential Spurgeon sermon structure. Second, it was a sermon about Christ, so I knew it would be a good representative of most of his preaching. The printed sermon has 7,442 words so I am not going to post it in this article. You can find it online here.

We are all aware of Spurgeon’s vocabulary, use of metaphor, vivid word pictures, and eloquence. I’m not so much dealing with those in this list. I’m presenting a list of 10 lessons in no particular order. The only order that needs be observed is that I am putting the most important lesson first. If you get nothing else from this article, get the first one and never let it go.

The Lessons

1. You are not Charles Spurgeon, nor will you ever be.
If you have any notion of such a thought as being like Spurgeon in your head, expunge it immediately. Occasionally I encounter someone endeavoring to compare some preacher or other to Spurgeon and I quickly conclude they do not know very much about Spurgeon. He started preaching at 17 years old and before he turned 20, he had preached over 600 times. He did that in 2-3 years.

I was 25 years old when I preached my first sermon and, on the day of my thirtieth birthday, I preached my six hundred and first sermon. It took me almost five years to get to that number and I was almost a full decade older when I started. Beside that, my first 600 sermons cannot compare to his.

2. Spurgeon was consistent in the length of his sermons.
He was reported to preach 40-50 minutes on average. The sermon I looked at had 7,442 words. He was reported to preach about 140 words per minute so this sermon would have been about 53 minutes long. Consistency is a good lesson here. In a regular ministry, it is a good idea to be fairly consistent with sermon length. Whatever the actual length is is not quite as important as consistency. When you preach consistently in length, you’re training the attention spans of your people to focus for that length of time. Perhaps this is even more important in our day.

3. Spurgeon was consistent in the structure of his sermons.
He typically had an outline that moved in a logical order. He generally had an introduction, body of three to four main divisions, and a brief conclusion. The picture with this post is a scan of his actual handwritten notes for a different sermon he took into the pulpit. You can find some samples of his notes online. He used this structure consistently. Our sample sermon has an introduction, three main divisions, and a brief conclusion. It is actually a profitable exercise for young preachers to take Spurgeon sermons, read them, and then write up the outline of that sermon. Now let’s get some lessons from the different parts of his sermon.

4. Spurgeon consistently had a brief introduction.
Our sample sermon introduction has 541 words, which is about 7% of the overall sermon. The introduction would’ve taken about 4 minutes. The lesson here is not that your introduction should be 7% of your sermon or be 4 minutes long. The lesson is that it should be brief. As a general rule, 5 to 10 minutes is probably a good aim, and the farther south of 10 minutes, the better.

Spurgeon used the introduction to set the stage for his sermon, which is the function of a good introduction. He was not an expository preacher. He was more of a textual/topical preacher. He generally took a text and focused on a main point in the text and developed it in a theological/topical fashion. If he did do contextual exposition, it would generally be in the introduction. He would also use the introduction to bring up particular theological themes relevant to the point of the text and the sermon.

In our sample sermon, he brought up the doctrinal points of God’s foreknowledge and predestination in regards to the fall and the salvation of man. This leads into the truth that Christ being perfected through sufferings was according to the foreknowledge and the foreordained plan of God. His main point to be developed in the sermon is the perfecting of Christ through suffering and he begins by showing the theological necessity and justification for it. He also does something that raises interest and attention in the hearers. He states what is at stake in what he’s preaching in the introduction.

Oh! how careful should we be who have to preach it never to alter it in the slightest degree. How should we lift our prayers to heaven that God would give us a clear understanding, first, of what we have to teach, and then a clear method of teaching what we have learned, so that no mistake may be made here, for a mistake here would mar that express image of God which shines in the gospel, and prevent our hearers from seeing the beautiful fitness and proportion which are so adapted to reveal the perfect character of God. We say the plan must be what it is; it could not be otherwise so as to be in keeping with the divine character; and, therefore, it is imperative upon us that we make no alteration in it, no, not of a word, lest we should hear the Apostle’s anathema hissing through the air like a thunderbolt from God — “If we or an angel from heaven preach any other gospel than that ye have received let him be accursed!”
(Emphasis added)

We don’t want to create an artificial crisis or overstate the case in our sermons, but it can be good to raise questions in the introduction, if the sermon is going to answer them. It can be good state a crisis, if the sermon is going to speak to it. It can also be good to bring up a controversy in the introduction, if the sermon is going to address it. These things can help bring the hearers in and alert them to why the sermon matters.

5. Spurgeon consistently stated where he was in the outline during his sermon.
He generally stated his main divisions at the end of his introduction. I used to to do this in my introductions, e.g. “We have three main reasons for . . . First . . . Second . . .” and so on. I still do this, but not in quite so obvious a way. It is a good idea to give some idea of the sermon outline. It encourages and helps people to take notes. Spurgeon would also state each main division as he got to it. He wasn’t always as obvious about his conclusion.

6. Spurgeon consistently gave the bulk of the sermons to his main divisions.
Our sample sermon has three main divisions that take up 85% of the overall sermon, or about 45 minutes. The divisions got shorter as he went. The first has 3,909 words and is about 53% of the overall sermon, or about 28 minutes. The second has 1,777 words accounting for about 24% of the overall sermon and 13 minutes. The third has 575 words for about 8% of the sermon and about 4 minutes of the time.

Why do the divisions take up such a disproportionate amount of time? I think the reason is obvious. Spurgeon’s notes were really more of a bare-bones outline than sermon notes. His preaching was more extemporaneous than manuscripted. You notice in the sample sermon he warms to his subject quickly and develops his first point quite fully. Why didn’t he do the same on all points and just take however long it took? He was obviously conscious of time and aimed for a consistent length in his sermons. He stated at the end of his first division, “Thus much, then, upon our first head; I would we had more time for our second; but we will pass to it at once.”

7. Spurgeon consistently had brief conclusions.
He did not always state that he was concluding. If you read closely, you can detect the conclusion in our sample sermon. It consists of 607 words so it is about the same length as the third division ended up being and is also similar in length to the introduction. So it is about 4 minutes long. Spurgeon did not rehash his sermon in his conclusion. He actually brought the conclusion from his sermon, so it is generally practical application or exhortation that follows from the body of the sermon.

8. Spurgeon consistently used illustrations in his sermons.
He used two types of illustrations: illustrations from scripture and illustrations from elsewhere, such as nature, science, history, literature, everyday life, etc. There are a few different illustrations in our sample sermon. He uses the fact that a doctor has to have some acquaintance with a disease in order to effectively treat it. He refers to a beggar asking for crumbs. He draws a comparison with the “innumerable and detestable” frogs from the plague in Egypt. He mentions the brazen serpent on the pole. He mentions the dry earth receiving rain. He makes a literary reference to Milton.

One obvious lesson from his illustrations is that they are short. The longest one in this sermon is about the brazen serpent and it is 232 words, or about 2 minutes. Generally, the longer illustrations are the ones from scripture. Often his illustrations are just a sentence or even a phrase. He makes the reference quickly and moves on. That’s what makes an illustration good. It’s a reference everyone gets so you don’t need lengthy explanation. If you have to spend a few minutes explaining the reference so that everyone understands how it illustrates the point, it’s a bad illustration so lose it.

9. Spurgeon consistently made application throughout the sermon.
As he gets to a point of exhortation, he presses it on the hearers then. His applications flow throughout the sermon rather than being like an afterthought tacked on at the end. As the application comes naturally, press it then. Often in exposition, application comes naturally in the text itself so a good exposition of the passage will include such application. Spurgeon likewise raised and answered common objections at natural places in the sermon, which can be a form of application.

Disease, sickness of body, poverty, need, friendlessness, hopelessness, desertion — he knows all these. You cannot cast human suffering into any shape that is new to Christ. “In all their afflictions he was afflicted.” If you feel a thorn in your foot, remember that it once pierced his head. If you have a trouble or a difficulty, you may see there the mark of his hands, for he has climbed that way before. The whole path of sorrow has his blood bedabbled footsteps all along, for the Man of Sorrows has been there, and he can now have sympathy with you. “Yes,” I hear one say, “but my sorrows are the result of sin.” So were his; though not his own, yet the result of sin they were. “Yes,” you say, “but I am slandered, and I cannot bear it.” They called him a drunken man, and a wine-bibber. Why, when you once think of the sufferings of Christ, yours are not worth a thought. Like the small dust of a balance that may be blown away with the breath of an infant, such are our agonies and our trials when compared with his. Drink thy little cup; see what a cup he drained. The little vinegar and gall that fall to thy share thou mayest gladly recede, for these light afflictions, which are but for a moment, are not worthy to be compared to the sufferings through which he passed.

And finally . . .

10. You are not Charles Spurgeon, nor will you ever be.
Spurgeon’s ministry lasted for 38 years and he was 57 years old when he died. In that time, his sermons were published weekly and sold around 20,000 copies per week in 20 different languages. His collected and published sermons are in 63 volumes and is still today the largest single-author set of books ever published. He also wrote and published over 140 other books besides his sermons. He pastored a congregation of 4,000 members, edited a magazine, answered 500 letters per week, read six books per week (usually of puritan theology), founded and oversaw more than 60 organizations, maintained a pastor’s college, had a near invalid wife and twin sons, regularly counseled what he called difficult cases, and lived with physical pain and constant criticism and slander. I have not listed everything the man did.

I am not Spurgeon and you are not Spurgeon, nor will we, or anybody else, ever be. We can learn from him though. If you think about it, he lived and experienced several lifetimes in his 38 years. He constantly urged his brothers forward and embodied the idea of wearing out rather than rusting out.

Frog Wings

Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? It hath been already of old time, which was before us. ~ Ecclesiastes 1:10

Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? It hath been already of old time, which was before us. ~ Ecclesiastes 1:10

Computer programming and pastoral ministry
… and never the twain shall meet.
– Rudyard Kipling

Donald Knuth is a computer scientist most well known for his multi-volume work, The Art of Computer Programming. His magnum opus was first conceived of in 1962 with the first volume published in 1968. Since then, he has continued writing and revising and publishing. This work is so long and difficult that Bill Gates once urged anyone who could read the whole thing to send him a resume.

Knuth is also well known for not having an email address. A computer scientist who doesn’t have an email address? Of course, he had an email address from 1975 to January 1, 1990, back when most of us had never even heard of email. He opted out of email to concentrate on finishing his books and he does have a postal address and fax number where you can send communications, which will be filtered by his secretary and looked at by him every 3-6 months. He has a statement on his website, if you’re interested in seeing it.

The nexus of programming and pastoring

In Knuth’s statement about email, he wrote:

Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don’t have time for such study.

If you think about it, that statement is not too far off from the primary work of pastoring. The pulpit ministry is an area where the preacher has to get to the bottom of things and needs many hours of study, thinking, writing, and unbroken concentration. He has to learn the text exhaustively and set about the work of translating that into an understandable and accessible form for his people. I honestly doubt that too much time could be given to this work to do it adequately. Pastoral ministry is truly a calling to lifelong, dedicated study for preaching and teaching.

On the other hand, the pastor cannot devote all his time to getting to the bottom of things because he also has to be on top of things to an extent. The calling is not to preach and teach to a video camera, but rather to shepherd a particular group of people. You are called to serve a people in a time and a place. Being on top of things as a pastor means being in communication with and accessible to your people. It means remaining in touch with real life, current events, and the issues facing them daily. It means being aware of the dominant worldviews around you and being ready to defend the truth and help bolster the faith of your people from the attacks they are receiving.

Pastoral ministry is a delicate balancing act between getting to the bottom of things and staying of top of things. A pastor should block out some time and concentrate on getting to the bottom, but he cannot rule out being on top of things. It is a difficult calling and no one man gets this balance right all the time.

On second thought

Knuth’s web page raises another question. Why does he have a dedicated public statement about email? Of course, he must be swamped with correspondence and that’s a way to weed some out. But, why a statement about emails and not telegrams, for instance? Don’t be ridiculous. Who sends telegrams? Ah, my point precisely.

Email is ubiquitous and I’m sure it’s just assumed among the circle he must move in. Email is a near-instantaneous way to contact someone. Email is quick and the process provides little friction for slowing down to think. The process of writing and mailing a letter or fax is slower, requires more effort, and encourages more thought. If your purpose is to hastily excoriate, you’re more likely to use the quickest method and refrain from putting too much work into it. The near-instantaneous nature of digital communication also causes interruption and the sender expects quick reply.

I conclude Knuth is only adapting to the world around him and ordering things in a way most beneficial to his purposes. That brings us to think about how preachers should adapt to the world around them. Young preachers today are coming up in a different environment than a mere twenty years ago. We have always on, instant access, digital connections through cell phones and social media online. The sermons that you preach will most likely be online somewhere. Everything you write will be online as well. When you preach somewhere, it will likely be mentioned online. People will tag you in pictures they have taken, mention your name in posts, and likely share something from you with their friends. They are probably going to publicly disagree with you and criticize you at times.

This is just reality today. The generation ahead of me thinks it a breech of social etiquette to post a picture of someone online without that person’s consent. The generation behind me doesn’t even think about it, but posts pictures without hesitation. I’ve had conversations about whether a person should post a pic of someone else without their permission. It doesn’t really matter what you or I think about that practice, it’s how things are done and the generation behind me doesn’t even consider it. Go find someone older than you and ask them what would happen if a frog had wings . . . You can wish things to be different than they are but reality is what it is and that’s what we have to work with.

My point is that the world is different for young preachers today and you need to be aware of that. I don’t have strong feelings one way or the other about whether you should be on social media. For young preachers especially, you’re going to be on there one way or another. In light of that, I want to mention a few things to think about in regard to adapting to this digital world of ours. These are things I have wrestled with myself and I hope they can be a help to young preachers to think about it.

  • Your profile. Social sites give you the ability to craft and filter the image of yourself the world sees. Many profiles are a fiction, a character that has been created, and not a reflection of reality. It can happen accidentally or deliberately. As a preacher, you need to keep in mind that you are a preacher of the Gospel and representative of Jesus Christ and his church. Let everything you do online reflect that properly. I’m not suggesting that you be inauthentic, but you should be thoughtful about your opinions and preferences and how the expression of those may alienate many of the very people you ought to be reaching. Do your likes and dislikes really matter, and especially if their constant expression hinders the Gospel?
  • Your posts. The things you post, comment on, like, and share are opportunities to do good or harm. You can do harm by displaying a bitter spirit, obscuring Gospel truth, or causing unnecessary offenses. You can do good by always posting with grace (Colossians 4:6), love (Ephesians 4:15), gentleness (2 Timothy 2:24), patience and meekness (2 Timothy 2:25). Be thoughtful to avoid strife and foolish questions, which abound on social sites (2 Timothy 2:23).

Some dangers online

This point quickly became more than a bullet point so it will be the last section. I can’t address all dangers of being online, but pursuant to my purpose, I want to think about some dangers in our public interactions on social media.

We can now publicly post about something that has happened within seconds of it happening. We can immediately respond to something going on in the world or being posted online. History has never known this capability. This possibility has also given an opportunity for folly to be broadcast in grand proportions. Fools love to pour out their foolishness like water from a five-gallon bucket (Proverbs 15:2). They post quickly and often (Proverbs 29:20). They post quickly without thought and without knowing the matter (Proverbs 18:13, 17). They respond to everything, or the latest thing, quickly because they are not as concerned for truth and facts as they are for venting their feelings and opinions (Proverbs 18:2; 13:16). The quickness of their emoting or bloviating shows that they never stop to consider whether they are someone who should say something about whatever is going on (Proverbs 26:17, 21, 27).

Wisdom knows that our words can do lasting damage or give life (Proverbs 12:18). Wisdom teaches us our words should be fewer (Proverbs 10:19) and more thoughtful (Proverbs 15:28). Our words can be used to stir up strife or to calm things down (Proverbs 15:1). Wisdom also teaches that we don’t have to respond to everything, or address everything. There is wisdom in knowing when to simply walk away (Proverbs 29:9; 26:4). Let you words be wise ones, even the digital ones and then frogs don’t need wings.

The Purloining Preacher

Not purloining, but showing all good fidelity; that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things. ~ Titus 2:10

Not purloining, but showing all good fidelity; that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things. ~ Titus 2:10

Pulpit tricks and how to avoid them.

Harry Houdini is likely the most famous magician from history, or illusionist as they now prefer, and the father of the modern performance art of magic. He was a Hungarian Jew born in Budapest, who moved as a teen with his family to the United States. He began his professional career in 1894 and performed until his death in 1926. He is most well-known for his daring escapes but he did perform other illusions as well.

He had other pursuits and interests in life, and one was tied to his experience and knowledge of magic. Later in life he became adept at exposing and debunking psychics, mediums, spiritualists, and others who claimed to perform feats through paranormal power. He could reproduce their effects or identify the sleights and tricks they used. At one point, he worked with Scientific American and offered a cash prize to anyone who could fool him with their paranormal powers. Many tried but no one ever claimed the prize.

Houdini identified many tricks that people used to deceive others into thinking they had supernatural powers. Houdini I am not, but I have seen some preachers using tricks to make people think more highly of them and their preaching than they ought to. Sometimes they have the dubious skill of covering weak preaching with pulpit flourish. I am not talking here about “faith healers” or “prophets” or anyone like that. I’m talking about preachers who stand before a crowd of people and seem to preach the Bible to them. They’re not speaking prophecies or describing visions but just preaching.

Usually you have two kinds of fault. There are those who deliberately use tricks because they seek the attention or fame they can bring. Then you have those who unintentionally use some of these while they are endeavoring to preach well. I think the latter group is often the younger, inexperienced preachers. I’m not bashing young preachers. One of the difficulties young preachers face is that they don’t yet know what they don’t know. Unless they have been unusually blessed to come up under faithful expository preaching, they’ve probably heard a lot of pulpit flourish preaching. This type of preaching is popular and well-received in many places. Young preachers are trying to learn how to preach and end up following this style to try to preach well. It takes time to develop discernment but hopefully this post can be helpful. The following is a list of tricks I’ve seen preachers use to misdirect the congregation. I do want to qualify that just because a preacher may sometimes do some of these, that doesn’t mean they’re using a trick. It’s typically when you see a regular pattern that you can discern a greater desire to perform than to preach.

The Old Testament out of context

Beginning a topical sermon in the Old Testament is a way to give the sermon and the preacher the appearance of depth. When a preacher reads an Old Testament text, spends a scant few minutes talking about that text, and then launches into a topical sermon that has little or no connection to the context of Old Testament passage, he is misdirecting to give his preaching more weight.

No dictionary required

Using terms such as covenant, law, priesthood, sovereignty, etc. is a way to make the preacher look intellectual. When a preacher peppers his sermon with high-sounding terms but doesn’t explain nor even demonstrate that he understands them, he is misdirecting to assume intellectual superiority and authority for his sermon.

It happened on this wise

Using real-life experience stories is a way to make the preacher appear experienced and streetwise in the world. When a preacher tells stories of outlandish situations and especially if he tells a lot of stories of events that didn’t happen to him but someone he knows, he is misdirecting to appear more traveled and experienced than what he is.

Prop preachers

Using props for “object lessons” or “illustrative sermons” is a way to compensate for lack of content and substance in a sermon. This is done today with objects brought in or even video clips and presentations during the sermon. Object lessons can be helpful when done sparingly and simply, but when preaching turns into a multimedia production it is no longer preaching in the biblical sense of the term. When a preacher relies on props or skits to convey his message, he is misdirecting from a weak sermon and entertaining more than exhorting.

Have you seen the wiggle worm?

Using movement is a way to keep people engaged, artificially inject energy, and make it appear that a lot is happening. This goes beyond hand gestures into theatrics like running, jumping, dancing, and a host of other things. Many consider this sort of thing to be anointed or Spirit-filled, but the work of the Holy Spirit within a man yields the fruit of self-control (2 Timothy 1:7). I’m not suggesting that a man has to stand flat-footed behind the pulpit with hands folded in front of him in order to preach. However, when a man starts behind the pulpit, reads a passage of Scripture, and then moves around all over the place for the next 30-40 minutes without ever returning to the Bible, he is not preaching the Bible. He is misdirecting to make an impression with his “passion.”

It was the best of preaching, it was the worst of preaching

Using clichés, platitudes, alliterated phrases, and clever turns is a way to immediately connect with people and make them think you’re actually saying something. If you can take a cliché and tweak it just a bit, you can appear very clever. The Christian world is not immune from bumper sticker sloganeering. Political speeches are full of applause lines that are meaningless—Hope and change, or, Make America great again. These are meaningless statements but they draw the cheers. When a preacher rattles off Christian clichés without any explanation or meaningful statements, he is misdirecting to get an emotional response and steering clear of offending anyone.

The padded sermon

Using jokes and stories is a way to interest the audience, make them laugh, or build emotional tension and they add filler to sermons, turning a devotional into a full-length sermon. Jokes and stories may be able to convey truth in a memorable way but there is a danger in making truth statements without authority. Jokes and stories are not authoritative. When a preacher relies on jokes and stories to make his points, he is misdirecting from a lack of study and preparation to preach the truth authoritatively from Scripture.

Did you hear?

Using news headlines is a way to connect with people because they have probably heard something about it and give off the appearance of being thoroughly informed and up to date on all things happening in the world and Bible prophecy. I have heard statements such as, “Did you hear about what’s happening in _____ (insert Russia, Syria, Iran, or some other place in the Middle East)? Jesus is getting ready to come back.” Such statements are seldom ever explained. What exactly is happening in that place? What specific prophecy is fulfilled by it? What is the connection to Jesus’ return that that specific event means it is closer? When a preacher makes random prophecy-related, current events statements without any explanation, he is misdirecting to appear at the pinnacle of Bible knowledge for understanding all prophecy.

The legend

Using personal stories where you always say and do the right things is a way to appear super-Christianly and a master of wit, knowledge, and personal conversation. When a preacher tells a lot of personal experience stories where he is always the hero, he is misdirecting to appear flawless and enable himself to “humbly” receive all the inevitable praise.

Deja vu

Using the sermons, stories, and work of others as your own is a way to appear more advanced than you are and to shield yourself from risk by using something that has already worked. Much could be said about plagiarism but that will have to be for another time. I’m talking here about straight copying something from someone else and passing it off as your own. Of course, in so doing you receive all the credit and praise that belongs to someone else. When a preacher steals from someone else to present it to others, he is misdirecting from a lack of study and preparation. If he can add in some of the other tricks we’ve considered, his purloined sermon can also appear fresh.

Conclusion

Many of the tricks I’ve listed can be used in a non-trick and legitimate way. However, when you see a pervasive and persistent presence of these things in a man’s ministry, you know he is pulling tricks. You probably also noticed that many of these tricks provide cover for a lack of study and preparation to preach. When a man studies as he ought to study (1 Timothy 4:6-16; 2 Timothy 2:15; 4:1-5), he has no need of tricks and won’t have time for them, because he will have too much Bible to preach to his people. I hope this will be a help to young preachers to take heed how they hear (Luke 8:18). Don’t assume that because something is well received by a group of people that it is of God or good Bible preaching (2 Timothy 4:3-4).

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