Pastoring, like parenting, necessarily entails both joys and pains. Surviving in ministry, Gary D. Preston shows, in Character Forged from Conflict: Staying Connected to God During Controversy (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, c. 1999), comes from allowing God to transform suffering into sanctity, making one a mature minister of the Gospel. Preston pastors a Baptist church in Boulder, Colorado, and this book contains wise advice, rooted in years of experience, as to how to deal with adversity and disappointment. Acknowledging that “there is often a heavy price to pay in pastoral ministry” (p. 9), he has written this book in hopes of helping “fellow pastors regain passion for their calling, which may have cooled because of the battles and bruises” they’ve suffered (p. 9).
The first chapter, “Forced Out,” details his struggles when his pastoral services were “terminated” by a church board. He slid quickly into a depressed state, felt glued to LA-Z-Boy, filled with fears and numbed with shock. To make ends meet, he began doing odd jobs, working as a carpenter. For six weeks he and his wife could not bear to attend any church. But as the weeks passed, he re-connected with his family–having lots of time around the house he discovered how much his busy pastoral work had kept him away from his wife and kids. He began to eat and exercise properly. And he also re-connected with God. Without “work” to do, he began to pray and ponder and find deeper dimensions to his faith. He took time to write and reflect in a journal, which turned out to be thoroughly therapeutic. He began to properly assign blame, both to himself and others, and find peace in assessing his “failure.” Six months later, he was offered a staff position at a church they’d begun attending. That led, a few years later, to a pastoral assignment. Looking back on it all, Preston says, the man he became in the midst of all the pain is the pastor who can more effectively do what he’s called to do.
Chapter Two, “Playing Hurt,” insists that pastors must, with the resiliency of professional athletes, perform even when injured. Working with church folks puts one in a rough-and-tumble world, simply because parishioners bring all the scars and defects they’ve acquired into the fellowship. Conflicts simply cannot be avoided! But in the midst of them, in the midst of the pain they cause, there is grace available. If one finds the courage to face reality, if one refuses to cut and run and avoid conflict, spiritual progress will result. “Through our suffering in ministry, God wants us to increase our maturity in Christ” (p. 44).
“Keeping Enemies Close,” the next chapter’s theme, offers good advice that’s hard to follow! Pastors (like the rest of us) easily try to keep enemies at a distance, stiff-arming all adversaries, avoiding them as much as possible. Instead, Preston urges, pastors should seek out their foes in the congregation– talking with them at pot luck dinners, inviting them to have lunch, asking them for help wherever appropriate, looking for opportunities to show kindness. Talking with one’s enemies in private, rather than shooting at them in public, may be daunting, but it ultimately solves problems and facilitates ministry.
“Resisting the Urge to Strike Back” will also help one grow in ministry. It’s easy to fire back when one receives a critical letter, even to shoot sarcastic shafts from the pulpit which reaches one’s intended victims. Criticism always hurts. Much of it is undeserved. But if one can resist the initial impulse, bury the vengeful resolve, and pray for God’s guidance, it is possible to reach out with forgiveness and understanding to one’s critics. “Preaching Through Conflict” shows how good biblical preaching helps both pastor and parishioners. “What Your Family Needs” reminds us that a pastor’s main assignment is in the home, not the church. “Staying Balanced” emphasizes the importance of rest, reasonable schedules, recreation. “Angels in the Roll” reminds us of the many good, healthy folks in congregations who stand by and help a pastor even in the darkest hours. “When to Back Off” emphasizes how important it is to keep the main thing the main thing, to only fight battles which merit the investment.
“Out of the Pain,” the tenth and concluding chapter, stresses how important it is to profit from pastoral pain. A.W. Tozer’s statement, “God cannot use a man greatly until he has hurt him deeply” sounded outlandish to him when he heard it in seminary. Now, older and wiser, he finds Tozer absolutely correct. Only in “God’s curriculum of pain” (p. 147) can some truths be learned. Preston has learned empathy, patience, discernment, trust. God has been faithful, and He knows he is a better man as well as a better pastor for having endured the many problems he’s encountered.
This book is readable, credible, encouraging. For pastors struggling with “burn out” and frustration, it could be a healing balm. A great gift for a pastor–even a pastor not in the midst of crisis!
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David Johnson pastors The Church of the Open Door in Crystal, Minnesota, which has grown from 160 to 5,000 congregrants since he began his pastorate in 1980. “A church that got bigger is also going deeper,” he insists (p. 231). Importantly, that process was shaped by his preaching, in 1990, a series of sermons on the Beatitudes, and the church has been shaped by its truth. Joy Comes in the Mourning . . . and other blessings in disguise (Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications, c. 1998) make available those sermons. “Christ is offering here, in radical fashion,” Johnson says, “a crash course on the core values of kingdom living” (p. 6). For folks who are broken and contrite in heart, there’s good news here. And the Church of Jesus Christ is composed of precisely those kinds of folks. “Jesus is hereby declaring: ‘I’ve got good news for those who feel troubled about themselves. And I’ve got troubling news for those who feel good about themselves” (pp. 8-9). Johnson then takes us through each of the Beatitudes. Clearly rooted in a solid biblical and theological foundation, often inserting some careful exegetical comments, he is equally adept at relating ancient truth to the current scene.
Early in the text, Johnson sets forth this clear declaration concerning sanctification:
But a strange thing happens when we strive to be Christlike through our own virtue. Though we are trying harder, we are accomplishing less. The more we determine to become holy through self-righteousness, the more genuine holiness eludes us.
Eventually, God gives us this wonderful gift: We hit the wall! Our self-sufficient spirituality suddenly seems woefully inadequate. Oh yes, we know we are redeemed. And without a doubt, we really want to live for God. But now we face this reality: “I can’t–I can’t do this holiness thing.”
Guess what people like this come up hungry for? The filling of the Holy Spirit! After struggling for so long to be the perfect Christian, we realize that “blessed are the broken.” We will be fulfilled spiritually in every way only as we humbly recognize our complete dependence on the indwelling Spirit of God. No other approach will yield a Christlike lifestyle (pp. 21-22).
Johnson’s position on holiness, in line with the Keswick views of his denomination, The Christian and Missionary Alliance, differs in certain aspects from Wesleyanism, but he shows, in refreshing ways as he deals with each of the Beatitudes, how powerful and relevant the message of holiness can be in the 1990’s. The book is readable for anyone wanting to use it as a devotional guide. It is also a book which would help preachers wanting to preach on the Beatitudes.
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Taking the entire “Sermon on the Mount” as his text, Doug Webster, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in San Diego, has written The Easy Yoke (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1995), an engaging call to conscientious discipleship. The modern world provides many comforts, but we’re still restless, alienated from others, locked into materialistic values and therapeutic panaceas. “It is the best of times for recreation, the worst of times for righteousness. It is the best of times for health care, the worst of times for wholeness. It is the best of times for technology, the worst of times for truth. It is the best of times for sexual freedom, the worst of times for relational happiness. We are acutely aware of the problem of insignificance. In a land of plenty, we are famished spiritually, morally, and relationally” (p. 11).
To reach this world, with all its comforts, too many preachers promote the Faith as nothing more than a divinely comforting prescription. Trying to make the Gospel “user-friendly” and minimally-demanding, too many preachers have jettisoned the Gospel! Rather than fit folks for the “easy yoke” Jesus promised, we try to make the yoke easy enough for anyone to shoulder. Whereas “Jesus combines the gospel of grace with the gospel of obedience” (p. 27), we too often obscure obedience with a warm fuzzy labeled “unconditional love.” If the yoke’s too chaffing, we’ll soften the yoke!
On the contrary, Webster insists, we must regain the truth of Jesus’ message. We must re-read and re-learn and begin to live out the Sermon on the Mount. “What we want is affirmation and approval; what we need is deliverance” (p. 49). Self-esteem we have in abundance. To encourage it in church will hardly deliver us from our real taskmaster, sin. If we’re to be disciples of salt and light, we must find Jesus’ way to deal with anger, sexual desire, to live honestly and unpretentiously before Him. Jesus only “gives us back the life we have lost in the living. He brings order out of chaos, clarity out of clutter. Instead of information, He offers wisdom. Instead of communication, He encourages communion. Instead of self-styled, fashionable personality, He mentors God-centered, God-honoring character. He establishes a rhythm between work and worship, prayer and play, rest and restlessness. Jesus calls us to new priorities, perspectives, and preferences” (p. 163).
With Jesus at the center of our life, we can “lighten up” and enjoy the journey. He helps us know our limits. He shows us that God, not man, is in charge of things. He helps us settle into the yoke He designed for us and with His strength we find it “easy” to carry out our assigned tasks in the Kingdom. It’s a narrow way, no doubt. But a narrow pass through the mountains is, in fact, the only truly easy route to follow. So: “The narrow gate does not imply that the way of discipleship is narrow-minded or exclusive. It may appear that way to those on Broadway simply because there is an alternative path and those who follow that path claim unequivocally that it is the way, the truth and the life. The followers of Jesus have chosen the path of revelation instead of the highway of relativism. There is room for every kind of ideology, system, loyalty, and belief on the road that leads to destruction, but there is only room for truth on the way that leads to life. Anything goes on the road that leads nowhere” (p. 194).
A fine book by a fine pastor! Readable, theologically evangelical and orthodox, The Easy Yoke provides nourishment for readers and homiletical help for preachers.
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In Absolutely Sure (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, c. 1999), Stephen J. Lawson seeks to help readers “settle the question of eternal life.” Lawson pastors the Dauphin Way Baptist Church in Mobile, Alabama, so one might expect he would major on the “eternal security” theme often equated with Baptist theology. In fact, he’s concerned about many alleged “believers” who enjoy a false assurance, a lethal lethargy, relying on some ancient “profession of faith” or a “decision” to join a church or be baptized. “Assurance of salvation becomes real not by looking to a past event, such as walking an aisle, but by observing our present obedience to the Word of God” (p. 76). In Lawson’s view, “Vast multitudes within Christendom, I believe, profess to know Christ but by their deeds deny Him” (p. 36). To the parishioner who came to his study and asked, “Can I be a Christian and my life never change?” Lawson replies: absolutely not! So, he sets forth nine criteria, derived from a careful reading of First John, that “believers” should ponder if they truly want to know if they’re saved.
Since John’s letter was written “in order that you may know that you have eternal life” (I Jn 5:13), it’s possible to have an “airtight assurance” if we fulfill the prescription. Fortunately for us, the prescription has been written out, so we’re not left to rely on fleeting impressions. If we believe it, we do so with all that is within us. “With my mind, I must know the essential truths of the gospel, namely that I am a great sinner, Christ is a great Savior, and I must put my trust in Him. With my emotions, I must be persuaded of the certainty of these fact, convinced of my need. And with my will, I must commit myself to Christ alone to save me. As an act of my will, I must turn from my sins and entrust myself to Him, no longer relying upon my good works to commend me toward God” (p. 24).
One who believes unto salvation will be distinguished by nine “vital” signs, each of which is developed into a chapter in this book: communion with Christ; confession of sin; commitment to God’s Word; compassion for believers; change of affections; comprehension of the Truth; conformity to Christlikeness; conflict with the world; and confidence in prayer. These are “clear,” “identifiable” manifestations of the “new birth,” a transformation which “infuses divine life into our once dead souls” so that it “becomes obvious over time who has truly believed in Christ. As faith deepens, so the assurance of our salvation deepens as we see God’s grace at work within us bringing about these changes. This is not a works salvation, but a salvation that works” (p. 31).
In accord with his Baptist theology, Lawson insists we can never escape sinning. However, quite unlike some of his Baptist colleagues, he also insists that “no one who abides in Christ will continue to practice the sin Jesus died to remove. To be saved is to be delivered from something as well as for something. In salvation, we are rescued from sin and hell and preserved for holiness and heaven. Contrary to popular thinking, Jesus came to save us from our sins, not in our sins (Matthew 1:21)” (p. 141).
While not explicitly stated, what Lawson finds in I John is a call to live a holy life, to live out the Gospel incarnate in Jesus and recorded in Scripture. To understand how a Southern Baptist deals with such an important theme, written in clear and understandable language, this book is a handy source.
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Wondering how some preachers effectively practice their art, Michael Duduit, the editor of Preaching journal, interviewed 25 eminent evangelicals and published their responses in Communicate with Power: Insights from America’s Top Communicators (Grand Rapids: Baker Books c. 1996). It’s an impressive list which includes: Leith Anderson; Fred Craddock; Bill Hybels; John Killinger; Max Lucado; John MacArthur; James Earl Massey; Calvin Miller; R.C. Sproul; John R.W. Stott; Chuck Swindoll.
From diverse theological and ecclesiological traditions, one hears, as expected, a wide variety of suggestions. But a few commonalities emerge. Great preachers, it’s clear, major in preaching! They spend long hours in their studies, constantly reading and searching for fresh illustrations as well as concentrating on careful exegesis and exposition. Preaching is an art, an exacting art, which cannot be well done without making it the great endeavor of one’s life.
Secondly, great preachers know their audience. They listen and learn. They stay in touch with their world. They know how to apply ancient and absolute truth to the shifting currents of a world in flux. They may live with the classics in their study, but they want to connect with the masses when they come to the pulpit. Great preachers know the purpose of all they do is the conversion of the lost and the sanctification of the faithful, which is the only truly eternal endeavor available to man.
Thirdly, they really believe the Scripture is God’s inspired Word and the Holy Spirit blesses its proclamation. Humility before the text and prayerful waiting in the Presence of the Spirit simply must mark the life of the preacher. One’s preparation and rhetorical skills can never accomplish the true end of preaching unless God’s Truth is declared and the Holy Spirit applies it to hearers’ hearts. Preaching which communicates is not the preaching which finds its authority in the latest scientific theory or philosophical school or biblical reconstruction. The “power” in preaching is more than the preacher’s.
Dudoit asks the right questions. The preachers interviewed give the right answers. And that makes this a collection worth reading.