Growing Down

After a quarter of a century in fulltime ministry, I have to admit something. I don’t believe in aspiring to growth the way it seems most churches and ministry leaders do. I don’t see Jesus pushing the purpose of bigger and better. I don’t read one single verse where we’re called to upsize anything. How then have we gotten caught up in idolizing and emulating those who we deem are “doing it right” by virtue of their mega-size and seemingly impactful ministry platform?

I’ll refrain from naming names, but I’d bet you know of one or two. We have celebritized men and women who should never have been placed under the weight of that kind of attention, adoration, and scrutiny and then wonder why they collapse under that weight. We shake our heads, wag our fingers, and marvel at what must’ve gone wrong. When in all likelihood, what “went wrong” (at least in part) was us; placing them on a pedestal.

So I look at the gospels and I see Jesus teaching, talking, healing, hearing, sharing, and serving. But in my own ministry attitude I have to tell you that humanly speaking, I feel much better when the room is full then when its not full. I have to confess that it feels much more like “God is moving” when its standing room only instead of a sparse crowd. Its only natural, right? And to some degree, I think that’s the fallacy: That we place natural metrics on supernatural ministry.

One particular passage of scripture comes to mind. Look at John 6. Start in verse 25 and just ride it to the end. Or read the whole chapter. So much is going on here, but let me get to the point. It is beginning around verse 60 that we start to see things unravel. In our current American church perspective, we’d equate this to Jesus’ ministry effectiveness winding down or coming to a close. We might even say the wheels were falling off and it might be time for Jesus to dust off the resume or find another job. After all, those who once followed Him are now taking off and turning away. What He was teaching was too far. Too much. Too crazy to swallow. So an entire crowd of disciples basically said, “Its been real. Peace out.”

Notice that there’s nothing to indicate that this was a bad thing. Jesus didn’t panic (yes, I know He never does), He didn’t circle the wagons and try and strategize on how to get these deserters back. He didn’t make follow up calls or conduct exit interviews. He simply turned to His still-following followers and asked “What about you?”

Three simple words that speak absolute volumes and give us a clear view into Jesus’ heart on people and ministry effectiveness. Let’s get this straight: Jesus just watched swaths of people turn tail and walk away from Him. Mere minutes prior, a large crowd was there and now only a few are left. I’ve seen people walk away from church and faith for some–let’s be real–stupid, asinine reasons. But to look Jesus Himself in the face and turn away from Him? Can you even imagine that?

I used to hang my hat on the latest number of young people that showed up to the event I planned. I used to allow my sense of momentum to be linked to what I saw instead of what I knew. I used to measure “success” on how many were coming instead of how many were being sent out. But growing down ministry seems to be more in line with scripture. Let me pound this out and see if there’s anything to it. Hang in there with me and add your thoughts in the comments section.

I know about the early Church in Acts. I know that thousands were added to their number of various occasions. I understand fully what Jesus meant when He gave us our “Great Commission”; “…Go and make disciples of all the nations…” ALL the nations? Sure seems like bigger and better talk, right? Sure seems like worldwide coverage is the focus here, right? Sure seems like a bigger crowd of disciples is far better than a smaller crowd of disciples, doesn’t it? Sure it does.

And let me add something just by way of full disclosure. I’m currently serving at a far-bigger-than-average local church in central Virginia. I love it. I love the people. I love the students. I love the scope of ministry we have. I love the many doors in our community that God has opened. You’ll not hear me say one disparaging thing against our church or any church for that matter. But I will say that our ministry worth and fruitfulness doesn’t rest on how big the crowd is. Quite the opposite actually. It rests on the fact that we prize eyeball to eyeball interaction, disciplemaking, and worship above all else. We view growing down and increasing personal accountability, fellowship, and Kingdom teamwork far more important than being known, noticed, or applauded. The church I serve at will likely never even blip the radar of popularized Christian spotlight on the national or global scale. And I’d dare say we’re 1000% fine with that.

To bring it back to my personal convictions… I, as a pastor to students, don’t seek ways we can get bigger. I seek ways we can more effectively reach and disciple young people. I’m not looking for the increase. I’m looking for God’s next opportunity to love and serve anybody anywhere. In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul reminded us, “What then is Paul? Who is Apollos?…” He was saying that the servant isn’t even an issue. There’s no aspiration in the servant’s heart for anything but that his/her master would say “Well done.” I have zero investment of energy, emotion, or time in making a name for myself. To do so is to undermine the calling God has placed on my life. He called me to serve people, not to build my own platform. I reject the ideology that says “But if you invest in self promotion you’ll get a bigger platform and be able to reach more people.” The logic might be sound, but haven’t we seen enough times where that seems to go horribly sideways? I’ll ALWAYS see out the opportunities that God might be opening so that I can serve more people, but that will NEVER be my ministry motivation.

So yes, I’m in full endorsement of growing down. I’m in complete lockstep with Jesus’ perspective of challenging the resolve and conviction of those who were following Him, and I’ll sleep soundly at night regardless of the latest reports, analytics, or likes on my posts.

Preaching Dissected

“Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction.”  -2 Timothy 4:2
kid preacher

I’m not totally sure why quite yet, but I’ve never really loved the word “preach”.  And this coming from a guy who’s been referred to for years as a “preacher”.  Not only that, but I’m literally “the son of a preacher man.”  But with the instruction the apostle Paul gives his young protégé Timothy in the verse above, I should probably have kind of a comfort with it, don’t you think?

Maybe it’s because the word “preach” has taken on a type of negative connotation. When I say “preacher”, you might get a mental image of a televangelist in a thousand dollar suit standing behind some gold-plated pulpit with tears streaming down his face as he confesses some private sin made public.

Maybe you hear the word “preach” and you think about what its like to be “preached at” and that propels you back to your teen years when your parents lectured you for hours on end over whatever mistake you got caught making.

Maybe you hear the word “preach” and you think about a church and the baggage that comes along with that word and those people who go there.

Or maybe its something else entirely.

I’ve had several times immediately following different sermons I’ve “preached” when someone would approach me with a smile and say, “That was a good speech.”  Honestly? I cringe inside when I hear that. Of course I know what they mean and I appreciate them taking the time to share their gratitude, but…well….nevermind.

But I suppose there is a lot more to say positively about the word “preach” and as I was listening to a sermon recently, I began to think of the different components, styles, or methods of “preaching”. So, just for fun I’ve come up with a variety of components that are commonly (or should be) found in effective “preaching”. And just to make it corny, I’m using the acronym PREACH. (Let’s all roll our eyes together, shall we?)

PPractical: Believe me, I trust the Spirit of God to lead you to places of application as you listen to the “preacher preach”, but I also appreciate when a pastor gives suggestions for practically living out the truth from God’s Word that they just spend time teaching. Personally, I think there’s too much “how to do” preaching and not enough “how to be” preaching.

R. Relatable: The best preachers I’ve heard have dirt under their fingernails. With all due respect to polished and refined teachers of the Word who seem like they’ve got their act together, I find myself more connected to preachers who are living life as they preach. There’s an approachability that comes along with the sense that this preacher isn’t just preaching, they’re wrestling. That being said, I also see the value of a preacher being careful not to make their sermon a place for dirty laundry. There’s something to be said for a preacher having settled (and won) some wrestling matches as well.

E. Exposition: I mentioned earlier being the son of a preacher man. My dad is one of the most knowledgeable Bible preachers/teachers I know. He’s my go-to when I’ve got questions of my own. And he is an “expository” preacher who is passionate about expository preaching. Now, I don’t think the average pew-sitting listener is really up at night wondering how to pronounce the Greek word “dikaiosune”, but I do think there’s power in preaching the original, honest, true-to-intent words of the Bible. While I may not literally speak a Greek word in a sermon (or I may), you’d better believe that I’ve studied them in preparation for that sermon so that I’m preaching what the original author intended.

A: Anecdotes: I don’t mean silly stories with no point, I mean stories that connect the listener to the truth being preached. I’ve got a word for sermons with no stories: boring.  Look at how Jesus taught; he used stories all the time. The word “parable” actually means “to set beside for the purpose of comparison” (I’ll spare you the Greek word for parable). Jesus knew the power of story and knew that stories are the #1 way to connect. A preacher who doesn’t leverage stories needs to understand what’s missing…and fix it. If you’ve ever heard me preach, you may know that I find humor to be one of the best ways to connect with the listeners. And a preacher who doesn’t care about connecting with those listening should stick to preaching to a mirror.

Conviction: There are few things more compelling than seeing someone with passion. Think about it. Passion is what moves people. I had a professor in college that taught hermeneutics with zero passion. He was brilliant and if you could pry him away from his 3×5 note cards he read from every day of class, you could see glimpses of that passion. At the end of the year evaluation, I told him he missed the off ramp to retirement years ago. Without passion, his content–no matter how great–was dry and difficult to absorb.

Humility: As with any follower of Jesus, this is perhaps the greatest, most critical ingredient for preachers. I’m so gratified by compliments I receive regarding my preaching. If you’ve ever given me one, you’ve likely heard me say two things: “Thank you!” and “Praise the Lord.”  I’m genuinely thankful when people take time to share if/how a sermon has affected them. And saying “Praise the Lord” isn’t me being churchy and speaking Christianese. I’m actually reminding myself that the credit is His alone. Its like getting a compliment for a tie I’m wearing. Its nice, but all I did was tie it in a knot around my neck.

As I prepare to preach, I refer to a list of questions I keep nearby. Maybe I’ll share those some other time. For now, what are YOUR thoughts on “preachers” and “preaching”?

Or do only preachers think about this stuff?