We Stand and Stare at Our Hands

“For the joy of the Lord makes us sleep!”

OK, those aren’t actually the words to the song. It seems that way, though, when we sing about raising our hands or bowing down to God while we stand motionless, staring into space. Why are we so hesitant to worship God with our bodies? Many of us fear coming across as Charismatic or crazy in church, but we have no such inhibitions later in the day when the Cowboys game comes on (or earlier in the weekend when we’re watching the Aggies).

I’m a naturally reserved person, at least when it comes to physical expressions of emotion. And I, like many of my readers, grew up in a church environment that generally frowned on hand-raising (for fear that it might be distracting to others).

As I read the Scripture, though, I’m struck by the fact that worship is a “whole-person” exercise. We worship with our minds, bodies, and spirits, because God owns every part of us. David danced before the Lord, even though his wife thought he was crazy (2 Samuel 6:14-23). She may have been right, David may have been crazy, but it apparently was a lunatic God was looking for. (Yes, I just paraphrased Billy Joel in a post about worship). God valued David’s worship, even when others found it offensive.

Read the Psalms and you’ll find that worship involves lifting hands (Psalm 63:4), clapping hands (Psalm 47:1), dancing (Psalm 150:4), bowing down (Psalm 95:6) and shouting (Psalm 81:1). For us dispensationalists, it’s not just the Old Testament that encourages whole-self worship. Paul tells Timothy that men everywhere should pray while “lifting holy hands” (1 Timothy 2:8). Paul says he “bows his knee” before God (Eph 3:14). I don’t think that’s metaphorical.

I know we need to be sensitive to others in the corporate worship context. If your church is very reserved, you won’t change anything for the better by dramatically running to the front and rolling on the floor. Part of worshiping together is being concerned with how the people around you are feeling. Some of you probably need to dial it down a few notches and use your mind as well as your body.

On the other hand, many of us refrain from worshiping God with our bodies. We say we’re simply contemplative people who like to just think about the songs. We don’t worship God with our bodies because we’re too intellectual, as if smart people are incapable of love. For those of you who are married, ask yourself how that line of thinking would go over with your spouse. “I’m not really the hugging or kissing type. I’d rather just think about how great you are.” You might legitimately be less physically affectionate than somebody else, but love always involves the body as well as the mind and the spirit. That’s true in romance, and it’s true in worship. 

Part of worshiping corporately is finding that sweet spot where we can worship God with our whole selves, while taking into consideration the needs of others.

So here’s a challenge for those of you who are more reserved: Next time you sing a song about raising your hands or bowing down to God, do what you’re singing about. You don’t have to go crazy. You can raise your hands just a little at first and keep them by your hips. If you feel adventurous, bring them to chest level. I dare you.

One day we will worship God with our bodies, minds and spirits. We’ll bow down to Him (Phil 2:10-11). We’ll wave palm branches and shout praises in a loud voice (Rev 7:9-10). Might as well start worshiping Him now with everything we have, body, mind, and spirit.


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What the Mark Driscoll Story Reveals About Every Leader

Two weeks ago World broke the story that Mars Hill Church paid a large amount of money to get Mark Driscoll’s book Real Marriage onto the New York Times best-seller list.

Mars Hill released a statement acknowledging the basic facts of the story, although they dispute the amount of money that World claims was spent on the best-seller campaign. Calling the campaign “unwise” but not “uncommon or illegal,” they insisted that it won’t happen again.

The story has raised a great deal of ire in the Christian blogosphere. Driscoll has always been a controversial figure, so in response to this latest news, some are gleefully shouting, “I told you so!” Others lament that the Christian evangelical leadership culture has sunk to a new low. Surely pastors and churches ought to be held to a higher standard than whether something is illegal or not. Beyond “unwise,” most people recognize the under-the-table marketing campaign as manipulative and unethical.

While I resonate with those concerns, I can’t shake the feeling that Mars Hill’s indiscretion shines a light into the dark corners of my own heart, and probably the heart of every leader. 

Everybody wants to make an impact. We sometimes confuse that desire with another, our desire to be liked and popular. There’s a prevalent lie abroad in our world, a lie that says the crowd’s applause is a signal that we’re making a difference. Of course that’s rarely the case. All too often agents of spiritual change are met with stony silence, seeming indifference, or even hostility. If you don’t believe me, just read the gospels and consider the life of Christ.

It would be easy to consider the Mars Hill story as an anomaly, just a story of one arrogant pastor or a wayward church. It would be similarly easy to chalk it up to our American celebrity culture, a culture that has clearly infected the local church in a bad way.

But I think the roots of the problem go much deeper. The problem is rooted in the sinful human heart, a heart that desires to please people instead of God.

I don’t think we worship celebrities because we’re American. We worship celebrities because we’re idolaters. We cannot see God, so we fashion idols in our own image. Then we dream that one day we can ascend to their pedestal and receive the adoration of other people, people who belong to God and are made to worship Him alone.

It’s all too easy to confuse the dim glory of man with the perfect glory of God. When we get the two muddled, we find ourselves seeking to be the Source of glory rather than a small reflection of it, and that’s when the real trouble begins.

Much like money, I don’t think fame is inherently evil. It’s just very dangerous. It’s the love of fame and applause that leads us to all manner of evil. When we convince ourselves that any means are justified, as long as our message gets out there, we’re on the slippery slope to idol worship. It’s too easy to undermine the gospel by using questionable methods to make it known.

What scares and dismays me is not simply that Mars Hill used questionable methods to promote Driscoll’s book, but also that I see glimpses of that sort of darkness in my own heart. The only hope for me is the lavish grace of God, who reminds me that I’m significant because He loves me and gave His Son for me.

That’s the only hope for any of us who lead others, whether on a large or small scale. We need to constantly bathe in His light or we run the risk of trying to falsely manufacture our own.

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The Perils of Pastoral Wealth

“Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.” 

Proverbs 30:8-9

In the past week I’ve seen two articles about pastors with huge houses. The first was about Steven Furtick, a mega-church pastor in Charlotte, North Carolina. His 16,000 square-foot home drew the attention of local, and eventually national, media. (It turns out that this story is about 6 weeks old, but I just became aware of it a week ago).

The second piece was about Ed Young, Jr., the pastor of Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas (near Dallas). He and his family are in talks with A&E and other television networks concerning a possible reality show, and the show would at least partly highlight his 7,100 square foot house and bullet-proof Mercedes.

Both stories have stirred up social media consternation among Christians and non-Christians alike. Is it acceptable for pastors to use ministry funds to buy multi-million dollar homes, bullet-proof luxury cars, and large entourages? Furtick (and other pastors with similarly lavish lifestyles) often make the point that their homes and cars are funded with book and video royalties rather than with church offerings. Critics, though, make the case that pastors’ book royalties are only possible because of the platform and resources provided by the church. In other words, if a book is based on the pastor’s sermons, which he wrote in his church office and preached from his church’s pulpit, then the money rightfully belongs to the church and not to the individual.

As a pastor, stories like this trouble me, although it’s hard to initially pinpoint why they’re so troubling. Part of the concern, of course, is related to perception: I hate to think that people unfamiliar with church, who perhaps don’t know any actual pastors, would get the idea that all pastors are looking to leverage their ministry platforms into extravagant wealth. That’s simply not true.

Since I don’t personally know Ed Young or Steven Furtick, I can’t accurately gauge the state of their finances, or whether they’re using their money well. I’m aware that media reports aren’t always accurate, and even if they are, they’re incomplete. These men might both be immensely faithful with what they’ve been given, and the attacks might be unfair. What I can do, though, is respond to some of the concepts they’ve both expressed about ministry and money in the articles I read.

I think pastors are called to a higher standard when it comes to money. I’m not saying that pastors should live below the poverty line, or even that having a nice home or car is out of bounds. I have friends in ministry who live in relatively expensive homes, and I have friends who live in small and cramped quarters. Neither one is necessarily more spiritual than the other. We all agree that one’s attitude toward wealth, and one’s use of personal wealth, are much more important.

That being said, I think most pastors cringe when we read articles like these. Here are a few reasons why:

First, while everything I have ultimately comes from God, I also am accountable in a heightened way to my church. People give to to their churches expecting that the money will be used for the ministry of the gospel. Most congregations recognize that paying pastors a living wage is part of that ministry. However, we pastors need to be cautious. We never want to communicate that we are using ministry funds so that we can live “high on the hog.” All I really need is food, clothing, and shelter for my family. If I appear to be chasing after a great deal more, my congregation and leadership have the right to ask some hard questions.

When it comes to book royalties, pastors have different opinions on how they should be used. I can only speak to my own situation. Last year, two of my colleagues and I published a series of Bible studies. We made the decision, prior to publication, that we would donate the royalties back to Grace. Without the platform and resources provided by Grace, we would not have been able to publish the studies. One of the studies, in particular, was largely taken from a series of sermons I gave to our college ministry. I prepared the notes in my office at the church and used church time to write the curriculum. I realize that this is a gray area to some extent, but the three of us felt that it was only right, if we used church resources, to donate the money back to our congregation. (It wasn’t a whole lot of money, by the way. Youth Bible studies about Gideon don’t quite sell as many units as The Purpose Driven Life, it turns out).

I’m not suggesting that every pastor who receives book royalties is obligated to donate them back to the church. I will say, though, that I have immense respect for men like John Piper, who have chosen to do so. It’s best if we pastors go the extra mile to stay above reproach in this area.

I recognize that many pastors have sources of income outside of the church altogether. Some have family money, or a spouse who works, or a side business. Even then, I think we need to be cautious, and my second point explains why:

Second, I never want to communicate, even inadvertently, that I love money more than I love Jesus. This is a sensitive topic, one where it’s hard to find a hard line to draw. By some standards, I live in a very nice home. By other standards, it’s very modest. I make more money than some people, and less than others. I think somewhere between living in poverty and owning a 16,000 square foot, $2 million home, there’s a line. Once I cross that line, people will begin to talk more about my wealthy lifestyle than about my ministry. That’s the danger pastors face. When we entered ministry, most of us did so with the understanding that we would need to be cautious.

Again, I can’t find anything in the Bible that explicitly tells people to live in small houses. However, because pastors are accountable to the church, and because we are called to preach and model faithfulness to Jesus, we need to be careful. Jesus said a lot about money and the dangers of wealth. So did Paul and other New Testament writers. Although wealth isn’t inherently wrong, it is dangerous. It has the potential to corrupt our hearts, to make us fall in love with stuff rather than with Jesus. It’s a lot like dynamite — it’s great when used judiciously, but terribly destructive when used recklessly.

Nobody has ever written a nationally published article about my life, and the odds are that nobody ever will. I don’t envy famous pastors who are constantly in the limelight, because they can’t seem to win. (Young astutely pointed out that having too little and too much can both provoke criticism). However, I would be deeply dismayed if somebody wrote an article about me, and the primary emphasis was on my house or my car, rather than on my church and my relationship to Jesus. When visible displays of wealth become a massive distraction to the message of Jesus, perhaps it’s time to reevaluate one’s relationship to money.

Third, and finally, every pastor needs to have true authority in his life, not only in the area of money but in every area of leadership and spiritual life. When a pastor has too much authority over how he gets paid, there are going to be problems. Let’s face it: If you could give yourself a raise, you probably would! Even corporations place accountability structures in place to assure that their executives are compensated appropriately. I can’t speak for anybody else, but I don’t personally want to be trusted to determine my own salary. I am fairly confident that I would be tempted to keep awarding myself more money. The line between “enough” and “way too much” is easily blurred. There is always a way to justify having more. Anybody, even a pastor, who trusts his own heart to determine an appropriate salary, is deceiving himself. I realize that not every church pays its pastors adequately. There is certainly an appropriate time and place to discuss those issues with one’s leadership. There might even be an appropriate time to leave a ministry if it’s impossible to support a family. But I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to let pastors singlehandedly determine their own salaries. Everybody needs accountability. Because pastors are spiritual leaders, we probably need it even more than others, because we’re held to higher standards.

I write this article not to criticize what other pastors do, but instead to highlight some of the challenges of money and ministry, and to lay out a few values that I’ve found helpful. Most of us pastors wrestle, like you probably do, with how to honor God with our money. And most of us deeply pray that our lives and our choices will point you to Jesus. Sometimes we all fail in that endeavor, but through God’s grace we want to glorify Him rather than money or possessions.

If you made it to the end of this post, I’d love to hear your thoughts, concerns, or questions. Where should we draw the line on pastors and money? How do you decide what is “enough” and what is “way too much”?

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Discipleship for Grown-Ups

(This is a guest post by Abby Perry, whose husband Jared is the Assistant Youth Pastor at Grace. You can find Abby’s blog at joywovendeep.com). 

What do you think about when you hear the word “discipleship”? For me, there were seasons of my life (college for example) when the word “discipleship” meant three hour coffee sessions at Sweet Eugene’s, “official” mentorship through a student organization and formal accountability that I could easily schedule, since my life was constrained only by 12 hours per week in classes. During those years, I learned about unity, struggle, growth and the character of God in a new, accelerated way. I was excited to be a part of the body of Christ. I loved my ability to arrange my hours around spiritual growth, and I was determined to mirror my college experiences throughout the rest of my life.

And then, the rest of my life started to happen.

I got married at 20, moved to Dallas for my husband to attend seminary at 21, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at 22, scrambled to regroup my life at 23, gave birth to our first child at 24 and moved to College Station for Jared’s new position at Grace at 25. Suddenly, three hours of coffee and 2am prayer sessions with 10 of my closest friends just weren’t reality. For a while I struggled with what this meant. Was I not making God a priority? Was I letting the world’s agenda creep into my plans? Was being a wife/having a career/becoming a mother just too distracting to continue growing in the faith? While all of these things have been true at times, the fact was this – as my everyday life filled to overflowing, my life in Christ became more integrated than ever before.

As I joined a small group of seminary wives for Bible study each week, we dug into the Word and shared honest, difficult prayer requests, and I saw the Spirit bearing fruit in my life. As Jared and I began serving together in our community and giving of our finances collaboratively, I saw God exercise a hint of what “great faith” looks like in me. As I became sick for a semester and received care from friends who spoke Scripture and provided meals and poured out affection, I realized that discipleship was happening. Centered on Christ, built on the Word, acted out in community, exercised in service, we were growing and shaping one another into women of God.  Those who were a few years further down the road from me held my hand, encouraged my heart, and challenged my selfishness. I was refined and made better. As a new mother, those with more experience poured out wisdom and grace and I was sharpened to look more like Christ.  Those ahead of me and those alongside me looked forward toward a common goal and together we sought the face of Jesus, determined to see Him before us in every mundane, “unspiritual” moment of our lives. And, as He always is, Christ was there. Just like He was with His original disciples, leading, guiding, walking alongside.

To clarify, I don’t mean to say that simply having friends is discipleship. It’s not. Discipleship does require effort. It does require intention. It does require humility and honesty. Ladies, I think we struggle here sometimes. We are too quick to think that others are too busy for us, that our issues are too much to ask someone to sort through, or that our simple desire for growth in Christ isn’t exciting enough to ask someone else to engage in. Lies, my friends, those are big, ugly lies.

The truth is that discipleship is both a gift and command to those in Christ. The truth is that it may require you asking someone walking alongside you or a bit ahead of you for some of their time, as you seek to grow in the faith. The truth is that the moment may be awkward.  The truth is also that, by God’s grace, the outcome may have eternal impact.

Discipleship is not an isolated event.  Perhaps I can put it more positively:  Discipleship is a fundamental, organic quality of an active life in Christ, and while our pursuit of it may take various forms in changing seasons, God will be faithful to use it to foster great joy, growth and unity in the members of the body, honoring our obedience of Him and blessing our acknowledgement of His plan for us.

Look at your life. Take a moment and look around and see who is there. Who encourages you? Who has insight into the Word of God? Who prays with great faith and deep truth? Who does justice and loves mercy with conviction? If you see those people, walk beside them. If no one comes to mind, I encourage you to find a church that is centered on Christ, rooted in the Word and committed to loving one another. Discipleship will happen when we immerse ourselves in the people of God. And where God’s people are grown and shaped and refined, greatness will be done in His name.  Be filled with the Spirit and walk in the truth, hands held by those who desire the same.

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Why I Haven’t Left the Church

I love church.

That feels like a lonely confession these days. Every time I turn around there’s another article or blog post about the failings of the institutional church. Most of the criticism comes from within the fold, from Christians who are disillusioned with the problems they see in the modern evangelical church.

It feels weird to say that I’ve never seriously considered dropping out of church. That’s not just because I’m a pastor. Quite the contrary, I became a pastor in the first place because my life has been so positively and deeply impacted by the local church.

And yet I know that there are many people who feel differently. For a variety of reasons, people sometimes get hurt in church. I don’t mean physically (although that occasionally happens too), but emotionally and spiritually. I’m not naive. I’ve been hurt myself, by cynics, legalists, gossips, and angry Christians looking for a place to lash out.

Not only that, but I’ve had a few people tell me that I was the cause of their distress and anger. I’d be willing to wager that nearly every pastor has been told that he is the reason somebody is quitting church forever. Those moments are painful reminders that church can be a hard place. At church we come into close contact with other sinners, and those interactions are bound to cause both joy and pain.

Nevertheless, I’ve really never wanted to quit church. (I’ve had a few bad moments on Monday morning, but I try not to make key decisions right then).

I’ve really been thinking lately about why I still believe in the church, when so many of my peers resonate with the concept of giving up on it.

First, I don’t think I can quit the Church, because I’m part of it! I suppose I could stop going on Sunday. I could find a new job and just stop interacting with my fellow Christians. But I would still be a part of the Church. When I see people trash “the church,” I always want to say, “We are the Church!” If I leave, if I stop gathering with other Christians, then things really will never change. It’s too easy to stand outside the walls and lob grenades. If my church isn’t yet what I want it to be, then I want to work like crazy to communicate my concerns and to help my church grow. The church isn’t “out there” somewhere. It’s all of us, those who follow Jesus together.

Second, I stay in church because it’s the only organization (or organism, if you prefer) that Jesus started and promised to support. I feel sort of like Peter, when Jesus asked the disciples if they were going to leave Him. “Where else would we go?” Peter responded. “You have the words of eternal life.” I think Peter knew that walking away would be the easier course of action, at least at that moment. After all, Jesus kept talking about things like eating His flesh and drinking His blood. He offended so many people and made life very uncomfortable for His disciples. But Peter knew that there was no other place he could go to find eternal life. That’s how I feel about church.

I know that every church, including mine, has its problems. Churches are deeply flawed because they’re full of people like me. It’s not just the pastors and leaders who are flawed. It’s all of us. Yet church is also where we gather to worship our Savior. Church is where the Spirit moves and speaks. We don’t always listen too well, but He keeps coming back anyway (sometimes I wonder if He ever thinks it would be simpler just to leave). Church is where the broken have a chance to find true healing, and where the dead have a chance to find real life. It’s not perfect, but there’s no replacement for it.

If you’re a Christian who is disillusioned with church, please don’t give up. Help us grow. Help us be the church the world needs. Without you, without your gifts, I don’t think we’ll be as good as we can be. Instead of standing outside to throw rocks, come inside and talk. I think we’re better together than we are apart. And I’m confident through God’s power we can make our church a place of love, holiness, and worship.

Have you ever wanted to quit church? If you stayed, why? 

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Why Sunday School isn’t the Problem

I grew up in church, going to Sunday school pretty much every week. Like any activity, some of it was useful and encouraging, and some of it was not. We did motions to songs that I didn’t really understand at the time, like “Father Abraham” or “Deep and Wide.” We made crafts and listened to Bible stories, some of which didn’t contain the theological nuances of God’s grace and the reality of human sin.

Some of the kids in my Sunday school classes rejected God later in life. Others are still walking with Him closely. On the whole, Sunday school was a mixed bag. Just like almost everything in life.

Over the past week or so, many of my social media friends have posted an article that traces the spiritual destruction of our kids to Sunday school. Many elements of the article resonated with me — after all, if we teach kids to emulate the “heroes of the faith” without explaining to them that God sent Jesus to save sinners, then we’re missing the boat in a bad way. As one of my friends said, kids can’t reject a Gospel they’ve never heard before.

Sunday school isn’t the problem, though. It’s easy to blame “church,” because “church” isn’t a person who will take offense at being blamed. I see that trend over and over again in the articles and blog posts popping up on Facebook lately. But kids spend 1 hour in Sunday school. They spend the rest of their week with parents, friends, and school teachers.

“So are parents the problem? Are their friends the problem? Is it the secular school system? What about movies, television, and the internet?” 

To all of the above, the answer is yes and no. The spiritual development of a child, or of any person, is a complicated issue.

It’s hard to explain it when seemingly “good” kids abandon the faith as teenagers or young adults. Our temptation is to find a scapegoat, somebody we can blame. It’s true that in some cases, parents who are inconsistent or who don’t model the faith well can create a host of spiritual problems. In a few cases, a very bad Sunday school teacher can traumatize a child for life. Violent video games, heretical Disney films, and internet pornography can all contribute to a child’s spiritual destruction. So can bad friends.

Sometimes, though, people just choose to reject the faith for no apparent reason. What if it’s not always somebody else’s fault, but the result of sin, combined with the fact that God has given each of us a measure of delegated responsibility for our own lives? What if there isn’t a pat answer, a “one thing” we can fix that will make it alright?

The idea that spiritual growth is mysterious and complex is frightening and liberating at the same time. The recognition that we can’t control our kids drives us to pray for them, to beg God to save them and lead them toward adulthood as faithful men and women. We tell them about Jesus, not because saying the right words will make it all work out okay, but because there isn’t any other way for them to survive spiritually. Understanding that the right curriculum won’t save my kids will hopefully make us realize how dependent we really are on God’s grace.

I do think the article is right in one very critical respect: the grace of God in Jesus will save our kids, not a list of moral requirements. One or two of my friends who posted the article told me that it was that message they wanted to reinforce. I agree wholeheartedly. It’s not just Sunday school teachers and those who write the lessons who are called to remember that. It’s all of us.

So does Sunday school provide anything of value at all? I think it does. We need teachers who live and model God’s grace, who teach kids that Jesus died for them and loves them, and who show our kids living examples of what walking in grace looks like. We can even glean lessons from the “heroes of the faith,” as long as we also communicate how dependent they were upon God.

(I would also add that children are concrete thinkers. Abstract concepts are tough for them. Sometimes we use examples and illustrations because it’s easier for them to look at the lives of others and understand how God used them. Sometimes we don’t give them all of the terrible stories of sexual sin and violent patriarchs because very young children aren’t quite ready for those. Where we often fail, though, is that as they grow older we don’t help them transition to the deeper concepts of the faith. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wrong to keep it simple and concrete when they’re small.)

So Sunday school isn’t destroying our kids. Sin has already destroyed them. Sin has destroyed all of us, and the solution isn’t adjusting our curriculum. The solution lies in asking God for His grace and kindness, and in working together to help our kids accept that grace when it shows up.

I’m sure you have opinions about this, and I’d love to hear them. What, if anything, can we do to help our kids avoid spiritual disaster as they grow older? 

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What Your Worship Leader Wants You to Know

I was a church worship leader for ten years. During that time, I led the music at several different churches and organizations. I loved the job. When we’re worshipping, we’re simply telling God how great He is and thanking Him for all he’s done. It was a privilege to help Christ’s people do that well.

I often noticed, though, that people didn’t show up on Sunday morning prepared for worship. It’s hard to blame them. Sometimes I wasn’t prepared either. Sunday morning is often a blur, a frantic rush to get out of bed, get dressed, dress the kids, argue with your spouse, speed to church, look for a parking spot, and hurriedly plop down in the pew. Add to that our modern over-emphasis on public speaking and you have a perfect recipe for the neglect (and perhaps even abuse) of corporate singing.

So how can you make the most of the corporate singing time at your church? How can you turn your mind and heart toward the worship of God during those few critical moments?

Here are a few things your worship leader would say if your pastor would ever let him preach a sermon:

1.   Prepare. On Saturday night or Sunday morning, spend a few minutes before God preparing your heart and mind to worship. It will be busy and crazy while you’re getting ready to go on Sunday. So prepare ahead time. Pray that God will give you an attitude of internal peace and worship in the midst of external pandemonium.

2.  Arrive on time. This might sound a bit harsh, but if you can get to church ten minutes late, you can get there on time. Plan for the unexpected — the parking might be full, the room might be crowded, you might hit traffic. My guess is that you plan like that on school days or work days. You can do it for church days as well. That will leave you time to sit down and quiet your mind and your heart before the songs begin.

4.  Don’t consider it the “warm-up” for the sermon. Singing does prepare you to hear from God’s Word. But it’s much more than a prelude. It’s a chance for you and your fellow Christians to sincerely focus on God. To actively participate in the service. To say to God what you hopefully feel about Him all week. So take it seriously. Don’t chat at the back of the room, spend the first three songs filling up your coffee, or look at your watch in eager anticipation of the sermon.

3. Sing. Seriously. Open your mouth and sing the songs. You don’t have to sing louder than everybody in the room. And there are appropriate times to be quiet and reflect on the lyrics. But if you never sing, you’re probably not getting the point of corporate worship. It’s not a concert designed for the worship leader to show you his skills. The idea is that we’re all worshipping God together…by singing (Psalm 47:6-7).

4. Reflect. Think about what you’re singing. In some cases the lyrics are excellent descriptions of God’s character and work in history. In some cases not so much. Either way, you’ll learn a great deal by paying attention to what you’re singing. And just like prayer, worship requires that we know what we’re saying to God.

5. Remember it’s not about your preferences.  A wise older man who faithfully attended our young-ish church would tell me occasionally that our music wasn’t really his speed. “But it’s not about what I like,” he would say. “It’s about connecting these students to Jesus. I can tolerate the noise if it helps them to understand the Gospel.” Amen. One of the beautiful things about corporate worship: it can remove us from thinking about ourselves and help us to focus on God and others. If we allow for it.

6. Finally, remember that it’s corporate worship. That means you aren’t supposed to completely tune out everybody else in the room. It’s really not just about you and God. You and God are there, but there are other people there as well. Be conscious of those who are singing around you. What can you do to help them worship more effectively? How can you take joy in hearing them sing to the Lord? How do the lyrics point to a common and shared faith rather than merely an individual faith? If worship were simply private, we’d just stay at home and crank up Spotify. It’s intended to draw us closer to Jesus as a group and as individuals.

What ideas or concerns do you have about corporate worship? Do you agree/disagree with my suggestions here? 

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Is Seminary Really Necessary?

I regularly have conversations with young men and women who are trying to decide whether to go to seminary. I’ve noticed a recent trend away from formal theological training, particularly among young men who hope to be church planters or pastors. 

Often they object to the concept of seminary on biblical grounds. After all, Jesus’s disciples never attended some formal school of theology.

Some are more pragmatic in their objections. “[Famous podcast preacher] never attended seminary, and look at his enormous and successful ministry today!”

I’ll acknowledge that seminary isn’t for everybody. However, I do believe that everybody hoping to enter some sort of public ministry ought to first build a foundation of godly character and theological knowledge. In fact, that’s the pattern I observe in the Scripture and in the lives of great leaders throughout church history. Seminary or no, a lifetime of ministry requires preparation. In most cases, it requires years of preparation.

I frankly worry about men and women of exceptional gifting who haven’t taken the time to deepen their knowledge and character prior to entering ministry. In too many cases, I’ve seen giftedness become a poor substitute for Christian character. When that happens, the result is either catastrophic moral failure or a slow loss of ministry vitality. That’s why I wouldn’t make [famous podcast preacher] a model for how to approach ministry training. It’s quite possible that he’s an exceptional case, somebody who is effective in spite of his lack of training rather than because of it.

While seminary training is not a cure for spiritual catastrophe, the training I received at seminary helped me to lay a foundation for a lifetime of effective ministry. Although it’s not the only way to prepare for ministry, it does provide certain benefits that are difficult to find elsewhere. Here are a few concepts I learned in seminary that may or may not have been part of the official curriculum:

1. I learned that I still have a lot to learn. I grew up going to church and listening to sermons. I joined nearly every youth group and college Bible study available to me. By the time I was finishing college, I thought I knew most of what there was to know about the Bible. I was horribly, horribly mistaken. After 4 years and 40+ courses, I hadn’t even scratched the surface of what there is to know about God and His Word. Realizing my own ignorance humbled me and motivated me to be a lifelong learner.

2. I learned how to think theologically. I tried to listen carefully to the way my professors structured their arguments and discussions. I didn’t always agree with their conclusions. In fact, seminary isn’t (or shouldn’t be) primarily about learning what other people think so you can parrot it for the next 40 years. Instead, it’s an opportunity to discuss biblical and theological concepts with others who are grappling to understand them. Although I learned certain facts and a great deal of useful information, what I really learned was how to think about God. I found that methodology was ultimately more more valuable to me than information.

3. I learned that knowledge and application are vitally connected. It’s a huge fallacy to assume that knowledge will always lead to spiritual dullness. When we pursue knowledge as a means of understanding God and representing His character, it actually enhances our ability to obey Him. The oft-discussed “conflict” between head-knowledge and heart-knowledge is actually a false dichotomy. Yes, it’s possible to be full of information while simultaneously being a self-righteous jerk. It’s also possible to be completely ignorant of anything theological and still be a self-righteous jerk. For my part, I’ve found that knowing more about God and His Word provides me with more and more reasons to worship and proclaim Him.

4. I learned how to endure when a task is difficult. In my opinion, this is the least-appreciated benefit that seminary provides. It’s not necessarily written into the curriculum, but seminary taught me how to persevere. It was difficult financially: Shannon and I watched our friends from college buy large houses and nice cars while we struggled to buy enough food for the month. Seminary forced us to examine our priorities: Would we commit to keeping our marriage strong, even though academic and financial pressures tempted us to work constantly? Would we persevere when well-meaning friends and family members asked, “Are you still in school? How long is that program, anyway?” The discipline it required to endure a four-year training program helped equip me for a lifetime of serving Jesus. Seminary isn’t the only way to learn that discipline, but it’s an effective way. There is simply no shortcut to character development, and I worry that too many young men and women are trying to find one. 

Should every minister attend seminary, then? Not necessarily. I do think, though, that too many people avoid seminary for the wrong reasons. Too many are eager to jump into leadership without taking the time to prepare. Seminary seems like an unnecessary delay, when in fact it provides some important training. The critical issue is this: Have I taken the time necessary to develop my mind, my character, and my spirit so that I can be effective for a lifetime? If you haven’t, then seminary is one excellent way to do so.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts. Obviously this post is not comprehensive regarding the benefits of seminary. What do you think, though? Is it overrated? Is it necessary? 

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How to Stay Awake During Sermons

I used to take it personally when people fell asleep during my sermons. Like many preachers, I spend a large portion of my week preparing, and it’s demoralizing to see nodding heads and heavy eyelids. At times, I’m tempted to thump people on the head, or to set up the “cot of shame” at the front of the auditorium. Anybody who drifts off would publicly walk to the cot of shame and sleep in full view of those present. (I would never do this, but the thought has crossed my mind more than once.)

Although the problem might be on my side of the pulpit — and I certainly strive each week to improve my content and delivery — my perspective changed a few years ago when I noticed people sleeping while trying to listen to one of the most gifted and exciting preachers I know. The sight was both comforting and horrifying. If people could not stay awake during his message, the problem isn’t simply poor preaching.

Most of us struggle at times to listen to sermons, even when they are compelling and well-prepared. Yet few disciplines are more important than hearing and responding to God’s Word. The blessing of God begins when we “look intently” into the perfect Law and apply it to our lives (James 1:22-25). We can’t do that if we’re asleep.

So how can we listen to God’s Word more effectively and stay awake on Sunday morning? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Become a reader. Those who regularly read books are in the habit of concentrating on sustained intellectual arguments. When you read, you learn to think in a linear fashion, so a 45-minute exposition of Romans 3 is no longer such a mental strain. If the longest content you read is 140 characters, you will have a hard time paying attention to a sermon, because you are not accustomed to critical thinking.

2. Prepare ahead of time. Ask your pastor to tell you what he will be speaking about for the next four or five weeks. (If he doesn’t know, then part of the reason you can’t pay attention is because his messages are poorly prepared). Look up the relevant passages on Saturday night. Pray that God will help you understand them. Read them and make observations. Show up prepared with questions, and listen to discern whether your pastor answers them. If he doesn’t, talk to him after the message is over. This exercise will help you to truly engage with the sermon.

3. Get some sleep! Particularly for college students, the habit of staying up until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning on Saturday night fatally damages your ability to listen well on Sunday. If you have not slept on Saturday night, you will certainly sleep on Sunday morning. If you find that you cannot go to bed early on Saturday, consider attending an evening service on Sunday. That will allow you to sleep in on Sunday morning and be alert when you arrive at church.

4. Take notes. Bring a pen and some paper. Jot down the pastor’s key points. Can you identify the main point of his sermon? How does he develop his argument? What are the stories and illustrations he uses to convey his ideas? Actively writing will often help you to listen.

5. Pray that God will help you understand His Word. I am listing this last, but it should probably be the first item on your list. Understanding the Scripture is a supernatural activity, guided by the Holy Spirit (John 16:13). When you wake up on Sunday morning, ask God to speak to you that day through your pastor as He explains God’s Word.

I’m curious to hear from you. Do you find it difficult to listen while your pastor preaches? Why or why not? What do you think we pastors can do to help the situation? (Be nice to your pastor in the comments — please don’t throw anybody under the bus).

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Should We Forget Church Altogether?

I’ve seen a few articles popping up around the internet lately suggesting that Christians should abandon the institution of the church and just “follow Jesus.” For example, the cover of Newsweek on April 9 had a modern-looking drawing of Jesus captioned with the words, “Forget the church. Follow Jesus” (you can find the related article here). I haven’t yet seen the movie Blue Like Jazz — I did read the book years ago — but it’s already generating discussion about the failures of the church and the idea of moving “beyond” church to something better. Proponents of this approach often cite the church’s history of violence, hypocrisy, and heresy. The solution, it is argued, is for everybody to approach Jesus individually or in small communities with no formal hierarchy or structure. True spirituality is too individualistic to tie it down to an “institution.”

Nobody who has attended church for any significant period of time doubts that churches have problems. They tend to be filled with sinners. I’ve yet to encounter a perfect church, one free of conflict, pride, self-righteousness, or hypocrisy. Most Christians have become irritated with their church at one time or another, and perhaps have even toyed with the idea of ditching the whole thing altogether.

Yet the problems caused by simply walking away from church would be worse than those present in the church itself.

First, Jesus established the Church (in a universal sense) and He seemed to think it was important (Matthew 16:18).

Second, the first Christians really believed that meeting together to worship God corporately was critical to their spiritual growth (Acts 2:42-47; Hebrews 10:4-25). Christians who stopped “meeting together” faced the very real danger of abandoning the important aspects of their faith.

Finally — and I think this an important point — meeting with other Christians reminds us weekly of our own imperfections and need for grace. It is true that churches are filled with sinners, just like the rest of the world. Christians in church, though, have (hopefully) come as sinners looking for grace. In other words, we’re sick like everybody else, but we’re sick people who know we need the cure. And we need to remind one another of our constant and perpetual dependence on the grace of God through Jesus Christ. We need to remind one another that we’re not alone in our sin. We need to remember — through worship, preaching, and celebrating the Lord’s Supper — that provision has been made for our sin. We do that shoulder to shoulder, face to face, because we just can’t do it on our own. I tend to forget what’s important, and it doesn’t take me all week to do so. So I need you to remind me and to challenge me to refocus. That’s what church accomplishes when we approach it appropriately.

What’s more, as we recognize our own deficiencies and praise God for His grace, we’re empowered through His Spirit to share the Gospel with the world. We have to do that together as well. I don’t know the people that you know or have the abilities that you have. And vice versa. The Great Commission is a task that requires community and organization. I think that’s one of the key reasons Jesus founded the Church, and one of the reasons that the early Christians thought it was so important.

Be very skeptical anytime somebody suggests simply doing away with a practice that has been going on for thousands of years. Yes, there are things that we need to reconsider and do differently, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Sometimes there is a good reason for continuing an old tradition. In this case, it’s because it mattered to Jesus. I think that’s a good reason why it ought to matter to us as well.

If you go to church regularly, what do you value about it? What do you gain in your walk with Christ by attending and participating in it?

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