May 8, 2014 will mark 10 years to the day that I first started pastoring a church (the tiny, almost middle of nowhere Conway Community Church near South Boston, IN—the more I reflect back, especially when it came to my preaching, the more I feel sorry for those poor congregants!). I will actually be celebrating that mark (along with my birthday and Mother’s Day) on the campus of the International Bible College of Zambia. I can live with that…
Anyway…reflecting back over the past decade, I wanted to share some things I’ve learned along the way, in no particular order:
First, I have learned that the most important thing I can do for God’s church is exalt Christ in the hearts and minds of the congregation. In John 12:32, in reference to his crucifixion, Jesus said that when lifted up he would draw all to himself. Paul said in Philippians 3 that he counted everything else as loss, as rubbish compared to the exceedingly great value of knowing Christ. Though Jesus spoke his words concerning a specific history altering event 2000 years ago, I think we see in Paul’s words that it stands true throughout the ages. The exalted Jesus will bring all his people to himself; for there is nothing greater than he, and his glory and fame will be magnified upon the earth. Exalting Christ brings sinners to salvation as grace leads them to respond in faith. Exalting Christ conforms his people more to his image as we become more like the one we behold. Whatever else I do as a pastor, I must show Christ supreme in everything.
Second, I have learned that in my own life what should matter most are prayer, the word, and growth in character. As I strive to follow Jesus and as I strive to lead others to follow Jesus, prayer is crucial. Personally, I’m not exactly a conversationalist by nature, which makes prayer a sometimes struggle (after all, it is a conversation with the Father). Yet, prayer is vital. Yes, other things must be done and all have their proper place, but I have come to understand that I can never pray enough. As to the word—every sentence and every passage from Genesis to Revelation is the very gospel that is pointing in all things to Jesus. If I want to know him, I need to know the word the best I can. If I want his people to know him, I need to teach them the word the best I can and encourage them to dwell in the word the best they can. Then it is through both the word and prayer, connecting to Jesus as the Spirit works, that the rough edges are ground away and the fruit of the Spirit burst forth to life. Peter said (1 Peter 5:1-4) to be an example. Paul said (1 Timothy 3:1-7) that character is vital. If I want to lead God’s people to grow in character, I must first seek to grow in character.
Third, I have learned that if you feed them they will grow. Sanctification sometimes seems brutally slow. But isn’t that a lot of growth? We have a spurt here and there, but otherwise it is a lifetime of slow and steady. That’s why Paul exhorted Timothy to teach the word with patience (2 Timothy 4). My old pastor/mentor Ronnie Rogers (Trinity Baptist, Norman, OK) would say of sheep (followers of Jesus being sheep of the Good Shepherd), “Healthy sheep produce two main things: fluff and more sheep.” The fluff is character and good works; other sheep is reproductive discipleship. A healthy sheep requires good food. Almost every week I have the privilege to serve a gathering of God’s people by teaching them from the word. I need to provide choice selections that combine milk for those still in need and meat for those ready to chew. Sheep grazing on the lush field of God’s word will grow. I can’t cause growth (as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3) and I can’t force feed, but I can do everything I can to ensure Jesus’ sheep are at least presented a healthy meal of God’s word. If they are sheep and if they partake, they will grow, even if it is sometimes slow. And I absolutely love hearing the stories of how people are transformed in heart and mind by the word.
Fourth, I have learned to value-grade criticisms. There are some people who will be mad at you, but they’ll smile to your face. They’ll rip you up and down behind your back, but not say a thing in your presence. Sometimes you hear whispers of what they’re mad at. You can either take that and sulk and fume yourself, or you can just not care. It’s not my business to worry about my reputation. It is my business to follow Jesus the best I can and let him worry about my reputation. If a criticism isn’t worth expressing to a person face-to-face, then it is not a worthy criticism. To express it to others is gossip, and that is sin. Of course this also means for me that if I have something against someone else either I need to deal with them face-to-face or I need to let it go. If it’s not worth dealing with, then it’s not something worth holding onto.
There are also some people who will be mad at everything. Nothing will satisfy them because at some level they take delight in causing misery. These people are worth praying for that they might repent, come to Christ, and delight in him. Their constant negativity, however, is not worth the high blood pressure and the sleepless nights.
Then there are criticisms from the people who actually love you, love Jesus, and love the church. They praise often, encourage much, and criticize only when necessary. Even then, they do their best to offer the critiques in gentleness and love. That is an opinion that matters, because they are not ultimately trying to exalt themselves or bring others down. They are legitimately concerned and want to see everyone, their pastors included, come to follow Jesus more fully. It is these criticisms that I must take to heart, take to the word, and take to prayer and ask God to use it in a way that allows iron to sharpen iron.
Fifth (and last for this list, at least), I have learned to highlight the positives and rebuke only when necessary. Guess what? The church ain’t perfect, because we’re not perfect. That’s life. But also guess what? The church is perfect, because Jesus has already guaranteed our perfection. This is the tension between what is and what is destined to be—the already and the not yet. Unfortunately, sometimes or even a lot of times, we can get more focused on what the church isn’t than what it is. We can become so centered upon the problems and the failings, we forget the encouragement and upbuilding. In 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Paul said all scripture is profitable for rebuke (there’s a negative) and teaching, correction, and training in righteousness (three positives). Sometimes we need to hear the rebuke, but the word has vastly more to say about the goodness of God, his delight for his people, and his works of love in our lives.
Read any of the letters: Ephesians, Colossians, 1 Peter, etc. Yes they talk about our sinfulness and the things in our lives we must put to death, but more words are spent reminding us who we are in Christ. So it is, in my own life and in the life of the church, I must not ignore the negatives and I must give and receive rebukes as needed; but I must highlight the greatness of God and the wonderful grace he has bestowed upon us in taking our sin and giving us the righteousness of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Looking forward to what the next ten years brings…