Modern evangelicals would answer this in a variety of ways. Some would say the level of gifts or intellect the preacher possesses. Others would reference the quality of a man’s formal theological training or his oratory skills. Let us allow A.W. Tozer to cut through the superficial and cultural emphasis of our day in regard to preaching with these insightful words:
Let me shock you at this point. A naturally bright person can carry on religious activity without a special gift from God. Filling church pulpits every week are some who are using only natural abilities and special training. Some are known as Bible expositors, for it is possible to read and study commentaries and then repeat what has been learned about the Scriptures. Yes, it may shock you, but it is true that anyone able to talk fluently can learn to use religious phrases and can become recognized as a preacher. But if any person is determined to preach so that his work and ministry will abide in the day of the judgment fire, then he must preach, teach and exhort with the kind of love and concern that comes only through a genuine gift of the Holy Spirit—something beyond his own capabilities.
Pastors, your intellect, gifts, training, and speaking ability are all helpful in the preaching task, but they do not make you a powerful, spirit-filled preacher. It only comes by a work of the Spirit when God’s word you preach stirs your own heart and a love for your people and the souls of men rise as your greatest burden. May the Lord empower you to preach this Sunday so that the word you preach will “abide in the day of the judgment fire.”
I often receive questions about pre-marital counseling. Yet counseling those preparing for marriage can be very complex and involved to a level that makes it hard to know how to address it through a format. Nevertheless, the amount of questions that have come to me as of late has pushed me to write about it, in the form of a template. That is all these 3 suggestions are… a template that I hope could be applied to the various contexts that are represented by those who read this blog.
In light of the tendency to oversimply, or bog down your young engaged couple with too much to do, here are 3 areas I find very helpful and thorough, whether you have a few weeks or as “many weeks as needed” before the big day.
Read and study God’s Word. Always start here. Ignore all the materials that sell you the “10 steps to a happy marriage” study guides and show this couple preparing for marriage what God says marriage is and what He expects of them in it. Use all the Bible, not just Ephesians 5 and 1 Peter 3. Use Genesis 1-3, Proverbs 5, Song of Songs, Hosea, and other books and passages of the Old Testament that clearly speak to God’s design and purpose in Christian marriage. I find it most helpful to give them passages to read together on their own, then to discuss as part of your counseling time.
Use a questionnaire to evaluate the essential areas of married life. There are a ton of options from personality tests to massive pages of evaluations to use. Be wise in what you use to make sure this tool opens the right doors of conversation in the areas that need to be discussed: spiritual growth, family life, finances, children, communication style, in-laws, and other areas that should to be discussed in a counseling setting prior to marriage. Different kinds of questionnaires can act as a tool to accomplish this if used properly.
Read a marriage book. Pick one great book to have the couple read together and come ready to discuss with you. The book I like to use most is When Sinners Say I Do, written by Dave Harvey. It gets to the sin issues of the heart that often make marriages struggle. It also has a study guide you can buy with the book to help lead your time with them. Check my Recommended Resource page for further suggestions.
Remember: this is just a template with hopes it will help you think through what will be best for the couples in your church preparing for marriage.
Pastors, what resources have you found helpful?
I am amazed at how much material has been released recently about church revitalization. I just heard a statistic that 80% of churches in America have either plateaued or are in decline. I am grateful for the efforts of those who seek to bring life to these struggling churches. I am one of them. Yet I have a growing concern the more I learn about many of the materials out there addressing this problem. If we are going to characterize local churches as “declining,” then we are basing a church’s health on how many people attend.
How many people now attend a church versus ten years ago and why does give us some helpful insight into why a church is struggling, but that does not always tell the full story. This way of evaluation can also be an unnecessary source of discouragement to a pastor. The more I hear the push to overcome the “plateau or decline,” the more I begin to think of scenarios where a church’s decline in numbers is not necessarily a sign of trouble, but may be even a sign of health. There are many, but here are 5 reasons that came to my mind, several of which I even experienced in my own church:
1) Unconverted people leave because the gospel is being preached
If there are many unconverted members in local churches (I believe there are), they will not want to hear a new pastor come in and replace the typical feel good, better yourself message from the pulpit with the true gospel of Jesus Christ that is the only source to bring true spiritual life to a dying church. Unconverted church members will either leave or stay and cause problems, especially if they are in leadership. Preaching the gospel is the right thing to do and is the only thing that can give life to a church. No pastor should ever be discouraged if he loses people over declaring the gospel.
2) Church members pass away and go to be with Christ
We had a year where we lost several dear elderly saints, and the amount of those who died was more than the new members we brought in that year. A pastor should celebrate faithfully taking sweet saints of Christ to their eternal home and not fret about “replacing them” all at the same time.
3) Pastors and missionaries are tested, trained, affirmed, and sent out into the ministry
That same year we experienced a decline in numbers not only because of the amount of deaths, but because we sent two families out into the ministry that we had invested in and trained to do so. I can remember someone coming to me concerned about the sliding numbers, and I replied, “Really, in God’s eyes this may have been our most fruitful year.” That was received well, and we were both encouraged in the reason for our declining numbers and struggling finances that year, both of which were recovered the following year.
4) An intentional process to take in new members is established
Raising the standard for membership and protecting the front door a bit might cause you to have fewer members join the church in the beginning, but God is honored in pastors making sure believers in Jesus Christ are the only ones that become members of the church, even if the church numbers do not boom like you hoped. Membership meaning something has actually been the eventual cause of numeric growth for us, not the other way around.
5) A new pastor takes a long-time declining church
If you take a church as I did with decades of decline, it is a challenge to change that pattern. It takes time, even years. I talk to so many young pastors who, inside of two years, are discouraged because they have not be able to change the patterns that brought much of the decline. Remember what you have inherited, and if it took 30 years of decline to get your church where you find it today, it might take 30 years to change the pattern. But God’s gospel and word are powerful enough to do just that over time.
Therefore, dear brothers and fellow pastors, press on. You may be the cause of the decline, and if that is the case, you need to take a good hard look at yourself before God and ask for those blind spots to be revealed. However, in many cases, imperfect pastors, especially those new to their congregations, are still bearing too much of the responsibility of the decline. Sometimes God takes us through ups and downs, and there is so much more to evaluate on a church’s health than whether your numbers are “higher” this year than last. Decline can reveal many problems, but it can also be a source of encouragement to a pastor.
Pastors, preach the word, love those people, stay a while, and may God give you grace to determine what your “decline” should say.
Brian Croft is Senior Pastor of Auburndale Baptist Church. To find out more, please visit Practical Shepherding.
Pastors who walk into existing churches are quickly burdened by needed changes to improve the church. Where the challenge is for most of us is when and how those changes need to be brought. If you are wondering how to choose those battles wisely, first receive this most excellent counsel I received as I entered my first Senior Pastor position at a church clearly needing change and revitalization, “Preach the Word, sacrifically love those people, and do not change anything for a while.”
Now, having shared this invaluable counsel that should be applied first, here are 3 questions to ask yourself as you move to bring the change that is needed and how to do so with discernment and wisdom:
1) Is it biblical or preference? Whatever you wish to change, make sure you have a strong biblical argument to do so. If you desire to change the structure of your church to a plurality of elders/pastors, or raise the commitment of all church members to gather regularly on Sundays together (Hebrews 10:25), those are appropriate biblical changes that should be pursued. If you want to change which translation of the Bible to preach, the style of music, or remove the giant picture of a white, American, Jesus in your lobby, those do not possess as clear a biblical argument. Whether it is biblical or a preference matters in how you bring change, and in many cases whether you should change it at all.
2) Is it the right time? Just because a biblical argument can be made for the change, does not mean it is the right time to make the change. So many young pastors walk into an existing church, make quick, needed changes because “it’s in the Bible” and think nothing of shepherding a congregation through those changes. Then they wonder why eighteen months into their pastorate, half the church remains and there is a general lack of trust and suspicion towards the pastor. That’s because the new pastor was too busy figuring out what “had to change” instead of first loving and shepherding that congregation so they would later be receptive of the change.
3) Is it worth the possible consequences? Determine if the change can be taught as biblical, consider if the timing is right, then a pastor must weigh whether the consequences deem it wise and worth the risk. For example, I would not split the church over a plurality of elders/pastors, or purging an inflated membership role in the first few years at a church. Those are changes that can come later with good teaching and patience. However, I would risk being fired over confronting a deacon found in open adultery, or an attack on the deity of Christ, whether the church was ready for it or not. Choosing the right battles wisely involves whether you are willing to face the potential consequences of your decision as well as stand before God with a clear conscience.
This is a general template to follow as you determine the changes you desire to make and how they should be chosen and done. Whatever you do, choose battles wisely as if you will be at that church ten years or more. That will give you a different perspective and will help you be patient.
Oh, and one more thing. Listen to you wife. My wife kept me from getting fired a few times by her wise cautions about a few different things I was about to change. Your wife is your helpmate and will be a particular help to keep you from doing something you might regret. Listen to her.
Brian Croft is Senior Pastor of Auburndale Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the husband of Cara and adoring father of four children, son, Samuel and daughters, Abby, Isabelle, and Claire. He has served in pastoral ministry for over fifteen years and is currently in his eighth year as Pastor of Auburndale Baptist Church. He was educated at both Belmont University and Indiana University receiving his B.A. in Sociology. He also undertook some graduate work at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
He is also the author of Visit the sick: Ministering God’s grace in times of illness (foreword by Mark Dever) and Test, train, affirm, and send into Ministry: Recovering the local church’s responsibility to the external call (foreword by R. Albert Mohler Jr.). Both of these volumes are published by Day One in their pastoral series designed to serve pastors, church leaders, and those training for local church ministry. Brian has also published Help! He’s Struggling with Pornography and Conduct Gospel-centered Funerals (co-written with Phil Newton).
A Faith That Endures: Meditations on Hebrews 11 is Brian’s newest book, released in fall of 2011. His next book on The Pastor’s Family, co-authored with his wife, is due to be released by Zondervan in Fall 2013.
To find out more, please visit Practical Shepherding.