What is a “good” pastor?

If you have been part of a local church or among the leadership of a local church, then you have probably thought or said something about the quality of a pastor or pastors.

I love my pastor because he showed great care for me when my daughter was in the hospital last year.”

That pastor is not so great because he doesn’t seem to connect well with guests and first-time visitors each Sunday.”

That pastor is awesome because he doesn’t seem like a typical pastor.”

Whatever you might think about your pastor, or pastors generally, I’d like to invite you to consider the reality that pastors do indeed have a tremendous impact on the local church. In fact, one way to know if a church family is healthy and if they will grow healthier over time is to learn about the pastor or pastors who lead them.

Biblically qualified pastors or elders or “undershepherds” is one mark or feature of a healthy church, and Christians are wise to think more about this subject. Learn more about building healthy churches by visiting 9marks.org.

What are the biblical qualifications of an undershepherd (i.e. pastor or elder)? When you think of a well-qualified pastor, what comes to mind? Do the qualifications you are thinking about have any Scriptural support or are they based on your life experience or your preferences? How would you know if a man was qualified to serve as a pastor? How would you know if a man should be removed pastoring your local church?

Thankfully, the Bible gives a thorough list of pastoral qualifications and the Bible provides examples of good pastors.

  • A pastor or elder should have a clean reputation (1 Tim. 3:2, 7; Titus 1:6-7).
  • If He is married, he should be a faithful husband and his wife should be godly and faithful as well (1 Tim. 3:2, 4; Titus 1:6).
  • He should manage his household well (1 Tim. 3:4-5; Titus 1:6).
  • He should be self-controlled and financially temperate (1 Tim. 3:2-3; Titus 1:7-8).
  • He should be hospitable and mature in his Christian walk (1 Tim. 3:2, 6; Titus 1:8).
  • He should be doctrinally sound and able to teach sound doctrine to others (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:9).

If you see men among your church family who meet these qualifications, then you should praise God for them. For such men are a gift from Christ to His people (Eph. 4:11-12), and they are a blessing to your soul (Heb. 13:17). If, however, you are sitting under the shepherding care of a man who fails to meet one or more of these qualifications, then you should have grave concerns.

We are warned in Scripture about false teachers (2 Pet. 2:1-3; 1 Jn. 4:1) and false gospels (Gal. 1:6-9). Furthermore, God blames congregations for listening to those who lead them astray (Gal. 1:6-9).

It is vitally important that every member of a local church understand these qualifications. If some church members measure the quality of pastoral leadership by some other standard, then an unqualified man may seem more valuable than he truly is, or a highly qualified man may seem less than desirable.

May God raise up more qualified pastors/elders and may He cause many churches to be healthier through the efforts of such men. May God also help church members to value and appreciate good pastors/elders by measuring them by biblical standards.

What is Church Membership?

It is biblical and valuable!

What is church membership?

The topic of church membership has garnered great interest among Evangelical circles in recent years. Surely, all would agree that a discussion of the meaning and value of church membership can be rewarding in the context of any local church. And yet, it does seem that some local churches are hesitant to think critically about their own practice of church membership. This article is, in large part, a plea for local churches to think about the concept of church membership and the right practice of church membership in their specific context.

Biblical investigation, historical study, and personal introspection are all great efforts when addressing church membership and related topics. When church history agrees with Scripture, we may gain insight from the application of biblical truth in a context that is not our own.  When church history diverges from or unnecessarily exceeds the teaching of the Bible, we are better equipped to learn how we may avoid these mistakes ourselves by learning from others. Of course, the question is not ultimately, “How did people do church membership in the past?” The question is, “How should we do church membership right now?”

Church membership has lost its value.

To say that the value of church membership has diminished among the majority of Evangelical churches today is not to say that church membership is not valuable.  My statement is about the perception of many Evangelical church members, not the actual value of church membership.

It seems clear to me that many Evangelical church members (especially in the Southern Baptist Convention) perceive church membership as having little or no value whatever in their daily lives. The statistic of members to regular attendees is sufficient to illustrate the perceived lack of value among Southern Baptists. There are about 15 million members among SBC churches, but only about 33% of these can be found gathering with fellow members on any given Sunday.

If one does not think enough of church membership to worship regularly with fellow members, then one does not value church membership.

The reason I have begun by articulating the problem (namely a devaluation of church membership) is that I believe this current situation is one of our own making (speaking of Southern Baptists and other Evangelicals). I, therefore, believe that the solution is achievable by those same ones who have created the problem. We must resolve to carefully and diligently practice biblical church membership.

We have largely made church membership a consumer-driven category, much like any other social or service-oriented organization. Church leaders look for new and innovative ways to cater to the taste-preferences of their target audience, and then create organizational structures by which they seek to achieve maximum saturation of their niche market.

Many church leaders hope to draw in an ever-larger crowd by targetting and winning an audience, much like corporate marketing specialists.

All of this feeds into the self-centered idea that the customer is king and the whole organization exists at the behest of the customer. At the end of the day, church members think of the church as an institution which exists to serve the felt-needs of its members. Church members think this way because the church leaders taught them to do so by their own words and actions.

The result of this kind of practice is an appalling lack of accountability, authority, and discipling. In fact, such things are considered abhorrent to the marketing and consumer-driven structure. Accountability, authority, and discipline would undermine the foundational values of any customer-centered organizational model.

Church membership is thoroughly biblical and highly valuable.

In contrast to this modern invention of church growth techniques, the Bible actually presents a simple and God-centered structure and purpose for church membership. It seems clear to me that the purpose of church membership is articulated throughout the New Testament in the form of commitments and responsibilities.

Here are some of the commitments I find in the New Testament.

  • The individual Christian must commit to other Christians (Col. 3:12-17).
  • The individual Christian must submit to the oversight of church leadership (Heb. 13:17).
  • Pastors/elders commit themselves to the task of lovingly shepherding (leading, teaching, loving) a particular local assembly of Christians (1 Pet. 5:1-5).
  • Christians must join together for mutual support and accountability (Gal. 6:1-2).
  • Under the care and instruction of godly leaders (i.e. pastors/elders), a congregation must strive to grow in spiritual maturity and in its ability to do the work of the ministry (Eph. 4:11-16).

The biblical understanding of church membership makes clear the distinction between the people of God and the rest of the world. Those who enjoy new life in Christ are trained and corrected so that they may flourish in their new life. Those who resist the disciplines of Christian living are rebuked and held accountable for opposing the very practices that produce greater life in all who follow Christ.

In the practice of biblical church membership, Christians are distinguished from the world, and Christians grow alongside one another in grace and love.

The results of practicing biblical church membership are increasing spiritual health, progress in personal holiness, and growth in effective Christian witness to the world. The gospel of Christ, which asserts that blessed transformation is at the heart of God’s gracious plan for sinners, is made visible among congregations like these.

May God revitalize, reform, and renew Evangelical churches to reflect the purity and love which Christ said would mark His disciples in the world (Jn. 13:35).

The Local Church is God’s plan for Evangelism!

I admit that this subject has affected me much in recent years. In thinking through evangelism and the local church, I come to a subject that has not only provoked me to grow but also to move away from a previously held position.

My introduction to vocational ministry was evangelism through a parachurch ministry. All throughout my 20s, I believed that I was the tip of the evangelistic spear and that the local church was the cumbersome-but-necessary shaft which played the menial role of tossing me into the target. In my pointed conversations and through my honed preaching, I believed parachurch evangelism to be the best way to engage the world with the gospel of Christ. Today, I am ashamed of my posture and perspective during those days. Oh, how foolish and wrong I was to assume such a low view of the local church.

Today, I understand the local church to be the apple of God’s eye and the lifeblood of God’s evangelistic activity in the world. The local church is the people by whom the gospel is upheld (1 Tim. 3:15), the people among whom the gospel is made visible (Col. 3:11), and the people through whom Christ is present in the world (Matt. 18:20).

When the local church is healthy and vibrant, it is a testimony of God’s grace, a picture of Christ’s transformative work, and a mechanism by which sinners may encounter the real power of God’s Spirit.

The evangelistic role of the church is crucial in the world because any evangelistic efforts detached from the local church will only provide an incomplete gospel at best. Furthermore, it seems to me that many Christians have resorted to just such an incomplete gospel.

American Evangelicalism is abundant with hoards of privatized Christians who think, speak, and act much like the world. These Evangelicals are secure in their eternal destination because they prayed a prayer at some point in their lives, or simply because they have a “personal relationship with Jesus” based on some subjective feeling. But this is not biblical evangelism or historically grounded Christianity.

If Christians are calling sinners into something (namely God’s family, along with all accompanying blessings) and not merely out of something (such as God’s judgment), then only those Christians who point to a healthy local church have any way of making such an appeal. If lone-ranger Christians merely talk of God’s love without demonstrating any affectionate love for fellow Christians, then they have failed to meet the Bible’s simple test of genuine spiritual life (1 Jn. 3:14). Thus, lone-ranger Christians bear false testimony of God, of Christ, and of the Spirit-filled Church.

Christians must embrace the messy-yet-beautiful relationships that can only be experienced in the covenantal, loving, sin-fighting, encouraging, spirit-maturing, humbling, and sanctifying atmosphere of biblical local church membership. And Christians must invite sinners to join them in this nourishing garden by entering through the narrow gate of Christ’s person and work.

May God revitalize churches around the world to give testimony to the gracious and glorious character of God, the joyfully obedient sonship of Christ, and the supernaturally transformative work of God’s Holy Spirit.

Is Church Membership in the Bible?

This is a question that deserves as much time as you have to give it. But you are reading a blog, so it is likely you don’t want a lengthy dissertation. Allow me to point to a few passages of Scripture, and in this way provide you with an introductory answer to the question.

Matthew 18:15-20. In this passage, the church/assembly is defined by:

  • “brother” (a designation often referring to “brother in faith”) in close relationship with “brother” (v15)
  • accountability regarding sin and striving towards holiness (v16)
  • the requirement of ongoing repentance in the lives of sinners (v15)
  • communal care and concern for consistent living (v16-17)
  • a weighty responsibility to make serious judgments about who is in and who is out of the fellowship (v18)
  • Christ’s presence and authority (v20)

Colossians 3:1-17. This passage is found in the midst of a letter from the Apostle Paul to the “saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae” (1:2). While Paul does not explicitly call the Colossian Christians a “church,” the designation is implied by the way he closes the letter (4:15-16). In chapter 3, Paul defines their relationship as one in which:

  • all worldly designations are obliterated (v11)
  • all worldly living is to be renounced and resisted (v5-8)
  • the Christians are to be patient and bear with one another in love (v13-14)
  • the Christians are also responsible to actively teach and admonish (i.e. correct or rebuke) one another according to the Scripture (v16)

Hebrews 13:17. This passage is one of the most terrifying in all of Scripture to me as a pastor. Church membership is more defined in this passage by answering the questions that anyone should ask when they read it.

  1. Which leaders should I obey?
  2. Whose souls are those leaders keeping watch over?
  3. Which leaders will Christ call to account, and for whom will those leaders give an account?

Much more could be said about each of these passages, and many more passages should be able to weigh in on our understanding of church membership. My hope is that anyone who reads this will at least recognize that the Bible does, in fact, say quite a bit about church membership. Furthermore, I pray that God will help local churches become healthier as they seek to be more faithful to the words of Christ.

7 Reasons Not to “Move Your Letter”

I’d like to move my letter.”

This phrase and others like it are probably unfamiliar to you unless you are a Baptist who has spent some significant time on the membership roster of a church in the American south. This phrase is referencing the transfer of one’s church membership from one local church to another. However, it seems to me that such a phrase exposes a common but unbiblical understanding of church membership.

Let me outline 7 reasons I think you should stop trying to “move your letter” or anyone else’s.

  1. It’s not your letter. Your membership in a local church family was never privately owned. It has always been an agreement between you and the local church you call family (or at least used to call family). When you choose to join a local church, you are making a public agreement with a number of other Christians, and this excludes the possibility of you ever being able to make any decision about your membership without their participation (Jn. 13:34-35; Rom. 12:10; 1 Cor. 12:25).
  2. You can’t move your letter; it doesn’t exist. The letter we are referring to here is a letter of commendation. It is not a mere certificate of membership. It is not an administrative document of your past attendance, however frequent or sporadic it may have been. It is not a simple statement that you were on the membership roster of a local church. Therefore, you can’t move your letter; for it does not exist yet. The letter you are requesting is something that the congregation you are leaving must create in response (1 Cor. 12:25; Col. 3:9, 16).
  3. You can’t move your letter; it may not ever exist. The common assumption is that the mere request of a “letter transfer” will necessarily be followed by the action of “moving the letter of membership.” But, this may not be so. As mentioned above, the letter you are requesting does not exist yet. Your request must be heard and answered by the congregation with whom you are currently enjoined. They are responsible to examine your life and beliefs in order to decide whether or not they are willing to commend you to the membership of another congregation. Simply put, your current church family is responsible to inform any other of who you truly are based on their experience with you (James 5:16; Col. 3:16).
  4. Your desire to move from membership in one local church to another should be expressed by a humble and personal request. The “movement of your letter” requires your current church family to communally endorse you as a Christian of good quality to another church family. This is no small matter, and your request is very personal to those of whom you are making such a thing. If your request is requiring such a personal investment from a whole congregation of fellow Christians, shouldn’t your appeal require more than an impersonal and distant statement from you (Phil. 2:3; Eph. 5:21)?
  5. Your movement from one church to another is too important to be done quietly. Do you remember the feeling of joy you had when your current church family accepted you into their membership? Wasn’t it a wonderful occasion to celebrate God’s work in your life and His work in the life of that local church? Why would you think that your entrance into another local church family would be less significant? Your current church family cares deeply about your spiritual growth and health, even if you don’t think they have expressed that care very well up to this point. You respected and cared about what your current church family thought when they took you in; you can respect and care what they think (at least a little) as you make your way out (1 Cor. 12:25; 1 Jn. 4:7-21).
  6. Your church family and pastors will give an account to Christ for every member they take in and every member they commend. Taking members in and putting members out is one of the major functions of every local church. This is, in fact, the primary way that a church family exercises loving discipline in the life of the congregation. Christ, who is ruler and king over all, is the head of every local church. Everything that any local church does in the name of Christ will be to His glory or to their own shame (Matt. 18:15-20; Heb. 13:17).
  7. Your church family is responsible to help you know where you truly stand before God. Only those people who are giving themselves over to belief in and submission to Christ are welcome in a particular church family, joining with that particular group of Christians to communally follow Christ. And, if a person has been in close relationship with a church family for any length of time, that church family is in a great position to either affirm or critique that person’s profession of faith. While everyone loves affirmation, a loving critique is better than flattery any day (Gal. 6:1; Col. 3:16; Heb. 10:24; James 5:16).

The local church is so much more important than we often think, and the individual Christian benefits most when he or she greatly appreciates the value of their local church.

For more information about church membership, joining a local church, and leaving a local church, see the following:

Article: “Pastors, Don’t let you people resign into thin air

Podcast: “On how to receive and dismiss members

Podcast: “How to leave your church well

 

Good Preaching? What about Good Listening?

There has never been a better time in human history for those who love good preaching. Good preaching is not common in our day, but it is more accessible today than ever before. You can listen to good preaching all day every day (if you are so inclined) through multiple internet-based resources (see my recommendations at the bottom).

While good preaching (as opposed to mediocre or bad preaching) is the goal of both good pastors and their respective congregations, the goal of good listening is often forgotten. Since preaching quality is inevitably measured by the listener, I want to argue that preaching cannot be beneficially good without good listeners to receive and respond to it.

I am not saying that the reason your pastor’s preaching is atrocious is because you are a bad listener (at least not necessarily). But I am saying that your pastor’s preaching will benefit you best when you are listening well.

There are at least four things you can do to be a better listener to good preaching.

First, read the Bible for yourself.

Try to familiarize yourself with the passage and context before listening to the message. This assumes that your pastor preaches expositionally (through the Bible, chunks or verses at a time). Even on topical Sundays, you should be able to ask your pastor for the passage from which he will be primarily drawing. For best results, read through the upcoming passage several times throughout the week, and read through the surrounding text at least once.

Second, make notes before the sermon.

You can jot down questions or noteworthy ideas in preparation for listening to the preached message. Bring those notes with you on Sunday, and as your pastor preaches through the text, follow him with your own notes. Listen for him to touch on the same themes or concepts you found, add to your notes and even adjust them, and enjoy your pastor’s thoughtful insights. Also, every pastor must choose what he will leave out and what he will emphasize in a message, so ask him any unanswered questions after the sermon or in an email later on. He will most likely have studied up on the matter, and he will most certainly be glad to know of your own interest in the biblical text.

Third, take notes during the sermon.

Good preachers will not be hard to follow, and they will make a linear path towards a destination in their sermon. Not every preacher will have clear bullet-point headings and subheadings, but good sermons will begin with a goal, take steps towards the goal, and end up where the preacher said we were going. Pay attention to the stated goal, make note of the steps along the way (each statement or point that progresses towards the goal), and consider the overall point of the sermon. Preaching isn’t preaching unless the listener is being called to believe something or do something (and it’s often both).

Fourth, take responsibility for the application.

Many preachers will admit that application is one of the toughest features of sermon preparation. A preacher might say, “I know what I would do with this, but I’m not sure what each person in my congregation might do with it…” Good preachers will be able to demonstrate appropriate and helpful applications for their listeners, but the listener will be able to apply the sermon (and the biblical text) much more specifically and lastingly to himself or herself. After the sermon (preferably soon after), ask yourself these questions:

(1) What is God revealing about Himself here?

(2) What is God showing me about me here?

(3) What is God telling me to believe here?

(4) What is God telling me to do here?

(5) How will I strive to remember what God wants me to believe?

(6) How am I going to do what God wants me to do?

Good preaching is both a gift and a discipline, and good preachers work very hard to be the best preachers they can be. Listeners must also put forth the effort to hear good preaching well, for good listening is necessary for good preaching to be of any benefit.

May God bless local churches with good preachers, and may the listeners who hear them strive towards good listening, enjoying the full benefit of God’s gift of such valiant men.

 


 

If you want some recommendations for good preaching resources, I suggest the following:

I shamelessly endorse my own preaching, and you can listen or subscribe to sermons by clicking the microphone on the bottom of the sermons tool at www.fbcdiana.org

My favorite living Bible teacher and preacher (though his health is fading rapidly these days) is R.C. Sproul. His sermons (and a ton of other resources) can be found at www.ligonier.org

Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) is known as the “Prince of Preachers” for good reason. His preaching is unique and powerful. You can listen to someone else read his sermons at www.spurgeongems.org or you can read the transcripts for yourself at www.spurgeongems.org/sermons

One can hardly find a bolder preacher than John MacArthur. His preaching and pastoring ministry of nearly 50 years among a single congregation is a testimony of his love for Christ and his church. His messages (and many other resources) can be accessed at www.gty.org

Preparing to Preach

Pastors do many things, but the thing a pastor must prioritize above all others is preaching. Jesus commanded Peter, “Feed my sheep” (Jn. 21:17), and Peter must have had that powerful moment in mind when he perpetuated the command by telling other elders/pastors to, “shepherd the flock of God” (1 Pet. 5:2).

Preaching is the essential role of an elder/pastor, for the distinguishing qualification for such a role is the “ability to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2). This includes both instruction in biblical truth and refuting error (Titus 1:9). One can hardly imagine a weightier task on planet earth, especially considering that the local church is “pillar and buttress of truth) (1 Tim. 3:15). My own pastoral shoulders are sagging as I type these words.

And yet, the noble task of pastoring beckons me (and other men like me). Like a story that must be written, a word that must be spoken, a song that must be sung… I cannot not preach. Indeed, Christ gives the gift of pastor-preachers to the local church (Eph. 4:11), and it is a humbling and emboldening thing to be counted among this gift for a time.

Since preaching is such an emphatic feature of pastoring, pastors often spend much time and effort in preperation to preach. The constant thought for any good pastor is, “How can I best prepare to preach my best?” Not every preacher will come to the pulpit with the same skills, intellect, life-experiences, or tools. But every preacher should come to the pulpit with the same fear of God (Micah 6:8-9), bold trust in God’s word (Lk. 11:28; Jn. 6:68; Acts 6:7), and love for the people God has place under his shepherding care (Heb. 13:17).

While every preacher will experience his own unique path into pastoral ministry, and every preacher will benefit from a his own preparation routine, the responsibility is the same: Prepare to preach.

Don’t prepare merely to lead, to cast vision, to entertain, to host, to provoke, to make a presentation, or to only teach.

Prepare to preach. In doing this well, you will do all that you must do before God to honor the calling to which He has called you. Whatever God chooses to do with your preaching us up to Him (1 Cor. 3:5-7).

What greater measurement of success is there than that the God of all creation who entrusted you with His Gospel would say that you have preached that entrusted word well?

May God raise up quality preachers for and from His people, and may God grant those who now serve as preachers the grace to preach well.