Archive for May, 2012

In the minds of many people, two words rarely go together.

Pastors … and sin.

Since pastors preach against sin, some people come to believe that their pastor is sinless … or at least nearly so.

But when you hang around groups of pastors, as I have for years, you discover that pastors are sinners, too.

They’re just better at hiding their sins than most people.

If you had to guess one sin that pastors commit more than any other, which one would you choose?







The six words I just mentioned constitute six of the seven deadly sins.  Like all humans, pastors are susceptible to any and all of these shortcomings.

But I left one sin out.

In his classic work Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis devoted an entire chapter to this sin.  In fact, he called it “The Great Sin.”

Know what it is?

It’s pride.

Lewis said that pride is the complete anti-God state of mind.  Pride is preoccupation with yourself, the belief that you are superior to other people … even when there’s no basis for it.

We all struggle with this issue – even pastors.

Let me share with you three ways that pastors display pride … sometimes unknowingly.  I’ll share two more ways next time.

And I include myself in everything that I write.

First, pastors love to hear themselves talk.

I guess most people do … but more than in most professions, pastors are paid to talk.

We expect pastors to preach from the pulpit.  What we don’t expect is for pastors to preach in private settings.

So try this experiment: if you ever find yourself in a social setting with a pastor, notice what happens.

Regardless of who holds the floor initially, see if the pastor eventually holds court … and if he determines the topic for discussion.

Winston Churchill once volunteered his idea of a good dinner: “to discuss a good topic – with myself as chief conversationalist.”

That’s true of pastors, too … although they could probably learn more by listening.

Why are pastors like this?  I’m not sure.  In my own case, I’m not very good at small talk, so if I can steer a conversation around to a larger issue, I’m more comfortable joining in … and that may be true of other pastors, too.

Second, pastors are competitive with their peers.

The day Magic Johnson announced he had AIDS, I was invited to meet with a group of pastors for some strategy sessions at a mountain cabin.  (There were 15 or so of us there.)

Someone asked the pastors to go around the room and share how their Easter services had gone.  Let me offer a typical response:

“Well, we had 757 people out for Easter this year, which was one-third more than we had last year.  God’s Spirit is really moving at our church.  I sense that we’re ready for a breakthrough.  Since I came to the church two years ago, our attendance and giving have doubled, and we’re reaching our community for Christ like never before.”

By the way, all the pastors answered the question in a similar fashion.  Easter went great … we’re really growing … I’m on top of the world … God is blessing.  (In some cases, I knew better.)

All except for me.  Nobody asked me how Easter went at our church … and nobody noticed that nobody asked me.  It was just as well.

I couldn’t compete with the big boys.

When pastors get together in larger groups, there’s a pecking order.  It’s determined by who dresses the best, or who has the most commanding presence, or who has seniority, or who has the largest church.  Pastors are never completely honest when they’re in a larger group of their peers.  They have a way of displaying their feathers.

Put them with a group of Christian psychologists, and their responses would be completely different.

Or if you placed one pastor in a group with two other pastors, they’d be much more honest … and that pecking order all but disappears.

Pastors aren’t nearly as competitive when they’re with doctors or attorneys or professional athletes.  In fact, pastors tend to be deferential toward people in those professions.

But when they’re with their peers, the competitive juices start flowing.  This is why I once heard J. I Packer say that pastors are a lot like manure.  When they’re all spread out, they do a lot of good, but when they get together, it’s just one big stink.

Third, pastors have a need to be know-it-alls. 

Pastors have a high need to be right.  They love to straighten people out.

I suppose it comes from their training.  When I was in seminary, we had to define and memorize specific biblical and theological terms … and Greek verb tenses … and dates in church history … and the beliefs of various world religions and cults … and what the Bible said about a host of social issues.

In most cases, my professors were absolutely convinced that their views were right and everybody else’s views … even those of fellow faculty members … were wrong.  It was the job of the professors (who held the right views) to correct the students (who held the wrong views).  So when we students were called to various churches, we modeled the attitudes of our professors.

We held the right views, while others held the wrong views.

It’s easy to absorb that attitude when you hang around a seminary for five years, as I did … which is why some Christian experts believe that a pastor’s most effective years begin only after he starts unlearning all the stuff he learned in seminary.

This need to be right is like a reflex action among pastors.  Some learn how to disagree with others graciously, while others run around trying to straighten out everybody with whom they disagree.

I believe that pastors continue to struggle with pride until they suffer greatly or are deeply wounded with their own unique “thorn in the flesh.”

I’ll write more about this theme next time.

Your thoughts?

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“Telling is not teaching; listening is not learning.”

Back when I was in seminary, I remember hearing a phrase similar to that one.  The idea behind it was that people don’t learn very much when a teacher – or a pastor – tries to teach using a monologue.

So I learned about the teaching techniques of Jesus, and read a book about 70+ teaching methods, and tried to use as many as I could while preaching or teaching students.

But I always got the best response when I just preached rather than try and engage the listeners in interaction.

And with that in mind, I’d like to share two more qualities of great preaching:

Fourth, great preaching is anointed by the Holy Spirit.  While I’ve preached hundreds of sermons, and imparted lots of information to God’s people, I could usually tell when the Spirit was upon me as I spoke.

Not in me, but upon me.

Sometimes the Spirit of God just lifts you up and carries you along.  You speak effortlessly, without struggle.  You speak eloquently, without notes.  You speak effectively, without trying.

When the Spirit is upon you, it’s like time stands still.  You sense that you have become the mouthpiece of Almighty God for your hearers.  You know that in that hour, you are doing what you were born to do.

I believe that a congregation senses when the preacher is anointed as well.  This is just my opinion, but I’m not sure that any preacher is permanently anointed.  Rather, I believe the Holy Spirit anoints various preachers at various times for His own purposes.

While a pastor’s spiritual and intellectual preparation can set the stage for the Spirit’s anointing, the prayers of God’s people are vital to the anointing as well.

How many people have been praying for your pastor’s message this weekend?

And how much have you prayed for it yourself?

Finally, great preaching moves people emotionally and spiritually.  A sermon isn’t great just because it contains some Hebrew or Greek words, or because the pastor told a funny joke, or because he said something controversial.

A sermon is great if the truth of Scripture moves people’s emotions … and then prompts them to action.

And here’s the thing: the congregation won’t be moved if the preacher isn’t moved.

This means that great preachers are passionate people.  This doesn’t mean they yell or shout during their messages.  It does mean that they are excited about God’s Word and that their excitement is contagious.

The best preachers have suffered in life … enough to understand your suffering.  They know how to apply God’s Word to hurting souls.

And in my view, there just aren’t many preachers out there today who understand how to move people.

As I mentioned in my last article, I was greatly moved last Sunday.  When the pastor finished his message, I felt like receiving Jesus all over again.  While I don’t need to do that theologically, that’s the way I felt.

After the pastor was done preaching last Sunday, a staff member came up to introduce the offering.  He told this story:

One night, a woman was driving around with the intent of killing herself.  She happened to turn onto the street where the church property was located.  She looked and notice that the lights to one of the rooms was on.  She parked her car, found the room, and told the lady there, “Please give me a good reason why I shouldn’t kill myself.”

The lady listened attentively and talked the woman out of hurting herself.

Then the staff member said … and tears are welling up in my eyes right now … the reason we give is to keep the lights on for people like that.

That’s moving.  That’s real.  That’s motivating.

We need more of that … much more … in our churches today.

The greatest definition of preaching that I’ve ever heard came from the brilliant David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who preached at Westminster Chapel in London for many years.

He said that preaching is “logic on fire!”

If we could just hear more preaching like that, we wouldn’t be talking to ourselves so much.

We’d be talking more effectively to the lost world around us.

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Who is the greatest communicator you’ve ever heard?

It’s hard to pick just one, isn’t it?  There are many great speakers out there, both in the secular realm and in churches.

In 1986, I had the opportunity of attending COBE – the Congress on Biblical Exposition – and heard many of the greatest Christian preachers all week long … men like John Stott, Chuck Colson, Chuck Swindoll, J. I. Packer, Stuart Briscoe, Howard Hendricks, and many more.

We heard two sermons every morning and two sermons every evening.  It might sound like it was on the boring side, but it was extremely exciting for me.

I brought along a notebook and wrote down everything I could about the way these men preached.  For example, while all of them wore suits, I noticed that half of them buttoned their suit jacket, while half did not.

Packer told the best joke.  Hendricks didn’t use a note or miss a word.  Stott was stately but clear.  Swindoll was the most human.

I bring this up because I’ve been listening to a lot of preaching recently, and I haven’t been hearing many memorable sermons – until last Sunday.

I heard a great sermon last Sunday … and it made me wonder, “What constitutes great preaching?”

Let me offer several qualities of great preaching:

First, great preaching is always biblically-based.  Great preaching starts with God’s Word, not current events, or a pastor’s personal feelings, or the latest film or TV show.

Led by God, a pastor selects a text – while preaching through a Bible book, or a section of Scripture, or a topical series – and interprets the text honestly.  This means the preacher doesn’t make the text say more than it really says.

When an interpreter reads his own ideas into the text, that’s called eisegesis.  When an interpreter tries to understand the text in context and “take out” what’s there, that’s called exegesis.

For the most part, the pastors I’ve heard preach have given biblically-based messages.

But only a handful have really worked the text … a skill that’s all too rare these days.  By working the text, these preachers deal with Scripture as it’s written but point out connections that bring the text alive.

Second, great preaching features original stories.  Several Sundays ago, I attended a church where the pastor did not tell one story or use one illustration during his entire message.  Not one story!

Wasn’t Jesus above all a master storyteller?

As a listener, I won’t remember any exegesis three days later.  I might remember an exhortation or two.  But a good story will stay with me for a long, long time.

I heard some great stories last Sunday.

The pastor said that when he was 13 years old, he and some friends needed money to buy key chains, but they didn’t have any, so they printed fake lottery tickets and sold them door-to-door.  After they bought their prizes, the pastor came home and saw two police cars parked outside his house.  When he walked in – oblivious to what was happening – his parents and grandparents were waiting for him … and an officer told him to sit down.  The young man was given two choices: either go with us in the squad car to jail or go door-to-door, return people’s money, and admit you lied and defrauded them.

The pastor chose the second option.  He told us, “I wasn’t really given a choice as to whether I repented or not.  But you have a choice today … will you repent of your sin and receive Jesus?”

Love it.

The best storytellers – like Steven Brown, or Stuart Briscoe, or Bill Hybels, or Chuck Swindoll – don’t tell stories that they got out of a book, or that they found on the internet.  They tell stories that happened to them, which makes their storytelling both original and authentic.

It’s the difference between a singer covering somebody else’s song (think American Idol) and a singer singing a song he or she wrote from their own life.

When I took Sermon Prep in seminary, we were told to use an illustration – not always a story – every two minutes in order to hold people’s attention.  The best preachers not only tell stories you can remember, but they also tell stories where you can recall the point they were making.

Third, great preachers share with their hearers how they measure up to God’s Word.  If a preacher is telling me to tithe, the first thing I want to know is, “Do you tithe?”  If he’s telling me not to steal, I want to know, “How much of this sermon did you steal?”  If he tells me to love my enemies, I want to know if he’s ever tried to do that … and failed.

When I was first a pastor at age 27, it was much easier for me to preach certain parts of Scripture because I hadn’t yet dealt with those issues (like raising kids).  Now that I’m more than twice that age, I must confess there are parts of Scripture that I’ve tried to live out but don’t always do successfully.

To be authentic, a preacher needs to tell his congregation, “This is a tough part of God’s Word.  It’s not easy to live out.  Let’s share with each other when we have success in this area … and let’s encourage each other when we fail.”

Most of my preaching and writing heroes are authentic people before they’re public preachers … men like Don Baker, Chuck Swindoll, Archibald Hart, and Bill Hybels.  When Willow Creek was America’s largest church in the mid-1990s, I heard Hybels admit to having problems publicly that no one in the builder generation ever would have admitted.  I like preachers who aren’t image-conscious but integrity-conscious.

I’ll share a few more factors in great preaching next time.

What constitutes great preaching for you?

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The key to preventing conflict in a group – whether it’s your family, your workplace, your neighborhood, or your church – is understanding the role that anxiety plays.

This is what family sytems theory teaches.

In my last post, I mentioned a woman named Ethel who is undergoing overwhelming anxiety in her own life.

Then she comes to church on Sunday … hoping to receive encouragement and comfort … and discovers that the music director has left the church without explanation.

With her anxiety already sky-high, she begins doing what all anxious people do.

She complains … to anyone who will listen.

The church is now in a dangerous place.

There are two kinds of anxiety in a church: acute or chronic.

Acute anxiety is crisis generated.  When the giving is falling behind budget, or there’s an influx of new members, or there’s a major shift in lay leadership, acute anxiety appears.

In a healthy congregation, the events causing acute anxiety are acknowledged and addressed so the anxiety is eventually abated.  People regain their perspective and are able to control their reactivity.

But chronic anxiety is embedded deep within the church system.  It’s a condition that never ends.  Even the slightest change in a church triggers reactive behavior.

To obtain relief from this anxiety, chronically anxious members act out their anxiety by making accusations, exaggerating events, and spreading rumors.  They’re uncomfortable with the way they feel, and so attempt to displace their anxiety onto others.

Imagine that you’re a member of the church I mentioned above.  The music director is no longer on the staff, and Ethel comes to you after the service to complain.

She’s angry with the pastor for not getting along with the music director.

She’s angry with several people on the music team she suspects pushed out the music director.

She’s angry that the music director is gone because she liked both him and his music.

What should you do?

First, let Ethel know that you can’t do anything about her complaints.

Second, encourage her to speak with the pastor or board members and share her concerns with them.  In fact, offer to go with her to speak with them if necessary.

Finally, let Ethel know that while she has the right to speak with a leader about this issue, she does not have the right to complain indiscriminately to others in the church.

Because Ethel wants someone to listen to her, validate her feelings, and take away all her anxiety.

But if you agree with her complaints – and throw in a few of your own – you have assumed her anxiety and you are dangerously close to becoming divisive.

It is not divisive to disagree with church leaders mentally.

It is not divisive to disagree with church leaders to their faces.

It is not divisive to disagree with church leaders when talking to a friend or family member.

But it is divisive to pool complaints with others … because people who share gripes are ripe to form an unofficial coalition.  And if they can find a leader … or a complainer offers to take on the task … they will start meeting in private.

And then they will put the needs of their group ahead of the church and start making demands.

And then you have division.

Church consultant Peter Steinke writes:

“It is the chronically anxious individuals in the church family who are apt to conduct a ‘search and destroy mission.’  They will not hesitate to impose their wills on others.  They make hostages of their gifts, attendance, and participation.  They employ their stewardship as brinksmanship.  Their ultimate threat is to run away from home – transferring or terminating their membership if an action is not rescinded, a person is not removed, or a demand is not satisfied.  These tactics are effective in church families that place a premium on peace and harmony.”

If those who are upset about the departure of the music director would speak with church leaders directly, they might discover the real reason why he left … which might alleviate their anxiety.

But if they don’t engage the leaders, and decide to take matters into their own hands, they’ll just make a mess of things and trigger even more anxiety in their congregation.

If and when those with complaints share their concerns with the church’s leadership, the way the leaders respond is crucial.  The key to church health is how the leaders respond whenever anxiety surfaces.

The more threatened the leaders feel, the more the congregation can be disrupted.

The more calmly the leaders manage anxiety, the safer people feel.

According to conflict expert Ronald Richardson, it’s the job of effective leaders to help keep down the anxiety level in the emotional system of the congregation.

And effective leaders do this best by managing their own anxiety.

When my wife and I were first married, we lived behind a church.

One Sunday, we visited that church.

As soon as we walked into the worship center, you could cut the tension with a knife.  Seriously.

The pastor stood up and gave announcements for twenty minutes.  The church was making changes in their scheduling, and he wanted to explain the changes to the congregation.

Good move.

But he spent so much time explaining that he became defensive.  I could sense that his explanation wasn’t working.

It wasn’t long before he was looking for another job.

I don’t know who, if anyone, was the human culprit in that situation.  But I do know that unchecked anxiety assumed control of that church.  I could feel it … and I was an outsider.

People probably blamed the pastor for things.

He probably blamed some board members and powerbrokers.

But most likely, the leaders allowed anxiety to run amok … and when that happens, chronically anxious individuals either leave the church or try and push out key leaders … usually the pastor.

The lesson is simple:

If you’re a parent, keep the atmosphere in your home calm.

If you’re a boss, make sure and manage the anxiety in your workplace.

If you’re a church leader, do what you can to keep anxiety from spilling out into your congregation.

Because as anxiety goes up in an organization, conflict escalates.

But when anxiety goes down, so does conflict.

What have you witnessed along this line?

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In Simon and Garfunkel’s second album, Sounds of Silence, Paul Simon sang these lyrics with his partner on their song “Blessed” :

“Blessed is the stained glass, window pane glass,

Blessed is the church service, makes me nervous …”

In my last article, I mentioned that there are many elements during a worship service that can make people feel uncomfortable: the music, the greeting time, the sermon, the pastor’s voice … all kinds of things.

And I used the worship service as an example because it’s the most visible expression of what a church is about.  During the worship time, a church is at its best.  For a pastor, his whole week culminates in what happens during the 75 minutes or so when the congregation gathers together to focus on God.

But before, during, or after that worship experience, the anxiety level in a church can rise significantly.

And when anxiety rises, conflict escalates.

Let me give you an example.

Imagine that you attend a local church service this Sunday.

During the singing time – without introduction or explanation – a man who has cheated people out of investments sings a vocal selection … and most of the people in the church know his reputation.

How will people feel?  Most who know him will feel upset … angry … ticked off … even violated.  Why?

Because they instinctively believe that only people who are walking with the Lord should stand on that stage.

The anxiety level in that church is going to rise immediately … and people are going to react.

A few might get up and leave the worship center.

Others will write a scathing note to the pastor on their response card.

Still others will write a note to the person next to them (along the lines of “how can they let him sing?”) or whisper a similar statement instead.

After the service, some people will seek out the pastor or the music director to complain.

When the pastor gets home, he’ll receive some phone calls or emails from irate worshipers.

Because when people feel anxious, they react … and complain to others.

For years, I planned Sunday services every week with a team of gifted individuals.

We wanted people to focus on the Lord and the truth of His Word … but we didn’t want people to become complacent, either.

So from time-to-time, we’d take some risks during the service.

Most of the time, the risks worked.

But on occasion, they backfired … and I sometimes regretted what I did.

When I prepared the congregation for the risky element, they usually handled things with grace.

But when I sprung something on them without warning, some people became anxious and consequently reactive.

(I was once cast as Church Lady from SNL in a short drama during a Sunday service … and did a rap about sexual expression in marriage while wearing a dress.  It just so happened that my father-in-law … a pastor, missionary, and professor … chose that Sunday to visit our church.  Talk about anxiety!)

When a pastor springs a change on a congregation without adequate preparation, he is the cause of the anxiety floating through the church … and it’s the job of a leader to keep anxiety under control, not make it worse.

By the same token, though, even the slightest change in a church can send certain people into anxiety orbit.

Let me introduce you a woman named Ethel.

Ethel’s having a tough time in life right now.

Her husband lost his job, so the family is racking up debt.

Not only is her husband depressed, but he’s being tested for heart problems.

Ethel’s oldest son is on drugs, and can’t hold a job, so he’s living with his parents.

And Ethel feels overwhelmed trying to hold the family together.

When she goes to church on Sunday, she wants to know that God loves her, and that He will give her the strength and courage she needs to get through another week.

But when she arrives, she finds out that the worship director is no longer on the staff, and that someone with far less ability is now leading worship.

Because Ethel has been experiencing great anxiety at home, she can’t handle anymore anxiety at church … the one place she thought she could find peace.

So what does Ethel do with her anxiety?

Leave it at home?

Leave it with the Lord?

Leave it with her best friend?

No, Ethel starts complaining … to anyone who will listen.

The church is now in a dangerous place.


I’ll deal with that in my next article!

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I felt very uncomfortable in church last Sunday.

My wife and I are living in a new area and we’ve been looking for a church home.  Last Sunday, we visited a church several miles away that meets in a small converted warehouse.  Our daughter was with us because it was Mother’s Day.

There was much about the church that I liked.

They sang some praise songs I knew.

They acknowledged the mothers in their midst and gave each of them a gift.

They showed a cute video about Mother’s Day.

The pastor’s message was biblical and heartfelt.

But something bothered me … something personal.

When I brought it up to my wife and daughter in the car afterwards, they felt differently.

But I still felt uncomfortable … even anxious.

If I made that church my home, I’d remain anxious about this issue.  I don’t want to feel the way I do, but I do.

And this is how thousands of Christians feel every Sunday … at their home church.

They feel uncomfortable about:

*pews that are too hard

*theatre seats instead of pews

*the way the pastor dresses

*songs they don’t know

*songs they do know but have sang way too many times

*the style of the music

*the worship leader

*music volume

*the greeting time (“I don’t want to shake hands with people I don’t know!”)

*the pastor’s speaking voice (his accent, pitch, rhythm, clarity, volume)

*the pastor’s stories (too many, too few, too irrelevant)

*the pastor’s points (biblical?  relevant?  realistic?  meaningful?)

*the pastor’s body language (does he smile?  stand up straight?  wave his arms?)

When I leave a worship service these days, there are many criteria I can use to determine whether I’ll visit again:

*How much like me are the pastor and congregation?

*How well was the service done?

*How meaningful was the music?

*How wisely was Scripture used?

*Did God meet me there?

But increasingly, I find myself measuring a service by how the worship experience made me feel.

And one dominant question rattles around inside my spirit:

How comfortable did I feel in that service?

The more comfortable I feel, the more likely I am to return for a second visit … and eventually stay.

The more uncomfortable, the more likely I am to cross that church off my list and visit another one the following weekend.

Here’s how all this is relevant:

When most people attend a worship service, they want to feel comfortable there.

While they may be open to being challenged intellectually and spiritually, they wish to feel safe emotionally and socially.

If they visit a church once, and it feels comfortable, they may visit again … and again … and again … until they can predict that they’ll feel safe every time they attend.

And if the rest of their family has a similar experience, they will finally make that church their spiritual home.

But there are two wild cards that can mess things up and lead to conflict.

The first wild card is sudden or drastic change that makes them feel even more uncomfortable.

The second wild card is their own personal anxiety that they bring with them to church.

I will discuss both of these wild cards in my next article.

And I hope you feel comfortable until then!

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I meet all too few of them anymore.

Classy people.

What do I mean by “class?”  What are the characteristics of a classy person?

Let me briefly list four:

First, a classy person listens well.

I once knew someone who made it obvious that he wasn’t listening when we talked.  His eyes would continually dart past me.  He made me feel like he would rather be with anyone else than me.

But I’ve also known people who gave me their full attention when we conversed … as if I was the most important person in the world to them at the time.

One time, a former professor of mine – who wrote a classic book – actually took a whole page of notes when I talked to him about an important issue.

That’s class.

James 1:19 describes this kind of class: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry …”

Classy people listen much more than they talk.  They don’t interrupt people, or talk over them, or debate them.

Instead, they really, truly listen to the thoughts of others … and watch their body language as well.

Know anybody like that?

Second, a classy person returns personal messages.

When I was a pastor, if I called someone on the phone, they almost always called me back.  If I emailed them, they nearly always wrote me back.

But since I’ve been out of pastoral ministry, I’ve been disillusioned by how many Christian leaders fail to return calls or emails.

There was a time 15 years ago when I was open to a new ministry.  I heard about a group of people who wanted to start a church in an exciting location.  From what I heard, I would have been perfect for that sitution.

So I called the executive minister of that district to let him know I was interested.  No response.  I called again.  No response.

I was frustrated.

I mentioned my frustration to a pastor friend who told me that this leader was famous for not returning people’s phone calls.

And I wondered, “How did he ever get to be a leader with that kind of track record?”  (Was I supposed to drive hundreds of miles and camp on his doorstep to speak with him?)

I had to let that opportunity pass.

Sometimes churches wonder why they’re not growing.  But about half of all churches fail to have someone answer the telephone when people call.

By contrast, I know Christian leaders who know hundreds of people and yet are very responsive to those who contact them … and if they fail to respond in a timely manner, they apologize.

That’s class.

My rule-of-thumb as a pastor was to answer calls and emails within 24 hours.  I try to observe the same policy today.

And I’ve tried – but not always succeeded – to carry out Paul’s admonitions in Colossians 4:5-6:

“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.  Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer every one.”

Third, a classy person enjoys encouraging others.

Like all pastors, I’ve received my share of critical comments.  Sometimes I deserved a criticism, while at other times, I thought the critic was being vastly unfair.

I once knew a woman who thought the music at our church was too loud.  She continually wrote me notes demanding that I order the volume turned down.

I looked into the matter and solicited opinions from others.  (After all, my ears might not be representative of the church body.) We settled on a decibel level and stuck to it.

But whenever I saw her coming, I didn’t want to talk with her.  I did, but it wasn’t pleasant because she had become a chronic complainer … and she just couldn’t stop griping.

On the other hand, some people only contacted me when they wanted to say something positive.  One man used to call me at home on Sundays after I preached just to thank me for that day’s sermon.  Others would email me later on Sundays and thank me for the message I’d given that morning.

When some pastors are done preaching, they practically pat themselves on the back afterwards.  But I usually didn’t know if a message worked or not … but if several people whose opinions I respected told me it did, that made my week.

That’s class.

As Hebrews 10:25 says, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day appearing.”

Classy people continually encourage others.

Finally, a classy person cares for you when you hurt.

Many years ago, my wife and I were in pain over an issue, and we weren’t dealing with our feelings in a healthy manner.  A couple from our church invited us to their home for dinner.  After dinner, they just listened to us.  I don’t even remember if they made recommendations to us.

I just remember that they cared enough to listen.

Paul writes in Romans 12:15-16, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.  Live in harmony with one another.  Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.  Do not be conceited.”

Our friends mourned with us.  They let us know they felt our pain.

And in the context of their love, we felt safe.

That’s class.

When people in a church hurt, they sometimes seek out their pastor.

But when the pastor hurts, who does he seek out?

In every church, there are always a few people who sense when the pastor is hurting and seek to minister to him.

I thank God for those people … and feel close to them even when we haven’t seen each other in a long time.

Classy people are also thoughtful … and grateful … and kind … and gracious … and say and do what’s appropriate.

We need more of them in our world today.

Especially classy Christians.

How classy are you?

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Have you ever known someone who was just too nice?

Many years ago, my wife and I went on a long road trip with another married couple.  (The husband and I had become good friends.)  When you’re living with someone 24/7 – as TV’s reality shows reveal – you begin to see who people really are.  While we can be on our best behavior during programmed encounters – like at work or in social situations – people tend to demonstrate their true character when they’re under stress.

And nothing unveils character like a road trip.

During the trip, my wife and I disagreed with the other couple over several things.  For example, I wanted to attend church on Sunday morning, while they wanted to plow on and make time toward our ultimate destination.  In addition, the other wife continually corrected things that my wife and I said, making us gradually withdraw from conversation.

But my friend, who drove during much of the trip, never displayed any negative emotions.  He didn’t show any anger, or irritation, or regret.  In fact, he was close to being perfect in the way he behaved on that trip.

While he wasn’t perfect, he had mastered the skill of being nice.

And sometimes, being too nice is foolish.

In Mark Galli’s recent book, Jesus: Mean and Wild, the author guides the reader on a journey of the Gospel of Mark and shows us the real Jesus.

In his chapter “It’s Not Nice to be Nice,” Galli illustrates incidents of non-niceness in Jesus’ life and then asks this question: “If Jesus was merely loving, compassionate, and kind – if Jesus was only nice – why did both Jews and Romans feel compelled to murder him?”

Good question.

Galli goes on to write, “Christians are often fascinated with the Religion of Niceness because it appears to champion biblical virtues such as humility, forgiveness, and mercy.  This religion so permeates our consciousness that when we hear someone quote the second Great Commandment, the epitome of Christian ethics, we tend to hear: ‘Be nice to your neighbor, as you would have your neighbor be nice to you.'”

In other words, we’ve substituted being nice for being loving … but the two are not the same.

Galli goes on to indict us for the way we use niceness to avoid conflict:

“Thus we learn not to make a fuss in school, at work, in life.  We quickly discover that people respond positively to us when we are nice to them and negatively when we aren’t.  Since it feels good to be liked, we get addicted to being nice.  And this addiction skews our reasoning.”

Galli then tells about an Episcopalian church that he once attended.  Even though the church at the national level was debating the issue of homosexuality, Galli’s church chose to avoid discussing the issue altogether.  He says that their unspoken motto was, “Let’s just agree to disagree and go about our life together.”

But the issue wouldn’t go away, as most controversial issues don’t.  When the denomination installed a noncelibate homosexual as a bishop in 2003, Galli’s church was forced to discuss the issue of homosexuality.  He writes:

“We were shocked to discover that we had two different congregations – with radically different assumptions about the most basic things.  Since we had no track record of speaking the truth in love to one another, we found ourselves shouting at each other.  It was, to say the least, extremely painful, and it wasn’t long before the church divided.”

And then his next paragraph underscores why Christian leaders need to be more open in discussing areas of conflict in churches rather than just “sweep them under the rug”:

“Better to have addressed these issues years earlier in a frank and charitable manner – even though raising such issues would have broken the code of Episcopal decorum.  An earlier conversation would have left some feeling alienated, and some would have left.  But that would have been preferable to the congregation literally splitting in two later on.”

In other words, our Christian niceness makes us avoid conflict … which leads to even greater conflict later on.

For those of us who have been taught that “being nice” is the same as “being loving,” let me quote Galli one more time:

“Jesus was a sharp judge of character, and he employed anger even when he was aware it wasn’t going to do any good.  Why?  Because sometimes the most honest and truthful response to foolishness or evil is anger.  Jesus couldn’t have integrity if he was indifferent.  The person who is always nice, always decorous, always even-keeled is likely a person who ultimately does not care about what God cares about.”


God doesn’t call His people to be uncivil, or rude, or obnoxious.  We don’t emulate or honor Jesus that way.  But He does call us to address certain issues head-on, with strength and assertiveness.

When our son was small, our family lived on a semi-busy residential street.  My wife and I made it clear that he was not to go into the street for any reason.

One Saturday morning, he was playing with a ball, and it went out into the street, and he tried to chase it down … and almost got hit by a car.

My wife and I responded with anger and grounded our son for the day.  We made it clear to him that his disobedience could have cost him his life.  He had to stay in his room for hours and think about his folly.

We wanted our disciplinary measure to sting.

We let him out at dinner time and reiterated to him how much we loved him and why we confined him for the day.

We were’t very nice, but we were extremely loving.

And we were loving because we cared about him and his future enough to get upset and do something about it.

Where in your life are you avoiding conflict?

With whom are you dodging that tough conversation?

It’s all right to be nice in the way that you approach conflict.

Just make sure that being nice isn’t your goal in life.

And that being loving is.

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Much of the news today is about the announcement that President Obama made yesterday that he is personally in favor of gay marriage – the first standing President ever to do so.

(I wasn’t able to follow the news coverage yesterday because a lawnmower severed our cable.  Our house is on a golf course and the cable inexplicably was above ground and on the grass.)

While Americans discuss whether or not they agree with the President, I’d like to present a brief summary of why I cannot support gay marriage.

I am a follower of Jesus Christ before I am anything else.  Jesus is my Lord.  I do my best to live for Him every day.

I tend to be conservative politically, but I don’t take marching orders from any party, politician, or political philosophy.  In fact, I disagree with conservatives on issues like guns, caring for the poor, and the minimum wage, just to name a few.

In fact, I think it’s a disgrace when followers of Jesus superimpose their faith over their political philosophy and act like Jesus approves of all their political viewpoints.  The truth is that Jesus never addressed a host of political issues, including abortion, voting rights, or the war in Afghanistan … and it’s dishonest to act like He did.

And that includes homosexuality.  Jesus never said one word about it.

But He didn’t have to, because Jesus preached and practiced the Old Testament, and Scripture had already laid out God’s directives in the sexual realm: sex belongs inside a married heterosexual relationship, which rules out sex before marriage and sex outside marriage.

There was still a cultural consensus on sex in the late 1960s: sex belongs inside marriage.  By the late 1970s, the consensus was largely gone.

But Jesus’ teaching on this topic, found in Matthew 5:27-30, stands for all time for those who follow Him.  Jesus had the chance to say, “The Old Testament teaching on sex is wrong.  I’ve come to enlighten everybody.  It’s okay with God if you have sex with anybody at anytime!  Go for it!”

But instead of loosening God’s sexual standards, Jesus tightened them when He said that both physical sex and mental sex are wrong outside the bonds of heterosexual marriage.

And Jesus’ words are 180 degrees different than the thinking of our culture.

The same idea holds true when it comes to marriage.  Please read Jesus’ words carefully as recorded in Matthew 19:4-6:

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?  So they are no longer two, but one.  Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”

Please notice three things:

First, Jesus’ authority was Scripture.  He asked His audience, “Haven’t you read …” and then quoted from Genesis 2:24.

The authority for settling disputes for Jesus wasn’t a poll, or a politician, or personal feelings, or how His friends felt.

Jesus’ authority is what God designed … and what God felt … and what God said.

We may be able to disagree on our interpretations of baptism for the dead (1 Corinthians 15:29) and the meaning of Hebrews 6:4-6, but if Jesus was clear on anything, He was clear that Scripture is authoritative on marriage for His followers.

Second, Jesus went back to creation for His verdict on marriage.  He specifically refers to God’s original intent in marriage.  Paul goes back to Genesis 2:24 as well when he writes the church at Ephesus about marriage (Ephesians 5:31).

Genesis 2:24, according to Moses (the author of Genesis and the Jewish lawgiver), Jesus (our Savior, Lord, and Messiah) and Paul (a Jew who was apostle to the Gentiles), is the definitive text on marriage for both Jews and Christians.

You can try and reinterpret Genesis 2:24, but then you’ll have to try and reinterpret the explanations of Jesus and Paul as well.  It’s far better to admit and submit to the authority of Scripture than to try and fashion 3,500 years of Judeo-Christian teaching on marriage to fit a modern cultural or personal viewpoint.

If God wanted men to marry men and women to marry women – being an infinitely creative God – couldn’t He have done so from creation … before Jewish or Christian cultures came along?  And if He intended same sex marriage, couldn’t His position have evolved over the 1,500+ plus years that Scripture was written?

But it never did.  Scripture is consistent on marriage from Genesis through Revelation.

Third, Jesus specifies that God intended both parents and married partners to be of the opposite sex.  Jesus doesn’t mention two fathers or two mothers in a family, but one father and one mother.  (I realize he doesn’t mention one father or one mother, either, but we’re talking about God’s intent from creation.)  And He doesn’t mention two men or two women, but one man and one woman in marriage.

I realize the context here is marriage and divorce, not heterosexual and homosexual marriage.  But the basic principles of marriage for Christians come from both Scripture and the Son of God, and Jesus speaks more clearly here about God’s intent for marriage than anywhere else in the Gospels.

Gay marriage first became legal in Denmark in 1989.  Was everyone before that time misguided or unenlightened?  Until 23 years ago, not a single moral or philosophical system had ever supported the idea of gay marriage.  Were those thousands of moralists and philosophers wrong?

Today, most world religions oppose gay marriage, including Orthodox Judaism, the Mormon Church, Islam, all evangelical Christian groups, and the Roman Catholic Church.

If I am one of the millions of people in those groups who believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman, does that automatically make me a bigot, a neanderthal, or someone filled with hate?

But for me, this whole thing boils down to one question:

Who is my Lord?

If it’s Jesus, I must believe that marriage is intended to be between one heterosexual man and one heterosexual woman.

If it’s Barack Obama or George Clooney or my friends at work or my own feelings, I’ll go a different direction.

But I have no choice.  I invited Jesus into my life, not just to save me from myself, but to guide and direct my life.

So there are two words I can never say together when it comes to Jesus:

“No, Lord.”

Biblical Christians have not changed their position on marriage for two thousand years.  While the culture changes around us, we believe that to change with it would be disloyalty to Jesus Christ.

You’ll have to decide if you’re going to follow a politician, or a poll, or a political party, or your pals.

I’m going with Jesus.



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Who is the most spiritual person in any given church?

While I’m not comfortable with the premise embedded in the question, I have a reason for asking it.

The popular assumption is that the pastor is the most spiritual person in a church.  Although this may be true at times, my guess is that the pastor may not be Spiritual Person Numero Uno.

The pastor may look spiritual on Sundays.  He may wear a suit and tie or possess an angelic smile or wear a “Jesus” pin on his lapel.

But none of those are indications that he’s truly spiritual.

The pastor may sound spiritual on Sundays.   He may read Scripture with a deep voice or express compassion when he speaks or pronounce “God” a certain way.

But none of those are indications that he’s truly spiritual.

The pastor may know more Scripture than anyone else in the church … or more Greek … or more theology.

But none of those are indications that’s he truly spiritual.

When I was a pastor, I assumed that many other people were more spiritual than me.

They read Scripture more … or prayed more often … or more deeply.

They obeyed God more completely … or more spontaneously … or more readily.

They were humble, not proud … transparent, not inauthentic … others-centered, not me-centered.

Truly spiritual people don’t view themselves as spiritual at all.

Many Christians view Paul as the most spiritual Christian who ever lived.  He may have been, but Paul didn’t view himself that way.

He wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:9, “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”

He wrote in 1 Timothy 1:15, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.”

Line up all sinners in the world, Paul says, and I’m not first in line … I’m last.

Rather than the pastor, I’d nominate the following people for “most spiritual” in a church:

*The woman who attends a prayer meeting every week … even though she can barely walk.

*The man who does his work with the highest of ethical standards … even if he loses business.

*The woman who lives a simple lifestyle … so she can give more money to God’s work.

*The man who has lost a job and been treated unfairly … but continues to follow Christ.

*The woman who teaches Sunday School to third graders every week … even though they may never thank her.

*The man who quietly comes down to the church and fixes things … even though nobody ever sees him serving.

We don’t give awards for “the most spiritual person” in a church, and it’s a good thing.

We’d most certainly be wrong.

While man sees the outward appearance, only God sees the heart.

And my guess is that in most churches, many other people have more godly hearts than the pastor.

People don’t become pastors because they’re more spiritual than other people.

People becomes pastors because God calls them into ministry and gives them certain spiritual gifts (like teaching, pastoring, and leadership).

While a pastor needs to be spiritual … after all, you don’t want a spiritual adolescent to be your pastor … he doesn’t need to be the most spiritual … so let’s not expect him to be that way.

Let’s give our pastors room to mature in certain areas of their lives.

To me, the most spiritual person in a church is the man or woman who has followed Christ for decades … suffering many losses along the way … but still loves the Lord and desires to please Him.

The next time you attend church, the MSP in the congregation may not be the person bringing the message on the stage.

It could be the person who is running the sound … or the person who arranged the flowers … or the person who cleaned the worship center … or the person who is praying for the pastor’s message in the back room.

Someone other than the pastor.

So let’s see our pastors accurately.

They are called by God.

They have been given certain gifts.

They are to be spiritual themselves.

But they may make mistakes … and get some things wrong … and lose their temper on occasion … and fail to do something you think they should do.

But that’s okay, because after all …

There are other people who are more spiritual than your pastor.

So don’t expect perfection from him.

Don’t put him on a pedestal.

Don’t expect him to become angelic.

Pray for him.  Encourage him.  Love on him.  Write him a note of appreciation.

And most of all, let him be human.

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