Pastors, People, Passions, and Prayers

The following post is by Chuck Lawless, Dean of the Graduate School and Professor of Evangelism and Missions at Southeastern. 

Southeastern Seminary is committed to being a Great Commission institution. In fact, our motto is “Every classroom a Great Commission classroom.” Our focus, though, is not only on preparing international missionaries. We are just as committed to equipping leaders for the North American church. Via our academic degrees, our EQUIP training program, and our Southeastern Center for Pastoral Leadership and Preaching, we want to prepare the finest local church pastors – and it is to those current and future pastors I write this post.

Pastors, you are critical to the work of the Great Commission. Having been a church consultant for almost twenty years, I have never seen a strong Great Commission church without a pastor burdened for his neighbors and the nations. Simply stated, a DNA of brokenness over lost people usually trickles down from the top. Churches seldom weep over non-believers unless a pastor leads them there.

If your longing to get the gospel to the lost has waned, here are some simple suggestions to re-ignite your passion.

  1. Admit to God and to someone else where you are. Confession to God is the first step toward change, and accountability with others is a daily reminder of your renewed commitment.
  2. Ask someone to pray these texts for you: Ephesians 6:19-20 (that you will share the gospel boldly) and Colossians 4:3-4 (that God will open a door and help you speak the gospel clearly). If the apostle Paul needed folks to pray this way for him, surely pastors need this same support today.
  3. Study and preach on “grace.” Frankly, we often lose our passion for the Great Commission because we take grace for granted. Go back to the beginning of your spiritual journey, and let the Word magnify the grace of God again.
  4. At least once a week, take a couple of hours to see your community with God’s eyes. Drive around, praying as you go. If you see worship sites for other world faiths, grieve for those who worship false gods. Pray for the children and teens who attend schools you pass. Go to a local shopping center; sit and watch the shoppers. See them as sheep without a shepherd. Pray for them, knowing you may be the only person praying for those folks that day.
  5. At least once a week, take time to pray for an unreached people group around the world. Go to imb.org or www.joshuaproject.net, and learn about a people group. Open a map, and learn where they live. Read their story. Hear about the spiritual blindness that keeps them in darkness. Consider their final state if no one ever gets the gospel to them. To be consistent with this task, calendar it each week.
  6. Every day, make it a point to tell somebody something good about Jesus. Maybe that person is your spouse, a co-worker, or a friend. Or, perhaps it’s the convenience store employee or the bank teller. What you say may be as simple as, “I’m having a good day because Jesus loves me,” “I’m really glad to be a follower of Jesus today,” or “May I tell you how God answered my prayer?” The point is this: if you speak a good word about Jesus every day (even to believers as a starting point), telling the gospel story will become more of your DNA.

Pastor, implore God to renew your passion for Jesus. Pray fervently and work faithfully so others know Him. Your church will not catch the fire of the Great Commission unless the flame first burns in you.

Book Notice: “Elders in the Life of the Church”

Elders-in-the-Life-of-the-ChurchI am serving advance notice: Elders in the Life of the Church: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership (Kregel, 2014) is well worth the money spent to purchase it and the time spent to read it. Written by Phil Newton (newly minted PhD from SEBTS) and Matt Schmucker, the book provides biblical, historical, and practical reasons for leading the church by a plurality of elders.

The book, and the argument, unfolds in three parts. The three parts serve to address three interrelated questions, as noted by Mark Dever in the foreword: “Is it Baptist? . . . Is it biblical? . . . Is it best?” (pp. 10–11) Part 1 (chapters 1–6) contains discussion of the historical reasons for elders in the church. Newton and Schmucker ask the key question, “Why did Baptists commonly practice elder plurality in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, but moved away from it––at least in the United States––in the 20th century?” (p. 21) Part 2 (chapters 7–14) includes detailed exposition of four biblical texts that address the matter of church leadership, specifically elders. Part 3 (chapters 15–21) concludes the book with practical reasons and implications for a plurality of elders.

Phil Newton in chapter 1 (pp. 27–37) surveys the practice of Baptist churches in England and America, and the statements of historic Baptist confessions (e.g. the London Confession of 1644 and the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message), both of which affirmed the biblical and practical function of elders in the church leadership. Newton concludes that not all Baptists practiced a plurality of elders, but it is historically inaccurate to say that elders are “un-Baptist.” This historical argument is supplemented with a brief but lively testimony from Schmucker on Capitol Hill Baptist Church’s (CHBC) transition to plural eldership (pp. 59–63)––it can be done without blowing up a church! Ultimately, Newton and Schmucker argue, “Plural eldership serves to prevent one man from falling prey to the temptation of dominating a congregation.” (p. 80)

The basis for this very practical and godly rationale is found in Scripture. Newton argues this point in four key chapters (chapters 7, 9, 11, 13) on the four key biblical texts (Acts 20:17–31; 1 Tim. 3:1–7; Heb. 13:17–19; 1 Pet. 5:1–5). Discussing Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders (plural), Newton writes clearly on the mandate from Scripture:

The dangers we face in twenty-first century America are of the same nature as those faced by our first-century counterparts. The same Lord who directed the apostles to appoint spiritual leaders over the early church directs us to do the same in modern churches. When selecting those leaders, popularity must be laid aside and biblical qualifications emphasized instead. (p. 103)

Schmucker then discusses the failing then successful attempts at CHBC to move to a plurality of elders. Read with the previous chapter, this recounting ably illustrates how concern for the integrity and witness of a church’s leadership must stem from the Scriptures.

Such practical reflection is the real strength of the book. Part three contains several chapters from both authors, who discuss the process for transitioning from non-elder leadership to a plurality of elders. Chapter 19, entitled “Putting It All Together,” helps pastors and churches do just that. Newton gives sage advice: “So you are pondering the idea of making a change in your church structure later. If that is you, get started now. Focus on faithfully teaching Scripture to your church . . . The polity will follow in due time, because a congregation that loves the Word of God and desires to follow whatever the Lord has spoken will be open to plural eldership.” (pp. 212–13) This is not a book for those who wish to lord over a church, either for the sake of elders or against them. This is a book for careful reading and humble response.

Newton and Schmucker’s words are full of wisdom gained from Scripture and years of pastoral experience. Indeed, they are examples of what they argue for in this book. This makes them exceedingly qualified to write it. And they have written it very well. Any pastor, deacon, elder, or lay member of a Baptist church will benefit greatly from reading it. Students and pastoral interns will want to pour over it, discuss it, and apply it. Highly recommended.

“Are Pastor Search Committees a Sign of Great Commission Failure?”

* This article was run a few weeks ago but was “lost” in our blog conversion.  Many have written in trying to locate it.  Thanks for spreading the love.

 

Much has been said about the shrinking tenure of local church pastors in recent years. Pastors retire. They move on to “greener pastures”.  Some “feel called away”, while others are “run off”. Some get discouraged and leave the ministry altogether. And unfortunately some make unwise decisions that result in moral failure resulting in their removal. Among Southern Baptists each of these premature departures usually sets into motion a series of events facilitated by the all too familiar “Pastor Search Committee”. Many bemoan this trend accusing pastors of leaving their flock without a shepherd. Others note that the polity of churches has morphed to a point where deacons are “running the church”.  Regardless of who is at fault, everyone can agree that there is something amiss in our church leadership culture that must be addressed. I believe that this phenomenon is both curious and telling with regards to our identity as Great Commission focused Baptists.

Our identity as “Baptists” is founded upon the biblical concept of local church autonomy. And as “Great Commission Baptists” we should have as a core value the imperative of “making disciples” as our driving ethos. Our brothers and sisters in some other denominations may look to some external hierarchical leadership to provide a replacement for their departed pastor, but I believe we should be looking inside and among the local flock.  In fact, I don’t believe that it should be too hard to find a replacement within our churches – provided our churches are actually functioning as Spirit empowered disciple-making entities. That is one of the main reasons for the church, right?  If so, then the local church pastor should be always working to reproduce spiritual health through making disciples who “obey all that Christ commanded” (Mt 28:18-20).  Pastor/shepherds must be concerned with more than preparing a sermon or planning the next event; Pastors are charged with the task of “equipping the saints for the work of the ministry” (Eph 4:12).

I have served both as a missionary and as a pastor. As a missionary I understood that if I didn’t make disciples among the host cultures I was working in, that church planting would not be possible.  I was taught that when entering a cross-cultural mission field I should have an “exit strategy” that involved leaving in place indigenous local leadership.  My job as a missionary was to multiply disciples in such a way as to plant multiplying churches. No disciple-making, no real church growth – or church health for that matter. This missiological principle is not only true overseas. It’s true right here in our own North American churches. Pastors must begin to see themselves as missionaries and understand that their role is to build a church through making disciples who are empowered by the Presence of the Holy Spirit of God rather than creating dependency upon themselves.

1 Timothy 3:1 says that when a man aspires to the office of elder/pastor, he desires a good thing. That text has been abused in Southern Baptist circles because we have turned it into a check-list for pastor search committees to use in looking for the next pastor outside of their own local church. I believe that when Paul wrote that epistle to Timothy he intended that the churches in Ephesus develop men who are qualified, not merely look for leaders elsewhere who already met those criteria. In fact, SBC pastors would do well to both understand and communicate that every man in his church should strive to be qualified for the office, whether he ever holds the title or not. Pastors, like missionaries, should be working themselves out of a job. Or better yet, they should be working others into one.

I was once hired as an Associate Pastor by a search committee. A few deacons interviewed me. I “preached in view of a call” and was hired. I had recently returned from serving overseas because of a family health issue. So when I accepted the position it was with an understanding that I would only be there for a few years until our family health issue allowed us to serve internationally again. I took the first year that I was in this rural SBC church to establish relationships and invite people to apprentice in various roles.  I did this in the areas of Sunday School, Evangelism, Discipleship and Youth. By the end of the first year I had lay leaders whom I had invested in that had learned these ministries by serving alongside me. During my second year there I passed the baton to those lay leaders and then served them in a support and resourcing role. When my time at that church came to an end, each of those ministries was healthier than ever and were being led exclusively by local lay leaders. Unfortunately the next paid minister who came to the church felt threatened by this environment and dismissed all of those leaders telling him that he would take over.  Six months later he left for “greener pastures” and the demoralized lay leaders never really recovered.  I will be the first to say that I certainly didn’t do everything right during my time at that church. However, I loved the people enough to lead them toward dependence upon the Holy Spirit rather than me. The simple missiological thought that I had to replace myself drove the way I approached my ministry. What if every SBC pastor approached their ministry with the perseverance to stay the course for a lifetime, but with the humility of empowering the church to be healthy with or without him?

The fact that our first thought at the premature departure of a pastor is to form a search committee, I believe entails that there is a systemic failure of understanding of the Great Commission and of the role of the pastor/shepherd toward completion.  Let me be clear, I’m in no way saying that the formation of a pastor search committee is morally wrong.  Too often churches are left with a mess because the departing pastor built the ministry upon his presence.  What I am saying is that the single most important role of a local church pastor should be to raise up a church filled with qualified replacements. Local churches should be structured to cultivate disciples and that begins with the pastor making disciple-makers.  If the pastor must leave, there should be a clear pool of disciple-makers who have been equipped by him to assume leading the church. When there is no clear internal choice, it is likely owing to the fact that the departing pastor didn’t understand the 2 Timothy 2:2 mandate of his ministry.

This shift in understanding begins with the pastor. Pastor, when it’s time for you to go, where will your church look for a shepherd?  If you’ve done a good job, they shouldn’t have to look too far. If the SBC is to be known as  “Great Commission Baptists”, then that identity is going to emerge from local church pastors who begin to think and minister like missionaries.