Helping Pastors Fight for Holiness

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post on how a ministry environment can play a role in a pastor’s pursuit of holiness. In this post, I want to sketch out four things churches and pastors can do together to help cultivate an environment conducive to holiness, rather than burnout or disqualification (whether sexual, financial, leaving the faith altogether, etc.).

Practice a Plurality of Elders
You might read this and, at first, say, “Well, most churches whose pastors have had to resign have multiple elders!” Yes, they may have the elder tag assigned to others. They may have multiple people around the board table once a month. But often what happens is that churches only hold to this doctrine theoretically, but they do not biblically practice it. When happens all too often is that the paid pastor becomes the professional minister and/or the face of the church. However, throughout the New Testament, whenever elders are mentioned, it’s always plural and there is never a sense that there is one dominant person. To be sure, some elders may have different emphases or primary areas of oversight. Some may have understandably less time to give because of other employment outside the church. Yet, all elders/pastors/overseers are called to teach, disciple, and keep watch over the entire congregation in some fashio (Acts 20:28; Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:1-4).

Churches, are you surrounding your senior pastor with other called and qualified men who also do the work of a pastor?

Replace Yourself
The old apostle Paul, writing to the young Timothy said, “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). This is what Paul himself did with Timothy (1 Tim. 1:18). This means pastors should be working to both raise up new leaders and equip everyone in the church to do the work of ministry. When pastors are in the business of entrusting the gospel to others they 1) remind themselves that this is not a one-man show; 2) display to the congregation that their desire is to do what pastors are called to do, that is, equip the saints (Eph. 4:11-12); 3) put into practice the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers (everyone is a minister, not just the paid pastor); and 4) must step out of the limelight from time to time to give others the space and opportunity to lead. In the gospel, Jesus gives up himself and his glory to make his people look great—spotless and blameless—before the Father. Pastors should be doing the same for up-and-coming leaders and others in the church.

Pastors, are you willing to replace yourself and equip others to do the work of ministry so that you are not doing everything all the time?

Plant Churches
You will not find a single verse in the Bible that commands church planting. There isn’t a how-to chapter written in any New Testament book either. But after Jesus gave the command to make disciples (Matt. 28:19-20) and after the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, how did the apostles respond? The book of Acts tells us they went around the Roman Empire planting churches. And the rest of the New Testament corpus reveals that their work was dedicated to 1) advancing the gospel to new areas, and 2) building existing churches up in the gospel. The response of the apostles helps us see that the goal of Jesus’ church was to plant Jesus-worshiping communities of salt and light everywhere. When we are doing the work of church planting, we are forced in a position to have multiple leaders (#1 above) and replace ourselves (#2 above). Church planting reminds us that our churches are not about one man who is so dynamic or visionary or available or talented, but about the God-Man, Jesus Christ and the power of his gospel.

Churches and pastors, do you plan to spread the gospel, raise up new leaders, and take the focus off human personality and giftedness by planting new congregations?

Treasure the Gospel
This is, of course, something that supersedes and undergirds everything else. Without treasuring the gospel, everything else just becomes a pragmatic method. Paul said, “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that i received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). How would Paul finish well? Testify to the gospel of the grace of God. This means pastors will be held accountable not mainly to ministry results and performance, but to growing in Christ and the grace of the gospel.

Churches and pastors, do you treasure the gospel more than anything else? Is your goal to build a great brand for the church or name for the pastor or testify to the grace of God in the gospel?

Fight the Good Fight
There’s no cure-all for pastors winning the fight for holiness. We can’t manufacture results and I don’t mean to imply that at all. However, if churches and pastors ban together to do these things, by God’s grace, I think we’ll see more pastors finish the fight of faith and not flake out early. These are three things I want to see become staples in my pastoral service. Without them, the possibility for loneliness and vulnerability is too great.

What do you think? What other things would you add to help pastors fight for holiness?

Rejoicing in a Kingdom that Cannot Be Destroyed

All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide (Abraham Lincoln, “Lyceum Address“).

On April 28, 1836, a mob of white men lynched Francis McIntosh, a young black man, by burning him alive in St. Louis. Less than two years later, on January 27, 1838, Abraham Lincoln, only 28 years old, used that event as the “text” for one of his earliest speeches. The quote above struck me as I read this speech out loud to my four year old daughter the other day. At the time, I was oblivious to its context. Today, it hits like a ton of bricks.

In light of the horrific and evil attacks against black Americans this year, I found Lincoln’s words eerily prophetic. Yet Lincoln’s warning of civic suicide, unbeknownst to him, goes beyond race-relations. There are other symptoms that reveal this nation is not progressing, but become more and more self-destructive. If your eyes are open, the signs are hard to miss.

At the same time, we do rightly celebrate being a free nation this weekend. Freedom is a good thing. At the same time, I can’t help but grieve because our civic freedom has given us opportunity to be slaves to things far worse than political bondage. This will lead, in Lincoln’s words, to suicide.

This American experiment will not last forever. It can’t. Like every other kingdom this world has seen, destruction will be our lot. American is not the exception. Why? There’s another Kingdom that exists, and though unseen, it’s real and it cannot be destroyed. And it will overcome all the other kingdoms of this world. And when you see and enter this Kingdom, the King—his name is Jesus—will set you truly free in ways you cannot even imagine. Then, no matter whether your earthly country thrives or dies, you can rejoice all the more because you belong to an abiding and better one.

Pastoral Environment and the Fight for Holiness

My heart was deeply saddened yesterday when I heard about another resignation of a well-known pastor of a mega-church. This time, it was Tullian Tchividjian, pastor at Coral Ridge in Miami. This came about, he said, because of ongoing marital issues. His wife admitted to adultery. He developed an “inappropriate relationship” with someone in the aftermath of the news from his wife. God is grieved by this, that church will be greatly affected, and two people (Tullian and his wife) must deal with the destructive effects of sin. It breaks my heart. But I believe God is gracious and he can bring redemption to the darkest valley. I pray he does.

I’ve pondered this story a bit more deeply than other readers perhaps. I have a different perspective. Why? Because I’m a pastor.

Reading this as a pastor, I’m looking under the surface. I’m wondering what else was going on. I’m thinking about how it might have been avoided. I’m trying to see themes and trends and triggers that are plain as day in hindsight and might have signaled something like this was coming.

Now, hear me clearly, adultery is a human problem. People sin. Pastors are not exempt. What’s more is that sinners are responsible for their sin. We can’t shift blame elsewhere. Because of the gospel, we can own up to our sin and confess it, knowing that we have an advocate before God, Jesus Christ the justifier of the unjust. So yes, we are responsible for our sin, but the good news of the gospel is that Jesus takes responsibility for our sin on the cross.

And yet, as we learn to deal with failure, we learn that life is complicated. Sin is complicated—adultery is complicated—and there are always multiple factors and variables in play. This is a tension that, as Westerners, we would probably rather not acknowledge much less deal with.

While adultery is sin—and sinners are called to repentance—this does not mean environment is unimportant. You can’t make a plant grow but you can improve the environment, the conditions, so that the seed has everything it needs to flourish. No rain? Find a hose and a sprinkler. The same goes for people—including pastors. A quality, genuine, redemptive environment doesn’t guarantee spiritual fruit. But by God’s grace, it helps.

This leads me to ask: was there something about this particular pastoral environment that made holiness more elusive? More specifically, was there something about Tullian’s mega-church environment that was not conducive for growth? Holiness is hard because of our sin nature—the Spirit of God and the flesh oppose each other to keep us from doing what we want (Gal. 5:16). It takes work (Phil. 2:12-13). Throw us into a garden where the conditions are not optimal—or even good—and growth can be “more elusive.”

In Tullian’s case, he was in a mega-church environment that exalted him to celebrity status. Christianity Today, reflecting on what brought Tullian to the church in the first place, wrote, “[Coral Ridge] elders hoped that Tchividjian’s youth, vision, and name could revive the fortunes of the aging congregation.” This mega-church environment centered on the lead pastor’s personality, charisma, preaching ability, and energy. Sadly, this isn’t unique to this church. It’s a mega-church trend. Building around a dynamic, visionary, CEO-type. (This is what happened with Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill, though with a different issue and over a longer period of time.) No human can bear this burden. So the pastor grows into a celebrity and becomes isolated and beyond accountability. And when this happens, he’s vulnerable.

This is not just a mega-church trend. What about churches in different contexts that are smaller and relatively unknown? Like many mega-churches, a small church could still be centered on the pastor. Maybe not his personality or charisma or vision, but his ministry credentials, his administrative skills, his ability to be available to everyone all the time (or his sense of guilt to be so). He does all the preaching, all the counseling, all the hospital visits. He is “the minister,” the one “doing ministry.” No human can bear that burden. So the pastor becomes desperately needed yet at the same time, curiously, he’s lonely. He becomes isolated. Now, he’s vulnerable.

I don’t know all the reasons for pastoral failures when it comes to adultery or “inappropriate relationships.” The sinful nature is, of course, bent on desiring other things above Jesus. We are fighting not against flesh and blood here and I’m not making any excuses because sin is sin, sinners are responsible for their sin, and we repent and trust that Jesus has taken care of not just our sins, but us.

But in the North American church, we seem to be quite adept at centering ourselves around our leaders. We cultivate pastoral environments that make holiness elusive for pastors—the people who are to take the lead in modeling a gospel-shaped life. And anytime we center our communities of faith on a pastor—even a very good one with much to offer the church—and not the Person of Jesus Christ, that pastor is doomed to fall.

We (pastors), too, are great sinners in need of a great Redeemer and we need help. Surely there is something churches (including the pastors) can do to help pastors fight for holiness, see fruit, and finish the good fight of faith. In my next post, I’ll look to the Scriptures to find out just how we can do this.

An Open Letter to LeBron James

Dear LeBron,

It might be hard to believe, but in this social-media-driven age, I have never written an “open letter.” Congratulations, I guess, for being the recipient of my first one. Admittedly, I find the “open letter” kind of strange and awkward. After all, this is addressed to you and I’m (almost) pretty sure you will never read it. I would guess most open letters are not read by the person to whom they are addressed. Maybe six people will read this one. Maybe 600. I don’t know. But I’m still addressing it to you because otherwise, well, it wouldn’t be an open letter.

After game five of the Finals on Sunday, you said in the postgame interview, “I’m confident because I’m the best player in the world.” How can we blame you for being honest and authentic? You released those words so effortlessly, so calmly, like you believe it. And I’m sure you do. It would have been dishonest of you to say otherwise, of course. Everyone knew you were right. You are, in fact, the best all-around basketball player in the world at this time. Maybe ever. That’s quite a feat–one that should bring you a great sense of accomplishment. You have worked hard, as you said. You’ve earned it.

But I do wonder. Are you really confident? And are you confident because you are the best player in the world? I ask for the obvious reason: if you have to sell us on the fact that you are the best player in the world, then perhaps you are trying to convince yourself of your own value and worth and ability. To put it bluntly, I wonder if you were trying to justify your entire existence. But not to us. To yourself.

You probably don’t see it this way. And I understand that, but hear me out. We all know you are the greatest. We don’t need you to tell us. We were already convinced. Your play has convinced us. You are, truly, justified in our eyes. So why the sales pitch? Why the need to voice it? Why the justification?

It’s natural for me to pose this question, of course. You are down 3-2 in a best of seven. You are playing at such a high level, scoring more, passing crisper, rebounding harder than anyone on that floor. You are a beast and a ballerina–at the same time–on the floor. All-stars stand in awe of you. And yet it might not be enough. You very well could lose this series–tonight even. The best player in the world could be on the losing end of things–at least this year. And, if I know anything about the human heart, you will continue to try to convince yourself that you are enough even (especially?) in defeat.

You should know, LeBron, that I’m not above this. On a daily basis, I attempt to justify my existence to others. I want to show others that I am enough. These people don’t write articles and blogs and op-eds about me (thank God!). But I still go about the sales pitch. I defend myself. Blame shift (I’m very skilled at this one, ask my wife). Exaggerate my virtues. Hide my vices. I make my case like a seasoned attorney but deep down, in my sane moments when I’m honest, I realize that I’m not trying to convince a jury of my peers–my wife, my kids, my parents, my friends, my enemies. I’m trying to convince me. Your sneakers may be a bit bigger than mine, but rest assured, I’ve walked in your shoes. I’m not calling you out for something I’ve never done or acknowledged. My words have just never made it on SportsCenter.

When a person resorts to self-aggrandizement and self-promotion, everyone else cringes. We find it ugly. We might not be able to put our finger on specifics, but we realize it’s not meant to be that way. There’s something very attractive and beautiful about someone who has attained mastery, or near mastery, of some skill or subject and yet is able to go about his business with a quiet, dignified humility. This person knows who he is. He knows his worth and value. He doesn’t need to defend or sell or give witness to himself. Above all, he knows that if he were to extol his greatness, it would diminish his achievements. I want to be more like that.

If this series doesn’t go the way you want, you could say, “Wait ’til next year.” That’s the great thing about sports, right? There’s always next year. Until there’s not a next year. You won’t play forever. Nobody does. Eventually, your body will break down and you will be a shadow of your “prime” self. (My athletic prime lasted for about four and a half innings playing spring baseball as a sophomore in high school. But I digress.) You will have to walk away from the game. Like Michael. Like Magic. Like Larry. You will be the best ever, probably, but walking away nonetheless. And in the end will you be enough? That’s what this is really about: is LeBron James enough for LeBron James?

There is a way to know you are enough. There’s a better way than the road of self-aggrandizement and self-justification and self-promotion. Everything in this world is finite. It ends–games, seasons, careers. Money and possessions. Family and relationships. Even life. It all goes away. Everything in this world, if we put our hope in those things, will leave us feeling unsatisfied and incomplete. Therefore, if we seek to convince ourselves, or others, that we are enough based on things that fade away (i.e. being the best basketball player in the world) we’ll be disappointed. Every time.

The things I’ve said about you, about me, are true of everyone. We are all trying to convince ourselves of our worth. Everyone is trying to justify their existence. And that turns in to a radical rebellion against God. There was a great thinker back in the fourth and fifth century named Augustine and he prayed once to God, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” He’s getting at something profound. We were made for sweet relationship with God, finding our identity and sense of worth in him. If we find it elsewhere, we go about the sales pitch.

An author named C.S. Lewis once wrote, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” LeBron, you were made for another world–a great world. A world beyond your wildest dreams. A world where you can have rock solid confidence based not on your performance on the court or in life but based on the performance of Another.

You see, LeBron, there was one Man who walked this earth and had mastered everything. Life. Temperament. Personality. Love. Conversation. Forgiveness. Mercy. Justice. He got it all right. Nothing imperfect or amiss. And yet, curiously, he never pointed to himself. He didn’t self-promote. He never had to justify himself before others. It’s like he knew who he was and found his identity–his sense of “enough-ness” in something other than himself and what people thought of him. And people, remarkably, found this refreshing and beautiful.

This Man? His name is Jesus.

And this sad story of humanity is why Jesus entered the picture. Because we’ve committed this kind of treason against a good Creator, we should pay. We stole glory and praise and applause from God. That’s treason! But Jesus takes our place. He’s the perfect one. The Master. The only one who had it all figured out and actually deserved to self-promote! He deserved to be praised and worshiped! And yet, he entered the picture to pay the penalty for us on a Roman cross. On that cross, he took the punishment we deserved for stealing from God. And at the same time he took the punishment, he did the unthinkable: he promoted us to the Father. He took the blame in our place, and he gave us everything he deserved: innocence, perfection, righteousness, and, yes, the approval, acceptance, and praise of God the Father. What more could we ask for? This is so much more than being the best basketball player, or husband or father or employee or anything, can give us.

LeBron, as much as I can in an awkward open letter, I invite you to bank your life on this Man, Jesus. If you do, there will be freedom and joy and true confidence that, no matter what, you are loved and accepted and welcomed and approved. So then when your back is against the wall–like tonight in game six, for example–you can be the hardwood beast and ballerina God made you to be, but with a quiet, dignified humility knowing that what Jesus has done, not what you do for yourself, him, or anyone else, is more than enough for you.

I wish you the very best tonight.

With the utmost respect and sincerity,

James Pruch
Clifton Park, NY

Everyday Talk, Everyday Discipleship

My wife and I live with two non-Christians, and a third is moving in this fall. These people don’t know much about Jesus. Their affection for Jesus is, practically, non-existent. When we talk about Jesus or pray or sing, they do not fall on their faces confessing their sin and praying for God’s Spirit to rain down mercy on them. Still, we’ve welcomed them as genuine members of our family. There are good days and bad days, but we love these people. Their journey to Jesus is a process. They have stony hearts and rebellious wills hell-bent on seeking their own glory, not God’s. They seek their own good, not that of others. We pray that someday they believe in Jesus and see transformation. But man alive, right now it’s not pretty. In fact, it can be downright unbecoming some days.

Can you imagine living with people like this?

Chances are, you do.

If you are a parent.

Our two, soon-to-be-three, non-Christian housemates are our beloved children. They are full-fledged members of our family, cherished and treasured above all else. Yet they did not come out of the womb singing “Just As I Am.” They aren’t Christians yet. They are members of a covenant household—Carly and I belong to Jesus—but they need conversion, just as we did at one point.

Having the perspective that we don’t just have two children but two non-Christian children (and another ready to move in), changes everything. Everything becomes evangelism and discipleship. Every conversation is a gospel conversation. Every failure or success is a moment for correction or instruction or encouragement or training. If and when our children do cross over from unbelief to belief in Jesus, this everyday and everything discipleship will not stop, but continue on quite organically.

If Carly and I are going to lead our non-Christian children to Jesus, it’s going to happen in the mundane, average, everyday stuff of life. A conversation here, a conversation there. While we walk and play and talk and read stories and watch movies and eat meals and drive and kiss ouchies and wipe away tears. Over and over and over again. It’s not going to be a one-time event or a once-a-week lesson at Sunday School. Those things can help, but it’s the everyday talk that will be the primary influence in our home. Deuteronomy 6:4-25 shows us the power of “everyday talk” in the home.

As parents in a big and fast society this is hard to handle. We want Chia Pet discipleship: after a few weeks gospel seeds start to sprout, the shekinah glory comes down, and our children are changed on the spot.

The reality is that it happens over a long period of time with lots of short, meaningful, gospel conversations that produce a lifestyle of discipleship

It happens on the way to Sunday worship, when Bailey asks me if God hears loud noises. I say he hears everything, so Bailey asks, “Is God in my heart?” Perhaps Bailey knows, deep down, there are things going on in her heart that no one knows and if God is in her heart, surely he’d “hear” those “noises,” too. Whatever the case, I say, “God is in your heart if you trust Jesus and love him.” Back to the radio. “Can you turn it up?” And we drive on.

It happens at the grocery store. Bailey makes a comment about the color of someone’s skin, simply noticing she looks different—a little darker—than we do. Everyone is made in the image of God and Jesus died for all people, not just the white ones. Back to veggies and ice cream and bread. And we walk on.

It happens when I’m unbecoming and selfish and hell-bent on seeking my own glory, and I turn to my blonde 24-month-old Hope and say, “Sweetheart, what Daddy said and did was not okay. Please forgive me. I need Jesus just like you.” Kiss. Hug. And we play on.

This is how discipleship happens. Look at the birds of the air. The grass of the field. Notice the sower. Consider this mustard tree. Do you see that mountain? Carly and I aren’t great at this. We probably aren’t even good at it. But we are learning and growing. We—the disciple-makers—are also being made, being changed. And it’s our prayer that, over time, by God’s sovereign grace, our everyday discipleship makes a few everyday disciples of Jesus right in our home.