Life Ministry

Your Leadership Priority: Relax!

One of my privileges as a pastor is to help small group leaders thrive. Over the past few weeks, I’ve thought about this question: “What is the one piece of advice you’d give to a small group leader?” What’s your answer?

Here’s mine: Relax!

Of course, be faithful to the Scriptures, preach the gospel, love people. Yes. Yes. Yes. Do that! But underneath these leadership tasks, are you depending on God or yourself? For so many of us who have a history in the American church of leading small groups, we are conditioned to be pressured and create pressure. We think that the success or failure of our group stand or falls on us—the leader. If the group seems to do well over time, we are told, it is because we are a good leader. If the group eventually crumbles, we have an inward sense that we are to blame. We may not be able to put a finger on it and no one may say it explicitly, but deep down, we have a sense of personal failure and shame.

Most of this arises out of a good intention: we truly desire to lead well. We want to our groups to thrive. We want people to encounter Christ through his word in community by the power of the Holy Spirit. But it can quickly become very self-absorbed: we become prideful if the group succeeds; we despair if it fails.

The Apostle Paul had a drastically different approach to leadership. In 1 Corinthians 3, he address the problem of division in the church. The problem there was that the Corinthians felt a certain allegiance to some leaders and not others. This created strife and division. Our application comes in when Paul describes what leader in the church is and does:

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth…For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building (vv. 5-7, 9).

Paul understood that leaders are servants. He’s saying that you can’t put too much stock in a leader’s ultimate significance because they are just workers on God’s team! And because of that, the health and growth of a group (in Corinth’s case a whole church) did not depend on the leaders. It depended on God. God is the one who grows a church or small group. It’s not personality or knowledge or curriculum or charisma or baked goods (and I’m all for baked goods) that nurture and grow a small group. It’s God.

And if that’s the case, then we can and must relax.

The gospel, not a small group leader, is the power of God for salvation (Rom. 1:16). And it’s the gospel that gives reason to rejoice and relax because it frees us from both pride in success (because I am more sinful than I could ever believe) and despair in failure (because I am more loved by God than I could ever hope). Because of this new gospel reality, we are free to be servants, not saviors, knowing that God is making things grow right in front of our eyes.

Of course, relaxing doesn’t mean we don’t put forth effort. We still evaluate our leadership calling, abilities, and passions as we seek to develop. And just because a group’s well-being doesn’t ultimately depend on us doesn’t mean we aren’t responsible if we are lazy or ungodly or foolish. We are. But Paul’s words are a grace-drenched rebuke meant to stir our hearts to relax and depend on God. Ultimately, we can’t make things grow. God does.

“Relax!” is something I’m learning over and over again through God’s word and personal experience. It’s a hard, but good, lesson. We aren’t that powerful or important! And truth be told, it’s strangely comforting to realize.

Ministry Theology

My Candidating Sermon at Grace Chapel

For those of you who are interested, you can listen to my candidating sermon from June 16, 2013, at Grace Chapel. I preached on “Christ and Christ Crucified” from 1 Corinthians 2:1-5. I have included the full manuscript text below.

“Christ and Christ Crucified”
1 Corinthians 2:1-5
James Pruch
June 16, 2013

One of the real dangers in life is focusing on nice things, rather than essential things. Vacations are nice, but work is essential. Ice cream is nice, but whole grains and meats and vegetables are essential. Recess is nice, but learning how to read and how to do math is essential. The thing about nice things is that they are usually not bad! They are good things, and that’s why it’s so easy to get sidetracked. If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that our tendency is to focus on the nice things rather than the essential things.

I think the same is true in our Christian lives. There is a great temptation to focus on what is nice, but not essential. In our own lives we may focus on getting our devotions done, but neglect actual communion with God. We may focus on understanding the doctrines of redemption, but ignore the Redeemer. We may strategize and plan, while forgetting God is ultimately in control. We may think that our particular way of doing church or music or small groups is what brings people to Jesus, rather than the power of God.

In the first century, the church was tempted to forget the essential things in favor of other things. Our passage today is what I call a calibration text. It adjusts us to the standard of the gospel. It is a tuning text. It tunes us to the melody of the gospel. It is a template text. It conforms us to the shape of the gospel. The simple point of our passage is this: the cross must remain central in our lives. In this first part of 1 Corinthians, Paul uses “the cross” as a kind of summary term for the gospel. And he wants us to know that if the cross is not central, then we will begin to boast in ourselves and not in God.

The Context of Corinth
Let’s start out with a bit of context. Paul wrote this letter to a group of Christians in a tumultuous and divided church in a city called Corinth in Greece. The Corinthians are quite the bunch. If you think your family or church has problems, read Corinthians and be encouraged. You name a problem, and they have it. One guy is sleeping with his step mom. Christians are suing each other. People are getting drunk at communion. You can’t make this stuff up! The crazy thing is that the Corinthians think it is good and wise to one-up and dominate and live as you please. But you know what’s crazier? Paul loves them—I mean he really loves them! He calls them saints. He thanks God for them. He even says: “[God] will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1:8-9). That is a great promise for the church in Corinth!

After this great promise, we learn about some division in the church. People apparently have their favorite preachers and are bragging about who baptized them. It’s like the guy who was baptized by Paul thinks he’s varsity and everyone else is junior varsity. The Corinthians were trying to build up their personal faith and corporate community by calling attention to the wrong things.

Paul uses this opportunity to talk about what is most essential to him: the gospel. In chapter 1, verse 17, he writes, “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” The problem is that if Paul were to use his ability and stature as “THE APOSTLE” with the Corinthians, he would not be gaining converts to Jesus, but converts to himself. It’s not that baptism is unimportant to Paul. It’s not that preachers are insignificant. They just aren’t essential. They are good and nice, but when they things become essential things, we get sidetracked.

Well, this is a candidating sermon, and I picked this passage for a reason. In this passage, Paul talks about what is most essential in his life and ministry, and here I see what I want to be essential in my life and ministry. So this morning we are going to look at the essence and goal of gospel ministry, and then I will give a few applications for myself as your associate pastor candidate and one application for you all as a congregation.

The Essence of Gospel Ministry
Let’s start with the essence of gospel ministry. First, Paul tells us what gospel ministry is NOT. Look at 2:1. Paul writes, “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.” Paul wants to be clear: his goal is not to be “wise” in his ministry in Corinth. What does he mean by that?

As an ancient Greek culture, the Corinthians highly valued slick rhetoric: speech that was articulate, reasoned, and manipulative in nature. They valued professional public speakers who were audience pleasers—they spoke for the entertainment of the hearers. They were self-promoters who exalted their knowledge, style, and skill. So Paul is saying that he did not come to Corinth to show how great of a public speaker he was. He did not come to Corinth so he could boast in his ability. In other words, he did not come with “human wisdom.” Something to remember—if you hear a preacher talk more about himself or popular culture of the day than Jesus and his Word, he is cultivating human wisdom.

Why does Paul reject human wisdom? In 1:28-29, Paul writes, “God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before God.” So, Paul rejects human wisdom because human wisdom uses ability or accomplishment to boast before God. This kind of wisdom—human wisdom—is insufficient because it calls God’s redemption “foolish.” In 1:18, Paul says, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

Why is this message foolishness to human wisdom? Because the cross is an emblem of self-sacrifice, self-denial, and self-forgetfulness. Human wisdom boasts in itself. Think about your own life. When do you boast in your abilities or accomplishments? Do you exalt your work, your studies, your athletics, your talents, your power, your popularity, your morality, or something else?

You know, in the end, human wisdom is just another form of legalism. Legalism is using any set rules to gain favor with God or people. It sets up a system of salvation by works. It says, “You have to accomplish this then you will have value!” There are only two results for this kind of system: pride or fear. If you are powerful, rich, smart, or sexy, then you will be a proud person because you will have done well for yourself. If not, you will be a fearful person because you will have failed.

So gospel ministry is not human wisdom. What we find out from Paul is that the gospel and his ministry are utterly different from human wisdom. They tell an entirely different story.

So let’s turn to what gospel ministry is. In v. 2, Paul tells us why he did not come to Corinth with human wisdom. “Because I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

Now, Paul does not forget about the resurrection in this passage. He spends a lot of time talking about that in chapter 15. He focuses on the cross here because, to the world, it seems like a foolish thing for a Savior and King to win his victory through death and defeat.

“Christ and Christ crucified” means that Paul wanted the cross to be the hub, the epicenter, of his life and ministry. Everything he taught and practiced would conform to the gospel of Christ crucified. It meant that he would speak plainly about who Jesus is and what he did in our place without any kind of human manipulative tactics. He would not be determined to self-promote but to promote Christ. Paul decided he would only do what best served the gospel of Christ crucified, regardless of people’s expectations.

It also means that Paul would focus on Jesus’ substitutionary death when communicating how we can relate to God from the beginning to the end of our Christian life. You know, we tend to forget the cross as we mature in our faith. It shouldn’t be this way. The cross should not get smaller—as if we graduate from needing it! The cross and God’s grace should get bigger! As we mature, we should realize how awful sin is and how gracious God is to save sinners like you and me. We should stand in awe that a holy and righteous God poured out his wrath on his Son so that we might be accepted and loved by him. Whether you are two days or two decades into your Christian journey, when you sin, you don’t simply feel bad and try harder. You gaze upon the beauty of a crucified Savior and say to God, “Thank you for the wonderful cross!” That’s what it means to keep the cross central.

Can I stop and be vulnerable with you for a moment? Can I confess that I am confronted and convicted by this? There are times when I speak in ways to impress rather than be helpful. There are times when I have spoken or acted in ways so that I look better than I actually am. There are times when I forget the cross. Have you ever done that? When this happens, we rest in ourselves, not Jesus. This is what Paul rejected. He did not come to Corinth to show how great he was. He did not come to Corinth to belittle the cross. He came to brag about Jesus!

Now, look at vv. 3-4. Paul writes, “I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.” There are two questions I think need to be answered here.

The first is: what does it mean for Paul to be in weakness, in fear, and much trembling? It probably means that Paul had a healthy understanding of his responsibility as God’s messenger of grace. Paul realized that fruitful ministry would only come if the Spirit was at work. If ministry was all strategy and planning and personal ability, then Paul would not have needed to fear because he was the best-trained apostle (he was a “Pharisee of Pharisees)! Also, it meant that Paul came not as a professional speaker to entertain, but as a wounded pilgrim who had endured tremendous amounts of suffering and was prepared to call others to a cross-shaped life. Do you cherish your weaknesses? Do you realize that in weakness God shows his grace all the more? I know this is something I need to learn more and more each day.

The second question is: if Paul’s preaching was not in persuasive words of wisdom, then is it wrong to try to persuade someone to believe in Jesus? Well, I am trying to persuade you right now, so I hope it’s okay! We know from the entire letter that Paul is writing to persuade the Corinthians of the gospel. Acts 18:4 tells us that while Paul was in Corinth he “reasoned in the synagogue…and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.” Paul is always articulate, well-thought, well-studied, intellectual, and wise. He was highly educated. He was a trained theologian. He was not a crude and vulgar speaker. Yet, in Corinth, Paul purposefully speaks the gospel simply so that the cross would not be emptied of its power (1:17). This probably embarrassed some of the upper class, to be sure, because they thought they had something offer God! Reason, logic, and persuasion that draw attention to the speaker will make people trust in the speaker, not the crucified Jesus. Paul did not want to confuse the Spirit’s power with human manipulation that might produce a few skin-deep converts. So for us, don’t give up persuading people. Talk with others at work and school. Reason and logic are good servants, but bad masters. Persuade away! Be wise and intelligent in your communication with others about Jesus, but do it to show off how great God is, not how great you are.

The Goal of Gospel Ministry
Finally, let’s talk about the goal of gospel ministry. We just talked about the essence of gospel ministry: Christ crucified for sinners. Why did God do it this way? Paul tells us the answer. Look at v. 5: “So that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” That was his goal. Paul knew that if he drew attention to his own strengths, abilities, or knowledge, he may produce some fruit, but it would not be lasting fruit. It would be human fruit, not gospel fruit.

Think about this illustration: Say you invite a friend to your small group. You have a ton of fun, great food, and people really seem to connect with the new guy/gal. You make sure to talk about the message of the cross, but you are mainly concerned that everything “went right,” otherwise your friend might not come back. Well, he does come back, and he even comes to a Sunday service. What happens now is we boast to him about how great the preaching and music are, about how nice everyone is, about how our technology and programs are the best around. We may talk about Jesus, but here’s the underlying problem: we trust in something else to attract him to Jesus.

We should live and minister with the conviction that a righteous and holy God saves sinners by grace through faith in Jesus. So, no amount of personal strength or ministry strategy can do any eternal good if it is not done to exalt the glory of God in the gospel. Look one more time at what Paul said in verses 28-31 of chapter 1, “God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of [God] that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness, and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.’”

God gets all the credit for salvation from beginning to end. At the end of the day, our faith must rest in a God who accomplishes salvation for us on an old rugged cross. Christ accomplished this great salvation in a way we would have never expected. Life through death. Victory through defeat. Exaltation through humiliation. Christ has become for us our wisdom. That means he is our righteousness, holiness, and redemption—not us. Everything you have ever needed and wanted is summed up in him. He is your substitute. If you embrace the message of the cross, when God looks at you, he sees Jesus Christ.

This is what makes gospel Christianity utterly unique. Every other religion or philosophy—Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Mormonism, Secularism, Atheism, etc.—all exalt the individual and leave room for people to boast in their performance. Christianity, however, tells us that we are saved by the obedience and sufferings of a man from Nazareth who was the Son of God.

The world would have never done it this way. And when we preach this message and people believe, we can be sure that they would never believe it unless the Spirit worked in them.

Some Personal and Corporate Applications
Well, as I said, this is a candidating sermon. That influenced why I picked this particular passage. Here Paul talks about what is most essential for his life and ministry. And here I see what I want to be most essential in my life and ministry. So let me now offer three applications for myself as your candidate for associate pastor, and one application for you as a congregation.

For me:

  1. I will commit myself to speak and act in ways that will lead people to trust in the power of God, not human wisdom, whether as a husband, father, or pastor. I will strive to be reasoned, intelligent, wise, and articulate with my words. Yet I will speak in a way that draws attention to the power of God in the cross. I have nothing to offer in myself. I only have something to offer when I am under the authority of God’s word and talk a lot about Jesus! If it’s okay with you, I will talk a lot about Jesus!
  2. I will strive by the Spirit’s power to live with a healthy sense of fear and trembling at the task of being a minister in God’s church. I will not hide my weaknesses, but will confess them and use them to proclaim God’s amazing grace. The privilege of being an instrument of grace is heavy, but God’s grace is sufficient for me.
  3. This final application is perhaps the most important. I commit to cling to the message of the cross, over and over again because I will fail at these applications! Like everyone else, I am not a grace-graduate and I need God’s grace just as desperately as anyone in this room. There will be times when I say things to exalt myself. There will be times when I do not want you to see a weakness in me. There will be times when I trust in human wisdom. Because of this, I need the message of Christ and Christ crucified daily for my own soul. I need the gospel every day. It is the only way to make sense of my messy life and this messy world.

And now here’s one for you all. Nothing different here:

I want to call you to speak and act in ways that draw attention to the power of God—the gospel, the message of the cross, Christ and Christ crucified—rather than human wisdom. Our culture may not value exactly what the Corinthians valued, but we have our own versions of human wisdom. Reject human wisdom as grounds for boasting before God, and be a congregation that delights in a crucified Savior and continually points to him as true, lasting wisdom.


A Quick Thought on Marriage and Singleness

In 1 Corinthians 7: 26, Paul says about marriage and singleness, “I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is.” No doubt there were many people in the first century — as I’m sure there are now — who cringe when they read that.

This “distress” could be a few things.  It may be the fact that the Corinthian church is messed up, where church goers are drunk at communion (ch. 11), a man is sleeping with his step mom (ch. 5), Christians are suing each other (ch. 6), and in general, the Corinthians are using their spiritual gifts to show off (chs. 12-14). This “distress” could also be a famine or other disaster in the area.  Furthermore, it may refer to the general perspective that we are living in the last days (cf. vv. 29-31).

Whatever the case, it doesn’t matter.  Paul’s point is that there are situations that would require one to think more intently on whether or not marriage is the best idea. It’s not a sin to marry; but it may be unwise. The application? If you are single, are  you giving God relationship ultimatums? Do you think you must be married?  Are you a slave to the idea of marriage? If you are married, is your spouse your idol? I confess that the latter is often the case for myself — and it is a daily temptation.

The remedy is to remember that “the present form of this world is passing away” (v. 31). We need an eternal perspective in every area of our life, especially in our marriage or in our singleness.


Passion Week – Good Friday Meditation

Part 5 in a 7 part series. View series intro and index.

1 Peter 3:18:

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.

2 Corinthians 5:21:

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Jesus did not come to make you a good person with upstanding morals and decent ethics.  He came to make you a perfect person.  How does he do this?  He died in our place and bore the concentrated wrath of the Father that we deserved for our sin.  Our sin was credited to him; his righteousness was credited to us. Whoever believes in him, by faith, is presented to the Father, not as a “good” person, but as a completely perfected person.

Hear these penetrating words from C.S. Lewis.

God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them. He creates the universe, already foreseeing — or should we say “seeing”? there are no tenses in God — the buzzing cloud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves, the repeated incipient suffocation as the body droops, the repeated torture of back and arms as it is time after time, for breath’s sake, hitched up.  If I may dare the biological image, God is a “host” who deliberately creates His own parasites; causes us to be that we may exploit and “take advantage of” Him. Herein is love. This is the diagram of Love Himself, the inventor of all loves.

Father in Heaven, let me feel the weight of glory of Christ’s crucifixion. This is no game. My sin is serious, and it put the God-man to death. Yet that is the only way I could be made perfect, the only way I could be right with you. Thank you for your Son. Thank you for the Cross. Let my eyes always be on the Cross.


A Linguistic Approach to Tongues

I found these two articles by Robert Zerhusen very helpful on the study of speaking in tongues.  He gives compelling arguments to believe that tongues are known human languages in both Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 14, and not ecstatic utterances.  They were published by the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals:

Perhaps a great question to ask before and while you read is, “Who ever said that tongues has to be a miraculous gift?”  The Bible certainly say that, or really even imply it.

At the end of the day, this debate doesn’t make a lot of difference, as it’s not an essential thing.  However, we are called to know the Scriptures and study them.  Wherever you are at on this issue, I hope these articles are beneficial to you.