A Forbidden Word
Have you ever wondered why Christians these days seem less committed as compared to the first century Christians? Try to get them to follow you and you may get questioned back. It’s not as simple as Jesus’ call of “follow me” anymore.
Perhaps, one of the most crucial reasons is the lack of preaching and teaching on repentance. Repentance has become a forbidden word in many churches. We focus more on love and grace of God. When we want to talk about repentance, we speak briefly about it. We go around it and dare not talk boldly about it. We don’t even dare to confront the sins directly. We are afraid that we would offend our members and chase them away from church. Gone are the days of John Sung, and the other great preachers.
The impact can be great on the church. Firstly, we compromise the holiness of God. We emphasize on the love and grace of God more than the holiness of God. But our God is a holy God and He calls each of us to be holy. People who truly understand the love of God would respond in holiness. They would repent from their sins. Secondly, we produce weak Christians. When there is a weak call for repentance, we produce carnal believers who are self-centred. They end up living their old lives and indulging in their sins. They remain attention seeking and create disunity in church. This problem also affects the quality of leadership in church. We would, as a result, produce weak leaders to lead the church. This deteriorating phenomenon is a worrying crisis that we need to pay attention to today.
Thirdly, we give a bad testimony to others. We are called to be the light and salt of this world but because of the lack of repentance, we are giving a bad testimony to others. In fact, it is not difficult to see heartbreaking behavior of our fellow believers today. It is really sad to see that some Christians are among the most prideful, snobbish, arrogant, egoistic, grudging people around. They expect others to live for them rather than to live for others. They expect others to wait upon them rather than to serve the people. They complain almost about all things.
We need to bring this word “repentance” back into our dictionary. God is still calling us to repent and live a godly life for Him. Will we be bold enough to heed this call today?
Pitfalls of Discipleship
A lot of people know the importance of discipleship. But to carry it out effectively is the challenge. It is not easy to know what content to use. Even when we have good content, it still depends on the discipler to shape and pitch the discipleship process. Here are a few pitfalls to beware of.
Some discipling programmes just too academic. They focus a lot on head knowledge. As such, disciples get to know the Bible well, but they often lack the experience of God and a big heart to serve God. They end up spending too much time arguing about theology and strategy, but hardly got the passion to get things done.
On the other hand, some programmes focus too much on experience. They are usually actively engaging in spiritual warfare. They look for signs and wonders. They pray for healing. They listen to God’s prophetic word. They may even quote a lot of Bible verses. But they are often not properly grounded in biblical theology and principles. They tend to skew towards only a certain aspects of the Bible.
There are those discipling programmes whose main objectives are to get people out to serve. Not that serving is bad, but they miss out the task of shaping the inner man. These people end up running programmes for the church, but they are not renewed from within. Some may still be carnal rather than spiritual.
Some rely too much on their discipleship classes. They just run those programmes again and again, hoping that those classes would make disciples. They just do the same thing every year. But some of these courses may be outdated and warrant a review. They forget to work out discipleship for all their members rather than only those in classes.
A call for reflection and balance
We need to constantly reflect on the things we are doing. We may be very experienced in ministry. But our experience are not always right and we don’t always learn from experience. In fact, our experience can be a hurdle instead. We need to critically review the things we are doing and be courageous to call for a change. There is no point in doing the same old things again and again.
We also need balance. We tend to focus on those areas we are good at. But in discipleship, we need to disciple not just the head, but also the heart and the hands. We need to depend very much on the Holy Spirit to keep us in check all the time.
Preach For Transformation
Preaching is a very important element in worship. Yet it is also a time where it is most easily abused. If we are not careful, our pulpit can become a place for entertainment — a place to tell jokes and gain our popularity. It can also be a place to show our charisma and build our power. There are others who use it to say what they want or even use it like a ATM to draw their money from members.
For those who are more serious, they would teach instead of preach at the pulpit. Preachers can end up sharing a lot of biblical knowledge and even include a lot of Greek and Hebrew. This is not to say that all these are bad, but rather we should use it appropriately. We are not preaching to seminary students but church members at large. Besides the cognitive element, they also need the affective element.
The pulpit must be honoured because God has used it to bring transformation in the church. God forbid it to be abused. How can use the pulpit appropriately to bring transformation in our church? Here are some pointers to share.
1) Centrality and Supremacy of God.
God should be the centre of every sermon. It’s not the church nor the preacher, or any other human. God forbid the pulpit to be abused. It is time where the word of God is declared. Through the word of God, God is exalted and glorified.
2) True to the Text.
The sermon must be true to the text. It must be what the passage wants to say. Some preachers just choose a passage, but they say whatever they want. Even some may preach very well, but they are not true to the text. We need to go back and ask what God wants to say through His word first.
3) Derive Points from Text.
Besides being true to the text, we need to derive our points from the text too. From the different verses, we need to show how points are exegeted. Some points are just too far fetched these days. These points are from the Bible no doubt, but just not derive from that passage. Some might have confused topical preaching for expository preaching for that matter.
4) Surface Wrong Worldviews.
A lot of sermons these days focus on actions. There are steps as to getting something done. While these steps provide good handles, they focus a lot more on behaviour or methodology. As such, we may end up knowing more things we should do without knowing what is wrong with our worldviews. The risk is that we may be doing a lot of Christian thing without transformation from within. Bear in mind that we can only change what we know about ourselves. When we do not know what is wrong with our worldview, there is no way we can change. This is perhaps the greatest crisis of Christian faith today. We have many Christians who are actively serving but living untransformed lives. We think they are alright because they are already serving actively in the church. In our preaching today, we ought to surface some of the wrong worldviews the passage is highlighting so that the audience can reflect about their own thinking and perceptions.
5) Show Biblical Values and Principles.
Rather than showing the steps or methodology, let me suggest that we should in fact derive biblical values and principles from the passage. Instead of telling people what they should be doing to achieve something, it would be better to give people new attitudes they should adopt and the guiding principles that they need to consider when making decisions. In this manner, we help the people to be more mature in their thinking and get them to be responsible for their decisions. Life is never as simple as following a simple set of steps or methods.
6) Give Examples and Illustrations.
It would be good if the points of the sermon can come with relevant examples and illustrations. It is not necessary that the illustrations must be a joke. Sometimes we can be carried away by it. People end up remembering the joke but not the point we are illustrating. It is also important to find something relevant and suitable to the audience. An adult service may require different sets of examples and illustrations from the youth service. Life examples are good. They allow the people to see real struggles and how problems can be overcome with the help of God. People would tend to appreciate if preachers would reveal more about their own lives. It shows that they too are humans and are not perfect. But God can work something good out of them too.
7) Suggest Possible Applications.
Applications are important but they are often mistaken as things to do. After weeks of sermons, we can be overwhelmed by a list of things to do. How many things can we do every week? We can end up becoming a legalistic Christian. Applications can also be things to reflect. Through the renewing of our minds, our actions will be changed. It is important that our applications are getting people to start thinking before they start doing. Then there will be life transformation.
It is my hope that we will preach to transform lives. We may need to break away from our old molds and try out new ones. God has given us a great and awesome responsibility, so let’s treasure it and do it well.
Doing More May Not Be Always Good
In our service to God, there is always a tendency of wanting to do more. People who are successful, want to expand their work. Those who do not see much results want to try other new ministries to make them work. As such, no matter we are effective or not, our work keep increasing.
Perhaps, there is pressure to do more for God. Well, there are surely lots of work that can be done for God. We may feel that we have let God down if we do less. There are also those who compare themselves with others. Since others are doing so much, they ought to be doing more as well. Some others feel guilty if they do not do enough. These people hardly have time to rest. There are also those who want to be involved in everything. They do not like to delegate the responsibilities to others. Either they are perfectionists or that they are crazy over power and authority. There are also those who are very capable and their work just keep expanding. But yet they face a shortage of manpower. They are so busy that they do not have time to raise leaders to support their work.
Whether by our own choice or not, we have become so busy. Hopefully we still have time to come to Jesus to find that spiritual rest. But some may just be pushing themselves too hard. Perhaps, what is needed here is a change in our worldview. We must realized that doing more is not always better. Rather than seeing Jesus as a model for living a busy and hectic lifestyle, we should be seeing Him as a relational man who always availed Himself. He was never in a rush to meet deadline. His schedule was never so tight that He could not minister and teach the multitude. He did not even have a secretary to help Him take minutes or arrange His schedules. He did all things by Himself. He never acted like a CEO of today. He was a simple carpenter.
Perhaps, we have to ask “What would Jesus do?” if He is a minister today. Would He live the kind of lifestyle we live today? Will He get busier than us? Probably not. At the end of the day, we may have to admit that our ministry is modelled after the world rather than Jesus. We have used the lens of the world to interpret that Jesus lived a busy and hectic lifestyle. But yet Jesus was always quick to reject ministry opportunities given to Him. He could have made it bigger and better. But He did not. He just wanted to concentrate on those things the Father told Him to do.
The trap we are in today is that we are trying to do too many things, so much so that we are being spread too thinly.
Jesus, on the other hand, was very focus in His ministry. He never allowed Himself to be spread too thinly. He wanted to do the work entrusted to Him well. He never rushed in a conversation. He never rushed to make someone says the sinner’s prayer. He never rushed to get people to serve. He just patiently called those who were His. He trained them and challenged them. He built relationship with them and walked with them. What a contrast!
It is time we take a step back and see as Jesus saw, minister as Jesus ministered and serve as He served. Do not rushed our way to Jesus.
Preaching to the Heart
Preaching is often taught technically. We learn about finding the main idea, the subject questions, the main points and sub-points. We learn to preach inductively and also deductively. We learn about exegesis and exposition. We use Hebrew and Greek. We spice it up with illustrations, examples and analogy. We put in our applications and response. Well, we may think that we have a great sermon after spending so much time preparing for it. But it may not have turned out the way we want it to be.
The problem may lie with the audience. They may not be attentive. It’s possible, but let us put this issue aside first. Let us also put the work of the Holy Spirit aside since it is a constant factor. God can surely work through any kind of sermons we preached. But here we need to address another aspect.
We all know that sermons are prepared through prayers and meditation besides the technical aspect. But how we deliver it is important as well. Due to the technical aspect of the preparation, many sermons are preached to the head. It may tickle our minds but it may remain as a knowledge. This kind of sermons are probably too cognitive. Some other sermons are targeted at the hands. They have various steps and methods to do the word. But we run the risk of doing a lot of things without being transformed within. Besides preaching to the head and hands, it is also equally important to preach to the heart. Our sermons need the Spirit of God, but they also need their ‘souls’. This is the emotive and affective elements of the sermons. Our sermons must be relevant, but they should touch lives too.
Preaching at the heart is not just a matter of content. Besides making the sermon meaningful, the delivery is important too. We can only give our sermon a soul if God has spoken to us and convicted us. The sermon can only become alive when our souls are in it. We begin to feel for the sermon and become passionate for God. We would feel the power of God flowing through us as we deliver His word.
We might not have been taught about this issue, but it is definitely a critical one. This prevent sermons from becoming boring and distant. It brings the word of God alive and close to our hearts. Work on this and see how the response may change.
Build Deep and Right
Some disciples may be involved in many areas of services, yet they may not have built deep in their spiritual lives. They need the recognition and the busyness to prove their worth in God. Others need the continual manifestations of miracles, signs and wonders to excite them and keep them going. Some as leaders, interpret the word wrongly and speak according to the meaning they want the Bible to say. Others misquote the Bible and use the verses out of context. We also see leaders running the church as if they were magicians or CEOs. All these problems may not be new, yet little has been done to address them. Why? This is because those who do things in this manner firmly believing that they are doing the right thing.
As such, it is not enough to just build our spiritual lives deep. We can possibly build our lives on the wrong foundation altogether. It is important that we must get it right too. These days we see false teachings becoming more and more prevalent. But sad to say, churches are not making much of a stand. When some prominent figure appears, churches would tend to support regardless of what kind of background the person is from. Sometimes, churches are even not aware of the background of the person. Take the Prosperity Gospel as an example, it can camouflage itself as a sound teaching so well that even the evangelical churches may not be aware of it. Now, there’s the gold dust phenomenon happening in churches. Many Christians are not even asking whether it is biblical. They are not testing the spirits or see whether it is of the world. People are just fascinated and taken in.
It is time for us to be careful of liberalism again. Secularism, consumerism, pragmatism and syncretism have crept into the church subtly to dethrone Jesus. We must be able to read the times of today. We cannot afford to follow the trend blindly. We need to continually search our hearts and test every spirits that come our way. Do not assume our positions and views are always right. As we build deep, make sure we build it right too. There’s nothing better than to go back to the Source.
Renewal of Lay Leadership
We are often concerned about the pastors having too much authority, so we often rotate them around in the various congregations. But how about the lay leadership? Though there may be elections almost every year. It’s interesting to note that the same old people often get elected again and again. This is a worrying phenomenon.
Firstly, this usually means that the laity having greater authority than the clergy. It is therefore hard to get things done in church. The church is often trapped to please everyone more than to fulfill the mission of God. The laity would usually drive their own projects in their own directions rather than being aligned to a common vision.
Secondly, this means new leaders are not coming up fast enough. Since the pastors do not have much authority, they end up doing all the ‘coordination’ work in church, leaving them not much time to raise new leaders. Many a times, the pastors do not have a free hand to disciple the people in church. The lay leaders may also hog onto their positions and do little to raise up new leaders too. As such, year after year, the same people are being elected again and again.
Thirdly, there is likely an imbalance of power in church. It is interesting to note that most of the lay leaders in church are in the upper class. They are not just the richer ones in church, they also hold high positions in their workplace as well. Though this is not necessarily bad, but the pastors usually do not dare to meddle too much regarding the lives of these people. As such, money and status can speak louder than God in this situation. As these people are usually in the management positions, they often bring in a lot of management techniques into the church. We often see how these churches are being measured by individual performance and efficiency rather than character and faithfulness. On the other hand, the middle and lower income groups are hardly in the management level of the church. As such, the formation of church strategy and policy may not be sensitive to the needs of these people.
Perhaps it is time we evaluate our church. Some studies have shown that we are attracting more white-collar workers than blue-collar workers in church. Why is this so? Are we trying to build an upper class faith? It is time to see who are we discipling. We should disciple people from various income groups so that we can better represent the church. Have a system to rotate the lay leadership so that there is new influx of younger leaders. Do not let the same lay leaders hog on the power and authority of the church. Make sure there is a good spread of people in the management of the church. As a body of Christ, we can learn from all walks of life.
Discipleship of Leadership
The challenge we face in church today is not just a lack of discipleship of the believers in church, but a lack of discipleship in the leadership as well. Though leaders are the most important people forming the core of the church, they are seldom discipled. One of the most obvious reason is that they have no time to be discipled because they are serving in so many areas in the church. They have so many meetings to attend. Some of them are even facing burn out. Where can they find time for discipleship? Most of the time, they have to use the Bible to feed others, but hardly do they have time to let others feed them.
Another issue is regarding who to disciple them? The obvious answer may be the pastor but this does not happen most of all the time. Besides the fact that the pastor has even more meetings and activities to attend, a more tricky problem is that he may not have the authority to do so. For some churches, the pastor is employed by the church, as such the pastor is at the mercy of the congregation. The elders who are usually lay leaders have more say than the pastor. The pastor can hardly comment on the church. They just act upon the directions from the elders or the board. Hopefully they have a godly group of elders who can put aside their own agendas. If not, the church will just keep debating and voting on every issues based on their human minds rather than discernment from the Spirit. It would be tough to have these elders placed under a discipleship program. Most of them would just hang on to their power in church. Sometimes there are even factions and power struggle.
Another common problem is rotational leadership. Pastors are usually given four to six years terms in a local church before they are transferred to another church. Though it meant well not to let the pastor hog on to his power to build up his own “kingdom”, it also means that the pastor is not close to the people as compared to the lay leaders. As such, the power and authority of the church still lies with the lay leaders. The lay leaders often think that they know the church better than the pastor and therefore think that they have more say about the congregation and have lots of expectations on the pastor. Yet the pastor cannot do much besides the usual pastoral duties on Sunday because the members are under the control of the laity. These lay leaders are also the chairman for various committees in church, and this makes it even more difficult for the pastor to direct the committees. In many cases, the pastor is accused for not doing enough in each area of ministry, where in the first place they have not allowed the pastor to direct their committees.
Then what about the pastors themselves? Who are to disciple them? Of course, the senior pastor can disciple the younger generation of pastors provided that he has the time and put emphasis on the work of discipleship. However, there are many pastors who like to hold on to the power rather than delegate their power. While they know they should train up the younger generation, they are fearful that the next generation would destroy what they have built up. As such, they cannot let go of the church and the young pastors cannot rise up to take the helm. While the main pastor may be very successful and popular, the younger generation of pastors are being suppressed in leadership. These churches do run a high risk because they are built on the faith and charisma of the senior pastors. If the next generation of pastors are not given the opportunity to rise up, the future of the church would be at stake.
There are no easy solutions for the issues above. It would be easier if we all are humble enough to admit that we need to be discipled. However, this is usually not the case. Not all pastors, elders or deacons like to be discipled. They have so many things on their hands. I must say that these leaders are usually very capable. They are very good at getting things done and organising activities. But the downside is that they often neglect the building of their spirituality and character. What they need is to build in time for peer discipleship. Rather than spending so much time in meetings, allocate time to share about what God is doing in their lives and what they are learning from God. It may also help if each has a buddy where there can be more sharing and accountability. It is a time we put aside our titles and designations just to be our brothers’ keepers. It will be good if we are able to do this for different levels of leadership. Remember, the higher we go, the greater is the need for discipleship. Jesus did not get caught up in meetings, but He spent His time discipling people, especially the leaders-to-be. Spiritual leaders are not there just to get things done, they are the ones leading the way in spiritual formation too. If we are serious in growing the kingdom of God and building successions of leaders, we should start discipling the leaders soon.