pastoral ministry

Preaching Difficult Doctrines (Without Splitting the Church!)

The history of Christianity and of any denomination is a narrative of spats, splits, and schisms. Many churches and most denominations were born not of an intentional tactic to reach more people but as a reaction to a personal or doctrinal conflict. Doctrine does not have to be divisive, however, if a pastor will employ a few basic strategies as he teaches the Word.

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Make It Textual

Christians will never understand doctrine apart from a grasp of the warp and woof of Scripture. A steady diet of exposition teaches both the metanarrative of the Bible as well as the underlying truths. Narrative passages were “written for our instruction” (Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:11) and as examples to us. They generally hold some sanctifying truth to emulate or some sin to avoid, but even the behaviors exhibited in the text fit within a doctrinal framework that reflects the character and the will of God.

"Every time a pastor preaches a narrative text, he should connect theological truth to the inherent attraction of a good story."

The fourth chapter of Jonah, for instance, is fascinating and has an incredible narrative appeal. One might expect that chapter three concludes the story. After initially defying the Lord, Jonah undergoes God’s chastisement in the belly of a great fish, cries out for deliverance, relents and goes to Nineveh where he delivers a message of judgment and the people repent and turn to God. Nothing could fit Aristotle’s analysis of drama better than that: exposition, complication, climax, reversal, and denouement. Jonah is a prophet (exposition), he refuses to obey God (complication), he is swallowed by a whale (climax), he cries out to God and goes to Nineveh (reversal), and as a result of his preaching the people repent (denouement). 

The fourth chapter is completely unexpected and does not seem to fit. Just when we thought the tension was resolved we are taken to an unanticipated destination: the very heart of God. The prophet who received God’s mercy pouts like an impetuous spoiled child because God has shown mercy to undeserving Babylonians. God exposes Jonah’s ridiculous and misplaced affections and then exposes his own heart, naked and raw and bleeding, for the people of Nineveh. If God destroyed Nineveh for their sin, even though justified, he would also destroy children and people of diminished mental capacity who “do not know their right hand from their left.” He even cares about the innocent animals (Jonah 4:11).

This unexpected turn after what one might expect is the end of the story is a “zone of turbulence,” a rhetorical device that directs the reader’s attention and drives home the main point of the text by dropping something entirely unexpected into the narrative, something that does not at first seem to fit. A preacher must never preach merely the event, but must make clear the meaning of the event. The book of Jonah ends with an intimate glimpse into God’s heart of mercy and how he thinks about his creatures. That is not narrative for the sake of a good story alone. That is doctrine revealed in a beautiful narrative form. Only a heart like this would send his son to die for his people. The God who spared Jonah and the people of Nineveh did not spare his own son but freely gave him up.

Every time a pastor preaches a narrative text, he should connect theological truth to the inherent attraction of a good story. Stories often raise questions like, “Why would God do that?” or “How can someone who claims to know God behave like that?” Good preachers answer those questions even as they preach the pericope within the metanarrative.

Similarly, didactic passages such as the epistles also reveal truths about Christ, about man, about salvation, and other categories of theology. The doctrinal content may be much nearer the surface and therefore easier to mine, but connection to other passages and doctrine still demands careful exposition and correlation. Faithful teaching of doctrine always begins with the text, not a system. If you want to avoid dissension and division in the church, always point to the Scripture as the authoritative source of doctrine.

Make It Biblical

As obvious as this seems, pastors find themselves in a divisive church situation because they use loaded theological jargon rather than the language of Scripture. The problem is not so much that a pastor teaches unbiblical doctrine, but that he uses extra-biblical language. If a church accepts the inerrancy of Scripture, then the pastor’s task is always to show what the Word of God, and not a theological system, actually says. 

If a pastor preaches a system, relies on theological insider language, or employs faddish expressions he is far more likely to create needless controversy. A parishioner can pack the word theologically and incorrectly or, at the very least, differently than the preacher intended the word—and find 100 websites that confirm him in his wrongheaded understanding of what the pastor meant and warn him against such “heresy” that some author warns is part of a satanic plot.

For example, some members of my church have come from denominations that warned them about the dangers of “once saved always saved” because it grants permission to believers to pray the sinner’s prayer and then live as they want with no regard for sanctification. While our church does not hide our belief that a person who is genuinely regenerate and born again by the Holy Spirit can never be unborn and ultimately lost, we also do not believe that a person can simply pray a prayer or walk an aisle and live for the flesh with no change from before salvation and go to heaven. 

My best move as a pastor, therefore, is to avoid any terminology that implies something other than I mean to my congregation and to default to a strictly biblical vocabulary. I can talk about being born again to never be unborn or rejected. I can show them in the Scripture that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. I can point them to Paul’s confident word even to the Corinthians, with all of their sin and disobedience, that Jesus Christ “will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:8). I can explain clearly and decisively that once one becomes a new creation in Christ Jesus (2 Cor 5:17) becoming an old creation again is impossible. I can show passages about perseverance in faith and holiness and deal honestly with warning passages because I do not reduce the issue to one banal buzzword or facile phrase but rather strive to say precisely what the Bible actually says.

Make It Personal

Doctrine, even the most controversial doctrine, does not exist in as antiseptic quarantined ecclesiastical space but in the grit and grime of life and spiritual struggles. The pastor who preaches a sermon on the doctrine of Christ’s humanity which merely describes the hypostatic union and its role in church history will face yawns or, worse yet, divisiveness from the armchair theologians in the church. 

"Belief always drives action. Faith inevitably leads to works. Doctrinal preaching requires application in real life and in the real world."

When a pastor relates theology to the lives of listeners, when he connects doctrine and duty, then congregants more readily catch the consequence and significance of the teaching. Just as the writer to the Hebrews relates that Christ’s humanity makes him a faithful high priest who actually feels our weaknesses, so the wise pastor will always show the practical aspects of doctrine. Belief always drives action. Faith inevitably leads to works. Doctrinal preaching requires application in real life and in the real world.

More than that, however, a pastor needs to make it personal in relation to Christ. All true doctrine ultimately finds its expression in the person and the work of Jesus. When a pastor shows how the doctrine in view relates to Christ and a proper understanding of it leads us to follow him, doctrine comes alive.

Make It Proportional

Pastors sometimes make the mistake of preaching what they love or what they are most passionate about to the exclusion of the rest of God’s revelation in the Bible. One can find a lot of passages in the Scripture about social justice, for instance, but to preach those texts exclusively without the balance of justification, prayer, or evangelism a church would soon begin to list dangerously toward a social gospel that only makes the world a better place from which to go to hell. 

Expository preaching that systematically goes through books from both testaments, from multiple genres, and with a balance between law and grace is the best steady diet for a congregation. Expositional series through major sections of Scripture help both the pastor and the congregation gain a strategic grasp of the metanarrative of Scripture. One cannot adequately appreciate the whole without a knowledge of the parts, but the inverse is equally true. 

Some churches and denominations focus on specific doctrines above and to the exclusion of all others. Churches and ministries will define themselves by their obeisance to those specific things, even while they tend to ignore themes and theological movements that are much more pronounced throughout the Bible. It might be footwashing, women’s hairstyles, missions methodologies, or some other minutiae, but they nonetheless strain at gnats and swallow camels. The best doctrinal preaching refuses to ride a hobby horse and deals with the grand sweep of God’s Word.

Make it Loving

"The pastor whose knowledge of doctrine has swelled his head rather than his heart will find himself without a church or, perhaps worse, with an arrogant church and a distorted gospel."

Nothing should be more obvious, but 1 Corinthians 13 is for preachers as well as practitioners of glossolalia. Without love, no doctrine will matter. The pastor whose knowledge of doctrine has swelled his head rather than his heart will find himself without a church or, perhaps worse, with an arrogant church and a distorted gospel. 

Sometimes I have had tough doctrinal conversations with church members who disagree with me. If I remind them that I have a PhD in New Testament, that I know the biblical languages, and that I have been a seminary professor for twenty years and in ministry for nearly forty, they are not impressed or moved one bit—nor should they be. If I lovingly thank them for taking the time to meet with me, remind them that above all else I want to honor Christ and His Word, and tell them that I love them even if we don’t reach agreement, they tend to be much more open to what I teach. Even if they don’t see things my way in the end, they usually still leave as my friends and Christian brothers and sisters. Would Jesus have it any other way?

Pastoral Pointer | Intentional Church Programming

Does your church merely schedule activities, or does it have a comprehensive strategy to build unity, reach the lost, and make disciples? Whether planning a church picnic or an evangelistic service, church members need to know the purpose, the goal, and the desired outcome of everything on the church calendar. Dr. York explains five levels of church planning and how to communicate it to the congregation so everyone understands and embraces the church calendar is an important ministry tool.

Pastoral Pointer | Leading Your Church to be Welcoming

No one likes to go where they feel unwanted—especially church. How can a pastor train a congregation to welcome guests and project a warm, inviting spirit so visitors feel at  home and are more receptive to the worship and the Word? Dr. York shares some practical insights and strategies that can make the difference between a church that hopes for growth and one that actually grows.

Listen to a sermon where I coached my own church on how to do this very thing.

View all other Pastoral Pointers HERE

When You Cannot Find a Place of Ministry

Hardly a day goes by that I do not receive some communication from a young minister, often someone I taught in seminary, who cannot find a place of service. Forced to work a secular and usually unpleasant job while sending out countless resumes and networking as much as possible, the disappointment and frustration mount almost to the point of despair. These men contact me in hopes that I will be able to help them find that fit, the opportunity for ministry for which they beg God or at least give them a word of encouragement.

To put it mildly, I sympathize. I know exactly what that feels like. With years of ministry experience and a Masters degree in Classical Languages, I once served as the janitor at the Kirby Woods Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. I argued with God and explained to Him why so many churches out there needed my particular brilliance and expertise, and the Holy Spirit kept humbling me until I was willing to honor Christ through cleaning toilets. Only when I found joy in that was I ready to serve the Lord through ministry elsewhere.

So with empathy and experience, here is the answer I give to my young pastor friends:

Dear Friend,
I am sorry that you are going through such a difficult struggle. By this I mean that I am sorry you have to endure the emotions of it. I always find it hard to see someone I care about hurting. 
On the other hand, I often have had to remind myself that my Father has denied me no good thing, that His promise is, in every circumstance, to work everything together for my good. He so carefully superintends the events of my life, including the denials, that every stream of experience results in a confluence of grace even when they seem more like floods that may drown me.
As always, I will do whatever I can to share your availability with churches and ministry opportunities, but I encourage you simply to be faithful. Faithfulness when no one is paying you and ministry when no one is asking you are marks of genuine love and devotion to Christ. Live out your calling to the best of your ability with whatever time you have after working in a job you do not like. 
I have been there, and I know it’s not fun, but in retrospect I think I learned more about honoring Christ with my life during that time than at any other. I have seen that same phenomenon in the lives of many others. Don’t fail to see what God is teaching you in this. Embrace the lesson. By all means, keep sending out the resumes and looking for the right fit, but try—as hard as it may be—to do even that as unto the Lord in the same way you would do some church ministry itself. If our dependence on Christ rather than self is the goal, then anything He does to make us lean on Him is ultimately a good thing, regardless of how it feels. 
We usually walk much better after God has touched us in the hollow of the thigh and given us a weakness that reminds of our striving with God than we ever could in the strength (or naiveté) of youth or natural abilities. Jacob had a limp, Joseph a prison cell, Paul a thorn, Ezekiel a spouse’s death, Peter a failure. 
Jesus had a cross.
 You and I are not going to escape that pattern of preparation in our lives.
I remember when I was in your situation years ago I called my dad one night and poured my heart out to him and told him that I was sick of being a janitor, that I thought my talents and training were being wasted, and I did not understand why I had invested so much only to see my family living on rice and beans. He offended me a bit when he replied that he wouldn’t change it if he could because he knew that God was doing a work in me that would make me much better prepared to shepherd His people in the future. 
I didn’t like it when he said it, but he was right. And my words to you may not make your frustration and weariness go away, but I hope they at least help you see that you are being trained by God every bit as much as when you were in seminary. Every situation has a way by which we can honor Christ. Ask Him for that more than for a job in ministry. The Holy Spirit has one ministry—to glorify Jesus. The Spirit is not interested in helping us get a church or find the right position or become a great preacher. The Spirit’s single focus is to glorify Jesus, and when we get so possessed of that goal, even when working as a janitor or bagging groceries or mowing lawns, that we can delight in it regardless of the venue, then He is willing to use us in ways we could never imagine.
So I pray for you to find the right fit and ministry through which you can bless many and use the great gifts God has graciously given you, but most of all I pray for you to find joy in exalting Christ in the frustrating, sorrowful, and mundane things of life. Do that, and you will have succeeded at the thing that matters most.

Choosing the Right Lens

Last year, while far away from home in Manaus, Brazil, I made the mistake of trying to run across the busiest street in that city of 2 million people. While dashing wildly across five lanes of traffic to reach a tiny concrete median and pause before sprinting the opposite five lanes, I recognized I had joined a real-life game of Frogger (to date myself) and that I faced the distinct possibility of being squished.

When I finally made it across, the heart-pounding terror turned into triumphant exhilaration. As I entered the door of my destination and took off my sunglasses, I felt my shirt pocket for my very expensive no-line progressive trifocal prescription glasses so I could see indoors, but to no avail. They were gone. The short-lived elation gave way to the despair of realizing they had jostled out of my pocket and by now had been ground to dust under the weight of a hundred speeding cars.

A Brazilian friend, realizing my plight, offered to get me a pair of glasses that would suffice temporarily, but he only had three lens thicknesses from which to choose. He randomly chose the prescription that corrected my distant vision, so until I got home a week later, I felt handicapped. If someone waved to me from across the room, I could recognize them, but I couldn't recognize people 4 or 5 feet away; and when I preached, I constantly was taking glasses off or putting them on, sometimes alternating between reading glasses, my new stop-gap glasses and none at all. I only could see one distance, but life required more than that.

The congregation who only sees Scripture through one type of lens is missing something, too. Some pastors always look at Scripture with a wide-angle lens. They show their people the big picture of the book they're preaching, or perhaps the grand narrative of redemption history, yet fail to get the nuances, the warp and the woof, the grain of Scripture up close. On the other hand, some pastors are so oriented to a magnifying lens or microscope that their congregations never see the big picture.

Part of pastoral preaching not only is alternating texts between Old and New Testaments, between law and gospel, between different genres, but also switching lenses. While pastors should have a careful strategy to preach the whole counsel of God, that strategy should include different depths and fields of vision.

First, the Bible itself does this. God chose to reveal truth in different doses. Some passages such as Romans 8 are saturated with gospel content and require a closer look, a more deliberate pace. Others such as Joshua 13—21 (the allotment of the land to the tribes) don't require as much time and legitimately can be taken together without doing injustice to the text.

Similarly, congregations need to know the overall argument and application of entire sections or books, as well as the exegetical peculiarities and distinctions of individual verses or small passages. In other words, they need gospel trifocals. Pastors need to plan preaching that sometimes looks from a distance so it catches sight of the whole, other times from mid-range to grasp a smaller section, still other times exposing the text thoroughly and closely to provide an intimate look at an author's intended meaning.

So change the lens. Preach 12 overview sermons of the Minor Prophets that give the gist and application of each with a clear explanation of its place in the story of redemption. Follow that with a lengthy series in an epistle, carefully laying bare the meaning of each verse. Then preach a series of sermons in an extended Old Testament narrative such as the life of David, taking representative chapters of the great king's life to preach the story of redemption and to make your congregants long for the greater King.

If sameness and predictability are enemies of being interesting and engaging, changing the focal length of the lens through which we look at Scripture not only will make preaching more effective, but also more interesting.

Marriage and the Gospel

When we volunteered to help a couple in our church move, the wife looked appreciative, but a bit worried. “I need to tell you,” she said in a low tone as she leaned forward, “My sister, Debi, will be there helping us, too, and she’s a ... a stripper.”

“Well,” Tanya answered with a laugh, “she’s not going to practice while we’re loading the truck, will she?” Assuring her that we would be fine and that we actually looked forward to meeting her sister, she seemed relieved.

On the day of the move we were delighted to meet Debi and were struck by two things about her: how ordinary she seemed and what a hard worker she was. Still, I could only imagine how she viewed men, and I took care that day to stay very connected to Tanya, especially in front of her. Little touches, light banter, an occasional peck on the cheek as she passed me with a box filled with sweaters.

When we stopped for a quick lunch, Debi was observing us closely. We talked with our friends about church and about what God was doing there, she asked a few questions about how we met and how long we had been together, but mostly we were just ourselves and enjoyed each other’s company. We finished the move, invited her to visit our church sometime, and said a warm goodbye as we held hands and walked to our car.

A week later our friend called to say thank you for helping them move, but she said, “I really called to tell you some incredible news. My sister, Debi, was completely blown away by your relationship. This past week several times she would ask me if you guys are for real and finally she asked me what made the difference in your marriage. What do you have that makes you love each other like that? I saw my opportunity to tell her that it’s Jesus that makes the difference in your lives and I shared the gospel with her and she has trusted Christ!”

That happened more than 20 years ago, but some variation of that story has happened many times in our 34-year marriage. In fact, without question, our relationship is the greatest evangelism tool we have. On a beach, at a restaurant, on a plane, in a mall, it just happens. People notice that we are in love, that we cherish and adore one another and they’ll start a conversation about it. Eventually they get to the question: “What is your secret?”

One time I was on the phone with an airline ticket agent when the airline’s computer system went down. Apologizing profusely, she described the situation and suggested that I might want to call back later because she didn’t know how long it would be before things were working again. I told her that I didn’t mind waiting. “In fact,” I explained, “if this is the biggest problem I have today this is a great day.”

“Wow. You sure are a positive person,” she responded.

“Well, my wife is the world’s most upbeat person and she won’t let me complain much! I’ve got the greatest wife in the world, and I’ve really got no excuse to be down. We’ve been married [at that time] 18 years and I love her more today than I did the day we got married. She is fantastic.”

“Sir,” she said, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody married that long talk about his wife like that. May I ask you a question? What is the secret to a great relationship like that?”

“You don’t really want me to tell you that,” I teased.

“Yes, yes, I really do, “she pleaded. “You see, I’m recently divorced, and if I ever get married again, that’s the kind of relationship I want. So really, what’s your secret?”

“Well, if you really want me to tell you - we both have the same core value. You see, you can come from different backgrounds, be from different ethnic groups, or have almost any other difference, but if you don’t agree on the core value - the one thing in life that is more important than anything else, the one thing that matters most - then your marriage won’t be very happy. We both have the same core value that we pour our lives into and in that shared significance we find a joy in one another that we could not have any other way.”

I did not have to wait long for the question I knew she would ask: “Well, what’s your core value?”

“Oh, you don’t want me to tell you that!” I joked.

“Yes, yes, I do,” she answered. “What is the one thing that both of you find more important than anything else?”

“Okay,” I answered, “you asked. We both are followers of Jesus Christ and he is Lord of our lives. We have found that by putting him in first place we love each other much more in second place than if we put one another in first place and put him in second place. Does that make sense?”

“Oh, it really does,” she said emphatically. “You see, I am Jewish, and since my divorce a friend of mine has been taking me with her to this Bible church, and listening to the sermons it has made me ask if Jesus is my Messiah. Do you think Jesus is my Messiah?”

“You don’t want me to answer that!”

“Yes, I do. Is he my Messiah?”

“Let me read you something,” I said, turning in my Bible to Isaiah 53, slowly and deliberately reading her the words that foretold of Jesus, and in just a few moments we prayed together on the phone as she repented of her sins and accepted Christ as Lord. After talking with her about discipleship and baptism, I told her of a church near her where she could be baptized and serve and she was excited to begin her new life as a follower of Christ.

Just as I finished she said, “Hey, the computers just came back online.”

“Imagine that,” I said.

If marriage is a picture of Christ and his love for his church, then much more is at stake than my happiness. The world should long for what Christians have. If our marriages aren’t filled with kindness and joy, why would anyone want what we offer? But when they see in us a mutual delight, a gentle and easy trust in one another, they can’t help but ask, “What’s your secret?” And we can tell them that it’s no secret at all. It’s Jesus.