Author Archives: Kent Anderson Ph.D.

About Kent Anderson Ph.D.

Dr. Anderson is the Northwest President and Professor of Homiletics

Kent at Immerse Antioch

Robust Growth

There have been many Northwest’s over the years. Some of you relate best to our experience as part of ACTS Seminaries. Others remember college life on the campus of Trinity Western. For some, Northwest will always be located on Marine Drive in Vancouver, or perhaps even in Port Coquitlam. Many of our current students experience Northwest through the vehicle of Immerse and do not relate to the idea of a campus. Regardless of your experience, we are all Northwest, united in our interest that the people God has gifted and called might be thoroughly equipped for excellence in ministry both at home and around the world.

To that end, Northwest is experiencing one of the most robust and effective periods in its 80 year history. We have had larger enrolments, but we have probably never had a time when we knew more investment from our churches and more commitment to the cause. The scope of our opportunity now is taking us from coast to coast, deep down into the United States, and across oceans. People have caught the vision for context-based ministry leadership development and it has been game-changing.

This year we will graduate our first Immerse student within Fellowship Pacific. We will also admit our first students in partnership with SEMBEQ. Our partnerships with the 17:6 network and the C2C network are beyond our imagining. God has chosen to use us in ways we had not foreseen, and we are grateful for it.

Northwest has gained a surprising amount of influence. As President I have recently been interviewed for publication by Duke University, The Auburn Institute, and by In Trust, all highly influential in the world of theological education. I have been invited to several consultations in places like Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City. When people are looking to study innovation in theological education, we seem to catch their attention. Our message about mastery model, in-context education is finding an avid audience.

While these partnerships are exciting, it is also great to celebrate the achievements of our alumni. Elsewhere here you can find our interview with Mike Mawhorter. I am also encouraged by the ministry of alumnus, Barton Priebe, who recently became pastor of Central Baptist Church in Victoria. Barton is a great student of theology and apologetics and recently published, “The Problem with Christianity,: Six Unsettling Questions You Have Asked”, which I would highly recommend. This book offers helpful ways of talking about our faith in the context of a secular environment. Barton’s thoughts were honed, not only in our classrooms, but in years of ministry at Dunbar Heights on the doorstep of the University of British Columbia. I am praying that his book will help many to know how to express their faith in a contrary culture.
We have had many good times in the past, and this is certainly another one. If you have ever supported us or have considered supporting the work of a seminary, now would be an excellent time. We have done our work prudently and without the kind of financial investment that is usually required for this kind of innovation. As always, we require the investment of partners who see the vision and who want to fan it into flame. Thanks to all of you who have given us your trust.


Opportunity is an interesting phenomenon. It comes and goes. You need to grab it when it is present, because you are never sure when it might come again – or so it seems. The reality is that opportunity presents when people God has prepared meet the moment that God intends. At Northwest, we have that kind of opportunity before us now. I am so encouraged by the multiple means by which we are able to fulfill our mission.

We continue to value our partnership at ACTS Seminaries. Some say that the day for classic education has passed. Those people have probably not been in one of our classrooms. I continue to be energized by the passion and commitment that our students bring.

I am also grateful for the opportunity we now have to extend our context-based model of learning. We are now in full delivery or active development of nine different versions of the Immerse program. Soon we will be able tell you more about the C2C church planting network, SEMBEQ in the province of Quebec, the Antioch Project out of Texas and California, and several others, all of whom have embraced Immerse and who are partnering with us.

I am further pleased to celebrate our return to Korean programs and the offer of our new Global Leadership Doctor of Ministry offered in the Korean language. We have assured that this program carries the Northwest theological ethos, along with a strong commitment to our signature, context-based approach to learning. Many thanks to Larry Perkins for his championing of this exciting piece.

Speaking of Larry, our work is a team affair. It has been wonderful to welcome long-time friend and pastor, Trent Erickson to the team. Howard Andersen continues to bless me in his role as Academic Dean. Ron Sing is really hitting his stride in his role as our Chief Development Officer. Loren Warkentin has been God’s choice servant in making possible the technology upon which our work depends. Archie Spencer has a special opportunity to teach at Regent College this year, which is an encouragement to the quality of his scholarship. Eric Fehr has just begun a PhD program at the University of South Africa (by distance education), which will prepare him to serve us better. Brian Rapske, Dianne Gleave, Nikki Lanigan, Mark Naylor, and Brent Foster all continue to serve our mission with excellence.

To lead this team has been the opportunity of my lifetime. We are here by God’s appointment and for his purpose. It is to his service that we dedicate ourselves.


Training Biblical Leaders and Preachers in Their Own Country

It is wonderful to train biblical leaders and preachers in our own country, but it is also fantastic to be able to do so in other more needy parts of the world. That was my privilege this past August, as I traveled to Cali, Colombia to work with the LanIMG_2361gham Partnership as keynote speaker for a conference on the preaching of the prophetic books of Scripture.

Langham is an organization that was begun by John Stott and funded through his book royalties. It continues today as an organization that works to develop biblical preachers in developing countries around the world. This past year they offered more than 100 such seminars and training opportunities globally.

In my case, I was able to work with about 100 pastors and preachers for several days. Their hunger to learn more about the craft of preaching and to better appreciate the interpretation and proclamation of the prophetic texts was a beautiful thing to experience. I was then given the further opportunity to travel farther inland to the city of Armenia where I engaged a large lay leader training event and preached at Shalom Church, where a couple of thousand had gathered to worship.

As a seminary president I have plenty of opportunity to travel, but not often for this kind of purpose. I remember from my earliest days hearing stories about Colombia from furloughing missIMG_2373ionaries. For several decades, our churches in British Colombia have been sending missionaries to Colombia. These missionaries have done a tremendous job and today the El Redil network of churches is one of the most vibrant movements for the Gospel that I know.

Colombia is a great example of the kind of place a seminary like Northwest needs to be engaged. The time for the career foreign missionary is over in a place like this. The national church is strong and their witness is vibrant. Now the time is ripe for seminaries like Northwest to come alongside and work on the development of a great cadre of national pastors and leaders. As long as those opportunities exist, I will be thrilled to participate.

Board of Governors Award – Evan Scales

award-01The Board of Governors Award is presented to individuals who have demonstrated extraordinary commitment to the mission of Northwest Baptist Seminary. In recognition of such commitment, the Board of Governors is pleased to present this award to Evan Scales.

Evan served on the Board of Governors for 18 consecutive years, from 1990 through 2007. These were some of the seminary’s most challenging years, during which Northwest concluded its decades-long college level ministry, transitioning to its current form as a primarily graduate level institution. Those who served on the board during this time were required to show a courageous level of focus on the primary mission that the school had served going back to its inception in 1934 – the development of high quality, ministry leaders for the church. While this discussion was painful for Evan, he understood the necessity of this decision. That the seminary currently prospers in this mission is due in large measure to those like Evan who offered steady governance-level leadership at that time.

Evan and Mary ScalesEvan’s unique contribution to the board was in the writing of a new set of by-laws to govern the seminary, with a particular concern to enshrine the relationship of the seminary to its churches. This was a significant task during these days of transition. This kind of work may not have been glamorous or even interesting, yet Evan knew the importance of a firm documentary foundation. The current stability of the seminary bears testament to the durability of Evan’s work.

Along with his service to the board, Evan and his wife Mary, sent several of their own children to study at Northwest. They also were faithful and significant financial contributors. May many follow after their example!

Evan spent his career working for the Pacific Great Eastern Railway, which later became known as BC Rail, and later for the CNR. But it would seem that he put in almost as much effort toward the health of the churches he helped plant and encourage, most notably Dallas-Barnhartvale Baptist Church. It was in his study and teaching of theology that Evan’s passion for the church came together with his passion for the mission of the seminary.

Evan is also known for his work as President of the Fellowship Baptist Interior Association and for his years of service to Sunnybrae Bible Camp where he served as Director for a time.

The work of the church depends upon people who will give graciously and sacrificially of their time, talent, and treasure. Those who can see how graduate-level leadership development is of strategic importance to God’s Kingdom are to be particularly cherished. Evan and Mary Scales are a tremendous example of such. By this award, we express our gratitude to God and to the Scales for their commitment to the Lord, expressed through their service to all of us.


Immerse is Accredited

We are very excited to announce that Northwest Baptist Seminary is now fully accredited by The Association of Theological Schools. Of particular importance is that ATS also accredited our innovative Immerse program.

This is no small thing, given the uniqueness of Immerse. The fully church-based nature of the program means that Immerse exceeds the standards for residency normally expected of seminaries. Granting approval for this kind of learning marks a dramatic step forward in the world of theological education with Northwest at the forefront of this exciting change.

For many years, Northwest has held its accredited status on the basis of two elements: its charter to offer theological degrees granted by provincial legislation back in 1959, and through its partnership in ACTS Seminaries. Now that Northwest is offering programming outside of the ACTS umbrella, it was important to submit Immerse for the examination of ATS.

IMG_2188Immerse offered several challenges to the accreditors. The program is built on a number of principles that are unique. For example, Immerse has no courses, no semesters, and no fixed timetable. Instead it challenges students, working under the direction of a team of mentors, to pursue mastery of a comprehensive set of outcomes. The mentors are free to customize student expectations in order to provide whatever will be the most helpful to the student. Recognizing that schedules and timetables can arbitrarily limit student learning, Immerse allows students to continue working on a subject until they get to a level of appropriate mastery. When they’ve got it they can move on.

Key to the value of Immerse is its rootedness in context. We believe that the best place to learn to lead the church is the church itself. Immerse students go beyond theory to prove their competency through ministry to real people on the ground. The problem was that seminaries have traditionally understood themselves as campus-based, valuing greatly the learning and personal formation that happens best in community. Our answer was that we agreed in the importance of community, but that we see the church as the primary community and the best environment for student development. This church-centric approach is more consistent with our long-standing commitment to the church as God’s primary instrument for the spread of his Kingdom.

In the end, the examiners were able to appreciate our position, and indicated their desire to approve the program as an official “experiment” of ATS. This experimental status is actually to our benefit. It does not imply any uncertainty or that their decision is provisional. It does acknowledge that what we are doing is unique and that it does exceed the standards as they are currently written. By framing this as an official experiment, ATS has put this program on a much higher profile. The program will be noticed and observed. As we make progress, others will learn the things that we are learning. As we prove results a few years down the road, ATS will be required to build some of what has been learned into the standards that govern every theological school.

In other words, we are literally changing the face of theological education.

The decision of ATS was not guaranteed. In fact there were a number of other schools whose applications for experiments were not granted. When I thanked ATS Executive Director, Dan Aleshire, he said to me, “Well, you didn’t really give us a choice. You were so well prepared and had covered every angle. We had to say yes to you.” While his response was gratifying for its affirmation, it is also encouraging to realize the kind of impact that we are having.

Immerse is jointly owned and was collaboratively developed with David Horita and the team at Fellowship Pacific. The Northwest mission has always been first and foremost about the mission of our churches and so it was important to build this in concert with those churches. Now, however, the effect of what we built is starting to spread.

Currently we have versions of Immerse available to Fellowship Pacific, Fellowship Prairies, Fellowship International, and Baptist Housing. This latter version takes things beyond the world of pastor and church to the world of chaplaincy. We are also now in serious conversation with several other potential partners, schools, and networks all across Canada and into the United States as well. We will share more information when we are able.

On another front, we would encourage you to pray for our developing relationship with SEMBEQ, our Fellowship Baptist related seminary in the province of Quebec. SEMBEQ has been operating successfully for more than 40 years, training great pastoral leaders through their own church-based system, resulting in a strong network of healthy churches and leaders in this very needy place. SEMBEQ, however, does not have a charter, nor do they have accreditation for their programs. Upon their request, we have been working with SEMBEQ to offer their degrees under our charter on their behalf.

In fact, we have made a formal request to the Ministry of Education seeking their permission. We would encourage you to join us in prayer for this matter – particularly for favor with the Quebec government. Recently, Northwest was the subject of an article in the Montreal newspaper La Presse in which the author seemed to have some distress over this supposed incursion of evangelicals into their province. Of course, the Bible is full of instances where God moved the heart of kings and governors who did not acknowledge his sovereignty. We are praying that he will do it yet again.

As we have sought to be faithful with what God has given us, we have begun to see God enlarge our influence. We are grateful for the opportunity. We are deeply aware that this is all for his glory and for his honour.

Thank you for sharing with us in this important task.

Alumni in Ministry

It is always exciting to hear about alumni who are doing well in the ministries for which they are called. I was amazed to see a picture of Northwest alum, Geordan Rendle on a giant video screen in New York City’s Times Square as he was being announced for this role as president of Youth for Christ International. I congratulated Geordan recently and he spoke very warmly of his time with Northwest.

A former police officer, Geordan brings a tremendous amount of experience to this role. Having spent much of his youth in Colombia, Geordan brings a particular passion for the international side of YFC. I can’t wait to hear what happens as this iconic evangelical ministry responds to Geordan’s creative and energetic leadership. Geordan is only the 7th president of YFC. Billy Graham was the first!

On a different matter, I would like to call you to prayer for a very specific item. I have recently returned from Montreal where our dean, Howard Andersen, and our board chair, Dennis Wasyliw, travelled with me to meet with the leadership of SemBEQ, our Fellowship Baptist seminary in the province of Quebec. The purpose of our visit was to finalize arrangements such that Northwest could assist SemBEQ by granting its degrees under our charter. This will require an “order in council” from the Quebec government cabinet, something which our lawyer believes is possible, but something that will require our prayer.

You may not know that Quebec is one of the most un-evangelized places in the world, with fewer evangelicals per capita than you would find in a country like Japan. Within that environment, our Fellowship has actually done pretty well. We have 89 healthy churches in the region, largely due to the development of a great number of effective leaders through the ministry of SemBEQ. Unfortunately, our friends have had to work without appropriate authority as there is no way by which they will be allowed to continue to grant their own degrees.

We are working to see this negative become a positive. It is exciting to see how we are coming together – east-west, French-English – around a mutual vision for church-based ministry leadership development. We think that this collaboration could result in something even more positive for the Kingdom than what we have so far seen. Please pray with us.

These continue to be exciting times for Northwest as we see increasing numbers of churches and networks get involved in our Immerse program. I can hardly wait to see what God will do through all of us owning together this great work.


It is a wonderful thing to observe how God leads. When Mark Carroll told me he was leaving Northwest my feelings were mixed. On one hand, I was thrilled to see Mark step up to lead one of our great churches. After all, that is why we are doing this work. On the other hand, I knew that he would leave a giant hole in our ministry. Very quickly, however, the Lord led us to the two people that he had in mind for us.

Eric Fehr is a Northwest alumnus with a wealth of experience in administration and human resource management. We are very pleased that he was available to handle the day to day assignments of the Dean’s office. I am also truly pleased to welcome back, Dr. Howard Andersen to the position of Academic Dean. Howard will fill this role part time. Together Howard and Eric offer a powerful team that will allow us to move forward on several fronts.

It is particularly encouraging to me that we now have three presidents on the team. I benefit greatly in my filling of the current role by the presence of Larry Perkins who served as president from 2000-2010, and also by Howard’s participation on the team. Howard was President of Northwest in the late 1970s when I began as an undergraduate. These two men have been mentors to me for most of my life. Now to be working together in this manner it is a tremendous blessing. I think it speaks to the consistency of vision and mission that we have tried to encourage here at Northwest.

I also have some further good news to report regarding our application for ATS accreditation for Northwest and for Immerse. We have just recently been informed by the Association of Theological Schools that our application for Candidate Status has been approved. This is the second of three major steps in the process, so we have just one left to go. We have always held our accreditation through our ACTS partnership, but for Northwest to be accredited in its own right is very significant. Of course, for ATS to approve the innovations of the Immerse program is ground-breaking. We will be working hard on the final stage of the process which we hope to complete by the spring of next year.

It is encouraging to see how positively ATS has been looking at these innovations. “Most schools are looking to make their programs easier,” they said to us. “You are actually trying to make the program more challenging!” I think they are correct in that assessment. This past May I was asked to present what we are doing to a meeting of seminary presidents and deans from across Canada. Now, ATS has asked me to present the program to a group of seminary presidents from across North America in San Antonio this January. People are noticing what we are doing. Our influence is spreading.

Speaking of Immerse, we recently completed our first formal assessment process for potential new students and churches in the program. Eleven men and women, selected by their churches came together for two days of intense testing and evaluation. The assessment was done by a team of fifteen faculty, pastors, and Fellowship staff. In the end, ten students were approved for admission into the program. We now have twenty people and churches engaged in this process, and we are still only just getting started. Imagine the impact this will have on our churches down the road.

Clearly, the Lord does lead and we are excited to be in the stream of what he is doing through church-based ministry leadership development. Thanks for all the ways you serve with us in this mission.

We Love Our Alumni!

We love our alumni. Most schools do. It is deeply encouraging to learn ways by which those who have studied with us have gone on to apply their education in fruitful ways. I thought I would mention three of our alumni from across the years, who have come to our attention in particular ways these past months…

I just finished reading Rubbing Shoulders in Yemen, a travel memoir written by Peter Twele. Peter and I were Northwest students together in the late 1970s and early 80s. Peter went on from Northwest to work with Wycliffe Bible Translators and the Canada Institute of Linguistics. This book describes his experiences, 30 years ago when he was carrying out socio-linguistic research in the back-country of Yemen. Reading his stories, I found myself impressed with Peter’s courage, his tenacity, and his evident love for the people God had called him to serve. To this day, Peter has a desire to build bridges of understanding between the West and the Middle East. You can find the book on

I was thrilled to hear about another former Northwest student, Melanie Humphreys, who was recently appointed president of The King’s University College in Edmonton, Alberta. Melanie went on from Northwest to study and serve on staff at Trinity Western. She also held positions at Lithuania Christian College and Wheaton College in Illinois. Bill Diepeveen, chair of King’s Board of Governors said Dr. Humphreys “understands and is excited by King’s vision and mission and has been providing transformational leadership in similar Christian university college environments for years. We are confident she is the strategic and visionary leader and gifted community builder to take us into the next phase of King’s promising future.” King’s serves close to 700 students in Alberta and beyond. We at Northwest are proud to see one of our own have this opportunity to make a difference at this level in Western Canada.

On a different theme, I was saddened to note the death of Northwest alumnus John Affleck. John graduated with a B.Th. in 1983. Along with his wife, Marlene (also an alumnus), John served as a missionary in Pakistan for many years. He also served the poor and disadvantaged in his work with the Union Gospel Mission. At Northwest we are proud of John and of his service to our Lord. He has exemplified everything we have tried to teach and pass along to our students. May many rise up to follow his example.

We are in the business of producing men and women who will have this kind of impact for the glory of our God and for the good of his kingdom. With more than 3,000 such people out there serving, we know that these stories are only representative of the many great things that God is doing through our alumni.


Board of Governors Award given to Janet Anderson

The Board of Governors of Northwest Baptist Seminary is pleased to present its first Board of Governors Award to Janet Anderson.

Janet Anderson from PSJanet, it has been said, “was a woman’s woman.” From the time she started her career in nursing until she went home to be with her Lord, Janet never did things in half measures. Her desire to see people come to Christ as well as her conviction that women and men should be treated equal provided the motivation that drove her in the many things that she did. She did these things wholeheartedly and with conviction.

Janet’s life was filled with a variety of experiences. She was a businesswoman, operating a catering business and a gift shop. She received a Master of Christian Studies degree from Regent College and in her last years had begun to work on a Doctor of Ministry degree. Convinced of the importance of lay theology, Janet worked closely with Dr. Paul Stevens in the advancement of “marketplace chaplaincy” as well as assisting in the Vancouver International Airport Chaplaincy program. Janet served as a camp counsellor and program director at Camp Qwanoes for many years. Hundreds of young campers, who knew her as “Thumper,” were exposed to the gospel through her energetic ministry. Later on she expressed this passion by serving for years on the Camp Qwanoes Board of Directors. Throughout her life she was an active and hospitable member of Dunbar Heights Baptist Church.

Of particular interest to Northwest Baptist Seminary was her many years of service on the Northwest Board of Governors, beginning in 1986. She served a number of terms on the board over a span of 20 years. She also served on the Fellowship Pacific Board, serving the larger vision of our Fellowship of Churches. Additionally, Janet served Northwest and its students as the first director of the ACTS Seminaries Chaplaincy program, training and advising many people toward significant careers as hospital, military, and marketplace chaplains.

Long time friend and current Northwest board member, Julia Denis, says, “Janet was a Lydia. Like Lydia the Lord had opened her heart and she served with excellence. She contributed much and we honour her generous gifts of leadership, wisdom, and creative vision.”

Sadly for us, Janet is no longer with us, having gone to be with her Lord on October 14, 2012. Just prior to her death, Northwest Chairman of the Board, Larry Nelson, and President, Kent Anderson were able to be with Janet to pray with her, to thank her for her service and to inform her of her receipt of this award. “I am overwhelmed,” she said repeatedly. “If any of the things I have done have been of use to the Lord, I am grateful.” By this commendation, we are affirming that her life and service has, in fact, been of great use to us and to her Lord. She will be missed.


Reflections on 10 Years of Leadership Development

For the last ten years, Lyle Schrag has served on the Northwest faculty and as Director of the Fellowship Center for Leadership Development. Lyle is concluding his full-time service with Northwest, but will continue to be involved with us in a number of ways, including serving as an Immerse faculty mentor. Northwest President, Kent Anderson recently sat down with Lyle to share the following conversation.

Northwest Baptist Seminary FacultyKent: One thing a lot of people won’t know about you is that you continue to serve with the US Coast Guard. What have you learned from your experience that is helpful for thinking about ministry leadership?

Lyle: The Coast Guard is very much like the church in that most of the people involve themselves voluntarily. I recognize the necessity for an organization’s leaders to have tight boundaries around its work with volunteers. There needs to be a distinct set of parameters, different from what you might find when working with professional staff. I have seen a good convergence here in the area of governance and church boards. It is a good idea to describe distinct job descriptions for every position in the church including volunteers so everyone knows what they’re supposed to do and who they are accountable to and how it relates to the mission of the church. For example, what are the required times, the duration of the commitment, is any training required? All of those elements are reinforced in the Coast Guard.

Kent: You have had a big impact helping our churches develop better patterns of governance. What is one thing you would say to churches that might help them in this area?

Lyle: The key discovery is that governance is a critical spiritual ministry. Many churches don’t view governance as spiritual, but more a management concern. But I would say that the church board is the primary spiritual community of the church.

Kent: So governance could be pastoral.

Lyle: It is. The quality of fellowship within the congregation is defined by the quality of fellowship within the leadership. If the board cannot approach their relationship together as a spiritual community it is difficult to assume that the rest of the congregation is experiencing what their board is not experiencing. On the other hand if a church board is able to approach their relationship together as if they are defining what it means to be a spiritual community and approach their work that way, it begins to resound itself out to the rest of the body. I have found that many students and pastors, understand their role as the primary leader of their church, while viewing the board as a competitor to their dreams. They don’t realize that the key spiritual and pastoral relationship in the church is between the pastor and the board chairperson. This is where a lot of the health issues fall apart.

Kent: You spend a lot of time working on student care and it really shows. Students love the impact you’ve had on their lives. What gives you hope for the church as you think about the students who are aspiring to leadership these days?

Lyle: One is their maturity. A lot of the students we have here are experienced and they come out of a working area already with a real sense of focus. They’re doing this because they believe that God is calling them to ministry. I am seeing that sense of calling and momentum more and more. The second thing I see is a growing affection for the church. I’ve been here ten years and I would say that the first five years I was seeing the attitude of “I love Jesus, but I hate the church.” That’s shifting and I’m seeing now a number of students determining adamantly to love and serve within the church. I kind of despaired a couple of years ago hearing students talk about doing ministry in any other area but the church, but now they’re saying, “I want to impact the church.”

Kent: You mentioned 10 years. Are there a couple of highlights?

Lyle: Working with the students and being here 10 years means I’ve had a chance to see God work with them and through them over time. I have been able to leverage my experience into their lives, continuing that relationship as they move on and continue in ministry. That has been pretty profound. Alumni contact me consistently so that I feel that I’ve not only made an initial investment but I can continue the relationship with them. The same thing happens with churches. I think particularly of the Best Practices for Church Boards seminars, and through them, the relationship with pastors, similar to the relationship I have with students and alumni. I contact them and pray for them regularly and let them know that I am thinking about them and praying for them. Of course, the teaching opportunity has been great as well. I really thrive in that environment.

Kent: What is something hopeful that you are trusting the Lord for in the future?

Lyle: I would use the word “satisfying” more than “hopeful.” The satisfaction I’m taking now is being able to leverage my experience and skill. I’m doing transitional pastoring, preaching and consulting with churches, having the opportunity of mentoring a new generation of leadership. It’s not a future I’m creating for myself, but a future I’m creating for others.


Share in the Work

Share in the Work of ‘Church-Based’ Ministry Leadership Development

Northwest has a big vision for the future of its ministry. While we are not a large seminary, we have a large sense of what God can do through us as we pioneer innovative ways of pursuing ministry leadership development in partnership with our churches. We are all about developing Christ-centred ministry leaders in the church, for the church, and in partnership with the church.

In our vision, Northwest is preparing significant numbers of students who are committed to their Bible and who know their theology, having forged these commitments in the context of real-time, ground-level ministry in the church under the close scrutiny of seasoned and caring pastoral and academic mentors. We see Northwest, in the fore-front of a new wave of integrated learning structures that ensure we have leaders who not only know their stuff, but who can live it out in relationship with actual people.

To see this vision through, we rely upon our friends. We appreciate that not everyone can join our faculty or staff. We also understand that the passion for this ministry does not exist only among our employees. Many of you are looking for ways by which you can participate meaningfully in this work of Church Based Ministry Leadership Development.

Compelling Reasons to Participate

There are several reasons a person might feel compelled to get involved…

If you are an Alumnus and God has used Northwest to shape you personally, you will want to give back so that Northwest can continue to work to shape the next generation of leaders like yourself.

If you love the Fellowship and you are committed to the work of this particular group of churches, you will want to join us as we own the responsibility for the next generation of leaders for our movement.
Perhaps you are an innovator, and you value creativity. You, then, might want to seed the next great direction in ministry leadership development – our Church-Based Training Program.

It may be that you simply love the gospel and you want to see it preached. If so, you will want to support those whom God is calling to give their lives to this great work.

Opportunities for Involvement

In the desire to develop new teams of people who are willing to get behind this compelling vision, we have identified a number of levels at which you could participate.

If you have received this newsletter, you are a part of The Northwest Network. Members of the Network are alumni and others who have reason to be interested in the work that we are doing.

Many of you have gone beyond simple interest, to participate in some significant way. We call this group The Friends of Northwest. These “Friends” are anyone who has recently given to Northwest, volunteered for Northwest, or demonstrated potential as one who might show commitment to the ministry of the Seminary. We look forward to welcoming our “Friends” to a series of free “Friends of Northwest Barbeques” to be held later in this year.

Some of our “Friends” will want to become Student Sponsorship Partners. These Partners are donors who commit to give on a monthly or annual basis due to their interest in supporting a particular student. For example, if we can find ten people who would give $50 per month, we could completely cover the academic costs of one student in the Church-Based Training program.

We trust that some of you will want to take this to another level, becoming members of The President’s Circle. This Circle is a group of patrons who have given significantly to the ministry of Northwest, demonstrated either through a recent large gift, or a committed pattern of giving, or who have shown significant commitment to the ministry of Northwest as a volunteer, advocate, or student mentor. Members of the President’s Circle will receive a complementary invitation to an annual President’s Circle dinner, and will receive regular e-mail communications from the President, through which they will receive current news items, significant invitations to prayer, and the opportunity to advise the President on questions of significance.

In addition, we will be developing a group of Northwest Advocates, who will serve as volunteer “cheerleaders” for the ministry of the Seminary. Made up largely of alumni, board members, and enthusiastic donors, Advocates will work to support the Development Team within their church and geographic region, identifying and encouraging potential supporters for our ministry.

Finally, some of our Friends will want to become Legacy Partners. These partners are distinguished patrons who have shown an exemplary level of commitment as a Friend of Northwest and/or a member of the President’s Circle, either through making Northwest a part of their estate, by giving a significant financial gift toward some special purpose, or by giving extraordinary service to the work of Northwest over a significant period of time.

Gaining Benefit from your Involvement

People that get involved in this ministry find it extremely beneficial on a personal level. One donor and former board member recently told us that, “being involved with Northwest was one of the most meaningful experiences of his life.” When you consider that this comment came from a former high-ranking business executive in a major Canadian corporation, you can appreciate the significance of what he had to say.

Of course, the primary benefit of participation has more to do with the ministry impact on our students and upon those that they will serve. There are, for example, a number of ways that a financial gift can be of help.

$400    – provides financial aid for one course for a student.
$1,000 – provides the development cost for one church-based training course.
$1,250 – provides financial aid for one full-time student for a full semester.
$2,500 – provides for a faculty member to teach in an international mission site.

These are just some of the possible incentives. Donors with a specific interest should speak to Director of Development, Ron Sing, or to our President, Kent Anderson, about other such possibilities – for example funding the Information Technology needs of the Seminary for a year, or paying the costs involved in holding a faculty-taught seminar within a local church.

Significant Work Requires Significant Involvement

This is significant work – of such consequence that some of us have given our lives to it. Please let us know of any interest that you have.

Romans 10:13-15 reminds us that the gospel can’t be heard if there is no one there to preach it, and there will be no one there if no one has been sent. We consider training to be the critical part in sending. We would encourage you to join us as we seek to raise up significant numbers of highly qualified, ministry and pastoral leaders, for the good of our churches, for the good of God’s Kingdom, and for the good of God’s glory.

Thank you for supporting Northwest and our ministry. To make a donation please call our office directly at 604-888-7592 or Toll Free 1-888-402-3477.

Please send your cheques to

Northwest Baptist Seminary
7600 Glover Road
Langley,  BC, V2Y 1Y1,

Please make your cheque  payable to Northwest Baptist Seminary.

For  online giving please visit our “How to Donate to Northwest” page on this website.

ACTS Appreciation Chapel for Dr. Larry Perkins

On December 7, we honored our out-going Northwest Baptist Seminary President, Larry Perkins with a special chapel service at ACTS Seminaries. The service included reflective comments from Dr. Perkins’ longtime friend and colleague, Bill Badke. A highlight was Larry’s brief reflections on his service and particularly upon the significant contribution of his wife, Judy.

A video of the service is available for you to view here.

ACTS Appreciation Chapel for Dr. Larry Perkins










John Brand on Expository Preaching

Rev. John Brand runs a website, Encouraging Expository Excellence out of Edinburgh, Scotland. In a recent email conversation, John offered these responses to some interesting questions about expository preaching.

1. Where do you place the importance of preaching in the grand scheme of church life?
I am utterly and increasingly convinced it has to be the heartbeat and central focus. There are many hallmarks of a true church and many things churches should be doing but none more vital and strategic than the faithful preaching of the Word of God. If the Word of God is not at the heart of its activities then it is no longer a church and simply a religious organisation.

2. In a paragraph, how did you discover your gifts in preaching?
I was born into a Manse, the son and grandson of missionary preachers, and I think to start with it was almost a natural thing to do – to try my hand at preaching. My father’s church – who were not, it has to said, the most spiritually discerning of folk – gave me opportunity in my mid-teens and I was encouraged to persevere as well as sensing a growing burden and joy in my own spirit for this great work.

3. How long (on average) does it take you to prepare a sermon?
To be honest, it takes me longer now than when I started out more than 30 years ago and in the Lords goodness I think that is partly because I take the responsibility much more seriously now than at any other time in my life. I guess these day it takes me anywhere between 12 and 15 hours on average.

4. Is it important to you that a sermon contain one major theme or idea? If so, how do you crystallise it?
I wish I had realised the importance of this in my early days of preaching because I have come to realise how vital this issue is for effective communication. There is a tendency, especially when you are younger, to try and cram too much into one sermon and generally speaking, not only can most folk not cope with that but it can so easily blur the God-intended focus of the passage. In some way I find this the hardest and often most time-consuming aspect of preparation and yet you can’t move forward until you have identified it. For me, I just try writing out ‘the big idea’ again and again and again; restating it until I feel I am doing justice to the Scripture I am working.

5. What is the most important aspect of a preacher’s style and what should he avoid?
Firstly, it is vital that we are truly ourselves in the pulpit and not try to be somebody or something we are not. Affected tones of voice and imitation of others is for the stage and not the pulpit. Sincerity and integrity are key. Two other vital ingredients for me are earnestness and passion. We live in a day and age of all too often lifeless, take-it-or-leave-it preaching and it’s inconsistent with the message we preach or the one in whose name we claim to speak.

6. What notes, if any, do you use?
These days, my notes are much fuller than they used to be, though I have gone through different stages in my ministry. It varies too depending on the nature of the sermon. A more closely reasoned exposition, working through the logic of a passage, for example, will demand more notes than a study in one of the parables. For me, it’s not so much the quantity of the notes but the familiarity with the text and notes and though my notes are fuller I probably refer to them less than I used to.

7. What are the greatest perils that preacher must avoid?
I have already referred to things like affectation. We must also studiously avoid disclosing confidences, even by allusion. We must avoid ‘showing off’ the work done in preparation. Perhaps the greatest sin to avoid is saying any less or any more than the text we are preaching says.

8. How do you fight to balance preparation for preaching with other important responsibilities (eg. pastoral care, leadership responsibilities)
In recent years this has been a special challenge for me, now as a Bible College Principal and before that heading up a Mission agency, rather than in church-based pastoral ministry. It’s really a case of identifying and protecting priorities. I have had to ring fence time slots and tell my colleagues that I am unavailable except in emergencies.

9. What, in your opinion, are the top 5 books on preaching that have been most helpful to you as a preacher, with perhaps a few words by way of comment about them?
-Bryan Chapell’s Christ Centered Preaching is, in my opinion, simply the best there is
-Ramesh Richard’s Preaching Expository Sermons really helped me work on and teach the importance of structure with his very helpful model of the human body
-Arturo Azurdia’s Spirit Empowered Preaching provides the perfect balance between hard work on the part of the exegete and preacher and the empowering of God’s Spirit
-Michael Fabarez’s Preaching that Changes Lives is the most helpful book on application that I have found
-John Piper’s The Supremacy of God in Preaching keeps reigniting my passion for preaching and keeps my sights fixed on God

10. Which preachers, living or dead, have had the greatest influence on your own ministry?
During my student days I read many of Spurgeon’s sermons and through Lloyd-Jones sermons on Romans and Ephesians and, albeit largely unconsciously, imbibed a commitment to systematic, verse by verse exposition, though not at the same level of detail as the Doctor! Sinclair Ferguson taught and modelled homiletics as well as systematic theology and made a monumental impact on my life and, humanly speaking, I owe him a unique debt. The inspired passion of men like Steven Lawson and John Piper are also a great example.

10. What steps do you take to nurture or encourage developing or future preachers?
This has always been a joyful privilege and responsibility for me. In my first pastorate I gather a group of 3 men and we met on a monthly basis to encourage one another and I gave them regular opportunities to cut their preaching teeth and try and help them. I am and have been involved in several preachers workshops, seminars and conferences. One of my greatest joys in this area has been an annual workshop in Sudan where I have seen 50 church leaders grow in their confidence in and ability to handle the word of God. I teach homiletics at the College where I serve and also blog on preaching at www.encouraging where, among other things, I hold a ‘sermon clinic’.

11. What advice would you give to a young man who is wondering whether God is calling him into a preaching ministry, firstly in terms of recognising the genuineness of a call and secondly in acting on it?
Be obedient! Of course, we must take seriously the immense responsibility of such a charge, but if someone senses that God is leading them in this direction – perhaps because as they hear others preach they have a godly sense of ‘I could do that’ – pray that others will prompt you and give you opportunity and look to mature, experienced spiritual leaders to confirm – or otherwise – the gift of a preacher in you.

12. Is good expository preaching something that is ‘caught’ or ‘taught’; where is the balance between the two?
I have no doubts that it is both. There must, of course, be the divine gifting in the first place, but preaching is both an art and a science and skills can be sharpened and honed. One of the neglected responsibilities laid on preachers is to model good preaching to others.

13. What is the secret of perseverance in a preaching ministry?
A constant re-submission to the call of God on your life and an awareness of the fact that there is no greater or more important task on the planet!

14. What is the secret of freshness in a preaching ministry?
Keep close to God and to his Word. The more I read Scripture, the more I want to preach Scripture as I gain new insights. I am more enthusiastic today about preaching than I was over 35 years ago when I started out.

“Deep Church”

Deep Church

On my website, I posted the following review about Jim Belcher’s new book, Deep Church.  Click on the link below to read it in its entirety.

If you are anything like me, you have found yourself whip-sawed in recent years between the traditional and emerging churches. My recent comments on the Piper/Wright debate are a case in point. As much as I appreciate John Piper’s emphasis upon the legal aspects of the atonement, I find myself compelled by Wright’s concern for the broader implications of justification. As I read these conversations, I get the sense that the various parties are somehow “talking past each other,” as if they were speaking different languages.

For that reason, I was instantly drawn to Jim Belcher’s objective in his new book, Deep Church. Belcher, who has been something of an “insider” to the conversation over many years, is searching for a “third way beyond emerging and traditional.” Utilizing a phrase he found in C.S. Lewis, Belcher describes this third way as “Deep Church,” a way of doing and being church that draws on both sides of the continuum. The result, one hopes, is a church that avoids the excesses of the combatants, while embracing what is good in both.

>>View the entire article here

How Do You Handle the Word of God?

Ed Stetzer has published an excellent research-based article on the ways that preachers use the Bible: How Do You Handle the Word of God. Lifeway research looked at 450 online sermons in order to discern the place of Scripture in contemporary preaching.

Some findings…

“Half of pastors traveled verse-by-verse through a passage, and almost half organized their sermons around a theme. Almost one out of five pastors named and explained a Greek word in their sermon. More than half explained verses by using other verses in the Bible.”

“In fact, 41 percent explained at least one church or theological word during their sermon. Another 21 percent avoided such words altogether. This means more than half of the preachers we studied either avoided or at least explained some of the church or theological words they used. While this is notable, it still means that one out of three preachers are not speaking in the vernacular of their audience—at least if the uninitiated or unchurched are in attendance.”

“Half of these preachers focused their preaching around one block of scripture text, moving verse-by-verse through the passage. … Another 46 percent of preachers focused their preaching around a main theme, question, or topic using multiple Scriptures to support it. …Finally, the other 4 percent organized their message around one main biblical character using multiple Scriptures to support the theme.”

“The preachers we surveyed had a definite preference for the New Testament. Nearly three quarters (71 percent) of the main biblical texts were found in the New Testament. More than a third (37 percent) of the sermons came from the New Testament letters alone. A quarter came from the Gospels.”

“When preachers flipped through their New Testament looking for a passage to preach upon, they didn’t flip far. Matthew was the most preached-upon and the most referenced book in the entire Bible. Genesis was the most preached-upon Old Testament book. Luke, John, Acts of the Apostles, and Romans—all from the New Testament—were the other most likely biblical books for preachers to use as a main text.”

While these statistics are interesting, Stetzer’s analysis is important. “How we handle the Word of God matters,” he says. “As preachers, we have a limited time with our audience every week. The question is, how will we use that time? Will we handle the Word of God in a way that demonstrates its authority in our lives and over the lives of our listeners?”

The Pre-Service

I recently had the privilege of preaching and teaching at The Meeting Place, an innovative Fellowship Baptist church in Nanaimo, BC. Putting together worship at this church is a logistical challenge given that they gather several hundred people over multiple services in a rented movie theatre. If church isn’t done by noon, they will be over-run by people looking for the latest Will Ferrell or Ben Stiller movie. Running services at a place like this requires a lot of volunteer labor.

At 8:15 in the morning, the large team of volunteers has already been at work for some time, setting up equipment, configuring sound and video, and rehearsing music. At that point, lead pastor Dave Koot gathers the whole team for a brief pre-service. They talk through service details, confirm critical pieces, and then Dave offers a kind of mini-sermon, after which the people spend some time in prayer.

I was impressed, first by the commitment and enthusiasm of these volunteers, and second, by the impact of the brief pre-sermon. This opportunity allowed the pastor to prep the people for the specific objectives and goals of this service. The team was then better able to participate in the service in pursuit of the goals for the actual service and sermon. I think that something like this could be replicated to good effect in other churches.

Kudos to the folks at TMP for their commitment to serving Christ,  for their innovation and example, and for their unflinching dedication to seeing lost people come to faith in Jesus.

The Necessity of Words

I was pleased to see a piece by St. Francis biographer, Mark Galli on Francis’ famous dictum that we "preach the gospel: if necessary use words." This sentence is often used to suggest that the gospel can be preached without recourse to language. For the most part, this is a misunderstanding of Francis who was the kind of hellfire and brimstone preacher that would shock most of us today.

Galli writes, "’Preach the gospel; use words if necessary’ goes hand in hand with a postmodern assumption that words are finally empty of meaning. It subtly denigrates the high value that the prophets and Jesus and Paul put on preaching. Of course we want our actions to match our words as much as possible. But the gospel is a message, news about an event and a person upon which the history of the planet turns. As blogger Justin Taylor recently put it, the Good News can no more be communicated by deeds than can the nightly news."

While I’m strongly in support of actions that prove our preaching, the fact is, it is always necessary to use words.


A Sense of Expectation

Here’s a quote from my book, Choosing to Preach, pages 250-51…

"We just don’t expect much from God when set to preaching. Many preachers believe that God will speak through his Word but that it will happen in some muted sense. We don’t expect our skin to tingle. We don’t imagine that the hair on the backs of our necks will be raised like Isaiah’s was when he met God in the temple. Perhaps our sense of God is too hypothetical. We have preached too many sermons in which nothing seemed to happen. We no longer anticipate God’s powerful presence. We don’t expect the ground to move or the doorposts to shake."

"This is to our shame. Preachers are far too tentative far too often in our expectation of God and in our expectation that people will actually respond. Ideas are floated and propositions are posited without our ever describing a specific expected result. Or if a result of the sermon is described, it is suggested as a hypothetical possibility of what could happen someday if we ever found ourselves in the situation described by the sermon – one day, maybe, perhaps… It is always about what we will do at some other time – at work or at school – when faced with the problem or the opportunity that the preacher has in mind. It is always about some other time and some other place."

"I keep thinking that if God were truly present, we ought to expect more and see more in the act of the sermon itself. Do we really believe that this sermon could change things? Do we really believe that God is present and will work powerfully even in the moment of the sermon? If we did, we might be a little more aggressive."

"We could afford to be more aggressive in our preaching. Not in a threatening way. Listeners don’t want their preacher to get in their faces and pound on the pulpit. That’s been done, and not so effectively. But listeners do want to be challenged. Listeners love the idea that something critical could happen here and now as we listen to the Word and put it into practice. Could we gain a greater vision for the preaching event? Could we push a little harder and be a little more pointed in directing our objectives?"

Doctrine that Dances

I don’t hear a great deal of doctrinal preaching these days. I hear a lot of pragmatic preaching, a lot of exegetical preaching, a lot of narrative preaching, but not so much preaching that intends to explicate the great doctrines of the Scripture for the edification of the hearers. Perhaps this has something to do with a corresponding ebb in the interest of systematic theological studies in favor of the more emergent-friendly biblical theology movement. Or perhaps it is because not enough of us know how to handle doctrine in a sermon the way that Robert Smith does.

Smith, professor of Christian preaching at Beeson Divinity School at Samford University is the author of Doctrine that Dances: Bringing Doctrinal Preaching and Teaching to Life. As one who has come from a background that discouraged dancing in the church, I find Smith’s choreographical metaphor to be both illuminating and refreshing. It is probably even biblical. Smith notes the presence of the Greek word "epichoregias" in Philippians 1:19. In this text the Holy Spirit "choreographs" events so that they turn out for Paul’s deliverance. Would not we love for the Spirit to work similarly through our preaching of the doctrines of God’s Word?

Of course, one could wonder whether Smith is talking specifically about good doctrinal preaching, or just good preaching in general. His definition of doctrinal preaching is "the escorting of the hearers into the presence of God for the purpose of transformation." I think that this offers an excellent definition of every kind of preaching, which begs the question whether every kind of preaching ought to be doctrinal, at least to some degree. Throughout my reading of the book I found myself saying, he’s not just describing good doctrinal preaching, he’s just describing good preaching! What I am suggesting is that this book cannot be dismissed as limited to a particular brand of preaching.

That said, the world could use a lot more preaching that was intentional about communicating doctrine. In our attempts to accommodate the listener, we sometimes give the truth something less than what its due. People don’t know enough theology and while I’d love to think that we are addressing this problem through the seminaries, I know that most of this needs to happen in the church. Much of it will need to happen through our preaching. I agree with Smith, that if preachers could awaken a new love for the truth of the Bible, that would be a good thing. "Christians are experiencing spiritual immaturity and spiritual death. One of the reasons for this is that worshippers are being served sermonic snacks instead of the doctrinal meat of the Word of God. if doctrine is presented with joy and accuracy, the hearers will not only stand it, they will crave more of it (6)."

Smith does well to remind us, that such preaching must be both "cranial and cardiological (8)." It must speak both to the listener’s heart as well as its head. Doctrinal preaching need not be boring. Doctrinal preaching, like all preaching, must learn to dance.

The use of the word "escort" in Smith’s definition is not by accident. Smith makes much of two rather provocative metaphors, the "exegetical escort" and the "doxological dancer." Smith admits the sexual overtones of his language (76), but claims to find biblical warrant for their use in texts such as Galatians 3:24. I must say, however, that paidagogos speaks more of the language of the classroom (tutoring and training) than it does of one who ushers or escort. In other words, I think Smith might be guilty of a rather ironic exegetical slip.

That said, I have little difficulty with the concept. "The eschatological escort," Smith writes, "is one who ushers hearers into the presence of God for the purpose of transformation. Once the exegetical escort has ushered hearers into the presence of God and given them the Word, the escort’s job is over. The escort leaves them in the throne room of God and lets God transform them (75)."

This is an important idea. I have used a similar image – that of a ‘host’. No one ought to come to hear me preach. I’m simply hosting an opportunity for my listeners to meet and hear from God. Of course the word "host" would damage the alliterative appeal of Smith’s concept.

The question Smith would like to ask is whether we preachers know how to dance. Though I’m loathe to admit it, my family and I have taken to watching So You Think You Can Dance? every now and again. I have been surprised by my reaction to this television competition. I’ve been impressed by the combination of athleticism and artistry that these dancers are able to exhibit. Many times I have found myself moved to tears, not only by the beauty they portray but also by the message that a particular piece is sometimes able to convey. I have thought that I would love for my preaching to produce a similar kind of impact.

I, like Smith, would love to think that my preaching – even my specifically doctrinal preaching – could somehow actually dance!

Grateful for God’s Protection

The following story, incredible as it sounds, is true. I share it as testimony to the protecting power of God and the tremendous benefit of belonging to a community of God’s people.

Last Friday my wife and I received a disturbing midnight telephone call from our 18-year old son who is temporarily working in London, England. Kirk was in his bed late at night watching a movie on his computer when three masked men broke into his apartment and began to threaten both him and his room-mate. These were serious Eastern European "mafia" type criminals looking to take captive someone named Kevin, presumably a previous tenant of the apartment.

Kirk and his friend had only been in the apartment for about two weeks and had no idea who or what these men were talking about. It took some time for the intruders to realize that the person they were looking for was not in the apartment. At that point the intruders became angry and decided to turn things into a robbery. My son and his friend were bound, gagged, and held in separate rooms while the thieves ransacked the apartment, destroying the carpeting, the furniture, and taking with them everything of value. At one point, they held a knife to Kirk’s throat, demanding the PIN numbers for his bank cards. Eventually, after afflicting a full hour of terror, the intruders left. Kirk was able to work himself and his room-mate free before quickly summoning the police.

After returning from several hours at the police station, Kirk called us on a neighbor’s borrowed computer. Unfortunately, the call was dropped and he was unable to re-establish a connection. All we knew, here in Canada, was a basic summary of the incident and the knowledge that he was physically unharmed. We spent the rest of the night trying to re-establish contact.

We first tried calling the London police but we could not find a number that would allow an overseas connection. We tried the local police here in the hope that they might have a way of connecting us. They suggested calling the Canadian Foreign Affairs department in Ottawa. We did, but given that it was the weekend, they were only willing to take a report. We tried to find Kirk’s employer, but as he works for a very large franchised company, we were unable to find him by that means.

A few hours hours later, my wife noticed a pen from Hillsong, the church that Kirk has been involved with while in London. "We could call the church," she said. We did and were immediately assured that the church knew about the incident and had been actively involved in supporting the boys. Within ten minutes we were talking to our son. Where the government and the police couldn’t help us, it was the church that was able to give us the help that we needed.

Of course the church helped in many further ways. Kirk was given some emergency financial assistance. Church members have helped with the apartment clean-up and restoration. Kirk was able to indefinitely borrow a computer from one church member and a phone from another, making communication possible again. For all this, we are truly grateful to the good people at Hillsong London. The community of God’s people are a tremendous resource in a crisis.

Most of all, we are grateful to God for the courage and the protection that he has given to our son. Kirk is doing reasonably well. He has been able to sleep. He tells us that God gave him the ability to remain calm as he was praying throughout the ordeal. "I always knew that God was with me," he said, "and that I was going to make it through."

I can’t tell you how gratifying it is as a parent, to see one’s son responding with maturity and wisdom in the most trying of experiences. Under severe pressure his faith held up and God proved himself faithful. Praise be to his name.

I want to thank all of you who have been aware of these circumstances and who have been praying. We are grateful to God for all of you.

Will Video Venues Kill Preaching as We Know It?

Will video venues eventually mean the death of preaching? This is the provocative idea argued by Bob Hyatt on his

Hyatt cites Shane Hipps in his book Flickering Pixels, who suggests that “every medium when pushed to an extreme, will reverse on itself, revealing unintended consequences.” The car, for example, eased our mobility, but too many cars results in injury, death, and environmental damage. The internet speeds communications and reduces ignorance, but too much information leads to greater confusion. “Surveillance cameras, when there are too many that see too far, reverse into an invasion of privacy,” says Hipps.

“In other words,” Hyatt writes, “what was originally meant to make us go fast now slows us down, what was meant to make us smart now increases our ignorance and what was meant to make us feel safe now makes us feel exposed.” The rule, he says, is that “technology, taken too far, creates the opposite of what it was intended to create.”

Hyatt applies this theory to preaching. Microphones were intended to increase our range. Tapes, television, podcasts, and vodcasts all serve to continue to extend the reach of our preaching. The problem, he says, is that now through technology we’re not only recording the sermon, but we’re broadcasting it so that the preaching gift of one person not only has the “ability to reach the back row, but the next town, state, continent.” “And we’re not just talking about Spurgeon publishing his sermons,” he continues, “or Schuller putting his on TV or Driscoll putting his on iTunes… Now we’re talking about not just influencing local preachers by making the ‘best’ communicator’s sermons available… we’re talking about replacing those local teaching elders.” The technology, he says, is reversing on itself.

Hyatt envisions a soon future where every city will have, among others, the Driscoll franchise, the Andy Stanley franchise, and perhaps two or three of each. “Sure, smaller churches will still exist, but in fewer and fewer numbers as dying churches are replaced not by vibrant church plants full of people forced to build a community from the ground up and so learn all the lessons along the way, but by video venue franchises – prepackaged church-in-a-box. And I’m telling you – there will be fewer and fewer men and women (most certainly fewer women) who ever learn to preach, who ever get the experience of working with others to discern what God is saying to their local body through Spirit and Word and prayerfully struggle through how they can creatively communicate that as well over the course of weeks, months and years of life together.”

“We’re talking about the death of preaching in evangelicalism by all but a small handful of Celebrity Communicators who have little knowledge about those they teach from such far distances.”

Of course, we’ve heard this kind of thing before. People have been announcing the end of preaching for as long as can remember. I suspect that the video venue phenomenon will continue and increase in influence, but I’m suspicious of this movement’s ability to completely overtake the church. As a friend of mine put it, you are I on an average day are better than the video preachers on their best day.

I don’t doubt the effect of large screen preaching by specially gifted communicators. These days, we all know the power of the big screen. What I am thinking about, however, is the pastoral nature of preaching. Whether or not we listen once a week to the celebrity preacher, we will still need someone in our midst who knows us and who walks with us.

Besides, preaching happens throughout the church, in multiple venues and many different ways, practiced by a variety of people. To say that preaching is dying, is frankly, laughable. Of course, if we only see preaching as the privilege of a single person, set apart for this special purpose, then we might as well begin connecting to the satellites and enlarging the screen size in our sanctuaries.

Preaching will never be the privilege of only just a handful. Preaching is the task of all of us. May it live long and prosper.

Let’s Get the Application Right!

I just spent some time working through Haddon Robinson’s excellent article, The Heresy of Application with a group of students. Robinson contends that there is more heresy preached in application than through exegesis. It is when we try to concretize the listener’s response to God’s Word that we often get in trouble. In our attempt to help people with practical aspects of their life experience, we sometimes credit God with things he never actually said.

Does the Bible promise that if we raise our children as Christians, that they will always life faithfully for Christ? Does the Word of God promise that husbands and wives who submit to each other will never experience disharmony in their marriages? Well, no, despite the fact that these things are often preached that way.

There are several kinds of implications that can arise from the texts we preach, Robinson says. “For example, a necessary implication of “You shall not commit adultery” is you cannot have a sexual relationship with a person who is not your spouse. A probable implication is you ought to be very careful of strong bonding friendships with a person who is not your spouse. A possible implication is you ought not travel regularly to conventions or other places with a person who is not your spouse. An improbable conclusion is you should not at any time have lunch with someone who is not your spouse. An impossible implication is you ought not have dinner with another couple because you are at the same table with a person who is not your spouse. Too often preachers give to a possible implication all the authority of a necessary implication, which is at the level of obedience. Only with necessary implications can you preach, ‘Thus saith the Lord.’”

Those of us who care about honoring God by getting the text right, will also want to make sure that we get the application right as well.

How Women Hear the Sermon

I have long written and taught about the value of investing sermon time developing “the problem.” By that I have meant that preachers ought to utilize “the listener’s voice” to identify with the hearer’s struggle to embrace the big idea of the sermon. We can’t always be telling people what they ought to know, believe, and do. We ought to spend some of our time appreciating the struggle that such things involve. Doing this doesn’t undermine our preaching – it deepens it.

What I hadn’t thought enough about is how such an approach might be received by the more than half of the congregation that is female. According to Pam MacRae, in The Moody Handbook on Preaching, women are particularly interested in this use of their own voice in preaching. There may, in fact, be a gender difference on this point. Given that most preachers are male, this aspect of the sermon might be even more important than I had thought. Let me quote MacRae at some length…

“Women typically have deep emotional waters and want to be understood. In the classic scenario, a woman wants to talk about a problem she is facing with her husband, only to get his quick response telling her how she should fix it. Her frustration and irritation shoots through the roof. She wanted him to listen to her and understand how she was feeling. He thought the best way to be helpful was to tell her how to fix it.”

“Generally, it is enough for her to feel heard and understood, which is of great value to her. She may eventually want help, but what she really wants is to feel validated in her experience, and then perhaps hear something soothing and comforting.

“Tannen notes that men are sometimes confused by the various ways women use conversation to be intimate with others. One of these ways she calls ‘troubles talk.’ She says, ‘For women, talking about troubles is the essence of connection. I tell you my troubles, you tell me your troubles, and we’re close. Men, however, hear troubles talk as a request for advice, so they respond with a solution.’”

“Conversations with the pastor give a woman information about the level of understanding he has for women in general. Does he offer quick solutions, answers or comments? Or, does he really listen to her? When a man offers an off-the-cuff solution, a woman may feel he is trying to diminish or dismiss her problem. He is communicating that he does not get her. This does not build trust and can profoundly affect how a woman hears the pastor in the pulpit.”

Obama’s Oratory

Whether or not you supported Barack Obama in the recent American election, or are pleased by the result, you have to appreciate him for his oratorical skill. Nurtured in the African-American preaching tradition, Obama inspires with his sweeping rhetoric. The man is a truly effective public speaker. Some might argue that he hasn’t yet come up with anything to rival, "I have a dream…" or "Ask not what your country can do for you…" but it’s early. Often it is the circumstances that give rise to the greatness of an oratorical moment and he is sure to face his moments before long. The president-elect knows how to turn a phrase.

Those of us who are interested in preaching and biblical communication ought to watch closely what he is doing, not just because of the homiletical heritage of his speaking, but because we can learn something from him. Philip Collins, former speech-writer for Tony Blair is quoted in the BBC saying, "His style of delivery is basically churchy, it’s religious: the way he slides down some words and hits others – the intonation, the emphasis, the pauses and the silences," he explains.

In my book, Choosing to Preach, I described excellent preaching as akin to singing. Obama practices this as well as anyone. Collins continues, "He is close to singing, just as preaching is close to singing. All writing is a rhythm of kinds and he brings it out, hits the tune. It’s about the tune, not the lyrics, with Obama." Of course, preaching ought to be more about the "lyrics" than the "tune", but that is not to discredit the tune or the feel that our sermon form produces. Yesterday, a man commented that he appreciated the cadence of my preaching. He said that he liked the way it felt,  and appreciated the movement and flow of the sermon. While this was not my primary concern in preaching, it is something that can help.

Listening to Obama, I was struck by how effective rhetoric still moves people. The refrain, "Yes we can," was as powerful for its ring as for its content. A word well spoken can still bring a tear, charge a crowd, spark a movement. Such things can happen in our pulpits as well.

To read the whole BBC article referenced above, click on Obama: Oratory and Originality by Stephanie Holmes.

Glad to Let the Bible Speak

When I finished preaching yesterday, I was encouraged by the normal comments from people who had appreciated what I had to say. I was a little surprised then, when one woman rather breezily said, “Thanks for the sermon, though I disagreed with you.”

“Oh,” I asked, “what did you disagree with?”

It turns out that she had a problem with my primary point from 1 Peter 2:21-25, that Christians must follow the example of Christ by loving the people who hurt us instead of defending ourselves, even at great personal cost. Clearly, this woman had been hurt and she felt that in order to protect herself, it was not possible to extend grace to the one who had caused her pain. Indeed, she felt that it was wrong for the church to extend grace when that grace came at the expense of support for the victim – her, in this case. “Grace is for God to give,” she said, “it isn’t possible and it isn’t good for me to try and do God’s job.”

First, of all, I wanted her to know that I was sorry for her pain. I also wanted to affirm that a church must offer both grace and truth. In our attempts to give mercy, we must also be sure to not make excuses for sin or deny the truth. But having sympathized with her, it was important that I not back down from my message, but find a way to lovingly re-affirm the truth as I found it in the Scriptures.

The passage was clear, though the message was difficult. I encouraged her to take some time to go back and read the passage carefully and to let the Holy Spirit speak. I reminded her that the truths of Scripture might be hard, but that they always resulted in something good. Further, I tried to help her see that until she could find a way to forgive the one who hurt her, she would never know real freedom in her heart. Forgiveness, I admitted, is risky. People take advantage. They did it with Jesus and we shouldn’t be surprised if it happens with us. But if we can learn to live like Jesus, following the example he gave us to walk “in his steps,” we will grow into the kind of people that God intended us to be.

It was a lengthy, emotional conversation, but by the end of it, the woman seemed to appreciative the dialogue. Personally, I relished the opportunity to engage a conversation of such depth and importance. This is what preaching should always lead to if we’re listening honestly. The Bible is hard on us and it doesn’t hurt to admit it.

Reflecting on the experience later, I realized that I had experienced again the importance of expository preaching. When you let the Bible speak, you don’t have to worry when people disagree. I was able to help the woman see that whether or not she agreed with me was irrelevant. The question was whether or not she was willing to listen to God and to obey what she had heard.

The text was clear and I was glad to let it speak…and let it stand.

Teaching at The Journey Centre

Some of you may have heard about "The Journey Centre," our new initiative in graduate theological education in Edmonton.

I just returned from a few days of teaching at The Journey, where I was teaching my basic homiletics as a modular course. This time we got together to do the theoretical and theological work. In February we will get together again so that we can listen to each other preach and help each other with the necessary critique.

Already, the course has been of help. One of my students emailed me the following…

Thank you for the time you spent with us, in spite of your cold, in class in Edmonton.  It proved a great blessing!

First, I spent 8 hours on Saturday revamping my entire sermon (notice I did not say message) for taglines and imagery (and a lot more) for Sunday morning.  [That’s not the blessing!]

I found the “imagery times” to be occasions to step away from the pulpit and not use notes.   Plus the taglines helped me remember the message!

Second, praying the message was very meaningful personally.  It was like making my heart ready.

Third, here is a note slipped to me following the sermon:

“Thank you.  I am 52 yrs old and the presentation you shared today was the most powerful expression I have ever experienced upon my heart.  Deep within my heart.  Thank you for being a vessel – that God flows out of.  Thank you.  Thank you for the truth of your heart to be imparted in this way.”

This is the kind of "just-in-time" training that we hope to be able to provide in Edmonton. Let’s pray that many more students are able to experience this kind of benefit.

The Candidating Sermon

Many of us know the stress and pressure that comes with the candidating process. We want to put our best foot forward, but we do not want to make such a good impression that we are never able to live up to it in the future. I remember hearing an older pastor years ago saying that we should avoid preaching our “Royal George Sermon” when auditioning for a church. I’m not sure what King George had to do with it, but we all have those sure-fire, can’t miss sermons that are certain to put us in the best possible light. It is tempting to default to such sermons when the footing isn’t sure.

For that reason Scott Gibson’s advice, that we preach our “best average sermon” seems wise. Scott’s comment can be found in his excellent article, Preaching the Candidating Sermon, the feature article for October. “What is a best average sermon,” Gibson asks? “It is a sermon that captures who you are as a preacher, your personality; and also demonstrates your competence in handling the Word, delivered with skill.”

In other words, preach well, without resorting to any special measures, homiletic pyrotechnics, or features that you won’t be able to live up to. “Remember,” Gibson counsels, “you are not trying to preach your “barn burner” sermon. A candidating sermon is not the sole measure of your preaching ability. You want to give the listeners your best average sermon to demonstrate to them what you are able to do week by week.”

Preaching a candidating sermon can make a person feel like they are back in homiletics class. It feels like people are listening to the preacher more than they are listening to God. No matter what we say, people are thinking about our delivery, more than about the message. They are watching us closely, making decisions about what they are hearing. Their judgment has more to do with whether they would want to listen to us on a weekly basis than it has to do with their own response to the message that we came to bring. It is what it is. We can’t really change it, though we’re best not to dwell on this reality obsessively. The best thing we could do is the same thing that we ought to do whenever we stand to preach. We turn people’s focus to the Word of God and seek to help them to hear his voice.

Preaching to Remember Those We Never Knew

I came across the following passage, yesterday, as I was reading Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics. The novelist is describing a memorial service for her protagonist’s private school teacher and mentor.

“Johnson went on and on, giving an equal amount of eye contact to every third of the congregation with the mechanized surety of a sprinkler system, most likely having learned this from a course, How to Give a Mesmerizing Sermon, with its concepts of Bringing Everyone In and Evoking a Feeling of Togetherness and Universal Humanity. The speech wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t at all specific to Hannah. it was teeming with She Was a Lights and She Would have Wanteds, mentioning nothing of her real life, a life that Havermayer and the rest of the administration were now all deeply afraid of, as if they’d secretly discovered asbestos in Elton House or found out Christian Gordon, St. Gallway’s Head Chef, had Hepatitis A. I could almost see the paper on the lecturn filled with (Insert Deceased’s Name Here) (see, #8).”

Pastors all know the challenge of speaking uniquely into the lives of people at such services. This is particularly true when the deceased is not well known to us. We do a little sleuthing so as to uncover one or two anecdotes that can personalize the sermon, but if we are honest, most of us take a template approach to our sermons in such cases.

The saliency of this issue struck me with some force given that shortly before reading the afore-quoted passage, I received the real life news that my wife’s much-loved grandmother had died and that I am being asked to perform the memorial service later this week. The family wants me to perform the service because they know me, because they know I cared about my wife’s grandma, and because they know they can trust me to speak authentically about that love. I expect that it will be a meaningful service for those reasons.

All of this lead me to think about some of the many other funeral sermons I have preached for those I never knew. I did my best to tell the stories, and to personalize the event, but it always felt a little artificial. I was telling someone else’s stories and those who attended well knew that I didn’t truly know what I was talking about. They appreciated the effort I made to reflect their loved one, but given that I didn’t know the deceased, it didn’t always have the needed spark.

I’m wondering what we might be able to do about that. I do think we should still work to personalize things, as much as possible. But I also think that we should not try to speak as if we know the person we have never met. There are other ways, I think, to spark the needed authenticity. We can speak with passion, for instance, about the sense of mortality that we all feel whenever someone dies. It’s like the quote from John Donne, “don’t ask for whom the (funeral) bell tolls. It tolls for you.” I don’t need to have had a close personal relationship with someone to have an authentic response around their death.

People want to hear us talk about things that are real within us. We need to get close enough to the situation to be able to reflect an honest and helpful response. We need to let the death effect us, whether we knew the person or whether we did not. When people die, they leave a hole. As Donne said, “we are not islands unto ourselves.” The death of one diminishes the experience of us all. Sometimes we just need to let ourselves get close enough to be touched a little by that truth. Those who listen to our sermons will sense it if we do. It will help them and they will appreciate it.

Endorsing Candidates from the Pulpit

With election fever across North America, it might be helpful for us to consider how we guide our listeners from the pulpit. Traditionally, preachers have understood that while we should feel free to speak broadly about issues that are relevant from the perspective of the Scriptures, we should draw the line at telling our listeners precisely who to vote for. Statements that are of a partisan nature have been viewed to be off limits. Not least among the reasons for this approach is the risk that overt partisanship from the pulpit poses to the tax-free status enjoyed by churches. Preachers are loathe to say anything that would put that status in jeopardy.

This may, however, be changing. According to an article in the Washington Post, the Alliance Defense Fund is recruiting several dozen pastors in the U.S. to deliberately challenge the Internal Revenue Service by making endorsements from the pulpit. The article, Ban on Political Endorsements by Pastors Targeted by Peter Slevin, suggests that the ADF is moving proactively with it’s "Pulpit Initiative" to take the matter to the IRS before the IRS takes it to the churches. According to the ADF, the prohibition stifles freedom of religious expression and inhibits a preacher’s constitutional right to speak freely from the pulpit.

So far, three dozen church leaders from more than 20 states have agreed to deliver a political sermon, naming political names. According to ADF attorney, Erik Stanley, these sermons "will be an evaluation of conditions for office in light of scripture and doctrine. They will make a specific recommendation from the pulpit about how the congregation would vote," he said. "They could oppose a candidate. They could oppose both candidates. They could endorse a candidate. They could focus on a federal, state or local election."

These folks have a point. Preachers should not feel cowed by the government as to what they say or do not say from the pulpit. Of course, that argument cuts both ways. Freedom comes with its attendant responsibilities. If we say what we want from the pulpit, we ought to be prepared to pay the consequences, which may include the need to pay taxes. We remember that Jesus said that we should render unto Ceasar what is rightfully his. Whether the IRS has a right to a piece of the action when the offering plate is passed is a matter for which I have little expertise. What I am more interested in, however, is whether partisan comments from the pulpit are a good idea regardless of the legal or financial implications.

Our citizenship is in heaven and that is where we place our primary interest as Christians and as preachers. However our challenge is to live out the interests of heaven in the context of this earth. We are literally to work out the coming of God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Among the implications of this principle is the sense that Christians ought to vote and that they ought to vote for candidates and parties that best represent the value of God’s Kingdom. At the same time, we understand that while our concern is for the Kingdom, our tools are primarily of a spiritual nature and not political. We bring the Kingdom by prayer, by preaching, and by the practice of our faith, not by use of power politics.

In general, I would support the traditional view, that preachers should be careful about naming names and picking parties from the pulpit. Pulpit partisanship risks the integrity of our preaching. I suppose there may be extreme cases, where a party or a politician embodies a perspective so abhorrent to the principles of God’s Word that a direct approach could be warranted. Such situations, however, are probably rare in this part of the world. Most candidates we have to consider offer a mixed bag of perspectives, some of which we support and some of which we would not. In the more extreme cases, the truth will be obvious to everyone without our having to put a point to it from the pulpit.

The wise approach is to tackle the issues of the day from the perspective of the Scriptures. Let the Bible speak about the matters that are before us. If we can hear the voice of God through his Word and by his Spirit we will have a clearer sense of how to vote and how to live. We may even encourage a few politicians to a greater degree of biblical faithfulness in their work.

Summertime Preaching

Summer offers a different pace of life for most of us and life at church is no different. Even preachers need vacation, meaning that pulpits everywhere are filled with unfamiliar faces.

In many such churches, summer relief comes from associate staff, offering an excellent opportunity for youth pastors, worship pastors, and other such leaders to have their voice heard by the congregation. Many such leaders prefer not to preach, for reasons of giftedness, but the benefits related to the congregation hearing from their staff members might be enough to outweigh any such concerns. Hearing associates preach is a good way build confidence in the ministries of these under-appreciated co-laborers. Given that many churches have only one main preaching opportunity each week, summer is a good time to be able to utilize people who would not normally have an opportunity. It may also provide opportunity for younger, emerging leaders to get an opportunity to test their gifts.

With smaller crowds in the summer it is tempting to throttle back and lower expectations, but we need to remember that the people who come are as interested in hearing from God in July as they are in January. In addition, the presence of visiting family members (many of whom don’t know the Lord) and worshipers from other locales, is further motivation for giving of our best.

It may be possible that the more relaxed approach to worship afforded by the summer could provide the preacher with opportunities to explore a wider preaching palate. Might this be a time to try a new narrative technique or to experiment with note-less preaching? You might learn some things you will want to carry over into the fall.

Summer also provides an opportunity for preachers to plan, read, and get ahead on their preparation for their preaching in the fall. Wise preachers use the time well.

So here’s to some great preaching in your church this summer, whether done by you or someone else. May many be blessed by the Word of God in these weeks to come.

They’re All Funny!

I’ve noticed something about some of the better-known preachers of our time. They’re all funny! People like Rick Warren, Rob Bell, Andy Stanley, Erwin McManus – these guys will crack their listeners up. They know how to tell a story that is both insightful and entertaining. Listening to them is not only helpful, but it can be a pleasure.

This is a trend that seems to have taken hold. I’ve noticed that my funnier student preachers get much better peer reviews in class. I’ve even heard of preachers taking stand-up comedy courses so as to improve their delivery.

As a communicator, I understand the power of humor. But when did humor become a primary element of powerful preaching? No doubt they had their moments, but I don’t sense that there was a whole lot of humor in the preaching of Charles Spurgeon, D. L. Moody, Billy Graham, or any of the great preachers of previous generations. Even today, there are still some excellent preachers out there who never stoop to tell a joke. Still, coming to church is starting to feel like a night at the Improv.

I imagine this says something about us as a people at the beginning of a new millennium, though I’m not sure what. Are we less serious? Are we more trivial in our interests? Or are we somehow more aware of the incongruities in life? Is more humor in preaching a good or a bad thing?

I’m not ready to make any final comment on this phenomena. Clearly, people enjoy humor and I’ve been known to make use of it myself. If I can help them stay connected with the text and with the sermon by saying something funny or describing something in a witty way that’s great – just so long as the humor doesn’t get in the way of the message or trivialize it in any way. Sometimes humor brings the law of unintended consequences into play.

Humor itself is not what it used to be. The late George Carlin, famous for his “seven words that can’t be said on television,” recently won a Mark Twain award. I’ve no doubt Carlin can be funny, but Mark Twain he was not. The problem with contemporary humor is that it is often so cynical. Humor that gains a laugh by tearing something down or that comes at the expense of another human being, or group of fellow humans has no place in the preacher’s repertoire.

On the other hand, some things in life are just plain funny and if by looking at things from another perspective we can lead our listeners to laugh, this might be a good thing.

Preachers don’t preach so as to get a laugh. Laughter is not our goal. However, if humor can lift a little stress for people and draw them closer to our message, it might be just the thing we need to help our people hear.

Chronological Bible Storying

My friend and mentor, Grant Lovejoy, sent me a link this morning to the new website for Chronological Bible Storying. The website offers the methodology, research, and reports from the field into this powerful way of preaching to oral and indigenous cultures.

According to the website, "Chronological Bible Storying (CBS) is the process of encountering God by telling the stories of the Bible. In CBS we tell Bible stories without interruption or comment and we tell them in the order that they happened in time. Afterward we discuss each story and its significance for our lives. Each story builds on those that came before; as a result, the overarching message of the Bible becomes clear and we discover our own place in God’s story."

The oral nature of communication within many of the people groups of the world is a major motivator for those championing CBS. "Though literacy has developed and spread its reach around the globe, a majority of the world’s people still live day to day by the spoken word, by orality. Some people live by oral communication out of necessity; their language may not have a written form or they may not have acquired literacy in school."

When people live primarily by means of orality, memory becomes a major feature in everyday life. People in oral cultures prefer the familiar and are slow to accept new information, especially when it does not come in a memorable format. Chronological Bible Storying is a way of communicating the truths of Scripture in a format that is both memorable and familiar to the recipients.

The good news is that this format is an effective way of training locals to communicate the gospel. The opportunity for the spread of the gospel is exponential. In a report from South Asia, for example, training in CBS is multiplying its impact. A missionary reports, "The 48 men who have now finished their first year of training say that they are formally training another 553 storytellers. Of these, 439 have 10-15 men and women each to whom they are telling the stories.  So every story we teach is perhaps being taught to 5,000 people immediately–most of whom are not yet believers. You can imagine the potential for God’s Word to work in these thousands of lives!"

Other helpful websites on this theme include and Chronological Bible Storying is an initiative of the International Mission Board.

Eat This Book!

I’ve just completed Eugene Peterson’s improbably titled, Eat This Book and I cannot recommend it highly enough. This “conversation in the art of spiritual reading” both values Scripture while helping us see its accessibility. The book argues for the validity and necessity of exegesis for spiritual growth. It describes in detail the practice of Lectio Divina. In one of my favorite sections, Peterson uses his personal experience writing The Message to describe the limits and value of Bible translation for each new generation. In addition, the book offers a fascinating description of the history of the Bible’s transmission and translation.

The subjects Peterson deals with are deep, but the writing isn’t. See if the following quotations don’t stimulate your thinking and when your appetite for more…

On the use of story… We live today in a world impoverished of story; so it is not surprising that many of us have picked up the bad habit of extracting “truths” from the stories we read: we summarize “principles” that we can use in a variety of settings at our discretion; we distill a “moral” that we use as a slogan on a poster or as a motto on our desk. We are taught to do this in our schools so that we can pass examinations on novels and plays. It is no wonder that we continue this abstracting, story-mutilating practice when we read our Bibles. “Story” is not serious; “story” is for children and campfires. So we continuously convert our stories into the “serious” speech of information and motivation. We hardly notice that we have lost the form, the form that is provided to shape our lives largely and coherently. Our spirituality-shaping text is reduced to disembodied fragments of “truth” and “insight,” dismembered bones of information and motivation. (48)

On the value of exegesis…
Exegesis introduces another dimension into our relation to this text. The text as story carries us along, we are in on something larger than ourselves, we let the story take us where it will. But exegesis is focused attention, asking questions, sorting through possible meanings. Exegesis is rigorous, disciplined, intellectual work. It rarely feels “spiritual.” Men and women who are, as we say, “into” spirituality, frequently give exegesis short shrift, preferring to rely on inspiration and intuition. But the long and broad consensus in the community of God’s people has always insisted on a vigorous and meticulous exegesis: Give long and close learned attention to this text! All our masters in spirituality were and are master exegetes. There’s a lot going on here; we don’t want to miss any of it; we don’t want to sleepwalk through this text. (50)

On the challenge of utilizing language… Because we speak our language so casually, it is easy to fall into the habit of treating it casually. But language is persistently difficult to understand. We spend our early lives learning the language, and just when we think we have it mastered our spouse says, “You don’t understand thing I’m saying, do you?” We teach our children to talk, and just about the time we think they might be getting it, they quit talking to us; and when we overhear them talking to their friends, we find we can’t understand more than one out of every eight or nine words they say. A close relationship doesn’t guarantee understanding. A long affection doesn’t guarantee understanding. In fact, the closer we are to another and the more intimate our relations, the more care we must exercise to hear accurately, to understand thoroughly, to answer appropriately. (53)

On the proof-texting of Scripture… What is surprising today is how many people treat the Bible as a collection of Sibylline Oracles, verses or phrases without context or connections. This is nothing less than astonishing. The Scriptures are the revelation of a personal, relational, incarnational God to actual communities of men and women with names in history. … The practice of dividing the Bible into number chapters and verses has abetted this “sibylline complex.” it gives the impression that the Bible is a collection of thousands of self-contained sentences and phrases that can be picked out or combined arbitrarily in order to discern our fortunes or fates. But Bible verses are not fortune cookies to be broken open at random. And the Bible is not an astrological chart to be impersonally manipulated for amusement or profit. (101)

This is a book I wish I could have written. Numerous times I found myself exclaiming, “Yes, that’s exactly what I’ve been thinking.” Read it yourself and see if you don’t feel the same.

Peterson, Eugene. Eat This Book: Conversations in the Art of Spiritual Reading. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006.

Feeding the Preacher

One of the problems I have observed is that some of us think we preach better than we actually do. Truthfully, most of us probably suffer from that problem. If I’m honest, I’d probably have to admit that I have a higher sense of the effectiveness of my own preaching than what the listeners might say (though they do seem to be very complimentary).

The problem shows up when I talk to people about studying preaching more. I heard it again this weekend when a denominational leader told me that his pastors would not take a course in homiletics because they wouldn’t think that they need it. If you asked their churches, he admitted, we would probably get a different answer.

In response, another friend offered this metaphor: If you’re feeding yourself, you might be able to get by with cup-a-noodles, or with Kraft Dinner. If you’re feeding your family, you might want to put a little more effort into preparation. If you are the dietitian at a major hospital, you would need to do some serious work to prepare yourself as well as your meal.

Preachers “feed” a lot more than just themselves and their families. We feed a congregation. We have to do more than just prepare a great meal. We need to prepare ourselves so that we have the knowledge and capacity to feed the multitude that gathers when we preach.

Preaching with Variety

_Preaching with Variety: How to Re-create the Dynamics of Biblical Genres_. By Jeffrey D. Arthurs. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2007, 978-0-8254-2019-1, 238 pp., $15.99, paperback.

Several years ago I embarked upon a project. Having been given a short interim preaching opportunity at a nearby church, I decided to choose a different biblical genre for every sermon text. I wondered what might happen if I gave as much attention to the form of the text as I did to its content. The series turned out to be a wonderful exploration of the biblical terrain, but it would have gone a lot better if I had been able to read Jeff Arthurs’ book.

“The form of a text is not simply the husk surrounding the seed;” Arthurs says, “it is the way the authors manage their relationship with their readers (201).” People come from a variety of backgrounds bringing with them an array of preferred learning styles. The biblical writers not only appreciated this fact, but they modeled it, sharing truth by means of an abundance of literary styles. Our preaching should do no less.

This is inarguable. I have long wondered why, in the attempt to exposit faithfully the biblical text, we have felt it necessary to distill the content from the form. It is as if, to use Arthur’s metaphor, the textual form was mere chaff to be blown off as worthless. Sure, we have utilized the form for its interpretive value as a means of getting to the core truth of the text. Yet, should not those of us committed to exposition be just as concerned with the manner of communication used by the biblical text as we are with the content of it’s communication? Would not the attempt to replicate the form of the text in the form of our preaching be even more faithful to the intent of exposition?

Jeff Arthurs thinks so. His book is more than just an argument for a fully “formed” preaching of God’s word. In the tradition of Sidney Greidanus and Thomas Long, the book leads the reader through an exploration of various textual forms, offering guidance and advice to aid in the preaching of those forms. The book, then, serves as more than just a good and helpful read. It is a reference work that can be consulted whenever we move to preach from a different part of the Bible. I, for one, expect to consult it regularly as I move from proverb to epistle to psalm.

The great thing about genre-enriched preaching is that it doesn’t just represent a more faithful approach to exposition. It also makes for more interesting preaching for the listener. Preachers who feel they may be going a little stale will benefit from this reading, perhaps leading to a more holistic and integrated approach to their task.

Arthurs writes well, as one might expect given his subject. He also doesn’t overstate his case. One of his opening “9.5 Theses” is that “some things are more important than the topic of this book (15).” The preacher’s “ethos” or character is more important, as is the “telos” or theological objective of the sermon. This kind of humility plays well to the reader confronted with the many textbooks on preaching that are currently in print.

_Jeff Arthurs, is associate professor of preaching and communication, and dean of the chapel at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary._

Karen’s Sermon Art

Yesterday my wife participated in our pastor’s sermon by illustrating his sermon with a simultaneous sermon painting. What’s that, you ask? Let me try to explain.

Brian Stewart was preaching from Philippians 2:15 about how we are to shine as lights for Christ in the places we’re located. He had a lot to say about light and darkness. For example, most of the service took place in a semi-darkened worship center. As the sermon came to a close, people were invited to light candles, signifying their commitment to live as lights for Christ. The sanctuary brightened noticeably as people came forward to express their commitment.

The whole time Karen was painting at the front of the church. The canvas began as a flat black surface with the outline of a closed door, the handle barely visible, a hint of light coming through the bottom of the door. Karen began painting as the worship team began to lead in singing and she continued through the sermon time, concluding the piece at the end of the service. As she painted, she deliberately moved around the piece, allowing the image to emerge bit by bit.

The image she offered showed a young girl opening her bedroom door so that the light from the hallway began to flood the darkness of her room. You could imagine the comfort of a loving mother or father on the other side of the door. It was fascinating to watch how the door opened as the painting progressed, literally leading the viewer from darkness to light.

This was no small challenge for Karen. She has always believed that her art should communicate something meaningful. She wanted to support the preaching of the sermon and not distract from it, but she also wanted to avoid overly obvious or kitschy images in favor of something that would be interesting and evocative. In this case, she didn’t have the luxury of presenting a finished product, but had to ‘perform’ the art in the presence of the congregation. Wishing to use this as an advantage she tried to bring a sense of motion to the piece, having the door open as she painted, the light growing and spreading as the service progressed.

All this in 45 minutes!

I am proud of my wife and I’m proud of our church. I was thrilled to see Karen have the opportunity to express the gift that God had given her in support of the preaching of God’s word. I think it would be a good thing if other churches could be this open to finding creative ways for people to express their gifting for the glory of God and for the spread of the gospel.

Apologetic Preaching

J. P. Moreland of Talbot Seminary was the keynote speaker at this year’s meetings of the Evangelical Homiletics Society. He took the opportunity to offer a proposal for “apologetic preaching.” While such an approach is not new, Moreland seemed to suggest that apologetics could and should take a much higher place in our thinking about preaching in this highly-secularized period.

This is, he said, the most divided time in American history since the civil war. On the secular side are the media, the universities, and the entertainment industry. On the the other side (according to USA Today) the leaders are the evangelical churches. It scarcely seems a fair fight.

It is out of this millieu, Moreland says, that the current evangelical church has been formed. We have, he said, felt forced to retreat to a largely privatized faith. We have conceived of our beliefs as matters of faith and not of knowledge, thus ceding the realm of knowledge to the scientists. It is the doctors and scientists who are the keepers of empirical knowledge. Truth is no longer adequate. It is knowledge of truth that reigns supreme. Because preachers trade in truths that can’t be known, we have been marginalized to the realm of private belief.

Moreland offered Oprah as an example. She can wax eloquent about theology without any expertise, he said, because she understands that there is no hard knowledge available this kind of truth. She tells people that they can pray in any manner that they want and to any God whom they might see as helpful. Of course, she wouldn’t dream of offering such counsel with respect to something like smallpox, because we have hard scientific knowledge about smallpox. We know that you cannot vaccinate yourself effectively with coffee or with chocolate. When it comes to faith, however, we think that no such conviction is possible and so we relegate it to the realm of individual discernment and desire.

This, Moreland suggests, is unnecessary and ultimately untenable. The Bible, he says, is a source of hard knowledge. Paul, for example, spoke about the power of thinking rightly (Phil. 4:8,9) long before Sigmund Freud ever thought it was a good idea. We need, he said, to build faith in listeners by preaching such that they increase their confidence in the ability to know things about God and about eternity based on the teachings of the Scriptures.

Belief, he said, is a “degreed property,” which is to say that belief happens whenever we are between 51 and 100% certain of the truth of a thing. Belief is like ‘cloudiness’. A dog is a dog is a dog. But cloudiness can exist to a greater or lesser degree. The same is true with beliefs. I believe in my own existence, more strongly than I believe in the existence of God, he said, though the two are very close. The task of the preacher, then, is to bump people up so that they believe the right things and that they hold them more strongly than they previously did. As preachers, we ought to assume that people don’t believe the things they believe with a great deal of strength and that it is our task to help them believe more strongly.

People, he said, need more than just to hear what the Bible says and how to apply it, because people don’t actually believe the Bible very strongly. People today are looking for passion and some sense that the preacher knows what she or he is talking about. Pastors need to be brokers of knowledge just like doctors.

Thus, he said, we need to be developing two skills in preachers: (1) to develop a habit of reading worldview in culture, and (2) to communicate what the Bible has to say on public issues – to show, that the Bible is an intelligent book written by thoughtful people. Specifically, and more controversially, he suggested that we develop a database of experiences of God breaking into the world, like undeniable instances of God speaking in the world, miraculous circumstances, healings, and even encounters with angels and demons.

Personally, I found myself challenged and interested in Moreland’s ideas about working deliberately to build faith in the people who listen to my preaching. I even found myself appreciating the idea that I should catalog the instances in my own experience where God has made himself evident.

That being said, I think that perhaps Moreland underplayed the nature of faith in preaching and in the life of those we speak to. My sense is that we need to integrate both faith and reason such that our experience of God’s working finds its place alongside a reasoned appreciation of the truths that Scripture teaches. I once suggested that this is akin to aligning the two gospel songs, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so”, and “you ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.

Further, while I appreciate that the Bible is a source of knowledge, I think it also fair to say that as human subjects, our ability to know truth is limited by our finitude and fallenness. We are dependent, then, on God to reveal truth to us by his Spirit. I don’t despair that this overly privatizes my access to faith, because I believe that God is active by his Spirit, throughout the world, to build faith in the people he is reaching. It encourages me that he often uses preachers in that task.

Demographic information from the 2006 Canadian Census

Our NBS board recently received a copy of demographic information based on the 2006 Canadian Census. The results are no less interesting for the fact that they are predictable. Some key areas of interest…

-over 5.8 million Canadian taxfilers donated a record $7.9 billion to charities that provide offical tax receipts – almost 1% more donors, and 13.8% more in total donations compared with 2004.

-about 34% of Canadians said they did volunteer work in 2003.

-the number of same-sex couples surged 32.6% between 2001 and 2006, five times the pace of opposite-sex couples (+5.9%)

-the number of one-person households increased 11.8%, more than twice as fast as the 5.3% increase for the total population in private households.

-43.5% of the 4 million young adults aged 20-29 live in the parental home. Twenty years ago, 32.1% of young adults lived with their parents.

-for the first time, the census enumerated more unmarried people aged 15 and over than legally married people. In 2006, more than one-half (51.5%) of the adult population were unmarried, compared with 49.9% five years earlier.

-25.6 million people live in a family household, representing 87% of the population.

-though Canadians are now more likely to start their conjugal life through a common-law relationship, most couples (84%) are married.

-blended families account for 12% of all couples with children in 2001, compared with 10% in 1995.

-Canada’s visible minority population is growing faster than its total population: 25% growth from 1996-2001 versus 4% growth in the general population. By 2017, about 20% of Canada’s population could be visible minorities.

The Crossing Tender

I heard Jeff Arthurs from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary read this little parable at an Evangelical Homiletics Society gathering many years ago. Afterwards I asked him for a copy so that I could share it with my classes. It was published in 1919 by William Eleazar Barton, otherwise known as “Safed the Sage”. The piece has been edited.

Now there is a railway that runneth through the town where I live, and there are gates that are pulled down when a train goeth by. And one day when I would have crossed the tracks, the gates went down, so that I stopped. And I spake unto the man who keepeth the crossing, and I said, “lovest thou thy job?”

And he said, “I count myself lucky to have this job, for I am neither young nor strong; nevertheless mine is a hard job.”

And I said, “wherefore should thy job be hard?”

And he said, “because I save people’s lives and they curse me.”

“They come down the street breaking the speed limit, and honking for me to lift the gates; or if they be on foot they duck under. And when I warn them not to cross the tracks lest they die, they act as if I were their enemy.”

And I took him by the hand, and I said, “Thou art my brother, and my job is like unto thine.”

And he said, “Art thou not a minister?”

And I answered, “I am a crossing-tender. Where thou seest yonder spire, I tend a crossing; and i say unto the wicked, go not in thine evil way, lest thou die, but they continue to go as they did before. And I say unto the heedless, duck not under the gate, lest evil befall thee; but they duck as they were wont to do.”

My job is like unto the crossing-tenders for my job has the same trials. Nevertheless, his is a good job, and so is mine. And every now and then we keep people on the right side of the gate.

So I considered this, and I resolved to do it as well as I could.

Dynamic Range

Having heard hundreds of students preach in my various classes, I’ve discovered that there is a limit to a person’s “dynamic range.” Like a musician that can sing over multiple octaves, some preachers are capable of hitting the high notes as well as the low notes, speaking loudly and confidently at one point of the sermon and softly and sensitively at another. Others, however, bring a narrower range. Their highs are not as high and their lows not quite so low.

Ideally, I would want all of my students to be able to expand their range. Professional singers always work to broaden the range of their voices and their emotional capacities. Preachers ought to also.

However, it seems obvious that there is a limit to what any of us are going to be able to reach. We are all limited by our personalities. Some of my students are soft-spoken by nature and will never be able to reach the boisterous levels achieved by some of the other more extroverted students.

This is not to say that a limited range necessarily makes for poorer preaching. I would suggest, however, that each of us ought to be working to explore the outer edges of our range. We need to vary our emotional tone. The changes can be subtle, but listeners need to sense some modulation in our voice and in our emotional intensity.

However wide your range, you ought to explore every note of it.

The Word Must Be Heard

We have a new lead pastor at our church (Parkland Fellowship) and we couldn’t be happier. Yesterday, Brian Stewart offered us a dramatic recitation of the entire book of Philippians, from memory! I had memorized the book of Philippians some years ago, but I had never had the courage (or the wisdom) to offer it in public. My mistake.

Open Bible Brian’s presentation was masterful. He began, early in the service, with a brief setup to the book, helping us appreciate its broad themes. Later in the service he actually recited the book. He was dressed in ordinary casual clothing. His only prop was a heavy chain. His presentation was deeply felt, communicating with conviction, enthusiasm, and sensitivity. Like an actor, he made the ideas in the Scripture come alive for everyone present. It is Brian’s intention to preach through the entire book over the next several weeks and so this was to serve as a kind of introduction, but we found it to be so much more than that. It was as if Paul himself had brought the sermon to us on this Sunday.

I have often thought that sometimes we as preachers get in the way of God’s Word. If we really believe that the Scriptures are the very words of God, then we ought to be able to just read them to the congregation and let the Spirit of God do his thing. Yesterday’s presentation confirmed that line of thinking for me.

I still believe that the preaching of the Word helps people hear the Word, but I guess I’m reflecting on the fact that in so much of our preaching the Bible isn’t heard much at all. We may reflect on the occasional verse or put it on the powerpoint screen, but do we give people time to soak in the Scriptures? Could we let the Scriptures speak for themselves before we get to commenting?

For years now, I’ve made it my practice to read the text in full before getting into the sermon. I like the idea that the people hear the Word itself before I get to messing it up with my stories and ideas. I remember one Sunday many years ago when I was dealing with a particularly long passage, trying to decide whether or not there was time to read the whole thing. I was a little concerned whether people would want to hang with me for such a long time, but in the end decided to go ahead and read it all. After the service, a woman thanked me profusely for taking to time to read the passage. “I’ve always appreciated that about you,” she said. “You’ve always been willing to take the time for us to actually hear the Word of God.” I have taken her comments to heart. I’ve learned that when the Scripture is read well, it has its impact.

The Word of God must not only be talked about. The Word must be heard.

Fundamentalist Atheists

I read a particularly intelligent response  to Richard Dawkins’ fundamentalist atheism in my morning newspaper. Margaret Somerville is becoming as a critic of Dawkins, partly because she doesn’t seem to be coming from a Christian perspective. As founding director of the Center for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University (Montreal) she brings a credible academic pedigree and a reasoned voice to the debate. While I think that an avowed Christian voice could say a little more, I think that her approach is telling.

Somerville makes a number of points, including the charge that Dawkins "confuses religion and the use of religion." Just as science can be used for good or for evil, so can religion. "Dawkins," she writes, "looks only at the evil uses of religion – never the good it effects – and only the good uses of science – never the harm it does."

"Dawkins basic presumption," she says, "is that there is no God and, therefore, that those who believe there is must prove it. The equally valid basic presumption is that there is a God and those who don’t believe that must prove it. Because neither basic presumption can be proved or disproved, both are tenable and, therefore, both must be accommodated in a secular society."

"We should stop automatically associating having liberal secular values with being open minded and having conservative religious values with being closed minded – liberal people can be very closed minded and conservative people open minded." On this point, Somerville has personal experience. She has been roundly criticized for her position on same sex marriage, suggesting that such marriage ought to be curtailed on the grounds that "compromises the right for all children to be raised by both genders and to know their biological parents".

These points have been obvious to many of us, but it is nice to read them being put by someone in her position.

Global Warming and the Ability to Know

I’m a global warming skeptic. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t care about the environment. As a child of God I understand my responsibility as a steward of creation and I take it seriously. It’s just that I’m not sure I can believe all of the hype surrounding climate change.

This morning, for instance, I read that the so-called NASA “hockey stick” graph that showed stable temperatures for 1,000 years followed by dramatic increases in temperature in the last half of the twentieth century was based on a faulty calculation. This graph has been used prominently by the UN and nearly every major environmental lobby group to prove that there has been dramatic climate change in recent years. (Read the report in the The National Post.)

As it turns out, it’s not true. Last week, NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies corrected an error in its data based on analysis done by Canadian researcher Steve McIntyre. This correction has resulted in significant changes to the data that has supported much of the rhetoric around global warming.

The data now indicates that the hottest year since 1880 was 1934 and not 1998 (which is just second hottest) as previously reported. 1921 is the third hottest year. Four of the 10 hottest years were in the 1930s and only three in the last decade. The 15 hottest years since 1880 are spread over seven decades. Eight occurred before atmospheric carbon dioxide began its recent rise; seven occurred afterwards. This is hardly the stuff of impending disaster.

Of course none of this eliminates our need to handle God’s creation with care. Clearly, we humans can do a lot of damage to our world, and in many ways do. Further, it may be that other studies or changes in the future will modify our perspective. What it does do, however, is raise the level of skepticism about the science that is so often reported in our media.

This is a matter of postmodern epistemology. What do we know in this world and how do we know it? For secular moderns, science is the only sure footing for knowledge about life in the world. But what we are discovering is that science is incredibly complex and difficult both to understand and to communicate. The reporting of science is inevitably biased by the personal, political, and sometimes even theological perspectives of the ones reporting the ‘facts’. The truth is, the universe (and the God who created it) is much bigger than our ability to understand so that even our best scientific discoveries must be couched in the language of theory and hypothesis. We just don’t know anywhere near as much as we would like to think that we do. Sub-atomic research yields the “uncertainty principles” of quantum mechanics. Deep space research only multiplies the number of questions. Hey, we can’t even measure temperatures on our own planet correctly.

Which is why I am so deeply dependent upon God’s self-revelation. What I know about God and about his will and plan for the world he created I know because he revealed it to me through his Word. Granted, I take this by faith, but then most science is taken by faith as well – faith in the rules of logic and the laws of physics. Such things don’t always allow for certainty, given the limits and the bias’ we bring as humans.

I don’t trust everything I hear or read unless I hear it from God or read it in the Bible. Beyond that, I listen to the scientists and the secular prophets with patience, with humility, and with a healthy skepticism.

Someone asked Martin Luther what he would do if he knew for certain that Christ would return that day. “I would plant a tree,” he said, offering wisdom of both theological and environmentally proportions. I myself planted two trees on my property last week. I love to watch God make things grow, and if things do eventually get warmer, then I will appreciate the shade.

The Problem with Preaching

Mike Mawhorter sent me a link to this article by David Allis which I found to be one of the more helpful of the current critiques of preaching: CLICK HERE

My response is that much of what he says is truthful. Preaching, for instance, is expensive. Preachers often can’t be trusted. At the same time, I think that what is actually being critiqued is not that we preach, but that we preach monologically in the traditional sense.

I still believe that the monologue works in most settings – especially larger ones. If it didn’t, I can’t imagine so many would keep coming to listen. At the same time, the traditional sermon does not represent all that preaching can or ought to be. What we do in care groups or in classrooms can still be considered preaching if the goal is to understand the word of God and to persuade others of its truth.

I was a little troubled by Allis’ suggestion that biblical preaching was entirely for the evangelization of the non-believer. Clearly, the New Testament encourages the instruction and training of believers as well. To try to distinguish between preaching and teaching for the purpose of dumping on the traditional sermon is not helpful, in my view. The distinction between the two is little more than a differentiation in form.

Research on Second Career Pastors

Here is a link to some fascinating new research on the increased incidence of second-career pastoral leadership, particularly in conservative protestant denominations. It appears that pastors are starting older and that they usually have had a career before they come into ministry. In general, I find this trend encouraging. Pastors with real life experience ought to do a better job of relating to the people that they preach to and serve. Check out the numbers and graphs at Pulpit and Pew.

Roast Preacher

Preachers need to have thick skin. Whenever a person gets up in front of a crowd to speak, people are going to evaluate what they have to say – which may be a mild way of describing the kind of scrutiny under which a preacher is placed. Roast Preacher is the most common dish served for Sunday dinner.

Of course if our skin is too thick, we run the risk of not caring for our listeners. Our sermons will come off sounding hard and uncaring. I remember my mother telling me about a conversation she had with a friend when I had just mentioned my interest in getting involved in ministry. "Does he have a soft heart," she asked. "Yes, he does," said my Mother. "Then I’m glad – but at the same time, I’m sorry," my mother’s friend responded.

That’s it exactly. We won’t be any good to our people if our skin is too tough, but if we can’t stand up to the scrutiny we are going to fall apart and be little good to anyone.

The key, of course, is to be deeply grounded in God’s love. When we understand how much God loves us, we will be less susceptible to the pain that people cause. Further, understanding that what we do as preachers is the exercise of God’s love helps to shield us from personal criticism. We preach because God loves. If people don’t like it, they can take it up with God.

It should be added that sometimes people’s criticisms are on the mark. A good preacher will listen for what can be learned from the the things that people say about our preaching. It’s just that we don’t have to take the mean-spirited comments and own them. God loves us and that’s enough. In the freedom his love brings we are able to pursue excellence in our calling so that people hear God’s word and his kingdom is established.

Alistair McGrath and the New Atheism

Here are a few notes taken from a lecture I heard by Alistair McGrath at the International Congress on Preaching in April. The address, titled “Preaching Truth in the Shadow of the Idol of Science” was directed at the recent writings of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, and Christopher Hitchens, all of whom seem to be angry that Christianity and religion in general has not gone away.

McGrath dispenses with the idea that belief in God is simply delusional along the lines of believing in Santa Claus. How many people start believing in Santa at the age of 50 or 60, he asked? What about all the believing intellectuals? It’s just not true that science leads to unbelief. C.S. Lewis said, “I believe in God the way I believe in the Sun, for not only do I see the sun, but by the sun I see everything else.

Richard Dawkins says that there is a scientific explanation for the fact that many believe. But this is a loaded argument, McGrath said, because it overlooks the most natural explanation. We’re told that belief in God is a “virus of the mind.” So then, McGrath asks, are all beliefs viral or only just the ones that Dawkins doesn’t like?

McGrath suggests that the Christian gospel actually makes a lot of sense in explaining much of science. Take Psalm 19, for example. For the atheist, the heavens are depressing because of their vastness and the lack of hope that they offer. For the Christian, the beauty of nature displays the beauty of God who can be known in Christ. Dawkins says that thinking of God diminishes nature, but this is not so. We study science so as to glorify God. In other words, we need to encourage the scientists in our congregations.

“Preaching has helped me grow,” McGrath said. “Preaching is the way that God resources his church. So don’t criticize science from the pulpit. Criticize what some people are doing with science.”

Concept Cars and Pioneers

There’s a lot of talk out there about some high profile “emerging” churches. We’re hearing about “progressional dialogue” preaching, worship stations, and other innovations. The implication seems to be that these things will characterize the way we all do church in a few years.

I’m not so sure. I tend to think of these kinds of churches like the concept cars you see at auto shows. We’ll never drive those cars but some of what is in those cars will be in the cars that you and I drive in ten years time.

The trick, of course, is to figure out what of these innovations will endure. But that is what time does for us. I, for one, am grateful for the innovating pastors who are pioneering new forms of ministry on the cutting edges. But, that doesn’t mean that we all have to live there. Pioneers are always small in number. They also tend to suffer a lot. The settlers who come later benefit from the work the pioneers have done. The settlers also have a higher survival rate.

I’m not sure what church will be like for most of us in ten or twenty years, but that’s not the primary challenge for most of us just now. Our job is to offer the most compelling form of ministry for our time here and now.

That is challenge enough for most of us.

Stolen Sermons

Thomas Long has written a tremendous piece on pulpit plagiarism that you can find here in it’s entirety: Stolen Goods. The article traces the arguments for and against using materials developed by others in the pulpit. Long comes down on the issue of honesty and integrity. He writes… Thomas LongA good test of this point is to ask, What would happen if the preacher told the truth? ‘Hey folks, it’s been a busy week and I didn’t have time to work on a sermon, and honestly, I’m not all that creative anyway. So this is a little something I found on the ‘net’.’ The fact that the air would immediately go out of the room is a reliable indicator that the tacit agreement of the sermon event has been violated. This is why plagiarists, for all their blather about God’s words being free for all, never confess their true sources and always imply that these words are coming straight from the heart. Yes, Augustine made space for preachers to memorize the words of other, more eloquent proclaimers, but note well that he added the test of truth: ‘supposing them to do it without deception.’ Perhaps even more powerfully, Long describes giving credit as more than just doing the right thing. He writes… Giving credit to others is not merely a matter of keeping our ethical noses clean; it is also a part of bearing witness to the gospel. No sermon stands alone, but instead takes its place in a ‘cloud of witnesses.’ The proclamation of the gospel does not spring forth from our cleverness or ability to generate novelty. To borrow words from others and to show that one’s sermon dips into the deep well of shared wisdom is itself part of Christian testimony, a fresh expression of Paul’s confession, ‘I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received.’ I couldn’t agree more.

Visit Kent’s site on preaching?

When Life Intrudes on Preaching

I received this message from one of my former students, Shawn Barden, last week. Shawn is pastoring a great church in Fernie, BC. His message encouraged me and I thought it might encourage you as well. Hey Kent Just wanted to share a note that might make you smile and feel encouraged. On Wednesday last week a couple in our church was involved in a devastating motorcycle accident. Resulting in a broken neck (C-1) -astoundingly not death (by the doctor’s own admission) and half a foot amputated at the accident scene as well as numerous broken bones etc. The couple are good friends of mine (Jamie was in the C’n’C group I pastored in Regina and we were accountability partners there). EmergencySuddenly I became reacquainted with the reality of living in a fallen world. All of my ministry plans for the week seemed insignificant in the light of what happened. So I spent three days going from hospital to hospital to hospital as their condition grew more serious, ending up in Calgary. So much prayer for them was labored over by many, and we saw answers, I mean jaw-dropping answers to prayer! And I felt shamefully surprised. Surprised, not because I doubt God can answer prayers, but often I doubt he’ll answer my prayers! But He can, and He does, thank you Jesus. Anyway, I rushed back from Calgary with minutes to spare before I had to lead our overnight Alpha retreat. It was so intense and good – seeing all the emotional shrapnel that results when there is a collision between real lives and Jesus. So by Saturday night I was so exhausted. I just wanted the weekend to be over. That Sunday morning, for the first time in my life, I got up to preach without having been able to prepare a sermon. And fittingly the pre-scheduled topic was on the power and work of the Holy Spirit. It was one of the most raw, authentic, powerful Sunday mornings we’ve ever had. There was this weight of presence over us. There was this sense that we weren’t hearing our voices – in song, or prayer, or preaching, we were hearing God’s voice. The thought of it right now chokes me up. I’m am so thankful, that we have a Word that is living, and a Spirit that really does teach and speak and convict and encourage the hearts of men and women. So while I am carefully preparing a sermon for this week on John 14, I feel a renewed humility at where the power of pulpit rests. We can build the alter, but He provides the fire. God bless, and I hope His work here encourages you there!

Visit Kent’s site on preaching?

Can Preachers Have Friends in the Congregation?

I had another interesting conversation with one of our Doctor of Ministry students last week. Robert Campbell is a pastor from Corona, California and is working on the question of whether or not a pastor can have friends in the congregation.

Campbell contends that spiritual formation happens within community and that the pastor needs to be growing as much as anyone else.

Traditionalists would say not, given that a pastor can never escape the pastoral role within the life of the congregation. Playing favorites within the church can be a real problem for the overall health of a church.

But what about the pastor’s own spiritual growth? Campbell contends that spiritual formation happens within community and that the pastor needs to be growing as much as anyone else. If the pastor is not allowed to engage the community in the same way as others, then how is he or she supposed to grow?

It is a problem because the truth is a pastor can never really have the same kind of relationship with other people in the congregation because it is true that he or she can never leave behind the pastoral role. However, is this really all that different from anyone else? Everyone brings their personal identity into relationship. Gender, social standing, race, education, and a myriad of other factors all play into the way that we relate to one another. The pastoral role is just one of those factors that shape the way that people relate.

The answer that Robert and I are coming to is that yes, pastors, need to engage people as friends within the congregation so that the community can do its thing to help in the spiritual formation of the pastor alongside everyone else. At the same time, we understand that the pastor’s relationship with people is always going to be colored and shaped by the fact that she or he is in that role.

This is okay. It is to be celebrated, even. The community of God’s people is a rich tapestry of relationships as we grow together in Christ.

See Robert Campbell’s blog at The Postmodern Pop Pastor.

Alternatives for Change

…churches are institutional in the way that they operate, because they are venues for the organization of corporate worship, outreach, and discipling among people. No matter how loose, structures eventually harden and at that point a church has to make some difficult decisions about its long-term validity and relevance.

I had a conversation over lunch with Ken Castor, one of my Doctor of Ministry students, and a pastor at Brentview Baptist Church in Calgary, Alberta. Ken is beginning work on his dissertation project, trying to think about how to stimulate new directions in an existing, traditional congregation. His frustration is that many emerging young leaders like himself have given up on the traditional church, opting instead to create fresh new expressions of church, in essence writing off these older churches as unredeemable relics of the modern world. The problem with this kind of thinking, Ken suggested, was that these emerging churches were sowing the seeds of their eventual destruction in their way of thinking from the start. No matter what we want to say, churches are institutional in the way that they operate, because they are venues for the organization of corporate worship, outreach, and discipling among people. No matter how loose, structures eventually harden and at that point a church has to make some difficult decisions about its long-term validity and relevance. Ken is looking for ways to frame a church that can reinvent itself over time. The mission of the church would never change, but the way that the vision is expressed and enacted can and ought to vary and adapt. The usual way we deal with this is to establish a new worship service targeted at young people. This approach often creates conflict as the older folks feel threatened, and the younger ones feel patronized. There is no doubt that younger people are going to be more open to change, in general terms, than older people because they have been immersed in a different kind of world than their forebears. Yet, that doesn’t mean that some young people don’t want tradition and that some older people don’t want change. Perhaps it is a mistake to view this as a generational issue. Ken and I talked about the possibility of creating opportunities for young people to contribute to the unleashing of some fresh and alternative ways of pursuing the mission of the church and then opening up those alternatives to people of every age. The challenge would be to nurture something within the traditional church that could eventually flourish and offer a relevant future for the congregation over time. If this kind of thinking could prosper in a church, then we could see a culture of adaptation that would allow for the perpetuation of mission and the stewardship of resources that a local congregation represents. It will be exciting to see how this project develops. Read Ken’s blog at

Appetizing Sermons

One evening my wife offered me a meal that didn’t look familiar to me. Something about the look on my face must have suggested something other than full appreciation. “What’s wrong,” she said. “It’s everything that you like.” True enough, the dish only offered ingredients that I normally enjoyed, but they were offered in a different form than what I was accustomed. Thus my caution.I’ve realized that many people look at preaching just the same. A big part of what makes a sermon appealing to us is not just the content but the form in which it is presented. There are times when we will hear a sermon that has all the elements necessary to nourish us (solid biblical exegesis, authentic human connection, etc.) but which repels us because it comes to us in a form that we don’t recognize. Speaking honestly, I would say I need to be a little more mature in how I respond to my wife’s creative cooking. She’s a great cook and I’m learning to become a little more adventuresome in my response. I’d like to see the same from listeners to our preaching.

"Junk food sermons nourish no one!"

Of course, listeners are going to do what they are going to do. A preacher asking for a different kind of response from the listeners can be a little like King Canute forbidding the tide from coming in. Nevertheless, perhaps over time we can find ways to train listeners to broaden their homiletic palate, encouraging an appreciation of a greater variety in sermon form. Key to this is the need for preachers to make sure that their preaching is, in fact, truly nourishing. I’m thinking here of healthy servings of the human story, a compelling argument, the underlying mystery, and a motivating vision (see Choosing to Preach). In sum, junk food sermons nourish no one.

Reflections from Rome

It has been interesting for me to think about spiritual formation from a different perspective spending these days in Rome. I suppose that when I arrived here I was prepared for the Coliseum, the Forum and all the vestiges of Imperial Rome. I was less prepared for the influence of the Roman Catholic experience. It has been interesting to ride buses and walk the streets in close proximity with nuns, monks, and priests. Yesterday, my wife and I entered at least eight different cathedrals, all stunning in their beauty and complexity. Today we walked down Catherine of Sienna street. A few impressions… St. PetersOn Saturday we managed to get tickets (free – but nonetheless rare) for the Pascal Vigil which is a three-hour service beginning at 10pm. This was pre-resurrection worship in anticipation of what would happen the following morning. We sat a few dozen feet from the alter inside the vast St. Peter’s Basilica, the very seat of Roman Pontifical power, and just a few dozen feet from the Pope himself. Once we were able to get past the stunning beauty and scale of our surroundings, we were able to settle in and try to understand what was happening. Given that about 90% of the proceedings were either in Latin or Italian, this was difficult. Still, we were able to sense something of the wonder that Catholics bring to the experience of celebrating the death and resurrection of our Lord. I remembered how just a few days earlier, I had led communion in a small evangelical Baptist church in Hope, BC. It seemed worlds apart. While I loved the sincerity and meaning of that small protestant service, I found myself feeling that our celebration was a little weak in comparison to all the drama we experienced at St. Peter’s. Karen and I did not go forward to receive the mass, perhaps in solidarity with our free church reformation protestant forebears who would have been aghast that we were there at all. I’ve got some huge issues with the Catholic church. The veneration of Mary, prayers for the dead, and the general misuse of money and power so in evidence throughout this city, leave me cold. Still, these people love Jesus. This afternoon we looked at paintings by Raphael and Caravaggio, not to mention Michelangelo’s magnificent ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. I want to tell you that it was as much a worship experience as a tourist experience for me. Yesterday, we visited the catacombs and thought about the tremendous faith practiced by the early Roman Christians. We visited the prison where Peter and Paul were incarcerated and stood inside a cell that may very well have been their own. I was deeply moved to think about how our faith is not some mythological story about gods that never actually lived. Our faith is rooted in real history and it has changed the world. Scala SantaIn the afternoon we stumbled across a chapel in the Lateran section of town where was housed the Scala Sancta. Tradition holds that these were the actual stairs that Jesus used when he climbed to meet with Pilate to be judged. The stairs were said to have been brought to Rome by Constantine’s mother, Helena. While this cannot be proved, the possibility is plausible as these were real people and real places. Whether or not the stairs really were as reputed, I was moved by the devotion of people who climb the stairs one by one on their knees. The sides of the staircase are adorned with frescoes (mural paintings) depicting the passion of Christ. I watched these people kneeling on each step individually to think about the pictures and to offer prayer to God. Say what you will about the possibility of their superstition, but rightly directed I could see how this could be a powerful worship experience. I guess I was too Baptist to participate, but I did pause to thank my God for his sacrifice for me. On Easter Sunday morning we stood in St. Peter’s square (it’s actually round) with at least 100,000 of our closest friends. The Pope’s sermon (what we could gather of it) spoke about resurrection and hope. He denounced terrorism and the war in the middle east. I’ll never be a Roman Catholic, but standing in that place filled with hopeful people, seeing people wave their flags from every corner of the world (including more than a few Canadian flags), I thought about the old Sunday school song we used to sing… "Red and yellow, black and white. All are precious in his sight."

Rolls-Royce Never Fails

The following story was told by Mac Brunson of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida in his sermon, The Purpose of the Passion which you can hear on the most recent Preaching Today Audio CD (#283). For more information on this audio series and for other online features check out A man who lived in England came over to the United States to go to a resort for several months, and he wanted to bring his car – his Rolls-Royce – over. It was packaged up and shipped over so he could drive his car while he was in the United States. But, while he was here, something happened to the car. There was a mechanical failure. And so he called over to England and said: “I’ve got this problem with my car. I think this is what it is.” And Rolls-Royce told him: “That’s fine. Within 48 hours, we’ll have a mechanic with the auto parts there to fix it for you.” They put a mechanic with some car parts on a plane and flew him to the United States. He worked on the guy’s car out in the parking lot at this resort, fixed it, got on a plane, and flew back to England. The man drove his car the rest of the time. Then he packaged it back up, put it one a ship, and sent it back. He was back home for nearly a year before he discovered he had never got a bill from Rolls-Royce. So he wrote the company. He said: “This date last year I called – there was something wrong with my Rolls-Royce, and you flew a mechanic over. You fixed it, but I’ve never received a bill. If you’ll find that bill in your office, I’ll be happy to pay the bill for fixing my car.” He received a letter back from Rolls-Royce that said this: “In the files at the headquarters of Rolls-Royce, there is no accounting that anything has ever been wrong with a Rolls-Royce anywhere.” Brunson said, “Now that’s justification. When you get to heaven and Satan wants to holler and scream about all your sin, Jesus is going to look through the files, turn around and say: We don’t have a file on him here at all.”

Visual Preaching

The other day I had the pleasure of hearing my good friend, Dr. John Auxier preach. John is Dean of Trinity Western University and an expert in marriage and family counseling. He is also a very fine preacher. His sermon was taken from John 11 and 12, focusing on the dinner party where Mary of Bethany washed the feet of Jesus. It was a wonderful sermon, well assimilated, and thoughtfully conceived. One of the striking things that John did, however, was to set up an actual table and chairs in order to be able to physically describe the circumstances of the event – who would likely have been sitting where and what it might have indicated. It was a very simple way to help us visualize the text – not complicated in its execution, but very helpful just the same. In recent days my students in class have used many such visual aids – hollow eggs, t-shirts emblazoned with various messages, a book of family history, and an antique lantern, among other things, all designed to enhance the learning experience for the listeners. I’ve been a little surprised by this given that I have not required it nor spoken a great deal to the students about it. Nevertheless, they have found these “object lessons” to be helpful in communicating their message to their audience. In my experience, the simpler these objects are, the better. They also ought to be central to the theme of the message. A physical object will be a striking element and should not be used to describe extraneous aspects of the sermon. This is a great way to take our sermons to another level. In my friend John’s case, he used the table in the second service but not in the first. In his view, the visual display greatly enhanced the impact of the sermon in that second service.

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Good News About Seminary Training

I heard some good news about theological education over the weekend at the Chief Academic Officer’s Meetings of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). It seems that people are happier with seminary education than we may have thought. Barbara Wheeler of the Auburn Institute reported on data gathered from an array of comprehensive surveys over several years. It seems that the seminary experience is highly rated. Some highlights:

  • Seminary students rated the quality of their educational experience as 3.2 out of 4.0.
  • 95% of graduates said that they would encourage others to pursue ministry.
  • 4 out of 5 would encourage others to attend the same seminary that they did.
  • 4.75 out of 5 would attend the same seminary again if they had the chance.
  • 74% of seminary graduates end up in professional local church ministry. 88% end up in some form of professional ministry.

The attrition rate of Master of Divinity grads who end up in professional ministry is only 1% per year over ten years. Put another way, 90% of grads stay in ministry over 10 years. These numbers are staggering and "blow away" comparables from any other form of professional training such as law or medical school. I agree with Wheeler who said, "I don’t care what your business is, if you can deliver these kinds of results, you are doing phenomenal work." It has become common to criticize seminary as "cemetary" and to generally see it as an outdated and inefficient way of training people for ministry. The numbers say otherwise. Perhaps it’s time to stop seminary-bashing and to begin to think more creatively about how seminaries and churches can leverage this work for the benefit of people and the growth of God’s kingdom.

Secret Spirituality

Lately I’ve been preaching through the Sermon on the Mount, particularly chapter six and Jesus’ requirement that the forms of spiritual formation be kept secret. When you give, he says, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. When you pray, go into the closet and lock the door. When you fast, have a shower and clean up so that no one knows what you have been up to. In short, spiritual formation is supposed to happen in secret. It is what we do with God and for God. It is not about making the right kind of impression on others. My struggle with all this has been that as a leader and as a parent I find myself wanting to set a good example. I find that I want to be seen to be spiritual so that I’m modeling patterns of spiritual formation for my children and for others around me. I want them to see my praying and giving and living out the disciplines of the faith because I want them to pick up on these same things. But it’s hard to get past what Jesus is saying. The forms of spiritual discipline are not to be displayed. It is the fruit of the Spirit that ought to be observable. Spiritual discipline is like the skeleton that supports the system on the inside, but it is not supposed to be visible from the outside. We must pray, we must give, we must be disciplined, it’s just that these are not the things that ought to show. Rather than being known as a person who does spiritual things, I want to be known as a person who displays the character of God. I want to be known as a person who displays the fruits of the spiritual life – displaying a love, joy, peace, and patience so profound that people want to know where it comes from and what it’s all about. Our spiritual practice is for God’s eyes only.

Ready to Preach

Last week I was part of the examination committee for a Doctor of Ministry dissertation written by Pastor David Acree from Lethbridge, Alberta. David’s dissertation examined the matter of the preacher’s sense of readiness to preach. I’m pleased to say that he passed the exam and will graduate this spring. The question is interesting. Every pastor knows what it’s like to not quite feel ready to preach. No doubt some of this is simply human. Sometimes we’re tired and under-motivated and there isn’t much to be done for it. But perhaps, given the spiritual nature of our task, we could build a routine that might help intentionalize the process of being ready to go into the pulpit to preach. Acree thinks there is. He counsels the preacher to pay attention to things like their personal sense of identity, their expectations for the event, and the allowance of adequate time. He deals with the expected aspects of prayer and attendance to the Spirit. He challenges preachers to care about the listeners, spending time with them and helping connect them to the Word. “When God’s preacher,” Acree says, “enters the pulpit in God’s power to deliver a message from God appropriate to the people of God, that preacher is ready to preach.” In my own preaching, I would have to say that I know when I am ready and when I am not. I’m not sure the readiness formula is all that surprising. I know what it takes to prepare a solid sermon plan and when that plan is only partially cooked. I know when I’ve rushed things and when I’ve taken the time that is necessary to engage God and to engage the message from His Word. Elsewhere I have written about “assimilation” and I think that this is essentially what we are talking about. When I feel full of the message and the sermon burns inside me I am ready to preach. What God will do with it in result is up to him.

Taking the Heat

Recently, I preached the same sermon at two consecutive services. In between the first and second services I took some heat from an older man who suggested that “if anyone came into the service confused, I left them more confused.” I tried to offer a gentle response, hoping to clarify what may have been a misapprehension of my intent, but he wasn’t interested in a conversation. He just wanted to drop his bomb. In fact, he proved the point that I was trying to make with the sermon about the way we perpetuate the forms of spiritual life without attending to the fruit of the Spirit. For all his concern, there wasn’t much evidence of love, joy, patience… in his response to me. It’s been a long time since I’ve been hit with criticism for my preaching so directly. It just hasn’t happened to me all that often and so I don’t mind admitting that the criticism stung. Given that there was quite a bit of time between services I went for a walk in order to pray and to sort out my response. First, of course, one needs to deal with the emotional sting. Most of us like to be appreciated and it doesn’t feel good to know that we are not. Of course, I was able to balance this with the fact that multiple people had come to me offering profuse thanks for the same sermon. I remember, however, something I read in a book on Christian parenting about how every negative comment needs to be balanced by at least ten positive ones. Secondly, I needed to rehearse the sermon to see if there was any truth in the criticism. Just because the critic was angry doesn’t mean that he was wrong. In this case, however, as I went through what I had said, I concluded that I was correct in what I had said. My comments, while difficult, were warranted by the text of Scripture. The third and in this case most telling aspect was an examination of the degree to which the problem could have been avoided if I had done a better job of preaching. Here, I sensed was where I had stumbled. It’s not that the sermon was poor. It’s just that I could have done a better job of helping my critic deal with what I was saying. Not that I want to soft-peddle the struggle. Preaching the Bible leads us to say some uncomfortable things and I’m not afraid of laying it out there. At the same time, I don’t want to be unnecessarily confrontational. Where there is potential for challenge, my goal as a preacher is not just to create problems for people, but having raised the problems, find ways to help people past them. The truth is, I could have been more sensitive to the potential for difficulty and I could have done more to actually help the listener hear what God was saying. In fact, in the second service, that is exactly what I did. As a preacher, I want to own responsibility for the listener’s response. This is not to say that I can control their responses. I can’t. It is also not to say that I am accountable for their response. I’m not. Nevertheless, the more I take it upon myself to help the listener respond well to what they hear, the better my preaching is going to be and the stronger the response will be from listeners. It’s not easy, but it’s part of our job as preachers.

Let the Fish Run

Last week I was talking to my students about the challenge of helping listeners overcome their objections to the sermon’s big idea. I likened the challenge to fishing. I’m not much of a fisherman, but I know that once you’ve got the fish on the hook, you don’t just bring the fish into the boat. You’ve got to let the fish run a little.Fisherman What I mean is that we have to create room in our sermons for the listener to struggle with what they have heard. We have to let them fight back some if we expect them to take hold of the message and truly own it. We can’t just explain our big idea and sit down thinking "I’ve made my point." We may have explained our point and the listeners may have understood it but that doesn’t mean that they are ready to give their lives for it. I love the image provided by Hemmingway in The Old Man and the Sea of the ancient fisherman who takes two full days to bring in the giant fish that he has hooked. This isn’t going to come easily. If we want our listeners to respond to the gospel, we’re going to have to fight for it. We’re going to have to struggle. The best way I know how to do this is to anticipate the things that the listener is going to have to overcome and then to use the listener’s voice in articulating these things in the space of the sermon. The listener needs to recognize her or his own voice in the sermon. The listener needs to know that the preacher is speaking as a listener and for the listeners. It is a matter of showing respect for the listener as a person with dignity who has the right to make his or her own response to God. Let the fish run. When it’s ready you’ll be able to bring it into the boat.

Pre-judging the Text

I ran into the same problem with two of my students yesterday. Both of them submitted sermon plans that required a little help. When I suggested alternate and more appropriate ways of approaching the text, they both agreed with me. The problem, they said, was that the texts and themes had been assigned to them by their Senior Pastors. It seems that these pastors had divided up their texts and assigned themes without taking their study of the text to the necessary level. In essence, they had prejudged their texts. I understand that there is value in knowing what we are going to be preaching on well in advance. The worship leaders like it. It definitely helps with marketing. Still, could I simply ask that we don’t determine what the text is saying until we actually study the text? The first step to understanding a text is to read it. I mean that we must read it with enough diligence and thought that we aren’t emerging with what we want the text to mean but what it actually means as God intends it. Is this too much to ask?

Spiritual Leadership: Acting with Integrity

It is thought that spiritual people don’t make good leaders. Yet a biblical view holds that leadership without spiritual character is incompetent. Integrating competence and character is frightening for spiritual leaders aware of their failings. However, leaders with the integrity to own this kind of honesty will find the grace they need to "finish first."

Spiritual leaders aren’t what they used to be. There was a time when spiritual leaders were respected in the community for the contribution that they made to the public good. Spiritual leaders had status and a voice in public life. Things have changed. Spiritual leadership today is seen as an anachronism, either raising images of darkly-clad, elderly parsons, well-meaning but out of touch with contemporary life, or else offering the more frightening vision of a wild-eyed David Koresh leading deluded followers toward some kind of cultic doomsday.

So who would aspire to spiritual leadership today? Why would anyone willingly take up such an ill-fitting mantle? There’s very little money in it and precious little status. It seems presumptuous to aspire to this kind of leadership. We have a cynical feeling that some things are beyond our grasp, or should be. We suspect that those who claim to have mastered spirituality are getting above themselves and we’ve seen too many of them fall. Some such folks are felt to be harmless. We merely tolerate them. Others are seen as dangerous and them we vigorously oppose.

Competence vs. Character

Combining spirituality with leadership seems an odd kind of alchemy. To be spiritual is to subscribe to a higher standard than what seems necessary for the rest of us. Spiritual people live in a different landscape. They walk a different way. To embrace spirituality is to be concerned about holiness. It is to cultivate character.

Leadership, on the other hand, holds no such illusions. Leadership is a bottom-line interest, bestowed upon those who get the job done. Leaders gain credibility only when they earn it through successful achievement. Leadership is credited to those who are competent.

So what has Rome to do with Athens? What does character have to do with competence? Can a leader be spiritual? Can a spiritual person lead? Generally, we tend to see competence and character at opposite ends of a polarised continuum. Any gains to be made in the pursuit of character must be accompanied by a corresponding loss in competence. 


In other words, "nice guys finish last." Winners win by being ruthless. Honest people are taken advantage of. People with principles are admirable losers. 

Case #1 – Who would you vote for?

Consider, for example, a practical case in point. Who would you vote for, given the opportunity, Richard Nixon or Jimmy Carter? Nixon is widely viewed as having been a competent president. While not necessarily well liked, he was respected for his policies on economics, foreign policy, and for his political acumen. At the same time, he was a scoundrel. Carter, on the other hand, is universally appreciated as one of the all-time nice guys. If there was ever any doubt, his years out of office have proved him to be a man of character who cares about people and is willing to put himself out in order to serve others. At the same time, he was generally believed to be an ineffective president, particularly as seen in his failed energy and foreign policies. 

The case is, of course, overdrawn for the sake of the argument. Undoubtedly, Carter had his competencies as Nixon did his vestiges of character. Nevertheless, the question stands. Who would you vote for – a man with questionable character who will deliver peace and prosperity? Or a man with questionable competence who you can respect as a man of principle? Perhaps recent history could furnish us with the answer. Bill Clinton, a man whose moral compass pointed somewhere other than north, enjoyed phenomenal support because of his success in public policy. People would vote for Clinton, though they wouldn’t let him near their daughters. In this case, competence mattered more than character.

Case #2 – Who would you hire?

To put a finer point on it, let’s consider the matter from a perspective more pertinent to the question of spiritual leadership. Who would you hire as your pastor – a person with spiritual character or a person competent to lead? After all, neither Richard Nixon nor Jimmy Carter offered themselves as spiritual leaders. Your pastor, however, does. Would you be willing, then, to hire a pastor who can motivate people, attract crowds, raise the offerings, and lead multitudes to faith if you weren’t sure of this person’s own practice of biblical morality? Or would you prefer a person of outstanding moral fibre whose stagnant leadership skills will ensure your church never cracks the 100 barrier?

Consider the case of well-known television preacher, Charles Stanley. Stanley, pastor of First Baptist Church in Atlanta, was recently divorced by his wife of 44 years. However, instead of resigning from his ministry as he had promised five years earlier, Stanley vowed to remain as senior pastor. Announcing the situation to the congregation, administrative pastor Gearl Spicer said, "It is my biblical, spiritual, and personal conviction that God has positioned Dr. Stanley in a place where his personal pain has validated his ability to minister to all of us."1 This is an amazing piece of theological manipulation. Apparently, God caused the Stanley divorce for the benefit of the church. As Spicer concluded his statement, the people of First Baptist responded with spontaneous applause.

This is an issue that gets at the question of the character of the spiritual leader. No doubt Charles Stanley is a good man whom God has used in significant ways for his glory. He is, without question, a competent leader. He may even, under most conditions, qualify as a man of good character. In this case, however, Stanley’s failing strikes at one of the core issues of his teaching and preaching over many years. As president of the Southern Baptist Convention and as pastor of this megachurch, he has a long history of speaking about marital fidelity, publicly criticising liberal divorce laws. The hypocrisy of his current position is evident. Note, however, that the primary argument used in favour of Stanley retaining his position is that his moral failings make him a better pastor. In other words, his diminished character makes him more competent to fulfil his leadership role. 

This line of argument closely follows the model offered above. As character is diminished, competence is increased. People, apparently, like leaders they can relate to – people who mess up regularly and sometimes spectacularly just like they do. Yet does this kind of thinking meet the biblical mark? Charles Colson, commenting on the Stanley scenario, said that, "Biblical standards for pastors are very high, and rightly so. Given the already high divorce rate among Baptists, the last thing we need to do is give one of our own leaders a pass, no matter how much we may respect him."[2]

The Biblical Call for Integrity in Leadership

Colson is correct with regard to the biblical standard. Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus provide direct instruction to those aspiring to spiritual leadership. Paul said that spiritual leaders "must have a good reputation with outsiders" (1Tim. 3:7) and that they must be "worthy of respect" (v.8). Titus 2:7,8 says that the spiritual leader is to "set an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us."

This emphasis upon moral integrity runs throughout the Bible both in the example of people like Job (Jb. 2:3) and David (1 Ki. 9:4) and also in the direct instruction found in the Psalms and Proverbs (Ps. 78:72; Pr. 19:1). Biblically, one gets the idea that spiritual leadership with integrity demands the integration of competence and character. Etymologically, integrity describes wholeness, or structural soundness. Integration speaks of the congruence of parts within a structural whole. Integrity in spiritual leadership, then, requires a different model, one that reflects the biblical sense that you cannot be competent without character.


This model is an attempt to integrate the concern for competence and character. For example, a leader who combines high competence with low character is not to be trusted. Such a leader will not shy away from manipulation or deceit to get his or her way. Such a leader will be feared. The leader who has deficient character and similarly lacks the requisite leadership competencies will not be relevant. Such a leader will lack credibility and will therefore be pushed to the margins and ignored. Such leaders will be forgotten. The leader who exhibits sterling character, but who is incompetent as a leader will win the sympathies of the people, but not their allegiance. People will feel sorry for such a leader. However, the leader who combines strong character with a firm grasp of the necessary leadership competencies will be in the happy position of winning both respect and allegiance. People will follow such a leader.

Of course, this model is too one-dimensional. People should not be so easily stereotyped, or so rigidly boxed in and categorised. Most of us find ourselves in several of the boxes at once eliciting all manner of responses to our leadership. It is hard, for instance, to imagine the people of First Baptist being afraid of Charles Stanley in the manner described. Yet once character is lapsed and weakness exposed, the pull on the follower is clearly less compelling.

If there is any doubt as to the truth of this claim, consider the case of the Roman Catholic priesthood. For centuries the public generally appreciated priests in this tradition both for their spirituality and for their leadership. For more than fifteen years, however, priests have reeled from multiple allegations of gross sexual misconduct. The integrity of the priests in question and the priesthood in general has been damaged, perhaps irreparably. As Donald Cozzens writes, "The absolute confidence (people) once placed in them has faded into a wary cordiality. They have lost their once unquestioned authority, their role as moral leaders and spiritual guides."3 Once confidence is lost, it is hard to regain. Simply put, character counts.

Spiritual Leadership by the Grace of God 

The implication of this position can be frightening to those of us with sufficient integrity to own our spiritual infidelities and leadership incompetencies. Integrity demands we be honest with ourselves and honest to God about our failings.

Spiritual leadership obviously requires a vital intimacy with God’s spirit. So what does the leader do when God goes AWOL? How can we lead when the well runs dry? Every spiritual leader vacillates between faith and doubt, hope and fear. It is hard to offer refreshment when you are living in the desert.

Spiritual leaders with integrity will also have to admit the limits of their leadership. Though we love to nurse the "hero-myth" we admit when we’re honest that the job is bigger than we are. What do you say that will encourage the abused wife and the abandoned child? How do we raise money without looking crass? How do we proclaim truth to be relevant to people who believe all truth to be relative? What do we do when we lose our joy and our calling feels like drudgery? 

Our first response must be to make fact of our failure. There is no point pretending we’re something we’re not. Honesty, even about our weakness, is a sign that marks a true spiritual leader. We simply appeal to grace.

Yet, it is hard to respond graciously to a leader who fails us. What do we do with our broken expectations? Again, consider Bill Clinton. Alan Wolfe, of Boston University, described the two responses to the former president as exemplifying what he called hard and soft Protestantism. Hard Protestants (represented by prosecutor Kenneth Starr) are uncompromising, disciplined, and straight backboned. Soft Protestants (represented by Clinton himself) are inclusive, therapeutic, and forgiving.4 On the one hand we want to "hang ’em high" and on the other hand we prefer to "give ’em a break." The former approach appeals to the biblical standards of holiness. The latter appeals to the biblical mandate to forgive.

Of course, both of these principles are critical within Scripture. They find their point of integration in the biblical concept of grace. Grace does not relieve people from their responsibility before God’s righteous standard. As C.S. Lewis said, "Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the man who did it."5 Grace makes no excuses, but then grace makes sure to forgive. That God, for instance, could offer David as an example of integrity (1 Ki. 9:4) despite his acts of adultery, murder, and espionage is powerfully encouraging. 

Spiritual leaders understand that they do not offer themselves on the merits of their own character or competency, but on the basis of that which has been granted them by Christ. Our ability to lead spiritually is entirely a gift of God’s grace. The opportunity to stand with character intact in his presence is only because he has forgiven us. The ability to lead others competently is only because he gifted us. When it comes down to it, even those who follow are being gracious to us.

Choosing to Exercise Spiritual Leadership with Integrity

One of the more outstanding examples of spiritual leadership in the 20th century was seen in the ministry of Billy Graham. Even cynical journalists found Graham to offer a message and an example that was compelling. Clearly, he was a creative leader. His competency as a leader would not have been sufficient, however, without his character as a man of the Spirit. Early in his ministry, Billy Graham and his team made some hard character choices about the way they would approach their work. They deliberately determined that they would avoid even the appearance of financial abuse. They chose to exercise care to avoid the possibility of any perception of sexual impropriety. They agreed to co-operate with any local church that could subscribe to their view of the gospel so as to avoid any sense of competition among churches. Many would have thought they had taken precautions beyond what was necessary. Yet decades later Graham’s ministry stands as a paragon of ethical propriety. The credibility of Graham’s message has been immeasurably enhanced by these commitments to character deliberately chosen and carefully maintained over all these years.

Those of us who are committed to the cause of spiritual leadership need to make deliberate intentional choices first to receive God’s grace, and then to live by it, faithfully choosing moment by moment to live in ways that are congruent with our calling. Competency doesn’t cut it in the course of God’s kingdom. Nice guys may finish last on the short run of this earth. But Jesus reminded us that eventually the last finish first (Mt. 20:16). People with character will be proved to be competent.


  1. Reported in Charles Colson’s Breakpoint broadcast, June 13, 2000.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Cozzens, Donald B, "Confronting All of the Priests’ Losses," in In Trust (Autumn 2000): 4.
  4. Quoted in Alissa J. Rubin, "Sex Scandal Revives Dilemma over Ethics," in Hot Coco (October 4, 1998): 1.
  5. 5 C.S. Lewis, Fern-seed and Elephants and other essays on Christianity. Walter Hooper, ed. (Glasgow: Collins, 1975), 42.

“Being Church”

Being Church: Explorations in Christian Community

It has been my pleasure to participate in the publication of a small book written by our faculty at Northwest Baptist Seminary. The book, Being Church: Exploration in Christian Community was recently published in honor of the former Regional Director of the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in British Columbia, Bruce Christensen.

The book features a chapter on the various forms of multi and inter-cultural church by Mark Naylor, Northwest’s Co-Ordinator of International Leadership Development. This piece seeks to encourage intentional intercultural relationships with practical suggestions for those willing to step out of their comfort zone to discover how God speaks into another cultural setting.

Northwest President Larry Perkins has written a helpful piece on local church governance advocating for a shared-governance model. This is in contrast to both the highly democratic and highly autocratic models often seen in local churches today.

New Testament scholar, Brian Rapske’s contribution looks at the nature of the Samaritan mission in Acts 8. His specific interest is the delay in the reception of the Holy Spirit, arguing that this delay was anomalous and singular and not normative for the church today.

Lyle Schrag, Director of the Northwest Center for Leadership Development, offers a chapter titled “A Heart for the Local Church” in which he describes reasons that we might renew our love for the church in its various gathered expressions.

Archie Spencer, holder of the Pickford Chair in Theology, looks at the emerging church and calls for a needed recommitment to our reformation roots in evangelical ecclesiology.

My own contribution is my paper on “Preaching as Dialogue” which can be found by following the link above.

A book like this reflects the varied interests and concerns of our small Baptist faculty. It offers a helpful and relevant consideration of the nature of the church at this moment in time.