Some of the best advice I have ever received came from my advisor Scott Manetch in seminary. He warned me not to use a "bag of tricks" when I got into ministry. He explained how most pastors stay at a church for 3-4 years and then move on. One reason, he suggested, was because many pastors only had three years worth of sermons, ideas and programs in their bag of tricks. When the pastor ran out he would move on to another church and recycle everything again.
The root of this (I think) is being a second-hander. We may push children to make their faith their own, but pastors seemingly must do the same. Here are seven signs that you are setting yourself up to be or already are a second-hander.
1. In school, when you are assigned an exegesis paper, you run to the commentaries and your conclusion first. You short-circuit your own work and effort by not staring at the text over and over again. Time is of the essence so you hurry through the process. The result - you have just written a paper on Romans 8 that is almost identical to Doug Moo's commentary. You get a good grade, you learned something about the text, but you skipped the process of learning.
2. Speaking of languages, you rely on your computer software to parse everything for you. Even when called upon in class, you look hard into your computer screen and then say what the program tells you. Teachers would be smart to not allow computers in exegesis classes!
3. You get assigned a text to preach and you immediately go to The Gospel Coalition and Desiring God websites for help. You listen to a few sermons, make an outline, add a personal story and boom, you are done! Funny thing - it sounds just like John Piper's sermon last week. I remember being in preaching lab while in seminary and three people had the same sermon. To say pastors continue to use other people's sermons in an unhelpful way is an understatement. Just read here. By the time you preach on Sundays, your sermons really are just insights from your three favorite preachers.
4. You would rather read book reviews than books, books about the Bible instead of the Bible,and books on prayer instead of praying. Books reviews are helpful. So are commentaries and books on prayer. But these are secondary sources, not primary.
5. You rely on what you learned 10 years ago instead of what you learned over the last 10 years. The Bible is not fresh. All of your insights are from mentors and teachers before they unleashed you on the Church. You may have bought books at a conference or from a great online deal, but you only read a few, if you are lucky!
6. When you awake in the morning, you run to the blogs and news to hear what people say about Scripture instead of reading it for yourself.
7. All of your ideas are someone elses. This includes ideas for what your church is involved in. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. It is bad if you find that you are reduplicating the same plan in different contexts with different people.
I believe what happens in the process of using secondary sources first, is that you become a caricature of what you had hoped to become. You imagine yourself to know far more than you do. But honestly, the roots of Scripture are only an inch deep. You can not be a firmly planted tree by streams of water without delight and meditation. One thinks of the end of C.S. Lewis's Four Loves as he reflects on his own experience of God:
God knows, not I, whether I have ever tasted this love. Perhaps I have only imagined the tasting. Those like myself whose imagination far exceeds their obedience are subject to a just penalty; we easily imagine conditions far higher than any we have reached. If we describe what we have imagined we may make others, and make ourselves, believe that we have really been there.
In the spring of 2008 I was brought into the principal’s office. I had been teaching at a Christian school for two years, where I had started working after I graduated from seminary. The first 18 months had gone really well and I truly enjoyed what I was doing. I had seen kids come to Christ, enjoyed teaching the students, loved coaching the basketball team, and was privileged to serve as a board member. At home, my wife and I had just welcomed our second child into the home we bought in 2006. However, the last six months had been pretty difficult and in the morning of a spring day I was asked to resign. We all know what that means - I was being fired.
It is hard now to recapture exactly what happened. I write with eight years of perspective. The day will forever be ingrained in my mind. Getting called in. Sitting with friends who were letting me go. Telling my wife I was being fired from my first vocational ministry job. I had heard that only 1 in 5 people that graduated from seminary were in vocational ministry after five years. Would I be a casualty? Would people think less of me and wonder whether I was competent or qualified to serve in a role I had been trained to do? Most of what I say below would apply to all types of firing, but I am speaking specifically about being fired from a vocational ministry position for reasons other than significant moral failure or cut backs - I’m talking about the hard and unclear cases.
The allegations, whatever they are, are probably not 100% false
The last six months of my job were difficult. I needed to wade through all that was being said about me and learn. Even if 99% of it was false, some of it was probably true and even if it was minor I needed to mature. Do some pastors get sifted by their people even though they are 100% in the right? Yes, but it is rare. I have sat with many people who have been let go from ministry positions, and as they have told me their stories I have usually been able to see why the whole thing went south, even if they can not see it yet. It took me some time, but I Iearned quite a bit about leadership, personal interaction, clarity in speaking, keeping better attention to details, and much more.
Submit to Authority
Almost everyone is under the authority of someone else. It is easy to submit when you agree with the decisions being made, but the true test of submission is whether you can submit to decisions you do not agree with. I am not talking about submitting to immoral decisions. Over the course of a job we are bound to disagree with someone making decisions in leadership. I am sure I could have reasoned that what was happening was unjust. Maybe I could have reasoned they were my enemies and prayed the imprecatory Psalms over them. Maybe I could count it as persecution. Maybe I could have planted seeds of discord in the staff, parents, and students and try a divide and conquer strategy.
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” Does Romans 13:1 only apply to the government rulers? I don’t think so.
Let no bitter root grow
Being fired by a Christian brother or sister is a terrible experience. I was sitting in a room with four people who took little pleasure in letting me go. They knew what it meant for my young family. Some of them were and still are close friends. I had actually taught or coached three of the four’s children. We had a relationship. They were parents, spouses and friends. They had prayed for me and the person who made the decision thought he was making the best possible decision.
There were also the colleagues - those who liked me and were on “my side” and those that were not. Again - all believers for whom Christ had died. For me, Hebrews 12:14-15 came to mind: “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” Even for the people who treated me terribly, I was responsible before God to be at peace with others and not let bitterness grow.
Eight years later I can say that I have prayed with all four of the people that were in the room with me and keep in contact with two of them. As for the others who pushed for me to leave, I have prayed for reconciliation but life has taken us different places and I have no idea where they are. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God (Matt 5:9).
As a man and the only one who received income for work, this was especially important for my family. I needed to provide a safe and calm environment for my wife and kids. They needed me to not be angry, anxious, or full of contempt. They needed me to lead.
If it keeps happening, you really need some perspective from others your trust
I got some good advice from a wise man when this happened. He told me that if this only happened once it was not a big deal. If it happened again it was a cause for concern. If it happened 3-4 times it was a big red flag.
If you constantly find yourself being let go from ministry positions it is probably a sign that you need some perspective and feedback. It could be that you are not cut out or gifted for the type of jobs you are applying for. You may be taking jobs beyond your competency. You might need to learn to actually love people and not just on your own terms. It could be that you don’t know how to discern a situation that is a good fit for you. Whatever it is, find some friends and get some perspective.
The Lord will take care of you, even if it’s your own fault
I had an immediate problem in that I had no job in April of 2008, which was beyond the hiring cycle for most churches and schools. It’s difficult to not be anxious when you walk into your home you purchased right before the market crash, look into the eyes of your wife who had just had a baby and tell her you were fired. Would the Holy Spirit carry me through?
In June of that year, I pitched the idea of Training Leaders International to a pastor at the church I attended. In July, I began an interim pastorate that lasted two years. And though the Lord extracted quite a bit of flesh from me, TLI was launched and now serves pastors around the world.
The firing taught me a lot about myself, which the Lord used to shape me. The pastorate was one of the greatest blessings of my life. Now I am in a position where I have to ask people I love to resign. It is painful, and I remember what it was like to receive the news
The truth is, TLI would not exist if I had not been fired, nor would I have been ready to lead it. So Lord - thank you for firing me from a job I loved.
When I was in seminary a man I knew came up to me in the
library asking me how to pronounce some Greek words out of Revelation 2. I did my best without thinking twice. Later I realized he wanted to say the Greek
correctly in a sermon. He didn’t know
It’s a situation I hope never to be a part of again and it still makes my stomach turn thinking about it.
"But in the Greek it says…” I
am sure you have heard it before or possibly even said it. You know the pastor (or you!) is getting
serious when they do.
It is here where I want to throw a whole lot of
caution. It’s a dangerous thing to utter
such a phrase in a sermon. So what follows are five cautions to think about
if you dare venture to use this phrase.
- If you have to say, “But in the Greek…” a lot,
you probably are preaching from a bad translation. I have a friend who teaches Greek at an Evangelical seminary who, when he hears anyone say, “But in the Greek…” he says
to himself, “Then why didn’t the translators say that.” You are not using a good translation if you
feel the urge to go this way often.
- You probably only know enough Greek to be
dangerous. Of course, it’s
hard to know when you know enough!
Reading Exegetical Fallacies
is a good start, but that is just the tip
of the iceberg! You are most likely getting insight from a commentary, which you probably do not understand fully. Be slow to think you understand Greek.
- Knowing the original languages is a gift from
God, but it is also elite knowledge. 99%
of Christians don’t know it and when you quote the Greek you undermine the
translation in their hands, which is their only access to Scripture. It sets you a part and can turn you into, at least in the eyes of your church, a professional.
- If you really feel there is such an egregious
error in the translation, maybe it would be best to say, “I am really helped by
another translation here that translates this passage…” There is no reference
to Greek and it still allows a thoughtful Christian to think and appreciate the
text you are talking about more deeply.
- Consider your audience. If you have a bunch of farmers, you might
want to steer clear. If you have a bunch
of academics, you might dare mention “Greek.” You just need to be careful. Not mentioning Greek does not mean your preaching is shallow. Academic does not mean more godly. Deep preaching does not mean more intellectually stimulating.
These are not excuses to be lazy. Seminaries don’t teach Greek and Hebrew so
their students can forget and discard what they have learned. Knowing
the original languages for most of us is a life-long process which takes a lot
of discipline and hard work. We are average
linguists at best, but are afforded the benefit and joy of reading the Word of
God in it’s original. That is
AMAZING. Just be careful how you wield
The work of Bible translators around the world is to be
applauded. The Bible has been translated into many different languages and as a
result, people in their tribes have the Bible in their mother tongue. It is a
beautiful thing, for a grandmother, who cannot read, to have a book in her
house and have someone read it to her in her own dialect. There is no doubt
that this brings them closer to the word of God and creates an even greater interest
in seeking to hear more of it. So, the work of Bible translation is to be
applauded and encouraged at all costs.
There is a lingering question in my mind, though, when I
look at the work of Bible translation and consider its impact on the target people
group. Here are my questions: What is the goal of Bible translation? Is it (a)
to have a Bible in a particular people group’s mother tongue so that they can
read it and hear God’s word in their dialect or (b) is it to have the people in
that people group actually understand what is said in the Bible
(interpretation) and thereby not only hear God’s word read but understand what
God, through the authors of the Bible, intended to communicate, or (c) is it
both. The answer to this question will impact the direction taken in the
process of Bible translation and will determine where resources are poured.
Before I state what I believe a helpful approach or answer
to this question, I want to briefly explain the situation in my own tribe, the
people of Kom, Cameroon, West Africa. The Kom people have had the Bible
translated into their own language and that is a wonderful thing. It is good to
have the Word of God read in church in your own dialect. The work of literacy
is ongoing, seeking to teach Kom people how to read the Kom Bible. That is a
worthy cause as well. So, we have a Bible in the Kom dialect and people who can
read it. What is missing? As helpful as this process of Bible translation and
literacy is, it is only a small part of the work. Anyone in the Kom tribe will
be quick to point to the need for proper Bible interpretation for people to
actually understand the word of God and for the need for well-prepared pastors
who can proclaim the Word of God to them. It would seem that Bible translation,
literacy programs, and the training of church leaders in properly handling the
word of truth need to go hand in hand. I know one would object that Bible
translators are doing their part and others should do their own part in the
preparation of pastors to interpret the Word. Fair objection. Is it happening?
Is there a way to use the resources at our disposal to do both? Could we not
only translate the Bible but also train national leaders whose job it will be
to help their people not just hear but also understand the content of the
The goal of Bible translation, then, should be twofold: 1)
To make the Bible available in a peoples’ mother tongue (translation) and 2) to
make God’s word understandable to the particular people group (interpretation).
The first goal will require men and women gifted in linguistics to take on the
task of Bible translation. The second goal will require a conscious effort to
prepare people who can interpret the translated word of God. When these two are
combined, the result is powerful: the Bible in a people’s language and a people
who do not only hear what the Bible says but understand what God is saying to
them through the written word. This second goal involves an interest in
theological education. It means that as
the Bible translation progresses, there is at the same time progress in the
training of national Bible interpreters. Oh, for the day when the dedication of
a Bible translation is done at the same time as the dedication of those who
have been prepared to proclaim faithfully the truth of the word of God.
Why is this important? Several reasons:
- Having the Bible in one’s
own language is not enough. It is at the most the beginning. Those for
whom English is their first language still need to have the Word
interpreted by those trained to do so. If we need trained Bible
interpreters to help us understand our English Bible so that we hear what
God intended to communicate, how much more those who have a Bible in their
language, do not know how to read it, and do not have our level of
education to understand written speech?
- Teaching all that Jesus
commanded and declaring the whole counsel of God is key for building a
healthy church. What Jesus commanded includes all of Scripture since he
both fulfills it and it points to him (see Matt. 5:17-20; 1 Cor. 15:3-5
and Luke 24:25-27). The church will be stronger when the whole counsel of
God is proclaimed (Acts 20:26-35). This task is enhanced greatly when
properly trained teachers and preachers do so in the language of the
- In most oral settings, the
only chance people have to hear the Word of God is from their pastor on
Sunday, or what he may teach during the week. Knowing that the pastors are
the main sources of transmission of the Word of God to the people, it
makes sense to provide them with the tools that they need to properly
interpret the Word and preach it, so that the people can understand and
trust God and obey him.
The history of missions has been such that Bible translators
have done their thing and theological educators have done their thing. It has
somehow been assumed that the two will work out in the end. It has not worked.
There are theologically educated pastors who cannot even read the Bible in
their mother tongue, not to mention preaching from it. There are those without
theological education who can read their mother tongue well but cannot
interpret the word for their people. These two need to be brought together, so
that Bible translation goes hand in hand with the theological education of
those who will use that particular translation for their people. This will
involve not sending people off to a remote school somewhere removed from their
own people groups, but providing them with a solid theological education on
site. They can be learning both how to read their mother tongue and receiving
training in how to interpret Scripture in their mother tongue.
Here is something else to consider: who is a Christian in
these statistics? The statistics fail to explain their definition. Is one
counted as a Christian because he or she says he is, or because there is
evidence in the life of the individual that shows the presence of the Holy
Spirit? Usually the numbers are based on self-proclaimed Christians rather than
those who are truly converted. This is my rationale:
- The countries with the
highest percentage of Christians have a low percentage of evangelicals.
Take, for example, Angola, in which 94.1% of the population are Christians
but only 22.5% are evangelicals. Cameroon claims that 53% of the
population is Christian but only 9% is evangelical. Rwanda boasts that
89.1% are Christians, but only 26.9% is evangelical. While the percentage
of Christians is high, when looked at from an evangelical perspective, it
is low (17.7% of the total population of Africa compared to the 48.8% who
say they are Christians). The question is, are evangelicals serious enough
about their values to be disturbed about this low percentage of
evangelical Christians in Africa? Or, are we so misled by the statistics
of growth that we assume all is well? It is time that when we hear the
word “Christian” we should also ask, “Who is a Chrsitian?”
The countries with the highest percentage of Christians have a low percentage of evangelicals. - Tweet this
- Statistics measure the
external (numbers of Christians) but not the internal (the heart of the
person). The high percentage of Christians in Africa does not quite fit
with the evils that we have seen over the years. How can we explain the
genocide in Rwanda which is almost 90% Christian? What about the wars of
Angola (94% Christian), and the corruption in most of the African nations
which have a high percentage of Christians? It seems that there is a
discrepancy between being identified as a Christian and actually being a
Christian. Statistics that only measure the external are good for human
consumption but unhelpful for the kingdom work. We are misled by
statistics that say all is well (external appearance of Christian growth)
when all is really bad (internal nature of the heart).
- Although Mandryk gives
these high statistics on the growth of Christianity in Africa, in country
after country he highlights the need for leadership development and the
problem of corruption. The church continues to be permeated with false
belief and ignorance of the Bible. Witchcraft and animistic practices
continue to be a problem in the life of the church and individuals.
Nominal Christianity is a problem for many African churches. Again, these
problems beg the question of definition. “Who is a Christian according to
- The need for theological
education and leadership development raises a question about the
statistics. If 48.77% of Africans are Christians, with Africa being the
fastest growing context for evangelical Christianity, why is there such a
shortage of evangelical leaders and teachers? What has the Church been
growing on? Operation World emphasizes
the need for theological education as key for the well-being of the church
in Africa. So, although there is supposed numerical growth, there remains
a need for solid theological foundations to be laid for the Church. We see
that the percentage of Christians does not reflect the theological context
of the African Church. Yes, 48.77% of Africans is Christian, but how
healthy is their theological context?
Statistics on the growth of Christianity in Africa are
amazing at first but are actually misleading. They tell the story
superficially. Statistics look at the outward growth of institutions, but what
is needed is the inward growth of the individual Christians. The question is
not what percentage of Africans say that they are Christians, but rather what
percentage of Africans is truly born again? When we focus on the nurturing of
the heart, and on the need for firm theological foundations for the Church, we
begin to see that statistics do not matter so much as having healthy churches
in Africa, filled with God-fearing people, taught by God-fearing leaders, eager
to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to those who do not have it.