Tag Archives: Ministry


Should Churches Offer Vocational Retraining for Fallen Pastors?

Does financial security prevent ministers from repenting of sin, and if so what should the church do about it? This question assumes that preparation for ministry does not easily translate to other fields, so the economic incentive to hide sin is strong. Thus, the practical question: Should churches offer vocational retraining for fallen pastors?

The stakes are high for a pastor to remain on the straight and narrow. His own testimony, the health of his family and church, and the reputation of Christ are on the line. Of course, this is true for every Christian, but there is a particular urgency for pastors because of their responsibility before almighty God (James 3:1).

unemployed-not-getting-hiredAll these things raise the motivation to hide sin. The fallout of repenting would be nuclear. His personal income is on the line, and thus the security of his family. Unlike the engineer or English professor in the congregation who can fail morally but may be able to get by unfazed professionally, a pastor’s earning potential is affected the moment he’s discovered.

Finding himself in such a situation, a compromised pastor will simply promise himself (and God) he won’t compromise anymore, and that will be the end of whatever vice he’s been indulging. But it never works. Unconfessed sin is a sure way both to invite the opposition of God (Psalm 32:3-4) and to harden into self-deception (Hebrews 3:12-13). So should a church have a pre-standing offer of vocational retraining to encourage a compromised pastor to come clean?

Why a Policy Doesn’t Work

As a policy, no. The two main purposes for such a policy would be to encourage openness regarding moral failure and to show fairness to a man whose sole training was for ministry related tasks. But such a policy would fail at both purposes. First, the assurance of vocational retraining will not necessarily increase the likelihood of repentance. The genuine conviction of the Holy Spirit will jump a low or a high hurdle all the same. Second, such a policy would rob the congregation of the opportunity to actively love a fallen brother. Vocational retraining would be something he is contractually owed rather than something he is graciously given.

Let me explain both of these points a bit more. First, the promise of financial security beyond ministry will not increase the likelihood of repentance. The assurance of vocational retraining is like a safety net for a well-known tightrope walker. It may spare a broken neck, but it won’t save a shattered reputation. The tightrope walker would probably take the broken neck over the negated carrier. The excruciating cost for a pastor confessing his moral failure transcends earning potential—his professional reputation, his marriage and family makeup, his sense of the meaning of his very existence. In other words, there are plenty of other reasons his flesh will find to hide if he is not sincerely convicted by the Holy Spirit.

But if he is, then the world couldn’t stop him from repenting. I’ve watched men face withering consequences for coming to the light, convinced that any earthly consequence was tolerable if the Lord Jesus would spare them from the final judgment. This is the mark, in fact, of godly sorrow in contrast to worldly sorrow (2 Corinthians 7:10-13). In the end, no commitment by the church for vocational retraining can counter the deceitfulness of sin.

Logic of Love

Second, a policy of offering vocational retraining to a fallen minister implies fairness over love. The logic of fairness would say that since the man’s vocational preparation was exclusively for the tasks of ministry—exegesis and homiletics, discipleship training and counseling—then he ought to be offered adequate preparation for a new career. It’s only fair.

But the logic of love is different. It would say that this minister has fallen into a sin common to us all, but with uniquely devastating consequences. Love means considering his interests despite there being no official obligation to do so. Isn’t this what Jesus illustrated by the story of a compassionate Samaritan and a pair of unwilling Jews? (Luke 10:29-37)

Love is best expressed personally, not contractually. The love that Christians should hold for one another will personally motivate them to help a fallen brother. Obviously, there is no guarantee of this love. And that’s the point. Love is expressed not in contractual guarantee, but in the spontaneous overflow of covenant commitment. A church policy that offers tuition reimbursement for a fallen pastor to get an MBA is very different from a member of the church who owns a furniture business offering him gainful employment and training.

Even if the church did want to go the route of supplementing an MBA or some other training, it’s best done through an unprompted act of benevolence, not from some prior agreement. This arrangement keeps the line clear between some inaccurate sense of employee fairness and a genuine act of undeserved generosity.

For those of us in ministry, we do well to plead with the Lord frequently to spare us from being that guy. We should beg Christ for the kind of love that motives our holiness far better than the fear of earthly consequences alone. But it should also be said that God is generous to sinners devastated by the consequences of sin. Psalm 38 stands as a testimony that God welcomes prayers for forgiveness for sin as well as help for the consequences we caused by it.

No fallen pastor who is a child of God disqualifies himself from his Father’s promise to provide. A repentant pastor will learn this promise regardless in the end, and regardless of a church policy.

Are Your Efforts to Contextualize the Gospel All about You?

I never thought moving from one suburb to another would make me reconsider my approach to contextualizing the gospel. That stuff is for missionaries and urban church planters, right?

It turns out it’s also for a junior high pastor from a formal church in a conservative Midwest suburb who takes an associate pastor role at a casual church in a liberal suburb in the South.

I immediately enjoyed adapting to my new context. Being in a progressive part of the country, I felt closer to the “front lines” of the battle for the kingdom. My assignment to teach a Sunday school class of young adults—many earning MAs and PhDs—allowed me to indulge my theological and exegetical nerdiness in a way that I couldn’t with my former junior highers. The switch from preaching in suits to an open collar was a nice perk. (And I chuckled to myself when I checked the weather up North.)

Who knew contextualizing the gospel could be so great?

Then one morning the next empty box on my Bible reading plan sat beside 1 Corinthians 9. Though I had read this passage countless times, I noticed something I never saw before: sacrifice was the hallmark of Paul’s contextualization. Verse by verse, the Spirit began to show me that my enjoyment of my new context—even if not in egregiously sinful ways—betrayed more of a concern for my preferences and pride, not the lost.

Although my theology of contextualizing has remained intact, since that morning I’ve been forced to reconsider how I go about doing it. Despite how selfless “becoming all things to all people” sounds, our deceitful hearts enable us to apply the principle selfishly.

Are you contextualizing the gospel in a way that is more about you than the people you are ministering to? The following three questions that rise out of 1 Corinthians 9 will help you find out.

Are You serving Others or Yourself?

“I have become all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22) is a theme verse for contextualizing the gospel. Paul determined to meet people where they are. If we are not willing to bring the gospel to unbelievers in the midst of their mess—just like Jesus met us—then it will be hard for unbelievers to see that Jesus can save them out of the mess they are in.

But when you scan your eyes up a couple verses, you see the way Paul becomes all things to all people: “I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them” (1 Cor. 9:19, emphasis added). Contextualization starts with service. Becoming all things begins with serving all people.

When you start with “becoming” instead of “serving” you run the risk of picking a context in order to acquire an identity. For example, consider urban church planting. One person has in mind the artists, the entrepreneurs, the sexually broken, and the homeless. He wants to meet their need for the gospel. Another person wants to escape what he perceives to be suburban superficiality. He is attracted to the urban lifestyle, with its cultural richness, diversity, and trendiness. Planting a church, to him, seems like a meaningful way to move to the city.

The first church planter becomes all-things-urban to serve the people there. The second becomes all-things-urban mainly to gain an all-things-urban identity. The first person is focused on others, while the second person, though perhaps not entirely narcissistic, is serving himself. Paul exposes the distinction between these two mindsets when he describes contextualization as “becoming” by serving, not “becoming” alone.

Are You Claiming Rights or Giving Them Up?

Over and over Paul shows how he set aside his preferences to see others believe the gospel. How can you know if you are serving others? The key is to give up your rights:

“Do we not have the right to . . . ?” (9:5ff)

” . . . we have not made use of this right” (9:12)

“But I have made no use of any of these rights . . . ” (9:15)

” . . . I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel (9:18)

What rights might you need to give up in order to bring the gospel to others? Your right to a certain standard of living? Your right to buy groceries without being asked for spare cash? Your right to preach without a tie?

One of the ironies of the gospel is that when you give up your rights you sense that you’ve received more from the experience, not less. Sacrificing to proclaim the gospel is immensely satisfying.

Are You Contextualizing to All or to Some?

In every sport I’ve played I’ve been coached to stay on the balls of my feet. Back on your heels, you are unprepared to react. But if you stay on the balls of your feet, you are ready to move toward the action. For Paul, contextualization was about doing gospel ministry “on the balls of his feet.” He was ready to serve anyone at any time in any way.

This is different from how I often hear people discussing contextualization. People often talk about aiming at one context: the poor, the city, the university students, and so on. But Paul was ready to contextualize the gospel to anyone at hand:

To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. (1 Cor. 9:19-22)

Wherever you live—whether city, suburb, or rural—are you willing to contextualize the gospel to all, even people you don’t like so much? Or are you merely willing to become some things to some people, that by some means you might save some?

If you have an overly defined segment of the population that you are trying to reach, it is possible you are merely trying to reach people whose company you prefer.

Jesus Served Us

In Philippians 2:7, Paul describes the incarnation as Jesus “taking the form of a servant.” At the outset, Jesus looked to the needs of others. Moreover, Jesus was a servant through his death, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42). These bookends show that Jesus’ entire ministry—from birth to death—was marked by giving up his rights as the eternally begotten Son to serve sinful people like us.

How do we respond to the way Jesus served us? By giving up our rights and serving others, whomever they may be, to bring them the gospel. It will require sacrifice, to be sure. But that sacrifice does not come without a reward, as Paul says, “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:23).

Chapell Greear McKinley

How to Preach Books of the Bible You Don’t Like

How do you preach a passage you don’t particularly like? Many pastors, of course, would just find a different one. But for those committed to expository preaching, sometimes the text staring you in the face isn’t one you would’ve picked.

“If I don’t like a passage it’s usually because I either don’t understand it or don’t see how I’m going to preach it,” Mike McKinley explains in a new roundtable video with Bryan Chapell and J. D. Greear. Yet time and again, the pastor of Sterling Park Baptist Church in northern Virginia observes, ”I’ve learned God is pleased to use things that don’t impress me.”

“If I understand what the Lord is saying but just don’t like it, I have to learn to love it,” says Chapell, pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois, and former president of Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. “I’ve got to try to figure out the reason God put it there and then fall in love with that reason.”

“I look back on my early years and am embarrassed by how little confidence I had in the Word of God,” admits Greear, pastor of The Summit Church in North Carolina. ”But though there have been books of the Bible I didn’t think I would like, I can honestly say I’ve never preached one that didn’t prove to be profound and life-changing.”

Watch the full nine-minute video to see these pastors discuss Monday morning terror, why Chapell bowed out before finishing Daniel, when application unburdens, and more.

Difficult parts of Scripture from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.


How Pastors Can Care For Their Children

The children of pastors face some special challenges. Previously, we thought about how churches can care for their pastor’s children.

But it is not just the congregation that bears responsibility in this area. Pastors also need to think and act intentionally. Our actions or inactions are powerful influences.

kids_in_churchMy young pastor wisely wanted to think about overcoming those challenges while his children were still young. So I offered him these reflections based on years of experience.

Word to Pastors

1. Think long-term. When your young children are grown, will they love or hate that you were a pastor? Will they be embittered toward the local church? God calls you to shepherd his sheep. And the closest sheep to care for are your wife and children. Passing the gospel to your children is vitally important—more important than being at every church meeting. What will your children say as adults about how you acted around your family? Did you love them when you were at home? Did you model gospel repentance? As a pastor, my children may hear my public words, but they care more about my private life.

2. Be intentional about your children’s behavior on Sundays. Just because you are ministering on Sunday does not give you a free pass as a dad. You are still responsible for your children. You need to think about this responsibility not because you fear man, but because you are called to manage your household well. On Sunday, you are not just a Christian worker but also an example of a gospel family. If your children are young, should you secure help for your wife? What will your children do after the service while you are talking? Partner with your wife and your elder team in talking about this challenge. Don’t overcorrect out of fear. Don’t under-train out of passivity. Be intentional as an example.

3. Praise your congregation to your children. Your children hear what is said at home. Paul actively gave thanks in his letters for problem-filled churches. So can you. You and your wife are gospel warriors. In an appropriate manner recount spiritual victories around the dinner table. Deliberately articulate why you are thankful for your church. Your joy is contagious. You could also bring them along at times. The shut-in might be more overjoyed to see them than you.

4. Don’t talk about church conflicts in the hearing of your children. Guard their walk and purity. In 20 years, you want them to think well of the local church. Even the most dysfunctional church is precious to Christ. And though they may not want to belong to this particular church when they are grown, you do want them to love the bride of Christ. Complaining about church problems in the hearing of your children is gossip and will sour them on the church. Problems are a part of church. Church is always messy.

5. Train and deploy the elder team. An elder team ought to have time where they can shepherd each other about any child-rearing concerns they see (Acts 20:28). Take time as a team to talk about how you are caring for your family members. Make sure none is overworking to the neglect of his family. This care should flow from an attitude of acceptance and love. Any discussion should stay among the elder team. Once you deploy among the congregation, you need to be each other’s greatest defenders.

6. Focus on the heart. Managing your household well doesn’t eliminate all family issues. It means you handle those issues well. It is the father, not the child, who is called to be an example. How do we handle teens who are growing into an adult body and trying to decide if they want to grow into an adult faith? We focus on the heart. We give grace for growing pains. We spend time listening to them. We show we are their biggest fan. In short, we love them more than we love appearing like we have it all together.

7. Guard your special family times. Special times like vacations and dates are a chance to build family identity and make emotional deposits in your children. They connect your hearts together. Guard those times carefully. Are special family times written on the calendar first? Do the elders have a plan to handle the inevitable emergencies that will come up during those times? God has given many gifted ones to minister to the church body. He has only given your children one father and mother.

Watching and Listening

Pastors, someday your young children will be adults. From what they see at home, would they say you love Jesus? Would they say you love them? “By this all people (including these children) will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).  

God has called you to shepherd his flock. Your children are part of that flock. They are watching you and listening to you at home. Use that influence well.


Single vs. Married Pastors: Take It from a Guy Who’s Been Both

Do singles or marrieds make better pastors? The debate is nothing new, though it’s been reinvigorated in recent years. Historically, single men predominated. Lately, the pendulum has swung toward marrieds, and some even suggest that singles should not serve as pastors. I have previously written in defense of singleness in the pastoral role. When I wrote the article, I had served as a single pastor for 19 years—14 as a senior pastor.

suitOver the past three years, something special and wonderful happened to me—I joined the ranks of married pastors. The beautiful tsunami of parenting has recently crashed into my pastoral ministry as well. Through it all I’ve seen the advantages and struggles of pastoring both as a single and as a married man.

I shouldn’t be so surprised, but my experience has followed the analysis Paul gave to the marriage and ministry question in 1 Corinthians 7.

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. (1 Cor. 7:32-35)

Both sides of the debate over whether single men should be pastors cite this famous passage. Yet Paul is not arguing for one or the other as right or wrong. Rather, he is giving wise apostolic counsel regarding how the marital state affects life and ministry experience. Allow me to present the relevant points in 1 Corinthians 7 intertwined with my experience. This list is certainly not exhaustive, and comments on this article will likely include many other worthy considerations.

The Advantages of Singleness in Ministry

1. Time

When my interests are divided, so is my time. Ministry takes time. Relationships take time. In my single years, I had a massive amount of time to spend with people, projects, sermon preparation, prayer, and weekly emergencies and surprises. I loved being a pastor, and the amount of time I could put toward pastoral ministry would have been sinful neglect of family for a married pastor. As an example, over my single years, I would spend one, two, or three nights a week in the homes of church members. I often had people and groups in my home, as it was always available. Now that I am married, those activities have lessened by necessity.

Married pastor, how much better would you know your flock if you spent hundreds of nights in their homes and they in yours? Think of all the good a pastor could do if suddenly the time spent on marriage and parenting could be put toward the church. Is that sermon a little better? Is the exposition a little more thorough? Is the pastor a little more present in those critical moments in peoples’ lives? Do the elders and staff get a little more personal attention?

2. Energy

Relationships take energy. Marriage takes energy. We all have a finite supply of it. In my single years, it seemed I had nearly boundless energy. Of course, my single years were also my younger years. Still, my wife and child demand energy and effort. I slept more and better as a single. Working out was easier to fit into the schedule. There were fewer domestic expectations and duties.

Billy Graham acknowledged this difference in a letter to the lifelong single John Stott. He said, “Thank you for your November letter. Just reading it made me a bit exhausted! How do you do it my friend? If you had a wife, five children, five in-laws—and 15 grandchildren, it would be rather difficult. Please forgive me if I am not able to keep up with you!”

3. Focus

Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 7 that the married are necessarily “anxious about worldly things,” but the unmarried are “free from anxieties.” My experience in both categories would definitely affirm this teaching. For those 20 years of single pastoring, my thoughts were substantially focused on the church. I thought about ministry matters constantly. My mind moved there naturally with problem solving, creativity, prayer, sermon prep, and so on. Those thoughts produced vision, teaching, and countless other helps that assisted my church greatly.

The married pastor has much more to think about that lies outside of ministry. He must think about his wife and her needs, his children if he has them, domestic cares, health issues in the family, conflict resolution, and the ebbs and flows of family life. It is simply impossible for the best-meaning married pastor to match the mental and spiritual focus on church ministry afforded to single pastors. Who reaps the benefits? The local church does.

The Advantages of Marriage in Ministry

The advantages of singleness do not diminish the advantages of marriage, nor vice versa. This is not a zero-sum issue. Paul also calls marriage a gift, and it provides real advantages in ministry too.

1. Maturity, Love, and Spiritual Growth

I begin with this advantage, because it is the most pronounced. Marriage creates daily moments and tensions that change the man. He cannot be as he was. A man will not last long in ministry or marriage if he does not grow in his desire and ability to please his wife (1 Cor. 7:33). This is the joy of love. The highs of marriage are greater than anything I experienced in my singleness. Yet I am regularly challenged and confronted with marriage’s demand to die to self. When you are single, you read that teaching and think, Yeah, I get it. No problem. Then marriage sticks your nose in your own selfishness and, at least for me, it is not pretty. That visage brings change, spiritual growth, maturity, and a host of other pastorally helpful qualities. Here marriage does what no seminary can.

If the husband is worth his salt, he learns to concern himself primarily with the needs of his wife. This is the essence of love and the hallmark of self-giving ministry. Marriage is a blast furnace. The man goes into marriage made of one set of material, but the heat and pressure change him. The furnace forcefully produces qualities that make not just better husbands, but also better servant-leaders. The better the husband, the better the pastor, for pastoring at its core is leading and loving as a servant.

2. Sexual Desire

Our sexualized Western culture so resembles ancient Corinth that Paul’s Corinthian letter is as relevant as ever. Throughout 1 Corinthians 7, sexual desire factors into Paul’s argument for the purpose of marriage. Sex in marriage is a mutual right and a weapon in the fight against sexual temptation. It is at least a consideration when deciding whether to trade the gift of celibacy for the gift of marriage. Marriage’s sexual freedom is a great aid in the struggle for purity, as it provides a righteous outlet for sexual desire.

In ministry, singles are caught in a quiet stereotype. You can be viewed as either not having normal sexual desire or possibly having errant ones. The assumption is that a single in ministry probably has some issue with sexuality, because normal people get married to deal with it. From this perspective, a single pastor is a ticking bomb, and it’s only a matter of time before he compromises.

Really? Does God not give the grace we need, sexual desires included? Dealing with sexual desires is a matter of the heart, and a marriage ceremony doesn’t change that challenge. There are many, many godly singles in ministry who are honoring God with their bodies. They are as sexually desirous as any healthy human being but are patiently waiting for the righteous context to express it. A married pastor is blessed to have a righteous place to go in dealing with sexual desire. Marriage doesn’t guarantee purity, but it wonderfully provides for it.

3. Emotional Breadth and Empathy

Pastoral ministry deals with the sticky points of life—often related to marriage and parenting. While the sufficiency of Scripture teaches that a single pastor can adequately apply God’s Word to all of life, he may still struggle with experiential wisdom and empathy in those categories. I was blessed to fill this void with fellow staff who were better at ministering with those special needs than my life situation allowed. The joys and sorrows of marriage give an emotional depth and breadth that people instinctively sense and to which they can relate. Singleness does have its own unique emotional pains, which God can and will use; they are simply more narrow and specific. The married pastor has a broader emotional experience of humanity and its relational complexities.

* * * * *

I am happy to be married. And it was a joy to serve the church as a single man. Too often this debate forces us to choose sides. But the Bible doesn’t rank them; it honors both sides. The church should as well. As a man who now has lived in both worlds, I would urge churches and search committees to evaluate men for pastoral ministry based on their character, gifts, and maturity, not on their marital status.

We can praise God for how he mightily uses singles in ministry to do what married men and women cannot do. And we can deeply appreciate how God uses marriage to refine and mature men as they shepherd their family and their flock.

‘Non-Shepherding’ Pastors: Option or Oxymoron?

Are “non-shepherding” pastors ever legitimate? You know, ministers who, due to other commitments (such as preaching) abstain from counseling and visitation and other life-on-life ministry during the week. Apart from perhaps a brief window on Sundays, they’re essentially inaccessible.

“It’s never okay to have a non-shepherding pastor,” J. D. Greear insists, since you “can’t separate those roles [shepherd and pastor] God has joined together.” Nevertheless, the pastor of North Carolina’s 4,000-plus-member The Summit Church admits, this principle will look different according to context.

“These duties are wed in Scripture,” notes Bryan Chapell, pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois, and former president of Covenant Seminary in St. Louis. He points to Paul’s instructive words: “Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” (1 Thess. 2:8). Like Greear, though, Chapell admits there will be different “gifts” and “degrees of calling” when it comes to shepherding and proclamation.

“It’s good to know your own personality so that you’ll be able to work against your weaknesses,” adds Mike McKinley, pastor of Sterling Park Baptist Church in northern Virginia. As an introvert, he’s acutely aware that “books are easier to love than people.”

Just because you can’t pastor everyone doesn’t exempt you from pastoring anyone. Indeed, despite the priority of preaching, you won’t be “half the preacher you ought to be if you’re not individually involved in people’s lives.”

Watch the full seven-minute video to hear these pastors discuss generational shifts in expectation, the place of preaching, multiplying leaders, and more.

“Non-Shepherding” Pastors from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

Should Every Pastor Get a Sabbatical?

Pastors aren’t the only tired ones out there. Churches teem with people who are working demanding jobs that offer no extended periods of paid leave. Are pastoral sabbaticals necessary, then? Are they even fair?

According to Bob Doll, chief equity strategist and senior portfolio manager at Nuveen Asset Management, the answer is yes. “The stresses and strains of dealing with people—with souls—wears you down in a unique way,” he observes. Besides, he notes, even some companies in the secular world are starting to use sabbaticals. “They realize that refreshment makes a better employee.”

“Pastors need rest of all kinds, not just waiting for ‘the big one,'” adds Kelly, pastor of Desert Springs Church in Albuquerque. A strategic rhythm of work and rest, then, is vitally important.

“In the ministry, the unusual is routine,” says Phillips, pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina. “Experienced ministers know you’ve got to plan for rest.”

Watch the full nine-minute roundtable video to see these leaders—two pastors and a businessman—discuss sabbatical frequency, when work and family lines blur, and more. Later this month, March 14 to 16, Phillips will be speaking at TGC’s Southwest regional conference, Clarus, hosted at Kelly’s church in Albuquerque.

Sabbatical from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

How to Cultivate Encouragement in Your Church

I hold in my hand a picture of an envelope addressed to “God’s Man, Minnesota, U.S.” Forty-five years ago it was delivered through the United States postal service to Billy Graham. It actually reached him. No matter what you may personally think of Billy Graham, apparently he lived in such a way that the mail sorters in the postal service would direct a letter like that to him. And no matter what you may personally think of the Joseph we read about in Acts, he apparently lived in such a way as to have a certain nickname attached to him.

The apostles gave Joseph his nickname, but why? They called him “Barnabas”—son of encouragement. We know from Scripture that Joseph sold some land and donated the proceeds to the apostles. But that’s not all. He became known for advocating on behalf of people, for good things, for the spread of the Word. Apparently, encouragement was a pattern with him, his habit, the standard way he went about relationships. If we follow his name through the New Testament, we find that beyond his own direct interactions, Joseph fostered a general atmosphere or culture of supportiveness among believers.

So how can church leaders today cultivate encouragement among believers? I think the answer lies in valuing and modeling what’s commendable by discussing it, teaching it, commending it when it appears, and rewarding it with consistency.

Infectious Perspective

At one of our pastoral staff meetings we were considering yet another e-mail from a woman in our congregation who had become known for making negative and critical remarks about the church. In momentary silence while we pondered our options, one of the pastors spoke up: “She is sure talented at spotting ways in which our church could improve.” At first we chuckled at his positivity; secretly, we all admired him for having such an uplifting attitude. We all needed more sanctification, and he saw this woman as a God-sent opportunity for that. Instead of whining about how difficult the ministry is, we rolled up our sleeves and looked for a way to improve the church. Tom’s heart overflowed with encouragement, not murmuring. His response added to a culture of encouragement. It was infectious.

Encouragement stands in contrast with the bent of human nature: grumbling, murmuring, complaining, fault-finding. Unfortunately there’s a lot of cynicism in the church, as well as members thanklessly taking the goodness of others for granted, without stopping to comment with appreciation. Everyone’s a critic. As a result, churches, marriages, and families can so easily become known for trying to win arguments more than trying to win hearts.

Intentional Leaders

Good leaders cultivate. They plow and sow seed. They prioritize—making time for the plowing and sowing, budgeting for it. They let others things go, if need be, in order to nurture a culture of commendation. For example, they write notes of appreciation and affirm demonstrations of Christ-likeness wherever they see them. They stop in the middle of meetings and conversations to highlight good things, commending the commendable. Historically, some leaders wrote down their encouragement in Spirit-breathed epistles. Indeed, encouragement is a chief reason the Scriptures were written:

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom. 15:4-6, emphasis added)

Good and wise leaders demonstrate their own pleasure and delight in commending the most commendable—namely, Christ Jesus. All commendable qualities originate and are supremely found in Jesus, whether people see it or not. The job of leaders is to help people see it.

Privilege of Affirmation

At the conclusion of each day of creation, God paused to comment on the goodness of it all. Affirmation is central to the universe, and it should be central in our lives as well, permeating all we do. We get to join our Maker in the privilege of affirmation. Or, as we see explicitly demonstrated in Proverbs 31, what are we to do with a woman who fears God? Praise her.

All things point to God’s praiseworthiness, which is reflected especially in his image-bearers. Yes, this includes even the rascals in your church or family; they are made in the glorious image of God. Look for his image in them, and commend it where you see it.

Finally, good leaders pray, because they know God is the main worker (1 Cor. 3:6-7). They ask him to work, to foster a certain kind of culture in their church. After all, if God doesn’t work, we labor in vain. But if he does work, our faithful yet imperfect efforts will meet with fruitfulness. Jesus will build his church, and he will build it to the praise of his Son and the edification and encouragement of his people.

The Joy of Theology Reading Groups

Pastor, I want to thank you. My marriage has been totally turned around.

These aren’t the words you expect someone to write three months after their spouse began reading a 1,291-page systematic theology book, yet that’s exactly what I was being told in a card. My prayers had been answered. I’d prayed that God would give people such a love for him and his Word that it would begin to affect all areas of their life. I’d also prayed that reading and discussing a systematic theology book with others would be one of those means.

Soon after I came to my church in 2008 and began preaching expositionally, I realized many of the men had only a cursory knowledge of the Bible. Further, I observed most of the young men had been neglected in any intentional pursuit. I prayed for three months about what to do and whom to pursue. I decided to start a theology reading group with eight men.

The journey began in January 2009. We met in my basement every Friday morning at 6:00 a.m., for an hour and a half, for 16 months. The men were told they must be committed, which meant be present, on time, and prepared to discuss their reading of that week’s assigned chapter. I didn’t think I would retain all of them. But the more they studied God’s Word and discussed it together, the more hooked they became. How hooked? One guy was out of town for three months and would drive to a rural McDonald’s for free WiFi so that he could Skype with us. Another had appendicitis and needed emergency surgery. When Friday came around, the discussion time moved to his hospital room.

Why Theology Reading Groups?

Though God has revealed himself in his Word and preserved that Word for thousands of years, so many of his people don’t know it well. They haven’t thought deeply about the wonder of the Trinity, the significance of the resurrection, or the promised return of their Savior. It’s not that they don’t believe it. It’s that they largely defer to their elders and pastors to know it, believe it, and tell them it’s true. Theology reading groups allow the believer to wrestle with verses and the truths contained therein. It helps audit the bad theology that has crept into all of our minds based on experiences or tired truisms that turn out to not be true (such as “God helps those who help themselves”).

I wanted to see the people entrusted to my care know their God better and live lives reflecting joyful devotion to him. I wanted that for myself too. I also wanted to provide an environment where Christians would enjoy discussing truth and working out its implications together. In other words, the goal of a theology reading group is to get people reading, thinking, talking, and living in light of God’s revelation.

Here’s how you can begin.

1. Select the book. I chose Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. I wanted a book that directed the reader to application with each truth. I also know Grudem has smaller works (Bible Doctrine or Christian Beliefs), but I wanted something that would offer a real challenge for all of us.

2. Plan the schedule. The book you choose will greatly shape the length of time it takes to cover the work. We scheduled the reading, including the appendix, to cover the span of 13 months. Perhaps in your context smaller time commitments would serve you better.

3. Set the expectations. Christians often attend Sunday school classes and other additional gatherings where their attendance alone is considered a win. I encourage you to raise the bar. In our case the expectations were twofold: (1) you always read before you come, and (2) you’re always there unless you’re out of town or in the hospital. Sounds strict, I know. But you’d be surprised how much people will step up when challenged.

4. Share the discussion. I launched the group with the clear expectation that I’d facilitate the discussion for two months. Then I’d assign all of us to a rotation of leadership each week for the remainder of the time. I’d also give feedback after each meeting. This approach keeps you from being the “answer man” and identifies potential future small group leaders, whether for theology reading groups or other areas of ministry.

5. Encourage regularly. You’re asking people not only to read a book (something 28 percent of Americans didn’t do last year), but also to read a significant book. It can appear daunting at first. I encourage them like crazy for the first three months. I find once they cross the three-month mark, however, their own excitement for what they’re learning rubs off on each other and helps carry them to the end.

6. Pray for fruit. Some people will think theology reading groups make people proud in their knowledge and apathetic in their life—”They should read less and evangelize more.” I disagree. Pray earnestly that people would be amazed at the God who created them, saved them, and promises to return for them. In simplest definitions, I define evangelism as taking your worship public. Pray that as people are amazed at God’s love for them in Christ they’d grow contagious as Christians, whether they are talking to other believers or not.

Take the Plunge

It’s now been five years since that first cold Friday when those eight men met with me to discuss theology. Since then our church has enjoyed four generations of men’s theology reading groups and three generations of women’s theology reading groups. Young and old, single and married, teenager and parent—you name it, they’ve all participated in these groups.

Though reading together isn’t the only means we use to put the truth of God’s Word before God’s people, it’s been a profitable way for us to challenge people to know and love the God who has rescued them. Don’t take my word for it. Try it for yourself.

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Carson Explains What Makes a Good Commentary


Some of you see that word and want to yawn. Others see it and want to cheer. You hope to collect lots of them, sets of them. There’s an Amazon Wish List to prove it. But commentaries aren’t meant to be collected. They’re meant to be consulted—week in and week out as you prepare to unlock the treasure chest of God’s Word to God’s people once again.

In honor of the recently released seventh edition of D. A. Carson’s New Testament Commentary Survey (Baker Academic), we asked The Gospel Coalition’s co-founder and president a few questions about commentaries—what makes a good one, what they can’t do, common pitfalls, how much time we should give them, and more.


What makes for a good commentary? How should an average pastor determine which commentaries to purchase?

Good all-round commentaries help readers think their way through the text—which requires adequate handling of words, sentences, flow of thought, genre, theological presuppositions, knowledge of historical setting, and, ideally, a commentary writer who is humble and of a contrite spirit and who trembles at God’s Word. But most commentaries do not do all these things (and other things—e.g., interaction with some other commentaries) equally well. That is one of the reasons one is usually wise to consult at least two or three commentaries with different emphases.

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Most commentaries (though there are some exceptions) are quite poor at integrating exegesis of the text at hand with whole-Bible biblical theology. This is a huge lacuna. If you run from exegesis directly to application, you will often get things wrong and tend to drift toward privatized applications. In other words, it is important to understand any part of God’s Word in terms of the book, corpus, and entire canon, to grasp how texts drive toward Jesus and the gospel, before too much application is attempted.

More broadly, most commentaries can’t do much toward faithful and telling application. Although the biblical text (explained by the commentary) ought to have a major say in shaping your sermon outline, few commentaries will help you at that point—and most of those that try to do so are not very good. Reading commentaries will not necessarily turn you into a good exegete: that requires more focused reading of the text itself.

What are some common pitfalls to avoid in the use of commentaries?

To name a few: (1) If you read the commentaries too soon in the process, instead of wrestling with the text itself, you will not become a skilled reader, and all your material will feel secondhand. (2) If you read the commentaries too late in the process, or, worse, not at all, you are failing to tap into generations of stimulating thought undertaken by Christians and others who have come before you, so you may overlook important things that you should not miss. (3) If you rely too heavily on commentaries at the expense of continuing reading in biblical, historical, systematic, and pastoral theology, your sermons will tend to be reduced to running commentaries, instead of carrying the weight of the burden of a message from the text at hand. (4) Avoid using commentaries as a substitute for careful reading and importunate intercession. One of the things we need in our preaching is unction—and commentaries, in themselves, cannot provide that.

Generally speaking, how much of a preacher’s preparation time should be spent using commentaries?

In the early days of your ministry, not more than 60 to 70 percent; as you mature, not more than 50 percent. Any decently trained seminary graduate knows how to do reasonably responsible exegesis. The hardest part of sermon preparation is not exegesis and commentary study (assuming you had good training), but structure, writing, shaping, transitions, flow, vocabulary, introductions, and conclusions.

If a preacher only has time to consult, say, two commentaries per passage, what principles would you give to help guide his choice?

Consult different kinds of commentaries (e.g., at least one on the original text [if the preacher can read Greek and Hebrew], partly so that your tools will remain sharp. In all language work, use it or lose it.). Another commentary might be stronger in actual exposition. Ideally at least one of them will say important things about the genre and structure of thought in the biblical book being studied. Ideally one of them will reflect on the history of interpretation (e.g., what did the church fathers say? what did the Reformers say?); ideally one of them will be strong on words and syntax. Ideally at least one will have been written by someone who transparently hungers to be mastered by the Word of God. I should add that all commentaries are written from some vantage point or other, and it is important to learn what that vantage point is and make allowance for it. Suddenly, the limitation to two commentaries seems unreasonable!