Help for Teachers

Gospel-Centered Anyone who has ever taught Sunday School, Adult Bible Fellowship, a small group, a VBS class, or in any other setting has experienced the frustration of a lesson that fails for lack of depth, flagging interest, or stagnant inward focus. Trevin Wax’s new book, Gospel-Centered Teaching: Showing Christ in All the Scripture (B&H, 2013) is a very welcome help for teachers who want to infuse their groups with the life that the gospel brings to everything. Wax applies the power of the gospel to three problem areas of a teaching experience—inwardly focused groups, biblically illiterate groups, and shallow discussion within groups. He walks a teacher through the process of beginning with biblical content, connecting a passage to the story of the gospel, applying it, and redirecting to God’s mission in the world. This is a book every teacher will find helpful and encouraging. Wax concludes with this challenge:

What your group celebrates corporately is just as important as what your group affirms doctrinally. Celebrate the gospel, and cross-cultural ministry will bubble up in surprising ways. Celebrate your church’s personal preferences, and your group will become an insular group of likeminded individuals. Celebrate your own gifts as a leader, and your group will be centered on you as the hero rather than Jesus.

Every Christian teacher should keep the focus on the gospel so we can see the good fruit of God’s power in our teaching.

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Leaders Are Marked by Vision

People-Man-TelescopeLeaders are marked by vision. Vision makes the difference between leadership and misleadership. Vision includes goals and strategies developed with team members. Vision dreams the most possible dream, not the impossible dream. Leaders recognize that vision gives direction while mission provides purpose. Vision should result in consensus but does not always develop by consensus. Leaders learn from the past, live in the present, and plan for the future.

David S. Dockery, Christian Leadership Essentials (B&H, 2011), p. 2.

The pleasures and pains of teaching

Many people have asked me how the transition has gone from teaching theology and apologetics in seminary to teaching undergraduate pastoral theology in my new job at Lancaster Bible College. My answer: Everything about the new job has been beyond my expectations, and for that I am like the proverbial kid in a candy shop. But when you ask about teaching, I have to say that it’s so much fun, I feel guilty for taking a paycheck. Teaching has always been that way for me. Usually a thrill, sometimes excruciating, but never dull.

I read something today that captures the highs and lows of teaching. I can give a hearty “amen” to this statement by Parker Palmer in his excellent book, The Courage to Teach (Jossey-Bass, 2007)He captures very vividly the feelings of so many teachers.

I am a teacher at heart, and there are moments in the classroom when I can hardly hold the joy. When my students and I discover uncharted territory to explore, when the pathway out of a thicket opens up before us, when our experience is illumined by the lightning-life of the mind–then teaching is the finest work I know.

But at other moments, the classroom is so lifeless or painful or confused–and I am so powerless to do anything about it–that my claim to be a teacher seems a transparent sham. Then the enemy is everywhere: in those students from some alien planet, in that subject I thought I knew, and in the personal pathology that keeps me earning my living this way. What a fool I was to imagine that I had mastered this occult art–harder to divine than tea leaves and impossible for mortals to do even passably well! (p. 1-2)

Conviction to Lead

Al Mohler’s new book, Conviction to Lead, is one of the best books on leadership I have ever read, and I’m something of a leadership book junkie. What I like best is his distinctively Christian approach. Many books on leadership written by Christians contain some biblical wisdom mixed with a lot of pragmatic and secular pablum. This book is not a biblical theology of leadership, so don’t look for an abundance of Scripture. However, Mohler is a theologian, and his principles of leadership are thoroughly biblical and theologically informed.

After speaking of the desperate need of leaders in all arenas of life, Mohler writes,

The church desperately needs leaders as well. Congregations and Christian institutions need effective leaders who are authentically Christian–whose leadership flows out of their Christian commitment. Wherever Christian leaders serve, in the church or in the secular world, their leadership should be driven by distinctively Christian conviction.

This is a crucial point, and there are two errors to avoid in Christian leadership. The first is uncritically adopting business leadership principles. While I have learned much from business leadership books (John Kotter’s book, Leading Change, is still the best book I’ve ever read on the topic), the principles are not always applicable or transferable to the local church setting. John Piper addresses this problem most effectively in his book, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals. 

Second, an equally dangerous error is leading primarily through intuition, rather than principle. Now, intuition is not all bad. Mohler notes that “much of our lives are lived out of habits of action, and most of these habits never rise to our active consciousness.” The problem with intuition, however is that it can be so easily wrong, even while we “feel” that it is right.

Mohler describes what he calls “convictional intelligence,” which he defines as “the product of learning the Christian faith, diving deeply into biblical truth, and discovering how to think like a Christian.” Without convictional intelligence, the leader will not be faithful. Convictional intelligence is more than just knowledge, but it begins with knowledge, and won’t develop without devotion to study.

The importance of convictional intelligence in the life of the leader comes down to the fact that our intellectual habits must be aligned with Christian truth and knowledge. Otherwise, we say that we believe one thing but operate out of mental habits that run in a very different direction. The Christian leader stands out as one who has developed intellectual habits that are consistent with biblical truth…

The Christian leader must have mental reflexes that correspond to biblical truth. When something happens or an issue arises, the leader’s mind must activate the right intellectual reflex. Once that reflex is engaged, the process of thought is already far down the road. If the reflex is wrong, the leader is in danger–and so are all those he leads.

Some of you might be tempted to think that reflexive decision making is inherently dangerous, and it certainly can be dangerous. The danger lies in developing the wrong leadership reflexes and failing to see the error.

So, while intuition is necessary in a leader, because of the depravity of our hearts and the blindness of self-deception, we dare not make intuition our primary model of leadership. When we do lead by intuition we ought to make sure that others who will tell us the truth concur with our intuition. Mohler warns that the Christian leader who cuts himself off  from what he calls “the ordinary means of grace,” i.e., the preached Word, the ordinances, and accountability to the fellowship of believers in a local church, “cannot expect to possess convictional intelligence. Going it alone is a recipe for disaster.”

I highly recommend Conviction to Lead. The reader will learn sound, objective principles from one who has demonstrated conviction in a very difficult role for almost two decades. I believe the book can be instrumental in increasing the clarity and conviction of any leader.

The Revenge of Measuring Success by Results

I was sure that the long-standing practice by evangelicals and fundamentalists alike of judging success by numerical results had died a long overdue death in the 1990’s. My seminary education had instilled in me the commitment to judging my ministry as a pastor by the standard of whether it pleased God or not, that is, whether it was faithful to Scripture. Numbers mania had gone the way of the dodo by the late 1990’s.

Or so I thought. Pragmatism seems to have returned with a vengeance. In order to survive the ever-changing ministry environments of the past decade, many ministries seem to have made their peace with whatever changes of philosophy will keep their doors open.

To make matters worse, not many members seem to have noticed. Ministries that once prided themselves on their conscientious commitment to a thoroughly Scriptural philosophy and practice have overthrown all core values in a matter of a few years (or sooner). And those who challenge the turn to pragmatism find their protestations falling on deaf ears.

Carl Trueman, church history professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, and ever keen cultural critic, writes about the turn to pragmatism he sees:

This all takes me back to a question I have raised before: in a world where success is the ultimate sacrament of absolution, who is there with the credibility to call the successful to account?  Not the man in the small church.  Suspicion that he is motivated by envy will always undermine his authority in such a context.  And, if we are honest, envy will likely always be a part of the motivation for such criticism. I preach total depravity, after all, and it is also the one example where I can honestly say I consistently practice what I preach.  What pastor of a church of fifty does not want to be pastor of a church of five hundred?  The church I serve has ca. 90 on a Sunday.  Yes, I would love a few hundred more.  If we ever got to four hundred, I hope we would plant a church, as long as I did not have to drink zinfandel and grow a soul patch.  But yes, I would be lying if I said I did not have a twinge of envy at those whose ministries are – well, you know, successful.  I guess that is the word.

So what about the successful?  Will they point out the problematic excesses of the self-promotional culture which seems to pervade much of the modern conservative evangelical church?  One can only hope so; but history gives little cause for optimism on that score.  Nobody wants to bash the successful, for our culture assumes that that would be to identify with failure and mediocrity.

The psychology of success is fascinating: those who are successful often start as well-intentioned people; but increasing success almost always seems to bring in its wake an increasingly relaxed attitude to the rules, a fuzzier conception of right and wrong and an odd sense of entitlement whereby the successful come to think that, for them, the normal criteria of behaviour do not apply.  This incremental exceptionalism is reinforced by the failure of those who should check them from actually doing so.  It is almost as if, for all of us, success (and in church we typically mean numerical size and growth) is the ultimate criterion of truth and that therefore as long as it seems to be working, as long as it is popular, it must be true.  You can ape the Hollywood aesthetic; you can be increasingly vague on the hard teachings; but as long as the machine keeps working as it should, everybody is happy — or at least comfortable in their silence.

… As long as you pull in the punters, especially the young ones, as long as your name on the conference flier helps to sell tickets, and as long as your preaching is popular with the rising generation, those with the standing to state the obvious and do something about the excesses will generally not do so for fear of spoiling something which seems to be working as it should.  Indeed, you will enjoy the benefits of a powerful and heady perfume which gives the successful a high and hides the hollow reality from outsiders: the sweet smell of success.  You just can’t beat it.

And when it all blows up, you can be confident it will be nothing to do with anyone.  “Seriously, guv, I never even knew the man…..”

I think we would do well to consider.

10 Mistakes Churches Make in Choosing a Pastor

1. Not choosing the right people for the pastoral search committee
2. Prayerlessness
3. Being people-centered rather than Word-centered
4. Lack of follow-through and due-diligence by the pastoral search committee
5. Impatience that leads to the wrong decision
6. Failure to properly administrate the pastoral search
7. Inadequate communication
8. Failure to adequately budget for the pastoral search
9. Allowing the experience with the previous pastor to direct the calling of the next pastor
10. Spending too much time trying to call pastors who are not “reasonably gettable”

Chris Brauns, When the Word Lead Your Pastoral Search: Biblical Principles & Practices to Guide Your Search (Moody 2o11)

The Difficult Challenge of Teaching the Bible in an Academic Setting

Teaching in a theological climate is a very lonely and sometimes daunting enterprise. Even with the most absorbed and friendly class, you are all alone there in front. What you say will inevitably be passed on—sometimes garbled and distorted. When you read the exams and one student after another gets it all wrong, there is really only one conclusion available: you, with all your preparation and good intentions, have deceived a whole class, and they will go on to deceive the waiting world. It is hard to be fearless and open to learning and willing to teach something new and important. It is easy to be safe and lazy.

Clair Davis, Chaplain and Professor of Church History, Redeemer Seminary, Dallas TX

The True Nature of Christian Mentoring, Part 2

Mentor and his protege, Telemachus

Mentoring as life-sharing, experience-imparting and skill-training has a long history. The third-century bishop Gregory of Neocaesarea wrote an account of his relationship with the church father Origen, who became his mentor. When Gregory came to Palestine, it was for the purpose of having a relationship with Origen. Although he admired Origen’s mind, he wanted more than an information download. He wanted to spend time with the great bishop in order to learn from his life, not just his mind.

This view of mentoring was common in the early centuries. Clement of Alexandria wrote in his book on ethics, The Tutor, “The role of the tutor is to improve the soul, not to educate nor give information, but to train someone in the virtuous life.” Like others who wrote on mentoring, Clement understood the purpose to be “to form the soul in virtue” (Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, Yale, 2003, 268).

This is the aspect that many students don’t realize they need just as critically as they need theological training or skills in biblical languages. But the truth is, more men wash out of ministry because of character issues than doctrinal deviation.

Character formation is not always welcomed by young protégés. At first, Gregory resisted Origen’s attempts to change him. Though Origen’s words “struck like an arrow” Gregory was not ready to undergo the discipline imposed by Origen. Gregory was more interested in argument and intellectual debate, but this was not acceptable to Origen. His aim was to “move the soul,” and he challenged his disciples to open their hearts and allow their wills to be molded by the good (p. 269).

Although learning a set of precepts was part of the mentoring training, “what counted for more was the example of the master and the bonds of friendship formed with the disciple…Friendship, said Gregory, ‘is piercing and penetrating, an affable and affectionate disposition displayed in the teacher’s words and his association with us’” (p. 269).

This personal relationship had a profound impact on Gregory. “Through Origen’s friendship with him, Gregory learned to love Christ, the Word, but he also began to love Origen, ‘the friend and interpreter of the Word’” (p. 269). Only when this relationship became personal, was Gregory finally persuaded to give up those objects that stood in the way of Christian maturity. The master had to first know and love his students before he could cultivate their souls, and like a skilled husbandman, bring forth fruit from an uncultivated field. “To correct, reprove, exhort, and encourage his students, the master had to know their habits, attitudes, and desires. Origen’s love for his disciples was part of the process of formation” (p. 270).

This is the soul of genuine Christian mentoring. It is not a business-like, formal transaction of a superior to an inferior; nor is it a feel-good stroking of a student’s ego. It is rather an intentional life-guidance that is based on the mentor’s genuine love for the student, so that he is able to give either encouragement or rebuke when needed, all the while the student knows he is loved and valued. This is true mentoring, and it is desperately needed today, both in the lives of those preparing for ministry of some kind, and any young believer who takes his or her growth in godliness seriously.