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AWANA is a favorite program at the Red Brick Church. But it requires many workers.

If you are struggling to find enough workers to staff your nursery or teach Sunday School, you are not alone. Even Jesus recognized that the workers are few. Here are some truths I remind our church family of in the Fall.

It is that time of the year when churches are working to make sure they have slots filled for Fall ministries. It’s a challenge. “The workers are few.” But before you get discouraged, read Matthew 9:35-38 and remember these points.

And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”(Mt 9:35-38).

1. Remember that sign-up lists and bulletin announcements hit about as many line drives as warm up swings in the on deck circle. Don’t be discouraged about recruiting if all you have done thus far is announce the need from up front. Bulletin and pulpit announcements are only first attempts, and, honestly, not very good ones. Take those swings if they help you get loose. But, recognize that you will only get a few laborers through that method.

Jesus actively sought out his team and painted a vision (“I will make you fishers of men”). Paul left one of his most trusted lieutenants behind in Crete to appoint elders. And, then Paul wrote what became the book of Titus to direct him in the process.

Sign-up lists don’t get it done, nor do bare pleas from the pulpit.

2. Remember there are children playing on the freeway of a fallen world. Apart from the church Satan will run them over.

When Jesus saw the crowds, had a sense of urgency. He recognized that they were harassed and helpless – – like sheep without a shepherd – – like children playing in the middle of the freeway.

Are you willing to leave children playing in the middle of the interstate without working harder to find staff?

Let’s get it done.

Technical stuff – – In the phrase, “he had compassion for them” the word translated, “compassion,” would mean his heart “contracted convulsively (NIDNT, 2, 599).” It is a rare word: it appears only 12x in the New Testament, all in the Synoptic Gospels. In Matt 14:14, used to describe how Jesus felt about the crowd shortly before the feeding of the 5,000. It is used to describe how Jesus felt before the feeding of the 4,000 in Matt 15:32. It is used in the parable of the unmerciful servant to describe the master who released his servant of his debts. In Matt 20:34 Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they receive their sight and followed him. Luke uses it of the Samaritan in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Luke uses it to describe the compassion of the Father in the prodigal.

Now, here is the great news about this word. It never appears apart from a corresponding action. Every time that it appears, the Lord, or the character in a parable representing him has this quality of compassion he acts. It is the idea of mercy. “Since seeing and being prepared to help are one, it sets in motion as with Jesus himself, a whole chain of events which together are called eleos . . . Humanity and neighborliness are not qualities but action (NIDNT, 2, 600).”

3. Remember to wear out the knees of your every day jeans. Prayer is the center of what needs to be done. That’s what Jesus said. If you are struggling to fill key slots, ask yourself this question. How much have I urgently pleaded with God for this slot to be filled? What is translated, “pray earnestly,” in Matt 9:35, might also be translated “beg.”

You respond, “Oh, I’ve prayed a lot about it.”

Really? Are you sure? Be honest. How much have you (we) really prayed?

How many times have you pleaded with God on your knees to provide someone for this position?

Have you gotten together with other leaders explicitly to pray, and then prayed, or do you just encourage each other to pray?

Have you fasted and prayed?

So much of the time we talk a lot about praying, and do little of it. And, then we’re not honest with ourselves about our prayerlessness. You don’t need the church to organize something major. Call up a couple of people. Get on your knees and pray.

4. Remember to pray in particular that the Lord of the harvest will catapult workers into the church basement.

“Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers” – The word “send out” appears 81x in the NT. Most of the uses in Matthew (28x) deal with casting out demons or forcibly throwing someone out. For example, just a few verses before, the same word is used to describe casting out a demon (Matt 9:33).

Bruner wrote, “Jesus does not say ‘find’ or ‘recruit’ workers. The idea is this: there are Christian workers already there in this first, and in every subsequent Christian community, and they need to have a fire lit under them to thrust them out of their comforts into the world of need.”

The word is used in the Greek translation (the LXX) of the OT in Genesis 3:24 when the Lord cast Adam and Eve out of the Garden.

Prayer is how fires get lit under potential workers. We’re looking for people to get catapulted into the AWANA program.

5. Remember, we won’t solve spiritual problems with administrative solutions. Churches often seek to solve a shortage of workers by reorganizing, changing the rotation, changing how often people work, etc etc etc. It may be necessary to reorganize, but it won’t solve a spiritual problem. It will give you a temporary shot in the arm, and you’ll be back to the struggle again. Often, CE reorganization is a “long run for a short slide.”

6. Remember not to resent the challenges of recruiting. To be involved in the work of the harvest is our great privilege. It’s God plan that we should pray and cry out to Him and be reminded of the great need. If you are in the game, you’re in the struggle. Be thankful.

7. Remember to practice an elevator speech (something you could say between the first and fourth floors on the elevator) that will paint a vision for why someone would want to serve. Jesus concisely summarized the need with agricultural terms – the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. How could you describe your need in a compelling way in a few lines.

Why not practice writing out one paragraph of why you would ask someone to fill the slot in question? Or, practice giving the speech with other members of your team.

A good elevator speech that envisions with people why they would want to serve, will avoid the error described in the next point.

8. Remember not to apologize for opportunities to serve, or to act as though you are asking people to do something for you. I remember a number of years ago (in a different church) listening to someone recruit nursery workers for Christmas Eve. The conversation went something like this, “I hate to ask you to do this. I apologize for bothering you. But, I wonder if you could help me out by working in the nursery.”

That is a recruiting disaster. How could we apologize to anyone for asking them to hold a baby on CHRISTMAS EVE! What greater way could there be to honor the Lord’s first advent, then to ask people to rock a baby (in a warm and comfortable nursery rather than a stable)? What better investment than to allow young parents the opportunity to sing Silent Night?

It would be so much better to say, “Listen, we have a real opportunity to invest in the Kingdom. Why not come in as a family and work in the nursery. If we are really blessed we will have several babies present, and you can rock them, and pray over them, and encourage their parents. And, who knows what God might do? Someday you may find that your one evening of service in the church nursery changed everything for this family. It might be that you would rock the next George Whitfield. But, even if it isn’t Whitfield – – could anything be more beautiful than caring for babies on Christmas Eve.

While we’re on this topic – – I think it is preferable to say, “I’m thankful for you serving,” rather than, “Thank you.” It’s not a grave sin to say the latter. But, I think thanking people implies they’re doing it for us. Whereas, saying, “We are thankful,” reminds all involved that we are doing this for the King. And, when we serve in tough settings, Jesus considers it a personal favor (Matt 25:40).

9. Remember that are not alone in your recruiting challenges. One of Satan’s schemes is to discourage leaders by whispering in their ears, “Something is wrong with your church. Other churches are not facing this struggle.”

It’s a lie.

There have always been a shortage of workers. Jesus said it Himself, “the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.”

A failure to unify around sound doctrine has devastating consequences. North Africa church’s rejection of the Definition of Chalcedon sowed the seeds for the beginning of the Coptic church and the eventual loss of region to Islam. The beheading of Coptic Christians by Islamic forces can be traced to horrible decisions made over 1,500 years ago.

On May 23, 451 a council began to meet in Chalcedon. They would eventually issue the Definition of Chalcedon in November of that same year. The Definition of Chalcedon clarified the relationship between the Lord Jesus Christ’s divinity and humanity.

For the most part, there was widespread acceptance of the conclusions of Chalcedon. Christians accept the Chalcedonian Definition to this day. However, in Africa, there was not acceptance. In his wonderful book,Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, Mark Noll writes:

In Egypt . . . determined opposition arose to the [definition of Chalcedon]. An Egyptian bishop, Proterius, said at Chalcedon that if he signed the statement he would be signing his death warrant. Six years later he was indeed killed by a mob because of that very act. So strong was Alexandrian, Word-flesh Christology in Egypt that, in opposition to almost the rest of the church, the Nestotorian “Monophysite” position (that Jesus only had one [Greek monos] nature [physis] became official dogma in the Egyptian church. (To this day the Coptic Church o Egypt retains a Monophysite Christology.) Rancorous intramural theological quarreling that continued with great intensity after Chalcedon in North Africa constituted one of the factors that weakened Christianity in that region and so prepared the way for the triumph of Islam, sweeping out of Arabia in the mid-seventh century.

In February of 2015, we learned that the Islamic State beheaded 21 Coptic Christians.

On the Lord’s teaching about prayer in the Sermon on the Mount, Stott comments:

We see again that the method of Jesus is to pain a vivid contrast between two alternatives, in order to indicate his way the more plainly. Regarding the practice of piety in general, he has contrasted the pharisaic way (ostentatious and selfish) with the Christian way (secret and godly). Now regarding the practice of prayer in particular, he contrasts the pagan way of meaningless loquacity with the Christian way of meaningful communion with God.

From The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, pages 142-152.

Ditches to Dodge

What Jesus Encouraged

Stott’s Comment – “Thus Christian prayer is seen in contrast to its non-Christian alternatives.”
Hypocrisy “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. God- Centered: “My” not “Thy” Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. “It is God-centered (concerned for God’s glory) in contrast to the self-centredness of the Pharisees (preoccupied with their own glory).”Stott summarizes that we do not come to God “hypocritically like play actors seeking the applause of men.”
Babbling [7] “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. [8] Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Intelligent and Thoughtful: To a personal God Give us this day our daily bread,and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. “And it is intelligent (expressive of thoughtful dependence) in contrast to the mechanical incantations of the heathen.”Stott summarizes that we do not come to God “mechanically like pagan babblers, whose mind is not in their mutterings.”

Screenshot 2015-08-13 16.05.25

C.S. LewisIn Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes (191) Nancy Pearcey shows how C.S. Lewis argued against the Atheists’ ability to defend the possibility of thinking.

If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of atoms, I cannot understand how the thoughts of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees . . . But if I can’t trust my own thinking, of course I can’t trust the arguments leading to Atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an Atheist, or anything else. C.S. Lewis

Screenshot 2015-07-28 18.58.13Pastor Michael Boys of Christ Community Church in Houston recently preached one of the best sermons I have heard on forgiveness. You can listen here.

I would encourage you to listen for yourself. Be prepared to notice several points:

  • Notice how Michael consistently reminds us that the gospel is basic for our understanding of forgiveness.
  • Michael introduces the term “layers of forgiveness.” This is a very helpful way of saying things and clarifies some points I have made in the past. If I revised Unpacking Forgiveness right now I would use that language – – and ideally give Michael credit.
  • Michael makes the important point that passages that are detailed and specific (such as Luke 17:3-4) help clarify more general passages like Mark 11:25.

There were other profound thoughts. But I forget what they were. I listened while I was walking and it was very hot, though not Houston hot!

On forgiveness, see also:

The Forgiveness Quiz

Others on Unconditional Forgiveness

A One Page Overview of Forgiveness

Is Forgiveness Always Right and Required? by Justin Taylor

Slowing Down the Runaway Forgiveness Train: Is there such a thing as too much mercy? by Scot McKnight

As We Forgive Our Debtors a sermon by John Piper

I Faced My Killer Again by Chris Carrier: A Christian shares the Gospel with a man who stabbed him, shot him in the head, and left him for dead. In connection with Chris Carrier’s amazing story, see Leonard Pitt’s column, God is in the Rain, Not the Thunder

Amish Extend Hand to Family of Schoolhouse Killer

Scott and Janet Willis willing to meet with imprisoned Governor Ryan – Story on my blog of Scott and Janet Willis who lost six children in a fiery mini-van accident due, in part, to corruption in government.

5 Problems With Unconditional Forgiveness

Another point of encouragement for Christians who cannot agree

Unpacking the Casey Anthony Case

Should I confront an offender or just get over it

How can I stop thinking about it?

Didn’t Jesus Forgive Unconditionally on the Cross

Brit Hume on Abortion

Chris —  July 20, 2015 — 4 Comments

HT: JT

In his short essay, “Christian Doctrine and Life,” The theologian John Murray stressed that the great doctrines of the Christian life have implications for everyday life.

Consider these texts:

[43] But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, [44] and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. [45] 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 10:43-45

[21] For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 1 Peter 2:21

Elsewhere, I have given a brief overview of systematic theology for our church family. But one thing that we must never lose sight of is that even though doctrine may stretch our intellect and vocabularies, it is not in any sense removed from every day life. John Murray beautifully explains this point. Here are a few excerpts he makes relative to the above Bible texts and others as well:

“It is worthy of note that some of the most characteristic definitions of Christ’s atoning accomplishment are given in appeals to believers to practise the most elementary duties of their heavenly vocation.” cf. (Matt 20:28, Mark 10:43-45).

“And the great lesson for our present interest is that there is a direct connection between the most sacred truths of our faith and the most elementary duties of our Christian calling. The great truth of the atonement, than which nothing is more central, is the incentive to humble, devoted, self-sacrificing service in the kingdom of God.”

“There is a straight line of connection between the death of Christ and elementary virtues of the Christian life.”

 

The Paradox of Prayer

Chris —  July 9, 2015 — Leave a comment

And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Matthew 6:7

When we read Jesus’ admonition to not “heap up empty phrases” we feel a tension with other texts in Scripture that tell us to “pray without ceasing (1 Thess 5:17)” and with persistence (Luke 18:1-8). Frederick Dale Bruner, as is so often the case, offers profound insights:

When Jesus discourages quantity in prayer is he not discouraging prayer itself? Here, too, however, in a spherical world, the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line. The paradox of prayer is that only when it is relieved of the necessity of much prayer will people experience the freedom for much, they will surprisingly, desire to pray more. (The Christbook, 289).

“Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:17-18).”

Nothing is more practical to the Christian than considering the dynamic by which we grow as believers. The Christian understands that he or she is to become more like Jesus? But how exactly does that take place? How is it that we make progress as Christians?

  • How can we truly have victory over pornography?
  • How can we finally show self-control with the things we say?
  • How can we learn to be more patient with family members?

In his beautiful essay, “The Pattern of Sanctification,” John Murray explains that the basic dynamic by which the Christian grows is to give focused attention to Christ as He is revealed in Scripture. In so doing, our hearts are graciously warmed and softened towards Christ by the power of the Spirit, and we become more like Jesus.

Murray says it far more profoundly than I do:

“. . . the import is that, as we come into intelligent, believing, and adoring encounter with the glory of Christ, we take on the characters which belong to him.  We must remember, of course, that supernatural agency is at work in this process.  But the means by which this work of grace is wrought are clearly indicated. The glory of Christ is portrayed and exhibited to us in the pages of Scripture. The Holy Spirit illumines our minds and quickens our hearts to behold the glory; he takes the things of Christ and shows them to us. He thus glorifies Christ . . . This process of conformation to the image of Christ does not take place by quiescent passivity on our part.  It is only by concentrated application to the data of revelation that we come into this encounter with the glory of the Lord. And all the energies of our being are enlisted in the exercise of adoration, love, obedience, and fellowship (John Murray, Banner of Truth, Collected Writings Vol. 2, 311-312).””

The beauty of growing in this way as a Christian is that when we are increasingly conformed by the power of the Spirit to look like Jesus Christ-like behavior begins to burst forth in many areas of life. To the extent that we are like Jesus, we manifest the fruit of the Spirit.

The action steps that follow are obvious. Christians should meditate in an ongoing way on Christ as He is revealed in the Bible. This means, especially, being under the preaching of the Word, sharing the ordinances / sacraments together, meditating on and memorizing the Word, praying, and sharing life with the community of the redeemed.

One of the points I stress to our church family in an ongoing way is that a sermon should be a biblical bullet fired at the life of the listener. In the preaching from our pulpit, we are praying that sermons will be:

  1. Biblical – Clearly true to the text, centered on Christ and the gospel.
  2. Bullet – Focused on a central thought that is an engine powerful enough to pull the freight of the passage. Every sermon needs a clear focus.
  3. Fired – which is to say preach with unction or the power of the Spirit. We are praying that our preaching will go out with the power of the Spirit.
  4. At the life of the Listener – Significant for life in the 21st century.

Most authorities on preaching recognize the importance of a clear central thought. Below are some classic quotes including my mentor’s (Haddon Robinson) memorable quote, “a sermon should fire a bullet not buckshot.”

Haddon Robinson:

Rhetoricians emphasize the necessity of a clearly stated central thought so strongly that virtually every textbook devotes some space to a treatment of the principle. Terminology may vary – – central idea, proposition, theme, thesis statement, main thought – – but the concept is the same . . . A sermon should be a bullet, not buckshot. Ideally each sermon is the explanation, interpretation, or application of a single dominant idea supported by other ideas, all drawn from one passage or several passages of Scripture.[1]

Duane Litfin:

. . . a speech to be maximally effective, ought to attempt to develop more or less fully only one major proposition. . . Any unit that does not contribute to the whole should be eliminated, regardless of how interesting it may be in itself.[2]

J.H. Jowett:

I have a conviction that no sermon is ready for preaching, not ready for writing out, until we can express its theme in a short, pregnant sentence as clear as crystal. I find the getting of that sentence is the hardest, the most exacting, and the most fruitful labour in my study. To compel oneself to fashion that sentence, to dismiss every word that is vague, ragged, ambiguous, to think oneself through to a form of words which defines the theme with scrupulous exactness – – this is surely one of the most vital and essential factors in the making of a sermon: and I do not think any sermon ought to be preached or even written, until that sentence has emerged, clear and lucid as a cloudless moon.[3]

John MacArthur:

. . . make sure that every expository message has a single theme that is crystal clear so that your people know exactly what you are saying, how you have supported it, and how it is applied to their lives. The thing that kills people in what is sometimes called expository preaching is randomly meandering through a passage.[4]

Keith Willhite:

. . . I am convinced that preaching with a single proposition is the best way to learn to preach . . . A single bullet is much more powerful than a small piece of shot or even the collective effect of many shots. A disjointed comment on words or phrases will be of little value in changing lives since propositions of God’s Truth, not minutiae, move people to think and act differently.[5]

Sidney Greidanus:

Whatever word we use, the theme or idea of the sermon ought to state as clearly and succinctly as possible the point the sermon seeks to make.[6]

Samuel T. Logan:

But a sermon, to be great, to be effective, whether it is long or short, must be focused. . . The aim must be precise and good preachers recognize this, often instinctively.[7]

Bryan Chappell:

State each idea in such a way that it directly develops the overall purpose of the sermon or immediately supports a point that does.[8]

Chappell’s “3 A.M. test” is especially vivid.

The 3 A.M. test requires you to imagine [someone] awaking you from your deepest slumber with this simple question, ‘What’s the sermon about today Pastor?’ If you cannot give a crisp answer, you know the sermon is probably half-baked. Thoughts you cannot gather at 3 A.M. are not likely to be caught by others at 11:AM.[9]

Robert Lewis Dabney:

Affirmatively, rhetorical unity requires these two things. The speaker must, first, have one main subject of discourse, to which he adheres with supreme reference throughout. But this is not enough. He must, second, propose to himself one definite impression on the hearer’s soul, to the making of which everything in the sermon is bent.[10]

Tony Merida:

At the heart of classical expository preaching theory is the conviction that the sermon is mainly about one big idea or theme.[11]

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[1] Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages, 35-36, 35.

[2] Litfin, 80, 153.

[3] Jowett, quoted in Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages, 37.

[4] MacArthur, “Frequently Asked Questions About Expository Preaching,” 347.

[5] Willhite, 13, 22.

[6] Greidanus, 137.

[7] Samuel T. Logan, “The Phenomenology of Preaching,” in The Preacher and Preaching: Reviving the Art in the Twentieth Century, ed. Samuel T. Logan (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1986), 129.

[8] Chapell, 133.

[9] Ibid., 39.

[10] Robert Lewis Dabney, Sacred Rhetoric: Or, a Course of Lectures on Preaching (Richmond: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1870), 109.

[11] Tony Merida, Faithful Preaching: Declaring Scripture with Responsibility, Passion and Authenticity (Nashville: B&H Publishing Company, 2009), 76.