“Thank you!” to those who taught me the importance of expository preaching

This past Sunday, I preached the final sermon in a 12-week journey through Ecclesiastes. In 13+ years of pastoring, it marks the fifteenth book that I have preached all the way through, and the tenth in seven years at my current church.**

Growing up in the same church for the first twenty years of my life, most of the sermons that I heard were topical in nature. They weren’t bad, many were quite good, and they weren’t unbiblical, but they never really brought a text of Scripture together. They simply connected verses about a single topic, like mid-column references in some Bibles.

When I started as a junior at a university far from home and plugged into a church there, the pastor had us open our Bibles to the chapter and verse where he had left off the week before. Most of the preaching that I heard during my three years at that church was like that: verse-by-verse, passage-by-passage through a book of the Bible.

I found myself feasting on Scripture, driven by a hunger that I didn’t even know that I had before. I found myself growing spiritually in a way that I hadn’t up to that point. To my 20-year-old self, the act of hearing a godly man preach through a book of the Bible was literally life-changing. Then when I went to seminary, that conviction was solidified.

As a 23-going-on-24-year-old first-time pastor at a country church of 15 people, I started with 2 Timothy 1:1 on my first official Sunday and proceeded to preach through that letter. Though, reflecting back, my expositional skills needed a lot of refining, I found most of the people at that church as hungry for God’s word as I had been.

In the years since, I haven’t always preached through a book. In fact, I’d call it about half and half. I’m about to do a 3-week series on evangelism followed by a 4-week series on spiritual growth before I dive into my next book. But even when I do topical series, I don’t cobble together a bunch of verses, but rather focus on a passage or text that is dedicated to said topic. It’s the conviction to be expositional even when being topical.

So, I say “thank you” to my college pastor, Ronnie, who opened my eyes to exposition. I say “thank you” to my numerous professors, and especially to Dr. York in my preaching classes, who continued to cultivate that conviction. I say “thank you” to my brothers-in-arms, other pastors who faithfully exposit God’s word. I say “thank you” because it all reminds me: It’s not about the messenger, but the message, and I’m at my best when I’m helping people feast on God’s word and not on Mike’s thoughts.

**Note: I figured I would list out the books I have preached through thus far: Ruth (twice), Ecclesiastes, Obadiah (twice), Jonah, Haggai, Malachi, John, Acts, Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Timothy (twice), Titus, Hebrews, James, and 1 Peter. I’ve also done expositional series on Matthew 5-7, John 13-21, and 1 Corinthians 12-14. In other studies (such as Wednesday night Bible study), I’ve taken small groups through Proverbs, Isaiah, Daniel, Zechariah, Matthew, Luke, and Revelation. A few weeks back on Wednesday night, we began Genesis.

My Top Three Reads for the First Half of 2017

We are halfway through 2017, and from my personal readings for these six months, I have made my way through 15 non-fiction works and 8 fiction. Seven of those non-fiction books are part of a year and a half journey to reread the works of Francis Schaeffer who greatly influenced my spiritual growth while in college. Also to be found are a couple of commentaries. Instead of reading through the Bible as a whole in 2017, I decided to focus on four books, giving them three-months of attention each. Part of that is to read through a significant commentary for each book. January through June, I focused on Romans and Leviticus, and for July have started Mark.

With all of this reading, I want to give my picks for my top three books from my non-fiction list. So here we go:

#3. You’re the Husband by Jeremy Howard. Full disclosure: I know Jeremy and he is a friend of mine. While this certainly impacted my decision to pick up the book, it stands on its own merit as being a top-three. Jeremy’s book is a short read, directed at men on how to better love and spiritually lead their wives. He does a good job mixing biblical teaching, personal anecdotes, and humor, all while calling us guys to step up and lead. The brevity of the book is well paced, so it’s not difficult for any guy to fit into his schedule. Jeremy aims to edify, so the book calls us to do better without beating us down with how often we fail.

#2. Sharing Jesus Without Freaking Out by Alvin Reid. Another short book, this one on personal evangelism. Reid is a big proponent of relational evangelism, and this is an excellent primer to help us grow in our ability to share the gospel with people in our different spheres of life. His aim is to develop evangelism as a lifestyle and not a canned program. When you know the basics of the gospel and you know how Jesus has changed your life, it becomes more natural than trying to lead people through a pre-planned presentation. I read Greg Laurie’s Tell Someone just before I read this. Laurie’s book was good and got me thinking. Reid’s book is excellent and hit home.

Honorable Mention. Leviticus (NICOT) by Gordon Wenham. I wanted to get an honorable mention in here before I give my #1, and I chose Wenham’s Leviticus commentary. Let’s face it: We know that Leviticus is filled with lots of good stuff. It is Scripture, and God gave all of Scripture for our edification and for deeper understanding of him. Yet, there are some books that are simply tougher for us to chew on than others, and Leviticus tends to be one of those. Wenham does a great job of explaining the background, or potential background, behind all the sacrifices and laws. He demystifies the book for our culture thousands of years later in a way that is both scholarly and straightforward.

Now, drumroll, please…

#1. The Imperfect Disciple by Jared C. Wilson. Wilson is becoming my favorite author of the present generation. He has a way of writing that is inspiring, challenging, and personal. He holds the gospel high and seeks to shine its light on all our dark crevasses. He writes that when he was approached to do a book on discipleship that he wanted to make sure it was written with his blood. He pours out his heart and soul deeply into this one.

Every day it seems that we are faced with new programs or tools in order to try to disciple people better, because, after all, we tend to stink at discipleship. Wilson writes for those drained by this constant barrage. He reminds us that following Jesus is a struggle. We sometimes get beat down by the same old sins. There is no magic formula to spiritual growth. As many moments of delight we experience there are also moments where we seem to be white-knuckle hanging on to the edge of a cliff.

And he reminds us that’s okay. Because we have a God big enough to handle us and see us home, and our Father loves us way, way more than we could possibly imagine. Yes, we’re redeemed wretches, but that also means that we are beloved sons and daughters of the King. So, we fight, we slip, we agonize, we get back up, and we press on. We revel in the joys and learn from the trials until that day that God welcomes us home.

Read this book. And if you’re a pastor, read his The Pastor’s Justification—it is the best and most refreshing book on pastoral ministry that I’ve read (that was on the list two years ago… a reread will likely happen soon).

Striking a Balance

If you were to ask me if I’d rather live in any other country in the world, my answer would be No. We have amazing personal freedoms in our nation that many in this world have never seen. We also have a plethora of resources that many people lack. I’ve experienced small bits of life in a third-world country where the average lifespan reaches only into the mid-40s. There is a lot that we have that we take for granted, for which we should be exceedingly grateful.

So, there is a sense of patriotism—the United States has provide many great things for my life.

But if you were to assume that this is a blind patriotism that sees the USofA as God’s greatest gift to man (or even second greatest behind salvation), then you would be wrong. I’ve heard it said that some see the States as Old Testament Israel—God’s blessed land, and others see the States as Babylon—a bastion of sin. I would say that the truth is somewhere in between.

I mean, we have many good things to be thankful for: An undercurrent of liberty, religious freedoms, decent health care, the availability of clean water, technologies that make life better, and the list could go on and on. But we also have our blemishes: Our constitution declared slaves to be only 3/5’s of a person in a population count to determine representatives and delegates; we denied women the right to vote until the 1920s; we systemically treated persons of colors as being inferior to anglos via segregation until the 1950s; and since the 1970s we have murdered millions of children in the womb.

None of these are the marks of a godly nation.

Even today, my experience of life in this country is vastly different than many of my brothers and sisters in Christ, as well as fellow citizens of the States, simply because I am a white male. To say such is not the case is to turn a deaf ear to those who have struggled and suffered injustice because of their ethnicity, gender, or economic background.

It is possible to be a patriotic citizen, thankful for the good of our nation, but also to be a realist and see that nationally we have a great need of repentance and correction. How do we live in that balance? A few thoughts…

One: Let’s celebrate the good but let us not be silent about the flaws. I saw a video of a speech from a man who claims to be an evangelical pastor. He was introducing President Trump and waxed eloquent about what a great man the President is and how he’s God’s chosen man to lead our country. If you read the Bible, being “God’s man” is never about business acumen or policy. It’s always about character.

Some have blinded themselves to the lack of character in the President and other politicians because of a sense of power and policy. Some see it but have chosen to remain silent. This is true about the blemishes in our nation as well. We want to cover our eyes and ears and say, “I see no evil and hear no evil” when it is as plain as day.

That doesn’t mean it’s not there.

We can be thankful for a good supreme court pick. We can celebrate an executive order that ended one avenue of abortion funding. But let’s not fool ourselves to think that makes a person righteous and God’s man. We can be glad for unheralded religious freedoms, but let’s not ignore the systemic injustices that many people feel each day. Let us celebrate and speak out.

Two: Let us pray. This past Sunday our church service was a normal church service. We celebrated our Savior-King and the freedom he offers us from sin. We didn’t emphasize the holiday, but we don’t really emphasize any of the holidays other than Christmas and Resurrection. We did, however, pray for our nation and its leaders. Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 2 that we should do this very thing regularly, with the aim to live peaceful lives and see many saved.

Our leaders need prayer—from our president all the way down to our city council representatives. They need prayer for wisdom. They need prayer for courage in bringing justice to all persons under their charge. They need prayer for salvation. Some of them do love Jesus supremely and seek to serve their constituents in such a way to love them deeply. We need to pray for their continued spiritual growth. Others play lip service, and still others have no love for God at all. We need to pray for them to come to know and follow Jesus.

The best community leaders are those who love Jesus so greatly that they are passionately consumed with loving their neighbors by seeking the best for those in their community—whether that community is local or national. We need to pray for leaders such as these, and we need to pray for God to raise up men and women in the circles of influence of our current leaders who will boldly share the gospel and not stroke their egos for favors.

Three: Let us fight against injustice. Read the Old Testament prophets and you’ll find some common themes. Among them: God is the God of justice and he calls us to strive to correct the oppressions around us. Spiritually, this means that we start with the basic premise that every single person is made in the image of God, though marred by sin, and is either a brother or sister in Christ or a potential brother or sister in Christ. Physically, this means that we start with the basic premise that every single person is worthy of the same basic dignities that we ourselves cherish and demand.

This means that we advocate for the poor, the homeless, and the refugee. This means that we open our ears to the stories of others who have been hurt because of their ethnicity, gender, age, or economic class; then we weep with them and we join in the push for reconciliation to make things right. This means that when we hear our African-American brothers and sisters cry out, “Black lives matter!”, we don’t glibly reply, “All lives matter,” but we realize they are speaking from the pain of experiences that communicate their lives don’t matter as much as ours. Then we work for ways that we can be a part of the solution and healing.

Four: Let us preach. Along with the things to celebrate, there is a lot of pain and brokenness that we must sort through and deal with. We cannot be silent. We cannot sit on our hands. But we also must not take our eyes off the great Solution. Every ounce of brokenness in our nation and world traces its roots back to Genesis 3. Every bad thing is ultimately founded in sin. And God gave us the Solution: His Son who lived as a poor Middle Eastern carpenter, died as the perfect sacrifice for us, and rose as the eternal King of kings.

All of our brokenness traces back to Genesis 3. All of our hope is found in a smelly manger, a bloody cross, and an empty tomb. We work to right whatever wrongs we can and we declare the glories of the One who will right every wrong in the end. Jesus is our hope, our reconciliation, and our peace. Jesus is the one who can break down the walls of enmity. Jesus is the one who perfectly heals our brokenness. So, we declare his glories.

How we pray for those we know who aren’t followers of Jesus

As a pastor, I often ponder how my church can be more effective at sharing the love and gospel of Jesus with our community. Ours is not a large town. We are a community of roughly 1700 people in a county of around 18,000. This presents certain challenges to evangelism: many people are commuters, we don’t really have a “town center” where large numbers of people regularly gather (well, maybe the football field in the fall), and many people said a prayer and were baptized as a kid in VBS or the likes, so they don’t think they need anything else despite the fact that little in their life resembles a follower of Jesus.

At the foundation of everything we have attempted as a church, we have prayed about reaching those without Jesus, but at the start of 2017 I was convicted that we need to refocus our prayers: We need to pray, specifically and by name, for individuals to come to know Jesus.

This is something that I had encouraged on a private and individual level in the past, but I decided we needed to do more together as a church. So, I put the following plan into motion.

First, I preached on the need to pray for people to come to faith in Jesus. For the better part of 2017, I have been working through John 13-21 in my sermons as we lead up to Easter. Halfway through John 14, Jesus said:

Truly, Truly I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it. ~ John 14:12-14 (ESV)

I am convinced that these “greater works” relate to the mission to see people come to know Jesus. Despite thousands showing up to hear his teachings and see his miracles from time to time, at the end of his ministry Jesus was only left with 100 or so followers and a core group of 11 (Acts 1). Once the Holy Spirit came on the scene in Acts 2, this quickly ballooned to 3000 and growing (Acts 2). But, from a numbers perspective, Jesus’ ministry was not all that impressive, especially for one who claimed to bring salvation to the whole world.

We must remember, however, that Jesus’ purpose wasn’t to complete this task in his three-year ministry, but to provide the means of salvation. He then gave the command to us as his followers to go out with his gospel and disciple the nations.

If I have John 14:12 correct, then it adds focus to 14:13-14. To ask in Jesus’ name is to ask according to his character, purpose, and will. That also involves the salvation of a “people for his own possession,” as Paul would say. So, many of our prayers should be related to our mission. I forget who said it, but I love the quote: If you look at most of our prayer lists, it seems we spend more time praying to keep people out of heaven (health concerns) than to get people into heaven (salvation). There’s nothing wrong with us praying for people’s health, family situation, jobs, or finances; but in the end a person’s soul is far more important than their broken leg. We should be zealous about praying for people’s health and we should be even more zealous about praying for their souls.

Second, I challenged my congregation to commit to pray for the salvation of at least two people they know who are not followers of Jesus. These could be their coworkers, neighbors, classmates, or family members. For three weeks, we provided a sheet of paper in the bulletin. The top half contained room and instructions for writing down and committing to pray for these names. On the bottom half, they could duplicate these names and turn them in to me, so that…

Third, we took the submitted names and produced a 4-week, 28-day prayer calendar. The submitted names were divided alphabetically across six days each week. The seventh day was set aside to pray for a specific unreached people group, in our case the Turkish-speaking Kurds of Turkey. I got the URPG information from www.joshuaproject.net (a site I highly recommend as a prayer resource. They even have a prayer app you can download). Then over the next three weeks, these names and URPG were repeated.

Each week was given a different set of verses and a theme to pray. Week 1 is Romans 10:8-17 with the theme: “That these might hear the gospel, and in hearing turn to Jesus in faith.” Week 2 is 2 Corinthians 3:17-18 and John 10:10, “That these would find liberty from sin and come to have the fullness of life in Jesus.” Week 3 is John 3:3-8, “That these might experience a new birth by the Holy Spirit.” And Week 4 is Colossians 4:2-6, “That God would open a door for us and others to share the gospel with these.” When the 28-days are up, we can use days 29-31 to catch up on any days we missed or pray for new people God has laid on our hearts, and when the next month begins, we start back at day 1.

Altogether, we had 70 names turned in for our calendar. That’s not yet two people per attendee, but it’s a start.

The beautiful thing about this list is that, even though no one person in the church knows everybody listed, everybody listed is connected to at least one person in the church. These are specific and known people that we are praying for.

Fourth, I am having the deacons pray for 5 or 6 of these names during their Sunday Morning prayer time. We incorporate several periods of prayer in our worship gathering. We have an opening scripture reading and prayer, we pray before the offering, I pray before the sermon, and we have a responsive prayer after the sermon. Also, planned into this is a time of intercessory prayer, usually led by one of the deacons. Like in many of our Baptist churches, this list typically is dominated by health concerns. Now, they include names from our 28-day prayer calendar.

So… Here’s my question for you: What are you doing in your own life and church in order to pray specific prayers for individuals in your life and community who are without Jesus? If the answer is not much, then I challenge you to start. Maybe the example from my church will inspire something similar at yours. I’ve also attached a copy of our prayer calendar here, so you can see what it is that we are doing.