Another year of preaching

This is probably more of a journal entry for my own enjoyment and memories than any sort of “deep thought” on Christian living or ministry. It’s sort of introspective, but it’s no less important.

That’s because I really enjoy preaching and I see the opportunity to do it a precious gift from God. No matter the setting, the size of the crowd or even my own emotional state (from burdened to joyful), preaching God’s word, pointing to Christ and spending time explaining the glories of God is just flat out great. And I have to thank God for the opportunities to preach and for trusting me with the responsibility.

In 2015 specifically, I got to that weighty, but joyful task over 20 times for at least 9 congregations (at least as noted by my itinerary page … I may have missed one or two?). Now that’s hardly the workload of a pastor (fulltime or bi-vocational). I know because I remember (fondly, I should add) when I was pastoring Crestview Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, NC, I would speak around 3 times each week about 51 weeks a year. So speaking 20 times in the course of a year isn’t a lot in the scheme of things … but each opportunity represented a God-given gift to speak to His people about His glorious message and a Divinely appointed mission to warn sinners of His coming wrath.

I have to admit that I didn’t realize the glory and the grace of what I had when I had it (though the enjoyment was still definitely there). But now the joy of preaching remains while the appreciation of the gift is clearer than ever.

I pray that God will continue to use me in 2016 to encourage, the exhort, to correct and to warn. You can keep watching my itinerary page to see exactly how God will do that. I hope you’ll pray for me to be a useful servant to our great God and King.

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Spiritual Formation in a Revivalist Culture

Tomorrow is Sunday.

While a lot of folks in the modern era see it simply as the last day of the weekend (“Sunday Funday” as it is often called), Christians for centuries have honored it as a day of worship and a time to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And as one who has grown up in church, such that Sunday (morning and evening, by the way, right along with Wednesday night prayer meeting) church is part of the rhythm of a standard week, I always have a faint longing for those exciting services when there’s an apparent “moving of God” in the service. And I’m always wondering if the next Sunday will bring one of those.

If you’ve been going to church regular enough for long enough, you’ve experienced these services: there’s a different atmosphere, there’s something very personal about the singing and the preaching, there’s simply something “special” that’s happening. Often, these services are marked by “decisions”–maybe public or personal, depending on the service and the tradition. In any case, these services stand out precisely because they aren’t what you experience every Sunday. In fact, you might have one of these every couple of months, at best.

Every church culture has their way of dealing with this longing. Some just go about their business, almost drone-like simply waiting for the day when one of these services happen. Others work hard with lighting, music, angel-voiced singers and special sermonic modes (from specific topics to stylistic flairs) to create the right mood. And still others will go as far as to schedule services with names like “revival services” and bring in special preachers.

You’ll notice I”m not saying these sorts of church services are bad. In fact, inasmuch as the palpable presence of God is real and not mere manufactured emotionalism, these transcendent moments are wonderful. Of course, each gathering of the church ought to be transcendent in its own right–they are, after all, attempting to exalt the God of the Universe and to edify the saints that Christ bought with His blood. But there’s something very right about one’s religion doing something to his heart, mind and body.

The problem is that too many churches and individual Christians can get so wrapped up in the ecstasy of so-called revival as to miss the real elixir of Christ for their souls. That is to say that we often seek revival (an inadequate, but close enough term to describe these moments where God “shows up” in church services) when God, through His infinite wisdom, is often speaking through the still small voice of His word and His people to provide us with real and lasting spiritual formation.

In other words, we’re quick to quote John 5:9 where it is reported that when Jesus healed someone, “immediately the man was made whole,” and apply it to our Christian walk. However, I think we miss the long, slow, quiet and very real transformation of Simon Peter from a brash racist and brawling fisherman to a pillar of the church of God who writes the encouraging letters we call first and second Peter. In Peter’s case, through a series of tests and trials, many of which are never read about and most of which aren’t really that dramatic, God forms his inner man to be something much more akin to the image of Christ.

Even the Apostle Paul, who did have his share of dramatic defining moments, owed a good deal of who he was as a preacher, a leader, a Christian and a man to the everyday working of God–from the years he spent in the desert (Galatians 1:17-18) being taught of God to the investment of Priscilla and Aquila into his life and ministry (Romans 16:3-4).

While the “revival” services get all of the press, it’s actually the week-by-week, “run of the mill” Sunday services that really contribute so much to our spiritual lives. What’s more, I think this is the real value of the church for believers: spiritual formation.

In fact, the next time you start to wonder what the point of church really is, think about the fact that for over 2,000 years Christians all over the world have been gathering together on Sunday mornings (and occasionally at other times). While certainly there were some special services in the mix, the weight of the glory that is “the church” is the fact that there have been literally millions of Sunday gatherings over the years, happening every week, year after year.

Which will do you the most good for your health and muscle strength in the long run? Going to the gym 3-4 times every week for 30-45 minutes over the next 20 years or spending 3-4 hours every day for a week and then quitting the practice altogether? Even if you could maintain the motivation through the pain, the limits of the human body would require you to slow things down if you ever hope to get any value out of the exercise. The real value comes through regular and appropriate doses.

That’s the power of going to church every week–no matter if the preacher’s sermon doesn’t quite hit all of the right notes, no matter if you’re not a fan of that particular song, no matter if you don’t quite feel “spiritual enough,” no matter if your church isn’t the most exciting or all that big.

No matter what. Just go. Just worship God in spirit and in truth.

Yes, you should seek to see Christ high and lifted up. Yes, there should be transcendence in the experience. Yes, you should absolutely enjoy the service when those revival moments happen. But you should also know that there’s value to your spirit by you just being there on that pew or chair or bench or whatever, holding your Bible, trying to focus on the preaching, exposing your ears (and those of your family) to the sounds of hymns and spiritual songs sung by regular folks trying to worship God too.

You likely won’t see instant results: you won’t suddenly kill all of your sins, love everyone as you should and surrender to a lifetime of sacrificial work for your community and the lost. The truth is that it will likely take a lifetime of God’s working on your heart to get you there. But that’s exactly what spiritual formation is. And you’re a sinful lump of clay that God loves enough to keep working on you … every day, slowly, steadily, simply … molding you into someone that looks a lot more like Jesus (Romans 8:29).

Hypo- and Hyper-Biblical Preaching

I like to listen to preaching while I run, particularly on my longer runs (which have become less “long” lately). Southern Baptist leader Dr. Russell Moore is one of my favorites, but I’ve listened to just about every sermon he’s put out a couple of times over! So I’m always seeking out new preachers.

And in that quest, I’ve run across two types of preaching that I, as a preacher, want to avoid like the plague and that churches, particularly those seeking pastors, should never abide: the hypo-Biblical preacher and the hyper-Biblical preacher.

Let me take the obvious and easier one first. Hypo-Biblical preaching is when someone just doesn’t use enough Bible in their preaching. What they’re saying isn’t wrong, isn’t bad and isn’t uninteresting. It’s just not necessarily based on the Bible. Or, if it is, the preacher isn’t making it clear that his words, thoughts and concepts come from Scripture. These guys tend to trade on their credibility, their experience as scholars or moral authorities.

In other words, these hypo-Biblical preachers say, “I said it, therefore it must be true … you can assume God agrees with me.”

This sort of preaching is alluring because most of these preachers have certain tricks and traits (at least the most well-known ones I’m aware of):

  • interesting and mesmerizing storytelling ability
  • compelling and spine-tingling rants
  • practical and logical advice for daily living
  • domineering and forceful personalities

Often these guys will be branded as “really great preachers” because of these traits. But they run the risk of encouraging man-worship (aka “cults”) and definitely promote sources of truth other than Scripture.

This kind of preaching can be helpful. It can be useful. And it can even be good. But it has to be recognized for what it is: something less than Biblical.

Now the other kind of preaching is even more subtle. In hyper-Biblical preaching, the preacher will often make a big deal about so-called “expository preaching” and make sure you know that they always and only preach the text. Of course, that’s a good thing. The preacher’s job is to proclaim the text, to make plain sense of the text and to motivate people to respond to the text.

But the kind of hyper-Biblical preaching I’ve heard goes a step further. These guys turn the Scripture into a text book to be taught and understood as if we’re passing a test. They usually will eschew any sort of emotion (especially humor) and the practical applications are–if present at all–tacked on to the end. I call it “hyper” because it attempts to (and sees itself as) being all about the Bible … and lots of it.

By these hyper-Biblical preachers are essentially saying, “Welcome to the ancient study of religious theory, make sure you take good notes.”

This sort of preaching is often appealing to intellectual-types and the super-spiritual due to these sorts of traits:

  • explaining (and pronouncing) the Greek and Hebrew
  • spending 10 minutes of a 1 hour sermon to explain what the word “through” means in this passage
  • extensive historical background of the text serves as an introduction
  • outlines rarely contain less than 10 points

Often these guys will be branded as “really deep preachers” because of these traits. But they run the risk of making God’s word boring, lifeless and academic.

Again, this kind of preaching can be helpful, useful and good. But it also must be recognized for what it is: something less than Biblical.

You see, the Bible is alive and powerful. It is, after all, God’s word.

As such, the preacher must be careful to preach it clearly and plainly, adding nothing to God’s word and not presuming that God’s word needs any salt, seasoning or flavor. It is sufficient, self-sufficient and satisfying.

That said, God has chosen to deliver His word through the vehicle of flawed and faulty preachers (Paul calls this the “foolishness” of preaching in I Corinthians 1). What’s more, God didn’t give His word to be some sort of collectible, something that we need to “preserve” (He’s done that just fine, thank you!) and keep under lock and key.

“The Word of God is like a lion. You don’t have to defend a lion. All you have to do is let the lion loose and the lion will defend itself.” – Charles Spurgeon

Instead, God’s word is given to us so that we may know Him, serve Him, honor Him and just plain live every day as He wants us to. That’s going to mean that we have to allow God’s word to “filter” through human experience. I don’t mean we water it down or dilute it anyway. But know that when God chooses a man to preach His word, that God wants that man, not some automaton mouthing words (otherwise, why not just have Alexander Scourby blasting from pulpits and street corners?

So instead of adding our own opinion to God’s word as we preach (hypo-Biblical preaching) or trying to impress academia with how boring and analytical our preaching can be (hyper-Biblical preaching), why don’t we echo Paul’s words:

“For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” – I Corinthians 2:2

You have nothing to preach but God’s word. But preach it like it’s powerful, like it’s interesting, like it matters.

A tale of two universities

I live in Hillsborough, a little town just about equidistant between Durham, where Duke University calls home, and Chapel Hill, where UNC-Chapel Hill (aka “Carolina”) calls home. While these two schools have a national sports reputation, it’s their local influence I’d like to think about for a minute.

I’m just a casual observer, of course, but I find the communities around both schools very fascinating. Both schools have outstanding academic reputation, athletic reputations and prestigious alumni. But what are they doing for the areas right around them?

Well, you have Duke. It’s in Durham, NC, which has a tough reputation as a fairly violent and often poor city. To be fair, right around the university, home prices are pretty high and the neighborhoods are nice. I, for one, love to run the Al Buehler Cross Country course that goes around the golf course near the school. But as a larger community, it seems that the Duke influence has been minimal.

Even if you stretch out the influence beyond the immediate ZIP code, I’m always surprised when I run into a Duke alum outside of the great Raleigh-Durham area–partly because they are a pretty elite bunch and often because they are usually high paid or high profile people. In my experience, the Duke influence is strong, but focused.

Then, you have UNC-Chapel Hill. It’s in Chapel Hill, NC, which has the enviable position of having some of the highest property values in the entire state. While the city and it’s surrounding county (Orange) isn’t devoid of crime or poverty, its schools, city & county services and infrastructure, is top-notch (full disclosure: I live in Orange and enjoy many of these benefits … and pay the taxes that make them possible).

But what’s more, UNC-Chapel Hill also is something of “the people’s” school. I’ve met Carolina alum in all sorts of places and in all sorts of professions–teachers, executives, writers, athletes, politicians, homemakers, doctors, dentists, statisticians and more. While the school does a good job of remaining an elite institution of learning, it seems it also has somehow democratized higher learning too.

Plus, while both schools have incredible sports histories (particularly in basketball), you find Carolina fans all over the place, while a few Duke fans pop up from time-to-time. Full disclosure, I’m a Wake Forest fan (Go Deacs!) and also enjoy seeing Carolina lose.

So what?

Well I think our churches often take on the Duke role–serving some particular elite group that seems to serve our needs. Whether that’s the cultured set, a particular race of people or even the “hard core” true believers. Most churches will find enough of their target demographic to sustain themselves for some period of time. But it seems that we’re missing a huge opportunity to do what the church is supposed to do: make a real difference in the lives around us.

It seems that if we really do have the hope of the world (Jesus Christ) and we’re doing what He told us to do (tell people about Him, Matthew 28:18-20), then those places where churches pop up should be the most out-reaching and most life-altering places on the planet. You shouldn’t be able to live near a church and not be affected by it … even if you don’t go to their services.

Sadly, you can literally live next door to one (I live within walking distance of two!) and never feel their presence beyond the odd (it must be to those who don’t go) gathering that happens 1-3 times each week when the parking lots fill up with cars.

Shouldn’t  communities be improved around churches? Shouldn’t the sick, the poor, the afflicted, the hurting and the needy be helped by churches? Shouldn’t the wealthy, the poor, the liberal, the conservative, the saint, the sinner, the religions and the irreligious be sought out by the church?

I’m not saying that we have to bend the church to the standards of those around us–look at my example with Carolina, they certainly don’t lower academic standards (ok … there was the thing with the student athletes. But other than that!). But I am saying there ought to be real, lasting imprint that the church makes on everyone that comes close enough.

Unfortunately, too many churches are content being a Duke, super high standards, high cost of admission and completely comfortable having a minimal impact on those that live nearby.

Book review: Risky Gospel

There’s a kind of preaching I don’t hear very much, but I’m always energized by. Very few preachers do it well … but it’s really surprising given the radical nature of the Gospel & of Jesus Himself.This is the kind of preaching that inspires you to do something difficult, but meaningful.

A lot of preaching puts you on a guilt trip. Even more preaching excites you about the life to come. Other preaching bores you to death and puts you to sleep. And too much preaching just confuses. But given that Jesus is calling us to suffer, to become fools for Him, to turn our backs on everything we know, I’m amazed at how little we’re really challenged to just do something out of the ordinary.

That’s exactly the reason I really liked this book. It was fun to read, challenging to implement and engaging with the hard, cold (often mundane) realities of life. This is the kind of “Christian Living” / “Spiritual Growth” book you like to read and we really need more of.

The fact is I think we’re all wired to do something great, build something useful and even do something risky. Strachan latches onto that and runs with it. By the end, you are really wanted to take your Christianity out of the garage and see what it can do! The good news is that this is exactly what God challenges us to do in His word.

For better or worse, this book basically hits on one note. True, it’s applied to various aspects of life: from family to work to community life. But don’t expect to dig deep on a range of theological issues or be set on a long-term theological journey. Strachan is simple, to the point and blunt … all without being simplistic or dumbed-down. But sometimes, one point is all you need, and you need to hit it hard.

If you’re any sort of a reader at all, you’ll burn through this in no time. I think the real long-term usefulness will be as a group study, particularly with young people. I know my son will be getting my copy to read.

Good stuff. Worth your time.

It should be noted that I got a free, no-strings-attached copy of this book in exchange for my review.

Risky Gospel

Good reading for all ages

Is anyone listening?

As a preacher and a (sometimes) writer, the one question that plagues me is “Is anyone listening?”

Certainly there’s a measure of vanity in there: it’s as much about there being an audience for “me” as for whatever it is I happen to be talking about at the moment. But presuming that my motives are right (no matter what I say on that, you’ll ultimately never really know), there’s also a worry that the message I preach (the Gospel of Jesus Christ) is being missed by someone who really needs it–from a believer who is discouraged or in sin to a poor soul who is in danger of eternal damnation.

I got a bit of encouragement this afternoon on this front when I took a look at the recordings I had uploaded to Archive.org. This is the site where I can (for free!) host all of my sermons, podcast episodes & Sunday School teachings. I don’t often hear from anyone who has listened, so I don’t organically have any sense of what the impact is.

But I did a quick search (you can do the same here … go here: https://archive.org/search.php?query=Matthew%20Tilley&sort=-downloads&page=1) and found some of my sermons and lessons had hundreds of downloads.

Now that doesn’t mean they were actually listened to or that they were at all understood. But someone, somewhere (actually a lot of them!) took the effort and time to pull the file down from the web. So that’s encouraging, personally. Although it does feed the ego a bit.

What’s more encouraging as I think about this is the the very concept of “the foolishness of preaching.” For a couple of thousand years, Christian preachers have been raising their voices warning of judgment and pointing the savior. And the prophets of the Old Testament had done something similar for years before that. By the looks of things, they weren’t (aren’t) heard either. But the fact is, almost to a man (including John the Baptist who was preaching in the desert!) they all had at least hundreds of “downloads” … that is, they had hundreds of people exposed to their preaching, who had opportunity to hear the truth and who even made the effort to avail their ears to the truth.

And down through those same years, there were some who were saved, some where encouraged, some were helped, some were restored. And over the years (past, present, future), that will turn into an innumerable multitude (check out Revelation 5).

What is that all about?

One thing it wasn’t about … it wasn’t about Moses, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Paul, Polycarp, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Whitfield, Spurgeon, Billy Graham, John Byerly, Russell Moore, Matthew Tilley or you. Yes, God used each man (and many, many others) to preach His truth and to change lives. God does draw large groups at times (as testified by those so-called megachurches with thousands of people or those big crusades where thousands are saved), but its most often one or two at a time, here and there.

And He continues to use “the foolishness of preaching,” that inefficient, not usually very good, human and flawed method of getting His truth to the world. And it works. Slowly, but surely. But it works.

So … is anyone listening?

I have no idea, not really. But it’s for me to obey. I will likely see some fruit if I’m faithful. But the fruit is His and it will come in its time … and it will be in spite of me.

Glory to Christ alone.

Book Review: Daughters in Danger

I’ve always felt under-equipped to be a parent, but never so much as when we were blessed with a daughter just over 10 years ago. And now that she’s growing up to be a beautiful women, my inadequacy is really showing. So I was very interested when Thomas Nelson offered a free copy of Elayne Bennett’s “Daughters in Dangers” in exchange for an objective review. 

Unfortunately, the book didn’t quite provide what I had hoped.

My biggest concerns come from the pretty clear partisan overtone of most of the book. Of course, that shouldn’t be terribly surprising given the author (wife of conservative Bill Bennett). And the partisanship doesn’t, on its own, suggest that she doesn’t care about her subject. But couched as warning and advice for parents, I suppose I was expecting a bit more of an even hand. Further, much of the time, she seemed to be pitching her “Best Friends” organization–potentially a very helpful and useful group with some success in alleviating the problem, but when you’re looking for advice on “helping our girls thrive in today’s culture,” you want more than just a suggestion to have them join a club, no matter how successful.

All of that said, Ms. Bennett actually offers an important wake-up call to parents of daughters, regardless of political persuasion or proclivity for joining groups. The fact is that neither the liberals that Bennett is clearly fighting against nor the old line “conservatives” that they are reacting to have done much to help the plight of girls. In fact, what is often lost in this war of words and ideas is that our culture has an impact and negative impact on real women (and men) with real emotions, pains and perspectives. We have politicized and philosophized things to the point that in an effort to make a point, we really have put our daughters in danger.

What Bennett does very well is motivate action on behalf of parents, teachers and others. To her credit, she is personally vested in making a real difference. And she is nothing if not persuasive in encouraging us all to just get involved and quit squabbling over definitions, pawning off responsibility and riding on philosophical high horses and actually care about the young women in our lives enough to do something to help them.

So even if Bennett’s own politics and agenda get in the way a bit and even if the presentation is a bit scattered in places, her overarching message is one that needs to be heard, considered and engaged. She is merely echoing Paul’s words to Titus in chapter 1:10-16, where he warns about the worst of the culture “subverting whole houses.” Interestingly, her advice for combating the culture also reflects Paul’s advice in Titus 2, which revolves around being genuine, actually caring and teaching God’s truth.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get the panacea I had hoped for, but the reality is that there is no such thing in the business of raising the sons and daughters that God has blessed us with. I’ll still take all of the advice books and “wake up calls” I can find. But I’ll still have to do the hard work of teaching my daughter what’s right, living that lesson in front of her everyday and loving the daylights out of her.