Pastor, You are a Well-Known Unknown

Tony Campolo tells the story of driving up to preach at a church and finding only three other cars in the parking lot. Tony’s seven-year old son, Bart, looked at the empty lot and said, “Dad, nobody’s come to hear you. And you’re so famous.” Bart’s older sister, Lisa asked, “If dad’s so famous where are all the people?” Bart got defensive for his dad. He replied, “Knock it off Lisa; it’s tough being famous when nobody knows who you are.”

mysteryBart is right. It’s tough being famous when no one knows who you are.

A pastor friend recently sent me an email suggesting several possible speakers for the annual preaching lectures we host at Heritage Seminary. The names he recommended were heavy-hitters in the homiletics world. He closed his note by saying if we couldn’t get one of them, he was available. Then he added that we would have to charge $1,000 dollars per ticket to make up for the fact that only four or five people would show up to hear him—one of whom would be his mother.

His note made smile. It also made me reflect. My friend was voicing how many pastors feel. We’re not about to get an invite to headline a conference anytime soon. And if we did, there would only be three cars in the parking lot. And one of them would belong to mom.

It’s tough being famous when no one knows who you are.country church

Most of us pastors will always be relatively unknown. We may serve in city churches that are lost in a metropolis. Or we may serve in rural churches that are located on the outskirts of obscurity. In either case, we’ll be known to the people in our congregations. But beyond that—not so much.

Most of the time, that’s just fine. We went into ministry to be faithful, not famous. But sometimes, when we compare ourselves with higher-profile ministry colleagues, we start to feel small and insignificant.

The New Testament has a message for all of us who qualify as unknowns. It reminds us that we are in good company. When Paul wrote the believers in Corinth, he described himself and his colleagues as “known, and yet unknown” (2 Corinthians 6:9)

Paul knew that he was relatively unknown in the larger Roman world. He also knew he was well-known to the One who mattered most. He had come to know God and be known by Him (Galatians 4:9).

A number of years ago, when I was serving as a solo pastor in a smaller community, I wrote a song for my own heart—and for those who feel they labour in obscurity. It’s a reminder that those of us who serve Jesus are “well-known unknowns.”

Well-Known to Jesus

You’ve probably never heard their names
You wouldn’t recognize their faces
They’re seldom given much acclaim
They’re tucked away in isolated places

With faithfulness and without fanfare
They’re leaving a lasting legacy
And though I imagine they are quite unaware
They are heaven’s true celebrities

And they’re well-known to Jesus, though they’re unknown to us
Overlooked on earth but up in heaven they are obvious
And though they labour in obscurity
It’s their passion and their purity
That make them well-known to Jesus, well-known unknowns

One day with heavenly hindsight, we’ll see what we should have foreseen
When the brightness of eternity’s spotlight shines on those who served behind the scenes
With faithfulness and without fanfare
They left a lasting legacy
And though I imagine they were quite unaware
They are heaven’s true celebrities

And they’re well-known to Jesus, though they’re unknown to us
Overlooked on earth but up in heaven they are obvious
And though they labour in obscurity
It’s their passion and their purity
That make them well-known to Jesus, well-known unknowns

And all of this makes me wonder why I’m so mesmerized
By lightening and by thunder, by status and by size
When will I realize it? Don’t tell me I’d despise it, if I were…

Well-known to Jesus, though unknown down here
What’s hazy now in this life, in the next life will be clear
So if we labour in obscurity
May our passion and our purity
Make us well-known to Jesus, well-known unknowns
I’d rather be well-known to Jesus, well-known unknowns.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Getting Better at Preaching

I recently read a fascinating article by Hershael York entitled “Four Reasons Why Some Preachers Get Better and Others Don’t.” Since York has been a preaching prof for sixteen years, he has some street cred on the topic. The four reasons he highlights (calling, teachability, passion and reckless abandon) are certainly instructive, but his list is not meant to be exhaustive.

So here’s a fifth reason why some preachers get better and others don’t: some learn to be more Christ-centered in their preaching.

Becoming more Christ-centered as a preacher was the focus of this year’s Heritage BryanPreaching Lectures with Bryan Chapell. Dr. Chapel is probably best known for his excellent book, Christ-Centered Preaching. It’s a book we use in our homiletics courses at Heritage and one every preacher should own.

You may think that every Christian preacher or teacher is automatically “Christ-centered”. Sadly, that’s not the case. As Chapell points out, we easily slide into preaching what he calls “the deadly be’s” (be like. . ., be good, be disciplined).

While these messages are not bad in themselves, they are bad by themselves. If they are disconnected from the gospel of Christ, they can turn sermons into moralistic, self-help messages. The solution is to make sure our sermons are legitimately Christ-centered. They must highlight what Christ has done for us as the basis for what He calls us to do.

As preachers come to better understand what it means to preach Christ-centered sermons, their sermons will get better. And their hearers will be better for it!

We’ve posted Dr. Chapell’s preaching lectures on the Heritage website (click here). If you are a preacher, do yourself and your people a favour by listening and learning!

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Big Mistake

As I’ve written in a previous post, I’m spending this year with Jeremiah by studying the book that bears his name. Ten months into it, I can tell you that focusing repeatedly on the same book of Scripture has proven a rich way to get into God’s Word.

boxset-transparentI was reminded of one of the chapters from Jeremiah last weekend at a Steve Bell concert. Steve performed a number of songs from his newly released project Pilgrimage. One song, entitled Big Mistake, made me think of Jeremiah 2. It also made me think of how we are prone to do what Israel did—trade in our freedom by returning to old patterns of slavery and bondage.

Jeremiah 2 laments Israel’s descent from devotion to desertion. The Lord recalls the loving devotion His people had shown Him when He rescued them out of Egypt: “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the desert” (2:1-2).

Sadly, the honeymoon didn’t last long.

In spite of God’s goodness in protecting them from their enemies (2:3), leading them through the desert (2:6) and giving them a fruitful new homeland (2:7), the Israelites quickly became unfaithful to Him. Instead of remaining a devoted bride, they played the harlot. They ran into the arms of other gods and wound up trading freedom for slavery.

It’s easy to shake our heads at the foolish choices Israel made. Except we sometimes do the very same thing. We turn our back on God’s goodness and turn back to old sin patterns. We treat our freedom in Christ as if it were a Big Mistake.

As you listen to Steve’s song Big Mistake, ask the Lord to reveal if you are descending from devotion to desertion, from freedom in Christ to slavery to old ways.

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love (Galatians 5:13)

 

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Pure Gold

This summer Linda and I were both deeply impacted as we read Pure Gold, David McCasland’s biography of Eric Liddell. We had been to Scotland in May and had visited Eric’s hometown of Edinburgh. We’d also taken the train to St. Andrews where the opening “running on the beach” scene from Chariots of Fire was filmed.250px-Chariots_of_Fire_beach

Most of the world remembers Liddell for his performance in the 1924 summer Olympics in Paris. He refused to run the event he was favoured to win (100 metres) because the qualifying heats took place on Sunday. Then he went on to win a gold medal in an event in which he was a huge underdog (400 metres).

After the Olympics, instead of remaining in Scotland and living the life of a sports superstar, he headed for China as a missionary. This part of his life story is far less known but is actually far more impressive.

While in China, Eric met and later married Flo MacKenzie, the daughter of Canadian missionaries from Toronto. The demands of missionary life and the outbreak of WWII forced them to be separated for much of their married life. When the Japanese invaded China, Eric and hundreds of other missionaries were placed in an internment camp. While imprisoned, he suddenly developed severe health problems. To the surprise and dismay of all in the camp, he died of a brain tumour at the young age of 43.

As I read Liddell’s biography, I felt an undeniable sadness in the story of Eric’s untimely death. But larger than the sadness, I felt a sense of wonder at a life so devoted to Christ and so marked by the graces of God’s Spirit. At Eric’s funeral, a close friend spoke these words in tribute:

I say that Eric is the most remarkable example in my experience of a man of average ability and talents developing those talents to an amazing degree, and even appearing to acquire new talents from time to time, through the power of the Holy Spirit. He was, literally, God-controlled, in his thought, judgments, actions, words, to an extent I have never seen surpassed, and rarely seen equalled. . . .

In the athletic world, no one knows how he did it—it remains a mystery; but for his progress in the spiritual race there is a very clear and definite explanation. First of all, absolute surrender to the will of God. Absolute surrender—those words were often on his lips, the conception was always in his mind; that God should have absolute control over every part of his life” (283-4).

I finished the biography with two growing convictions: First, I want to live more fully yielded to Christ. Eric spent time each morning in Scripture reading and prayer, drawing strength from Christ and dedicating himself to Christ. That’s a pattern I want to continue to emulate.

Second, I want to keep reading Christian biographies as they inspire the right kind of desires in my soul. John Piper is right about the value of reading the biographies of godly men and women from the past:book

Good biography is history and guards us against chronological snobbery (as C. S. Lewis calls it). It is also theology—the most powerful kind—because it burst forth from the lives of people like us. It is also adventure and suspense, for which we have a natural hunger. It is psychology and personal experience, which deepen our understanding of human nature (especially ourselves). Good biographies of great Christians make for remarkably efficient reading.

Why not watch (or rewatch) the movie Chariots of Fire (Academy Award winner for Best Picture) which tells the story of his gold-medal Olympic run.  Better yet, why not read Pure Gold, the biography that tells the rest of the story.

 

 

 

 

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Paul, Bonhoffer and Heritage

On Thursday, September 11, I was privileged to speak at the first seminary chapel of the year at Heritage.  The message I gave was one I’ve been preparing for weeks.  No, make Rick in chapelthat years.  Or perhaps decades.

Serving at Heritage is a calling that runs deep in my soul.  Thirty years ago I thought I would be headed to Brazil to train spiritual leaders.  Instead of heading south, God directed us north–to Canada.

Recent years have only increased my passion for the work of training up leaders for Christ’s Church and His global mission.  Dealing with cancer has added to my sense of urgency.  So has reading about another seminary–one you may never have heard of.

This summer I’ve been learning about the seminary that Dietrich Bonhoeffer started in theFinkenwalde years leading up to WWII.  Bonhoeffer was alarmed at the rise of Hitler and saw where things were headed.  He launched an underground seminary to train ministers who would stand firm and serve well in troubled times.

In many ways, I see storm clouds gathering over our part of the world.  Things will not get easier for those who stay faithful to God’s Word and the gospel message.

The message I gave at our first seminary chapel of the year was taken from 2 Timothy 3.  It lays out a crucial part of my vision for Heritage:  training men and women who will stand firm on God’s Word and serve well in difficult days.

Would you pray that God would strengthen us for this important mission.

You can listen to the sermon here:

 

 

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Off to a Great Start!

It’s been a wonderful week here at Heritage as we’ve launched a new school year.  ClassesStudents have started for both college and seminary.  The resident halls are full of life again.  There is a strong sense of energy and anticipation on campus—plus a little angst as students look over their upcoming assignments in the course syllabi.

For months, our faculty and staff have been preparing for this semester.  We’ve gathered each week over the summer to pray for the students who would study at Heritage this year.  We’ve sought get ready spiritually, academically and logistically.

Convocation 1On Tuesday, we had our Convocation Chapel.  It was a special time of worship, prayer and hearing from God’s Word.  Dr. Bob McGregor told how his time at Heritage Seminary had given him a deep passion for God’s Word.  He challenged us from John 17 to join the mission Christ has for His Church by centering our lives on the gospel and living it out together in the Church.

For this to be an impactful year at Heritage, we will need “the gracious hand of our God” on us (Ezra 8:22).  That’s why I’m asking you to join me in bringing these requests to God in prayer.

1. spiritual protection (“deliver us from the evil one”—Matt. 6:13)

2. educational impact (“let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly”—Col. 3:16)

3.  relational harmony (“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace”—Eph. 4:3)

4.  financial provision (“And my God will meet all your needs”—Phil. 4:19)

We’re trusting God for great things this year because we have a God who can “do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Ephesians 3:20).

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Bonhoeffer’s Teaching on Preaching

If you aren’t familiar with the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, you should change that.

Bonhoeffer’s Bon Metexample of standing for Christ under the Nazi regime will inspire fresh courage in you (I’d recommend Eric Metaxas’ book: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy).

A lesser-known part of Bonhoeffer’s ministry centers on the two years he headed up an underground seminary in Finkenwalde (1935-1937). During these years he trained future pastors—preparing them for ministry in a turbulent, hostile society.

Bon 14Some of his lectures from Finkenwalde are preserved in Volume 14 of The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. I found his lecture on preaching to be fascinating. While I differ with some of his views (for example, he dismissed the need for sermon introductions, conclusions or applications), I’m convinced Bonhoeffer has much pastoral and homiletical wisdom to pass on to all who preach or teach God’s Word:

Here are a few of his insights that I found to be highlights:

On keeping the sermon tied to the text of Scripture:
“A sermon is discourse that is characterized as being a sermon on a given text. Because the sermon claims to be God’s word, it is bound to Scripture. The promise that it is God who is speaking derives solely from the sermon itself being commensurate with Scripture.” (14: 489)

On how to write out your sermons:
You should not write the sermon all at once. Stay with the chosen text . . . . Begin at latest on Tuesday, have it finished at latest on Friday. You must work on it at least twelve hours. A written sermon that is finished is not yet a finished sermon!” (14:488)

On getting free from your notes as a preacher:
“Memorize not words but connected lines of thought. For every section, note the first and last ideas, then the material between them. ” (14:488)

On the importance of Saturday night for Sunday sermons:
“By all means keep Saturday evening free . . . . Refuse basically all invitations within the congregation.” (14:488)

On effective sermon delivery:
“Monotony, lack of movement is false. Speak with the utmost truthfulness, naturalness, [and] simplicity; no senseless screaming to wake the congregation up! When speaking about the trumpets of the Last Judgment, no need to suggest that we ourselves are those trumpets. [Speak with] as much enthusiasm as possible for the subject matter. Genuine pathos! [Speak with] as much confidence and cheerfulness in the exclusive power of the word.” (14:505-6)

On how to tell when preaching is having a fruitful impact:
“The best sign of a good pastor is that the congregation reads the Bible.” (14:489)

On the value of a loyal, honest wife:
“Lucky the preacher who, since married loyalty is the best, finds in his spouse his own conscience, such that she has the courage for truth, precisely for the sake of love, and does not shrink . . . from criticizing and admonishing . . . . Thank God if you have a wife who genuinely can criticize you.” (14:502, footnote 82)

 

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