Praise-Seeking Pastors [or Shaggy Donkey Ears] (Luther)

I probably don’t have to explain the celebrity pastor ethos that is a major problem in Christianity today. In fact, some pastors want to be famous and well-known. Social media has made this problem worse. Anyway, in the “Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther’s German Writings”, Martin Luther had some cutting things to say about pastors/theologians who think they are quite significant and desire fame. After explaining the essential importance of Scripture for theology, Luther mentioned prayer, meditating on the word, and suffering – all of which bring humility and dependence on the Word. Then he wrote this – and this is how he ends his “Preface.” Read it a few times!

If, however, you feel and are inclined to think you have made it, flattering yourself with your own little books, teaching, or writing, because you have done it beautifully and preached excellently; if you are highly pleased when someone praises you in the presence of others; if you perhaps look for praise, and would sulk or quit what you are doing if you did not get it – if you are of that stripe, dear friend, then take yourself by the ears, and if you do this the right way you will find a beautiful pair of big, long, shaggy donkey ears. Then do not spare any expense! Decorate them with golden bells, so that people will be able to hear you wherever you go, point their fingers at you, and say, “See, See! There goes that clever beast, who can write such exquisite books and preach so remarkably well.” That very moment you will be blessed and blessed beyond measure in the kingdom of heaven. Yes, in that heaven where hellfire is ready for the devil and his angels. To sum up: Let us be proud and seek honor in the places where we can. But in this book the honor is God’s alone, as it is said, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” [1 Pet. 5:5]; to whom be glory, world without end, Amen

Martin Luther, “Preface to The Wittenberg Edition of Luther’s German Writings” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 3rd Edition (Fortress Press: Minneapolis), p. 42.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Praised for our Preaching? (Grimke)

Meditations on Preaching I recently picked up this short book called “Meditations on Preaching” by Francis Grimke.  To be honest, I hadn’t heard about this book before but after looking into it seemed like the book would be worthwhile to read.  And it for sure is!  It’s full of great Christian wisdom on preaching.  If you’re a pastor and you need some encouraging thoughts on preaching, do get this book!  So far it’s been a blessing to me.  Here’s one quote I read today that was convicting and helpful:

Too often, we preachers feel, that we are not doing very much, that our work is not succeeding, unless someone is constantly swinging the censer under our noses. It is when we are praised, when our sermons are spoken of in complimentary terms, that we feel that we are succeeding most. And, when we preach, Sabbath after Sabbath, and no words of commendation are heard, we are apt to feel a little discouraged, to think that we are not succeeding. Unfortunately, too many of us (such is poor human nature) want to be praised. We look for it, we expect it: we often think more of a word of commendation than anything else. It is certainly a weakness, a pitiable weakness, a thing to be ashamed of. We ought to be content to do our work, with no thought of self, but only of the glory of God. Too many of us are like the Pharisees in this respect. It is the glory of man that we are thinking of, and that we are hankering most for. It may be natural, but it is a thing for which we should despise ourselves.

Here’s another I appreciated:

“I am not asking God to fill the house with listeners, but I am asking him to send to the services those who need to hear the message which I am to give and to prepare me to give it and prepare them to receive it.

One more:

“No man’s ministry is a failure, however meager the results, if he has been faithfully and earnestly preaching the gospel of the grace of God, holding up to dying, sinful men God’s message of redeeming love.  Such a ministry is not, could not be, a failure.”

Francis James Grimke, Meditations on Preaching (Madison: Log College Press, 2018).

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54002

Truly Successful Preaching (Newton)

Sometimes we think that a successful preacher is one who is well-known, is the pastor of a large church, whose sermons are downloaded by the thousands, whose conferences are always sold out and books are bestsellers.  The truth is, these things don’t necessarily mean a preacher is successful in the biblical sense of the term.  Heretics and unorthodox preachers can have all these things!

What makes for a successful preacher, biblically speaking?  What is truly successful preaching?  Well, it doesn’t depend upon popularity, sermon download numbers, church size, or best-selling books and conferences.  John Newton described it well while discussing the sovereign grace of God in regenerating dead hearts:

“…We may observe the proper use and value of the preaching of the Gospel, which is the great instrument by which the Holy Spirit opens the blind eyes. Like the rod of Moses, it owes all its efficacy to the appointment and promise of God. Ministers cannot be too earnest in the discharge of their office; it behooves them to use all diligence to find out acceptable words, and to proclaim the whole counsel of God. Yet when they have done all, they have done nothing, unless their word is accompanied to the heart by the power and demonstration of the Spirit.”

Without this blessing, an apostle might labor in vain: but it shall be in a measure afforded to all who preach the truth in love, in simplicity, and in all humble dependence upon Him who alone can give success. This in a great measure puts all faithful ministers on a level, notwithstanding any seeming disparity in gifts and abilities. Those who have a lively talent that affects emotions, may engage the ear, and raise the natural passions of their hearers; but they cannot reach the heart. The blessing may be rather expected to attend the humble, than the talented speaker.”

These words – especially the ones I’ve emphasized –  are comforting for us preachers and applicable to everyone who hears the word proclaimed.   Don’t give pastors credit or fame; give it all to God!

John Newton, Works, volume 1 page 286-7.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Popularity: A Pastor’s Fiery Trial

  Near the beginning of his 1830 publication on the pastoral ministry (The Christian Ministry), Charles Bridges discussed the trials and difficulties of the ministry.  In this section he wrote that for pastors, “the greatest difficulties derive their origin and power from ourselves.”  This whole section is outstanding, and very much worth reading.  One part of it that stuck out for me was what Bridges said about opposition to the ministry on the one hand, and popularity on the other.

Opposition to our ministry and message may stir up a selfish, unhumbled spirit.”

Popularity is yet more dangerous.  The few who escape its influence unhurt have been exercised in painful conflict, such as have shown their deliverances from this fiery trial to have been nearly miraculous.  Symptoms of success, unless tempered with personal abasement and habitual watchfulness, excite to self-confidence.”

Bridges’ words really caught my attention!  The very thing that many of us pastors desire – popularity – is more dangerous than opposition in the ministry and is a “fiery trial” that breeds self-confidence.   Why again do I want popularity?  Perhaps I should pray against it!

The lack of success and popularity, on the other hand, is too often accompanied with impatience or despondency.  So we are assaulted at the extreme points of opposite direction (popularity vs. opposition), and we surely need the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left. (2 Cor. 6:7).

Bridges does talk about other difficulties pastors have within themselves, such as spiritual coldness, loss of zeal, natural love of ease, dislike of self-denial, and the ongoing struggle with worldliness.  But Bridges also does a nice job encouraging the pastor to press on by God’s grace.  He even says that difficulties in the ministry can be used by God to become sources of encouragement:

“The discipline of the cross is most needful to repress the overweening confidence in self, to establish an habitual confidence in God’s promises, to prove the power of faith, the privileges of prayer, and the heavenly support of God’s Word, so that we know how from our own difficult experiences how to speak a word in season to him that is weary (cf. Is. 50:4).”

“Faith links our weakness in immediate connection with the promises of God’s help (Zech. 4:6).  Thus discouragements in the ministry, properly sustained and carefully improved, become our most fruitful sources of eventual encouragement.”

Forget popularity.  Don’t buckle or throw in the towel when faced with difficulties.  Because when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor. 12:10; cf. 2 Cor. 13:4).

Recommended pastoral reading: Charles Bridges’ The Christian Ministry (in light of the above quotes, especially note chapters 4-5.

shane lems
hammond, wi

Reflections on Ordinary Life for Ordinary People Two years ago, Matthew Redmond wrote an excellent book called The God of the Mundane: Reflections on Ordinary Life for Ordinary People (note: the Kindle version is only $2.99). I’ve blogged on this book before (here), but I wanted to mention and recommend it again by sharing a helpful excerpt that I recently re-read.  I appreciate how Redmond clearly understands that our celebrity (Christian sub-) culture goes hand in hand with the “radical” movement in evangelicalism.

“[The reality is that] we will not be famous. We will not be stars in our culture’s glittering nights. And though many of us have drunk deeply of a celebrity-saturated world, we live a life apart . Oh, we want to be famous, known and revered. But that is not the reality. The reality is no one will write books about us. And outside of our families, we will be forgotten.

This sounds terrible but only because fame — which was never ours — has obscured our view of what really is. And what is that? That we are part of that not so exclusive group of men and women throughout history known as “everyone else.”

Christians are not immune to the problem of being mundane and seeing it as a problem. We have breathed in the same fumes as the rest. Our hearts burn for our deeds to be noticed and celebrated . We want to do something big and have it thrust into cyberspace for all to read. Those who follow the Man of no reputation pine for one, résumés ready.

There are dark and dusty corners of our heart that will fight tooth-and-nail against ever being known to exist. The reason is easy to see. We think the small, mundane, ordinary things we do each and every day are worth nothing before God because they are worth nothing before the gods of this world.

[However,] it is encouraging that there is a God of the mundane, because lives are just that — mundane. This is good news for those who have tired of trying to live fantastically. And this is spectacular news for those who have been tempted to think their lives escape the notice of God because they are decidedly not spectacular. It is encouraging because the mundane is reality. We may flirt with greatness, but the fact is — for the Christian and non-Christian — ordinary is the divine order of the day for the vast majority of us.

Redmond, Matt B. (2012-11-29). The God Of The Mundane: reflections on ordinary life for ordinary people (Kindle Locations 229-249). Kalos Press. Kindle Edition.

shane lems