Most Effective Preachers

A couple of weeks ago, Truett Seminary at Baylor University identified the 12 most effective preachers in the English-speaking world. The criteria for ranking these preachers involved exegetical and oratory skills, whether or not they were "relevant" to contemporary culture, theological orthodoxy, and personal life. I was eager to look over this list, primarily to see if perhaps I made it, but also out of curiosity to see who else might be included.

To my shock and dismay, I was NOT recognized as one of a dozen most effective preachers. But here's who made it: Dr. Alistair Begg, Dr. Tony Evans, Dr. Joel C. Gregory, Dr. Timothy Keller, Dr. Thomas G. Long, Dr. Otis Moss III, Dr. John Piper, the late Dr. Haddon Robinson, Andy Stanley, Dr. Charles Swindoll, Dr. Barbara Brown Taylor, Dr. Ralph Douglas West. 

Not only was I not included on the list, I was not even consulted as to who I thought should be on the list ... I've been doubly insulted and wounded. There are some on this list who I might possibly consider, but in reality I suspect the truly most effective preachers in the English-speaking world would be names none of us have ever heard.  I'm pretty sure that man who labors in the tiny church in rural South Dakota yet faithfully each week encourages his congregation in the gospel would be on my list. As would the pastor in the Florida retirement community who weekly gives Gospel comfort to grieving family members who've lost a loved one or friend. I'd likely include the military chaplain who preaches Christ to those service men and women in the Middle East who don't know if they'll live to see another day. I'd definitely include the college campus pastor who weekly proclaims the Gospel to students wrestling with intellectual, sexual, moral, and relational problems. That retired pastor who is willing to donate his time and energy to that little church who simply can't afford a paid preacher would make my list. I'd include that preacher who is faithfully proclaiming the historic and orthodox Gospel in a denomination that has slid far into theological liberalism. Surely the pastor who week in and week out expounds the covenant faithfulness, grace, and love of God to His people, despite the fact that his wife died of cancer 5 years ago and he's left raising 4 young children by himself would make my list. And that Gospel preaching pastor who stayed with his congregation for many years even though the neighborhood has gone through substantial ethnic, social, and economic change is on it. And that preacher who was parachuted into a pagan community, who constantly proclaims grace, yet hasn't seen a conversion in the past 4 years since he started is making my list. I could not leave out the preacher who went over and washed a church member's car so she would have a clean car to ride home in after a month-long stay in the hospital. 

There are many others who I would add to my list of "most effective" but likely none of them would be names any of us would know. They've not written or published books, their sermons are not available online, they won't be featured speakers at the next conference we attend, we wouldn't even recognize them if we sat beside them on a bus. But these are the ones I consider to be the most effective preachers. Sure, there's a part of me that would like to be known as a fine orator, exegete, theologian, and relevant ... and all that is very important and not to be ignored. But at the end of the day I think I'd rather be known as one who washes feet. 

Background Noise

Often times when we’re trying really hard to give our attention to something we get distracted by some sort of background noise. It could be people talking, dogs barking, machinery operating, TV or music, traffic sounds, etc. Maybe we just try to tune it out or put in ear plugs ... but background noise makes it hard to concentrate.

There’s another kind of background noise we have to deal with when we want to spend time in prayer. It may be anxiety about finances, fear of the unknown, obsession with an idol, pride of an accomplishment, curiosity about what others are thinking, the day’s agenda and to-do list, what you’re planning for supper, coveting what someone else has, or a host of other such things. Far too often when I try to spend time in prayer my mind gets sidetracked; something rattling around in my mind grabs my attention and my prayer time is derailed. I suspect I’m not alone in this experience. Most all of us struggle with this. 

The question is, “how should we deal with it?” Though I hope you continue reading, I also hope you don’t expect a perfect answer to that question. The wrong way to deal with it is to feel guilty, wallow in self-condemnation, and stop praying. We must press on!  Finding a quiet place surely helps … but every mom and dad with kids realizes that’s not gonna happen. Devoting a specific and regular time each day also would help … but most of us are already too busy to cram something else into the daily routine. Having someone to meet with and hold you accountable would also be good … but finding that person is much easier said than done. So we’re back to the question of how to deal with this background noise. 

I was very serious this past Sunday when I said I struggle in my prayer life and this background noise is largely to blame. I’ve not yet learned sufficiently to quiet my heart and be still before the Lord. However, I have found a few simple things that help me a bit in this area. First, keep an open Bible in front of me. Listening to God from the Scripture helps focus my mind on Him rather than the myriad of distractions. Secondly, following the advice of Job (Job 40:4), “I lay my hand on my mouth” and don't even try to say or express anything to God for few moments. It’s beneficial to just pause and reflect on who God is for a bit. Thirdly, I find that literally closing my eyes helps. Maybe the old adage has an element of truth even here – “out of sight, out of mind.” Fourthly, I just start sharing what’s on my heart. If my intent was to pray for an upcoming event but instead start thinking about a friend, I trust the Spirit was somehow involved and go with it. Sometimes I’ll even remember to pray for what I originally intended to pray for … sometimes I don’t … but again, I believe the Spirit is working in and through all this to accomplish His purposes. Yet still I often continue to hear the distracting background noise of worry, fear, agendas, anger, pride, greed, etc. 

Maybe the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that I need to expect the background noise and not feel guilty every time it distracts me. I pray (now, while the noise isn’t so loud) that you will find sufficient grace from our Father to allow you to build a healthy prayer life, despite the abundance of background noise with which we all struggle. Let's press forward together in this battle. Let me know how it goes for you!

Let's Do It Again

I hope you were able to participate in this past Sunday's joint worship service with First Missionary Baptist of Moody at the Moody Civic Center.  It was a beautiful time to see God's amazing grace on display as the Gospel brought together believers from different backgrounds and ethnicities into one body to offer praise and adoration to our Savior Jesus Christ. There were some glitches to be sure ... we started a little late and ran a little long, children's ministry space wasn't ideal, and the sound system was almost impossible to balance. But overall it was a wonderful time of worship and fellowship in the power of the Gospel. And I surely appreciated the message from Pastor Curtis, reminding us that the promise of "I can do all things through Christ" refers primarily to the weak and to those in suffering and despair. Indeed, it is the power of Christ that allows brothers and sisters of different ethnicities to worship together in unity.

The overwhelming majority of comments I've heard following this service would clearly fall under the category of "let's do it again." Not that anyone is looking to merge the two churches into one, but there seems to be a clear mandate that we continue the practice of worshiping and fellowshipping together on occasion. 

My oldest son, Dane, who knows more about and has been more involved in racial reconciliation than I'll ever be, gave me some great advice to share with others when they say "let's do it again." Dane suggested my response should go like this: "Yes, let's do it more often. Actually, let's do it every day." I know Dane's heart and what he was trying to tell me ... that unity in the Gospel between believers of different backgrounds and ethnicities isn't something we should just practice and enjoy occasionally, but rather it should be a lifestyle; that we shouldn't just wait for the church to officially schedule and program such Gospel unity, but rather pursue it ourselves on a daily basis. 

Dane's words to me were both encouraging and convicting. He called me because he was genuinely interested in knowing how the service went and was truly excited to hear that everyone seemed to enjoy it. He rejoiced with me in knowing that God's grace was poured out in abundance. But even without him necessarily intending it, his words penetrated my prideful heart and exposed my own sin and hypocrisy. Here's how ... so many people have thanked me for planning and carrying out this service and I've allowed it to go to my head. I started to feel pretty good about myself,  about this wonderful deed I had done, and what a model I must be to so many other pastors who only talk about doing such things. But my son's words made me realize that it's not fundamentally the "big events" that ultimately matter, but rather the daily grind of obedience, of loving my neighbor as Christ has loved me, of intentionally looking to the Gospel to overcome relational barriers ... not just across racial lines, but in any relationship. To be honest, I've not been a good model of daily obedience in this area. I need to repent of my failure and self-righteousness. 

So for all who have thought, "let's do it again," I assure you that we will again have a joint service with First Missionary Baptist of Moody. But we must also take Dane's advice and "let's do it every day" in our workplace, neighborhood, school, marketplace, ball field, etc. The glory of Christ, the unity of the church, and the power of the Gospel is too big and beautiful to ignore. 

It's the Little Sins

It happens literally every time I eat solid food. There’s this place between two teeth on the upper back left side of my mouth where food inevitably gets stuck. It’s a relatively small space but it’s just big enough to allow tiny pieces of food to lodge there. And, as I said, food WILL get in there every time I eat. Surely you can relate to this. Most all of us have some place like that in our mouth. And, if you’re like me, it’s really irritating. Though it never helps, I try and try to work my tongue around there to hopefully dislodge some of the food. On occasion I’ll push my finger up there, somehow under the impression that this time my finger will fit in this small space between those teeth. Unfortunately, these efforts are fruitless, and I just get used to the food stuck in there and go about my day. After a while, I become rather numb to the discomfort and don’t even think about it until the evening when I’m at home and brushing my teeth.

Unless, of course, I happen to have some dental floss which comes as a gift from God Himself. What a relief it is to pull off a strand of that magical cord, work it between the teeth involved in the situation, and once again enjoy life as it was meant to be. Sweet freedom!

As I was going through this very ritual this morning I had been reading and praying about my sin. It struck me that my real problem isn’t the “big sins” that we label as wicked and destructive, but rather the little sins, those that can and will inevitably get stuck in the hidden places of my heart. These are the ones, that if undetected and not dealt with, will slowly but surely bring decay and rot to my heart. And in a parallel fashion, I repeatedly and fruitlessly attempt to dislodge these little sins by my own doing. But nothing I do seems to help until I realize that it takes something external to resolve the problem. This external something is the Cross, the atoning blood of Jesus Christ. And just as surely as that sin gets stuck in my heart, the cleansing blood of Christ brings sweet relief and freedom and forgiveness and life!

My problem, and likely yours too, is that I often forget to apply the work of Christ to these little sins. I know He died for the big ones, but I seldom really struggle with those. In fact, I’ve become somewhat numb and accustomed to those little sins lodged in the crevices of my heart and I just go about my day in ignorance. You know the sins I’m talking about … anxiety, frustration, discontentment, thanklessness, pride, selfishness, lack of self-control, impatience, anger, judgmentalism, lust, gossip, jealousy, worldliness, etc. These sins almost have an air of respectability in the church, especially compared with such wicked behaviors as adultery, murder, stealing, etc.

Today will you join me in taking the “floss” of the person and work of Jesus Christ and working this grace deep down into even the hidden places in your heart? Let’s stop pretending we’re good because we seldom struggle with those big sins … let’s acknowledge it’s the little sins that are bringing decay and rot to our hearts, marriages, families, friendships, and lives.

Unappreciated Treasure

This weekend is a huge weekend for the Birmingham area … it’s  time for the Honda Indy Car Grand Prix of Alabama out at Barber Motorsports Park right next to Leeds & Moody. This is a world class event at a world class facility and it’s right in our back yard. Maybe you’re not an Indy Car fan, maybe not any sort of race fan at all, but simply visiting the Barber Motorsports Park and Vintage Motorcycle Museum is an incredible experience. The museum is identified as the world’s largest motorcycle museum and annually hosts thousands of visitors from around the world. The entire grounds of this park resemble a botanical garden and every area down to the grass parking lots is immaculately manicured. And then, of course, are the Indy Cars … each one costing around $3,000,000.  These open wheel race cars offer spectacular entertainment as they speed around the 2.3 mile, 16 turn course averaging 110-115 mph. Race fan or not, this event offers some intense competition as the drivers maneuver for position around the corners and speed down the straightaways.

In many ways this event and venue is grossly undervalued and under appreciated, especially by those of us who live so nearby. Every year I speak to folks visiting from other parts of the country who marvel at the beauty of the park, stating that it’s perhaps the most beautiful racetrack they’ve ever seen. When I tell them I live only a few miles away they say how fortunate I am.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is also grossly undervalued and under appreciated, especially by those of us who are so close to it. Many of us who have grown up in churches, who have multiple Bibles in our homes/car/workplaces, who have heard the Bible stories, who claim to be so familiar with it … we’re the ones who seem to be so nonchalant about the beauty and majesty of the Gospel. Have we gotten bored with it? Is the Gospel less than what we thought it would be? Does Jesus really not measure up to our standards? Is there something else we truly believe is more attractive? Are we just under the illusion that we’re already familiar enough with it?

Why does the Gospel not amaze us anymore? I tend to think it’s because deep down we’re very self-righteous people. We don’t want to be continually reminded of the hideous, filthy, rebellious, wicked nature of our sin and the Gospel exposes our sin in this way. We much prefer to think of ourselves as good people, deserving God’s love and favor. Grace implies we can’t even remotely make ourselves acceptable to God and that He alone must do the work of making us holy and righteous.  And He absolutely and completely does this for us in the person and work of Jesus Christ ... His life, death, and resurrection.

So this weekend go out to Barber Motorsports Park and enjoy a world class event at a world class facility. But even more importantly, there’s a world class event of eternal and infinite significance taking place at Community Presbyterian Church each and every Sunday. Be amazed and captivated by the grace of our God expressed to us in Jesus Christ. In fact, marvel at the Gospel even today!

Change in Diet

A couple of weeks ago I started on a Keto diet … that’s where you eat a lot of good fats and proteins and minimal carbohydrates. I know a handful of other folks at Community who’ve successfully done this, so I figured I’d give it a try. The concept of the diet is to train your body to burn fat rather than sugar/glucose. So far, I’ve lost about 10 pounds and I’m pretty excited about that. But I also have good energy, no more acid reflux type stuff, and just overall feel pretty good. I feel full most of the time and don’t need to snack so much. In fact, I have to make sure I’m eating enough to get enough calories.

There was period of adjustment where my body was saying, “No, this is crazy, eat those chips and candy and bread and potatoes and pizza and desserts, etc.” A few days into it I was feeling out of sorts, weak, lethargic, and irritable. My body was in the process of change … no longer finding any sugar as a source of energy and having to shift over to burning some fat (which I’ve been storing up for quite some time!) Our bodies can change … but it requires a good bit of effort, commitment, willingness to hurt a bit, perseverance, and desire.

We can also change spiritually … it too requires a good bit of effort, commitment, willingness to hurt a bit, perseverance, and desire. We also experience some discomfort during the process. Romans 12:2 talks about our need to change and transformed “by the renewal of your mind.” We need to stop feeding our mind certain things and put it on a different diet, training it to think on the Gospel. So how frequently do you partake of the means of grace – God’s Word, prayer, sacrament? And what’s your portion size? Are you getting enough calories?

Real change / transformation does take place when we fix our eyes on Jesus. Paul says it this way in 2 Cor 3:18 – "And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image form one degree of glory to another.” Note, we ARE being transformed to be made more like Jesus when we gaze upon Him and His glory, best displayed at the cross.

Let’s be a church family who not only wants to transform our physical bodies into something healthier, let’s give the same (or more) attention to our spiritual condition and proclaim the Gospel to ourselves, and one another, each and every day.

Gospel Aroma

As I’ve been doing more evangelistic work over the past several months I’ve had the opportunity spend a good bit of time in various places around town. And as you can imagine, each location has its own unique aroma that attaches itself to my clothing. Nearly every time I come home from one of these places, Anita can identify where I’ve been simply by the smell. Guadalajara, Charlie’s BBQ, Moody Blue, Moody Auto, etc. each leave a distinct odor on anyone who visits. You likely know what I’m talking about and have experienced this same thing on many occasion. Not that we shouldn’t visit these places, but we just need to be aware that odor transfers itself to whomever it comes in contact with.

2 Corinthians 2:15 - For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing

So here’s the question we must wrestle with today. When we meet with other people what aroma do they take away from that encounter? Could it often be the aroma of condemnation … worry … guilt … fear … hatred … self-centeredness … anger … greed … lust … shame? Or perhaps might they somehow catch a whiff of the “aroma of Christ”?

If we’re demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control) people will catch the scent of Jesus that has rubbed off on us. A lifestyle of grace, love, awe, forgiveness, sacrifice, mercy, worship, kindness, hospitality, reverence, humility, etc. will indicate that we’ve been spending some time with Jesus.

Unfortunately, we’ve tried to bottle that aroma in an artificial spray form that we can just apply when it’s convenient, when we remember, or when it helps accomplish our own agendas. We can manufacture our fake smiles, recite some spiritual-sounding words, get our Jesus swag going, etc. But this fake, knock-off brand of fragrance actually smells cheap, not to mention that it is offensive to God, the maker of the real thing.

You know when we’re going to catch the aroma of Christ and become the aroma of Christ? Most often it’s NOT going to be in the hyped-up, mountain-top experiences of the Christian life (though those are indeed nice!) but rather when we’re pushed up right next to Jesus in the valleys of life; when we’re crouched low in the bunker to avoid the attacks of the enemy and find Jesus right there with us; when we experience pain and suffering and have nothing to cling to except Jesus; when we dig into the Scripture (the word of God) with our own hands rather than just nodding in agreement with what everyone else says about Jesus. But oh, what a beautiful fragrance that is! And how refreshing that aroma is to others, including “those who are perishing.”

Again, what do others smell when they encounter us? Let’s make sure it’s Jesus.

O Cancer, Where is Thy Sting?

I trust the heading isn’t misleading … I hate cancer. I hate the disease, what it does to so many people and families, even the word itself. It’s the word you never want to hear from the lips of your doctor. Yet unfortunately cancer is something that nearly every single one of us has had to deal with in some manner – either we’ve had it ourselves or a loved one or close friend has wrestled with it, some of whom have even died from it. Some of CPC’s best and most beloved members have been or are battling with cancer. I heard just yesterday that a 5-year-old boy in our community has been diagnosed with cancer. My two sisters have had to deal with it. My mom died of it. Again, all of us can likely identify someone close to us who is fighting it. So, I most definitely don’t take cancer lightly … it’s ugly, painful, devastating, and deadly. Even the treatment for it is typically horrific and traumatic. `

Many of you recognize that I stole the heading for this article from 1 Corinthians 15:55. Paul is writing about what happens to believers after death. He says that in the twinkling of an eye and as the last trumpet sounds, the dead will be raised, and our mortal bodies will put on immortality; we shall be changed when Jesus returns and we, with new and glorified bodies, will live victoriously with Him for eternity. This is why he could say, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” It’s important to note that the greater context of this teaching is is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because He has been raised from and has conquered death, all who trust in Him and are in union with Him, also are and will be raised with Him. Thus, death is ultimately defeated and its sting is removed.

It’s no accident that cancer and Easter go together in my mind. My mom died of cancer on Easter Sunday 1984. The actual date was April 22, but more importantly it was the day we most identify with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Her battle with cancer lasted 7 years, long enough to see me graduate from college and get married but not long enough to see any of my children. She spent her final days in a room at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital while we as a family gathered around her, taking turns sitting with her while everyone else would go eat or just take a break. I believe it was the Friday night prior to her death when it was my turn to stay with her. She wasn’t really responsive at all and probably not in pain due to medication. We knew she wasn’t going to get better and, as many of you have experienced, just felt so helpless. Mom was a believer and was prepared to die and probably needed to just pass on. But as I stood by her bed praying that night, just me and her and God in the room, I prayed a rather selfish prayer … I asked the Lord to keep her alive until Sunday, which was Easter. This was just for my benefit so that I would always be able to associate my mom’s death with her and my Savior’s victory over death, securing for us and all who believe in Him eternal life. So that Easter morning 1984 when my dad, Anita, and I got to the room and heard she died only minutes before, though I was horribly hurt and my hatred of cancer only intensified, inwardly I was smiling and thanking God for answering my prayer in such a gracious way. My mom was actually more alive at that moment than she’d ever been … enjoying the presence of her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

I love Easter … for the confidence it gives us of eternal life, for the victory it secures for us over the grave, for the mockery it makes of our cancer and other such diseases. “So cancer, where is your sting? Looks like you’ve been defeated.”  Jesus gets the last word regarding life and death, and for those who trust in Him that word is “life.”  This is why Paul could also say in 1 Cor 15, “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Repenting of My Goodness

Recently I did something really, really nice for someone in town. I wanted this amazing act of kindness to be anonymous so I made sure I did it at a time when they wouldn't notice. I was super careful not to draw attention to myself when I was doing it because my desire was simply to serve this person and give some unsolicited help. And it was something that really needed to be done ... something that was truly beneficial to them. This was obviously going to bring some relief and peace to a weary soul.  I couldn't wait to see this person overcome with gratitude, appreciation, and joy.

Want to guess what happened? I honestly don't think the person even noticed that anything had been done. There was no surprise, no gratitude, no sense of joy, no recognition of a "good Samaritan" who offered this service. Life just carried on as before, no relief or peace seemed to be experienced, and the weariness continued.

I was crushed ... I inwardly wrestled with how I felt about this. There were at least two things that bothered me. First was the thought that maybe my good deeds were fruitless, that I couldn't fix this person's problems, that perhaps doing such acts of service and kindness are ultimately a royal waste of time.

But there was actually something much deeper that troubled me. It was the truth that I didn't get any recognition or satisfaction from doing this thing. Even though I said I wanted to do it anonymously, the truth is that I wanted to be able to know and feel some appreciation and gratitude for what a good person I am.  Sure, I said my desire was for this other person to feel some peace and joy and move beyond the weariness of life, but deep down I was the one who wanted those feelings. Though I said I was doing this most wonderful deed for someone else, honestly I was merely doing it all for myself ... for self-gratification, for self-promotion, for self-happiness, and for self-righteousness. Maybe the other person benefited from my action but that didn't satisfy me at all. How did I benefit? where was my joy?

This battle raged on in my heart for far too long before I concluded that good deeds are good deeds. A person's response to what I do isn't the thing that gives value to my actions ... rather I must simply consider whether or not I'm doing what's in line with the Gospel and most definitely sacrificial acts of service meet this standard. So I had to be content to do the good deed and leave the person's response in the hand of God.

Repentance is something we all have to do constantly, daily, throughout the day. And while we know we must repent of the wicked, sinful, evil actions and thoughts in our lives we also must often repent of those good things we do. If your motives are like mine we have a lot of repenting to do!

The Ideal of My Ideal

Over a decade ago Community Church was in need of a music leader for our church. Ideally we were hoping to find someone who could do music and youth. Steve Morgan, on staff here at the time, and I went to meet with a B'ham area PCA worship leader who we liked and trusted (Brian T. Murphy at Red Mountain) to ask if he knew of any potential candidates for us to consider. After hearing what we were looking for, he mentioned someone who had sung for him on the "Depth of Mercy" album. I remembered and could hear in my mind the song he mentioned (Wedding Dress) and knew right then this was a guy we had to get ... sight unseen. That voice was ideal for anything I could hope for and dream of for CPC.  Then Brian gave us even more exciting news ... he said this guy's wife's voice would make us "want to take your shirt off and dance."  How could we go wrong with that advice?!?!

Stokes and Connie are still here, now 12 years later, despite having taken a fairly recent brief sabbatical. I still consider Stokes' voice and style my ideal and I still want to dance when I hear Connie sing (but I promise I'll keep my shirt on).

So I found it interesting yesterday when Stokes asked me to watch a video of a worship song that he considers his "ideal" of what he'd like to be able to do some day. So how do you process and evaluate the ideal of what you consider to be the ideal? The music video that Stokes asked me to watch was exceptionally good; the music was great, the voices were powerful, etc. ... but nothing better than what he is capable of doing or has even previously done. I truly do admire Stokes' humility and non-stop willingness to point to others greater than himself, but there are times when I wish he would recognize and better utilize the freakish talent God has given him. (or maybe not ... some large church may come along and snatch him up by offering some insane salary!)

Do you ever wonder who God considers as His "ideal"? It's really not a difficult answer - Himself. He considers Himself to be the most ideal, perfect, glorious, magnificent, fantastic, awesome, etc. Yes, it does sound a bit egotistical, but who or what else is higher than God? To whom or what else could He give His glory? Think about it ... if God gave glory to someone / something else then it would mean there was something higher and greater than God. It would mean He is being a jerk in requiring us to settle for something lesser and inferior (Him) while He enjoys something greater and superior (whatever it is He worships). But the truth is rather simple - God deserves all the glory, honor, worship, and praise for there is nothing or nobody that is more marvelous than Him. And to be honest, that's what I really appreciate about Stokes and his ministry here at CPC ... he helps me embrace the supreme ideal of God's holiness and glory.