Why Pay Attention to the Children?

I was seven years old when my first nephew, Barry, was born. Perhaps I was a bit giddy about my new status in life. After all, at such a young age I was Uncle Don.

As other children came along to enlarge my parents’ family – nephews, nieces, my own children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren – God put a love for them into my heart, a love that has never left me.

Our most recent addition is Baby Isabel, eight months old, the daughter of Zach and Lisa. Our love for her is nourished by means of pictures sent electronically to update us on her development through her first year of life. We will see her at Christmas.

And we have the promise that, come spring, by the mercy of God new love will come yet again, this time for the child of Ben and Charis.

My love never made me an expert in bathing or changing diapers or otherwise caring for the little ones’ intricate and earthy needs. In that category my best grade would be “awkward.”

But I loved to talk to them and rock them, and to get down on the floor with them and “communicate” with special sounds. Insofar as possible, I have followed closely the development of each of my children and grandchildren right into their adulthood.

This love for children seems to have been part of my calling in life. Back when I myself was approaching young manhood and my mother could see I was preparing seriously for the Christian ministry she offered me one word of advice.

In less than one minute she said, and never repeated it a second time: “Don, when you are a pastor do be sure to pay attention to the children.”

Even now her words remind me of Our Lord’s parting assignment to Simon Peter after the resurrection; Simon’s first task was to feed my lambs (John 21:15b).

Earlier, when his disciples thought Jesus too busy to pay attention to children, he rebuked them. He saw in the little ones what the disciples at the moment did not see: eternal worth and the need for love given wisely.

He said to his disciples, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14). He then took time to gather the little ones in his arms and bless them.

Not long ago I had a conversation with a public school teacher with advanced training in early childhood development. She was recognized in the public system for her skill as a teacher and had exercised her gift with children in the church as well.

Speaking in the context of the church we noted the need of children to be recognized among the congregation – to be greeted and assured of a place – and their need to be protected. In today’s church, especially, well-planned systems of oversight must be put in place and followed.

But the comment that registered most deeply was that people who work in children’s ministries should be aware of the capacity of children under five years of age to learn.

Two-year-olds, she said, can be taught to sing a simple chorus. And three- and four-year-olds can take in well-told Bible stories. They can memorize short pieces of Scripture too.

Sunday school for the little ones can be much more than a nursery or a place for them to be entertained. To teach them Christian things at that age sets a good base for spiritual development later on and lays the groundwork for their personal response to the Gospel.

It is nearly 90 years since I was taken to my first Sunday school class. The few of us little ones were gathered around a dark oak sand table in the corner near the pulpit of the little church. The mirror facing upward in the sand became the Sea of Galilee. The teacher’s name was Elva Tisdale. She was loving and feeding Christ’s lambs.

Photo credit: Roger Davies (via flickr.com)

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Re-post: What Really Grows the Church?

Photo credit: AdamSelwood (via flickr.com)I have believed for many years that the local church grows — when its growth is genuine — from the pulpit outward.

That does not mean that all a church needs is good preaching and the rest will take care of itself. A local church is a complex body and there are a score of other tasks that must be done to meet a basic standard for the church to increase both in spiritual depth and number.

Nor does it mean that the whole burden for the growth of a church is upon the pastors. The growing church must also have lay workers who share the spiritual burden for pastoral ministry and outreach with the pastor.

It does not even mean that preaching must be brilliant for the church to grow. As G. Campbell Morgan so clearly summarized, real preaching must meet only three basic criteria: it must be true, clear and anointed.

What it does mean is that the primary spiritual nourishment and guidance of the congregation flows from the pulpit to the people, their Bible study classes, family prayer times and evangelistic outreach. If the pulpit lacks authenticity in content, clarity or spiritual genuineness, even an increase in numbers of people will not equal genuine congregational growth.

We have all seen hummingbirds hover in air, wings blurring, while they sip from feeders filled with a red liquid — sugar and water with food coloring to attract them.   I’m told that if the mixture is instead made up of saccharin and water they will continue to come and feed with equal thirst but gradually will become weak and unable to fly. The taste of saccharin is sweet enough to fool them, but it lacks the calories to nourish.

In a similar way, what is delivered from the pulpit must not only appeal to the ear of listeners; it must nourish believers and challenge the unawakened. That is, it must speak the word of God to the deep need for soul-food that God puts in his people.

What can move pastors everywhere to come before their people with a well- formed word from the Lord? I know of nothing but obedience to the commands of the Scriptures, and the best place to seek such prompting is in the Pastoral Epistles — 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. These were first-century pastors who were assigned to oversee young congregations. And what did the Apostle Paul write to them?

“Command and teach these things” (1 Tim. 4:11). “…the overseer must be…able to teach (3:2)” “Until I come, devote yourself…to preaching and teaching. Do not neglect your gift” (4:13,14). “Watch your life and doctrine closely” (4:16).

Also in Paul’s second letter to Timothy he writes, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2). And, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2:15). We take such exhortations as Spirit-inspired for us today.

We may fail on occasion to meet the scriptural standards of the pulpit, but God is merciful. If our commitments are clear he will forgive and keep our hearts warm to our calling. And he will help us keep the pastoral passion alive, enabling messages that are true, genuine, and delivered in the energy of the Spirit.

So, as a pastor long retired I encourage an oncoming generation of pastors to manage the stresses, pressures, and diverse responsibilities that are part of the pastoral task, and in it all and above all else, keep the passion of the pulpit alive.

Photo credit: Adam Selwood (via flickr.com)

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What a Grateful Student Wrote to a Caring Teacher

A retired schoolteacher received an unexpected Facebook message recently, I have the teacher’s permission to print the note here.

Good afternoon, Mrs._________.

This may seem a little strange (and I apologize for the slight randomness of this message over Facebook – I couldn’t seem to find an email of yours anywhere) but I was one of your grade 1 students back at ______________Public School in 2001.

I was a student who struggled with English, and through your support and guidance, was able to not simply grasp the language, but eventually fall in love with literature and poetry. You were the first (and arguably the only) teacher who has made such an impact on my life, and lit the desire to pursue my aspirations, and take on obstacles in my life.

You took me under your wing and showed me what I could do when I put my mind to something. And although that seems a little silly, for a first grader who really struggled with fitting in, it was profoundly significant. Today I finished my first semester as an undergraduate student at McMaster’s Health Sciences program (Canada’s top premedical program), and in a year and a half, I plan to embark into medical school.

I have reflected a lot about the people that have helped to guide me to where I am today, and aside from the support of my parents, you were the teacher who stood out. Although you were my first grade teacher, I can’t explain how much of a positive impact you’ve made on my life. You were part of the reason why I firmly developed a passion for pursuing education, and I wanted to thank you for that once-in-a-lifetime gift.

My parents and I still remember your endearing presence in the classroom and we frequently recall your kind and caring, almost motherly, kindness towards me. I called the school board to see if I could find you in a classroom, but was delighted to hear about your retirement, and I wish you all the best in this chapter of your life.

With the holiday season upon us, I wish you and your family the very best of health, happiness and memories.

Your student _________________

Although, contrary to what some might say today, life works best when we understand and affirm that we are all the products of our own decisions. Even so, our good decisions are often prompted or restrained by the thoughtful influence of a mentor during moments of crisis or opportunity.

In response to this grateful student’s note, I have resolved to reflect today on the people in my life who played the role of “angels unawares”, speaking words of encouragement or correction to me that in important ways moved me to change my course. Because of my age, many of them – but not all – have gone before.

I will thank someone with a note before sunset, and for those I can’t reach and even for those I can, I will thank God profoundly. What John Donne said centuries ago is true: “No man is an island.”

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Photo credit: Ilmicrofono Oggiono (via flickr.com)

What Book Should Come Next to the Bible?

Classic catechismHere’s a vote for the catechism!

A catechism is a summary of the doctrines of the Christian faith. It is usually set down in questions and answers, presented as simply as possible. The questions and answers are meant for memorization and cover the major doctrines of the church.

Throughout history catechisms have been used to instruct children of believers and in new fields new converts as well.

Catechisms have always been a part of the Christian Church from its earliest days. The Reformation produced Luther’s Catechism, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Larger Westminster Catechism, and on and on. I call catechisms embryonic theology.

Here are two examples of catechetical questions:

Question: “What is the first truth found in the Bible?”
Answer: “That there is a God.” (Genesis 1:1)

Here’s another: “If God is everywhere, why don’t we see Him?”
Answer: “Because God is pure Spirit and cannot be seen with bodily eyes.” (Exodus 33:20; John 4:24)

The Reverend Russell Veldman, pastor of the Free Methodist Church in Lawrenceville, Illinois, had an unusual reason for setting about to produce a catechism. Back in 2004 when he and his wife, Jennifer, were awaiting the birth of their daughter, Kiran, he was looking ahead to be sure there would be such a booklet to use for basic instruction in Christian doctrine when she was old enough.

Reverend Veldman had been raised in a congregation of the Reformed Church of America and had been “catechized” as a young boy. Though he is now a Wesleyan in theology, the importance of this catechizing had left a permanent impression on him.

The catechism he began developing was intended only for family use. But he found starting with a blank page made for a heavy task. Investigating, he discovered an original Free Methodist Catechism had been prepared for the young denomination by the four bishops serving the church in 1902.

He also found that this catechism had been republished in 1952, and for the next nearly half century had been a part of the curriculum for children and young people.

Working from the 1952 Free Methodist catechism as a base he updated certain words and replaced King James language with New International Version language. He also included a few further questions that seemed to him necessary.

When he tested his family project on adult Sunday School classes the interest this generated surprised him. Eventually the project was approved for use by the Free Methodist Church-USA, and published as the Classic Catechism.

Based on experiences in his own church he recommends that it be used for special Sunday School classes that encompass ages from early youth into adulthood. Or, taking three questions at a time, it can be used in Sunday evening services. Once the learners experience its value, he reports, they receive it with enthusiasm.

This valuable resource has not yet been fully discovered by North American pastors but churches in Asia are receiving it with enthusiasm. Bishop Narendra John from India came upon a copy and said, “This is what we need”.

Bishop John noted that in some places in India the only book a pastor has is the Bible, and he reported that he has been able to translate and publish 2000 copies of this catechism for a mere $700.

The Classic Catechism now exists in six languages in the Free Methodist denomination in Asia and more are being added.

How important is all this to an evangelical body of the 21st century?

Considering the special place catechisms have filled in a wide range of Christian communions across history, and the effectiveness with which they give understanding to the fundamentals of the Christian faith, the claim may well be true that the catechism is the second most important book to the church after the Sacred Scriptures.

Re-post: What Really Makes the Church Grow?

Photo credit: AdamSelwood (via flickr.com)I have believed for many years that the local church grows — when its growth is genuine — from the pulpit outward.

That does not mean that all a church needs is good preaching and the rest will care for itself. A local church is a complex body and there are many other standards that must be met for the church to increase both in spiritual depth and numerical strength.

Nor does it mean that the whole burden for the growth of a church is upon the pastors and if their performance in the pulpit is exceptional the church will thrive in every other respect. The growing church must also have a core of lay workers who bear the spiritual burden for growth and outreach along with the pastor.

It does not even mean that brilliant preaching is necessary for the church to grow. As G. Campbell Morgan so clearly summarized, real preaching must only meet three basic criteria: it must be true, clear and anointed.

What it does mean is that the center for spiritual nourishment for the congregation is the pulpit, and if the pulpit lacks authenticity either in content, clarity or unction, even an increase in numbers of people will not equal genuine congregational growth.

We have all seen hummingbirds hover in air, wings ablur, while they sip from feeders filled with a red liquid — sugar and water. I’m told that if the mixture is made up of saccharin and water they will continue to come and feed with equal thirst, but gradually they will become weak and unable to fly. The taste of saccharin is sweet enough to fool them, but it lacks the calories they need.

In a similar way, what is delivered from the pulpit must not only appeal to the ear of the listener; it must nourish the spirit. That is, it must speak the word of God to the deep hunger for soul-food that God puts in his people.

What can move pastors everywhere to come before their people with a well formed word from the Lord? I know of nothing but the commands of the Scriptures, and the best place to seek that prompting is in the Pastoral Epistles — 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. These were first century pastors who were assigned to oversee young established congregations. And what did the Apostle Paul say to them in writing?

“…the overseer must be…able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2)” “Command and teach these things” (4:11). “Until I come, devote yourself…to preaching and teaching. Do not neglect your gift” (4:13,14). “Watch your life and doctrine closely” (4:16).

Also in Paul’s second letter to Timothy he writes, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2). And, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2:15). We take such exhortations as Spirit-inspired also for us today.

I cannot write this way without remembering that on many occasions I have fallen far short of doing what I believe is so needed. But God is merciful. He forgives and keeps the passion alive. So, “forgetting what is behind,” I call any pastor who reads this to join me in seeking renewal in Spirit — anointed preaching to the pressing needs and hungers of today — for the edification of the Lord’s people and the genuine growth of Christ’s church everywhere.


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Photo credit: AdamSelwood (via flickr.com)

What Really Makes the Church Grow?

Photo credit: AdamSelwood (via flickr.com)I have believed for many years that the local church grows — when its growth is genuine — from the pulpit outward.

That does not mean that all a church needs is good preaching and the rest will care for itself. A local church is a complex body and there are many other standards that must be met for the church to increase both in spiritual depth and numerical strength.

Nor does it mean that the whole burden for the growth of a church is upon the pastors and if their performance in the pulpit is exceptional the church will thrive in every other respect. The growing church must also have a core of lay workers who bear the spiritual burden for growth and outreach along with the pastor.

It does not even mean that brilliant preaching is necessary for the church to grow. As G. Campbell Morgan so clearly summarized, real preaching must only meet three basic criteria: it must be true, clear and anointed.

What it does mean is that the center for spiritual nourishment for the congregation is the pulpit, and if the pulpit lacks authenticity either in content, clarity or unction, even an increase in numbers of people will not equal genuine congregational growth.

We have all seen hummingbirds hover in air, wings ablur, while they sip from feeders filled with a red liquid — sugar and water. I’m told that if the mixture is made up of saccharin and water they will continue to come and feed with equal thirst, but gradually they will become weak and unable to fly. The taste of saccharin is sweet enough to fool them, but it lacks the calories they need.

In a similar way, what is delivered from the pulpit must not only appeal to the ear of the listener; it must nourish the spirit. That is, it must speak the word of God to the deep hunger for soul-food that God puts in his people.

What can move pastors everywhere to come before their people with a well formed word from the Lord? I know of nothing but the commands of the Scriptures, and the best place to seek that prompting is in the Pastoral Epistles — 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. These were first century pastors who were assigned to oversee young established congregations. And what did the Apostle Paul say to them in writing?

“…the overseer must be…able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2)” “Command and teach these things” (4:11). “Until I come, devote yourself…to preaching and teaching. Do not neglect your gift” (4:13,14). “Watch your life and doctrine closely” (4:16).

Also in Paul’s second letter to Timothy he writes, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2). And, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2:15). We take such exhortations as Spirit-inspired also for us today.

I cannot write this way without remembering that on many occasions I have fallen far short of doing what I believe is so needed. But God is merciful. He forgives and keeps the passion alive. So, “forgetting what is behind,” I call any pastor who reads this to join me in seeking renewal in Spirit — anointed preaching to the pressing needs and hungers of today — for the edification of the Lord’s people and the genuine growth of Christ’s church everywhere.


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Further Thoughts About Truthfulness in the Pulpit

PlagiarismI have written previously about the importance of authenticity in the pulpit, and here are some further thoughts.

In a preaching class in seminary several decades ago, a classmate preached a trial sermon that had unusually good order and a fine treatment of the Greek text. Two weeks later his former college Greek professor came to campus and in chapel preached the identical sermon. There was a low buzz among his classmates.

What that seminarian did is called plagiarism. “To plagiarize,” according to Webster, is “to steal or purloin and pass off as one’s own (ideas, writings, etc., of another).” For sure, a pastor may preach another preacher’s sermon or use his illustrations if he gives credit to the source. But if he presents it in silence, as though it were his work, that’s regarded as below standard.

Not only churches take plagiarism seriously; universities do too. Here’s a doctoral student who hands in a final draft of her dissertation. Her faculty advisor discovers several portions of it are copied from another source but not credited. This is serious and the student may be denied the degree. The issue is truthfulness.

If something like this offence is committed in the pulpit during a Sunday morning worship service, should it be taken any less seriously?

It’s not that preachers must consider the sermons of others completely off limits. We read them, listen to them on CDs and DVDs, analyse them, discuss them, even imitate their style. We preachers learn from one another. But if we set forth someone else’s work as if it were our own, that puts our truthfulness under question.

So, in preaching truthfulness is a cardinal issue. But in addition, consider three other reasons why this sort of pretence has no place in the pulpit.

First, leaning so completely on the work of another for sermon content dampens the prophetic spirit. “Thus saith the Lord” should be evident in every sermon in the Protestant tradition. A real sermon is more than a lecture or an essay or even a religious talk. As Donald G. Miller once wrote, “Preaching is not a mere speech; it is an event.” It is an event in which the preacher delivers to the people a word from God received through diligent study and prayer.

This sermon may come forth like “the voice of one crying in the wilderness,” or it may be uttered with tears like the messages of the weeping prophet, Jeremiah, or it may be given as a passionately reasoned discourse such as the Apostle Paul gave in Jewish synagogues he visited.

Whatever the style, a sermon plagiarized from a book or the Internet or a CD can never have such a prophetic ring, and in our hearts we will know that to be true.

Second, plagiarizing in the pulpit very quickly dampens the passion to study the Scriptures in depth and to keep a growing edge on our understanding of the Bible. In the plagiarized sermon, someone else has already done the work and this becomes a convenient substitute for our exertion.

There’s a cost for such shortcuts in any creative work. The artist who decides to paint by numbers will dull her creative edge and her keen eye for blending colors. Or the cabinet maker who decides to make life easier by assembling do-it-yourself cabinets from Ikea will gradually blunt the fine mastery of lathe and plane.

Pastors who begin to trust pre-packaged material as their source can’t help but lose the impulses to pray and study required in getting a word from the Lord. They will quickly succumb to something equivalent to painting-by-numbers.

But the third reason is that some people in the congregations will detect what we are doing. Like the seminary class above there may be a buzz without any open challenge. Or worse still, there may be a conspiracy of silence between pulpit and pew, a sure sign that something is missing in the life of the congregation. In either case the pastor will lose the trust of the congregation – a serious loss!

In the free church tradition, we have never had towering cathedrals or colorful vestments or awesome liturgies to rely on. But in our best hours we have believed our calling is to offer our people fresh, impassioned, Bible-wrought preaching. Is not the morally soft era we are now living through an excellent time to renew the preaching commitments of Protestantism’s better days?


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