Jeff Iorg Blog


Pulpit Power

Jan 21 2014


The Martin Luther King Day celebrations reminded me of a trip a few years ago that included a few minutes at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. The most surprising aspect of my visit was how small the church was. It could easily fit inside our chapel at Golden Gate, which is not very big compared to many other schools.

Yet, from a relatively small church facility, a pastor used the power and influence of his pulpit to guide the Montgomery bus boycott and fuel the civil rights movement that changed our nation. The size of the church was eclipsed by two things – the power of the preached Word of God and the capabilities of the man doing the preaching.

Many churches, and sadly many pastors, have lost the sense of awe the pulpit once inspired. The pulpit, as a symbol of preaching, has been removed from many churches. A seemingly good motive for this was to remove communication barriers with the congregation. While I understand the desire to change the mood toward a more dialogical approach, the lost sense of authority implied by jettisoning the furniture may have been more of a loss than intended.

The African-American church still embraces the power of the pulpit – not just preaching, but the actual “sacred desk.” In many of these churches, only the pastor or his invited guest may speak from the pulpit. All other speakers use a smaller lectern. The symbolism of this is clear – what emanates from the pulpit is sacred, powerful, and unique.

Perhaps one reason our nation, including many churches, have lost touch with living under the authority of God’s Word is connected to this change related to preaching. Moving the furniture back onstage may not be the ultimate goal – but it might be a symbolic step in the right direction.

 

Extend the Call

Aug 26 2013

Because of one of my books, Is God Calling Me?, I get asked to speak at college events on the subject of “God’s call.” A few years ago, when speaking to about 600 students, I asked, “How many of you have ever heard a sermon in your church on God’s call to ministry leadership?” Only a few hands were raised. Then I asked, “How many of you have heard a pastor or speaker extend a public invitation to answer God’s call to ministry leadership?” Even fewer hands were raised. 

I am often asked, “How’s the seminary doing?” My response is, “In many ways, just about like the churches.” We are a reflection of the churches that support us. When churches don’t teach about God’s call and challenge young people to respond to it, we will naturally have fewer and fewer students pursuing God’s call at the seminary. 

A young church leader called me recently and said, “We had the best thing happen at camp. The pastor asked for a show of hands – among 125 campers – of those who thought God might be calling them to be missionaries, pastors, or other church leaders. Amazingly, 25 hands were raised.” She then told me, “We had been teaching on missions and ministry all week, but it didn’t occur to us to ask the pastor to include answering God’s call as part of the worship services. When he did, it seemed so natural. I was embarrassed we hadn’t planned to do it and glad he did it. Now we have a whole group of kids to shepherd forward toward potential leadership.” 

Learn from this example. Older children and teenagers are interested in kingdom service. Many of them will commit to a life of ministry leadership – if they are challenged to consider it and supported in their decision. Golden Gate is the end of the training funnel for future leaders. The beginning point is children’s and youth ministries in churches. Collegiate ministries are also vital to the process. 

Church leaders – be more intentional about teaching and preaching about God’s call. Fan the flame of initial interest and nurture embryonic commitment. Seminaries don’t produce leaders. We only shape those the church sends. We are depending on you to call out the called!

 

Preaching for Decision

Jul 08 2013

Southern Baptists have never had more money, more trained leaders, more materials and programs, more technology, more of a national presence, and more of an international reach. Yet, despite all this, we are becoming less and less effective at communicating the gospel and baptizing people – the first public step of discipleship. In 2012, we baptized fewer people than any year since 1948. Why?

The reasons are many and varied. Over this summer, I am blogging about some of the reasons – making no attempt to write a comprehensive treatise, just sharing some perspectives from my vantage point.

Preaching has changed profoundly in my lifetime. My training emphasized preaching for results. Preaching, as I learned to do it, was a declarative act – communicating Truth in a compelling way designed to stir hearers to action based on the message. It was usually followed with an invitation to respond – to do something or commit to do something based on the message.

When done badly, this approach degenerated into a boring lecture or an out-of-touch harangue – followed by a manipulative alter call. None of this was helpful. As a reaction to poor preaching, many pastors have moved toward self-help style speaking – communicating action points (sometimes supported by Bible verses) to help their hearers have a better life.

This approach was accelerated by the invention of PowerPoint, and as technology became simpler, augmented by video and other visual stimulants underscoring the message. As often happens, however, too much of a good thing has turned into a bad thing. Today, many churches no longer hear preaching. They hear a spiritual talk on improving life – doing better at work, making a difference in community, having a happier marriage, raising more well-rounded kids, or managing money more wisely. Rather than biblical exposition, they hear a hodgepodge of Bible verses randomly connected to a general theme. This often leads to a conclusion like “That’s the message for today, let’s pray,” and then the service is dismissed.

One reason more people are not being saved in worship services, making public professions of faith through baptism, or otherwise responding to God in public ways is no one is asking them to do it. Preachers avoid declaring Truth and are too timid to ask for response. Shame on us! We have substituted pithy talks for meaty exposition. We have become too lazy to master oratorical skills, depending on computer graphics to hold people’s attention. We have bought into the myth public response is passé, neglecting our biblical responsibility to “persuade men.” We have traded the birthright of preaching for a mess of pottage called “sharing.”

What can be done? Preach the Word of God – expositionally and systematically. Learn to make specific, practical applications so the Word becomes accessible to everyday hearers. Application doesn’t make preaching relevant (the Bible is already relevant), but it does make it accessible. Learn to do it well. Hone your delivery skills so you are worth hearing. Boring preaching, poorly done, is anathema. Stop it!

Evangelistic churches preach the gospel and ask people to respond to it – on the spot, in the moment. Let’s rediscover the power of preaching the Point and be less concerned about a great PowerPoint.

 

Gospel Urgency

Oct 15 2012

Many leaders today have abandoned preaching the gospel, anticipating the Holy Spirit will produce conviction of sin, calling people to repentance, and giving them the opportunity for public response (leading to baptism). Leaders who make this choice have bought into the myths that preaching must be needs driven, PowerPoint illustrated, and delivered in a casual, non-aggressive way. Further, a good sermon offers options rather than seeks to persuade. 

There is some truth to these statements (but when taken to extreme become devilish lies). Good preaching always connects with the needs of the hearers. Preaching should be seeker-accessible, meaning anyone can understand the vocabulary and follow the reasoning. Using visual support like video or projected slides can be helpful. A preacher’s tone should be approachable, even friendly. But the spiritual power to change a person’s eternal destiny is not connected to any of these stylistic choices. 

Many modern leaders have allowed these goals to supplant preaching the gospel. When gospel preaching, including calling for immediate commitment to Jesus is neglected by church leaders (no matter how positive the reasons might sound), the church is neutered of its core life-saving, eternally-significant message – the gospel. 

The problem also shows up in today’s evangelism strategies. The deceptive phrase “share the gospel, use words if necessary” undercuts both the biblical pattern and practical reality of how people understand the gospel. If you think your holy, loving life will convert others - without a verbal witness – think again! Not even Jesus could make that strategy work. He lived a perfect life, but still had to tell people what it meant to believe in and follow him. Many Christians, even leaders, are reluctant to tell another person about Jesus and ask them to become his follower. They adopt the gospel song, “They will know we are Christians by his love” as their evangelism strategy. It’s true, the Bible teaches unbelievers will know we are Christians by our love – but they will not know how to become a Christian by our love. They will not know how to become a Christian unless someone tells them the gospel. 

Leaders must resist these deceptive practices. We must overcome our cowardice and model courage about our message. We must resist substituting spiritually-soft preaching for the gospel. Our personal witnessing must be about Jesus – not some self-help or life improvement program. We must boldly challenge people to follow Jesus, asking them to make a genuine commitment to him. 

Call people to Jesus! Have the courage to share the gospel – both through preaching and personal evangelism. Be bold!

 

Serving the Chinese Community

Sep 17 2012

For years, our seminary has served the Chinese Christian community. We have many Chinese-American trustees, faculty, staff, and students. We have also hosted students from China and sent many graduates to work there in various capacities. Our multi-ethnic community has been enriched by these relationships.
 
This week, we are working even more closely with Chinese Baptists. I am preaching Tuesday-Thursday evenings at their national fellowship meeting in Los Angeles. This is a special opportunity to train and challenge pastors and other church leaders to greater ministerial effectiveness. It’s a privilege for which I’m grateful. 

Golden Gate is well-known for its work among various ethnic groups. We continue to expand our efforts, always looking for ways to train people toward greater effectiveness. We are committed to expanding our work in the Chinese community – finding new ways to train more kingdom leaders for them. Events like the one this week facilitate our partnership and move us toward that goal. My hope is we will become a primary provider for leadership training for more and more Chinese-heritage churches. 

We are also hosting Benjamin Chung, a Chinese Baptist pastor in the Bay Area, in our chapel service this Thursday. In a partnership, ministry flows both ways and we are looking forward to receiving his ministry. 

If you are in the Los Angeles area, join me and a host of Chinese friends at First Chinese Baptist Church, 7:00 p.m. on Tuesday and/or Wednesday (Thursday evening is a pastor’s appreciation dinner) for an enjoyable time of worship and the Word.

 

Defining Marriage

May 19 2008

The California Supreme court ruled last week, 4-3, declaring Proposition 22 (adopted by vote of the people) unconstitutional and opening the way for homosexual marriages to be legalized in California. 

Their decision is a disaster for the future of our state. If it leads to homosexual marriage being legalized and widely practiced, the negative societal ramifications will undermine the family – and ultimately societal structures that support healthy communities. Others have written in great detail about these implications and I will leave it to those columnists to make those points. 

Let me respond with a more personal perspective – and one I encourage you to emulate. While I have homosexual friends and family members, my positive relationships with them do not minimize my opposition on this issue. I am not homophobic, nor am I a gay-basher. I don’t make stupid jokes about “Adam and Steve” or otherwise demean homosexuals in public or private. I respect them as individuals, deplore their behavior, sense their pain (usually from broken or abusive relationships), and want them to find abundant life in Jesus. I could write the same thing about any person caught in the entangling tentacles of any immoral lifestyle – adultery, pornography, etc. 

But while I am committed to relating to individual homosexuals in a positive, respectful way – my opposition to the homosexual political agenda/lobby that seeks to redefine social structures to fit a decidedly minority view is settled. Over the next few weeks, the Secretary of State in California will determine if a ballot measure to define marriage in a traditional form will be added to the state constitution. If the measure is put on the ballot, it must be adopted. If not, another petition drive must be launched to get it on the ballot as soon as possible. 

Over the next few months, the rhetoric in California will intensify on both sides. It is imperative that those of us who support a traditional definition of marriage speak up. It is also imperative we do so in a way that represents Jesus Christ. Our ultimate goal is not to convert homosexuals to heterosexuality. It is to convert to them to Jesus and, in that new relationship, they will find the grace, love, and power to change deeply ingrained lifestyle habits. 

We must also resist the temptation to curse the darkness, the ever-increasing darkness, in our culture. When we moved to Oregon, many years ago, several well-meaning believers asked us, “How can you take your children to such an unchurched place and raise them in that culture?” That question always baffled me. I thought the whole focus of our mission was going with the gospel to the places it was most needed. Too many Christians whine about how bad things are rather than see our current situation as a powerful opportunity for the gospel. 

We have staked our lives in the midst of a culture of moral relativity and immoral behavior. We aren’t afraid of the culture. We believe a gospel that works in every place, every setting, every culture, and in the midst of every expression of depravity. If you live in California, thank God you are here for such a time as this. If you don’t, move out here and help us represent the gospel where it is desperately needed!

 

Preaching about Homosexuality

May 12 2008

In the May/June 2008 of Preaching magazine, there is an excellent article on preaching about homosexuality by Tom Wilkins. Mr. Wilkins is a director of Cross Ministry and is a former homosexual. Here are some highlights. 

First, Mr. Wilkins advocates for preaching about homosexuality in the context of a larger discussion of sexual ethics and practice. While he agrees homosexuality is sinful behavior, he implores the church to have a message beyond that simple declaration. Homosexuality and heterosexuality are not opposites. Homosexuality is simply one of many inappropriate expressions of human sexuality – including adultery, fornication, pedophilia, etc. All should be confronted as destructive perversions of God’s design. 

Second, he implores us to stop trying to convert homosexuals to heterosexuality. The conversion needed is to Christ, not to another sexual practice. Mr. Wilkins makes the point we don’t try to convert alcoholics to sobriety. We convert them to Christ. The same kind of approach is needed with homosexuals. They need Jesus, not a lecture on sexual ethics or a psychological sexual conversion. Conversion to Christ empowers them to live a new sexual lifestyle. 

Third, he challenges all of us who preach to use our words carefully. Throw away, tired phrases like “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” reveal our shallowness in approaching the topic and our callousness at addressing hurting people. Mr. Wilkins reminds all of us who preach that we have people in our congregations, many unknown to us but nonetheless present, who are struggling with same-sex temptations. Others have homosexual friends, children, and grandchildren. Our harsh words also wound them. He challenges us to speak passionately and compassionately in their presence. 

Fourth, Mr. Wilkins suggests we should also preach on the positive value of healthy same sex relationships mentioned in the Bible. David and Jonathon, Ruth and Naomi, Paul and Timothy, and Jesus and John are good examples. We need more emphasis on healthy friendships – not just sterile accountability relationships – that often are the only way these kinds of relationships are addressed. 

These are just a few of the good suggestions in this article. This is an important subject, and one often mishandled. The Bible has a holistic, healthy, honorable message about human sexuality. When preaching on this subject, we are responsible to preach “the whole counsel of God,” not just our narrow viewpoints. Check out this article and let it shape your messages on this important subject.

 

Is Preaching Still Important?

Apr 21 2008

One of the more bizarre developments in the past decade has been the precipitous decline of both the quality of and value placed on preaching in the modern church. Students ask me, “Is preaching still a valid communication method and an important part of meaningful worship services?” Just the fact the question is being asked is startling enough. Even more, the fact they are asking because they assume the answer is “yes.” 

Preaching has not passed out of vogue. People are less and less interested in hearing bad preaching. People today are accustomed to hearing good communicators so a poorly prepared preacher has little hope of gaining a hearing. Cultural evidence is overwhelming that people still want to hear an authoritative person with authoritative conclusions about important issues about life. For proof, you need look no further than the current presidential campaign. When McCain, Obama, or Clinton speaks – people gather in large numbers and news networks show up en masse. Why? To hear a politician preach their passionate message of change, improvement, and reform. They don’t want a seminar, a Powerpoint presentation, or a quaint talk. They expect a message. 

Golden Gate has made a strong statement this spring about its commitment to preaching. First, we hosted our annual Hester Lectures on Preaching with Dr. Mark Dever, pastor, Capital Hill Baptist Church, Washington, D.C. Dr. Dever challenged us with two outstanding lectures on preaching. Second, our spring academic convocation address was given by Dr. Paul Smith, associate professor of Old Testament and pastor of First Baptist Church, Chandler, AZ. Dr. Smith lectured on “Creative Expository Preaching” citing references and examples of each of the three words in his title in his presentation. (Audio files of these presentations are available at www.ggbts.edu). These two special events – coupled with preaching courses taught by Dr. Claybon Lea (African-American pastor in the Bay Area) and me – have given us the opportunity to teach students the practical application of the challenges in these special lectures. 

Preaching is not a method or a strategy. It is a timeless symbol of God speaking to his people. It is an opportunity to focus attention on the Word as central to worship. It is a moment to be silent, listen to the Word, and the words of a person whose thoughts are profoundly shaped by the Word. It is a holy moment. Preaching deserves our best preparation in every way – content, delivery, and preparation. 

My experience has been people – believers and unbelievers alike – respond positively to good preaching. By good, I mean biblical, articulate, passionate, to the point, and applicable to contemporary life. May God give us the grace to preach like that – and end the debate about preaching passing out of vogue.

 




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