My old sermon notes next to my recent sermon manuscript.

Today I pulled from my shelf a Bible given to me by my father during my first semester of college. In it I found several old sermon outlines I preached during my time in school. I was immediately struck by the difference between those old sermon notes and the ones I use today. My old notes were handwritten, one-page outlines mostly composed of phrases, alliterated points, and Scripture references. There wasn’t one complete paragraph I could find in any of them. Illustrations were simply noted by the letter “I” with circle around it, followed by a word or two (e.g., man with dog, broken bicycle). This epitomized my sermon preparation. I would study, take mental notes, scratch a few things out here and there on a scrap of paper, then proceed to write a sermon outline from which to preach. That was it. I continued this simple process through seminary, my first full-time position, up to my initial years at my current church, Clear Creek Community Church. If memory serves me correctly, my first sermon at CCCC was preached from something akin to a 5×7 note card on which was written a rather scant outline.

It was a good process. It was efficient (I don’t like to over-prepare). It fit my preaching style (I am an extemporaneous preacher). I felt it would serve me well for the long-haul and yet, today, I employ a preparation process whereby I manuscript the entire message (though I still preach from an outline). Why? Initially, it’s because I admired the preaching of my Senior Pastor Bruce Wesley. He manuscripted his messages and would preach the lights out! I thought I could possibly get better as a preacher by doing the same. Today, I see at least three reasons why I like manuscripting messages in the sermon prep process while still preaching from an outline:

#1: Manuscripting refines my thinking.

In the editing process I’m better able to see how different sections interact with each other. Does my illustration really support what I’ve just spoken? Is this the best place for it in my message? Am I saying too much here or not enough? You may be able to do this to some degree with a generalized outline; however, a manuscript affords me greater clarity about my thought process in putting a sermon together. I don’t have to debate what I’m thinking at each point in the message, the manuscript shows me what I’m thinking. In fact it does so in great deal in addition to what, if any, changes need to be made.

#2: Manuscripting sharpens my speaking.

I think saying your sermon aloud is invaluable. What you hear in your head as you read your notes can be very different once you speak out your sermon. When I speak though my message it helps me see where different elements of it may be too chunky or too thin or just right. A manuscript allows me to work as closely as possible to the message that actually gets preached on Sunday. I can hear in detail, for example, how a phrase sounds. Can it be rewritten for greater effectiveness? Is this the best way to communicate what I need said? Are there more memorable ways of saying this? I also find manuscripting keeps from from rambling, chasing unhelpful rabbits, or being incoherent in the pulpit. Honestly, it helps me from being lazy. I can’t say, “Well, I’ll just figure out how to say that on Sunday.”

#3: Manuscripting is better stewardship.

In my early years, being invited to speak at other churches was always an exercise in frustration. I would pull out my sermon notes and, because they were in sparse outline form, were essentially un-preachable. I would read something like “Illustration: Man with Dog.” That was it! Manuscripting filled in the blanks. It took out the guesswork and blank stares that went with my meager sermon outlines. It made me a good steward of all the hard work I’d put into preaching. Manuscripting allowed me to not only re-preach messages but to also use that content in future endeavors (e.g., training material, seminars, etc.).

Once again, I don’t preach from a manuscript. I don’t bring one into the pulpit (I take a really big outline with me). I’m still a rather extemporaneous speaker. More often than not I prefer flow to precision. And while it’s more time consuming, using a manuscript in the sermon prep process has been more rewarding. Try it. See if it refines your thinking, sharpens your speaking, and is a better way to steward the gift God has given you.

I’m often asked by church planters how CCCC develops elders. It’s a a great question. However, there’s a question which should precede it, namely, when should you add elders? It’s not a question of “if” but at what time is it most beneficial to do so? We see the Apostle Paul had some kind of process by which, after establishing church plants, elders were appointed within specific congregations. For example, his strategy for the island of Crete was to select Titus to “put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as [Paul] directed [him].” (Titus 1:5) This shows that there was some stage in the church’s life where a body of elders wasn’t best for these young plants. While we don’t know exactly how much time elapsed, we do know selecting elders intentionally came later. This also helps us see that if, in planting a church, you have the establishment of elders as one of the first things on the list, you may want to reconsider that plan. I can tell you from the personal accounts of many of my church planter friends how prematurely establishing elders not only handicapped their church, but for some, ended it. Could this be at least one reason why Paul counsels Timothy to not be too hasty in laying his hands on a set of elders (cf., 1 Tim. 5:22)? Let me suggest one way church planters can implement a progression of church leadership which doesn’t begin with an elder team, but ends with them.

Stage One: Lone Elder
This first phase is essential in both promoting and protecting “the DNA” that makes your church unique. You hold the vision, values, and strategy for your plant. You carry the fire for what you believe that specific local church will become. It’s the very reason you planted in the first place. This means that for a season, everything runs through you. It’s exhausting, crazy, and demanding, but it’s critical to establishing who you believe God has uniquely called the church to be. This doesn’t mean you don’t have any accountability. You must! This is the stage where you have an advisory board of godly men outside your congregation (often these are other pastors and church leaders) who regularly check in with how you are and what you’re doing. This is also the time you’re looking for men in your fledgling congregation that have the potential to become elders. In this phase, you spend an insane amount of time developing relationships with these kinds of men in order to see in them if they might make good elders.

Stage Two: Lead Elder
This phase is when you have selected, trained, and deployed an elder team. These are men who bleed the DNA of the church plant. They know and have your back as the lead elder. In other words, you still are at the front of decision-making for the church in matters of doctrine, discipline, and direction. This is to give your elder team time to see how their lead pastor operates, what makes him tick, and observe his strengths and weaknesses. As the lead elder, you call the plays and your elder team helps execute them. This doesn’t mean the team can’t disagree or debate with you. They can (and likely will). It’s just very clear at this stage that the senior pastor is very clearly the “first among equals” whereby the team is following his lead. During this stage you’re developing the leadership quotient of your fellow elders – giving responsibilities, evaluating execution, coaching them up on what it is to lead a church. I believe this phase often takes years because you aren’t just trying to grow as a team but as a brotherhood – and brotherhood is something that is forged over time. It solidifies over tasks, tests, and tragedies. When you feel like you’ve gotten a team of brothers who are leaders in their own right, it’s time to move to the last phase.

Stage Three: Lead Elders
These are men who each could lead the church without missing a beat if somehow you were taken off the planet. Indeed, this is the kind of team composed of individuals who could each lead their own congregation. But they stay – they’re there for the long haul – in order to make a real difference for the gospel in the community God has planted them. At this phase, there is a blurring of lines concerning role and responsibilities between lead pastor and his team. There may be an elder responsible for pastoral care, another for the preaching ministry, still another for the oversight of ministries, with none of them being the founding pastor. Now, you should be able to more acutely focus your time on your passion points and ministry strengths. At this stage, you play the role of an all-star point guard who knows which member of the elder team is best equipped for being the chief leader for ministries that, up to this point, you were responsible for. But your role is passing the ball. A lot. This stage demands you die to yourself and strangle that ego. Unfortunately, there are very big churches that never get to this stage. And they pay the price! High staff turnover at the executive level, loss of strategic momentum, and hurtful interpersonal dynamics to name a few. Stage Three is a place we rarely would ever start with our church plant, but it’s a must that we finish there.

What stage are you in? What are you doing or need to do in order to develop your elders? Ask your team how you can help facilitate the movement from one stage to another. Do it for your sake, your team’s sake, and for the sake of the glory of God.

The Aim of Maturity

August 21, 2014 — 1 Comment

How are mature followers of Jesus to engage the world around them? What does spiritual maturity look like in this area? Do we abstain from watching this or drinking that? Or is it just the opposite, doing everything and anything we run across? What’s the answer? Well, it may help to think of a Christian’s engagement with the world on a spectrum with three different responses. The first two are found on the extremes of the spectrum.

The RULE KEEPER road sees life as black and white. If something is gray it’s wrong. Every aspect of life is governed by rules. The Bible is seen as Great Big Rule Book which shows us all the things followers of Jesus shouldn’t see, eat, listen, touch, feel, or enjoy as a whole. It is the life that is defined by how much you can’t do. On the opposite side, the FREE BIRD defines spiritual maturity by how much of world one can enjoy, consume, and experience at the expense of the rest of the Body of Christ. They trample consciences in parading their so-called “freedoms,” and frankly, they may not be sure if those activities are really healthy for themselves as well. Neither of these options display spiritual maturity but exactly the opposite. The Rule Keeper defines maturity by how much of world he cuts out of his life. The Free Bird by how much of the world he adds into it. Fortunately, the Bible gives us a better path to tread toward spiritual maturity.

Spiritually mature believers aim for a life that discerns the good from the bad, the beautiful from the ugly, the right from the wrong. It’s the life that takes from the world around it “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, [and thinks]  about these things” (Phil. 4:8)

Biblical discernment avoids the legalism of Rule Keeper and the licentiousness of Free Bird by charting a God-honoring, creation-enjoying, community-keeping path. That’s why discernment is the aim of believers who desire to engage the world in a spiritually mature way. No wonder the Apostle Paul says in Philippians 1:9-11, “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” Aim not at legalism or licentiousness, but the liberty found in biblical discernment.

Mature followers of Jesus are discerning followers of Jesus.

Biblical discernment allows us to…

  • Enjoy the fullness of God’s common grace found in the world
  • Have courage to engage the world instead of retreat into a Christian ghetto
  • Increase our understanding of the culture in which we seek to relate
  • Provide good examples to those younger in the faith about how mature Christians live in the world
  • Know how the gospel intersects each area of life, indeed, it is to see how all of life is centered around the gospel

This is why Heb 5:14 can confidently proclaim, “But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” You might need to grow your level of biblical discernment “by constant practice” if you…

  • expect the pastor’s sermon to be the primary way you get the Bible in your life.
  • believe every book which sits upon the bestseller shelf at the local Christian bookstore is a quality read.
  • continually expose yourself to media (magazines, music, movies) that shrinks, not expands, your soul
  • think a preacher is solid simply because his sermons make you feel good as you leave
  • refrain from certain activities simply because someone (e.g., a pastor) told you not do to it but you don’t know why
  • do whatever you like without first thinking, “How does the Bible address this?”
  • always find yourself asking others what the biblical thing to do is without doing the hard work of cracking open a Bible and discovering the answer yourself

Don’t settle for those poor habits. Aim at discernment because mature followers of Jesus are discerning followers of Jesus.