Category Archives: Church Life/Ministry

Multi-Site Church Polity: Congregational or Episcopal?

Matthew Pinson

Recently my pastor and colleague at Welch College, Jesse Owens, texted me a tweet by the eminent Australian evangelical scholar Michael Bird, who tweeted the following about multi-site churches:

“Thesis: Multi-site churches are not congregational, they are episcopally governed, the senior minister is a de facto bishop, in fact, multisite churches are more centrally  controlled than any Catholic or Anglican diocese in church history.”

Bird also has written a blog post on this entitled, “Multi-Site Churches: An Evaluation” that is very insightful. While I have important disagreements with Bird on some basic issues of evangelical theology, I agree wholeheartedly with the statement above.

I first made an observation similar to his at an annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society many years ago. After a paper on Baptist-congregational church government, I remember standing in the hallway talking with Chad Owen Brand and Stan Norman saying basically the same thing: “Multi-site churches are a violation of the congregational church polity that is part and parcel of Baptist ecclesiology. They’re more like an episcopal diocese.”

There are many online resources that critique the multi-site movement from a Baptist perspective. Mark Dever and 9Marks have been at the forefront of raising awareness and concern over this development through a Baptist lens, from biblical, theological, historical, and practical vantage points. There is also an excellent treatment of the multi-site phenomenon by the president of Cedarville University, Thomas White, Franchising McChurch, which I discussed several years ago in ONE Magazine. Thus, I do not feel the need to give a full-orbed critique of the multi-site phenomenon here but only to focus on the very narrow question of whether it fits with historic Baptist polity.

I remember being on a panel discussion at Southern Seminary a few years ago with Orthodox Presbyterian pastor and professor Carl Trueman. He was surprised that the only other person on the panel who agreed with him on the ecclesiological problems with multi-site churches was an Arminian Baptist! Yet he and I agreed, on that panel, that a late-medieval phenomenon similar to the multi-site movement was responsible in large part for the anti-clerical fervor that led to the Protestant Reformation: pluralism and non-residency (i.e., congregations that had no preaching pastor [priest] to give them pastoral care, and priests that were assigned to more than one congregation). Trueman and I agreed that the multi-site thrust was a violation of both Presbyterian and Baptist-congregational polity.

This is a concern I have for our own Free Will Baptist Church. I frequently have ministers ask me what I think about having a Free Will Baptist multi-site church, from the vantage point of our faith and practice as Free Will Baptists. I always explain it in what I see as the only way one can explain it in terms of the Free Will Baptist Treastise of Faith and Practices, and that is in line with Bird’s comment above and people like Dever’s and Trueman’s approach: It is not in harmony with Free Will Baptist polity.

Now we must understand that Free Will Baptists have some important differences with the wider Baptist tradition of church government. We tend to give more power to the conference or association, e.g., the authority for presbyteries to examine and ordain ministers, so that churches in good standing with a Free Will Baptist conference or association cannot ordain their own ministers without the authority of the presbytery or ordaining council of a local conference or association.

However, on issues that touch this question of multi-site churches, we would be in agreement with Dever and other Baptists. Free Will Baptists have historically believed that local congregations should be self-governing. That means, among other things, that they must choose their own pastor(s) and deacons and their own officers and teachers, do their own discipline, have control of their own property, have the freedom to separate from one conference and unite with another, have control of their own finances, etc.

This self-governance principle has always opposed the episcopal and Presbyterian models of church government that give ecclesiastical bodies or individuals outside a local congregation control over the internal elements of governance of that congregation such as those things listed in the previous paragraph. So, whether it be a diocese or a bishop or a synod or a presbytery, these bodies/individuals cannot control the internal governance of a local congregation.

Again, historic Free Will Baptist polity, as I show in my pamphlet Free Will Baptists and Church Government, stipulates a stronger relationship between the conference or association and the local church than most Baptist polities. The conference or association has historically been responsible, for example, for the examination, ordination, and discipline of office bearers (ministers, and, the further back you go in our history, deacons). Furthermore, associations and conferences have the right to involve themselves in local church disputes, and often do so. But they have the right only to advise, never finally to arbitrate, in those disputes. Their ultimate recourse is only to remove fellowship from an erring congregation. So I do not wish to minimize the differences between historic Free Will Baptist polity and other Baptist polity.

However, all Baptists agree on the congregational governance of the local church: (1) It is the entire congregation, not the pastor(s) and deacons, who govern the local Baptist church; (2) It is the congregation, not a body outside that congregation, that governs the local Baptist church.

This is borne out in the Free Will Baptist Treatise, which places within the self-government of each local congregation “full authority to transact its business, choose its pastor and officers, receive, discipline, and dismiss members, hold free title to all its properties, and conduct all its internal affairs” (Part IV, Chapter I, Section I.B).

Sometimes ministers who’ve read a lot about multi-site churches and hope to experience growth in their ministries ask me, “Would there be a problem with me having a multi-site church?” I always tell them this: “If different congregations arise out of your church, and you can find a way to keep them together somehow without violating the Treatise (which Free Will Baptists believe is based on New Testament polity), then by all means do so!”

When they ask what this does and does not mean, I explain that each gathered body of believers needs to have the sole authority to do those things that lie within the power of the local church that are enumerated in the Treatise. So you need to ask the following eight questions:

  1. Will this gathered body of believers have sole authority to transact its own business?
  2. Will it have sole authority to elect, maintain, and dismiss its own preaching pastor(s) who leads, feeds, and cares for it (i.e., leadership, preaching, and pastoral care), and not be answerable to the preaching pastor of a higher authority or church outside itself, or any religious body outside itself?
  3. Will it have the sole authority to elect, maintain, and dismiss its own deacons chosen from within its own membership who serve it?
  4. Will it have the sole authority to receive its own members in the way it wishes to receive them, or will there be another higher authority outside it that determines how members are received or who is received?
  5. Will its pastor(s) and deacons have the sole authority to administer baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the washing of the saints’ feet, and other ordinances in the congregation?
  6. Will it have its own policy and process for disciplining, excommunicating, or dismissing members, administered solely by its own office bearers without control of an outside body?
  7. Will it have the sole authority to decide where to meet, and if it owns property, will it hold title to that property with full authority to sell it or to purchase additional property without permission from a higher authority outside itself?
  8. In short, will it have sole authority to conduct its own financial affairs and all other internal affairs, and not have a higher authority control the outcome of any of its internal affairs?

These are simply the eight questions that naturally arise from an examination of the Treatise. And, as I tell ministers who have asked me about this, if you can answer all these questions in the affirmative about the congregation of believers that you are spinning off from your main congregation, you will be in line with historic Free Will Baptist polity.

Yet an affirmative answer to the above eight questions is a direct violation of the whole point of the multi-site movement, as it is to other episcopal approaches to church government.

Then, often, a subsequent question comes up, “Well, President Pinson, if I have enough church growth to be able to spin off other congregations, is there anything I can do that would not be in violation of the Treatise and historic Free Will Baptist polity? My answer is always, “Yes! Plant churches!” This is the answer Jonathan Leeman gives in his 9Marks article “The Alternative: Why Don’t We Plant?”

That’s the answer that’s in line with New Testament polity and with historic Free Will Baptist polity as outlined in the Treatise: We plant churches! Of course, a church cedes power and control when it mothers a church and then encourages the church to go self-supporting, self-governing. But that is the New Testament model, and the model that fits our Free Will Baptist faith and practice.

Of course, there is a lot of room for variation in the church planting model. For example, just as Free Will Baptist North American Ministries often sponsors a mission for many years before it goes self-supporting and becomes its own self-governing church, so a local congregation that has the means to plant a church can do the same thing. A new local gathering can be a mission of the church that planted it for several years before it becomes self-supporting and self-governing. In these intervening years, there is room for differing models of control that still lie within the bounds of Free Will Baptist practice.

Another positive of planting a church is that it can be done with the advice, assistance, and accountability of a Church entity like Free Will Baptist North American Ministries (NAM)[1]. The church plant I am involved in currently, though a self-governing plant, is in cooperation with NAM. Its pastor, Jesse Owens, is an associate church planter who receives training, counsel, and prayer support from NAM, as well as the ability to raise non-salary financial support through NAM.

Furthermore, I have even had some ministers ask me, “Is there a way to have a network of these churches that grow out of my church?” I say, “Yes. That’s what we call an association or conference.” Of course, when at all possible, it’s healthy to unite with conferences or associations who can stretch us out of our comfort zone and help us experience the diversity of the body of Christ within our Free Will Baptist theological confines. So I encourage these ministers to be active in broader associations: We need Free Will Baptist conferences and associations, not cultural niche associations. We don’t need to divide ourselves up by our cultural preferences, where it’s almost like we’re in an association where everybody likes either sushi or fried chicken, or everybody likes either bluegrass or indie-folk, or everybody wears either skinny jeans or khakis to the ministers’ retreat.

However, that said, let’s pretend that a large Free Will Baptist church over a period of fifteen years planted ten successful Free Will Baptist congregations, and over an eight-to-ten-year period, each one of those churches became self-supporting and self-governing, and they all associated with the original church that planted them, meeting together for fellowship, encouragement, accountability, and other ministry, say, once a quarter. This would be much like what has happened throughout 400 years of Free Will Baptist and wider Baptist history. It’s called a conference or an association. But, in this concept, the original, larger congregation that planted all the other congregations would have no more power or sway over what happened in the association, or in the internal governance of each of the local planted congregations, than any of the planted congregations.

I think it is imperative that we Free Will Baptists be ourselves. This means drawing from our own rich biblical and historical resources of church polity rather than from trends that might seem successful at the moment, but really represent a departure from our Baptist faith and practice and an embrace of the faith and practice of non-Baptist religious bodies. And that is precisely what multi-site is: a move away from our historic Free Will Baptist and Baptist polity toward an embrace of episcopal church polity.

My prayer is that we will avoid this theological misstep and that we will do what we see in the New Testament and Free Will Baptist history and plant more New Testament churches!

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[1] Free Will Baptist North American Ministries is also sometimes still known as Free Will Baptist Home Missions.

Clergy Sexual Abuse and Church Polity

Matt Pinson

Recently my colleague Dr. Darrell Holley sent me a link to an article in First Things by Dale Coulter entitled “Evangelical Apocalypse.” The article is primarily about clergy sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention reported by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News. It might be easy for our smaller, Free Will Baptist denomination to think we are immune to these concerns. But we need to pay attention.

What Hath Church Polity to Do with Sexual Abuse?

I found particularly interesting Coulter’s tie-in to church polity, or church government. This is of interest to me because of the differences between typical Baptist polity as it developed in the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and traditional Free Will Baptist polity. Coulter points out that “local church autonomy present in Baptist polity has allowed sexual predators to move freely from church to church.”

Now before some readers get nervous, let me affirm local church autonomy as rightly considered historically by Free Will Baptists: the ultimate right of self-governance by a local congregation. This definition of autonomy—self-government—is the way Free Will Baptists have historically used the term rather than the typical way it is used: independence.

I have discussed these issues in my pamphlet, Free Will Baptists and Church Government. Free Will Baptists have typically held that every New Testament congregation is self-governing. Thus it has the absolute right to leave the conference or association of which it is a member and affiliate with another. [1] However, we have traditionally not viewed associational affiliation as an option for the local congregation, but as a mandate.

The Free Will Baptist Difference

That approach to church government is different from the one that developed in most American Baptist groups. (However, early non-Free Will Baptist associations like the Charleston or Philadelphia associations had a polity much like Free Will Baptists.) What is especially different about traditional Free Will Baptist church polity, which is still practiced in almost all associations today, is this: The examination, ordination, and moral and theological accountability of ministers is delegated by the local congregation to the presbytery (body of ministers) of the conference or association.

Furthermore, traditionally, Free Will Baptist conferences and associations were more concerned about the discipline of local churches. They cared about what went on in those churches. Yes, the congregation could disregard the conference’s counsel (which would usually result in the conference removing the church from fellowship). Yet the conference was concerned about local churches and felt free to ask questions and give counsel to local churches.

Passing Errant Ministers from Association to Association

How does all this relate to clergy sexual abuse? Coulter goes on in the article to say, “Another issue is how easily Baptist ministers are ordained. Since local churches ordain, one has only to secure the endorsement of any church in good standing with the convention, regardless of how small or remote it is.” Yet Coulter states that the problem is not just in the Southern Baptist Convention, because ministers accused of sexual abuse who are “dismissed from one denomination have simply gone to another for credentials. . . . These open networks for ministerial movement from one part of evangelicalism to another allow sexual abusers to escape judgment and start over.”

I have heard many ministers in the Free Will Baptist Church state something similar: Errant ministers often move from one conference to another within the denomination without repercussions. It is amazing to me how that, historically, Free Will Baptist conferences and associations were much more vigilant about checking out ministers who applied for ministerial credentials than we are today. This is despite the fact that trains, horses, and wagons were the only transportation rather than planes and automobiles. And the Pony Express, rather than telephone, email, and Facebook, were the only means of communication.

The Means at Our Disposal

We have tremendous means at our disposal today for keeping morally and theologically errant ministers from seamlessly moving from one area to another. What’s more, we have a built-in polity that is part of our tradition—still “on the books” in our denominational documents—that can, if consistently utilized, keep us from having the problem Coulter describes.

What happened traditionally when an errant minister attempted to transfer from one Free Will Baptist association to another? The presbytery or ordaining council would carefully check out his credentials. They would be proactive about it, even if the church he was ministering in did not request it. They knew that if they waited too long, they would lose the church. What if the minister refused to submit to the authority of the conference? The conference would state publicly that it did not recognize the minister as a Free Will Baptist minister. [2]

This approach would help us today. It would help us not only to deal with ministers whose doctrine is not in keeping with that of the Free Will Baptist Church, but it would also aid us in dealing with sexual predators and other charlatans or criminals. Like all biblical church discipline, it would make a statement to the world that the Free Will Baptist Church is not going to tolerate sexual abuse or any other deviation from Scriptural norms. [3]

Helping Local Congregations

Another positive mark of a stronger associational polity is that because congregations are more involved in each other’s lives, they know what is going on in each other’s congregations. So if there is a problem in a local church that needs the help of the other churches in the conference, the other churches typically will know about it. This type of polity also provides more organic resources to help local congregations’ lay search committees. With more help and counsel, lay committees are less apt to recommend a minister who falls short of the conference’s ethical and doctrinal standards.

Our wannabeism when it comes to the Independent Baptist movement (on the right) and the non-denominational megachurch movement (on the left) is coming home to roost. [4] These movements have eroded our commitment to our historic associationalism. This erosion has left us as isolated churches without the resources we need to maintain our theological commitments and the moral leadership of our ordained clergy.

Our traditional Free Will Baptist polity will help us guard against the sort of thing that has been happening with clergy sexual abuse. Furthermore, it will help us guard against morally and theologically errant ministers taking churches out of our denomination. Again, because we believe in the self-government of local congregations, nothing we do can ultimately keep a congregation from leaving if it is committed to that decision. Yet our polity will help.

Obviously, a stronger church polity is not in itself a foolproof method for discouraging and dealing with these problems. After all, the Roman Catholic Church has an extremely strong church government, but it has not done so. However, I believe there is a powerful argument that the balanced polity we have guards against the sorts of concentrated church hierarchy that has swept clergy sexual abuse under the rug. Our biblical church polity has just the right balance. This balance allows it to avoid the problems of the power of a church hierarchy vested in a few people, on one hand, and the lack of accountability that plagues the independent-church models on the other hand.

Renewing our Church by Retrieving the Associational Principle

What we must do is to recommit ourselves to the biblical church polity that is already at our disposal. This will mean renewing our churches and conferences through retrieving our tradition of biblical Free Will Baptist church polity. It will mean not yielding to the temptation to mimic the anti-associationalism and anti-denominationalism of the Independent Baptist and non-denominational megachurch movements. Those movements seem to have numerically larger and more successful congregations, and sometimes we are sorely tempted to sell our souls for numerical success. But recovering our internal resources will help us not to give in to that temptation.

I am witnessing the growth of a generation of younger ministers who are solid, conservative Free Will Baptists. These ministers believe in our traditional associational principle and are ready to bring renewal and life and biblical accountability back to our conferences and associations.

I pray that we middle-aged and older Free Will Baptists will not discourage them from doing that. If they succeed, it will strengthen our churches and denomination and our commitment to biblical truth. It will help keep our denomination and its distinctive theological witness from dying. It will also tell the world that we are not willing to tolerate sexual abuse and other immoral conduct that displeases our holy God and brings disgrace on the church and the gospel it proclaims.

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Editorial Note: An earlier version of this post was published on Wednesday morning that was different, though only slightly, from the current version. This was done accidently by a site administrator. Our apologies to our readers. 

[1] Today, all local gatherings of Free Will Baptist churches are referred to as conferences or associations. So I am using these terms interchangeably. These have been the majority terms in our tradition for the past two hundred years. Yet historically they were used alongside other, less-used synonyms such as union meeting, connection, general assembly, general council, and district.

[2] This essay is not meant to suggest that Free Will Baptist polity is the only cure for the problems discussed herein, but an important part of a larger solution.

[3] The thrust of this paper is not to absolve lay pastoral search committees at local churches of the responsibility to check references and do proper checks on pastoral candidates’ backgrounds but rather to provide aid to local congregations without a pastor, many of whom unfortunately do not engage in extensive research on pastoral candidates.

[4] Dictionary.com defines a “wannabe” as “a person who tries to be like someone else or to fit in with a particular group of people.”

 

 

 

Theology for Life and Ministry: William Jeffery on Predestination in Romans 9

Matthew Pinson

I was recently reading a book by the seventeenth-century English General Baptist preacher William Jeffery, The Whole Faith of Man. This book is a summary of Christian doctrine published in London in the 1650s that hasn’t been in print since the 1600s.

The book is not without its faults, but reading it reminded me of how industrious these forefathers of our Free Will Baptist Church were in their concern to think through, write, and publish doctrine and theology—and not see doctrine and theology somehow as being something other than, let alone at cross purposes with, the practical, zealous ministry of the Gospel.

Here were men who were mostly bi-vocational—pastors of growing churches (some large, some small) but also farmers and tailors and soapboilers and physicians. Yet somehow many of them still found the time to write full-length books on practical and theological subjects.

It makes me scratch my head that we in evangelicalism today have more M.Divs and D.Mins than you can shake a stick at, most of whom have full-time ministry jobs, but so many have almost no interest doctrine and theology. Indeed there is a tendency to drive a wedge between theology and ministry and think that theology actually detracts from practical ministry and zealous evangelism. We desperately need to take a page from the playbook of our early forefathers, who were very zealous and had growing churches in both rural and urban areas, but saw theology and doctrine as being at the heart of a vibrant ministry—woven into its very fabric.

In addition to those thoughts sticking out in my mind, I came across a few passages from Jeffery’s discussion of Romans 9 that I thought our readers would enjoy. The first one directly addresses the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9. It touches on a theme that many Arminian interpreters neglect or underemphasize—that Romans 9 is really about the conditional election of unbelievers, and that Paul is arguing against the corporate election views in Jewish theology. This is something that Jacobus Arminius and Leroy Forlines emphasize, but that is neglected in many Arminian treatments.

The second passage, which follows Jeffery’s discussion of Romans 9, is basically saying that the Calvinist doctrine espoused with regard to that text means that God hates the vast majority of his human creatures and created them for the purpose of hating them, even though that flies in the face of the ubiquitous message in Scripture of the love of God for humanity. I love the way Jeffery explains it:

For the better understanding of this point, well consider the principal thing, which Paul treats of in that chapter, Romans 9, which is, that the fleshly seed of Abraham are not the children of promise, or the Elect of God (vv. 7, 8). Wherefore (saith the Apostle) though Esau was the child of Abraham according to the flesh, and that upon Isaac’s side too, yet God hated him: therefore you Jews that stand so much upon your birth privileges, as being the seed of Abraham after the flesh, by this of Esau you may know, that it will not prove you to be the Elect of God, but you may be hated as Esau, he being as truly a child of Abraham as you, but for his wickedness (whether considered as a Person, or as a Nation) God rejected him; I say, for his wickedness as appeareth (Obad. 9.10) “For thy violence, (O Esau) against thy brother Jacob, shame shall cover thee, and thou shalt be cut off forever (Mal. 1.3, 4; Amos 1.11; Heb 12.16, 17). Esau’s wickedness therefore (whether considered a person, or a Nation) I say, with the holy Prophets, was the cause why God hated him; whose wickedness, God that foreknoweth all things, foreknew. . . . (The Whole Faith of Man, 26-27).

But if notwithstanding you shall yet turn the body of these Scriptures [Rom. 9] otherways [than the way he has explained them], then behold its face: namely, That God did (before time) hate the greatest part of the world, without respect unto foreseen wickedness as the cause thereof, and that (in time) he gives them up to hardness of heart (without grace at any time whereby to be saved) and at the day of Judgment will cast them into everlasting torments, because of their wickedness and hardness of heart; and yet declare in his Word, (which you say is a word of truth) that he is good to all, and that his “tender mercies are over all his works”; that he is “slow to anger, and of great mercy,” (Ps. 145.8, 9), “patient, long-suffering, etc. (Ex. 34.6, 7), “not willing that any should perish” (2 Pet. 3.9), swearing by himself, “that he desireth not the death of the wicked” (Ezek. 33:11) but “would have all men saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2.4), “forty years long grieving for the iniquity of his people” (Heb. 3.17), bemoaning their undone estate (Psal. 81.13), yea, even weeping for them (Luke 19.41), saying, “What could I have done more” (for your good) “that I have not done?” (Isa. 5.4), when as he knew (according to your tenet) that [he] himself had shut them up from all possibilities of believing unto salvation, and that by his own unresistible decree, and purpose of reprobation. Judge ye, friends, in this cause, and judge righteous judgment, and with fear and trembling, weigh these things. (The Whole Faith of Man, 31-32).

These thought-provoking comments come from the heart of a preacher and pastor. He saw them, not as a tack-on to preaching and explaining the Bible for his people, but as integral to his work as a shepherd. May we be inspired by the pastoral theology of our forebears who had a seamless view of the interaction between our minds, hearts, and the way we live our lives. May we return theology to its integral place in the ministry of the Gospel.

 

What Preachers Can Learn from Tom Brady: Part 3

by W. Jackson Watts

(Part 1 and Part 2 of this article appeared earlier on our site. They can be accessed by clicking on the hyperlinks).

Committed to the Team (Collaboration)

Over the last year or two, news outlets have reported several times on a friction in the Patriots organization between Tom Brady and his legendary coach Bill Belichick. Some of this stemmed from Belichick’s reported interest in beginning to transition the team to an emerging young backup quarterback. Despite this story and related ones, all accounts appear to suggest that Brady and Belichick have patched up their relationship, at least enough to have another successful season.

Many dimensions of the Patriot’s dynasty transcend Brady’s own individual excellence. He has almost always had an above-average offensive line (the players who protect him from opposing defenses). This no doubt partially explains his ability to stay healthy for nearly his entire career.[1] The Kraft family has provided stable ownership for the franchise. Pundits view Belichick as arguably the best coach of all time. Brady has had competent coordinators and assistant coaches. Though the overall talent of his teams has varied over his career, Brady has managed to succeed with all rosters. These points highlight that Brady is more than just the product of a good system and culture. However, his greatness cannot be interpreted apart from the organization he has been a part of.

Preachers also are part of a larger whole that is essential to their pulpit effectiveness. When we stand in the pulpit, we don’t do so in a vacuum. We preach to people who have perhaps heard ten different pastors in that same pulpit over their lifetime. Or perhaps they have heard only one voice for that same period of time. This can shape the way listeners hear and respond to our preaching.

The quality of the music and other service elements preceding and surrounding the sermon can shape the mind and mood of both preacher and congregation. What has transpired in the week before can impact the pastor’s confidence as he prepares to preach. Poor sound quality or mics unexpectedly squealing are highly disruptive. What of the congregation’s readiness? Have they prayerfully prepared to listen to God’s Word this day? These are just a few of the hundreds of factors shaping the presentation of and reception of the sermon.

The simple lesson is this: There are factors we can and cannot control. We can put in the necessary study time and prayer throughout the week. We can read what the great theologians and preachers of the past have said. We can discuss our passage with our wives during the week. We can ask Sunday school teachers to encourage people to enter the service with a prayerful, focused mindset. These are some of the ways we can collaborate with our congregation to make the preaching moment more impactful.

For those factors outside of our control, we’re in good company. Tom Brady cannot control the weather he works in; neither can you. The prophets and apostles couldn’t manipulate their hearers into hearing better. All they could do was their best to follow the Spirit’s leadership, and let God work. So should we.

Conclusion

Gotham Chopra, son of the famed spiritualist guru Deepak Chopra, produced Tom vs Time. Remarking on Tom’s commitment, Chopra said the following: “What’s really at the epicenter of it is this devotional love for the game. . . . It is his vocation—it’s what gives his life meaning and purpose.”[2] When we hear those words, we might recall the comment one observer made about football being Brady’s religion. As Christians we worry about those who find their meaning in a game or career, not in Christ. Yet for those of us who call Jesus Savior and Lord, who are free to serve Him because of grace, not to earn grace, how much more commitment should we have to excellence in His service?

If Brady, playing a temporal game with temporal satisfaction, has committed himself to longevity, details, and teamwork, how much more should preachers, serving an eternal God through work with eternal consequences, give their best?

You don’t have to pursue a Doctorate of Ministry in preaching to commit yourself to your calling and craft (though doing so might be useful for some). For me, the four most helpful practices have been to: (1) listen to my own sermons regularly; (2) occasionally collaborate on a preaching series with a fellow pastor; (3) read great books on preaching; and (4) read as broadly as possible.

Charles Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students was the textbook I found most helpful in this area many years ago, and certainly it has helped previous generations. Among more modern books, Mark Galli and Craig Larson’s Preaching that Connects is another book that first stimulated my thinking about cultivating rhetoric skills. More recently Tim Keller’s Preaching: Communicating Faith in An Age of Skepticism has been instructive about preaching Christ from all the Scriptures and preaching in our particular historical and cultural moment.

Reading broadly offers several benefits. It introduces us to God’s common grace poured out on many scholars, experts, journalists, historians, and even humorists across many subjects. It introduces us to new language, new concepts, and a treasure-trove of sermon illustrations. Biographies, autobiographies, and novels are especially useful in our finding appropriate and timely illustrations.

Certainly every preacher must discern what habits and practices best orient him to listening well to Scripture, understanding his people, and speaking to them week after week. I have offered a secular (though not irreligious) analogy for a spiritual aim: the formation of disciples toward Christlikeness. Christ is magnified through the foolishness of preaching, but that in no way discounts the vehicle of preaching as an art and craft that preachers should steward and sharpen. Pastors committed to excellence in preaching will appreciate the depth and breadth of the Scriptures, the wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit, and the multi-faceted dynamics of human communication.

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[1]Brady did miss most of the 2008 season due to an ACL injury. However, it is not uncommon for even great players to miss part of a season or an entire season over their career with some kind of acute injury.

[2]Bob Smietana, “For Tom Brady, football has become religion. No, really.” Washington Post, 4 February 2018; https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/02/02/for-tom-brady-football-has-become-religion-no-really/?utm_term=.5af11a5b462b; accessed 22 January 2019.

What Preachers Can Learn from Tom Brady: Part 2

by W. Jackson Watts

(Part 1 of this article appeared earlier on our site. It can be accessed here.)

Attention to Detail (Focus)

Brady is well-known for his commitment to film study. Studying the film from actual games is a large component of game preparation for coaches and players. The regular rhythm of film study is part of every team’s weekly preparation. By studying film, one gains a better understanding of what is happening on the field: Why did this play work? Why didn’t that play work? What are my bad tendencies and habits that I’m not seeing? If film study can help yield answers to these questions, then Brady is miles ahead of most players. He has remarked that he can literally watch film all day.

Film study is representative of a commitment to grow and improve, specifically by giving attention to details. Instead of having just a gut-level idea of what happened on the field based on what the scoreboard says, film analysis gives a clearer view. Similarly, preachers committed to their craft will pay attention to detail. This is part and parcel of being serious about growth and improvement in the pulpit.

No decent pastor believes that God’s blessing isn’t essential to good sermon work. We know that we need the Holy Spirit in the study and in the pulpit. Moreover, we need Him every day leading up to Sunday to help us practice what we are preparing to preach. In a real sense, the “results” of our preaching are in His hands. As the apostle Paul said, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6). [1]

On the other hand, our focused effort should never be minimized. Ezra was spoken of favorably as having “set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel” (Ez. 7:10). This was not the most opportune time to be a teacher, to remind a freshly-liberated people of the Word they had forsaken. Yet he had real “power in the pulpit” because of this commitment.[2] The corporate confession and repentance that we see in Ezra’s ministry seems to evidence of the Spirit’s power. Ezra was committed in heart and mind to know and share the Word.

Some may reject this interpretation of Ezra’s impact, emphasizing that God doesn’t need our preparation. They point to Peter and James as they preached in Jerusalem. Didn’t they confound the religious leaders since they “perceived that they were uneducated, common men”? (Acts 4:13). Yet when we look closer at this passage, it does not emphasize their boldness at the expense of competence. Peter and James may not have received the type of rabbinical training that religious teachers had, but they had been to the Harvard of their day: They had enrolled in the school of Jesus. They had learned from Him, and had His Holy Spirit breathed on them (Jn. 20:22). They were students empowered to share what they had learned and memorized.

There are two aspects of the preparation I’m referring to: When it comes to substance, we need to consider both our text and the theology surrounding it, as well as the words we use to convey that text and theology. The first requires a regular deep dive into Scripture, language, history, culture, and our theological tradition to learn what is meant by the Word. This is a persistent pursuit. When do we truly master the Scriptures? In the tenth year of ministry? Twentieth? Thirtieth? No, this is a lifelong pursuit.

The second aspect of verbal communication refers more to how we express the text’s meaning and application. This is where preachers really should consider their own “film study.” Most churches record sermons. As much as we all dislike the sound of our own voices on tape, I strongly recommend pastors at least occasionally listen to their messages. You’ll be surprised at what you hear! Places you think you bungled sound different on tape and presumably sounded different to hearers, too. Places you thought were sufficiently clear don’t sound so clear the second time around.

Pastoral film study also reveals those pesky and awkward habits of speech that cling to us over the years. Some preachers incessantly end their good points with the solicitous, “Amen church?!” Others preach like they talk, always ending sentences with, “You know?” or “Right?” (I’ve suffered from a heavy dose of the latter recently). Or as one pastor I know always said following a call to obedience (or request to bring a casserole to a potluck), “Do this and the Lord will bless you for it.” Film study helps us identify and gradually eliminate those repetitive statements and phrases. We’re then better able to offer our audience a diversity of language that adds color and appeal to our sermons.

A final way we can pay attention to detail as we strive for preaching excellence is to watch ourselves. Listening is useful, but viewing ourselves takes us from two dimensions to three. Preaching is not only verbal but also non-verbal. God has designed us as creatures with senses that enable us to interpret, process, and be enriched through all kinds of unique non-verbal cues. Preachers committed to their craft will let themselves be impacted by their passage, so when they preach they will more likely reflect authentic facial expression, gestures, and other movement. This also applies to verbal qualities, such as volume and inflection. Ultimately preachers must let the Holy Spirit guide them to be true to their own God-given personalities, while also letting Him more fully sanctify their personalities. In other words, it’s fine to be yourself. However, be the most effective version of yourself!

Pastors’ wives can be a great asset to them in evaluation. They love us enough to tell us the truth, no matter how hard the truth may be. In most cases, they have sat under our preaching longer than our congregations. They know the content of our message and the content of our lives. They see the delivery of the message and hear the message delivered. Sometimes a wise staff member may also provide additional input. Utilize these assets in improving your preaching.

Other practices can also help “fine-tune and sharpen our fundamentals,” just as the veteran Tom Brady still does. We should probably read at least one preaching book a year. Listen occasionally to a sermon online from a respected pastor—perhaps from one you know and from one who you have respected from afar. Strive to give your people your best since Christ Jesus gave us His best. We can sharpen our skills by asking questions as diverse as, “Is this really what this verse is saying?” to “Is this anecdote as humorous to others as it is to me?”

We need great discipline to give this type of attention to detail—and, perhaps more so, humility. Humility says, “I have not arrived at this task.” Humility says, “I can learn from other preachers, living and dead.” Humility says, “With God’s help and personal diligence, I can be more effective.” While great people can grow proud, the Christian will recognize that greatness is defined by and achieved through humility (e.g., Mt. 18:4).

(The third and final part of this article will post next Tuesday here on the Commission’s blog.)

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[1]All Scripture quotations come from the English Standard Version.

[2]I borrow this phrase from the Jim Shaddix preaching book by the same title.