It’s that book. Again.
This is a repost of a book review from April 2012. I'm reposting it because I'm just reading this book with someone and have been reminded how useful it has been to me. It's not one of those books that are "out there" or particularly in the public consciousness, so I'm very happy to highlight it and say, what's been good for me may well be good for you. In the meantime, I notice that Andrew Evans likes it too!
This is a hard book review to write. Why? Because in the review I am about to give I will reveal something of my heart and a lot of my sin. That's unavoidable. As soon as I tell you that this was a book for me, I've let the cat out of the bag. So here goes – Pleasing People by Lou Priolo. This was a book for me. There, said it. Why write a review then, if it is all so heart-revealing? For the simple reason that being a people pleaser is a common sin in many pastors and preachers. We tend not to be, on the whole, those who err by thinking nothing of others. We're soft hearted towards others – and so we tend to err by being overly sensitive to others – and very, very often this means overly sensitive when it comes to what others think about us.
In so many ways it's the kind of book I don't really enjoy reading – lots of numbered lists. It's not quite a seven-step-to-success program but at times, because each chapter is often a collection of points, 1., 2., 3. and so on, it does feel like that. But, in one sense, it's very puritan-like – and that's not surprising because Priolo draws heavily on Timothy Dwight, Hugh Blair, Jeremiah Burroughs (hoorah, East End boy!) and, especially, Richard Baxter. That means what you get is warm, biblical wisdom suffused with pastoral punch. I got beyond the lists to the heart of what Lou was saying: and very often I found those lists describing me from lots of different angles.
To be frank, this is the pastoral punch many of us need. OK, let's not beat around the bush. It's pastoral punch that I need. So here, for example, are ten characteristics of an approval junkie:
- he fears the displeasure of man more than the displeasure of God
- he desires the praise of man more than the praise of God
- he studies what it takes to please man as much (if not more than) what it means to please God
- his speech is designed to entice and flatter others into thinking well of him
- he is a respecter of persons
- he is oversensitive to correction, reproof, and other allusions of dissatisfaction or disapproval on the part of others
- he outwardly renders eye service to man rather than inwardly rendering sincere (from the heart) ministry to the Lord
- he selfishly uses the wisdom, abilities and gifts that have been given him for God's glory and the benefit of others for his own glory and personal benefit
- he invests more of his personal resources in establishing his own honour than he does in establishing God's honour
- he is discontented with the condition and proportion that God has appointed for him
Sound familiar? Oh, and the people-pleaser is also often a procrastinator. Did I mention that? You'll have to read the book to find out why. This book was good for my soul. It's the kind of book that I won't lend to you. I'd lend you most of the books in my library should you ask nicely, but not this one. I need to read it regularly, I think. Plus, you don't want to see my scribbled comments and highlights (or rather, I don't want you to see them. I don't think that's just because I'm a people pleaser (!!) but there are some things that are better not shared).
As well as being suffused with the wisdom of the puritans, it's also highly biblical (no surprise that the two go together). If I had a criticism, it would be that there is almost too much Scripture (e.g. on humility, p168-170) which can mean running the risk of taking some texts out of context. But this is a minor niggle. Overall, the tone is gentle, persuasive and focused. And – this is possibly my highest praise – the book is very God-centred: Christ-centred, even. Again, using the puritans makes this less than surprising, but time and time again I found myself thinking less of myself and more of him. That's got to be good, right? And in so doing, my motives and thoughts are laid bare – this quote from Jeremiah Burroughs is typical:
I urge you to consider that God does not deal with you as you deal with him. If God were to put the worst interpretation on all your ways towards him as you put on his towards you, it would be very bad for you.
So, buy, read and keep.
[And please keep my sin to yourself!]
Oh, and it's got a neat cover.
Spring Ministers Conferences
What are you doing in May? I know, it seems an age away, but both of our Spring Ministers conferences are filling fast. We've got two weeks:
- Week 1 is 28 April through 1 May and is designed for those with over 7 or so years of ministry experience. Book here.
- Week 2 is 6 through 9 May and is for those in the first 7 years of ministry. Book here.
Each week we're focusing on Old Testament narrative (have you noticed there's a lot of it in your Bible?). However, as with every PT conference, these are not just working conferences, but we build in sessions to encourage preachers in their own walk with the Lord. There is time to relax and unwind and – we hope – refresh.
We have a superb line up of speakers including Vaughan Roberts, John Woodhouse, David Helm, Simon Gathercole (Week 1), Tim Ward (Week 1), Michael McLenahan (Week 2) and me (Week 2). There are currently around 15 places left for Week 1 and around 10 for Week 2 and it really is first come, first served. So get the proverbial skates on. See you there!
Last year a small army of volunteers hosted EMA guests for two or three nights to enable people out of London to attend. We'd love to expand that programme this year. It's really helpful for preachers and churches without lots of money to be able to send their guys to the EMA without lots of extra expense. Many of us might know people in London with whom we can stay – but not everyone is so fortunate. So, if you live in London and are able to help, please do! And if your ministering in a London church, could you ask folk in the church whether they might be able to accommodate anybody? This year's EMA runs from 8-10 July. If you can help, then please get in contact with the lovely Rachel, Queen of everything to do with conferences here at PT Towers. Thank you in advance for your generosity and help.
Preaching the floods
You can’t open a newspaper or watch a TV report at the moment without thinking we’re in some kind of post-apocalyptic world. Floods. Storms. Snow (if you’re in the US or Japan). What are we to make of it all? What is the preacher to make of it all? Here are one or two ideas:
God is the judge…
First, we need to let our people know that God is the judge. In that amazing phrase of Abraham, the Sovereign Lord is “judge of all the earth” and he will do right. We can’t let the weather events determine our view of God. The Scriptures – God’s own revelation – do that. And there he is presented as the one who is over all things, sustaining all things, providentially determining all things for his glory and our good. I don’t say that the connections between events and his character are always easy to determine. They are not. Nevertheless, the truth stands unchanged. And for some (at least) the weather they see on the TV news may make them revise their view of God downwards. No, Mr Preacher. He is God the judge.
…but this is not judgement
There is, therefore, a sense in which every action of his is a judgement. That’s what judges do. But we’ve got to keep our people from seeing the weather as a judgement. There are two Bible reasons and one historical reason for this:
- First, a proper biblical theology does not let us make that link. Adverse weather in the OT was a covenant curse (Deut 28.24, for example). So, if you are an OT inhabitant of Israel living under the Mosaic covenant, it’s fine to make the link. But you and your people are not. In fact, Jesus has borne the curse for us. Covenant curses are taken up by him on our behalf. Therefore, linking bad weather with the judgement of God is, in some measure at least, a denial of the cross and what Christ bore for us.
- Second, a high view of Scripture does not let us make that link. At best, some of the prophets were inspired by the Spirit to make such links – but as we’ve already seen, that was under the Old Covenant. The overriding theme of the NT is that God is patient. Then there will be judgement (2 Peter 3, for example).
- Third, a proper view of history does not let us make the link. Some people are quick to see the floods as a judgement because of the same-sex marriage decision. Ignore for a moment the whole question of whether God deals with nations in quite the same way in the new covenant (I don’t think he does – but Christians disagree on this). Rather, look at it historically. There are plenty of disasters (of more significance) where we don’t make the link. Ethiopian famine anybody? Moreover, I would argue there are more serious moral breaches that we don’t link to disaster. 7,000,000 abortions and counting? It’s easy to make links and suits our own moral positions. But we, as preachers, should not be encouraging such speculation.
What should we be saying? Here are two biblical ideas:
- First, we should recognise that the whole world is groaning waiting for the coming Saviour. The creation is affected by sin, just as humanity is. In fact, perhaps you can make an argument for humanity’s greed being partly responsible for some (I say, some) disasters.
- Second, we should follow the example of the Saviour. Luke 13 is very instructive. “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Disasters such as these remind us of the fragility of life – and as such, the chief application for preachers is to call people to repentance. Not repentance of same sex marriage laws, but repentance at the offence and stench of all sin against a holy God.
Passion for Life, anyone?
Feeling thankful for my baptist (and other) forebears
Bear with me, if you're not a baptist. I spent an afternoon last week Dr Williams' Library as I posted here. The bulk of my time was reading about the life of Benjamin Keach and reading some of his sermons too. The library is the largest collection of non-conformist material in the world outside the statutory libraries and is a real treasure trove, even though it is run like a 1950s establishment (remember card indexes?). Wonderfully, I discovered more than Keach's sermons and writings. I found the court transcript from his indictment in 1661. He was accused of writing "A child's instructor" – a little primer in which he took objection to Cranmer's homily position that baptism washed away original sin and (I hadn't realised this) his position that lay people with gifts ought to be allowed to preach. I found reading the trial very moving. It was a kangaroo court, really, like something out of Blackadder. Keach was found guilty and pilloried, fined and imprisoned. One of his contemporaries was not so lucky. He was hanged.
Modern doctrinal differences on baptism aside (the paedo baptism of the judge was a very different kind of paedo-baptism he was arguing against, it seems to me, than modern evangelical paedo-baptist positions), I was moved to see how our forebears stuck up for the faith. This is true from every part of evangelicalism. It was true for John Rogers, Anglican minister here in the city of London and editor of the first English Bible. He became Protestantism's first martyr here in the UK. It was true for Benjamin Keach, imprisoned for what we would now call orthodoxy. They weren't fazed. And they carried on preaching.
Given our past, we can tend to be over-alarmist about the pressures we now face. Perhaps one day we will face imprisonment. But it's nothing that our forebears have not had before. And indeed, it's nothing that Christian preachers don't themselves face all around the world today. So, a little perspective please. And a little thankfulness for those brave souls who preached the gospel despite the extraordinarily high cost. And continue to do so.
Praise! Words edition
Somewhere in the dim and distant past we used to cart around words copies of Praise! hymnbook (see contents here). We project words at conferences now, but still have the words editions. We've no use for them really, so do get in touch with the office if you could use 94 (I'm sure there used to be 100!) words editions of this great hymn book.
The necessary treadmilll
For various reasons, last week was a busy week. I'm only the Associate Pastor, but occasionally (especially when Senior Bob is away) I pick up the tab. So, last week was more like a "normal" pastoral week. Spoke twice Sunday, mid-week presentation, mid-week small group leading. early morning prayer meeting, complex pastoral situation and so on.
I don't mind that. That's the nature of pastoral work. But I was reminded how serving a church as a pastor can become a bit of a treadmill. I'm not saying that negatively, that's just how it is (as with many jobs, and though more than a job being a pastor is not less than). There is a routine to life and ministry which is not to be despised but is part of the order of a God who set the sun in its place and gave us rhythm through the work six, rest one pattern.
But – like any treadmill – it can wear you down. Some preachers manage this by getting off it. Frankly, that's not an option I think we should consider except in extreme circumstances. Others manage it by having staff teams large enough to relieve the burden. Still, for most of us, that is not a reality that's going to happen anytime soon. I spent my pastoral life in a church where I was the pastor and – even though I had a good team of elders – we had neither resources nor manpower to afford other staff.
So, how do you manage the necessary treadmill. Here are one or two practical ideas:
- you don't have to preach at every service, you know. If there are those in the congregation who have gifts in this area, you should be training them up. The congregation should delight in that. Or use nearby friends who have an embarrassment of riches in this area. Anyway, the discipline for you of sitting under someone else's ministry is a good one.
- that is especially true midweek. If you've got other guys just starting out, midweek groups or meetings are a great way to encourage them and train them.
- a day off is more than a wise addition to your week: it is a divine appointment. Ministers who deliberately or willfully neglect a day of rest are worse than unwise. There is disobedience here. I come across this a lot. Let's call it what it is. Sure, there are emergencies. But what does your regular pattern look like?
- You can always work on a sermon some more, but don't feel you always have to. I'm not arguing for shortcuts or cutting corners, but I am saying that if you have a pattern of work and ministry which does not fit with your pattern of time, something needs to change. Realistically, spending more than 10 hours on a sermon when you have to preach twice and do a midweek is not a sustainable pattern. It is worth sometimes sitting down and thinking how long (roughly) a sermon takes and whether that is sustainable.
- build in breaks. Getting off the treadmill every now and then will keep you and your congregation fresh. House swap. Camp. Do something cheap if money is a problem. But make sure you add Jubilees to your Sabbaths.
- share the pastoral burden. There may not be others in the church who can preach, but there may well be others who can share some of the pastoral work. I don't think this is abrogating your responsibilities. Rather, it is an appropriate sharing of the load.
- the busier you are, the more you should pray. It may sound a little cold and calculating, but build in the time. Schedule it.
There's just a few ideas. You'll have more. Don't leave it until things are out of control.
Some introductions are just too long. They may seem worthy on the page, engaging even. They may seem important to the overall thrust. They may give you the opportunity to tell the story you've been wanting to tell. But sometimes they are just too long. If so, they end up serving the opposite purpose for which they were intended: they do not engage nor provide a hook. Too long and they – by contrast – alienate and disengage the hearer. Whilst doing some research for a forthcoming chapter I am writing at the superb Dr Williams's Library (more of that another day), I came across this excellent quote about John Howe's preaching (1630-1705). He was much loved by his congregation, but even they found his introductions difficult:
Dear good man, he spends so much time in laying the cloth that I lost my appetite for the main course.
Salutary. For some of us, at least.
And after the Bible reading…
…that’s where the sermon usually comes in our services, maybe with a hymn or song in between if you like that kind of thing. I wonder, though, whether the goal of comprehensible proclamation means we should sometimes tinker with this standard procedure, and allow the preacher a few minutes on his feet setting the scene for the reading of the passage, so that the congregation will better understand it when it’s read, before he then launches into the rest of the sermon.
This is something I have done occasionally, and I found myself wanting to do it again recently when preaching on chs.2 and 3 of Hosea (or rather Hosea 2:2-3:5, as I think that the natural break is after 2:1, as in the NIV, rather than at the end of ch.1, as in the ESV). I found myself looking at that passage, thinking: If this is read without introduction, I suspect that all but the keenest with the best memories will spend most of their time not so much taking the reading in but wondering who this ‘mother’ and ‘wife’ is 2:1, who the people with bizarre names are (2:23), and so on.
I’ve known some churches that have encouraged the person reading the Scripture in the service to give a sentence or two of introduction before the reading, either composed themselves (having rightly appointed to that task only people with a decent knowledge of Scripture), or else given to them by the preacher. I’d prefer to take this to its logical conclusion at let the preacher do it his way.
You might be able to bring some deep principles to bear on this seemingly small issue: shouldn’t Protestant principles lead us to have Scripture simply read publicly, before someone steps up to interpret and proclaim it? Should Scripture appear ‘wrapped up’ in commentary like this, rather than in a sense appearing in its own right in our worship?
But my concern is pragmatic: to promote the greatest possible comprehension of and engagement with the word of God in public worship. And that is a great Protestant theological principle too.
Encouragement for preachers
I wonder if we have so over-reacted to the mystical and the subjective-emotional in preaching, that we see it now in terms of dispensing Biblical knowledge rather than pleading with God in prayer and men in proclamation to change lives in time for eternity. ‘Preach the Word’' has become ‘Explain the Bible’. There is a difference. Systematic Theology is essential. Biblical Theology in the whole sweep of the Bible's big picture from Genesis to Revelation, in Kingdom and covenant, is deeply enriching. But they are not the way God wrote the Bible and to let them govern the sermon, rather than the text of Scripture as written is to end up speaking about the Bible rather than letting the Bible speak. One is the words of men; the other the Word of God. Not observing the text, but listening to God; not cool analysts, but passionate hearers.