(I had the privilege of writing for my buddy Trevin Wax recently. This article appeared for him over at his blog for The Gospel Coalition) Missions and church planting is pretty much the only thing I’ve ever done (which means I’ve made plenty of mistakes!). Space doesn’t permit me to share all the occasions where my zeal stiff-armed wisdom. For many in ministry, this is a job hazard.
I’m pretty sure I’m not the only passionate pastor though. Every ministry conference I attend, I find dozens of other wild-eyed church planters, pent-up preachers, and inspired ministers – all adrenalized by visions of revival in their cities.
But lurking behind passion is danger—ways in which we, the impassioned proclaimers of the gospel can muddy the message. If we are truly passionate about Jesus and his Kingdom, then we must become passionate about making the message of that kingdom as clear as possible to our hearers.
Here are four common ways I see us missing the mark and muddying the gospel:
Bad Language I’m not talking about cussing in the pulpit. Our problem is the tendency of the theologically-minded to use language that your neighbor who’s never come to church before doesn’t understand. So cloistered can we become in our own reformed, or baptist, or charismatic, or (fill in the blank with your favorite Christian subculture moniker) language that we’ve lost the missionary edge to speak to everyone else.
I’m not just talking about the pulpit speech. I’m talking about all your language—website, bulletin, announcements, etc. If you’ve got a bad website that can’t be viewed on a mobile device in 2013, you’re using bad language. If your church artwork looks like a poor imitation of Hollywood, you’re using bad language. It’s the essential equivalent to preaching in New York using Elizabethan English. People may understand you if they really try, but you’re not making it easy on them.
Biblical Shallowness Just because you know how to make a few vague redemptive-historical connections in your preaching does not make you biblically deep. We need to know the Bible inside and out. The rays of light which beam forth from the Scriptures burn away the fog which veils our gospel. That’s why we need to more deeply saturate ourselves in it.
Laxity with language is a sign of biblical shallowness. If you read the Scriptures well you can’t help but notice all the great many ways God has set about telling His redemption story. Denying ourselves the richness of God’s literary genius and creative narrative is death to the minister—the sodium pentothal of our preaching.
Why? Because the minister must be more than literate with the Scriptures, he must be fluent. If you’re fluent in the language of the Scriptures, then translating their message into the language of the culture becomes second nature. But if you’re foggy on the Bible, then you’ll fog up the lens of the onlooker, making it impossible for him to see and savor the gospel.
Idolatry of Preference We are masters at enforcing our preferences as if they were biblical norms.
You like hymns because “they’re biblical, after all.” You prefer your music quiet because you read in a book it should be that way. You prefer your music loud because you’re pretty sure worship at the head of the Israelite procession was loud, right? You like your pastor in a trendy shirt, or you don’t.
My point here is that when we make dress code, music, style, meeting times, graphics, and carpet color objects of great concern, we elevate them to a status of importance beyond what they deserve. These are preferences that must be subject to the Scriptures and our mission to clarify the gospel to the culture.
We must be vigilant to resist our preferences in ministry. We mustn’t look not to our own interests, but to the interests of others (Phil. 2:4). Jesus did ministry this way. We probably should too.
Moral Duplicity Pastor, you are not called to be edgy, but holy. When our tongues speak too loosely or our eyes wander too freely, we become guilty of moral duplicity.
Test yourself in this. Is there behavior that you engage in regularly throughout the week that you’d be embarrassed to tell your church about? That feeling you’re having right now probably says enough.
The world doesn’t need worldly ministers. The world needs heavenly ministers who speak their language. Jesus is our great example.
Passion for Jesus should translate into a passion for clarity. When we get out of the way, the world can see the Gospel clearly. The simple question is, are we willing to agree with John the Baptist that Jesus must become more, and we (with our preferences, problems, and proclivities) must become less? For the sake of the gospel, I sure hope so.