Dying to Preach, Reflections


“It was not Paul’s ambition for the Corinthians to know how much he knew. That was beside the point. His ambition was for them to know Christ alone.”

  – Steven W. Smith, Dying to Preach

The first book I ever read on preaching is considered, by many in seminaries across the country, to be a seminal work on the subject. It started with a chapter bemoaning the place of today’s preacher. “In the past,” it had said, “the preacher was seen as a learned man, and treated as such.” (I’m paraphrasing, but this is actually pretty close to exactly what was written.) The premise of that first chapter was that in the past the preacher was respected, trusted, believed. Today, however, that preacher is seen more as a senile grandpa – a person with a big heart and neither foot in reality. After that first chapter, the book was very helpful in how to craft sermon outlines and manuscripts and so on, but that first chapter always confused me.

Dying to Preach, by Steven W. Smith is an entirely different book. And while Smith doesn’t deal with the actual process of crafting a sermon, he speaks in direct, passionate language about the purpose and means of preaching.

“For the Word of God to live in people, the preacher must die to his right to be thought of as a great preacher. He must embrace the reality that what people need the most will not always be what they want to hear.”

– Smith

For a preacher to effectively preach the Word, he must commit to preach Christ alone. This means he must die. The preacher must die to himself – his name, his axe to grind, his popularity; to the text – he must be faithful to preach only what is in the text, being careful not to use the text to push an agenda or message by placing anything onto the text; and finally to his people – he must put their need to hear Christ at the forefront.

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The Cross

“Jesus walks into Jerusalem. Like no one else He knows what awaits Him there. So in Gethsemane He falls on His face. The task is too great, and in a moment of writhing transparency, He buries His knees in the dirt, clasps His rugged hands, looks up to heaven, and begs His Father to remove the cup of wrath from the table of tomorrow. If there were another way than to take up that biting chalice, He would take it. Heaven is silent, and He knows what He must do. So He stands up and walks away, so thirsty for the Father’s pleasure that He drinks the cup of His wrath for others. Only the grace of the Father can sustain Him, and this is why He prays. But tonight He feels so alone. This is not a light cross. He can’t run. He must bear it. And He must bear it alone. 
So He allows Himself to be stripped of all that is dignified, of all that is attractive. He willingly puts Himself in the most vulnerable position. Seeing the faces of those who torture Him, He remains undaunted. Falling to the ground under the weight of the cross, He lifts His corpus off the ground and rises to communicate God’s love. Then He stretches out His hands, and He dies. In a thousand ways He wants this to end, but He stays. And as life is being drained from Him, there is something taking place that no one else can see. From eternity past to eternity present, sins are being forgiven, debts are being cleared; atonement, sweet atonement is being accomplished. From all the putrid stench of hell, from all the wickedness of Satan’s bastard children, up from the grotesque composite of trillions of sins, the ravishing Lily of the Valley is in full bloom. Life has come. So He screams the conclusion of this homily of heaven and hell from the pulpit of His cross, “It is finished!” And soon that buried life will rise again to prove that the spiritual reality is a physical one. Life from death. Death for Life. The exchange produces the pardon of sin. Oh the sweet vicarious suffering of Jesus that won us our salvation!”

From Dying to Preach: Embracing the Cross in the Pulpit, by Steven W Smith

The Master Plan of Evangelism, Book Response

Master Plan of EvangelismThe Master Plan of Evangelism deals more with discipleship than with evangelism. But the fact that a dichotomy exists between the two in my mind is a problem the book pointed out while I was reading.

I really enjoyed this book. Even though it doesn’t say anything particularly earth-shattering (it simply goes through the pattern of disciple-making and leader-forging modeled by Jesus in the gospels), the way in which Coleman shines a light on Jesus’s intentional interaction with the 12 disciples began to chisel away and add form to the shapeless word-cloud thoughts about church and church planting and structures that Timmis’s Total Church and Hirsch’s The Forgotten Ways put into my mind.

“If the patterns of Jesus .. mean anything at all, it teaches that the first duty of a church leadership is to see to it that a foundation is laid in the beginning on which can be built an effective and continuing evangelistic ministry to the multitudes.”

– The Master Plan of Evangelism, p. 32

One of the main thrusts of the book is that Jesus’ primary means of evangelism was not simply to go out into the world and tell people about the presence of the kingdom. In fact, according to the gospels, his primary ministry was to a small group of men who he trained up to go out and spread the gospel.

With this in mind, Coleman presented a new way for me to understand a quote from David Garrison who says, “If you want to see churches planted, then you must set out to plant churches. … If you want to see reproducing churches planted, you must set out to plant reproducing churches.” (Church Planting Movements, p. 181, emphasis mine).

The goal of evangelism is not to make converts – the goal is to make disciples. This was the pattern set forth by Jesus in the beginning, and the instruction given to those disciples in the Great Commission – “Go and make disciples.” To be a disciple is to make disciples. Hirsch might say it’s part of the DNA of a disciple.

When applied specifically to church-planting, Jesus’s pattern of disciple-making for the purpose of evangelism provides an amazing framework for building a growing church. Earth-shattering, right? The One who established the church would also lay the pattern for growing it and keeping it healthy.

The pattern for growing leaders is simple enough: Jesus spent time with his disciples. A lot of time. He modeled for them the vision they would grasp. He sent them out to put their learning into practice. He called them back for evaluation. Then He finally sent them out to continue the work.

With this pattern of church planting, the focus becomes a self-sustaining form of growth. As a planter pours his life into several people, they will be prepared to pour their lives into several other people, and the plant becomes a movement of multiplication, rather than a movement of addition.

According to Coleman, with this type of discipleship some of our “cherished plans” of church structure might have to be changed or altogether removed. For established churches, this might be a painful process which causes us to possibly even reevaluate our understanding of success.

“If Jesus .. found it necessary to stay almost constantly with his few disciples for three years, and even one of them was lost, how can a church expect to do [leadership development/discipling new believers] on an assembly line basis a few days out of the year?”

– The Master Plan of Evangelism, p. 47

In Alan Hirsch’s book The Forgotten Ways, when speaking on the fact that an increasingly post-Christendom culture means the Church must begin to think of evangelism and discipleship and “doing church” in new ways, he asks the question “What is the irreducible minimum of the faith? What can be done away with? What is too complex and heavy to carry into a new missional situation and an adaptive challenge? We need to eliminate the things that don’t matter.” (Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, p. 214).

That question begins to resonate with me much deeper upon reading The Master Plan. As I think about “planting a church”, what am I really thinking about? What ballast do I need to do away with? Far too often when thinking of planting a church, my mind begins to quickly wander to day dreams about what the Sunday morning looks like. But what if my focus is entirely on a small group of people for several years – making a group of disciples who will sustain the work of the church and multiply it?

Would that focus mean I do away with a building or does it change where we meet at all? Would we have a need for paid full-time staff? What about the all-important web presence? I don’t know the answer to those questions yet, but I do know that in order to focus on making disciples is to focus on waging war in the name of God’s kingdom.

Coleman makes a point that both Hirsch and Timmis have made before – that we are not care-takers of the church under siege. We haven’t been called to hold the fort, but to storm the heights. This is the language of Matthew 16:18. “The gates of hell will not prevail” puts the Church clearly in position as the force waging war – established, commissioned, and sustained on the confession “You are the Christ, Son of God.”

As leaders of the church, “It does not matter how many people we enlist for the cause, but how many they conquer for Christ.” (p. 120). Of all the powerful quotes and thought-provoking ideas that I took from this book, the thing that will probably stay with me most vibrantly is the call to make disciples – to pour my life into a group of people so that they are able to go out and do the same. That can’t be done in a classroom setting and it can’t be done exclusively in a pulpit-to-pew setting. It must be done by sharing my life with people.

The Real Story

If I’m being completely honest, there are a lot of things in the Bible that I don’t understand.

I’m not necessarily talking about things that I can’t articulate, explain Biblically, or work through systematically. For example, I could define to you the Trinity – One God existing in three persons; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But I can’t fully wrap my mind around it.

One of those things I long struggled to understand comes from the shortest verse in the Bible, John 11:35.

“Jesus wept.”

The simple statement is in the middle of the story of Lazarus in John 11. Lazarus’s sisters come to Jesus because Lazarus is sick. Jesus waits around a couple days, then goes to Bethany, where Lazarus has already died and been in the tomb for four days. Then, Jesus goes to the entrance of the tomb and commands Lazarus to come out, alive, spawning the most egregious overuse of a thinly-veiled codename in all science fiction. But I digress.

Here’s what is confusing to me about John 11:35. Why does Jesus cry? Why does the Lord of the universe, who John describes just ten chapters prior as being the One through whom all things are created and by whom all life is sustained, shed tears over the death of His friend?

Why does Jesus, who will moments later raise Lazarus from the dead, weep because Lazarus has been laid in the tomb?

Furthermore, why would Jesus cry over Lazarus’s being laid in the tomb, knowing that in a short time, He will be put to death on a cross, buried, and raised to life, putting death itself to death so that Lazarus will spend eternity with Him in glory?

The passage always confused me because I thought the story was about Lazarus. But the story isn’t about Lazarus. The story is about Jesus.

Jesus isn’t weeping for Lazarus. Jesus weeps because Lazarus, Martha, Mary, you, and I were never meant for death.

Jesus weeps because the pain of separation Martha and Mary feel – the pain that is causing such deep grief and such deep mourning – is a pain that we were never meant to endure.

Jesus weeps because all men have sinned, are separated from God, and are condemned to die just as Lazarus has died.

When the people saw Jesus weeping, some asked, “Couldn’t he who healed the blind man also have kept Lazarus from dying?” They didn’t understand the story of which they were a part. Jesus had already told the disciples, “For your sake, I am glad that I wasn’t there, so that you may believe.” We see this come to fruition in verses 44 and 45 when many of the people who had come to mourn with Mary and Martha see Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead and believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.

A year and a half ago, Ronnie Smith, a former pastor at The Austin Stone, moved to Libya with his wife and son to teach chemistry at a local school. He loved Libya and the Libyan people deeply, and his greatest desire was to see the people of Libya know peace and prosperity and the joy of knowing God through Jesus Christ.

On December 5, Ronnie was shot and killed in the streets close to his home.

That morning, the staff at The Stone gathered together, and we prayed for Ronnie’s family, for Ronnie’s students, for Ronnie’s killers, for the people of Libya.

And we wept. We wept over the pain of separation, over having a friend who was no longer with us. We wept for Anita and Hosea who had a husband and father taken away. We wept for Ronnie’s students who loved him deeply.

But we did not weep for Ronnie, because Ronnie’s story was Jesus.

We did not weep for Ronnie because he was standing before the throne of God!

I don’t know God’s ultimate sovereign plan in Ronnie’s death. I really don’t. But I stood in a room with a hundred people who loved that man deeply, all crying out prayers to God “Save the men that murdered Ronnie! Reveal yourself to the men that killed our brother! Exalt your name in Benghazi through the death of our friend!” 

That is the honest prayer of my church. And our God hears. He is making Himself known throughout Libya and America through Ronnie’s death and through Ronnie’s wife Anita as she proclaims Jesus name in English and in Arabic because her story is Jesus, too.

The final thing we did in that staff meeting the morning of Ronnie’s death was worship. We sang songs of praise to Jesus, who conquered death on the cross. We could worship in honesty and with hope because of what Jesus says of Himself to Martha in John 11:25: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.

I don’t want to make The Austin Stone out to be some sort of super hero church like we have it all together and are spiritual giants because we consistently make mistake and are consistently in need of God’s grace. But I have been so deeply blessed by the witness of this church through its response to Ronnie’s death. My pastors mourned deeply. They didn’t pretend to have the answers. They were honest in tears and cracked voices.

But the story of our church is Jesus’ life, death, burial, resurrection and His coming return. So even now, while we mourn, we can worship and look forward, expectantly, to the day when Jesus will set all things right.

The Christian Community

I’ve always been a loner.

It manifests in a couple ways. For one, I just tend to get lost in thought and start wandering off. Janelle and I recently went to Pedernales Falls State Park with some friends and a good 50% of the pictures Janelle took of the scenery involve me wandering around by myself staring at rocks or bugs or the water. Maybe I’m less of a loner in that sense, and more socially awkward.

The other way it comes up is probably a bit more in line with culture. At a young age I totally bought into the great American idea of self-sufficiency. Through hard work, persistence, and talent, I can do great things on my own.

For many people who grew up in church, it’s an idea that replaces the gospel. I grew up worshipping at the altar of self-sufficient moralism. If I can just try harder, I will kill this sin and God will be pleased with me. But the gospel says that I was dead in sin and separated from God, but He sent Jesus to live a perfect life in my place, to die the death I deserved, and to be resurrected so that I have the hope of salvation through the work of Jesus Christ.

The gospel should be the death knell of any illusion that I could possibly do anything on my own.

And that’s where I usually stop, at “Christ has saved me.” But Jesus Christ has not only saved me from sin and guilt. He has saved me to an eternal hope, the power over sin through the spirit, and a new family of believers. I have been adopted as God’s son, brought into a community of brothers and sisters bound together in Jesus through the Holy Spirit.

Since I’ve been at the Stone, one of the biggest things God has been working in me is my desperate need for community for the sake of my becoming more like Christ. To this point in my Christian life, I’d always viewed Christian community more as a resource for potential friends. As far as growing in holiness, I’ll take care of that on my own.

I recently came across an incredibly interesting community in Austin. Here’s a selection from the organization’s “about me” and mission statement:

  • We offer a true sense of community for all of Austin … and strive to give back to the community that supports us.
  • Austin .. is our priority, we are not introspective and we wish to see good things happen for everyone in this city. [We exist] to do good for the community [through] charity and volunteer work.
  • Mission: To provide a safe haven and family environment for all of Austin … [and] support the city.

To be honest, that’s pretty much how I’ve always looked at Christian community. It’s a group of people coming together for the purpose of friendship and to go out into the community every once in a while and do some good stuff – fix up a park, maybe deliver meals.. some sort of service project. If I was to look at the description and mission statement of the organization above, I would probably say it lines up pretty much exactly with what I think Christian community is all about.

The problem is the organization above is from the Facebook page of the Vampire Court of Austin. Which is, apparently, a thing that exists in this town.

Obviously, it’s problematic for my understanding of what Christian community looks like to be pretty much identical to how the Vampire Court of Austin understands its community. What it means is that I’ve removed Jesus from the Christian community. Without Christ involved in the center of the community, then what’s the point – other than to maybe get some friends and possibly fix up a garden in 78704.

The Bible is pretty clear about the purpose for Christian community: to build the body of believers up to maturity in Christ and to tell other people about Jesus.

Hebrews 3:13 says we need community so sin doesn’t come in and wreck our hearts. 

Ephesians 4:11-21 shows that we need community to be built up in Christ as mature believers.

Proverbs 28:13 and James 5:16 says we need community for our health.

Romans 10:14-15 and 12:3-8 says the work of evangelism is accomplished through the body as a whole.

According to Scripture, a healthy Christian cannot exist apart from the community of believers, nor can a healthy Christian remain aloof from the body.

So what does this look like for me?

Well, for starters it doesn’t look pretty. Actually, it has a tendency to be messy and feel kind of awkward. And I don’t particularly like it all the time. Every bit of my flesh recoils and squirms when I confess my hidden sin to my brother in Christ. Every part of my flesh screams bloody murder when someone looks me in the eye and preaches the gospel into a particular part of my life where I am struggling with doubt or fear or shame. “NO THIS IS MY SIN AND I’LL DEAL WITH IT!” Maybe that’s the feeling Paul’s describing in putting the flesh to death.

I don’t think that’s necessarily an uncommon experience, even Biblically. Acts 2:42-47 describes the early church being “devoted to fellowship.” They didn’t come together as Christians and suddenly start running around like besties. They were deeply committed to each other because they were a new family – the people of God. Too often I’ve walked into a group of Christians and refused to be committed to fellowship. The people are too weird, we’ve got nothing in common, this dude kind of gets on my nerves. Why should I be committed to them?

The answer to that question, I’m realizing through God’s grace, is so that through the community I can be molded into Christ’s image and the gospel can be proclaimed where it is not known.

Secondly, it’s refreshing. The “freedom in Christ” actually is freeing! I don’t have to hide who I am from other Christians. I don’t have to pretend to have it all put together. For years, I’d thought it strange that I had “Church Friends” and then I had my actual friends. I could never figure out why. I kept seeing all of this talk in the Bible of fellowship in Christ and how the early church lived together in such community that they were sharing their possessions and providing for each other and it just seemed like some weird commune. But what I’ve realized over the past month is I have this friend dichotomy because I’ve been real with one group of people and tried to hide myself from the other.

There is freedom in Christ. There is hope in Christian community. I can’t do this on my own.

Total Church Reflections


I just finished reading Total Church by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis. The book presents a picture for what the church could look like if it was rooted in the Word and working in mission as a community of believers.

There were a number of ideas in the book that got me really excited, some that I had honestly never thought of before, and others that I disagreed with. What I want to do with this post is not really give you a point-by-point description of the skeleton of the book, but mention a few points that pressed on me in one way or another and try to expound on my reaction to those ideas.

“This book argues that two key principles should shape the way we ‘do church’: gospel and community.”

The core of Chester and Timmis’ premise is that Christians must be rooted in the gospel, which will cause us to be rooted in the community – the church. Slicing through the Christian vocabulary, to be rooted in the gospel means “being word-centered” and being “mission-centered because the gospel is a message to be proclaimed.” This community, created by a word, rooted in a message of good news that is to be proclaimed by a community of believers inviting others to join in their community is really the central theme of the book.

“Too much evangelism is an attempt to answer questions people are not asking. Let them experience the life of the Christian community.”

Chester and Timmis give a picture of a group of believers who are coming together (as small groups within the context of a larger church body) not to have some sort of business meeting or sort of book review, but a group of people who have been made into the people of God actually living like a community that loves and cares for each other. It is within the context of this community that evangelism takes place. Our Christian communities (small groups, home churches, missional communities, whatever you want to call them) are the “hermeneutic of the gospel”. The church that lives in this real community is itself a sort of “community apologetic” for anyone looking in. I love this idea, that a group of people loving and caring for each other speaks to the validity of the gospel being spoken by that same community. The key being that the gospel is articulated. Because if the gospel is not articulated, then what separates this group of people from a hippie campsite or a cultist compound? So the community itself is the apologetic for a clear gospel being presented.

For me, this makes church-planting actually seem feasible. Church planting ceases to be a husband and wife going into a neighborhood, guns blazing, throwing holy water on houses and trying to convince people to become Christians. Instead, church planting looks like a group of people coming into the neighborhood as the church plant, evangelizing the neighbors of the church plant. To put it another way, under this paradigm, I am not going to my home group simply to hear someone’s quiet time and answer some questions to kill any awkward silence. Instead, I am intentionally going into the neighborhood where my brother and sister in Christ live so that I can tell his neighbors about what Jesus did.

Chester and Timmis come from a house-church model (a collection of small groups of believers makes up the larger whole of the church), and through this lens they speak on a number of subjects and ideas that I don’t necessarily agree with and I really don’t want to get into a full-on “Here’s why so and so is wrong” sort of thing. There’s too many blogs that do that.

One of the things that stuck out to me while reading this book was my reaction to things with which I disagreed. In a chapter on counseling, my immediate reaction was to say “No, you need to have this person see a licensed counselor”. Later on in the book, I got genuinely upset at what seemed to be a dismissal of congregational preaching.

So here’s what I took from that:

1) I don’t really fully trust the sufficiency of Scripture as much as I want to, or want to say I do. If I did, I wouldn’t scoff and cringe when people try to counsel someone who is hurting with “God is sovereign” or “He’s working for the good in all things”. Honestly, think about that for a second. Is there any possible better news anyone could receive at any point in time during suffering? “Hey, I know this hurts, but God is in control and He has not abandoned you. Not only that, but He’s working all of this out for your good.”

2) I’ve got a lot of my self-worth and self-identity wrapped up in this idea that I need to preach to a congregation of people. Now look, I’m not saying that preaching is really just a conversation. I’m not saying that in the slightest. What I am saying is that my immediate response of flinching when I read about the possibility of doing pastoral ministry and never preaching is because I am selfish and self-centered. Pastoral ministry cannot, by definition, EVER be about me. It can’t. It is a shepherding and stewarding of what God in His sovereignty has entrusted to me. I don’t know if it was there intention, but Timmis and Chester really pointed that out to me, as a reader. I’m really wrapped up in the me part of ministry, despite the fact that there is no me part to be wrapped up in.