FORGET NONE OF HIS BENEFITS
volume 18, number 18, May 2, 2019
“How long will you lie down, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep? “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest,”—And your poverty will come in like a vagabond, and your need like an armed man.” -Proverbs 6:9-11
Burmese Pythons and the Local Church
Recently a seventeen foot long female Burmese python (native to Southeast Asia), weighing 140 pounds with 73 developing eggs was captured in Big Cypress Natural Preserve, a 729,000 acre area west of Miami. Pythons are not indigenous to the United States nor the Florida Everglades, but apparently were introduced to the area in the 1980’s by pet owners who discarded them there. These pythons are thriving in the Everglades and now an estimated 100,000 of them are there, wreaking havoc with the ecosystem. These python eat small mammals and even larger deer and wild hogs. The authorities are fighting a losing battle in containing them.
Pythons are non-poisonous snakes which wait on the side of pathways or the edges of lakes, rivers, or streams for its prey to scurry by. The python pounces on the unfortunate animal and immediately wraps its body around the prey, suffocating it. It then loosens its lower jaw and works the animal down its throat (which takes about an hour) and digests it. Reticulated pythons, a different specie, also found in Southeast Asia, have been known to kill humans and devour them. This happened recently to an unfortunate farmer on one of the Islands of Indonesia.
Now, you are probably wondering what in the world this has to do with revival, evangelism, or the work of preaching the gospel in the world? It seems to me that the Western church very much resembles a python. How so? After the python eats the fawn or piglet it lies around for a few days, unable to move because it is so fat and lethargic. The python only eats about once a week. By the next week, it is ready to feast on another fawn or piglet.
This strikes me as very similar to the Western church. Our people love to feast on the good preaching that so many of our churches offer them. Particularly in the Reformed world we value theological education and we demand that our pastors have university degrees as well as Master of Divinity degrees and increasingly, a man is not worth his salt unless he has a Doctorate. Now, of course, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with extensive theological education, as long as it is grounded on God’s word. However I am fairly confident in saying that few of our pastors are evangelists (Ephesians 4:11) and perhaps even fewer of them have the gift of exhortation (Romans 12:8). Most of our pastors, I submit, have the gift of teaching (Romans 12:7). That’s because our emphasis on well trained pastors draws men who are bright, love to read and study, and who value studying and discussing the finer points of theology.
Unwittingly pastors with the gift of teaching build their ministries around this gift. The culture of the church begins to take on the ministry gift and passion of the pastor. So, not merely from the pulpit but also in the various teaching opportunities in small groups, Sunday School, and the like the emphasis is on the dissemination of Biblical and theological information. Again, I am in no way disparaging the necessity of solid teaching. I am saying, however, that this is not enough. Without the gift of evangelism front and center, and without the gift of exhortation regularly displayed from the pulpit, people will soon develop into pythons. They come each Sunday to feast on a good sermon, and then lie around the entire next week until they are hungry again, and then feast again. They have eaten their fawn or piglet for the week and they are satisfied.
So, what is the solution? The pastor with the gift of teaching should, by all means, continue his faithful exposition of God’s word from the pulpit. But he also ought to have an exhorter next to him, always available to challenge the congregation to move forward, to do something with what they just heard. An exhorter is an “implication visionary.” He sees the cultural trends. He knows where these are leading us, and he serves as the watchman on the wall (Ezekiel 33), warning the people to stay vigilant, to reveal error, and to apply what they have learned in the sermon.
When I was the Pastor of the Christ Community Presbyterian Church, West Hartford, Connecticut one of our Ruling Elders was very clearly an exhorter. I was more a teacher. I was pretty content with delivering a solid, Biblically and theologically sound message. Not this Ruling Elder. He rightly understood that Biblical preaching without direct, personal application, moving the congregation to action made the sermon incomplete. Therefore, I said to him early in our ministry, “You have my permission at the end of any sermon I preach, to come to the pulpit and exhort the congregation. He did so about once per month. Basically he would say, “Now, you heard what the pastor just said. What are you going to do about it? How does your life need to change? How will this impact your life tomorrow when you go back to work?”
The evangelist serves a similar role. Evangelists, by definition, are action oriented. Evangelists are always stirring up things. Things happen around evangelists. People get saved and now they need to be discipled. Perhaps these new converts have come from third or fourth generation families of dysfunction and have no idea how to live a God honoring life as a father, mother, husband, or wife. This is where the teachers, discipleship leaders, counselors come in. And very often the evangelists will be reaching people with limited financial means who perhaps need to be taught to read or write, how to build a resume, how to interview for a job, how to manage their money. This is where those with mercy ministry gifts come in.
This all, of course, can only function propitiously through the power of the Holy Spirit coming upon the leadership and people of the church, but the use of all the ministry gifts will move us from being pythons which lie around until the next Sunday’s feeding, and begin to fly like eagles, seeing the gospel of Jesus Christ impact every aspect of our communities.