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This is the 1st of a 4 part series on Habits for Spiritually Healthy Pastors.

I have quite a few habits I observe every day. For example, after dinner each night, I find a sweet treat, usually Oreos and milk, to finish dinner.

In the mornings, I make a pot of coffee and drink at least a cup each day. Also, in the mornings, I make time to read the Bible and pray. 

You have habits as well. Habits (good or bad) form who we are. Have you considered what your habits say about you?

Someone once said, “Watch your thoughts for they become words. Watch your words for they become actions. Watch your actions for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become your character. And watch your character, for it becomes your destiny! What we think we become.” 

We’re the product of our regular habits. In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg suggests that habits have a cycle of routine, habit, and reward. 

In other words, we do out of habit, because we experience a benefit or reward from it. Our habits say a lot about us. So, what do your worship habits say about you?

Last fall, I preached a sermon series entitled “Habits of Healthy Church Members.” The series highlighted habits that reflect our church mission.

At Wilkesboro Baptist, our mission is to lead our neighbors and the nations to follow Jesus by worshiping, learning, serving, and replicating. We noted three habits for each step in our church’s mission. 

In today’s article, I’m recommending three worship habits for spiritually healthy pastors. 

HABIT #1—HUMBLY PREPARE FOR WORSHIP.

One of my fellow pastors refers to the “unrelenting tyranny of the Sunday” regarding the regularity of sermon preparation and delivery.

If you’re anything like me, you have study and preparation routines throughout the week to make sure you’re ready for each Sunday.

It’s all too easy, however, to get so caught up in the reading, writing, and sermon preparation that I neglect prayer and personal application.

If you want to be spiritually healthy as a pastor, remember your need to prepare humbly. Build prayer and confession time into your office schedule and sermon preparation.

If God doesn’t draw hearts, there won’t be any lasting fruit, regardless of your skill, preparation, giftedness, and delivery.

HABIT #2—INTENTIONALLY ENGAGE IN WORSHIP. 

I know, you’re reading this and thinking, “How can I be more engaged? I’m preaching.” Well, what about the other aspects of worship? 

Are you singing with the congregation? Are you listening to the other portions of the service? Are you engaged by focusing on God, or distracted trying to remember the points of your sermon? 

Pastor, you’re the lead worshiper in your church. If you don’t sing, engage, and connect with the worship aspects in your services, how can you expect your congregation to participate? 

Finish sermon preparation before entering your sanctuary or worship center. Be engaged as you worship. Worship isn’t merely an activity to attend; it’s an attitude to reflect. 

You and your congregation will benefit greatly. More importantly, you’ll honor God with your worshipful engagement.

HABIT #3—GIVE GENEROUSLY AS WORSHIP. 

I have no idea how many pastors give a tithe or more than a tithe. But I know and believe this: pastors are the leaders in their congregations. 

If they’re not generous, how can they ask for generosity of others? Before you balk and say, “But you don’t know how much I make. It’s barely enough to make it each week,” stop and ask yourself: 

“Has God ever failed to meet my need?” In my life, the answer is a resounding, “No.” 

Trust God and give generously. He’ll provide. Trust God and give forgetfully. It only matters to God what you give. Don’t focus on it, and certainly don’t broadcast it.

Giving generously will remind you you’re part of the congregation you serve. It’ll create an attitude of investment and healthy ownership in your church community. It’ll also make you more like Christ. 

Simple habits, right? Maybe simple, but profound in their influence. 

In the next several months, I’ll post about the healthy habits of pastors in their learning, serving, and replicating. I know these aren’t exhaustive; they’re basic. 

But basic habits lived out regularly develop us into growing and fruitful followers of Jesus. What are some other worship habits we should adopt? I’d love to hear from you. 

Originally posted here at LifeWay Facts and Trends.

The last few days have been unsettling. Recently, I had a conversation with a church member who expressed concern that the US drone strike that killed Qassem Soleimani might become a full on military engagement. Iran’s retaliation against US bases in Baghdad certainly do not alleviate those concerns. It is not wrong to be concerned about the potential of another Middle East conflict.

Without question, we should pray. We should for our political leaders who need divine wisdom. We should also pray for the people in the crossfire. There are Iraqi and Iranian nationals who will be caught in the middle of a conflict they do not want. We should pray for the peoples of the region, Israel and other countries, who are regularly face terror threats and acts of violence that have been the precipitating reasons for the current situation. We should pray for our soldiers who are in the Middle East now and those who might be heading there. We should pray for believers in the region who may face even more persecution in a destabilizing situation.

You might be thinking, is that all we can do? Pray.

The reason we can pray is because international conflicts and world affairs do not fall outside the sovereignty of the living God.

During 2019, our Wednesday night Bible study focused on the book of Daniel. The book is full of turmoil, difficulty, and political intrigue. As an exile, Daniel lived under a pagan kingdom. Yet he remained faithful to God. The hero of the book of Daniel is God, who gave Daniel the grace to remain faithful, the ability to interpret dreams, the faith to pray, the willingness to speak truth to the most powerful men in the world

Daniel’s prophetic visions describe turmoil in Jerusalem, terrible tidings for the Jewish people under evil kings, uncertainties and quandaries (Dan. 7-12). But his visions also say something else. They tell us that God is in control.

That God described in predictive detail what would and did happen in the years following Daniel’s life is illuminating. That God foretold his rule and reign through the coming Ancient of Days is encouraging. That God declared to Daniel “And you shall rest and shall stand in your allotted place at the end of the days” (Dan. 12:13), is comforting.

The lesson in the book of Daniel–do not be afraid, God is in control. This is a fitting and timely reminder given the circumstances facing our world today.

Some of you might have looked at the title and suspected that this would be a time management blogpost. It is likely that we could all use some tips to be more effective with our time management. But this will not be one of those posts. I’d like us to explore the issue of time from a little deeper perspective. 

A number of weeks ago in a theology class I was teaching we discussed the relation of God to time. While there are several viewpoints regarding God’s relation to time (as we experience it), there is one certainty—God is not constrained by time. He is not controlled by the past, limited to the present or burdened by the future. Time for God is a servant, not a master. 

Yet for us, we are all too often controlled by time and its implications for us. By this I don’t mean merely that we are limited by time. We all have the same number of seconds, minutes and hours in a day. We have no control over the amount of time we have. But we do have control over the way we allow time to affect us. Too often we allow the pains of the past and the worries of the future to crowd out the necessity of the present. 

Moving into 2020, I’ve been reflecting on the biblical view of time and how it should affect my own view of time. 

We should reflect on the past, but not be bound by it. The past can be debilitating. The past contains failures, sins, abuses, wrongs and pains. If we are not careful, we can allow the past to shackle us with shame and regret. When we received the gospel, Christ freed us from the shackles of our past. Not only did he forgive our sins, but he made us new. While the things we have done or the things done to us do not magically go away, they no longer define us. The Old Testament is full of reflection. Like rowing a boat, the author of Psalm 136 looks back at the rescue of the people of Israel from Egypt. I believe this is the way we ought to view the past. Because of the gospel, we know that our past was cleansed, and we’ve been given a new direction. We ought sometimes to reflect back on how far we were from God and what God did to redeem us. Reflecting on the past is cause for thankful celebration. 

We should prepare for the future, but not worry about it. If you’re anything like me, you have a lot on your plate and even more ideas and visions for the days ahead. Unfortunately, busy schedules provide a platform for worry and unsettled concerns. We worry about finances, plans, dreams or the busyness of our schedules. We fret about what might happen. In our worries, we distort today’s reality and disobey God. Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount that we are not to worry about our needs or our future (Matthew 6:25-34). A gospel perspective includes the future (God’s sovereignty and our eternal home). So we should prepare for tomorrow’s business. We should plan, pray and dream. But we should not borrow tomorrow’s troubles for today and worry about what we cannot control. 

We should live in the present, not lose it. If we’re not careful we will squander today’s opportunities in the shackles of the past and the worries of tomorrow. We have an obligation to live for the kingdom of God daily, moment by moment. That phone call, card, prayer, text message, interruption, book oror meeting on your plate today might be divinely appointed. Embrace each moment’s task, conversation or interaction as a means of glorifying God. Don’t be so busy that the people and opportunities today are lost in a forever shuffle of moving time. 

How do we embrace today’s moments for the glory of Christ? Here are some practical tips: 

Pause today and reflect in prayerful gratitude for all that God saved you from. 

Anticipate some people interruptions and treat individuals as divine appointments. 

Listen to others and truly hear what they say. 

In all you do retain an eternal perspective regarding those who are lost. 

Take an hour this week to plan, dream and prepare for the future. 

When tempted to worry, pray. 

When bound by the past, thank Christ for your freedom. 

When covered up by busyness, remember that you serve a sovereign God.  

Originally posted as “The Relationship Between Pastors and Time” at LifeWay Facts and Trends.

Happy New Year! As we begin the New Year many of us are evaluating the past year. How did we do? What could be better? What needs to change?

Whether we set resolutions, make commitments, reflect on the future, or largely ignore the transition that will take place on 12/31, the new year is coming. What will the New Year look like for you?

Recently, I was listening to a time management book entitled Eat That Frog, by Brian Tracy. Tracy recommends practices that will help us not procrastinate and be successful in our lives and endeavors. One of the practices dealt with assigning priorities to responsibilities. He asked the following questions: “What is the most important thing that we can do? What is the thing that if we do, we will certainly be effective and successful?” I believe asking and answer these questions in our places of employment, family, and relationships can be helpful for personal growth. But as I listened and considered Tracy’s recommendation, I couldn’t help but think that too much of what I do really doesn’t matter.

God created us to enjoy him and to glorify him forever. God designed us so that we could know him and love him. The greatest gift we’ve been given is the gift of being able to know God. And as followers of Jesus, we have the privilege of sharing that gift with others.

What is the most important thing that I can do? The most important thing I can do is to lead my neighbors and the nations to follow Jesus.

Our mission at Wilkesboro Baptist Church is leading our neighbors and the nations to follow Jesus. We accomplish this mission by worshiping, learning, serving, and replicating. As I reflected on Tracy’s questions, I was reminded that there is nothing more important that I can do than to lead others to follow Jesus.

Practically, leading others to follow Jesus begins with worship. When we worship, we reset our hearts to rightly surrender to God. When we bring, invite, and lead others to worship, we are beginning the process of disciple-making in the lives of others.

When we learn about Christ and share what we’ve learned, we help others grasp that following Jesus is full of meaning and depth.

When we serve others and invite others to serve with us, we reflect the love of God and create opportunities for spiritual development in the lives of others.

When we replicate the life of Jesus through others, we fulfill the mandate Jesus left us with in Matthew 28:18-20.

So are you doing what really matters? If not, why don’t you begin 2020 worshiping God and leading others to follow Christ?

Adapted from Commissioned: Leading our Neighbors and the Nations to Follow Jesus.

Recently I’ve been reminded of the importance of praying for the lost. Three people that I’ve been praying to trust in Jesus received Jesus during the last month. God loves to redeem and to save. In my own experience, God chased me and saved me. God does chase, pursue and draw people to salvation. That is the storyline of the Bible–God’s redemptive plan for people who rejected him.

Luke 15 is one of the most beautiful illustrations of God pursuing the lost. In three parables, Jesus taught that God is like a shepherd who pursues his lost sheep, a woman who pursues a lost coin and a father who pursues lost sons. In truth, there are really only two kinds of people in the world–the lost and the found. The lost are those who have not trusted in Christ for salvation. They may be relying on themselves, on false religion, on good works, on past experiences, on church membership or any number of other things. The found are not anything special in and of themselves. The found are those who realized they were sinners, needed forgiveness and recognized that God was pursuing them. They trusted in Jesus alone for salvation and became followers of Christ.

As followers of Christ, we have an obligation to lead others to follow him. Some of you, like those I’ve talked with over the years, are concerned for lost friends, family, neighbors, co-workers and acquaintances. If you have those in your relational circles who are lost–not following Jesus–would you pray these biblical prayers for their salvation?

  • Pray that the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, would pursue these lost sheep. What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? Luke 15:4
  • Pray that the Holy Spirit would convict the lost of their sinfulness and guide them to trust Christ. And when he [the Holy Spirit] comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me;  concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer;  concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. John 15:8-11
  • Pray that God would take off the spiritual blinders of the lost those that they may see Christ. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 2 Corinthians 4:3-6
  • Pray that the lost would know that God loves them unconditionally. But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8
  • Pray that God would grant the lost his grace, faith and new life. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. Ephesians 2:4-9
  • Pray that the lost would be willing to follow Christ.  Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” Matthew 16:24-26
  • Pray that we all would be bold to share the good news of salvation with those around us. Praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak. Ephesians 6:18-20

Some of you might read this post and be discouraged. You’ve prayed for that friend, relative or co-worker for years. And they continue to reject Christ. Let me close with this reminder from one of my heroes in the faith–George Mueller. Mueller ran an orphanage in London by faith in the 19th century. His dependence on God continues to encourage saints to this day. He had been praying for two friends for more than 50 years to trust in Christ for salvation. Someone asked him, “George, you’ve been praying for these men a long time. Do you really think God will save them?”

Mueller replied, “Do you really believe that God would have me pray for them all these years if he did not intend to save them?” Just before Mueller’s death one friend came to Christ, and just after his death, the other came to Christ.

Don’t become discouraged. Persevere in your prayers for the lost. God wants them found more than you do.

On a Twitter account recently, someone posted the back cover of a book written to remind pastors of the dangers present in ministry. Three of the ministers who recommended the book are no longer in ministry. The advent of social media has made it easy to watch these happenings from a distance. As a pastor, I can tell you that falling away from the faith is not confined to celebrity pastors.

I’ve watched once faithful church members drift from church based on moral or ethical failings or just a pattern of lazy spirituality. These experiences can be disheartening. But let me draw a contrast.

The other day I had the privilege of sharing a meal with several older pastors. They reflected on their ministries and their ministry heroes. They are older ministers who remained faithful. We should all aspire to be older Christians.

Paul encourages the older men and women in Titus’ church to teach and train younger believers.

What is the difference between those who fall and those who are faithful? Paul writes, “and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech” (Titus 2:7-8). It seems to me that integrity in one’s teaching and conduct is what makes it possible to be faithful.

If you’re like me, you can already draw out inconsistencies between your life and your doctrine.

That’s why Paul grounds his command for integrity not in legalism, nor in our character, but in the grace of the gospel of Jesus Christ (Titus 2:11-14).

Paul is not demanding that we “do better.” He’s reminding us that we are not righteous, good and holy. But in Christ and in his gospel we’ve been made righteous, and we can be trained to be men and women of integrity.

Even when we fail, the gospel teaches us that God already knows our sin. We have grace so we must repent and return to Christ. Moreover, the grace that grounds our faith is also that grace that grows us in faithfulness and integrity.

Sunday School Lesson for the Biblical Recorder originally published here.

What do you do when life is unfair? Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. He was wrongly accused and imprisoned. If anyone had a right to be depressed or downcast, Joseph did. But instead of remaining confined in the prison of his circumstances, Joseph looked around. We can find this account in Genesis 40.

Joseph noticed the sadness of the cupbearer and baker who had also been imprisoned. Even though he had been falsely imprisoned, treated with terrible injustice, he was compassionate toward others.

Focusing on your own problems only makes them worse, not better. Too many of us are in a prison of sorts—prison of circumstances or a prison of choices (our own or those others have made for us).

But focusing on our own problems is not a solution. I remember a number of years ago where a counselor at our church was leaving for a couple weeks on a trip. He was regularly counseling a lady through her sufferings and difficulties. He asked if someone could meet with her in his absence. I volunteered, mostly in order to gain some experience. This woman had a difficult life. But her biggest challenge was that she had seen a counselor (not my friend, but a secular one) who had taught her to focus on herself and get herself in a right place. I counseled, as did my friend, that she focus on others. What she needed was to see the hurt in others and focus her energy on helping someone else. But she couldn’t see past her own problems, her own suffering, her own prison. Every relationship she had, she had damaged, some irreparably. Her problems, difficulties and challenges were center-stage.

Regardless of the challenges you face or the issues you deal with (of your own making or someone else’s), the solution is not to live in them or focus on them. The solution, best applied when we realize we are loved and cared for by God, is to focus on how we can encourage someone else or improve their plight. The most delightful people to be around are the ones who care deeply about others and invest in them. They are the ones who focus their energy on you and your issues, rather than retreating deeper into their own prisons of unfair situations.

How do we notice? How do we focus on the needs of others rather than get caught up in our own circumstances? We are able to embrace a lifestyle of noticing, encouraging and serving when we apply the gospel to our situations and circumstances. The gospel—that Jesus suffered and died on a cruel cross and rose from the dead so we could be forgiven and made new—is the entry point into salvation as well as the maturing influence in our daily lives. The gospel teaches us that we are not isolated in our suffering, that our suffering is not permanent and that our suffering can be overcome. Jesus suffered separation and punishment for sin on the cross. Jesus suffered and died, but also rose to his permanent home in heaven. Jesus experienced resurrection and glory from the Father overcoming sin, suffering and death. Because Jesus suffered, we don’t have to feel alone in suffering. Because Jesus brought us into his family, our permanent experience is heaven, and we don’t have to be paralyzed by our suffering . Because Jesus overcame sin, suffering and death, we can overcome because we are victorious in him. And when we experience the blessings that come with the gospel, we have the privilege and right to encourage others with the gospel love we’ve experienced as well.  

When you focus on your situation, you become stranded. When you focus on your Savior, you can receive relief and release. Joseph was not defined by his prison—because he was defined by the Lord’s favor—as found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. What defines you? Your prison? Or the favor of God as you share with someone else?