Advice on Prayer Meetings

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Oh, how I wish more churches had a regular prayer meeting. Could it be that our shortcomings in piety, worship, and witness have a direct correlation to how few congregations spend time in earnest prayer? I tend to think so.

Studying M’Cheyne has reminded me of the prayer meeting’s significance. He understood concerted prayer to not only be a prerequisite to revival, but also an evidence of revival. One fruit the St. Peter’s revival of 1839–1840 was the commitment to prayer. In December 1840, the Presbytery of Aberdeen appointed a committee to inquire about the revivals taking place throughout Scotland. They wrote to M’Cheyne asking him to answer a series of fifteen questions related to the revival in Dundee. His answers were published later as Evidences on Revivals. He said during the revival “thirty-nine prayer meetings [were] held weekly in connection with the congregation, and five of these were conducted and attended entirely by little children.” After twelve months, M’Cheyne wrote, “I believe the number of these meetings is not much diminished,” although many were more private in nature.

Congregational prayer was something M’Cheyne prioritized from the beginning at Dundee. Not long after his installation at St. Peter’s he began a Thursday night prayer meeting that 800 people attended. He apparently earned a reputation for skill in leading congregational prayer, as Mr. J.T. Just wrote to him asking for advice in conducting prayer meetings.

M’Cheyne begins by saying, “No person can be a child of God without living in secret prayer; and no community of Christians can be in a lively condition without unity in prayer.” A true church is a praying church. And every church can always grow in prayer. Here then are some bits of wisdom M’Cheyne offers.

12 Helps For Prayer Meetings

  • “One great rule in holding them (prayer meetings) is, that they really be meetings of disciples.”
  • “The prayer-meeting I like best is where there is only praise and prayer, and the reading of God’s word.”
  • “Meet weekly, at a convenient hour.”
  • “Be regular in attendance. Let nothing keep you away from your meeting.”
  • “Pray in secret before going.”
  • “Let your prayers in the meeting be formed as much as possible upon what you have read in the Bible. You will thus learn variety of petition, and a Scripture style.”
  • “Pray that you may pray to God, and not for the ears of man.”
  • “Pray for the outpouring of the Spirit on the Church of Christ and for the world; for the purity and unity of God’s children; for the raising up of godly ministers, and the blessing of those that are so already.”
  • “Pray for the conversion of your friends, of your neighbours, of the whole town.”
  • “Pride is Satan’s wedge for splitting prayer-meetings to pieces: watch and pray against it.”
  • “Watch against seeking to be greater than one another; watch against lip-religion.”
  • “Above all, abide in Christ, and He will abide in you.”

Around this time M’Cheyne wrote to his great friend Andrew Bonar asking for more advice on prayer meetings. In the letter, M’Cheyne gives some humorous sanity on a pastors’ prayer meeting he just began. May those of us who minister the gospel remember it: “We began today a ministerial prayer-meeting, to be held every Monday at eleven for an hour and a half. This is a great comfort, and may be a great blessing. Of course, we do not invite the colder ministers; that would only damp our meeting. Tell me if you think this right.” I for one think it right, very right indeed.

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Twin Lakes 2017

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A few weeks ago I attended the annual Twin Lakes Fellowship. It was an edifying time with other like-minded pastors. The campground was beautiful; the conversations enjoyable; the singing exceptional. But the highlight, for me at least, was Ian Hamilton.

On three successive nights, Dr. Hamilton preached on “The Glory of Christ.” His expositions mined the depths of Scripture and had John-Owen-like substance to them. In each message, Dr. Hamilton gave heart-stirring encouragements for faithful ministry that will exhort any pastor. Listen in or download the sermons below:

Bonus audio, full of his characteristic dry wit and profound wisdom, comes from an interview David Strain did with Dr. Douglas Kelly on “Lessons from Life and Ministry.” It was a delight to hear Dr. Kelly’s reflections.

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I Am Persuaded

M'Cheyne

A few months before his death, Robert Murray M’Cheyne wrote his Personal Reformation. He began by saying, “It is the duty of ministers in this day to begin the reformation of religion . . . with confession of past sin, earnest prayer for direction, grace, and full purpose of heart.”

He then gives us simple, but challenging insight into how a pastor must go about loving God and loving others.

How to Glorify God and Do Good

M’Cheyne writes, “I am persuaded that I shall obtain the highest amount of present happiness, I shall do most for God’s glory and the good of man, and I shall have the fullest reward in eternity,” by doing three things:

  1. “By maintaining a conscience always washed in Christ’s blood.”
  2. “By being filled with the Holy Spirit at all times.”
  3. “By attaining the most entire likeness to Christ in mind, will, and heart, that it is possible for a redeemed sinner to attain to in this world.”

5 Keys to Worshipful Preaching

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Earlier this year Joel Beeke and Dustin Benge put together a festschrift for Steve Lawson entitled, Pulpit Aflame. The quality of festschrifts can vary greatly from one volume to the next. I was pleasantly surprised to find Pulpit Aflame abundantly useful.

One standout chapter is Sinclair Ferguson’s, “Preaching as Worship.” The chapter closer with Ferguson calling on an unknown Puritan named William Fenner. In 1657, Fenner published a work on the affections under, as Ferguson says, “a characteristically delicious Puritan title,” A Treatise on the Affections, or The Souls Pulse whereby a Christian may know whether he is living or dying: Together with a lively description of their nature, signs, and symptoms: As also directing men to a right of them.

Channeling Fenner, Ferguson gives us several reflections on worshipful, affectionate preaching.

5 Keys to Worshipful Preaching

  1. Affections are raised, fixed, and enflamed when ministers “preach to the life,” that is, when their exposition explains, describes, and expounds reality as it is. As James VI and I note of one Puritan, “He preaches as if death were at my back.”
  2. For this to become a reality in our own ministry of the word, we preachers must be full of affection. “Affection in the speaker is likely to beget affections in the hearer.” Fenner distinguishes this from mere externals in preaching. It is not a matter of personality type or communication skills, certainly not “emotionalism.” As Calvin notes, there are preachers who thus preach, but they leave their hearers cold and unmoved because they perceive that what they hear is only surface emotion and not truly the affections of the reasonable and volitional soul.
  3. Preachers must be marked by godliness in their own lives. Only in this way will their own affections be pure and worshipful, and only thus will they be appropriate vessels through whom Christ will touch and move the affections of their hearers. This is merely a matter of style but a quality of life.
  4. Intriguingly, Fenner adds that affectionate preaching will be expressed in the voice. Here he stands consciously in a long line of rhetorical theorists stretching back at least to Augustine who acknowledged that they could not explain this relationship, but they knew that it was the case. Fenner held that when the preacher’s affections are moved, this will become evident in the vehicle by which he expresses them to others.
  5. Fenner also notes that affections are expressed and evoked through the preacher’s actions in his preaching—admitting his own limitations precisely here.

Foundations of Preaching

I’ve always found Tony Merida to be an underrated teacher of preachers. His revamped book on preaching, The Christ-Centered Expositor, is well worth your investment. Merida recently taught a seminar on preaching at the Bethlehem Pastors Conference that will edify any preacher.

A Trial for Future Ministers

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One of my goals for 2017 is to write three hundred words a day on Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s theology and ministry. If I can do that, I’ll have the first draft of my dissertation for The Institution done by November. Every morning I wake up early and, while the house is silent, I find M’Cheyne speaking. He never ceases to stir and shake my ministerial soul.

His Early Joy

This morning I worked on M’Cheyne’s first pastoral post as assistant to John Bonar in Larbert and Dunipace. Larbert was more industrialized, while Dunipace remained somewhat agricultural. The two parishes had more than seven hundred homes, and the spiritual concerns were common to the day. Most shepherding dealt with illness and impending death.

John Bonar was an earnest minister of Christ. He’d regularly visit upwards of thirty homes a day, pressing his people to think of Christ. After visiting Robert, M’Cheyne’s sister said of Bonar, “He seems a very active pushing man—very peculiar, very zealous—quite wrapped up in himself and his parish.” While God honored the preaching Larbert and Dunipace, what’s clear is how the pastor’s visitation work was unusually blessed. Faith became strong; comfort was felt in the last hours of life. The ministers shepherded so well that M’Cheyne told his mother, “There is not a Carroner’s wife takes pain in her head or foot but she has a minister at her door weekly till she gets well.”

I typically assume that preaching God’s word is what most excites every young pastor. After sensing God’s call, and (likely) going through years of training in Bible and theology, every young minister is bursting to herald the gospel. Nothing else energizes a young pastor as ascending to the sacred desk. But M’Cheyne was different. He told his parents he enjoyed the work of visitation more than any other aspect of ministerial life in Larbert and Dunipace.

So much so that he wanted nothing more than to excel at the work.

On the Job Training

M’Cheyne assessed his demeanor during the visits, analyzing how he could have more effortlessly turned the conversation to spiritual matters. One example of such evaluation from his notebook is: “Not simple enough—and yet may some words be carried home” and “spoke plain but not with power.” He even tried different conversational techniques to see which on most ordinarily led to spiritual benefit. Not surprisingly, he found no conversational/spiritual silver bullet.

After several months visiting the people, M’Cheyne wished “the church commissioners would make a trial of a day’s visiting and see how they cast a burden of so many souls on one set of shoulders.”

That wish got my attention.

Examination for Ministry

My theological transition means I’ve given a lot of thought to examinations for ordination. I’m thankful for churches that make ordination mean something. Every pastor should be examined on his knowledge of Bible, theology, church history, sacraments, polity, etc. How else are you to know if he can rightly handle God’s word (2 Tim. 2:15)? Many good brothers have asked me the last few weeks, “What does it matter if you can’t outline the book of Jeremiah? My answer always is, “Why wouldn’t every pastor want to know Jeremiah well enough to outline it on the spot?” Skill with the Word means skill with every part.

I’m also more aware than ever at how insufficient such examination is to test out the full ability needed for faithful ministry. The brightest theological mind may have an astonishing lack of pastoral sensibility. The most skilled exegete may care little for lost souls.

This is where M’Cheyne’s wish comes into play. Is there a better way to assess a potential pastor’s wisdom, compassion, and humility than seeing him in the work of visitation?

I’m not convinced that presbyteries and denominations should add visitation to their examinations. But why wouldn’t every pastoral internship (which should be a prerequisite) aim for regular visitation of members? Think of everything a young man would learn as he observes healthy visitation and engages in it: how to turn conversations to Christ, speak to the hurting, evangelize the lost, exhort the weary, and help the dying. These are the skills of ordinary ministry; these are the skills of love.

Almost every pastor I know would say it’s easier to preach God’s word to hundreds than minister God’s word to one family. But is not the latter what most of our ministry looks like throughout the week?1 So should not our examination process place more emphasis on what is ordinarily the majority of our ministry? Would not our congregations be well served?

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  1. I’ll leave aside the matter of most churches today having no visitation/shepherding plan. Thus, many pastors don’t have a house-to-house aspect to their ministry. For that, just read The Shepherd Leader.

Book Recommendation: On Pastoral Ministry

A couple of weeks ago I came across John Henry Jowett’s 1912 Lyman Beecher lectures at Yale University entitled, “The Preacher: His Life and Work.” What a work! Jowett’s exhortations on the ministry are some of the more exhilarating ones I’ve read in some time.

Behind the Message, There Was a Man

blrudgbgkkgrhgookjqejllmvowobjikfzeqq_35After hearing the great Dr. Fairbairn preach, Jowett told his students at Airedale College, “Gentlemen, I will tell you what I have observed this morning: behind that sermon there was a man.” Although The Preacher provides scant autobiographical information, I had the same sense in reading Jowett’s work—there was a weight in its message.

Jowett was born in 1863 in Halifax, West Yorkshire. Like many great ministers before him, Jowett initially resolved to study law. God soon called him into the gospel ministry. He went on to train at Edinburgh and Oxford before assuming his first pastoral position at St. James Church in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The church held over 1,000 seats, and none were empty during Jowett’s ministry.

In 1911 he became the pastor at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York. John Bishop says,

The church was crowded long before the hour of Jowett’s first service. Reporters crowded the side galleries, expecting to find a sensational preacher with dazzling oratory and catchy sermon topics on current events. Instead they found a shy, quiet little man, bald-headed and with a cropped white moustache, who spoke in a calm, simple manner.

He was at Fifth Avenue when he delivered the Lyman Beecher lectures on a pastor’s life and ministry. He stayed in New York until 1918 when we was called to succeed G. Campbell Morgan at Westminster Chapel in London. It was his last pastoral post, as he died in 1923.

Pithy and Practical

The Preacher contains seven different lectures: 1) The Call to Be a Preacher, 2) The Perils of the Preacher, 3) The Preacher’s Themes, 4) The Preacher in His Study, 5) The Preacher in His Pulpit, 6) The Preacher in the Home, and 7) The Preacher as a Man of Affairs. If you read anything in the book, read lectures 2, 4, and 5. Here are a few appetizers for you to meditate on:

  • “We may become so absorbed in words (of preaching) that we forget to eat the Word.” (42)
  • “We may become more intent on full pews than on redeemed souls.” (54)
  • Worldliness will cause “our characters to lose their spirituality. we shall lack that fine fragrance which makes people know that we dwell in ‘the King’s gardens.’ There will be know ‘heavenly air’ about our spirits.” (55)
  • Worldliness will cause us to be “wordy, but not mighty. we are eloquent, but we do not persuade. We are reasonable, but we do not convince. We preach much, but accomplish little. We teach, but do not woo.” (57)
  • If the gospel “is to be the weighty matter of our preaching, we surely ought to be most seriously careful how we proclaim it. The matter may be bruised and spoiled by the manner. The work of grace may be marred by our own ungraciousness.” (101)
  • “Happy-go-lucky sermons will lay no necessity upon the reason nor put any constraint upon the heart. Preaching that costs nothing accomplishes nothing.” (114)
  • “Here (in private prayer), more than anything else, our secret life will determine our public power.” (158)
  • “Men never learn to pray in public: they learn in private. We cannot put off our private habits and assume public ones with our pulpit robes.” (159)
  • “If men are unmoved by our prayers they are not likely to be profoundly stirred by our preaching.” (159)

Where to Find It

You can find reasonably priced reprints of Jowett’s book on Amazon. If you don’t want to spend money from your book budget, you can read it for free on Archive.com or Google Books.

Tolle lege!

The Year We Never Expected

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2016 will go down as the most surprising year of my life—so far.

Leicester City won the Premier League. Great Britain left the E.U. The Cubs broke Billy Goat’s Curse. Donald J. Trump was elected POTUS 45.

And I became a Presbyterian.

It Started a Long Time Ago

In 2001, I was a fledgling Major League Soccer player looking for a church to attend. I ended up at Park Cities Presbyterian Church on the suggestion of some extended family members. I loved the liturgy and meaty theological fellowship. But I found the baptism of infants altogether strange. Then I met David Rea (PCPC’s college minister and the RUF minister at SMU) and his intern Carlton Wynne. No two men, outside of my father and grandfather, have so decisively influenced my heart and mind. D-Rea and C-Man patiently took me under their wing, discipling me in Scripture and theology. In the process they made Presbyterianism’s distinctives plausible and logical—I just wasn’t yet convinced.

Eventually, I retired from soccer and became a Student Pastor at FBC Prosper. I didn’t have too much contact with David or Carlton for a few years. In God’s kindness, we’d soon reconnect.

I joined the pastoral staff at Providence Church in 2008. Soon I reunited with my Presbyterian brethren, catching up over Tex-Mex. I remember leaving that meal and thinking, “I want to be a pastor like those guys, yet I have so much to learn.” I was twenty-four, had no seminary education, little experience, and was the only pastor on staff (at the time) outside of the lead pastor. Responsibilities I’d never asked for just kept falling on my plate. Church members kept asking me questions I couldn’t answer. I didn’t have biblical convictions in areas where I knew I should. So, I emailed Carlton and said, “Would you be interested in regularly meeting with me to talk theology and ministry?”

He was up for the challenge. And so began several years of learning from an unusually gifted man of God. He convinced me to go to RTS and mentored me through a M.A.R. degree. With each passing year, I found subtle changes being made to my theology. I was becoming more and more Presbyterian—in a confessional sense. But I still wasn’t convinced about paedobaptism.

On Matters of Membership

In 2013, we planted IDC with an “open membership” practice.1 (I now wonder if that philosophy revealed more about my true baptismal convictions than I realized at the time.) God blessed the church in thousands of ways, right from the beginning. We had everything we’d dreamed of.

And then came 2015.

Last spring, some dear Baptist brothers initiated a conversation over open and closed membership. When they found out IDC was an open membership church, they began to poke and prod. “Jordan,” they’d ask, “if you believe infant baptism is valid for membership, then why aren’t you a paedobaptist?” Other logical questions confronted me. I proceeded then to do what I always have tried to do in matters of debate, pray more and read more.

When Everything Falls Apart

Over the next few months, I couldn’t stop studying the issue. I scoured Amazon for every relevant book on baptism and proceeded to devour it within days. No longer could I listen to audiobooks while running my 50-60 miles per week. Instead, I was listening to sermons, lectures, and debates on baptism. All the while I was increasingly terrified my view of baptism had switched. The very same arguments for paedobaptism I formerly took issue with, I now found my head bouncing in assent. I no longer agreed with the arguments I’d launched against Carlton for believer’s baptism.

I fully expected that my study would kick me out as a “closed membership” apologist. I came out of it, however, a fully convinced paedobaptist.2

God moves in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform.

Into the Fog We Go

A few months ago, we let our beloved congregation know about the change. I’m now helping IDC search for my replacement (words I never thought I’d write). I’m also searching for my next ministerial post (more words I never wanted to write).

The future is foggy, but we are heading into the mist with joyful trust in God’s sweet sovereignty.

If you think about it, say a prayer for IDC and the Stone family.

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  1. “Open membership” means we didn’t require believing individuals who’d previously been baptized as an infant to be rebaptized by immersion. “Closed membership,” the historic Baptist practice, would require baptism by immersion to join the church.”
  2. I’d already changed my mind on matters of church polity. Emily, my wife, joined me in the process and once said, “I think God made me to be Presbyterian!”

Ministerial Roots

J.C. Ryle on the importance of practicing prayer, not just preaching its value:

It was said by an old writer that Luther’s habits of private prayer, and John Bradford’s habits of private prayer, were things more talked of than practised and imitated. Private prayer is one grand secret of the strength of the ministry. It is here that the roots of the ministry, practically speaking, are to be found. The ministry of a man that has gifts, however great, but who does not give the closet the principal place, must sooner or later become jejune and ineffective.

Quoted in Iain Murray, J.C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone, 83.

Favorite Books of 2016

It looks like I’ll cross the 200 number for “Books Read in 2016.” I thought whittling down my list to a select few would be unusually difficult. This year, however, it came easily. I was able to read precious few titles published in the last twelve months. Most of my readings were for doctoral/dissertation studies, which means the vast majority of the books I read were published at least 150 years ago. So, this year’s list doesn’t have as many titles as usual. I pray nonetheless they will be of help to you.

My criteria for favorite books remains the same:

  1. Does this book have a special benefit to ordinary pastors?
  2. Is this a book worth rereading every year?

Five books I read answered those two questions with a resounding, “Yes!” Here they are, with a bonus title at the end.

Favorite Books for Ordinary Pastors Published in 2016

9781784980214m#5—Zeal Without Burnout: Seven Keys to a Lifelong Ministry of Sustainable Sacrifice by Christopher Ash. By God’s grace, pastoral burnout is not something I’ve experienced. But it’s a constant threat. I’ve longed considered Ash to be always worth reading and Zeal Without Burnout doesn’t disappoint. While I would have enjoyed reflection on what we can learn about battling burnout from Jesus’ life, Ash remains theologically and pastorally adept. An added benefit is that you can read this book in one short sitting. I’d encourage every pastor to make a resolution to read Zeal Without Burnout the first week of each new year.

9781433551222m#4—Discipling: How to Help Others Follow Jesus by Mark Dever. Mark Dever is the most dedicated and fruitful discipler I know. This contribution to 9Marks’ valuable Building Healthy Churches series distils Dever’s wisdom into a one-stop-discipleship shop. What I appreciate about Dever’s approach is how he extols making discipling a natural part of your life in Christ. Here you don’t find a delineated program or ten-step guide for conforming others to Christ. Rather, you get simple encouragement and biblical truth to shape for your context. Pastors will particularly enjoy the chapter, “Raising Up Leaders.”

9781433550515m#3—Praying Together: The Priority and Privilege of Prayer: In Our Homes, Communities, and Churches by Meghan Hill. This book sat on my shelf for several months before I finally cracked its pages. What a book! To say I read it would be an understatement—I delightfully devoured it. I found Hill to be useful in all kinds of areas, but what challenged me most was her counsel on a church’s corporate prayer and the family’s regular prayers. Simply put, Praying Together is one of the most stirring books on prayer I’ve yet read.

devoted7a-810x1280#2—Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification by Sinclair Ferguson. Ferguson remains wonderfully prolific. I’ve seen many put his other 2016 publication, The Whole Christ, on their “Best Of” lists—and rightfully so. I just think Devoted to God is even better. It has all the classic qualities of Ferguson’s ministry: deeply exegetical, winsomely Reformed, and continually insightful. I’ve usually said, “If you can only read one book on sanctification, read Ryle’s Holiness.” I now may say, “Read Devoted to God.” I thank God for Ferguson’s service to Christ’s church.

9781433553479m#1—ESV Reader’s Bible. Add my name to the large list of individuals praising Crossway’s work on the Reader’s Bible. I held off on buying the six-volume set, partly because of its cost, and partly because I thought, “Surely it can’t be as momentous as many are saying it is?” I eventually took the plunge and am here to say, “Take this year’s Christmas money and buy a Reader’s Bible.” I find its benefit hard to put into words. The paper, font, and sensory experience make this a Bible reading experience unlike what I’ve had. Maybe that’s just it—my Bible reading felt fresh. Who wouldn’t be eager for such an encounter with God’s word?

Favorite Book for Ordinary Pastors Not Published in 2016

74154Homiletics and Pastoral Theology by W.G.T. Shedd. Each year I come across an old work on pastoral theology/ministry and think, “Why hasn’t anyone recommended this to me before?” Shedd’s masterpiece did that for me several months ago. Shedd served as a Professor of English Literature for part of his academic career. Literary and rhetorical skill shine through on each page (hence why Wilson can ransack the book for pithiness). This brother knows what style is and teaches us how to preach it. I’m not sure I’ll ever forget his teaching, “The fundamental properties of good discourse are as distinct and distinguishable as those of matter. Many secondary qualities enter into it, but its primary and indispensable characteristics are reducible to three: plainness, force, and beauty.” Feast away my preacher friend. Feast away.

Click here to see my Favorite Books of 2013, 2014 and 2015.