the shape of leadership

What God’s Word Does In and Through Us

Sharing the truth that transforms

Mike Burnette on June 21, 2017

Drew and Marina are a great young couple who reached out to me for a meeting soon after their engagement. I assumed they wanted to begin their premarital counseling and start preparations for their upcoming wedding. In our first meeting, they each took a deep breath, and, with excitement and anxiety in their voices, asked if I would marry them the following Sunday. They had recently become engaged, and had an original wedding date for much later in the year. However, something created a sense of urgency for them to move forward with their marriage.

As we continued our discussion, Drew and Marina shared how they met and how long they had been together and told me the story of their engagement. Then we talked about the sudden decision to marry. They were deeply in love, and had decided to move in together prior to their marriage. Their families told Drew and Marina not to, but did not press too hard, realizing that most young couples live together before marriage, even though they felt it was wrong.

I asked what motivated this sudden decision for marriage. The conversation immediately shifted to a discussion about the Bible. As Drew and Marina were hearing it preached at LifePoint Church, and reading it in their own study time together, God had been convicting them. Now they were wrestling with their desire to honor the Lord and honor His Word. We discussed God’s plan for marriage and for sex in the context of marriage, and talked about the apostle Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 7:9 that it is better to marry than to burn in uncontrolled passion.

So, just a few days later, in front of a packed auditorium at the end of our final service, I invited Drew and Marina to the platform, and we all wept and applauded the Lord as this young couple married in front of their church. Drew and Marina’s beautiful wedding was a powerful testimony of what it means to “read the Bible, and do what it says.”

What would it look like for our churches to be so full of the Word of God that people altered their whole lives (their budgets, their time management, their relationships, their devotions) to honor it? What would it look like if, instead of just saying the Bible is our authority for faith (what we believe) and for conduct (how we live), we applied that statement in every detail of our lives? What would it look if we, as Pentecostals, passionately pursued the fullness of both the Word of God and the Spirit of God? I fully endorse our commitment to our Holy Spirit theology, and I would add that being full of the Spirit and full of the Word of God are mutually beneficial.

Words to Live By

The apostle Paul instructed Timothy about the value of Scripture in the lives of believers. In 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Paul wrote, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

In 2 Timothy 4:2, Paul said, “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage — with great patience and careful instruction.”

As Assemblies of God ministers, we believe that God divinely inspired the Bible. We accept Scripture as the inerrant, infallible and authoritative rule for faith (what we believe) and conduct (how we live). While we have a powerful testimony of the Spirit’s work in our lives and ministries, we also believe that God gives us the Bible to teach, instruct, correct and train people to live godly lives. We know to pursue the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in our churches and ministries. I believe we must equally prioritize bibliocentric preaching and ministry in our churches, discipling people to follow God’s Word.

I received Christ as Savior on Halloween 1997 and began attending a Pentecostal church the following Sunday. As a brand-new Christian, I had the privilege of sitting under a couple of pastors who highly value the Bible as the primary rule for faith and practice. The lead pastors, Barry and Ann Burns, were (and still are) a great pair of Bible teachers, who gave careful attention to the exegesis of Scripture, and preached in a way that compelled listeners toward a changed life and obedience to Christ.

Pastor Greg Harper, my youth pastor, discipled and mentored me as a young Christian, and would consistently push me to be a student of the Word. He taught me to have a daily quiet time, and said that our manual for living is what is in the Bible. I remember asking him for some sort of pamphlet, or CliffsNotes of the to-do list. He kept pushing me to the Bible and taught me the phrase: “Read your Bible, and do what it says.”

I thank the Lord for a strong Bible foundation in my formative years as a Christian. That Bible focus continued under Pastor Barry Culberson, the first pastor who hired me in Knoxville, Tennessee. He also is an incredible Bible preacher and teacher, pushing people to trust the promises of the Word, to live a life of obedience to the Bible, and to seek the Scriptures for how to live and how to believe.

I share that backstory because a focus on the Bible has been so instrumental in my own spiritual formation, and is such a focus in the church I now pastor. We believe that the Bible is true and powerful, that the Bible is the authoritative rule for belief and for living, and we push our people to be Bible-centered people. We adopted Pastor Greg’s saying at LifePoint Church, and we use it often: “Read your Bible, do what it says.”

Bible Illiteracy Epidemic

I’m currently in my third year of doctoral studies at Asbury Theological Seminary, focusing on preaching and pastoral leadership. As part of this degree, I will write my dissertation exploring the value and benefits of expository preaching through entire books of the Bible. My hope is to explore the practice of expository book preaching as a significant means of overall church discipleship, increased bibliocentric living among our congregants, a deepened love for Jesus and His will, and a primary means of helping our people with their understanding of the metanarrative of the redemptive story of the whole Bible.

I would like to suggest that the primary tension within the Church does not arise from style disagreements, an age or gender gap, or even where we land on certain theological emphases. I would suggest that our main issue is that most Christians don’t read the Bible, don’t remember the Bible, don’t memorize the Bible, and don’t live according to the Bible. Biblical illiteracy is the epidemic in our churches. All other problems are the trickle-down result. Bad theology, bad practices, unbiblical living, racism, sexism and more are the natural result of Bible ignorance. People will not live by what they don’t know.

The Church must reclaim its responsibility to preach, teach, exegete and rightly divide the Word of God. Perhaps you’re thinking that this is happening already, but we all know of church leaders who reference an occasional Bible text while preaching trendy topics and self-help messages that promote human advice more than God’s Word. I am not one for castigating fellow preachers, but I do believe we have a higher prophetic responsibility as pastors and preachers than to give tips on how to have “your best life now,” and the pulpit demands a stronger prophetic witness.

Some have called the local church the hope of the world. Ephesians 3:10 tells us that “through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known.” I would add that our job as preachers is to expose the power of God and the will of God through the lens of the Word of God to change the world, which God sent His Son to save.

I hope to persuade leaders toward stronger biblical preaching, specifically exegetical (or expository) preaching — and even more specifically, toward expository preaching through whole books of the Bible as a means of transforming local churches. As ministers, we should have a personal conviction on the truth of the Bible. We must follow that conviction with preaching the Bible as if it is true enough to transform the people God gives us to lead.

Preachers Lead the Way

We must lead the way in our congregations with a conviction about the Bible and a commitment to the Bible. We preach and minister out of an overflow of what God is doing in us personally and privately. So, we must first have an active Bible devotional life. As we grow in our understanding of the Bible and our commitment to Scripture, we will become better equipped to teach, instruct, rebuke and exhort from the Word of God.

Especially if you are the primary communicator in your church, you will establish God’s vision for your ministry best of all from the Word of God. In fact, our mission comes from the Word of God. We are to be a people about God’s mission — the Great Commission to reach people far from God. Always be a student of the Word. Read more commentaries, read more books on preaching, and listen to great preachers to continue developing as a minister of God’s Word.

The Church must reclaim its responsibility to rightly divide the Word of God.

As the Bible enriches us personally, it will inform us missionally. It will also become the basis for visionary and prophetic preaching. Christ’s mission prevails as we grow as students of the Word.

Doug Oss, former professor of biblical theology and New Testament interpretation at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri, taught his students that preaching is leadership. That is, the pulpit is the primary place of leadership in the local church.

We can better lead our churches as we grow in the Word. Deepening our love for God’s Word makes us better at leading vision, preaching theology, and exposing the heart and will of God for our churches.

Why Preach Books of the Bible?

I consistently marvel at two responses when I preach through entire books of the Bible.

First, I always see numerical growth when I preach long series through books. The first time I did that, it was a 20-week series through the Book of Hebrews. I preached it during a summer, thinking that summertime is a great time to preach through an entire book because it is a time of stagnant growth and plateaued numbers — a time to disciple the home folk in preparation for a surge in the fall. To my surprise, the church grew throughout the entire summer, and people enthusiastically invited their friends to this series.

Second, I see spiritual growth. More and more people bring their Bibles and notebooks for note taking. There is an obvious hunger to see the deeper meanings of a whole book in the Bible, and to remember the teaching. There is a consistent “aha” moment for many of the people. Without fail, every week I hear someone respond with some variation of, “I never knew the Bible said that.”

That spark happens when the Word becomes alive in people’s hearts and minds. The writer of Hebrews describes it well: “For the word of God is alive and active” (Hebrews 4:12).

Those are just two of the great reasons we should preach whole books. In fact, those are real outcomes of preaching books of the Bible. In addition, this is how we help people learn to study the Bible. This type of preaching highlights the value of the Bible, making it the central component of a sermon, not just a topic or a general idea.

Also, when you preach entire books, you reveal different layers from the heart of God toward us. You start within a framework from a specific location in the Bible. You show what God was trying to accomplish within a scene from history, with certain people, in specific ways. As you pull back the lens, you begin to reveal what is true of God for all time based on the realities in the passage that are consistent with His nature. Pull back even more, and it becomes apparent how this fits into the greater scheme of God’s work in redemptive history, as all the layers come together in a homily that fits into the real time and space of the listening audience.

Bible Preaching Directs Itself

Often, the trend in preaching is to create a calendar that follows certain themes every month based on what’s happening at that time of year, such as relationships in February, a back-to-school series in the fall, vision at the beginning of the year, etc. While short topical series may be appropriate a couple times throughout the year, our people are starving to know God’s Word. Without it, they are living lives that are spiraling out of God’s will. Short topical series provide a small bandage over the gushing wound of the deeper issue that people don’t know God’s Word.

As we preach whole books or larger passages of Scripture, the text directs itself for the series and always lands in a way that speaks just what the Lord wants to say to His Church. In January 2016, I began a long series through the Book of John. I knew this series would take 75 to 80 weeks to complete. I mapped out the series as best I could, going passage by passage through the entire Gospel letter.

It was interesting to see how well God’s Word fit into what was happening in our culture, the seasons of the calendar, etc. In fact, Easter 2016 was the Sunday I preached the story from John 5 of Jesus looking for the man at the pool of Bethesda, asking if he wanted healing and calling him to “rise” and receive his healing (verse 8, KJV).

That Sunday, I preached to a packed-out church, “Even if you are not looking for Jesus today, Jesus is here looking for you! He is here to ask if you would like to have eternal life, eternal healing. If you are in need, like this man who had been waiting on others to provide his healing, only Jesus is here to provide you with eternal life. And Jesus is calling us to rise and walk with Him from here forward.”

Talk about a great Resurrection Sunday message: “Rise!” Many people responded to the invitation to accept Christ, as it “just so happened” that we were in John 5 that Sunday.

Interestingly, after a year of preaching through John, we began 2017 in John 14, and spent the first three months of the year going through John 14 to 17. The overwhelming theme of these four chapters is a call to “come away” with Jesus to become more like Him and identify with His Word and His Spirit. These few chapters spoke so well to us as a church preparing to move into a brand-new building. In fact, for Easter 2017, we “happened” to land in Chapters 19 and 20, John’s telling of the Passion narrative.

It seems to me that the Word of God is very capable to direct us, probably better than our own planning, sermon writing retreats or clever calendar ideas. I do not mean to speak against those, but I prefer Bible preaching over the other. With Bible illiteracy so prevalent, let’s not spend our precious moments of preaching with topics that make people feel or seem better. Let’s defer to an elevation of the Word of God, and a prioritization of that in our preaching.

His Word Never Fails

If we are going to be a part of the Great Commission of Jesus, to make disciples (students of and followers of Jesus), we must remain committed to bold proclamation of God’s Word. In Acts 2, we see that the early Christians were devoted to prayer, fellowship, generosity, sharing meals and the apostles’ teachings (the apostles knew to teach what Jesus taught, and these messages became known as the words of Scripture).

I am convinced that more focus on the Word of God will produce more fruit from the Spirit of God and more miracles from the hand of God. Jesus said in John 15:7-8, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

This was a promise to the twelve disciples, and it is also true for our congregations as they are disciples of Jesus. Look again at the promise: If we are abiding and dwelling in Christ, and if Christ’s Word abides and dwells in us, God will answer our prayers (hand of God), and we will bear much fruit (evidence of a life full of the Spirit). This is the reality of abiding in Jesus and the Word abiding in us! We become more like Jesus. We pray like Jesus. We resemble the work and the essence of God. As a result of dwelling in Christ and the Word dwelling in us, sin takes a back door to the fruit of the Spirit — and our lives bring God glory.

As leaders, we have limited time with God’s people, and I believe every moment is precious, even sacred. On average, you will spend 40 to 50 minutes per week in front of your congregation. Instead of being trendy by telling a great joke, treat that time as a sacred obligation from the Lord.

Preach the Word of God with boldness; lead people to surrender fully to God’s will and God’s Word. Study and prepare, and come ready to capitalize on this precious time so you can give your best in delivering God’s Word. Then watch as it becomes alive and active in individual lives, transforming people from death to life, and bringing them to new life in Jesus.

This article originally appeared in the June/July edition of Influence magazine.

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