The Pastor as Lead Affirmer

Desiring God 2014 Conference for Pastors

The Pastor, the Vine, and the Branches: The Remarkable Reality of Union with Christ

The idea here is not to build up self-esteem in the people around us. It’s not that. We have a plague of self-esteem in our culture. Our prisons are full of people who have lots of self-esteem. All that they esteem is self. So, I’m not talking about that. I’m esteeming and wanting us to recognize and honor, commend the work of God in other people, even in unbelievers.

So why stand here for eight minutes? And you don’t have to stand if you want. When Sinclair was here, it was standing room only. But if you want to sit, lounge, lay, sit on the ledge there, you can do whatever would make you feel comfortable. But why hang around here for seven more minutes?

Effective Teaching Through Affirmation

One is to lift morale in your church and in your home. I hope we can do this in the next seven minutes, to establish a right standing from which you can teach. People are more likely to apprehend what you’re teaching and welcome it to their hearts if they’ve been affirmed by you. People who are influenced tend to be influenced by those who commend them. So you want to be heard as a teacher? Commend your listeners, whether they’re your children, or your parishioners, or whoever.

Acknowledging God’s Work in Others

And then, to honor the glorious God that we claim to worship by recognizing his work in everybody that’s around us. So that’s what we’re going to try to do in what is now six minutes.

I want to thank David Clifford for setting up all this stuff in here. His attention to detail and his thoroughness is so commendable, and he’s making this work for you. Your name tags and all that stuff, your bags of books that you’re carrying, he’s behind all of these details and his attention to those details and his diligence. He was breaking a sweat over there handing out free books just about ten minutes ago. And I just want to thank God for making a David Clifford who’s like that.

I want to thank God for David Mathis, whose idea is to have these short talks, and you could say, “Sam, about half of your time is gone already, and you haven’t even really started on your subject. You’ve just been affirming these colleagues.”

And what if we let the whole remainder of our life slip away, and all we did was affirm other people? I’m saying that’s not a bad gig. In fact, I’m saying that’s what we’re going to do in eternity. We’re going to praise forever God, including his work in people.

When the Scripture says “the heavens declare the glory of God,” the heavens are saying something (Psalm 19:1). We look at the heavens, we say, “Wow, look at that sky.” But we give God glory for saying the Creator of that sky put that sky there.

And so it is when we commend Christlike character in people around us, we say to small children, “I love the way you shared with your brother. That is so good. God is helping you learn how to be sensitive and to be kind.” Okay, God gets honor for that.

Affirmation Praises God

God is worshiped when we see what he’s doing in the lives of everybody around us, and they are encouraged and heartened by the fact that maybe they’re not a total schmuck altogether, and there really is some development happening in their lives, and you do see it and you appreciate them. It’s good for your relationship with them. There are many good reasons to do this.

And so when Psalm 113 says, “From the rising of the sun,” I guess I should point east, “From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the Lord is to be praised!” (Psalm 113:3). And I take that to mean at least two things.

One is “from the rising of the sun to the setting of the sun” is everywhere. Because the sun rises over in the east, wherever the east is. This is way over there. And the setting is in the west, wherever that is, way over there. And everything that’s under that arch, God is to be praised for.

And the second thing is “from morning to evening, he’s to be praised.” That’s what God is for. And he wants us to praise him in all the stuff that he’s put under that arch, everything — beasts, sky, people, circumstances. He wants us to be praising him for all that stuff.

Becoming an Olympic, Lead Affirmer

And so my assigned topic is, How’s the pastor to become the lead affirmer in his church? We could pause right now and we could sing — it wouldn’t work very well in here — “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” which is a hymn of affirmation to God. One of the ways for a lead pastor to be a lead affirmer is to sing stuff like that and make sure that his worship teams are pulling together stuff like that.

Romans 12 says we should “outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10). Showing honor. So what I think of is making the showing of honor an Olympic event in my mind. So I’m going to outdo you in showing honor because I’m commanded to. I’m supposed to. We’re all supposed to be working at this, outdo. And I’m going to outdo all the other outdoers at showing honor.

Now, the reason that’s not tempting to pride is because if I get really good at showing honor, who gets the honor? Those who I’m honoring. Now I get some credit somewhere, I suppose, in the bookkeeping for being one who shows honor, but I’m showing honor, not drinking it in. And so pastors, leaders, make it an Olympic event in your heart.

The difference between this and the Olympics is that in the Olympics, in order to be the best skier or skater or diver or whatever, you have to outdo all the others and they lose. They don’t get the gold medal. But in this, if you outdo others in showing honor, they get more honor. You give away gold medals when you do this well, and pastors ought to want to be like this.

How to Outdo Others in Showing Honor

So how do you do it? Here we go, a gallop through these things:

1. Value It

You’ve got to believe that it’s worth doing. You have to see that this will pay off. And this is a crass, cold commercial for the book, but get the book. It outlines a number of reasons why you should want to be an affirmer, how it pays off. It’ll pay you to become a good affirmer.

I was taken to breakfast a couple of months ago by a man who said, “I read your book, realized you lived in the Twin Cities. I want to buy you breakfast and have a conversation about it.” And he took me to breakfast, and he said, “I was depressed to the point of being suicidal, and two sentences in this book saved my life, literally, not figuratively. I was thinking of killing myself, and two sentences in this book saved my life.”

Now, all I’m doing right here is elevating the significance of this. This is important. This matters to your people. So, as a leader, as a pastor, as a shepherd, you want to get good at this. Because some of your people will live or not based on whether you do this among your flock.

2. Pray

Sometimes we have not because we ask not. So we ask God to make affirmations, commendations, congratulations, thank-yous, appreciation, just part of the culture, part of the air you breathe at your church. So, pray for it.

3. Model It

Pastors are visible. Most of us know: “Let no one despise you for your youth.” Most of us know that. What’s the next line? “But set an example” (1 Timothy 4:12). Set an example, and then it lists five things. And I’m adding — not out of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit — I’m adding a sixth thing: be an example. Pastors should model what they want from their people. Otherwise, we’re hypocrites, which is what Jesus was on the case of spiritual leaders all the time about hypocrisy.

4. Teach It

Talk about it. We “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13). And we get hardened by the lack of affirmation. We start to just expect things. We have a spirit of entitlement. We just think our people should be behaving better, rather than commend them when they do behave well.

5. Praise It

We’re almost done. Praise it when praising happens. So when you see people who are good at commending, commend them for being good commenders, and then have them sneeze on all the people in your church so that they catch whatever they have. Help them rub elbows with other people so that they’re infectious, and it catches on. Highlight them, point to them. Say, “Oh, that was, I love the way you do that, the way you did that.” So talk it up at your church. Praise it when it happens.

6. Reward It

Then next, reward it. Don’t merely commend the individual, but spread the good word beyond that person.

I walked around to our staff a couple of weeks ago on the fourth floor of our building at our downtown campus, and I just asked the question, “Who’s good at affirming around here?” You know you can ask questions like that. Who’s good at this? Who’s good at evangelism? Who’s good at caring for widows? Who’s good at what? And I just asked, “Who’s good at affirming?”

And when I ask questions like that, I can’t be the answer. So it’s not like I’m fishing for a compliment, and since I’m in your presence, you have to say what a wonderful job I do at whatever the thing is. But you have to name somebody else. When they tell me so-and-so is a good affirmer, well, then what do I do with that? Go tell them. “You know what people say about you behind your back?” And I’m saying that leaders can do that.

That’s not hard. That doesn’t take me all day. I didn’t have to write a dissertation. I didn’t have to look up anything in Greek. I just went and asked, “Who do you know that’s good at this thing?” And then I went and told them what people are saying behind their back, and that’s something pastors can do that’s real easy.

God Affirms

And remember, God affirms those who are not God also. So we’re not doing an Unchristian or atheistic or idolatrous thing here when we commend people who are not God.

There’s something defective with you and with all of your people if you don’t want God himself to praise you. Does that seem upside down? When you get to heaven, you should want to hear God say, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21). So God commends goodness and faithfulness even when he gives us that very goodness and that faithfulness.