Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014: My Year in Review

As I reflect back on the year that was 2014, I am filled with many emotions. Some of those, indeed, most of those emotions are very positive. A few of them are not. Perhaps the following reflections on the year will benefit others as much as writing it as helped me put the year in perspective. 

1. Thankful for Accountability
In December 2013 the Overseers at the church I serve met with me to discuss the value of my social media interactions. At the time of the meeting I was not very happy. I had been held accountable, and that is seldom a place of comfort, especially for those of us who “pride” ourselves on being independent. But, upon reflection (in a deer stand the next day), I realized God had placed these men in my life for my good. They want me to succeed; they don’t want me to fail. Their willingness to challenge me derived from their love for me, nothing else. 

So, in beginning January 1, 2014 I implemented a series of changes in how I interact in social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook. I established a set of principles to follow (you can read about them HERE) and eliminated every post, meme, picture, and article that did not fit into those principles. It took me three days to completely purge my page…which tells me that I was in desperate need of the accountability my Overseers provided. 

As the year has gone on it has not always been easy not to respond to the events in our nation via social media. This is particularly true with regard to evangelical leaders like Thabiti Anyabwile and John Piper who made irresponsible and factually ignorant comments about law enforcement tactics on the events surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Tamir Rice in Cincinnati, and Eric Garner in New York. Indeed, as I think about my own journey in social media, it occurs to me that Mr. Anyabwile could use someone with the courage to hold him accountable for his social media interactions, which have become as sadly one dimensional as mine had become a year ago. 

2. Blessed by Submission
On August 26, 2014 I had my quarterly doctor visit. Such quarterly visits have been standard since being diagnosed as Type II diabetic. At this particular visit my doctor informed me that my AIC had risen to 7.6, my weight remained “steady” at 301. (For those unfamiliar with diabetes, an AIC over 7.0 significantly increases the risk of heart disease, lower extremeity circulatory problems and eyesight problems.) 

My doc was concerned and planned to increase my meds to bring down my blood sugar numbers. I stopped him cold. “Doc,” I said, “what do you want me to do?” He asked what I meant. I said, “To get these numbers down, what do you want me to do.” He said he would have me do his VLCD, which stands for Very Low Calorie Diet. (That did not sound real good, to be honest!) He said the VLCD was comprised of 4 protein shakes, one bar and one high protein meal per day. I said, “Fine. I’ll do whatever you want. I won’t cheat. I’ll do exactly what you say.” 

It hasn’t been easy, but I found tremendous freedom in submitting to his direction for my health. Since that day, August 26, 2014, I have lost 56 pounds (to date) and my AIC has dropped to 5.5 (normal is anything under 5.7). I am convinced that part of the success can be attributed to the fact that I was willing to submit to someone who knew better than me how to lose weight and get my diabetes under control. And, that submission has actually benefitted my doc as well. In fact, he has been encouraged by the fact that a patient has been so committed to doing exactly what he asks.

3. Saddened by Division
I alluded to the tragic deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner earlier. The deaths of these individuals have revealed a racial divide in our nation that saddens me. You see, my family has an interesting history when it comes to race issues. My grandfathers were both racists – one a communist, the other with white supremacist leanings. I was raised in one of the most racially divided areas of the United States (according to James Loewen’s Sundown Towns). During the late 1960’s my mother was attacked (and later stalked) by three black men as she worked at a music studio in East St. Louis. I share those details so you understand that I know my history and tendencies when it comes to matters of race relations. And, because I know that history and those tendencies I have fought to treat people as people, regardless of race. 

Yet, it seems our nation wants to simultaneously ignore race and make much of race. We hear some (especially evangelical leaders) talk about white privilege and systemic racism, and point to these when there is an injustice committed. At the same time, such claims ring hollow when we consider the following:
  • The President of the United States is African-American (AA)
  • The highest legal authority in the land (Attorney General) is AA,
  • A record number of AA candidates ran for Congress (85) in 2014
  • When the 114th Congress convenes in January 2015, it will include 45 AA members of Congress and 2 AA Senators. 
  • The most powerful person in entertainment is an AA, Oprah Winfrey
  • The most powerful couple in entertainment is AA, Jay-Z and Beyonce
  • Last year’s entertainer at the Super Bowl was AA, Bruno Mars

And, the list is far longer than that. Now...none of that is to say that there are not issues in our nation related to race that need to be addressed. It is to say that the impression given by some that little to no progress has been made in race relations or in the progress made by African Americans simply does not fit what we actually see in the world around us. Frankly, my guess is that race relations between “real people” is better than those who derive their living from racial division would have us believe. 

4. Optimistic for the Future
Having said all of this, I remain optimistic for the future. Why? Because history is not dependent solely upon the choices that we make, but God is shaping and moving history to his ends. His purposes will be accomplished. So, this year, whether you are challenged by those close to you to make changes or whether the news and events in our nation sadden you, remember that God is in control. He will accomplish his purposes in you, in us, and in the world. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

In Honor of George Whitefield's 300th Birthday

Today marks the 300th anniversary of evangelist George Whitefield's birth. In honor of the occasion, I thought I'd post a link to a research paper I wrote on Whitefield a few years ago. I hope it is a blessing to you.

George Whitefield: A Life, A Legacy

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Essential Principles for Biblical Leadership

Developing and articulating biblical principles of leadership for church development may be one of the more underrated activities many ministers engage in, if they do at all. For some, the assumption is that they know how to do ministry, which tends to diminish the value of engaging in the process of developing and articulating a statement of principles. Yet, the fact that an individual may know how to carry out any number of functions related to ministry does not necessarily indicate the individual understands why or how those functions are related to the overarching purpose of Christ’s church in the world. Further, without an understanding of the purpose of Christ’s church in the world, and the role ministry plays in carrying it out, the activities of ministry lose their purpose and are carried forward by little more than routine.

Because the church is the body of Christ in the world, those providing ministerial leadership in the church must possess both Christ-like character and competency for their task in order to effectively represent Jesus Christ. It should be noted that the focus of this article is on principles intended for those in church leadership, although much of what is said below is applicable to all believers.

The Church: The Body of Christ
The body of Christ is the image used most often in the New Testament as a descriptor for the church. Millard Erickson states that “perhaps the most extended image of the church is its representation as the body of Christ.”  Erickson further argues that the body of Christ image is important because it demonstrates the connection of the group of believers to Christ; the role of individual believers in drawing their life from Christ; and the interconnectedness of believers with each other. Although Louis Berkhof does not regard the body of Christ imagery to be a complete definition of the church, he does acknowledge its proper designation for both the universal as well as local church, and its stress on unity.

There are at least two ways to think about the body of Christ imagery that will be helpful when thinking about leadership principles for ministry. The first is to consider the union between Christ and the church. That is, the connection between Christ and his church is so close that what happens to one can be said to happen to the other. The second way to think about the connection between Christ and the church is with respect to function. That is, the church is responsible to carry forward the mission of Christ in the world.
Union with Christ.

In Acts 9, Saul of Tarsus is on the road to Damascus seeking to persecute followers of Jesus Christ. He has been a leader in the persecution of Christ-followers, even giving approval to the stoning of a deacon named Stephen (Acts 8:1). While on the road to Damascus, Saul and his party are stopped by a blinding light. In Acts 9:4-5 we read: “And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.””

This exchange reveals the close connection there is between Christ and the church. This union is so close that it can be said that when the church is persecuted, Christ is persecuted. Additional passages could be cited that demonstrate the union of believers with Christ.  If nothing else, the close connection between Christ and the church indicates that our behavior is representative of the Lord Jesus.

Mission of Christ
Clearly expressed in the New Testament is the idea that the mission of Christ is moved forward by the church, his body. The image of the body of Christ is used in a number of places in the New Testament, but in the context of engaging in ministry, First Corinthians 12:12-27, Romans 12:4-8, and Ephesians 4:11-16 are three of the more significant passages. In each of these passages, the church is described as the body of Christ with respect to function. That is, Paul uses the image of the body to describe the nature of different gifts possessed by individuals within the church. The salient point for the purposes of this paper is that the Scripture teaches in these passages that God has gifted the body in order to carry on the work of Christ in the world.

The concepts above provide a foundation for any principles for ministry that are proposed. The church needs to be understood as united with Christ for the carrying on of his work in the world, in order to provide a context for articulating principles of ministry for church development. Because the church is the body of Christ carrying out his mission in the world, those providing ministry leadership must demonstrate Christ-like character and competency to accomplish the task he has set before them.

Leadership Principles Related to Character
 As representatives of Jesus Christ, those ministering in his name must demonstrate his character. There are two aspects of this character that will be examined below: the source of character and the signs of character.

Source of Character
Dependence on Christ. In John 15:1-8, Jesus calls his followers to dependence upon him when he says:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.

The key concept in this passage is that of abiding in Christ. The imagery of the vine is particularly important for those in ministry, as those serving Christ (the branches) draw strength and nourishment from the vine (Christ). Just as the vine produces branches of the same kind, so Christ produces followers who are “like” him. A grape vine does not, after all, produce apples.

John 15:1-8 is vital as it reminds us that the spiritual life of the ministry leader is to find its regular source and nourishment in Christ. Ministry, then, becomes the result of a growing spiritual life that is dependent upon Christ. Such dependence will manifest itself at least in prayer and humility as ministers recognize their inability apart from him.

The Holy Spirit. Another source of character is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not to be understood as separate from our dependence upon Christ, but in conjunction with that dependence. In John 14:26 Jesus prepared his disciples for the coming of the Holy Spirit when he said, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to remembrance all that I have said to you.” Paul helps us further understand the role of the Holy Spirit in Galatians 5:16-17, 22-23 which reads:
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do….But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

One role of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life is to apply the teachings of Christ in such a way that godly behavior is the result. The fruit of the Spirit is a description of the development of godly character. The Spirit does his work in such a way that Paul was confident that his work would be brought to completion as believers are progressively sanctified (Phil 1:6; 2 Thess 2:13). John Stott seems to echo these sentiments when he writes, “Fundamental to all Christian leadership and ministry is a humble personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, devotion to him expressed in daily prayer and love for him expressed in daily obedience.”

Signs of Character
The sources of character for a minister include a dependence upon God experienced through prayer and humility, as well as the application of the word of God by the Spirit of God. How does that character manifest itself in the life of a ministry leader? Fortunately, there are several key passages that specifically address the identification of godly character in the life of a ministry leader.

Servanthood. One sign of character development is servanthood. In Matthew 20:20-28, the Scripture records an encounter between Jesus and the mother of two of his disciples. As Jesus explained the impossibility of his guaranteeing who would hold positions of power in his coming kingdom, he told his disciples,
But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Later, as Jesus is washing the disciple’s feet prior to the Last Supper, John 13:14-17 records him exhorting them,
If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.

It seems clear that Jesus is emphasizing to his disciples that they are to imitate his servant mindset as they serve others. In Philippians 2:5, in the context of calling believers to selflessly serve, Paul tells them to “have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” Thus, Paul calls believers to adopt the mind of Christ with respect to their service of others. There is no place in ministry for individuals who believe they are to be served. Rather, ministers of the gospel are, literally, servants of Christ, who must adopt a mindset of looking to the interests of others before ourselves.  Thus, a general disposition of servanthood is essential.

Personal and Family Values. It is interesting that in the biblical texts regarding the selection of a ministry leader, personal and family-related character issues predominate. In other words, it is not enough to simply display a servant’s attitude in public, but one must also possess personal values that are displayed privately as well. The key passages related to personal and family character of church leaders are 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 respectively, which read:

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore, an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. (1 Timothy 3:1-7)

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, appoint elders in every town as I directed you – if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. (Titus 1:5-9)

Personal values are described with the terms: sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money. These behaviors are not intended to be a checklist, per se, but rather that the leader’s life is consistent with godly values. Calvin suggested that these values prevent the selection of a leader whose life is marked by a disgrace that detracts from leadership authority.  Gary Bredfeldt adds that “a reproachable character undermines even the most competent of Bible teachers.”

It is clear that the New Testament makes a strong connection between the fitness of an individual for leadership in the church based, in part, upon his leadership in the home. That is, both passages indicate that a crucial aspect of the church leader’s integrity is his family life. Though there is some debate about whether the phrase “above reproach” is specifically tied to family life expectations, it seems reasonable to conclude that the family life of the church leader was uppermost in the Apostle Paul’s mind. Such a conclusion is based on that fact that, in both texts, the requirements for church leaders are introduced by the phrase “above reproach” and are immediately followed by expectations related to family life.  The Titus passage, in fact, brackets the family life expectations by using “above reproach” as an introductory and concluding statement.

The teaching of both texts is consistent in indicating that one is not fit to be a church leader if he is not honoring the Lord in his family life.Thus, ministry leaders need to be marked by an attitude of servanthood. Further their personal lives need to demonstrate personal values that are consistent with the teachings of Scripture. Further, their personal values must be manifest to those to whom they are the closest: their family.

Principles Related to Competence
Character is not the only essential for ministry leaders. Ministry leaders must also demonstrate competence for the task of advancing the mission of Jesus. The competencies necessary for ministry leaders may be divided into two categories: competencies related to teaching and those related to leading.

Teaching. An examination of the 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 passages above will reveal that there is only one skill that is absolutely essential for a ministry leader: the ability to teach. To Timothy, Paul describes this skill with simply the phrase, “able to teach” (I Tim 3:2). To Titus, Paul expands on the idea a bit when he says, “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). John Stott says of the list of qualifications in 1 Timothy 3, "Nine of them are moral or social (e.g., self-controlled, hospitable, sober, gentle). Only one could be called a “professional” qualification, namely didaktikos (v. 2), “a good teacher” (Revised Standard Version)." Ministry leaders must possess the ability to teach others and continually work to hone that skill.

Further, ministry leaders must establish teaching as the priority of their ministry. Bredfeldt says, “Once leaders forget that teaching is job number one, they diminish their eternal impact by accepting a standard only esteemed by human beings and surrendering the standard applied by God.”  The fact that pastors are called primarily to teach God’s Word is of vital concern for the church today. Considering the tremendous amount of non-teaching responsibilities that face pastors, it is imperative that the church restore priority to teaching the Word of God. Since this ministry of the Word is connected to unity and maturity, and in light of the demands on pastors that detract from the ministry of the Word, it should not be surprising that many churches are experiencing neither unity nor maturity.

Leading. The bible describes teaching and leading as going together in the life of a ministry leader. Leadership, in this context, is best described as equipping the body for ministry and then releasing the body to serve. Since all believers are the body of Christ, all believers are to serve. The role of ministry leadership is to equip them for that purpose, and then release the people to serve. In a sense, this is an extension of the servanthood characteristic of the ministry leader.

Equipping. Few other passages are as clear as Ephesians 4:11-16 regarding the task of pastors and teachers to equip God’s people for ministry. The passage reads,
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

The pastors and teachers are given the dual task of shepherding (the classical meaning of pastor) the church and teaching God’s word.  Paul considered the task of teaching to be an ongoing ministry of the church, as his admonition to Timothy to train and equip others to teach (2 Tim. 2:2) demonstrates. In fact, the teaching role is the one emphasized here, as all pastors are regarded as teachers; but not all teachers are pastors. Teaching, then, is one of the primary tools for equipping God’s people. Equipping is not limited to teaching, however, but also extends to hands-on ministry experiences as well as personal mentoring.

Releasing. Once believers are taught, they are to be released in ministry. Such is the model followed by Jesus. In Luke’s gospel, three distinct phases of a discipleship process have been noted: calling, building, and sending.  In Simple Church, Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger argue that in the sending phase, Jesus “turned ministry over to his disciples.” The idea is that once followers have been trained, they are to assume the task(s) of ministry. Jesus does much the same thing at the very end of his earthly ministry. In the Great Commission texts, Jesus leaves the execution of ministry to his disciples.

A model has been established then, in which, followers are to be sent out to do ministry after they have been taught and instructed. Bredfeldt refers to this releasing of followers as “empowerment” and warns that empowerment is a risk because the leader has to trust the person to whom they are entrusting the task.  Yet, it is essential is the mission of Jesus is going to significantly advance in the world.

The church is the body of Christ in the world. Because of its union with Christ, the church is called to carry out the mission of Jesus in the world. Every part of the body of Christ is to be engaged in that mission. But, God has established leaders over the church for the purpose of facilitating the church’s development in Christ-likeness.

The leaders of the church are to be marked by character. Their character is to derive from an absolute dependence upon Jesus himself. Their lives should be marked by humility and prayer. Further, the Holy Spirit is at work in them developing godly character. That character is demonstrated in an attitude of servanthood to those under their care. Further, their lives are to be marked by godly personal and family values. The personal and home life of the ministry leader is a key factor in their fitness for serving the church.

Leaders of the church are also to be marked by competence. First, this competence is to be found in their ability to teach. No other “skill” is demanded by the text of Scripture for a ministry leader. Second, they are to be competent to equip and release the body of Christ for ministry. Individuals who are unable or unwillingly to involve others in the work of the kingdom have a place in ministry leadership. The reality is that a ministry leader cannot do all of the work of ministry themselves. Believers must be taught and trained and released to advance the mission of Jesus in the world. Only then is the body of Christ able to grow and build itself up in love.

What principles do you think have been overlooked? What would you add to the above or, what do you consider not to be as essential as presented here? 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Some Thoughts on Christian Civic Engagement

Now that the 2014 mid-terms are over, it would seem a good time to reflect on the degree to which Christians ought to engage in the political process. Based on some of the Twitter feeds I've seen, there are some folks that are euphoric in their belief that the GOP take over of the Senate has ushered in a fundamental change in the American political process. Equally vocal are those folks that refused to even vote because they couldn't find anyone who held to biblical values.

It seems to me that those who claim to be followers of Christ have differing opinions about the right relationship Christ-followers should have toward addressing issues of public concern. Or, to say it more clearly, there is some disagreement among believers about this thing we call politics.
At its heart, politics is the legislative enacting of a worldview. Make no mistake about that. Every political issue, every piece of legislation, every political philosophy is driven by a worldview.Because the political process is about enacting legislation in support of a worldview, Christians must be engaged in the process.

Nearly 40 years ago Francis Schaeffer warned American evangelicals that the winner of the worldview war would determine the kind of government we would submit to. In How Should We Then Live?  (1976) Schaeffer's central premise is that when we base society on the Bible, on the infinite-personal God who is there and has spoken, that premise provides an absolute by which we can conduct our lives and by which we can judge society. He contrasted that Christian worldview with a humanistic worldview. Schaeffer defined humanism as "a value system rooted in the belief that man is his own measure, that man is autonomous, totally independent". Schaeffer argued that when we base society on humanism, all values are relative and we have no way to distinguish right from wrong except for utilitarianism. Essentially, the primary guide for determining right and wrong is determined by that which provides the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people.
When a society bases its political and philosophical foundation on humanism, the member of that society disagree on what is best, and that devolves into a value system that is based on Personal Peace (the desire to be personally unaffected by the world's problems) and Affluence (an increasing personal income.) Chillingly, Schaeffer warned that when we live by these values we will be tempted to sacrifice our freedoms in exchange for an authoritarian government who will provide the relative values.

That, my friends, is precisely what we see happening in our culture today. Whether it is euphoria over government sponsored welfare or the systematic limitation of religious liberty through laws that purport to promote civil rights, the only thing that seems to matter in our political culture is the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. This is the water in which our culture is swimming. I mention all of this because we need to understand that if we focus on the symptoms, we will lose this battle. If we are going to engage this battle, we have to understand that it is a philosophical and spiritual battle. And, that battle cannot be won apart from the work of the Holy Spirit.

 I would like to explore the question: How Should We Then Live when it comes to political and civic engagement? Some say that Christians ought to withdraw from the political process. This view would have us to believe that the church and Christians should have no role in secular government. These believers would say that we should focus our attention on the gospel and not get mixed up in politics. That God will take care of everything and we don’t need to be involved.

 Others cry “separation of church and state” and wish that believers would, in fact, retire to our prayer chambers and leave the work of governing to them. Still others – and these are the saddest of all to me – do not see that our Christian convictions have any bearing on our political views. These are the folks that would like to read and believe the Bible when it speaks of God’s forgiveness and salvation, but are not as comfortable when God defines marriage or calls the sacrificing children on the altar of self murder or calls Israel the people of God and promises blessing to those who will befriend her.

What is the appropriate approach? As I think of the Scripture, the first thing I consider (and the only thing I have time to pursue at the moment) is that Christ followers are aliens and strangers on the earth. That is Peter’s description in 1 Pet 2:11-12; there he says:
            11 Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
Peter does not say, you are aliens and strangers here, so do not engage with the larger culture. No. He says that we can effect change and bring glory to God while living in a culture that has turned its back on God. How? The text says we make a difference by both a negative and a positive exhortation. He says we should:
            1. Abstain from sinful desires.
            2. Live such good lives that our good deeds silence their false accusations.
In doing these things, we bring glory to God.

This advice is not just Peter’s idea, but is a consistent theme of the entire Bible. For example, when the children of Israel were carried into captivity in Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah wrote to them giving them advice on how to live as captives in a foreign land. He did not incite them to riot or to protest against their captors. He did not suggest they seek to overthrow them by force. No, in Jer 29:4-7 we find this instruction:
                4 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

This, I believe, should be the disposition of believers today – make the society you are a part of better because of your presence. Add value to the land of your habitation. Seek the benefit and prosperity of the land in which you are an alien and stranger. And, as the culture is blessed, you too will be blessed.
Sitting on the sidelines is not an option. Being marginalized because of our faith is not an option. No, rather, engaging in the process seeking the peace and prosperity of our nation is our only option. As we do, we must recognize that we are in a spiritual and philosophical battle and that, ultimately, victory is not found in ballots or elections, but in the spiritual transformation of a nation through the power of Jesus Christ.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Discovering Spiritual Gifts....It's Not What You Think!

Since approximately 1972 a significant number of churches in the United States have increasingly regarded a conscious understanding of spiritual gifts and the utilization of those gifts in the life of the church as important for individual followers of Christ. Over the past thirty-five years or so, an increasingly large amount of material on the subject of spiritual gifts has been produced. C. Peter Wagner, a prolific writer on the subject of spiritual gifts, is a strong advocate for the use of spiritual gifts in the life of the church. Wagner contends that there is no “dimension of the Christian life that more effectively joins the teachings of Scripture with the day-to-day activities of the people of God than spiritual gifts.”  Thom Rainer is a scholar, researcher, and prolific writer in his own right. He suggests that churches will grow as Christians discover their spiritual gifts and then use those gifts to build up the body of Christ.  

The effort of local churches to help people discover their spiritual gifts has the goal of helping people to get engaged in the ministry of the local church. And, this effort has created a plethora of material, including books, seminars, and spiritual gift inventories (both paper based and online). Of these resources, the “spiritual gift inventory” has become a frequently used method by which churches aim to help believers discover their spiritual gifts. Yet, is the use of a spiritual gift identification instrument the best way for people to find their place of joyful service within the church? 
It goes without saying that there is a lot of debate among scholars, pastors and lay people about the nature and purpose of spiritual gifts. Most of these debates pertain to the nature of certain gifts (i.e. tongues, healing, etc) and whether those gifts are still active today. Although there is debate about some gifts, the conventional view seems to be that spiritual gifts are divine abilities given to believers by the Holy Spirit at conversion. Yet, there is terribly little in the Scripture to support this view. Indeed, it is my contention that the emphasis on divine enablement has led to an unfortunate and fundamental misunderstanding of the best way to “discover” spiritual gifts; namely the use of spiritual gift inventories. 

What if spiritual gifts are really more about what you do with the skills, talents, and passions that God has placed within you from birth? What if the lists of spiritual gifts in the Bible are different because the needs of the individual churches are what the Holy Spirit responds to by placing gifted individuals within that local body? I've been on a quest to discover the nature of spiritual gifts in the Bible and how to best help other believers figure out their place of joyful service in God's kingdom. In fact, I considered this issue so important that I devoted my Ph.D. dissertation to the subject. I have now turned that somewhat technical and academic work into a book that I pray will be a blessing to the church, pastors and believers everywhere.

If you are curious to learn more, I invite you to check out my new book The Unleashed Church: A New Understanding of Spiritual Gifts to Move Attenders to to Participants. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Guiding Principles I Follow in the Voting Booth

During an election cycle we hear ads from candidates who offer contradictory "facts" to convince you that the other candidate is the embodiment of evil and that they are fundamentally different. It is easy to get caught up in these ads - and the fear mongering that is so prevalent - and not know exactly how one should vote. A number of years ago - and in no small part due to the influence of Francis Schaeffer, Russ Moore, and others - I developed a three principle method of evaluating candidates. I provide it here in hopes it may help you as you face the voting booth.

On July 4, 1776 the Founding Fathers of the United States declared: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It seems to me that this provides a good three principle paradigm for evaluating candidates: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

There is no right more fundamental than the right to life. Every person who advocates a pro-choice position does so only because their own mother chose life. Think about that for a minute. I recognize there are difficult situations people find themselves in and circumstances that are often less than ideal for a pregnancy. Yet, none of those situations or circumstances justify the killing of an innocent child.

Mother Teresa once said, “I feel the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a war against the child... A direct killing of the innocent child, 'Murder' by the mother herself... And if we can accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another?" And, she got to the heart of the matter - the real reason our culture advocates abortion - when she said, "It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish."

Therefore, when I vote, the first principle that guides me is whether a candidate is pro-life. This, in my estimation, is the most practical way to ensure that every person's right to LIFE is protected.

To some people this seems to contradict the first principle. But, it does not. The 2nd Amendment to the Constitution reads: "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." The Founding Fathers had experienced the tyranny of King George and had openly rebelled against that tyranny. They were able to do so because they were armed. In their day a militia was a group of ordinary citizens who formed to defend an area or region. It was a precursor to the present day military. Yet, the right to keep and bear arms was not inextricably tied to the idea of the military, as some presume today. Rather, the right of citizens to rebel against tyrannical government necessitates those citizens posses the right to keep and bear arms.

The Declaration of Independence says we are endowed by our Creator with the right to LIBERTY. The way we ensure our liberty is protected is not by trusting that the government will take care of protecting it for us. Rather, each individual has the right to protect their liberty on their own. So, the second principle that guides me is whether a candidate supports the 2nd amendment.

The third principle that guides my voting decisions is whether a candidate favors smaller government and lower taxes. This principle comes out of the Declaration as well. We are endowed by our Creator with the right to the pursuit of happiness. It is difficult to pursue happiness if the government continually takes more and more of one's income.

So, there they are. Three principles that help guide the way I vote. Whether you agree with these or not, I encourage you to develop principles that will help guide your time in the voting booth. It will be much easier to sift through the hundreds of political ads!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Does God Change His Mind?

This morning I was going to wear a nice blue shirt with my khaki pants to church. After looking over the other shirts in my closet, I changed my mind and picked another shirt to wear. There is nothing particularly unusual about that. I change my mind a lot. For the baseball game tonight I decided to get chicken wings from a local place. Then I changed my mind and went to another place for wings. As I said, I change my mind a lot.

This week a friend asked me if God ever changes his mind. My initial thought was “hopefully not as much as I do!” But, it got me to thinking about changing minds and how to think about God changing his mind.

On the one hand there are biblical passages that seem to clearly answer this question. For example, Malachi 3:6 says “I the Lord do not change.” Indeed, in that verse God attributes the fact that Israel is not destroyed to the fact that he does not change. In other words, his continued willingness to honor his covenant to Jacob (Israel) is what has spared them. Numbers 23:19 is even more clear. That verse says “God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should change His mind. Does He speak and then not act? Does He promise and not fulfill?” The New Testament, too, gets into the act when James observes in 1:17 that “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”

Those passages would seem to settle the issue. Yet, what about a verse like Gen 6:6 that tells us that “the Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.” While it is true that being grieved over something is not exactly the same thing as changing your mind. But, it does, at the very least, indicate a change in disposition. After all, God went from saying the creation of man was “very good” (Gen 1:31) to being “grieved” and “pained” that he had made man. That represents a distinct change!

And then there are occasions in which God declares his intention to punish or bring judgment on a people and then change his mind. The Ninevites of Jonah 3:10 come to mind as an example. God had told Jonah he intended to punish the people of Nineveh, but upon seeing their repentance, “he had compassion and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.” Similarly, Exodus 32:14 says that “the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.” Here again, the Lord responds to the intercession of Moses and does not bring the judgment on the people he had threatened.

So, how do we understand this? Well, I do not propose to fully expound on such a complex theological and biblical issue in this short blog. Rather, I want to give some thoughts on how to understand God and his (changing / unchanging) mind.

It is probably wise to think about God changing his mind in the following categories. First, God does not change his mind because he has learned something new. We usually change our mind due to the addition of new information. I decided to switch chicken wing restaurants based on the ease of access to the restaurant. I decided to switch shirts because one needed to be ironed, while the other did not. Because God is omniscient (all knowing) he does not change his mind due to the addition of previously unknown information.

Second, there are some things about which God will not change his mind. I think of Isaiah 46:10-11 “…declaring the end from the beginning, and from the past things which were not done, saying, My purpose shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure … What I have said, that will I bring about; what I have planned, that will I do.” God’s intention to conform believers to the likeness of Christ (Eph 1:3-14) is an example of that. God’s decision to send Christ to be the sacrifice for our sins (Acts 2:23; Isa 53) is another example of something about which God would not change his mind.

A third area to consider are those times when the Bible has expressed that God changes his mind. It seems to me that the majority of these occasions (if not all of them) are in the context of judgment and repentance. In these cases it may be that our language fails to adequately communicate what is going on. In other words, it is likely that the Holy Spirit is using anthropomorphic language to help us understand what is happening. Anthropomorphic language is employed when an author represents the forms, feelings, or actions of God in human ways.

So, when God threatens judgment and then relents, it appears he has changed his mind. But, because God knows the end from the beginning, it is more likely that he knows that the threat of judgment will result in repentance. And it is the repentance of sinful people that God desires.

So, does God change his mind? Well, yes and no. He does not change his mind the way we do. But, he appears to change his mind at times. It is key to remember that it is the unchanging nature of God that means we can trust him and take him at his word. His unchangeableness is not a negative, but a huge blessing to us.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Brothers, We Are Not Rock Stars

Over ten years ago, John Piper wrote Brothers, We Are Not Professionals. The book contained a series of short chapters written by Piper and designed to remind his fellow pastors of the biblical call to be a shepherd to God’s people. I would like to suggest the addition of a chapter to Piper’s previous work entitled “Brothers, We Are Not Rock Stars.”

In recent months I have watched two very prominent and very successful pastors have their integrity called into question. Steven Furtick, pastor at the 14,000 member Elevation Church in Charlotte and Mark Driscoll, pastor at Mars Hill Church in Seattle, which also has an attendance of 14,000 per week spread over their 15 locations, have recently both been the subject of intense scrutiny of their character. In Furtick’s case, the examination has to do primarily with his decision to build a 16,000 square foot, $1.7 million home for his family and questions about the Elevation practice of “spontaneous baptisms.” Driscoll’s case is far more involved and includes questionable practices in promoting his books, his general demeanor toward others, and even extending back to behavior he engaged in nearly 15 years ago.

My goal in this short piece is not to uncover some new detail about either man. Nor is my goal to pile on either of them. They have enough to do in responding biblically and graciously to the challenges at hand. Rather, I suggest that at least part of the reason these relatively young men (Driscoll is 43 and Furtick is 34) are embroiled in these controversies is due to something more sinister and subtle: our desire to follow (and promote and even worship) successful people even to the extent that we are willing to look beyond some obvious issues.

As much as we might like to deny it, we – other pastors and Christians – love a success. We want to be a success and we want to be surrounded by successful people. When we find someone who can draw a crowd, can motivate them and move them with his speaking, and can build an organization, we give them wide latitude in other areas. We are willing to call it “edgy” when a guy cusses in the pulpit, as long as he is reaching thousands and agrees with us theologically. We look past one who is tempted by the allure of material possessions (what else is a 16,000 sq ft house?) because there are other good things his church does (like donating millions of dollars to charities in and around Charlotte).

The scandals that occurred among proponents of the prosperity gospel was easier for conservative, orthodox evangelicals to live with. After all, we had significant theological problems with Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Robert Tilton, Oral Roberts, Richard Roberts, Joyce Meyer, Creflo Dollar, Paula White and others. But, now we have discovered that the problem is not solely theological in nature. No, it is deeper than the ability to check the “orthodox” box next to your theology. It is a problem of the human heart. It is a problem that Paul addressed to young Timothy when he told him flee the temptation of money and material possessions (1 Tim 6:9-11). It is a problem of a Christian subculture that loves a rock star.

I have a few suggestions as to how we can mitigate the rock star phenomenon among us.

1. Serve in a small, traditional church before you plant a church.
I served in two small, rural churches that were run by just a few families. Nothing will kill a rock star mindset like Mrs. Charlene reminding you that “pastors come and go, but the church stays the same.” Most of the rock stars in our midst planted the churches they now serve in. While I am not opposed to church planting, it gives a young pastor a false idea of ministry. I planted a church too. And, I recall a mindset of the church being “mine” edging in on me; after all, I planted it, I built it, and no one would be here if they didn’t like me and my preaching. And, I was only in a church of 180. Imagine 10 or 100 times that many.

My heart breaks when I hear the old saying, “it is easier to give birth than to raise the dead.” Of course it is. And, it’s more fun too. The problem is, there are lessons that one only learns during the hard labor of working with folks who do not see you as the answer to all their problems. There is a leadership incubator in a small, rural church that cannot – under any circumstances – be replicated by a church planting boot camp. Indeed, I would argue that if you cannot effectively lead in a small, rural church, you ought not plant a church. The leadership lessons are that critical. Spend five years or so in a small, traditional church before you decide to plant that megachurch, multi-site, world-changing church in a major city. Your ministry will be better for it.

2. Find an older pastor to mentor you
John Walden, Noel Taylor, James Baldwin. These are names that will be remembered by only a handful of family and friends. But, these three men were instrumental in my life. They were all local church pastors who took me under their wing and shared ministry insights with me that were not taught in a classroom. They were not rock stars.

I remember one leadership decision that did not go as I intended. As I shared the story with Dr. Baldwin, he asked me who I thought was to blame. I immediately launched into accusations about the chairman of deacons, the family who “ran” the church, and the unwillingness of stubborn people to follow good leadership. He listened politely and then said, “Well, you got it all wrong, son. The problem is you.” He then painted a picture of how to lead people, not just tell them what I wanted them to do. The lesson made a significant impression on me.

When young, hip, cool pastor types experience success the only people they seem to listen to are other young, hip, cool pastor types. That is a prescription for disaster. I would suggest that every young pastor – no matter how hip or cool – find an experienced, small church pastor who can share wisdom with him. Who can teach him how to navigate difficult leadership decisions and how to guard his heart from the temptations that come with great success.

3. Remember you are only a steward. 
When I was getting a little full of myself about planting a church in a town of 3,000 people that were 78% churched – and it growing from 23 to nearly 180 in 5 years – I needed a reality check. What brought me back to reality – other than God’s grace – was a visit to one of those country churches I had previously pastored. It was there God reminded me that I was but a steward in His kingdom. He reminded me that the church I helped to plant had better be bigger than me, or it would not last. He reminded me to hold any church I serve with an open hand, because the church is designed for his glory, not mine.

Brothers, we are not rock stars. We are servants of the King, who demonstrate our love for Him by the way we love the people entrusted to our care. These things have helped me. What has helped you to beat back the rock star mentality?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

An Open Letter to Thabiti Anyabwile


I have been enriched and blessed by your ministry – specifically your writing – on many occasions. You have challenged me and pushed me to think differently about a whole host of issues. And, I have been better because of it.

The events unraveling in Ferguson are not much different. I understand and agree with your call for evangelical leaders to do more than simply lament what has happened, and what is happening. I agree with your assessment that we have tended to ignore who our neighbor really is; that we have often failed to speak on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, and the disenfranchised. Frankly, we have failed to do so because there is little in it for us. After all, unemployed, young black males are not the folks needed to build multi-million dollar facilities and international ministries. You are right to call us to more. To something better. To put the gospel into action.

I am reaching out to you in this way, because I have no method of contacting you directly. I attempted to send you a direct message via Twitter, but that option was unavailable to me. So, I have turned to my own, little read blog, to do so.

I mentioned you in a tweet today about the #Ferguson situation. That tweet read: “Defending criminal behavior because of perps skin color is sin, not understanding.” I included both you and Matt Chandler in that tweet for a reason. In both of your writings over the past few days I have detected a blindness to your own biases. A blindness to wanting to know what really happened between Officer Wilson and Michael Brown before we issue calls for actions or even make laments. That blindness was illustrated in your reply to me: “By that, do you mean we shouldn’t defend Wilson because he is white? I didn’t think so.” In so doing, you dismissively made the very kind of racial stereotype that you would call others to avoid.

You assume(d) that, because I am white, my tweet was a blanket defense of Wilson and an indictment of Brown. When, in reality, it could just as easily been read as a defense of Brown. But, you did not read it that way. Why? Simply and sadly, you judged my tweet by the color of my skin, not the content of my character – to borrow a line from one of my heroes. I’m saddened by that because, until men like you and I can engage with each other without making sinful assumptions, we will never become the kind of evangelical community that can offer help and hope to the people in Ferguson, and beyond.

Thabiti, I have immense respect for you. You have far more eloquence and are far sharper than I am on a wide variety of issues. It is for that reason that I ask you to consider, for a moment, why you would call on evangelicalism to “stop putting people on trial before you grant them mercy” and at the same time you yourself act as judge and jury by declaring police officers “perpetrators” when they have been involved in the shooting of an unarmed person. ( Do you not know that there are justifiable reasons that law enforcement officers (and private citizens in some states) have for using deadly force, even when an assailant is unarmed? Thabiti, if you want a consistent, gospel-saturated call to action by evangelicals, you must not only lead the lament. You must be consistent to do yourself what you call on the rest of us to do.

Grace to you,
Rob Pochek

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Pastoral Reflections on Robin Williams' Suicide

On Monday night, August 11th, news broke that legendary comedian and actor Robin Williams had died of an apparent suicide. On Tuesday, August 12th, officials confirmed that Williams had indeed taken his own life by hanging himself with a belt. The response to Williams’ death was immediate and heartfelt from fans and colleagues alike. Everyone was saddened to hear that one who had brought so much joy into the lives of others had taken his own life. Immediately some began to speculate about his ongoing battle with alcohol addiction and depression as the cause of his desperate act. Others began to comfort themselves with the thought that Williams was now at peace from such battles. And a few observed that suicide is the ultimate selfish act.

There is little doubt that suicide is a fierce goodbye. It is a final and ultimate way an individual seeks to end their suffering and struggle. And when something like this happens – whether to a celebrity or a fellow church member – Christians are all too ready to comment. The most prominent reactions I have observed from Christians seems to be either to say the individual is now at peace or to make some comment about the unpardonable sin. Obviously, these two reactions are polar opposites, yet both come from Christians. So, how should Christians respond to news like this?

First, we need to be very cautious about making absolute pronouncements about a specific individual’s eternal destiny. Frankly, we are not in a position to know such a thing with certainty. When we pronounce that someone has committed “the unpardonable sin” by taking their own life, we are speaking of that which we do not know for sure. Jesus mentions this sin in parallel passages found in Mt 12 and Mk 3. In those contexts, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were accusing him of casting out demons by the power of Satan. They were, in fact, attributing the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan. Jesus described their words as “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.” While scholars may debate exactly what Jesus meant by this, we can be certain that he was not referring to suicide.

Second, it is not consistent with a Christian worldview or biblical truth to suggest that someone who has taken their own life “is no longer suffering.” Frankly, we do not know that. Indeed, the Bible teaches that only those who are in a relationship with Christ are in a place of joy after their death. All others are in a place of torment. But, because we do not know – with certainty – the nature of a specific individual’s relationship with Christ, it is neither helpful nor accurate to make statements about who is or who is not suffering any longer. For the person who dies apart from Christ, the tragic reality is that their suffering has just begun.

Third, I have occasionally seen Christians insinuate that suicide is not possible for a true follower of Christ. Such a view denies the reality of our fallen nature, the power of sin, and the devastating effect of mental illness. Christ is our deliverer, no doubt. But, that deliverance is not complete and total until we are in his presence. The battle with depression and mental illness is not unlike any other battle with sin. The Enemy attacks us at our weakest and most vulnerable spot and like other battles with sin, occasionally the battle with mental illness and depression is lost. Sadly, sometimes that loss is final.

Finally, sometimes Christians point out that suicide is the ultimate selfish act. It may be. But, saying so is not very helpful to the family that is left to grieve the loss of their loved one. In fact, in a sense, when we say suicide is a selfish act, we are acting as if people exist in a spiritual vacuum. In reality, the opposite is true. The person who is struggling with the desire to end their life is in a spiritual battle. Jesus said that the Devil has come to “steal, kill and destroy.” While the individual is responsible for the choices he or she makes, let us not fall into the trap of acting as if we do not have an Enemy that is seeking to destroy as many lives as he can. When a person commits suicide it is the ultimate win for the Enemy. He has successfully duped another person into believing that his way of death and destruction is best.

When Robin Williams took his own life, the Enemy rejoiced and a nation mourned. As Christians, let us be gracious before a watching (and hurting) world. Let us not make bold pronouncements about suffering. Let us not make sweeping generalizations about suicide. Let us be clear that sadness and sorrow at the loss of one made in the image of God is right. Let us be clear that mourning and grieving the loss of a husband and father is right. And let us be clear that, except for the grace of God, there go I.  

Monday, August 4, 2014

I Didn't Expect THAT!

If you are a leader, no doubt you have made decisions that had results you did not anticipate. In the world of economics, this phenomenon is referred to as the “Law of Unintended Consequences.” The idea is fairly simple: the actions of people, and especially of governments, always have effects that are unanticipated or unintended. A government (or business) establishes a regulation (or policy) anticipating one result, but the self-interest of those affected by the regulation (or policy) leads them to act in a way the government (or business) did not anticipate.

What, you may be wondering, does this have to do with being a church leader? Everything. The law of unintended consequences is not confined to the world of economics or government regulation, but is alive and well in the life of the local church. When church leaders are preparing to make decisions – even relatively minor decisions – we need to keep the law of unintended consequences in our minds.

Consider the following scenarios:

  • A worship pastor introduces new songs to the congregation resulting in the singing of hymns less frequently. The worship pastor’s goal is to enliven and enrich the worship of the people in the church by broadening their worship experience. The unintended consequence? A segment of the church feels their worship is now restricted, as the songs they have grown to love are no longer sung as often. 

  • Church leaders decide to scale back the children’s ministry worship experience. Their goal is to minimize the need for hard-to-find volunteers (especially at the regular worship hour) and to increase the discipleship effectiveness of the ministry by reducing the “entertainment” portion of the weekly event. The unintended consequence? Parents think that the children’s ministry is no longer important to the church. 

  • The church installs new chairs in the worship center (or new pews, depending on the church) and decides that coffee they serve in their café is no longer allowed in the sanctuary. Their rationale is to be good stewards of the resources entrusted to them by preventing spills and stains. The unintended consequence? People perceive the chairs are more important than them. 

All of the scenarios above are real. And, I am sure that church leaders who are reading this article could add dozens more. The simple truth of the matter is that, whenever decisions are made in the life of the church, there are consequences that we cannot anticipate. Indeed, consequences beyond our control. Of course, if the consequences are “unintended,” what can we do about it? Fortunately, there are a few ways to minimize the fall out.

1. Anticipate Negative Perceptions
I remind our staff that perceptions trump intentions, always. So, do your best to put yourself in the shoes of a person that will be affected by the decision. Then, try to think of the most outrageously negative reaction you can. I’m serious. Why? Because, more often than not, it is the reaction that you don’t think will happen, that will. It is the far-flung-nobody-will-ever-think-this reaction that will end up being the perception. If you can anticipate it, you can proactively respond to it.

2. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.
Too often church leaders spend a lot of time in planning for a major change, and then implement it without properly communicating the entire thought process behind it. We have to be mindful that, just because we have been thinking on a change for months, does not mean our people will warm to it when we share it the first time. We need to communicate the need for the change, the impact of the change on current ministries, and what will happen if we do not make the change. We need to do this, not in a combative way, but in a consensus-building fashion. We also need to communicate in a variety of methods – one video on a Sunday morning just won’t get it. We need printed pieces, videos, skits, signage around the building, and personal communication from key leaders.

3. Change, if Necessary
This may seem counter-intuitive, but, even after all the planning, communicating, and anticipating possible, it may be that the decision we made was poor. When that happens, we need to be quick to acknowledge it and adjust what we have done. The church that wanted to protect their new chairs, for example, just could not get over the perception that they valued furniture more than people. So, they decided to give out lids with the coffee they served in their café and planned to have the pews cleaned on a semi-annual basis.

These are just a few ways to deal with the unintended consequences arising from leadership decisions. What are your stories? What decisions have you made that had consequences (perceptions) that you never expected? What did you do about it? What would you add to the three suggestions above?

Monday, June 16, 2014

FOMO Kills YOLO Every Time

My wife and I just returned from our bi-annual trip to the Caribbean. It didn’t start out as an every two year deal, but beginning in 2004, we have averaged one vacation trip to an all-inclusive Caribbean resort every two years. It is a typically restful time of fun in the sun, sitting on the beach, and the occasional jet ski accident (but that is another story). As a pastor who is very (read overly) connected, it is a wonderful time to disconnect from all things electronic.

On our very first trip I got in the habit of placing my cell phone, watch, and wallet in the hotel room safe and not removing them until the day of our departure. It is a strategy that has worked wonderfully well. Going a week with no email, no text messages, no voice mail, and no social media is a great way to detox from the constant stream of information that comes our way. Or, more accurately, our need to constantly react to the constant stream of information that comes our way!

For the most part, it seemed most of the other vacationers did the same thing. Cell phones were non existent, there was no wi-fi on the premises, and the handful of computers that resort has charged a pretty peso for a half hour of use. Based on the emptiness of the computer lounge, very few people were willing to pay the price. Instead, they enjoyed each other’s company, the beach, and the pool.

This forced electronic detox was pretty standard even as recently as our trip in 2012. But, a dramatic shift has occurred in the last two years. This year I was stunned to see nearly half of the people at the resort walking around with cell phones, iPads, or other electronic devices. To be fair, some of them were using Kindles (or other e-Readers) rather than carry old fashioned books around. And, I realize that the smart phone has replaced the hand held camera / video camera for most people, particularly because it allows instant ability to “share” pics and videos with your social media circle. And, that is precisely where the problem lies.

I cannot tell you how many people I overheard commenting on their social media feed, but it was a lot. The scenario went like this: a pic or video would be “staged” (i.e. “hey, do that again” or “hey, let’s all take this pic”), the pic / video would be uploaded, and the “uploader” would realize that some previous pic / video had been commented on and they felt obliged to share that comment with the person sharing their trip (i.e. “hey, look what so-and-so said about that pic at dinner last night”).

It seems to me that one of the reasons for taking such trips is our preoccupation with YOLO (You Only Live Once). Life is short; you only get one shot the reasoning goes, so let’s make sure we have a blast. While I don’t subscribe to the same rationale as those who pursue such adventures due to a narcissistic desire, I have been privileged to experience some pretty cool aspects of God’s creation and the cultures it has spawned. I have climbed the steps of Monte Alban in central Mexico, eaten a home cooked meal in the home of a Moldovan villager, swam with sharks and sting rays off the coast of the Dominican Republic, watched the waves roll in at Baler Bay in the Philippines, ridden a motorcycle from coast to coast across the United States, stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon, observed the gold covered walls of the Cathedral de Santo Domingo, and had the privilege of being present at the birth of both of my children. The uniqueness and “power” of those experiences would have been diminished if my focus had been on cataloging and “sharing” those experiences with a nameless, faceless electronic world that simply consumes such experiences vicariously and indiscriminately.

I am convinced that the effort to make sure we ring every ounce of “experience” out of an experience is derailed the moment we succumb to FOMO…the Fear of Missing Out. It is FOMO that forces many to constantly check in with their social media page, their email or their text messages. It is the bizarre notion that, if someone “says” something that they do not instantly reply to, they have somehow missed out. The irony is that they “miss out” by being preoccupied with not missing out. The way I see it, FOMO kills YOLO every time.

So, rather than trying to capture and share a moment, just experience it. Relish it. Soak it in. Enjoy it for all that God intends it to be in your life. And, yes, I do believe God has a purpose in powerful experiences. That purpose is to point us to something greater: Him. When we diminish the power of these experiences by trying to capture and share them, it is like darkening the mirror that would reveal something of who God is for us. When we do that, we truly do miss out.

Monday, June 9, 2014

A Long Obedience

“California? But that is such a long way!” The responses vary little from that. The context is always the same. Someone has just asked the farthest I’ve ever ridden a motorcycle. After their incredulity subsides a bit, I share with them the story of two men, two motorcycles and a 6,898 mile, 16 day, 18 state trip of a lifetime. After sharing the story several times, I got to thinking that taking a coast to coast motorcycle trip shares some similarities with pursuing Christlikeness. Stay with me, I promise I’m not crazy. I’ve summarized these similarities into three areas.

1. Be Committed
Eugene Peterson once wrote a book on discipleship called A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. I think that is a great description of what is required to ride a motorcycle nearly 7,000 miles in just over two weeks. When people asked how we did it, I tell them we headed west and rode to the ocean, then headed east and did the same. We had a long obedience – a commitment – in the same direction.

When it comes to discipleship, we know the destination: Christ-likeness. That is what we are pursuing. We need the same kind of relentless commitment to being “like Christ” that we have in other areas of our life. Sadly, I find a lot of folks are quick to quit when they do not experience results immediately. When riding coast to coast, there were a number of places I had seen before. I had to see them again, in order to get to the places I’d never seen before. I think discipleship is a lot like that. We see some of the same things over and over in order to get to a place we’ve never seen before.

2. Be Intentional
A person cannot ride across the United States on a motorcycle in one day. In order to maintain one’s sanity (and some measure of physical strength), the trip has to be broken up into smaller segments. On day one we rode 470 miles, on day two it was 510, and then on day three we rode 611. Even those days, we broke down every gas stop. We knew how far we were going to ride between each stop and which exit we were stopping at. Needless to say, a lot of intentional planning went into the trip.

I think there are similarities here, too, with growing in Christ-likeness. We know the big goal (i.e. look like Christ), but we need some markers between where we are now and that big goal. This is an area I fear the church (and too many Christians) fail. We are not very intentional when it comes to our spiritual development. We attend church, pray and hope we are doing enough. The truth is, a spiritual growth plan would be helpful. That is, a way to look at how you are spending your time, talents and treasure and then an intentional plan to increase in each area. By writing (i.e. documenting) your current level and your intended increase, you have a build in tool for accountability.

3. Be Persistent
Few trips ever go completely according to plan. Ours didn’t either. There was the crash on the bridge in North Augusta that forced us to re-route. There was the blown fuse in West Texas that delayed our arrival in Brownfield. There was the broken headlight wire that required us to bypass part of historic Rt 66 in order to make repairs. And, I could share a dozen other such alterations to the plan.

When it comes to our spiritual growth, we also have starts and stops. We have periods of tremendous obedience and growth that are sometimes followed by a moment of stupid, sinful disobedience. Here’s the deal: you can’t quit on the trip because it doesn’t work out exactly as you had planned. We didn’t turn around in North Augusta when the bridge was blocked. If we had, we would have missed out on so much. Likewise, you should not quit when you have a moment of disobedience. That is what God’s grace is all about. That is why he says to confess our sins and he is faithful and just in forgiving us and cleansing us from all unrighteousness (1 Jn 1:9).

It didn’t matter how many obstacles we encountered, because we were committed to the big goal (i.e. reaching the Pacific Ocean), we were persistent to follow the plan we had set forth (and adjust it, if necessary). We made it to California and back – by God’s grace, some careful planning, a commitment to the goal, and persistence to modify the plan when necessary. In your spiritual life I pray you would know that God has committed to you that he not only began a good work in you, but he intends to carry that work to completion on the Day of Christ Jesus (Phil 1:6). He also encourages you to work out your salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12). I pray you would do so with a long obedience in the same direction.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The NEXT Step - A Vision Worth Giving To

The church I serve has a long history of engaging in three year capital campaigns. In fact, by our 25th year, we were in our ninth campaign. If you are reasonably good at math, you can discern that we had some campaigns that overlapped others. There was a good reason to engage in those campaigns: The church was growing quickly and needed to build new facilities, which cost money. Unfortunately, the campaigns did not always raise enough money to cover the debt incurred by those facilities. As a result, when I arrived here nearly five years ago, we were $3.4M in debt and about to launch yet another capital campaign, which we did in the spring of 2010.

When that three year campaign ended, we still had $2.9M of debt and I began to wonder why we were doing this? If God’s people were to give faithfully and obediently, we would have enough funds to cover our debts and our ministry? I believe the answer to be “yes” – not just for our church, but for every church. The reality is that most people who call themselves Christians do not give biblically. Barna reports that only about 5% of adults “tithe,” with evangelicals leading the way by given a mean of $4260 per year to all non-profits. What that means, simply, is that most people do not give faithfully and obediently.

As we began to contemplate the “next” capital campaign, it became obvious to us that we did not have a money problem as much as we had a discipleship problem. We had a large number of believers who were spiritually immature in many areas, including the stewardship of their finances. We began to wonder: what if we tackle the real problem (spiritual immaturity) and not our pressing need (finances)? The issue came into focus for us when one of our Stewardship Team members asked the question: “if we had money in the bank and no debt, would we still do a capital campaign?” The answer was swift and obvious: No.

So, we began to think about how to tackle the real issue: spiritual immaturity. We concluded that most Christians want to grow in their faith, but simply do not know what they are supposed to do. Worse, too many think of spiritual growth has terribly complicated. While we acknowledge the fact that it is the Holy Spirit who ultimately is responsible for our sanctification (Phil 1:6), that does not mean that God has not called us to engage in certain activities that nurture growth (Phil 2:12). Our question then became: what are those activities?

What we discovered was not revolutionary or new. It was, in fact, very old. We concluded that there are at least six activities that should mark the life of every believer:
Prayer (Know)
Bible Reading / Study  (Grow)
Evangelism (Go)
Serving (Show)
Giving (Give)
Community (Belong)

Because it is daunting to try to tackle all six of these at once, we thought it best to encourage our folks to ask themselves: what is The NEXT Step for me in each area? We reminded them that no matter where you are in your journey with Christ, everyone has a “next” step.

In the fall of 2013 we launched an annual seven week emphasis called The NEXT Step. Each week we focused on one of the areas of spiritual discipline and the biblical call to commit to it. We concluded with a call to solidify our commitments by putting them in writing and publicly laying them at the altar. Over 50% of our congregation responded to this challenge.

Here’s the thing….The NEXT Step is not a one time thing. Spiritual commitments need to be revisited and reflected upon from time to time to make sure we are still moving forward in our faith. So, every fall at our church we will ask: what is The NEXT Step? Although the specific details around the emphasis may change a bit, the call to re-examine where we are in our walk with the Lord will remain. While it is still to early to announce exact results, we can say we have noticed more consistency and faithfulness from our people in the six areas of emphasis.

While there may be good reasons for churches to engage in three year capital campaigns, I wonder if we end up sending the wrong message. Obviously, if we have a new facility to construct, there is clear need to raise capital. But, more and more frequently, churches are using capital campaigns for debt reduction. For us, we became convinced that raising pledges every three years sent the wrong message to our church. We began to focus on paying bills and raising money and lost sight of our mission: to make disciples. We did not make the shift away from the triennial campaign without a lot of thought and reflection. But, once we did, we have not seen a decrease in our giving, which was one of our concerns. Rather, and more importantly, we have sent a clear message to our church that raising disciples is a greater priority for us than raising money. And, that is a vision that people support in every way, including financially.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Reflections on the ERLC Summit on Human Sexuality

I am a pastor, and I am concerned. Increasingly the dominant issues in my pastoral counseling sessions and inquiries from church members revolve around sexual issues. A mother finds porn on her son’s tablet. Parents are not sure how to respond to their child “coming out.” A wife contemplates divorce due to her husband’s indulgence in pornography.

Because I want to be better equipped to respond to these issues in a biblically informed and pastoral way, I recently attended the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) Summit on Human Sexuality in Nashville, Tenn. I anticipated the primary focus would be on the issue of same-sex marriage since this topic dominates much of the news. What I received instead was a well-rounded, biblically-based theological framework for applying the gospel to all matters related to human sexuality.
In reflecting upon the event, there are a few things that stand out to me, particularly as I consider how to apply the lessons to the flock to which I have been called.

The first subject that gripped my heart was the issue of pornography. Once relegated to seedy bookstores, back alley movie houses and “that” uncle’s garage, today pornography is as easy to access as a few keystrokes on a computer. And apparently, it is accessed often. The average age of the first viewing of hardcore pornography is 12-years-old. Twelve. That’s a sixth grader.

I had understood pornography as a struggle for many men and an increasing number of women. But, I had not realized the extent of its destruction. At the Summit, we learned about the global scourge of sex trafficking and the destruction of women for the sake of so-called entertainment. My heart broke hearing about the women in these films who are often beaten or drugged in order to “perform.” Afterwards they have to deal with the inevitable effects of the behavior they are forced into – sexually transmitted diseases.

Not only are the “performers” abused and mistreated, but the viewer is not exempt from the painful and inevitable results of consuming this “product.” Men who engage in pornography over long periods of time are often unable to experience a real-life, intimate relationship.

As a pastor my heart breaks at the thought of an entire generation of men (and women) who have been raised in a porn-saturated culture. When the debilitating effects of prolonged pornographic exposure are fully realized, it may be too late to recover genuine intimacy in human relationships. Indeed, we may be raising a generation that does not even know what it is like to experience a genuine, intimate human relationship.

The second thing that gripped my heart was the way in which we have devalued marriage. By “we” I am not referring to those in our culture who approve of same-sex marriage. Rather, I mean those of us in the church who prioritize college education, job security and financial stability over God’s good gift of marriage. Consider how often we encourage our young adults to finish college and get a job before they consider marriage. The point is that we – evangelical Christians – have devalued marriage, and in so doing, we have sent a mixed message to our students. We rail against same-sex marriage, yet we treat marriage as a capstone of a life well lived, rather than a cornerstone to build a life upon.

The final observation that stands out from the ERLC Summit is the need to speak with both conviction and kindness on matters of human sexuality. We speak with conviction because we have been given a message by God that we must share. It is not “our” message as if we had made it up. Fundamentally, God’s design for human relationships is neither culture specific nor culture limited, but it is a message that must be shared as concomitant to the gospel.

But we must also speak with kindness. Whether we are speaking to the man (or woman) caught up in pornography use, the parents of a child who has “come out” or those with whom we disagree on the issue of same-sex marriage, we must do so with a kindness that emanates from a heart that knows God’s grace is sufficient for their struggle, just as it is sufficient for our own. Indeed, there is no place for arrogance, condescension or a lack of empathy in such discussions.

Although my heart breaks for where our culture is headed regarding human sexuality, I am encouraged. I am encouraged that men like Dr. Russell Moore speak to these issues on behalf of Southern Baptists. I am encouraged that pastors like J.D. Greear, David Prince, Matt Carter, Jimmy Scroggins and many others speak with a consistent and helpful voice on the gospel and human sexuality. But, mostly, I am encouraged because God has woven human sexuality into our being in such a way that every deviation from God’s design for sexuality allows us an opportunity to point people to the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Why the Great Commission?

In a sermon on 1 Tim 2:1-7, I mentioned that Paul defines the gospel as centered in the Person and Work of Christ. That led to some brief comments related to the exclusivity of salvation in Christ alone. I thought it might be good to expand on that thought here.

There has been an effort in certain quarters of Christianity that (seemingly) wants to make the gospel more inclusive. Before I go further, let me define what I mean by a few terms. When I say “exclusive” I mean that conscious faith in Christ alone is necessary for salvation. When I say that some wish to make the gospel more “inclusive” I mean the effort to make salvation possible in some way other than conscious faith in Christ alone. Whether we think about the Catholic Church’s move to a nearly universalist position, or Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” book, or the notion that there are many paths to the same summit, the zeitgeist clearly is far more inclusive than (I would argue) the Bible is.

There are some who argue that Jesus’ death is sufficient for all and that all will eventually be saved by his love (i.e. Rob Bell). There are others who might argue that ideas of hell are antiquated and that God’s love precludes such a punishment. Still others find the entire notion that there is “one truth” to be reductionist and wrong-headed. And, finally, there are those who might say that while those who have heard the gospel are responsible to respond to it, those who have never heard are covered by the grace of God.

All of these kinds of approaches end up in the same place: conscious faith in Christ is not absolutely necessary for salvation. If that is true, I have a question: why did Jesus give his disciples the Great Commission? There are only a few possibilities:

1. Jesus did not know conscious faith was unnecessary for salvation.
This, of course, presents several problems, not the least of which is that Jesus the Son and God the Father are not on the same page when it comes to their plan. It also have ramifications for Jesus’ divinity.

2. Jesus did know conscious faith was unnecessary for salvation but didn’t tell the disciples. 
 In this case, Jesus sends his disciples on a wild goose chase of sorts. He sends them out to share the gospel with people who do not need to hear it. At least, they do not need to hear it for eternal salvation. Of course, for those who argue that those who have never heard are “safe,” this is the cruelest act of all. Why? Because as soon as the previously unreached hear the gospel, they are now accountable for it. If they were “safe” without the gospel, taking the gospel to them puts them in a worse position, not a better one.

Of course, there is an alternative.

3. Jesus did know conscious faith was necessary for salvation and that is why he gave us the Great Commission. 
The fact is, conscious faith in Christ is necessary for salvation. That is the truth that makes the best sense of all the information.

Because conscious faith in Christ is necessary for salvation, Jesus commands us to go to all the nations (all people groups) and make disciples among them. He commands us to identify those who become disciples through public baptism and then to train them as Christ followers.

This is why we must go to the ends of the earth with the gospel. This is why we send missionaries to far flung places around the world. This is why we must share out faith with our neighbors. This is why the Great Commission…..because apart from conscious faith in Christ, there is no hope for people to be right with God.

So, share your faith with someone today!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

So, What's the Difference?

While reading through 1 Timothy it is obvious that Paul strongly warned his young pastoral protégé to watch out for false teachers. In fact, in 1 Tim 1:3-11, Paul reminded Timothy that he had been left in Ephesus, in part, to “command certain men not to teach false doctrines.” It seems that Ephesus was rife with individuals who bucked Paul’s apostolic authority and were leading the church into heresy.

On Sunday, March 23, 2014 I preached on the text above. (The entire message is available at In so doing, I raised two ways in which the modern church presents a partial gospel (which is no gospel at all). The first is the propensity to attempt to get people to “pray the prayer.” Akin to a shaman’s totem, we act as if there is some sort of magical incantation that inoculates a person against an eternity in hell. If we can just get them to “pray the prayer” they will be alright. Unfortunately, it is simply not true. There is no place in the Bible that commands someone to “pray and ask Jesus into their heart.”  

That does not mean that God doesn’t answer a prayer of repentance. It means that the prayer of repentance is followed by a life of repentance. It means that those who call on Christ and are saved by God’s grace continue to live by His grace.  It means that the promise of God to continue the work He began in us (Phil 1:6) shows itself in a transformed life. When we act as if “praying the prayer” is the goal, we proclaim a partial gospel that denies the call of Jesus to, as Dietrich Bonheoffer said, “come and die.”

The second way I mentioned we proclaim (or tolerate) a partial gospel is our uncritical analysis of popular preachers. Some of the most famous preachers today would fall into the category of “false teachers.” Specifically in the message I mentioned Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer. My complaint with these two is not stylistic; it is theological. Osteen’s comments are well known. His reticence to preach about sin alone is problematic. How can one know they need a Savior without knowing that their sins have separated them from God? In Meyer’s book The Most Important Decision You’ll Ever Make, she argues that Jesus paid for our sins in hell and not on the cross (second printing, 1993, p 35). If these two are mistaken about such fundamental aspects of the gospel, it is clear they are not a good source of biblical and theological instruction for Christ followers.

I was asked after the message whether my perspective on Meyer and Osteen also applied to secular teaching and/or teachers. Specifically, I was asked, what is the difference between listening to a motivational speaker and a person like Meyer or Osteen? It is a good question that deserves an answer.

Simply put, I have gained much from “secular” leadership speakers and writers. I credit Jim Collins, Malcolm Gladwell, and Patrick Lencioni. Though I do not know the spiritual condition of any of these men, I do know that they are not purporting to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. Rather, they are seeking to share their expertise in the area of business leadership. As they do, I evaluate their teaching in light of biblical principles in order to know which principles I can apply in my life and which ones I cannot.

So, someone may say, why not do that with Osteen and Meyer? Why can’t we just ignore the stuff that is wrong? Because Meyer and Osteen do, in fact, purport to be bible teachers / preachers. They are claiming to speak for God when they preach / teach. As such, they are held to a higher standard. Isn’t that what James said in James 3:1? In that passage he writes: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” 

Claiming to speak on behalf of God (which is what EVERY preacher does) means that there is no preaching / teaching that is inconsequential. Certainly that is not to say there is not room for disagreement on minor issues of doctrine and theology. I’ve written about that here. Clearly, issues central to the gospel (like man’s sinfulness or the atonement) are not up for debate. The inability of Meyer and Osteen to be clear on these issues alone is an indictment of their ministry.  

So, who should Christians listen to? Well, I’m not about to provide an “approved” list of preachers/teachers/commentators. Doing so would be arrogant and could lead to a type of legalism that I find repulsive to the gospel. Instead, let me provide you with a “top five” of my favorite preachers / teachers. People whose podcast I listen to regularly and benefit from greatly. 

The Briefing is a daily podcast with commentary on social, political, and religious issues of the day by Dr. Al Mohler. 

2. Truth for Life (
Truth for Life is the bible teaching and preaching ministry of Alistair Begg. If I could only listen to one preacher the rest of my life, it would be Alistair Begg. 

3. Renewing Your Mind (
Renewing Your Mind is the teaching ministry of R.C. Sproul and Ligonier Ministries. Dr. Sproul has been a leading voice among evangelicals of the Reformed tradition for over 40 years. 

Let My People Think is the teaching ministry of Ravi Zacharias that emphasizes apologetics and the reasonableness of the Christian faith.  

5. A New Beginning (
A New Beginning is the teaching ministry of Greg Laurie, pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, CA.