Join God in His Work

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.” (John 5:19, ESV)

This is not a new idea, but it may need a new application. Making disciples is a lifelong pursuit for me and for many of us who work in vocational ministry. I often find myself in conversations about disciple-making and how we can accomplish the mission of “reaching the world for Jesus, one person at a time.” I love these talks and I love the passion with which men and women attack this topic. It is a joy for me to see people everywhere wholeheartedly sold out to God’s Kingdom, His work, and His results.

There is a nuance to this conversation that is indeed subtle on the surface, but profound in execution; I would like to offer it here and hopefully empower each of us in helping others become everything God intended them to be. It is not flashy, but it will change everything about how we develop and lead disciples to make disciples.

“What is your process?” I get this question at least twice a week, and usually much more. How do we make disciples? How do we program for maximum disciple-making effectiveness? How should we staff for disciple-making? How should we budget for disciple-making? What should we teach in our small groups or classes — or sermons? These are all good questions, and they are helpful. Wrestling with these topics will help a church become better at facilitating disciples who are making disciples.

But therein lies the rub. While we have set the church up structurally to succeed, we haven’t necessarily given the proper tools and attitudes for a person to be able to succeed at making disciples.

So what about our “SCMD” process? It is also helpful. It helps me understand how people mature and develop. It gives me a way to answer three very fundamental questions about disciple-making: where are they, what do they need, and where can they go to get it?

But there is something below the surface here that doesn’t get enough attention. In the moment of the conversation — the real arena of making disciples — am I aware enough of what God is doing to be able to respond to His leading? I told you, it isn’t flashy. But this may very well be the single most important part of making disciples. Without the presence of God in the conversation, no process will work. And if I am dialed in to the Holy Spirit’s work in the moment, perhaps any process we use can be effective. I wonder if sometimes in our making of disciples, we get lost in strategizing and programming and branching and growing and we miss the amazing presence of God in the moment. I know I struggle to stay focused on that.

It takes a different level of engagement in the conversation for me. It takes a different kind of question. It takes a different commitment to walking the journey with others, regardless of the process.

Processes aren’t bad. They are necessary and can be very useful. But the very thing that gives us power for living, wisdom for making decisions, and awareness of how we can grow in Christ is the Holy Spirit living and working in us. I wonder if we don’t sometimes want process at the expense of relationship — with God and others. And maybe those relationships were the point to begin with.

Next time you are in a “disciple-making” conversation, try being fully engaged and present with the person and the Holy Spirit. See what happens. It may very well change everything you thought about how to make disciples well.

Three Core Values

Leadership is a sacred but slippery path. Holding influence over other people is scary and intoxicating at the same time. It is hard to think about the potential damage that can come from poor leadership. So with that in mind, I want to give us three core values to run any church by. This will help in decision making at all levels.

Protect God’s Reputation at All Costs

Protecting God’s reputation has to be the number one priority for any church or faith based organization. This answers all kinds of questions, like when we speak up about a community issue and when we are silent, or how we treat difficult neighbors, or what community events do we get involved in.

God doesn’t need us to protect Him; He can take care of Himself. But He does invite us to partner with Him in restoring what sin has broken in creation. Paul says we are Christ’s ambassadors as though Christ were making His appeal through us. If that is the case, then we better not only present Him to the world “correctly,” but also in the manner in which He would prefer. If He laid His life down, then so must we. Yelling and screaming about our God of love is perhaps not the best approach.

Being right never transcends being Godly. The right thing done the wrong way becomes the wrong thing. We must protect God’s reputation first and foremost.

Protect God’s Most Prized Creation — People

As the Kingdom of God, we must fight for people, not against them. Paul says our war is not against flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities of this present evil age. We must fight against anything that would keep people down, especially when that which keeps people down is found in the Church.

Being right should never trump treating people correctly. Our truth is useless unless it is encapsulated in a relational shell. We must first love people well. Then, we can share our positions on issues.

Deal with the Issues that Hinder the First Two

Actually deal with the issues that hold the first two back. Don’t sweep them under the carpet. Don’t avoid them or pretend nothing is wrong. But we must keep the other priorities in order. We must deal with the issues in a way that first protects God’s reputation, and second protects God’s most prized creation.

This is not an appeal to avoid or eliminate truth. Rather, it is a way of understanding how we walk in the tension of living in a world that doesn’t share our value system. If we are not careful, we can become truth bullies. As the Church continues to lose influence in culture (at least in part because people are tired of being bullied), we will move ourselves further to the fringe unless we can learn how to put these core values in their proper place.

Maybe the starting place for any church should be kindness and acceptance. Not the “blind tolerance” version of acceptance, but the “I am for you and will not rest until you see how amazingly wonderful God made you” kind of acceptance. If people who walked through the door of our churches felt loved and accepted first, perhaps that would change them at levels they didn’t know they even needed to be changed.

Maybe if the church gave its energy first to loving well rather than being right, people would be so inexplicably attracted to the church that we wouldn’t be able to contain them all.

Let’s try it and see. If I am wrong, we could always go back to being right.

May you protect God’s reputation at all costs. May you put Him on display well in how you treat others. And may we all learn to deal with issues that inevitably arise in relationships in a way that moves people forward.

The 7 Cultural Mountains #1 — Introduction

I am fascinated by history. In my marginal opinion, Alexander the Great is probably the person who has had more influence on what culture is in the western world than any other person in history — not so much from the sense of creating the ideas, but in the sense of selling those ideologies in the world.

As he conquered the world, Alexander built cities that were the best of what Greece offered the world. He invited everyone everywhere to experience what made Greece so great in his mind. He had a simple treatise: Give me Theater (Entertainment/Media), Gymnasium (University), Arena (Sport), and Temple (Religion), and I will rule the world.

He was right.

From whatever worldview a person comes, if that person can find the right mediums to convey their worldview, it can take root and move the world to that new idea. Alexander found that these four major pillars of culture would allow him to promote his big idea (to make the world Greece) in a way that captured people’s attention and moved the world to his side. We are Greek thinkers today because he found this reality and used it to its maximum.

In our world, the premise is still true. Some of the venues and ideas have adapted, but the basic idea is still true. Find the major movers of culture, own them, and you can change the world. The culture of a society is not the will of the people. It never has been. The decisions of a select few at the top of strategic cultural mountains trickle down into the minds and hearts of the masses.

In our world, I believe there are seven of these cultural mountains. This is not my idea, nor is it new. This has been around since at least the 1970s, and probably earlier. Guys like Lauren Cunningham (YWAM) and Bill Bright (Campus Crusade) were being led to consider these ideas at the time. And I think that now, more than ever, they might be relevant to the larger conversation the Church finds itself in.

So this is my treatise in our world today: Give me Media, Arts & Entertainment, Business, Government, Education, Family, and Religion — and I will change the world. I want to pull each of these apart and consider the implications for the Church or for anyone who truly wants to influence the world. I hope it will be a blessing for us all.

An Open Apology

I am probably going to make enemies on both sides of this conversation. But in order for things to get better, I think someone from the position I am in is going to have to extend the first olive branch.

I am a pastor. I am trained vocationally with two theological degrees and 24 years of experience under my belt. I am a dyed-in-the-wool, diehard Christian and follower of Jesus. And I love the Church. I have given my life to helping the Church become everything she is intended to be. I think everyone would benefit from being part of a church. She is not perfect. But for all her warts, she is still the bride of Christ.

That being said, there are some problems in the Church. Not just my church — the capital-C Church. As a pastor, I am given the sacred privilege and responsibility of walking with people through some of the darkest times in their lives. Tragedy, pain, brokenness, and even death are all scenes in the landscape of paths I have walked with others. And they trust me with that. When I think about the amount of faith people have placed in my ability to bring them some sort of hope and healing in their lives because of God’s Word and my relationship with Him, it takes my breath away.

I am a trained theologian. I have some training as a pastoral counselor, but certainly no degree. So when people come to me and ask me questions about theology and the Bible, I feel qualified. But sometimes the lines around conversations I should be having and shouldn’t be having are really blurry. Where my abilities begin and end becomes hard to know. What conversations I should be having with people and which ones I should be referring are hard to separate.

This is not unique to me. It is a pastoral problem. All pastors are taken into situations they are not trained to handle. Nor are they equipped to understand the unique dilemmas these situations present. Most of the time, we survive it with a certain degree of a “fake-your-way-through-it” mentality. It is hard. We pastors do genuinely love our people and truly want to be a help to others. But sometimes, that gets the best of us. Consequently, there are times when, for all our attempts to help, we actually hurt.

Because of that, the Church has not always done a good job journeying with people through their brokenness. Some types of brokenness seem to create these spaces more often than others. I want to address one specific issue that seems to create so much hurt.

Can we be honest for a minute and just say that the Church is completely daft in how we attempt to deal with issues of abuse?

Please hear my heart: I am not angry or belittling here. But we are getting it wrong, and someone on my side of this reality has to stand up and say it. We are not equipped to deal with the effects abuse has on abuse victims. We are also not equipped to deal with the manipulative savvy of abusive people. While we desperately want healing and freedom for those hurt by abuse, we are woefully unprepared to be a part of the solution. Admitting that inadequacy is hard. Pastors give their lives to helping others see that the Jesus we know and love is the answer for every situation. His message of love, forgiveness, and freedom is the message the world needs to hear.

But sometimes, we lose that message because of the messenger. Maybe we are ignorant. Maybe we are arrogant. Maybe we have poor dogma or doctrine. It is probably a combination of all of this. But somewhere along the way, we lost the goal of helping people heal in the name of correct thinking and acting — whatever we think correct thinking and acting may be. Somewhere along the way we stopped asking whether or not what we are doing is actually helpful to the person. Maybe we forgot that it isn’t “rightness” that God loves — it is people.

We are not completely useless when it comes to abuse either. We can be present with that person. We can sit with them, encourage them to keep fighting, and celebrate their successes as they find healing and freedom, which I believe with all my heart can be achieved. We can even remind these hurting people of the theological truth that God is for them and pulling for their success in this journey.

But to try to unravel and deal with the wounds on the soul of a person who had their voice forcibly taken by another person solely concerned with their own desires is not territory we have been trained in or are prepared to navigate. We are not unwilling to go there, but willingness does not equate to competency. And too many times, what winds up happening is further damage to the precious person who risked everything to be vulnerable enough to talk about his or her darkest secret.

Can we just be honest? We suck at this. We don’t want to, but we do. More than anything, we want broken people to find healing and freedom. But what we observe in the Church is that too many times, we become a further part of the problem and wind up creating a second emotional injury.

I cannot apologize for anyone else. That is not my place. But for my part, I am sorry. I am wrong for doing that.

So from my side of the conversation, maybe it is time to stop trying to defend what we did or did not do — with the best of intentions — and just acknowledge that it didn’t go the right way. Maybe we should stop saying it is the fault of the person who “didn’t respond correctly,” or “who obviously doesn’t want to change,” or perhaps who we think “had it coming.”

We are wrong. I am wrong. And we cannot make it right until we admit that.

It’s time to start the conversation. I am sorry for being wrong. I am sorry for believing the lies of false repentance. I am sorry for not surrounding you with properly trained people to help you navigate the devastation of your very being. I am sorry for being part of the problem. I am sorry for partially blaming, or blaming at all.

I am sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me. I will do better.

The Thankful Sacrifice

Something hit me today that I had never put together. I have been reading the Psalms in my personal quiet time. They are speaking powerfully to me as of late. I don’t know why now as opposed to previously. But I know that it has been just what I needed in my life. God is so faithful!

In Psalm 50, Asaph is writing a song outlining God’s conversations with faithful and unfaithful people. He says this to the faithful:

Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
    and perform your vows to the Most High,

and call upon me in the day of trouble;
    I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.

Then God says this to the unfaithful:

“Mark this, then, you who forget God,
    lest I tear you apart, and there be none to deliver!
The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me;
    to one who orders his way rightly
    I will show the salvation of God!”

Both the faithful and unfaithful alike should be offering thanksgiving as their sacrifice to the Lord. In other words, we should be in the perpetual process of being thankful to the Lord for everything that is going on around us.

This “sacrifice of thanksgiving” must be pretty important. It sounds to me like this would be one of the critical parts of the sacrificial system. Would it surprise you to know that this wasn’t one of the required sacrifices? It is an optional part of our relationship with God. Even in the time of temple worship, the sacrifice of thanksgiving was merely a good suggestion.

The sacrifice of thanksgiving is talked about in Leviticus 7 and 22. While it is not a required sacrifice, there is certainly an assumption that it will take place. After all, how could you not be thankful to God?

Why is this “optional” sacrifice so important in Psalm 50? It seems to be the thing that God calls everyone to regardless of their thoughts on life, and it’s also the catalyst for opening up His blessings in our lives.

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.

This passage from Romans 1 starts an entire diatribe on the process of societal degradation. Where do we fall apart being in culture? When we stop giving thanks to God. Maybe this whole thankfulness thing is really important.

I have a few ideas on how to start being more thankful:

  • Keep a thankfulness journal. Write five things every day that you are thankful for.
  • Begin the day by spending time thinking about whom you are thankful for. Tell them that same day.
  • End the day by making a few notes about what happened that you were thankful for.
  • Say thank you at the end of every interaction you have with people. Whether it’s the grocery store clerk or someone who made you dinner or your spouse, be thankful for everything that is happening around you.
  • Take 15 seconds to thank God every time something good happens in the day.

Maybe if enough people begin the process of being thankful, we could reshape our culture. Maybe rather than being critical and afraid of where culture is headed, we should be thankful for an opportunity to influence and shape it. Maybe if we were thankful for who our kids are or our spouse is rather than resentfully being critical of what they aren’t, we would radically bless our family.

Thankfulness is the antidote to greed and entitlement. Thankfulness is the cure for resentment. Thankfulness is the answer to materialism. Thankfulness matters — a lot!

May you always be thankful, and especially when you don’t feel like it.