Wildly Important: Reach The Next Generation

Isaiah 39:1-8

A pastor friend of mine from Kentucky, Rusty Ellison, did somethingWildly Important at his church that is a perfect introduction to this subject. One Sunday morning at a particular time, he asked everyone who was over the age of 40 to stand up and leave the room while also asking everyone under 40 to remain seated. After a few minutes, they were brought back in. He gave no explanation for this but, unbeknownst to them, his tech crew had the video cameras running that morning.

The following Sunday he played that video for them. And he said, “This is what the future looks like.” He called the older group the Exodus and the younger group the Remnant. And the most startling thing was how the empty the auditorium looked at the end of the video. Is that a picture of the future?

It is hard to imagine anything more important, wildly important, than reaching the next generation. However the demands of the moment, the whirlwind, will divert our attention and energy. Attending to the whirlwind usually pleases a large number of people but, when you don’t, the whirlwind cries very loud. However, the important doesn’t cry out at all. It just silently slips away and never returns, ironically enough, kind of like young adults are doing these days.

Seeing as how the church—as a whole and in particular here—is made up of older people, it is easy to see how the next generation gets pushed aside by the whirlwind of the present generation.

There is an obvious issue here and that is the division between the generations. You can’t manage something until you name it. Older people think young people are soft and lazy but, by the way, they’ve always thought that. The evidence is found in the plethora of “When I was your age…” diatribes. The hills were always steeper, the weather was always worse, the schoolwork was always harder, and so on.

Young people on the other hand have always thought that older people were hopelessly out of touch with the times, possessing only a superficial, nostalgic understanding of things and generally an impediment to progress.

These things have always been true. I could not find any documentation of this but I remember hearing a preacher once talk about an excavation site where among the fragments and parchments, they discovered one with this translated quote: “The times are not now what they once were.” That sounds a little like “the good ole’ days.’

I always appreciated my father’s perspective. He has been deceased for almost 25 years but I do still remember once at a family gathering when everyone was talking about the good ole’ days and living on the farm and how they wanted to get back to the farm. They asked my Dad who said, “I have no intention whatsoever of going back to the farm. I remember the good ole’ days and they weren’t all that good.” Mind you, my father was no radical innovator, no early adapter who always latched on anything simply because it was new. Nevertheless he recognized that not all change is bad.

When we consider how to address the future in general and the emerging generation in particular, we have a negative example in Scripture to consider. To me, it is a sad story because it is the story of a god-fearing person with the power to make a difference but didn’t do so and therefore serves as a cautionary tale for us.

As the kings of Judah went, Hezekiah was better than most. Keep in mind that He was a true worshiper of Yahweh, a man of faith who had trusted God and seen supernatural intervention. But Hezekiah did not finish his life on a high note. He ostentatiously displayed his wealth before Judah’s enemies and Isaiah announced a judgment would come, one that would be experienced not by the king, but by his descendants.

This should have troubled Hezekiah but it did not. He piously accepted the verdict because in his mind he realized that he would be dead and gone by the time it came to pass. Please note what he said but also what he thought and remember that God judges both of those, with Hezekiah and with us:“So Hezekiah said to Isaiah, ‘The word of the Lord which you have spoken is good!’ For he said, ‘At least there will be peace and truth in my days.’” (Isaiah 39:8, NKJV) He was so shortsighted that he couldn’t see how his actions had doomed the generation to follow.

So what? What does this have to do with us? Hezekiahs still live today. The facts are clear: 70% of our students leave the church when they turn eighteen years old. Why are we not traumatized by this and shaken to our very core? Perhaps we are like Hezekiah, driven by short-term thinking and can’t see past the end of our own generation.

A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in. (Greek proverb) By this definition, Hezekiah was not great but small and puny.

In his “at least” remark, we see Hezekiah’s willingness to settle for the way things were rather than fight for what they could be. He said, in essence, “It begins and ends with me. I refuse to look further than myself or the duration of my life.”

We don’t know what Hezekiah could have done to try and avert the coming disaster. Perhaps nothing, but the text shows us that he didn’t even try. This is strange behavior for a man who had previously experienced two supernatural interventions in his life (Isaiah 36-38). When faced with his own crisis, Hezekiah prayed to the Lord. Couldn’t he at least have done the same for his descendants?

There was a hog rooting around a tree looking for acorns. A bird in the tree warned him, “Hey, if you keep doing that, exposing the roots, that tree will eventually die.” The hog never looked up but said, “Who cares as long as there are acorns?” In the church today, older adults seem to be the acorns. Young adults are the tree. If we focus on the former at the expense of the latter, someday the church will die as a result.

Like Hezekiah, we are all frail, flawed human beings. Even the best of us can become short-sighted, mortgaging the future at the expense of the present. How does this happen?

Essentially it happens when we choose self-centered influence rather than servant influence. Like Hezekiah, people who love God can nevertheless act in a self-centered fashion. Though the next generation would perish, Hezekiah said, “Well, at least I’ll be okay.” Do we think the same?

A self-centered perspective invariably manifests itself in either one of two ways, pride or fear, either self-preference or self-protection. We can become myopic in our thinking, just as Hezekiah did, and only see ourselves, the duration of his season of influence, and our own preferences. We can also become intimidated, fearful that we are not “cool” enough to reach young adults.

A true servant mentality rejects pride and fear so as to embrace humility and confidence. It recognizes that personal preferences are not biblical mandates, that my style of music is not ordained by God, and that tertiary matters such as the style of one’s clothes or whether or not one has tattoos on their skin are inherently neutral and only be evaluated in light of one’s ministry influence. Focusing on Christ and not personal inadequacies, servant leaders possess a godly confidence that God will use them to reach a generation that is radically different.

Ultimately what we serve is not just people but purpose. People sometimes ask, “Who’s the boss of the church?” The preacher? The deacons? The congregation? The Lord? Of course, Jesus Christ is but I think He has a co-regent in whom He has invested authority. Who is that, you ask? Not “who” but “what.” Purpose is boss. Actions should be dictated based on purpose. The answer to any question is “How does this serve our purpose?” and not “Do I like this?”

The big question is succession. Opportunity is only for a season. In humility, servant leaders focus on what will happen after they are gone. Those who follow Christ instead of Hezekiah ask themselves, “Will the people I influence hear my voice to the end of their lives or only to the end of mine?”

Hezekiah helps us to see that well-intentioned and good people sometimes create a disastrous future by their failure to consider future generations. Reaching emerging adults today requires us to move beyond an Hezekiah model of leadership to a Christ-like model. It demands that we have the sacrificial and courageous faith to plant a shade tree under which we will never sit.

Please notice that I have not outlined some grand strategy to reach the next generation. Doing so will require one. However, that is not my purpose or intention in this post. Prior to the execution of any kind of strategy to reach emerging adults, there must first be a foundation of servant influence. So we should examine our hearts and see if there is a spirit of Hezekiah among us. Remember he was a god-fearing king who had experienced the work of God in his life. We should not assume that we are somehow on a higher level than he, impervious to these types of temptation.

Ask yourself the hard questions. To what am I committed, ensuring that the purpose of Christ for the church is fulfilled through the passing on of our faith to the next generation or simply to my own comfort and preferences?

Wildly Important: Make Disciples

Wildly ImportantBeing good at lesser things doesn’t matter if you ignore your core purpose. I thought about this when I decided to go to the 7-Eleven in my neighborhood the other night. I go there all the time. It’s open 24-7 and yet there are still locks on the door, which I don’t understand but that’s not the point right now.

One of the operational practices of this 7-Eleven is mopping the floors while people are walking around in the store. No judgment here. They can’t wait until 2 am to do it so I don’t mind tiptoeing through the store like a cat burglar. Really I don’t.

Recently I was getting my refreshing beverage, which is the reason I go on such a frequent basis. One of the clerks was mopping over by the fountain and I was doing my tiptoeing thing as if I was trying to avoid stepping on a land mine but I could tell that my presence was extremely annoying to her. I’m not sure but I may have heard a sigh somewhere in there.

I have spoken to her before and she is a fine person. At that moment she was dealing with the whirlwind, the urgent, and the day-to-day duties that her manager demands of her. I was just a customer.

However, I am also the reason 7-Eleven is in business. I am the core of what they do. And I think she allowed having a clean floor dominate and push to the side the core of their business. This is why it is often said that the whirlwind is undefeated in most organizations. It almost always wins over the important.

The core thing for the church is making disciples, per the Great Commission. Sadly the whirlwind distracts us from keeping that at the core of all we do. It is so easy to sacrifice the important on the altar of the urgent. It is easy to let the present steal from us the future.

We often say that “well, our young people are the future.” I heard someone refute to that statement this week by saying, “No, disciples are the future of the church.” This means that making disciples is the most important thing we could ever do. We can say No to virtually any other activity if we are saying Yes to making disciples. Don’t misunderstand me: I think reaching the next generation is wildly important . But making disciples is the way to do it.

So let me give what I believe is the core purpose of this church: making gospel-centered disciples who are being transformed so as to join God in His mission. There are three stages in this process: beginning, developing, and multiplying. And it begins with the Gospel.

Making gospel-centered disciples

When you read through Luke, you see some strong statements on discipleship beginning in chapter 9. Prior to that, he is answering the question, “Who is Jesus?” Simon Peter comes to realize—and not of his own brilliance—that Jesus is not like anyone else, the prophets and teachers, but that He is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Once Jesus’ identity is revealed, He begins to say, “Follow me.” That is the basis for discipleship. Jesus is revealed to us and we are invited to follow Him. We didn’t earn our discipleship.

What do I mean by “gospel-centered”? What is the gospel? Let me tell you first what it isn’t. It isn’t the first four books of the New Testament. It isn’t just the plan of salvation. The Gospel is not just the ABCs but rather the whole alphabet. It isn’t just the diving board that gets you into the pool but rather the whole pool.

The gospel is the Good News, the declaration of all that God has done in Christ throughout time and eternity to reconcile us back to Himself. It declares that God created everything and it was perfect but that humanity brought brokenness to all things through sinful disobedience. It goes on to tell us that after our sin, God began a long, arduous process of redemption culminating in the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, which ushered in a new era. At some point in the future through Christ’s return to earth, God will restore all things eternally to their original state of perfection. This is what Scripture teaches is true.

The essence of every religion in the world is “do something” while the essence of Christianity is “something has already been done.” The gospel is good news, but not good advice. Someone gives you advice and counsel because nothing has been done yet and you need to do something. This is not the gospel at all.

Most nights I watch the news, which is a report about something that has already happened, about which you can’t do anything but simply make a response to it.

The gospel is not just something to be believed but lived. On one occasion, though they were kingdom allies, Paul called Peter on the carpet in front of everyone because he was treating a group of fellow believers differently simply because they were of a different race. According to Galatians 2:11-14, Paul rebuked Peter because his actions were inconsistent with the gospel. What he did was not centered in the gospel. What he did was contrary to the gospel.

There are many ways to make gospel-centered disciples, such as (1) one on one (or one on two) relationships (2) small groups (3) special classes, such as new believer classes (4) worship services (5) serving in a ministry. Not all of them are equally effective.  It seems that the whirlwind tempts us to settle for the least effective methods. It says to us, “Making a disciple one on one takes a lot of time. Just tell them to show up once in a while for church, find something to do in the church, and learn some stuff about the Bible.”

The whirlwind whispers to us, “Just make some church members. We need some help around here.” You can make a good church member and not get a disciple. They might know how to do the things we do in church—serve on committees, perform expected basic tasks, follow our protocol for meetings—but they wouldn’t know how to do disciple things. However, if you will make a disciple, you will always get a good church member in the process.

Being transformed

Transformation comes by an on-going reflection on the gospel and its implications for life. We never get past it. Its significance constantly shapes our understanding of life and how we live it out in this world. Let me repeat. We never get past the gospel. We don’t grow through discovering some deep, arcane, esoteric meanings of certain Bible texts. We are not transformed because we find some hidden “code” in Scripture. We are transformed (sanctified) through the gospel.

This doesn’t make sense if you restrict the gospel to simply being “the plan of salvation.” 1 Peter 1:12 teaches us that angels long to look into the gospel. You have to figure that angels are relatively intelligent people and that this ongoing inquisitive investigation of the gospel is not due to any lack of smarts on their part. So why do they keep looking into the gospel? It is because it is captivating. They never tire of looking into it because it is so wonderfully amazing. It is a beautiful gospel.

Here is the big difference between angels and us. They don’t need to be transformed and redeemed because they are not tainted with sin. We do. And it is the constant, ongoing contemplation of the Gospel, which is to say, what Jesus did for us, which transforms and revolutionizes our lives.

The whirlwind says, “Really? Contemplate the gospel? Come down down out of your sanctified ivory tower because there’s a lot of stuff that needs to be done.” You know, God can do anything He wants to do. He could preach a sermon out of a pile of rocks if that was what He chose to do. I believe that He is wildly concerned about what happens in us more than what happens through us.

The purpose of all things is the reflection of the glory of God and His Son Jesus. When He is transforming our lives into His likeness, which brings glory to the Father and to the Son. This is called sanctification and it is the source for, not the result of, participation in God’s mission.

Join God in His mission

Once I have become a disciple and begin to live that life and experience transformation, I then in turn begin too make disciples myself. It isn’t original to me but I have been saying it for years: “We are not using people to build the church but we are using the church to build people, to make disciples.”

The greatest limitation we place on this mission of disciple making is that we confine it to the walls of this building. I have a friend who said that he went to Uruguay to take Jesus to the people there and when he got there, he found out that Jesus was already there. No matter where you might go in the name of the Great Commission and the Gospel, you will discover that Jesus has already beat you there.

And being a disciple means we follow Him. He is in front, guiding us, not the other way around. And that is seemingly a very difficult thing for us to grasp. He does not exist for us; it’s the other way around. And when our eyes are opened up to see this, it is the beginning of this wildly important thing called discipleship.

Tim Keller paints a good picture when he talks how he heard someone named Barbara Boyd once give two illustrations of what it means to be a disciple.

Imagine that I come to your house and knock on your door. You come to the door to let me in but then you say something really strange: “Come on in, Barbara, but, Boyd, you stay outside.” Well, that’s not going to work. It’s not like I could cut myself in half. If you don’t take Boyd, then you don’t get Barbara. If you’re going to keep part of me out, then I can’t come in at all. The speaker continued: “To say, ‘Jesus, come into my life, forgive my sins, answer my prayers, do this for me, do that for me—but don’t be absolute master of my life; Jesus, Savior, come in; but Jesus, Lord, stay out,’ how can He come in at all?” Because He’s all Savior, and He’s all Lord. He’s Lord because He’s Savior, and He’s Savior because He’s Lord.

And then she had a second illustration: “If the distance between the Earth and the sun, which is 92 million miles, was the thickness of a piece of paper, the diameter of our galaxy would be a stack of papers 310 miles high. And our galaxy is less than a speck of dust in the part of the universe that we can see. And that part of the universe might just be a speck of dust compared to all the universe. And if Jesus is the Son of God who holds all this together with the power of his word, is this the kind of person you ask into your life to be your personal assistant?” (Sermon, Tim Keller, The Call To Discipleship)

Discipleship begins when we realize who Jesus is.  Before there are any techniques or actions or things to be done in making disciples, there is the clear call of Jesus to surrender everything and follow Him.

Wildly Important: The Pastor as Equipper

Wildly ImportantI believe in the power of a comma. What?!? You don’t think commas are important? They are important if people take action on the sentences in which they occur.

Here’s an example: “Let’s eat, Grandpa!” Without a comma, that sentence could condone cannibalism as in “let’s eat Grandpa.” Grandpa probably thinks that commas are important. Hey, he knows that commas save lives.

There is a comma in Ephesians 4:12 that will either save or doom the church. In fact, one might say that the church is in a coma because of a comma. Many of us grew up with this particular rendering of verse 12:

For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:

Verse 12 is God’s commentary, through the pen of Paul, on the role of a pastor. After hundreds of years of exposure to that particular rendering, based on those commas, assumptions were made regarding the three things a pastor was to do. He was to perfect (equip, resource) the saints, he was to do the work of the ministry, and he was to edify the church.

The English Standard Version renders the punctuation of that verse differently:

to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,

We see a different emphasis here. The pastor is to equip God’s people so that they might do works of service and thereby build up the body of Christ, the church.

There was no punctuation in the original Greek texts so we can’t go back to the manuscripts to answer this question about where the comma should go. So how do we know for sure? Context is always king. We look at the verses surrounding a verse and that helps us know.

The theme of Ephesians 4 is unity. In fact,  Ephesians 1:10 tells us that God’s ultimate and eternal purpose is to bring all things together in Christ.

Unity doesn’t mean that everyone is happy. It is about the body of Christ being healthy, not every member of the body being happy. It means that everyone is working and serving together, functioning as a human body functions, in concert and in harmony.

So back to our verse. Which punctuation is correct? I believe that the second is correct because it more accurately reflects the intention of the text in this part of Ephesians, namely, to highlight the unity of the body of Christ. How can a body be unified when only one, or perhaps few, parts participate in the key functions?

The comma in the first rendering drives a wedge between the leaders of the church and the members. It places the burden of the work on the leaders and allows for a division of labor that does not honor God.

The wildly important function of pastors equipping their church members gets swallowed up in the whirlwind. It takes more time to train and equip to do something than it does to just do it yourself. But that is a short-term view. Many times as a pastor I should have taken other people with me to do ministry so that they could be equipped to do it also. But I didn’t. Why? Because I felt like it took too much time. If you want a picture of the wildly important being swallowed up by the whirlwind, there you have it.

And what creates the whirlwind, the busy-ness found in every church? Expectations. And you can always tell when an expectation isn’t satisfied to the liking of the person holding it. They get mad. They begin to complain. So there is a need for each of us to examine and clarify these expectations because some are reasonable and right and others are not.

On February 26, 2008, every Starbucks store, nearly 7100 in number, in America was closed for three hours from 5:00 pm to 8:00 pm. Why? What could have possibly justified this event? After all, people want their coffee, this legally addictive stimulant. People feel strongly about coffee; maybe you’ve notice. You don’t drink coffee, you “have” it: it’s an experience.

It was done to train over 135,000 baristas to pour the perfect cup of espresso, properly steam milk and call a customer by name in delivering a coffee experience with which to fall in love. The media responded as if it had snowed in summer, running news segments like “A World Without Starbucks” or “Starbucks Has Gone Too Far.” (I told you: don’t mess with people’s coffee.) CEO Howard Schultz mandated this unprecedented event because in his words, “We have lost our way.” They realized they had drifted and had to get back to their core. And this required a bold commitment.

This training event was not without sacrifice and cost. The company lost $6 million dollars in those three hours. A competitor tried to capitalize on this by offering cheap coffee, along with some snide remarks. Whether or not you agreed it with the decision, it was bold and courageous move. It was an affirmation of what Starbucks, right or wrong, believes is wildly important.

Some of the baristas had communicated to the company that they felt too rushed to make a perfect cup of espresso and to remember the names of their regular customers. As the company experienced record growth, the whirlwind took over. The urgency of profit margins began to drive their practices. Howard Schultz decided to pursue the important in the midst of the urgent.

The symbolism of this event was powerful for the work force, referred to as partners by the organization. Yes, it may have been just one off training event but it put the spotlight back on the essence of what Starbucks was about.

When I read about this in business journals and Howard Schultz’s book, a verse comes to mind. Bear with me, this may seem a little off subject. I’ve always been intrigued by Luke 16:8 where Jesus says, with a touch of wistfulness in His voice, “…for the sons of this world are for their own generation wiser than the sons of the light.”

In a way, a business guy seems to have grasped the essence of Ephesians 4:12 than most of the church has. An corporation that essentially has no eternal impact seems to get this fundamental truth of the importance of empowering everyone in the organization to practice the core purpose, without which nothing else really matters.

And here’s how we put into practice this wildly important idea: (1) we temper our expectations of our leaders so that we do not hinder them from equipping God’s people because they have to spend all their time serving God’s people; (2) we gladly accept any ministry assignment and refrain from delegating it to a pastor or a staff person.

Don’t let a misplaced comma skew a biblical perspective on the role of a pastor.


Wildly Important

Wildly ImportantIn the classic story of Mary and Martha, found in Luke 10:38-42, we see the interaction between the important and the urgent. I believe that balancing the two are the most important thing I can do in trying to move my life and church forward in 2015.

Martha, sister of Lazarus whom Jesus would later raise from the dead, welcomed Him into her home as a guest. Often Martha’s spirituality is belittled because of the rest of the episode but her invitation to Jesus indicated an interest in spiritual things. Any observations made about her shouldn’t be seen as an accusation that she didn’t love God in her heart. We don’t know about her marital status; she may have been a widow. Her sister Mary may have lived with her but we don’t know that for sure.

Speaking of Mary, she figures quite prominently in this story. Luke tells us two things here: (1) she sat at Jesus’ feet (2) she listened to His teaching. The first is a phrase that essentially means to be someone’s disciple. Paul says it about his mentor Gamaliel. While this may seem normal to us, it was not at all typical at that time. Women were discouraged from learning the Law. The fact that Jesus would encourage her listening to His teaching was a radical notion.

Martha, however, was not impressed with her sister’s discipleship even though what Mary was doing is the essence of Christianity. Listening to Jesus and being His disciple is the “espresso”, the distillation of our faith. The posture of Mary was that of receiving the truth from Jesus and that is of supreme importance.

On the other hand, Martha is in high urgency mode. And she employs a typical tactic: when someone isn’t doing that you want them to do, try to get Jesus on your side. Right? God loves you and I have a wonderful plan for your life. A pastor friend of mine often says to his staff when he gives them an unpleasant task, “Welcome to God’s will.” I’ll say more about this but remember: when it comes to urgent tasks, other people love to put pressure on you to do them the way they want them done.

After playing the martyr card (“Why, Jesus, I don’t even think you care very much about how hard I’m working for you.”), she  gives Jesus an instruction: “Tell her then to help me.” There are a lot of dangerous positions in which people can find themselves but trying to give Jesus instructions might be the most dangerous thing to do. We should let Him tell us what needs to be done.

Thankfully, as we have come to expect from Him, Jesus replied with grace and mercy, repeating her name twice as He was prone to do when offering a gentle rebuke. The problem with Martha was that because she was worried about many things—rather than the most important thing—she was riddled with anxiety and urgency. Mary on the other hand had found the truly important thing, the one pursuit that lasts forever.

In the lives of these two women, we see the tension between living according to what is urgent and what is important.

Everything we do in life is defined by its connection to both its urgency and its importance. Urgent means that it requires immediate attention. It has to do with Now. Urgent things act on us. A phone call is an example of the urgent. Urgent things are usually very visible. And—this is extremely relevant—they usually are popular with other people. Other people want you to do urgent things. They’re not always hard to do. Sometimes they’re easy. But frequently they are unimportant.

The important has to do with the ultimate, your ultimate and eternal impact. But it doesn’t act upon you. You must act upon it.

So we can see that everything we do falls into one of our categories, which clash with one another on an ongoing basis. They are both necessary and they do not get along with each other. Keep in mind that you are always saying No to something. If it isn’t to the urgent things of life, then it is to the important things.

Not Important and Not Urgent. These life’s trivial matters, “administrivia,” are not the real problem. We recognize them for what they are, timewasters.

Important and Urgent. A crisis, a pressing problem, or maybe even a project that has a deadline: these fall into this category. They are fewer in number than you might imagine unless you happen to serving in a war zone. When these things come, they’re not optional. You do them. But they are rare enough that they do not constitute the real problem.

Not Important but Urgent. These are the things with which we have to deal. Jesus experienced them and overcame them  (Mark 1:35-39). Everyone wanted Jesus to fulfill his or her request but He moved at the direction of God’s will and the Father always directed Him toward the important. The picture we find of Jesus in the gospels is that of an individual who, although very busy, was never hurried or rushed. On the night before His death, Jesus prayed to God in the presence of His disciples, “I have accomplished the work you gave me to do (John 17:4).” There were still people who hadn’t heard the gospel, who hadn’t been saved, who hadn’t been healed, but Jesus was content that He had fulfilled God’s purpose. He never let the urgency of human need detour Him from following the Father’s will.

Important but Not Urgent. There are some truly important things for us to pursue, individually and as a church. These activities, initiatives, and goals help us fulfill our purpose and our reason for existence. However, the challenge is to pursue them in the midst of the urgent, what some have called “the whirlwind,” defined by one as:

…the massive amount of energy that’s necessary just to keep your operation going on a day-to-day basis; and, ironically, it’s also the thing that makes it so hard to execute anything new. The whirlwind robs from you the focus required to move either your own life or the church forward. It is difficult to differentiate between the whirlwind and strategic goals because both are necessary to the survival of the organization. So you have the wildly important trying to survive the whirlwind. Churches rarely fail because people in those churches are dumb or incompetent. They lose their impact because of the whirlwind, those day-to-day urgent activities that keep from focusing on the truly important.

The wildly important always dies at the hands of the urgent. The latter seeks to choke the former to death. If you don’t face and deal with the whirlwind, you will come to the end of the day, the year, or your lifetime and realize that all of the activity, checking off the boxes on your “things to do list”, did not accomplish your purpose in life.

Here’s another way to put it. Ignoring the whirlwind can kill you today. But ignoring the wildly important will kill your future.

That’s what the whirlwind takes from us, the fulfillment of our purpose and ultimate destiny. We become slaves to the urgent at the expense of the ultimate. Charles Hummel wrote a great book years ago called “The Tyranny of the Urgent.” These words bear repeating:

The important task rarely must be done today, or even this week….The urgent task calls for instant action….The momentary appeal of these takes seems irresistible and important, and they devour our energy. But in the light of time’s perspective, their deceptive prominence fades; with a sense of loss we recall the vital task we pushed aside. We realize we’ve become slaves to the tyranny of the urgent.

So what are we do in light of this? How do we keep the whirlwind from blowing away the wildly important?

First, we learn from Mary the need to remember our purpose. Not every urgent task fulfills God’s purpose for us. There is more to life than simply being busy.

Second, we learn from Martha the need to focus on a few things, not everything. She was distracted by too many pressing concerns and she missed an opportunity to focus on the wildly important, listening to the voice of her Savior.

Third, we learn from Jesus the need to let God set our agenda, not other people or circumstances, through seeking voice recognition and making sure that we are hearing Him, not the urgent voices around us.

Don’t miss the wildly important in the whirlwind of the urgent.

Overcome Controversy With Gentle Truth

699500_74798238Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. (2 Timothy 2:23-25)

I remember a classmate from junior high with a tendency to bloviate about issues and situations. (Of course, I didn’t use the word bloviate back then so this is obviously a reflection, not a journalistic retelling.) He was quoting his father who supposedly said to him, “Boy, don’t you be starting no fights. But if you get in one, you better finish it.” I always felt safe in assuming that to his father “finishing the fight” meant boxing the other guy’s ears.

Well, this philosophy operates on a strategy of meeting force with even more force. And this strategy that we are tempted to use today in less physical but equally heated situations. I’m talking about controversies and conflicts within the church.

Some people love nothing more than a good argument. Paul wasn’t afraid of controversy or confronting issues that needed to be addressed–read Acts 15 to see his willingness to contend for the sake of the gospel–but he knew that most arguments were foolish and ignorant. Writing as a senior ecclesiastical statesman, the apostle seemed unimpressed by much of the theological and philosophical wrangling of his day (2 Tim. 2:14,16).

Some of the disputes in which people engage are just unwise because they deal with tertiary and unimportant issues. Those disputes turn into divisions. People will then fight a battle to win a victory that isn’t worth the price. They will alienate spiritual brothers and sisters, derail the church from its mission, and damage God’s reputation simply because they have to have be RIGHT.

But some of the controversies are ignorant in the sense that they lack knowledge, knowledge of a better way to proceed. I’ve known leaders who figuratively burned their church to the ground over an issue in which they were but then had little left to show for it. Many times we want to do the right thing but we go about it in the wrong way.

The problem with some of these disputes according to Paul, is that they breed. We know what breeding is. It is to reproduce offspring. And many controversies reproduce negatives effects lasting for many generations. Anger and hate reciprocate and leave a trail of collateral damage. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t start the fight. By finishing it, you spawn destruction that will probably outlive you.

Paul outlines a better way. He enjoins Timothy to employ kindness and gentleness instead of a harsh insistence of compliance. Instead of launching a decisive nuclear strike on an opponent, the Lord’s servant is called to persist, to demonstrate a willingness to endure a stalemate rather than going for the kill shot, and to patiently let God work in a situation by changing hearts and subduing wills. And a shepherd, Paul reminded, must teach. He must instruct through the Word, letting the truth from its pages win the argument. Let God’s Word have the last word, rather than you.

Of course, God’s shepherd doesn’t start fights. Except in rare occasions where the truth is at stake, he usually doesn’t have to end them either. He teaches the truth, serves God’s people, and acts with gentleness and kindness.


Act Your Age, Not Your Rage

1072482_79445869So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. (2 Timothy 2:22)

We certainly struggle with different sins at different stages of life. President Ronald Reagan observed once that middle age is that period of life when confronted with two temptations, a man chooses the one that will get him home before 9 p.m. A professor of mine by the name of Mack Roark was once commenting on John 1:29 where Jesus is described as the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world. Noting the singular form of sin, he observed, “We outgrow some of our sins. We get too tired to commit them. But we never outgrow our sin.”

In biblical times, generations weren’t as segmented as today, with Boomers, Busters, Millennials, and so on. Essentially there was youth and old age. I’m not sure where the cut off was but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a date on the calendar. But eventually one day you wake up and realize you’re not young anymore.

But that’s okay because youth in Paul’s mind was characterized by certain passions that were not helpful in the work of shepherding God’s people. We seem to be pretty high on this quality of “passion” today. We have a epic conference gathering named after it. We love to describe ourselves as passionate followers of Jesus Christ.

But I can’t get a quote of Zig Ziglar out of my mind when I hear the word. He commented about enthusiasm once and it seems to apply about passion. “Enthusiasm,” he said, “is like running in the dark. It might get somewhere. It might get you killed.” I know, leave it to an old man to put a damper on things.

Of which youthful passions should a pastor be wary? Certainly not love and enthusiasm for Jesus Christ; this isn’t the point. However, in our youth, we often lack wisdom. And this lack of wisdom creates a lack of humility. And that arrogance can set us up for a fall like one might experience when running in the dark.

By looking at the qualities Paul lifts up–he wasn’t one of those irritating ‘agin-ers’ who only obsessed about what was to be avoided–we see the opposite of youthful passions to avoid. “Righteousness” is always the gift of God and only He can make us righteous. Early in life we sometimes fail to see how short we come of God’s holiness and our need for imputed righteousness. Live long though and your shortcomings will present themselves for inspection. Typically this occurs about the time your young children begin have conversations with other adults who are your friends.

“Faith” is confidence directed towards God, not ourselves. The years have a way of showing us that we aren’t as competent as we first imagined. Jung supposedly said that Act One of a young’s man life was when he sat out to conquer the world. He then wryly noted that Act Two was when the world lets him know that it is not about to be conquered by the likes of him.

“Love” is the indispensable attribute for anyone who seeks to shepherd others. At times in Scripture, it is contrasted with knowledge (1 Corinthians 8:1-3). Demonstrating to others my brilliance–and my need to be “right”–may keep them from perceiving my concern for them.

In my younger years it seemed virtuous and godly to communicate my right ideas even when it created unnecessary clashes. But now I realize how valuable “peace” is among the flock of God. Every shepherd will sense at some point the tension between leading the sheep forward and keeping them together. Going forward is the “right” thing to do but so is preventing them from being scattered.

As one whose daily work is with pastors, it is concerning to see a growing tendency toward public and interpersonal outbursts of anger by pastors, along with the subsequent damage done in their congregations. Being a pastor, a shepherd, is unbelievably challenging these days: no debate there. But even if the times have changed, God hasn’t and He still offers the strength to check the youthful passions from a pastor of any age.

I’m not sure though that the youthful passions Paul counseled against are the exclusive domain of the young. I’ve known more than a few of the older variety who attempted to shepherd apart from righteousness, faith, love, and peace. I’ve known this from personal experience. The old description of “no fool like an old fool” expresses exasperation at the failure to demonstrate the maturity of the years.

Mack Roark was right. I may outgrow some of my sins but my sin seems to dog my steps all of my days. That’s why this aging shepherd needs the Lamb of God to forgive, check, and someday eradicate his sin.

Resolve To Leave Sin

“…Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.” (2 Timothy 2:19)

It was the great Augustine who wrote about his wayward youth: “But I wretched, most wretched, in the very commencement of my early youth, had begged chastity of Thee, and said, ‘Give me chastity and continency, only not yet.'” Many have paraphrased it this way: “Make me pure, Lord…but not yet!” (Pusey, E. B. The Confessions of St. Augustine. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.)

1429638_79756262Shepherds lead their flock toward increasing sanctification, in the “paths of righteousness” (Psalm 23:3) for the sake of the Lord’s name and fame. But before they can do that, they must travel the path themselves and heed Paul’s admonition to resolve to leave sin. And the problem there is that frequently we love our sin more than we love God.

I have thought much over the years on the best ways to experience sanctification and transformation into the person God wants me to be. I’ve looked for every secret, every new insight, and spiritual experience. And after many years, I have concluded that the pivotal factor is the decisiveness of my repentance from the sin I’m trying to forsake.

Martin Luther’s 95 Theses are famous for their historical importance in church history but it is often overlooked that the first thesis he nailed to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenburg read: “The Lord Jesus Christ wills that we live a life of repentance.” My entire life must be one of continual repentance of that which obscures the formation of Christ in my character.

John Stott says it very well in his commentary on Galatians 5:24:

The first great secret of holiness lies in the degree and the decisiveness of our repentance. If besetting sins persistently plague us, it is either because we have never truly repented, or because, having repented, we have not maintained our repentance. (The Message of Galatians)

We used to sing this old hymn: “I am resolved no longer to linger…”  That is the secret.

Use Words That Matter

But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness. (2 Timothy 2:16)

I believe it was George Orwell who suggested that at times language served to obscure thought rather than to express it. He was thinking about fascists but I’m thinking of a different target audience. Diligent shepherds have to give consideration to the nature of the words they use in teaching and leading God’s people.


According to Paul, there is such thing as “irreverent babble” and it is to be avoided. Blasphemous words and irreverent words are not the same thing. In fact, “religious” words can be said but, if spoken apart from an awareness of God, they might actually be profane in His sight.

A danger for those whose profession is tied to spiritual and religious faith is that words come out without thought and reflection. Over time, it is easy to learn the jargon, the lingo, the code language of pastoral ministry. The phrases roll off the tongue but do they possess any heartfelt meaning? Beware, my shepherd friend, of the use of vain repetitions (Matthew 6:7).

When words don’t provoke and inspire, listeners are not sanctified. And when they are not sanctified, they become endangered, prone to fall into the profane or, as Paul puts it, “led into more and more ungodliness.”

Proverbs 25:11 likens effective communication to “apples of gold in a setting of silver.” This refers to the artisanship behind either jewelry or artwork. In either case, there is the expression of skill based on planning and reflection. A shepherd thinks about what they are saying and the impact of those words. So the imperative for any pastor is to use words that matter.

His Highness is also His Nearness

Perspective is sometimes a matter of inches. We can be off just slightly but the result is monumental. Imagine that you and I attempted to hike to the North Pole, fixing our compass settings, but mine was just a fraction of a degree off. We would travel side by side for miles and miles. But eventually our paths would diverge, with you arriving safely while I would miss the destination by hundreds of miles.

Slight divisions and emphases can bring drastic differences. Look at these two sentences:

God is nowhere
God is now here

The same letters in both sentences but they illustrate different perspectives. And a crucial division creates a completely different outcome. For many people, the division of belief comes at this point: is God is near or remote?

A frequent descriptor of God in the Old Testament is “the Holy One of Israel,” a phrase which acknowledges both His highness and His nearness. He is the Holy One who towers over all creation in majesty. Yet He also choose to connect Himself to the people of Israel, to come near to them in a covenant relationship.

Some people believe in God; they really do. They would quickly tell you that He exists and that He is behind everything that we see. But they don’t believe that He is very involved in people’s lives, except maybe on those occasions when they really need His help to solve a problem or overcome a difficulty.

Believe it or not, this belief is quite ancient. Historians refer to it as deism and some of the founders of our country actually held this belief. They looked at God as a Great Watchmaker, who created this intricate and precise world, wound it up, and then walked away to leave it to run on its own. Lots of people have that perspective on life. For all practical purposes, God is nowhere close. The Bible teaches that God is now here close. The psalmist maintains there is nowhere where you can flee from God (Psalm 139:7).

It is hard to imagine a God of love who is distant. He might be a wise, all-knowing God, which the deists believed Him to be, but you couldn’t really call Him a loving God. Absence is really a lack of concern. Lots of people grew up with absent fathers and I don’t know of many of them who were confident in their father’s love for them.

Of course, God’s love is a holy love. These practical “deists” want not some much a Father in heaven but. as C.S. Lewis pointed out, a Grandfather in heaven, someone who only shows up for the fun stuff, who isn’t that involved in the daily nitty-gritty, and whose main concern is at the end of the day if a good time was had by all.

What matters is, whether we know what to call it or not, our belief in the nearness of Christ. If He is near, involved in the daily lives of people—and He is, I assure you—then there are certain ways in which we should behave and conduct ourselves. Our daily lives look different because of that belief.


Seven Last Words of the Church

1339522_36508016I think you already think you know what I’m going to say. But I don’t think you do.

My title, of course, comes from a book written by Ralph Neighbour, Jr., a former Southern Baptist, which called for the church to become innovative and relevant to the times. (Interestingly enough, he also wrote the book “Survival Kit for New Christians.” Many of us have used this resource in discipling new believers in Christ.)

What are the last seven words of the church? You know this part. “We never did it that way before.”

I appreciate what Neighbour was saying and trying to do. With all appropriate respect to a man who did much good for the kingdom, I want to suggest my own last seven words of the church: “Walk in the flesh, not the Spirit.”

The book of Galatians is a letter from Paul to “the churches of Galatia” to address a theological controversy, the dispute between salvation by grace alone or also through human effort. He intentionally mentions these churches as his target audience. I think this is important because we read Scripture through such an individualistic filter. Of course God deals with us personally. But we have to interpret Scripture in light of its original intent.

Paul seemed to be concerned about the survival of the churches in Galatia. In Galatians 5:15, he expresses concern about the possibility of them being “consumed by one another.” He isn’t just addressing “mutually assured destruction” between individuals. I believe he is, as one commentator mentions, contemplating “the possible ruin and annihilation of the Galatian churches through their raucous attacks on one another.” (Timothy George, Galatians, NAC)

Immediately following this, the text commands us to live according to the Spirit, not the flesh. The “flesh,” at least in this context, is not the body but rather anything and everything aside from God in which one puts his final trust and reliance.

If anything dooms the church, it is the failure to live in the power and under the direction of the Holy Spirit. Birthed by His power on the Day of Pentecost, a church responsive to the Spirit of God will display behavior uncharacteristic of the general public, of which onlookers must ask, “What meaneth this?” Without that mental arrest, our culture will ignore us because there is nothing distinctive present in us.

The typical level of conflict and disunity within the average congregation fails to meet any reasonable standard for distinctiveness.

Walking in the flesh makes us like every other organization or community in the world; walking in the Spirit makes us distinctive and not so easily explained away. So this is why I say that a church doomed for extinction is the church whose last words are “We don’t have to submit to the Holy Spirit in all that we do.”

Real life. Real leadership.

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