| Reluctant Leader

Blog / Church

The Pain of Prophetic Preaching

May 7, 2018

Because I live in two nations, I get to be part of two local churches, one in Manila and one in Nashville. For obvious reasons, Victory Manila is 99% Filipino. For reasons that are not as obvious, Bethel is approximately 55% black (African American and African immigrants), 35% white, and 10% other (Asian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern). This means that I am an ethnic minority in both of my home churches. This also means that there are worship styles, communication styles, and hairstyles that I simply do not understand (and probably never will).

In the past year, I have had multiple conversations with black and white members of my Nashville church. Sometimes, my black friends feel like certain topics are not addressed enough, while some of my white friends feel like those same topics are addressed too much. In a multiethnic church, it seems that when certain sensitive topics are addressed, no one is fully satisfied. This is what I call “the pain of prophetic preaching.” And this pain is not unique to my multiethnic home church in Nashville.

If you have an honest conversation with multiethnic church members in London, Johannesburg, or Singapore, while the specific details might be different, the sentiments will probably be the same. Some want certain topics to be hit harder and more often from the pulpit, while others prefer those same topics to be discussed privately or not at all.

O the pain of prophetic preaching. What’s a preacher to do? If anyone ever lived with the pain of prophetic preaching it was Jeremiah.

He was born a priest, but before he was born, God decided he would be a prophet (See Jeremiah 1:1-10). I bet there were many times Jeremiah wished he could have lived the relatively uncomplicated and uncontroversial life of a priest.

But no, God called him to be a prophet, and that meant he had to preach uncomfortable topics like idolatry, adultery, immigration (sojourners), religious pluralism, colonialism, racism, the shedding of innocent blood, orphan care, government corruption, and poverty, to name a few. It is common today for people to think that faithful obedience to God results in prosperity and popularity. Not so for Jeremiah. His faithful obedience resulted in unjust incarceration more than once. It also led to brutal beatings and death threats. Because Jeremiah was faithful to his prophetic call, he was neither popular nor prosperous. He was hated and despised by the very people he served.

After a season of preaching prophetic sermons that no one except God wanted him to preach, Jeremiah let out a brutally honest and desperate prayer (aka a prophetic complaint). “Woe is me, my mother, that you bore me, a man of strife and contention to the whole land! I have not lent, nor have I borrowed, yet all of them curse me” (Jeremiah 15:10).

You know it’s bad when a preacher brings his mother into a conversation with God!

Notice that Jeremiah described himself as a man of strife and contention to the whole land. That’s pretty bleak, but it gets worse. He notes that, unlike a banker, he neither lends or borrows, yet all of them curse me. I doubt that every single person actually cursed him, but on some days, it seems that way when God calls you to be a prophetic preacher. Jeremiah discovered that being a faithful prophetic preacher can sometimes destroy relationships and increase stress.

How did God respond to Jeremiah’s complaint, and how might He respond to ours? God responded with a rhetorical question: “Have I not set you free for their good?” (Jeremiah 15:11)

God’s response contains two important reminders for everyone whose calling causes them to be unpopular. First, the call of God sets us free from the concerns and temporal value systems of the prevailing culture. Second, the call of God is for the good of others, not necessarily for our immediate good.

While most preachers reading this blog will not experience Jeremiah’s level of persecution, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests that even modern prophetic preachers should expect some level of opposition because “the prophetic act, now as always, is decidedly upstream and against the grain.” (If you’d like to read more on this, check out Brueggmann’s book, The Practice of Prophetic Imagination: Preaching an Emancipating Word) That “decidedly upstream and against the grain” phrase sure explains the difficulty of preaching certain topics. But faithfulness to the call demands that we preach them anyway.

Question: Does faithfulness to God’s calling always guarantee immediate earthly blessings?

Answer: No, but it always honors God and always produces eternal rewards.

Therefore, I suggest that preachers boldly and wisely preach whatever God says to preach, especially if it is “decidedly upstream” and against the prevailing cultural current.

Blog / Leadership

Whoever Strikes First

April 16, 2018

Deborah and I are in London this week for our annual Every Nation International Apostolic Team (IAT) meeting and Every Nation’s Build Conference for Europe. Every year, our regional team leaders from every region of the world gather together to fellowship, pray, and plan for what God has in store for our movement of churches and campus ministries.

Whenever I gather with this group of leaders, I am encouraged about the future, and I am reminded of our humble beginnings. Though we have a team full of world-class leaders, most of us would freely admit that we didn’t become leaders because we were the best and the brightest among our peers. Most of us have stories like Joab.

When David was capturing the stronghold of Zion, he needed someone to lead the charge, so he made this offer to his army: “‘Whoever strikes the Jebusites first shall be chief and commander.’ And Joab the son of Zeruiah went up first, so he became chief” (1 Chronicles 11:6). (Sounds a little like David’s own leadership story from 1 Samuel 17.)

David needed a leader—someone who would do something, someone who would take action. He didn’t need a thought leader, a vision architect, or a chief experience officer. He didn’t need a town hall meeting, a focus group, or an advisory board. He didn’t need a coach, a consultant, or a counselor.  He needed a leader.

Leaders lead. Leaders go first. Leaders take action.

Some people, especially founders, are in top leadership positions not because they are the smartest or the best or the most qualified, but simply because they did something when something needed to be done. They are leading teams now because they were the FIRST on the team—before there was a team. That’s my leadership story.

For over three decades, I have had the privilege of leading an amazing team that leads a great church in Manila. I am not the best preacher on that team. I am not the best strategic planner. I have never been the most spiritual, and I am not the most educated. I am not the best theologian. I am definitely not the best pastor.  I ended up in the “senior leader” seat because Deborah and I were crazy enough to leave, to go, to stay, and to not quit. And that’s why I got the leadership position and title.

It is good for leaders, especially founder leaders and senior leaders, to remind ourselves that we are not in our positions because we are the smartest, most spiritual, or best leaders, but because we got there first. The realization of this fact should make it easier to step aside and decrease so that next-generation leaders can take increasingly more significant leadership roles.

When I admit that I am not the best preacher or the best leader on the team, I am acknowledging that this organization is not being led by the best most skilled person. That means that it will probably survive being led by another leader and generation that is also not the best. But when I assume that I am the best leader, best preacher, best pastor, best theologian, best Christian, then I will have a more difficult time turning it over to someone whom I perceive as less than the best.

David didn’t ask for the most qualified leader. He just asked for a leader, a man of action. So he got Joab, a brilliant yet deeply flawed leader.

If you are in a leadership position, don’t mistakenly interpret that as meaning you are better or more spiritual than those you lead. Stay humble. Stay dependent on God. And, when it is time, let go of the position so another leader who will also probably not be the absolute best leader or most spiritual person can have an opportunity to make some of the same leadership mistakes you got to make.

Blog / Church / Miscellaneous

Should the Church be More Inclusive or Exclusive?

April 4, 2018


NASHVILLE—One of the biggest challenges that Christians face today is reconciling the seemingly exclusive claims of Jesus with the postmodern cultural value of inclusivity.

Whether you are at a Starbucks or a law firm, a university campus or a preschool, inclusivity is what everyone seems to be striving for. It’s written in value statements. It’s expressed in public memos (sometimes after an employee Twitter gaff). And perhaps most importantly, it’s simply assumed to be an inherent good by most people in society.

Some churches have joined the movement, pushing for a more inclusive Christianity that is open to all. One church website put it this way: “Everybody’s in, baby…If you have breath, then you belong.”

In one sense, I hope that every church can embrace this kind of relational openness and inclusivity to outsiders, especially towards people in the LGBTQ and Muslim communities who have unofficially been excluded from evangelical churches.

However, many churches that embrace this language of inclusivity are not only advocating for relational inclusivity but also doctrinal inclusivity. This is where we, as Christians, must jump off the inclusivity train.

When we look at the life of Jesus, we see a model of intentional relational inclusivity and of radical doctrinal exclusivity.

For example, in John 4, Jesus scandalized his disciples when he engaged a Samaritan woman in conversation. Samaritans were the ultimate outsiders (even enemies) in Jewish society. Just in case later readers might miss this, John writes parenthetically, “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (John 4:9). Not only was this woman a Samaritan, but she was a serial adulteress who had had five husbands and, as a result, was an outcast even in her own village.

These realities did not deter Jesus from welcoming this woman into conversation and inviting her to become a “true worshipper” of God (John 4:23).

However, Jesus’ remarkable relational inclusivity (which surprised both the woman and the disciples) was accompanied by clear doctrinal exclusivity. First, Jesus intentionally raises the issue of the woman’s sexual promiscuity by asking her about her husband(s). Her sex life mattered to Jesus not because it inherently disqualified her from a relationship with God, but because it had become a counterfeit god in her life—making it impossible for her to know and worship the true God.

While many proponents of “inclusive” Christianity want to take sex and sexuality off the table in conversations about faith and repentance, Jesus does the exact opposite and puts it front and center—not because sexual sin is more problematic than other kinds of sin but because sexual idolatry blinds us from the true object of worship.

After this, the woman asked Jesus a loaded question about worship: Does it matter where I worship? Jews worshipped at the Temple in Jerusalem, but Samaritans worshipped on Mt. Gerizim (John 4:20). Again, here the doctrinally inclusive Christian might have responded, “It doesn’t matter where, how, or who you worship as long as you are sincerely worshipping somewhere, somehow, and something.” But that is not how Jesus answered.

The disciples might have expected that Jesus would reorient this woman’s worship toward Jerusalem and the temple, but that’s not what he did either. Instead, he reoriented her worship to himself. Jesus told her that the Messiah, the one that both the Jews and the Samaritans had been waiting for to show them the way to the Father, had come. And he told her, “I who speak to you am He” (John 4:26).

Jesus’ radical doctrinal exclusivity is echoed in a sermon of Peter’s in Acts 4 where he says, “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you… And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (John 4:11–12).

Not only was this message preached to Jews and Samaritans, but Paul preached a similar message to Greeks in Corinth, saying, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man [Jesus] whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).

The call to discipleship is a call for everyone—Jew or Samaritan, man or woman, black or white, American or Iranian, rich or poor, gay or straight, conservative or liberal, religious or secular—to abandon all other gods and to worship the one true God revealed in the person of Jesus.

Uncategorized / Videos

Five-Minute Leadership: Engaging the Campus with Chris & Cherelle Johnson

March 28, 2018


In this episode of Five-Minute Leadership, Pastor Steve sits down with Chris and Cherelle Johnson, leaders of Divine Unity Community Church, an Every Nation church in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Chris and Cherelle talk about how they intentionally engage college students in their church and personal lives. Chris shares, “One of the things that college students look for is family…when you are able to provide a piece of home in a place where they feel foreign, it welcomes them in and it opens up their heart….We intentionally get them around families and homes that are pursuing the Lord Jesus.”

To hear more, watch below.

Blog / Miscellaneous

The Necessity of the Cross

March 27, 2018

Garden of Gethsamene

NASHVILLE — For almost a month, I have been blogging about the importance of preaching (and singing) the cross. But as we begin Holy Week, I want to take a closer look at the importance of the cross itself.

When Jesus was in the garden of Gethsemane, just a few hours before He would be arrested, tortured, and executed, He prayed: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” Knowing what was coming, Jesus, in His humanity, was searching for an alternative to the cross. But He concluded His prayer, “nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will” (Matthew 26:39).

Why didn’t God the Father find another way? Why was it necessary for God the Son to go to the cross?

A common modern objection to the cross goes like this: Why couldn’t a good and loving God find it in His heart to simply forgive (and forget)? Why did He require the death of His sinless son as a substitute for sinful humanity?

At first glance, the question seems to put God (and Christianity) on the defensive. We expect our children to forgive and forget. Why can’t we expect the same of God? Why does this (seemingly) “bloodthirsty” God work the redemption of humanity through such inhumane means? Why does a just God will such a cosmic injustice—the death of Jesus by crucifixion? Why was the cross necessary?

The answer to these objections hinges on the question of God’s justice in relation to human injustice.

The question “Why can’t God just forgive and forget?” can only be asked by someone of great privilege who has never experienced the depth of human injustice.

A few years ago, a college student from Stanford was accused (and eventually convicted) of sexual assault and the attempted rape of an intoxicated female who was found unconscious next to a dumpster. During court proceedings, the defendant’s father made an appeal to the judge to not deal too harshly with his son. In a letter, he wrote that prison time was “a steep price to pay for twenty minutes of action…”

The father of the perpetrator wanted soft justice—even a passing-over of justice. He was basically asking the judge: “Why can’t we just forgive and forget?”

Can you imagine the victim of this brutal injustice hearing these words in court? Can you imagine what her father and mother thought? They were not content just to forgive and forget. Something terribly wrong had been done to this young girl and they wanted justice.

In a letter to the judge, in which she directly addressed her assailant, the victim wrote: “You should have never done this to me… But here we are. The damage is done, no one can undo it. And now we both have a choice. We can let this destroy us, I can remain angry and hurt and you can be in denial, or we can face it head on, I accept the pain, you accept the punishment, and we move on.”

This letter poignantly illustrates the necessity of the cross. God, because He is just, cannot simply forgive and forget. His solution to the sin and injustice of the world will not, and cannot, ignore the cries for justice from people who have been oppressed and abused, like that young girl. God, by His very nature, must make things right and righteousness requires justice.

But there is more.

God is not only seeking to restore the victim; He is seeking to redeem the victimizer. He is not only on the side of the oppressed; He is actively seeking to bring the oppressor over to the side of righteousness. This is good news because we are all victims and victimizers, oppressed and oppressors, plaintiffs and defendants.

Here we find the beauty and glory of the cross.

The cross was necessary “so that he might be just and the justifier” (Romans 3:26). For on the cross, God in Jesus secured justice for every victim of injustice, and at the same time, He bore the punishment for every perpetrator of injustice. On the cross, Jesus identified with the unjust suffering of the oppressed, and at the same time, He experienced the just punishment due to oppressors.

Paul puts it this way in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

To borrow (and adjust) the words of the letter quoted above, from the cross, Jesus makes this appeal to each one of us: “You should have never done this to me…But here we are. The damage is done, and only I can undo it. And now you have a choice: You can be in denial, or we can face it head-on. I accept the pain; I accept the punishment; and we move on.”