SteveMurrell.com | Reluctant Leader

Discipleship / Miscellaneous

Praying and Fasting…and Singing

January 8, 2018

Prayer & Fasting_Announcement Slide

NASHVILLE—This week, churches from all over the Every Nation world will begin 2018 with a week of prayer, fasting, and consecration. If you are fasting and praying with us this week, I would encourage you to download our 2018 Every Nation devotional guide on the book of Ephesians, entitled, “In Christ.” Along with the guide, you can also watch our short five-minute devotional videos for each day of the fast.

One of my favorite features of the new devotional guide is that each lesson ends with an old hymn that echoes the particular truth that we studied in Ephesians. For example, today’s reading was Ephesians 2, with a particular emphasis on Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

The hymn that was paired with this lesson is “Come Thou Fount,” written by Robert Robinson in 1758. I love the entire hymn but the third verse, in particular, beautifully articulates our daily reliance on God’s grace:

Oh, to grace how great a debtor
daily I’m constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
bind my wandering heart to thee:
prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love;
here’s my heart, O take and seal it;
seal it for thy courts above.

Whether or not you are familiar with this hymn (and the others in the devotional guide), I would strongly encourage you to learn and sing these hymns during the fast. Sing them in the car on your way home from work. Sing them with your family. Sing them at your church prayer meeting (if you are in charge of the setlist).

One of the best ways to get the truth of the gospel deep into our hearts is to have it constantly on our lips. There is something about the repetition of truth-filled words—something about the sound of beautiful music— that God uses to form us into His image.

Maybe this is why, in Ephesians 5:19, when Paul is encouraging the church in Ephesus to “be imitators of God” and to “walk in love,” he commands them to sing, “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.”

So as we enter this week of prayer, fasting, and consecration, my prayer is that we would not only focus with what goes into our mouth (food)—but that we would focus on what comes out of our mouth (songs of worship). Fasting is certainly about the stomach and learning to deny ourselves. But it’s about more than that. Ultimately, fasting is about the heart and learning to love Jesus.

Blog / Miscellaneous

Top Ten Books I Read in 2017

January 2, 2018

Bookshelf

NASHVILLE—It’s often said that “reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.” Because of too many international flights, I did not exercise my body nearly enough in 2017. But those same flights that prevented physical exercise afforded plenty of time to read. I don’t sleep on planes—I read and occasionally watch a free movie or two. Thanks to the magic of Kindle, I get to carry a whole library on every flight.

To encourage my friends to read, at the end of most years, I post a Top Ten recommended reading list. Here are some of my previous lists: 2016, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2008. Books on my Top Ten lists are not necessarily the best books, the most popular books, or the most important books. They are simply the ten books that impacted me the most in the past twelve months.

MY TOP TEN BOOKS OF 2017:

Martin-Luther1. Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (2017) by Eric Metaxas. Eric Metaxas, known for his biographies of William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, has written another classic. With a gripping narrative and fascinating detail, Metaxas gives us an up-close look at Martin Luther the man, as well as big-picture perspective on the global implications of the religious revolution he started.

Stephen-SemandsPS2. Ministry in the Image of God: The Trinitarian Shape of Christian Service (2006) by Stephen Seamands. This was on the reading list for my Asbury Seminary course. If you are a pastor, church planter, campus missionary, or any other type of vocational minister, please read this one.  As good as the book was, the classroom lectures by Dr. Seamands were even better. Dr. Seamands started and ended every lecture with a few minutes of worship. What a humble and godly man. I hope and pray that my sermons and messages impact people the way his impacted me.

3. The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (1995), by LLesslie-Newbiginesslie Newbigin. Originally given as lectures to men and women preparing to go on the mission field, Newbigin’s introduction to the theology of mission has a palpable sense of urgency and the marks of deep theological reflection—a powerful combination that I hope will infect emerging leaders and missionaries in Every Nation.

The-Missional-Church4. The Missional Church and Leadership Formation: Helping Congregations Develop Leadership Capacity (2009), edited by Craig Van Gelder. From a professional perspective, this is one of the most helpful books I read in 2017—exactly what I needed as we begin building Every Nation Theological Seminary (ENTS) to train future pastors, church planters, and missionaries. Van Gelder writes that theological education is at a “crossroads of Christian formation (paideia) and academic acumen (Wissenschaft).” At ENTS, we don’t want to choose between academic acumen and spiritual formation—we plan to do both. Our goal is to inform the mind, transform the heart, and train the hands for ministry. I especially enjoyed Van Gelder’s brief history of theological education in America and his two-word descriptions of pastors in each period. He divided American seminary history into 6 periods—Colonial Period: Resident Theologian; Early 1800s: Gentlemen Pastor; Late 1800s: Churchly Pastor; Post WWII: Pastoral Director; 1970s/1980s: Therapeutic Pastor; Entrepreneurial Leader: 1990s/2000s.

Peter Scazzero5. The Emotionally Healthy Leader: How Transforming Your Inner Life Will Deeply Transform Your Church, Team, and the World Leader (2015) by Peter Scazzero. I never read psychological, introspective books unless I have to. Since this book was on my Asbury required list, I had to. It was painful but in a good way. I never realized how emotionally unhealthy I was until reading this. It helped me understand myself and my friends. Read it at your own risk.

Robert-Kegen6. Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization (2009) by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey. Despite being another introspective psychological thriller and another Asbury required reading, this might be the most important organizational and relational leadership book I have read in the past decade. It forced me to ask this question to my colleagues: “What one change can I make that will have the greatest impact on this organization?” As uncomfortable as their answers were, I think they helped me to lead better. This comes highly recommended for top leaders in all walks of life (it was originally written for corporate executives).

George-BushPortraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors (2017) by George W. Bush. From the dust jacket: “A vibrant collection of oil paintings and stories by President George W. Bush honoring the sacrifice and courage of America’s military and veterans.” Each portrait and story features a soldier who sacrificed much when W was Commander in Chief. The proceeds of the book go to President Bush’s Military Service Initiative that focuses on helping post-9/11 veterans and their families successfully transition to civilian life. I was moved by each story and by the generosity and compassion of President Bush towards these men and women, some of whom lost limbs, family members, and friends in combat. I also appreciated the presidential art.

Miroslav-Volf8. A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (2011) by Miroslav Volf. It is easy to say that the gospel can and should impact every area of society. But in an increasingly pluralistic world, it is not easy to figure out exactly how the gospel relates to politics, education, economics, the arts, etc. In this helpful book, Volf attacks this issue head-on and explores some better (and worse) ways to think about Christianity as a public faith.

Christopher-Wright9. The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission (2010) by Christopher J. H. Wright. If we want to bring the gospel into public life (see Volf’s book above), then we have to be clear about who “we” are. This is what Christopher Wright’s book is all about. Helping us understand the identity and the mission of the church in light of God’s mission for the world. Read it and have your understanding of mission expanded and your understanding of church deepened.

Craig-Keener10. IVP Biblical Background Commentary: New Testament (2014) by Craig Keener. This has become one of my favorite commentaries. Sometimes I just read it for fun, even when I’m not doing sermon research. Because, like all Keener books, it is a heavyweight, I suggest you purchase a digital copy.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

RUN: Endure the Pain, Keep the Faith, Finish the Race (Releasing 2018) by Ferdie Cabiling with Walter Walker. The only reason this book is not at the top of my list is because it doesn’t officially exist yet. It will certainly be on my 2018 list. I had the privilege of reading an advanced unedited version of Bishop Ferdie’s soon-to-be-released book. It encouraged, convicted, and inspired me—and even made my eyes sweat. You will love to read Run, even if, like me, you hate to run.

Marl-Lua-BransonChurches, Cultures, and Leadership: A Practical Theology of Congregations and Ethnicities (2011) by Mark Lau Branson and Juan F. Martinez. If you are attempting to plant or lead a multiethhnic church or campus ministry, you are a member of a multiethnic church or campus ministry, and/or if you are in a multiethnic marriage, PLEASE READ THIS BOOK!

Blog / Miscellaneous

Remembering R.C. Sproul (1939-2017)

December 19, 2017

rc-sproul
NASHVILLE—Last Thursday (December 14), theologian and author R.C. Sproul passed away at the age of 78.

As a young believer in my teens and early twenties, I read Sproul’s books and listened to his radio show. Sproul’s influence on my theology and ministry is difficult to overstate, but it can be summed up in two phrases.

Renewing Your Mind. This was the title of Sproul’s radio show. In each show, Sproul would engage a particular theological or philosophical topic like the doctrine of imputation, Calvin’s ecclesiology, or the philosophical inheritance of Kierkegaard. For twenty-four minutes, Sproul would make complex ideas simple and, at the same time, stretch his listeners to think more deeply about God and world. His radio show was a constant reminder that in order to love God with our minds, we need to renew our minds. As a young disciple, who soon found himself in vocational ministry, I learned from Sproul the necessity of continually renewing my mind and never being satisfied with where I was in my theological understanding. We can always go deeper. Today, Sproul’s radio show is now a podcast, and I still often listen to it on the way to work.

The Holiness of God. This was the title of one of Sproul’s most famous books. I read it when it first came out in 1985, and it changed my life. Though Sproul was popularizing a larger Reformed tradition and was himself influenced by the works of Edwards, Luther, and Calvin, he was the first person who helped me begin to understand the heights of God’s holiness and the depths of man’s sinfulness. The centrality of God’s holiness in Sproul’s theology has deeply shaped the way I read the Bible, the way I preach, and the way I walk with God. My original marked-up copy of The Holiness of God is still in my study. I have read it probably a dozen times over the last thirty years.

When I think of Sproul’s influence on my life, I am reminded of a quote from The Holiness of God that nicely summarizes his life’s pursuit:

It’s dangerous to assume that because a person is drawn to holiness in his study that he is thereby a holy man. There is irony here. I am sure that the reason I have a deep hunger to learn of the holiness of God is precisely because I am not holy. I am a profane man—a man who spends more time out of the temple than in it. But I have had just enough of a taste of the majesty of God to want more. I know what it means to be a forgiven man and what it means to be sent on a mission. My soul cries for more. My soul needs more.

Though I will miss hearing his raspy voice on the “Renewing Your Mind” podcast, I am glad for Sproul that today he is experiencing what he most longed for in life. I am glad that he is now before the throne of God, joining with the angels singing “Holy, holy, holy.”

To learn more about R.C. Sproul and Ligonier Ministries, visit the Ligonier Ministries’ website

Blog / Family

A Three-Year Old’s Theology on the Incarnation

December 6, 2017

NativityORLANDO—A few days ago, I embarked on the annual tradition of setting up our family Christmas tree. As I wrote last year, the agony of pine needles and tangled lights is outweighed by the joy of seeing my grandchildren, Jo and Liam, caught up in the wonder and expectation of the Advent season.

Part of the reason why Jo loves December so much is that her birthday is just ten days before Christmas. Since December 15 and December 25 are so close, we all work hard to distinguish between Jo’s birthday and Christmas, which we have explained to her is Jesus’ birthday.

When looking at an Advent calendar in the kitchen, Jo pointed to December 15 and said, “This is my birthday, right?”

“Yes!” My son William, her dad, replied. “You are going to be four years old on your birthday.”

Pointing to December 25, Jo said, “And this is Jesus’ birthday. How old is he going to be—two or four?”

William smiled awkwardly, having no idea how to answer the question. “Well, Jesus had a second birthday and then two years later, he had a fourth birthday, just like you will be having.”

For the record, I don’t know if Jews in first-century Palestine celebrated birthdays the way we do. But Jo’s question reminds us of the mystery of the incarnation—that Jesus, like Jo, had a fourth birthday.

Jesus, like Jo, was a three-year-old bursting with energy who occasionally made big a mess in Joseph’s carpentry shop.

Jesus, like Jo, was a three-year old who made his parents laugh with his three-year-old sayings and pronunciations. (Josephine calls the month of December, “Becender.”)

Jesus, like Jo, was a three-year-old who needed mommy when he skinned his knee.

Jesus, like Jo, was a three-year-old who, on his best days, made Mary and Joseph wish that he would never grow up (and on his worst days, made Mary and Joseph wish he would hurry up and become an adult).

The mystery of the incarnation is that this same three-year-old—who could act like my granddaughter Josephine—was at the same time “begotten from the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made; of the same essence as the Father,” as it says in the Nicene Creed.

The mystery of the incarnation is that this three-year-old, who occasionally could make a real mess in his earthly father’s workshop, was present with His Heavenly Father at the creation of the universe.

The mystery of the incarnation is that this three-year-old, who was still learning to speak and form words in His mother tongue (Aramaic), was the eternal Word of God—through whom all things (including our tongues) were made.

The mystery of the incarnation is that this three-year-old, who needed mom to wipe the blood off his knees and the tears from his eyes, was the Lamb of God—who was destined to weep and bleed and bear sins of the world.

The mystery of the incarnation is that this three-year-old, who was the beloved son of Mary and Joseph, was at the same time the beloved Son of God.

Missions

Two Ways of Going on Mission

December 2, 2017
Lititz_Moravian_Church

The Moravian Church that we saw in Lititz, Pennsylvania.

NASHVILLE—Last week, Deborah and I spent time in central Pennsylvania where we enjoyed Thanksgiving with William and his wife’s family and attended a wedding in Lancaster. One of my highlights was visiting Lititz, a small town in Lancaster County that was founded by the Moravians in 1756.

Though most Protestant communities that settled in North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were fleeing religious persecution in Europe (like the Pilgrims from England and Holland), the Moravian settlements in North America and the Caribbean were founded in the pursuit of global mission.

This reminds me of two Greek words found in the New Testament that are commonly translated as “send” in English.

The first word is “apostello,” referring to someone who is “sent out” on a particular mission with honor and authority (see Matthew 10:5 when he sends out the twelve disciples).

The second word is “ekballo,” referring to someone who is “sent out” or “driven out” in a particularly violent manner. Jesus uses this verb once to discuss sending out laborers into the harvest field (see Matthew 9:38), but most of the time, this verb comes in the context of “driving out” demons (see Matthew 7:22).

When we look at the Bible, we find many examples of these two different ways that God “sends” His people out on mission.

In Genesis, we see that God’s original purpose for man was to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28; 9:7). God was sending (apostello) them out to be His image bearers and to cultivate the earth that He had made. But very quickly, we see people beginning to resist God’s purpose—most famously in the Tower of Babel where man’s purpose was to “build a name” for themselves and to avoid being “dispersed over the face of all the earth” (Genesis 11:4).

So what did God do? He confused their languages and “dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth” (Genesis 11:8). Instead of being “sent,” they were “driven out” to do what God had originally called them to do.

We see the same thing happen in Acts with the apostles. In Acts 1:8, Jesus’ followers are baptized with the Holy Spirit in order to be His “witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” But instead of going, the apostles stayed in Jerusalem. And it took a severe wave of persecution (see Acts 8:1) before the apostles got the hint and began taking the gospel to the ends of the earth.

All of church history is littered with stories of people who were either “sent out” (apostello) or “driven out” (ekballo) by God onto mission. Either way, God will accomplish His purposes in the world, but if it’s up to me, I’d rather cooperate with God and be “apostelloed” rather than “ekballoed.”

Discipleship / Uncategorized

A Three-Year-Old’s Theology on the Crucifixion

November 14, 2017

cropped Photo

NASHVILLE—Deborah and I arrived back in Nashville this weekend after an Asia and Europe swing that brought us from Manila to Madrid and everywhere in between. Glad to be back in time to catch the end of the beautiful autumn weather and to spend some time with my favorite little people, Josephine and Liam.

Jo’s parents have been reading her The Jesus Storybook Bible over the last few months, and it’s been amazing to see her fall in love with the Bible and its cast of characters. For a while, all she wanted to read were stories about Jonah and Noah (presumably because of the boats and animals involved). However, at the moment, her nightly bedtime request is to read the story of Jesus on the cross. It’s kind of difficult material to communicate to a three-year old, but the author, Sally Lloyd-Jones, does an amazing job.

A few days ago, William (my oldest son) was reading the story of the crucifixion to Jo at bedtime, and she asked him this question:

“Daddy, why isn’t Jesus wearing a shirt?” (Referring to a picture in her book of a shirtless Jesus on the cross.)

William: “Well, Jo, some mean people took Jesus’ shirt from him and put him on the cross.”

Jo: “We didn’t take Jesus’ shirt, did we?”

How do you answer this penetrating question from a three-year-old?

Technically, the answer is no. None of us were alive in the first century, so none of us were involved in taking Jesus’ shirt on Good Friday. But Josephine already knew that, and her question was getting at something deeper.

Somehow, at three, she already suspected her own complicity in the crucifixion. Somehow, she already knew the answer to the question she asked her dad.

Yes. We did take Jesus’ shirt. Josephine did. Her dad did. I did. We are all complicit in Jesus’ death—whether we live in the first century or the twenty-first century.

In the words of the hymn, “How Deep The Father’s Love“:

Behold the man upon a cross
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers.

It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finish.

Whether we are three or seventy-three, the most important reality we will have to confront in our lives is the fact that we took Jesus’ shirt. We must all come to the realization, “It was my sin that held Him there.”

But there’s good news.

We didn’t just take Jesus’ shirt. He took it off and gave it to us. He became naked on the cross, so that we might be clothed with his righteousness.

Isaiah says it this way, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord… for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10).

As William tried to figure out how to answer Jo’s question, she asked another question:

“We’re Jesus’ friends, right?”

“Yes.” William answered. “We’re His friends.”

As sinners, we’ve all taken Jesus’ shirt.

But only Jesus’ friends realize whose shirt they’ve taken.

Only Jesus’ friends realize that the naked man on the cross should’ve been them.

Only Jesus’ friends realize that we were once his enemies, but now we’re his friends—not because we didn’t take his shirt but because by faith, we put it on.

Leadership

Loving to the End

November 6, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-11-05 at 10.48.46 PM

LONDON—I am now en route to Manila after a few days in the UK with Every Nation’s Europe regional director Wolfi Eckleben and our Every Nation London church. Last week in Madrid, I read a passage in John 13 that I have read over and over almost every day.

Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end (John 13:1).

One part of this passage continues to stand out: “He loved them to the end.”

“Them.” Who is John referring to?

Judas—a disciple who had been with him for three years, and who, in a few minutes would leave dinner early to betray Jesus to the chief priests (John 13:21-27; 18:2-3).

Peter—One of Jesus’ closest friends, who in a few hours, would deny ever knowing Him (John 13:36-38; 18:15-18).

James and John—disciples who that same evening could not stay awake to pray with Jesus in the garden in the darkest moment of His life (Matthew 26:36-45).

Thomas—one of the twelve who was so skeptical of the reports that Jesus had risen from the dead, he demanded physical proof (John 20:24-29).

Andrew, Nathanael, Thaddeus, Matthew, Phillip, Simon the Zealot, and the other James—all of whom deserted Jesus out of fear when Judas and the chief priests came with a mob to arrest him in the garden (Matthew 26:56).

These are the people John was referring to: A betrayer. A denier. A doubter. Deserters.

And yet JESUS LOVED THEM TO THE END. Jesus loved them ANYWAY.

It’s easy for leaders to love faithful followers.

But only Christlike leaders choose to love betrayers, deniers, doubters, and deserters. Only Christlike leaders love these kinds of people till the end.

My prayer is that we as leaders and pastors would learn from Jesus’ example of leading with unconditional love till the end.

Discipleship / Miscellaneous

The Reformation at 500

October 31, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-10-31 at 4.35.31 PM
MADRID —
After a productive week in Malaysia at the Asian Pastors Equipping Conference (aka APEC), Deborah and I boarded a plane to Spain to teach the “same ole boring strokes” and to preach at the sixth anniversary of our Every Nation church in Madrid. There is so much to report from both Asia and Europe, but I thought that since today is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I would have our resident historian write us a guest post on the history and theological significance of the Reformation. William (my oldest son) wrote and taught the Church History course for Leadership 215 and is currently finishing his PhD in history at Vanderbilt University. Enjoy.

On October 31st, 1517—exactly 500 years ago today—a German monk and theology professor named Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg. Though it may not have been his original intention, this simple act sparked a revolution within European Christianity—a revolution that would have massive implications for every area of Western society including politics, education, culture, the arts, and even the economy.

Although Luther’s grievances with the Catholic church—and in particular with the system of indulgences—were very specific to the time and place in which he lived, three perennial questions were behind the ninety-five theses.

The first question was theological: How is it possible for a sinful human to be justified before a holy God? The second question was practical: How do we receive God’s gift of forgiveness? And the third question was epistemological: How can I know with any certainty that God has forgiven me?

These three questions plagued Luther personally for much of his career as a monk; and as it turns out, these questions also plagued European society as a whole.

In 1517, if you were to ask a Christian on the street in Wittenburg to answer these questions, you might have heard something like this:

Q: How is it possible for you, a sinful human, to be justified before a holy God?
A: By God’s grace and by great effort, we can be justified.

Q: How do you receive God’s forgiveness?
A: Through sincere penance and buying papal indulgences.

Q: How can you know with any certainty that God has forgiven you?
A: Because the priest has declared me absolved and the pope has issued the indulgence.

Luther was unsatisfied with these answers.

Reflecting on his frustrations with the system of indulgences, Luther wrote, “For however irreproachably I lived as a monk, I felt myself in the presence of God to be a sinner with a most unquiet conscience, nor could I believe that I pleased him with my satisfactions. I did not love, indeed I hated this just God…”

However, while teaching a course on the book of Romans in 1515, Luther received the life-changing revelation that “The righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17).

About this moment, Luther wrote: “I felt that I had been born anew and that the gates of heaven had been opened. The whole of Scripture gained a new meaning. And from that point on the phrase ‘the justice of God’ no longer filled me with hatred, but rather became unspeakably sweet by virtue of a great love.”

For Luther, this revelation gave him new answers to the old questions that had plagued him his entire life.

Q: How is it possible for a sinful human to be justified before a holy God?
A: By God’s grace alone (Sola Gratia). Luther recognized that our justification before God was entirely dependent on His sovereign grace. No good work or human merit could ever accomplish (or even add to) the work of Jesus on the cross. Luther was so convinced of the efficacy of God’s grace in our salvation that he offered this humorous (and slightly dangerous) advice: “Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, aye, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles. We are conquered if we try too conscientiously not to sin at all.”

Q: How do we receive God’s forgiveness?
A: Through faith alone (Sola Fide). Reading Romans, Luther realized that we receive God’s forgiveness by faith. That’s it. We must simply accept that we are accepted because of the work of Jesus on our behalf. On faith, Luther wrote, “Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God’s grace makes you happy, joyful and bold in your relationship to God and all creatures.”

Q: How can we know with certainty that God has forgiven us?
A: God has told us through His Word (Sola Scriptura). And God cannot lie. Luther, who had always struggled with assurance, realized that he could be confident in God’s grace because He could trust God’s Word. For Luther, it was no longer the words of the priest or even the pope that brought assurance but rather the Word of God reminding Him of the truth. On the Bible, Luther wrote, “The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me… A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or a cardinal without it.”

I sometimes wonder how people in our churches would answer Luther’s three big questions in 2017.

Would their answers sound like Luther? Or would they sound more like the man on the street in Wittenburg in 1517?

Whether or not we know the Latin phrases (Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, & Sola Scriptura), my prayer is that every disciple in our churches would know the truth in their hearts that “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Blog / Leadership

Ministry is Partnership with God

October 26, 2017
Speaking at APEC in Pastor Timothy Loh's new building.

Speaking at APEC in Pastor Timothy Loh’s new building.

KUALA LUMPUR—Every October, Deborah and I board a plane for Asia right when Nashville is transitioning from hot, humid summer to cool, beautiful fall weather. Though we are sad to miss the leaves turning and the weather changing, we know we cannot miss Every Nation’s annual Asian Pastors Equipping Conference (APEC). It is always one of the highlights of my year.

This year, APEC is being hosted by Pastor Timothy Loh and our Every Nation churches in Malaysia. We are gathering this week for a time of fellowship, equipping, and prayer. I am always inspired when I hear reports from around Asia of what God is doing among Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and other unreached groups in the region. Some of those reports I can share from the pulpit (or write about in my blog), but for security reasons, most of these stories you will have to hear in heaven (or at APEC next year).

In the opening session of APEC, I spoke from Matthew 4:18-19 about the idea that “God Builds His Kingdom.”

As ministers and leaders, we often see ourselves as the chief builders. But we need to be reminded that we are not the chief builders. God is. Our role is to make disciples. God’s role is to build His kingdom. We labor, but ultimately, God builds (see Psalm 127).

We are not called to work for God; we are called to work with God.

In fact, ministry is partnership with God. We are not servants. We are not contract labor. We are sons and daughters working with our Father in His harvest field.

When we truly understand that ministry is partnership with God, three things will happen:

1. We will be free to dream big. When we buy the enemy’s lie that building our church or our ministry is entirely up to us, we will always end up dreaming small dreams. We will always end up setting manageable goals—things that we think we can accomplish on our own. But when we realize that ministry is partnership with God, then we will be free to embrace God-sized and God-given dreams. Dreams that scare us. Dreams that disrupt our lives. Dreams that we can’t afford on our current church budget. Dreams that require God to come through.

2. We will be free from pride and insecurity. When we buy the enemy’s lie that we are the primary (even the only) builders, then we will be inflated by our successes and deflated by our failures. We will begin to think that church and ministry and leadership is about our glory and not God’s. But when we recognize that God is the chief builder (and we are merely laboring with Him), then we will be delivered from the temptation to find glory in ministry success. “Success” in ministry (baptisms, growth, miracles) has always been and always will be about one thing: God’s glory.

3. We will be free to rest. When we buy the enemy’s lie that everything is up to us, we will never be able to rest. Even when we go through the motions of having a sabbath, we will be restless and anxious—worried about last week’s attendance (and offering), worried about next week’s sermon; and/or worried about failing as a church planter or campus minister. But when we recognize that God has been building His church since before we were born and will keep building until Jesus returns, then we are freed to rest from our labors. Not merely to take a day off once a week, but to find deep soul rest. To rejoice in what He has already done, and to look ahead to what He is going to do in and through our lives as we join in Him in His mission.

Whether we are an ordained senior pastor or a new small group leader, we need to be reminded that the call to discipleship in Matthew 4 is neither a call to supreme leadership (as a chief builder) or to supreme servitude (as a hired laborer)—it is a call to partnership with God as He builds His Kingdom.

Discipleship / Miscellaneous

A Three-Year-Old’s Theology: On Gratitude

October 18, 2017
The Ark Encounter in Kentucky.

The Ark Encounter in Kentucky.

TOKYO AIRPORT — A few weeks ago, I wrote about my granddaughter, Josephine, and her theologically profound comments about tragedy and natural disaster. This was neither the first nor the last time that Josephine’s words have cause me to think deeply about God, the Bible, and life.

This should not surprise us.

In the gospels, we frequently find Jesus making time to be with children. When his disciples would try to push them away, he would say things like this: “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child shall not enter it” (Luke 19:16-17).

What does it mean to receive the kingdom of God like a little child? For one, it involves seriously engaging their thoughts and perspectives about life to see what God might be revealing to us about Himself and His kingdom through their eyes.

I am reminded of this whenever I hear Josephine pray.

Her parents began teaching her to pray as soon as she could talk. And at first, she would simply follow their words as they prayed with her each night and before meals. But recently, she has begun praying on her own. You never really know what she is going to say, except at the beginning of her prayers.

She begins most prayers like this: “Lord, thank you for Noah’s Ark and for Disney World…” Then she goes on to thank God for more normal things like family, friends, her teachers at school, the weather, etc.

Thank you for Noah’s Ark…

This point of gratitude is less bizarre if you know that Noah’s Ark is one of Josephine’s favorite Bible stories. She has Noah’s Ark toys; she has bookmarked Noah’s Ark in her children’s Bible; and she even got to visit the “real thing” in Kentucky with me and Deborah a few months ago.

And for Disney World…

In July after the Build Conference, we took Josephine to Disney World for the first time in her life. Ever since then, she has been obsessed with all things Minnie Mouse. She has Minnie Mouse pajamas, Minnie Mouse dolls, Minnie Mouse ears, Minnie Mouse coloring books, Minnie Mouse socks, etc.

While it might be tempting to write off Josephine’s prayer as three-year-old cuteness and nothing more, I think there is something profound that we can learn about gratitude and the kingdom.

First, we (like Josephine) should thank God more often for Noah’s Ark. His decision to save one man and his family was an act of sovereign grace that changed the course of redemptive history. Of course, Noah’s Ark points to a later, more complete work of redemption in Jesus. But this early story of God’s saving work provides us with a beautiful picture of God’s grace in the face of man’s depravity and God’s care for His creation in the midst of natural disaster. Stories like this are making a gospel imprint on little Josephine’s imagination and should never stop impressing on our imaginations either.

Second, though many adults (including myself) wish Disney World didn’t exist (or at least had shorter lines and less humidity), Josephine’s love of Magic Kingdom demonstrates that all humans—three-year-olds to ninety-three-year-olds—are longing for a kingdom where joy, celebration, awe, and wonder are the norm. We, like Josephine, know that most places are not like Disney World. Most places we inhabit are marked with suffering, futility, and lack. We, like Josephine, long for the coming of God’s kingdom—when every tear will be wiped away, every relationship will be restored, and every heart will be glad. For Josephine, Disney World is one of the closest representations of that kingdom reality (that she has personally experienced), not only because of the castles and real life princesses, but also because her entire family (aunts, uncles, grandparents, parents, etc.) spent the money and endured the heat to make the day special for her.

While the opening words of Josephine’s prayer offer an unexpected juxtaposition (Noah’s Ark and Disney World), they point us to two things we should all thank God for everyday: His redemptive work in history and His coming kingdom.