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Image is Nothing, Integrity is Everything

I recently received a letter addressed to "Apostle Steve Murrel."  The name on the return address didn't ring a bell.  The address, some unheard of town in Florida, was as unfamiliar to me as the sender.  As far as I could remember, I had never heard of the writer or the town.  It was also obvious that the writer didn't know me very well either.  First of all, my name was misspelled (there are supposed to be two "L's" in my last name).  But the real give away was the title: "Apostle Steve."  Anyone who has been around me for very long knows I'm not much for titles, especially high sounding ecclesiastical titles.  My office staff got a good laugh calling me "Apostle Steve" for a day.  I felt dangerously spiritual.

I just happened to be reading through the gospel of Matthew when I received the afore mentioned epistle.  This verse jumped off the page and lodged itself deep in my heart: 

Everything they (the Pharisees) do is done for men to see…    (Matthew 23:5)

Jesus taught that prayer, fasting, and giving should be done in private.  Paul said that we should do everything with all our heart as unto the Lord, not man.  Why do we do the things we do?  Who do we do them for?  Would we still pray, serve, and give even if no human would ever know we did it?  Would we do it if we never got a plaque, a position, a title, or even a pat on the back?  Are we willing to live for the applause of heaven or do we require the applause of man?

…they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues.  They love…to have men call them "Rabbi."    (Matthew 23:6-7)

These verses in Matthew expose the motives of those who do their religion for men to see. 

They desire social status. 
The Pharisees of old had to have the place of honor  in any and every social gathering.  It is a sad fact that many Christians today still crave social status.  They would rather impress Christian Dior than Christ Jesus.  What ever happened to being dead to the world and to not conforming to the pattern of this world?

They demand religious position. 
They have to sit on the platform, on deacon row or at least on the front row.  Modern Pharisees still love the most important seats  in religious meetings.  The same yesterday, today, and forever!

They live for ecclesiastical titles. 
They cared more about being called "Rabbi" than about performing the duties of a Rabbi.  Real ministers will minister whether or not they are given a title.  I did the duties of a pastor for years before anyone ever called me pastor.

Am I saying there is anything wrong with social status, religious position, or ecclesiastical titles?   No.  But, there is something wrong when these become the motivating forces of our lives and ministry.  There is something wrong when we desire to be seen by men.

I remember a Nike commercial many years ago featuring a then young Andre Agassi.  The fast-paced commercial showed Andre making spectacular shot after spectacular shot.  It showed Andre's then signature long hair, multiple earrings, neon shoes, and denim tennis shorts.  With the Nike logo on screen these words appeared:  IMAGE IS EVERYTHING.

Maybe for tennis stars and Pharisees, image is everything.  But, for the Christian, integrity is everything; image is nothing.  We do all we do, not to be seen by men, but to glorify God.  

If You Were in My Shoes

Several years ago, I was in the States eating Mexican food with an old friend who was trying to start a new church. After months of prayer and hard work, the church was getting off to a slow start. People were staying away by the thousands. As I listened to their struggles, my friend put his taco down, looked me square in the eye and said desperately: “If you were in my shoes, what would you do?”


This was not the first church my friend has pastored. His previous church was one of my favorite American churches to preach in. The worship was vibrant. The people were dedicated. The presence of God was real. The church gave generously to world missions. Every time I visited that church, I left refreshed and inspired.


But this new church plant was a different story. The former church was boldly evangelistic with visionary leadership and contemporary worship. For various reasons, my friend decided this new church would adopt traditional worship and a more laid back, non-aggressive leadership style.


It was not working. The church was not growing, my friend was desperate, and he was asking my advice. My first inclination was to recommend the latest church growth book. But I could not think of any that had actually helped me lately.  Besides, this weary pioneer needed more than a book.


The advice that finally sputtered out of my mouth can be summed up in three words: discipleship, worship, and leadership. I am convinced these are essential keys to successful church planting.


1. Discipleship
Discipleship and church planting both must start with evangelism. Since the purpose of planting a new church is to reach the lost, there is no reason to advertise in Christian magazines, on Christian radio stations, or on Christian TV. The easiest and worst way to start a new church is by gathering Christian nomads. The hardest and healthiest way to start a new church is by reaching the lost.


Discipleship is evangelism that does not end at the altar. Discipleship starts with evangelism, but it doesn’t end there. It is much easier to gather crowds than to make disciples. I told my friend that I would focus on discipling a small group of men. I would teach them how to be faithful husbands and godly fathers.  I would show them how to pray, how to study the Bible, and how to be effective witnesses to their lost friends and family. Discipleship is hard and slow, but it is the only way I know to grow a healthy church.


2. Worship
My second piece of church planting advice concerned worship. I believe the church should be a place where the presence and power of God is undeniable and irresistible. Worship happens when people freely express their love to God. This is what church is all about. It is not about music style, but about focusing our attention and affection on Jesus.  I encouraged my friend to figure out who he was trying to reach and find a music style that those people could relate to. But, whatever the music style, the worship must be Christ-centered and excellent.


3. Leadership

My final word to my fellow church planter was that churches, especially new churches, need strong leadership. Nations need presidents. Armies need generals. Sports teams need coaches. Families need fathers. Sheep need shepherds. Whatever you think you are—apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, or teacher—you must be a leader to be a successful church planter.

So, what would I do to get a struggling church plant off the ground? I would stick to the time-tested basics of discipleship, worship, and leadership. Nothing new and novel, just the "same old boring strokes."

Hold the Ropes

The date was January 19. The year: 1888. The place: Toronto, Canada. The old, historic Knox Church was filled to capacity. Excitement was in air. The young man and his new bride were addressing their home church for the last time before being sent to an African mission field known then as “The White Man’s Grave.”

“My wife and I have a strange dread in going.” The young man spoke soberly. “We feel much as if we were going down into a pit. We are willing to take the risk and go if you, our home circle, will promise to hold the ropes.”

This brave young couple instinctively knew that they were engaging in dangerous business. They knew the stakes were high and they couldn’t do it alone. They were asking for help. In the inspiration and anointing of the moment, the people responded heroically. Everyone present promised to pray, to support, to stand with their missionaries as they attempted to advance the borders of God’s Kingdom. They committed themselves to become prayer partners for this young missionary couple. I’m sure they were sincere in their intentions to pray. Unfortunately, sincerity just doesn’t cut it on the frontlines.

Within two years, his wife and new baby were buried in “The White Man’s Grave” in Africa. When this brave young missionary contacted the same fatal fever and realized he, too, was dying, he decided to return to Canada without informing a single person. As destiny would have it, he arrived at the church precisely at the time of the Wednesday night prayer meeting. No one noticed as he slipped in and sat on the back pew. As the prayer meeting dutifully crawled to its close, he went forward. The people were in complete shock as this emaciated broken shell of a man began to speak.

“I am your missionary. My wife and child are buried in Africa and I have come home to die. This evening I listened anxiously, as you prayed, for some mention of your missionary to see if you were keeping your promise, but in vain! You prayed for everything connected with yourselves and your home church, but you forgot your missionary. I see now why I am a failure as a missionary. It is because you have failed to hold the ropes!

Could the lack of prayer really be the reason for this dedicated man’s failure as a missionary? Could the prayerlessness of his home church really be the reason he lost his wife and child? “Holding the ropes” is serious business, especially when the gospel is being taken into hostile territory.

All of us, I am sure, have promised to hold some ropes for some young men and women who have responded literally to the command to forsake all and follow. They are giving the prime of their lives to the honor of God and the advancement of His Kingdom. Their obedience has landed them in distant and sometimes dangerous lands. They are doing their part. How about us? Are we faithfully holding the ropes?

Being a house of prayer for trivial needs is not enough. The Church is called to become a house of prayer for all nations. Dare we presume to impact nations apart from prayer? Dare we send men and women to foreign nations, lambs among wolves without proper prayer support?

If you have grown tired of holding the ropes for your missionaries, let this be your wake-up call. Their success—sometimes their very lives—depends on our prayers.

Why not take the next ten minutes and hold the ropes for your missionaries? It will be the best-spent ten minutes of your day.

Hard Work and the Grace of God

Several years ago after “talent day” at Faith Academy, a couple of moms told Deborah and I how impressed they were with one of our son’s piano playing.  According to them, he was light-years ahead of their kids.  One mom wished that her daughter had been “blessed with a musical gift like our boys.” 
 
Gift?  Yeah, right.  My sons were gifted with a mother who made them practice piano an hour everyday before they could go to the tennis courts or pick up a paint brush, drum stick, guitar, or any other recreational hobby. That kind of gifting is also called discipline.

Even genuine spiritual gifts require hard work.  I have a “gift of teaching.”  Does that mean that I don’t have to read and study?  Does that mean that I don’t have to constantly develop better communication skills?  On the contrary, the gift is actually the cause of all the hard work.


One recent visitor commented after a few days in our apartment that I was “sure working hard.”  He was right.  I do work hard.  I’ve worked very hard for the twenty-two years I’ve lived in Manila.  Why have I had to work so hard?  Because God has poured out so much grace here, there’s always a lot to do.  If not for God’s grace, I’d have nothing to do. 

I learned hard work from my dad.  He was from the “old school,” believing that able-bodied teenagers should work a job.  I’ll never forget the first summer job he lined up for my brother and me. We spent the whole hot Mississippi summer literally working as ditch diggers.  We worked for minimum wage, putting in underground phone cables while our friends were out water-skiing. The next summer, my dad lined up an “indoor” job for me—loading and unloading boxcars in an un-airconditioned warehouse.  I longed to get outside and feel the cool 95º Mississippi summer air.  Inside, it was usually over 100!  Hard work indeed.      

I fear many in ministry have an unhealthy confusion about grace and hard work.  These concepts are not mutually exclusive.  They are both essential to success in ministry, to church growth, and to making disciples.  Grace and hard work are also key ingredients to success in marriage and child training.

Here’s how Paul reconciled hard work and the grace of God: 
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 1 Corinthians 15:10

Paul’s response to the grace of God in his life was to work “harder than them all,” not just to hang around as if God’s grace is a divine excuse for man’s sloth.  Jesus was not too gracious with the one-talent guy who failed to produce any fruit.  He went right to the heart of this lack of productivity: LAZINESS.

“His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed?” Matthew 25:26
As usual with Jesus, harvest was the real issue. Today, the harvest is plentiful, but the WORKERS are few.  Why?  Maybe because so many people have an aversion to hard work. They’d rather sit around, do nothing, and call it grace.
I close with one of my all-time favorite promises from Proverbs: Diligent hands will rule, but laziness ends in slave labor (Proverbs 12:24).
May God grant us the grace to have diligent hands in all we do.

This article was first published in the January/February 2006 issue of Ministry Digest.

Full-time is Not a Calling

“Pastor, I want to be full-time.” I had no idea what he wanted when he set the appointment with me, but I certainly was not expecting this. 

“Full-time what?” I asked.

“I don’t know, just full-time, like you, I guess.” He was relatively new in church and probably had no clue what I actually did on a daily basis. 

“So you want to minister.” I was trying to make ministry, not full-time, the point. 

“Yeah, like you and Jun and Ferdie.” 

“What exactly do you want to do in ministry?” 

“I don’t know, anything full-time, I guess.” Anything but stay in school, I thought to myself. 

“How long until you graduate?” 

“I’m tired of school, I want to go full-time now.” As the conversation went on, I discovered he was struggling in a couple of classes, thus the urgency to be a full-time minister. 

I tried to explain to my friend that there was no calling to be “full-time” mentioned anywhere in the Bible, but that every Christian was to represent Christ “full-time” no matter where their paycheck came from—whether they were a student, a teacher, a factory worker, or the factory owner. I am pretty sure he did not understand what I was saying. Like many, he assumed that if one really loves God wholeheartedly, then that means “full-time ministry” is the best career path. 

I have met many people who are “in the ministry” or on the church payroll who don’t seem to actually minister to people very often or very effectively. Isn’t it more important to minister to people no matter where we work, than to be “in the ministry”? It is quite common to meet missionaries who do little mission work, but they are full-time missionaries living on the mission field with mission support simply because they felt “called to be missionaries.” I think having a mission from God and actually doing mission work is much more important than “being a missionary.” 

For the Apostle Paul, ministering God’s Word and ministering to people were more important than being in the ministry. There were times he made tents for a living, but still ministered to people, and there were times he did ministry for a living while he ministered to people. For Paul, the big issue was not whether he paid his bills through the tithes and offerings or the proceeds from tent sales; the big issue was doing ministry. 

David was certainly called by God, yet he was never in the “full-time ministry.” In his day, full-timers included priests, Levites, and prophets. David was none of these. He was a shepherd, a musician, a soldier, and eventually ended up in politics, but he was never a priest, a Levite, or a prophet. God called him and used him mightily, throughout his “secular” careers. 

Joseph was also called and used by God, but was never “in the ministry.” He was in jail, but not in the ministry. He was a houseboy for a rich family, but not a full-time minister. He held a high cabinet position in a pagan government, but he was not paid through “love offerings.” He was used by God to save his family and his people, but it took them many years to recognize that God was indeed working through Joseph.  I suppose there are many people like Joseph today who are quietly going about their daily jobs, and sometime in the future we will all realize that God planted them there for our good and for the good of our nation. What they are doing now seems quite ordinary, but since God is in it, one day we will see the big picture and realize God was actually working through the mundane to accomplish something extraordinary, using the secular to do something spiritual.  

Daniel was an excellent student and an advisor to a ruler, but not a full-time minister. He certainly represented God in everything he did and said, but he was not officially “working for the ministry.” He served God by serving an ungodly government leader. Because of the way Daniel did his job, God got glory and the nation was transformed. It took many years, but that is often how God does things. He is generally more patient than we are. 

May God give us more people like Paul, David, Joseph, and Daniel—people who serve and represent God full-time no matter where they work, people who are more concerned with actually doing ministry than with having a ministry calling card, people who have ministry in them even if they are not officially in the ministry. 

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Jesus Christ you are serving.      

Colossians 3:23,24

Freedom from the Stomach God

“I’ve been set free! This book has set me free!”

This was the first sign of life Roberto had shown since our pastor had encouraged our church to join the multi-denominational nation-wide three days of prayer and fasting for the upcoming elections. He enthusiastically waved a small book above his head: “Steve, you have to read this book! It set me free!”

The book was about fasting, written by a well-known faith teacher. “How could a book about fasting invoke such an enthusiastic response, especially from Roberto?” I silently muttered. “At least he’ll stop acting like he’s going to starve to death during our fast.”

“Look, man.” He opened the book and held it right in my face. I wondered what was in it that had “set him free.” 

“I used to think fasting was important,” he explained to me, “until I read this book. Now I’m free!”

Now I got it. He was freed from fasting. The premise of the book was that fasting was an Old Testament way of getting God’s attention. That was law. This is grace. All we do now is “pray the prayer of faith.” No need to travail. No need to persevere. Forget Luke 11 and the principle of asking, seeking, and knocking. Forget Luke 18 and the parable of the persistent widow. No need for extended times of intercession. “Just use your faith and confess the word, brother, and all mountains will move.”

Well, I’ve been set free, too. Not by Roberto’s book, but by the truth of God’s Word. Not free from fasting, but free to fast. Set free from the “stomach god” that Paul mentioned in Philippians 3:19.

Here’s what Jesus said about fasting:

“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

There are two words in these verses I want to comment on. The first word is when. Jesus seems to assume His followers would fast. He didn’t say: “If you guys ever happen to fast . . .” He said: “When you fast . . .”

The second is reward. Jesus promised rewards for those who fast properly. Following are seven rewards of fasting:

  1. Fasting turns back God’s wrath and judgment. Moses records that God was angry enough to destroy Aaron and the children of Israel because of their golden calf idol (Deuteronomy 9:18-20). But, as we know, God’s wrath was turned back after Moses fasted and prayed. There has been much said and written the past few years about God’s wrath and judgment on different nations. I’m convinced that Christians can turn back God’s judgment through fasting and prayer. Of course that will never happen unless God’s people get more concerned about the next generation than their next meal.
  2. Fasting releases prophetic strategies for victory. The Moabites, Amonites, and several other hostile nations were arrayed against Israel. (See 2 Chronicles 20:1-30.) King Jehoshaphat called for a fast. You know you are in a desperate situation when a guy known as JehoshaPHAT calls for a fast. During the fast, a prophetic word was given that laid out God’s strategy for this particular battle. “No swords. No shields. No spears. Get your tambourines ready, we’re going to war!” I’m sure there were some battle-hardened warriors who thought that word was way off. After all, “We’ve never fought a battle like that before.” As always, God knew best. If we are willing to skip a few meals, we may receive prophetic strategies to influence our cities for God’s glory. They may be new and untried strategies, but if they are from God, we can be confident they will work.
  3. Fasting activates and mobilizes people and provision for God’s work. Nehemiah’s building project was preceded by corporate fasting. Would it have been as successful without the fasting? I don’t think so. In 1984, God opened the door for our fledgling church to have its own (rented) building in Manila’s crowded University-Belt through fasting.  Each time our church has expanded to a new building to own or rent, a vital part of our fund-raising strategy has been prayer and fasting.
  4. Fasting releases wisdom and favor. Daniel and his friends went on a partial fast (vegetables and water only). At the end of the fast, they were compared with the rest of the young men of Babylon. The results are recorded in Daniel 1:20. In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom. Would you like to be ten times better than your competitors? Just lay off the pizza for a few days and seek God wholeheartedly.
  5. Fasting clarifies and redirects callings and ministries. Paul, Barnabas, and a few other Antioch church leaders were meeting together, and while they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said: set apart for me Barnabas . . . (Acts 13:1-3). While they were fasting, the Holy Spirit spoke. Would He have spoken this new direction even if they had not fasted? Probably. The real question is: Would they have been sensitive enough to hear the Holy Spirit speak if they had not fasted? Maybe. Maybe not. Are you seeking God for a new direction in your life or ministry? Good time to fast.
  6. Fasting breaks demonic strongholds. On one occasion, the disciples unsuccessfully attempted to cast out a demon. When they asked Jesus why they had failed, He responded:  this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting (Matthew 17:21). This seems to indicate that there are certain demonic situations that, for one reason or another, can only be defeated through fasting. Isaiah said that true fasting will loose chains . . . untie the cords of yoke . . . set the oppressed free and break every yoke (Isaiah 58:6). Have you ever encountered a stubborn demonic situation? Maybe it’s the kind that only goes out by prayer and fasting.
  7. Fasting increases spiritual power. Luke records that Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit and that He was led by the Spirit.  After His forty day fast, He returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit (Luke 4:1,14). How many Christians do you know who are full of the Spirit and led by the Spirit, but do not walk in the power of the Spirit? Need more power? Spiritual power is one of the rewards of fasting.

Thousands of our church members start each year with seven days of corporate prayer and fasting. During the fast, we have noon and nightly prayer meetings each day. God’s Word promises a reward to those who fast. The following are a few of the rewards people reported during a recent week of fasting.

“Today, I received the largest purchase order in the history of my business.”

“Before, I couldn’t open my mouth all the way. Now my jaw is completely healed!”

“Someone called my wife and said that God had spoken to them to pay the whole amount of our Couple’s Retreat registration. Then, the next morning another person said God told them to give my wife some cash.”

“All my life I’ve been afraid of small, dark, enclosed places. Tonight, I was the last one to leave the library on my campus. Normally, I would be terrified in that situation. No more! I’ve been delivered from claustrophobia.”

“I’m in the process of raising my support to be a missionary overseas, and last night, someone I didn’t even know approached me after the prayer meeting and said he would pay for my whole airfare.”

These are just a few of the tangible rewards people received during our fast. There were many more physical healings and financial provisions. More than that, there were countless spiritual breakthroughs. May we all declare war on the “stomach god” and, unlike Roberto, be set free to fast.

(Note: We encourage only healthy adults to fast. If you are pregnant or nursing, you should not fast. If you have any medical condition, you should check with your doctor before fasting.)

© 2012 Steve Murrell

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