Date archives 2011

Blog / Discipleship

Are You Following God or Man?

Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. (Genesis 12:4)

Abram followed God. Lot followed Abram. Abram went where God said to go. Lot went where Abram went.

There is a big difference in following God and following a godly leader who is following God. Are you following God or are you following godly people as they follow God?

Abram ended up in the Promise Land. Lot ended up in Sodom. You don't have to be an Old  Testament scholar to know that the Promise Land is better than Sodom.

If Lot started out following Abram, how did he end up in Sodom?

Lot's first step in the wrong direction was to pitch his tents NEAR Sodom even though he knew the people of Sodom were wicked and were sinning greatly against the Lord. (Genesis 13:12,13)

After living near Sodom for a while, it was only a matter of time before Lot was living IN Sodom (Genesis 14:12).

I guess following godly people is better than following ungodly people, but it falls short of God's best.

Are you following God's will for your life, or are you simply following godly people? Are you comfortably living near wickedness? Or are you following God to your Promise Land?

Blog / Missions

What is the Source of Corruption and Evil in Society?

Our modern victim culture teaches that people are corrupt because society is corrupt. In other words, people are products of their surroundings. Good societies produce good people. Evil societies produce evil people. We are not at fault. We are basically good people in bad environments. We are victims.

While that idea makes us feel good about ourselves, it is the polar opposite of what God's word teaches. Consider Genesis 6.

Verse 11 Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight and was full of violence (Why was the earth corrupt and violent? Read the next verse…)

Verse 12 God saw how corrupt the earth had become, FOR ALL THE PEOPLE on earth HAD CORRUPTED THEIR WAYS.

Did you get that? The earth became corrupt because the "people had corrupted their ways." Societies are corrupted by corrupt people, not the other way around. We are not victims of corruption; we are perpetrators of corruption. We are the root cause.

If God wanted to put an instant end to evil and corruption in the world all He would have to do is kill every man, woman, boy and girl. Get rid of the source and the corruption problem is solved.

We are the reason for all corruption.

We are also the reason He came to earth in human flesh, lived a sinless life, died a sacrificial death, rose from the grave and now offers the free gift of eternal life.

Thank God for the gospel that frees us from the temporal chains and eternal consequences of our own corruption.

Blog / Church / Missions

7 Truths About the Gospel

After decades of being ignored and/or distorted, the gospel seems to be making a come-back in the Western Church, and that is a good trend. Pulpits that used to feature anemic man-centered self-help sermons are again aflame with powerful Christ-honoring gospel-centered preaching. This new generation of church planters, pastors and preachers are not ashamed of the gospel. Like Paul, they preach it over and over and over. They never get tired of it. Neither did Paul. He mentioned the word "gospel" six times in the first chapter of Romans, revealing seven truths about the gospel we are supposed to preach:

1. Paul was set apart for the gospel. (Rom 1:1) Paul was not primarily called to social justice, political reform or Christian education. While those are important, the gospel is central and essential. All the good that has been accomplished through our church in terms of social justice and helping the poor has been rooted in and empowered by the preaching of the gospel.

2. The gospel was promised beforehand by the prophets. (Rom 1:2) Paul did not create the gospel. His message was not new. He faithfully preached what the prophets of old had promised – a seamless continuity of God's message.  

3. Paul served God by preaching the gospel. (Rom 1:9) In some circles it is popular to question the validity of preaching the gospel unless it is rooted in relationship and preceded by improving social conditions. To Paul, preaching the gospel was serving God.

4. Paul was eager to preach the gospel. (Rom 1:15) Eager, enthusiastic, motivated, dedicated, committed. To the wise and the foolish, to the Greeks and non-Greeks, to those in Judea and in Rome. The gospel was central to Paul's calling and to his lifestyle. It was also the central cause of his persecution, but let's not dwell on that for now. 

5. Paul was not ashamed of the gospel. (Rom 1:16) Paul was ashamed of sin, but not the gospel. Today many Christians seem ashamed of the gospel, but comfortable with sin.

6. The gospel is the power of God for salvation. (Rom 1:16) Salvation requires the power of God, not the effort of man. Self-righteous good deeds are powerless. Life-changing power is only found in the gospel.

7. The gospel is about the righteousness of God. (Rom 1:17) God's righteousness is not earned or deserved. It is revealed, in the gospel.

Note to pastors and all believers who are making disciples in small groups: Be like Paul and PREACH THE GOSPEL, OVER AND OVER AND OVER AND OVER.

Blog / Discipleship / Missions

How to Experience the Nearness of God

Christmas morning. Sure is quit around here. Not like the joyful noisy early morning chaos when we had three small sons and way too many gifts under the tree. Those days are long gone. We now have three adult sons who are sleeping late today. And we have a grand total of five gifts under the tree.

On this peacefully silent Christmas morning I’m reading Acts and thinking about “Immanuel… GOD WITH US” (Matthew 1:23)

Do you ever feel far from God, like Emmanuel is not particularly close? We all do at times.

Acts 23:11 says, “The following night THE LORD STOOD NEAR Paul…”

Why did He STAND NEAR Paul and often seems to stand so far from us?

Maybe because we live such safe and comfortable lives that we don’t think we need Him all that close all the time. Paul’s life was so unsafe and uncomfortable that he needed God close in order to survive each day.

Here’s what prompted the Lord to stand near Paul, this time…

“The dispute (between the Pharisees & Sadducees) became SO VIOLENT THAT THE COMMANDER WAS AFRAID PAUL WOULD BE TORN TO PIECES by them. He ordered the troops to go down and take him away from them by force and bring him into the barracks. (Acts 23:10)

You want God near? Want to feel His presence?

Simple. Get out of your comfort zone, get on mission, take a step of faith and watch what happens – religious people will get mad and the Lord will stand near.

Blog / Family

Our Christmas Eve Disaster

This was originally written for Evangelicals Today magazine, about 19 yrs ago. Since then it has been hidden deep in my archive file (random thoughts), along with piles of other ancient documents and occasionally re-posted around Christmas time. Thought some of you, especially those with small children, might find it helpful this time of the year…

’Twas the night before Christmas, and the scene of the crime was Savannah, Georgia. The year was 1989. William was three and a half. James was one and a half. Jonathan was still inside trying to kick his way out.

This was the year William realized that Christmas meant gifts. He knew that at my in-laws’ house, the gifts are divided into piles. All those that say “To William” are put in a pile together. All the “To James” gifts are put together. Once all the gifts have been put in the right pile, they are opened one at a time beginning with the youngest and continuing to the oldest. This meant that James was first, then William, then older cousins, uncles and aunts, then Mom, Dad, and finally, grandparents.

We had attempted to teach our boys the true meaning of Christmas. We had recited the story of the incarnation over and over. We didn’t expect much from James, but we assumed that William understood that it was better to give than to receive. After all, Jesus was born because God so loved the world that He gave . . . That’s what Christmas is all about—giving.

What happened that night let us know that our children had completely missed the point, and that we had to adjust the way we would celebrate Christmas in the future.

All William wanted for Christmas that year was a bow and arrow. His little mind was made up. He knew what he wanted and he would not be denied. He prayed to God for it, and just to be sure, he pleaded to us for it.

One day, to make sure I understood his request, he said, “Daddy, I want real arrows.”

“Real arrows?” I asked, wondering what kind of damage a three-year old would do with real arrows.

“Yeah, you know the kind with the red rubber things on the end. Real ones, not just toys.” He was serious about this. “You mean the kind that sticks to windows if you lick ’em before shooting?” I responded, hoping I knew what he meant by real ones.

“Yeah! Like in Toys-R-Us.”

Back to the Christmas Eve crime scene in Georgia.  Here’s what happened. James was first to open his gifts. Like all 18 month olds, he was more impressed with the colorful boxes and ribbons than with the contents.

Then came William's turn. As James continued to play with bows and boxes, William anxiously ripped through his first gift in world-record time. He completely ignored the contents and immediately tore into the next one. (At least James played with the boxes.) He only got the wrapping paper half way off this one before tossing it aside and grabbing the next one.

Deborah and I discerned that something was wrong here. “William, maybe you should say thanks and at least act like you appreciate these gifts. What’s wrong with you?”

On the verge of tears, he said, “I thought I would get a bow and arrow, with real arrows. That’s all I wanted, and I didn’t get it. I got all this other stuff instead.”

He did get a bow with real (rubber-tipped) arrows, but it was buried under a mountain of shredded green and red wrapping paper.

That was quite a memorable and frustrating Christmas for us. We knew something was wrong, but we weren’t sure just how to fix it.

A few months later, I read a book that described the scene you just read about, only it was happening in another city to another family with small kids. It was sure comforting to know that our experience was not unique. Right now, I can’t seem to remember the name of the book or the author. Anyway, this guy in the book not only had the same problem, but he had identified the root of the problem and had come up with the solution. It was so simple. It opened our eyes and changed the way we have approached Christmas since the disaster of ’89.

On that fateful Christmas Eve I described above, William was upset (and a bit ungrateful) because he thought he didn’t get a bow with real arrows. The root of the problem is in the word “get.” His focus was on what he would get. We will always have a problem when we focus on what we get. Christmas (and life) is all about giving, not getting. The greatest joy in fulfillment comes as we give.

The guy in the book solved the problem by putting the emphasis on what each child was to give, not on what they were to get. We adopted that idea, and it has served us well.  In 1989, we asked William what he wanted to get for Christmas. He wanted to get a bow with real arrows. Christmas Eve came around. It was William’s turn to open gifts. All he could think about was what he would get. He was totally oblivious to what others were getting and to what others had given. We had helped him miss the whole point.

From then on, rather than asking our children what they want to get, we ask them what they want to give – their brothers, their relatives, and friends. For the weeks building up to Christmas, our children are focused on what they will give rather than what they will get.

Now, when gift opening time comes at the Murrell house, we put all William’s gifts in a pile, all James’ in a pile, all Jonathan’s in a pile. We separate Mom’s and Dad’s into piles of their own.

In William’s pile are all the gifts that say “From William” on the tag. In James’s pile are all those that say “From James.” The “From Jonathan” gifts are in another pile, as are the “From Mom” and the “From Dad.”

Once all the gifts are in the piles, each person can now take his turn to give all his gifts. This way, the focus is on giving rather than getting. Over the next few years our boys learned to be just as excited about giving as getting.

They have discovered that it really can be more blessed to give than to receive.

Blog / Church / Missions

7 Elements of A Healthy Church

I have about 30 minutes for this blog while I wait for my Atlanta to Lima, Peru flight.

As usual I will hit the ground running – four days of training pastors and church planters. The goal of this trip is to help Peruvian pastors understand how to lead a healthy church.

For four days we will discuss and dissect the following seven essential elements for a healthy church.

1. DISCIPLESHIP PROCESS. A simple, duplicable, transferrable and Biblical discipleship process is the starting line if we want a healthy church rather than a religious crowd.

2. EMPOWERING LEADERSHIP. It is not enough for a church to have great leaders. In fact, a strong leader can be a weakness, if that leader is not empowering. Healthy churches empower multiple generations of leaders rather than creating a "Man of God Syndrome" where paid professionals do all the ministry.

3. ENGAGING WORSHIP SERVICES. This is much more than good music. Essential elements of inspiring and engaging worship services include: anointed songs, excellent music, dynamic preaching, theological depth, relevant communication, spiritual power, presence of God, relational connection.

4. FUNCTIONAL STRUCTURES. Too many church leaders act as if organizational excellence and spiritual life are mutually exclusive. On the contrary, well-developed ministry roles and clearly defined lines of authority actually enhance spiritual life.

5. MISSION ALIGNMENT. For a church that is part of network, fellowship, movement or denomination commitment to the corporate mission, vision and values is essential. For churches in Every Nation Ministries, that means a commitment to church planting, campus ministry and world mission.

6. HEALTHY RELATIONSHIPS. It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of relationships. Key relationships that must be healthy include: the pastor and his wife and kids, the pastor and his peers, the pastor and his local leadership team, the pastor and his mentors.

7. FINANCES. Money does not make a church healthy, but an unbiblical view of money will make a church unhealthy. Integrity, generosity and wisdom are the foundations if healthy money management in a church context.

That's it. Gotta run to gate A7…

Blog / Church / Discipleship

Church Growth: Are You Playing the Numbers Game?

A couple of decades ago when I was a fledgling church-planter, I didn't have a clue what I was doing, but I didn't let that stop me. In those days church growth was all the rage. I read church growth books and took a pilgrimage to Korea in an attempt to learn how to grow a church. I think my primary motive was love for the lost, probably mixed with a bit of self-absorbed insecurity and youthful ignorance.

Early on I had this idea that as long as there was one lost person in my city, then my church was not big enough. I still think that way, and I hope I never get over my obsessive compassion for the lost.

While church growth books and seminars seem to now be out of style in most Western circles, I remain convinced that un-churched, de-churched and anti-church people still matter to God, and they should matter to us. I am convinced that we are supposed to do our best to engage our communities with the gospel. If we do a decent job of engaging, our churches will grow. And, that is a good thing, whether our growth is organic, organized or orchestrated.

Anyone concerned with growth will eventually have to deal with numbers. The trick is to figure out which numbers really matter and which numbers don't.

Many church leaders make the mistake of thinking that the two numbers that matter the most are the offering amount and Sunday attendance. Those two numbers often deceive us and never tell the whole story.

Yesterday I received a year end report from my Manila office that contained a lot of numbers about our church (Victory). Some of those numbers were vital, others were simply interesting. Here are 3 of the most important numbers on that report and why they matter to us: 91, 5009, 4183.

91 WORSHIP SERVICES in 16 Metro Manila venues with 58 preaching pastors. Victory is a multi-site multi-service multi-generational church that meets all over Metro Manila. Because leadership development is important to us, we do not use digital sermons, only live preachers. So, for us to grow from 80 services in 14 locations to 91 services in 16 locations, we had to identify, instruct and empower new preachers, kids pastors, worship leaders, head ushers and other leaders. Because we increased the number of venues and worship services, our attendance increased 31.4% from 2010 to 2011. We have averaged about 30% annual growth for 10 consecutive years. But, the most important number is not how many show up, but how many we raise up to places of leadership. That's why discipleship numbers are so important…

5009 DISCIPLESHIP GROUPS (called "Victory Groups") meeting weekly in Metro Manila. That number is probably the most important number we track. It is the foundation of every other number that matters. 5009 represents a 41.8% increase in 12 months. That's a good number and that's good news! We also saw a 29.2% increase (from 1,827 to 2,360) in Training for Victory participation, which is a foundational part of our discipleship training track.

4183 BAPTISMS in 2011. Another important number. Most of our baptisms are conducted at Victory Weekend which had a 71.3% 2010 to 2011 increase from 3149 to 5393 participants.

Are you playing the numbers game? I hope you are, as long as you are tracking the right numbers.

Depending on what kind of church you want to be, some numbers will be more important than others. For us, numbers reflecting evangelism, discipleship and leadership development are the most important numbers we track. The unavoidable and eventual result of evangelism, discipleship and leadership numbers increasing will be more people showing up at our worship services and more money in the offerings.

SUMMARY: Stop obsessing over nickles and noses and start making disciples.

Blog / Family

My 2011 Top 10 Christmas Movies

Since Christmas movies have been playing all week, I thought it was time to update and post my annual Top 10 Must-See Christmas Movie List. Here's last year's list. And here's my 2011 list:

10. The Family Man (2000) – A modern version of the best Christmas movie ever (see my #1) starring Nicolas Cage, before he got in IRS trouble and started making lousy movies. Bonus: Don Cheadle is the best angel since Clarence. 

9. Joyeux Noel (2006) – Last Christmas our oldest son introduced us to this Oscar-nominated true story of German, French & Scottish troops in WWI who called a ceasefire on Christmas Eve. Peace on Earth, at least for a night. 

8. Bells of St Mary's (1945) – Bing Crosby as a priest. Ingrid Bergman as a nun. The movie is a bit slow at times, but the 5 minute 1st grade Christmas pageant is worth watching over and over. 

7. Elf (2003) – Opening scene with Sr Elf, Bob Newhart, reading the intro story about different types of elves is worth the price of the DVD.

6. Christmas in Connecticut (1945) – Black and white classic that never gets old.

5. The Nativity Story (2006) – What The Passion of the Christ is to Holy Week, this movie is to Christmas.

4. Christmas Vacation (1989) – It doesn't really feel like Christmas until Cousin Eddie shows up.

3. Die Hard (1988) – Some doubt this is a Christmas movie, but the whole thing took place during an office Christmas party. Bonus: Hans Gruber is the best movie bad guy ever.

2. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) – Wish they still made them like this. Bonus: one of my all-time fav soundtracks, real Jazz on a Christmas album.

1. It's a Wonderful Life (1946) – THE Christmas classic of all Christmas classics.

PS: Every year after I post my updated list, I get comments asking why A Christmas Story is not on my list. Here's the simple answer: because it's my list and I hate that movie.