3 Hard Questions for Preachers

TOKYO AIRPORT. Preaching the Gospel is privilege. It is also a burden. And a calling. I have been a preacher since 1982. I love my job. I love to read, study, teach, and preach. Every day I am thankful that I get to do what I love. I am not a natural communicator. I have had to work hard to develop whatever teaching and preaching skills I have.

Over the years my preaching style has changed a few times. Originally I was a topical list preacher. I would find random verses about grace, faith, or whatever the topic, and preach away. After about ten years of that, I started exegetical teaching/preaching. I spent two years preaching my way through the Book of Mark on Sunday mornings. I spent a year on Acts, six months on 1 Corinthians. Then I taught my way through shorter books like Jonah, Ephesians, Galatians, Philippians, and James. For the past ten years I have done team prep and team preaching. Hopefully each change has been an upgrade. If you are a teacher or preacher I hope you are constantly upgrading your craft.

Before getting on my Manila to Tokyo to Minneapolis to Nashville flight, I met with some of our best Filipino preachers to discuss concerns and pitfalls of preachers and preaching. Here are some of the questions we asked ourselves.

1. ARE OUR PREACHERS MAKING DISCIPLES? Are preachers doing the work of the ministry? Are they ministering to people and making disciples in small groups? Or are they spending all week in their study with a pile of books? I am not suggesting that study is unimportant. Quite the contrary, but we must study people as well as the Bible. The more we connect with people and their pain, the better preachers we will become. The goal is to make disciples. Preaching is an important part of the disciple-making process, but it is only a part not the whole.

2. ARE OUR PREACHERS CARRYING THE BURDEN? Are preachers carrying the weight of the ministry? Are they shouldering the pressure of the budget, the vision, the values, the mission? Or are they simply communicating pre-packaged points? Last Sunday while preaching at Victory-Makati, I felt an overwhelming burden that I had 35 minutes to connect with those in the congregation. I had a heavy burden because the topic was so important. I was not just communicating information, I was preaching a sermon that had the potential to shape, redirect, and change lives. That is a heavy burden.

3. ARE OUR PREACHERS PREPARING THEIR OWN HEARTS? Preparing a sermon to preach is the easy part. Preparing our hearts to preach is difficult and often painful. I sometimes wonder if the time preachers spend working on slick Powerpoint and Keynote presentations, would be better spent on their faces before God. I also wonder if modern preachers spend too much time researching illustrations to make people laugh, rather than time searching the Scriptures for the original meaning of the text. Powerpoint pictures and funny stories do not change lives. God’s word brings change because it is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”

I get to work in Nashville, Manila, and around the world with some really great preachers. The reason they are so good, is because they constantly ask themselves the hard questions.

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.  James 3:1 ESV

It pleased God through the folly of what we preached to save those who believe.  1 Corinthians 1:21

How to Create a Healthy Environment for Growth

I was recently talking to a pastor whose church was leaking people. As soon as a family joined the church, another family vanished. As we were trying discover the cause of the leak, I made up the following three points on the spot. I told my friend that as a leader, it is his responsibility to create and maintain a healthy environment for growth. Here’s the environment leaders must work for, pray for, and lead toward.

1. A sense of God’s PRESENCE must be experienced together. Spiritual leaders must value God’s presence as Moses did. “If your presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here.” (Exodus 33:15) As leaders we don’t create God’s presence, but we can plan and lead meetings that enable people to encounter God in a meaningful way. We can also plan and lead meetings in ways that obstruct meaningful encounters with God. Components of corporate worship that contribute to experiencing God’s presence include, but are not limited to the following: transformational preaching (vs. information transfer), empowered ministry time (vs. pastor doing all ministry), participatory worship (vs. concert-styled performance). If people do not experience God’s presence at our church, they will find another church.

2. A sense of MISSION must be accomplished together. People need to feel like their church is making the world a better place. Many churches are doing great things in regard to mission, but if their mission accomplishments are secrets, then the people will look elsewhere for their sense of mission. Healthy churches do local mission to the underprivileged and global mission to the unreached, they involve as many people as possible, then they over communicate so everyone can celebrate mission together.

3. A sense of COMMUNITY must be built together. All people need community. Some find it in church, many do not. Church community is best experienced through small group discipleship, corporate worship, and missional service. I recently blogged about the idea of mission creating community. 

All three components of a healthy church environment are essential. If two are strong and the other is weak, we will leak people in the weak area. How is your church or campus ministry doing in these three aspects of healthy environment? Where are you strong and where do you need an upgrade?

 

Confessions of an Arrogant Calvinist

MANILA. I once knew an arrogant young Calvinist who took great pride in his Reformed pedigree: saved as a teenager at First Presbyterian Church, while in high school attended Bible studies on the hallowed campus of Reformed Theological Seminary, bought his first study Bible in the RTS bookstore, took classes at RTS (but got too busy doing mission and never graduated). This guy was throughly Reformed, and equally arrogant. Had all the answers. Had it all figured out. Then life happened and he realized there were biblically valid answers that were not sub-points neatly tucked under one of Calvin’s Big Five. And he discovered a deep theological truth: loving, serving, and respecting people is more important than being right, winning arguments, and appearing smart.

That arrogant young Calvinist grew up to be a “Presby-costal” equally embracing his Reformed and Pentecostal foundations. He also spent most of his adult life making disciples and planting churches in Asia. Yep, I’m talking about me, and hopefully I am not as arrogant or irrelevant as three decades ago.

I’m thankful for my theological and spiritual heritage. God providentially saved me in a Reformed Presbyterian church, then formed me in a Pentecostal/Charismatic church. After all these years, my theology stubbornly clings to its Reformed and Pentecostal roots.

Last week, in the wake of the World Vision confusion, a Filipino campus ministry leader asked me a question about same-sex marriage. His question had serious theological, sociological, and moral implications. That question sparked a good discussion, and this blog.

Anyone who is willing to leave the safety of the seminary classroom or church sanctuary will quickly realize that unchurched students are not asking about unconditional election and limited atonement, but they are asking about same-sex attraction and sexual boundaries. Sadly, as church leaders rehash 400 year-old debates that no one but the “choir” cares about, few seem to be doing theology on issues that matter most right now. The Bible has answers, but it will take serious study and disciplined debate to mine its ancient wisdom and apply it to a confused culture.

A long long time ago, on a continent far far away, Calvin, Luther, Zwingli, and other pretty smart Europeans did theology to address questions that were actually being asked by their cultures and communities. I am glad they gave clear and thoroughly biblical answers to the burning questions of their day. I have learned much reading some of their book. And I have slept much while attempting to read others.

Rather than endlessly debating the minutia of the sub-points of Calvinism, I think we could better serve our churches and our communities if we do theology in order to answer questions that are actually being asked by real people today.

Here’s what Martin Luther said about answering contemporary questions in his classic book, The Bondage of the Will.

If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every part of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at the moment attacking, then I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Him. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all battlefields besides is merely flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.”

In other words, if we are able to debate all five of Calvin’s main points in English, Latin, French, Greek, and Taglish but we have no sane theology of gender, sexuality, morality, and marriage, then we are like soldiers fleeing the battlefield and we are ”not confessing Christ.”

Time for serious theologians to engage the battle that is in front of us, not the one behind us.

 

 

A Simple Explanation for Extreme Generosity

NASHVILLE. Have you ever known someone who is crazy generous? Not the guy who occasionally drops a few coins in the tip box at Starbucks. I’m talking about those people who love to give and who live to give. Are you one of those extremely rare extreme givers?

Luke recorded a story about a woman who didn’t have much, but all she had, she gave to Jesus. She gave joyfully and sacrificially. She was not a pious religious woman. She was a woman with a past. A sinful past. A shameful past. A past filled with regret. But she gave Jesus her all and her best.

The reason for her extreme generosity was simple. Here’s how Jesus explained it to his small group of Rhodes Scholars.

“Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” (Luke 7:47)

Those who have been forgiven much, love much. Those who suppose they have been forgiven little, love little.

This idea of reciprocating love is the explanation for crazy generosity. So, if we have been forgiven much, we will show much generosity, but if we have been forgiven little we will show little generosity.

Two summary thoughts about generosity from this story in Luke’s Gospel:

1. Generosity is an expression of love and gratitude.
2. Generosity is a response to being forgiven.

I have been forgiven much, therefore I should be extremely generous. What about you, have you been forgiven much, or little?

How Every Nation Churches Started in My Manila Home 20 Years Ago

NASHVILLE. This week, twenty years ago, Every Nation Churches & Ministries serendipitously started in my home when a couple of old friends had a layover in Manila. The date was March 4. The time of day was late, close to midnight. The place was my house in Pasig, Philippines. Our fledgling ministry had no legal documents, no headquarters, no budget, no plan, no logo, but we had a clear call from God and a sense of stewardship for the university campuses of the world.

Here’s how I described that night in my book, 100 Years from Now.

Six years after the demise of the ministry and mission agency that sent us to the Philippines, I received a call from Rice Broocks that would change our lives. Every decade or so, I get a call like that from him. Rice called to ask if he and an old friend, Phil Bonasso, could crash at my house in Manila for a couple of nights on their way to Singapore and Malaysia. Rice and Phil’s Asian adventure was a response to a “Macedonian call” from a friend of a friend asking them to consider assisting two new church-planting opportunities in Asia.

I’ll never forget that late night in my house in Manila. Rice and Phil were talking about the open doors in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, and then one of them said, “We need to plant churches in those cities.” I responded, “Who is ‘we?’ There is no ‘we.’ There is only you, and you, and me.” In 1989, when Maranatha Campus Ministries ended and we all went our separate ways, any semblance of “we” had abruptly ended. I can’t remember the whole conversation, but by the time Rice and Phil left my house, there was a “we” that the three of us agreed to call Morning Star International. God had connected us together for the purpose of “church planting, campus ministry, and world missions.” Phil and I agreed to join our ministries together if Rice would take the lead. We never imagined anyone would want to join with us. We simply wanted to plant new churches, not gather existing churches. To our surprise, as soon as Rice and Phil landed in the USA a week later, old friends started calling to ask if they could join our little church-planting group. A few years later, we changed our name to Every Nation, but we never changed our commitment to church planting, campus ministry, and world missions.

When God reconnected Rice, Phil, and me that night in Manila, it was not because we were all struggling and failing. Quite the contrary—all three of us were leading what most people would consider growing and successful ministries. Every Nation came about because the three of us believed we could accomplish more together than apart. We believed we could be better together.

That’s how we started. It has been quite a ride these past twenty years. Together we have made a lot of disciples, a lot of mistakes, and a lot of great memories. I thank God for allowing me to preach the Gospel, make disciples, and plant churches with good friends all over the world.

By His grace, eventually we will reach every nation with the Gospel.

 

Grace is Supposed to Change Us

MANILA. It seems like the doctrine of God’s grace is being preached, taught, blogged, and tweeted more than ever. That’s a good thing. But sometimes what is being preached, taught, blogged, and tweeted about grace is misunderstood, misapplied, and misinterpreted. That is not a good thing.

A couple of weeks ago Victory hosted our second Every Nation Worship Writers’ Workshop  with twenty-five worship writers from Singapore, India, Malaysia, Japan, Indonesia, Guam, and the Philippines. Don’t worry, I was not singing or writing. I was teaching the Bible in order to give our writers ideas for worship songs.

One topic I talked about was God’s transformational grace. I tried to communicate that grace not only forgives us, it also transforms us from the inside out. I challenged our writers to compose worship songs about the power of God’s grace to change us. They wrote some great songs that I am sure you will sing in your church and in Every Nation conferences over the next few years.

Why write songs about God’s transformational grace? It has become common to hear a “grace” preached and sung today that has little resemblance to biblical grace. Modern grace erases the guilt of sin, but does not break the power of sin. Biblical grace forgives and transforms.

Here are a couple of verses about God’s transformational grace.

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age  Titus 2:11,12

According to Paul, grace not only forgives sin, it teaches us to say NO to sin. It also teaches us to live self-controlled and godly lives. Grace is not a license to continue in sin, but a license to arrest sin.

For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!  Romans 5:17

In this passage, Paul is teaching the Romans that they can “reign in life” not by human effort and religious affiliation, but by receiving “God’s abundant provision of grace.” God’s grace is abundant and it empowers us to reign, to overcome, to be victorious.

Grace is supposed to change us. Is His grace changing you?

© 2012 Steve Murrell

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