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.



3 Leadership Transition Questions

DUBAI. I have noticed a strange phenomenon in churches and businesses regarding leadership transitions. Too often otherwise great and successful leaders fail at transitioning the reigns to the next generation.
Here are three important questions to ponder for any leader who wants to successfully pass the leadership baton.

1. What? 
The most important part of leadership transitions, and the most ignored, is defining exactly what the baton is. Much time and many books have been dedicated to baton-passing succession plans. Future leaders have been prepared and mentored. The next leaders are ready to receive the baton and run the race, but have we clearly defined which baton we are passing? Usually not.Here’s a quick description of the “baton” that current church and ministry leaders must pass to next generation leaders.

-The Gospel. Paul felt compelled to constantly remind people of the Gospel.
-Mission. It must be clearly written on the wall and on the heart.
-Values. Our daily guideline and plum line for all we do.
-Culture. Corporate culture is the result of consistent mission and values.

2. Who?
Leadership is a relay race, not an individual sprint. Therefore we can’t simply hand the baton to some random bystander. We must clearly identify the next runner. Not the expert baton critic. Not the baton scholar. Not the baton collector. Not the person who loves batons. We must identify the next RUNNER. Batons should only be passed to runners.

3. When?

Timing can make or break a good succession plan. There are good times and bad times to pass the baton. I have always tried to pass leadership batons during times of upward momentum. That is probably why most of my leadership transitions have been successful. Momentum can cover a multitude of young leadership mistakes. Sometimes leadership batons have to be passed during down times. This difficult, but not impossible. If we get the who and the what right, then we can survive a less-than-perfect when.


5 Leadership Lessons from Young Chinese Pastors

JAKARTA, INDONESIA. Four days ago I was hanging out with Every Nation pastors from China, Taiwan, and Malaysia. I’m supposed to be mentoring these men, but when I am with them, I think I learn more than I teach.

During lunch, a young Chinese pastor (in photo using EN high tech security mask) talked about the “Five Togethers” that serve as guidelines for pastors in our nine Every Nation China churches. We joked that since the official Chinese government sanctioned church is called the “Three Self Church” then the Every Nation Churches should be called the “Five Together” churches.

Here are the Five Togethers that have helped our churches in China grow strong and healthy. This list is not something the pastors printed on banners, rather they are commitments that guide their daily lives. I think the Five Togethers could upgrade any leadership team anywhere in the world.

1. STAY TOGETHER. Don’t quit or separate because of offense. Forgive, repent, and work it out. No matter what, stay together.

2. GROW TOGETHER. Stay as we are is not an option. We must grow in knowledge, character, and competency. The best growth happens together not alone.

3. DREAM TOGETHER. Every time I get around these Asian leaders my faith is stretched and my vision is expanded. Left to myself, I think and dream small. As a leader, I need peers to help me dream bigger.

4. WORK TOGETHER. “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12) In other words, two get more done than one. This is not rocket science. You want to accomplish more? Work together, not alone.

5. LEAD TOGETHER. The best leadership is done in concert as a team, not as a soloist. Insecure and ignorant leaders lead alone. Secure and wise leaders build leadership teams.

Are you leading alone, or are you building a strong leadership team?

Most Staff Meetings Are a Waste of Time

DETROIT. Like all leaders, I have participated in neverending staff meetings that wasted everyone’s time. I am also guilty of leading some useless meetings. Occasionally I find myself in a meeting that actually saves time and accomplishes much.

No matter what industry you are working in – business, sports, education, entertainment, government, church – here are four essentials for making your staff meetings more effective and more efficient, or better and shorter.

1. FOCUS. Before the days of film-less auto-focus smartphone cameras, I had a Nikon FM. (I miss real cameras, and real film.) I remember looking through my viewfinder at a blurry subject, then with a deliberate twist of the lens, my subject would snap into focus and the perfect picture would be captured. The staff meeting is a time to eliminate the blur and refocus the team on the mission, values, and culture. The leader’s task is to keep everyone focused on the right subject, and to frame the picture by eliminating background distractions.

2. UPGRADE. I am writing this blog from the Detroit airport. In two hours I will board my Manila flight. Long international flights are more productive and enjoyable when I am able to get a mileage upgrade from coach to business class. Like long flights, weekly staff meetings are more productive and enjoyable when the goal is to upgrade not just to update. When in Nashville, I led a Tuesday 59-minute local church staff meeting that is divided into three 20-minute parts: prayer, update, upgrade. After quick “popcorn” updates from each major department, we then try to upgrade what is sub-par, what is average, and what is excellent. Updates are about what we are doing. Upgrades are about how to do it better. Use your staff meeting to upgrade, not just to update.

3. SIMPLIFY. I read an interesting article about simplicity  in the Wall Street Journal  this morning. Here’s the opening sentence:  From Silicon Valley to Wall Street, simplicity is the new watchword. Books with titles like “Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity” and “The Laws of Simplicity” are must reading in boardrooms. Companies aim for the elegance of Apple’s design and Google’s search box. Then there’s Obamacare.  As I read this I wanted to add, then there’s the church staff meeting. Simplification is not a simple task. It requires time and effort. But it is worth every minute. Jesus was the master of simplification. He made complicated spiritual truths so simple that a child could understand. And He had a simple organizational structure based on relational discipleship. Wise leaders use the staff meeting to simplify the complicated.

4. COMMUNICATE. Once we have focused, upgraded, and simplified, we now must communicate. It accomplishes little if we have a great meeting and fail to communicate when the meeting is over. Even if your organization has a communications department, as the leader you are the CCO, the Chief Communications Officer.

Staff meetings do not have to be a necessary evil or a waste of time. They can be productive if we use them to focus, upgrade, simplify, and communicate.


How to be an Expert

Note: I wrote this blog in the Tokyo airport on my Manila to Nashville flight a couple of days ago, but was not able to post until now.

My alarm rang at 3:30 this morning. I’m not a morning person. Deborah is. Most mornings I stagger around like a cranky zombie. She bounces out of bed ready to attack a new day. Opposites attract.

We are on the 6:25AM Manila to Tokyo to Detroit to Nashville. I’m thinking about starting a global campaign to ban all pre-noon international flights. Believe it or not, we encountered bumper to bumper traffic at 4:30AM on the way to the airport. Only in Manila. I am also campaigning for an early morning traffic ban.

Since I can’t sleep on planes, no matter how sleep-deprived I may be, I turned on my iPad Bible and started reading.

1 Corinthians 3:10-12 NIV
[10] By the GRACE God has given me, I laid a FOUNDATION as an expert builder, and SOMEONE ELSE is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. [11] For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. [12] If ANY MAN builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw…

The Apostle Paul referred to himself as an “expert builder.” Apostles are supposed to build. It is common today for preachers to print business cards with the A word whether or not they have actually built anything. These modern apostles preach sermons and write books and do conferences, but do they build anything that lasts? One cannot become an expert builder by reading and listening to podcasts. Reading is good, but expertise is developed only when we actually attempt to build something.

If you want to be an expert builder in the church world, notice three key concepts in verse 10 above.

1. GRACE NOT GIFTS. Expert builders work hard, but know that God’s grace is the key to real success. Paul said he built according to “the grace God has given me.” Expert builders recognize the specific grace God has given them. Insecure builders try to copy the grace God has given to others.

2. FOUNDATIONS NOT FLASH. Rather than trying to do everything by themselves, expert builders focus on establishing strong foundations. Verse 11 tells us that the foundation is Jesus Christ. Paul was not threatened when others built on the foundation he established. Expert builders build foundations that others could build on it. Insecure builders don’t allow anyone else to build on their foundation.

3. OTHERS NOT SELF. Paul was pleased that “someone else” was building on his foundation. Verse 12 tells us that “any man” might build on the foundation. As soon as the foundation is strong, ”Someone else” and “any man” can start building, as long as they use quality material – gold, silver, costly stones. Expert builders equip and empower “someone else” and “any man” to build on the foundation. Insecure builders feel threatened when “someone else” or “any man” builds on their foundation.

You want to be an expert builder? Three words: GRACE, FOUNDATIONS, OTHERS.

The Importance of Non-experts

MANILA. Last night Deborah and I had dinner at the new home of some old friends. Before dinner we got the grand tour. Wow! What a tour. We wanted to move into their guest room.

Their beautiful new home was built by a team that included general contractors, cabinet makers, stone cutters, interior designers, architechs, landscapers, roofers, painters, electricians, plumbers, and others.

I’m not a builder, but I’m pretty sure that the person who dug the foundation is not the same person who installed the roof. One crew laid the foundation, another painted the walls, another installed the sound system, another built the cabinets.

The Apostle Paul often used building imagery to communicate spiritual truth. Consider 1 Corinthians 3:10.

By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it.

Paul described himself as an “expert builder” but that did not mean he did everything. He laid the foundation, got out of the way, and allowed others (even non-experts) to build the rest.

If you are a pastor, church planter, apostle, or any kind of church leader, your job is NOT to do everything that needs to be done in the name of ministry. Your job is to lay a foundation, then empower others, even non-experts, to build on that foundation.

Too many church leaders (especially small leaders with big titles) lay the foundation, then build the walls, then paint the walls, then hang the art on the walls, then arrange the furniture. Some pastors think that because they are “expert builders” they are supposed to do it all. No wonder so many quit the ministry every year.

Imagine what might happen if pastors would make it their top priority to dig deep and lay strong foundations, then equip and empower others, even non-experts, to build. That’s what Paul did.




© 2012 Steve Murrell

Scroll to top