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Blog / Family

Christmas Trees, Tangled Lights, and Great Joy

November 29, 2016

josephine-christmas-2
NASHVILLE –
Last night, I begrudgingly embarked on the annual tradition of setting up our family Christmas tree.

I say begrudgingly because our massive pre-lit tree never seems to work how it’s supposed to. After wrestling the branches into place and hooking up all of the pre-wired strings of lights, it always seems like at least one section of lights doesn’t work. Over the years, instead of figuring out why certain sections don’t light up, I have resorted to buying additional strands of lights and stringing them on top of the dead sections.

Once the tree is decorated, no one can tell the difference. But my quick-fixes sure make set-up and tear-down a nightmare, as I attempt to untangle the added light strands from the original ones.

Last night, my irritation was contrasted with the overwhelming excitement of my three-year-old granddaughter, Josephine. Though this was her third Christmas, it was her first time to help us decorate the tree. The same plastic tree—that for me was an object of frustration and futility—was for Josephine an object of joy and wonder.

Whether she was carefully hanging a shiny glass ball, or telling her uncle where exactly to lay a strand of silver beads, Josephine acted as though this Christmas tree was her masterpiece. Our annual decorating time was punctuated by the soundtrack of Josephine’s gasps and outbursts of “Beautiful!” and “This is so amazing!”

What best characterizes your approach to the Christmas season?

Are you filled with joy and excitement, like Josephine—or are you (like me) filled with irritation and dread at the increased traffic, the proliferation of parties and events, and the tangle of Christmas lights?

While you might say that our different perspectives merely reflect a difference in age (3 vs 57) or maturity, I would argue that Josephine’s approach to the Christmas season is closer to the Kingdom than you might realize.

When the angels appeared to the shepherds near Bethlehem they said, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” What was the “good news of great joy”? “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11).

How did the shepherds respond to this news?

Kind of like Josephine.

It was right for them to be filled with joy and excitement. Not only were they told that the Messiah had come, but they were told where they could find Him. And when they found the baby and His parents, they were filled with a joy and wonder that they could not keep to themselves.

So as we enter another Christmas season, whether it’s your 3rd or your 30th or your 93rd, remember that this is a time check our hearts to see if we are responding rightly to the “good news of great joy.” If you are anything other than overjoyed at the thought of God’s salvation in Christ, then maybe you are focusing too much on the traffic and the tangled lights and not enough on the baby in the manger.

If you have young children (or grandchildren), allow their joy and excitement this season to convict you and hopefully, to rub off on you. Remember it was Jesus who said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)

Blog / Church / Leadership

Planning for Every Nation Theological Seminary

November 14, 2016

School classroom with school desks and blackboard in Japanese high school

NASHVILLE – Just got back from Manila this weekend, and I am looking forward to a full week in our Every Nation office in Nashville. One of my first meetings this week was with missiologist and (recently appointed) Billy Graham Professor of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, Ed Stetzer. Ed has spoken at numerous Every Nation conferences and has consulted with us for many years. Today, we talked about theological education, and the future of Every Nation Theological Seminary. I loved hearing Ed’s wisdom on how to be successful at both theological education and leadership development.

Before heading into our meeting, I jotted down five words that have emerged in conversations with Every Nation leaders about what matters most for us in theological education and leadership development.

1. Missional: Our schools exist to inspire and equip people for mission. We are called to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19), and our schools of ministry are designed to serve that goal. Theology and mission are inseparable. If we do theology without mission, then we engage in pointless academic exercises. If we do mission without theology, then we will drift away from the gospel as we engage the culture.

2. Global: As a global family of local churches whose goal is to reach every nation in our generation, we need to remember to be “global” in at least two ways. First, we need to teach our students how to contextualize the truths of the gospel for their target culture and language. Second, we need to remind our teachers that our students come from a wide variety of cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and our classes need to be accessible and engaging to students from every nation.

3. Practical: Though I hope that some of our students will pursue further study and become vocational theologians (and future teachers at ENTS), most of our students will become church planters, campus missionaries, and cross-cultural missionaries. We never want to lose sight of the practical implications of theological education. We are primarily training practitioners; and ultimately, all the head knowledge in the world means nothing if we can’t translate that knowledge into effective ministry practices.

4. Transformational: As a movement that believes in the present work of the Holy Spirit to transform us on the inside and empower us to witness, we believe that theological education and leadership development must go beyond the mere transfer of information. To produce students who are better informed is not enough. We want each of our students to be transformed as they engage their minds and hearts to learn about more God, the Church, and the Word.

5. Doxological: “We exist to honor God…” Those are the first five words of Every Nation’s mission statement, and they are the most important. They always will be. We hope that all of our students come out of our schools with a greater love for theology and for mission. But above all, we want to cultivate in our students a greater love for God. Ultimately, theology and mission share the same end—the glory of God. So we train leaders and send them to ends of the earth because we, like John, are captivated by the vision of “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb… and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.’” (Revelation 7:9-10)

Blog / Discipleship / Leadership / Uncategorized

My Thoughts on the Election

November 8, 2016

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are tightening their grips on the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations.

HO CHI MINH CITY – Tomorrow will end one of the most bizarre and polarizing election cycles in American history.

The candidates from the two leading parties are deeply unpopular (with good reason). And Evangelicals are deeply divided over how they should vote—or if they should vote at all.

Considering that the Bible has little to say about electoral politics (they didn’t have elections back then), here’s some wisdom from John Wesley:

I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them, 1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy; 2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against; and 3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side. (From The Journal of John Wesley, October 6, 1774)

Whether you will be voting tomorrow in the United States elections or voting in a highly contested election somewhere else in the world, here’s how we can take Wesley’s wise advice to heart.

1. Vote for whom you think is most worthy. A simple yet often forgotten point about voting. It’s your vote; so you decide. Don’t worry about the pundits. Don’t worry about pleasing your peers. Don’t worry about pleasing your pastor. Vote for whom you think is most worthy—whether they are a Republican, Democrat, Independent, or a write-in.

2. Speak no evil of the candidate you voted against. In an election season when most people feel that they are in fact choosing between the “lesser of two evils,” it can be tempting to justify your vote by simply describing how “evil” the other candidate is. But as Christians, we are called to a different standard. Our words, even when critiquing a candidate, need to be full of grace. And our attitude should be that of humility—recognizing that apart from God’s grace, we are no better or less sinful than even the most corrupt and morally-bankrupt candidate.

3. Do not sharpen your soul against people who voted differently than you. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people say: “I don’t know how someone who calls themselves a Christian can vote for _______.” If you find yourself saying or thinking that, I would suggest that either your circle of friends is too small—or that you’ve spent too much time on the echo-chamber of social media, where you usually only see the newsfeeds of people who think just like you. I guarantee you that people in your local church are not all voting for the same person. Even if you’ve wrestled and prayed over your decision and feel that it is the best vote a committed Christian can make, know that other committed Christians, who have put in similar thought and prayer, will be voting for another candidate (Ed Stetzer has compiled a series of opposing viewpoints from prominent evangelicals that you can view here). Guard your heart from pride and don’t allow the vitriol and disunity of the culture to creep into the church.

As I have said to my church on many election days in the Philippines, we may have a new president; but Jesus is still King. So let’s live (and vote) like it.

Blog / Church / Leadership

My Top 4 Weaknesses as a Preacher

November 2, 2016

pulpit-web-versionMANILA – In an Asbury seminary course on preaching, I recently wrote a reflection paper where I talked about my strengths and weaknesses as a preacher. In the interest of time, I’ll just give the weaknesses. Besides, as Michael Scott famously said, “my weaknesses are actually … strengths.” Not really. But here goes.

1. Blurring the line between personal devotions and sermon preparation. Though I have maintained a consistent habit of daily Bible reading for many decades, I must confess that sometimes the line dividing my personal devotional reading and my sermon study has been blurred by the demands of an overstuffed schedule. Whenever my daily devotions turn into a frantic search for sermon material rather than a search for God, both my sermons and my soul suffer. Whenever I see this happening, I need to stop and (re)establish a wall of separation between my daily devotional reading and my sermon study. This requires that I set and stick with specific times for daily devotional reading, as well as weekly sermon study times. How do you maintain this distinction between personal devotions and sermon preparation?

2. Being overly reliant on the ideas of others. In Victory-Manila, I am privileged to work with an amazing team of preachers who prepare sermons together so that everyone can be on the same page as we preach the same text in Victory-Manila’s 133 weekend worship services. I am certain that I write and preach better sermons when I work with the team than when I write and preach alone. However, there is a real temptation to lean too much on the team rather than doing the hard work of in-depth study myself. It is also tempting and easy to listen to the team rather than listening to the text or to the Holy Spirit. Whether you prepare sermons with a team or simply borrow from existig sermon materials, make sure that you spend time wrestling with the text yourself.

3. Consulting commentaries and study guides too early. A related weakness that can creep into sermon preparation is the tendency to consult the commentaries too soon in the process. As a new preacher, I couldn’t afford a large library, so I was dependent on the Bible and the Holy Spirit. But now that I have access to shelves of great commentaries, it is so easy to skip the crucial process of inductive Bible study and jump straight to the expert opinions. Expert opinions are helpful–they provide valuable scholarly insights and ensure that our interpretations are on track. But no commentary can replace the role of a preacher in finding fresh and timely insight from the Word for his or her particular local church context. This requires time and a sensitivity to the Holy Spirit.

4. Paraphrasing rather than reading the Biblical text. For too many years, I have intentionally read only a short portion of my Bible text and explained the rest of the text as my sermon unfolded. In my summer homiletics class, I was repeatedly reminded that the reading of the text is a vital part of the sermon—not a preliminary to the sermon—and that the text needs to be read with energy, emotion, and conviction. If the reading of Scripture was good enough for the early church (see 1 Timothy 4:13), then it is good enough for the modern church. By paraphrasing rather than reading long portions of scripture, I realized that I was depriving my hearers of experiencing the Scriptures as they were designed to be experienced. Never forget that the Bible is the Word of God–and our churches need to hear it.

No matter how long you’ve been preaching, there is always room for growth. If you preach on a regular basis, I encourage you to make a short list of your own weaknesses as a preacher, and see how you can turn your weaknesses into strengths.

Blog / Leadership / Missions

Top 10 Books for Church Planters

October 26, 2016

Book Covers

MANILA, PHILIPPINES. I recently received an email from a pastor and friend of mine who asked me to recommend some books on church-planting. Here’s the list I sent him, in no particular order.

1. Starting a New Church by Ralph Moore (2002). Church-planting wisdom from one of the most prolific church planters of my generation.

2. Breaking the Missional Code by Ed Stetzer & David Putnam (2006). Thoughts on how to apply the missionary mind-set to church planting.

3. The Master Plan of Evangelism by Robert Coleman (1963). The classic work on making disciples.

4. WikiChurch by Steve Murrell (2011). The story of Victory Manila and the case for the four E’s of discipleship.

5. The Lego Principle by Joey Bonifacio (2012). A book on the importance of connecting to God and connecting to others.

6. Simple Church by Thom Rainer & Eric Geiger (2006). The best practical how-to book on doing church.

7. Natural Church Development by Christian Schwarz (1996). A helpful check-list of “eight essential qualities of healthy churches.”

8. The Trellis and the Vine by A.S. Payne & Colin Marshall (2009). A biblical way of thinking about structure and systems.

9. The Multiplication Challenge by Steve Murrell (2016). A strategy to solve your leadership shortage.

10. Movements that Change the World by Steve Anderson (2011). A book that will remind church planters to focus on the big picture.

Whether you’re a young pastor planting your first church or you’re an experienced church planter who has planted many churches, I can’t stress enough the importance of reading. You will never outgrow the need to learn more; and you will probably never make it through all the good books on the topic of church planting.

If you invest the time (and money) into books like these, you will see an exponential return in your life and in the life of your church.

Blog / Church / Discipleship / Leadership

Post-Conference Thoughts: Back to Work

October 18, 2016

Every Nation World Conference

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE, USA.  Deborah and I just got back to Nashville from Cape Town, South Africa, where we attended the Every Nation World Conference with thousands of delegates from fifty-eight nations. For those of you who couldn’t make it, check out the recap video(s) and mark your calendars for the next world conference—coming in 2019.

I often find that when I return home from a conference, I’m re-energized to pursue God’s mission for my life and my church, but sometimes I don’t know where to start. There are so many new ideas running through my head and so many pages of notes to sift through. How can I begin to implement the global vision and mission in my local context? And how can I convey the big picture to staff and leaders in my local church who weren’t at the conference?

As leaders, sometimes it can be difficult to translate the momentum of a world conference into concrete action in your local church context.

My advice: keep things simple. Channel all of your energy and momentum into building strong and healthy local churches and campus ministries. Building a strong, healthy church and campus ministry is not complicated. Difficult—yes. Complicated—no. The starting point for a leader is to focus on the few things that really matter: discipleship, worship, and leadership.

Strong, healthy churches and campus ministries must be great in these three areas:

1. Discipleship. As I’ve said many times before, God calls us to make disciples. When we do that, He will build His church. To assess how you’re doing in this area, ask yourself these four questions: Are we actively engaging our culture and community? Are we consistently establishing biblical foundations—in both new believers and old-timers? Are we effectively equipping every member to be a minister of the Gospel? Are we empowering disciples to make disciples?

2. Worship. Though I haven’t written this book (yet), you might say that there are 4 S’s to worship—singing, sermons, service, and sacrament. To assess how your church is doing in this area, ask yourself these four questions: Do the songs we sing together as a church point us to Jesus and motivate us for mission? Are the sermons we preach theologically sound, culturally relevant, and Christ-centered? Does our “spiritual worship” (see Romans 12:1) include service outside the church walls? Does our worship prioritize and celebrate the sacraments of communion and baptism—or have they become empty rituals?

3. Leadership. As I’ve written recently, leadership development is crucial whether your church or campus ministry is small or large, growing or stagnant, new or old. To assess how your church or campus ministry is doing in this area, ask yourself these four questions: Are we actively identifying emerging leaders? Are we providing opportunities for instruction so that our emerging leaders can grow? Are we creating time for impartation so that we can pass on to future leaders the vision, values, and mission of our church? Are we making opportunities for internships so that emerging leaders can work alongside and learn from established leaders?

Allow these questions to help you focus your energy and post-conference momentum on the things that really matter.

Blog / Discipleship / Missions

Why GO?

October 5, 2016

logo-graphic-2-01-2016-1

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA. Yesterday was the official start of our Every Nation GO Conference in Cape Town, South Africa. Over the next few days, thousands of people will be gathering from all over the Every Nation world to worship God, to connect with friends, and to remind ourselves of our mission: to make disciples of all nations.

You may be asking yourself — can’t I do all of those things from the comfort of my own home? Why take the time and money to travel half-way across the world for a conference?

Obviously, there are plenty of legitimate reason why people can’t come. But here are three reasons why conferences like these are important (which occur every three years):

1. WORSHIP: Though it’s true that you can worship God in your own local church (or anywhere for that matter), there is something powerful about worshipping God with people who don’t look like you, don’t think like you, and don’t speak (and sing) in the same language as you do. If you’ve ever been to a GO conference, you know that we make it a priority for our worship to give you a taste of the diversity of heaven — where God is being worshipped by every tribe, tongue, and nation.

2. FAMILY: Though you can (and should) experience Christian community in your local church setting, there is something eye-opening about connecting with our church family from around the world. Whether it’s hearing a testimony from a believer facing persecution in the Middle East or simply grabbing lunch with a local church member from the host country (in this case South Africa), you’ll be amazed to see that despite our many cultural differences, we share a bond of unity that transcends national, cultural, and linguistic differences.

3. MISSION: Though you can remind yourself of God’s mission wherever you are, throughout the Old and New Testaments, there is a distinct pattern of God calling His people to gather together to receive instructions and strategies from Him about the mission. Whether it was Moses and the Israelites meeting with God at Mount Sinai or Jesus and the disciples meeting at the Mount of Olives, God often chooses to impart mission and vision to his people when they are gathered together.

I can’t wait to see what God does in and through us in the next few days as we come into His presence and are equipped and empowered to go out into the world to make disciples.

Blog / Family / Leadership

Parenting Lessons from the World’s Busiest Father

September 26, 2016

President Barack Obama and his daughters, Malia, left, and Sasha, watch on television as First Lady Michelle Obama takes the stage to deliver her speech at the Democratic National Convention, in the Treaty Room of the White House, Tuesday night, Sept. 4, 2012.  (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

DETROIT, MICHIGAN, USA. This weekend I was in Detroit ministering with Bishop Marvin Winans  at Perfecting Church, a great church in a great city. I’ll probably write more about that in a future blog. My last blog was about parenting lessons from a funeral. This week’s blog offers tips for the ultra-busy parent.

One of the main reasons why it is often so difficult to engage our children is that intentional engagement takes time. There are no short cuts. There is no outsourcing. You can only engage your children if you spend time with them.

It’s so easy to make excuses and point to our busy schedules. You probably are busy—but probably not as busy as the President of the United States.

Here’s what he said in an essay on balancing work and family:

Even with our jam-packed days, Michelle and I work hard to carve out certain blocks of family time that are sacrosanct. For example, at 6:30 p.m., no matter how busy I am, I leave work to go upstairs and have dinner with my family. That’s inviolable. My staff knows that it pretty much takes a national emergency to keep me away from that dinner table…

So for an hour or so at dinner, my focus is not on my day, but on theirs… The highlight of my day is just listening to their thoughts about the world and seeing what smart, funny, kind young women they’ve become. That hour recharges me and gives me perspective…

And like many parents of high school juniors who are excitedly touring college campuses, I’m already dreading that empty seat at the table when Malia goes off to school next fall. I can feel myself lingering at the table a little longer, trying to stave off the passage of time. But for as long as possible, I’m going to enjoy every minute of finally having us all together under one roof.

These are the words of a father who is engaged in the lives of his two daughters.

Despite the fact that he has the busiest and most demanding schedule on the planet and despite the fact that he himself grew up without a father, President Obama has decided to prioritize time with children.

Do you?

Blog / Discipleship / Family

Parenting Lessons from a Funeral

September 19, 2016
Me with the Fabregas family after the funeral

Me with the Fabregas family at the funeral

NASHVILLE, TN, USA. This past weekend Deborah, William (my oldest son), and I spoke at a parenting seminar at Bethel Brentwood. During the half-day seminar, we talked about the four E’s of parenting (sound familiar?) and tackled four big questions that every parent should ask themselves:

  • How can we engage our children’s world?
  • How can we establish strong biblical foundations?
  • How can we equip our children for life?
  • How can we empower them to pursue God’s calling?

I opened the first session with a story about a good friend of mine who recently passed away at the age of 77.

Salvador “Bomboy” Fabregas was a pillar of our church for many years. He and his wife became Christians in their late 40’s. One by one his adult children came to faith, and most of his eighteen grandchildren have grown up in our church in Manila.

When we found out about his passing, I was in Nashville, so I quickly booked a flight to Manila so I could be there for the funeral.

One thing I will never forget about the funeral was hearing his grandchildren talk about their grandfather.

One grandson talked about his memories playing chess with (and always losing to) his grandfather. Another referred to his grandfather as one of his biggest fans on the soccer field. One granddaughter talked about how her grandfather was such a good listener and was always making sure he was up to date on what was going on in her life. For me, the most poignant story of all was hearing a teenage grandson tearfully explain that while all his friends complained about their obligatory visits to their aged grandparents, he absolutely looked forward to and thoroughly enjoyed every visit with his grandfather.

Pretty soon a clear pattern emerged.

This grandfather was deeply engaged in the lives of his grandchildren—all of them, individually. He didn’t necessarily care about chess or soccer or high school drama—he cared about Carlos, Bea, and Daniel, and the other fifteen.

As a grandfather of two, I was blown away by the fact that my friend had eighteen grandchildren—ranging from their mid-thirties to their pre-teens—and every single one of them felt like the favorite. (Favoritism is destructive when one child or grandchild feels favored and the others feel rejected, however when all feel equally favored, favoritism is a thing of beauty.)

As parents, one of our most important jobs is to engage our children. Love what they love. Care about what they care about. Listen to what is on their minds.

It seems simple enough, but at certain stages, it can be really difficult for parents to engage their children. Maybe your son’s or daughter’s interests have changed to things that you know nothing about. Maybe your teenager is intentionally pushing you away. Maybe you a have a new baby in the family that is taking a lot of your time and attention. Or maybe you are simply too busy at work.

Whatever season of parenting we find ourselves in, let’s learn from my good friend Bomboy. Let’s stay engaged with our children (and eventually our grandchildren) all the way to the end.

Blog / Discipleship / Leadership

Why You Should Stop Searching for Authentic Community

September 12, 2016

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

TOKYO AIRPORT. A few weeks ago, my oldest son, William, preached a sermon at Bethel’s Wednesday night service on the importance of church community.

He opened with this quote from German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945):

Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate. [from Life Together (1939)]

The main idea behind Bonhoeffer’s quote is that Christian community is not about warm feelings—it’s about active engagement. I often hear people say they don’t feel like their church is creating authentic community.

The truth is: it doesn’t really matter.

Because our job is not to create authentic community. Our job is to participate in it. If you see the creation of authentic Christian community as the church’s responsibility, you’ll constantly be disappointed in your pastor or your church or even yourself. But if we see Christian community as an eternal spiritual reality—created and sustained by God in Christ—then we will be freed to love and serve and forgive even when we don’t feel like it.

So how do we participate in Christian community?

The answer may be disappointingly obvious. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I regularly attend weekly worship gatherings—or do other weekend activities take priority?
  • Do I faithfully tithe to my local church—or do I hold back in giving because I have an issue with the new building program?
  • Do I actively participate in weekly small group discipleship—or do I complain that my church feels too big?
  • Do I willingly serve at my church—or do I come only to get fed?
  • Do I thank God for my local church family—or do I fantasize about finding a better, more “authentic” church community?

Like our natural families, spiritual family is real whether we feel it or not—and whether we like everyone or not. We don’t have to create it. God already did that.

All we have to do is engage.