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Blog / Discipleship

God, Where Are You? A Four-Year-Old’s Theology on Prayer

January 31, 2018

janis-oppliger-(web)NASHVILLE — A few days ago, I was walking through a parking garage with my granddaughter Josephine, and out of nowhere, she started shouting these words: “God, are you there? God, where are you?”

Her questions echoed through the parking garage as we walked toward the elevator. Though somewhat amused by her shouted prayers, I decided to take her question seriously. “Jo,” I told her, “God can hear you. He is here right now.”

“But I can’t find Him anywhere!” she said before starting another round of questions to God.

“He is everywhere,” I said, “But He usually speaks to us very quietly. And we usually hear Him with our heart instead of our ears.”

Josephine responded to my attempts at four-year-old theologizing with another round of loud prayers: “God, are you there? God, where are you?”

My conversation with Josephine reminded me how strange, yet natural, prayer is. It is strange to speak—silently or at the top of our lungs—to a divine being that we cannot see. It is strange to speak to someone who usually doesn’t respond (at least with sound waves). And yet, prayer is so natural, my four-year-old granddaughter talks to God in a parking garage. Prayer is so natural that people who have never heard the gospel, who only know God from His creation, pray. Prayer is so natural that even secular people who doubt the existence of God pray—especially when they are in trouble. But whether you are a four-year-old from a Christian family, a Tibetan Buddhist, or a Western secularist, there is one question that often haunts our prayers: “God, are you there?”

It’s natural to ask this question, or feel this doubt, when we are speaking to someone whom we can’t see. It’s natural to ask this question when it seems like God is not answering your prayers. It’s natural to ask this question when we are walking through a valley. Whether you are a new Christian or an old Christian, a four-year-old or an eighty-four-year-old, there will be times when we do not sense God’s presence, when our most honest and urgent prayer is, “God, are you there?”

One of my good friends lost his adult son last week. His son was in his thirties with three kids and one on the way. I have no doubt that many people in his grieving family are praying prayers kind of like Josephine’s. If we are tempted to see these kinds of prayers as unspiritual or disappointing to God, consider how David prayed in Psalm 22:1-2: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O, my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, And by night, but I find no rest.

Not only did David utter these words in prayer, Jesus did, too. From the cross, he spoke the words of this psalm as one of His last prayers to His Father. And it is there at the cross that we find hope.

When our prayers (and lives) seem haunted with God’s absence, we can be comforted that Jesus himself experienced God’s absence. He too prayed, “God, are you there?” But the story didn’t end there. Though Jesus’ prayers from the cross seemed to echo through the earth with no response from His Father, God’s answer came three days later at the empty tomb. The message of the gospel tells us that Jesus experienced God’s silence so we could hear God’s voice. It tells us that Jesus experienced God’s absence so we could know his presence forever. It tells us that after the cross is resurrection. It tells us that “weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

Blog / Miscellaneous

Top Ten Books I Read in 2017

January 2, 2018

Bookshelf

NASHVILLE—It’s often said that “reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.” Because of too many international flights, I did not exercise my body nearly enough in 2017. But those same flights that prevented physical exercise afforded plenty of time to read. I don’t sleep on planes—I read and occasionally watch a free movie or two. Thanks to the magic of Kindle, I get to carry a whole library on every flight.

To encourage my friends to read, at the end of most years, I post a Top Ten recommended reading list. Here are some of my previous lists: 2016, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2008. Books on my Top Ten lists are not necessarily the best books, the most popular books, or the most important books. They are simply the ten books that impacted me the most in the past twelve months.

MY TOP TEN BOOKS OF 2017:

Martin-Luther1. Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (2017) by Eric Metaxas. Eric Metaxas, known for his biographies of William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, has written another classic. With a gripping narrative and fascinating detail, Metaxas gives us an up-close look at Martin Luther the man, as well as big-picture perspective on the global implications of the religious revolution he started.

Stephen-SemandsPS2. Ministry in the Image of God: The Trinitarian Shape of Christian Service (2006) by Stephen Seamands. This was on the reading list for my Asbury Seminary course. If you are a pastor, church planter, campus missionary, or any other type of vocational minister, please read this one.  As good as the book was, the classroom lectures by Dr. Seamands were even better. Dr. Seamands started and ended every lecture with a few minutes of worship. What a humble and godly man. I hope and pray that my sermons and messages impact people the way his impacted me.

3. The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (1995), by LLesslie-Newbiginesslie Newbigin. Originally given as lectures to men and women preparing to go on the mission field, Newbigin’s introduction to the theology of mission has a palpable sense of urgency and the marks of deep theological reflection—a powerful combination that I hope will infect emerging leaders and missionaries in Every Nation.

The-Missional-Church4. The Missional Church and Leadership Formation: Helping Congregations Develop Leadership Capacity (2009), edited by Craig Van Gelder. From a professional perspective, this is one of the most helpful books I read in 2017—exactly what I needed as we begin building Every Nation Theological Seminary (ENTS) to train future pastors, church planters, and missionaries. Van Gelder writes that theological education is at a “crossroads of Christian formation (paideia) and academic acumen (Wissenschaft).” At ENTS, we don’t want to choose between academic acumen and spiritual formation—we plan to do both. Our goal is to inform the mind, transform the heart, and train the hands for ministry. I especially enjoyed Van Gelder’s brief history of theological education in America and his two-word descriptions of pastors in each period. He divided American seminary history into 6 periods—Colonial Period: Resident Theologian; Early 1800s: Gentlemen Pastor; Late 1800s: Churchly Pastor; Post WWII: Pastoral Director; 1970s/1980s: Therapeutic Pastor; Entrepreneurial Leader: 1990s/2000s.

Peter Scazzero5. The Emotionally Healthy Leader: How Transforming Your Inner Life Will Deeply Transform Your Church, Team, and the World Leader (2015) by Peter Scazzero. I never read psychological, introspective books unless I have to. Since this book was on my Asbury required list, I had to. It was painful but in a good way. I never realized how emotionally unhealthy I was until reading this. It helped me understand myself and my friends. Read it at your own risk.

Robert-Kegen6. Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization (2009) by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey. Despite being another introspective psychological thriller and another Asbury required reading, this might be the most important organizational and relational leadership book I have read in the past decade. It forced me to ask this question to my colleagues: “What one change can I make that will have the greatest impact on this organization?” As uncomfortable as their answers were, I think they helped me to lead better. This comes highly recommended for top leaders in all walks of life (it was originally written for corporate executives).

George-BushPortraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors (2017) by George W. Bush. From the dust jacket: “A vibrant collection of oil paintings and stories by President George W. Bush honoring the sacrifice and courage of America’s military and veterans.” Each portrait and story features a soldier who sacrificed much when W was Commander in Chief. The proceeds of the book go to President Bush’s Military Service Initiative that focuses on helping post-9/11 veterans and their families successfully transition to civilian life. I was moved by each story and by the generosity and compassion of President Bush towards these men and women, some of whom lost limbs, family members, and friends in combat. I also appreciated the presidential art.

Miroslav-Volf8. A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (2011) by Miroslav Volf. It is easy to say that the gospel can and should impact every area of society. But in an increasingly pluralistic world, it is not easy to figure out exactly how the gospel relates to politics, education, economics, the arts, etc. In this helpful book, Volf attacks this issue head-on and explores some better (and worse) ways to think about Christianity as a public faith.

Christopher-Wright9. The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission (2010) by Christopher J. H. Wright. If we want to bring the gospel into public life (see Volf’s book above), then we have to be clear about who “we” are. This is what Christopher Wright’s book is all about. Helping us understand the identity and the mission of the church in light of God’s mission for the world. Read it and have your understanding of mission expanded and your understanding of church deepened.

Craig-Keener10. IVP Biblical Background Commentary: New Testament (2014) by Craig Keener. This has become one of my favorite commentaries. Sometimes I just read it for fun, even when I’m not doing sermon research. Because, like all Keener books, it is a heavyweight, I suggest you purchase a digital copy.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

RUN: Endure the Pain, Keep the Faith, Finish the Race (Releasing 2018) by Ferdie Cabiling with Walter Walker. The only reason this book is not at the top of my list is because it doesn’t officially exist yet. It will certainly be on my 2018 list. I had the privilege of reading an advanced unedited version of Bishop Ferdie’s soon-to-be-released book. It encouraged, convicted, and inspired me—and even made my eyes sweat. You will love to read Run, even if, like me, you hate to run.

Marl-Lua-BransonChurches, Cultures, and Leadership: A Practical Theology of Congregations and Ethnicities (2011) by Mark Lau Branson and Juan F. Martinez. If you are attempting to plant or lead a multiethhnic church or campus ministry, you are a member of a multiethnic church or campus ministry, and/or if you are in a multiethnic marriage, PLEASE READ THIS BOOK!

Blog / Miscellaneous

Remembering R.C. Sproul (1939-2017)

December 19, 2017

rc-sproul
NASHVILLE—Last Thursday (December 14), theologian and author R.C. Sproul passed away at the age of 78.

As a young believer in my teens and early twenties, I read Sproul’s books and listened to his radio show. Sproul’s influence on my theology and ministry is difficult to overstate, but it can be summed up in two phrases.

Renewing Your Mind. This was the title of Sproul’s radio show. In each show, Sproul would engage a particular theological or philosophical topic like the doctrine of imputation, Calvin’s ecclesiology, or the philosophical inheritance of Kierkegaard. For twenty-four minutes, Sproul would make complex ideas simple and, at the same time, stretch his listeners to think more deeply about God and world. His radio show was a constant reminder that in order to love God with our minds, we need to renew our minds. As a young disciple, who soon found himself in vocational ministry, I learned from Sproul the necessity of continually renewing my mind and never being satisfied with where I was in my theological understanding. We can always go deeper. Today, Sproul’s radio show is now a podcast, and I still often listen to it on the way to work.

The Holiness of God. This was the title of one of Sproul’s most famous books. I read it when it first came out in 1985, and it changed my life. Though Sproul was popularizing a larger Reformed tradition and was himself influenced by the works of Edwards, Luther, and Calvin, he was the first person who helped me begin to understand the heights of God’s holiness and the depths of man’s sinfulness. The centrality of God’s holiness in Sproul’s theology has deeply shaped the way I read the Bible, the way I preach, and the way I walk with God. My original marked-up copy of The Holiness of God is still in my study. I have read it probably a dozen times over the last thirty years.

When I think of Sproul’s influence on my life, I am reminded of a quote from The Holiness of God that nicely summarizes his life’s pursuit:

It’s dangerous to assume that because a person is drawn to holiness in his study that he is thereby a holy man. There is irony here. I am sure that the reason I have a deep hunger to learn of the holiness of God is precisely because I am not holy. I am a profane man—a man who spends more time out of the temple than in it. But I have had just enough of a taste of the majesty of God to want more. I know what it means to be a forgiven man and what it means to be sent on a mission. My soul cries for more. My soul needs more.

Though I will miss hearing his raspy voice on the “Renewing Your Mind” podcast, I am glad for Sproul that today he is experiencing what he most longed for in life. I am glad that he is now before the throne of God, joining with the angels singing “Holy, holy, holy.”

To learn more about R.C. Sproul and Ligonier Ministries, visit the Ligonier Ministries’ website

Blog / Family

A Three-Year Old’s Theology on the Incarnation

December 6, 2017

NativityORLANDO—A few days ago, I embarked on the annual tradition of setting up our family Christmas tree. As I wrote last year, the agony of pine needles and tangled lights is outweighed by the joy of seeing my grandchildren, Jo and Liam, caught up in the wonder and expectation of the Advent season.

Part of the reason why Jo loves December so much is that her birthday is just ten days before Christmas. Since December 15 and December 25 are so close, we all work hard to distinguish between Jo’s birthday and Christmas, which we have explained to her is Jesus’ birthday.

When looking at an Advent calendar in the kitchen, Jo pointed to December 15 and said, “This is my birthday, right?”

“Yes!” My son William, her dad, replied. “You are going to be four years old on your birthday.”

Pointing to December 25, Jo said, “And this is Jesus’ birthday. How old is he going to be—two or four?”

William smiled awkwardly, having no idea how to answer the question. “Well, Jesus had a second birthday and then two years later, he had a fourth birthday, just like you will be having.”

For the record, I don’t know if Jews in first-century Palestine celebrated birthdays the way we do. But Jo’s question reminds us of the mystery of the incarnation—that Jesus, like Jo, had a fourth birthday.

Jesus, like Jo, was a three-year-old bursting with energy who occasionally made big a mess in Joseph’s carpentry shop.

Jesus, like Jo, was a three-year old who made his parents laugh with his three-year-old sayings and pronunciations. (Josephine calls the month of December, “Becender.”)

Jesus, like Jo, was a three-year-old who needed mommy when he skinned his knee.

Jesus, like Jo, was a three-year-old who, on his best days, made Mary and Joseph wish that he would never grow up (and on his worst days, made Mary and Joseph wish he would hurry up and become an adult).

The mystery of the incarnation is that this same three-year-old—who could act like my granddaughter Josephine—was at the same time “begotten from the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made; of the same essence as the Father,” as it says in the Nicene Creed.

The mystery of the incarnation is that this three-year-old, who occasionally could make a real mess in his earthly father’s workshop, was present with His Heavenly Father at the creation of the universe.

The mystery of the incarnation is that this three-year-old, who was still learning to speak and form words in His mother tongue (Aramaic), was the eternal Word of God—through whom all things (including our tongues) were made.

The mystery of the incarnation is that this three-year-old, who needed mom to wipe the blood off his knees and the tears from his eyes, was the Lamb of God—who was destined to weep and bleed and bear sins of the world.

The mystery of the incarnation is that this three-year-old, who was the beloved son of Mary and Joseph, was at the same time the beloved Son of God.

Blog / Leadership

Ministry is Partnership with God

October 26, 2017
Speaking at APEC in Pastor Timothy Loh's new building.

Speaking at APEC in Pastor Timothy Loh’s new building.

KUALA LUMPUR—Every October, Deborah and I board a plane for Asia right when Nashville is transitioning from hot, humid summer to cool, beautiful fall weather. Though we are sad to miss the leaves turning and the weather changing, we know we cannot miss Every Nation’s annual Asian Pastors Equipping Conference (APEC). It is always one of the highlights of my year.

This year, APEC is being hosted by Pastor Timothy Loh and our Every Nation churches in Malaysia. We are gathering this week for a time of fellowship, equipping, and prayer. I am always inspired when I hear reports from around Asia of what God is doing among Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and other unreached groups in the region. Some of those reports I can share from the pulpit (or write about in my blog), but for security reasons, most of these stories you will have to hear in heaven (or at APEC next year).

In the opening session of APEC, I spoke from Matthew 4:18-19 about the idea that “God Builds His Kingdom.”

As ministers and leaders, we often see ourselves as the chief builders. But we need to be reminded that we are not the chief builders. God is. Our role is to make disciples. God’s role is to build His kingdom. We labor, but ultimately, God builds (see Psalm 127).

We are not called to work for God; we are called to work with God.

In fact, ministry is partnership with God. We are not servants. We are not contract labor. We are sons and daughters working with our Father in His harvest field.

When we truly understand that ministry is partnership with God, three things will happen:

1. We will be free to dream big. When we buy the enemy’s lie that building our church or our ministry is entirely up to us, we will always end up dreaming small dreams. We will always end up setting manageable goals—things that we think we can accomplish on our own. But when we realize that ministry is partnership with God, then we will be free to embrace God-sized and God-given dreams. Dreams that scare us. Dreams that disrupt our lives. Dreams that we can’t afford on our current church budget. Dreams that require God to come through.

2. We will be free from pride and insecurity. When we buy the enemy’s lie that we are the primary (even the only) builders, then we will be inflated by our successes and deflated by our failures. We will begin to think that church and ministry and leadership is about our glory and not God’s. But when we recognize that God is the chief builder (and we are merely laboring with Him), then we will be delivered from the temptation to find glory in ministry success. “Success” in ministry (baptisms, growth, miracles) has always been and always will be about one thing: God’s glory.

3. We will be free to rest. When we buy the enemy’s lie that everything is up to us, we will never be able to rest. Even when we go through the motions of having a sabbath, we will be restless and anxious—worried about last week’s attendance (and offering), worried about next week’s sermon; and/or worried about failing as a church planter or campus minister. But when we recognize that God has been building His church since before we were born and will keep building until Jesus returns, then we are freed to rest from our labors. Not merely to take a day off once a week, but to find deep soul rest. To rejoice in what He has already done, and to look ahead to what He is going to do in and through our lives as we join in Him in His mission.

Whether we are an ordained senior pastor or a new small group leader, we need to be reminded that the call to discipleship in Matthew 4 is neither a call to supreme leadership (as a chief builder) or to supreme servitude (as a hired laborer)—it is a call to partnership with God as He builds His Kingdom.

Blog / Miscellaneous

A Three-Year-Old’s Theology on Tragedy

October 3, 2017

First responders in Las Vegas

NASHVILLE—As her vocabulary has grown over the last few months, my three-year-old granddaughter, Josephine, has said some very funny things (as most three-year-olds do). And she has also said some very profound things with great theological significance.

A few weeks ago, Hurricane Harvey made its way from Texas and up through Tennessee, causing widespread flooding. The day after, Josephine and her dad (my oldest son) took a walk in her favorite park. Since it’s right next to a river, the park had flooded badly. Trees and fences had been knocked over by the force of the water. And the entire playground surface had been washed away by the flood, leaving exposed concrete, metal, and debris from the river.

As Josephine surveyed the devastation to her favorite playground, a scene which many three year olds from Texas to Tennessee would have seen in the days following the flood, she said to her dad:

“God is going to be so sad when He sees this.”

Though Josephine’s three-year-old mind is not yet capable of understanding the fact that God already knew about the flood (In fact, He foreknew this catastrophic event), her comments reveal a deep understanding about the heart of God in the midst of tragedy.

When God looks down on Josephine’s favorite playground and sees the devastation caused by the flood, He, like Josephine, is sad.

When God looks down on Houston, which was hit the hardest by Harvey, He, like millions in that city, is sad.

When God looks down on Mexico City, still recovering from a massive earthquake that killed hundreds, God is sad.

When God looks down on Puerto Rico and the many islands of the Caribbean that have been hit by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and He sees the devastation and the suffering, He is sad.

When God looks down on the city of Marseille, as it reels in fear from yet another terrorist attack, God is sad.

And when God looks down on the city of Las Vegas today as it mourns the deaths of fifty-nine people from a mass shooting last night, He, like that entire city, is sad.

How can we be sure that God mourns when we mourn? How do we know that our tragedies, big and small, matter to God? How do we know how God feels about tragedies in our cities and country?

Notice how Luke recorded the last time Jesus would enter Jerusalem in Luke 19. In his omniscience, Jesus knew that it wouldn’t be long before His beloved city would be violently attacked and devastated. Let’s look at how He felt: “When he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it” (Luke 19:41). In the words of my granddaughter, “He was sad.”

Not only that, but we follow a savior who not only wept over the city of Jerusalem, but also wept at a small funeral in the village of Bethany for a man named Lazarus (John 11).

It might be helpful to know that in both of these accounts of Jesus weeping, the original word translated “wept” does not mean a single tear slowly coursing down a cheek as lips silently quiver. Rather, it means a loud wailing that anyone within hearing distance would certainly notice.

Even though Jesus knew that Lazarus would die. Even though Jesus knew that he would be raised from the dead. Even though Jesus knew that He had power over death and the grave. He still was sad when He saw the tomb of His friend and saw his sisters, Mary and Martha, grieving.

Because we follow a savior who is both fully God and fully human, we can know with certainty the two things that we all need to hear in moments of suffering grief: God is sovereign in our tragedy and God is sad with us.

I recently completed a video series on my latest book, The Multiplication Challenge. Watch below for the latest video.

 

Blog / Leadership / Videos

Leading Without a Title

September 20, 2017

 Leadership Lanes

NASHVILLE—I get to work with promising young leaders all over the world. Here are some of their most common leadership questions:

  • How do I lead without a title (or perhaps with a lesser title)?
  • How do I lead when I have some leadership responsibilities, but I am not fully in charge?
  • How do I respond when I feel like the senior leader is struggling to lead effectively?
  • How do I balance the tension between presumption and passivity?

My summary of all these questions: How do I lead from the middle? 

Leading from the middle means we are simultaneously leading people and following a leader. Most leaders lead from the middle. Some do it well; Others, not so much.

The presumptuous emerging leader takes responsibility for things that he or she shouldn’t, and he or she makes decisions or judgment calls that are not theirs to make. Depending on the context (and the temperament of the senior leader), this can cause some serious problems for the team.

On the other hand, the passive emerging leader only takes responsibility for the things that he or she has explicitly been given charge of—never responding to leadership needs in the moment and never instinctively taking responsibility in the absence of the senior leader. I have had both kinds of emerging leaders work for and with me. In many ways, we all gravitate towards one or the other ditch. Some of us underestimate our capacity (and responsibility), and others overestimate it.

Wise senior leaders know how to recognize these tendencies in their young leaders and provide helpful counter pressure to their natural tendencies. This means that for some emerging leaders, I constantly encourage them to take charge, even if it’s not exactly in their job description. Why? Because I want them to feel empowered. I want them to start thinking and acting like a leader before they ever get the big title.

With other leaders, I constantly encourage them to slow down and stay in their lane. I encourage them to listen to the entire room before they spout off their expert opinion from their many months of experience or from a recent podcast they consumed. I encourage them to be patient and humble.

It all depends on the leader.

But what do you do if you serve under a leader who is not very empowering, or at least not very organized? How do you know when to step up and take responsibility even when it’s not necessarily in your job description? Or how do you know when to fight your instincts to lead and allow the senior leader (and perhaps the entire team) to struggle or even fail?

As with most things in life, it all depends on the situation. There is no magic bullet. But here’s my advice: when in doubt, it’s always better to be active than to be passive.

Like I said, if you’re the over-zealous, over-confident type, a wise leader will let you know. Hopefully, the feedback will be constructive and gracious, but sometimes it won’t be. How we respond to moment like these will shape us as leaders.

If you want to hear more about “How to Act Like a Leader,” check out this new video from our Multiplication Challenge video series.

Blog / Leadership

New Video Series: The Multiplication Challenge

September 6, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-09-06 at 5.18.47 PM

Recently, I had the privilege of discussing my latest book, The Multiplication Challenge, with my son and coauthor William Murrell and young leaders in various positions across Every Nation. It was a great opportunity to hear from them and discuss some of the challenges of developing leaders.

This video is the first in a series of six videos that follows our discussion of the first few chapters of The Multiplication Challenge.

Whether you’re a church planter, pastor, campus missionary, or administrative professional, I pray and hope these videos inspire you to develop as a leader, multiply leaders, and solve your leadership shortage.

I would love to hear your leadership questions, so please share them with me on Twitter or Facebook.

 

Blog / Missions

How We Should Respond to Natural Disasters

August 31, 2017
Flooding in Houston, Texas.

Flooding in Houston, Texas.

HONOLULU—This past weekend, tropical storm Harvey hit the Gulf Coast of the United States, dumping record levels of rain on Louisiana and Texas, including the city of Houston. As a result of the widespread flooding, at least thirty people have died and tens of thousands of people have had to flee their homes.

On the other side of the world, summer monsoon rains have caused devastating floods in Bangladesh, Nepal, and India, killing more than 1,200 people and displacing millions from their homes. At the same moment Houston is under water, so is Mumbai.

Flooding in Mumbai, India.

Flooding in Mumbai, India.

Whenever I hear about natural disasters around the world and see photos of the devastation, I am often at a loss. What can I do from Nashville or Manila (or in this case Honolulu) where I am safe from the storms that are tearing apart cities, homes, and families?

At Every Nation, we often encourage people to pray, give, and go.

If you live in or near one of these cities, in the coming weeks and months, I would recommend volunteering with a Christian relief organization. My sons and I volunteered with Samaritan’s Purse when they helped rebuild homes that had been destroyed during the Nashville flood in 2010. Sometimes, Every Nation churches mobilize our own efforts, as when Typhoon Haiyan struck Tacloban, Philippines in 2013, and other times, we partner with organizations like Samaritan’s Purse.

If you can’t go, I would also encourage you to give, as most people do not have funds or insurance to rebuild their homes and are often reliant on relief organizations or the government to rebuild their homes and livelihoods after the water recedes.

But in this blog, I want to focus on prayer.

How should we pray in situations like these? What should we pray?

Here are three ways we should pray:
1) Pray with sorrow. The loss of life and the devastation to cities and homes is tragic, and it should move us to mourning. Even if we don’t have intimate links with the cities and peoples affected, we should be moved with sorrow because God is moved with sorrow. While it might be easier to move on with our very busy lives without skipping a beat, it is healthy for our souls to pause, think about what has happened, and mourn. Paul calls us to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). This is where our prayers should start.

2) Pray with specificity. What should we pray for when there are literally thousands, even millions, of needs and urgent requests? How can we avoid vague prayers that are so general they cover everything—yet ask God for nothing? I tend to focus my prayers on the people or at least churches I know in the region. For example, in Houston, I am praying for Chris Pate and City Life Church; and in South Asia, I am praying for Kevin Menezes and Every Nation Mumbai, as well as our missionaries (who cannot be named) in Bangladesh. I am praying that God would protect their families and homes, as well as give them wisdom as they minister to people who have lost everything and mobilize their churches to serve their communities in the days and months.

3) Pray with hope. When I look at the Bible, I am reminded that God always has redemptive purposes, even after a flood. The devastation grieves Him even more than it grieves us, but He is in the business of bringing new life in the wake of death and hope in the midst of hopelessness. There are many scriptures that remind us of this, but my favorite is Psalm 126,

Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negeb! Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy…

So let’s pray.

Pray with sorrow. Pray with specificity. And pray with hope. May your prayers also lead you to give and perhaps go.

Blog / Church / Leadership

How To Talk About Charlottesville

August 14, 2017

 

White nationalists holding a rally on the campus of UVA.

White nationalists holding a rally on the campus of UVA.

WILMORE, KENTUCKY—I have mostly been unplugged from the news and social media for over a week now during my summer residency at Asbury Theological Seminary. However, I thought that this weekend’s events needed comment.

Because of the global nature of my job and the fact that I don’t pastor a local church in North America, I typically avoid commenting on American cultural and political issues. It is important—in fact, vital—for American pastors to engage these topics with wisdom, but this blog is written for pastors and leaders from every nation. I only engage American issues when they have global implications or unique global parallels.

There is much that could be said about the tragic events in Charlottesville this past weekend. We could talk about racism in America (and in the American church); we could talk about the need for multiethnic churches; or we could talk about the centrality of the gospel in racial reconciliation. Back in May, I wrote a series of blogs that addressed these very issues, which are linked in the previous sentence.

So instead of covering that ground again, I want to focus on communication: How we as church leaders should talk, preach, and even tweet about ethnic tension and racial reconciliation in our local contexts—whether we are addressing white nationalism in America, racial tension in southern Africa, or anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe.

I am deeply troubled by both the events in Charlottesville and the ugly public discourse surrounding these events. I don’t expect CNN, NPR, or non-Christian bloggers and Instagrammers to get this right, but I do expect more from church leaders.

If we want to honor God, build up the church, and work for the common good, here’s how I think we should communicate (and encourage our emerging leaders to communicate):

1. Be clear about the issue. Now is not the time to be vague. Now is not the time to negotiate your parishioners’ political inclinations. We do not represent a news organization. We do not represent a political party that needs to worry about reelection. So please do not make a vacuous condemnation of “all hate, violence, and bigotry.” Be clear about what is really at stake. Paul was clear in his very public rebuke of Peter that his actions toward the Gentile believers were “not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14). We should make it abundantly clear that all race-based nationalism, in this case white nationalism, is not only culturally problematic, but antithetical to the gospel.

2. Be clear about the audience. Audience matters. How we address these issues from the pulpit should be different than how we address these issues on social media. Different audiences call for different strategies. Before we say or post anything, we should think about how different groups of people might receive the words we are trying to communicate. While this point is certainly in tension with the point above (about clarity), these ideals are not mutually exclusive. As leaders who are called to speak the truth in love, we should know that there will always be people in our audience who will find the truth offensive. But if we are thoughtful about audience, we will lower the risk of unnecessary friendly fire and potential miscommunication.

3. Be clear about the real enemy. Though it is easy to imagine those five hundred torch-toting white supremacists as the enemy, they aren’t the real enemy. Neither is David Duke, the Ku Klux Klan, Donald Trump, or the alt-right. If we ourselves are not clear on the real enemy, we will inevitably demonize (and dehumanize) people and once again deny the power of the gospel. As Russell Moore so eloquently argues, we need to spend our energy “opposing demons, not demonizing opponents.” For our struggle is not against “flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). This does not mean that we don’t hold people (especially leaders) to account for their sin. But it does mean is that we should see every human opponent not as an enemy to be defeated but as people to be won over.

Remember that we too were once enemies of God, without hope. But instead of coming to defeat us, Jesus came into the world to redeem us and entrust to us that same ministry of reconciliation. For two great examples of what this looks like in practice, check out this blog from Pastor Adam Mabry of Aletheia Boston and this video from Pastor Brett Fuller of Grace Covenant Church in Virginia.