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How Worship Works

April 25, 2017

Communion Table

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—Last weekend, Deborah and I were in Auckland, New Zealand, for our Every Nation Oceania conference. This week, we are in Sydney for our annual Asia & Oceania Regional Leadership Team meeting.

Traveling around the Every Nation world, I have the privilege to participate in Sunday worship services in many different cultures and languages. I have worshiped with our brothers and sisters in Chinese house churches; I have worshiped in a converted cockfighting pit in Colombia; I have worshiped at medieval cathedrals in Europe; I have worshiped in contemporary megachurches in the Philippines. Just last weekend, I worshiped in a small Pentecostal church in rural Georgia. The cultural contexts of these worship services vary wildly—and this affects things like worship language, worship style, worship environment, meeting size, and service flow.

However, whether we are in Shanghai or Fusagasuga, Oxford or Nashville, certain core elements of Christian liturgy transcend cultural variation. Through singing, preaching, communion, giving, and fellowship, churches around the world and across the centuries have been participating in the same liturgical practices that emerged in the earliest days of the New Testament church in Syria-Palestine.

Why or how have these elements of Christian worship persisted across time and space for over 2,000 years?

First, we find these liturgical elements practiced in the Bible (especially in Acts). Second, Christian leaders recognize that worship is not ultimately about expression; it’s about formation.

If unique cultural expression was the primary goal in worship, then it wouldn’t matter if churches in twenty-first century Lagos continued with ancient liturgical practices developed in first-century Jerusalem. They could find their own ways to express their love for God, which may or may not include singing, preaching, and communion. But for some reason we continue to worship in the same ways that Christians throughout the ages have done.

Why?

As beautiful as it is hear God’s praises sung in hushed Chinese in a house church and as powerful as it is to hear the word of God preached by our young Colombian leaders in a cockfighting pit (formerly owned by Pablo Escobar!), diverse cultural expression is a secondary goal in worship. The primary goal is spiritual formation, or discipleship.

In other words, the most important actor in worship is not us (as humans) but God.

While we often think that Sunday worship is primarily about expression (what we do to/for God), it is actually more about formation (what God does to/in us). Why? Because when we gather together as a church to worship God, He comes by His Spirit in our midst and changes us. He doesn’t just transform us in a nebulous way, but rather, he comes and transforms us through the repeated “rituals” of Christian worship. Singing, fellowship, preaching, communion, giving—these powerful liturgical practices are God’s way of revealing Himself to us and transforming us by His Spirit.

In communion, God engages our eyes, our hands, our mouths, and our stomach, and reminds us in very tangible ways of his incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.

In preaching, God engages our ears and our minds—and through His spirit, He convicts us of sin and calls us to repentance and faith.

In singing, God engages our vocal chords and our emotions—and trains us to love Him with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength.

In giving, God engages our material possessions, the bills and cards and accounts in your back pocket—and trains us to trust Him and His provision and to denounce the idol of Mammon.

In fellowship, God engages our social lives—and reminds us that our primary group identity is not our nation or our ethno-linguistic group or even our natural family. But rather, it is the people redeemed by Christ’s blood from every tribe, language, people, and nation.

This is how worship works. And whether we realize it or not, this is what God is up to on Sunday morning.

Blog / Church / Family / Miscellaneous

An Easter Funeral

April 18, 2017
 Tuckers Grove United Congregational Holiness Church

 NASHVILLE—Late last night, we arrived home from the funeral of Deborah’s grandmother, Sara Nell McAfee, known to her grandchildren, great grandchildren, and great great grandchildren as Mama Mac. In sermons and at parenting conferences, I have often talked about Mama Mac and the godly heritage she left behind for her four children, nine grandchildren, sixteen great grandchildren, and two great great grandchildren (Jo and Liam).

The funeral service was held at Tucker’s Grove United Congregational Holiness Church (see picture above)—the Pentecostal church where Deborah’s great grandfather was the pastor for fifty years and where Deborah’s grandmother attended all her life. As a pastor, I normally speak at the funerals I attend, but at this one, I sat in the pew with my wife, adult sons, daughter-in-law, and my granddaughter, Josephine.

The funeral service was led by the new pastor of Tucker’s Grove, a young preacher who had only been in this church for five years. He was brief, but he said a few words that I’ll never forget. Standing in this rural Pentecostal church that was founded in 1923, the pastor said of Mama Mac and her generation: “Today, people go to the house of God. But in the past, people had an encounter with the God of the house. Lord, we need an encounter with the GOD OF THE HOUSE!!!”

As he said this, I began to think about all that Mama Mac had seen and experienced in this small brick church building during her ninety-four years on this earth. Weddings. Baptisms. Funerals. Communion. Prayer. Foot washings. Baby dedications. Healings. Signs and wonders. Church plants. Church splits. Church growth. Church decline. Church renewal.Since 1923, each generation of believers has had to have their own encounter with the God of the house. I thought about this as I looked at Deborah and reflected on the profound spiritual influence that Mama Mac had on her life. I thought about this as I looked at my adult sons, whose own spiritual lives owe much to their mother’s example of fervent prayer and unwavering faith. And I thought about this as I looked at my granddaughter, Josephine, who at three is now beginning to ask questions about Jesus (she even recognized him somehow on the stained glass windows at Tucker’s Grove).

As I thought about my own family, I also thought about my Every Nation church family around the world. My prayer is that after our founder generation is gone, subsequent generations will have their own encounters with God in some of the very churches we are planting and in the buildings we are building. My prayer is that my generation will not make it hard for future generations to meet Jesus and join His mission. My prayer is that, like Deborah’s grandmother, we will model a vibrant faith and love for God’s word and mission that inspires future generations to take the gospel to every nation in their generation.

Blog / Church / Leadership

Worship, Discipleship, & Church History

April 10, 2017
Photo: Ryan Daly

Photo: Ryan Daly

YOKOHAMA, JAPAN—Every year, our International Apostolic Team (IAT), which includes regional leaders from all over the Every Nation world, gathers together to fellowship, pray, and plan for the coming years (and even decades). Every Nation Church Yokohama hosted our 2017 IAT meeting.

One of our conversation topics last week was liturgy and how we can equip our pastors to think critically (and even creatively) about the relationship between worship and discipleship. Working as we do in so many different cultural contexts, we recognized the need to better equip our missionaries and church planters to think through how worship works in general and how it works in their particular context.

One of our starting points was a discussion about the role of different liturgical practices in church history.

When we look back through history, we find that though the core elements of Christian worship have remained consistent (fellowship, singing, preaching, communion, offering), different elements are emphasized at different times.

For example, in medieval Europe, the climax of the liturgy was communion. Services still featured singing, fellowship, preaching, and offering, but the greater emphasis was on the celebration of the Lord’s table. In Reformation Germany, the emphasis shifted back toward the preached word. Again, the other elements of Christian worship were still present, but the shape of Protestant liturgy emphasized the importance of the preaching. Fast forward another 500 years to the Charismatic movement of the 1960s and 70s. Though Charismatic churches valued the preached word and the celebration of communion, their worship services emphasized singing and experiencing God’s presence during longer worship.

Today, if you were to attend churches with roots in these three traditions, you would still notice the different points of emphasis in the worship. Though some people would argue that one worship tradition or style is better than another, it’s more helpful to realize that in every time and place, pastors and leaders have adjusted or emphasized elements of the liturgy in response to three impulses: missiological context, theological tradition, and practical necessity. Let’s look at those reasons.

1. Missiological Context. Medieval catholicism, for all its faults, emphasized certain very visual liturgical practices (like communion) because church leaders were communicating the gospel to highly illiterate European populations—many of whom (at least initially) did not speak the same language as their priests. Hence, the emphasis on communion, a highly visual liturgical practice that powerfully represents the core truths of the gospel to people who can’t read (or maybe can’t even understand the sermon).

2. Theological Tradition. Protestant churches during the Reformation, because of their theological emphasis on Sola Scriptura, felt that the preaching of the Word needed to be the main focus of corporate worship. Though they appreciated the ways that other liturgical practices, like communion, gave worshippers a visual representation of the gospel, they felt that the Word of God had too often been absent from medieval worship practices, resulting in disciples whose knowledge of the gospel was real but underdeveloped.

3. Practical Necessity. During the Charismatic movement, many pastors and leaders (who were part of mainline cessationist denominations) were kicked out of their churches for their insistence on the continuing work of the Holy Spirit. Thus, out of both practical necessity and a theological conviction about the continued work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church, Charismatic churches—and their particular liturgy—were birthed. While valuing the preached word, this tradition places a great emphasis on sung worship, with the expectation that people will encounter the living God in profound and unique ways as we come into His presence with singing.

As you think about liturgy and your own missiological context, remember that worship is not primarily about what we can do for God; it is about what God does in us by the Holy Spirit as we gather in His presence.

Blog / Church / Leadership

9 Tips for Young Preachers

February 6, 2017

pulpit-web-versionSAGADA, PHILIPPINES—The pastor of a large church recently asked me if I would be willing to provide sermon coaching to help his youth pastor. After a couple of phone conversations about ministry and preaching, I sent a stream-of-conscience email to the fledgling preacher that included nine somewhat random preaching tips.

1. INTRO. Concerning a sermon introduction, shorter is always better. Get to the text as fast as you can. Long introductions are rarely helpful, and often become a distraction. Move all non-essential stories, words, ideas from the intro, and if those stories, words, or ideas deserve to be in the sermon, you can always insert them after reading the text.

2. READ. While preaching, never speed-read your text, or shorten it by only reading a small portion. Read the whole text with passion, pauses, emotion, energy, and emphasis—with no comments until you finish reading the whole text. Let the text speak. Approach the reading of the text as the most important part of the sermon.

3. TEXT. After reading the text, preach the text. Stay in the text. Go deep in the text. Make sure everything you say is coming from the text. Remember that life-changing power is in His word, not in your words.

4. CONTEXT. Do not bore your audience with contextual trivia. While explaining the context is necessary, resist the temptation to say everything you now know about ancient Middle Eastern food, geography, and religion.  Delete every context comment that does not directly contribute to the your main point. Leave it on the editing floor, or save it for another message.

5. STOP. Prepare how you will stop your sermon, and plan to stop five minutes before your time limit. A rushed ending is not a good ending, so make sure you plan plenty of time to end properly.

6. HEART. It is more important for people to catch God’s heart about the text/topic than to remember your points. If they catch God’s heart, they will be transformed. If they remember your points, well, they actually won’t remember them, so focus on the heart.

7. LOVE. Effective preaching requires more than properly exegeting a text, it also demands a proper exegesis of the culture and community. In other words, good preaching requires loving the Bible and loving the people listening. Don’t preach until you are certain that you actually know, understand, love, and care for the people who will hear your sermon. Preaching is supposed to be a “speaking the truth in love” thing, therefore love is somewhat important.

8. ACTION. When we want to move people to action, especially evangelistic action, it is better to emphasize what Christ did for us rather than what we do for Him. My favorite seminary homiletics professor said it like this, “Preachers either guilt or gospel their people to action.” Since most church people already have more than enough guilt, preachers might want to pick the gospel option.

9. AUDIENCE. God is your ultimate audience. Preach to honor Him. Do not preach to please the senior pastor, the first-time visitor, the big tither, or the know-it-all critic. The best preaching is done to please the Lord, even if no one else is pleased.

 

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 / 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 / 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 / Church / Leadership

5 Tips for Preachers

September 29, 2015

NASHVILLE. My home church, Victory Manila, has over 125 weekly worship services infifteen Metro Manila locations. Unlike many multi-site churches we never play video sermons. All of our services have live preachers, who preach the same text. This does not mean all the sermons are exactly the same. Some of our preachers are evangelists who end every sermon with an altar call, some are teachers who throw out random Greek and Hebrew words, and some are free-flowing prophets who throw out the clock. Some of our preachers are serious, some use humor. Some preach fifty minutes. Others preach twenty minutes. Some are demonstrative, others move less than the wax Morgan Freeman at Madame Tussauds.

No matter the preaching style or the preacher’s gifting, all Victory preachers preach the same text, title, and big idea every week. And no matter the preacher, we all attempt to apply Isaiah 40:1,2 as we preach.

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare has ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

Here are five preaching tips from Isaiah 40 that are as relevant today as when they were written 2700 years ago.

1. Comfort my people. Finley Peter Dunne (1867-1936) said that newspapers were supposed to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I think preachers should do the same. In most congregations, there are far more afflicted people than comfortable people, therefore, our preaching should bring comfort, not add more affliction.

2. Speak tenderly. Harsh words crush dreams and kill relationships. Tender words inspire dreams and restore relationships. Unfortunately there are not many places in society where tender words are being offered. Hopefully we can find them in our pulpits.

3. Warfare has ended Shoichi Yokoi was a Japanese sergeant in WWII. On January 24, 1972 he was discovered in the jungles of Guam. He had been living in a cave, hiding from the Americans for twenty-eight years, because no one told him the war had ended. Many believers are living in spiritual caves, afraid to engage the world. Preachers are supposed to tell them that Jesus already won the war.

4. Iniquity is pardoned. Paul never got tired of preaching the Gospel over and over and over and over. We should never tire of preaching and teaching what Jesus did for us, that because of his death and resurrection, our sins are forgiven. Preach it. Teach it. Sing it. Pray it. Then do it again next week.

5. Received from the Lord’s hand. And finally, our preaching should teach people how to receive from the Lord, not how to beg and manipulate, but how to receive what He freely offers.

If you are preaching this weekend or if you are leading a small discipleship group, I hope these ancient preaching principles will help you honor God and make disciples.

Blog / Church / Discipleship

Declaring War on Low Expectations

September 29, 2015

NASHVILLE. It is common in some modern ministry circles, to not only accept, but to actually celebrate low expectation and smallness. Big vision is considered arrogant and status quo is confused with humility. While some visionaries are certainly arrogant and some small-thinkers are truly humble, this does not mean that biblical humility and big vision cannot peacefully coexist. From Moses to Paul to Medieval martyrs to modern Bible translators, church history is filled with humble visionaries who dreamed big and actually accomplished much.

Consider the familiar words of Jesus in John 15. While exhorting his disciples to “abide in the vine” and to “remain in Him” Jesus listed five levels of fruitfulness that seemed designed to help his followers think bigger and expect more.

1. No fruit. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away. (John 15:2) Other translations say he cuts off fruitless branches. This text is more an exhortation to fruitfulness than an explanation of the doctrine of perseverance of the saints. Bottom line: fruitlessness is not an acceptable option. So, if your church or campus ministry is doing activities that are not bearing fruit, they probably need to be cut off or taken away. Unless of course, busyness is our ultimate goal.

2. Fruit. Every branch that does bear fruit he prunes. (John 15:2) Fruitfulness is the goal. Fruitless branches get cut off, and fruitful branches get pruned. Either way we get cut, so we might as well get cut for fruitfulness rather than for fruitlessness.

3. More fruit. He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. (John 15:2) The divine purpose in pruning (cutting things off) is so that we bear more fruit. If you have been fruitful in church planting or campus ministry, the next step is more fruit.

4. Much Fruit. By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. (John 15:8) We have all been repelled by insecure leaders who think ministry growth and size is all about them. Fortunately, they are the exception not the rule. If your ministry has born fruit and then more fruit, I suggest you brace yourself for more pruning. And after the pain of pruning, it might be a good idea to start planning, preparing, and staffing for much fruit.

5. Lasting Fruit. I appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide. (John 15:16) Alternate translations use the words remain or last. Jesus wants our fruit to abide, remain, and last. Unfortunately it is common for churches and campus ministries to experience much fruit that vanishes as soon as we tweet about it. Jesus is not interested in giving us temporary fruit. His fruitfulness progression goes from no fruit to fruit to more fruit to much fruit to lasting fruit.

Are you praying for, planning for, preparing for much fruit? Or have you made peace with no fruit or with little fruit?

The fields are ripe for harvest. That means we declare war on fruitlessness and low expectations, and begin to think and dream big as if God really wants to give us fruit, more fruit, much fruit, and lasting fruit.

Blog / Church / Discipleship / Leadership

Healthy Church Growth: Measuring What Matters

August 21, 2015

TOKYO. Earlier this week I was in Kuala Lumpur speaking to Asian mega-church pastors at the 2015 Asia Leaders Summit. With all due respect to my mega-church pastor friends, I would much rather spend three days with regular church pastors. Three days with mega-church leaders reciting huge numbers reminded me that some numbers matter more than others.

Every time I am asked to teach discipleship, at some point I have to talk about numbers. I always do so with some reluctance, but not because it is necessarily wrong to count and track numbers. My reluctance is due to people’s common tendency of attributing all kinds of virtue, worth, and wisdom to individuals and churches based on how many people show up at their meetings. By those same calculations, there is a tendency to diminish the efforts of other leaders and churches because their attendance numbers don’t have as many digits.

This is simply not fair. Growing a church to 100 in Tokyo or Teheran takes more work and is a greater accomplishment than growing a church to 1000 in Singapore or Manila. Some cities are ripe for harvest. Some are not. We cannot judge the quality of a church or a pastor’s ministry simply by how many people attend the weekend worship service because raw numbers do not account for soil conditions.

Judging pastors and churches by attendance numbers completely misses the main point of ministry. Weekend worship attendance numbers without context are totally unreliable indicators of church health.

Jesus did not call us to gather crowds. He called us to make disciples. In Matthew 16, Jesus said He would build His church. A few chapters later in Matthew 28, He told His followers to make disciples. His job is to build His church. Our job is to make disciples. When we make disciples, He takes those disciples and builds them into a church that the gates of hell cannot overcome.

Last week I received the Victory-Manila 2015 second quarter report. As you might expect, the report contained numbers, graphs, and charts. My eyes quickly sought the two numbers that matter more than all other numbers, the two numbers that give context to all the other numbers.

Those numbers were 3039 and 7166.

The first number is the number of new believers who were baptized in Manila in the first two quarters of 2015. (Plus, we baptized another 5248 in the provinces for a total of 8287 nationwide.) The second number is the number of active Victory discipleship groups that meet weekly in Metro Manila.

Why do these numbers matter more than all others, including the attendance number and the offering amount?

The first number (baptisms) matters because lost people matter to God.

The Parable of the Ninety-nine and the One (Luke 15) presents a radically different way of looking at numbers. Many pastors today focus all their attention on the ninety-nine. Pastors feed the sheep in their flock; pastors serve the sheep in their flock; pastors occasionally recruit sheep from other flocks. We celebrate the ninety-nine and ignore the lost one. No matter how great we are at caring for the flock, Jesus calls us to pursue the lost.

The second number (Victory discipleship groups) matters because lost people matter to us.

The more Victory discipleship group leaders we equip and empower, the more opportunities we will have to engage the lost in every area of culture and community. Since lost people matter to God, they should matter to us.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to help lead a small Every Nation church in the Nashville area. When I received the first year-end report, my eyes immediately went to the two numbers that matter most: 12 and 27. Twelve new believers baptized and twenty-seven discipleship group leaders equipped and empowered in the first year. Like in Manila, those two numbers mattered more than total attendance and offering amount. Those numbers were worth celebrating because evangelism and discipleship matter to God and to us.

What numbers do you celebrate?