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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?

Blog / Church / Leadership

4 Church Growth Secrets from 2800 Years Ago

August 4, 2015

NASHVILLE. Most pastors, church planters, and campus missionaries are in the ministry because they want to obey God, serve people, and change the world. Sure, some have messed up motives, but most have pure hearts. And most want to grow in terms of ministering the Gospel to more and more people.

Despite honorable motives, the desire to grow and actual measurable growth are not the same. To borrow a word from the prophet Isaiah, many in ministry feel “barren.”

Notice what Isaiah said to the barren.

“Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married,” says the Lord. (Isaiah 54:1)

After going to the conference, listening to the podcast, reading the book, attempting what the mega-church celebrity suggested, and not seeing results, we usually feel like quitting and complaining, not singing.

Besides singing, Isaiah had clear instruction for those who are being ignored by Outreach Magazine’s fastest growing church list.

“Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. (‭Isaiah‬ ‭54‬:‭2)

If you have not experienced the level of fruitfulness you desire, try singing and doing the rest of what Isaiah said:

1. ENLARGE YOUR VISION (“Enlarge the place of your tent”)
Think bigger. Dream bigger. Enlarge your place. Consider getting a bigger facility, or at least maximizing the one you have.

2. STRETCH YOUR FAITH (“let the curtains… be stretched”)
Isaiah did not tell them to replace the curtains. Their curtains were OK, they just need to be stretched a bit. Stretching is not comfortable, but is is essential for growth.

3. LENGTHEN YOUR REACH (“lengthen your cords”)
OK, you are reaching your campus, your city, your country, but what about the next campus, the next city, and the next nation? When and where is your next campus outreach? When and where is your next church plant? Who is your next campus missionary? Who is your next church planter?

4. STRENGTHEN YOUR FOUNDATION (“and strengthen your stakes”)
More growth requires more strength. Greater outreach demands greater depth. In a building, the deeper and stronger the foundation, the taller the building. Same in ministry. Deeper and stronger spiritual foundations support greater growth.

Q: Why do we need to enlarge, stretch, lengthen, and strengthen?

A: Because God plans for us to “spread abroad to the right and to the left” and for our next generation to “possess the nations.” (Isaiah 54:3)

If you desire growth, whether you feel barren or fruitful, I suggest you get busy enlarging, stretching, lengthening, and strengthening. God will do the rest.

Blog / Church / Discipleship / Family / Leadership

Don’t Quit

December 8, 2014

This is an odd blog title, since it seems like I quit blogging. There are many reasons for my blog delinquency, but only one is legit, the others are just lame excuses. Here’s my respectable reason for my invisible blogs of late:  most of my writing energy is being invested in a new book about parenting that should be completed in the next couple of months.

I have three working titles. Which one do you think is best?

          The Heart of Parenting

          Discipleship at Home

          My First, Second, and Third Attempts at Parenting

While researching for my new book, I stumbled on this blog that was originally posted six years ago. I thought it might be a good Christmas season post.


——————–

Ever want to quit – a relationship, job, church – but the Holy Spirit wouldn’t let you?

Even though it would be easier to walk.
Even though you were wronged.
Even though it hurts to stay.

Maybe the marriage is not all you dreamed it would be.
Maybe the job is not what it was promised to be.
Maybe the church really is filled with hypocrites.

But for some reason, God will not let you quit.

So what do you do?  Stay, or walk? Go for it on 4th and 20, or punt? Fight on, or tapout? All in, or fold?

What do you do when everything in you says to quit, but some faint barely discernible still quite voice says to hang in there?

If you ever feel like that, I suggest you read the Christmas story.

The one in Matthew 1:18-25.  

Summary. A man discovers his fiancé is pregnant. The baby is not his. She claims it is God’s. Yea, right. I’m out of here. He wasn’t bitter or vindictive. Just hurt. Confused. And moving on with his life. But while he was sleeping, God sent an angel to tell him that the baby really was from God, and he better not quit.

I’m sure he still had questions. And doubts. And pain. But he stayed. He went for it. All in.

“When he woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded.” (v. 24)

Same question as before: ever wanna quit – relationship, job, church – but the Holy Spirit says not to?

We all have.

Aren’t you glad you listened to Him, and refused to quit?

Blog / Church / Leadership

A Framework for Restoring the Fallen and Fixing Bad Theology

September 5, 2014

MIDLAND, TEXAS. You know the story. Peter denied Jesus three times and returned to his former life of fishing for fish. Then Jesus showed up. His one agenda: restoration. Like the rest of humanity, Peter was not exactly seeking Jesus, but that didn’t stop Jesus from seeking and finding him. Funny how Jesus shows up when we least expect or desire Him. “Even when we are faithless, he remains faithful.” (2 Timothy 2:13)

After giving some pretty bizarre fishing tips that proved to be successful, Jesus then enjoyed breakfast with Peter and his fisherman friends. The restoration process has started, whether Peter and his friends realized it or not. Over the years I have found that restoration mixes well with food. After starting with food, the next step in the restoration process is to ask a good question, and repeat it until the heart is pierced.

“Peter, do you love me?” (John 21:15,16,17)

Good questions are often pointed and painful. They are also often avoided, deflected, and left unanswered. That’s why they need to be repeated three times or more.

This story teaches us that when we have taken underperformance to a whole new level, when we have failed gloriously, and when we have totally disappointed God and others, Jesus’ first question to us is not about our performance, our disobedience, or our failure. His first question is about our relationship with Him.

“Do you love me?”

Notice that Jesus did not ask a theological question. He did not ask an organizational question. And He did not ask a missional question. He asked a relational question. This is not to suggest that theological conviction, organizational unity, and missional direction are unimportant. It is just that they are not primary when it comes to restoration.

 “Do you love me?”

If we get the relationship restored, then we can have serious and productive discussions about theological nuances, organizational structures, and missional strategies.

It is common to frame church splits and ministry conflicts as theological, organizational, or missional disagreements. Reality has taught me that the root issue is usually relational. Because we do not want to face the pain of relational honesty, we cop-out and hide behind theological smokescreens. Rather than working through relational offense, we split and blame it on the mission and vision.

At times I have been criticized for being too relational and not organizational enough. After trying my best to correct this, I was then criticized for being too organizational at the expense of being relational. If that is not confusing enough, I have also been criticized for being too theological and not missional enough. And for being too missional and not theological enough.

I concluded a long time ago that since I cannot please everyone, then I would only live to please One. I have also come to the conclusion that pleasing Him requires me to prioritize relationships. And if we get the relational part right, we will be able to fix whatever theological, organizational, and missional problems that arise.

 

Blog / Church

My Thoughts on the Mark Driscoll, Mars Hill, Acts 29 Scandal

August 25, 2014

HONOLULU. Pastor Mark Driscoll, Mars Hill Church, and Acts 29 have been all over the news lately. One headline read, “Mark Driscoll Charged with Abusive Behavior by 21 Former Mars Hill Pastors.” How could a church as young as Mars Hill have 21 former pastors? Did the 21 quit, or were they fired? Why?

A sinister voice within told me that since I am a leader, I need to know the dirt that these 21 ex-Mars Hill leaders have on their former boss. So, I clicked and started reading. But I didn’t get very far because the words at the top of the page and the conviction of the Holy Spirit stopped me in my tracks.

Here are those words: “CONFIDENTIAL: We don’t intend to make this communication public, and we ask that you not make it public either.”

Someone obviously ignored this request and made it very public. And that’s just plain wrong.

The letter was addressed to “Mars Hill Church Full Council of Elders.” It was from “Mike Wilkerson and former Elders of Mars Hill Church.” A confidential letter from former elders to current elders should not be available to random strangers on facebook.

The letter was clearly marked CONFIDENTIAL, and since I am neither a former nor a current Mars Hill Church elder, I had no right to read it.

So, I closed my iPad and read no more.

Even though I did not read the “charges of abusive behavior” against Mark Driscoll by the 21 former elders, I still have a thought on Mark Driscoll and the whole scandal. Here it is: since I am not a Mars Hill member or elder, and I have never visited Mars Hill, and I have never given money to Mars Hill, and I have never met Pastor Mark, therefore, the whole Mark Driscoll, Mars Hill, 21 elder, and Acts 29 scandal is…

NONE OF MY BUSINESS!

And that’s all I have to say about that.

 

Blog / Church / Discipleship / Missions

30 Years in 30 Words

August 15, 2014

TOKYO. Eight-hour layover. Thinking about the 30th anniversary celebration of Victory.  Here’s my description of how and why it all started 30 years ago, in just 30 words.

——–

1984.

MISSISSIPPI. Rice. Mission. Money? Partners. Passport…

GO!

MANILA. Traffic. Poverty. Jeepneys. Floods. Smiles. Mango…

U-BELT. Crowds. Radicals. Riots. Teargas. Hopelessness. Gospel. Jesus. Worship. Discipleship. Faith. Hope.

STAY! Victory. Grateful.

 

——–

(Check out the official Victory at 30 timeline with vintage photos.)