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Why You Should Stop Searching for Authentic Community

September 12, 2016

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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

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

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

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

The truth is: it doesn’t really matter.

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

So how do we participate in Christian community?

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

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

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

All we have to do is engage.

Blog / Discipleship / Missions

Multi-ethnic Ministry and Ministry Flexibility

August 16, 2016

hands Brown Smaller ResMANILA, PHILIPPINES. Last week, following a sermon I had recently preached on Luke 24:46-49, I asked the question: What does Spirit-empowered, multi-ethnic ministry look like in practice?

Looking at Peter’s first attempt at cross-cultural, multi-ethnic ministry (in Acts 10), we discovered that in order for Peter and the early apostles to reach every nation, they had to be willing to set aside their Jewish cultural (and culinary) preferences and eat every food. Peter’s willingness to accept Cornelius’ hospitality (and eat his non-Kosher food) was a crucial first step, but it was just the first step.

Peter didn’t stop there. He went on to preach the Gospel to Cornelius and his household. And that’s when things got really interesting…

Remember, Peter was preaching the Gospel to non-Jews for the first time. He had never seen a Gentile become a follower of Jesus, and he assumed that anyone who responded to the Gospel would probably need to convert to Judaism (and be circumcised) before they could follow the Jewish Messiah. In Peter’s mind, the discipleship process looked like this: repentance, circumcision, baptism in water, and eventually, baptism in the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit, it turns out, had other plans.

All those who heard Peter’s message were baptized in the Holy Spirit and immediately began speaking in tongues—before he even finished his sermon (see Acts 10:44-48)! The Jewish disciples who had traveled with Peter were shocked at what they saw. Not only had these brand new Gentile believers skipped the “crucial” step of circumcision, they had not even been baptized in water before they were baptized in the Holy Spirit.

Peter was also shocked. But he decided to abandon his own ministry expectations and follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, saying, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47)

In short, if Spirit-empowered, multi-ethnic ministry requires us to be adventurous in our eating, it also requires us to be flexible in our ministry expectations.

Imagine if Peter had been unwilling to adjust his ministry expectations and follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. Imagine if he had silenced the new believers from speaking in tongues. Imagine if he had made everyone (well, all the males) be circumcised first, then baptized in water a few weeks later, and then baptized in the Holy Spirit only after they completed the process.

How would this story of cross-cultural, multi-ethnic ministry have played out differently if Peter had rigidly held to his own ministry expectations?

Perhaps it’s easy for us (Gentile) believers in the 21st century to see that Peter made the right decision when ministering to Cornelius and his family. But at the time, what Peter was doing was highly controversial and shocking to many Jewish believers.

Spirit-led, multi-ethnic ministry often requires that we be flexible with our ministry expectations in order to reach people who are very different from us.

Here are a few modern examples of this from around the Every Nation world:

Example 1: Friday worship services in the Middle East

  • Though most Christians throughout church history have gathered to worship on Sundays, most of our churches in the Middle East hold their weekly worship services on Friday. Why? Because Friday is the day of the week when most people in majority Muslim countries have off work. If our missionaries were rigid about worshipping on Sunday, then few people would be able to come since most people work and/or attend school on Sunday.

Example 2: Discipleship groups in the pub in Western Europe

  • Though many American evangelicals and Pentecostals choose to abstain from drinking alcohol (this includes me), our missionaries to Western Europe have found that one of the best settings to make disciples is in the pub. Why? Because pubs have a different function in European society than they do in American society. In the eyes of Western Europeans, pubs are less a space of drunkenness and partying than they are a space of conversation and community—kind of like a coffee shop. That’s why many of our Every Nation missionaries find pubs to be a perfect place for small group discipleship.

Example 3: One2One discipleship in Japan

  • Though the One2One discipleship material has been an effective tool for teaching new believers (and even pre-believers) the basics of the faith, our missionaries in Japan found that the material—originally intended for a Catholic Filipino audience—assumed too much background knowledge about the Bible and the life of Jesus. Our leaders decided that to make the tool more effective in their context, they needed to rewrite the One2One book with a Shinto/Buddhist/secularist Japanese audience in mind. Among other things, this involved adding a “Chapter 0” to lay the groundwork for Chapter 1 on Salvation.

These are just a few of many examples of how our cross-cultural missionaries have needed to be flexible with their ministry expectations in order to do effective Spirit-led, multi-ethnic ministry in every nation.

Remember, the truth of the Gospel does not change, but how we communicate and embody that message should change depending on our ministry context.

So let’s learn from Peter and remember to be flexible and, most importantly, to be led by the Holy Spirit as we go and make disciples of all nations.

 

Blog / Discipleship / Leadership

The 20-Hour Work Week: Is Hard Work Compatible with God’s Grace?

November 17, 2015

MANILA. A while back I posted  a blog that included a rant about hard work that was inspired by my observation that some ministers and businessmen seem to believe that hard work is not compatible with the Gospel.

Christians with a functioning work ethic today are becoming as rare as Bigfoot sightings.

The 20-hour work week is the new normal, but when we add 20 hours hanging around coffee shops, and another 20 doing social media, we call it a 60-hour work week. It is amazing how little is actually accomplish in the modern 60-hour work week.

Why are we so allergic to work?

Today’s Church has a whole generation of teachers who misunderstand and distort the grace of God, turning it into an excuse for laziness and licentiousness.

The fact that we are not saved by works does not mean we are not supposed to work. Work is a good thing, a blessing from God. Genesis 2:15 tells us, The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden TO WORK IT and take care of it. This was before the  fall so work was originally part of the blessing, not the curse.

Paul saw no conflict between grace and work, rather he saw them as working together in harmony. Consider the following:
Ephesians 2:8-10
Verse 8 – saved by grace…
Verse 9 – not by works…
Verse 10 – to do good works…

Is hard work compatible with God’s grace? Paul thought so. I agree with Paul.

1 Corinthians 15:10
But by the GRACE of God I am what I am, and his GRACE to me was not without effect. No, I WORKED HARDER than all of them—yet not I, but the GRACE  of God that was with me.

Blog / Discipleship / Family

The Myth of the Gifted Child

November 17, 2015

TUGUEGARAO, PHILIPPINES. Last Saturday I flew from Manila to Tuguegarao, then drove to Aparri to meet my friend, Ferdie Cabiling (aka The Running Pastor) at the finish line of his epic 2500 kilometer (1400 miles) run across the Philippines. Ferdie’s goal was to run from Sarangani to Aparri (from south to north) at least 50K per day and finish in less than 50 days in his 50th year all for the benefit of deserving Real Life Scholars.  Learn more about the Real Life Scholars and the Real Life Foundation here.

__________________

“Your sons are so gifted.”

I’ve heard it a thousand times…

— At William’s elementary school piano recitals: “Wow, he has a musical gift”  (No, he’s practiced every day, since he was five.)
— At James’ junior tennis tournaments:  “I wish my son could hit a forehand like that” (Try training seven days a week for a few of years.)
— At Jonathan’s art shows: “He obviously has a special gift for art” (You should have seen his “art” before we hired an art teacher to mentor him.)

Yeah, we have gifted kids — they were gifted with a mother who wouldn’t allow them to waste time doing nothing. And they were gifted with a father who was on a ten-year anti-TV, anti-video game kick during their formative years. That’s why they spent countless hours reading, listening to music, and developing killer kick-serves.

My sons were also gifted with mentors/coaches/teachers who helped them discover and develop a few of the skills and talents that God hid in them.

Gifts are free. Talents are costly. They must be discovered, developed, and funded.

But sadly, most talent is never discovered, never developed, and never funded. It is simply wasted while staring at a screen. Tragic.

What are you doing to develop your gifts and talents?
What are you doing to help develop your kid’s gifts and talents?

I’ll never forget the junior tennis tournament in Chattanooga, Tennessee when the father of a kid sixteen-year-old James had just destroyed turned to me and said: “I bet you paid a lot of money for his forehand.” That father understood that if gifts and talents are to be developed, they must be funded. He was right, I paid a lot of money for that killer forehand, and it was worth every dollar/peso.

Blog / Discipleship / Worship

In Light of Grace, Does Obedience Matter?

October 19, 2015

ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO. (I wrote this blog a couple of weeks while visiting ourEvery Nation church in NM.) Does the doctrine of grace nullify the law? Does God still expect us to at least attempt to obey His word? The way some people preach grace today makes it seem that obedience no longer matters. Maybe it doesn’t matter to some preachers. But it matters to God.

How common it is today to “relax” God’s moral, ethical, and relational standards. No matter what the culture says, sex outside of marriage is sin. Coveting, lying, and stealing are also sinful. Bitterness, unforgiveness, and hatred are common, but wrong.

Speaking about the Law, Jesus said we should not think that He came to “abolish the Law or the Prophets.” Rather, He came to “fulfill” the Law. He then said, “until heaven and earth will pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until it is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17,18)

Jesus was was the embodiment of grace, but He was not anti-Law. In fact, He gave a serious warning to those who would like to “relax” the demands of the law. “Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teachers others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:19) Often when I hear a radio or TV preacher, it seems they are teaching people to relax God’s commands. I guess that means our generation has produced some of the least in the kingdom.

The Gospel tells us that no matter how sinful and disobedient we are, God still loves and redeems us, by grace through faith. Our obedience does not increase God’s love for us, and our disobedience does not decrease His love for us. While we were sinners, He loved us enough to sacrifice His one and only Son for us.

If God loves us whether or not we obey, what then is the point of trying to obey His Law?

Our obedience does not increase His love for us, but it does increase our love for Him. The more we obey, the more our love for Him will grow. Jesus said it like this, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word.” (John 14:23) He did not say, If anyone keeps my word, the Father will love him. No, the Father loves us if we keep the word, and if we do not keep the word. Reading and obeying God’s word, increases our love for Him.

Summary: We cannot increase God’s love for us, but if we want our love for God to increase, we must read and obey His word.

More blogs on this topic: Grace or Truth?   Grace is Supposed to Change Us,    The Certainty of Forgiveness.

And finally, here’s a great worship song about the transformational power of grace: Grace Changes Everything.

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 / Discipleship / Leadership

Grace or Truth?

August 25, 2015

NASHVILLE. In one of my all-time favorite movie scenes, Cuba Gooding Jr plays a mentally challenged young man nicknamed “Radio” who is being mentored by a high school football coach played by Ed Harris.

Coach and Radio are eating in a diner. When they finish their meal, the waitress politely and slowly addresses Radio, “Do you want strawberry pie or apple pie?”

Radio answers, “I wan’ boff.”

Radio was not the smartest movie character ever, but he understood that he could choose both.

Unfortunately, many of today’s church leaders have a difficult time embracing the concept of both. In our confused and polarized Western church world, we think have to choose between grace and truth, as if the two concepts are mutually exclusive.

Jesus choose both. We should choose both.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (‭John‬ ‭1‬:‭14‬)

According to this passage, Jesus was “full of grace AND truth.” The idea of grace and truth is not a multiple choice question. It is not an either/or decision. This is one of those both/and situations.

But we prefer to pick one or the other. Then we build a camp. In time, our camp becomes our identity. Then we start a blog. And a twitter account. Eventually we vilify people in other camps. I’m not sure why we do this, but we do.

Preachers in the “grace camp” are accused of ignoring certain Bible texts that seem to condemn politically correct lifestyles and culturally protected sins. On the other hand, preachers in the “truth camp” overemphasize a few sins and are stereotyped as hateful religious bigots and religious Pharisees.

Why can’t we just be like Jesus and embrace grace and truth?

My guess is that everyone reading this wants to be filled with grace and truth, but how? In today’s crazy out-of-balance ministry world, when we want grace we listen to a Joseph Prince podcast or watch a Joel Osteen broadcast. When we want truth we read a John MacArthur book or a John Piper tweet.

Question: What if we want to be filled with both grace and truth?

Answer: If we want both grace and truth, we have to go to Jesus.

The Law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (John 1:17)

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 / Discipleship / Missions

Greed

August 4, 2015

MANILA. What is repentance and does it still matter? Luke 3 records John the Baptist’s message to religious people who wanted to be baptized. As usual, John boldly and unapologetically demanded repentance.

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance… Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

As was often the case when John (and Jesus and Paul) preached, the crowds not only got answers, they also walked away with questions. Here’s the big question prompted by John’s blunt call to repentance.

What shall we do?   (Luke 3:10)

That’s always a good question to ask when one wants to repent.

As you read my summary paraphrase below, see if  you can spot the common theme in John’s answer to their question about repentance.

Verse 11 Whoever has extra clothes and food, give to those who have none.

Verse 13 Collect no more taxes (money) than authorized.

Verse 14 Do not extort money and be content with your salary.

No matter the audience (tax collectors, soldiers, random people), the answer to their what shall we do question was basically the same: reject greed and embrace generosity.

At some point, real repentance will confront our greed and demand generosity. This might not always be the first step in repentance, but it will be a step or two or two thousand on the lifelong journey of walking with God.

I love the way this passage ends: So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. (Luke 3:18)

This passage describes repentance as rejecting greed and embracing a lifestyle of generosity. When John preached about repentance and generosity Luke said he preached good news to the people!

The message of repentance and the call to generosity is good news!

Blog / Discipleship / Leadership / Worship

Pride

August 4, 2015

NASHVILLE. Good to be back in the office writing the final chapter of my parenting book, after ten productive days in South Africa and Nigeria. The wholehearted full volume African worship made my otherwise exuberant home churches (Victory Manila and Bethel Brentwood) feel rather Anglican in comparison.

While reading the tiny book of Obadiah this morning, I encountered a huge and terrifying truth.

The pride of your heart has deceived you.  (Obadiah 1:3 ESV)

Two simple points:

1. Pride is a heart issue. If we are proud it is not because of our accomplishments, culture, education, nationality, or family. It is because of our heart. The only way to deal with pride is to deal with the heart, not the external circumstances.

2. Pride is deceitful. It always makes us see self, others, situations, sin, anointing, and everything else in a distorted way. It tends to downplay our failures and exaggerate our accomplishments. It always tries to write self into the story and push self on center stage. But we rarely realize what pride is doing to us, because it is deceitful.

One simple (but difficult) solution: Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God. (1 Peter 5:6 ESV)