The greater things we should be known for...

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I was walking to Blockbuster to rent a movie (like I said... it was a long time ago). As I approached the store, a group of teens gathered outside saw me walking up, and one of them came up to me and said, "Hey! You're that guy that tells everybody they're going to hell!"

At this time in my life, I was a young Bible college student. I hadn't been saved very long, and I had recently answered God's calling on my life. Not finding much opportunity in the church to preach yet, I boldly took to the streets, and started regularly preaching outside of the theater at the Birkdale Village shopping center in Huntersville, North Carolina. In those days there was a large area by the water fountain that teenagers used to gather and hangout at. I decided they would be a perfect audience to preach to, and on most Friday nights one summer you were virtually guaranteed to find me preaching loudly in the open air. I often gathered quite a crowd.

After a brief discussion with this young man outside of Blockbuster about the Lord, and further threatening him with hell-fire should he not repent, I went on with my evening. I stroked my ego a bit afterwards. I was somebody who was known for publicly taking a stand for Jesus! I was doing the Lord's work! Look at me get my light shining business on! The girl I was dating at the time who was with me at Blockbuster was clearly impressed by the "testimony" and "witness" I was making on the youth in the town of Huntersville. My head couldn't help but grow a cap-size or two after accepting such flattery.

Approximately 10 years later, looking back at this event, my opinion of everything I said and did in those days isn't what it once was. While I would still pat myself on the back for preaching the gospel openly for all to hear, I think my older and wiser self would have some words of wisdom to impart to my younger self. And, as I observe the American Evangelical landscape today, I feel some of that wisdom is something that would benefit the church today. So here it goes:

"You are known for all of the wrong things. There are greater things that you should be known for."

My reputation was one of being known for the wrong things. The tragedy of my situation was that the summary of my street preaching was summed up by this one young man: I was the guy telling everybody that they were going to hell.

That's not exactly the legacy I want to leave in this world. It's not the eulogy I want spoken at my funeral. It's not what I want engraved on my tombstone.

While I believe there is a definite place for preaching on hell as part of the preaching of the Gospel, as it is something that Jesus Christ regularly preached on, and is something that modern day preachers should make as part of their preaching, me preaching hell-fire and repentance is not the same thing as preaching the glorious good-news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There is a vast difference between the two. And just as I had left the wrong impression upon this young man, so too, I feel like we as Christians in America are leaving the wrong impression upon our culture.

In America, the church is often known for the things it is against more than the things it is for. And the things we tend to be known for are not the things we should want to be known for, or at the best, should be secondary things we are known for.

We are known for being against homosexuality and the Boy Scouts. We are known for our stance against evolution. We are known for being against abortion. We are known for being against Democrats when they run for office. We are known for being anti-Palestine. We are known for wealthy pastors who live lavish lifestyles. We are known for sex scandals. We are known for being hypocrites. We are known for judging everybody.

A recent event in pop-culture illustrates this problem beautifully.

This past weekend, the movie "Noah" staring Russell Crowe was released, and it has been billed as "the least Biblical Biblical film ever made." On the internet, there has been a "universal flood" (pun intended) of outrage amongst Christians over this movie. Whether or not they have seen the movie, Christians and prominent ministries are "taking a stand" against it, and letting everybody know why they should not go see this evil, evil movie. After all, the truth is at stake! The knowledge of God might be perverted! This is just another movie by Hollywood attempting to attack the Christian faith!

And while these things may very well be true to some degree, I think the reaction of the church against the movie "Noah" is very revealing. In once again finding another "cause" to rally behind in the "culture wars," I believe that God himself is using this movie as something of a mirror meant to expose a blemish on our Evangelical soul. Once again, we find ourselves being too concerned over things that don't really matter, and we are getting bent out of shape over something we won't think twice about a year from now. As a result, we are in danger of leaving the wrong legacy behind. We are giving testimony to the wrong thing!

Carrying on the way we have against the movie Noah, we have lost far more as the church in our society than we can ever hope to gain. We are developing a reputation for all the wrong things. Our fame as the church is over scandals and secondary matters.

There are greater things we need to be known for, like the preaching of resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave, the newness of life that Christ has called us to participate in, acts of service that demonstrate our love for one another, and for doing the things that make for peace. Instead of raising hell, we need to look for ways to bring heaven down to Earth, and show the world the things God is really concerned about. We need to show this world things that are truly close to the Father's heart, so that in the process, their hearts might be changed by being exposed to His. But we cannot do such until we've gained such a heart for ourselves. Let us focus on and be known for that.


Why I dare to dream small!

In this day in age, just about every soothsayer out there gives great motivational speeches about dreaming big and shooting for the stars. Both sacred and secular authorities regularly expound the virtue of dreaming big, in ministry, in business, and in life.

Dare to dream big...

We serve a big God who honors God sized faith...

You can be whatever you want to be if you just put your mind to it...

If you dream it you can do it...
There are thousand other well worn and tired cliches I could drum up about dreaming big, repeated by everybody from Jack Welch, to Zig Ziglar, to Steve Jobs, to Oprah, to John Maxwell, to Joel Osteen. But I won't bother you with those. The chances are you know what these influential people have said better than me.

I've long listened to the dream big mantra. I've been to leadership conferences. I've read leadership books. I've hung out with leaders. But, I've noticed that the more I listen to this philosophy, the less I am impressed by what I hear, and the less I am inspired to dream big. Frankly, all this dreaming big talk is starting to get pretty boring, and I find most of what I hear to be uninspired, unoriginal, and dull.  Everything that has ever needed to be said about dreaming big has already been said.  Unfortunately, that won't stop somebody else from writing another book dedicated to the topic.

Now, please don't misunderstand what I'm saying.  I'm not against people having big dreams.  Big dreams are fantastic things.

However, when I think of all the people I know and the things that motivate them every day, it isn't their failure to have big dreams.  Everywhere you look in our society, you see evidence that people everywhere are dreaming big.  Dreaming big is not something people in our culture need to be encouraged or further dared to do.

We've been dreaming big since before Columbus thought he could find a shortcut to the West Indies.  Nearly a mere half a century after learning to fly, we put a man on the moon.  The energy in my home is provided by something that is nuclear.  I am typing this brief article on a Microsoft Windows based operating system.  All these things are the result of people dreaming big dreams.

But in an age of big dreamers, I feel like we are missing something.  I fear that for all of our big dreaming, we fail to dream small.  And because we fail to dream small, the truly important things that God would have us to value get overlooked, marginalized, and neglected.  We are always looking for the next big thing, when so few of us have the vision to see the thing that is right before us.  

For example, when I was in Bible college and seminary, there was no shortage of young ministers who dreamed of being pastors of big churches or featured as conference speakers.  Many dreamed of preaching to 10,000 people as a guest speaker somewhere.  Many coveted the idea of being in "full time ministry."  Yet, many (including yours truly) were regularly not invited by anybody to speak anywhere about anything.  People often complained and felt "held back," and were upset that their pastors weren't utilizing them in the fullness of their calling.

I look back at those days and chuckle on the inside.  God has been so gracious to me.

Instead of putting me in front of 10,000 people to preach my heart out to, He gave me a small number of homeless people to love and serve on a regular basis for several years.  Then after that assignment I went to another church where God gave me a group of High School students to teach in a Sunday school classroom setting.  For several years after that, on a weekly basis I helped to lead and oversee 3 small groups.  We met in homes, local coffee shops, and even at a Taco Bell.

Some people, not finding an outlet to pursue their big dreams, have ended up sidelined forever, not making the most of the thing set before them because they are too busy dreaming and pursuing something big. They wouldn't be caught dead teaching a weekly Bible study in an old worn out homeless shelter located in a bad part of town, because, as some people said of me, such is a "waste" of their time and talents.  And some people take such temporary assignments, but they are only motivated to do such because they see it only as a stepping stone to "bigger things." As a result, their heart is never fully engaged in what they do, and the mess they leave after they are gone shows where their minds really were all along.

To date, God has given me none of the "big dreams" I "dared" to dream and honor God with when I was younger.  Perhaps one day He will.  But if not, I am ok with that.  Honestly, the further I've journeyed down the road God has me on, I've seen that most of the "God-sized" things I dreamed about handicapped my making an actual impact in this world.  As I believe it does, in fact, for many people.

God has used me to touch a number of lives in eternally significant ways, not because I've dared to dream big, but because I started to learn to see the opportunities right in front of me.  And seeing the opportunities in front of me, I started dreaming about small ways to reach out to people around me and make a difference.  Instead of trying to "take cities for Jesus," I dream about ways of reaching my neighbors.  For ultimately our neighbors are the people that God has called all of us to love, serve, touch, and bless. And if the sum of all of our dreaming ultimately causes us to overlook the people God has put in front of us, then I believe we are dreaming about the wrong things.

Dare to dream small my friends.


Why pastors should openly publish their salaries...

Recently, several pastors of large evangelical churches across America have made headlines concerning the compensation packages they have received from their congregations, speaking engagements, and book deals. In spite of intensive media scrutiny that causes many of these preachers to keep re-appearing in the news on a regular basis, the books of these ministries choose to remain closed, disclosing the salaries of their pastors only to those who have a legal "need-to-know."

Biblically speaking, I don't think this is proper for a minister to do. Biblically speaking, a pastor should not only be willing to openly disclose his income to those in the church, he should in fact do so. And not to just the elders, lawyers, and accountants, but to the body of Christ as a whole.

A pastor who fails to willingly and openly disclose his financial compensation shows that he has fundamentally misunderstood part of his calling. The purpose of and job of pastor is not to simply preach sermons, provide counseling, conduct weddings and funerals, and administer the sacraments.

The purpose and job of the pastor is to openly live his life as an example for the rest of the body of Christ to follow. In the process, he will execute the rest of his duties as a minister in the local church. But if he does not live his life as an open letter to be read by all, and does not openly encourage people to model themselves after the lifestyle he leads, then he has fundamentally misunderstood God's calling on his life, and should consider either changing his approach to ministry, or quickly get out of pastoral ministry.

Well over a dozen times in the New Testament, the apostle Paul exhorted the churches he pastored to follow the example he left for them. The apostle had an understanding that his ministry was more than just an endless series of speaking engagements, but he understood that his life was an open book for others to read. He not only lived his life openly, but he encouraged the churches to closely follow his example.

Consider the following passage as one of many such exhortations:

15 For if you were to have countless tutors in Christ, yet you would not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. 16 Therefore I exhort you, be imitators of me. 17 For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in every church. 18 Now some have become arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. 19 But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I shall find out, not the words of those who are arrogant but their power. (1 Corinthians 4:15-19)

Paul reminds the church in Corinth that though they have a long list of "tutors" who've ministered to them, they've only ever had one "father" in the faith. And as a father in the faith, Paul has encouraged his spiritual children to follow the example of the life he's lived in front of them. And, in order to ensure they continue to do that, the apostle Paul sent his ministerial companion, Timothy, to remind the church of the type of life Paul lived, and Paul was confident that Timothy would live the same type of life openly in front of them, for them to likewise imitate and follow. Some, Paul said, were arrogant with their "ministries of gab." But Paul said contrary to the ministry of the arrogant, there was a power that Paul could demonstrate that had nothing to do with words. And no... that wasn't simply in supernatural signs and wonders. That was in the power of a life that imitated that of Jesus Christ, of which Paul lived masterfully before them. That was the "powerful" ministry of which he spoke.

Being that how we handle our personal finances is such an important part of our lives, I think there are few lessons a pastor could better teach his church than to openly show how he handles his personal finances. And that goes much deeper than shallow exhortations on tithing. And if you study the life and ministry of Paul in any detail, you will learn that he made much about how he handled his personal finances.

I think it is about time our pastors take up the same spirit in their own lives, and do the same. I would encourage our pastors everywhere, whether they are at churches big or small, whether they actually receive a salary from the church or not, to not only be willing to disclose your personal finances to the church, but from time to time, go line by line with your congregations through your monthly personal budgets. Show them you honor God with your finances. Disclose your salaries. Show how much debt you carry. Show them your shortcomings. Show them how to keep their financial lives in order. Help them get their financial lives in order and honor God with their money, by following the example you yourself have made for them.


Standing on the line.

When I saw the above picture, taken on Jan. 24, 2014 in Kiev, Ukraine, I became angry.

I became angry because I feel that many Christians in America simply cannot identify with what is going on in the above picture. In the very center of a violent and deadly protests in Ukraine, some orthodox priests stood between protestors and police and prayed. They didn't stand on the side of the protestors. They didn't stand on the side with the armed government officials.

These priests literally "stood in the gap" between the two sides, lifted up the cross, and interceeded to God and cried out to God for peace.

Everybody else took sides.

Take for example, Roman Catholic cardinal and archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan. Not that I care all that much about the leanings of most Roman Catholic officials. However, I think his attitude is prophetically telling of that of the church in general in America. He's reported saying: “We Catholics in the United States cannot let these brave Ukrainians, whose allegiance to their religious convictions has survived 'dungeon, fire, and sword,” languish. They deserve our voices and our prayers.'" He added: "Nor can we as American citizens fail them, as we call for our government to stand with them."

Instead of standing in the gap, lifting up the cross, and interceeding to God and crying out for peace, the archbishop has called on American's to not fail the citizens of Ukraine, and exhorted us to pick sides. The end outcome of such a behavior, ultimately, will manifest itself in further conflict, and perhaps even war.

In an age where men draw lines in the sand and tell everybody to pick a side, these priests dared to stand on the line that men drew. They didn't choose a side. They chose God. They chose the peace that Jesus Christ came to bring, and offered it to the rest of the world. It is a peace which many Christians in America, who are so used to picking sides simply cannot indentify with, because their minds cannot divorce their identities from nationalistic and patriotic ideals. It's the type of peace that keeps men from killing other men.

In the words of the late Art Kazt, Christians in America are "far too American." And that is why we as American Christians cannot identify with these priests. This is what makes me so angry.

As a reuslt of not knowing the peace Christ came to bring to this world (which we limit primarily to warm fuzzy feelings), and not having out identities grounded in our understanding that we are citizens of the kingdom of God, we go along with the rest of this fallen world: We choose sides.


Arminian in Theory. Calvinist in Practice.

John Wesley is one of my theological heroes.  Of all the ministers who have arisen out of the Arminian camp, there have probably been few more influential than him.  My Pentecostal heritage owes a lot to the intellectual contributions Wesley made to our own tradition.  

But oddly enough, while my theological beliefs are very much at home with Wesley, I find that my personal life has been lived out as if I were a Calvinist.  A friend aptly pointed out to me recently that I am "Arminian in theory, but a Calvinist in practice."  Looking back at the story of my life and how I tell it, I can't help but feel he is right. 

In light of such, I would like to look at my life out of the from the infamous "TULIP" acronym:

  • Total Depravity:  At a young age, I remember taking God's name in vain.  Then shortly thereafter, I learned about the Ten Commandments, and found out one of them said I shouldn't do that.  I instantly felt condemned, lost, and that hell was designed just for me. 
  • Unmerited Favor:  A few years after hearing the Ten Commandments, I heard the gospel for the first time, and I felt like Jesus Christ was seeking me out and calling me to respond to Him.  Apparently, the Lord didn't care about my taking His name in vain.
  • Limited Atonement: Eventually I felt like Jesus Christ died specifically for me and my sins.
  • Irresistible Grace:  One day I discovered I could no longer run from God.  I felt terrified the first moment I heard the Gospel and understood it.  I truly felt like the Lord Himself was calling me by name.  I resisted at first and ran.  But no matter how hard I ran, I discovered that God could run faster, and eventually, He overtook me.  I don't feel as if I chose God.  I feel like He chose me.
  • Perseverance of the Saints:  Some 15 years later, I'm still a Christian.  I've had my ups and downs in my service to the Lord, and there at times have seemed like in my walk where I felt like I was straying from Him.  I've seen a number of people fall away from the faith.  But no matter how far I feel like I've strayed, He always seems to be bringing me back to Himself.  No matter where I go, all roads seem to lead me back to Christ.

My own conversion even resembles something of a "monogeristic" conversion story.  That is, I don't recall the exact moment in time that I was born again.  While I often like to remember the first time I prayed to the Lord and called on His name one night as I lay in my bedroom as the day I became saved, honestly looking back, I'm not so sure I was saved at that moment in time.  As I grow older and reflect more, sometimes it seems like I just woke up one morning a Christian.  I can't tie my conversion to a specific event.  It just seems like over time, gradually, I simply became one.

I definitely feel like my life has been "predestined."  As I look back at my life and all it's major points, from where I was born, my family background, my education as a kid, formative experiences, moments of triumph, moments of pain, moments of stupidity, the way at which I landed my present career, and the discovery of the woman who recently became my wife... I just can't help but feel that I am where I am today but by Divine providence and the greatness of His grace.  Though I am very conscious of the choices I have made in life, it feels as if the exercise of my will has had very little to do with where I've ended up, and where I am going.

My heart feels strangely warmed... and Calvinistic.