Skip to content

our blog is moving

February 7, 2012
by

Folks,

After a good run here at WordPress, we are moving our blog.

Our new address is here.

Thanks!

John

how not to burnout in ministry

February 2, 2012
by

Whether we’re talking about vocational ministry or serving the church as a volunteer, there is no shortage of advice on how not to burnout. Good thing, if not monitored, it is easy to burnout and, when you do, it is awful. Your joy dissipates, you lack motivation and you have a constant feeling of being in over your head. Burnout is really not pleasant.

So, whether you are in vocational ministry or serve as a volunteer, what do you do to ensure you don’t burnout?

Most of us, myself included, answer with a list of behaviors. We may work to set healthy boundaries or ask for support and oversight. This is not a bad thing.  We must implement habits and practices that prevent burnout because, at the end of the day, you know yourself and your limitations.

That being said, we must understand that setting good boundaries and not overextending ourselves, though helpful, do not go far enough. Our habits and practices that prevent burnout must be joined with an earnest belief that God is always at work. He, who never slumbers or sleeps, is always building his church.

One of the major reasons we burnout is because we develop a sense that our work doesn’t matter. When this happens, we often enter into a downward spiral where all we see and experience is our fatigue, failed efforts and disappointments. To combat this, we must remember that our labor is not in vain because Jesus’ resurrection life is coursing through our community and world.

The Apostle Paul encouraged the Corinthians with similar words: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

God is at work.

He is always at work.

Therefore, your labor today is not in vain.

Do you see it?

church discipline

January 31, 2012
by

A recent situation at Mars Hill Church has sparked a pretty robust online debate over church discipline. This post is not about that situation. I don’t know enough about the particulars to speak about it—nor do I really think it is my place to do so. However, I do want use the opportunity to say a few things about church discipline.

Before I get to a few practical guidelines, I wanted to get two of my assumptions out on the table.

First, church discipline is really one of the thorniest aspects of congregational life. There is no “Handbook on Discipline” in the Bible. There are some general principles, a couple of examples, and that’s about it. There are so many gaps that have to be prayerfully waded through. This creates tension and a good number of gray areas.

For example, should a matter be kept private (Matthew 18), or should it be made public (I Timothy 5)? Is the sinful behavior a “weakness” that needs to be covered in the name of love (I Peter 4), or is it something that needs to be confronted (Luke 17)? Add to this the sins and weaknesses of the people actually responsible for carrying out the discipline, and you have a pretty volatile cocktail on your hands (Note: For a more detailed discussion of the difficulty of church discipline, see Rob Rayburn’s sermon here.)

Second, even though it is extremely difficult, church discipline is biblical and therefore a non-negotiable piece of of a congregation’s life.  It’s not the only non-negotiable piece of a congregation’s life, but it is one of them. We need church discipline in order for churches to grow in their abilities to love God and neighbor. Church discipline is also a gift God has given us to fight hypocrisy in the church. This is very important both for the sake of our own personal integrity and also furthering the mission of the church. A church filled with hypocrisy is not going to be an effective light in the world.

So how can we approach church discipline in a way that is productive? This is by no means exhaustive, but I do think these guidelines will help us navigate through many of the challenges of church discipline.

1) Abusus non tollit usum. This is a great Latin phrase that literally translates, “Abuse does not remove use”. It means that just because something can be done poorly and even abused, that doesn’t mean that thing should never be used. For example, take alcohol. Can alcohol be abused? Absolutely. If abused, it can destroy your life. However, that is not a reason for alcohol never to be used. Rather, we have to learn to use it properly. When we do, it will be a great gift to us (Psalm 104).

The same is true for church discipline. Has it been abused by the church? Absolutely. Church history has several examples of heroes of the faith who have been excommunicated and even executed through the miscarriage of church discipline.

However, this does not mean we should never practice church discipline. Church discipline is really a profound gift God has given us because he wants us to grow in the faith. Sometimes, that means we need to be stopped in our tracks and told very lovingly but firmly that we are headed straight off a cliff. We need to be honest enough with ourselves to be able to say, “You know, I actually need to be under the spiritual leadership of people who are responsible for warning me when I am doing something stupid and destructive.”

In other words, we have to understand that discipline is a form of love. This is often lost on us today, as we live in in a culture that prizes autonomy of the individual over all things. The Bible, however, teaches that anyone who merely affirms every single decision we make actually isn’t our friend (Proverbs 27:9). Sometimes, a true friend will say hard things to us precisely because they love us. So it is with church discipline.

2) We need a court of appeal. Because church discipline is fraught with all kinds of difficulties, the people carrying out the discipline also need to be held accountable and have their decisions subject to review. In the Presbyterian denomination in which I serve, if an individual is disciplined by their congregation’s leadership, that individual can appeal that decision to the regional governing body (i.e., the Presbytery).  This keeps the congregational leadership in-check and is helps ensure a much better outcome in the difficult process of discipline.

I have seen this work in the real world. Several years ago, a church in our Presbytery excommunicated a family. The family believed they were wrongfully disciplined, so they appealed the decision. I was on a team of people that reviewed their case. We wound up ruling that the congregational leadership had been in error. We re-instated the family to their great relief and gratitude.

3) Trust the Lord. Most of you reading this blog are probably familiar with Jesus’ words “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them“. Christians often invoke this verse at the beginning of a small group Bible study or even at the beginning of a worship service. However, the context of this great promise is church discipline (go here for the full context). Jesus knows how hard it is to deal with sin. He knows that all parties involved in church discipline have blind spots, weaknesses, and limited perspectives. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus wades into this mess with us.

Lord, have mercy on the church.

death, grief, and eternal destinies

January 27, 2012
by

Over the last few days, I’ve been preparing a sermon on the story of Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the grave. It is a story of death, grief and life.

Death is our common enemy. It is an intruder with whom we are never to make peace. Death is not the way it’s supposed to be. Nonetheless, what Jesus said and did in face of death must change the way we view and experience it.

Jesus said that he was the resurrection and life, and secured that promise with his own death and resurrection. Those who by faith are connected to Jesus share in his resurrection and life. Though Christians will face death, they need not live under the power of it. Death does not have the last word. Christians live with the hope that they, like Jesus, will rise again. The life for which we long – the good and flourishing life – cannot be taken away, even by death.

But how should Christians think about the death of those, particularly loved ones, who are not Christians?

Before I mention a couple of points, I want to acknowledge the difficulty of this subject because when we talk about death we talk about eternal destinies. I believe in heaven, hell and the resurrection of the dead. I believe that Jesus is the only source of life and that life is with him. If we deny Jesus, we deny life and receive what we wanted – a life without God. Hell.

So, how should Christians think about the death of those, particularly loved ones, who are not Christians?

God is the author of salvation and the judge of all. There is a fine line between being theologically aware and theologically arrogant. Being theologically aware leads to knowing God whereas being theologically arrogant leads to thinking we are God. This distinction is important because many, out of theological arrogance, confuse knowing the source of salvation with being the author of salvation. When this happens, we make the mistake of thinking we can know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, whether someone is a Christian.

This is complicated by broad evangelicalism’s emphasis on salvation by profession of faith. In other words, we know that we (and others) are Christians if we profess that Jesus is our personal Lord and Savor. There is good reason for this. The Apostle Paul writes, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Profession of faith is important. It is even a sign of experiencing salvation. However, we must not make the mistake of determining whether or not someone is a Christian based on whether they profess faith.

I, along with many friends, have asked the question of those who have died: Are they a Christian? Did they have faith? I don’t think there is anything wrong with this question. However, we must answer humbly. We must answer with the recognition that God and God alone saves, not one’s profession of faith. We cannot fully know what transpires between God and a person. God is the judge. We are not.

God is full of love. In the last few years, a new universalism is starting to emerge. James Smith, professor at Calvin College, suggests two fundamental approaches that drive this movement: “I can’t imagine a God of love would send people to hell” and “At least I hope that God doesn’t send people to hell.”

I understand why people are drawn to these teachings. It is a grievous thought that people, particularly those we love, are separated from God in hell. However, the problem with the new universalism is that it’s built on presumption and therefore provides little comfort and direction in thinking about loved ones who have died but never, at least to our knowledge, made a profession of faith.

I think a better approach is to cling to what we know with confidence. What we know with confidence is that God is full of love. Knowing this shouldn’t translate into believing there isn’t a hell or if there is one, it’s empty, but should instead evoke a deep, abiding trust.

Some close to me have died. Those who were professing Christians, I tried to grieve as one who has hope. As for my deceased loved ones who were not professing Christians, I trusted that God would attend to them in a way that is loving and just. I can trust him with my soul and the souls of others whom I love. This doesn’t translate into wishful thinking but real relinquishment of control over others’ eternal destinies.

liturgy and slow growth

January 25, 2012
by

We follow an ancient liturgical pattern in our worship, drawing from the wisdom of Christians who have gone before us. Every Sunday we renew our commitment to God, offer him our prayers and gifts, confess our sins, receive forgiveness, hear from God’s word, and celebrate the Lord’s Supper together.

In other words, not much changes from week to week. Sure, we sing different songs, pray slightly different prayers and hear from different parts of God’s word, but the weekly pattern is the same.

In a culture obsessed with the novel and unique, we should ask a very important question: What is the wisdom in this?

God generally doesn’t work through seismic spiritual events in our lives. True, most of us can look back to significant turning points in our lives that were profound and maybe even “out of body”. But the vast majority of the growth God brings is the result of slow, plodding work.

Think about the Bible’s dominant metaphor for spiritual growth—it is the growth of fruit. When you grow fruit, you don’t just plant some seeds and expect immediate results. No, you plant seeds and then you do a lot of the same things—watering, fertilizing, pruning—over, and over, and over again. Then you will have fruit. French winemakers are said to not really take a grapevine seriously until it is at least 20 years old. I think we need that kind of perspective when we think about growing as disciples.

Grapes growing. Riveting, huh?

By worshiping liturgically, we are doing the same things over, and over, and over again. We do this with the belief that, over time, God will bless these practices with fruit in our lives. Sure, there will be some seismic moments of profound change. But, for most of us most of the time, change will happen in a much more deliberate fashion.

And how does this spiritual growth manifest itself? It manifests itself when we actually “become the liturgy”. It happens when our liturgical actions—like  responding to God’s word, confessing our sins, praising God for his goodness, pouring out our sorrows at his feet—become second nature to us.

Think about our liturgy and the actions we practice. Every week, we confess our sins. We confess our sins on Sunday morning because we want confessing our sins to become second nature on Thursday afternoon. We sing our praises to God on Sunday morning so we can learn how to instinctively praise him on Friday nights. We pour out our hearts in prayer to God on Sunday morning so that we can turn toward him in prayer when our lives fall apart on Wednesday.

Is it the sexiest way to worship? Not by a long shot. However, worshiping in this way helps us be shaped and formed by a God who grows his people slowly and steadily.

Here is a helpful clip that explains some of this thinking.

reason, possibility, and failure

January 19, 2012
by
Johan Khalilian’s mission in life is to “help people dream great dreams and foster the courage to live them out.” Khalilian is from Humboldt Park Chicago, a neighborhood known for its violence and crime. Ignoring the voices that told him he would not amount to anything, Khalilian overcame. He persevered. He dreamed and risked and now has become a voice of life to a generation starving for heroes.A friend of mine recently sent me a short talk by Khalilian entitled Voices. You can watch it below.

In this talk to young people, Johan Khalilian describes two different voices: the voice of reason or reality and voice of possibility. The voice of reason states what is. It doesn’t have an imagination. It cannot see possibility nor does it dream. On the other hand, the voice of possibility dreams and speaks into existence what could be. The voice of possibility doesn’t ignore reality but hopes for something better. The voice of reason tells why not and the voice of possibility tells why you should.

For a time, Khalilian listened to the voice of reason. At two separate times in his life, he was told that he didn’t have what it took. That he wouldn’t amount to anything. These people, speaking the voice of reason, didn’t see potential, only barriers. They saw someone who didn’t have the commitment or intellect to rise above the future promised and realized by so many in that forgotten neighborhood in Chicago. He couldn’t risk. He didn’t believe in himself. He was convinced he had nothing to offer.

This all changed when Khalilian learned to “tune out” the voices that tried to stifle him. Instead he listened to the voice of possibility. A voice that said that he was better than his present reality.

Let me be clear. I love Khalilian’s message. It’s inspiring. I love that he is working diligently to drown the voices that discourage to help others imagine what is possible. I love that he encourages us to ignore those who have reinforced, sometimes violently, what most of us believe to be true – we are nothing and, given an opportunity, we will fail.

Though I appreciate and have been personally encouraged by Khalilian’s message, I do not think it goes far enough. It does not address what all of us, no matter how optimistic or hopeful will experience: failure. We have all failed and will continue to do so.

What are we to do when we fail?
The voice of possibility is not enough in the midst of failure. It may be sufficient for a time or for an individual who is particularly resilient, but, experience enough failure, it will begin to define you and quiet the voice of possibility. Failure can narrow one’s vision for the future. We need an outside voice that transcends our own power and ability.

God’s voice must be the loudest in midst of failure.
In the midst of failure, God doesn’t shame nor does he say that if we learn from our mistakes that we’ll overcome. In the midst of failure, God tells his people to listen to the Gospel.

Failure can make us feel like we’re the only one in the universe. Failure can be a vital blow to our identity. It tells us that we were the stupid one that tried by didn’t quite make it. Failure makes us believe that we are the center of the world and that everyone sees our brokenness.

The Gospel tells us we are loved despite our botched efforts. More importantly, the Gospel makes us realize that we are not the center of universe but rather God and his purposes are. The Gospel invites to deny our mission and step into God’s work of bring life into death. The Gospel opens our imagination to a richer future than we could ever dream, a future where God is redeeming all things.

The voice of Gospel changes the way we see and experience failure. Listening to the Gospel in the midst of failure protects our identity, reminds us our future is tied to God’s purposes not our efforts, and empowers us to keep participating in God’s purposes because they will not be overcome.

Listen to the voice of possibility, but when it fails you, and you find yourself a failure, hear the voice of God say, I will never leave you.

the internet and gentle speech

January 17, 2012
by

You may be familiar with Jeff Bethke’s spoken word piece “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus”.  It went viral a week or two ago and got all kinds of attention. Predictably, some people thought the guy was brilliant while others thought he was way off base. Kevin DeYoung, one of the Gospel Coalition bloggers, wrote one of the more thoughtful critiques of the clip.

Here is where the story gets beautiful. Jeff and Kevin actually had a mutually respectful and productive dialogue about it. Kevin sums up the exchange here. I think their conversation could in many ways serve as a model of a humble yet mutually sharpening conversation. The two people have points of disagreement, so it’s not just all mutually affirming mush. At the same time, they are extending a lot of charity toward one another. It’s really encouraging to read their interactions. I read Kevin’s blog regularly, and he is generally very measured and fair in what he writes. What really blew me away, though, was Jeff’s humility. It’s like he was incapable of taking Kevin’s criticism personally.

Why are internet conversations like this relatively rare?

We live in an age of shrill, “in your face” discourse. The Internet is often the place where this problem is most acutely felt. From the comfort of our own computer screen, we can safely make use of the many weapons at our disposal—from the sharp-edged email to the snarky blog comment to the ever handy shame-inducing question “Really?”.

What God calls Christians to in this context is to swim against the tide of needlessly polarizing and combative dialogue. In a small effort to help us do this, I wanted to give a couple of practical tips which will help shape both our hearts and our habits.

1)   Love Gentle Speech. We have to understand that  courageous and authentic aren’t the only biblical categories for healthy conversation habits. The Bible has a lot to say about speech that is gentle and kind. When Paul is teaching Timothy, the young and eager pastor, about how he should speak, here is what he says: And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. (2 Timothy 2:24-25, ESV)            

Gentle speech doesn’t mean you are afraid of truth. Gentle speech does mean that you value the image of God in the person with whom you are talking. It also means you trust God enough to be patient with people and difficult situations.

2) Self-Critique First. Remember that stuff that Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount about getting the “log out of your own eye” before you help the other person get the “speck” out of theirs? It still applies. This kind of self-analysis can be incredibly beneficial as it helps take a lot of egocentric steam out of our words.

3) Connect with the Good.  There is always a point of connection to be found when you are in disagreement with someone. There is something about the position they have taken or the way they have taken it that is worthy of praise. Start there. Also, don’t just make this a perfunctory step you quickly get through before you begin your all-out assault. Genuinely honor the person where honor is due.

4) Have a Good Editor. Electronic communications (emails, blog posts, etc.) lack all of the non-verbals that can really smooth out controversial discussions. For those reasons, choose your words carefully. I have a group of pastors who edit my sensitive emails. They live in other cities and don’t know the parties involved, so they can give me objective and helpful input. These people have helped me foster peace by keeping me from saying really unwise things.

5) Connect in Person Whenever Possible. As I mentioned above, on-line communication is very limited in its power to adequately communicate. For this reason, connect face-to-face if it’s possible. If you can’t meet in person, a phone call or a Skype meeting would be an improvement.

In some situations, it may be helpful to have an email exchange before the meeting. I have a lot of friends who process the written word better than blunt face-to-face conversations for which they are not prepared. In those instances, I have learned to carefully write out what I need to tell them and send it to them before we meet in person. So, the on-line communication serves to set up the in-person meeting.