We are now in the midst of the second weekend of the 2018 National Football League season. For some of you, that results in a yawn. For others, it causes you to rise from your seat and pump your fist. Personally, I love it. There are so many colorful characters involved in the game of American football — some on the field with the faces hidden under helmets, others on the sidelines where almost nothing is done in secret, and still others in the stands where anything seems to go with how you dress and how you root for your team (although I’m not sure how you face your coworkers on Monday if the game is televised).
One of my favorite NFL personalities of all time, former Head Coach Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts, gave a clear testimony and Christian witness after winning the Super Bowl in 2007. It brought to mind the words of the apostle Paul: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (Romans 1:16). Would that all of us were so bold.
Coach Dungy, who still provides commentary on the NFL from the desk in the station, is a realist. The Associated Press once quoted him as saying, “You’re not going to win every game. Every season is not going to end the way you like. But that’s the real test of a champion. Can you continue to fight when things don’t go your way?” A good reminder for those of us in the ministry. We can’t control all the people or circumstances we encounter.
The message Dungy gave to the Colts before they took the field for the Super Bowl was a simple one: “There will be some storms out there and we’ve got to get through those and hang together.” Some more good advice for those of us who might be facing adversity today.
Bill Pugh, president of Athletes in Action, correctly said of Dungy, “You can be a Christian coach who really does live out Christian values and be very successful in terms of wins and losses.” Another great lesson for all of us: We do not have to compromise to succeed. “The path of the righteous is level; O upright One, you make the way of the righteous smooth” (Isaiah 26:7).
The leader of the first Christian church, James, wrote, “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12). Now, I imagine that you can relate to the writer. Why? Because you have persevered, you have been equal to the test. You have played even when hurt — and the trophy (crown) is yours.
I used to be a duffer. Many of you know how difficult a game golf is. One good shot — one close to the pin or one 250-yard drive — gives you the feeling you can make that same shot every time. But you know you can’t, just like you can’t solve everyone’s problems, preach the perfect sermon, always live up to others’ expectations, or even live up to your own.
But there is one major difference — golf is just a game. Your lot in life is determined by a calling. I can quit golf and look at my clubs in the garage without any guilt. But I cannot give up on my calling — nor can you! You, my colleague, are my hero because you “endure hardship” and just keep right on going.
So, tee it up, give it your best effort, and let our Lord — the One who called you — keep the score. “But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry” (2 Timothy 4:5).
I do recognize that, to many of you, it seems like you’re fighting a losing battle. Statistics related to the church are dismal. When you see the limited number of Christians out there in the world, it appears hopeless. But, just remember, the game is not over. The final buzzer has not sounded. The last shot has not been taken.
I am constantly reminded of the great admiration I have for all of you who are asked to go out, day by day, and make a difference in your world. You have accepted a difficult calling, but you do it so well. In many ways, you make it look easy, but you and I know better. Even when it’s tough, I urge you to never give up. Keep keeping on! As Paul said, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13). You can as well!
The church of Jesus Christ has fought from behind for a long time now, and it continues to do so. Paul may have had you in mind when he wrote, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9).
The world around us, as never before, is based on information. Collecting and analyzing data is a major industry. Almost every news organization invests heavily in surveys and polls to find out “what everyone thinks” about local, national, and world events that are happening all around us. Corporations want to know what you think about every detail of each of their products or services. Political parties and special interest groups want to know what you think about their candidates or their perceived current hot issues. Entertainment media want to know what you think about their latest movie, television program, or stars. Online organizations want to know what web sites you visit and what items on those sites you pursue so that they can customize their marketing on other sites to you specifically. What would our world be like today without having all of this information collected? And is collecting data and tallying opinions a bad thing or can it be useful for good?
What if, at least once a month, you put a survey into the hands of your church attendees and asked them to express their honest opinion about your church, the services, and even the content of your sermons? I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I’m not that secure.
Let’s consider a few sample questions to include in your survey: Were you greeted and made to feel welcome when you arrived? Did the music point you to the preached Word, or was it simply one song after another? Did the message have relevance to today’s world? Did it apply to you? Were your children well cared for? Was the Lord’s house honored with neatness and order? Did you feel the church service was performance-oriented or Christ-centered? And the big questions: Will you return? Would you invite someone else to attend with you?
I know churches are not airplanes or restaurants or hardware stores, but, sometimes, it is good to know how your people are feeling. Don’t you agree? If you’re not brave enough to survey your church, please consider more informal ways to find out how people — both congregants and visitors — feel about how things are going. “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed” (Proverbs 15:22).
This kind of information can be extremely helpful to you and your other leaders. So much of what you do is filtered through the judgment of your peers and the perceptions of others. There are times when we in the ministry feel like we have to do a lot of “spin” to keep everyone happy. But do we really? If we are honest, faithful, diligent, prepared, and in close contact with the One who matters most, then the audience that really counts is that audience of ONE!
I wish we could be more secure in that knowledge. Several times every week, you are called upon to step up to the plate and knock the ball out of the park — to produce, to win, to satisfy the crowds — just as a professional athlete would do. To most who observe you, it looks easier than it really is. Folks seldom consider how you’re feeling, what’s going on at home, or your own personal battles. They just expect you to produce, and most of the time you do.
But it’s not really about producing or pleasing others. We do what we do because we love our Lord and are grateful for the confidence He has placed in us. In fact, without Him, we can do nothing (John 15:5). So, hang in there! Ultimately, only one voter matters — the One who called us and for whom we do all we do.
I know it is a foreign concept to a lot of us because conventional wisdom says the reverse. Don’t we have to consider who pays us? How do they expect to be served? What if they become dissatisfied with us? What about the security of our families? Hmm.
Be honest. When you do what you do, why do you do it, and for whom do you do it? It’s hard, but remember, in the end, only One voter counts! “For every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything” (Hebrews 3:4). The audience of One. Stop right now and try to get your arms around that.
Okay. Now, since He is our audience, doesn’t He deserve our best? We know when we have done our best — even when the results do not appear to be there. And then there are those times when we just sit back in amazement at how God has worked through our feeble efforts. In other words, we must keep our successes and our failures in perspective, especially if we do everything to His glory and honor.
All of us prepare, plan, and pray for our activities. Sometimes they are successful, but other times, the results are not so great. Do you think for one moment that God looks upon you, His child, and analyzes you as someone who has performed better or worse than others? Of course not. Performance is not the issue. He is thrilled with the successes of His children. And He offers comfort to those who struggle. The issue that concerns Him is the heart … your heart.
So, it doesn’t matter if you won or lost this past weekend or during this week. Hold your head up high. Remember Whose team you are on and for Whom you do what you do. It’s all about perspective. If you have planned, prepared, and prayed … God’s church will triumph. He is the audience, and He brings the victories.
“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
In case you don’t have Facebook or you just missed it, I wanted to share a note that I posted this past week. It was one of the most heart-felt messages of my life. It was shared on Wednesday, July 11.
Today is Beverley’s birthday. We have been married a long time and her patience with me is amazing. She has been more than a wife, homemaker, and pastor’s spouse these last few years. She has also been a nurse. She has seen me through colon cancer, an abdominal infection that saw me either in the hospital or home-bound for six months, and now stomach cancer that is being treated by heavy chemo therapy. We continue to serve together at a dynamic mission-minded church that supports near 40 other mission organizations. Friendship Church in Sun City/Palm Desert is an amazing place. She has carried all of this with grace. I LOVE HER SO MUCH. Happy Birthday, “Bevers!”
Now, it just so happens that Wednesday was also the birthday of one of our sons. It is always a wonderful family affair when we gather each year. I love it.
Beverley and I often reflect on the lives of our children and grandchildren and ask, “Where did the years go?” Life is on fast-forward these days, and the values we teach and the traditions we set must compete with all the other influences in the world. That is why the words of Joshua are still so appropriate for our generations: “As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:15).
Spouses and children of the clergy are not exempt from real-world pressures. In fact, my experience as a pastor-to-pastors indicates they are at great risk. Satan would like nothing more than to weaken the fiber of the clergy home by causing division and turmoil. We must always be on the alert for his cunning attacks.
I urge you to celebrate often with your spouse and children. Honor them and love them. Teach your children and discipline them. Have fun with them. Spend time with them. While I respect your most precious calling — to lead the church — I also remind you of your primary responsibility before God and encourage you to serve as an example to your spouse and children.
When it comes to who you are and what you do, who is your biggest fan? How would your spouse answer this question? Husbands and wives should be each other’s biggest fans. I know for certain that my greatest supporter over all of these decades has been my wife, Beverley.
What does that mean? It means we pray for each other. We protect each other. We show genuine compassion for each other. We strive to be a part of the solution to a problem, rather than an obstruction. Also, it is crucial that we cheer for each other.
I remember a time when I was speaking at a conference with some very high-profile religious leaders. Beverley could tell I was nervous and that this engagement was important to me. I delivered my message and gave it my best. As we were walking out of the convention hall, Beverley slipped her arm through mine, looked at me, and said, “I was proud of you tonight.” I can’t tell you how much that meant to me. The one who mattered most had affirmed me.
Take a few minutes to look at the last few weeks through a relational lens. Did you affirm your spouse and your children regularly? Did you look for the positive in each of them rather than the negative? Did you take the time to ask, “How are you doing?” Did you, by your words, actions, and deeds, express unconditional love? Did you live your faith as an example?
Let us always seek to love one another as God has loved us. When we do, we’ll find that we’ve become the biggest fan our loved ones have ever had. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34).
As I noted in my Facebook post, I have recently been coping with a lot of the realities of getting older. I pray I am doing it well. When you face a traumatic moment, be it a close call or near-death experience, a change takes place. I can’t explain it completely, but there is a profound sense that what you have been through cannot and should not be treated casually. There is a renewed commitment to your work, a deeper love for your family. There is a heightened realization that each day is a gift — that we live and die at the mercy of a loving God, the One who is truly the author and finisher of life. I pray I never lose the feeling of gratitude I have right now for life, my family, and the ministry to which He has called me.
Each day is a gift, my friend. Please do not mistreat it, deny it, or waste it. It’s amazing to know our God has invited each of us to share in His daily creation. It is in seeking to please Him and live in obedience each day that we find fulfillment and great joy. “We obey his commands and do what pleases him” (1 John 3:22).
I want to close by once again publicly thanking my wife, my sons, my grandchildren, other family members, and my friends for being there for me at all times. I am so proud of every one of you. As Lou Gehrig stated during his retirement celebration at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939, “Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.” I feel the same way. (But, just for the record, I am not ready to retire. Some days, I think I am just getting started!) Be blessed!
A nationwide survey taken almost a decade ago by the Barna Research Group indicated that Americans were redefining what it means to do the right thing. If you look around our nation and our world today, you can clearly see that the survey was spot on. The decline in what we used to call morality is shocking! From the lack of ethics and integrity in the highest levels of government this past decade … to the values and “truth” being taught in classrooms … to the morals being depicted on TV and in movies … to the vitriolic actions of the mobs in the street … to the thoughts and actions of people we all know personally, what God calls sin seems to be more irrelevant today than at any period in our lifetimes.
Barna’s researchers asked adults which, if any, of eight behaviors with moral overtones they had engaged in during a given week. The behaviors included exposure to pornography, using profanity in public, gambling, gossiping, engaging in sexual intercourse with someone to whom they were not married, retaliating against someone, getting drunk, and lying.
While there’s no room to go into details here, according to George Barna, who directed the survey, the results reflected a significant shift in American life. “We are witnessing the development and acceptance of a new moral code in America. The consistent deterioration of the Bible as the source of moral truth has led to a nation where people have become independent judges of right and wrong, basing their choices on feelings and circumstances. It is not likely that America will return to a more traditional moral code until the nation experiences significant pain from its moral choices.”
Pastor, these are the people to whom you minister, the people in your community. I encourage you to look both within and beyond the doors of your church to the masses who are perishing. I encourage you to think about how you can best minister to people who have lost their moral direction, who don’t believe in absolute truth, who only do what is right in their own eyes.
“People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:2-4). Yep.
My colleague, have you ever carefully and thoughtfully pondered the passage in Titus that says, “In everything, set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity; seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us” (Titus 2:7-8). When was the last time you took that verse to heart? My interpretation might be a bit faulty, but it reminds me that we are to live our lives so that, at the end of our ministries, there will be no asterisks. The Message says, “We don’t want anyone looking down on God’s Message because of [our] behavior” (Titus 2:5). Does your own example demonstrate your understanding of and compliance with God’s expectations?
It does make a difference how you live before others, especially as His personally called representative. You have a greater accountability and, in the end, His opinion will be the one that matters most.
“Judge me, 0 LORD, according to my righteousness, according to my integrity, 0 Most High” (Psalm 7:8).
Dr. Roy Woodruff, former head of the Association of Pastoral Counselors, once noted, “A majority of sexual scandals in the Protestant church involve male pastors and female parishioners.” He estimated then that about 15 percent of Protestant pastors had either violated or were currently violating sexual ethical boundaries. The result of such abuses is normally devastating for all parties — especially the victim.
Woodruff suggested that all pastors should take steps to avoid temptation by: (1) having accountability partners and (2) setting limits on counseling females. (I would add males, too.) Great advice!
A ChristianityToday.com article from that time stated, “Evangelicals cannot afford to pretend that we are immune to sexual sin by clergy.” In my opinion, youth leaders and workers are especially at risk.
My advice: take every precaution. Do not find all of your validation in counseling. Do not counsel in private. Do not expose your weaknesses to your client. Do not think for a moment that you can change anyone. Do not forget the consequences of your actions. Do not forget you are an expression of Christ. That should save you a great deal of pain. Be very careful!
“Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:18-20).
Once, when I was in an airport, the wife of a disgraced clergyman recognized me and began to talk about her husband’s indiscretion — an indiscretion that cost him his ministry and his family. I myself am the son of a father who, because of moral failure, caused our family great pain. In over 30 years of ministering to the clergy, I have too often heard from a pastor or spouse who is heartbroken over the choices made by someone they love.
Why? What causes us to struggle with morality? What causes us to set a horrible example to God’s people, whom we have been called to serve?
There are no easy answers. One could just blame it on sin and let it go at that, but there is always more to the story.
For one thing, men especially have the ability to compartmentalize their actions. For some reason, they can live one lifestyle in sin and another related to the church.
Another reason is unresolved conflict at home. Rather than address issues that arise with their spouse, they let them fester. Soon the couple is married in name only.
One other reason I hear colleagues talk about is a kind of rationalization. We set our own rules, live by a different standard, and resist any kind of accountability.
Among other ministers, the reason for moral failure is emptiness. So many do not see a lot of progress in their day, and there is a need to fill it with counterfeits like pornography or other addictions.
But the explanation that scares me the most is what I call a lack of Godly intimacy — one day we find ourselves separated from God and morally unprotected. Brother, sister, guard you heart!
“But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear” (Isaiah 59:2).
When my cousin, James Dobson, and I were kids, I almost shot him twice. The first time, we were squirrel hunting, and I didn’t know whether the safety on my gun was on or off. It was off, and I whistled a shot close to his ear. I will not soon forget that day — neither will he. The second time, I was bird hunting with him and, as I was walking across a gully on a log, I lost my footing, fell from the log, and the shotgun went off. It was another close call.
I have often thought to myself, “I could have altered the course of history.” I did get a tongue-lashing from my cousin and his dad. What do you do when you almost shoot someone? You apologize like crazy!
Now to the point: So often in our worlds, we shoot one another. We do not use guns, but we do use a weapon. Our mouth becomes our firearm; our words become our bullets. We can do irreparable damage to another by accusations, innuendos, gossip, and idle conversation.
All of us have been “shot at” by a colleague or parishioner. It always hurts and can result in permanent injury. I bear the scars, as do you.
Proverbs 21:23 says, “He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity.” In other words, whatever you do, don’t shoot anyone. If you do, you lessen yourself in the eyes and ears of those who watch and listen.
Paul suggested to the church at Ephesus, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29).
The news today is full of stories about “who said what and who they said it to and did they really mean it?”
I remember one time when an old pastor said to me, “Young man, every word you speak may have consequences that could follow you for a lifetime.” I’m sad to admit that I’m still paying for some of my thoughtless words. We all need to heed that old pastor’s advice.
Satan loves to trip us up. I’m sure he delights in our stumbles. We all need — I need — to be really careful. We need to consider what we say, how we say it, and who we say it to. Weigh your words and deeds carefully, my colleague. What you say or do can and will follow you for a lifetime. Your words can haunt you and be used by others any way they choose. There are times when it’s best to just say nothing!
The psalmist wrote, “Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies” (Psalm 34:13).
“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).
Further, “A man who lacks judgment derides his neighbor, but a man of understanding holds his tongue” (Proverbs 11:12).
Well, I think you know where I’m going with all of this. Watch what you say and when and how you say it. I have had to eat my words too many times. Instead, speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).
“If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless” (James 1:26).
Now, having said that about saying too much, I believe that the people in your church — those under your care — want to know you. And they want you to know and hear them. So many congregations are wrapped in a black cloak of contention because they have few opportunities to ask questions of their leaders. More and more of America’s clergy are retreating behind closed doors rather than walking in the village and hearing the concerns of their people.
I know we can use up a lot of energy dealing with troublesome members, but I also know your people have a right within reason to access you, your staff, and your other church leaders. In my dealings with church boards, I’ve often felt they could overcome many congregational struggles if they would just make themselves available to those who want to know how the budget is being spent, why the music style has been changed, or why a staff associate has been released.
I know this will add a few hours to your week, but I also know good communication can add years to your ministry. Do your people feel listened to? Do they have access to you and your staff? Do the leaders of your congregation clearly communicate what’s being done and why? Maybe it’s time for a town hall meeting!
“And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. … They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God. People in general liked what they saw. Every day their number grew as God added those who were saved” (Acts 2:44, 46-47, MSG).
With the glory and preeminence of Easter, I was forced last month to almost skip over one of the most significant events of our lifetimes — the passing of Dr. Billy Graham (Nov. 7, 1918 – Feb. 21, 2018, age 99). Has any single person had a greater impact on Christianity and the Christian church over the past century than this faithful servant of God? Has the Lord ever used anyone else in history to reach more people with the gospel of His Son?
I won’t go into the details of the life of this evangelist — those can be found in so many places these days, especially on the Internet, and you should definitely take time to review several of them. It may be my imagination (or simply indicate who I have befriended and who I follow), but it seems to me that there have been so many more tributes to Dr. Graham on social media in recent weeks, at least on Facebook, than we have ever seen before. And deservedly so.
Apart from the obvious anointing of God’s Spirit on him, what made Billy Graham so effective was the simplicity and consistency of his message. Throughout his entire ministry, he preached the same basic Christian gospel: God loves you; He sent His Son to die on a cross to pay for your sin; He rose again to give you eternal life; He is Lord. Just believe.
One of Graham’s most common catchphrases was “The Bible says …” (He almost made “Bible” a three-syllable word: “Bi-a-ble.”) He knew that the foundation of his proclamations, the authority by which he spoke, was God’s Word.
That simple gospel message is needed more than ever today. A 2013 Harris Poll found that, while a strong majority (74%) of U.S. adults did believe in God, this belief was in decline when compared to previous years, as just over four in five (82%) expressed a belief in God in 2005, 2007, and 2009. In another decline, only 54% of Americans were “absolutely certain” in God’s existence, a 12% decrease over the last decade.
A 2017 Gallup Poll found that 87 percent of those surveyed said they believed in God (64% that God definitely exists; 16% that God probably exists, but have a little doubt; 5% that God probably exists, but have lots of doubt). Yet, while 54 percent claimed to be a member of a church or synagogue, only 35 percent had attended in the last seven days. Attendance frequency was reported at every week (23%), almost every week (11%), once a month (12%), seldom (25%), and never (27%). Only 42 percent considered themselves to be “born-again” Christians.
The increasing number of “those who wonder” creates a fertile opportunity for evangelism. But I question if the church as a whole is really responding passionately to those who may be searching for the answer.
It is the undecided and unconvinced that Satan entices. In 1 Peter 5:8, we read, “Be … alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” Are we awake to the reality that our nation increasingly (44%) feels that “God observes, but does not control what happens on earth”?
We had better wake up — we had better face reality. And, by the way, could the alarm get any louder? A revived church is not so much trendy as it is obedient. There are alarms going off everywhere you look. Are we alarmed by the alarms? Can you hear them? I pray so.
The Bible instructs us, “Be merciful to those who doubt; snatch others from the fire and save them” (Jude 1:22-23).
To be honest, I have great concern about the church in America today. In my travel and contact with pastors, denominational leaders, and concerned laypeople, I have observed a spiritual drought in our land. We pray, but we do not change. We “fight the fight” and go through the prescribed motions. But we don’t actually initiate the deep change within ourselves necessary for spiritual renewal.
Praying is only one part of the equation for spiritual renewal and a re-birth of vitality in the church. According to 2 Chronicles 7:14, humility and repentance must also be present.
“If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned” (Jeremiah 18:7-8).
I believe God hears our fervent cries for revival in the land, but I also believe that answered prayer comes as a result of obedience to the will of God. Disobedience brings judgment — obedience brings great blessing. As leaders, are we setting the proper example of personal obedience?
I realize it is impossible to deal with a subject as complicated as the re-birth of the church in a few words. But I am certain of one thing: The ingredients of rebirth are found in three words from Scripture — humility, prayer, and repentance.
I pray that spiritual renewal might begin in me.
In October 1959, Rev. Billy Graham visited Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. A report said he spent time with the students and faculty and shared the following. As pastors, we should be listening.
Be sure you maintain a personal encounter with Christ. (The blind can’t lead the blind.)
Be sure you’ve had a call from God.
Have systematic daily devotions. (You need at least a half hour alone with God daily, said Rev. Graham. At the time of the report, he was reading five psalms a day to learn how to get along with God and one proverb on how to get along with people.)
Have a consuming love for others. Show compassion by entering into their emotions.
Be sure you have a message to preach. With authority, simplicity, and urgency, preach to a decision.
Be an example. Back up your spoken witness with your life.
There are some principles of ministry and pastoral discipline that never change, nor should they. The call to full-time Christian service is not a sprint; it is a marathon. We just cannot allow ourselves the luxury of complacency. We must endure to the end. Don’t ever give up!
“But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry” (2 Timothy 4:5).
What impressed me most about a discussion I once had with Franklin Graham was his great passion for the lost and his sincere belief that we are not giving our people enough opportunity to seek and meet the Savior. What he said made good sense to me.
If my math is correct, approximately 7,200 people die each day in the United States. How many of them are spiritually ready to die? How many have been given the opportunity to accept Christ and prepare for eternity?
Nearly 50 percent of those who sit in your church service do not have a personal relationship with Jesus. Do you see this fact as an opportunity to give them that chance? Is there something you could do at the conclusion of your message this week that would challenge your attendees to seek the Lord? Would you consider an altar call? I urge you to give some kind of invitation to attendees to embrace Jesus. Give them a chance!
I still believe that the bottom line for every individual fellowship and church organization should be, “Is anybody being saved here?” Every 12 seconds, another person enters into eternity. That is sobering! Romans 10:13 says, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord [Jesus Christ] will be saved.”
One final thought. The Bible continues, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?” (Rom. 10:14-15).
Evidently, there is a shortage of new clergypersons to take the positions being vacated by an aging ministry force. In my years as a pastor to pastors, I have witnessed this deficiency. Fewer seminary students are seeking a career as senior or associate pastors. Many of those who graduate with advanced degrees do not plan to work in the local church. Bottom line: There is a shortage in many fellowships of newly assigned and prepared spiritual leaders.
I am sure you can see the faces of those you influenced who are now walking in your footsteps. Can there be a greater thrill than to see the hand of God directing the paths of those you have shepherded?
I recall the many times when, as a teenager or college student, I heard men of God preach messages imploring those present to “surrender” to God’s call. They often quoted from Acts 16:9, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Or from Matthew 4:19, “‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will make you fishers of men.’”
I think that we would see more of our congregants entering into ministry if, one, we were more positive about the experience; two, we challenged them; and three, we recognized the value of God’s unique call. When was the last time you presented a message like that?
“So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him” (Luke 5: 1 1).
Rev. Billy Graham was never doing our jobs. He did his own well. But each of us has a calling of his or her own. Preach the gospel. Model the gospel. Make disciples. And prepare others to follow in your footsteps.
Do you see God’s humor and irony in the fact that Easter this year falls on April Fools’ Day? It made me smile. Ah, but who is the fool? Someone who believes this resurrection nonsense? No, not even close. According to the Bible, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 14:1). I think we pastors all realize that, while it is an interesting coincidence this year, Easter is no laughing matter. It is very serious — a matter of life and death.
There is no place in the Bible more telling about man’s rebellion than the confrontation God had with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The consequences of their sin, like ripples in a stream, have touched all of humankind. After disobeying God, they attempted to hide, but were unsuccessful. They couldn’t — and we can’t. None of us. Moses warned, “And you may be sure that your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23). Even in a time of grace, sin brings with it a very high cost.
But we must also remember that we are not powerless over sin. As we’re told in Galatians 5:24: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.” There is hope for all of us. We call that hope the Gospel. And sharing that good news, my colleague, is our primary calling as Christians.
I know it is impossible to maintain full-scale evangelistic momentum all the time, but it is not impossible to sustain an ongoing sense of urgency for lost souls. Think about those who will not spend eternity with Jesus — the lost ones.
Almost two decades ago, as I stood at Ground Zero in New York City, I was angry and confused, but with much compassion for the families whose innocent loved ones were ambushed. I also wondered about the eternity of those who were lost. As I surveyed the destruction, I saw a huge cross of remnant metal beams standing tall and triumphant in the midst of all the confusion. It was then that I was reminded that the “old rugged cross” does make a difference. In truth, it is the only thing that will never change. Do you talk about the old rugged cross very often? “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14). The need of the lost ones is the hope of the cross.
For years now, we have heard news reports and speculations of numerous types of government bailouts over and over. This phenomenon reminded me of the greatest bailout of all time: the price Jesus paid for our freedom, security, and salvation. Paul wrote to the Romans, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). Please notice the words right time and powerless.
John echoed Paul’s words: “God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son [Jesus]. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:11-12). It’s an eternal bailout if there ever was one. This is the hope needed by the lost ones.
Yet, a lot of people still do not know about or continue to reject God’s offer. I’m telling you, my colleague, what is happening in our world today gives you a perfect opening to preach a life-changing salvation message. Go for it!
“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life” (John 3:16, MSG).
Sometimes, we get so caught up in condemning certain sins, such as abortion or racism or homosexuality or violence, we forget that the idea is to point people toward redemption. I beg you, the next time you preach and teach on the subject of any sin (which I assume is happening right now as we approach Easter), do tell your congregation that sin is wrong. But don’t forget to tell them that God offers forgiveness for those who live under the dark shadow of guilt. Express hope by adding gentleness to your preaching. Tell them that coming to God is the answer to the crushing anguish they carry. Tell them that they do not need to carry this burden any longer. View yourself not only as a stalwart against sin, but also as a physician for the soul.
The Easter message is a message of hope and joy for the lost ones. “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” (Luke 15:7).
Perhaps it would enlighten our perspective of the accounts leading to that first Easter if we stop to examine the question, “Who crucified Jesus?”
According to Matthew, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate and asked him to secure Jesus’ tomb so that the disciples wouldn’t “steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead” (Matthew 27:64). Was it the Jewish leaders, or the Roman authorities? Meanwhile, it was the Sabbath and the Scriptures say little about what the followers of Jesus were doing. We can imagine that they were in shock, asking many questions. Was it we common men? We’re still asking questions today. So, who really crucified Jesus?
This became a question about which many people argued when Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, was first released. However, the answer from Scripture is simply stated in Isaiah 53: “Smitten by God, and afflicted … He was wounded for our transgressions. … The LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:4-6, NKJV). The Bible names God as the One responsible for the earthly death of Christ.
Oh, I know you can state the fact that sin killed Jesus, or the betrayal of Judas, or the jealousy exhibited by the scribes and Pharisees, or a spineless Pilate. But the fact remains that Christ’s crucifixion was in God’s plan even before the foundation of the world. It was because God loved us so much that He sacrificed His Son.
So here is my commentary on a loving God and the crucifixion:
Our condition: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). At one time, each of us could be counted among the lost ones.
The consequences: “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Sin separates us from God forever. Lost ones live in desperation.
God’s passion: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). God provides hope for the lost ones.
Love demands a response: Fortunately, that hope is easily obtained by simply responding to God’s love. Confess — believe — accept (Romans 10:9).
My colleague, I heartily encourage you to be bold this Easter season in preaching Christ, and Him crucified and risen. Let the lost ones know there is hope for their condition through belief in the forgiving and redeeming and eternal life-giving work of Christ on the cross.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:16-18).
When was the last time you and your spouse went on a marriage retreat? I’m not talking about one that you might have been conducting or at which you were speaking. I mean a genuine marriage retreat at which you were a participating couple. (I hope that you are not someone who thinks attending such a retreat is a sign of weakness or trouble in your marriage, because that is simply not so. A little marriage check is good for all of us every once in a while.)
As you celebrated Valentine’s Day this week, I do hope you made your spouse feel special. And, while your spouse is your primary concern on this holiday, it wouldn’t hurt to include your children in that expression of love. Love your family — because, sometimes in the heat and busyness of ministry, they are forgotten, left out, left alone.
A strong family requires more than a comfortable bank account, expensive house, respectable neighborhood, or top-notch schools. It exists only on a minister’s wish list until it is a lived-out relationship, characterized by love and hard work among those who occupy the same household. The primary impediments to a strong ministerial family are not church politics or other environmental disadvantages. Instead, impediments arise from the lack of lived-out love in the couple for each other and for their children.
Strengthening clergy families demands an intentional commitment to the abiding values of the home. Whatever the minister’s family has is contagious in the church, either good or bad. Society will be strengthened when the homes of spiritual leaders are improved. Here are some guidelines:
Consider the advantages of being a ministry family.
Strive to please the people who matter most.
Get your family in tune with God.
Feed faith to your children.
Refuse to blame common problems on the ministry.
View your family as a gift you give yourself.
You know how hectic our schedules as pastors can be. Several years ago, a leadership survey reported that 81 percent of ministers said insufficient time with their spouses was a major problem, by far the most common concern. Likewise, when I was serving in the Pastoral Ministries Department at Focus on the Family, we would ask ministers about the greatest danger facing them and their families. The overwhelming answer was lack of time.
What would happen if you asked your spouse and children how they feel about your schedule? Do they ever feel they take second place to your profession? Find out whether your children think being a PK is a positive or negative experience.
Do you engage in activities that strengthen the bonds between you, your spouse, and your children? Why not surprise them when your brood gets home from school today with a special activity together. Or, if your kids are grown, just give them a call and tell them how much they mean to you. Or, if you and your children have been at odds over something, use this day as an opportunity to clear the air.
Does your family know how you feel? I pray that, without a doubt, they realize you love them more than anything. And I pray they know it because of your actions, not just your words.
Many years ago, my dad passed away. He had grown old and, suddenly one day, he just died. It was a pivotal moment for me. As an only child, I had to step up and assume the role as head of the family.
I still think about my dad just about every day. He was a part of a generation of clergy who, for some reason, thought the church was more important than family. He was a great dad in that he gave me everything I ever wanted, but he failed as a father because, as I was growing up, he didn’t have time for me. Maybe you had the same experience — whether your dad was a pastor or not.
The reason I tell you this is to remind you of your role as husband, father (or wife, mother), and spiritual leader of your home and family. I don’t want you to have any regrets. I know it’s trite, but the most important people in your congregation, in your life, are your spouse and children.
At home, talk about things other than the church. (Unfortunately, we never did that.) Take time to establish memories aside from church activity. (I don’t remember many of those times.) And, whatever you do, model love before your children for your spouse.
Tell your family members often how much you love them — even your adolescent and grown children. Praise each other regularly. Be patient with one another. Hesitate before you express a negative opinion. Take time for one another. In big and small ways, honor each other as the people that God created you to be.
“Now, the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect” (1 Timothy 3:2-5). In other words, if anyone does not know how to manage (and enjoy) his own family, how can he take care of (and enjoy) God’s church?
“If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8).
Today is the annual day we remember Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life was taken from him 50 years ago. He is remembered for many things, often based on one’s personal perspective of the man. For me, one of his most important exhortations was his enduring call for unity. That one touches my heart deeply. And yet, this past year has certainly taught us that we remain a long way from any meaningful unity — global, national, local, or congregational. This seems to be a lesson that too many simply can’t understand or embrace. And we are all the poorer for it.
So often, my colleagues, those we serve are unwilling to face their responsibility to God to seek unity — to be compassionate and forgiving. When this happens, conflict results and, inevitably, walls are built.
Truth: Christ came to tear down all walls of hostility that separate one person from another.
Scripture: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14).
Definition of reconciliation: “The restoration of friendship and fellowship after estrangement.” Reconciliation has to do with relationship. It does not mean agreement or understanding on every issue. Reconciliation and resolution of issues are two different things. The Bible teaches unity, but it does not demand uniformity.
Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (KJV). If you are currently involved in any conflict, are you blaming the other person? Are you willing to begin to resolve the conflict by asking God to examine you and change your heart?
Three lessons learned: (i) Always accept personal responsibility for your contribution to the situation. (ii) Make whatever effort necessary to move toward the person with whom you are in conflict. (iii) Take the risk of confronting the issue for the sake of the relationship.
An essential element that must be present before peace can be obtained is a fundamental principle of Christianity: forgiveness.
We want to. We try. We think we give it our best effort, but many of us just can’t rid ourselves of that painful feeling that comes from being wronged by another. You know the remedy. Forgiveness.
If there’s a message we must continue to preach, and a sermon we must constantly live, it’s that we must drop all charges against people who have done us wrong. If we don’t, we will never live in peace or be free to live victoriously. So many clergy I know hang on to an offense they have suffered at the hands of a parishioner or a colleague until it becomes like a festering sore in their lives. My friend — let it go! Surrender your issue to God.
But how do we forgive? We are granted the same power to forgive others that Christ uses to forgive you and me — His blood. We must be compassionate and ready to forgive, even as Christ has forgiven us (Ephesians 4:32). I urge you to ask God to give you strength, courage, and the desire to tear every page from your little black book of grudges and hand it over to Him. Our burdens become His burdens; He takes responsibility for them. By faith, commit to God each day your hurting heart and your damaged emotions. Allow Him to ease your pain. Intimacy with the Lord is possible only through a willingness to forgive as Christ has forgiven us.
Now, sometimes, it takes more than personally addressing conflict and embracing forgiveness to bring about peace and unity. Sometimes, it also requires confrontation. Sometimes, there must be face-to-face reconciliation.
Speaking the truth in love is a learned talent. Avoiding the truth is more the norm. Why? Because caring enough to confront not only takes a lot of courage, it also takes time.
When it comes to serious conflict, we are always ahead if we consider these questions before we engage in confrontation:
Why is this happening? Think about it. Most conflicts arise when someone’s “turf” is threatened. What will need to be given up? What will be required of me? Am I being taken advantage of? Does the person with whom I am in conflict feel minimized? Do I understand his or her position? Is the conflict really necessary?
How have I contributed? In times of disagreement, we must all be honest enough to ask ourselves if we have been guilty of creating an atmosphere conducive to conflict.
Has my Christian attitude been evident? Isn’t it interesting that so many of our petty differences are complicated because we cannot act as Christians? In the last heated issue in which you were involved, would the Lord have been pleased with the way His children behaved and showed honor and love for each other?
I urge you to be the peacemaker that God honors. Actively pursue unity and peace, and be an instrument of peace yourself. “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).
I also remind you to always be ready to forgive. “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins” (Mark 11:25).
And, when confrontation becomes necessary, be as tender as possible. Seek reconciliation and restoration with care. Remember, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths” (Ephesians 4:29).
I can tell that we are nearing my favorite holiday because Christmas cards are beginning to arrive. As I sit and read them, I see phrases like “All the joy that life can bring,” “Christmas is the promise of peace and hope for the world,” “May the glad tidings of Christmas fill your heart with joy all year,” “To wish you the peace of love at Christmas and always,” “A season of hope — a promise of peace — a reminder of miracles — Christmas!” And one that states, “May Jesus be the glorious gift your heart celebrates at Christmas.”
I know you receive many such greetings, too. Do you read the text or verse on each Christmas card or just the name at the bottom? The cards you receive have words like peace, joy, love, hope, glory, good tidings, and the like — but have you ever thought how empty those words would be without the reality of Jesus’ birth and His unselfish sacrifice?
I pray that your messages this Christmas season will be more than just Advent words, but ones packed with substance based on the reality of a living Lord without whom there will never be peace, joy, or hope.
For so many, the reason for the season is really not the reason for the season. It is more about “doing Christmas” than it is celebrating the Lord’s birth. And all too often, it’s primarily about getting and receiving gifts.
If you had to look back across the years and identify one Christmas gift that stands above all the others, what would it be? My guess is it would not be some expensive something as much as it would be a gift of special meaning — something that you treasured even though its value to another might be minimal. The fact that it was from someone who loved and honored you is what made the present meaningful.
In the Christmas story, the Magi “opened their treasures and presented him with gifts” (Matthew 2:11). My colleague, what is it that we present to our Lord as we celebrate with our families and congregations? I was thinking about that biblical phrase, “They opened their treasures.” What would that mean to you? What treasure would you offer our Lord at this Advent season? Perhaps . . .
A renewed commitment to your call.
Your promise of daily interaction with the Father as His child.
A commitment to guard your heart and to flee those things that might negatively entrap you.
A more sensitive commitment to the lost, those for whom Christ died.
A disciplined and vigilant attitude toward a healthy lifestyle. You are a temple that must be protected.
A realization that your spouse and your children need more attention than any others in your congregation.
A humble spirit that will not allow envy or pride to dominate your thinking or actions.
Loving Him back.
To me, and I hope to you, that would characterize genuine gift-giving. Your treasure becomes His gift.
“Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:15).