The most surprising thing about the Apostle Paul’s ministry

He needed people.  I find that surprising.

“I am glad about the coming of Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus, for what was lacking on your part they supplied. For they refreshed my spirit and yours. Therefore, acknowledge such men” (I Corinthians 16:17-18).

As amazing as the great apostle was, as capable in ministry, as brilliant in theology, and as bold in his witness, Paul needed people.

Does that surprise you as much as it does me?

Paul readily admitted his need for people in his life, complimented them for ministering to him, and credited them with acts of sacrifice and generosity to him.

Paul grew lonely when no friends were nearby, appreciated good company, and was quick to pay tribute to those who went the extra mile to find him and offer their assistance in His labors.

I find that most delightful.

We would have expected such a man–a trailblazer in ministry, a pioneer in spreading the gospel, the first international missionary, and the theologian of all theologians–to be a loner, a one-man show, needing nothing from anyone and making sure we all knew it.

Paul was anything but a loner.

Check out this sampling of his statements….

–“Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow-workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their own necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but also all the churches of the Gentiles.  Likewise, greet the church that is in their house” (Romans 16:3-5).

–“That you may know my affairs and how I am doing, Tychicus, a beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord, will make all things known to you; whom I have sent to you for this very purpose, that you may know our affairs and that he may comfort your hearts” (Ephesians 6:21-22).

Continue reading

How to tell when you’re growing in Christ. And when you’re not.

But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  (2 Peter 3:18). 

Early coal miners carried canaries into the deep pits to alert them when they were in the presence of methane gas. Being more sensitive to these deadly fumes than humans, the bird would die long before the gas posed a problem for the miners. If the bird was dead, they ran for their lives.

We could all use a few canaries in our spiritual lives, to warn us when we were on dangerous ground as well as assure us when we were doing well.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Colossians 3:1-17.  Those who will study it deeply, read it often and think about it regularly will learn a great deal about themselves and what it means to live for Christ. Before long, they will see patterns emerging in this text.

One evidence of many that Scripture is God-breathed and Spirit-powered is the multi-layers it possesses and the multi-dimensions in which it functions. A child will read this passage and find it fits his life perfectly, while his grandfather will see something entirely different but every bit as beneficial.

This passage deserves our attention today.  Please take a moment to read it.  Thank you.

Signs of growth

Here are four harbingers–four canaries, or measurements, signs, indicators–that alert the child of God who is growing in Christ that he actually is growing in the Lord. At the end we’ll turn it around and see how the opposite of these serve as warnings.

Four things begin to be prominent in your life as you grow in Christ.

And, we should look for all four to hold true at the same time.

Continue reading

Two questions about Jesus’ amazing teachings

Here’s an interesting little assignment:  Go through the four Gospels and note every time people who heard our Lord Jesus teaching were amazed.  Or astonished.

I did that.  It looks like this…

Matthew 8:27-29; 9:8; 9:33; 12:23; 13:54; 15:31; 22:22,33.

Mark 1:22,27; 2:12; 5:20,42; 6:51; 7:37; 11:18

Luke 4:32,36; 5:9,26; 8:25,56; 9:43; 13:17; 18:43; 20:26.

John 7:15,46.  Apparently John chose to say whether the people believed in Jesus after hearing Him speak, rather than that they were amazed.

Just so you will know, I did not use a concordance or other help, but read through the four gospels with a high-lighter in hand. Twice, in fact.  But it is possible I may have missed one or two references.

Now, I have two questions about this.

One:  Why were the people amazed when they heard Jesus?

Two: Why aren’t we?

Why are we not as amazed and astonished as those who heard Jesus in the first century? In truth, we’re often bored with Scripture’s teachings! Why?

Continue reading

Let’s encourage our pastors. Here’s how.

There was a time when it was easier to pastor a church than it is today. There was a time when churches running 1,000 on Sunday were considered mega. There was a time when churches took what they had in the way of pastoral leadership and pretty much went with it without a lot of complaints.

Those days are no more. It’s a different world we live in.

People demand strengths and excellence and results from their leaders. They look for power in the pulpit and skills in relationships. They want degrees and winsomeness and it wouldn’t hurt if you looked sharp either.

They want good sermons and effective leadership from a pastor who has earned their respect and whom they like.

Just don’t bother them too much in accomplishing this.

Poor preacher. Someone ought to encourage him. Lord knows there are enough forces out there threatening to disarm and disable him.

Today, let’s encourage him. Let’s “give him heart,” as the word “encourage” actually means. Here are three thoughts on that subject…

1) First, let’s pray for the pastor.

“Father, take notice of this one You called into your work. See what he’s up against. He wants to please You more than anything, yet he knows if he displeases enough of the congregation, he’s out of a job and loses the opportunity to make a difference for Thy sake.

“Lift up his heart, O Lord. Encourage him. Give him a strong backbone, a gentle heart, a sharp mind, and deep sleep when he lies down at night.

“Give him a wise and loving wife, one who knows when to rub his back and when to administer a sharp elbow or a gentle kick. Give him faithful children who will be an emotional comfort, a delightful diversion, and the source of terrific sermon illustrations.

“Give him a heart for Thee and a love for Thy people. In Jesus’ name.”

Continue reading

The greatest failure is the failure to encourage

Encouraging one another and all the more, as you see the day approaching.”  .-Hebrews 10:25

“They have refreshed my spirit and yours.  Therefore, acknowledge such men” (I Corinthians 16:18).

My journal records a painful episode in the most difficult of my six pastorates.

Because of internal dissension that was directed at me and undermined all we were trying to do in that church, I had asked the deacon leadership to help me deal with the dissenters.  They met, talked it out, then tossed the ball back into my lap.

“We want you to visit in the homes of every deacon (all 24 of them!).  Find out what’s going on in their lives.  Ask them for their personal goals, their hopes and dreams.” Then, at some point I was to ask, “Have I ever failed you in any way?”  The idea was to give the disgruntled the opportunity to tell me to my face what they had against me.  Thereafter, the leadership felt, when anyone start stirring up trouble, it could be dealt with more easily.

So, even though it felt like I was being punished for the sins of the troublemakers, I made the visits, usually three a night.

Most of the deacons and their wives were nice people, even though they had stood by passively while a few did all in their power to destroy their church.  In the visits, not a one could think of any way I had let them down.  One deacon’s wife said she was in the hospital and I did not come to see her.  Another said I had not attended the senior recital of their daughter. I had no memory of either of these events, but asked for their forgiveness.

Not exactly major stuff.  Certainly nothing worth tearing up the church over.

During the eighth visit, however, my journal records a conversation with one of the deacons and his wife.  I told them that throughout all these visits, I was yet to hear the first word of encouragement.  Not one word of encouragement.  My journal says: “The deacon sat there staring, as though he had not heard a word I had said or was speaking some language unknown to him.”

The concept of encouraging a pastor was foreign to them. And please notice, not one person told how I had failed them in some serious way.  Not one.

Which makes you wonder why they were so dead-set on interfering with the ministry God brought me there to do.  And if that mattered to them.

Continue reading

A lesson about worship from Arnold the pig and Tom Lester

This is from a conversation with a friend back in the year 2007.

Tom Lester played “Eb” on the wonderful old Green Acres television series. At the time of our conversation, Tom was semi-retired and living on his family farm in Laurel, Mississippi. He and I were sharing the program for First Baptist Church of Covington, Louisiana’s annual senior adult fling.  Over lunch he told me this story about another star of Green Acres, Arnold the pig.

“Pigs are smart,” Tom said, “but not like dogs. A dog can learn all sorts of tricks because they want to please you. But a pig is like a cat. It’s selfish. It thinks only of itself. So, people who work with pigs in movies and television have figured out that the way to get them to obey you is with food. First, they let them get hungry, and only then can they get them to obey.”

“But,” he continued, “as soon as the pig gets his belly full, he’s not good for anything the rest of the day. So, they bring in another pig that looks like the first one and use him.”

At any given time, Arnold was a half-dozen pigs.

We laughed about that, thinking how like humans pigs are. We see it in church a lot. People go to this church or that one because, “I get fed there.” Not: “I can serve the Lord there” or “God led me there.”

And how many times have we heard people remark after church that “I didn’t get fed.”

It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

Continue reading

The one question I’d love to ask our Lord Jesus

Now when Herod saw Jesus, he was exceedingly glad; for he had desired for a long time to see Him, because he had heard many things about Him…. And he questioned Him with many words…. (Luke 23:8-9).

Someone asked Larry King, the legendary television interviewer, if he could sit across the table and interview one person in all of history, who would it be.  “Jesus Christ,” said this man who is Jewish.

“And what would you ask him?”

“I would like to ask Him  if He was indeed virgin-born.  The answer to that question would define history for me.”

To be sure. That answer could change everything.  As it  has for many a person.

So with the resurrection.  Answer that in the affirmative and everything else falls into place.

Many people asked….

Throughout the Gospels, we find people asking one question of the Lord Jesus, then going their way.  We have to wonder if through the years, as they reflected on their single moment with Destiny, this one touch with the Divine, they didn’t regret the shallowness or superficiality of their request.  Here are some…

–The disciples of John asked why they had to fast, but Jesus’ disciples were not required to.  Matthew 9:14.

–The tricksters asked Him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” that they might accuse Him.  (Matthew 12:10)  It’s not a bad question, although they didn’t care for the Lord’s answer.

Continue reading

Where joy goes to die

“Joy is the business of Heaven.”  –C. S. Lewis 

What started me thinking of this was a line from former FBI director James Comey’s book A Higher Loyalty.

“Although I have had a different idea of ‘fun’ than most, there were some parts of the Justice Department that had become black holes, where joy went to die.” 

Sound familiar, pastor?

“Where joy goes to die.”  A fit description for a place–a business, a family, a team, a congregation–characterized by low morale, battle fatigue and discouragement.

I’ve worked in places like that. I’ve pastored a church or two like that.  And I’ve known several such congregations.

God help your church.

Comey says,“The more stressful the job, the more intentional I’ve always been about helping my team members find joy in our work.  Laughter is the outward manifestation of joy, so I believe if I’m doing it right and helping people connect to the meaning and joy in their work, there will be laughter in the workplace.”

This blog is about churches and church leaders, not governmental offices or bureaucracies.  So, let’s think of those churches where joy goes to die…

Continue reading

The delicate art of giving to the Lord

When we give to the Lord, so many things can go wrong.  The world looks askance at it, even friends wonder about all the money we’re giving, and so many questions arise.

I call it a delicate art, this business of giving to the Lord.  Here are some reasons for that.

One. It doesn’t look like what it is.

It may appear you are giving to poor people, to the needy, to the gospel worker, or to the church itself.  Someone may even say you’re “paying the preacher.”  One of my uncles was known to say, “I don’t owe the preacher anything; I’ve not been to hear him preach in ages.”

In giving to my Savior, I am laying up treasure in Heaven (Matthew 6:20), I am ministering to the saints (2 Corinthians 9:1), I am honoring my Lord by my faithfulness (see Mark 12:41-44), and I am honoring His name (see Hebrews 6:10).

Two.  Outsiders will accuse you of wasting your money.

Judas said, “What a waste!”(see Mark 14:4).  He was a thief, say the gospel writers, and cared little for the honor of the Lord.

Continue reading

How to frighten a pastor

Pastor, some of our members are concerned.

Speak those words and you now have the pastor’s undivided attention, believe me.

Say all you want about how the minister is God-called and God-protected and that sort of thing, but he would not be human if he did not want those he’s serving to be supportive and responsive. After all, since he’s sent to help them, he will appreciate any evidence he’s accomplishing his purpose.  Otherwise, he may feel he has either failed them or disappointed God. Or both.

Every pastor is vulnerable as a result.

What makes him more vulnerable to negative influences from others is that he has a family to feed and look after the same way you do if you work at the post office, drive a delivery truck, teach school, or extract teeth. The fact that he needs this job means he opens himself up to pressure from his constituents.

As a result, he reacts–at least emotionally–when he hears some of these lines that have been used on preachers since the beginning of the church.

Pastor, I know we ought to be reaching all these people and it’s good they’re being saved and baptized, but I miss our church the way it used to be.

The church I visited had 140 in two services. When the pastor arrived three or four years earlier, they had 40. In the previous three Sundays, he had baptized 11 people. Before the benediction, the pastor called on me to step to the mic and share anything on my heart. I said, “My friends, I am thrilled at the growth your church is having. These are wonderful days in this church. But I need to caution you about something. The devil will not take this lying down. He will raise up people to criticize and oppose, and I would not be surprised if he does it from within the congregation.”

I said, “Sooner or later, you will hear someone say, ‘I wish our church was the way it used to be.’ When that happens, do not wait for the pastor to address it. That’s your job. You are to turn to them and say, ‘Are you out of your mind?!’”

They laughed, but I hope they got the point.

“I’m not being spiritually fed by your sermons.”

This is a common ruse that accomplishes two things: it puts the preacher down while leaving the impression the critic is super spiritual with a taste for the red meat of the Word. And may I say, such criticism is almost always off base.

Continue reading