After hosting nearly 100 episodes of a church leadership podcast that focuses on church growth and writing more than 1,000 articles on the topic, I’ve learned that the most important trait for church growth is an undergirding of prayer and biblical fidelity. Lead the church you serve to have a dynamic prayer emphasis combined with constant Bible teaching, preaching and overall DNA, and you’ll be ready to follow through with practical strategies. If you don’t have this foundation, then you will fall into pragmatism and failure.
But preaching and teaching the Bible, as well as praying, does not automatically result in the growth of a church. There are plenty of churches with this foundation that still lack practical strategy. So what are the keys to church growth?
1. Implement the right systems.
How do you move people from where they are to where God wants them? Systems!
Have clear processes for how you handle the following areas of the church:
- Corporate worship service planning
- Assimilation of first-time guests into members who attend, give, and serve
- Small groups
- Lay leadership development
- Staff development
- Generosity and stewardship
- Evaluative measures
2. Build the right team.
You need to have the right people on the bus and have them in the right seats. They need to be people of character, competence, and chemistry.
Character. It doesn’t matter how talented the people are, if they are not men and women of God, they have no place on your staff team. For pastoral staff members, the Bible has made it crystal clear what kind of character they should possess (Titus 1:5–9; 1 Timothy 3:1–7; 1 Peter 5:1–4).
Competence. There are some people who are extremely godly, nice and sweet but simply don’t have the skillset needed to excel in the church you lead. These are the hardest team members to handle because if they have character and chemistry but are incompetent, you won’t experience growth in their area of leadership.
Chemistry. If the people love God and are really sharp, but you simply don’t get along with them, or if it is awkward being around them, it will not work in the long-term.
3. Develop the right culture.
In order for the church to have a healthy culture, it must have exegeted its community properly, then reverse-engineered how to see a healthy New Testament ministry grow there. The culture should be one of excellence, warmth, energy and enthusiasm. How is that culture developed? Through intentionality.
I conclude with a frustrating story. From ages 11 to 15, I mowed lawns and saved money to buy my first car. The day I turned 16, I opened up the classifieds section of the newspaper (before the days of Craigslist), found a car within my budget, and called the number.
I met with the guy who was selling the Chevy Corsica. It wasn’t the coolest car I had ever seen, but during the test drive, it was smooth.
Two days later, a substance was flying out from the side of the car, and then a rod was thrown in the engine. The seller put sawdust in there and conned me into buying a bad car. The cylinders in the engine weren’t clicking together, and it ruined the entire car.
Friend, you can make some tweaks here and there to make the church you lead experience some growth for a short season. You can throw proverbial sawdust under the hood of the church you serve.
But if you want things to click on all cylinders for the long haul, focus on the foundation of prayer and biblical fidelity, then implement the right systems, build the right team, and develop the right culture. Church growth isn’t guaranteed to come as a result of all of this, but the odds will definitely be in your favor.
When I came to my church several years ago, one of the biggest fears from current members was that I would try to “go contemporary.” Some were okay with the idea of adding a second contemporary service, but I wasn’t going to let them off the hook that easily. I intended to do something even more fearful: figure out how to get college students and young families to invade their pews and worship side by side with them.
A huge part of shaping a unified, cross-generational worship service was figuring out how to get members with different musical tastes and expectations to learn a Philippians 2:4 kind of looking “not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Our older members were deeply shaped by mid-century revivalist hymns. As college students and families began to join, they were shaped by the worship playlists and radio they listened to during the week.
We had to come to a realization as a congregation. Our objective was neither to sound like CCM radio nor to sound like the camp revivals of the 1950s. Our objective was to sound like College Street Baptist Church. We wanted to lift the spirit-filled authentic voice of our saints to the praise and glory of God.
Part of this process was finding new ways to sing hymns together. I wanted to help our older generation pass down these precious gems to the next generation. I also wanted the next generation to be able to take ownership of these hymns. Here are five suggestions for any church who wants to foster this melodic giving and receiving in the body of Christ.1. Add an interlude
In a traditional four-line hymnal, there is no recovery between verses. The congregation holds the last note for anywhere from one to four beats, then must hurry its eyes back up to the top of the page and start immediately into the next verse. This can be vocally taxing and make hymns feel unnecessarily archaic.
I was talking to my friend Ben Brainerd, worship director at Immanuel Baptist Church in Louisville about ways to encourage stronger singing from our congregation, and he taught me this trick. He said, “Just hold the last note. Just hold the last note of the song between verses, and everyone else will follow.” He was talking about an interlude. Giving the congregation a break between verses would allow them to recover their breath and prepare for the next verse–making for more vibrant singing.
An interlude between verses can make hymns more accessible without extra effort. A traditional four-line hymn has a readymade interlude: musicians can simply repeat the first or last line of the hymn between verses. I also love how this provides the congregation a few moments to pause for contemplation or prayer.2. Change the tempo
Sometimes all it takes is speeding a song up or slowing it down. Many hymns can take on a very different feel if you simply sing them at a different pace. A while back, we sang the Southern Baptist standard “There’s Pow’r in the Blood”. It has the word “pow’r” multiple times in the chorus, as in “pow’r, pow’r, wonder working pow’r” — not super user-friendly to younger believers. However, our musicians played the melody at a quicker pace with driving energy, turning the hymn into a celebratory anthem that the whole congregation sang with joy.
A great way to change tempo is by adding light percussion. Is there a member who can keep really good time? Sparing use of a shaker, cajón, or tamborine can be peppered in during congregational worship to set a hard tempo to prevent the congregation from falling into a familiar dragging cadence. These instruments require little experience or space, but they can be a great help in bringing unity to the voices of the church.3. Add an instrument
Look around your church. Is there someone with rhythm? Someone who plays guitar? Others with musical talents going unused in congregational worship? Believe it or not, we had a member who was a very gifted clarinetist. When we added her to our small group of musicians, it was a perfect fit. When you have piano led congregational worship, the additional of a few supporting musicians can help church members both old and young take ownership of their hymnals.
It’s important for the members of the church to realize that they have musical gifts and talents for the building up of the body. A particular favorite hymn of ours emphasizes this truth from Psalm 150: “Praise with every tuneful string; all the reach of heavenly art, all the powers of music bring, the music of the heart.” Restraint and creativity will be key as any instruments added should serve the voices of the people not drown them out.4. Give an introduction
An introduction can make a hymn with outdated language more engaging. Consider the line from verse 2 of “Come Thou Fount”: “Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by Thy grace I stand.” The typical complaint goes: What on earth is an Ebenezer? Here’s a suggestion: Rather than throwing out the word or the whole song, maybe your song leader should simply explain what an ebenezer is? Here’s an example:
Ebenezer is the Hebrew word for “stone of help”. In the Old Testament, God’s people would set up a stone, like a monument, as a permanent reminder of the real, tangible help God provided in a moment of crisis. Ebenezers are the milestones we can point to in our lives and say, “This trouble happened, and God’s undeniable grace delivered me!” Ponder those sweet moments of God’s help as we sing “Come Thou Fount” together…5. Sing acappella
The human voice is the one instrument that never goes out of style. Singing acappella builds confidence and gospel boldness in God’s people. Choose a last verse or a final chorus and drop the instruments altogether. Let the voices resound. Kevin DeYoung once said, “The test of a really great hymn is this: can it be sung acappella?”
The church’s voice should be the one instrument that rings out loudest and clearest in the midst of the congregation. A church that sings together is attractive to all generations—and glorifying to God.Firmly rooted in Scripture
The singing of the local church should be an ever-evolving process. As the Lord multiplies his church and adds to those who are being saved, the congregation’s harmony of ages, colors, and backgrounds must be heard in the midst of the congregation.
Firmly rooted in the Scriptures, spurred on by the saints of old, and enlivened by the indwelling Spirit, congregational singing ought to be a unifying endeavor for Christ’s church. To echo the words of Paul, my prayer for your church is “that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15:6).
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For the past few years, I have been speaking and writing about the dangers of pornography. Although I have read dozens of books about the effects of porn, I recently heard Matt Fradd discuss it on Unbelievable? radio and decided to pick up a copy of his recent book: The Porn Myth: Exposing the Reality Behind the Fantasy of Pornography. Needless to say, I was not disappointed. In fact, it’s now my top recommendation for a book of its kind.
Without using Scripture or religious argumentation, and relying upon dozens of recent studies, Fradd makes the case that porn is damaging to individuals, relationships, and society as a whole. He is not out to censor porn, but to educate people so they can live more healthy sexual lives ...
Hi Dr. Craig,
I appreciate your work for the kingdom of Christ. You have been of great influence in my life as a Christian.
I recently came across this piece by an unknown skeptic that was reviewing a book by Stewart Goetz ( The Purpose Of Life: A Theistic Perspective)
"The first question that seems fitting when discussing the purpose of life from a theistic perspective is: what is the purpose of God's life? If our being/life is somehow derived from God's being/life, then any relevant discussion of human purpose must be contingent upon God's purpose. But since purpose necessarily entails an initial directive, a beginning-less being cannot have a purpose. A being that has no origin or beginning cannot exist for anything. Since it would follow that this supposed being's actions must derive from the nature of its existence, it would be hard to logically defend the existence of purposeful actions resulting from a being that must be categorically devoid of purpose. "
I'm completely puzzle by this. Does God exist for something? Can it be said that if God had remain in eternity without creating he would be living a purposeless life? ...
You can learn a lot about a church from its website.
Not long ago I researched a church in another state, and I could tell it cares about community. From the small groups offered to the pictures of smiling people drinking coffee together, this congregation clearly works hard to make connections. After watching a few online interviews, it was obvious they value friendship.
Sadly, it wasn’t obvious they value Christ. I imagine they do. They’re a church, after all. But it wasn’t plain from anything I saw that they care most about proclaiming, exalting, and walking in a manner worthy of him.
A community is an organized group of individuals united by a common trait. It could be a love of fly fishing, Harry Potter novels, or political activism. There’s something powerful, fulfilling, and comforting about meeting up with others who share an interest. Certainly churches ought to emphasize themselves as hubs of community, right?
Yes and no.Community in Scripture
There’s no doubt that when we ransack the pages of the New Testament we find pictures of profound community. There was a “day by day” quality to the koinonia of the early Christians (Acts 2:42–47). The church did more than gather on Sunday. New believers spent time in one another’s homes, breaking bread and sharing life.
Paul promoted this church-as-family model. When writing to the believers in Thessalonica, he remarked how much he loved them, and how thankful he and his team was to have shared with them not only the gospel, but also “our own very selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thess 2:8).
The apostle modeled what his Savior taught him. Jesus exhorted the disciples to practice community. After humbling himself and washing their feet—communicating intimate care and concern—he said, “You also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14). And in case they didn’t quite grasp his point, Jesus added a new commandment: “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34). Jesus valued community.
Over the years I’ve seen countless examples of Christians caring for each other, putting the interests of others first, and generally sharing their lives. Cancer-plagued believers being driven to chemo treatment by brothers and sisters in Christ. Couples learning how to care for children with special needs so that tired parents can have a night out. Families opening up their homes to welcome singles on a weekly basis.
Community is biblical, and it’s important. But it’s not the whole story.But it’s not everything, Christ is
Community is the fruit of Christ-exalting worship. Community is not what we’re to aim for; Christ is. And when we find him (or, rather, when he finds us), community naturally follows.
Take Acts 2, for example. A desire for fellowship didn’t bring the early disciples together. No, the objective truth of the risen Messiah kept them in Jerusalem and made them eager to receive the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42). Paul willingly shared his whole life with the Thessalonian believers. But what united them wasn’t Paul’s love or their love. It was the gospel that had come “not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thess 1:5).
When Paul exhorted Timothy to faithfulness in ministry, he never told him to build community. Instead, he urged his disciple to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim 4:2). And when Paul cut to the heart of his own ministry, he put it simply: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col 1:28).
Paul never pitted Christ and community against one another. But he did prioritize Christ.
Paul knew, like his master, that wherever Christ is championed, community is created.
Relationships are deeper and richer when our ultimate confidence is in Christ and not one another. When you live as if other people can meet all your needs, you will be regularly disappointed. You’re asking them to do something no person can ever do—give you the happiness you so desperately want. But when Christ is your confidence, someone is freed to be your friend, not the god you rely on to meet all your needs.Christ front and center
As a pastor, I love to push my people into one another’s lives. God made us to need each other. He made us to live together as a family of faith. This is why I so often quote Hebrews 3:13: “Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” As Paul Tripp put it, we’re to be instruments in the redeemer’s hands, instruments of grace in each other’s lives.
So how do we keep Christ front and center?
It starts by ensuring the Word is proclaimed whenever we meet as a church. The Bible is the Word of Christ, and where the Word is rightly taught, Christ is rightly proclaimed. This is obvious when we gather on Sundays, but it should happen whenever we gather as a church.
Beyond our public meetings, we strive to speak of Christ warmly and often in personal conversation. It’s relatively easy to gather as the body of Christ and listen to sermons, sing Christ-centered lyrics, and engage in Christ-exalting prayers. But what you really value—what is front and center in your life—comes out in your conversations throughout the week. There’s always time to discuss college football, politics, and the latest fashion trends. But we all face the danger of neglecting to naturally talk about Christ as well—how he’s changing you, and how much you need him.
Whether we’re gathered or scattered, staying tenaciously focused on the true King is the secret to true community.You don’t find it by looking for it
Recently Christianity Today reported some statistics on why people start looking for other churches. Lots of reasons were given, from moving out of the area to disagreeing with the pastor. Only 2 percent of respondents indicated they were looking for another church because they “wanted more community.” I’m convinced the actual number is much higher. It’s easier to say you’re leaving the church because you’re dissatisfied with the worship experience than saying you’re leaving because you don’t have friends. It’s hard to admit you’re lonely.
So what should you do if you aren’t experiencing the kind of community you want?
Pray for your church faithfully. Pray the body of Christ you’re part of would grow in this area. Churches fall short. No church is perfect. So pray your church would be so filled with Christ’s love that it would overflow into personal relationships within the church.
Examine yourself. Are there patterns of behavior in your own life that serve as obstacles to the community you desire? Maybe your work schedule makes the kind of face time needed to live together difficult. Perhaps you’re prioritizing certain hobbies over gathering with God’s people (Heb. 10:24–25). Maybe, for whatever reason, you’ve kept others at arm’s length—refusing to let them really get to know you. Consider how you could make a greater effort to create the community you want to see.
Seek solace in Christ. True community is never found by looking for it. It can only be found by pursuing Christ. He understands loneliness better than we do. Jesus hung alone, deserted by his closest friends, bearing the shame of sins he never committed. He knows what it’s like to be ignored, abandoned, overlooked. Fallen humans are inherently disappointing. Only Jesus is perfectly fulfilling. So let your seasons of loneliness point you to his sufficiency.
We all need community. We just need Christ more.
The post Why community can’t be the most important part of your church appeared first on Southern Equip.
Joseph, being tempted by Potiphar’s wife:
“How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?”
Jones: What kept Joseph from sin? “How could I do such a wicked thing and…”?
Contract an STI? Risk an unwanted pregnancy? Jeopardize my seminary status or my marriage or my church ministry? Disappoint my mentors? While these are legitimate concerns, nothing is higher than Joseph’s answer: “ … and sin against God?”
“For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.”
Jones: Sexual sin for Paul is functional atheism, living like a pagan who does acknowledge God’s presence, fear God’s judgment, or love him for sending his Son to die for me.2 Corinthians 5:14-15
“For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”
Jones: There must be a conscious belief in God’s constant presence with you. No one would view porn if Jesus were standing next to him, so to view porn one must either ignore or marginalize the Lord’s presence or devalue pleasing him.
Featuring Eric L. Johnson, Lawrence and Charlotte Hoover Professor of Pastoral Care at Southern Seminary
AJWS: In your experience, what factors are involved in a young man’s ongoing pornography addiction? What drives him back to it time and time again — despite negative consequences (getting caught, spiritual lifelessness, relational separation, chronic guilt, etc.)?
EJ: We are born in sin and all of us are inclined to live for ourselves. That is the nature of original sin. How that ends up getting manifested distinguishes people. Original sin is expressed through our bodies and through our personalities. It gets organized in our brains and in our personalities based on biology and our social experiences.
The fact of the matter is that men are more likely to engage in pornography use than women, and that’s partly because of the way men are wired biologically. That is not an excuse. We are embodied creatures; our sin is embodied — Paul’s use of the word flesh is profound on this matter. So, because of the release of testosterone in teenage years and early adulthood, that’s actually the time when the drive is the strongest for sexual activity — and of course that’s great when you’re married and you’re going to have kids, but it creates problems when marriage is delayed into the late 20s, as it often is in our day. It becomes an incredible burden.
Now, every exposure to pornography binds the brain and the mind and the imagination to a particular cycle that is powerful — one of the most powerful kinds of cycles that humans have. When you do that repeatedly, it locks it into a kind of sequence that makes it extremely difficult to break out. It becomes an addiction. Again, there is no excuse here — we are responsible before God for the state of our brains as young adults. That’s a part of our responsibility before God. But it also creates a level of urgency that we not continue the cycle. Every time a person goes back to the internet and re-engages that cycle, it debilitates them that much more.
Part of the recovery process is to do everything we can to help people prevent another cycle. Pluck out the eye, cut off the hand, throw out the computer. Make it impossible for you to have access. Do whatever you need to do.
AJWS: When you counsel a man struggling with pornography, what does a map toward recovery look like? What process do you lead him through?
EJ: We want to help people develop the optimal amount of contrition, and contrition is a painful emotion. Most conscientious Christians, after they have engaged in pornography use, are going to feel bad. We want to encourage them to learn how to do that in a Christ-centered way, and that means taking it seriously, but it also means not jumping into Doubting Castle and getting beat up by Giant Despair every day. That actually crushes the Christian spirit and it aids Satan in tormenting the believer, saying, “You see, you’re outside the pale. You’re irredeemable. You can’t be a Christian.”
I define pornography addiction as regular, ongoing use. It’s not good to engage in any pornography use at all, but when addressing the problem, we need to distinguish a one-time fall from somebody who is engaging in that behavior every week.
When dealing with someone who is addicted, we have to help them break the cycle. That is pivotal. Because if a person is in despair, they don’t feel like they can even go to Jesus for healing. We have to break the cycle, because when you’re in that despair mindset, you can’t do the redemptive steps that are necessary to get clean. You feel dirty, you feel unworthy, you feel distant from Jesus, and so there has to be some break there. So as soon as possible, we want to get people to go before the Lord through a sequence of cleansing. That is a process of going before the Lord and engaging in confession — a conscious and verbal acknowledgment that I have sinned.
There should also ideally be a certain amount of contrition, and that means staying in that state for several minutes before the Lord and doing what the Puritans called “loading the conscience,” or allowing their sin to weigh on them.
The next step is repentance, and repentance is making a conscious break from the behavior. It is saying: “I have done it, and I disavow that — I do not wish to do it ever again and Lord Jesus, help that to be true of me.” Finally, with a Christ-centered model of repentance, we want to help them — before they leave the presence of Lord — to “hear” him say, “Your sins are forgiven, go and sin no more.” Then, they experience the washing and cleansing of forgiveness so that they can stand before the Lord, not in the basement of Doubting Castle, but knowing that they are forgiven. It’s a miracle every time it happens, but it is a recognition that the Lord has forgiven them and they are making a break with that behavior pattern. The idea long-term is to help them internalize that redemptive process of death and resurrection into the new creation again and again and again to build hope, no matter how many times they fall.
He doesn’t give up on his children and he never will. We need to keep going back to him over and over, and that process ends up changing our sense of our identity. The reason why all this is important is because, in Doubting Castle, the addict is actually more likely to go back to pornography. They don’t feel consolation with the Lord, so they are going to try and find a sick kind of consolation in their sin. This is so important: We have to help them find true consolation in Christ’s forgiveness and love and abiding with the Lord in that state.
AJWS: What is the most important thing a person needs to know, do, or experience in order to overcome a longstanding porn habit?
EJ: I think there are two things. The first is contrition before the Lord. There has to be an acknowledgment of my sin before God, handled in a way that doesn’t crush the believer in a sense of failure and hopelessness. Second, I have to know that Jesus will take back the prodigal every time.
I think both those things have to be held in tension. We might say that it’s the balance of law and grace together. The challenge is that the person who ends up beating himself up is overwhelmed by law and has lost sight of grace; the person who is too casual about it doesn’t allow himself to take the time to hear the Lord say, “It’s not okay.” You can become too law-centered and you can become too grace-centered, in a strange way. It’s always both, and I like to think about it temporally: The Christian life is an ongoing movement from death to resurrection. My job as a counselor is to help people learn how to practice that death-resurrection cycle every time they sin.
Some deadly diseases often present no outward symptoms; they just lie within surreptitiously and imperceptibly until they unleash catastrophe. Deep vein thrombosis.
Hypertension. Brain aneurism. Pride.
More than just a sin, pride is a category of sin because, though indeed a sin itself, it leads inevitably to more sin and other sin. Pride is particularly insidious because, unlike pornography, adultery, or thievery it remains socially acceptable — even in the Christian world, particularly in ministry, and especially in the artificial bubble of seminary. Insulated from the challenges of other world views, constantly graded and evaluated in ways that lend themselves to comparison, and surrounded by admirable and attractional people, a seminary student can easily forget that the call of God is to follow Christ alone. Pride can distort the entire experience and suggest that the cross to be taken up must be a designer model, carried in a top-grain leather case, and immortalized in an Instagram selfie.The ultimate secret sin
Perhaps pride persists so perilously because it has a certain utility in the world of the flesh, an expediency in gaining an invitation to sit in the chief seats at the table. It can masquerade as self-confidence in preaching and draw the admiration of others. It can fool a wife into thinking her husband is self-assured and confident when he is self-absorbed and conceited. It can pose as poise and leadership to a search committee or a potential employer who cannot perceive the insatiable appetite for prestige and lust for status lurking beneath the impeccably curated clothing.
Pride, however, has no single uniform. It can infect the seminary student nattily attired in Brooks Brothers, bow tie, and brogues, or equally the one who, just as proudly, refuses to wear anything but jeans and a t-shirt. It can dehumanize a wife into an ornament, and make children think more about maintaining the image of dad than reflecting the image of God. It can pervert a simple thing—like drinking a cup of coffee—into an act of idolatry and fountain of disdain for those with less educated palates. It robs the simplest pleasures of their simplicity and joy, and substitutes instead the convolution and complication of a sinful heart with the sneer of self-righteousness. Pride is so subtle and perverted that it can corrupt the good that we do, ostensibly in service of the kingdom, into deeds of the flesh that cannot please God.
Ultimately, pride robs God of his glory — the eternal — because it delights in self-glory — the temporal, transient, and meaningless.
That’s why seminary is so dangerous. Unfortunately, seminary can become an incubator for nascent pride that, if not defeated by the indwelling Spirit of Christ, will grow into a disfiguring and destructive monster that makes even the most academically gifted seminary graduate of little use to the Kingdom of God. In one way seminary is no different than any other place because pride can grow in any climate and every heart. On the other hand, Satan’s forces are working overtime at seminary because habits and attitudes established here will likely harden and endure throughout ministry — and cause great damage.Overcoming an inflated sense of self
The key to defeating pride lies in truly believing what God’s Word says about every one of us. The Bible is clear that we are all broken. We might be broken in different ways, but one cannot experience degrees of total depravity. When we deny the depth of our own desperate need we fail to see the enormity of God’s grace and redemption in Christ. Not only is pride sinful, but also misplaced. We have nothing to be proud of. If everyone knew the truth about us we would only be ashamed. Apart from Christ, we certainly have no cause for boasting.
We must remind ourselves, therefore, that our salvation, our sanctification, and even our gifting, is all of grace. The more one appreciates and appropriates the grace of God, the less one feels either desire or ability to boast. Grace, after all, transforms mundane things in precisely the opposite direction of pride. Grace puts gratitude where pride once was. The discerning palate, for instance, becomes a heart filled with praise and gratitude for a God who designed taste buds and created coffee trees and different soils, climates, and altitudes so His creatures could enjoy the simple—or complex—pleasure of a cup of java. Clothes and appearance become a strategy to present the gospel and to express a sanctified and unique personality with a thankful heart. Beautiful pens become a way to write encouraging or comforting notes to others rather than a possession to fuel pride. Social media become a tool of discipleship and gospel impact rather than self-centered aggrandizement.
Humility is not thinking lowly of yourself, or even little of yourself; it’s not thinking of yourself. A life filled with Christ and focused on others will not have room nor time for pride. A follower of Christ must evaluate his or her own spirit and attitude in every action with brutal honesty to bring every thought captive to Christ. We strive to be servants, not masters; to be least, not the greatest. We serve one who humbled and emptied Himself.
Southern Seminary is a wonderful place and a gift of God to His churches. I marvel at what God has done here. Our campus is the most beautiful I have ever seen. Our faculty is stunningly gifted and accomplished. Our students and alumni are used of God in great and inspiring ways. May none of that, however, be a source of anything other than gratitude to God with a sense of our own debt to the gospel. We have nothing that we have not received.
Nate Larkin went to a different seminary at a different time, but despite his story he’s not all that different from many of today’s seminarians. He took the biblical languages and systematic theology. He was an excellent student and expositor. He won the preaching prize. He pastored a small independent church while he was in school. He sincerely wanted to follow the Lord’s calling on his life. He seemed, from the outside, enormously successful. Ideal, even. But inside, he harbored pain and guilt from something deep and hidden. Over time, it metastasized.
“When I was in seminary, I felt like I had joined the Marines and that I was the designated hero,” he says now. “I would be the guy who would have the answers for everybody else. I would be a repository of wisdom, I would be the tip of the spear.
“But that’s a concept that militates against much of what the New Testament tells us about the interdependence of all the members of the body of Christ.”
Larkin started looking at pornography long before seminary. But it was during that period that it became truly addictive. At the time, the early 1980s and long before the internet, glossy men’s magazines were the entry point for porn users, and the next stage was adult bookstores. Larkin says he can still hear the sound of a clattering film projector behind him from the first time he visited such a place. One bookstore was halfway between the seminary and his church, and he recalls on many occasions feeling like the car turned into the bookstore of its own volition.
After a post-seminary men’s retreat, he promised himself he would get serious about his sin, even opening up to his wife for the first time and vowing never to do it again. He experienced a period of “abstinence,” as he calls it, and even decided he had recovered enough to plant a church, but he never dealt with his sin at the root or was truly honest with others about the condition of his heart. Eventually, it grew worse.
Larkin describes driving to church one rainy night, where he was going to preach at the Christmas Eve service. He saw a young woman on the street, and deciding he would be a gentlemen and get her out of the rain, offered to give her a ride. But she was not there by accident, and the $100 bill he had in his wallet for the church Christmas offering never made it to the offering plate. It was not the only time, even after he quit the ministry in a desperate attempt to kill his addiction. As best as he can reconstruct it now, during those dark years he spent as much as $300,000 illicitly.
His wife caught him one night, and spoke two words that would finally spark change his life. I’m done. She said she still loved him, but she didn’t like him, didn’t respect him, and didn’t think he could ever change.
Desperate to save his relationship with his wife — the one friend he still had, he says — Larkin started attending 12-step recovery and at last began being honest about his sin.
“It was there that I encountered Jesus in a whole new way,” he said. “It was there that doors and windows were opened on the gospel for me, and I began to see that Jesus was always unfailingly kind to the sexually broken. He never himself endured sexual sin, but he was always unfailingly kind and gracious.”
He started developing close friendships, which forced him to stop minimizing his sin and get serious about it. This is not sin management, one friend told him. They would work hard to confront the behavior, but they would also drill deeper into the heart issues that drove his actions. You have a lot more repenting to do than you know, he told Larkin.
The work took years, like the sprouting of a sapling or the glacial drift of an ice flow. A member of Christ Community Church in Franklin, Tennessee, Larkin began to grow under the preaching of founding pastor Scotty Smith and honest, deep friendships and openness with other Christian men. The change itself, however, was supernatural. It was the work of the Holy Spirit.
“Eventually, either we surrender to a power greater than ourselves and our addiction, or we lose.”
The friendships Larkin formed during that phase of his life have lasted decades. He has been in recovery for more than 25 years and has used his story to mentor countless men struggling with pornography and sexual sin. Scotty Smith watched Larkin and his ministry flourish during that time, and calls him “one of my favorite people in the entire world.”
Larkin feels burdened to help men with stories like his, and believes the best way to cultivate long-term change is through honesty and companionship. Sanctification is pursued in community, isolation is a breeding ground for sin — and he recognizes few Christians are as isolated as men training for or in the ministry.
“To me, one of the greatest tragedies of contemporary American religious life is that, in the typical American church these days, the pastor is the most isolated guy in the congregation,” Larkin said. “We face a very wily foe, whose game is one-on-one. He is a master of it. He doesn’t play team ball; he plays one-on-one, and he’s only been beaten there once. If he can trap us forever into his game, he will win.
“The most successful pastors I know have managed to construct for themselves a brotherhood. We have to be vulnerable to somebody, and that takes courage.”
Larkin is a writer, speaker, and founder of Samson Society, a men’s ministry with church groups across the United States. Read more about his story and ministry in his book, Samson and the Pirate Monks.
I’ve been around Southern Seminary as a student, a professor, and now as dean of students for long enough to notice patterns. There are certain sins that people in our community struggle with most, disordered ways of living that are particular to men and women training for ministry.
One of the major sins I consistently encounter is what I would call a “performance identity” in academic pursuits. It manifests itself in many forms: plagiarism, lying on reading reports, dishonesty, and cutting corners academically. But those actions are just the behavioral manifestations of a deeper problem. A heart problem.
That’s why I call it a performance identity: We try to ground our personal significance and meaning in our performance, and we need our grades — the gauges of that performance in an academic environment like Southern Seminary — to be as high as possible.
Most of the time, we aren’t intending to do this when we take on the noble task of ministry training. But we always take on noble tasks with mixed motives. There are many good and virtuous reasons why people come to seminary — we want to engage our minds with the truth, to serve the church well, to reach out to unbelievers, and to do all these things with excellence. Of course this is important and necessary, and the desire to know the truth, serve the church, and present the gospel is a genuine motivation for virtually everyone I meet at this institution.
But we are often less aware of the many self-serving motivations that drove our decision to come to seminary and continue to drive us to excel. We experience a deep need to be recognized, and we want to feel like we are doing something meaningful. Particularly in the millennial generation, we have been taught to think that we should be immediately aware of the significance of our work. We want to do something great, and to know it’s great while we’re doing it. We aren’t satisfied with the quiet growth of a mind over time. We want more immediate indicators of significance. The closest thing we have to this are grades.The problem with good grades
Now, satisfaction and fulfillment does indeed come from what we do and how we perform in our work. That is a good and God-designed reality, but it is not an ultimate one. Some students at Southern have left careers that were very lucrative — working as lawyers, doctors, or tradesmen— in order to pursue God’s calling in ministry. Others are fresh out of college and they’re just trying to establish a career for the first time.
For both, grades often become the ultimate barometer of the wisdom of that decision. Students want to know they made a wise choice to attend seminary, and they want to meet the objective standard that measures their success. Sometimes the grade becomes the main objective instead of the knowledge of God. Rather than pursuing communion with the living God through an honest grasp of the material in their courses, sometimes students pursue the recognition of a high GPA.
This principle can be well summarized with a biblical phrase that the Apostle Paul uses in Philippians 3:
We are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh — though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ (Phil 3:3-7, ESV).
In many cases, we are pursuing what Paul calls a “confidence in the flesh.” For Paul, his “confidence in the flesh” before his conversion was made up of things like being circumcised on the eighth day or being a Hebrew of Hebrews — but for us it’s an “A” in Tom Schreiner’s New Testament Theology class or finishing in the top 10 percent of students in our language courses. There are all sorts of ways to measure our success academically, and we can place our confidence in our achievements rather than in God and his call on our lives. If you read over Philippians 3, you’ll see that confidence in the flesh is anti-confidence in Christ. Part of what Paul had to learn is that all those things are rubbish — they are nothing to him because they can’t compare with the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord and being found in him.Rooting out disordered motivation
I encourage students not just to fight at the level of knowing what plagiarism is and avoiding the procrastination that makes it attractive. That’s important, but what’s far more important is committing to the regular heart assessment of confessing the sin of being motivated by confidence in the flesh. It’s a daily responsibility to confess and repent. As we study the Bible and discover such motivation lurking in our hearts, we must repent — even while reading.
Every time we step in the pulpit, every time we care for people, every time we write that paper, we must be aware of why we do it. If students can learn now to give to Jesus their desire for significance in their performance, they will establish good patterns for when they get into ministry, and the pressure to do this grows even greater. When we entrust ourselves to Christ in the labor of study, we will not measure our significance in grades. And all of a sudden, we find academic dishonesty less tempting. It doesn’t make as much sense to cheat when you don’t need the grades so desperately.
None of us will carry our academic transcripts into the presence of God. We wouldn’t dare think of it. The only factor that determines the significance of our lives is the love of God in Jesus Christ for us. One day, we will know this entirely.
It’s no secret that I love apologetics. I love to read apologetics blogs, study apologetics books, and have apologetics conversations. But there is a constant temptation I have to battle that I believe is common among many apologists: the temptation to simply study apologetics but not put it into practice.
Let me state something clearly up front so I am not misunderstood: Studying apologetics has tremendous value in its own right. After all, learning how to defend the faith can bring both clarity and confidence in God and Scripture. Nevertheless, apologetics does not primarily have an inward focus in the life of the believer. It has an outward focus aimed at graciously answering tough questions that trouble both believers and non-believers in their understanding of God and salvation (e.g., 1 Pet. 3:15; Jude 3) ...
My forthcoming book on warfare in the Ancient Near East and the Old Testament not only has many words, but also about 150 pictures. While ancient Near Eastern texts are somewhat familiar, visual imagery remains unknown for the most part. This is partly due to the difficulties of acquiring permission to print the pictures. Some pictures I was required to buy directly from museums or professional photographers (and so I will not be able to post these pictures online). However, I was also able to acquire pictures for free from three other sources. First, I will show some pictures that were taken by friends ...
The post And in Him All Things Hold Together: Jesus Christ as Beginning and End of Knowledge appeared first on Southern Equip.
With awed wonderment, millions of faces were turned skyward on Aug. 21 to observe the awe-inspiring first total solar eclipse since 1918. If you lived in the narrow swath of the sun’s 60-mile-wide arc of trajectory from Lincoln, Ore., to Charleston, S.C., from 1:15 to 2:48 p.m. EDT, you experienced 120 seconds of darkness over the land.
When the eclipse was occurring, my mind turned to Hebrews 1:1-3: “God … has spoken to us in His Son … through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory … and upholds all things by the word of His power.”
Who created that stupendous, splendid sun and that magnificent moon and intersected their orbits to create a rare total eclipse? According to Hebrews 1:2, the Son did—“through whom [God] made the world.”
Before sun, moon, stars or planets ever existed, the Son was eternally one with the Father. The Son is distinct from creation itself and exists apart from it. He is not dependent upon it, but it is dependent on Him. When God stepped out from behind the curtain of nowhere onto the platform of nothingness and spoke a universe into existence, the Son was His agent of creation. The Son is not only God’s agent in creation, He is the basis of the independent existence of all created reality—including you and me! From the Son we learn the final purpose of creation—creation is the preamble to salvation!
How could our tiny, little ol’ moon eclipse the titanic hulk of the sun? It seems impossible! The sun’s diameter is 400 times wider than the moon and is so huge that 64 million moons could fit inside it! But the sun is also 400 times farther away. The result: the sun and the moon appear to be the same size from our perspective, and when they line up just right, the moon obscures the sun’s entire surface. Presto! A total solar eclipse.
But the Son cannot be eclipsed! He radiates the brightness of God’s glory according to Hebrews 1:3. “Glory” could be described as the manifestation of God’s divine attributes—divine nature in either its invisibility or its perceptible manifestation. Glory is the divine “mode of being.” Glory is as essential to the Son as light is to the sun. You don’t make the sun light; it is light!
The pre-incarnate Son shared in the divine glory because He is “God of very God,” as Nicaea put it. The incarnate Son reveals the divine glory because He is the embodied revelation of God’s essential glory. The Son does not reveal something other than Himself, nor does He reveal something other than God the Father. As one of the Sons of Thunder put it in John 1:14: “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father.” Think of it! This Son is the unique God-man; the only one who has a heavenly Father but no heavenly mother; who has an earthly mother but no earthly father; who is older than His mother and who is as old as His Father!
Get out your telescope. Train it on the night sky. Astrophysicists estimate the size of the universe to be 93 million light years across, or 28.5 gigaparsecs if you prefer. It is home to more than 170 billion galaxies. Our tiny little Milky Way galaxy, being just 100,000 light years in breadth (remember, light travels at the speed of 186,000 miles per second), is home to only 100 billion stars, including the low-rent solar system containing planet Earth. Compared to the Milky Way, our solar system proportionally would be the size of a quarter relative to the North American continent. If you could proportionally reduce our solar system to the size of a football field, the sun would be on the 50-yard line; Earth would be 93 million miles away … on the 46-yard line. Pluto would be on the goal line.
Who sustains this macrocosm called a universe? Who keeps galaxies rotating and solar systems careening at break-neck speeds yet with flawless accuracy? Hebrews 1:3 says there is one Cosmic Cop, whose badge is deity and whose whistle is omnipotence. He directs galactic traffic … because He is the Son who “upholds all things by the word of His power”!
When the moon eclipsed the sun on Aug. 21 for an hour and 43 minutes, most never knew it, but the Cosmic Cop was directing the traffic. Oh yes, by the way, He has a name. His name is Jesus, and He is God’s final revelation to us, who has made “purification of sins” according to Hebrews 1:3. The total eclipse we all experienced last week was a reminder of the unbelievable magnificence and power of the universe. But though the universe declares the glory of God, it can never tell you of God’s love for us. To us, the universe, along with our little lives in it, are all one great undecipherable hieroglyph until we discover God’s Rosetta Stone—Jesus! Amazing as it seems, the Son cares about every life on this third rock from the sun.
Because the Son came to earth, lived a sinless life, and died a substitutionary death for us all, there is an answer to your question, a solution to your problem, hope for your future, forgiveness for your sins, and salvation for your soul. Here is the Son, whose glory and whose love for you can never be eclipsed!
I’m very thankful to Moody Publishers for all they have done for the kingdom in general, and for me specifically. The Lord saved me through some dramatic and traumatic life events when I was 24 years old. As a new believer, I had no idea how to get started in my walk with Christ and grow as a disciple. I soon found out about Moody Bible Institute correspondence courses and studied through a couple of them, beginning my Christian life and an abiding love of Bible study at the same time. Later, Moody published my first two English books: The Missionary Call: Find Your Place in God’s Plan for the World and Reaching and Teaching: A Call to Great Commission Obedience.
2018 marks ten years since the publication of The Missionary Call, and I am thrilled to announce that Moody Publishers is releasing a Tenth-Anniversary edition next year. I have been re-reading the original manuscript in preparation for updating it to include global developments and trends over the last decade. As I did so, I was reminded of many missionaries who have related how this book impacted them as they heard and answered their missionary call.
I am also thankful for the missions pastors, mission agencies, and missionaries who recommend The Missionary Call to those seeking to know and do the will of God for their life in missions. The following is an excerpt that I want to share for you who may have gone on your first mission trip this summer.Your first mission trip
When people share what they believe their missionary calling to be, I love to ask, “Where did you go on your first mission trip?” It is common to meet people who feel called to the place where they went on their first mission trip. Sometimes, this is due to the warmth and friendliness of their missionary “guides.” Missionaries regularly serve as cultural guides to the country, interpreters, drivers, bodyguards, and flesh-and-blood illustrations of missionary life. Spending time with missionary families, listening to the missionary kids speaking two or more languages over a meal, learning about the sacrifices these families have made to be missionaries, and the overwhelming ways that God blesses them in the process are major influences in the life of the visitor.
The first time out of your country can be a frightening experience; everything that was normal to your everyday life is disappearing with the USA shoreline behind the plane as it climbs to cruising altitude. You wonder what the food will be like and whether the candy bars you stashed in your suitcase will be enough to get you through two weeks out of the country. You mentally rehearse the list of dos and don’ts that the missionary gave you: don’t drink the water but do eat what they give you in homes—accompanied by the missionary prayers, “Lord, I’ll put it down if you’ll keep it down!” and, “Where He leads me I will follow, what He feeds me I will swallow.”
However, the nervousness turns to delight as the missionaries collect you and your team, take you to a comfortable hotel, and supply you with water and rest. On your first trip out of the hotel, you are wide-eyed and marveling at the beauty of the country, the suicidal traffic rules, the devastating poverty, the hopelessness in the eyes of the beggars, and the warm friendliness of the nationals at church. Adjusting to life there requires a learning curve that goes virtually straight up.
Every day of the first week fills your journal with firsts. The first time you ate durian—and the last, by the way! The first time you communicated with someone who did not speak your language by simply pointing at your favorite verses in your Bible and finding them in his, and vice versa. The first time you sang “Victory in Jesus” by reading the words phonetically in a language you did not know so you could make a joyful noise. The first time you crossed a river in a dugout canoe to get to church in the jungle. The first time in a church service where a fight broke out between two dogs that had been sleeping under the pews. You will never forget the first time a family grandmother knelt and washed your feet to thank you for bringing the gospel message to her village—never.
At the end of your short-term trip, you head to the airport to return to your “normal” life, only it does not seem quite as normal as it did. Your heart breaks as you get on the plane and leave behind new believers, disciples who have not been discipled, and brothers, sisters, and friends. Somewhere on the trip home, you realize that your life will never be the same again. You want to come back again and serve God among these people. You want to learn their language and life, their culture and customs, and their love for food and fun. You know that God is calling you to be a missionary in this place, to these people, for His glory. Then, you realize something else: you never touched your candy bars.