Saying True Things in a True Way

I’ve noticed a trend. In many of our settings, we tend to say things that are true as far as they go, but the way we say them contradicts what’s being said.

  • We’re told that pastors shouldn’t measure themselves by the size of our churches, but we’re told this by megachurch pastors who have platforms because of the size of their church.
  • We’re told to plant small, authentic, missional, reproducing churches at a large, slick conferences in attractional churches.
  • We read books about overcoming the success syndrome in ministry written by pastors who appear to have been quite successful.
  • We read inspiring stories of pastors who suffered and discovered that Jesus is enough even when you lost it all, but they seem to be written by pastors who, in the end, didn’t lose it all.
  • We read that Jesus’ grace is enough to cover present sin, but we typically only hear how Jesus has helped someone deal with sin only in the past.

Please understand: I’m not saying that any of the above is wrong in itself. I’m glad for the megachurch pastors I’ve heard who have reminded me that our identity isn't baed on our church's size. I’m glad for many of the large church conferences I’ve attended that tell me how to plant a small church. I’m grateful for the helpful books I’ve read about not needing to be successful, even if they’re written by successful pastors. And I’m thrilled that Jesus’ grace is enough for the sins of the past.

But I wonder if we can add to the above list without subtracting from it?

  • I want to hear from the pastors who have lots to teach us, even if they don’t have a large platform or a huge follower count.
  • I want to attend a conference one day about being small, authentic, and missional at a church that is small, authentic, and missional.
  • I want to read a book about overcoming the success syndrome written by a pastor who, in the eyes of the world, looks like a failure.
  • I want to hear from the pastor whose story didn’t have a happy ending, and yet who still clings to the fact that Jesus is enough.
  • I want to hear from the struggler who is finding that Jesus is enough not just for past sin, but for present struggle.

In his book Samson and the Pirate Monks, Nate Larkin speaks of his experience attending a church where the pastor spoke of present grace for present sins:

Barely four months later I would be listening to the gospel in a church where it was safe to admit brokenness, where the pastor talked about his own sin in the present tense and celebrated the mercy of God every Sunday. Here I would hear about the covenant of grace and the steadfast love of our heavenly Father. I would be reminded week after week that I am an adopted son of God, no longer an orphan, and that my Father never disowns his own. Finally—and this was the greatest miracle—it was in this church where I would meet many of my future comrades, the men whose friendship God would use to radically rearrange my life.

It’s just one example of the five things I talked about: a pastor speaking about sin and grace in the present tense instead of the past. And it made all the difference in the world, at least in Nate Larkin’s life.

I’ve been wrestling through these issues. I somehow want to say and hear true things in a way that’s congruent with the truth, even if it means listening to people we tend to overlook, and speaking truth’s we’d rather keep to ourselves.

Can't Quit, Won't Quit

As a church planter, I don’t get discouraged often. One day, though, I wanted to quit. I thought of my brother, who told me that he doesn’t have any job-related stress. I wanted to take a “normal” job and be done with the pressures and demands of ministry. And yes, I realized even then that the idea of a stress-free job is a mirage that doesn’t actually exist.

Still, I wanted to quit.

As I thought about this, I began to ask myself what would change. Yes, I would be freed from some of the pressures of vocational ministry. So many other things would stay the same.

  • I would not be my own. I would still be bought with a price, called to glorify God with my body (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
  • I would still be called to invest everything I have — my time, money, energy, and abilities — for maximum return for the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 25:14-30).
  • I would still be called to live sacrificially as part of the church, loving and serving others joyfully (1 Peter 4:7-11).
  • I would still be called to live everyday life with gospel intentionality, entrusting the gospel to others who would likewise entrust the gospel to others (2 Timothy 2:2).

The list goes on. What would change? The option of living for myself and my own comfort is off the table, and that will never change. Whether I serve in vocational ministry or in any other line of work hardly matters. I belong to Him. The expression changes depending on my work. The calling does not.

I suppose there will be other days that I’m tempted to quit the particulars of my ministry situation. I’m glad those days are rare. Regardless, there is no quitting the calling that God has given to all believers, a calling that flows from the gospel and is big enough to encompass all of our lives from now to the grave. Can’t quit, won’t quit. There’s no turning back once the gospel grabs ahold of your soul.

Sober Up

If there’s a command I’ve missed before, I’m sure not missing it now. In his letter to Christians facing persecution, the apostle Peter repeatedly issues the same command, twice in the last part of 1 Peter:

The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. (1 Peter 4:7)

Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8)

He also says something similar in 1 Peter 1:13. “Therefore,” he writes, “preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

Sober up. Be self-controlled. Stay awake, and be watchful. It’s as if we’re called to high alert. The reason, according to Peter: the end is at hand; we’re in the last stages of redemptive history. Not only that, but the devil is on the prowl.

  • If we aren’t thinking about the return of Jesus, we’re living like drunks. We need to sober up.
  • If we are living on our own strength, rather than living prayer-filled lives, we’re living like drunks. We need to sober up.
  • If we don’t think we have an enemy who is trying to thwart the advance of the gospel, than we’re living like drunks. We need to sober up.
  • If we are surprised when we suffer, we’ve underestimated our enemy. We’re under the influence, and we need to sober up.

As I’ve meditated on Peter these past few months, I’m surprised at how much I need to sober up. I’m not nearly as aware of the end as I should be. I’m not nearly as prayerful as I need to be. I’m often surprised when I suffer. I’m often mystified by why our efforts as a church are thwarted.

Peter wasn’t surprised. He offers clear, practical advice in his letter on how to deal with these things (hints: prayer, humility, more prayer, and a willingness to suffer). Please join me being sober-minded and watchful. It’s a command that Peter repeats; it’s a command we can’t afford to ignore.

Three Avenues to Joy

When I look back at what I’ve experienced in church planting these past two or so years, three joys stand out:

  1. The joy of risk — There’s something joyful about sticking your neck out and risking for the sake of the kingdom. It’s far more joyful than playing it safe. I don’t think I’d want to go back.
  2. The joy of evangelism — My best friends are increasingly outside of the church. I am intentionally cultivating relationships in my community and being present in my neighborhood.
  3. The joy of reliance — I am learning new levels of dependence on God. I am also much more aware of my reliance on other people for prayer support, as well as practical support.

If you want to ask me what I love about church planting, these three joys would rank near the top.

Here’s the thing: you don’t need to be a church planter to experience these three joys. Sadly, I pastored many years without experiencing them as much as I am now, but they where there for the taking.

Risk. Evangelize. Rely. I’m finding that these are three avenues of joy available to all of us for the asking.

God Wants Us to Want

I used to think that God was happy with our grudging obedience. Do the right thing, grit your teeth, and everything is good with God. I’ve been increasingly learning that God doesn’t want us to do the right thing so much as he wants us to want to do the right thing. Big difference.

Two examples:

Peter writes to elders in churches that are experiencing some suffering. “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight,” he writes, “not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you” (1 Peter 5:2). There’s a world of difference between elders who serve because they have to, and elders who serve because they want to. God, Peter says, desires the latter. God wants elders who want to serve him, even under the pressure of suffering.

Paul writes to the Corinthians to ask for money for the poor Christians in Jerusalem. He doesn’t tell them to dig deep until it hurts. “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). There it is again, something to avoid: compulsion. God wants our willingness, our eagerness, and our cheerfulness.

C.S. Lewis was insightful when he wrote:

A perfect man would never act from a sense of duty; he’d always want the right thing more than the wrong one. Duty is only a substitute for love (of God and other people) like a crutch which is a substitute for a leg. Most of us need the crutch at times; but of course it is idiotic to use the crutch when our own legs (our own loves, tastes, habits, etc) can do the journey on their own.

The perfect man or woman acts not out of duty, but of delight. We're all in process, but this is God’s desire for us.

God wants to change us not at the level of our obedience, but at the level of our affections. God wants us to want.