Resolved: 2010

I really love Christmas and Easter because of the Truth of what we celebrate. But aside from those two holidays, New Years day may be my favorite holiday. I love the fresh start and clean slate. And I'm a goal setter by nature, so I get excited about the chance to reflect and evaluate.

Here are my goals for this year.

1. Read through the Bible this year, and through the Old Testament twice.
Monday I posted about my gaffe this year when it comes to Bible reading. I'm going to do better this year. I'm going to do a One Year Bible with one of the guys I meet with once a week. We're each going to read through it independently and then get together to talk about what God is teaching us. He's a younger believer with fresh eyes, so I can't wait to see what he'll teach me.

For an investment of fifteen minutes a day, I just don't see any reason I shouldn't make this a goal this year.

2. Pour my life into 10 reproducers this year
I've posted before about my renewed excitement about life-on-life discipleship. This year, I'll be on the lookout for 10 guys I can pour my life into throughout the year who will pour their lives into at least one other guy. Again, it's like the Bible reading for me: if there is a return of 100 percent per person, it's an investment worth making.

3. Read at least 15 books that are 100 years old or older.
Last year I read a bunch of books, but only a few that were truly outstanding. This year, I'm going to try to deepen my well by reading some theological works that are more than 100 years old. I've got some in my queue - one by Baxter, one by Spurgeon, and one by Phillips Jenkins, but would be open to suggestions.

4. Run a half marathon.
I don't usually set physical goals for New Year Resolutions, because frankly, I rarely keep them. But, this year I'm planning to run a half marathon. I've already started training, and if I can hold off the tendinitis in my foot, I'll be running the Cowtown Half Marathon in late February with my brother-in-law and some other friends.

2009 Book Log

One of my new years resolutions was to read a book each week throughout the year. I love to read, but this was a big hairy audacious goal for me. It turned out to be the perfect goal - one that was achievable, but that forced me to push myself. Here are the books I read this year in the order I read them. It's tough to rank books of different genres, so to the side I've put my rating of each book within its own genre, from 1-5 stars (*). I usually only review books I've got strong feelings about one way or the other, so the stars give you some impression as to what I thought (if you care). I'll give you my top 5 tomorrow.

According to Plan - Graeme Goldsworthy *
Church Unique - Will Mancini ****
Not the Way It's Supposed to Be - Cornelius Plantinga *****
Culture Making - Andy Crouch ***
Evolution of a Creationist - Jobe Martin ***
Mad Church Disease - Anne Jackson **
Grace Based Parenting - Tim Kimmel *****
I Ain't Coming Back - Dolphus Weary ***
Sheet Music - Kevin Leman ****
Dinner with a Perfect Stranger - David Gregory ****
Day with a Perfect Stranger - David Gregory ****
Clutter Free Christianity - Robert Jeffress *
Vintage Church - Mark Driscoll ****
While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks - Timothy Laniak *****
A Sense of Urgency - John Kotter ***
Culture Shift - Robert Lewis and Wayne Cordiero **
Managing Transitions - William Bridges *****
In the Name of Jesus - Henri Nouwen ***
Leadership and Self Deception - the Arbinger Institute *****
The Prodigal God - Timothy Keller *****
The Leadership Challenge - Kouzes and Posner ****
Change is Like a Slinky - Hans Finzel *
Hole in Our Gospel - Richard Stearns *
Freedom and Boundaries - Kevin DeYoung *****
Just Do Something - Kevin DeYoung *****
You were Born for This - Bruce Wilkinson *
Boards that Make a Difference - John Carver *****
The Crucifixion of Ministry - Andrew Purves ****
Crucial Conversations - Patterson, Grenny, McMillen, Switzler ***
Divine Justice - David Baldacci ****
The Sigma Protocol - Robert Ludlum *
Inside the Revolution - Joel Rosenberg ****
The Runaway Jury - John Grisham ****
Unforgiving Minute - Craig Mullaney *****
Hooked - McIlhaney and Bush ***
The Inner Voice of Love - Henri Nouwen *
Counterfeit Gods - Tim Keller ***
An Uncommon Union - Hannah **
The Reason for God - Tim Keller *****
A Praying Life - Paul Miller ***
Primal - Mark Batterson *
Transforming Discipleship - Greg Ogden *****
A Tale of Three Kings - Gene Edwards ****
Simple Life - Thom and Art Ranier **
The Trellis and the Vine - Colin Marshall and Tony Payne *****
The Three Success Secrets of Shamgar - Pat Williams and Jay Strack ***

My Top Five Books of 2009

Tomorrow I'll list virtually everything I read this year with some kind of cute star system so you know what I thought. I always love it when people post their "top five" or "top ten" books lists on their blogs; it populates my shopping list. But here are my top five from the year.

5. The Trellis and the Vine - Colin Marshall and Tony Payne
This book is one of the last ones I read this year, so that might have bumped it up on the list. Either way, it's excellent. The main point of Marshall and Payne is that churches spend too much time working on systems and structure - the trellis that supports the vine - rather than tending to the vine itself. Chapter 2 comes as close to describing my own personal ministry philosophy as anything else I've ever seen in writing. I don't know that I would flesh ministry out exactly like Marshall and Payne have - they're Australian anyway - but the philosophy behind what they're doing is, in my opinion, spot on.

4. Just Do Something - Kevin Deyoung
I reviewed this book back in June, so you can check that out if you like. It's a book about how to know God's will in your decision-making. Deyoung distinguishes between God's "decreed" and "desired" wills, and presents a clear and concise biblical argument that God gives us a lot of freedom to use the brain He gave us in our decision making. If you're the kind of person who has to make hard decisions from time to time (!), you need to read this book.

3. Leadership and Self Deception - the Arbinger Institute
June must have been a good reading month; I also reviewed this book in June shortly after our staff read it together. It reads like a non-fiction book, but packs a punch. The idea of the book is that all of us - in our homes, businesses, churches, or community organizations - are hard-wired to resist others and behave in ways contrary to what we know would be beneficial for those relationships. The result is all kinds of dysfunction. This book gives you a beating without you knowing you're taking it and needs to be on every leader's shelf.

I reviewed this book back in April. The book is written as a 40-day devotional, but is way too good a book for that. I understand Laniak has a new book that isn't a 40-day devotional, and it's on my list to read for sure. Laniak spent a sabbatical living with Bedouin shepherds in the middle east, and came away with a treasure of knowledge that he has applied to the pastor's role. It is one of those books I'll read every year or so; I think it's that good.

1. The Reason for God - Tim Keller
When I reviewed "While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks" I said that it might be the best book I read all year, in April. It kept its rank until recently when I finished "The Reason for God" by Tim Keller. At Oklahoma State, every new running back recruit is the "next Barry Sanders." In Christian literature, every new apologetic book makes way for the "next CS Lewis." There will never be another Barry Sanders, but if God gives him health, Tim Keller might actually make a run at CS Lewis - at least in the realm of apologetics. Keller couples intense intellectualism with a pastoral heart and humble spirit in arguing for the existence of the Christian God. He isn't afraid to cede arguments to avowed atheists when appropriate, or to point out their inconsistencies. If you're not used to reading philosophical arguments, the book might take you a little longer to read than a normal book, but you won't have to have a PhD to understand it. Either way, it's worth some extra time to read this book. Grab some friends, buy the book, and read through it together. That's how I read it, and found that the discussions were almost as valuable as the book... almost.

I Messed Up Last Year

So, every year I like to post my New Years Resolutions. I did that for 2009, and am going to try to do something similar for this year. Tomorrow I'm going to post my top five books of 2009. Wednesday I'm going to post a list of the books I read this year, which was a part of one of my resolutions. It was a big goal and I succeeded, so I'm excited about that.

But, I blew up on an easier goal and want to mention it too, in part because I'm confident I'm not the only one, but also because I'm determined to do better next year.

JI Packer once said, "Every Christian worth his salt reads the Bible cover-to-cover every year." Although that may be a wee bit of an overstatement, he has a valid point.

This year I read more than 60 nonfiction books about Bible things, but I didn't read through the whole Bible cover-to-cover. That's really embarrassing.

Don't get me wrong, I read the Bible. Some. And I studied my Bible. Some. But in a measly commitment of only 15 minutes a day, I could have read the Bible cover to cover. In the time to read only of the fraction of the books I read about the Bible, I could have read the Bible itself. That would have been a much better investment.

I'll do better next year. If you're as embarrassed as me about what you have to report this December, you will too. I'll be worth my salt next year, mark my word.

Focus on People

Here's a great quote from a great book I just finished about ministry.

"Ministry is about people not programs. If we never think about people individually and work out where they are up to, and how and in what area they need to grow, how can we minister in anything other than a haphazard, scattergun way? It's like the doctor thinking to himself, "Seeing each of my patients individually and diagnosing their illnesses is just too difficult and time consuming. Instead, I'm going to get all my patients to assemble together each week, and I'll give them all the same medicine. I'll vary the medicine a bit from week to week, and it will at least do everybody some good. And it's much more efficient and manageable that way."

Love this concept.

This isn't to devalue the importance of what happens Sunday morning. To carry the illustration further - there are certain things (like vitamins, for example) that every patient should take. The dispersing of vitamins might happen most efficiently if the doctor assembles his patient. But if that is the full extent of his treatment, he had better have a pretty good malpractice attorney.

The best method for a cure is to tailor-make the treatment to the patient. If you're not focused on the messy individual lives of people, your ministry will be limited to a haphazard ministry at best; a malpractice case at worst.

Monday Morning Comfort for Pastors, on Tuesday

Sneak peak into a pastor's soul: I don't know a single Bible-teaching pastor worth his salt who walks away from church on Sunday completely satisfied with how his sermon went. Having studied the passage for weeks, labored over structure, outlines, and words, and searching for "just the right illustration," we almost always realize walking away on Sunday that we haven't done the passage justice. Something didn't go exactly like we had hoped.

I take a lot of comfort in Isaiah 55:11. "So is my word which goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it."

The knowledge and application of Scripture in the human heart is first and foremost a supernatural event (1 Corinthians 2:13-16). If God doesn't show up, it doesn't matter how good your opening illustration went over. But if you're faithfully preaching God's words, He promises a return.

Communicating Untruth

Not too long ago I listened to a series of lectures on preaching by Bryan Chapell, president of Covenant Seminary in St. Louis. All the lectures were great, but one thing Dr. Chapell said that stuck with me was something he said about the love of God.

"To speak of the love of God in a way that does not move you is to actually speak untruth, as if it were really not that important."

The manner of the message you're trying to communicate is as important as the message of the message you're trying to communicate. If you talk about an earth-shattering truth without being moved, Chapel argues you're not communicating what you think you're communicating. In fact, you're communicating the opposite of what you intend.

I think Chapel's right. It makes me stop and think about how I'll talk about Christmas this week...

Knowing your Giftedness.

As a pastor in a church where leadership development is a core value, I spend a lot of time trying to help people determine their giftedness. Scripture indicates that God gifts every believer with some kind of gift to be used for building up the body of Christ (1 Peter 4:10; 1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4; Romans 12; 1 Timothy 4:14, etc...). Obviously, if God has given you a gift, it would be important to know what it is so you can put it to use. I'm all about that.

However, I am also convinced that the program-driven "Here's a test. Come back and let us know the results so you can plug you in our system" approach to discovering your giftedness is fundamentally flawed.

It seems to me, inventories and self-selecting gift tests too often cause us to identify what we want our gifts to be rather than what they actually are. Since we're dreaming about future ministry, when we approach a spiritual gifts inventory we're in the aspirational mindset and tend to either (1) look through the lens of who we hope to become, or (2) look towards the gifts we hope we have. It's amazing how my spiritual gift inventories always tend to reflect the giftings of the people I most admire and the gifts that I think will allow me to be seen in the best light. Don't lie... yours do too.

Inventories are also weak because giftedness is not always recognized by a person or fully developed on the front-end of their ministries. Timothy had to be reminded to "fan his gift into a flame" (2 Timothy 1:6). Most inventories also reflect a person's own perception of the effectiveness and degree to which they're gifted. And, a person will always score low on a category they've never tried.

My experience is that spiritual giftedness is never determined, it is discovered through faithful service. What do you think?

The Complexity Trap

There's a tendency within the tradition in which I pastor (the Bible Church movement) to think people are more likely to follow Jesus the more information they have. We've favored complex sermons, hoping to impart as much information as possible. The result has been pastors trying to cram 40 hours of study into a 30 minute sermon so that thousands and thousands of people can leave church with a notebook full of charts, graphs, outlines, and definitions of Greek words they can never pronounce.

Certainly, God has used this movement to affect many lives; I'm one of them who owes much of my spiritual growth to that movement. And, there's a reason I decided to pastor at a Bible Church. It isn't so much that I think the traditional Bible Church has done anything wrong. But I do think many of the pastors in our movement have mistaken depth for complexity.

We do this because (in no particular order) (1) We want to do justice to the passage we're teaching, (2) We want to accurately portray the awesomeness of God's Word, (3) We want people to see what we've seen in our study, (4) We want to justify our seminary degree.

Even though (most) of our motivations are completely pure, I would argue for a different goal. Instead of trying to convey the complexity of Scripture and stopping there, I think preachers would be better to aim for simplicity through complexity.

Our goal is to be Christ-followers in our entire life. When life happens, we don't have time to stop and consult our notebooks. Instead the pastor should dump as much personal study into the Scripture as possible, and allow the depth of his study to be reflected in the presentation of God's plain message to people.

We can't start and end with simplicity; otherwise our sermons will be shallow and lifeless. But ending with complexity doesn't take us any further; they are lifeless as well because they're almost completely inapplicable.

Our study has to be complex so that our message can be simple.

Forgiveness - What about Marriage?

Last week I posted some follow-up thoughts to a post I made back in November about Forgiveness. After I posted it, I got a couple of follow-up emails specific to marriage saying, "If forgiveness does not demand reconciliation, what does that do for our marriages? Doesn't forgiveness within marriage demand reconciliation in order for it to be true forgiveness?"

It's a good question, and here's how I responded:

The difference between marriage and some other relationships is that on the front-end of marriage you make a covenant commitment to restoration “until death do us part.”

When we get married, we promise to do more than just move the relationship back to a zero balance. Our promise requires us to go further than just forgiveness because our marriages are intended to model the whole gospel... not just the forgiveness part, but the grace part as well.

It is true that in our humanness, it may not be possible for the marriage relationship (or any human relationship) to be completely restored to what it was prior to the offense. For example, a woman whose husband struggled with pornography will likely never be able to shake the fear that her husband might be fall again. A husband whose wife blew their life savings on new furniture without telling him might not ever completely trust her to keep the family's financial records. But in promising to love like Christ loved us "until death separates us," we're promising to erase the debt (forgive) and pursue reconciliation of the relationship until one of us dies.

That's why marriage commitments are so significant.

Primal - Book Review

I've enjoyed Mark Batterson's blog for years. Batterson is the pastor of National Community Church in Washington DC, and can be counted on for a regular daily dose of good leadership insights. Only watching from the outside, Mark seems to be the kind of pastor I would love to be: energetic, sharp, well-read, with an ability to be serious about ministry and serious about his staff team (and church as a whole) having a lot of fun.

Primal is Mark's third book. I enjoyed "In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day," and got the privilege of reviewing an advance copy of "Wild Goose Chase." His publisher was gracious enough to send me "Primal" as well.

"Primal" is Batterson's most mature book to date. This book has more intensity than its predecessors and hits just a little harder. But just like the first two books, "Primal" is a good motivational book with good advice about living the spiritual life.

Batterson has mastered the art of the axiom, and (as I wrote in my Wild Goose Chase review) is an anecdote machine. His one-liners and creative storytelling make the book an extremely fast read, and help it stick with the reader.

"Primal" is outlined around a "reimagination of the four primal elements detailed by Jesus in the the Great Commandment" (Mark 12:30). His thesis is that our primal problem as a Church is that we are rarely even good at the great commandment. In talking about the heart, soul, mind, and strength of Christianity, Batterson says we need "primal compassion," "primal wonder," "primal curiosity," and "primal energy."

The theologically astute reader will find little to argue with in Batterson's conclusions, but may be a little disappointed in the way Batterson gets there. The book is anecdote heavy, but not Bible heavy. Batterson often uses the Bible to illustrate his point, but rarely to make his point. This is a weakness, in my opinion, because it limits the real authority behind Batterson's right conclusions.

Batterson's writing style is extremely unique. He isn't a linear thinker, and doesn't write like one. So, the linear left-brained thinker (like me) may struggle to follow where Batterson is taking them. Instead, Batterson asserts several things around his point, tells a few story, and a conclusion pops out. The left-brained person may feel like the book is disjointed but it isn't. Once you understand Batterson's mindset, the book is much easier to follow.

If you're looking for a good motivational book this Christmas to set your focus as you head into the New Year, "Primal" might the book for you. It won't take you long to read, and you will find a lot of great points to think about. It shouldn't be the meatiest book you read in 2010, but is a good one to jump start your thinking.

Hole in Our Gospel - Review

I read "The Hole in Our Gospel" by Richard Stearns several months ago, but have avoided doing a review. Honestly, there were some things I strongly liked about this book and several things that I strongly didn't like about this book. It's hard to know where to start a review, and means the review will be longer than normal. Sorry.

When it comes down to it, I think Stearns comes to a right conclusion (Christians need to do better when it comes to involvement with social justice around the world) through a false premise (Belief in the gospel is not enough, we need to bring the kingdom through our actions).

Richard Stearns is the president of World Vision, and tells his own remarkable story throughout the book. He has done much good in the world, and is a shining example of someone who decided to focus his eyes on eternity despite the temporary cost to himself. We need more people who live their lives that way.

Stearns rightly argues that much of Scripture is concerned with God's people representing His interests with those who are victims, oppressed, downcast, and destitute. Stearns also rightly argues that the 20th century church has done a crummy job of this, focusing inward instead. He's right.

But Stearns makes two assertions - one that I personally disagree with but that isn't an issue to divide over, the second an extremely dangerous assertion that could take the church off a cliff at break-neck speed.

First, Stearns argues that it is the Church's responsibility to make the "'kingdom of God'... a reality through the lives and deeds of [Jesus'] followers" (p. 3). The thesis Stearns lays down in his introduction is that "the whole gospel is a vision for ushering in God's kingdom - now, not in some future time, and here, on earth, not in some distant heaven" (p.5). And throughout his book, Stearns shifts back and forth between an amillenial position (there will be no actual thousand year kingdom) and a postmillenial position (Jesus will return after His kingdom has been established). Therefore, he says, we should get to work building what the Old Testament Prophesies promise the kingdom will look like, which includes social justice.

Personally, I believe in a premillenial kingdom, that Jesus will return physically to the earth and establish his thousand-year kingdom on the earth as He sits on David's throne in Jerusalem in fulfillment of 2 Samuel 7:5-16 and Revelation 20, among other passages. The Church should absolutely reflect God's interests in the world (including acts of social justice), but not because we're attempting to bring the Kingdom; because we're ambassadors of a future Kingdom (2 Corinthians 5:20). Yet, godly Christian men and women disagree on the timing of these things.

One thing no godly Christians should disagree about, however, is the nature of the Gospel, because it and it alone is the "power of God to everyone who believes" (Romans 1:16). In 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, Paul defines the gospel as the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In an attempt to emphasize the importance of social justice for Christians, Stearns goes way too far:
  • "Belief is not enough. Worship is not enough. God has always demanded more" (p. 3).
  • "We would much rather believe that the only things needed for our salvation are saying the right words and believing the right things - not living lives that are characterized by Christ's concern for the poor" (p. 59).
  • "There is no "whole gospel" without compassion and justice shown to the poor. It's that simple." (p. 60)
  • "Our obedience is the way we determine whether or not we really know God" (p. 87).
In this, Stearns writes out of both sides of his pen. A couple of times he says "I want to be clear that this does not mean we are saved by piling up enough good works to satisfy God..." (p. 59). And yet, that is exactly the way Stearns' words come across. He makes it clear that if you are not involved in works of social justice, he does not believe you believe the "whole gospel," and as a result he questions your salvation. At best, Stearns' book is confusing. At worst, he confuses the gospel.

Richard Stearns and World Vision are making a difference in the world, and I'm thankful. I'm also thankful for his investment in acts of social justice and mercy as well as his call for others to do the same. However, there are enough places in "Hole in Our Gospel" that I believe shoot holes in our Gospel that I can't recommend this book.

Forgiveness - Another Thought

Back on November 4th, I posted some thoughts about forgiveness. It must have touched a nerve - I got several emails about it.

Last week in our small group Bible study, the topic of forgiveness came up and this question was raised: When Jesus forgave us, He restored our relationship with Him. Does that mean for us to forgive others like Christ forgave us (Colossians 3:13), we have to treat them like nothing happened?

What do you think?

It's easy to spout off an answer this question when the worst sin you have ever experienced against you is someone gossiping about you behind your back. But what about when someone really sins against you - they abuse you or someone you love, do you some kind of serious irreparable physical harm, or literally ruin your life? If a biblical principle applies to the smaller sin, it has to apply to the larger one as well because the Scriptures don't separate them.

So, does biblical forgiveness mean the relationship has to be restored to what it was before the sin occurred? I don't think it does.

It is true that Jesus has forgiven those who trust in His death and resurrection (Ephesians 1:7). It's also true that Jesus has restored us to a right relationship with Himself (Romans 5:1). But it isn't just forgiveness that allows that relationship to be restored.

Forgiveness erased the debt we owed God, but it only brought us back to a zero balance. Relationships exist on more than a zero balance.

When we trusted Christ, our debt was cancelled. But we were given more than a zero balance. Christ's righteousness was given to us as well (2 Corinthians 5:21; Romans 5:17). It is the combination of forgiveness and righteousness that allows our relationship with God to be restored. I think that's the crux of Paul's point in 2 Corinthians 5.

It takes right standing to have a relationship. We can forgive a person - cancel their debt to us - without them having a right standing before us. Forgiveness means we don't pay them back, or seek revenge, or attempt punishment, but does not mean we have to pretend there is a balance when none exists. That balance may have to be regained.

We should always pursue reconciliation with others because God has provided for us to be reconciled to Him. But reconciliation is not automatic just because we forgive.

This is Powerful

This made the rounds on the blogosphere yesterday, and is more powerful than anything I could have written today.

As some of you who know me personally know, I went through some health challenges of my own in 2006. For a while, it looked like I was going to get to have brain surgery myself. It was a scary time for Kari and I, and we trusted God. But I never, never had the kind of mature perspective in that trial that Matt Chandler exhibited last week. And my trial was nothing compared to his.

I was thankful that God preserved me from something worse, and trusted Him to make it better. Matt is thankful for the trial because it gives him the platform to make much of God, whether or not God makes it better.

Transforming Discipleship - Review

I picked up "Transforming Discipleship" based on the recommendation of The Canadian. His church is re-examining their discipleship model and I was sharing some of what I've been experiencing in life-on-life discipleship at McKinney over the past couple of years. He mentioned that "Transforming Discipleship" might really augment some of my thinking, so I was excited to pick it up.

Greg Ogden has spent the last couple of decades involved in intentional discipleship. As a part of a Doctor of Ministry project, he began to investigate different sized groups, from one-on-one to much larger groups, and came away feeling strongly that groups of 3 (triads) are the most effective.

The first half of Ogden's book pursues a biblical model for discipleship, looking mainly at the ministries of Jesus and Paul. One-on-one proponents often point to Paul's relationship with Timothy as the "biblical model" for discipleship, but Ogden shows compelling evidence that Jesus and Paul did not limit their discipleship to one-on-one relationships, especially with mature believers.

Knowing where he is going, there are times in the first half of the book that Ogden seems to argue that the triad method is the biblical method. This is especially apparent in the section where he talks about the Bible being a "method book" as well as a message book. I don't think that is Ogden's intent, but I think it is important to note that the Bible never commands us to use a specific method in making disciples; it simply tells us to do it. Whether you choose to use triads, small groups, or the life-on-life method, the biblical mandate is to involve others in intentional, accountable growth relationships centered around the Word of God and the person of Jesus. Ogden's book will help provide one way to do that, but certainly not the only acceptable way.

Ogden argues that a one-on-one method might not be the best discipleship method because it places too much responsibility on the discipler, could result in dependency, provides limited dialogue, limits a disciple's growth to the strength and weaknesses of the mentor, and can be difficult for a disciple to feel confident reproducing. All of these are valid concerns of the life-on-life model, though they can be issues in triads as well.

"Transforming Discipleship" is a really well done book. All of my discipleship has been done using the life-on-life method, but I'm certainly open to experimenting with Ogden's method. Whether or not you land on Ogden's method specifically, you need to pay attention to his argument (and plea) for discipleship of some kind.

If you're considering how you can leave a legacy in the lives of people around you, whether you're a pastor or do ministry in the marketplace, this book needs to be one you have read.

Eye of the Tiger

I'm sure you're as tired of hearing about the Tiger Woods soap opera as me, so this will be short. I just can't resist.

Think about Tiger's life. It's every guy's earthly dream:
  • Plays a game for a living
  • Arguably the most successful person in his profession, ever.
  • Received 100 million dollars last year in endorsements alone
  • Impeccable physical shape
  • Married a supermodel
  • Strikingly good looks
  • Two beautiful children
  • Multiple homes in exotic locations
  • Celebrity status all over the world...
And it wasn't enough. He is still searching for something.

Tiger's not the first. And he isn't experiencing something uncommon to mankind. His life is the life the writer of Ecclesiastes described. "I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 2:10).

Why was it so meaningless? The writer of Ecclesiastes goes on to describe why: God has put eternity in our heart (Ecclesiastes 3:11). He has created us with a longing for something more - but it is something that will never be found here, no matter how hard we try to find it.

Fortunately, Tiger's story isn't over. Let's hope he ends up in the same place as the great Preacher: "Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man" (Ecclesiastes 12:13).

Counterfeit Gods - Book Review

I love many things about Tim Keller. But one of the things I think I appreciate most is that he waited until late in his ministry to publish. I'd love to write a book someday, but read a lot of books by younger guys and often find myself wondering how they will feel about their books when they get older. I would be thoroughly embarrassed to read something I might have published when I was 20. Heck, I am embarrassed by some of my earliest blog posts. But Keller waited until he was later in his ministry to publish and the result (in my opinion) is deeper books that are far more profound.

If you've listened to many of Tim Keller's sermons, you know that he regularly speaks of man's bent toward idolatry. His new book "Counterfeit Gods" is a development of that theme.

I loved Prodigal God and think The Reason For God may be one of my top ten books of all time. Counterfeit Gods is the weaker of the three, from my standpoint, but don't let that dissuade you from picking it up. It's good.

Keller begins the book by introducing the fact that idolatry is far more prevalent in our mind than we like to think. When we look at the Israelites' tendency to worship golden calves, we often shake our head and thank God that we're more advanced than they. Keller helps obliterate that delusion by showing that anything more important than God in our lives is just as good as a golden calf.

Then, Keller tackles some of the most popular idols in our Western culture. He devotes a chapter each to the idols of love, money, success, power and glory, profit, and religion. The book ends with a guide to finding and replacing your idols. Throughout the book, Keller's trademark ability to speak as both an intellectual and a pastor at the comes shining through. You won't have any problem following Keller's logic throughout the book, though his IQ is twice yours and mine combined.

My only gripe about this particular book is the biblical stories Keller points to in order to make his points. He chooses to use common stories you may have learned growing up to point to the various idols we worship, but sometimes the examples feel like a stretch.

For example: He uses the story of Abraham's call to sacrifice Isaac to introduce the idea that an idol is anything that is more important to you than God. Yet, I think there are clearer examples in Scripture than that one which would have made Keller's point more clearly. Although I certainly see where Keller was going, I'm still not certain that God's call to Abraham happened because Abraham was valuing his son above God. But that's the impression Keller gives by challenging us to look for the "Isaacs in our life."

Keller doesn't say anything un-biblical, of course. I just feel like some of his biblical illustrations distract from a point which is superb.

With all of that said, you still need to read this book as well as anything else Keller puts out. Keller is a great writer and an even better thinker. His books are also unashamedly Christocentric - they will always point his readers straight to Jesus. Counterfeit Gods is par for the Tim Keller course.

Clarity - Part 2

If you didn't read Andy's comments on my post yesterday about vagueness, you should read them. Today I'm going to try to provide clarity on my post about clarity.

Andy's absolutely right. You can't have cut and dry clarity about everything, and there is a tendency for some of us to put square pegs in round holes just for the sake of having everything in a nice, neat package. Life does not work that way. We live and lead in shades of gray.

What you do need to have (and Andy demonstrates it perfectly - he's a good leader) is clarity about the most important things as well asclarity about the things for which there won't (or can't) be clarity. Especially early in the organization's life cycle.

The trick is in not allowing the vagueness to persist. As the organization matures, the wise leader will seek to bring more and more clarity and definition wherever possible. Organizations have to fight the tendency to devolve into the vague cliche that comes when people have established assumptions about what the organization does and where they fit. When that vagueness persists, the status quo exists.

Some clarity and specificity is impossible at the beginning of an organization, but the leader has to stay on his guard to make sure that doesn't continue to be the case. Even when it means bringing clarity to the things that can not and will not be clarified. In those cases, the leader clarifies as far as he or she can go, and stops.

To use a lame example: I lead our worship leader at McKinney, and want to continue to bring clarity to his role so that he can succeed. But a degree of specificity with him would actually be counter-productive. If I said "your role is to provide our congregation with God-honoring, Christ-exalting worship music using two keyboards, drums, three guitars, four vocalists, a flute, and a violin," that would distract us from what we're really trying to do. So, in the interest of providing clarity about what we're really trying to accomplish, I give him enough clarity that any reasonable interpretation of my instructions will be acceptable to me: He is responsible for providing our congregation with God-honoring, Christ-exalting worship music that is sensitive to the culture we lead.

He has plenty of clarity, plenty of specificity, and also plenty of flexibility to operate inside of the clarity I have given him.


Vagueness is always on the side of the status quo. When organizations - whether Fortune 500 companies or small rural churches - start painting with vague generalities, they limit themselves to treading water.

When the purpose for moving forward becomes vague or cliche, the organization is destined to the status quo because you can't find clarity within vagueness. It's the difference between water color and oil paints. Both of them are nice in their own right, but you'll never pick water colors if you're trying to paint a clear, specific picture.

People need a clear, specific picture of how to move forward within the organization if they are going to move forward with confidence. At best, they flounder. At worst, they fill in the definition on their own and move forward in the wrong direction.

If you want your organization (it's true with your family too) to move forward, you have to fight for specificity and clarity. The more general your vision, or roles, or boundaries, or expectations, or policy becomes, the less likely you are to move ahead. Vagueness is always on the side of the status quo.

Happy Thanksgiving

Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good.

His love endures forever.

(Psalm 136:1)

New Years Resolutions

I'm blowing and going to finish up my big New Years Resolutions for this year. A couple of my resolutions haven't worked out like I hoped, but the two biggies were my reading goals and my conversion to a paperless office. I'll blog about my failures in the future; today I'm focused on finishing the ones I can.

I changed admins this year which complicated the paperless conversion. My new admin had plenty of other things to do to get caught up, and some big things came up that we hadn't planned on at the beginning of the year. But, I'm well on my way. To date, I've scanned all my seminary notes, and the paper files I had for every book of the Bible. I've got about 100 more topical files to scan, as well as a few work related paper files and I'll be done. We're still working through some technology burps, but I'm pretty excited about the progress.

As far as my reading schedule, I'm close. I was hoping to read a book a week this year, and I should be able to reach that without much of a problem. I'm in the middle of book 49 right now, which is a big deal for me.

I'm looking forward to finishing these up and setting some new goals for next year. There is something about setting goals that seem unattainable that really motivates me.

How are you doing on your goals for 2009? You've got plenty of time for a big finish.

Lions' Dens

I love it when you read a Bible story you have known for-e-ver, and spot something new.

This week I was reading in Daniel 6 about Daniel and the lion's den. You remember the story. Daniel was a good guy, but evil men tricked the king into making a shortsighted but permanent law that forced the king to throw Daniel into the den of lions for worshiping the God of the Bible.

If you read Daniel 1-5, you realize that God has been trying to get the attention of the king for a while, through dreams and the (literal) writing on the wall.

When you get to Daniel 6, the king is between a rock and a hard place. He likes Daniel, but likes being king too. And by the time you get to Daniel 6:16, the king is resolved to do what he has to do to save his own head and Daniel is thrown into the den of lions.

Here's the cool thing: What had Daniel done wrong before God to bring on these circumstances? What lesson was God trying to teach Daniel through this?

Actually, if you look at the book leading up to Daniel 6, it's pretty clear that the lesson isn't for Daniel; the lesson was for the king.

Sometimes bad stuff happens to us. When it does, our first question is to ask God what we did to deserve it. The second question we sometimes ask is "What are you teaching me through this?" But sometimes the answer to both questions might be "nothing." God isn't always disciplining us or teaching us a lesson. Sometimes the lesson might be for someone else.

It doesn't change our responsibility, which is always to trust God and follow Him despite our circumstances. But we have to allow God, like Daniel did, to use us in revealing Himself to others, going into the lions' den with confidence that God would show up one way or another. We can trust God, keep our heads up, and stop playing mental mind games trying to figure out God's motives in everything.

You Become What You Celebrate

During my first several years as a pastor, I didn't think much about the importance of celebration. I would do a lot of things differently if I could relive those years but this is one I wouldn't miss.

All organizations (and leaders) celebrate something. Some are proactive in celebrating their values. Others inadvertently celebrate passivity and other negative values by failing to be intentional about celebrations.

If something is important, it's worth celebrating. When you celebrate something, you make sure everyone knows how important it is. What you find is, you become what you celebrate.

One church where I served gave an award every year to a select few non-staff leaders who demonstrated servant leadership. They made it into a big deal. As a result, that church has servant leaders pouring out of the woodwork.

Another church made a big production every several months celebrating everyone who went through the pastor's small group Bible study. It's hard to find people in that church who have not completed his study. They have become what they celebrate.

What do you want your organization (or your family) to become? One of the keys to moving people in that direction is to find creative ways to celebrate that where you see it.

Up Close and Personal

Tuesday I had a great conversation with one of my buddies who works at another church about the method of discipleship in each of our churches. Churches try to tackle the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) in a lot of different ways: through large group growth, small group growth, a lecture format, hands-on service projects, one-on-one relationships, and about a thousand permutations of each.

As I talked about the method I prefer, I was reminded of something I heard Howard Hendricks say a long time ago: "You can impress anyone from a distance; you can only impact up close."

To me, there is just no substitute for life-on-life, intentional discipleship. The level of intimacy, degree of accountability, and ability to laser-focus biblical principles in the most personally relevant ways can't be replicated in even a relatively small group. You can fake out a large or small group from a distance with any reasonable talent in deception.

Don't get me wrong, I believe in small groups. I believe in large groups. But when it comes to having the greatest impact for my buck, I'll choose life-on-life relationships every day.

Backwards Marriage Illustrations

I was thinking about something yesterday:

When we read Ephesians 5 and other passages about marriage, we usually read them as if Jesus' life is the ultimate illustration of marriage. Wives ought to be voluntarily selfless (5:22), and Jesus showed us how by submitting to His Father's will despite the cost to Himself. Husbands ought to be sacrificial lovers (5:23) and Jesus showed us how by dying for someone who didn't deserve it.

But I think we have it backward.

It wasn't like God was sitting in heaven puzzled, thinking "How in the world can I help their marriages be better? Oh, I know! I'll send my Son as an object lesson for them."

We've flipped the illustration. Jesus isn't intended to be an illustration of marriage; marriage is intended to be the ultimate illustration of Jesus, and specifically the gospel.

There's a huge difference.

Jesus' main purpose wasn't to make your marriage better. Your marriage's main purpose is to make the gospel of Jesus more evident to everyone around you. And here's the thing: when that happens, our marriages usually get better as a result.

Here's a question for you: "How can I love my spouse today in a way that the Gospel of Jesus Christ will be made more clear to others?"

Hooked - Book Review

I heard about "Hooked" by Joe McIlhaney and Freda McKissic Bush from my mother-in-law who heard about it on the radio. The subtitle of the book is "New Science on how Casual Sex is Affecting our Children."

I do a lot of premarital counseling, and it is staggeringly rare for me to counsel a couple in which both parties are entering marriage sexually pure. I also do a fair amount of regular marriage counseling, and have been confident for a while that premarital sex scrambles something for couples and individuals that is hard to sort out. This book is the science behind that scrambling.

McIlhaney and Bush are both ob-gyn physicians who are a part of a group called "The Medical Institute for Sexual Health." That institute has done a significant amount of testing and research on the response of the brain to sexual activity, and their conclusions are pretty fascinating.

To sum it up, the brain responds to sexual activity a way that promotes a long-term highly-committed sexual relationship. Casual sex, "hooking up," rewires the brain and desensitizes a person (male or female) to the brain chemicals that promote connection and intimacy. Because the brain chemistry of a person bonds them to another person, a person naturally moves more quickly into another sexual experience after a sexual relationship ends, attempting to recreate what they had previously. When this happens in a younger, under-developed brain, the rewiring can be difficult to unscramble.

The book has a lot of technical jargon, but it's well-explained. If you're a parent of a teenager, or a teenager yourself, you'll be able to understand the book. It isn't a page-turner, nor written particularly well (in my opinion), though the information alone makes the read well worth it.

I don't know where McIlhaney and Bush are spiritually; this is not a "True Love Waits" book written by church ladies trying to rob high school students of a fun prom night. It is a book written by doctors based on years of scientific research. But the conclusion is thoroughly biblical: sex inside marriage is great for a reason; but outside marriage, it can destroy your current and future relationships.


I just finished a great book called "Healthy Congregations; a Systems Approach." If you're a pastor, it's worth picking up.

I love this story about holiness near the end of the book.

It seems that a young aspirant to holiness once came to visit the hermitage of an old holy man who was sitting in the doorway of his quarters at sunset. The old man's dog stretched out across the threshold as the young spiritual seeker presented his problem to the holy man. "Why is it, Abba, that some who seek God come to the desert and are zealous in prayer but leave after a year or so, while others, like you, remain faithful to the quest for a lifetime?"

The old man smiled and replied "Let me tell you a story:

One day I was sitting here quietly in the sun with my dog. Suddenly a large white rabbit ran across in front of us. Well, my dog jumped up, barking loudly, and took off after that big rabbit. He chased the rabbit over the hills with a passion. Soon, other dogs joined him, attracted by his barking. What a sight it was, as the pack of dogs ran barking across the creeks, up stony embankments and through thickets and thorns! Gradually, however, one by one the other dogs dropped out of the pursuit, discouraged by the course and frustrated by the chase. Only my dog continued to hotly pursue the white rabbit.

In that story, young man, is the answer to your question."

The young man sat in confused silence. Finally, he said, "Abba, I don't understand. What is the connection between the rabbit chase and the quest for holiness?"

"You fail to understand," answered the old hermit, "because you failed to ask the obvious question. Why didn't the other dogs continue the chase? And the answer to that question is that they had not seen the rabbit. Unless you see your prey, the chase is just too difficult. You will lack the passion and determination necessary to perform all the hard work required by the discipline of your spiritual exercises."

Organizational Healing

A few weeks ago, one of Casen's friends fell into the corner of his parents' coffee table and busted his forehead. Just a few weeks before that, the college-aged daughter of some of our friends was run over by a pontoon boat. Her arm was almost completely severed by the motor.

For the smaller injury, the trip to the ER involved a few sutures, a band-aid, and some hugs and kisses. The boat accident required different treatment. It was a major enough wound, no sutures could hold the wound together tight. A careless doctor who attempted to "fix" the wound too quickly would have endangered the life of the person he was trying to heal. Deep wounds have to heal by a process called "granulation," where the wound is packed and the body naturally heals from the inside out. During that long, gradual process, the wound is especially vulnerable to infection and disease so doctors have to be very careful, and patient.

I think organizational wounds heal much the same way. Cosmetic, surface wounds can be serious if they are ignored but can be treated quickly. With those wounds, healing happens rapidly, often leaving no trace of the injury behind. However, deep wounds have to be treated slowly and deliberately. If you rush to close up a serious problem, you risk causing the organization even more damage.

Before your organization begins the healing process, it's probably a good idea to do some triage and figure out exactly what wounds you're dealing with. Failure to do so could have long-term implications.

Church Growth

In the last two decades, the topic of church growth has received a ton of discussion. Most of the time, when you're talking about "church growth," you're either directly or indirectly talking about the size of the congregation. To a point, that's a really good conversation to have.

The church is an organism, and growth is important for any organism. We take my son into the pediatrician on a regular basis for "well baby checkups" to make sure he is growing and developing normally. Always, one of the critical metrics the doctor checks is his size. If Casen stops growing during this point of his life, it will be a sure sign that something is not going well. Growth is important. Same for the church.

However, at some point organisms are no longer expected to grow (size-wise). Beyond that point, any growth the organism experiences is usually unhealthy growth. As a twenty-nine year old, my doctor gets concerned when I do grow. He measures my waistline and looks for tumors or other abnormal unhealthy growth.

I wonder if we shouldn't talk about "church maturity" instead of "church growth." Organisms never stop maturing even after the stop growing. Growth is a part of maturity but not the goal or focus of maturity. It's more of a byproduct.

I also wonder if thinking about the church this way might not allow us to focus on growth for a season as a temporary part of the maturity process while a church is young, before beginning to think about other facets of maturity such as development and reproduction - topics that often get lost in the growth focus.

The Source

Henri Nouwen says about loneliness, " you must try to find the source of this feeling. You are inclined either to run away from your loneliness or to dwell in it. When you run away from it, your loneliness does not really diminish; you simply force it out of your mind temporarily. When you start dwelling in it, your feelings only become stronger, and you slip into depression. The spiritual task is not to escape your loneliness, not to let yourself drown in it, but to find its source."

Nouwen's personal struggle seems to be loneliness and depression but my experience is that his observation is true of ever emotion. Anger, fear, joy, anxiety, and everything else we can feel has a source as well as a ditch on both sides.

The problem with Nouwen's advice is that he stops short. The believer should go to the source of emotion but shouldn't stop there. We have to go to the source of our loneliness, anger, fear, or other emotion, and examine both the source and the emotion in light of the cross.

Anger, for example, is often rooted in our surprise at the sinfulness of others. When we examine it in light of the cross, we're reminded of the seriousness of sin in God's eyes and the satisfactory payment of Christ on that person's behalf, as well as our own sinfulness and need for a Savior. At that point, anger dissipates and worship emerges.

When we take emotion and its source to the cross, we're driven to worship every time.