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.


Last week was a pretty rough week for me. Part of it was the emotional hangover that always follows a huge event. Part was a couple of difficult counseling appointments and leadership challenges that all hit at the same time. The details aren't important but for most of last week I felt disoriented.

Times of disorientation are present in the story of every leader I've ever met. They're scary, confusing, and can be dangerous; if the leader gets disoriented he can't set the pace or the direction. Prolonged periods of disorientation can have a long-term negative impact on the organization. Most of the time, disorientation is not that serious.

When I was learning to fly, a part of my instruction was learning how to deal with spatial disorientation that can come from flying in clouds or at night when you can't see the horizon or distinguish the sky from the grounds. During those periods, pilots are taught to only trust their instruments. Trusting your emotions, your feelings, or your perceptions can get you killed. When you're disoriented, you have to trust what you know to be true and ignore everything else until you can fly out of the clouds and reorient yourself.

It's the same in organizational leadership.

When I face times of disorientation like I did last week, I have to remember that God is in control and that He is good. I have to remember the core of what He has called me to do and that He has provided everything I need to do just that through the Cross (2 Peter 1:3). Those are my instruments. I trust those and keep moving forward, despite what I feel, as I wait for things to clear up.

Understanding the Old Testament

Next Spring I'll be teaching an Old Testament Survey class at the church. I'm looking forward to it, mostly because I love a challenge and am like most people: I don't know the Old Testament nearly as well as I know the New Testament.

But here's some food for thought: I don't believe you can understand the New Testament fully until you begin to understand the Old Testament. Although there are clear distinctions between the two with regard to how God is working (in the Old Testament through a nation, in the New Testament through a Body), the New Testament doesn't start from scratch. Sometimes I think we put too much discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments. Just a casual read shows you that the New Testament writers drew heavily from the Old Testament as they wrote their letters. You can't understand the New Testament fully until you begin to understand the Old Testament.

But, according to Jesus in John 5:39 and Luke 24:27, you don't fully understand the Old Testament until you understand what it says about Jesus. You can't fully understand the Old Testament until you see how it points to what the New Testament reveals.

Bible study is a spiral. You have to know what the Old Testament says so you can understand how the New Testament clarifies what the Old Testament reveals.


Our small group lesson last week was on the topic of forgiveness. Forgiveness is one of those topics that everyone agrees we should do (Ephesians 4:32), though it's rare that any of us actually agrees on what forgiveness means.

Biblically speaking, Jesus' parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:21-35 gives a good perspective on how Jesus looked at forgiveness. Here are a couple of things to notice:

1. Forgiveness does not mean pretending a wrong never occurred. Both the king and the servant knew there was a legitimate debt owed that the servant was unable to pay (18:24). We don't have to pretend like a wrong never took place in order to forgive.

2. There are often just consequences in the absence of forgiveness. The king would have been absolutely just to require the servant to be sold to repay a legitimate debt (18:25). Forgiveness doesn't indicate that a person is unworthy of punishment. To the contrary, forgiveness means that the person who sinned against us deserves to be punished for what they did. Otherwise, there is nothing to forgive.

3. Jesus defines forgiveness as "cancelling the debt" (18:27). The king erased the debt the servant owed him. Be careful with 18:26-27. When we demand someone apologize before we forgive, we erase our chance to erase the debt. If someone "owes us an apology," and they apologize, they have paid their debt and it cannot be erased any longer. The king didn't forgive the debt because the servant made things right emotionally. He forgave the debt because he chose to do so.

4. Our forgiveness of others should be in direct proportion to the amount we have been forgiven. We should be the first to forgive others who sin against us only up to the point that their sin against us is equal to our own infinite sin against an infinite God. Beyond that, we aren't obligated to forgive.

5. Forgiving does not mean forgetting. When the king's servants heard of the forgiven servant's harsh treatment of another debtor (18:28-30), the king did not need to be reminded about their earlier encounter (18:31-32). Forgiveness means cancelling the debt. It doesn't mean you have to loan to the same person again.

Two Faces of Missional

The word "missional" has been a fad word in evangelical Christian circles for long enough that it doesn't mean anything any more. In fact, now that everyone is using the word "missional," everyone talkin' 'bout missional ain't going there.

Today, as best I can tell, you've got two different uses of the word "missional."

The word originated with churches who had a philosophy of ministry that centered on the sending of Christians into the world. Those churches aren't concerned with attracting a crowd so much as they are interested in sending people into the crowd. They want their people to live "on mission" throughout the week, hence the term "missional."

Now that the word has become a fad, another group is emerging. They've co-opted the word "missional" as well as some of the ideas of missional churches without buying the overall philosophy. They send their people to live "missional" lives with the intent of attracting people to their church.

Lots of churches in that second group are doing some good ministry. God is using them. But, I think they're missing a great opportunity.

The end goal of the missional life isn't someone being attracted to your specific church; it's someone being attracted to Jesus. And while Christ Himself is the great initiator in that process (John 6:44), He is gracious to us to use our lives in that process (2 Corinthians 5:11).

If you are more excited about attracting people to your church than you are about attracting others to Jesus, you've got either too high a view of your church or too low a view of Jesus.

2012 The Bible and the End of the World - A Review

If you've visited Barnes and Noble recently, you may have noticed the ever-growing 2012 display and wondered what the heck was going on. If you spend much time watching the History Channel, you already know.

2012 is the new Y2K; a great chance for basement dwellers everywhere to don their tin foil hats, brush up on their HAM radio skills, and collect a lifetime supply of SPAM and other surviving-the-end-of-the-world staples. With an opportunity like that, you know Hollywood is cashing in. 2012 the movie is coming out next month.

The Mayan people were a mysterious people who lived as long as 2000 years ago in Central America. They were fascinated with the stars and obsessed with keeping time to the point that they kept and observed more than 20 different kinds of calendars. The Mayan Long Count Calendar, one of the main ones, stops keeping time on December 21, 2012.

The reason for the date is that on December 21, 2012, the sun will block the center of the Milky Way, interrupting energy flow from the center of the galaxy to the earth... something that happens only once every 26,000 years. We're not sure what happened the last time this happened, but one thing is for sure: newspaper clippings from that date didn't survive. We've looked.

Add to the Mayan prediction some supposed predictions from Nostradamus, an occult "prophet" from the 16th century who mastered in giving vague fortune-cookie-like predictions, and you've got the makings of an opportunity for every wannabe scientist to get his 15 minutes of fame.

Mark Hitchcock is an evangelical Christian pastor in Edmond, Oklahoma who is fairly fluent in end-of-the-world language. He's written quite a few books about the end of the world from a biblical perspective, and is a scholar (and person) for whom I have a great deal of respect. His book "2012 The Bible and the End of the World" is a very good primer on the Mayan calendar, the Nostradamus prophesies, supposed Bible Codes, and the mystery around 12/21/12.

Whether you're vaguely curious about 2012 or someone who is really passionate about researching this kind of thing, this book is a really great place to start. Hitchcock's work is good scholarship, but doesn't feel like scholarly reading, and his footnotes will point the serious student in the right direction of several other resources to check out.

Hitchcock's conclusion? Who knows what might happen when energy is blocked from the center of the milky way to the earth. But, the Bible's flawless prophetic track record can be trusted above Nostradamus' sketchy guesses and the Mayans' inconclusive suggestions. And if the Bible is right, we've got at least 7 years from today until Armageddon and 1007 years from today until the world is destroyed.

So, continue to watch and wait for the blessed hope - the glorious appearing of Jesus Christ (Titus 2:13), and begin investing in the tin-foil hat business... you'll have some money for Christmas presents on December 23, 2012.