Thursday, December 16, 2010

Review of Gabe Lyons' book, The Next Christians

Review of Gabe Lyons’ book, The Next Christians
What’s Missing from Gabe Lyons’ book, The Next Christians: How a New Generation is Restoring the Faith?
Dr. Kevin Shrum


Gabe Lyons’ book, The Next Christians, is an excellent read. It is provocative. Having consumed his co-authored book, unChristian, I read Lyons’ new literary offering with great anticipation. Lyons argues several points in describing what the next generation of Christians will look like in word and deed. First, Lyons argues that the old forms of Christianity in Western civilization, especially in ‘Christian America’, are passing away and are being replaced by what Lyons calls ‘next Christians’ with new modalities of cultural engagement. I agree.

Second, he argues that these ‘next Christians’ are guided by the goal of ‘restoration’ as they seek to restore all things as intended in God’s original creative purposes. Lyons views the ‘kingdom of God’ as the restoration of all things to their intended purposes.

Finally, Lyons argues that these same ‘next Christians’ are guided by a concept he calls the ‘power of the ought.’ That is, ‘next Christians’ focus on how things ‘ought’ to be rather than how things really are – they are more hopeful and positive than previous generations as they engage culture through restorative means. The driving force of the life of a ‘next Christian’ is pursuing how things ‘ought’ to be rather than focusing on the negatives of the present. In the end, Lyons states that when ‘next Christians’ begin to act in this restorative, ‘oughtness’ manner the embarrassment of wearing the Christian label will be removed, thus, paving the way for a new era of evangelism, missions, even conversions.

Lyons proposes that the means by which ‘next Christians’ engage the culture will be multifaceted: they will be provoked by what they see, but not offended; creatively involved, but not critical of culture; called, but not rigidly employed; grounded, yet not distracted; in community, not alone; and, countercultural, but not relevant. In other words, ‘next Christians’ will creatively engage the world in seeking the goal of kingdom restoration in every area of influence – among individuals as well as the media, politics, business, art, music, etc.

But after reading The Next Christians, and even re-reading parts of the book several times, I walked away asking myself, ‘Why do I sense there is something missing in this book? Who doesn’t want to restore things? What believer among us would openly say they don’t want to engage the culture, or help the poor, or help the sick?’ Again, I asked myself, ‘What’s missing from this otherwise excellent book?’ Let me answer my own questions with a set of questions that were provoked by Lyons’ book.

First, when did the goal of Christianity become removing the ‘embarrassment label?’ I understand Lyons’ concern over embarrassing Christians if he means the silly and cheesy attitudes and behaviors some Christians display in public and private. Yet, the ‘taint’ of being a Christian will never be completely removed because the gospel itself is both offensive and redemptive, cold-blooded truth and warm-hearted mercy, inconvenient precept and massive amounts of grace. If Lyons is referring to the embarrassment that comes from some non-Christian words and deeds offered up by Christians, then I concur. But if he is suggesting that the ‘embarrassment’ or ‘oddness’ of wearing the label of ‘Christian’ can be fully removed due to the nature of the subject itself, he is sadly mistaken and has forgotten what Jesus said (Jn. 15:18), “If the world hates you, know that it hated me before it hated you.”

It’s not that Christians should go looking for a fight (a.k.a. the idiot, Pastor Fred Phelps) or that we should be intentionally rude, prudish, and arrogant because we “have the truth!” We are to live in humble peace with all men if at all possible, doing good to all people, especially to fellow believers (Gal. 6:10). Yet, the offensiveness of the gospel cannot, must not, be removed. It is offensive to live the gospel because of the gospel itself, which tells us that we are sinners by birth and by choice; that left to our own devices we remain under the condemnation of God; and, that no amount of beauty, art, social engineering or cultural engagement can change my sinful heart. The gospel of Jesus Christ alone redeems, forgives, makes righteous.

The gospel is embarrassing because the gospel graciously and audaciously announces, if you will, the ‘Emperor has no clothes,’ that we are destitute sinners, uncovered before a holy God, albeit we are ‘abercrombie and fitch’ wearing rebels. If our goal is to make wearing the label ‘Christian’ ‘un-embarrassing’ then we have more problems than the biblically illiterate Christians who fill many of our churches. We may have a problem with the redeeming, offensive, gracious, stumbling block of the gospel itself (1 Cor. 1:18).

Second, is the goal of the kingdom of God restoration or regeneration? I’m not trying to split theological hairs here, but there is a difference between these two words. When using the word ‘restore’ Lyons seems to be arguing that the goal of the gospel is to put things as they were prior to the sin of our first parents. While an admirable goal, is this really the consummate, overarching goal of the kingdom of God and the gospel? Is this a burden we can bear? Does restoration have more to do with cultural and social renewal than personal regeneration? Is this kind of restoration even possible? The reason restoration may be a well-intended, but misguided goal is that until God makes all things new (Rev. 21:5) we remain locked in a world under the curse of sin. We will never be able to ‘restore’ things as they were. Restoration will lead to frustration because ‘Humpty Dumpty’ has fallen off the wall and cannot be put back together.

Yes, we feed the poor, visit the homeless, fight injustice, dig wells, and engage culture in positive ways. But if restoration is our goal then frustration will be the outcome because the needs of restoration will continue to increase exponentially. Maybe this is why Jesus said that the poor will always be with us (Mt. 26:11). It’s not that Jesus was applauding poverty, hunger, homelessness or trying to retard the need to meet these needs. Instead, he was simply recognizing the ‘chronic’ nature of things that are broken because we live in a broken world. The Christian does feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and ministers to the broken – all in the name of Jesus (Mt. 5:38-42). But, is our goal restoration?

Maybe our goal as believers should be regeneration. Regeneration is the making of a new person in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), with a new nature, new desires, new purposes. It is the removal of the curse of sin through the power of Jesus Christ. Regeneration makes us new internally and prepares us for that which is eternal. It is the transformation of a person in Jesus Christ. Regeneration does not ignore the social or physical conditions of the individual, but is mindful that ‘real, eternal’ poverty is that of the heart and mind and is the direct result of the curse of sin. Maybe it’s just me, but the word ‘restoration’ leaves me frustrated. It reminds me of liberalism’s desire to do good, but without the gospel.

Having participated in helping feed the poor, clothe the naked, and assist in remedying human suffering, I am keenly aware that a new heart and mind is the ultimate goal of the gospel. How sad it would be to feed the hungry and not give them eternal bread. How sad it would be to clothe the naked only to miss being the conduit by which God clothes the sinner in his righteousness. How sad to dig fresh water wells, only to withhold the life-giving water of Jesus Christ.

Third, is the goal of Christianity the transformation of culture or the transformation of the individual? This is the ‘chicken or the egg’ dilemma. Which comes first? Who among us would not want to transform the community? Who would resist the opportunity to renew aspects of culture so that they comport with God’s purposes? In fact, wherever Christianity has been strong culture has reflected this gospel influence. But is culture our target or human transformation? I suppose one could argue that the two cannot be separated. Even the Reformers (Luther & Calvin) sought to remove the line between the sacred and the secular so that all work was God’s work. So, the cultural influence of the gospel is not to be ignored.

Maybe I can ask the ‘questions of my discomfort’ with Lyons’ argument this way – Did Paul go to Rome to change the culture or preach the gospel? Was his trip to the Areopagus an endeavor in cultural enlightenment or an occasion to preach the gospel? Did the early church set out to engage the culture or to preach the life-transforming gospel so that individuals could be changed who would then live out that new life in cultural engagement? Did Paul ever protest the injustice of abusive tax rates that affected all people, especially the poor (I wish he had)? Was Jesus, Paul, and/or Peter a cultural crusader or a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ?

Again, cultures have been and will be transformed and unjust systems will be altered as the gospel takes root deep in the human soul. But if we make the restoration of culture the first and primary goal – the main goal – then I fear that the church will end up frustrated with the outcomes and disconnected from the ‘essential’ nature and purpose of the gospel.

Fourth, why did Lyons’ book leave me with the sense that the gospel itself is missing. I’m not suggesting Lyons doesn’t believe the gospel. In fact, he pays homage to the gospel as the power of God in Jesus Christ to save. Yet, Next Christians reminds me of the contours of liberation theology where the gospel is ‘gutted’ of its righteousness, repentance and faith are downplayed, and the true gospel is replaced by a deed-based gospel that has as its goal the restoration of cultural means. The assumption is that as Christians engage culture sinners cannot help but be changed. It’s kind of like conversion through cultural osmosis. This is why Lyons discounts other Christian modalities, i.e. the Insiders, Culture Warriors, Evangelizers, Blenders or Philanthropists and replaces them with Restorers who will enact Christianity like no previous generation. Maybe this is why I felt that when I finished reading Lyons’ book I had just finished a Tony Robbins book dressed up in Christian garb? Good, practical suggestions for engaging culture – you bet, but with no or little gospel.

Which leads me to my fifth and final question – Does Lyons perpetuate the common sin of postmodernism that C.S. Lewis described as ‘chronological snobbery?’ In essence, is Lyons suggesting that our Christian predecessors got it all wrong and now, at last, our generation will finally get it right? Is Lyons writing with hubris when he intimates that we should completely throw off the shackles of our forefathers and foremothers and embrace a new brand of generous, orthodox Christianity that is less gospel-orientated and more focused on cultural restoration and personal self-help? Is Lyons arguing that previous generations of Christians did not take their faith with them to work, to play, into the arts, into media outlets, etc.? To quote Lyons, the goal of the restorers is “to infuse the world with beauty, grace, justice, and love” as if no previous believers ever attempted this before 1975.

Maybe what we need to restore is the gospel itself. Maybe we need a more clear presentation of the gospel, not less. Lyons suggests that the ‘Restorers’ are commensurate with the Reformers of the 16th century. Really? Calvin and Luther (and disciples) did radically transform many aspects of culture, i.e. education, politics, art, etc. Yet, what Lyons misses is that the cultural transformation brought about by the Reformation happened only after an aggressive and all-consuming recovery of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Reformers discovered that it was not culture that was at risk of being lost, it was the gospel?

Maybe we have heard too little of the gospel? Maybe our problem is not cultural engagement (Christians have always engaged in cultural commerce for better or for worse). Maybe our problem is that we haven’t been gospel-centered enough. Is it possible that in our efforts to engage culture we have unraveled the gospel itself to accommodate our cultural engagement? Maybe we haven’t been embarrassing enough in our gospel convictions that transforms the soul, our ethics, and our goals and that then causes us to pay our taxes, feed the poor, clothe the naked, confront sex-trafficking, and other social sicknesses. This kind of thinking will keep us from having an appearance of godliness, yet not knowing the power of God (2 Tim. 3:5).

Lyons raises the prospect of William Wilberforce as an example of positive, Christian cultural engagement, a man who almost single-handily helped banish slavery in England. With this example I couldn’t agree more. However, what was the driving force of Wilberforce’s life? While he wrote many letters, Wilberforce wrote only one book, published in April 1797, “A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of This Country Contrasted With Real Christianity.” And what was this book about? It was a commentary on the New Testament doctrines of grace as the sole basis for human renewal and cultural engagement. The basis of Wilberforce’s life and work was a strong, overt conviction in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Wilberforce’s source of cultural engagement was not first and foremost the abolition of slavery, but the liberation of sinful man through the power of the gospel. If Lyons is true to his own example, I’m all for being a part of the ‘next Christians.’ But if Lyons means by restoration the renewal of culture by downplaying the embarrassing gospel, then I fear he will get neither the cultural or individual restoration he’s looking for.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Why the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ is Important

Why the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ is Important
Dr. Kevin Shrum


I am often asked, ‘What is the connection between the virgin birth and the birth of Jesus Christ? Why was the virgin birth the means by which God invaded the world and not another? What does it mean? Does it have any significance for us today? And does it really have any significance for God’s plan of salvation?’ The summary answer is that the virgin birth of Jesus Christ is important to God’s plan of salvation – but why?

The constant questioning of this miracle is connected to the protests against affirming the truth of the virgin birth. Critics have charged that the virgin birth is a mythical concept borrowed from ancient mystery-religions that predate Christianity; it is a borrowed concept that is not really true but that illustrates the birth of a deity. The problem with this argument is that Jesus’ divine nature does not depend on the virgin birth; it was simply a unique way to introduce God into history.

Others have noted that the texts in Isaiah (7:14; 9:6) that prophesied of this event refer not to a virgin but to a young maiden. The implication is that the ‘virgin birth’ was a literary technique/device used by the biblical writers to note that something special was taking place, but with the assumption that Mary would be impregnated the ‘normal way.’ Of course, this was a surprise to Mary who herself asked the angel Gabriel, “How will this be (to conceive a child), since I am a virgin?” (Lk. 1:34) Some have even gone so far as to assert that Jesus was the illegitimate child of a Roman solider who violated Mary and that the ‘virgin birth’ concept simply covered up this travesty. Even some within the ‘believing community simply ignore the virgin birth asserting that it has no real significance.

For us moderns, the virgin birth is difficult to understand because, as one gentleman said to me, ‘I think it was impossible for Mary and Joseph to control themselves; there’s no way they would stay pure until Jesus was born.’ It seems to me that this is a case of projecting 21st century morals onto 1st century people.

Let me give four reasons as to why the virgin birth is important.

First, the virgin birth affirms the unique nature of Jesus as the God-Man. The virgin birth gives clarification to the great doctrine of the dual nature of Jesus Christ – He was both God and Man fully and simultaneously in the incarnation. With an earthly mother and a heavenly Father (Lk. 1:35-38), the unique birth of Jesus fulfilled every prophesy concerning the coming of the Messiah (Mt. 1:22) – that he alone would be God and at the same time man and that God had come to rescue His people from their sins by doing so in human likeness (Phil 2:5-11) so that he could identify with them in every facet of life and temptation (Heb. 2), yet remain the perfect sacrifice for sin (2 Cor. 5:21). This is why Jesus was given two names at his birth – Jesus and Immanuel (Mt. 1:21-25). The one referring to his human connection to the deliverer Joshua and the other describing exactly Who it was that had come to deliver us – God himself.

Second, the virgin birth affirms that the One who has come to save sinners is holy. In fact, Luke 1:35 reminds us of the angel’s response to Mary’s inquiry as to how she would become pregnant having been with no man, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy – the Son of God.” Wow! The term ‘holy’ refers not only to the ‘other nature’ of Jesus Christ – he is God – but to the purity of his coming. Though scandalous to the outsider and uninformed, there is no taint of impurity with Joseph or Mary. Joseph was tender and pure toward Mary until after Jesus’ birth (Mt. 1:25) when they produced more children the natural way (Mt. 12:46; 13:53-56). Further, Mary’s purity of heart is exhibited in her Magnificat – song of praise (Lk. 1:46-56). While Catholics may reach too far in asserting Mary’s ‘Immaculate Conception’ as sinless woman, along with Jesus’ own sinless perfection, we can squarely affirm that Mary and Joseph were holy – set apart vessels – for the coming of a holy, sinless, and perfect God. The virgin birth places the emphasis on the Holiness of God and the purity of his coming.

Third, the virgin birth not only affirms Who it is that came to save us, but that God alone did it. The term and title ‘Immanuel’ is astonishing (Mt. 1:23). The virgin birth reminds us that it is not just another Judge, King, or prophet who has come to fulfill God’s redemptive plan – it is none other than God himself who has come. No other Judge was born this way; no other King was manifested in this way; no other prophet appeared on the scene of history in this manner. God did not send someone else to do his redemptive business – He came himself through a virgin. The virgin birth reminds us that God did it. This is why in Luke 1:37 the angel Gabriel told the stunned and surprised Mary, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” The virgin birth of Jesus Christ has the fingerprints of God all over it. Who else would save sinners this way but God?

Fourth and finally, the virgin birth affirms Luke 1:37 – that God makes the impossible possible by connecting promise and fulfillment. This verse reads this way. The angel told Mary, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” This is a direct quote from Genesis 18:14. Do you recall the scene? God had called Abraham and Sarah to be the progenitors of a new people, yet they were old and barren. But, God supernaturally enabled Abraham and Sarah to have a child naturally. In doing so, God fulfilled his promise of a child who would be the down-payment in a redemptive plan that would culminate in the birth of Jesus Christ. This is why Jesus Christ is often referred to as the Son of God, the God and Father of our Lord and Savior, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

The power of God to make the impossible possible was also fulfilled in Zechariah and Elizabeth (Lk. 1:5-25). They, too, were old and barren, yet God gave them a child, John the Baptist. Like Isaac, John the Baptist was a naturally produced child enabled by the supernatural work of God so that God alone would get the credit (Lk. 1:64). The virgin birth of Jesus was the summa of God’s miraculous work – God came to earth in a supernatural way (Mt. 1:23) – “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us).” What is most important about the virgin birth of Jesus Christ is that it reminds us that God did what seemed impossible – he came among us, fulfilling his promise to save sinners, making unholy things holy. This is the importance of the virgin birth.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Immanuel: Gift or Gift-giver?

Immanuel: Gift or Gift-giver?
Kevin Shrum

Christmas is upon us once again and the Malls are filled with Christmas consumers. Personally, Malls make me break out with hives, but to each his own. Give me a book, a cup of coffee or conversation with people I love and I’m good to go. Simplicity is on my radar this year!

I’ve been rethinking this whole Christmas thing, again. So, here’s my question, when the Bible uses the term ‘Immanuel’ in Matthew 1:23 to describe Jesus is it referring to Jesus as the gift of Christmas or to the gifts that He brings to us as Savior? Let me play my hand early – I think that even in the Christian world we place too much emphasis on the gifts of the Giver rather than the Giver of gifts.

Mind you, I am deeply grateful for God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness. In fact, there is no salvation apart from these attributes of salvation. Yet, I think too often we so focus on the gifts God gives us that we lose sight of the real gift – God Himself. It’s kind of like people who speak as if they would be just as happy going to heaven to see grandpa and grandpa, maybe even Paul and Timothy, without having any concern for seeing the Lord. Let’s be clear, heaven will not be heaven if Jesus is not present, no matter how much silver and gold and famous and/or loved people are present. And, Christmas is not Christmas without THE gift of Christmas – Jesus Christ Himself.

Maybe this is why the Spirit used the Word ‘Immanuel’ when inspiring the biblical writers in both Isaiah 8:8 and Matthew 1:23 to describe Who it was that had arrived in such an unceremonial, humble way – it was none other than ‘God with us.’ And here is the best part, if you get Jesus you get all of His benefits. If you focus on His benefits, i.e. forgiveness, mercy, grace, reconciliation, without taking Him first you receive neither Him nor His benefits.

My prayer this Christmas season is that more of God’s people will renew their love for Jesus. In doing so, they will receive the ‘good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.’ (Lk. 2:10-11) Jesus is Christmas, He is the gospel!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Why Is It Always the Pastors Fault?

Why Is It Always the Pastor’s Fault?
Dr. Kevin Shrum
When it comes to church health and life, why is it always the pastor’s fault when things don’t go well at church? Pastors are constantly told that the church rises no higher than its leadership. This is partly true – bad leadership, bad church; good leadership, good church. But it can also be true – good leadership, rebellious church. Why is there no category for bad church vs. good church? Why is the pastor always to blame and not the congregation as a whole? The pastor is also told that they receive a disproportionate amount of credit, so they should expect to receive their fair share of criticism. But we all know that leadership and church life are more complicated than this. Here are some reasons I have observed as to why some in the church believe the pastor is always at fault…

…because sometimes it is their fault. Let’s be honest. Some pastors are to blame for the life and health of the church they pastor. Bad attitudes, laziness, pettiness, and other attitudes and behaviors contribute to the ineffective leadership that causes the church to spiral out of control. So, the pastor is sometimes to blame.
…because we’re easy, public targets. But there are other reasons for the sometimes sorry life of the church that cannot be laid at the feet of the pastor. For example, the pastor is an easy target for the disgruntled and unsatisfied. Who else is there to blame than the one who represents the face of the church? You guessed it - the pastor. It’s hard to blame an impersonal building, a statistical budget or a systematic program. It’s even difficult to blame a group, i.e. deacons, elders, etc. It’s much easier to blame a person, one person, usually the pastor.
…because it’s easy to project on to the pastor one’s own failings. Sometimes the pastor gets the blame because he becomes the screen upon which church members project their own ecclesiastical disappointments and personal failures. It’s often easier to blame others – especially the pastor – than it is to deal with ones’ own sin and/or disobedience.
…because truth comforts and confronts – and people like only half this truth. A pastor who preaches God’s Word will find himself in hot water from time to time because truth not only comforts, it also convicts and confronts. It is perfectly natural to resist this kind of Word-produced, Spirit-induced, conscience-driven conviction. The accusation that the ‘Pastor is getting rather personal’ in his sermons or that ‘he should mind his own business’ becomes the impetus to strike out against the one who delivers the truth instead of allowing the truth to lead us to repentance and continued spiritual growth – shoot the messenger rather than receive the message.
…because there are personality issues involved. The church is made up of all kinds of people with differing personalities. This makes church interesting. It can also produce friction, especially if we expect everyone to be ‘just like me.’ Personality differences should remind us that our unity is found in the person of Christ, not in flattening out all of the personality issues that exist within the church. The pastor may have a different personality than I do, but this should not be a reason to criticize. A personality difference does not constitute a personality defect. God often uses interesting, sometimes quirky, all-the-time willing people to do His will.
…because there are style issues. In addition to personality issues there are also style issues. People do common things in different ways. This is especially true in the church and it is especially true in pastoral leadership. Style differences ought not to produce conflict or criticism.
…because spiritual warfare exists. A serious explanation for the conflict that often exists between the pastor and the church membership can be credited to spiritual warfare. Individuals are accountable for their own actions and attitudes. But we cannot be na├»ve. Satan and every demon in hell do not want to see the pastor and the people cooperate together for the cause of the gospel and the kingdom of God. The more Satan and his demons can tempt God’s people to turn on each other the more the work of the kingdom of God is inhibited. When conflict comes between the pastor and his flock, most of the time, it can be traced directly to Satanic/demonic temptations.
…because of an unwillingness to submit to biblically authentic leadership/authority. Authority is the new four-letter-word. Yet, the pastor is biblically commissioned to lead the church with biblically prescribed authority. This authority must not be personality-driven or solely positionally secured. Instead, the pastor has authority only in so far as he operates within the parameters of God’s Word and God’s truth. His authority is Word-driven, humbly expressed in proclamation and service to the people he shepherds. However, even with this kind of affirmation of pastoral authority, we live in a world where the autonomous self has reached its zenith and where submission to authority or to be held accountable is unthinkable. When the pastor exercises Word-driven pastoral authority some bristle with contempt. When push comes to shove, the pastor is often blamed for the conflict. Hence the pastor is to blame, but never a stiff-necked people.
…because churches don’t become like they are overnight and they don’t become how they ought to be overnight. When a church calls a new pastor the expectations are high. When things don’t go as expected the pastor is blamed. The pastor did not deliver what was expected. Conflict arises and the pastor is to blame. Again, sometimes pastors are to blame – we can act too quickly and impulsively. However, many times there is a failure to recognize that churches have personalities just like people. These ecclesiastical personalities are not developed overnight and they do not change overnight. To blame the pastor for failure to change the personality of a church overnight, a personality that took years to develop is shortsighted.
…because it makes good cover for disobedience. God’s people can be fabulously faithful. God’s people can also be unbelievably disobedient – ditto for pastors. Like the relationship between Israel and Moses, sometimes God’s people want to kill their leaders to cover their own lack of obedience, sometimes leaders want to dispose of their followers, and sometimes God judges both. Sometimes people use their disobedience as a cloak to criticize the leadership of the church for their lack of commitment.
…because of accumulated bitterness and blame. Finally, sometimes the pastor becomes the target for undeserved and unsolicited blame because of the accumulated sins of God’s people. While it is true that a pastor can make bone-headed decisions, it is equally true that conflicts, bitterness, envy, hatred, jealousy, and sinful attitudes can accumulate over the years that then get poured out on the unsuspecting pastor. Fair or not, the pastor can become the place where people purge the poison of their souls.

In one of my pastorates one particular gentleman in the church was getting the better of me. If I said it was up, he said it was down. If I said it was blue, he said it was yellow. As I read the text for and then preached my message he would sit in the back of the church and nod his head from side to side in negative disapproval. He spread rumors about me, my wife and family. He was disruptive in the church. I was to blame for everything. And I didn’t even know what I had done.

Then one day I received a great piece of advice from a godly deacon. As I sat under a large Oak tree in his front yard I poured my heart out to him about what this man was doing to me, my family, and the church. He listened attentively. When I finished he said to me, ‘Son, that boy was like that before you got here, he’ll be like that while you’re here, and he’ll be like that after you’re gone. Don’t worry about it.’ In other words, I wasn’t to blame. He went on to tell me to claim whatever mistakes I would make as a pastor, but not to take the blame for all things. In that moment God lifted a heavy burden from my shoulders. While I can be part of the problem as a pastor, I can also be an even greater part of the solution. There’s enough blame to go around.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Islam and the Gospel of Jesus Christ

Sunday, October 17th, is upon us.

Dr. Greg Thornbury will preach in the 10:45 a.m. service on 'Islam and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.'

I will preach in the 6 p.m. service on 'One God, Two Sons, Three Nations, One Lord: Tracing the Roots of the Conflict in the Middle East.'

The Praise Team and Choir will sing at both the 10:45 and 6 p.m. services.

Childcare will be provided for both the 10:45 a.m. and 6 p.m. services.

I hope you will make plans to attend both services.

In Christ
Kevin Shrum
Inglewood Baptist Church
3901 Gallatin Rd.
Nashville, TN 37115
615-228-2546

Friday, October 1, 2010

Freedoms Vanishing Act

Freedoms Vanishing Act
Dr. Kevin Shrum

Maybe it’s just me, but I hear the encroaching hoof-beats of that dark and mysterious stallion otherwise known as Big Brother-Big Government-Statism. And I don’t think I’m overstating the case. While the ever-present, ubiquitous state and federal governments increasingly squelch human freedom and liberty by confiscating and/or limiting our unalienable rights, the regulation of everything we do from what we eat, to what we buy, to what we say, to where we can or cannot build and live, to what we think continues to grow. Rather than enjoying the freedom that come through self-regulation, self-moderation and self-interest, a small, but growing group of elites do not trust the common man with his/her own freedom. Freedom and liberty are vanishing right before our very eyes.

By definition, and contrary to popular opinion, freedom is not the freedom to do as one pleases without regard for self or others. The reason this is not true freedom is because this kind of freedom usually ends up in some form of bondage to ones chosen vice. Freedom becomes bondage if abused (Gal. 5:13). True freedom is defined by doing what one ought to do; it is a matter of self-imposed regulation based upon a set of eternal truths rather than state-imposed regulation. And the state is more than happy to accommodate our willingness to abdicate our freedoms for a porridge made of state-regulated guarantees. While there is a role for government to regulate those who will not regulate themselves (Romans 13:1-7), this regulation should be limited, specific, and reluctant.

What magicians are to blame for our vanishing freedoms? Granted, those who believe that government is the arbiter of all things good are partly to blame. These magicians of freedom hold to the truth that the ‘collective’ – the state – best represents the people. With slight of hand and thought, they have convinced many that there should be equal opportunity for all and equal outcomes. That is, no one person or group of persons should be allowed to excel to any significant degree over any other person in society no matter how well they use their freedoms and opportunities – personal accountability is out, equal-outcomes are in.

Rather than the state securing our freedoms, the state must regulate individual freedoms to insure that no one person or group experiences un-equal outcomes. Individual achievement is literally flat-lined. To risk and succeed is deemed unfair and uncivilized. The use of one’s freedom to pursue self-interest and to gain thereby is considered selfish and too individualistic. The horizon of freedom must be flatland and not mountainous, where individuals have the opportunity to stand out like the majestic and multitudinous peaks of the Himalayas.

But there are other magicians behind freedoms vanishing act. What is so troubling at this time in our history is that many individuals are willing to give up their freedoms for certain personal securities or rights, i.e. jobs, insurance, housing, social security, individual security, etc. These ‘silver-lining’ issues come at a great price – the loss of individual freedom. In other words, many individual Americans are to blame for their own ever-increasing loss of freedom. We, the people, have become the magician’s assistant.

I believe the issue of freedom will be the key issue both now and in the years to come. Freedom is risky. Yet, we must be kept free to try and succeed or to try and fail only to try again. We must be free to say and think what we will without fear of reprisal, save for that small number of exceptions like yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. We must be free to worship, to gather, to create, to associate, and to produce within the confines of our own self-interests that are regulated by a moral and ethical center rather than an outwardly imposed regulation.

Do not let the term ‘self-interest’ scare you, morphing its meaning into some kind of selfishness. I am using the term ‘self-interest’ in the classic manner used to describe the basic belief that it is my individual responsibility to seek my own shelter, my own food, and my own way in life and in the life of my family. Historically, freedom used in this ‘self-interested’ manner has usually benefited the entire community. Communities don’t create things, individuals do. Communities benefit most when the self-regulated, free members of that community are allowed to freely create, produce, and seek their own self-interests in responsible ways. When the community becomes the definer of individual self-interests then freedom is killed, creativity is hampered, and responsibility is transferred to outside forces.

I can hear the push back already, ‘But what about those who abuse their freedoms and, as a result, abuse the freedoms of others?’ Yes, it is true that there are many who will abuse their freedoms without self-regulation, i.e. individuals, businesses. This is why we are a nation of laws, laws that are not meant to punish the whole of society through the arbitrary limitation of the freedoms of the majority, but laws that are specifically directed toward the people who abuse their freedoms. Punishing the whole by limiting their freedoms is like punishing the whole class because one or two individuals messed up.

‘But, what about those who are truly unable to use their freedoms to help themselves?’ i.e. the disabled, the genuinely poor, etc. Every society has a certain degree of individuals that for one reason of another are unable to fully actualize their freedoms. This is what has made America great – we have used a degree of our freedoms as a nation to assist those who are unable. Check out this truth – the freest nations are also the most benevolent.

The problem in recent decades is that we have used our greatness as a nation to not only assist those who are unable to help themselves, but those who are unwilling to help themselves. We have made unwillingness a disability, an excuse to discredit the virtues of individual responsibility, accountability, and risk/reward.

Our vanishing freedoms will continue to diminish if we continue to allow the magicians of our culture – both state and self – to con us into thinking that freedom is abnormal, self-centered, and unfair. Freedom to do what we ought to do is better than freedom used to do whatever we want to do regardless of how it may affect others. Self-regulated freedom is better than state-regulated freedom. And state-regulated freedom is no freedom at all because when the state controls our freedoms is vanishes right before our very eyes.

Monday, September 27, 2010

American Exceptionalism

American Exceptionalism and the Common Man
Dr. Kevin Shrum


America is an exceptional nation. One would be hard pressed to find another nation in history that has been as productive, creative, progressive, wealthy, benevolent, equitable, and, yes, blessed as these United States of America. While we have had our fair share of ‘black eyes,’ our founding documents and socio/political processes have provided a way for self-correction so that eventually we usually get things right.

American exceptionalism is now in question, however. Some would suggest that America has seen her last, best days. Others argue that we no longer deserve to be considered exceptional, especially in this new era of globalism. Still others have morphed our ‘black eyes’ into arguments that suggest America doesn’t deserve to be considered exceptional – it must now apologize and pay for her past failures; we do not deserve to be considered a super power, or as exceptional, or as being in a class by ourself; America has been arrogant long enough and it’s time for her to be brought to her knees. I, for one, beg to differ. Though we wobble at the moment, if we can recover the nature and scope of what has made us exceptional the future looks bright and hopeful.

Where do we begin to trace the exceptional nature of America? Nations, by definition, are philosophical and political constructs – a nation is an idea expressed through her people. Though our constitutional construction is part and parcel of why America is exceptional, it must be remembered that nations are actually constituted by people. In essence, American exceptionalism is rooted in the exceptional nature of her people. What makes the American people exceptional in particular and, in turn, America exceptional as a whole?

First, American exceptionalism is grounded in a certain set of core values. These core values are faith in God – specifically the Judeo-Christian worldview, though not all are Christians or are required to be – belief in the sanctity of life, the free pursuit of liberty and happiness, family, work, personal responsibility, industrious work, free markets, and freedom. It has been to these core values that Americans have ‘tethered their souls’ for the better. And though there have been times where we have strayed from these values, it always seems that we have had sense enough to return to these values at pivotal and critical times in our history.

Second, Americans have an exceptional degree of common sense. In other words, Americans are not elitists who hold to ideas that are purely theoretical, hypothetical, cute, fanciful, and that may not work in reality. Americans have been characterized by a basic sense of right and wrong that has given us a stability and strength that is rather uncommon, i.e. boys marry girls and vice versa, hard work makes a difference and deserves to be rewarded, there is a right and wrong, etc. To the chagrin of many of our European friends, Americans are not philosopher-kings, but are common people with an exceptional, uncommon sense of right and wrong, good and bad, truth and untruth.

Third, American exceptionalism is rooted in the belief that the family is the basic building block of a civilized culture. Families – two parent and single parent homes – provide a place of stability, love, nurture, and moral education. Threats to the family such as infidelity, divorce, abuse, confiscatory taxation, and same-sex marriage produce civil instability. America has been exceptional because her laws and societal structures have favored family success. The degree to which we honor and support the basic family unit is the degree to which we will maintain our exceptionalism.

Fourth, American exceptionalism is characterized by personal industry and hard work. By in large, Americans are hard working people. We get up early and stay late. We find ways to work smarter, faster, and more productive. Many of the great inventions we have come to enjoy did not come out of a sterile laboratory but in the field of labor as necessity proved to be the mother of invention. Americans makes things work because Americans work. Though we have always had a portion of our culture that has lived off the whole, by in large, Americans work hard, we even play hard. As such, hard work should be rewarded, honored, and encouraged. The laborer should be allowed to not only earn his/here wage, but should enjoy the rewards of his/her labor. Penalizing work and its rewards has never worked in America. It kills incentive, creativity, and productivity. Hard work has made us exceptional.

Fifth, Americans have developed an exceptional understanding of fairness. It is a fairness that is not rooted in pluralism, multi-culturalism, or any kind of ‘ism’, i.e. racism, ageism, etc. The American sense of fairness does not come from legislative mandate but from personal choice to be a good neighbor. Most Americans are fair because it’s simply the right thing to do. Americans can be bigoted, racist, and narrow-minded. Yet, by in large, most Americans are fair because they themselves want to be fairly treated – the good neighbor principle of doing good to others as you would have them do to you.

Sixth, American exceptionalism was planted and rooted in freedom. Americans have come to know an unusual degree of freedom, unlike many of the nations of the world. The ‘American experiment’, an experiment in freedom, has been unbelievably successful. American styled freedom has been an experiment in the belief that the common man can be trusted with the free exercise of liberty and that freedom is not a right granted by the state, but a gift granted by God to be used wisely and prudently.

Because we are free we have been allowed to pursue our own self-interests that usually produce benefits for the whole of society. There are times that we have abused our freedoms because we have detached freedom from responsibility. However, Americans, to a large degree, seemed to have figured out that freedom used responsibly produces amazing results. To arbitrarily limit the freedoms Americans so enjoy is to fly in the face of the declaration that announced the launch of this free nation: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’

Seventh, American exceptionalism is grounded in the concept of self-regulation. That is, rightly thinking, common sense, free Americans do best when they practice self-regulation – in essence, they practice self-imposed limitations on their own behavior and freedom. It is called personal responsibility, prudent behavior, moral comportment. Yes, we are a nation of laws for those who are law-breakers. Yet, Americans function best when they regulate and guard their own behavior rather than waiting for the state to decide what is right and wrong and, as a result, impose laws that may squelch the free exercise of personal responsibility and individual accountability. Laws are necessary. But self-regulation is best.

Finally, American exceptionalism has been characterized by a unique concept of community. There is something unique about what it means to be an American. Call it the ‘melting pot,’ America has a way of absorbing people from all cultures, assimilating them into the great American experience of freedom and liberty. And while it has never been frowned upon to respect one’s heritage, America has known greatness because people from all parts of the world have come to her shores seeking freedom and opportunity, willing to buy into the unique and exceptional nature of a free republic where common sense and decency, faith in God, and a willingness to work hard has produced the greatest nation in the history of the world. We deny and demote American exceptionalism to our own peril. Let America be true to herself, let the common man be responsibly free, and let the rest of the world follow!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

What Evangelism is Not

What Evangelism is Not
Dr. Kevin Shrum


(The ideas for this article have been glean from a number of sources including, but not exclusive to Mark Dever, J.I. Packer, R.C. Sproul, John Piper, and John MacArthur.)

The Great Commission Resurgence proposals within the Southern Baptist Convention have reminded us of the high priority of evangelism and local/global missions. The same is true of many denominations across the theological spectrum of beliefs as Christian leaders worldwide seek to regain strongholds of spiritual influence in North America and Europe. However, unless we’re not cautious and clear a sloppy, imprecise definition of missions and evangelism will destroy renewal efforts. Let’s define evangelism by what it is not and then by what it is.

Evangelism is not…
1. Evangelism is not denominational renewal, reconstruction or even de-construction. Sometimes these are necessary to advance the cause of evangelism, but they are not evangelism. Denominations and ecclesiastical structures need occasional, healthy upheaval. But unless we’re careful we may end of thinking that one more meeting and a new way of doing things constitutes evangelism. Structural re-organizations may end up being commensurate with re-arranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic.
2. Evangelism is not inviting people to church or an evangelistic event. Inviting people to events is important, but it’s not evangelism – it is pre-evangelism.
3. Evangelism is not imposing our will or beliefs on another person. We make no apologies for attempting to persuasively make the case for Christianity. But in the end only God can change the human heart.
4. Evangelism is not personal testimony. A personal testimony does not save a sinner. The gospel does. It’s quite right to support a gospel presentation with what the gospel has done in one’s life. Yet, we must never confuse the gospel itself with a personal testimony.
5. Evangelism is not social work/justice or political involvement. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with seeking social justice, feeding the homeless, clothing the naked, and addressing institutional-political injustices. However, social justice, food in a hungry belly, and a jacket on the back of a homeless man does not prepare that soul for eternity. Good deeds compliment the gospel enterprise; they do not replace it.
6. Evangelism is not doing apologetics in order to win an argument. Apologetics is a necessary part of the Christian mission. Apologetics can help answer questions and remove intellectual objections, but only the gospel of Jesus Christ can change the heart.
7. Evangelism is not the results of evangelism. It is very easy to get caught up in numbers in the church business. And numbers are important. Even Jesus told three successive stories involving numbers in Luke 15 – one lost sheep, one lost coin, and two lost sons. But souls are not notches in our belt or numbers on our denominational charts. ‘One’ represents a precious soul for whom Christ died. This means that we are to communicate the gospel regardless of the results – God alone takes care of the results.
8. Evangelism is not church planting. Church planting is biblical and necessary. Many church plants succeed at a higher rate of growth than already established churches. But it’s not because of the magical words – church plant. The reason church plants grow fast for a season is because the believers of that new church have been reminded of the basics of one person sharing the good news with another person.

Evangelism is…
So, what is evangelism? Evangelism is a believer sharing the person/claims of the gospel of Jesus Christ with a person who has yet to believe the claims of the gospel or trust the person at the center of the gospel – Jesus Christ. The gospel is “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” (1 Cor. 15:3-4; Rom. 10:9-13) The gospel is clearly stating what God has done in Christ for the sinner, calling for repentance and belief. To fail to do this is to fail at evangelism. All the aforementioned dimensions of church life are but outgrowths and/or compliments to the gospel itself.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Are We a Generation of Flakes?

Are We a Generation of Flakes?
By Kevin Shrum

If I could combine the creative and stylistic energies of this generation with the duty-bound, tough-mindedness of previous generations a person would be produced that would be less flaky, but also less rigid than your average American.

The current crop of younger Americans can be as flaky and unstable as a snowflake in a winter storm. They tire easy, are often frustrated if things are not immediate and easy, and sometimes act like children in a sandbox having a difficult time sharing their toys. This generation has become a generation of ‘navel gazers’ enamored with ease, grotesquely self-absorbed, and perpetually preoccupied with their own ‘stuff’, often to the detriment of their own souls and of the souls of those around them.

Technologically savvy, they have more information at their fingertips than all previous generations combined, yet are as ignorant of real life stuff such as dedicated love, the reality of death, meaningful but hard relationships, commitment, loyalty, and duty. Their ‘tech toys’ are amazing (I have some of them myself), but they are often used for gaming, texting, and other self-absorbed activities rather than long-term and meaningful enterprises. We have become hard-wired for games, fun, leisure, and ease.

This generation is smart but ignorant. It’s as if they have facts but no wisdom to piece together those facts into a meaningful, coherent worldview. Maybe this is why many parents are frustrated and confused when, after having paid a ridiculous amount of money to put their child through college, they see their educated son or daughter graduate only to get a job at the local coffee shop while trying to ‘figure life out.’ When their children say and do things like this it’s as if they’re speaking a foreign language to their parents: ‘What do you mean, figure it out? I thought that’s what you were doing the last four or five years?’ Presumptuousness meet self-centeredness!

As an equal opportunity offender, let me pick on the older generations (50+), as well. Much of what has infected the current generation has now been absorbed by older generations. Cranky, selfish, equally-self-absorbed as their younger counterparts, and ill-tempered at times many members of the ‘Greatest Generation’ have assumed an attitude of privilege toward people, places, and things. The sacrifice that carried them through hard times in the past has given way to a pampered lifestyle of travel, leisure, and self-interested retirement. They will rail away at the younger generation for their selfishness and never realize that they need to look in the mirror.

To both I say, ‘the self-absorbed, autonomous “I” has reached its zenith.’

But time and events have a way of stripping us of our fake and flimsy props. Reality has a way of challenging our untested philosophies that were developed in the local coffee shop or dorm room with other equally self-absorbed, yet untested compatriots. And then, along comes an economic downturn, a war out of control, a job market on the decline, a government on a spending binge, a world in chaos, a moral order upside down (even for the classic liberal) and everything is now in question. The younger generation doesn’t know what to make of the world because they have a minimalistic, untested worldview and the older generation is faced with the hard reality that work and real life, not leisure, may still be on the agenda for the foreseeable future.

What are we to do? Which way do you go when you’re at the crossroads of self-centeredness and reality? Maybe the first statement of this article needs repeating, ‘If I could combine the creative and stylistic energy of this generation with the duty-bound, tough-mindedness of previous generations a person would be produced that would be less flaky, but also less rigid than your average American.’

How is this combination possible? Let us call forth those time-honored character traits of duty, commitment, sacrifice, self-determination, and service. But let us also funnel them through a creative and fluid soul that expresses those traits in new and productive ways.

Let us maintain the essence of duty and commitment (we have to get up and go to work, school, or church even when we don’t feel like it), without committing the insanity of repeating a thing expecting different results (that is, change is not always bad). Let us not draw our meaning from things or technology, but from the soul set on God that is able to navigate a world of things and technology with meaning and purpose. Let us grasp the notion of commitment, even when it’s hard, but let us make sure that what we commit ourselves to in the first place is not temporal but more eternal, soulful, and meaningful.

Let us not be driven by the roller-coaster of pure emotion, but let us temper our feelings with reason, thoughtfulness and tough-mindedness. Yet, let us not morph into unfeeling souls that have no compassion or sensitivity to our neighbor.

Let us not be so self-absorbed and thus, less offended, when things do not go our way. Let us embrace a worldview that is less ‘me-centered’ and more absorbed with God, others, and then self. Let us brace ourselves for difficulty and hardships so that these twins are not viewed as enemies but as refining friends. Yet, let us not lose the tenderness of the soul that comes from a mind and a heart set on eternal things. Being tough doesn’t mean we’re not fragile.

A very wise man once said that it is possible to gain the whole world, but lose one’s soul. Maybe we have lost our souls in the sea of frivolity! The economic and moral malaise we’re in right now has a way of melting away the faulty and the frivolous. It is then that the soul is exposed for what it is - good or bad, deep or shallow, self-absorbed or other-centered. Yet, it is then and only then that we can go to work on the soul, building a rich, committed, duty-minded, creative, eternally-directed soul that combines tested-love and creative duty, the best of all generations.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

American Secular Gospel

American Secular Gospel
Dr. Kevin Shrum

In a recent article entitled, ‘The Gospel that Is Killing Us,’ (http://kevin-shrum.blogspot.com/2010/05/gospel-that-is-killing-us.html) I used what I thought was a throw-away phrase in the final paragraph – ‘American secular gospel.’ A dear friend of mine immediately called me and said that he thought there was something in that phrase that needed to be fleshed out. His comment to me forced me to think through once again what I had written. What did I mean when I wrote that it is the American secular gospel that is killing us? Let me break this phrase down.

American – There is no one who loves America as much as I do. This is no slam on other nations or cultures. It is simply a recognition that God has afforded me the privilege of living in what some have called the greatest nation ever to exist in the history of humanity. The freedoms we enjoy and the progress we have made in technology, medicine, education, science, and basic living conditions have been unprecedented. While America has never been a pure theocracy, the framework that has informed our cultural and social morals was shaped and formed by a decidedly Judeo-Christian worldview. If America had any message it was the gospel. So, closely identified has the Judeo-Christian worldview been associated with America that, in fact, some have equated Americanism with the gospel itself. The flag has dangerously wrapped itself around the cross. To preach the gospel was to preach Americanism and visa versa.

But America lost her way along the way and, along with it, the goodness and grace that may have been a result or affect of the gospel. America has disconnected itself from its spiritual moorings. Two devastating consequences have resulted from this disconnect. First, America has been set adrift on the sea of radical individualism where everyone has their own god and everyone is their own priest. Second, the gospel some preach from the pulpits of America’s churches is preached under the delusion that America is still on God’s side and God is still on America’s side. This means that the pulpits of America have lost their prophetic voice to preach the gospel to sinners, to proclaim truth to power, and to bring a message of judgment to a nation that has for the most part abandoned God. In other words, there is no discord between the gospel some preach and the American way of life.

Secular – So, if God is out, what or who is in? The answer is: secularism. This much used word simply refers to the fact that we are no longer ruled by eternal principles or vertical considerations. We are now completely horizontal in our perspective. There are no longer any eternal considerations. With the death of the gospel has come the flat-lining of an eternal, spiritual horizon. And if secularism is the new religion then science and technology are its theology, with scientists and technocrats posing as its theologians. In addition, the ultimate goal of this secular perspective is the heightened awareness of my individual autonomy as my own god and the continuing development of the many creature comforts we so enjoy.

Gospel – The consequence of this spiritual shift in America has been the product I call the American secular gospel. The American secular gospel preaches a message that is more about flag-waving than it is about loyalty to King Jesus; that is less about personal repentance and more about personal fulfillment; that is more about individual success than it is about the Savior; that is more about our creature-comforts than sacrifice; that is more about promoting a particular political party than speaking truth to power; that is more about seeing God’s will as making much of me rather than much of Him. The American secular gospel is a pathetic replacement for the real gospel where Jesus Christ is preeminent in all things.

The consequences of the American secular gospel on the church have been devastating. Carpeted, air-conditioned buildings greet neatly dressed consumers who gather to consume a gospel that makes much of them and not much of God. Nice-speaking preachers preach the gospel of fulfillment rather than the gospel of self-abandonment that confronts us in our sins with the radical demands of the gospel. We have forgotten the gospel that declares that true happiness comes hard by our death and self-abandonment as we made truly alive in Jesus Christ.

Is there hope for America? Yes. There is a clue that can be found in the historical record. In 1840 Alexis de Tocqueville traveled to America from France to observe the secret of the success of this new experiment called democracy that had been born out of religious truth and liberty. This is what de Tocqueville wrote in his book, Democracy in America, “I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers, and it was not there; in her fertile fields and boundless prairies, and it was not there; in her rich mines and her vast world commerce, and it was not there. Not until I went to the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

Hope for America will be found in the churches of America IF the churches of America rediscover the gospel of Jesus Christ, a gospel that makes much of God and less of us; a gospel that calls us to repentance and commitment to Jesus Christ; a gospel that calls us to serve rather than be served; a gospel that unleashes the creative power of humanity in service to mankind; a gospel that calls for an eternal, long-term perspective; a gospel that declares that humanity is more than a compilation of lucky cells, but a call to true greatness where human abilities are viewed as God-given and are used in service to the glory of God; a gospel that calls for moral and spiritual purity that trumps reckless autonomy; a gospel that calls for responsible freedom and that rejects license. America, God is calling. Are you listening?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Where Was God in the Flood of Nashville?

Where Was God in the Flood of Nashville?
Dr. Kevin Shrum

There is a small phrase in the Bible that has been bothering me, especially since the tragic flood that nearly swept Nashville away. This small phrase is found in Luke 8:25 where Jesus’ cruise across the Sea of Galilee was interrupted by a windstorm that threatened to sink their entire mission enterprise. You know the story. The disciples’ set sail with Jesus across the Sea of Galilee, Jesus takes a nap, the storm foments the sea and threatens to sink their small boat, Jesus calms the storm, and the disciples are amazed. Then comes verse 25, “He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’ And they were afraid, and they marveled, saying to one another, ‘Who then is this, that He commands even winds and water, and they obey Him?’” The small phrase – “He commands even winds and water, and they obeyed Him” – says much about the often comforting, sometimes disturbing, always present sovereignty of God. Let me explain.

When a tragedy takes place in our world most Christians do everything in their power to protect God’s good name. We will blame disasters on everything BUT God. We say, ‘God could never do that; God would never do that.’ The unintended consequences of explaining away any role for God in the devastating disasters of life is that God is reduced to being a bench player until after the tragedy. That is, God becomes an ‘after-the-fact’ kind of God who is able only to comfort the grieving but is never a God who may design tragedy for our good and His glory. This kind of language about God for most of us is shocking!

Further, this kind of erroneous theology makes God out to be a reactionary God only. God can comfort in the tragedy, but He can never cause the tragedy. Rather than God being a part of the event, the tragic event is designed and caused by some misnamed power like Mother Nature or by saying the Accident god caused it or by saying that it’s Satan’s fault. If we make God out to be only a reactionary God we have unwittingly made Him less of a God than what caused the event itself. In essence, we have committed the sin of idolatry in creating a god to explain the tragedy rather than attempting to understand the mystery of the God’s sovereignty. We may not knowingly admit this claim, but it is the consequence of saying that God only shows up after the fact and not prior to the fact. God becomes the helpless God of heaven who must wait for a tragedy to pass before He can intervene.

Let’s look at Luke 8:22-25 in a different way. Let’s suppose that Jesus – the One who created and controls all things; the One who has all things at His disposable (John 1:3) – desired to design a circumstance to grow the faith of His followers and to demonstrate His sovereign power (and there may be more purposes that I cannot see). It would then follow that He designed the time they would launch their boat, He designed the timing and place of the storm, He designed raising the anxiety level of His disciples by falling asleep prior to the storm, and He designed the calming of the storm and the questioning of their faith. This kind of perspective makes sense of that phrase “He commands even winds and water, and they obey Him.” I take this to mean that Jesus was not caught off guard by the storm. Rather, He commanded what He created. He made the wind and the water and they did His biding. Like the old saying goes, ‘Has it ever occurred to us that nothing has ever occurred to God?’ I do not know how God directs what He has created, but I do know that Scripture teaches that God is sovereign even when I can’t get my finite mind around His infinite purposes.

Most of us are not ready for this kind of sovereignty. Neither am I. It makes us uncomfortable to speak of God in this way. It comes close to making God culpable for evil. But we cannot speak out of both sides of our mouth when it comes to God’s power. We cannot both claim that God has the power to do all things and then not be able to do all things. I have no other conclusion than to say that God is sovereign over all things and in all things. This is not to say that God does evil. It is to say that all things – both good and bad – are under His control. It is to say that God either causes a thing or permits a thing. It is to say that whether God permits a thing or causes a thing He always designs a thing for purposes that are sometimes beyond our grasp. It is to say that there is no God but God.

Whether an event is intentionally caused by God as the first cause or permitted by God as the secondary cause, it is nevertheless the design of God in all things whether good or bad to bring us to Himself and to seek His own glory. The supreme biblical example is found in the Book of Job where it is God himself who teases Satan into considering and then testing the faith of Job (Job 1:8). Job loses everything, except his wife (and she was no help). Satan is the immediate cause of the evils that come Job’s way; God is the ultimate cause of Job’s distress.

The reason this issue is important is because it forces us to live with a different set of questions, the right questions. To say that God does not, will not, and cannot do or permit all things both good and bad does not help, leaving us with many unresolved questions about God’s abilities. In fact, for me, it leaves me with more questions than it answers. For example, if God was not behind the storm on the Sea of Galilee then who was? Where was God? Did some arbitrary god cause the storm? Was nature totally out of God’s sovereign control? Was Jesus caught off guard and had to perform a ‘make-up miracle’ in calming the storm. These kinds of questions make me question God’s power.

I would rather live with the hard questions like, ‘Why did God do this or that? What God-ordained purposes can I detect in an event? Even when I don’t understand God’s purposes, how humble am I in agreeing with Job when he said (Job 1:21), “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Am I willing to live with the mystery of God’s purposes and agree with Job (Job 40:4-5) in saying, “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hands on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.” I would rather live with the questions that come from God’s purposeful and often mysterious sovereignty than the questions that come from viewing God as a reactionary, helpless God who can only comfort in a tragedy but never design a tragedy for His glorious purposes.

To say that God designs and permits or designs and causes an event does not mean that I like or understand all that God does. I am not saying that God’s purposes are always pleasant or detectable. It is to say that when one reads Luke 8:25 and takes note that the very winds and water that could have killed the disciples were under Jesus’ command makes me humble myself under God’s mighty hand seeking His face and His heart even when I do not understand His hand.

So, where was God in the storm that hit Nashville, killing a number of people, and ravaging hundreds of homes? To say it poetically, God had one foot on one side of the storm, one foot on the other side of the storm, and with a thunderbolt in His hands, He road that storm right over my fair city. If God is not the God of the storm how can God be God over the storm? How can I say such a thing? Because best of all, Luke 8 tells us that Jesus was not an absent God – let us never forget that the One who created and commands the wind and the waves, the One who designed the storm was in the storm, in the boat with His disciples. That’s some kind of sovereign God!

The Theology Blog: The Gospel That is Killing Us

The Theology Blog: The Gospel That is Killing Us

The Gospel That is Killing Us

The Gospel That is Killing Us
Dr. Kevin Shrum


Imagine a visitor from another planet visiting the average American church. This extraterrestrial would more than likely see many empty pews but also hear a gospel that is killing us. This outside intruder would here a gospel that frames God’s purposes in the gospel as making our life healthy, wealthy, and prosperous. This ET would hear a gospel that diminishes and belittles God, painting God as a deity that is helplessly waiting on the sidelines of life for the disasters of life to pass, all the time wringing His hands in frustrated exasperation – God is a pastoral God who can only respond to difficulties and not a sovereign God who designs all things for our good and his glory. This visitor would hear a gospel devoid of sacrifice, repentance, and a striving to enter into the kingdom, a gospel that is passive and man-centered. The mantra of this gospel would be, ‘It’s OK to be all about God so long as God is all about you!’

My fear is that this silly scenario is not far from the truth. American Christianity has lost much of its robust nature because the gospel has been reduced to a gospel without repentance, salvation without endurance, forgiveness without being forgiving, love without accountability, and eternal life without gritty, determined, committed grace. A gospel without true repentance from sin, embraced by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone for God’s glory alone is not the gospel. A gospel that does not make much of God and little of us is not the gospel.

The diminished gospel we have affirmed is dangerous. In fact, this gospel is killing us. The American gospel of Christianity is ruining and spoiling us. To suffer for the gospel is now optional, even unnecessary – maybe even sinful. The gospel that some preach has only health and wealth as its goal for the Christian. To be otherwise is to be out of the will of God. The gospel that is killing us has convinced us that church is all about having our ‘felt needs’ met; about guilt avoidance; about being successful in this life.

The problem with this truncated gospel is that health and wealth is exactly what the unconverted desire, as well. What difference is there between the Christian and the non-Christian if their goal is the same? What difference is there between the ‘blessed’ if one ‘got theirs’ from the world and the other from God? The gospel of secularism and the erroneous, self-absorbed gospel of Jesus I’m speaking of produce the same product, one with the label of secular, the other with the label of Savior. Surely, we are not saying that by putting the stamp of the gospel on a lifestyle that is no different than the lifestyle of the unbelieving somehow proves that we have been blessed by God.

Let me suggest another gospel. This gospel kills, as well. But it does so by nailing our sins and desires on a cross, a cross that is embraced by repentance and belief in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The true gospel of Jesus Christ is the death of the old self with its desire for the very things the world desires. Jesus spoke of this cross in Matthew 10:38-39: “And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” The gospel of Jesus Christ declares our judgment, pronounces our sentence, and calls for our death to sin and self so that we might be awakened to a new life with new desires, motives, and purposes. The gospel of Jesus Christ calls for us to make much of God rather than self. So, while suffering is no proof of conversion neither is driving a BMW, living in a five thousand square foot home, and sending your kids to private school.

Let’s be clear. If God so chooses to bless a believer with financial means or good health then let him use those resources to the glory of God. Hard work, ingenuity, and good stewardship are part of God’s calling and do have rewards, even what we may call godly rewards. However, to preach a gospel with this as the goal of the gospel is not the gospel. The gospel is the means by which we come to God, not the means by which we ingratiate ourselves to the world.

Maybe what American Christianity needs is a season of suffering and persecution. Why? Is it not true that where Christianity is persecuted it grows? It is not also true that suffering and persecution have a way of exposing true believers from false? Further, is it not true that suffering has a way of stripping us of our self-righteous veneer and exposing our true motives? And doesn’t persecution force us to truly depend on God? Again, Christians are not to intentionally look for suffering and difficulty. But neither are we to avoid our own death to sin and the challenges that may come from living a Christ-centered, cross-bearing, God-glorifying life.

Do you recall Paul’s (Saul’s) conversion in Acts 9? God told Ananias, the old sage of Damascus, to speak over Paul these words (Acts 9:15-16), “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” Later, in Acts 14:22, Luke notes that Paul preached to the believers in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch that “…through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” Paul’s life of suffering became a demonstration of his absolute confidence in his Savior and not in himself.

To suffer for the gospel is to crucify self (Rom. 6:6) so that we might live unto God. The gospel that makes much of us kills godliness and the church; the gospel that makes much of God in Christ kills us so that we might live with great abundance. The secular, American gospel leads to the death of God’s work in us while the gospel of Jesus Christ leads to a death to sin and self so that we may truly know what it is to live! Maybe we need to once again hear Paul’s testimony to the Galatian church (2:20), “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Friday, April 30, 2010

The Ought and the Is of Piper's Leave of Absence

The Ought and Is of Piper’s Leave Absence
Dr. Kevin Shrum

You would have to be living under a rock to not know that John Piper, well-known Christian leader, writer, gift of God to the church at large, and Pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota for the last thirty years will be taking an eight month leave of absence beginning May 1 and continuing through December 31. Piper has publicly stated that this leave of absence, approved by the elders of Bethlehem Baptist Church, will be used to deal with internal sin, pride, and to kindle as renewed commitment to his family and ministry as he prepares for his final years of ministry.

I do not begrudge Piper’s leave of absence. In fact, I believe this is the way things ‘ought’ to be for the faithful pastor. There should be, from time to time, a leave of absence for study, rest, and renewal. Pastor and preaching, if done right, is an exhausting job. It is a 24/7 job. The pastor is never off duty; even when off he is still on. Ministry demands intense emotional commitment and requires on-going mental and physical energy. The continual sapping of the pastor’s emotional, mental, and spiritual strength requires that the pastor continually replenish his supply. An occasional leave of absence helps in the pastor’s renewal project.

Yet, when I heard and read of Piper’s eight month reprieve, I instantly thought of the thousands of pastors who, for a myriad of reasons, will never be afforded the luxury of an eight month sabbatical. Most pastors may get one or two weeks a year for a vacation, but never an extended study leave. Sometimes the causes are financial – both pastor and church simply do not have the resources to provide for this kind of time off. Sometimes the causes are leadership – most pastors serve in single-staffed churches where finding someone to fill in for two weeks is difficult enough, much less for eight months. Still another cause is that most church members do not see the need so there is no desire to provide for such extended leaves. The reasoning here is to treat the pastor as the average church member who may get only a two week vacation each year – “I work hard and don’t get extended leaves of absence,” so says the uninformed church member. This is the way things actually are – the way it is!

Yet, there are many good reasons for pastors and churches to consider the practice of granting periodic leaves of absence for study, rest, family renewal, and rejuvenation. If the church expects the pastor to effectively lead and to keep his family in good order, then they must see the need to provide the time and resources needed to accomplish such worthy goals. Why? First, the renewed pastor is the effective pastor, if the leave of absence is actually planned for its intended purpose. Second, the church must change how they look at their pastor. Instead of the pastor being viewed as the hireling called to do all the work of the church, the pastor must be viewed as the God-called, God-ordained preacher of the gospel and leader of the church who must hear from God if the church is to be healthy and productive. If the pastor has little time to clear his head and meditate on God’s Word in a season of reflection then his ministry will be shallow and the church will be stunted in its growth.

Third, the pastor and church must reconsider the heavy load the pastor carries. All things are not equal when it comes to comparing the work of the pastor and the average laborer. Pastor’s help people live and die. They deal with weighty issues daily. They prepare messages from God’s Word, counsel the broken-hearted, make hospital visits, attend meetings, plan worship services, represent the church in the community, and organize various events. On top of all of this the pastor is to make sure his family is well-supported and cared for. And get this. Most of this is done while he is underpaid and underappreciated.

Finally, pastors must give up the ‘Messiah complex’ when it comes to the Lord’s work. We are not indispensable. The pastor must remember that it is the Lord’s church (Mt. 16:13). The church has survived for generations; it will survive after we’re gone. A periodic leave of absence will prove to the pastor that the church will not fall apart if he’s gone a short time. Consider the church as a long chain consisting of individual ministry links made of solid steel that represent God’s ministers in each generation. The pastor’s job is not to be the entire chain, but simply the single link he is called to be in the church’s ministry. This calls for humility. In other words, the church can live without us for a short period of rest and renewal. If the pastor is renewed and refreshed the church will more than survive, it will thrive.

It is my prayer that more churches will consider giving their pastors intentional, financed seasons of rest, renewal, and study. It is my prayer that Piper’s example and that of his church will inspire more churches and pastors to be refreshed in the work of the Lord. In this way, we will move from the way things ought to be to making these seasons of renewal the way things actually are – the way it is!

Where is Your Bible? The Case for Biblical Literacy

Where is Your Bible? – A Case for Biblical Literacy
Dr. Kevin Shrum

We live in biblically illiterate times. While economic cycles come and go and while the tide of political chaos ebbs and flows, Western culture has been able to depend on a biblically informed moral center. Both believer and unbeliever alike lived within the contours of a set of biblically-conditioned categories, even when these moral and spiritual categories were not personally or publicly acknowledged. Our cultural and moral arguments assumed a biblically conditioned intellectual framework. In other words, the blood-line of Western culture was ‘bibline,’ that is, until recent times.

We live in a day when people think – if they think at all about Scripture - that it was Jonah who built the ark, that Noah who was swallowed by a whale, that it was Nicodemus up a tree and not Zacchaeus and, that the Bible is nothing more than a collection of man-made wisdom stories that bear no resemblance to history or reality. The consequences of this kind of biblical illiteracy that have been floating just below the cultural surface are now beginning to break the surface of our culture producing violent waves of moral and spiritual crisis. The outcomes have been and will be devastating. Moral and spiritual categories are now self-determined without any objective reality. The entrepreneurial spirit of the age has made each of us our own authoritative canon.

The biblical illiteracy of our culture and in many of our churches calls for a series of questions that must be asked and answered if Scripture is to once again take its rightful place as the ‘shaper of ideas’ and as an authoritative explanatory text for reality.

Question #1 – Is the Bible from heaven? This is the question of origins. Every generation brings its skeptics who make every effort to demote and demean the Word. They doubt the origin, authority, and inspiration of the God’s Word. The accusations are familiar – it’s a man-made book; it’s an inspirational book, but not a divinely inspired book; its antiquated and outdated, etc. But here’s the kicker – one evidence, among many, of the Bible’s divine, heavenly origin is that while some in each generation seek to discredit the Book, the Book simply keeps rising from the grave yard of discarded literary contributions. Why does it do this? The answer is that the Bible is not just any book – it is the Book, God’s Book, inspired, infallible, inerrant, tested, tried and true. So, let the skeptic rail away against eternity and the agnostic twist in the winds of change, while all the time the Word stands forever, established in heaven.

Question #2 – Is the Bible in your hand? That is, is the Book literally in your hand? I’m all about Bible-based computer programs. The tools we have these days to study the Word are amazing and helpful. In fact, I myself have several iPhone Bible apps and some rather sophisticated laptop programs that cost me a pretty penny. However, the Book, my Book, is always in hand. It has been formed to the shape of my sometimes sweaty, oily hands. There is something about the turning of the pages, knowing where things are in the Book, that remind me that I cannot turn off the Book as easily as I can click the shut-down key on my laptop. Being familiar with the Book will keep you from thinking that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. So, use the tools God has provided, but always have the Book in hand.

Question #3 – Is the Bible in your heart? The heart, or the will, is the place of decision, dedication, and great affection. The Bible must inform the heart. Putting Scripture into the heart by memorization is invaluable. Knowing the Word intimately keeps us meditating on it even when the Book is not in front of us. Knowing the Book shapes the contours of our thinking and feeling even when we are unaware of its influence. Knowing the Book keeps us from sin. This is why the Psalmist wrote in Psalm 119:11, “I have stored up (hidden) your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” Take the Book that is in your hand and put it into your heart.

Question #4 – Is the Bible in your head? This is the question of intellectual engagement. You do not have to ‘check your brain at the door’ in order to be a Christian. Some of the finest minds in the history of our fair planet have been unashamed believers. The Bible has been the shaper of ideas and the progenitor of intellectual and cultural visions for centuries. The Word raises the five ‘essential’ questions of human existence – 1) Is there is God? What is he like? And, how can I know him? 2) Who am I? Accident? Incident? Or purposed? This is the question of human identity. 3) Who are we in relation to each other? This is the question of relationships. 4) What should I do with my life and can it have meaning? This is the question of vocation. 5) Finally, what happens when I die? This is the question of eternity. These five questions are both asked and answered in the Word in some simple and not so simple ways. So, while we’re praying to give our hearts to Jesus, we must also give our minds to Jesus (Mt. 22:37), as well.

Question #5 – Is the Bible in your home? When I ask, ‘Is the Bible in your home?’, I am not asking if there is a Bible on the coffee table or on a book shelf. What I’m asking is more systemic. In other words, does the Word inform your conversations with your spouse and your children? The method here is not to beat each other over the head with the Book. Instead, having the Book in your home means that you ask the questions the Book asks, you contemplate the answers it proposes, you discuss its moral and spiritual challenges, and you allow the Book to, once again, shape the atmospheric contours of your home life even if the Bible is not on your lap or even verbally mentioned. In other words, the Bible must contaminate the spiritual air we breathe in our homes. Maybe, just maybe, if more families would dust off their Bibles it would, as the old gospel song says, ‘save your poor souls.’

Question #6 – Is the Bible in the harvest? Believers are commissioned to share the good news, to be on mission, as it were. But we do not promote ourselves. Our job is not to be creative with the message while we are being creative with the method of delivery. We are to be ‘Johnny Appleseed,’ spreading the message of hope and life in Jesus Christ wherever we go and to whomever we meet. We are not to be novel or unique with the gospel message – the Word in this respect never changes. Sadly, while some boast to believe in the inerrancy of the Book, they do not have the complimentary belief in the sufficiency of the Book – its power and ability to deliver what it promises. So, let us take up as heralds of good news in the Book. It is our message.

Question #7 – Is the Bible in the heat of the battle? Life is filled with many challenges. Spiritual and intellectual confrontations take place daily. What resource will you use to shape your responses to the great questions of life and what weapon will you use to combat the enemies of your soul? The only Book that has stood the test of time as worthy of every challenge and battle we face in life is the Bible, God’s Word. Maybe this is why the Apostle Paul would encourage the Ephesian believers to take up the only offensive weapon in their battlefield arsenal of armor (Eph. 6:17) – ‘and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.’

There is no excuse for Biblical illiteracy. It’s not a matter of access for the Bible remains the best-selling book each year; it is the best-selling book of all time. Rather, biblical illiteracy is overcome by taking the Book in hand, placing it in the heart, mind, and home, and by allowing it to shape the message of hope we bring to the marketplace and that we use in dealing with our own personal demons and distractions. Just as the mysterious voice of God called Augustine to, ‘Take up and read, take up and read,’ on that divinely designed afternoon almost two millennia ago we, too, must take up and read the Word – it will save us and sustain us.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Interested in freedom? Read about it: http://ping.fm/LfzqQ

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Off to Missions Comm. Mtg @ 9 a.m. and then to University of Kentucky to speak at Campus Crusade around 7 p.m.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

See new blog post on surviving long-term ministry - http://ping.fm/Uf5Wc

Staying in One Place of Ministry for a Long Time, and Surviving, even Thriving

Surviving and Thriving for the Long Haul
Dr. Kevin Shrum

The need for long tenured pastors and Christian leaders is significant and necessary. While there will always be a great need for church planters and itinerant ministers and while there are times for the Christian leader to move from one ministry to another, the long-term damage done by short-term ministry in the kingdom of God is incalculable. The blessings and the benefits produced by long-term ministry both to the minister and the ministry are multi-faceted. Yet, I have found that there are certain challenges that come with remaining in one ministry setting for an extended period of time.

The first challenge to long-term ministry is staying fresh and current in one’s approach to ministry. It is so easy to get stuck in a rut. Lack of study and a failure to remain spiritually and culturally engaged can produce a ministry void of spiritual vitality. While the gospel never changes, the culture in which we minister does as do the ministries we lead. Cultural aptitude is not a requirement for ministry. Cultural and ministry fads come and go. Yet, awareness of trends both within the ministry we lead and the culture can help clarify the context in which we minister and apply the life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ.

Staying fresh is hard work, but possible. The Apostle Paul wrote of his own spiritual disciplines in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 that kept him fresh. Consistent time in the Word and prayer is irreplaceable. Reading both old and new books on various subjects is essential. Digesting a few good ministry- appropriate journals is helpful, as well. Development of new messages and ministry presentations rather than depending on worn out sermons is imperative. Finally, simply being aware of the need to stay fresh produces a good pressure to remain engaged and current. Staying personally fresh makes ministry fresh.

Staying focused is a challenge, as well. If not handled properly, long-term ministry can produce a lack of focus and, as a result, a lack of priorities. Here’s how this plays out. In a long-term ministry there is a tendency to get bored with the daily machinations of the job. We think we know the job all too well. Mundane ministry is a killer. The inability to stay fresh can lead to a lack of focus that sends us on a wild goose chase into all kinds of extracurricular activities to fill the excitement void we experience when ministry is languishing. The end result is that our schedule fills up with many things but not the necessary things that make ministry thrive.

Extracurricular activities are good to the degree that they augment and not mitigate ministry. Again, the Apostle Paul addressed this much-needed focus with such metaphors as soldiering, farming, and running (2 Tim. 2:1-7). It may be time to ask some serious questions: ‘Do I need to be a part of this club? Is this activity a part of my ministry or something that keeps me from my ministry? Is this event a result of my lack of ministry focus or is this activity a part of that focus?’ Keeping a laser focus on the main part of our ministry will help us filter through the numerous opportunities that will come our way as a ministry leader. As Jim Collins as noted in his recent book, How the Mighty Fall, our ministry focus is our ‘flywheel’ that we must not neglect to spin as ministry opportunities come and go. The leader who makes himself available for everything may not be good for anything.

Dealing with the friction that comes in long-term ministry is inevitable and difficult. No matter how likeable we may be, there are some who will not care for who we are and what we do – no matter what we do. Leadership plus time can equal adversaries. If this kind of friction is not properly handled, ministry will become miserable and unproductive. Friction can wear on us personally, on our family relationships, and on the nature of our ministry. A good resource in dealing with conflict is Jeff Iorg’s new book, The Painful Side of Leadership: Moving Forward Even When it Hurts.

A good way to deal with ministry friction is to make a study of what scripture teaches concerning conflict and conflict resolution (Mt. 18:15-20 and most of the Pastoral Epistles). We must check our motives, as well. We must make sure we’re seeking what is right and true and not a personal agenda. We must seek reconciliation as soon as possible without compromising biblical principles. In addition, we must seek the council of trusted friends who will be truthful with us, yet supportive. Knowing that it may not be as bad as we think it is just as it is never as good as we think it is is key. I believe realism is the word. Finally, move forward. Some friction will remain. Learning to live with those who oppose us will teach us as much as what we learn from those who support us. Living with friction reminds us to live with humility and to depend on God’s sufficient grace (2 Cor. 12:9).

Long-term ministry can wear on our family, as well, especially if friction is constant. Pastors are notorious for being married to the ministry, while neglecting spouse and children. Do not do this! I repeat, do not do this! While taking care of the families in our ministry we must not lose our own family. Your spouse will resent it, your children will be embittered, and you will come to envy the normal family life that you lack, which is one of the reasons some ministers leave the ministry.

Make your family a part of your ministry and not an incidental part of your ministry. Continue to date your spouse and make her a priority. Set aside the ministry persona and be dad. Be authentic wherever you are, both at home, in the community, and in the church. Don’t bad-mouth the church, particularly in front of your children. They’re smart enough to know when times are tough without you running down the church. Besides, it disparages the church in their minds, which does not foster long-term commitment on their part. Make sure to take time off, especially extended times in the summer to refresh your spiritual batteries and have fun with your family. And pray. Pray that God will place a sweet taste in the mouth of your family when it comes to ministry.

Long-term ministry requires fortitude and grit. There’s just no way around it. Those who lack intestinal fortitude will end up moving from ministry to ministry. The slightest bit of friction sends the faint of heart on to the next ministry until friction arises again – and the cycle continues. Facing the fact that there are dry seasons in ministry is essential. Sometimes you just have to show up and then keep showing up. In fact, I recently told a young minister that he hasn’t really learned how to preach until he learns how to preach through the desert where words fall flat and things are spiritually dry.

This is why a good dose of hard-nosed determination, coupled with a realization that there are seasons in ministry that come and go, will produce a relentless faithfulness in us that enables us to weather the storms, endure the dry seasons, and relish in the seasons of harvest and fruitfulness. A God-produced fortitude is birthed in us not by our own power, but by a passionate trust in the hope we have in Jesus Christ. It is this kind of hope that enables us to get up when we’ve been knocked down (2 Cor. 4:7-18).

Finally, living by faith in a long-term ministry is the ultimate challenge. This seems like an obvious assertion, especially for the Christian leader. But it may not be as obvious as one thinks. It is easy and lethally dangerous to ‘minister through the machine.’ That is, we work the system, make sure all the committee positions are filled, check off the special events that click by from year to year, and measure progress by statistical categories, none of which requires faith. The kind of faith that we must continue to kindle is an absolute belief that all things depend on God and not on a finely tuned ministry machine. Order and measured progress are important. However, unless the Lord builds a ministry those who labor to build it labor in vain (Ps. 127:1).

It is my prayer that God will grant to the church a new generation of faithful pastors, leaders, educators, and workers willing to deal with friction, live by faith, and serve both family and church with graceful grit. Further, it is my prayer that God will grant an extra portion of grace to all those nameless, yet faithful, pastors and leaders who have given their lives long-term to places of ministry that are challenging and difficult. Great is your reward!