The Ultimate Hindrance to Our Church’s Mission

I came across this challenging quote in my study of Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer in John’s Gospel. What do you think of John Milne’s comment on John 17:21 and 23?

“The biggest barriers to effective evangelism according to the prayer of Jesus are not so much outdated methods, or inadequate presentations of the gospel, as realities like gossip, insensitivity, negative criticism, jealousy, backbiting, an unforgiving spirit, a root of bitterness, failure to appreciate others, self-preoccupation, greed, selfishness and every other form of lovelessness.”

Why not use the above to assess your own life and the quality of your relationships with others in the body of Christ?

Healthy Church Leaders

Not long ago I had a young elder ask me to mentor him. This coincided with a devotional given to our staff by our pastor at Second Presbyterian Church, Sandy Willson. Thus, below are portions of a letter I wrote using Sandy’s outline for healthy church leaders.

First of all, thank you for wanting input, friendship, and mentoring. I find that most older guys like me have a growing sense of inadequacy that too often hinders us from this type of ministry because as you age you possess a more graphic picture of your own deceitful, idolatrous heart as well as your own inadequacy to serve the Lord and His people.

On the other side, with youth comes zeal but oftentimes not according to knowledge (Romans 10:2). At least that was true in my case years ago. Sometimes younger folk really don’t want the input of their elders due to their own insecurity and pride. However, sometimes younger people are right not to want the counsel of older folks because at times older leaders can go into lock down mode when it comes to their cherished forms and preferences that can at times hinder the future effectiveness and fruitfulness in ministry. You know the seven last words of the dying church: “We’ve never done it that way before!”

One of the best things you can do right now is to personally pursue becoming a healthy leader and helping others do the same. Here are eight characteristics of healthy leaders.

1.     Healthy church leaders serve joyfully in the grace of the gospel (Psalm 100:2; 2 Corinthians 1:24). Take time to reflect on each word in that sentence. As you grow older, it is easy to become cynical and lose hope in the power of the gospel to transform lives. As you know, sheep in the flock can make it extremely difficult to serve Christ and them joyfully. Repeatedly ask the Lord to show you how forgiven you are and you will be empowered to forgive others who hurt you. Continually remember how loved you are by your heavenly Father and you will be empowered to love others who are at times very unlovable. Recall how accepted you are in the beloved (Ephesians 1:7) and then you’ll experience grace to accept those brothers and sisters in Christ that are different than you.

2.    Healthy church leaders must account to biblical standards of doctrine and practice (1 Timothy 4:16). We must pay close attention to our hearts especially our idols. John Calvin did say that our hearts are “idol making factories” and that the minute we root out one idol another one comes to take its place. As a leader, you must hold yourself and your family to a higher standard. This causes many to shrink back. The Apostle Paul urges elders in Acts 20:28 to “take heed (keep watch) over yourselves and all the flock.” Well, this means that we need to commit ourselves to studying the Bible to acquaint ourselves with what those standards are.

Simply put, you cannot adequately care for others if you neglect the care of your own soul. You cannot shepherd the hearts of others unless you shepherd your own heart. This is true at church. It’s also true at home with your family. This is why one of the best things you can do is heed the counsel of George Muller. When he was seventy-six years old, he wrote,

“I saw more clearly than ever, that the first, great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the Lord. I saw that the most important thing I had to do was to give myself to the reading of the word of God, and to meditation on it. . . . not the simple reading of the word of God, so that it only passes through our minds, just as water runs through a pipe, but considering what we read, pondering over it, and applying it to our hearts.”

We are constantly trying to find happiness in other things and people when ultimate, lasting, and true happiness is found only in Jesus. I have really tried to become more intentional about this first thing in the morning. That has meant no phone, no internet, no TV. The question that I keep coming back to in my reading of Scripture to help me with this is “What do I see in the text for which I can praise the Lord?

Another way that I have found to do this is to heed the advice of John Murray.  He challenged leaders to: “Meditate for at least fifteen minutes every day on some word of God connected with His promises to His church and then plead with Him for its fulfillment.” What would happen in our churches, if all of us leaders took the Lord seriously regarding his promises for his church and prayed diligently for their fulfillment. I never once have had an elder question my job performance as their pastor due to an anemic prayer life, but they should have since we are to give ourselves to the ministry of the Word and prayer (Acts 6:4).

3.    Healthy church leaders embrace the biblical mission of the church and the biblical ministry of church officers (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 2:42-47; 1 Timothy 3:1-7). At the core, the mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. What does this look like practically for folks like us? We ought to challenge dads and moms to serve as the primary disciplers of their kids. In general, we all struggle as consumer-oriented parents who at times feel like it is the church’s responsibility to make our kids spiritual and to give our kids a heart for the Lord. Secondly, how easy it is for us elders to show up for our monthly meetings without having taken time to shepherd families and provide spiritual encouragement and prayer for those entrusted to our care.

Leadership boards in churches often function more like executive, decision-making boards and refuse to get down and dirty in the trenches with people and their problems saying, “that’s what we’re paying the pastors to do.” Yes, pastors must do this, but they should also be equipping other leaders how to do this with them. All leaders are called to shepherd the flock (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-4).

In order to do this well, you need to be in corporate worship. You also need to consistently involve yourself in a smaller subset of people either in Sunday School and/or a small group. The leadership in a local church is weakened when this is not the regular rhythm for all of her leaders. Certainly, there are occasions where we are “providentially hindered,” but these should be the rare exception and not frequent. Leaders must be ready and willing to prove themselves as examples by disciplining themselves for the purpose of godliness (1 Timothy 4:7). We are, myself included, so afraid of coming off sounding legalistic, that we abdicate calling for any type of discipline and sacrifice.

4.     Healthy church leaders establish biblical priorities. How difficult it is to discern the best from the good in how to invest our time, talents, and treasures both individually and corporately. I find that most Christian organizations and churches are very reactive. Why do we not take the time to seek the Lord together regarding what it is that the He wants us to do as a body of believers?

One prayer of the Apostle Paul’s that I pray regularly is found in Philippians 1:9-10… that the Lord would fill me with all knowledge and discernment to make the excellent choice. This is always the challenge of leadership: To discern the best from the good.

I have become convinced that it is imperative that church leaders gather in a retreat setting at least once a year to seek the Lord together in establishing and creating ownership for His priorities for the upcoming year. It is not only important to establish biblical priorities and goals, but also to create ownership. Rick Phillips, who is a pastor in Greenville, SC, states an important principle of leadership: “Unity always takes place within the context of personal relationships.” This is an interesting thought to reflect on! Disunity tends to happen when the personal relationships are missing or compromised.               

5.     Healthy church leaders actively participate and encourage others to do the same. One of my friends is fond of saying: “What I complain about reveals where I am in the midst of the spiritual battle. If I am complaining about stale chips and warm beer,” he says, “I am not on the front lines” in the battle for souls. When we are not actively involved, all of us tend to armchair quarterback and become critical of other leaders.

Leaders are proactive in not just diagnosing problems, but also in providing solutions. When leaders are incessantly negative and offer no solutions to problems, they should be confronted and admonished to mend their ways. This style of relating does not foster unity and encouragement. This will always be a challenge as long as we minister in a broken and fallen world. This penchant towards negativity and refusing to trust the Lord has caused more than one enterprise to tank. Remember the dreaded consequences to the spies’ bad report after spying out the Promised Land (Numbers 13:30-33, 14:21-24).

6.     Healthy church leaders trust each other.  Without trust, it’s nearly impossible to go forward in a healthy way. Work diligently to create an environment of trust. There is no other way to do this well than to spend time together with your team dreaming, planning, and praying. It is nearly impossible to trust one another if you are not absolutely sure that the other person is for you. Regularly encourage other ministry leaders, especially your church staff. Make sure that they know that you are for them especially when you are led of the Lord to confront them about one of their weaknesses or failings.

7.     Healthy church leaders  successfully address and resolve conflict. When slander, critical speech, and gossip are allowed to persist in a church, it undermines the gospel of peace and reconciliation that we proclaim. This grieves the Lord and hinders our effectiveness in ministry. Healthy leaders model for others how to resolve conflict. Urge other leaders who do not deal well with conflict not to become passive aggressive. Also, make sure that when your pastor has to wade into these murky waters that he does not go alone.

The arctic chill of loneliness will blow into your life as a leader especially when you have to speak truth to someone you love and they refuse to heed your counsel or when you have to take an unpopular stance on an important issue or ministry in your church. In the past, there have been dear folks who have held me in great contempt for unpopular decisions that had to be made. You cannot take this personally, but you must ask the Lord to search your heart for any self-serving motives that lurk within. At the end of the day, you must entrust these folks who disagree with you to the Lord and ask Him to extend mercy to them. You also must pray for the Lord to guard you from despair and cynicism. The gospel remains the power of God to save sinners. Oh for more grace to believe it and live in light of it.

8.     Lastly, healthy church leaders mentor emerging leaders. 2 Timothy 1 has much to teach us about how to prepare the next generation of leaders. The list below always is such a rebuke to me. However, it also encourages and challenges me to rise up again and get about the Lord’s business in this area with my own children as well as other men and women in the body of Christ.

Here are some of the directives of the Apostle Paul about how to equip and prepare the next generation of leaders.

  • Pray with them and for them because they will ultimately be your successor (2 Timothy 1:3).
  • Remind them of their noble tradition as well as their call to protect and proclaim the gospel of God (2 Timothy 1:4;8).
  • Assure them of your confidence in them (2 Timothy 1:5).
  • Train and inspire them by modeling what you want to reproduce in them (2 Timothy 1:8; 2:2; 4:6-8) .
  • Do not be aloof, unapproachable, and impatient with youth for these attitudes have no place in the church of Christ (2 Timothy 1:2;4).
  • Gently rebuke them when you observe in them a lack of moral courage (2 Timothy 1:7).  Only rebuke after a season of commendation (note vv. 3-6).
  • By personal example and exhortation galvanize the younger leader for the challenges that lie ahead (1:11-12).
  • Teach them to despise the perverse search for novel interpretations, raising objections and doubts for argument sake and debate (2 Timothy 1:13; 2:16; 4:2).  Rather, teach them that difficulties and questions must be handled with patience and clarity.

(This list is taken and adapted from E.M. Blaiklock’s helpful book, The Pastoral Epistles: A Study Guide. Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1972.)

Okay. I’ve written you a small treatise on healthy leadership. I hope that maybe one or two of these things will be helpful and useful in your future ministry. Remember: Where God calls, He equips. Where God calls, He provides! And that is good news for those of us who are well acquainted with our own sense of inadequacy and frailty for such an awesome task of serving Christ and His church!

Daring to Tell the Gospel Amidst Much Conflict – Acts 17

Why did they dare to tell His Gospel? What is the strongest stimulus and motivation?
A.    The comparative study of religions has led many to deny the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and to reject the very concept of His exclusive claim of being the only way to God and the imperative of evangelizing and seeing people come to faith in Jesus  (John Stott, Acts, p. 279).
B.    How can we justify the continuance of world evangelization and missions?
C.    What might be some of your answers? I think the Apostle Paul would say from his time in Athens that it would have to be a godly jealousy for the glory of Jesus Christ.
D.    Henry Martyn: “I could not endure existence if Jesus was not glorified; it would be hell to me if He were to be always dishonored.”
E.    Praying for ourselves about this: Lord, may it wound us and cause us heartache when You are denied Your rightful place in people’s lives.

How did the apostolic band dare to tell His Gospel?
A.    Listen to what the Apostle Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 2:2 – But though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict.
What verbs are used to describe the ministry of Paul, Silas and Timothy?
Reasoned, explained, proved, proclaimed and persuaded.
B.    Verse 11 and The Danger of Indoctrination (tyrannical instruction demanding uncritical acceptance).
Bengel: A characteristic of the true religion is that it suffers itself to be examined into, and its claims to be so decided upon.
Timothy Keller: A faith without some doubts is like a human body with no antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask the hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection.” – A Reason for God

To whom did they dare to tell His gospel?
A.    The Religious…(17:1-15) Using the Scriptures to point to Christ. Synagogue corresponds in many ways to the church today.
What attitudes should we adopt towards the Scriptures? Open my eyes, that I may behold Wonderful things from Your law. Psalm 119:18
B.    The Secular… (17:16-34) Using Culture to point to Christ. Areopagus (literally Mars Hill) corresponds to the university setting today with the exchange of ideas and debate.
What struck Paul in the ancient city of Athens? A city covered in idols. Petronius’s satirical assertion is that “it was easier to find a god than a man in Athens.”

What results from daring to tell His gospel?
A.    Daring to tell His gospel started a movement that literally turned the world upside down. These hostile opponents spoke better than they knew, for the spread of the gospel throughout the Roman Empire was the beginning of a movement that would change the course of history forever.
B.    Daring to tell His gospel resulted in some repenting and coming to faith in Jesus and uniting with His church. They “received the word in much affliction with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 1:6). Some “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men (Acts 17:12).
C.    Daring to tell His gospel resulted in others mocking, rejecting, and aggressively opposing and oppressing its messengers. If you take seriously your responsibility to live and proclaim God’s gospel, at some point you too will be labeled a troublemaker. Daring to tell of another King often resulted in the charge of treason against Caesar and proved fatal for the accused. However, supreme homage and total obedience are due to Him alone no matter what the cost.

Acts 15 – On Resolving Conflict

Acts 15 Devotional Guide – Resolving Conflict

What was the nature of the conflicts in this chapter?
A.    1st Conflict: Was circumcision required for Gentile converts to Christianity? This conflict centered on theology. It was a public conflict.
We ought to ensure that we indeed have biblical warrant before we say, “Except you do so and so, you cannot be saved.”
What are some other comparable issues in today’s church?
Matthew Henry: “There is a strange proneness in us to make our opinion and practice a rule and a law to everybody else, to judge all about us by our standard, and to conclude that because we do well all do wrong that do not just as we do.”
“We ought not to make any conditions of our brother’s acceptance with us
but such as God has made the conditions of their acceptance with Him.”
B.    2nd Conflict: A sharp disagreement arose between Paul and Barnabas on whether or not to take John Mark on their next missionary journey. This conflict centered on methodology. A private conflict.
What does Barnabas’ dealings with John Mark teach us? See 2 Timothy 4:11; Colossians 4:10.

What did they do to resolve it?
Discuss – Leaders came together to discuss the matter.
Debate the issue.
1.    Hear testimonies. How God has given the Gentiles theHoly Spirit and saved them by grace so that any additional requirement would be a yoke.
2.    Hear what the Scriptures say. Don’t avoid it, but deal with it gracefully by being quick to listen.
Conclude – make a decision.

Why was it crucial to resolve conflict well?

The unity of the church is at stake. Preserve the church from fragmentation. This was a victory of love in preserving the fellowship by sensitive  concessions to conscientious Jewish scruples.
The preservation of the gospel of grace is at stake. Preserve the gospel from corruption. The unanimous decision of the first ecumenical counsel held in Jerusalem liberated the gospel from its Jewish swaddling clothes into being God’s message for all mankind and gave the Jewish-Gentile church a self-conscious identity as the reconciled people of God, the one body of Christ. The victory of truth in confirming the gospel of grace.
The furtherance of the gospel is at stake.

Why do you think the Gentile believers were given a list of four behaviors from which to abstain, even though they did not have to be circumcised or obey the law of Moses to be saved (vv.28-29)?
Would set them apart from the idol worship and the pervasive immorality of the day.
To respect the consciences of their Jewish believers by abstaining from practices that might offend them.
Not heeding these dietary matters would inhibit Jewish-Gentile common meals.

What are some ways that we could care more for the growth and well-being of others in our body of believers who are different than we are?

Can you think back to a time that you refrained from exercising your freedom in Christ to do something in order to respect the conscience of another and not offend them?


When it is in your power to do it!

Proverbs 3:27 – “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it.”

Leaders in Christ’s church are usually working to apply the gospel of grace in all manner of conflicts. It could be a struggling marriage. Or, it could be a conflict due to a divergence in preferred worship styles, or a difference in ministry philosophy or a personality conflict or a strained relationship.

In our efforts to resolve these issues, leaders normally have to focus on what’s not going well and how to solve the problem or resolve the conflict. This is an important process. However, I have seen this process at times cause me to develop a critical spirit and to become easily discouraged and cynical. Also, it can blind me to all the good things that God is doing in and among us.

How quick we are to charge others with wrongdoing and blame them for failing us! How often do we truly look out of ourselves to encourage others? According to our verse above, a question we must keep before us is this: What are the good words to speak and the good deeds to do that God is calling us to say and do today? This doesn’t mean that we don’t at times rebuke and admonish others. However, the key in our admonishing, rebuking and teaching is to make sure that the Word of Christ, not our own words, are richly dwelling in our hearts and minds (See Colossians 3:16).

It is in our hands to do others in our families, work places, and churches great good or great evil. At times, we have to draw line in the sand and answer the question: Which will it be for me?

Proverbs 3:27 encourages me to become more intentional about the following: When God puts it upon my heart to share an encouraging word and do a kind deed for someone, I should heed this prompting of His Holy Spirit promptly, deliberately, and without question.

This should happen with our focus upon Jesus who endured the curse of death, judgment and separation from the Father that we deserved. He did not refuse to do us the ultimate good of restoring us to God and extending to us forgiveness, peace, acceptance, and true communion with His Father.

Actively reflecting on this fills our hearts and minds with thankfulness and joy, but it should also humble us to become more intentional in actively doing good to others since He continues to do us immense good.