I began blogging in 2006. Last year I said I would take the blog in a new direction. And I have subtly shifted the language towards where God has been refining me.
But it needs to shift more. I need to better reconcile what this blog has been and who I am now.
Quite frankly, I no longer agree with some of my early writings. It is not that they were blatantly wrong or heretical, but they did emphasize the wrong things. They often emphasized man’s strength or were even godless. But in the work of Christ’s Kingdom, God has to be at the center. God has to be in it in order for there to be fruit. We plant and water, but God makes it grow (1 Cor 3:6). And there will be no growth if God is not truly invited.
I’ve studied the business of ministry long enough to feel confident that there are almost guaranteed principles and techniques for growing a large American church. I know how to grow a church in my own strength that appears successful in man’s eyes. But man’s metrics aren’t Kingdom metrics, and a seemingly successful church can actually be an anemic church.
If God told me to start a church, and I was faithful to hear and obey every nudge of the Holy Spirit’s guidance, it may not appear impressive in man’s eyes. That is not to say that God doesn’t grow large gatherings because He can and sometimes does. However, the most striking moves of God I see often seem grassroots and unorganized in such a way that nobody can take the credit except for God. Many moves of God are mundane in institutional appearance but radical in local impact.
The same can be said for individuals. Of course, God can use someone famous, but you don’t have to be impressive in man’s eyes to be used by God. Among the Christ followers I’ve recently met recently that seem most in tune with God, I am amazed by how many work jobs like Fedex, Starbucks, and homeless shelters. They fly under the radar of man’s attention but do so much for the Kingdom. This isn’t about social status; it is about heart attitude. So God also uses designers, ministers, and multi-millionaires.
How I was wrong.
Of course, when I started blogging, I would have agreed with these statements, but I didn’t live or write like I actually believed them. I thought I believed them, but I only religiously knew about them. I thought I was promoting biblical ideas but often promoted the wisdom and best practices of man instead.
I felt like a Pharisee from Matthew 15 when Jesus rebuked them by paraphrasing Isaiah 29:13, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” In other words, I was learning about God from preachers and middlemen rather than properly communing with God directly. I teaching man’s ideas as though they were God’s.
Matthew Henry adds the following insights:
When men’s inventions are tacked to God’s institutions, and imposed accordingly, this is hypocrisy, a mere human religion. God will have His own work done by His own rules, and accepts not that which He did not Himself appoint. That only comes to Him, that comes from Him.
Those who are most zealous of their own impositions, are commonly most careless of God’s commands.
Like most Pharisees, I was blind to what I was actually doing. My chief error was in what I emphasized and prioritized. I knew prayer was important, so I’d occasionally toss it into an article as a legalistic afterthought, but I wasn’t living it, and I was drowning out what few spiritual disciplines I mentioned with my overemphasis on man’s ideas.
I wrote what I knew but lacked spiritual maturity.
People write what they know, so it was easier for me to write about man’s wisdom rather than spiritual disciplines. I was groomed for ministry by working on a team that didn’t need God (i.e., we were self-sufficient). We were so talented, efficient, and well-funded that there was seemingly nothing we couldn’t do in our own strength. God broke me years later by teaching me how much I need Him. Please understand that it is not bad to have a skilled team or great resources. However, such strengths make it easier to forget about God, prayer, and abiding in Him and easier to fall into temptations like pride and self-reliance.
I understand that it is harsh to say a team “didn’t need God.” I try to be cautious about assuming the heart attitude of others. At the same time, I know that “the heart speaks what the mouth is full of” (Luke 6:45), and I know that our theology dictates our methodology. I am deeply troubled by how many esteemed ministry leaders and teams I’ve encountered that talk hours about strategy and techniques but rarely if ever speak any words of prayer, Scripture, or things deemed spiritual. It is dangerously influential on an organization’s culture.
I’ve encountered too many ministries shaped by cultures that unintentionally communicate, “You don’t pray about it. The leadership will pray and tell you what the Holy Spirit wants you to do.” Of course, no one ever says this, but I’ve sadly seen many operate this way by spiritually emasculating workers and siloing them as compartmentalized cogs rather than members of a body. It trains ministry workers to use their own strength rather than God’s wisdom and focus on their role’s needs rather than the body.
I don’t like writing that. It sounds negative. It may hurt some of my relationships. But it is a very real dynamic I’ve experienced on multiple teams, and it’s consequently shaped some of my writings.
I assumed people knew and wouldn’t forget the power of prayer.
I made the same mistake that church growth experts made decades ago. I assumed that I didn’t need to emphasize prayer because everyone already knows they should be praying. However, when spiritual disciplines are deemphasized and man’s strategy is exalted, there is a grave danger for established generations to stray from what’s most important and for upcoming generations to be mistrained by religious middlemen rather than being directly reshaped through abiding in Jesus Christ the Living Water (i.e., enjoying God through prayer, worship, reflection, and Bible study).
It reminds me of this quote by Gary McIntosh in an interview with Ed Stetzer:
Here is what I have learned about McGavran and the early church growth movement, McGavran was a man of the Word. He was a man of prayer. This man would get on his hands and knees and pray an hour every night whether he was traveling or whatever he was doing. His memorized almost all the Psalms in two languages – English and Hindi. The Word was in His heart.
Now what happened in the early church growth movement is that a lot of assumptions were made. He made the assumption that churches were churches of prayer, that churches were churches of relationship. And I think all of us in the early part of our church growth experience, we focused on methodology. We focused on technology or techniques of helping people build communities, build evangelism, build houses of welcome for newcomers to come. But then we’ve all through our history, through one way or another, have come back to those spiritual disciplines of it’s prayer; it’s the Word; it’s the power of the Holy Spirit.
In the beginning of the movement, the assumption was made that we don’t need to talk about the Holy Spirit, don’t need to talk about prayer, don’t need to talk about relationships because we all know that that is the core of everything. So pastors need help with specifics. How do we build a welcoming process for people in the church? How do reach out to the community? But over time, we got criticized for that lack. And it wasn’t because we didn’t believe it but because we assumed it in the early writings.
We cannot forget to emphasize the basics. Talking about ideas, strategies, and techniques isn’t bad, but doing so must fit within the scope of the Holy Spirit’s calling, be fueled by engaging with Christ, and be built upon the biblical basics of the gospel, the Great Commission, the two love commandments, prayer, worship, the Beatitudes, the Galatians 5 fruit of the Spirit, the gifts of the Spirit, the armor of God, and the pursuit of purity.
Just to clarify…
I still love institutional ministry and organic ministry. I still love ideas and strategy. I think there is a place for pragmatism, models, and ministry tools. And I love and am grateful for the teams I’ve worked alongside.
In the past, I have written things that emphasized the wrong things. I am sorry.