Leadership

God Uses Unhealthy Churches

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“That church is going to die.” I’ve heard that prophecy spoken over churches countless times. Interestingly, this doomsday prediction has been pronounced by people from almost opposite extremes of the “healthy church” discussion, each time about a church that differed from their convictions or preferences.

An elderly pastor who is used to traditional ways of worship looks at a new church plant, with their worship band and blue-jeaned leaders, and pronounces with certainty that this trend won’t last. “The old ways of doing church and worship have lasted for hundreds of years, and will still be here when this fad is long gone.”

The stylishly bearded member of the ten-year-old megachurch looks at the steepled little building on the corner in his neighborhood—where a small congregation has been faithfully meeting for over five decades—and feels certain it will be boarded up or turned into a vintage coffee shop quicker than you can say, “What happened to hymnbooks?”

Sadly, there is some validity to the pessimism that each feels toward the other. But thankfully, it is also true that God is in the business—and always has been—of using flawed Christians in less-than-perfect churches to fulfill his kingdom-wide, generation-spanning purposes.

I was reminded of this marvelous reality even as I recently wrote a book on “how to grow a biblically beautiful church.” Jesus is not only glorified in the Excellent Wife, or the Competent to Counsel pastor, or Radical family outreach, or the impeccably Centered church. Jesus is glorified in Christians and in churches—all over the globe and in every generation—who struggle to parent well, pastor well, evangelize well, or organize well.

In other words, Jesus can be glorified in you and me, and in the pitifully inadequate, sometimes myopic, church we attend.

God Uses Unhealthy Christians

The Bible staunchly resists our consistent temptation to make superheroes out of any of its main characters—except, of course, Jesus. Abraham, the father of the faithful, lacked faith. David, the great king of Israel, was a crummy leader to some of his most loyal subjects. Peter, the bold apostle, caved to social pressure more than once.

Not surprisingly, then, we find similarly imperfect people among the prominent influencers of Christianity. The great theologian Augustine was a severe opponent to other Christian believers who did not agree with his ecclesiology. The famous reformer Martin Luther would compromise some of his own convictions for the sake of expediency. Arguably the best apologist of the 20th century (and a personal favorite of mine), C.S. Lewis also argued for the extra-biblical concept of a Purgatory as part of the believer’s afterlife: “Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they?” This, in my view, is a significant error.

Think back over your own experience as a Christian. Of the people who have impacted your spiritual life the most—including perhaps your parents, various pastors, godly mentors, even radio or television preachers—haven’t you also noticed areas of weakness in their lives? Don’t they all have some obvious blind spots in their own understanding or behavior? (By the way, if you can’t think of any, that doesn’t mean the person is perfect—it means you know them imperfectly).

The fact is, God has always used flawed people to fulfill his perfect purposes. God uses weak people to show his own strength. God uses people who embrace some degree of doctrinal and practical error, or else he couldn’t use anyone at all.

God Uses Unhealthy Churches

When it comes to churches, just as with individuals, the Bible is strikingly short on perfect roll models. The churches of Galatia were tempted by legalism, the church at Ephesus lost their original passion, the Christians to whom Jude wrote were inundated with false teachers, and … where do we even begin with the church at Corinth?

I could not help but notice the omnipresence of imperfect churches as I researched my recent book about church health. The book is essentially an unpacking of Titus 2. And do you know what Paul is warning Titus about in the first chapter of this letter? You guessed it: false teachers, who are “empty talkers and deceivers.”

But that’s not all. The very fact that Paul gives such clear and helpful instruction to Titus in the second chapter of the letter clearly stems from the fact that in some of these areas Titus—and the church he was leading—were falling short of the ideal. Did Titus himself ever perfectly follow all the useful counsel Paul provides him in Titus 2? I’m guessing not.

Having been a pastor for over 15 years myself, and knowing something of human nature, I’m fairly confident that Titus’ church—even at its best—had some unhealthy Christians in it, and had a number of unhealthy areas where they still needed further teaching or prodding.

In our hypercritical era of sound bites and social media, I sometimes wonder if even a perfect person, or a very mature church, would meet our standards. Would we criticize Jesus because, even though he did reach out to paralytics and prostitutes in his own community, he did not do enough to battle the sex trafficking that was happening in his day in the Far East? Although Jesus himself had no word of rebuke for the church in Philadelphia (“I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name”), would we be satisfied that they had “merely” kept God’s Word and not denied his name? Or would we wonder why they weren’t more committed to picketing Caesar’s palace?

As glaring as the actual errors in the early churches are to our critical eyes today, it is equally plain that God used them. Paul did not give up on them; that’s why we have many of the letters that make up the New Testament. Jesus didn’t immediately reject them; instead he warns and offers correction to them, plainly desiring for them to continue flourishing for years to come.

In the mean time, these are the very congregations through which Jesus established his Church. Members of these churches would disciple the next (second ever!) generation of Christians. Martyrs from these churches would testify to the truth of the risen Savior. Missionaries from these churches would carry the Christian gospel to new continents. God uses churches who embrace some degree of doctrinal and practical error, or else he couldn’t use any of them.

Why Does It Matter If Your Church Is Healthy?

If God uses unhealthy churches, made up at least in part of unhealthy Christians, why then do we have a proliferation of books on church health these days? Does it really matter if you have the nine marks (or twelve marks, or five marks, depending on who you are reading) of a healthy church?

I suppose I can only answer with certainty for myself, since I am publishing a book on how to grow a biblically beautiful church. But I suspect that I speak for most of the other godly pastors and authors who have addressed this subject in recent years. My goal in unpacking Titus 2 for the church today is not to shame every Christian into feeling discouraged about how fall their particular congregation is falling short. Nor is it to spur church leaders to redouble their already exhausting labors in order to fend off every possible criticism that may be tweeted against them.

My hope is that pastors and church leaders, in particular, will receive this book in whatever way is appropriate to their specific situation—perhaps as an encouragement to their faithful labors in the church, or maybe as a helpful corrective if they see some areas where they have gone off-message from what Paul so helpfully describes for us.

By carefully studying and spiritually rooting ourselves in Titus 2 as a helpful model for the local church, my desire is for this book to provoke further conversations regarding how we as individual Christians can grow more like Christ, and how our particular churches can improve our intentionality regarding the Gospel. Although my book is aimed chiefly at pastors and church leaders (reflecting the tone of Titus 2), it is also accessible and relevant to every Christian because the local church is relevant to every Christian.

Why then write about church health? For the same reason Paul wrote his letter to Titus. Not to set up an impossible standard of flawless well-roundedness, but to encourage faithfulness in the essentials, thoughtful consideration of weaknesses, and joyful effort for the sake of Jesus. Recognizing all the while that every church, like every Christian, must ultimately look to Christ to find the perfection for which we long.


Taken from Adorned: How to Grow a Biblically Beautiful Church by Justin Huffman, © 2018, DayOne Publications.

Justin Huffman has pastored in the States for over 15 years, authored the “Daily Devotion” app (iTunes/Android) which now has over half a million downloads, and recently published a book with Day One: Grow: the Command to Ever-Expanding Joy. He has also written articles for For the ChurchServants of Grace, and Fathom Magazine. He blogs at justinhuffman.org.

Leadership Lessons from Slaves

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Their people’s pleas hung in the air as the cracking whips ripped open old wounds. Shiphrah and Puah could imagine the thick crimson streams rolling down their loved ones’ backs as they labored to build one of Pharaoh’s prized cities. Fear spread like a contagion through Israelite camps as the king of Egypt became increasingly agitated and ruthless toward God’s people.

The Israelites, as we find them in Exodus 1, are beaten down, anxious, and exhausted. Their future looked bleak, and the prospect of freedom was growing dimmer. Every day. Surely they wondered, Who will save us?

God often provides redemption and relief to his people through his people. While Moses would eventually lead God’s people out of Egypt, two unlikely leaders preceded him. Shiphrah and Puah, two female slaves, allowed the fear of the Lord to rule in their hearts over the fear of man. Their story holds leadership lessons for the church today.

The Fear of the Lord and the Fear of Our Flesh

The first lesson we can learn from Shiphrah and Puah is about fear. As a byproduct of the king’s own fear, Shiphrah and Puah are ordered to “observe them [the Hebrew women] as they deliver” (Exodus 1:16). The Hebrew girls were permitted to live, and the Hebrew boys were to be killed.

What enabled Shiphrah and Puah to defy the king of Egypt? Exodus 1:17 says they “feared the Lord.” That’s astonishing given how much there was to fear around them. The stakes for their civil disobedience were as high as it gets: disobeying Pharaoh was a capital offense.

They weren’t exempt from the common emotions that accompany tense life situations. It wasn’t that there was nothing to fear, but their fear of the Egyptian king paled in comparison to the fear of their true King.

Leaders inevitably face situations that cause a spike in blood pressure. Congregants grumble about change, a wayward child wanders from the faith, people complain about leadership style, budgets miss the mark. When we’re in the thicket of moments like these, the concerns are very real and sometimes overpowering.

The fear of our flesh woos us to focus our thoughts on what we fear. Our hearts tempt us to ruminate on what we can't control, and we begin to live in the “what ifs” of life. “What if my children never become Christians?” “What if all my congregants leave or stop giving?” “What if the men and women I lead don’t like me?”

Staying in this place too long can lead to sin. The king of Egypt’s fear that the Hebrews would continue to grow and threaten his power and kingdom led him to try to exterminate them (Exodus 1:8-10).

Ironically, he feared the wrong people and person. He would later see he should have feared the Lord and the two Hebrew midwives that God used to save his people. In attempting to control the Israelites by killing their sons, he overlooked the two female slaves who led to his fall.

Shiphrah and Puah turned from evil at great risk to their lives. Proverbs 16:6 says “one turns from evil by the fear of the Lord.”  The way one obeys God, especially when we are living in the “what ifs” of life, is by fearing the Lord. We need a greater fear.

The Fear of the Lord and the Command to “Fear Not”

The most frequent command in the Bible is to “fear not”, but what do we do as leaders when it seems like all we can do is fear? When we’re fixed on our problems, it produces fear and paranoia. It becomes hard to see beyond our circumstances and the stress that comes with leadership.

There’s another fear which produces wonder and awe in God. This fear leads to faith in God. When we see the command to “fear not,” it’s the command not to fear that which may be fearful. What could happen in our lives is scary, but there must be a refocusing and recalibrating of our fears.

We must be reminded to stand in awe of a God who is awesome in the correct sense of the word. This awe-inspiring fear leads to faith. Rightly-placed fear reminds us that God sees, hears, and acts for his people.

As Shiphrah and Puah spared the male children, they did so with the fear of the Lord in mind. While their fear of Yahweh was likely intermingled with fear of the Egyptian king who could kill them, their gaze was on the all-powerful King who can destroy both soul and body (Matthew 10:28).

In the command to fear not, there is a tender Father calling his children to come back to him in our fretting, but there is also an omnipotent King reminding us of who he is.

When we feel like we’ll be crushed beneath the waves of anxiety and we can’t stay afloat amidst the expectations of those we lead, we must remind ourselves to not fear that which is fearful, but to fear God. As God’s people, our hope does not lie in ourselves, our friends, or our government. Our hope—and our fear—are in the Lord. Fear not the world; fear God.

The Fear of the Lord and God’s Reward 

The fear of the Lord is powerful and leads us to do remarkable things. God rewards this obedience.

As a result of Shiphrah and Puah’s leadership and obedience, Exodus 1:20-21 says, “God was good to the midwives, and the people multiplied and became very numerous. Since the midwives feared God, He gave them families.”

God rewarded the Hebrew midwives with families. He gave them the very thing they were protecting, and the very thing Pharaoh sought to destroy. Shiphrah and Puah did not obey God to get a reward—they obeyed God because he was their ultimate reward. They obeyed God because they feared him, and they received a reward for their faith.

God’s reward for Shiphrah and Puah is also tied to God’s greater promise for his people. Exodus 1:20 says, “So God was good to the midwives, and the people multiplied and became very numerous” (emphasis mine). Previously, God promised Abraham that his descendants would be numerous (Gen. 15:5). In Exodus 1:7, we see God’s fulfillment of this promise to his people as “the Israelites were fruitful, increased rapidly, multiplied, and became extremely numerous.”

God Always Makes a Way

In Exodus 1:20-21, we’re reminded that God’s promises to his people will not and cannot be thwarted by the plans of man (Ps. 2:1-4; Prov. 19:21). God made a way for his people to multiply despite being enslaved, and he proves his faithfulness in Shiphrah and Puah’s reward and the continued multiplication of his people.

Through the leadership of two female slaves that feared the Lord more than man, we learn this leadership principle: the fear of the Lord allows spiritual leaders to remain faithful to God even when it is costly.

God’s promise to his people was fulfilled from the garden, to the Nile, to the cross. As we look to Jesus, we see the true leader that feared the Lord until the point of death on a cross.

As we lead God’s people, remember that God has kept his word throughout all time. He will continue in his faithfulness until he brings us safely home.


SharDavia Shar” Walker lives in Atlanta, GA with her husband Paul. She serves on staff with Campus Outreach, an interdenominational college ministry, and enjoys sharing her faith and discipling college women to be Christian leaders. Shar is a writer and a speaker and is currently pursuing an M.A. in Christian Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

 

The Big God Behind Your 'Small' Ministry

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It was a big day in Jerusalem. The temple built by Solomon, but destroyed by the Babylonians, was being rebuilt. It was a day of great celebration for the Israelites. The Jews had suffered for decades because of their disobedience (see 1 Kings 9:6-9). They endured exile and captivity, besiegement and destruction. However, Ezra tells the story of a new day, when the people gathered together to celebrate the laying of the foundation on the second temple.

They celebrated the Lord’s mercy with trumpets and cymbals. They sang and thanked him. They shouted with great shouts to praise his name.

Though many shouted for joy, there were others who “wept with a loud voice” (Ezra 3:12). They wept because they were disappointed. These older saints wept because they remembered the former splendor of the first temple, and the meager foundation of the second was underwhelming.

WHEN YOUR DAYS SEEM SMALL

Haven’t we all been underwhelmed by the work of our own hands at some point? We have a vision of what our ministry or family or career should look like that is so much grander than the current view.

On this day when people were disappointed with the lack of splendor, the prophet, Zechariah said, “Whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice” (Zech. 4:10).

Most of us will spend our whole lives living in days of small things. How do we navigate this space between what we see and what we want to see? How can we cultivate hearts that don’t despise these days, but rejoice in them?

Consider the following ways to be encouraged when you’re unimpressed with what God has entrusted to you.

See the Tree In the Seed

We’re attracted to the spectacular. Our eyes are drawn to all things bigger, brighter, and better, so we limit our scope of success to these ideals.

When we do, we overlook the significance of small things. The thing is, small is valuable when God defines the terms.

When Jesus spoke to a crowd that needed food, he didn’t despise Andrew’s suggestion of a boy’s lunch of five loaves and two fish (John 6:9). He used something small to glorify himself in a big way.

God is not disappointed by small. He uses the small things to accomplish his purposes.

Do you feel what you have to work with is small? Listen to Jesus: “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matt. 13:31-32).

In God’s economy, the tiniest seed becomes a tree. The smallest of things becomes significant because of its role in the kingdom. The final product is not determined by its beginning.

Richard Sibbes writes in The Bruised Reed, “See a flame in a spark, a tree in a seed. See great things in little beginnings.” God’s grand plan for our redemption began with a fragile newborn in a manger.

Do we see great things in little beginnings?

Find the Glory in the Mundane

We have great expectations, especially when it comes to our place in the world. It’s no surprise, then, that changing diapers and mowing the lawn and paying the taxes all just seems so . . . boring.

But we must strive to see God’s work like he does. We must value what he values.

We want to be sensational; God wants us to be faithful. The desire to have maximum impact in our culture is not a bad one. But devaluing ministry that has a smaller reach contradicts God’s values.

Consider Eunice and Lois (2 Timothy 1:5), the mother and grandmother of Timothy, apprentice to Paul and early church leader. These two women are not known for wowing crowds and signing books. We know them because they poured into a young Timothy. By worldly standards, their ministry was small. But we have the benefit of seeing the great value of their investment in one person.

We value productivity but are often underwhelmed with progress; God values productivity and progress. God’s salvific work in our lives is a miracle, and we should praise him for it. God’s sanctifying work of transforming us into his perfect image happens by degrees (see 2 Cor. 3:18) but is no less miraculous. Sanctification is often small, mundane, and untweetable. Nevertheless, it is a miracle, and we should praise the Lord for it.

What about you? Are you disappointed at the footprint of your kingdom work? Are you envious of someone else who seems to have more influence than you do? Remember, any impact you have on the advancement of his kingdom is a work of grace. Praise him for his work in big and small things.

Trust God in the Tension

The celebrity culture we’ve created adds to the pressure not only to succeed, but to succeed publicly and grandly. We have no tolerance for the unimpressive. We’ve given others the power to validate our success, but that validation was never ours to give away.

In the tension between our vision and our reality, we must trust God to accomplish all that he desires for his glory. We trust him to make his name great in our smallness.

The gap between our vision and our reality is not to be despised. God doesn’t look at small things disapprovingly. On a day when the rich were making it rain in the temple offering box, a poor widow gave two copper coins. Jesus told his disciples that she gave more than all the rich people gave that day, because she gave all she had to live on (Luke 21:1-3).

What seems humbling, meager, and unimpressive to us may look glorious to God. Oh, to see what he sees! We can’t judge his work by our standards. When the people were unimpressed with the splendor of the temple, Haggai encouraged them by telling them to be strong and to work, for God was with them (Hag. 2:4).

Underwhelmed saint, heed Haggai’s words and keep striving in your kingdom labors, for God is with you. Desire to be faithful, not sensational.

WHEN GOD HAS HIS SAY

“Perhaps you are frustrated by the gap that still remains between your vision and your accomplishment,” Os Guinness writes in The Call. “You have had your say. Others may have had their say. But make no judgments and draw no conclusions until the scaffolding of history is stripped away and you see what it means for God to have had his say.”

God will have the final say. And it will sound like this: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.”

As we long for this day, let’s rejoice in the day of small things.


Christy Britton is a wife and homeschool mom of four biological sons. She is an orphan advocate for 127 Worldwide. She and her husband are covenant members at Imago Dei Church in Raleigh, NC. She loves reading, discipleship, Cajun food, spending time in Africa, hospitality, and LSU football. She writes for several blogs, including her own, www.beneedywell.com.

Pastor, Here's How to Be Built to Last

Pastors are not quitters. Or at least, they don’t plan to be. Yet about 250 pastors leave their pulpits a month. Most pastors don’t plan on quitting, but they also don’t plan not to. Unless pastors are built to last, they might find themselves burned out and beleaguered long before they planned on stepping down.

An aging and soon-to-be executed Apostle Paul once wrote to Timothy, his young protégé, to paint a picture of a pastor that’s built to last:

Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. — 2 Tim. 2:3-6

Paul challenges the young pastor to endure for the sake of the gospel. Paul knew that Timothy was going to face great resistance to much of what he had been commissioned to do. He knew Timothy would suffer for proclaiming his faith and telling people that Jesus was the only way to heaven.

So Paul gives Timothy three illustrations to help flesh out the kind of endurance he’s talking about. Paul paints pastors using the analogies of the dedicated soldier, the disciplined athlete, and the hardworking farmer. Each of these illustrations tells us something about what it takes to be the kind of pastor that’s built to last.

A Dedicated Soldier

In the first example of the dedicated soldier, Paul tells us that pastors are not simply participants in a religion, but soldiers in a battle. In his letter to the Ephesian church, Paul wrote, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).

To be a Christ-follower—and even more so a pastor—we must realize that we are engaged in a spiritual battle against very real forces with very real consequences. Realizing the nature of the battles we’re in forces us to focus on what matters most. This is what Paul means when he says, “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him” (2 Tim. 2:4).

Imagine being in one of those hellish foxholes during World War 1 that you’ve probably seen depicted in a movie. If you found yourself in that environment, you wouldn’t be wondering what’s for dinner that night; you wouldn’t be browsing Amazon for a new pair of shoes. No, all that would matter is winning the battle.

Too often we get distracted from what matters most. We confuse doing good things for doing God things.

Pastor, are you distracted from the mission? Do you think more about what you’ll eat, wear, or do than how you can live for Jesus and his church? Do you ever ask God what he thinks about major decisions like where you’ll live or work? Do you have so many activities scheduled that you can’t make time for serving the poor or investing in someone’s life?

If you want to finish well, remember that your aim is to please your Father.

A Disciplined Athlete

Paul’s second illustration is a disciplined athlete. He said, “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.” We all know that, don’t we?

A golfer can’t move their ball wherever he or she wants and still win a tournament. Runners win by staying on the track.

If you want to win as an athlete, you have to play according to the rules. To do that takes discipline—and lots of it.

Michael Phelps didn’t win his gold medals by swimming a couple times a week. He trained for years and years, multiple times a day, to be the athlete he became. That takes an enormous amount of discipline.

And that’s Paul’s lesson for us here. If we’re going to become pastors who are built to last, we have to become people of discipline. We have to become disciplined to grow in godliness. As Paul told Timothy in his first letter (1 Tim. 4:7), we must train for godliness.

If you were to write out everything you do in a normal week to grow in godliness, would it reflect someone who is serious about following Jesus? This isn’t about a certain number of events that makes you become more like Jesus, that’s not how it works.

But at the same time, our schedule really does reflect our values and beliefs. Our schedule reveals what we think is most important.

Most of us are distracted from doing the things of God because we haven’t disciplined ourselves to do them. We miss reading the Bible in the morning because we stay up too late watching Netflix for another hour and we have to sleep in to get enough rest. We aren’t investing in the lives of others because we’ve involved ourselves and our children in so many activities that we don’t have any time to give to others.

There are, of course, life circumstances that are out of our control, but that’s not the case with everything. There are plenty of activities and events we give our time to that keep us from doing the work God has for us.

This is why the practices of following Jesus have traditionally been called “spiritual disciplines,” because it takes discipline to follow Christ.

A pastor that is built to last, trains himself in godliness. He disciplines his heart, mind, body, and soul for the work of building up the body of Christ.

A Hard-Working Farmer

Paul’s third illustration is of a hard-working farmer: “It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops.” Farmers have to put their hands to the plow and do the hard work that’s demanded by their crops and allowed by the weather.

There is little or no glory in the hard work of plowing, planting, and patiently waiting. It doesn’t earn a man acclaim. It’s simply the hard, diligent work that’s required if he wants to enjoy the harvest.

If the farmer doesn’t plow, he doesn’t reap. If he doesn’t reap, he doesn’t survive.

So much of the work of ministry is like this. We spend time reading another chapter, preparing sermons, or going over a budget. We put in hard work and sometimes long hours to partner with God in the work he wants to do through us. And sometimes this work is tiring.

That’s why Paul wrote to the Galatian church, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9). Though the work is hard, we press on because of the promise that we will reap eternal life with Christ.

But we cannot go on like hard-working farmers without community or we will grow weary. We were made for community, and one of the primary reasons for that community is so that we can encourage one another to keep pressing on. As Hebrews 10:24 puts it, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.”

Put your hand to the plow and do the hard work of ministry. But don’t draw back from the people in your church. Share your life with them and draw strength and encouragement from them where it can be found.

Give Yourself Up to Christ

Unless we are dedicated to Christ, disciplined in Christ, and hard-working for Christ, we will not be able to endure for the gospel; we will not be built to last.

John Newton, a pastor who was himself built to last, once wrote a letter encouraging other pastors to endure in the ministry. Newton wrote,

“In the school of Christ, you will have to learn some lessons which are not very pleasant to flesh and blood. You must learn to labor, to run, to fight, to wrestle—and many other hard exercises—some of which will try your strength, and others your patience.”

It’s often said that pastors must have the mind of a scholar, the heart of a child, and the skin of a rhinoceros. While there is certainly some truth to that statement, what pastors truly must have to endure in ministry is a profound understanding of grace. Grace sustains us through the ups-and-downs of ministry.

Newton writes,

“But do not be discouraged—you have a wonderful and a gracious Master, who does not only give instructions—but power and ability! He engages that His grace shall be sufficient, at all times and in all circumstances, for those who simply give themselves up to His teaching and His service.”

Pastor, if you want to be built to last—like an orderly soldier, tenacious athlete, or hard-working farmer—give yourself up to Christ and his teaching. Do the work of ministry and draw on the grace of Jesus.

Grayson Pope (M.A., Christian Studies) is a husband and father of four, and the Managing Web Editor at GCD. He serves as a writer and editor with Prison Fellowship. For more of Grayson’s writing, check out his website or follow him on Twitter.

Fight for Unity

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Sometimes the smallest things can make a big impact. Like a Coke bottle. You may remember the 1980 South African comedy classic, The Gods Must Be Crazy, which begins when a pilot, flying over the Kalahari, finishes a glass bottle of Coke and tosses it from the window of his small plane. A rural San sees this strange object fall from the sky and receives it as a useful gift from “the gods.” His people begin to use it as a beneficial tool for their various tasks.

But eventually, conflict enters their Edenic existence, disrupting the harmonious life of the tribe, and they begin to fight over this otherwise innocuous Coke bottle. At one point, the bottle becomes a weapon. Finally, Xi—the main character, and leader of the tribe—decides the gods must be crazy for sending this “gift,” and sets out to return it to them by carrying it to the end of the Earth and tossing it over the edge.

I think of that movie when I read through the Book of Acts and come across passages like this one:

“Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common … There was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:32, 34a).

However novel it might be, the film depicts this tribe living in a similar, idyllic way: a group of people living communally—in unity—with no basic sense of private property. When their unity becomes threatened by the intrusion of a foreign object from the “civilized world,” their leader decisively upholds the tribe’s unity as infinitely more valuable than this strange item. Their leader goes to great pains to remove the source of disunity and conflict, so there can once again be peace.

A Picture of Spirit-filled Unity

In the biblical story, this kind of unity is only possible because of the presence of the Holy Spirit among the first Christians: “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 4:31). Their profound unity is described as their being “of one heart and soul” (v. 32).

One wonders if this kind of unity reflects a rather simple and idealistic wish-dream, but knowing Jesus himself prayed for this kind of unity (John 17:21-24) speaks volumes of its viability. Paul commands his churches to protect unity as they live out the Gospel (Eph. 4:1-6), and explains the necessity of humility for such an enterprise:

“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:1-8).

To have “one mind” with one another is to have the “the same mind” as Christ. It’s another way of saying believers should be “of one heart and one soul.”

Unity Expressed Through Generosity

The unity of the church in Acts 4 is distinctly expressed through generosity, which takes shape in a physical way through a detachment from things:

“… And no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (4:32-35).

Unity has economic implications. As God pours grace on them (v. 33), they allow this grace to flow through them to others. This radical generosity was a key factor as both a cause and a result of the church’s unity.

The Opposite of Unity-Building Generosity

The narrative of Acts 4 continues by drawing attention to an example of this kind of unity-forming generosity: “Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:36-37).

Barnabas was not the only disciple showing this kind of generosity (see v. 34-35), but he became the poster-boy of what generosity-shaped unity looked like.

The story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11), which comes immediately on the heels of Barnabas’ story, should be read in concert with it. This unfortunate couple, who attempt to copy the generous actions of others, make a fatal error through greed and deceit, undercutting the church’s unity.

Peter prophetically calls attention to the fundamental cause of this deceit—a collaboration between this couple and Satan: “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land?” (Acts 5:3)

Satan’s Divisive Work

Our adversary, who exists to “steal, kill, and destroy” (John 10:10) despises the unity of the church—an object lesson of his own demise (Eph. 3:1-10). Wherever there is division, broken relationships, strife, bitterness, or discord, Satan is at work. If he can’t destroy the church from outside (through persecution), he’ll attempt it from the inside (through division). In this case, Satan knew the way to destroy unity was through greed.

When Ananias and Sapphira chose to sin, it didn’t just have an effect on them. It wasn’t a private affair. As much as they thought otherwise, they couldn’t keep their sin hidden. Their greed, deceit, envy, and pride—if left uncovered—would have acted like cancer in the body of Christ, destroying the unity Jesus died for and the Spirit was producing.

The Grace of Judgment

We have a picture of a community living in selfless, sacrificial, generous, loving unity. In the midst of this, Ananias and Sapphira conspire in a way that opposes and threatens this all-important unity. And Jesus will have none of it.

Judgment will be rendered on those who threaten the unity of Jesus’ church by pursuing their own ends, living the exact opposite of unity and humility. God hates it when his church is threatened. In his eyes, the unity of the church is a matter of life and death. Like a jealous, protective husband who will fight, defend, sacrifice, and even kill to protect his wife, Jesus has died for and will protect his own bride, the church.

Jesus loves his church too much to allow selfish people to ruin it and go unpunished. Let’s take this as a warning: creating and perpetuating disunity in the church has dire consequences. When we don’t believe the unity of the church is a big deal, we end up using it for our own ends: we go to be entertained; we refuse to commit and engage in relationship; we hold grudges; we gossip; we leave when something doesn’t meet our expectations or feed our preferences.

All these kinds of selfishness eat away at Christ’s church, and God will bring judgment on those who threaten its unity (see 1 Cor. 11:27-32).

Three Ways to Fight for Unity

  1. Seek Christ’s mind of humility. Assess your own relationships in the church and discern whether you are part of the problem or part of the solution. Are you selfishly vying for your own way and your own preferences? Or are you learning to lay down your own agenda and your own desires, submitting them to Christ for the good of his body? The call for us is a call to unity—to oneness—that requires humility, patience, gentleness, bearing with one another, putting others’ needs above our own, and pursuing peace.
  2. Move towards others, not away from them. Unity is the hard and difficult road because it necessitates moving into conflict when we don’t really want to. It’s easier to avoid people we disagree with, or who have hurt us. Sometimes it’s easier to leave a church than stay and seek peace. When Jesus foresaw conflict in the church, he offered a road of reconciliation that revolved around relationship, not isolation (Matt. 18:15-20). To fight for unity is to pursue reconciliation when we have wronged someone else, and to be impatient with things that cause disunity.
  3. Be a peacemaker. Walk with others to make peace where conflict exists within the church. Instead of insulating or avoiding, take on the church’s problems and conflicts as our own. As children of God, we are to imitate our Father in peacemaking: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt 5:9). Jesus was our example of this: who, for the sake of his church, went to the greatest lengths to fight for our unity. As our leader, he went beyond the ends of the Earth to get rid of the source of our conflict. He took our sin on himself and has eliminated it forever. This is the gospel we live by, and as such, is the gospel we are to lead with as “ambassadors of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:14-21) who fight for the unity of the church.

Mike Phay serves as Lead Pastor at FBC Prineville (Oregon) and as a Staff Writer at Gospel-Centered Discipleship. He has been married to Keri for over 20 years, and they have five amazing kids. You can follow him on Twitter (@mikephay) or check out his blog.

The Saints: Ordinary Means for Extraordinary Ends

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I went to a funeral today. It was for the man who taught me the Lord’s prayer. Mr. Taylor graduated to heaven at the age of ninety-six. He spent more than thirty-five years—over one-third of his life—teaching Sunday School.

When I was nine years old, my mom started taking us to church. She would drop me off in the church basement for class with the other children. They all came from intact Dutch families. Mine was neither intact nor Dutch.

A sticker chart hung on the wall, just inside the classroom door. Mr. Taylor would greet me there with a hug every Sunday, turn to the sticker chart and say, “Well, Jennie, are you ready to tell me what you’ve learned?” And I would rehearse my progress in the Lord’s prayer from Matthew 6:9-13.

He listened with pride twinkling in his eyes. Each sticker earned was progress towards a Sunday School prize. After our Bible recitation, he taught us a Bible story. Mr. Taylor was the first to introduce me to Abraham, Joseph, Moses, the disciples, and Paul.

Every year, on my birthday, Mr. Taylor would call me. Upon answering, he did not say hello but dove right in, “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Jennie, happy birthday to you!” Then, “Have a great day today. Goodbye!” He called all the kids—and many adults—in our church every year. He was the kind of person that made sure to call you on your birthday.

And that’s all I really knew of Mr. Taylor until his funeral.

Long Obedience over Coffee and Bagels

In the memorial service, I learned that Mr. Taylor didn’t become a Christian until his 40s or 50s. As a believer, he had coffee and a bagel with our pastor every week. And every week, they’d talk about the Bible. Mr. Taylor loved the Bible. He read it, memorized it, cherished it.

Not only did Mr. Taylor have a deep faith, but he was faithful. The pastor reminisced how he never missed a Sunday. Though his wife never accompanied him to church, he was always, always there. Though he was in poor health—even when I first met him thirty years ago—he never missed a week. Though his hearing failed, he had to walk with a cane, and his strength was clearly waning—he was faithful in his obedience to God.

I agree with the eulogy—Mr. Taylor heard, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” (Matt. 25:23) when he met Jesus. He is a striking example of a long obedience in the same direction. He never grew weary of doing good (Gal. 6:9).

Ordinary Faithfulness

What a normal guy, I thought throughout the service. He was a World War II veteran, a dad, a husband. He was simply faithful—to God and to his church—and the Lord ministered to others through him.

What if we—as ordinary Christ-followers—followed in his footsteps? What if we, who are normal and unexceptional, simply pursued faithfulness? Here are some ways we might apply the fruit of Mr. Taylor’s life to our own.

Your theology doesn’t need to be fully developed to serve the church

The pastor performing the memorial service chuckled that Mr. Taylor would often get fixated on a doctrinal issue and have a hard time conforming his ideas to the truth. Though he was late to the faith, he gave himself over to the body of Christ. Despite being a work in progress, he readily invested in kids. The pastor and elders allowed Mr. Taylor to serve the church in a capacity that he could steward well. He had a passion for teaching children and the church supplied the tools and curriculum for him to do that. Neither the church leadership nor Mr. Taylor insisted on him having everything figured out before he served the body. Theology matters, but it need not be perfected before you can serve.

Give yourself over to discipleship

Knowing he was indeed a work in progress, Mr. Taylor committed himself to be shaped by the Word of God, the people of God, and the Spirit of God. The pastor said he especially loved the Beatitudes and Psalm 23 and committed them to memory. He would wake up at night and read his Bible or pray for people in the church. He never skipped his weekly bagel and coffee with the pastor. Though he was old enough to be the pastor’s father, he submitted himself to his pastor’s spiritual leadership. He was ready and available to engage in discipleship, even with someone substantially younger than him. Giving yourself over to discipleship has no universal age or experience requirement.

Fix your eyes on Jesus

Mr. Taylor was a sweet example of a man who pressed on toward the goal to win the prize for which God had called him heavenward in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:14). The pastor’s eulogy implied that he had a regrettable past. And I saw with my own childhood eyes that though he had a wife whom he adored, she did not accompany him to church. His difficult past and present circumstances did not prevent him from pursuing Christ daily and worshiping with others weekly. Neither should we allow our past or present situations to rob our affections for Jesus.

Be a bridge for newcomers

As a child of divorce and a home where Christ was not honored in my early years, crossing the threshold of a church felt strange to me. I had a dad at home that questioned Christianity and mocked religion in general. Those repeating the Lord’s prayer with me in Sunday School had dads in suits and moms with Bibles under the arms. Yet Mr. Taylor always greeted me with a hug and eager anticipation to hear my progress in memorizing Scripture. I was different, but he didn’t treat me like I was different. A smile and a greeting to newcomers goes a lot farther than you might think.

Small acts of kindness leave a great impact

We all chuckled when the pastor reminisced about how Mr. Taylor called almost everyone in the church on our birthdays and serenaded us over the phone. He gave us each the same small gift—a phone call that showed he knew us, remembered us, and celebrated us. When I looked around the sanctuary and saw a hundred bobbing heads, it was clear that this small act shaped the culture of the entire church. Christ-like kindness may feel small but can have a sweeping effect.

Spiritually parent others

My Sunday School leader was the spiritual father of hundreds. I know many of those in Sunday School with me are now missionaries and ministers, teachers and police officers, engineers and salesmen, moms and dads. We each carry with us the memory and imprint of a man who didn’t rest until we each had Matthew 6:9-13 memorized. Mr. Taylor’s thirty-five-year investment in children’s Sunday School bear’s a rich legacy: there are hundreds of us who know the model prayer of our Savior because of the faithful plodding of our Sunday School teacher.

Ordinary Means for Extraordinary Ends

Our good and gracious God redeems, inhabits, and glorifies himself through normal people, just like Mr. Taylor. The Apostle Paul said, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (1 Cor. 4:7-9). Mr. Taylor’s kindness and habits and love of the Bible and the God who wrote it revealed Christ to me, the hope of glory (Col.1:27). The simple, unsophisticated ministry of this very normal man, led me to know and love Jesus.

Mr. Taylor didn’t have formal Biblical training or a Christian pedigree. He didn’t have a fancy church or a state-of-the-art kids’ ministry. He had a sticker chart, a flannel graph, a patient and persevering personality, and a warmth towards children. Mostly, he had a desire that we know the Lord! He was God’s very ordinary means for extraordinary ends: making us kids alive together with Christ (Eph. 2:5).


Jen Oshman is a wife and mom to four daughters and has served as a missionary for 17 years on three continents. She currently resides in Colorado where she and her husband serve with Pioneers International, and she encourages her church-planting husband at Redemption Parker. Her passion is leading women to a deeper faith and fostering a biblical worldview. She writes at www.jenoshman.com.