Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Billy Graham & Leadership

About a year ago, I was listening to a radio program on which Marshall Shelley was being interviewed about his new book, The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham (Zondervan, 2005). They were giving away a few copies of the book to those who called in, and something inside me felt compelled to call. But I didn’t have a good question to ask, so I prayed to the Lord and said, “If you want me to have a copy of this book, please give me a good question to ask and I’ll call.”

I’m not sure if the Lord gave me this question or if it just popped into my head, but one way or the other, I thought to ask about the connection in Billy’s life between his private pursuit of holiness and integrity, and his public effectiveness and longevity. So, I made the call and was given the last copy of the book they had to give.

A couple of years earlier, I had breakfast with some friends and the subject of Billy Graham’s life and ministry came up. We talked mostly about his commitment to integrity in the areas of sexuality and finances. It so happened that one of the men in the conversation had coordinated all of the travel for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association for some years, and he explained in great detail the measures they took to protect the integrity of the ministry. In other words, he explained just how much they valued holiness.

Somehow, in the midst of the conversation, the name of another pastor came up. This pastor had taken a small church and grown it to many thousands in the course of just a few years. He had become very well known locally and across the country through a fast-growing radio program. But one day hard evidence surfaced that he was involved in illicit sexual relationships and that he was mismanaging the ministry’s money to benefit himself. His lack of holiness not only split the church, it severely harmed the whole Body of Christ in that area, and it pained believers across the country who had come to love and respect and promote his teaching.

When we were done with breakfast, I got into my car and began to drive away. And it was as if the Lord grabbed me by the shoulders, looked me right in the eyes, and said with a serious tone in His voice, “Charlie, holiness really matters. The valuing of it impacts lives for the better, the feigning of it impacts lives for the worse. Pursue holiness!”

Without a doubt, the thing I’ve respected most about Billy Graham over the years is his undying commitment to holiness. So, I was eager to receive and read the book, and though it took some time to work through it, I’m very glad I did, and I’m glad to recommend it to you.

I have a lot to say about it, so I’m going to post my comments in several entries, probably interrupted by entries on other matters. My hope in posting these several entries is that you’ll be inspired to pick up a copy for yourself and read it.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Dawson Trotman & Soulwinning

In the little booklet called Born to Reproduce (Navpress, 2005), Dawson Trotman writes, “Soulwinners are not soulwinners because of what they know, but because of the Person they know, how well they know Him, and how much they long for others to know Him.”

The only word I would add to this quote is “primarily” so that it would read like this: “Soulwinners are not soulwinners primarily because of what they know…” I agree that the most important thing in soulwinning is knowing Jesus, indeed, Christianity is not essentially informational but rather relational. However, what we know about Jesus matters very much, even if it flows from the prior fact that we know him.

For instance, if you were to say that my mother derived from the south of France, stood four-feet, eight-inches tall, and worked most of her life in the textiles industry, I would be quick to tell you that you were not speaking about my mother. My mother hailed from Missouri (pronounced Mazura), stood five-feet, six-inches tall, and worked most of her life in the restaurant and financial businesses. It is no exaggeration to say that everything I learned about my mother flowed from the fact that I first knew her, but even to say, “I know my mother,” implies specific, exclusive, verifiable information. If this were not so I would not be able to tell who was speaking about my mother and who was not.

This same dynamic is present in Christianity as well. To be a Christian is to have encountered the living Christ and surrendered to his will and ways for our lives. Then, as we walk with him we come to know more and more about him—who he is, how he thinks, what his demands upon our lives are, what his passions and motives are, what his mission is, etc. That specific, exclusive, verifiable information is the content and credence of our knowledge of the person Jesus Christ. If this were not so we would not be able to tell who was speaking about Jesus Christ as he is and who was not.

Thus, while it is true to say that the soulwinner’s main task is not to gather and dispense information, it is not true to say, or imply, that his grasp of information about Christ is altogether meaningless or unimportant in soulwinning. Because if I’m to share who I know, I must at the very least share the heart of what I know so that there’s a “who” for someone else to know.

Thinking this way helps us to see that all of our gains in the knowledge of Christ have great evangelistic potential, not in the least because as we come to know him who gave everything for the glory of the Father in the salvation of the lost, we come to love what he loves, and to lay our lives down for what he laid his life down for.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

On My Time in Raliegh, NC

I’m standing in the middle of downtown Raleigh, North Carolina, and I must admit that, as an outsider, it feels more like two cities than one to me. The Governor’s mansion, the capitol building, and the skyscrapers are relatively small compared to, say, a Chicago, but they’re impressive nonetheless. The homeless men sleeping on the sidewalks and wandering the near empty streets are almost all African-American, and represent just a portion of the many who are in the care of the Salvation Army and the Rescue Mission. The upscale, hip, modern boutiques and restaurants are closed today, but on Monday they’ll be bustling with upwardly mobile middle- to upper-middle class (mostly white) people. The black-owned businesses, which once dominated the downtown scene, are all but gone now and their buildings sit largely uninhabited.

In their place more condominiums will undoubtedly rise, not altogether different, I’m sure, from the ones sprouting up all over town. They’ll be designed for young professionals, and they’ll sell from the mid-$200s about as fast as northern Carolina barbeque. Immediately surrounding the downtown complex are middle-of-the-road-single-family homes which stand in the place of older homes that the city condemned and razed. The newer homes are by-and-large occupied by younger white families, while the poorer, black families who once lived there have resettled farther to the east, where poverty and crime have concentrated.

This, in a nutshell, is downtown Raleigh, North Carolina as I see it—one city and yet two cities. One world, and yet two realities. One city is modern, upwardly mobile, and hip; the other city is mired in the effects of racism and economic disparity that have roots stretching beyond the days of the confederacy. One city is moving and hopeful; the other city is degrading and increasingly less hopeful. One city stands to receive several billion dollars of investment over the next decade; the other city waits to be condemned and razed and relocated.

And standing in the middle of these two cities is a small, all-but-abandoned building that’s owned by a local bail-bondsman. It used to house a restaurant, and then a store called Jimmy’s, but now it sits empty most of the time waiting for a buyer to bite on the $3.5 million asking price. The dream is that one day this decrepit building will become the footprint for a skyscraper. But for now it serves as temporary housing for the homeless guys who do piece-work for the bail-bondsman, and on Sundays it’s a house of hope and worship for both cities, that is, for Raleigh.

As we enter the building it strikes me more like a dance studio with a kitchen than a former restaurant or convenience store. There are a few stacks of chairs off to the left, a disco ball on the floor by the door, two small bathrooms to the right, and four pillars running right down the middle of the room. Downstairs are several storage spaces, by which I mean chicken-wire attached to two-by-fours, a few of which have been sheet-rocked and painted to better accommodate the children of Treasuring Christ Church.

As a seasoned church planter, I must admit that I wonder how these pastors are going to accommodate 100 or more worshippers in this space, but as the pieces come together I’m pleasantly surprised. On the immediate right is the welcome table full with bulletins, handouts, and resources for dealing with everything from suicide to bad attitudes. On the immediate left is the “refreshment table” which is, undoubtedly, the main attraction for the 10 – 15 homeless guys who attend services each week.

A little further in, to the right, are 30 or more chairs arranged in three, semi-circular rows where Pastor Kent teaches ecclesiology to homeless people, seminary students, and church members. In the back right are about 25 chairs turned away from the “stage” where Pastor Travis explores issues in Christian missions with those who are moving toward a career in missions, or who are simply interested in the subject. And behind both of these gatherings, about half-way in to the left, is the youth group—three adults and four or five teens sitting in a circle, discussing the Bible and life and the relationship between the two.

As we walk downstairs, one of the children’s workers exclaims, “Hey, they cleaned the carpet and it doesn’t smell so horrible! Yeah! Our children won’t have to shower after church today because of the smell!” She’s serious.

The children’s foyer is small but split in two. On the right side is the sign-in table where parents entrust their children to the church, and on the left are three blow-up floating rings usually reserved for an afternoon in the pool but today serve as seats for a children’s Sunday School class. The teacher has no such luxury—she simply sits on the floor, despite her formal attire, and pours her heart into the hearts of the children.

Back upstairs, Sunday School is drawing to a close and everyone’s pitching in to arrange the chairs around the “stage” area. Soon enough, everything’s ready to go and the 20-something worship leaders begin to escort their people to the throne of grace. What impresses me most, I think, is that both cities are represented in this church, both are engaged in worship, and both seem like one here.

In the front row and to the left is Otis, a very large African-American man who at one time played football for USC but as of late has fallen on hard times. He’s living at the Rescue Mission now, but by God’s grace the pieces of his life seem to be coming back together. Behind him and to the right is Henry, a more-than-middle-aged white man who rides a Harley Davidson and has been coming to the church for the last month or so. Henry says that he comes here because he needs the Word of God to get him through the week, and I think he’s serious because he’s wanting to be baptized in the Treasuring Christ cow trough. (At Treasuring Christ Church they can say, “Jesus was born in a manger and we were baptized in a cow trough!”)

In the back is a well-to-do middle-aged couple who are dressed in their Sunday best and look as though they’ve been in church all their lives. I never did get to speak with them, but I noticed how easily they mixed with people who were like them and people who were not. Scattered throughout the worship area are 10 or more homeless people who seem to be enjoying the worship and companionship as much as the food. And beside and around them are more than 20 seminary students who are there because, for the most part, they long to be part of an inner-city ministry.

Pastor Sean, the main teaching pastor, seems so young, but as he stands to pray and give direction to the service it’s obvious that God has gifted him to lead this church. He has such passion for God, love for the Word, and an unusual ability to relate to people from a variety of backgrounds. It strikes me that God has shared something of His passion for both cities with Sean, and has sent him here to lead an unusual, unifying, God-honoring work. He’s feeling a bit weary these days, but I think if he perseveres the Lord will use him to do great things in these two cities.

The preaching, delivered by a guest preacher today, is exegetical and hard-hitting. It’s about the reality and inevitability of persecution and suffering in the life of a Christian. But the people eat it up like a fresh made batch of baby-back-ribs, and they digest and apply it together once the service is over. In fact, a full hour afterwards, about a third of the people are still here talking with each other and serving the needs of some who’ve come today.

And as I stand here taking it all in, I think to myself, with tears in my eyes, “He who is faithful with a little will be faithful with much.” And I lift my eyes to heaven and pray, “Oh Lord God, please bless Treasuring Christ Church. They’re being faithful with the little you’ve given them, now please give them much. And Lord, please bless the two cities that are Raleigh, North Carolina. Amen.”

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Calvin on Prayer

"To prayer, then, are we indebted for penetrating to those riches which are treasured up for us with our heavenly Father. For there is a kind of intercourse between God and men, by which, having entered the upper sanctuary, they appear before Him and appeal to his promises, that when necessity requires they may learn by experiences that what they believed merely on the authority of his word was not in vain. Accordingly, we see that nothing is set before us as an object of expectation from the Lord which we are not enjoined to ask of Him in prayer, so true it is that prayer digs up those treasures which the Gospel of our Lord discovers to the eye of faith. The necessity and utility of this exercise of prayer no words can sufficiently express. Assuredly it is not without cause our heavenly Father declares that our only safety is in calling upon his name, since by it we invoke the presence of his providence to watch over our interests, of his power to sustain us when weak and almost fainting, of his goodness to receive us into favor, though miserably loaded with sin; in fine, call upon him to manifest himself to us in all his perfections. Hence, admirable peace and tranquility are given to our consciences; for the straits by which we were pressed being laid before the Lord, we rest fully satisfied with the assurance that none of our evils are unknown to him, and that he is both able and willing to make the best provision for us.

John Calvin, The Institutes

A Lesson Learned--Again

It’s just about midnight, and we’re pulling into town. Our dog, Bella, is sleep-barking in the back seat, and our daughter, Rachel, is breathing through her nose so hard that I’m afraid she’ll suck in a stray gnat. Kim is staying awake for my sake, but I wish she wouldn’t, because she’s got to get up early in the morning and teach Spanish to a drove of middle-schoolers, just the thought of which makes me weary. I’m tired but glad to be home, feeling better about the fact that it took nine-and-one-half hours to complete a seven hour drive.

Eight hours earlier we realized that we had driven 50 or more miles passed our turn-off, and rather than driving back to it we decided (read, “I decided”) to angle our way there on back roads. But here’s the catch: we didn’t have a map with us, and I didn’t want to stop to buy or look at one. I thought I knew the general direction of the freeway we were looking for and the roads we were on, and that I could navigate from one to the other. How male is that?

“Why don’t we just stop and look at a map?” “Babe, all we have to do is keep heading north and west and north and west, and eventually we’ll hit the freeway.” Wonderful thought, horrible plan. We drove north and west and north and west for six hours! In this way, we traversed the entire state of Wisconsin, and we were still more than two hours from home.

The moral of the story? It’s not a bad idea to look at the map even when you think you know the way.

“Whoever heeds instruction is on the path to life, but he who rejects reproof leads others astray.” (Proverbs 10:17)

“Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.” (Proverbs 19:21)

Desiring God National Conference

From September 29 – October 1, 2006, Desiring God (John Piper’s preaching and teaching ministry) hosted their annual conference at the Minneapolis Convention Center. The title of the conference was “Above all Earthly Powers: The Supremacy of Christ in a Post-Modern World,” which was taken from David Wells’ book of, essentially, the same title (Above all Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World, Eerdmans, 2005).

Wells was the first of six speakers, and after spending quite some time setting the context for his talk, he made a statement that has continued to ring in my ears: “We simply have no other Christ to preach than the one presented us in the Bible.” Whether we live in a pre-modern or modern or post-modern or ultra-modern world, whether we live in a part of the world where none of these categories makes sense, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and it is this changeless Christ that we must preach.

It is one thing to seek to understand the postmodern world so that we can preach the gospel in words and categories that make sense to people and that are persuasive to people. It is quite another thing to look to the postmodern world to give us a context for understanding, or as some are saying today, re-imagining Christianity itself.

Mark Driscoll, the pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, is about as different from David Wells as one can be, but he said essentially the same thing: regardless of our changing cultural context, we cannot change the message of the gospel. We may need to change how we approach people and present the gospel, indeed we must, but we cannot compromise the truth of the gospel as we strive to contextualize it.

John Piper closed the conference Sunday with one of the more anointed sermons I’ve heard him give. I would strongly suggest that you visit www.desiringgod.org and listen to it. He did a tremendous job of showing how a biblical vision of the magnitude of God puts the epistemological issues raised by postmodernism in proper context. That it is to say, he displayed how a massive vision of a massive God makes seemingly massive problems small.

I walked away from this conference more resolute than ever in several convictions: (1) The Bible is our only reliable source of information about who God is and who Jesus Christ is, and one of the main tasks of ministry is to show how this is so; (2) Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever; (3) Postmodernism is a cultural reality that must be taken seriously if we’re to preach the gospel with effectiveness; and (4) Postmodernism is not a worthy framework through which to reinterpret Christianity.