Friday, September 28, 2012

Pharisaical Evangelism

It's pretty easy to throw around the "Pharisee" label within Christendom and apply it to people we don't like.  Where it is more difficult is when it comes to applying it to ourselves.  I've been a Pharisaical evangelist.  They say that confession is good for the soul.  We'll see. 

The self righteousness of the Pharisees is legendary for anyone who has read the Gospels.  Jesus had some memorable run-ins with them throughout the Gospels.  He had some memorable words for them in Matthew 23.  My personal favorite: white washed tombs full of dead mens bones.  Outwardly beautiful, inwardly full of corruption.  It's just a great word picture. 

There are many marks of Pharisaism and this essay is not intended to cover all of them.  However, I do want to cover a couple of them as they can apply to street evangelists.  At least they have applied to me.  Maybe they apply to you too and we can repent together. 

I found myself up late at night earlier this week and got to listen to an excellent sermon on Pharisaism.  I am preparing to preach Mark 7:1-13 (which I will refer to later) which is one of those run-ins between Jesus and the Pharisees, so a sermon on this topic could be helpful and give me some material for my own sermon.  Little did I know it would give me some material for my own repentance.

Luke 18:10-14

One way you can know that you are in danger of Pharisaical thinking comes to us when we, like a Pharisee, see some other believer who does not meet our own high (and often unBiblical) expectations and think something like, "Thank You, God, that You did not make me like other men.  I am not Emergent, Word of Faith, easy believism, doctrinally oblivious or even like that well meaning but non-evangelizing fellow church member over there.  I share the gospel with everyone I know and spend my vacations at big outreaches.  That guy hasn't shared the gospel with anyone in his life!" 

Meanwhile your fellow church member who serves in ways you don't know about because he does not have a blog or a website telling the world about it is praying, "Oh, Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner." 

Let's ask ourselves the question:  who do you think is going to go back to his house right before God?   Check out Luke 18:10-14 and decide for yourself. 

Too many times I have thought of my fellow believers as complacent, lukewarm, pew-warming and loving it.  I have thought of myself more highly than I should have simply because I spend a few hours per week standing on street corners preaching or engaging people in one-to-ones.

Don't get me wrong.  Evangelism is good and we should do it.  By all means, let's do evangelism.  But let's not use this as the standard by which we judge others or ourselves by.  I've done it.  It's nothing but some of the worst sort of pride which says that my work in evangelism is more important than teaching a fifth grade boys class or cleaning the church.  I don't see a whole lot of blogs about cleaning churches or whole communities of people who clean churches posting videos of their work on Youtube.  I wonder why that is?  Could it be that these people aren't doing it to build a reputation or a ministry, but are doing it simply for the love of the Lord?  

Mark 7:1-13

In Mark 7, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees when He says, "You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition" (Mk. 7:9).   Jesus is attacking the "tradition of the elders" taught in Jewish writings like the Halakha and the Aggadah.  Later in the passage He brings up the teaching from the Mishna that stated that money declared "Corban" (devoted to the Temple) could be withheld from one's parents even if they were in need.  Consequently, the fifth commandment could be ignored with the sanction of the tradition of the elders.  In essence, their tradition trumped the very Word of God. 

"Traditions of the Evangelists"

It gets one thinking, doesn't it?  I mean, extra-Biblical traditions that we hold that in essence, trump God's Word as evangelists.  Examples?

  • If someone shares the gospel but does not use the "good person test" we think they've compromised or haven't shared the gospel at all. 
  • If someone doesn't show up each week for our outreaches we think they have backslidden or wonder if they were false converts.  
  • If our pastor has never come out for one of our outreaches we secretly (or not so secretly) suspect that he is lukewarm. 
  • If our church friends glaze over every time we come into the room as a defense mechanism against our starry-eyed, rapid-fire account of Friday night's encounter with a drunken mob of satan worshippers we judge them as not supportive of evangelism.  Maybe they are not.  Or maybe they have heard so many stories from us that all sound the same, only with a different cast of characters and that all end with the good person test.  Even more, perhaps they don't understand how anyone would actually choose to spend their time arguing presuppositional apologetics with drunken satanists.  Believe it or not, those stories don't exactly inspire newbies to come join you.  There's a reason why I was referred to in one evangelism conference by a dear friend as the church's "commando evangelist." 
  • If someone asks you about follow-up or discipleship, we think that they don't "get it."  In the meantime they think, "I wonder why he doesn't care enough about people to spend time with them?"  
  • If someone gets a little nervous with the idea of street preaching, they are a false convert. 
As a result, we come up with an extra-Biblical tradition which says:

  • You MUST always share the good person test if you are doing evangelism.  Preferably with a New Zealand accent.
  • You MUST do a formal outreach at least once a week.  
  • A good church MUST have a cheer leading squad for the evangelism team and the pastor's role on the evangelism team MUST resemble that of coach, general manager, starting quarterback and water boy.  
  • If you disciple the people you minister to on the streets you are not trusting the Lord in the spirit of Philippians 1:6.  
  • Street preaching is a spiritual discipline like praying, going to church or reading the Bible.  
In short, we have fine ways of rejecting the Word of God for our traditions.  The good news is we're described in the Bible!  The bad news is we're Pharisees. 

Now, I am sorely tempted to try to explain how the things in the above lists are not commanded in the Bible.  Also, how, in fact, some of the things are commanded in the Bible.  The fact that this would need to be explained in some circles illustrates just how little of the Bible we actually read and how many sermons by a strange little Kiwi we have memorized.  So I am not going to do it.  I don't need to.  It's self evident. 

Self righteousness, even in a good (wonderful, magnificent, worthy) cause is ugly.  Some of this can be chalked up to zeal without knowledge.  If that's so in your life, go get some knowledge to go with your zeal.  I think something like four parts knowledge to one part zeal is the right mixture.  And then go back on the street with passion and preach Christ and Him crucified.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Hardness of Heart

Theological Dilemma

 Perhaps one of the biggest dilemmas theologically is understanding who hardens the heart of an unbeliever.  There is evidence that the unbeliever is responsible.  In Exodus, three times it states that Pharoah was responsible for hardening his heart in response to the plagues that God sent (Ex. 7:22; 8:15; 9:35). 

However, the same book reports that God is the One who hardened Pharoah's heart (Ex. 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1; 14:4, 8, 17).  In fact, the preponderance of the evidence indicates that in Exodus, God is credited with hardening Pharoah's heart far more than Pharoah himself.  Of the three references cited for Pharoah hardening his own heart, only one of them (Ex. 8:15) states clearly that Pharoah did "harden his heart".  The other two references may be only stating the fact of Pharoah's hardened heart and who did the hardening in those references is left open (Ex. 7:22; 9:35).  Since both of those references occur in places where it was already stated that God had done the hardening (cf. Ex. 7:3; Ex. 9:12) it could easily be argued that God is the One who hardens hearts.

The New Testament witness to this truth is overwhelming.  Romans 9:17-18 uses the example of Pharoah as a statement of how God works in salvation and concludes, "Therefore hath He mercy on whom He will have mercy, and whom He will, He hardeneth."  John 12:40 states, "He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them."  In context, this is referring to the Jewish people who witnessed Jesus' miracles (Jn. 12:37).  This is an uncomfortable and radical concept: God hardened the heart of the Jewish people that they would not understand and not be converted.

The word "hardened" in John 12:40 is the word "peporomene".  It only appears five times in the New Testament (Mk. 6:52; 8:17; Jn. 12:40; Rom. 11:7 and 2 Cor. 3:14).  In Romans 11:7 Paul says that, "...the election hath obtained it, and the rest were blinded."  The word "blinded" is the word "peporomene" meaning "hardened."  In 2 Cor. 3:14, Paul teaches us again about the hardness of the Jewish people when he says, "But their minds were blinded: for until this day remaineth the same vail untaken away in the reading of the old testament; which vail is done away in Christ."  Again, the word translated "blinded" is our word "hardened."

In the Book of Mark the word is used of the disciples in Mark 6:52 and 8:17.  This further complicates the whole issue because most of our references in Exodus and all of the rest of the New Testament references referred to here would seem to support the Calvinistic understanding of the Sovereignty of God in salvation.  As a Calvinist I have no problem with God hardening the hearts of unbelievers.  But in two of the five references to peporomene in the New Testament, it is referring to disciples.  So who hardened the hearts of the disciples?  In Mark, both references have to do with miracles that Jesus performed.  Rather than driving them to a deeper understanding of Jesus, the Scriptures show that they hardened even the hearts of the disciples!

So what do we do with all of this?  In my own understanding of hardening the heart, I have usually filed this under the Sovereignty of God and the Scriptures support this.  Yet the Scriptures also allow for the responsibility of man.  Jesus holds the disciples accountable for their hardness (Mk. 8:17).  And Pharoah clearly did harden his own heart in Exodus 8:15.

An Illustration

Hardening of heart is saying as much about the nature of man as it is the Sovereignty of God.  Man's nature, being totally depraved (Rom. 3:10-18), outside of divine intervention, always tends towards hardness of heart.  Always.  It is our default setting apart from God. 

The best illustration of how this works comes from the 17th century in the writings of the Puritan Stephen Charnock.  He uses the illustration of a wax candle.  The nature of the wax is hard.  When the candle is lit or heat is applied to the body of the candle, what happens?  It melts.  But what happens when you blow out the candle or remove the heat?  It almost instantly hardens.  Our hearts are like that wax.  When God brings the heat of the Spirit of God and the Word of God, our hearts melt.  When He does not and He leaves us to ourselves, our hearts become hard because that's what we are on our own.  We are hardened by our sin and our sin nature and God holds us accountable for being what we are: rebels against His Kingdom and the laws of it.

So how does God harden the heart?  Simply by withholding the "heat" and leaving the sinner or the believer to himself.  He gives no revelation of Himself or His Word to them.  As we have already seen, He does this of His own free will. If you do not think He does, be careful.  You may be calling God a liar considering John 12:40 and Romans 9:18.

The Elderly Unbeliever

Have you ever wondered why it is that some of the most difficult people to share the gospel with are unbelieving elderly people?  Logic would suggest that those who are the oldest amongst us should be the most open to speak of spiritual things since their own mortality is staring them in the face.  Yet that is not what happens.  I have found that I would rather talk to a rock then most elderly unbelievers because the rock is softer to spiritual truths.  I have had too many elderly women cuss me out when preaching the gospel to believe that they are soft in their old age.  I have also done too many Bible studies in nursing homes.  In most cases those that come are believers.  Common sense would say that the Bible studies should be packed out, but the bingo games are always better attended.  What is happening there?  As they are left in their spiritual death, the hardness of their hearts gets worse and worse.  They are no "worse off" than any hardened sinner. But the elderly are no better off spiritually than any other hardened sinner.  Candles with the hardest wax will melt when God brings the heat.


1.  When it comes to our evangelism, our job is not to convince candles to become soft by trying to change the nature of the wax or by appealing to the wax to become soft.  Our job is to "bring the heat" of the truth of the person of Jesus Christ and the Word of God attended by the Spirit of God.  Regeneration happens when this heat brings new life to dead souls (1 Peter 1:23-25).  It's not our reasoning or the appeal of our sales pitch that saves.

2.  When it comes to our theology, we must always remember that the balance of the Sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man is always present in the Word.  Whenever we lean too far in either direction, we move into error.  Many modern Christian leaders are so afraid of Calvinism that they will hone in on Exodus 8:15 while ignoring Exodus 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1; 14:4, 8, 17; Rom. 9:17-18; Jn. 12:40; Rom. 11:7; 2 Cor. 3:14 and so on.  This is not only intellectually dishonest, it borders on dereliction of duty considering our call to teach the whole counsel of God.  By the same token, when we focus in on these latter Scriptures and ignore the former as Calvinists, then we are guilty of the same thing.  Let's be honest with the Scriptures and admit that man is held accountable for his own hardness. Let's preach as if man is accountable for his sin, because his sin will damn him on Judgment Day (Rev. 21:8). 

3.  Here's the scary thing.  The disciples were hardened.  They SAW Jesus feed the 5,000, they SAW Him walk on water, raise the dead, and cast out Legion.  They heard His teaching.  Yet they didn't "get it."

It is possible for believers to be hardened in heart.  We can be all too familiar with the Lord and His work.  We can be exposed to it on an almost daily basis and be left in our hardness.  Unless the Lord opens our eyes we will be as blind as any Pharisee.  Unless He softens our hearts we will be as hardened as any rebel.  We must pray that we are always teachable and that the Lord will always bring the heat to us.

4.  If you find that you are hard to spiritual truth, cry out to God.  The book is not closed on your life yet.  Whether the Lord will be gracious to you in your sin or not may remain to be seen in your own life.  Cry out to Him.  Ask Him to break your heart.  And keep crying out to Him until He does.  Eternity is in the balance.  "Harden not your heart, as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness: when your fathers tempted Me, proved Me, and saw My work."  (Psalm 95:8-9)

Friday, September 14, 2012

When Someone is NOT Called to Full Time Evangelism Ministry

Over the last eight or nine years I often got phone calls from street evangelists asking how I was so blessed to get into full time evangelism?  The question presupposes that there is some kind of secret formula that if mixed together in the right order produces an evangelism ministry.  That's nonsense.  At least if we're talking about God-ordained ministry.  I know that just about anyone can create a ministry today whether or not they are really called of God.  All you need is a credit card, a computer and an internet connection.  Don't forget a digital camera or recorder.  If you can post pics and media of yourself on Youtube preaching in the open-air, voila, you have a ministry.  But the question is, "Are you called"? 

It's difficult to answer this question because some have a very subjective view of a call from God.  However, the call is nowhere near as subjective as some would like to think.  To answer the question positively, you know you are called when your local church recognizes and affirms the call.  I'm not referring to your pastor simply giving you the thumbs up in private conversation but when the church leadership publicly sends you out to do ministry, as we see in Acts 13:1-3 with the Apostle Paul.  If your church is sending you out, it suggests the idea that the church knows that they are doing it.  Could I approach the average, active member of your church and ask them, "Has your church sent out XYZ as an evangelist?" and have them answer in the affirmative?  If not, no matter what your pastor says, you haven't been sent by the church.  You may have been approved by the pastor to do what every Christian is called to do--share the gospel--but your call has not been recognized by the church. 

It is probably easier to identify one who is NOT called to full time evangelism ministry by the common mistakes that people have made over the years who have tried to go into it when they were not called. 

You Are NOT Called If....

1.  You are NOT called as an evangelist at all, full time or not, if your primary work is not building your local church. 

The office of evangelist (notice I did not say "gift") is given to the local church (Eph. 4:11).  Their purpose is for, "...the perfecting of the saints for the work of the ministry for the edifying of the body of Christ" (Eph. 4:12).  How long does the evangelist labor in the local church for this purpose?  The answer is in the next verse.  "Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:13).  This will take longer than a whirlwind visit of a few days (or even a couple of weeks) in a locality under the guise of traveling about ministering to the universal church.  The universal church is not in view here.  Paul is referring to offices in the local church.  We don't have a pope we can go to in order to get appointed to the office of evangelist.  We go to our local churches for that and we labor in them in order to fulfill this office because the saints THERE need to be built up into "perfect" (or complete) men of God. 

Therefore, if you think that an evangelist is primarily someone who travels and doesn't spend much time in their local churches doing evangelism or teaching the body how to evangelize, you have it all wrong.  Somehow in the last few years the "ultimate" in street evangelism ministry has become having the financial wherewithal to hit the road and travel.  I am not sure how this happened in the present day Way of the Master street evangelism world, but it was not common even here up until 2008 or 2009.  There were some who did it, but some of the first to do so (in 2005\2006) were heretical and none of them were accountable to a local church.  Praise the Lord that now there are many doctrinally sound street evangelists who travel.  However, I think they are misguided when they believe that what they are doing fulfills the office of evangelist according to Ephesians 4:11, although I think that most do know this and wrestle with it. 

I am not saying it's wrong to travel and share the gospel.  It seems like whenever I write an article intended to correct abuses I have to point out the obvious, so call me "Captain Obvious" here.  I am saying--and please hear this--that it's wrong to make that the primary goal of an evangelism ministry. 

2.  You are NOT called to be a full time evangelist if you have to go into debt to do it.  

Some people have pretty good lines of credit and have several credit cards that they can max out.  In the past, they have called it "stepping out by faith" and they charge their airfare, gas, food, tracts, and whatnot on their cards in order to do their ministry with the idea that eventually the Body of Christ will recognize either their 1) essential service or 2) the excellence of the products that they are producing for the Body. 

Street evangelists are not recognized in churches as performing essential services because in many cases, they are only doing what all believers are called to do: evangelize.  Because many street evangelists are not intentional in building local churches wherever they go to minister, churches don't get excited about supporting them financially, because, again, all they are doing is what all Christians are called to do.  The only difference in their minds is that the street evangelists are asking to be paid to do it.  In some cases, they are right. 

My friends who do this, please hear me: you would have a far better chance at being supported by the local church if you followed the Biblical model and served IN your local church.  If you could focus on equipping people there, your church would be far more likely to get behind you if they saw the fruit of a truly Biblical evangelism ministry.  The interest rates on your credit card are so ridiculous that by the time the Christians around the world see how vital your ministry is, you will be in five or six figure debt. 

A word on selling evangelism product to make a living: few can do this well.  In order to pull that off, you need to spend most of your time making product, not evangelizing.  And product has overhead costs, so you had better be a pretty good businessman in order to make enough money to both cover your overhead AND make enough to live on.   And, you had better have a good piece of change to invest in start-up costs. 

3.  You are NOT called to be a full time evangelist if you are afraid to work to support yourself. 

It is extremely rare, and in our present economy even more so, to have a rich donor to back you to do ministry.  I was extremely blessed to have a couple of rich donors support our ministries from 2005 until 2010.  In both cases, we did not seek them out, they sought us out (a pretty good sign that you're called to full time evangelism when the Lord drops that in your lap).  Because of a few ministries that were well funded, those who were newly trained came to believe that this is the "ultimate" in street evangelism ("Imagine getting PAID to do this!"). 

Since October 2008 those days are over.  In this economy, unless you have a good retirement you are living on or have your own financial resources, you may be able to get donors, but not enough to live full time on.  If your church is behind you and all other factors being equal, go for it, but recognize that you will need to do something to support yourself and your family.  The best thing is to find a home based business you are passionate about. 

Our Lord Jesus made wooden utensils and furniture as a Jewish first century carpenter.  The Apostle Paul made tents.  Peter was a fisherman and returned to that line of work after he was called (Jn. 21).  I think Ray Comfort had a surf shop. 

The first church manual we have in church history is the Didache.  They had a term in that manual to describe men who traveled about preaching as guests in the homes of believers who did not pay their own way.  That term was "false teacher."  Much of that manual dealt with how to handle the many traveling preachers of that day and it would shock most traveling evangelists today.  The early church fathers recognized the danger inherent in traveling ministry. The days of the apostles are over.  The church now oversees and guides missions and evangelism. 

Here's an excerpt.  This is section XII, and in the context of section XI, has to do with traveling preachers.  A "true prophet" in section XIII is "one who settles among you."  

1.  Let everyone who "comes in the Name of the Lord" be received; but when you have tested him you shall know him, for you shall have understanding of true and false.
2. If he who comes is a traveller, help him as much as you can, but he shall not remain with you more than two days, or, if need be, three.
3. And if he wishes to settle among you and has a craft, let him work for his bread.
4. But if he has no craft provide for him according to your understanding, so that no man shall live among you in idleness because he is a Christian.
5. But if he will not do so, he is making traffic of Christ; beware of such.

Am I saying all traveling evangelists are false prophets?  I don't believe that.  However, the early church's concerns over the abuses ought to be enough to slow down those who would seek this kind of ministry and think seriously about the Scriptures.  

4.  You are NOT called to full time evangelism ministry, or ANY ministry if you are not absolutely committed to work at studying the Word and praying (Acts 6:4).   

Notice I did not say "committed to reading the Word and praying".  Studying is a lot different.  Heretical street preachers often read the Word.  Called street preachers study it.  If you cannot devote serious time to study of God's Word, how do you dare to go preach it?  You are going to be judged more strictly than other Christians when you take the role of teacher on yourself (Jas. 3:1). 

Much street preaching today involves the same men saying the same things across a route that includes the same places.  Those places are usually populated with local street preachers who likewise say the same things each week.  They repeat what they have said before, repeat what they have heard others say on Youtube, but it's not often that they come with a message from their study that they got from the Lord. 

Often, these things are said without any evidence of power because there has been no serious prayer.  Sending up a quick group prayer before hitting the streets is not what I am talking about.  Oh, how much we need to pray.  We don't have many good examples in the churches of this and even fewer in street evangelism circles.  I am not claiming to be one of them.  But I am growing in this area and am calling others to do the same. 

5.  You are NOT called to full time evangelism ministry, or ANY ministry, if your home-life is a shambles. 

I know too many street preachers whose families are a wreck.  If your passion for evangelism exceeds your passion for your wife, children or parents, you may want to ask yourself why you care more about people you don't know than your own flesh and blood.  The list of those who have had spouses leave them because of evangelism is way too long.  If your relationship with your local church is functioning as it should then you have probably been warned by other believers about this.  Listen to them.  Do yourself and everyone you preach to a favor and get off of the streets. 

6.  You are NOT called to full time evangelism ministry, or ANY ministry, if you do not love people.  

I am NOT talking about the kind of love we street preachers like to think of ourselves: "I love them enough to tell them the truth!".  Of course, we should love people enough to tell them the truth.  But if that is as far as our love extends to people, I think we need to ask if we really love them.  Don't believe me?  Try your philosophy of love on your family sometime.  If all you do is tell them the truth whether they want to hear it or not in your family, you will be hated.  And not for righteousness' sake.  You will be hated because they have a sneaking suspicion that you don't care for them as a person, because people who genuinely care about others do things like spend time with them.  They are not just a pair of lips on a pair of legs.  If I tell my kids the truth about their inadequacies constantly but don't spend time with them, I become a father who provokes his children to wrath.  Yet somehow we have this idea that if we are known as the town street preacher who loves people but doesn't care about trying to connect with those we preach to with real face time we have done our duty and "loved them enough to tell them the truth."  Do you know what your audience thinks about your professed love?  I can't write it here because it would be an expletive I'd have to delete of the manure variety.  People who care about other people do more than talk.  They don't stop talking, but they do MORE than talk.  Do you try? 

When we get more excited about the confrontations we have, our run-ins with the police, and our crowd size than we do about the people we connect with, there's a problem.  I don't read a lot of updates about people meeting with people they've met on the streets, bringing them to church, or having a Bible study with them.  Why is that?  We're not trying.  And why is that we are not trying?  

This is where it gets sticky, but let's face facts and we'll all be better off.  1) Our ministries are more about us than about the Lord or people.  "I don't have time to spend with people but I do have time to yell at them for a couple of hours."  If we can tell people what WE have done, where WE have gone, and the witty things WE say, it becomes pretty clear we are Christian narcissists.  Self absorbed.  It's all about us.  What's the difference between that kind of narcissism and the vanity we see in this culture?  It's only different because it is Christianized.  2)  Street preaching has long had a tendency to attract introverts.  I've never seen a ministry so populated with introverts as I have in street evangelism.  It's not true all of the time, but think about it.  How many street preachers do you know who are NOT introverts socially?  I write this as something of an introvert myself.  Ray Comfort is not one of them; if there is ever someone who loves people it's Ray.  It's ironic that so many that follow his ministry don't know how to have a conversation with people about anything other than evangelism or the gospel (which always sounds strangely like the good person test).  

Listen, people will get really bent out of shape over this point, but after observing this over eight years, I'll dare anyone to say anything different.  I've been to too many evangelism trainings, done too many outreaches, and taught too many people to open-air preach to say anything else.  The only thing the training gets them to do is to get past their introverted nature in order to present the gospel, but rarely does it go beyond that to invest in the lives of others.  I can train a parrot to open-air preach, but it doesn't change his nature.  He's still a parrot and will make his parrot droppings in the bird cage.  This is a fatal flaw in our training.  We can teach people how to become salesmen but we cannot teach people how to love in a crash course.  That's a fruit of the Spirit!  The fact that it's lacking is a woeful condemnation on our ministries.  And all we're left with is a pile of parrot manure to clean up at the end of the day. 

Now if you train someone who already loves people to do evangelism, you have a powerful combination.  I've seen it and those ministries are among the most fruitful.  I've also seen it with men who once had that love but have lost it.  Ministry without genuine care for individuals is a strange fire that's being offered on the altar.  People may commend your zeal, your passion for souls, and your sacrifice, but if it's self generated and not generated by the Spirit of God, what do you have? 

Strange Fire

I suspect that this might be the whole truth of the matter.  When we claim we have a calling from God that lacks the Biblical signs of a calling, we are offering the strange fire that Nadab and Abihu offered in Leviticus 10.  We make offerings that the Lord never asked us to make.  The Lord doesn't need a fake fire on His altar.  It's an insult to His holy character.  He doesn't need our uncalled for help.  Listen to what the Lord said, "Among those who are near Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified" (Lev. 10:3).  For offering this strange fire, the Lord killed Nadab and Abihu and He commanded that they not be mourned. Good riddance. 

What is this rant?  It's a call to repentance.  We all love to talk about repentance as long as it is the wicked sinner's or atheist's repentance.  What about our repentance?  I'd love to see some street preachers repent.  Like Gideon's army, we need to see it trimmed down before the Lord will do anything.  Far more could be accomplished with a handful of men who are called to ministry than thousands who are not.  Do you want revival?  Do you want reform?  It must start with us.  How can we expect people on the streets to repent when we do not?   As Keith Green wrote, "My eyes are dry, my faith is old, my heart is hard and my prayers are cold.  But I know how it ought to be.  Alive to You and dead to me. Oh what can be done for an old heart like mine?  Soften it up with oil and wine.  The oil is You, Your Spirit of love.  Please wash me anew in the wine of Your blood." 

This is a good place to start.  If this is the genuine cry of your heart, perhaps the Lord will do something.  What He calls you to do may look a lot different than what you have been doing. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Church Planting and Spiritual Warfare

The Reality of the Warfare

When I began the process of applying with the SBC to plant a church in Syracuse, NY the topic of spiritual warfare came up.  I was told that spiritual warfare in church planting is intense and that our greatest need is a network of prayer warriors.  Other church planters told me of the intensity of the battle and the need for much prayer.  Darrin Patrick, pastor and author, spoke at a conference I attended and mentioned the spiritual warfare that they have seen in the Acts 29 movement.  Some of that warfare included the suicides of church planters and moral failures.  In spite of this good advice, I don't think I was ready for the scale of the battle.  Having been involved in full time street evangelism since 2005 and pastoral ministry since 1992, I thought I had seen it all.  We had been through some serious spiritual warfare as a family and I did not think it could be much worse.  I was a fool. 

In June of this year we were finishing up a busy season of outreach and equipping ministry in the church plant.  We had held back to back to back seminars on witnessing to Roman Catholics, atheists and a seminar on open-air preaching.  We even hosted a successful debate between an atheist and an apologist from Canada.  The church was growing numerically and spiritually and the gospel was going out in many formats.  We were doing evangelism at least three to four times per week at venues throughout the city.

At that time several things all happened at once.  My wisdom teeth became impacted and needed to be removed quickly.  During the seminar on open-air preaching I took Advil like it was candy and finally had two wisdom teeth and a molar pulled.  At the same time, my mother, who was diagnosed manic depressive 35 years ago, began a spell that ended with her being hospitalized in August.  The day she was hospitalized, we took my mother-in-law to her doctor in New York City to get an update on her stage three melanoma and discovered that she only has a few months to live.  (Praise God, as I am writing this my mother is being released from the hospital after five weeks of treatment.  However, my mother-in-law is getting much worse and will probably pass away within the next week or two.)  The same time we found these things out, a dear friend announced publicly that he was renouncing the faith and converting to Catholicism.   

Our son who has a severe wheat allergy has been reacting to something else; probably an earlier allergy that has been hiding and is now coming back.  He is awake at night covered in sores much like Job must have been; our son would probably gladly scrape his sores with broken pottery.  Before we moved here he had shown great improvement.  He's six years old and this trial in his life has matured him greatly.  But at times it is nearly intolerable.  The doctor says that it is like having a giant mosquito bite on your body and you can do nothing else but itch it.  He's come close to having several infections because of this.  It's getting under control as of today, but it has been a trial.

What is the Cause?

Why is church planting so intense?  I believe that satan comes against church planting more than other forms of ministry because the local church is the only organization that has Jesus Christ at the Head of it.  Jesus promised the church that the gates of Hell would not prevail against it!  Those words represent a distinct threat to the kingdom of darkness. 

It's more intense than parachurch ministry because the effort to plant a church results in more long term evangelism and Kingdom (of God) building than the individual efforts of believers who are not working to build the local church.   The church is built to duplicate itself whereas parachurch ministries usually die out after the first couple of generations of leadership pass away.  satan will come against godly parachurch ministries, but in my experience, the battle is not as intense.

Keep in mind that the devil is God's devil, as Martin Luther once said.  As Job graphically illustrates, God has him on a short leash.  If God allows his fiery darts to pass through our armor, it is for a reason.  It is for our growth.  Part of the battle is learning how to accept the warfare as a gift from God for our maturity.  I am still learning how to do this.  


The difficulties we have faced have combined at times to drive me to the edge of despair.  I feel the need for fellow elders who can help shoulder the load but we are not ready for that yet.  As a result, I have teetered on the precipice of depression.  By God's grace I have not fallen into it.  Several things have helped greatly and I share them here:

1.  The Word of God.  Expository preaching through the Book of Mark has renewed my confidence in: a) our gracious Lord who heals people with a word, with a touch, and in love.  b) The supremacy of Jesus over the storms (Mark 4).  He is God and He is reliable.  c) The importance of truth.  As I study the Word each week it is food for my soul.  The Word has been a source of comfort and I am reminded daily of absolute truth that does not change even though my circumstances change daily. 

2.  The Church.  The one highlight this summer has been the local church.  People have prayed for us in our trials.  The church is growing numerically and spiritually and it is this growth that has been the one bright spot in our lives.  We are preparing for our first baptism and we should have five or six who are being baptized, Lord willing.    Watching the people of God grow in deeper knowledge and application of His Word is such a joy. 

3.  Prayer.  We met one night last month for an all night prayer meeting. This will become a monthly practice.  We already meet frequently with those in the church who are stirred to pray, in addition to our weekly prayer meeting.  I find my times of prayer to be meaningful, but I have to make time for it to happen.  I am too willing to withdraw from God when I am wounded. 

4.  Family.  In July and August I did something it seems few pastors are willing to do: take a vacation.  I get two weeks of vacation and this year I took both.  I usually take all of the vacation I can get because I am not the head of the church.  Jesus is.  He can do a better job than I with His church.  The time with my family--climbing mountains, paddling canoes, fishing, eating ice cream, and swimming in the pool--is therapeutic.  Praying together and reading the Word and good books together have helped immensely.  My kids need it too.  They need to know that their dad loves them in the midst of the turmoil they are in. 

5.  Repentance.  Whenever trials come it is a time to look inward and see where I have fallen short.  I have to at least consider whether or not the trials are intended as discipline from my loving Heavenly Father.  The Word, prayer and local church involvement all force me to look inward and see where I need to repent.  A couple of weeks ago I made the decision to quit Facebook because it was more of a tool for vain self promotion than it was a ministry.  It was also a time waster.  This and other issues have been repented of and I am beginning to feel fresh power in preaching and living life.  We always need to repent.

6.  Accountability.  I am blessed to have a mentor that I speak with once a week on the phone.  Other close friends have called to check on me.  I am accountable to the North American Mission Board and my supervisor there has been a wonderful support.  We all need people to challenge us directly and indirectly.  I have gotten both from these sources in recent months.

7.  Exercise.  Being active helps so much.  This has been well documented in the field of psychology.  Physical exercise helps battle depression.  It also helps me spiritually because I do some of my best praying when I am walking or hiking.   The physical exertion helps work out stress.  When I skimp on exercise, I can feel the difference physically.  There is a physical aspect to depression. 

8.  The Lord Himself.  All of these things are tools that God uses to carry us through.  However, if they become ends in themselves and not tools underneath the over-arching, all encompassing Person of Jesus we miss the point.  Eternal life is to know Him!  Anything the Lord can do to draw us closer to Himself He will do.  Whether you want to call it spiritual warfare or circumstances in life or some combination thereof, call it what you want.  He will orchestrate our lives to draw us to Him.  It is a sign that we are truly His. 

I hope my experience can be a blessing to someone else.  Please pray for me as I struggle to learn these lessons well.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

When I Met Michael Clarke Duncan

Michael Clarke Duncan, star of The Green Mile, and prolific actor, died on September 3rd.  I've seen a few of his movies and he was an excellent actor.  However, my most singular memory of him comes from meeting him in 2005 or 2006 (I can't remember which, although I am leaning towards 2005) in a "chance" encounter on Venice Beach, CA.  I say "chance" because there really is no such thing as chance or luck when it comes to a world that is governed by a Sovereign God.  Believe it or not, God is even Sovereign on Venice Beach, a place where He is often hated. 

I've had the privilege of bumping into several celebrities while on ministry trips and have had the privilege of at least offering them a gospel tract.  When I see them in public they are usually surrounded by an entourage or security so the possibility of actually engaging them with the gospel is slim.  When I ran into Ted Turner, billionaire and owner of Turner Broadcasting, CNN, etc., etc., in downtown Atlanta while he was walking his dog he wouldn't stop.  That is, until his dog decided to stop and do what he came there to do.  I didn't consider my appearance as I approached Turner: I had an amplifier slung across one shoulder and a backpack across the other.  His security guard held out his hand (a la Heisman move) while he reached under his sport coat with the other, probably for his gun.  I looked like a terrorist.  I held out a Million Dollar Bill gospel tract and said, "Mr. Turner, did you get one of these?  It's a gospel tract."  He was very gracious in spite of his well known hatred of the gospel and said "No thank you" (while he was scooping up the droppings that his dog made on the sidewalk).  I tried offering it to the security guard instead, but he declined it. 

I've also run into Ozzie Osbourne, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Hulk Hogan (twice), and the producer and crew of E Network's since discontinued show, "Wild On."  Perhaps the best encounter was with the producer, but after that, the most receptive was Duncan.  At the very least he took the tract and engaged it.  Others took the tracts, some didn't and few will engage with the content, but Duncan did. 

Duncan was strolling down Venice Beach with a crowd of people following closely behind.  I didn't even know who he was at first.  I had been facing the opposite direction handing out tracts and turned just as Duncan approached on the other side.  It was obvious he was a celebrity but since I didn't know exactly who he was (he was wearing sunglasses and a hat; I wouldn't learn who he was until later) I just offered him the tract as I would have anyone else.  It was a Smart Card from Living Waters.  He asked, "What is this?"  I said, "It's a Smart Card.  You put your thumb on the square for thirty seconds and if you are a good person, it turns green."  He said, "Oh", smiled real big and shared a laugh with the person he was with and put his thumb on the square and walked away.  As I watched him go, he was looking down at the tract, presumably waiting for the square to turn green.  If Duncan's response is typical, when it didn't turn green he probably flipped it over and read this

If Duncan had stuck around, I would have said, "Huh, it didn't turn green.  Do you think there's something wrong with it?  Are you a good person?"  And then I would have taken him through some of the Ten Commandments.  Our lying, stealing, greed, blasphemy and more condemns us before God.  Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, kept the Law perfectly and paid it's penalty as if He was the one who committed these crimes against God.  Jesus was made a sin offering on the behalf of His people.  Those who turn from their sin and trust in Jesus will have Jesus' obedience to the Law credited to their account (2 Corinthians 5:21).  This is our only hope to be found "not guilty" on Judgment Day (Romans 5:8-9).  Jesus rose from the dead, conquering death once and for all (1 Corinthians 15). 

I do not know if Duncan repented and trusted Christ as the result of reading that tract.  I know of others who have.  God uses gospel tracts.  You should too.  They do not "trivialize the gospel" or "demean it"; they communicate it, which is the point, isn't it?  Well designed tracts can reach many thousands of people.  I've been blessed to write and edit quite a few tracts over the last seven years or so.  I've been privileged to hand out tens of thousands of them and use them to share the gospel verbally in countless conversations. 

Tracts historically have a bad reputation because they are poorly printed or badly written.  We were recently at the New York State Fair handing out tracts and I saw a man passing out hundreds of poorly designed tracts and watched as many of them ended up on the ground.  By comparison, the tract we used wasn't thrown out.  That's a pretty good test of a tract's design.

I hope that Duncan did repent and trust Christ.  If he did, he is now in Heaven with his Savior.  If he did not, he is in Hell.  This is the reality all of humanity must face.  A holy God has one way of salvation through Jesus Christ alone.  Have you taken the time and effort to share the gospel?  Everlasting souls are at stake.