Category Archives: Spirit-Led Leading

Are Our Priorities Right?

What are your top priorities for your growth and development as a Christian? If you are a parent, what are you emphasizing to your children to guide them into adulthood? If you are a youth group leader or mentor, what spiritual guidance are you offering to ground and direct those under your care. If you were on the Board of Trustees for a Christian college or seminary, apart from emphasizing education and developing skills, what would you most want the students to learn and to gain from their education at your school? In other words, how should we be preparing ourselves and the next generation of Christian leaders to make significant contributions in our troubled and needy world? Are our priorities right?

Recently, I was given the opportunity to answer these questions for the sake of the school where I teach, the Myanmar Institute of Theology (MIT), in Yangon, Myanmar (Burma). The school theme that I proposed for the academic year, “Growing in Christ, Preparing for Service,” was chosen by the MIT faculty members as particularly fitting for our 1200+ students. What follows below is the Bible study that I prepared to present this theme to the student body and all of our constituents. While the context is clearly a particular Christian college and seminary in Southeast Asia, this teaching applies to Christians everywhere. The writers of the New Testament insist over and over again that we need to keep our spiritual priorities straight—in our personal lives, families, churches, youth groups, and Christian schools. So much is at stake.

“Growing in Christ, Preparing for Service”

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MIT students in Christian Spirituality class

This year’s theme, Growing in Christ, Preparing for Service, is intended to concisely articulate the core theological and spiritual foundation of Myanmar Institute of Theology (MIT) and to remind us all of why MIT primarily exists. In other words, the primary purpose of this theme is to encourage MIT Liberal Arts Program (LAP) and Theology students, faculty, and staff to focus on developing their relationship with Christ as their first priority, and to humbly dedicate themselves to serving Christ, church, and country with greater knowledge, skills, and spiritual vitality.

Drawing largely on Jesus’ teaching on the two greatest commands and on Paul’s interpretation of the Gospel, we can say that the primary purpose for every human being is to know, love, and serve God, who is revealed preeminently in Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.[1] For Christians, this life purpose is not simply a matter of doctrine; it cannot be fulfilled just by believing or by being baptized. Rather, it requires growing in our relationship with Jesus Christ all our lives. Our vocation—that is, our unique work in the world—flows from this relationship into a lifetime of service, no matter what our particular position, assignment, or activity may be. We may be called to serve primarily in the Church, the broader society, or simply at home with our families, but every Christian has the same general vocation to follow in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ, who said of himself, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and give his life…for many” (Mark 10:45). In short, then, our theme, Growing in Christ, Preparing for Service, draws our attention to our top spiritual priority of knowing and loving God in Christ more and more, and to MIT’s chief responsibility from a biblical point of view to prepare men and women to serve Christ and the Church in a wide variety of ways upon graduation.

Our Bible study will take Paul’s teaching on the purpose of the Church and the significance of growing in Christ as our point of departure. We will then look how Peter contextualized Paul’s ecclesiology, teaching marginalized and persecuted Christians how they should live and serve Christ in a religiously pluralistic world, and what kind of preparation is needed to do so. Finally, a few comments will be offered on the relevance of this biblical teaching and theme to MIT.

The priority of growing in Christ according to Paul

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New Testament Theology students discussing the Bible

The Church was established by the preaching of the Gospel, the working of the Holy Spirit through its proclamation, and the common faith of those who put their trust in Jesus Christ for their salvation.[2] According to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, believers in the Christian Gospel become members of the body of Christ, and together form the universal Church (1 Cor. 12). Further, God gave spiritual gifts to every member of the body of Christ (12:7). In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul focuses on a subset of the body to emphasize particular gifts given to those who are in positions of leadership—namely, apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, in order both to identify these leadership gifts and to discuss the purpose for which they were given.[3]

In general, Paul taught that God gives spiritual gifts among the members of the body of Christ in order that they may minister to, serve, and build up one another. In 1 Corinthians, Paul simply says that the gifts are given for “the common good” (12:7), meaning the good of the body of Christ (the Church). All believers in Christ have the responsibility to serve in ways that strengthen the body. Leaders have the additional duty “to prepare God’s people for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up” (4:11-12). To be built up means that all the members of the body of Christ would “reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (4:13). When the body of Christ is mature, they “will no longer be infants,” liable to being misled and confused by false teaching (4:14). Instead of being crippled by instability and division, they would “grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ” (4:15, emphasis added), as the whole body “grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (4:16, emphasis added).

In Paul’s vision for the Church, everyone is expected to keep growing in Christ and to be actively serving one another for the common good and the upbuilding of the whole Church. If we have accurately summed up the priorities for the body of Christ as a whole, how much more important is growing in Christ, preparing for service for the Church’s future leaders.  

The necessity of growing in Christ as preparation for service according to Peter

When we turn to the Apostle Peter’s teaching, we see how he contextualizes Paul’s teaching on growing in Christ for Christians who were marginalized by the broader, religiously pluralistic society and sometimes even persecuted for their faith.[4] In the face of such hardship and danger, he urged Christian believers to go deeper into their own relationship with God in Christ, to strengthen their self-understanding as the people of God, and to prepare themselves intellectually as well as spiritually, morally, and behaviorally, so that their witness to their largely nonChristian neighbors would be more clear, vibrant and persuasive.[5] They were not to shy away from suffering for Christ. Yet, at the same time, they should avoid unnecessary persecution (that which comes from outright rebellion or immoral behavior) and live exemplary lives for all to see. He urged them to “live such good lives among the pagans though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Pet. 2:12).

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MIT undergraduates discussing the relevance of Christianity for today

To live up to our calling and to the demands of serving Christ requires ongoing spiritual growth and development. So, Peter says, “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Pet. 2:2-3, NIV, emphasis added). Peter writes elsewhere, “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18, NIV, emphasis added). He knows well that his readers already have experienced the grace of God and know the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior. Yet, he also knows that the Christian faith calls us to keep growing in our knowledge and experience of God in ever-new and more meaningful ways.

Throughout his letters, Peter gives many practical teachings on what it means to grow spiritually and prepare better for Christian service. In one place, Peter urged his readers, “In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord” (1 Pet. 3:15a, NIV). Acknowledging Jesus Christ as our Lord, or leader, is not something a believer does just once at baptism. Rather, surrendering to the lordship of Christ is ongoing struggle and process that continues throughout our lifetimes. This, too, is an important part of growing in Christ. According to New Testament writers, accepting Christ as our Savior and Lord is an essential turning point in our spiritual journey, but it is only that—a significant turning point (not, endpoint). Bending our knee to Christ as Lord repositions us to eagerly pursue a fuller and more significant relationship with Christ on an ever-deepening basis. Then, as we grow, Peter tells his readers, “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Pet. 3:15b, NIV). Here Peter calls Christians to keep growing intellectually and to develop communication skills to talk about their faith (and not hide or minimize it) with those who don’t know Jesus Christ. And so forth.

In sum, Peter teaches Christians how they should think of themselves and respond to nonChristians in the face of marginalization, misunderstanding, ignorance, and even persecution in a religiously pluralistic context. They are to neither hide from nor belligerently fight against those who oppose or mistreat them. He didn’t advise them to change their theology or view themselves as inferior to the majority and the powerful. Instead, they should sharpen their self-understanding as “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that [they] may declare the praises of him who called [them] out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once [they] were not a people, but now [they] are the people of God; once [they] had not received mercy, but now [they] have received mercy” (1 Pet. 2:9-10). Then they should learn how to better reflect their faith, hope, and love to the nonChristians surrounding them in intelligent and positive ways. In short, the best response for Christians in a hostile, religiously pluralistic setting is to keep growing in Christ and to prepare themselves to serve both within the Church and within the broader society.

Conclusion: Implications for MIT

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Lecture on the Christian faith to entering MIT undergraduates

So, how does this Bible study apply to MIT? Just this. For MIT to fulfill its duty to Myanmar Baptist Convention (MBC) and the churches it serves, we must be diligent to teach our students how to grow in Christ. We must adequately prepare them for a lifetime of service. And, since many MIT graduates will be given significant opportunities to lead in the Church and society, we must also teach them how to lead and how to help others to grow in Christ and to be humble, faithful servants of Christ.

You may be wondering, does this Bible study suggest that growing in Christ should come at the expense of academic excellence, sharing the Gospel, participating in inter-faith dialogue, or working to address societal ills and needs? No, not at all. All these endeavors and missions remain important objectives for Christians, and especially for MIT students and graduates. Yet, growing in Christ is the most important priority, and is the pre-requisite for all our intellectual, academic, mission, and societal activities. Why? Because Jesus taught that the only way we can hope to bear fruit in our lives is by maintaining a close (“abiding”) relationship with him (John 15). Paul and Peter taught the same thing, as we have briefly seen in this Bible study. They only added that our personal relationship with God in Christ needs to keep growing and deepening as well. They taught that we must become more and more like Christ and learn how to relate better to nonChristians in a religiously pluralistic world.

The implications of this Bible study for MIT, as well as for the broader Church in Myanmar, seem obvious. The Church’s current leaders (including MIT faculty and staff) would teach, preach, and model the importance of growing in Christ as the top priority for Christians and the essential pre-requisite for everything we want to do in the name of Christ. Throughout the school year, MIT would actively promote the spiritual life of students, faculty, and staff (helping each one to grow in Christ) while organizing the school’s curriculum and student activities with the ultimate purpose of a MIT education in mind, namely, to prepare future leaders to serve Christ faithfully and fruitfully in their various leadership roles. Future leaders (including MIT students) would embrace these priorities for themselves and take personal responsibility to pursue them in every way they can.

May God bless MIT and all the churches that support and are served by MIT as, together, we keep growing in Christ, preparing for service.

[1] Matt. 22:37-39; Col. 1:9-28.

[2] See, e.g., Acts 2; Rom. 1:15-16; 10:6-17; 1 Cor. 15:1-11; Gal 1:1-9; 3:1-5; 4:4-7.

[3] Eph. 4:8-11; Cf. 1 Cor. 12:1-10; Rom. 12:4-8; 1 Pet. 4:10-11.

[4] 1 Pet. 1:5; 2:4, 11; 3:14; 4:12-16.

[5] 1 Pet. 1:13-16; 2:5, 9-17, 19-21; 3:8-16.

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No Shortcuts

Adapted from the charge to the graduates at a seminary in Myanmar.

1500 people attend Commencement

“Don’t Confuse Seeking God with Serving God”

In my last posting, I praised the many dedicated faculty members and pastors I have met in Myanmar, who have inspired me with their sacrificial service. However, as time has gone on, I have grown uncomfortable with some of what I have been seeing.

I’m still very impressed and challenged by their “theology of the cross” (theologia cruxis) as they live out their calling. Yet, at the same time, I’m concerned for them. Some of these inspirational individuals are burning themselves out and putting their physical, emotional, and spiritual health at risk by trying to please everyone who demands something from them. Many simply do not feel free to take time to nurture their own relationship with God—to experience the love of God and refreshment from the Holy Spirit—because they are so busy serving Christ.

In my address to the graduates, I encouraged them to let their passion for ministry  flow, but to not think that passion and dedication alone are enough for long-term service. No matter how great the needs of others, all of us need a vital relationship with Jesus and the Holy Spirit to truly experience the full life God intends for us and to have the needed power to serve Christ’s purposes most effectively.

Here’s what was said:
“Most of you will be entering or returning to a Christian culture that will demand everything from you as a pastor or Christian worker. Those of you who are the most dedicated are also the most at risk of being exploited by others, because you will feel guilty if you do not try to do everything everyone wants you to do.
Many of you will take jobs where others will expect you to be available 7 days a week, and if you are not, you will be criticized. There will be great pressure for you to try to meet everyone’s needs.
Well, guess what? You can’t. You cannot meet everyone’s needs. There will always be more requests, more needs, more demands on your time. And when you find yourself being pulled in too many directions, with too little sleep, with too much pressure, what are you going to do then? Keep trying harder until you collapse from exhaustion? Or worse, drop over dead from a heart attack, as has happened?
The problem is that too often we think that having a good relationship with God means that we will work ourselves to death trying to serving God. And what that often translates to is that we falsely equate pleasing others with pleasing God. And so we think we cannot say “no” to the demands of others, without saying “no” to Christ.
The truth however is quite different. Sometimes, we have to say “no” to others in order to say “yes” to Christ. Sometimes we have to say “no” to service, to say “yes” to seeking God.
I can’t give you a formula to help you know in every situation when you should say yes or when you should say no to the demands of your church or others. But I can tell you that Jesus is quite clear that the most important priority we have is to abide in him. He was also quite clear when he said that loving others was our second priority—not our first. Our first priority is to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength; and then to love others out of our experience of the love of God.
When we put pleasing others above knowing and loving God, we risk losing touch with the real source of life, the real source of power, the real source of love, grace and joy.  Your culture may demand that you put serving others first, but who are you going to obey? If you don’t draw some boundaries and carve out time and space for your relationship with God, with your family, with yourself, you are going to lose your ability to serve as God intends.
Some day, you will be honored at the great Graduation Celebration in Heaven. I assure you, I will not be the commencement speaker that day. Jesus will be. The words you will long to hear will not be what we are saying to you today, “Well done good and faithful students.” You are going to want to hear, “Well done good and faithful servants.”
But do not think that Jesus is only going to be concerned about how much work you did or how many people you pleased. He will also care about how much you loved him and how you much you learned to live as one with God. “
Bottom line: Yes, we are called to sacrificial service for Christ. Yet, our ability to be the leaders, ministers, and servants God intends for us in very demanding circumstances requires a vital relationship with God. Spirit-led leadership means just that, it is “Spirit-led.” And the only way we are going to be Spirit-led is if we are continually nurturing our relationship to Christ through the Spirit, as the source of inspiration, wisdom, and power for effective Christian service.
There are no short cuts.

Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5, NRSV)

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It’s Who You Are, Not Just What You Do

This is the second posting in a series on Spirit-filled pastoral leadership.

When you walk in the doors of the church on Sunday morning, what are you most hoping to communicate and accomplish? What is your message? I’m not talking about just the topic of the sermon, but also the intention of your heart and mind toward everyone you encounter throughout the day.

Spirit-led leaders seek to be conduits of the Holy Spirit, so that they can show others as well as tell others about God. They are authentic, transparent, humble leaders, who are willing to share their own weaknesses and struggles, while simultaneously expressing confidence in God. They are concerned with developing who they are as well as with improving the quality of what they do, and they also care about how they do whatever it is they are doing for Christ.

As you well know, people come to church for many reasons other than their own spiritual revitalization and growth, and many have expectations (even, demands) that are not necessarily realistic or aligned with the purposes of the church. Some believers will mistreat you, misjudge you, annoy you or frustrate you. It’s not easy to be a pastor or spiritual leader, even in the best of circumstances.

However, being the best leader, the best example, the best pastor you can be is still your calling. It’s up to you to help others know what the church is, why believers gather together on Sundays, and what their purpose in life is. If you don’t help them to get a picture of the ultimate goal of discipleship—to become more and more like Christ in their heads, hearts, and behavior—who will?

For example, on Sundays (or whenever you gather for worship and fellowship), you can:

• Signal the congregation that you are a follower of Christ (not yourself, not some other guru or celebrity), seeking to be transformed by God over time (not by your own effort alone, or in some once and for all quick fix program) in ways that fit with God’s will for your life as best you can discern it. (You are seeking to fulfill God’s purposes not your own.)

• Go to church to meet God and to help others meet God themselves.

• Check your ego and personal agenda at the door.

• Work to resolve whatever conflicts exist before you arrive on Sunday morning, or else make a plan to resolve them peacefully and constructively as soon as possible. Forgive, if need be. Get help when you cannot forgive.

• Consciously seek to connect with God, honor Christ, and listen for the Spirit as the guiding priorities in all that you do—especially in worship.

• When leading worship, forget the theatrics and quit making stupid jokes that have nothing to do with the purpose of the morning. Humor can add a lot, providing you are not trying to draw attention to yourself and you are not distracting the congregation from God.

• Be yourself, be real, care, and let your words express the thoughts and feelings you have for the congregation (the ones that come from the Spirit, that is). Let them flow out of your own prayer life, your study of Scripture, your desire to bless the congregation.

No matter what the size of your building, budget, staff or congregation, every pastor or Christian leader can aspire to model authentic faith and spiritual maturity. You can’t be perfect, but you can make choices every day that model sincere faith and commitment to Christ. You can set your intention on living a spiritually vital life, and you can take action to live authentically.

What helps you to be your best, Spirit-led self on Sunday mornings?

May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones. (1 Thessalonians 3:12-13, NIV)

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It’s the Spirit Stupid!

This is the first in a series on Spirit-filled pastoral leadership.

2 different churches within two days—one that has over 17,000 members and one that has 75 on Sunday mornings. Willow Creek Church in South Barrington, Illinois, has satellite churches and tentacles throughout the world. Faith Baptist Church at Mill Creek has been declining for 15 years, but is now excited about moving into a new building in three weeks.  The former just hosted 7500 pastors and church leaders on site for its annual Leadership Summit, with tens of thousands more viewing via satellite both domestically and (soon) internationally. The latter church hosted just me.

Both events were inspirational and electric, but very different. At Willow, some of the most articulate and capable leaders shared insights and wisdom with us, and we were led in worship by phenomenally talented musicians. The Leadership Summit provided a unique, mountain top type of experience that encouraged me to keep my vision big, my heart open, my will surrendered to God, and my efforts focused and dedicated. I left on a high, more motivated than ever to develop Faith, Hope and Love Global Ministries (see http://www.fhlglobal.org).

In contrast, the little church, also in the western suburbs of Chicago, could not begin to compete with the quality of speakers, music or leadership. Yet, the funny thing is, I felt just as motivated to worship and serve God after my time there as I did at Willow! How could that be? Yes, I was the speaker, and I did like what the speaker had to say! But the energy, the power, the joy, the quality of conversation and fellowship for me came from something else, or rather, Someone else.

Ah yes. It’s the Holy Spirit that makes the difference in morning worship—and in every other aspect of our life. What was your church experience like on Sunday morning? How about on Monday morning?

It’s so easy to look at a church like Willow Creek or Saddleback, or at leaders like Bill Hybels or Rick Warren, and feel awed, intimidated or even discouraged (if you try to compare yourself or your ministry to theirs). We look at our little churches (over 50% host fewer than 100 people on Sunday morning) and even medium sized churches (100-499 people, representing another 40% or so of all Protestant churches according to 1998 statistics) and wonder how we can compete with the mega-churches or superstar pastors. Or, if we’re not into competing, we may just feel discouraged by our limited resources or feel the weight of trying to lead people who don’t be to be led or who don’t want to change. Sure it helps to have a multi-million dollar budget, topnotch staff members, superb facilities, and sensational music, but are these the most important characteristics of a truly thriving church?

What I witnessed again a couple of Sundays ago is the same thing I experience when I speak at chapel at HEAL Africa in the Democratic Republic of Congo to women waiting for fistula reparative surgery and their doctors and nurses. When Jill and I are sharing our testimony with the 50 member Chemin Neuf community in Chartres, France, or simply participate in their praise and prayer service, we can feel the vitality “in the air”. When we preach to 50 or 75 people in small churches in our own country, or teach seminarians in Myanmar, lead workshops or continuing education classes, or facilitate prayer experiences on the labyrinth, what makes the difference is not the size of the group, the drama, the technology. It’s something else.

The quality of the experience is rarely about how many people are present. It’s about the Holy Spirit’s activity in our midst. It’s about the authenticity of those who share. It’s about the love that is offered and felt. It’s about how well God is genuinely honored, and the leaders humbly use their gifts rather than stroke their own egos or otherwise serve their own agendas from their position of leadership.

One of the speakers at Willow Creek’s Leadership Summit talked about the churches that have “it”. He couldn’t define what the it was, but he seemed to know if a church had it or didn’t. He didn’t want to identify “it” with the Holy Spirit, and deny that churches that don’t have “it” have the Holy Spirit. Yet, from a biblical perspective, how can explain the “it” without referring to the power, filling, and flow of the Holy Spirit?

I am not into judging who has “it” and who doesn’t. Rather, I want to hold up hope for every Christian leader, pastor and minister for their ministries. I have been in seeming dead worship services, and have led a few myself. Yet, I also know the experience of a Spirit-filled and Spirit-led ministry—from worship services to using my gifts in public settings to individual encounters on a daily basis, some planned and some entirely spontaneous. I know the difference.

I believe God intends to work in us and through each of us in more powerful ways that we can imagine—and the key is not church size, budget, technology, and superstar staff—as helpful as each of these things can be. The biggest factor by far is the Spirit. I pray that I can remember that every day.

What do you think is the key to making your life and leadership more Spirit-filled and Spirit-led?

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Spiritual Leadership

Our world is crying out for better leadership in all spheres of life–government, church, schools, NGOs, you name it.

What is really needed, though? Do our existing leaders lack knowledge? wisdom? sophistication? skills? diplomacy? humility? courage? faith?

There’s obviously not one answer that fits every leader, and the list of how any individual leader could grow may be endless–having room for personal and professional growth is part of what it means to be human.

But something fundamental needs to change that applies to every leader–for the sake of the Church, our society, and our world. That something is how we understand who we are and why we are alive in this world at all. The more leaders could see themselves as precious children of God, created to experience the love of God and live out their calling in love, the more leaders would be able to function powerfully and effectively–the more leaders would be capable of meeting the incredible challenges in today’s world.

When I say experience the love of God, I mean having a sense of loving embrace by God. For some the experience may come as a gentle calling of their name; for others, there will be an overwhelming conviction that they are being called to bend their knee to their Creator. In the dynamic relationship that is formed, there is acceptance, forgiveness, submission, and cooperation. There is release, joy, lightness of being, and love. There is life.

When I say live out their calling in love, I mean leaders will see all that they do as an opportunity to bring God’s love to bear on their sphere of influence. There will be justice, compassion, mercy, and intelligent systems that serve the people well. There will be courage, strength, and a fierce opposition to any force that seeks to undermine the good of the people. Leaders will value life, preserve life, and promote the fullest expression of life.

What we need, then, are leaders who see themselves first and foremost as spiritual leaders. They value their relationship with God above all else, and then see their vocation as an outgrowth of their spiritual life. More, they both consciously and subconsciously draw on God as the wellspring for their entire life.

Leaders today need many skills, abilities and resources to lead effectively. But, in my opinion, the greatest lack is spiritual depth and vitality.

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