The following is a lightly edited transcript.
I have twelve points, some of which we probably won’t have time for. But we’ll discuss those in heaven. These are all on: How do you build a God-focused or God-centered or Godward ministry?
1. God Is Always Relevant
The first one is: believe that God is relevant in himself for people’s lives. Now, let me illustrate what I mean: often in preaching I read things that say to the effect, “Well, after you’ve given some doctrine, then, get practical. Then, use illustrations and get down to where people are.” I’ve never felt comfortable with that, because that’s not the way my life has worked. My life, since my early college days (and probably, if I had a better memory, my early teen days) has been most practically affected by altered views of God without any particular illustrations.
In the early eighties in our church, there was a prayer week in early January. Little did I know that three daughters in one of the families of our church were sexually abused for a long time by a wider family member than the husband or wife. It’d been going on for a long time. That week, they discovered it; it was awful.
Now, I didn’t know this yet. I was to find out in a week. That January, during prayer week, I resolved that I was going to put to the test the “practicality” of the glory of God for himself. I chose Isaiah 6:1–6.
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
I just took that as my text and tried to unpack every phrase in it, and say not a word of why this is relevant to anybody about marriage, or about money, or about sex, or about job, or about anything. It was glorious. Well, then, I found out about this: this couple was sitting there in the congregation, having just learned three or four days before this horrendous news, which is still, this many years later, wreaking havoc in their lives. When I found out, I wondered how they heard that. About two months later the husband came to me, and he said, “These have been the absolute worst months of our lives. And I want you to know that prayer-week sermon has been the rock we’ve been able to stand on.”
Election and Grief
Then, in the same vein, there was a man named Merlin who had multiple sclerosis. He wheeled himself around, and he had an electric wheelchair in our church. Everybody knew Merlin. He was very active about making sure we got handicap access and everything. He had a lot of influence in the church. He was a great man. His wife, Marlace, is still at the church.
We had two services, and between the two services one morning, I heard this scuffle outside. I’m praying and getting my heart ready. It’s now 10:30. It’s time for me to walk into the second service. I walk out, head in, and somebody comes up and says, “Merlin just fell off his chair downstairs. The ambulance is coming. They think he had a heart attack.” I didn’t know what to do, so I go downstairs. A deacon said, “Look, we’ve got this. Go ahead. Just pray as you get in there. Tell people what’s happening.”
Just before I go in, I find out, they say, “He’s dead. He’s dead; Merlin is dead. I walked into the service, waited until the prelude was over, kind of broke in, and called the people to pray. We prayed for Marlace now, who’s in the ambulance heading down the MMC, a few blocks away. I’m wondering, What do I do here? What do I do? Because my sermon text that morning was Malachi 1:1–5, which includes “I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated,” on the sovereignty of God in election. Real “relevant” if your husband just dropped dead, right? I said, “Well, Lord, I don’t know what else to do. I don’t feel given anything else. I will preach this with all that’s in me, because if it’s true, it blesses.”
As we go through the service, there’s a kind of heaviness. The people sing in an unusual way. I launched in. This is half an hour after he died. In the balcony, Marlace, Merlin’s wife, walks in. I said to myself, “What is she doing here? She’s supposed to be down there. Her husband is dead at the hospital.” She walks in and sits by the door. I just went ahead and preached on election, and the absolute glorious, great, sovereign God who does what he pleases in the world without checking in with us at all about how to run the world.
Afterward, I just was wondering, “What is she going to say?” She disappeared. I’m at the door where I always stood. When everybody was almost gone, she came up and gave me the biggest heavy, tearful hug you can imagine. She said, “I just had to come back and get some word. And it was so good.”
When you have enough of those experiences, you don’t worry too much about the relevance of the God-centeredness of a ministry. That’s point number one: believe that it’s relevant.
2. Pray Like Jesus
Number two is: pray for your people the way Jesus taught you to pray, and the way Paul taught you to pray. What is the first request that Jesus taught us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer? “Hallowed be thy name” (Matthew 6:9 KJV) That’s a third-person imperative in Greek. It’s a request. I used to think that “Hallowed be thy name,” “thy kingdom come,” “thy will be done,” were sort of worshipful ascriptions. Then, you got down to ask him for bread and deliverance. That’s not the case; those are all requests.
The first prayer for your people in ministry is: “Father, cause them to hallow your name. Move on my people that they would hallow your name.” I got up this morning in this hotel, pulled the curtains back, and looked out across Austin and said, “Father, make your name hallowed in this place — hallowed, cherished, loved, glorified, honored, set aside as infinitely valuable. Let that happen, make that happen, cause that to happen in this place.” You’ve got to pray that for your people if you want a God-focused ministry.
Or take Paul’s prayer in Colossians 1:9–10. This one’s on my mind because I took it as a text on our New Year’s Eve service.
And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.
Do you pray for your people that they would steadily increase in the knowledge of God? Paul prayed general, sweeping, broad prayers over whole churches. I think, sometimes, we feel like we’re not praying authentically unless we name somebody, have an individual and a specific request — a healing, or a relationship that’s got to get fixed. Paul didn’t pray that way ever in the New Testament. It seems like all of the prayers that are recorded are big, broad, general, sweeping, glorious prayers. Memorize them; it’ll change your prayer life.
My point here is, simply: if you want your people to be God-focused in ministry, then you need to pray that they would be God-focused in ministry. Pray that they would be filled with God. That’s point number two.
3. Portray God as He Really Is
Number three: portray God as he really is in your teaching; portray him as he really is. I brought along a quote here that stunned me a few years ago from Charles Misner, who is a scientific specialist in general relativity theory and a specialist in the thought of Albert Einstein. He said this about Albert Einstein:
I do see the design of the universe as essentially a religious question — that is, one should have some kind of respect and awe for the whole business. It’s very magnificent and shouldn’t be taken for granted. In fact, I believe that is why Einstein had so little use for organized religion, although he strikes me as a basically very religious man. He must have looked at what the preachers said about God and felt that they were blaspheming. [That’s what really struck me because I’m a preacher.] He had seen much more majesty than they had ever imagined. And they were just not talking about the real thing.
Here’s an unbeliever who had seen so much of God, he thought, in his scientific explorations of the universe, that when he went to church, they weren’t talking about the real thing. Does that make you scared that your ministry might be puny — that your ministry might be talking about something that an unbeliever would say, “Excuse me, I thought this was about God?” We’re talking about our little problems — how to get along with whatever, how to make it, how to handle our appetites — just always little teeny stuff, and hardly ever taking God into account.
My third point is: portray the true God. Now, let me be practical there for just a minute and tell you how you might work at that. There are not many books to help you in this. Almost nobody writes about God today — nobody. Because publishers don’t want it. I fight publishers to the death. “You’ve got to have some illustrations here. You’ve got to do it this way. You’ve got to do it this way. People don’t want to read about God. They want to read about their problems. You’ve got to touch their felt needs,” et cetera, et cetera. You fight, and you slog. Then, they let you do it as best as you can.
You’re not going to get much help. You’ve got to go back about three hundred years if you want help. The Puritans wrote about God. I advise all of you to get The Existence and Attributes of God by Stephen Charnock. It’ll take you about ten years to read it; it has me. Because it’s the kind of book that you’ll only read two to three pages at a time. That’s the way I read it. It’s still sitting there. I have not read the whole thing. I’ve been working at it for years — years, I’ve been at it. I underline it and I mark it. It’s the kind of book that he preached to his congregation 350 years ago, in a sustained way, and that takes about 180 pages on the goodness of God. Then 200 pages on the knowledge of God. It’s two volumes, about 600 pages each. It’s all about God, not our problems. It is rich.
Get familiar with the Banner of Truth Trust publisher, and then you’ll have access to the Puritans as they’re being reissued today. There are other authors: Tozer specialized in this. J.I. Packer’s Knowing God is a good flavor of this. R.C. Sproul would be in this train of people.
4. Everything Is Superficial Without God
Number four: show your people that everything is superficial without God as the center of it, no matter how intellectual or academic it is or scientific. Everything is superficial that does not have God at the center of it.
Now, there’s a big university here in town, right? There are many, many scholars at the university, probably, who don’t care anything about God, and who spend their lives working on academic pursuits in philosophy, and psychology, and literature, and anthropology, and history, and the hard sciences, and so on. They would be appalled, of course, if they heard me say this. They would just laugh up their sleeve to say their work is superficial.
It’s very simple, though: if there is a God who rules all things, made all things, understands all things, for whom, as Paul says, all things exists, so that the true meaning of all things is in their relationship to him — in his originating them, sustaining them, and his purpose for them (Romans 11:36; Colossians 1:16). To the degree you leave that out, you become superficial. Superficiality is defined as treating something without reference to its main purpose. If you can deal with something without reference to its main origin, its main sustaining power, and its main reason for being, you’re a superficial dealer in that reality — no matter what you talk about, how much knowledge you have about the details of its inner working. All that’s superficial if the whole thing is hanging in midair, relating falsely to everything.
Here’s the example that I read in a magazine called Biblical Counseling, just this week. David Powlison, who’s a very good writer about biblical counseling in Philadelphia. He said we should relate the old story of the five men and the elephant who are blind to the academy Remember the story? “What is this? That’s a big leaf. What is this? Well, that must be a tree.” (He’s got the leg of the elephant.) “What is this?” (He has the side of the elephant.) “That must be a wall. What is this at the end? This is a rope. What if it’s a boa constrictor?”
Powlison said that that’s really not quite the way it is in the university or the science world. They can see, but they have a severe astigmatism. They are incredibly good at seeing the little teeny bugs that infest the folds of the elephant knee. (The elephant has skin that folds over, and it gets cruddy, and little slimy bugs grow in there.) Scientists see them, and they analyze them, and they name them. They figure when they come and when they go. If you prick it, they say, “This tree bleeds red sap.” And they write essays about red sap and how strange it is that, unexplainably, the sap pulsates. No other trees except this tree with the gray bark and the bugs has pulsating red sap. So they know lots.
We Christians who aren’t scientists are about sixty yards away. We don’t know anything about those knees. We don’t know anything about those bugs.” But we say, “It’s an elephant. It’s an elephant. It’s not a tree. It’s an elephant.” That’s a more helpful illustration than the blind scientist. It’s superficial to say, “I know more about red sap than you do. I know more about the folds in the gray bark than you do. I know more about the pulsating of this strange sap than you do. I know more about these little critters who live in this hot, moist, dark fold,” when they think it’s a tree. It’s an elephant. The universe is an elephant. It’s God’s elephant, and until you get that, everything is superficial.
Worldview Undergirds Education
Now you can do that with your people in a hundred ways. I did it with spelling a few years ago. My son, Ben, was an awful speller. We didn’t discover until the tenth grade that he had a dyslexic problem; I wish we had learned that a lot earlier. In those days in school, I was talking to educators, and some were not all that big on weaving God into everything they did, including spelling. I would say, “You know, spelling has to do with God.” They’d look at me and say, “Right, there’s a Christian spelling.” How do Christians spell ‘cat’?” That’s the way God-centeredness is treated by a lot of people. If you come at them and say, “God has to do with algebra, and he has to do with anthropology, and he has to do with philosophy, and he has to do with anything,” they respond, “Right, there’s a Christian trigonometry.” They smirk and dismiss the whole thing. That’s because they have only thought superficially about reality.
I said, “In school, when you’re teaching spelling, what if a kid raises his hand, and asks, ‘Why do I have to care about the spelling stuff?’ What are you going to say? What are you, teacher, going to say? Well, you might say, ‘Look, if you don’t spell like everybody else spells, if you don’t get on board and join the common spelling, and do it your own way, then you’re not going to be able to communicate.’ ‘Why do I care about communicating?’ Then, what are you going to say?”
This is what the teachers need to do. They don’t just say it: C-A-T, write it down and learn it. You’ve got to help students figure out why they should do it. Why should I care about communicating? Now, you’ve got a Christian answer to that question, and you’ve got a worldly answer to that question. The world would say, “Well, look, if you don’t communicate, you’re not going to make any money. You’re not going to get a good job. You’re going to make a fool of yourself, and your self-esteem is going to plummet.” Those are three good godless answers.
But if you’re a Christian and you believe God relates to everything, then this is how we need to talk in our ministries: if God relates to everything, you might say, “You’re not going to get a good job you.” But you might want to start by saying, “It might be rebellion against God and pride in your own heart that makes you unwilling to submit yourself to the way this word is spelled in the world. It might be that you need to realize that God created language. It’s for him, and he has brought great blessing into the world through communication. In fact, do you not have the most precious reality in the world to communicate — namely, Jesus Christ and his faith?” And on and on the answers could go.
You see, in education — and I mean any level of education from the littlest to the university — as soon as you get one millimeter below the surface, you’re into the worldview issues. And God becomes either central or neglected.
Point number four is: show that everything is superficial unless God is at the center.
5. God Is Sovereign over All
Number five is: cultivate the doctrinal, biblical conviction of God’s sovereignty in all things. You’ve got to have a doctrinal foundation, and the foundation of the sovereignty of God will do more to keep your ministry Godward and God-focused than anything else.
Sovereign over Conversion
Persuade your people and teach your people (of course, if you don’t believe this, then you can’t do this; first, get yourself persuaded) the sovereignty of God in conversion.
The Lord opened Lydia’s heart that she might give heed to the gospel (Acts 16:14). God did that.
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). God did that.
We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:23–24). That effectual call makes it real.
Conversion is a work of God. I find that even people who don’t know zip about Calvinism and Arminianism hear you talk about the sovereignty of God in conversion, or whatever you’re talking about, and come up and say, “Wow, this is hard. What about free will?” If you just ask, “How did you get saved? Tell me about it,” they wind up talking about Calvinists.
I had one girl who was just so angry at me after one sermon. She lived just a few blocks down from where I live. I said, “Let’s walk home together.” On the bridge, walking home, I said, “Tell me about your conversion.” Now, she’s about 6’2” or something like that. When she was growing up, it wasn’t easy being that tall, a 13-year-old girl who’s six feet tall. She said, “When I was growing up, it was really hard. My folks were sort of nominal believers. I knew about the gospel from this youth group I went to. I didn’t know if I wanted to believe it, because I didn’t know if God loved me. One day, I was walking home from school, and some girls from across the street started calling me names.” (She got real teary-eyed at this moment.) She said, “They started calling me names because of how tall and skinny I was.” “Suddenly,” she said, “I didn’t care, because I felt that God loved me. From that moment,” she said, “I think I’ve been a Christian. Something happened.”
I said, “I believe that. I agree with that. Did you do that? Did you decide to do that? Did you decide at that moment not to feel broken and hurt and crushed, or did God do that?” She was real silent the rest of the way across the bridge. You don’t have to beat people up with doctrine. You present the truth, and then you draw out the truth from their own experience. If people are born of God, they know God. They might have some screwy ideas about what he’s like and how he works, but you can help draw them out.
Sovereign over Sanctification
Dealing with the sovereignty of God in sanctification can be harder than justification. Harder than election, harder than final glorification, is showing that our own progress in becoming holy — God is sovereign in that. Yet, you’ve got to teach people he is because he isn’t sovereign there, he’s just not sovereign. If God drops the ball day after day in your life, if he says, “I can’t handle your life, I just can’t handle your sin, I can’t handle your bent toward pride, I can’t handle your bent toward lust, I just don’t know what to do, I am utterly perplexed” — if God’s talking like that, I’m out of here.
God clearly is in charge of my life. I say clearly not because it’s a logical thing, but because the new covenant means that:
I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:27)
Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, . . . equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight. (Hebrews 13:20–21)
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12–13)
God’s sovereignty means that if I goof up this afternoon, he has suffered me to fall, willed me to fall — that is, withheld sanctifying graces from me — for some ultimately good purpose. We need to see that there is an ultimately good purpose, lest we blame him and get mad at him. That’s the great danger I struggle with: I get mad at God that I don’t become a better husband.
I was praying with my little prayer group over there before I spoke, and got all teary-eyed because what the Lord brought to my mind to pray for was that I’d be a more tender husband than 1997. There’s so much anger that wells up inside of me with certain things in my own house. When anger wells up, there’s a hardness that comes into your relationship. When there’s hardness, you can’t be tender. When there’s no tenderness, you can’t communicate. When you can’t communicate, everything goes.
I was praying, “Lord God, please let this be a year where Noël and I experience more tenderness, more warmth, more softness toward one another, and I don’t get so angry about things.” I’ve been married 28 years — 28 years I’ve been working on this. All I know is: he keeps me broken by the slowness of my sanctification. He could do it another way. He could snap his finger and I’d be the most tender man in the world. Just like that, today, I’d be a sinless person. If God wanted to make me sinless, he could make me sinless. He’ll do it when I die. If he could do it when I die, he could do it now. It’s just a matter of time, right? He must have a reason for letting me stumble along in my struggle to trust him. One of the reasons is so that I will never, ever, ever think I can get along without the cross, or think I can get along without the Holy Spirit.
Sovereign over Perseverance
On my mother’s gravestone in Greenville, South Carolina, my dad and I agreed would be the words from 1 Peter 1:5: “Kept by the power of God.” Now, that’s not a reference to dead people in the context. It’s a reference to living people: kept from sin, kept from unbelief, kept from apostasy.
The reason any of you will be a Christian tomorrow morning when you get up is God — not you, not your free will, or not anything like that. You will be a Christian when you get up tomorrow morning, you will have an inclination to pray and read your Bible and trust him because he’s on you and in you and working and keeping. Jeremiah 32:40 — get that verse into your people; that’s a new-covenant verse:
I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me.
Where’s your assurance and your perseverance? It’s in God — not in the decision. I just drive this again and again with my people because American evangelicalism is so decisionistic. All we can think of is: “I prayed the prayer when I was six,” or the Billy Graham crusade, or at a BSU meeting. “I must be safe because I believe in eternal security” or “I prayed the prayer.” They don’t have any sense that God’s doing it, that, “I will put the fear of you in me, and daily, I will work on you and all your stumbling, up and down, to keep you coming back to me.” That’s God’s work.
Sovereign over Big and Small
God is sovereign over the small things in life:
The lot is cast into the lap,
but its every decision is from the Lord.
Or, the big things of life:
He removes kings and sets up kings. (Daniel 2:21)
Sovereign over Suffering
This is something I’ve been thinking of recently. It’s really scary. When suffering comes — horrible, horrible, horrible suffering, unspeakable suffering. There’s a man in our church whose son fell into a grain elevator, and they have these huge augers, and they just killed him. It’s been fifteen years now since that happened. If I was that dad, I think I’d wake up every night picturing that moment: an auger cut my 25-year-old son in half.
Suffering like that is happening right now, folks — this minute. Now, the reason I say that is because most of the people in my church, I think, trust in God and love God; but, if they saw something awful happen — did you read about that little one-year-old baby who was decapitated by an airbag? Picture the mom. Just picture it. You want to scream. She bumps in a parking lot at five miles an hour. Her baby is in a baby chair with a bag right here. This thing hits the baby in the face at 180 miles an hour and knocks his head off — kills the baby, decapitates the baby at the mother’s right hand.
Now, almost every single human being at that moment is going to cry out, “God, where are you?” Now, how do you get your people ready for that moment? I think of my ministry most in those terms, getting my people ready for those moments: a theology, a vision of God that can handle those moments. Now, you can do the Rabbi Kushner thing and say, “He didn’t want it to happen. He didn’t have anything to do with it. He was on vacation.” Rather, we must be able to say what Job said:
Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil? (Job 2:10)
The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord. (Job 1:21) Do you know what he was responding to when he said that? His ten kids died. It probably wasn’t pretty when the wind brought the ceiling down on them and crushed them. They were probably cut in half; their heads were cut off. It was horrible. They may have screamed for half an hour until they died. He said, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.” Satan has a place in that, mind you. Study the first two chapters of Job to get Satan in his proper place. He’s there. He’s ugly. He’s mean. He’s cruel. He’s doing lots. He’s on a leash, folks. God can pull it anytime he wants.
My mother was killed in a car accident outside Bethlehem in Israel, because she and my dad were leading a bus tour of pilgrims into Bethlehem. It was December 16, 1974 and a van load of drunk Israeli soldiers come around a corner, swerved, and hit the bus head on. On top of this van are a pile of 4x4s that become fifty-mile-an-hour missiles. And my mother got hit in the head. I got the phone call eight hours later or so. My brother-in-law said, “Your mother was killed in a bus accident, and your dad took it in the back. They don’t think he’s going to make it.”
Are you ready? Are you ready? Here’s what I did: I hung up the phone, told Noël, my little two-year-old, Karsten. I said, “Mommy is dead, and I’m not sure Daddy’s going to make it.” I went back and knelt down, and cried the evening through — just cried it through. But God never once, by his grace, let me doubt him and his goodness. I wrestled for the life of my dad, and he gave him to me. I thanked him for my mother’s faith. I said, “Lord, if you can’t control the flight of a 4x4, I can’t worship.” I mean, it’s a piece of cake. If Jesus could stand up in a boat and say, “Peace, be still,” and the wind stops, he can cause those planks to miss the bus, can’t he? Of course, he can!
Either we give up and say, “God is not loving and he’s not real,” or we say, “He is sovereign in suffering.”
6. Learn from God-Besotted People
Tell stories about God-besotted people. Read biography, read articles like this from Christianity Today. Do you remember seeing this thing by Steve Saint, the son of Nate Saint, the missionary who got killed in Ecuador fifty years ago last year, ’96? Read this. When you get to this page, stop and wonder. Here’s the son of a man who was killed with nine-foot spears, writing fifty years after with these words, because of new data that had come to his mind by discussing the matter with his father’s killers. Here’s what he wrote, “As they described their recollections, it occurred to me how incredibly unlikely it was that the Palm Beach killing took place at all. It is an anomaly that I cannot explain outside of divine intervention.”
I read that the first time, and I said, “I didn’t read that right. I can’t apprehend what he wrote.” That’s the opposite of what he wrote. Americans don’t say that. Let me read it again to see if you heard it right. “As they described their recollections, it occurred to me how incredibly unlikely it was that the Palm Beach killing [of my dad by nine-foot spears] took place at all. It’s an anomaly I cannot explain outside of divine intervention.” God killed my dad.
Tell stories about God-besotted people who are so consumed with the reality of God, that everything is questionable but God; instead of joining the American culture where God is questioned for everything. I say: everything is questionable but God.
7. Set an Example
Bible-saturation, wartime lifestyle, prayer as the visible engine of your ministry, and love as the evidence of his all-sufficiency in your life.
1. Model authentic worship.
What I mean by that is, whether you’re a worship leader or not, everybody’s watching you. Do you worship? Or do you prepare your notes and get ready for your talk during worship? I get so upset when I go to churches sometimes and the poor worship leader is doing his best to help these people get connected with the living God for twenty or thirty minutes, and the pastor is up there flipping through his notes. That is the worst possible example to set. Authentically worship. Let your people see you connected. Let them see in you that he matters in your life more than your talk matters.
2. Saturate yourself with the Bible.
You need to memorize the Bible, folks — not the whole thing (though, a few people have done that) — but a lot of it. Your people will know whether you’re in the word by whether it oozes. Spurgeon used to say about John Bunyan that if you prick him, he bleeds Bible. Do you bleed Bible? Or do you have to constantly open your Bible up like I did? I couldn’t get the verse right a minute ago because I hadn’t reviewed it.
We just started a big Bible memory program in our church for everybody — a passage a week. We’re challenging everybody in our church to learn 52 passages in 1997 because we believe that the devil comes down with the sword of the Spirit. The Bible is the word of God. Saturate your life with God’s word, and then you’ll be a Godward leader.
3. Live like it’s wartime.
If you look like everybody else, if you’ve got to have the biggest house in the suburbs, and have the nicest car, and have the biggest and fattest retirement program, and wear the most up-to-date clothing, and they see that, then forget it. You just kind of cultivating more of the American way. You’re just kind of adding Christianity on to what’s there. “Don’t change it. Don’t call it into question. Just stick it on we’ll be happy with you. But if you call into question our lifestyle by your lifestyle, then you’re just making God too awkwardly central.”
I say wartime lifestyle as opposed to simple lifestyle, because in a war you need B-52 bombers, and they cost $500 million. You don’t make that kind of money raising carrots in northern Minnesota.
4. Make prayer the visible engine.
An engine that’s running has a purr to it. Can people hear the engine that runs your ministry? Can they hear it, or is it always just tucked out of the way? Opening prayer, closing prayer. That’s not it, folks. Opening in prayer and closing in prayer is not it. Saturating in prayer, seasons of prayer, lingering in prayer, fasting in prayer — so that they know this person is desperate for God.
5. Love and keep loving.
Love is an evidence of God’s all-sufficiency in your life. The reason you can love with no strings attached and lay down your life, late at night, up early, energy poured out is because God is all to you.
8. No One Serves God
Teach your people that they cannot serve God, and dare not — lest they blaspheme. God is not
served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. (Acts 17:25)
There is a kind of serving God that is blasphemy. Or take Mark 10:45:
Even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
“The Son of Man came not to be served.” Period. Well, there isn’t period there, but we need to put a period there and stop, or we don’t hear it. We just jump immediately to the next clause. I find that one of the most revolutionary things you can teach to people about God-centeredness is to say, “Watch out, lest you serve God. Watch out, lest you blaspheme by your Christian service.” They respond, “What are you talking about? Paul called himself a servant in every epistle.” Then you unpack those verses and you restructure the analogy. What does service of God mean? How do you serve Godward, in a God-centered way? Here are a few key texts:
[Let] whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 4:11)
Is that a philosophy of ministry or what? The giver gets the glory. If you think that you’ve got it mustered up to do it, you get the glory. If you are bankrupt, broken, helpless, weak — with an all-sufficient God — he’s going to get the glory. You’ve got to breed this mindset of the danger of serving God into your people, so that they’ll always be thinking, “Well, how can I lead a Bible study? How can I lead worship? How can I witness? How can I talk to my wife, so that I’m not acting in my own strength?” Here’s one other text to help you in that:
No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. (Matthew 6:24)
Now ask yourself, How do you serve money? How do you serve money? The answer is not help money out, meet money’s needs. The answer is: you serve money by devoting energy and thought and time and effort and creativity to positioning yourself always to benefit from money. “I want to benefit from money in this investment. I want to benefit from money in this speaking engagement. I want to benefit from money in this way of increasing the budget. I want to benefit from money in this purchase.” You’re always structuring your life around how to benefit from money.
That’s exactly the way you serve God. That’s why you can’t do both. Devoting energy, and time, effort, and creativity to always posturing yourself and maneuvering yourself so that you are under the blessing of God, always benefiting from God. I picture God’s grace — future grace — as a waterfall of blessing, just gorging and gushing out of the heart of God. If you’re not standing under the waterfall, it’s not going to help you any.
And the waterfall moves. I hope it moved to Austin last night. I was praying a year ago when the invitation came: I got a wife and three kids at home and two kids elsewhere, and I got a church depending on me, and I’ve got services on Christmas night, and services on New Year’s Eve night, and I’ve got to preach next Sunday, and I’m going to stay up all night Friday. We have an all-night prayer meeting tomorrow and I’ll be up all night Friday. I said, “Lord, this is a dumb time to go to Austin — really dumb.” But I felt in my bones the waterfall is moving to Austin. You want to be under it? Go to Austin. That’s the way I try to live my life.
That’s the service of God: let him who serves, serve under the waterfall, so that the waterfall gets the glory for the saturation and the energizing.
9. Transpose Joy
Help your people transpose natural joys into spiritual joys. Transpose is a musical term: you’re going up a key here. Here’s what I mean: I’m a Christian Hedonist, and I believe that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Therefore, the pursuit of our joy in God is essential if we’re to glorify him. That’s what I’m going to say tomorrow morning. If you push that in your ministry, the pursuit of your joy in God, you know what’s going to happen? People are going to come out of the woodwork to say, “I don’t experience God like that, and I don’t think I’m wired that way. I relate to God differently than that. You talk like a really emotional person, and your personality is a certain way. I am not that way. Therefore, I don’t think your theology even works for me.”
I remember a guy in our church (he’s still there), who came to me fifteen years ago, and said essentially that. I’ll name him Joe. He said, “I just do not experience life that way. I’m not wired to experience joy and emotion the way you talk about it.” I said, “Wait a minute. Tell me, what’s the most moving experience you’ve had in the last five years? Just anything at all — sports, whatever. Just tell me anything. Something that really, really moved you.” He thought for a minute and he said, “I remember a time in the Boundary Waters.” (This is Northern Minnesota, up there where they don’t allow any loud, noisy snowmobiles.) “We were camping, and the stars were so thick. It was quiet. There wasn’t a sound. I was there with my little boy and my wife. That was awesome.” I said, “Alright, you can do it. I know you can. I’ve seen it now. Here’s what I want you to do: next time that happens, or even use your imagination to go back there, when that seemingly natural “being moved” gets in you, consciously transpose it up a key by saying, ‘God made those stars. God made this child. God made this woman. God made this silence. All of this is screaming glory: “night unto night pours forth knowledge.”’ Tell yourself, preach yourself the truth, that if this is precious, if this is moving, if this is glorious, if I can taste this on the tongue of my soul, how much more than the God who made it and loves me enough to give it to me freely tonight?’ Then, consciously transpose that joy up off of the night onto God. Do that again and again, and you will learn what it means to rejoice in God.”
I commend to you: teach your people transposition. C.S. Lewis has got a sermon called “Transposition” in the book called The Weight of Glory.
10. Turn Off the TV
This is the last point: turn off the television. We don’t have a television — haven’t had one in our marriage for 28 years (except when we borrow it to see some bowl games because of my 13-year-old’s pressure, which we did). That’s where I increased in my conviction that we’ve done the right thing. I used to think, back in the beginning of my life, before I had children and before I was in the ministry, that if I don’t have a television — I grew up as an absolute TV addict: I’d watch three or four hours of TV every night. I did homework in front of TV, I ate in front of TV, until I went away to college. Then I got weaned and slowly awoke from a dream, a numbing, desensitized incapacity to feel glory.
My biggest problem with TV is not that you can go up in your room this afternoon and turn on hard sex. That’s the name of one of the videos you could get. That’s not my main issue. Though, that’s a huge challenge to your sanctification here. My main issue is the absolute banality of it all — the silliness of it all, the small-mindedness of it all. Even if you’re watching a supposedly good program, you get interrupted over and over again with ads that are appealing to your lowest common denominator: They’re titillating your sexual desires. They’re tying into your covetousness. But mainly, they’re just God-neglecting. He’s gone. He is gone — gone, gone out of the universe of TV. Or he is there in the most stupid, silly way, like in The Princess Bride. “Marriage. Marriage” — that awful clergyman, that’s Christianity according to the movie That ugly guy who can’t pronounce anything is Christianity. I just plead with you: I’m bearing witness on the weakness in my life here.
I don’t chew gum, either. Now, this is really ridiculous. I do. If you give me a stick, I’ll chew it. But do you know why I don’t buy gum? I chew all five sticks in five minutes. That’s my personality. I have an addictive personality. When I taste something good, I want lots of it. I just say, “If that’s the way I’m wired, I better get focused on the right things.” When I go to visit my mother-in-law for four weeks, and she has a TV, I watch a lot of it — mainly, because I think, “I want to be educated.”
You have got to realize that television is a numbing phenomenon. Anybody that can get up from two or three hours of television, walk into their bedroom, kneel down, and have a mighty and powerful experience with the living God is an absolute spiritual Superman. I can’t do it. I want to meet God; therefore, I turn it off.