I don’t like adversity! I like things to go as planned. I like all the ducks to be in nice neat little orderly rows. My heart sinks when adversity comes because my gut reaction is to assume that adversity is always a gigantic disadvantage. We don’t want to be the underdog or feel like we picked the short straw in life.
Sadly, by viewing adversity as a tremendous negative we often create self-fulfilling prophecies. We lose because we think we’re going to lose. We fail because we think adversaries have the advantage. In reality, the reverse is true. Adversity can be a tremendous advantage in life. I know it sounds crazy, but adversity can actually be the catalyst for your greatest achievements. Lots of anxiety can be avoided by simply recalibrating the way we think about, and react to, adversity.
Adversity serves to sharpen and reveal what was already inside of you in the first place. If you are faithless, adversity pushes that to the surface. If you are fearful, adversity pushes that to the surface. If you lack integrity, adversity reveals it.
If you are strong, adversity reveals strengths you didn’t even know you had. If you are anointed, adversity forces you to dig deep into wells you didn’t know existed. If you are prayerful, adversity takes you to places in prayer you did not know were possible. For example, Gideon didn’t know he was a mighty man of valor until adversity combined with the voice of God revealed what was already inside of him (Judges 6:12).
People don’t backslide because of adversity. They backslide because adversity revealed their heart. People aren’t anointed because of adversity. Adversity just reveals what was already on them.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Gladwell makes several observations about the biblical account of David’s victory over Goliath. He points out that most readers have understandably incorrect misconceptions about David’s underdog status in that conflict. Yes. Goliath was bigger, and stronger, and heavily armed with powerful conventional weapons. Certainly, Goliath was intimidating and imposing; he had the appearance of advantage. However, any modern battle strategist would tell you that being light, fast, mobile, and having a long-range weapon constitutes a distinct advantage over a big, slow, cumbersome opponent carrying a close range weapon. David was viewed as the underdog, but in a modern context he would likely be considered the favorite in that fight.
Gladwell misses a crucial point in his book, a point that makes all the difference. While it’s true that David might not have been quite the underdog most people considered him to be, he was only equipped for that victory because of the adversity God had allowed in his life while tending his father’s sheep. In other words, God was preparing him for victory with every season of difficulty he endured. Every adversity God allows you to endure prepares you for a greater victory in the future.
It’s hard in the difficult moments to see Goliath as anything but terrible adversity. But, adversity (Goliath) is really a God given opportunity. David only escaped the obscurity of tending sheep by successfully facing off against adversity. He was equipped for Goliath because of precious adversities (killing the lion and the bear). His life was forever changed for the good because of adversity. That trial wasn’t his last trial, but it was the trial that opened the door for continued opportunity and growth as a leader and a man of God.
If you’re facing giants, be encouraged, good things ultimately come from adversity if you depend on the Lord to give you victory.
At the end of every year, I enjoy reviewing the most read posts of the past twelve months. I’ve included links to all ten of them below. Just click the pictures and it’ll take you to the articles. Interestingly, the top three haven’t changed in several years. I haven’t written much new content in 2019 (I plan to change that in 2020). Oddly, this has still been an exciting year for Apostolic Voice; we leaped over the million click mark, gained a tremendous number of new readers, and made progress on relaunching the podcast. I deeply appreciate your confidence and support. Thank you for allowing my writings into your life. God bless you all, and may 2020 be your best year yet. If you’re new to the Apostolic Voice family, welcome and I hope you find something helpful, inspiring, or at least mildly interesting.
When modern ears hear words like “prophet” or “ prophecy” they typically invoke imagery of futuristic predictions or something sensationally mystical. Most people relegate the role of prophecy to the ancient scrolls of the Old Testament. And, prophecy does often involve a God given vision of the future. Furthermore, the prophetic role certainly seems more prominent in the Old Testament.
To understand the role of prophecy today we must begin by understanding the role of the ancient prophets. Otherwise, it’s like trying to understand algebra without a rudimentary knowledge of addition. It doesn’t take much casual browsing through Scripture to realize that prophets were intensely controversial, mostly misunderstood, extremely negative, and overwhelmingly politically incorrect.
Pre-Pentecost prophets were politically incorrect centuries before politically correct speech and behavior was embedded into mainstream culture. And, contrary to what most modern “prophets” peddle, their predictions of future events were rarely rosy. Their predictions were typically terror inducing warnings straight from the mind of God. Aside from eschatological prophets (like Daniel and Ezekiel), their warnings were anything but vague. Prophets were acutely aware of the looming death penalty if they lied or spoke out of turn (Deuteronomy 18:20-22). God despises false prophets who invoke His authority to speak lies or manipulate people to their own will (Jeremiah 23:9-40).
This was the backdrop which framed the mindset of true men of God. They feared the judgement of God and eschewed the opinions of men. To be sure, that nobility of heart and strength of moral character took a toll. Habakkuk felt abandoned by God (Habakkuk 1:2-11), Jeremiah mourned the prosperity of the wicked and felt the loneliness of being discounted (Jeremiah 12:1-4, Jeremiah 20:8), Elijah longed for death (1 Kings 19:4), Noah succumbed to strong drink after the fulfillment of his prophecy of worldwide judgement (9:21), Hosea was forced to marry an unloving prostitute (Hosea 1:2) and endure a lifetime of heartbreak.
Their difficulties and struggles don’t make the prophetic calling particularly compelling. Modern readers glamorize the prophetic life, but the reality described in Scripture is sacred, scary, and sacrosanct. To put it mildly, most people claiming the prophetic gifting have more in common with Balaam than Elisha.
To convolute the existing confusion surrounding prophecy, the definition itself is mostly misunderstood. Old Testament prophets did more than predict the future. They bubbled forth the Word of the Lord. They were God’s mouthpiece. They spoke what God spoke regardless of the personal repercussions. They taught, they reproved, they rebuked, they informed, they corrected, and they did all of this with long-suffering. In other words, they operated much like the preachers described in the book of Acts. That being said, in many ways all preachers carry the prophetic mantle.
The five-fold ministry (Ephesians 4:11-13) is mostly divided into distinctly separate categories by apostolic thinkers. Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers are usually viewed as non-overlapping roles. Even those who theologically recognize the simplistic nature of this way of thinking revert back to it in practice. However, every New Testament preacher operates with a blending of the five-fold ministries. The prophetic mantle rests on the shoulders of every God-called preacher of the Gospel regardless of official title or position.
Modern preachers should be fountains that bubble forth the pure Word of God. They are keepers of the Word and carriers of the cross. They are the original truth to power brokers. Tweaking the Word for convenience is unacceptable in the eyes of God. Refusing to speak the full revelation of God’s Word is a perversion of the prophetic office. To pollute, dilute, or exclude any God-given words for profit is detestable and stirs the wrath of God.
I am genuinely concerned that many apostolic preachers are losing the courage to remain righteously counter-cultural and unavoidably politically incorrect. I say “unavoidably” because it’s not possible to be biblically correct and politically correct at the same time. Politically correct preachers are really just biblically incorrect preachers.
I’d rather eat glass than jump into impossible-to-resolve eschatological debates. And, there’s probably no stickier debate than the question of who the Two Witnesses are in Revelations chapter eleven (Revelation 11:3-12). However, it would be foolish to overlook the appearance of burlap-wearing, fire-breathing, element-controlling, loudly-testifying, plague-inducing, death-defying prophets roaming the streets in the last days. When God calls two witnesses to preach during apocalyptic times they will be eerily Old Testament in nature. And yet, more often than not, New Testament preachers seem frightfully out of step with the biblical prophetic legacy.
Every self-aware preacher wrestles inwardly with the tension that exists between their human desire to be excepted by men and their calling to be godly counter-cultural mouthpieces. Some bow, some bend, some break, and some refuse to surrender their will to anyone but God’s. No one really desires to be politically incorrect, but it’s the nature of the calling. The truth (especially God’s Truth) is rarely mainstream, annoyingly inconvenient, and stubbornly unchanging. The world desperately needs courageous modern godly mouthpieces that will speak the truth in an age of timidity.
I’ve noticed six growing tensions developing in the hearts of ministers in my lifetime. Every politically incorrect prophet must win these battles that rage within their own hearts, and resist the pressure to become just another name on the long list of false prophets. This is a genuine life and death, Heaven verses Hell battle between good and evil. Not only does their eternity hang in the balance, the souls of their followers do as well. Many have lost their stomach for the fight, others are just learning the importance of the struggle, and yet a powerful remnant of true prophetic men of God are stepping to the forefront of spiritual warfare.
Truth vs. Timidity
Post modernism has been eroding the perceived value of truth for at least sixty years. Just calling a biological man a man is considered borderline hate speech in our stupefied society. Peddlers of confusion malign and attack simple voices of reason. Spiritual truths are betrayed, minimized, and shunned by purveyors of moral ambiguity. Preachers are portrayed in pop culture as buffoonish curmudgeons or wild eyed lunatics. Sometimes, godly truth tellers are physically punished or stripped of their comforts.
In America, they are silently bullied and quietly derided (at least publicly) in an attempt to intimidate or embarrass them into submission. More and more, western preachers feel the urge to be timid about truth. They fear preaching controversial topics and eventually avoid speaking of the things God cares about altogether. But true men of God choose to shake off the shackles of timidity and speak the truth with boldness (Acts 28:32, Proverbs 28:1, Acts 4:13, Acts 4:31, Ephesians 6:19).
Clarity vs. Confusion
God is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33). True prophets clarify. False prophets confuse and convolute. Genuine preachers aren’t vague, cryptic, or overly speculative in their preaching. If a prophetic preacher generates more confusion than revelation he’s more than likely a false prophet.
Conviction vs. Compromise
Have you ever noticed how excruciatingly uncomfortable the Last Supper must have been for the disciples? Judas was on the verge of betraying Jesus, and Jesus was painfully aware of that impending “kiss” of death. Judas was probably acting super strange. Jesus was always perfectly willing to make people squirm. So, naturally, He decided to mention a betrayer was in the room. That little grenade caused a lot of commotion.
As if that wasn’t enough drama for one night, Jesus took the opportunity to warn the disciples about all kinds of discouraging things (John 16:1-4). He told them they would be kicked out of synagogues and become societal outcasts. He even told them they would be killed by people who thought they were doing the work of God. Surely the disciples were thinking this is the kind of stuff we should have been told a long time ago. And, Jesus perceptively addressed those thoughts by assuring them that even though He was leaving in the flesh, He would remain with them in the Spirit (John 16:5-7).
During this revelatory conversation about the coming of the Holy Ghost, Jesus laid out a description of what the role of the Spirit would be on the earth (John 16:8-11). Jesus didn’t mince words, He said the Holy Spirit will convict people of their sin, reveal their need for righteousness, and warn them of the coming judgement. Notably, conviction is one of the primary roles of the Holy Ghost.
Conviction. Sin. Righteousness. Judgement. All of these are becoming taboo topics. But if these topics are the primary issues the Holy Spirit was sent to address than preachers who refuse to handle them are not Spirit filled. Compromising eventually places preachers in the position of actively resisting the work of the Spirit. Essentially, they become an enemy of God.
As people search for “safe” spaces and Truth is viewed more and more as confrontational hate speech, preachers are placed in a precarious situation. The temptation is to avoid conviction and replace it with an ooey gooey, warm and fuzzy brand of non-intrusive, conversational preaching. Please understand, there’s rarely a need to be intentionally offensive or off putting, but God’s Word usually offends carnal sensitivities. Conviction isn’t comfortable but it’s irreplaceable and completely necessary. In fact, preaching conviction is a huge part of the prophetic job description. Prophets who never preach conviction of sin into the hearts of their flock are not prophets at all.
Faith vs. Fear
The spirit of antichrist doesn’t care if prophets speak the truth as long as they whisper it in fear and cower in the corner. Fear is normal and often justified, but true prophets overcome their fears with faith. They preach fearful things, but they temper it with faith that encourages and edifies. They preach doom and coming judgment, but they also preach that faith will bring us into an eternal relationship with God that is blissful beyond comprehension. Faith and fear are not compatible. One eventually pushes the other out. True prophets allow faith to cast out their fears, and they inspire their followers to do the same.
Reverence vs. Irreverence
There is a growing sense of irreverence towards spiritual things even among “religious” people. I believe this is reflected in a myriad of ways including how people dress for church (check out Should We Still Dress Our Best For Church?).
Ancient prophets brimmed with righteous reverence for the things of God. They demanded the same from those listening to their divinely inspired words. Modern Christianity must overcome the growing tension between reverence and irreverence in our culture. God will not accept irreverent sacrifices in His name.
British theologian Thomas Smail gives an interesting warning in his book The Forgotten Father:
“Abba is not Hebrew, the language of liturgy, but Aramaic, the language of home and everyday life… We need to be wary of the suggestion… that the correct translation of Abba is ‘Daddy.’ Abba is the intimate word of a family circle where that obedient reverence was at the heart of the relationship, whereas Daddy is the familiar word of a family circle from which all thoughts of reverence and obedience have largely disappeared… The best English translation of Abba is simply ‘Dear Father.”
I think Smail was attempting to strike the delicate, yet hard to achieve balance, between reverencing God and simultaneously feeling closely connected to God. In the apostolic movement, many have over-corrected away from highly liturgical denominations (like Catholics, Methodists, and Presbyterians) whose reverence is more like a cold indifference, into a mushy “God is my best buddy” mindset. Not only does this endanger reverence, it breeds lots of unintended theological fallacies as well.
Power vs. Prosperity
Perhaps, the worst degrading of prophecy has come from the proponents of prosperity theology. Basically, the “God will double your money if you send me a thousand dollars right now” crowd. These charlatans either genuinely or disingenuously believe that wealth, health, and fame are the measures of spiritual success.
But, ancient biblical prophets were far more concerned with spiritual power than earthly power. They called down fire from heaven while barely having enough food to eat or a place to live. If prosperity theology is correct, the ancient prophets were wildly out of the will of God.
Most people reading this have long ago rejected prosperity theology, however, there is a lingering (unspoken) assumption that struggling preachers are somehow out of God’s favor. This is a subtle trick of the enemy. It’s just another way to shame godly preachers into conforming to the will of the carnal majority.
The real measuring stick of apostolic authority isn’t bank accounts. Rather, it’s the manifested power of God. Interestingly, as materialism grows, manifestations of the Spirit decline. Men of God should seek the power of God not positions or materialistic prosperity. I’m all for the blessings of God, but never at the expense of the power of God.
The household of God is built on the blood-soaked foundation of the apostles and prophets (Ephesians 2:20). Jesus is the chief cornerstone of that unshakable foundation. Next time you read through the Gospels, pay attention to how astonishingly politically incorrect Jesus was in word and deed. He wasn’t trying to be odd or quirky. It wasn’t a gimmick or a facade that Jesus put on for attention. He just spoke the truth even when it was unwanted.
God is calling a fresh generation of preachers who are willing to be completely unashamed of the Word of God. They will preach without thought for their own safety or societal security. They will leave their comfort zones and abandon the shackles that carnal culture wraps around their minds. They will seek to grow the Kingdom of God and not their ministry. They will value Truth above tolerance, and wisdom above worldliness. The spiritual revolution is already beginning; which side of it will you be on?
My brother, Nathan French, hosts an outstanding podcast called Noteworthy. You can easily find it on your favorite podcasting platform. The latest episode is something I believe everyone should listen to with an open heart and mind. For your convenience, I’ve embedded the Halloween episode below.
Count it all joy. That’s what it means to be like Christ. Why would we have it better than our Master?
Of course, there are tremendous blessings and rewards as well. Most of them are spiritual and otherworldly. However, I think we set up young aspiring ministers for failure when we fail to prepare them for the realities of ministry. Ninety-nine percent of ministry is not glamorous or exciting.
Make sure you have a genuine calling and unshakable burden before you enter the ministry.
Some of you may be tiring of my incessant Screwtape inspired ramblings, and you are forgiven for those feelings. But allow this one last dalliance through The Screwtape Letters and the creative genius of C.S. Lewis. I’m pulling my thoughts from letter seventeen where the sly demon Screwtape describes an elderly woman who is manipulated by a demon named Glubose. Screwtape mischievously writes:
“The woman is in what may be called the ‘All-I-Want’ state of mind. All she wants is a cup of tea properly made, or an egg properly boiled, or a slice of bread properly toasted. But she never finds any servants or any friend who can do these things ‘properly’—because her ‘properly’ conceals an insatiable demand for the exact, and almost impossible, palatable pleasures which she imagines she remembers from the past; a past described by her as ‘the days when you could get good servants’ but known only to us as the days when her senses were more easily pleased and she had pleasures of other kinds which made her less dependent on those of the table. Meanwhile, the daily disappointment produces daily ill temper: cooks give notice and friendships are cooled.”
Lewis imaginatively strikes upon the demonic tactic of encouraging humans to idolize the past and trivialize the present, which jeopardizes the future. I call it the idolatry of the perfect past. This can be actualized in dozens of little ways. For some, it is manifested as a longing for a better time that actually never existed. We, humans, have a tendency to remember things through the fuzzy lens of what we wish they had been. This often obscures the painful realities of the distant past and ignores the fact that we too have changed. If you don’t believe me, imagine living without heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer.
Undoubtedly, some things were better in the past, but they certainly were not perfect. Furthermore, different doesn’t always equal bad in the same way that new doesn’t always equal better. In essence, what we call perfection is usually a preference or a philosophical proposition. And there’s nothing wrong with having preferences unless our preferences become an idol.
Lewis speaks of an elderly woman who can’t enjoy food or fellowship because she perceives that nothing is prepared as perfectly as it was in the ‘good old days’. This may or may not have been the case. But her sin had nothing to do with her preferences, she had a right to those opinions up to a point. Rather, her sin was realized in the resulting mistreatment of the people around her due to her displeasure with the present. In other words, her idol made her ‘ill-tempered’. Beyond that, idolatry had blocked her vision so effectively she was incapable of recognizing the good or even—dare I say—the better things of the present.
Nasty temperament is the primary way you can tell that a preference has become an idol. Let’s take this discussion to church for just a moment: If you can’t worship in a service because your favorite song from yesteryear wasn’t featured you’ve probably turned the past into an idol. And, if it makes you mad and ill-tempered check your spiritual temperature because you have a fever. And, if you just threw your computer across the room its time to pray through. Now, having said that, you might be right! The new song you don’t like might not be as good as the old song you do like. We all have preferences, partialities aren’t the problem. However, if we can’t enjoy the good things or —dare I say—the less good things of the present because of the past we are in serious trouble.
I feel compelled to pause and state clearly that I love many things from my past. I even love things that predate my lifespan by hundreds of years. For those of you who might be wondering, I am not a hymn hater. In fact, I’m an old soul. I’m hopelessly old-fashioned. I have all kinds of preferences that go unmet on a regular basis, in and out of church settings. Let’s be honest, my preferences are better than your preferences. I’m just kidding. The point being, I’ve learned not to elevate my preferences above unity and personal relationships. The only exception to this rule is when my preferences are properly aligned with God’s Word and someone else’s preferences violate Scripture.
Let’s stir the pot and complicate the conversation for a moment: there are other similar types of idolatry that are equally dangerous. Brad Titus capably identifies one as The Idolatry of the Future. In this variation, peace can never be found in the present because something better is always in the future.
There is yet another variant, I call it the ‘idolatry of the present’. This mindset idolizes the new, the current, the ‘latest thing’ above all else. It marginalizes the past and robs the future of the depth and richness that can only be found in a healthy reverence for the good things of the past.
Young people who carry this idol exacerbate ‘the idolatry of the past’ within the hearts of elders. Their derision for the ‘old fashioned’ inflames reactionary passions. Meanwhile, those suffering under the miserable weight of ‘future idolatry’ sit around and long for better days that always seem just out of reach.
As you can see, disunity and strife are the real demonic agendas behind these three particular brands of idolatry. When saints elevate petty preferences above maintaining right relationships with people; churches become war zones rather than houses of worship. And, when people idolize what lies ahead nothing of value is accomplished in the present.
We smash these idols by honoring the past, celebrating the present, and embracing the future. This can be done. It must be done for the sake of unity and revival. Thriving churches honor the past without living there, celebrate new things that are good, and intentionally prepare for the future.
“But foolish and unlearned questions avoid, knowing that they do gender strifes. And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient. In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; And that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will (2 Timothy 2:23-26).”
I’m a fierce advocate of preachers and preaching. I’ve written in defense of preachers on numerous occasions here, here, and here. That doesn’t mean I view preachers as superhuman or little deities, however, God clearly ordained the foolishness of preaching as the mechanism for reaching the world with the Gospel (1 Corinthians 1:18-21, Acts 17:18, Mark 16:15). Preaching is also Divinely designed to preserve, encourage, strengthen, equip, and correct the Church (1 Corinthians 15:2, 1 Peter 1:25, 1 Timothy 4:13, 2 Timothy 3:16). Bottom line, preaching is really, really, really vital for the overall health of the Church and the advancement of the Gospel. It only makes sense that Satan would set traps for preachers faster than a poacher on a wildlife preservation.
Without descending into a pit of needless negativity, I can safely assume everyone reading this post has witnessed at least one sincere preacher turn, shall we say… less than sincere. With very few exceptions, preachers do not begin ministering with nefarious intentions. For the most part, preachers make tremendous sacrifices to enter the ministry. Preacher problems develop over time as they fall into traps either because of carelessness or unresolved character flaws the enemy cleverly exploits.
My motivation for writing isn’t to berate the fallen, there’s plenty of preacher bashing going on without me jumping unceremoniously into the ring. Instead, I’m writing with the earnest hearted preacher in mind. Additionally, I’m writing for those who may have stepped a toe across a line, yet still have the capacity to feel a surge of conscience. One thing is for certain if you labor in ministry long enough you will be forced to navigate around or fight your way out of a preacher trap. I’ve identified eight common traps in the hopes of building awareness, fortifications, and wisdom.
1. Success & popularity. Most preachers have tons of incredibly humbling moments in their early days of ministry. To this day, my brother has a “blackmail tape” containing one of the first sermons I ever preached. I sounded like a scared parrot that only knew four words. After those four words, everything else was just squawking and weird chirping sounds. It was horrible. God bless that precious congregation and Pastor James Fielder for loving me enough to be encouraging despite that pathetic, although sincere attempt to preach.
Yep. Early days of ministry are filled with epic fails, empty blusters, false starts, zealous stumbles, learning curves, knowledge gaps, unrestrained enthusiasm, and embarrassing awkwardness. Some endure that maturation process longer than others, but over time the resilient step into a season of ministerial success. Now, measuring ministerial success can be tricky because it really has nothing to do with money, fame, large congregations, or popularity. God defines success differently than most people define success, but that’s another post for another day. Regardless, even achieving a godly standard of success can suck the humility right out of a sincere heart. Once that humility is gone, all kinds of nasty things compete to fill the void.
Success is not the problem. Success is a good thing. Responding correctly to success is the key. Most people spend a lot of time figuring out how to deal with failure, but very little time preparing their heart to handle success and popularity.
2. Talent. The moment a preacher realizes he is talented enough to move a crowd without relying on the anointing his foot is poised above a preacher killing landmine. Lawyers, politicians, comedians, actors, false prophets, and motivational speakers move crowds emotionally every single day without the help of the anointing. Having talent is great, terrific even, but it is the anointing that breaks the yoke (Isaiah 10:27).
I firmly believe that preachers should work to develop strong communication skills. I believe preachers have an obligation to work as hard as they can to communicate biblical truths effectively and with as much excellence as possible. This is partially what the Apostle Paul was alluding to when he admonished Timothy, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).” But all the talent, work, study, and charisma in the world is no substitute for prayer, fasting, and humble reliance upon the Lord.
Every talented preacher should remember the warning of the ever-somber prophet Jeremiah: Cursed is that man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength (Jeremiah 17:5-9). Learning how to move a crowd emotionally is a cheap substitute for the genuine power and demonstration of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:4-5).
3. Loving preaching more than people. This is one of the most common traps to ensnare preachers. It shames me to admit that I’ve had to fight my way out of this trap a time or two. This one takes a lot of self-introspection to detect.
Upon reflection, I’ve pinpointed a few things about my preaching while wriggling out of that devious little trap. One, I preached way longer than needed to communicate what God laid on my heart. Two, I chased a lot of rabbit trails that interested me but were of little help or value to the hearers. Three, I resisted the Spirit when it prompted me to deviate from my prepared notes. Four, I rebuked out of personal anger rather than true righteous indignation. Five, I spent less time weeping over the lost and broken than concocting just the right wording for each sermon point. Six, in the preparation process I resisted the directing of the Spirit opting instead to build my favorite soap box or pursue topics that were intellectually stimulating to me personally. Seven, I was more passionate about winning arguments than winning hearts. Eight, I preached condescendingly, smugly, and arrogantly.
To be clear, preaching cannot and should not be solely directed towards the “felt” needs of a congregation. Neither should preaching be spineless, compromising, or afraid of necessary confrontation. Nothing mentioned here should leave the impression that preachers should be push-overs, milquetoasts, or overly obsessive about offending the hearers. But the fact remains a preacher’s motives matter. Preachers should always stand behind the sacred desk driven by love for God, God’s Word, God’s Church, and lost people.
4. Forgetting the main mission. As I mentioned earlier, preaching has many noble purposes, but none more vital than the propagation of the Gospel (Matthew 28:19-20, 2 Timothy 4:17, 2 Corinthians 10:14, Acts 8:12-17). Preaching can quickly devolve into mere motivational jargon if it isn’t Christocentric. During the endless quest to remain relevant, creative, interesting, inspiring, and fresh some preachers lose sight of the Great Commission and ultimately fail their mission.
5. Valuing crowd size above the spiritual growth of the congregation. I’ve written a good bit on church growth here, here, here, and here. No preacher in their right mind wants seats to be empty while the Word is being preached. Every empty seat represents a soul that needs God. Regardless, God never called preachers to build large congregations. Rather, we are called to plant the seed; God alone gives the Harvest (Matthew 9:38). Every preacher reading this knows that is the case, but it doesn’t stop us from feeling like failures when church attendance dips or doesn’t grow at the pace we had envisioned. All of that is normal and acceptable to a certain degree, yet very dangerous if we begin to value large crowds above the actual spiritual health of the people.
Obviously, just gathering large groups of people together every Sunday isn’t the ultimate spiritual objective. Otherwise, the NFL would be one of the most spiritual organizations in America. When preachers become inordinately focused on crowd size instead of spiritual maturation they will suffer depression, discouragement, insecurity, jealousy, and struggle with the temptation to become people pleasers rather than God pleasers. Which leads nicely to the next trap.
6. Willingness to sacrifice scriptural integrity for any reason at all. There are many reasons a preacher might be tempted to compromise biblical truths. Some compromise due to the illusion of assured numerical growth, desired popularity, personal carnality, outside pressure, peer pressure, spiritual battle fatigue, greed, or any number of other factors. Regardless, failing to preach the whole Truth and nothing but the Truth is a gross betrayal of God’s calling and of the trust placed in us by others.
7. Burnout. Unresolved physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion can result in burnout and burnout produces bitterness. For every preacher with a golf course “ministry” reputation, there are ten others burning the candle at both ends. As I’ve written before, ministry is incredibly demanding. Burnout usually manifests itself as depression or anxiety or both. The tragedy of the burnout trap is that it takes advantage of a preacher’s good intentions. We want to be all things, to all people, all the time. It’s just not humanly possible.
8. Ministering to others while neglecting family. I understand that a preacher’s family must be willing to make sacrifices for the sake of ministry. I get that. Been there. Done that. Still doing that. But a preacher’s first ministerial obligation is to his family (Genesis 18:19, 1 Samuel 3:13, 1 Timothy 3:1-12, Titus 1:6). Many dynamic ministries have been rendered powerless because their family fell apart. They were so busy ministering to others they lost sight of their primary responsibility.
I’m a statistics kinda guy, but I know from the glazed looks people give me when I bring them up that most people aren’t like me. So, rather than bore you with the minutia of details, let’s just say folks are battling depression on an epic scale.
Certainly, temptation, in general, is an ever-present problem, and even Christians seem to be struggling with feelings of despair. Not to mention other emotional issues like fear, anger, bitterness, unforgiveness, lust (including pornography), greed, envy, jealousy, and the list goes on. And those are just the natural issues that human beings face; demonic attacks are prevalent as well. Sadly, many people don’t even realize they’re entangled in a spiritual battle.
These problems begin in the mind. Every sin starts with a thought, and if that thought is not dealt with properly it will produce a sinful action or reaction. The battle for peace is fought in the mind. The battle for joy is fought in the mind. The battle for purity is fought in the mind. Satan engages your mind first because what you think about the most is what you will eventually act upon. If you engage your mind with darkness you will be drawn towards darkness. If you engage your mind with righteousness you will be drawn towards righteousness (Philippians 4:8).
That’s what Paul meant when he said, “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind… (Romans 12:2)”. Again, in Ephesians 4:22-24 Paul refers to the battle of the mind in relation to holiness and overcoming the old “sinful” way of life. The old mind produces the old sins, but a renewed mind produces holiness. In verse 25, Paul illustrates the first fruit of that new mind is truthfulness with our neighbors. The state of our mind informs the status of our actions. In other words, garbage in garbage out and vice versa.
My personality is very susceptible to depression. That’s not easy to say because many Christians are so used to emotionally faking it that they think they’re making it. They’re kicking the emotional can down the road until the inevitable day of reckoning.
Hands down, the number one question posed to me when counseling: How can I win the battle that’s raging in my mind (or some variation of that)? The answer is not a simple one. Most people want a silver bullet that makes all the struggles go away immediately. To be sure, there are powerful offensive weapons, but none of them are lasting without a strong defensive shield. You can rebuke the Devil, but he’ll just come back around if you leave your defenses vulnerable.
Below is a list of fifteen things that will truly guard our minds. Fifteen powerful defensive shields. If you’re looking for a shorter Twitter-friendly list just know, there are no shortcuts to safety.
1. Get some rest (Psalm 4:8). Have you ever been so tired you just didn’t care about anything anymore? Exhaustion has a way of draining us physically and emotionally. There are times it simply can’t be avoided, but there are also times where we simply haven’t made rest a priority.
2. Help somebody (Hebrews 13:16). We should help others because it’s the right thing to do. But there are benefits attached to helping others. It takes our minds off us and our problems. Helping others forces us out of selfish habits and self-destructive thoughts. It’s amazing how quickly our attitude can change when we empty ourselves out in the service of others.
3. Only listen to Christian music. Fill your mind with godly music that is uplifting. Yep, and the more it talks about Jesus the better. Listen to it a lot.
There’s literally nothing that has more ability to impact your mind and mood than music. Everything about music is designed to lower your guard and capture your attention. When you fill your mind with sinful lyrics you’ve opened yourself up to spiritual attack. You’d be hard-pressed to find a popular secular song that doesn’t glorify either casual sex, cursing, violence, drinking, drugs, cheating, lying, greed, lust, godlessness, hopelessness, despair, or divorce. That list could be a lot longer, but you get the idea.
By listening to that kind of music you are literally handing your mind over to the enemy. If it walks like the world and talks like the world it probably is the world. Oh, and if you’re in the world your prayers lose their power: The prayers of a righteous man avail much (James 5:16).
By the way, everything listed above applies to all your entertainment choices. Everything from books, magazines, movies, television, internet, games, and more. Surely, you can’t be entertained by filth and wonder why you long for filth. Surely, you can’t watch horror and wonder why you battle anxiety. Surely, you can’t watch (and laugh at) immorality and wonder why you’re full of lust. Clean it up, throw stuff out, make a covenant with your eyes and ears. Take Philippians 4:8 seriously and you’ll be surprised how quickly your mind will be renewed.
Everything else on this list of defenses will be weakened if you constantly subject your eyes and ears to worldly entertainment.
4. Spend time daily reading the Bible. If you need direction, search the Scriptures. If you need encouragement, search the Scriptures. You need the Word daily. Why would you leave your greatest resource untouched?
The word is a lamp unto our feet (Psalm 119:105), which means it protects us from painfully stumbling and falling. But it’s also a sword (Ephesians 6:17), meaning it is our greatest offensive weapon against the enemy. When Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness his strongest offense and defense was the Word (Luke 4:1-13). If you know what is written you will know how to confidentially respond to temptation.
5. Pray, really pray (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Sincerely, pray and ask God for strength. Pray until the Holy Ghost falls. Pray when you don’t feel like praying. That’s usually when you need to pray the most. Pray for the Lord’s will (Luke 22:42, Matthew 6:9-13). Pray your way through the Psalms.
It’s good to get alone with God in a private place, but some of my best prayer meetings happened in my car driving down the road. That’s what it means to pray without ceasing, being ready to pray at a moment’s notice.
Don’t just pray when you need something, pray because you want to be close to God. Put some praise in your prayers. Talk to God about your hopes and dreams, doubts and fears, pains and triumphs, and all the in between stuff too. We’ve all known people who only called when they needed something. Don’t be that way with God. Be that person who maintains the relationship in the good times and the bad.
6. Make sure you’re being obedient to the Bible in your personal life (even when no one is looking). Disobedience invites the demonic (1 Samuel 13:14). Even worse, disobedience stirs God’s wrath (Ephesians 5:6). Disobedient Christians are miserable because they are fighting the demonic and suffering the Lord’s wrath at the same time.
7. Spend time talking with godly, Holy Ghost filled people who will encourage you not discourage you (Proverbs 13:20-25). Choose your inner circle wisely. Those closest to you will impact your attitude and your mind the most. Your closest friendships should not be with unwise or ungodly people. Be kind to everyone, but your deep friendships should be with Holy Ghost filled encouragers who aren’t afraid to tell you the truth even when it hurts.
8. Avoid people, places, and things that will trigger a spiritual attack, temptation, or depression (when possible). Eve would have been far less likely to eat the fruit if she hadn’t been near the fruit. The serpent didn’t show up until she showed up where she shouldn’t have been. Don’t set yourself up for failure by hanging around people and places that pull your mind in dangerous directions.
There are some things that aren’t sinful by themselves but they have emotional connections in your mind that trigger unhealthy thoughts. Avoid those things. For example, I have a friend who was addicted to heroin before he received the Holy Ghost. Every time he shot up he would listen to instrumental jazz music and wait for the drugs to take over. Whenever he hears jazz music all kinds of negative emotions come crashing down on him. Obviously, if possible, he avoids jazz. That’s called wisdom.
9. Get to church as soon as possible and grab the altar until God touches you (Psalm 84:3, Psalm 92:13). There’s a reason that we are instructed not to forsake the gathering together of godly people (Hebrews 10:25). It’s a blessing for our own benefit (Mark 2:27).
Even the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) is written in the plural, not the singular: Give us this day our daily bread. We thrive as a community of believers. We were not made to walk alone. Faith feeds faith. Worship breeds worship. Joy is contagious. When we are weak we need the strength of fellow believers, and when we are strong weak believers need our encouragement.
There is safety in numbers. The Bible refers to Satan as a lion looking for a person to devour (1 Peter 5:8). Lions are known for stalking very large prey. They follow a herd and wait for one member of the herd to lag behind or become separated from the others. That’s when the lion pounces. A herd can defend itself from the lion’s attack, but a single animal becomes an easy victim.
Years of ministry has taught me that many people avoid church when they are struggling to win the battle for their mind. That’s literally the worst thing a person can do in that situation. If you have to take a boat, train, plane, or walk in the rain: do what you have to do to get to church.
10. Worship the Lord all the time even when you’re alone (Psalm 34:1). This one might sound silly at first, but you should spontaneously worship the Lord throughout your day. If you love and appreciate the Lord, you won’t wait until Sunday to tell him.
11. Add fasting to your prayers. In Matthew 17:14-21 a father brought his demon-possessed son to Jesus for deliverance. The King James Version refers to the son as a “lunatic” inferring that the possession and oppression were so strong it had literally destroyed the boy’s mind. The father had already taken his son to the disciples but they had been unable to cast the demon out of him. Of course, Jesus cast the devil out immediately leaving the disciples wondering why they had been powerless. In verse 19 Jesus rebukes them for their unbelief (lack of faith), and in verse 21 he reveals the reason for their unbelief; lack of prayer combined with fasting. This demon was so strong that it required prayer and fasting to overpower it.
There are situations, attacks, oppressions, and spirits that require prayer and fasting to overcome. Fasting brings our mind and body into subjection. It cultivates spiritual awareness and sensitivity. Our mind is sharpened and our spirit is quickened when fasting. And yet, this is the most underutilized tool in most people’s spiritual belt.
12. Keep a prayer journal. For me personally, this has been one of the most helpful things I have ever done. I write thoughts, prayer requests, questions, goals, hopes, dreams, study findings, and testimonies. The Bible speaks of overcoming by the word of testimony (Revelation 12:11). We humans have a bad habit of fixating on what we need God to do and forgetting what he has already done. This forgetfulness leads to anxiety. Remembering what God has done builds faith.
13. Study a specific subject in the Bible. This is different than just daily Bible reading. Find a subject that you don’t fully understand dig deeply until you understand it inside and out. Knowledge is power in the Spirit (Proverbs 24:5). Satan operates best in confusion.
FINAL THOUGHT: The Devil attacks people’s minds immediately after powerful spiritual events. It was right after Jesus’ baptism that he was carried into the wilderness and tempted by the Devil (Matthew 4:1-11). There are countless other biblical examples, but if you know this to be the case you can be prepared and respond appropriately.
Let me make a few disclaimers right from the beginning. First, not all big churches are healthy and not all small churches are unhealthy. Big churches are not necessarily better than small churches and the reverse is also true. However, if the body is not growing it is dying. This is true spiritually and physically. That’s not to say setbacks, sicknesses, and dry seasons won’t temporarily stunt growth, but the key word there is “temporarily”. Long-term stagnation or decline is a sure sign of an impending downward spiral if something drastic doesn’t take place to fix the problem.
I grew up in a small church plant that my father started in 1983 (the year of my birth), and I grew up alongside the growth of that church. Churches must grow into maturity just as a child grows into maturity. If a mother church grows strong she will give birth to daughter churches that will repeat the process over and over again.
The number one reason small churches stay small is that they want to stay small. This reality is often hidden stealthily beneath the surface making it difficult to spot. But if you watch carefully you’ll see it manifested in dozens of little ways. They literally have no desire to grow. Again, I love small churches, but small churches are in direct violation of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) if they have no desire to see new souls added to the church. And if a church doesn’t want to grow it will not grow.
One final clarification, 99.9% of the time the pastor desperately wants the church he oversees to grow. The lack of desire for growth typically comes from the congregation, not the clergy. In best case scenarios, the church (or an influential portion of the church) is simply complacent towards the churches growth. In worst case scenarios, the church (or an influential portion of the church) actively tries to hinder the churches growth. Regardless, this is a problem that must be addressed head on or it will choke the life out of a small congregation. Here are nine contributing reasons that small churches often don’t want to grow.
The church simply doesn’t want to suffer through a building program. This usually stems from either a faith problem or a stinginess problem. Sometimes well-meaning church members confuse good stewardship with stagnation. A small building that’s been paid off for 20 years is a wonderful thing, but if you can’t continue to grow in that building (or the location hinders growth), it’s time to take the necessary leap of faith. For other less sincere saints, they simply don’t want to commit financially to the vision of revival (think Ananias & Sapphira).
The church has lost sight of its purpose. Many churches gradually forget the urgency of the hour. They become content with their own salvation and forget that Hell is still a reality for their community. They forget that God has placed them within that community to reach the lost. It doesn’t matter how many missionary plaques you hang on the wall if you aren’t being a missionary to your own region. I often hear people say, “some give by going, and some go by giving.” I know what they mean, but it gives the impression that only certain elite people are called to reach the lost. Wherever you are right now, that’s your mission field. Far too often we allow our giving to replace going into our own harvest field.
The church has lost its love for people. Many times, it is that simple. Bitterness, pride, harshness, and unresolved anger can rip the love of Christ right out of the hearts of a congregation. At its peak, it results in a harshness so severe that it rejoices rather than weeps at the lost condition of “reprobates” and “sinners”. Hell, is a reality that should move us to tears, not cheers.
Spiritual lethargy, exhaustion, and laziness. I understand that revival and evangelism are just plain hard work; emotionally, spiritually, and physically. People who have participated for many years in the process can easily grow weary in well doing (check out my writings on this subject here and here). Some folks are just lazy by nature and this bleeds into their spiritual life as well. Revival and laziness are like oil and water; they just don’t mix.
Institutional racism or a clique mentality. I’m truly afraid that the church is still one of the most segregated places in America (click here for a related article). But God has called the church to be multicultural and accepting of all races, ethnicities, backgrounds, and cultures. Some congregations want revival only if all the new people look and sound just like them. Yikes, that’s a big problem. I’m just glad the apostle Peter allowed God to change his heart so a Gentile like me could be a part of the Body of Christ.
Rampant carnality and materialism. When a church grows carnal they just don’t have room for spiritual concerns. They’re too busy with sports and movies to care if their neighbor is going to Heaven or Hell. Financial blessings are a wonderful gift from God, but we should never squander that gift on trivial things that constantly distract us from the Kingdom of God. Churches fraught with carnality and materialism would rather talk about anything other than spiritual things. They don’t have time to be inconvenienced with revival, and they do the absolute minimum they can do for God (check out this article entitled You Might Be a Carnal Christian If…).
The church doesn’t want to lose constant or immediate access to the pastor. This one is very common and even understandable to a certain degree. Saints instinctively know that as a church grows it will become harder and harder to gain immediate access to the pastor for counseling or anything else for that matter. In many ways, it’s like an only child who resents the idea of a baby brother or a baby sister. They grow jealous of the attention that their parents must devote to their new sibling. This is understandable but only to a point, if it turns into outright aggression towards new babies in the Lord it must be dealt with lovingly but firmly.
A certain element within the church desperately wants to maintain power, position, and influence. Ah, this is a big one. It’s very insidious, extremely dangerous, and usually carefully disguised. It can be anything from worship leaders and singers who feel threatened by new people who are talented or lay ministers who feel threatened by young babes in the Lord who feel called to preach. It can be anyone who feels like their position might be threatened by an influx of new people. It can be a wealthy saint who enjoys being perceived as the wealthiest saint in the church, or a talented musician who enjoys being perceived as the most talented person in the church, or board members that want to keep their authority consolidated. It can even extend to the entire congregation and their desire to keep a strong influence over every aspect of the church, therefore, they perceive new people as a threat to that power. This is almost never articulated out loud but the signs are there if you are paying attention.
The congregation has an institutional bias against the culture of growing churches. Some people are just conditioned either by their upbringing or their preconceived ideas of how a church should be to dislike large churches. In extreme cases, people like this consider big churches evil, but they’ll usually use code words like “full of compromise” or something of that nature. The reality is that small churches and big churches alike can fall into the trap of compromise. Some people fear that large churches are incapable of being friendly or warm. The reality is that small churches and large churches can fall into the trap of being unfriendly and cold. A church shouldn’t desire to grow just to be large, but it should want to be large because it wants everyone to be saved.
Final caveats: I realize there are other reasons small churches stay small. Local economies, transient locals, spiritual onslaughts, poor leadership, tragedy, rapid leadership turnover, seasons of sowing, difficult locations, and more can all be relevant factors. Also, churches go through seasons and holding patterns that are temporary conditions. I am talking about chronic conditions. However, it would be unwise to casually ignore these points without at least considering the very real possibility that one or more of these problems could be at work.
It’s no secret that our country is in a tremendous state of turmoil. America is in religious, political, economic, and moral upheaval. We seem more divided than ever by class, creed, color, and culture. This ought not to be so, but ignoring reality is not an option. Let’s narrow down that massive list of generalities to the subject of the escalating racial tensions that have dominated the news over the past few weeks.
First, all racism is rooted in hatred and hatred is a sin. John didn’t pull any punches when he said, “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also (1 John 19:20-21).”
You cannot claim to love God and hate others at the same time. In another place, John equates the sin of hatred with the sin of murder (1 John 3:14-15). If you study the Bible and human nature you will quickly find that hatred and murder are just a few short steps apart from one another. Christians of all races absolutely must resist the pressure to be subdued by racism or hatred of any kind.
Satan knows that a house divided against itself cannot stand (Mark 3:25). He works feverishly to divide and conquer. The Church must recognize and rebuke Satan’s handy work wherever hatred manifested as racism raises its murderous head.
We should also know that this proliferation of racial division is a clear indication of the soon coming of the Lord. While speaking about the end of time, Jesus said in Mark 13:8, “…nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom”. Recently, my friend Reverend Victor Jackson articulated that the word nation mentioned here finds it’s root in the Greek word meaning race. Therefore, it is accurate to say that in the last days, races will rise up against races and kingdoms will rise up against kingdoms. The Church recognizes that this is the spirit of the antichrist at work. If the Church allows the spirit of division (a spirit that is antithetical to the Holy Spirit) into its ranks it will cease to be the Church.
I believe that racial injustice is more prevalent than many want to acknowledge, and less than some who peddle division would lead us to believe. The Church must stand against injustice for people of every color, race, and creed (Proverbs 21:15, Isaiah 1:17, Proverbs 24:24-25, Psalm 106:3, Proverbs 21:3, Deuteronomy 10:18, Deuteronomy 27:19). The Bible intertwines the unfailing love of God with justice (Psalm 33:5). In other words, love and justice are closely connected attributes of God. If we are reflectors of God’s image then we must love people and love justice.
Jesus took it a step further by commanding us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44). This might not be very compelling had Jesus not obeyed his own command by forgiving the very people who put him on the cross (Luke 23:34).
As racial tensions hang over our nation like storm clouds we must remember one key Scripture: For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places (Ephesians 6:12).
And so, as the Church stands against injustice, racism from every direction, hatred, violence, and class warfare we must be ever mindful that the battle will be won with spiritual weapons. Bullets are not the answer. Hatred and violence only instigate more hatred and violence. The words of Dr. Martin Luther King are more relevant today than ever before:
Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.
It is imperative that the Church models to this world what racial unity looks like in word and deed. We must stand in solidarity against violence and hatred. For the record, I believe that the vast majority of police officers do their jobs with excellence and integrity (there are always exceptions to the rule). The apostle Paul clearly admonished believers to give honor and respect to governmental authority (Romans 13:1-7). As a Christian, I grieve over every senseless loss of God-given life. I rigorously oppose violence against black lives, blue lives, and white lives. I know it sounds silly and sappy but the words of an old children’s song we used to sing in Sunday School keep ringing in my ears, “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight”.
We know that our weapons are not carnal but mighty through God, to the pulling down of strongholds (2 Corinthians 10:4). Therefore, prayer is a powerful force of good in the fight against evil. Prayer is not a waste of time. Prayer is not just something that we do to make ourselves feel better. Prayer is not just a platitude that we talk about. Therefore, pray we must. I’m imploring everyone who loves the Lord to join me in prayer for the healing of our nation. Join me in prayer for the families who have recently lost loved ones to what seem to be unjustified acts of police violence. Pray for the families of the Dallas police officers who tragically lost their lives because of an injustice that they did not commit. Pray that the cycle of hate and violence will stop. And if you really want to be like Jesus; pray for your enemies too (Matthew 5:44).