Sunday, February 9, 2020

What will Stop us from Outsourcing Prayer to the Pros?

Just about every church has them. If you don't I feel for you. I'm talking about that faithful group of prayer warriors who love to stand in the gap,  bringing the hopes and needs of the church before the throne of grace with dogged persistence and unquenchable faith. They are called the intercessors. I know, they can be intense, sometimes even a bit odd, but they've been an extraordinary gift to me as a pastor. Every week they are praying over the text to be preached that Sunday, fiercely contending for prophetic promises spoken over the church, wrestling for protection over our families and marriages. I've known intercessors to be a bit weird in times past. But not these ones. I wish you had intercessors like ours. They're a bit like the spiritual Green Berets, going behind enemy lines in prayer, like Paul's friend Epaphras who was always wrestling in prayer for the saints to stand firm in all the will of God. (Colossians 4:12)

Still, as grateful as I am for our intercessors, I'm wary of our tendency to outsource prayer to the pros. I remember being stunned in my first year of leading a church when a guy came up to me and asked, "Won't you throw up a prayer to the Big Guy upstairs? I know He listens to you." Come to find out, most people really struggled to pray; with what to say, with distraction and doubt from unanswered prayers. Most of us struggle with prayer. It's why I've spent much time trying to teach people to pray for themselves. I've tried to convince them that God hears their prayers because of Jesus' righteousness, not theirs. I've also fought for a regular culture of gathered prayer, possibly more than any other culture in our church.

And this truth, perhaps more than any other, has been decisive in breaking the habit of outsourcing prayer to the pros. It is that every person who belongs to Christ already has two Intercessors!

"Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God."(Romans 8:26) 

The Spirit intercedes by making petitions for us according to God's will with groaning because of our weakness. What a mysterious gift of empathy.

And as if that weren't remarkable enough, Romans 8:33 tells us that Jesus also intercedes for us.

"It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us."

The sense here is not so much of empathy as it is of interception; of someone going up against an enemy to intercept their attack. We know that Satan is an accuser, who accuses us night and day. Jesus' intercepts Satan's accusations because His blood speaks a better word than any word of condemnation. (Hebrews 12:24)

As the hymn goes,

 "When Satan tempts me to despair, and tells me of my guilt within, 
  Upwards I look and see Him there, who made an end to all my sin, 
  Because my sinless Savior died, My sinful soul is counted free, 
  For God the just is satisfied to look on Him and pardon me."
Here's the thing. When I pray, I become the 4th member of the most dynamic prayer meeting imaginable. God, the Son and God, the Spirit are interceding for me to God, the Father!
Dwell on that.
Why would I want to outsource such a personal, magnificent reality to someone else?
Now imagine how unstoppable we'd be if as a Church we stepped in to that Prayer Meeting together?

This Wednesday at 6:30pm we join to pray at Southlands Chino. It's our all-church prayer meeting called 133. Pre-prayer dinner begins at 5:30pm. 5559 Park Place, Chino, 91710

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Winning Home and Away Games as a Church: Hard Lessons from the Colonel

I recently saw a twitter thread about KFC. A friend who travels a lot on business noted that KFC tasted better in China. The options and the quality were apparently on a whole new level to what he experienced in America. Another guy who had visited the UK chimed in saying KFC in Britain was also so much better than in the USA. I felt bad for KFC, but I had to concur. I had a fantastic KFC burger in Bangkok airport recently with a Thai take on the sides. Also, KFC in South Africa is absolutely delicious. So delicious in fact, that in 2017, when we first broke the news to our children that we were  moving to America, we we did it in a KFC!  To us at least, KFC was so quintessentially American and we considered it a real treat.(don't laugh!)  In fact,  when Rynelle and I first got married and were both still studying and working part-time, our monthly treat was, wait for it...KFC. Nothing like  finger lickin' good chicken for a date night. Come to find that when we arrived here,  KFC in its home country was somewhat underwhelming. None of our new American friends wanted to go with us to get the golden deliciousness when we suggested it. (I know, it's not the healthiest) But they told us that the stores were grimy and that the the chicken lacked quality, even though it was cheap, and that, well,  El Pollo Loco was better. 

Don't get me wrong, I think it's remarkable that this great company has become an international brand,  able to innovate by contextualizing in each culture while remaining true to it's signature fried chicken.  I still enjoy it occasionally at home too. When I break a fast, I always do it with a bucket of KFC, still craving the Colonel's eleven herbs and spices from time to time! But I think the KFC story carries a warning for us. No franchise will succeed in the long term if it wins away but loses at home. Same goes for a sports team. Come to think of it, same goes for a church.

This has been something of a mantra for me as a leader at Southlands the past decade. We must be a team that wins both home games and away games. We want to be sure we are pastorally, missionally and financially healthy so that we know we are exporting something that's working at home. Ask me what I'm most excited about? It's what God is doing at Southlands Brea; the baptisms, the traction on high school and university campuses, the growing momentum in our children and youth ministries, the mercy initiatives, the flickering fires of promised revival. But we are a multiplying church with a connection to a global family of churches. God has called us into a multiplying story, which means we are sending teams to plant and strengthen other churches more than the average church. Having a strong away game has been part of our DNA for decades now, and by God's grace we will continue to "Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations."  

For me personally, this means balancing my time between pastoring at Brea, providing oversight to our other Southlands congregation leaders, being involved with our Manna churches, as well as playing a leadership role in our growing Advance family of churches. As you will know, this takes me away from Brea for a certain amount of days a year.

How does this work, you ask?  

The short answer is, "The grace of God and team." Because of the call of God upon us and me to be fruitful both home and away, there is a corresponding grace that has enabled us to keep taking ground on both fronts. Part of that grace has been building a strong and gifted team who continue to lead the church forward when I am away. They are not holding the fort. They are advancing the mission. The team also speaks freely into my travel schedule, helping me to discern what to say 'yes' and 'no' to, so that I am not away to the detriment of my family, my health and our church. (For instance, just this week, I  said no to three invitations. because my 2020 travel planner is maxed out)

I also love to send teams out without me to help strengthen churches. This is happening more and more.  I have tried to say yes to more mid-week invitations than weekend ones. I am out 8 weekends  in total this year. This has been a fairly standard number over the years.  For those of you who care to know about my travel and other ministry that is hosted at Southlands, I have included them below. Please pray for Rynelle and I as we travel and pray for Southlands, that through God's grace and wisdom, we would continue to win at home and away as a church. Thank you for your grace extended to us as you carry the cost of this call with us. Our worlds are all larger because we have aligned our lives to our true and better Colonel and His Great Commission.

Frow Travel and Other Ministry Dates
January 17th-19th Jubilee Church, St. Louis  
February 2nd  Mercy Commons, Fullerton, Elder Installation
Feb 21st Imago Dei Conference, Downey
Feb 25 Manna Intensive at Southlands Brea
March 8th Preach at Southlands Whittier 
March 15th  Manna Intensive Overnight Big Bear 
April 19th Preach at Southlands Chino
April 26th – May 1st  Advance Team Meeting/ Lead Couples Retreat Nashville
May 21st  – June 3nd UK/ France (Cornerstone Newcastle/Advance Global Team Meeting)
June 15th  Manna Forum at Southlands Brea 
July 15-19th Advance Church Planters hosted at Southlands Brea 
August 28th- 31st Monument Church Washington D.C
September 14th  Manna Forum L.A. 
October 5th Southlands Whittier leader team 
October 8-10 BIOLA Ablaze Conference
November 5th-7th Advance West Hub Gathering hosted at Southlands Brea
November 9th-12th Advance Global Team Meeting UK and One Light Church Thailand

Monday, December 30, 2019

Ten Grateful Reflections on 2019

Yesterday, Ross Douthat declared the 2010's to be the decade of disillusionment in his insightful New York Times op-ed. As he reflected on the closing decade he wondered why we were left with a general sense of things falling apart when in actual fact, it was a relatively stable time in comparison to the 90's and the 2000s in the USA. "Nothing much happened in America in the 2010s. The unemployment rate declined, the stock market grew, people's economic situation gradually improved. There were no terrorist attacks on the scale of 9/11, no new land wars to rival Iraq or Vietnam. Violent crime and illegal immigration trended downward, teenage delinquency diminished, teen birthrates fell and the out-of-wedlock birthrate stabilized....and yet there is a feeling of crisis,  paranoia, mistrust and hysteria, that has pervaded our public life throughout the 2010s." 

No doubt, Douthat is being provocative. He knows that there've been other significant cultural and  political factors that have fed our sense of foreboding, but still, his point lands with me. Our levels of paranoia do not match our levels of instability. We are a disillusioned people, fixated and outraged with what is wrong with our world, often blinded to the grace around us.

I see this in myself. Last week I was talking with a wise friend about my year. I was doing a sort of win/loss audit of 2019 with him, but the weight of my focus was on the losses, which tended to color my mood. Without negating the losses, he firmly suggested, "You should write a blog about your wins though. Learn from the losses. Even lament them. But don't allow them to define you. God has done some significant things in your  life this past year." 

So here we go. Ten Grateful Reflections on 2019 to counter the decade of disillusionment. 

1. Rynelle and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. We celebrated the milestone in Europe visiting some of the most breathtaking cities. Our Enneagram fourness was deeply satisfied! We never thought we'd enjoy sitting in cathedrals, but we did - almost as much as we enjoyed people watching while sipping espresso and eating cannolis from pavement cafes. It was a romantic and spiritually moving trip. Despite moments of scratchiness, I think our marriage has matured like a good cabernet. I am so grateful to God for my wife and our marriage.

2. Even as I write this, I do it with the parental fear that I could jinx them, but our kids have all had a really good year. We've seen them grow in their love for Jesus and His Church. This is a rare phenomenon among pastor's kids and it's not a win that we take much credit for.  There have been years when we felt like our best efforts fell short. But by God's grace, we're a happy family that feels more and more like a ministry team. There's clearly no secret code to parenting, but if there were one, we'd say it was to live the same life before your kids that you live before your church, and say sorry when you don't. It's also to surround your kids with legitimate older siblings in the family of God that they can imitate. Our kids have had those-a-plenty at Southlands and for that we are so grateful.  I think our culture's definition of raising well-balanced kids is terribly skewed towards sports and academics and away from their spiritual development. That said, our children have done well academically, athletically and socially despite being an active part of serving in their church.  To say we're proud of them seems inappropriate. Delighted is more like it.  

3. Asher got a full-ride scholarship to play Division 1 football at the University of North Texas. Who would have thought that a South African boy who only knew about rugby 12 years ago would get to play in 60 000 seat stadiums televised by ESPN and sponsored by Nike? Ash has applied himself with such diligence and toughed it out under grueling conditions. His scholarship has also saved us a significant amount of money and given him experiences which will likely overflow into career opportunities. I love that he has remained humble in his success and we are trusting his final season of football next year will be a memorable one. And then we are praying he gets a good job back in California!

4. I got to complete and release a book called Broken for Blessing: the underrated potential of the medium sized multiplying church. The book was essentially a summary of my masters' thesis which described the story and philosophy of Southlands' multiplying journey. It was a longing fulfilled and  thankfully, it's been well received. Someone told me that writing a book is not a bank, it's a bridge. This has proved true in my experience. The book has got into some significant people's hands, not only in America, but also all over the world, and this has opened some remarkable doors for me to teach and help church leaders that may otherwise not have opened.

5. We baptized more people this past year than I've ever witnessed in our past twelve years at Southlands; forty-eight at our Brea congregation alone, not to mention the baptisms at our other congregations. Of course, behind every baptism there is a person with a story of inestimable value. Behind every baptism is also the story of a team of disciple makers, and honestly, it has been such a thrill to see our church grow as a team of disciples who make disciples this year. Still, the growing number of baptisms is also important because it tells us that despite growing secularization and rampant individualism, the gospel is still taking root and bearing fruit in remarkable ways, and our church is growing in the way that a church should grow. Soli Dei Gloria.

6. We became Air-B-n-B Superhosts with an average occupancy of around 15 nights per month. It's essentially Rynelle's business, although I help with some client liaison. This has been a relatively low-hassle gift to us during the expensive phase of teenage orthodontist bills, insuring a family of four drivers and five mobile phone users, not to mention planning to put kids through college. Air-B-n-B for the win.      

7. Our Manna Forum grew exponentially. Manna began two years ago as a Southlands member initiative to provide financial grants for ten churches in SoCal to help them with mercy and justice initiatives in their cities, with a monthly leadership training forum to strengthen them internally. By the end of this year Manna was strengthening 30 churches in our region and had launched its first Manna Intensive for 8 church planters, which will run throughout 2020. Seeing the amazing work that these Manna churches do by serving people in their cities in such tangible ways is remarkable and deeply fulfilling. 

8. We began to see our multiplying partnership reach a previously unreached people group.  Our intrepid friends from One Light Church have been working into a previously unreached people group in the North of Thailand called the Red Lahu people. Just three years ago two missionaries who went to share the gospel with them were martyred, but since then there has been a growing openness to the gospel and 20 people have turned to Christ. It was a delight to partner  with One Light  by helping purchase a truck to drive up to the mountainous region where the Red Lahu people live, and also by sending a team to do medical and dental missions. It was the team's privilege to witness the 20th Christian in the village being baptized. The gospel is truly growing and bearing fruit all over the world!

9. I had two songs I wrote more than twenty years ago, re-recorded by younger artists. This is the dream as a songwriter  - for people two decades younger than you to actually like your songs enough to want to record them. One was a Christmas song recorded by my kids and their cousins in South Africa. The other was a worship song called Kiss me, recorded by a worship leader called Jordan de Gersigny from Sydney, Australia. I really love what they have done to the songs, and am thankful the songs get to see the light of day in a new era. 

10. My friends and I spent 10 unforgettable days with leaders from the persecuted Church. We were in India and Nepal where there is widespread hostility towards the gospel and those who preach it. Through our partnership with Advance, we went to strengthen these brothers and sisters. Instead, they ended up strengthening us. Their resilient joy and sacrifice has left an indelible mark on my soul. This Christmas was different because I could not stop thinking about what it must feel like to celebrate Jesus' birth in fear of your own safety. I sense that they have more to teach us than we have to teach them, and I am so grateful for the solidarity we share in Christ.

So, as we come to the close of the decade of disillusionment we may feel disillusioned about the next one. That's okay. Life is hard. But God is good. The Spirit is with us. Jesus has gone ahead of us. And sometimes it requires a moments' grateful reflection to remind us of that.