Category Archives: Priorities

Lopsided Missions

percentunevangelizedpercountry

According to an article in the November 2013 edition of Christianity Today, 400,000 Christian missionaries were sent in 2010 from one country to another.  The breakdown of who sent them and who received them is very interesting – and reinforces the missions strategy of my church.  Here are a few interesting and revealing stats:

The top 9 receiving countries received more than 1/3 of the world’s missionaries – but are home to only 3.5% of the world’s non-Christians.

The United States sent 127,000 missionaries and received 32,400 – which reveals that some countries see the United States as their mission field.

32,400 is the most missionaries any country received – making the United States the #1 receiving country of missionaries.

After the United States, the top senders were Brazil (34,000), Spain and France (21,000), and Italy and South Korea (20,000).

After the United States, the top receivers were Brazil and Russia (20,000), Congo (15,000), and South Africa (12,000).

Among other things, these numbers reveal that the large majority of missionaries are still being sent to countries where the gospel of Jesus has already taken root and where an indigenous church already exists.  And this concerns me – and it concerns many others who have a heart for missions as well.

I’m not saying that already-reached countries should not receive any missionaries, but what I am saying is that countries where there are large unreached people groups should be considered first.

The problem with countries like this is that they are difficult places to get into and to live, but the difficulty should not stop mission agencies and missionaries from trying.  At my church, we’ve committed ourselves to spending our mission dollars on and sending our missionaries to the unreached people living in hard to reach areas.

This has come with its set of unique challenges, but we’ve also seen the gospel break-thru among people who have never heard the gospel before.  As a matter of fact, among an unreached people group we targeted 20 years ago, we’ve seen an explosion of the gospel take place – to the point where now over 1000 home churches exist!

If you are a pastor, a missionary, or a Christian with a heart for missions (something every Christian should have, by the way), please consider focusing on the 4 billion people in this world who have not been reached with the gospel rather than focusing on the 3 billion who have.

In Exile Here On Earth

To be in exile is to be removed from your home and not allowed back. It’s a horrible punishment, but one that is not very common in U.S.  However, in other parts of the world, it’s much more common. Here are some recent headlines I recently came across that mentioned exile:

Afghan Christians live in fear of jail, exile, or worse
Guinea’s president says former coup leader may return from exile
Exiled Islamist party leader set to return to Tunisia after 20 years

Exile has been a common punishment over the years. Consider these two famous exiles…

Victor Hugo (1802 – 1885)
French novelist (Les Miserables, Hunchback of Notre-Dame), playwright, poet, human rights campaigner. In exile from 1851 – 1870 after declaring Napoleon III a traitor to France; returned to France in 1870 and was celebrated as a national treasure until his death in 1885. He was away from France for 20 years, but he still remained very much French during that time.

The Dalai Lama (1935 – )
Head of the now-defunct theocracy that ruled a formerly independent Tibet. He’s been in exile since 1959 after the failure of a Tibetan uprising against Chinese occupation. He now lives in India, but he has established a Tibetan government-in-exile in India. He’s been away from Tibet for more than 50 years, but he’s still very much Tibetan.

As long as there have been people on earth, individuals, people groups, and entire nations have suffered the banishment of exile. And though we may not understand it fully, the Bible says that God’s people have been and even are today living in exile. We are not at home. We are living in exile as aliens and strangers, but many of us don’t realize it. And many of us are living as if this land, this kingdom, this culture we are living in is our own…but it’s not.

The book of 1 Peter was originally a letter designed to instruct believers on how to endure persecution without wavering in their faith. It also speaks to the believer’s position in Christ and their future hope as citizens of God’s kingdom – a kingdom that will never end. Peter wrote the letter to remind Christ-followers that we are merely sojourners here on earth. This is not our home; we’re just here on a layover, so we mustn’t get comfortable.

Peter addresses this letter with these words: Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the dispersion…(1 Peter 1:1). He calls the recipients “exiles” even though none of them were literal exiles. He was writing to a mostly Gentile church who were scattered all over northern Asia. He calls them exiles right from the start to make a point that God’s people will always live in exile as long as they live on this earth.

Are we living as exiles here or not? Are we living as citizens of God’s kingdom while here on earth, or are we imbibing the culture, customs, beliefs, and practices of the kingdom in which we are living? Victor Hugo and the Dahlia Lama both set for us good examples of what it should look like to live in exile while at the same time maintaining loyalty and allegiance to their country (culture, customs, beliefs, and practices) from which they were in exile. Hugo never lost sight of being a Frenchman, and after 20 years in exile, he returned as a national hero. And after more than 50 years in exile, the Dahlia Lama is still very much Tibetan as he has established and leads the government of Tibet while being exiled from his homeland. Are we doing the same? Are we living like citizens of another kingdom and followers of another King or not?

1 Peter 1:17 says, And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile… In other words: “If you call Jesus your King, then subject yourself to Him while you are living in exile on this earth.”

We see examples of those who did this and those who didn’t when we look at the nation of Israel in exile in the Old Testament. Daniel 1 records the first wave of exile into Babylon, and Jeremiah 52 and 2 Kings 24-25 record other waves. Thousands of Israelites taken into exile in Babylon under King Nebuchadnezzar. Ultimately, the exile was God’s discipline on His people for their unfaithfulness to Him, and when they arrived in Babylon, God instructed them to prepare for the long-haul there:

Jeremiah 29:5-7
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

The exiled Israelites were going to be in exile for a long time, and so God instructed them to live life, marry and have more God-following children, and even pray for the Babylonian Empire knowing that their welfare would be connected to its welfare. However, God did make it clear that while there, they were not to forget their true King and His kingdom.

So, how’d they do? Well, Ezekiel 14 and 20 reports that many people forgot their King and His kingdom while in exile. And the root cause of this was materialism. Many became successful and wealthy while in Babylon, and their devotion to materialism led to conformity to Babylonian customs. Many adopted the Babylonian language, and many began worshipping their gods and idols. The historian Josephus records that when King Cyrus released Israel from exile years later that many did not want to leave because they didn’t want to leave their possessions behind. They had become assimilated into the Babylonian culture.

Daniel 1 and 3 reports a different story, but unfortunately, it seems that this was not the norm for the exiles in Babylon. In Daniel 1:8, it says that Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank… Daniel – along with men like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – resolved not to become assimilated into the Babylonian culture. They came to a definite or earnest decision not to conform. They determined that they would stay strong no matter what, and here’s how that resolve played out over the years:

Daniel 1:12-16 – They respectfully refused to eat the king’s unclean food.

Daniel 2:36-45 – Daniel boldly and bravely spoke of the coming judgment of God to the king.  In essence, Daniel told the king that another kingdom is coming that will trump his.

Daniel 3:12 – Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to worship the king, thus risking their lives.

Daniel 6:10 – Daniel refused to pray to the king, thus risking his life. Instead, he continued to pray to God.

These men – along with others, I’m sure – stood strong while they were in exile. They fought off the temptation to be assimilated into the Babylonian culture and continued to worship, serve, and remain loyal to God their King the entire time. This did not mean that they did not exercise some allegiance to the Babylonian king as I’m sure Daniel did during his 66 years of service to him, but Daniel never lost sight of who his true King was. He continued to worship Him and remained true to Him the entire time he was in exile.

So, what will it be for us? Will we be like the majority of the Babylonian exiles of Israel? Will we allow the materialism of our time to lead to assimilation and compromise. Will we allow our ultimate allegiance to be shifted from God the King and His kingdom to the kings and kingdoms of our time? Or will we be like the minority of Babylonian exiles of Israel – like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – and resolve not to cave into the pull of materialism that will lead to assimilation?

As Christians, this is not our home. We’re just here on a layover, and we must hold onto everything here loosely. Our allegiances, our loyalties, and our hearts must remain with our King and His kingdom while we are in exile here. May God strengthen us to live lives loyal to Him while we live in exile here.

Taming the Beast of Busyness

Does the beast of busyness lurk in your home? Is your family enslaved by the demands of the calendar? Do you want to slow down but don’t know how? If so, then Randy Frazee, the author of Making Room for Life, may be able to help.  Back when I hosted the Parenting Teenagers radio program, I talked with him all about this, and here’s the transcript of our conversation…

In the book, you don’t waste any time getting to the heart of the problem. You say first off that many of us have squeezed living out of life. What do you mean by this?

This is an epidemic in our society today, particularly in any place where a person is in and out of the car a lot. In the very first chapter, we talk about something called “crowded loneliness,” and here’s what that is. If you were to take an individual and draw a picture of them in the center of the page and then have that person identify every relational world that they must manage, the average person and family would have thirty five to forty distinct separate circles that they have to manage. This ends up creating crowded loneliness where we are overexposed to a lot of people, but we don’t have a deep connection with anyone.

This is creating one of the major disconnections with our families. What happens is the family is going in multiple and different directions, so they not only don’t connect with anyone outside of the family, but this way of life that we have created for ourselves has really squeezed the living out of life for the family.

You paint a pretty bleak picture of the American daily schedule in the book…one that unfortunately many of us are all too familiar with. Do you believe that it is really possible for us to break out of this break-neck speed lifestyle?

It really is possible, but it’s going to take two things. Number one, it’s going to take vision. We’re going to have to teach and disciple people what it means to be in a family and how to live life again with all the choices we have.

Number two, it might take a crisis. In my personal life, I ran up against a crisis about seven years ago related to insomnia that really exposed how out of balance my life was as a pastor, a father, and a husband. Typically, it takes those two things to make a difference. I don’t know if it’s going to happen societally, but I do know that it can take place for the individual. We don’t have to wait for society to catch up.

Give us an idea of what this break-neck speed does to us.

There are health problems mentally, physically, and emotionally as well as spiritual and financial problems that are devastating the family.  For me, I developed insomnia. Basically, I lived my life so imbalanced as a pastor for so long that eventually I couldn’t sleep anymore. That kind of insomnia leads to irritability, low productivity, and a sense of fear that really shut my life down. In addition to that, I wasn’t connecting with my kids the way I needed to. I had them involved in lots of activities in the evenings, and it was really hurting us physically. It wasn’t what God intended.

I’m the a pastor of a large church, and there are lots of expectations on me. I have four children; one in college, one in high school, one in junior high, and one in elementary school. I’ve been married for 22 years. In addition to my main job, I also write books.

There are some solutions that we have within our reach that we can choose incrementally that will help us to get our life back. Because of these, I’m able to engage in my hobbies, I’m able to spend time with my kids, and I’m sleeping like a baby!

And you didn’t expand the week to eight days!

No, I did not! I probably would have chosen that first if I could have, but it wasn’t available.

Part of your solution for this breakneck lifestyle is to restructure our relationships. As a matter of fact, you say that if we are not connected with people, we will die. I’m sure many people would say that their busyness is a direct result of relationships, so obviously you’re talking about something a little different and deeper.

That’s why we called it “crowded loneliness.” Crowded loneliness is very deceptive as a type of loneliness because it gives you the feeling as though you’re over-exposed to relationships when in reality, you’re not really in a deep connection with anyone. When you look at Genesis 2, it says that it’s not good for people to be alone. God wasn’t kidding!

We are living in a time of the greatest human disconnection that any place in human history has ever experienced. The studies are coming in and showing that if we do not have the right kind of connections, then it will literally kill us.

There’s a book by a guy named Will Miller called Refrigerator Rights. He points out that we have a lot of relationships, but asks how many people in our lives have been granted refrigerator rights by us – that is, people who come into our home and feel free to get into our refrigerator without permission. That’s the kind of relationships we need. People need to understand that when it comes to community and connection, most people now have linear friendships with lots of exposure but not a deep connection with a circle of people.

How does one begin to foster and develop relationships like that? What are some key things we can do?

Number one, you’re looking to develop a circle of people who not only know you, but who know each other.

Number two, this includes people who live around you so you can actually get at each other’s life in a more frequent and spontaneous way.

Number three, include your family. This is the biggest challenge in the church of the twenty-first century; we continue to model the world by separating our kids from us even at church. Community must include our children.

Number four, you have to stay out of the car. You have to park the car and spend more time sitting in the front yard hanging out. This means you have to decrease the number of evening activities that you’re involved in including organized children’s sports. I know I just became a bad guy, but organized children’s sports really hurts us as a society.

Number five, start experiencing meals again. The meal is the center place of community.

Restructuring our time via what you call The Hebrew Day Planner is a key concept in your book. Talk to us a bit about this.

This is a radical idea, but it’s an old and ancient idea. The basic structure is out of Genesis. The Hebrew day begins at 6:00 p.m. the day before. One of the things that hurts us as a people is that we think of the day as morning to morning, where the Hebrews thought of the day as evening to evening.

The evening hours from 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. are the time of day that we were created for. This is the relational season of the day where we share a meal and conversation together. All the work is done and this is what we look forward to all day.

From 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. is the season of sleep. The National Institute of Health tells us that the average person right now needs 8.5 hours of sleep per night in order to be healthy. If you don’t get the full eight hours of sleep per night, your alertness will be reduced by 1/3 during the work hours of the day.

From 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. is the time available for work during the time of the sun. This doesn’t mean you have to work 12 hours; it just means this is the season by which you should get all your work done. Ideally, every member of the family seeks to get all their work done in 12 hours and then from 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., there is the relational season of the day.

Our bodies need a sense of pattern and rhythm in order for us to get a full night’s sleep. We should try to go to bed as often as we can at the same time every night so that we can get a full night’s sleep.

It sounds like we need a little more discipline in our lives.

We need boundaries, and we need margins. The average person will say there is no way, but there definitely is. Youth workers will especially say this because they tend to do most of their work in the evenings. I would encourage them to pick up the book The Connecting Church. This is a book I wrote as a companion to Making Room For Life that talks about how we have moved our church over the last eight years to a model where it really promotes family and community over evening programs. As a result, we have deepened the family experience in terms of discipleship and time together, and we have actually increased people’s productivity because they have created boundaries.

When you start to put boundaries on work, then you have a tendency to get more done. As a pastor, that’s how I’m able to get more work done, write books, still enjoy the evenings with my family, and get a full night’s sleep.

Explain what you mean by “leisure sickness,” and tell families what they can do about it.

People actually do need more leisure, but there are two problems that people have by not having boundaries on their time. Number one, they never actually set the work aside. They’re waiting until the weekend to get it done. Number two, the members of the family are not on the same page, so they aren’t doing it as a family.

Leisure sickness is basically a common thing that’s emerging in America where people work so hard during the week without any boundaries that they are worn out. Then on the weekend, they are looking so forward to spending some leisure time, but then their body starts to shut down. Medical specialists say that leisure sickness is essentially where the body starts to create flu-like symptoms so it can crash. This often happens when you are looking forward to actually getting some leisure. Your body is saying that you have pushed it too hard, so now it’s going to shut down.

You have a whole section in your book about bad habits and myths about raising children. What are some of these bad habits and myths that knock our homes out of balance?

One of the major ones took place in the 1980’s. As society was moving to a more mobile society, the idea was to get your children involved in as many adult sponsored evening activities as you can to 1) keep your kids off the street and off of drugs and 2) to give them the advantage later on in life – whether it be with scholarships or success in life. This turned out to be a good idea but overstated.

As parents today, these habits reduce parenting to looking at our children through a chain link fence as we sit on an aluminum bench. As a result, kids want more hang time, more meal time, and more time to just be with their parents and their extended family.

I think one of the things that is going to have to happen is we’re going to have to let our kids play sports, but we’re going to have to put boundaries on them and understand that it was a myth that you do the best for your kid by getting them involved in all these things.

What are you suggesting when you tell parents to put boundaries on sports when everything takes place in the evenings, on Saturdays, and even sometimes on Sundays?

It’s hard! Number one, I would not highly encourage organized sports for children that are 6th grade and under. I would really let sports become a part of their life when it’s a part of the school system in the middle-school and high school years for a couple of reasons. Developmentally, they’re really not ready for sports at the level we’re introducing them to when they’re five years old. Because it’s with the school system – and they have their coaches and their own fields – there’s a tendency for the sports to be right after school, and therefore, the kids are able to get home for the mealtime. I would not do sports aggressively until they are in 7th grade.

Secondly, I would encourage people to pick sports that are predominantly on Saturday mornings. I think we were designed for that 6th day of activity, and we need to prevent the evening hours from being occupied with sports.

The third thing I would suggest is to select sports that do not pull your child out of your community (church, neighborhood, etc.). Try to stay away from specialized sports in a major way. If your children are going to do sports, have them do it with people that live around you so that you can share the experience together.

You also spend some time talking to parents about homework…something that can absolutely threaten to zap the time and energy out of a home. What are you telling parents here?

That’s a huge issue that we have had to address in our own family. One of the things that I would say is that you have to provide incentives for your kids to get their homework done during the school hour. They aren’t going to be motivated because they’re social beings, but you have to find ways to do that.

Number two, reset where the bar needs to be. It may not need to be straight A’s. You might need to reconsider that.

Number three, use Saturday mornings to do projects with them so they can get ahead in school. This will help lighten the load during the weekday evening hours.

A more radical suggestion is to homeschool them. Basically, my kids have doubled up on their schoolwork and are done by noon, and there isn’t any homework. This puts the parents back in control of the situation again.

One of the key ways that parents can de-compartmentalize the life of their family is by bringing church home so that faith oozes into every aspect of family life. How can parents of teens pull this off?

That is the heart and soul of what is driving me and my church. As a church, this is the goal because at the end of the day what ultimately connects our children spiritually is their relationship with their family and their extended spiritual family. We have taken all of our small groups – which include the entire family – and have placed them in neighborhoods. We do church as family. When we do work projects, they are with the family. We try to encourage the family to experience these things together. This is the big need of the day; it is the need for the family to be together as a family and to do life together as a family.

A Lesson on the Value of Human Life from the NFL

vick stallworthThere’s something that’s been bothering me for some time now.  I’m an avid fan of the NFL and can’t wait for the season to begin, but during the off-season this year, some disturbing things have happened.  Poor behavior is a norm for many NFL players.  Give millions of dollars to young men who have not been raised well and who think the world owes them something because they have athletic prowess, and trouble is never far behind.  But what has me scratching my head and questioning the value that our society places on human life is how our “justice” system has handled the crimes of two current NFL players.

Most people are aware of the animal abuse case against Michael Vick.  Three years ago, Vick pleaded guilty to charges of animal cruelty for funding and overseeing a brutal dog fighting scheme.  He even admitted to being present when wounded dogs were brutally disposed of by their owners.  His behavior was abhorrent and the details of his actions turned the stomach of our nation.  For his crime, Vick served 23 months in prison.

Earlier this year, another NFL player, Donte Stallworth, pleaded guilty as well to a horrible crime.  Stallworth was driving toward Miami Beach after a night of drinking and struck and killed a 59 year-old crane operator trying to catch a bus home after working an overnight shift.  Stallworth’s blood alcohol content was over Florida’s legal limit, and he was speeding when he struck the man.  He was charged with DUI and second degree manslaughter.  For his crime, Stallworth served 24 days in jail.

Is it me, or is there something wrong with this picture?  A man who killed dogs serves 23 months in prison, but a man who killed another human being serves only 24 days in jail.  Obviously, Stallworth didn’t mean to kill the man, while it’s clear that Vick intentionally killed the dogs, but both acts were criminal.  And how the one who killed the man got off with only 24 days in jail while the one who killed the dogs was slapped with a sentence of nearly two-years in prison is beyond me.

What does this say about how our society values human life when our “justice” system doles out these kind of upside-down sentences?  As I look forward to another exciting year of football, I’m a bit confused and somewhat disturbed by the lesson on the value of life we’ve learned from the NFL this off season.

God and Apple Pie

My buddy, Tony, is preaching a great series on God’s grace at his church. He’s the pastor of Grace Community Bible Church in Venice, Florida. Michelle and I started listening to his series while we were on vacation last month. This past weekend, Tony used a metaphor about God that really made sense to me. I’m pretty sure he stole it from someone because it’s too profound for him to come up with on his own (I owe you that, Tony!), plus stealing other people’s stuff is what we pastors do.

Anyway, he was talking about how God can not simply be just a priority in the life of a believer – even if He’s seen as number one. Instead, God must permeate every part of the life of the believer. He likened God to the apple filling inside an apple pie. No matter how you cut the pie, you’re always going to get a heaping portion of delicious apple filling inside each piece. In the same way, no matter what relationship we’re involved with or what situation we’re in, God must permeate it all.

We’re so quick to compartmentalize our lives saying, for instance, “God is first, my spouse is second, my kids are third, and my friends are fourth.” That sounds good on the surface, but because we’re so prone to compartmentalizing our relationships and life-sitautions, I’m not so sure this is really the best way of looking at things.

I like the apple pie analogy. Since there’s apple filling all throughout the pie, no matter how you slice it, you’ll get some apple in every bite you take. The same should be true when it comes to the way we see the Lord in our lives. Since He should take preminence in every area of our lives, viewing Him like apple pie filling is much better than viewing Him as number one. The Lord should permeate every relationship we’re in and every situation we come across in our lives.

So…I like the apple pie analogy. I like it so much that I may use it someday, and when I do, I’ll be sure to take credit for coming up with it myself, so don’t say anything! While it’s true that pastors are known for stealing ideas, it’s only the good ones that can do it and convince people that they came up with the ideas themselves. Mum’s the word.