I recently returned from a two-week trip to India. During my time there I taught two 9Marks conferences for pastors and seminarians. I came away from that time more convinced than ever that the mission of 9Marks is essential to the spread of the gospel in places like Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand.
Now, I realize that I am biased when it comes to this subject; though I don’t work for 9Marks, I am a True Believer. But it seems to me from my experience (admittedly limited, I’ve only been twice) and the input of pastors on the ground there that the most urgent need in India is for well-trained pastors.
There are actually a lot of Christians, a lot of churches, and a lot of missionaries in India. That’s great and really important. There are even a lot of pastors. But while many of these pastors are long on love for Jesus, courage, and willingness to sacrifice… many of them need help thinking through things that you and I might take for granted. Things like: the gospel, conversion, and biblical theology; things that 9Marks specializes in.
The fact is, it’s really hard to have a healthy church and healthy Christians when pastors don’t have a good grasp of these basic things. Just like here in the West, it’s easy for the churches of India to become distracted by things other than the gospel of Jesus Christ. But unhealthy, distracted churches usually breed unhealthy, distracted Christians.
So would you pray that 9Marks would continue to bear fruit in places like India? And would you pray that the Lord would raise up more Indian churches that have a passion for planting churches and training pastors?
I am a pastor, and I am addicted to work—just as I have been for most of my life. Like the participant at Alcoholics Anonymous who considers himself a “recovering alcoholic” after thirty years without a drop of booze, I will consider myself a recovering work addict until the day I reach heaven, because it is so ingrained in my flesh.
Perhaps you identify with this. Or perhaps “addicted to work” sounds as preposterous to you as “addicted to root canals.” Either way, let me share with you some advice from my experience pastoring those in my church (including myself) who are wrongly ambitious.
Notice that I said “wrongly ambitious” and not “overambitious.” That’s because for the Christian it is impossible to be overambitious. Work was created before the Fall (Gen. 2:15) and will continue on into heaven (Isa. 65:21-23). And so the apostle Paul tells us to “make the most of every opportunity” (Eph. 5:16). If that’s not ambition, I don’t know what is.
As Christians, we are called to be ambitious for Christ. And yet many seem ambitious only for the things of this world. How do we pastor them? I will give you five root causes behind wrongheaded ambition, and four ideas of how to help those who have fallen into these traps.
WHY DO PEOPLE BECOME WRONGLY AMBITIOUS?
Why do people become wrongly ambitious?
Root Cause #1: Insecurity
Let me describe a dinner conversation several years ago with five CFOs of Fortune-500 companies. “I’ve got a theory I want to test,” said one of them. “How many of you are the oldest child of divorced parents?” Every hand went up but one. “Right. Driven in your career because you can’t shake your perceived failure as a child?” All heads nod.
How many of the uber-confident, successful overachievers in your congregation are driven out of insecurity and fear rather than strength? Insecurity may well propel these Christians to the heights of their profession, but it will severely hinder their ability to serve Christ in their profession. Insecurity can stem from a broken home, past abuse, an unimpressive education, a struggling marriage, disappointing children, or a host of other factors.
Striving to make our mark on the world can be right and godly. Think of Moses’ asking God to establish the work of his hands in Psalm 90. But striving to promote ourselves rather than God is self-serving and idolatrous.
Root Cause #2: Impatience
Joe knows his wife has had a terrible day with the kids; it’s thirty minutes before he would normally go home; and he’s accomplished everything on his to-do list. So why does he feel so reluctant to leave early? Is it because he doesn’t love his family? Is it because he’s not allowed to leave before closing or because he’s afraid people will think less of him for leaving early? Let’s assume the answer to all these is “no.” So why the reluctance? Because his self-worth is wrapped up in his ability to get things done. And so leaving thirty minutes early feels like a denial of his basic identity. He wants to accomplish things with his life—which is a good instinct. In fact, it was part of God’s plan for humanity in Genesis 1-2. But when, in search of that impact, he elevates one particular calling in life (his job) above others that God has given (his family), he shows himself to be impatient with God’s plans. He’s like King Saul who couldn’t wait for the prophet Samuel to make an all-important sacrifice to the Lord. Saul’s goal (defeating God’s enemies) was right on. But instead of trusting God’s plan to get there, he went with his own plan instead.
Similarly, much wrongheaded ambition comes from trying to achieve something good (impact on this world) through human wisdom rather than God’s good plan. We become obsessed with a job at the expense of other things because we’re not willing to trust that obeying God’s commands across all of our callings is the best way to achieve the eternal impact we desire. God’s plans often seem circuitous and inefficient—but in his wisdom he really does know best.
Root Cause #3: Financial Fear
Sometimes wrongheaded ambition has nothing to do with identity, self-actualization, or any other existential desire, but is merely about money.
Ron bought a house that was on the upper end of his budget—and that was before he lost his job as a regional sales manager. Now that he’s found work in a different field, he feels intense pressure to perform or else his family will lose the house, which would also involve leaving a great school district, years of friendship with neighbors, and a lifestyle they’ve come to enjoy.
Most likely, the level of stress he feels at work is echoed through his family’s life, as everything seems to be about having enough money. Paul’s words to Timothy come to mind: “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that” (1 Tim. 6:6-8).
Root Cause #4: Escape
You’ve been trying to convince Mary to get more involved with her small group, but work commitments always get in the way. Yet as you learn more about Mary’s family life, the reason for her interest in work comes sadly into focus. Her marriage is on the rocks and her kids seem to be a disgrace—but at work she’s a hero. In survey after survey, modern Americans say that their main motivator in the workplace is recognition—more than money, more than career advancement, more than great coworkers.
What if her job is the only place where Mary feels she gets recognition? What if her job is the only place where Mary feels she deserves recognition?
Root Cause #5: No Good Models
Javier grew up with a father who greatly blessed their city through his work as district attorney, and Javier is determined to follow in those footsteps. Unlike his father, however, Javier wasn’t blessed with a natural mind for the law, and so the only way he is succeeding at work is by making it the only thing that matters in his life. Beyond that, all of the other Christians in his life are exactly the same—or at least appear that way. Orthopedic surgeon, car dealership owner, judge, real estate magnate: the elders and other leaders in his church all seem to fulfill Javier’s vision for worldly and spiritual “success.” What Javier doesn’t know is that none of these church leaders allow their jobs to put a stranglehold on the rest of life like he does. His problem is a lack of models. He sees few examples of people with ordinary ability who are viewed as “successful” in his local church. And he lacks a window into the lives of those who have been recognized as Christian leaders.
FIVE PASTORAL RESPONSES
Now, having read through these five root causes, you undoubtedly have your own ideas of how you might pastor these various church members who suffer from wrongheaded ambition. But perhaps I can add to your list of potential responses. Here are four pastoral responses from my own experience and the experience of others.
Response #1: Encourage Satisfaction in a Paycheck
This idea could be easily misunderstood. But in 21st-century industrialized societies, recognition and self-actualization have replaced money as the primary motivation for employment in our society (see root causes 1 and 2 above). This is a problem for the Christian because nowhere in the Bible do we find self-actualization as a motivation for work. Instead, we see that work exists primarily to put food on the table and to allow us to be generous (Eph. 4:28). By God’s grace work can accomplish much more than that: it allows us to image God in Genesis 1:27, adorn the gospel in Titus 2:10, and provide enjoyment in Ecclesiastes 2:24-25. But all these motivations are also true of every other calling we have in life: being a husband or wife, a father or mother, a citizen, a church member, an evangelist, and so on. The only motivation that is truly unique to employment is financial compensation. So help your congregation come to learn the wonderful satisfaction of working for money.
Do the wrongly ambitious in your church take satisfaction in their paycheck? Or is their satisfaction primarily from other perceived benefits of their job such as status or a sense of significance? Or, to put the question another way, does discontent with work stem from a lack of status or significance? Most of the wrongly ambitious would be helped if they saw their paycheck as a more significant motivation for why they work. If they view money as a stewardship from God—and the enjoyment of money as the enjoyment of stewardship—then money can become a wise and godly motivator in the workplace.
Of course, if they use money selfishly in an attempt to reduce dependence on God (see root cause #4 above), the opposite will happen. But if you give your people a godly vision for money, and teach them that it is godly to take satisfaction in their paycheck (no matter how big or how small), you will help the wrongly ambitious shift their motivation in the workplace from what is idolatrous to what honors God.
Useful book: Managing God’s Money by Randy Alcorn
See also: the Capitol Hill Baptist Church adult Sunday School manuscripts for a five week class on money.
Response #2: Teach on what is valuable—and challenging—about pursuing excellence
Often, a wrongly ambitious attitude toward work is wrapped up with a wrong idea of pursuing excellence at work (see root causes 1 and 4 above). But rather than simply telling people what not to do, we need to help them understand what a right view of excellence is. In Colossians 3:23 we are told to work “as for the Lord.” In other words, no matter who your earthly boss is, behind that man or woman stands Jesus Christ, your true boss. And while your earthly boss has only given you assignments related to the workplace, Jesus has given you assignments related to all of life.
A wrong view of excellence optimizes life for only one assignment: the assignment of the workplace. This is how a godly desire for “excellence” leads to the ungodly obsession that we call “perfectionism.” But once people grasp that Jesus is their real boss, two things happen. First, a pursuit of excellence becomes an act of worship: a right response to who Christ is and what he has done. Second, a pursuit of excellence in the workplace is placed in the context of all the other assignments Christ has given, which extend far beyond the workplace. As you teach on the biblical foundation for excellence, you will displace the counterfeit concepts of excellence that are so prevalent in today’s workplace.
Useful book: God at Work by Gene Veith
See also: the Capitol Hill Baptist Church adult Sunday School manuscripts for a six week class on Christians in the workplace.
Response #3: Highlight examples of godly ambition
“Ambition” should not be a dirty word in your congregation. After all, the apostle Paul uses the translated Greek word for “ambition” to describe his desire to preach the gospel in Romans 15:20. When faced with a wrongly-ambitious member of your congregation, your desire should never be to scale back their ambition but to redirect it (see root causes 3 and 5 above). But if the only examples of “ambitious people” your congregation sees are those who are wrongly ambitious in their careers, they will struggle to be ambitious as Christ intends them to be.
As you have opportunity, then, highlight as examples to your congregation those members who are ambitious for God’s kingdom and whose ambition for Christ has resulted in success in the workplace. In addition, highlight those members who are ambitious for God’s kingdom but have decidedly normal careers in the workplace. Both types of examples can be useful in their own way. Neglect the first category and you’re suggesting that there is no spiritual value to be found in the workplace. Neglect the second and you communicate that only “successful” people need apply for service to Christ.
Useful book: Rescuing Ambition by Dave Harvey.
Response #4: Advertise the value of a life built around the congregation
Most Christians will make better use of their lives for the kingdom of God if they pick just one or two churches through their adult lives and stick with them (see root causes #2 and 5 above). Of course, there are exceptions to this. But as a rule, most people are not the exception. The relational ministry we build in the local church is not the only thing of eternal value in this life, but it is one of the primary ways that we can build for eternity. You will serve the wrongly-ambitious well if you advertise this fact.
How can you do this? First, generally, encourage people to structure their lives so that they can have a vital relational ministry in the church. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they sign up for a bunch of church programs. It does mean that they think about where they live and what kind of job they hold and what kind of leisure habits they develop in light of how well they can be invested in relationships at church.
Second, teach on the spiritual value of those things that compete with the local church for members’ time. What is the eternal value of what I do at my job? What is the eternal value I’m building through ministry to my family? What is the eternal value of a vacation? If your people cannot articulate the good they are accomplishing in those other spheres of life, they will have a difficult time making wise tradeoffs when those things seem to compete with the local church for their time and affection. As I mentioned above, God’s plans for how we can best spend our lives often seem circuitous and counter-intuitive, and his plan that we invest heavily in the local church is a prime example of that. Help your people trust God’s plan and show them what it means to do this well.
Useful book: The Trellis and the Vine by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne.
A SENSE OF AWE
Finally, pastor, remember that there is nothing special about paid Christian work that protects you from being wrongly ambitious in your own life. In fact, because of the obvious spiritual value of what you do, as a pastor you may in fact be especially susceptible to being wrongly directed in your ambitions. Accordingly, I’ve written this article so that everything in it applies to you just as much as to anyone else in your church.
So, one final piece of advice, both for you and your congregation: make every effort to cultivate amazement at who God is. A sense of awe at who God is invests our lives as worshippers with eternal significance (root cause 1). A sense of awe at who God is helps us trust his plans for faithfulness even when they seem strange by the world’s standards (root cause 2). A sense of awe at who God is reminds us that the comforts of this world are merely passing, but real and eternal blessing is at hand (root cause 3). A sense of awe at who God is gives us hope that we can serve him in even difficult circumstances, obviating the need for escape (root cause 4). And a sense of awe at who God is opens our eyes to the value of his most faithful servants, be they giants of church history or the frail prayer warrior shuffling into the back pew (root cause 5).
My prayer is that you will help fuel your congregation’s ambition to serve this God and to make him known with every hour and dollar and opportunity at their disposal.
Jamie Dunlop is an associate pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC.
Click here to see the editor's note for the March/April 9Marks Journal.
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format, provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you do not make more than 1,000 physical copies. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be explicitly approved by 9Marks.
When someone thinks about their work being “Christian,” all kinds of disturbing images come to mind:
- Opening a beauty salon called “A Cut Above” or a coffee shop called “He Brews.”
- Working awkward evangelism moments into sales calls.
- Defiantly saying “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays” in the checkout line or sneaking a “Have a blessed day” into a salutation.
- Putting up posters about Bible study options at lunch or sending out group emails about sightings of the Virgin Mary in Ecuador.
Perhaps you remember the 2004 incident of an American Airlines pilot who, in his pre-flight announcements, asked all the Christians on board the plane to raise their hands. He then suggested that during the flight the other passengers talk to those people about their faith. He also told passengers he’d also be happy to talk to anyone who had questions. Understandably, it freaked a lot of people out: the pilot of your airplane talking to you about whether or not you’re ready to meet Jesus? While they might admire the guy’s zeal, many Christian businesspeople think, “I just don’t think I could do that and keep my job.”
Many Christians think that you just can’t serve the kingdom of God at work, and that kingdom work happens “after hours”—volunteering at the church nursery, attending small group, going on a mission trip, serving at the soup kitchen. Our work is a necessity that must be endured to put bread on the table. God’s interest in the fruit of our labors is primarily that we tithe off of it.
The Bible offers quite a different perspective. Scripture teaches us how to serve God through our work, not just after work. The Bible speaks clear and radical words to people in the workplace, showing us that even the most menial of jobs has an essential role in the mission of God.
In fact, it is surely not coincidental that most of the parables that Jesus told had a workplace context, and that of the forty miracles recorded in the book of Acts, thirty-nine of them occurred outside of a church setting. The God of the Bible seems as concerned with displaying his power outside the walls of the church as he does within it.
I want to suggest five qualities that make work “Christian.” By “Christian” in this context I mean “done through faith in Jesus Christ.” Therefore, work that is Christian will have five qualities: (1) creation-fulfilling, (2) excellence-pursuing, (3) holiness-reflecting, (4) redemption-displaying, and (5) mission-advancing.
CHRISTIAN WORK IS CREATION-FULFILLING
When God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden, he didn’t just tell him to keep away from certain bad apples. God placed Adam in the garden “to work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). Remember that God said this before the curse, indicating that work wasn’t a punishment inflicted on Adam for his sin, but was a part of God’s original design. The first purpose God had in mind for Adam wasn’t to read a Bible or pray, but to be a good gardener.
The Hebrew word ‘abad, translated “work,” shows just what God means: it has the connotation of preparing and developing. Adam was placed in the garden to develop its raw materials, to cultivate a garden. Christians can fulfill the created purpose of God in the same way, by taking the raw materials of the world and developing them. This is happening all the time by both believers and non-believers. Contractors take sand and cement and use them to create buildings. Artists take color or music and arrange them into art. Lawyers take principles of justice and codify them into laws that benefit society.
This is God’s plan. Martin Luther, the famous German reformer, put it this way: “When we pray the Lord’s Prayer we ask God to ‘give us this day our daily bread.’ And he does give us our daily bread. He does it by means of the farmer who planted and harvested the grain, the baker who made the flour into bread, the person who prepared our meal.”
What this means is that a Christian’s secular vocation helps to mediate God’s active care in the world. God is active through a person’s work to ensure that families are fed, that homes are built, that justice is carried out. Too many Christians begrudge their work when they ought to revel in the fact that God is using them, in whatever small part, to fulfill his purposes.
Another great example of this comes from the classic movie Chariots of Fire. The movie follows a Christian track athlete, Eric Liddell, in his preparation for the 1924 Olympics. At one point in the film Liddell is confronted with the objection to his career that there are more pressing matters in life for a Christian than merely running. Liddell responds, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.” At some point or another, while working at something we love or are good at, many of us have had a similar feeling. It is as if we feel inside of us, quite literally, “This is what I was made for.”
CHRISTIAN WORK IS EXCELLENCE-PURSUING
If our work is done “unto God,” it should be done according to the highest standards of excellence. Paul says, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17). That should be true whether we receive any reward for our work or not, or whether anyone ever notices.
Let’s be honest: it is demoralizing to work for someone who does not give us credit for what we have done, or worse, someone who only responds by offering critical feedback. A bad boss can make otherwise satisfying work an absolute terror. In a situation like that, most people lose the motivation to work with excellence. “After all,” they may think, “what is the point of working hard? No one will notice either way, and even if they do, I certainly won’t get the credit for it.” That may be a reasonable response, but it is not a Christian one.
Christians ought to pursue excellence in their work not because they want to impress their boss, or because working hard leads to better pay, but because they work first for Christ. C. S. Lewis once noted how valleys undiscovered by human eyes are still filled with beautiful flowers. Who did God create that beauty for, if no human eyes would ever see it? Lewis’ answer was that God does some things only for his own pleasure. He sees even when no one else does.
This perspective adds new significance to every task believers perform, even if they know they will never be recognized. They no longer require the approval of others in their work, because they no longer work primarily for others. They work first for Christ, and he deserves their best.
In reality, however, very few jobs go unnoticed, especially if done poorly. A Christian with a poor work ethic or sloppy academic performance gives the world a terrible testimony of Christ. He may say with his mouth that “Jesus is Lord,” but when he doesn’t care to turn in assignments on time or respect his boss, he is saying even louder, “I myself am lord.” In working with excellence, Christians not only serve God, but also display an attitude of service to the world.
CHRISTIAN WORK IS HOLINESS-REFLECTING
If Christians work for God, that should inherently make them work with excellence. But knowing that God sees everything we do should also make us work with integrity. Work that is “Christian” will conform to the highest standards of ethics.
Paul goes on in Colossians to explain that everything we do is done with respect for our watching Master in heaven to whom we will give an account (Col. 3:23-25). That means, Paul says, even when our boss is a jerk (and many of the people to whom Paul is writing were literally owned by their boss!), Christians do their work unto God. Our work ought to make it obvious that we serve a God of justice and kindness. This means that Christian bosses ought to be less concerned with what they can get away with and more concerned with the fact that they are accountable to a heavenly Master. Christian employees ought not to cut corners or lie about how much work they have been putting in. Business ethics really matter because in them we mirror the character of God. God says that “unjust balances”—cut corners, fudged balance sheets, skimped time cards, and so on—are an “abomination” to him (cf. Prov. 11:1). Poor business ethics are no trifling matter.
CHRISTIAN WORK IS REDEMPTION-DISPLAYING
If Christians were to act in their jobs with equity and fairness, that alone would set them apart. But those who have been touched by the gospel do not merely attempt to hold to high ethical standards: they live lives with a radically altered perspective of gratitude. What Christ has done by redeeming us to the Father produces a natural response of grace towards others.
I recently heard a story about a young college graduate who landed a job on Madison Avenue in one of the advertising world’s most prestigious firms. Shortly after she got there, she made a mistake that cost the company nearly $25,000. Madison Avenue is not a world defined by grace, and she expected to be fired by the end of the day. Her boss, however, went before his board of directors and convinced them to allow the blame for her mistake to fall on him instead. When this young woman heard what her boss had done, she came to him in tears. She asked him why, in that cutthroat atmosphere, he would choose to cut his own throat for her. He answered by sharing how Jesus had done a very similar thing for him, stepping in the way of the wrath that he deserved. Because of the great grace that Jesus had shown him, he wanted to display a similar mercy to others when he could.
This means approaching our work with adjusted “bottom-lines.” We no longer merely angle for increased position or to maximize personal profit. If truly touched by grace, Christians in business begin to leverage their resources to bless those in need.
Some Christians may object to a perspective like this. Grace is something that applies in the spiritual realm, they may say, but not in business: “I worked for what I have—I earned it!” they might say. A person may certainly feel like she has earned everything that she has, but where did she get her tough-minded work ethic? Her intelligence? These were the grace of God. By whose decree did she grow up in the United States instead of in a Brazilian favela? Certainly not by her own—this also was the grace of God. The very air she breathed and food she ate were provided to her as gifts of grace. Jesus taught that the kingdom of God belongs to those who are “poor in spirit”—those who recognize that all they have is a gift of grace. The “middle class in spirit,” who believe they are merely reaping the fruit of their labors, will know nothing of the kingdom of God, because they have no concept of the magnitude of the grace of God in their lives. When someone understands how much they are indebted to grace, they will begin to see every situation they are in, whether in business or the church, as a place not to be served, but to serve.
The call to leverage our lives for the kingdom of God is not the special assignment of a sacred few. All disciples of Jesus are called to see their lives as seeds to be planted for God’s kingdom. Jesus said that if our life were a party, it should be thrown for those who can’t pay us back. Sometimes I think we’ve invented this whole language of “calling to ministry” to mask the fact that the majority of people in our churches are not living as disciples of Jesus.
CHRISTIAN WORK IS MISSION-ADVANCING
Work done by disciples of Jesus should be done with a view toward the Great Commission. In Acts we see that God used non-vocational ministers (perhaps businesspeople, doctors, servants, who knows!) to get the gospel around the world to places that the Apostles never went. Luke notes that the first time the church “went everywhere preaching the word,” the Apostles were not engaged (Acts 8:1). He also notes that when Paul finally arrives in Rome to preach Christ there, he is greeted by hospitable “brothers,” who seem to have been there for quite some time (Acts 28:7). As Steven Neill notes in his classic History of Christian Missions, of the three great church planting centers in the ancient world (Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome), not one was founded by an Apostle.
In the same way, Christians in the marketplace today are able to gain access more easily to strategic, unreached places. Globalization, revolutions in technology, and urbanization have given the business community nearly universal access.
Secular skills are needed to give Christians access to countries that would otherwise swiftly reject their presence. The countries most in need of a gospel presence—those in the so-called “10-40 window”—are devastated by poverty and joblessness. These places need both the words of the gospel and the tangible reflection of God’s love that businesses can provide. Millions in this region are without work and without the knowledge of Christ.
One example, though dozens could be provided, is the nation of Iran. Iran is an unreached area in desperate need of the gospel. As of today, there are 10 million seeking employment in Iran, a number that could eclipse 20 million within the next 15 years. How are places like this to be reached? Iran can be reached through the efforts of average Christian businesspeople taking their skills and expertise overseas. This may not be the path for every Christian, but perhaps God is challenging you to consider leveraging your work for his mission-advancing purposes.
Not every Christian, of course, will be led to perform their business in an unreached people group. But disciples of Jesus should always do their work with a view toward the Great Commission. A “missional vision” for Christian work is to do it well, and to do it, if at all possible, somewhere strategic. Proverbs 22:29 says, “Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men.” Believers who do their work well can be greatly used in the work of the Great Commission. Their excellence in business can give them audiences with the “kings” and influencers of the most unreached peoples in the world.
God is interested in how Christians do their work, and he wants to be involved in it. Your work can make an eternal difference in the lives of those you work with, those you work for, and those you serve through your job. Allow the transformation of the gospel to change the way you look at and do your work. You were redeemed by grace—now live out that grace in the context of your job. You may never look at work the same way again.
J.D. Greear is the lead pastor of the Summit Churches in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina and is the author, most recently, of Stop Asking Jesus Into Your heart: How to Know for Sure You Are Saved (B&H).
 http://www.travelkb.com/Uwe/Forum.aspx/air/2002/American-Airlines-Preaching-Pilot Found in John Dickson, The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission (Zondervan, 2010), 172-173.
Click here to see the editor's note for the March/April 9Marks Journal.
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format, provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you do not make more than 1,000 physical copies. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be explicitly approved by 9Marks.
In a recent post I observed that Christians in America are experiencing a growing measure of cultural disenfranchisement. In so doing, they are beginning to taste what many Christians throughout history have experienced, not to mention our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world.
There are a number of lessons to be learned from such trends, but one we hope that pastors will take is the importance of helping church members think through what it means to be a Christian in different domains of life. And the domain we want to think though in the March/April 2013 edition of the 9Marks Journal is the workplace.
Yet we are introducing a new format with the March/April Journal. We hope to begin dripping out the contents of the Journal over the month or two leading up to the release of the Journal. That way, you have a chance to make your way through the table of contents gradually, instead of having it dumped into your email box or RSS feed all at once. Then we will give you the entire Journal at the end.
The first post is by J.D. Greear on the topic of what is “Christian” about work. It is aimed more at members than pastors, but stay tuned in subsequent weeks for articles aimed more directly at the pastor. What do businesspeople wish their pastors understood about them? How do you pastor the complacent, the unemployed, the worldly? And so forth.
Are you planning to attend the TGC National Conference? If so, be sure to check out the series of panel discussions 9Marks will be hosting during the "workshops" portion of the conference:
Time: Tuesday, April 9, 1:30pm
Topic: "Growth and Grace: How Obedience Sets Us Free . . . Or Not"
Participants: Mike McKinley, Jonathan Leeman, Tom Schreiner, Hunter Powell, John Piper, Tim Keller
Time: Tuesday, April 9, 2:45pm
Topic: "Membership and Mission: Why Membership Matters for Church's Mission . . . Or Hurts It"
Participants: Mike McKinley, Jonathan Leeman, K. Edward Copeland, Andy Davis, Matt Chandler
Time: Tuesday, April 9, 4:00pm
Topic: "Conversion and Community: How the Church Pictures Supernatural Community . . . Sort Of "
Participants: Mike McKinley, Jonathan Leeman, Al Mohler, Jared Wilson, Jeramie Rinne, J. D. Greear
More info on the conference here. We hope to see you there!
Like the first round of layoffs that leave company employees expecting more layoffs to come, so the end of 2012 and beginning of 2013 have left American evangelicals with a growing sense of their own disenfranchisement.
THE GROWING DISENFRANCHISEMENT OF AMERICAN CHRISTIANITY
For decades pollsters have been charting the nation’s drift away from Christianity. Church attendance has been dropping. The registrants of “no religion” have been rising. And American evangelicals have become well acquainted with battles in the classroom over evolution or in the courthouse over Ten Commandment reliefs.
But the news events of late have brought the battle into new domains, renewing the sense among many Christians that America’s institutions are handing Christianity its pink slip.
- In November, a majority of voters in several states approved of ballot initiatives favoring same-sex marriage.
- In December, the federal government began to fine a company owned by Christians $1.3 million/day for refusing to provide their employees insurance coverage that includes abortifacient drugs.
- In January, a pastor was essentially removed from a presidential inauguration ceremony because of a sermon against homosexuality.
And these are just some of the matters that have hit mainstream media.
To speak of disenfranchisement is to speak of the loss of authority in the public square, the marketplace, and other culture-making institutions. We can leave for another day the tougher conversation about how or whether Christian and biblical norms should inform society’s institutions. Here I am simply making the observation that Christians are finding themselves disenfranchised.
This means, Christian, that your faith-informed ideas about “righteousness” and “justice” will less and less be represented in court decisions, acts of legislation, civically significant symbols and events, the hiring and firing policies of your workplace, or the leadership requirements for national youth organizations, to say nothing of whose values dominate television primetime or the scripts being read in your community playhouse theater. Just this week I read a Washington Post opinion piece which commended the Boy Scouts for reconsidering their policy on banning homosexual troop leaders on the grounds of “righteousness.”
Now, I recognize that society is complex, and that a narrative of moral declension can characterize one area of public life even while more biblical conceptions of justice take hold in another area. For instance, I do not support every policy recommendation that has emerged from the civil rights or the environmental movements, but I do believe that both of these movements have served the cause of biblical justice in various ways, bringing genuine progress.
Yet with such qualifications in place, I think it is fair to say that many evangelical Christians are experiencing an increasing sense of disenfranchisement in American life, as well as the expectation that things are getting worse. Hence, one friend felt compelled to write a blog post on “How to prepare for hostility.”
THE GROWTH OF HEALTHY CHURCHES
Yet there is good news here. The institutional disenfranchisement of Christianity does not always lead to healthier churches, but sometimes it does. And it is my own anecdotally-driven sense that there is a trend toward health among a growing number of churches.
A couple weeks ago, I was sitting at lunch with a friend who writes about cultural dynamics and trends. He asked me what encourages and what discourages me about the churches that I can observe from my 9Marks perch.
Many things encourage me, I said. Pastors are taking expositional preaching more seriously. More and more are trying to guard their flocks by carefully attending to biblical practices of membership and discipline. And all the conversations among evangelicals about the nature of the gospel over the last decade have left many of us with a more solid grasp of the gospel and its implications.
As for discouragements, I had a hard time thinking of some. Yes, many, many unhealthy churches bespeckle the American landscape. Yes, bad trends are afoot here and there. But among the smaller number of church leaders with whom I interact on a weekly basis, I see encouraging signs of health and solidification. A pastor might telephone me concerning a difficult case of church discipline, which are always sad, but the larger point is, this church leader is looking for guidance on wise and loving discipline. Ironically, that is a sign of health. The antibodies are in motion!
Am I saying that there is a causal connection between societal disenfranchisement and church health? I don’t have any evidence that would satisfy a Ph.D. review committee, but it stands to reason there is some connection. Either way, two lessons occur to me, one for the pastor and one for every Christian:
1. For the pastor: Assuming the narrative of cultural declension continues, it will be increasingly important for pastors to equip their members to know what it means to be a Christian in the workplace, in the public square, in the Parent-Teacher Association, in the doctor’s office, in the local playhouse theater, and so forth. Tim Keller has made this point well in Center Church. When society broadly embraces a Judeo-Christian ethic, as Americans did, say, in the 1950s, the pastor feels less need to think carefully about equipping his members for the ethical dilemmas and persecution they are likely to encounter at work.
As such, one thing that pastors can do today for building healthy churches is to give careful thought to what Christian discipleship looks like in these various domains, thought which should then show up in our counseling, preaching, and discipling. My own church addresses such topics, among other places, through issue-specific adult Sunday School courses. We now have 7 to 13 week classes devoted to work, money, manhood & womanhood, Christians in government, parenting, and more (click on links for complete manuscripts and handouts).
2. For every Christian: Assuming the narrative of cultural declension continues, each one of us will, most likely, find ourselves at a series of crossroads in the years ahead, moments in which we are forced to decide whether we stand with the world or with the Word of God. No doubt, living in a fallen world means that this decision faces us daily. But as the cultural forces against Christianity increase, and as we Christians find ourselves disenfranchised for holding to biblical convictions, we will increasingly encounter that decision in places where we are not accustomed to encountering it: Do I pay for the insurance, or do I pay the fine? Do I say what my college friends will call bigotted, or do I save face? Do I cater the event, or do I risk a lawsuit?
Every time we walk up to such a crossroads, we will be required to consider what is most central to our identity. Am I a U.S. citizen first or a Christian first? Am I a schoolteacher first or a Christian first? Am I a female first or a Christian first? Am I African-American first or a Christian first? Perhaps it will be a magazine article arguing that you, being female, must think a certain way. Or it will be a school principal telling you that keeping your job means going with the flow. Or it will be your own flesh inviting you to choose your nation over your God.
And at every such crossroads you will have to ask, “Who am ‘I’? And what does being crucified and raised with Christ have to do with the answer?”
Being a Christian means recognizing that all the other categories that we use to identify ourselves (family, gender, ethnicity, vocation, citizenship) are merely stewardships; and that Jesus gets to tell us how we will employ every one of those stewardships, even the ones that we hold most dearly.
THE SAINT’S ASSURANCE
Here, again, is the good news. As more and more Christians are required to make their crossroads choices, some churches will only grow stronger. After all, these crisis moments offer assurance
- that Jesus’ words are true: “I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you…In this world you will have tribulation…” (John 16:4, 33);
- that we are being identifed with the King of the Universe: “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19);
- that we are being prepared for perfection: “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth” (John 17:18-19);
- and that Christ will vindicate his name and the name of his people: “…I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
One cannot be sure, but perhaps America is handing Christianity the pink slip of disenfranchisement. And there are plenty more conversations worth having about how to wisely respond. But this much encourages me: Aslan is on the move, and the first place where I’ve spotted his shadow is among the assemblies of the saints, his holy ones. I’ve spotted it among some of you.
I was an only child until age fifteen, when God blessed my parents with a daughter. As a family of four, our meals were quick and decisions were relatively easy. Not so with friends of mine who came from families of eight or more siblings. For them, bathroom time was coveted and possibly scheduled. Meals were a production rivaling a military mess hall. And their family vans looked like Noah’s Ark. The lesson was simple: the number of people living under one roof greatly influences the dynamics of how things get done in that family.
The same is true of elder boards. Elder dynamics vary considerably with the size of the board.
I have had the privilege of serving on both large and small elder boards: in one church we had over thirty elders; my current church has around seven. Whether you serve on a large or a small elder board, it is good to recognize the dynamics that vary with size.
If you are in the DC area and are involved in church work or development work, you may be interested in the upcoming Helping Without Hurting conference. It's being hosted by Grace DC on 3/7/13 at Calvary Baptist Church in DC.
From the Grace DC website:
How can our church community best help the poor and marginalized? How do we protect the dignity of people our city—and our world—would often ignore? How can we get our church, our partners and our community all working together?
In partnership with the Chalmers Center for Economic Development, Grace DC is excited to host Helping Without Hurting, a day-long seminar with Dr. Brian Fikkert, co-author of the renowned book When Helping Hurts. Dr. Fikkert will provide useful information and practical concepts to help churches and non-profits make a more meaningful difference in their communities and in the wider world.9am to 4pm (Doors open at 8am)
Register online at gracedc.net/HelpingWithoutHurting
Friends, I wanted to let you know about a great opportunity to support some international work we're doing together with our good friends Editoria Fiel and The Gospel Coalition.
Over at TGC, you can read about, and financially contribute to, a project to supply 300 key seminaries, bible schools, libraries, and churches in Portuguese-speaking countries located in southern Africa with:
- a theological course taught by Mark Dever, Greg Gilbert, Jonathan Leeman, Mike McKinley, and others,
- a Portugese copy of 9Marks of a healthy church,
- and a study guide that accompanies the course.
We're grateful for this opportunity to work together with TGC and Fiel to put solid resources in the hands of people in regions where there is a great need for sound theological training. Please pray with us that the Lord would bless these efforts. And please consider parterning with us by supporting this project financially!
Developing unity and friendship among your elders is critical for the health of your church. The way that the leaders of your church relate to one another will eventually be reflected in how the congregation relates to each other. Disharmony at the top will create serious division in the body. Harmony at the top creates safety and security for the flock.
Can you develop a team of elders who like each other and truly get along? Is it even possible? Yes!
For years I have been greatly served by a team of men who enjoy the bond that has developed among fellow-shepherds of the flock. The times of mutual joy as well as challenge have forged cherished friendships. When the men rotate off after their term is up, many express the desire to come back on. That is extremely gratifying.
So how do you do it? I want to first acknowledge some challenges and then lay out some ideas.