Pastor Miles DeBenedictis
1 Corinthians 13:8-13
The Virtues of Christian Love
With a passion to be as effective as possible, in the mid-1980’s I plunged headlong into a course of preparation for cross-cultural ministry in a foreign country. Because the vision God had given me was to plant a church in a “foreign” country among people that were radically different than myself and the culture I had been raised in and that had shaped and molded me, my pre-field preparation included a TON of reading on cross-cultural ministry, church planting, and as much face to face time with others that had already done what I was about to embark upon.
Before boarding the flight that would eventually take my family and I more than 8 thousand miles to Cebu City, the second largest city in the Philippines, I had come to some firm convictions about how to go about the task of planting a church from the ground floor up. In summary form, here are a few of those convictions:
1. Based on the various church planting efforts and the results of those efforts that are recorded in the New Testament, there are only a few absolutely essential components necessary that must become a reality for a group of believers to consider themselves a valid expression of a local “body of Christ.”
2. That when Paul addressed the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:18-35 in what he believed just might be his final opportunity to share with them personally, he summarized key aspects of his own church planting method. His method is still valid.
3. That I must always be ready and willing to discover and then thoughtfully compare how much of my own walk with Jesus and my understanding of how to “do” church are the result of my own American culture. Specifically, that I need to regularly beg the Holy Spirit to illuminate my mind and also be willing to let others, especially those from other cultures challenge me.
Without my willingness to be challenged and ever mindful of the enormous pride that still resides in me, I know that I will be unable to discern whether the “practices” that make up who I am as an American Christian are based on biblical, “Kingdom principles” or whether they are the expression of American cultural principles that may actually be in contradiction to “Kingdom principles”. By going through this process myself, I will not only be open to the further work of the Spirit in my life, I’ll also recognize that those of other cultures must be free to develop culturally relevant “practices” that might be radically different from my own.
Suffice it to say here: “Kingdom principles” are universal and are supra-cultural. But the “practices” those principles produce must be culture specific for the “Kingdom of God” to be relevant to the diversity of cultures that our Missionary God Himself has created.
**Here’s just one example: In John 13, Jesus washes the feet of His disciples and then tells them He has given them an example and they should do the same for one another. So, is foot-washing a practice we should follow? Or, is there a “Kingdom principle” that when expressed in a culturally specific way is best communicated through foot-washing for that specific cultural group? If those within that specific group had eyes to see and ears to hear would they see the “Kingdom principle” behind that practice? The fact that the practice of foot-washing is not seen again in Acts or referred to in any way in the epistles clearly shows that those whose feet were washed understood He was challenging them to follow His example….not the practice, but the “Kingdom principle” that produced that practice. That “Kingdom principle” of selfless acts of servant-hood regardless of the status assigned to that act of service by the existing culture MUST be expressed in a way that is relevant and understandable to the culture you are ministering within.
What I didn’t foresee was that the above convictions and many more, would actually become essential for effective ministry and efforts at church planting here in my own country–especially efforts to share the gospel with twentysomethings and younger and then integrate them into a local church. And it goes without saying that my ministry among the refugee community must incorporate the same convictions and techniques. Regarding American twentysomethings and younger, I had to realize that their rejection or at least their lack of interest or enthusiasm in much of the way us older folks “do” church and “walk” with Jesus–our “practices”, might be because they see them as based on American cultural principles rather than on biblical “Kingdom principles”.
In a nutshell, I’m absolutely convinced that a cross-cultural, “missions” mindset and the various thought processes and grids used for planting a church in a foreign country are now also crucial to the success of a church planter that desires twentysomethings and younger to be an integral part of the local church they are seeking to pioneer.
On Sunday we had to the final step of Matthew 18:15-17. It was a painful thing to do to a person who is deeply loved by everyone in the church. After several attempts at trying to bring the person to repentance we were left with no other choice. I got to tell you the thought of getting up in front of the congregation and letting them know what is happening was one of the hardest things I have ever done in ministry. It wrecked me for a couple of days before and afterwards. What surprised me were the results of doing it.
Our congregation’s response floored me. I was overwhelmed with the responses of the people and how it affected them. I learned three things from this experience that every congregation desires. They desire to be lead, fed, and protected.
First is that every congregation wants to be lead. I know leadership is a huge topic in the church but I am not talking about vision here. People want to be lead through difficult times. They want their leader to take the reigns and lead them through the confusion, hurt, and questions. Leaders who slip into the background in these situations lose the trust of their people. Although it is difficult and attacks of fear are constant it is necessary for you to do it.
Secondly people want to be fed. I know you know I am not talking about physical food. What they want is God’s word explained to them and shown how to apply to their lives. As I went through Matthew 18:15-17 with our congregation they saw it played out in real life. This teaches them how to handle conflict, sin, and forgiveness in their lives.
Finally people want to be protected. They want to know their leaders is going to go to war for them and protect them from false teaching, people in blatant unrepentant sin, and situations that cause strife. This is the weakest area I see in most pastors. By nature we are not confrontational but Colossians 1:28 says we are to warn our people. This means we need to call people on their sin. When we do this our congregation feels safe and secure.
In just the short time since Sunday I have noticed all three of these results in play at our church. I lost count how many people thanked me for being a strong leader (even though at the moment I wasn’t feeling too strong). You could also notice distinct feeling of community after the services. This only comes when people understand God’s word and feel safe in the community they are in. Pastor please don’t be afraid to Lead, Feed, and Protect your congregation.
Quoting: After months of revived debate over divorce and its increasing acceptance among Americans, a new study affirmed born-again Christians are just as likely as the average American couple to divorce.
The Barna Group found in its latest study that born-again Christians who are not evangelical were indistinguishable from the national average on the matter of divorce with 33 percent having married and divorced at least once. Among all born-again Christians, which includes evangelicals, the divorce figure is 32 percent, which is statistically identical to the 33 percent figure among non born-again adults, the research group noted.
The article at this website http://sapphiresky.org/2010/03/04/christian-divorce-rates/ takes issue with the popular interpretation of the Barna poll cited above and the author concludes that the divorce rate among born-again evangelical Christians is 26%, seven points beneath the national average of 33%.
I am inclined to follow the analysis of the 2nd website and place the divorce rate among born-again evangelical Christians at 26%. Along with this author I, too, am dismayed that the level of divorce among self-proclaimed followers of Jesus is so high. (Breathe easy, this is not a bash piece on those who have been divorced. Like you, I’m a pastor and I’ve seen how life can go south and leave people broken/weeping.)
My response to the divorce rate hasn’t been one of condemnation, but one of frustration. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around how Christ centered/Bible taught/Spirit filled Christians could abandon the covenant they so solemnly entered into before God and witnesses.
My frustration also had to do with the testimony of the church to the power of the risen Christ. If the power of Jesus is not enough to keep two born-again evangelical Christians together, what else can the power of God not accomplish? If the church is bearing witness to the reality of changed lives and all the world sees is us changing partners, if we bear witness to covenant marriage and all the world sees is the practice of serial monogamy, a very powerful dimension of Christian witness/ministry is compromised.
I was frustrated/flummoxed at the broken lives of believers and the broken witness of the church.
I was thinking about this one day and had a very liberating thought that has allowed me to frame the matter differently. Here it is – just because two Christians are married doesn’t mean that they have a Christian marriage. Read that again. Or, put it this way – two Christians being married doesn’t guarantee a Biblical marriage. The name of Christ doesn’t guarantee the character of Christ.
Let me illustrate. Two Christians in business doesn’t necessarily result in a Christian business. What is a Christian business? One with a quality product, fair prices, and just employee practices. (Oh, and they’re green, too. ) But can two Christians in business together offer a shoddy product with inflated prices and practice unjust employment policies (and not recycle)? Have you ever been ripped off by someone who had a fish on their business card? The name of Christ doesn’t guarantee the character of Christ.
Two Christians in business together doesn’t guarantee a Christian business and two Christians married to one another doesn’t automatically give them a Christian marriage. The name of Christ doesn’t guarantee the character of Christ.
So, what is a Christian marriage, a Biblically formed marriage? No new stuff here. A Christian marriage is where the husband loves his wife more than himself and where the wife submits to her husband as unto the Lord. A Christian marriage is one where mutual submission and respect form the basis of all that is done. A Christian marriage is where the husband regards his wife as more important than himself and she regards him as more important than herself (and the Lord is of supreme importance!). It is where both love Jesus more than themselves and more than their spouses. It is a marriage marked by obedience to Christ. A Christian marriage is one where the husband is seeking to out-love his wife and the wife is seeking to out-love her husband.
In my wedding ceremonies I take note that God didn’t bring Eve to Adam so that she might serve him – cook his breakfast/iron his clothes/find the remote in the couch where he lost it. God brought Eve to Adam so that he might serve her. I tell the groom that he will not be fulfilled in his marriage as his wife serves him, he will only find fulfillment as he serves her and pours out of himself into her and makes her more important than himself. And vice-versa.
During the ring ceremony I tell the husband that this ring made of most precious metal and most precious gem is a work of beauty and of great value. He is taking this work of beauty/value and placing it on the weakest finger of his wife. What he is pledging is essentially this: Where you are weak, I will be your strength; where I find ugliness in you, I will cover it with beauty; where I find sin in you, I will cover you with forgiveness. I will be a refuge for you, a shelter – I will never expose you or leave you. You are safe with me. (And much the same for the bride).
This is Christian marriage – a mutual giving/surrender/covering.
OK – what is the divorce rate in a Christian marriage? 0%. Read that again. Christian, in the phrase ‘Christian marriage’ is an adjective and speaks of character. Christian marriage, one that truly possesses the character of Christ, is indestructible. Christians are failing in their marriages, but a Christian marriage is marked by the unbreakable love of Christ. We know from I Corinthians 13 that love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails… One of the most enduringly sweet things I have ever read was someone’s comment (I can’t remember who) on this passage. It has relevance here.
Love bears all things. And when love can no longer bear all things, it believes all things. And when love can no longer believe all things, it hopes all things. And when love can no longer hope all things, it endures all things. When love can no longer endure all things, lover never fails.
This is the indestructible, unbreakable, unfailing love of God!
Please note that I didn’t define a Christian marriage as reading the Bible, praying, and attending church together. These are the practices of a Biblical marriage, but not the essence of one. These things are not the essence of Biblical marriage, they shepherd a couple to the essence of Christian marriage. They are the doorway, not the house.
The challenge for the ministry is to example and teach the essence of Christian marriage. Even among the wreckage of so many lives which are the result of so much marital failure, the banner and standard of Christian marriage can be raised without condemnation. Your people are longing to see an example of mutual sacrifice and unbreakable love. In August, Fran and I will be married 35 years. I believe (and this isn’t sermonic hyperbole) that when marriage is done right, it is the closest thing to heaven on earth. I also believe that when marriage is done wrong, it is the closest thing to hell on earth. We’ve tasted both.
A Christian marriage, where the character of Christ is in every crease and fold, is an indestructible marriage. The name of Christ doesn’t guarantee the character of Christ, but the character of Christ that is growing and stretching and flourishing in each spouse results in an indestructible marriage.
I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. (2 Timothy 4:1-2)
My greatest battle every week is over time spent between the study and with people. I don’t know about you, but my week begins on Monday morning and builds pressure until Sunday after I preach my last sermon. Monday’s seem to consistently bring remorse over not studying the Word enough in preparing for the previous Sunday, or on the other end of the spectrum, feeling like I have not spent enough time out amongst the flock shepherding. I don’t know that this tension can be resolved, but we must strike a balance in managing the tension between these two very importance responsibilities.
All of the Bible is important, but there is just something very relevant about Second Timothy for pastors. Seriously, Paul is facing imminent death and these are his last words to the young pastor Timothy. In the above passage Paul essentially charges Timothy in the presence of God to (1) preach the word and to (2) minister to people with patience. I take this charge personally with great conviction and I would like to share how I try to apply this passage to my life from week to week.
Preaching the Word is priority number one for me.
I deeply believe it is the Word of God that changes lives. The state of the pulpit worldwide is poor when it comes to preaching. I don’t want to sound arrogant, or like my preaching is a finely oiled machine, but I attended a lot of church growing up and learned nothing from the Bible or about the Bible. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I finally sat under men who taught the Bible with conviction and life did I come to know Jesus as Savior. I was ultimately discipled in my walk with Christ through the expository preaching of these men. This reality drives me each week to teach the Word faithfully, with clarity, and passionately.
Over the last few years, I have found some things that have been helpful for me in preparing to preach while shepherding the flock God has entrust to me:
1. Pray consistently about the message and text you are about to preach and teach. I find myself constantly asking God, “What did this mean in context then? What practical principles apply today? Lord, help me!”
2. Study, study, study. You can not shortcut this step. While this is not a post about how to study, I will say you need to study the language and grammar, the historical context, and the context of the text. The text you are teaching on the next week and weeks ahead should so be in you that it invades your thought life almost nonstop throughout the week. Without adequate study, you will not be able to handle the Word rightly. This saying is so true, “Where there’s a mist in the pulpit, there’s a fog in the pew.” The bottom line is you must understand the text through and through if you are going to teach others.
3. Preach a book of the Bible at a time! I am all about preaching in an expository manner as it provides spiritual food for those in your church. It also helps that you don’t have to figure out what you are going to preach, you just have to figure out how to preach the text in front of you the coming week! In many ways this frees up your time to focus on studying, rather than flipping through your Bible hoping you feel inspired to preach something.
4. Front load your studying in order to prepare for the inevitable crisis that will come. Starting Sunday I start saturating my world with the Scripture I am about to preach on the following week. Bible CD’s in my car, sermons from other men who have preached the text, Bibles and commentaries lying around all over my house. Starting Sunday I intake as much of the text as I possibly can. By front-loading my study I have it tinkering around in my mind and heart ultimately freeing me to respond and reach out to the people around me.
People should always be the priority!
I am chasing a deadline trying to get this post submitted. “Stuff happened” last week that put me behind in the blogging category. I have VBS this week and my routine is off kilter to say the least! There are times when I want to shut off my cell phone, ignore my emails, and lock myself in my study all week long, but I don’t think this is what Jesus wants from me. Because this week has required a lot of people time, I fear I am going to drop the ball on the las half of this post.
1. Pastoring is about people. My goal as a pastor is defined in Ephesians 4:11-13 and it is simple–to equip the saints for the work of the ministry. When I look at the passage at the top of this list I am to reprove, rebuke, and exhort with great patience. I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel comfortable reproving, rebuking, or exhorting total strangers, but I can do this with people I know and love. I think the point is that we are to be deeply entrenched in the lives of those we serve. It takes time…notice we are told to do these things with great patience, not with great frustration.
2. Your life is the most powerful message you preach. My philosophy as a pastor is to preach with transparency. I air my dirty laundry on a regular basis. This is intentional. I am not up on a pedistal, but am walking this life as a “sinner saved by grace” just like everyone else in my church. I love walking alongside the people God has called me to minister as it exposes my life with Jesus–my victories and struggles alike. Paul the apostle preached a lot, but I think his life was his most powerful message. My desire is to say the same thing to my people as Paul said to his, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1, NASB). I think Paul could say this to them because his people knew him…just like I want mine to know me.
3. “Good things happen when you’re out.” This a saying we had at my last church. The point is simple. When you are out in the community amongst your culture good things happen. As a pastor you should know your culture and community around you. It is all too easy for us to get sucked into our little Christian bubble and to loose connection with reality around us. To guard myself from isolation am intentional about being out through a variety of avenues like the local Kiwanis, law enforcement chaplaincy, serving on the local cemetary board of directors, and meeting people from the church at Starbucks instead of my office. It is hard to quantify the benefits that come to you, your preaching, your church, and your community when you as the pastor make time to be out amongst the community, but the fruit in my ministry from this has been great.
The tug-o-war where both sides must win.
We pastors do not punch in on time clocks. For the most part we control how our time is used or wasted. We must study to deliever sound relavant biblical messages that impact lives. We must be out amongst the flock if we are indeed shepherds. We must finish well with both these priorities. I have shared what works for me for know. I would love to hear what things work well for you in juggling these two priorities!
(Editor’s note- This story is from 2008, but stands strongly in my mind and heart. Blessings.)
Matthew 18:12-14 “What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine and go to the mountains to seek the one that is straying? And if he should find it, assuredly, I say to you, he rejoices more over that sheep than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray. Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.
The Bible says that “there is no temptation except that which is common to man”. (1 Corinthians 10:13) My interpretation of that is this: we all struggle with the same basic issues. The details may be different, but the root issues are the same.
One of the things that we struggle with is self worth. Is my life making a difference?
Let me share with you how the Lord ministered to me through this verse during my time in Baja Sur, Mexico. A little background information is needed.
I taught the third week of AViD, a one month discipleship program in 2008, in South Baja, Mexico. One outreach trip was into the Sierras de San Francisco, a remote mountainous region that I love. The region is home to numerous communities (ranchos) of goatherds. They have lived there for many generations, and in the last 4 years of visiting them, I have come to know some of them by name, and have developed relationships with them.
One man is named Francisco, but his nickname is Manana, as in the Spanish word for “tomorrow”. That is usually equated with laziness, but this man is not lazy. I noticed on this trip that Manana didn’t look healthy. I also discovered that his wife was with child. They already have two beautiful young girls.
Since Manana and I have a bit of a relationship, I asked him candidly how he and his family were doing. There hasn’t been much rain in the mountains over the last few years, and their goat herds have been thinning out and dying. He answered slowly, and informed me that they hadn’t had much food for a long time. The drought had made life tough, but this was their home, and they were going to stick it out and do the best they could.
I decided to return the next day with some food. There was another family that was in need also, and this second family was a Christian family. A young man named Jason from CC Pomona Valley went with me the next day, and back up the mountain we went with a hundred pounds of beans and rice, and numerous other items. We delivered the food, sat and chatted, had the obligatory cup of delicious coffee, some watermelon (sandia) and then headed back down the mountain to Vizcaino.
As Jason and I bounced our way back down the mountain, an introspective spiritual battle began. Here I was, away from my church, 1000+ miles from home, away from my kids, ministering to 2 families, and how much of a difference was I making for the Kingdom of God? I began to measure the worthiness of my efforts. Wait, it gets worse.
Fiery darts started flying into my head. (Read on using your best Darth Vader voice.) “God has given you this ministry because you can’t handle anything more than this. You’re just a food courier to a few people. God gives the important successful people ministries which reach thousands. You have a ministry that reaches hundreds at best, maybe dozens. You are a small man with small faith and few gifts.”
Well of course, in all my wisdom, I fought back using my own fiery darts. I began to try to validate my presence and calling by human reasoning. Sorry, but here goes. It sounded something like this: “I am here because I care, and I can hack the heat and the bumps, and other people want easy ministry assignments, and they would never make it here, and they want the spotlight, and I am humble, and, and, and…” (ad nauseum).
I was wrong to entertain those thoughts, and the battle was quickly over, but it was real, and we all ask that question at times. “Is my life making a difference?”
Side note- I was loving what I was doing until I started “thinking” about it. That’s when the internal battle started. When I just did what I was supposed to be doing, I was as happy as an almeja.
The bottom line is this: We shouldn’t evaluate our callings and ministries by comparing ourselves to anyone, whether they are higher or lower in our minds. There is no Biblical basis for that, and a lot of scripture speaks against that kind of mentality.
The mental/spiritual battle didn’t last long. We enjoyed the rest of the trip home, except for the two flat tires. Ahhh…Baja.
The next day at our AViD class, we read the scripture that I posted above. The part that really impacted me was this: “…does he not leave the ninety-nine and go to the mountains to seek the one that is straying?”
The bottom line for my calling in foreign missions is this: Jesus has called me and given me a burden for what I am doing. He allows me to do it, has equipped me to do it, and it is something that His heart cares about. I love what I have been called to regarding foreign missions. It’s not that I don’t love pastoring, I do. But my call to Mexico is exciting because it is also a part His call for me. “Reaching the many” and “reaching the one” are both important to Jesus.
So why write all this? Good question. I write that we may all be encouraged to know that God calls us as He sees fit. He is interested in the “little ones” that go astray. (also translated: “insignificant ones”)
I love a new Spanish word I learned on this trip. The word is carga, which means burden, as in a burden in your heart for someone or something. It reminds me of the word cargo.
If God has given you a burden for reaching the one, the five, the ten….then praise Him for it and go for it. Don’t second guess yourself, don’t measure yourself against those called to reach the many, and don’t disqualify yourself by letting the fiery darts get to you.
Embrace the burden that God has given you. Embrace it as being uniquely yours. He “causes us both to will and to do of His good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:13)
Go for it.