Blog

The Shameful Secret of ‘Christian’ Domestic Abuse

Last Saturday, police responded to a call from a home in the tranquil Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie. Inside they found that Lyuba Savenok, a 23-year-old mother of two small children, had been stabbed multiple times. She was pregnant with her third child. Both died that morning.

Later, Lyuba’s husband, Yeveginy (“Eugene”), confessed that he had killed his wife and fled the house with his kids. They are now in the custody of family members while he awaits trial.

This cute couple with the adorable son and daughter attended a large evangelical church. It was later reported that Lyuba had filed for police protection from her husband when they lived in the Chicago area. She told authorities that Eugene hit her repeatedly, gave her a bloody nose, pulled her hair and once broke a window in a fit of rage.

Police were called to the Savenok home last August, where they learned that Eugene had hit his wife so hard on the back that bruises were evident. He was supposed to answer for that crime in court this week. Now he will be tried for murder.

We all know domestic violence goes on behind closed doors in this country, even in the suburbs. But what is tragic is that it goes on in Christian homes—and this sin is rarely addressed from our pulpits.

Because I have many friends in Russian-speaking churches in this country, I was horrified to hear of the case of Lyuba Savenok—who was from an Estonian heritage. But when I talked to some of my Slavic friends, I learned that domestic abuse is a shameful secret that people only whisper about at church. It is seldom confronted.

“My sister was raped, drugged and hit for 17 years,” one Slavic woman from a midwestern state told me. “I have witnessed emotional abuse, physical abuse and a lot of sexual domination—even the use of drugs—to control women. I think there should be a wide investigation into abuse in the Slavic community.”

One woman from Florida said when her friend sought help from a pastor after being in an abusive marriage for 20 years, she was told to submit to the cruelty. “They told her to become a better wife, and that might change his behavior,” she said.

Some of the people interviewed for this article were even worried about using their names because it is considered inappropriate to talk about abuse in the Slavic church.

“When abuse is brought to light, it is swept under the rug because religious practices have priority,” said one Slavic Christian woman from California. “Unfortunately, church leaders are not equipped to deal with this issue.”

Research shows that domestic violence is rampant in Russian families. And many Slavic women are afraid to even report abuse because their husbands have threatened to hurt them if they do. Tanya Levchyk, who started a Facebook group for Slavic Christian women, said it is past time for Slavic pastors to deal with the elephant in the room.

“Many times Slavic women are afraid to voice their fears because of the great emphasis that is made on reputation in our community,” she said. “They feel they will be ridiculed instead of protected, and it will always be their fault simply because they are female.” Levchyk’s Facebook group now reaches 14,000 women.

My Slavic friend Paul Muzichuk, 31, who has done missions work in eight countries, said he believes the death of Lyuba Savenok should serve as a wake-up call to church leaders—both in the Slavic community and in the wider body of Christ.

“My heart is broken for Slavic women who hide in abusive relationships and hidden pain,” he said. “Fear, religious pride and the Slavic ‘macho’ attitude needs to be confronted so Slavic women can be set free from years of abuse.”

Stephan Karnauch, who grew up in a Slavic home in New York, said it’s past time to expose the painful truth of abuse and to teach men how to treat women with respect. “By exposing this truth we will finally be able to protect families and we will equip our children how to be godly spouses, parents and lovers of Christ,” Karnauch said.

We need to face the fact that Lyuba’s murder doesn’t just represent an issue among Slavic believers. For years American pastors have been telling women to “just submit” to abusive husbands without realizing that such advice can actually provoke more abuse.

Instead of misusing Ephesians 5:22 (“Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord”) to put women at risk, we should be using the Bible properly to warn abusers that God strongly opposes men who view their wives as inferior. First Peter 3:7 warns a husband that his prayers will be hindered if he does not honor his wife “as a fellow heir of the grace of life.”

Let’s have the courage to pull the rug back. Let’s confront abuse, heal its victims and stop twisting Scripture to protect abusers.

Read more

How I Found Healing from Sexual Abuse

When I was a boy, something shameful happened to me that I never, ever planned to talk about publicly. During a summer visit to a youth camp in Alabama, an older boy whom I considered a friend took me into the woods and abused me sexually. He then brought me inside a boathouse near the camp’s lake for more experimentation.

The abuse wasn’t penetrative or physically painful, but it inflicted a deep emotional scar. It was as if my 7-year-old soul were branded with a hot iron. I never talked about the incident with anyone after it happened. I buried the trauma so no one would know.

I was glad when my family moved from Alabama so I would never have to see that camp or the boathouse again. Yet the memory followed me like a shadow. It produced self-loathing, fear of exposure, sexual confusion and deep inferiority. As a teenager, I spent lots of energy trying to convince my friends I was OK—yet deep down, I still feared I was hopelessly broken.

Thankfully my healing began at age 18, just before college, when I asked Jesus to fill me with the Holy Spirit. God stripped layers of shame off me as I heard the Father’s voice and experienced His unconditional love. By the time I got married and started a family, the shadow of abuse had grown faint.

I found more healing when I told a few mentors and friends about the abuse. I was afraid they would recoil in disgust and reject me (most abuse victims expect that response), but they expressed only love and affirmation. Transparency brought freedom. Yet a thin layer of shame lingered. Even though I was involved in full-time ministry by that time, I battled thoughts of disqualification. I seemed confident and successful to others, but I didn’t like myself.

Then a few months ago, after I relocated to Georgia, I realized the camp where the abuse happened was only 90 miles from my house. When I told this to my friend James, he suggested we go there to pray and find more closure.

As we drove onto the camp property, I felt uneasy. It had been 50 years since the incident, yet the place looked exactly like I remembered it—except for two things: The ranger’s house, where the older boy lived, was gone, and so was the wooden boathouse. Only a faint outline of the foundation of that building was visible next to the lake’s edge.

James and I stood on the grass and prayed in the Holy Spirit. No one else was on the property. James asked me to remember again what happened on that spot. Then he added: “The Lord was there when this horrible thing happened. Ask the Lord what He is saying to you.”

My arms were folded in a defensive posture. Maybe after all these years I was still protecting my heart from the pain. But in that peaceful moment, I could see the inside of the dark boathouse, with life jackets, ropes and canoes hanging on the walls. I saw Jesus standing near a frightened little boy. He said: “I will not let this stop you.”

Those words lifted a few hundred pounds off my mind. Jesus wasn’t scolding me, scowling at me with disapproval or writing me off. He had come to my rescue. He was defending me. He was promising me that the enemy’s plan to destroy my life would not prevail.

I knew from that moment that my experience with abuse had absolutely no control over me. The sting had been removed.

I basked in His presence for a few moments, looking out over the lake and remembering that I had learned to swim there during my summer visits. Then I asked James if we could visit one other location. We got in my car and drove to a church in Montgomery, where I gave my heart to Jesus at age six.

When we pulled into the parking lot of Dalraida Baptist Church, my heart leapt. Unlike the old camp boathouse, the church was still there. In fact, a huge new sanctuary stood in front of the old building where I was baptized. The old sanctuary was now the youth ministry center.

“This is amazing,” I told James. “The place where I was abused is gone. But the place where I began my relationship with Jesus is thriving.”

God spoke to me powerfully that day in Montgomery. He showed me that what defines my life—and what controls my future—is not the ugly blemish on my past but the precious faith I embraced when I chose to follow Him. And he reminded me of the truth of Isaiah 54:4a, which says: “Do not fear, for you shall not be ashamed nor be humiliated; for you shall not be put to shame, for you shall forget the shame of your youth.”

What about you? If you’ve experienced sexual abuse, you don’t have to hide your secret or drag the shame around. Jesus knows your pain and your embarrassment. He does not reject you or keep you at arm’s length. Bring your shame into His presence and let His strong embrace heal your wounded soul.

Read more

Why Women Belong on the Front Lines of Ministry

This past weekend my oldest daughter, Margaret, quietly made history. She was ordained as a pastor at United Assembly, the church in Seneca, South Carolina, where her husband, Rick, has served as an associate pastor for several years. Margaret and another woman, Marly, are the first females to be ordained into pastoral ministry at this church.

As Margaret’s father, I couldn’t be prouder. I have watched her spiritual anointing develop since she was a little girl. But I’m also aware that the road won’t be easy for her or for any woman who embraces the call to leadership.

Thankfully, Margaret’s church is affiliated with a denomination (the Assemblies of God) that fully embraces the ordination of women. But there are hundreds of thousands of churches in 2017 that limit women’s gifts by enforcing a spiritual glass ceiling that was actually shattered long ago on the day of Pentecost.

I’ve been a vocal advocate for women in ministry since my book 10 Lies the Church Tells Women was published 17 years ago. I have helped many pastors remove the traditional barriers to women, and I’ve encouraged countless women to fully embrace God’s unique calling—even when this requires scary steps of faith into uncharted territory.

But here I will simply list three simple yet powerful reasons why it’s imperative that we empower women as never before to step into their ministry callings.

  1. We need a woman’s perspective in the pulpit. In New Testament times, the apostle Paul traveled with his colleagues Aquila and Priscilla. They helped lay the foundations of the early church, and in one scene in Acts 18:24-26, we see them instructing Apollos and launching him into ministry. Priscilla co-labored with Paul to build the first churches. She was not sidelined or silent. She was powerful and apostolic.

Paul was surrounded by women leaders who taught the Bible, prophesied, led churches, served as deacons and died as martyrs. Besides Priscilla, he mentions in his letters several female ministry companions including Chloe, Phoebe, Euodia, Syntyche, Junia, Nympha, Tryphaena, Tryphosa and Persis. Beyond that, the evangelist Philip had four daughters who were prophets (Acts 21:9), and John’s second epistle is addressed to a woman who led a congregation (2 John 1, 13).

If women had this level of influence in the first century—at a time when women were typically treated like property—how much freer should women be to preach today? If God’s image is reflected in both male and female, as Genesis 1:26-28 tells us, why wouldn’t we need both male and female to reveal His truth from the pulpit? If a healthy family needs both a father and a mother to provide nurture and instruction, doesn’t the church also need spiritual fathers and mothers?

  1. Spiritual gifting is not tied to gender. In many evangelical churches today, women are told that their “role” is to serve as wife, mother and domestic servant—and that men have the “role” of leadership. Women are told that preaching, pastoring, teaching and even leading worship are “masculine” gifts, while “feminine” gifts consist of teaching children, prayer, cooking, cleaning and secretarial work. But this sexist view is rooted in macho pride, not in the Bible.

The Holy Spirit’s gifts have nothing to do with gender. The Spirit distributes His gifts “as He wills” (1 Cor. 12:11b, NASB). The nine manifestations of the Spirit listed in 1 Corinthians 12 and the motivational gifts listed in Romans 12 have no reference to gender whatsoever. Women can heal the sick. Women can cast out demons. Women can show mercy. Women can preach and teach. We limit and grieve the Spirit when we tell Him who can and cannot function in His gifts!

  1. Certain battles won’t be won without women’s influence. There are many times in Scripture when a woman determined the outcome of a battle. Jael dealt the final blow against Sisera in Judges 4:21; the “certain woman” of Judges 9:53 crushed Abimelek’s skull; and Esther stopped Haman’s genocide plot. If women are supposed to sit on the sidelines while men do all the important work, why are these stories in the Bible?

The truth is that God calls both men and women into ministry. We need both Aquila and Priscilla to build a healthy church. We will continue to lose certain battles until women are trained, empowered and commissioned to engage the enemy.

A few weeks ago, I was in a church in Idaho listening to my daughter Margaret preach a sermon about fighting injustice. Her text was Psalm 45. As she shared passionately about why she adopted an African child and how she traveled to India to fight gender-based violence, I wept—not because my daughter was preaching, but because I could hear God’s voice thundering out of the heart of a 31-year-old mother who cares about the poor and the mistreated. Sometimes it takes a woman to reflect God’s heart.

Read more

10 Steps to Finding Your Life Partner

This year, five young friends of mine are getting married: Anibál met his future wife at his church in California, Vitaliy met his fiancée at Christ for the Nations Institute, KC found David on the mission field, Ben met Tiffany while studying at Regent University, and Doug—who has been waiting the longest for his bride—got engaged to Danya last week on his 32nd birthday.

But I have many other friends, some young and some not so young, who are still waiting for the big introduction. For whatever reason, marriage hasn’t happened for them. Single Christians are often told that all they must do is “wait on God” for a mate. But I believe that phrase is both overused and abused. In many cases, a single person doesn’t need to wait on God; the Lord may actually be waiting on you to take some action.

If you want to be married, here are some simple steps that might help move you farther along in the process:

1. Make sure Jesus is on the throne of your life. You can never go wrong when you put God first. Matthew 6:33 says: “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Marriage is a need, and God is very eager to meet it. And since it is probably the biggest decision you will ever make, why trust your own instincts to choose the right person? God is the best matchmaker. Ask Him to guide you.

2. Make spiritual growth your priority. A marriage is strong when both the husband and the wife are strong Christians. If either is immature spiritually, problems will multiply. That’s why you should spend your single years becoming a mature disciple. Paul told the Corinthians that single believers should pursue “undistracted devotion to the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:35). Get involved in a church, study God’s Word and become a passionate worshipper.

3. Make a list of your relationship preferences. It’s OK to desire certain qualities in a spouse. Maybe you prefer a girl who is short, a guy who is older than you or someone who has a certain educational background. Psalm 37:4 says: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.” Just check your motives and make sure your desires are not selfish or unrealistic.

4. Get rid of your false expectations and fantasies. Many singles have totally unrealistic ideas about what marriage and romance are all about. Some girls have been conditioned by Disney cartoons to expect a guy to sweep them off their feet and take them to his fairy tale castle. That’s not going to happen. Neither will you ever feel the level of heartthrob described in romance novels. Pornography has also ruined romance for people; some guys who are addicted to porn can’t even experience normal arousal without it. Come down to earth and get real. Marriage will never resemble your perfect dream world.

5. Set your moral standards high and never sell out. Every unmarried Christian needs a list of non-negotiables. Never compromise your sexual purity. If a sweet-talking guy from your church’s worship team tries to lure you into a one-night stand, refuse his charm. If you feel attracted to a girl and then realize she flirts with every guy and doesn’t share your values, back off. And never, ever date a nonbeliever with the intention of converting them. “Missionary dating” rarely has a good outcome.

6. Get busy with your life and career. The worst thing any single can do is sit around waiting for a mate. Moping is not attractive—it’s pitiful. Don’t be desperate. God loves you just the way you are, and you don’t need a husband or wife to make you valuable. Live your life. Finish your education, achieve your professional goals and get involved in ministry. It’s more likely you will find your mate while pursuing your dreams than while sitting in a corner mourning your singleness. (And remember: Love does not pay the bills. You need a job to be married!)

7. Seek emotional healing. I know singles who jump from one dysfunctional dating relationship to the next and never realize they have serious issues to address. Don’t wait until you are married to realize you have addictions, bitterness or unresolved pain. If you don’t get rid of your drama now, your marriage will be filled with drama. Seek prayer ministry at your church or find a counselor.

8. Take care of yourself physically. You don’t have to be a cover girl or a GQ stud to find a mate. We come in all shapes and sizes, and your spouse is going to love you and all your imperfections. But making yourself more attractive doesn’t hurt! If you always look like you just got out of bed, ask some honest friends to give you a makeover. If you need to lose weight, stop making excuses and start a sensible food plan and exercise routine.

9. Develop an active social life. Some Christian guys I know are afraid to ask a girl out for coffee, yet they play video games all day while complaining about loneliness. Hello? You will never find a mate in a vacuum. You have to break out of your shell and make yourself available. You don’t have to pair up when you gather with a group of singles for fellowship. Many dating relationships start as innocent friendships—and then a romantic spark turns into a flame.

10. Find a married mentor to help you prepare. You don’t have to navigate the journey from dating to marriage all by yourself. Seek out a trusted older friend to help you. Ask questions. Share your fears. Marriage is a huge decision, but a mentor can give you the courage to embrace your future. And they will be cheering the loudest at your wedding because they’ve played a small part in God’s miracle.

Read more

10 Worst Mistakes Christians Make When Dating

Singles make up a big percentage of any given church, and pastors spend a lot of time teaching about marriage and parenting. But how do you actually find the right person to marry?

You won’t hear much teaching about dating in most churches. It’s like we’re afraid to touch the subject—so people just feel their way in the dark and figure out romance on their own.

Our awkwardness about this topic is one reason single Christians make so many relationship blunders—and why many marriages start out on the wrong foot. I asked some of my single friends and one of my daughters to help me compile this list of most common dating mistakes. Here are the Top 10:

1. Being desperate for a relationship. Some singles freak out when they hit age 25. They stop trusting God and begin a nail-biting search for a mate. My friend Nicole Doyley, author of The Wait, says she knows women who are so frantic about finding Prince Charming that they immediately fall for any guy who asks them out. “They should see the warning signs, but don’t,” Nicole says. “They start praying immediately if this is ‘the one’ and they quickly become blind to his faults.”

2. Being too picky. On the flip side, some singles are waiting for the perfect human specimen to sweep them off their feet. Picky guys want a girl who could appear in the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated. Or, some Christian women expect to marry a spiritual giant who prays four hours a day. Be realistic. Whoever you date will have feet of clay and plenty of flaws to match your own.

3. Not developing healthy friendships with the opposite sex. Oftentimes too much pressure is placed on Christian singles to pair up, especially if they are attending a Bible college with a reputation for being a wedding factory. And in that pressure cooker it’s difficult for guys and girls to enjoy nonromantic friendships. Relax and make friends, and don’t view every opposite-sex friend as a potential marriage partner.

4. Letting other people control your relationship. Church friends usually mean well, but some people don’t know how to stay out of other people’s business. They will engage in what I call “prophetic meddling” by dropping hints, manipulating you to go out with someone or pushing you to marry someone you don’t even want to be with. And while the gift of prophecy is valuable, you should never let personal prophecies steer your decisions about marriage. Let God personally guide you in this very personal area of life.

5. Ignoring proper boundaries. Some Christian couples are extremely naïve about the power of a romantic bond. They don’t realize that feelings can zoom from zero to 90 miles an hour in a few seconds, and that one kiss can lead to intercourse if you don’t have your emergency brake on at all times. If you are in a dating relationship, you must know your boundaries, discuss them with your partner and commit to staying pure. Don’t be stupid. Don’t spiritualize your lust and suggest, “Let’s go to your apartment and pray.” Don’t wait until clothes come off to determine what is out of bounds.

6. Missionary dating. Never start a romantic relationship with a guy or girl who is not a believer. Christians who do this usually justify it with the old “I know I can change him/her” line. But the opposite happens: The unbeliever changes you—after he or she has broken your heart, compromised your morals or damaged your faith.

7. Lack of healthy confidence. Some guys I know are stuck in a state of spiritual limbo when it comes to their dating life. They may admire a girl from afar, but they just can’t muster up the nerve to break the ice and start a conversation. Proverbs 18:22 says, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing.” If you are going to find a wife, you don’t just sit there until you are 40. Develop some healthy aggression. And while it is true that some women prefer to be pursued, remember that Ruth proposed to Boaz in the Old Testament story. Don’t be so demure that your future husband can’t even notice you.

8. Expecting the person you are dating to “fix” you. God wants singles to have undistracted devotion to Jesus (see 1 Cor. 7:35). Yet too often we look to other people to bring the inner fulfillment that only Christ gives. Many singles fall into the trap of finding a boyfriend or girlfriend to heal the wounds caused by childhood trauma, their parents’ divorce or their dads’ addictions. Seek healing from the Holy Spirit for those issues before you commit to a serious relationship.

9. Spiritual stalking. I’ve met guys in church who drive by girls’ houses regularly, monitor their moves and troll their Facebook pages. That’s creepy. If you have to sneak around like a private detective to get a date, you need a new strategy. If a woman tells you she is not interested in going out with you, honor her request and move on. Don’t develop an unhealthy obsession. And never, never, never tell a girl: “God told me you will be my wife.” That’s manipulative and could fall under the category of sexual harassment.

10. Not discerning a spiritual predator. One single female friend of mine said she went out with a man who did a financial seminar at her church. Because the guy was invited to speak from a pulpit she assumed he was a man of character, but he tried to get her into bed with him on the first date. It became quickly obvious he was an imposter. Beware of wolves. You must walk in the Spirit if you want to protect your purity and save yourself for the right person.

Read more

8 Reasons Why Watching Porn Is Just Plain Stupid

I have prayed for countless men who admit they struggle with porn. After we prayed together they got a level of victory over the habit, but some came back to me asking for more practical steps to freedom—because porn is assaulting us from all sides today.

My response: You must be ruthless. Paul told the Corinthians: “I discipline my body and make it my slave” (1 Cor. 9:27, NASB). You must ask God for the power to control your urges, and run every time you feel tempted. You should also consider that it’s really dumb to look at porn, for the following reasons:

1. Porn is a huge waste of time. A 2008 study of graduate students found that 48 percent of young adult males look at porn weekly, and some view it daily. The statistics for women aren’t as high, but numbers are rising. The problem is that the more porn you look at, the more you need—and porn addicts spend hours (and sometimes lots of money) looking for bigger thrills. You’d be a lot healthier if you spent that time exercising, studying or hanging out with friends. Or praying!

2. Porn imbeds images in your memory. Philippians 4:8 says: “Whatever is pure … dwell on these things.” A Christian who indulges in porn is filing thousands of unholy images in his or her brain. Those images will emerge during a conversation, during sleep or even during worship at church! Why would you want those movies showing in your brain every day?

3. Porn changes your view of sex and other people. Porn addicts begin to view people as body parts. And married men who are addicts often try to force their wives to engage in degrading acts they’ve seen in films or photos. I’ve counseled guys who find it difficult to enjoy married sex because it’s not as satisfying as the porn they consumed for years before marriage. Psychologists have proven that teenage boys who watch a lot of porn become much more sexually aggressive and assume girls want to be treated roughly.

4. Porn harms your sex life. Secular counselors have released countless studies proving that the human brain is “rewired” (in other words, damaged) by watching porn. The chemical dopamine is released when we feel sexual stimulation, but a porn addict needs higher and higher levels of this to be stimulated. He will search for more hard-core porn to satisfy the urge—and in some cases will experience erectile dysfunction because he can’t satisfy the need for a thrill.

5. Porn grieves the Holy Spirit. Ephesians 4:30 says: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God” (MEV). When you grieve someone he gets quiet. When a Christian makes sinful choices, the Lord does not condemn us but He will withdraw the sense of His presence so we become desperate for Him again. A mature Christian learns to avoid anything that offends the Holy Spirit.

6. Porn brings condemnation and shame. Many Christians go through life feeling spiritually defeated because guilt weighs them down. Romans 8:6 tells us: “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace” (NASB). If you focus your attention on porn, you will live in a depressing spiritual rut. Get up, repent, receive forgiveness and learn to overcome your habit by trusting in His indwelling power. To find total healing you should admit your struggle to someone else (see James 5:16). Transparency brings freedom.

7. Porn is filthy. The Covenant Eyes ministry has reported that 66 percent of porn performers have herpes, and 7 percent have HIV. Porn is full of disease. It’s gross. James 1:21 says: “So get rid of all the filth and evil in your lives” (NLT). The Greek word for “filth” (rhyparia) can mean “obscenity” or “moral defilement.” The next time you are tempted to look at a porn site, imagine yourself standing in a latrine, up to your neck in human waste. Don’t soak your soul in filth!

8. Porn will pull you into worse sexual sin. Never downplay the power of temptation. You may think you can “manage” your sin, but the truth is that porn is a beast. It is stronger than you are. It is a cruel taskmaster that will take control and make you do things you regret. I have counseled men who admitted to me that porn was their first step toward adultery.

If you are struggling to stay free from porn, tape this article to your computer screen and read it before logging on. You may even want to write the words “DON’T BE STUPID” at the top of this list to remind you that purity is still important in this pornographic world. Get a grip. Use self-control. Don’t let porn destroy your life—or your relationship with God.

Read more

Three Relationships Every Christian Needs

When Jesus began His ministry, He did not rent a coliseum for an evangelistic campaign, start a mailing list, or put billboards all over Jerusalem announcing His healing ministry. No, the first thing He did was assemble a group of close followers.

He called them His friends.

Mark 3:14 says Jesus appointed the Twelve “so that they would be with Him and that He could send them out to preach.” Notice that His relationship with them was not just about the work of ministry. He was not just calling followers to perform a task. He was not a foreman employing hired hands. He wanted their fellowship first—and then he would let them preach out of what they learned from Him.

Jesus is all about relationships. And He specifically told His disciples that He didn’t want this relationship to be performance based. He said: “No longer do I call you slaves … but I have called you friends, for all things I have heard from My Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15).

In many parts of the church we’ve forgotten about the essential need for fellowship and tried to build the church without it. We developed a sterile church model that is event-driven and celebrity-focused rather than genuinely relational.

We build theater-style buildings where crowds listen to one guy talk. The crowds are quickly whisked out of the sanctuary to make room for the next group. Many of these people never process with anyone else what they learned, never join a small group and never receive any form of one-on-one discipleship.

Because we lack relationships today, we have tried to fill the void with technology. We think if we can create a wow factor with cool video clips, 3-D sermons and edgy worship bands, the crowds will scream for more. I don’t think so. Trendy can quickly become shallow.

I’ve had enough of this sterile religion. I’ve learned that ministry is not about getting big crowds, filling seats, tabulating response cards or eliciting raucous applause. It’s not about running on the church-growth treadmill. Religion that focuses on externals cannot produce life. If our faith does not flow out of relationship with God, and result in deep relationships with others, then it is a poor imitation of New Testament Christianity.

Do you need to go deeper in your relationships? I tell Christians all over the world that they need three kinds of relationships in their lives, apart from family relationships:

  1. “Pauls” are spiritual fathers and mothers you trust. All of us need older, wiser Christians who can guide us, pray for us and offer counsel. My mentors have encouraged me when I wanted to quit, and propelled me forward when I lost sight of God’s promises. In the journey of faith, you do not have to feel your way in the dark. God gave Ruth a Naomi, Joshua a Moses and Esther a Mordecai. You can ask the Lord for a mentor to help guide and coach you.
  2. “Barnabases” are spiritual peers who are close, bosom friends. They know everything about you, yet they love you anyway. They are also willing to correct you, bluntly if necessary! They provide accountability in areas of personal temptation. They offer a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on. And they will stay up all night praying for you when you face a crisis.

Everybody should know the benefit of Proverbs 18:24: “There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” But you cannot find faithful friends without seeking to be one first. Don’t wait for your Barnabas to come to you—go and find him.

  1. “Timothys” are the younger Christians you are helping to grow. Jesus never told us to assemble crowds, but He did command us to make disciples. Relational discipleship takes a lot of time and energy, but investing your life in others is one of the most fulfilling experiences in life. Once you have poured your life into another brother or sister and watched them mature in Christ, you will never settle for superficial religion again.

Like Paul, we must go out and find our Timothys. We must invest in them personally. It’s not about preaching to them; they want a relationship with us that is genuine. They want spiritual moms and dads who are approachable, accepting, affirming and empowering. If we don’t mentor them now, there won’t be anyone running alongside us when it’s time to pass our baton.

The Christian life is a vibrant, love relationship with God—but it doesn’t end there. I pray you will open your heart and invest in the people around you.

Read more

The Unexpected Blessings of Reverse Mentoring

These days, I spend lots of my time mentoring young leaders. I take them on ministry trips, speak in training schools and lead discipleship retreats. But I’m learning that mentorship does not work in just one direction. Even though I’m the “old guy,” I benefit in amazing ways from the time I spend with younger Christians.

*** My friend Daniel is an associate pastor in North Carolina, a gifted preacher and a fitness buff. When I recently decided to get serious about exercise, he set me up with an easy-to-follow weight-training and cardio schedule as well as common sense advice on diet. Did you notice that the younger generation today tends to be avidly health-conscious? We could actually live longer if we took their advice.

*** My buddy Alex is on fire for God. He is also a budding entrepreneur in Philadelphia who knows as much about Mac computers as any salesman in an Apple store. Alex taught me most of what I know about modern technology, and every time I have a question he’s eager to help. Hint: Churches could upgrade their effectiveness by inviting tech-savvy 20-somethings to staff meetings.

*** I have a spiritual son named Paul who is originally from Ukraine. He has traveled with me on 10 ministry trips, and he’s like a sponge when it comes to soaking up any spiritual insight he can get from me. But our relationship is not just a one-way street. We have learned the importance of “processing” after ministry events, and he’s been an excellent sounding board. Today’s young leaders don’t want to just carry out your orders; they want the freedom to give feedback.

*** My four daughters, who are all in their 20s, don’t always agree with me about every social issue. But I’ve learned a lot from them about cultural sensitivity. They are painfully aware that the American church has turned off many people by being religious, racist, political or mean-spirited—and they aren’t afraid to sound off when they think I’m being unnecessarily offensive. Their critiques have made me a better listener and, hopefully, a better communicator.

In the church, we often think of mentoring as a top-down arrangement. We think discipleship is basically saying: “Listen to me, watch me and do what I do.” To make matters worse, some leaders who are bossy, self-absorbed or heavy-handed end up hurting those they mentor. Or they view mentoring as way to get cheap labor—by forcing their mentees to serve as “armor bearers,” bodyguards, butlers or glorified valets.

We should scrap that horribly flawed model and recognize that Jesus calls mentors to serve. If we take a humbler approach to mentorship, we might actually learn something from younger people while we model Christ-like character and teach valuable skills.

The apostle Paul learned this lesson. Early in his ministry he and his colleague Barnabas parted ways because Paul didn’t want to travel with John Mark (see Acts 15:36-39). Paul was upset that Mark had abandoned his missionary team. So he wrote Mark off.

Thankfully, this strategic relationship was restored. Many missionary journeys later, Paul wrote to Timothy: “Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service” (2 Tim. 4:11). “Useful” was putting it mildly! Mark was quite useful because he wrote the gospel of Mark, which he based on Peter’s oral testimony.

I believe Paul had a paradigm shift about discipleship as he matured. In his early years he didn’t have any use for Mark, and didn’t want to waste his time training a young man who had dropped the ball. Later, Paul realized that Mark had spiritual gifts that the church needed. And Paul describes Mark as his “fellow worker” in Philemon 24.

Many young Christians today are like Mark. They have a message burning in their hearts and they sense a spiritual calling. But they lack training and may struggle with being consistent. They also may need healing ministry to overcome internal struggles.

In Mark’s case, thankfully, Barnabas took him under his wing and nurtured him back to health. As a result of that mentoring—and Peter’s fatherly influence (see 1 Pet. 5:13)—Mark became a spiritual giant.

The same will happen today when we invest in the Marks of our generation. The greatest blessing will come when we stop looking at them simply as cogs in our Sunday morning agendas and instead recognize that the Holy Spirit is working powerfully in them—and giving them creative ideas about how to do ministry in a more relevant and effective way.

More than 150 years ago, British preacher Charles Spurgeon wrote: “The church needs young blood in its veins. Our strength for holding the faith may lie in experienced saints but our zeal for propagating it must be found in the young.” That means we can’t allow generation gaps in ministry; the young and old must work together to reach the world for Jesus.

Read more

The Power of Relational Discipleship

For at least three years I’ve wanted to gather a group of friends for a time of encouragement and personal ministry. I couldn’t afford to host a fancy event, and I didn’t think these guys wanted a big hoopla with expensive hotels and high-priced speakers.

So we went with a simple format that involved a donated church facility (thank you, Pastor Donna), a totally informal dress code (jeans and T-shirts), home-cooked meals (we met in North Carolina, the barbeque capital of the South) and cheap rooms, courtesy of the local Hampton Inn. What surprised me was that 91 guys from 20 states and four foreign countries showed up for three days of worship, small group interaction and inspiring messages from 32 of the guys (everyone kept their comments brief to allow time for fellowship).

What happened in that small window of time amazed me. Weary pastors met new friends. Younger guys bonded with new mentors. Men opened their hearts about their deepest struggles. And best of all, God showed up and spoke to many of the guys about their insecurities and fears.

On the second day a panel of six young men shared about their need for godly role models. Some admitted that they have dysfunctional relationships with their dads. Others pointed out that even in the church they have not been encouraged to connect with spiritual fathers.

One man, Charles, said that in his church, young men were never allowed to develop real friendships with pastors or leaders. They were expected to be “armor bearers” who acted like personal valets—by shining the pastor’s shoes, carrying his water and escorting him to the pulpit.

The young men who came to our Bold Venture discipleship weekend were crying out for authentic relationships. They are not going to receive the mentoring or the spiritual nurture they need by carrying someone’s Bible or suitcase. True discipleship only happens in a loving, relational context.

This was the apostle Paul’s method of discipleship. While he did speak in church meetings, ministry was not focused on events, sermons or a flashy delivery style. And it was certainly not about high-pressure offerings, pulpit mannerisms or how many people swooned at the altar.

Listen to Paul’s definition of ministry from 1 Thessalonians 2:8: “Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us” (NASB).

Paul knew that ministry was about loving people and investing in them. He did not live for TV cameras, fawning crowds, armor bearers or book deals. (In fact he wrote a lot of the New Testament and didn’t get any royalties!) The reason he could endure beatings, shipwrecks, betrayal, riots, hunger and imprisonment is that he loved the men and women on his ministry team. Everything he did was about pouring the life of Jesus into people like Timothy, Silvanus, Mark, Phoebe, Epaphras, Luke, Priscilla, Barnabas, Euodia and all the other New Testament heroes who called Paul a spiritual father.

I wonder how Paul would react today if he were alive to see the trappings of “ministry” we have created. I imagine he would rend his garments and call us all back to raw humility.

One of the international guests at our Bold Venture weekend was a pastor named Robert from Uganda. He wrote me today, just after arriving back in Kampala, to share with me his plan for discipling men in his country. Robert wrote:

“Thank you for introducing me to 91 men of valor, men whose life stories have inspired me to do business with and for God in totally a different way! I have a new boldness to deposit my life in as many people as I can.

“I have already contacted all the guys I have been helping. Next week I will meet about 24 of them just to deposit some of what I experienced. After that I have a group of another 70 fellows that I am going to mentor intentionally. In total I am looking at 100 young ministers I will disciple. We are going to do life together, laugh, cry, be vulnerable and open with each other. This is not an African thing, but I know it is the way to go.”

Discipleship is a simple concept—maybe too simple for some of us who have become addicted to applause, prayer lines and the bells and whistles of American religion. But if you listen carefully, amid the noise of the crowd, you will hear the Holy Spirit calling us back to New Testament basics.

Read more

Six Mentors Who Can Help You Grow Spiritually

God doesn’t want us to live in isolation. I realized many years ago that I desperately need people in my life in order to fulfill my purpose. My parents invested in me, and so did teachers, coaches, employers, pastors, role models and good friends. I am not self-made, and neither are you. Any success we have achieved is the result of someone taking time to instruct, encourage or correct us. That’s humbling!

Mentorship is a basic biblical principle. The book of Proverbs opens with an exhortation to listen not only to parents but also to the “words of the wise” (Prov. 1:6, NASB). Moses mentored Joshua, Naomi mentored Ruth, and Elijah mentored Elisha. Jesus spent most of His time teaching a small group of disciples. One of those, Peter, discipled his spiritual son, Mark (1 Pet. 5:13), who in turn wrote the Gospel of Mark based on Peter’s testimony.

The message of Christ is best transmitted through the process of mentoring. But this art has been lost in today’s church—partly because of family breakdown and partly because our celebrity-obsessed culture values self-effort and instant results. Mentoring is too slow for most of us because we prefer the overnight sensation. God’s kingdom is built through a tedious process we don’t have the patience for.

Yet I believe we can reclaim biblical discipleship. In fact, I’m convinced the church is shifting radically back to God’s original plan as we reject the program-driven, impersonal, televangelistic one-man show of the past season. Everywhere I go I find people who are hungry for authentic relationships that can help them become team players and mature mentors.

I’ve found six types of mentors who have helped me in my spiritual journey:
  1. Distant mentors. British author Charles Spurgeon died in 1892, but I consider him a mentor because I read his books often. The same is true of other dead authors such as Andrew Murray and A.W. Tozer. You don’t have to know a person to receive instruction from them. I’ve never met author Henry Blackaby, but his books, especially Experiencing God, have profoundly influenced me.
  2. Occasional mentors. Brother Andrew, the founder of the Open Doors ministry, became a hero to me after I read his book God’s Smuggler in the 1970s. Then in 2004, I had the privilege of interviewing him in his home in Holland. Some of the things he said to me that day still ring in my ears. I may never visit him again, but he made an eternal investment in my life.
  3. Supportive friends. A mentor does not have to be 20 years older than you. I have a close group of peers who sometimes gather from four states just to pray for each other. We call this group “the band of brothers.” I am constantly on the phone with a few of them. We share prayer requests and offer advice—and we aren’t afraid to step on each others’ toes if necessary. You need friends like that to survive life’s challenges.
  4. Negative mentors. Not everyone you meet is a good example. I have sometimes encountered people in positions of leadership who had serious flaws. Some had prideful attitudes; others had poor people skills; a few had selfish agendas. Rather than allowing myself to become bitter or judgmental, I studied their behavior and determined to avoid doing the same things. I said to myself, “Let this be a lesson. That is not how to lead.”
  5. Reverse mentors. You can also learn from younger people. I invest in a lot of Timothys, and they love to ask me for counsel. But I sometimes flip roles and pick their brains. One of the guys I’m mentoring, Alex, is a tech geek—so I know he will have the answer when I have a question about my computer, my smartphone or the latest app. I also get regular feedback from the guys I’m mentoring because I want to know if I’m communicating in a way that is relevant to their generation. Sometimes the best way to mentor is to ask questions!
  6. Spiritual fathers and mothers. God has used many different mentors in my life, but there are some who invested in me in a very personal way for a long span of time. One of them, Barry St. Clair, invited me to a discipleship group when I was only 15. He taught me the basics of the Christian life during those Bible studies in his basement, and we have stayed connected for 40 years. This month the two of us are doing a conference together in Atlanta! Barry has been a role model, counselor and spiritual father most of my life, and his investment in me has now been passed on to dozens of others.

If you don’t have mentors, I urge you to find them. If you are fortunate to have been mentored, then pay forward what you have received—and invest in someone else.

Read more