Discipleship and Mentoring

10 Biggest Mistakes Christians Make on the Mission Field

One of the greatest joys in my life is ministering in foreign countries. Since I surrendered to a call to missions 15 years ago, I’ve visited 29 nations and developed relationships with dozens of pastors and leaders who now consider me their friend and brother. Missions is at the heart of our Christian faith, and I believe every church should be actively engaged in both foreign and local missions so we can advance the gospel of Jesus in our generation.

But just like everything else in life, there’s a right way and a wrong way to engage in mission work. I’ve learned from my own mistakes—and I’ve also seen some sad examples of short-term missions gone awry. If you are considering a short-term or long-term mission trip, avoid these pitfalls:

1. Acting like a spoiled American. If you are traveling to a developing country, here is Rule No. 1: Prepare for delays, cold showers, big bugs and scorpions, power outages, unusual toilets, crazy traffic and strange food. Make a decision before you leave that you won’t let one complaint come out of your mouth. Be flexible and gracious. Focus on the positive, soak in the beauty of the country and come home with a renewed gratitude for your blessings at home.

2. Talking down to people. You are not going overseas to teach poor, ignorant foreigners what you know. If that’s your attitude, do everyone a favor and stay home! You are going to serve. Most of what I know about ministry I learned from humble people I met in other countries. Whether you are teaching, preaching, building orphanages or feeding the poor, get under the people and wash their feet. And expect to learn powerful lessons from the people you are visiting.

3. Building relationships based on money. People in poor countries tend to think all Americans are rich, and they will be tempted to look to us instead of God to provide. Don’t wave money around, don’t flaunt expensive watches or jewelry, and don’t hand out cash to everyone you meet. Let your new friends know you want a real friendship with them that does not hinge on finances.

4. Making demands. I know prosperity preachers who expect royal treatment when they go to foreign countries. One man told his host he needed a hotel that costs $1,000 a night—in a nation where most people live in cramped, Soviet-style apartments. The apostle Paul modeled a different approach, and he was willing to live among people at their level (see 1 Thess. 2:9-10). If Jesus was willing to enter this world in a filthy manger, we should be willing to set aside our expensive tastes.

5. Breaking promises. When you connect deeply with a local pastor or congregation overseas, you will fall in love with them and you will want to do everything possible to help them. But don’t promise things you can’t deliver. Always remind them, and yourself, that we must pray for His provision and wait on Him to answer. And if you do enter into a partnership, always honor the promises you made.

6. Taking team members who are not committed to Jesus. I know of a zealous young woman who went on a mission trip to Africa with her church and ended up sleeping with a guy from that country. How does that happen? Anyone who goes with you on a trip needs a background check and a pastor’s recommendation. Mission trips should never be viewed as opportunities for “religious tourism” by immature people who crave a globetrotting adventure. The behavior of your team members should honor Christ.

7. Working with people overseas without thoroughly investigating them. I get requests almost weekly from foreign pastors who want me to visit their church, support their programs or do evangelistic crusades in their villages. In Pakistan, some unscrupulous Christians troll the Internet looking for churches that will send them money. Some people posing as pastors talk naïve Americans into wiring funds for a trip—and then they vanish. If you are going to do mission work, you will need the gift of discernment. Don’t get bamboozled by a con artist posing as “beloved brother Najib.”

8. Using a “hit and run” approach to missions. When I visit a country I almost always end up going back because I build relationships with ministries. This week I’m on my fourth visit to Barranquilla, Colombia, where I am helping to develop a women’s shelter. Mission work should be a long-term partnership. If your church is planning to start a mission program, don’t just scatter your seed here and there. Prayerfully invest in a few places and let the Holy Spirit connect you with those people for a lifetime.

9. Misrepresenting your work. We laugh about the preacher who was “evangelastically speaking” about the crowds he attracted in Uganda. But exaggeration is lying. There is nothing more obnoxious than a Christian who inflates statistics to draw attention or raise funds. If you build your ministry on half-truths you will have cracks in your foundation. Be honest, be accountable and tell the truth.

10. Focusing on numbers. There is huge pressure in missionary work to prove our effectiveness by counting heads. But God’s kingdom is not about crowds—it is about making disciples (see Matt. 28:19-20). Some of my most powerful moments on the mission field were in small meetings where God changed a few lives forever—and then those people changed more lives. I’m not impressed when someone says 5,000 people prayed to receive Jesus. I want to know if those converts were followed-up and plugged into churches for discipleship.

I hope you will become more passionate about taking the message of Christ to the world. But as you pack your bags for your mission trip, leave your unneeded “baggage” at home and go with a humble, teachable heart.

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Why Physical Fitness Is a Spiritual Priority

One year ago I faced a sad reality in the mirror: I was getting fat. I was beginning to resemble the fat preachers I had seen going back for third helpings at the Sunday afternoon all-you-can-eat buffet line.

At first I tried to ignore my weight gain by cropping photos and adjusting my belt. But the numbers on the scale weren’t lying. I told myself I didn’t have time to exercise or eat right because my ministry kept me too busy. I had more “spiritual” things to do than exercise.

But finally I made a powerful decision to reclaim my life. I got ruthless, sort of like when Jesus went into the temple with His whip. I slashed all white bread, sugar, junk food and sodas from my diet. I joined a gym. And I started an exercise routine that I can do anywhere, even in a hotel room.

After one year, I’ve lost weight and gained muscle—and I feel better than I have in years, even though I’ve faced enormous stress this year. My progress has motivated me to get even more fit in 2017. And it has helped me realize that physical fitness is not something optional.

I won’t win a popularity contest for saying this, but it’s true: The American church is fat—and ministers are sometimes the biggest sinners when it comes to overeating. This may be one key reason we don’t address bad eating habits from the pulpit. If a preacher is hiding his huge stomach with his Sunday jacket, he’s certainly not going to deliver a sermon about gluttony.

So here’s my attempt to confront the issue. Here are three reasons why physical fitness needs to move up your priority list in this New Year:

1. Because you should glorify God with your body. I know Christians who would love to go on a mission trip, participate in a three-day fast or lead a weekly discipleship group for teenagers. But they never do these things because they are limited by their physical abilities. Some of us are simply too overweight, too tired or too out of shape to engage in any type of rigorous ministry.

Yet the New Testament teaches that our spirituality can’t be separated from the physical. The apostle Paul wrote: “What? Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God, and that you are not your own?” (1 Cor. 6:19).

Paul’s powerful words, in their context, refer to the importance of sexual purity. Sexual sin is wrong because we should never do with our bodies what would offend the indwelling Holy Spirit. So if this is true for immoral types of sex, is it not also true when we fill our bodies with drugs, alcohol or unhealthy food?

In New Testament times, Gnostic heretics taught that a Christian can love God and yet engage in any kind of immoral sin because it is physical, not spiritual. Yet Paul denounced this by saying: “Therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:20b). Today we still preach against sexual sin, yet gluttony is no longer considered a sin in most churches. Instead, we laugh about it while we pass the cheesecake and the onion rings.

2. Because how you control your appetite affects every other area of your life. Part of the fruit of the Holy Spirit is self-control (see Gal. 5:23). Yet in the church today, we have created a culture of overeating—and then we wonder why some Christians fall into porn addiction, adultery or gambling. The truth is that we have sanctioned food addiction as “acceptable flesh”—and we are reaping the consequences.

Jacob’s brother, Esau, sold his birthright for a bowl of stew because his appetite controlled his judgment. Many Christians have done the same. We forfeit certain spiritual blessings simply because we can’t say no to food.

3. Because you want to live a long and fruitful life. I decided to get serious about fitness last year because I’m getting older, and I want to make the biggest possible mark on my generation before I die. It’s a lie that you can’t be fit in your 50s or 60s. I want to be like the biblical Caleb, who testified that he was as strong at age 85 as he was at age 40.

God has promised the righteous a long life, but that isn’t an automatic guarantee. Long life requires wisdom, which includes healthy eating, regular exercise, proper rest and stress management. When we binge regularly on pizzas, sodas and glazed donuts and fill our bodies with processed foods full of chemicals, we shouldn’t be surprised when we end up with diabetes, heart ailments, high blood pressure and an early funeral. Don’t eat for the moment. Always keep tomorrow in mind when you are looking at the menu.

Jesus called His followers disciples, a term that means “disciplined ones.” Yet how many of us would honestly say we are disciplined in the area of food and fitness? I challenge you to make this your goal in the coming year. Be a disciple. The decision you make today to get healthy will reap countless benefits—not only for you, but also for those you love.

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10 Occupational Hazards of Ministry

When I surrendered to the call of God several years ago, I did it soberly because I knew I was stepping into a dangerous assignment. Despite what you might hear from a few prosperity preachers wearing silk suits and pancake makeup, ministry is not glamorous—nor is it risk-free.

When you answer God’s call, you put your life on the line. Just ask the apostle Paul, who told the Galatians, “From now on let no one trouble me, for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus” (Gal. 6:17). The Greek word for “marks” is stigma, and it refers to the marks that were burned into the flesh of a slave to show who owned him.

Paul was saying, “I have the scars to prove I serve Jesus.”

Ministry has a long list of occupational hazards, and I do an injustice to any young leader today if I don’t warn him or her of what might happen on the job. I’m not sharing this to scare anybody. But if the Occupational Safety and Health Administration can require businesses to display a poster to encourage workplace safety, we should at least read this list of ministerial hazards when leaders are ordained.

To all my young friends who are considering a ministry career, I offer these warnings:

1. The devil will attack you and your loved ones. I don’t focus on the devil or his demons, but it is foolish to be ignorant of hell’s schemes. Satan hates ministers. You are in a war, and your enemy plays dirty. You must learn to fight both defensively and offensively if you expect to win.

2. Religious people will hate you. Jesus and Paul both proved that persecution comes not just from worldly unbelievers but from self-righteous saints who think they are doing God a favor by discrediting you. Religious people hate change. Many pastors I know have been chewed up and spit out by mean-spirited people who love their sacred cows more than they love Jesus. God’s leaders must have the guts to challenge lifeless, status quo tradition.

3. You will face discouragement often. Preaching is a unique effort that requires you to lean wholly on God for a word from heaven. No wonder it is emotionally draining! Charles Spurgeon told his students that he often got depressed after intense ministry. He wrote: “How often, on Lord’s-day evenings, do we feel as if life were completely washed out of us! After pouring out our souls over our congregations, we feel like empty earthen pitchers which a child might break.” Don’t be shocked when heavy feelings come.

4. Your pride will be wounded. You may think your sermon was awesome, but some people will yawn, some will sleep and others will remind you of the points you missed. Don’t let the criticism make you bitter; allow it to nail your flesh to the cross so you can remember that ministry is not about you anyway.

5. Your heart will be broken. You may invest your time and energy into people who eventually walk away without even thanking you. Sometimes a close disciple may prove to be a Judas. Don’t let disappointment cause you to close your heart to people. Keep on loving and giving, despite the heartache.

6. Your knees will become calloused. Any good leader knows that prayer is the fuel that keeps him or her going. As long as hands are raised to heaven and hearts are bowed low, heaven’s oil will not run out. Never let the flame of prayer go out in your personal life.

7. Your priorities will be turned upside down. For me, God’s call included traveling—which meant spending lots of time away from home. I would personally rather sleep in my own bed than in a strange bed in Nigeria or India, but when you pray, “Here I am, Lord, send me,” you do not have the luxury of running your own schedule. Your life is not your own.

8. Your dreams and ambitions will be misunderstood. Joseph was thrown in a pit after he shared his dream. David’s brothers questioned his motives when he came to the battle to challenge Goliath. Anyone who attempts great things for God will be maligned. If you are worried about your reputation, or you want everyone to say nice things about you, don’t pursue a ministry career.

9. Your faith will be stretched to the breaking point. God gave Moses a stick and told him to split the Red Sea. He told Gideon to win a battle with 300 ill-equipped soldiers. Leaders who are following the Spirit will be constantly challenged to look beyond natural circumstances and believe in God’s supernatural ability. This is never comfortable. Jesus calls us out of the boat and onto the water. Get used to it.

10. Your character will be tested in the heat of God’s furnace. The work of the Refiner is never finished. You are engaged in a heavenly process, and you go from one level of glory to the next. The Spirit will regularly turn up the heat to test your motives, adjust your attitude and chisel your character until you look like Christ. The best leaders have learned to live in the fire so they can be examples to the flock.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Say Goodbye to the ‘Armor Bearer’ Mentality

My friend Charles wanted a mentor. He was eager to learn the ropes of ministry, so he asked an older pastor for training. The pastor agreed—but Charles soon realized the man wanted a valet, not an apprentice. Charles became the man’s “armor bearer.”

The man never took Charles on hospital visits, involved him in ministry assignments or prayed with him. Instead, Charles was expected to carry the pastor’s briefcase, fetch coffee and take suits to the cleaners—with no salary offered. In this case, “armor bearer” was a spiritualized term for “slave.”

This bizarre trend became popular in churches 20 years ago, but it still thrives. It appeals to insecure leaders who need an entourage to make them feel important. Some pastors have even assigned trainees to serve as bodyguards—complete with dark glasses and concealed weapons. These young men are instructed to keep people away from the pastor so he doesn’t have to talk to anyone after a church service (because, after all, the poor preacher might be “drained of his anointing” if he fraternizes with common folks).

Excuse me while I barf!

I’m not sure what is more nauseating: That some pastors think they are discipling young leaders by exploiting them, or that church members tolerate such pompous behavior from a so-called man of God. And we wonder why many young people have stopped going to church?

When I turned 50, I decided to spend most of my energy investing in the next generation. This became my passionate priority because I met so many gifted men and women in their 20s and 30s who craved mentors. Many of them, like Charles, were looking for authentic role models but could only find self-absorbed narcissists who were building their own kingdoms.

If you want to make a genuine impact on the next generation, please make sure you are not infected with the armor bearer virus. Take these steps to adjust your attitude:

  1. Get over yourself. As soon as Jesus began his earthly ministry the devil tried to strike a deal with Him. Satan offered the celebrity spotlight by showing Jesus the world’s glory and saying, “All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me” (Matt. 4:9). But Jesus didn’t buy it. He chose the path of servanthood even though He knew it would lead to the cross.

Today’s insecure leaders don’t realize it’s the devil tempting them to become rock-star preachers. Fame is too alluring. Before they realize it, their heads have swelled and ministry becomes a means to prove their imagined greatness. A leader with an inflated ego will have zero interest in investing in others. You must tell yourself daily: “It’s not about me!”

  1. Stay accessible. Earlier this year I led a retreat for young Ugandans who are training for ministry. We prayed together, shared meals and swam at a local pool in the afternoons. When we finished three days of teaching sessions I asked them what they enjoyed the most about the retreat. One guy summarized everyone’s sentiment: “We loved that you were with us.”

Young people today don’t just want our sermons. They want to sit down for coffee after the sermon. They want to ask questions. They can listen to a hundred preachers on You Tube, but when you invite them to dinner, offer to pray with them or take them on a mission trip, you mark them forever.

  1. Keep it real. Older Christian leaders have picked up some bad habits that turn off young people. Some ministers preach with affected voices, wear weird hairstyles and insist on dressing like funeral parlor directors—even on their days off. Please talk in a normal voice when you preach so young people won’t dismiss you as a fake. Be transparent, admit your faults and let everyone know you’ve had struggles. Young people don’t want to follow someone who pretends to be perfect. 
  2. Pour on the encouragement. Many young people today struggle to stay disciplined. Some have addictions. And many of them have attitudes! But you will never reach them if all you do is point out their faults. You have to win their hearts before you address problems. If you saturate them with the love of a caring father or mother, their spiritual growth will amaze you. 
  3. Don’t cling to power. Jesus was the Son of God, yet He willingly handed His authority over to His disciples and told them to finish the job. Likewise, Paul invested his life in Timothy, Titus, Silvanus, Phoebe and others—and he expected them to go farther than He did. Every good leader is already thinking of his succession plan. If you have a tendency to control, dominate or manipulate people, you must wrestle with God until your pride is crushed.

Young leaders today don’t want to be your butler or your valet. And they won’t follow people who strut and swagger. They are looking for mentors who walk with the limp of humility.

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Reclaiming the Forgotten Timothy Principle

Last week I went to the nation of Colombia to preach in a conference sponsored by two churches in the city of Barranquilla. I could have gone alone, but I asked Jason, a young pastor from South Carolina, to accompany me on the seven-day trip.

When we boarded our first flight to Panama I said to Jason: “You are going to grow two feet during this adventure.” He told me yesterday when we were preparing to come home: “I think I grew two-and-a-half feet.”

Nothing thrills me more than challenging young leaders by taking them on the mission field. I’ve done this in Nigeria, Ukraine, India, Peru, Bolivia, South Africa and other places. It’s not always convenient to share a bathroom or double the travel costs, but the reward comes when I see how much the experience stretches their faith and accelerates their spiritual growth.

It’s what many call the Timothy Principle, and it’s found in Paul’s words to his spiritual son in 2 Timothy 2:2: “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”

Paul discovered long ago that the most effective way to expand the reach of the gospel was to invest deliberately and personally in younger disciples. Although he preached to crowds, he always traveled with a small team. He wasn’t a one-man show. He shared his life with people such as Timothy, Silas, Phoebe, Lydia, Luke, Priscilla and Aquilla—and they became spiritual giants. We would be wise to reclaim this forgotten art of personal discipleship.

Here are four guidelines I’ve developed for effectively training the next generation:

Get on the same level. One young leader I have been mentoring for a few years, Charles, once told a pastor that he wanted to be trained in ministry. The pastor explained this training process would require Charles to carry the pastor’s Bible, pick up his dry-cleaning and serve as a chauffeur. The pastor didn’t offer to pray with Charles, take him on a trip or share how to hear the voice of God or lead a sinner to salvation.

Some pastors even groom young leaders to be “armor bearers” who are nothing more than unpaid valets. I’ve seen some big-city bishops with celebrity entourages—including a guy to carry the preacher’s Bible, another to carry his water bottle, another to carry his handkerchief and a fourth to fan him when he’s sweating.

This type of leader is infected with a virus known as egotisticus giganticus. He may call himself a “spiritual father” to these men, but they really don’t have access to his life. They might as well be his slaves. This is not biblical discipleship. Any real spiritual father (or mother) will invite his disciples to get on his level and learn both the practical and spiritual sides of ministry.

Be a genuine friend. Young leaders today don’t just want to listen to a pastor’s sermons or wait outside an office door until he asks them to bring him a cup of coffee. They crave real relationships with humble, accessible men and women of God who can model authentic Christianity. That requires plenty of one-on-one communication. You must invite younger leaders into your life and let them get up close and personal.

Some charismatic churches today have developed a weird lingo that prevents genuine discipleship from happening. While I certainly believe in the role of apostles and spiritual mentors, I don’t think we have to throw these titles around. Don’t strain the relationship by insisting on a title. Just be yourself, and the anointing on your life will do the rest.

Offer plenty of ministry opportunities. Before I arrived in Colombia last week, I let my hosts know that Jason was available to speak in churches and youth meetings. Even though they had invited me to speak at a conference, I wanted Jason to be stretched in his faith. He ended up leading several powerful meetings with youth in the city. Then, on the last night, when I was addressing a group of leaders from two churches, I called Jason to come to the platform with me so he could pray and prophesy over people.

We won’t effectively raise up younger leaders if we only allow them to carry our briefcases or work at our book tables. They have to do the real stuff! I was so proud of Jason when he called several people to the front of the church and offered anointed prophetic encouragement. The Colombians loved him, and the youth who had been in his meetings lined up to hug him when we left. In the end, Jason realized that he was a ministry partner with me, not just a trainee.

Impart your life. Young leaders today need to become effective communicators, and they must learn how to flow in the Holy Spirit’s power. But we can’t just give them a dry, mechanical education. We have to follow the apostle Paul’s model. He told the Thessalonians: “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” (1 Thess. 2:8).

Discipleship requires sacrifice and genuine love. And it focuses on individuals. As much as I enjoy speaking to crowds, I have learned that often the most effective ministry in the kingdom of God is to the one, not the multitude. Please don’t ignore the Timothys you are called to encourage.

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Listen to the Cry of Today’s Generation

I love all four Gospels, but Mark is my favorite. I describe it as the Gospel for teenagers—or for anyone with a short attention span. It is the shortest account of Jesus’ ministry, and the most fast-paced. It is focused on Jesus’ actions, not His sermons, and the word immediately appears in it 47 times. If a movie were based on Mark it would be a noisy action flick, complete with screaming demons, instantaneous healings and rioting crowds.

But what I love most about Mark is the back story of its author—who is sometimes referred to as John Mark. He is young when we first see him in Scripture. He was related to Barnabas and closely associated with Peter. (Scholars believe Mark’s Gospel is based on what Peter dictated to him). Yet Mark created an embarrassing dilemma for the apostle Paul. We are told that Paul separated from Barnabas in Antioch because Mark deserted the team (see Acts 15:37-40).

We can speculate about what caused this conflict. We don’t really know why Mark went AWOL. Did he fear persecution? Did he wimp out because he missed his mother’s cooking back in Jerusalem? Or did he go through a period of rebellion? Perhaps. But in the end, the prodigal came home. The epistle of Philemon says Mark began traveling with Paul again (v. 23).

Paul eventually told Timothy: “Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service” (2 Tim. 4:11b, NASB, emphasis added). “Useful” is putting it mildly! This young guy who experienced failure early in life later wrote a key portion of the Bible!

The lesson is clear: Don’t give up on young people. They are totally worth the investment, even if they encounter ups and downs and zigzags on the journey we call discipleship. Those of us who are in the “older” category must recognize how useful these young Marks are in the plan of God.

I am blessed to have many young Marks in my life these days. They go with me on some of my ministry trips—not to carry my suitcase or to sell my books but to see what it’s like on the front lines. The personal time I spend with them is just as important as any sermon I preach to a crowd. I have come to realize that when I invest in a young Christian, his or her life is marked forever.

Recently a young ministry leader came to me for some counsel. He was frustrated because older people haven’t seemed interested in building a relationship with him or in giving him opportunities to grow spiritually. I asked him for some honest feedback about how leaders relate to the younger generation. I felt his answers needed to be heard by a wider audience. Our conversation went like this:

What do you want most in a mentor?

More than anything I want someone who will listen to me. Whether I’m right or wrong about something, a mentor should take time to listen. I’d love someone to ask me questions about what’s in my heart.

How do you want to be treated by a mentor?

I want to be treated like a son. I know how deeply I love my sons and how I constantly pour love, confidence, wisdom and strength into them. When I correct them, it’s gentle and helpful—even when I discipline them. I want the kind of close, relational Christianity I see in the New Testament. But I don’t want to be treated like a child. I do know some stuff!

What character qualities do you look for in a mentor?

First of all, I want someone who is real. Please relax and stop acting like a preacher. Let’s laugh a lot. Let’s hang out and have fun. Let’s enjoy each other. I also want someone who is eager to teach me! I want to know what it’s like for you when you sense the power of God when you pray for people. How do you prepare your messages? Keep me by your side when you’re operating in one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Tell me what’s happening along the way. Then let me minister with you.

Also, please share your power just like Jesus did. Don’t show hostility to other ministers. Realize that your “camp” does not have God in a box, and that there are a lot of things you can learn from other brothers and sisters in Christ. Be willing to learn and grow. Don’t fight technology. And please put your wife and family before ministry!

Are you listening to the cry of this emerging generation? Everywhere I go today I remind churches and denominational leaders that we are missing the boat if we aren’t investing the bulk of our time discipling a new generation. The church is graying, and many young people have checked out because our approach to ministry has become irrelevant to them.

If we would listen to their hearts, treat them like sons and daughters, invest our time in them and recognize their gifts, they will—like John Mark in the first century—make an amazing impact on history.

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