Wrestling and Lostness

February 21, 2014

In Matthew 9:36 the Bible tells us that Jesus was moved with compassion when He saw the multitudes.  In our busy lives, with our familiar surroundings, it is often hard for us to see the multitudes of lostness around us.  There are times, however, when the Lord gives us eyes to see.  Such a time happened to me this weekend at an unusual place – a youth wrestling meet.

This was the second year that I accompanied a local youth wrestling team from Las Vegas to the Beehive Brawl in Richfield, Utah.  As the second day of wrestling was about to start all of the kids competing gathered into the stadium’s tunnel and grouped together by their home state.  As the kids came running out there was great excitement.  The house lights were dimmed, rock music was blaring, and spotlights and multicolored lights were flashing as a fog machine rounded out the ensemble of effects to welcome these young athletes.  The crowds cheered as the boys came running out as their state was called.  Finally, the host state, Utah was announced.  Several hundred boys came running into the arena excited to wrestle in such a big tournament as the crowd gave the loudest cheer of the morning.

As I watched these boys run into the arena I was suddenly overwhelmed with the reality that there is a really good possibility that every one of them is lost.  They live in one of the most unreached states in the union that is dominated by the Mormon religion.  Dr. J.D. Payne posted the least reached metro areas in the United States, and Utah, with a population of only 2.8 million, had two cities that took the first and seventh positions.  As I began to process this information, several realities hit me:

  1. The lostness of Utah is great!  The city of Provo is 99.4% lost according to the census data.  That means only 0.6% of that city claims to be a Christian.  How can America, a “Christian Nation,” have a city that lost?
  2. We have no viable plan to actually reach the state with the gospel.  I am not saying that no one is working to reach Utah, but the reality is that we do not have a plan that will sufficiently get a gospel witness to the people of Utah in a timely manner.  I have two good friends who are working to plant churches in Utah.  The problems, however, are that it is a slow work, there are few workers in the harvest, and the support needed for a church plant to survive usually dries up before the church is fully established.
  3. A great wave of persecution will come as people turn to Jesus.  Mormonism is powerful and well organized.  People will lose their jobs, businesses, homes, and community if they turn to Jesus.  This is something that happens on a regular basis anywhere there is an overwhelming Mormon presence in a community.  This makes the task of reaching people with the gospel and planting churches much more complicated.
  4. If the above three observations do not change, then the reality is that most, if not all of the boys I saw today will grow up, live their lives, and then die under a false religion without ever getting to hear the true gospel.

So how does this impact you?  What can you do to change the situation in Utah? 

Let me challenge you to pray for four things:

  1. Pray that God would call out workers into the fields of Utah.
  2. Pray that God would help our churches and denominations develop effective, sustainable church planting models that will endure the strains of persecution.
  3. Pray that families in Utah would come to Christ together.  This will provide needed community for the new believers and allow a movement to begin.
  4. Pray that believers who face persecution would thrive in the midst of it.

I thank the Lord for the times that He opens my eyes to see the multitudes the way He does.  I pray that you too would see the multitudes afresh and that God will use you in a mighty way to be His witness to the lost.  Finally, I pray for those boys and their families – may their eyes be opened to the truth of who Jesus is and what He has done for them!

- Neal H. Creecy, PhD

Instructor of Global Studies

What a Successful Pastor Needs to Know

February 18, 2014

"What you don't know can kill you." This is a common truism which in the case of ministry may be an overstatement. Nonetheless, when it comes to ministry, what you don't know can certainly hurt you. That said, what is it that pastors and ministers need to know? Here are nine knowledge clusters that I believe are critical for ministry success.

1. A successful pastor knows the Scriptures. He knows them intellectually and devotionally. He has worked to understand the structure of the Word, what it says and what it means. More importantly, he has let it shape his own life and ministry, his purposes and priorities. He has a confidence that the Scriptures reveal the mind, heart, ways, and will of God. He is assured that the Scriptures have the spiritual power to transform lives, his own and others. Because of this conviction, he has confidence to stand on God's word as he embraces its promises and obeys its commands. He believes without hesitation that all Scriptures point to Jesus.

2. A successful pastor knows leadership principles. He has worked to understand how to be a leader. He knows how to assess the present condition of his flock and his community. He knows how to go from where he is to where he needs to be. He knows how to persuade those he leads. He understands how authority, responsibility, and accountability interact. He understands the importance of problem solving, decision-making and, planning. He understands how to delegate. He has a grasp of how to recruit and how to provide direction.

3. A successful pastor knows people. He works to understand how each person thinks, feels, and decides. He seeks to understand people's hurts, failings, fears, and scars. He knows that no two people are the same. He is diligent to motivate people and point them to Jesus. He is compassionate yet cautious. He wants to believe the best about people unless he has a clear reason not to. He is constantly on the lookout for wolves among the sheep as Paul warned the Ephesians pastors to do. He understands that everyone is on a spiritual journey and is located on a different part of the maturity-immaturity spectrum. He labors to move people to a closer walk with God. He is not naive, however, about the ravages of sin and the snares of the devil.

4. A successful pastor knows hardship. No ministry is comfortable. No ministry is easy. To be a pastor is to be in constant spiritual war. Temptations, disasters, inconveniences, and pressure never cease. Yet the good news is that God uses the suffering we endure to mature us, to strengthen us, and to equip us for greater service. When we are faithful to our calling, God watches and rewards. The hardships we face prepare us for greater opportunity. Recall David's words to King Saul on how fighting lions and bears had prepared him to face Goliath. Remember how Jesus promised that the one faithful in that which is least will be made ruler over much. Hardship has its benefits.

5. A successful pastor knows systems. Particularly when he looks at the church, his attention is to observe how things operate. He looks for power structures, legitimizers, and past patterns of handling conflict. He understands the dynamics of transitioning the congregation through decision-making and ministry divisions of labor as the church grows. He sees growth restricting obstacles and anticipates needed steps to overcoming them. He is constantly anticipating what needs to be done in the present as well as the future. He is continually crying out for wisdom and discernment. Like Nehemiah of old, he is trying to address problems at hand, deal with the consequences of past failure, and bring about change for the good of the people he leads and the glory of the God he serves.

6. A successful pastor knows the culture. He is diligent in his efforts to see trends, understand who is shaping public perception and mores, and perceive what direction the world is moving. He watches the media with its news and entertainment in an attempt to know what people are thinking. He is not afraid to address the moral and cultural issues as he proclaims God's assessment. He is not concerned with public opinion. He is concerned with God's.

7. A successful pastor knows that he needs to be a learner. He reads, he listens, and he   gives time to cultivating his understanding. He discusses issues and works at increasing his understanding. He not only sets aside time to cultivate his mind, he guards that time. Because he understands that preparation precedes performance, he prepares. He took the time for school and he has now transitioned into becoming a life-long learner.

8. A successful pastor knows what is at stake. When he stands to preach he knows that he represents God and he is God's spokesman. When he ministers to people in their pain, he is God's representative. He realizes that people's response to his messages and witness are a matter of life and death. He understands what is at stake. 

9. Finally, a successful pastor knows that his opportunity is short. He has only so much time to serve God and then it is over. So he works in light of Jesus' words that the night is coming when no one can work. He is constantly aware of Moses' prayer, "Lord, teach us to number our days so that we may gain a heart of wisdom." He desires to make the most of his time and his life. He lives with the sense that he needs to do all he can while can.

These are some things that a successful pastor knows. Let's be diligent to show ourselves approved by God because we have been diligent in our pursuit of knowledge and its application.

- Jerry Sutton, PhD

Adjunct Instructor of Church History

Christians and Politics

February 7, 2014

     Each time I moderate the discussion centering around John Calvin, I inadvertently see the same reaction from students.  While some of them find something to emulate from Calvin’s handling of the church in Geneva, the majority of my students responds with the same “you can’t legislate morality” sentiment.  I wonder if I can challenge that sentiment just a bit here.

     I absolutely agree with the understanding that Jesus’ primary function on this earth was the transformation of the heart and not to overthrow the Roman government.  In fact, remember when after the feeding of 5,000 Jesus had to withdraw from the people because He knew that they were going to come and take Him by force in order to make Him a king (John 6:15)?  Certainly, the largest part of that which drove them to want to do so was the fact that they would be the first welfare society on the earth.  After all who wouldn’t want to have a king that can miraculously feed everybody without their doing any work for it?  But I do believe that another reason why Jesus withdrew was because He did not want to engage in a political challenge to Rome, that was not His mission after all.  His primary mission was to offer His life as substitutionary atonement for the sins of humanity and Jesus stayed focused on that.

     Allow me to submit to you that, while we are certainly to emulate Jesus, we must do so intelligently and in the way that is biblically defensible.  As such, it is not valid to say that because Jesus did not get involved in politics, neither should we, for at least two reasons.  First, our political environment is completely different today from that of first century Rome.  There was no context within which a Jew could get involved in the political process of the Roman Empire without being perceived as a threat and ending up crucified. 


     Second, our mission on this earth is not to offer our lives as a sacrifice for sin, but to be light and salt in this world (Matthew 5:13-16).  As salt, our presence is to preserve the wicked and sinful generation in which we operate.  I like the way Craig Blomberg expresses this idea as he comments on this passage in The New American Commentary: “Of the numerous things to which salt could refer in antiquity, its use as a preservative in food was probably its most basic function.  Jesus thus calls his disciples to arrest corruption and prevent moral decay in their world (Craig L.Blomberg, Matthew, New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 102). And again, “Christians must permeate society as agents of redemption” (Ibid.). As lights, we are to let Jesus, who is the light of the world (John 8:12; 9:5), shine through us exposing the deeds of darkness and illuminating the rest of the world in pointing the way to God.  Nowhere in Scripture do we have an instruction to limit our saltiness or our light to the church contexts alone.  No, we are to shine brightly in all contexts in which we currently find ourselves. 


     We are to share the good news of salvation with the lost and dying world first, and we are to do everything within our power to preserve the moral standards of our society, even including participation in the democratic political processes of our nation.  It doesn’t have to be either or, it can, and, in my opinion, should be both and.  Both light and salt.  Both shine and preserve. Both share the gospel and participate in politics for the purpose of advancing God’s kingdom in every arena. 


     We know that in the end it is not going to be our efforts but God Himself who will make all things new, but nevertheless we are not to ever quit trying to do everything within our power to continue spreading preserving influence of the gospel around us.  Including political involvement, whether it may be opining on the current events in light of biblical message, staying abreast of the latest developments in the political arena in order to ascertain their scriptural significance, educating those around us of what biblical values look like, and voting those values.  Withdrawal from the political process in the name of our Christianity in the nation where we can still make a difference is tantamount to restricting our saltiness to the boundaries of our church buildings.  Whatever we do, Blomberg is absolutely right in his warning that “we dare not form isolated Christian enclaves to which the world pays no attention.”[1]


- Simon V. Goncharenko, PhD
Adjunct Instructor of Theology and Church History

[1]Ibid, 103.


On “Churchy Phrases” Scaring Away Millennials

February 3, 2014

     In Addie Zierman's recent blog, "5 churchy phrases that are scaring off Millennials" she purports to explain why the new generation of adults are leaving the church. She goes on to explain that for many, such as herself, the departure is only a temporary hiatus. In their 30s many are reluctantly returning with families in tow, but not without an attitude. It seems that according to her brief survey of followers on Facebook, they left at 18 because of shallow clichés. Now they want back, but don't want to hear those simplistic catch-phrases anymore. They have been surfing the internet and know better than to have confidence in the Bible and in the God who wrote it. After all, they saw it on the internet--it must be true. For those who are curious, here is the list. "The Bible clearly says…" "God will never give you more than you can handle…" "Love on" (as in, "as youth leaders, we're just here to love on those kids.") Black and white quantifiers of faith, such as "Believer, Unbeliever, Backsliding." "God is in control…has a plan…works in mysterious ways."

     Okay, I grant that these words often precede truly vacuous comments/sermons. I agree that often they are voiced when someone finds themselves in a situation (such as with a grieving parent) where they just don't know what to say and don't know that all the person needs is presence and a tender touch. But, really now…is this the best they can come up with? How shallow is their Christianity that they can abandon God's church--the Body of Christ, the Temple of the Holy Spirit, because they hear too many clichés?

     Living beyond three score and ten years may give some advantage here, but it seems to me that these "stats" Addie cites have been around at least as long as I have been alive. I recall the same statistics cited in the 60s bemoaning that young people were leaving the church about the time they went off to college and didn't reconnect until they were married and realized that the church they had been neglecting while they were prioritizing career, relationships, marriage, and children, may just be important once again to establish healthy friendships and to teach Christian truth and values to their children.    

     I know she doesn't want to hear this, especially from an old guy, but a young person's cliché may just be an old saint's short-hand for a worldview perspective that has worked like a road sign to guide them through many a stormy night for longer than Millennials have been alive.

     She complains, "the Bible clearly says…" sounds too assertive to the internet-savvy post-adolescent who has downloaded the shared ignorance pervasive in his world. I was reading the recent interview with the renowned NT scholar, Dale C. Allison concerning the current internet driven rash of Jesus mythicism. Recent skeptics are claiming that a case can be made for the notion that Jesus never really existed. He was created as a sort of midrash on OT narratives. Allison's response was (to paraphrase)," Move on--nothing to see here. The issue is a century old. We studied this in Grad School. It was debated and debunked by scholars a hundred years ago." Before the internet, there were scholars who screened material that was published as serious scholarship. Now, all one needs is a computer, a fertile imagination, and a blank slate. Maybe if we would read the Bible more we might actually discover what it does say. And if we would be considered "scholars," perhaps we should read a few real scholars before we imagine that we belong to the guild.

     Addie scoffs at the saying, "God will never give you more than you can handle." Most people don’t seem to know that it didn't come from the Bible. Perhaps, but 1 Corinthians 10:13 is in the Bible and Deuteronomy 31:8 is in the Bible, and yes, life is more complicated than what this catch-phrase may suggest. Maybe God's purpose is to "break" us. But when a believer is unable to see their way, sometimes the only thing they have is the promise of God's presence and protection. So if the misappropriation of the phrase is problematic, the denial that it is based on biblical truth is equally problematic. 

     I agree that some of the clichés cited can be a bit hollow and maybe even sound a little creepy. So change them! We don't love the people to whom we minister as "objects," but as "subjects." We are agents of God's love. With that we all agree, but to complain about how we "say" this is shallow and immature in the extreme. 

     On that note I wish to make one more comment/observation. A few years ago, The Lighthouse Community Center was formed as two people opened an empty building in the inner city in order to (if you please) "love on" anyone who came through the doors. People who came were lost, they were hungry, and they were homeless. Many suffer from mental illnesses and addictions that have brought them to their present state. We just loved them in concrete ways. We fed them. We clothed them. We sat with them and treated them with human dignity. Some are "believers," and some are "back-sliders." Some are "unbelievers." How else can you say this? We preached the gospel, "using words when necessary." We formed them into a worshipping community. A "church" was born as "believers" began to worship and serve the God they have just come to know and experience in a new way. They know from experience what the consequences of sin are. They already know the sulfuric smell of hell. When they discover the new life in Christ they begin to develop a new mind through daily reading of the Bible, prayer, and in communion with one another. They are not so sophisticated and nuanced in their new faith to be anything but filled with exuberance and joy. The thought of complaining about such silliness as annoying clichés doesn't cross their minds. They are thrilled that despite their situation, God is with them and will never forsake them.

     If Millennials have enjoyed the luxury of surviving a decade and a half of neglecting the church and now they want to re-engage I suggest they take a long hard look at themselves in the mirror. If the church has suffered it isn't always because of those that stayed. Maybe it's because of those who left. If all they want to complain about are the clichés, maybe they should sit behind a dumpster and talk with some of our parishioners. Maybe they should try to get beyond the smell and "love on" people they have never looked in the eye. 

     The new wave of emerging Millennial adults will bring a refreshing change in our churches as they put away childish things and take on the mantle of leadership for the next generation. I promise you that they will create their own clichés at which their children will balk. Paul's words are timely: "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor. 13:11-13).


- Dan Mitchell, PhD

Professor of Theological Studies

Contemporary Evangelism

January 27, 2014

            Regarding contemporary evangelism, I concur with Dr. Kennedy Adarkwa that the idea of proclaiming the Gospel has become less and less popular in the US. As one considers this trend, we should avoid any type of reasoning that would lead us to think that our contemporaries feel inadequate to proclaim the Gospel, and therefore, proclamation is down.


            This anti-evangelical trend has its roots in Satan’s advance in His war against God. Whenever local churches allow Satan and his angels to shape our contemporary culture, Satan takes advantage of the circumstances and develops further his anti-Creator milieu. It is time to wake up from our slumber and start fighting for the lost. If we have not noticed, most churches in the US have become very similar to the Laodicean church as described by Jesus Himself (Rev 3:14-22).


            Over the years, this anti-evangelistic trend has become more and more apparent. In many cases, our churches are becoming country clubs that our youth find inept and avoid as they become adults. I believe that the root of the problem is a salvation issue for many. Without a genuine conversion, without being born again, there is no new or renewed creation (2 Cor 5:17), and therefore, there is no genuine concern for the lost. Consider my thoughts from an excerpt taken from Experiencing Jesus’ Joy:


Jesus said that only those who had a desire to do the will of the Father would come to know Him (John 7:17; 8:39–47; cf. Matt 25:31–46; Rom 2:13). He also said that there would be some who called Him “lord” who would not be with Him in Heaven because they had not done the Father’s will (Matt 7:21). If someone wants to know God, he or she must be willing to follow His lead. God does not weigh people’s good and bad activities throughout their lives to see if they have done enough good to enter Heaven. Perfection is required and no one other than Christ has lived a perfect life. In reality, God only accepts people into His eternal family who are willing to allow Him to shape them into Jesus Christ’s moral image and obediently follow Him. There is no place in God’s eternal holy family for lukewarm followers of Christ (Rev 3:16). God requires commitment with corresponding action! (p. 151)


            In reality, people change when they truly start following Jesus: they want to see the lost saved:

As people consider God, His holiness, and His great love for all, “I am reminded that we all need Jesus as both lord and savior in every aspect of our lives. I know that God will lead all who listen to Him out of an unfulfilled life into one filled with inner peace, joy, and great expectation. In addition, I know that as individuals start listening to God, their lives change for the better immediately and forever. Within a relatively short period of time, their family and friends will be blessed right along with them. There is no greater gift for a parent, spouse, or child than for a loved one to start following Jesus.  . . .  There is nothing more important that any of us can do than to witness about God and His glorious nature to those who are living out their lives on that wide road leading to destruction.” (p. 147)


            As we consider this anti-evangelical trend, there is a second key to this alarming trend: many in our local churches think that they are saved yet exhibit none of the attributes of a disciple of Jesus (Luke 14:26-33). Can a person really be saved and not be a follower of Jesus? I do not think so. Consider this from Experiencing Jesus’ Joy:


If we would be honest with one another, most of us would admit that we want things our way and want everything to be as easy as possible. From what I see from God’s Word, it takes commitment and effort in order for anything to advance, whether good or evil. From the side of evil, Scripture is clear that Satan has been and will continue to work hard to overthrow God and His children until he is permanently confined in Hell after Christ’s thousand year reign. He will not win, but he is putting as much effort into bringing as many of God’s children with him as possible. . . . If all advancement takes commitment and effort, why do so many think that God, who is fighting on our behalf, wants His children to sit on the sidelines and do nothing? Everything in Scripture teaches that God’s children are to be fully involved in living holy lives and allowing God to lead them in righteous works overcoming evil with good. Yet there are many people who claim to be Christians (Christ-like), who do not live according to God’s holiness nor try to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. These same people will tell you that they are confident that they are going to Heaven when they die. This way of thinking is totally contrary to what God’s Word teaches. . . .  Nowhere in Scripture does God teach that someone can come to Him, pick up a pass into Heaven, ignore the battles going on around them, die physically, and have Jesus escort his or her spirit into Heaven. . . . Satan has sold the world one of His biggest lies since the beginning of the Creation. Many believe that salvation is nothing more than obtaining a pass into heaven for when one dies. This lie causes people to think that they have to wait until they get to Heaven for anything to be better. What a lie! Sanctification, being molded and shaped by God, and good works starts immediately for all who truly start following Jesus (Rom 6:22) (pp. 106-108).


- James Joseph, PhD

Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies