“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
— Acts 2:42-47
When I read the book of Acts I see a picture of the Church that produces a longing in my chest that is sometimes hard to bear. There is a generosity of spirit and an intimacy that tug at me. There is genuine power. Sacrificial love. Simple pleasures. Genuine friendship. There is a tangible wholeness. True equality of value. Full belonging and participation. I see every member playing a significant part. Family in the truest sense of the word. Everyone has purpose. There is agreement and unity; wildy different people coming together in a common mission. The very real presence of Jesus Himself.
Church is not an event. It is not a location. It is not a dynamic leader with a great vision and lots of people doing all they can to make it come true.
Church is not an event.
Church does not happen at 11:00 Sunday morning or 7:00 Saturday evening.
Church is not an event.
Church is a people. It is community. Family.
Church is a family centered on and lead by Jesus. God’s family. Not a Sunday morning performance. Not a program. Not an event. It has events and it gathers in places, but it is not in essence those things.
I love gathering together with my church. Watching the toddlers play. Eating great food. Praying together and looking into God’s Word and worshiping and laughing. I love knowing them, and being known by them. Being myself. Not performing. I love people in my living room singing to Jesus and interceding for the lost and discussing the scriptures.
I love the way the Father uses these flawed people to make me more like His Son. It’s amazing to me the way we sharpen one another. I love seeing someone used by the Spirit to bring encouragement or instruction or even rebuke to the rest of us.
I love being part of different generations coming together for a common purpose - babies and teenagers and young adults and new parents and old parents and... I love the energy of youth and the wisdom of age and the carefree-ness of children all in the mix together.
I love encountering and being transformed by Jesus together with my friends.
I love scheming with these same friends about how we might invite and welcome others into this incredible Kingdom.
I love Church.
Jesus calls us to not lead as the world does. To not see greatness as the world does. To not use authority as the world does (see, for example, Matthew 20:20-28). To be a leader in His movement is nothing like being a leader in the world. It is so radically different, people. And, to be honest, it can feel a bit disorienting and challenging, and downright threatening, as we attempt to follow Him in leading His people.
We can engage in the kind of risky and counter-cultural leadership Jesus calls us to because of the gospel. And only because of the gospel. The gospel, simply put, is what Jesus has done for us. More on that in a minute.
We need to honestly evaluate why we lead, and see how the needs and desires that often motivate us are actually designed to be met through the gospel, completely apart from us having any leadership position or authority. This will free us to lead in the way that Jesus intends. When we lead in order to fulfill our own basic needs and desires, we muddy the pure springs of water which give life to our service. We sabotage the very thing we are trying to build.
When I returned from Africa in 2005, and could no longer call myself a missionary, I felt lost. I didn't know who I was. I had relied on that identity to feel a sense of personal worth and purpose, to gain affirmation and acceptance, and even to boost my confidence in God's approval of me. I entered a dark emotional time, as I struggled with a sense of loss and lack of value. Yet, if I had been more accustomed to seeing through a gospel lens, this would not have been so painful. I thought I had learned these lessons during previous times of testing, but clearly I had a long way to go. I desperately wanted a new position of ministry in order to provide the self-esteem and the recognition I craved. This kind of pain is inevitable when we view leadership from any perspective other than the one offered in the gospel.
One of the most powerful leadership issues we face has to do with our identity. We so often tie our identity and self-esteem to our positions of leadership, and the outcomes are truly disastrous. Consider the following fruits of identity-based leadership:
For one, you can serve others on your own terms, but you cannot be a servant, although that is clearly what Jesus demands (Matt 20:26-27). You are afraid to lower yourself too much. You fear what it would do to your already fragile self-esteem. If you become a servant to other people, you may actually begin to feel inferior. Less than. Not as valuable. It doesn't seem worth it.
Another outcome is that you find yourself sliding into the trap of being focused on "success," rather than on obedience and loving people. This is the biggest temptation I am facing right now regarding gospel leadership -- and have been for the past several years. I am gaining ground I think, but it's been a slug-fest. I desperately want the boiler room to succeed, in order to validate myself. I am susceptible to the lie that my worth is directly tied to the success of the boiler room. If it does well -- proved with clear evidence that can be seen by me and others -- I feel valuable. Important. But if it doesn't... I can't even tell you. The very thought causes me to shudder. If it fails, I will be a failure, and finally proven to be the useless nothing I've always suspected myself to be.
Being success-driven is exhausting. It is also costly in relationships. In fact, that's one of the first signs to me that I've been failing in this fight -- when I find myself more and more frustrated by those I lead and lead with. When I am more concerned about their performance than about them. By the time I reach that point, I am not even close to serving and loving... I am attempting to manipulate people to serve my vision of success. Ouch.
When your identity is tied to your ministry, or leadership, or achievements, you are emotionally unstable. You feel great when you think you're doing well, or have achieved some milestone or been given a "prestigious" position. But when you don't have the position or success you want, you are deeply discouraged, and sometimes even depressed.
Another sad result is that you begin to get competitive in ministry. You compare yourself with others -- feeling good when you compare well, but discouraged when you sense others are doing better, achieving more, or getting promoted ahead of you. Thus, instead of seeing others as part of the same body working together for the glory of Jesus, you can come to the place of almost being opposed to your brothers and sisters in Christ, unable to celebrate their successes. In some cases you may even take wicked delight in their failures.
Finally, you begin to value others based on their position and success. You ascribe more worth to people with more prestigious titles, "higher" positions, and more recognizable success. In contrast, you devalue those you deem to be "lower" than you. Frankly, this is hideous. When we see such an attitude creeping into our hearts, it should cause us to take note, and do whatever we need to in order to find and destroy the root of this perversion.
Not a pretty picture, friends! How can we get out of this mess? So glad you asked. The Gospel!! For real. Remember, the gospel is what Jesus has done for you. And one of the beautiful and amazing things that He has done is given you -- yes, given you -- a new identity. And this identity is far more prestigious, far more valuable, far more exalted than the ones you desperately try to scrape together for yourself.
What does the gospel say about your identity and self-esteem? Because Jesus lived a perfect life, and died for you on the cross, everything is different. He gave you a new identity when you put your faith in Him. You are a son of God; chosen, adopted, and deeply loved. That is your identity. It's who you are -- when you have a leadership position and when you do not. In fact, I am convinced that leader, elder, prophet, missionary, pastor, whatever... are disturbingly unimpressive identities to God. When you are one of those things, He does not see you any differently than He did when you first believed. He has provided for you a much more lasting and significant identity. The tragedy is that in order to grab hold of that which is lesser, seeing yourself primarily as a pastor or missionary or leader, you have to let go of the identity He has given you. Why would you want to do that? He calls you beloved son! Beloved daughter! And all because of what Jesus has done. He has paid the price for your adoption. You could never achieve something like this. Never. As long as you're looking through the gospel lens, you won't worry about titles or identity or anything like that.
What about self-esteem? Doesn't God want you to feel good about yourself? Well, sort of, yes. But what we have to remember is that apart from Jesus, there is really nothing to feel good about. But in Him! Oh, it's so different! Jesus lived a perfect life. That's what the gospel says. And He did so not only as an example for you, but He did so on your behalf. You are credited with His rightness! You don't need to have a position in order to think highly of yourself; You need to just remember that you are in Him. In fact, once again, if you are using your position as a prop to help you think well of yourself, you are missing out. Positions can come and go. You can be promoted, demoted, or forgotten. You will always notice that someone else has a better one. But you are still in Christ. All His rightness is still credited to you. The Spirit that enabled Him to live well is in you.
In working with students from ORU the first few days of my trip, I was incredibly blessed in a couple of ways. There is a young Ugandan man named Daglas who was helping them a lot - interpreting for them, helping to prepare meals and clean up, etc. An amazing servant and great dude. He told me he was doing all this because he himself was a fruit of ORU missions and for years had wanted to find a way to serve with them. Fifteen years ago (while Jill and I were still living in Uganda), a team from ORU came to Daglas’ village and shared the Gospel with his older brother Eddie. After a few days of spending time with the team and Pastor Gerald (whom we still work closely with), Eddie gave his life to Jesus. Eventually he shared the Gospel with Daglas who also came to Christ. Eddie is now a pastor, and I’ve worked with him a few times over the past 6-7 years. Daglas is an active part of the church Gerald pastors, and was an amazing help in so many ways to the team this year.
One day I went with the team to Kiyumba Believers Church. This is the church that had been pastored by my close friend Kayita before he died ten years ago. When Kayita passed away, his assistant pastor (Pastor Sylvia) took over, and has been serving faithfully all this time. It was so good to see her and the church doing so well. It brought back a lot of memories for me being there, and though feeling sad again at the loss of Kayita, I was able to rejoice in the faithfulness and goodness of God. We were also able to be an encouragement to Sylvia and the church members through spending the day together with them and sharing with them.
The pastors conference in Masaka seems to have been a success. It’s always so hard for me to tell, but I did get good feedback that was, I hope, genuine. In his unique way, Pastor Kintu put it like this, “This was a different conference, and Tim has a different kind of anointing. Nobody fell down under the power, but everyone left shaking their heads.” This was actually meant as an encouragement, saying that even though nothing dramatic happened - as is often what is expected in these gatherings - people were given a lot to think about. I taught primarily about the mission of the church, about being servants, and about relational ministry. Simple stuff in some ways, but in my view really vital.
On my last day in Uganda, I met a pastor in Kampala who inspired me so much. Pastor Wilson has an amazing story, and it was a pleasure to spend time with him. He began planting ‘simple churches’ in Uganda five years ago - the only person I have ever heard of doing anything like this. Now more than 700 of these churches have been started, and they go seven generations deep. This seems to be a legit movement, and I was so incredibly encouraged. The best part is that he and his co-workers are reaching witch doctors, prostitutes, the very poor, refugees, Muslims, and others that the church has struggled to reach. Jesus is at work transforming lives, and it is beautiful. Wilson was very eager to talk about working together, and I am looking forward to staying in touch with him and hopefully spending more time with him in the future.
Last Sunday we celebrated Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit. I wanted to remind you that you are filled with the Spirit of God today, at this very moment. He doesn’t take off every time you have a stupid thought or act like a jerk or fail to do something you should have done. He is with you. He is in you. Right now.
Jesus said, “He who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing... Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love.” (John 15:5, 9)
Abide in Him. Keep turning your attention to Him. Remember that He is present. Honor Him. Obey Him. Talk to Him. Listen to Him. Meditate on Him and on His love for you. He loves you! He is with you because He delights in you and likes you. If we can be convinced of that today, I think we’ll bear fruit for the glory of Jesus. His presence is an amazing and overwhelming mystery, and yet it is absolutely true.
“So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves...
“But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control...
“Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives.”
(Galatians 5:16, 22-23, 25)
We have been filled with the Spirit of God - the very same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead. He is alive in you! His intent is to make us witnesses for Jesus, that the world might know who He is and what He has done for them. He also labors to make us more like Jesus, so we can demonstrate to the world what He is like. Though we have been filled with the Spirit, we can be filled again. If we are struggling in our witness; if we are noticing a lack of true Holy Spirit fruit, we can seek to be filled anew, just as the disciples did in Acts 4. And He is faithful.
You can walk in joy and in love and in peace and all of those things. The key is the Spirit. Paul admonishes us, “let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives.” We all need to step back at times and seek Him. We need to renew our vows to Him, and to once again give Him everything - every part of our lives. Give Him our futures and our ambitions and our money and our relationships and our sins and habits and addictions and hopes and all of it. Lay it before Him. Oh, the crazy fulfillment that comes with this! The cross demonstrates that He has already given us His all. He is faithful!
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” — Acts 1:8
All of us as followers of Jesus are filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, and that power is given to us that we might be Jesus’ witnesses. That we might tell people everywhere about Him. That we might live lives that reflect who He truly is. I’m so glad this is by the power of the Spirit. That gives me hope.
By God’s grace, I will be headed back to Uganda in June. I am so grateful that the tickets have been provided, and the details are coming together. While there, my team of friends and I will be holding a leadership conference for pastors and regional church leaders in Masaka. I am thrilled that this is coming together - and a little nervous. :). My prayer is that all who come will be further equipped to bear fruit in the important work God has given them to do. Further, I pray that our time spent with significant church network leaders will lead to a strategy of empowering and equipping hundreds of leaders, discipling churches to maturity, and thrusting forth many into the mission of bringing the Gospel to all.
I will also have the opportunity to spend a couple of days with students from ORU who will be serving in Uganda at the time, sharing with them in the ministry of evangelism and teaching. I hope to be an encouragement to several congregations that are dear to me, and to have quality time with a number of key leaders.
If you’d like to hear more about this trip, and how you can help, please let me know.
I still love spending time each week at the Merchant, where God is enabling us to build deeper relationships and to proclaim the gospel to the poor. What a privilege! Last Sunday, friends from another local church here in town provided a wonderful breakfast for all who came to our worship service. They had passed out flyers downtown to invite folks, and we were able to welcome a good number who had never worshipped with us before. What a blessing to be part of the Body of Christ working together in His great cause!