Want it My Way

by Dick Wamsley 

If you go into a Starbucks today and consider the milk options, number of shots, various syrups, and the choice of whip or no-whip, you have over 87,000 combinations, all customized to your own individual needs – or whims.  That feeds the consumer mentality: “I want it my way.”  We live in a consumer culture, which is a shift from a few decades back when we were a producer culture.  We are now buyers and hoarders and users.  That’s how our economy keeps growing.

Paul writes to his son-in-faith, Timothy, in 1 Timothy 6:6-8 (ESV), “But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.  But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.”  Paul advises Timothy that the greatest gains come through “godliness with contentment,” not through consuming.  That requires a daily renewal of commitment to your priorities as a Christian leader and making a conscious decision that the accumulation of things is not going to be the priority of your life.  

In his book The Good and Beautiful Life, James Bryan Smith reports that neurologists once scanned the brains of people of faith as they recalled and re-experienced the times they felt close to God, either in prayer, worship, or solitude.  Then they exposed the same people to stained glass, the smell of incense, icons, and other religious images that connected people to God.  The same specific area of the brain, called the “caudate nucleus,” lit up in all of these people when they felt connected to God.

The neurologists then tested another group, but this time exposed them to material possessions.  When they showed images of products that were tied to “cool” brands, the exact same area of the brain lit up.  The neuroscientists discovered that people who bought certain items experienced the same sensations as those who had deep religious experiences (The Good and Beautiful Life, pp. 163-164).  Maybe that’s why Paul says to be content with the simpler things.

Contentment is also preferred when you recognize the uncertainty of riches.  Later in 1 Timothy 6, Paul writes, “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (verse 17). 

Riches are deceptive.  They portray themselves as bringing a sense of security, but they are in fact very unstable.  A recession, government intervention, an unpredictable stock market, lawsuits, health problems any of these can wipe out a lifetime of accumulated wealth in short order.  Even what we call “Social Security” isn’t.  As someone wrote, “Money will buy a bed but not sleep; books but not brains; food but not appetite; finery but not beauty; a house but not a home; medicine but not health; luxuries but not culture; amusements but not happiness; religion but not salvation – a passport to everywhere but heaven.”

It is imperative that leaders in the church guard themselves against the idol of consumerism.  I echo what Paul said to Timothy after he warned him of the love of money, “But as for you, O man of God, flee these things.  Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness” (1 Tim. 6:11). Those who do will be less likely to want “my way,” and more likely to desire God’s way. 

God’s Grace to Make Decisions

by Dick Wamsley 

I was beginning my eighth year as Dean of Students and Professor of Pastoral Care at Nebraska Christian College.  The college was in the first phase of a leadership transition.  The President and Academic Dean had both been there over 30 years and were scheduled to retire at the end of that academic year.  Three years earlier, I was asked by the trustees to consider accepting either of those two administrative positions, so I committed to be the Academic Dean.  But at their September meeting, the trustees approached me to reconsider my decision and apply for the President’s position.  I did not see myself as president material, which was why I did not pursue it earlier. 

At the same time, I was completing coursework toward the Doctor of Ministry degree at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  I was enrolled in the class “The Decision Making Process, Systems and the Planning Cycle.”  It required that I complete a project in my ministry that applied what I had learned in the classroom.  So I decided my project would be to discern the will of God for this ministry decision. 

What I experienced from that project not only changed the course of my role at the college – I accepted the presidency – it awakened me to how God was just waiting to extend His grace at a time when I was focusing more on my perceived weaknesses than His grace to enable me to lead the college as its president.  If I had walked away from the trustees’ challenge because I focused only on my perceived weaknesses, I would have failed to experience the grace of God. 

Like me, you may have always believed that God bestows His grace at His discretion and not at our request, and in some respects that is true.  But there may also be times when He expects us – in fact waits for us – to seek from Him the grace He has already reserved for us. 

The Apostle Paul talks about God’s all-sufficient grace in 2 Corinthians 12.  Speaking of his “thorn in the flesh” he wrote, “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.  But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness…” (2 Cor. 12:8-9, ESV).  The writer of Hebrews goes a step further:  “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). 

One of the actions I took while seeking God’s will concerning my role with NCC was to ask three friends, who knew me well and my giftedness for ministry, to devote some quality time to pray concerning the specific guidance I was seeking from God.  I provided each of them with a list of reasons I had prepared for accepting either position.  After a prescribed period of time, they were to report back to me their own conclusions as God had directed in their prayers. 

Those conclusions were a key to the confidence I had in approaching God’s throne of grace for help in a critical time for me, and in making the decision to accept the call by the trustees to become the college’s fourth president.  Now some might consider that kind of approach to prayer too bold, maybe even a bit presumptuous.  But I considered it “drawing near to the throne of grace,” taking action to seek God’s grace in a time of need. 

When you or your group of elders are faced with having to make some tough decisions, instead of first seeking human resources that will help you “stand on your own two feet,” drop to your knees seeking God’s all-sufficient grace.  

Conflicted Calling

by Dick Wamsley 

Sometimes Christian leaders struggle with apparent conflicts in their roles.  Like the two-faced image of the Roman god Janus, we feel pulled from opposing directions when deciding what action to take as elder, pastor, shepherd… 

Peter, a recognized leader of the apostles in the infant church in Jerusalem, dealt with this conflicting pull.  On the way to the Mount of Olives following the Passover meal with his disciples, Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me…,” to which Peter flatly, courageously, replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will,” (Matthew 26:30-33).  Only moments later, around a fire in the courtyard of Caiaphas’ house, Peter cowardly denied that he knew the Man being tried inside. 

Peter also seemed conflicted in the calling Jesus issued to him on another occasion.  Soon after Jesus began preaching, he saw Peter and his brother, Andrew, fishing on the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus simply said, “Come…”  That was a calling to aggressively seek other disciples.  Peter and Andrew immediately left the nets.  Yet after the events of Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion and death, Peter went back to fishing.  Following the resurrection, Jesus met Peter again at the Sea of Galilee, and questioned Peter three times about the sincerity of his love for Him, and Peter replied three times affirmatively.  Jesus then told him to feed his lambs and take care of and feed his sheep – a call to be a shepherd (John 21:1-19).  

We sometimes feel conflicted in our roles, but God’s expectations of us are always in line with his Word and in what He calls us to do.  We just struggle in knowing how to best carry out His will.  Perhaps moments like these are “tensions to manage” more than outright conflict in our calling.  

First century church leaders often found themselves managing these competing tensions.  The leaders of the church in Corinth were told by Paul to exercise needed discipline regarding the man among them “sleeping with his father’s wife.”  Paul even advised them to “hand this man over to Satan, so the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord,” (1 Corinthians 5:1, 5).  On the other hand, the apostle Peter wrote, “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder … Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care…” (1 Peter 5:1-2). 

Christian leaders today must continue managing the very same dynamic tension.  We must be compassionate shepherds, leading and feeding those placed in our care, reflecting Psalm 23, John 10, Ezekiel 34, and so on.  At the same time, we take a firm stand against immoral cultural norms, against those who would teach what is not True, and against inappropriate behavior by other leaders.  The tension is intensified when having to make decisions about a staff member who is loved, who also needs to be held accountable to those high standards. 

Preachers find that they need to be strongly prophetic when proclaiming biblical moral standards, and in the very next moment pastoral when comforting and encouraging hurting people.  Too often preachers hear complaints about prophetic preaching being “judgmental,” and in the same breath that his pastoral presence is “soft on sin.” 

By the time Peter wrote his letters, (First and Second Peter), he seems to have learned a good sense of balance between these tensions.  

In his first letter, he encouraged those suffering under persecution, and appealed to elders to shepherd God’s flock, (1 Peter 3:8-22, 5:2).  Yet in his second letter he strongly condemned false teachers, (2 Peter 2:1-22).  Having such a proper balance on both sides of our call to lead is key.  That balance will help prevent short- and long-term consequences of favoring one over the other. 

None of us can strike that balance perfectly all the time.  Perhaps that is why Paul always insisted on a plurality of elders.  And the next time you feel that your calling is driving conflict in or around you, take courage that you are in good company.  Maybe it’s not full-on conflict in your calling, just a season of tension that, with the help of your Father and among brothers, will be managed well.

Weapons of Mass *Distraction*

by Dick Wamsley 

If there were any doubters that Apple would be able to attract buyers for their new iPhone X selling at $999, those doubts vanished when their most expensive phone ever was released on November 3rd.  They started selling out by the next day.  Over the weekend, resale prices began appearing on eBay and Craigslist ranging from $1,500 to $5,000! 

And so, yet another technical marvel is in the hands of consumers that some will find to be a valuable tool in their work, home and personal management.  For others it will become just another distraction that keeps them from fulfilling responsibilities in their work, home and personal management.  In some cases, it will be a distraction that leads to auto and pedestrian accidents, loss of productivity on the job and even deaths.  I heard one preacher refer to such technological gadgets as “weapons of mass distraction.” 

That led me to consider how weapons of mass distraction can make their way into the life of the church.  The latest and greatest outreach program that attracted people to Church A down the road is adopted in Church B without evaluating its appropriateness for them.  A church introduces an entirely new worship style with little education of the congregation as to why the change is being made.  A ministry staff member becomes a lightning rod of controversy that ends up dividing the loyalties of the congregation. 

These can become weapons of mass distraction that divert the energies of a church from pursuing its vision and fulfilling its mission.  What starts out as a minor distraction morphs into a weapon that blows up in the faces of the church’s leadership. 

In the letters of the Apostle Paul to the first century church in Corinth, several such distractions are cited and criticized.  (All of the following are in 1 Corinthians.)  There were quarrels among some church members as to whom they should follow: Paul, Apollos, Peter or Christ (1:11-12).  There was the distraction of sexual immorality by one of the members who “has his father’s wife,” (5:1).  Others were suing each other in civil courts (6:1-6).  There was controversy over Christians eating food that had been sacrificed to idols (all of chapter 8), divisiveness when sharing the Lord’s Supper (11:17-34), and the manifestation of spiritual gifts used during corporate worship (chapters 12-14).  

You talk about weapons of mass distraction!  There was a stockpile of them in the Corinthian church! 

Paul exerted his apostolic authority and gave specific instructions as to how to deal with each of these potential weapons of mass distraction, any one of which could explode into a church-splitting contention.  Part of Satan’s strategy to disrupt the impact of the church on its community is to turn what may begin as minor distractions into major disruptions.  Modern leaders in the church need to be on the alert for those distractions and take definitive, Biblically-based and Holy Spirit-led action to defuse them early.  Procrastination usually leads to an escalation of the dynamics involved in the distraction. 

Paul’s appeal for dealing with the divisions was that the church “agree with one another” and “be perfectly united in mind and thought,” (1:10).  To deal with the sexual immorality among them, he said they should have “been filled with grief” and “put out of [their] fellowship” the guilty man, (5:2).  To those who were suing one another in civil courts, he admonished them to appoint judges who were “wise enough to judge disputes among believers,” (6:4-5).  He gave similar definitive actions to take in dealing with eating food offered to idols, the divisiveness when observing the Lord’s supper, and the proper use of spiritual gifts during corporate worship. 

The key to neutralizing potential weapons of mass distraction is for the church’s leaders to be alert to those distractions as they arise in the church, interceding with biblical teaching and problem-solving actions to prevent those distractions from escalating into major disruptions.  Doing so will more likely result in people affirming what Paul said to the Corinthian church in his first line after the greeting; chapter 1, verse 4: “I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.”

Proclaiming His Death

by Dick Wamsley 

For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, 
you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 
1 Corinthians 11:26 NIV 

My friend, Greg, used that text for a communion meditation he shared recently.  He told a powerful story of how Christians living in a country that’s hostile toward the Church proclaim Jesus’ death through their participation in a uniquely daring communion service. 

Greg served for years with TCM International Institute at Haus Edelweiss, in Austria, where theological graduate students from countries in eastern Europe, Russia, the Middle East, and central Asia all converge for concentrated study.  One student told him about how the church he serves in one of those “closed countries” observes the Lord’s Supper each week. 

Adults of the church meet in various home for study and worship.  Children are sent to a different location.  If parents are caught teaching their children the Bible, those kids can be taken from them.  It’s illegal in this country for parents to “proselytize” their own children. 

At an appointed time, the adults all meet at a restaurant for a meal and to observe the Lord’s Supper together.  They may sit at several different tables, but the predetermined leader situates himself so that everyone in the group can see him.  After all have finished their meal, the leader picks up a piece of bread and bows his head in silent prayer.  Everyone knows what he’s doing, though nothing is said.  When he lifts his head, he eats the piece of bread.  Others at the various tables follow his lead.  Then he bows again in silent prayer.  Again, he lifts his head and will pick up a glass of wine, water, or whatever else he has to drink, and drinks.  Others follow in like manner.  No words are spoken.  No verbal acknowledgement is made of what they have just done.  But everyone at the tables knows they have just “proclaimed the Lord’s death.”  In fact, it’s the very reason they gather in a public place to observe the Lord’s Supper – to proclaim Jesus’ death even at the risk of being discovered.  

When I heard that story, I knew I had to share it with you, and it suggests the following questions of us: 

  • Do we, in this country, give as much special attention to the observance of the Lord’s Supper? 
  • Do we have a sense that we proclaim the Lord’s death each time we eat the bread and drink the cup? 
  • How do we help prepare Christ-followers to “participate” in the body and blood of Christ? (1 Corinthians 10:16) 

As leaders in the Church – specifically as elders – we are entrusted with overseeing the Church’s corporate worship experiences.  In a recent blog, Bob Russell wrote that the Lord’s Supper is “the most profound and effective memorial of any kind.”  If that’s true, then the way we lead the body of Christ in “proclaiming the Lord’s death” is critical.  It deserves more than just deciding the simple mechanics of how we will pass around bread and juice and how long it should take. 

Greg’s devotional thoughts drew me into the profound sacredness of the Lord’s Supper; that I was proclaiming our Lord Jesus’ death with other Christians around the world, some of them at risk of their own lives.  What a solemn moment that was!  What an extraordinary opportunity we have to lead others toward the foot the Cross, to “the throne of grace with confidence” (Hebrews 4:16). 

Influence

by Dick Wamsley 

During my senior year in Bible college, a professor took me aside after an Abnormal Psychology class one day and told me I had good insights into human behavior in class discussions.  He encouraged me to pursue studies in the field of psychology and pastoral counseling.  That informal encounter planted seeds of influence that led me to complete two masters degrees, one in pastoral counseling and one in student personnel work in higher education.  That same professor became a lifelong friend and confidant, who continued to influence me to pursue ministries I might not have considered otherwise.

Every Christian leader is a steward of influence.  If your life in any way connects with other people, you have a storehouse of influence to manage.  Jesus reminded his disciples that they were stewards of influence in his Sermon on the Mount: “You are the light of the world. … In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven,” (Matthew 5:14, 16). 

In his book, Stewardship of Life, author Kirk Nowery writes, “In essence, the stewardship of influence is the stewardship of relationships.  Your life may have an impact in some field of endeavor; but ultimately and most significantly, your influence affects other people.  And this is as it should be because it is what truly matters.  As a friend once told me with great intensity, ‘Kirk, only two things last forever – the Word of God, and the souls of human beings,’” (Nowery, Stewardship of Life, p. 36).

One way you can be a good steward of your influence is to live a life of godly character.  Everyone has character.  A leader with godly character will lead others to live godly lives.  J. Oswarld Sanders wrote “If those who hold influence over others fail to lead toward the spiritual uplands, then surely the path to the lowlands will be well worn,” (Sanders, Spiritual Leadership,  p. 19).

All around you are people who look to you as a role model.  They are watching what you do, listening to what you say, and following where you walk.  Every word you speak and every action you take has an impact on them.  Whether you realize it or not, you steward your influence by the way you live. 

You also steward your influence by the way you serve.  Dr. Dan Gerdes once told Pat Williams, the long-time Orlando Magic basketball team executive, that if you seek to influence the next generation use your influence “… to instill in young people the image of leading as a form of serving,” (Williams, The Difference You Make, pp. 57-58).  If you want to influence others, your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.  So take up the towel and become a servant.  

How are we stewarding our storehouses of influence?