From A Thief in the Night movies of the '70s and '80s to the more recent Left Behind book series, written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, the end- times story has come into the forefront of the imagination of the average churchgoer-and the average American.
More than 63 million copies in the aforementioned book series have been sold, with one in every eight Americans having read at least one Left Behind book. Even mainstream American entertainment has picked up on end-times terminology and culture. Movies (The Omen, The Seventh Sign, The Prophecy, The Rapture), books (The Stand, The Mask of Nostradamus) and music (“It's the End of the World As We Know It”) all borrow biblical phrases and imagery.
In fact, according to a 2001 Barna Group poll, 44 percent of American adults believed in a rapture. Those numbers fluctuated depending on church affiliation (71 percent of non-mainline Protestant organizations held to the belief while only 38 percent of mainline attendees did).
But how are theories on eschatology shifting in light of wars, natural disasters and epidemics? Is a younger generation embracing the end-times views of its forebears? And how does this renewed fascination with eschatology shape everyday ministry? Ministries Today sat down with some authors, pastors and scholars to explore what the future holds.
Eschatology is a heady topic-even for the most seasoned scholar. But, for many, their first introduction to end-time theories is prior to or immediately following conversion. In fact, one could argue that the threat of the immanent judgment of God is a useful motivation for becoming a Christian in the first place.
Truth be told, most of us have met at least one person who traces his or her conversion to reading the dire predictions of Hal Lindsey's 1970 book, The Late Great Planet Earth, or a tract created by Jack Chick. But some argue that fear tactics should not be the impetus behind evangelism.
“If our end-times talk is the good news being preached in all nations, then that will motivate us in a good way,” says Craig Keener, professor of New Testament Studies at Palmer Seminary and author of the NIV Application Commentary: Revelation. “The problem is that some people have used eschatology the way the world uses horoscopes, just to satisfy our curiosity about the future.” Paul Maier is professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University and author of More Than a Skeleton, a book that gently pokes fun at traditional dispensational eschatology and explores the possible reaction of the evangelical community if someone claiming to be Jesus suddenly appeared on earth. Maier discourages the use of eschatology for purposes of proselytizing.
“I think the core message is misplaced if we're constantly using the apocalyptic messages of the Bible for evangelical purposes,” he told Ministries Today.
Data suggest that apocalyptic events do have an impact, at least in the short term, on the public's sensitivity toward spiritual things. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Christian leaders celebrated a rise in church attendance, with Pat Robertson predicting, “one of the greatest revivals in the history of America.” The Gallup Organization chronicled a 6 percent rise in church attendance in the months following the attacks … which quickly dropped 5 percent.
Sigmund Brouwer, who co-authored the end-times themed The Last Disciple with Hank Hanegraaff, points to damage done by emotional end-times evangelism.
“Some Christians are happy to overlook false predictions made by church leaders who continuously revise the time-line of end-time prophecies,” Brouwer says.
“Again and again I hear of people who converted to Christianity a decade ago because they were told the end of the world was upon us, and who now doubt the entire Christian message because of specific failed prophecies made by church leaders.”
It doesn't help, argues Maier, when these stark visions of a wrathful God are juxtaposed with more tolerant portrayals that have recently become popular in mainstream entertainment.
“Let's say you have a seeker-someone who is now being affirmed in their unbelief by books like The Da Vinci Code,” Maier offers. “Is this person going to give any credibility to a God of the Left Behind series who zaps a Christian crew out of a plane and lets the plane crash?”
Jason Boyett is the author of the tongue-in-cheek Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse, a book aimed at helping 20-somethings understand the nuances of eschatology. Boyett argues that a pre-tribulation, rapture-focused Christianity is primarily numbers-focused in its evangelistic technique.
“It tends to place getting decisions for Christ above everything else,” he says. “The rapture can come at any moment, so the foremost duty of all Christians becomes an urgent commitment to evangelism. There is less focus on spiritual formation, discipleship, meeting the needs of the poor, being good stewards of the environment or concern about generations to come.”
But others argue that this imbalance is not a natural byproduct of a premillennial, pre-tribulation view of the end times.
“A believer on the lookout for Christ doesn't have to ignore the world,” says Greg Laurie, senior pastor of Riverside, California's, Harvest Christian Fellowship and author of the newly released Are We Living in the Last Days?
“It's been said a person could be so heavenly minded you're no earthly good, but, you can be so heavenly minded you can be earthly good,” he suggests. “If you really understand what the Scripture teaches about the imminence of the Lord's return, it isn't telling us to abandon our jobs and sit on rooftops but to be faithfully using the gifts God has given us.”
Laurie, who's been studying Bible prophecy for 30 years, says his end-times message is by far his “most responded to” message, prompting him to offer his views in the book.
“The Left Behind series opened the door to a whole new generation of people to look at what's going on in the world,” he says. “The authors would be the first to point out that they're taking certain liberties, but the core message is the same that Hal Lindsey wrote about years ago: The Lord could come back at any moment, there are signs of the times that have been fulfilled, and we need to be ready.”
Various interpretations of Scripture and prophecies have yielded several heightened moments of end-times focus. In 1988, Edgar Whisenant predicted Jesus' return during the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana in his booklet 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Is in 1988. More than 3.2 million copies of the booklet were distributed, bringing eschatological discussion into the national spotlight.
Subsequent prophecies have followed, revolving around the dawn of the 21st century and the feared Y2K computer meltdown. Even in the midst of natural disasters and global terrorism, the question could be asked: Is the church still seeing “the signs of the times”?
“A perceived uptick in catastrophic occurrences tends to set everyone's rapture-meter buzzing,” Boyett explains. “Of course, there have always been wars, famines, earthquakes, tsunamis. These days, we're infinitely more aware of them because of the Internet and the immediacy of the global media. Whether or not these things have actually increased in recent years, the perception is that they have.”
Looking for signs is yet another possible distraction for the church, says Keener, who believes some of those signs aren't as clear as believers may think.
“The things we see as signs are in Matthew 24, but it's very ironic that we're using that passage,” he says. “Jesus specifically refers to them and then says, 'You'll see these things, but the end is not yet.' In verse 14, He says, 'When the good news of the kingdom has been preached to all nations … and then the end will come.' Instead of fixing on the signs, we should be fixing on the mission. It's not to say these things aren't indications of God's working, but they're not the point that Jesus calls us to focus on.”
Jill Austin, prophetic minister and author of the Master Potter book series, does feel the signs are everywhere and should engage the church to a greater awareness of Jesus' return.
“I feel the signs of the times, the birth pains, are getting closer,” Austin states. “We are in war, we're in global shakings. The church is in a radical transition right now. Different dictators are being taken out. There are holy alliances, and we are moving into an escalation of a real shaking. Everyone knows, even in the world, that the Lord is returning soon.”
But for Austin, these signs are not an impetus toward eschatological speculation or an escape clause, but a call toward spiritual warfare.
“I feel like if you want to be a history changer, you need to have a radical God encounter,” she says. “He gives you the power to change cities and strategies. It's having this living radical encounter with your life.”
Like Austin's call to prayer, there are points of agreement prophecy scholars can reach, giving some common ground to the end-times discussion.
“I believe all Christians should believe we are living in the last days,” Maier says. “When the church loses sight of Jesus' return, it gets lazy.”
Laurie is quick to address the potential divisiveness of the issue and his hope for a healthy discourse: “I don't think we as Christians should break fellowship over our views on this topic. A healthy discussion and debate is good, but I think most evangelical believers believe Christ is coming soon.”
The timing of Christ's second coming is the main point of disagreement for many evangelicals, who hold views as divergent as premillennialism (the belief that Jesus will return before a literal 1,000-year reign) and preterism (the belief that all Bible prophecies-including those concerning the second coming-were fulfilled before A.D. 70). With such diversity, what is there to agree on?
“As Christians holding different views, we all can agree on some of the insights of each of these views,” Keener says. “Christ reigns now and helps us to make a big difference in this world. In this world we have tribulation, and we must be ready to lay down our lives for our Lord. Our glorious hope is our Lord's return, and we must live our lives in expectation of that return.”
The view of a pre-tribulation rapture of believers is one that some scholars point out is virtually still “new” and only took hold with the non-mainline Protestant churches in the 19th and 20th centuries. If the emerging church continues to examine and study its beliefs in light of Scripture and not necessarily tradition, Keener says another theological shift might be in order.
“I was taught the 'pre-trib' view, and it was probably the most decisive issue that turned me toward reading and studying Scripture,” he says. “I was told that you have to believe this because all the great men of God believed it, but then I found out a few months later, nobody in church history, Luther, Calvin, John Wesley, nobody believed in that doctrine until 1830. I can't just say this is what everybody believes. I needed to find out for myself.”
There is some indication that this tendency toward self-study is a characteristic of younger evangelicals, many of whom resist both end-times speculation and adopting any one view of eschatology.
“Fueled by postmodernism, open-mindedness and the more conversational, less dogmatic theology of the emergent church-I believe the next generation will be much less apocalyptic in tone,” Boyett argues. “Less interested in reading Revelation as a scriptural play-by-play of the last days and more concerned with understanding it in terms of its place in the culture.”
There's nothing like unfulfilled end-times predictions to teach us that no one knows the day or the hour of Christ's return.
SOURCE: Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse, by Jason Boyett (RelevantBooks)
Not only have megachurches captured the attention of the evangelical community, but they've become a force to be reckoned with in the wider culture. Their pastors provide counsel to presidents, their congregations are courted by legislators and their resources are harnessed for civic functions and during natural disasters.
In 1960 there were 16 churches in America with attendance of more than 2,000. Now, fewer than 50 years later, there are 1,210 such churches—nearly twice as many as there were five years ago.
Not only have megachurches captured the attention of the evangelical community, but they've become a force to be reckoned with in the wider culture. Their pastors provide counsel to presidents, their congregations are courted by legislators and their resources are harnessed for civic functions and during natural disasters.
In 2005, four megachurch pastors had books on The New York Times bestseller list, and one of these books (Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life) has become the best-selling hardcover non-fiction book in U.S. history.
The attention these churches and their pastors generate is not entirely flattering. In an interview in the Feb. 22 edition of Australia's The Age, World Council of Churches General Secretary Samuel Kobia describes megachurches as "two miles long and one inch deep." The decision of several prominent megachurches to cancel services on Christmas day drew the ire of American evangelicals and became fodder for discussion on secular newscasts. Books from Os Guinness' 1993 Dining With the Devil to this year's Left Behind in a Megachurch World by church historian Ruth Tucker and O Shepherd, Where Art Thou? by seminary professor Calvin Miller have criticized what they see as the commercialization, materialism or shallow theology perpetuated by megachurches.
In almost schizophrenic fashion, American evangelicals have been quick to either uncritically embrace the numeric success of megachurches as a sign of spiritual renewal ... or cynically attribute it to cultural compromise. But the truth may be somewhat less obvious, as recent research would suggest.
Released February 3, Megachurches Today 2005 is a research study of more than 1,800 churches conducted by the Dallas-based Leadership Network and Hartford (Connecticut) Seminary's Institute for Religion Research (HIRR). The study follows on the heels of the 2000 Faith Communities Today study conducted by HIRR and reveals shifts in the growth patterns, geographical distribution and ministry dynamics of America's largest churches. In the course of the research, key characteristics of megachurches distilled—often corresponding with commonly-held myths surrounding the growth, leadership and activities of megachurches. Ministry Today got a sneak-peak at the study shortly before its release and had a chance to talk with the researchers behind it. Here's what we discovered:MythOne
All megachurches are alike.
There are several characteristics that most megachurches possess—well-educated pastors, youthful attendees and conservative politics, according to Megachurches Today 2005. (As expected, only two percent of megachurches describe themselves as politically "liberal.") In fact, the study notes that they often "have more in common with each other than they do with smaller churches."
However, the monolithic stereotype of the suburban, white, theologically "vanilla", newly-established megachurch may need to be adjusted. For instance, while many churches have earned the status of "mega" in recent years—giving the impression that large churches are sprouting in places where there were none to begin with—the median year that these churches were founded is 1965.
Diversity most vividly shows in the worship styles of megachurches—60 percent of which claim they have changed the style of their services "some" or "a lot" in the past five years. Increasing accessibility and openness to using technology has led to implementation of multimedia aids such as video projection, increasing from 65 percent in 2000 to 91 percent in 2005.
But nowhere is this diversity seen more than in music styles, where, in the past five years, the use of traditional instruments such as pianos and organs has declined and the use of drums, bass and electric guitars increased to 80 percent. This trend in itself is intriguing—particularly in light of the fact that the percentage of megachurches that identify themselves as charismatic or Pentecostal has declined from 25 percent in 2000 to 16 percent in 2005.
Geographically, megachurches are most prevalent in the Sunbelt, with California leading the pack as the state with the most megachurches (178), followed by Texas (157), Florida (85) and Georgia (73). With the exception of Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming, every state has at least one church with more than 2,000 members.
In spite of these apparent regional concentrations of megachurches Scott Thumma, professor of sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary, as well as a researcher on the Megachurches Today 2005 study, believes that a geographical "decentering" is occurring.
"I fully expect to see more megachurches in New England, in the midsection and up the northwest coast of the U.S.," he notes.MythTwo
Megachurches are fixated on raising and spending money.
The average megachurch brings in about $6 million per year in income, with expenditures at $5.6 million. This can give the impression that megachurches spend a lot of time raising money to support burgeoning staffs, buildings and programs.
However, according to the survey, fundraising ranked lowest on a list of activities that respondents viewed as important—behind study groups, religious education, prayer, pastoral care, evangelism, music, fellowship and social service.
Perhaps one of the reasons for this lack of pressure is the relative ease with which megachurches attract volunteer labor. The study noted these churches employ an average of 20 full-time, paid leadership staff positions and nine part-time positions—in addition to 22 full-time and 15 part-time administrative support staff positions.
However, megachurches manage to engage the labors of an average of 284 volunteers, who each donate five or more hours a week to church work—a ratio of 10 attendees to one staff or volunteer.MythThree
Megachurches all meet in cavernous sanctuaries on enormous campuses.
In the age of sky-high real estate prices and building-supply costs, large churches must sometimes improvise to accommodate growth. In the Faith Communities Today 2000 study, a majority of respondents felt they had "insufficient building space for many areas of their ministries," and this trend has only become more noticeable in the past five years.
For instance, the average attendance at a megachurch in 2005 is 3,585, but the average seating capacity is only 1,400. (In fact, only five percent of megachurches have sanctuaries of 3,000 seats or more.) As a result, 97 percent of megachurches hold multiple worship services, and five percent hold nine or more each weekend.
Another way this disparity in congregation size and seating capacity is remedied is through satellite locations. At least 50 percent of megachurches use a combination of multiple venues and satellite locations to accommodate growth.
A recent book on this trend, The Multi-Site Church Revolution (by Geoff Surratt, Greg Ligon and Warren Bird) predicts that 30,000 American churches will be multi-site within the next few years. The authors suggest this phenomenon is driven just as much by missiological goals as it is practical constraints and cite churches as small as 30 that have launched satellite congregations.
In a recent interview with Ministry Today, Bird (who was also one of the researchers in the Megachurches Today 2005 study) noted one of these missiological goals is more effectively reaching youth and teens.
"Many new megachurch facilities are smaller in worship capacity but proportionately bigger in their children's and youth facilities," he says. "For example, consider Christ's Church of the Valley, Peoria, Ariz. [www.ccvonline.com]. Eleven thousand worship on a typical weekend, and the sanctuary—which seats 2,800—is well-designed and wired for all kinds of media. Yet the bigger square footage and expense has gone to the facilities used for children and youth."MythFour
Megachurches exist for spectator worship and are not serious about personal devotion or theological depth.
Because of their size—and the multiple services that most offer on any given weekend—megachurches must painstakingly plan each aspect of their services for efficiency and consistency. Arguably, this level of routine could constrict the flow of authentic ministry on any given Sunday and give congregants the impression that they are merely spectators at an entertainment event.
However, 78 percent of survey respondents described their congregations as holding "strong beliefs and values," and the study noted that practices such as personal Bible study, prayer, tithing and family devotions are emphasized by the church as important aspects of the Christian faith.
Perhaps nowhere is the personal devotion of megachurch attendees more evident than in their propensity to invite friends, neighbors and family members to church with them. 58 percent of megachurches report that evangelism and recruiting is a key emphasis of their ministry. Although megachurches harness mailing lists, TV advertising, newsletters and events to draw new congregants, their most effective method is to encourage members to invite others to services.
When it comes to theology, megachurches are sometimes described as shallow in their approach—with sermons focusing on practical topics often beginning with "How to ..." rather than theological exposition. Warren Bird cautions against the universalization of this stereotype, however.
"In some camps of the seeker model this statement might be true, but the major trend in megachurches is toward life application of Bible truths," he notes. "Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill in Seattle [www.marshillchurch.org] and John Piper at Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis [www.bbcmpls.org]—and many old line denominational churches—are almost entirely theological in their teaching."MythFive
Megachurches are nondenominational.
The majority (66 percent) of megachurches are denominational in connection, although, whether because of their nondescript names or their styles of worship, many are not easily identified with these denominations. The most represented denomination is the Southern Baptist Convention, claiming 16 percent of America's megachurches.
However, Megachurches Today suggests there is a subtle shift toward megachurches being nondenominational in affiliation, noting that "megachurches founded since 1991 are more likely to be nondenominational and less likely to describe their congregation as traditional, moderate, Pentecostal or charismatic." Younger megachurches gravitate away from the use of labels in general—preferring the more general moniker of "evangelical."
Warren Bird notes several exceptions to this rule.
"New Hope Fellowship, Honolulu, pastored by Wayne Cordeiro is an exception in that their literature and Website clearly proclaims their Foursquare connection. But even they didn't put 'Foursquare' in their church name," he points out. "Charismatic and Pentecostal churches tend not to play down their denominational connection too much, although some newer ones, such as Matthew Barnett's Dream Center [www.dreamcenter.org] and Angelus Temple [www.angelustemple.org] in Los Angeles, are leaving the denominational connection out of their name."
While it is clear that some megachurches downplay their denominational affiliation (the 2000 survey showed only a third said they expressed their denominational heritage very or quite well), very few changed affiliation (three percent in the last five years) or became independent (three percent since 2000).
They predict that, although a few churches may leave their denomination in the next few years, more will either drop the denominational label in favor of a more generic name, or form a quasi-denominational network of like minded churches. Twenty-two percent of megachurches have already done so. Further pointing to this trend toward independence, 37 percent of the megachurches surveyed say they helped plant at least one new congregation in the past five years.
"We are definitely seeing a renaissance of church planting by megachurches, both locally and internationally," notes Leadership Network vice president, Dave Travis.MythSix
Megachurches grow primarily because of great programming and transfer growth from other churches.
While some would argue these congregations just happened to sprout in the right place at the right time—or even embraced some form of compromise or "secret formula" to ensure growth, researchers note that such formulas don't guarantee success:
"Almost none of the many evangelistic programs and efforts (such as advertising, creating recruitment plans, sponsoring visitor events, contacting persons new to the community or actually contacting persons after they visited the church) we tested had a strong influence on the variable growth rates of these megachurches." Instead, they cite spiritual vitality, adaptation to change, clear mission, youthfulness of the congregation and the tendency of megachurch congregants to tell others about their experiences at church. (They also noted the use of electric guitars and drums is also a factor.)
The common denominator among the fastest-growing megachurches is the extent at which members are involved in recruiting new members. 64.7 percent of those churches that experienced more than 100 percent growth in the last five years say that a lot of their members were "heavily involved."
But are these new congregants being stolen from less dominant and successful churches? Some are.
"The transfers that come from other local churches typically come from churches of all sizes, big and small," Bird notes. "When a church grows past about 400 in attendance, it often becomes what [church-growth consultant] Carl George calls a 'feeder-receptor' church. That is, whether it likes it or not, it becomes a magnet for transfer growth because it usually sports the biggest youth group around or the most 'happening' singles group around. As a result, the larger a church grows, the more intentional it has to be about reaching lost and unchurched people; otherwise the transfer-growth factor can be awkwardly high."
Travis cites reasons people will transfer to a megachurch (e.g., major life change, church strife in the previous church attended, attendance of other family members—even if one is not thrilled with the music) and reasons they never would leave to attend a megachurch (e.g., membership and active participation at the same congregation for more than 10 years, regular giving, deep affection for the fellow attendees and leaders, satisfaction with one's spiritual growth and the likelihood that your children and grandchildren would not want to attend this same congregation.)
"Most church transfers occur because people have opted out of their previous church, and no one chased after them," Travis notes. "It was dropping out and then eventually reconnecting with another church at a later time."
Additionally, dramatic growth can be connected with senior pastoral leadership: 83 percent of churches tracked their most dramatic growth during the tenure of the current senior pastor.
Perhaps less predictable is the connection between the senior pastor's education and the rate of growth. Megachurch pastors are generally more highly-educated than pastors in smaller churches. Thirty-five percent possess a D.Min. or Ph.D., and only eight percent have not completed a college degree.
However, the study noted that "as the education levels of pastors decrease, the rates of growth of these churches increase. ... It raises interesting questions about the mentoring of young pastors and the role of seminaries in producing clergy to fill these very large congregations."
"Today's culture values leaders who are proven doers more than leaders with appropriate educational credentials," Dave Travis notes. "If a pastor can preach and lead in credible ways, and is a lifelong learner, most folks don't care about titles or level of formal education."
Thumma points out this phenomenon may coincide with the prevalence of nondenominational megachurches—many of which do not have educational requirements for their pastors.
"These pastors do not have a pattern of going to seminary," he notes. "They're much more likely to become a pastor through mentoring with another megachurch pastor—their real training is at the feet of their fathers."
So, what does the future hold for America's megachurches? Experts point to an increasing interest in church planting, as well as a growing commitment to education and leadership training—particularly in the customized and resource-rich environment that a megachurch affords.
"An increasing number of megachurches are training the next generation of pastors," Bird notes, citing The Vineyard Columbus [www.vineyardcolumbus.org], a congregation that houses Vineyard Leadership Institute, a center responsible for training Vineyard pastors across the country. "Some become an extension site for a seminary, while others become their own program."
Ultimately, as Thumma notes, megachurches are a product of their times. The urbanization and customization of American culture that has provided a fertile environment for Wal-Mart and the Internet has also been a nursery for our largest churches.
"There's a tendency to think of megachurches as a unique phenomenon—a result of God's blessing or revival. This is a religious interpretation of what I see as a social phenomenon," he says. "But we should also be exploring how megachurches reflect and represent what's going on in culture and society in general."
I feel as called to write as I do to pastor, but my writing dream took a lot longer to fulfill. In fact, there were moments when I wished God hadn't even given me the passion to write because the dream was like a pebble in my shoe, a constant source of irritation and frustration. The longer I went without turning that dream into reality, the longer the shadow it cast on the rest of my life.
Then in 2002 I took one small step in the "write" direction. I started turning my weekend messages into an Evotional that I sent out via e-mail to subscribers. That weekly exercise forced the writing habit. And it proved to be an important part of my digital ministry. Exponentially more people read my Evotionals than listen to my messages.
The next step in my writing journey was self-publishing my first book, ID: The True You, with Xulon Press (xulonpress.com). The driving motivation was proving to myself that I could actually write a book. I self-imposed a deadline, invested $1,500 into the project and the book was released in November of 2004.
I wish I could tell you that ID was a New York Times bestseller. It wasn't. In fact, it sold 57 copies its first month in print. My first royalty check was a whopping $110.43.
Let's just say that I didn't start making early retirement plans!
Shortly after ID was listed on Amazon.com, I decided to get a little more proactive in pursuing my writing dream. I started working on another manuscript that I titled In a Pit With a Lion on a Snowy Day. I started praying for favor with publishers. I e-mailed my friend Brian McLaren and asked if we could grab lunch.
Brian is the author of several paradigm-shifting books including A New Kind of Christian. I asked him a thousand questions about publishing, and he was patient enough to answer all of them. Then he went the extra mile and introduced me to an author agent named John Eames. John and I had several conversations. He liked my writing style. I liked his experience and expertise within the publishing industry. And I signed John as my agent.
After helping me craft a book proposal, John began shopping it to seven publishers that he thought would be a good fit. Several publishers expressed interest, but a five-hour meeting with Kevin Marks and David Koop from Multnomah Publishers sealed the deal.
One thing they said impressed me: They said they weren't looking for an author. They were looking for a relationship. I felt like they "got me" and I "got them." And I respected their team of authors that included the likes of Andy Stanley, Louie Giglio and Bruce Wilkinson. After three months of conversational negotiating, I signed a deal to write four books over a two-year span.
As I look in the rearview mirror, I have several observations about my writing journey. I can see the way God answered my prayers for favor. I can see how perseverance eventually pays off. But the thing I marvel at the most are the supernatural synchronicities.
God is in the business of making sure we meet the right people at the right time. My book deal was the byproduct of divine networking and divine timing. And if God has called you to write, then He'll open the right doors at the right time.
I'm not going to lie. Writing, editing and marketing a book is hard work. It involves a lot of early mornings and late nights. And it won't simplify your life. But the last time I checked, the reward for good work in the parable of the talents wasn't an early retirement or extended vacation. The reward for good work was more work.
If you're not called to write then don't write. But if you are called to write, then you need to develop a writing discipline. And pastors have a distinct advantage. You're already writing a sermon every week. And with a little tweaking, you can convert that message into a chapter of a book. For what it's worth, my mentor in ministry, Dick Foth, once told me that the average pastor of a church with three weekly services preaches the equivalent of nine novels every year!
Writing will not only expand your sphere of influence, but the primary beneficiary will be your congregation. Writing books will help you preach better sermons. Your books will become discipleship resources for small groups and sermon series. And I even view my books as 200-page evangelism tracts. They are one way I share my faith with neighbors, unchurched friends and people sitting next to me on airplanes. I have no idea what my writing future holds. I hope In a Pit With a Lion on a Snowy Day sells more than 57 copies its first month, but I can't control how many books I sell. Only God knows what will happen when the book is released on October 2. All I can do is write like it depends on me and pray like it depends on God.
Here are seven writing tips for aspiring authors that I picked up along the way:
Write for intrinsic reasons. If you write for the wrong reasons your dream will short-circuit. I often ask rookie authors if they are willing to write a book even if it doesn't sell one copy. That is the litmus test because it reveals whether they are writing for extrinsic reasons or intrinsic reasons.
Writing for intrinsic reasons is like singing in the shower. You write, first and foremost, because you love to write. In fact, you can't not write because you feel called to write. Every author who believes in what they write wants to sell as many books as possible, but that can't be the driving motivation. Don't write because you want people to read. Write because you've got something you have to say.
Find a writing rhythm. Half of writing is rhyme. The other half is rhythm. My peak writing hours are 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. In fact, I get more accomplished before my official workday starts than I do the rest of the day. I hit a point of diminishing return around noon. My mind is too cluttered to write straight. I also find that sometimes I need to walk away from whatever I'm writing for 24 hours to regain my perspective.
Keep reading. Writers are readers. I read approximately 150 books per year. Granted, I have an unfair advantage as a preacher, because I slot about 25 hours of study time per week. But I've also learned to be a good steward of my time. I have a book with me wherever I go. And the truth is that everybody could read at least one book a month if they simply kept a book in their bathroom.
Find your voice. Writing a book is baring your soul. You feel intellectually and spiritually vulnerable. Writing forces you to come to terms with who you are and who you aren't. Unfortunately, many authors hide behind their words. You don't feel like you know them any better at the end of the book than you did at the beginning. I try to write as if I'm having a conversation with someone over coffee. Keep it real. Keep it personal. Don't just share your thoughts. Share your life.
C.S. Lewis said that every life consists of a few themes. Finding your voice is giving expression to those themes—your core convictions and core passions. Write about the things you're passionate about. And dare to be different. Don't be afraid to express your personality and originality in what you write.
Know your writing strengths. Writers need editors because all of us have blind spots. A good editor understands an author's weakness and complements an author's strengths. I know my strength is saying old things in new ways. I juxtapose truth in creative ways. I'm insatiably interested in everything, so I import knowledge from a variety of disciplines—everything from physics to business to philosophy to neurology—to add density and variety to my writing.
I'm good at conceptualizing truth in creative ways, but my weakness is application. And I recognize that in my own writing and preaching. I'm a 30,000-foot thinker. I tend to fly circles around the airport, so I need editors who help me come in for a practical landing.
Tie off the umbilical cord. I'm a perfectionist by nature. I will keep revising a manuscript 'til kingdom come if I don't have a deadline, but at some point you have to tie off the umbilical cord so a book can take on a life of its own.
According to Parkinson's Law, the amount of time it takes you to complete a project depends on how much time you have allotted. If you have a month, it'll take a month. If you have six months, it'll take six months. One way that I've overcome my perfectionism and procrastination is the 80-percent rule. I send my chapters to my editors when I feel like I'm 80 percent of the way there. It relieves some of the pressure I feel to make sure every chapter is perfect.
Pray like it depends on God. We have a core value at NCC: work like it depends on you, and pray like it depends on God. That is a pretty good modus operandi when it comes to writing. Writing is hard work. There is no way around it. But prayer is what helps a book come to full-term.
I actually had a prayer team that was interceding for me while I was writing In a Pit With a Lion on a Snowy Day. The prayer team prayed for every person who would pick up the book and read it. They prayed for my editors. And they prayed that I would write exactly what God wanted me to say. Those prayers give me a sense of destiny. I can't wait to see the way God answers those prayers in the lives of readers.
As pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Haggard was a committed charismatic, who reflected the respect Spirit-filled believers are being granted in wider evangelical circles.
But he was also a deeply flawed man, who hid a dark secret none of us could have imagined. His fall from grace raises the same questions that surface whenever the hidden failures of a high-profile leader are made public.
Although even the most elaborate accountability processes can be circumvented, could this situation have been avoided? Are there patterns of behavior that should serve as warning signs to church leaders and their congregations? Are the "superstar" positions of power and influence that characterize 21st-century evangelicalism too much for any man or woman to handle without cracking under the pressure and succumbing to their worst flaws? How does the church regain credibility when its own spokespeople seem to be strangely vulnerable to the very sins that it so vigorously condemns?
In the days following Haggard's admission and removal from leadership, Ministry Today talked with some of the leaders involved—as well as others who have navigated the waters of failure, discipline and restoration. Although many were unable to go on the record with more details than have already been covered ad nauseam in the media, several key observations distill that demand a shift in the way we deal with prevention, discipline and restoration in the wake of a moral failure.
At a time when some Christian organizations possess influence and notoriety on a level with Fortune 500 companies, the days of family-run ministries with secretive policies and no outside accountability have officially run their course. If anything, the Haggard scandal revealed the necessity of efficient, open processes of addressing ethical and moral accusations.
Perhaps wearied of denials and top-secret investigations that last for months with no substantive conclusion, commentators in the media seemed almost incredulous with how quickly the wheels of truth began to turn when allegations about Haggard first broke.
Within 72 hours, a megachurch pastor and one of the most influential evangelicals in America was exposed, unseated and placed in restoration. The bottom line? Every leader, no matter how powerful, should serve at the behest of an independent board of directors that has the power and fortitude to act quickly and decisively.
Unfortunately, the oversight for many prominent churches and ministries is left in the hands of employees and family members, leaving an organization vulnerable to accusation with no independent means of clearing its reputation.
For instance, in 1998, when a former Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) employee threatened to go public with his claim to have had a homosexual relationship with TBN founder Paul Crouch, rather than have the TBN board (composed of Paul, his wife, Jan, and his son Paul Jr.) investigate the claim and clear his name, Crouch paid the accuser $425,000 in hush money. Unfortunately, when the money ran out, the accuser came back in 2004 asking for $10 million more. When he didn't get it, he took his story to the Los Angeles Times.
For members of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), this is a non-issue. The ECFA has stringent requirements for entry—one of which is that "every member organization shall be governed by a responsible board of not less than five individuals, a majority of whom shall be independent, which shall meet at least semiannually to establish policy and review its accomplishments."
Although some leaders Ministry Today spoke with cited the stringent and costly membership standards of the ECFA, one need not join the ECFA to enjoy a comparable level of security and accountability. Any ministry could create its own structure of accountability by appointing an outside board and making its financial activities public.
Although not a member of ECFA, New Life Church had policies written into its bylaws, prescribing a process of investigation and, if necessary, discipline in the event that allegations were made against the church's leadership.
Thomas Gehring is a Los Angeles-based attorney for several megachurches and national ministries. Also the founder of Concilium, a dispute resolution service, he notes that, although state laws usually require a nonprofit organization to be governed by an independent board (no more than 49 percent family members, employees and so on), these same laws do not apply to churches.
However, Gehring emphasizes the importance of an independent board to the ministries he counsels and dispels the myth that such a board puts a crimp on the effectiveness of a visionary leader.
"I've seen an independent board actually help a ministry grow. It's an integral part of church government and church growth," he explains. "The talent that you can bring to a board is just phenomenal."
Regardless of the legal loopholes that allow churches to avoid having an independent board, Gehring points out that the public has high expectations of churches and religious organizations.
"The government, judges and juries expect you as a religious organization to take the high road," he contends. "You're supposed to do even better than just adhering to the law."
These internal policies are worthwhile, not just for ethical reasons, but for legal protection, as Pasadena, California, pastor Ché Ahn discovered. Ahn leads Harvest Rock Church and is the founder of Harvest International Ministry (HIM), a network of 4,960 churches in 32 nations. In 2004, Ahn was faced with a crisis when one of the pastors he oversaw was exposed in ongoing homosexual behavior. When HIM attempted a process of discipline, the organization was sued.
"The sad thing was that the lawsuit essentially short-circuited the restoration process," he notes, "because we had to delegate it to someone else."
The incident prompted Ahn and his team of 23 apostles to tighten up restrictions for membership and ongoing accountability. New applicants for HIM membership must now complete a form drafted by an attorney clearly stating that HIM has the right to exercise discipline in the event of sexual immorality, financial impropriety or doctrinal heresy.
As Ahn discovered, when a ministry's bylaws do not account for potentialities such as moral failure, that ministry is at the mercy of the offending party, who may see an opportunity to drag an organization into a costly and demoralizing court battle. In the current litigious climate, churches are not immune to the attacks of predatory lawyers and embittered constituents, and ministries would do well to re-examine their policies for hiring, firing and disciplining employees.
But some leaders point out that these mechanistic policies—although worthwhile—do not address the root causes of sexual failure that lead to such disciplinary problems in the first place.
"The church has fallen into a false naivete," says Doug Weiss, an author and counselor specializing in sex addiction. "We're still holding pastors to a 17th-century standard of purity, while they're living in a culture of immorality."
Increasingly isolated ministers in an increasingly sexualized culture is a volatile combination, Weiss argues.
"Ministers tend to get caught before they actually admit to sexual addiction," he notes. "And we have not dealt with increasing problems of this among our leaders much better than the Catholic Church and its abuse scandals. Instead, we should be dealing with sexual sin when its small—before it leads to death."
The founder of Heart to Heart Counseling Center in Colorado Springs, Weiss attends New Life Church and is involved in Haggard's restoration process, but he declined to comment on the specifics of the process for reasons of confidentiality. However, he regularly consults with ministers battling sex addiction—as well as the churches they serve—and contends that as many as 50 percent of Christian men are sex addicts in some form or another.
Weiss' solution? Lie detector tests. The psychologist recommends that churches administer them to employees annually as a further incentive to keep pastors and church leaders pure. According to Weiss, sex addicts will not apply for positions that require polygraphs, for fear of being exposed. Additionally, polygraphs help churches effectively restore and monitor staff members struggling with sex addiction.
"If the church is sued for the sexual problems of a staff member, this allows churches to legitimately say to the public, 'We've done our due diligence,'" Weiss notes. "If evangelicals do not decide to be proactive about our leaders and the issue of sex addiction, and perform due diligence in whom we hire as ministers of the gospel, there is a legitimate concern that God will have lawyers help us do so."
Weiss admits that some see polygraph tests as merely a mechanism for changing behavior, not for transforming the hearts of sex addicts, In response, he cites Numbers 5:11-30 in which God instructs the Israelites on how to determine the guilt or innocence of a suspected adulteress by having her drink a potion of water and altar ashes. Sometimes its these practical measures that protect us from spiritual downfalls, he argues.
"Spiritual people fall every day. In Revelation and in 1 Corinthians, there were people who were loving the Lord and people who were immoral, martyrs and sinners side by side," he explains. "The polygraph helps kill the flesh."
As far as concerns about the reliability of polygraph tests, Weiss quips, "They are 98 percent reliable—100 percent more reliable than most sex addicts I know."
Although polygraphs can serve as an effective preventative measure against sexual sin, Weiss notes that our individualistic models of ministry are essentially a breeding ground for immoral conduct.
"Jesus sent the disciples out two by two," Weiss points out, noting that this was probably not just for reasons of friendship or camaraderie, but also for protection against sin. "That was a good policy—not one that suspects everyone is guilty, but one that protects them from becoming so."
As a useful guideline, Ahn cites the "Modesto Manifesto," a document Billy Graham and his team of evangelists drafted in 1948 addressing the dangers of sexual immorality, criticism of local churches and exaggerated publicity. One well-known guideline in the manifesto required Graham to be accompanied at all times by a fellow male minister, to protect from accusation and ensure accountability.
"However, no matter what systems you've set up, you can find loopholes," Ahn notes. "Even if you travel with someone or someone always knows where you are. The real issue is the root issue of the heart. The root cause is pride, arrogance, thinking we're above this."
If anything, the Haggard fall illustrates that every pastor needs someone to whom he can tell his darkest secrets, his most destructive inclinations, his most painful failures. It is in the shadows of secrecy that we are vulnerable to our own depravity—secrecy that is often cultivated by the distance our positions create.
Although he has no means of enforcing it in HIM, Ahn encourages leaders in his network to have at least one person with whom they can have total freedom—a confessor. Ahn emphasizes that these voluntary decisions to be accountable must be made when someone is less prominent, less successful and has less to lose.
For many pastors, this level of transparency is essentially nonexistent, as a July 10, 2006 Barna Group study reveals. Sixty-one percent of pastors say they have no close personal friends. Simultaneously, the survey reveals that "one-sixth of today's pastors feel under-appreciated. Pastors also deal with family problems: one in every five contends that they are currently 'dealing with a very difficult family situation.' "
Many argue that this combination of isolation and deep spiritual and family challenges so common in church leaders is essentially a recipe for disaster. The only solution: deliberate, voluntary, relational transparency.
In the sidebar " 'I Was There' " (page 24) former Pentecostal pastor Nate Larkin reinforces this principle of mutual transparency in an autobiographical account of his own sexual failure in the mid-'80s and the subsequent decades of recovery.
"This is what I have had with another brother for 27 years," Ahn notes. "We share everything, from when we slip and watch something on television we shouldn't to blowing it with masturbation. It's that kind of transparency that we need to have with someone else."
With the exception of Haggard's family, no one felt the pain of his failure more than the New Life Church family, who endured the probing questions of media and neighbors wondering how they could put faith in such a flawed person.
Ministry Today recently talked with Steven Todd, a former pastor, New Life member and executive director of special projects for Africa Ministries Network, a missions organization with offices in Colorado Springs.
Todd is hopeful that the church will recover from the blow of Haggard's failure, citing the swiftness and finality with which Louisiana pastor Larry Stockstill and others on the board of overseers dealt with the accusations.
"It saved the church from weeks of 'he said she said' and a growing polarization of sides—perhaps those who would have been 'pro-Ted' and those against him," he explains, describing the discipline process as an "amputation," a drastic act bringing health to the congregation.
In hindsight, Todd admits that Haggard's notoriety placed undue strain on the congregation—and on Haggard himself.
"Lots of us began to tire just a bit from the constant presence of TV cameras in the sanctuary from CNN and other news outlets," he notes. "But quite frankly, Ted seemed to be handling it in stride. A joke around the church prior to the fall was, 'What is the acronym for Attention Deficit Disorder? Answer: TED.'"
In the weeks following the crisis, Todd notes that the church staff at New Life has been proactive about communicating with New Life's hundreds of small groups, providing them with information as it becomes available and encouraging discussion and healing. While no church can be entirely prepared for the implosion of its leader, Todd emphasizes the benefit of strong structures and decisive action when such a failure occurs.
"The key to all this has been honesty—from the leadership, in particular," he explains. "We can't shove it under the carpet or blame the devil. We have to face it head on. The presence of the overseer board, particularly Larry Stockstill, is extremely significant. We felt that we were not 'alone' and it provided a ballast for the congregation."
A RENEWED VOICE
Admittedly, the failure of Haggard was a tough blow to those who appreciated the fresh manner in which he engaged political leaders in the White House and on Capitol Hill. Haggard avoided the combative rhetoric that characterized conservative Christianity for the last 25 years, and he was frequently quoted in national media as the voice of American evangelicalism. In retrospect, perhaps we put all our eggs in one basket.
Joel Hunter, pastor of Northland, A Church Distributed, in the Orlando, Florida, area, serves on the board of directors of the NAE. He notes that this tendency to let someone else speak on our behalf is natural—and biblical—but that it does not negate the responsibility of local leaders and individuals to initiate direct communication with their representatives.
"We will always appreciate and look for a natural leader or spokespersons," he notes. "Teams and individuals do not replace the need for a go-to leader. Nowhere in the Old or New Testaments was much progress made without a leader stepping up to the task."
At the same time, some have suggested that Haggard's prominence was something of an anomaly created by the convergence of an evangelical in the White House, a Republican Congress, a war with Islamic extremists and the growth of the megachurch movement—phenomena that may be drawing to a close with the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006 and the election of a new president in 2008. With this in mind, Haggard's departure reinforces the need for a variety of voices—each emphasizing different biblical concerns.
"The voices will become more sophisticated and focused, not unlike how the major channels have given way to the cable competition. There is not only FOX News, but also the History Channel, movie channels and so on," Hunter predicts. "So there will be different groups of Christians more focused on specific concerns. But what will not change is the requirement for a biblical basis for our voices and votes."
For better or for worse, the shepherding of this voice is ultimately in the hands of flawed human beings—whose lives sometimes contradict the very values they espouse. Far from an excuse to stop speaking, this factor emphasizes the need for leaders to build walls of protection and networks of accountability to protect the integrity of our voice. The world is watching. God is watching. Where do we go from here?
Confessions of a former Pentecostal preacher with a secret too big to hide.
The "Ted Haggard affair" triggers a flood of memories for me—taking me back to 1988, when Jimmy Swaggart, who described Jim Bakker as "a cancer on the body of Christ" the year before, is in the spotlight and looking mighty uncomfortable. A private detective had photographed him leaving a motel in Metairie, Louisiana, with a prostitute. Now the prostitute is talking. The whole world, it seems, is talking. Swaggart starts crying. I'm experiencing feelings of anger, sadness and embarrassment, but mostly I am feeling relief. At least it wasn't me.
I had bailed out of the ministry the year before, during the PTL scandal, resigning my pulpit and fleeing to the anonymity of civilian life. The official reason for my early retirement: I was burned out. The real reason: I was hooked on porn and prostitutes. The contradiction between my professional life and my secret life was killing me, and I was terrified by the prospect of getting caught.
Ever since adolescence, I had wrestled in vain against the unspeakable power of sexual fantasy. I hated the things it made me do and I hated myself for doing them, but I found that I could not hate my sin or hate myself enough to stop. Well, that's not exactly true. I could stop. I just couldn't stay stopped for very long.
I'd tried all the remedies I knew. I'd repented ad nauseam, forswearing illicit sex until I couldn't bring myself to mock my Maker with another empty promise. I'd prayed until my knees hurt, studied until my head swam, memorized Scriptures and repeated them like the rosary. I'd sought counseling. I'd submitted to prayer for deliverance. I'd even confessed to my wife. Each new effort brought some temporary relief, but my hopes for sexual integrity were always dashed eventually.
Through all the moral turmoil, I managed to keep my public persona intact. You could call me a hypocrite, I guess, but a hypocrite is not sincere, and I did have a sincere desire to honor God and obey His law. I loved God—I really did. I just seemed incapable of remaining true to Him, and I knew that sooner or later my failures would be found out. As a professional minister I was riding a train toward disaster. When I turned 30, the train slowed down a little, and I jumped off.
I told myself that life would improve after I'd left the ministry, but my duplicity actually deepened. The arrival of the Internet fueled my secret life. Cyber fantasies, once entertained, were never content to linger in the realm of imagination for very long. They campaigned relentlessly for a taste of reality. I succumbed to their demands in stages, walking toward Sodom one step at a time.
I almost always walked alone. Occasionally I worked up the courage to tell another Christian—usually a minister—about my battles, but I was careful to approach the subject elliptically, talking mostly in code. The guy would listen sympathetically, pray for me in pastoral tones, and give me the same advice I'd dispensed to parishioners for years.
He might offer to serve as an "accountability partner," but that arrangement never worked very well for me. I'd give the guy permission to ask me the hard questions, but I'd resent him when he did. Then, when the old compulsion returned, I'd start lying to him.
My closest friend—OK, my only friend—was my wife, Allie. God gave me a truly exceptional woman. For years, she was the only person on Earth who knew what a loser I was and loved me anyway. Allie was safe. She bore up bravely under the weight of each confession, but my betrayals wounded her deeply, and after awhile I couldn't bear to hurt her any more.
During the darkest years of my life, I begged God time and again for a private solution to my private problem, but He never gave me one. Today, I'm glad He didn't. Today, I can finally see a purpose in His apparent passivity. My weakness, which the enemy intended to use for evil, God was determined to use for good.
God had not afflicted me, but He had decided not to remove my affliction. He loved me too much to remove from my life the one lever big enough to force me out of isolation and into honest relationships with other disciples. In the end, I found victory over my sin by surrendering not just to Christ, but also to the body of Christ.
Ever since I was a kid, I had been under the false impression that my core relationship with Christ was not only personal—it was private. And when I entered the ministry, privacy became a practical necessity. As pastor, I was the guy with the answers, the guy who had his act together. Sure, I could remind my congregation from time to time that "I'm not perfect," but the only sins I could safely acknowledge were misdemeanors such as grouchiness and speeding. I was their solitary hero, a solo disciple, an inspiration to the weak and discouraged. I was a shepherd, no longer a sheep.
Here's the problem. Judging from the New Testament, Jesus isn't very interested in solo disciples. He first said "Follow Me" to two guys, not just one—and to them He quickly added 10 more. They followed Him together for two years, as a team, while He taught them how to love one another. When He sent them out to teach and heal, He sent them out in pairs. At the end of His ministry, as He was preparing to return to His Father, Jesus assured His disciples that He would still be with them, but under very strictly defined terms. "Whenever two or three of you are gathered in My name," He said, "I'll be there."
Think about it. The distinction is lost in English, but virtually all of the promises and commandments of the New Testament were written in the plural. The church, Paul says, is not a loose federation of self-sufficient individuals. It is a body, a living, breathing organism, whose members are so closely connected that they can only move together. Biblical Christianity—the faith that actually works—is not private at all. No, biblical Christianity is a collaborative enterprise. It is a team sport, not an individual event.
Today, my life is rich beyond description. Allie and I are still married, and we're happier than ever. She's still my best friend, but my wife is no longer my only friend. I now have dozens of deep friendships with brothers in Christ. Most of them are members of a group called the Samson Society. My friends in the Samson Society know my story—the worst of it, anyway—and they still treat me with respect.
There are six guys in the group who know my whole story, and I keep them updated on a weekly basis. One of them has agreed to serve as my Silas, and I keep him updated daily. Sometimes, when I'm feeling especially vulnerable, I'll call him several times in a single day. Most of my comrades in the Samson Society have been driven to the fellowship by the consequences of isolation. Most of them aren't addicted to sex and some of them don't seem to be addicted to anything, but that doesn't matter. I now know that sex was never really my problem. It was merely my favorite solution.
For years, I used the mood-altering properties of sex to medicate the pain caused by my real problems, deeper issues which, as it turns out, are common to man. These are the things my brothers and I discuss every day: pride, fear, unbelief, resentment, self-pity and the like. And more than our sins, we talk about the Solution, reminding each other daily of our high calling and the power and beauty of the gospel. We carry one another's burdens, and we call forth one another's glory.
When I die, Allie won't have to scramble to find six guys to carry my casket. I'll be carried in death by the same guys who are carrying me in life. They are carrying me and I am carrying them, and the indwelling Christ is carrying us all.
Looking into the tortured face of Ted Haggard, I can't help but wonder, Where were his brothers? Where are they now?
Founded in 1983 by Houston and his wife, Bobbie, Hillsong Church, in Sydney, Australia, began with 45 members in a school assembly hall. It is now Australia's largest church, with satellite congregations in London, Kiev and Paris. Additionally, Houston serves as president of the Assemblies of God in Australia, representing more than 1,060 churches in that denomination.
Hillsong's prolific worship teams have produced more than 30 Gold and Platinum rated records since 1992. However, the notoriety of Houston's church's music ministry does not distract him from the priority of pastoral leadership that provides the groundwork for the other ministries in the church.
"I felt 15 or 20 years ago that the music was like an arrowhead for a bigger message," he explains. "A great church will produce a great worship album, but a great worship album won't necessarily produce a great church. The songs we write are an expression of the house. Therefore, the worship is not the growth formula in itself. The growth formula is simply building a healthy church."
Ministry Today recently had a chance to sit down with Houston and asked him a few questions about ministry balance, public criticism and what revival really looks like in the local church.
Ministry Today: How is Hillsong different from traditional churches? Many have pointed out that traditional churches are decreasing in number in Australia, while Hillsong is growing. What would you attribute that to?
Brian Houston: I think "relatability" has got a lot to do with it. We're not just speaking to people on Sunday, but we're speaking to their Monday. We're asking, how can we build people's families? How can we build their work? I honestly think that when people feel like their lives are being built—that their kids are being ministered to, that their teenagers have got healthy peer relationships at church—then they'll be drawn to it.
Ministry Today: Hillsong has connections in civic affairs, media and entertainment. How did you go about gaining access into the corridors of power?
Houston: It's all about encouraging people to be successful in every sphere of life, and that's attractive. They come to you. We don't go out searching for influence.
Ministry Today: Speaking of success, could you define what success in life means to you?
Houston: Well it's not material, if that's what you mean. It's about effectively living out God's purposes. I don't think you can measure success in any one way.
Ministry Today: Hillsong's success has attracted some accusations of materialism. What has been your response?
Houston: That criticism mostly comes from secular sources. I think the agendas are often impure, let's put it that way.
To some, the church can represent the wider growth of fundamentalism, whatever that means. So, some groups assume we're anti-this and anti-that. So if you're outside the church and you're pro-certain agendas, you're going to see the church as a threat to your agenda. I must admit, though, being misunderstood is frustrating. The best thing we can do is to stay true to ourselves, to keep doing what God has called us to do.
Ministry Today: Could you talk to us about revival, and what that looks like to you?
Houston: I think people's mind-sets about what "revival" means can often be very introspective, and if revival is just about us, then I am not a real big fan of it anyway. I really believe that what the church needs to be doing is to be focused outwardly, rather than inwardly.
My dad was a Pentecostal pastor, and I grew up in a Pentecostal home, so I was very orientated toward feelings and the dynamic of the Holy Spirit. And that's all fantastic—it was a fantastic heritage. But in the outworking of that, I would probably have a different perspective now.
For their generation, revival was a lot to do with being at the front of a church, and to me it has much more to do with what we're called to do. "The Spirit of the Lord has come upon me because"—to preach the gospel to the poor, to reach hurting people, to open blind eyes and so on. So, as far as I'm concerned, I'm not a great fan of some people's paradigms of revival.
Ministry Today: One of the things which Hillsong champions is relevance. But some churchgoers from traditional backgrounds see a "trendy" church as a sign of compromise or an attempt to manufacture revival. What's your take on that?
Houston: I'll just make one comment. The message is timeless. The methods have to change. If people want to make the methods holy, they are going to find themselves irrelevant.
Ministry Today: How about the outworking of the spiritual gifts in church life? How does that fit with the Hillsong model of church in the 21st century? Houston: I am a great believer in the gifts of the Spirit. I believe absolutely in speaking in tongues and prophecy and so on. It's part of the spiritual life of a believer.
But for practical reasons, we would tend to allow the outworking of the gifts to be expressed more in our smaller groups or in day-to-day church life. Our Sunday services are more of a gathering. There's a right time and place for everything.
Ministry Today: How do you go about making decisions and releasing people into their callings in a church of thousands, where there are so many people to pastor?
Houston: To an extent, we are still learning as we go—learning by our mistakes, building teams. Teams are a great pastoral care tool. Teams are like families, with purpose.
Ministry Today: As a pastor, how do you make sure your own life is growing?
Houston: Well, it's a challenge. I've been pastoring the same people for 23 years. I've got to get up each Sunday and say something fresh. And you can't do that if you're not fresh yourself. I value devotional time for contemplation. And I take Friday and Saturday every single week to meditate and to study and to think.
Ministry Today: What was the last profound thing God said to you, personally?
Houston: The importance of keeping myself fresh. To those whom much is given, much is required. So it's a real challenge that I do keep on the increase. I think you must use every obvious means—spend time with God, spend time with people and spend it in places that are going to stretch you.
Ministry Today: Some senior ministers of megachurches are so busy. They have a seemingly intergalactic schedule—flying off here, there and everywhere. What do you do, in your own time, to just be Brian, and to just relax?
Houston: Drinking coffee, hanging out with friends, spending time anywhere near water. Also riding my Harley. It's my little vice in life.
Ministry Today: So what does it mean for a local church to be a part of the Hillsong network?
Houston: The network is not a spiritual covering. It's really intended just to resource and encourage other church pastors. You see, I have really resisted starting Hillsong churches everywhere. We've got only three congregations in the world—Sydney, London and Kiev, plus Paris—which is an extension of the London church.
There are cities where we would sure love to do something. But the reason we haven't gone that route is because we're saying to pastors, "We want to help build your church." For us then to go and start a church right next door to them—well, it would make a lie out of what we are saying.
Ministry Today: Finally, what would you like to say to the American church?
Houston: Well, I just love America. I've been to the States many times—dozens and dozens of times—and certain pastors and leaders have really helped me over there. I think I'd only say, just like I would to leaders anywhere else in the world, that when you're the biggest at something, you've got to stay open. Open to change, open to new generations.
From my experience in America, that has been happening more over the recent years. When I started going to America, the church used to be very introspective. Some Americans didn't even know where other parts of the world were.
Because of that dynamic, if you were an outsider, you felt very much like you were an outsider. But that's changed dramatically. I think the Americans' openness to people from the outside is phenomenal. And that can only be a good, positive thing for the nation.