I wanted to build my ministry on giving--giving Christ to the lost, hope to the hopeless and food to the hungry. I know I still have a long way to go. We all do. But along the way I've learned some principles about living a giving life that, if embraced, will make a ministry strong.
1. The difference between a burden and a call. It's not easy to live a giving life. I heard a story about a missionary to Africa who worked hard before he ever got there to train for his assignment. He'd dream about it at night, study at school, raise money, learn the language. He imagined that the people he was going to serve would be waiting for him with great anticipation.
But he was disillusioned when he arrived in Africa and found Christ-rejecting men and women who had turned other missionaries away, killed some and were hardened against the gospel. He expected to be rewarded by God and men for making such a sacrifice. Instead, the ministry was hard, the people suspicious and unkind, and the blessing of God seemed far away.
After a year or two this missionary, feeling strongly entitled to an explanation from God, blew up. "Why would you send me to this thankless place?" he asked the Lord. "I don't care for these people. I have no love for them."
God spoke to that man and said: "If you don't do it out of a love for them, do it out of a love for Me. These are the people for whom My Son went to the cross."
From that day on, the missionary had the joy of the Lord in his work and didn't need the thanks of men. He knew he was doing something that pleased God, and that was enough.
Like that missionary, when I helped my son Matthew get the Dream Center up and running, I expected the neighborhoods around us to erupt with applause. Instead, people to whom we gave job training stole our computers. Gang members held guns to my son's head and threatened to take his life. Mothers took our food without saying thanks. I asked God why we were there if they were so ungrateful.
He reminded me we were there for Him, not for us. He loved them, and He didn't need the outward signs to know that changes were happening in hearts.
I learned a couple of lessons from those early years. First, decide where the reward comes from. If it comes from men, you'll always be frustrated. If it comes from God, you will always be satisfied.
Doing right has a built-in reward. You shouldn't need someone to brag on you. Having learned that, I can take joy from even the bleakest circumstances. Some pastors leave the ministry because they say no one appreciates them. The problem is in their own hearts. If God appreciates you, that is reward enough.
God confirmed another issue for me in the start-up years at the Dream Center. It's important to have a call, not just a burden.
I have learned that when people witness poverty and sadness up close, it's easy to feel a burden for that kind of ministry. But a burden is different from a call. If everyone who visited the Dream Center and felt a burden for the inner city decided to devote their lives to it, then thousands of people would flood into Los Angeles. And most of them, after a few months or a year, would become discouraged and go home.
Why? Because they followed a burden to Los Angeles--not a call. You should never go into a ministry just because you have a burden for it. Burdens come and go. They are like feelings. A call is different. It's a commitment that remains no matter what feelings come and go. It's a heart-knowledge that you belong somewhere. It doesn't fade away like burdens do.
The call gets you up in the morning, keeps you going when people criticize or misjudge you or when you run out of money. The call is hard to shake. It points like an inner compass to the place you know you ought to go. It may even contradict your emotions at times, but it's consistent. It's a decision of the will, not of the emotions.
2. Why family should always be a priority. People think I must be so busy that I don't really have a family life. They imagine me flying every day to preach here and there, always holding conferences, bouncing back and forth between Phoenix and Los Angeles.
In truth, I'm much more of a homebody than most people realize. From the day I got married and started having children, I put them at the head of my schedule. I refused to let church activities dominate my time. People would invite me to dinners and potluck suppers and other fun activities, but I told them I had a previous appointment. I even stood in the pulpit one time and told my flock this: "I can either be your buddy--eating dinner with you and playing golf all the time--or I can be a man of God and keep my family together."
I discovered that when I gave time to my family, God gave me both a great church and a great family. I spent my kids' childhood years going to football and basketball games, wrestling matches and school programs. I limited my midweek travel so it wouldn't put a strain on my wife.
At the time I don't think I realized how great the benefits would be later on. My sons and daughter have grown up to honor God, and they give so much back to me without even knowing it.
Every Monday I get a call from my son Luke while I'm reading the paper and drinking my Starbucks coffee. He shares with me all the things that happened during the Sunday before. He tells about the altar calls, the offerings, the victories, the things little and big that make pastoring a joy. And when he's had a rough day, he cries on my shoulder.
A little later, usually around noon, Matthew calls me and does the same thing, sharing about the day before. I used to do the same thing and call my dad every Monday to share the victories and experiences of the day before. Now I get all the payback for the time I invested in Luke and Matthew when they were just children. They come back to me voluntarily, and nothing makes me feel more honored or loved.
3. How to make maximum use of your time. One day God gave me an idea that revolutionized how I used time. I was studying Revelation 8 and came across this passage: "When He opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour" (Rev. 8:1, NKJV).
This is the only place in the Bible where heaven is measured in time--these strange few moments when silence takes over before yielding to an eternal chorus of worship. Elsewhere Jesus says He is the "I am," meaning He is beyond time (see Ex. 3:14). But here, for just a moment, eternity is measured.
That told me that if it was important enough to God to mention this 30-minute segment of eternity, then it must be important for us. He could have said a year or a month, but it was only 30 minutes. Suddenly I began seeing life through new eyes--and I realized that half-hours are important to God.
Tell me what you do with your half-hours, and I'll tell you what your life is. Leave alone what you want to do in the next year or six months--it's the half- hours that count. The half-hour right after you get up in the morning. The half-hour spent waiting for your meal to arrive at the restaurant or waiting for the bus or waiting to go to bed.
No great work is built in years or decades. Everything that's worthwhile has been done in half-hours. Think about what happens in half-hours: you can be married in less than a half-hour; you can make a life-changing decision in a half- hour; most people accept Christ in the space of a half-hour; most are called into the ministry in a half-hour. You are as good a Christian as are your half-hours.
When I looked at my life as a series of half-hours, I began to find a lot of empty space. Space at the airport waiting to board an airplane or on the plane waiting to land. Space at my hotel room after an evening service or sitting in the pastor's office waiting for him to return.
I decided to start using those half-hours. I began to bring magazines and books with me on every trip, and I enriched my mind and soul with them, using time that otherwise would have been wasted. I started using "downtime" to prepare my sermons. A sermon usually takes four to six hours to prepare, but most of my sermon preparation is done in half-hour segments. Every book I've written was completed in half-hours. Most counseling is done in half-hours.
On the other hand, lives are ruined in half-hour segments. A brief escapade, an error in judgment or a lapse of morals can steal countless fruitful hours from an otherwise bright future.
I often meet with ministers who need some sort of advice--usually for the space of a half-hour. During those half-hours, entire ministries have been saved.
When we see each half-hour we have as important, we have traveled a long way toward making our time count.
4. What makes a leader great. As a young man I had the opportunity to hear a great preacher, Lee Roberson, pastor of a large church in Chattanooga, Tennessee. One night he announced that he was going to preach that night on "What Makes Men Great."
I was beside myself with anticipation. To me, it was a golden opportunity to hear from a great man what made his life and ministry so much above normal. I wanted to be great for God, too. I arrived early and sat on the front row with my pad and pen ready.
That night Roberson came onto the platform and announced again that he was going to tell us what makes men great. He told us to get ready to write it down and commit it to memory. My pen hovered over the paper, my ears tingling. Then he spoke.
"What makes men great?" he said. "Here it is: trouble." Then he turned and walked off the platform! That was the whole service.
Adversity makes men great. Our greatest presidents--the ones we find on our coinage and dollar bills--were the ones who presided over our country's greatest times of trouble. Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson--each faced a crisis that literally threatened any chance of success. At one time or another each of these men was called a failure. But that adversity proved to be the foundation of their greatness. And I'm sure along the way they decided to enjoy the difficulties instead of complaining.
One day as I drove from Phoenix to Flagstaff, Arizona, road repairs forced me to take a detour. Suddenly I hit a bump. I thought it was the only one, but there came another bump and then another. I realized this wasn't a bump in the road--it was a bumpy road. I could be annoyed about it, or I could learn to enjoy it.
The bumpy road made me think about my career as a young pastor. When I first started I seemed to hit bumps once a month. Then they started coming once a week, and now they seem to come every hour! But I don't see those bumps as miserable interruptions anymore--I see them as God-given challenges meant to strengthen me. It's not just a bump in the road--it's a bumpy road, and I delight in the fact that I can take the bumps.
All who live in Jesus will suffer, but the Lord will raise them up. That's the way life is. It's not the protected, pampered person who pleases God--it's the one who uses his God-given energies to overcome challenges. Eventually, like Paul, we can actually make light of our infirmities.
5. What real revival is. When I was in South Africa, I toured the city with a pastor. As we toured, we came upon a charismatic church that had been driven away from a different piece of property. Homeless people descended upon the church in their new location. They built their shanties around the church, but the people of the church ignored them.
The government told the homeless people to move. The neighbors didn't want them, and the community was up in arms. Day after day the story made front-page news, but the homeless would not move. Finally they were threatened with jail.
In the middle of the night, the pastor with whom I was traveling received a call from a policeman who belonged to his congregation informing him that the homeless people would be jailed in the morning. The pastor sent trucks to gather them up and took them to a piece of property the church owned. Eventually the church built houses for them.
Here's the irony of that situation: The charismatic church that had ignored the homeless people was experiencing what it called a Holy Ghost revival. There was great singing; people were slain in Spirit, speaking in tongues, laughing and dancing. To get inside the sanctuary, the people had to step over the homeless people who had camped around their church. But taking care of the homeless apparently wasn't part of their theology.
A newspaper reporter visited the homeless people and asked if anyone from the church had offered them help or encouragement. The people said no one had.
I contend that church wouldn't know what revival was if it hit them in the face. Today the church has actually closed down. They had the workings of revival right around them, but they refused to recognize it.
Very early in my life I asked myself a simple question: "How do I get God's attention?" I knew if I could get His attention, I'd have His ear, His blessings and everything I needed.
So I looked in the Bible and found the answer, though it wasn't what I expected. The Bible gives us some examples of things that got God's attention:
**the fall of a common, ordinary sparrow (see Matt. 10:29)
**a single strand of hair falling from someone's head (see Matt. 10:30)
**the hungry cry of a tiny baby (see Is. 49:15)
**the sound of two small coins falling from a widow's hand (see Mark 12:42).
These simple things got the attention of almighty God. As I read these verses, the pattern became clear. It isn't the high-and-mighty to whom God gives His attention--it's to the lowliest, neediest, poorest creatures of the earth.
When I made this discovery I determined to gather up the hurting people whom the world overlooked: the scroungy guy from downtown who no one wanted to touch; the convalescent down to her last penny; the unwanted kids; the people who had failed and fallen. If I could reach out to them, I could get the attention of God.
Reaching the hurting became the main plank of my ministry. Winning souls is easy after you've given people clothes, a Thanksgiving turkey, bicycles, cleaned their streets, gotten rid of the graffiti on their homes and taught their children. They come to Christ because they've seen His character.
That's what giving is all about. That's why we must live a lifestyle of giving. And it is always followed by His blessing.