This is one of the most important questions a leader can ask, and Geoff Surratt’s post about it is one of my all-time favorites. Worth reading over and over. In one part he says:

Israel created an elaborate and efficient church that ran very well without God. The priests and Levites excelled at their roles, the sacrificial system was geared to handle the crowds at Passover efficiently, and the Jewish people knew their needs were met with consistency and care. 400 years after God stepped away the Jews no longer missed him. They had created a church without God.

And then one weekend he showed up. He ignored their service run down, he tore up their resource table and he violated their policies and procedures. Every time he came to a service havoc ensued. Finally they had to either completely change the way they did church or kill God. They chose to kill God.

Read the whole thing here



home-alone-featureThis past weekend, Molly traveled to Ohio for a baby shower for her brother’s wife. She was gone Thursday-Monday and I was home alone with our 5 and 7 year-old daughters. We had a great time and I learned a few important things.

1. My kids are a lot of fun. They are creative, funny, smart, and kind (98% of the time). We had a great time taking a bike ride, playing Monopoly, climbing at Riverview Park, and trying to do cartwheels (harder than I remember). Additionally, I went to visit a friend in the hospital on Saturday night and was able to leave the girls in the waiting room by themselves, knowing they would be respectful and patient enough to handle it.

2. Being a single parent is tough, especially without some help. Fortunately, my parents are around and were able to take the girls a few times when I had some things I needed to do alone. I needed their help more than anticipated. Gave me a new level of compassion for single parents, especially if they don’t have family around.

3. My wife works really hard. Molly is a “work-at-home” mom (I like that phrase), meaning her “full-time job” is to care for our kids and home. She’s amazing at it. And this weekend showed me (and the girls) how much work it takes. At one point, Abby was folding some laundry and exclaimed, “Boy, maybe I should help mom with this! It sure is a lot of work!” I felt the same thing as I loaded laundry, cleaned up, and tried to keep the house from looking like a bomb went off. I appreciate her at a whole new level.

4. Electronics are an easy (and sometimes really helpful) distraction. It’s easy to rail on electronics and we all know the many ills and temptations that come with them. Too many parents’ parenting strategy seems to be to plop a kid in front of a screen to distract them. This weekend showed me why this is such an attractive option — it’s hard to match energy levels with kids. And it’s a lot easier than helping them figure out how to play together. At the same time, I thank God for Minion Rush on iPhone. There were a few moments when it was wonderfully helpful to have a few moments alone to gather my thoughts while they clamored over the game. Used sparingly and intentionally, electronics are great.

5. I love my wife. It’s not the same without her. She’s an amazing fit in my life and I’m weaker without her.


Easter is just days away and, by now, most church leaders are pretty squared away on what their Easter services will look like. At least I would hope so.

Easter Services

Though Easter is undoubtedly special, as it celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, churches should beware of making their Easter services too special — or more specifically — too different.

My philosophy is that the Easter service should be a very good version of what you normally do.

If Easter really goes well, then many of the guests who came will come back the next week. But what if they did? Would they recognize the church?

  • If they really liked the 10 minute sermon, how will they feel about the 35 minute one?
  • If they really liked the 30-person chorale, how will they feel about the 5 piece band?
  • If they really liked all the extra fun for kids, how will they feel about it going away?

This is also why I don’t think it’s wise for churches to meet at another location on Easter, renting out an amphitheater or a hotel. It’s just too foreign of an experience from what you typically do to make it very enticing for guests to return.

Additionally, some churches spend so much energy on Easter that they’re out of gas the next week.

Now, to be honest, I probably broke this rule last year I did a 25-minute sermon that was only memorized Scripture. It was more of a dramatic presentation with art work displayed on the screens. The next week was surely a letdown. At the same time, I felt comfortable doing it because I thought it would communicate our commitment to God’s word, one of our values.

Easter is a special day, but it’s got to move the ball down the field for the church. And making it too special will actually be counter-productive.

On a regular basis I will hear a shocking phrase from somebody who is new to our church.

It’s great how you guys actually teach the Bible.”

What a bizarre idea. A person experiences our ministry and is refreshed because we actually teach the Bible. What is everyone else doing?

preaching the bible

This used to strike me as odd because any time I would visit an evangelical church, the preacher had a Bible in his hand. He wasn’t preaching from the newspaper or Sports Illustrated. So, you have two pastors, and they both hold Bibles. They both read from Bibles. They both talk about things in the Bible. But one is actually teaching the Bible. What’s the difference?

The difference — and it’s a big one — is that one pastor preaches the Bible and the other just uses the Bible.

What are some marks of preaching the Bible that make it different from just using it?

1. The preacher gives the sense that he and the congregation are joyfully under the authority of the Bible. I say “sense” because this is often more felt than explicitly stated. Men who preach the Bible feel excited about the Bible and feel like it’s really important. These feelings spill onto the congregation.

2. There is a biblical text being considered. I’m not against thematic or topical preaching. But it’s best done when considering a primary text that informs our understanding of the topic. When a preacher pulls many proof-texts together around a topic (especially using multiple translations), it feels like he is using the Bible, not preaching it.

3. The point of the sermon is consistent with the author’s intended meaning. Preaching the Bible means that the preacher works hard to understand what the biblical author was saying to his intended audience. Rather than the preacher just using the Bible to say what he really wants to say or to prove his clever point, preaching the Bible happens when the preacher is directed by the biblical text itself.

4. The truths emphasized in the sermon come from the text under consideration. I know this sounds like I’m repeating what I just said, but I’m really just drilling down further. Many times I hear sermons where a preacher says something that is biblically true, but it doesn’t actually come from the passage under consideration. An example: A preacher considering Romans 5:1-11 (Peace with God Through Faith) makes a big deal about how Jesus is the only way to have peace with God. That’s a true point. Jesus is the only way to peace with God. But it’s not a Romans 5:1-11 point. Romans 5 is not about the exclusivity of Christ, it’s about all the incredible riches that come to Christians who trust Christ by faith.

5. The tone of the sermon is consistent with the tone of the text. Preaching the Bible means that the attitude and level of urgency of the sermon is also dictated by the text. Texts that challenge should lead to sermons that challenge. Texts that comfort should lead to sermons that comfort. Texts that celebrate should lead to sermons that celebrate.

I don’t have anything to say if I’m not preaching the Bible. Without the authoritative power of God’s word, I’m not wise, creative, clever or powerful enough to say things that will takeover of the heart of sinners.

Additionally, I might argue that the ultimate goal isn’t really to preach the Bible as much as it is to preach Christ. But you’ll never preach Christ with authority if you don’t start with a commitment to preach the Bible.

What are some other ways you’d distinguish between preaching the Bible and using the Bible?


whats best nextI recently finished reading What’s Best Next by Matt Perman, who runs a blog by the same name. The book’s subtitle is “How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done.” It’s the best book I’ve read so far this year.

I have read and benefited from a number of productivity-related books (Getting Things Done, Rework, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Making Ideas Happen, The Power of Full Engagement, and Do The Work). Perman draws on many of these excellent books, references their best ideas and, in the end, surpasses them.

What’s Best Next is better than these other books for two important reasons:

  1. Perman unpacks a robust exploration of how the gospel re-shapes our approach to productivity.
  2. He delivers a highly practical approach that simplifies many of the overwhelming systems these other books espouse.

I learned a lot from the book. Here are the 6 most significant lessons I took away (the first is the longest):

1. The gospel makes productivity about love.

The most surprising sections of the book were the first two, reframing productivity through the lens of the gospel. I honestly didn’t expect to get much out of them and thought they would be a kind of Christian veneer applied thinly over practical advice. I could not have been more wrong, as these sections demonstrated valuable theological thinking applied to a real-world issue.

Perman argues that God cares deeply about productivity because God wants lots of good to happen in the world. Sadly, however, many people — Christians included — view productivity mostly in self-centered ways: How can I get a lot done? How can I get through my list? How can I achieve peace and contentment by getting organized? How can I feel good about myself because I’m so productive?

But the gospel transforms our productivity in two key ways. First, it makes Jesus our identity rather than our works. Instead of achieving a sense of value by how productive we are, we are free to be productive because we already have value in Jesus. Second, the gospel puts our attention on others so that we seek to love and serve them through our work, rather than serve ourselves.

This was a game-changer for me. I often think of people being in the way of me getting done what I really want and need to do. Instead, people should be a key factor and motivator in deciding what to do and how to do it.

Additionally, loving others means we should seek to be organized and effective in how we get things done. As Perman writes:

“If we are about serving others, then we need to be competent in serving them because incompetence does not serve people.”

2. Everyday life provides many opportunities for good works that honor God.

I loved the “all of life” aspect of this book. One terrific example is when Perman talks about “good works.” He says:

“According to the Scriptures, good works are not simply the rare, special, extraordinary, or super spiritual things we do. Rather, they are anything we do in faith…When you are answering emails, you aren’t just answering emails. You are doing good works. When you attend meetings, you aren’t just attending meetings. You are doing good works. When you make supper for your family, you aren’t just making supper for your family. You are doing good works. When you put the kids to bed, you aren’t just putting the kids to bed. You are doing a good work.”

Isn’t that encouraging? Every day you have countless opportunities to do good works in the name of Jesus.

3. Know what’s most important and put it first.

Perman argues that this is the core principle of productivity. He quotes some other leaders who say the same thing:

Rick Warren: “The secret of effectiveness is to know what really counts, then do what really counts, and not worry about the rest.”

Peter Drucker: “If there is any one ‘secret’ of effectiveness, it is concentration. Effective executives do first things first and they do one thing at a time.”

Stephen Covey: “The key . . . is not to prioritize your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”

I appreciated this principle because it forces me to intentionally think about what’s most important. Rather than just being reactive, this principle thrusts you into proactively doing what is important rather than just what’s urgent.

This is what’s behind the middle word in the title What’s Best Next. It’s not about what’s next, but what’s best next. Perman says:

“More important than efficiency is effectiveness — getting the right things done. In other words, productivity is not first about getting more things done faster. It’s about getting the right things done.”

4. Systems trump intentions.

This was a short but profound point in the book, one that I’ve noted before. Perman writes:

“Systems trump intentions. You can have great intentions, but if your life is set up in a way that is not in alignment with them, you will be frustrated. The structure of your life will win out every time.”

This is why leaders need a plan. Without a plan, you will not get done what you want and need to get done.

More than that, you need a simple plan. For instance, like Perman, I found the Getting Things Done (GTD) approach overwhelming. It felt like my job became keeping up with my system. I was serving the system instead of the system serving me. Perman offers some simple, practical ideas that felt like a doable breath of fresh air.

5. Weekly planning is crucial.

One of the crucial systems to establish is weekly planning. This is something I’ve read about in the past but it always sounded too complicated to make it a normal part of my routine. Perman offers a detailed approach to weekly planning, but he also provides a simplified pair of questions that, if done, would provide incredible clarity:

  1. What do I need to do this week?
  2. What would I like to do this week?

Think through those questions and put those things on a list or calendar somewhere. If you just asked those two questions, you’d probably gain some ground, especially if part of your thinking involved how you could plan to do intentional good for others.

6. Plan your day.

This almost feels ridiculous to say but — upon reflection — it’s discouraging for me to think about how rarely I plan my day. Too often I just react to whatever’s next on the calendar or whatever email just came in. But recently I’ve been planning my day and it’s amazing how much more effective I am.

Here’s Perman’s simple way to plan the day:

  1. Write down the three most important tasks you can accomplish today, in light of your calendar and priorities.
  2. Review your calendar and list any actions this generates.
  3. Review your priority list for the week and actions list to ensure it is current and identify any other priorities you need to have.
  4. Write down any other things you need to do in light of upcoming meetings, appointments, and just generally other stuff you want to get done.

Isaiah 32:8 says, “he who is noble plans noble things, and on noble things he stands.” Planning your week and day gives you a chance to plan noble things that will serve others and achieve much good.


Buy and read this book. If you already feel like you have good productivity systems, the first few parts will still be valuable in reframing your approach through a gospel lens. If you feel like your systems could use an improvement, the entire book will be helpful.

boredThis is a question every leader should ask seriously when planning anything — an event, worship service, training, or meeting. Would I want to go to this?

If you wouldn’t want to go, there’s a good chance that others won’t either. And if you go but you don’t really want to, everyone will feel it.

Sometimes we plan things because we think we should. Other times we schedule meetings or trainings because it’s something we want but, if we put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, we wouldn’t want to come either. Too many times I’ve seen leaders subject their followers to meetings that they wouldn’t want to attend either.

If you ask this question and the honest answer is, “No, I wouldn’t want to go to this,” then three options remain:

  1. Cancel it — nobody else probably wants to go either.
  2. Improve it until it’s something you’d want to attend.
  3. Keep it.

The only time that #3 makes sense is if you are so outside of the mainstream in your particular preferences related to the idea. (For example, I’m not big on food trucks but I realize that I’m outside-the-norm on this and therefore am OK with events that have food trucks.) These #3 moments are rare.

Have the honesty to ask this hard question and make courageous and creative decisions to ensure that nobody is subjected to things that you — and they — don’t want to participate in.

One of the marks of the best leaders I know is that they are eager to keep learning. One of the blessings of technology today is having so many fantastic resources so readily available (sometimes too many). I learn best by listening, so podcasts have been a God-send for my life and leadership.

I thought it might be helpful to share the podcasts I listen to. Also, I’d love to hear about your favorite podcasts, so please leave your recommendations in the comments.

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Podcasts That I Listen to Every Episode

iq2usIntelligence Squared U.S. Debates. This podcast features "Oxford-style debating on America's shores." Using a two-against-two format, top thinkers debate important cultural and political issues. I find it wonderfully stimulating and I like that it always presents good arguments for things I disagree with. Recent episodes include:
- Does Affirmative Action do more harm than good?
- Does The President Have Constitutional Power To Target And Kill U.S. Citizens Abroad?
- Is Obamacare Beyond Rescue?
- Has the Constitutional Right to Bear Arms Outlived Its Usefulness?
thinkinginpublicThinking in Public. This podcast, hosted by Albert Mohler, is about "intelligent conversation on frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them." Mohler typically interviews an author (often academics) who have written books on topics he finds interesting. Some guests are Christians and some aren't. I find the conversation very interesting and it stretches me into thinking about issues that aren't normally on my radar as well as ones that I care deeply about already. Good stuff.
andystanleyleadershipAndy Stanley Leadership Podcast. This interview/conversation style podcast is designed "to help leaders go further, faster." Stanley is a leadership genius and this 20-ish minute podcast is packed with thoughtful, practical, and useful advice for leaders. If you're a leader in any part of life, you should be listening to this.
kellerredeemerTimothy Keller Sermons. I don't listen to many preachers, partly because as an auditory learner I'm prone to unintentionally mimic the style of those I listen to. And because it makes me too tempted to rip off their good stuff. But, since I'm already ripping off Keller anyway and could never speak the way he does, I make an exception. This podcast updates sporadically and contains Keller's "classic sermons." God often uses these messages to stir and refresh my heart.

Podcasts That I Listen to Some Episodes

stevebrownetcSteve Brown Etc. Hosted by Steve, "the old white guy," this podcast is a talk show format, often with authors. Steve and his crew are funny and a little irreverent. I listen if the guest seems interesting.
askpastorjohnAsk Pastor John. This daily podcast features John Piper taking 5-9 minutes to answer a question. Many of the questions come from listeners and topics vary. Piper has blessed me in so many ways through his preaching and I enjoy hearing how he responds to these topics. I also like that it's short so it's easy to listen to an episode on your way to the grocery store.
hyattThis is Your Life. Michael Hyatt's weekly podcast is "dedicated to intentional leadership." I've long appreciated Michael's blog and, I listen to the podcast depending on the topic. Some episodes are great, others are kind of milk-toast, obvious, leadership 101 stuff and not worth listening to. I usually listen to this podcast at 1.5x speed (not sure why).
tgcThe Gospel Coalition. This podcast has interviews, roundtable discussions and sermons from Gospel Coalition conferences. It hasn't been updated in over a month, which makes me wonder if it's undergoing some change.
herdThe Thundering Herd. I'm a big fan of Colin Cowherd's show on ESPN radio. I think he's insightful, funny, and knows who he is. I don't often get to hear the show on the radio because of when it airs, so I'll listen to the podcast depending on whether there's recent sports news I care about or if he has an interesting guest. I listened for two weeks straight in the buildup to the Super Bowl. Probably a mistake.
northpointNorth Point Community Church. This is the sermon podcast that usually features Andy Stanley's sermons. Again, one of the few preachers I listen to regularly. Like Keller, I appreciate how Stanley is always preaching with unbelievers in mind and working to translate theology into language that regular people (especially non-Christians) can understand. Where as Keller is committed to getting to the gospel in every sermon,, Stanley seems to get there in every series. I find myself learning from both the example of the preaching as well as the practical insights that are often presented.
unseminaryunSeminary Podcast. Rich Birch is an executive pastor at Liquid Church in New Jersey and a blogger. His podcast features mostly interviews about practical church leadership stuff "that you wish you they taught in seminary." I appreciate that he features leaders and churches I often have not heard from and aren't on the conference circuit. I also like his Canadian accent and how he says "rezources" instead of "resources."

noah movieMy in-laws are in town from Ohio and my daughters have been dying to show their grandma their newest passion in life, Frozen. So, faced with hearing “Let it Go” for the 6 millionth time, I opted to go with the guys to check out this movie you might have heard of…Noah.

Here are some reflections:

1. I’m glad I didn’t go in with any expectations of biblical fidelity. I had heard enough about the Noah movie to know that it wasn’t going to be a very accurate portrayal of the historic events described in Genesis 6-10 (I most appreciated reviews by Joe Carter and Greg Thornbury). This allowed me to watch the film (almost) as if it wasn’t a biblically-based movie at all and instead just to watch and evaluate it as I would with any film, trying to understand and engage with what the director (Darren Aronofsky) was saying and working to figure out what could be received, rejected or redeemed.

2. You can make a trailer look any way you want. It was interesting how within five minutes of the movie, you had a very clear sense that this didn’t follow the biblical text very closely. But the trailer — designed particularly to appeal to Christian audiences — made you think it would. One of the most glaring examples is in this trailer (at 1:18), when Noah boldly declares “I’m not alone.” The trailer made you think he was talking about God being with him. Instead, the movie reveals that he’s referring to the Watchers, the fallen-angel-rock-creatures that provide his security and help build the ark. Perhaps this is a good lesson to all of us who can easily get swept up in the hype of a movie based on a trailer — good editing easily manipulates.

3. I appreciated the depiction of the sinfulness of sin. Most movies seem to reflect the dominant worldview of the culture that man is basically good. Not Noah. There are no heroes in the film. There are very few semi-likable characters. This is a world dominated by sin, selfishness, pride. I think there is more common grace in the world than Noah depicted, but I appreciated a bold statement that, since the Garden of Eden, man is seriously sinful.

4. The film (ironically?) undercuts its argument that creation is good and innocent except man. Environmentalism shines brightly in Noah and one gets the idea that the world would be best without people at all since animals are innocent. Noah becomes obsessed with ridding the world of all people (including his family and descendants), as this seems to be what God wants. Ironically, the more obsessed Noah gets with this idea, the more he is horribly unlikable — a seemingly intentional choice by Aronofsky. Additionally, the Creator eventually provides a way for Noah’s family to live, showing that his intention was to re-create rather than annihilate. This was the most confusing part of the film for me. On one hand, the “man-is-the-problem-because-he’s-ruining-the-environment” argument was on display fully. On the other, the story itself undercut this massive theme.

5. I’ll take the God of Scripture any day over the Creator in Noah. The Creator is silent, distant and seemingly only angry. There is no mercy and little love. Noah imitates this Creator’s attitude toward people and he becomes a monster. Now, one could argue that a God who would drown the world is a monster (this film should make Christians wrestle with a vivid depiction of God’s wrath against sinners, even children). However, the God of Scripture is not silent or distant. He is not speaking through code and making you discern what you could from a dream. He is both a God of justice and mercy. In the biblical account, even his purposes in the flood are mixed with mercy and sorrow — not just fury.

6. A world without God’s mercy is a sad, hopeless world. Noah is a big-time downer. You will not feel good at the end. Despite a shallow attempt to end with some hope, it’s a hopeless film depicting a hopeless world. This is what happens when God is distant and thought of as only wrathful. Perhaps this is why many Christians remain so unfortunately hopeless and shine such dim light into the world. Perhaps, despite saying they believe the gospel of grace, they have continued to think of God only as a distant God who is angry at them and eager to crush them. Perhaps they have forgotten to live in light of the gospel, where in Christ God is for you and nothing can separate you from his love (Romans 8:31-39).

In the end, I’m glad I saw Noah. It wasn’t a great film — or even a particularly good film. But a lot of people are talking about it, and I wanted to interact directly with the messages of the film rather than just read reviews. And it isn’t often that films are made with such obvious theological statements. I always find it worthwhile to listen to what the culture is saying about God, whether in Louis CK’s SNL monologue or in a big-budget film like Noah.

Did you see the film? If so, what’d you think? If not, will you see it?


This month has been the most active month ever on Faithful and Fruitful in terms of readers. To close out the month, I thought I’d share the top 5 posts people were reading here in March.

1. What I Learned from 10 Churches in 4 Days.

2. How Our Multi-Congregational Church Model Works.

3. 5 Reasons Why Multi-Congregational Church is Better Than Video Multi-Site.

4. 38 Reasons I’m Thankful for My Parents.

5. This Will Make You a Better Preacher.

Thanks for dropping by and reading. I know that people mostly vote with their clicks, but if you have other ideas for topics you think would be valuable to cover, let me know.

What’s the makeup of your church? Mostly young families? Singles? Seniors? Church people? Unchurched people? Diverse? Homogenous?

How well are people getting connected? To what degree are they embracing your vision? Do they serve? Invite people?

Because good pastors are shepherds who know the sheep, they typically have some idea about these things. But I would bet that most pastors don’t know some of the answers to the questions above as well as they think (I know I didn’t).

church survey

Borrowing largely from a questionnaire described in Andy Stanley’s Deep and Wide, we recently took a few moments in a Sunday service for people to fill out a brief church survey (here is a PDF of the survey).

We did this survey two years ago and will do it every year from here on out. This process is fascinating and enlightening. And it allows you to make some needed adjustments based on what you learn.

For instance, here are some things we learned from our most recent church survey:

1. We are continuing to reach a significant number of unchurched people. 19% of our regulars and 21% of our guests did not attend church in the three years prior to coming. Additionally, 68% of our regulars invited at least one unchurched person to church in the last year and 27% invited three or more unchurched people. These are encouraging numbers.

2. We are growing in diversity. Unfortunately, we didn’t track ethnicity information in 2012. But more people are coming who aren’t married and/or don’t have kids than we expected (45% don’t have children under 18 years old). Additionally, 39% of the non-white people have been at our church less than a year. This is a good trend.

3. About 40% of people seem to have come from either out-of-town or small, lesser-known churches. Almost 20% of our church were unchurched. About 25% came from our original sending church. About 15% came from five other area churches. We are not getting that many people from other big local churches.

4. Involvement percentages are down across the board. Compared to our 2012 survey, we had lower percentages of people who participated in Inviting, Small Groups, Serving, Classes, and Membership. This is not surprising considering our numerical growth. As the church has grown and ministry options have expanded, I’ve expected those numbers to drop. However, we do need to take this to heart, remember who is to blame for the 80/20 rule, and work to close the gap.

5. People who serve seem more likely to be in community than people in community are likely to serve. 81% of those who have served have also been in a small group, while 65% of those in small groups have served. Might this mean that serving is a more effective “next step” for people to eventually own the ministry? This is something we’re exploring.

6. Unchurched new people really like the church but don’t know how to take next steps. 77% of our unchurched guests said they would “definitely” invite an unchurched friend to come. Additionally, 62% of our unchurched guests said they would like to take a next step with their involvement but don’t know how. Put these together and you realize they like the church a lot, but we need to get much more intentional and obvious about helping them take next steps.

We learned a lot of other interesting things, but I’ll leave it here.

The bottom line is — without this kind of information — leaders are mostly guessing about who is in their church, where they came from, how involved they are, and what to do about it.

So, rip of these questions or make your own — but taking the time to use a church survey to gather this kind of information will really help you.