Discipleship as a Way of Life

On March 24, Scott Chafee brought a message that followed up the lesson from March 10, on Discipleship as a Lifestyle. This message looked at three biblical examples on how the rhythms of life were used to reach people trapped in doubt, darkness, and deception.

Luke 18:31-34 (Jesus predicts his death, as the Suffering Servant)
DOUBT – the disciples did not understand
The Rhythm of Story – Luke 18:31-33
The Rhythm of Listen – Luke 18:34

Luke 18:35-43 (blind Bartimaeus, receives his sight)
DARKNESS – the man could literally not see
The Rhythm of Listen – Luke 18:40-41
The Rhythm of Celebration – Luke 18:43

Luke 19:1-10 (public sinner Zaccheus is transformed)
DECEPTION – the enemy had deceived him and his behavior followed
The Rhythm of Eat – Luke 19:5-6
The Rhythm of Bless – Luke 19:8

We Are Transformed People

I presented this devotion at the quarterly business meeting at King’s Grant Baptist Church in August 2022.

I’d like to look at Ephesians 4:17-20.

So I say this, and affirm in the Lord, that you are to no longer walk just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their minds, 18 being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; 19 and they, having become callous, have given themselves up to indecent behavior for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. 20 But you did not learn Christ in this way,

We recognize that we are transformed people, having been changed from what we used to be. Paul gives us some admonishment by saying… you did not learn Christ in this way.

Words of kindness, words of hope, words of encouragement, words of support, words of challenge, words that are going to build up the body of Christ; those are the things that the body of Christ is supposed to embrace.

So, Paul is basically saying, let us behave as those who have Jesus Christ living inside of us.

Imagine the church being fully devoted to what Jesus Christ wants to do through us, his church. How did we learn of Christ? We learned of Christ by faith, and when we came to him in faith, we learn to become obedient. We learned how to be an example of Jesus Christ. Being an example does not point to us at all, but it points to Jesus who is abiding in us, taken up residence inside of us.

Let Jesus shine.

Identifying with Nehemiah

This was what I said at the beginning of the quarterly business meeting of King’s Grant Baptist Church in December 2022.

Before I read a Scripture tonight, I want to share something that came from Lynn Hardaway, our Director of Missions with The Bridge Network. I read it on August 9. This is a part of his email series called push to start.

If you feel like walking away from pastoral ministry, you’re not alone. All across the country, as Barna Research pointed out in March 2022, that 22% of pastors have seriously considered quitting full-time ministry. That is up 13% since January 2021. These are tough times to be a leader in any organization, especially in an organization, like the church, that is completely dependent upon the volunteer attendance of its members.

Barna point out three main drivers causing pastors to resign: immense stress, loneliness and isolation, and then the political divisions in the nation. Anecdotally, I would add the lethargy toward the church in the lives of post pandemic Christians and the feral anger and dissatisfaction many are displaying coming out of a two-year lockdown. He goes on to compare these pastors, who have decided to leave the ministry, to Jonah and his call to a specific work. And now we find ourselves in the hold of a ship setting Sail toward Tarshish.

I just wanted you to know that this is happening all across the country, not just here. Barna does his research. Tonight, I want you to know, after being 15 years, that I love this congregation. When Pastor Skip and Dan Cooper met with me that summer before my arrival on Labor Day weekend in 2007, God was opening a door for me to come and serve here, and you affirmed that calling by approving the recommendation of the personnel committee to bring me on staff. So, tonight, I just want you to know that God has not released me from that call.

I realize that we’ve had several things going on with the previous two pastors. Many times when you get badgered and bullied, there comes a certain point when you just asked the question, “why am I still doing this?” But I realize that God has me here for such a time as this, He has some reason. Likely it is to walk with you through this pastoral transition. I don’t know what it is, but my hope is that we can work through whatever is going on to get back to the task and the mission that God has given to us.

That’s why I’ve included those handouts, they are basically clippings from my reading over the last several months, about churches and mission and change, note especially the one about Canoeing the Mountains.

I want to share with you today a Scripture that comes out of Nehemiah’s story. Nehemiah 6:2-9. Dan preached on Nehemiah a couple of weeks back but but when I went back to read the chapter on my own, I had to ask God, “are you saying something to me personally?”

Nehemiah 6:2
Sanballat and Geshem sent a message to me, saying, “Come, let’s meet together at Chephirim in the plain of Ono.” But they were plotting to harm me.

This was reminiscent of the ambush meeting at the home of one of my members. Amy (our children’s minister) and I attended with about 20 people who have proven to be antagonistic to the state of the church and the change that gradually happened over the world-wide pandemic. We thought it would be a conversation to set straight some one the misinformation that has permeated the members, some were outright lies that persist even when third parties have attempted to set the record straight. When it was all over, I thought this verse was appropriate, “they were plotting to harm me.”

Nehemiah 6:3
So I sent messengers to them, saying, “I am doing a great work and am unable to come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?”

Nehemiah tells them that he is doing a good work, and cannot stop this good work to come down to your meeting. That spoke to me. God was telling me to keep my eyes on my calling and to maintain the good work that He has started. Let the church grow in spite of the negativity of a few.

Nehemiah 6:4-5
Then they sent messages to me four times worded in this way, and I answered them with the same wording. 5 Then Sanballat sent his servant to me in the same way a fifth time with an open letter in his hand.

Nehemiah had repeated invitations to meetings and then there was an open letter presented to him. All I could think about was certain members having repeated meetings with my pastor to complain about what they didn’t like, and to belittle his leadership and authority. Then came the infamous 10-page letter of complain, criticism, and bullying.

Nehemiah 6:6-7
In it was written: “It is reported among the nations, and Gashmu says, that you and the Jews intend to rebel; for that reason you are rebuilding the wall. And you are to be their king, according to these reports. 7 You have also appointed prophets to proclaim in Jerusalem concerning you, ‘A king is in Judah!’ And now it will be reported to the king according to these reports. So come now, let’s consult together.”

Nehemiah is accused by the opposition of ulterior motives for his building project. We know while you’re building this wall, according to the report, you plan to be their king. And you even appointed prophets to prophesy in Jerusalem saying there’s a new king of Judah. You know this report will get back to the true king so I suggest that you come to our little meeting.

So much misinformation and outright lies. I never told the PSC to not bring in a potential preacher. 1) All I suggested is that the preacher they bring in should be trained in relational conflict and experienced in transitional pastoral change. The PSC chair pulled the trigger on that one. 2) Who would ever believe that I have enough relational clout to tell “one influential member of the PSC” to do or not do anything? Apparently I quashed one candidate and no amount of truth will change some people’s minds.

There was a false story that I was doing all I could to mold this congregation into a purpose driven church. This means, remove the choir, dress casually, marginalize the older members, and making authoritarian decisions without the congregation voting (referring to the needed change to our schedule in 2021 and then an adjustment in 2022). While I read Rick Warren’s book, I never used a 25-year-old text to architect a takeover of the church.

Nehemiah 6:8-9
Then I sent a message to him saying, “Nothing like these things that you are saying has been done, but you are inventing them in your own mind.” 9 For all of them were trying to frighten us, thinking, “They will become discouraged with the work and it will not be done.” But now, God, strengthen my hands.

Nehemiah’s response is, “you know that you’re lying, you were making this up in your own head.” There is no truth in any part of your story. He adds that the opposition was just trying to intimidate them. They wanted to break their resolve and to stop the good work. so he prayed for strength to continue the work.

When I read this, I was reminded of the noble mission that God has given us, to fulfill the great commission and live out the great commandment. We’ve got to do these if nothing else. We have to remember that whatever we do, no matter what our personal preferences, no matter anything, the mission trumps everything.

Something came to my attention the other day, a text from one of our members, about the city of Chesapeake allowing the Satanic Temple to start a Satan Club in one of their public schools. Imagine that, an after school program in our elementary school called the Satan Club. Like our children need a club influenced by a the father of lies teaching them to be free-thinkers and reject the authority of parents over their lives. As a church, our mission is to be out in our community, to be salt and light, fulfilling the mission that God has given us. This satanic activity is happening because we are not on the front lines. This is happening on our watch, and the city has to let them in the schools, because if they allow the good news club, for fairness, they have to let in all clubs. That’s what we’re up against. This generation is not the same as it was decades ago. We’ve got to be on the cutting edge of challenging and confronting this darkness. That is our mission, and all the things that we are arguing about and all this conflict, is it about the mission?

No, it is a distraction from the mission. It’s about power and control. Who has control Jesus’ church? A few vocal members believe the pastor is a hired hand, saying, “we pay your salary and you work for us.”

We have a lot of people in this congregation who want to be all about the mission. They want to be disciples. They want to grow in their faith. They want to share the gospel. They want to bring new people in, reaching those who are far off from God. I have to admit that it is often hard to bring people in thinking, “what are they going to do when they hear complaining and grumbling coming from our people?” Will they want to stay here? It’s hard to get people to want to be here. When guests come here, they need to hear about the love of Jesus Christ demonstrated through how we treat one another.

So, my thought is this, we are doing a good work here. And that’s what we need to be about, the good work that God has us doing, the mission. We don’t have time for these complaining meetings, we don’t have time for things like that. As Nehemiah says here, we are not going to come down to attend your meeting and to listen to your complaining. We have a task, a noble work of building this wall, and you will not distract us from that noble work. It’s too important.

I see many families, most of whom are at the other end of the hallway, and we see in that area growth and joy and life. That’s where we’re going to invest because we want to raise children and teenagers in the knowledge of the Lord. If we do that, they won’t even be tempted to go to the Satan Club on their school campus. That’s the good work we’re doing, sharing the light and life of the gospel.

So, I invite you to join us on the good work that God, getting the gospel outside the walls of this congregation. If we need to complain about things, we need to go off to the side, rather than making it center stage. we need to protect the flock from the poison that we get from certain members of our congregation. We have to encourage people to stand strong in the Lord and to be about the mission.

I had to share that Scripture with you tonight because God said something to me. Hopefully you will resolve to be all about the mission and not your personal preferences.

Another thing Hardaway writes in his email, I encourage you to stop looking at your situation through your eyes and try to see the church through the eyes of your next pastor. Man, when I saw that, I thought, “would any pastor want to come here?” I can confidently say, “not until we get back to the mission.” That’s what we need to be doing.

* This is the same meeting where we opened the sanctuary early, for 30 minutes of personal prayer, to sit in the sanctuary in silence and pour out our heart to the Lord, confessing sin, and putting all this at the feet of the one who can change hearts and lives.

ReFocus on Worship – Psalm 15


A Description of a Worshiper in Psalm 15

If we are going to ReFocus on worship, perhaps we need to define by what we mean by worship, explaining what it IS and what it is NOT. When you hear the word “worship” what comes into your mind? If we’re honest, we probably picture this sanctuary at 9:30 or 11:00, basically, the event that takes place in this room each week. Or maybe you might think about hymns, or a choir, or listening to the preacher for 30 minutes, or offering prayer, or a collection plate.

Worship is not just something in the church because we have all heard the phrase, “hero worship.” Maybe it’s your favorite athlete or actor. Maybe you’re a Swifty or a fan of some other popular musician or artist. People can become blinded by their loyalty to their chosen hero. It becomes hero worship when they are all-in with that person with a blind eye to their limitations or faults.

As far as an ACROSTIC for this week… here it is… TRUTH, taken from John 4:24 “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”

T – Theology of Worship – Human beings are created to worship. Throughout the centuries, mankind will worship something, from the living God of Israel, to rocks, trees, the sun, the stars, the horoscope, or even possessions, or popularity, or pleasures, or position. All these things can consume our minds and our hearts.

The Old Testament regularly calls for God’s people to worship him…

Psalm 29:1–2 – Ascribe to the Lord, you angels, Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. 2 Give honor to the Lord the glory due to His name; Worship the Lord in the splendor of His holiness.

1 Corinthians 10:31 – Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.

Philippians 2:9–11 – For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The purpose of the church, beyond serving the Lord and spreading the gospel, is to worship God through Jesus Christ. Here is a picture of the church…

1 Peter 2:5 – you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

In John 4:23–24, Jesus made it clear that the physical location of our worship is no longer relevant: “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:23–24). True worship takes place on the inside, within our hearts or our spirits, WE are the dwelling place of God.

Why do we worship Him? Psalm 103:1–2 – Bless the Lord, O my soul, And all that is within me, bless His holy name. 2 Bless the Lord, O my soul, And forget none of His benefits; 3 Who pardons all your iniquities, Who heals all your diseases; 4 Who redeems your life from the pit, Who crowns you with lovingkindness and compassion;

Ephesians 2:19-22 – So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, 20 having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, 21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.

Believers are temples of the living God, shining his glory.

When the Old Testament prophet Jonah said, “I am a Hebrew, and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land” (Jonah 1:9, NLT), he was speaking of a lifestyle wholly dedicated to glorifying God. The apostle Paul also defined worship as an all-encompassing way of life: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship” (Romans 12:1).

Believers participate in specific acts of worship whenever they celebrate God’s worthiness and His greatness by giving honor and glory to His name. Worship can be expressed in words, shouts, singing, bowing down, raising hands, and many other ways. In Psalm 95:1-2, the psalmist urges God’s people to engage in acts of worship: “Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving and let us sing him songs of praise.”

We’re talking about a theology of worship, (theology is literally, “words about God”). Here is a certain foundation, God is the object of our worship. It’s not about a place, like a sanctuary. It’s not about our attire, like wearing your Sunday best or a tie. It’s not about the equipment used in worship, like hymnbooks, choirs, or a pulpit. God alone is worthy of worship (1 Chronicles 16:25; Psalm 96:4–5). Worshiping God means acknowledging His absolute worth that He alone deserves. He is our Creator (Acts 17:28; James 1:17; Revelation 4:11), our Redeemer (Colossians 1:12–13; 1 Peter 1:3), and the Lord of all (Psalm 22:27).

A biblical theology of worship involves praising God and giving Him glory with our lips and with our lives; with our words and with our works; with our physical bodies and with our spiritual hearts. Worship that pleases God is authentic, offered with clean hands and a pure heart (Psalm 24:3–4; Isaiah 66:2).

So, the T is all about a Theology of Worship. The R in TRUTH is for…

R – Righteous Behavior – what we say or believe must be backed up with what we do and how we behave. If not, our faith is just a game we play at certain times during the week. Psalm 15:1-5, (along with Psalm 24) may have been inspired on the occasion of moving the ark to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:12-19). Or the psalm may have expressed David’s deepest thoughts when he was in exile and was deprived of worshiping in God’s house.

The upright man of Psalm 15 is a complete contrast to the fool of Psalm 14 (in heart, word, and deed). The foolish person of Psalm 14 had forsaken the Law and the Lord, while this group in Psalm 15 is a remnant that kept faith alive in the nation of Israel (Malachi 3:16-18).

David’s Worship (15:1)

  1. A Pilgrim Worshiper – Who may abide in your tent or tabernacle? This language is similar to the tent of meeting during the Exodus. God met with his people for worship and sacrifices. For us, this is a real reminder that our worship can be on the move, wherever you are. All over the world, you can find God’s people and worship together. This also deals with the universal church, which are all believers who are united in Christ.
  2. A Permanent Worshiper – Who may dwell on your holy hill? Eventually, the transient Israelites found their capital city, the City of David, and worshiped on a holy hill, called Moriah. It was this same location where Abraham was asked by God to sacrifice his one and only son Isaac, as a test of his faith. For us, there’s something to be said about gathering in a specific location on a regular basis. This is your local community of faith.

David’s Walk (15:2-4) – He who walks uprightly; who walks with integrity. This psalm helps us to see the connection between what we believe, what we do, and how we behave in public life. They say that integrity is all about “being the same person even when no one else is watching” … but we must always remember that someone is ALWAYS watching!

  1. His Works (15:2a) – He works righteousness.
  2. His Words (15:2b-4)
    1. Secret Words (15:2b) – … He speaks truth in his heart.
    2. Spoken Words (15:3-4)
      1. Restrained – He does not backbite or slander with his tongue.
      2. Righteous – He does not do evil to his neighbor.
      3. Responsibility – He does not take up a reproach or cast blame against his friend.
      4. Respectful – He despises a vile reprobate person but honor those who fear the Lord.
      5. Reliable – He swears to his own hurt and does not change.

David’s Ways (15:5)

  1. They Were Fair (15:5a) He doesn’t change interest on a loan nor take a bribe against the innocent.
  2. They Were Fixed (15:5b) He who does these things will never be moved.

This psalm helps us see a picture of a true worshiper whom God accepts into his sanctuary. But then, we come to the U in TRUTH…

U – Unacceptable Worship – Not everything we offer up to God, and we call worship, is acceptable worship to God.

A biblical theology of worship is concerned with the true worship of God.

True biblical worship must be reverent (Hebrews 12:28).

We must understand who is being worshiped. God is holy, just, perfect, powerful, loving, etc. On the flip side, we are sinners saved by grace, and we come before our holy God on the basis of our Redeemer, Jesus.

There is no room for pride in adoration (see Luke 18:9–14). If we feel we deserve being in his presence, it is a sure sign that we have missed the mark.

Those who wish to worship biblically must worship God as He is revealed in Scripture. Unbiblical views of God must be rejected.

Here are a few verses of unacceptable worship:

Hebrews 12:28 – Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; 29 for our God is a consuming fire.

Genesis 4:4-5 – Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and for his offering; 5 but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell.

Matthew 15:7-9 – You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you: 8 ‘This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far away from Me. 9 ‘But in vain do they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’”

And, we should beware of casting judgment based on another group’s style or preference or worship expression. That would be ok if you are the object of worship, but since you are not, how dare anyone say that God is not pleased with that type of offering or sacrifice of praise. Because it is different than yours.

The second T in TRUTH is for …

T – True Worship (John 4:19-24) Did you know that we can worship in ignorance? You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. (John 4:22).

WHAT or WHO does God seek? The lost? Converts? Disciples? Missionaries? Laborers? According to John 4:23, But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. The Father seeks worshippers. So, what is a worshiper? What does a worshiper do? What does a worshiper look like?

We must know the endgame at the beginning or else we may only develop into a worshiper by accident, or we’ll miss the target all together. Look back at Psalm 15. It helps us see how a worshipper acts. Here are a few verses that support the need for Holy Spirit inspired transformed behavior:

Ephesians 4:1 – Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called,

Philippians 1:27 – Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel;

Colossians 1:10 – so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God;

1 Thessalonians 2:12 – so that you would walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory.

1 John 2:6 –the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.

1 Peter 2:21 – For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps.

The point is that worship is way more than gathering here on Sunday believing that if I do, that’s all God wants from me. We need to know the truth, because in reality, ignorance is NOT bliss. God knows who’s serious about their faith and who is going through the motions.

There is only one way to renew our minds, and that is by the Word of God. This book is the truth. This book reveals the Truth, Jesus our Lord and Redeemer. To know the truth, to believe the truth, to hold convictions about the truth, and to love the truth will naturally result in true spiritual worship.

And finally, the H in TRUTH is for…

H – Hymns and Spiritual Songs – What were the ingredients of worship that we find in the New Testament? In the first century church, on any given Sunday…

They Observed the Lord’s Supper – On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to leave the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight. (Acts 20:7),

They Offered up Prayers – What is the outcome then? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also. (1 Corinthians 14:15),

They Sang Songs to the Glory of God – speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; (Ephesians 5:19)

They Took Up a Collection – On the first day of every week each one of you is to put aside and save, as he may prosper, so that no collections be made when I come. (1 Corinthians 16:2)

They Read the Scriptures – When this letter is read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and you, for your part read my letter that is coming from Laodicea. (Colossians 4:16)

They Proclaimed the Word of God – On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to leave the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight. (Acts 20:7, until midnight I might add).


When we talk about worship being a lifestyle that includes transformation of the mind and the body; it is more than simply keeping the rules.

We know that the rabbis had 613 commandments to obey if they wanted to be righteous; sort of a fence around the Law to keep us from breaking God’s Top Ten. Moses ben Maimon (AD 1138–1204, commonly known as Maimonides) compiled a list. (His tomb is in Tiberias, on the western Sea of Galilee).

In Psalm 15, David lists 11 things that is practiced by a true worshipper of El-Shaddai, (God Almighty).

Isaiah 33:15-16 cut that list down to six, very similar to what David records in Psalm 15.

Micah 6:8 brings it down to 3. 1) To act justly, 2) to love mercy, and 3) to walk humbly with your God.

Habakkuk 2:4 brings it down to 1, the righteous will live by faith.

Where are you on this continuum of worship and lifestyle? What changes do you need to make? How must your life be transformed by the renewing of your mind and the modification of your behavior?

True worship is not confined to what we do in church. True worship is the acknowledgment of God and all His power and glory in everything we do. The highest form of praise and worship is obedience to God and His Word. To do this, we must know God; we cannot be ignorant of Him (Acts 17:23). Worship is to glorify and exalt God—to show our loyalty and admiration to our heavenly Father.

Let’s pray about it.

The Peacemaker – Ken Sande

The Peacemaker, by Ken Sande (Please support the author by purchasing the book. The following are highlights from my personal reading).

This wonderful news can radically change the way we respond to conflict. Through the gospel, the foundational G, the Lord enables us to live out the Four G’s of peacemaking. As we stand in awe of his matchless grace, we find more joy in glorifying God than in pursuing our own selfish ends. When we realize that God has mercy on those who confess their sins, our defensiveness lifts and we are able to admit our wrongs.

The primary focus of this book, however, will be on how God can help you as an individual Christian throw off worldly ideas about resolving conflict and become a true peacemaker. Among other things, it will explain How to use conflict as an opportunity to demonstrate the love and power of Jesus When it is appropriate to overlook an offense How to change attitudes and habits that lead to conflict How to confess wrongs honestly and effectively When to assert your rights How to correct others effectively How to forgive others and achieve genuine reconciliation How to negotiate just and reasonable agreements When to ask the church to intervene in a conflict How to deal with people who refuse to be reasonable When it is appropriate for a Christian to go to court

When someone mistreats or opposes us, our instinctive reaction is to justify ourselves and do everything we can to get our way. This selfish attitude usually leads to impulsive decisions that only make matters worse.

Focusing on God is the key to resolving conflict constructively. When we remember his mercy and draw on his strength, we invariably see things more clearly and respond to conflict more wisely. In doing so, we can find far better solutions to our problems.

Escape Responses – The three responses found on the left side of the slippery slope are called the escape responses. People tend to use these responses when they are more interested in avoiding a conflict than in resolving it.

Denial. One way to escape from a conflict is to pretend that it does not exist. Or, if we cannot deny that the problem exists, we simply refuse to do what should be done to resolve a conflict properly.

Flight. Another way to escape from a conflict is to run away. This may include leaving the house, ending a friendship, quitting a job, filing for divorce, or changing churches. In most cases, running away only postpones a proper solution to a problem (see Gen… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.

Suicide. When people lose all hope of resolving a conflict, they may seek to escape the situation (or make a desperate cry for help) by attempting to take their own lives (see 1 Sam. 31:4).… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.

Attack Responses – The three responses found on the right side of the slippery slope are called the attack responses. These responses are used by people who are more interested in… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.

Assault. Some people try to overcome an opponent by using various forms of force or intimidation, such as verbal attacks (including gossip and slander), physical violence, or efforts to damage a person financially or professionally (… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.

Litigation. Another way to force people to bend to our will is to take them to court. Although some conflicts may legitimately be taken before a civil judge (see Acts 24:1–26:32; Rom. 13:1–5), lawsuits usually damage… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.

Murder. In extreme cases, people may be so desperate to win a dispute that they will try to kill those who oppose them (see Acts 7:54–58). While most Christians would not actually kill someone, we should never forget that we stand guilty of murder in God’s eyes when we harbor anger… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.

Peacemaking Responses The six responses found on the top portion of the slippery slope are called the peacemaking responses. These responses are commanded by God, empowered by the gospel, and directed toward… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.

The first three peacemaking responses may be referred to as “personal peacemaking,” because they may be carried out personally and privately,… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.

Overlook an offense. Many disputes are so insignificant that they should be resolved by quietly and deliberately overlooking an offense. “A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense” (Prov. 19:11; see also 12:16; 17:14; Col. 3:13; 1 Peter 4:8). Overlooking an offense is a form of forgiveness and involves a deliberate… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.

Reconciliation. If an offense is too serious to overlook or has damaged the relationship, we need to resolve personal or relational issues through confession, loving correction, and forgiveness. “[If] your brother has something against you… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.

Negotiation. Even if we successfully resolve relational issues, we may still need to work through material issues related to… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.

When a dispute cannot be resolved through one of the personal peacemaking responses, God calls us to use one of the next three peacemaking responses,… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.

Mediation. If two people cannot reach an agreement in private, they should ask one or more objective outside people to meet with them to help them communicate more… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.

Arbitration. When you and an opponent cannot come to a voluntary agreement on a material issue, you may appoint one or more arbitrators to listen to your arguments and… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.

Accountability. If a person who professes to be a Christian refuses to be reconciled and do what is right, Jesus commands church leaders to formally intervene to hold him or her accountable to Scripture and to promote repentance, justice, and forgiveness: “If he… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.

The extreme responses to conflict also result in greater losses. Every response to conflict costs you something; you must give up one thing to gain another.

There are also three noteworthy parallels between the two sides of the slippery slope. Both extremes of the spectrum result in death, either through suicide or murder, which are terrible problems in our culture.

There are also some interesting contrasts between the various responses to conflict. First, there is a difference in focus. When I resort to an escape response, I am generally focusing on “me.” I am looking for what is easy, convenient, or nonthreatening for myself. When I use an attack response, I am generally focusing on “you,” blaming you and expecting you to give in and solve the problem. When I use a peacemaking response, my focus is on “us.” I am aware of everyone’s interests in the dispute, especially God’s, and I am working toward mutual responsibility in solving a problem.

The issue of goals reveals a second difference between various responses. People who use escape responses are usually intent on “peace-faking,” or making things look good even when they are not. (This is especially common in the church, where people are often more concerned about the appearance of peace than the reality of peace.)

Attack responses are used by people who are prone to “peace-breaking.” They are more than willing to sacrifice peace and unity to get what they want.

Those who use the responses on the top of the slippery slope are committed to “peace-making” and will work long and hard to achieve true justice and genuine harmony with others.

Let’s begin our discussion by defining conflict as a difference in opinion or purpose that frustrates someone’s goals or desires.

There are four primary causes of conflict. Some disputes arise because of misunderstandings resulting from poor communication (see Josh. 22:10–34). Differences in values, goals, gifts, calling, priorities, expectations, interests, or opinions can also lead to conflict (see Acts 15:39; 1 Cor. 12:12–31). Competition over limited resources, such as time or money, is a frequent source of disputes in families, churches, and businesses (see Gen. 13:1–12). And, as we will see below, many conflicts are caused or aggravated by sinful attitudes and habits that lead to sinful words and actions (see James 4:1–2).

As James 4:1–2 tells us, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. . . .” When a conflict is the result of sinful desires or actions that are too serious to be overlooked, we need to avoid the temptation to escape or attack.

First, you can trust God. Instead of relying on your own ideas and abilities as you respond to people who oppose you, ask God to give you grace to depend on him and follow his ways, even if they are completely opposite to what you feel like doing (Prov. 3:5–7).

Second, you can obey God. One of the most powerful ways to glorify God is to do what he commands (Matt. 5:16; John 17:4; Phil. 1:9–10). As Jesus said, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (John 15:8).

Third, you can imitate God. When the believers in Ephesus were struggling with conflict, the apostle Paul gave them this timeless advice: “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1–2; see 1 John 2:6).

Fourth, you can acknowledge God. As God gives you grace to respond to conflict in unusual and effective ways, other people will often take notice and wonder how you do it.

Every time you encounter a conflict, you will inevitably show what you really think of God. If you want to show that you love him “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37), then ask him to help you trust, obey, imitate, and acknowledge him, especially when it is difficult to do so.

The other benefit of a God-centered approach to conflict resolution is that it makes you less dependent on results.

God’s highest purpose for you is not to make you comfortable, wealthy, or happy. If you have put your faith in him, he has something far more wonderful in mind—he plans to conform you to the likeness of his Son!

God may also use conflict to expose sinful attitudes and habits in your life. Conflict is especially effective in breaking down appearances and revealing stubborn pride, a bitter and unforgiving heart, or a critical tongue. When you are squeezed through controversy and these sinful characteristics are brought to the surface, you will have an opportunity to recognize their existence and ask for God’s help in overcoming them (Ps. 119:67).

The Bible provides a detailed description of the character traits needed to manage conflict productively.

Motivated. As we have seen, the gospel provides enormous motivation to respond to conflict constructively.

Informed. As a steward, you also need to understand your Master’s will (see Luke 12:47). This is not difficult, because God has written out his instructions for you.

Strengthened. You are not alone when you are stewarding conflict: “For the eyes of the LORD range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him” (2 Chron. 16:9a; cf. 1 Cor. 10:13). God provides this strength to all Christians through the Holy Spirit, who plays an essential role in peacemaking.

Dependent. At times, conflict can push you beyond your limits. You may have a difficult time understanding how to respond to a particular situation, or you may become so weary that you lose your determination to do what you know is right.

Faithful. Perhaps the most important characteristic of a steward is faithfulness: “Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful” (1 Cor. 4:2). Faithfulness is not a matter of results; it is a matter of dependent obedience.

The Three Dimensions of Peace God loves peace. From Genesis to Revelation, he communicates a deep desire to bless his people with peace and to use them to bring peace to others. Consider these recurring themes: 1. Peace is part of God’s character, for he is frequently referred to as “the God of peace” (see Rom. 15:33; 2 Cor. 13:11; Phil.4:9; Heb. 13:20; cf. Judg. 6:24). 2. Peace is one of the great blessings that God gives to those who follow him (see Lev. 26:6; Num. 6:24–26; Judg. 5:31; Ps. 29:11; 119:165; Prov. 16:7; Micah 4:1–4; Gal. 6:16). 3. God repeatedly commands his people to seek and pursue peace (see Ps. 34:14; Jer. 29:7; Rom. 14:19; 1 Cor. 7:15; 2 Cor. 13:11; Col. 3:15; 1 Thess. 5:13; Heb. 12:14). He also promises to bless those who do so (see Ps. 37:37; Prov. 12:20; Matt. 5:9; James 3:18). 4. God describes his covenant with his people in terms of peace (Num. 25:12; Isa. 54:10; Ezek. 34:25; 37:26; Mal. 2:5). 5. God taught his people to use the word peace (Hebrew shalom and Greek eirene) as a standard form of greeting (Judg. 6:23; 1 Sam. 16:5; Luke 24:36) and parting (1 Sam. 1:17; 2 Kings 5:19; Luke 7:50; 8:48). Nearly all of the New Testament Epistles either begin or end with a prayer for peace (Rom. 1:7; 15:13; Gal. 1:3; 2 Thess. 3:16).

There are three dimensions to the peace that God offers to us through Christ: peace with God, peace with one another, and peace within ourselves.

Peace with God Peace with God does not come automatically. All of us have sinned and alienated ourselves from him (Isa. 59:1–2). Instead of living the perfect lives required for enjoying fellowship with him, each of us has a record stained with sin (Rom. 3:23).

Peace with Others In addition to giving you peace with God, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross opened the way for you to enjoy peace with other people (Eph. 2:11–18). This peace, which is often referred to as “unity” (Ps. 133:1), is not simply the absence of conflict and strife. Unity is the presence of genuine harmony, understanding, and goodwill between people.

Peace within Yourself Through Jesus you can also experience genuine peace within yourself. Internal peace is a sense of wholeness, contentment, tranquility, order, rest, and security.

Jesus’ Reputation Depends on Unity – Unity is more than a key to internal peace. It is also an essential element of your Christian witness. When peace and unity characterize your relationships with other people, you show that you are God’s child and he is present and working in your life (Matt. 5:9). The converse is also true: When your life is filled with unresolved conflict and broken relationships, you will have little success in sharing the good news about Jesus’ saving work on the cross.

Similar words are recorded in John 13:34–35, where Jesus tells his disciples that their public witness would be closely related to the way they treated one another: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

The Enemy of Peace – Since peace and unity are essential to an effective Christian witness, you can be sure that there is someone who will do all he can to promote conflict and division among believers. Satan, whose name means “adversary,” likes nothing better than to see us at odds with one another. “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8b).

Satan promotes conflict in many ways. Among other things, he tempts us so we give in to greed and dishonesty (Acts 5:3), he deceives us and misleads us (2 Tim. 2:25–26), and he takes advantage of unresolved anger (Eph. 4:26–27). Worst of all, he uses false teachers to propagate values and philosophies that encourage selfishness and stimulate controversy (1 Tim. 4:1–3).

Satan prefers that we do not recognize his role in our conflicts. As long as we see other people as our only adversaries and focus our attacks on them, we will give no thought to guarding against our most dangerous enemy.

Paul also shows that unity does not mean uniformity (Eph. 4:7– 13). He reminds us that God has richly blessed his children with a wide array of gifts, talents, and callings (1 Cor. 12:12–31). Mature Christians rejoice in the diversity that God has given to his people, and they realize that believers can legitimately hold differences of opinion on “disputable matters” (Rom. 14:1). When differences rob us of harmony and peace, however, there is work to do.

Ironically, even though pastors usually neglect 1 Corinthians 6, there are many judges and attorneys who are calling the church to take Paul’s teaching seriously. For example, associate Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia made this observation: I think this passage [1 Cor. 6:1–8] has something to say about the proper Christian attitude toward civil litigation. Paul is making two points: first, he says that the mediation of a mutual friend, such as the parish priest, should be sought before parties run off to the law courts. . . . I think we are too ready today to seek vindication or vengeance through adversary proceedings rather than peace through mediation. . . . Good Christians, just as they are slow to anger, should be slow to sue.5

God Is Sovereign – The Bible provides many examples of people who trusted God even in the midst of terrible hardship and suffering. Our prime example is Jesus.

One reason that Jesus and Paul trusted God so completely is that they knew he was in complete control of everything that happened in their lives.

Whether consciously or subconsciously, we say to ourselves, “If I were God and could control everything in the world, I wouldn’t allow someone to suffer this way.” Such thoughts show how little we understand and respect God.

God Is Good – If all we knew was that God is in control, we could have reason to fear. Indeed, if he used his power arbitrarily, sometimes for good and sometimes for evil, we would be in great danger. But this is not the case. God is good—his power is always wielded with perfect love.

The Path Has Been Marked – Trusting God does not mean that we will never have questions, doubts, or fears. We cannot simply turn off the natural thoughts and feelings that arise when we face difficult circumstances. Trusting God means that in spite of our questions, doubts, and fears we draw on his grace and continue to believe that he is loving, that he is in control, and that he is always working for our good. Such trust helps us to continue doing what is good and right, even in difficult circumstances.

Trust Is a Decision – Your view of God will have a profound effect on how much you trust him. If you do not believe that he is both sovereign and good, trust will be an elusive thing, for a god who is loving but not in control is simply “a heavenly Santa Claus . . . who means well, but cannot always insulate his children from trouble and grief.”11 Such a god offers little security or hope in the face of affliction and fails to inspire either trust or obedience. On the other hand, if you believe that God is sovereign and good, you will be able to trust him and obey him, even in the midst of difficult circumstances.

Define the Issues – As you evaluate your role in a conflict, it is helpful to clearly define the issues that separate you from other people. Conflicts generally involve two kinds of issues: material and personal. Material issues involve substantive matters such as property, money, rights, and responsibilities.

Personal issues relate to what goes on inside or between persons. These matters involve our attitudes and feelings toward others that result from how we have treated one another.

Overlook Minor Offenses – In many situations, the best way to resolve a conflict is simply to overlook the personal offenses of others.

Check Your Attitude—and Change It One of the reasons we sometimes find it difficult to overlook offenses is that we have an overly sensitive attitude or a tendency to dwell on what others have done. One way to guard against this problem is to check your attitude in the light of God’s Word.

Philippians 4:2–9 Paul does not explain every action that Euodia and Syntyche need to take to settle their differences. Instead, he focuses on the steps they can take to develop a proper attitude toward their situation and toward each other. Paul has broken his instructions into five basic principles, which you too can use whenever you are involved in a conflict.

1. Rejoice in the Lord always. As usual, Paul urges us to be God-centered in our approach to conflict. Moreover, he wants us to be joyfully God-centered.

2. Let your gentleness be evident to all. The second step in developing a proper attitude toward conflict is to “let your gentleness be evident to all” (cf. Gal. 6:1–2).

3. Replace anxiety with prayer. The third step in developing a godly attitude toward conflict is to get rid of anxious thoughts.

4. See things as they really are. As you replace anxiety with prayer, you will be ready to follow Paul’s fourth instruction, which is to develop a more accurate view of others.

5. Practice what you’ve learned. Paul’s final instruction to Euodia and Syntyche (and to us) is both straightforward and encouraging: “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice.

Count the Cost – Another way to avoid unnecessary conflict is to consider the cost of unresolved conflict. Conflict is often much more expensive than we expect it to be. Unresolved disputes can consume large amounts of time, energy, and money, leaving you emotionally and spiritually exhausted.

What about “Rights”? Some people resist overlooking offenses and settling disputes by arguing, “I have my rights—and it wouldn’t be just to let him off so easily.” Whenever I hear this comment from a Christian, I ask, “Where would you spend eternity if God administered justice that was not tempered with mercy?” The answer is obvious: We would all be condemned to hell.

The truth of the matter is that it may actually be unjust in God’s eyes to exercise certain rights. Much of what is legally permissible today is not right when viewed from a biblical perspective.

Here again the concept of stewardship serves as a helpful guiding principle. Rights are not something you deserve and possess for your own benefit. Rather, they are privileges given to you by God, and he wants you to use them for his glory and to benefit others, especially by helping them know Christ.

These passages describe the root cause of conflict: unmet desires in our hearts. When we want something and feel that we will not be satisfied unless we get it, that desire starts to control us. If others fail to meet our desires, we sometimes condemn them in our hearts and fight harder to get our own way. Let us look at this progression one step at a time.

The Progression of an Idol / Desire – Conflict always begins with some kind of desire. Some desires are inherently wrong, such as vengeance, lust, or greed, but many desires are not.

I Demand – Unmet desires have the potential of working themselves deeper and deeper into our hearts. This is especially true when we come to see a desire as something we need or deserve and therefore must have in order to be happy or fulfilled.

Most of us think of an idol as a statue of wood, stone, or metal worshiped by pagan people. But the concept of idolatry is much broader and far more personal than that. An idol is anything apart from God that we depend on to be happy, fulfilled, or secure.

It is important to emphasize the fact that idols can arise from good desires as well as wicked desires. It is often not what we want that is the problem, but that we want it too much.

As you search your heart for idols, you will often encounter multiple layers of concealment, disguise, and justification. One of the subtlest cloaking devices is to argue that we want only what we legitimately deserve or what God himself commands.

How could I tell which motives were actually ruling my heart? All I had to do was look at how I felt and reacted when my desires were not being met.

I Judge – As my example shows, idolatrous demands usually lead us to judge other people. When they fail to satisfy our desires and live up to our expectations, we criticize and condemn them in our hearts if not with our words.

As David Powlison writes: We judge others—criticize, nit-pick, nag, attack, condemn—because we literally play God. This is heinous. [The Bible says,] “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you to judge your neighbor?” Who are you when you judge? None other than a God wannabe. In this we become like the Devil himself (no surprise that the Devil is mentioned in James 3:15 and 4:7). We act exactly like the adversary who seeks to usurp God’s throne and who acts as the accuser of the brethren. When you and I fight, our minds become filled with accusations: your wrongs and my rights preoccupy me. We play the self-righteous judge in the mini-kingdoms we establish.3 This insight should leave us shaking in our boots!

We cross the line, however, when we begin to sinfully judge others, which is characterized by a feeling of superiority, indignation, condemnation, bitterness, or resentment. Sinful judging often involves speculating on others’ motives. Most of all, it reveals the absence of a genuine love and concern toward them. When these attitudes are present, our judging has crossed the line and we are playing God.

I Punish – Idols always demand sacrifices. When someone fails to satisfy our demands and expectations, our idol demands that he should suffer. Whether deliberately or unconsciously, we will find ways to hurt or punish people so that they will give in to our desires.

This punishment can take many forms. Sometimes we react in overt anger, lashing out with hurtful words to inflict pain on those who fail to meet our expectations. When we do so, we are essentially placing others on the altar of our idol and sacrificing them, not with pagan knives, but with the sharp edge of our tongues. Only when they give in to our desire and give us what we want will we stop inflicting pain upon them. We punish those who don’t “bow” to our idols in numerous other ways as well.

Love, fear, trust—these are words of worship. Jesus commands us to love God, fear God, and trust God only (Matt. 22:37; Luke 12:4–5; John 14:1). Anytime we long for something apart from God, fear something more than God, or trust in something other than God to make us happy, fulfilled, or secure, we worship a false god. As a result, we deserve the judgment and wrath of the true God.

Deliverance from Judgment – There is only one way out of this bondage and judgment: It is to look to God himself, who loves to deliver people from their idols. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:2–3).

Deliverance from Specific Idols – Yet there is more good news. God wants to deliver us not only from our general problem with sin and idolatry, but also from the specific, day-to-day idols that consume us, control us, and cause conflict with those around us.

God uses three vehicles to convey his grace to help us in this identification and deliverance process: his Bible, his Spirit, and his church.

If someone told you that you had a deadly cancer that would take your life if you did not get treatment, you would probably spare no effort or expense in pursuing the most rigorous treatment available. Well, you do have cancer—a cancer of the soul. It is called sin and idolatry.

Replace Idol Worship with Worship of the True God – In his excellent book Future Grace, John Piper teaches that “sin is what you do when you are not fully satisfied in God.”4 The same may be said about idolatry. In other words, if we are not fulfilled and secure in God, we will inevitably seek other sources of happiness and security.

Repent before God. When we repent and confess our sins and idols, believing in our forgiveness through Christ, we also confess our faith in Christ.

Fear God. Stand in awe of the true God when you are tempted to fear others or are afraid of losing something precious.

Love God. Desire the one who forgives us and provides everything we need, instead of looking to other things that cannot save you.

Trust God. Rely on the one who sacrificed his Son for you and has proven himself to be absolutely dependable in every situation.

Delight in God. Learn to find your greatest joy in thinking about God, meditating on his works, talking to others about him, praising him, and giving him thanks.

James 4:1–3 provides a key principle for understanding and resolving conflict. Whenever we have a serious dispute with others, we should always look carefully at our own hearts to see whether we are being controlled by unmet desires that we have turned into idols. These desires love to disguise themselves as things we need or deserve, or even as things that would advance God’s kingdom. But no matter how good or legitimate a desire may look on the surface, if we have gotten to the point where we cannot be content, fulfilled, or secure unless we have it, that desire has evolved into an idol that has diverted our love and trust from God. Fortunately, God delights to deliver us from our slavery to idols and enable us to find true freedom, fulfillment, and security in his love and provision. And as we break free from the desires that have fueled our conflicts, we can resolve seemingly hopeless disputes and become more effective peacemakers. If you are presently involved in a conflict, these questions will help you apply the principles presented in this chapter to your situation: 1. Work backwards through the progression of an idol to identify the desires that are controlling your heart. Ask yourself these questions: a. How am I punishing others? b. How am I judging others? c. What am I demanding to have? d. What is the root desire of that demand? 2. What makes you think that you need or deserve to have any of these desires satisfied? 3. In order to more clearly identify your idols (desires turned into demands), ask yourself these questions: a. What am I preoccupied with? (What is the first thing on my mind in the morning and/or the last thing at night?) b. How would I fill in this blank?: “If only ______, then I would be happy, fulfilled, and secure.” c. What do I want to preserve or avoid at any cost? d. Where do I put my trust? e. What do I fear? f. When a certain desire is not met, do I feel frustration, anxiety, resentment, bitterness, anger, or depression? g. Is there something I desire so much that I am willing to disappoint or hurt others in order to have it? 4. How are your expectations of others magnifying your demands on them and your disappointment in their failure to meet your desires? 5. How are you judging those who do not meet your desires? Are you feeling indignation, condemnation, bitterness, resentment, or anger? 6. How are you punishing those who do not meet your desires? 7. What has God done to deliver you from your idols? What can you do to receive this deliverance? 8. How can you cultivate a more passionate love for and worship of God? 9. Go on record with the Lord by writing a prayer based on the principles taught in this chapter.

Repentance Is More Than a Feeling – Repentance is the first step in gaining freedom from sin and conflict. Repentance is not something we can do on our own; it is a gift of God for which we should continually pray, whereby he convicts us of our sin and shows us the road to freedom (2 Tim. 2:24–26). Repentance does not mean we simply feel sad and uncomfortable. Nor does it involve a mere apology. To repent literally means to change the way we think.

In contrast, godly sorrow means feeling bad because you have offended God. It means sincerely regretting the fact that what you did was morally wrong, regardless of whether or not you must suffer unpleasant consequences. It involves a change of heart—which is possible only when you understand that sin is a personal offense against God himself (2 Chron. 6:37–39; cf. Jer. 31:19). Godly sorrow will not always be accompanied by intense feelings, but it implies a change in thinking, which should lead to changes in behavior.

Examine Yourself – One evidence of sincere repentance is a willingness to thoroughly examine ourselves so that we can uncover both our mistakes and our sins. Mistakes are the result of errors in judgment rather than sin. Although it is right to acknowledge and repair mistakes that have hurt others, we do not need to go through the same in-depth process that is needed to confess and correct our sins.

In fact, we can sin against God by omission—by doing nothing.

Because most of us do not like to admit that we have sinned, we tend to conceal, deny, or rationalize our wrongs. If we cannot completely cover up what we have done, we try to minimize our wrongdoing by saying that we simply made a “mistake” or an “error in judgment.” Another way to avoid responsibility for our sins is to shift the blame to others or to say that they made us act the way we did.

Using Your Tongue as a Weapon – Scripture warns us that the tongue is often a chief cause of conflict. “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person. . . . It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:5–6, 8b). Sinful speech can take many forms.

Reckless words, spoken hastily and without thinking, inflame many conflicts.

Grumbling and complaining irritates and discourages other people. It also takes our eyes off of the good things God and others do for us.

Falsehood includes any form of misrepresentation or deceit (Prov. 24:28; 2 Cor. 4:2), including lying, exaggeration, telling only part of the truth, or distorting the truth by emphasizing favorable facts while minimizing those that are against us. Anytime we use words that give a false impression of reality, we are guilty of practicing deceit.

Gossip is often both the spark and the fuel for conflict. “A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends” (Prov. 16:28).

Slander involves speaking false and malicious words about another person. The Bible repeatedly warns against such talk (e.g., Lev. 19:16; Titus 2:3) and commands us to “have nothing to do” with slanderers who refuse to repent (2 Tim. 3:3–5).

Worthless talk can also contribute to conflict, even if you intend no harm. It violates God’s high standard for talking to or about others: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Eph. 4:29).

Sinful words contribute greatly to conflict. Furthermore, they can destroy us from the inside out. As 2 Timothy 2:16 warns, “Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly.”

Controlling Others – Few things cause as much conflict as trying to control other people. Some attempts to control others are blatantly self-serving, such as maximizing our own profit or influence at another person’s expense (Gen. 29:15–30). But the more common type of control involves trying to persuade, manipulate, or force people to do things that simply make our lives more comfortable and convenient.

Breaking Your Word – A great deal of conflict is the direct result of someone’s failure to keep a commitment, whether it was expressed in a contract, a marriage vow, an oath to God, or by a simple yes or no (Matt. 5:33–37; cf. Num. 30:2; Deut. 23:23; Prov. 2:17).

Failing to Respect Authority – Another common source of conflict is the abuse of or rebellion against the authority God has established in the church, the government, the family, and the workplace. All legitimate authority has been established by God, primarily for the purpose of maintaining peace and order (Rom. 13:1–7).

Forgetting the Golden Rule – Perhaps the most common cause of conflict is our failure to follow the Golden Rule, which Jesus taught in Matthew 7:12: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” To see whether you have violated this teaching, ask yourself questions like these: Would I want someone else to treat me the way I have been treating him? How would I feel if I found out people were saying about me what I’ve said about her? If our positions were reversed, how would I feel if he did what I have done? If someone broke a contract for the same reasons I am using, would I feel that was right? If I was an employee, how would I feel if I was treated the way I have treated her? If I owned this business, would I want my employees to behave the way I am behaving?

The Seven A’s of Confession – As God opens your eyes to see how you have sinned against others, he simultaneously offers you a way to find freedom from your past wrongs. It is called confession. Many people have never experienced this freedom because they have never learned how to confess their wrongs honestly and unconditionally. Instead, they use words like these: “I’m sorry if I hurt you.” “Let’s just forget the past.” “I suppose I could have done a better job.” “I guess it’s not all your fault.” These token statements rarely trigger genuine forgiveness and reconciliation. If you really want to make peace, ask God to help you breathe grace by humbly and thoroughly admitting your wrongs. One way to do this is to use the Seven A’s.

1. Address Everyone Involved – As a general rule, you should confess your sins to every person who has been directly affected by your wrongdoing. Since all sins offend God by violating his will, all sins should be first confessed to him (see Ps. 32:5; 41:4).

2. Avoid If, But, and Maybe – The best way to ruin a confession is to use words that shift the blame to others or that appear to minimize or excuse your guilt. The most common way to do this is to say, “I’m sorry if I’ve done something to upset you.” The word if ruins this confession, because it implies that you do not know whether or not you did wrong. The message you are communicating is this: “Obviously you’re upset about something. I don’t know that I have done anything wrong, but just to get you off my back I’ll give you a token apology. By the way, since I don’t know whether I have done anything wrong, I certainly don’t know what I should do differently in the future. Therefore, don’t expect me to change. It’s only a matter of time before I do the same thing again.”

3. Admit Specifically – The more detailed and specific you are when making a confession, the more likely you are to receive a positive response. Specific admissions help convince others that you are honestly facing up to what you have done, which makes it easier for them to forgive you.

4. Acknowledge the Hurt – If you want someone to respond positively to a confession, make it a point to acknowledge and express sorrow for how you have hurt or affected them. Your goal is to show that you understand how the other person felt as a result of your words or actions.

5. Accept the Consequences – Explicitly accepting the consequences of your actions is another way to demonstrate genuine repentance. The prodigal son demonstrated this principle. After acknowledging that he had sinned against God and his father, he decided to say, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men” (Luke 15:19).

6. Alter Your Behavior – Another sign of sincere repentance is to explain to the person you offended how you plan to alter your behavior in the future. On a personal level, this could involve describing some of the attitude, character, and behavior changes you hope to make with God’s help.

7. Ask for Forgiveness (and Allow Time) – If you follow the six steps described above, many people will readily say they forgive you. If the person to whom you have confessed does not express forgiveness, however, you may ask, “Will you please forgive me?” This question is a signal that you have done all that you can by way of confession and that the responsibility for the next move has shifted to the other person. This will often help the offended person make and express the decision to forgive you.

Not every confession will require all seven steps. Minor offenses can often be handled with a fairly simple statement. The more serious the offense, however, the wiser it is to make a thorough confession using all of the Seven A’s.

You Can Change – The final step in finding freedom from a particular sin is to work with God to change your attitudes and behavior in the future. This process fulfills the third opportunity of peacemaking, namely, growing to be more like Christ.

God is eager to help us to grow and change (see Phil. 1:6, 2:13; Rom. 8:28–29; 1 Cor. 6:9–11; 2 Peter 1:4). There is no sin or habit in your life that cannot be overcome by his grace.

Pray. Thank God for the saving work he has already done in your life and ask him to give you faith to believe that you really can change.

Delight yourself in the Lord. As we saw in chapter 5, the best way to squeeze idolatrous desires out of our hearts is to learn to love and worship God with all our heart, mind, strength, and soul.

Study. The Bible frequently emphasizes the close connection between transformed thinking and growth in character (Rom. 8:6–8; 12:1–2; 1 Cor. 2:9–16; Eph. 1:17–19; 4:22–24; Phil. 1:9–11; Col. 1:9–12). Wisdom, knowledge, and understanding—all involving our minds—are important prerequisites to spiritual fruitfulness.

Practice. As Paul warned the Philippians, we cannot change unless we put what we are learning into practice (Phil. 4:9).

Jesus is clearly calling for something much more loving and redemptive than simply confronting others with a list of their wrongs. He wants us to remember and imitate his shepherd love for us—to seek after others to help them turn from sin and be restored to God and those they have offended.

As these and many similar passages indicate, we need to let go of the idea that showing someone his fault always requires direct confrontation. Although that approach will be appropriate in some situations, we should never do it automatically. Instead, we should ask God to help us discern the most winsome and effective way to approach a particular person at a particular time and to open the way for genuine reconciliation.

The Bible clearly commends face-to-face meetings as an important step in reconciling people, but it does not teach that this is the only way to begin a reconciliation process. In fact, it is sometimes better to involve other people in resolving a conflict before trying to meet personally with someone who has wronged you.

However, whether we begin with a private meeting or work through intermediaries, we must not let personal preferences or cultural traditions divert us from seeking genuine reconciliation, which requires a sincere expression and confirmation of confession and forgiveness.

First, many of the passages related to restoring relationships clearly contemplate a direct conversation between the conflicting parties (see Matt. 5:23–24; 18:15; Luke 17:3). Second, Scripture provides many examples of marvelous reconciliation that came about after personal meetings between people who had wronged each other, including Jacob and Esau (Gen. 33:6–12), Joseph and his brothers (45:1–5; 50:15–21), and Paul and the apostles (Acts 9:27–28). Third, the Bible also gives examples of disastrous results when the involvement of intermediaries allowed the parties to delay or avoid personal meetings involving genuine confession and forgiveness.

If Someone Has Something against You – If you learn that someone has something against you, God wants you to take the initiative in seeking peace—even if you do not believe you have done anything wrong. If you believe that another person’s complaints against you are unfounded or that the misunderstanding is entirely the other person’s fault, you may naturally conclude that you have no responsibility to take the initiative in restoring peace.

There are several reasons why you should initiate reconciliation even if you do not believe you are at fault. Most importantly, Jesus commands you to go.

Finally, you should initiate reconciliation out of love for your brother and concern for his well-being.

Bitterness, anger, and unforgiveness are serious sins in God’s eyes.

When Someone’s Sins Are Too Serious to Overlook – God also calls you to go and talk to someone about a conflict if that person’s sins are too serious to overlook. This is why Jesus said, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3). It is sometimes difficult to decide whether another person’s sin is so serious that you need to go and talk about it.

Is It Dishonoring God? – Sin is too serious to overlook if it is likely to bring significant dishonor to God (see, e.g., Matt. 21:12–13; Rom. 2:23–24). If someone who professes to be a Christian is behaving in such a way that others are likely to think less of God, of his church, or of his Word, it may be necessary to talk with that person and urge him to change his behavior.

Is It Damaging Your Relationship? – You should also go and talk about offenses that are damaging your relationship with another person. If you are unable to forgive an offense—that is, if your feelings, thoughts, words, or actions toward another person have been altered for more than a short period of time—the offense is probably too serious to overlook.

Is It Hurting Others? – An offense or disagreement is also too serious to overlook when it results in significant harm to you or others.

Is It Hurting the Offender? – Finally, sin needs to be addressed when it is seriously harming the offender, either by direct damage (e.g., alcohol abuse) or by impairing his or her relationship with God or other people.

A Christian’s responsibility to help others deal with serious sins can be understood more clearly by studying two particular words used in Galatians 6:1. In this passage Paul told the Galatians to restore a brother who is “caught in a sin.” The Greek word that is translated as “caught” (prolambano) means to be overtaken or surprised. Thus, the brother who needs our help is one who has been ensnared when he was off guard.

It also helps to understand what Paul told the Galatians to do with a brother caught in sin. Instead of ignoring him or throwing him out, the Galatians were instructed to “restore him gently.”

After the Log Is Out of Your Eye – As Jesus teaches in Matthew 7:3–5, you should not try to talk to others about their wrongs until you have dealt with your contribution to a problem.

1. You may simply overlook the offense. Confess your contribution to the problem, let go of what the other person did, and get on with your life. This route will be appropriate if the other person’s sin is relatively minor and has not permanently affected your relationship.

2. You may build on the other’s superficial confession. Your confession may encourage the other person to make some form of admission, even if it is incomplete or halfhearted.

3. You may need to talk about the other person’s sin now. This will be appropriate when the conflict is so serious or the other person’s attitude and behavior is so harmful that the situation must be dealt with immediately or further problems are likely to occur.

4. You may postpone confrontation until another time. This will be appropriate if the matter is not urgent and if immediate confrontation is not likely to be productive.

Bring Hope through the Gospel – When someone has disappointed or offended me, my natural tendency is to come at them with “the law,” lecturing them about what they have done wrong and what they should now do to make things right. This approach generally makes people defensive and reluctant to admit their wrongs, which makes a conflict worse.

As these passages show, when we need to talk with others about their faults, we should ask for God’s help to resist our tendency to hammer people into submission by dwelling on their failures. Of course, we sometimes need to show them where they have sinned and fallen short of God’s ways. But that should not be the primary focus of our words, because judgment inevitably discourages.

Be Quick to Listen – Another element of effective communication is to listen carefully to what others are saying. Knowing this is not our nature, James gave this warning to the early church: “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). Good listening is particularly important for a peacemaker.

Waiting – Waiting patiently while others talk is a key listening skill. Without this skill, you will often fail to understand the root cause of a conflict, and you may complicate matters with inappropriate reactions.

Attending – The human mind can think at least four times faster than a person can talk. Therefore, when you are listening to someone, your mind may be searching for something more to do. If you allow your mind to wander, or if you start rehearsing your responses, you may miss much of what others are saying.

Clarifying Clarifying is the process of making sure you understand what the other person is saying.

Reflecting – Reflecting or “paraphrasing” is the process of summarizing the other person’s main points in your own words and sending them back in a constructive way.

Agreeing – Agreeing with what another person says is an especially powerful listening response. This doesn’t mean you abandon your beliefs, but rather that you acknowledge what you know is true before addressing points of disagreement.

One reason we are sometimes reluctant to admit being wrong on one issue is that we fear it will seem like we are accepting responsibility for the entire problem.

The Tongue of the Wise Brings Healing – A third element of effective communication is the ability to speak to others in a clear, constructive, and persuasive manner.

Breathe Grace – As we have seen throughout this book, peacemakers are people who breathe grace to others in the midst of conflict. Since we cannot breathe out what we have not breathed in, this process hinges on our moment-to-moment relationship with God.

Make Charitable Judgments – When you are trying to show others where they may need to change, your attitude will usually carry more weight than your actual words. If people sense that you have jumped to conclusions about them and enjoy finding fault in them, they are likely to resist correction. If, on the other hand, they sense that you are trying to believe the best about them, they will be more inclined to listen to your concerns.

Speak the Truth in Love – God commands us not only to speak the truth to each other, but to “[speak] the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15; emphasis added), even to people who have wronged or mistreated us (1 Peter 3:9; cf. Luke 6:27–28; Acts 7:59–60; Rom. 12:14; 1 Cor. 4:12–13).

Talk from Beside, Not from Above – When you need to show others their faults, do not talk down to them as though you are faultless and they are inferior to you. Instead, talk with them as though you are standing side by side at the foot of the cross.

Help Others Examine the Desires of Their Hearts – As we saw in chapter 5, the root cause of most conflict is desires in our hearts that have become so strong that they begin to consume and control us. These desires can become little gods or idols that dominate our thoughts, goals, and actions.

Choose the Right Time and Place – Timing is an essential ingredient of effective communication. If possible, do not discuss sensitive matters with someone who is tired, worried about other things, or in a bad mood. Nor should you approach someone about an important concern unless you will have enough time to discuss the matter thoroughly.

Talk in Person Whenever Possible – As we discussed in chapter 7, communication is most effective when it is done as personally as possible. Therefore, face-to-face conversation is usually better than talking by telephone, because both people can see facial expressions and communicate with body language as well as with words.

Engage Rather than Declare – One of the fastest ways to make people defensive is to abruptly announce what they have done wrong. If you launch into a direct and detailed description of their faults, they are likely to close their ears and launch a counterattack.

Communicate So Clearly That You Cannot Be Misunderstood – Many conflicts are caused or aggravated by misunderstandings. People may say things that are actually true or appropriate, but because they did not choose their words carefully, they leave room for others to misconstrue what they mean and take offense.

Plan Your Words – I cannot overemphasize the importance of planning your words when you need to talk with others about their faults. In delicate situations, careful planning can make the difference between restored peace and increased hostility.

Use “I” Statements – One of the most helpful skills Corlette has taught me is how to use “I” statements. The statements give information about yourself rather than attack the other person—as is the case when you make statements like “You are so insensitive” or “You are just irresponsible.” A typical formula for an “I” statement is “I feel ___ when you ___, because ___. As a result ___.”

“I” statements can accomplish three things. First, they tell the other person how his or her conduct is affecting you.

Second, this kind of statement identifies what the other person has done that you are concerned about.

Third, an “I” statement can explain why this issue is important to you and why you would like to discuss it.

Be Objective – When you are trying to show someone his fault, keep your remarks as objective as possible. While an expression of personal perceptions and feelings may help someone understand your feelings, if you emphasize subjective opinions and judgments too much, you are likely to convey condescension or condemnation.

Use the Bible Carefully – It is often helpful to refer to the Bible as a source of objective truth when you have a disagreement with another Christian. If this is not done with great care, however, it will alienate people rather than persuade them.

Ask for Feedback – When talking to another person, one of your primary goals should be to match impact with intent. In other words, you want to make sure that what you meant to say has actually gotten across to the other person completely and accurately.

Offer Solutions and Preferences – When you speak to others about issues in their lives, be prepared to offer solutions to the specific problems you have identified. If you can show a person a reasonable way out of a predicament, he or she may be more inclined to listen to you. Hope is a key ingredient in promoting repentance and change.

Recognize Your Limits – Finally, whenever you are trying to show someone his fault, remember that there are limits to what you can accomplish. You can raise concerns, suggest solutions, and encourage reasonable thinking, but you cannot force change.

The Matthew 18 Process – A general principle taught in Matthew 18 is that we should try to keep the circle of people involved in a conflict as small as possible for as long as possible. If we can resolve a dispute personally and privately, we should do so. But if we cannot settle matters on our own, we should seek help from other people, expanding the circle only as much as necessary to bring about repentance and reconciliation.

Step One: Overlook Minor Offenses Before you consider involving others in a conflict, it is wise to review the steps that you can take to resolve a dispute in private.

Step Two: Talk in Private If you have wronged someone else, God calls you to go to the other person to seek forgiveness (see chapters 5 and 6). If another person has committed a wrong that is too serious to overlook, it is your responsibility to go the other person and show him his fault, making every effort to resolve personal issues and promote genuine reconciliation (see chapters 7 and 8).

Step Three: Take One or Two Others Along If a dispute cannot be resolved in private, Jesus tells us to ask other people to get involved. “But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses’” (Matt. 18:16).

By mutual agreement. If you and your opponent cannot resolve a dispute in private, you can suggest that the two of you ask one or more unbiased individuals to meet with you in an effort to facilitate more productive dialogue.

On your initiative. While mutual agreement is always preferable, it is not actually required if your opponent professes to be a Christian. Matthew 18:16 indicates that you may seek help from reconcilers even if your opponent doesn’t want it. Before you take this step, however, it is wise and often beneficial to warn your opponent what you are about to do.

WHAT DO RECONCILERS DO? Reconcilers can play a variety of roles in a conflict. Their primary role is to help you and your opponent make the decisions needed to restore peace.

WHAT IF MY OPPONENT IS NOT A CHRISTIAN? The basic principles of step three can also be applied when the other person does not profess to be a Christian. Some modifications may be needed, of course.

Step Four: Tell It to the Church (Church Accountability) If your opponent professes to be a Christian and yet refuses to listen to the reconcilers’ counsel, and if the matter is too serious to overlook, Jesus commands you to “tell it to the church” (Matt. 18:17). This does not mean standing up in a worship service and broadcasting the conflict to church members and visitors alike, since unwarranted publicity is totally inconsistent with the intent of Matthew 18. Instead, you should inform the leadership of the other person’s church (and probably yours as well) of the problem and request their assistance in promoting justice and peace by holding both of you accountable to God’s Word and to your commitments.4

Step Five: Treat Him as a Nonbeliever As I have shown repeatedly, God calls his people to act justly, seek peace, and be reconciled with others. If a Christian refuses to do these things, he is violating God’s will. If he refuses to listen to his church’s counsel to repent of this sin, Jesus says the church should “treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17, emphasis added). Jesus’ use of the word as is significant. Since only God can know a person’s heart (1 Sam. 16:7; Rev. 2:23), the church has no power to decide whether a person is a believer. Instead, the church is called only to make a functional decision: If a person behaves like a nonbeliever would—by disregarding the authority of Scripture and of Christ’s church—he should be treated as if he were a nonbeliever.

In other words, the church should not pretend that things are all right with people who claim to be Christians and yet refuse to listen to God as he speaks through the Scriptures and the church. Treating unrepentant people as unbelievers is sometimes the only way to help them understand the seriousness of their sin. This may be accomplished by withdrawing various membership privileges, such as communion, church office, or teaching Sunday school, and may culminate in revoking their membership status altogether if they persist in their refusal to repent of sin.

Treating someone as a nonbeliever serves three important purposes. First, revoking the person’s membership in the church prevents the Lord from being dishonored if that person continues to act in blatantly sinful ways (Rom. 2:23–24). Second, other believers are protected from being led astray by a bad example or divisive behavior (Rom. 16:17; 1 Cor. 5:1–6). Third, treating someone as a nonbeliever may help the rebellious person to realize the seriousness of his or her sin, turn from it, and be restored to God. This third purpose bears repeating. The intention in treating others as nonbelievers is not to injure them or punish them, but rather to help them see the seriousness of their sin and their need for repentance. Jesus loved people caught in sin enough to warn them of their sinful condition and its consequences and to urge them to repent (e.g., Mark 2:17; John 4:1–18). The church should do no less.6

Many Christians balk at this teaching. Some churches ignore or refuse to implement Matthew 18:17, even though the Bible teaches that God views accountability and discipline as an act of love and an important means to restore his wandering sheep and protect his people from being led astray by sinful examples.

Consider this analogy. When a patient has cancer, it is not easy for his doctor to tell him, because it is a truth that is painful to hear and difficult to bear. Even so, any doctor who diagnoses cancer but fails to report it to a patient would be guilty of malpractice.

Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. Colossians 3:13 Christians are the most forgiven people in the world. Therefore, we should be the most forgiving people in the world. As most of us know from experience, however, it is often difficult to forgive others genuinely and completely. We often find ourselves practicing a form of forgiveness that is neither biblical nor healing.

As Christians, we cannot overlook the direct relationship between God’s forgiveness and our forgiveness: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph. 4:32).

You Cannot Do It Alone – It is impossible to truly forgive others in your own strength, especially when they have hurt you deeply or betrayed your trust.

Neither a Feeling, nor Forgetting, nor Excusing – To understand what forgiveness is, we must first see what it is not. Forgiveness is not a feeling. It is an act of the will. Forgiveness involves a series of decisions, the first of which is to call on God to change our hearts.

Second, forgiveness is not forgetting. Forgetting is a passive process in which a matter fades from memory merely with the passing of time. Forgiving is an active process; it involves a conscious choice and a deliberate course of action.

Finally, forgiveness is not excusing. Excusing says, “That’s okay,” and implies, “What you did wasn’t really wrong,” or “You couldn’t help it.” Forgiveness is the opposite of excusing. The very fact that forgiveness is needed and granted indicates that what someone did was wrong and inexcusable. Forgiveness says, “We both know that what you did was wrong and without excuse. But since God has forgiven me, I forgive you.”

To forgive someone means to release him or her from liability to suffer punishment or penalty. Aphiemi, a Greek word that is often translated as “forgive,” means to let go, release, or remit.

But if someone sinned against you, part of their debt is also owed to you. This means you have a choice to make. You can either take payments on the debt or make payments. You can take or extract payments on a debt from others’ sin in many ways: by withholding forgiveness, by dwelling on the wrong, by being cold and aloof, by giving up on the relationship, by inflicting emotional pain, by gossiping, by lashing back or by seeking revenge against the one who hurt you.

Therefore, forgiveness may be described as a decision to make four promises: “I will not dwell on this incident.” “I will not bring up this incident again and use it against you.” “I will not talk to others about this incident.” “I will not let this incident stand between us or hinder our personal relationship.” By making and keeping these promises, you can tear down the walls that stand between you and your offender.

When Should You Forgive? Ideally, repentance should precede forgiveness (Luke 17:3).

When an offense is too serious to overlook and the offender has not yet repented, you may need to approach forgiveness as a two-stage process. The first stage requires having an attitude of forgiveness, and the second, granting forgiveness. Having an attitude of forgiveness is unconditional and is a commitment you make to God (see Mark 11:25; Luke 6:28; Acts 7:60).

Granting forgiveness is conditional on the repentance of the offender and takes place between you and that person (Luke 17:3–4). It is a commitment to make the other three promises of forgiveness to the offender.

Can You Ever Mention the Sin Again? The four promises are a human attempt to summarize the key elements of God’s marvelous forgiveness for us. As a human device, they are limited and imperfect and should not be used in a rigid or mechanical fashion. In particular, the commitment not to bring up the offense again and use it against the offender should not be used to prevent you from dealing honestly and realistically with a recurring pattern of sin.

What about the Consequences? Forgiveness does not automatically release a wrongdoer from all the consequences of sin. Although God forgave the Israelites who rebelled against him in the wilderness, he decreed that they would die without entering the Promised Land (Num. 14:20–23).

Overcoming Unforgiveness – The promises of forgiveness can be difficult to make and even harder to keep. Fortunately, God promises to help us forgive others. He gives us this help through the Bible, which provides practical guidance and many examples of personal forgiveness.

Confirm Repentance – It can be difficult to forgive a person who has failed to repent and confess clearly and specifically. When you find yourself in this situation, it may be wise to explain to the person who wronged you why you are having a difficult time forgiving.

Renounce Sinful Attitudes and Expectations – Forgiveness can also be hindered by sinful attitudes and unrealistic expectations.

Assess Your Contributions to the Problem – In some situations, your sins may have contributed to a conflict. Even if you did not start the dispute, your lack of understanding, careless words, impatience, or failure to respond in a loving manner may have aggravated the situation. When this has happened, it is easy to behave as though the other person’s sins more than cancel yours.

Recognize That God Is Working for Good – When someone has wronged you, it is also helpful to remember that God is sovereign and loving. Therefore, when you are having a hard time forgiving that person, take time to note how God may be using the offense for good.

Remember God’s Forgiveness – One of the most important steps in overcoming an unforgiving attitude is to focus your attention on how much God has forgiven you. The parable of the unmerciful servant vividly illustrates this principle (Matt. 18:21–35).

Draw on God’s Strength – Above all else, remember that true forgiveness depends on God’s grace. If you try to forgive others on your own, you are in for a long and frustrating battle. But if you ask God to change your heart and you continually rely on his grace, you can forgive even the most painful offenses.

Reconciliation and the Replacement Principle – Forgiveness is both an event and a process. Making the four promises of forgiveness is an event that knocks down a wall that stands between you and a person who has wronged you. Then a process begins. After you demolish an obstruction, you usually have to clear away debris and do repair work.

Being reconciled does not mean that the person who offended you must now become your closest friend. What it means is that your relationship will be at least as good as it was before the offense occurred.

Reconciliation requires that you give a repentant person an opportunity to demonstrate repentance and regain your trust.

Although reconciliation can sometimes take place with little or no special effort, in most cases you will need to remember the saying, “If you are coasting, you must be going downhill.” In other words, unless a deliberate effort is made to restore and strengthen a relationship, it will generally deteriorate. This is especially true when you are recovering from intense and prolonged conflict.

In Thought – Even when we say, “I forgive you,” many of us have a difficult time not thinking about what others have done to hurt us. Try as we might, memories of the offense keep popping back into our minds, and we find ourselves reliving all kinds of painful feelings.

In Word – As Luke 6:27–28 implies, the replacement principle applies to your words as well as your thoughts. When talking to others about the person who offended you, make it a point to speak well of the person. Express appreciation for things he or she has done and draw attention to redeeming qualities. Do the same when talking to the offender. Praise, thank, or encourage!

In Deed – If you really want to be reconciled to someone, apply the replacement principle to your actions as well (1 John 3:18). As C. S. Lewis noted, “Don’t waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”4

Cooperative versus Competitive Negotiation – Many people automatically resort to a competitive style when negotiating material issues. They act like they are having a tug-of-war, with each person pulling aggressively to get what he or she wants and letting others look out for themselves.

First, a competitive approach often fails to produce the best possible solution to a problem. When people work against each other, they tend to focus on surface issues and neglect underlying desires and needs. As a result, they often reach inadequate solutions.

Second, competitive negotiation can also be quite inefficient. It usually begins with each side stating a specific position, and progress is made by successive compromises and concessions. Because each compromise typically is about half the size of the previous one and takes twice as long, this process can consume a great deal of time and generate significant frustration.

Finally, competitive negotiating can significantly damage personal relationships. This approach tends to be very self-centered and easily offends others. It also focuses on material issues rather than on personal concerns, perceptions, and feelings.

When you need to negotiate, PAUSE. This acronym stands for the following steps: Prepare Affirm relationships Understand interests Search for creative solutions Evaluate options objectively and reasonably

Prepare – Preparation is one of the most important elements of successful negotiation (Prov. 14:8, 22). This is especially true when significant issues or strong feelings are involved.

Affirm Relationships – A conflict generally involves two basic ingredients: people and a problem. All too often, we ignore the feelings and concerns of the people and focus all our attention on the problems that separate us. This approach often causes further offense and alienation, which only makes conflicts more difficult to resolve. One way to avoid these unnecessary complications is to affirm your respect and concern for your opponent throughout the negotiation process.

Understand Interests – The third step in the PAUSE strategy is to understand the interests of those involved in the disagreement. Only then can you properly respond to the command to “look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” In order to identify interests, it is important to understand how they differ from issues and positions.

An issue is an identifiable and concrete question that must be addressed in order to reach an agreement.

A position is a desired outcome or a definable perspective on an issue.

An interest is what motivates people. It is a concern, desire, need, limitation, or something a person values.

Before you attempt to understand the interests of other people, it is wise to make a written list of your own interests. Remembering the three opportunities provided by conflict, you might begin by listing interests related to glorifying God, serving others, and growing to be like Christ.

Search for Creative Solutions – The fourth step in the PAUSE strategy is to search for solutions that will satisfy as many interests as possible. This process should begin with spontaneous inventing. Everyone should be encouraged to mention any idea that comes to mind. Imagination and creativity should be encouraged, while evaluating and deciding should be postponed.

Evaluate Options Objectively and Reasonably – The final step in the PAUSE strategy is to evaluate possible solutions objectively and reasonably so you can reach the best possible agreement. Even if the previous steps have gone well, you may encounter significant differences of opinion when you get to this stage. If you allow negotiations to degenerate into a battle of wills, your previous work will have been wasted. Therefore, instead of relying on personal opinions, insist on using objective criteria to evaluate the options before you. If you are dealing with Christians, refer to relevant biblical principles.

Control Your Tongue – The more intense a dispute becomes, the more important it is to control your tongue (Rom. 12:14). When you are involved in prolonged conflict, you may be sorely tempted to indulge in gossip, slander, and reckless words, especially if your opponent is saying critical things about you. But if you react with harsh words or gossip, you will only make matters worse. Even if your opponent speaks maliciously against you or to you, do not respond in kind. Instead, make every effort to breathe grace by saying only what is both true and helpful, speaking well of your opponent whenever possible, and using kind and gracious language.

Seek Godly Advisors – As Paul says, it is difficult to battle evil alone (Rom. 12:15–16). This is why it is important to develop relationships with people who will encourage you and give you biblically sound advice.

Keep Doing What Is Right – Romans 12:17 emphasizes the importance of continuing to do what is right even when it seems that your opponent will never cooperate. When Paul says, “Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody,” he does not mean that we should be slaves to the opinions of others. The Greek word that is translated “be careful” (pronoeo) means to give thought to the future, to plan in advance, or to take careful precaution (cf. 2 Cor. 8:20–21). Therefore, what Paul is saying is that you should plan and act so carefully and so properly that any reasonable person who is watching you will eventually acknowledge that what you did was right.

Recognize Your Limits – When dealing with difficult people, it is also important to recognize your limits. Even when you continue to do what is right, some people may adamantly refuse to admit you are right or to live at peace with you. This is why Paul wrote, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18). In other words, do all you can to be reconciled to others, but remember that you cannot force others to do what is right.

Use the Ultimate Weapon – The final principle for responding to a stubborn opponent is described in Romans 12:20–21: “On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Here is the ultimate weapon: deliberate, focused love (cf. Luke 6:27–28; 1 Cor. 13:4–7). Instead of reacting spitefully to those who mistreat you, Jesus wants you to discern their deepest needs and do all you can to meet those needs.

Canoeing the Mountains – Tod Bolsinger

Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, by Tod E. Bolsinger (Please support the author by purchasing the book. The following are highlights from my personal reading).

A couple of years ago I learned that three of my pastor friends around the country had resigned on the same day. There were no affairs, no scandals and no one was renouncing faith. But three good, experienced pastors turned in resignations and walked away. One left church ministry altogether. The details are as different as the pastors themselves, but the common thread is that they finally got worn down by trying to bring change to a church that was stuck and didn’t know what to do. Their churches were stuck and declining, stuck and clinging to the past, stuck and lurching to quick fixes, trying to find an easy answer for what were clearly bigger challenges. What all three churches had in common was that they were mostly blaming the pastor for how bad it felt to be so stuck. “If only you could preach better!” “If only you were more pastoral and caring!” “If only our worship was more dynamic!” “Please, pastor, do something!” (That is what we pay you for, isn’t it?) And to make matters worse, the pastors don’t know what to do either. As a seminary vice president, I am now charged with confronting this reality head-on. Our graduates were not trained for this day. When I went to seminary, we were trained in the skills that were necessary for supporting faith in Christendom. When churches functioned primarily as vendors of religious services for a Christian culture, the primary leadership toolbox was teaching (for providing Christian education) liturgics (for leading Christian services) pastoral care (for offering Christian counsel and support).

Lewis and Clark’s expedition to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase was built on a completely false expectation. They believed, like everyone before them, that the unexplored west was exactly the same geography as the familiar east. This is the story of what they did when they discovered that they—and everyone else before them—had been wrong. And how instructive and inspiring that story can be to us today. Using the story of Lewis and Clark’s expedition and applying the best insights from organizational leadership and missional theology, we will learn together what it means for Christians to lead when the journey goes “off the map.” We will discuss and seek faithful responses to the following questions: How do we lead a congregation or an organization to be faithful to the mission God has put before us when the world has changed so radically? What are the tools, the mental models, the wise actions and competing commitments that require navigation? And mostly, what transformation does it demand of those of us who have been called to lead?

From Lewis and Clark we will learn that if we can adapt and adventure, we can thrive. That while leadership in uncharted territory requires both learning and loss, once we realize that the losses won’t kill us, they can teach us. And mostly, we will learn that to thrive off the map in an exciting and rapidly changing world means learning to let go, learn as we go and keep going no matter what.

To begin, let’s summarize the five vital lessons that make up the structure of this book: The world in front of you is nothing like the world behind you. No one is going to follow you off the map unless they trust you on the map.  In uncharted territory, adaptation is everything. You can’t go alone, but you haven’t succeeded until you’ve survived the sabotage. Everybody will be changed (especially the leader).

*REORIENTATION* Christian Leaders: You were trained for a world that is disappearing.

Today’s leaders are facing complex challenges that have no clear-cut solutions. These challenges are more systemic in nature and require broad, widespread learning. They can’t be solved through a conference, a video series or a program. Even more complicated, these problems are very often the result of yesterday’s solutions. They are what Ronald Heifetz calls “adaptive challenges.”7

The changing world around us and even the success we had experienced had brought us to a new place where we would need a new strategy. To paraphrase Marshall Goldsmith, “What got us here wouldn’t take us there.”8

What Is Leadership, Really? – Let’s begin by clarifying what leadership is and is not. Leadership is not authority. It is not the title or position that a person holds. Leadership is different from management. Leadership is not running good meetings, keeping good books, overseeing good programs and making good policies (as important as those are!). Management is a kind of stewardship. Management cares for what is. Leadership is focused on what can be or what must be. Management is about keeping promises to a constituency; leadership is about an organization fulfilling its mission and realizing its reason for being. To that end, let me offer three leadership principles that shape my work in leadership development (mostly in church and nonprofit circles).

Therefore, leadership is always about personal and corporate transformation. But because we are hard-wired to resist change, every living system requires someone in it to live into and lead the transformation necessary to take us into the future we are resisting. The person who takes personal responsibility to live into the new future in a transformative way, in relationship to the others in the system, is the leader. If someone is not functioning as a leader, the system will always default to the status quo.

The culture is changing, the world is changing rapidly, and churches are facing change on an unprecedented scale. Churches and church leaders are becoming increasingly irrelevant, even marginalized. Shared corporate faith is viewed with cynicism at best, downright hostility at worst. The cultural advantage we experience during the seventeen centuries of Christendom has almost completely dissipated. Seminary training for the Christendom world is inadequate to this immensely challenging—transformation-demanding—moment in history. We have to learn to lead all over again.

Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery were about to go off the map and into uncharted territory. They would have to change plans, give up expectations, even reframe their entire mission. What lay before them was nothing like what was behind them. There were no experts, no maps, no “best practices” and no sure guides who could lead them safely and successfully. The true adventure—the real discovery—was just beginning.

Farewell to Christendom – After forty years as a missionary and bishop in India, Lesslie Newbigin retired and returned home to Great Britain in the 1970s. What he found in his beloved homeland was a more difficult mission field than he left behind. He wrote, “England is a pagan society and the development of a truly missionary encounter with this very tough form of paganism is the greatest intellectual and practical task facing the Church.”10 In that one sentence Newbigin challenged the mental model of how the Christians in the West had seen their hometowns and resident cultures for what is now seventeen hundred years. No matter how many times English men and women sang “God Save the Queen,” no matter how beautiful the Christopher Wren cathedrals, no matter the presence of a state-sponsored church where bishops hold seats in the House of Lords, England—and for that matter most of Europe—had become a “pagan society.” Newbigin foresaw that the West was quickly becoming a mission field, and the church needed to “develop a truly missionary encounter” with their friends and neighbors.

Christopher Wright has reminded us that the sending of the church as the apostle to the world goes to God’s very purposes: “It is not so much that God has a mission for his church in the world, but that God has a church for his mission in the world.”13

Alan Hirsch, the mission or “sentness” of a congregation is its “true and authentic organizing principle”: Missional church is a community of God’s people that defines itself, and organizes its life around, its real purpose of being an agent of God’s mission to the world. In other words, the church’s true and authentic organizing principle is mission. When the church is in mission, it is the true church.14

A Church without Experts We are in uncharted terrain trying to lead dying churches into a post-Christian culture that now considers the church an optional, out of touch and irrelevant relic of the past. What do you do? If you are like me, indeed, like most people, what you do is default to what you know. You do again, what you have always done before.

We can’t see our way to a new way of being, a new response. We are growing more anxious about the decline of the church and the demise of whole religious structures. We don’t know what to do. So we keep trying harder; we keep trying our old tricks. But, of course, it doesn’t work. In Moneyball, an exasperated Billy Beane looks at his manager and tries to urge him to think differently. “It’s adapt or die!” he says. Adapt or die.

What is needed? “A spirit of adventure,” where there are new, unexpected discoveries (serendipities) and ultimately “new perceptions.” To be sure, this is an adapt-or-die moment. This is a moment when most of our backs are against the wall, and we are unsure if the church will survive to the next generation. The answer is not to try harder but to start a new adventure: to look over Lemhi Pass and let the assumptions of the past go.

*REORIENTATION* If you can adapt and adventure, you can thrive. But you must let go, learn as you go and keep going no matter what.

Back to the Pass – As he stepped off the map into uncharted territory, Meriwether Lewis discovered that what was in front of him was nothing like what was behind him, and that what had brought him to this point in the journey would take him no farther. Lewis faced a daunting decision: What would he do now? Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery were looking for a water route, but now they had run out of water. How do you canoe over mountains? You don’t. If you want to continue forward, you change. You adapt. Meriwether Lewis looked at the miles and miles of snow-covered peaks and knew that to continue his journey he would have to change his entire approach.

But what kind of leadership do we need today in a culture that has become again a mission field? What does leadership look like in a day when the moorings of society have become disconnected from the anchors of faith? What is leadership in a world where the task isn’t so much to re-mind as to encounter and engage, to proclaim and demonstrate a completely different world that is available and yet beyond awareness of or even interest to so many? What does leadership look like in a post-Christendom day when we have left behind rivers filled with the waters of shared Christian culture and are facing a new terrain marked by mountains to climb? Ironically, it looks a lot like the earliest church leadership.

The Recovery of Leadership for an Apostolic Church – In their book The Permanent Revolution, Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim recover the concept that the church—literally, “the ecclesia”—is an apostolic movement.2 Nurtured by a fivefold model of leadership (apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers) found in Ephesians 4:1-16, they demonstrate that the church’s very nature is apostolic. That is, the church is the embodiment of the work of the original twelve disciples who became the first apostles, “sent” to the world, and equipping and being equipped for the sending. For Darrell Guder this is indeed the very purpose of the ecclesia, the apostolate, that is, “the formation of the witnessing communities whose purpose was to continue the witness that brought them into existence.”3

To live up to their name, local churches must be continually moving out, extending themselves into the world, being the missional, witnessing community we were called into being to be: the manifestation of God’s going into the world, crossing boundaries, proclaiming, teaching, healing, loving, serving and extending the reign of God. In short, churches need to keep adventuring or they will die. We need to press on to the uncharted territory of making traditional churches missionary churches.

Communal Transformation for Mission – At the heart of this book is the conviction that congregational leadership in a post-Christendom context is about communal transformation for mission. Christian community is not merely about connection, care and belonging. Spiritual transformation is not just about becoming more like Christ as an end in itself. In a post-Christendom world that has become a mission field right outside the sanctuary door, Christian community is about gathering and forming a people, and spiritual transformation is about both individual and corporate growth, so that they—together—participate in Christ’s mission to establish the kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Leadership therefore is about the transformation of a congregation so that they, collectively, can fulfill the mission they, corporately, have been given. Every spiritual practice, including preaching, is to serve that end.

Don’t Just Fix the Problem – According to Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, adaptive leadership is not about finding the best-known or most-available fix to a problem, but instead adapting to the changing environment or circumstances so that new possibilities arise for accurately seeing, understanding and facing challenges with new actions.

Adaptive challenges, by contrast, are those that “cannot be solved with one’s existing knowledge and skills, requiring people to make a shift in their values, expectations, attitudes, or habits of behaviour.”6 These are “systemic problems with no ready answers” that arise from a changing environment and uncharted territory.7 These are challenges leaders face when the world around them changes so rapidly that the planned strategies and approaches are rendered moot. This is when the discovery of the Rocky Mountains requires us to ditch the canoes and look for new ways forward.

In this new post-Christendom era, the church leader will be less a grand orator or star figure who gathers individuals for inspiration and exhortation, and more a convener and equipper of people who together will be transformed as they participate in God’s transforming work in the world. To that end, I offer this definition of leadership: Leadership is energizing a community of people toward their own transformation in order to accomplish a shared mission in the face of a changing world.

For Christian leaders today, this is the moment of truth. Are we willing to take the risks and get up the nerve to lead a big adventure? lead our people to face the challenge of a changing world? acknowledge that what is in front of us is not at all like the world where we have previously thrived? clarify and cling to our core convictions and let go of everything else that keeps us from being effective in the mission God has given us? let go of the tried and true default actions that have brought us this far? learn a new way of leading that begins with our own transformation?

While leadership in uncharted territory may or may not require us to move our families to Alaska, Jon’s advice is worth remembering. Adaptation, even adaptive leadership, begins in the nuts and bolts of surviving and thriving, in the lessons passed on by those who are a few steps down the road, in the tricks and tips of “technical competence.” Or to put it another way, unless we demonstrate that we are credible on the map, no one is going to follow us off the map.

Technical Competence – Surprisingly, transformational leadership does not begin with transformation but with competence. At the same time, many of us assume that it begins with character, that is, the personal attributes that make up a good, wise and effective leader. But in reality, the opportunity to lead usually begins with technical competence (see fig. 4.1). The best player on the team becomes the team captain. The expert, the high achiever, the most articulate, the best producer, the smartest, strongest, most attractive are, under most circumstances, tapped for leadership (King Saul immediately comes to mind).

Technical Competence, Stewardship and Credibility – Another way to say this is: Stewardship precedes leadership. Biblically, stewardship is about faithfully protecting and preserving what is most important, about growing and developing the potential of everything and everyone under one’s care. It is about faithfully discharging the duties and carrying out the responsibilities that we have been authorized to do. It is the first and most basic act of being human, the first charge given in the garden to “cultivate and keep” (Genesis 2:15).

Stewardship, therefore, is on-the-map authorization, and technical competence describes the leaders’ ability to do the job they were hired to do—to navigate the known territory—before beginning the transformational leadership process. Before Lewis and Clark asked their men to follow them beyond the Missouri River headwaters into uncharted territory, they led them upriver with both expertise and efficiency.

*REORIENTATION* Before people will follow you off the map, gain the credibility that comes from demonstrating competence on the map.

Only she really wasn’t praying for my leadership at all, she was praying for my faithful stewardship of what she held most dear, the Scriptures and our theological traditions. She was praying that amid all of the things that were changing, I would keep very clear on what wouldn’t or shouldn’t change.

Competent stewardship of souls and communities. Pastors are more than preachers. Christian leaders are not just trusted with the Scriptures; we are also entrusted with souls. And before we can lead our people into uncharted territory, they have to believe that we will spiritually protect and personally care for them along the way. To be truly credible we also have to be shepherds.

In the same way, we are to lead the people of God into the mission of God and to care for each person with the love of the tangible embrace of Christ. We are called to offer both love for people just where they are and to call and equip them to be part of the kingdom mission of Jesus in the world around them. But to be sure, people need to experience the love of God as they are led into the mission of God. If they don’t feel loved, they will likely not let anyone lead them anywhere.

Competent stewardship of teams and tasks. Technical competence for the pastor is measured not only through fidelity to the Scriptures and the spiritual tending of souls and church, but also in the ability to competently manage the organization or institution given to our charge. Pastors of congregations need to be both personal and organizational. If they are not, they likely are not pastors. Spiritual directors, certainly. Evangelists, possibly. Prophets, maybe. Pastoring involves both persons and the communities they are part of. And this is a difficult challenge indeed!

We need to make sure that when our attempts at innovation go awry it’s because we have something to learn, and not because we mishandled an otherwise good idea. Or in the indelicate words of our unofficial team motto, “We can fail, but we can’t suck.”

In the same way, leaders must demonstrate competence in fidelity to Scriptures and traditions, the nurture of souls and communities, and fruitfulness in tasks and teams of people running the work of the church in order to develop the credibility that will be necessary later when the harder work of adaptation and dealing with loss begins.

Beyond Credibility – If leaders are going to take on challenges beyond day-to-day technical ones, competence isn’t enough. Credibility built through technical competence, while crucial, is not enough either. Especially in a congregation. The change needed for a typical traditional congregation to become a missionary congregation is radical and scary indeed. To lead into uncharted territory is to reconsider the cherished narratives and assumptions, and as Ronald Heifetz reminds us, “Refashioning narratives means refashioning loyalties.”

In addition, we need to grasp just how difficult organizational transformation can be. Even if we agree that we are in an adapt-or-die (even adventure-or-die) moment, the urgency of the situation is not enough. When given that particular choice, 90 percent choose dying.7 In a study of those who were faced with exactly that choice—stop drinking or you will die, stop smoking or you will die, change your diet now or you will die, the vast majority choose to risk death.

*REORIENTATION* In uncharted territory, trust is as essential as the air we breathe. If trust is lost, the journey is over.

Building Trust – Trust must be added to credibility. Relationships must be healthy, life-giving and strong. The web of connectedness within the organization must be able to hold each other in the midst of all the chaos that comes from not knowing what is to come.

When we are experienced as congruent, trust goes up; when we are incongruent—when my words don’t match my actions—the trust level goes down. According to Osterhaus, “Trust is gained like a thermostat and lost like a light switch.”

Relational Congruence – Relational congruence is the ability to be fundamentally the same person with the same values in every relationship, in every circumstance and especially amidst every crisis. It is the internal capacity to keep promises to God, to self and to one’s relationships that consistently express one’s identity and values in spiritually and emotionally healthy ways.

As one of my clients, a former Army Ranger and West Point graduate said to me, “The mission first; the men always.”

For Christian leaders this means that ministry is not only the means to bring the gospel to the world, ministry together is how God makes a congregation into a corps that is ready to continually bring the gospel in new ways to a changing world. As missionaries who have been thrown together into unfamiliar surroundings with little more than a sense of call and commitment to each other, when we love each other and are dedicated to our mission, we change.

For Christians who have answered the call to follow the Master who also calls us friends (John 15:15) and gives us to each other as brothers and sisters (John 19:26-27), this relational congruence is even more critical. For the mission of Jesus entrusted to his followers (John 20:21) is expressed to the world through the love that the disciples have for each other (John 13:34-35).

But it is crucial to remember again that the goal of the expedition was not to build a family—it was to find a route to the Pacific Ocean. Similarly, the goal of the Christian faith is not simply to become more loving community but to be a community of people who participate in God’s mission to heal the world by reestablishing his loving reign “on earth as it is in heaven.”

“So, how do you change a church’s culture?” he asked. “Sex,” I answered.

Here is the key idea: The most critical attribute a congregation must have to thrive in uncharted territory is a healthy organizational culture.

The key words in Kotter’s definition are behaviors and values. Actions form the organizational culture, and that culture—like the DNA of a body—keeps reproducing the same values and behaviors. Note again, it’s not the aspired values that shape the church culture but the actual values that produce and are expressed in actual behaviors. It’s not enough to say that “we value creativity” if every creative idea is immediately criticized. It’s not enough for a church to “be committed to evangelism” if there are no adult baptisms. In the words of Dallas Willard, “to believe something is to act as if it is true.”6 A church can say that it values hospitality, discipleship and transparency, but these become part of the DNA of the church only when they are so resiliently present that they happen automatically, by default, because all aspects of the organizational life reflexively support and reinforce them. The actual behaviors of those in authority express and shape the actual values of the organizational culture.

For missional theologian JR Woodward this “unseen culture” is more important than strategy, vision or planning in determining a congregation’s health, openness to change and missional conviction.7 A church culture built on meeting the needs of its members will struggle with implementing changes that depend on putting those self-interested needs aside. A church that has expressed its devotion to God in the beauty and majesty of its worship will unconsciously resist a new informal service where people come in casual clothes carrying cups of coffee.

Numerous organizational writers have said the same thing: “After working on strategy for 20 years, I can say this: culture will trump strategy, every time. The best strategic idea means nothing in isolation. If the strategy conflicts with how a group of people already believe, behave or make decisions it will fail.”9

Alignment Toward a Healthy Culture – JR Woodward writes, “While management acts within culture, leadership creates culture.”10 Creating a healthy culture with the capacity to experiment, innovate, take risks and adapt is one of the primary preparatory tasks of a leader. That culture creation work rests on identifying the gaps between aspired values and actual behavior, and then working with the leaders to bring every aspect of the organization into alignment with the core ideology (core values, mission, primary strategy).

Perhaps in a previous generation where a highly regulated, centralized and authoritative structure was commonplace, some could argue that shared values could be enforced through power, position or other incentives. But today a genuine culture shift requires voluntary submission to shared values. No longer will church members simply accept the values of their leaders as their own. No longer will people dutifully submit their own ideals for the sake of a group. Before leaders begin any transformational work, cultivating a healthy environment for aligned shared values to guide all decision making must be a priority. Indeed, the values must be truly shared.

John Kotter puts it this way: “How does culture change? A powerful person at the top, or a large enough group from anywhere in the organization, decides the old ways are not working, figures out a change vision, starts acting differently, and enlists others to act differently.”

Love – We protect what we cherish. Love drives us to hold on to what is dear and cling to what gives us meaning and life. But it is also because of love that we are willing to change. It is a great paradox that love is not only the key to establishing and maintaining a healthy culture but is also the critical ingredient for changing a culture. Which takes us back to my answer to my colleague John, who was eating chips and salsa. How do we change the culture of a church? What if the default way of functioning is one of self-preservation? What if the behaviors of the leaders have created a culture of entitlement rather than discipleship? What if the church culture is focused on preserving American Christendom or worse? When the church’s default behavior, way of functioning, its organizational DNA is now hindering the very thing that must be done to fulfill the mission God has given us, how do we change it? And if “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” then how do we change the culture before we are eaten alive? Well, how do we change any DNA? Through sex. You have to birth something new.

Ronald Heifetz said, “You don’t change by looking in the mirror; you change by encountering differences.”24 To be sure, fear of differences can keep us resolutely committed to the status quo, to rejecting what seems foreign and to circling the wagons to keep out the intruder.

I looked at him and said it again. “You change the DNA of any living organism through birthing something new. The new birth won’t be all you or all them but a new creation, a new living culture that is a combination of the past and the future you represent. But you have to communicate that you really love them, or they will never let you close enough to them to take in the different perspective, experiences and vision that you bring. Right now, they know you are disappointed in them, and they don’t want to do anything but resist you. But seeing and embracing differences, if we know that we are loved and cherished just as we are, is also the way that we become open to the new possibilities. Love precedes change.”

The most critical attribute that a congregation must have if it is going to thrive in uncharted territory is a healthy organizational culture. When leaders are perceived as technically competent, they gain credibility in the eyes of their followers. When they are perceived as relationally congruent, trust is established. When credibility and trust are mobilized to create a healthy organizational culture, then we are ready to embrace the thrilling and daunting task of entering uncharted territory.

Adaptive Leadership: Loss, Learning and Gaps – Adaptive leadership is about “letting go, learning as we go, and keeping going.” It’s about loss, learning and gaps: “Adaptive leadership consists of the learning required to address conflicts in the values people hold, or to diminish the gap between the values people stand for and the reality they face.”4

This mode of leading raises up and sheds light on the competing values that keep a group stuck in the status quo. For churches, competing values like caring for longtime members versus reaching out to the unchurched, assuring excellence in ministry programming versus increasing participation with more volunteers, giving pay raises to staff versus bringing on a new hire, assuring control and unity versus collaboration and innovation entail conflict about things of equal or near equal value. Because they are both valued, the competition for resources and the decisions that need to be made can put individuals and congregations into a most vulnerable moment. Like a person with one foot on the platform and one in the train, the moment of adaptation exposes the gaps within a system and forces the leadership to ask painful questions: What will we lose if we have to choose one of these values over the other? What must we be willing to let go?

Adaptive Capacity – Adaptive capacity is defined by Heifetz, Linsky and Grashow as “the resilience of people and the capacity of systems to engage in problem-defining and problem-solving work in the midst of adaptive pressures and the resulting disequilibrium.”5

I looked back at the others, and while some still thought it was something we should do, they agreed it didn’t help kids feel more connected. Indeed, we had been doing it and we still have the problem of teenagers not feeling part of the church community. Youth Sunday hadn’t worked after all. So, I asked, “If we knew that Youth Sunday hadn’t worked to help teenagers feel more connected to the church, why did we suggest it?” After talking about it a while we came to the conclusion that we were talking about it, because it was the only thing we knew how to do.

But I’m trying to point out that when we get to moments of deep disorientation, we often try to reorient around old ways of doing things. We go back to what we know how to do. We keep canoeing even though there is no river. At least part of the reason we do this is because we resolutely hope that the future will be like the past and that we already have the expertise needed for what is in front of us. And facing the “geography of reality” and the inner uncertainty that arises within us is extremely difficult.

*REORIENTATION* When our old maps fail us, something within us dies. Replacing our paradigms is both deeply painful and absolutely critical.

Lewis exemplified what happens to most of us when we are confronting rapidly changing circumstances: even though the evidence is around us, we cling to the previously held assumptions as long as possible. Now, to his credit and as an exemplar for us, Meriwether Lewis wasted no time in casting off that assumption once the brutal facts of his situation were clear.7 There was no water route, there were miles and miles of snowcapped mountain peaks in front of them, they had no trail to follow, food was scarce in this rugged terrain and winter was coming. This is the canoeing the mountains moment. This was when the Corps of Discovery faced for the first time the breadth of the challenges posed by the Rocky Mountains and came to the irrefutable reality that there was no Northwest Passage, no navigable water route to the Pacific Ocean. This is the moment when they had to leave their boats, find horses and make the giant adaptive shift that comes from realizing their mental models for the terrain in front of them were wrong.

Recommitment to Core Ideology – First, by continuing on, they recommitted to their core ideology. At the core of adaptive work is clarifying what is precious, elemental—even essential—to the identity of an organization. The core ideology of any group functions as both a charter and an identity statement. This is who we are, we say. If we stop being about this, we stop being.

For church leaders, moments of disequilibrium like Lewis and his party faced at the top of the Continental Divide certainly bring our own motivations into focus: What are we really called to? Is it just to professional success or personal security? Is it merely to get more people in the church pews and dollars in the offering plates so our congregations can keep offering religious services to those who desire them? Is church leadership nothing more than an exercise in institutional survival? Or isn’t there a higher purpose, a set of guiding principles, a clear compilation of core values that are more about being a community of people who exist to extend God’s loving and just reign and rule in all the earth? This moment forces us to face and clarify our own core beliefs. And for each organization, this facing-the-unknown moment asks us particular questions we need to answer honestly together: Why do we exist as a congregation, institution or organization? What would be lost in our community, in our field or in our world if we ceased to be? What purposes and principles must we protect as central to our identity? What are we willing to let go of so the mission will continue?

Reframing Strategy – They reframed their strategy. With a recommitment to core ideology (values and mission) there is a critical moment to reframe the strategy for the mission at hand. In adaptive leadership, reframing is another way of talking about the shift in values, expectations, attitudes or habits of behavior necessary to face our most difficult challenges. It is a way of looking at the challenge before us through a different lens and in seeing it differently finding the possibilities for a new way of being and leading.13

New Learning They relied on new learning. At the heart of adaptive leadership is learning. To put it bluntly, if you are not learning anything new, it is not adaptive work. It might be a good, necessary, wise, even vital strategy. But if your group is addressing a new challenge with an old solution, relying on a best practice or implementing the plan of a resident expert, then the solution is a technical one, not adaptive.

In moments of uncertainty and disorientation, leaders own internal adaptations; that is, the work that leaders themselves have to do to clarify their own motives, identity and mission is the necessary precursor to the work that the entire community will have to do. When a leader and a people together resist the anxiety that would lead to throwing in the towel or relying on the quick fix, but instead look more deeply—recommitting to core values, reframing strategy and relying on learning—this enables them to gain the just-in-time experience necessary to keep the expedition going.

At the heart of adaptive leadership for the church is this conviction: The church is the body of Christ. It is a living organism, a vibrant system. And just like human bodies, human organizations thrive when they are cooperating with the wisdom of God for how that system is designed, how it grows and how it adapts to changing external environments.

This is what adaptive leadership is all about: hanging on to the healthiest, most valuable parts of our identity in life and letting go of those things that hinder us from living and loving well.

*REORIENTATION* In a Christendom world, vision was about seeing possibilities ahead and communicating excitement. In uncharted territory—where no one knows what’s ahead—vision is about accurately seeing ourselves and defining reality.

Leadership Vision – Every book on leadership talks about vision. Leaders, it is assumed, are visionaries who have the unique ability to see past the horizon, to see the future coming before anyone else and prepare the organization to meet that challenge. That is surely a valuable ability. But leadership vision is often more about seeing clearly what is even more than what will be. As the former CEO and leadership author Max De Pree has famously written, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.”1

This system definition is assumed in the working definition of leadership we are using here: Energizing a community of people toward their own transformation in order to accomplish a shared mission in the face of a changing world.

The church is not a collective but a communion. A local congregation is not just a collection of individual people but also the love, commitment, values and mission they share. A healthy church, like any healthy living thing, is always defined by the nature, quality and behaviors of the relationships.

For a church this means that when the members, the relationships and the mission of the church are aligned and working symbiotically toward a shared purpose, the church functions well. People are both loved (relationship) and challenged (purpose). There is both a commitment to depth and authenticity (relationship) and space to welcome new people (purpose). There is an ability to accept people as they are (relationship) and to be continually transformed into the likeness of Christ (purpose). There is a deep desire to enjoy life together (relationships) and use our resources and energy to serve others (purpose). Relationship and purpose are expressed in as wide a variety of ways as the diversity of the people (the elements) that make up the system.

Because every church has a different DNA code, Ronald Heifetz suggests that at the heart of any adaptive work are three key questions church leaders need to wrestle with together:12 What DNA is essential and must be preserved? What, in the words of Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, “must never change”? What are the key elements of our theology, tradition, ministry practices and organizational culture that must be maintained at all costs because to lose them would be to lose our identity? Just as we discussed in chapter seven, for Lewis and Clark, water route was not as essential as discovery, and for churches, before we consider changing or adapting anything, we must first determine what is truly sacred. What DNA can be discarded? What elements of our church life, while important to us, are not essential? What can we stop doing or let die so we can free resources and energy for new forms of ministry? What do we need to celebrate for the impact it made in another day or circumstance that has outlived its usefulness? Or what do we need to set aside because there is no energy for or interest in it any longer? As we will discuss at length, this is the critical issue. “People don’t resist change, per se. They resist loss,” Heifetz and Linsky remind us.13 What DNA needs to be created through experimentation? What essential part of the church’s identity and mission needs to be adapted to a new day, environment or opportunity? How can the church keep doing the things it is called to do, but in a way that resonates, connects, serves and challenges people who wouldn’t otherwise pay it any attention? What potential healthy partners will create the possibilities of birthing something new?

Declining Attendance and an Anxious, Adaptive Moment – There is nothing that freaks out a pastor like declining attendance numbers. While most of us try hard not to show it, when the Sunday morning crowds thin out, we take it personally. When we look at the attendance reports and see the decrease, it is tempting to make excuses, blame other factors or just deny it entirely.3 If we do acknowledge the decline, we want to jump right in and turn it around. There is nothing that screams for a quick fix like less people in the pew (unless it’s decreased giving too).

Immediately, in the brainstorming session, elders and staff started suggesting strategies for dealing with decline. We should offer a more practical sermon series. The one you are doing now is pretty heady. We should get the kids more involved, let’s put together a new kid’s choir. We could do some better marketing. And so on. We did what most people do when faced with an anxiety-producing problem: we try to fix it as quickly as possible.

It’s All About the Process – The first component of developing adaptive capacity is to realize that it’s a process of learning and adapting to fulfill a missional purpose, not to fix the immediate issues. For Heifetz, adaptive leadership tries to look behind what might be a symptom to bring health and growth to the larger system. In this way, adaptive leadership is different from what I call “directional leadership.” Directional leadership offers direction and advice based on experience and expertise, while adaptive leadership functions in an arena where there is little experience and often no expertise.

Adaptive leadership, again, is about leading the learning process of a group who must develop new beliefs, habits or values, or shift their current ones in order to find new solutions that are consistent with their purpose for being.

Heifetz, Linsky and Grashow describe it this way: Adaptive leadership is an iterative process involving three key activities: (1) observing events and patterns around you; (2) interpreting what you are observing (developing multiple hypotheses about what is really going on); and (3) designing interventions based on the observations and interpretations to address the adaptive challenge you have identified.5

Observations – Observations are the data points for understanding a system. When a leadership team is on the balcony, their first task is to get as many different observations that are as objective as possible about the situation. In the observation stage, therefore, the group must intentionally withhold interpretations or interventions in order to gather as much data as possible.

The National Football League uses a video system called “All-22” for all professional football games. It’s a video system that records the entire game from overhead so that all twenty-two offensive and defensive players on the field are in view in any one play (or shot). It is standard for coaching and strategizing practices. Teams use it to take snapshots throughout the game and even fax pictures to the sidelines so coaches and players can get a broader perspective of what they can’t see while on the field.

*REORIENTATION* Leadership in the past meant coming up with solutions. Today it is learning how to ask new questions that we have been too scared, too busy or too proud to ask.

In autumn 2012, when our attendance did not come back from the usual summer slump, we decided to resist the temptation to either deny the problem or default to previous strategies, and instead made a plan to get as much perspective as possible. We decided to interview a cross-section of people we hadn’t seen in worship in at least three months, asking every elder, deacon and staff person to identify three people they knew well who they also hadn’t seen in church since the following spring. They asked their friends three questions: When were you most excited or felt the sense of deepest connection to our church? What was happening during that time in your life and in the life of our church? What has changed in your life or in the church since then that may have affected your sense of connection or excitement about our church? What is one wish/hope/dream you have for the future of our church?9 Note that none of these questions asked why they weren’t in worship, but tried to get bigger observations to serve as data points. Each interviewer wrote down the answers and then sent them on to one of the elders who collected and collated the responses for presentation the following month.

Listen to the songs beneath the words. In the interpretation stage we look for patterns we wouldn’t normally notice.

Very often I ask my coaching clients to consider the question, What is the song behind the words that is keeping us all dancing? In other words, what deeper tune of the church is getting played in this circumstance? What is going on in this situation that nobody is talking about but is affecting the whole system of the church?

Because of the gap between cause and effect, it is difficult to diagnose the true underlying causes of most problems.

We discovered that we didn’t need so much to attend to our worship as to our web of connections. We needed to focus our attention not on how to increase Sunday morning attendance but on how to strengthen and increase more points of connection for people, which would enable us to better pastor people through life transitions.12

Protect the minority voices. “People don’t learn by staring into a mirror; people learn by encountering difference,” observes Ron Heifetz.13 The interpretation step is only productive if there is freedom to explore as many different interpretations as possible, and especially the opportunity to hear from usually ignored voices.

David McRaney, author of the book and the blog You Are Not So Smart, writes about “survivorship bias,” that is, the tendency to look only at the “survivors” or “stories of success” and draw conclusions about reality.14

When they examined the planes, they discovered that they were shot up most on the bottom of the plane, on the wings and near the tail gunner. So, the engineers made preparations for putting more armor there. But one statistician, Abraham Wald, challenged the underlying assumption by pointing out that the planes they were studying were the survivors—these are the planes that were not shot down. In other words, Wald said, this is exactly where we should not put more armor—a plane can survive even if shot up in the bottom, wings and near the tail gunner. So they needed to look at other areas of the plane to reinforce. Through several tests they discovered that adding more armor to the ailerons, engine, stabilizers and around the pilot made the planes safer. Only listening to a different interpretation allowed them to find the right solution.

Raise up competing values. Any musician (and I am not) knows that harmonies in music are made up of concurrent concordant and discordant notes that sound in tension with each other and finally come to a resolution. That simultaneous tension of silence and sound, of notes that blend well and those that are related but different create the music that fills the ear and the heart.

The final piece of the interpretation lens is to begin to raise up these values for discussion and consideration. Some common competing values dilemmas are Do we serve our longtime church members who pay the bills, or do we innovate to reach new people and risk angering the stakeholders? Do we have a mostly professional staff that provides excellence in ministry program, or do we want a strong, involved laity to use their gifts? Do we want a centralized organization unified around clear objectives, or do we want a more creative, collaborative system that is nimble, innovative and able to experiment with new ideas?

Innovative interventions will always be resisted. Most of us don’t come to church to experiment. Even the idea of experiments raises anxiety. Most of the time the system will be inclined to shut down any experiments before they even begin. Growth, transformation and adaptation always means loss. Change is loss. And even experimental changes signal loud and clear that change—and loss—is coming.

The leaders of one of my church clients did a careful and lengthy study of observations and interventions that led the church to experiment with a contemporary blended worship service in their main sanctuary. They were not going to disrupt traditions of the choir and hymns, the traditional service; they merely were going to add an additional service led by a band to see what happened.

When they installed some new drums in the sanctuary, a number of members of the congregation balked. The pastor assured them that they would not play the drums in the most traditional service. They just needed them available for the contemporary service. Still the members of the traditional service complained: they didn’t even want to look at the drums, let alone hear them.

“Leadership is disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb,” write Heifetz and Linsky.1 This painful truth brings us to the heart of the necessary adaptive capacity to lead transformational change in uncharted territory. Disappointing people “at a rate they can absorb” is a skill that requires nuance: Disappoint people too much and they give up on you, stop following you and may even turn on you. Don’t disappoint them enough and you’ll never lead them anywhere.

Leadership isn’t so much skillfully helping a group accomplish what they want to do (that is management). Leadership is taking people where they need to go and yet resist going. Leadership, as I have defined it, is energizing a community of people toward their own transformation in order to accomplish a shared mission in the face of a changing world.

Transformational leadership is always a two-front battle: On one side is the challenge of a changing world, unfamiliar terrain and the test of finding new interventions that will enable the mission to move forward in a fruitful and faithful way. On the other side is the community that resists the change necessary for its survival. If adaptive leadership is “enabling a people to grow so they can face their greatest challenges and thrive,” then it is crucial to acknowledge that a significant part of the greatest challenge is internal. Deftly handling resistance and the disappointment that comes along with it so a community of people can accomplish a goal for the greater good is the core capacity of adaptive leadership.

The answer was for me—and my leaders—to develop the adaptive capacity that comes from living out a core, clarifying conviction: The mission trumps. Always. Every time. In every conflict. Not the pastor. Not the members of the church who pay the bills. Not those who scream the loudest or who are most in pain. No. In a healthy Christian ministry, the mission wins every argument.

The focused, shared, missional purpose of the church or organization will trump every other competing value. It’s more important than my preferences or personal desire. It’s more critical than my leadership style, experience or past success. It’s the grid by which we evaluate every other element in the church. It’s the criterion for determining how we will spend our money, who we will hire and fire, which ministries we will start and which ones we will shut down. It’s the tiebreaker in every argument and the principle by which we evaluate every decision we make. Denominational affiliation? Mission partnerships? Financial commitments? Staff decisions? Worship styles? The key question is: Does it further our mission? The mission trumps all.

A mission statement serves the same purpose in a healthy organization. The one in power doesn’t win every conversation: the mission trumps.

If the mission trumps all, then a leader must develop the clarity and conviction to live out that mission no matter the circumstance, no matter whether the challenge comes from the context or the very community we serve.

The emotional processes, ways of relating and being, decision making, symbols, values and other parts of the organizational culture (see chap. 6) naturally work together to keep things the same. The church leadership who calls a young pastor to reach young families thwarts every new initiative. The evangelistic pastor who attracts outsiders to the church is accused of not caring for the church membership. The preacher who was called to bring intellectual depth is chided that she should tell more stories and offer more practical teaching. The elder board that commits to a new vision for ministering to their neighbors will place all the plans on hold in order to attend to denominational issues that have simmered for generations. This is normal.

In this and the following three chapters we’ll look at it clause by clause. It’s that important. I encourage you to commit it to memory. Write it on a Post-it note and put it on your bathroom mirror. Make it your screensaver on your computer. And say it to yourself over and over again: Start with conviction, stay calm, stay connected, and stay the course.4

Start with Conviction – The first question about leading into uncharted territory is not about change but about what will not change. First we determine what is precious, what is worth keeping no matter the circumstances, what will never change, what is the core ideology of the church. Conviction is the core ideology in action.

Every conflict raises the question: Are we clear on and committed to our mission?

*REORIENTATION* There is perhaps no greater responsibility and no greater gift that leadership can give a group of people on a mission than to have the clearest, most defined mission possible.

Because the mission is what matters. The mission trumps. Even more than whether our stakeholders like it, our mission demands that we make decisions based on conviction.

The purpose of the commander’s intent is to empower subordinates to be able to achieve the goals of the mission if the circumstances change and they need to adapt.5 If you tell a group of Marines, “Take the enemy airfield,” that is a very different commander’s intent than “Take the enemy airfield so we can use it ourselves.” The commander’s intent clarifies the goal so that all strategies and tactics (Should we blow up the air traffic control room or not?) can be evaluated.

The mission, when enacted and owned, becomes a conviction that holds and changes us. It is a simple, clear, almost humble statement of the reason we as a congregation believe we are occupying the bit of real estate God has given us at this moment of history.

Getting Clear on Conviction – Before acting on a conviction we actually have to have a conviction. And this takes time. It is the result of study, conversation, humility and discernment. It is formed through processes of self-observation, self-reflection and shared aspirations. Jim Collins describes this mission-statement conviction as a Hedgehog Concept made up of the intersection of three elements: What are we passionate about? What are we constantly talking about, praying about, involved in and concerned about? In the words of Jim Collins, “Nothing great can happen without beginning first with passion.” What do we have the potential to do better than anyone else? Collins says that this is an awareness of self, not aspirations or hopes. It is the humble and clear perspective about the particular value we as a church, organization or ministry have to offer our community or the larger world. It is a statement of uniqueness, not arrogance; a statement of the distinctive contribution we are equipped to make in God’s work in the world. What will pay the bills? What drives our economic or resource engine? What helps us continually create the resources that will keep us going? What brings us partners, money, opportunities and the talent we need to continue our work?6

Mulago requires grant applicants to write a simple proposal with an eight-word mission statement.7 The statement must be in this format: verb, target, outcome. And it can use only eight words.

The Leader’s Mission Within the Mission – For the leader navigating this two-front battle, he or she must have clear convictions about his or her call and purpose. To be blunt: The leader in the system is committed to the mission when no one else is. For the leader the mission always trumps. Again, this is hard.

Another conversation in my office. This time it was an older couple who were new to the church. They were registered for our next new members’ class, but after hearing from some concerned friends about how liberal Presbyterians are, they thought they’d ask me some questions. They told me they had been leaders in three well-known megachurches, but after a falling-out with the pastor they had been without a church home for several months. They started listening to a Presbyterian pastor via podcast and were so impressed they decided to check out our church (even though they had never dreamt of being part of a mainline church). They loved our church. They told me they loved our emphasis on discipleship, reaching out to the unchurched, and proclaiming and demonstrating the kingdom to those who hadn’t accepted the good news. Everything they heard resonated with their hearts, and they decided to join. When they told a friend what they were intending to do, he cautioned them because of what he read in the papers. So, they came to see me. I found out that the Presbyterian pastor they had heard on the podcast was Tim Keller, and I explained that he was part of a different Presbyterian denomination. They had only recently learned that there was not only the Presbyterian Church (USA), our denomination, but others they thought they’d be more comfortable joining. I said to them, “You have heard me talk about our mission to proclaim the kingdom of God to the unchurched. Do you think the people we are trying to reach care what denomination we are in?” They responded, “No, not at all.” “So,” I said, “The mission trumps. As long as we can fulfill our mission, we are not going to spend time or energy on denominational worries. For us, it’s all about the mission.” “But Tod,” the wife chimed in, “the people you are trying to reach don’t care about denominational labels, but people like us do. If you want people like us to join your church, you may want to consider switching denominations.” I looked them and said softly but firmly. “You are not our mission.”

I said it again. “You are not our mission. Our mission is to be a community of disciples who proclaim and demonstrate the good news in every sector of society. We want to reach people for Jesus Christ. Our mission is not to help Christians move from one church to our church. You are not our mission. But . . . I think God brought you here so that you would join our mission. You have a heart for the unchurched and desire to see people come to know Christ and experience his reign and grace in their lives. All you have heard has resonated with you, and you have already begun new ministries here. No, you are not our mission, but I think God is calling you to join us in fulfilling our mission.” The husband looked at his wife. “Honey, I think we’re Presbyterians.” They joined our church in the next class.

The first step in adaptive change is “start with missional conviction”; the second is to “stay calm.” For the leader it is critical to monitor our own emotional reactivity when the anxiety within the church rises. The calm leader is self-aware, committed to the mission (the mission trumps) and focuses on his or her own self in the transformation process.

*REORIENTATION* When dealing with managing the present, win-win solutions are the goal. But when leading adaptive change, win-win is usually lose-lose.

But when we enter the realm of adaptive work—working in uncharted territory—win-win often becomes lose-lose. Transformational leadership and the adaptive change necessary requires us to go beyond win-win to make hard, oftentimes forced choices. When we are faced with limited resources and a new experiment we can’t squeeze into the budget, a choice has to be made: Either the existing programs are going to lose some of their resources or the new experiment will go unfunded.

Heifetz and Linsky inform us that people do not resist change, per se. People resist loss. You appear dangerous to people when you question their values, beliefs, or habits of a lifetime. You place yourself on the line when you tell people what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear. Although you may see with clarity and passion a promising future of progress and gain, people will see with equal passion the losses you are asking them to sustain. 2

Transformational leadership, therefore, equips people to make hard choices regarding the values keeping them from the growth and transformation necessary to see in a new way and discover new interventions to address the challenges they are facing. And this is done with values that are valuable. Systems theory reminds us that “today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions.”3 This means that the program, ministry, staff person, principle, action or activity in danger of being lost was at one time of great value.

Crockpot Leadership – Imagine you are cooking a meal for a big, hungry family. You decide to make a stew in a Crock-Pot. You get raw meat, hard vegetables, some stock and seasoning. You put it in the Crock-Pot, and with enough time at the right temperature you get a feast. But if the temperature is too high, the meal gets burned; too low and even though a long time has gone by, all you have is hard vegetables and raw meat.

A leader’s job is to regulate the heat. The leader is like the thermostat on the Crock-Pot, keeping enough heat in the system so things begin to change, but not enough that individual parts get scorched.

The Heat of Urgency – There are two forms of heat for bringing transformation: urgency and anxiety.

Instead of patiently waiting for a widespread and true urgency, most leaders settle for the false urgency of attending to the most urgent issue or the one that has the most people in an uproar. Whenever the urgent pushes out the important, we fall into the trap of feeling as if we are busy accomplishing something while we are running on a treadmill—getting exhausted but not going anywhere.6

True urgency, on the other hand, is centered on the passion and vision that comes from developing a clear conviction and mission. It is the urgency of seeing both the reality of the moment and the opportunity God has given.

When we keep our deepest purpose/mission/vision as our true urgency, it should not wax and wane; it should remain the central root of urgency around which we regulate the heat of peripheral issues.

I also often coach my pastor clients to give a yearly “I Have a Dream” sermon in order to keep raising the urgency in the congregation.8 It’s important that the sermon is not shaming or demanding. It’s not a presumptuous “God told me this to tell you” or “this should be your dream” or even “an expert told me that this should be our dream” sermon. Instead this is an honest and very personal sharing of hopes and visions.

The Heat of Anxiety: Is That a Lion or Not? – In the harsh midsummer African heat, a herd of impala finds an increasingly rare water hole. They rush to drink, crowding in, fearful of not getting enough water to sustain them. Suddenly, one impala raises his head in high alert. Immediately every other impala stops drinking and stands at attention. No impala moves, none utter a sound.

If there is a lion and they do run, or if there is no lion and they don’t run, they live another day. But all that matters is: Is that a lion or not?

For leaders the point of calming down is not to feel better; it’s to make better decisions. It’s to make the best decisions for furthering the mission. When people are too hot, they don’t. The only issue is: Is there a lion or not? Is there a threat, or are we making this up? Is this true urgency or false urgency? Do we need to run, or should we stay here, get water and then calmly continue our journey?

For leaders this is the point to remember about anxiety: People who are overly or chronically anxious don’t make good decisions. When anxiety spikes we revert to more primitive ways of being. We fight, we flee, we freeze. We run from danger and leave others to face the lions alone. Or we capitulate and allow the herd to be overrun. We turn on each other instead of working together. We jump to quick fixes; we look for technical solutions to adaptive issues. Transformational leadership is built on leaders making good, wise, discerning decisions for the sake of both the health and the mission of the community—decisions that reinforce the missional conviction—and this requires leaders who are able to stay calm.

Stay Calm – What does it mean to stay calm? That we become a Mr. Spock-like Vulcan with no emotions and complete rationality? No. That would be impossible. To stay calm is to be so aware of yourself that your response to the situation is not to the anxiety of the people around you but to the actual issue at hand. Staying calm means so attending to our own internal anxiety in the heat of a challenging moment and the resistance around us that we are not tempted to either cool it down to escape the heat (thus aborting the change process) or to react emotionally, adding more fuel to the fire and scorching the stew we are trying to cook.

Osterhaus and his colleagues help us understand that the best decisions come out of the Blue Zone. Blue Zone is about serving the mission. Blue Zone decisions are marked by consistency and are focused on effectiveness. In the Blue Zone the mission trumps. But most of the time, when the heat is on, if we are not deliberately conscious to do otherwise, we will operate out of the Red Zone of high emotional reactivity based on one or more of four core issues: survival, acceptance, competence and control. Each person is different, and each person must negotiate different Red Zone issues.

But It’s Cool to Lose Your Cool, Right? – Some of us may be recalling great illustrations of passionate and prophetic leaders who lose their cool. Didn’t Jesus drive out the money changers? Don’t the prophets rail out in condemnation? Doesn’t that turn up the heat? From the 1970s movie Network to so much political discourse today, we assume that if change is going to come, somebody is going to have stand up and yell, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

Most of the time when things get heated, people get scorched. The meal is ruined and most is thrown out of the Crock-Pot. The community stops following and starts fighting or fleeing.

Anxious people scurry to quick fixes and work avoidance. But when the leader stays calm enough internally to attend to and regulate the heat of chronic anxiety so that it is instead the clear blue flame of urgency and mission, then transformation can occur.

How do you Regulate the Heat? – This is the delicate work of adaptive leadership. We need our people feeling the urgency and healthy anxiety enough to overcome complacency and move. At the same time we need our people to calm down enough to get beyond technical fixes, false urgency and work-avoidance scrambling. If the system is too cool and needs more heated urgency to change, then the leader’s own heat (passion, truth-telling, conviction, actions) begins to get things cooking. But when the system gets too hot and people are in danger of burning each other or bailing out of the change process, the very presence of a calm, connected leader cools the system down so people can tolerate staying on course.

In his book Just Listen: The Secret of Getting Through to Everyone, Mark Goulston recommends a simple process of self-talk that literally slows the brain processes down. It begins by acknowledging the anxious, angry or fearful feelings and breathing slowly until your heart rate comes down and you are able to hear and respond instead of lash out reactively.

All I want is for my presence to turn the anxiety thermostat down one click on the dial so we can focus on the urgency of our mission. Peter Steinke notes, “The leader’s ‘presence’ can have a calming influence on reactive behavior. Rather than reacting to the reactivity of others, leaders with self-composure and self-awareness both exhibit and elicit a more thoughtful response.”15

When a leader with conviction can stay calm amid the losses and reactivity of a congregation, then thoughtful, Blue Zone, “it’s all about the mission” decisions are possible. But sometimes being calm is not enough. So, what do we do when the others around us choose to fight or flee because of their Red Zone issues? The opposite of what our human nature does reflexively: we draw closer.

The Church and the Wheelchair – Hal is blind. Gus is an amputee confined to a wheelchair. Alone they would each be what we sometimes call shut-ins. Octogenarians both, they don’t get around very easily on their own. When they come to worship services at SCPC, Hal pushes Gus and Gus directs Hal. They make their way through the parking lot and the patio to their place together in the pew. Gus sits in his wheelchair and gives direction, Hal pushes the wheelchair and follows Gus’s lead, and together they get to where they want to go. And together, and only together, they come to church.

Why is it so difficult for the great idea to become embedded in the culture of the institution? Why does a new missional conviction so rarely become the new way of being, the new strategy for acting, the new normal? Why do so many innovations get stopped before they can be tried as an experiment? This is the demoralizing frustration for so many leaders.

If, as I define it, leadership is energizing a community of people toward their own transformation in order to accomplish a shared mission in the face of a changing world, then leadership is always relational. It is focused on a community of people who exist to accomplish a shared mission. So, while we start with a missional conviction and regulate the heat by staying calm and focusing on our own self-awareness and personal responsibility, organizational transformation cannot be accomplished through the efforts of one person, no matter how gifted. So, in addition to “start with conviction and stay calm” we add stay connected. Which leads us to the next key principle of adaptive leadership. After finding a missional conviction and regulating the heat, to bring change we must enact relationally.

But human nature being what it is, it’s more effective in a change process for a leader to think not only of one team but six. Six different teams that reflect the different kinds of relationships a leader must attend to in order to bring transformation to the whole organizational system.6

1. Allies. An ally is anyone who is convinced of the mission and is committed to seeing it fulfilled. In this sense, allies are inside the system, taking part of the change process with a stake in it and aligned and in agreement—at least for the moment—with the adaptive changes the leader is attempting to bring.7

2. Confidants. To be a confidant, a person must care more about you than they do about the mission of the organization. Therefore, healthy confidants are usually those outside the system who can give you honest feedback about yourself as a leader in the system. Being a confidant is usually most comfortable and healthy for our friends and family.

3. Opponents. Potential opponents are stakeholders who have markedly different perspectives from yours and who risk losing the most if you and your initiative go forward. Let’s be clear here, if you are leading a change process, opponents are not your enemies in much the same way that allies are not necessarily your friends. Opponents are nothing more and nothing less than those who are against the particular change initiative.

4. Senior authorities. As I have said from the outset, leadership is not the same thing as authority. Authority is your role, your position of formal power, but leadership is a way of functioning. Very often the leader in uncharted territory is not the authorized leader but someone tasked to explore the new terrain. Remember, it wasn’t Commander in Chief Jefferson who crossed the Continental Divide, but two captains.

5. Casualties. In any transformational leadership effort there will be casualties. You can’t go into uncharted territory without risk. Even Lewis and Clark had to bury one of their men along the way. If a leader is “the person in the system who is not blaming anyone,” then the leader is also the one who assumes the responsibility for these inevitable casualties.8 As change initiatives are being proposed, don’t whitewash the losses. Acknowledge them.

6. Dissenters. In true adaptive change there are no unanimous votes. Someone, usually a significant number of people, will say no, no matter what. These voices of dissent are extremely important at every step of the way. The early naysayers are the canaries in the coal mine. They will help you see how opposition will take form and will raise the arguments that eventually will come to full volume.

Every visionary leader needs both a group to keep attending to the necessary work and a team to lead the transformation of the organizational culture. And while they may be one and the same in some circumstances, a great idea needs at least two groups of people to see it through: the maintaining mission group and the transformation team.

The maintaining mission group. The maintaining mission group has to be committed to giving safety, time, space, protection and resources to the project. At first, they don’t need to actually do anything except not create obstacles and not sabotage the change process (a big task, in itself!). At best, they actively voice support, keep a steady hand at the wheel and monitor the inevitable anxiety.

*REORIENTATION* In a Christendom world, visionary management usually comes from the board of directors. In the uncharted world of post-Christendom transformation, leadership will more likely come from a small Corps of Discovery who serve as a transformation team while the board manages the health of the organization currently.

The transformation team. The transformation team is akin to what John Kotter calls a “Guiding Coalition.”11 This group will add effort to the inspiration. They are going to do the work of listening, learning, attempting and, yes, failing. (Remember how many early attempts at building rockets flamed out on the launch pad?) This team needs to be innovative and persistent, cohesive and communicative.

For most leaders I know, and especially for pastors, all of this discussion of the different relationships certainly doesn’t sound like good news. While most of us are good at personally relating to people (praying, teaching, counseling), most of us have not been trained in organizational relationship skills.

Our theology affirms that leadership is a shared task, and the church is meant to be both a safe environment for protecting the community and a group willing to lay down their lives for the vision of God’s kingdom come to earth.

1. Give the work back to the people who most care about it. Are you the only one losing sleep over the challenges you face? Then you need to raise the urgency with a broader coalition of people. When a group of people bring a complaint, don’t jump to fix it but instead engage those who raised the complaint in the process of transformation.

2. Engage the mature and motivated. Let’s face it, most of our work (especially for pastors) is putting out fires, dealing with the resistant, attending to the cranky and trying to appease the complainers. These are part of our work and are indeed the people to whom we are called. But when it’s time to lead on, more and more of your energy must be invested in those who are motivated to grow and take responsibility for themselves.

3. Stay connected to your critics. From The Godfather we learned to “keep your friends close, but your enemies closer,” but that was for self-protection. In this case that great advice is a way to keep trying to turn enemies into friends (not through accommodation but through influence). This is the essence of what it means to “stay connected.”

We tell ourselves that if we don’t back down we’ll do something in anger that we’ll regret. So we do nothing instead. Face-to-face conversations become quick voicemails, phone calls turn into emails, and discussions over lunch become formal letters. After a while, because we are so afraid of the heat, thick walls of ice rise up around us, and while we may be able to see the subjects of our conflicts, we can’t hear or touch them. But when we lose connection, we lose the opportunity to keep gently influencing the system for good. We need at least a light touch on the wheel to steer the car toward the destination of our convictions.

So what is a leader to do? Stay connected. Keep contact. Close the distance with word and touch. When someone writes me an angry email, I call them at home. When someone sends a formal letter of complaint, I invite them for coffee. When people start getting upset, I call a meeting and invite them to talk. The more heated the situation, the closer I want to get to it. Believe me, this is hard. I’m no different than anyone else.

4. Expect sabotage. Which is where we turn next.

So, when we came to the General Assembly, how many of those same leaders who had affirmed our work all along the way made public statements of support? Zero. How many asked to testify to the oversight committee? Zero. How many of those who had hugged me in the hall did anything at all to support its passage? Zero. When I asked for public statements to counter the resistance, one person after another told me that the word had come down from “on high” that they couldn’t be seen “taking sides” in what was a controversial debate. The whole proposal was soundly rejected with the most benign part referred to a committee for further study.

That is the rub, isn’t it? It’s one thing to disappoint and anger the other side, but another thing entirely to endure friendly fire.

Even Lewis and Clark faced their own challenge with sabotage.

If the change process is “start with conviction, stay connected, stay calm and stay the course,” then when you are focused on “staying the course,” expect that it is “your own people” who are going to try to knock you off course. And the key to staying the course is wisely and calmly responding to sabotage. Note the verb here: not reacting, but responding.

Sabotage is natural. It’s normal. It’s part and parcel of the systemic process of leadership. Saboteurs are usually doing nothing but unconsciously supporting the status quo. They are protecting the system and keeping it in place. They are preserving something dear to them. If every system is “perfectly designed for the results we are getting,” it became clear to me that our denominational system exists for institutional self-preservation.

Many who sabotage you will even claim that they are doing you a favor by doing so. Friedman describes these “peace-mongers” as “highly anxious risk-avoiders” who are “more concerned with good feelings than progress” and consistently prefer the peaceful status quo over the turbulence of change—even if change is necessary.

*REORIENTATION* When on the map, leaders could assume that once an affirmative vote was made, the challenge of bringing change was finished. In uncharted territory, where changes occur so rapidly, leaders cannot assume success until after they have weathered the sabotage that naturally follows.

First, expect sabotage. Anticipation is a great defense. To be aware that sabotage is coming will at least keep us from being surprised when it comes.

Second, embrace sabotage as a normal part of an organizational life. Even the saboteurs aren’t really to blame. Systems like stability. Natural survival skills demand it, in fact. You, by bringing change, have upset the emotional equilibrium of the system. The Israelites wanted to go back to slavery in Egypt once things got rough in the desert. Systems always look for and find comfort in the familiar.

Third, don’t take it personally. The people following you may be shooting you in the back, but it’s really not you that they are sabotaging, it’s your role as leader. They are sabotaging the change you are bringing.

Fourth, focus your attention on the emotionally strong, not the saboteurs. We are so focused on quieting our critics, appeasing or answering our accusers and shielding ourselves from the friendly fire that it often knocks us off course. While we need to stay connected to the saboteurs (“Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer”), what actually keeps the change process going is investing even more time in those committed to growing, adapting and changing for good. Find other calm, courageous people and strengthen and support them.

Last, make it a conviction to stay calm and connected so you can stay on course. Endure. Stick with it. Be dogged and determined.

Leading change is a process not accomplished quickly, and the moments of sabotage are the most crucial times in the change process. At this moment everyone in the system sees the leader’s true colors. Sabotage is not only a test of the leader’s resolve but also a test of the system’s resilience.

Blue Zone Decisions: Staying the Course Amidst Sabotage – The key skill for staying the course amidst sabotage is to make Blue Zone decisions—no matter what. In chapter twelve we explored Osterhaus, Jurkowski and Hahn’s Red Zone–Blue Zone decision making. The Red Zone is “all about me”; the Blue Zone is “all about the mission.” Blue Zone decisions are made as an expression of the core values and healthy principles, and further the discerned, shared mission conviction of the group.

When making Blue Zone decisions, a set of questions are being asked and answered by the leadership group. These questions are different from the Red Zone “me” questions around survival, acceptance, competence and control. They are What furthers the mission? What principles are at stake here? What values are we expressing? What pain must we endure? How will we support those who are experiencing loss?

Whenever I talk about this with groups, the hands shoot up. “This contradicts Jesus. Didn’t he always choose people over principles?” Frankly, no, he didn’t. At least not the way we think of it. If we look closely at the ministry of Jesus, everything he did was for one purpose: to proclaim and demonstrate the good news: “The kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15 nasb). And as much as he ministered to people as an expression of that mission, he also disappointed people constantly. He left towns while there were still crowds waiting to be healed (Mark 1:38). After a miraculous feeding of one large crowd, he refused to feed another, and some of his disciples left him (John 6:30-66). He disappointed his mother and brothers who wanted him to return home (Mark 3:31-35), he initially refused to heal the Syrophoenician woman because his mission was to the “lost sheep of . . . Israel” (Matthew 15:21-28), and he constantly disappointed ministry leaders because he hung out with the wrong sorts (Mark 2:16-17) and did the wrong things, like healing on the Sabbath (Luke 13:10-17). Every parable Jesus taught that challenged the status quo (the prodigal son, the woman with the coin, the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to get the one sheep) did not describe his desire to care for and comfort people but, in effect, “I do this because God is like this” (Luke 15) or “I am doing these things because the kingdom of heaven is like this” (Matthew 13). Jesus’ mission was to reveal the presence and nature of God’s reign and rule. That was his purpose. That was his principle. When Jesus challenged the Pharisees, it wasn’t that they were concerned with religious principles and he was concerned with people, but that they had the wrong principles (Matthew 23:15). They valued human tradition over God’s own revelation about his character, his love and what he desires (Micah 6:8). Jesus… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.

For Friedman, failure of nerve is the tendency among leaders to “adapt to immaturity,” that is, to give in to the most anxious elements within themselves or within the community who are clamoring to preserve the status quo and undermining the adaptations and experiments necessary for moving forward and meeting the challenges in front of them.10

A Picture of Courage – My favorite old movie is Casablanca. It’s a classic film with Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid, where Bogie owns Rick’s Café Americain restaurant in Casablanca, Morocco. It takes place during World War II. Casablanca was then a French territory under German occupation. In one of my favorite scenes a group of Nazi soldiers drinking in Rick’s bar gather at the piano and start singing the German national anthem so loudly and without consideration of the number of French citizens sitting glumly around them.

First, leaders must act. Laszlo doesn’t cower at the sound of the German officers singing their songs with such bravado; he stands and heads toward the conflict. He takes decisive action and determines not to let this moment pass by. When the heat is on, leaders head to the kitchen.

Second, when sabotage or opposition appears, leaders continue to calmly stand on conviction in the face of it. Laszlo doesn’t rant. He doesn’t rave. He doesn’t start a fight or call the manager to complain. He goes to the band (very likely French citizens, all) and calls them to act with him. From the backstory of the movie, we know that Laszlo has already suffered for his convictions. He has already spent time in a prison camp. He is being denied exit visas that would take him and his wife to safety. The authorities have him on a watch list, and he is certainly in danger. But nevertheless, he continues to act on his convictions.

Third, leaders inspire. The root word of “courage” is the Latin word for “heart.”

Last, leaders don’t act alone. Yes, Laszlo is first to his feet and willing to stand alone. Leadership requires a missional conviction that takes a stand whether anyone follows or not. But for a leader to become a leader, someone must follow.

Sabotage is indeed the critical issue for lasting change. Friedman calls it “the key to the kingdom.”11 The key capacity: Does the leader have the capacity to hang in there when reactivity is at its highest? If a leader can develop the emotional stamina to stay true to principles when reactivity and sabotage are most evident, the adaptation process reverses itself and the followers begin to adapt to the leader.

The paradox of transformational leaders is that the very conviction that causes the leader to be willing to “disappoint your own followers at a rate they can absorb” is what ultimately—when handled well—wins “your own followers” to join you in your cause. If we as leaders start with conviction, stay connected, calm and on course in the face of opposition, then others around us have both the time and conditions to take on these very convictions as their own.

His name was Jean Baptiste, and because his mother would become the most famous member of the party next to Lewis and Clark themselves, “Pomp” as William Clark would nickname him, would be the youngest member of the Corps of Discovery. Pomp’s mother, Sacagawea, had been born Shoshone. Kidnapped by the Hidatsa when she was eleven or twelve, she was now at sixteen or seventeen years old, one of the wives of a French Canadian trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau. The captains had hired Charbonneau as a guide through the mountains and very quickly they saw the value of having a Shoshone woman to serve as interpreter. While, by all accounts, Lewis and Clark soon took a dim view of Charbonneau’s skills and value to the party, their opinion of—and need for—the teenage mother only grew. A month after she joined the party, Lewis mentions her “fortitude and resolution.” Two months into the journey, they worried about losing their translator when Sacagawea fell ill with a fever. When a canoe capsized, her quick-thinking saved the captains’ journals.1 When the captains needed horses to cross the Rockies, they turned to Sacagawea. She led them to the Shoshone, navigated the tense relationship at the first encounter, and when she discovered that she was translating between Lewis and her own long-lost brother (a most remarkable, tearful and near-miraculous reunion), she helped broker the deal that brought the Corps the critical horses they needed. When her tribe begged Sacagawea to stay, she instead insisted on going with the Corps and continuing the journey. Later, Clark would praise her as the “pilot” that took them through the country.

*REORIENTATION* Those who had neither power nor privilege in the Christendom world are the trustworthy guides and necessary leaders when we go off the map. They are not going into uncharted territory. They are at home.

For many Christians throughout the world today, the death of Christendom in the West simply means there are more brothers and sisters joining them at the margins, more shared experience within the greater church, more equality of leadership roles, more valuing of previously ignored voices and more opportunities for shared witness to a world that is profoundly in need of the gospel. In other words, the deep disorientation for those trained in Christendom can be helped by learning to look to and partner with those who have already been living in post-Christendom marginality.

Entering uncharted territory is like boarding a time machine set for the future. Lewis and Clark made decisions and functioned with a leadership style that was decades, even centuries before their time. A true partnership without one clear leader in “command.” A woman in leadership. A native American woman and a slave given a vote. A soldier released gladly from his duties in order to further knowledge. Could it be that God is taking our churches and organizations into uncharted territory in order for the church to become even more of a witness for the future of the world?

Sometime in the 2040s, the United States will become a true ethnic plurality. During that decade white Americans will no longer be the majority but one of several considerably large ethnic groups. Even more surprising is that those trends are actually higher in the church and especially in seminaries that provide the training for Christian leadership. While white, mainline and evangelical churches are in decline, racial-ethnic churches are growing and predicted to increase even more; seminary enrollments show increases only among nonwhite students.33 In other words, what will soon be true of America is already becoming true in our churches and seminaries.34

*REORIENTATION* Exploration teaches us to see the familiar through a new frame. Exploration brings differentiation. Exploration requires us to become expert experimenters. Exploration demands our best selves.

Differentiation enables the leader to stay with the group in the most difficult moments even when the group is blaming the leader for the difficulties. Exploration so challenges our illusions of competence, so triggers strong reactions of others and so often leads to enough conflict that it requires differentiation to psychologically endure as a leader.

Escaping the Expert Expectation – One of the signs of an organization that is resisting change is what Heifetz calls “the flight to authority.”22 Instead of accepting the adaptive challenge of learning and being transformed, the congregation, company or even family will decide to elect an expert to the do the work for them. The expert becomes the “technical solution,” which is actually “work avoidance” that creates the illusion that something is being done (“We brought in an expert to solve it!”) when in truth nothing is changing.

The internal and psychological stress of leading, exploring, learning and keeping an organization on mission is demanding. The fear of failure weighs heavy on all types of leaders, but perhaps even more so for pastors. When failing can mean losing your job (survival), community (acceptance), reputation (competence), even the possibility of failure can make us feel out of control.

The most tragic tale of the Corps of Discovery, however, is the suicide of Meriwether Lewis. Today, Meriwether Lewis would be treated for severe depression. Even then, it had been noted by Jefferson that Lewis tended to get melancholy and exacerbated it with alcohol. But during the expedition, neither the depression nor any signs of excessive alcohol abuse were ever noted by Clark or the other men.

*REORIENTATION* While on-the-map leaders are praised for being experts who have it all together, uncharted transformational leadership is absolutely dependent on the leader’s own ongoing exploration, learning and transformation.

But if I could meet with that group today, I would say something completely different. “If you want to keep your church from dying,” I would say, Focus on your own transformation together, not on your church dying. Focus on the mountains ahead, not the rivers behind. Focus on continually learning, not what you have already mastered.

Leaders thrust off the map in a rapidly changing world must trust that God is taking us into uncharted territory to extend the healing, justice and loving rule of God to all the world, and at the same time to transform us. The great discovery in following Christ into his mission is that we find ourselves being continually formed to be like Jesus. By doing the work of the kingdom, we become like the King. Leadership into uncharted territory requires and results in transformation of the whole organization, starting with the leaders.

Perhaps that is the most important thing to remember: God is taking us into uncharted territory to transform us. The great discovery in following Christ into his mission is that we find ourselves. And the beautiful paradox is that the more committed we are to our own transformation, the better leader we will be.

*Reorientation Recap* You were trained for a world that is disappearing. If you can adapt and adventure, you can thrive. But you must let go, learn as you go and keep going no matter what. In a Christendom world, speaking was leading. In a post-Christendom world, leading is multidimensional: apostolic, relational and adaptive. Before people will follow you off the map, gain the credibility that comes from demonstrating competence on the map. In uncharted territory, trust is as essential as the air we breathe. If trust is lost, the journey is over. When our old maps fail us, something within us dies. Replacing our paradigms is both deeply painful and absolutely critical. In a Christendom world, vision was seeing possibilities ahead and communicating excitement. In uncharted territory, vision is accurately seeing ourselves and defining reality. Leadership in the past meant coming up with solutions. Today leadership is learning how to ask new questions we have been too scared, too busy or too proud to ask. There is no greater gift that leadership can give a group of people on a mission than to have the clearest, most defined mission possible. When dealing with managing the present, win-win solutions are the goal. But when leading adaptive change, win-win is usually lose-lose. In uncharted territory visionary leadership is more likely going to come from a small Corps of Discovery while the board manages the ongoing health of the organization. In uncharted territory, where changes occur so rapidly, leaders cannot assume success until after they have weathered the sabotage that naturally follows. Those who had neither power nor privilege in the Christendom world are the trustworthy guides and necessary leaders when we go off the map. Those without power or privilege are not going into uncharted territory. They are at home. Exploration teaches us to see the familiar through a new frame and demands that we become our best selves. Uncharted leadership is absolutely dependent on the leader’s own ongoing exploration, learning and transformation.

Given all of this Lewis and Clark imagery, it is probably no surprise that I tend to think of myself as a “take the hill” kind of guy. I like a challenge. I resonate with the idea of being a leader of a mission. One of my colleagues is rather different than I am. Maybe he’s seen enough pain in lives and congregations to be skeptical of the kinds of “charges” leaders like me seem to relish. My colleague has been called to minister to a church in the middle of a retirement home. He tells me with a sigh of great satisfaction that he spends his days “hugging and kissing, teaching and ministering to some of the greatest saints you’ll ever meet.” Sometimes I am jealous of him, and I get the sense that sometimes he thinks he’s supposed to be more like me. I take the hill; he cares for grandma. And I think most of us assume that these are two different types of callings. It is common to hear talk about the differences between missional ministry and chaplaincy, between leading and caretaking. But I think those distinctions reveal both our own projections about ourselves and a convenient way to avoid what is true about all Christian organizations, especially churches: We all have hills to take, and all of our organizations are filled with grandmas. None of us in church leadership get the luxury of a single-focused call, no matter how important we think it is. None of us get to handpick our own Corps of Discovery with nothing but the best, bravest, faithful, loyal and mature. Every church and Christian organization I know is filled with people of varying degrees of competence, courage and capacity to embrace change.

We have to love the kindly grandmas and grandpas, cute little children, cranky aunts and uncles, overcommitted brothers and sisters, and sometimes irascible and often inspiring teenagers with whom God has called us to be spiritual family. Then we have to try to motivate that group to work, sacrifice, give and take on the responsibilities of furthering the mission of the kingdom as we are called to do it. We are a family that wants to sit together cozy by the campfire, but we have to get up and charge the hill (at potentially great cost). To me this is the most demanding aspect of being a Christian leader: The complexity of it all.

Christian leaders, especially, live in an emotional field filled with competing values.2 Remember our earlier discussion about the nature of a family business (chap. 12)? We love, care and value each other with a kind of unconditional love and, at the same time, we need to make decisions based on the conditions of what will further the spiritual “bottom line” of furthering our mission. We are all called to take the hill—with grandma.

The Senior Citizen Who Reoriented the Whole World Thomas Jefferson was sixty when he enlisted Meriwether Lewis for his grand expedition. And make no mistake, it was Jefferson’s idea. He had lived in France and was the young nation’s true Renaissance man. He would be the founder of the country’s first public university and as a young man had written most of the Declaration of Independence himself. But he had never traveled more than fifty miles west of the Shenandoah Valley. That lack of personal experience or the physical attributes necessary for such a journey did not slake his curiosity. His personal library contained more books about the region than any other library in the world. Monticello even faced west.5

Revelation for the Rest of Us

Revelation for the Rest of Us: A Prophetic Call to Follow Jesus as a Dissident Disciple, by Scot McKnight and Cody Matchett (Please support the authors by purchasing the book. The following are highlights from my personal reading).

I can’t take another step without admitting that this speculation stuff was what I believed for a long time. I believed it as a child, as a teen, as a young adult studying theology, and then into my early career as a professor. I believed it. Until I didn’t. I changed my mind not only because every one of the certain predictions I heard from preachers and youth pastors and read in books were wrong. Not just slightly off but totally wrong. I wanted to learn how to read the book of Revelation better, and in so doing I became convinced that the Left Behind approach seriously misreads the book of Revelation and Christian eschatology. We’ll say more about this in the chapters that follow, but I came to see that approach as dangerous for the church. The speculation readings of Revelation teach escapism and fail to disciple the church in the moral dissidence that shapes everything in the amazing book of Revelation. Escapism is as far from Revelation as Babylon is from new Jerusalem.

Speculation is the biggest problem in reading Revelation today. Many treat it as a databank of predictive prophecy—what one Revelation scholar, Christopher Rowland, calls “a repository of prophecies concerning the future.” Readers want to know if now is the time of fulfillment for that symbol, figure, or event. Speculations about who is doing what, sometimes standing on stilts, has ruined Revelation for many.

Four Basic Readings Before getting to those speculative readings of Revelation, a quick sketch of four basic readings of Revelation: Preterists read Revelation as written to first-century churches about first-century topics. Historicists read Revelation as a sketch of the history of the church from the first century until the end. Futurists think Revelation is totally, or nearly entirely, about the future. This approach is populated by the speculators. Idealists read Revelation as timeless images and truths about God, the church, the state, and God’s plan for this world.

Revelation has become a “paradise of fanatics and sectarians”!

Many Americans have experiences of Revelation inducing fear of a global holocaust, with the book providing a roadmap of who does what and when. Experts on the history of reading Revelation as speculation woven into culture have shown that in the middle of the nineteenth century the book of Revelation went populist—that is, it became, as Amy Johnson Frykholm put it, the “ordinary person’s game.” All one needed was a dispensationalist framework, the rapture on the horizon, and a Bible in one hand and news sources (or Left Behind books) in the other. Everything “fit”: politics, international treaties, economic trends, moral decline, family breakdowns. East Coast elites and sophisticated biblical interpretation were easily swept out the church door when the experience of personally knowing the inside story became the norm. Such persons supernaturally knew what no one else knows.

But because of all this, many today have turned down the knob on the music of the book of Revelation. The speculation approach is behind the ordinary dismay with this book, and speculation can be laid at the front door of what is called dispensationalism (see appendix 1, “Dispensationalism’s Seven Dispensations.”) Dispensationalism of the classical sort is a method of reading the Bible in which God forms seven (or so) different covenants with humans—like Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus. Israel, the modern state of Israel, figures big in this scheme. What dispensationalism is known for even more is its belief in the imminent rapture that occurs before a future seven-year tribulation. Sometime near the end of that tribulation, Jesus will come back (the “second coming”), establish a literal one-thousand-year reign on earth, and then at the end of that millennium comes eternity. For dispensationalists the book of Revelation, at least from chapter four on, is entirely about that tribulation. The message of Revelation for many is, “You don’t want to be there when it happens. So get saved and get ready!”

Philip Gorski, in his exceptional book American Covenant, says the speculative, dispensational approach needs criticism not only for how it reads Revelation but also for what it does to the readers. First, it reads the Bible: • Predictively, as an encoded message about future events that can be decoded by modern-day prophets; • Literally, such that the mythical creatures of the text are understood as material realities; • “Premillennially,” with the second coming of Christ understood to precede the earthly ‘millennium’ of God’s thousand-year reign on earth; and • Vindictively, with the punishment of the godless occurring in the most gruesome and violent forms imaginable. He presses on his readers another vital point: this is not how the church throughout its history has read the apocalyptic texts of the Bible. What was apocalyptic and metaphorical and fictional over time became rigidly literal for too many readers.

Gorski really helps us all when he zooms in on what these kinds of readings do to people. “First, it leads to hubris. It seduces its followers into claiming to know things that no human being can possibly know.”

Gorski’s second point stuns. This way of reading the Bible “leads to demonization of others.

Third, it leads to fatalism, suggesting that wars and other calamities are beyond human control.

Finally, and most fatefully, it suggests that the ultimate solution to all problems is a violent one involving the annihilation of one’s enemies.”

Michael Gorman, who wrote one of the most important textbooks on Revelation, concludes that the discipleship of this approach is about • believing in order to escape the Tribulation, • evangelizing to help others escape, • connecting current events to prophecies, • and being ready to die for faith in Jesus.

Nelson Kraybill puts it succinctly: “Many Christians in the West have shut out the book of Revelation after seeing it exploited by cult leaders, pop eschatologists, and end-time fiction writers.”

Gorski’s project reveals that this approach to Revelation partakes far too often in nothing less than American Christian nationalism!

Future Speculations, Excitations, and Frustrations – We’ve been using the term “speculation,” so let’s explain it a bit more. This reading of Revelation obsesses about predictions about the future. That is, one narrows down an image in Daniel or Ezekiel or Revelation to such-and-such leader or to some specific nation. The USA fits into the predictions, and that means we (mostly Protestant, evangelical, white) Christians are the safe ones since we are the saved. The sort of dispensationalism we are talking about specializes in knowing “signs of the times” that are imminent.

Countless students and friends and people have told us this. They’ve had their excitations about the imminent rapture, they’ve heard the predictions, and they’ve seen that every one of them was wrong. Every. One. No. Exceptions.

They are unaware that there is a far more accurate and profoundly relevant way to read Revelation. We’ll tie some of this into a knot of terms: Revelation connected to speculation leads to excitation, and excitations lead to expectations, and expectations unfulfilled lead to frustrations. Frustrations lead to realizations that have led many to say, “There’s something big-time wrong with these speculations.”

The book is for all times because it is about all time. The flexibility of the book to give Christians a sense of direction and meaning throughout church history is the big clue to a different approach. The clue is that Revelation is timeless theology not specific prediction, and the moment it turns to specific predictions it loses its timeless message.

Why Is the Predictive Reading So Popular? 1. Fulfilled prophecies validate a person’s faith. 2. It resolves theological tensions: this world is not my home, this world remains my home for a while; God is in control, but I can choose, etc. 3. Predictive theology is by the people for the people instead of professionals. 4. History has meaning and a plan. 5. It offers utopian hope with a perfected social order. Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More, 293–324

So, Revelation for the Rest of Us – The Apocalypse is not about prediction of the future but perception and interrogation of the present. It provides readers with a new lens to view our contemporary world. What if Revelation is what another scholar on Revelation, Greg Carey, thinks it is? “Monsters characterize imperial brutality; cosmic portents reflect social injustice; heavenly glories display the rule of the transcendent over the ordinary.”

“The last book of the Bible is not a catalog of predictions about events that would take place two thousand years later. Rather, it is a projector that casts archetypal images of good and evil onto a cosmic screen.” Wow, that line leads us to a fresh reading of Revelation.

A dissident is someone who takes a stand against official policy in church or state or both, who dissents from the status quo with a different vision for society. We need a generation of dissident disciples who confront and resist corruption and systemic abuses in whatever locations they are found: • corruption in the countries of the world, • our churches’ complicities in these corruptions, • and the reading of Revelation as speculation, which blunts our prophetic voice.

The book of Revelation, when read well, forms us into dissident disciples who discern corruptions in the world and church. Conformity to the world is the problem. Discipleship requires dissidence when one lives in Babylon.

As Greg Beale says, Revelation may be the most relevant book in the entire Bible, speaking to us today with its exhortations for “God’s people to remain faithful to the call to follow the Lamb’s paradoxical example and not to compromise.” But to discern its relevance we must stop our speculations and excitations—with their toothless approaches to discipleship—and our obsessions over being raptured or left behind, and we must go to prison with John.

Revelation records a timeless battle between two cities: Babylon and new Jerusalem. It’s a battle between two lords: The Lord of lords, Jesus, and the lord of the empire, the emperors of Rome. It’s a battle between hidden forces: angels and those in heaven against the dragon and his many-headed beasts (or wild things), and armies on both sides.1 Babylon loses and new Jerusalem wins. It takes imagination to believe this is true.

Yet John must have believed his listeners, those who heard the reading of this book, would comprehend what he had written. With one eye on Rome and the other eye on these seven churches, John chose to communicate with them in a way that has had a lasting—and sometimes bizarre—legacy.

Their songs were subversive, pointing to a different hope, and their witness announced a different Lord. There was something about them that made those in power nervous, so they began at the top with a plan to eliminate the most influential Christian in western Asia Minor: a Jew who believed Jesus was the Messiah. They shipped him off to a remote island, no doubt thinking this would put an end to this dissident. Except it didn’t.

In the book of Revelation John instructs the seven churches of western Asia Minor on how to live as Christian dissidents in an empire racked by violence, power, exploitation, and arrogance. “Follow the Way of the Lamb” thumps the drumbeat of this book. Yet many discussions of Revelation completely miss this key message. Michael Gorman is right: Revelation “is not about a rapture out of this world but about faithful discipleship in this world.”

A dissident is a person of hope, someone who imagines a better, future world, and then begins to embody that world. It’s someone who speaks to promote that better, future vision and against what is wrong in the present.

We are either thermometers reflecting the temperature of the world or thermostats adjusting that temperature. But we are only nonconformists, he warned his audiences in Montgomery, if we have been transformed in Christ.

We might call John a double dissident because he had his eyes on the evil powers at work in the empire as well as those same powers at work in the church. He saw too much Rome in the church, and not enough church in Rome.

What’s important to understand is that John, too, was a dissident, a prophetic voice in a long line of dissident voices speaking about the negative influence of Rome in the church. Too many of the churches were floating along with cultural buoyancy, wrongly assuming that all was fine. They believed they could follow Jesus and still be 100% culturally respected. They thought they could live like Rome and enter the new Jerusalem. John saw through their errant beliefs and spoke up and spoke out. It’s one thing to talk trash about Rome—the obvious enemy—behind closed doors, but it’s another to diss your own churches.

But while he is dispensing grubs to the churches, he’s also got his eyes on Rome and the other churches he pastors. Because John spoke against Rome, he became an imprisoned dissident. Because he spoke against the churches, some saw his imprisonment as a relief. This is one of the keys to reading Revelation well—that we understand the dual critique of the church and the empire. Reading Revelation well requires recognizing that Revelation has much to say; it makes no sense until we first see how it speaks a powerful encouragement to be dissident disciples.

Revelation is a visionary, auditory experience interpreted for the seven churches, the result of an artistic and graphic imagination. That’s not to say that what John saw did not happen. It’s simply to note that his experience was interpreted and mediated through what is written.

Putting this all together is what we mean when we say John used his “imagination.” We don’t mean imagination in the sense of making something up—as in writing a fictional story. Instead, we mean the creative process of communication, where something real stimulated his imagination and then something he says to communicate that experience stimulates ours. Remember: it takes imagination to read Revelation rightly.

Imagination John’s strategy was to write an “apocalypse” (the Greek apokalypsis means “unveiling,” “revealing”). An apocalypse, by design, is an imagination-stimulating genre. Apocalypses reveal to humans God’s plan for the world. They inform readers that what they think is real is not as real as they think, that there is a deeper reality, that the world is not what it seems to be. And in reading, the unfathomable becomes clear.

Our point is that good readers of Revelation will read it more like The Lord of the Rings than Paul’s letter to the Romans. We should let the bowls empty out and the trumpets blast; we should visualize the fall of Babylon and the woman of Revelation zooming and leaping and spinning and twirling—if you want to read this book well. The writer John used his imagination to see what he saw, and it takes an imagination to engage his. Too many readings of Revelation are flat-footed and literal. But as Greg Stevenson, an expert on Revelation, says, “Revelation symbolically transforms the world into a battlefield in which the forces of the dragon are arrayed against the forces of God.”

Imagination also comforts the oppressed, the discouraged, the seeker, and the wanderer. When we engage the flood of images Revelation offers us and experience them with our senses, it encourages us to trudge through the deep icy snows of discouragement and stimulates faith in the God who really is the Lord of lords and King of kings—even when dictators and tyrants ruin our society.

John operates with two opposing sides as well. On one side is God and the Lamb and the Seven Spirits, the woman, the seven churches, allegiant witnesses, the four living things, the twenty-four elders, and the good angels—all of whom are marching toward the kingdom of God or the new Jerusalem. On the other side is the dragon, the wild things, and their demonic and human servants—all of whom are embodied in Babylon. To read Revelation well, we will need to get to know John’s characters as our companions.

“Choose your team!” is one of John’s rhetorical strategies. Choose Team Lamb and you become a dissident who resists Team Dragon. Dissidents soon learn how many are on Team Lamb, and they begin to discern the manifold ploys and plots of Team Dragon. They also learn, as they speak up and speak out on how to resist Team Dragon.

Three principles for reading Revelation well are now on the table: 1. It’s not written for speculators—for those looking for a decoder ring to interpret newspaper headlines. 2. It is written for dissidents—for followers of Christ ready to challenge the powers of world and empire. 3. And it requires imagination—engaging our senses and minds with the performance that is Revelation, with all of its rich images and intriguing characters. Now, we turn to a fourth principle, which brings all three principles together: we must understand the Playbill, or the Cast of Characters, of Revelation. The Book of Revelation puts a number of characters on the stage, each becoming a “character” in the drama. Each deserves to be understood for their role. To understand Revelation, one must grasp what John means—to take the first example of a character in the Playbill—with “Babylon.” If you wait until you meet this character in chapter 17 to think about Babylon, you will have a thin reading of the first sixteen chapters.

John’s cast of characters are assigned to one of two teams, summarized in the playbill pages that follow: TEAM LAMB: God and the Lamb and the Seven Spirits, the woman, the seven churches, allegiant witnesses, the four living things, the twenty-four elders, and angels, all designed for new Jerusalem TEAM DRAGON: The dragon and the beasts, which I translate throughout as “the wild things”—there are two of them—all inhabiting Babylon (kings and merchants and sailors and anyone who chooses to have the mark of the wild thing, and John names some others: the Nicolaitans and Balaam and Jezebel)

These two teams are engaged in a cosmic battle with one another, what Paul Minear refers to as “sovereignties in conflict.” One can’t read Revelation well or make Revelation come alive in our world until we understand John’s multilayered cosmic universe and the characters who are both visible and invisible.

It’s important for us to see that this throne-room vision fundamentally determines the message of the entire Apocalypse: God is on the Throne, Caesar is not, Babylon will go down, and someday justice will be established in the new Jerusalem.

John here is not offering us prediction, but revelation, making an appeal through our perception and engaging our imagination.

The centralizing of all this power has one purpose: to fight the Lamb. The Lamb will win, of course, and John tells us this in 17:14 to calm down our excitations.

John ups and tells us what he means: “The woman . . . is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth” (17:18, italics added). So we now have everything in this vision identified: the woman is Babylon, the woman is sitting on the wild thing, the wild thing operates on seven hills with seven kings (make that ten more kings), and the wild thing is a king too! The wild thing hates the Lamb, but the Lamb will be victorious, and Babylon, “the great city,” will burn to the ground. It would have taken very little imagination in John’s day to recognize that this so-called great city is Rome, but it may shock today’s reader to know that this is the most repugnant, hostile portrait of the “eternal city” in the ancient world.

For example, not that long before the writing of Revelation, Peter is in Rome and he calls Rome “Babylon”: “She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings” (1 Pet 5:13).

John has morphed Roma—an image of Roman pride and glory—into “the mother of prostitutes, Babylon the great.” If so, John turns Rome’s own image of itself inside out and upside down.

Why Babylon? These two-and-a-half chapters in Revelation (17–19) are all about Rome, and John makes that clear in the last verse of Revelation 17 when he says Babylon is the “great city” (17:18), the city of “seven hills” (17:9). A first-century person would have quite naturally connected the woman sitting on seven hills to the common Roman coin depicting Roma, the goddess, sitting on seven hills.

But again, why not just say this? Why call her Babylon? And the answer is because John isn’t just speaking about Rome, but he is connecting Rome and the empire to the ongoing story of God’s people. Babylon became for Jews and early Christians the most graphic image, metaphor, or trope for a city filled with arrogance, sin, injustice, oppression of God’s people, and idolatry.

Today, if you want to insult a leader you would call him a “Hitler” or “Stalin.” If you want to insult the integrity of an athlete you might call them a “Pete Rose.” In the Jewish world of John, you would insult a woman with the label “Jezebel” and a man by calling him “Balaam.” But if you wanted to insult an entire city and mock its powers, you pulled out the “Babylon” card.

To use “Babylon” to refer to the reigning powers of the world was very, very Jewish.

Babylon is chosen because that specific city from that specific time in Israel’s history became a trope for the powers that oppressed, took captive, and killed the people of God.

Babylon for All Times – This leads us to an important observation and another principle for reading Revelation well: Babylon is a timeless trope. Jews knew of the original city of Babylon as a specific event from their own story. But from that time onward they had their eyes open for the presence of the next Babylon and other Babylons to follow. Whenever they saw an oppressing nation or an enslaving power, they saw Babylon all over again. Whenever they saw their country besieged and their city (Jerusalem) attacked or exploited, they remembered Babylon. Babylon was more than a one-time event—it was timeless for Jews.

Babylon is as present to John as Patmos. Babylon was not some future city for him.

Babylon is always here—even today. Babylon is an image, a metaphor, a trope Jews used for empires that oppress and persecute the covenant people. As a trope, Babylon names empires that oppress those who walk in the way of the Lamb. When we turn later in this book to the story at work in the book of Revelation and look at its timeline, we will need to depict Babylon as timeless. And this means: Babylon accompanies the church as it moves through church history.

“Babylon exists wherever sociopolitical power coalesces into an entity that stands against the worship of YHWH alone.”

We will meet the dragon’s violent ways in the militaries of major empires and nations—in airplanes, in submarines, in warships, in bombs, in nuclear warheads, in nerve gasses, in alliances of nations, and in internet terrorism.

We encounter the dragon and Babylon in spiritual, moral, cultural, political, economic, and educational degradations that bring death, that block freedoms, that are designed by the wild things to yield allegiance to the dragon.

Many of those reading Revelation speculatively point their fingers at Russia or Iran or Iraq and fail to see Babylon in their own country. Yet as Michael Gorman has gone to pains to demonstrate, the USA has earmarks of empire in its exceptionalism, nationalism, colonialism, and militarism.

A Word for the Church Too – The biggest problem facing the seven churches was Babylon. And the biggest problem we still face in our churches today is Babylon. Babylon is past and it is now; it is tomorrow and it is future as well. But it is only the future because Babylon is always.

Babylon’s Characteristics – Babylon means military might, exploiter of the economy, and oppressor of the people of God. But there’s more to this image than just an external threat to God’s people. Babylon is also present in the various sins of the seven churches. The storyline of the book of Revelation is about wiping out the sins of Babylon so there can be a new Jerusalem. Dissident disciples have their eyes trained to discern the signs of Babylon, and they recognize the sinister symptoms of something disordered.

Revelation reveals the plan of God to wipe the world clean of evil by defeating the dragon, wrangling the wild things, and taking down Babylon. It takes readers into the heart of evil, defeats it, and leads us triumphantly to the world’s true destiny: the new Jerusalem, the city that flows with peace and justice.

These seven signs manifest idolatries and injustices, but if one wants to reduce them to their core they express a corrupted, corrupting civil religion and spiritualized politics. To quote again from Richard Bauckham, here is his thematic statement for the seven characteristics of Babylon: Absolute power on earth is satanic in inspiration, destructive in its effects, idolatrous in its claims to ultimate loyalty.

In one word: domination. The one who follows the Lamb toward new Jerusalem discerns and resists the claims to absolute power by Babylon.

1. Anti-God (for Jews and Christians) – Babylon formed an anti-God way of life into a rigid system. Jews and Christians had long denounced common idolatries (Isa 40–55; Wis 13–15; Acts 12:21–23; Rom 1:18–32). What they witnessed throughout the ancient world were gods and kings, even kings as gods, revered in temples.

There was no distinction made between military might, political rulers and emperors, politics, and religion. Empire and religion were woven together into a seamless whole.

2. Opulent Babylon luxuriated in opulence, indulgence, entertainment, and games. John tells us that Babylon “was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls” (Rev 17:4). The rich got richer as the poor remained in their crowded, beggarly, and ignored condition.

One of the best ways to communicate the ugliness of opulence is through hyperbole!

3. Murderous – What Rome called pax Romana, or the peace of Rome, was really the subjugation of enemies through violent conquer or surrender. To be emperor over a large empire, one needed the chops of military victories, and the more impressive the enemy, the more status accrued to the emperor.

4. Image – By all accounts Babylon impressed the watching world with its strategies, engineers, and architecturally brilliant temples, palaces, buildings, theaters, and sporting spectacles. Roads and aqueducts crisscrossed the empire. Marble-shaped-images were everywhere. The monumental buildings testified to the impressive glory of Rome, its victories, and its leaders.2 Those who saw the power and glory and reach of Babylon (=Rome) were stunned—everyone except the dissidents, the oppressed, the slaves, those captured, and the poor. In other words, most everyone!

That’s exactly what Babylon wanted (and has always wanted)—to be an object of awe, astonishment, and praise.

Dissidents of Babylon learn to discern and resist the intoxicating allure of cultivating image and persona.

5. Militaristic – Rome accumulated all it had through military might and power. Rome tellingly rejected the use of “king” (rex) for its premier leader, instead preferring the title “emperor,” a translation of imperator, referring to military commanders. The ruler of Rome was the most powerful man in the world, and as the world’s mightiest man he was a militarist.

Dissidents discern in the exploitations of other humans—whether man, woman, or child—a mark of Babylon.

6. Economically Exploitative – Rome, aka Babylon, aggregated, accumulated, exploited, taxed, and traded—and this was a daily experience throughout the empire. Mosaics in Pompeii show that on the houses you could read on the floor “Hello Profit!” or “Profit is Happiness!” The poor resented the wealthy as much, if not more, in western Asia Minor as they did anywhere else, and the poor agitated for redistribution. The blistering criticisms of Revelation 18 then fit quite well with the social conditions of the time. The injustices of exploitation simmered just below the surface of Roman society.

One writer even quipped that you could travel the world to see what it has to offer or you could go to Rome and see it all there. The merchants sold what Babylon was buying with a ceaseless flow toward Rome. Dissidents today are also attuned to recognize the excesses of economic exploitation and consumerism.

7. Arrogant – The previous six signs of Babylon could all be rolled up into this one. Rome turned its arrogance into a virtue. “In her heart,” John knows by discernment, “she boasts, ‘I sit enthroned as queen. I am not a widow; I will never mourn’” (Rev 18:7). The Old Testament prophet Isaiah says nearly the same thing about the original Babylon: “You said, ‘I am forever—the eternal queen!’” (Isa 47:7); and she said “I am [that’s blasphemy in the highest], and there is none besides me. I will never be a widow or suffer the loss of children” (47:8). Arrogance begins at the top of the empire, or rather, the system rewards the arrogant and lines up everyone else in a hierarchy of status.

This boasting falls directly opposite the cross of Jesus and his way of life. Jesus’s victory came by means of a hideous crucifixion—the way of the Lamb. Augustus exposes for all to see the way of the dragon—self-adulation, human accomplishment, and false humility. His rule and way of life exist through power, through violence, through murder, and through the exploitation of others for the sake of indulgence and opulence.

Summary If we had to choose a single term for Babylon, we’d focus on the militaristic drive to conquer and select the term “domination.” Domination unto death is the way of the dragon.

These set the tone for how Babylon penetrated the seven churches, and we should reflect on how they continue to be expressed in churches today. Remember, dissidents discern Babylon—they develop a Babylonian hermeneutic.

The Dragon and Its Wild Things – Babylon presents itself as the powerful order of strength, but behind Babylon are the dragon and the wild things. We’ve offered a brief introduction to each of these characters in the playbill, but here we want to unpack that further. Babylon, in short, is the systemic order of power created by the dragon and the wild things.

The dragon’s mission is clear: it wants the woman’s baby boy, the Son of God who is to rule, and it wants the Son dead.

The war is on between Team Dragon and Team Lamb. Notice the astounding opening in Revelation 12:7: there is a war in heaven! One can’t read that and not think of John Milton’s battles in Paradise Lost, or those of J. R. R. Tolkien or C. S. Lewis between good and evil. This is the stuff of the world’s great stories and myths.

That last verse we cited, Revelation 12:17, speaks of going to war with the offspring of the woman. The seven characteristics of Babylon manifest the way of the dragon, which battles against the way of the Lamb. One can’t read Revelation well without embracing the cosmic, even mythic, battle between Team Dragon and Team Lamb.

Dissident disciples are the first to realize they are in a battle—not with flesh and blood, but with the principalities and powers that snake their way into the seven churches. Some readers of Revelation, however, turn Revelation 12 into little more than a symbolic battle between abstract good and abstract evil. But the dragon can’t be reduced to a symbol of evil. The dragon is the ultimate agent of evil.

The Wild Things: #1 and #2 One of the biggest mistakes we can make in reading Revelation is spending too much time speculating on the precise predictive identity of the wild thing (or the antichrist; see appendix 3), the mask of the dragon. Who will it be? Luther and Calvin thought it was the pope, as have many zealot Protestants since (and some still today).

These speculators were all wrong, and they’ve all been wrong because they lack the kind of imagination a faithful reading of Revelation requires, wanting to reduce everything to literal predictions.

We are not looking for figures by predicting specific persons in the future; rather, we are looking for images of dragon-like leaders at work in all societies and all times. They are puppets, whose strings are pulled by the dragon. Remember, these images are not about predicting the future, but about shaping our perceptions of the present.

There are two wild things in Revelation 13, one from the sea and one from the earth. Wild thing #1 emerges from the sea, a picture of chaos and the ancient abyss (see 11:7). Wild thing #1 is all about power while wild thing #2 is about propaganda. Both of them do their work behind closed doors in the dragon’s Babylon, creating a propaganda machine to control and dominate.

666 Many readers of Revelation today get snagged in the 666 web of speculation (Rev 13:16–18), wondering what such a number means, how numbers like this worked in John’s world, and to whom 666 might apply today.

Who will it be? is not the right question to ask, though. Rather, we should ask Who was it for John? and Who might it be for us?

To begin, we go back to the time when the Book of Revelation was written. Nero Caesar, in Greek Nerōn kaisar, adds up to 666 when translated into Hebrew: 50+200+6+50+100+60+200 = 666! Some manuscripts of Revelation here do not have the number 666 but instead 616, and if one drops off the second “n” in Nerōn that name then totals 616!

But Nero is not alone in satisfying such a calculation, because 666 is also the numerical value of the word thērion, which is the Greek word for “beast” or “wild thing.” This was likely all great fun for the first readers of Revelation.

Like Babylon, 666 does not point to one person at one future moment in history but to all political tyrants who have the powers to establish the way of the dragon and oppress Team Lamb.

The Lamb – The believers to whom Revelation was originally written lived in Babylon—that is, the Roman Empire. Their entire lives—bodies, minds, and spirits—were swamped by Babylon. Those believers become faithful witnesses to Jesus as Lord by following the Lamb as residents in Babylon. And faithful discipleship, a life that mirrors Christ, who is the Lamb, is still about being a witness to Jesus as a resident in this world. Discipleship is about Lamb-like living.

This term, following, is used in the Gospels for the disciples as well. The faithful follow Jesus in the way of the Lamb—into a witness that can lead to suffering and even death, and into the way of victory over those who oppose the Lamb.

But if discipleship is really about following the Lamb, what are the characteristics of the Lamb that we are to follow? John gives us a multifaceted depiction of Jesus in the book of Revelation, and he is the one whom disciples are to follow by resisting Babylon.

We are only through the first eight verses of this book, and already Jesus fills a theological textbook with ideas and concepts about his identity and mission!

In other words, the book of Revelation is first and foremost a revelation about Jesus.

John’s Jesus is altogether splendorous. And again, his words are soaked in Old Testament imagery: a long, priest-like robe with a golden sash, snow-white hair like Daniel 7, eyes of fire and glowing feet like Daniel 10, and a resonant, reverberating voice like Ezekiel 1.

The Lord Because of the flow of this book, we need to always keep our eyes on what John said in 1:5: Jesus is “the ruler [archōn] of the kings of the earth.” He is, in other words, the Lord of lords. Living into this requires both a comic and cosmic imagination, especially for those living outnumbered as allegiant witnesses to Jesus. In today’s terms, you might hear an echo of someone in these churches yelling out “Booyah!”

John is saying that Jesus is there with them, alive and speaking, and they should hear him speaking as the one true ruler of the world, the Lord of lords! They should declare allegiance to him, walk in the way of the Lamb, and resist the dragon by refusing to walk in the way of Babylon.

Pause with us one more time: what strikes the reader of Revelation 1 is not speculation about who will be whom, who will do what, in which nation, and at what date. What strikes the reader is the overwhelming majesty of Jesus, God’s Son, the Messiah, the King of kings and the world’s only true Emperor of emperors. The followers of the Lamb hearing this book performed are over the moon in joyous rapture at the prospect of a world run by Jesus—a world John calls the new Jerusalem. This Jesus is the one who calls people to follow him by resisting the lords of Rome and walking in the way of the Lord of lords.

The Lion The vision of John shifts from Jesus to the churches in chapters 1, 2, and 3, and then to the Throne-God in chapter 4, and then back to Jesus all over again in chapter 5. But in chapter five the lordly images describing Jesus in Revelation 1–3 morph from a Lion into the Lamb. We’ll start with the Lion.

The Lamb – Something odd happens in chapter 5 that transforms the message of the book of Revelation. One of the elders informs John that only the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, had triumphed and so only he can crack open the scroll (perhaps “little scroll”). John wants us to see with the eyes of our imagination again—to picture the Lion romping forward to grab hold of the scroll. But no, that’s not how it happens. Instead, there is a morphing, a transformation: “Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne” (5:6, italics added).

The Lion becomes the Lamb. And it is a bizarre lamb, with three sevens: “seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth” (5:6). The Lamb “took the scroll from the right hand” of God (5:7). Then two groups (four living creatures and twenty-four elders) erupt into worship of the Lamb.

Why the transformation? It’s easy to follow a fierce lion, but who wants to follow a lamb? The Lamb, they sing, is worthy, not because he headbutted someone off the stage. No, he is worthy because he was slain, and by being slain, the Lamb “purchased” a universal people of God, and they—not Babylon’s lords—will be a “kingdom and priests to serve our God.” What’s more, the Lamb’s followers “will reign on the earth” (5:10). The Lord of Revelation 1:5, you will remember, is the “ruler of the kings of the earth.” That Lord, that Lion, is the Lamb.

Their Lamb is really a Lion who wins with a sword in his fist in a noisy, bloody battle at Armageddon. Their Christology distorts the book, because they are driven by speculations about when this will happen, where it will happen, and who will be the antichrist. The Lion is a Lamb who wins (as we are about to see) not with a sword in a bloody battle but with a nonviolent weapon, namely the Word of God.

But what does it mean to say that the Lamb was a slain lamb? Remember how we morphed from a fierce, powerful, death-dealing Lion to a vulnerable, defenseless Lamb?

Two more observations about the slaughtered Lamb. Jesus’s way of life, the Lion-Lamb way of life, forms the paradigm for his followers, so it comes as no surprise that followers of Jesus are also slain or slaughtered. Notice these two verses: When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. (6:9) In her [Babylon] was found the blood of prophets and of God’s holy people, of all who have been slaughtered on the earth. (18:24)

Babylon’s way is the way of sword and violence. The way of the Lamb is to speak up and about Jesus in the midst of Babylon, come what may. What may come is the Lamb’s way of ultimate witness: martyrdom. The Lamb wages war, not with a sword in his fist, but with a sword coming from his mouth and with a life that embodies resistance to the lords of Babylon.

The Logos – John’s Jewish contemporaries prayed and memorized the book of Psalms as their prayer book. Words from Psalm 44 formed in the memories of God’s people a picture of God as warrior and Israel’s “victories” coming not because of their own power or swords but from God.

In Revelation the Lamb wins the war.

There is a gruesome battle with a paradox: the “deaths” at the hand of the Lamb are by the Word, the Logos, and not by a sword in the king’s fist. And here’s why. The way of the Lamb is not the way of Babylon and its dragon. The latter is the way of power and might, violence and bloodshed, murder and arrogance, and the exploitation of human bodies. In a previous chapter we looked at the militarism of Babylon. Militarism is not the way of the Lamb. Instead, the Lamb wins by losing, and his losing liberates others. The Lamb liberates by giving his life, and the Lord wins the battle with the Word, the Logos. Some interpreters of the book of Revelation relish the battle descriptions as literal, physical, military battles with incalculable bloodshed held at a place called Armageddon. When we read such interpreters, we should wonder if their heart has been cauterized. Because while the images of battle in Revelation 6–18 look like physical battles, they are really apocalyptic fictions, images that dance before our eyes and imaginations to tell us that the Lamb will win. And the Bible tells us the Lamb wins with the Word. Winners with the Word deconstruct winners with the sword, and they will win at the parousia of Jesus, or his second coming or return (see appendix 4, “Armageddon”).

The Rider is called “Faithful and True,” which is what Jesus is called in 3:14: “the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation.” Unlike Babylon, who is drunk on the blood of God’s people, Jesus will bring justice, as was predicted of the Messiah in Isaiah 11. Like Daniel 10:6 and Revelation 1:14, he has fiery eyes. This image means that he is coming to purge evil from God’s creation. He is not wearing “crowns,” as the NIV has, but rather “diadems,” which are worn as a symbol of kingship. Roman emperors wore wreaths, not diadems, because the former symbolized victory and the latter kingship. The way of the Lamb is not the way of the dragon or Babylon.

The Lion is the Lamb, the Word of God, who is the Emperor and Lord over all the earth’s lordless lords. He will win and he will reign. There will be a great victory feast, a final judgment, and a splendorous city descending from heaven, the new Jerusalem.

The Faithful Witnesses – The Throne-God wins, the Lord-Lion-Lamb-Logos wins, and the Seven Spirits win. The dragon and the wild things lose. The book of Revelation, however, is not just about a spiritual battle in the heavens, as was sketched out for us in Revelation 12. The apocalypse takes place on earth too, as the battle for allegiance, truth, and power. Babylon and new Jerusalem form the two encampments while the dragon and the Lamb lead troops of wild things and faithful witnesses.

The faithful witnesses declare their allegiance to the Lamb and walk in the way of the Lamb as dissidents of Babylon. Faithful to the Lamb, they witness to the Lamb, speaking up and speaking out and sometimes suffering.

The Woman – As we saw with the Lord, Lion, and Lamb, there are images that will morph and shift in Revelation. This is what we see happening with the woman of Revelation 12. She is first Israel or perhaps Eve, and then she becomes Mary, mother of Jesus, and then she becomes the church.

Losing yet again, the dragon surrenders to the woman and chooses to battle “the rest of her offspring” (12:17). These children of the woman are the faithful witnesses of the seven churches: “Those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus” (12:17).

This approach to Revelation distorts the meaning of what John wrote in a number of ways, not least these two. First, these are wildly inaccurate descriptions of the periods themselves. And second, John thinks of these churches as coexisting and contemporary. There is not a shred or scrap of evidence that John sees them as future churches. Everything about Revelation speaks directly to John’s own day and how John’s churches can live faithfully in Babylon (Rome). The biggest problem with this interpretation also damns the entire approach: it fails to comprehend the historic global church.

We encounter: the seven seals (6:1–8:1), the seven trumpets (8:2–11:19), and seven shallow bowls (15:1–16:21). Three plus ten. Ten interludes interrupt three cycles of seven judgments (7:1–8, 9–17; 8:3–5; 10:1–11; 11:1–14; 12; 13; 14:1–13, 14–19; 15:2–4).

There’s nothing controversial about breaking the book of Revelation into these major sections. The controversy begins when we ask, How are we to read the book’s narrative plot and flow? How do the characters of the playbill come together to form the plot? Previously, we noted four basic principles for reading Revelation well: (1) it’s not for speculators; (2) it is for dissidents; (3) it requires imagination; (4) and we need to know the basic characters. Now we add a fifth principle: (5) it is vitally important that we locate these characters within the dramatic narrative.

The three most significant elements of classic dispensationalism are: First, an emphasis on a literal reading of Revelation. And it must be added that those who urge this claim that they alone read Revelation “literally.” Not a few of us would describe this as flat-footed. Second, classic dispensationalism teaches a prophetic or prediction-heavy reading that seeks to locate Revelation on the world’s stage. Think of looking for the signs of Revelation as you scroll through your Twitter feed. Third, add to these first two a chronological reading that sees chronological steps progressing all the way from chapter 6 to the end of the book.

But there are several reasons why this reading is most unlikely. To begin with, the word “prophetic” does not have to mean “prediction.” Pick up your Bible, read the prophets of Israel, and you will see immediately that they are speaking to their own day as much as they are speaking to the future. It’s a both-and way of speaking.

No one literally thinks any of these beasts have seven heads or that some sword will zoom from Jesus’s mouth when he speaks. Some things are “literal” and others “symbolic,” and both sides interpret in both ways. Not to mention that John himself does not see what he is describing as future but considers himself to be a fellow participant in the so-called great tribulation (1:9).

Life—past, present, future—is not a product of random chaos, nor is it the result of fate or blind luck. No, in the story of everything, the world is God’s world, time is in God’s hands, history has a beginning, and God guides history toward its divine intention: the new Jerusalem or the kingdom of God. Such a worldview colors one’s perception of every moment and counters every other worldview. To the degree that those seven churches lived according to the story of everything, they had to live in two worlds.

Here is the only secret you need to reading Revelation: this book is about the Lamb’s final, complete defeat of the dragon and its Babylons and the establishment of new Jerusalem.

For there to be an uncontested new Jerusalem, there must no longer be a Babylon warring with the Lamb.

The book is not about finding joy in unbelievers getting their comeuppance, but about the defeat of the dragon and the systemic evils in Babylon. The celebration is not personal vengeance but cosmic justice. It’s a colossal cosmic relief for the dragon to be defeated so the splendor can all go to the Lamb and the One on the throne.

Everything in the New Testament, from Matthew to Revelation, utilizes the backstory of Israel. John alludes to the Old Testament prophets constantly because their story is his story. Well, that’s not quite right. It’s better to say their story becomes his story, and his story takes that backstory and reframes the entire story of Israel as one headed toward the new Jerusalem.

The Backstory of Israel Includes: Creation, promise, covenant, the plagues and the exodus, law, temple, kings and prophets, exile, and return. It’s essential in reading Revelation to have some familiarity with the backstory of Israel. This means readers of Revelation need to know the characters and formative events of the Bible: Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Israel, Moses, David, Solomon, and the prophets. Along with these characters, readers of Revelation also need to know about the events of the backstory: creation, promise, covenant, law, tabernacle and temple, kings and prophets, law, exile, return, and how specific events like Passover, the plagues, the exodus, and entering the land became paradigms for God’s redemption in this world.

The Story So Far – Jesus radically adjusted the backstory of Israel in two ways. First, he added several events with his own life and actions. And second, the entire backstory became a new story because Jesus taught his followers that the backstory anticipated and was fulfilled in him! The “first” testament becomes a “second” testament because of Jesus, and John updates Jesus’s and the other apostles’ versions of the backstory into the story so far.

The Story So Far Includes: Creation, promise, covenant, law, temple, kings and prophets, exile, and return. Adds Jesus: His birth, life, teachings, miracles, apostles, last week, death, resurrection, ascension, and second coming.

The Final Story – Just as Jesus adjusted the story of Israel, so the final story provided by John in the Apocalypse adjusts the story so far yet again! But there’s something in John’s story that also tells us where we are in the story and how we should live as allegiant witnesses in today’s Babylons. Revelation’s Final Story Includes: Creation, promise, covenant, law, temple, kings and prophets, exile, and return. Adds Jesus: His birth, life, teachings, miracles, apostles, last week, death, resurrection, ascension, and return. Adds some final details: Babylon, dragon, and wild things; One on the throne, Lamb, Seven Spirits, three times seven judgments, Babylon defeated, and new Jerusalem.

Three Stories in Which We Find Ourselves Today – The Bible’s story of everything transcends what the world offers us. In a recent and brilliant study of the stories told by Americans, Philip Gorski proposes the existence of three basic storylines: radical secularism, Christian nationalism, and civil religion.

First, and the easiest for most Christians to reject, is radical secularism. This storyline explicitly wants God out of the public square and Christians to cease with their God-shaped moral visions. Instead, it wants a secular ethic rooted in reason that engages all people neutrally in the public square. For believers this is impossible, not least because everything we think and do flowers from our faith (or at least it ought to).

The second story popular today flips this first script on its head: Christian nationalism. In this story, the USA is a Christian nation, and its laws and government ought to reflect to one degree or another their Christian foundations. Accompanying this story is the necessity of violence wielded to maintain this Christian foundation and framework. Such an approach finds affinity, according to Philip Gorski, with the conquest narratives of the Old Testament, especially those we read in Joshua. Christian nationalists read the book of Revelation as the paradigm of earthly war and defeat, and their perspective on the place of government and its role emerges from the premillennial dispensational approach to Revelation. However extreme it was, January 6, 2021, illustrates such an approach.

Gorski himself contends for a third storyline, what he calls civil religion, which he contends draws from both the secular Western world of “civic republicanism” but also the biblical world of “prophetic religion.” These are the current options we in the West either grow up with or into. Three stories that help us make sense of the world around us and how we should engage in the public square—yet none of them offer us what Jesus and the apostles and John’s story of everything offer. Each of these stories has something to teach us, but none of them are fully satisfying.

John does not adjudicate how to engage in politics. Instead, John instructs Christians how to discern the moral character of governments and politicians and policies and laws. John takes the stance of a dissident disciple who lives out of a story unlike anything the world has to offer.

An Interlude about the Interludes Have you ever noticed that the book of Revelation is filled with interruptions or breaks in the narrative flow? Why are there so many of these interruptions—we count ten of them—interrupting the flow of John’s story in chapters 6 and following? It’s like traveling on a road trip with someone who wants to stop at every fresh fruit stand along the way. If you open your Bible and scan the section headers in Revelation 6–16, you’ll likely notice the interludes and see them as interruptions. Does John think the seven churches need interruptions as he tells this story? Perhaps he has a reason. The story he tells is ghastly, with three times seven judgments on the world. Might John be concerned for his audience, hoping to keep them from succumbing to fear or depression? We believe this is exactly what is happening. Just as we get to the point where we want to put our hands over our eyes, John lifts us into the presence of God, a place of worship and revelation. These interruptions are called interludes and they perform one key function: they lift the listeners in the seven churches out of the horrors of the dragon and the wild things and Babylon into the heavenly throne room to experience God as the real story behind the story of everything.

Here is a list of all ten interludes: Interlude 1: Marking 144,000 (7:1–8) Interlude 2: Universal Acclamation by Witnesses (7:9–17) Interlude 3: Petitions of the Devout Ones (8:3–5) Interlude 4: Little Book Eaten (10:1–11) Interlude 5: Two Witnesses (11:1–14) Interlude 6: Woman and Dragon (12:1−17) Interlude 7: Dragon’s Two Wild Things (13:1−18) Interlude 8: Allegiant Ones (14:1–13) Interlude 9: Judgment Announced (14:14–19) Interlude 10: Conquerors (15:2–4)

What the Interludes Do – The interludes function as digressions in speech, departing from the sequence of the argument to call attention to something important. Revelation was written for oral performance (Rev 1:3), and the interludes capture the hearers’ attention with their unexpected shifts in focus. The interludes enhance the emotional appeal: while the visions awaken fear, the interludes offer hope for salvation, inviting confidence. The interludes create delay by disrupting the seemingly inexorable movement toward God’s judgment. The interludes create intensity. The interludes pull us from the disorientation that is intentionally created by the seals and trumpets. —Cited and adapted from Craig R. Koester, 356–57

Babylon runs along as if there is no Lamb, as if Rome’s current emperor is the world’s true king, and as if they have nothing to worry about. But in many of these interludes, the seven churches get sensory experiences of the realest of realities in the presence of God. A reality that someday will be New Jerusalem.

These glorious interludes mediate the victory of the Lamb for those who remain allegiant to him. Those living in Babylon need the interludes. This is the truth from behind the curtain, now pulled back for a brief moment of revived hope and encouragement. The interludes lift their listeners in the seven churches away from the horrors of the dragon, the wild things, and Babylon into the heavenly throne room where they can experience God as the real story behind what is happening:

If you haven’t noticed, John loves numbers. Many readers and interpreters of Revelation have noted that John never gives us a number that is free from symbolic value. Seven is the number of perfection, implying something done according to the divine design, the number of completion. Three implies the greatest or ultimate expression of something. So seven times three indicates triple perfection!

That word “immediately” can only mean immediately—that is, imminently. Attached to these verses are parables that tie these cosmic events to what sounds like the final events of all history (Matt 24:32–25:46). But what historic event are these scenes tied to? Jesus connects them directly to the destruction of Jerusalem in 66–73 AD. The words of Jesus are aimed at that event and then expressed in terms that characterize the end of history. That’s how apocalyptic language works.

The best explanation we have ever seen for how biblical prophecy works requires understanding two things: resistance and affirmation. What must be resisted is thinking that the prophets are announcing in precise detail what will happen in time and space in the immediate future. What must be affirmed is that rhetorically the prophets ramp up imminency to press upon their readers the urgency of responding to their message.

Was John wrong? Answering “yes” utterly fails to deal with apocalyptic and prophetic language. The next event is framed as the last event to motivate hearers to repent and follow the way of the Lamb. Prophet after prophet in the Old Testament did the very same thing, so John frames these judgments as something about to happen just over the horizon, and we are to receive them the same way—knowing that God’s time is God’s time, as Jesus taught his followers (Matt 24:36).

What is the point of this “bitter sweetness” that characterizes God’s judgment? These judgments do not simply elicit celebration, but instead they usher the listener into an embittered joy, a painful truth that the world must experience for it to be redeemed. These judgments are a necessary but bitter reality. They are a bitter sweetness.

These scenes are not the stuff of world wars or nuclear holocausts. They are images of God’s justice being established by erasing the evils of injustice.

All of this to say: we are to see these—yes, triply—complete judgments as the deepest desire of the oppressed for justice. The specific judgments in the seals, trumpets, and shallow bowls are common tropes recognizable by those who have studied the Old Testament.

The oppressed want to hear from God, and they want to experience his justice. They want to see judgment on evil, they want oppression to end, and they want injustices to be undone. They want to hear that their oppressors are scheduled for a date with the divine. They want to know that racism will end in equality, that starvation will end in a banquet, that exclusion from the city will end in open gates for all. The oppressed have felt the piercingly violent eyes of Babylon upon them and have stared into the face of the dragon in the wild things. They know evil when they see it, and they long for the light found in the Lamb’s eyes.

All these and others remind the oppressed people of God that it may not look good today, but tomorrow brings new Jerusalem.

Behind all these judgments is an acknowledgment of God’s superintendence and orchestration. The book of Revelation exhales the air of God’s judgment in hot gusts—and we must not diminish divine involvement. A mistake is sometimes made by those who press these judgments into literal earthly realities in which God supposedly makes havoc of his own creation. Rather, these are all—each and in totality—graphic images of judgment on the dragon, the wild things, and Babylon. These judgments have a clear purpose as well: the elimination of evil in the world so the people of God can dwell in peace in the new Jerusalem. They spring from John’s vision, which he connects to the plagues and the prophets, and they stir the imagination of the oppressed in their hope for justice and of the sinful as a warning that God will eventually pay back all injustice.

Morally, the core issue is justice, and God is the One and Only who always does what is right. We are to see the three times seven judgments as an indication that God is making the world right by eliminating the arrogant, anti-God, exploitative, dominating ways of Babylon. Nothing thrills the heart of the oppressed and unjust sufferers more than hearing that God will make everything right—that he will bring justice. To put it practically, this means: • Racism condemned and made right is justice. • Economic exploitation made right is justice. • Trafficking bodies of humans made right is justice.

No, God makes things right because injustices are horribly wrong. The three times seven judgments are not lurid chronological timelines of revenge, but are three separable, but at times overlapping depictions, of God establishing justice so that the evils of Babylon disappear and the goodness of new Jerusalem becomes a reality.

A Prophet Spinning Plates – When an Old Testament prophet’s prophecy comes to pass and is fulfilled—though not in every single detail—some are tempted to characterize such prophecies as partially fulfilled. A “fuller” fulfillment is expected. For such readers, Revelation is the depiction of that final fulfilment, completing the missing aspects of many lingering, incomplete Old Testament prophecies. This, too, is a mistake. Here’s why: the seeds of John’s visions were planted in Israel’s past but only bloom with the arrival of the Lamb. Put differently, our wonderful writer’s imagination grows out of his memory. His book is not a prediction-fulfillment scheme based in Isaiah or Ezekiel or Daniel. Rather, John uses the images of these prophets to interpret the present and anticipate the future.

How Prophets Prophesied – Many people today are taught to read the Old Testament prophets as predictors and the New Testament authors as fulfillers of those predictions. But it’s not that simple. Careful reading of Scripture teaches us that it takes time to read the Bible in its historical context.

For example, Jesus connected his prophecy of Jerusalem’s destruction, which occurred in the war with Rome in 66–73 AD, with the prophet Daniel (Mark 13:14). Peter saw Pentecost in the language of Joel (Acts 2:14–21). When prophets spoke like this, they said something old and new at the same time.

How John Prophesied John was soaked in the language of prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel and Daniel, and at times there is a prophecy-fulfillment scheme at work. But most of the time John’s scheme is not prophecy-fulfillment. Instead, it is perhaps better described as re-actualization.

Again, these are not identical, but they are close enough to make us wonder if John spent time pondering Isaiah 27:1. (Answer: Yes, he did.) We are not to think that John created what he says about the wild things or serpent or the sword solely from this text, but rather that this text informed John as he described the visions that he saw.

One could say John is recording the fulfillment of Jesus’s own words, and that would be partially right, but we should also note that Jesus’s own words echo the prophets before him. John is echoing echoes!

Different contexts, but similar ideas. These cosmic disturbances are apocalyptic language for divine judgment against political powers. John’s uses of these texts are not “fulfillments” but the re-actualizing of former prophecies.

This is neither accidental, nor is it prophecy being fulfilled. John captures his sensory experiences in the language he knew best: the plagues of Egypt.

In Summary – To sum up the previous chapters, we can say that the three times seven judgments are bittersweet scrolls for John to digest, and they are the answer to the prayers of the suffering, oppressed people of Jesus. The judgments map onto one another but also accumulate and intensify toward the final erasure of evil in the defeat of the dragon, the wild things, and Babylon. The judgments make things right for the people of new Jerusalem.

Divine Judgments or Disciplines? We believe more careful, nuanced thinking is needed to ascertain what is happening with the divine three times seven judgments in Revelation. These “judgments,” are perhaps better described as divine disciplines which establish justice, not vindictive judgments of retribution. The difference matters. These acts of God on the stage of history are not retributions or the venting of a divine spleen. They are acts of God with the purpose of transforming people.

But here are three examples (italics added) of the refrain we are referring to: And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.” (Rev 5:9) After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. (Rev 7:9) Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, language and people. (Rev 14:6) Can you hear the refrain? Here, John speaks of tribes and nations and peoples and languages. There is no more all-encompassing expression like this found in the entire Bible. At the time John is writing the Apocalypse, the church can only be found as small pockets of Jesus followers scattered throughout the Roman empire. And we’d emphasize small pockets. It exists as house churches.

The prophets frequently expressed the end time as the return of the scattered northern tribes of Israel and their joining with Judah. For instance, the famous vision of the dry bones rattling and coming back to life in Ezekiel 37:20–28 was a prediction of that rejoining.

It is a biblical blunder to reduce the great tribulation to a future period when God is doing nothing but pouring out wrath for the purpose of retribution. Instead, we should read the so-called great tribulation as a time of the greatest evangelistic impact in history, a reaching-out that occurs in the midst of clashing empires. Babylon’s persecutions are met by faithful witnesses and martyrdoms, and the flying angel of 14:6 that we just read about is a summons to the entire globe to “fear God and give him glory” (14:7). Even those committed to the dragon and the wild things convert!

They reactualize the song of Moses toward the victorious Lamb with these final words: “All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed” (15:4). Again, we see conversion occurring in the midst of the divine disciplines. For this reason, it is unwise to reduce the seals, trumpets, and bowls to the word “judgments”; rather, these are divine disciplines. There is an intent for them that goes beyond vindication and punishment. God uses these three times seven disciplines to warn followers of the dragon about God’s coming judgment while also calling them to surrender themselves to the Lamb.

Putting this all together can feel a bit complicated, but here is our best attempt: John has re-actualized the song of Moses and turned it on its head. The expert on this interpretation, Richard Bauckham, has observed, “The effect [of John’s version of the song of Moses] is to shift the emphasis . . . from an event by which God delivers his people by judging their enemies to an event which brings the nations to acknowledge the true God.” The martyrs who sing the new ode of Moses sing a song not of their own liberation from Egypt or their own salvation but of the impact of their witness on the world around them. Their witness led a mass of people to praise the God on the throne and his Lamb. John’s ode is like Moses’s ode, but it’s also altogether new at the same time.

John’s core chapters (6–19) tell us, and this concludes our observations, that the three times seven judgments are disciplines designed by God to woo people from the way of the Dragon to the way of the Lamb.

Not All Repent – We have saved two explicit texts for last. There are two tragic texts, and we show our emphasis in italics: The rest of mankind who were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood—idols that cannot see or hear or walk. Nor did they repent of their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts. (9:20–21) The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and the sun was allowed to scorch people with fire. They were seared by the intense heat, and they cursed the name of God, who had control over these plagues, but they refused to repent and glorify him. The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in agony and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, but they refused to repent of what they had done. (16:8–11) If some convert to the Lamb through the divine disciplines, others are hardened and turn more vitriolic in their rejection of God. The term that stands out to us here, which we have emphasized in bold italics, is “repent.” The whole world is called to repent.

The divine intent of the disciplines is to clear out the rubble, the evil manifestations of the dragon and its wild things in the corrupted city of Babylon. Only then can new Jerusalem arrive without the fear of violence and the corruption of the dragon.

The revelations of negative consequences combine with a threat of judgment and provide an opportunity to repent—which means there is discipline in the divine act of judgment. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lamp-stand from its place. (2:5) Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. (2:16) But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you. (3:3) I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. (3:11) These statements are warrants for repentance and transformation, not simply warnings of inevitable judgment.

Rider on the White Horse – We begin with a new version of what appears to be the second coming of Christ, pictured for us in the image of a Rider on the white horse, whose name is “Faithful and True” and the “Word of God” (Logos of God). Anyone can figure this one out: it’s Jesus!

The Last Judgment – Following the celebration over the fall of Babylon and the white horse Rider, Revelation gives us one last judgment. John splits this last judgment into four scenes, one in Revelation 20:1–3 (locking up Satan), followed by 20:4–6 (the millennium), then 20:7–10 (judging Satan), and finally 20:11–15 (the “great white throne” judgment). Again, there is Old Testament imagery behind these judgment scenes.

The “Millennium” From his Daniel-inspired sketch of judgment, John moves into another image, what today is often called the “millennium” (20:4–6). At the outset we’d like to note that almost everything said today about the millennium by those speculating about the future does not come from this text. Yet it is the one and only passage about a millennium in the whole Bible. Many simply fill in the blanks of Revelation 20:4–6 with visions of grandeur and peace and justice from passages found in the Old Testament prophets. What’s even more irritating is that what is actually said about the millennium in this one-and-only text is almost entirely ignored! One more time it bears repeating, beware the speculators!

John turns that defeat in Daniel into the binding of Satan and the “millennium” vision of Revelation 20.

What is the victory? A resurrection. For whom? Only for the witnesses to the Lamb who did not love their lives more than death, the martyrs. They come to life to rule with Jesus for one thousand years (another perfect number, this one suggesting immensity and long duration; see appendix 9, “The Millennium”).

Because the millennium is only for martyrs, one must wonder if there can actually be a time in history when martyrs rule with Christ, judging the world and becoming its priests. (We think this very unlikely.) Instead, it is better to read the millennium as simply a numerical symbol of victory and rule for those who have suffered under the rule of the dragon.

Richard Bauckham, a major advocate of this approach, concludes: “The theological point of the millennium is solely to demonstrate the triumph of the martyrs.” And consider: nothing was more encouraging for the seven churches than to hear that their own martyrs would be vindicated. Bauckham also wonders how such an event could occur in real history. John, he says, “no doubt expected there to be judgments, but his descriptions of them are imaginative schemes designed to depict the meaning of the judgments.”

How are we to read this? Again, the same rules of reading apply. This is a picture of the elimination of evil and evil forces so the new Jerusalemites can dwell in peace.

Are You Premill, Amill, or Postmill? – We are frequently asked what our “view” of Revelation is, and the question is often framed in terms of the millennium: Are you premillennial, or amillennial, or postmillennial? We answer back: Why is the so-called (literal, physical) millennium the interpretive framework for reading the book of Revelation? The millennium, regardless of your view, is a sideshow in this book (at best). Three verses are the grand sum of verses about the millennium in Revelation. The question itself builds on a premillennialist foundation. Assuming there is one, this group charges that the most common view of church history, amillennialism, denies the millennium (that’s what the a in amillennialism means). Another quite popular view in the history of the church is that Christ will return after the millennium (a postmillennial return). But to call one view amillennial is inaccurate, for the amillennialist believes in a millennium, just not a literal one, affirming that it refers instead to the church age. You could call amillennialists symbolic millennialists while the premillennialists are literal, physical millennialists. Postmillennialists tend to be literal too. The bigger issue is that Revelation should never be read through the framework of the millennium. Doing so is a colossal example of missing the whole point of the book. A better question is, “Ignoring the millennium entirely, what is your view of the book of Revelation?” Our answer: It is an apocalyptic-prophetic book revealing the evils of the empire and summoning readers to a discerning, dissident discipleship as we live into the new Jerusalem.

Which leads us to ask: Is “death” a person? Is “Hades” a god? What is actually being tossed here? A big furnace? A colossal casket? Again, these are all images of the dragon’s aim in its work: to kill and destroy. If the dragon and its minions are put away in the fiery lake, then death and Hades—the gods of the dead—can be tossed into the lake of final destruction as well. The fiery lake is the place where all evil—the dragon, the wild things, the false prophet, and their armies—is eradicated.

This is John’s finest hour. The day for which he longed. This is the day on which evil will be eliminated from God’s creation so the people of God can live in safety and peace and justice and so they can forever bask in the light of the Lamb. And his point is that these two belong together: eliminating evil and establishing justice. Nothing would be more chest-swelling to the seven churches than to know that someday the Lamb would rule, someday they would be safe to worship God, and someday the evils of Babylon would be erased into a long-forgotten history.

1. New Creation – At a macro-level, the book of Revelation is one more expression of the New Testament confidence that the kingdom has been inaugurated in Jesus but awaits consummation. George Ladd often says the kingdom is “present without consummation.” John’s new Jerusalem is that consummation.

A good reading of Revelation recognizes that the transition from the defeat of Babylon and the erasure of evil to the new heaven and the new earth with the glorious new Jerusalem is new creation itself.

In one sentence, we can define new Jerusalem as God present among God’s people in God’s place.

2. Theocracy – In comparison with Greek and Roman conceptions, Jewish sensibilities about an ideal state, about government, and about politics were very different. Jewish visions didn’t embrace a monarchy, an aristocracy, or a democracy. They believed in a theocracy, the rule of God.

The ideal for the Jew contradicted the ideals of Greeks and Romans: a theocracy governed in a temple by a law from God and mediated by priests. This system can be called a theocracy or might be better described as a hierocracy (rule by priests).

3. Ideal Temple – There are several points in the Old Testament where we find evidence of hope for an ideal temple in an ideal Jerusalem.

The most noteworthy description of the ideal temple is found in the prophet Ezekiel. He singularly prophesied the end of exile and a return to the land, where there would be an ideal temple in a massive (and ideal) Jerusalem of some fifty square miles.

Ezekiel does not see a rebuilt Jerusalem or a rebuilt temple; he sees a brand new temple where, as God tells him, “I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people” (37:26–27).

This Qumran scroll anticipates a rebuilt Jerusalem and reworks the temple of Ezekiel, who himself had reworked Isaiah!

There is not a shred of evidence in the only passage about the millennium that there will be a temple rebuilt in Jerusalem (Rev 20:1–6).

4. No-Temple Temple – Rome was a forum. Jerusalem was a temple. John wipes both of these significant cities off the stage of history and ushers in the most radical part of his vision of the new Jerusalem. Here, he is clearly interacting with Ezekiel, in effect saying, “Anything you can do I can do better!”

Jerusalem was a temple city, and Jerusalem without its temple is just not Jerusalem. But the new Jerusalem has no temple—and yet it does. God and the Lamb are the temple! This is an escalation where Jerusalem becomes something new—Jerusalem times Jerusalem. A world without a sun and moon is not our world. But the new Jerusalem needs no sun or moon because God and the Lamb are its lights.

Theocracy, ideal temple, and a no-temple kind of temple—all key concepts John is presenting to the churches.

We would also add a brief comment to anticipate what comes later in the book: every time we experience the presence of God in Christ through the Spirit, we glimpse the new Jerusalem. Every time. Babylon is now and temporary; new Jerusalem is now and eternal. The seven churches at the table, the seven churches singing their redemption songs, the daily communion of the saints, and their ongoing allegiance with one another to the Lamb are all experiences of the new Jerusalem in the here and now.

5. Replacing Rome – Step back and look at what John tells us at the end of the book. Babylon, aka Rome, falls in defeat, and Jerusalem, aka new Jerusalem, replaces Rome as the world’s great power.

In summary, we have five cornerstones: new creation, theocracy, a new temple, a no-temple temple, and a city that puts Babylon into the rearview mirror. John’s vision is a promise that stimulates faith and courage, shaping the message he wants to communicate to the seven churches. New Jerusalem is the promise given to the faithful in the seven churches.

New Jerusalem as Promise for Victors Many readers of Revelation miss the connections between the messages to the seven churches and the new Jerusalem, a forgivable error since they are separated by eighteen chapters! Still, it is important that we connect the seven churches and the new Jerusalem by demonstrating that the new Jerusalem is the promise given to the victors—it is the final erasure of evil and the establishment of God’s ideal city. This chapter seeks to uncover the connection between the seven churches and the new Jerusalem, setting up the next section of this book, which looks at how to live faithfully as followers of the Lamb.

A fitting summary of all these promises, as diverse and varied as they are, is Revelation 21:7: “Those who are victorious will inherit all this [= 21:1–4], and I will be their God and they will be my children.” In other words, those who conquer in the conquest of the Lamb will get it all! To summarize we can say the conquerors in Christ will inherit (1) intimate, eternal presence with God and Jesus and (2) the new Jerusalem, a flourishing, growing, and vibrant city that embodies the ever-increasing fullness of God’s design for all creation.

In One Word: Blessed Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near. (1:3) Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.” (14:13) Look, I come like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and remains clothed, so as not to go naked and be shamefully exposed. (16:15) Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” And he added, “These are the true words of God.” (19:9) Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years. (20:6) Look, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy written in this scroll. (22:7) Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. (22:14)

So, Who Are the Victors? – Life in Babylon for followers of the Lamb plays out in a battle zone between the dragon and the Lamb. The dragon will experience a few conquests, but measured against the Lamb’s victories the dragon’s are temporary and minor. God wins. The Lamb wins. The way of the Lamb wins. And those who walk in the way of the Lamb will also win, and this means they will enter the new Jerusalem. If you follow not the so-called arc of history but the arc of eschatology, you will discover new Jerusalem there at the end, an ideal city designed for the victorious followers of the Lamb.

As Thomas B. Slater demonstrates, the very word John uses—“conquer”—has been transformed from being the victor of a bloody battle to being victorious as a faithful witness to the way of the Lamb, even if that means losing.

The Victors’ “War Weapon” – This kind of resistant, dissident allegiant witness to the Lamb explains how the believers conquer and win. We italicize the critical words for you to take note of them: “They triumphed [or, conquered] over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their [witness]; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death” (12:11). These believers do not conquer with the war weapons of Babylon, matching them or overmatching them with superior weapons of war. They do not, like the Romans who had no conscience, conquer with brutality and domination and violence and bloodshed and death. They conquer the dragon because they stand up, speak up, and speak out about the Lamb who is Lord of lords.

We have come full circle, back to where we began: the way of the Lamb is a form of resistance to the way of Babylon. Those committed to the Lord of lords do not wage war as the Romans do. They do not conquer as the Romans do. And they do not worship as the Romans do. They worship the One on the throne and the Lamb, and anyone worshiping God and the Lamb is being transformed into an agent of the Lamb’s peace and justice, which is the way of life in new Jerusalem.

Babylon in the Seven Churches – Christopher Rowland, who has plumbed apocalyptic literature as well as anyone in the modern era, counters much of the common interpretation of Revelation when he says, “We should not ask of apocalypses, what do they mean? Rather, we should ask, how do the images and designs work? How do they affect us and change our lives?” One of the recurring themes of this book has been our desire to address that question: How does Revelation change our lives? This is especially true for those who use Revelation to make predictions and encourage speculations.

Reading Revelation means knowing for whom it was written. We answer that by saying it was written for dissidents. We must also understand how it can best impact and transform us. As we have seen, it is through our imagination. And we must also recognize the book’s characters, beginning with Babylon, and its overarching story from creation and covenant to Christ and the church in Babylon and finally to new Jerusalem. The book of Revelation is written to shape a church surrounded by the swamping and creeping ways of Babylon.

So how does one live in Babylon? First, the dissident disciples of the seven churches had to learn to see how Babylon was impacting and influencing them. Like a fish in water, the way of Babylon is nearly invisible for the one swimming in it.

This entire book—don’t forget this please—is for each of those seven churches. Every vision, every interlude, every song is for each of them.

Their sins are rooted in a struggle to walk in the way of the Lamb because Babylon was penetrating the churches and they were no longer focused on the face of the Lamb. What were some of the signs of Babylon in the church? 1. Their love had become disordered (2:4). 2. Their teachings were distorted (2:14–15, 20–23). 3. Their worship was corrupted (2:14–15, 20–23). 4. Their behaviors grew inconsistent with the way of the Lamb (3:1–2, 15–18).

Disordered Love – The Colossus Christ looks upon the church at Ephesus, one of five greatest cities of the world at that time, and states forthrightly what he sees:

Whatever the case, their rugged, affective commitments to God and to one another have disappeared. Saying they “lost it” or it “disappeared” isn’t strong enough to capture what Jesus says to the Ephesians: “You have forsaken the love you had at first.” The word John uses is aphiēmi, and it means to “release.” This same word is behind the word “forgive” and refers to our sins being released from us. The Ephesians have released their love. It didn’t escape; they released it.

Distorted Teachings – From the very beginning of the church, there were problems with corrupt teachers.

The teachings of Balaam and Jezebel appear to be worship (whole body, whole life) of false gods.

The teachings of the Nicolaitans is even trickier because this could be a play on words: Nikao means victory or conquering, and laitans means people. Is this someone who had some secret solution for the people to find victory, or is this a specific teacher, a man named Nicolaus, who had a following?

But not so for John. Worshiping at a shrine for him embodied surrender to the way of the dragon.

Corrupted Worship – It must be said yet again: worship is more than praise choruses, though songs of praise are certainly one element of worship. Worship describes a whole life lived in devotion to the God on the throne and the Lamb who stands in the middle of that throne. If worship is one’s whole life devoted to God, then any dimension of life surrendered to anything else corrupts worship.

Either our devotion is to God or it is to the ungods, and if to the latter, then it is corrupted worship.

David Brooks, commenting on the workplace, once said, “Never underestimate the power of the environment you work in to gradually transform who you are. When you choose to work at a certain company, you are turning yourself into the sort of person who works in that company.”

But before too long they really did belong in Babylon because Babylon had formed them into good Romans.

All of this leads us to one central question for our own lives today: How much of our faith is tied to our own nation and its power? Forms of Christian nationalism have been infecting the church since the fourth century. It has long been a matter of Rome plus the church, a church ruled by the state, by the nation, or by the military. In such an idolatrous mixture, the symbols of empire morph into symbols of nationalism and religion, and religious nationalism wants to incorporate Christ into its powers. Idolatries will use religion to sanction the nation. So how present or prominent is your nation’s flag in your church? Those who have been discipled in the way of the Lamb discern the symbols of nationalism and resist them as dissidents.

Inconsistent Behaviors – Babylon and new Jerusalem have two different moralities.

John’s world, for rhetorical purposes, is either-or: either you follow Jesus or you follow the dragon. John knew that discernment was required in particular cases, but he hasn’t time for nuance. His absence of nuance derives from his purpose: to challenge indecisive Christians to full devotion. His language is reminiscent of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s either-or language in his book Discipleship: “Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.”

Jesus uses several metaphors in his white-hot words to Laodicea as he speaks of their inconsistency, duplicity, and hypocrisy. We should also notice that Jesus’s most piercing words were aimed at frauds (Matt 6:1–18; 23:1–39).

Laodicean water becomes a metaphor for their works: neither healing nor refreshing. Jesus will “spit them out” or “vomit them out.” These are words of judgment, and they reveal that Babylon is seducing the Laodiceans into lives of cheap grace.

Here we have two mistakes in one: we need to bring Babylon back into the picture and recognize that the problems in the seven churches were, at the root, compromises with Babylon.

Disorder, Distortion, Corruption, and Inconsistency Become Destructive – Babylon is creeping into the seven churches because . . . Babylon gonna Babylon. Always. And Babylon always has one goal: domination. And always at the expense of faithfulness. It took three centuries for Babylon—the way of Rome—to take over the church, and in some important ways it destroyed the church.

Constantine unquestionably operated at times with a charitable tolerance, but the dirty deed had been done: the state became the power of the church. States do what states do, and they do this through war and violence. An expert on Roman history, Ramsay Macmullen, states it this way, “The empire had never had on the throne a man given to such bloodthirsty violence as Constantine.” Though he was a supposedly Christian emperor, he was known for violence and was a man with a sword in his fist, not the word of God. But Constantine only began the turn to Christendom. It was not until Theodosius I, emperor from 379 to 395 AD, that the full integration of church and state into Christendom occurs. This is perpetuated and passed on as tradition for centuries.

Christendom was the most tragic mistake in the history of the church.

And here is the tragedy of tragedies: the cross became the symbol for his military might, his palace, and his churches. Constantine became “their redeemer, saviour and benefactor” (1.39) even though in truth he was a brutal warmongering emperor whose goal was dominance and whose method was power through intimidation and violence. This is not to say his Christian profession was entirely fraudulent. Nor are we saying that he never acted with benevolence and tolerance. We do not deny that he built some wonderful churches (like Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre). And we’re not saying he was not a Christian or that he only “converted” for political advantage. What is clear, however, is that the man with a cross for a banner was a bloodthirsty man who defaced the way of the Lamb as he ruled in the way of the dragon. Violence, empire, and power would forever mark the churches that bound themselves to the state.

Worshiping in Babylon – How does one live in a world that is anti-God, devoted to opulence, consistently opposed to the way of the Lamb, full of itself and intent on being impressive, protected with the might of its militarism, aiming to become the international power, living on the precipice of constant internal betrayals, driven by economic exploitation of anyone and everyone, structured into a mysterious hierarchical system of power and honor, and at the bottom of it all is driven by arrogance and ambition? How is one to live “in” Babylon and not be “of” Babylon when boxed in by Babylon?

But John offers a way for followers of the Lamb to live in Babylon, and it begins with worship.

John wrote up the entire Apocalypse for those seven churches. This means the book of Revelation is not a timeless vision using the seven churches as a mask for some future world but is instead a timely revelation about Jesus for those churches (and for churches of all times).

Worship – Before we explain how worship is at the heart of Christian living in Babylon, we call your attention to a growing (and healthy) trend among evangelical thinkers, namely, the importance of habits in the formation of character. The proper name for this trend is “virtue ethics,” and the theory is that if we practice the right habits—like worship—they will form us into the right persons, and right persons will do the right things in the context of the right story.

The major habit of the book of Revelation is worship. One of the most interesting writers about Revelation in the last fifty years is Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, and we believe she asks the right question for understanding this book: “What does a reading of Revelation do to someone who submits to its world of vision?” We can now ask this even more narrowly: What does it do to the person who turns constantly to God in worship? And the short answer is that worship changes us—worship as a whole body, whole voice, whole mind, and whole life lived in gratitude to God for redemption and a whole life surrendered to the way of the Lamb.

Spirituals, Not Hymns – Yes, the book of Revelation contains visions that can make us cringe. Interrupting those visions, however, are songs that have themselves generated thousands of additional songs sung by over a billion Christians.

There are nine songs in the book of Revelation (4:8–11; 5:8–14; 7:9–12; 11:15–18; 12:10–12; 15:3–4; 16:5–7; 19:1–4 and 19:5–8; cited at appendix 11, “The Songs of Revelation”). They are often called “hymns,” but we join others who think that term is not entirely accurate. Why? Because hymns are the music we sing in a life of comfort.

Actions in the Nine Spirituals of Revelation – Worship is not passive; it is active, coming into expression. Worship is not sitting quietly with a Mona Lisa smile. Worship is act, and there are various acts of worship that are described in the nine spirituals of Revelation. There are several terms used, so we want to list them with corresponding verses for those who want to look them up in context: 1. Saying: 4:8, 10 2. Singing: 5:9; 15:3 3. Ode: 5:9; 14:3; 15:3 4. Crying out: 7:10 5. Uttering “Oy!” or “Woe!”: 12:12 6. Splendoring the name of God: 15:4; 19:7 7. Shouting “Hallelujah!”: 19:1, 3, 4, 6 8. Rejoicing exuberantly: 19:7

Here is yet another list, this one of various embodied actions found in the worship scenes of Revelation. 1. Bowing down: 4:10; 5:8; 7:11; 11:16; 19:4 2. Tossing their crowns to God: 4:10 3. Encircling the throne of God: 5:11; 7:11 4. Standing: 7:9, 11; 15:2 5. Holding date palm branches: 7:9 6. Using instruments to make music: 5:8; 15:2 7. Uttering “Amen!”: 5:14; 7:12

Here are three implications from studying this list: the worship of Revelation (1) is rooted in redemption over and over (5:9, 12; 7:10), (2) worship comes to expression in verbal praise and thanksgiving, and (3) worship leads to a life of allegiance in the way of the Lamb.

Reducing worship to Sunday at 11 a.m. violates the heart of worship. Worship is Sunday through Saturday, 24-7.

Worshiping this God inevitably leads to resisting Babylon’s gods and converts the people of the Lamb into dissidents in the world. Those who worship the Lamb do not worship the emperor and his gods.

Words turned into music, combined with other voices, combined with instruments, turn words into an aesthetic, emotional experience that lifts the spirits of the believers from their mundane reality into this wonderfully sensory alternative world called God’s throne room. In singing, the believer transcends her reality and enters a new reality—God’s reality, the kingdom of God, the new Jerusalem. Singing these spirituals is an act of resistance, dissidence, and what some call “foot-dragging” and obstructing.

Worship as Witness – When your faith’s motto is that the dragon’s kingdom is destined to become the Messiah’s kingdom, when you know that Jesus and not the emperor is the Lord of lords, and when you know the story of everything that leads you to worship the God on the throne and the Lamb in the center of that throne, you are summoned to walk in the way of the Lamb.

Which leads us back to the question driving John. How does one live in a world that is anti-God, devoted to opulence, consistently opposed to the way of the Lamb, full of itself and intent on being impressive, protected with the might of its militarism, aiming to become the international power, living on the precipice of constant internal betrayals, driven by economic exploitation of anyone and everyone, structured into a mysterious hierarchical system of power and honor, and driven by arrogant ambition? His answer is worship, yes. But what kind of worship? John points us to a life of embodied worship, a worship of both words and works.

Worship as a Witness of Works – Along with “worship,” another word pulls the Christian life in Babylon together: “witness.”

To live in Babylon as a Lamb-follower challenges Babylon’s dragon and the dragon’s efforts to hook and drag Lamb-followers into the realm of the dead. The response to the way of the dragon is to worship God and the Lamb and to live faithfully as allegiant witnesses to the way of the Lamb.

Worship as the Words of One’s Witness – Let’s think more about this term “witness,” which in Greek is martus, from which we get our English word “martyr.” Some interpreters today mistakenly think this term and the verb like it (martureō) can be reduced to the witness of one’s life. But this turns the meaning of the word upside down! “Witness” describes a person speaking up or out about one’s experience. At times it refers to the language of a court witness, but more fundamentally it is about what one says about what one believes or has experienced.

A witness verbally affirms the lordship of the Lamb in public, walks daily in the way of the Lamb, and faces suffering for resisting the way of Babylon. A full witness to the Lamb is one of both words and works, and often involves suffering.

Being a witness has two sides: it is public affirmation in word and life of the lordship of Jesus, and it is public resistance in word and life to the way of the dragon embodied in Babylon.

It required a daily, ongoing, fluctuating capacity to discern the presence of the dragon. Followers of the Lamb were regularly called on to express their allegiance.

Allegiance flows directly from worship and is attached to our witness. We witness to Jesus as Lord in the daily routines of life as well as the tests and trials of life.

The Aim of All Worship: Christoformity – How shall we sum up the major themes of the Christian life as we find them in Revelation? Walking in the way of the Lamb means worshiping God on the throne and the Lamb in the center of that throne.

Three times in Revelation Jesus is called allegiant, and twice this is connected to witness. Jesus is the Allegiant One and Jesus is the Witness. For the Christians of western Asia Minor to be allegiant witnesses it meant participating in who Jesus is and entering into the work he has given us in extending the gospel. It is to be Christ’s presence in Babylon. Especially today. In the USA.

Four Marks of Babylon – Today The ways of reading Revelation that spend time speculating about the questions When will all this happen? and Who is the antichrist? fail the church in discipleship. Instead of a discipleship that teaches us to discern Babylon among us and shows us how to live in Babylon as dissidents instead of conformists, these speculative questions teach Christians how to wait for the escape from Babylon. They encourage questions like Will I be left behind or raptured? and Am I “in” or “out”? or Am I saved or not? By making future-focused judgments central to reading Revelation and treating Babylon as a world-class city of the future or giving the USA and Israel a central role in the divine plan, this speculative method teaches adherents to trust in the wrong things—especially the false safety of the all-powerful American military.

If we want to live out the message of Revelation today, we need to develop eyes that discern Babylon’s power, violence, and injustice in our midst today. We must recognize the Babylon all around us.

Arrogance – The heart of Babylon will always be arrogant self-sufficiency that has no need for God, no care for the people of God, and no commitment to the ways of God. The haunting words of Babylon, perhaps only muttered in the privacy of one’s mind and heart, are “There is none besides me” (from Isa 47:8). John’s Babylon says, “I will never mourn” (Rev 18:7). This gives us insight into how Babylon thinks: it thinks of itself, for itself, about itself, and everything revolves around itself. This is an empire called “narcissism.” It thinks of itself in comparative terms and is always on the hunt for potential competitors. It either draws others into its circle and under its power, or it works to silence, exploit, and kill all rivals. Opposition prompts rage. Discerning eyes detect Babylon by its arrogance.

We can confidently say that American arrogance comes not from new Jerusalem, but from Babylon, and any claim that we’re on the road to new Jerusalem while living like Babylon unmasks our hypocrisy.

So, what are the marks of national arrogance that Revelation teaches dissident disciples to discern? First, there is a sense of grandiosity, thinking you live in the world’s greatest nation. Second, there is competition with other nations in a vain quest to dominate. Third, there is the exercise of power by cutting off relationships with other nations who desire their own autonomy and sovereignty. What America wants for itself, in other words, is too often not what it wants for other nations, a denial of the principle of the Golden Rule. Fourth, there is an irredeemable inability to empathize, sympathize, and show compassion for “less fortunate” nations. And finally, there is rage and retaliation when criticized.

Economic Exploitation – Arrogant Babylon also economically exploits others for its own prosperity. Money and status are power and the love language of Babylon, what we might call a “meritocracy.” In America’s meritocracy, the wealthy are considered wealthy by virtue of their work ethic while those in poverty are poor because of their lack of a work ethic. The “virtuous wealthy” look down on the “unvirtuous poor.” The wealthy lack gratitude for their achievements and grow proud and arrogant, while the poor are shamed as “deplorables” and resent the “elites.” Money means power, status, and virtue in the Babylons of this world.

In rejecting Calvinism’s determinism, the capitalists built a system on the following three ideas: (1) self-interested freedom, (2) a self-interested freedom that was to be disciplined or constrained by competition in the markets, and (3) a belief that self-interest and competition would lead to the common good with economic benefits for the most. But what is driven by self-interest and competition and then measured by the economy is not a Christian system of economics. A Christian version of common-good competition requires a people of character. That is, the citizens need to be just and generous, and they need to aim for an equitable society. Capitalism alone has no character.

But the free market does not produce disciples on the way to the new Jerusalem. It produces Babylon.

Babylon has made its home in the American economy. The church can lead the way out of this by forming a culture of economic justice for the common good.

Militarism – Nothing is more overtly akin to Babylon than an addiction to militarism.

This is a sign of Babylon. The dragon loves war because wars produce death.

We had the hubris to remind the world of “our” victory in World War II. Peace through strength intimidates others with power and evokes the myths of Babylon’s ungods. It is reminiscent of Rome of the first century, and if you doubt this, read Julius Caesar’s The Gallic War or Josephus’s The Jewish War.

The way of the Lamb is the way of peace, through peacemaking and reconciliation. It means dropping the sword and beating that sword into a garden tool. Blessed are the peacemakers, Jesus said, and he meant it.

Christian “realists” counter the biblical vision of peace by claiming that if we really live that way we will lose and emphasize that each country has a responsibility to defend itself. They argue that in a sinful fallen world, a military is both a necessity and a last resort. Their contention is that the way of the Lamb is for another world, not the real world in which we live. In this world militarism will always be needed.

Oppression – John writes from Patmos because he spoke up and spoke out. He was a witness. And Babylon still oppresses today. Take China. Reports are that there are around a million Muslims in prison. In North Korea, a country that tolerates less freedom than any nation in the world, some 70 thousand Christians are in prison. Six million Jews were exterminated under Hitler. Looking even further back, medieval Europe was Catholic and intolerant of reformers.

Intolerance draws battle lines for Babylon. And even though American freedom combines that freedom with tolerance for others, Babylon responds with various forms of intolerance and oppression: silencing, obstructing, boundary marking, exploiting, manipulating, harming, causing suffering, persecuting, killing, and narrating an ungod story of everything.

In a bold move by an even bolder writer, Isabel Wilkerson proposed that the fundamental term we use in the USA should not be “racism” but “caste.” America’s treatment of non-white persons is nothing less, she contends, than a race-based system that has now become a caste system.

Isabel Wilkerson’s Eight Pillars of the Caste System in America 1. Caste expresses God’s will and the laws of nature. 2. Caste is inherited from birth. 3. Caste is controlled by restricting marriage to one’s caste. 4. Caste guards the pure caste from the polluted castes. 5. Caste creates a hierarchy of occupations with lowest castes at the bottom. 6. Caste intentionally dehumanizes and stigmatizes. 7. Caste is enforced by terror and controlled by cruelty. 8. Caste segregates superior persons from inferior persons. Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (New York: Random House, 2020), 97–164.

The Apocalypse teaches us that the dragon loves racism because it brings death, the wild things enforce racism because it coerces into conformity, and Babylon embodies racism. In both South Africa and the United States, Christianity was welded from toe to head with racism until it became systemic in these so-called Christian countries.

Our goal in this book, however, is to learn to read Revelation through the lens of Babylon’s timeless presence in the world to understand how Christians are to be allegiant witnesses to Jesus amid Babylons. This is a message of discipleship that turns hot lights on every Babylon in the world—including the USA and the complicity of American Christians in the ways of Babylon. American evangelicalism has lost its way and is suffocating in its own urp. We apologize for being graphic, but we are motivated by something deep in our hearts to teach and disciple Christians to go where they may not have gone in the past. Even if you aren’t sure of the connections we make, give us a couple pages to explain and set up the case we wish to make.

Premillennialism, Politics, and “Christian” Nationalism – Though there are many historical factors at work, one touchpoint that helps us understand the larger narrative begins in the 1970s and 1980s. At that time, and in the decades that followed, the evangelical movement became politicized to the point that the very term “evangelical” began to lose its core meaning. In recent years, one thinker after another has concluded that the term “evangelical” today is largely equivalent to “Republican.” And in some cases, it may even be more Republican than Christian.

Today, the word “evangelical” now largely overlaps with “Republican” and “anti-Democrat” and alignment with other GOP platform positions.

A crucial part of this story is that the term “evangelical” has, I believe, become somewhat detached from its theological roots and morphed into a term that seems to capture political sensibilities as well.

In other words, evangelicalism has increasingly become identified not by its theology, its mission, or its evangelism, but by its politics. And the problem is that these political motives are rooted in Babylon and not new Jerusalem.

The implication is that for many of those who self-identified as “evangelical,” it is not just about devotion to a local church, but to a general orientation to the world. As Republicanism and the religious right have become more enmeshed, it seems logical to assume that these less religiously devout people may consider their evangelicalism to be a question of political identity, rather than religious beliefs and customs.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a professor of history at Calvin University, in her book Jesus and John Wayne, demonstrates over and over that American evangelicalism can no longer be defined by its theological convictions but by its cultural impulses, desires, and politics.

Having replaced the Jesus of the Gospels with a vengeful warrior Christ, it’s no wonder many came to think of Trump in the same way. In 2016, many observers were stunned at evangelicals’ apparent betrayal of their own values. In reality, evangelicals did not cast their vote despite their beliefs, but because of them.

In their book Taking America Back for God, a book about how Christian nationalism is at work among evangelicals, Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry make this stunning observation: “Holding to beliefs most associated with premillennial eschatology is one of the leading predictors of Americans’ adhering to Christian nationalism.” If you ask those most associated with premillennialism—from Billy Graham on—what their politics are, you will find a clear correlation with conservative politics that often veers into American Christian nationalism.

Christian nationalism is: A cultural framework that blurs distinctions between Christian identity and American identity. . . . It is undergirded by identification with a conservative political orientation (though not necessarily a political party), Bible belief, premillennial visions of moral decay, and divine sanction for conquest. Finally, its conception of morality centers exclusively on fidelity to religion and fidelity to the nation. This is Christian nationalism—Christianity co-opted in the service of ethno-national power and separation.

Whitehead and Perry, and we could mention others like John Fea, have offered compelling evidence and arguments demonstrating that what is happening today among many evangelicals is a perversion of biblical Christianity. They name some of the most visible culprits: Jerry Falwell Sr., D. James Kennedy, Ralph Reed, James Dobson, Michele Bachmann, David Barton, Wayne Grudem, Robert Jeffress, and Mike Huckabee (and we would add Eric Metaxas).

Christian nationalism is a new iteration of wannabe Christendom, led by its own versions of Constantine and Theodosius and some of the Puritans (to get closer to our time). Those who don’t recognize Babylon in Christian nationalism need a new reading of Revelation.

But while the rogues change, it is fear upon which evangelical leaders always trade. That’s how all too often they build their platforms, secure donations, justify their reasons for existence. And fear is what drove the past two national election cycles: fear of Hillary Clinton, fear of various agendas, fear of Black Lives Matter, fear of “socialism” and AOC, fear of “losing our country.” Fear is what has caused evangelical believers to fall for QAnon and will keep them from receiving the COVID vaccine.

For them, the world has become apocalyptic and they are on the downside of this shift, viewing the other political party as the dragon, the wild things, and Babylon.

Some thirty years ago, sociologist Robert Wuthnow said that the basic intellectual and cultural divide among Christians in America is not the fault line of their theology but the cultural divide between a conservative and progressive worldview, a chasm deeper and more formative than any theological debate. I agreed with him in the 1980s. And I think today his point could be made with much greater emphasis. A divide has become a chasm. Dominant political and cultural values, left and right, have washed over churches and come to dominate their respective worldviews.

An Eschatology of Hope – It is not our aim to take sides among the two major approaches to Christian engagement in politics (conservative and progressive). Rather, we are urging Christians to comprehend what is happening in this cultural moment and find ways to discern the good and the bad on both sides. Revelation’s portrait of Babylon gives us the tools we need for discernment and hope.

Christian Eschatology’s Major Themes 1. A linear view of history: beginning and goal 2. Resurrection of the body 3. A universal judgment 4. Judgment at the end of each person’s life 5. Retribution or redemption 6. The dead are involved in this life From Brian J. Daly, The Hope of the Early Church, 219–23

The church has lost its voice because it has lost its eschatology. If we were preaching or lecturing right now, we’d slow down the pace, pausing to grab your attention. And we’d say this to you: We need discipleship, that’s what we need. We need political discipleship, that’s what we need. Now a third sentence, a little slower and a little lower: What we need is a manifesto for dissident discipleship.

A Manifesto for Dissident Disciples – The book of Revelation requires us to take a stand for the Lamb in this world. To read it well we must learn to think “theo-politically,” or to say this another way, the entire book of Revelation is about public discipleship. Revelation “reveals” God’s perspective on God’s world, and it does this by showing us how to discern the dragon, the dragon’s wild things, and the dragon’s Babylon.

Churches and pastors, professors and authors, and citizens and children are looking for a leader who will demonstrate a different Christian posture toward politics, asking for discipleship that challenges politicization in all its forms. They want pastors to preach a gospel that subverts Babylon. They ache for a clear, courageous voice of conviction. They believe in a gospel that forms dissidents who follow the Lamb and who have the courage to speak up and out about partisanism as capitulation to Babylon. We have not been discipled to think like this.

We must come out from Babylon and live in new Jerusalem by witnessing to the truth of the Lamb. This does not mean we abandon work in the public sector or cease advocating for the common good. This would be irresponsible. Instead, we do these things with our eyes open, discerning the ways of the dragon. Babylon will never be the new Jerusalem; it cannot be Christianized.

Today, some American Christians are worshiping false gods and their politics have replaced their faith. After forty years of partisanism, their knees have grown accustomed to bowing before the dragon and his wild things as they walk arm in arm—both unconsciously and consciously—into Babylon. There is much we, as American Christians, can learn from Barmen and Barth.

We encourage any who read this to take what follows as a manifesto for dissident disciples, a manifesto that riffs off Barmen’s paradigmatic declarations. First the Word of God God has spoken. God’s speech is the Logos, Word. That Word is Jesus, and in Jesus we see the essence of God.

Christian dissident discipleship begins right here: with a commitment to the Word of God in Scripture as the revelation of God for God’s people. Take and read. Eat this scroll, John was told. That is, look at it, hold it in our hands, embrace it, listen to it, chew on it, digest it, and let it do the work it alone can do. Those who surrender to the Word of God become disciples who are dissidents in Babylon.

They cease being prophets and instead become ideologues and demagogues. Such persons cannot disciple people in the book of Revelation but instead they disciple people into partisan politics.

Jesus Is the One True Lord The dragon seduces humans to worship the wild things and thereby to reject worship of the Lamb and the God on the throne. The Lamb is the Lord and Savior. His redemption, by God’s grace and through the power of the Spirit, transforms us as we gaze into the face of our Lord.

Jesus—Lord, Lamb, Logos, and Light—is over all, all the time.

We have surrendered some parts of life to Babylon and other parts to New Jerusalem. Here we follow Jesus, there we follow the US Constitution. Here we are generous, there we pay what’s due. Here we live in love, there we live in vindictive judgment. Here we are at peace, there we wage war.

Fawning over an opportunity to be in the limelight, stirred by closeness to power, and excited about making America more Christian, these sycophantic leaders have led a nation away from the gospel. Thinking proximity to power will make the church more influential is as likely as the corner shop thinking Amazon will be the source of that business’s flourishing again. Babylon tolerates no rivals.

Dissidents Discern – For some this may sound too suspicious. No government is entirely toxic, but no government is entirely good either. The US government does enough good to stir admiration and gratitude, yet corruptions infiltrate every department every day. No government is the new Jerusalem. Babylon extends its reach into every legislature, every justice system, and every executive branch. We do not live in new Jerusalem, and that means we must have the suspicion of a discerning dissident.

The Church Transcends – Fawning over Babylon’s leaders divides the church. Nearly half of the American church votes one way as one half votes the other. If one’s allegiance is to a party, if one thinks one’s party is truly Christian, one has cut off one’s sisters and brothers. Each group, because political alliance forms so much of their convictions, divides the church by appealing to Caesar. This violates our confession: the church transcends party and politics because, as the book of Revelation says often, those who worship God and the Lamb are from every tribe, nation, and tongue. The church is universal—politics and parties are local and national. Any allegiance to Caesar is nothing more than idolatrous worship of the wild things that will create division.

The dragon loves division, and the church divided loses its witness. Nothing is more obvious to America’s commentators, columnists, and editors than the church’s limpid presence in culture. No longer does our society wait for a word from the church. Our society no longer cares because the church no longer has a clarion witness.

Dissident Disciples Proclaim the Gospel – Babylon has seized the church’s heart. Its grip is so tight many can no longer distinguish their politics from the gospel. The church must return to the gospel and make the gospel the message of the church—the one heard each Sunday, the one heard in each Bible class, the one heard on the Christian’s podcast, the one heard through the Christian’s social media.

Dissident disciples tell people about Jesus, about his life, about his death and resurrection and ascension, and the redemption he has accomplished. This text in 1 Corinthians reminds us of Revelation: the Lamb who died for us becomes the Lord who wields the sword of the Logos that slays the dragon, whips the wild things, and beats Babylon. This is not about speculation or winning but about the victory of God and the Lamb over the dragon so we can live in justice and peace in the new Jerusalem. That is our gospel message. Babylon despises the gospel.

A Christoform Power – Power, one might think, is a neutral energy. In some world it might be, but in our world, power is not neutral. Power in our culture exerts power over for the sake of power for one’s agenda.

Instead, the dissident disciple, following the way of the Lamb, serves the other. Their politics is a politics for others.

The church is neither a democracy where each person votes, nor is it a monarchy with changing human leaders. The church is a mutual indwelling body of different persons living together under Christ, the Lord, Lamb, Logos and Light.

Heresy lurks when the pastor appeals to and exerts power and authority, when the pastor sees leadership as imposing his will on the congregation.

We Live in a World of Government – We are not only the church. We are also citizens in a country. Jesus, Peter, and Paul each recognized the government, and not always in affirming ways! Yet, as Paul taught the Romans to use their freedom with wisdom and not reckless rebellion (Rom 13:1–7), and as Peter instructed empire Christians in Asia Minor to respect the emperor and to do good for the sake of others because such goodness would reap benefits for the church (1 Pet 2:11–17), so we are called to do our part, to be good citizens, and to become public Christians in a way that brings good reputation to our Lord—without fawning over the wild things or trying to make Babylon the new Jerusalem. In the last forty years the church has done irreparable harm by insinuating itself into government. Instead of doing good as witnesses, we grabbed for power. Instead of witnessing to Jesus, we have become known for political allegiances, so much so that our politics are reshaping our witness into a corrupted witness.

Each act of worship, which leads as we have said to a whole life of allegiance, is an act of dissidence and subversion of the way of the dragon, who desires the worship of the wild things and loyalty to Babylon. Dissident disciples live with government but do not surrender the lordship of Jesus to any part of it. Disciples reject the lordship of the president and of Washington DC and call government to be a servant for the people in a way that mimics the service churches provide in their communities. Disciples reject the state’s powers to control the church and dissident disciples shaped by Christ refuse to let the way of the dragon’s power take hold in the churches. Disciples reject becoming an agent of government and discern when political leaders want to use the church as a tool for their own power.

The Church’s Mission Is Gospel Mission – Babylon wants us because the dragon wants us. If Babylon gets us, it knows we are no longer the Lord’s. Our mission is to declare the glories of Christ, to preach the gospel, to teach the Word, to administer the sacraments, and to live in fellowship with one another as a signpost of the new Jerusalem.

As such we don’t make mission stations in the world outposts of colonialism, nor do we attempt to colonize other countries. Instead, we preach the gospel about Jesus and call those peoples to follow Jesus in their country in their way. Mission is organic and not colonial. Missionaries are not agents of a country but agents of Jesus. That mission, then, ties us back to the gospel and to the lordship of Jesus.

J. Nelson Kraybill therefore contends that the “rapture” more accurately describes not being whisked away into heaven but our going out to meet Jesus to welcome him back to earth!

John J. Collins puts it like this: “By enabling people to let off steam by fantasizing divine vengeance, it relieves the pressure toward action in the present and enables people to accommodate themselves to the status quo for the present” (321).

Despite the varying theological systems that have been constructed to try to explain the thousand-year reign (premillennial, postmillennial, amillennial), which deserve respect even when we completely disagree, the millennium, like all other numbers in the book of Revelation, functions not as statistic but as potent symbol.

The millennium symbolically demonstrates the triumph of the allegiant witnesses: those who have suffered on account of the Jesus Christ witness will in the end rule universally and receive the special rewards promised to those who have paid the highest price (first resurrection, reign, escape from second death). John uses the symbol of the millennium to depict “the meaning, rather than predicting the manner of their vindication.”

The Progress of Progressivism – Right-wing Christians have politicized the gospel into Christian nationalism in the Republican party, while progressive evangelicals lean Democrat or social Democrat, and at times themselves wander into thinking political power is itself redemption.

Today’s progressivists then have taken progressivism’s central impulses into new places, but they still churn their energies from the same four chambers of the heart: social justice ideals, federal government’s power to get things done, centralization of power, and the agitation of the electorate. With a big chunk of verses taken from the prophets and Jesus.

Progressivism is on the left side of the political spectrum. As something political, as is the case with right-wing Christian nationalism, it too comes under the scope of Revelation’s vision for dissident disciples discerning the progress of Babylon’s powers. A standard story is that ‘right-wingers are religious’ and ‘left-wingers are secularists,’ but this has been dealt a fatal blow.

Having said that, I do want to register a final observation: both Christian nationalism and progressivism are species, some more secular than others, of Christian eschatology, and both tend to lack the discerning dissidence of the book of Revelation.

This is not a commentary on Revelation. It is rather a theology of political discipleship rooted in Revelation and how best to read it.

Transforming Prayer – Daniel Henderson

Transforming Prayer: How Everything Changes When You Seek God’s Face, by Daniel Henderson and Jim Cymbala (Please support the authors by purchasing the book. The following are highlights from my personal reading).

A “new normal” had occurred and my soul was re-calibrated to move beyond perfunctory prayer lists and to set my heart to seek His face.

One thing I know–once you have tasted this kind of prayer experience, nothing else satisfies and everything else is seen in a new light.

I say often that prayerlessness is our declaration of independence from God. I get that. It is very easy for me to forge ahead on Christian autopilot, relying on the reserves of previous learning and last week’s worship, and not abiding in Christ in a constant, moment-by-moment reliance.

We look around church and assume everyone else must be praying more and better than we are. With rare exception, they are not.

According to George Barna, the majority of born-again Christians admit that their bi-weekly attendance at worship services is generally the only time they worship God. Eight out of ten believers do not feel they have entered into the presence of God or experienced a connection with Him during the worship service. Half of all believers say they do not feel they have entered the presence of God or experienced a genuine connection with Him in the past year.

This leads to a core inquiry. Who taught you to pray? Has anyone provided a positive and life-changing model of prayer for you? Do you feel that you even know how to pray effectively? What is the purpose behind your praying? Is it working for you? Are you sure it is a biblical approach?

Theologian D. A. Carson makes the observation: “Christians learn to pray by listening to those around them.”1 I must admit that I had to unlearn prayer.

The exhaustive requests continued until someone happened to glance at their watch and exclaim, “Oh, we’re almost out of time! We’d better pray.” Hurriedly, we would slide our folding chairs into smaller circles, yellow pads in hand, and start praying for the myriad of documented needs.

This praying minority would seldom miss a week. As much as I did not appreciate their pattern of prayer, I loved their hearts and willingness to persevere. These prayer warriors really did make prayer a priority. They saw some wonderful answers to prayer and were careful to thank the Lord for it all. It did seem, however, that they were inadvertently stuck in a long, deep prayer rut.

The rut occurs when we allow requests to serve as the foundation of our praying: focusing on our problems rather than actually engaging with God in a multifaceted biblical prayer experience.

Worship is the response of all we are to the revelation of all God is. J. Oswald Sanders describes worship as “the loving ascription of praise to God for what He is, both in Himself and in His ways. It is the bowing of the innermost spirit in deep humility and reverence before Him.”

Worship-based prayer seeks the face of God before the hand of God. God’s face is the essence of who He is. God’s hand is the blessing of what He does. God’s face represents His person and presence. God’s hand expresses His provision for needs in our lives. I have learned that if all we ever do is seek God’s hand, we may miss His face; but if we seek His face, He will be glad to open His hand and satisfy the deepest desires of our hearts.

transformation. In the discovery of these realities, a Christian is then empowered and enlightened to pray about issues and needs in a whole new way.

As a pastor, I have seen firsthand the power of worship-based prayer to bring healing and restoration to hurting congregations. I have watched it reinvent a staid, traditional church into a church-planting, mission-oriented force.

Prior to the retreat, he was asking, “What am I going to talk to God about for three days?” Afterward he noted, “I was asking the wrong question. What I should have said was, ‘What was God going to talk to me about for three days?’

Peter Lord, one of my personal mentors and a pastor for over five decades, states, “Most Christians pray out of crisis or from a grocery list–period.” His point is that God has much more for us in our walk with Him when we learn to seek His face, not just His hand.

Too many times we become preoccupied with the tools, techniques, and even the finer points of theology when it comes to prayer. All of these are helpful, but prayer is not so much an issue of fine-tuning the regimens but of enjoying the relationship. It is not so much about fixing all the peripheral issues of our lives through prayer, but allowing God to change us through prayer. When we get the man right, by His transforming grace, it is amazing how so many other things seem to line up and make sense.

What created this spiritual movement? Not a program. Not a pastor. Not some new church-growth strategy. All of these blessings came because people learned to seek the face of God in prayer.

Personal prayer lives were ignited and changed as well. Ultimately things changed because people changed.

Christ’s evaluation, both now and in eternity, is based upon the fruit evidenced in the lives of the people to whom we minister.

It means to be “set apart” to God. It means God is working in me, around me, and through me to make me holy, more like Jesus.

The early disciples, who “filled Jerusalem” with their doctrine and “turned the world upside down” (Acts 5:28; 17:6), truly mystified the religious people of the day.

The world is not transformed by relevant Christians, strategic Christians, visionary Christians, leadership-savvy Christians, wealthy Christians, attractive Christians, educated Christians, active Christians, or articulate Christians. These are all interesting qualities, and might be helpful on occasion–especially in building big religious organizations and selling books. Ultimately, the world is transformed by sanctified Christians through whom the life of Jesus becomes a mystifying manifestation.

People changed by Jesus cannot help but change the world.

But when our Savior “puts the man together” to make us right first, then in so many ways the world comes together. God is glorified. We are sanctified. The church is edified. The world is mystified. The enemy is notified.

All true prayer Exists for the glory of God And is Based in the worship of God Focused on the face of God Shaped by the Word of God Inspired by the Spirit of God Offered through the Son of God Aimed for the Will of God Experienced by true children of God – DANIEL HENDERSON

“Prayer was simply asking, pleading, seeking action from God on one’s own behalf or on the behalf of others,” Connie says. “I participated dutifully but did not recognize the hole in my heart as the lack of a truly personal, intimate relationship with God. He was there, but distant, and I did not know life could be any different. I did not know God’s purpose for prayer.”

Spiritual Warfare – Clearly, prayer is an area where believers experience spiritual warfare. Our spiritual enemy is fully aware of the power and promises available to us in prayer. He knows that every major spiritual revival began with prayer. He knows we are all called to be “praying menaces” to his cause. Therefore, he fights us from every angle to keep us from praying effectively.

Fear of Intimacy – Some falter in prayer because of a fear of intimacy. I often say that we live in a culture of spiritual AI DS (Acute Intimacy Deficiency Syndrome). Some of us still carry the baggage from parents or other authority figures in our childhood who were distant, negligent, or even abusive. These experiences can leave us with distaste for emotional vulnerability and transparency. We protect ourselves from getting too close to anyone, even God.

Misguided Focus – Many of us maintain a misguided focus in our prayers and miss the life-giving reality God intended. Instead of our first resolve, we view prayer as our last resort. We see prayer as our spiritual e-mail sent to God, with instructions as to how He should manage the affairs of our life each day. We attempt to use prayer to get our will done in heaven rather than His will done on earth.

Counterproductive Tradition – Countless believers have learned to pray, from a counterproductive tradition, forms of prayer passed down through the generations without much critical evaluation and biblical investigation. Some traditions in prayer rely mainly on “prayer lists” and others on rote expressions, rather than upon the leading of the Holy Spirit. The primary content of many prayer gatherings is juicy information about other people rather than the foundation of God’s Word. We tend more toward discussions about the problems of people than the real experiences of the presence of the Problem Solver.

David Butts, chairperson of America’s National Prayer Committee, says, “The reason most people do not attend prayer meetings at their church is that they have been to prayer meetings at their church.”

Boredom – All of these factors can fuel a deep-seated feeling of boredom. As a Christ-follower for over forty years, I am resolute to banish boredom from my prayer life. As a pastor for almost thirty years, having led multiple weekly prayer times, I have declared war on sleepy prayer meetings.

Lack of Positive – Models One colossal reason we have not experienced transforming prayer is the lack of positive models. I have learned that people do not arrive at a new, powerful, and life-changing place in their prayer life through information. It happens more by “infection.” It is not accomplished through explanation, but by experience.

D. A. Carson confirms this truth when he writes, “Many facets of Christian discipleship, not the least prayer, are more effectively passed on by modeling than by formal teaching. Good praying is more easily caught than taught. . . . We should choose models from whom we can learn.”

I heard a Brazilian proverb years ago: “The heart cannot taste what the eyes have not seen.” This experience of praying with a pastor, church, and congregation that authentically value the priority and power of prayer has accomplished much to help me and many other believers understand a truly biblical paradigm.

I had discovered that prayer truly has only two purposes. First, it is the means to developing a true love relationship with God by communication with Him, not to get His ‘stuff ’ but to get to know Him more deeply. Prayer is intended to develop a two-way love relationship. Second, it is to receive His assignments for me, both daily and long term–by listening to Him–then acting, not only in how I live but also in how I pray for myself and others.”

What’s in a Face? What is meant by face? It is the representation of the real essence and character of a person. It is the unique identifying characteristic of an individual. It is also the key to really getting to know someone.

An Intimate Encounter – God’s face really speaks of His intimate, manifest presence. I like to speak of the teaching about God’s presence as His general presence, His indwelling presence, and His intimate presence. Psalm 139 speaks of His general, invisible presence in this world. While unseen, He is present everywhere.

Yet God calls us to an intimate encounter as we pursue Him with all our hearts. In my understanding, to seek His face today means to set our hearts to seek Him in worship with biblical understanding, submitting completely to the control of His Spirit with a longing to know and enjoy Him more. Again, it is not about rehearsing a quick list of needs with God, but seeking Him because of who He is, with a passion for a deeper intimacy and experience of His presence.

The Old Testament followers spoke of God “hiding His face” or even setting His face against people. This reflected those times when His intimate presence and favor was hindered because of sin (Deuteronomy 32:20; Job 34:29; Psalm 13:1; 30:7; 143:7; Isaiah 54:8; Jeremiah 33:5; Ezekiel 39:23–24; Micah 3:4).

First Peter 3:12 says, “For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their prayers; but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” Clearly we understand that intimacy with God means life and blessing. For His face to be withdrawn or set against someone (Psalm 34:16) is misery of the worst kind.

God’s Invitation – The Scriptures are clear that God desires that His people know and enjoy Him. He is ready and responsive to restore His people, if they will again seek His face. We know the familiar call of 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” In a similar way, God made the offer through the prophet Hosea: “I will return again to My place till they acknowledge their offense. Then they will seek My face; in their affliction they will earnestly seek Me” (Hosea 5:15).

We need His face to shine upon, bless, and envelop us–because all that we are and all that we do in obedience to His commands and commission is the overflow of intimacy and the fruit of His blessing.

Here is what God wanted everyone to understand, from His heart to ours, every time His people worshiped: The Lord bless you and keep you; The Lord make His face shine upon you, And be gracious to you; The Lord lift up His countenance upon you, And give you peace. NUMBERS 6:24–26 Face time with the Almighty was the key to blessing, protection, grace, and peace. It is still true today. Let us join our voices and say, “Amen!”

With a second copy of the Decalogue (commonly known as the Ten Commandments) in hand, Moses arrived in camp–GLOWING ! God’s presence was so real that it left its mark on Moses’ face. The brightness was so overwhelming that it frightened the people. Moses had to put a veil over his face. Every time he went back to meet with God, experiencing His intimate presence and receiving His truth for the people, Moses would remove the veil in unhindered divine fellowship.

The greater the revelation, the greater the transformation. Unveiled in his worship and given incredible access to the presence of God, Moses also became a changed worshipper who glowed with the glory of God.”

Paul makes this potent declaration, “Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord. Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we do not lose heart” (2 Corinthians 3:17–4:1). I urge you to read that passage again, because I believe it is the core of effective, enduring Christian ministry and the source of daily transformation.

Yet at the core of Paul’s theology of life and ministry is this amazing truth that communion with Christ changes us! This is no superficial rearranging of the activities, approaches, and attitudes of life. This is inside-out change. Transformation. The English pronunciation of this Greek word is metamour-foumetha–very similar to our idea of a metamorphosis.

This all occurs by the power of the indwelling Spirit of Christ in our lives. We are captivated by Christ, changed by Christ, and conformed to Christ.

Paul understood transforming prayer from the moment of his first encounter with Christ. He never got over it and never stopped growing in it. He saw it as the core of his credibility and the life-source of all Christian living.

In relation to prayer, we want to use all we know from the Scriptures to discover the best practices. We want to learn to understand the leading of the Spirit to experience and achieve the desired result–the glory of God (we will talk more about this “desired result” as you continue to read). This would be “best-practices praying.”

Accordingly, we need to thoroughly know and understand what it means to seek God’s face in worship-based prayer. We need the Spirit to give us holy dissatisfaction and the motivation to change. We need to know how to engage in transforming prayer.

Unfortunately, we seem to give God our spiritual leftovers in prayer.

When we engage in the great privilege and joy of prayer with a “leftovers mentality,” the likelihood of spiritual blessing is slight. The Lord says, “Love me with all of your heart,” worship me “in spirit and in truth,” present your bodies as a “living sacrifice.” He calls for our passionate best. Instead, we bring spiritual leftovers to the throne of grace.

The Lord did not require great quantities–but He did ask for their first and best as a demonstration of their gratitude to God as the source of all their blessings and an indication of their reverence for God as the One worthy of worship. Instead, they were bringing leftovers. They offered blind, lame, and sick animals at the temple.

Even today, not all sacrifices are created equal. From a New Testament standpoint, acceptable sacrifices include: • A commitment to worship in spirit and in truth ( John 4:22–24) • A genuine sacrifice of praise, giving thanks to His name (Hebrews 13:15) • The presentation of our bodies in complete surrender (Romans 12:1–2) • A life of love that produces right living (Philippians 1:9–11) • Doing everything “in the name of the Lord Jesus” with thanksgiving (Colossians 3:17) • Service conducted in supernatural power (1 Peter 4:11) • Generosity that flows from a heart of love (Philippians 4:10–19)

Relating to prayer, God is not looking for a dutiful contribution of time or energy in the spirit of religious observance. He is looking for a hungry heart that seeks after Him in praise, gratitude, and loving surrender, with a readiness to pray, think, and live like Jesus as the expression and overflow of that intimacy.

We must continue to grow so that we understand prayer as more of a transforming experience in the Holy of Holies and less like a rushed trip to the grocery store to grab what we think we need for the day.

There was not one single prayer for revival or awakening in our church, community, or nation. Sad. As I surveyed the results of this prayer snapshot, my gut reaction is that this is typical of the average prayer list, whether compiled in a Sunday school class or a personal journal. Thank God, people are praying, yet I believe something more powerful and purposeful can be discovered about the reality of prayer. No one really wants to serve God leftovers.

Frankly, I admire those who manage long lists of needs, answers, commentary, and details. I found that I was spending more time organizing, rewriting, or trying to find my list than I was actually spending time in prayer.

Yet in group settings, the focus on lists of needs and prolonged discussions about details can distract from the purpose. Some groups spend significant time talking and taking notes about issues, people, and problems. This has two effects. First, a gathering that was announced as a prayer meeting becomes mostly a discussion session. At times, those discussions border on gossip. This is not a best practice. Second, we can tend to be operating simply in the realm of our own human thoughts, our own observations, and our own ideas about what we should pray about. We often ask the question, “What do we need to pray about?” This is followed by long discussion of detailed situations in our lives, the lives of others, the church, community, and society. Sometimes the discussion occurs as if the Lord was not even in the room, aware of the problems, or had any opinion about the subjects at hand.

Now, I do not want to offend or anger anyone by what I am about to say, but I have to put it on the table: I find little evidence in the Bible for our routine emphasis on extensive prayer lists focused almost entirely on temporal concerns.4 I do not want to be legalistic here. But I do want to jolt us out of a rut of thinking that lists are the key to effective prayers.

I am not suggesting that everyone stop using prayer lists. But we must recognize the possibility that our prayer lists are replacing the Scriptures and the Spirit as the primary content providers for our prayer times.

We spend more prayer energy trying to keep sick Christians out of heaven than trying to keep lost people out of hell. – JAMES WALKER

We often pray to escape our difficulties rather than embrace discipleship.

Like anyone, I love it when God answers my prayers in ways that make my life more pleasant or pain-free. Yet I am learning that my deepest needs are met when my heart is most closely aligned with the Word of God, the Son of God, the Spirit of God, and the purposes of God.

Yet, it is so easy to reduce our focus in prayer to the typical “organ recital” concerns about Paula’s pancreas, Larry’s liver, Sarah’s stomach, and Artie’s appendix. Our Father knows, cares, and is fully capable of taking care of all these needs according to His will and glory. Yet the privilege of prayer offers so much more.

Amid all our worries about our health, finances, family, job, education, and ministry concerns, are we seeking first His kingdom and not our own?

What might Jesus have in mind with His commands to ask, seek, and knock? A pay raise? A new car? An all-expenses-paid vacation? What are the good things He promises? In the context, Jesus spoke specifically of the basic provisions of bread and fish, with no mention of fishing boats, lake cabins, or new video games. Perhaps the answer is in the point He has already made, that the truly “good” things we seek first are the issues pertaining to the kingdom of God.

Clearly, these teachings, like other instructions about prayer, are not carte blanche encouragements to concoct a long list of anything our heart desires. Rather, it is a promise of basic provision, spiritual empowerment, and guidance for His kingdom purposes.

Comparing the Content – We know we are supposed to bring our requests to God. Yet one of the most important questions we need to ask is how the content of our prayers differ from the biblical patterns and teaching about the things we should be praying about. I would suggest that the prayer requests we find in the Bible are shorter, deeper, and fundamentally different in nature than the lists that can tend to dominate the prayer approach of modern Christians.

Praying Just Like Jesus? – Scripture records numerous examples of Jesus’ prayer life. We find six references to Jesus’ prayers that give no clear indication of the content of what He said (Mark 1:35; 6:46; Luke 3:21; 9:18, 28; 11:1). We find He often withdrew from activity in order to enjoy private communion with the Father. While we do not know the substance of His prayers in these times, it appears they were directly related to fresh empowerment for His self-less, sacrificial service. There are also occasions where Jesus blesses people, but His exact words are not given (Mark 10:16; Luke 24:50).

Many modern-day teachers encourage us to “do” like Jesus, lead like Jesus, and speak like Jesus. Our passion must also be to embrace these truths so we can pray like Jesus.

We see the early church in prayer most often seeking the advancement of the gospel through any circumstance. They prayed daily as part of a vital regimen of spiritual growth–for the sake of the gospel (Acts 2:42). In the face of attack, they gathered to pray from the Scriptures, requesting fresh power for boldness–for the sake of the gospel (Acts 4:31). When they were persecuted, they rejoiced in God for the honor of suffering–for the sake of the gospel–rather than asking for a reprieve (Acts 5:41). When Peter was in jail, they prayed for his release–for the sake of the gospel (Act 12:5). When Paul and Silas were in jail, they rejoiced in prayer and singing, trusting God–for the sake of the gospel (Acts 16:25).

Every one of Paul’s model prayers sprang from expressions of thanksgiving, truths about God, and notes of praise. They are the fruit of his worship and intimate, experiential knowledge of the person of Christ. Paul’s requests were focused on the growing faith and love of believers with the goal of God’s glory.

Perhaps the fundamental difference between our prayer lists and the prayer concerns we find in the Bible is that we pray about personal problems, while most of the biblical prayers focus on Christ’s purposes. Worship-based prayers set the foundation for something other than “me” prayers, because they start with a “Thee” focus. This changes the nature of how we pray.

Psalm 70:4 had taught Bill that prayer is about seeking God, rejoicing in Him, and continually focusing on His glory. Yes, let God be magnified!

Suntan Lotion in a Snowstorm – Unlike Bill Sheehan, many of us fail to focus our prayers on the core motive: that God would be magnified in everything we seek or say. If we were to be honest, our prayers are often motivated by a desire for comfort and convenience. Many times our prayers are viewed as a divinely ordained way to get what we want out of life, or to avoid what we don’t want. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking prayer exists so God can be used to help us preserve our glory rather than our being used to promote His glory.

In John 14:13, Jesus gave us a standard for all of our praying, “And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” What motivates us to ask can often be all over the map. What motivates our Father to answer is that He would be glorified in our prayers through the person and work of His Son, Jesus Christ.

Christ’s Work in Us for His Glory – No one ever lived with more passion and intentionality than Jesus, our Master and model. Everything in His life was for the glory of the Father ( John 11:4; 13:31–31; 17:1, 4–5). He is our ultimate example for everything we do, including our prayers.

An Agonizing Alignment – Inspiring as these reminders are, our flesh struggles to pray in alignment with the truth of God’s glory. Our prayer lists can easily become so saturated with our desires for ease, comfort, convenience, and accomplishment, that the goal of God’s glory becomes obscured. Our human tendency to avoid pain, loss, and difficulty can dilute our passion for God’s glory. When our goals and God’s glory are in conflict, it can be hard for our hearts to choose.

Think about this exchange. Jesus describes a very undesirable death as part of Peter’s destiny as an obedient disciple. If we could rate our old age or death scenarios, what Jesus described here is “dreadful.” Yet John says it is a death that will glorify God.

As good as this process was for me, I still drew this conclusion: The hardest thing about the Christian life is that it is so DAILY

There is a sense that every day we live with one hand on the perishables of this life: family, health, job, home, hobbies, plans, etc. In the other hand, we grasp the unseen and eternal reality of thinking, feeling, speaking, acting, and praying, all for God’s glory.

Grace to “Go for the Glory” – I define grace as God doing for us, in us, and through us what only He can do through the person, power, and presence of Jesus Christ. I have learned that God has tailor-made grace for everything we face. I need the grace to long and pray for His glory.

Just as God’s Word must reform our theology, our ethics, and our practices, so also must it reform our praying. D. A . CARSON

Mark describes it as a profound, life-changing experience. The power of praying from the Scriptures in the company of other believers brought healing and hope to their hearts–as spouses and parents. Mark discovered an incredible unity with leaders from other churches in the Lord’s presence.

Prior to this weekend, Mark says his prayer life was “mostly focused on request-based praying.” His attempts to pray with others were often “dry and boring.” He notes, “I knew that praying with others was important, but it was a real chore!” This dynamic young pastor explains, “More than anything, worship-based prayer has made me a more passionate lover of Jesus. I see His Word and prayer as means, not ends. Worship-based prayer has helped me to see that the ultimate aim of my time with the Lord or with others before the Lord is worship. It is the starting point and the goal.”

Calvin Miller explains, “Too often, we go into God’s presence with a list of pleas, trying to talk God into granting our desire. But this kind of praying makes us ‘one big mouth’ and God ‘one grand ear.’ But when we pray the Scriptures, it makes God the voice and leaves us as the ear. In short, God gets His turn at getting a word in edgewise.”

One core focus of worship-based prayer is the commitment to always start our prayers from the Word of God. This is the key to abiding. Jesus emphasized, “If you abide in Me, and My Words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples” ( John 15:7–8).

Abiding and Abundance – What does it mean to abide? The word means to “continue, remain, dwell, or stay.” It is the idea of a life-giving connection with Christ that produces His character and accomplishes His will in us. As Charles Spurgeon noted, abiding means “yielding ourselves up to Him to receive His life and to let that life work out its results in us. We live in Him, by Him, for Him, to Him when we abide in Him.”

Pastor John Piper gives the right perspective when he says: There are dozens of instances in the Bible of people praying for desires as natural as the desire for protection from enemies and escape from danger and success in vocation and fertility in marriage, recovery from sickness, etc. My point is not that those desires are wrong. My point is that they should always be subordinate to spiritual desires; kingdom desires; fruit-bearing desires; gospel-spreading, God-centered desires; Christ-exalting, God-glorifying desires. And when our natural desires are felt as a means to these greater desires, then they become the proper subject of prayer.

A. W. Pink described this fruit as “Christlike affections, dispositions, grace, as well as the works in which they are displayed,”5 adding that fruit is “the outflow of our union with Christ; only thus will it be traced to its true origin and source.”

George Muller, the renowned man of faith and evangelist who cared for thousands of orphans and established dozens of Christian schools in the 1800s, spoke about the vital role of Scripture in his prayer life. He noted that for years he tried to pray without starting in the Bible in the morning. Inevitably, his mind wandered sometimes for ten, fifteen, even thirty minutes.6 Then, when he began to start each morning with the Bible to nourish his soul, he found his heart being transformed by the truth, resulting in spontaneous prayers of confession, thanksgiving, intercession, and supplication. This became his daily experience for decades, resulting in great personal growth and power for life and ministry. In his autobiography, Muller noted that this kind of prayer is . . . . . . not the simple reading of the Word of God, so that it only passes through our minds, just as water runs through a pipe, but considering what we read, pondering over it, and applying it to our hearts. When we pray, we speak to God.Now, prayer, in order to be continued for any length of time in any other than a formal manner, requires, generally speaking, a measure of strength or godly desire, and the season, therefore, when this exercise of the soul can be most effectually performed is after the inner man has been nourished by meditation on the Word of God, where we find our Father speaking to us, to encourage us, to comfort us, to instruct us, to humble us, to reprove us.

John Piper says, “I have seen that those whose prayers are most saturated with Scripture are generally most fervent and most effective in prayer. And where the mind isn’t brimming with the Bible, the heart is not generally brimming with prayer.”

When we get into a routine of simply praying our own ideas and thoughts, our prayers are increasingly misguided. The longer we do this, the further we travel from God’s design for prayer.

Pastors speak with me often about the unreasonable resistance they face when trying to move people in their church from a request-based paradigm to a worship-based approach.

Who Starts the Prayer Conversation? In a sense, prayer is a continual conversation between our hearts and God’s. Nevertheless, when we stop to spend time in focused prayer, it is important to know who should start the conversation. If prayer is simply the discharge of my own will and thoughts, in the hope that I can help God run the universe, then I should start the prayer conversation. On the other hand, if prayer is about my heart becoming intimate and aligned with the heart of the Savior, then I should let Him start the conversation. This is the reality of abiding in Him and letting His words abide in us.

Our Father, with His unlimited resources, and His commitment to teach us to pray, has given us a supernatural tutor. The Holy Spirit is available to us and resides within us 24/7. Our Father longs for intimacy with us and knows that real prayer is impossible apart from the indwelling Spirit.

Worship-based prayer brings us to a greater sensitivity and surrender to the Holy Spirit. As a result, our prayers become Spirit-fueled. And we are transformed.

Worship-based prayer brings our hearts into intimate harmony with the person of the Holy Spirit and enhances our surrender to His control, wisdom, and power for our prayers. The Spirit then enables us to worship more fully. This worship, in turn, brings us into a deeper reality of the Spirit’s life, thus continuing the circle.

In his book Forgotten God, Francis Chan writes, “From my perspective, the Holy Spirit is tragically neglected and, for all practical purposes, forgotten. While no evangelical would deny His existence, I’m willing to bet there are millions of churchgoers across America who cannot confidently say they have experienced His presence or action in their lives over the past year. And many of them do not believe they can.”2 He continues, “If I were Satan and my ultimate goal was to thwart God’s kingdom and purposes, one of my main strategies would be to get churchgoers to ignore the Holy Spirit . . . but when believers live in the power of the Spirit, the evidence in their lives is supernatural. The church cannot help but be different, and the world cannot help but notice.”

Word is a stimulus to worship and a tool for worship.

Those who have adopted a worship-based approach of seeking God’s face first and foremost have experienced this amazing reality. God’s Spirit takes God’s Word and ignites our heart with truth, wisdom, direction, focus, and passion in our prayer experiences. Once you have tasted this kind of prayer, you never want to go back. This is why God longs for us to pray in the Spirit.

Greek scholar Kenneth Wuest noted: “Praying in the Spirit is praying in dependence on the Holy Spirit. It is prayer exercised in the sphere of the Holy Spirit, motivated and empowered by Him.”

Spirit Scriptures Eastern religions, and even some teachers of the Christian faith, propose that the best way to hear from God’s Spirit (or maybe some other spirit) is to empty your mind, accompanied by various breathing exercises. That might be a great way to get a D in Prayer. Rather, the Scriptures affirm the best way to hear from the Spirit is to fill the mind with the Word of God, accompanied by careful reading and meditation on the sacred text. That’s the best way to receive what the Spirit is speaking clearly.

Even the apostle Paul confesses that in our mere human intellect, we are not able to pray effectively. Our minds and hearts are weak. The Holy Spirit moves and prays within us, in perfect harmony with the will of the Father and the Son. The Spirit works in us to tutor us in prayer according to the will of God, as we have assurance of God’s goodness and sovereignty in the unfolding of the events of our lives (Romans 8:28).

Oswald Sanders wrote, “Prayer in the Spirit is prayer whose supreme object is the glory of God, and only in a secondary sense is it a blessing for ourselves or for others.”

Of course, the reason many of us tune out the pre-flight orientation is that we have heard it so many times before. This familiarity can lead to ignorance and perhaps tragedy. The flight attendants are there to prevent this. Prayer is a very familiar idea to many of us. We are also accustomed to the truth of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Like the road-warrior frequent flyer, we may tune out the instructions we need because we are so familiar with the experience. However, unlike a flight, where the instructions and routines are usually predictable, there should be nothing mundane or standard about our prayer times.

Every one of us is confronted with a choice. Will we allow familiarity to breed apathy and ineffectiveness as we tune out the vital instructions? Will we be content to simply pray from our own intellectual framework of understanding, with potentially careless and endless lists of ideas that have not been surrendered to the power of the Word and the Spirit? Will we merely seek God’s hand to get what we think we need to get by for another week as we hurry in and out of His presence? Or will we seek His face, from His Word, by His Spirit, as we learn to pray in a life-transforming fashion?

Prayer is a means God uses to give us what he wants. – W. BINGHAM HUNTER

There is no name like the name of Jesus Christ. Knowing the power of His name, most of us remember to tack it on to our prayers virtually every time we pray. However, like Carnegie’s students, our reason for remembering His name may be for our own purposes, not His.

It is the traditional thing to do. In group or public prayers, it is a given that whoever prays better wrap it up “in Jesus’ name.” When they fail to do so, they may get a few raised eyebrows and words of doubt about the spiritual legitimacy of their prayers. After all, will God really hear their prayers if they fail to include this three-word add-on?

A popular worship song says, “It’s all about you, Jesus,” and leads us to acknowledge that our lives are really not about our own agendas. We recognize that Jesus is God and our response is to surrender to His ways. In my years of learning about and leading others in prayer, I have found this to become the heart reality of what the Lord accomplishes as we pray. This is the path to praying in Jesus’ name.

This is God’s gracious work in drawing us to a deeper knowledge of Him and a greater response in prayer. He excited their worship, for example, with the “I am” statements Jesus made in the gospel of John: • “I am the bread of life” ( John 6:35). • “I am the light of the world” ( John 8:12; 9:5). • “I am the gate for the sheep” ( John 10:7, 9 niv). • “I am the good shepherd” ( John 10:14). • “I am the resurrection and the life” ( John 11:25). • “I am the way, the truth, and the life” ( John 14:6). • “I am the true vine” (15:1, 5). Later, the New Testament books will explode additional truths about our Christ, telling us that He is the Alpha and the Omega (Revelation 1:8), the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2), the chief cornerstone of the household of God (Ephesians 2:20), the head of the church (Ephesians 1:22), the very Word of God (Revelation 19:13), and the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords (Revelation 19:16). Again, these are more than name tags on the lapel of His robe. These are powerful revelations of His character that empower our worship and prayers.

Samuel Chadwick wrote, “To pray in the Name of Christ is to pray as one who is at one with Christ, whose mind is the mind of Christ, whose desires are the desires of Christ, and whose purpose is one with that of Christ.” Chadwick further clarified, “Prayers offered in the Name of Christ are scrutinized and sanctified by His nature, His purpose, and His will. Prayer is endorsed by the Name when it is in harmony with the character, mind, desire, and purpose of the Name.”

In his excellent book The God Who Hears, W. Bingham Hunter summarizes the New Testament teaching about praying in Jesus’ name with these four truths: • It seeks the glory of God. • Its foundation is the death, resurrection, and intercession of Jesus. • It is offered by Jesus’ obedient disciples. (Hunter points out that praying in Jesus’ name is virtually synonymous with obedience to Jesus.) • It asks what Jesus himself would pray for.

Frustration comes from bombarding heaven with our own ideas of what God should do to accomplish our will in heaven. Fulfillment comes from knowing that His will is being implemented in our lives.

People talk as if prayer is the way we get God to give us what we want. Those who think this way seek prayer promises, techniques, locations, mediators, and other methods they believe will influence God or place Him under obligation. But Scripture points in virtually the opposite direction, indicating prayer, communication with the living God, as a means He uses to give us what He knows we need. – W. BINGHAM HUNTER

When anyone is in the presence of something very powerful and experience, it is difficult to remain the unusual to their normal experience, it is difficult to remain the same.

Four common and essential responses are: a believing faith, authentic confession, conformity to His will, and empowerment for spiritual warfare.

Worship-based prayer is a powerful spark that produces a response of faith. When we begin our prayers with a passionate pursuit of the character of God, we are gripped with the reality that “He is” and are soon reminded that “He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.” Again, notice the focus on “seeking Him,” not just trying to solicit His help or provision. This is an emphasis on His face and a key to faith.

We are familiar with Romans 10:17, where it says, “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” Scripture-fed, Spirit-led, worship-based prayer is the foundation that fills our minds with the truth of God’s Word and great thoughts about God.

Confession means “agreeing with God” about our sin and failure to align with His person, purpose, and plan.

Lasting Restoration – One of the many ways I have seen this truth on dramatic display is at prayer summits. These multi-day “worship fests” are marked by spontaneous Scripture reading, singing, and heartfelt response, bringing people into an encounter with the living Christ that is incredibly intimate and moving. The more the truth of the Scriptures is read, heard, cherished, and applied–the more deeply the Spirit begins to expose needs, habitual sin, and broken relationships.

A. W. Tozer described this reality: “The man who has struggled to purify himself and has had nothing but repeated failures will experience real relief when he stops tinkering with his soul and looks away to the perfect One. While he looks at Christ, the very things he has so long been trying to do will be getting done within him. It will be God working in him to will and to do.”

Our Lord and Master has a will. It is the specific and intimate expression of His heart. His Word is His will. The application is revealed by His Spirit. Our requests that have not been surrendered to His Word and Spirit in intimate pursuit may simply reflect our will, not His.

John Piper describes it well: “The number one reason why prayer malfunctions in the hands of believers is that they try to turn a wartime walkie-talkie into a domestic intercom. Until you believe that life is war, you cannot know what prayer is for. Prayer is for the accomplishment of a wartime mission.”

I may be naïve compared to the warfare experts, but I have discovered that a life of passionate worship–one that delights in biblical truth about God’s character, seeks the empowerment of the Spirit for application and articulation, then surrenders in every way as prompted by this intimate encounter, is equipped to “fight the good fight” every day. Jesus, on the heels of forty days of prayer and fasting, wielded the truth of God’s Word in facing down the devil in the wilderness (Matthew 4:4–11). We, too, are equipped by His sufficiency to brandish the “sword of the Spirit,” which is the spoken word of God (Ephesians 6:17). We have His perfection and power living in us. He has given us the victory in His finished work of redemption. As we abide in Him, with hearts fully responsive to His intimate revelation of truth and insight, we overcome temptation and are delivered from evil.

In a similar spirit, some today repeat the Lord’s Prayer verbatim as some kind of magical charm. Jesus’ intention was not that we simply recite this prayer to manipulate some blessing. It is not a celestial secret password to opening the treasuries of eternity.

Guilt–the belief that if I do not pray, I will not be an acceptable Christian.

Approval–the belief that if I do pray, I will be an acceptable Christian in the eyes of others.

Church growth–the belief that prayer can be a useful tool to meet my tangible ministry goals.

Revival – the belief that God will bring revival if I will just “work Him” enough through prayer.

So we pray because God is worthy. But there is a second side to the motivational coin: I am needy. As I said earlier, prayerlessness is our declaration of independence from God. The heart of real prayer is, “Lord, I need you. I cannot do it on my own. I must seek you today.”

I heard a speaker say once, “You can tell someone how to do something and they may keep it up for awhile. But if you show them why they are doing it–it will take a brick wall to stop them.”

So as we prepare to clearly understand and apply a pattern that can enliven our prayer life and give us a biblical, balanced approach to prayer, let’s review a quick list of “pray this, not that” principles: • Pray to seek God’s f ace, NOT just His hand. • Pray with your heart fixed on God’s glory, NOT just for personal satisfaction. • Pray from the treasury of God’s Word, NOT from a list of your own ideas. • Pray according to the Spirit’s instruction, NOT only from human reason. • Pray with a heart completely surrendered to His will, NOT with a hurried personal agenda. • Pray in anticipation of living triumphantly in the war zone, NOT in satisfaction with your comfort zone. • Pray that God would change you, NOT simply change things.

Prayer is not asking God to do my will. It is bringing myself into conformity with His will. It is asking Him to do His will and to give me the grace to enjoy it. – JOHN MACARTHUR

The Lord’s Prayer is the ultimate pattern of prayer Jesus gave to His disciples. He repeated it twice in the gospels. The first delivery (Matthew 6) occurred near Galilee before a large crowd in the context of an extended sermon. His second iteration (Luke 11) occurred near Jerusalem after the disciples observed Him in prayer. He repeated this specific pattern after they made a request to learn how to pray.

In keeping with Jesus’ instructions, prayer begins with the character of God as we take time to focus our entire being on the wonders of who God is.

If our prayers are not focused on God, we are guilty of idolatry, as we are putting someone (or something) else in God’s place.”4

A. W. Tozer said it famously: “What comes to mind when we think about God is the most important thing about us . . . and the most portentous fact about any man is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like.”

This response to God’s character in prayer involves yielding to the control of the Holy Spirit and recommitting ourselves to God’s kingdom purposes.

Scottish writer Robert Law said, “Prayer is a mighty instrument, not for getting man’s will done in heaven, but for getting God’s will done on earth.”

I often say that we do not really know what to ask for until we have worshiped well and surrendered completely.

As our prayer continues, the outward stroke reminds us of the spiritual contest before us and, more important, reassures us of the spiritual resources within us. We know the time comes when we must get off our knees and reenter the warfare zone. We must be battle ready.

I often say the comfort zone is the danger zone. As we come to the concluding moments of a prayer time, we not only anticipate but also embrace the responsibility to “fight the good fight.” We are called to be praying menaces to the devil. Prayer is not an escape from the battles of life but a great equipping to fight them in supernatural power. The very fact that we are seeking God’s face and engaging in life-giving prayer alerts the enemy to our increased threat to his dominion. When we pray, we pick a fight with the devil at a completely new level. Yet this is why we are on earth–not to cruise along on a luxury liner until Jesus comes, but to stay actively engaged in our “search-and-rescue mission” in the midst of the global spiritual battle for the hearts and minds of people.

At the beginning of our Christian life we are full of requests to God. But then we find that God wants to get us into relationship with Himself – to get us in touch with His purposes. – OSWALD CHAMBERS

I like to call it Christianity in its purest form, as there are no celebrity speakers, music groups, bulletins, or agendas. In fact, for me this is one of the most beautiful demonstrations of the sufficiency of the Word of God, the Spirit of God, and the people of God in active and practical ministry. My faith in God’s desire and power to lead us into life-changing, Christ-exalting prayer has grown immensely over the years.

So let’s see how we can make this approach very practical. Again, we always begin with the Scriptures, and then I use four key questions to bring focus and stimulate specific prayers. I call these the who, how, what, and where questions of practicing this pattern. • Who is God? (reverence) • How should I respond? (response) • What do I pray about? (requests) • Where do I go from here? (readiness)

Individual + Community = Transformation We know that God wants our prayers to be transformational. If you were to ask, “Which is more important, private prayer or corporate prayer?” My answer would always be “yes”! It is like asking which leg is more crucial to walking–the right or the left?

It says, “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.” You could not learn the apostles’ doctrine by downloading a message to your iPod! You had to be gathered in community. The same was obviously true of fellowship and the breaking of bread. And how did they learn to pray? Together.

The church was birthed in a ten-day prayer meeting (Acts 1:14; 2:1). They coped with crisis and persecution together, on their knees (Acts 4:24–31). As the church grew, the apostles refused to become embroiled in administrative problems because of their resolute desire to model prayer in their leadership team (Acts 6:4). Through united prayer, they trusted God for miraculous divine interventions in times of extreme trouble (Acts 12:5–12). They received ministry direction through intense seasons of worshipful prayer (Acts 13:1–2).

What a contrast to our individualized culture. Most of us were taught prayer is something we do almost exclusively on our own in a closet somewhere. In reality, early Christians learned to pray largely by praying together.

In our Western culture, we have come to believe that it is more important to pray alone than with others. This is a symptom of our basic view of society. In his book The Connecting Church, Randy Frazee describes our culture of individualism. He explains that we are no longer born into a culture of community but a “way of life that makes the individual supreme or sovereign over everything.”2 Frazee documents this as a problem especially for those born after World War II . He laments the impact on the church by observing that we have “all too often mirrored the culture by making Christianity an individual sport.”

Therefore, if I were the devil, I would use my best deceptive tools to keep Christians from praying in transforming ways–and especially to keep them from praying together. I would keep them busy and isolated from one another. I would do everything possible to keep them distracted and disinterested in biblical, balanced, revival-style prayer gatherings. To accomplish this, I would do the following: Fuel the spirit of rugged individualism. By keeping Christians independent of each other, I would keep them independent from God. I would keep them frustrated in their personal prayer lives by preventing them from learning to pray by praying together. Dig ruts of boring prayer. When they did try to pray together, I would make sure the prayer meetings were based more on human needs than on God’s power. I would do everything possible to encourage boredom and gossip in these gatherings so that most people would stay away from these passionless “prayer” times. Delight in theological orthodoxy without spiritual passion. I would know how effective it is to get Bible-loving Christians to delight in theological correctness without spiritual intimacy. It worked very well in Ephesus (see Revelation 2:1–7), a once-great church that fell out of love with Jesus, even though they had great theology and teaching. I would let them be content with good sermons and grand theological ideas, as long as they stayed off their knees in trying to make it real in their hearts. Encourage idle preaching on prayer. I would know that sermons on prayer frequently fall on deaf ears, especially when the leaders do not model prayer. I would keep pastors content with talking about inspiring prayer ideas as long as they did not actually lead their people into extraordinary gatherings of prayer. I would know that prayer information without prayer action anesthetizes Christians from spiritual reality. Promote “success” in the ministry. Crazy as it sounds, I might even promote church growth as a replacement for real revival. I would encourage an interest in numbers, activities, strategies, and events. This would keep them away from brokenness, repentance, and passion for God’s transforming presence. This would distract them from a real pursuit of the awakenings that have undermined my nefarious efforts.

As long as Christians were sincere but isolated, active but powerless, entertained but shallow, I would win.

If Jesus answered all of your prayers from the last thirty days, would anything change in THE world or just YOUR world? – JOHN W. BRYSON

We need an Acts 6 revival. Revival is not a week of evangelistic meetings or a televised healing crusade. It is a period of unusual blessing when God brings a supernatural re-enlivening to His people. Dr. A. T. Pierson, pastor and missionary leader from the 1800s, observed: “There has never been a spiritual awakening in any country or locality that did not begin in united prayer.”2 It is broadly believed that whenever God wanted to bring a great work of revival, He always began by sending His people to their knees.

Ultimately, the goal is not only that you experience transformation or that your circle of friends feels the change or even that your church becomes spiritually reawakened. If these realities are authentic, it will spill into the community and beyond in powerful, Christ-exalting fashion.

Honestly, I find myself wondering if this is really the Lord’s best plan for reviving His church. In the rush of getting God to show up at another revival event, I wonder if we might not need to slow down, tone down, and get down to the humble, quiet, grassroots spiritual transformation that revivals are made of in intimacy and obscurity.

The vision for organic revival that moves my heart today looks like this: “Pastor-led, local church-oriented movements of Christ-exalting, worship-based prayer–leading to a full-scale revival, supernatural evangelism, and cultural transformation.”

Change Starts Now You can be a vital part of this compelling and essential vision. Ultimately, this kind of revival starts with my heart, my home, my church, and my community. If you pray that for me–and I pray that for you–and we act in faith to seek His face, something organic and glorious might just occur. It is worth dreaming about, worth seeking after, and worth living for.

My friend Byron Paulus says, “The biggest billboard for revival is a changed life.” That is the beautiful outcome of transforming prayer.