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reFocus Conference 2009

May 21, 2009

On this, the final day of the reFocus Conference here at Moody Bible Institute, we heard first from Henry Blackaby who is the Founder and President Emeritus of Blackaby Ministries International in Atlanta, GA.

More on that in a moment. In the day’s middle session Crawford Loritts brought a sermon on the necessity of the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the life and ministry of a pastor. Basing his sermon in Galatians 5:16-25, Pastor Loritts, with real urgency, called upon the men to turn from the plans, programs, and perspectives which have captured the minds and hearts of so much of the evangelical church, and to “walk by the Spirit”. He used an excursion to Ephesians 5:18 to drive home the point that being filled with the Spirit was not a suggestion, but a command, which needs to be controlling and continuous. While his sermon was solid in exposition—meaty with teaching on the connotations of the Greek words in his text, Loritts’ delivery was kind, authoritative, and impassioned, provoking both exuberant ” A-men’s and hushed stillness, from a group of men not naturally given to this!

The conference wraps up this evening with an address from John MacArthur. Unfortunately, my flight schedule was such that I was not able to stay for this. I am rather disappointed, but it just plain can’t be helped!

And now back to Blackaby.

He began his time with a call to understand worship as being more than music. He especially wants pastors to emphasize reading Scripture in worship and also to reclaim the pastoral prayer in which the pastor, with the rest of the congregation, gathers up a person in prayer before the Father. These two traditional aspects of the worship service have been lost in many churches and I was glad to hear his call to reclaim them.

The purpose of Blackaby’s message today, I believe, was a call to pastors to listen to God to see if he would be raising them up to use them to call this nation to repentance. He said things such as this: “If you are not clearly, unmistakably hearing from God, it is your heart that is the problem. When you test your heart, honestly and carefully, see if you are hearing regularly, constantly from God.” He looked to Luke 12:54-56 and Ezekiel 22:30-31 to challenge the men here to see America as a nation that is under judgment. He said that God is looking for men here to stand for the land. America is under the remedial judgment of God and the Lord is watching to see if the leaders of God’s people recognize the activity of God especially as he moves in judgment. Every time, biblically, God was about to judge a people, he raised up a prophet and let the prophet know what was on his heart. What was on God’s heart was always either life or death with no in-between. It is important that those of us who have been called and appointed by God to hear a word from God that he intends his people to know, that we hear and quickly go to the people of God and let them know what is on the heart of God so they can adjust their lives back to God. God is looking for men to be spiritual watchmen on the walls of the nation, to be prophetic intercessors to the nation.

This was the purpose of the message. However, the dominant portion of the message (in terms of time) was Blackaby relating stories of the success of his book Experiencing God and all the lives it has changed. I believe he did this to show how God uses faithfulness on the part of pastors (like himself) to impact the world.

So let me stop here for a moment. This is what I am struggling with when it comes to this particular conference. On Tuesday the three keynote speakers were Voddie Baucham, Flip Flippen and John Piper. The message proclaimed by Baucham and Piper was radically different, opposite even, to the message shared by Flippen. Today we begin our day with Henry Blackaby and end the day with John MacArthur. And again, these men would be polar opposites when it comes to an issue as critical as authority, of sola scriptura. This is not to say that Blackaby had nothing valuable, nothing biblical, to say. Rather, it is simply to say that there seems to be a disconnect here and we have speakers coming from radically different theological perspectives; and I’m not sure how to reconcile this. Is this just a question of appreciating each of these speakers for what they do well? Is it a question of seeking to provide speakers here that will appeal to people from different traditions? Or do some people just not even see that there appears to be a huge contradiction here? I am confused about this. I just don’t quite know what to think about it.

At any rate, reFocus has wrapped up for this year. Talking to pastors as I did often over the past few days, I can see that this has been a time of real rest and refreshment for them. I trust they will head back to “real life” now recharged and hopefully refocused.

May 21, 2009

Day three of the reFocus conference began with a talk from Ken Davis. Ken is a humorist—a comedian, really. I don’t quite know what to say about this session. He drew out a couple of messages he wanted to communicate to the pastors here and did it with a whole lot of laughter. My best efforts at blogging this comedy sketch fell flat (as I’m sure you understand). He did a great job of mixing the poignant and the hilarious. So we’ll just leave it there except to say that I appreciated his definition of humor: Humor is a gentle way to acknowledge human frailty.

Immediately after this session ended, I hurried down three flights of stairs, across campus and up three flights of stairs to deliver a breakout address. It went quite well, I think, and there was some productive discussion afterward. Unfortunately this discussion stretched on long enough that I was not able to make it to the general session that followed. It was a roundtable of sorts, I believe. But alas, I missed it. The mid-afternoon session, also a roundtable was canceled for some reason. And so that brought me to the evening.

The evening session began with a time of worship and then Chip Ingram took to the stage. Chip is President and Teaching Pastor of Living on the Edge. This session was rather interesting to me as he was speaking on a subject that overlapped significantly with the one I had spoken of in my breakout session. In fact, he turned to the same passage of Scripture, Romans 12, to prove the same thing and to challenge pastors in some of the same ways.

He started with a brief devotional and then turned to his subject for the evening: Refocusing Your Focus. If the talk had a subtitle, it would be this: What if “the problem” Is not “THE PROBLEM”?

What he shared in the evening was what he says is a whole new ministry dynamic; a whole new way of seeing ministry. His prayer is that through the brief time together, God would give each of these pastors a dynamic, paradigm-shifting refocus on all of life but especially on ministry. This was no small goal!

He gave a lot of statistics about the church—about pastors and why they leave the pastorate, about Christians and why so few of them actually resemble Christians. Looking at these issues about four years ago, he had come to some conclusions and had rolled out a program of sorts that would address them.

The problem is…
Pastors have been given a job for which it is very difficult to measure how they are doing. There is an epidemic problem of quality control within the church and the shepherds are the ones who are responsible.

The result is…
We’ve become slaves to running programs, keeping church activities rolling and feeling very frustrated with limited spiritual life-change.

His ministry commissioned a Barna study to figure out how big a problem this is. The overall conclusion was that pastors had no way of explaining what a healthy, mature Christian is. So the pastors themselves did not know their task!

…Most Christians equate spiritual maturity with following the rules.
…Most churchgoers are not clear what their church expects in terms of spiritual maturity
…Most pastors struggle with explaining or defining spiritual maturity
…Most pastors struggle with feeling the relevance of and articulating a specific set of objectives for spirituality, often favoring activities over attitudes

The answer is…
He offered a three-part answer.

Focus - Get clear on your calling (see Colossians 1:28-29).

Metrics - Get clear on measuring spiritual maturity. Here he introduced what he called an R12 Christian. He drew these marks of spiritual maturity from Romans 12 and did so at some length. I’ll provide only a brief outline. If you’d like to learn more you can do so at livingontheedge.org. From Romans 12 he found these five marks of a mature Christian: Such a Christian is Surrendered to God; Separate from the World; Sober in Self-Assessment; Serving in Love; Supernaturally Responding to Evil.

Power - Making God’s work in you the priority over God’s work through you.

It seemed to me that he ran out of time by the end, so hurried through the last few points. Overall, I appreciated his talk. I think he is right that a huge percentage of what passes for Christianity in America is really just empty and unbiblical. And so he is calling these churches to understand the pastor’s role as leading Christians from infancy to maturity. This is excellent! I think, though, that this is an insight that has not escaped those churches that all along have been focusing on the preaching of the Word as the primary task of the pastor and of the church. Churches that have become distracted by endless programs have definitely lost sight of the most important thing. So I guess I’d say Ingram’s call to emphasize making disciples (not just converts) is important but also obvious; it is what a remnant of evangelical churches have been saying all along! For those pastors that have lost sight of this task that God has given them, I hope this message stands as a wake-up call that drives them to Scripture to see how God would have them lead and shepherd their flock.

May 20, 2009

It’s a question I’m asked fairly often. “Have you ever blogged a conference and heard a speaker you really disagreed with?” I’ve always been able to say “no.” Until today. Now I want to be careful here. Flip Flippen, a life coach and psychotherapist, did not ever claim to be preaching. He did not bring his Bible to the front of the room and did not seek to preach from Scripture. Yet speak he did, and this in front of a room full of pastors seeking encouragement in their calling. He spoke of something called “constraint theory.” A constraint, as he defines it, is anything that hinders a person’s performance. Flippen often works with athletes or businessmen, helping them seek and find the constraints that are hindering them in their vocations. His underlying theory seems to be this: Those with the least personal constraints win. Hence people who want to be winners in whatever job, those who want to do the best work, will have to seek out and remove personal constraints.

In some ways this is obvious and harmless since we all have character flaws and these often hold us back. But what of the Holy Spirit’s role in seeking and mortifying indwelling sin? When Flippen claimed that King David committed adultery with Bathsheba because he had a personal constraint by which he was unable to see his self-control problems, well, that’s awfully close to replacing sin with personal constraints. I might not go so far as to say that what Flippen shared today was unbiblical because I don’t think his ideas were sufficiently developed. But I’d say at the very least it was sub-biblical. It was a talk more suited for a corporate board room, I think, than a pastors’ conference; and even then, I would want to hear from him how personal constraint and sin are the same and/or different. And if personal constraints point to sin, what is our role and what is God’s role in putting such sin to death? This talk seemed strangely out of place compared to Voddie Baucham who preceded him and John Piper, who followed.

Speaking of John Piper, he delivered a great message on the new birth. I just happened to have heard roughly this same message the week before at The Basics Conference in Ohio. I’ll share my notes for it again, but first with this observation. I think preaching this message here at Moody was a little bit different than preaching it at Parkside Church in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. I would not say the group listening last night was in any way hostile, but, well, preaching a distinctly Calvinistic doctrine of the new birth in Alistair Begg’s church is quite a bit easier than preaching it at Moody. Having said that, the audience seemed very engaged and Piper preached over many shouts of “Amen!” He delivered it with his trademark passion and I enjoyed it as much the second time as I had the first.

He answered four questions related to the doctrine of the new birth:

What happens? Why is it so necessary? How does it happen? How do we participate in the happening as preachers?

What Happens in the New Birth?
Life happens! God does not give new religion, but new life. Jesus knows that there are religious dead people and that Nicodemus is one of them; he knows that Nicodemus needs to be born, to be given life. When you are born of the flesh, all you are is flesh; you are humanity minus God. That which is born of the Spirit is spirit—which means you do not have a living spirit now (because you are dead). The Holy Spirit needs to come upon you and breathe this new life into you. We are now spiritually alive.

Why Is the New Birth So Necessary?
Piper offered ten biblical descriptions of man apart from the new birth, ten reasons we need to be born again. As bad as the news is, it’s glorious to get it right because there is a glorious remedy. When we properly understand our own badness, we see Christ more gloriously.

Apart from the new birth we are dead
Apart from the new birth we are by nature children of wrath
Apart from the new birth we love darkness and hate light
Apart from the new birth we have hearts that are hard like stone
Apart from the new birth we are unable to submit to God
Apart from the new birth we are unable to except the gospel
Apart from the new birth we are unable to come to Christ or embrace him as Lord
Apart from the new birth we are slaves to sin
Apart from the new birth we are slaves of Satan
Apart from the new birth no good thing dwells in me

How Does it Happen?
He offered four steps (though steps was really not quite the right word):

First, the Holy Spirit freely gives life. There is no how-to here at all; he must sovereignly do this.

Second, this happens through the living and abiding Word of God. We see here the human agency of the divine sovereign awakening of dead souls.

Third, the gospel brings about faith. Believing is the result, not the cause of the new birth.

Fourth, Christ is received and believed upon.

These four steps cannot be carved apart—they must happen simultaneously.

How Do Pastors Participate?
Jesus said to Paul in Acts 26 “I send you to open their eyes.” How can this be (after all that has just been said)? Is this an act of God or an act of the pastor? Piper answered this with an analogy. You can’t make God do anything, but neither can you make electricity but this doesn’t stop you from flipping a light switch. Don’t let the fact that you can’t cause the new birth keep you from preaching the gospel! The pastors’ task is an impossible one and thus one that must be empowered by God.

A couple of brief notes. First, I think Piper coined a word tonight: Crushedness. I don’t think I could successfully use it in a sentence. Second, he spoke of growing older and his increasing knowledge of his own sin. “The longer I live the less optimistic I am that I will end without sin and the more grateful I become for the blood of Christ imputed to me. As I grow older I do not feel myself becoming gloriously holy but I find myself feeling great love for the gospel.” I thought that was rather thought-provoking.

And that wrapped up the day here at reFocus. Today we hear from a selection of speakers, most of which are unknown to me. I am also going to be leading a breakout session this morning. I’ll check in again sometime later in the day!

May 19, 2009

Because this conference is held on the campus of Moody Bible Institute, everything happens in a pretty small area. My room is within a two minute walk of the main auditorium and the cafeteria. Only the exhibit hall takes some effort to get to.

Last night the conference kicked off with a talk by Michael Easley, Teaching Pastor of Fellowship Bible Church in Brentwood, Tennessee and a former President of Moody Bible Institute. And I’ve got to say, this was the first I’ve heard Easley and the first I had even heard of him. And that suited me well as I always enjoy hearing a new speaker. Easley delivered quite a good talk, a challenge to pastors, drawn from 2 Timothy 4. He gave a call for preaching that is inherently biblical and expositional in nature. He modeled that exposition in this message. There were a couple of things that stood out to me. “The problem with a pastors conference” he said,” is that we parade phenomenally successful people in front of you and tacitly say, ‘be like them.’” And this is true, isn’t it? Rarely do I attend a pastors’ conference and find there some obscure pastor who has never met with a kind of public, noticeable success. Also, several times he repeated that to preach, to really preach, is to die naked a little bit at a time. It’s an apt metaphor, I think.

This morning kicked off with Voddie Baucham preaching on Titus 2. Baucham is one of my favorite conference speakers and I always enjoying getting to hear him speak. He always looks like a million bucks up there, he always speaks without notes, he always preaches right from the Word, and he always brings it!

There seems to be some disagreement about the pronunciation of Voddie’s name. To attempt to clarify, I believe the “o” is long, not short. So Voddie rhymes with roadie not body.

But I digress. This morning’s message challenged pastors from Titus 2. He said that the discipleship process laid out in the first two chapters of this epistle is like a 3-legged stool and the pastor has a unique role to play in propping up each of those three legs.

The Great Commission is Jesus’ command to go and make disciples, not just converts. This is the process to which pastors have been called—this ministry of disciple-making. So how does a pastor go about this task?

The first leg in the stool is the training of the young by the older. God has given us older, more mature Christians as a tool to disciple us. This is part of God’s plan for discipleship. Here Baucham called out deliberately age-segregated ministry since this denies that the older believers have as one of their tasks the training of younger believers. God wants these people’s lives to rub up against each other. Too many churches today are so built that there is really no possibility of this kind of Titus 2 discipleship.

If you read Titus 2 with a discerning eye you find something that doesn’t seem quite right. There are specific instructions for how older women are to train the younger women whereas for the young men it says only “teach them to be self-controlled.” Why is this? The younger men don’t need a list in chapter 2 because they already got one in chapter 1—the qualifications for elders. The second leg in the disciple-making stool is that God has given us godly, manly elders as a disciple-making tool.

People are to learn manliness and godliness from their elders (which Baucham uses as an argument against women elders and pastors). They learn this in three ways: In his headship of his family; In his Christ-like character; In his Christ-like teaching.

The third leg is where all of this comes together. It is the family. God has given us godly families as a disciple-making tool. In fact, the primary disciple-making tool God has given the world is the family. The church gets just a few hours out of the week where the family gets almost the whole week.

The application of this message got, well, a little bit tense. Baucham said that we’ve institutionalized the church so we now have a systems analysis rather than an organic approach to ministry. So now we no longer evaluate pastors and elders based upon organic principles. Why is it that we disqualify pastors based on being people who take even a single sip of alcohol while we ignore other words in the same paragraph and lower the qualifications based on having faithful children. Why? Because we’re more American than Christian. If we spent more time looking to the qualifications for pastors and did so in an organic rather than institutional way, we’d have fewer pastors and stronger churches. Instead we say, “Don’t you dare have a sip of alcohol but your family can go to hell.” We’ve institutionalized the church and in many cases we’ve missed God.

There were a few gasps and lots of cries of “amen!” as Baucham said these things. Like I said at the outset, he always brings it.

I’m going to try to find out if and when (and where) the audio for this conference will be available in case you want to give it a listen.

May 19, 2009

Yesterday afternoon I hopped on a flight to Chicago so I could get to reFocus, Moody Bible Institute’s pastors’ conference. This is going to be a slightly different experience for me, I think. It is bound to be a different than the “average” conference I go to at any rate. It’s a long story as to how I got here, but it involves a) being asked to lead a breakout session b) learning that my book was being going to be a giveaway for each of the 1200 or so men in attendance and c) [long story]. These factors, combined with my curiosity to see this ministry in action, have brought me to the Windy City.

All the way until Thursday I’ll be bringing updates once or twice a day as I’m able. You’ll probably know some of the speakers while others, well, perhaps not so much. The list of keynotes includes John MacArthur, John Piper, Voddie Baucham, Michael Easley, Flip Flippen, Ken Davis, Chip Ingram, Henry Blackaby and Crawford Loritts. (What are the chances that at one conference you’ll find both a Flip and a Chip on the list of speakers?)

The conference is held on the Moody Bible Institute campus. I had pictured it in my mind as a suburban kind of campus but it is actually right in the heart of Chicago. We are being quartered in one of the college dorms, a rather tall downtown kind of building. We worship and listen to the addresses in the auditorium, eat in the cafeteria and go to breakout sessions in the classrooms. I guess it’s not entirely unlike being back in a college environment.

There is a general session to start each day and this is followed by a breakout or track session. There is another general session before lunch and then two more breakout or track sessions in the afternoon. There is one final general session to close the day and it runs from around 7 to 9 PM. Some of the breakout sessions are led by speakers who in many other contexts would be keynotes—J.P. Moreland, Andy Crouch and Jerry Jenkins being just a few. There are three tracks the pastors here can take—transformational preaching; missions; and justice and compassion. More on that another day.

A humorous little side note. In the guide they hand to everyone as they register, there is a list of each of the breakout sessions. For each of the speakers they have a single line to describe his qualifications. “Pastor of Grace Bible Church.” “Author with Moody Books.” “Professor, Biola University.” Mine is the exception. It says “Self-employed Web Designer.” I’m not sure that this stands as a qualification necessary to speak to pastors!

August 02, 2005

Ron Gleason, (pastor, doctor of something or the other, and all-around nice guy) who posts in the Community Blog has begun a series called “The Death Knell for the Emergent Church Movement.” The first article in the series has been posted and the other parts will follow in coming days.

Ron begins by saying, “Bad theology usually manifests itself in an attack on the ordinary means of grace that God gave to the Church of Jesus Christ. We also need to understand that when such an attack occurs, it is not an isolated event. Rather, it extends its tentacles across a wide range of biblical truths and everything-either directly or indirectly-becomes infected, tainted. Whatever the current language of the attack is-either frontal or subtle-we should not spend a lot of time attempting to “appreciate” what precious little good in found in the movement itself.”

He goes on to say, “By and large, when the attacks occur, people spend a lot of time giving “left-handed” compliments to the attackers, especially if they come from an evangelical church. This is akin, in a church setting, to Americans walking on eggshells around the politically correct crowd.”

Ron is not willing to give nearly as much respect to this movement as many other Evangelicals, as you’ll see in this articles and no-doubt in the ones that follow.

Keep reading it here.