The Role of Prayer and Serving the City

As I’ve been continuing to process For the City along with a number of other books on engaging our cities and culture there’s something that’s been bugging me.

Is it my imagination or does the conversation tend to overlook the importance of prayer?

A lot of time is spent discussing techniques and programs designed to engage people (which is good), but little time is spent discussing prayer’s role. Perhaps it’s simply assumed that we would be praying for our cities, because, well, why on earth would we not? (But you know what they say about assuming…) Is it possible, though, that by assuming that we’re praying for our cities, we might actually forget to do it? Do we really get the importance of prayer to all we do to reach our communities?

In Acts 1:14, we find the early church (then perhaps 120 people), gathered in the upper room where they were “devoting themselves to prayer,” and waiting for the Holy Spirit to come. When He did descend upon them (Acts 2:1-4), they were again together and in prayer. The apostles themselves were devoted to prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4). When Peter was imprisoned, the church made “earnest prayer” for him (Acts 12:5). Prayer and fasting guided the appointing of elders (Acts 14:23).

In Paul’s epistle to the Romans, we see him command that they “be constant in prayer” (Rom. 12:12). To the Colossians he says, “Continue steadfastly in prayer” (Col. 4:2) and he says the Thessalonians are to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). And, of course, Jesus Himself commands that we “pray for those who persecute [us]…” (Matt. 5:44).

The point, obviously, is not to just chuck a pile of verses, but we do have to recognize this pattern that appears throughout Scripture. What made the Church’s ministry so powerful and effective in its early days was not programs or technique, but a commitment to prayer. It’s not that programs, starting non-profits, appropriate contextualization or any number of points made in any of the “being missional” books are bad things (they’re not), but we always need to be careful of the snare they can represent. Our hearts are so easily turned away from the truth of the gospel, “prone to wander” as the song says, that we can turn to these good things and see them as the secret to being for our communities—that we become dependent upon technique for success instead of God and His grace for fruit.

That takes me back to these commands to “be constant in prayer,” to “pray without ceasing…” Could this be the reason why the Church has in the West has floundered so greatly in the last century? Not because we’ve not kept up with the times, but because we’ve failed to rely upon the power of God and His gospel?

This is not a post pointing fingers at anyone, expect probably myself. I’m certainly no expert in this matter; in fact, I’d say my prayer life is pathetic. But when I see what’s going on in my city, with a population that’s increasingly hostile to the gospel, I don’t find myself trying to figure out how some new technique—I find myself desiring to pray more. To pray that the churches in our city would be faithful to the gospel, which is “the power of God for salvation” (Rom. 1:16), and that our congregations would not just being people that say they are for the city, but people who are praying for the city.

“What’s Your Model?”

I’m reading Darrin Patrick and Matt Carter’s book, For the City: Proclaiming and Living Out the Gospel, and I was blown away by this passage:

During our conversations, the assessment team and I had open and honest debate about an appropriate philosophy of ministry. Our interactions were friendly and loving, not adversarial . . . All of my conversations with them, though, came down to one piece of advice and one basic question: “We think you should have a model. Which one will you choose?”

So I gave in. Sort of?

I replied, “You want a model? Here it is.

“Imagine an urban church so influenced by the power of the gospel that it seized every opportunity to proclaim and live out the gospel for the good of the city. Imagine that this church physically and spiritually served the poorest of the poor, but also lovingly rebuked the wealthy. Imagine this church as the epicenter of straight-up, God-fearing, Spirit-filled revival, leading thousands of people to eternal life in Christ in just a few years. Imagine a church that built elderly housing, housed all the orphans in the city, and taught wealthy business people to have a ‘double bottom line’ so they could run a profitable business in order to support the work f the church and meet the needs of the city.

“In other words, imagine a church that boldly preached the gospel and lived out the values of the kingdom. Don’t you want to be a part of a church like that?”

“Of course. Who wouldn’t?” they responded.

“What if I told you that the church model I’m describing is as trusted, tried, and true as any you’ll find?” I said.

“What model is it?”

“Metropolitan Tabernacle,” I replied, receiving blank stares in return.

“Where is it? Who’s the pastor?” one team member asked?

A thin smile spread across my face.

“London, 1852,” I said. “The pastor is Charles Spurgeon.”1

I loved reading this (so much so that I went back over it twice) not because it was a shot at the assessment guys or about any particular ministry model, but because of what it represents—what happens when a church is gripped by the gospel and empowered by the Spirit to serve as an outpost, a foretaste of the kingdom still to come. Would that this could be said about all our churches.

Perhaps it will before the day is through.

Four Things I Learned While Writing a Book

A while back I shared a few things I’d been learning during the early stages of writing Awaiting a Savior. Since that time, the lessons have kept coming and I thought I’d share four more with you:

1. Writing something important will result in trials. I was speaking to one of our pastors on Wednesday night and when he asked how I was doing, the first word out of my mouth was, “Busy.” Over the last three months, I’ve finished writing a book, sold a house, moved, attempted to relax during a vacation, attended a prescreening of Courageous, wrote a script for Awaiting a Savior’s book trailer, on top of dealing with the high demands on my waking hours from my job and family. I’ve never had such a busy season in my entire life (and Lord willing, I won’t have one that’s quite this extreme again). The busyness of my life has escalated to the point that I’ve actually found where my capacity ends. Hopefully things will slow down for me sometime soon. I know my wife would appreciate that very much.

2. Don’t expect your “heroes” to endorse your book, but ask them anyway. Asking for endorsements was probably the hardest part of the post-writing process. You never know who is going to say “yes” or “no.” But one thing is entirely likely: You’re probably not going to get Piper, Driscoll or Francis Chan to read your book—at least not unless you’ve got a lead time of six-eight months (which I did not). However, thirty-four people kindly agreed to read the manuscript (that in itself was pretty amazing) and about a third of those have provided a blurb so far (I’ll be sharing some in tomorrow’s post).

3. Reading your own endorsements is alternatively encouraging and frightening. It’s really cool to see people you respect say, “This is really good!” But it’s also something that can cause the head to become a bit puffed up. This is something I’m trying to be even more watchful of than usual as I have a very intense predisposition toward pride. It also means that I will be trying to avoid doing things like reading reviews on Amazon.

4. The secret behind good writing? Great editing. No writer—no matter how good—can edit their own work. None of us are that good. A great editor can take a I have been enormously blessed to have had Kevin Meath edit this book. Not only is the end-product much stronger, but I am a better writer because of it. That’s in part because he wasn’t afraid to call me out on some of my bad habits as a writer (a proliferation of single-sentence paragraphs—which naturally has it’s home in blogging), but because he pushed me to make sure I was being as clear as possible for the average reader. With a subject like poverty, a lot of us who deal with it on a regular basis have a lot of knowledge that after a while becomes assumed. Transferring that into your writing makes for a bad reading experience.

If you’d be so kind as to keep three things in prayer:

1. Humility. Emily and I are watching like hawks for evidence of pride creeping in; we do not need or want me having a fat-head and thinking I’m important. Please pray that we won’t let our guards down.

2. Balance. When things start getting lopsided, it’s hard to manage the stuff of life, even when it’s for “good” reasons. Please pray that a sense of balance can be brought back into my life and schedule.

3. New Opportunities. We don’t know what God’s got in mind for this book; it might be a one-and-done kind of thing or it might be the beginning of a whole new adventure for my family and me. Please pray that we’d be faithfully open to whatever He chooses to do.

Corporate Competition and the Disciple of Christ

Today’s post is by Aron  Utecht. Aron is the Sr. Pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church. He’s also  written Putting God in His Place: Exalting God in the iCulture with three colleagues, which is about how western cultural assumptions steal God’s glory. You can contact Aron at

Yesterday I made the point that competition is a fundamental motivator for many aspects of our culture. By harnessing my natural desire for recognition and reward, competition typically pushes me toward higher achievement. The underside of this spiritually is that human greed is nurtured and celebrated instead of crucified. The result is a compromised life spiritually for the individual. Today I want to explore a couple of the ways that competition affects us corporately.

When we introduce the concept of competition we automatically create winners and losers. We create categories of in and out. Whether in sports, honor societies, 500 Clubs, or even in churches, we find ways to create the category of other so we can feel better about ourselves.

This doesn’t please God. Jesus cleared the temple in Matt. 21:12-13 because gentiles were literally squeezed out of what should have been a house of prayer for the nations. Paul is also clear that one of the many things accomplished in Jesus’ death and resurrection was the abolishment of national prejudices (Eph. 2:11-22). Competition creates the category of other, which is sometimes less than, but akin to an enemy. We’re told to love our enemies, not conquer them (Matt. 5:44; Rom. 12:9-21).

Identifying the underside of competition might also impact our view of evangelism and cultural engagement. When I became a believer in college I treated apologetic encounters as a chance to prove myself and beat the other person into following Christ. Of course it never worked no matter how much I brushed up on my arguments. People intuitively took a defensive posture. This wasn’t ever taught by any of my mentors but something I assumed on my own. Perhaps if we identify how our culture shapes us we can send new converts down an altogether different path to begin with – one that overtly celebrates humility instead of subtly nurturing pride and triumphalism. [Read more...]

Personal Competition and the Disciple of Christ

Today’s post is by Aron  Utecht. Aron is the Sr. Pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church. He’s also  written Putting God in His Place: Exalting God in the iCulture with three colleagues, which is about how western cultural assumptions steal God’s glory. You can contact Aron at

It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. Most of us have been told that at one time or another, but usually as a way to mollify a loss. Closer to the truth, we all want to win. Sometimes desperately.

It isn’t just sports that stoke my desire to win. In addition to the entertainment industry called professional sports, competition is something that impacts us every day of our lives. Competition is also an underlying motivator in education, and is the principle driver of our economic system. Even our politics are often more about competition than what is truly best for all.

The conventional wisdom is that competition is good. It pushes us out of our natural slothfulness toward excellence. This is often true. But there is a dark underside to completion that can go unnoticed. It’s a dark underside that if we’re not aware of it can compromise our life as disciples of Jesus.

Consider Ephesians 5:3, where greed is grouped with impurity and sexual immorality. The believer is instructed to avoid any appearance of these.  Yet everywhere I turn, my greed for acquisition, accomplishment, and accolade is nurtured and encouraged. The economic system of capitalism is particularly good at harnessing human greed, which Paul calls idolatry (Colossians 3:5).

Does this mean that if I’m successful in business that I’m an idolater? Well, maybe. Maybe not. What it means for sure is that sin is battling against me more than I realize. Simply living in the system I do will shape my thinking, and my spiritual formation, and if I don’t intentionally find ways to push back against those influences, they will undercut my spiritual life, and my faithfulness to Christ.

Competition harnesses my desire for acquisition, accomplishment, and accolade. But instead of nurturing these impulses I should be crucifying them.

I’m not trying to create a new rule, or say that we should drop out of life and refuse to participate in our economic system. But I do think we need to be attuned to the influences in our lives, and push back accordingly. By identifying how competition affects me negatively I can keep things like sports and academics in perspective. Keeping that perspective can be exceptionally difficult when money is involved though.

Regardless of the difficulties, spiritual health demands that I push back on the sin of avarice. I need to constantly check my motives, and ask myself often: Am I too emotionally involved in sports? Does my academic achievement reflect my love for Christ, or my love for recognition?  Is my business big enough to support my family? And, perhaps even… Is my church big enough to glorify God as we are?

Unfortunately, I don’t have to weigh any of these for very long to find myself wanting.

Tomorrow I’ll explore some of the ways that competition affects us corporately.

Aron is married to Jenn, and father to Abigail, Elizabeth and Benjamin. They live in Beulah, ND where he is the Sr. Pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church. Aron has an MDiv from Denver Seminary, an MA in American History from the University of Nebraska-Kearney and loves to study the Bible. Aron doesn’t have free time, but if he did he would enjoy cycling, camping, and exploring the outdoors with his kids, in addition to reading on theology, history, culture, and leading better in ministry.

Announcing My New Book: Awaiting a Savior

As some of you may know, this year, I started sending out proposals to publishers related to a book I’d wanted to write for a while. (I’ve talked a bit about what I’ve been learning through it in the past.) After many months of prayer, effort, one or two mild panic attacks and a couple of really, really nice rejection letters, I’m pleased to announce that my new book, Awaiting a Savior: The Gospel, the New Creation and The End of Poverty, will be available October 1, 2011 from Cruciform Press!

Awaiting a Savior follows the storyline of the Bible to examine the problem of poverty—where it starts, where it ends and how we can faithfully respond in the meantime. I’m unbelievably excited to share this book with you (and it’s been killing Emily and me to not really be able to say too much publicly about it until now) and I’m very thankful to Kevin, Bob and Tim at Cruciform for allowing me to do so. The titles they’ve released so far have been excellent and I’m glad to have been added to the line-up.

In the weeks ahead, I’m looking forward to sharing some excerpts from the book as well as any cool things that may come up surrounding it. I would really appreciate you joining us in prayer as we prepare for the book’s release—and I’d love it if you’d pre-order a copy (which will be available in both print and digital editions for you e-book readers).

Looking forward to sharing more soon!

A Humble Mind

Yesterday John Stott died surrounded by his loved ones and listening to Handel’s Messiah. He was 90 years old. Stott’s ministry has been a great blessing to many, myself included. Stott’s The Living Church was one of the first books on pastoral ministry that I’d ever read (although I’m not certain why I even picked it up initially). Looking back, it was one of the books God used to send me along the path I currently travel in terms of ministry.

One of the things I love about Stott is the importance he places on humility in the life of the preacher and his preaching. Between Two Worlds, his classic work on preaching, offers this wonderful insight. At this point, I am going to take the advice given and “get out of the way” to let his words speak for themselves:

Humility of mind is to be accompanied by humility of motive. Why do we preach? What do we hope to accomplish by our preaching? What incentive impels us to persevere? I fear that too often our motives are selfish. We desire the praise and the congratulations of men. We stand at the door after the Sunday services and feast our ears on the commendatory remarks which some church members seem to have been schooled to make, ‘Fine sermon, pastor!’ ‘You really blessed my heart today!’ To be sure, genuine words of appreciation can do much to boost a discouraged preacher’s morale. But idle flattery, and the hypocritical repetition of stock phrases . . . are damaging to the preacher and repugnant to God. . .

The true preacher is a witness; he is incessantly testifying to Christ. But without humility he neither can nor wants to do so. . . . ‘No man can bear witness to Christ and to himself at the same time. No man can give the impression that he himself is clever and Christ is mighty to save.’ . . .

The most privileged and moving experience a preacher can ever has is when, in the middle of the sermon, a strange hush descends upon the congregation. The sleepers have woken up, the coughers have stopped coughing, and the fidgeters are sitting still. No eyes or minds are wandering. Everybody is attending, though not to the preacher. For the preacher is forgotten, and the people are face to face with the living God, listening to his still, small voice. Dr. Billy Graham has often described this experience. I remember hearing him address about 2,400 ministers in the Central Hall, Westminster, on 20 May 1954, at the conclusion of the Greater London Crusade. The third of his twelve points emphasized the power of the Holy Spirit, and the liberty in preaching which he had felt as a result. ‘I have often felt like a spectator,’ he said, ‘standing on the side, watching God at work. I have felt detached from it. I wanted to get our of the way as much as I could, and let the Holy Spirit take over . . .’ It is precisely here that humility of motive comes in. ‘I wanted to get out of the way.’ For it is all to easy to get in the way, to intrude ourselves between the people and their Lord.

John Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today, pp. 324- 326

Preaching and Pragmatism

Yesterday Steven Furtick posted a very helpful article on his blog. There, he shares his concern that if we who preach are not careful we’re going to become like the Pharisees. Furtick explains:

When describing the Pharisees and what they did to the people through their teaching, Jesus said: They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders(Matthew 23:4).

What’s interesting is that when we read that, we automatically despise the Pharisees and assume they had bad motives. But if you study their history, their motives were actually very good. . . . Their driving motivation really was to help by giving people things to do. But in their desire to make the Bible applicable, they actually created burdens that weighed their people down.

Here’s how I think this happens today. We do a sermon series on marriage, which in itself is great. But then we say things like “you need to do these 15 things with your spouse to have a great marriage.” Or we do a series on joy, and we then give them the 7 steps to attaining it. We’re trying help, but without realizing it, we’ve actually burdened people who were already carrying such a heavy load.

While he is certainly not against offering practical application, this was particularly helpful for me to read today. For the past week and a bit I’ve been writing a chapter on biblical generosity for a book I’m working on, and something I’ve noticed over and over again in many preachers’ efforts to encourage a greater level of giving, they tend to resort to an extremely hard line position on giving that leads those who meet the target feeling proud and those who don’t feeling beat up. While the motivation isn’t necessarily bad, the pragmatic approach (“people aren’t giving enough so tell them to give more”) eliminates grace and room for the Holy Spirit to work in people’s lives. In light of this, a great concern that I have about how I’m presenting my application points is that I don’t want to be guilty of doing the same.

Good application always—always—leaves room for the Holy Spirit to work whatever the subject, whether marriage, parenting, joy or generosity. Though it’s much more difficult, it’s a greater gift to our hearers.

Lord, Do It Again!

Tim Keller, Collin Hansen and Nancy Leigh DeMoss discuss the need for revival (even though Reformed types are a bit freaked out by the term):

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Hansen recently wrote A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories that Stretch and Stir, a new book looking at the revivals God has sent throughout history to build His church and grow His people. I’d encourage you to give it a thorough read.

What is the Church’s Role in Culture?

What is the church’s role in culture? How does the church equip members to carry out their callings in the world? Pastors Matt Chandler, Michael Horton and Tim Keller discuss:

(RSS Readers: Can’t see the video? Please click through to watch)

What’s your take on the subject? What stood out most to you in the discussion above?