Jeff Iorg Blog
While visiting and speaking at Hong Kong Baptist Seminary, a local pastor took me to the area of the city focused on the “death industry” – his words, not mine. Huge funeral homes were surrounded by businesses catering to the needs of the deceased and their grieving family members. Buddhist, Hindu, and other religious burial rights were being carried out with an intensity and organizational detail resulting from handling dozens of simultaneous services every day.
One of the interesting aspects of the whole enterprise was the creation of and marketing of paper products to be burned to provide whatever the deceased might need in the afterlife. Besides what you might expect – paper houses, cars, and furniture – there were some other unusual provisions. For example, paper dolls – representing friends and loved ones – were included in the pyre. Paper iPhones, iPads, and pocket organizers (complete with chargers) were available. Medical equipment, exercise gear, and boats were also popular. Apparently, the afterlife has many of the same demands and needs as this one!
The most striking paper product available, however, was money. Printed in various denominations – and priced accordingly in real money – were paper products issued on the “The Bank of Hell.” That’s not some metaphorical preacher phrase. I am sitting here right now looking at a piece of fake paper money with “The Bank of Hell” printed on it. Alongside are paper gold and silver bars since, even in the afterlife, precious metals – and their paper facsimile - are still precious.
The saddest part of all this wasn’t the money being spent on paper trinkets to be burned to provide resources to be used in the next life. The saddest part was that these actions represent the only hope, the only tiny shred of hope, for meaningful life after this one. Standing on a street corner watching a woman drop Bank of Hell money into a burning urn, Jesus as the Hope of the World became very real to me. Our hope for eternal life rests on the resurrection of Jesus. He overcame death – so everything he says about death and what comes after can be trusted. He is our only hope and he is enough.
Mar 12 2012
Watching a new Christian transform is a miraculous process and awe-inspiring no matter how often you have seen it happen. A few months ago, it was my honor to assist a young man (about 30) at his conversion to becoming a follower of Jesus. It was a powerful moment of simple prayer, repenting from sin and placing faith in Jesus alone as Lord and Savior. The immediate change – relief, happiness, a sense of newness – was obvious. But the change since then has been equally amazing.
After his conversion, my friend asked me, “Now what?” I told him, “Start reading the Bible ‘like it’s your job.’” I walked him through a Bible reading plan that emphasizes the New Testament and Proverbs. He has been using it, shall we say “religiously.” He reads the New Testament every morning and Proverbs (the chapter for the date of the month) with his wife every evening. On his own, he started keeping a “Jesus book” as he calls it. It’s a little notebook he records insights he gains from his daily reading about living for Jesus.
Not long after his conversion, he asked, “When can I start telling people I am a Christian?” Oh, that every believer was asking that question! I told him, “Today, just tell your friends and family what’s happened to you.” He has been, with good results. Last month, he called and said, “My dad is homebound and in poor health. He is asking me questions about God. Do you know a pastor in his area who could go talk with him?” I did and the pastor has now met with his father twice. My friend is now praying for his father’s salvation.
Technology has made “discipleship by text” a new method I am using with my friend. He texts me questions and I shoot him back short answers. It is challenging to drop the blah, blah, blah preachers are famous for and text direct answers. I am enjoying it and he seems to be soaking it up. Discipleship by text – the next new thing?
What makes this kind of life change happen? Not methods – not even new ones. Two things produce real change – conversion to Jesus Christ and obedience to the Word of God. New birth creates an infant, but the milk and meat of Scripture matures a person. The gospel and its application are transformative. Nothing else really changes people.
Evaluate your ministry methods, strategies, and practices in light of this conviction. Too many Christians are content to be nice, do good things, lend a helping hand, or otherwise make the world a little better place. Don’t miss the opportunity for real change. Share the gospel! Guide people to encounter and apply the Bible! When you do, supernatural results always happen.
Dec 05 2011
While browsing an airport newsstand, an interesting juxtaposition leaped off the magazine racks. The cover of Newsweek was a silhouetted women with this quote superimposed, “I lost two marriages and a job. I ended up homeless. I was totally out of control.” The lead story is called “The Sex Addiction Epidemic.” Newsflash! Sexual expression in American culture is perverted, destructive, and creating havoc with relationships, family structures, and community quality of life. If that’s news, you must have been in a coma the past 50 years. It’s so bad, perverted behavior is now called an “addiction.”
What caught my eye, more than just the Newsweek magazine, was its placement on the sales rack. It was next to Maxim magazine – a perfect companion to prove the point of the Newsweek article. Sitting side by side, two magazines – one promoting, one decrying the moral chaos that our culture’s warped view of sexuality has produced.
God invented human sexuality and called it a good part of his creation. Sexuality is not sinful, but sin’s entrance on the global stage messed up everything God made – including sex. As Christians, we have a responsibility to resist sin’s temptations and live out God’s healthy design for sexual expression. It’s not easy. Going against the grain – spiritually and culturally – never is. Nevertheless, we are still responsible to do so.
The church, as it upholds God’s standards, is an oasis of moral sanity in a desert of sexual depravity. We teach God’s plan, help hurting people recover when they have violated God’s standards, and restore lives broken by ignorance of and rebellion against God’s best. My prediction: in the future, we will be more marginalized because of our stand on sexual issues, but also quietly appreciated by those restored by the message and ministry of the church.
In the end, God’s standards – no matter how countercultural are spiritually difficult to uphold – are always the best. May God give us the grace to stand for God’s best, while also helping hurting people recover from the damage their poor choices, based on the misinformation they have believed, have produced.
A friend of mine committed himself to Jesus as his Lord and Savior a few weeks ago. I was part of the process, helping him along the way in his decision. I felt like a midwife – in the room trying to help but really only catching the baby when new birth happened! It was an amazing moment, watching a person’s inner transformation happen before my eyes.
Because I’m a seminary president, people ask me all sorts of complicated theological questions (assuming I have the answers, or at least I want to argue the points). My practical bent (remember, I’m really a displaced church planter masquerading as a seminary president), always tilts my answers toward how theological complexity works itself out in the crucible of doing ministry with everyday people.
Consider the doctrine of salvation. When my friend was ready to become a Christian, the grace of God was evident. Repentance and faith were in the mix. He was definitely deciding to change, but larger forces were shaping him toward his decision. Looking back, all of that can be analyzed. In the moment, none of it mattered to my friend. He had never really considered those theological categories. After a long process, he had simply come to the end of himself and wanted Jesus to take over his life. Submission to Lordship, experiencing grace, repentance from sin, faith in God – all of it was happening all at once as my friend became a follower of Jesus.
Theology is important – very important. But one measure of how well you understand theological concepts is your ability to explain them to everyday people. Is your theology – no matter how pristine it is in the ivory tower – communicable to shift workers, the woman who served your lunch, the high school dropout raising two kids, or the urban professional who has never read a Bible? In short, can you communicate your theology to everyday people with no theological training in such a way they experience God? If not, your theological training was inadequate. The professionals may get it, but the people who need it don’t understand what you are talking about!
May God give us, especially those of us who work hard at teaching theology, the humility to remember this: the end of theological pursuit is changed lives, not polished papers earning good grades from the academy.
Sep 19 2011
Christian Smith, professor of sociology at Notre Dame, has once again provided an outstanding resource for those of us trying to understand and influence emerging adults. In his new book, Lost in Transition, he reports the results of a national survey and targeted interviews to describe adults ages 18-23. Beyond simply describing behaviors, however, he reveals the cultural, social, and intellectual factors creating the milieu in which young adults make their choices. His work is insightful and its presentation defies stereotypes of boring, esoteric academic writing.
Smith reports his findings in five key areas: absence of moral reasoning, captivity to consumerism, habitual intoxication, sexual practices, and civic disengagement. If that sounds like a negative perspective, it is. While Smith maintains there are many positive aspects of this emerging generation, his work focuses on the dark side of their generational choices. And, unfortunately, there’s much on the shadowy underside that is troubling.
One unique perspective in the book is its attempt to understand how this particular generation has been socialized toward destructive behaviors (in the categories summarized above). While every person is responsible for their choices, all of us recognize it is more difficult to make those choices when cultural mores enforce unhealthy choices. Smith does a good job calling for cultural changes to support healthier lifestyle choices, while not blaming culture for individual choices (no matter how difficult those choices may be).
The chapter on habitual intoxication was very helpful for me. The pervasive drinking and casual drug use among young adults is hard for me understand. It is so destructive. Without considering any spiritual or moral aspects of the matter, it seems any reasonable person would avoid using intoxicants. But not so! Instead, drinking and drugging is now a rite of passage, a mark of adulthood, and a necessary lubricant for social interaction. Smith’s research helps me understand how this has happened and how to help young adults grapple with these issues.
But even more troubling was the chapter on young adult’s inability to think morally about lifestyle choices. Smith’s key insight is not that young adults think differently about moral choices than persons in other generations. His revealing insight is they lack the capacity to think morally. They simply have not been taught how to think through moral choices. This is particularly important for preachers. We often assume people have categories of reasoning in place to process the material present. That is not the case with many emerging adults. Their primary moral determinant is whatever seems right to them. They have not been trained to think beyond that category and consider universal dimensions of moral problems.
This helpful book is must reading for anyone who wants to influence younger adults. We have work to do. Professor Smith will help us do it more effectively.
Christians please an audience of One
Why Christians Compete - Part II
Sep 12 2011
. Athletes perform in front of people. Whether it’s a small crowd of family and friends or a major event with an international television audience, you do what you do in front of people. Trying to please them is an exercise in futility. You will never satisfy the crowd.
A striking example of the fickle nature of a crowd happened to some missionaries in the Bible (Acts 14:11-20). When the preachers performed a miracle, they were acclaimed as gods and the crowd tried to offer animal sacrifices to them. Very shortly, however, the same mob stoned them, dragged them out of town, and left them for dead. People can turn on you quickly. Drawing your competitive drive from what others say or write about you is a fool’s errand. One day, people may almost worship you – chanting your name and acclaiming their allegiance. The next, they will be calling for your head.
Some athletes solve this problem by insulating themselves from public opinion and playing for themselves. Self-focus, and selfishness that inevitably results, is not the answer. Christian athletes recognize both the instability of human nature and the futility of selfish living. They discipline themselves to play for an audience of One.
The Bible warns against giving too much credence to what people think (1 Cor. 4:3-4). It reminds you “it is the Lord who judges…” as your ultimate Evaluator (1 Cor. 4:4). You are challenged to bring glory to God in every activity – including sports (1 Cor. 10:31). Playing for an audience of One is a spiritual discipline. It motivates you to ask, “What does the Lord think of my preparation, effort, and attitude?” It rejects the temptation to soar too high on the wings of praise or fall too low when critics attack. Playing for an audience of One limits people-pleasing, takes you off the see-saw of human expectations, and rivets your attention on the North Star of the Lord’s always reasonable, never changing expectations.
Christians meet the needs of others
. Most athletes compete in a team context (even a golfer has a caddy!). That means other people are depending on you. One of the reasons you must compete at the highest level is other people are counting on you. While true at all levels, in professional sports this means teammates trust you with their livelihood.
Jesus said, “No one has greater love that this, that someone would lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). He added, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). Jesus also said, “The greatest among you will be your servant” (Matt. 23:13). Jesus taught love for people, and demonstrating that love through service, as a primary Christian responsibility.
How does this work among athletes? Show up every day, do your job with everything you have, and sacrifice yourself to make your teammates successful. Check your ego at the door and focus on helping other people achieve their goals. Make team goals your primary goals.
There is nothing that undermines respect among athletes like failure to prepare and give maximum effort. Players forgive in-game mistakes made by well-prepared, motivated teammates. They are not forgiving, nor should they be, of shoddy preparation and effort. Those players should be confronted and disciplined. Make sure you aren’t in that group!
When you fail to compete, to maximize your effort and opportunity, you are letting your teammates down and limiting your witness of the gospel to them. Don’t show up unprepared, give a half-effort, and then expect to be heard when you share the gospel or otherwise talk about Jesus. You will embarrass yourself, and worse, the Lord and the gospel. As a Christian athlete, you show love by competing on behalf of the teammates God allows you to influence.
Christian athletes compete
. They should be models of intensity, maximizing their abilities and opportunities for the good of others. They focus on thorough preparation and intense effort, not outcomes. They perform for the Lord, their primary Audience and Evaluator. They compete to honor God - not devalue, defeat, or destroy an opponent.
Becoming a Christian doesn’t make you soft. It frees you from selfish motives and cheap excuses, from laziness and lack of focus. Christian athletes compete. If you are one, get after it!
Golf is not my game. I wish it were. I really like playing golf, or should I say “trying to play golf.” I’m not sure what I do is really playing golf – more like playing at golf. My sons are both good golfers, and are happier people when they are moving. So when one or both of them come home or we rendezvous somewhere, we almost always play golf. Last week was one of those special times.
As we walked to the first tee, I thought, “Well, this will be interesting.” I had not played since the last time my sons were home – about a year ago. Soon it was my turn to tee off, with our foursome, the starter, and a few other onlookers all watching. Many golfers will tell you the first shot, with an audience, is the hardest shot of the day.
With driver in hand, I stood over the ball and thought, “Here we go!” And go it did! Right down the middle of the fairway, past the shots of the other players, in perfect position for a short iron to the green. As we headed down the fairway, I told my group, “That’s the best shot I will hit all day. Too bad it came so early in the round. From here on, it’s downhill all the way.”
But it wasn’t! Six of my first seven drives were just like the first one – or even better. I was crushing the ball, straight as a string and longer than my fellow players on almost every hole. It was an awesome feeling. Hitting the sweet spot on a titanium driver feels sooooo good. Oh, how I wish I could do it every time! Eventually, as fatigue set it on the back nine my usual “pray, spray, and hope to play” method returned. But for a while, I was on top of the golfing world – hitting it straight and long. Sweet!
One of our faculty members talks often about finding your ministry “sweet spot.” He challenges students to find their unique role in ministry and then sacrifice themselves fulfilling it. For me, it took a while to really find my niche. Organizational leadership, and training other leaders, emerged from my early experiences of pastoral and church planting ministry. It was a process. It took a while. But now my kingdom assignment is clear.
My personal mission, my sweet spot, is providing visionary leadership to Golden Gate Seminary and shaping leaders through teaching, preaching, and writing. When I do these things, God enables effectiveness that astounds me. When I venture into other areas, frustration always results. You might wonder, “Why then, do you drift into other activities?” Several reasons – ego, pride, insecurity (which keeps me from saying “no” and disappointing people), and arrogance (which makes me think I can do everything well), and competition (trying to do things as well as other gifted people). Ouch! Writing that was painful – but true.
What is your ministry sweet spot? Have you found it yet? If not, keep looking. There is a unique role – something you do well, find fulfilling, and are supernaturally effective when you do it – that is just the assignment for you. Don’t worry about how glamorous it is, how remunerative it may or may not be, or how many people will notice. Just find the niche where you can make a difference – as a preschool teacher, maintenance worker, volunteer coordinator, parking lot usher, preacher, teacher, or counselor. Find your sweet spot – and then lose your life in sacrificial service to God and others.
I Sprout Bible
Aug 15 2011
Despite the roller-coaster like stock market which makes retirement so unpredictable, a few of us were discussing it last week. We talked about places we would like to live, hobbies we would like to start, and how much we will enjoy setting our own schedule. We also talked about the kinds of work we will do in retirement – essentially all the aspects of our current jobs we like without the parts we don’t.
One of the men in the conversation is a faculty member at Golden Gate. After listening to our jabbering, he said, “Well, it really won’t matter where I live or what I plan to do. Wherever I’m planted, I know I’ll sprout Bible.” God made him to teach – and that’s what he will do. He shared his conclusion with a kind of happy, resigned, matter-of-fact shrug of the shoulders. He knows, no matter what, wherever God places him – teaching the Bible will emerge as naturally as a seed sprouting a plant.
It’s good to work with people like my friend. His life is consumed with biblical truth – learning it, applying it, and sharing it with others. He has been doing it for so long it is an engrained habit, a life-long pursuit that won’t stop when the paycheck does. He can no more stop teaching than an apple tree can stop popping out Fujis. He was born to teach, is trained to teach, and will teach until he is no longer physically able. It’s what he was born – and born again – to do.
One of our retired faculty members personifies this. He retired from Golden Gate, and then took on a significant teaching load in our prison program at San Quentin. He is planted in prison, so he sprouts Bible. The inmates love him, the work fulfills him, and the fruit of his labors is significant.
Working with people who are passionately consumed with fulfilling their calling – in this case to teach – is a pleasure. But it makes me think. Wherever I’m planted, what sprouts? For me, the best answer is probably leadership. Whether I’m at seminary, on a community board, or serving on a denominational committee – my first thought is always, “How can we get more done, more effectively, with more people involved, while maximizing available resources?” Leading sprouts out of me like teaching does my faculty friends.
What about you? What do you sprout? If you can answer that, you have identified not only your passion, but the reason God made you and your best contribution to kingdom work. Knowing this about yourself will enable you to fulfill God’s purpose and find your most satisfying role in his kingdom.
Don’t over-think the problem! What you are good at, what gives you the most satisfaction when you do it, what other people compliment you for doing, or what you would pay others to let you do – that’s your passion. Find it, celebrate it, do it!
More than 30 years ago, a mentor gave me this advice for success in pastoral ministry. He said, “Build your ministry on the Word of God and around men.” Some might react to that statement, claiming sexism, or in some other way diminish the focus of his counsel.
But his advice worked well for me as a pastor. A primary focus for me was building men who would assume leadership roles in my church. This doesn’t mean I didn’t also train women for leadership roles. Throughout my ministry, women have had prominent roles in the churches and organizations I have led. But, as a pastor, I gave focused attention to training men. Why?
My experience, proved over and over, was strong men provided stability, strength of character, and models of service that motivated men, women, teenagers, and children to greater commitment. Strong, committed men gave our church leadership in evangelism, missions, and discipleship ministries. Women, of course, joined them in leading in all these areas. Again, this column isn’t about diminishing the role of women. It is about the pastoral discipline of building men into leaders and the impact this has on the total church membership.
This past weekend, it was my privilege to speak at a men’s retreat for a local church. It was an invigorating, positive reminder to me of the power of committed men in a church. These were regular guys – husbands, fathers, single guys; professionals, retired men, and blue collar workers; all ages and all incomes levels. Their fellowship, transparency, love for one another, and humility as men seeking God was refreshing. It made me want to be part of their church!
When you have a group of men with a passion for Jesus Christ and his church, powerful things happen! As a church planter, I asked God for 12 guys who would stand with me to build the new church. At our first men’s retreat, in our first year, I shared that prayer and emphasized how important the men were to our ultimate success. I didn’t realize there were exactly 12 of us on the retreat! One man, a very new believer, silently counted around the circle of men ending with him. Then he iinterrupted my teaching time and blurted out, “Hey, I’m number 12!”
His interjection caught us all of guard. Then we realized how powerful his observation was and what an answer to prayer God had provided. One reason our new church developed quickly to viability was these laymen who gave their time, energy, money, and expertise in various areas.
Dr. Jim Henry, pastor emeritus of First Baptist Church, Orlando, Florida is a model pastor in every regard. For more than 30 years, he met almost every Friday morning with a group of men for discipleship, leadership development, and spiritual encouragement. He has told me on several occasions he traces much of God’s blessing on his ministry to this disciplined commitment to build men into leaders who could expand the ministry of his church. That is a good testimony of the point I am trying to make in this column.
So, pastor, build men. Rather than complain about the lack of strong, committed male leaders in your church – go to work building some. This is not a quick-fix for your current church crisis. It is, instead, a long-term strategy for church health and growth.
The Warren Forum
Aug 18 2008
Rick Warren, pastor at Saddleback Church, recently hosted a Civil Forum with Barack Obama and John McCain. The forum was Warren’s attempt to have a conversation with the two candidates without the vitriolic rhetoric often found in a presidential campaign. Warren hoped, and seemed largely successful, that having this event in a church with a pastor-moderator would establish a dialogical tone for frank conversation.
After watching the presentations, my decision about how to vote in the upcoming election became even clearer. Our denomination encourages people to “vote their values.” That’s what I try to do. The question, then, is what are the key values I plan to vote?
Some criticize religious leaders like me for forcing biblical values into the public arena. So, rather than draw my conclusions from a religious document, I am willing to draw them from a secular one. My points are adequately made by three important values in a distinctly secular document – The Declaration of Independence. For me, in this election the key values are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
I will vote for life. I will vote for the candidate who will reduce abortion. Abortion is not a right. It is a permitted medical procedure. The American Holocaust is a national shame. I want a president who will propose laws to limit abortion and appoint Supreme Court justices to uphold those laws after they are enacted. I also want a president who will speak with moral authority about sexual fidelity and support programs that help prevent unwanted pregnancy. I will vote for life.
I will also vote for liberty. The war on terror (not limited to the war in Iraq) is the greatest external threat to our liberty. I will vote for a president who understands warfare in the 21st century against a new kind of enemy is fundamentally different than past wars. I will vote for a president who works internationally to build a coalition to restrain evil – one of the biblical roles of government. Our greatest internal threat to liberty is our greed, which makes us dependent on other nations (energy, national debt, and trade deficits). Sound national fiscal policy is central to national defense. I will vote for liberty.
And finally, I will vote for the candidate who promises to help me pursue happiness, not the one promises to make me happy. This is, perhaps, the greatest misunderstanding of our “rights” as Americans. We have come to believe we have a right for the government to make us happy. We were not promised that right. We have the right to “the pursuit of happiness” which is a fundamentally different issue. When a candidate encourages personal responsibility, corporate accountability, and community initiative – I’m in! When he promises to take care of me – I’m out.
So, join me in voting for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Funny, but not really
Aug 04 2008
is, as one critic wrote, “The best time you will have at the movies this year.” Seeing it is a rollicking good time. The audience we saw it with sang along with some of the songs and roared with laughter at both the dialogue and the visual humor. Set in Greece, the scenery and costumes are beautiful. The casting and the performances make the characters memorable.
So, despite all this, why did I leave the theater with a hollow feeling?
The movie’s premise is just too sad to be overcome with happy singing and snappy dialogue. The premise is simple – Donna has sex with three men in three weeks and one of them sires her daughter, Sophie. Twenty years later, Sophie steals her mother’s diary in an attempt to find out the truth about her heritage and discovers her ambiguous parentage. So, she poses as her mother and invites all three men to her wedding. The movie’s humor emerges as all these characters discover what Sophie has done and work out this complicated situation.
But what is missing is any acknowledgement of the high price Sophie has paid for her mother’s promiscuity. And, further, any sense of remorse (much less repentance) by Donna for her behavior and the emotional toll it has taken on her daughter. At one point, Donna laments about that summer, “I was such a slut.” But her friends respond with, “You sound like your mother” and laugh off her near-confession.
The movie, like many others these days, has a subplot about a happy gay couple and a “happy” ending as Sophie decides to emulate her mother’s behavior by touring the world with her fiancé. It is hard to imagine, given the tone of the movie, they would be booking separate rooms on their around the world tour.
People like me are considered out-of-touch prudes by many people – particularly media, educational, and governmental leaders who advocate freedom of choice without any moral authority guiding human behavior. Yet, most of the ugliest situations I have encountered in ministry have been the results of immoral behavior. Rather than happily ever after, too many people like those in this movie have sat in my office and sobbed out the pain of past choices. So, despite my out-of-touch convictions, my love for people and desire for them to experience the best life possible mandates I stand up for the sexual standards in the Bible.
God wants the best for us. Real freedom is the absence of anxiety found by living in submission to God’s standards, not basing our behavior on hormonal urges or emotional surges. Those of us who really believe this are an ever-shrinking minority - the last people left advocating moral sanity in a continually disintegrating culture.