Despite the pessimistic headlines announcing that the family is an endangered species, I refuse to sigh and give up hope. Who says “endangered” means doomed? If we’re ingenious enough to preserve the bison, the whooping crane, and the humpbacked whale, I’m convinced we can preserve the family. The “want to” is certainly there with a lot of us—especially us preachers.
Professor Nick Stinnett launched a fascinating study some years ago. All sorts of questions were asked to families from many backgrounds, cultures, and countries. His research represented a wide swath of the families of humanity. The goal? Very simply, to discover what makes families strong.
Dr. Stinnett writes of his findings:
All together, we studied 3,000 families and collected a lot of information. But when we analyzed it all, we found six main qualities in strong families. Strong families:
- are committed to the family,
- spend time together,
- have good family communication,
- express appreciation to each other,
- share a spiritual commitment,
- are able to solve problems in a crisis.
Look back over that list. There is enough there to fill out your preaching calendar for the rest of the year! When I first came across this information, I used it not only as the basis for a miniseries of pulpit messages on the family, but I also posted that list in my home. It became the topic of numerous conversations among the Swindoll tribe! I would suggest you try the same experiment with your family.
Then preach it.
I want to ask you four questions that only you can answer:
- Do you give the people in your congregation the freedom to be who they are?
- Do you let others go, or do you smother them and control them?
- Are you cultivating spontaneous, creative, celebrants—or fearful captives?
- Do you encourage, build up, and affirm those to whom you minister?
These four questions really boil down to one:
Are you one who models and ministers grace?
It’s time to take off the gloves, rip off the masks, knock off the rationalizations, and face the truth head-on.
Is the ministry you’re leading the result of your own flesh, energized by your own gifts and strengths? Are you relying on your charisma to pull it off? Do you often have a hidden agenda?
How about your motive? With a captive audience hanging on to your words and following your ministry (and your Tweets) with unquestioned loyalty, do you exploit them . . . do you use your power for your own purposes? Is the enhancement of your image of major importance to you, or can you honestly say that your work is directed and empowered by the Spirit of God?
Again, I ask you:
Are you one who models and ministers grace?
I spent the first ten years of my marriage trying to make Cynthia into me. I can’t think of many things worse on earth than a female Chuck. And I’ll be honest, it almost broke us apart. We didn’t separate though, because she stayed and stuck it out.
I’ll never forget when Cynthia said to me, “I don’t want you to keep telling people we’re ‘partners’ because we’re not partners. I bear your children and I cook your meals, and I clean the house, but I’m not a partner.” Then she added, “You’ve never accepted me for who I really am.” I said, “Yes, I have.” She said, “No you haven’t.” I said, “YES, I have.” She said, “NO, you haven’t!” And I got louder and she got louder, and she finally walks away in tears. And I was left with the dishes. While doing those dishes I thought, She’s right.
We began a process that took four years to break that habit in me. It involved some serious counseling that we both sought . . . and it was very helpful. It just about wiped me out, though, realizing how true her criticism was. I did very little encouraging back then. I had picked the people I liked, and those were the ones I spent time with. The others I just used.
It was years later at a gathering with some friends from our radio program that someone asked Cynthia, “Why don’t you say some things about the broadcast?” She walked up and said, “The best part about this is that Chuck and I are in this as partners.” In that wonderful moment her statement brought a knot in my throat. She hadn’t said that word, since she had said it to me on that cold kitchen floor many years before. I finally came to realize the importance of accepting my wife.
I often remember Peter’s words to us as husbands, and how our lives at home affect our effectiveness as pastors. I’ve emphasized the result of obeying Peter’s words: “Live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered” (1 Peter 3:7).
She has a different temperament than you and a different way of thinking. Most wives do, you know; that’s why the marriage works. I invite you to make a serious study of the fourteenth chapter of Romans. It sets forth an absence of legalism. It underscores the enjoyment of freedom, the appreciation of diversity, a non-controlling lifestyle. It’s all about accepting people as they are . . . and it also applies at home.
I’ve often found it easier to be more accepting and encouraging of the people in our congregation than my own wife. Maybe it’s the same for you too.
“So then let us pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another” (Romans 14:19).
Let me apply this verse by paraphrasing it this way: Pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of your children rather than creating division by tearing them down with criticism.
Are you tearing down your kids with your words? The desire for them to be strong, well-mannered, and successful children can be a strong one. In fact, too strong. You may be focused only on fixing what’s wrong, usually by pointing it out. And if we’re brutally honest with ourselves, what’s wrong is they are not meeting our expectations for what we think they should be. You played sports, so your boy should. You were Phi Beta Kappa; therefore, your child should be. You had a vibrant social life, so your daughter should. You’re musical, so your son should be, too. You’re in the ministry, so . . . (you finish the sentence).
Perhaps you have one child who’s a natural with the baseball, which pleases you because you love baseball. You share evenings together playing catch in the backyard. Then along comes another. He can’t catch, he can’t throw, and he wants to go back inside to read or listen to music. The temptation is to favor the child who is most like you and subject the one who isn’t to negative comparisons. But neither favoritism nor holding one sibling out as an example for the others will alter what God ordained for each child. (Remember Jacob’s favoritism of Joseph? Talk about dysfunction!)
Some kids love sports. Some are a whiz with puzzles and math. Some are messy and artistic and messy (they go together)! Some are structured and meticulous organizers. Some are dedicated students, while others barely squeeze by academically. Why? Because God made them that way. But if we’re not careful, we’ll see their God-ordained interests and temperaments as flaws to be fixed. We might even go so far as to make their differences rebellious issues to be disciplined, rather than hidden strengths to be developed.
Allow me to repeat my opening principle: Pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of your children rather than creating division by tearing them down with criticism.
How’s life in your home? Are you a builder?
From the beginning, the idea of true servanthood has been a bit of a paradox.
Jesus phrased it well:
“For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves?” (Luke 22:27).
Naturally, His disciples would say, the lesser should serve the greater. All of life proves that. Those with no clout should do the dirty work for those who have the power. Right?
But Jesus, their Lord and Master, turned the tables on them, by saying: “But I am among you as the one who serves” (22:27). How can this be? Does the master serve the servants? Does the leader serve the one being led?
Ours is a day of superficiality. That’s true . . . even for pastors. If we can fake it, we’re often admired as being clever and creative, not criticized for being shallow and phony.
Mediocrity can mark many of those in ministry just as overtly as it marks many of those who work for the government and are employed in the corporate world. I’ve also noticed that staying longer in the same place often perpetuates the problem. People tend to let seniority excuse the absence of excellence.
The ministry, unfortunately, is no exception. People trust us to be diligent, to stay spiritually sensitive; to do our homework; to think deeply; to remain fresh, innovative, and excited about our calling; and to be pure in motive.
But the painful truth is that we ministers can be lazy, indifferent, perfunctory, controlling, and mean-spirited. We are not above predictability or plagiarism, especially if we’ve not managed our time well. I know of few professions where envy can be more prominent and where pride can be more manipulative.
It’s easy to learn how to hide those ugly faces behind pious masks. The “flesh” of the clergy is no better than the “flesh” of the criminal. We’re all depraved. The difference is that we’re better at cover-up.
There are five promises I believe every pastor should make. I’ve worded them in first person, because they are promises I have made as well.
- I promise to maintain a heart for God. That means I will pray frequently and fervently. I will stay devoted to Christ and to my calling. I won’t talk about doing those things . . . I’ll simply do them.
- I promise to stay faithful to my family. My wife deserves my time, affection, and occasionally my undivided attention. Our children and grandchildren, the same. I won’t forget this fact, no matter what.
- I promise to keep doing original and hard work in my study. No hectic schedule will rob my congregation of a strong pulpit. The flock deserves the best of my efforts.
- I promise to remain accountable. Living the life of a religious Lone Ranger is not only unbiblical, it’s dangerous. If my flock needs to ask me a hard question, they needn’t hold back.
- I promise to be who I am. Just me. No amount of public exposure will turn my head. If I start acting sophisticated, I hope someone reminds me how disgusting it looks, how ridiculous shepherds appear when they start using a lot of polysyllabic words, trying to strut their stuff. I plan to keep laughing, hanging out with people who aren’t impressed with me, and remaining authentic.
If you haven’t already, I urge you to make these promises . . . today.
Here is the apostle Paul’s version of the Christmas story:
But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. (Galatians 4:4–5)
Without realizing it, mighty Augustus was only an errand boy for the commencement of “the fullness of time.” He was a pawn in the hand of God . . . a mere piece of lint on the pages of prophecy. While Rome was busy making history, God arrived. He pitched His fleshly tent in silence on straw . . . in a stable . . . under a star. The world didn’t even notice. Reeling from the wake of Alexander the Great . . . Herod the Great . . . and Augustus the Great, the world overlooked Jesus the baby.
It still does.
As they were in Jesus’s day, so our times are desperate. Moreover, they often are a distraction from the bigger picture. Just as the political, economical, and spiritual crises of the first century set the stage for the “fullness of time” to occur . . . so today, in our own savage times, our God is weaving His sovereign tapestry to accomplish His divine will. Times are hard, indeed—but they never surprise God. He is still sovereign. He is still on the throne. As the psalmist reminds us: “Our God is in the heavens; / He does whatever He pleases” (Psalm 115:3).
In my 50 years of ministry, I have never been more committed than I am today to pointing our generation to the Word of God. It remains the single most accurate source of strength and divine direction during these difficult days. I urge you as pastors and leaders in ministry to recommit yourselves to consistent exposition combined with practical teaching from the Scriptures. With the same urgency, I exhort you—wherever God has placed you—to live out the truth of God’s Word before your family and neighbors through evangelism, Bible study, and memorization of God’s Word.
Feeling anxious about these difficult days? I understand, and Jesus does too. Times were no different when Jesus was born. Because so many lives have been turned upside down this year for one reason or another, I encourage you to do more than preach it again this year. I also urge you to reflect—just as Mary did—on what God is doing in your life. Christmas is a good time to ask ourselves this question: Will I focus on Jesus as the center of my life and cling to Him regardless of the circumstances I face? That’s not for you to preach. That’s for you to ponder.
Political corruption . . . religious compromise . . . economic crises—these will always be front-page news. But we must remember that our God is on the throne. He promises to use our desperate times to accomplish His bigger and better purposes in our world . . . and in our lives.
My love affair with Thanksgiving takes me all the way back to my boyhood days. I had just turned 10 years of age and was in fifth grade at Southmayd Elementary School in East Houston.
(Image from Unsplash)
As I recall, I was still going barefoot to school—and I combed my hair, maybe three times a week. Girls didn’t matter a lot to me when I was 10! It was on a Wednesday, the day before our Thanksgiving holidays began.
The year was 1944. Our nation was at war across the Atlantic into Europe as well as in the Pacific and far beyond.
Times were simple back then but they were also rugged. Everything was rationed. Framed stars hung proudly in neighborhood windows—and sometimes they were quietly changed to crosses.
Everyone I knew was patriotic to the core. Without television, we relied on “newsreels” that were shown at the movies, bold newspaper headlines, and LIFE magazine, which carried photos and moving stories of courage in battle and deaths at sea. Signs were posted inside most stores and on street corners, all of them with the same four words:
I want God’s best for you, my friend. But I’ll be honest, I fear for you.
Why? You are gifted. You have the ears of your congregation. They hang on your words. They love and trust you. So what’s the problem? One of the most vulnerable times in your ministry is a season of success.
In a chapel service at Dallas Theological Seminary, I spoke on how to counteract the perils of achievement in ministry—especially early achievement. It’s straight talk that just might be exactly what you need to hear. Today. At this very moment.
So may I request of you? Give me the next half hour and allow me to share with you through this video how you can truly succeed in ministry.
In our vastly populated, impersonal world, it is easy to underestimate the significance of one. With so many people, most of whom seem so much more capable, more gifted, more prosperous, more important than we, who are we to think our part amounts to much? I’m just one person, who cannot make much difference.
That’s the way most folks think. They really do!
Aren’t you glad Patrick Henry didn’t? And Henry Ford? And Martin Luther King, Jr.? And Walt Disney? And Martin Luther? And Winston Churchill? And Jackie Robinson? And Irving Berlin? And Abraham Lincoln? And Charles Wesley? And Dwight L. Moody? And Corrie ten Boom?
“But it’s a different world today,” you say. Back then, there was room for an individual to emerge and stand out in a crowd, but now, there’s no way!”
Wrong. God has always underscored individual involvement . . . still does.
- How many did it take to help the victim who got mugged on the Jericho Road? One Good Samaritan.
- How many were chosen by God to confront Pharaoh and lead the Exodus? One.
- How many sheep got lost and became the object of concern to the shepherd? One.
- How many were needed to confront adulterous David and bring him to his knees in full repentance? One.
- How many prophets were called to stand before wicked King Ahab and predict a drought? One.
- How many did the Lord use to get the attention of the land of Israel and prepare the way for Messiah? One.
Never underestimate the power of one! And that one just may be you.