I’m one of those guys that’s too proud to admit that he needs to hear encouraging words from time to time. But you know what? Kind and encouraging words are like life and light to my soul. They change my attitude and outlook. They are like a cool breeze washing out the deep humidity of the day.

Life-giving leaders know how to encourage others. They speak life into the hearts of those around them. They add courage, strength, and confidence to their souls. Encouraging words lighten our heavy loads, and life-giving leaders have a knack for identifying and alleviating the over-burdened.

Some people (not me) are just naturally encouraging. They are perfectly content to sit and talk with you about you! They don’t try to turn the conversation back to themselves. They don’t try to talk business. Their encouragement is not awkward or forced. Building others up is just a natural part of who they are.

But, for the rest of us, encouragement can be difficult. It’s hard enough to take a compliment, much less receive one. We don’t know how the other person will react. Will they be embarrassed? Will they think we’re dumb? Will there be an awkward pause in the conversation and you’ll have no natural way out? Of course these are all ridiculous reasons, but they betray our own deeply-rooted insecurities, which is what really keeps us from being an encourager.

Unlike power, encouragement is infinite. When you give it away, you don’t lose anything within yourself. You can’t lose anything when you speak a kind and uplifting word to someone. Those words are free…and invaluable. Your people need to be built up. They need to be edified, encouraged, and lifted up. Sometimes they toil in deeply humid environments, and all they’re waiting for is a breath of fresh air.

You can be an encourager by simply speaking those fleeting thoughts that pass through your mind. I try to do this with my wife. So many times I look at her and have a brief thought of, “Wow, she looks great.” And that’s all well and good, but it doesn’t mean a thing to her if I don’t say it. If you’re in a meeting, and someone has a good insight, tell them. If worship was particularly engaging, tell everyone on the music team how much it meant to you. Whatever the circumstance, never let an opportunity to encourage others pass you by.

And be sure to look out for those who are discouraged. Remember that God is particularly close to those who are downcast and broken-hearted. You be close to them, too. Ask the Spirit to give you words of life and light to speak into their death and darkness. And, of course, don’t try to fix anybody. Just use your words to add courage, strength, confidence, light and life to their souls.

In my last post I wrote about how trusting others is foundational for being the kind of leader who gives life to those who serve with him. Right alongside of trust, and even flowing directly from it, stands empowerment, which I believe is crucial to being a life-giving leader. You’ve got to empower the people who serve on your team to make real decisions.

Empowering people to make important decisions about a ministry is the surest way for them to take ownership of that ministry. In other words, when you empower, they invest. A group of invested servants (those who are not vocationally accountable for the ministry) is the only way to take your ministry to the next level of excellence and effectiveness. You can’t do it alone. You need others to maximize God’s vision for your ministry, and the best way to get them fully on board is to empower them.

When you empower someone on your team, you are also helping them to foster a mindset that they are doing this ministry for God and the church, not for you. When you hold all the power–when you control and demand–you ensure that the attitude of your team is one of service to you and your expectations. But when you let go of power, you remove yourself from that high and lofty place between the team and God. You become one of the group, and so the attitude can truly be fostered that this ministry is a service to God and the church.

Empowering others goes a long way toward breathing life into their souls. It tells them, “You are a human being. You are not just a part of some ministry machine. You are not just a cog in the wheel. You have value. You have worth. You have insight. You have good ideas. You are capable.” Why do you think bureaucracy and red-tape are soul-killing? Because they are disempowering. They say, “We don’t trust you. You need us to help you make this decision.”

Think about the Ascension of Christ. What did he do to the eleven disciples at that moment? He empowered them. (This empowerment was later fulfilled at Pentecost, when the power of the Holy Spirit came upon them.) In fact, one of the major streams of his ministry was the empowerment of his closest companions.

What are some ways that you can give others real power? What are some decisions you can let go of and hand off to someone else on the team? If you’re in a position to hire others, are you giving them the autonomy they need to make their ministries successful? Are you letting your experts be the expert, or are you insisting on your own opinion? Are you micromanaging your team, or setting them free to take flight?

Empowerment is a scary thing because power is finite. When you give some away, that means you don’t have it any more. But when you give others real power to make decisions, what you see come to fruition in their lives is of eternal value. You will see their hearts come alive, and I dare say that Hell quakes at the thought of a church full of those whose hearts have come alive.

What kind of leader are you? Perhaps the best way to understand your own leadership style and capacity is to look at those who are following you. What do you see in their eyes? Are their hearts coming alive, or is the life being sucked out of them? If you run a ministry at church, are your volunteers passionate and enthusiastic? When a ministry cycle or initiative ends, are they already looking forward to the next one? Or are they hesitant about getting involved again? The primary indicator of the success of a ministry event or initiative is not how much money was raised, or meals cooked, or even people saved(!). The primary indicator of success is the condition of the hearts of those involved in making the event happen.

I believe there is a spectrum of leadership that runs from life-giving leaders on one end to death-dealing leaders on the other. Life-giving leaders die to themselves that others might live. A life-giving leader guards his tongue carefully. He empowers others. He trusts. He praises loudly and criticizes gently. Most of all, he dies to himself. A life-giving leader restrains himself and his need for validation through the success of the ministries and events in his charge. He instead gives others real power to succeed or fail–he trusts his people. He lets go of control.

 When tempted to change course midstream, a life-giving leader takes into consideration the work that has been done thus far, and consults with his team as one of them. In short, he puts others before himself.

Are you a life-giving leader? Do you fall on this side of the spectrum? I believe that this is the type of leadership Jesus had in mind when he said, “The greatest among you must be the servant of all.” Our job as church leaders is not to put on great events. Rather, it’s to see the hearts of those with whom we serve come alive.

So. How do you do that? It starts with trust. As a leader, you have got to trust your people. Notice I didn’t say “you’ve got to be able to trust your people.” That implies that your people must prove themselves trustworthy before you trust them. Not so in the kingdom. We trust first. The foundation must be trust, not results. Any ministry built on a foundation of results will soon crumble; but one built on a foundation of trust will weather any storm.

You’ve got to trust your people. And when they come through, and do so in ways that far exceeded your expectations, you trust them more. And when they fail, you work through it, but you still must trust them. (Granted that trust ebbs and flows with our own faithful- and faithlessness.) When you trust your people, and they know that you trust them, a remarkable thing happens. They trust you, and do so strongly! So you see how mutual trust among a ministry leader and his team forms a strong bond that will survive even the most difficult seasons. (This is also, I believe, how a pastor can have deep and lasting friendships with people in his congregation.)

How can you build this foundation of trust on your ministry team? When somebody has an idea that’s almost as good as yours, go with theirs. When someone is thinking out of the box, try to go there with them. Notice what they do well and casually bring it up in front of the whole team. Protect them from harsh criticism and unrealistic expectations, while at the same time push them to maximize their gifts and skills. Believe in them. Be their biggest fan.

Trust is the first lesson of being a life-giving leader. I hope that this helps you to be the kind of leader who sees the hearts of others come alive.

This is the sermon I preached the weekend Ezekiel was born. It’s called “They Like Jesus but not the Church”. With apologies to Dan Kimball…

This is another post from my work blog, related to a class I taught called “Understanding Scripture”.

What the Bible Is

The Bible, of course, is a book. Better yet, it is a collection of books. Better still, it is two collections of books that tell the story of God’s redemptive action in history. This book is far and away the number one best-seller of all time. You will find one in nearly every home in the Western Hemisphere. And where it is hard to find, those precious few copies are treated with the utmost care and sanctity.
But we know that the Bible is so much more than a book. It is special—unlike any other book that has ever been written. I propose that the Bible is, for those who have ears to hear and eyes to see, these six things.
The Bible is God’s revelation through the written word. It is God’s Word, and it is divine in that it comes to us from God. It is, certainly, not itself God. We do not worship the Bible. (Though some might claim that evangelicals believe the Holy Trinity consists of Father, Son and Holy Bible.) The Bible is subject to God, and he could change it if he chose to do so.
Because it is God’s Word, the Bible stands in authority over believers. We are subject to the Scriptures, compelled to understand them and obey them. Some insist that the Bible is just another voice at the table, on par with our own thoughts and words and experiences. But we maintain that the Bible contains the very words of God, and, as such, holds a place of such honor and esteem that we submit our words and thoughts and deeds to it.
The Bible is holy and sacred. We revere it and honor it. We worship through it because in it we find the words and thoughts of God.
It is alive and active. It speaks light into darkness and life into death. It gives us courage in our cowardice and humility in our pride. It chastens and trains us, building us up into Christlikeness through the power of the Spirit who illuminates it.
The Bible is also human. Its many books were written by human beings in specific spaces and times over a period of about 1500 years. The language of Scripture carries the personalities, quirks, circumstances and vocabulary of its human authors. “Historically the church has understood the nature of Scripture much the same as it has understood the person of Christ—the Bible is at the same time both human and divine. ‘The Bible,’ it has been correctly said, ‘is the Word of God given in human words in history.’” (Fee & Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 21)
The sixty-six books of the Bible were written to human beings in specific locations and circumstances. Every book was written for a very specific reason and addressed to very specific people. All of the Scriptures have an original, intended meaning for its very first audience.
The human authors of Scripture employed many different literary styles and genres in their writings: stories, parables, histories, covenants, laws, poems, proverbs, letters and apocalypses. Each literary genre carries its own rules for reading and interpretation. Laws and poems, for example, ought not to be read in the same way.
Leland Ryken observes that the Bible is literature because it is about human experience rather than abstract ideas. The Bible is neither a theological treatise nor a constitution of acceptable moral behavior. It is mostly a collection of stories about God and people. Through these stories, the Bible brings us present to the way the world really is. It does not paint an idealistic portrait of some unattainable utopia. Rather, it tells us how God has interacted in the dirty and bloody world in which we live.
The Bible is history from a very specific point of view—God’s. The Bible is chiefly concerned with telling the story of God’s redemptive action in human history. This is the lens through which the Bible views the world.
The Bible is theology because it tells us who God is by telling the story of the Creator’s interaction with his creation. The Bible develops its theology through the stories it tells about God and his people.
Our Book
The Bible, finally, is our book, and we are the people of the book. God has revealed to us all that we need to know about him through this book. He has graciously left us with a testimony of his words to mankind, and his Spirit to illuminate them to us. We are, therefore, stewards of the book, responsible to know its contents, and through it, to know him.
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