God’s Best Plan and Our Stumbling (lack of) Strategy

I’ve been in three pre-strategy meetings in the last two weeks. I have another before the actual strategy meeting this weekend. While I’m looking forward to next year (It’s December 2020.), it all seems a bit much.

A business strategy or even a personal plan is something we must hold loosely–something to keep us going in the right direction, not keep us on a single, exclusive track. Strategy rarely accounts for a pandemic…or personnel/family changes…or cultural shifts…or, perhaps most importantly, human error.

When I look back over Acts, it’s clear Paul’s strategy was not about where he would go or what he would do or how long he would stay. Did Paul even have a strategy? I don’t think so. Paul “hung his hat” on his mission statement and played everything else “fast and loose.”

Paul summed up his mission statement in Romans 15:

It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.  –Romans 15:20

Along the way, however, he made some mistakes…some things we can be sure were not part of the plan. But God used him anyway. In fact, God even used his mistakes—his non-strategic moves–to further the expansion of the Kingdom.

Paul Disagreed with his Partner (Acts 15: 36-41)

When Paul and Barnabas returned to First Church Antioch after the Jerusalem council, Judas and Silas (both prophets) accompanied them. “Some time later” (Acts 15:36), Paul wanted to visit all the places they had established groups of believers on their first journey. Barnabas thought they should give John Mark another chance to assist them even though he had left them early into the first journey. Paul absolutely refused.

They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Acts 15:39

How embarrassing! How unchristlike! As church leaders, how did their disagreement affect the church in Antioch? We don’t know, but it can’t have been good.

We would never build dissention into our annual strategy, but God used it. This division doubled the missionary force out of First Antioch (from two to four).

Paul Lost His Patience (Acts 16:16-24)

In Philippi, Paul’s group started a new church in Lydia’s house. There was a woman in town who had an evil spirit. She started following them every day, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved” (Acts 16:17). Seems like a good thing, doesn’t it: some free publicity? Well, it got on Paul’s nerves. One day, he “became so annoyed” (Acts 16:18) that he cast out the spirit.

  • He didn’t do it for God’s glory.
  • He didn’t do it because he wanted to free the woman.
  • He didn’t do it because he wanted to gain a hearing among the influential people in the city.

He lost his patience. As a result, Paul and Silas were stripped and beaten, thrown into prison, and put in stocks (Acts 16:22-23). (I hope Paul apologized to Silas while they were sitting there in prison.)

We would never advise losing our patience as a strategic move, but God used it to save the jailer and his family (Acts 16:29-33), probably doubling the size of the church in Philippi.

Paul Yielded to Peer Pressure (Acts 21:17-26)

When Paul visited Jerusalem after the third missionary journey, he found many new believers among the Jews. He also found rumors which had been circulating about his teachings. Thing is, the rumors were true. Paul taught that Christ-followers lived under a new covenant, that circumcision was merely an outward rite (1 Corinthians 7:19, Galatians 2:3) and that dietary restrictions were moot (Romans 14:6, 1 Corinthians 10:25). While Paul directed most of his teaching toward Gentiles, He never said Jewish believers shouldn’t follow Old Testament law, but he also didn’t say they must continue to follow the old laws.

Now back in the heart of Judaism, Paul let the church leaders convince him to participate in a religious ritual that would show Jewish believers he was still Jewish and imply that Jewish believers should continue adherence to the Law. Why? The church leaders said,

Then everyone will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law.”  –Acts 21:24

Did Paul “live in obedience to the law” when he was travelling around the known world? He knew the law better than anyone, yet I can find no proof he always observed Pharisaic restrictions/rituals. Now back in Jerusalem, would it not have been better for Paul to dialogue with Jewish leaders regarding expectations for all Christians? Didn’t his participation increase the divide between Jewish and Gentile Christians at a time when they needed to unite? And by the way, what did Paul’s companion, Trophimus the Ephesian (v. 29) think of this action?

I think Paul missed an opportunity here. We would never plan to misrepresent ourselves or the Gospel, but God used it. Paul’s appearance in the temple to set a plan in motion that sent Paul to Rome at the expense of the Roman Empire (Acts 21:27-30). This plan made room for Paul to write several books of the Bible and witness to many people at the heart of a pagan system.

Conclusion

We can write beautiful, God-centered, ambitious strategies, but more than likely, we will fail to follow them. If it’s not human failure, it’ll be a pandemic, a change in our family situation, or something else. However, God will not let our strategy flubs derail His perfect will. So as we go into end-of-year strategizing/planning, let’s hold our plans loosely and show ourselves some grace when we inevitably fail. We know God will be showing us plenty of grace!

Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.  –Proverbs 19:21

Strategy: have it but don’t hold it too tightly. Things are gonna fall apart, usually due to our own failures. But we can count on God to redirect our path when strategy goes askew. My #NewYearPlan is #NotAboutMe.

What’s your experience with “strategy”? I love it but I always find it lacking. Please share your thoughts in the comment below. I’ll respond to each one.

Weak-Faithed Fears

When was your faith first challenged?

For me, it was my freshman year in college, when I first met people who openly opposed Christianity. Before that, my faith was safe and easy, but when my new peers boldly questioned my beliefs, I stumbled, fearful and shocked. For a while, I was afraid to talk about faith issues, but eventually, those early experiences served to strengthen and confirm my faith in Jesus.

Now, in my 40s, I occasionally meet a believer who fearfully grasps his small beliefs and lashes out at anyone who challenges those beliefs. No offense, but faith can’t grow when we hold it so tightly, and it seems a miserable existence next to the broad confidence available to all who believe.

Paul saw this contrast when he finally made it to Rome.

Acts 28:17-31.

Around AD59 or 60, the Jews in Jerusalem wanted to get rid of Paul as quickly as they could. Some even vowed to kill him (Acts 23:12). But when he arrived in Rome, the Jews there wanted to hear about Jesus and this new sect called “The Way.” Why the contrast? What’s the difference between these two groups of Jews?

I posit that the Jews in Rome had stronger faith than those in Jerusalem. Why? Because they had been challenged and questioned.

Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.Philippians 2:12b

These Jews in Rome were confronted with other faith systems daily. They had to dig into their own beliefs and really know what was true. They had to make daily choices about following the guidelines of their faith. Some even defended Judaism in public forums.

Jews in Jerusalem, however, were surrounded by other Jews. They had gotten complacent, allowing their faith to be more of a national identity than a life-informing, daily influence. The faith of Jerusalem Jews was weak—not their knowledge but the actual working out of their faith in daily life. They knew more than anyone, but they hadn’t tested all that knowledge. As a result, they were afraid of conflict, afraid of things changing, afraid of trying something new. Isn’t that why they killed Jesus? Because he was trying to do something new.

You know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.  –James 1:3-4

Spiritual maturity is the result of testing, and confrontations with those who believe differently is one form of testing.

I’m reminded of modern discussions about social media “bubbles” in which we’re only seeing and interacting with people who already think like us. A recent Washington Post op-ed suggested social media algorithms generate an “echo chamber” for the user in which we only see posts with which we agree (reference). How can our faith be tested in such an environment? (Also see my previous post, Lean In, Listen, and Learn.)

When Paul arrived in Rome, the Jews weren’t afraid to sit down and talk with him, to hear his story and draw their own conclusions (Acts 28:21-22). Paul couldn’t have asked for more.

Like everywhere he went, however, not all the Jews who listened to Paul became believers (Acts 28:24). That’s okay. Some did.

Another benefit of their strong faith was that the group could manage disagreement. If the people in a church or small group have no practice discussing/defending their faith, they won’t know how to handle internal dissent when it arises…and it will arise. A bunch of believers who have rooted their faith in the Word and tested it in the world will persevere through an internal conflict much better than their weak-faithed counterparts.

Friends, be like the Roman Jews: unafraid to hear a challenge or consider a different point of view. When your faith is strong, you can take challenges from outside and disputes from within. Nothing will destroy your faith!

Our faith is strengthened by challenges. There’s no need to be afraid of someone who thinks/believes differently. Don’t isolate yourself for fear of losing your faith! Any #confrontation is #NotAboutMe.

Have you had your faith challenged? How did you feel and how did you respond? I hope you did better than I that first time. Please let us know in the comments below. Thanks.

4 Pleas for Church Leaders

It’s good to be back, friends! I’m still working on the project I started during my blogging break. I’ll let you know when it’s ready.

When we left Paul, back in Do the Work Well, he was sitting with the elders of the church in Ephesus, urgently encouraging them because he knew he would never see them again (Acts 20). This chapter seems like Paul’s version of Jesus’ Upper Room Discourse (John 13-17).

Paul’s boat was about to leave, so he had to talk quickly and directly. The beginning and end of his conversation could have been for any believers in Ephesus and beyond. But tucked into the middle of this passage, Paul gives some very personal, prophetic advice to those specific leaders who sat before him. The principles, however, apply to leaders in local churches across time and around the world, from preschool Sunday School teachers to lead pastors of megachurches. These principles are more fundamental than leadership styles or personal preferences. They get down to essentials. Let’s take a look.

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Do the Work Well

Paul was near the end of his third journey, and he wanted to arrive in Jerusalem before Pentecost. He knew a stopover in Ephesus would delay him for days, but he also knew, without a doubt, this trip was his last time to pass that way. So Paul asked the Ephesian church leaders to meet him in Miletus, about 35 miles south of Ephesus (Acts 20:16-17 and note), where he could encourage them once more.

Acts 20:17-22.

When the Ephesian elders arrived in Miletus, Paul sat them down for a talk. I wouldn’t really call it a conversation, more of a speech or lecture, but in a few sentences, he summarized his approach to ministry. It’s a pattern that still applies today.

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The Kids: John Mark and Timothy

Two boys, really, chosen to accompany the most famous man (next to Jesus) in Christian history. Did their mothers see who Paul was going to be? Did these young men sense the significance of their service…or did they view it as a big adventure?

It makes sense for a group of men to invite an assistant/intern/gopher on a long trip. He could have carried things, stepped out for coffee or sandwiches, even gone ahead for lodgings if necessary. Paul had plenty of people to meet, sermons to prepare, and letters to write. An assistant for the mundane tasks was a perfect addition to their small band.

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Prioritizing the Person of Peace

Paul took off on his second gospel-sharing journey probably more than a year after the first journey ended. This time Silas went with him. Apparently, the two grew close while Paul was at the Jerusalem Council. In addition, Silas had returned to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas to encourage the church there (Acts 15:22, 32), giving these new partners more time to get acquainted. (For more on the Jerusalem Council, see Antioch, part 2.)

Paul and Silas headed north out of Antioch. They probably stopped in Paul’s hometown of Tarsus. Then, they travelled through Derbe and the three cities where Paul had been persecuted on the first trip: Lystra, Iconium, and Pisidian Antioch. In Lystra, they picked up Timothy.

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We Know So Little About Lydia

I wish Luke gave us more information about this gracious hostess and resident of Philippi, so for some fifth Friday fun, I imagined a back story for her. Catch the real story in Acts 16 and a study on the same chapter (from Paul’s point-of-view) coming soon to Not About Me.

It was a business move. Nothing more. And yet Lydia relished the freedom of her new hometown. In Philippi, women were treated better—not exactly like men, but at least her neighbors weren’t surprised when they learned she kept her own books and made her own purchasing decisions.  At first, she rented a small store front with an even smaller apartment in the back. It was enough for her and her two apprentices.

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A Barnabas Background Check

I’m no stranger to background checks, although that “last 5 addresses” part stumps me. We’ve lived a lot of places! More personally, it’s hard to know someone until you know their backstory. Barnabas has come up a few times in our walk through Acts, so this week, I offer you four descriptors for Barnabas as his own man, separately from Saul/Paul. I hope you see him in a fresh light when we’re finished. Continue reading

Paul’s Preaching Pattern

I’ve never thrilled to the sermons printed in the Bible: Peter’s in Acts 2 and Acts 4, Paul’s in Acts 17, and others. They feel redundant because we’ve just been reading about everything they say. But as I stepped through Acts recently (search the tag ‘Acts’ for multiple resulting posts), I noticed a pattern in Paul’s sermon of Acts 13—a pattern that remains relevant for speakers and preachers even today. Continue reading