What makes Christian leaders distinctly Christian?
Some say it’s how they lead—by serving others rather than using forced authority.
Some say it’s the motivation—they lead for Jesus’ sake and to build up the body of Christ.
Those are both great answers, but I believe distinctly Christian leadership is based upon the promises of God.
By some estimates, there are somewhere around 5,000 promises of God in the Bible. Our God is a promise-making God. He is a covenant-keeping God. He made promises to every major leader in the Bible—such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Daniel, and Paul.
And God makes promises to you and me, too.
You can base your ministry on a variety of different factors, from your own cleverness to your own giftedness. I’ve chosen to base mine upon the promises of God. I have found, as Joshua did at the end of his life (read Joshua 21:45), that every one of God’s promises has been fulfilled.
I’ve built my ministry on these eight promises.
1. “For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him”
(2 Chronicles 16:9 NIV).
God used this first promise to call me into full-time ministry. I was serving at a Christian camp as a teenager. I washed dishes during the day, served as a lifeguard in the afternoon, and ran the campfire in the evening. I started seeing the difference that the Gospel made in people’s lives. One night in my tent, I got down on my knees and prayed, “God—if there is a God—I want to know you. And God, I don’t understand everything about you and I don’t know what you want to do, but if you’re real and you can give me a better life than I’m living right now, I’m yours.”
After I prayed that prayer, I picked up my Bible and began reading. God gave me 2 Chronicles 16:9. That simple promise told me, “God wants to use you.” I’m convinced that God is looking for people to use. The reason God has kept using me throughout decades of ministry is because I keep volunteering to be used. Ministry talents and gifts aren’t nearly as important as availability.
2. “So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up” (Galatians 6:9 NLT).
The early part of my marriage was awful. Kay and I were always fighting. We got engaged eight days after our first date. Right after we got engaged, I moved to Japan to plant a church and she moved to Alabama to work at an inner-city African-American church. We were apart our entire engagement.
When we got married, we knew God called us to be together—and we loved each other, but we didn’t know each other. Our first two years were incredibly tough on both of us. Though we were miserable, we knew divorce wasn’t an option. Counseling saved our marriage. During that time, God gave me the promise of Galatians 6:9 that reminded us to never, ever give up on our marriage.
3. “If the ax is dull and its edge unsharpened, more strength is needed, but skill will bring success” (Ecclesiastes 10:10 NIV).
I am a fourth-generation pastor. I knew what I was getting myself into when God called me to pastor. By the time I was 20 years old, I had preached in about 20 churches. At that age, I thought I was ready to start a church.
One day, as I was sitting on top of a hill overlooking a brand-new community called Anaheim Hills (where I wanted to plant the church), God told me I wasn’t ready. That’s when he gave me Ecclesiastes 10:10 with the promise that skill will bring success. The truth is, you can be dedicated to it, pray for it, and desire it greatly, yet still not find success. But skill will bring success. That’s why I went back to school, finished seminary, and became a lifelong learner.
4. “And though you started with little, you will end with much” (Job 8:7 NLT).
While I was in seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, I told God I’d go anywhere in the world if he would let me spend my whole life in one location. Eventually, I narrowed down our search of potential church-planting locations to South Orange County. I told Kay, “Hey honey, I’ve got this idea. I think God wants us to move about 1,400 miles away to Southern California to a place we’ve never been, never seen, and start a church with no money, no members, and no support. What do you think?”
I’ll never forget Kay’s response: “Well, it scares me to death, but I believe in God, and I believe in you—so let’s go for it.” As we started Saddleback, we hung on to Job 8:7. Though we had so little at the time, we knew God would take our faith and do so much more than we could ever imagine.
5. “Upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it” (Matthew 16:18 NLT).
I had a health crisis at the end of my first year of Saddleback. I was working 18 hours a day. I loved every single minute of it. But I was exhausted. I baptized 66 people in the church’s first 10 weeks. I had a church of spiritual babies. I had no staff, no money, and no building. On the last Sunday of 1980, I stood up to speak and flat-out fainted. I woke up and went into a period of depression.
I took my wife and kids to my in-laws’ home in Arizona, and I spent a month in the desert. I told God that I couldn’t handle the church’s growth. Saddleback was growing too fast. I didn’t deserve it.
God reminded me of two truths in the desert that changed my ministry. First, I didn’t deserve all the success I was seeing. It was a gift of God’s grace. He also reminded me of Matthew 16:18. It wasn’t my responsibility to grow Saddleback. It was Jesus’ church. He would build it.
6. “I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals would multiply and threaten you” (Exodus 23:29 NLT).
As Saddleback grew, we longed for a place to call home. The Sunday before we started Saddleback (in our “trial run” service), I said I believed God would give us a campus of at least 50 acres, but I didn’t know where that land would come from. For years, opportunities to get land fell through. We kept increasing the number of services to accommodate the growth. For 12 years, I taught an exhausting six services a week. During that time, God gave me his promise of progression. In Exodus 23:29, God told the Israelites they wouldn’t be able to drive out all of the inhabitants of the land in the first year. He would do it little by little. It takes God six hours to grow a mushroom. It takes him 60 years to grow an oak tree. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be an oak tree.
By the way, God eventually provided us with 120 acres of land in a way only he could do. But that’s a story for another day.
7. “Only ask, and I will give you the nations as your inheritance, the whole earth as your possession”
(Psalm 2:8 NLT).
In 2002, God gave me the seventh promise when we launched the Global PEACE Plan. Psalm 2:8 says to “only ask” and God will give you the nations.
I decided to ask. I told my church one Sunday, “You know the Great Commission? We’ve talked about this for years and years. ‘Go and make disciples.’” So, we sent short-term mission teams to 197 nations by the end of 2010.
8. “But why should I fast when he is dead? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him one day, but he cannot return to me” (2 Samuel 12:23 NLT).
God gave me the eighth promise in 2014 when my son Matthew took his life after a lifelong battle with mental illness. Without question, it was the worst day of my life. He had been at our house the day before, and he didn’t seem to have a problem. I’ll never forget the next day as we stood outside of his house waiting for the police to come and break down the door. When we got inside, it was clear that what we had always prayed would never happen had happened. With tears running down Kay’s face, she lifted up the necklace she wore that day. It had two words on it: Choose Joy.
I remember wondering how in the world I could possibly choose joy when my heart was being smashed into a thousand pieces. During that time God gave me 2 Samuel 12:23, which is his promise to David after he lost his son. God reminded David that he couldn’t bring his son back, but one day David would go to him.
I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that I believe in the resurrection today more deeply than I ever have in my life. I know, thanks to God’s Word, one day I will see my son again.
After close to 50 years of ministry, I can tell you this without hesitation: God’s promises are true.