Motivational Speakers & Cult Leaders: What’s The Recipe of Their Success?

I was recently listening to a world-famous motivational speaker. Indeed, listening to him was as entertaining as watching late night television. He mounted the platform with all the charisma and energy of a rock star. His speaking capabilities? Flawless. Eloquent. Tantalizing. As I sat there immersed in a sea of 10,000 people, I hung onto his every word. He was incredibly pleasing to listen to…

But as I listened to this man’s speech on the four universal desires of every human being, I began to think – to analyze. I thought to myself, “What makes this man so incredibly successful at motivational speaking? Why am I so intrigued by his words?” So, not as a jerk, but as a polite observer of culture, I began to take some personal notes…The results of my analysis somewhat shocked me…Indeed, to state it bluntly, these observations are what make for an incredible motivational speaker (in the world at large) and a great cult leader (in the church world)…I know, I know, that was an ouchy thing to say, but notice my observations below…

  1. He spoke as an authority unto himself. In his incredibly thought-through, four-point outline of the four universal desires of every human being (i.e., aliveness, connection, meaningful pursuits, and growth), he never once referenced a source, book, quote, or statistic. Not. One. Time. He simply, confidently, and enthusiastically stated each one of his main points, relying on no source material, except himself. To be sure, his own personal success and fame made him a functional authority to the 10,000 people in the stadium, but still, he referenced no source material. Yes, he spoke as an authority unto himself.
  2. He weaved “believe in yourself” throughout his speech. Now, this is not a new cultural message/mantra; I get that. But up until this speaker, I had never (not one time) heard someone in culture define exactly what “believe in yourself” means. This guy did; and it blew me away. He defined “believe in yourself” as encompassing two primary ingredients (i.e., worthiness + capability). He encouraged, with great gusto, 10,000 of us in the stadium to think and identify ourselves as both worthy (of everything we want and desire) and capable (of getting everything we want and desire). Wow…”Believe in yourself” = “Worthiness + Capability”. Do you know what he just defined/explained…WORSHIP! Biblically and theologically, we promote the worship of Jesus (who is God) because we attribute to Him (and Him only) ultimate worthiness and capability. So, when you hear that common phrase in wider culture – “Believe in yourself” – understand what some people are advocating for when they say that…”Worship yourself because you are worthy and capable of everything your heart desires.” Am I overreacting? Reading too much into this statement? Maybe. But just think about it…
  3. He unified cultural desires and religious thoughts. In other words, he would mix in religious (even biblical terms) throughout his talk. His speech was littered with words like “joy”, “relationships”, and “service”. He went on to make the statement that every religion promotes as “the highest form of enlightenment” the concept of “unity”. Possibly the only cringe moment for me in his entire speech. Why? Well, because Jesus actually promoted something far different than the concept of “unity” as “the highest form of enlightenment”. In fact, he promoted division…”Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34)…”I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). But this man’s thoughts resonate within wider culture…Our culture desperately wants “unity” to be “the highest form of enlightenment”…I wonder what the ramifications of this thought process for true Christians would be…Hmmm…
  4. He kept his speech simple and used alliteration. A fairly simple observation, but it plays a part in this man’s success as a motivational speaker. He had four simple points that were easily rememberable and he even used alliteration (i.e., doubt, division, and delay) to describe the greatest hindrances to the four universal desires of mankind (i.e., aliveness, connection, meaningful pursuits, and growth). Indeed, his overall presentation was engaging and easy to follow. Easy. Breezy. Beautiful. Now, unlike the three points above, I’m not saying that simplicity and alliteration are bad things, but coupled with the above three points, it makes for a tantalizing…but dangerous concoction.

So, there you have it. Just some personal observations on a popular motivational speaker that might give you some insight into the inner workings of our wider culture. Indeed, as much as I am a student of the Word, I try to be a student of culture, understanding that our ultimate enemy is not culture itself, but the Evil One behind culture…Be aware. Stay alert. Stay strong.

From the Desk of the Associate: Grasping for the Knowledge of Good and Evil

How did we get here? This place of a seemingly alternate reality where up is down and down is up. Where reality seems to be completely subjective and where my truth and your truth may disagree and both be true at the same time. Nowhere is this more obvious in our world today then in the so called gender revolution.

Many people have written extensively on this issue but I want to give some brief thoughts of my own and point out how this is the logical outflowing of humanity’s attempt to snatch the power to define good and evil, beginning way back in the opening chapters of Genesis. Even with a fallen human nature it still is a big jump to enable us to deny basic reality about man and woman but the starting point for such a radical fall is the denial of the authority and existence of the one who made everything and therefore gets to define everything.

This is what I mean, when we misunderstand the nature of mankind, and misunderstand the source of morality, we quickly will veer off any sane path and into the worst kind of ditches. Carl Trueman writes a very helpful book called “Strange New World” where he provides a helpful review of the writers and philosophers who moved our society in this direction. I want to discuss two of the basic stepping stones that our culture has used to take us from where most everyone had an accurate understanding of the basics of life to where we don’t know what a woman is. The first stepping stone was that of the natural condition of man.

During the enlightenment it became in vogue to believe that mankind was born basically good and that any corruption that was exhibited in ones character could be blamed on society at large. This idea was greatly advanced by writers like David Hume but was perhaps most famously articulated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He believed that good was most clearly seen in that which was most closely tied to nature. He wrote often of the “noble savage” who did not have the corrupting constraints of society and could therefore most act on his natural self. Put basically, people are born good and it is society and institutions that corrupt them. Therefore we need to tear down the institutions so that people are free to express the good that comes from within them. Mankind is the basic source of good.

The second stepping stone that has lead us to our confused moment in history is that of who decides what good is? Before the enlightenment very few public thinkers would have questioned, much less denied the existence of God. It would have been taken for granted that there was a God and that he is the moral law giver. During and after the enlightenment critics and sceptics were granted powerful voices to shout down and scorn the existence of God. With the rise of Darwinism, many felt like they were no longer required to believe in an external creator because they had an adequate natural explanation. This led a man like Karl Marx to believe that the moral laws that are articulated in the Bible and were promulgated by the societies and governments of his day were simply tools of oppression. Religion was only a means of power. In this view there was no ultimate lawgiver and therefore man had to rethink all of right and wrong.

I know that these are very basic and crude summaries of these very powerful cultural voices but when you boil it all down, in order to get to where we are at today, mankind first had to deny original sin and affirm internal goodness. Additionally, mankind also had to deny an external law giver. If we are born good and if we are the source of good, then whatever I feel on the inside is what is moral and right. The only transgression in this society is to deny someone’s feeling of self. That is why culture demands that we affirm everyone’s belief about themselves, because if you deny what someone else is feeling about themselves, you are denying their personhood.

This worldview only leads to despair because it is constantly running up against the reality that mankind indeed has an innate and internal evil that manifests in hurtful and self-destructive behavior. It also leads to the hurt and destruction of those around us as we constantly act in our own perceived self interest. Ultimately, this is the outflow of mankind rejecting the Creator’s good design and His good law for us. God made us in the beginning in the image of God as male and female to glorify and enjoy him forever. What we see played out around us is the radical rejection of God’s good design and the headlong plunge into delusion and self destruction.

We need a Savior. Not just a Savior who pays for our sins, but one who sheds the light of the Gospel into our hearts causing us to reject the lies of the world and allowing us to receive His truth. We need the Spirit to open our eyes from the natural blindness that we inherit from our first ancestor and his rebellion. True change for good in our culture won’t come from electing the right politicians but through changed hearts and lives that come through the Spirit by means of prayer and the preaching of the Word. May we be individuals who do just that.

Round #1: Summer Nights of Prayer…

Yesterday evening, we had our first round of what we call “Summer Nights of Prayer”. It was a good time to gather together as the people of the prairie and pray. As we ended our time of prayer, I encouraged our people to continue to pray, using our Associate Pastor’s “Prayer Priority List”. I found this list helpful. Maybe you’ll find it useful as well…

Pastor Tim writes, “As you have opportunity, consider praying for the following in order:

  1. Pray for your own walk with Christ. This may include confessing sin and seeking His guidance to walk obediently.
  2. Pray that your family would love and follow Christ. You may find yourself needing to confess sins to your family members whom you have wronged.
  3. Pray that your fellow church members would remain faithful and be on mission. Consider even praying for specific individuals that come to your mind.
  4. Pray for individuals that you are trying to witness to. Pray that God would work in them and work through you.
  5. Pray for our country and its’ leaders. Pray that we would live peaceable and quiet lives, godly and dignified in every way.”

Many of you profess the necessity and power of prayer, but do you actually pray? Do you actually carve out intentional time to talk to God? The list above can help you as you do what you know you need to do, namely, pray…

“Wisely and Well” – A Sermon by Ray Ortlund From the Book of Ecclesiastes…

Below is one of the most encouraging messages I’ve ever heard from the book of Ecclesiastes. Indeed, at surface level, the book of Ecclesiastes seems to inspire depression, not delight. But, as Ray Ortlund explains in this message, this book inspires us to see life as God sees it, and when we see life (and embrace life) as God sees it, we begin to accept life in all of its’ complexities – the good, the bad, and the ugly…

“Out of the Depths”

Life can be so cruel sometimes. Things seemingly happen at random and without reason. Life (at times) seems to dole out incessant waves of depressing news – disease, divorce, death. In the end, I don’t know why some things happen, but I know that there is a God who is above it all and will see us through it all. For anyone going through some sort of difficulty or disaster right now, the song posted below (based on Psalm 130) is for you. I pray that it might be a real encouragement to you as it stirs your heart, despite the depths of your pain, to look up and wait on the Lord…

Father’s Day Reflections…

I’ve been a father now for 10 years. So, in no particular order, here are 10 reflections on being a father…

  1. Nothing can truly prepare you for fatherhood. Read all the books and take all the classes. That’s all well and good, but fatherhood (like a combat zone) is something to be experienced on an individual basis.
  2. Fatherhood is humbling. It’s both a blessing and a burden. Like a teabag steeped in hot water, fatherhood teaches you a lot about your strengths and weaknesses as a man and as a leader.
  3. Sons are great, but girls are precious gifts from God. Yes, I know, technically (and biblically) both boys and girls are precious gifts/blessings from God, but here’s my point: Girls teach their dads so much about life – how to be gentle, how to truly comfort, how to be sensitive…Girls gift their dads with so much practical knowledge about life and relationships.
  4. Fatherhood is incomplete and lopsided without motherhood. Children need to learn how to lead and how to follow, how to work and how to play, how to speak and how to listen, etc. The binary complexities of life demand the beautiful (and biblical) binary design of a father and a mother in the home.
  5. I have high hopes and big dreams for my two sons. One was born in our bedroom (not the plan), the other was born on the sidewalk outside of a Chase bank in Mesa, Arizona (also not the plan). My boys and their unconventional births make me hope and pray that they grow up to become unconventional leaders in this messy, complicated world that they’re growing up in.
  6. Fatherhood requires wisdom…God’s wisdom, not man’s wisdom. I must look to the Lord in the Scriptures and in prayer if I’m to be the father that my children need me to be…Which leads to my seventh reflection…
  7. I may not be the best father out there, but I’m the best father my four children have. I mean, I know that I’m not getting everything right in how I parent my children, but I’m doing my best (usually – most of the time). This is why I apologize to my children when I mess up and why I’m always pointing them to their perfect Father in Heaven.
  8. Fatherhood provides intense joys. My kids have made me genuinely laugh so many times. From the things that they have said to the things that they have done, I am so grateful for these mini-comedians that God has given to me.
  9. My kids are still young (10, 8, 4, and 1). That means I have yet to experience the teenage years. Help me by praying for me.
  10. Fatherhood is both forever and momentary. Forever in that I will always be my kids’ father, but momentary in that I only have my kids in the home for a set period of time before they launch off into the world. Therefore, I must cherish each moment, knowing that one day I’m going to turn around and wish that I could have put time in a bottle and experience these days all over again…

“The Good Old Days…”

I think the older I get, the more nostalgic I get. Granted, I’m only 35 years old, but with the ever-increasing weight of changes in our society, I find myself longing for “the good old days”. Do you know what I mean?

I guess a very real part of me just hates change. And we’ve seen a massive amount of change since 2020, right? I mean, from the way we view and talk about race to the rising fuel at our gas pumps, change is all around us, and (in my opinion) mostly negative. Can’t we just go back to simpler times?

In fact, I was recently listening to the radio and heard the following song lyrics that really encapsulate what I’m feeling…

Ain’t it funny how life changes?
You wake up ain’t nothin’ the same, and life changes.
You can’t stop it; just hop on the train.
You never know what’s gonna happen.
You make your plans, and you hear God laughin’.
Life changes…

But those are just my feelings. What does God’s Word say? Listen to the gentle rebuke of Ecclesiastes 7:10…”Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions.” I like what Al Mohler has to say on this verse, “Life does not always present us with only one obviously right path to take. Instead, we must deeply discern which path is ‘better’ than the others…But we are certainly not helped along our way by yielding to this world’s corruption, impatience, touchiness, or nostalgia.”

Wow. Don’t you just love the clarity of God’s Word? Yeah, we might be deep “into our feels”, but God’s Word gives us the right interpretive grid to discern our very funny, fickle, fleeting emotions. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with reminiscing and appreciating certain aspects of the past, but there is an unhealthy obsession with the way things used to be. Indeed, obsessing over the past, to the point that you’re resistant to change, prevents you from growth. This is not wisdom. This is, in fact, foolishness.

I guess here’s the bottom line…Yes, life changes. Things are not the same as they were. Indeed, in some ways, life is better than it used to be, and, clearly, it’s worse in some ways as well. But as a believer in Jesus Christ, my ultimate hope is not in the way things used to be in the past (i.e., “the good old days”). No, my hope is in the future. I like how the Apostle Paul phrases it in Philippians 3:20-21, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will [in the glorious future] transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”

So, if you’re anything like me, and you find yourself craving the simpler time period of the past, then let the Word of God rebuke you, like it did me…”Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?'” Look to the future, not the past. Look to the heavens, not to the earth. Look to the Word, not to your feelings. Look to Christ, not to yourself. As the Mandalorian would say, “This is the way.”

From the Desk of the Associate: Summer Nights of Prayer

Spring is almost over and summer will soon be here in full swing. It seems that summer almost always brings a new schedule and a new rhythm. Being in rural Iowa, spring is nothing if not busy. There’s always planting season to contend with, not to mention the school year wrapping up and the early summer sports schedule heating up. Soon many of us will be traveling on summer vacations and summer camp. With all this busyness its easy to let prayer go by the wayside. In generations past, Wednesday night prayer meeting was a staple for almost all local churches. It seems now that for most of us, prayer sounds like a good idea but we mostly fill our evenings with everything under the sun. I get it, you’re busy. I’m busy too. We’re all busy. Many of us with good things. However, I think that prayer, and in particular, corporate prayer is more necessary now than it has ever been.

For as long as I have been alive, it seems that I have heard from my parents and other older Christians that our country and world are headed down hill fast. In fact, the older I get the more I find myself being that older Christian who tells the same thing to the younger generation. It seems though like we spend far more time and energy complaining and bemoaning a bygone era when we were a Christian nation then we do lifting our country and world up to the One who can truly do anything about it. What happened to Paul’s command in 1 Timothy 2:1-3? “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. That is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior.” It seems that most of us, me included, probably do a very bad job at fulfilling this command.

With all the things that need to be fixed in the world today, how can we not strive to discipline ourselves to the practice of prayer? Corporate prayer is one of the most important things a church does. One reason it is so vital is that it helps us to fulfill the command from Hebrews 3:13, “But exhort one another every day as long as it is called today, lest any of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” When we come together as a body it both implicitly and explicitly encourages one another to be mindful of the danger of sin and our dependance on God for deliverance.

So, for these, and so many other reasons, we will be having Summer Nights of Prayer on the following dates: June 29th, July 27th, and August 31st. Please mark these dates on your calendar so you are able to come and pray with your church family this summer!

From the Desk of the Associate: What’s in a Name?

This week I am preparing to preach on Genesis chapter 11. I am planning to focus on the first 9 verses which detail an interesting account of the famed Tower of Babel. On the surface a modern reader may wonder what the problem with this account is. After all, what is so wrong about being unified around a tower and a city. Wasn’t mankind supposed to take dominion of the earth? And isn’t part of taking dominion and displaying God’s image using the intellect and resources at our disposal to build amazing things? And wouldn’t so many of our problems be solved if we could all just understand one another better?

Well, you don’t have to dig very deep to learn that the people who built this tower and city were not simply trying to find their way in a hostile environment. They were actively trying to throw off the shackles of God’s command to be fruitful and multiply and to spread out and “teem” on the earth. These people were hell bent on doing things their own way. This is signaled to us in what they built, a tower, and what they wanted to create, a name for themselves.

First the tower in the ancient world was likely a ziggurat. These were temples whereby humanity believed themselves to be accessing the realm of the gods. In building this tower to reach to the heaven mankind was trying to access and control God on their terms. They not only disregarded his commands to spread out and fill the earth, they thought that through their own strength they could access God and perhaps even storm the gates of heaven. This really was an echo of the original fall. In that fall Adam and Eve grasped at the ability to define good and evil on their terms. In this tower account, mankind grasped at the ability to be gods again by trying to access God’s throne. God decided that the unity of mankind in this case would only lead him to more and more rebellion and therefore more and more ruin. Not that God was threatened by such puny creatures, God just knew that they would spiral into all sorts of evil if they remained united in their rebellion. So, even in God’s judgment, we see that God was really showing these rebels mercy. Instead of destruction all they receive is dispersal.

And second, we see in the people’s desire to “make a name for ourselves,” another rejection of their creator and His ways. You see, this concept of a name was very significant. It meant glory, honor, and fame. All things that belong to God but things that we seem to always be attempting to get on our own terms. The ultimate name, the name that is above every name has been given to Jesus because at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God. We see right after the tower of Babel narrative another account that includes a name. When God called Abram, a no name from Ur, God promised him many things but not least of this was the promise to make his name great. God would grant Abram a name that Abram did not earn but one that God gave him because He is a gracious God. Oh, and what name did the men of the tower attain? Babel, a name that means confusion because it never fails that when man exalts himself, God will bring him low.

So what’s in a name? Everything!

A Birthday, Wedding, & Funeral…

If you spend any amount of time with me, inevitably, you’ll hear these words: Pastoring may be many things, but it’s certainly not boring. It’s true. Shepherding is often a chaotic mix of joy and sorrow as one interacts in the lives of the different members of his flock. I love this about pastoral ministry! You never know what a day may bring forth…

Take today for instance…Yes, today was already slotted to be a busy day with sermon prep, blogging 🙂 and general administrative work. I also had two other exciting items on my to-do list: celebrate my wife’s birthday AND finalize details for my brother’s wedding next week in Florida. A birthday to celebrate and a wedding to finalize…How exciting!

But then, in the sovereignty of God, my phone buzzed me awake a little before 6am. Through tears, a precious daughter told me that her father had suddenly and unexpectedly entered into the arms of Jesus earlier this morning. Yes, as the sun was rising over the prairie, God added another item to my to-do list: prepare for the burial of a friend, fellow veteran, and loyal church member – Mr. Ron Gates.

Man alive, I’m going to miss Ron. His family knew him as a great husband and father, kids thought he looked like Santa Claus, but I’ll remember him as the man who always kept me on my toes in the ministry. Often, he would come up to me after a sermon and say, “Your message was ok. You did alright. Thank you for that.” He never laid on the compliments too thick or too light, but always just right. Indeed, I’ll miss his humility-inducing compliments and his big, big smile!

Yes, a birthday to celebrate. A wedding to finalize. And a funeral to plan. And all in one day! Again, this is the joyful sobriety of pastoral ministry. You are called upon to enter into people’s highs and lows, always reminding them that this life is not all there is, there’s an eternity that awaits us…

You know, it has been said, “Today matters because tomorrow can’t be assumed.” A birthday party, as great as it might be, points us forward to the day when there won’t be a birthday to celebrate anymore. A wedding, as exciting and momentous as it might be, points us to the inevitable finish line – “till death do us part”. Yes, it’s amazing how the very end of life (i.e., a funeral) helps us prioritize and cherish the very beginning parts of life, like births and weddings.

Ron’s sudden homegoing is yet another reminder to live life now, to laugh now, to love now, and to lead now! Why? “Because tomorrow can’t be assumed.” Certainly, for those who die in Jesus, “it is not death to die.” There’s an eternity that awaits us! But before we get to the other side, before we experience fullness of joy, before we sink our eyes into our Savior’s face, we live in the here and now…So, let’s cut the birthday cake and the wedding cake, relishing each special moment, taking it all in, realizing that the end is coming; and (I think) when we finally step into the great beyond, we’ll realize that this life really did matter, and that every little joy and every little smile was merely the prelude – a shadow – an appetizer – the precursor for something that all of our hearts yearn for – perfect satisfaction…

Ron, till we meet again, God bless you up there, I do love you, and I’ll see you when I see you.