Eric Geiger - a Husband, Father, Author, Vice-President of LifeWay Church Resources


The Burden of Earning


As the movie Saving Private Ryan reaches its climax, some of us preachers sit on the edge of our seats looking for an epic illustration. The film seems to be leading to a great comparison of Christ’s sacrifice for us. Private Ryan (Matt Damon) has been pursued just as Christ pursues us and has been saved from death just as Christ saves us. The leader of the rescue mission, Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks), is sacrificing his life for Private Ryan. The moment is hanging right there. Wait for it . . .

But then as Miller gasps for his last few breaths, he grabs Ryan’s hand and says these final words: “Earn this. Earn it.” I just gave everything for you; now spend the rest of your life earning this moment.

We sit back in our chairs disappointed, because that one line radically ruins a great illustration. Even in the movie, these words seem to have haunted Private Ryan for the rest of his life. The movie ends by showing him as an elderly man, standing among the tombs of the men who gave their lives for him. And he is hoping he “earned it.” Evidently he spent his entire life under the burden of trying to repay the sacrifice that was given for him.

Serving as an attempt to pay God back for His grace is futile—not only because our best efforts would prove woefully inadequate in paying Him back, but because there is nothing to pay back. The gospel reminds us that the debt of our sin has already been paid in full. Acts of service, then, must not be unintentionally advertised as a means of restitution for what Christ has done. Believers who live with that burden will serve out of obligation as they drift from the grace of God. Churches who place that burden on believers are peddling a new law that enslaves.

Because of the gospel, we serve because our hearts are overwhelmed with gratitude. Because of the gospel, believers can serve in freedom and joy. If a lack of serving pervades a church culture, the answer is not to crank up the guilt and arm-twisting but rather to instill a new, intense focus and awareness on the gospel.

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Four Root Idols

Last week I was honored to spend a day with the team at Austin Stone Church. I preached there two years ago for their summer preaching series, but this time I was blessed to speak to the staff and then teach a systematic theology session at Austin Stone Institute. Each week 300 plus men and women gather to study together. It is pretty incredible. After the general session, men and women break into different groups for men and women’s development. During the session with the men, I was asked to teach on the “four root idols” that often drive our sinful behavior. Austin Stone, and other churches, utilizes the framework as a tool to help men and women repent more specifically of our heart’s motivations.

Martin Luther believed that every violation of the Ten Commandments was first a violation of the first commandment, putting another god besides Him in my life. If I give false testimony, it is because I have set something else in my heart above God that is worth lying for. If I steal, it is because I have first set up something else in my life that is cherished above Him. Or stated succinctly, “Under every behavioral sin is the sin of idolatry.”

Christian leaders Tim Keller, David Powlison, and Dick Keyes have written much more extensively and eloquently on the idols beneath the surface, but here is a snapshot of four root idols that drive our behavior.

  1. Power: a longing for influence or recognition
  2. Control: a longing to have everything go according to my plan
  3. Comfort: a longing for pleasure
  4. Approval: a longing to be accepted or desired

Someone may long for a promotion and the accompanying salary. There is nothing wrong with either; the intensity of the desire is what makes it sinful. Or as Calvin stated, “The evil in our desire typically does not lie in what we want, but that we want it too much.”

The person’s root idol could be different from someone else longing for the same promotion. A person with a power idol wants the bigger salary, not because of the money, but because of the status the money can offer. A person with control as an idol wants the bigger salary to save more money to eliminate uncertainty and gain more assurance for the future. A person with the comfort idol wants the new “whatever,” and the person with approval idol wants to use the new “whatever” to win friends.

So how do I repent of the idol beneath the surface? How do we keep ourselves from idols, as the apostle John instructed (I John 5:21)? Thomas Chalmers said, “The best way to overcome the world is not with morality or self-discipline. Christians overcome the world by seeing the beauty and excellence of Christ. They overcome the world by seeing something more attractive than the world: Christ.”

I repent of my idolatry not by looking myself in the mirror and telling myself I can displace it in my energy, might, or goodness. I repent of my lesser gods by remembering the Great God who is above all gods. We can repent of our longing for:

  • power by submitting to His greater power within me [Ephesians 5:18]
  • control by surrendering to His ultimate control [Ecclesiastes 3:12-14]
  • comfort by remembering He is the greater comfort [II Corinthians 1:3-4]
  • approval by rejoicing in His gracious approval [Galatians 3:13; Numbers 6:24-26]

His power is greater. His control is perfect. His comfort is satisfying. And His approval is eternal. There is no god like our God.

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Enjoy Your Unique Contribution

As God’s bond servant, your service is unique. Your contribution to the Master’s kingdom and family is uniquely customized to your calling, personality, gifting, and stage of life. In other words, you administer God’s grace through your unique gifting.

Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Pet. 4:10–11 NIV, emphasis added).

While God’s grace is administered through His servants, His grace is administered in various forms. Because we are different, with unique spiritual gifts, God’s mercy is expressed in a variety of ways.

One weekend I taught this principle to the people in our church. I emphasized that God’s grace is like water: purifying and refreshing. And we are honored to administer His grace. To illustrate, a myriad of water dispensers were placed on the platform.

Perhaps God has gifted you to be a sprinkler. You spread God’s grace to a lot of people in small ways. Perhaps God has gifted you to be a watering pot. You nurture a group of people over time. Or maybe God has gifted you to be a pitcher. You refresh people with hospitality and tangible acts of service. Perhaps God has gifted you to be a pressure cleaner. You bring change and leadership into situations that need a fresh touch of God’s grace. Maybe God has gifted you to be a dropper. You think your contribution is small, but your contribution is essential.

There is a unique contribution that only you can make. There is a specific way that God’s grace is going to be distributed through you. Each of us plays a critical role in God’s desire to reveal His glory through the church (Eph. 3:10), and your Master desires your unique and specific contribution.

Adapted from Identity (2008, B&H Publishing Group)

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Gospel and the Poor

The apostle Paul reminded the Corinthian Christians of their status when Christ called them to Himself.

Brothers, consider your calling: Not many are wise from a human perspective, not many powerful, not many of noble birth. Instead, God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God has chosen what is insignificant and despised in the world— what is viewed as nothing—to bring to nothing what is viewed as something, so that no one can boast in His presence. (1 Cor. 1:26–29)

Before a holy God, all of us were poor. No one was worthy, yet God in His great love pursued us. He did not pursue us as a coach pursues “A-level players” for a team or an executive recruits “tens” for his organization. He pursued us when we were spiritually ruined. We were poor and desolate of soul. In fact, the gospel is only for the poor—those who realize they are spiritually poor and absolutely bankrupt before God. 

We rejoice for those believers and churches impacting cities, serving the poor, and defending those accosted by injustice. Churches who view discipleship through the lens of the gospel understand that ministry to the underresourced and hurting flows from a commitment to the mission of God. The embrace of the gospel will cause us to embrace more deeply its ministry of reconciliation. Thus, we will not fall prey to the dangers of a bland “social gospel” that merely feeds the body. Rather, churches will embrace the gospel that cares for the soul in need of redemption and the city in need of restoration. Leaders who see through the gospel lens remind people how God rescued them in their spiritual poverty and connect the beauty of that reality to serving the underresourced.

Adapted from Transformational Discipleship (B&H Publishing Group, 2012)

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Budgeting Blunders

As we move into October, many churches are in the midst of budgeting.

There are some common budgeting blunders that plague many ministries, and these blunders are often associated with well-meaning individuals who unintentionally bring some bad budgeting practices to the table. Let me introduce you to Calculator Charlie, Sneaky Steve, and Sandbagging Sally.

Calculator Charlie: Calculator Charlie appears to be really organized when he comes to the budget meeting. He has his line numbers memorized. He knows each account and the amount spent from that account thus far this budget year. But when questioned about his budgeting numbers, it is discovered that he simply takes the current spending and annualizes that for the year. What’s wrong with that? How can you avoid this budgeting blunder?

It is quite possible to annualize waste. The practice of merely multiplying monthly expenses by twelve months does not lead to careful evaluation of the current expenses. While constantly re-bidding, re-quoting, and re-evaluating would be maddening and horrific stewardship, annual budgeting provides a time to reflect on current spending. Business consultants even advise that every time a process improves, there is new waste to eliminate. And the discovery and removal of new waste in operations would release more money for things you value more.

Sneaky Steve: (Full disclosure–in my early 20s, I was Sneaky Steve in need of repentance.) Sneaky Steve masterfully keeps his budget as high as he can (with good motivation to reach and disciple people) by sliding over project expenses from one budget year to the next. For example, Steve worked hard 18 months ago to slide some new equipment into his budget. Now that the system has been purchased, it would make sense to take that out of the starting point for his budget. But he knows that most people will simply look at the total budget from year to year, so he comes to the budgeting table with the same amount and boldly articulates, “I am not raising my budget.” In reality, he has raised his budget the amount of the equipment.

To avoid unintentionally annualizing major expenditures, I recommend having a line item in each ministry department for “equipment or major purchases.” Simply zero that line each year for an accurate picture of the department’s regular budgeted expenses.

Sandbagging Sally: Sandbagging Sally is risk adverse and abhors the idea of “going over budget” in her spending. Rightfully so, but her fear leads her to overstate her expenses so as to overly hedge against her fear. By doing so, other ministry budgets can be adversely affected.

My recommendation is not to place “hedges” in individual ministry department budgets but within the overall budget. This allows for more accurate budgeting of expenses and simultaneously gives those with responsibility over the entire budget the job of properly watching and administering expenses.

Charlie, Steve, and Sally are great people who love the Lord. Charlie’s attention to detail needs to be leveraged to more deeply look at current expenses. Steve’s passion for his area needs to be applauded and focused. Sally’s concern for shrewd spending needs to be affirmed, but she needs to be lovingly reminded of the need to have expenses accurately planned.

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Please, No More Travel Agents

There is a major difference between a travel agent and a tour guide. This difference is seen best in white-water rafting. There are plenty of rafting outfitters from which to choose along a white-water river trail. A travel agent will mail you brochures. A travel agent will suggest a few rafting outfitters and a river to enjoy.

But a travel agent’s role ends there.

A travel agent spouts out intellectual information, hands you some brochures, and smiles. A travel agent tells you to enjoy the journey.

“Nice to meet you. Enjoy the trip.”
A tour guide is different.
Along the Ocoee, in the Smoky Mountains, there is a great tour guide named Tripp. The name fits. He literally is a trip.

Unlike the travel agent who hands you a brochure, he goes with you on the journey.

“Nice to meet you. Get in. Let’s go.”

Tripp knows the Ocoee. He knows each rapid intimately and talks about them with great energy. Double Suck. Moonshot. Flipper. Tripp enjoys each stage in the journey. It is fun to hear him share stories about the different parts of the river. You fall more in love with the river and the scenery because of him. You are inspired by his passion.

What makes Tripp a great tour guide is not his information. Even some of the local travel agents have the information. Tripp is great because of his love for the journey and because he takes you with him.

He takes you along the journey he has traveled. He does not instruct from a distance. He is with you. He is on the bus with you from the outfitter to the river. He is in the raft with you. And, if things do not go as planned, he is in the river with you.

Tripp has been where he is taking you. He is able to instruct because he is familiar with the journey. He speaks from a place of personal authority, and you listen. He is not perfect. His boat may tip over with you in it. But he is credible.

People need spiritual tour guides. They have had plenty of spiritual travel agents. Be a tour guide through the process of spiritual transformation in your church. Take people on a journey with you.

If you get in the boat, the ministry process will come alive. The ministry blueprint will make sense then. It will be clear.

Clarity is a huge first step, but it is only the beginning. You must now proceed to movement, the removal of congestion in your church.

Adapted from Simple Church (B&H Publishing Group, 2006)


Foundation for Service


The essence of Christian faith is not that we serve Christ but that He served us. In Matthew 20, the mother of James and John came to Jesus, requesting that her sons be allowed to sit at His side in the kingdom—one on His right, the other on His left. So Jesus turned and asked a question of them: “Are you willing to do what it takes to do that?” Both of them readily, rashly took up the challenge: “You know it!” Then Jesus said, “Oh, you’re going to pay the price, all right. But that honor is not Mine to give.”

At this point, the other disciples become indignant toward these other two. We would probably have been indignant too, right? “Why is your mom here, bro? You’re a grown man.” In reality, they were indignant not because James and John asked their mommy to request power and authority, but because they hadn’t taken the chance to ask the favor for themselves.

So Jesus responded by telling them to huddle up:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:25–28 ESV)

Jesus was doing much more than simply giving out a moral command as a philosopher or a teacher offering a better way to live. He was giving the disciples the essence of the gospel: the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, to give His life as a ransom for many. Jesus was saying, “I am here to serve you through My death.”

Jesus doesn’t need anything. He is self-sufficient. He doesn’t need advice, doesn’t need gas money, doesn’t need your help paying His bills, fixing His house, or making a difficult decision. Yet this all-sufficient, all-knowing, completely holy God stepped out of heaven to serve us through His atoning, sacrificial death.

Jesus was saying that His followers are to serve others not because it’s the right thing to do, not because we’d feel guilty if we didn’t, not because somebody else suggested it, and not because “causes” are the vogue thing of the day. We serve because Jesus has served us. His service should melt our hearts and cause us to serve others out of sheer gratitude to Him. That’s the appropriate response to His loving service of us.

Churches centered on Jesus continually remind their people of this.

As humans, we struggle deeply with receiving unconditional love. We want to know why someone loves us and what we’ve done to deserve it. Unconditional love frustrates our desire to earn and accomplish. It challenges our pride. Sure, we like being loved, but we also like knowing we’ve proved ourselves worthy of it.

When your girlfriend in tenth grade told you she loved you, you wanted to know why. Was it the cool rims on your truck? The nice way you treated her? Or was it just your overall awesomeness that made her feel so strongly toward you? You had to know what it was so you could continue to do it or be it. If your father told you he was proud of you, you wanted to know what you’d done to earn his favor.

If we’re not careful, serving can become a way we try to earn the love we’ve already received from God, to “pay Jesus back” for His generous grace. While churches preaching the grace of God would never suggest that serving or volunteering contributes anything to a person’s salvation, a subtle tendency among us leads us to believe that serving is a way to stay “in good” with God. Therefore, unless serving is continually and unapologetically connected to the gospel, it can become a burden, a manipulator, a guilt reliever, or a backhanded method we employ to just keep serving ourselves.

Matt Chandler, Josh Patterson, and I are posting questions each month for church leaders to discuss with their teams. The content and questions are based on our book Creature of the Word. You can get the book here and access the monthly audit here.

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Images of a Faithful Teacher

Our teaching should first be biblical. It should also be faithful to the text. In this video from Ministry Grid, Tony Merida, lead pastor of Imago Dei Church in Raleigh, NC, discusses what Paul says to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:14-26. Tony examines and applies images like an “unashamed workmen,” a “holy vessel,” and a “servant.”

I am excited about a new tool LifeWay is launching 11-12-13 that will help churches more intentionally invest in leaders. Ministry Grid will give you a framework, a grid, for leadership development by helping facilitate training and discussion with your leaders. Click here for more info.

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Moving People Off the Team

Though the topic of this blog may be perceived by some as cold, I am posting this because leaders frequently ask me questions related to moving people off the team. Ministry leaders are responsible for the flock while also loving and caring for individual sheep. Tension arises when a ministry leader is confronted with a decision that is best for the overall ministry (the flock) but will be hurtful to an individual. Moving someone off the team is painful. Even in the moments when the Lord gives grace and understanding to all involved, the discussion and the situation are difficult.

Leaders often use the “C” words when evaluating if people should be invited to join the team. Wise leaders do all they can to ensure the person being brought on the team is a man or woman of character, is competent for the role, and fits with the values of the team (chemistry). But how should you consider the “C” words when the painful discussion comes about removing someone from the team? And how long should someone be given to correct a problem that fits into each of these “C” buckets? These are questions I have wrestled with in community with leaders I respect. And below are my current thoughts:

Character Problem

As believers, our character should be continually in the process of being sanctified, of becoming more and more like Jesus. So in some sense we all still have character issues. But there are some character issues that immediately disqualify someone from a ministry leadership role. The loss of credibility due to the lack of integrity with an issue, such as adultery or stealing, should result in the removal of someone from his/her role.

Chemistry Problem

A chemistry problem is much bigger than personality differences or differences in opinions. A chemistry problem occurs when someone continually undermines the values of the team, either overtly or in a passive-aggressive manner. Unity on a ministry team is absolutely essential, so someone with a consistently divisive and sour attitude threatens to disrupt what the Lord desires to do through the team. I believe the person should be confronted immediately and given an opportunity to repent, and then if the problem continues, the person should be removed from the team.

How long should this process last? Well, how long does it take to repent? I believe in many organizations/ministries these problems fester way too long. I say so with confidence because every time a leader I know has made the difficult call to move a person with a chemistry problem off the team, he or she immediately notices the difference on the team and wishes the move had been made months earlier.

Competence Problem

There is no such thing as a “neutral” player on a ministry team. If the person is not contributing, he/she is actually hurting the others by creating extra work and conversations. Ministries are notorious for allowing incompetence to remain under the guise of grace and mercy. But it is not merciful to the person; he or she could be so much more productive somewhere else. And it is not merciful to the people being served by the ministry.

As you consider dealing with a competence problem, consider these questions:

  1. Has the person been given specific feedback and ample opportunity to change and develop with clear timelines and expectations for improvement?
  2. If character and chemistry are great, is there another role (without creating a role that is not necessary) in which the person would be more competent?

Capacity Problem

When a ministry outgrows the capacity of leaders, the influence of the ministry will be hampered. Some leaders scale their leadership as the ministry grows. Others fail to do so. So what do you do when someone who has been faithful to the ministry is no longer able to lead effectively, not because he has done anything wrong or because he has become less competent but only because the Lord has grown and expanded the ministry? In my view, you have honest discussions and give the person as long as possible to move to a different role that fits their capacity level. Be as gracious and generous as you can while also weighing the responsibility for the whole. Honor them with respect and gratitude for their faithfulness.

The health of the ministry will be deeply impacted by the health (or the lack of health) of the team that leads her. Because of this, leaders must be deeply concerned with the character, chemistry, competence, and capacity of the people on their teams.

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