Mark S. Mitchell

Pastor, Writer, Follower of Jesus


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Excel Still More

This past weekend my church celebrated 50 years of God’s faithfulness. On Saturday night over 700 people gathered to remember all that God has done, and on Sunday morning we focused on what God might do through CPC in the next 50 years.

We all love stories. People have stories and churches have stories, too. Over fifty years ago a handful of families from Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto began meeting, thinking they might start a church. Today, CPC is a church of over 2,500  people meeting on two campuses, and we just planted a church of over 1,000 people on the North Peninsula. It’s quite a story!

But the questions I asked our church are: Where are we at in our story? Are our best years behind us or in front of us?

The odds are against us. Churches like ours, more often than not, are like shooting stars in the night’s sky. THEY flame out and eventually disappear. Very few have a trajectory of continued growth and impact. Some stay stuck in the past. They have their heyday but never move beyond 8-track tapes and overhead projectors. A core group that started in the church in their 20’s now reach their 70’s and wonder why their kids are going to other churches. Other churches experience “mission drift.” They change too much, not just in their methods and strategies, but in their core beliefs and values. Little by little, they accommodate to the culture and soon their “saltiness” is lost. Still, other churches just become complacent. A kind of self-satisfaction sets in. There may still be a veneer of activity, but they’re just maintaining the status quo. There’s no burning passion or vision.

Any one of those things could cause our best years NOT to be in front of us but behind us.

What’s interesting is there was a church much like ours found in the New Testament — the church at Thessalonica. Like the San Francisco Peninsula, this city was wealthy and strategically placed in the capital city of Macedonia. And like CPC, this church had a great beginning. At the start of his first letter to them, Paul praises them for their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:3). This was an impressive and influential church.

But then you come to chapter 4 and you can almost feel the tension in Paul. He doesn’t want them to make the past a hero; to become complacent. And so twice in vv. 1-12 he repeats the same three words: “Excel still more.” It is like he’s saying, “You’ve done so well and I’m proud of you, but you’re not finished yet. You can do more. You can do better. I want you to excel still more!”

So this is our call as a church, but it is also something we can all apply to our own lives. I am 61 years old. As I told our church on Sunday, I won’t be around in 50 years, but are my best years behind me or are they ahead of me? Will I make my own past a hero, or in the years I have left in my earthly story, will I excel still more?


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Knowing and Doing God’s Will

Yesterday I preached at New North Church on the subject of knowing God’s will. My sermon big idea was that God is more concerned with who you are than where you are. Thus, God doesn’t always tell us what his will is beforehand. Instead, he matures us in wisdom and discernment so we make decisions that reflect his character.

Last week, Lynn and I spent five days in Montana. One of the things we wanted to do was go fly-fishing. The last two times we did this we hired a guide who basically did everything for us except pull the fish in. He rigged up our fly rods, chose the correct fly, told us exactly where to cast it, and even when to set the hook. It’s wonderful to have a guide like that. He makes all the tough decisions for us.

But this time we decided we were ready to do it on our own. To prepare, I read about fly-fishing in Montana. We brought our own equipment, rigged up our fly rods, got some advice from a local fly shop, waded out into the river not knowing exactly where to go, and fished for parts of two days. As you might imagine, we didn’t catch much. But, honestly, the experience was far more rewarding than hiring a guide. Why?Because we were learning. We’re learning to think like a fly-fishing guide. We’ll do it again and we’ll get better.

Sometimes we want God to act like a fly-fishing guide, but he wants something better for us. We want him to tell us exactly what to do every time we have to make a decision. “Wear these clothes. Take this class. Date this person. Choose this major. Buy this house. Accept this job. Marry this person.” But God has a loftier goal for us. His goal has more to do with the kind of people we become. He wants us to have the mind of Christ. He wants to conform us to the image of his Son. To get there, we have to learn to think things out, exercise judgment, make difficult choices in the face of uncertainty, and learn from our mistakes. It’s harder this way, but this process is indispensable for our growth. This means that many times when you seek guidance, God’s response will be: “Learn my ways, rely on me, seek wise counsel, pray, and then just make a decision. Because you’ll never grow if you don’t do that.”

And do you know what’s great about that? You can relax. You don’t have to fret about missing God’s will. If your heart is truly surrendered to him, you cannot, you will not, miss his perfect will.


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​Standing Against Racism

A week ago Saturday, as the elders, staff, and spouses of our church gathered for our annual party, a terrible scene of racism and violence was taking place in Charlottesville, VA. One of the things I love about our leadership team and our entire church is our diversity. We are a blessed collection of humanity that reflects a variety of racial, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. We want to be a church that proclaims the radical truth the Apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This means standing against the evil of bigotry and white supremacy.

Racism in all its forms is evil because it violates God’s creation of every human being in His image and it impedes His intent for all people to know that God loved them enough to send His Son to save them.

So this should be a time for all of us to do three things:

  • First, we should examine our own hearts and repent of the sin of racism, which very well may exist in our hearts without us really aware of it.
  • Second, we should pray that our nation and our leaders would reflect the biblical value that every human being is made in the image of God and loved by Him.
  • Third, we all should consider how we might be actively involved in the ministry of reconciliation in our neighborhoods, places of work, and even in our church.


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Sacred Pathways

I’ve been reading Gary Thomas’ book, Sacred Pathways. His premise is that we’re all wired differently in terms of how we relate to God and express our love for Him. For example, many of us have been taught that having a “Quiet Time” is the best way to do that. It’s usually about 30 minutes long and composed of prayer, worship, Bible reading, and maybe even journaling. But, for some, having a Quiet Time quickly moves from delight to drudgery, as it can become mechanical. Thomas says, “There are certain foods I really like, but I don’t want to eat them every day. I have certain running routes and workouts that I earnestly look forward to, but I wouldn’t want to run the same route, at the same speed, the same length, every time I run.” He confesses, “Certain parts of me are never touched by a standardized quiet time.”

Thomas argues that the reason for this is that we all have a different mix of spiritual temperaments, therefore, connecting with God differently. The book identifies nine spiritual temperaments or sacred pathways. These aren’t to be confused with spiritual gifts or even personality types, although they’re certainly related. Most of us will have a predominant temperament but also resonate with a few others. Here they are:

Naturalists: Naturalists prefer to go outdoors. They want to leave the books and lectures aside and pray to God by a river or on a walk in the woods. They might learn more from staring at an ant colony than listening to a sermon.

Sensates: For these folks, the five senses are the most effective inroads into their hearts. When they worship they want to be filled with sights, sounds, and smells. It might be incense, architecture, music, or even liturgy that sends their hearts soaring.

Traditionalists: They’re drawn by the historic dimensions of the faith: rituals, symbols, and sacraments. They want to live a disciplined and ordered life of faith with regular church attendance and predictable worship.

Ascetics: Ascetics want to be left alone to pray; to remove all the trappings of religion and left alone to pray in silence and simplicity. They tend to live internally and introspectively.

Activists: These folks love God through confrontation. They define worship as standing against evil and injustice and calling sinners to repentance. They’re energized more by interactions with others, even through conflict, more so than from being alone. Needless to say, Activists love the story of Jesus clearing the temple!

Caregivers: Caregivers love and serve God by caring for others. Mother Teresa exemplified this. She wrote, “God died for you and for me and for that leper and for that person dying of hunger and for that person on the street. It’s not enough to say you love God. You also have to love your neighbor.”

Enthusiasts: These folks thrive on excitement and unpredictability in worship—they’re inspired by joyful celebration. They want to have their hearts moved and experience God’s power. They want to clap their hands, shout “Amen!”, and dance with excitement.

Contemplatives: Contemplatives think of God as their Father, Bridegroom, and Lover. They focus not on serving God or even obeying God, but on loving God with the deepest love possible. They identify most with Mary of Bethany, who sat at Jesus’ feet in worship and listening.

Intellectuals: These folks love God most with their minds. Their minds need to be stirred before their hearts come alive. They love to study God’s Word and biblical doctrine. Intellectuals live in a world of concepts. Faith is something to be understood as much as it is to be experienced.

Do you see your dominant spiritual temperament in this list?


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Remembering Haddon Robinson​

I have been blessed with a handful of wonderful mentors in my life. One of them was Haddon Robinson. On July 22, 2017, Haddon “fell asleep” in the Lord after battling Parkinson’s Disease for about three years. Haddon served as a Professor of Preaching at Dallas Seminary, and later at Gordon-Conwell Seminary in Boston. In-between, he served as President of Denver Seminary. Ironically, though I was a student at Denver while Haddon was President there, I never met him until later when I became a doctoral student under him at Gordon-Conwell. Haddon wrote many books, but he is best known for his book Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages—first published it in 1980. This book is still the gold standard for training preachers.

I am eternally grateful that the Lord allowed me to get to know Haddon. Here are a few things I learned from him:

  1. He taught me how to preach
    In 1996 a Baylor University poll named Haddon one of “The 12 Most Effective Preachers in the English-Speaking World.” The first time I heard Haddon preach was at a commencement ceremony at Denver Seminary. I was mesmerized. It was an exposition of the parable of the sheep and the goats. I still remember his big idea: “There are going to be a lot of surprises at the judgment. A lot of surprises.” Hearing that sermon, I knew I wanted to learn everything I could from that man about preaching. About 15 years later, he accepted me into the Doctor of Ministry program in preaching at Gordon-Conwell. He taught me that a sermon should be more like a bullet than buckshot — one single idea that encapsulates the thrust of a passage of Scripture. He taught me the importance of story, and not just to tell a story but to live it. He also tried to teach me not to use any notes in the pulpit, which I have never managed to learn. No matter how hard we all tried to preach like him, he was unique.
  2. He taught me to be available
    Over the course of my friendship with Haddon, I made three invitations to him. First, I invited him out to lunch to ask him some advice as I was considering a change in my ministry. A few years later, I asked him to come across the country to meet with our elders and preach at our church. Finally, I asked him to come to California again and speak at our Men’s Retreat at Mount Hermon. The amazing thing about Haddon was that, to my great surprise, he said, “Yes” to all three requests. It may sound like a small thing, but he was at a stage in his life when he really didn’t have to agree to any of those requests. But Haddon was a man available to God and to others. The people of my church still talk about the time Haddon Robinson came and preached to them from the book of Philemon in a sermon called, “Put That On Master Charge.” He also continued to be available to his doctoral students as we met with him to hone our preaching skills at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin for many years after receiving our degree. Reflecting on Haddon’s availability to me and others, I am reminded that each time he said, “Yes” was like a personal affirmation of my value to him. Perhaps more than anything else, that affirmation changed my life.
  3. He taught me humility
    Haddon was not full of himself. When asked about the honor of being named one of the 12 best preachers in the world, he shook his head and asked, “How in the world do you come up with a conclusion like that?” As he has famously said: “There are no great preachers, only a great Christ.” As you might imagine, a man of stature like Haddon Robinson had a few critics. For example, I have heard pastors and scholars accuse him of not preaching expositional sermons. But I never heard Haddon speak unfairly or harshly about his critics. For me, his humility was best exemplified in his prayer life. To listen to him before the throne of God, was like eavesdropping on a private conversation between a beloved servant and his honored master.

Needless to say, I will miss Haddon Robinson. Please pray for his wife of 66 years, Bonnie; his daughter, Vicki Hitzges, a motivational speaker; and his son Torrey Robinson, Senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Tarrytown, New York.


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You Did It For Me

A friend on mine recently passed away. Her name was Patricia. You probably didn’t know Patricia, although it is quite possible you noticed her walking along a local sidewalk, looking a little lost. I often saw Patricia in a variety of Peninsula cities, as far north as San Mateo and as far south as Los Altos. She was hard to miss as she never wore more than a t-shirt.

Patricia was homeless and mentally ill. She was what we call a Germaphobe; I am sure she had other disorders as well. About 25 years ago a few of us at CPC met Patricia and began helping her stay off the streets and stay fed. We learned that Patricia had once led a normal life. She had parents, siblings, a husband and a daughter. Sometime in her 40’s, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor that left her mentally disabled. Over time, we became Patricia’s friend. She was really a delightful person when you got to know her. She loved the old time actress Jennifer Jones. She had a way with numbers. And she had quite a sense of humor! I will never forget how, as my hair grayed over the years, she would tease me about it. I loved that about her. Many people at CPC took a personal interest in Patricia, listening to her, helping her in practical ways, laughing with her, and considering her a friend.

Often times, I must admit, I’m afraid of people like Patricia. I avoid even making eye contact with them. But as I reflect on my friendship with Patricia, I’m the one who loses out when I do this. Jesus once said of people like Patricia, Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me (Matthew 25:40). It seems that in an almost mysterious way Jesus identifies with people like Patricia. Perhaps that is why we who knew her were so blessed by her friendship — as we loved and served her, somehow she was mediating the presence of Jesus to us. Through Patricia, we were somehow able to enter more deeply into His heart. From now on, whenever I hear those words, You did for me, I will think of Patricia.


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The Lost Art of Friendship

Studies show that we have less true friends than past generations. We may have 1000 followers on Twitter, but last I heard the average American had two people to talk to about things that were important to them. Perhaps even more striking, the number of Americans with no close friends is about 25 percent. Joss Whedon, director of The Avengers, said, Loneliness is about the scariest thing out there.” Albert Einstein wrote, “It is strange to be known so universally, and yet to be so lonely.”

Our society does little to help us in this area. Fifteen-year-olds spend months learning how to drive but rarely learn how to be a friend. College students spend years learning the skills of engineering or architecture, but the skill of friendship is left up to osmosis. So we have a lot of people who aren’t succeeding in this area and it affects every area of their lives.

The book of Proverbs offers advice on both choosing friends and being friends. When it comes to choosing friends Proverbs teaches us to choose our friends carefully. Proverbs 13:20 says, He who walks with wise men will be wise, But the companion of fools will suffer harm.” If we develop intimate friendships with the wise, we’ll become wise. If we develop intimate friendships with fools, we’ll suffer harm. This is an encouragement to walk with people who will influence us the right way.

Several years ago an actor named Don Johnson starred on a TV show called Miami Vice. When his career took off he got caught up in the Hollywood lifestyle and spent a decade taking drugs, abusing alcohol, and “living it up.” Finally, he got his life straightened out and got sober. He was asked once if he had any regrets. He said, Yes, I regret wasting lots of time with a bunch of jerks that I wish I hadn’t spent 10 minutes with now, let alone ten years.”

The way this influence happens is brought out vividly in Proverbs 27:17: Iron sharpens iron, So one man sharpens another.” Two people brought together in close friendship are like iron sharpening iron. Our personalities rub together and are shaped by that contact. This can be a painful process; sparks can fly when iron sharpens iron; but the end result is that both parties are changed. So you should choose your friends carefully because they’ll have a huge impact on us. This is a person whose advice you’ll seek, who you’ll turn to in times of trouble, who you’ll share good times with and who you’ll learn from. Don’t approach the task of choosing friends lightly.

Proverbs also talks a lot about being friends. One skill that’s needed in friendship is loyalty. Proverbs 17:17 says, A friend loves at all times, And a brother is born for adversity.” A true friend is one who loves us in every circumstance of life. There’s a hint here that the true colors of friendship are seen in the midst of adversity. When our lives are falling apart a true friend will stand with us. Or when our friend has failed, we’ll be there to pick them up.

But the most difficult skill of all in friendship is forgiveness. Someone has said that there are three things we must do for a friendship to last—forgive, forgive and forgive! Proverbs puts it this way: He who covers a transgression seeks love, But he who repeats a matter separates intimate friends (Proverbs 17:9). Covering a transgression doesn’t mean we ignore it; it means we see it and acknowledge it for what it is and by an act of our will we choose to forgive that person and not make it public. We don’t repeat it; we don’t stir it up so that every angle of the scandal is exposed and every last drop of shame is drawn from the offender. A good friend will try to contain the damage of our sin. Every close friendship gets to a point where a decision has to be made. Will we cover the offensive actions and annoying traits of that person, and will the relationship then move to a deeper level, or will those things cause us to move away from our friend? Every friendship will have to deal with the reality of sin, weakness, failure and conflict. Many people get to that point in the friendship and because they’re unwilling to endure through the sin they bail out and move on to the next relationship. But, unless we’re willing to love someone at their very worst, we can’t have the very best of friendship.

The skill of friendship is not easy! In fact, I’d say it’s impossible in our own strength. But all of this was meant to be a picture of the kind of love God has for us. Jesus said to his disciples, No longer do I call you slaves, but I call you friends.” Jesus has given to each one of us the promise of friendship. Ultimately, he’s the friend who sticks closer than a brother. Jesus is the friend who covers our transgressions. As we come to grips with that reality we can be that kind of friend to others.