Do you allow people to surprise you?

I recently did some study on critical thinking.  One of the core principles is what I would call the art of the question.  That is, spend more time asking questions and less time trying to explain yourself.  While I agreed that understanding one another is good, I was bothered because the ephasis on questioning felt very pluralistic…like to be a critical thinker, you had to accept others views as being equal to your own.  I now understand that rejecting intense questioning simply because others use it in a pluralistic manner would be throwing the baby out with the bath water.  What I have discovered is that questioning is the only way we can learn about people…surprise!  The culture today needs us to learn about them in order to relate to them.  It’s amazing how hostile people become conversant if you just start asking questions rather than preaching dogma and defending yourself.

Those of you following this blog know that I believe the power to change a person’s heart resides in the gospel alone.  But, with some people, you simply have to earn the right to be heard.  We do that primarily by asking questions and genuinely trying to understand where they are coming from.  Once you know where they are coming from, then you can share the gospel in a way that they can understand and relate to.  This applies to all people…no matter where they are in their walk…no matter if they are world, fringe, or core.  If you want to help them move toward the middle, you have to be prepared to ask questions and be opportunistic with your teaching rather than dogmatic. 

You also have to ask questions to know whether your time is better invested in this person or if it would be better to move on, which brings me to my final point.  When you change your attitude away from dogma (here is the truth, take it or leave it) and move toward questioning (once I understand where you are coming from, I’ll communicate the true and full gospel in a way that you can understand), people will surprise you.  Hostile people will calm down.  Intellectuals will become emotional.  Facades melt away.  Issues are uncovered; hearts are softened.  Defensive people will begin to listen to what you have to say.  You will have earned the right to be heard.

I’ll add one more thing here…as an aside, but very important.  To be successful in this, you must have thick skin. You must have already placed your reputation on the alter as a living sacrifice.  If you take on a challenging relationship, you may be called out to your face or in public.  Are you strong enough to control your response?  Are you strong enough to resist the tempation to defend yourself, to strike back, to control your emotions and allow God to deal with how others perceive you, to focus on your objective which is to a) determine whether or not this person is being prepared by the Spirit to receive the gospel; b) share it in a way that they can understand it; c) be obedient to all of God’s commands, for the right reasons, throughout the process.

So, here is my encouragement, in three parts: 

First, you simply must know your Bible and be working on your own transformation.  Anyone can be dogmatic; it requires a different kind of Christian to engage people where they are. 

Second, ask questions before making assertions.  Know where people are coming from before assuming you know what they need to hear.  This is how you get past the natural defensiveness of a lost person in today’s culture.

Third, don’t become distracted from your ultimate purpose of sharing God’s gospel and His Truth.  As you question, the conversation may tend toward distracting topics…it’s ok to weave, but don’t forget where you are trying to head.  Look for opportunities to share God’s truth related to areas of confusion, difficulty, struggle that people have.

Deeper Dive on Growth Themes

In my last post, I introduced the concept of a growth theme.  Think of themes (joy, compassion, humility, perseverance) as the more concrete sub-components of the growth dimensions (knowledge, character, and behavior).  And remember, growth on these dimensions within the themes is a result of hearing, believing and obeying God.  Later, I’ll go a little deeper on hearing, believing and obeying God…the things we do.  But first, lets look a little closer at what we are trying to become (increasingly joyous, compassionate, humble, and persevering).

Joyfully forget yourself and focus on others forever.

The above statement is something I made up as a kind of personal mission statement.  Notice how it includes each of the four growth themes…joy, humility (forget yourself), compassion (focus on others), and perseverance (forever).  We are followers of Christ if we do this increasingly, genuinely and in the context of God’s truth.  Note that I did not say we are “saved” because of it.  We’re “saved” because we professed faith in Christ and He gave us life by His grace alone.  What I’m taking about here is actually following Christ after we have been regenerated.

Now, let’s look under the hood.  Are four themes really enough?  What about love, wisdom, righteousness, contentment, faith, dependenance, generosity, etc?  As I said before, we created a mind map to organize these characteristics so that we could get our arms around the different facets and begin to eat the elephant one bite at a time, so to speak.

Here is a link to that mind map: Themes v0.3

Remember, this is one of an incalculable number of possible arrangements.  This is just one that works for our purposes.  I’m happy to take feedback on it, because I do want to improve it…but, let’s not miss the forest for the trees either.

And so you will see that we’re framing contentment as a joy issue.  If you do not have God’s joy, it is possible that the underlying cause is a contentment issue.  With this kind of vocabulary, we can use it in a number of different ways to help people.  Here are a few:

Assessment: Helping Disciples Know Where They Are

We can develop a means of helping people understand where they are in their walk with regard to joy, humility, compassion, and perseverance.  This then drives where/how they spend their time addressing areas of weakness (rather than simply ammassing knowledge by an endless stream of “bible studies”).  The intent of “assessment”, would be to help someone understand that contentment is a bigger issue in their life than say generosity.

Guidance: Helping Disciples Know Where to Go and How to Get There

Guidance can be attached to the same vocabulary.  Guidance (e.g. passages of scripture, teaching, books, podcasts, disciplines, ad-hoc experiences and advice, etc)  can be provided on how to become more generous, for example, and loaded into a shared repository.

Search: Helping Disciples Find The Best Stuff Fast

Now that guidance has been loaded against a specific vocabulary, and a person understands their need using the same vocabulary, an extremely efficient search capability can be put into place that helps a disciple find exactly what they need almost immediately.

There is alot more to be said, but alas…it will have to wait until next time.  Until then, I will continue to pray for all of you as you strive to become more like our Savior.

Core, Fringe and World in Luke 15

I owe this one to my pastor, Pete Chiofalo, and his wonderful message from Luke 15 this past Sunday.

First, I’ll provide a quick interpretation of Luke 15:11-32; then, I’ll comment on how each of the three groups we have been discussing (i.e. core, fringe, and world) are represented in “the prodigal son”.

Luke 15:1-2 makes it clear that the next three stories (i.e. the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son) are in response to the grumbling of the Pharisees that Jesus is hanging out with “sinners”.  Each of these parables makes essentially the same point: God has great concern for the lost; He will in a sense leave those who do not need finding to look for the lost one; and, God (and all those of like mind) will rejoice greatly when the lost one is found. 

Focusing now on Luke 15:11-32, we have a man with two sons.  The younger requests his future inheritance ahead of time and leaves the home to squander it; he becomes “lost”.  The older stays behind to continue working diligently for his father.  The younger “comes to his senses” in v17, which simply means that God has convicted him of his sinful ways and his heart has repented.  He returns home to confess his sin, and his father is eagerly waiting for him – rejoicing to the point of throwing an extravagant welcome home party for his “found” son.  Meanwhile, the older son is angry, because he felt he had “earned” what the younger son did not “earn” and was given anyway.  He was jealous of the father’s forgiveness, grace and mercy toward the younger one.

A plain interpretation of this story is that the the father in the story is God; the younger son represents all of us who have realized our “lostness”, confessed our sin to to God, and received His welcome into the Kingdom through genuine faith in Jesus Christ; the older son represents all of those who have grown up in the church and yet continue to try to earn God’s favor by keeping religious rules, completely missing the importance of forgiveness, grace, mercy, and faith to the point that we look down on (and are even jealous of) those who are received into the Kingdom on the basis of God’s grace through faith alone.

If you’ve read some of my earlier posts, I’ll bet you know where this is headed. 🙂

What I have been calling the ‘world’ are all of those who are in the same position that the younger son was in while he was away from his family “squandering his estate with loose living”.  In verse 17, this younger son moved from the “world” to the “core”.  He confessed his sin to the father (v21) and received life (v32).  And the ‘fringe’?  You got it…the older son.  Though he grew up in the same house, he never realized it was grace and mercy that bound him to the father.  He always believed it was his efforts.  People in the ‘fringe’ typically have “grown up” in the church, hearing sermons on God’s grace and forgiveness every weekend (or, at least every Easter and Christmas).  And yet, somehow, their inability to rejoice when the wretched and poor are sought and embraced reveals are heart that was never right with the Lord to begin with.

I’ll end with two questions:

1. How do you act around “sinners”?  How do you feel about other believers who seek out “sinners”?  What is your immediate reaction when a known sinner walks into your church on Sunday?  What will you do to help move people from the ‘world’ to the ‘core’?

2. Do you love those in the ‘fringe’?  Or, do you feel superior because you are the younger son rather than the older one?  What will you do to help those in the ‘fringe’ move into the ‘core’?

Here’s one suggestion on how to answer each of these: keep reading this blog and engage with your feedback.  I have some ‘blue sky’ ideas on how we can help one another do both of these, and I’m going to need alot of help to make it happen!

http://seqhim.org

Is Spiritual Growth really Growth of a Spirit?

Let’s now turn our attention away from why and toward how

Willohroot made the comment of the year, “I don’t know how we’re going to pull this off”.  Of course, I agree, and if you are still reading this, I’m sure you do as well.  I’m sure all of you understand that we cannot do it…that if it is going to happen, then God is going to have to do it through us.  Our job is simply to be obedient, and I can tell you unequivocally that I’m personally compelled to push forward…to do otherwise would be a violation of my conscience and probably a form of sin (Rom 14). 

What I’m going to try to do now, over the next series of posts, is walk you through what I hope is a simple progression of some rather complicated thoughts that have been simmering for close to a year now between myself and a small number of like-minded buddies.

Shifting gears from the macro-issues of the church today, let’s talk about spiritual growth.  What exactly is it?  How does it happen?  How can Christians help other Christians to grow?

What is “Spiritual” Growth?

First of all, I believe spiritual growth is a bit of a misnomer because the reality is that a believer’s spirit does not need to grow – it is already perfect.  At conversion, all of us who believe in Christ, received a new spirit…a regenerated spirit…a reborn spirit.  This spirit is perfect and is one with the Holy Spirit.  The problem is not with our spirit but with our flesh.  All of the tools God gave us to interact with one another on earth are still corrupt; i.e. our minds and all they control.  Therefore, Paul can face the dilemmna that all of us face: what I want to do, I do not do; and, what I do not want to do, I do.  The desires of our perfect spirit conflict with the desires of the flesh.  Therefore, the goal os “spiritual” growth is to tranform the flesh (or, “renew the mind”).  It is to make our flesh obedient to our spirit as a slave.  It is to understand that the flesh has no power over the spirit (it is dead), and behave accordingly.  This happens over time, as we intentionally surrender our flesh to the spirit (which is one with God’s Spirit indwelling us).

Hopefully this is all sounding quite biblical.  If not, call me on it and let’s change it.

How does Growth Happen?

After years of careful observation, I’ve concluded that there are three dimensions to genuine spiritual growth: knowledge, character, and behavior.  All believers are called to grow in their knowledge and understanding of God’s truth, transform the way we think, and become increasingly compliant to God’s standard of behavior.

Iterative Growth Model
Iterative Growth Model

I’ve also concluded that the way in which we grow along these three dimensions is by hearing, believing and obeying God.  Generally speaking, it is by hearing God that we grow in knowledge; it is by believing God that our internal thoughts and attitudes change; and, it is by obeying God that our external behaviors change. 

And, this process is iterative…you don’t go to school or bible study, learn all you can, grow to maturity in knowledge, and then begin working on your character.  Rather, we all learn a little, apply the spiritual disciplines to train our belief to some extent, and obey what we have learned and become, then repeat.  And we do this forever.  Again, I think willohroot made the point that it’s not about the destination…it’s about the journey, and I fully agree.  We can’t think of this as winning a race; it’s about running the race well and finishing strong.

How Can Believers Help Other Believers to Grow?

First of all, let me say that it’s not necessary.  There is biblical precedent for God capturing and growing His people without much help from other believers; e.g. Abraham and Noah.  The core of my own personal testimony is that God used mainly unbelievers and ‘fringe’ to drive my own growth, not by encouragement but by friction.  That said, I’ve also concluded that this is the exception and not God’s desire for His Kingdom today.  God’s desire is that his people work together to build-up the Kingdom together.

In short, I believe the most effective means of helping other believers is not to call them but to personally lead them.  It’s not to talk about it, but it is to provide them an example to follow.  And, once that example is provided, then you have the right to talk about what you are doing, why you are doing it, and give advice to another on what you think they could do to grow in the same way.  This is the essence and purpose of practical, intentional and effective one-on-one discipleship.

In the next few posts, we’ll keep diving deeper into how we can make this real together.  In the meantime, I’d love to hear your feedback on these thoughts!

Who is living on the ‘fringe’ of the Church?

I don’t want to belabor the ‘problem statement’ too much before getting into some thoughts on the solution, but I think it’s wise to go one level deeper before moving on.

Let’s briefly elaborate on ‘core’, ‘fringe’, and ‘world’ then conclude with “so what?”

Core

These are obviously genuine believers in Jesus Christ.  They know their Bibles, or are working hard at knowing their Bibles.  Internally, they struggle to think and act as Christ would, whether that is popular or not.  When they mess up, it really hurts yet move on in God’s forgiveness.  The core is seen by the fringe and the rest of the world as generally loving and ‘good’ but also a threat to principles they hold dear such as ‘tolerance’ and ‘relative truth’.  The core’s firm belief in one God and one Savior makes the world and the fringe very uncomfortable, and this causes constant friction with these groups yet also unites the core in one Faith.

World

These are obvious non-believers in Jesus Christ.  Whether they label themselves athiest, agnostic or a believer in some other faith or cult, all deny one of the beliefs that make Christianity, Christianty.  These include historic essentials such as the diety of Christ, the atonement of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, and the return of Christ.  In general, these people are not upset by being called ‘non-Christian’, for they are not trying to be Christian. 

Fringe

For those thinking I’m being kindof black and white, here is the gray area…the vague overlap of the ‘core’ and the ‘world’.  The ‘fringe’ includes those people who would call themselves a Christian but who think and act differently from either the world or the core.  People in the fringe may or may not be ‘regenerated’ (born again). Some are genuine believers and simply immature; others are not believers but really like being in community with other believers.  Regardless, they all look about the same; they have little knowledge of the Bible, little motivation of study it on their own, little motivation to be more like Christ, and little motivation to act as Christ would act in situations where that “Christlike action” comes with personal risk or sacrifice.  Their focus is largly on conforming to the norms of the “church” community; and, because the ‘church’ community is mostly fringe (more on this in a later post), these norms align more with the world’s guidance on how to become happy and comfortable and less with God’s guidance.

So, what does this mean?  It means that you, the reader, fall into one of these groups.  If you are in the world, you probably don’t care much about any of this.  If you are in the fringe, I am praying that God would call you to the core.  If you are in the core, I’m praying you might help me help those in the fringe whom God is calling to the core get there.

More to come…