It took me years. Years of ignorance and mistakes. My first lesson in financial management was the day I left for college (one day in January 1975). My parents drove me the 3 hours from Salisbury, NC to Raleigh. (Go Wolfpack). On the way out of town, they stopped at the bank. They opened a checking account in my name. And a credit card account. Three hours later, I began managing my own finances.
We didn’t have much when I was growing up. I remember the four kids getting an allowance when I was very young – one penny for every year we were old. I got a whole nickel when I was five. Allowances stopped before I turned ten. Working to earn money was normal. I carried a newspaper route. I did a little babysitting. Yard work. My senior year of high school, my dad helped me get a summer job with a man he knew… pumping septic tanks. But every dime I earned I was able to spend on whatever I wanted. I didn’t have a piggy bank. Or a savings account. Or any idea that I should.
The concept of saving was foreign to me. Earn enough to deal with everything on the list. Rent? Check. Food? Check. Car repair? Credit card. Credit card payment? Check. Check. Check.
Somewhere between 10 years old and pumping septic tanks I must have at least heard about the concept of personal savings, but it must not have registered as anything important for me. I had no problem with other people saving. But I only ever had enough money for things I wanted, and a credit card for the things I needed. I did not hear about saving from my parents. And the only thing online in those days were clothes out to dry.
… just because you have your money in an institution that makes savings accounts available, does not mean that you are a saver.
Today, I do save. I understand the long-term implications of that practice, and I am approaching the other side of that long-term timeline. However, I’m afraid that too many who should be savers are not. They are checkers like I used to be. I’m also afraid that too many savers don’t pass on the need, practice, skill, and strategy to those who should be savers.
Back in Time: How I Became a Saver (After I Became an Evangelical)
Jesus invaded my life at Ft. Jackson, SC during boot camp in the summer of 1974. I was on my knees, not because there is something holy in that posture, but because I was so desperate that I could not stand. Though I had been in church (non-evangelical protestant) for years, I had never – never – actually prayed. I was on my knees crying out to God for help – and he invaded me – I felt Him enter my life, and everything changed. But not immediately.
Because my saving occurred without anyone explaining the 4 Spiritual Laws or scaring me with the threat of a fiery hell, I didn’t know that God’s plan for believers includes personal evangelism. I went through college (in an evangelical church), thinking that what I should focus on was getting college students from other churches to come to my church. God called me to ministry while in that church, and I started seminary in 1982 without ever having told anyone how Jesus could change their life.
In 1983, my friend, John White, asked me to be his prayer partner for 13 weeks while he learned how to share the gospel through a program at our church. In seminary, you can’t say “no” to a request like that, but the very thing he was studying was something foreign to me. Uncomfortable. A bit anxiety producing.
Fast forward 13 weeks. Sunday night “graduation service”. Dozens of people had learned how to personally share the gospel*. I was sitting on the back row of the church. Uncomfortable. Anxious. And the God that had invaded my life in South Carolina broke my heart that night in Texas – my proud, hard heart. How could I so enjoy His salvation and not tell others? In tears I begged Him to make me into a “saver”.
Two weeks later I was leading a mid-week youth Bible study for a friend of mine. I didn’t know any of these students. After the study, we were all hanging out outside. I was talking to this one kid – and he said to me something like, “I need to be saved. Can you help me?”
Uncomfortable. Anxious. I realized in that moment, even with all the Bible I thought I knew, I had no concise way to explain the Gospel to him. With a prayerful mind heavenward, and eyes on the kid, I just started with what I knew. I answered his questions. God answered my prayer. I became a saver that night. And the kid became a believer.
Back to Today
There was a time when someone was considered to be an “evangelical” when they were personally involved in evangelism – the sharing of the good news – the saving work of the church. It no longer means that to those without Christ. Unfortunately, it also no longer means that to most of the folks who call themselves evangelicals. Today, it is not uncommon for those outside of the church to have “politics” as a first thought, when they hear the word “evangelical”. Today, for those inside the church, all that need be true for one to be considered an evangelical is to belong to a church that is identified, by virtue of its brand, as an evangelical church. It is no wonder that those outside the church had to discover for themselves how to define an evangelical, because most evangelicals aren’t. Most evangelicals on your block aren’t. Most evangelicals in your town or city, aren’t. Most evangelicals in the church… aren’t.
You see, just because you have your money in an institution that makes savings accounts available, does not mean that you are a saver. It is silly to call yourself a saver if you are only a checker. To announce to the world (either implicitly or explicitly) that you are a saver when you are not is an exercise in deception – of self, others, or both. Hanging out weekly with savers, learning their lingo, using their lexicon, nodding your head, and saying “Amen” in all the right places help shroud the checker in a false cloak of saving. And as the balance of members between checker and saver shifts ever more toward checker, saving can become a lost, uncomfortable, anxiety producing exercise.
Evangelical checkers (false savers?) think our country is in trouble because of the political climate. Too many evangelical checkers have rested on the size of our constituency to shape the direction of our country. Too many evangelical checkers think they are already humble, and that if only those outside the church would seek God’s face and turn from their wicked ways, He would heal our land. Sorry. That’s not how it works. That’s not what a Saver is called to. That is not what the passage means. I have to ask, how in the world can you imagine that a humble, contrite, repentant seeking of His face and turning from wicked ways will not result in turning toward the ways He has always prescribed? “Go ye therefore” has always been about personal evangelism. Someone saved, sharing the saving message with one not saved.
If we were to truly humble ourselves and seek His face, can you not see that this would result in more savers coming out of the doors of the church instead of staying inside the church, checking things off of their list?
Certainly, somewhere between 10 years old and today, members of evangelical churches must have heard about the concept of personal evangelism (personal saving), but it must not have registered as anything important for them. Churches budget for the things that they want. But look at your church’s budget for the money that goes toward training and empowering that saving work. If you are counting on the preacher to do the work, and he does, they you are a checker in an institution that has one saver. If you do and he does not, there may very well be no savers in your church at all. Churches where spiritual parents pass on the need and practice of saving to their spiritual children understand the long-term implications of everyone being involved in the personal practice of saving.
You can find out for yourself about your own church. Ask as many people as you can 2 simple questions:
What drew you to this church?
What do you like best about this church?
Keep notes in two columns or two lists.
Items on the saver list would include things like:
I met Christ here.
People are coming to Christ here on a regular basis
I learned out to share my faith here.
Items on the checker side include things like this:
Strong Biblical Teaching
Great youth ministry
Great children’s ministry
This place is so friendly
While it may be rare for a saver church to be so without many of the items in the checker list, it is not at all rare for a checker church to have every item from their own list, and none from the saver list.
Humble yourself. Pray, and seek His face. Turn from your wicked ways. Become a Saver.
*Note: Dozens of people had learned how to personally share the gospel.
While it is true that many were saved in their very active learning process, they became savers because they shared the gospel, not because others were saved. It is up to us to share. It is up to Him to save.
Do you every wonder “Why?” Not as in a passing thought like “I wonder why it’s so cold today…”, but rather, the kind of thought that charges your curiosty. That keeps you awake at night. That demands an answer before rest can be obtained.
Perhaps you remember Christmases as a child. I watch my grandchildren today much like I watched our own children when they were that age. Wonder is in their eyes at the beauty of the decorations. Questions about the reason for certain ornaments or light colors or house decorations or family recipes abound. “Are we going to have Papa’s stuffing this year?” And inspiring music and stories fill the time with family.
Wonder, inspiration, and such questions (Papa’s stuffing?) may seem to some to be versions of curiosity. And in some small degree, there is overlap. But questions that seek confirmation and status are not the kind of curiosity that landed man on the moon. The wonder illustrated above is just that: wonder! Beauty never before seen. Lighting effects that stretch the imagination. They cause wonder! Which may be followed by curiosity, but is wholly different from it. Being inspired at best creates a drive to replicate or improve one’s experience, but it is not curiosity.
Real curiosity fires the imagination and causes us to explore the unknown and search for answers. A child’s Christmas curiosity is best found in packages that make no noise when shaken, that mysteriously appear under the tree with no “to … from” sticker. As the pile grows higher, and Christmas Eve approaches, children in homes around the world have their curiosity fired! They struggle to go to sleep because they know their curiosity will be finally satisfied, just a sunrise away. They can’t wait for the time – when everyone has arrived, and the gift opening begins. And parents equally can’t wait, often weary of how often they have to say, “Not yet”, “I don’t know”, and “you’ll just have to wait and see”.
Some years ago, when I was with the North American Mission Board in Alpharetta, Georgia. I along with the rest of the staff suffered through what can only be called a failed effort in deploying an online learning system. A lot of money had been invested in providing this benefit to the staff, but less than 30 people had signed up, most showing little interest in the opportunity. They had not even had any interest in discovering if it was something that would be beneficial to them or not.
Because of some creative training I had done before, I was asked to manage a relaunch, to see if we could generate interest and involvement. Over a period of two months, I repeatedly triggered curiosity among the staff. I had the IT department create an email alias for me, “Carmen and Sam Diego”. For two months, “Carmen and Sam” emailed the staff at least once a week, with clues as to where they might be on a certain day at a certain time. I came in on the weekends and created large foam core stand up characters of Carmen and Sam, and moved them around the building. I had them at the entrance, on various floors; even coming out of the ceiling in a couple of places. The tag line? “Where in the world are Carmen and Sam Diego”. On the day, at the place, at 10 am, two-thirds of the staff were lined up to get in to find out how their curiosity could be satisfied. 200 people participated in the registration and information fair.
They couldn’t help themselves. Their curiosity was triggered. They just HAD to know.
Do not let this irony slip past you. A five figure program to provide education and training for staff development failed to provide education, training or staff development – until their curiosity was triggered.
Does this sound familiar? We offer it but they don’t take advantage of it. We offer Bible studies but most don’t attend. And I will tell you that in almost every case, there is tacit blame on those that don’t attend (“they should want to…”). We shouldn’t blame them, but we also should not blame the church leadership. They’ve never been told of the power of triggering curiosity. They’ve never been taught how to ask GREAT questions. But they have been taught to follow the literature.
After graduating from seminary I went on to spend about ten years in youth ministry. I then went back to seminary to study for an EdD. Because it had been so long between degrees, I had to take three education classes from the Master’s program to remediate my qualifications for the doctoral program. In the “Adult Education in the Local Church” class, I had an experience that illustrates this all too well.
The purpose of this class was to inform and demonstrate for the theology students the various denominational educational resources available to them. As the only adult education course that was required for them, this was where they would get their introduction to the educational ministry of the church. I will never forget that class.
After ten years of leading people to faith in Christ; ten years of developing students and leaders; ten years of training them in life changing Bible study practice and methodology, I hear the professor say one day, “It is not possible to train your people to lead a better Bible Study week in and week out, than what they get in the literature (provided by the denomination).”
Sometimes, I just can’t help myself. So, I asked, “Then, is my job, as a minister of education, to order literature? I don’t need to train people how to teach? How to prepare a life-changing Bible study?” The reason I don’t recall his answer is that he didn’t give one. I don’t think I made a friend that day.
But this is also not to blame the seminary professors or literature publishing houses. Perhaps no one has ever told them the value of the curiosity trigger. We have somehow come to believe and expect that it is the disciple’s responsibility to get discipled. It is, after all, one of the spiritual disciplines that will prove spiritual maturity. This is a tragic re-assignment of Jesus’ command. Jesus told the mature to disciple the saved. I can’t find any place in scripture where Jesus commands the saved to seek out more mature believers who will lecture them about the facts and content of Bible passages, dictionaries and commentaries. (See Reason #2: Telling Them What to Think in the post Two Reasons Why We’re Not Making Disciples.)
I was a member of a church some years ago that highly valued servant leadership. I was dumbfounded when I discovered how they trained their students to be servant leaders. It began with incoming 7th graders each year. Every year, on the first Sunday when the new students moved up, they had a lunch, and they required that the 7th graders serve the high school seniors. This is because they wanted them to the Learn? Know? Obey? that they were to be servants. In case you don’t share my #dumbfoundedness, do you remember how Jesus taught servant leadership? Remember when he sat down and made all of His disciples wash His feet?
You don’t remember that because that’s not what He did. How much more powerful would it have been for the seniors to serve the 7th graders? And not just at a first week breakfast, but for an entire year. Those seventh graders would have discovered experientially the joy of service; of giving their lives for others. That someone so powerful (a senior) had consistently been there for them, would fire their imagination of what it would be like for them to give away their own life in the same way. (And tangentially, how many more 7th graders would participate, year after year, when word got out about the senior servant leader model?)
Do you remember 7th grade? Did any high school senior ever care for you in any way at all, other than being the target of some joke? Odds are, being ignored was the best you could hope for. Imagine the curiosity that Jesus triggered, and that high school seniors could trigger, when lives are invested in those less fortunate and less powerful. During and after those experiences, most seventh graders would want to become the same kind of servant for the incoming classes.
I soon discovered that this backwards service idea came from their literature.
Contemporary studies in curiosity have occurred two or three times.
“The first, in the 1960s, focused mainly on curiosity’s psychological underpinnings. The second, in the 1970s and 1980s, was characterized by attempts to measure curiosity and assess its dimensionality.” –
The Psychology of Curiosity: A Review and Reinterpretation, Loewenstien, Psychology Bulletin, 1994, Vol 115.
There is a third view on this subject to be considered: in Lowenstein’s work, he
“…interprets curiosity as a form of cognitively induced deprivation that arises from the perception of a gap in knowledge or understanding.”
To simplify Lowenstein’s overview, curiosity has been studied from the standpoints of:
Psychological underpinnings – how curiosity affects human behavior (good and bad)
Measurement – how much cause and how much effect is involved (this effort failed to make any substantial determinations)
The Curiosity Trigger – we HAVE to discover how to fill the gap in knowledge or understanding
This third view is why the iDiscover method works. GREAT questions create the perception of a gap in knowledge or understanding. This is how Jesus had so much fun with the religious. He asked them GREAT questions that exposed the gap in their knowledge vs their behavior. This is why he asked GREAT questions of the Disciples. He created the perception of a gap in their knowledge and they just HAD to discover the answer. He did not show up and lecture them every day, expecting them to retain a level of interest, just because they were supposed to. He made us, and therefore He knows how he designed us to learn, to engage, and to be changed. Jesus was a master of triggering curiosity.
Some years ago, I was leading a home Bible study in Colorado. A very nice lady in our church had opened her home. As we discussed the parameters and logistics of the study, the reality that her husband (1) was not a believer and (2) would be present, flavored our preparations. He was in management with his company. They had a very nice home. These facts, among others, spoke to an accomplished and financially successfully life.
He was not antagonistic about Christianity. But it was very clear that he was also not interested. He was attending out of politeness and early on I could tell his plan was to silently observe. Experience tells me that he may have had it in his mind that he could gather ammunition from the experience to “prove” to his wife her “mistake” in believing in Christ
Three GREAT questions into the study, he could not help himself. His curiosity to discover resolution – to fill the gap – had been triggered. He HAD to answer. He HAD to engage. He HAD to participate and find the resolution and truth regarding the questions posed. He interrupted another participant, albeit kindly, to share his thoughts on the concepts in question.
This is why my friend, John Moore has said this about iDiscover:
“I have been teaching Bible study since 1985 and I was amazed at this fresh approach to the classroom….an approach where the newest convert can participate along with the seasoned ‘veteran’.”
And this is a key way that iDiscover is different from any other process you may have learned. This is not about showing up with enough information to fill the hour, enough doctrine to educate the masses, or enough inspiration to garner the respect of the class. iDiscover is about creating curiosity by asking GREAT questions that cause participants to engage. This is not about showing up with the just the right gizmo, gadget, or toy to illustrate a point. This is about asking such GREAT questions that those in the group just HAVE to participate with others and with God’s word. And, there is nothing better for an in-person or online group than thought-provoking and engaging questions.
I was able to share some iDiscover principles with my dear friend, Matt Edwards, a few months ago. He put them into practice the next week. After the third week, he called me. This is what he said:
“For more than 30 years, I’ve been considered a preacher, a prophet and evangelist. For the first time in my ministry, someone has called me a Bible teacher.”
Pastor Matt Edwards, Spring Creek Church, Weatherford, TX
iDiscover can help you and your ministry, whether you are on staff or simply lead a small group in your home. iDiscover is not for sale, but I’ll give it away to anyone wants to learn a better way.
When our kids were children, we had to move, taking them away from their schools and friends. One night, I was out shopping and found the largest stuffed animals I had ever seen. These floppy-eared dogs were more than twice as long as my oldest was tall.
Because I wanted each child to enjoy this special gift with me, I planned to give them one at a time. Sarah came outside when she heard me drive up, and I brought out her dog! Her eyes were never so big, her joy EXACTLY what I had expected. Before I knew it, she ran inside, floppy-dog flopping even more and trailing behind her as she ran. Bethany and Jesse met her, coming the other way, and as only a child could in that instant, each must have assumed that I loved Sarah more than they. Their expressions of sadness and disbelief as they came out the door fully powered by their lack of floppy-dog.
One look at their faces and I wept. I fell to the ground with sadness. I didn’t just sniffle, rather, there were big tears best described by the term “weep”. I was so sad because they were sad. It hurt deeply that they believed I had let them down. It didn’t matter that I knew I had the same great gift for both to them. It didn’t matter that I knew that their response was that of a child, ignorant of the unseen and unknown around them. All that mattered at that moment was that I felt sad because they felt sad.
I simply pulled their floppy-dogs from the trunk of the car, and there were smiles all around. Hero. Strong emotions. Happy ending.
But Jesus did weep. Unfortunately, the scripture doesn’t directly tell us why. Our experience tells us that he was sad because Lazarus’ friends and family were sad, that his friend had died.
The scripture tells us:
He was reprimanded by Mary – “…if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v. 32).
He was moved in spirit and troubled by her weeping, and that of the Jews with her (v. 33)
He was escorted to the tomb (v.34)
And we are then told that He wept. (v.35)
But we’re also told in the broader passage:
As soon as He heard that Lazarus was sick, He announced that the story would not end in death. (vs. 4)
The entire episode from sickness, to death, to raised from death was planned to give God glory (vs. 4)
He chose to delay his departure to see Lazarus for two days, ensuring that Lazarus would die, even though John notes that Jesus loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. (vs. 7)
He knew that Lazarus had died before he left (vs. 11)
He clearly states that He is glad that Lazarus has died, because of the faith that would develop in this God-glorifying experience (vs. 14-15)
And because it is important to us, especially at this time in our culture, that Jesus empathize with us, we conclude that the spirit moved in Him and He was troubled by what He had allowed to happen. That’s right, He had purposely allowed Lazarus to die. And therefore, based on these two verses, we must conclude that this is why He wept. (*See Haha above.)
When one reads this for the first time, they often filter this response through their own experiences. We can think of all the reasons why we would weep, and it doesn’t take long to find one that resonates.
However, this is a common mistake – for one to ascribe to Jesus motivations that resonate with one’s own heart will at best be close, and at worst be naught. Our answer to a “Why” question is almost always less: less sufficient, less correct, less in alignment with His will, less to His glory and more to ours.
I don’t believe that Jesus wept for this reason. He was not sad because they were sad. It did not hurt Him deeply because He had not let them down. It mattered that He knew He had a great gift for them all. It mattered that He knew that their response was because they were ignorant of the unseen and unknown around them. And, of all that mattered in that moment, the least of what mattered was how they felt.
Ok, then. Why do you think He wept?
I don’t think that Jesus just ambled around the planet looking for good things to do while He was here. I believe He was the God-man on purpose. Every place He went, every conversation He had, every person He touched, every lesson He taught, and the way He taught every lesson were all by design. His three years of ministry were designed to prepare the world as a farmer would prepare the soil, as well as a small cadre of followers to how to farm. He wasted no time on this effort, as He had none to waste. It was critical to my salvation and yours, and to all those who came before, and all those that will follow, that this small cadre be forever committed to bear fruit from the Gospel.
As Jesus approached the grave of Lazarus, there were at least three things He knew. We can only be sure of two of them.
1. He knew Lazarus was dead.
Doornail dead. Dead and buried. And the scripture here informs us very well.
“And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” Hebrews 9:27 ESV (cf Rev 20:12, 15)
There is no third option for mankind. Our eternal existence will either a celebration in the presence of the Father or a desperate desolation absent the presence of the Father. Heaven or Hell. Eternal Life or Eternal Death. We either live once and die twice, or we live twice and die once.
Because Lazarus was dead, he was in one place or the other.
Many would say Heaven. After all, Jesus loved him and he loved Jesus. He was a follower. But, based on everything Mary and Martha said to Jesus at the funeral, did He really understand salvation?
Some might say Hell. Not because Lazarus was a bad guy (that’s not why people are separated from God), but because Jesus had not yet resurrected; He had not yet paid the price for the sin of all the world. It was not possible to be saved by faith because the grave still had its victory and death still had its sting. (1 Cor 15:55).
For the sake of this conversation, it matters little which one was true. Because the question is, Why did Jesus weep?
Let’s say that it was the latter. That Lazarus was separated from God. Standing across from that grave, Jesus would have known the price that Lazarus paid for this lesson to be taught. Jesus would have known the foreshadowing of His own forsakenness on the cross yet to come (see The Cross vs the Grave). I believe that His knowing what his friend had had to endure for days would have caused him enough duress to weep.
On the other hand, let’s say it was the former. That Lazarus was in the presence of God. Standing across from that grave, Jesus would have known the price that Lazarus was about to pay for this lesson to be taught. Jesus knew full well what it was like to leave perfection to walk among sinful mankind. He knew the glory of the Father and joy of His presence like no other. And He would know that to call Lazarus from the grave would be to call Him away – to call him back to sin, sorrow, and death once more. I believe this, too, would be cause enough for Jesus to weep.
2. He knew the Cross was next.
Two things of note happened after Lazarus came forth.
First, while many of the Jews that were there believed in Him (v.45), others ran to the Pharisees to tattle on Jesus. This act of raising Lazarus was the last straw for the Pharisees. Verse 53 summarizes the result of their conversation: “So, from that day on, they made plans to put Him to death.”
Secondly, because of this very real threat, Jesus went into hiding. But He wasn’t hiding out of fear. We know that He was able to walk through violent crowds without receiving even a scratch (Luke 4:28-30).
He was hiding because it was not yet His time. Passover was His time, and it was fast approaching. In fact, John reports nothing in his Gospel account between the Lazarus event and Passover preparation except Jesus going into hiding. Jesus knew the Cross – His time – was next.
3. He knew His Followers Still Did Not Get It.
Just consider the following comments from his followers in this passage. This is not an attempt to belittle those closest to Jesus. Neither you nor I would have gotten it at this point either.
vs 16: Upon hearing that Jesus would not be deterred from going to Lazarus, Thomas “knew” that they were all going to die. (His followers’ early death was not at all part of His plan.)
vss 21-27: Martha’s first words to Jesus were of complaint and blame. You can just hear her cry, “This is all your fault!”
Then she turned to a request only He could fulfill, but she really didn’t believe it. She says that “…even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Sounds like faith. But when Jesus tells her that Lazarus will rise again, she repeats the promise of the resurrection in the distant last days. She was really speaking out of her pain and loss, and wanted Jesus to cure that pain and loss. (Nowhere is it in God’s plan that those who are called by His name will be absent pain and loss. In fact, it’s just the opposite. The world is not our home. The world system is not our friend. Christians are belittled, maligned, mistreated, ostracized, and/or murdered in places all over the world because of Christ.)
vss 28-36: Now it’s Mary’s turn to blame Him, repeating what she and Martha must surely have repeated to one another time and again while they waited for Jesus to come. “If only he had been here….”
vss 38-40: He had told them that God would be glorified, but they argued with Him!
Jesus: Remove the stone.
Crowd: That can’t be right! Don’t you know the dead body will stink by now?
Jesus knew Lazarus was paying a high price.
He knew that the Cross was next.
And He knew that His closest followers still did not yet get it. And this living parable was the last opportunity to correct that.
I would have wept, too.
How is it possible that we have the faith to believe that Jesus is in control, and yet argue with Him and blame Him when things don’t go our way?
How is it possible that we can believe that Jesus suffered, bled, and died so that the whole world through all generations to come would have the opportunity to know Him, while at the same time believing that Jesus is most interested in our feelings?
You cannot lead anyone further than you’ve already been. And if you want to lead someone well, you need to travel that road a while. Travel that road often.
My Bachelor’s Degree is in Math Education. With that degree, I was able to teach all levels of high school math in an era before calculus was standard fare. I taught Algebra, Geometry, and Computer Science (this, before the first PC was sold in the US.)
To get that degree, I had to take Number Theory (where we spent time in base 2 and base 7 instead of base 10). I had to take four semesters of calculus. The only reason I didn’t fail that last semester is the prof chose to not fail me. There were two take home exams that semester. We were given a week to accomplish each. I attempted to answer all 7 of the questions on the mid-term and passed that one. I don’t remember the specific details of the final, but it was only 2 questions. The first question left me staring into space, wondering what in the world I was supposed to have studied for the 4 prior months. I never got to the second question. The first question went something like this:
In a cage you have a male and female bunny. Under normal conditions, bunnies reproduce 5 time per year with 4 kits per litter. In the water supply for the rabbits, you introduce a small ratio of alcohol, that ratio increasing by a certain amount over time. Alcohol serves to impede the reproductive rate of bunnies at a certain rate by volume over time. Assume that the litters, over time, average out to have the same number of males and females. Bunnies are able to reproduce beginning at 8 months old. Based on these conditions…
How many bunnies would you have after 24 months?
Not only did I have no words, I had no math. Not for bunnies anyway.
But what the number theory and calculus courses did do for me was take me a long way down that math road. Past potholes, pitfalls, and precipice. I could teach Geometry and Algebra in my sleep because of the depth of training I received.
You certainly can choose to journey together down a new road, but you can’t lead anyone. You’ve not yet seen the potholes or precipice. You’ve not experienced the detours and difficulties. And you’ve never found the amazingly powerful truths the exist beyond the pitfalls that cause most to turn back. Leading someone requires experience. Often, enough experience to fail and succeed.
If you agree with this, then let’s consider one implication.
Evangelism is Dead I grow weary of hearing the erroneous conclusion of oft-cited “survey” that tells us the difficulty in reaching people for Christ. “If we don’t reach them by a certain age”, the report goes, “then the chances of reaching them grow dim.”
The tipping point age used to be 18, then 16. Now, according to some, it is 12. If we don’t reach them by the age of 12, then our chances of reaching them diminished significantly.
And in every church that I’ve heard this quoted, it is used to promote the idea that we need to invest more in our children’s ministry and preteen ministry. After all if we don’t reach them in those ministries, they won’t be reached. And in many churches, this translates to reaching them before the age of accaountability. Reaching them before they comprehend their need. Reaching them before they can possibly understand the verses we’ve had them memorize or the prayer we led them to pray.
So you don’t miss a serious implication, let’s agree that “reached” does not mean attendance or presence or participation. “Reached” in this context refers to one giving their life Christ. So then, the serious implication is that in so many cases, the children may have gone through the motions, but they are not “reached”. We have effectively applied spiritual millstones around their necks.
The warning raised by the stat caused us to Lead In to the Walls – to turn inward to those who were already among us or will find us under their own steam – inside our walls. The real solution would be to Lead Out in to the Wild – creating effective ministries that turn outward – where the real need is.
How did we get here? We got here because you can’t take anyone further than we’ve already gone. Our churches are filled today with people that made their salvation decision for Christ inside the walls of the church. The number of believers that are passionate about evangelism that actually practice evangelism in the wild seems to have diminished faster than the reachable age.
So, to paraphrase how this oft-cited quote is misunderstood, “If we don’t reach the children for Christ that are already in our walls or will come inside our walls by their own effort before they turn 12, we may not ever reach them”.
A corollary to this is something like:
“What we’re doing doesn’t work for those in the wild, even though it is supposed to. We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing and just blame the difficulty on the lost people – they’re just harder to reach.”
That oft-cited quote should have raised alarm bells to develop evangelism efforts in the wild. We should have created opportunities that took advantage of the system that would have us removed from schools and the public square. We didn’t do that because you can’t take anyone further than you’ve been. And our churches are lacking critical mass in people who met Christ in the wild, to help move the church out to the wild.
I don’t have any stats, but in the last six churches that I’ve been a member of, only two of the pastors practiced and talked about experiential evangelism in the wild – reaching the lost where they live, work and play.
Unfortunately, neither of those two ever trained anyone while we were there – they never took anyone with them to learn this increasingly rare behavior. In both cases, the church members were always glad and excited that people got saved. Just never glad and excited enough to demand that their pastor train them in a hands on, experiential way. But to be clear, I know for a fact that these pastors were challenged to take members out and train them. They just didn’t.
Of greater misfortune, three of the remaining pastors did not practice evangelism in the wild. They were glad when people got saved in their church, but they had no stories to tell, no effort to share of them reaching people where they live, work, and play.
And of greatest misfortune, one of those pastors admitted to me that they had never led anyone to Christ in a one-on-one conversation. Certainly people had responded to a Gospel presentation before, but no experience with personal evangelism.
Sadly, in all six churches, from the tepid challenge to “tell your story” to a strong admonition to share the gospel, not one of these churches leveraged their God-given resources to build a church-based evangelism effort. They limited there challenge to the individual. “You. You go. You go to your friends and family.” And even one of them actually said, “And we (the staff) will be here if you need anything.” (See “The Problem With My Neighbors” to understand why this has never worked broadly in the US.)
Let that sink in.
The reason that students and young adults are harder to reach has little to do with their social, emotional, or educational development. It has everything to do with these facts:
We think disciple making is the activity of improving the spiritual state of saved people.
We think the process of disciple making is best done by telling believers what to think instead of training them how to think.
If we think disciple making is fundamentally about working with saved people, then we make evangelism optional. The Great Commission (Matt 28:19-20), then, does not include it. Therefore:
it is not required by Jesus (not to mention)
uncomfortable for us (and finally, after all)
it is the pastor’s job
We therefore don’t need to be concerned about it other than to be happy when it accidentally happens.
You can’t lead anyone where you’ve never been. So we have effectively killed evangelism. That is why it is harder to reach people over the age of 12. Not because they are hard to reach, but because we’ve stopped doing the hard work of reaching others in the wild.
If you’ve never been trained, go to your pastor and demand it. Demand that he connect you with an evangelistic mentor for the express purpose of learning how to share the gospel in a hands-on, experiential way.
Now I know for a fact that you’ve been challenged, too.
We didn’t “learn” either one of these things by reading a book. We learned them experientially. We’ve heard the announcements from the pulpit, read them on our church websites, attended discipleship groups – be they D-groups, small groups, community groups, Sunday School, or any other name that promotes the idea that “disciple making” happens better in small groups or in circles.
How ironic it is that we have learned experientially to “teach” passively.
We have “learned” that disciple making is the process of improving the spiritual state of saved people.
We have “learned” that telling people what to think, rather than how to think, is the disciple making process
Reason #1: Improving Our Spiritual State
This is the flaw. The re-definition so that what we do appears to match what scripture says. Disciple making doesn’t happen better in small groups. Disciple making doesn’t happen at all when everyone in the room is saved. Disciple making can only happen when at least one lost person is in the conversation. And disciple making can only occur when that conversation is about accepting Christ as Lord/Savior. And disciple making ONLY occurs when one without Christ accepts the salvation of Christ – in that case, a disciple is made.
Maybe you want to make a bank teller. You wouldn’t go get a bank teller, stand them at a different window (small group) and announce to the world, “Look at the bank teller I made”.
Maybe it’s a doctor you’d like to make. You wouldn’t go get a doctor from Mercy General and take them to All Saints Urgent Care and say, “Look at the doctor I made.”
Making disciples, like doctors and bank tellers, starts from scratch. You start with someone that can become a doctor or teller; someone that is not a doctor or teller, and then you make that person into a doctor or teller. You make disciples by taking people that are not disciples and introducing them to Christ. If they accept Christ, then you are free to announce to the world, “Look at the Disciple Christ made.”
The only reason that we need more people in medical school is that we need more doctors! We certainly don’t need to keep people in medical school because the school needs to keep their enrollment up.
If you’re reading this, then you’re likely very familiar with this passage – Jesus’ “famous last words”. aka, “The Great Commission”:
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
But odds are you’ve never been in a church that actually does this in a deliberate, replicable way.
With doctors, and bank tellers, there is an end in mind. Training is designed to produce the intended result. Unfortunately, for the church, the end that is too often in mind is passive behaviors that can be held accountable – “being discipled” rather than being and doing. What is the end in mind for the “disciple making” ministry in your church?
More people in a small group study?
More people having a quiet time?
More people memorizing scripture?
More people journaling?
Did Jesus take saved men and instruct them in bible study, quiet time, scripture memory and journaling? Or did He engage them in active, hands-on, experiential learning that aligned with the challenging conversations He had with them.
None of these disciplines, in and of themselves, are bad. What is wholly insufficient is that today, these are the marks of a disciple rather than the making of disciples; rather than being actively engaged in world-changing, life-changing ministry.
Some will certainly say, “But those disciplines create disciples that do what you’re saying.”
To that, I have to ask you if you have noticed the state of the church in the United States – the church that has emphasized these passive disciplines as self-contained behaviors for decades? Organizations that emphasize these disciplines are not producing disciple makers unless they are combined with purposeful hands-on, experiential learning. And here’s the kicker – whatever personal spiritual disciplines you might ascribe to Jesus’ training with the Twelve, those disciplines followed rather than preceded their engagement in hands-on, experiential learning.
Unfortunately, It’s just easier to take a headcount of how many are doing the disciplines.
I once heard a sermon out of Acts 4. One of the points that the speaker made was that because (in vs 13) Peter and John were “…unschooled, ordinary men…” we didn’t need to be trained either. We just need to trust the Holy Spirit for boldness like Peter and John did. I found that very odd, because in the aforementioned passage, Jesus commanded that disciples be taught (trained, schooled…?) to obey everything He taught. And, while it should be obvious to anyone who is more than just a casual reader of scripture that the Priests and Sadducees in this passage were referring to Peter and John’s lack of “priestly training” or “training in the traditions and Law”, it should also be obvious that Peter and John had spent three years in intensive, hands-on, experiential training with the “Master Trainer” before He told them in Matthew 28 what to do with all that training!
Jesus sent them into a world where NO ONE was saved. NO ONE had come to salvation (save the smattering of people that had been committed followers with the now Apostles). There is no possible way to interpret Jesus’ command to “make disciples” as “gathering saved people in small groups to improve their spiritual state”. (That activity is contained in the subsequent command… “teaching (training) them to obey everything I commanded…”)
You see, what Jesus did with Peter and John (and at least 9 others) was – and don’t miss this – He made disciples. He took those who were not saved and brought them to salvation. And in the process, He trained them in everything they needed to know for them to make disciples and in turn train those new disciples. He experientially trained them in the Gospel message, in the meeting of needs and giving of grace SO THAT they could share the Gospel message. The Holy Spirit took trained men and made them bold in sharing the Gospel message. We cannot expect this to happen from passive classroom or small group teaching. Training requires active, experiential learning.
I was once a member of a church where one of the well-respected volunteer leaders liked to teach “Share Jesus Without Fear”. Unfortunately, there was no uptick in sharing, no stories of folks in the church sharing Jesus with or without fear. In a telling personal, private moment with just a few key leaders, we were all asked to share the last time we had led someone to Christ. This individual could not think of one time – he was almost 60 years old at this time – and he could not think of one person that he had led to Christ. He had grown children whom someone else must have led to Christ. You may not be surprised that this church is now closed after a 30 year existence. Not because of this one individual, but because of the pervasive idea that disciple making is a passive classroom activity designed to improve the spiritual state of those who already know Christ.
When we don’t agree with Jesus that the starting point is those without him, we are left with what is effectively a death spiral like the one illustrated above. We are left then, to begin with those that already know Christ. In our effort to be obedient, we continually strive to “teach” them more and more how to be like Jesus, how to be closer to Jesus, how to please Jesus – all without training them – without giving them the intensive, hands-on, experiential training required for boldness and leading others to that saving relationship with Christ. (You might consider that this would please Him most of all.) This is a death spiral because we have to find new and “better” ways to communicate the same truths over and over again. This is untenable due to the decades-long life Christians lead as they seek to be more like Jesus without making disciples. More and better is only temporary. Solomon said it best, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
Most will stop attending regularly over time. Most will drop out over time. Some will relocate to other cities. Some will pass away. Some will change churches due to preferences, splits, life-stage changes, etc. And the reality of today – many will just stop attending altogether. Most churches are dependent on disciples moving into their area to maintain attendance levels. They are also dependent on this “new blood” for leaders – disciples that have been trained elsewhere.
One of the nails in this coffin is the often stated purpose of this effort. For ME to be more like Christ. For ME to be closer to Christ. For ME to know more of His word. For ME to be equipped. This is exacerbated by the implication that we’re never close enough, know enough, or equipped enough, because we must always be in a group… learning. (Please re-read the Great Commission and identify the part of the passage where it’s all about you.)
A second nail in this coffin is the lack of new disciples. This is the root of why thousands of churches are closing each year. We are too busy being trained to be better – or not being trained at all – to spend any time or concern making disciples.
Don’t hear me say that there is an endpoint to what we can learn from Christ and His word. But please do hear me say that Jesus thought that three years of His “classroom”, “apprenticeship”, and “guided learning” were enough. Do hear me say that I believe it was never His intention that we spend our life’s spiritual energy on learning everything that can be learned. Paul battled with “learning based” folks like this (Gnostics) throughout his ministry. But what Jesus did do after three years was set them loose on the world to do and be. But He didn’t just tell them to go and find something to do. He gave them specific instructions. He knew before He trained them what their assignment would be and He trained them for that end.
Jesus knows that we learn so much more by doing and being than we do in a classroom or small group. He knows this because he made us – and he made us to be experiential learners. And it turns out that it is not nearly so necessary to manufacture motivation for people to “learn more” or “follow closer” or “be more like Christ” when they are actively involved in the life changing work he calls us to. The work itself reveals how much we need him, how wonderful he is, and this drives our seeking after him all the more. This is one of the reasons why it is true, that if you want to get something done, ask a busy person to do it. They are already motivated.
Let’s all agree that we’re not nearly the trainer that Jesus is/was. Since that’s true, let’s all agree that three years may be a bit ambitious. However, we do have His word and the Holy Spirit, so can we agree on six years? Nine years? At what point should a disciple be more about doing and being than about classroom learning? If that point never arrives, then perhaps we should just admit that what we’re really about is gnostic-ship training instead of disciple-ship training. How much easier it would be if only Jesus had said, “Go into all the world and teach them everything you can think of.”
And this then, is why most people have never experienced this deliberate, replicable ministry. Churches do groups and classes well. While key leaders have better hearts and intention than this, unfortunately the win for the church is maintaining head count. The win for some is increasing headcount. But whether it is the number of people in the morning service or the number of people in groups, the gathered quantity is still the win.
How many have been released into ministry?
How many life-changing efforts are led by non-staff disciples?
How many disciples have been trained with the end in mind that they will be part of a church plant or mission team?
How many disciples have been trained to replicate themselves?
How many disciples HAVE replicated themselves?
How many have been trained (the Jesus way – active, real world, hands on) to lead others to Christ… to actually “make disciples”?
These “wins” are very different than the headcount wins of most programs. While I love hearing about people getting saved in worship services, I would much rather hear about a continual flow of people receiving Christ in the wild because disciples were trained to do what Jesus commanded.
Create a four year plan for ministry growth and development. In that plan, list the leadership and service positions that will be necessary for the success of that plan. Then set 10-25% of those positions specifically for the placement of “newly made disciples” that were then subsequently trained with this end in mind, so that they can complete the assignment for which they have been trained. And then you better get after it! You can’t wait for year four to roll around to decide it’s about time to lead someone to Christ and see if they’re up for being trained in this way. You need to start now and never stop.
Or try this. What spiritual gifts are present in your church? What ministries would benefit from leaders with those gifts? Create a training pipeline to develop leaders with those ends in mind, so that they can lead in ministries that either exist or are on your drawing board. But whatever you do, make sure you train them to be disciple makers, too.
Reason #2: Telling Them What to Think
You may think that people are thinking for themselves in your group discussions. But in fact, most aren’t. If you are using any form of curriculum the way it is intended to be used (there may be rare exceptions to this), then you are preparing to tell your group what to think. Each lesson has several points, generally contained within the context of the passage (see Acts 4:13 for the problem with this). As the leader, you spend your time studying the material so you tell/lead your group to learn the points contained in the lesson. At the end, the win is for the participants in your group to agree with what they have been told to think.
Because finding volunteers for this type of effort has become increasingly difficult, DVD lessons by inspiring speakers are available for anyone to use. In these cases, the leader only has to ask questions that he/she has been told to ask, so they can discuss what they’ve been told to think, albeit having been told in an inspiring way.
The problem here is that inspiration doesn’t last. Inspiration and conviction are not the same thing at all. Inspiration evokes enjoyment. You may hear things like, “That was great!” or “I really like the way she phrased that.” Or “I’ve never thought of it like that before.” And “That was so inspiring!”
Those are really positive and affirming messages. None of which speak to any conviction or life change.
Conviction evokes life change. Inspiration generally lasts until the next problem arises, even if it is a traffic jam or argument on the way home from the group.
Inspiration, however, does raise the bar for the next small group experience. You’ll need to continue to find inspiring material to keep participants engaged. Once you’ve enjoyed an inspiring teacher who does all the work for you, it will be hard to go back to something not as easy or inspiring.
You will also likely run in to the common complaint of, “I’m just not being “fed”, because once someone already thinks what you’ve told them to think, telling them the same things under cover of a different lesson or different teacher really is less filling.
No Room for Error
Years ago, after relocating to the east coast, we were visiting a variety of adult classes in a church that we later joined, in order to find one that would work for us. But in one of the 7 classes we tried, this one is most memorable. I arrived before the leader, to a room with the chairs in an open horseshoe. At the open end was a small desk and chair. The leader came in with his three-ring binder, took the seat at the desk, and after announcements and prayer, began to read his notes to the group. It was hard to find a way to participate, because any comment would have been an interruption. One hour of being told what to think.
If you don’t allow for thought, for discussion, for conclusions good and bad, then you can be sure of three things.
No one will disagree with what you tell them to think
No one will learn how to think
No one will actually know why they think what they’ve been told, and their “beliefs” will wither under pressure.
Generalities are Only Helpful… Not Truth
Some years later, I attended an adult Bible study for the first time at a church we were visiting. The leader had his notes in front of him – a sheet of paper with single spaced bullet points (FRONT and BACK) – with the apparent intention of getting through them all in the hour. Being new, I tried to take a passive position. If you know me, you know this to be a futile effort most of the time. The topic of the day appeared to be “yeast”. Lots of passages about yeast. Lots of bullet points about yeast.
And then he said it. Yep, he pulled on that thread that made passivity futile for me. He said, “Every passage of scripture that refers to yeast is a reference to sin.” He had done two things in his effort to tell this group of people what to think:
he had drawn an incorrect conclusion
he had announced it as something that we should learn, know, and agree with
I spoke up, interrupting his delivery. “What about the passage where Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to yeast?” (Matt 13:31-33)
And then he doubled-down. Because he had taken a stand, he wasn’t going to back down, so he said something to the effect of, “Well, that’s also a reference to sin if you look at it the right way.”
To which I said, resulting in many head nods in the room, “We’ll just have to agree to disagree.”
He then continued with the bullet points, telling us what to think.
How much better if he had just asked us to discuss the differences and similarities between Matthew 13 and any one of the other passages from which he drew his conclusion. One of the things that surely would have arisen out of this effort to train people how to think would be this: Generalities can be helpful, but we shouldn’t take them as absolutely true.
I had the opportunity a few years ago to lead a training session for a group of adult Bible study leaders – there was more than 100 years of experience in the group of 12 or so leaders.
To begin, I asked this question: “Tell us a story about someone in your group whose life has changed as a result of your Bible Study?”
Silence was the response. What seemed like many minutes went by. Finally, one leader said that a member of his class had begun reading the Bible every day.
100 years of Bible study and one person is reading their Bible regularly. Not to diminish the change for that person, but…. wow.
This was an established church that used curriculum for all of their classes. For years – members of this church had gathered together to be told what to think by someone who had spent hours studying a lesson so they could tell them what to think.
The Jesus Experience
This is not what Jesus did. Jesus made the disciples (and others) think. He made them decide. He made them discuss what they thought. And (hold on now) he let them live with the consequences of thinking badly and making mistakes. He let them learn experientially.
Oh, yes, he did do a lot of telling, too. Just look at the Sermon on the Mount. Lots of telling there. Jesus was both preacher and trainer. He preached to the crowds. He trained the few.
His training of the few was different than his preaching to crowds. He asked questions. Not because questions are good, but because the kind of questions He asked caused his followers to learn how to think. And he allowed for wrong answers and bad conclusions. He allowed them to learn from each other. He used comparisons and contrasts to generate deeper level thinking. He used analogies and parables and required that they think through the meanings and implications of the ideas and concepts he was leading them to comprehend and synthesize into their lives.
(Note: compare for yourself the difference in impact of a concept that is learned vs that concept comprehended vs that concept synthesized. Yes, you’ll have to think. Google and dictionary.com might be helpful. Hint: Bloom’s Taxonmy.)
Jesus first made disciples – “Come follow me!” – and they did. Then He trained them in everything they needed. His training sessions were generally one to a few questions, followed by a wide variety of hands-on learning experiences. Followed by debriefing sessions. Followed by more training. Over three years, he trained them through the experiential learner’s model: (1) I do it and you watch. (2) I do it and you help. (3) You do it and I help. (4) You do it. He then sent them out to (5) do it with another watching.
His small group sessions would really have only been theoretical without the real world training. They may have “learned” what He said, but they would not have “LEARNED” what He said. You can’t train people how to share Jesus without fear (and expect bold, Holy Spirit results) if you don’t take each and every one out and show them and then enable them with you to share Jesus, first with fear, and in the repeated experience, without fear. (See “The T-Ball Approach” in the post, The Problem With My Neighbors.)
You can’t train someone (and expect bold, Holy Spirit life change) how to lead a Bible study by handing them a piece of curriculum and telling them to follow the directions.
You can’t have effective deacons and elders by waiting until they’re approved by the church and then give them a book to read on their responsibilities.
The Great Commission is not a linear list of commands; it is a circular, replicable “so that” life cycle. Mature beings are capable of reproducing. And He intends for us to do that.
Go (so that you can) …
Make Disciples (so that you can) …
Teach (train) them everything Jesus commanded (so that they will)…
Go (so that they can) …
Make Disciples (so that they can) …
Teach (train) them everything Jesus commanded (so that they will)…
Go (so that they can) …
Make Disciples (so that they can) …
Teach (train) them everything Jesus commanded (so that they will)…
We really can and should be making disciples. Reach out if you’d like to explore next steps for your ministry or group. You can leave a comment below, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2 Timothy 3:16 tells us God’s Word “is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”
Teaching – Giving instruction
Rebuking – Identifying where a mistake has been made
Correcting – How to return to the correct line of action or behavior
Training in Righteousness – How to never need rebuking again!
These four useful “turns” of instruction of God’s word can be very helpful in developing engaging and life-changing lessons. The beauty of the facilitating the self-discovery of truth is that it greatly enhances the effectiveness in our culture for communicating the most difficult of the four, “rebuke” and “correction”. People generally will change their mind about something if they discover the truth for themselves. We are all prone to resist rebuke and correction when it comes at us head on.
We live in a culture where the masses at church love the teaching and training, but resist the rebuke and correction. Yet, we know from our own childhood and from raising our own children, that rebuke and correction are vital to to the entire training process.
Here are some other “turns” on lesson development that may prove useful to you, especially on the more familiar or more difficult passages as they come through your curriculum.
Supportive (and Illustrative) Passages
Other Bible passages that reveal more information regarding the concept of the lesson, or illustrate the point of the main passage can be a significant part of an engaging lesson. Have participants compare and contrast the information in each passage. This is not the same is proof-texting, where you find a trove of passages that use a word or concept out of context from the main passage, in an effort to “prove” some point through and abundance of textual evidence.
Dissonant Passages – As a facilitator, a tremendously effective approach to life changing Bible study is to cause “cognitive dissonance” in the minds those in your study group. Cognitive dissonance is the process where what a person believes to be true is confronted or conflicted by something else that seems to be true, but is in conflict with the original belief. Cognitive Dissonance is especially helpful in correcting misguided beliefs, passages taken out of context, extra-Biblical material, and experiences and opinions that are contrary to Biblical truth. It can also be very effective in reinforcing and establishing Biblical belief systems.
The right Icebreaker can lead participants to express what they believe to be true on the concept at hand. Then, as the passage(s) are studied, the Biblical truth will cause the mental dissonance that will lead to change.
Example: Icebreaker: What is the Biblical process for dealing with conflict between believers? (If there are believers of any level of maturity in your group, someone will refer to Matt 28.)
Question somewhere in the lesson: “Explain why you think that Paul did, or did not, sin in Galatians 2:11-14?
CAUTION: As always, you must stay in context when interpreting the Bible. However, a temporary (deliberate) misinterpretation may affect the desired results. ALWAYS identify the misinterpretation, and it’s place in the process you’ve just completed. Most Christians have heard a pastor employ an effect like this at one time or another. For example, a pastor encouraging his congregation to read along with his sermon passage may say, “According to Romans 3_23, some have sinned. Correct?” While the truth is, ALL have sinned, the pastor as used this technique to cause a little dissonance, to reinforce the truth in the minds of his congregation.
Maintaining context is a huge need in our culture. The concept of a lesson may focus on an experience with context more than on any one Biblical truth. Helping Christians learn how to “rightly divide” God’s word is always a valuable lesson. Many believers today think that they should interpret the Bible through their on lives and experiences, when in fact, it should be just the opposite: we should interpret our lives and experience through God’s word.
If you’ve never done this, then give it a try. Find a stretch of road without any oncoming traffic and while moving the speed limit, look AT the windshield. Now, no cheating. This will only take a second. Don’t look through the windshield, look at it. It might help to find a spot to look at.
It would be normal to have a sense of panic to some degree. There is an immediate sense that you’ve lost control of this moving vehicle, that you have no idea what’s coming at you from any direction because you’re looking AT the very thing that is intended to be looked through. It doesn’t matter if the horizon is bursting with the view of a snow-capped mountain sunset or a double rainbow in the eastern sky. You don’t see any of that if you’re looking at the windshield instead of through it.
But the windshield is helpful. It allows us to take in all the beauty before us, without the worry of bugs in our teeth or flying objects in our face. It also allows us to give some attention to the others who are in the car with us. The windshield It is a tool best used when considered invisible.
If you’ve never done this, then give it a try. Become so familiar with the elements of the small group session, that you don’t look at the material the entire time. You look through the material at the eyes of the people in your group. You listen through the material to their responses to the questions and their dialogue with one another. You react and respond to the life around you rather than to the next question or activity in the session. Here is the snow-capped mountains and the burst of sunlight that we all crave in our small groups. This is how relationships can grow and be strengthened as you together meet with God through His word. This doesn’t exist on the windshield; it is on the other side.
Now let me quickly say that the material may indeed be vital (but may be less so as the leader matures spiritually). It can keep the bugs out of your meeting and stop frustrated members from flying in your face. The material gives you a plan, a way to see and get to the beauty of the group. But let’s stop looking AT the material, and look to the relationships beyond.
Many small group leaders are afraid of losing control of their “vehicle.” While God’s Word and strong relationships are the stuff of life change – the beauty of his creation – we often point at spots on the windshield rather than taking in all that is available in the group.
It can happen like this: “Somebody read the first question….” “Let’s use our time watching a DVD.” “We need to get back to the lesson…” “Everybody turn to page 14 …”
These statements (and subsequent page flipping in the material or passive viewing of a screen) tell the group participants that the material wants to know that they think; the lesson is interested in their response, or the commentary of the latest celebrity speaker is more valuable than the relationships in the room.
You might be missing the relationships because you’re looking AT the very thing that is intended to be looked through.
Can you sense the difference in these questions? “Let me ask you a question…” “Hows does that thought relate to our passage…” “Let’s try this…”
Questions like these are generated by familiarity with the scope and sequence of the lesson elements. But the difference is that the material is “invisible” to the discussion. Eye to eye and ear to ear, participants can grow together with each other and with God.
Try this in preparation for your next small group session (see page 36):
Write down your questions and activities in the order they should occur.
Re-write this list in short-hand and abbreviations. After all, you are the only one that needs to know what the abbreviations mean.
Re-write the list on a sticky note using only one or two words (OK, use 3 or 4 if you need to) for each question or step. By the time of this third draft, you should be able to just glance at a phrase and know what to ask or do.
Place this sticky note in your Bible next to the passage you will study. When the study begins, just glance at your sticky note and you will be reminded of the ice-breaker/opening question you have planned.
But look at their eyes, listen to their words. Let them know that you want to know what they think and feel. While the group is responding to your question, just glance again at your list, and you’ll know what comes next. And you won’t have to juggle two books in your lap!
Bonus: In being comfortable in what comes next, you will often be able to sense the exact time to move naturally on to the next step. You’ll be able to say something like, “That’s a great question! Let’s try something to see what we can learn about that.” Natural transitions and good eye contact communicate volumes to your group as to what kind of listener you are. What kind of friend you are.
Lead them to the beauty of the relationships in the group.
Use your small group material.
Use it well.
But use it as a windshield.
Visit www.idiscover.xyz and register for access to Microsoft Word ® and PDF versions of digital sticky note templates.
Balance. This is something that we seem to be moving farther away from. While we tout an understanding of the two Great Commandments – to “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39), we seem to have functionally degenerated into a debate on which one is greater. This was never God’s point. Had man not been created, there would be no hearts, souls, or minds, to love Him. And the simple fact of the matter is that you can’t Love God with all your heart, mind, and soul without loving your neighbor. And you can’t love your neighbor as you love yourself without concern, thought, and effort for your neighbor to know the God you love. You may not realize it, but God wants your neighbor to love Him with all their heart, mind and soul, also. These commandments are symbiotic. They are in balance. They are God’s design.
Please don’t assume that by balance I mean equality. The greatest commandment is the greatest. But the second – now don’t bet upset that I name drop here – according to Jesus, is like it: similar, close, in balance. And this simple reality flies in the face of our current and prolific move away from balance. You see, you have to take one position, not two. You can’t hold one position and agree with part of another. You have to choose which one is right. They can’t both (or all) be. And while your emotional identity may be tied to the singular position of your choosing, the eternal lives of the lost hang in the balance. And when we change the balance, their lives may truly be lost.
Early in my ministry, I remember heavy debates on whether “evangelism” or “discipleship” was the most important ministry of the church, and by implication and intent, for individual Christians as well. The passionate debaters would seek sides and identify your side, whether you had one or not. Those who favored evangelism were painted with the abandonment brush – as in, “All you’re concerned about is their spiritual birth… you abandon them so that you can move on to the next spiritual birth.” I even heard it referred to as the highly offensive “spiritual stillbirth.” Those who claimed discipleship as the greatest value were often painted with the cowardice brush – as in, “You are just afraid to share the Gospel” or the failure brush – as in, “You’ve just taken that position because no one is getting saved in your ministry.” As rounds of debate came to an end, each participant would retreat to their corner, determined to prove the other wrong, rather than seeing that both sides make one whole. And the lives of the lost and the ministries of the saved hang in the balance.
Evangelism comes easier to me than most. Because of the God-invasion in my life, I became a bold and vocal Christian (though sometimes, not in the best of balance). Because He answered a broken-hearted prayer out of my fear of evangelism, that boldness encompassed the sharing of the Gospel. This became and is a passion for me. So passionate, that not only do I want others to know my Christ, I want other Christ-followers to know how to share and how important it is to live lives the align with the message they share. I remember early Tuesday morning breakfast meetings with students, teaching them how to share their faith and debriefing with them on how the previous week had gone. I remember times in our Wednesday night teaching/worship time that students who knew how to share their faith would leave the room with a friend so that they could purposefully and deliberately give that friend an opportunity to accept Christ. I remember taking ministry leaders with me so that they could learn the “how” behind the “what” – the “do” beside the “know” – that they had studied for years; years in rooms filled with Christ-followers but no new followers.
Discipleship and Evangelism. Loving God and loving your neighbor. Balance. The lives of the lost and ministry of the saved all hang in this. They are symbiotic. This is God’s design. And here, I believe, is an illustration for why much discipleship is in name only. You see, in the memories above, I never used a program – someone else’s creation of resources that were, with the best of intentions, designed, packaged, and sold out of someone else’s experience – experience that I did not possess. You can only lead from where you’ve been. Discipleship is not merely book study – although studying books can be part of the process. If you’ve not gotten your hands dirty, you won’t be able to show anyone else how to dirty their hands. Discipleship is not passing on what you’ve read. Discipleship is not passing on what you’ve been taught. It is not passing on what you merely understand.
Discipleship is passing on what you experientially know by helping others to know it experientially.
I’ve been in churches where leaders talked about the need for evangelism. In particular, I won’t soon forget the lay-leader that spoke to the need, believed in accountability for the staff in this area, and even taught classes on how to “share Jesus without fear”. When asked to share about the last time he had led someone to Christ in his 60+ years of life, he could not think of one. That’s like asking someone about the day they got married and not being able to remember anything about it. Like asking about the birth of their child and not being able to remember anything about it. The likely truth is that such a person has not actually been married or had a child. And the lives of those who don’t know Christ hang in the balance – the balance of know and do. The balance of talk and go. The balance of faith and action. The balance of worship and witness. The balance of evangelism and discipleship.
Faith without works. Is. Dead.
Today, the debate terminology has changed, but the message is still the same. It is still Spiritual Us vs Spiritual Them. Even when Jesus’ instructions included to simply “leave them alone” (Luke 9_49:50), we still struggle to realize that telling those without Christ about Christ is a more important pursuit than trying to convince those with Christ that either Calvin or Arminius is correct and the other incorrect. Even though the lives of those without Christ hang in the balance of how we live and communicate today, we spend time trying to convince those with Christ about how and when they will see Him in the future be it pre, post, or a. If their lives really hang in the balance (and they really do), then please stand in front of a mirror (so as to have someone to convince) and elaborate for just a minute or two on this question: How does your understanding of Christ’s return, and your subsequent passion to convince other believers of your position, make any difference in how you love your neighbor as yourself” or in your ability to pass on this experiential knowledge to others? Your neighbor’s lives hang in the balance.
We have, unfortunately, learned to defend our doctrinal positions and Biblical knowledge much like our politicians defend theirs. We’ve learned debate techniques from our favorite Fox or CNN politicos. “My” side is the truth and has value; the other side is not true and has no value. I applaud Christian leaders that resist this pull. Theirs is the effort to maintain balance in a world that increasingly seeks to divide, debate, and destroy. Fortunately for us, God’s word provides the balance we need. Unfortunately, many of the side-seekers most often don’t follow the full wisdom of God in their pursuits. There are favorite passages, powerful passages, and reasoned conclusions based on these passages. However, there are other passages – either ignorantly or deliberately ignored – that can provide greater balance. This proof-texting builds communities and followings, but this debate about words does not build the kingdom.
As time and resources are all the more consumed by the world and culture around us, the church is feeling the squeeze to do more with less, and what often is the “more” is what is expedient or easy, rather than what is required. We have more Bible studies so that we can “know Him more”. We have worship pageantry so that we can “love Him more”. We align our purpose with these priorities – to know God more (a good thing), to love God more (a good thing). We proclaim that we worship in spirit and truth (both good things). But this leaves little to no time for loving our neighbors. Can you feel the pendulum pulled to the God side? Love the Lord your God with all your heart… (a really good thing). But as it is pulled to the God-side, it is pulled away from the neighbor side (not a good thing). Because Jesus said that this side is like the God-side. I will promise you that your available knowledge of and worship toward God will be wholly incomplete without sharing what you know with those who don’t.
Did you know that there are couples that by choice have no children? Absolutely their right. This is their choice. I am confident that these couples love each other. They, in fact, have a chosen path whereby they can give all of their love and affection to one another. They sacrifice for one another. They enjoy life together. In fact, regardless of their professions, they have greater resources to enjoy life and help others than do couples who have children. And ultimately, their heritage and lineage stop with them. This fact does not impugn their decision to be childless. It is, however, the undeniable and ultimate conclusion that the end of their lives is the end of the line.
Churches whose singular focus is on loving and knowing the Lord their God, do in fact love Him. I am confident that He loves them. They have more resources to spend on enjoying life with Him than churches who expend resources on making and developing spiritual children. And it is the undeniable and ultimate conclusion that the end of their church will be at their lives end. How has it become possible, in some circles, that Calvinism, Arminianism, Pre-millennialism, Post-millennialism, and/or Amillennialism (this is NOT an exhaustive list) consume more time and effort than evangelism?
I will never be one to say that Bible Study and Worship are not valuable; that learning of and loving God are not priorities. However, alone they are out of balance. God desires that we also love our neighbors as ourselves. In like fashion, it will never be my position that you are not entitled to your position. (Please don’t be offended, however, if I choose to simply leave you alone.)
Take a look at scripture and see which characters focused on worship and knowing God’s word to the exclusion of loving their neighbors. What characters spent more time talking about what they believed than living what they believed? What characters spent more time debating the minutiae of God’s Word in deference to the magnitude of His commands? Love the Lord your God. Love your neighbor as yourself. Go. Make Disciples. Teach them (experientially). Your ministry, and their lives, hang in the balance.
If this were a fill-in-the-blank question, your initial response may have been something like, “Where do I begin?”
That’s certainly not true for all of us, neither is it true for all of our neighbors, but we can all imagine it is true for others. In like fashion, even if we don’t have a beginning place of problems with our neighbors, we are not sure if the opposite is not true. Something as simple as the frequency or timing of mowing the grass or where we keep our outdoor trash cans can cause a less than positive opinion. Move on to the color of our house, the noise our kids make, or even the unintended failure to wave a greeting in the past can all color our neighbors’ opinion of us.
We know this to be true. Those who live next to us know us better than we think they do, just like we know them better than they think we do. We see each other’s comings and goings, values, child-rearing skills, hobbies, how we spend our money, and more. And that’s part of the problem. Because we know them, and they know us, they fall into the category of the “difficult” to reach. Nearness breeds knowledge and knowledge is power: power to compare, power to resist, power to reject. A tough crowd for the Gospel.
In addition, helping your neighbors is part of the give and take of getting along. They help you, you help them – quid pro quo. If nothing else, it helps to keep peace in the neighborhood. There is inherently something “in it for you” when you help your neighbor and vice versa. Just last week, I asked our neighbors to bring in our trash can after the pickup on Monday, as we would be out of town. They know they can ask the same of us (and have). It takes time and much effort for your neighbor to see that you are genuinely a helpful person. I’m not suggesting that you don’t take the time and effort, I’m just suggesting that it is part of the problem in getting to the place where you can share Christ with them.
Another part of the problem is that we don’t understand Jesus’ instructions about neighbors. While it is absolutely true that Jesus cares about those who live closest to us, He cares equally about those who don’t. There are two Biblical passages that we need to understand together.
The first is found in Luke 10:25-37. We know it as the story of the Good Samaritan, but for the purpose of this post, let’s call it the answer to “Who is my Neighbor?” And to be very, very clear, Jesus was not trying to teach us anything about those who live closest to us. Let’s pick it up on vs 29:
But he [a lawyer], wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Then Jesus answered and said: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise, a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’ So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?”
And he [the lawyer] said, “He who showed mercy on him.”
Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Jesus could have very easily told a parable about the tough crowd. He could have just as easily talked about the neighbor across the street that was beaten severely when his home was broken into and robbed. He could have talked about the neighbor on the left who ignored the situation, as well as the neighbor on the right. He could have introduced the neighbor across the street that just moved in, who went to take care of the wounded man: …to .. bandage his wounds, pour on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
But he didn’t tell this story. He told a story about a stranger – someone who did not share proximity. I believe there are at least two reasons for this.
The One who tells us to go into the whole world to share the Gospel never wanted us to condense our concern to those whose space borders our own. He knew this crowd was tough. Look at Matthew 13:53-58 When Jesus had finished these parables, he moved on from there. Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked. “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him.
But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town and in his own home.”
His own town. His own home. “Neighbors”.
In almost every circumstance where Jesus showed mercy, it was to a stranger. It is true that before His time came, many he helped had heard of Him, but they were still strangers, or at the most acquaintances who had seen Him before.
The T-Ball Approach
The church could learn much about discipleship in this area from baseball.
Very young players learn the game by hitting a ball on a tee. They call it T-ball. They graduate from that to coach pitch. Balls are lobbed in by a coach so they can learn to hit a moving target from someone who is not trying to strike them out.
Neither of these levels are considered the “tough crowd” of baseball.
Then, you move up to the next level. You get a pitcher that wants to strike you out. But by then, you have had enough practice to be able to stand in there and deal with what comes your way. Hang in there long enough, and you can get to high school, college, the minors, and for the very rare few – a shot in the Bigs.
Each step along the way prepares you to be able to deal with what comes your way. Your previous experience makes the next crowd less tough. So why is our first step today in encouraging people to share their faith to point them at one of the toughest crowds they will face? (Family is also very tough for all the same reasons.) And often, we point them, but we do not show them.
We tacitly imply that since God cares for our neighbors (and family) it is solely our responsibility to see to that they hear about Jesus, as if in their decades of existence no one else has or will; as if they will certainly be hell-bound if we don’t tell them – it will be our fault… this is not true!
Why don’t we show them (show, not just tell) how to share the Gospel in less difficult situations, giving them practice and experience that will be valuable when God does provide an opportunity at the next level.
Here are just some of the other issues with focusing on near neighbors instead of focusing on those to whom you can show mercy (service, help, aid, assistance, care) without quid pro quo… doing for others in need who cannot return the favor… strangers.
It just doesn’t add up. Regardless of how big your church and community are, Christians are the minority. If you were to fill up every seat in every church in your town on a given Sunday, it would not be out of line to consider that 75% or more of your town would not be seated. Near Neighbor Focus means that up to 75% of your town will not have anyone who is working to share Christ with them, because they don’t have a Christian neighbor.
Of the 25% who are sitting in the church seats, my experience is that less than 10% of those know how or have shared the Gospel with a lost person. (That is, in part, because they have never had a pastor, mentor, friend, or leader that has trained them and shown them how.) That means that 90% of your town will not hear the Gospel from a neighbor, because they have no Christian neighbor or their Christian neighbor is not going to tell them, even with the strong push from their church leadership.
In addition, I don’t begin to know how to factor in the percentages of those in a church who are not encouraged to share the Gospel. If we accept it as fact that there are churches that do not encourage evangelism, then it may be safe to assume that this Near Neighbor Focus will effectively influence evangelistic conversations with 1% to 3% of the “neighbors” in town.
Jesus never intended for us to condense our concern to our own neighborhood. That is not what he meant by “neighbor”.
It can be a waste of time and energy. Another way to say this is, “When do you stop?” The easy answer is “Never”, but that is not the Jesus model. Again, you are not the only person that God can send their way. Your responsibility, if you accept and act on it, is to tell. Their response is between them and the Lord.
In Mark 6:8-12, Jesus sent the disciples out in pairs to various towns. Among the instructions he gave them, was to discern when it was time to move on, to stop in that place and go to the next. He said, “And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” (6:11)
If your near neighbor doesn’t listen, please don’t imagine that Jesus intends for you to keep banging on them until they submit. To keep spending your time and energy on someone who might hear it differently someday from someone else – perhaps a Christ follower who helps them in a real time of need with no quid pro quo. There are so many more that need your time and energy with the Gospel… it’s OK to move on.
What do you do when you’re done? Let’s say you are one of the rare ones that make it to the “Bigs” – you are ready willing and able to share the Gospel with your near neighbors. Either they listen or they don’t, but you’ve done what you’ve been encouraged to do. All eight of your neighbors have heard about Christ from you. They understand the Gospel message and have responded or not.
Now what? Are you done? You no longer have to share the Gospel because you’ve shared with your neighbors? Hardly. You apparently have two choices.
You can move to a new home so that you have new neighbors.
You are now you’re at the place that Jesus taught about and ministered to – strangers and acquaintances. How are you going to do that? We should figure this out because there are so many more of them….
What are you going to do?
The church needs to be The Church. Jesus did not intend for most of us to stand alone. In fact, the church – the body of Christ – should be the source of our ministry together in the community, not just disparate individuals living out the Christ-life and alone serving and witnessing to others. The church needs to foment the spirit of and practice of the evangelistic lifestyle by modeling, training and creating the reputation for the church that aligns with Scripture.
When Jesus showed up in a place, He quickly created a presence and reputation of help and relief. Remember, he called it “mercy” in the parable? Those who traveled with Him shared in this reputation. The word of His ministry spread because of the integrity of His reputation. Those who traveled with Him shared in this reputation. Their word about Jesus was believable because of this reputation.
We live in a culture where the “church” has a different reputation. Thanks to the internet and very public fails of prominent Christian leaders; very public falls of those who preach something other than Jesus, but in His name; and the very real legalism and culture wars within local congregations, the community around us “knows” our reputation even though what they “know” may not align with what we think our reputation is. But get this if you don’t get anything else: If your church is not proactive in the community, demonstrating your real values and heart – your reputation, then you will inherit whatever reputation your neighbors believe all churches have.
As church leaders, you must lead your church to be that place of hope, grace, and relief for those in your community and beyond. You will have to double-down to overcome the reputation that you have been painted with by virtue of the fact that you are a church. Find needs and meet them. Help people in real need. Involve your members in building a reputation that your members can be proud of, so they can, like Jesus’ followers, easily say, “Come and see”, and their words will be believed because of the reputation of the church.
“Come and see” is T-ball witnessing. It is up to the church to create a reputation that will empower the witness. As a believer learns to handle the harder stuff coming in, the reputation of the church will not be as important to their individual witness. But there should always be new believers that need to first step up to the tee.
When people “come and see”, the church needs to be prepared with systems and a process whereby those with more experience can create opportunities to share the Gospel.
Experienced believers may even get to the point where they can share with a really tough crowd. This may be, while Paul went to the Gentiles, all of the other disciples, for the most part, stayed with the Jews. God loves the tough crowds, too. But, in this journey, many others will hear about Jesus along the way.
Does it really matter who tells your near neighbor about Jesus, as long as they are told? Does it matter more that your neighbor is told than the people 3 doors down? 5 Blocks away? A church – or churches working together in a community – who provide the reputation, motivation, resources, training and experience necessary for T-ball witnessing through “Bigs” evangelism will be The Church. Many neighbors will be told. Many more than with the Near Neighbor Focus.
I am the offspring of an agnostic Jew and lapsed Lutheran. I did not meet Christ through the witness of an evangelical, by reading a tract (Chick or otherwise), or being persuaded by the preaching of the Gospel or any other part of the scripture. I did not meet Christ in church, though I was there most Sundays.
Both of my parents were religious in their own ways. Dad, Jewish by birth and an admitted agnostic, believed that God “set the world spinning and then left it alone”. There were no consequences of sin in his system, even though there was the occaisional expectation of adherance to one Jewish tenet or another, while rejecting so many others. I never understood what Mom believed. Raised as a Lutheran, the church, the Bible, Jesus… I have no memory of any of this being a part of her conversation or life direction.
Jesus invaded my life at Ft. Jackson, SC as an 18 year old Army National Guard trainee. I did not know that He would. I did not ask for or expect what He did. I simply begged Him for help with the complete self-awareness that my life was such a mess, that I no longer wanted to be who I was. I was wretched, profane, lustful, angry, jealous, proud, arrogant, and friendless. I was alone and knew that I knew no way out.
I did not have labels for all of what I was. And I did not know or understand what help would come, I only knew that there was no other place to turn to for help. In an instant I was changed. No sinner’s prayer, no memorized verses – just a simple one word plea for “help”. The invasion was instantaneous and complete; the journey only just begun.
My parents rejected the radical change they saw in my life. And let me be clear, this change they saw was only a joy in my countenance and conversation. I did not know scripture. I did not have a church to recommend. At this point, no one had spoken into my life about my speech or behavior (though there was much about both that Christ would later step into). I was only changed. I did not know how to explain why, but it was painfully obvious to them.
In fact, I was one that was so “lost”, I did not know that I was “saved”. I didn’t know what that meant. Though I was in a Protestant church most Sundays, I had never heard that word in the spiritual context. A brief encounter with a storefront bible study leader gave verbiage to my voice when he showed me in God’s Word what had happened to me. It was then that the words “Jesus” and “saved” became part of my conversation. But by then, my parents were already convinced I had joined a cult. They were so convinced until their deaths, that they, on more than one occasion, tried to turn me at first, and then years later my children, away from Christ.
As I grew up, the church – because it was my only social outlet – was a big part of my life. I was there almost every week. Acolyte, youth group, choir, handbells, media… I did it all. I attended 2 out of 3 years of catechism classes, and my church “confirmed” I was a Christian by telling me I was (even though, by their standards, I was only ⅔ Christian). They even gave me a certificate. I was baptized when I was 13 because – and only because – I realized I was the only one in my Sunday School class that had not been baptized. In fact, my 3 siblings and I were all baptized at the same time because – and only because – of that realization.
I knew about God because they talked about Him a lot. I knew about Jesus because they talked about Him a lot. I knew He died on the cross because of pictures and the Easter story. And therein lies the sum total of what I comprehended about salvation from my quasi-religious parents and active church life.
Today, I know exactly what Jesus did for me. I know what I am forgiven for. And that forgiveness was provided by an experience so much harder, so much more gruesome than the cross, we do Jesus an injustice to give the cross that credit. I am not saying the cross is unimportant. I am not saying the cross was not a fulfillment of prophecy. And I am certainly not saying that the cross is neither rugged nor old.
What I am saying is, one of these things is not like the other:
Jesus died on the cross. Jesus died for my sin.
They both happened. They are both important. They are symbiotic in a critical process. But they’re not the same thing.
The death He died for my sin, was the death I will not experience. I may experience a difficult and gruesome death, be it a cross or cancer, but I will never experience the more difficult and costly death from which I am saved – because of what he did to free me from that. And the devastation and agony of THAT death cannot be adequately compared to the temporary pain and suffering of the cross.
Jesus died on the cross so that he could die for my sin.
Jesus physically died on the cross so that he could then pay the spiritual price for my sin.
And if you think that the physical death was worse than the spiritual one, please consider that you need to reconsider.
He paid a debt he did not owe.
I owed a debt I could not pay.
Because of a very difficult illness suffered by my wife (and thereby, our entire family) as our kids were growing up, God gave me in our children answer to prayer that I had no words for which to ask. Each of them brought into my life a portion of God’s grace that helped save me emotionally, and save our family.
While my wife was so ill, and I was seemingly so alone, our oldest wanted to talk – to talk theology, to debate, to challenge – while in middle school and beyond. Oh, how I needed someone to talk to – and take my mind off of the lot of our lives at that time. I still cherish opportunities for those conversations.
Our middle child was full of grace and care. She was the “daddy’s girl”. She forgave me when I was gruff or angry. She just knew when I needed a hug. She understood without being asked how much we needed her help with her Mom. Oh, how I needed that unconditional care and grace!
Our youngest, our son, could make you laugh just by walking in the room or by giving any number of “looks” that can’t be reproduced by anyone else. I can’t tell you how powerfully important that was to me in those days – to be able to laugh in the midst of terrible days. And I still look forward to the looks!
Bethany, my mind; Sarah, my heart; and Jesse, my soul. God gave me in my children the protection and strength to press on; just a bit of Himself with flesh on…
Bethany graduated from high school the year before a job situation forced us to move from Georgia to Colorado. I was getting accustomed to her being gone, even though she was just two hours away. Sarah was about to be a high school senior. Her church and friends were a tremendous strength in her life. As we looked at all of the scenarios involving the move, we determined that the best thing to do was to leave Sarah in Georgia with dear friends, so that she could continue to flourish.
We moved – our full house now down to three.
I wept every day for months. My “mind” was at college. I missed her, but this was the way it was supposed to be. My “soul” – gratefully – was with us in Colorado. But my “heart” was absent. Separated. Distant. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
I missed her every day. I missed every day of her senior year. I missed every game she played, every event she was in. Every joy she experienced. Every pain she endured. And I missed her much needed grace – the hugs, forgiveness, and care. I still weep today at times for her – and for all we missed together. I miss her still.
That’s just my inkling of “forsaken”.
Jesus did not cry out when beaten. He did not cry out when nailed. He only cried out when He was forsaken. To pay for our sin, the Father had to leave the Son. For the first time – the only time – in all of eternity, they were seperated. He became alone, so you and I would never be alone again. In agony, Jesus cried out, experiencing the incomprehensible pain of this forsakenness. And then he died. And then, for what we count as a bit more than 2 days, he died again: he paid for my sin, your sin, and the sin of the entire world. This is the death that the song speaks of.
He paid a debt He did not owe.
He took on the consequences of my sin and yours. He applied to himself that which The Father would never allow into the heavenly kingdom. He immersed himself in the wretched, profane, lustful and grotesque. He covered Himself with the appalling, the horror, the pain, and the grief. He took on the mantle of the abusive, the murderous, and the decaying. He wrapped himself in the garments of the arrogant and proud, liars and cheaters; and the morally filthy and corrupt. My sin. And yours.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Jesus did die on the cross.
And then He paid a debt He did not owe.
The cross took hours.
The grave took days.
And if you think that the physical death was worse than the spiritual one, please consider that you need to reconsider. If you think the cross was the hard task, then ask yourself – given the choice, which one would you choose?
Skip the cross and take the grave. Take the cross and skip the grave.
Some may ask, “Then why the cross?”
Indeed, this question has been asked for centuries. If the battle for our sin was in the spiritual realm, then what difference did it make how He died. Why not a heart attack or old age? Why such a gruesome physical death if the spiritual death was what mattered.
“To fulfill prophecy” is not the sufficient answer to “Why”. Whatever the mode of His death, that is what would have been prophesied. That is not why this matters. It matters because this was His choice. And like every other event, conversation, miracle and relationship in His life, this was a purposeful and deliberate decision.
The cross does matter, so important that He endured it. I believe it to be His final parable. A picture-story so horrific, that for any with eyes to see and ears to hear, they would have at least an inkling of, to the degree possible for man, the devastating price he paid, what He has forgiven us from, and what agape love truly means.
I can’t imagine a stronger picture-parable of the ultimate sacrifice He paid. The price of our sin is high. This was no easy task, so no easy physical death would do. He spent every breath of His life, every waking moment strategically and purposefully revealing, teaching, and preparing those who followed Him to understand and pursue their calling to continue to follow him. Their understanding of the price that was paid, and the subsequent victory that was won was sufficient to move his disciples to a life-long pursuit of that call, even when long life was not their lot. And for this pursuit, He provided a vivid, tangible story-experience to empower that work; to give verbiage to their voice and ours – to give us an inkling by what was seen, of that which was unseen; that we may be able to bear witness to the depth of His sacrifice on our behalf.
I have to tell you, the cross alone, for me, is not sufficient to that end. But the war He fought for me with Death and the Grave; beaten back in the victory of His resurrection, forever will be.
The cross is vitally important to our mission. It is the picture of what He did for us.
However, I am forever grateful that he did the harder work as well.