Leading In to the Walls

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:

  1. We think disciple making is the activity of improving the spiritual state of saved people.
  2. 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.

The Meaning of Forgiveness in an Abusive World

by Eli Bernard & Bethany Persons

Words matter. Rather, the meanings of words matter and by that, we mean – words matter.

At the risk of stepping into the universe where the reader’s meaning often matters more than the author’s meaning, our attempt here is to speak to what The Author meant by this amazing word that we misuse. While focusing on the Author’s meaning can be helpful for analysis and open dialogue, comprehending it is much more vital to the “peace that passes all understanding” (Phil 4:7) in our own lives.

In the recent weeks, there has been a flurry of devastating reports about those that teach, expect, and seemingly demand forgiveness as a response to a horrendous assault. We are afraid that the way the word “forgiveness” is perceived – perhaps by those assaulted and to many who enter the conversation only through media – is as

  • a sort of magic wand, whereby the assaulted or offended waive away any consequence or responsibility of the offender “because that’s what good Christians do” or
  • a weapon used to silence the assaulted, demanding greater spiritual maturity from them than their attacker.

Forgiveness is not a magic wand and it does nothing to remedy the attack or solve problems larger than the one experienced by the one assaulted. To weaponize forgiveness in order to silence those assaulted is a reprehensible power play, worthy of any Pharisee Jesus encountered.

We do not know what the intention or heart is of those who have advised forgiveness in any of these reported or many unreported offenses. We were not there. We did not hear their tone or the full context of their comment. We only know how it reads in the media – and it is that reading that prompts this response.

  • Forgiveness does not absolve the offender of guilt
  • Forgiveness does not bring resolution to implied or apparent larger problems
  • Forgiveness does not abdicate the responsibility of the offender
  • Forgiveness does not eliminate the need for accountability
  • Forgiveness does not supersede the necessity for consequences
  • Forgiveness does not demand or imply the restoration of relationship

One of the things that we should do is strive to understand the full meaning of what The Author meant by the words that He used. And He never used the word “forgiveness” in these ways.

Visiting the Example of the Author of Forgiveness

Jesus’ death is the price that was paid for our forgiveness. He loves us and died for us. And because He forgave us, we have eternal life with Him. While this is true, it is a too-simplistic and gap-filled explanation of the magnitude of that event, and it does not suffice.

Jesus did indeed offer us – the whole world – forgiveness by his death/resurrection. But no one – no one in the whole world – received forgiveness simply because it was – and is – available.

Forgiveness is for the benefit of the offended, wounded and the assaulted – not for the ones doing the offending and assaulting.  We know that flies in the face of contemporary religious thought. But it is to the benefit of the wounded and offended to offer it, not to the benefit of the abuser/offender. The offended offering forgiveness should have no fear of the offender receiving it absent true repentance. It matters not what words they say or actions they take. Only true repentance aligns with true forgiveness. Additionally, since forgiveness does not imply or demand the restoration of relationship, the offended need not fear some obligation to the same.

Jesus offers forgiveness, not because we need it (although we absolutely do), but because He wanted to offer it. The fact that we need it does not mandate it. The fact that God wants a relationship with us is what mandates it. Certainly, we benefit from it should we receive it. But it is not possessed by anyone who does not demonstrate their desire by repentance. The unrepentant are not forgiven. As much as we need forgiveness, it is not to our benefit; it is to His.

“But wait, what about…”

  • Confessing with my mouth and believing in my heart (Rom 10:9)
  • Saved by grace through faith (Eph 2:8-10)
  • Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved (Acts 16:30-31)
  • Praying “the sinner’s prayer“
  • Asking Jesus into my heart

Without delving deeply into these for their own merits and implications, unless repentance is the attitude of the heart, then these are motions merely gone through; insufficient regardless of sincerity. To be clear, asking without a repentant heart is to ask vainly. Believing with an unrepentant heart is not the belief that leads to salvation. (James 2:19)

“But wait, where do these passages say I need to repent?”

This question illustrates a telltale failure of contemporary preaching and curriculum driven teaching. It is the whole Bible, not any one passage that gives us the whole truth. John the Baptist, Jesus and the Apostles preached repentance from the beginning of their earthly ministries (Matt 3:2, Matt 11:20-21, Luke 5:32, Luke 13:1-5, Luke 15, Acts 2:38, Acts 13:24).  We don’t forget about that just because we’re reading from a different passage. To do that is tantamount to Jesus saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near, but you won’t need to do that if you just wait until Paul writes Romans 10:9.”

To do that is tantamount to Jesus saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near, but you won’t need to do that if you just wait until Paul writes Romans 10:9.”

Let’s say that you asked me for my favorite biscuit recipe. I might tell you:

In a large mixing bowl sift together ½ tsp salt, 2 cups of flour, and 1 tbsp of baking powder. Cut in ½ cup shortening with fork or pastry blender until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Pour ¾ cup of buttermilk into flour mixture while stirring with a fork.

After rolling out, cutting, and baking the biscuits, you offer me one – one of the blandest, most tasteless biscuits I’ve ever had.

“Where’s the salt?”, I ask.

‘Oh, I didn’t think I needed to add it since it was the first thing you said. I thought I only needed to add the stuff that made them look like biscuits.”

Forgiveness is the way for the wounded and offended to release the offense, to not carry the grudge, to not hold it to the account of the offended. It is because this is how the Author understands forgiveness that eternity with Him is available – He does not hold our sin to our account. He, who first loved us, has made that possible by offering forgiveness. That is to His benefit because it is He who first wanted a relationship with us.

Forgiveness has no effect or impact on the offender until the very high and humbling price of repentance is paid. Forgiveness is good for the forgiver. The only impact on the offender is that it is available. It is not received simply based on that availability. It cannot be claimed by the offender simply to gain its benefit.

Forgiveness allows the forgiver to heal, to move forward, to live life without a grudge, to not hold on to the devastating event as if it is now the basis of who they are – the driving force that defines their life and future. Forgiveness is the path to freedom from a life controlled by the sin of others.

But, for the offender, the forgiveness offered by others imparts no such freedom. The forgiven receives no inherent or automatic benefit of forgiveness offered. No wand is waived. No magic exists. Forgiveness exists, much like a gift. The one forgiven may see it and want it – but it is not theirs simply because it has been expressed and placed in a common space.

The abuser/offender only receives the benefit of forgiveness through the path of repentance evidenced in part, by godly sorrow. The only way that forgiveness granted influences forgiveness received is the awareness of its existence. The offender must still humble themselves or be humiliated into such sorrow. The offender must be repentant of their offense, honestly and sorrowfully so. This is the benefit to the offender. True, whole-hearted, sorrowful repentance is their path to the freedom from a life controlled by their own sin.

Forgiveness is the path to freedom from a life controlled by the sin of others. 

Repentance is the path to freedom from a life controlled by my own sin.

Here is the truth.

  • Should the offender never repent, the offended can still be free from the spiritual grudge-controlled life by forgiving.
  • Should the offended never forgive, the offender can still be free from the spiritual guilt of the offense by repentance.
  • They can both be free and never know of the other’s freedom.

Unfortunately in our media-driven world, these are areas that are only truly visible to the Author of forgiveness. No one can tell if forgiveness has truly been given – but the forgiver and Author will know, and that is sufficient for them. No one can truly know that the offender has sorrowfully and remorsefully repented. The repentant and Author will know, and that is sufficient for them. They both know that the Author of forgiveness (and repentance) knows.

For the rest of us – the observers of lives thrust into the public view, we should be careful to allow time and space for both forgiveness and repentance in lives that are not our own. Should we not, we are not far from the ocular plank (Matt 7:3-5). (It may well benefit us to realize that the media cares little about planks.)

And since words matter, “repentance” does not mean remorse, sorrow, apology, fear, sadness, or any other number of terms or adjectives that are in common understanding today. The Author of forgiveness says that repentance is a complete turnaround. The offender chooses to never offend again. Those hiding the offense choose to never hide the offense again. Those who believe that their actions and attitudes were normal (“That’s just who I am”), now believe those actions and attitudes to be abhorrent and vile. That is repentance. Expand that definition with “sorrowful” and “remorseful” and you will begin to understand what the Author of forgiveness has in mind.

Let’s bring that down to today’s news. Pastors and missionaries, missionary organizations, associational and state convention employees that commit or hide such abhorrent behavior need to repent. Without it, forgiveness from the assaulted is not yours, even if those assaulted have given it. They know it. You know it. And the Author of forgiveness knows it.

It matters little if your repentance is from your own volition, or if it comes from being outed to your shame. It matters little if anyone believes you have repented. The Author of forgiveness will know. And that is not only enough, but it is also all that really matters eternally. But on this earthly coil, it will not and should not alleviate consequences. It will not and should not by necessity, restore your reputation or relationships. But it will matter – to you and to the One to whom it should.