1o. Disciples Have a Family

Christians are meant to be part of a family. We are meant to live like a family, in community with other Christians, sharing our successes, our failures, our hopes and dreams, our dashed hopes and dreams, our worries, and our cares. The church, with is the community of those who have responded to the call of Jesus to come and follow him, is not something optional. It is essential. Becoming a part of the community of Christ is basic to becoming and being a growing disciple of Christ.

The Bible uses many metaphors for God’s community of discipleship. The Church is “Body of Christ;” the “City of God;” the “People of God;” the “Family of God.” When Jesus came to display the wisdom and love of God in human form, he did not so it alone. He chose a small group of followers and poured his life into them. He created a community of disciples. During his lifetime, the little group grew. When he ascended into heaven, his group of disciples grew into the church as we know it today. Of all the metaphors, the one most near to most Christians is that of the Family of God. We all come from human families. Even if our human family is not functional, we need a functional divine family.

In an individualistic culture, it is tempting to think of the church as a voluntary society of like-minded people formed to advance a set of beliefs. This is not the best way to think of the church. The church is a family. Our families existed before we existed, just as the church existed before we became members—or even believed in Christ. Just as we grow up in a family, we grow up in the family of God. The church is a family in which the children are disciples of Christ growing into a deeper relationship with God.

Christians will never reach the late modern or emerging post-modern world with words or ideas alone. After lives are changed and people commit to Christ, the details of our theologies, doctrines, and programs have a role to play, but not before. In a world that no longer believes in truth, ideas have no power separated from changed lives. In a world that no longer believes in morality, moral theology has no power to change people until they have received a new heart from God. In a world that no longer believes in beauty, words about beauty have no power until people have experienced God’s beauty. In a world of isolation and loneliness, people will never be motivated to become part of God’s community until and unless they experience the reality of that community. The world needs to see lives that are being changed for the better.

Discipling Groups as Families of Christian Growth

All our married life, Kathy and I have been members of discipling groups. We met in a Bible study. When we were a young couple, we were in Bible studies with other young couples. Each of us has been a part of small discipling groups with men and women separately over the years. When I worked as a lawyer, I sometimes had a small group in my law office. When we went to seminary, I met weekly with a group of fellow students and Kathy grew in fellowship with a group of women.

Since entering full-time ministry, both of us have been part of discipling groups. For eighteen years, I met with several men weekly. For many years, I taught a year-long Bible Study for no more than eighteen people. Those groups met for nine months. Often, our churches sponsored short-term groups that meet for six or so weeks. Most recently, Kathy and I led “Salt & Light Groups” in our local church. The size and length of the group is not what matters. It is the love of the group and the teaching and example of its leaders that matters.

Some years ago, we became part of a renewal movement that encourages the formation of small accountability groups, and over the years we have been members of several such small groups. We’ve led other discipling groups in our home and at church. We’ve always been members of Sunday School classes. We’ve attended special groups to learn special skills such as child-raising or how to manage our money.

Each of these groups changed our lives in some important way. Along the way, we’ve grown, helped others, made life-long friends, and experienced the joy of Christ. Just as Jesus was lifted up into heaven and was no longer physically with his disciples, most of these groups eventually disbanded as people moved along in life, but each person in each group remains a precious memory. Some of the members of these groups keep in touch after as much as thirty years apart!

As this was initially being written, we joined a couple we’ve known for over thirty years for a social outing. We’ve never attended the same church. In fact, we belong to very different churches. However, when we were young, for a few weeks, they attended a weekly Bible Study in our home. The friendship created years ago emerges every time we are together. The day before, another couple dropped by our house with their grandchildren. Once again, we met in a discipling group many years ago. Today, we are still Christian friends, helping one another grow and face the new challenges of a new stage of life. The love of discipling groups is a kind of love that never ends because it was not primarily a human love but a divine encounter.

Interpersonal Relationships Imitating a Personal God

Christians celebrate and worship God who exists in an intimate, self-giving, life-transforming relationship. God not only reveals himself to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in some mysterious way, God exists as one essential personal being in three distinct persons. These divine persons have an unbroken relationship of eternal, perfect, self-giving love. In other words, God exists as a community (a family) of self-giving mutual love. Within God’s community of love, there exists both individuality (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and relationship (Divine, Self-Giving Love).

This has profound implications for the Christian life:

  1. If God exists in a relationship of love, then there is no being a Christian without being in a relationship of love with God and other people.
  2. As persons who are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27), we were made for deep, loving, wise, and powerful life changing relationships – with God, with other human beings, and with creation.
  3. The church is made up of people in a Christ-centered relationship with one another. A church that is merely a place for so inclined people to meet on Sunday morning, sit in pews, sing, and listen to a talk, is not the church God God meant the church to be a place where people are in relationship with God and with one another. A church is not a worship service. A church is a group of disciples called to live together and demonstrate to the world God’s love. [1]
  4. Since God is love, and the love God showed when he “sent his only son” (John 3:16) eternally exists between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, it is only as we exist in communities of love that the Church can be the body of Christ it was intended to be. This love is not a love based upon attractiveness, or other human qualities or worthiness. It is a pure self-giving love, which Jesus demonstrated for us on the cross.
  5. Finally, the very names of the divine person: Father, Son and Holy Spirit encourage us to see God existing as a family. This is exactly the relationship Jesus claims and models with his disciples. When Jesus says that he desires the disciples to be one just as the Father and he are one (John 17:20-21), he is praying that we might enter the family of God and become participants in the self-giving love of God. In other words, he is making us part of God’s eternal family. When John calls believers, “Children of God” (I John 3:1), he indicates that by faith in Christ and participation in his body, reflecting the love of God in our lives and in our life together, we become part of God’s family.

Jesus: Our Model

Jesus was the greatest transformational community builder in history. He called twelve average people. He saw their potential. He trained them. He lived with them as if they were his family. He loved them enough to give his life for them (and us), just as if they (and we) were his biological children. In the end, he called his disciples, “Brothers.” The disciples had become a part of his divine family. Then, he set them loose to change the world and build the same kind of community wherever they went. They did exactly that.

How did Jesus do this? Here are some concrete things he did:

  1. He called the group into being (See Mark 1:17).
  2. He shared his life with them (the entire four Gospels).
  3. He prayed for them (John 17:6ff).
  4. He taught them (Mark 1:21).
  5. He loved them (John 13:39).
  6. He rebuked them (Mark 9:36-39).
  7. He allowed them to lead (Mark 6:6-7).
  8. He gave his life for them (Mark 10:45).

In all of this, one fact stands out: A personal, intimate elationship with his disciples was important to Jesus. From beginning to end, his mission was conducted in and through relationships with people who were so close to him that they became like his family (Matthew 12:50). It is how Jesus conducted the most central part of his ministry: getting a small group of men and women ready for the day when they would lead others to faith in God the Father, who Jesus called “Abba,” or “Daddy,” by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ intention was to disciple those he met, so that they too would become children of God (John 1:12). This is not surprising, since in Christ the disciples were being called to become part of the family of God.

Jesus lived as part of a discipleship group as his disciples learned how to be a part of God’s family. It follows that every Christian should have a similar life-transforming experience. Small groups of believers call people into relationship with Christ and each other, allow people to share their Christian walk, deepen their prayer life, and experience life transforming community. These small groups are a source of Christian teaching, become places of loving care, are a source of guidance in difficult times, and a source of new leadership for a growing fellowship of Christians.

Life after the Resurrection

Life within God’s family of disciples after his Resurrection and Ascension is not identical with the life of discipleship when Jesus was physically present. When Jesus was physically present, his call was to come and physically follow and be with him (Matthew 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20; Luke 5:2-11). Those who did not have the kind of faith necessary to leave all and follow him, did not become disciples. When Jesus ascended into heaven, the call of the apostles was to trust and believe in the Risen Christ and then, by the power of the Holy Spirit, follow Jesus, becoming a part of the little, and sometimes persecuted, fellowship of Christians. After the resurrection, the call is always first to have the kind of faith that follows a now invisible Jesus who is present in his people by the power of the Spirit.

After Jesus ascended into heaven, it was no longer possible to follow physically Jesus. Jesus, however, let his disciples know that while he would not be with them physically, he would be with them by the power of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:20). His manner of being with the family of disciples after the resurrection was going to be different than his manner of being with them before the resurrection. He would be invisibly present by the power of the Holy Spirit. In the Gospel of John, Jesus promises his disciples that he will not leave them as orphans without a parent. Instead he will come to them again and be with them in a new way (John 14:18). He tells them that it is a good thing that he is going away, because when he goes away, the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, will come to them and will both work in the world to bring people to faith and in the lives of his disciples bringing them all the knowledge they will need to have that Jesus could not tell them while physically present on earth (John 16:7-13).

The new way that Jesus will be with us is by dwelling within us by faith (Galatians 3:2). This faith will be shared, grow, and mature inside of the community of faith, and especially a small community of faith in which we have the freedom to grow and share our successes and our failures, our strengths and our weaknesses, our gifts and where we are not gifted. When Christians develop such communities, we enter into the life of God and enable others to also experience and enter that life. This is why Jesus could say, “wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there are I with them” (Matt.18:20).

God’s Transforming Community

When people are drawn into God’s community of love, hopefully they find healing, acceptance, and physical examples of a better life, the barriers to the gospel in our society can be overcome. There is no other or easier way to share the gospel. People desire to see the gospel lived out in the lives of people they know and respect. In a world of hyper-individualism, where a consumer mentality dominates, and people are primarily interested in having their personal needs met, real transformational community is hard to build and maintain over time. It is only with difficulty that existing Christ-Followers can build little, authentic communities of believers.

Although it is tempting to talk about “small discipling group programs,” programs come after people. Groups come after community. Christians must desire to reach out and love and build community before community can be built by any strategy, however well thought out. Before people can or will respond and reach out with God’s love, hearts must be filled with the love of Christ and willingness to love others. This is the transformation that takes place at conversion and continues as we experience ongoing, transforming Christ-centered community.

During my early Christian years, I was blessed to be part of several smaller communities of Christian disciples. In some cases, we were almost all immature Christians. Nevertheless, we gathered weekly. We shared our lives. We shared times of worship. We shared prayer. We studied the Bible together. We read Christian literature. We tried to build Christian marriages together. We learned to manage our finances as Christians together. We raised our children as Christians together. We tried and failed a lot! But we kept on trying. We still are trying together. In the meantime, we built strong relationships that continue to this day.

People often ask whether or not I believe small group ministry is necessary. The answer is always “Yes!” Because of changes in our society, “worship center churches” that were important in the history of Christianity, including recent history, can no longer do the task of growing disciples without a strong community discipleship emphasis. Although a few churches will be able to grow as a result of worship excellence, Sunday school or other educational programs, the sheer busyness of people today make this difficult, especially in major metropolitan areas. In addition, most new churches and many churches in Western Europe and parts of the United States do not have the room to create expansive Sunday school programs. Therefore, bringing people together in small groups, primarily in homes, but in other places as well, is the best method to disciple them.

If we are to reach out and touch a “Culture of Death,” the culture and community dissolving end of the modern world, we need reach out in love, not just individually but as communities of believers. Discipleship is no longer the task of a few highly gifted people. It is the work of all Christians working together. While no strategy is possible without changed lives and Christians who desire to build life transforming community, the sheer number of people who need to hear the gospel and have the opportunity to grow in Christ requires some kind of programmatic solution—and small discipleship groups is the program most likely to succeed.

People Need Discipleship Groups

A fundamental principle of disciple-making is that all believers, and especially new believers, need to be part of a discipleship group, that is a small gathering of people who are seeking to grow in Christ. This was true of the first disciples, and it is true of us as well. Just as young children need a healthy family to grow up in, so also young Christians need a healthy, Christian family to grow up in. New believers need the experience of growing in Christ in an intimate fellowship of other people who are trying to grow in Christ as well.

In the ancient world, a disciple was a learner, someone who followed a teacher around and learned from them. The process was twofold: First, the disciple learned the information that teacher knew. Second, the disciple came to model the lifestyle of his teacher. For example, Socrates had a group of young men who followed him and learned from him. Plato, a disciple of Socrates, taught his disciples, one of whom was Aristotle, who himself formed a community of followers. In this way, the teachings of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were passed down. We need recover this ancient way of teaching people and changing lives. Modern universities excel at transmitting information. They are not as good at transmitting character. [2]

The internet and “online-learning” have made college and other educational opportunities available over the internet. There are even “online seminaries.” While these online educational opportunities are good for transmitting information and gaining credentials, they cannot, by their very nature, provide the kind of discipling Jesus modeled and wants. Jesus personally spent time with his disciples and they learned as much by what they observed as by what they were taught. There is an old saying that children “do as the see their parents doing, and not as their parents urge.” Disciples model themselves after older, more experienced disciples just as children, for better or for worse, model themselves after their parents.

A Family in a Culture that Does not Value Families

The family of God is important in a society that does not value family, and in which many people live and work far from their biological family. The form of life common in American and other cities increases loneliness and isolation among people. Many people live far from parents and siblings. Because of divorce and other factors, many people do not find loving community within their biological family, The structure of modern corporate society makes it necessary for some people to move and live away from their families, sometimes across the globe. With the advent of social media, many people have come to rely upon social media and electronic connection as a substitute for real human relationships.Finally, many people are working longer hours than in prior generations. The result is an epidemic of isolation and loneliness.

This loneliness is not healthy. In fact, it is pathological. If we human beings were meant for community, for deep and abiding relationships of deep care, then the modern structure of living is bound to leave most people unfulfilled and some people deeply wounded. If being fully human requires being in life giving relationships with God and others, then it is no surprise that the result of our society’s deconstruction of the family and of stable communities and neighborhoods has had a devastating impact on the mental, moral, and spiritual health of people.

When our society does provide community, that community is increasingly political or economic in nature. Unfortunately, jobs, corporations, business relationships, and the like can only provide a kind of limited social connection. Business does not love anyone as a person, only as an economic unit. Similarly, particularly among the young, belonging to social and political causes may provide some limited sense of connection. However, causes can only provide a limited amount of love, meaning and purpose. Our government and political organizations value us as citizens, not as children of God. Exercise classes, hobby groups, and other groups have similar limitations. Human beings were never meant to live as isolated individuals bound together only by work and the laws of a society. We were meant for deep, loving, wise, relationships.

Unfortunately, at just the moment in human history when the relational, family aspect of the local church is most needed, several factors have limited the ability of Christians to respond. First, over many generations, churches assumed that the loving community of the church would automatically permeate its fellowship. When most people lived in small towns, had relatively strong families, and attended churches in which their families had long and strong connections, church community grew naturally. Pastors and seminaries did not think that they needed to focus on the creation of life-transforming fellowship as a central duty. They assumed community would automatically result from the teaching and worship ministries of the local congregation. The massive transfer of population to major cities and the decline of small, community churches put an end to the effectiveness of this strategy.

Secondly, for most of the 20th Century, the major Christian denominations increasingly developed a corporate model of church operation and a professional model of pastoral formation. At the very moment when the sheer size and complexity of our culture was forcing people to live in large cities and in anonymous neighborhoods, and the natural ability of people to find spiritual nurture was declining, the church developed in a way that was not easily able to meet the changing reality of people’s lives. The corporate model no longer meets the deepest needs of people.

Finally, in the past many young people were not particularly active in church during their immediate post high school and college years, but when they had children, most returned to their local congregation or a similar congregation where they lived. Unfortunately, young people are delaying families longer and longer, and while they are delaying family formation, they are constantly bombarded with images of churches as judgmental, corrupt, interested only in money, and backward. Therefore, when confronted by the need for meaning, purpose, and community, they are unlikely to seek out the church for an answer to their deepest needs.

The only way to respond to these changes in contemporary society is to focus attention on the process of building life-transforming community and making and growing disciples within that community. This is not an easy task. It cannot be accomplished with slick advertising or any other corporate approach to church growth. It happens as people are drawn into a deliberate community that itself attempts to model the life of God among the peoples of the world. If we are to respond to the crisis of discipleship in our day, we must learn again what it means to be a part of the family of God—a family called to go and bring others into that family.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Bonhoeffer makes this point both in Cost of Discipleship, previously cited, and more directly in his earlier book, Life Together. See, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together tr. John Doberstein, (New York, NY: Harper One, 1954). Cost of Discipleship, previously cited, Chapter 7, 129-133 and Chapters 29-30, 263-304.

[2] It is important to remember that we are not called merely to transmit information to people. We are called to help people live a new kind of life as a disciple of Jesus. In a sense, every disciple is a child of those who helped that person grow in Christ and is the parent of those that they are discipling into the image of God-in-Christ.

 

9. Communicating the Gospel in a New Era

Part of the postmodern movement involves a change in the way people think, moving from an objective idea of truth, in which the observer is an uninvolved reporter, to a relational definition of truth in which understanding is created in a relationship between the observer and reality. [1] In this way of thinking, neither the observer nor the reality can be completely separated from the relationship they have with one another. From the perspective of Gospel communication, this can be positive, because it emphasizes conversation and dialogue. It moves disciple-makers from a purely “proclamation centered” view of sharing the gospel to a “conversational, relational centered” approach to evangelism. This change is consistent with the Biblical view that faith and understanding flow from a personal relationship between a relational, Triune God and the human race established through the Word of God by the Spirit.

Communicating and Community

The word, “communicate” has at the same root as the words, “community” and “communion”. We think of communication as something spoken or transmitted by words or symbols. This way of thinking reduces communication to the transmission of information. This can lead to an approach to sharing the gospel that is impersonal and unbiblical. Real communication is not just about information, it is about establishing a communion with another person while seeking to answer the deepest questions of their heart, spoken or unspoken.

Jesus, when he was amongst his disciples, was in an intense community with them. The disciples experienced more in this relationship than just Jesus as a transmitter of information. Jesus lived with him. He shared his life with him. He ate with them. He drank with them. The band of disciples was a kind of community in which the disciples found information, but also support, love, advice, and even the physical necessities of life. It was in this community that the Gospel was lived out and shared. When Jesus corrected his disciples, they knew he did so from love and friendship and for no other reason. Often, he knew what they really wanted to know even before they asked (See, Matthew 12:25; Mark 2:8; Luke 6:8; 11:17).

Non-Christians See What You Do as Much as Hear What You Say

In the area of child-raising, there is a saying that children “imitate what we do and not do what we say.” Every parent knows this is true. The disciples not only said what Jesus had said and communicated information to them, they lived out among new believers the way of life of Jesus lived. Jesus had established a community, and so did the disciples. Here is the way Paul describes it in one of his letters:

“You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.  But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. (Acts 22:18-24).

The Ephesians and other with whom Paul lived and ministered knew who Paul was and how Paul reacted to stress, conflict, opposition, threats and the like—not just from his words but from his actions and behavior. In times of conflict, Paul could write with authority to those who had lived in close proximity to him and knew of his heart for God and for them (See, 2 Corinthians 6:3-13). Paul’s effectiveness as a disciple-maker reflects his effectiveness as a builder of Christian community. Wherever the apostle went, he personally created and participated in little Christian communities in which people and lives were changed in relationship with Christ, him, and one another.

Postmodern Communication

As mentioned earlier, the modern world was inclined to see knowledge and information as paramount, and relationships as something good, but really only an “add-on” to the information conveyed or as something desirable for better communication. Increasingly, in the postmodern discipleship based upon this type of approach is not effective. From the insights of contemporary physics to communication theory, relationship is of paramount importance. This does not mean Christians do not believe that Jesus is the “Way, the Truth and the Life.” It means that we need new ways of communicating such information in the context of human relationships.

Postmodern people tend to be deeply pragmatic as well as relational. They, like our children, watch to see what difference faith makes before committing themselves to any belief system, including Christianity. In such a cultural environment, creating a relationship is as important as the message. People want to see the difference Christianity makes. This does not mean that the message is not important. It just means the relationship might be more important and longer lasting in its impact.

Just after the Second World War, the Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer moved to his family in Switzerland and created a community known as L’Abri. Over the years, many people came to L’Abri and participated in the community. Many came to Christ and became Christian leaders. Scholars have critiqued some of the things Schaeffer taught. However, it is not possible to deny the reality and importance of L’Abri as a healing community. [2]

Conversations and Dialogues

Contemporary disciple-making profits looking at the meaning of both “conversation” and “dialogue.”  The meaning of these terms illuminates the difference between the idea of truth as the result of critical analysis and a relational model of truth. The term “conversation” comes from a Latin root “con” or “with” in English and “vertere” which means to “turn” or “bend.” Interestingly, like the Hebrew word for knowledge, this particular word was used in the 1500s as a synonym for sexual intercourse, and also had a connotation of a household, a manner of conduct and behavior or way of life in a home. In other words, a conversation is an intimate, deeply human relational activity. A conversation is implicitly communal and intended to create communion. It involves a relationship in which two or more individuals share their thoughts and lives in such a way that an understanding that is cognitive, emotional, and spiritual results. Hopefully, in the conversation, their ideas, thoughts, and commitments will be “bent” toward each other.

The word “dialogue” has a similar derivation. The Greek roots of this term are “dia” meaning “through” and “logos” meaning “reason.” The process of dialogue happens when two or more persons share meaning through the exchange of views, and new understanding emerges as meaning is shared and reality illuminated by differing points of view. [3] For two people to enter into a dialogue is for each to commit to a mutual exchange of ideas and information in the search for a better understanding of reality. A dialogue implicitly seeks a truth, which the parties are humble enough to know requires sharing ideas, thoughts, and perspectives in order to achieve.

Human beings sometimes have dialogues with themselves as they conduct an internal conversation about a decision or problem. Sometimes people dialogue with one other person for example about a personal business situation. And, of course, we dialogue in a larger context in which many people participate. In fact, the reasoning of Congress or the governing body of a church is a dialogue of sorts.

Not so long ago, I was faced with many difficult decisions in a relatively short period of time. The future of an organization was at stake. Sometimes I would disappear for a long walk to clear my head. While gone, I would have an internal conversation about a problem. More frequently, the executive director of the organization and I would meet. Each of us would share what we thought and our opinions about what others suggested we do. In the end, though I was the decision-maker, more often than not we took her advice or some third idea that neither of us had considered emerged. This is the benefit of a dialogue.

Dialogues and Community

It is easy to see that, if God exists as a community, and if that divine community is a community of shared meaning and love, then some form of conversation or dialogue in which two people can share deep meaning and purpose is most likely the best possible way to share the gospel. We’ve already established that God exists in relationship and wants to draw us into a relationship of self-giving love of the kind that characterizes the Triune God. Obviously, that relationship of love cannot be achieved or sustained without a deep and personal sharing. This is why conversations are a big part of sharing our Christian faith.

In a conversation, we speak what we believe, others share what they believe, we ask questions and clarify our understanding, and we modify what we have said in order to reach a common understanding. To have a conversation with another person, involves inhabiting a common spiritual, emotional, and intellectual space to share concerns and information in a deep way. For Christians, this is more important than it would be for non-Christians because of our conviction that the ultimate rationality (the Logos of God) is revealed in the self-giving love Christ showed on the Cross—a love God shares with directly by the Spirit and through believers in Christ.

The Difference between Dialogue and Discussion

Dialogue is different from a mere discussion. Interestingly, the term “discussion” has the same route as the word “percussion.” A discussion can be no more than two people or groups expressing their views, with each trying to convince the other that their view is correct. [4] There is no community formed. There is simply an attempt to persuade. This kind of activity is subject to the post-modern critique that all truth claims are bids for power. A dialogue should not be a mere discussion. It should involve sharing meaning. Even in the context of a direct dialogue, there must be an open willingness to hear the other person’s views.

Although some proponents of dialogue suggest that we must suspend, give up, or hold in abeyance our own views to appropriately enter a dialogue, the kind of dialogue needed in conversations regarding faith requires only that we continue to hold our beliefs but remember that others do not share these beliefs and we may not be entirely correct in what we think. [5] Therefore, we must learn to be open-minded in how we share the Gospel and what we say. We do not need to give up who we are or what we believe. That would not be authentic. We do not need to agree with everything that is said by another person or persons. In fact, we should not do anything like the foregoing. We need to share our perception of the truth with love and openness to the opinions and views of others.

The Value of Unintentional Disciple-Making

Many people think of evangelism as involving intentional attempts to persuade others of the Gospel. We all know that some conversations occur intentionally, but many conversations occur spontaneously in the business of everyday life. We have conversations with our parents, children, grandchildren, neighbors, business associates, church members, political representatives, members of clubs we belong to, and many other people. Only a very few of those conversations begin with a religious premise.

Most conversations are not on a single subject matter. For example, when our family meets around the dining room table on a holiday we may talk about church, politics, books for reading, children and grandchildren, politics, the economy, hobbies, and many other subjects. No one is really in charge of the conversation. It may begin with one person talking about one subject, it may end with someone else suggesting that we change the subject.  In between, the conversation moves along a path chosen by those in the conversation, generally subconsciously and informally.

Perhaps most importantly, most people resent an exchange in which one person seems to be pushing an agenda or dominating the conversation. This means that we must enter a conversation armed with who we are as a person and not with an agenda to convert others. Although I have conversations that begin and ended with a religious premise, and are at least partially intended to explain the meaning of Christian faith, such conversations almost always begin with a question. In short, most conversations that have a Gospel component evolve as a part of a larger conversation and relationship among acquaintances.

Jesus and Dialogue

When Nicodemus came to Jesus to ask him questions in the middle of the night, the Gospel of John records a long conversation designed to help Nicodemus understand who Jesus is and what Jesus came to do (John 3:1-21). In the next chapter, Jesus meets a nonbeliever at a well in Samaria (John 4). The scene is something like this: Jesus and the disciples are traveling back to Galilee through Samaria. When they reach the town of Sychar, everyone is hungry. Outside of town there was a well where they choose stopped. (You can see the well today.) The disciples left Jesus at the well and went into town to get some food.

As Jesus sat by the well resting, a woman came to draw water at an usual hour. Jesus began the conversation with the woman by asking for a drink from the well, since she had brought her bucket with which to draw water. The woman was surprised that Jesus even spoke to her because she was a woman, a sinful woman, and a Samaritan. Jesus, ignoring the religious and racial conventions of his day, began a conversation with the woman. In the beginning, the woman spoke of physical water, at a point in the conversation in which Jesus was speaking of spiritual water. Eventually Jesus explained to the woman that he is the source of a kind of water that permanently quenches a deep human thirst. The woman, who like most Middle Eastern women of the day spent a lot of her time gathering water, wanted this kind of water.

This response allowed Jesus to speak into the spiritual life of the woman. Jesus explains that those who drink only physical water, meeting physical needs only, will always be thirsty again. In the spiritual world, those who drink of the love of God will never thirst again, because they are filled with the source of all love. (It has not yet been revealed, but this information meets this woman at the precise point of her own need for authentic love.)

The woman then asks for the water. Jesus, knowing the woman is not married but living with a man, asks her to bring her husband to see him. This allows Jesus to speak into the woman’s spiritual and moral condition. In the end, the woman understands that God is able to meet her desire for love without an endless series of men. She goes and tells everyone she knows about her conversation with Jesus at the well. As a result, the woman and many other Samaritans become Christ-Followers.

This story is helpful in understanding the importance of conversation. When the woman came to the well, she was an outcast in her society, known to be promiscuous, isolated, and alone. Jesus did not simply proclaim to her that she was a sinner who could receive restoration by confessing her sins and accepting him as the Messiah. Instead, he stepped out of the social conventions of his day, which did not permit a rabbi to speak to a promiscuous woman, and formed a relationship with her in the form of a conversation. It may seem like a small thing today, but in Jesus’s day for a rabbi to speak to such a person was unheard of. The woman not only received a message about living water but experienced the personal presence of that living water. Her relational isolation was healed by the presence of Jesus in. life transforming conversation.

Jesus did not change the truth he already knew about the woman or her moral and spiritual condition. He knew very well the woman’s condition both morally and spiritually. Nevertheless, he did not brow beat, condemn, or judge the woman. He entered into a relationship with her though a dialogue in which the woman discovered for herself who Jesus was and what he could do to heal her and her relationships.

Examples from Life

Some time ago, my wife and I led a class designed to help people learn to share their faith. One project of the class was learning to share Bible stories from memory. The second week or so, we learn the story of the woman caught in adultery.  In that particular class, there was a woman who decided that very week she wanted to drop out of the class. Some weeks later, she came back to tell us a story. Not long after dropping out, she had coffee with a friend who was having marital problems. Infidelity was involved. Her friend was not a Christian. Actually, her friend was opposed to Christianity due to some early life-experiences. The friend felt that her husband would never forgive her for what had happened. Our friend in a casual way spoke about what she remembered about the story of the woman caught in adultery. The other woman, who that her Christian friends would condemn her, had never heard the story. She left their coffee feeling supported, understood, and loved. I have no idea whether this person became a Christian or not. What is important is that a Christian friend shared the love of God with a friend at a critical time in her life. In the story and in the presence of a Christian friend, the woman felt God’s love.

This story contains important elements to ponder. First, our friend was not motivated to meet with her friend out of a desire to convert her to Christianity, save her soul, or add another convert to her list of Christian accomplishments. She was having coffee with an old friend who needed love and support. Although she did share God’s love, her purpose was to support and care for another human being. Second, our friend did not set out to make a gospel presentation or imply that coming to Christ would save her marriage. She simply told a story that related to the women’s situation and allowed the woman herself to decide how she would apply it to her life. [6] Our friend did not demand a commitment or response. Our friend shared the love of Christ with someone in need, communicating care and concern for the person.

In business, I’ve had important conversations that involved Christian faith. However, almost all the time they were in the context of some legal or business discussion. For example, years ago I spent a good deal of time with the manager of a local investment group. The group was trying to acquire a business in another state. We had to travel to and from another city and engage in incredibly tedious negotiations with a business owner with whom it was extremely difficult to communicate. One-night while flying home, the manager expressed an interest in why I handled a situation in the way I did during the negotiations that afternoon. He knew I was a Christian and assumed that my Christian faith had been guiding my words and actions in the negotiations. He was correct. We then had a conversation about the importance and difficulty of bringing Christian faith into business dealings. The context of our relationship was not religious nor was the situation a religious meeting. It was a business negotiation. Nevertheless, both of us grew in our faith as a result of the conversation that we had that evening on the airplane. I learned from him, and he learned from me. It was a dialogue. Incidentally, we were successful in acquiring the business.

Dialogue in a Lonely, Isolated Society

In a society characterized by loneliness and isolation, in which a good bit of the time people don’t feel loved but instead used, caring relationships in which the gospel is communicated in compassion is incredibly important. The basic prerequisite is to be centered in love upon the other person and his or her needs, not on any agenda, including the Gospel. The most important thing we do is just love the other person and try to sympathetically enter into his or her world.

There are, of course, a few useful techniques that are helpful in centering a conversation on the needs of the other. First, there is a technique known as “reflective listening.” Try, if possible to respond to the other by rephrasing what they have said to be sure you understand what they are saying. A good deal of the time, we think we know what another person is saying, but we do not. We have misunderstood. Learning to listen and pay close attention to what another person is actually saying is important.

Second, be aware of personal emotional responses. People can often say things that are either shocking or so opposed to what we deeply believe that we cannot help but be emotionally impacted. As a pastor, I have had many such experiences. Much of the time, if we are not self-aware, we end up responding too quickly and often too strongly. Our faces or physical movements may communicate our shock. When one detects such an emotional response, it is best to remain silent for time until you can respond in the kindest possible way.

Often, statements produce a physical response in us. Being aware of these physical responses is important. Experts report that the physical and emotional cues we give another person are just as important as the actual words of our response. It can take a bit of practice to not just speak words of love but also physically express our concern for the other and to resist physical responses that are inappropriate or unhelpful. For example, I tend to look away from a person if I truly disagree with what they are saying. When I look away, I am listening but the other person senses a disconnect. Looking a way often involves formulating a response to what is being said before the person is finished speaking. Although the other person may not know I am formulating a response (which they would not appreciate), they usually know I am not paying attention to what they are saying! The best practice is to pay close physical and mental attention to the other person until they are finished speaking.

The Fruit of Dialogue

It is impossible to over-estimate the fruitfulness of learning to have conversations and dialogues with other people, personally, professionally, and spiritually. Learning to have a good dialogue is an important element in being a good disciple-maker. Of course, dialogue is important as a person asks questions and explores what it would mean to become a disciple of Jesus. It is important to have answers to some questions. It is important to know a gospel presentation and to have a personal testimony. But, the most important thing is to be in a loving conversation with another person.

The conversations and dialogues we have with people after they have become Christ-Followers are just as important as those we have before they come to follow Jesus. People do not become perfect disciples the moment they accept Christ. Just like us, people resist change, make mistakes, hide their faults and shortcomings, and fear rejection if they are entirely honest about their struggles. If we are to help people at critical junctures in their walk with Christ, we have to continue to be open, non-judgmental, diplomatic, and conversational was we help them “learn to obey all that Christ has commanded.”

As mentioned at the beginning, our business as disciple-makers involves more than getting people to a point in which they except Christ as their Lord and Savior. Our business as disciple makers is to help him become deeply committed, mature disciples of Christ. This involves the ability to walk with another person, talk with another person, learn from and with another person, teach in mutual conversation and loving relationship, as both the disciple-maker and the new disciple grow in Christ. It is not easy, but it is the most rewarding thing we can do to show God’s love to those around us.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1]  It is the fundamental insight of quantum physics that level it is not possible to disengage the observer from the event being examined as was the model of investigation dominant in the modern world under the influence of the Newtonian view of science. This insight, first discovered at the subatomic level of physical reality has implications in other areas, and is a part of the emerging postmodern view of science. The American philosopher Charles S. Pearce foresaw this insight in his relational theory of signs, in which he spoke of the relationship between reality (an object under observation), an interpreter (observer), and the sign used to understand the reality observed. See, C.S. Pierce, “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties” in The Essential Charles S. Peirce Edward C. Moore, ed (New York, NY: Harper & Row), 1972.

[2]  Francis and Edith Schaeffer moved to Switzerland in 1955. Today, there are several L’Abri fellowships all over the world. To learn more visit,www.labri.org. Edith Schaeffer wrote the story of L’Abri in her book by the same name. It is well worth reading. See, Edith Schaeffer L’Abri(Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 1992).

[3]  This section is much indebted to David Bohm and especially to the digest of his thought published as On Dialogue (New York, NY: Routledge, 1996).

[4]  On Dialogue, at 7.

[5]  This is an important difference between what is being said here and what some proponents of dialogue urge. David Bohm, for example, believes that a dialogue requires that we suspend our own opinions and beliefs.  When Bohm urges suspension of beliefs he means creating a situation where we neither believe or disbelieve. It is doubtful that this is even possible or desirable as to our most deeply held beliefs or the most deeply held beliefs of others. If I believe that God is Love it is neither necessary nor desirable that I suspend that belief to have a conversation with another person, whether or not they agree or violently disagree with that belief of mine. What is necessary is that I listen with love and be willing to be corrected where I may not be acting or believing consistently with that deeply held belief.

[6]  One important quality of stories is that a story does not demand or require acceptance or rejection. It simply allows another person to imaginatively enter into a narrative and decide for his or herself what impact if any the story has for the hearer. Jesus used parables in just this way. For example, in the story of the prodigal son, while many people see themselves as the prodigal, others to see themselves as the older brother or one of the servants.

8. A Disciple Has a Personal Story to Tell

Many people misunderstand what it means to testify to what God has done in our lives. Jesus came bearing witness to his relationship with God the Father, and Jesus’ disciples bore witness to their experience of Christ the Son. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the disciples testified throughout the known world that they were witnesses to what God had done in Jesus (Acts 3:15). The four Gospels are essentially the memoirs of the disciples and others as they remembered their personal relationship with Jesus. [1] In Mark, for example, we have a clear presentation of Peter’s on-again, off-again status as follower of Christ and leader of the disciples. The Gospel of Mark, which many believe contains Peter’s memoirs recorded and edited by John Mark, paints the disciples, and especially Peter, as clueless and wishy-washy, not understanding who Jesus was or the true nature of his messiahship. After the resurrection, they were completely changed and went onto the Roman world proclaiming Jesus as the Savior of the World.

One reason we read our Bibles, and particularly the gospels, is to remember and be able to tell the stories of Jesus. One reason disciple-makers memorize Bible stories and gospel presentations is so that we can share the stories of Jesus with others and bear witness to him in this way. However, there is more to disciple-making than telling stories from the Bible or sharing Gospel presentations. We must be able to tell our own story of what God has done for us and meant to us.

What is a Testimony

The word “testimony” comes from the same root word as the word “witness”. The Latin word we translate witness can be translated testify. [2] This makes sense. A witness testifies at trial. Just as a legal witness testifies as to facts of which they have personal knowledge, our testimony to Christ reflects our personal experience of God in our lives. Just as an expert witness testifies as to matters about which they have expertise, a Christian witness can be a witness of things we have come to understand about God as a result of study and consideration.

Testimony at trial is evidence one side or the other submits to the court for consideration and to prove its case. In the same way, our testimony is simply evidence for the gospel. A potential Christian will weigh this evidence just as a court weighs evidence submitted at trial. Like almost all evidence, our testimony is not the case. It is just a part of the case. Therefore, we don’t need to ask too much of ourselves as we relate out testimony to another person. We are not responsible to change minds. We are only responsible to testify as truthfully as we know how.

Finally, perhaps it is appropriate that the Greek word is also the root word for the English word “Martyrs.” We all fear potential embarrassment and rejection for speaking up about any controversial matter. As Christians, we need to die to that fear and anxiety as we bear witness to Christ.

The Importance of Testimonies

In our emerging postmodern culture, the capacity to testify to what God has done in our lives is extremely important. A characteristic of postmodernism is that it is deeply pragmatic. People believe there is no ultimate truth. There’s no continuing truth. Truth is what works at a particular point in time. [3] What is true for one person or in one society may not be true in another. In such a culture, stories of the impact God has in a single life can make a tremendous difference to listeners. Therefore, we should be willing and able to testify as to what a difference God has made.

Testimonies of Action

Our testimony is not just what we say. It includes what we do. How we live as much as what we say is a testimony. As friends and acquaintances watch Christians in business, marriages, family life, social relationships, schools, and in other venues, they notice if followers of Christ live differently and visibly wise and loving lives. In how Christians live, they give personal testimony in their lives concerning what faith means. This testimony can be as simple as saying grace during meals at restaurants or not working on Sunday because you’re in church.

When I practiced law as a young associate attorney, people knew that I rarely work on Sunday. I came in almost every Saturday and worked at least part of the day. However, I never came in on Sunday unless specifically requested to by a partner or client. People knew I did this because I was a Christian. They knew I felt it important to be in worship and spend Sundays with my family. They may not have agreed (and they didn’t always agree), but they knew it was my way of life. In at least one case, another person noticed and was impacted by my behavior. When we demonstrate Christian virtues in our day-to-day life, people take notice.

Testimonies of Words

A lived testimony to the importance of faith in Christ is important. This does not mean Christ-followers don’t need to learn to verbally share their faith with others. It is extremely important that Christians be able to tell people what God has done in their lives. Just as words without action are not enough, actions without words are not sufficient either.

The Apostle Paul told his story to other people in order to bring them to Christ and encourage their faith. His testimony is recorded more than once in Acts and again in Galatians (Acts 22:1-21; 26:4-20; Galatians 1:13-2:21). We can deduce that Paul’s testimony was an important part of his mission of sharing the gospel. In Acts, Paul tells his story at length to his fellow Jews. Here is the story as Paul tells it:

I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished. About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, “Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” I asked. “I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me.  “What shall I do, Lord?” I asked. “Get up,” the Lord said, “and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.” My companions led me by the hand into Damascus, because the brilliance of the light had blinded me. A man named Ananias came to see me. He was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there. He stood beside me and said, “Brother Saul, receive your sight!” And at that very moment I was able to see him. Then he said: “The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. You will be his witness to all people of what you have seen and heard. And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.” When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance and saw the Lord speaking to me. “Quick!” he said. “Leave Jerusalem immediately, because the people here will not accept your testimony about me.” “Lord,” I replied, “these people know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.” Then the Lord said to me, “Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles” (Acts 22:1-21).

Paul’s testimony has three features:

  1. He tells what kind of a person he was prior to becoming a Christian.
  2. He tells how he became a Christian.
  3. He tells what happened as a result of his becoming a Christian.

Before Paul became a Christian, he was a persecutor of Christians. He hated Christ and the Christian faith. Then, he met Christ on the road to Damascus, on his way to persecute the Christians in that city. As a result of his conversion, Paul became a missionary to the Gentiles. This is the essence of Paul’s testimony.

All good testimonies have these same three characteristics:

  1. Who I was before I came to Christ
  2. How I came to Christ
  3. What a difference faith makes.

Most mature Christians remember how we lived before that moment or period in which the became a Christian, how we became a Christian, and what changed because we became a Christian. In fact, most Christians have several testimonies of what God has done in their lives and how it changed them for the better. Notice that in Galatians the story of Paul’s Christian experience does not end with his conversion on the Road to Damascus (1:18-2:21). Neither does our conversion.

Dramatic and Nurtured Testimonies

Some Christians are hesitant to share their story with others because they feel it is not good enough, powerful enough, dramatic enough, or whatever. This is a big mistake. I have a pretty dramatic testimony of how God came into my life. My wife, on the other hand, has been a Christian almost all of her life. Her story is much less dramatic. It is important to remember that there are as many different testimonies as there are persons and there is more than one type of testimony. Each of these testimonies is important to someone and someone will respond to that testimony.

People sometimes talk about the difference between dramatic conversions and nurtured conversions. A dramatic conversion usually occurs when someone has been far from God and is brought close to God in a single dramatic event or series of events. A nurtured conversion usually involves a parent, grandparent, or some other significant person who gradually nurtured the believer as a Christian.

In my case, I was far from God, not really looking for God, when I suffered a series of failures and losses. At an important moment, a co-worker reached out and invited me to a Bible study. Over several months the members of this Bible study nurtured me until I came to believe in Christ. My wife, on the other hand, grew up in a Christian family, was nurtured as a Christian by her parents, accepted Christ at an early age, and never strayed very far from Christian faith or behavior. She can, however, remember various times when God worked in mighty ways and led her toward deeper faith and commitment to Him.

One type of conversion story is no better than another. In point of fact, most of the time the reason people have a dramatic conversion story is that they were dramatically out of fellowship with God in a destructive way. I often say that my more dramatic conversion is not a matter of my great spirituality but my great lack of spirituality! Because of my hard-headedness, God had to knock me over the head with a “spiritual 2 x 4” in order to get my attention. If you don’t have a dramatic conversion it doesn’t speak ill of you. It speaks well of you.

Another reason we should not emphasize one kind of a conversion story as superior is that people have all kinds of life experiences. A person who is quiet, meditative, and somewhat in touch with God may not have a dramatic experience at all. The story of a quiet experience of Christ will have a bigger impact on that person than will a dramatic story. On the other hand, a person who is dramatically out of touch with God, may respond to a more dramatic testimony. Every Christian was given their own personal testimony which is meaningful to people who are like them. Whatever our testimony is, we need to be prepared to share it with others.

God’s Continuing Work in a Life

People love to hear the story of how someone came to Christ. [4] These stories are important. However, our conversion story is not our only testimony. Since the time we came to believe in God and came close to Christ, other things have happened. Everyone has faced times of challenge, doubt, social pressure, testing, failure, alienation from God, and the like. One of the most powerful testimonies any Christian can give to another person is to tell a story of a struggle in your life that is similar to a struggle they are having in their life. Once again, people like to hear stories of what God has been doing in the life of people they know are Christians. People especially enjoy knowing that their Christian friends have struggled and do struggle with exactly the same things with which they struggle. Once again, these stories do not have to be dramatic. In fact, sometimes they are more powerful if they are not dramatic.

Suppose you were let go from a job and it took a long time to find a new one. Suppose you prayed, reached out to other Christians, and went to a Christian ministry that helps people find new jobs. Then, after several months of looking, you found a new job! That testimony would mean a lot to a person who was just laid off. Suppose you have struggled in your marriage, in parenting, or in some other area of your life, and you prayed you sensed God’s presence in solving the problem. That testimony would be powerful to someone who is struggling in a similar way.

We might call these testimonies “Continuing Testimonies.” God continues to work in our lives after we are Christians, forming us into the people God wants us to be. This forming process, both pleasant and unpleasant, is part of our continuing testimony. It is also an important witness to what God can do in the life of ordinary people like us.

In my former church we had a ministry to people who were looking for a job. It began during a recession, and many of the people who attended had been let go by their employer in late middle age and were having a hard time finding a job. Most sessions began with someone sharing their experience and how God worked out the problem or was working in the problem. People who found jobs were encouraged to return and tell the newer participants how God had worked in their struggle to find employment. These stories were always important to newer members of the group. People are always encouraged when they can identify with someone who has struggled as they have struggles and come out on the other side.

Sharing in Testimonies

One important thing to remember about sharing your testimony is maintaining an appropriate level of self-disclosure. For many years, my wife and I were leaders in the ministry in which laypeople were asked to give their testimony to others over a weekend. Occasionally, someone would go into great detail about a series of sexual, alcohol, drug, or other indiscretions.  These were never good testimonies.

There are two problems with being too explicit: First, as I point out in training sessions, whatever you say to a hundred people is likely to be retold to a larger number of people. Therefore, it’s always a good idea to remember to share at an appropriate level of detail, so as not to embarrass your family, spouse, children, co-workers or others. Of course, if you were guilty of some sin, it is completely inappropriate to share the name of someone who may have been involved with you at the time without their express permission.

Second, there is a level of explicit repetition of indiscretions, that borders on the glorification of that indiscretion. For example, I once heard a testimony that included repeated somewhat detailed references to sexual indiscretions. At some point, it almost sounded like bragging.  This testimony was given at a retreat at which many young men were present. In the end, the impression was given that this behavior was something that young people do that is fun and exciting, but limited and in the end disappointing. I felt the testimony almost encouraged the behavior in question. Unfortunately, a number of young ladies were likely to be hurt by young men who engaged in that pattern of behavior. In the end, I felt that this testimony made the wrong point, despite the good intentions of the person who gave it.

A Good Testimony Glorifies God

Last of all, it is important to remember that our testimony should not glorify us or our activities, good or bad. A good testimony glorifies God. The level of detail we need to share is that level of detail which allows a listener to understand what God has done in our lives and how important it is to us that God acted to heal us. The point is that God loved us and rescued us from the situation—and can be trusted to love and rescue others as well. God should be the hero of our testimony, not us.

We Should be Ready and Willing to Share our Faith

Many Christians have difficulty sharing their own story. Even more people are not sure that they could tell another person what it means to be a Christian. This is nothing new. Christians have always struggled to tell others of the love of God we see in Jesus Christ. The best antidote to our fears is to learn to share a short testimony concerning what God has done in our lives.

Preparing to Share

Every Christian should be able to give their testimony when appropriate. A good way to start is to try to tell your conversion or other story in about three minutes. If you wrote it out, that would be about one typed page, double-spaced in length. Your testimony needs to be personal. It needs to be your story. Of course, it needs to be factually correct. There is a reason why it needs to be short: You may not have a long time to tell it.

I often call this testimony my “Elevator testimony: or “Starbucks Testimony.” The setting is this: you’re at a coffee shop or restaurant or some other place with a friend. In the course of the conversation it has become appropriate for you to share with them how you became a Christian. You don’t have your Bible. You don’t have notes. You don’t have your diary. You don’t have a lot of time. You’re sitting at a table looking at another person. What would you say? Obviously, what we say will vary from person to person and situation to situation. What we need to keep in mind is the major point of what we intend to say.

In my particular case it goes something like this:

I grew up in a Christian home. Our family went to church regularly. When I was in college I drifted away from God. I became selfish and self-centered. I made decisions that were unwise. Over the next seven years, while I was objectively successful in the minds of a lot of people, my life was a mess. And a moment of personal suffering and tragedy, a friend brought me to a Bible study, and that Bible study witnessed to Christ by word and deed. I made Christian friends who shared God’s word and God’s love with me. About six months after I was first invited to the Bible study, one afternoon after church, I was pondering the worship service, and suddenly believed that the Bible was true and that Christ was the Way, the Truth, and the Life. After that moment, my values, my objectives, and my goals in life began to change. Over time, some of my worst habits were overcome. God has made a big difference in my life personally, professionally, morally, and spiritually. I’ve become a much different person than I was on that day forty and more years ago that I became a Christian. I have a wonderful wife and family, a satisfying career, and good and healthy friendships.

After forty years as a Christian leader, I’ve given my testimony in many different venues, sometimes for as long as two hours. Obviously in two hours you share a lot more detail. In one minute, you share a lot less detail. The important thing is to outline in your mind the contours of how it is you came to Christ in such a way that you could tell the story to another person. Of course, the truths of the Scripture and faith in Christ are primary in the Christian life. However, people are touched by the stories of people who have been touched by God. We don’t need to worry about having a lot of scripture in our testimony.

Don’t Deprive Others of your Witness

When we don’t share what God has done for us with others we deprive them of the opportunity to understand what a difference God can make in one single human life. A person struggling in their career is touched by the story of a friend who struggled in his or her career. A person struggling in their marriage is touched by the story of a person who has struggled in marriage. A person who is struggling with their children is touched by the story of a person who is struggling with children. Our human stories, and what God has done in our lives, is a source of hope in the lives of others. We need to remember this when we are shy or fearful about sharing with others.

It is important that we are able not just to communicate what the Gospel is, but also what the Gospel does. A personal testimony should allow another person to see not only what God as done in the past (the Gospel) but what God continues to do (our testimony). This is why we need to continuously be aware of what God is doing in our lives and be able to share it. Someone will be touched by that testimony.

Recently, I semi-retired. In the beginning, I was not terribly comfortable with the situation. Then, God opened up a door for me to use my gifts in a new church, far away from any congregation I ever served. It was a wonderful experience. This particular testimony resonates with many retired or semi-retired people who feel a need to continue to use their gifts and abilities for the glory of God. Who knows, perhaps tomorrow God will give me yet another testimony? The continuing story of what God is doing in our lives is part of the bigger story of what God is doing and about to do in every life we touch. Each day we are alive involves a new act of God in our lives that can benefit someone.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] There are various theories concerning the writers and compilers of the Gospels. Tradition held that the apostle Matthew wrote Matthew, John Mark, the traveling companion of Peter and Paul, wrote Mark, Luke, the traveling companion of Paul, wrote Luke, and the apostle John wrote John. Critical scholars believe Mark was the first Gospel, with Matthew and Luke each borrowing from Mark. The exact writers are not as important as the observation that the Gospels are largely edited memories of Jesus.

[2] The Greek word “martereo” means “to bear witness.” It can also mean to testify It is also the root from which we get the term “martyrs,” i.e. those who die bearing witness to Christ. Gerhard Kittel & Gerhard Friedrich, Eds, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament Abridged Ed., Tr. Geoffrey W. Bromily (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1985), 564.

[3] Despite its usefulness, this pragmatic definition of truth is limited. Christians do believe that people will be better off if they follow Christ. We don’t mean by that that they will always or inevitably be better off. In fact, the benefits of faith can never be fully experienced in this world.

[4] Once again, in my over forty years as a Christian, I have participated in many renewal weekends, meetings, testimony services and the like. I have heard hundreds of testimonies by ordinary lay persons. Much of the time, there were non-Christians in attendance. Almost without exception, everyone in the room was interested in and moved by the testimony being given. This does not mean that everyone responds to testimony. This is not true. What is true is that people are almost never offended or dismissive of a testimony.

7. The Good News We Share

Many (if not most) Christians, even when convicted that they ought to share their faith, do not do so. Some Christians come to evangelism or discipleship classes, but leave if there is a chance they would be asked to share their faith outside the group. There are basically two reasons for this that go to the heart of effective gospel communication: People don’t know what to say and don’t know exactly how to go about communicating the gospel with others. If contemporary Christians are to overcome the decline of Christian faith, disciple-makers must address both the “what” and the “how” of disciple-making. Fortunately, the best way to share faith with another person is also that way that comes most naturally to the person sharing their faith.

Some years ago, a close business associate and friend, not a Christian, asked me out of the clear blue sky if I felt he was going to go to hell. He knew I was a serious Christian and wanted to know the answer. I had never given the question of my friend’s eternal destiny one moment of thought. I was shocked and did not know what to say. I stared at him blankly for a few seconds, and then gave a halting answer affirming our friendship. I have never felt good about my answer, because I do not think I came close to addressing what was really on his mind. What was most deeply wrong with my answer was that I did not communicate my faith or my testimony to God’s love in a way that my dear friend could hear, understand, or accept. I made a mess of the opportunity. I feel my friend is fine, but I do not feel good about my answer to his deep question.

Jesus and the Gospel

When Jesus began his ministry, he shared the gospel with other people. Mark begins his gospel noting that he is recording the “beginning of gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God” (Mark 1:1). In Mark, Jesus is immediately portrayed as proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand, so people should repent and believe (Mark 1:15).  Sharing the Good News was important to Jesus, and it ought to be important to us as well.

Jesus began his public ministry communicating personally and verbally that the Kingdom of God was present, and therefore, the people of God should repent and believe the Good News (Gospel). In other words, Jesus was a proclaimer of the gospel, and Jesus is the its content.  A longer account in Luke gives us additional information about the gospel Jesus proclaimed. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus begins his career in Nazareth quoting Isaiah as follows:

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing (Luke 4:16-21).

This passage communicates a good deal about what Jesus means by Good News. First, the gospel is the fulfillment of the hopes of Israel for a Messiah. The Jewish people lived in a condition of subservience for most of their history. During that entire time, they dreamt of release from captivity. As a conquered people, the Jews were poor compared to their Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman captors. They were oppressed and subject to arbitrary imprisonment.

The prophet Isaiah foresaw that God would come to rescue his people (Isaiah 61:1-2). In quoting Isaiah. Jesus is saying that he is the long-expected salvation of Israel. The good news is that Jesus has come to rescue his people. Surprisingly, this salvation is not for the wealthy, the powerful, the religiously active, the best followers of the law, or the saintly in the eyes of the world. Instead, it is for the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned, sinners, tax collectors, and a host of others no one expected that God cared about. In other words, the gospel is for everyone.

The First Disciples and the Gospel

The disciples, as they went out into the world to share the gospel, developed a way to explain to people the meaning of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The Apostle Paul, who was perhaps the most effective of the early missionaries, at different times and in different ways, described the gospel as he delivered it to his hearers. Near the end of his ministry, writing to Timothy, his beloved helper, he said: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst” (I Timothy 1:15). Embedded in this little sentence is a basic form of the gospel:

  • The way to salvation is Jesus Christ, who came to save; and
  • We all need salvation.
  • I found salvation in Christ.

A longer version of Paul’s gospel occurs in First Corinthians where he writes:

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born (I Corinthians 15:1-8).

In this passage, Paul outlines the gospel in narrative form answering the historical question, “What happened in Christ that we believe to be Good News?”  He begins by stating the importance of the gospel: It is the source of salvation and renewed relationship with God. Having established the importance of the gospel, he tells the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The good news is embedded in the story of the life death and resurrection of Jesus.

First Corinthians was one of Paul’s earliest letters. Second Timothy was one of the last. In Second Timothy, Paul speaks of the gospel in these words:

So, do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God. He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel (3 Timothy 1:8-10).

Although the context and wording are different, the Gospel is the same. God’s appointed savior, Jesus the Christ, came to the human race and was manifest in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. This Gospel provides a means of salvation for everyone who believe in Christ and accept the gift of the forgiveness of sins and new life God offers them. It is a matter of God’s grace, not human achievement. It is important to recognize the Paul not only shares the content of the Gospel, but its personal application to him and its importance for his life. The gospel is not good news unless and until it is good news to a person.

The various ways that Paul expresses the content of the gospel ought to relieve us from the false idea that there is only one way to describe the Gospel There is not. Good communication involves a communicator, a message, and a recipient of the message. A good communicator is careful to communicate the message of the gospel in different ways to different people in different circumstances depending on the person or persons to which we are communicating.

What is the gospel today? We often hear people say, “If it was good enough for Jesus and Paul, it is good enough for me.” This is true, but it does no good to speak words to other people that they do not, cannot, or will not understand. Therefore, we need to communicate the gospel to people in ways that those we are communicating with can hear and understand.

Good News from God

In the Greek, the word we translate Gospel means “good news.”  Before recent times, there were few or no newspapers or electronic or other forms of mass communication. When an emperor, king, or person in authority wanted to communicate something important, the communicator used heralds who read and proclaimed what was to be communicated.  These proclamations were good news from their leader. Imagine then, how important good news would be if it were good news from God. Paul believes that he and the other apostles have been commissioned to transmit to those with whom they come into contact the most important good news there can be: Good news from God. That is why Jesus, the apostles, and the church ever since has used the term “good news” to describe what God is communicating to the human race in Jesus. The most powerful being in the universe has sent his heralds to proclaim the best news possible! You can have a life changing relationship with me now and forever. In the meantime, you can be released from your self-centered captivity to sin and brokenness.

Good News for Captives

People in our day and time continue to be captives, needing the liberating power of God. In some areas of the world, people are living in physical captivities not much different from the captivities of the ancient Jews. In the West, there is often a different kind of captivity. People are captive to our cultural brokenness and the personal and social brokenness that captivity creates. Because people are inclined to believe that there is nothing beyond this material universe, and the activities, possessions and pleasures of this world are the only hope for meaning and purpose, many people are captive to an eternal search for money, possessions, power, and pleasure. Into this situation, God has sent us to proclaim good news to the entire world.

The false gods worshiped in our day are not set up a temple at the center of our cities. The modern temples are in office buildings, school rooms, and other places. Their prophets are usually not odd figures running around half-naked and half-mad. Instead, the modern prophets, priests and priestesses of false religions speak to us through the media, cell phones, mass entertainment, popular music, and often education. We do not worship the false gods of our day in temples, but in the fabric of day-to-day life. To be raised and educated in the West today is to be raised in a kind of captivity to a false and damaging world-view that breaks and hurts nearly everyone. In order to escape this captivity to the false God’s of our society, people need to see and have a relationship with people who have escaped and found freedom, wholeness and blessing in Christ.

Explaining the Gospel to Post Modern People

Some years ago, I was in my office on a Friday. I got a call from the front desk because a disturbed individual was asking for help. I went up and brought the person to my office. Without going into detail, this person was in a sinful lifestyle, selling her body to men, taking mind-altering drugs, and in a relationship of physical and moral abuse. She was not highly intelligent, and she had been drinking. I knew that whatever I said to her had to be simple. The only thing I knew to do was share the gospel in a short form. I took out a piece of paper, drew a little diagram, and shared the basic elements of the gospel. My guest had been raised in a poor, minority church. She knew the story. As I shared the gospel with her, her eyes were filled with tears, and she cried. She prayed for forgiveness. We spoke of other, more urgent things, and our congregation helped her with a physical need. In the end, this short sharing of the Gospel was exactly what this person needed.

I did not set out that morning to bring someone to Christ. In particular, I didn’t set out to have a relationship with the kind of person who came to my office that day. Yet, I knew enough to help this woman at a moment of distress. I shared a form of the gospel with her. Our gospel help did not end with words: Our church shared with this woman some physical resources she needed. This example is a reminder that the gospel is best shared by words and deeds. As we share God’s love with others, we reveal to them that God is love. As we explained to them how they can experience that love, we give them the opportunity to commit their life to that God of love. That commitment is the beginning of a life of discipleship.

There are many gospel presentations. One of the most famous portrays sin as a great chasm that separates us from God, and the cross of Christ as a bridge allowing us to cross over and be reunited with God as we accept God’s grace and believe in the gospel. This presentation emphasizes our sinfulness and need for the cross. Another famous Gospel presentation contains three pictures, one with me on the throne of my life, one with me on the throne of my life but God involved, and one with God on the throne of my life. This presentation emphasizes our human pride and desire for self-sufficiency.

When Kathy and I were writing a book about sharing the gospel called “Salt & Light,” we prepared another little graphic that can have importance to postmodern people. One characteristic of postmodern people is that they do not have a fully developed sense of sin. Because there is no God and no ultimate truth, there is no place in their thought world to believe that we human beings are in a state of rebellion against God. [1] Interestingly, people do have a sense of brokenness. In fact, our society is characterized by pervasive brokenness and anxiety. Emotional fragility and neurosis are at an all-time high. This situation opens up the door for a new and different way to present the Gospel to people—by focusing on God’s love as a healing agent for the fragmentation, anxiety, and loneliness people feel in our culture. [2]

Here is the graphic:

The graphic begins with the actual situation of people who do not believe in God: People almost always consider themselves far from God’s love if they do not believe in God or that God is love, as Christians do. Most non-Christians can get that far. The second image of the graphic shows what happens when people draw near to God, even occasionally: Such people are now in contact with God’s love. Again, a lot of people who do not believe in God or have not really established a relationship with God often have had some experience of calling out to God and being touched by God in some way. People who do not believe in God or have little or no relationship with God still call out to God on a battlefield, when a loved one is ill, or when they or someone they know are in danger. Finally, the last panel shows the person inside of the love of God with a relationship with God.

The third image shows a person surrounded by God’s love. One of Paul’s favorite images is that of believers being “in Christ.” [3] One of my favorite verses is, “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation, the old has gone the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). This “in Christness” of believers is both spiritual and physical, as believers accept Christ and live in Christ and enter the body of Christ, which is the church. The graphic above emphasizes the new life and new way of life that people receive as they become “in Christ.”

Paul clearly says that our position in Christ leads us to becoming new creations, with different ideas, plans, hopes, dreams, and the like. Paul also believes that this new life we receive in Christ puts us into a new place regarding the laws of God and the teachings of God: We have been freed from our innate inability to achieve holiness, and now can live the new life in freedom.

A Gospel Summary

If we put together all the biblical evidence, the gospel might be described something like the following:

  • Because God loves the world and everyone in the world, and wants to have an eternal relationship of love with the world and everyone in it, God has always been acting in history to show his love to others.
  • The story of Christ is the story of the good news God was and is providing for the human race. That story continues to this day.
  • God’s transforming love became present with power in Jesus Christ, through which the extent of God’s love was revealed by Christ on the cross, to provide for us a forgiveness for our sins and a release from out guilt, shame, and brokenness.
  • By believing the promise and trusting in Christ, we enter a new, life transforming relationship with God through Christ.
  • This new relationship frees us to become the people God intends us to be and live a life characterized by faith, hope, and love for others through which we experience the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
  • Christ will continue to be with us by the power of the Holy Spirit beyond the moment we accept Christ as he makes us into a new, Spirit-filled and Spirit-empowered person.

Beyond Gospel Presentations

Some Christians misunderstand the place gospel presentations have in the Christian life. Accepting Christ is like being born. It’s just the beginning of a new life. Just as a mother would not desert her newborn baby, we must not think that our job is over when a gospel testimony has been shared. Sharing is not the end. It is the beginning. Every time we share Christ, we move into a discipleship relationship with the person with whom we share. We are now like a midwife helping a woman deliver a child or a mentor helping a young business person find success. We can’t desert our charge, because the need us.

One benefit of this approach is that we do not need to feel compelled to share everything we know about the gospel with another person in a single setting. As we “teach a new disciple to obey all that God has commanded,” we have plenty of time to share aspects of the gospel that we had neither the time nor the ability to share at the moment they invited Christ to be the center of their life. In fact, it is impossible to share all that God means by” good news” in one sitting or at one time. The riches of Christ are too vast for that to be possible.

Putting it All Together

As indicated above, the New Testament is littered with examples of gospel presentations and descriptions. These various presentations give us an idea about what a good explanation of the Gospel needs to say:

  • First, any gospel presentation needs to center on Jesus: on his life, his death, his resurrection, and his continuing work in the people of God who believe he is the true revelation of the mercy of God.
  • Second, a good gospel presentation includes some notion of the human need for God—the fact that we are separated from God. We are finite, mortal, and do things we know to be wrong and misguided. For this we need forgiveness and new life.
  • Third, to be good news, a presentation of the Gospel needs to assure hearers that a wise and loving God has provided us a way to fellowship with him, forgiveness of sins, and a kind of life we can only imagine.

If I were to write out a short gospel presentation, it would go something like this:

Everyone I know, including myself, often feels alienated from God. We have done things that we know are wrongheaded. We do not necessarily sense the love of God in our lives.  The people I know who have tried to overcome their sinful nature by hard work have failed. Some gave up entirely, and some became hypocrites trying to appear better than they were. What I needed and what most people want is inner transformation. God loves us enough to send Jesus to provide us a way to experience that transformation as we become his disciples. God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, into the world to show us what a truly wholesome life would be like, to teach us God’s ways, and to die for our sins, showing us the extent of God’s amazing grace. God raised this Jesus from the dead, and then he promised to send his Holy Spirit to us when we believe, forgiving us and changing us from the inside out.

This testimony says who Jesus is, who we are, and what God has done for us in Christ. It centers expresses our need to accept Christ by faith.

One thing is certain: We should not allow ourselves to be unprepared for that moment during which we have an opportunity to share the gospel. Every Christian should think about what they will say when the opportunity comes. It will come. If we pray for the opportunity to share with our family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and others, God will give us that opportunity.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] This is why the “Who is on the throne of your life?” presentation of the gospel is often more meaningful to postmodern people. On the other hand, I used the chasm drawing with the young woman in our church I spoke of above, just as I have used other presentations over the years. This is consistent with the notion that we need to adapt our presentation of the Gospel to the needs of those with whom we are trying to communicate.

[2] This graphic is found in our book, Salt and Light, Everyday Discipleship (Collierville, TN: Innovo, 2016).

[3] See, Romans 8:1; 1 Cor. 15:22, 2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 2:9). The spherical use of the phrase indicates that the person who is in Christ is within the sphere of his love and activity. The image is literally one of location: in Christ.

Go Share My Life

 

As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.(John 20:21)

Imagine the scene when Jesus ascended into heaven. Jesus and the disciples had been together for three or so years. During that time, the disciples formed the belief, hope and expectation that Jesus was the Messiah who would restore the Kingdom of Israel. The disciples gave up everything and followed him, expecting they would be rewarded when Jesus came to his throne (Mark 10:35-36). Then came his betrayal, arrest, death, and burial. Their hopes and dreams were shattered. Amazingly, three days after his death and burial, and for weeks thereafter, Jesus appeared to them— proving he was alive! Jesus had conquered betrayal, arrest, crucifixion, death, and the grave.

Now, the disciples knew Jesus was their long-awaited Messiah, the true Son of David. They believed Jesus would restore the kingdom of David, just as God promised. (Acts 1:8). Once again, Jesus surprised them: He was not going to directly bring in the kingdom by his own physical presence and power. Instead, Jesus was going to bring his kingdom spiritually through his disciples by the power of the Holy Spirit. He put this new understanding in the form of a commandment or commission: [1]

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” (Matthew 28:18-20).

In one of my former congregations, there was a retired pastor who grew up on a farm. He was and is a southern farm boy. He has been both a pastor and a missionary. When he translates the Great Commission, he puts it something like this:

As y’all are going wherever you go, be sure and share the Good News with others and make them disciples of mine. As you do this, baptize those who come to believe. But, don’t stop there. Be sure you teach them all about me and to live the way I have taught you to live. Along the way, don’t be scared. I will be with you all the time, everywhere you go. [2]

You actually have to know a little Greek to understand that Robert accurately captured the essence of what Jesus is saying. In Greek, the word “Go” is a participle. It can mean, “Go!” (the imperative form), but it also connotes “As you are going” (the progressive form). Christians are to make disciples (the command) as we go (throughout the progress of our lives).

Because of the centrality of the Great Commission, it is important right to get firmly in mind its central principles that should guide each and every Christian. The specific task Jesus gave the first disciples and gives to us cannot be emphasized too often:

  • Go: Coming to church is not what the Christian life is about. The Christian life is about going into the world. In fact, we all live and go somewhere every day, and where we are where we go are our mission fields.
  • Share the Good News: Christians are not called to simply receive teaching. Christians are called to share Christ and the love of God with everyone we meet, not just with people we like or are attracted to. We should share verbally but also actively by the Christ-like quality of our lives.
  • Make Disciples: Once we have shared our faith and others have accepted Christ, Christians are called to patiently form people into communities of faith in which they are transformed. We are not called to make people church members; we are called to make disciples. [3]
  • Live in the Power of the Spirit: We do not need to fear. God is and will be with us by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ as we go about the business of sharing God’s love and making disciples. [4]

Making Disciples is More than Words

As we go, Jesus does not say that we should, “Just get people to say they believe in me.” He says “make disciples,” and “teach them to obey.” Too often, evangelism programs stop at conversion. This is not what Jesus asked us to do. He asked us to make disciples who obey his words and teachings and seek to emulate his life by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus wants his disciples to be about the business of making more and more Spirit-filled disciples, who live out in their day-to-day lives what they believe in their hearts in such a life transforming way that other disciples are made along the way.

Going While Unqualified

By the time that Jesus gave the disciples the Great Commission, the disciples were very aware that they were unqualified. During their time with Jesus, they had constantly misunderstood him. They had not understood that he was not going to be a political and military messiah. They had not understood that the Good News he proclaimed was going to be for everyone. In the end, they all deserted him, denied him, and betrayed him. As individuals and as a group, they lacked the character and ability to undertake a world-wide mission.  They were not administrators, managers, linguists, theologians, or cross-cultural experts. They had neither the education nor the experience to undertake the mission. They were. not particularly intelligent, gifted, or capable. Nevertheless, Jesus sent them.

Most of us are in the same boat. We don’t feel qualified to take the good news to the ends of the earth. Jesus must have meant to send someone else! However, he did not. He meant to send the disciples, and he means to send us. If we lack the capacity to do what Jesus calls us to do, we are in good company. That has been true since the beginning. If we are afraid, not wholly faithful, wobbly in our trust in God, we are no different than the original disciples. We need to hang on to the understanding that God will be with us by the power of the Holy Spirit if we will only go and share.

Taking Time to Make Disciples

One of my favorite New Testament stories is the story of the sending of the Twelve on their first mission trip (Mark 6:7-13; Matthew 10:1-15; Luke 9:1-6). After the Twelve had been with Jesus for a time, Jesus sent them out to practice doing the things they had seen him do. Mark describes it like this:

And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts—but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics. And he said to them, “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there. And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So, they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them. (Mark 7:7-13).

There is a great deal to learn from this short story. First, Jesus was a master disciple-maker and knew that the disciples would not become the sent apostles he needed just by listening to what he said and watching his deeds of power. He did not want them to be just learners, but doers as well. He knew that someday they would be on their own, and they needed to get ready for that day. Therefore, he sent them out on practice missions. He did not send them out alone, because he knew that they would need mutual support along the way.  Therefore, he sent them two-by-two.

Jesus wanted the disciples to learn to rely upon God and not upon human beings, even him. Therefore, he carefully told them not to take along many items that almost anyone would consider necessary. What person leaves on a trip without a suitcase, their wallet, a few credit cards, and the like?  No one. Jesus knew this, but also understood that the disciples needed to learn to rely on the Spirit of God. He also warned them not to waste time going from place to place, but to stay for enough time to actually disciple people. [5] The disciples went as they were told, and later on we learn that followers of Jesus were excited and energized by what happened. [6]

Making disciples is not a quick, easy, or painless process. It takes time, effort, and patience.  We must be willing to teach, mentor and love each new disciple for a period of time as they mature in Christ. There will be ups and downs. Some people adapt easily to the new life in Christ, others take a long time. Some years ago, Kathy and I were privileged to be a part of a young woman coming to Christ. This particular person did not grow up in a particularly good home. Her parents were divorced. Her mother remarried, and her father worked in a profession where he traveled a lot, and he lived in a distant city. When she gave herself to Christ, she was in an unhealthy relationship. Today, that woman is an on-fire of disciple and disciple-maker—but believe me there were ups and downs along the way! On one notable occasion, our friend failed to tell us about a financial failure on her part. She was evicted. When she came to see me, I was as hard on this “daughter in Christ” as I would have been on one of my children!  That particular event was a turning point for this person, and since that time she has been a very careful Christian and mother.

Going as Salt and Light

My wife, Kathy, and I created a discipleship technique out of which a book grew, “Salt & Light: Everyday Discipleship.”  [7]  The title comes from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus told his disciples:

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:13-14).

At some point, many of us have been told by doctors to cut down on our salt intake. In fact, salt is necessary for human life. It is also a seasoning and preservative. Animals and humans need salt to live, and as a seasoning it preserves and heightens the enjoyment of food.  When Jesus says we are to be the salt of the earth, he is reminding his disciples (and us) that they (and we) are to share his self-giving, life-transforming love, the most important thing in the universe, with others. His love is what makes life possible, joyful, and meaningful. Without his love, life is nothing but struggle. We see the impact of life as nothing but struggle in our own culture. Living a life of ceaseless struggle is dehumanizing.

John speaks of Jesus as the “true light, which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9). James speaks of God as the “Father of Lights” (James 1:17). John says that “God is Light”—a light in whom there is no darkness (1 John 15). Jesus says told his disciples that they were “the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:14-16). Christians are to walk in the light of God, living wisely and with deep love for others. Paul says that when we do this, “we shine like stars” (Philippians 2:15).  We are to be like a lamp on a table shining the light of Christ into the room in which it is placed.

The description of God as light, of Jesus as the light, and of Christians as the living as light, reminds us that we are to embody the wisdom and love of God, as well as personally experience the love of God. It is not enough for us to privately know about Jesus.  It is not enough for us to just tell others about Jesus. In fact, if we do this without growing in Christ ourselves, we become hypocrites and dishonor God. To be a disciple is to shine like Jesus, live in the light of God’s presence, be transformed by that light, and share that light with others. In this way, everything we say and do will point others towards Christ and help them experience the wisdom and love of God.

When I was a new Christian, a partner in the firm in which I worked gave me an urgent task. The task required a paralegal to assist. As we went over the assignment, the paralegal looked over the desk and said, “You’re a Christian, aren’t you?” She could tell by our conversation that I was a Christian, even though the conversation was about filing a document at a particular time in a particular place in Texas. After the paralegal spoke to me, we shared our common faith in Christ for a few moments before going on with the task at hand. We became friends and partners in the Gospel for an interlude.

The “going” part of discipleship is not just about going out and sharing Christ in words. It is about living the life of Christ in our day-to-day lives in such a way that others take notice, even if we say nothing at all. This does not mean we say nothing at all. In fact, we will say something. But, the words we speak flow naturally from the people we have become in Christ. When Christians are salt and light to those they meet, people take notice, whatever words are spoken.

Any pastor who is ever sat at the bedside of a dying person knows at the ministry of presence is one of the most important ministries disciple-makers have. Some years ago, the father-in-law of one of my elders was in the hospital. I didn’t know it, but he was close to death. One Saturday morning I went to my normal prayer group. On my way home, I decided to go visit this person. My job at the time did not involve a lot of visitation. Nevertheless, I went. When I got to the room, the elder’s wife was sitting with her father, who was very weak. I sat with her for a time, and then said a prayer. Later that day, he died. My off-the-cuff visit that day meant a lot to the people involved. Before this incident, I was not close to the elder in question. I knew almost nothing about his family. He was not a particularly important supporter of mine. After that event, we were much closer. He’s become one of the most important leaders in one of my former churches.  That morning, I said almost nothing. It was presence that mattered. The presence of Christians in the life of those we disciple is one of the most important qualities a good disciple-maker must have. To be a disciple-maker to be involved in the lives of people in a personal way, just as Jesus was involved with his disciples.

Going in Relationship

For their first missionary experience, Jesus sent the disciples out in groups. Our going should also involve going in relationship with others, those we minister with and those we minister to. God desires a personal relationship with us. God also wants us to develop communal relationship through the church, the people of God, those people God has called to be his special witnessing people to the world. The Christian community is the place where people come to faith, learn, grow, and put their faith into practice. The church (the community of those who have been called out) is where Christians experience and share a bit of the kingdom of God on earth.  It is no surprise, therefore, that God wants us to reach out and share what we have experienced in Jesus Christ in community with other people.

Discipleship as a Triangular Relationship

Discipleship involves a “triangular relationship.” The essence of going in discipleship is a life-changing relationship with God, other people, and one’s self. This relationship grows in a process of maturity in faith and life. We have a vertical relationship with the Triune God, who is the foundation of our Christian life. As we trust God, we enter the community of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (John 14:16; 1 John 1:3). This vertical relationship with God changes our inner being and makes us new people. (2 Cor. 5:17). Just as God exists in a community, we become a part of the community of God and walk with the Triune God and with other believers. Gradually, we become more like Christ, who is the very image of God (Col. 1:5). Finally, our inner transformation grounded in our vertical relationship with God, and our healed horizontal relationships with others, empowers us to reach out to others just as someone reached out to us (I Cor. 15:10; Phil. 2:4).

The life of a disciple is built around all three points in the triangle: We believe in and trust Christ and become passionately in love with God, willing to follow Christ and obey God’s commands. To do this, we need to be discipled in relationship with other Christ-followers, become part of a local fellowship of Christians, and learn to live as God intended his children to live. Finally, as we grow, we reach out into our families, communities, work places, schools, etc. with the love of God so that others may experience God’s wisdom and love. [8] Each of these three movements of faith are important. Each require that we grow in relationship with God and other people. Each require that we grow into the likeness of Christ with the same kind of love for others Christ demonstrated on the cross.

Discipleship in an Entangled World

The communal, relational aspect of sharing the Gospel is hard for contemporary people to fully understand and appreciate. We are accustomed to the radical individualism of our culture, and so find it difficult, if not impossible, to grasp the necessity of relationships in order to grow in Christ. If there is any important insight of science that should change our way of looking at the world, it is the insight that we live in what John Polkinghorne calls, “An Entangled World”. [9] We live in a world characterized by a deep and fundamental relationality. Our habitual way of looking at the world as individual entities exercising force upon one another masks a deeper reality—that of a world of beautiful and elegant relationality, what I sometimes call “Deep Love” in religious terms. [10] The Doctrine of the Trinity, and the deep, self-giving love characteristic of God, implies that believers should be in deep, self-giving relationships with God and one another if we are to achieve the wholeness we desire. We cannot be Christians alone, because that is not the way God lives or wants us to live. It is not the way we were made. We were meant for community. We need to live “entangled” in the lives of others.

The New Testament reveals the communal aspect of mission. The most famous apostle, and the one about whom we know the most, Paul, rarely traveled alone. He ministered in community. [11] He went on missionary journeys with Barnabas, John Mark, Silas, Timothy, Luke and others. At the end of his life, Peter seems to have been in Rome with John Mark (1 Peter 5:13). Paul and John Mark ministered together at the beginning and end of Paul’s ministry (Acts 12:25; 2 Timothy 4:11).

The “going” of God’s people is a going in community. In the modern world, perhaps because of our emphasis on individualism, we idolize those who go alone, or seem to go alone in mission. We celebrate Billy Graham, but forget George Beverly Shay, Cliff Barrows, and the hundreds of others who ministered with him over the years. We celebrate Mother Teresa, but forget the members of her order. We celebrate famous pastors, and forget the staff members who make their ministries possible. Everyone ministers in community, whether they (or we) know it or not.

The call to go is not a call to go alone. It is a call for the community though its members to go. [12] A few go as individuals, but most will go as a group with support and with the kind of courage that only a group can muster. The same is true of us today. While a few of us may be called to solitary mission, most of us will go as a part of a team.

The Lost Art of Going

When I began to write this book, I reread the Cost of Discipleship after many years.  I took a journey into the bibliography to look for references on the Great Commission. There were none. The only reference in my edition to Matthew 28 related to the presence of the Holy Spirit with believers, and was related to the chapter on baptism. [13] In the late 1930’s, writing as a German, a citizen of the home place of the Reformation and the center of Christian Europe, Bonhoeffer could not fully see the need for the church as a community to recommit itself to evangelism and disciple-making. This is a legacy of the fact that, when the Reformation occurred, Germany, and all of Europe, were already Christianized. The great age of disciple-making, extending for hundreds of years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, was over. Europe might not have been a good example of Christianity, but it was nominally Christian. Although by the end of his life, when he was writing to his family and friends from prison, Bonhoeffer could see that Christianity in Germany and Europe was in a crisis, at the time of Cost of Discipleship, he could not. [14]

In a similar way, many Christians in the United States today fail to see that we are not only in a postmodern era, we are in a new apostolic era. The Christian faith cannot live on its prior successes. Instead, Christians must learn again to reach out and share the Good News Christ has entrusted to us. We must recover the lost art of going and sharing the Gospel, or the crisis of discipleship we face will continue and even get worse.

Going and making disciples is not the responsibility of a few, but of all of us. Just as not everyone who traveled with Paul was a great speaker, not all of us are called to be great oral evangelists. Each of is, however, called to share our faith as we can in the ways we are gifted to do so. This does not exempt us from verbally sharing our faith and understanding how to do it. It simply means that each one of us will share as they are called and gifted to do so. We are also called to invest our livers in the lives of others, so that people not only believe but become well-taught and mentored disciples of Christ. The gospel without love is powerless, and love without the gospel is meaningless.

I have been a Christian for the better part of half a century. I’ve been a pastor of evangelical congregations for a quarter of a century. It was only recently that I fully recognized that a good deal of what I have taught, and accomplished as a pastor is distant from what God intends for his church. There is nothing wrong with great worship, visitation programs, Sunday School, children’s programs, youth groups, good Bible teaching, men’s and women’s ministry, community outreach, and the like. In fact, God desires for his church to do all these things. However, if we do these things without making and empowering disciples, we fall short of what God desires for us and for the world—to go make disciples.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The Great Commission occurs in some form in each of the Gospel and in Acts. See, Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:14-20; Luke 24:44-49; John 20:21-23; Acts 1:7-8. In each case, there is a sending to witness to Christ and a promise of the presence of the Spirit as the disciples undertake to do what they have been asked to do.

[2] This quote is from Rev. Robert Crumpton who was one of the pastors of Advent Presbyterian Church, a former pastor of the Arlington Presbyterian Church, which Advent helped to revitalize, and a missionary to Ghana with his wife Nancy. During my years at Advent, Bob was the visitation pastor who shared God’s love with every visitor to Advent for over fifteen years after his “retirement.” The translation is not unique, and I have seen it other places.

[3] I have outlined the importance of living out the teachings of Christ and the Bible in much greater detail in Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Eugene, OR, 2014) and in Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love Rev. Ed. (Cordova, TN: Booksurge Publishing, 2014).

[4] See, Steve Smith & Ying Kai, T4T: A Discipleship ReRevolution (Monument, CO: Wigtake Resources, 2011). This book is the single most important source for learning about T4T, which is one of the most important and powerful of the disciple-making movements in the world today.

[5] This particular aspect of this story should make us careful about event and media-centered ministries. Jesus did not want the disciples to into a place, preach the gospel, do a few miracles, and leave. Instead, he wanted them to stay in one place for a significant amount of time. Paul traveled a lot, but also spent significant time in specific cities like Ephesus. This indicates that serious disciple-makers should be grounded in a place and a community.

[6] See, Luke 10:17, which applies to yet another sending event. The various gospel narratives indicate that his sending before the ultimate sending was a part of Jesus’ strategy. See, F.W. Beare, “The Mission of the Disciples and the Mission Charge: Matthew 10 and Parallels,” Journal of Biblical Literature Vol. 89, No. 1 (March 1970), 1-13.

[7] G. Christopher with Kathy Trammell Scruggs, Salt & Light: Everyday Discipleship (Collierville, TN: Innovo, 2017).

[8] See, Mike Breen & the 3DM Team, Building a Discipleship Culture: How to Release a Missional Movement by Discipling People like Jesus Did(Pawleys Island, SC: 3DM Resources, 2011). Many churches and congregations use this triangle approach.

[9] John Polkinghorne, ed., The Trinity and an Entangled World: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2010).

[10] See, Centered Living/ Centered Leading, at 165. In Centered Living, Centered Leading, I use the term Deep Love to describe God’s uncreated, self-giving love.

[11] The passages in which one can see that Paul ministered in community are too numerous to mention. The missionary journeys in Acts reflect Paul traveling with others. Often, the final portion of his letters reflect personal greetings to various individual persons important to his ministry. At the very end of his ministry, he asks Timothy to be with him (II Timothy 4:21). There is nothing in the life and ministry of the great missionary apostle to indicate that he ministered other than in community most of the time.

[12] As is often the case in interpreting the New Testament, it is important to recall that the Great Commission is in the plural. While Jesus is speaking to each disciple individually, he is also speaking to them as a group.

[13] See Cost of Discipleship, at 256.

[14] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison: New Greatly Enlarged Edition E. Bethge, ed. Second Printing (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1973).

.

5. Discipleship as a Personal Relationship

Many people (myself included) have difficulty visualizing what a personal relationship with God might be like. We understand human personal relationships, but we can’t ask God out on a date, go on a hunting trip, see a movie with us, or play a game of pickup basketball. God is not like Jesus in his incarnation. The first disciples could see, touch and physically spend time with Jesus. We cannot physically follow the human Jesus of Nazareth around in order to get to know what God is like. Therefore, it is legitimate to ask the question, “How can we have a personal relationship with someone we cannot see and who is infinitely different from us?”

Jesus believed in life-transforming relationships. Jesus called his disciples into a personal relationship, and through him into a personal relationship with relational, Triune God. In Jesus, God allowed us to see what his “Being in Love” looks like in a concrete human life. He asked his disciples to “follow him,” which meant spending their lives with him for three years so that they could see and experience that love. In our life of discipleship, we too must learn to “follow God around” as we grow in Christ.

Loving a Personal God who Loves Us

The distinctive characteristic of Christian faith is belief in a personal God. Christians believe that the one God exists in three persons bound together in a relationship of self-giving love. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit existing in an eternal mutual relationship of love. This insight is interesting and important because it is the foundation of our belief that God is a person and desires to have a personal relationship with the human race.

As the early church worshiped, they prayed to and worshiped God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The earliest church liturgies reflect this personal, Trinitarian pattern of worship. The church worshiped, prayed to, and treated as holy all three persons of the Trinity. As the first Christians heard, wrote, and read about the experience of the disciples (now apostles) with Jesus, they understood that the God of Israel, whom Jesus called, “Father,” had revealed himself in Jesus of Nazareth, the Anointed Messiah, who was the “Son of God” and the “Word of God” in human flesh. Finally, the church saw that God the Father and Son were present in the life of believers by the Holy Spirit. The names “Father” and “Son,” and names like “Spirit of Christ,” Spirit of the Father,” etc. indicated that the persons of the Godhead were personal beings, not merely forces. [1]

Early Christians worshiped each person in the Trinity as God. This was a major barrier to Jewish evangelism—and it can be a barrier to people today. To a Jew, only God could be worshiped, and God is One. The earliest statement of faith of Israel was, “Hear O Israel, the Lord, your God is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). The question was raised, “If God is one God, how then can we account for Christ and for the Holy Spirit? This caused a long period of spiritual and intellectual reflection, as well theological debate, concerning how the Trinity can be explained. In the end, the church felt that, while there is only one God whom we worship as God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, this God exists in three persons, the “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit.”

There are many reasons why this is important. If God is love (I John 4:8), then God in some way has to be person. Inanimate objects, powers, and ideas do not love. Only persons love. In addition, for love to exist, it must be shared. For there to be love, there must be someone (a person) to love and an act of love by someone else (a person). Therefore, it seemed logical to the early church that a God of Love is characterized by both unity (One God) and diversity (Three Persons) bound together in a relationship of divine, self-giving love—the love Christ revealed on the Cross.

If God is not a person, then we cannot expect to relate to God personally. If God is only a force or a principle, then we cannot have a personal relationship with God. We cannot expect God to love us personally as individuals. At best, we can submit to his power. [2] If God is a person, there can be a personal relationship between us and God. God can so love us that he would even give himself for our salvation.

On the other hand, if God is a person, we can “Love the Lord with all of our hearts, and all of our souls, and all of our minds, and all of our strength” (Matt. 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28) and expect that love to be reciprocal. If God is a person constituted by love then the proper way to be in a relationship with that God is to reflect God’s character by responding to God’s love by loving God and God’s creation in an earthy approximation to the love that God is. Because God is a person, Christianity is focused on personal love between persons and God, creation, and other people.

The idea that God must be loved was not new in Jesus’ day. In the Old Testament Israel was to love the Lord with all of its heart, soul and strength (Deut. 6:4-5). This love is not just to be shown to God, but to the world as well (Lev. 19:18). In the Old Testament, God often speaks of his love of Israel. For example, in Hosea God compares his feelings towards Israel as those of a spouse who has been betrayed (Hosea 3:1). The picture of God’s love in Hosea is especially important because it reveals a personal God who suffers, is humiliated, and yet will not abandon his beloved, however far away the beloved may wander. This love is the same love that caused God to provide in Christ a way for all of us to return to a living, holy relationship with the Triune God.

Persons and Personal Relationships

In our individualistic culture, we think we know what makes a person, and we celebrate individual personhood, perhaps to excess. Interestingly, however, the modern world actually has a drastically truncated and inadequate idea of personhood. We think of a person as an individual, a solitary, discrete body with a mind and reasoning powers. This person is bound to other persons solely by physical forces. Even love is often regarded simply a complex bio-psychological phenomenon, a biologically-based force acting between two persons. We think that love, care, friendship, and other relationships are reduceable to individuals and biochemical relationships between them. When we think this way, people become like living billiard balls—discrete objects careening around and occasionally making contact with other similar billiard balls.

Christians, like much of modern science, believe that this way of thinking is profoundly limited and mistaken. Persons are complex, relational beings with minds, bodies, psyche’s and spirits. A person emerges from and is constituted by the various relationships of life, physical, mental, emotional, and social. This last part is especially important: We would not be who we are without the social relationships we experience from the moment we are conceived. This is one reason why the church, a social institution, is so important to growing in Christ.

If modern physics is correct, our bodies are more than material particles bound together by forces. The subatomic “particles” that make up the deepest reality we know are not material. Rather, they are waves of certain basic fields that make up the entire universe. What we call “basic particles” are not material particles in the classic understanding of those terms, but “quantized ripples” in waves in a field that stretches throughout the entire universe. [3] These quantized ripples seem to be related to one another in such a fashion that it can be said that everything in the universe is related to everything else. Such a universe is characterized by both a deep relationality as well as by independent reality. In such a universe, it should not surprise us that people are deeply and importantly relational.

When we are conceived, we are far from being an independent reality unconnected from the rest of the world. Instead, we are composed of the DNA of our parents, unique, but dependent upon their genetic history. During the period of our gestation, we are connected to our mothers in the most intimate possible way, enclosed within her body, dependent upon her for our being, sustenance, and life. When we are born, we are born into a family, not just a biological unit, but a social entity with its own unique characteristics. This family cares for us and provides for us for a long time. We are dependent upon our parents, and who we are and what we become are deeply dependent upon the quality of that relationship. Each and every relationship we have from that time forward, positive or negative, plays a role in who we become and what kind of person we are. As time goes by, we enter into relationships with hosts of other people and social groups, each of whom profoundly contributes to who we become, the person we are. Every pastor has seen the terrible done to a person when parents and others fail to provide the love, care, respect, and other emotional and physical needs that are needed in the early stages of life. Such behavior literally deprives a child of the fullness of human love God intended for that child to experience.

We are also born into a community and a culture, with its unique patterns of life and ways of understanding the world. This culture forms in a deep way who we are as a person. In addition, the cultures we experience and become a part of during our lives, profoundly impact who we are as persons. Anyone who has traveled has experienced the sense that people in other parts of our country and the world live differently and often see things differently than does our culture and the people with whom we are the most familiar. I have had the opportunity to travel a good deal, and sometimes on more than one occasion to the same places. I always recognize that, for example, while I love Scotland and my European heritage, I am an American, not European or Scottish. This is true of everyplace one goes. Travel both broadens us and shows us the uniqueness of our place. Relationships make us bigger people than we would otherwise be.

Throughout all our relationships and experiences, there develops the unique person that comes to a relationship with creation and other people, and with God. As time goes by, each person becomes just that a person—a unique individual. This unique individual has his or her unique physical, emotional, mental and spiritual being, different than anyone else. Nevertheless, we remain connected to and profoundly impacted by those with whom we have relationships. It is this unique individual that is called into a transforming relationship with God. When we enter into this relationship, the relationship changes us, just as every relationship of life changes us, except this one is with the Lord God, the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth. We can expect that such a relationship will change us more profoundly than any other relationship we have.

Growing a Relationship with God

If God is personal and wants a personal relationship with us, then we have to ask the question, “How can we establish and maintain such a relationship?” Although it may seem like an unanswerable question, the beginning steps are pretty clear.

  • First, we have to believe that there is a God who wants a relationship with us. In other words, there must be faith. I have to believe that such a relationship is possible and desirable.
  • Second, we have to commit myself in trust to developing that relationship. If we have faith, then we have a relationship with God. It may be a new relationship. It may be an immature relationship. But, there is a relationship.

Our relationship with God is like any human relationship. If this new relationship is going to grow and mature, we must spend time working on it, just as we work on relationships with a friends, spouses, children, or co-workers. We have to communicate. This is where prayer comes in. As we trust God and move out in faith, God’s love is increasingly revealed and that love grows, even in hard times, just as a good marriage grows in good times and bad times. If we are to grow in a relationship with God, we must spend time with God in silence, in conversation, in sharing, in meditation, in growing closer to God.

When my wife and I were dating, as busy as I was as a young professional, I made time to be with her because I loved her and wanted to be with her. We literally could not spend too much time together (at least I did not think so). Our relationship grew. Once we were married, our relationship still grew, but the pressure of business, family, church, and activities strained our relationship. It went through difficult times. We did not communicate as often or as well. Our relationship suffered. Today, when we are alone in the car, we are often silent. Nevertheless, our relationship is still changing and growing. Our relationship with God is no different. It takes time, and it has its ups and downs.

Grace and its Emissaries.

Christians believe in grace. Grace is God’s love reaching out to us to form a relationship with us. Christians believe that God is always reaching out in love to relate to human beings. Always. God’s love is in fact reaching out to us, long before we can or think about reaching out to God. God’s love is reaching out to us at times when we do not sense the presence of God and think of God as absent. As Paul reminds us, “In him we move and live and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Of course, if we are to recognize that the invisible God is reaching out to us, most of the time it will take another person who already has a relationship with us to tell us about that God and introduce him to us. [4] I have a friend, now dead, who became a pastor a long time ago, when it was thought that pastors ought to be married. He went to seminary, but never really met the right person. One day, he met a young widow whose husband had died very young. He was introduced to her by a friend. Without that friend, my friend might never have met his wife of over fifty years. Christians are friends who introduce their friends to a person that will meet their deepest needs for love, forever. We need to think of ourselves as like my friend’s buddy who introduced him to the woman who would be his wife. We are not imposing on people when we share God’s love with them. We are introducing them to the best lover they will ever have.

Deepening our Relationship

Most of the time when we form a relationship with another person, we decide to spend time with them. Prayer, Bible study, worship, and the like are the spiritual equivalent to spending time with and getting to know a human person. If we are to know what God is like and how to grow our relationship with God, we have to study our Bibles, Christian literature, and the stories of others who have developed a relationship with God. We pray and spend time with God. God is a person. We learn to relate to the God of as a person by reaching out to others in acts of love and mercy.

Finally, if our relationship with God is to grow and mature, we need to spend time with people who are already in a relationship with God, including time with people who have been in that relationship longer and more deeply than we have. We need to be a part of the Christian community, and have a relationship with another person or persons who are themselves growing in a relationship with God.

A Different Kind of Relationship

Naturally, there will be differences between our relationship with God and our relationships with human beings. We will never see God. Most of the time, he will speak to us in silence. We will never fully comprehend the One who is the all-wise, all knowing, all powerful creator and sustainer of all that is. There will always be mystery and unresolved questions. Sometimes God will seem to be silent or absent, as if he has deserted us. We will never control the terms of our relationship with God. We will never come to the end of our relationship with an infinite being. But, we will grow in our relationship with God.

Mother Teresa once led a retreat for a group of married women, who complained about the difficulties of marriage. Apparently, one participant indicated that it would be hard for Mother Teresa to understand the difficulties of being married because she was a celibate and unmarried. Mother Teresa replied that she was married to Christ, who could be a very difficult husband indeed! Like Mother Teresa, we will not always find our relationship with God easy, simple, or without its sacrifices and sufferings. [5]

This is the situation in which Christians find ourselves. The life of faith is a life of relationship with a being (indeed the source of all being) we cannot hope to understand and who, from time to time, may place what we think are impossible demands upon us! Most of us who have been married any length of time admit to not fully understanding our spouses and believing that he or she sometimes makes impossible demands upon us! Married couples all know that even the best marriages are not always easy.

Our relationship with God will be no different. We will struggle to maintain the relationship, and we may often wonder what God is up to in our lives. Nevertheless, as the years go by, we grow and the relationship grows. Its growth is not immediate, constant, or without ups and downs, defeats and disappointments. After all, on our side it is a human relationship subject to the problems with all human relationships.

The Transforming Moment

The life of the Apostle Paul is a wonderful example of how God can come into a human life in order to transform and heal it. [6] Paul was not, as we know, seeking Christ. In fact, he was a persecutor of Christ and of Christians. Acts tell us that he “held the cloaks” of those who stoned Stephen (Acts 7:58), After that event, Paul violently persecuted the early Christians (Acts 8:1-3).

Having received authority from the Sanhedrin to persecute the church in Damascus, he was met by the risen Christ on the road outside of the city. Christ revealed himself to Paul, brought him into a personal relationship with himself, commissioned Paul as a missionary to the Gentiles, and ordered him to go into the city and await his recovery from blindness (Acts 26:12-17).

Paul went into the city, and was brought into the fellowship of the church in Damascus by Ananias, whose efforts allowed Paul to begin his Christian pilgrimage (Acts 10:7). Paul immediately demonstrated his changed life by his powerful defense of Christian faith, a defense he continued for the remainder of his life (Acts 9:19-20).

As the example of Paul demonstrates, because God is a person and we are persons, there exists for each human being the potential for a life-transforming relationship with God, a transformation based upon hearing the Gospel with our intellect, accepting Christ with our hearts, and receiving from God the transformation of our being.

I will close this essay with one final example. Many years ago, my wife and I met a young woman who was damaged by her first husband. She had become closed to relationships with men, and was deeply wounded, fearful, and unhappy. Eventually, she remarried. Her new husband was not a Christian. When they had children, the husband decided to go to church one Sunday morning. Eventually, he accepted Christ. Later, our friend came to Christ as a result of her husband’s efforts.

In my former occupation, I used to see this woman from time to time in the tunnels beneath the city of Houston. The next time I saw this young lady after her conversion, instead of seeing her unconsciously recoil and move away, she broke out into a great smile and came over to greet me. This woman’s relationship with Christ continues to this day. Even to today, I have never seen a person so transformed and healed because of a new relationship with God in Christ. This is the power of a transforming, personal relationship with God.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The Holy Spirit is referred to using many different names in the New Testament, including the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Comforter. In all cases, it is a personal reference.

[2] This is not an essay on apologetics, but it is just at this point that Islam and Christianity diverge. For Islam, God is a monad, a singularity of power to whom believers submit. (“Islam” means submission.) Christianity, on the other hand, sees God as personal, constituted by love, and to be freely accepted not commanded into submission. If God is an idea, we can understand God, but we can’t love God nor can God love us. The fact that God is love means we can be in a loving relationship with God that takes precedence over and is the foundation of all other actions we take towards God and others.

[3] See, David Bohm, Wholeness and Implicate Order (London, ENG: Routledge, 1995), 19: “What is implied by this proposal is that what we call empty space contains and immense background of energy, and that matter as we know it is a small, “quantized” wavelike excitation on top of the background, rather like a ripple on a vast sea.”

[4] Although Christians cannot discount the possibility that there are those who, like the Apostle Paul, receive a direct communication from God in their calling (Acts 9:1-19; 22:3-22; 26:12-18; Galatians 1:11-24), ordinarily there will be no discipleship without a human community of faith. Even Paul had his communities and partners from whom he learned and with whom he grew. Barnabas, who first brought Pak to Antioch is an example of a mentor in the life of the great apostle (Acts 13).

[5] I have looked through my sermons and on the internet for the source of his story, but I cannot find it no matter how hard I look. The idea is, of course, that our relationship with God will involve difficulties. In Mother Teresa’s case, we know that she experienced a long, long period of darkness of the soul when God ceased giving her overt indications of his love for her. Mother Teresa continued in the life of discipleship for a long time without the consolations of God’s obvious presence in her life.

[6] See James Loder, The Transforming Moment 2nd ed. (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers and Howard, 1989), 21ff. The Transforming Moment is one of the best books on how faith initially and subsequently transforms the human person. My analysis of Paul’s conversion is dependent upon and closely follows that of Dr. Loder.

4. Come Follow Mw

“Come Follow Me” is the next essay in this series on discipleship. This week, we move from a more abstract look at discipleship and our culture to the practicalities of how Jesus discipled people, and therefore, how we should disciple people.

The Biblical records that, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus began by calling the disciples into a personal relationship with him. Matthew describes it like this:

As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him. Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him (Matthew 4:18-22).

Jesus found Peter, Andrew, James and John as they went about their ordinary day-to-day lives. He did not say, “Stop what you are doing for a few moments and accept me as your Lord and Savior before going on with your life.” He did not ask for an intellectual commitment, “Recognize I am the Son of God, and then go back living the way you did before.” He said, “Come, follow me.” In other words, he asked for a commitment involving mind, heart, body, and soul. He asked for a radical break with the past. He might as well have said, “Stop what you are doing. Leave your old accustomed way of life. Leave the books you are reading right where they are. Stop going to your therapist. Make your hobbies, families, and work secondary. Then, follow me.” He even offered them a new occupation: “From now on you will not fish for fish; you will fish for people.”

It is precisely at this point that true discipleship begins. At the beginning, the disciples had no idea of exactly who Jesus was and what he had come to do. They hoped he would be a politico-military Messiah that Jewish tradition anticipated. Nevertheless, they left their nets, and followed him. In the Protestant tradition, we often overlook the fact that there was an act of obedience right at the beginning of the life of discipleship. Bonhoeffer puts it this way, “In the gospels, the very first step a man must take is an act which radically affects his entire existence.” [1] The beginning of discipleship is following Jesus.

Too often, modern people think of our commitment to follow Christ is purely intellectual terms, as if simply recognizing who Jesus was and is makes a person a Christian. In evangelism and discipleship, we often ask people to merely make a verbal statement of faith and perhaps say a prayer. We ask them to confess with their lips, remembering that they must also believe in their heart—the center of their very being (Romans 10:9). [2] If one believes something, it makes a practical difference in life.

Christians believe in and trust Jesus for all of life. They follow him wherever he leads. This is where the artificial division between faith and works is overcome. Those who believe also trust and obey. [3] In John’s Gospel, Jesus puts it this way: “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching” (John 14:23-24). To be transformed by the love of God is to become an obedient child of the Father. To be a disciple is to be a follower of Christ.

Following God in Christ

Jesus wanted the disciples to know who he was, even though they seemed not to understand until after his death and resurrection. The key to the disciples attaining that knowledge was for them to enter a personal relationship. He wanted them to make a deep commitment to God through him. He knew it would take personal commitment on his part and theirs. He knew they would have to learn trust him in all of life. He knew it would mean his sacrificial death on a cross. He even knew it would require that they learn to carry a cross as well. He knew that this would take time, a lot of time. Jesus wanted them to spend time with him, follow him around, hear his teachings, observe his responses to situations, and experience his leadership so that they could become more like him. Therefore, his first act was to call them into a life changing personal relationship.

Deciding to Follow Jesus

Sometimes, we think it must have been easier for the first disciples than for us to follow Jesus. We think that if we physically saw Jesus, if he came and personally asked us to follow him, we would find it easier to follow than after hearing a pastor, evangelist, or friend share what God has done in their lives and ask us if we are ready to follow Jesus. This is a mistake. People today have to make the same decision the first disciples made. [4] They must decide to follow Jesus.

The first disciples had it just as hard as we do. They had families. They had friendships. They had hobbies. They had occupations. They already had a religion. They went to the Temple periodically and made sacrifices and attended festivals. They went to the synagogue in Capernaum. They had homes and responsibilities. They did not have the gospels or the records of Jesus’ life death and resurrection. They had much less information than we have. One day, when they were out fishing or getting ready to fish, a man came up to them and asked them to follow him and become fishers of human beings. They had to decide whether they would respond or not.

The gospels tell us that the disciples heard the invitation, left what they were doing, and followed Jesus (Matthew 4:20; Mark 1: 18, 20; Luke 5:11). Somehow, amidst the hustle and bustle of earning a living, caring for spouses, parents, and children, and being engaged in family and civic affairs, the disciples saw something important in Jesus and decided it was worth the risk of following. They did not have it easier than we do. In fact, they had it harder. We can look back at the generations of lives changed, of people healed, of ministries and missions of compassion and care. They had to decide without any of this history. They were the first followers.

We have the examples of people like St. Francis of Assisi, Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, and hosts of others. We have reason to know what God can do with one ordinary life. When Jesus called the disciples the cross, resurrection, and spreading of the gospel, the birth of the church, the example of the martyrs, the evangelization of the world, had not occurred. It was all to come. They had to look into the eyes of a traveling rabbi and answer the question, “Will I follow him or not?”

We are called to answer the same question the disciples answered: “Am I going to follow Jesus?” As we ponder that question, we ask ourselves the same questions the disciples must have asked: “Am I willing to follow Jesus and to trust him in all my daily life?” “Am I willing to give up everything to follow Jesus?”

When we ask another person if they are ready to become a Christian, we need to be careful not to make it sound too easy. We probably should not say to people, “Are you ready to accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior.” We should say, “Are you willing to trust and follow Jesus in all of life?” Eternal life, the forgiveness of sins, membership in the family of God, citizenship in the kingdom of God depend upon our being willing to follow Jesus, not tell people we believe in Jesus.

The Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard constantly reminds us that Jesus does not want admirers—he wants imitators.” [5] In the ancient world, a disciple was more than just a learner. A disciple followed his master and imitated his master. While learning is a part of the life of a disciple, it is not the end or goal of the life of discipleship. Jesus asks us to follow him because he intends to have us become little Christs, living as he lived and doing the same kind of things he did. A follower of Jesus will have certain characteristics, the most important of which is that followers of Jesus try to become like Jesus, and in becoming like Jesus we believe we become more like God. Our goal, as the Eastern orthodox put it is “theosis,” being changed into people filled with the life of God. We are Christ’s disciples so that we might become more like God.

Christian faith is not simply objectively knowing who Jesus is, memorizing a few Bible verses, and learning three or four theological ideas. Christianity is a way of life based on faith and powered by grace. Furthermore, it is a specific kind of way of life: it is a way of life patterned after Jesus Christ. It is a life of loving others, of being a servant, of sharing life together with others, of discovering and using our spiritual gifts, of healing our broken world, and speaking truth into the darkness of a world too often governed by lies.  Being a Christian is learning to bear a cross now and again. This is why Jesus says, if anyone would be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me” (Matt.10:23, 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:32) We cannot be a disciple or learn to be a disciple any other way but by following Jesus, watching and listening to Jesus, and acting and living like Jesus. This is what it means to be a disciple.

Counting the Cost

A dangerous failure of churches today is a failure to understand that the gospel is not primarily a system of doctrine, a theology of grace, or a verbal formula and mental acceptance to propositions about God expressed in a creed, confession, or theological position. The word we translate “Faith” is also translated “Trust”. [6] Faith is seen in trusting and following Christ and responding faithfully to the pressures of daily life. Real, active faith is seen in disciples who follow Jesus regardless of the cost, personally, professionally, or otherwise. Real faith is seen in a life-transforming relationship with the living God.

At the time of the Reformation, it was unquestionably important to guard against the idea that by obeying a theological authority or doing certain liturgical actions one could be saved, as if by magic. The Reformation was a corrective to the excesses of the Middle Ages. Today, among evangelical churches, indeed among all churches, there is a need to correct the notion that faith is accepting a proposition about Jesus, getting your admission ticket to heaven punched, and then living as you always lived in reliance on the cheap grace of God. If cheap grace was a problem in Bonhoeffer’s day, it is a worse problem today.

The call to be a disciple is a call to follow Jesus in the concrete, daily business of life. It is a call to commit one’s self to God in such a way that we follow Jesus, learn from Jesus, imitate Jesus, and grow to become more like Jesus. It means giving our lives, families, careers, hobbies, and social circle to God. This includes cross-bearing.

Learning to Bear a Cross Now and Again

Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). We cannot be disciples without becoming like Jesus and being willing to experience what Jesus experienced, for good or for bad. We cannot become like God unless we are willing to give our lives for others in self-giving love. Crosses are not difficulties. Crosses are not the consequences of our own behavior and choices. Crosses are the decisions we make to suffer for others although we are not required to by law, divine compulsion, or some inner brokenness. Jesus went to the cross because God loves us, and Jesus was sent by God to bear our sins and brokenness on the cross on the basis of that love. Being a disciple means bearing the sins and brokenness of others, loving them unconditionally, and accepting whatever that commitment requires. [7]

Years ago, I was a lay leader in a large congregation. A problem arose. As time went by, I came to think that my closest friends, those with whom I was theologically most in sympathy, and those with whom I wanted to side, were not adopting the best or most godly strategy, and therefore behaving inappropriately. On the other hand, members of my own family were on another side of the dispute, whose proponents were not acting appropriately either. It was the first time as a Christian I ever had to go against the very people who were most important in my life and Christian walk. It was a time of deep personal suffering. During this time, God taught me an important lesson: Being a disciple does not exempt us from being misunderstood, misquoted, slandered, and otherwise deeply hurt. In point of fact, sometimes when we are doing our most important work for Christ, this is exactly what will happen.

To be a disciple is, from time to time, to bear a cross. I’ve now been a pastor and for over twenty-five years and a Christian for well over thirty-five years. Every pastor and every serious Christian leader know that following Jesus does not exempt person from suffering and carrying a cross in the name of Jesus. In fact, as I sometimes say, “Every time God desires to do something really important in this world, someone carries a cross.”

The Role of Faith

From the beginning, Jesus warned his disciples what belief in him meant. Mark begins his gospel with Jesus proclaiming the good news and telling his hearers to “repent and believe” (Mark 1:14). The faith of which Jesus speaks is more than knowing Jesus is right. Faith involves turning away from the past, moving out into the future, and trusting in the wisdom and love of God. Faith requires that we give up our self-trust, our sin, our selfish ambition, and follow Jesus. If we believe in Jesus, we will turn away from the life we lived in the past, and live on the basis of the new life we have in Christ. If we have faith, we will trust Jesus, move out in faith, and live like Jesus, trusting that a life of loving service to others is the best way of life there is.

In Galatians, Paul speaks of the Gospel that can only be accepted by faith. He teaches the principle that people cannot earn their salvation. He is correct: We cannot be justified by our moral behavior or by following the moral law (Galatians 2:16). However, Paul also goes on to say, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Responding to the cross means dying to self and selfish desire (“I have been crucified with Christ”) and then living by the power of Christ (“it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”). Faith means responding by giving our whole selves to God, turning away from our selfish, self-centered ways, and living out of the power of the Holy Spirit.

Faith inevitably involves works—in doing something, living in a particular way, taking a particular risk, living differently from others around you. We all have something to do because we follow Jesus. This is why in Ephesians, Paul says: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:8-10). Our works do not save us, but when we believe in Jesus, we are going to do things we never would otherwise have done. We are going to be wiser, more loving, more caring, and truthful, than we were before. God does not save us because of our works; he saves us so that we can become capable of living like Jesus and doing the works Jesus does.

Trust/Faith as a Personal Journey

There is confusion in our society and in churches about the nature of faith. Just as we are too easily believers in cheap grace, we are also often believers in cheap faith.  Is faith merely recognizing who Jesus is and calling upon him so that you can go to heaven when you die? Does faith simply believe Jesus is who Jesus said he was? Does faith mean accepting Jesus and trying to be a bit better than one was before? The answer is, “No.” Faith involves transformation.

The Bible is the story of faith lived out by faithful people. The Biblical story begins with Abraham, who is told by God that he will be the father of many nations and have an heir if he goes to the land of the promise God will show him (Genesis 12:1-3). The Bible tells us that Abraham believed and went. In other words, Abraham trusted God not just with his mind (“OK, God I know you can to this”) but also with his heart, soul, mind, body and strength (“OK God, I will go). Abraham went and followed God in the wilderness for years because of his faith. As James reminds those who think faith can be divorced from works, Abraham’s faith was revealed and completed by his works (James 2:14-26). A faith that does not change the way we think, live, act, and feel is not a faith at all.

When Jesus says, “Come and follow me,” Jesus means exactly what he says. He wants us to follow him because we believe that he holds the secret to our becoming the people we were created to be. Our faith is shown in our discipleship. The person who believes one thing and does another can never be psychologically or personally whole. To have integrity, to be whole, our hearts, minds, souls and spirits have to be one. Only then can we be a whole person.

This faith does not change us all at once as if by magic. The life of faith is a life of constant slow transformation. Over time in the life of faith we are slowly but surely being made whole as we gradually become the people we profess to be. As what we believe in our minds becomes imbedded in our hearts, our emotions and how we behave automatically change. This is the work of grace we call “sanctification.” Sanctification is the process by which what we believe and how we live become one thing in one life.

This is the journey of faith. Just as Abram went on a journey with God and was changed into a new person, and the disciples went on a journey with Jesus and were changed, when we become Christians we begin a journey of faith that will change us. It is journey of following Jesus through a process of discipleship and spiritual growth. It means following Jesus where Jesus goes, with companions (other disciples) who are also following Jesus and listening to the words of Jesus spoken in the Bible. It means asking Jesus into our hearts daily through prayer. It means doing what Jesus did and is doing in the world. It means making a few mistakes along the way, just as the disciples made mistakes, correcting those mistakes and growing along the way. As with any journey, there are and will be twists and turns, blind alleys, and mistaken paths.

A few years ago, a close friend and I walked five days of a pilgrimage, the El Camino de Santiago. The path of the pilgrimage is marked with the sign of sea shells. Occasionally the path may not be precisely marked or one may miss a marker or a marker may be obscured. When that happens, it is easy to take the wrong path and then have to retrace your steps. This happened to us late on the next to last day when we were tired and ready for the journey to be over. We had to walk back a mile or so to where we left the path and begin again. This happens over and over again on the journey of following Jesus.

We cannot always clearly see Jesus or where he is leading us. Sometimes, the way is obscured. The “thorns and thistles” of our culture make the way hard to see and find. Sometimes, we misread the signs God has given us in Scripture or in the advice of others. When that happens, we retrace our steps (ask for forgiveness and make amends), find the place we went off the path, and begin again. God in his mercy knows we need instruction, examples, and mercy on the journey. At the same time, because of his steadfast love, God will bring us safely through the journey. This is why Paul could say with confidence to those he was discipling, “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1”6).

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks of “Costly Grace,” he is speaking of a grace that transforms us and molds us into new beings. Divine grace never leaves us where we were before we received it. Real grace fits us to come and die to self with the crucified Christ, so that we may be raised to a new and different life by his resurrection power. Grace requires more of us than mere recognition of who Jesus is. It requires that we unreservedly commit our lives and futures to God through him and in light of his revelations to us of God’s nature as love.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Cost of Discipleship, at 70. This is a major focus of Bonhoeffer’s work. Bonhoeffer clearly saw that there was a problem in contemporary Christianity which had become so focused on faith and grace it had forgotten the element of obedience and trustful, loving action from a center of faith in Christ.

[2] This two-fold act of believing, confessing with lips and believing in the heart, is important to understanding the Christian life. In the Jewish way of thinking, the heart was and is the center of thought and life. While our minds conceive of a thing, it is our hearts that commit us to a course of action. Thus, in proverbs, God as the father figure instructs the believer to put his commandments in his or her heart (See for example, Proverbs 2:2; 3:3; 7:3)

[3] Cost of Discipleship, at 70. Bonhoeffer leaves no doubt at this point, saying: “Only the obedient believe.”

[4] See, Soren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity Howard V. & Edna H. Fong ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 9-10. It was Kierkegaard’s insight that contemporary believers must accept Christ with just the same kind of faith and degree of trust that the first disciples did.

[5] See, Practice in Christianity, 233 ff. The quote is a summary of what Kierkegaard is after in his entire Practice in Christianity. Nevertheless, he definitely distinguishes between imitators who follow, and admirers. For one example, “if we have dozed off into this infatuation, wake us up, recue us from this error of wanting to admire or adoringly admire you instead of wanting to follow you and be like you.” Id. Throughout the text, Kierkegaard is reminding readers that to believe is to follow and imitate, not to simply hold a conviction as to who Christ was.

[6] The Greek word for faith, “pistos” means to have the kind of faith that results in trust. It has the connotation of obedience. This is why when I translate the term from the Greek, I almost always use the term, “Trust/Faith.” Modern, post-Reformation Christians too easily fail to grasp that faith trusts and trust means acts in accordance with what is believed. See, Kittel, G & Friedrich, G, eds, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament Abridged ed. (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1985), 849ff.

[7] Bonhoeffer is emphatic at this point. “If we refuse to take up our cross and submit to suffering and rejection at the hands of men, we forfeit our fellowship with Christ and have ceased to follow him,” Cost of Discipleship, at 101.

3. The Challenge of Discipleship in our Culture: The Unblessed Life

This week is the most complex of the chapters until we reach the very end. Next week, we begin to ask and answer the question, “How would Jesus respond and have us respond in this context?”

Christians proclaim Jesus is, “The Way, The Truth, and the Life.” For those who believe, the declaration seems obvious. Nevertheless, for many non-Christians in our society, the words are meaningless. There is no one way of life. Everyone simply chooses a lifestyle that pleases them. There is no universal truth. There is only the perspectives of various people, groups, and disciplines. There is no inherent goodness or beauty. There is only one kind of life, what the ancients called, “Bios.” There is no moral or spiritual life not reducible to biology. Jesus is not “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” because no one can be anything more than their own, way, truth and life.

The decline of Christian faith parallels the decline of the modern world and the emergence of a post-modern, post-Christian age. [1] Christians have been slow to apprehend the dramatic shifts in the culture—a culture Christian faith helped to create and sustain, and which Christians generally assume will continue to be receptive to their religious vision. This is untrue. As a retired professor observed, “We were slow to discern that the culture is not our friend.” [2] In particular, the church has been slow to recognize a new dominant world view that is replacing a Christian world view as the primary way in which people structure reality.

This new world view might be summarized in the following way:

We are alone in the physical universe, which constitutes the only reality. In this universe, there is no embedded notion of truth, beauty or goodness. These concepts are matters of personal choice. We humans must, therefore, create our own meaning and lives by acts of personal choice. All attempts to force such ideas upon others are a form of coercion by which one group forces its will upon others. Personal pleasure attained by the acquisition of personal experiences and things that can provide desired experiences are the means by which humans create their lives. [3]

Sociologists remind us that all people live in cultures characterized by “plausibility structures” that define what is reasonable and sensible and what is not. The world view of modern society has created a “crisis of credibility” within which Christian beliefs, values, and morals no longer make sense to many people, and especially the youngest, best educated, and most successful members of the cultural elite. [4] the new plausibility structure assumes that any kind of universal, transcendent truth is impossible.

Basic Features of Our New Cultural Reality

There are basic features of this new cultural reality that impact discipleship and disciple-making in important ways, and which make our culture increasingly hostile to the message of the gospel. Here are a few of the most important:

My Truth is Only True for Me

Nothing is more common than to hear people voice the opinion that “all truth is relative.” [5]  In our culture, when applied to faith and morals “true” means “true for me,” as opposed to “true” in the sense of accurately rendering external reality independent of my ideas about it. In this kind of society, it is difficult to make persuasive unpopular or counter-cultural truth claims, and especially religious claims, such as the claim that “Jesus is Lord.” Such claims are dismissed as silly. A popular way of expressing this aspect of postmodernity is, “You have your truth; I have mine.”

In our culture, truth claims are often seen as nothing more than an attempt by the person making the claim for power or control over another person or group. While it is positive to understand that all expressions of truth inevitably involve the social condition and bias of the claimant, this positive aspect is often overwhelmed by a negative inference that there is no objective moral or other reality outside of isolated individuals, who ought to be able to live, think, and act as they see fit.

The Christian story has a powerful response to the nihilistic vision of radical postmodernism. The foundation of the postmodern critique of religion lies in its view that all truth claims involve a bid for power. The claim that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and should be followed by all people is seen as nothing but a claim for power over the lives of people.  Christian faith and the Biblical narrative are, however, exempt from this critique. The fundamental insight of Christian faith is that God is a person characterized by self-giving, self-sacrificing love (1 John 4:8). God in Christ forsakes all power and privilege for the sake of the human race and gives God’s self in an act of sacrificial love. (Philippians 2:5-11). Far from being a bid for power, Christian faith at its best is a bid for love. While Christians often not do not live up to this ideal, the Biblical story speaks of forsaking power in love for the sake of the world.

I Alone Make All My Choices

Contemporary society is hostile to any form of tradition, authority, and historic communal norms that might burden an individual’s “free choice.” [6] The bias of the modern age against authority and tradition is reflected in the radical individualism that permeates Western culture. The good life involves the ability to do “whatever I want to do so long as I do not hurt anyone else.” In such a culture, the idea that individual desires and goals may need to be sacrificed for the good of parents, children, city, state, or nation seems quaint and out of date. In recent years, this radical individualism has moved from being the province of a narrow elite to being an underlying assumption of the vast majority of people. For most people today, traditional sources of authority, such as parents, pastors, business and political leaders, as well as the authority of such intellectual works like the Bible, are either lost or greatly undermined.

Nowhere is the narcissistic individualism of contemporary society more evident than in the decline of marriage and family. When the primary goal of human life becomes self-fulfillment, the kind of self-sacrifice required to maintain strong marriages and families is inevitably absent. In the early 1960s, a convenient fiction was born, holding that even where a marriage had already produced children, divorce was preferable to lovelessness and constant strife. The alternative of learning to love the other out of duty and creating a home of peacefulness was not deemed a rational alternative. The result has been what is sometimes called an “epidemic” of divorce, weak families, a decline in standards of living, and children with deep, unhealed spiritual wounds. [7]

If it Feels Good, I Should Do It

Without question, the dominant moral philosophy of the early twenty-first century America is a kind of hedonism. [8] The idea that the good life is synonymous with a life of personal pleasure is part of the everyday environment within which most people live. This hedonism surrounds and permeates our culture. The idea that pleasure, and especially physical pleasure, sits at the center of the good life bombards people on television, in movies, and in the music to which they listen.

A subtle form of hedonism is often found among Christians. Many people who would never affirm their commitment to a life lived for personal pleasure engage in activities that are indistinguishable from the activities of non-Christians. Often, Christians have affairs, drink heavily, use recreational drugs, collect pleasurable experiences, are financially greedy, and engage in other hedonistic activities no less frequently than non-Christians. Despite what Christians, including church leaders, may say about the meaning of religious faith, a silent internal, secular worldview impacts everything from the family budget, to the cars they drive, to the time spent on hobbies, to personal fitness and grooming, to their actual commitment to other people. [9]

 What is Right is What I Feel  is Right for Me

The radical individualism and moral hedonism of our culture combines with the modern awareness of cultural differences in fundamental belief systems to create a form of radical moral and spiritual relativism that characterizes the moral and religious beliefs and behavior of many people. [10]  Often, people do not so much personally reject traditional moral standards as they disregard their application to themselves or other persons who do not see them as personally “right for them.” This way of thinking puts Christian leaders, whose teaching and preaching inevitably involves moral issues, in a dilemma. Christians must either speak in ways that are unpopular and live with the resulting rejection or conform the teachings of the Scriptures and Church to contemporary moral norms. Many choose the latter course.

During one of my advanced degree programs, I saw the fundamental irrationality of this modern way of thinking dramatically demonstrated in a conversation among theological students. During a class, the notion of radical moral relativism was advanced by the leader. After class, a group continued the discussion. Finally, I asked the major proponent of the moral relativistic position, “Do you mean that there is no moral difference between a tribe of pigmies that engage in human sacrifice and Christian morals?” Before the person thought, he immediately answered, “Yes.” The entire class went quiet as a large group of people confronted the implications of what they had been taught in their undergraduate and graduate programs.

I am Responsible for My Life Story

Scholars tell us that human beings are by nature narrative thinkers.[11] We instinctively place our lives within the context of a story, in which we are a main character. In most previous societies, there was a kind of over-arching story that allowed people to construct a narrative in which their life made sense and had meaning and purpose. Old Testament stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Esau, and the patriarchs, Moses, Deborah, Joshua, and the exilic generation, Gideon and the Judges, Saul, David, Abigail, Bathsheba, and Solomon, and the decline of David’s kingdom, and its fall provided for ancient Israel a meaningful story around which human life could be structured and meaning found. [12]  Christians have traditionally believed that the story of God’s relationship with humanity as rendered in the Jewish and Christian Bibles (the Old and New Testaments), and especially the life, death and resurrect on of Jesus, and the writings of the New Testament authors provide an overarching story that gives a context and guidance to human life. This is precisely meta-narrative postmodern thinking rejects. [13]

A basic challenge for contemporary Christians in sharing the Christian story is that we live in a “world that has lost its story.” [14] Our culture is characterized by rejection of any “meta-narrative” (or overarching story) that seeks to give meaning and direction to human life. Not only do contemporary people not believe the Christian story, they often do not believe there is any meaningful story around which to order their lives. The result is an inability of people to form their lives and make decisions in light of the biblical or any other story, except that which they create for themselves. The Christian narrative has been replaced by the secular narrative discussed above.

Modern society has been unable to sustain and renew its intellectual, moral and spiritual foundations in light of the challenges it has faced both intellectually and practically, with the result that it has largely collapsed into radical individualism and moral and spiritual relativism. [15] The result is cultural decline and disintegration. In basic ways, the cultural ruins we see around us is evidence that the Christian story is truer than the secular story that has increasingly replaced it.

The False Gospel of “Entertainmentism”

Into the emptiness created by the loss of a meaningful story has entered the entertainment industry, which provides endless narratives to replace the Biblical story. This industry is central to the lives of modern people. Unfortunately, the entertainment industry is shallow, simplistic, adolescently romantic, obsessed with sex, and often violent. As a result, it is normally unrealistic in the stories it tells in television, movies, music, and other forms. Often, its communication techniques make consciously irrational appeals to emotions. Sex and violence are the vehicles of choice in this emotional appeal. The end result is a culture saturated with the values of the entertainment media is one with a deep and abiding lack of interest in truth and a romantic avoidance of reality. One author describes it in the following manner:

For all practical purposes, the U.S. today is a 24-hour, TV entertainment society. Everything in contemporary America is an entertainment, from sporting event to big business, politics, certainly religion, and even academia. If it isn’t fun, cute, or packaged in ten-second sound bite, then forget it. If it can’t be presented with a smiling, cheerful, sexy face, then it ain’t worth attending to. We’re all spectators in a grand entertainment society. [16]

Recently, my wife and I have been watching a television show that exemplifies the problems with the contemporary entertainment industry. The story line we have been following concerns of a group of young people who are able to travel backwards in time. [17] Two different groups are attempting to manipulate and control the direction of human history. Roughly speaking, one group is portrayed as “the bad guys” and the other as “the good guys.” The good guys kill just as many people and act as irrationally as the bad guys, except that they are trying to protect human freedom. The bad guys are trying to control the future for their own political and economic interest. The bad guys are mere caricatures of the people the media industry dislikes.

The show is saturated by human self-assertion and ethical chaos. The characters struggle with the idea that there might be a higher power who controls the future, but of course there isn’t one active in their plot line, and so they must struggle to create a meaningful future all on their own. They have to make choices. Deep in the problems with show is what Walter Wink calls, “the myth of redemptive violence,” – the notion that violence can be redemptive if only the “good guys” defeat the “bad guys.” (It’s not redemptive for the bad guys kill the good guys.) [18] The result is a constant replay of a shallow, relativistic, philosophy the writers where probably taught in High School and College. In addition, because the show takes the watcher back into history, occasionally the watcher is treated to a shallow, cartoon version of history, sometimes distorted.

A society dominated by entertainment reduces complex problems to sound bites and catchy lyrics. It reduces basic moral and spiritual dilemmas of the human race to a simplistic one-hour drama. It allows people to view sex and violence without consequences. The news depictions of our politics have become similarly shallow. If complex problems are often oversimplified by politicians, the media has largely lost interest in educating the public in the facts, which are often complex and difficult to understand, finding it easier to give opinion pieces and distorted coverage of current events. Complex problems, like the national debt cannot receive proper attention. They are too complex and solutions would require self-denial in a culture addicted to self and selfish consumption.

This culture of oversimplification impacts discipleship, because of the pressure to communicate the Scripture and the content of the confessional standards in simple, even simplistic, ways. Furthermore, the way in which worship services and other church programs are conceived and presented must increasingly take notice of the way in which the entertainment industry structures reality and the acquisition of new information and ideas. None of this is necessarily helpful to those who wish to communicate historic Christian faith.

 The One Who Dies with the Most Toys Wins

When persons from less developed nations visit Europe and North America, they immediately notice the vast array of goods and services available to those who live in these cultures. (Often, they bring with them a list of items it is difficult or expensive to acquire back home to purchase for friends and loved ones.) America and Europe have become shopping paradises.

With the passing of the World War II generation, most Americans cannot remember a time not characterized by relative prosperity. Recessions aside, the standard of living enjoyed by most Americans today far surpasses that of their grandparents. The impact of consumerism upon the culture is important, deep, and pervasive. A culture without meaning and purpose is likely to find endless consumerism attractive and distracting. People too easily come to believe (consciously or unconsciously) that “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.”

The economies of Europe and North America have evolved from struggling to meet basic human needs to providing a growing supply of goods and services to an affluent consumer market. Marketing has moved from a means by which people with basic needs find products to meet those needs to the creation of needs in ever increasing, narrow product niches. The definition of the “good life” is increasingly dominated by the feeling that “good” and “abundant” are identical concepts.

The consumer culture is a challenge to the gospel, the Church, and leaders. Many members of local congregations have difficulty resisting consumerism; however, church leaders and their families are not exempt from the disease I call “consumeritis.”[19]  Consumerism assumes human happiness can be purchased, that the acquisition of things will bring happiness, and that the experience of ownership and possession is redemptive. Few people explicitly articulate this faith, but many people practice it. The bumper sticker that reads, “He who dies with the most toys wins,” is truer for more people than they want to admit, including many who would never admit that things constitute the primary focus of their lives.

Advertising and the media constantly communicate the idea that new cars, new hair sprays, and new soft drinks can bring happiness and fulfillment to the one who acquires them. A kind of disconnect often exists between the gospel that is preached and the life that is lived, making authentic spirituality hard to achieve and maintain in a local congregation. Alternatively, some congregations have adopted a consumer-oriented approach to ministry that is not fully faithful to the Gospel. This situation is especially true in those denominations that sit at the center of American culture.

Materialism: There is Nothing Beyond the Physical World.

Sitting beneath the superficiality of a consumer culture is the reality of a materialistic culture, a culture that assumes that the material world is primary, and physical goods and services are redemptive. Deep in the modern and postmodern psyche is the notion that the physical universe is the only and ultimate reality. In this way of thinking, all that exists are material things and the forces that act upon them. [20]

God is considered not to exist or to be a part of the only and ultimate reality, the physical universe. Pantheism (the belief that everything is God) is one religious response to a materialistic worldview. A more common practical reaction is a movement of religion to the human psyche, where it is viewed either negatively as a neurosis or positively as a principle of self-transcendence and wholeness. New age and other similar forms of popular religion often emerge from this kind of thinking. In any case, such a religious foundation is powerless against the overwhelming materialism of the culture.

Among churches, an overt attempt to find a place within a fundamentally materialistic worldview is common. In liberal circles, this accommodation is evident in its theological accommodation to a materialistic and anti-supernatural worldview. In evangelical circles, the accommodation often emerges in a different form, such as an uncritical adoption of psychotherapeutic techniques and notions. In conservative churches there is often a wholesale philosophical rejection of modernity, coupled with an uncritical acceptance of this means, methods, and goals. [21] In both cases, discipleship has been hampered by the false world view accepted by groups.

Our “Postmodern” Context

Our social context is often referred to as “Postmodern.” The term “Postmodern” is both deceiving and not always helpful. [22] All the name connotes is that we live “after” the Modern Era. In fact, many characteristics of what is commonly called “postmodern” seem to indicate only the end-phase of the Modern Era. [23] Nevertheless, emerging and challenging realities captured under the rubric of “postmodernity” profoundly impact Christians and discipleship.

In ways, the culture we inhabit often involves a partial return to paganism. Unlike the ancient world, our cultural paganism is a “religionless paganism.” [24] In such a culture, discipleship must be lived out by disciples in the West without the social supports common in preceding generations. American society, in particular, has shifted from one in which Protestantism, especially mainline Protestantism, represents a societal religious and moral consensus to one in which many cultural elites are often openly hostile to Christian faith and morals. [25]

A culture characterized by consumerism, radical individualism, hedonism, and “entertainmentism” is a challenging culture in which to proclaim the gospel and form and sustain Christian community. I have experienced many conversations, particularly with older pastors, where the following statement was made. “It is no longer fun to be a pastor.” In noting the reactions of Third World observers to American cultural religion, Eugene Peterson makes and observation that, at least partially explains this sentiment:

What they notice mostly is the greed, the silliness, the narcissism. They appreciate the size and prosperity of our churches, the energy and the technology, but they wonder at the conspicuous absence of the cross, the phobic avoidance of suffering, the puzzling indifference to community and relationships of intimacy. [26]

Early twenty-first century America, characterized by consumerism, materialism, hedonism, and “entertainmentism” is deeply at odds with the gospel and a form of life based on the Christian narrative. The resulting cultural patterns constitute a form of life deeply at odds with values that stand at the core of Christian faith and with the kind of life the gospel narrative encourage Christians to lead. As hostility toward the Christian meta-narrative has grown more intense in recent years, a tendency for the biblical story to be ignored or even suppressed developed in schools, colleges, universities, and the like. A corollary of this development is a decrease in the number of people outside and inside the Church who have a basic familiarity with the Biblical narrative. This decrease, in turn, makes communication of the gospel more difficult as many people simply do not have the kind of familiarity with the Christian story that permits them to understand and respond to the gospel. Furthermore, many inside the Church have either forgotten the story of the Bible or never knew it. [27] At the same time, secular society has developed a kind of lifestyle that is deeply at odds with many facets of historic Christianity.

Fortunately, Christian faith has a response to the critique of postmodernism. Christianity was not founded by a conqueror in a bid for power. The story of the gospel is the story of a God who forsakes perfection and power, endures suffering on behalf of humanity, dies a terrible death, all to reach into human history with the unimaginable self-giving love of God. At our best, Christians do not believe in a kind of religious imperialism by which every human being is compelled to believe in Christ. Instead, Christians fundamentally believe that, by reaching out in love and service to others and sharing the truth of God, people will without compulsion respond by the power of the Holy Spirit to the call of God to live lives of wisdom and love.

Christians who minister within the European and North American context in this cultural era have a unique challenge. Our ministry is to take people where they are found, caught in damaging cultural patterns, and shepherd them into a new way, the way of Christ. The sum total of the challenges posed by Western culture is the need to minister amid a deep and abiding sense that the way of Christ and the way of this world are radically different. The need is to develop the kind of character than can build and sustain Christian community in the face of the cultural challenges Christians face. Merely repeating past truisms will not do. Faith divorced from a distinctive way of life will not do. Cheap grace dispensed for sins few people either acknowledge as sin or believe are sins will not do. Only the truth embodied in love will do. Until then, we will be trapped in a crisis of discipleship.

Copyright 2019, G, Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] A good deal of this chapter is based on research done for my Doctor of Ministry Degree. A more heavily footnoted version of this chapter can be found in G. Christopher Scruggs, Practices and Characteristics for Pastors Renewing Mainline Congregations: Studies from the Presbytery of Memphis (Unpublished Dissertation, Accepted March 25, 2005).

[2] Nelson, C. Ellis. Private conversation (14 March 1994).

[3] Allen, Diogenes. Christian Belief in a Postmodern World: The Full Wealth of Conviction (Louisville, KY: Westminster, 1989), 1

[4] Berger, Peter L. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. (New York, NY: Anchor, 1967), 151; see also. Berger, Peter L. Rumor of Angels (New York, NY: Anchor, 1970).

[5] Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1987), 25. Professor Bloom points out what has been my experience both as a student in the late 20th Century and a teacher. The younger American generations have been indoctrinated into a world view in which “truth” means “true for me.

[6] Trueblood, E. J. The Dawn of the Postmodern Era (New York, NY: Philosophical Library, 1954), 19.

[7] This radical individualism is increasingly felt in the Church. The notion of an authoritative text read as part of a tradition is difficult to sustain in a postmodern environment. Church leaders are confronted each and every day with persons for whom the notion of authority, and perhaps especially the notion of pastoral authority, have little or no meaning. The result for church leaders is an intense pressure to succumb to such views or constantly minister in an environment in which church leaders can do little more than support persons. Furthermore, church leaders are not immune from such radical individualism in their own lives.

[8] “Hedonism” is an ancient Greek moral theory that the ethical life can be reduced to seeking pleasure or happiness and the avoidance of pain or unhappiness. It was founded by a pupil of Socrates, and its name comes from the Greek word for pleasure. This idea has been important in religious and moral thinkers since Greek times, and profoundly impacts some forms of both Pragmatism and Utilitarianism.

[9] The pleasure-seeking aspect of modern and emerging postmodern culture is especially evident in the way in which sexuality both dominates secular politics and the Church’s agenda and distorts the Church’s life mission. Recent headlines involving the incidence of child molestation by Roman Catholic priests, the continuing divisions in mainline churches over homosexuality, and highly publicized heterosexual clergy misconduct are but examples of the way in which the hedonism of modern culture invades the Church. Addiction to pornography, a challenge in many cultures, is made much more pervasive by its easy availability on the Internet. In such a culture, the idea that self-denial and suffering are part of the good life is at odds with the form of life that surrounds people.

[10] Allen, Diogenes. Christian Belief in a Postmodern World: The Full Wealth of Conviction (Louisville, KY: Westminster, 1989), 9.

[11] See, Hauerwas, Stanley and Jones, L. Gregory, eds. Why Narrative? Readings in Narrative Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1989).

[12] In ancient Greece, the story of the Iliad with its exaltation of the heroism of Achilles and Hector formed the consciousness of people. Within the great story of the Iliad, kings, warriors, men, women, servants, and the like all found examples of where they could go right in life and how they could go wrong. See, Alister McIntyre, After Virtue 2nd Ed. (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 1983), whose analysis I have shortened but largely followed.

[13] This aspect of postmodernity is especially troubling. Human beings seem to naturally seek to understand their lives as a story, and to place themselves in some way within that story as a character. The loss of narrative inevitably means the loss of place. It means the loss of identity, meaning and purpose, as it becomes less possible to find a coherent place in the events of daily life.

[14] Jenson, Robert W. “How the World Lost Its Story.” First Things Oct. 1993: 19-24.

[15] Postmodern thinkers have abandoned any hope that any core symbolic world or meta-narrative can provide a unified vision and narrative structure for human life. [15] Unsurprisingly, the result has been cultural decline and growing social chaos. One pressing need in ministering to post-modern people is to recover the notion of the Bible as providing a non-violent narrative which provides meaning and purpose as well as ultimate justification for a free and open society. Grenz, Stanley J. A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 42-43. Interestingly, the Postmodernists do propose a metanarrative of their own, one that denies the possibility of unified spiritual and moral vision for human life. See also, After Virtue, previously cited.

[16] Mitroff, Ian I., and Warren Bennis. The Unreality Industry: The Deliberate Manufacturing of Falsehood and What It Is Doing to Our Lives (New York, NY: Oxford, 1989), 16.

[17]  Timeless, NBC New York (October 3, 2016-December 20, 2018). Timeless is an action drama in the science fiction genre.

[18] Wink, Walter, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press), 13-31. Wink has written extensively on the powers and principalities and the way in which a misunderstanding of them can warp Christian thought ad action. In my view Wink is too captive to his own left-wing ideology, and thereby weakens his case. We are all inclined to be controlled by the powers and principalities, not just one group of people.

[19] “Consumeritus” is a term I coined for the ‘consumer’ orientation of our economy and the way in which it encourages people to find meaning in acquiring things. The “itis” indicates that Consumeritus is actually a disease of the soul.

[20] One of the clearest indications that the modern world cannot continue is that this belief in material objects and forces is completely contrary to our most sophisticated understanding of the universe in which we live. The ultimate nature of material reality seems not to be material. It can be described as disturbances in fields or even as information, but whatever the ultimate reality is, it is not material. Our intellectual leaders, politicians, business people, and religious leaders have hardly begun to accommodate the relativistic, relational, information-centered view of the world favored by contemporary quantum physics and increasingly other disciplines as well.

[21] Nowhere is the impact of materialism more evident than in arguments over human sexuality. Whether the debate is over marital fidelity or alternative forms of sexual expression, the argument used often involves some form of an argument that “people are born this way.” At the root of the widespread acceptance of this argument is a materialistic notion of reality in which religious faith may give subjective support to persons but is unable to change ultimate reality. On the other hand, among conservative Christians, there is often little difference between how they in fact live and the life-style evident in the culture as a whole.

[22] The term postmodernity is used in a variety of ways by various authors. In general, the term postmodern is used to describe both a philosophical movement and an emerging cultural reality. The postmodern intellectual period is generally thought to have begun with the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and his powerful indictment of both Christianity and Enlightenment optimism concerning human reason. Culturally, the postmodern period is generally thought to have begun to emerge after the First World War, which engendered a tremendous alienation from Western Culture among European intellectual elites. Both the philosophical and cultural aspects of postmodernism are very complex. This study does not presume to provide a comprehensive analysis of postmodern thought. It sought to give a pastoral analysis sufficient for a study of transformational leadership in the contemporary church. Worth noting, however, is that I believe that postmodernism is “here to stay” as a cultural phenomenon, and pastors must minister within postmodern America and to people who are consciously or unconsciously affected by its theory and cultural artifacts. As a cultural reality and as a philosophical movement, postmodernism has aspects that are both positive and negative for the Church and for Christians who witness to Christ under its conditions.

[23] See note 4 above.

[24] This “religionless paganism” is sometimes referred to as neo paganism. Just as postmodernity refers to something after modernity, neo paganism refers to a new form of paganism. The actual content varies because it is a kind of eclectic collection of beliefs that people choose to adopt. What defines them as pagan is the fundamentally manipulative nature of the beliefs, which is to say that the “divine” is put at the heart of human striving. From a Christian standpoint, neo-paganism is both superstitious and idolizing.

[25] The emergence of “new age” ideas clearly often involve a kind of religion, and even supernatural forces, so the emerging culture is not void of spiritual ideas. When I use the term pagan, I mean a kind of return to the pre-Christian notions of society and morals.

[26] Peterson, Eugene. Under the Unpredictable Plant. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 37

[27] A common experience of pastors and other Christian leaders is the pervasive lack of familiarity with the biblical narrative even among Christians. The emergence of the Internet, which many people thought would be a great help in alleviating this problem has significantly helped the problem. Unfortunately, there is no substitute for a long-term commitment to study the Bible in some detail. Obviously, some passages are more important than others, and some sections clearer than others. Many of the programs that gave churches and Christian organizations a vehicle for deep discipleship in the past the longer seem to work in the postmodern context.

The Blessed Life

We live in a curious age. Never in human history have people in the developed world had so much material wealth. Paradoxically, never before have people suffered from so much anxiety about the future, life, their ability to continue to consume at or above their current level, and the meaning and purpose of their lives. Young people in almost all Western democracies, but notably in the United States, the so-called “leader of free world,” demonstrate a lack of trust in the way of life and institutions that provide the highest standard of living and the most freedom experienced anywhere in human history. Sadly, among Christians, fewer and fewer people live as fully committed disciples. Churches in Europe are nearly empty, and those in the United States and North America are rapidly following the European example.

Numerous social commentators, Christian and non-Christian, liberal and conservative, traditionalist and radical, note that there is something troubling about our society. Commentators do not agree on what is wrong, how serious the problem is, or what to do in response to the problems they see—they just agree there is a problem. No significant period of time goes past without someone publishing an article with a title something like, “Are America’s best days behind her?” [1] These articles focus on indications that something is deeply wrong with our culture. Many of the commentators see at the root of our society’s problems the reality that material wealth, prosperity, pleasure, consumption, leisure, and the like cannot provide meaning, purpose, love, or inner strength, and security. In fact, the relentless search for meaning and purpose by the means advocated by our society result in increasing loss of meaning, purpose, love, inner strength, and security. The result is pervasive loneliness, isolation, neurosis and anxiety.

One reason we have so much trouble resisting the temptations of our culture is that most of us have a deeply ingrained, culturally formed notion of “the Good Life.” The good life involves feelings of personal pleasure and happiness. Most people believe that hard work, healthy habits, exercise, pleasurable experiences, travel, recreation, hobbies and other forms of self-actualization are important to achieving to this good life. Some people believe that government can and should arrange to create this good life on behalf of its citizens. Other people believe it should be created by private industry and personal initiative, but nearly everyone believes in some kind of earthly paradise in which all our human expectations and desires can be and are met. [2]

Jesus and the Blessed Life

Interestingly, Jesus never talked about the desirability of seeking to live to old age, attaining a degree of physical beauty, staying fit and healthy, acquiring wealth, getting ahead financially, consuming increasing amounts of goods and services, traveling, pleasurable experiences, or any of the other preoccupations of our day. Jesus did, however, speak of what he called “the blessed life.”

The Blessed Life Now and For Jesus

Jesus’ teachings concerning the blessed life are completely at odds with what our culture considers blessings. When people in our society use the word “blessed,” in almost any of its forms, it usually involves something concrete we have received. We say, “I am blessed with good health.” “I am blessed with a strong heart.” I am blessed with a wonderful spouse.” “I am blessed with four healthy children.” “I have been blessed financially.” “I am blessed with a new job.” “I am blessed with a promotion.” The list of our blessings could go on and on, but they have this in common: they relate to physical blessings that contribute to our sense of emotional and physical well-being.

On the other hand, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” “Blessed are those who mourn.” “Blessed are the humble.” “Blessed are the merciful.” “Blessed are the pure in heart.” “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Worst of all, Jesus says, “Blessed are the persecuted.” In Luke, the words are even less palatable to modern ears. [3] In Luke, Jesus is recorded has having said, “Blessed are the poor,” not just the poor in spirit. He says “Blessed are the hungry,” not just those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. He says, “Blessed are those who weep,” and repeats, “Blessed are you when men hate you, exclude you, and insult you.” [4] Jesus seems to be saying that everything the modern world believes leads to the blessed life does not.

Jesus challenges our human presuppositions about what it means to be blessed. For Jesus, the blessed life is not something exterior to ourselves we acquire. Instead it is something we experience within ourselves. Moreover, because of the nature of the blessing, the blessed life is not something we naturally seek, but can only receive as a gift from God. The exterior life, upon which modern people place so much emphasis, is secondary. It is our relationship with God and with his plans and purposes that is primary in life. In other words, Jesus thinks our society has things completely backward!

Secular reason does not permit us to see and understand the truly blessed life without the intervention of God. It was true in Jesus’ day, and it is true today. [5] The blessed life is received by faith in God and in his Word. We cannot discover it on our own. Someone, under the inspiration of God, has to tell us about this blessed life in Christ and show us what it looks like.  Someone must help us overcome our cultural addictions to power, pleasure, and possessions. That is why Christ came. In the end, the Spirit of Christ must work in us so that we can receive by faith what God has promised.

The Old Testament and the Blessed Life

The Old Testament reflects an understanding that the blessed life, like all of life, is a gift from God. The Hebrew word “Baruch” implies a kind of all-completeness and wholeness that can only come from God. In the creation story, God creates the human race, and then immediately blesses them (Gen. 1:27-28). The blessing God gives to Adam and Eve implies that the human race was intended to occupy and enjoy God’s good creation as a creature that can joyfully appreciate and participate in the completion of God’s gracious intention for that creation.

The story of the fall reflects the human race falling away from its divine destiny of blessing (Gen. 3:16-19). The curse of the fall described in Genesis is not the abusive action of an angry God. It is the natural result of the human race leaving the path of fellowship with God, creation, and other people for self-centeredness and self-seeking—a path that inevitably leads to alienation, misguided behavior, and suffering. The human race, meant for communion with God, nature, and one another has forfeited its divine destiny and now restlessly roams the earth in search of a restoration of its blessings.

Blessings and Noah

In the story of Noah, God saves a righteous man in the midst of a catastrophe of sin and alienation that engulfs the entire world. When the flood is over, Noah departs from the ark, builds an altar, and praises God. God in return blesses Noah in language that reveals God’s desire to restore the blessing lost in the garden of Eden: “Then God blessed Noah and his children saying to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply’” (Gen. 9:1). [6] Even in judgment, God is seen restoring, renewing, and blessing the human race.

Blessings and Abraham

The story reaches a decisive moment when God calls Abram into a new and special relationship of blessing. When the Lord calls Abram to leave his country, his people, and those of his household left behind, he promises:

I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth   will be blessed through you (Genesis 12:2-3).

The blessing God gives to Abram (Abraham) is not just for his genetic family. It is a blessing for the entire world and every tribe and nation. It is a blessing for all the peoples of the earth. This blessing flows from the trustful relationship Abraham and his family are intended to have with God. Over and over again throughout Genesis, God blesses the family of Abraham. As the story unfolds, the blessing of Abraham is extended from Abraham and his family to the entire world (See, Gen. 18:18; 22:18; 28:14). This blessing through the kind of faith Abraham demonstrates continues to this day.

Blessings and the Wise Life

The book of Psalms begins with a blessing:

Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither— whatever they do prospers.

Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away.

Therefore, the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,  but the way of the wicked leads to destruction (Psalm 1, ESV).

By the time Psalms was written, the people of Israel understood that the blessed life is achieved by following the teachings of God. The psalmists realize that God has revealed in nature and his word a way of life that leads to blessing. The blessed person not only receives the blessing of fellowship with God, but also physical blessing that comes with obedience to the God’s instructions. The blessed life is achieved by following the way of blessing God has provided for the human race.

Those who follow the way of wickedness (i.e. act contrary to God’s will) can never be blessed. They have chosen a path that leads away from blessing. Those who follow God’s will and become wise in good living, receive the blessing a fellowship with God. Those who follow the way of holiness and righteousness are recreated into the image of the God who created them in the first place and received the blessing of that re-creation.

Wisdom literature affirms this same idea: the blessed life is lived according to the wisdom God has imbedded in the universe, a wisdom that is revealed for the people of God in God’s instructions and laws (Proverbs 3:13-18). [7]For wisdom writers, the blessed life is the wise life. Those who follow the path of wisdom (adapting their lives to divine and created reality), find a path that leads to peace and plenty. It is a way of life that leads to increased blessings. For the wisdom writers, the blessings of God are received by those who develop a wisdom God imbedded in the universe. The Path of Life is the Path of Wisdom and is the most valuable blessing a person can receive in life, and it is the ground and source of all the other blessings of life. [8]

The blessed life is filled with the kind of wisdom that comes from God and from life in fellowship with God. The blessed person listens to the voice of God’s wisdom, and waits for God’s revelation of the proper course of action in the practical affairs of life (Proverbs 8:34). Ultimately, the wise life is a life of wise, loving, trustful, and faithful conformity to God’s character and will (Proverbs 16:20). It cannot be achieved without the deep reverence and respect for God that that Bible terms, “the fear of the Lord,” which is the beginning of wisdom and of the blessed life (Proverbs 1:6, 9:10; 28:14). [9]

Blessing and the Prophetic Life

If wisdom literature emphasizes that the blessed life is the result of wisdom, the Prophets teach that the blessed life results from following the will of God and walking in his chosen path. The end of the Kingdom of David, the failure of Israel to retain its freedom and independence, their defeat by the Assyrians and Babylonians, and the exile to Babylon were interpreted by the prophets as a judgment on Israel’s lack of faithfulness to the God of Abraham. As a result of their failure, God removed his blessing, and allowed judgment to come upon them. The people of God forfeited the blessed life.

If the recipe of the wisdom writers for a return of blessing was to forsake foolishness and wickedness and return to the “Path of Life,” the recommendation of the prophets was that Israel return to faith in the Living God and live according to God’s instructions and will. [10]Their message was one of religious and national revival. “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15). If Israel returned to faithfulness to God, they would be restored to their land and the kingdom of David would be restored. [11]

Old Testament writers were not unaware of the role chance, good fortune, and bad luck play in human life. [12]Nevertheless, they believed that God was the fount and source of the good life and all the blessings of life, physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. The restored Kingdom of David was, even in the early stages of its development more than a restored earthly kingdom, but a kingdom of blessing from God. It would be revealed in a kingdom of wisdom, righteousness, and peace.

The New Testament and the Blessed Life

 By Jesus’ time, the religion of Israel had developed in a disturbing way. In terms of religious observance, the blessed life was achieved by participating in religious rituals and making proper sacrifices. In terms of behavior, the blessed life was achieved through understanding the law of Moses and following its details as interpreted by the rabbis. The Pharisees, and teachers of the law (those who took the Old Testament seriously) developed detailed understanding of what it meant to follow the law in every area of life. For the religious few, this form of life gave life meaning and purpose. For the average person, temple religion had become a matter of mere external form, and the religion of the scribes and Pharisees a complicated and unachievable set of rules.

Certain forms of modern Christianity resemble the religious situation of Israel at the end of the Old Testament. People continue to go to church. A few continue to study the Bible and attempt to organize their lives “according to biblical principles.” Sometimes their understanding of these principles is quite detailed. However, for the majority of people the life of discipleship has become a dim memory. Just as with the ancient Israelites, the life of faith seems complicated, unrewarding, and unachievable. [13]

The Change Jesus Made

When Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee and called twelve ordinary people to become his followers, he revealed something new: The blessed life is not achieved by external religious observances, devoted study of the law, or even dedicated obedience to the law. Instead, discipleship and the blessed life is a matter of a living relationshipwith God who is the source of wisdom and love. Jesus called his disciples into a personal relationship, and through that relationship, into a personal relationship with God. As with any relationship, the defining characteristic of Jesus’ new way was a personal commitment to be in relationship, a commitment that we call “faith.” The faith of the original disciples was reflected by their decision to follow Jesus. Our faith is no different.

Just as in a marriage (or any other human relationship) not every day, week, month, or year is characterized by good feelings, the same thing is true of our relationship with God in Christ. There will be ups and downs. Perhaps even more challenging was Jesus’ warning that following him entails sacrifice and even suffering. “If anyone would come after me, they must take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34; Matthew 16:24; Luke 9:23). Following Jesus involves not just discomfort, but suffering and sacrifice. There will be blessing, but that blessing will not necessarily eliminate the reality of suffering, even undeserved suffering.

The Disciples’ Long Period of Misunderstanding

It took the disciples a long time to understand that the blessed life Jesus promised was not a promise of uninterrupted health, success, pleasure, or victory over opposition. The crucified Messiah revealed a kind of blessing that transcends human experience wisdom or experience (I Cor. 1:16ff). This is why Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). The blessing (Shalom) that Jesus offers is a kind of blessing that cannot be achieved by simple religious obedience or ritual. Is a blessing that may only be found in a personal relationship with the Living God.

The Truly Blessed Life

So then, what is the blessed life? First, the truly blessed life is lived in fellowship with God, nature, and other people. It is lived in solidarity with the external world as human beings recover the stewardship of creation for which the human race was created. It is a life of restored interpersonal relationships, as the alienation caused by pride, selfishness, and self-seeking is overcome. The blessed life is a life of spiritual and emotional wholeness. It is a life of restored communion with God.

The person who lives in communion with God, creation, and other human beings achieves emotional and spiritual wholeness. The blessed life is a life of humility and acceptance of others, because the wise and blessed person recognizes that human beings are fallible, finite, and capable of wickedness. Blessed life is also a life of steadfast love, because those who live in relationship with the God of steadfast love exhibit that steadfast love in their own day-to-day lives.

When I was a young Christian, the missionary, evangelist, and social theologian Francis Schaeffer diagnosed the condition of Western society as dominated by a definition of the good life as achieving personal peace and affluence. [14]Certainly, our society is dominated by the individualistic search for things, for experiences, for recreation, for a sense of happiness and peace. In the midst of this search, we experience a high level of dysfunction.

Why is this so? Is it because the “Blessed Life” cannot be found in having more things, achieving success, experiencing pleasures, and the like? What if the blessed life can only be found in the humble search for wisdom in daily living and in loving service to God and others? What if our society and every other society always have been and are misguided at a deep level concerning what constitutes the blessed life? [15]

Jesus knew we human beings seldom change our behavior until we experience what life might be like if we adopted another behavior pattern. Therefore, he was not content to simply talk about the blessed life. Jesus lived the blessed life for all the world to see. He called disciples to live with and observed him. They did not know it at the time, but they were experiencing the blessed life and being trained to share that blessed life with others.

If people in contemporary society could achieve the blessed life by reading about the blessed life, our society would indeed be a blessed society. There are many, many self-help books. There are books about how to lose weight, gain weight, exercise, take vitamins, diet, think and grow rich, retire early, become more physically able to defend ourselves, find peace with God or the Ultimate (however you visualize it)—there are books about anything and everything we might do to achieve the blessed life on our own terms. It is been my experience, and the experience of most people who’ve tried these books, that they don’t permanently work. Why?

It is because we human beings do not need more than information to achieve the blessed life. We need to experiencethe blessed life. We need to experience what it is to live wisely. We need to experiencewhat it is like have healthy relationships with other people. We need to experiencewhat it is like to love others with what the Bible calls “steadfast love” or “agape love,” the self-giving, long-suffering, faithful love of God. In order for people to experience the blessed life, there must be disciples who follow Jesus and how to live the blessed life know not just from reading books but from experience.

The disciples, like people today, did not immediately understand what Jesus was showing them. Like us, they did not learn all at once but only after a long period of observation and personal interaction. It was not until after his cross and resurrection that they understood. Although Peter was inspired to say that Jesus was the Christ, the son the living God at Caesarea Philippi, his inspiration was temporary. He would still deny Jesus and go back to fishing until his time of discipleship was complete. It was only after he saw the risen Christ and experienced the power of the resurrection that Peter became capable of living the blessed life. [16]

We cannot expect people in our time to be any different. Relational understanding comes slowly. It requires time, practice, mistakes, correction, teaching, patience, and all the other attributes of discipleship. The reason Jesus created and lived in relationship with his disciples during his entire earthly ministry was because relationships are the way, and the only way, people can truly change and be transformed. In our day and time, we are experiencing a crisis of discipleship precisely because we have not done a particularly good job of discipling others into a living relationship with God. The crisis will not abate until we give up the idea that better marketing, worship, or programming can achieve real change. Real change involves a return to Way of Jesus.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] A brief survey on the internet demonstrates the truth of his proposition. See for example, Farid Zakaria, “Are America’s Best Days Behind Us?” Time Magazine, Thursday, March 3, 2003 http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2056723,00.html(Downloaded, June 22, 2019); Eduardo Porter, “America’s Best Days May Be Behind It” New York Times, January 10, 2016 https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/20/business/economy/a-somber-view-of-americas-pace-of-progress.html(Downloaded June 22, 2019). Patrice Lewis, “Why Our Best Days Are Behind Us” WNDhttps://www.wnd.com/2016/01/why-our-best-days-are-behind-us/(Downloaded June 22, 2019); Nigel Barber, “Are America’s Best Days Over?” Huffington PostMarch 18, 2017 https://www.huffpost.com/entry/are-americas-best-days-ov_b_9487770(Downloaded June 22, 2019).

[2] This point is made powerfully in lay language in W. T. Wright’s new book, Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes it Good(New York, NY: Harper One, 2015), 109ff. In the modern world, we are all subject to a culturally reinforced worldview that considers progress to be an automatic result of human striving. Recent history casts doubt on this view. What is needed is a new kingdom not the result of human striving and schemes.Just as the Jews were mistaken to reduce the promise of the Messiah to an earthly kingdom run by a new and improved “Son of David,” when we reduce the gospel to a personal, economic or political agenda we are always wrong. In our culture, Christians need to be prepared to show people the error of expecting God’s kingdom to be just like our kingdom only wealthier, politically stronger, and more defensible. When Jesus appeared before Pontius Pilate, and was accused of opposing Caesar, he replied that his kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be trying to bring his kingdom into this world; it just means there’s more to God’s kingdom in this world will ever know.

[3] In at least one modern translation of the Beatitudes, the term blessing is translated “Happy.” The Old Testament makes clear that, while happiness may result from the blessed life, the blessed life is not constituted by feelings of mere happiness. The blessed life depends on the grace and mercy of God. God is the source of all true blessings. To be blessed is to receive a state of wholeness and holiness that only God can provide. It is a gift, an act of mercy, not a reward.

[4] See, Matthew 5:3-12; Luke 6:20-22. The differences between the Matthean and the Lukan descriptions of the Sermon on the Mount are significant, but not for the purposes of this book. In both cases, what Jesus is saying is at odds with what the vast majority of the people in our society see as blessings.

[5] This insight sits behind Paul’s observation in I Corinthians that the world cannot understand or accept the wisdom of God. It seems like foolishness to the human reason without the intervention of God (I Cor. 118-2:16).

[6] The language of Genesis 1 and 9 are nearly identical, indicating God’s divine intention remains the same for the fallen human race as it was for the human race at its creation.

[7] Thus, in Proverbs 3 we read: “Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold. She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed” (Proverbs 3:13-18).

[8] Thus, wisdom writers go on to say:“By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place; by his knowledge the watery depths were divided, and the clouds let drop the dew (Proverbs 3:19-20).

[9]T he term “fear of the LORD can be difficult for modern readers. When I translate the phrase, I use the term “Deep Respect,” which captures the Biblical idea that God is so much greater than human beings that the only proper response before his wisdom and power is a kind of obedient, humble, and absolute respect. See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers(Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014), at 37

[10] It is important not to draw too great a distinction between the wisdom and prophetic writers. Isaiah and Jeremiah, for example, are deeply influenced by and in substantial continuity with the wisdom writers and many of their writings could easily be classified as wisdom writings.

[11] Isaiah speaks of a coming “King of Righteousness,” who will usher in a time of blessing for Israel (Isaiah 32:1). In the time of the Messiah, the people will learn to live wisely and receive the blessings of justice and righteousness (v. 2-5). They will finally be led by one under whose leadership they can receive the fullness of blessings for which they longed.

[12] I have written about the awareness of the Old Testament writers that the wise and good life does not guarantee happiness: Job, Ecclesiastes and some of the Psalms speak of this awareness. Nevertheless, the Old Testament writers believe that God is the source of the blessed life and that it cannot be achieved without following God’s laws in faith. See, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers, 165-193.

[13] In my first church, one member of a local congregation criticized me to one of my members for cutting my lawn on Sunday afternoons and coming to the bank in my running shorts. For this person, the “law of Christ,” just like the law of the ancient Jews prohibited any physical work on Sunday and for a religious person to expose himself in any way to others. In other words, this person was, for all intents and purposes, a modern Pharisee.

[14] Francis Schaeffer, HowShould We Then Live: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and CultureRev Ed. (Old Tappen, NJ: Fleming H. Revel, 1976), 205.

[15] In Jesus’s day, just as in our day, people desired to experience the blessed life. In Jesus’s day, just as in our day, people had misconceptions about what it is like to live blessedly. The Jews, like modern Americans, were inclined to suppose that those with sufficient material blessings and economic and political security to relax and enjoy life would experience the blessed life. They, just like many modern Americans, were inclined to believe that if only their own particular political opinion and preferred form of government could be achieved, their lives would be blessed. Jesus came to deconstruct that entire way of thinking.

[16] One important characteristic of the Gospel of Mark is the way in which it shows Peter and the other disciples as frequently either not understanding or misunderstanding who Jesus is and what Jesus has come to accomplish. They do not understand his Messianic Kingdom, the means by which the Kingdom of God will be established, or the kind of leadership they will be required to exercise in order to accomplish the tasks the Messiah is giving them. It is only in light of the resurrection that they can understand the mission of Jesus and the mission Jesus is giving them.

The Crisis of Discipleship 1

 

Just before the Second World War, a young German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, published “The Cost of Discipleship.” [1]The thesis of the book was prophetic for his life and for the course of 20thCentury discipleship. “Cheap Grace,” he said, “is the deadly enemy of our Church.” [2] He went on to compare “Cheap Grace” with “Costly Grace.” Costly Grace is that grace Christ speaks of when he says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Cheap grace is the offer of forgiveness of sins in a way that costs a believer nothing and requires no faithful response. During the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, Bonhoeffer took up his cross and followed Jesus to martyrdom near the end of the Second World War. [3]

After the war, Bonhoeffer’s book became famous. Like many famous books, Cost of Discipleshipis often mentioned, a few quotes find their way into blogs, sermons and religious books (like this one), but Cost of Discipleshipis seldom read outside of college and seminary classes, and even more seldom internalized. Part of the problem is that the book was originally written in German, and German is a difficult language to translate into English, especially for readers who prefer short sentences and simple language.  Part of the problems is that Bonhoeffer was not a popular writer even in his own day. He was an academic, and his writing shows the influence of an academic mind. The book is simply not easy for modern people to read, fully understand, or digest.

The problem of Cheap Grace and its consequences for a church that dispenses it, is the message of The Cost of Discipleshipand of Bonhoeffer’s life. Here is how he describes “Cheap Grace”:

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. [4]

When a church, denomination, or other Christian group dispenses Cheap Grace, it dispenses God’s promise of forgiveness and new life like soda from a fountain at a child’s birthday party or beer from a keg at a fraternity party. Discipleship characterized by cheap grace makes a mockery of what God was doing in Israel’s history, what Christ did on the cross, and how committed disciples live out the Christian life all over the world, sometimes in danger and persecution. Unfortunately, in one form or another, the gospel of Cheap Grace is too frequently the gospel of Western religious groups. [5]

Real grace is “Costly Grace.” Bonhoeffer characterized costly grace as like the Pearl of Great Price Jesus describes in one of his parables (Matthew 13:44-46):

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. [6]

As the saying goes, “Grace may be free, but it isn’t cheap.” The one who confesses his or her sins to God, who repents (turns away from sin in the heart), who turns to God with everything he or she is and possesses, who takes up his or her cross in obedience to Christ and his teachings, and who lives a holy life in response to what God has done, is a person who has experienced true grace. True grace does not leave us as we are. True grace changes everything. The response of a human encounter with real, true grace, is a transformed life.

If in Bonhoeffer’s day there was a crisis of discipleship, and cheap grace was a problem for Christianity, the problem is exponentially greater today in the increasingly “postmodern,” Western church. Western churches, and especially American churches, are addicted to cheap grace. In church after church, in sermon after sermon, in Bible study after Bible study, God’s love, forgiveness of sins, and redemption in Christ is preached without preaching God’s judgement on sin and the new life into which disciples are called by Christ. Building strong disciples is impossible if difficult passages and problems in Scripture are ignored or explained away. [7]The result is a weak, declining, and impotent Christianity.

I have been a disciple of Christ for over forty years. There is no question but what the condition of American Christianity is worse today than at any time during my lifetime. Tremendous cultural changes have deeply impacted American Christianity for the worse. Even unhealthier is the American propensity to value size and external and economic success, which has accelerated the development of a shallow form of Christian faith. The result is a crisis of discipleship.

The Command to Make Disciples

Jesus’ last act was to commission his disciples, saying: “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”(Matthew 28:19-20). The Great Commission was his last word and directive to his disciples then and now to carry out God’s program of salvation and new life that Jesus began during his earthly pilgrimage Making disciples is the supreme goal Christ set for believers and for the church. It is the reason for the existence of the Church.

Making disciples involves being a good disciple yourself, having a heart for people, going to where people are, helping them enter the life-transforming fellowship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them the things of God, and helping them respond to God’s grace by live a God pleasing life. Discipleship is not something for a few incredibly dedicated believers to do while everyone else watches and applauds. True discipleship is for every Christian.

The Greek word we translate “disciple” refers to one who learns from another person. As Christians, we learn about God and wise living from the Bible, from our personal relationship with God in Christ, from teachers and mentors, and by observing our fellow Christians day-by-day. Christian discipleship is not just about learning information. Jesus Christ is the “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” In other words, the key to abundant living is not an idea, but a person and relationship with that person in which we become transformed into the likeness of the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. In order to know the Way, the Truth, and the Life of Christ, we must become imitators and obedient children of Christ. As the New Testament so often puts it, we Christ must dwell in us richly (Colossians 3:16).

Because being a disciple involves a relationship with a person, we must believe in that person and spend time in fellowship with that person. Being a disciple is like being a professional athlete or a physicist. A person who admires professional athletes or physicists, but who never enters into a relationship of learning and emulation with one, is not a disciple. At most, such a person is a fan or an interested onlooker. Disciples observe, emulate and become like the one they are learning from and into whose image they are being conformed (Romans 8:29).

Christians do our best, and live wisely, when we emulate the Lord Jesus Christ, allowing his divine life to permeate our entire personality. It is not enough to proclaim that we believe in Christ or to bring people to declare their intellectual belief that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and died for their sins. To be a disciple is to follow Christ, become more like Christ daily, and help others become more like Christ. Christians today must be willing and able to help other people live with the same integrity and self-giving love that characterized Jesus when he ministered to his disciples and the people of Israel. This means we incorporate into our lives the same divine wisdom and steadfast love that characterized Jesus of Nazareth. It even means that we are willing to suffer for the gospel as Christ suffered for the human race. This is the result of costly grace.

The modern world, from which we are now emerging, was characterized by an abstract understanding of knowledge. The world and God were objects to be studied and mastered not things and persons to be loved and cherished. In such a world, knowledge is measured by tests and one’s ability to answer questions, write essays, and regurgitate information. The object of such knowledge is mastery of a subject and increasing control over reality. To the modern mind-set, any kind of knowledge that was not “scientific” or “objective” was not really knowledge at all.

Wisdom is different. To be wise, one must know some information. More importantly, one must apply and embody that information in everyday life. The earliest name for Christians was “people of the Way” (Acts 19:23, 24:22) To be a way is to be a path, road, highway, or boulevard that must be traveled on. Christian faith is a way of life. Discipleship is a life-style, a way of life, a path of wisdom, a road that leads to life, a highway to a better relationship with God, a boulevard to holiness, an embodied knowledge of God. [8]The test of whether we are good or bad disciples is found in how we live and what kind of people we are in the depths of our being.

The Community of Jesus

Jesus did not just preach, teach, and do signs and wonders. Jesus brought people to himself and spent his earthly ministry in a small group of people he was actively discipling.Other religious figures have written books. Jesus did not. As Lesslie Newbigin puts it, “Jesus did not write a book but formed a community.” [9]Christ chose twelve ordinary people and lived in relationship with them for his entire earthly ministry. He also lived in close fellowship with a larger group of men and women with whom he shared his life and teachings (Luke 8:1-3; 10:1; 14:25). Their memories of him are contained in our Gospels. It was their memories of Jesus, and their time together in a discipling relationship, that propelled them to carry the Good News of his life, death and resurrection on a continuing journey to the ends of the earth as they understood it.

Jesus promised that, “where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them” (Matt. 18:20). If people are to meet Jesus, a group of people (disciples) must introduce potential disciples to him in a community in which Christ is present by the Holy Spirit.  If new Christians are to understand what it is like to be a Christian, they need to be mentored by people who are further along on the path of discipleship. People need to see what it means to be a Christian lived out in the day-to-day lives of other disciples. This involves being part of a fellowship that spends time in fellowship with one another and with God in Christ. It is so important for new believers to become part of a group of people who are seeking to follow Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Those who try to follow Christ alone, without belonging to his fellowship, and without accountability for their life of discipleship, almost inevitably fall short or fail. Those who belong to a fellowship of believers have a better chance of succeeding in the Christian life.

The way the early church grew was by reproducing in community and in individual lives who Jesus was and what Jesus had done while he was with his disciples. The book of Acts is the story of how, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter, Paul, and the other disciples lived as Jesus lived, did the kinds of things Jesus had done, and faced the same opposition and suffering Jesus faced. [10]

This is important. The best and most authentic way for the Kingdom of God to grow in is by ordinary men and women bringing people to Christ, calling people into authentic community, growing in discipleship together, training new believers “to obey all Christ commanded,” and continually reproducing this process through generations of people. The reason for the crisis of discipleship we face is that most believers either never know or have largely forgotten how to do the task of making disciples.

The Commission to Make Disciples

According to Matthew, when Jesus ascended into heaven he left his disciples with a job to do and marching orders to do that job. Matthew ends his gospel with an important commission for his disciples (and for us):

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” (Matthew 28:18-20).

Jesus did not say, “Go have huge worship services with big organs or praise bands.” Jesus did not say, “Go build large buildings in which many people can come for one hour a week.” Jesus did not say, “Go build impressive institutions to continue your way of thinking about God.” Jesus did not say, “Have wonderful programs for children and youth.” Jesus did not say, “Have a program for every sort of person in your community. Jesus did not say, “Support that party or social agenda that you believe most compatible with Christian faith.” He said, “Go make disciples.”

If there is a crisis in the church today, it is a crisis of discipleship. The church has been too concerned with worship services, programming, numbers, money, institutional maintenance, sustaining the American way of life, creating a moral majority, reforming government, and the like. Christians have not been concerned enough at what sits at the center of what we have been asked to do: Make Disciples. If the Christian community is to exit its current decline, it will not be because of large worship experiences, crossless sanctuaries, focus on technique, programs, consultants, fund-raising, or new and greater institutional capacity. It will be because ordinary Christians have rediscovered what it means to make disciples.

I do not watch much football. However, I have noticed that, when a team gets in trouble, the coach often tells reporters, “We are going to concentrate on the basics.” The church in the West is in trouble. If the church is to survive into the emerging postmodern world, Christians must, like a football team, turn our attention back to the fundamentals. We must concentrate on the ‘blocking and tackling” of the Christian faith, and the blocking and tackling of Christian faith is disciple-making. To recover from the current crisis, we must be about being and making disciples.

The slow process of one-by-one disciple-making will not immediately seem the most successful or swift solution to the problems our churches and society face. However, in the end, it will be shown to have been the best and only solution to the current decline of faith and practice in the West. As with all real change, it will begin slowly and silently, but in the end will be shown to be fruitful, not primarily for the institutions of Christianity, but for the changed lives and vibrant faith of Christians.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of DiscipleshipRev. Ed. (New York, NY: Collier Books, 1963). The book was originally published in 1937. Bonhoeffer wrote the book while a pastor in Spain after graduating from graduate school. In German, interestingly for the theme of this book, the title is literally, “The Act of Fallowing.” The theme of this book is that true Christian discipleship is following Jesus Christ, and the Great Commission of the church is to create followers of Jesus.

[2]Id, at 45.

[3]Bonhoeffer was executed on April 9, 1945 by order of Adolph Hitler, one of his last acts before his own suicide and death on April 30, 1945. By the time of his death, Bonhoeffer had been imprisoned since April 5, 1943, or just over two years.

[4]Id, at 47.

[5]Western popular Christianity, liberal and conservative, is addicted to just the kind of cheap grace of which Bonhoeffer warned.  Modern evangelicalism, in particular, has fallen victim to a popularization of Christian faith that focus on grace to the detriment of emphasis on the response to grace in faithful living.  Cheap Grace is everywhere the forerunner of a watered-down form of Christianity in which Christians, like the Corinthians of old, cannot tolerate the meat of the gospel, being addicted to the milk of salvation by grace alone (1 Cor. 3:2). One reason for this book is to encourage local fellowships of Christians in America and the West to begin to seriously build small groups of committed discipleships within their fellowships.

[6]Cost of Discipleship, at 47.

[7]A recent comment by a well-known mega-Church pastor is but an example. Since the time of the early heretic Marcion (85-160 A.D.), the church as always recognized the continuity and validity of the Old and New Testaments for Christian faith and practice. The difficulties are not new; they are as old as the Christian faith. It is easier to unhitch ourselves from the old testament than to learn to understand the way in which Christian faith emerged from First Century Judaism, incorporated the Torah into its emerging Scriptures, and to understand the depth of the inheritance Christianity has from the Jewish Scriptures. This is not said to enter into a debate with this or any other pastor, but to give a concrete example of the temptation to avoid the hard work of discipleship. See, Steve Warren, “Christians need to Unhitch the Old Testament from their Faith: Andy Stanley’s Sermon Draws a Backlash” CBS News.Com May 11, 2018, https://www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/us/2018/may/christians-need-to-unhitch-the-old-testament-from-their-faith-andy-stanleys-sermon-draws-social-media-backlash( Downloaded July 23, 2019)

[8]This embodied knowledge of God is what the Orthodox Church refers to as “theosis,” or becoming like God. If Christ is the image of God (Colossians 1:5), then in the process of discipleship disciples become like God by becoming like Christ.

[9]Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society(Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eardmans, 1989), 95, 227.

[10]The Book of Acts consciously or unconsciously shows the apostles recapitulating in their lives the same mighty deeds, messages of power, and persecution and rejection that Jesus experienced in his life.

Beginning a New Series on Discipleship

The Beginning of a New Journey

Several weeks ago, I mentioned that I would begin a new series of weekly posts after Labor Day. It is after Labor Day! For the next eighteen weeks or so, I am going to be posting essays that form chapters of a book I have been writing on discipleship. I solicit comments, suggestions, etc. This is probably as far as the project will go, but I am hoping that people will be energized and enlightened by the work. Good Reading.

In the 1930’s the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote a Christian classic, “The Cost of Discipleship” in which he spoke about the dangers of “Cheap Grace.” [1] Today, perhaps because the institutional churches in the West did not take seriously the implications of The Cost of Discipleship, Christians face a “Crisis of Discipleship,” which is the theme of this series of essays. As a friend put it to me recently, “We have already lost an entire generation in the Church, and we are in danger of losing another.” We cannot overcome our crisis of discipleship unless every Christian is motivated to be an authentic disciple of Christ, not simply a “believer.” For this to happen, the leadership of Christian congregations must take the Great Commission and discipleship training seriously.

My mentor, co-pastor, and friend, Dave Schieber, frequently repeats a refrain, “The Church is always only one generation from extinction.” [2] The church in the West is shrinking in numbers and influence. The impact of Christian faith in the lives of individuals and society has been dwindling for some time, longer than most people realize. Today, even so-called “evangelical” groups that grew rapidly during the post-World War II period, are shrinking in numbers and spiritual influence. The growth of larger, so-called “Mega-Churches,” has not prevented the decline, because much of their growth is from other Christian fellowships.  We are now within a generation of a collapse of authentic Christian faith and practice in America and the West.

Denominations, churches, pastors, and others have devised programs and strategies to stem the decline, with mixed results at best. The problem cannot be addressed effectively by worship strategies, programs or advertising savvy. It can only be addressed as individual Christians become committed disciples of Jesus, sharing God’s love with a broken world in obedience to the Great Commission.

My wife and I have a life-long interest in discipleship. Before we were married, she was in young adult discipling programs. We met in a small Bible Study of young people, who were new Christians or seeking God in some way. (I was one of the seekers.)  Over the last forty years, we have sponsored groups in our homes and churches. A few years ago, we published a practical study guide and workbook called, Salt & Light: Everyday Discipleship. [3] Salt & Light was (and is) an attempt to provide a simple lay-training method for Christians and local congregations to learn to make disciples in an orderly and effective way in contemporary culture.

The Great Commission was not given just to twelve first century people, professional clergy, and exceptionally gifted laypersons. All Christians are intended to share the Good News of Christ and make disciples of those who respond. Crisis of Discipleship: The Way of Love and Light for 21stCentury Disciple-makers(the name for this series of essays) builds on the practical guidance of Salt & Light, clarifies causes of the crisis of disciple-making, and shares a deeper theory to guide contemporary disciple-making, and Salt & Lightin particular. Hopefully, readers will understand the crisis of discipleship in the West and more effectively lead disciple-making groups as a result of these essays.

In successive essays, Crisis of Discipleship will look that the crisis of discipleship in our time, its causes, the culture from which the crisis emerged, and the challenges our culture poses for those sharing their Christian faith. Having set the stage for the current crisis, Crisis of Discipleship shares a Biblical understanding of how Christians can reach out and share their faith with others. All the essays address the implications of the Great Commission, which might be paraphrased, “Go everywhere and make disciples of everyone you are able, bringing them to faith and teaching these new disciples to follow the teachings of the Messiah, who will always be present with those who go about the business of making disciples.”

This series of essays is intended for any reader who wishes to learn more about the Way of Jesus and how to share it with others. The collection is not a theological treatise. It is a compilation of practical discipleship theory and practice. The essays are designed to help those who desire to understand the barriers our culture places in the path of those who desire to share the Way of Christ in the contemporary world. There will be a brief analysis of the emerging postmodern world—a culture that is rapidly becoming world-wide due to the globalization of Western, and particularly American, culture in the late 20thCentury. Once this has been accomplished, the goal is to speak of the way in which small groups of Christians can learn to reach out within their network of relationships and make a difference in the lives of people.

Please join with me in a journey and conversation as we seek to think about ways to communicate God’s love to others in our culture. Perhaps we can have some small amount of the dedication Paul reveals when he told the Corinthians, who were much like contemporary people”

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).

May the Lord bless and keep each reader.

Chris Scruggs

Labor Day 2019

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship Rev. Ed. (New York, NY: Collier Books, 1963).

[2] Dave embodies the relational mode of evangelism and discipleship that this book is intended to illuminate. He began with six persons and built Advent Presbyterian Church in Cordova, TN into a 1,500-member congregation all through a deep love for people and a willingness to enter into their world in a loving and wise way,

[3]  G. Christopher Scruggs with Kathy T. Scruggs, Salt and Light: Everyday Discipleship(Collierville, TN: Innovo Publishing, 2017). The book can now be advanced ordered.

Practice Makes Perfect (or at least Better)

Practice Makes Perfect (Or At Least Better)

Mark 6: 9-13

(This is a version of a sermon I have given in the past in Memphis and Ohio.) It has been posted here before in a different format. 

I recently up golf as a serious matter. I returned to San Antonio from helping a church in Ohio on March 1 this year.  Our family spent most of March and April welcoming a new grandchild and caring for her parents. In May, we had two graduations, and so our time was filled with more grandparenting and celebrating two new graduates.

On June 1, we began what I call the “Scruggs Golf Camp.” I can’t afford to spend a month at Hilton Head or Palm Springs, so my strategy was to watch videos and read golf books at night, and then put into practice what we learned the next day at the course or the driving range. We also needed lessons, so, my wife and I took a few.

Since June, I’ve played or been at the range every day, read books by famous golfers, and watched endless instructional videos. I am not good, but I am getting better. What does it take to learn to play golf? It takes study, observing golfers play, hours of practice at the driving range, playing several times a week, and swinging a club sixty to 100 times a day for a long time.

Golf is hard, but being a disciple of Christ is much harder. Like golf, faith is not merely knowledge in our heads. [1] If that is all it is, it is a dead or inadequate thing (James 2:7). In order to be active disciples of Jesus, we need to practice our faith daily. Furthermore, we don’t need to practice a little. We need to practice a lot—more than we need to practice golf.

The Disciples Practice Being Like Jesus

In our text, Jesus is traveling through the villages of the Galilee teaching (Mark 6:6). The disciples were in a kind of intensive Bible study and small group experience with Jesus—a kind of Christian golf camp. Day in and day out, they were with Jesus, watching Jesus, listening to Jesus, and sometimes running errands for Jesus. One day, Jesus was going to send the disciples to the ends of the earth sharing the Good News of the Kingdom and making disciples themselves. Therefore, he wanted them to practice being like him and doing the things he did.

Hear the Word of God as it comes to us from Mark 6: 6-13:

Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits.

These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts.Wear sandals but not an extra shirt.Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. 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.”

They went out and preached that people should repent.They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them (Mark 6:6-13).

Prayer: Eternal God, Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ: Come this morning and inspire our hearts to become more like you and to follow our Lord Jesus even when we must get out of our comfort zones to do so. In Jesus Name, Amen.

 We Need to Practice our Discipleship

The term “practice” means the practical application of an idea, belief, method, or knowledge. When we practice something, we repeat the action time and time again until we get good at it. This is why we speak of practicing medicine or law. Professions, like sports, are not just areas of intellectual knowledge; they involve practical application of knowledge as a skill. In practical matters, head knowledge is not enough. We have to practice.

Returning to my analogy between golf and discipleship, when I began to play golf, I could not just read about golf or watch Tiger Woods play golf. As great a golfer as Tiger Woods is, watching him play is not enough to become a good golfer. To become a good golfer, you have to play golf a lot.

Jesus knew his disciples would not get the business of making disciples right the first (or even the second, third, fourth or fifth time). He knew that their “spiritual swing” was not going to get better without practice. He knew that it would not be a good idea for him to do all the teaching, healing, and casting out of demons, and then one day, BANG, send the disciples to the ends of the earth (Matthew 28:16-20). Therefore, he trained the disciples and made them practice what he had been training them to do.

One Sunday day in 1977, I was walking by the pastors’ offices on a Sunday morning between services. Dick Drury, who was the young associate pastor in charge of evangelism in our church, called me into his office. He explained that he was scheduled to speak at the Star of Hope Mission in Houston that evening but could not make it. He asked me to speak for him.

I’d been a Christian only a short time. I can’t tell you how scared I was. That afternoon I wrote a sermon and practiced it as best I could. I didn’t have time to write it out. All I could do was an outline. Then, with fear and trepidation, in front of a bunch of drug addicts and drunks, I preach my first sermon. I even did my first altar call! For a Presbyterian, I was way out of my comfort zone. However, I would not be here today, if Dick had not then, and frequently thereafter, asked me to substitute for him at the mission. [2]

There is an important lesson here: We will never become the disciples Jesus calls us to be unless and until we get out of our comfort zone and put our faith to work. We need to put what we know about Jesus into practice. We need to be doers of the word in addition to hearers of it (James 1:22-25). When we do that, we will grow as disciples of Jesus. The best way to get out of our comfort zone is with other Christians, who can love and support us.

We Need to Practice as a Team

Jesus knew his disciples would have difficulty going on this first mission trip. He knew there were going to be times in which the disciples did not know what to do next. Therefore, he sent them out two-by-two. In other words, they went out in teams.

About a decade ago, our church realized that we needed to do a better job of evangelism. We initially did what good Presbyterians do: We formed a task force. Luckily, two of the people on the task force were in sales.  They really did not like long boring meetings, but they did not mind visiting with people. Therefore, they decided that what the group needed to do was to practice evangelism rather than just talk about evangelism. The group divided itself into smaller groups of two and three and visited every visitor to our church every Sunday afternoon. Guess what” We grew!

It’s important that we take seriously the example of Jesus and the disciples. Often, we think that we will someday engage in some ministry for Jesus when we have learned enough, when we have studied enough Bible, when we’ve become better Christians, etc. If we think that way, we will never go on a mission trip! We will never disciple another person. Part of learning is doing! We all need to go on training missions for Jesus. It may be as simple as making a meal for a sick neighbor and sharing God’s love or as hard as making a trip to a third world nation in a dangerous country. Where we go does not matter as much as that we go.

God Will Fill Us with His Spirit

In today’s text, Jesus commissions the disciples to go on a practice journey, and as he did so he blessed and endowed them with the power to face sickness, demons and evil. In other places, we learned that, when Jesus sent out the Seventy-Two, they returned with joy because the Spirit of God had been working in and through them on their journey (Luke 10:17).

One of the great promises we have from Jesus is that he will be with us as we go in his name (Matthew 28:20). This doesn’t just apply to people who go to Third World countries, although it does. It applies to us whenever we get out of our comfort zone. The promise applies when we pray with co-workers. Wherever we go, the Spirit of Christ goes with us. In fact, one of the blessings of putting our faith into practice is the joy of the Spirit we experience on the journey.

We Seek People of Peace

Many people have problems with the advice Jesus gives near the end of today’s passage. Jesus says to the disciples that, if they come to a place where they are not welcome, they should shake the dust off their sandals and go on (Mark 6:11). In the beginning, this statement seems harsh. In other passages, Jesus more clearly spells out what he is talking about. In some places Jesus is that we should look for people of peace as we go (Luke 9-10). People who welcome the Gospel are “people of peace.” [3]

Does Jesus mean that we should only go to obviously receptive people? No. In other places, and particularly in connection with the Parable of the Sower, Jesus makes it clear that we should always be sowing the gospel of God’s love for the world (Mark 4:1-21). We should sow the Word on rocky soil and on shallow soil. We should sow the Word among the thorns and in the deep soil. We sow everywhere.

However, once we are rejected, once we learn that the soil is hard, once we know that in order to continue on we would be interfering with another person’s privacy, we go on our way. This doesn’t mean we don’t come back to that person later. This doesn’t mean that, if the subject doesn’t come up for a while and then comes up again, we don’t repeat what we said before. It just means that we don’t force ourselves on other people; when we are rejected, we go our way and seek out people of peace.

God Will Provide the Harvest

When the disciples went out and preached the gospel, they did mighty deeds of power (Mark 6:13).  In the same way, when we go out with the power of the gospel, filled with God’s love, and share that love wherever we go, God goes with us and provides a harvest. It does not matter whether we go across the street, and a neighbor comes to Christ after many years, or whether we go to the ends of the earth and an entire people group are touched by the Gospel through our work. God provides the harvest.

That first night when I preached of the Star of Hope Mission, I gave the worst altar call ever given by anyone in human history. It was so clumsy that the men just sort of stared at me for a while. Then, perhaps because he felt sorry for me, one man came forward and then another. I really don’t remember how many came forward. But a few did. Let’s just suppose it only one of those stayed sober and turn their life over to Christ. My lost afternoon and busy early evening were worth it.

When we share with others the love that Jesus shared with us on the cross, when we give up a little bit of our safety and security to go out of our comfort zone and share God’s love, we receive the blessing of Christ. Along the way, the more we practice, the better disciples we will be.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a friend who plays golf to tell him that I was much improved. I am now terrible. Before, I was horrible. There is a saying among golf teachers that golf rewards the patient. Discipleship is the same. God blesses those who just go out day after day and put their faith into practice, doing a bit better that day.

Let’s go.

Amen

[1] Both the Greek and Hebrew roots for the words we translate “faith” in English connotes both faith and trust. Trust implies an action. We don’t trust by knowing or accepting somethings as true. We trust when we put our knowledge into action. I might think I know how to safely go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. I trust myself when I do it.

[2] For years I took the Sunday that was previously held by the Rev. Dr. Charles L. King, the long time and pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Houston, Texas  and a former moderator of the Presbyterian Church in the US (PCUS).  Then and now , I regarded as a great honor to follow in Dr. King’s footsteps.

[3] Evangelists, church planters and missionaries all speak about people of peace. Fundamentally, people of peace are those who are open to the gospel, respond with curiosity when approached about Jesus, listen attentively to the gospel, and then share that word with their own family and friends. The New Testament gives many examples: the twelve disciples responded to the call of Jesus. For example, the Samaritan woman listens to Jesus, responds, and tells her friends (John4:1-30).

What Do Wisdom and Golf Have In Common?

I am a very bad golfer. This is not surprising, since I seldom play golf and never practice. While I was in High School, my brother and I played golf just often enough to learn the basics of the game. I never played in college. Since college, I have only played occasionally in tournaments for various charities or church events. Even my closest friends do not like to play with me because I am terrible. My failures as a golfer are all traceable to a series of defects: I don’t regularly think about golf, learn about golf, practice golf, or play golf.

Golf is a skill, not a science. A person has to play golf to be good at golf. A person has to play with a variety of other people, watching how they play the game. A person has to practice driving at a driving range. Most of us need lessons from someone who has played longer and is better than we are. We call these people “Golf Pro’s.” They are really good, so good that they can make a living playing and teaching people to play golf. When you do take a lesson with a Golf Pro, you don’t go into a classroom. You go onto a golf course or a driving range.

Life is a lot more complicated than golf. Therefore, it should not surprise us that the primary way Americans train their young people to face the challenges of life—sending children to school—does not work well. Going to school gives a person mental skills and head knowledge. It does not teach a person how to live. In order to learn to live successfully, we need to be mentored by someone who has lived life successfully. Ideally, that person would be a parent, grandparent, or other person who loves us deeply and is willing to put up with our foolishness and failures until we can take care of ourselves. Children especially need more than teachers. They need “Life Pro’s.”

Along the journey of life, we all need to be mentored by “Life Pro’s” from time to time. We need to play the game of life for a time with someone who has played longer than we have played, is a better player, and can show us how to play the fame of life successfully. We all need mentors: in business, in family, in child-raising, in saving for retirement, and in every other area of life.

Trial and error, as important as it can be, is really not a good way to learn how to live. The problem with trial and error is that there are a lot of errors we can make. Some of them ruin our lives for a long time or even forever. A person who repeats every foolish behavior of human history in order to learn how to live will almost certainly never attain a happy life.

Just to give two examples: it takes the average woman five years to recover from a bad marriage and divorce—if they do recover at all. Assuming there were a few unhappy years before the divorce and for a period of time after the divorce, it means that the average divorcee suffers over ten percent of her life just as a result of a bad marriage. Better to have avoided the entire experience. In our church, we have ministered to more than one young person who ended up psychologically damaged as a result of a bad drug trip. Better to avoid mind-altering drugs altogether. (I avoid politics, but this casts grave doubt upon with wisdom shown by those states that are legalizing such drugs.)

Wisdom literature, and the historic way children were raised until the modern era, were based upon this single insight: Children need to be mentored by prior generations so that they do not repeat the foolish life damaging, happiness destroying mistakes past generations learned to avoid.

 

 

Transitions: Last Words as we Cross into the Future

How many of you have ever dived off a high dive? Do you remember the first time? I am not very coordinated and a bit fearful of heights, so I do remember that first dive.  I was also a lifeguard for a lot of years, and so I remember the look on many young faces. When you teach someone to dive, they begin on the low dive, move to the intermediate dive, and then eventually learn to dive off the high dive.

When your time comes, you begin by standing in line to climb up the ladder. You don’t really want to do it, but your mother, father, or instructor says you must. You also don’t want to wimp out and be embarrassed in front of your buddies or a girl you secretly like, so you reluctantly keep going up the ladder until it is your turn. After the long climb, you reach the last rung on the ladder, and the person before you dives off (hopefully not perfectly). You slowly and carefully walk to the end of the board, look down briefly (against good advice), pace back a couple of steps for the approach, then you pause, getting up your courage. Finally, you just close your eyes and jump.

Today is my last sermon/blog as the transitional pastor of Bay Presbyterian Church. Our theme is “Bridges” or crossing over into the future God has for us. As we prepare to cross the bridge into the future , some of us may feel like we are on a metaphorical high dive. Today, I have just a few last words for the congregation and readers, as we get ready to take our collective plunge into the unknown!

The Last Words and Challenge of Moses

Deuteronomyis one of the most interesting books in the Old Testament. It is the last book of the first five book of the Bible, what we call the “Pentateuch.” It was written as the Last Will and Testament of Moses, containing his last words to Israel. Moses, if you remember, was the founder of the Jewish religion, and their deliverer who led them out of captivity in Egypt. He led Israel for  forty years as they wandered in the wilderness because of their sin. By the time they arrived on the east side of the River Jordan, he was an old man, ready to die. Furthermore, due to an incident early in their wanderings, God advised Moses that he would not enter the Promised Land. [1]

Since coming to BayPres, I have joked a kind of half-truth: Like Moses, I am not allowed to enter the new future you will soon enter. I must leave. Two weeks ago, I let you know that, like John the Baptist, my joy is complete because the preparations for the future are finished, and the church is ready to cross into its future. All that is left are a few last words as this wonderful congregations enters into a new era.

Our text comes from Deuteronomy 30:11-19. Hear the Word of God this morning from the voice of Moses:

For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.

See, I have set before you today life and death, good and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.  But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess.

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore, choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them (Deuteronomy 30:11-20).

We are Able

I love this passage! As the scene is set, Israel is camped on the east side of the Jordan River. The people of Israel are about to enter the Promised Land. A new day is about to arrive. Their current leader, Moses, is old and about to depart. Moses cannot enter the Promised Land with the rest of the people and soon will die. Therefore, he calls the people together and gives them some last words to guide them as they enter the Promised Land.

You see, Israel is about to experience a great change in their national life. They’re going to have a new leader, Joshua. They’re going to be in a new country with unfamiliar people. They are going to be surrounded by people with different customs and religions. Moses wants to remind them what it is they must do to experience the blessings of God in their new situation.  [2]

Moses begins by recounting what God has done, the laws God has asked them to obey, the ceremonies God wishes them to perform, and he lets them know that what God is asking them to do is not too hard for them (Deuteronomy 1-30). God is able to bless the people of Israel and will bless the people of Israel—if they remain faithful and are obedient to the way of life to which God has called them. They are able to do that God asks. Whether they will be obedient or not is a matter of the heart. If their hearts remain centered on God, then they will be empowered to obey. The same thing is true for us.

There are times when we can misunderstand the impact of grace on our lives. God forgives us, restores us, and gives us new life because of his sheer unmerited grace. [3]  This does not mean that we will no longer experience the consequences of our behavior. I can be a wonderful Christian, but if I never save for retirement I’m going to be poor when I retire. I can be deeply committed to Christ, but if I drink on the job I will still get fired sooner or later. Grace does not eliminate the need for obedience and wise living. God initiates the Christian life by grace, but we are able to make our own choices and responsible for them!

The first part of our Mission Statement as that we intend to be a people Centered on Christ. This is important! If we’re going to have the heart of God, then we need to have hearts centered on Christ.  God’s grace is the foundation of our faith. Through Christ, God has rescued us from sin and death just as he rescued Israel from captivity in Egypt. However, we would be presuming upon God’s grace if we did not change as a result of all He has done for us in Jesus Christ. We are sinners. All of us are finite. We all need grace to become the people God calls us to be and accomplish all that God would have us to do. But we are able, and we are responsible to respond to God’s grace in faithfulness.

We Must Choose

It’s an interesting historical fact that the book of Deuteronomy was discovered in the temple late in the history of the nation (2 Kings 22-23; 2 Chronicles 24). They were already practically doomed to go into captivity. In addition, the book seems to have gained its importance after the captivity in Babylon, as people recognized that they had been unfaithful to God and had in fact received the judgment that Moses prophesied.

In what I think is the most dramatic part of today’s text, Moses gives the people a choice concerning their future and beseeches them to “choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:37). In early portions of the book, Moses has already prophesied that the people will be judged if they are not faithful to God. In today’s chapter he reminds them that they are capable of remaining faithful to God. They must choose to orient their hearts toward God and be faithful to the way of life to which they are called. Moses is reminding the people of Israel that they must choose God above all else!

This is important for us as well. We must choose whether or not we are going to remain faithful to the God that has brought us to this point of new life for ourselves, for our families, and for our church. We must choose Christ daily.

The words of Moses were delivered to Israel as a people. This reminds us that we are to be Shaped in Community. I’ve had an opportunity before to make this important point: if we do not gather together as the people of God in worship and in small groups, we are unlikely to continue to choose to follow the way of Christ. Jesus called the disciples around him and taught them in a community. Moses taught the people of God in the community. We must continue to be a part of that community to which we have been called.

No one is able to choose Christ all by themselves over the long run . We need one another. The people of God needed Moses, Joshua, and Godly leadership.  Just as importantly, they needed one another. We also need one another to be Shaped in Community to be the people we are called to be. I have watched many, many people fall away from Christian community and then end up also falling away from God.

Finally, as anyone who has been married knows, when we are part of a community, we all experience the blessings and suffer the failures of that community. This is true of families, churches, and nations. We both need one another and to some degree are responsible for one another. This is why Jesus reached out to those who had fallen away from God and told the parable of the Lost Sheep. Everyone is important in a community of Christ.

Blessings are a Matter of Obedience

Often, in a kind of simplistic way, the people talk about the Old Testament is being a testament of works in the New Testament of being a testament of grace. This is true. However, we need to understand that Grace gives us a heart for God and connection to God that enables obedience. We can’t live the Christian life without grace. We also can’t live the Christian life without being willing to walk in the way of Jesus.

This week, I  read one of the most famous stories Jesus ever told.  It is the story comparing those who build their lives on the rock of the Word of God and those who  build their lives on the sand of what how other people live and natural desires. The story goes like this:

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.  But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7:24-27).

We remember the distinction between the man who built his house upon the rock in the man who built his house upon the sand. We forget that this is how Jesus introduces the story: “Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like the wise man who built his house upon the rock”(Matthew 7:24).  A little bit earlier, Jesus tells his disciples in the gathered crowd that he did not come to abolish the law but to complete the law (5:17).

In other words, how much of the blessings of the Christian life we experience is dependent upon how much we open our lives to the transforming power of the Gospel of Christ,  the presence of the Holy Spirit, and then actually live out the Gospel in our daily lives. The word translated “law” in the Old Testament can also be translated “instruction.” It’s a fine distinction, but it’s an important one. God’s rules for wise living are not rules and regulations imposed by a heavenly bureaucrat to make us do things his way or else. They are gracious gifts to us so that we might experience the abundant life. [4]

Early in my ministry with you, I mentioned that the earliest name for the Christian faith is the “People of the Way” (Acts 9:2). The Way we are to follow is the Way of Jesus, who showed by his life what it is to live according to the instructions of God in the way God intended in the first place. The Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love, are a part of that Way of Jesus (I Corinthians 13:13). The fruit of the Spirit of joy, patience, kindness and self-control are a part of that that way (Galatians 5:22-23).

As a pastor, over the years, I have watched many people do harm to their own lives and the lives of their families by what I would call “presuming upon the grace of God.” These people, and many like them, are Christians, but they don’t necessarily live or act like Christians. They don’t manage their money like Christians. They don’t raise their children like Christians. They don’t conduct their family relationships like Christians. They are forgiven; but, they’re not transformed. In the end, these Christians don’t experience a quality of life any different than their next-door neighbor who has a different religion or no religion at all.

Jesus says that the wise man builds his house upon the rock of a relationship with him and of putting his words into practice daily. The wise man not only hears the words of Jesus the Messiah, but also obeys them. When we do,  we are like the man who built his house upon the rock. Our church, especially, should understand this truth: Faithfulness does not mean that we will not have problems. Human life is filled with problems. Faithfulness means that we are building our life on the rock of God’s wisdom and love for us, and we face the problems of life wisely with faith, hope, and love because of the foundation we have in Christ.

It’s a Matter of the Heart

The same God wrote the Old and New Testaments. In today’s text, God says that his commandments or not too difficult or beyond our reach. They’re not in heaven or in the depths of the sea. No, he says, the word is very it is in your mouth and in your hearts so that you may obey it.

The word of God made flesh is in the heart of every believer. What  God asks of us is not so high that we cannot reach it or so low that we cannot touch it. It is not so far away that we cannot find it.Today’s proverb for me was this from Proverbs 3:1-2, which reads:

 My son, do not forget my teaching,
    but keep my commands in your heart,
for they will prolong your life many years
    and bring you peace and prosperity.

By the grace of God, the Word is in our hearts, and will bring us blessing after blessing.

Today I leave you with these words: In a world that is constantly choosing death, choose life!

Amen

[1] Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land because of an act of disobedience to God during their wanderings. Instead of speaking to a rock to release water, he struck it in an act of anger against the people. This particular act of disobedience may not seem great to the reader, but it seems to have involved more. In any case, Israel felt the incident explained why Moses did not enter the Promised Land with them.

[2] My analysis of the book is based upon Peter C. Craige, “The Book of Deuteronomy” in The New International Commentary on the Old Testament(Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1976.

[3] One of the great reformation Principles is “Sola Gratia,” or “By Grace Alone.” We are not saved by good works. We are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). Israel did not deserve to be saved from slavery Egypt, God saved them by an act of sheer mercy.

[4] The law is not an imposed thing; it reflects the way God created the world and what makes life best. Wisdom literature and the law are really one thing: The gracious gift of God to his people. See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014).

Transitions: The Beginning of the Bridge

I have a friend who once said, “It’s always hard to live between the times.” Our nation, our economy, our politics, and our church are living between the times. We talk a lot about “postmodernism.” However, what we know as “postmodernism” is probably no more than the end of the modern world. We are entering a new age in human history, but we really don’t know where we’re going!  All the churches of the world are entering this new age, and all are struggling to discern how to adapt. Here at Bay Presbyterian Church, we are entering a new era in the life of our church family. Change can be a scary, and you may feel that way about your own family, career, and friends as you try to live in today’s world!

John the Baptist & Elijah

 One of the most interesting people in the Bible is John the Baptist. To understand John, we have to go back to the Old Testament. As we studied last month, the prophets foretold the coming of a Messiah. About 400 years before Jesus was born, the prophet Malachi prophesied that, before the Messiah came, the prophet Elijah it would return (Malachi 4:5-6). To fully understand this prophesy, it will help if we  know a couple of things about Old Testament history.

First, Moses, the deliverer of Israel from Egypt and founder of the religion of Judaism, prophesied that God would eventually send a greater leader than him for God’s people. The Gospel of Matthew reveals Jesus as the One Greater than Moses. He is the New Moses that will restore the story of Israel in a completely unexpected way!

Second, although we often think of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel as the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, the Jews thought of Elijah as the greatest of the prophets. [1] During the reign of the worst king of Israel, Ahab, and his wife, the evil Jezebel, the prophet Elijah prophesied mightily. He confronted the false prophets of the false gods of Israel and its evil king and queen. In the process he did mighty deeds of power.

The Ministry of John

Shortly before Jesus began his public ministry, his cousin, John the Baptist, emerged. John centered his ministry near where the Jordan River empties into the Dead Sea. He was a colorful character. He wore a tunic made of camel’s hair and ate locust and wild honey (Matt. 3:4). He probably lived close to Qumran.  This is where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the late 1940’s. He seems to have been influenced by the Essene sect of Judaism. His ministry included baptism. The Essenes were very concerned about ritual purity and practiced baptism in a major way. Those who have been to Israel may have seen a giant baptismal pool near  Qumran where a group of Essenes lived. They were strict followers of the Jewish law, lived extraordinarily holy lives,  and felt the Messiah would return soon. [2]

John was no respecter of persons. When the Scribes and Pharisees came to see him, he called them a brood of vipers, or poisonous snakes (Matthew 3:7). As you might expect, people came from all over Jerusalem and Judea, to see this dramatic, new prophet. The common people immediately saw John’s ministry as a fulfillment of the prophecy of Malachi that Elijah would return before the Messiah came, and Jesus confirmed their understanding (11:7-14).

The message of John was the message one would  expect of the New Elijah: The day of the Messiah is coming, and it is time to get ready! In Matthew, John tells the people that he is the one who was sent to “prepare the Way of the Lord” (3: 3). The way the people were to prepare was to repent, be baptized (or cleansed) from their sins, and be ready to welcome the Messiah with a clean heart. This is good advice for us as well.

For the last several years, our church has been preparing for a day that will soon arrive. We’ve been preparing for the time when we will be led by our new pastor. He will be moving to Bay Village late this month. Around March 1, our new pastor will be present on a daily basis, leading our congregation. We’ve already done a lot of preparation, but there’s just a little bit of preparation left to do.

A few weeks ago, we had an evening in which we talked about what we can do to welcome a new pastor. I believe the video can be found on our website, and it’s worth listening to. This morning I want to mention three things we need to remember:

  1. First, our new pastor does not know the 2,000 or so names of our members and regular visitors. It will take him a long time to remember all those names. Every time you meet our new pastor, please give him your name. Many of you have noticed that I’ve been here over a year, and I still don’t know everyone’s name on sight!
  2. Second, give the new pastor time to get established and get a sense of who we are and where we are headed. It takes time to get to know a congregation. Before you form an opinion, or make a request, give the new pastor a chance to get acquainted with the congregation. In a big church, this takes months—a year at least.
  3. Third, remember that, as hard as it is to be a new pastor, it’s even harder to be the spouse and children of a new pastor. Our new pastor’s wife and children are leaving behind their home, their schools, their friends, their existing relationships, and the church to which they are accustomed. Welcome them with open arms. Take time to get to know them! Help them make friends in our community! This is really important.

If you go onto our website, you will find additional suggestions. The bottom line is: share God’s love with our new pastor and his family just like you would with your best friend.

Part of preparation involves repentance. Before we can make Jesus our best friend, we have to repent (or turn away) from our sins. This is the first step in becoming a disciple, and it is a life-long process after we become disciples of Jesus. We need to get rid of all the things that keep us from being a child and friend of God (See, Genesis 18:16-19; 2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23).

Our new pastor is not God. However, there are some things we all need to remember to turn away from. Our new pastor had nothing to do with the past of our congregation. He is not like any leader of the past. We should not expect our new pastor to be like any former leader, and we should repent of any bad feelings we have against any former leader, whoever they may be. We also should not expect our new pastor to be like the leader from the past we like the best. The word “repentance” means “to turn away.” It means get healed. It means let bygones be bygones. In this context, “repent” means today is a new day and we need to make it a new day, free of the past.

If I can say a personal word: You all know that I love you. You know that I’ve been here for more than a year. I’ve heard every story anyone can hear.  The former leaders of this church were, whether you appreciate them or not, trying to do the will of God as best they knew how and were able to lead. They may not have led way we like; they may not have led the best way. But they were trying. They were human just like we are, and everyone makes mistakes. It is time to just let go and let God. God is in charge, and he can (and has) worked everything out for the good (Romans 8:28).

Every Beginning Means an Ending

You may have noticed that, unlike any sermon I’ve preached you before, we have not yet read the Scripture—and we’re almost finished! That’s because I saved the reading of the Word to the end this week. In all four Gospels, we learn about the ministry of John the Baptist. In John, we learn a new story. After Jesus began his ministry, the crowds that followed John began to dwindle. Some of John’s followers were distressed that this new guy on the block was taking away from the ministry of the old guy on the block. They came to John to complain. Here is what John said in reply:

“A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’  The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore, this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.”(John 3:27-30).

In order for Jesus to proclaim and enact the new era of human history that would begin with his life, death, and resurrection, it was necessary for John’s ministry to end. John knew this. He recognized that his job was to prepare the  way of the Lord. He knew his ministry was nearing completion. He realized that a new day was dawning, but could not fully dawn until his ministry ended. He was not sad. He was not depressed. He was not angry or resentful. He was filled with joy (John 3:29).

This reminds each one of us that there are times in our lives when we or those we love are going to go through a change and passing to a new time. This should be a time of celebration and the joy of a new beginning. Things are always changing, and the wise person learns to adapt and find joy in the past, present, and future.

I want to leave you this morning with the following: My joy is complete. It has been a great pleasure being with your church for the past fourteen months. Kathy and I have enjoyed getting to know you, and we love you dearly. When I came, however, I knew one day I would leave. The nature of transitional ministry is that you come, prepare the church for a new day, the day comes, and you leave.

Today begins a new time in my ministry with you. I won’t be in the pulpit often. From time to time, I may not even be in the city. It’s important that I make way for your new senior pastor. This is a gradual process that will last until the end of February.

Conclusion

As I close, I want to highlight a few things that are going to happen. I’m going to preach my last sermon on February 3. The following week, Jeff Jeremiah, the Stated Clerk of our denomination, is going to be our main preacher. Please be here for that day.  On February 17, John Murtha is going to share his thoughts on transitions. The last week in February, we are having a special, elder-led service as we complete our series on transitions. There are going to be other wonderful things happening during February.

The leaders of our congregation know that I’ve been teaching principles of servant leadership for the entire time I’ve been at Bay Presbyterian Church. Some of you know that I once wrote a book called, Centered Living\Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love. One of my favorite chapters contains the following:

“This is the way of the wise leader: accomplish a work, and then humbly withdraw and go on to whatever task comes next.”  [3]

Jesus knew this great principle. He gave his life for us, and then went on to what came next. What came next was the Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost, the world-wide mission of the Apostles, and a new day of Spirit-empowered ministry lasting until now. What is coming next for our church is a new, great day of Spirit-empowered ministry as we share God’s wisdom and love with everyone we meet.

It is to the Table of the One who loves us unconditionally, and who gave His life so that we could enter a new era,  become children and friends of God, and live with him forever, that we now come.

Amen [4]

[1] The story of Elijah is told in I Kings 17-through II Kings 2. See, Paul R. House, The New American Commentary on the Old TestamentVol. 8: “I-II Kings” (Nashville, TN: Holman and Broadman, 2003), 209-250. I cannot tell the great story of Elijah in this sermon, but it is a great tale that is important to understanding John the Baptist and his ministry.

[2] The Essenes were essentially a very strict monastic version of Phariseism. They practiced baptism, obeyed a very strict dietary code, and observed the law with great scrupulousness. See, Merrill F. Unger, The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary“Essenes” in R. K. Harrison, ed (Chicago, Moody Press, 1957). My description is drawn from this source.

[3] G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/Centered Living: The Way of Light and Love Rev. Ed. (Memphis, TN: BookSurge Publishing 2016), 18. This book is a Christian adaptation of the Tao Te Ching and is based on a meditative lifestyle and servant leadership. The book can be purchased from Amazon. BookSurge is Amazon’s publishing arm.

[4] I want to thank Elder and Member of the Pastoral Search Committee, Stacy Windahl for her reading of the first draft of this sermon and for her insightful comments, which I have tried to incorporate into the text. Stacy Windahl, Private Email (January 10, 2019).  I also want to thank Sharon Brumagin, who is the Bay Presbyterian Church Executive Director, and who gave me a copy of a book on transitions that has been extremely useful in thinking through the transition for Bay Pres. The book is, Tom Mullins, Passing the Leadership Baton: A Winning Transition Plan for Your Ministry (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2015).

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