(Santa is No Substitute)
I am not one of those people who are opposed to Santa Claus, the Christmas tree or the yuletide spirit. Personally, I think that it can be a wonderful thing when families and friends enjoy the American and European traditions of Christmas at this time of year. Our family has always had a tree in the house in the weeks before Christmas Day, and it would be a yearly event to decorate it and the rest of the house with all sorts of festive nick-nacks. Over the years, my kids enjoyed waiting for the coming of Santa on Christmas Eve and, on Christmas morning, opening the gifts left under the tree in his name. It is my belief that traditions are hard enough to come by as it is in early Twenty-first Century America. It would be a pity to lose these types of happy memories and excitement during the Christmas season.
However, it should be remembered that, for followers of Jesus, the focus of the season has always been the incarnation of the Son of God. The Christmas season is meant to be a strong object-lesson in God’s personal care and love for each of us since he made the unfathomable sacrifice and took the immense trouble to take on flesh and blood and live on this globe just as we do. The manger, not the fir tree, is the central symbol of what we celebrate.
Though the mixing of Christian and traditional elements in the same holiday is confusing to some, many people can maintain this dual celebration without much effort. The trick is to enjoy the trimmings without losing the focal point. So, let’s sing Jolly Old Saint Nick and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Let’s feast, send cards and decorate the house. But let us never forget to bow our knees in awe and with a deep sense of gratitude for the birth of God’s Son into the world. Without that, we would indeed be lost and hopeless. No amount of Yuletide cheer could ever substitute for the birth of the baby in Bethlehem!
If I have any regrets related to the years in which my wife and I were raising our four children, the biggest would be that I was not paying attention. Melinda has asked me several times in the past couple of years if I remember one incident or another in the lives of our children when they were small. My answer has sometimes been, “No, not really.”
Of course, she was much more focused on their day-to-day upbringing than I was. I was a busy solo pastor of a smaller church, trying to care for and build a congregation in the midst of acquiring property and constructing buildings. The truth is, I do remember many things about my kids from those days. They were cute and funny and we had some amazing and sometimes hilarious times. But my memories are in the form of snapshots, not video, and it is difficult for me to reconstruct some of what went on more than twenty years ago.
I was always focused on the future–the next Sunday’s sermon, the upcoming business meeting, the next step in the building program, dealing with someone’s urgent concerns, etc. The actual “now” was almost always sacrificed on the altar of the near or distant future. I suspect that my situation as a pastor is not all that different from many people whose lives are goal-oriented.
Recently, I have been in a minor crisis about God’s will for my life. For the past several years I have made my living as a part time adult ministries pastor, part time missions executive and part time college instructor. Talk about fragmentation! In all of this multi-tasking, I have begun to seek God’s will for a more focused future. I have prayed, “Father, which direction should I pursue? Where should I be five years from now (if you permit me to remain on earth that long)? What is the best use of my training, talents and experience?” Through months of prayer, I have received the same types of answers most sincere believers receive: impressions and difficult-to-interpret circumstances. This has led me to ponder the bigger question of what it means to live by faith in a providential God.
In this quest for personal direction, it has dawned on me that my need for more specific guidance is heavily influenced by my American culture. We Americans and other Westerners have come to believe that we have a certain right to know what is happening to us so that we can make informed choices affecting the outcome of our lives. After all, if we are going to be pursuing life, liberty and happiness it is important that we have at our disposal as much information as possible about what may lie ahead.
But as I have thought about it, there is really nothing in scripture which supports this assumption. On the one hand, in several places Proverbs teaches the wisdom of at least tentative planning. Yet on the other, James 4:13-16 plainly says that we are not to be presumptuous about either the ultimate wisdom of our plans or our ability to carry them out,“Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil.”
Scripture teaches that, though the making of goals is wise, goals should be made with enough flexibility so that God may direct us in ways we do not have the wisdom to plan for. Practically, this means that thinking about the future should never overshadow living in the present. The truth is, we do not know enough about God’s specific purposes for our lives to do that much advance planning. But we do know enough about God’s will to live full and abundant lives. Some things the Bible teaches very plainly and simply: we must honor God with the “now” each of us is given. We must love and bless people around us. We must fully enjoy God’s good gifts–family, friends, experiences, possessions. And any planning we may legitimately do for the future should be done with these very types of things in mind. In other words, we should get our neurotic fingers off the fast forward button and hit play.
If there is something which is almost guaranteed to horrify people in contemporary society, it might be the fear of missing out on some significant life-experience. The thought of going through one’s years without something which many others enjoy is a highly disagreeable one to most North Americans and Europeans. As a result, there is a frantic rush in our society to do all those things which are commonly accepted as making life worth living.
Parents, for example, are concerned that their children not miss out on the commonly accepted activities of childhood. As a parent myself (and now grandparent as well), I have always wanted my kids to have as many positive experiences and helpful tools as can be provided. Many parents share this seemingly legitimate desire. Hence we enroll our children in a myriad of sporting events, music lessons, clubs and enrichment activities. We take them to fairs and outings and spend a significant amount of money on vacations and educational events.
Or what about all the material possessions on the “must have list”? The newer car, the larger home, the more fashionable clothing, the more exotic vacation are always topics of conversation and comparison. For many people these things truly dominate mental activity. I also have experienced the gravitational pull of things on lists like this. I certainly wouldn’t make the claim that the things on such a list are necessarily wrong. Nice things are just that: nice things. To acquire some of them can be quite legitimate pursuits.
Even so, I am wondering whether this fear of missing out on something is in itself the cause of losing other, more lasting benefits. In our frenzy to acquire a chunk of the “good life” we may have lost sight of some of the things, which make life truly good. Consider this: The generations now coming into their own such as GenX (born after 1965) and the Millenials (born after 1985) have clearly had more advantages than any previous groups. At the same time, they are also the generations with the least amount of religious training of any kind. I should know: I have taught young people from these generational groups on a college-level for the past two decades in courses such as philosophy, world religion and western civilization. These younger people certainly have plenty of opinions. It is just that many times, they lack the factual framework and formal religious training on which to base a valid opinion.
I have also wondered whether there is any link between the trend away from religious training and the rising rates of teen suicide, drug use, sexual activity and alcohol abuse by these same generations. Or what about the broken marriages and disjointed lives, which are so common? How about the staggering numbers of lawsuits and the flood of recent legislation designed to ensure that people get what they believe they rightfully deserve?
Now contrast this picture with the profound inner peace, simplicity of lifestyle, and clarity of life-focus which are promised in the New Testament to those who fully put their trust in God. There is also the sense of relaxation about having the things needed for daily living, the ability to weather the storms of interpersonal relationships and the ability to bravely face the uncertainties of life. All of these things are offered to those who take up their crosses and follow Jesus.
Many people are missing these very things because of their desperate desire not to miss out on the “good things of life”. It would seem that the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:24 turn out to be right: A person cannot serve both God and mammon (riches). He or she will end up loving and serving one or the other, but not both (my paraphrase).
Missing out? The comparison of these conflicting pursuits begs an important question: Who is really missing out on things which are of true importance?
The New Testament Books by Category and Theme
The Synoptic Gospels
- Matthew: The gospel to the Jews
- Mark: The gospel to the Romans
- Luke: The gospel to the Greeks
The Supplementary Gospel. John: The gospel to the world
History. Acts of the Apostles: A record of the early Christian Church
- Paul’s Travel Epistles: Romans: Most comprehensive discussion of salvation; 1 Corinthians: Correction of Corinthian errors and divisions; 2 Corinthians: Paul defends his authority and concern for the Corinthians; Galatians: Salvation by grace apart from works; 1 Thessalonians: Clarification about the resurrection of believers; 2 Thessalonians: Clarification about the timing of Christ’s return
- Paul’s Prison Epistles: Ephesians: The Church as a united new people in Christ; Philippians: Joy at Christ’s presence through adversity; Colossians: Warnings against participation in heresy; Philemon: A personal letter to Paul’s friend about Onesimus
- Paul’s Pastoral Epistles: 1 Timothy: Instructions to Timothy about Christian leadership; Titus; Titus is instructed to set standards of sound doctrine and good works; 2 Timothy: Paul’s final words given to Timothy
- Miscellaneous Epistles: Hebrews: Christ is superior to the Torah (Mosaic Covenant); James: Practical issues for Christian living; Jude: God’s judgment on false teachers
- Petrine Epistles: 1 Peter: Courage under suffering; 2 Peter: False teaching is strongly condemned
- Johannine Epistles: 1 John: Warnings against Gnostic teachers; 2 John: Cooperation with false teachers is forbidden; 3 John: Cooperation with teachers of the gospel is commanded
Apocalypse: Revelation: Preparation for Christ’s return
How to Diagnose and Resolve Christian Conflict
This article is dedicated to all the dear servants of Christ who have encountered difficult people in their churches and organizations. I have often thought that there might be some type of special recognition, among the rewards Jesus will bestow when his Kingdom comes in its fullness. Maybe a sort of ‘purple heart” will be given to his servants who have been wounded in the line of duty. Whether this is the case or not, Hebrews 4:13 promises that nothing will remain hidden. God knows all and will not fail to deal with every deed: good or evil.
The truth is that most interpersonal problems in churches result from misunderstanding and poor communication. Such problems can be solved by cutting other people some slack, taking the trouble to talk things out and affirming one another ‘s faith. However, there are those problems which are not caused by simple miscommunication. So, let me list a few basic categories of folks who typically cause confusion and hurt within the body of Christ. Before I do so, I must acknowledge that this list is a huge oversimplification of reality. However, its value lies in this very oversimplification. Understanding some basic things at work when people get hurt among groups of Christians can help Christ’s servants cope when they find themselves the target of attack or caught in the crossfire of controversy.
The Clueless Christian. Bless their hearts, there are those people in most churches who are not fully aware of the feelings of those around them. They may be unaware that their words and actions are having a negative effect on the people they associate with and hindering Christ’s work. Because of this, they often find themselves unintentionally offending the people they worship and fellowship with and quite surprised at the reaction they receive. People who have known these folks for awhile may often say things like, “Oh, that’s just the way he is.” or “She doesn’t mean any harm.” The best way to cope with such people is to develop a tough skin to their insensitive behavior.
At the same time you should consider your role in making them aware of how their behavior affects you and others. Proverbs 12:15 provides some guidance when it says, “The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise man listens to advice.” You will soon know which type of person you are dealing with if you fairly and lovingly approach the person with how their words and actions are perceived. It may be that you will of great help to them in realizing what is happening and altering their way of dealing with people. If offending behavior persists, even after your loving efforts to deal with it, the person may need to be given opportunities to serve in way which minimize the damage caused by their words and actions.
The Mean Christian. It is sad to say, but there are people in churches who seem to derive some sort of satisfaction from demeaning others. Motives are always very difficult to discern, but it may be that at least some of these disagreeable people are attempting to bolster their own egos by tearing down people around them. They may be perpetually insecure or angry. They may have a grudge against a particular individual or a certain type of person. These folks will eventually build a reputation of being hard to work with, grumpy and just plain ornery. They may even have a handful of people around them who are impressed with their ability to achieve goals and who don’t seem to mind the difficulties of associating with them.
The remark often made about such people (out of earshot of course) is that someone ought to stand up to them. The reason people hesitate to do so is that most church folks desire to be agreeable and are intimidated by the prospect of a confrontation which almost certainly will not be received graciously by the difficult person. Indeed, if you are of the strong opinion that such a person should be lovingly confronted, it may be your privilege to do so. If so, be sure to spend time in prayer and confession of your own sins as well as receiving impartial (and confidential) counsel before proceeding. Matthew 18:15-17 gives the procedure for handling this type of thing. Again, if the personal interaction does not work, leadership may need to become involved. This will depend, of course, upon the magnitude and scope of the damage being caused by the individual in question.
The Divisive Christian. Some folks aren’t so much mean or clueless as they are intent on creating controversy. They may actually be quite charming and agreeable while fomenting confusion and creating parties within the church. I will mention doctrinal and stylistic divisions in later paragraphs. What I am thinking of here is the person who through comment and innuendo, fans the flames of hurt and jealousy between people for the very purpose of creating factions. This person thrives on the manipulation of people in order to divide the otherwise harmonious body of Christ.
I am reminded of James 3:5-6, which says,” Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” In some ways the divisive person is far more dangerous than either the clueless or the obviously mean person. He or she can cause extensive damage to a church or organization through gossip and suspicion before anyone in leadership is aware that a situation exists. This type of person must be dealt with immediately by appropriate leaders .
The Agenda-Driven Christian. Unlike the person whose main motivation is the creating of factions, the agenda-driven person is bent on achieving a particular goal. In the process, he or she may gather followers, devise a plan and pursue a course of action in order to accomplish the desired objective. Goals can include issues related to church facilities, styles of music, controversy over current leadership and many other possible scenarios. Often this will mean that factions will arise based on their stance toward the agenda being pushed.
Agendas are not necessarily bad things. Sometimes these folks are of a visionary nature and feel strongly about a certain policy or direction for the church or organization. The problem comes when the normal, reasonable give-and-take within the body is replaced by a determination to achieve the goal without consideration for others. Philippians 2:3 puts it like this: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” The ideal would be to achieve some biblical and reasonable compromise which meets the needs of all concerned. Otherwise the situation quickly becomes divisive and counter-productive.
The Purist Christian. Ah, the righteous remnant! The truth is, I appreciate these dear people very much. Many of them are sincerely dedicated to the teachings of scripture and to the Kingdom of God. They love the Lord and want to please him in every area of their lives. I affirm their devotion and assume their motives are good. Yet, they can create tremendous havoc among God’s people through their uncompromising stand on what theologians call the second and third tiers of doctrine. Here I am not talking about the deity of Christ, the inspiration of scripture or the Trinity, etc. I am committed to what I believe are the clear teachings of scripture on these “first tier” doctrinal issues. I also have my views on second and third tier doctrines. My purist friends, however, don’t share the viewpoint that, while first tier doctrine is non-negotiable, the less central teachings of the Bible, and especially those for which biblical arguments can be made from several doctrinal positions, should not become issues for accusation and disrespect within the body (Romans 14:4-5).
What to do about the objections and commitments of the purists? I keep coming back to the word ‘reasonable’. One would hope that, even among those committed to having Christian truth taught correctly and in detail (as they understand it), there would still be some reasonability toward the legitimate views of others. Of course, some reasonable purists do exist. These folks are able to balance their personal convictions with the concern for the views of other sincere believers within the congregation.
In my experience, however, true purists come up short in the reasonability category. To them, holding fast to some interpretation of the timing of Jesus’ return or some point of view about how believers should relate to the wider culture is of equal importance with the doctrine of Christ’s deity. It seems to me that the best scriptural guide in situations like this is found in 1 Corinthians 10:28, which says in part, “…For why should my freedom be judged by another’s conscience?”. It is ultimately unwise to allow someone whose conscience is weaker on a variety of issues to set the agenda for an entire body of believers and to insist that everyone else conform to their scruples. Giving into them for the sake of appeasement is, in effect, to hand them the agenda. It only encourages such folks to take a stand and force an issue every time something is said or done of which they don’t approve. In that situation, churches spend a disproportionate amount of time and energy dealing with matters of conscience, often with little remaining for constructive things.
The Annoying Christian. Then there are people who sort of rub you the wrong way. It is hard to say just why they do sometimes. It could be that your personality is opposite to theirs in many respects. They may come from a culturally different background from yours. You may think they talk too much, or that they are stuck up, or that they crave being the center of attention. As much as the behavior of certain people bothers you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a substantial problem. It may just be that you don’t hit it off together. As far as I can tell, there is no place in scripture which commands that believers like one another. There are plenty of places where we are commanded to love one another, but love and liking are not the same thing at all. Consider the words of Ephesians 4:2, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” The bottom line is that you just put up with some folks in Christian love.
It is my hope that this brief overview will be helpful to those facing difficult people in their churches and Christian organizations. There is no easy or fool-proof methodology, but perhaps knowing what may be driving various types of people will be a help. Then trusting God to work through us as we follow the mandates of scripture will be a bit easier.
Europe from Rome to the Renaissance
The Middle Ages are also sometimes called the Medieval Period of Western Civilization from medium (middle) + aevum (age). The Medieval Period extended from the late 400s to the late 1300s CE (around 900 years). Medieval civilization was created by a combining of three primary elements: Judeo- Christian religion and values, Classical (Greco-Roman) civilization and barbarian culture. To a lesser extent, the neighboring cultures of the Byzantine east and Islam also made contributions to Medieval Civilization.
The Fall of Rome. Roman Civilization began to deteriorate from about 200 CE onward, though in the Fourth Century (300s) there were several successful turnarounds of this trend. In the late 400s the weakness of the Empire, caused by corruption and various other stresses, combined with barbarian pressure from the northeast, culminated in a catastrophic collapse of the Roman government. The eastern portion of the Empire continued until the 1450s as the Byzantine Empire with its own Greek-based civilization.
The Dark Age. The collapse of Roman civilization in western Europe was followed by a Dark Age of barbarian invasion, settlement and supremacy, lasting around 300 years. The new barbarian kingdoms included Visigoths (Spain), Ostrogoths (Italy), Lombards (Italy), Franks (France) and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in Britain. These Germanic kingdoms all eventually converted to Catholic Christianity and formed an alliance with the Church. The main civilizing factors during this dark period were the Christian Church and the manorial system.
- The Church preserved learning and the arts, mainly in the cathedral cities and in monastic houses, which began to form after the year 500. It also supplied strong leadership and organization during the dark years of chaos and deterioration.
- Manorialism was built around the nucleus of wealthy and powerful estates, called manors, which usually contained a fortified villa and surrounding lands with the associated industries. Together, these elements formed a unit which was virtually self-contained.
The Holy Roman Empire. The Frankish kingdom which replaced much of the former Roman province of Gaul, was at first ruled by a line of kings founded by the warlord Clovis and known as the Merovingian Dynasty.
Several centuries later, the Frankish kingdom became the model for the formation of medieval Europe through the leadership of Charles the Great. Charles conquered the nearby lands of the Lombards and Saxons as well as aiding the Christian rulers of northern Spain in pushing the Muslims further south. He was an able administrator and kept his diverse kingdom together through tight organization and supervision. Charles fostered a renewal of the arts and learning, known as the Carolingian Renaissance. For his successes and service to the Church, Charles was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in the year 800.
Charles’ success in reuniting a considerable portion of Rome’s former territory caused some people to hope that Rome could be revived permanently. Charles’ Holy Roman Empire began to weaken, however, during the final years of his reign and, in the time of his grandsons, was divided into three portions. In the late 800s the Carolingian attempt at reviving Rome’s empire was much reduced and fragmented, so that by the Tenth Century, Europe was again in survival mode as Magyars, Turks and Vikings raided, settled and spread havoc.
In this new situation, leadership was not provided by kings, but by local nobles who ruled their domains semi-independently. The exception to this rule was Tenth Century Germany, where Otto I dominated his nobles and recreated a version of the Holy Roman Empire for a time, until the nobility was able to re-assert control over their own domains.
The system under which order was established and maintained is known as feudalism. Lords awarded portions of land, called fiefs, to noblemen in exchange for oaths of loyalty and service. These men were called vassals and ruled their fiefs and the serfs (peasants and common people) living on them. Noblemen often served as heavy cavalry, or knights, in the service of a lord or vassal. In time, knights developed a code of warfare and behavior, called chivalry (the code of the horseman), in which the ideal Christian gentleman lived in courtesy, honor and religious devotion.
The High Middle Ages. By the Eleventh Century, strong leadership and stability began to re-emerge in several places, notably France and England. For example, in 1066 Duke William of Normandy invaded Britain and conquered the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom, making himself king. He awarded fiefs to his Norman and French knights, largely replacing the Anglo-Saxon nobility. His strong central government made Norman England the most stable kingdom in Europe.
The time between 1000 and 1300 are often thought of as the High Middle Ages. During these years, kings and nobles provided enough stability so that people could think beyond simple survival. New land was reclaimed from swamps, forests (and in Holland, even from the sea). Agricultural production increased. Trade flourished. Trade guilds were formed to regulate commerce and ensure the rights of merchants and tradesmen. New products were introduced from the Middle East and beyond. Large annual trade fairs were established throughout Europe. Coinage began to replace barter as the means of exchange. Castle building made attacks on neighboring lands difficult and costly. Technology advanced, along with basic civic planning.
During this time, the Papacy and the Catholic Church rose to a height of power and prestige. Popes and clergy could enforce their will upon nobles through the threat of excommunication. From Rome, the Vatican administered a vast empire including most of Western Europe. Gothic architecture expressed worship through ambitious new designs and building techniques. Catholics from across Europe were able to unite around the common venture of the Crusades (1099 – 1297).
Scholasticism. Re-contact with the Byzantine East and the Muslim world during the Crusades, the writings of the ancient Greeks, especially Aristotle, were re-discovered, studied and debated. Scholars were attracted to the life of learning, centered around major cathedrals. This advance in scholarship developed into scholasticism, which attempted to understand and explore all subject areas under the guidance of theology. Jewish scholasticism (Maimonides) and Muslim scholasticism (Averroes) interacted and argued with Catholic scholastics, like Thomas Aquinas, over the meaning and application of Aristotelian thought to contemporary issues. Christian scholastics debated whether Aristotle and other Greek thinkers could be helpful (or even compatible) with Christian thought and teachings. Major universities, such as Oxford, Cambridge and Paris were founded through the work of the scholastics.
During the High Middle Ages, feudalism began to lose its important function as the basis for society. Cities were re-invigorated and began to expand. Peasants began to leave the land, moving to cities to find a new life. Strong kings and nobles could afford to raise standing armies through tax revenues. This allowed kings to be less dependent upon vassals for military support, enabling them to gain greater control over their domains.
The Late Middle Ages. The Fourteenth Century saw several setbacks to the progress of the High Middle Ages. The Hundred Years’ War between England and France (1337-1453) drained both countries of resources. The ravages of the Bubonic Plague (1347 – 1350) killed between a quarter and a third of Europe’s population. These things, along with series of serious natural disasters, caused the population of Europe to decrease and social progress to slow down drastically.
In this period, the power of the nobility was reduced as kings imposed their will and made alliances with the merchants of the growing middle class. These strong central governments gave rise to the nations of modern Europe. At the same time, the power and prestige of the Papacy was damaged by popular reaction to the set-backs of the later crusades and by the refusal of kings to be intimidated by Vatican threats of excommunication. Movements like the one led by Francis of Assisi to criticize the wealth of the Catholic Church, began a rethinking of Christian practice and church allegiance. The revival of the classical viewpoint known as humanism began to take hold in the universities and other places as theological views were questioned and debated. This would give rise to the humanistic Renaissance beginning around 1400 in Italy.
The Middle Ages came to a close through the innovations of Renaissance, the discovery and exploration of the Americas and the drastic rethinking of Christianity in the Protestant Reformation. By the mid 1400s, with the Renaissance in full bloom, the Middle Ages would effectively come to an end.
Maybe you are like me in having attended dozens of evangelism training sessions over the years. I have both learned and taught the Four Spiritual Laws, The Bridge, Steps to Peace With God, Evangelism Explosion and a number of other methods and approaches. Each of these tools may have its merits, especially in focusing the content of the gospel on Jesus and a person’s response of faith in him. At least in the circles I travel in, there has been a substantial amount of talk about what we say to people. My concern lately, however, has been with the equally important issue of how we meet and relate to the people we desire to share this message with.
Along with my pastoral ministry within the church, it has been my privilege to have the opportunity to be involved in many community activities. For many years, I have also taught part-time in a couple of universities and a community college in my area where I have met literally hundreds of students from nearly every walk of life. This experience has resulted in some pretty seasoned views about how to relate to people as a genuine Christian. So, here are some things to keep in mind as you meet people who do not openly profess the Christian faith.
- First don’t assume that, because a person is not actively attending an evangelical church, he or she is automatically an unbeliever. Some Christians have become inactive in their church life or in personal walk due to a variety of circumstances, including: moving to a new city, a change of work schedule, a lapse in personal routine or spiritual discipline, a separation from an important spiritual influence, such as a parent or a much-respected Christian friend, being hurt by other Christians, etc.
Before I go on, let me speak to the issue of church category. Again, simply because a person attends a church which is not similar to yours, it does not necessarily mean that they are involved in a compromised form of Christianity. There are genuine believers in the biblical Jesus in a variety of churches, which may be somewhat different from your own.
- Secondly, when relating to those who do not profess Christian faith, don’t set up an “us and them” situation in your mind. Remember that Jesus spoke with all sorts of people without seeming to categorize them as religious or non-religious. He told some of the most unlikely people that they were very close to the Kingdom of God (Matthew 21:32), while people who were outwardly religious were told they could not even see the Kingdom unless they experienced radical inward change (John 3:3). People are generally offended by being classified and they are usually pretty quick to sense that, from your perspective, they are “outsiders”. The truth from God’s perspective is that some people we might not ever suspect are only a step or two from eternal life.
- Learn to genuinely appreciate and enjoy people for what they are. Notice I didn’t say you must accept everything about them or even befriend every person you meet. Obviously some people will be more likeable to you than others. The point is, that the first step in receiving a fair hearing as you share your faith in Jesus (as well as in expressing other values and commitments which are very dear to you), is to treat a variety of people with a common level of appreciation and respect. If you are willing to like people you meet, that usually comes across clearly to most reasonable folks. People like to be liked.
- Not everyone is reasonable. A certain percentage of people don’t have either the personality, emotional stability, mental clarity or maturity of character to give you a fair hearing. (By the way, this includes committed Christians.) There are people who are generally angry and take it out on those around them. Others may have met someone in their past whom they came to dislike intensely and who seems in their mind to be like you. There are judgmental people; cruel people; argumentative people; mean people; fearful people; manipulative people—I could go on. Just get used to the idea that, willing though you may be to like those you meet, not everyone will return the favor.
- As a professed follower of Jesus, you represent him. No one alive now has ever seen Jesus. We read about him in scripture or are taught in church and get an understanding of who he is in that way. But at the present time, his followers act as his visible body. Like it or not, as the hands and feet of Jesus, people look at you and see him. This truth speaks volumes about how we behave ourselves: how we think and speak and act. In other words, how we live as followers of Jesus is at least as important as the words we say about him or how we say them.
- When someone does show an openness to you and your faith, you may want to extend an invitation to attend a situation in which they can observe believers acting like believers under the influence of God’s word.
o An invitation to a church service is an easy entry-point. In many churches on Sunday morning, visitors are not be singled out or embarrassed, but can sit and simply observe while at the same time being exposed to scripture and the gospel.
o Perhaps a special event will be of particular interest to them. Care groups, programs for their children, women’s and men’s groups and activities, as well as youth events are all options which may meet a certain need in their life.
o Maybe the best option is to offer a chance to spend time together with you. Something as simple as a cup of coffee and some conversation for a few minutes can develop into a friendship, which can lead to a deep sharing of the Christian faith. It goes without saying that it is usually best for men to befriend men and women to befriend other women. Don’t forget that the gospel is all about transformation of life from the Kingdom of Darkness into the Kingdom of God’s beloved Son (Colossians 1:13-14). As a friend, your own story will be of great interest to them and perhaps of deep influence on them.
With these reminders clearly before us, sharing Christian faith in the postmodern culture of the Twenty-first Century does not have to be intimidating. In fact, it can be a hugely rewarding experience and a stimulus to growth in areas we may have yet to experience.
At some point in life, everyone gets hurt. Maybe a friend has wronged you by saying something negative behind your back. It could be that you have been cheated in business, or in some way treated unfairly by a neighbor or family member. Inside, there are feelings of frustration and anger. You may go through a period of feeling as though your heart could break. You desire retaliation; justice.
Although such feelings are common, they are not the best way to respond. In fact, the Bible says much about how to react when you are wronged. Let’s examine scripture in light of some very common approaches to being wronged.
Some people suffer in silence. Instead of doing anything at all, they just stew in frustration. Before long, unresolved frustration and hurt can turn into bitterness. When this happens, it is usually the bitter person who is hurt most. Proverbs 19:11 speaks to this approach, saying, “A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is his glory to overlook an offense.” If you can simply forgive and forget a wrong, it is to your credit and can prevent much self-inflicted heartache later.
Another approach to being wronged is to complain to a third party. Hurt feelings desire sympathy. An offended sense of justice seeks allies. Often people justify involving other people because they feel the need for someone to talk to. Sometimes there may indeed be a need for godly advice. However, when a third party is brought in only to reinforce your side of things and share your anger, the outcome is unproductive. Proverbs 17:9 says this: “He who covers an offense promotes love, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends.” It is not a wise course of action to involve people in a matter which does not directly affect them.
Other people desire retribution. They seek justice as they conceive it applying to their particular case. If they have been hurt, they desire the offender to suffer as well. If they have lost something valuable, the one who caused its loss should be punished. This may go well beyond a sense of fairness, becoming vengeance, in which punishment is beyond what is normally called for and results in severe damage to the offender.
Jesus said in Matthew 5:38-42 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” In Jesus’ profound understanding of God’s will, love trumps justice. Reconciliation is better than vengeance.
None of these responses really achieves either the purposes of God or the very best for the person who has been wronged. These things are achieved through following Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 18:15. “If your brother sins against you go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.” In other words, God’s way of bringing blessing to both parties is for the offended person to seek out the offender in order to work toward reconciliation. Here are some of the amazing results of such a course of action:
- It prevents a relatively small issue from developing into something very serious.
- It keeps the situation from involving those who are not directly related to its resolution.
- It can begin the healing of major hurts and begin the resolution of serious damages.
- It may lay the foundation for a new and deep relationship with the offender.
- It always results in a clear conscience for the one who genuinely seeks to honor God and be a source of reconciliation.
As long as I am making lists, here is some further biblical advice for when you seek resolution.
- Go in humility. Remember, there may be a point of view to the situation you have not yet considered.
- Go determined to seek true justice. If you have been a party to the wrong, admit it and ask for forgiveness. If restitution needs to be made, do your best to make it.
- Go in love. That is, never go to the person with the sole idea of setting them straight or giving them a piece of your mind. Certainly never seek the humiliation of others. Rather seek the wholeness and welfare of all concerned. If you do, you will be like God because that is how he deals with us.
One more issue remains to be mentioned: what if your efforts are not well-received? If you truly have made the effort to seek peace and reconciliation, then the problem is not yours. You cannot force others either to forgive you or to admit their wrong. Pray for them and continue to be open for reconciliation should circumstances and attitudes change. You will have one very precious thing regardless: the deep satisfaction which comes from having done things God’s way.
As a pastor, I frequently meet people who once had some connection with Jesus and his Church, but who for some reason have been out of touch for some time. In some circles these people are called backsliders. Other groups refer to people in this situation as “out of fellowship” or “lapsed”. In my experience there are a surprising number of such folks.
I suppose that people drop out of Christian faith, or at least the practice of it, for a variety of reasons. It is common these days for many people to have to work during the times when churches normally hold their services. When there are few opportunities for Christian fellowship, it is easy to see how people become sidelined. Other reasons for a cooling off of Christian practice could include personal difficulty, hurt feelings caused by other believers, a change of priorities, or just plain disillusionment and apathy.
Folks who find themselves adrift from their faith often experience guilt, embarrassment and despair. Some have been away from Christ for so long that they have given up hope of ever returning. Is there hope for such people? Certainly. Here are some ways to get back in step with Christ:
First, admit where you are. Face the fact that you have dropped out and need to return to the source of your true life. In Bible terminology this is called repentance. It doesn’t mean you have to promise never to stray again or to become a model Christian. Just tell God that you have been wrong and that you want to come back. But the first step is to face where you truly are without excuses.
Ask God for help. Prayer does make a difference. If it is a time issue, tell God about work schedule. Ask him to work on changing it or to provide opportunities for fellowship and growth in other ways. If broken relationships are behind the estrangement, appeal to God to smooth hurt feelings, forgive those who have wronged you, rearrange your priorities or give perspective. If you have found yourself in new and unfamiliar surroundings, ask him to direct you to a church or fellowship in which you can be nurtured and in which you can serve others effectively.
Make yourself accountable. Find another Christian who has personal integrity you can trust and who will have both courage and compassion to ask hard questions and expect straight answers. You may fool yourself with creative justifications of your attitudes and behavior, but it is more difficult to fool someone wise who knows you and cares about you.
Let bygones be gone! If dropping out resulted from someone’s wrongdoing, work through it and move on. Why should the past ruin your present joy? Why should someone’s sin hinder you from doing right? Do you think God is impressed with excuses which put blame on others for your own choice to abandon the God who has demonstrated his love for you by sending his Son to die on your behalf?
Serve. There is no better medicine for recovery and progress in spiritual growth than consistent Christian service in an area which you find fulfilling. Try some things until you find something that is regular, fits your talents and gifting and results in the kinds of goals you are energized by. Make sure that what you are doing benefits people and honors the Lord Christ, whom you serve.
Yes, there is indeed hope for those who have dropped out of active Christian faith. Reasons need not matter. Years don’t have to hold you back. Prodigals can come home. The point is, are you willing? An old Chinese proverb says, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Take that first homeward step and before long, the prodigal will see the Father’s welcoming smile.
(Written by Ken Johnson) I once received the compliment, “You are the best recruiter we have ever had.” I honestly was pretty surprised about that statement. I didn’t believe I did anything particularly revolutionary…or do I? As I thought about it, perhaps I do things a little differently. To begin, remember the three R’s of recruiting: Relationships, Right fit, and Rhythm.
Relationship. I always seek to recruit out of relationship. Truly, all of ministry is relationship, but recruiting especially so. I know that in order to have an effective ministry I need to be in relationship with every person who works directly under me. This will vary for each person and each ministry dependent upon size and structure. Large programs (over 200 volunteers) will require leaders to be in relationship with key leaders. Small programs (under 100 volunteers) will allow the leader to be in contact with every person.
In my current setting, my program is just the right size to be able to have an adequate relationship with each person who serves in my ministry. I know each person’s name, family background, and ministry area. For some I even know hobbies, joys, and past experiences. This is invaluable as I seek to either affirm what they are doing or recruit them to move into a new area of ministry. Without that relationship, I am either a voice on the phone or a face up front making an announcement. With that relationship, I am a person who cares about them and their real felt needs.
As my program expands, the direct relationships will be strained. My focus will have to shift from my direct volunteers (i.e. Sunday School teachers) to my immediate volunteers (i.e. service coordinators). These people will then pass on the relationship to those who serve under them. They will be required to know every person in the same capacity I currently do. The relationships that they develop will empower them in recruiting their current volunteers.
This works great for those who already work underneath you, but what do you do when you are seeking to recruit a new volunteer? The key again is relationship. The more you know about the person you are seeking to recruit, the more effective you’ll be. Getting to know that person’s dreams, excitements, joys, family, etc. will help you because then they feel like they are being recruited by a friend, rather than a position or an office. The closer the relationship, the easier it can be to recruit.
Right Fit. The second factor in recruiting is the “Right Fit.” As you recruit the person, always recruit to their strengths. Out of the relationship you have developed with this person, remember what their joys and excitements are. Find a spot that excites them. The more excited they are about what they are doing, the more they will fit into the right spot and the more they will stay for a long time.
One of the biggest fallacies of recruitment is recruiting to the wrong position. Wonderful Christ-like servants will volunteer because of a need but not because they are passionate about what they are doing. They become band-aids for a hole instead of a committed volunteer.
Whenever you recruit have clear expectations and job descriptions so that the volunteer will know what they are getting into prior to getting into it. This will also help to insure the right fit because they’ll know that they are getting into something designed for them that they’ll enjoy.
Rhythm. The final aspect of recruiting is to give the volunteers a good pace to work with as they move into this new ministry. Don’t throw the volunteers to the lions! Whenever I am trying to recruit a new volunteer, I will give them some time to try things out prior to putting them in leadership. This might consist of learning under someone for some time, it might consist of just visiting the program, or it might consist of spending time praying about becoming a volunteer prior to jumping in.
This slow process will help a volunteer to know that they have time to move into the role that they are assuming rather than just being thrown in the first week they say they are interested. This is a very respectful way of recruiting which will help the volunteers to know that they are loved and cared for. The easier the transition, the more likely they are to stick around in the long run and make a real commitment to long-term ministry.
Once you have recruited some key volunteers, do not forget to find ways to sustain their hearts and spirits. Encourage them constantly! Write notes, make phone calls, and remember birthdates. Anything you can do to continue to build the relationship you have with the volunteer will help them to want to stay. They’ll know that they are loved and cared for. The better the volunteer feels about what he or she is doing, the more that person will want to stick around (and even do recruiting for you).
I was once told I was a good recruiter, perhaps that is so. Truly, I am good at building relationships, finding the right spot for the volunteer, slowly working them into the program, and continue to encourage that person in what they are doing. It results in good recruiting because people will want to work in a place where they know that their leader knows them and wants to be with them.
Ken Johnson is currently Director of Children’s Ministries at Campus Bible Church of Fresno, California.