Keys to Helping Others Discover Jesus, Part 3 – Mercy

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Last week at the Oasis retreat a pastor reported that a 71 year-old man and his wife prayed to receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior the previous Sunday. Interestingly, the couple had been serving at the church’s monthly feeding ministry for years, but did not attend church worship services. Then, surprisingly, they came to church that Sunday, professing Christ and requesting baptism. I say “surprisingly,” but the Spirit’s work in the hearts of that couple reflects a familiar story in the long history of the Church. When God’s people show mercy to the hungry and hurting, and do so in Jesus’ name as a testimony to the power of the gospel, hearts and minds open to Jesus in new ways.

When I was beginning my pastoral ministry, someone told me that if I will look for hurting people, broken people, and love them and show mercy toward them, that I will never lack for a ministry. I don’t remember who said that, but they were correct. In my last pastorate we began a ministry in which we sent a team to anyone in our community who suffered some type of tragedy – fire, accident, crime, etc. Our teams were trained to pray for them, then identify and meet their needs. It was interesting to me that some of the people we reached through this ministry were not those we served, but others who were taken by our “ministry of mercy” to the hurting and wanted to be a part of it.

Rodney Stark, author of 30 books on the history and sociology of religion, says that mercy was regarded as a character defect in the pagan world because mercy involves providing unearned help and is therefore contrary to justice. Thus, the Early Church’s provision of mercy not only set her apart from the world, mercy also made life better for the faithful in the “here and now.” As Stark says, Christianity is not merely “pie in the sky” as some unbelievers like to claim. Christianity actually puts the pie on the table by extending mercy toward people in times of grief and distress and disease.

Perhaps the greatest example of mercy in the Early Church occurred during the two great plagues that struck the Roman Empire in the second and third centuries. During the 15-year epidemic beginning in A.D 165, in which a quarter to a third of the people in the Empire died, Christians survived at far better rates, as did their pagan friends, because they did not abandon the sick, but showed mercy toward them and cared for them. Stark says that it not only effected higher conversion rates, but the percentage of Christians in the population increased because fewer Christians died. He reports that studies of ancient cemeteries reveal that, on average, Christians lived longer. Stark says mercy was one of the keys to the growth of the Early Church (see The Rise of Christianity or The Triumph of Christianity).

I believe that mercy is key to helping people discover Jesus in 21st Century America as well. A church that becomes “famous” in the community for love and mercy, and combines it with a clear gospel ministry, will reach people for Christ. A church planter I know started his church with the clear purpose of blessing the impoverished community in which God sent him to minister. When he asked the elementary school principle how his new congregation could help the school, the principle said that she didn’t have much time and that he needed to tell her what he wanted. After another attempt to speak to her was rebuffed he said, “We have $10,000 we want to invest in the school and I don’t know what you need. How do you want us to spend the money in a way that will best help you?” Now he had her attention! That was four years ago. Not only is the principle now a member of the church, but others in the community have learned that this is a church that cares for the community, and demonstrates love and mercy toward people, and the church is making a tremendous impact with many coming to faith in Jesus Christ.

Is your church famous in your town for deeds of compassion and mercy? What can you do, or your small group do, to help one person, one family, one neighborhood? If you are willing to help a broken person, you’ll have a ministry, and your gospel witness will be empowered. Mercy is key to helping others discover Jesus.  This is as it should be, and has always been.

Keys to Helping Others Discover Jesus, Part 2 – Listening

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Everyone knows that you can look ten pounds thinner with a well-known slimming trick: clothing with vertical lines elongate your shape and give you a more svelte appearance, right? Wrong! Vision scientists Peter Thompson and Kyriaki Mikellidou say that what we learned about wearing vertical stripes, and not wearing horizontal stripes, is exactly backwards. Vertical stripes on clothing make the wearer appear fatter and shorter than horizontal stripes do. Horizontal stripes actually make objects appear taller and narrower. This phenomenon was reported by German physicist and physician, Hermann von Heimholtz, 150 years ago. Heimholtz’s report never got picked up by clothing designers, but now we know that he did indeed have a great eye for fashion (Scientific American Mind, July-August, 2012).

I love it when long-held assumptions are challenged and proven wrong, partly because it encourages me to test some of my own assumptions. We grow up thinking and learning certain things that sometimes just aren’t true. I would rather live half of my life being wrong than do so for my entire life. That’s why I don’t take offense when you can prove me wrong. It helps me to learn and make corrections in my thinking and behavior.

With that in mind, I want to challenge a long-held belief relating to ministry and evangelism. This long-held belief concerns how we listen to another person. When I was first taught how to share Christ with others, I was taught to listen for an area of life that I had in common with the other person and then relate my story to theirs. For example, if a person mentioned that they enjoyed football, I might swap a football story with them. Or if they were dealing with a difficulty in their life, I might relate a similar difficulty that I experienced. The term for this is “counter-story.” I was taught to listen for an area of commonality, share my counter-story, thus demonstrating that we have something in common. The theory is that by demonstrating that we have common ground they will be more receptive when we talk to them about Jesus. At least that’s the theory.

While the use of counter-story can work, I now believe there is a better way, a much better way to share the gospel, and it begins with listening. Consider this: when someone tells you something about themselves, and you share a counter-story with them (a story about yourself that is similar to theirs), you have just removed the focus from them and placed it upon yourself.   More than likely you have been taught that sharing your counter-story will help you build rapport with the other person. But what you are actually doing is making the conversation about you and not about them.

For example, if I were to ask you, “How was your day?” And you responded, “I’ve had a bad day.” I could respond by saying, “I know what you mean. I’ve had a bad day too.” Such a response would put the focus on me and my day. A better way for me to respond would be: “I’m sorry about that. Can you tell me more?” This invites them to share more with you, so that you can learn more about them and better serve them. It is amazing what people will share when you listen. Then, when it is time for you to share a story, you can share a biblical story that relates to their situation.

               Imagine this scenario. A person tells you that they have a problem with a coworker. As they describe the situation, you might say, “Jesus actually said some things about that. Jesus said ‘Love your enemies … bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you’” (Luke 6:27f). If the subject of their concern is wayward child you could share Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal from Luke 15. If a person is concerned that their sinful life makes them beyond God’s willingness to save you could share the story of the Woman at the Well in John 4, or the woman who wept on Jesus’ feet in Luke 7. Or you could tell them about Saul consenting to the murder of Stephen before Jesus saved him and gave him a new name – Paul.

These are just a few possible scenarios. But the principle is this: listen to their story and ask them questions that prompt them to share. Refrain from sharing a counter-story. Instead, look for an opportunity to connect biblical truth to their specific situation. By doing this, you will keep the focus on them, and you will share God’s truth in a way that relates to their present situation.

And, yes, I’m still trying to convince my wife that she looks great in horizontal stripes!

  

Keys to Helping Others Discover Jesus – Introduction

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While in seminary I pastored a church in the small Texas town of Italy.  They were a wonderful people, and largely a church-going people.  I’ll never forget a man I led to Christ and baptized who later told me that he was invited to our church shortly after he moved to town.  The invitation went something like this: “You’re starting a business in town and it will help your business if you join our church.”  The man was not yet a Christian, but he knew that you don’t join a church to help your business!

That said, the truth was, it would have helped his business to have joined our church.  One way I describe the difference between church-life in the Bible-belt versus the Northwest is that no one joins a church in the Northwest to help their business.  And politicians don’t frequent churches in the Northwest during election season either.  In Oklahoma it is estimated that more than 25% of young people attend Falls Creek Baptist Youth Camp at least one week during their teen years.  The former director of that camp is now a United States Congressman, having won election with no prior political experience and few monetary resources.  His base of support came from relationships made in directing a camp with an annual attendance exceeding 50,000.  That story could not be written in the Northwest.

One of the things many of us love about the Northwest is that there is little reason for people to come to faith in Jesus Christ and serve Him, other than the need to fill the God-shaped hole in the heart.  The lack of societal expectation to attend church or have a religion (the Northwest leads the U.S. in the percentage of people who claim no religion) challenges us to find better ways to help others discover Jesus. Moreover, walking with Jesus in the company of a local church is not something Northwesterners do to fit into the community.  They do it because they have come to love Him.

Over the next several weeks I want to present some ideas and methods that will help your witness for Christ.  You will find some of what is presented to be new material and concepts.  I use the phrase “help others discover Jesus” because I believe that is what we must do.  People must discover Jesus in “their” life-journey.  But Christians can function as spiritual guides for those yet to arrive at the destination, which is Jesus.  Having been to Jesus ourselves, we know the way and are able to guide others.   

The following six words identify the concepts that we will explore.  Over the next several weeks, this list may change some:

  1. Listening
  2. Mercy
  3. Justice
  4. Fairness
  5. Friendship
  6. Discussion

The order of the six words isn’t particularly important, with the exception of the first word – listening.  Guides who would lead others to discover Jesus in their life’s journey must learn to listen, and listen in a particular way.

Listening

I will explore the concept of “listening” as it applies to spiritual guiding in the next article.  But I want to leave you with a question, then a story, followed by another question.  The question is this: when you listen to another speak, what are you listening for?  Are you listening to respond, or do you listen for the opportunity to ask a follow-up question that will give the other person the opportunity to share more?

Now for the story.  In a recent visit with a young man, he told me that he volunteered at a café.  Volunteering at a café sounded unusual to me, so I asked him what he did as a volunteer.  He told me that he checked IDs to make sure those entering the café were legally able to be there.  He also told me that he cleaned bathrooms and did things that no one else wanted to do.  Picking up on the idea of a café in which not everyone could legally enter, I asked him what kind of café it is.  He said that it is a place where medical marijuana is dispensed.  I had never heard the term café applied to such a place.  Moreover, I didn’t know they needed volunteers.

I knew that this young man attended church while growing up, so I asked him what was his “take-away” from his years attending church.  He said, “Serving.  I learned to serve at church and I like to serve.”  He currently serves as a volunteer in a brewery!  I’d never heard of that either.  End of story – for now.

Last question: what should I do next?  I’m going to meet with this man again in a few weeks.  What should I say or do?

        

Grandparents Key to Reaching Young People

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A recent conversation about older adults brought to mind a friend who died a couple of years ago.  I got to know her best on a mission trip to India when she and her husband joined my wife and me, together with a few others.  What I came to learn was that this lady whom everyone called “Mamma Dawn” was a real “mother hen.”  On that trip I became one of her baby chicks as she made sure that I did things right.  Mothering was something Momma Dawn did well.  She raised four children of her own, and grand-mothered many more, including the girls she taught in her youth Sunday school class.

Momma Dawn’s relationship with teenage girls in Sunday school contains a lesson for every church.  What I heard from her girls was that she loved them.  When they came to church, and especially to Momma Dawn’s class, they knew they were going to be treated special and receive love.  I would say that they were grand-mothered.  She taught them God’s Word, shared her experience, and loved them.

Grandparents have a relationship with children different from the parent’s.  Two words that typify the difference are love and grace.  Godly grandparents are free to express these because they have walked with Jesus longer and He has knocked off some of the rough edges.  Also, they are free from some of the disciplinary responsibilities of parents.  Grandparents often know God’s Word better and can apply it with a wisdom born of age and experience.

As I think about it, my observation of Momma Dawn’s effectiveness with young people is not unique to her.  Many of the best Sunday school teachers and ministers to young people and young adults that I have seen are grandparent types.  One I know retired from working with young people at the age of 88!  He was a legend for the impact he made on thousands of lives.  His ministry to teenagers spanned over 40 years, resulting in hundreds coming to know Jesus and serve Him as members of His Body.  Retirement only came with failing health, not decreased effectiveness or passion for Jesus and young people.

I was speaking with a handful of pastors about the importance of looking to grandparents as we consider who will work with the younger folks.  I told them that I have a growing conviction that churches error when they think younger adults are more effective with teenagers and other young adults than grandparent types.  As we spoke, one of the men asked a young woman about this.  She is a single woman in her mid-twenties.  Her response was most enlightening.  She said, “In my church, the person assigned to teach my age-group is only a few years older than us.  This person doesn’t have much life experience or wisdom in comparison to an older adult.  They think young adults are about games and fluff.  But I want to be taught the Bible.  I want wisdom.  That’s why I attend an older ladies class and not the class for my age-group.  They can quote the Bible and relate it to life without even trying – simply through their natural conversation as a by-product of their many years following Christ.”

Is this young woman unique?  I don’t think so.  I firmly believe, and research bears this out, that young people want to be mentored and loved on by older people.  And more important than anything I think, or research reveals, is that Scripture instructs the older to mentor the younger.  Older women are to train the younger women, and men are to set an example for young men (Titus 2:3-8).

It’s no secret that Americans are living longer which is one reason our churches are aging.  The average 65 year-old will live an additional 18.6 years.  Churches are responding to this by increasing ministry for older adults.  This is appropriate.  But do not forget that the most mature and experienced servants in the church are our older adults.  Godly seniors want their retirement years to count for Jesus.  You already understand this, I suspect.  But what you may not have considered is that older adults need to be teaching teenagers and young adults.  Older adults can connect with young adults.  In many cases they can do it best.

Those who understand life best are those who have lived it most.  And in many cases they have a lot of love to give.  It’s a grandparent kind of love, like that of Momma Dawn.