Lessons from the Garden

May 30th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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I love to garden. When I’m outside planting or weeding or pruning, it reminds me that I was made to garden. I feel like I’m back in Eden, worshiping the Creator by stewarding his creation. Occasionally I even feel I’m imitating my Father—like the son who follows behind with his toy lawn mower while Dad actually mows the grass—by using the creativity he’s given each of us to design and develop (I won’t say create) a landscape.

 

But there is another reason I love to garden, and that is because I am reminded of deep spiritual truths every time I’m out there working. The garden is filled with illustrations of our spiritual lives which minister to me as I dig and deadhead, water and weed. Here are ten spiritual lessons from the garden.

 

  1. If you neglect the garden, weeds will overrun it. I wish it were otherwise, but it isn’t. If you neglect a flower bed, you won’t walk out one day to see splendid color and brilliant blooms. You’ll find all those nice plants you put in have been choked out by weeds. So it is with our character. If we neglect our spiritual development, we’re unlikely to discover the fruit of the Spirit in full bloom within us; we’re rather more likely to see our hearts overrun with idolatry, and sin choking out the life of the Spirit.
  2. The best way to keep weeds out is to make sure what you’ve planted is healthy and thriving. You can weed a bed over and over again—picked bare every time—only to find the weeds are back in force unless you plant something else there. If you want to keep a bed free from weeds, put in some groundcover. Once more, so it is with our character. The best way to keep our lives free from sin really isn’t relentless weeding (although that has its place, of course), but cultivating virtue. Paul used the analogy of clothing to make the same point: you put off sin, but then have to put on If we spend all our time mortifying sin and no time cultivating Christlikeness, we’ll likely end up weeding and re-weeding endlessly.
  3. If you just pick off the flower, the weed will grow back. I can remember as a child helping my mom “weed” by picking the heads off all the dandelions. When I got a bit older I did better, picking off all the leaves as well. Not surprisingly, the weeds always grew back. If you really want to get rid of the weed, you have to dig out the whole thing, all the way down to the root. In the same way, if we want to mortify sin truly and completely, we need to attack it at its root—the idolatry that feeds and encourages our transgression. Too many of us keep playing an interminable game of Whack-a-Mole because we don’t deal with the root issue; so sin keeps springing up in new places, and we keep whacking it down, picking off the dandelion flower only. Speaking of flowering weeds, though. . . .
  4. When weeds flower, it helps us locate them easily so we can dig them out at the root. The trouble with so many weeds is that they blend in—they’re green like the grass! That’s why I love dandelion season even though I hate dandelions: now I can find them easily so I can put them to death. When we mess up noticeably—when our sin flowers in a particularly flagrant way—it helps us locate and identify the roots that our nourishing it, so we can put the sin to death at its deepest point. Too often we simply repent of the flagrant sin without attacking the roots. Did you blow up at your kids again? Okay. Repent of that, absolutely. But then dig a bit deeper and find out why. Do you have deep control or comfort issues? What is the root idolatry that produces this particular fruit or flower? When our sin flowers, as awful as it is, we can start to discover what’s really going on within us.
  5. The hardest weeds to get out are the ones growing up in the middle of a plant. I’m dealing with this in my backyard right now. I’ve cleared out a bed that was overrun with weeds (because it had been sorely neglected for some time). However, there are still a few prominent weeds shooting up—right in the middle of my boxwoods. I’m not sure how to get to them without hurting the plant. It’s very irritating. Now, I find that the hardest sins to eliminate are the ones growing up right in the middle of my virtue. I finally get into a good rhythm of prayer and study, only to find I’m taking sinful pride in my habits. I devote myself to a genuinely fruitful ministry, only to discover my identity is wrapped up in it rather than my unity with Christ. How do I eliminate the transgression without killing the transformation? Seeing the weeds in the middle of the shrub reminds me to examine even my virtuous habits for iniquity.
  6. If the roots grow strong and deep enough, the plant will flower again, even if it’s been trampled. I had some people working at my house this week, and they trampled some of the perennials I’d just planted. I had to replace them because I knew the plant wasn’t established enough to survive that sort of turmoil; the roots weren’t deep enough yet. But give those same plants a few more years, and I’d expect them to come back even if they got trampled to the ground. Circumstances will inevitably trample us to the ground. A cancer diagnosis will come, the marriage will hit the skids, layoffs will strike. Though those circumstances might seem to destroy our faith for a while, if our roots go deep enough, we will soon see our peace and joy in Christ flower again.
  7. If you want full blooms, you need to prune and deadhead relentlessly. I spend more time than I care to admit deadheading my petunias, but I want them to keep blooming, so I don’t have any choice. If you want various perennials to flower throughout the season, you have to keep trimming them back. Similarly, if we want to keep vital in our union with Christ, we need to keep pruning any dead branch or leaf or flower from our lives. Do I have any wasted time? Is there any habit that is draining life from me? Is there some good that is the dreaded enemy of God’s best for my life? Snip, snip, snip.
  8. What wondrous variety in God’s creation! One of the reasons I love to garden so much is because I’m never bored. There is always a new flower, a new color, a new shape that I haven’t seen before. How does he do it? He is infinitely, endlessly creative, and I worship him for it. It reminds me that every person is both created in his image and yet wondrously unique. How boring it would be if every flower were yellow! And how boring if every person had my personality, or your gifts, or his passions, or her story. We each bear his image uniquely, to his everlasting praise.
  9. I can’t cause anything to grow, but I can help get the conditions right so that growth can happen. Since I don’t sustain all things through my powerful word, I need to leave the growth of my garden in his hands. But that doesn’t mean I sit back and wait for him to do it. I am active: tending the soil, fertilizing, watering, pruning. I want everything I can do to be done well, because I know growth won’t happen apart from it. (He could miraculously sustain my plants, of course, but he chooses not to, and I can’t say I blame him.) So it is with my life in Christ. As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 3:6, he alone can cause the growth. But that doesn’t mean I’m inactive in my life or the lives of those around me. I use the means of grace—prayer, study, meditation, memorization, fellowship, fasting, evangelism—because I want the conditions for my growth to be ideal. Any good that is in me is his work alone, a gracious gift to an undeserving sinner; but I strive to do all I can to put myself in the right position to receive that gift.
  10. Very little seeds and seedlings can grow very large. You put these tiny dots into a giant bed and hardly expect anything to happen. Soon enough, however, you see the seedling grow and expand until it takes up more of your garden than you’d planned. Jesus himself compared the kingdom to a very small seed, which soon grows until it is almost a tree, large enough for birds to nest in it (Matthew 13:31-32). Don’t despise the day of small things. Just as tiny seeds grow into large plants, tiny acts of devotion grow into true Christlikeness, and tiny relational investments—life-on-life evangelism and discipleship—produce harvests of conversion and growth.

 

Perhaps the most wonderful reminder of all comes any time we transplant a flower, shrub, bush, or tree. You go to the nursery, select a plant, and then make it a part of your home. In Psalm 1:3, the psalmist tells us that the blessed person—the one who delights in God’s Word—is “like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.” The Hebrew word for “planted” means transplanted. It didn’t spring up by the stream on its own. Someone put it there—took the time to prepare the soil, dig the hole, water and care for it until it grew. All of us who are in Christ are there because God chose us, uprooted us from our selfish, self-determining ways, and planted us in him. Every time we plant we preach the gospel of our salvation; and as we care for what we’ve planted, we remind ourselves of God’s unfailing presence and goodness in our lives. That’s a lesson from the garden I’m delighted to keep learning!

 

What other lessons have you learned while out in your garden?



On Vetting Hymns

May 16th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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As I continue in this short series on worship, spurred in large part by two excellent posts by Tim Challies, I’d like to interact with one particular comment he made in “What We Lost When We Lost the Hymnal.” Challies helpfully points out that, when we lost the hymnal, we lost an established body of songs. Hymnals were updated only every decade or so, which means songs were chosen carefully and introduced slowly. He writes that “songs were vetted carefully and added to its repertoire only after careful consideration. After all, great songs are not written every day and their worth is proven only over time.”

 

Now, I have no wish to argue the point. I do think one of the great challenges facing contemporary music is balancing “newness” (Psalm 40:3?) and familiarity. We’ve seen a renewed emphasis on congregational singing, which I applaud, and the congregation doesn’t sing—and certainly doesn’t sing with gusto—when they don’t know the song. In addition, when churches introduce new songs quickly, they often shortcut the vetting process (especially if the pastors/elders are uninvolved in song selection), which has resulted in some truly awful songs entering into much wider circulation. In other words, Challies’ point is well taken.

 

However, I think it is important for us to note that even many of the great hymns of old have questionable moments in them. While often much richer theologically than their contemporary counterparts, the theology isn’t always spot on. I imagine there are a variety of reasons for this, which might include later scholarly developments, historical movements and traditions that weren’t as theologically robust (we seem to imagine ours is the first period in history when the average songwriter didn’t have Luther’s depth of theological knowledge), or even just simple imprecision (possibly owing to the same emotionalism that can steer lyricists awry today). I’m sure there are other reasons, but let me at least given an example of each of these.

 

  1. Later Scholarly Developments: I’ll give two examples here, actually, in part just because I don’t want to pick on Wesley’s wonderful hymn “And Can It Be” too much. In one stanza, Wesley writes that Jesus “emptied himself of all but love / And bled for Adam’s helpless race.” The troubling bit is the first half, which seems to affirm a kenotic Christology (a heresy). Kenotic derives from the Greek word kenoô, used of Christ in Philippians 2:7, and which means “to empty.” However, it is also used in a metaphorical sense—“to make of no effect; to make nothing”—which is its more common usage in the New Testament. To argue that Christ “emptied himself” of the attributes of divinity has no basis in the text, and is more than a little theologically dodgy.[1] Some hymnals have emended the text to read, “emptied himself and came in love,” which suggests the metaphorical reading. A much better choice, I think. The other example comes from Featherston’s “My Jesus, I Love Thee.” In the final stanza, we read, “In mansions of glory and endless delight, I’ll ever adore Thee in heaven so bright.” The trouble here is that “mansions” follows the KJV, which follows the Latin Vulgate, which doesn’t really translate the Greek of John 14:2 well. The word used signifies “dwelling place,” and given that we’re talking about the Father’s house, it’s hard to see how the house could have many mansions. Probably better to translate “rooms,” as many English versions now do. Not a huge theological crisis, for sure, but one likes to have an accurate picture of Glory. In both cases one doesn’t really fault the writer, because these were mistakes common to their era, and fortunately addressed by later scholarly research.

 

  1. Theologically Suspect Traditions: Many of the revivalist hymns struggle theologically, which makes sense, considering how much the revivalists struggled theologically (I’m looking at you, Charles Finney). So, for example, the beloved and simply wonderful “How Great Thou Art.” In the English translation, the final stanza declares, “When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation, / And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.” The trouble here is that when Christ comes, he is coming to establish his forever kingdom here on earth. This is the glorious moment when heaven and earth at last become one in the New Jerusalem. So, if that’s what he’s coming to do, how precisely is he going to “take me home”? If I’m around for that (and I don’t expect to be), I’ll already be home, although my home would be blessedly remade. The lyrics, as they stand, seem to imply that we’ll be taken home to an otherworldly heaven, which doesn’t jive with the teaching of Scripture. N.T. Wright suggests a better wording: “When Christ shall come. . . / And heal this world, what joy shall fill my heart.”[2] Our view of eternity—specifically, God’s remaking the world we currently inhabit—certainly shapes our present, and so it would be good to sing accurately about it. (I should add, the original Swedish lyrics do not fall into this error, so translational issues are at work here too!)

 

  1. Simple Imprecision: Here one would simply quibble with a bit of phrasing. For example, consider Wesley’s “And Can It Be” again, specifically the chorus: “Amazing love! How can it be / That thou, my God, shouldst die for me?” I don’t think anyone would hesitate to sing these words, because the intent of the line is understood easily enough. But one could easily imagine a young believer (or even skeptic) singing along, wondering how precisely the immortal God can die. Strictly speaking, Scripture never speaks of God dying, but only of God in Christ[3] A subtle imprecision, but imprecision nonetheless.

 

Now, what do we do about this? I would be the last to recommend we abandon these great songs of old (although there are many revivalist hymns that I would gladly abandon because of their insipid sentimentality). In some cases, a simple emendation might do. In other cases, sing away—but hope that the teaching from the pulpit is clear and compelling, so that truth and precision displace beloved lyrics that have taken deep root in our minds. And, above all, continue to vet songs carefully, especially the new ones. But keep in mind, a song with a moment of imprecision might still be worth singing—even centuries later!—if the substance and pathos of the bulk outweigh the slight misstep.

 

[1] See Peter O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991): 216-223.

[2] Surprised by Hope (New York: HarperOne, 2008): 22.

[3] See John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1996): 153ff. for a fuller discussion.



Evil Unmasked

February 14th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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In the short essay “After Ten Years,” which serves as prologue now to Letters and Papers from Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes an astute observation:

 

It is one of the most surprising experiences, but at the same time one of the most incontrovertible, that evil—often in a surprisingly short time—proves its own folly and defeats its own object. That does not mean that punishment follows hard on the heels of every action; but it does mean that deliberate transgression of the divine law in the supposed interests of worldly self-preservation has exactly the opposite effect. (10)

 

When we choose to disobey God, to transgress the moral law written on our hearts, it invariably goes poorly for us—and, as Bonhoeffer points out, often in a short time. Evil unmasks itself as folly. That is, sin is not only wrong, but positively foolish, for it never obtains the object it seeks. In fact, often it obtains precisely the opposite of what it seeks.

 

Part of this involves what some have referred to as the “boomerang” nature of sin. Sinful actions against other people frequently return, like a boomerang, to cause harm against the evildoer. The psalmists recognize this “incontrovertible” truth, and frequently cling to it when being assailed by wicked people. Take, for example, Psalm 7:14-16:

 

Whoever is pregnant with evil conceives trouble and gives birth to disillusionment;

Whoever digs a hole and scoops it out falls into the pit they have made.

The trouble they cause recoils on them; their violence comes down on their own heads.

 

Or Psalm 9:15-16:

 

The nations have fallen into the pit they have dug; their feet are caught in the net they have hidden.

The LORD is known by his acts of justice; the wicked are ensnared by the work of their hands.

 

I especially like that last couplet, because it combines the notion of God’s justice with the boomerang nature of sin. In God’s justice, you reap what you sow.

 

It isn’t difficult to see how this works today. When we foolishly choose to sin against others, we experience the consequences of our folly. We maliciously slander our competition in order to make ourselves look better, only to discover that people now think worse of us because we’ve been exposed as petty, self-serving, untrustworthy. We erupt in anger, take justice into our own vengeful hands, and, rather than turn the metaphorical cheek, strike him on his literal cheek. Now we discover we have justice coming our way in the form of an assault charge. Our “deliberate transgression” has produced “exactly the opposite effect” from what we intended and desired. Evil unmasks itself as folly.

 

But this isn’t only true with these “boomerang” scenarios, where harm we envisioned for another comes back on us. No, it proves equally true with any deliberate transgression of the divine law in service of self. When we seek satisfaction apart from and in rebellion against God, we will find ultimate disappointment. But, as Bonhoeffer points out, this isn’t true in an ultimate (i.e., eternal) sense only; it often proves true in a “surprisingly short time.”

 

Take the pursuit of false intimacy through illicit sexual relationships. Many pursue intimacy (seek true love) by hopping into bed before a covenantal commitment is in place. Statistics (never mind a brief perusal of social media) consistently demonstrate how foolish this is. Not only does this lead to less sexual satisfaction, it hardens the heart to true intimacy should the opportunity ever arise. Because we settle for the cheap imitation, we can no longer enjoy the genuine article. Cohabitation, an ever-growing trend, seems like a stepping stone to marriage. Let’s try this out for a bit, see if we’re compatible, and then make an informed decision. One would expect this might lead to a decrease in divorce rates, but the opposite is markedly true. Couples who cohabit before marriage are far more likely to divorce (undoubtedly because they bring a consumerist/contractual, not a covenantal, mentality to the marriage). Evil unmasks itself as folly.

 

We could multiply examples. Harboring bitterness and unforgiveness will eat away at you like a cancer, frequently affecting other relationships too, while leaving the object of your bitterness untouched. Arrogance makes people less likely to listen to your opinion, and makes them rejoice all the more when you are wrong (which you will be). Complaining steals joy, breeds discontent, whereas gratitude increases joy and contentment even in the midst of adversity.

 

The conclusion seems easy enough to draw. When is sin ever a good idea? Never mind the offense it gives a holy God (reason enough to pause and reconsider!)—it simply won’t accomplish what you want. It will produce the opposite effect.

 

So the next time you’re tempted to sin, consider that the evil desire is not only wrong, but downright foolish!



Identifying Idols

January 5th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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bell_idol_louvre_ca_573_%e2%88%9aGod takes idolatry very seriously. The first of the Ten Commandments—and they are given in order of priority—is about idolatry: “You shall have no other gods before me.” Nothing else should get pride of place in our lives. He alone deserves our highest devotion, he alone is of infinite worth, and he alone can provide us with the ultimate meaning we seek.

 

But our hearts are idol factories, as John Calvin wisely noted. You see, we are sinners—every one of us—and the root cause of sin is always idolatry. That is, we sin because we value some object more highly than God himself, even though he is the infinitely valuable One. We make something an idol when we attach ultimate value or meaning to something other than him, which is why even good things—marriage, family, achievement, ministry—can become idols if we are not vigilant.

 

If this is true, we need to pay exceedingly careful attention to our own patterns of idolatry. I will experience no victory over sin unless I see I am treasuring something above the love of Christ. What is it that I treasure more? Or, to put it another way, how can I identify my heart’s idols?

 

Here are six ways I have found helpful in pinpointing the root idols in our hearts.

 

  1. You are devastated if you lose it (or never get it). We all experience disappointment and grief when we lose something we treasure, and that is true even if we have not made an idol of it. I am speaking of something else though: an utter devastation—the feeling of being unmade or undone—at the loss of your greatest treasure. We would all feel fear, anger, disappointment at losing our job, for example, but if your self-regard is tied to your career (“I achieve, therefore I am”), then the loss of a job becomes something else entirely. You will soon plunge into despair, desperate because you’ve lost, not just a job, but your very self. (And you can experience this same devastation if you never get the idol you’ve been worshiping—never made partner, never have children, etc.)
  2. You are always dissatisfied in this area. No matter how much you get, you always want more—more money, more fame, more power, more pleasure. Your heart is like the leech’s two daughters crying, “Give! Give!” (Proverbs 30:15). Where do you see that you lack contentment? Dig deep enough, and you will undoubtedly find an idol at the core. Do you always want newer, nicer things? Look for idols of comfort, status, or security. Do you struggle with an addiction? Check for idols of pleasure and self-indulgence. Do you need another degree, another accolade, another promotion? Search for idols of success, approval, or achievement.
  3. You spend your time and/or money on it. Worship demands sacrifice, and we will gladly count that cost to get what we treasure most. Watch your spending habits—time and money—and see what patterns you discern. If you’re spending more time exercising than connecting with your family, I’d be concerned about the idol of health or appearance (and likely the deeper idols of security/control or love/acceptance). If you’re not giving sacrificially to support the work of God’s kingdom because you’re always on five-star vacations, I’d worry about the idols of comfort and self-indulgence.
  4. You are willing to sin to get it. This may seem like an obvious one, but it’s worth teasing out a bit. What sin habits have you formed in your life—and why? Do you find yourself gossiping time and again? You’re probably looking for status or acceptance, and the best way to get yourself in the inner ring is to get someone else out! Do you sit in self-righteous judgment of others? You’ve probably made an idol of your religious performance. Are you in a sexually illicit relationship, or willing to date someone who doesn’t share your religious convictions? There’s a good bet you’re worshiping the idol of human love—marriage, sex, a sense of belonging. Are you a bully, trampling on people in meeting after meeting? I’d check for the idol of power.
  5. Your emotions spike in this area. You don’t just feel happy; you feel elated when that person compliments or affirms you (acceptance, approval). You don’t have a good time; you have a great time when you’re chasing that hobby (comfort, pleasure). You don’t feel hurt; you feel crushed when you receive criticism at work (achievement, success). This is a bit more subjective—some of us feel more deeply than others, many factors contribute to our emotional state, and so forth—but if you see patterns of extreme emotional highs and lows, I’d start asking the hard questions.
  6. You can’t help but mention it—right away. Pay attention to what information you want to make sure people know about you early on. When you first meet someone, how do you introduce yourself? If you’ve listed all your degrees, titles, and credentials by the sixth sentence, for example, I’d check for the idol of status or achievement. This can be subtle, by the way. I knew an older woman who always shared about her singleness when introducing herself, usually right after giving her name. It may have been her approach to her biography, but it may have inadvertently revealed a hidden idol of love (marriage, family, romance, belonging).

 

Those are some of the ways I have identified the root idols in my own desperately sinful heart.

 

What are some other ways you’ve used to help you identify idols in your life?



One by One for Everyone

January 20th, 2015 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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I have noticed a curious phenomenon in many contemporary discipleship practices. Discipleship quite rightly involves both the individual and the community, but in business-mans-1074755-mcurrent practice we frequently flip the proper place of each. Let me explain.

 

In the New Testament, we see that discipleship has a communal telos and an individual methodology, by and large. The ultimate aim is not a loose collection of mature individuals, but rather a mature community. So, for example, Paul reminds the church in Ephesus,

 

In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (2:21-22, emphasis added)

 

And a bit later in the same letter, he teaches,

 

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (4:11-13, emphasis added)

 

In both cases, the ultimate aim is corporate maturity, as the analogies make clear. Paul does not envision a loose collection of holy bricks, but rather a holy temple (composed, undoubtedly, of holy bricks) in which God dwells by his Spirit. Likewise, he sees the purpose of leaders equipping members for works of service as producing not just holy cells or holy body parts, but a holy body, with Christ himself as the Head. The apostle Peter makes a similar point, and even draws on a similar analogy, when he writes,

 

As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him—you [plural in the Greek] also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:4-5)

 

It seems clear that God’s vision for the church is one of corporate maturity, in which the entire assembly grows in holiness together for the sake of his Name. The communal telos is clear. What about the individual methodology? (A quick aside: By individual, I don’t necessarily mean one-on-one, but life-on-life, which will almost certainly include small, intensely relational discipleship groups.)

 

We see this most obviously in the ministry of Jesus himself. While Jesus certainly preached to the crowds, the focus of his ministry—and the greatest expenditure of his time and energy—was on the disciples. In Mark’s stunning phrase, “He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach” (3:14). Jesus called men to himself in order that they might simply spend time with him—life-on-life discipleship—knowing that through this experience they would be equipped to continue the apostolic ministry.

 

Paul conveys a similar approach, though he only hints at it. In reminding the Thessalonians of his ministry there, he says,

 

For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory. (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12)

 

The key phrase for our purposes is “each of you,” which strongly suggests an individual, life-on-life methodology. Again, this is not to say that Paul never preached to the crowds; Acts records many such occasions. However, it seems that the bulk of his ministry—during the “work week,” we might say—took place in his leather-working shop, as individuals or small groups of people would come in to receive training, instruction, and encouragement. We also see Paul’s individual dedication to young men like Timothy and Titus as further evidence of this approach.

 

So it seems that the New Testament envisions a communal telos achieved primarily through an individual methodology.

 

I fear that in much of our contemporary practice, however, we flip the two: that is, we have an individual telos achieved through a communal methodology.

 

Western society is overwhelmingly, and self-evidently individualistic, so it is easy to see how we could unwittingly adopt our culture’s values. Generally speaking, we are concerned about our personal growth in holiness. Pastors routinely ask, “How are you doing in this area?” not “How are we doing in this area?” Rarely does one hear of corporate application in a message. We see this trend especially reflected in our lack of commitment to the local church, and our willingness to switch churches upon the slightest provocation. One of the commonest reasons given for leaving a church and joining another is a desire to “get fed.” In leaving for this reason, however, the church-hopper belies an individual focus, and—quite frankly—an unwillingness to strive for corporate growth.[1] Ephesians 4:16 doesn’t come into play.

 

We all have a tendency to selfishness (cf. 2 Timothy 3:1), so this phenomenon is unsurprising, even if we need to challenge it more actively in our own lives and in our communities. However, our communal methodology has no such extenuating circumstances. I suspect it is driven by our peculiarly American pragmatism, and our business mindset—streamlining and efficiency—more than any systemic spiritual dearth. Whatever the case, many churches adopt a community-wide, assembly-line approach to discipleship. Rather than a life-on-life approach, we provide a uniform curriculum and depersonalized programs or classes. The large-group setting and impersonal material provides little impetus for true growth, even at the individual level. At its worst, those who complete the class get their certificate of individual achievement and proceed on their merry way, without any thought of how their growth should multiply as they serve within the community.

 

The New Testament provides a wealth of information and instruction regarding discipleship in the local church, and many have returned to the fount for guidance in this area. I thank God for the revival of life-on-life discipleship happening across our country—and really, across the globe. I hope and pray that many more will choose the hard, slow way of relational disciple-making—the Master’s way—as they strive to become a community growing in maturity to the glory of God.

[1] I realize, of course, that some people leave because they have striven for corporate change, but have discovered that the leadership of the church is stifling it.



Imitation Maturity

October 14th, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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I always enjoyed walking the streets of Bogotá because of the remarkable variety of goods available for sale by innumerable street vendors. In fact, my wife and I began keeping a list of things we saw being sold, because we were so surprised by the spectrum. From toys to housewares, from food to technology, we could purchase just about anything we wanted without getting out of our car.

 

There was a small danger though: we were never quite sure if we were getting the genuine article. We might purchase something hurriedly at a stoplight, only to discover when we got home that the Nike “swoosh” was going in the wrong direction, or that the new purse was a DKNV special. (Apparently Donna has a base in Nevada in addition to her better known New York line.)apple-iphone-knockoff

 

One may face a similar danger in the church, unfortunately. The church seeks, by the grace of God and in the power of the Spirit, to produce disciples. The genuine article bears his trademark: increasing Christ-likeness. Genuine disciples display equipped maturity, to draw on the language of Ephesians 4:11-16. They demonstrate growth in both spiritual character and spiritual abilities. In them one discerns the fruit of the Spirit in increasing measure—spiritual character; in them one also witnesses the gifts of the Spirit effectively stewarded for the sake of the kingdom—spiritual abilities. The two elements are inseparable. As one develops the ability to read Scripture rightly, one’s heart softens increasingly to the claims of Christ on our lives, leading to growth in humility and faithfulness, for example. Or as one learns to deny self and love others sacrificially, one learns simultaneously to serve in the local congregation.

 

However, owing to the triple threats of the world, the flesh, and the devil, local churches may begin peddling imitation wares—may settle for a version of maturity that falls far short of God’s standard. I suspect this stems from our love of systems and processes, of efficiency and convenience, though I am confident the enemy has had his part in it. Attaining to any form of maturity is hard; cultivating a disciple-making culture that pervades a local congregation, and still maintaining oversight of that culture, is a whole other beast. But that doesn’t mean we settle for an imitation article; rather, we fall on our knees in humble, dependent prayer, trusting that the Lord will provide, will supply our need.

 

I am sure this is far from exhaustive, but here are four imitation brands sometimes sold in place of equipped maturity. Each one contains a genuine element about it—otherwise it wouldn’t deceive unsuspecting buyers!—but none fully encompasses true discipleship.

 

  1. Law

In place of equipped maturity, some will substitute mere law. Jesus did not suffer the agony of the cross so that we would keep a list of dos and don’ts. He endured God’s wrath so that we could enter back into full fellowship with the triune God—adopted to sonship through Christ—and then live in the light of that vital relationship. Training people what is kosher and what is forbidden is moralism or legalism, not discipleship (and certainly not the gospel!). This happens in many “fundamentalist” churches, of course, where legalism replaces gospel, and socially acceptable behavior—“don’t drink, smoke, gamble, or go with girls who do”—replaces discipleship. This also happens in many “seeker-sensitive” churches, however, with the moralism of Oprah and Joel Osteen substituted for gospel-centered discipleship.

 

  1. Activity

In place of equipped maturity, some will substitute mere activity. The end goal in this scheme is to have people actively participating in the local congregation: serving in a ministry, fellowshipping in a small group, and giving cheerfully and sacrificially to support the church’s ministry. These are all good aims, of course, provided they are not regarded as the final aim. One could serve, fellowship, and give actively, and yet not even know Jesus truly. These are all aspects of equipped maturity undoubtedly, but if taken as markers of discipleship themselves, they are liable to deceive. What if someone gives to ease a guilty conscience or to win God’s favor? What if the small group is a glorified social gathering? What if the service offered is the same as coaching your child’s soccer team?

 

  1. Information

In place of equipped maturity, some will substitute mere information. Churches that emphasize the life of the mind, usually for historic, denominational reasons, are particularly susceptible to this imitation product. The sermon becomes mere data transfer; small groups are only Bible studies; devotions center on knowing more about God, his Word, and theology. Now, anyone who reads my blog knows how much I value the life of the mind; nevertheless, information is not the same as equipped maturity. There are many scholars living in active, cheerful rebellion against God who have much more information than I will ever have. If information is not sought in service of transformation, as in Romans 12:1, then it is inimical to growth in grace—knowledge puffing up, where love would do the better work of building up.

 

  1. Leadership

In place of equipped maturity, some will substitute mere leadership. If leadership is defined carefully, it may mean equipped maturity, in which case it should be the genuine article. This is not always the case, unfortunately. What makes a leader? Sometimes churches will elevate someone to leadership because they are willing to do the job, which is really just an extension of replacing discipleship with activity. Often we select leaders because they have the requisite abilities, while paying but cursory attention to their character. I suspect one reason why “leadership development” and discipleship are so rarely synonymous is because discipleship places a great deal more emphasis on following, not leading. Leadership is an unexpected, unsought, reluctantly accepted consequence of learning to follow. To make it the center of the target will likely turn that truth on its head, with leaders begrudgingly learning to follow instead.

 

Jesus Christ gave us a clear commission, to make disciples. We would do well to examine the sort of disciples we are making, lest we discover—too late!—that we have been producing but a pale imitation of Christ’s glorious desire for us all.



Talent without End

September 22nd, 2014 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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In winning the World Cup this year for the first time in 24 years, and a major trophy for the first time in 18, the German Football Association (DFB) reaped the harvest of a seed planted at the turn of the millennium. You see, in 2000, when an aging squad whimpered out of the European tournament in the first round, the Germans made a decision: no longer would they rely on the mercurial presence of a “golden generation.”

 soccer-1

I need to pause here and explain some things to my largely American readership.[1] A golden generation refers to a serendipitous convergence of unthinkable talent according to birth year. Because professional athletes have such a small window of peak performance—especially when the biggest tournament happens only once every four years—it is not unusual to find yourself wishing you could assemble a team from several different generations in order to plump out some thin positions.

 

(In fact, that’s precisely what Germany did in 2000, relying on members of a previous generation—the 39-year-old Lothar Matthaus, for example—because there were no younger players making the cut at that time. The experiment failed.)

 

However, every once in a grand while, all eleven starters—plus a bit of squad depth—are truly world class, and for a tournament or two we hail the golden generation. Spain just enjoyed almost unparalleled dominance in Europe across two European finals and a World Cup owing to their golden generation. They then relied on them at this World Cup despite the age and decline, and it didn’t go so well. So Germany in 2000, which brings us back to my point.

 

Instead of hoping for the emergence of another golden generation, the Germans opted to try a new strategy: “talent without end.”[2] The premise is simple: by putting strict standards of youth development in place throughout the country, the DFB would soon have a seemingly unlimited pool of talent from which to draw for tournaments in perpetuity. No more crossing of fingers before making a squad selection; instead, with all the efficiency and industry for which they are famous, the Germans would produce what they needed. They took matters into their own hands, and when Schürrle and Götze combined in extra time to win the World Cup, they reaped what they had sown.

 

Disciple-Making Deutschland-Style

We reach an odd moment now. Those who have been enjoying my first post on soccer will find themselves dismayed to see that I’m turning to the church, as I’m wont to do; those, contrarily, who hoped for another article on disciple-making (which this is) will probably not have made it this far. Inevitably, then, I’ve left everyone disappointed. Apologies all around. I’ll do better next time.

 

So what does the DFB have to do with disciple-making? The answer, I believe, lies in the notion of talent without end.

 

The average church today does not concern itself much with leadership development. Few churches have a clear picture of what a mature, equipped disciple is, and fewer still have developed a clear strategy for producing a steady stream of them. We are not, by and large, Great Commission churches.

 

Instead, we have relied on our own version of the golden generation. If we get a volunteer to lead part of the children’s ministry, for example, we lean heavily on her, with little or no thought to what will happen should she move on or burn out. The enduring success of the ministry depends entirely on her continued presence.

 

Far better to have a plan in place for to develop and train a series of potential replacements! At worst, should she continue in ministry, we will have equipped a group of men and women who are now mature leaders, able to serve in a variety of roles according to gifting and personality. As it stands now, when a vacancy arises unexpectedly, we tend to have to fill it with whatever warm body is available, and training takes place on the job, to the detriment of the ministry. Christian maturity sometimes doesn’t even factor into the decision, because it is a luxury we can’t afford.

 

Unfortunately, when it comes to vocational ministry, a similar pattern emerges. In churches large enough to support more than one full-time pastor, the senior pastor rarely focuses on training and developing his associates with an eye to possible succession. Ideally, because it takes so much time and energy to understand the values and appreciate the uniqueness of any given church, a good number of succession candidates would be in-house.[3]

 

To ensure I keep no one happy with my analogies, let me switch to baseball to explain. Churches today—especially those which are large and affluent—have adopted the same front-office philosophy as the Yankees: buy the very best talent available when you need it. Thus, when a pastor departs, we hire a search firm or post on a ministry job site in order to find the best on the market (within our price range), and then bring him in and slot him straight into the starting lineup. This approach will win you pennants, obviously, but there’s a reason so many people hate the Yankees: it doesn’t seem fair. And in the church especially this feels a bit too much like the marketplace, too little like Christ’s patient approach with his emerging leaders.

 

Much better, I would aver, to build the best possible farm system. Your church should be filled with prospects, and you should have the very best coaches working to develop them in the lower leagues. In fact, those coaches will probably have a greater impact on the enduring fruitfulness of the ministry than any star you sign in a blockbuster deal. As much as it pains me to say it—and the pain is real and physical—this has been the commendable approach of the St. Louis Cardinals, who have won more than their fair share of pennants as well. (Mind you, they have their reward in full, whereas we Cubs fans will enjoy ours in eternity.) Really, I can think of few analogies that better capture the heart of a church-wide disciple-making ministry than the farm system. That’s the idea in a nutshell.[4]

 

Our purpose as a church is to make disciples, to help those around us move from unbelief to equipped maturity. The equipped and mature then serve as disciple-makers themselves, reaching the lost and equipping the save, and the ministry multiplies to the glory of God. We short-circuit this process when we depend on a golden generation of volunteers or staff. As churches, we need to reclaim Christ’s original emphasis, to adopt (and redeem!) the ethos of the DFB, in order to accomplish our purpose: an unbroken stream of mature and equipped Christ-followers, serving in his kingdom for his glory. Talent without end.

 

Some Questions to Consider Going Forward

  1. How do you define “mature and equipped disciple”? What character qualities will this person have? What skills will they have developed?
  2. How does your church move people from unbelief to complete maturity? Given that programs are almost wholly unsuccessful in accomplishing this, how will you create and sustain a culture of relational disciple-making at your church?
  3. If you are actively serving in ministry—especially if you are in leadership of any sort—whom are you equipping to take your place?
  4. If you are a pastor or staff member, who will succeed you in ministry? How are you equipping them to take your place? Does the church have a tentative succession plan in place that all understand and agree to?

 

[1] I realize I shouldn’t use “large” and “readership” in the same sentence, but forgive me just this once.

[2] Astute footballing fans will see that my dear old England have employed a similar strategy, that of “talent without beginning.” Hence the many tournaments won since 1966.

[3] I realize the New Testament provides a lot of support for the notion of “itinerant” ministry, that is, vocational pastors moving from one church to the next. This is not an either-or argument; it’s a call for a genuine both-and approach, when functionally it seems we have often opted only for the itinerant approach.

[4] Second basemen goes down injured? No worries: we’ve got a bunch of guys producing in the minors. Small group leader steps down unexpectedly? No big deal: we’ve got plenty of depth at that position.



What Is an Elder?

December 19th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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This seems like a straightforward question—and one that may even have a straightforward answer. He is “above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money” (1 Timothy 3:2-3, NIV). We’ve got that much. Beyond that things can get a bit shaky.

 

It is important that we use biblical language biblically. Constant use frequently transforms language in subtle ways. Nice used to mean foolish but now means polite; silly (seely at the time) used to mean blessed but now means foolish, ridiculous, stupid. What about elder? Would Peter and Paul still recognize how we use the term elder today?

 

Just like yesterday’s post, I want to offer a few suggestive comments. This is not meant to be an exhaustive discussion by any means.

 

  1. The New Testament uses elder interchangeably with a dizzying array of other terms. In Titus 1:6-7, Paul moves from elder to overseer[1] seamlessly. He writes, “An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless” (emphasis added). Paul doesn’t seem to be switching topics abruptly, so we might assume both terms refer to the same office. Peter, in offering his exhortation to the elders, writes, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care” (1 Peter 5:1-2). If his primary admonition for elders is to act as pastors (i.e., to shepherd), could we be forgiven for assuming they are the same office? Paul reaches the same conclusion from the opposite direction, as he lists “able to teach” as one of the qualifications for an elder—even though “teacher” seems to be related to the pastoral gift (cf. Ephesians 4:11, debates about the Granville Sharp rule notwithstanding). Hebrews 13:7 and 17 simply refer to leaders (Gk. êgoumenôn). Romans 12:8 mentions providers (Gk. proistamenos). 1 Thessalonians 5:12 describes those who are “over you” (proistamenos again) in the Lord. Should we find any difference in these categories? I suspect not. These are many ways to refer to the same group of people, each highlighting a different aspect of the work to which they have been called.
  2. There is no distinction between elders and pastors. It follows from the first point that the rigid distinction we make between elder and pastor is in fact a false dichotomy. Elders shepherd the flock and pastors function in the same role as elders. This entails some important practical implications. Here are two:
    1. First, some of the phrases we bandy about require thoughtful examination. For example, to say a church is “elder-led and staff-run” may be faithful to Scripture—depending on what we mean by it.[2] Is the phrase meant to imply that unpaid elders lead the church while the paid staff run it? That would seem to be a strange division. Or does the phrase simply mean that elders (including vocational elders, which we alone refer to as pastors, somewhat inexplicably) lead the church, while the staff (including vocational elders) handles the daily tasks necessary to keep the organization running smoothly? This scheme—a Venn diagram with vocational elders occupying the overlap—has more to commend it.
    2. Second, if indeed the terms refer to the same office, we should be wary of creating two distinct roles instead. What God has joined together, let no church constitution rend asunder. This has implications for both “pastors” and “elders” (as we use the terms today). A church simply cannot place someone in the role of pastor—asking them to shepherd the flock, minister the Word, and provide ongoing leadership—without also thinking of him as an elder. That would seem to be beyond the bounds biblically. Similarly, we cannot ask someone to serve as an elder without requiring them to shepherd the flock, minister the Word, etc. An elder cannot function simply as a board member—managing the “household,” viz., making sure finances are in order and attendance is up—and not as a pastor. Paul certainly acknowledges differences in gradation: some pastors—those particularly gifted or those who could do it vocationally—handle a greater share of the preaching and teaching load (cf. 1 Timothy 5:17); nevertheless, we cannot maintain a rigid distinction where Scripture acknowledges none. Which leads me to my next point.
  3. We need to take “able to teach” and “be shepherds” more seriously. It follows that if pastors and elders (leaders and providers) are the same category of people, they should perform the same tasks. (Someone should probably make a “Captain Obvious” joke at this point.) The qualifications for an elder focus on character, but elders need to do more than simply have exemplary character by the grace of God. They have been given specific responsibilities: “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be” (1 Peter 5:2). Shepherding demands more than managing the affairs of the organization; it requires going, baptizing and teaching in order to make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20); equipping God’s people for works of ministry (Ephesians 4:11-16); silencing false teaching and promoting pure doctrine (Titus 1:10-2:15); and especially prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:2). Every one of those tasks necessitates a thorough knowledge of Scripture—hence the qualification “able to teach.” How many elders today could explain the dangers of a popular book—take Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling as an example—when a congregant mentioned they were reading it? But that is precisely what Paul’s letters—to Timothy and Titus especially—ask of elders. The church needs to take this more seriously, offering more robust teaching and training.
  4. Our elder meetings should reflect our role as shepherds. If our elder meetings look suspiciously like board meetings, we should be concerned. Is prayer perfunctory or central? Do we spend more time on finances, buildings and grounds, and the like—or on a prayerful discussion of the spiritual needs of the flock and how we intend to meet them? Do our meetings burst with Paul’s pastoral burden: “Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28)? For more on elder meetings, see these excellent discussions by Jim Elliff and Andrew Davies.


[1] Bishop in earlier translations.

[2] One danger in the phrase is the extrabiblical term staff, referring to those who serve vocationally at the church, whether pastors or not.



Devotional: “Cut It Out” (Mark 9:42-50)

August 2nd, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Mark concludes this series of short stories by giving us a collection of Jesus’ sayings about the cost of discipleship. He begins by warning those who cause immature believers to “stumble”—that is, fall away from the faith—in very strong language. It would be better for them to die a painful, public death than face the wrath of God in the age to come.

 

But, of course, we usually don’t need anyone else’s help to stumble. We are pretty good at causing ourselves to stumble, gratifying—as we so often do—the flesh instead of the Spirit. So Jesus gets even stronger in his words to us about us.

 

Is there anything in your life causing you to sin? Then cut it out. Literally. If your eyes cause you to sin, gouge them out—because it would be better to be blind and reconciled to God than sighted and damned. If your hand causes you to sin, amputate it—because it would be better to be maimed and reconciled to God than whole and damned. If you are wounded, and the wound turns gangrene, you must amputate the diseased member or die. Is it any different with our sin? This is not hypothetical. I’m not sure this is even meant to be exaggeration. We need to attack the sin in our lives ruthlessly. And that will mean making some serious cuts.

 

We need to act proportionately radical to the degree of sin in our lives. Consider, for example, two men whom Jesus encounters who have succumbed to the sin of greed. Zacchaeus meets Jesus and voluntarily divests himself of his wealth. He knows what a serious issue it is in his life, so he elects to cut out half his income by giving it to those in need. Sin was serious, so he takes a serious step.

 

But now consider the rich young ruler. His sin runs deeper, so Jesus calls him to make a truly radical amputation: to get rid of all his possessions. Will it cripple him for life? Yes, absolutely. But it will also free him to live true life in fellowship with the Father. He is unwilling, and goes to damnation instead—a damnation Jesus describes all too clearly in this passage (cf. verse 48).

 

But what about us? Is there a sin that threatens to destroy? Lust? Greed? Pride? Bitterness? Selfishness? Envy? Anger? Jesus’ words show us precisely what needs to be done.

 

Will it be easy? Of course not. Jesus never intended it to be. As he says, “Everyone will be salted with fire” (verse 49). Referring to Leviticus 2:13, Jesus teaches that we are to offer ourselves to God like a sacrifice. Every sacrifice was sprinkled with salt, and then consumed totally by the fire. That is what our lives should be: a total, irrevocable offering to God.

 

If we have been salted with fire—if we have given ourselves totally to God—then we will be “salty” disciples, so to speak. Our character will reflect the sacrifice we have made. We will be the savor of God in an unsavory world—speaking truth in grace (cf. Colossians 4:6), adding wisdom and integrity, preserving and ministering in his name.

 

Do you want to be great? Then cut it out. Whatever it is that keeps you from living wholly for him, a purified and purifying substance in a corrupted world.

 

Questions for Reflection and Application

  1. What sin threatens to destroy your life? What steps do you need to take to cut it out before it kills you—body and soul? Are you taking wimpy, easy steps to put a bandage on the problem? Or are you going to take ruthless, uncompromising steps to amputate the issue, even at great cost to yourself? Let someone know what steps you plan to take.
  2. Are you a “salty” disciple? When people are around you, do they “taste and see that the Lord is good” by your witness? Or have you lost your saltiness through compromise and complacency? Offer yourself to God as a total, irrevocable sacrifice.


Devotional: “Learn to Share” (Mark 9:38-41)

August 2nd, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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The disciples have not learned yesterday’s lesson. Still overrun by a desire for status and recognition, they turn to jealousy, rivalry, and sectarianism. When one of them spots a rival disciple casting out a demon in Jesus’ name, he quickly turns tattle-tale.

 

The immaturity of the moment is palpable. First, remember that the disciples have just had a rather publicly unsuccessful bout with exorcism (cf. Mark 9:14-29). So John seems to be saying, “Make him stop doing what we’re unable to do.” It smacks of jealousy. Second, and much more frightening, is the way John describes the issue: “We told him to stop because he was not following us” (verse 38). The overweening pride and unadulterated audacity of this claim! Who cares if this man isn’t following John! or Peter! or any of the other disciples! John’s pride has got the better of him. He should have said, “He wasn’t following you,” but then . . . that might not be true.

 

After all, Jesus says, “No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us” (verses 39-40). The man is casting out demons in Jesus’ name, we should remember, and his success proves the genuineness of his commitment (read about the sons of Sceva in Acts 19:13-16 to see what happens to those who aren’t genuinely committed to Christ when trying to cast out demons in his name). He cannot possibly be an enemy of Christ.

 

Jesus here proclaims a certain broad-minded inclusiveness that the church has often forgotten. We like to exclude others from our “inner ring” to remind ourselves how much more important, smarter, better, richer, etc. we are than others. Church is not usually an exception unfortunately. It is interesting to note that infighting, quarrels, rivalries, and factions usually develop when a church stops reaching out. Once we become more concerned about our belonging to the group, rather than helping others to belong as well, we turn into the worst of our schoolyard selves. “You can’t play with us. You don’t belong to this group. Go find someone else.”

 

This is not the attitude of Christ. Do you want to be great? Then learn to share. Share the good news of Christ indiscriminately. Share the community of Christ with all who will come. And maybe even share a cup of cold water in the name of Jesus with someone in need (verse 41).

 

Questions for Reflection and Application

  1. Can you recall a time when you displayed an attitude similar to John’s in this story? How did you try to exclude someone? Why do you think you did it—that is, what particular brand of selfishness motivated your behavior? Has this been a recurring sin in your life? Is it a sin you have ever brought into the church? Do you need to repent of this sin and confess it to someone else? If so, do it.
  2. In what ways has the church—local or universal—tended towards exclusivity instead of a biblical inclusivity? (Make sure you distinguish between inclusiveness and relativism. After all, Jesus does say elsewhere, “Whoever is not with me is against me”!) How can you help us become more lovingly inclusive?
  3. Are there people with whom you need to share more? Does this include the lost? How will you share the gospel with them? Does this include the many suffering under systemic poverty globally? How will you bring them a “cup of cold water” in the name of Jesus?