Commentary

 

Jun

06

2013

Todd Engstrom|12:01 AM CT

What Makes a Missional Community Different?

As a practitioner of missional communities, I am often asked, "What is the difference between a missional community and _____ (small group, Bible study, etc.)?"

Before I dive into distinctions, let me provide the definition I use for a missional community:

A community of Christians, on mission with God, in obedience to the Holy Spirit, who demonstrate the gospel tangibly and declare the gospel creatively to a pocket of people. 

Perhaps the most critical portion of the definition practically is the idea of "a pocket of people"—a missional community is intentionally focused on those who aren't believers. Missional community is intentionally focused on those outside the church.

Before I make some folks upset, it's also important for me to note that gospel-centered communities on mission come with many different names. While I think language is important, I've found there are many small groups, community groups, and Bible studies that look a lot like what I call missional communities. The distinctions I point out in this article are meant to challenge predominant methods of practicing community in many American evangelical churches.

Missional Communities vs. Community Groups

One of the greatest needs in many churches is "community." Pastors talk about the value of it, tell people they need it, and provide lots of ways for people to engage it. As I have connected people, I find they're mostly seeking friendships that will spur them towards Christ. That desire is good and godly . . . I want the same thing!

The danger in the church aiming for community, though, is that it typically becomes the destination. Once relationships have been established, and the need for friends has been met, that's the way a community group stays. Community groups love to spend time together and have rich friendships, and the concept of "doing life" together is easy and appealing.

But these kinds groups often struggle because they lack the imperative of mission. They meet and live in community but do not engage in missionary activity. Once more appealing friendships or changes in life circumstances occur, a community group often dies out.

Community on this side of heaven isn't primarily about us though. Community is about God's glory being displayed to the world. Jesus clearly explains that the purpose of Christian unity and community is so that the world would know God the Father sent Jesus to this earth in John 17:21-24.

Missional communities are different in that they primarily see the purpose of their friendship, love, and unity to be an apologetic for the gospel to their neighbors. Community isn't the only purpose of the group, but community has the purpose of mission.

In my experience, a community group needs to be hard pressed with the truth of the gospel and the imperative of disciple making. Their need is not so much practical as it is sin rooted deep in their heart. This sin masquerades as many different things, but collectively a community group must see the greatness of the gospel and the joy found in following Jesus to seek out those far from God.

Practically, I have found that training a group like this together is crucial. They often will not make a transition collectively if you only train them as individuals. This is the primary reason we train whole communities together at The Austin Stone.

Missional Communities vs. Bible Studies

Many of us have been a part of a Bible study at some point in our Christian lives. Typically, these groups read the Bible for a set period of time on a specific day of the week. Bible studies are often great things, but they don't constitute a Christian community in its entirety.

So what's the difference? The short answer is that a missional community is not a Bible study, but a missional community studies the Bible.

A Bible study is often defined by gathering for the event of learning. The individuals who compose a missional community are individually engaging God's Word on a daily basis—our church uses a tool we call Life Transformation Groups—and seeking to obey.

The distinction is primarily in expectations: a missional community expects that an individual is participating in the community to contribute something (1 Corinthians 14:26), whereas someone comes to a Bible study to consume something.

Certainly people need to study the Bible, but to study the Bible without engaging in authentic community on mission is a fool's errand. The purpose of studying the Bible is indeed to learn about God and conform us to the image of Christ, but it's also to equip us for the work of ministry in the church (community) and outside the church (mission).

If we desire compelling communities that foster obedience to the Bible, our community should be naturalneutral, and regular, in the pattern and rhythm of everyday life, not a one-hour, drive-through Bible study.

Practically speaking, most Bible studies need to think critically about how the information that they are studying affects their daily life AND specifically how they can share the good news of Christ's life, death, and resurrection with their friends and neighbors. Transitioning this kind of community requires gathering in different ways for different purposes.

Missional Communities vs. Small Groups

Small groups have been used in many great ways in the church over the last few decades. There are many different variations on small groups, but they are primarily groups of around 12 people who gather weekly together to connect, worship, study the Bible, and pray for one another. Often times they try to serve together in ministry within the church and in their city.

These groups often understand the centrality of the Bible, the need for community, and the purpose of the group beyond itself. I've had great experiences in this kind of group. But I've often found there is a significant struggle to invite others to join in, and it's often difficult to mobilize an entire group to do something outside the regular meeting.

In trying to balance a number of different objectives, small groups often struggle to produce mature disciples of Jesus and multiply into new communities. Why?

I think it is because success is still defined as attendance at an event, rather than events helping relationships become natural in the rhythms of everyday life. Small groups often try to do community and mission outside the normal routines of life by adding an event into the week, rather than redeeming everyday life with gospel intentionality and involving community into normal life.

A missional community understands the value of different kinds of gatherings. A missional community sees itself as a network of relationships with a common mission, rather than being defined by attending an event. Missional communities gather, but the gatherings have different purposes.

I have also found that often times a group will try different kind of gatherings outside of their regular meeting times (for example, Third PlaceThe Family Meal and LTG's) a couple times, then abandon them because they "didn't work." I work hard to teach them that these practices are not a magic bullet, but healthy rhythms that will produce more faithful communities over time.

Small groups begin to shift as people start to put into practice rhythms that enable them to hang out with their friends far from God in natural ways. When a small group has actual names of people to pray for and ask God to save, and those people start to show up in places with the community, they are headed in the right direction.

Conclusion

No community is perfect, but by the grace of God all communities can be more conformed to the image of Christ and be more faithfully used for God's purposes.  Regardless of what category your community falls into, I hope you are challenged to think about how you can more intentionally be disciples together and make disciples of those who are far from God.

May God give us the grace to pursue the fullness of all he intended for our life together, and would we receive the joy of following Jesus and participating in the mission He has called us to!

 
 

May

29

2013

Art Lindsley|12:01 AM CT

Does the Book of Acts Command Socialism?

"A truly strange thing has happened to American Christianity," Gregory Paul writes for The Washington Post's "On Faith" blog. He claims that Christians who defend the free market are in a profound contradiction because Acts 2-5 is "outright socialism of the type described millennia later by Marx—who likely got the general idea from the Gospels."

Does Acts 2-5 really command socialism? A quick reading of these chapters might make it seem so. Acts 2:44-45 says that immediately following Pentecost, "[A]ll who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need." And Acts 4:32-35, referring to the early congregation, says,

Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. . . . There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

Though these passages may sound like socialism to the average reader, such a superficial reading may miss what a closer examination of the text reveals. There are three major reasons why Acts 2-5 does not teach socialism.

This is not an example of true communal sharing. — Acts 2-5 portrays a spirit of communal sharing rather than an actual commune. The people did not sell everything they owned to legal title, as those typically do in a commune. This is evidenced by the imperfect verbs used throughout the passages. Craig Blomberg says in his study Neither Poverty nor Riches, "[Chapter 2] verses 43-47 are dominated by highly marked imperfect tense verbs, whereas one normally expects aorists [once-for-all actions] in historical narrative. There is no once-for-all divestiture of property in view here, but periodic acts of charity as needs arose."

This point is even clearer in Acts 4-5. The NIV translation of Acts 4:34b-35 says, "From time to time, those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles' feet." Blomberg comments:

Again we have a rash of imperfect verbs here, this time explicitly reflected in the NIV's "from time to time." The periodic selling of property confirms our interpretation of Acts 2:44 above. This was not a one-time divesture of all one's possessions. The theme "according to need," reappears, too. Interestingly, what does not appear in this paragraph is any statement of complete equality among believers.

John Stott affirms Blomberg's conclusions on property in the early church, also underscoring Luke's use of the imperfect tense:

Neither Jesus nor his apostles forbade private property to all Christians. . . It is important to note that even in Jerusalem the sharing of property and possessions was voluntary . . . It is also noteworthy that the tense of both verbs in verse 45 is imperfect, which indicates that the selling and giving were occasional, in response to particular needs, not once and for all.

There is also sufficient reason to believe that the early followers of Christ did not sell all they had, but rather occasionally sold part of their possessions and gave the proceeds to the apostles for distribution. For example, in Acts 5, Ananias sold a piece of property (v. 1) and kept a portion of the proceeds for himself and his wife, Sapphira. The problem was not that they were required to sell their possessions and give all of the proceeds of their land to the apostles, but that Ananias lied about the true price he received for the land (v. 7). Peter points out that he could give or keep the money as he saw fit (v. 4) but still lied to Peter and to the Holy Spirit (v. 5).

But even if, for the sake of argument, we grant that all believers sold all their possessions and redistributed them among the community, this still would not prove socialism is biblical. The next two reasons explain why.

The act in Acts was totally voluntary — Socialism implies coercion by the state, but these early believers contributed their goods freely. There is no mention of the state in Acts 2-5. Elsewhere in scripture we see that Christians are even instructed to give in just this manner, freely, for "God loves a cheerful giver" (2 Cor. 9:8). Even if the believers sold all their possessions and redistributed them among the community, this still would not prove socialism is biblical, since the state is not the agent selling property to those in need. There is also plenty of indication that private property rights were still in effect, therefore this was not even even be considered socialism if the term were used to refer to a regulated system of community ownership.

The narrative was not a universal command. — To prove Acts 2-5 commands socialism, you would have to show that this historical precedent is a mandatory prescription for all later Christians. You cannot get the imperative (all Christians should do this) from the indicative (some early Christians did this). The fact that some Christians "shared all things" does not constitute a command that all Christians should follow their example, because it is not clearly taught in passages of Scripture elsewhere.

R. C. Sproul explains how Christians must interpret biblical narratives through the lens of broader Christian teaching: "We must interpret the narrative passages of Scripture by the didactic or 'teaching' portions. If we try to find too much theology in narrative passages, we can easily go beyond the point of the narrative into serious errors."

The communal sharing in Acts 2-5 was not the practice of the early church in the rest of the New Testament, so it is clear that this practice is not a mandatory command. Thus, even if Acts 2-5 was socialism, it would hold nothing other than historical interest to later believers and would have no binding power on the later church.

Certainly, the communal sharing illustrated in Acts 2-5 was a beautiful picture of generosity and love. But it is impossible to show that these passages teach socialism given their temporary, voluntary, and strictly narrative nature.

Note: A longer treatment of this subject by Dr. Lindsley can be found here.

 
 

May

23

2013

Chris Castaldo|12:01 AM CT

When You're in the Crosshairs of Anxiety

A beloved relative is dying before your eyes; the syncopation of an EKG monitor punctuates each heartbeat. Bleep . . . Bleep . . . Bleep . . . . It's not the sound of hospital equipment, however, that is dragging your soul into despair; it's the conflicted thoughts and emotions swirling within. Memories, tender and most lovely, give way to the cold sterile confines of a deathbed. You seek to apply your faith in God's providence, but the torrent of emotions rains down mercilessly upon you, causing you to feel hopeless. 

Such an experience can be replicated in a thousand different scenarios. We've all been there at some point. Some of us live there. You understand quite well the concept of Philippians 4: think on things that are praiseworthy and true, with prayer and supplication, shunning worry in favor of thanksgiving, and God's inscrutable peace will guard you heart. Indeed, this is a precious, altogether true promise. But in some moments of crisis you're so exceedingly distracted that you feel unable to control your thoughts and thus incapable of finding peace. What then? 

Essential Problem

The Lord of glory unifies creation under the reign of Christ in the Holy Spirit's bond of peace; the Devil, on the other hand, comes to steal, kill and destroy. He divides and conquers. It is a strategy that has been around from the inception of sin. The Son of Man sows good seed into his field, producing a harvest of life that redounds to God's glory; the Devil sows weeds that threaten to choke it out. Such is the pattern. The Father extends his hand of redemption to subdue and organize the chaotic creation under his care; sin manufactures more and more chaos.

When the chaos of sin engages one's soul, anxiety naturally follows. The word translated anxiety in Philippians 4:6 comes from the Greek word merimnao. It gathers meaning from the words merizo "to divide" and nous "mind." This divided mind is the unhappy condition of the man whom the Apostle James describes as "double-minded, unstable in all his ways" (1:8). Such instability routinely focuses on the object of anxiety to the exclusion of God. In such moments, the sick feeling in our stomach and shortness of breath in our chest confirms that flaming darts have pierced our spiritual armor. We've been hit, and we are in trouble.

Reality Check

If you find yourself in this situation, seize the first opportunity to get before the Lord. Anxiety imposes a hypnotic trance, which must be broken. If you've ever read The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis, for example, this sort of phenomenon is depicted in the scene in which the evil Green Lady, ruler of the underworld, seeks to bewitch Prince Rilian and his friends. You may recall that just when she seemed to have enslaved them with her lies, Puddleglum stamps out the enchantress's magical fire and breaks her spell. Rilian then awakes, kills the serpent, and leads the travelers to safety. Our Prince of Peace, Jesus, says, "You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8:32).

The truth of God's Word, regardless of our feelings, constitutes reality. The challenge, though, is opening the eyes of the heart to embrace this truth, especially when fiery darts are flying at us fast and furiously. A time of solitude before God is precisely what we need in such moments. Even as I write this sentence, I am looking out upon a quiet pond. Only water with this degree of calmness can possibly reflect heaven above. Likewise, we will reflect the Lord's peace when we sit in the quietness of his presence.

Humble Prayer

Truth is recognized in quietness and galvanized in prayer. While the Greek legacy says "know thyself," the Roman says "rule thyself," the Buddhist says "annihilate thyself," the Muslim says "submit thyself," and New Age religion says "love thyself," Jesus says, "Without me you can do nothing" (John 15:5). Why nothing? Because without Christ we are stuck in the underworld of anxiety without hope of release. Sure, one can pretend to have escaped anxiety, distracting himself through drink or amusement, but these merely provide a momentary release. Only in childlike dependence on Christ, expressed through humble prayer, do we realize genuine liberation.

When you're in the crosshairs of anxiety, get alone with God, read aloud his promises of salvation—which are more certain than the breath that we breathe—and, as you cast your cares upon him, may the peace of Christ be yours.

 
 

May

23

2013

Peter Krol|12:01 AM CT

How to Win Your City

World-changers are a rare breed. But they don't have to be. If displaced youths can revolutionize the kingdoms of the earth in God's name, you and I can transform our communities with the gospel.

Consider the year 605 B.C., as the nation of Judah is losing power and significance. Babylon rules the world, with Nebuchadnezzar as king and general.

Then the unthinkable happens. Nebuchadnezzar besieges Jerusalem, and the city falls because God hands it over to him. Thus begins the book of Daniel: clarifying who truly controls the situation, thereby revealing Daniel's secret confidence that inspires him in three key world-changing behaviors. Since he knows God rules all earthly kingdoms, he can settle down, start small, and win big.

Settle Down

Daniel and his three friends are abducted, transported to Babylon, and enrolled at the state university (Dan 1:3-4, 6). They take classes and study the liberal arts, but this state-sponsored education smells more like religious coercion than intellectual stimulation. They're learning the literature and language of a hostile nation. They're being groomed for civil service as cultural elites (Dan 1:4). They're training to embody new customs (Dan 1:5) and proclaim the glories of false gods—like Bel and Nebo/Nego—by bearing their names (Dan 1:7).

But they don't stage a protest or instigate a riot. They don't plot a rebellion. They don't even refuse to participate. They take it right on the chin and keep moving.

Imagine that you attend Georgetown, but al-Qaeda attacks and levels Washington, D.C. You're taken away and forced to study at the State U in Kabul, Afghanistan, where they interrupt classes five times each day for mandatory prayer, and the cafeteria closes during daylight hours for the month of Ramadan. Upon arrival, they change your name from Christopher Smith to Mohammed Allahu Akbar. Would you take that sitting down? How did Daniel and friends do it?

The Lord knew they'd need help, so he inspired the prophet Jeremiah to write them a letter (Jer 29:1). He told them to "build houses . . . plant gardens . . . take wives . . . multiply there. . . . Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare" (Jer. 29:4-7). He told them it would be 70 years until God brought them back, so they should make the most of the time (Jer. 29:10-11).

Daniel obeyed. He settled down and served the neighborhood. He became a model student and a pillar of the community.

Jesus gave us a similar set of commands. Go to all nations to make disciples (Matt 28:18-20, Luke 24:47). Do not love the world, or the things in the world (1 Jn 2:15), but love your neighbor as yourself (Jas 2:8). Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king (1 Pet 2:17). In other words, settle down and be good citizens.

Start Small

Although seeking to be a good citizen, Daniel resolves not to defile himself (Dan 1:8). The problem, however, is that he doesn't have much control over his life. He appeals to the chief eunuch, but his request is denied (Dan 1:9-10). So Daniel goes down the chain of command to the steward, but this time he proposes a 10-day test (Dan 1:11-13). Note these things about the test:

  1. The test is small. Daniel does not protest, petition, refuse, or revolt. He simply proposes a new menu with a trial period.
  2. The test is tentative. The fact that Daniel proposes a time period implies that he's willing to go back to the defiling food (and try a different plan) if it doesn't work.
  3. The test is out of Daniel's control. Picture this New Year's resolution: "I'll eat healthy food for 10 days. If I come out fatter, prettier, and smarter than the rest of my generation, then I'll know it was a good idea, and I'll persevere." Yeah, right. He's obviously expecting God to do something supernatural.

Daniel doesn't get anxious about stuff he can't control. He focuses on what he can control (not his menu or his health, but his ability to request a slight change), and he begins there. After all, if God is really in control, it just might work! And of course, it does (Dan 1:14-16).

How do you handle big problems? The economy tanks. The election doesn't go your way. Your company is failing. Your name is mud. The world is full of evil, envy, abuse, and pain. What can you do about it?

Start small. You can pick up a piece of litter at the park. You can submit your report before the deadline. You can donate a can of soup. You can talk to one person about your hope in Christ. You can do the next thing, whatever it may be.

Win Big

Daniel settles down and starts small, but his influence reverberates through the ages. Notice how much he wins.

First, he wins Nebuchadnezzar's respect (Dan 1:18-20). At the final exam, Daniel and his friends win first prize. It's as though President Obama came to your church, interviewed the teenagers, and concluded they were 10 times more useful to him than his chief of staff. Only God can give such wisdom (Dan 1:17). But that's not all.

Second, he wins Babylon's empire (Dan 1:21). Why does the chapter conclude with a throwaway detail—that Daniel's tenure continued until the first year of King Cyrus? That detail is important because Cyrus was king of Persia, not king of Babylon. Cyrus was the guy who destroyed Babylon and set up a new empire. So God's man Daniel not only outlasted Nebuchadnezzar, he also survived the Persian takeover and maintained his influence. Nebuchadnezzar thought he was building his empire by capturing Daniel, but God was really building his. That detail is also important because we know Daniel's tenure survived at least until Cyrus's third year (Dan 10:1). So why does chapter 1 end with Cyrus's first year? Because that year was 539 B.C., roughly 70 years after the initial exile. It was the year Cyrus permitted the Jews to return and rebuild (Ezra 1:1-4). And Daniel was there, advising King Cyrus to issue the proclamation.

But that's not all.

Third, Daniel wins the world's attention. More than 500 years later, his influence is still being felt when advisers from Babylon (remember that "magi" is a Persian word) trek across the world to see the one who was born King of the Jews (Matt. 2:1-2). Daniel always directed people to the true King (see Dan. 2:20-21, 4:17, 7:13-14). He told them the signs of the King's advent (see Dan. 8-12, especially chapter 11), so they watched and waited until they finally saw his star in the east and went to worship him.

Daniel rested in God's sovereignty and paved the way for the Messiah to take over the world. What phenomenal influence!

"Winning big" is not about getting what you want. It's not even primarily about changing the world or making it a better place. It's about trusting Jesus to change the world.

We can't fix all that is broken. We can't repair the ruins of our communities or give people lasting hope and peace, unless we give them Jesus. We can settle down and start small. And if God is truly in control, there's a good chance he'll use us to win big.

 
 

May

06

2013

John Starke|12:01 AM CT

When Carl Henry Trash-Talked with Karl Barth

In Gregory Thornbury's new book, Recovering Classic Evangelicalism, he tells a story of a conversation with Millard Erickson, who joked, "You know I love Carl Henry's work. It's extremely important. I hope someday that it is translated into English." I laughed to myself when I read that story, because I resonated with Erickson's point. Some of Henry's more serious theological work can be dense and difficult to understand.

But if you read some of Henry's cultural lectures, you find an upbeat, confident, and engaged mind. He speaks to the challenges of the day—his and ours. And as Thornbury describes, he writes and speaks with a "swagger" that finds confidence not in himself, but in the authority of God and Scripture and the power of the gospel.

I sat down with Gregory Thornbury and Collin Hansen—both Henry enthusiasts—and talked about where to begin with Carl Henry's work. We told stories of how Carl Henry got fired from Christianity Today (a periodical he served as first editor) and the day he trash-talked with Karl Barth.

If you've never heard of Carl Henry or don't know where to begin, Thornbury and Hansen are good guides. After you watch the video, consider taking up Thornbury suggestion to read Toward a Recovery of Christian Belief or Hansen's recommendation of The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism.

Recovering Classic Evangelicalism from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

 

 
 

Apr

19

2013

David Niblack|12:01 AM CT

The Marathoner's Fragile Glory

I ran my first Boston Marathon on Monday. After finishing the race, I headed to a restaurant a few blocks away. While inside, I heard two explosions near the finish line. Walking out of the restaurant, I was met by the sounds of police sirens, ambulances, and an odd, hushed confusion. Then, through a flood of text messages, Twitter feeds, and conversations with strangers, I learned details about the blasts that killed three and injured dozens more.

For the past few years, I've participated in a local running group. The camaraderie has been a welcome opportunity to get to know people who would not naturally come to my church. Yet, even as a pastor, I've struggled to find ways to build bridges to help those in the running community see the relevance of the gospel. Discussions about anything related to running—from previous races, to expected times, even down to the mileage on our shoes—can go on for hours. But moving to a spiritual topic feels subtly off-limits, and conversations usually fizzle. 

Early on race day, I joined with friends from the group as we rode the bus to the starting location. There was euphoria in the air and we murmured our aspirations like those nearing the end of a holy pilgrimage. For the long-distance runner, the Boston Marathon is a crowning achievement. Some runners train for years to gain the coveted qualifying time that allows entry. Monday's weather was ideal for a race. Everything seemed perfect. In the midst of this, I remember sitting on the bus, feeling discouraged over how irrelevant Jesus seemed to this crowded bus of optimistic, mostly upper-middle class, successful runners.

Changed World

But when I walked out of the restaurant, I stepped into a world that had changed. Suddenly our achievements, our medals, and even whether we had finished the race became astonishingly trivial. The near-sacred enchantment of the Boston Marathon vanished before my eyes; our medals became mere pieces of metal around our necks, the finish line was only a band of colored paint, and we found ourselves in a new race to discover if our friends were safe amid the confusion and sadness. This race had an urgency the marathon never did. Death and evil openly entered the equation, and they changed the atmosphere completely.

Instinctively, we all knew this new race, in a limited way, was about salvation. "Is so and so safe?" we asked each other anxiously as we worried and texted. In those moments, rescue and safety became the only thing relevant as we thought about our friends on the course.

The tragedy in Boston reminded me of the foolishness of assuming we can judge what is relevant and what is not. In the wonder of his grace, God has told us ahead of time which race really matters in life. Jesus wins for us the prize we could never win on our own and saves us from our eternal defeat into his eternal victory. We don't have to wait for evil and tragedy to confront us up close to relate to it, but can live in its fullness day by day.

Our culture can make this news seem trivial or superficial. Building bridges to help others see the worth of Jesus usually involves hard work and can be slow and frustrating. But in the midst of the labor we should not forget the fragility of irrelevance. Tragedy has a way of making God relevant. And at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, it took only seconds. 

 
 

Apr

18

2013

Chris Castaldo|12:01 AM CT

Cultivate Gospel Conversations by Listening

We who have the greatest message in the world—the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—ought to be the clearest and most compelling communicators. It's probably true that we evangelicals generally do well with one-way communication—preaching, lecturing, singing, and writing. It seems, however, that we are not always as strong with dialogue. We don't always listen carefully. We can be too verbose. We offer unsolicited opinions. We fail to notice. Or we allow ourselves to be distracted by thinking about our response while others are still speaking.

If we struggle in cultivating ordinary conversation, how can we possibly broach difficult faith discussions, which tend to be wrought with deeply held convictions, some of which are antagonistic to Christian faith? The key word here is "cultivating." Like the farmer who prepares the soil before successfully planting a seed, a number of preparatory measures ought to precede gospel conversation. Such measures grow out of prayer and worship—asking God to stimulate our affections and open doors for connecting with others. This much, I trust, is fairly obvious. It is the subsequent steps that I would like to consider. The first of which is the importance of noticing cues that highlight a person's openness God.

Noticing Cues

I use the word "openness" and not "interest" because it seems that the latter assumes a greater level of consciousness. The former, "openness," is often true without full awareness. In other words, the human heart craves God even when the desire hasn't been consciously formulated. Thus, a friend may speak at some length about her area of need—a fear, anxiety, or an inexplicable angst—without every mentioning God, when in fact her words have cried out for God the entire time without realizing it. This is "openness," and this is precisely what we need to recognize.

As you would expect, Jesus was an expert at identifying such cues. Whether it was at a well in Samaria or around those scummy tax collectors (including the little one who hung out in a tree), human hearts lay open before Christ's compassionate gaze. For instance, Matthew says of Jesus:

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest." (Matthew 9:36-38)

Notice the order. Jesus was moved to compassion when he saw the crowds. Such compassion was instigated by a particular observation: "they were harassed and helpless." How is it possible to observe such details by simply looking at a large collection of people? That is, unless Jesus saw something more.

Self-Abandonment

Seeing the heartache of our friends and other loved ones requires us to consciously take the attention from ourselves and focus it on them. Pretty obvious isn't it? But it's easier said than done. Here is an example of how it works.

It was in the early 19th century when a French professor of medicine, René Laennec, invented the stethoscope. In his classic treatise De l'Auscultation Médiate (1819), Dr. Laennec explains how he was treating a young woman who appeared to be struggling with heart disease. On account of her corpulent frame, the young doctor struggled to hear the woman's heartbeat—that is, until he remembered a lesson he had recently learned from the field of acoustics. At once, he rolled a sheet of paper into a cylinder and applied one end to the patient's heart and the other to his ear. The clarity with which he heard the heartbeat was extraordinary. The stethoscope was born.

Every physician knows that attentive listening is a powerful requisite for healing, without which there is no diagnosis, and without a diagnosis there can be no personalized application of the remedy. Surely Jesus—the Great Physician—understood this when he looked upon the shepherdless crowd. With keen attention our Lord diagnosed the crowd's harassed and helpless state, resulting in genuine compassion. In this pattern we find a valuable lesson.

Listen with Intentionality

As a pastor of a local church, I enjoyed taking congregants to coffee and asking them to talk about the issues about the issues that most concerned them. It is remarkable how quickly folks will open up when they are given the opportunity. Honesty and vulnerability of a most remarkable quality would usually follow. In such situations, my job was simple: listen. Listen for patterns. Listen for underlying causes. Listen for regrets. Listen as through a stethoscope to identify the particular malady to which the good news of Jesus would bring healing.

I can give you dozens of examples from what I have learned on the hearing end from a decade of pastoral ministry, but let me tell you about an occasion when a friend applied her ear to my heart. It was weeks after my father's cardiac arrest when this friend of the family engaged me in conversation about how I was handling it. By that time, I was in way over my head, singlehandedly running the family business. The water line of anxiety rose with each day until eventually I started having panic attacks. Into this dark valley my friend appeared with her questions.

Although I didn't know it at the time, my friend was applying the pattern of Jesus. She asked probing questions—honest, genuine, humble ones. Her posture wasn't that of a teacher or sage preparing to impart wisdom; she was simply a friend listening attentively, finding cues that revealed my fears and insecurities. Finally, with some perspective on my angst, she winsomely applied God's promises of comfort and salvation.

In all of this, my friend not only cultivated gospel conversation; in a way that she couldn't have fully grasped, she was also God's instrument for cultivating my soul, as evidenced by my conversion, which followed shortly thereafter. Indeed, this is what makes such an approach to conversation so exciting: we prepare the soil, we plant the seeds, and sometimes—often when we least expect it—we get to witness the life-changing power of God.

 
 

Apr

02

2013

Lauren Brooks|12:01 AM CT

I Owe My Home to Edith Schaeffer

I heard about Edith Schaeffer's death as I was cleaning my house in preparation for an Easter brunch for 50 the next day. The irony made me smile—if it weren't for Edith Schaeffer, I wondered if I would be hosting such an event. Her ideas about hospitality being more than setting a pretty table and serving delicious food have deeply encouraged me as a wife, mother, and church planter's wife. Among other teachings, she encouraged Christians to remember that meals should always be more than serving or consuming food but provide the "feeling of painting a picture of writing a symphony."

Edith Schaeffer died March 30 at the age of 98, leaving behind a Christian community that will continue to enjoy the effects her life and writings for generations to come. She loved family, artists, and Christian community and put hands and feet to these ideas. With her husband, Francis Schaeffer, she help found L'Abri Fellowship, a community that welcomed those seeking answers about God and Christianity. She also wrote numerous books and articles about Christian life and faith.

I first read her book The Hidden Art of Homemaking when I was a newlywed and my husband was in seminary. In this book she describes ways to make your surroundings more meaningful and beautiful, but it's not just about keeping house. It's about remembering that we are created in the image of an artistic, beautiful Creator. When we provide a Christ-centered atmosphere, we reflect the artistry, beauty, and order of God. The concepts she presents in that book literally changed my life as I made a home for my husband. At the time, we were living in a tiny, cement-block-walled campus apartment. It was tempting to wait to put her ideas into practice until I had a house of my own. But she wisely pointed out that it's wrong for people to long for a daydream future while ignoring the importance of what they can do in the present.

Her encouragement to live artistically, aesthetically, and creatively aided my transition from the working world to being a stay-at-home mother. I left a rewarding career to be at home with an infant, and I probably would've ended up frustrated without Edith Schaeffer's wise words. She showed me how to redirect my creativity and passions toward reflecting Christ. Simple ideas like plating food to look like a still-life painting, reading aloud to my family, and putting a few flowers in the center of the table have enriched my life and helped my children grow up in an atmosphere where they feel treasured and see that beauty is an important part of daily life. The Hidden Art became my textbook, and I have reread it yearly by myself and with other women since.

Through her writings, she reminded me to recognize my creative abilities and fulfill my talents in day-to-day activities. She pointed out that even if I didn't ever become a famous author, I could still write letters to my grandmother or stories for my children. Her book encouraged me to continue to play the piano—I will never be a maestro but I can play at a level that entertains my family and friends. She reminded me that I can glorify God through expressing and developing the gifts he has given me.

Then, years later, her words encouraged me as my husband and I again transitioned and started a church in our home. The truths about hospitality and loving through serving again aided me as a church planter's wife. She wrote that "the kitchen should be an interesting room in which communication takes place between child and mother and also among adults." I've had more conversations than I can count in our kitchen and thank God that she pointed out the benefits of baking bread while having deep discussions and making this room a cozy place conducive for communication. Relationships, she often taught, cannot develop without good conversation.

Whether in Switzerland, the United States, or China—any place where Edith Schaeffer spent time—many were changed and enriched because of her faithful life. The words of the apostle Paul are a fitting tribute: "But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing" (2 Corinthians 2:14-15).

 
 

Mar

29

2013

Chris Castaldo|12:00 PM CT

The Death of Despair

Officials from the American intelligence community recently told a Senate hearing that computer networks across the United States face a threat of cyberattack from hostile governments, hackers, and terrorists.

"It's hard to overemphasize its significance," Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said. "These capabilities put all sectors of our country at risk—from government and private networks to critical infrastructures."

And cyberattack is far from the only threat, according to the annual intelligence review. Other reasons for angst:

  • Terrorism and organized crime from decentralized enemies;
  • Nuclear weapons in the hands of hostile regimes from North Korea to Iran;
  • Attacks on interests in outer space vital for communications, surveillance, and navigation;
  • Pandemics caused by mutating pathogens;
  • Threats to our supplies of food, water, energy, and minerals;
  • Economic deterioration caused by a crisis in Europe.

Despite our relative prosperity, our emphasis on self-esteem, our investments in personal and financial security, our boundless expenditures on health and fitness, our industries of fun and entertainment, we are a nation gripped by fear, angst, and uncertainty.

As the poet W. B. Yeats said nearly a century ago during a time of similar upheaval,

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Deliver Us from Darkness

Followers of Jesus Christ, of all people, have reason not to despair. On the night of the Lord's impending departure, however, despair was in the air.

"I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace," Jesus told his disciples in the upper room. "In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world."

Have peace. Take heart. In the world. Amid tribulation. Don't fear or despair. Why? Because Christ has overcome the world. How?

In the garden, he let anguished drops of blood fall to the ground. He endured betrayal, arrest, and desertion. Before the Sanhedrin, he withstood mockery and slaps in the face from those who ought to have worshiped him. He was silent before the self-indulgent foolishness of Herod Antipas. Before Pilate, he allowed the unjust sentence of death to remain. With the Roman soldiers, he absorbed the crown of thorns, the whipping, the loss of his clothing. On the cross he endured exposure before the vulgar masses, the agony of nails through his wrists and feet, the torture of asphyxiation, the catcalls. In his soul he experienced the shock of his Father's withdrawal and wrath.

Despair.

That scene doesn't seem like the kind of overcoming that will enable us to take heart. But it is. Jesus said, "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (John 12:24). Death, it turns out, is not the end; it is the entrance to life, the passageway to escape sin, fear, and despair. We must die so that we may live.

Christ died, paying the penalty for our sins, and was raised three days later, demonstrating our forgiveness with God. Now united through faith with Christ, we too are called to die to all that enslaves us, all that tempts us to despair. The stone has been rolled away from the tomb, revealing the entrance to a new life for believers, where the forces of fear, decay, and despair can never have the last word. We too, because of Christ, can overcome this tribulation-filled world . . . even as we await the next one.

Good News

No wonder, then, that the message entrusted to the church is called gospel—literally, good news. The church has been given the good news that liberates men and women from despair . . . providing daily freeom and eternal hope, no matter the fear du jour.

It is a joyful task, but it can be a difficult one, as well. The same forces that drive our neighbors to despair can block our best efforts to share this good news: issues of ignorance, access, economic and political barriers, persecution, cultural clashes, and more. We live in a tribulation-filled world that sometimes chooses despair over good news.

Things may seem to be falling apart now; the center may indeed be crumbling. Yet because Christ has overcome, we can take heart. We can also take his good news to the ends of the earth with confidence, knowing that despair can never have the last word.

 
 

Mar

29

2013

Tim Keller|10:49 AM CT

Keller Clarifies Position on Same-Sex Marriage

A recent article on the Huffington Post reported on a discussion among journalists about how younger evangelicals view the issue of same-sex marriage. I was present, and I said that I have noted many younger evangelicals are taking an Anabaptist-like position; that is, that while they still believe homosexuality to be a sin, they don't think the government should put that belief into law for the nation.

In explaining the Anabaptist tradition, I was quoted saying, "You can believe homosexuality is a sin and still believe that same-sex marriage should be legal." I did say that—but it was purely a statement of fact. It is possible to hold that position, though it isn't my position, nor was I promoting or endorsing the position. I was simply reporting on the growth of that view.

I can see how some readers might be confused at these points in the article and think that I support the legalization of same-sex marriage. I do not. I hope that clarifies things for those of you who asked about this article.