How to

how to give grace to whoever you’re talking with

AFES Chappo Interview

How do you give grace to whoever you’re talking with?

This is the question that’s been circling inside since I preached on Ephesians 4.17-5.2 a couple of weeks back.

It’s a challenging passage. It draws a sharp line between our old identity — our old humanity, mangled as it is by our futile and corrupting desires — and the new identity we’re given in Christ — a humanity made new in the image of our Creator.

But one thing that really leapt out at me as I sat with this passage is the sheer emphasis on how we speak.

It’s there at every turn.

But it’s verse 29 that’s really got a grip on me:

Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.

So that your words may give grace to those who hear.

Wow!

That is an amazing possibility. Isn’t it?

That the things that come out of our mouths could not only enrich, build up, comfort, encourage, advise — and all those other good human things.

But that we could somehow give grace to whoever you’re talking with.

Astonishing, right? It’s almost hard to picture how that could be.

Except that I’ve seen it.

At the 1 hour and 13 minute mark in this video, Australian evangelist John Chapman was asked if there was a period of his life he looked back on as the happiest.

I was in the room when this question was asked. And I remember the tremendous sense of gratitude that flooded me as it was asked: ‘That was such a kind thing to ask…’

I doubt there was a dry eye in the room by the time Chappo had finished answering.

That question gave grace to John Chapman — and to all of us who listened. Tangibly so.

It did this through it’s beautiful combination of specificity and other-centredness.

Specificity because it forced us to pay attention to particulars rather than just skate across the surface of generality.

Other-centredness because it wasn’t chiefly designed to wrest some wisdom for us from Chappo’s memories — although it did that in spades.

(In fact, this combination seems to be the key to all good questions.)

So it’s with that memory burning in my heart that I’m committing myself to learning to ask the kind of questions that give grace to those who hear.

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some Captain Obvious tips for sharing about Jesus

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I’m no expert when it comes to sharing about my faith in Jesus with the people God puts in my life. It doesn’t come naturally to me — at least not in the way it seems to for some people.

Even so, most often I find the challenge isn’t the knowing what or how. It’s just embracing the obvious and doing it!

Along these lines, here are some really pretty obvious things I’ve been (slowly) learning to implement — whether I’m having coffee with someone or standing on the footpath in front on my house:

1. Quantity Time Begets Quality Time

This applies in all sorts of areas of life — romantic relationships, parenting, reading the Bible, even managing a business!

So it’s sort of a no-brainier that it would apply to sharing about Jesus too.

And yet I still have to actively plan (and fight the urge to make pious excuses) to spend enough time with the people in my life to give those ‘quality conversations’ a chance to emerge naturally.

2. Be Interruptible

Christians bang on about how we need to learn from the way Jesus prioritised his time alone with God (or even just his time to rest and sleep).

Now if that’s true, then — based on the New Testament Gospel accounts — we’ll need to learn to be a whole lot more interruptible than we are.

Because Jesus every time slunk off alone to pray, needy people seemed to find him anyway.

And you know what he didn’t say to them? He didn’t say, “Sorry guys. I’m having my special day with God. Come back later.”

3. Lower The Bar

For a long time, I think I operated on the assumption that if the conversation felt like it might even start to get deeper, then I had to lean in and go for the jugular.

Now there’s a time to seize the moment. And – yes, there’s stuff in the New Testament about making the most of the opportunities we have.

But what I’m discovering is that a lot of the time I’m much more effective at securing a ‘We’d like to hear you again on these things’ response of I simply aim to keep the conversation going.

Mostly, I’m finding that the key to this is having something substantial (and preferably personal) to say — but deliberately reframing from saying everything as soon as I get a whiff of opportunity.

4. Cultivate A ‘God Talk’ Habit

A surprising number of doors are opened by making it a habit to talk about the things in my faith that ‘live’ and are meaningful for me.

There are better and worse ways to do this, of course. And there are times when I’ve got to reign in my tendency to be a Christian jargon-spouting bore.

It even turns learning to mention God, the difference Jesus makes to me at a daily level, and the things I’m thankful for (or praying for), is actually just good for my own heart.

5. Practice Talking About Jesus

There are lots of situations where a little story from the life of Jesus would go a long way.

Whether it’s in drawing a parallel with something we’re talking about, shedding light on why Christians might want to take a stand on a particular issue, or answering some question or objection about the faith, it’s good to have a kit bag full of ‘gospel bites’ (as John Dickson calls them).

So it’s handy to be familiar with the Gospel stories about Jesus. And to practice telling them — relating them to contemporary events, questions, and situations.

Because ultimately that’s what I want to be doing with the people in my life. So I figure, why not just start talking about Jesus, instead of waiting for him to ‘come up’?

instruments in the Redeemer’s hands

A friend recently handed me a copy of Paul Tripp’s book, Instruments In The Redeemer’s Hands. And it’s got me really excited.

I know it’s not exactly a new book. So it’s a good thing this isn’t exactly a book review!

I simply want to share what’s got me excited about it so far. And that is that it’s a practical theology of every-member ministry that’s word-focused and body-contextualised — a la Ephesians 4.

I’m going to try to break this down for you. But before I do, let me give you a little taste of it’s awesomeness:

We are too easily captivated by our self-centred little worlds. But Ephesians 4 propels us beyond a life consumed by personal happiness and achievement. Your life is much bigger than a good job, an understanding spouse, and non-delinquent kids. It is bigger than beautiful gardens, nice vacations, and fashionable clothes. In reality, you are part of something immense, something that began before you were born and will continue after you die. God is rescuing fallen humanity, transporting them into his kingdom, and progressively shaping them into his likeness — and he wants you to be part of it.

Why am I so excited by this?

1. It’s practical theology.

As you can hopefully see even from this brief excerpt, it’s neither a dense theological textbook nor a lightweight toolbox of pastoral counselling resources with the thinnest of theological groundings.

2. It’s all about every-member ministry.

Picking up on the clear emphasis of Ephesians 4 (not to mention the repeated refrain of the various church and ‘one another’ passages in the New Testament), each one of us is addressed by the ‘demanding comfort’ of this announcement that we’re part of something bigger — and called to live out this larger vision of being human.

3. It’s unashamedly word-focused.

Lots of every-member ministry stuff moves very quickly to the diversity of gifts. But that’s not what Ephesians does. And neither does Tripp. Instead, he majors on speaking the truth in love to one another as every-member ministry. Which is awesome.

4. It’s body-contextualised.

Balancing the previous point, it refused to rip its focus on word-ministry out of the context of necessary interdependence, mutual responsibility, and diversity that the body metaphor provides. This is how Tripp resists the tendency to slide towards a ‘one size fits all’ approach to bringing the word to bear on one another’s lives.

So stay tuned…

There’s much more to come!

they always told me that practice makes perfect

I’m continuing to wrestle with the dynamics of spiritual growth. Namely, how do we get on board with the Spirit’s work in ‘perfecting’ (or maturing) God’s people in Christ?

So I really enjoyed this article by Michael R. Emlet
from the Journal Of Biblical Counseling that Matt flicked me.

Emlet is a Christian counsellor who has been stimulated by engaging with James K. A. Smith’s book Desiring The Kingdom.

I love where he lands in this article. I think it’s roughly where I’m up to with Smith’s stuff (just substitute ‘preachers’ or ‘ministers’ for ‘counselors’ in the following paragraph):

So, how do we grow in Christ? How does change happen? Do our desires shape our practices or do our practices shape our desires? Does what we love drive our actions or do our actions drive what we love? Do we grow by examining the direction of our desires and why they lead to certain practices, or by engaging in certain practices that aim the direction of our desires toward God? The answer is, yes and yes! We biblical counselors are more accustomed to travel in one direction on these questions -— i.e., certain thoughts and desires drive certain actions—but James Smith reminds us that spiritual transformation is a two-way street.

They always told me that practice makes perfect. And maybe they were right!

you’ve heard of the three Ps, but should there be a fourth?

You’ve heard of the three Ps. I’m sure you have.

Spinning out of passages like Colossians 1.24-2.5, it is argued that Paul’s ministry strategy consisted of proclaiming the gospel to people — an activity he saturated in prayer.

These three Ps are how Paul sought to move people towards maturity (or perfection, teleion) in Christ. And this, we’re told, is how we should operate too.

And it makes a whole lot of sense. Expressing the conviction that God promises to work as the news about Jesus is spoken in the context of personal relationships. Which means we don’t have to be expert counsellors or have magnetic (or forceful or manipulative) personalities to help people press forward as Christians.

But I’ve been wondering if there might be room for a fourth P?

Not that I want to cancel out the others. Or even particularly add to them. But I suspect it would help us extend and sharpen them up in terms of the goal they all drive towards to think about each person’s pathway to Christian maturity.

Like I say, this isn’t meant to replace or hold the other Ps hostage. But it is meant to help us get concrete on how we hope to see the ministry strategy play out. Which see it doing in two ways:

First, it will force us to get specific as we seek to fill out the content of the ‘maturity’ we aim for. Among other places, this could take us back to Colossians — and to the logic of the letter (which appears to be a self-consciously worked example of Paul’s ministry strategy applied to a group of believers).

There we’d see that the vision Paul has of maturity is one in which Christians calibrate their inner compass by the new identity they’ve received through their union with Christ in his death and resurrection (2.6-3.4). And this inner recalibration is plays out not only in personal holiness but also in our relationships in our family, church, and secular work/community context (3.5-4.6).

Second, it will make us embrace what I like to call ‘next step’ thinking — not necessarily plotting out other people’s entire life trajectory but at least being able to open up a conversation with them about what the next step or two towards maturity could look like for them.

My hunch is that in doing this such fourth P, ‘next step’ thinking will allow us to integrate our development of ministry structures (and where you’ve got people, you’ve got structures — de facto if not de jure) with the biblical priority of people, prayer and proclamation.

What do you reckon?

where ‘people not structures’ can sabotage you

“Christian ministry is about people not structures” is probably a fairly familiar imperative. A kind of evangelical Motherhood And Apple Pie statement.

The thought is that our structures should serve people. They should help them become disciples, grow in maturity, and make other disciples. And when they stop helping people like this we should stop pouring resources into keeping them running.

And it’s a great thought as far as it goes. I’ve certainly encountered ‘mothers’ groups’ full of octogenarians (I guess they’re still mothers) and ‘youth groups’ with an ever-expanding penumbra of young adults — as well as some not-so-young ones!

Someone’s got to start asking hard questions about these structures at some point — especially if they’re sucking up significant time and resources without helping anyone move forward very much.

But I suspect this idea could also sabotage us. Especially when it gets drawn into the ministry Time Management Vs Open-Endedness nexus I’ve been posting about recently.

This happens where it functions as a fig leaf to cover up our own failings in leadership, administration, or strategy — even justifying these failings to ourselves.

When we start saying to ourselves (as I have in the past): “Oh. Ministry’s all about people not structures. Making phone calls to newcomers is just a structural responsibility (one I don’t particularly relish or feel very good at). So it’s no big issue if I don’t get around to it — my plate’s already full enough of good ministry things like pastorally significant conversations with key leaders.”

What happens if we let ‘people not structures’ thinking like this side-track us from our structural responsibilities like calling newcomers? Before long there won’t be any people for us to do ministry with!

good ministry or bad strategy?

I want to continue poking around the dense underbrush of time-management in Christian ministry. Who knows what I might startle and flush out into the light?

If you’ve been involved in Christian circles for any length of time, I imagine you’ve heard people say ‘Good ministry always generates more ministry’ — or words to that effect.

I’ve definitely heard it. I’ve even said it myself.

But I’d us to scrutinise it. Because, as I noted in my previous post about working out our limits not by policing the boundaries but by focusing on the centre and making sure all the big and important things are locked in, the fact that ministry is open-ended makes it even more difficult to say No.

Perhaps it’s just because I wrestle with perfectionism, but there always seems to be another person to follow up, another person needing help, another task (or six) to do to wrap up the day.

And so the idea that good ministry always generates more ministry can console me and help me draw a line that says ‘Enough’.

On the other hand, it can also let me off the hook. In particular, if my strategy is bad — or if I’m not on top of my admin (as I would be expected to be in any other job) — then the ‘good ministry…’ mantra becomes self-serving.

Let me explain:

There may be too many people to follow up and push along the road to maturity because I’m being effective — ie. the ministry is multiplying as those I’m working with are involved in making disciples themselves. Or there may be too many people to follow up because I’m failing to do my job and aren’t touching base with newcomers, helping them connect in with others, or grab hold of Jesus.

Which is it for you?

saying No for people who can’t

Yesterday someone asked me how I work out what to say No to and what my limits are when it comes to Christian ministry.

I’d like to spend the next few posts trying to untangle the matted ball of issues this throws up.

But to begin with, it’s worth saying that I’m no expert. In fact, I’m really not sure why I seemed like I might have any wisdom to share on this question (just ask my wife).

Whether it’s because I crave acceptance and fear saying No will mean people reject me, or just because I’m chronically allergic to an anxious boundary-policing approach to time- and self-management, I just can’t seem to say No.

I’ve been down the path of keeping strict track of my hours on a timesheet. Although I still do it for tasks when I’m juggling competing deadlines, I haven’t found it that helpful for ministry work with people.

For me it not only tends to promote a toxic boundary-policing mentality (which I find saps at least as much emotional energy as overcommitting and over-stretching myself in investing time in people). It also tends to leave me comparing myself with others — either proudly puffing myself up (“Look how many people I’m catching up with”) or, more frequently, crushing me with guilt and shame (“Why can’t I be as fruitful and productive as that ministry colleague?”).

My hunch at the moment is that I need to start not with working out my limits but with focusing on the centre. That is, I need to figure out what things I need to do to make it possible for me to do the work of ministry with people — preparation, admin, prayer, and things that will feed and sustain me emotionally and spiritually — and lock those in. Then I can freely take on whatever else fits in.

That’s the theory at least.

Of course, this approach is likely to be complicated by the fact that ministry is always open-ended and never finished. Because, as people often say, good ministry will generate more ministry. But that’s the topic of my next post…

Christ-centred apologetics

Last weekend I had the privilege of taking part in the launch of the Reason For Faith Festival.

I stepped in at the last minute to run a workshop on ‘conversational apologetics’, exploring what we can do with the big questions people have about Christian faith and how to respond without necessarily knowing all the answers. More on this after I fill you in on some of the context of the Reason For Faith Festival.

The Festival launch was all about the up-coming opportunity to open up some intelligent and generous conversations about life’s big questions in our city. This opportunity comes in the shape of the Global Atheist Convention’s return to Melbourne just after Easter.

Formally, there are some brilliant events planned. The Festival website has all the details. And if you want to get more of a feel for the Festival, check out the short promotional clip:

Informally, it’s all about the conversations the Global Atheist Convention and Reason For Faith Festival are likely to spark.

And that’s where my seminar and the other seminars ran on the weekend come in. You see, too often conversations about life’s big questions degenerate into Christians wheeling out ready-made, cookie-cutter answers that we download onto people (as though we’ve memorised a couple of pages of an apologetics textbook). Or they get lost and tangled in the thick scrub of some argument about what the fine-tuning of the universe say about the existence of God or whatever.

I’m coming to believe that what we need is something much more Christ-centred.

One of the seminars (not mine) did an excellent job at connecting the big Bible themes and plot-movements to Jesus and then exploring how they connect with people’s questions. We need heaps more of this!

But, more than a Christ-centred matter and method, I’m convinced we also need a Christ-centred manner.

That is, we need to hear what Peter says about letting Christ live and reign in our hearts and lives in such a way that we’ll neither be afraid and get defensive nor will we be afraid and go on the attack. Rather, we’ll be genuinely responsive — giving reasons for the hope that we have with gentleness, respect, and a clear conscience.

In short, we’ve got to believe the gospel to make the most of this opportunity and approach these conversations productively and well.

how to renarrate your humanity in the light of the gospel

I’ve had the privilege of spending the past few days wrestling with what it means to be ‘in Christ’ at the annual National Training Event for the university student movement I’m part of.

One of the highlights has been working with a small group of students to unravel 1 Peter 2.18-25 — reflecting on how to read and make sense of any part of the Bible as we went.

Peter is addressing the question of how Christian slaves should to respond to conflict and especially to harm done to them, e.g., by abusive masters. His answer is to point to:

  1. The pattern Jesus himself left — particularly in his betrayal, rejection and humiliating death (verses 21-23).
  2. Christ’s achievement in dying for us, freeing us from sin’s dominion so that it’s now possible to follow in his steps (verse 24).
  3. And the promise that God has graciously returned us to the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls.

Perhaps we could say that Peter is inviting any slaves among his readers — and by extension all of us — to renarrate our humanity in the light of the gospel.

Not that we’re to stoically pretend we don’t experience conflict or get hurt. But that we’re to retell our story so it doesn’t end with us trapped in a seemingly inevitable cycle of tit-for-tat.

Instead, our story should end with us entrusting ourselves to the the one who can be trusted to do what’s right. And so to open out onto the broad horizon of forgiveness and reconciliation. Not primarily for our own emotional health (as important as that may be). But, in the wider context of 1 Peter, for the sake of mission.

I can’t think of a richer way to express this insight than John Howard Yoder does in Body Politic (quoted recently by Joel Willits):

To be human is to be in conflict, to offend and to be offended. To be human in the light of the gospel is to face conflict in redemptive dialogue. When we do that, it is God who does it. When we do that, we demonstrate that to process conflict is not merely a palliative strategy for tolerable survival or psychic hygiene, but a mode of truth-finding and community-building. That is true in the gospel; it is also true, mutatis mutandis, in the world.