Why We Aren’t Connecting

 All those who had believed were together and had all things in common. They were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved~ Acts 2:44a, 46b, and 47 NIV

 Connecting people is a passion of mine.

 I served as a Connections Coordinator for a couple of years. But long before all that, I recognized that the people most likely to stick around a Church or a group in a church were those who felt deeply connected to the people in the church or church group.

 The high school kids who had friends in the Sunday school class I taught were the ones who showed up week after week regardless of what I was teaching. I learned early on that if I could help a woman make a friend in the Bible study I was leading, the chances were pretty good that woman would come back and sometimes she would bring a friend.

 Legitimate research has backed up my observations.

 Research done by Thom Ranier reveals that roughly half (49%) of all people stay in their current church because they have a deep connection to the people in the church. According to some of my own less-than-legitimate research (asking a bunch of nosy questions about why people stayed in or left their church) the number two reason people gave for leaving a church (number one was weak or shady leadership) was lack of connection to people.

 Even the most introverted among us were created to connect with one another. It’s a fundamental part of who we are and a reflection of God’s nature in us. Most adults who convert to Christianity do so within the context of friendship. Many who began attending church looking for friendships have found Jesus in the process.

 Hospitality and developing healthy relationships is a basic and often overlooked aspect of evangelism and we all bear some responsibility for the task. We build healthy groups churches by doing five simple things consistently.

 First:

 Show up-

 Sadly, many of the same people who attend services once or twice a month also grumble about not feeling a sense of belonging in their church. No one in the history of forever has ever grown spiritually, made a friend or become a functioning part of a church body without first committing to consistently attending a church service (Hebrews 10:25).

 Join a small group-

 It can be an adult Sunday school class, weekday Bible study or a small group that meets in a home. Go and do more than show-up. Show-up early, stay late, participate in the discussions and invite people in the group into your home, your heart, and your inner circle. Do your part to make that group into a family and then encourage new people to become a part of the family (1st Corinthians 12:28).

 Be real-

 God only made one you. Being authentic about who you are and what you’ve experienced (without being excessively detailed or graphic) is honoring to God and can be useful (if it’s done right) to those who are struggling on their spiritual journey (2nd Corinthians 1:3-4).

 Don’t judge others for being real-

 Just don’t. Judgment destroys community. Our role as Christians is to encourage, correct, redirect and cheer-lead (Galatians 6:1, Hebrews 3:13, 2nd Timothy 2:24-26). We must leave the judgments to God. He knows more than we ever could. However, it’s equally critical we don’t buy into the lie that correction or redirection is the same thing as judgment. Correcting sinful or spiritually dubious behavior is NOT the same as judging. Correction is biblical AND necessary in a healthy Christian community (James 1:21, James 5:20).

 Use the gifts you have-

 My fondest wish for every Christian on earth would be for them to know and use their gifts to grow their local church (Ephesians 2:10, Romans 12:6-11). Sadly, many Christians have all but stopped serving and churches are dying as a result of our disobedience. Volunteering to teach a class, hosting a group in your home, baking cookies for VBS or serving on the greeting team or in the food pantry is about more than filling a spot. It’s about bonding with other believers, building community and being the hands and feet of Jesus in a broken and hurting world (Matthew 25:44-46).  

 Don’t close your circle-

 Building connections with people is both horribly complex and enormously rewarding. Keeping our hearts open to people and finding creative ways to meet their needs is one of the most significant and basic ways we serve God (1st Peter 4:9). It’s also the only way to build a healthy Christian community.

 

 

Should Christians and Non-Christians be Friends?

 Do not be misled: Bad company corrupts good character~ 1st Corinthians 15:33 NIV

 I subscribe to a number of Christian leadership blogs, podcasts and websites. Most of the stuff I subscribe to is pretty good. A few are hit or miss and one or two are just kind of meh. The best ones consistently tackle issues I have never thought very deeply about, challenge my biases, and help me think more imaginatively about problem solving. The not-so-great ones tend to hit on the same dozen or so issues over and over again and never really give any answers, just raise a lot questions.

 Over the course of the last couple of years, I have noted a clear trend regarding the subject matter of many of the blogs I subscribe to. All of them have been encouraging Christians to be bolder in their pursuit of authentic and meaningful friendships with sinners (their word, not mine). A few have openly scolded other Christians for not having and pursuing more intimate friendships with non-Christians. Every article I’ve read on the subject holds Jesus up as the example we ought to follow when it comes to pursuing friendships with “sinners”.

For the record, I believe with all my heart Christians ought to pursue friendships with non-Christian people (more on that later). However, I am convinced this teaching trend has become dangerously unbalanced because it presumes without offering cautions.

 I will begin with the presumptions.

 The most common presumption is that Jesus spent most or all of His time just chilling with sinners. To hear many pastors and teachers tell it, Jesus spent every moment of His life on earth at the local bars, crack houses and brothels hugging and high-fiving the local riff-raff.  

 He didn’t.

 A careful reading of the gospels reveals that Jesus did indeed attend events and parties where “sinners” were present (a very big deal in His world). We also know that Jesus was kind and welcoming to everyone (including sinners) and He definitely wasn’t shy about interacting with sinners or building meaningful relationships with very messed-up people (Luke 19:1-9, John 4). However, that was one part of His over-all ministry. Jesus spent most of His time with the twelve disciples and others (Luke 8:1-3, Luke 10:1) who were interested in following Jesus and learning to live a holy life.

 The second assumption many make is that the culture Jesus ministered in was exactly like the culture we live in.

Its’ simply not true.

Jesus lived in and ministered to a predominately Jewish culture where even the most messed-up “sinners” understood exactly what the Bible had to say about sin (John 4, Luke 9:1-9). This meant that the pre-evangelistic work of helping folks recognize the reality that they are sinners in need of redemption was done long before they came into contact with Jesus. We live in a post-Christian/atheistic culture where few people know or care about what the Bible has to say about much of anything. Even fewer feel guilt or remorse over their behavior. This difference is subtle and may seem trivial. However, it’s a difference that dramatically affects the dynamics of interacting with non-Christians. At the very least it makes spiritually productive conversations more difficult, and relationships trickier to navigate.

 And finally:

Some are assuming we are all a heck of lot more like Jesus than we actually are. Jesus was the perfect, sinless Son of God on a mission to save the world from the bondage and consequences of sin.

We are not Jesus.

 Even in our redeemed state we are still people who possess a sin nature (1st John 1:8). We are people who have been saved by the kindness and mercy of  a seriously benevolent God and nothing else (Ephesians 2:9). We are also people who have been commanded by a holy God to live a life of purity, holiness and righteousness (1st Corinthians 1:2, Ephesians 5:3, 1st Thessalonians 4:7, 1st Peter 1:14-16, Hebrews 12:14). Our calling to holiness is sometimes made more difficult by our choice of friendships (Proverbs 13:20, Psalm 1, 1st Corinthians 15:33).

 All that being said, I still really believe Christians ought to be intentional about seeking out friendships with non-Christian people. People have to be led to Jesus and the only way that will happen in this culture will be through cultivating relationships. However, we need to initiate relationships with non-Christian people wisely and prayerfully, keeping two truths firmly in mind.

 First, the Bible warns us repeatedly concerning the dangers of spending an inappropriate amount of time around those who may tempt us to sin (Jude 22, 2nd Corinthians 6:14-15, 1st John 2:15-16). Secondly, we need to remember that we will NEVER lead anyone to Jesus if we make a habit out of sinning with them.

 

Is Being Nice Really What Jesus Would Do?

Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring that all people everywhere should repent~ Acts 17:30 NASB

 My daughter has joined a gym. Her fitness goals are commendable and realistic.  She wants to gain muscle, increase her endurance and best-case scenario: drop a few pounds.

 Last night she confessed she’s run into a bit of a glitch in reaching her goals. The problem lies less with her than with the gym she belongs to. The staff is pleasant, but hands off when it comes to assisting clients.

 The staff does not help with technique or correct the wrong use of machines. There are no scales anywhere in the building. There is an enormous dish of candy at the front desk and the gym serves pizza on Fridays. If a client wishes to munch on a jelly donut while running on the treadmill, the management is perfectly fine with that. They do ask that you wipe the goo off the machine once your workout is completed.

 The goal of this organization is a noble one. The want to create a safe place for out of shape people to get into shape, without even a hint of disapproval or judgment from anyone.

 As always the only hitch is the curse of unintended consequences.  

 The employees are so wary of causing offense that the clients are not getting the help they need to make the changes they want to make. This is a legitimate problem when you consider that any gym anywhere in the world would assert that their sole purpose for existing is to help out of shape folks lose weight and get into shape.

 Her tale of woe reminded me of a blog post I read this week.

 I read quite a few blogs in a given week. Every once in a while I come across one that sticks with me and causes me to think on a deeper level.

 This was one of those.

 The writer (a Christian) shared that one afternoon while she and her husband were out shopping, they ran into a guy she had attended youth group with when she was a teenager. Except the guy wasn’t a guy anymore. He was a girl.

 Awkward.

 The writer handled herself with composure considering the delicate nature of the situation. She did not cast judgment, give disapproving looks or hurl Bible verses at him. Nor did she inform him he was headed straight for hell.

 She went out of her way to make friendly conversation and set him at ease. She asked about his family and inquired about what he had been up to in recent years. She introduced her husband, shared some of her own story, gave him a couple of big hugs and went on with her day.

 It was a nice exchange and frankly it’s probably what I would have done given the same set of circumstances. So, please don’t accuse me of judging her or anyone else, because I’m not. That said, as I pondered her story I was overcome with a deep sense of spiritual conviction and left wondering:

 Is being nice enough?

 Being nice or “showing love” to sinners is bandied about as the latest and greatest in “being like Jesus” and “loving the unsaved”. But again, I wonder is it enough? And is it really and truly “being like Jesus”?

 I am not questioning whether or not Christians ought to be kind, respectful and compassionate towards all people, including those people with obviously sinful lifestyles. Jesus was and I believe being kind is a given. If you are a Christ-follower and do not routinely treat all people with respect, you have a serious sin problem called pride and you should deal with it.

Today.

 That being said, I do wonder if simply “showing love” to people who are obviously stuck in a sin spiral is doing more harm than good from an eternal perspective. I’m not proposing we stop being nice. I am proposing we stop helping sinners to feel safe in their lost state. Our compassion and acts of kindness need to be followed up with loving, but truthful conversations about the eternal consequences of choosing a lifestyle of sin over a heart of repentance. We forget that Jesus (arguably the nicest guy ever) made it uncomfortably clear on more than one occasion that an unrepentant sinner is anything but “safe” from a spiritual standpoint (Matthew 4:17, Luke 5:32, Mark 9:47).

 I fear that we have we have traded the hard work of evangelism and making disciples (Matthew 28:18-20) for the path of least resistance: being pleasant and inoffensive. In the process we have become a lot like my daughter’s gym. We are safe and welcoming to sinners, but nothing significant ever really happens and no one ever changes anything that matters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Three Tools for Building Others Up

Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing~ 1st Thessalonians 5:11 NIV

 When our oldest daughter was in the ninth grade, her science teacher had each of his students construct a Rube Goldberg device over Christmas break. For the uninitiated, a Rube Goldberg machine is a device built using an excess of absurdly complicated pulleys, levers, moving parts and gizmos that all work together to tell a funny story and perform a simple task. The project represented a sizable portion of our daughter’s semester grade.

 Five things were apparent within an hour of receiving the details of the assignment:

  1. Rube Goldberg machines are not the sort of project the average student can complete without parental assistance.
  2. The teacher was a vacation-spoiling troll
  3. The assignment was clearly intended to separate mechanically skilled (smart) parents from mechanically challenged (stupid) parents.
  4. My husband and I fell solidly into the second category.
  5. I loathed the science teacher with every fiber of my being.

 Thank heavens I married a clever man.

 I quickly devolved into a puddle of emotional goo and proceeded to rant bitterly against tyrannical teachers who assign tasks that are impossible to accomplish without time and money from parents. I might very well have been standing in the exact same spot ranting when school started back up if it were not for the rational actions of my quick-witted husband.

 Alan called his stepdad (who happened to have an engineering degree) and invited him and my mother-in-law to visit over the Christmas break. It turned out to be a win for everyone. The in-laws were elated to spend some quality time with our kids and the grown-ups had a very pleasant visit. Her teacher was spared an unpleasant phone call and our daughter got an A on the project.

 The experience taught me that the building of anything is serious business. I still couldn’t build a Rube Goldberg machine if my life depended on it. But I did learn there are some some parallels to the building of things and the building-up of people.

Both require a solid plan, careful thought and some real skill.

 The New Testament has precious little to say about the constructing of structures. But it does give a great deal of coaching on the building-up of people. Christians are told repeatedly to grow the body of Christ by looking for ways to build others up. Parents are to build up children, husbands are to build-up their wives, wives should build-up their husbands, and Church leaders and members are to look for ways to build one another. There is a lot that goes into the building–up of others but it all begins with three foundational elements:

 Relationship- 1st Corinthians 16:14

 One of the more profound truths I learned from my father-in-law is that the wrong foundation will doom an otherwise well-constructed device. The same is true with people. For people the foundation for building needs to be a loving relationship and healthy communication. Without relationship and rapport, efforts to build up another person can feel an awful lot like meddling or even malice.

 Encouragement- Hebrews 3:13

 Too often encouragement devolves into hollow praise and gracious but meaningless words we express to the people we like. Biblical encouragement is a form of nurturing that is intended to stimulate spiritual and emotional growth in people. This empowers people to become the totality of what God intends them to be. Well-timed words of encouragement and exhortation can spur others on towards love and good deeds when life gets tough and faith is fading. Encouragement can be life-changing when it is born out of relationship and careful observation of the character, abilities and gifts of person we want to encourage.   

 Truthful words- Ephesians 4:15

 Building people occasionally necessitates some gentle and kindhearted truth telling. When someone we love is headed in the wrong direction or engaging in potentially damaging behavior the most loving thing we can do is to tell him or her what the outcome of that behavior might be. Truth telling should never be harsh or punitive. Truth telling should be done lovingly with relationship and the long-term spiritual growth of the person in mind.

 Building others up is not about ignoring bad behavior or raising self-esteem through empty words of flattery. The building of people is serious business that, if done right, empowers others to do and be all they can for the Kingdom of God. The building of people is not optional for Christians. It is a command that, if obeyed, does as much for the one doing the building as it does for those being built up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Benefits of Gossip?

There’s nothing so delicious as the taste of gossip! It melts in your mouth~ Proverbs 18:8 CEV

 I have settled into a predictable morning routine. It goes something like this: I wake up, stumble to the kitchen, pour a cup of coffee and fight to appear engaged while the youngest child chatters incessantly.

Following is more coffee, more chatter, and a valiant effort on my part to ensure the lunches packed are at least somewhat healthy. I herd the girls out the door, savor the quiet, drink more coffee, read my Bible, drink more coffee and do a quick workout while I catch up on what’s going on in the world.

Yesterday, I finished the last of the coffee, climbed on the exercise bike and became so absorbed in working off my caffeine buzz that I was only marginally tuned in to the news program. That is, until a chirpy anchorwoman declared in an insanely happy tone that a recent study has determined gossip is actually good for us.

WHAT????

I will not tell a lie, for one fleeting instant I was elated. For an inquisitive person such as myself this story was without question the best news ever. All of my dreams had finally come true, I could cave to my baser instincts, listen to gossip and improve my health all at the same time. Just as I was preparing to call my best friend to tell her the good news I remembered something about the perils of buying into worldly wisdom so I decided to dig a little deeper. I found the related article and read it carefully. The author spoke glowingly of the benefits of gossip. According to the author, gossip will:

Tell you how to behave on your job

Help you to understand and improve your social standing

Inform members of a group which behaviors are socially acceptable

Possibly lead to self-improvement

Reading about the alleged benefits of a behavior God calls a sin (Romans 1:29) made me wonder what exactly God would say if we could get His unfiltered opinion of that article. I bet it would be interesting. He wasn’t available for comment, so I turned to the book of Proverbs instead. Proverbs cautions us on the more negative aspects of gossip, including:

Nobody actually likes a gossip- Proverbs 17:28, Proverbs 20:19

Everyone enjoys listening to a juicy piece of gossip, but nobody wants to be a victim of gossip. We all know intuitively that a gossipy person cannot be trusted. That’s why few gossips have many close friends. Smart people avoid a gossip like the plague once they realize anyone who will talk with you about another person will talk about you to other people.

Gossip is rarely completely true- Proverbs 26:20-22

Gossip is notoriously unreliable because most gossipers are also embellishers. It’s part of what makes gossip so insidious and interesting. The frame of the story may be true but the details are almost always made out to be more fascinating and salacious than they really are.

Gossip is the number one cause of family disunity-Proverbs 6:19, Proverbs 16:28

At the root of every unhappy family is at least one person who repeats unkind words and circulates gossip. Sometimes this person is another family member; sometimes it’s a “friend” of the family who likes to stir the pot and keep everyone at odds with each other. Beware of any “friend” who wants to know too much of your family business. They don’t have your best interests at heart.

Gossip ruins the gossiper- Proverbs 13:3, Proverbs 16:28

There is something about spreading stories and sharing personal information that eventually twists a person and destroys their character. If a person gossips for long enough they will develop an insatiable appetite for more and more information to share with others. This happens because the sharing of information makes them feel powerful and important. If there is no actual information to share, they will enhance stories that are true and even lie in order to continue feeling important.

All supposed benefits aside, there are undoubtedly less destructive ways to learn about our social standing, understand the world around us, and improve our social standing and ourselves. Consuming gossip is like eating a deep-fried Twinkie: it feels good while we do it, but the effects are ugly. Passing along gossip is like sprinkling arsenic on chocolate cupcakes. It’s a pleasant way to destroy people.