Meaningful Mentorship for Ministry

As I talk with friends and acquaintances who believe that God has gifted them for pastoral ministry but aren’t there yet, I’ve picked up on some common themes. One of the biggest is this: “My church doesn’t have a plan to mentor me toward ministry. Or if they do, I’m not aware of it.” Okay, it’s not usually said that bluntly. But you can frequently elicit this conclusion by asking someone what path they’re being guided down, what kind of pastoral mentorship they’re receiving, what counsel they’re getting on next steps, and what the church’s timeline is for sending them.

Let’s take a step back and look at the less-than-meaningful method of handling up and coming servants in the church and then suggest some correctives.

They give me service for service’s sake

Men and women with a heart for ministry will do anything—yes, anything—if their pastor asks them to do it. I know guys who’ve had their hearts set on ministry and have spent years plunging toilets or teaching kids. Don’t get me wrong, these are awesome ministries. But tossing a dude a service ministry in hopes that he shuts up or learns on his own is an absolute death sentence for future pastors, planters, and missionaries. If the guy is passive, he’ll stay and serve in frustration, waiting on you to clear him for other opportunities. If the guy is hyper-passionate, he’ll quickly burn out or blow you off and move on to another ministry. Either situation isn’t great for developing next generation leaders in your church.

Instead, give those next generation leaders a variety of opportunities as they are faithful and willing. Let them try their hand at greeting, teaching, technology, nursery, counseling, music, or administration. You’ll never understand the impact of this question: “What areas could you use opportunities to develop your gifts?” Try asking one of the young leaders in your church that question this week. They’ll appreciate it far more than you can imagine.

They don’t give me much/any feedback

Once someone passionate for ministry gets assigned to serve, they get little, if any, feedback from their pastors. They serve in silence. The only feedback they get is if something didn’t turn out well. Good feedback from church leaders is one of the most effective ways for a person to nail down aspects of calling and gifting. By not giving feedback, pastors avoid offering the next generation the clarity that they desperately desire regarding God’s will for their lives.

Take time to give feedback to young leaders. No, this doesn’t always mean that you have to sit in their class or visit their small group. Just start by asking questions of those who serve alongside them or those who sit under their teaching. Collect what you hear and talk it over with him or her. It’s really not super hard. A teachable servant of the church will soak up the feedback and be open to critique. Be cautious about forming internal opinions about the young leader without discussing critiques and giving them clear ways to improve. If they’re consistently dropping the ball and you think they need to put ministry ambitions on hold (or reshape those ambitions in some way), clearly tell them as much. They’ll thank you for it later.

Pairing the idea of feedback with the previous idea of meaningful service, I’d recommend using a two-year leadership development plan. Let a young leader serve in a number of general ways in the church for a year with basic feedback and accountability. Then evaluate their fitness for Gospel ministry. If it makes sense, then do a year of directed and intense service with more robust feedback and follow-up. The goal at the end of the second year is to launch that leader into pastoral ministry. With intentional planning like this, it won’t take long for the word to get out and you won’t know what to do with all the men and women looking for an opportunity for meaningful mentorship for ministry.

They gave me a book to read

Among many evangelical churches in the US, head training is one of the things we do well. We have great books. We attend great conferences. We have great seminaries. It’s all great knowledge at arm’s length. So when a young guy seems to have a passion to plant churches, he’s often given a book (or a stack of them). Sometimes a pastor will meet with him and discuss theology. But who is talking with him about spiritual formation, calling, gifting, and ministerial challenges? Who’s prodding him about his sin struggles and spiritual disciplines?

Assign an elder to meet weekly or bi-weekly with next generation leaders. Use a programmatic tool to guide discussions to ensure that you’re equipping young leaders on a broad scale of topics and issues.

They told me to move and attend seminary

Sometimes I wonder if churches understand what they’re doing when they tell a young leader to leave and go to seminary. Often this advice demonstrates that the church leadership frankly doesn’t know with a young, aspiring leader. It essentially says that the church’s role in a leader’s development ends where seminary begins. Here are some of the bad results of this advice:

  • Young leaders leave their spiritual community, with plenty of potentially ruinous spiritual effects. The doctrinal and spiritual mooring of a local church can be helpful to young leaders as they weigh what they learn in seminary.
  • Young leaders lack the locale to practice the hands-on aspects of ministry. Enough said.
  • Young leaders lose a sense of sending and arrive at a sense of searching. Sending is when a church has your back. Searching is when you’re trying to find your own way. Sending is awesome. Searching sucks. Send your next-up leaders. Don’t leave them searching.
  • Young leaders are driven to non-relational networking to find pastoral ministry opportunities. Most of the ministry roles worth having are not the ones you find with a resume. They’re ones that are either forged through planting/revitalizing or initiated by others who know you well.
  • Young leaders make poor decisions about where to attend seminary. When telling a guy to go to seminary is a “check-out” move by a church, guys often make dumb decisions about where to go. What many guys don’t realize is that seminaries set them up to serve in and be heard by particular audiences or denominations. Stay involved in the process and visit a seminary or two with your young leaders. Make helpful recommendations based on what you know of them.

If your default is to tell a guy to pack his things, consider changing to more of an apprentice model. Can he take hybrid or online courses? Can he commute? Is there any possible way he can get a theological education while undergoing spiritual formation and pastoral training in your church? If you feel willing to train a next generation leader but lack the resources or ability, try asking about other churches in the area that do this well and forging a partnership with them. Do your utmost to retain the God-given task of pastoral training within the local assembly.

Someday, by God’s grace, I hope I can start meeting with more next generation leaders who can tell me: “One of my pastors and I meet weekly for accountability and discussing pastoral responsibilities, and I’m on a two-year track to be sent to revitalize a church in a nearby city.”

Presumed Grace

Probably my all-time favorite cartoon is “The Emperor’s New Groove.” The epically audacious Emperor Kuzco has been given everything in life. Really, he has no room to complain about anything. But this all ends one day when a peasant doesn’t want to give up his humble abode in order for Kuzco to build a personal resort. Shortly thereafter, Kuzco gets turned into a llama and loses any frame of reference for what he’s experiencing. What should be an overcomable obstacle becomes an end of the world scenario. Because he’s always been given whatever he wanted, a season of limitation results in a personal chaos and a (literally) meandering path back to comfort.Grooveposter

We all struggle to sympathize with characters like Kuzco, Richie Rich, Cinderella’s step-sisters, and so on, who presume that they should always receive the best things in life. Those of us who are used to receiving very little in terms of preferential treatment or monetary freedom have a different floor of expectation. For us, a life of moderation is what we expect. We anticipate that our basic needs will be met and know that everything else is gravy. But there’s another perspective that we’re often reminded of. Many in the third world don’t even take for granted that they’ll have a meal or two each day. That we should expect meals and clothes and housing is scandalous in their minds. To them, the daily provision you anticipate is a glorious blessing.

I’m not interested in shaming you if you’ve received a lot in your life. All I’m saying is that if you’re reading this article, you probably have received a gracious plenty in your life. Many who read this article have experienced heaps of blessings that others haven’t. Theologians tell us that the Bible teaches that every little blessing that we get, whether you’re a Christian or not, comes from the hand of God. It’s not something you earn because you’re good or because you’re from a certain part of the globe. God dispenses his “common grace” on the planet to sustain every human being that exists and to hold back the swell of evil in the world. This seems to be what Jesus was getting at when he said:

“For [your Father] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” – Matthew 5.45

From Jesus’ perspective, God’s care for the day-to-day blessings we enjoy is the only reason why we exist today. God’s common grace is the only reason why all of humanity isn’t starving and sick, hammered daily by earthquakes and hurricanes, and suffering from the devastation of mass despotism. So in a sense, we’ve come to anticipate common grace. And that’s why I think theologians should adopt a new term for this teaching: “presumed grace.” Kuzco-like, we tend to presume that God’s restraint of darkness is the norm and that calamity is the rare exception. We feel like every pack of Pokemon cards (yes, I’m showing my age here) should be full of rare holographic cards. When we come up with a single common card, we flip out. We start to feel that we deserve God for to keep the chaos of a rebellious world at bay and to be provided with all of the things we feel we need.

Let’s test our outlook with the following chaotic experiences: Tomorrow an earthquake kills hundreds. A relative is killed in a car accident with a drunk driver. You lose your retirement money in a stock crash. You get slandered in front of your friends and they buy it. Your adult child doesn’t want anything to do with you. A close friend is raped.

Some of you don’t have to think very hard in order to envision one of these scenarios. I’ve recently experienced a measure of hurt in my life too. And what do we tell ourselves when we’re in the middle of a situation like this? We tell ourselves that we don’t deserve this hurt. We feel devastated that we have been given this pain. We see the event in isolation from the blessings that God has so richly given us. In that moment, we’ve presumed upon grace. Instead of presuming that we will receive pain and hurt and chaos in life, we’ve come to anticipate the opposite.

Two conclusions seem plausible based on my consideration of presumed grace. First, I think that Christians should frame a better response to the academic pondering: “How can there be so much evil in the world and there still be a God?” Perhaps a better question is: “How can there be so much goodness in the world apart from a God?” We all see how the world turns to chaos and that the very possibility of life on planet earth seems but a fluke of flukes. So even our very existence and the stability of civilizations full of broken people like ourselves seems to be evidence of a good and gracious care of a Sovereign God.

The second conclusion is closer to home. Believers who are enduring a season of chaos should let this circumstance reorient them to God’s grace. Instead of presuming upon God’s grace, we should let the dark times remind us of so much of the brightness of mercy we’ve received. Every day that we draw breath, experience the joy of friends and family, enjoy food and drink, or see another disaster-free day is a gift of God. I suppose that we suddenly experience this reorientation when God gives us a win after a season of darkness. We look around and find ourselves momentarily out of the mud of the last few months and look around; the freedom from the chaos is what I’ve enjoyed far too often. No more do we presume upon grace.

Giving Mid-Life Saints a Vision for Real-Life Discipleship

They’ve been married and have grown kids. As empty-nesters, they are experiencing newfound freedoms and newfound challenges. Many are still plugged into successful careers, but have extensive personal life histories to draw upon. Some have been saved and serving in the church for dozens of years. Chances are, your church has a number of these men and women. They’re the mid-life saints who often form the backbone of well-rooted churches. They usually give of their time and resources in the offerings and programs of the church. They usually have strong walks with God. But if there’s one wish that their pastors had for them, it would be that they would serve as the disciplers for the younger members of the church.

What if our mid-life saints could catch this vision? Wouldn’t it be incredible if the multi-generational discipleship dynamic of Titus 2 would be deeply rooted in the soil of our churches? But let’s be honest; there are some major hurdles that keep mid-life saints from discipling younger believers. Mid-life saints aren’t frequently discipling the young married couples, college students, and teenagers in the church and need help from their fellow-believers to move them toward these meaningful relationships. In this article I’d like to examine 5 ways we can help our mid-life brothers and sisters follow this Great Commission call.

Leading Mid-Life Saints through Personal Discipleship

“Phil, to be quite frank, I haven’t ever been intentionally discipled,” the saved-since-childhood, middle-aged father of two confided in me. I was a little startled at first. But then I thought about it. Most of my millennial friends could share in the same sentiment. And from what I seen, my parents’ generation seemed pretty “lone-wolf” when it came to their faith. They were probably better at the corporate worship bit of their Christianity, but when it came to connecting deeply with other believers on a one-on-one basis for accountability and discipleship, they seemed to, on the whole, come up lacking.

So, Church, let’s help prepare these believers for discipleship. Pastors, take some time to invest in them. Young up-and-coming leaders, plug into the life of an older believer and allow the experience be one of mutual growth. Instead of seeking out someone your own age to be disciple by or to disciple, build these relationships with middle-aged believers. Mid-life saints will continue to struggle to disciple until they themselves have been discipled. Walk the road of life with a mid-life saint and exponentially multiply the Church’s impact on the younger generations (2 Tim. 2.2).

Preparing Mid-Life Saints for Paradigm-Shift

A huge challenge that keeps intergenerational discipleship from happening in the church is the divide between old and young. To many mid-life saints, the younger generation in their church may be too liberal, tech-driven, or worldly. These notions of the young believers in the church are often mistaken and driven by mere cursory interaction between the generations. Tensions between the generations result in a sort of impasse whereby each generation assumes that the other is out of place and neither generation benefits from the other.

Breaking the impasse requires a Romans 14 kind of experience where both generations loosely hold to what divides them and are willing to do whatever it takes on non-essentials in order to experience unity and growth. In this spirit, both generations are able to see their blind spots more clearly and and love each other better (Phil. 2.3). This paradigm shift of unity in the non-essentials is absolutely essential if mid-life saints are going to be able to do the difficult task of intergenerational discipleship.

One substantial realization that is essential to helping mid-life saints clear this hurdle is awareness that millennials crave the input from the older generations. It’s a big deal to us to have those older and wiser than ourselves invest in us. Despite our uncomfortable social media choices and our unusual clothing choices and our prickly personas, we really do appreciate you. Your paradigm of what a “good Christian” looks like may shift by hanging out with us and loving us. But the Church will be all the better for it; that’s the way it’s always been (Gal. 3.27-28; Col. 3.11).

Moving Mid-Life Saints from Monologue to Dialogue

Another challenge for the seasoned Christians in your church when it comes to interacting with younger believers is that most of our mid-life saints learned best and most frequently via monologue. But this isn’t so with many millennials. Most of us learn best in dialogue. In order to prepare mid-life Christians for discipleship, we need to prepare them for a new method of interacting and teaching. But this takes time and intention.

In order to begin a transition away from monologue in discipleship, it’s essential for the discipler to understand the effect of a misunderstood monologue. To a dialogical learner, monologue can be misunderstood as not caring about my perspective, a superiority complex, or not allowing for helpful questions. Monologue in a discipleship context results in a “speaking at” mode rather than “discussing together” which is essential for true learning. At its worst, monologue in discipleship comes across as what a few of my friends have called “drive-by accountability.” You pop out of nowhere with a baseball bat, smack that newb Christian down, and get out of there. And how do you think that young believer is going to react? He’s going to avoid discipleship relationships like the plague!

Let’s encourage the monologue-trending disciplers to take a cue from Jesus when he asked, “Who do people say that I am?” And when their answers had prompted a surface level of consideration, he brought the question home, not by telling them the answer, but by forcing them to answer. “Who do YOU say that I am?” Prepare middle-aged believers to disciple by pointing to this discipleship technique from Jesus’ playbook.

Healing Mid-Life Saints from Failure Paralysis

I think if I were to guess why more millennials aren’t getting discipled by the empty-nesters or men and women with college-aged kids is that most of our mature saints are paralyzed by past mistakes. They look at their kids and ask themselves if they’re really ready to speak truth into the lives of the next generation. Most of the time, the answer is “no.” They simply can’t get past what they see as their screw-ups and parenting failures.

This is a reality that we would do well to be sensitive to. The deep wounds and irreversible scars of those they love who are far from Christ are no small matters. We shouldn’t be surprised to find many middle-aged saints paralyzed because of the hurt in their lives. But sometimes this paralysis isn’t just due to parenting hindsight; sometimes the paralysis is the result of real personal failure. A divorce, a besetting sin, or an inglorious exit from vocational ministry can make a mid-life Christian question whether or not they would be the optimal candidate for mentoring the next generation.

I want to address this very real concern with two observations. First, the two men who had the greatest impact on my life could have easily allowed their life situations keep them from investing in others. One of these men had never married and had no children. Although he could have excused himself from investing in the youth of the church due to his lack of parenting experience, he instead used every gift that God had given him in the next generation of the church. The other man who plugged into my life is divorced and never remarried. In a church culture that often highlights what a divorced individual can’t do, he chose to focus on what he could do—disciple the next generation. And I think that God enjoys using those whose life experiences seem utterly disproportionate to the task at hand. Moses and Gideon doubted their capabilities too! Encourage the paralyzed to trust God with their weaknesses and failures and see what God might do through them in this Great Commission work.

Second, there’s probably no greater New Testament example of this paralyzed saint than the Apostle Peter. After denying Jesus and letting down the other disciples, Peter struggles to make heads or tails of what to do next. He checks out and returns back to his vocation of fishing the lake. But then Jesus shows up on the beach. After a rather abrupt and pixilated arrival upon shore, Peter finds himself struggling for words as Jesus asks him a tough question over and over. Lots of consideration has been given to what Jesus meant by “love” in this passage, but I think there’s something we miss in the process—the command. “Feed my sheep.” Why did Jesus tell Peter to feed his sheep? Why did Peter need to be told to feed the flock of God? What was it about Peter’s situation that demanded Jesus wake him up and drag him in this direction? Jesus knew that Peter loved him (Peter admits this), but Jesus wanted Peter to do the hard work of discipleship in, through, and for the Church. So many of the hurting and paralyzed saints in our churches, like Peter, think to themselves: “If you only know how messed up I really am you wouldn’t be asking me to disciple others.” But Jesus gently questions them, “Do you love me?” The paralyzed believers inevitably respond, “Yes, of course!” On that basis, our Lord calls out, “Oh hurting Christian, I want you to feed my sheep. I know you better than you know yourself, and I particularly want you to invest in my Church!” The passion that these paralyzed saints have for Jesus is the only thing that will help them victoriously disciple the sheep.

Arming Mid-Life Saints with Confidence

Instilling confidence in the established Christians in your church begins with our first point—disciple them! This process is not only important for their growth, but for establishing their footing for future discipleship. But beyond one-on-one discipleship, we have more options at our disposal for transitioning the mid-life saints from disciples to disciplers. First, strong disciplers can allow a mid-life believer into an established discipleship process with another believer. Pulling them in for a few meetings after which you can discuss the process with the mature believer can help take the edge off. Maybe using a group discipleship process could help here. Second, strong believers can coach mid-life saints in their own efforts at discipling others. This may look like handing off an existing discipleship relationship to them or meeting to debrief and prepare for another discipleship session with a less mature Christian. Finally, keep working them into discipleship relationships with other believers. Their own discipleship process doesn’t end until they’re discipling others. Continue to provide accountability, opportunities, and support as mid-life saints catch the vision for real-life discipleship.

Contextualization: The Gospel and Your Neighbor

Have you ever thought that you’d like to discuss your Christian faith with someone, but you haven’t the slightest clue where to start? Have you ever hesitated to talk about your faith because you expect to already be pigeonholed as a bigot before anyone ever takes the time to understand where you’re coming from? Have you ever tried firing through the Romans Road or repeating a evangelistic plea that you’ve heard in church, only to get shut down right out of the gate? If you feel inadequate, ashamed, or frustrated in your attempts at talking about the faith that not only means the world to you, but also is the source for your entire understanding of how the world works, there is hope.

In this article, I’d like to share with you a method of discussing your faith that is simple to learn, built on developing mutual understanding, and non-combative. While this method confronts people with truth, it does so at their own pace and in an elicited manner rather than in a forced manner. In an increasingly post-Christian United States, where whipping out a tract or bringing up the Gospel in the workplace can get you fired, believers in Christ who see the Great Commission as binding on their lives must approach this responsibility with wisdom and tact. Our post-Christian culture also has created a vacuum of shared Christian pre-understandings. In other words, definitions of sin and grace and even stories in the Bible lack the clarity in our culture that they had in the middle to end of the last century. In light of these challenges, we need to improve our methods of sharing the Gospel. I’m not saying that we need to improve the Gospel. I’m saying that just as the Apostle Paul rarely used the same method twice in order to present the Gospel but, rather, adapted his presentation based on his audience, so should we.

I learned this method of sharing my faith while in seminary from Dr. Cashin, whom I’ve since interviewed on the topic of contextualization. With his permission, I’m presenting his method of engaging in Gospel conversations here on my blog with some adaptation. It is my hope that this simple approach will be helpful to those of you who, like me, struggle to discuss your faith with confidence.

This method seeks to build mutual understanding as a means to sharing your faith. Understanding our neighbors involves understanding their worldview. There are three legs of the stool of a person’s worldview: being, knowing, and doing. Ethnologists call these legs: ontology, epistemology, and axiology. Investigating these zones of your friend’s worldview requires that you ask questions–7 to be specific. And I know this doesn’t come easy. Most of the time, we’re so quick to share our answers, answers which others aren’t ready for or interested in hearing. Christians often struggle with asking questions when it comes to discussing our faith. We’re off the blocks too soon and our friends are still back at the starting line when we begin pushing for a decision. So slow down. Ask questions. Interview them. Write down their answers. I guarantee you that when you’re done, they will crave your input.

Galaxy

Being (Ontology):

First, it may be great to start with some questions on their views of human origin and destiny, and true power or success. If this isn’t a natural jumping-off point, feel free to start elsewhere, but these questions are often extremely thought-provoking. There are also a large number of questions in this category. Let’s begin:

Where do we come from?

In asking this question, it’s easy to get sidetracked into a discussion on the mechanics of where humans came from (apes, atom, age of rocks, etc.), but that isn’t the purpose of the question. Another way to ask this question may be, “If you pressed rewind on all of history and got all the way to the beginning of the recording, what would you find?” We want to discover whether our colleagues see everything that exists as the result of pre-existing matter/anti-matter or as the result of some sort of supernatural intervention. Usually people will self-sort as supernaturalist or naturalist based on their answer to this question. They will either view the stuff that they can see and touch and examine under a microscope as all that exists, or they will see the reality or possibility of someone/thing else standing aside or above all things and causing the stuff we see (ourselves included) to exist.

Where are we going?

The origin of humanity gives us answers to the direction of the race. This zoom-out question is designed to get at more than just our individual purpose, but in the end goal for all of humanity. The naturalist has no end-game. Someday, the earth will burn up or the stars will burn down and humanity will die out. Perhaps we escape for awhile, but in the end humanity is just a blip on the radar of a cold and dying universe. Or is there more to life? Is there something better to look forward to? Is there something terrible to dread? Is there something more deserving that awaits the Adolf Hitlers of this world who slip off into death in unpunished sleep? What is the end of humanity?

What is our ultimate meaning and purpose in life?

Here we take some time to understand our friend’s hopes and dreams. Do they want to leave money for the next generation? Do they hope to contribute to academia or sports so that they’re remembered beyond their lives? Do they feel that all that’s worth living for is another high, another one-night stand? What makes you tick and why? Getting to the bottom of this question helps us clarify the weight or value of what people see as the most important stuff in life.

What is the nature of our problem and how do we solve it?

Now, technically, this question assumes something, that there is a human problem. But I think it exposes a truism that underlies every human’s thinking. We all assume that something, somewhere got screwed up along the way. I mean, come on, if there wasn’t a problem with humanity you wouldn’t have Republicans and Democrats, right? And have you seen the way some people drive? Seriously! But to get real, we see some serious darkness in our world today: corporate greed, abortion, sex trafficking, injustice, and war, to name a few. Turn on the news and you’ll see that humanity has gone batty. But how it can be solved–that’s a question! Is there hope for broken humanity, and where do we find it?

How can we be successful in life and where does real power come from?

Success and power are intertwined. If success looks like achieving a certain level of wealth, then power=money. Understanding your friend’s view of power or success will help you understand what drives them. Materialism pushes us to see success in monetary terms. Naturalism forces people to define power or success in bettering others, gaining approval, or survival of the fittest. What about views of success that emphasize efforts such as philanthropy or social justice? What worldview do they fit with?

human brain on white background

Knowing (epistemology):

The next category which is helpful to discuss is the category of thinking that deals with how we use logic and sorting to come up with truth. Different cultures and generations have different methods for determining what is true.

How do you know what is true from what is untrue?

As you ask this question, you’re trying to probe the source of truth for this person. The typical postmodern will shrug this off with a neither/nor kind of response, but there are three follow-up questions that you can use to unpack this one:

  • How do you determine what is authoritative? The answer will be either subjective (“I think/feel”) or objective (“whatever science/authorities/a holy book says”). An alternative answer could assume the truth of a particular paradigm (e.g., “As a New England Republican I believe…”).
  • How do you determine what is unimportant? Spam, telemarketers, junk mail, pop-up, and so on, we all run into things in life that just have no appeal to us.
  • How do you rely on logic? Or, what arguments do you find persuasive? Some may rely more on linear logic (good for understanding math equations, IQ) while others may look to more analogical forms of reasoning (good for understanding more complex human problems, EQ). In other words, if you tend to start with “just the facts” in your reasoning, you’re probably a linear thinker. If you tend to start with relationships in your reasoning, you’re probably an analogical thinker.

ethics

Doing (axiology):

Asking questions about ethics is always going to elicit some kind of response. We all have strong views how people should behave. It’s one thing to claim that there’s no ontological self-existing standard of right and wrong, but it’s another thing to say that you don’t mind if someone robs you or rapes your wife. We all believe in right and wrong, but why and how do we determine it?

How do you know right from wrong?

Here are two followup questions that I use to probe this topic:

  • Do you feel that what’s right and wrong changes based on a person’s culture or their own value judgements, or is it more absolute and fixed?
  • What is your view on universal human rights? What about rights for women and the LGBTQ community? What about activities such as rape, sex trafficking, or bullying? In other words, are there universal human rights that protect individuals, or do cultures or individuals get to make up what’s right or wrong in these cases?

Offering dialogue…

Be respectful and let your friend answer the questions. Don’t immediately start telling them that they’re wrong or that they’ve contradicted themselves. Expect a few contradictions along the way. Many of us haven’t spent much time thinking through complex questions and answers such as these. When they’re done answering each main question and any followup questions, feel free to ask about what seems inconsistent to you. Your friend may have an explanation that makes sense to them. But if they don’t have an explanation, you’re allowing them to discover that the house doesn’t have a roof rather than trying to break the news to them yourself.

Answering these questions yourself…

At some point in this dialogue, you’ll probably be asked how you would answer these questions. I would recommend asking to wait until you’re done. You want to understand them first in order to show them respect. Tell your friend that you’d be happy to share your answers to the questions, but you’d prefer not to influence their thinking or responses.

As a Christian, I’ve formed opinions on these questions too, and when the time is right, it’s worth sharing your views on these. Here are my answers to the questions above:

  • Where do we come from? All material and immaterial things find their source in God. Rewind the clock of time and you’ll find God at the beginning–God and nothing else. As a Christian, I state with certainty that there is something beyond what I can see and taste and feel and hear and smell that miraculously created all there is.
  • Where are we going? Everything that moves is going somewhere, and the same is true with humanity. God created people in order to build a true community of worshippers among whom his love and presence will abide forever. The whole of human history and the future of our race is the story of that plan’s seeming failure and ultimate success.
  • What is our ultimate meaning and purpose in life?  The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. Nothing else will satisfy. Nothing else is truly permanent.
  • What is the nature of our problem and how do we solve it? Our problem is the problem of sin. Humankind has rebelled against God and has destroyed the peace he created in this world. Because of this brokenness, we all lean on a “crutch” in order to make our way through life. But is our crutch, our solution, to the problem of humanity truly reliable? For the Christian, the solution lies in God’s restorative work whereby he sent his own Son to take the penalty for our rebellion in order that people and nature might be made right again.
  • How can we be successful in life and where does real power come from? Success and power are counterintuitive for a Christian. Success comes when we give up what we have, deny ourselves, and follow Jesus (Matthew 16.24-26). God is the source of all power. We achieve power, not by making Herculean efforts to make ourselves like God, but by humbling ourselves like Jesus (Luke 22.25-26).
  • How do you know what is true from what is untrue? All truth is God’s truth. A Christian goes out into nature expecting to find normative laws, because there is something fixed that holds the universe together from the outside. We expect to find that truth is objective. And God’s truth is both factual and relational. He demands faith, but points us in the right direction through what is true in our experience.
  • How do you know right from wrong? I know that murder or rape or bullying is wrong because God gave me (1) a conscience, (2) human government, and (3) divine revelation. Conscience and culture’s definitions of right and wrong are subservient to Scripture. As a Christian, I always have a timeless and culturally-transcendent objective moral standard which explains the inherent assumption of morality that we’re born with.

Contextualization: Perspective from an Ethnologist

[Dr. David Cashin is an indologist and Professor of Intercultural Studies in the Seminary and School of Ministry at Columbia International University. For nine years he and his wife Margareta served in Bangladesh as missionaries, church planters, educators and development workers with SIM International. He has published numerous articles and is a sought after speaker on the topics related to the Islam and missions.]

Throughout your ministry, is there a particular occasion when you had to consciously engage in contextualization in order to get the message across? If so, when?

My evangelistic approach is question based.  I seek to contextualize my witness every time by understanding where my person is at through these questions and then adapting the message to their assumptions (whether by way of critique or agreement).  This also takes place in the church environment when I do speaking.  The background of the Church may influence my approach.  Also when ministering in Sweden or Bangladesh I preach in the local languages which is a kind of contextualization.

What are some of the greatest challenges that the missionary faces in doing contextualization?

First, to avoid syncretism and being unfaithful to the text or to the ultimate identity of the new believers.  Second, dealing with his/her own assumptions about reality that may distort the message to the hearers.

What would you say to a missionary who claimed that they didn’t need to contextualize in order to communicate to the target culture?  

This attitude would be both absurd and unbiblical.  God contextualized to us in Jesus who became fully man.  If we imitate Jesus we contextualize, period.  I call it absurd because you can’t be in the vicinity of a person to minister without being in “his context” to some degree.  The issue is, what principles do you bring to the unavoidable process of contextualization?  How do you do it well, rather than badly?

How should contextualization shape the ministries of American churches and Christians in their cultural contexts?

I think [American] Christians need to be aware of the assumptions that our culture brings to the table:

  1. Relativistic
  2. Self-focused in terms of authority
  3. Evolutionary with some key contradictions and inconsistencies.
  4. The very system that they follow leads to the selfishness which they generally identify as humanity’s biggest problem.

Remembering PaPa

My PaPa died on Thursday. It was his 82nd birthday. Having spent a significant amount of time with him at various points in my life, I wanted to remember and honor him. And the best way I can do that is to do the thing I enjoy, and write about him. These are the 6 lessons I learned from my grandfather, Edward Bird.

He was Subtle yet Strong

As a kid, I always admired my PaPa’s ability to lift giant rocks, move seemingly immovable objects, and work all day long on draining PaPa and Metasks. My hands would blister 15 minutes into a stump removal project, but he would unflinchingly smash away at the roots for hours until the remnants of the tree which we cut down the day before were fully erased. But he never flaunted his strength. You never saw him lifting weights or flexing or bragging about how much he could lift. He would just lift bags of concrete or multiple sheets of drywall without a word. PaPa’s subtle strength taught me that real strength doesn’t come from working the weights in the gym, but from working hard to better the lives of those you love. Those same hands that could fell a tree with a crosscut saw would also gently cradle his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

He Appreciated the Small Things in Life

Anyone who knew PaPa for any length of time could see that he was essentially a hoarder. My amazement for his massive collection as a child turned to confusion and then suspicion as an adult. But I’ve often thought that there’s something I missed in my estimation of his copiously organized stacks of treasures in the labyrinth of his West Virginia basement. You see, PaPa didn’t collect what we thought of as junk simply because he needed it; he collected his prizes because he saw value in the stuff we see as valueless. He reminded his grandkids to take small bites of their food in order to savor every morsel. I’m pretty sure that he never missed a single sunrise. He took me and my siblings out to collect aluminum cans, teaching me that hard work can be fun and rewarding. He taught me that a dollar saved is a dollar earned as we labored over nail-filled 2×4’s until they were clean and ready to be reused.

He was Passionate about his Beliefs

He was a Christian with an unflinching belief in his God. Some may have found his beliefs as odd or extreme, but he found them reliable and emboldening. He always seemed open to talking about what he PaPa and Lanebelieved. I’d like to think of PaPa’s faith as what supported him through years of loneliness and sickness. His God cared for him on the mountaintops and in the valleys. God strengthened his arms as a younger man caring for his family, and God strengthened his mind as an aging man in hospice care, remembering the word “baby” after we visited him. There’s something attractive about this simple faith. PaPa taught me that there are things worth believing in, even if it makes people uncomfortable.

He Avoided Technology Distractions

PaPa never seemed to struggle overmuch with adapting to new technology, but he had little to no time for innovations that would waste his time. I remember staying at Grammy and PaPa’s West Virginia home one summer. For some time we worked on a tool tote which we built from scratch. I often wanted to pull out the power tools, but he insisted that I learn how to use a handsaw. Then, instead of settling in front of the TV after a hard day of work, PaPa would go out on a walk. To him, walking the railroad tracks or hiking along a busy road brought him far more joy than any TV show ever could. His form of Minecraft was building sheds and toys and raised bed gardens. PaPa taught me to hold technology loosely and to find more meaningful ways to enjoy life.

He Relished Acceptable Risks

I get the feeling that PaPa would find the riskless society in which I’m raising my daughter as not very fun. I remember cutting down a huge tree in the front yard that required that someone pull the rope in the direction we needed it to fall. He was inevitably the one happy to stand in the path of destruction. He even more happily posed me as if I had been crushed by the tree when my mom came out to look. He enjoyed the thrill of taking his grandkids on hikes along a busy highway. And he built us the most incredible rope swing one time. I can hardly imagine my mom’s reaction when she returned home to see her pre-teen children hoisted dozens of feet in the air on the makeshift trapeze. Oh, but it was immeasurably fun. And I think he may have learned this from his dad. My mom told me that her PaPa (my great-grandfather) would shoot across multiple lanes of traffic while announcing, “you can’t live forever!” So the tradition lived on. PaPa taught me that an acceptable amount of risk always seems to pay off in the end.

He Cultivated a Bevy of Skills

We live in an era of specialization. Most of us live our entire lives only learning a single trade. But PaPa and his generation were the supreme generalists. He could ride a bike backwards or draft anEd and Me with PaPa.jpeg architectural or engineering model. He could construct just about anything as long as he was supplied with the proper amount of wood and nails. A veritable panoply of magic tricks came with him on every visit. He taught me how to cut sheetrock like a boss (a skill I did almost by instinct a couple months ago). He made his own cistern. He could build the best fires and lay a pristine pad of concrete. He could cut his own hair and do a little investing on the side. He cooked and canned food, often using food he raised in his carefully composted garden. He read frequently and did everything in life with a winsome attitude that would turn the most recent acquaintance into a friend.

An Observation:

We’re all role models. We teach by our lives what is important and what is unimportant. We all mess up and emphasize the wrong things from time-to-time. PaPa and his culturally unique values are a reminder to me and my generation to reconsider what we esteem as the most important goals in life. Is a safe, single-trade, faithless, grandiose, technology-crammed life really worth living? Or is there something more satisfying to pursue during this fleeting journey?

16 Questions the Guest Preacher Should Ask

I hope these questions are helpful for my friends who are called upon to preach in a new church from time-to-time.

  1. Which service do you want me to preach and when does it start? If there are multiple services, you need to find out which ones you’re expected to cover. When you figure out when the service starts, plan to arrive at least 15-20 minutes early so you have time to greet people, connect your media, get your wireless microphone, and calm your nerves.
  2. Would you like me to attend another service or Sunday School? Some churches would find it helpful if you attended a Sunday School class, but others don’t see it as necessarily helpful. Get a sense of the importance of this meeting, if it exists, and plan accordingly.
  3. Who will be introducing me? This question is especially important if the lead pastor is out of town. You need to know who to especially introduce yourself to and who to be watching for your queue from to go onstage.
  4. What’s the usual order of service? This question not only helps clarify when you’ll be going onstage, but also flags any liturgical anomalies that you may do well to be aware of.
  5. How much time is usually allotted for the sermon? You need to ask about sermon duration so that you can begin shaping your content for the amount of time you’ll have. I often do a practice run to make sure that I’m in the ballpark of the time that I’ve been given. As a guest speaker, I’m pretty sure that it’s a cardinal sin to preach too long. You’ll never get a congregation angry at you for letting them out a few minutes early.
  6. When do you usually finish? This is a slightly different question than the previous one. Sometimes an excited worship leader, other liturgical elements, or an unusual announcement prior to the preaching may eat into your allotted time. You need a method to gauge if this has happened.
  7. Who closes after a guest speaker preaches? How is this done? Some churches always have an altar call. Some churches never do it. Making assumptions here could lead to a major faux pas. The ideal is to be able to hand off the service closing to someone who knows the people and the process.
  8. What Bible version do you typically use? Even if the version is one that you don’t typically use, you’ll gain more rapport with the congregation if you’re quoting the text that most of them have in front of them. This question also needs to be asked early on because it will determine the English version that you’ll “stew” in (read, re-read, memorize, etc.).
  9. Do you typically use projected media? If so, how do I connect to it or where do I need to send material/links? As a guest speaker, you need to be cautious about being reliant on technology. Even if you’ve carefully asked the right questions and prepped your tech, you can still hit an odd hitch as you’re getting set to preach. Remember that you’ve usually got only a limited time to get this right. Have a backup method for deploying your media and, worst case, be capable of delivering your sermon without any technology.
  10. Do you use a portable microphone? If so, where will I get it and will there be someone to show me how it works? This isn’t usually too complicated, but sometimes you may be dealing with some odd mic that doesn’t work normally. Pro tip: even if the sound guy tells you that he’s not going to have your mic hot until you get up to preach, keep it off and remember to turn it on while you’re on your way up to the platform.
  11. How much room is on the podium for a Bible, notes, etc.? Pulpit real estate is at a premium. Some churches have tiny pulpits that are comfortable for the pastor who may preach with different pulpit material than you do. As more and more younger preachers bring iPads and other tech with them onstage, the variety of what a preacher can expect has only broadened.
  12. What do you wear when you preach? And don’t just take a “professional” or “business casual” category answer on this one. People mean different things when they use dress categories. Get a specific answer (i.e., “jeans and a button-up shirt untucked”) and don’t deviate from it.
  13. How would you describe your style of preaching? What have you been preaching on lately? Although you have your own style as a preacher, it is helpful to understand the norm at this church. Maybe if the pastor tends to do exegetical studies of books of the Bible, you could do an exegetical study of a one-off topic? If the pastor has been doing a deep dive in Romans, it may be healthy to do a narrative passage.
  14. What is the congregation like? Young/old, quiet/interactive, new/old Christians, jobs, backgrounds, approximate attendance? Truth preaches anywhere, but it never hurts to understand the audience you’ll be speaking to. Jesus didn’t have to study in order to know the hearts of his listeners, but Paul definitely understood the philosophers on Mars Hill. Every bit of information you get should shape how truth will be presented.
  15. Does your church have a missions statement? You need to know what this church is and isn’t all about. Follow up this question by asking: What are some major red flags of what you don’t want someone to preach about? Are there any practical or theological issues that you think might be important for a guest preacher to know? I try to use questions like this to draw out go/no-go zones. Regardless of how you feel about a church’s hangups or pursuits, it’s not your job to do a drive-by sermon on any of these issues. If there’s an issue that is too big for you to ignore, consider declining the invitation.
  16. Can we meet before I preach in order to get to know each other? Also: How can we follow-up afterward? I think this is the most frequently missed question on the list. Meeting before you speak can help you better understand the heart and philosophy of the pastor. If you’re able to meet on the church property, you can get a feel for the auditorium, platform, pulpit, microphone, etc. Following up gives you a great opportunity for a critique of your preaching and an ongoing relationship with the pastor.

I hope these questions are helpful. I’ve missed a couple of these in some instances and have learned from my mistakes. There are probably a few questions that you shouldn’t ask, the chief of which is anything related to compensation for speaking. Speak out of a desire for ministry and not for money. For some great additional insights on filling pulpits, see Dane Ortlund’s excellent article.

May God bless you as you preach his Word!