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!

Contextualization: Perspective from a Church Planter

[Micah Colbert has served as a church planter in two continents. He’s worked as a missionary in Ghana for 4 years. He currently serves as Lead Pastor of Gospel Life Church, a multi-ethnic, Gospel-centered church plant in Buffalo, NY.]

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?

A conscientious minister of the gospel is always involved in the practice of contextualization in order to communicate his message. Why? Because context determines meaning. If I am not aware of my context, then the message I am seeking to communicate and the hearer’s interpretation of what I am saying may be two dramatically different things.

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

One of the greatest challenges missionaries face in practicing contextualization is taking the time to thoroughly immerse themselves in the “life context” of the people. This requires a tremendous amount of humility (becoming a learner before taking on the role of a teacher), patience, and a willingness to break out of one’s comfort zone.

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

I would say, “DON’T GO… for the glory of God, the cause of truth, and the good of the people, DON’T GO!!!!”

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

Being aware of our cultural context enables us to communicate truth in a way that “hits home” for our listeners. People of all generations want to see how God’s eternal truths relate to the daily grind of work, relationships, etc. Ministries that are “out of touch” simply cannot make disciples who penetrate their spheres of influence with the gospel.

The Predicament of Progressive Fundamentalism: The Breaking Points (Part 3)

This third article is written to help individuals and and churches make a marked departure from fundamentalism. Some churches work under the assumption that changing a handful of traditional practices (e.g., new music in their worship, a new translation, more relaxed clothing) signals a marked departure from fundamentalism. And it may indeed demonstrate an incipient form of emergence from the movement. But changing some external practices isn’t tantamount to emergence at all. In this article I’m going to suggest that departure from fundamentalism requires much more. It involves the following actions:

  1. You must let go of the prestige of the power politics of fundamentalism.
  2. You must be willing to enter unfamiliar waters.
  3. You must begin to minister to your community at the expense of allowing the church to be a place for fundamentalists to engage in their weekly stained glass masquerade.
  4. You must forcefully resist legalistic restraints on the liberties of the Body beginning with your leadership.
  5. You must introduce diversity into the church Body beginning with your leadership.
  6. You must preach a full Gospel.

For those of you asking, “why should I bother?”, I’ve written two previous articles on the problems of pursuing fellowship with fundamentalists and the blessings of pursuing relationships with the evangelical community.

You must let go of the prestige of the power politics of fundamentalism.

Fundamentalists look at leadership as power instead of service (cf. Luke 22.25-26). Remaining in the movement and connected to the power-players of the major institutions of fundamentalism is a huge draw for the pastors and leaders who desperately crave the validation of other leaders in the movement. Don’t fall prey to this trap. Yes, when you leave fundamentalism, you’re likely to become a nobody. You’ll be a tiny fish in the great big sea of evangelicalism. You won’t be able to namedrop anymore, and you won’t be invited to speak in conferences and whatnot. Count all your accomplishments and successes in the eyes of those who keep score as nothing but dog poop and cling to Christ with reckless abandon (Phil. 3.8-9).

Here’s what it may look like to let go of the prestige and power politics of fundamentalism:

  1. Don’t be afraid to name names and point out explicit cases of legalism where it poses a danger to the flock.
  2. Stop recommending fundamentalist schools to your high school students.
  3. Stop inviting/accepting fundamentalist speakers or organizations to your church.
  4. Reset: Leave your church and become a congregant/pastor at a non-fundamentalist church.
  5. Pursue an elder polity with a diverse set of leaders that divests the leadership of a strong central individual.
  6. Avoid referencing fundamentalist institutions from the pulpit or in small groups.
  7. Give recognition to and encourage those who don’t fit the fundamentalist mold.
  8. Develop meaningful mentorship and service relationships with Christians outside of fundamentalism.

You must be willing to enter unfamiliar waters.

One man who left fundamentalism years before I did warned me about three challenges in breaking free from fundamentalism. Those challenges are essentially the following: mental, principial, and emotional. The mental break often comes when we recognize that the movement is not truthful–what we’ve been told doesn’t match experience or Scripture. The principial break comes when our consciousness are no longer bound by the same taboos of fundamentalism; we are now practicing the things which we once condemned based on tradition. The emotional break comes when we are no longer comfortable remaining in fundamentalism–the relationships that held us there are gone. I tend to think that these breaks come in different orders for some people. For me, it was mental > principial > emotional, but I’ve heard many say that their experience is more mental > emotional > principial. Also, I think that some of these breaks are harder on some people than for others. For me, the mental and principial breaks came rather painlessly. The emotional break was very difficult.

I mention these kinds of breaks because the emotional break, for me, was tied to the awkwardness of breaking from fundamentalism. If you’ve spent all your life in fundamentalism, you probably don’t know many Christians who aren’t fundamentalist. You’ve had little to no experience in non-fundamentalist churches. Your family may become antagonistic. You’ve got a lot to lose by leaving the movement. You’re officially leaving the fishbowl, and life is going to get weird. Emotional stability because we know what to expect in our church or in our families is a hard thing to lose. Fundamentalists often lose emotional stability because their salaries are dependent on fundamentalist churches or parachurch organizations. Your emotional break from the movement is tied to a break from the financial security provided by your employer.

I know it’s idealistic for a young almost 30-year-old guy to say to you, “pick up and leave all you know, it’ll be worth it!” But I have it on the authority of someone much greater that the best things in life require taking up a cross and following a road of suffering (Matt. 16.24-26). For the fundamentalist, keeping the taboos and regulations isn’t a road of suffering, it’s a path of security and comfort. Jesus is calling you to reject that life. Are you willing to follow Jesus if it means that every relationship in your life is going to get turned upside down (Matt. 10.34-39)?

You must begin to minister to your community at the expense of allowing the church to be a comfortable place for fundamentalists to engage in their weekly stained glass masquerade.

My experience within mainstream and progressive fundamentalism has shown me that one of the greatest weaknesses within the movement is a failure to engage the culture. In these churches, there’s a tension between the desire to evangelize and the desire to make church comfortable to fundamentalists (both inside and out). And ultimately, the pull to make church comfortable to the legalism of fundamentalism seems to win out. All of this catering is done in order to maintain the status quo whereby fundamentalists who still ardently hold to legalistic rules can live their entire lives without the discomfort of any cultural adjustments.

But can you count on more than one hand the number of people who’ve been baptized in your church this year who aren’t church kids? Do the people in the pew have accountability and training on evangelism? Would the surrounding community miss your church if it disappeared this week? Is the church service one that your average 20-something would feel comfortable inviting his lost co-worker to visit? But the constraints of fundamentalist legalism often keep churches from contextualizing in order to reach people with the Gospel. Spiritualized standards on dress and music styles force fundamentalist churches to create their own subculture–a subculture to which the outsider must conform if they wish to join in fellowship. This results in 3 dangerous possibilities: (1) the outsider never comes to the faith because the subculture is too bizarre or oppressive, (2) the outsider comes to faith and feels like a second class citizen because she isn’t familiar with the subculture, or (3) the outsider comes to faith and also adopts the subculture, but is unable to distinguish between the two. Minister to your hurting community at the expense of the fundamentalists’ comfort.

I once knew a family who attended a progressive fundamentalist church and they had two pre-teen boys who were pretty spirited and would get in trouble often. After a number of run-ins, the leadership of the church told the parents that their kids would not be allowed to ride the church bus to activities and were required to pursue outside counseling. The family left the church shortly thereafter. My point here is that even within progressive fundamentalism, if someone doesn’t quite fit or looks a little too messed up, your church has no place for them. If broken people don’t fit in your churches, then you’re doing church wrong. If you only want the cleaned up Christian school kids and not the rough kids from the community, you’ve neglected the “least of these” (Matt. 25.40).

“If an individual had the right haircut, associations, clothing, music and entertainment standards then they were part of the club.  If a child or teen was compliant to the standards of cultural fundamentalism they were welcomed into the fellowship.  If the externals are not ‘correct’ then there is little patience or grace is extended.” – Mitch Nichols

You must forcefully resist legalistic restraints on the liberties of the Body beginning with your leadership.

There’s this idea that is prominent in fundamentalist circles that leadership must hold a higher standard than Scripture in a number of areas. While Jesus comes eating and drinking (Matt. 11.19), the fundamentalist pastor must abstain from alcohol or even the appearance of drinking alcohol. Even progressive fundamentalist pastors who recognize that drinking in moderation isn’t a sin still cater to the taboos of their congregation by hiding their beliefs or practices on the issue. Progressives behave similarly in terms of music and entertainment. In fact, most progressive pastors live in two separate worlds: in public they appear to hold every fundamentalist taboo, but in private they hold to basically none of the fundamentalist taboos. But until fundamentalist churches are ready to start tearing down the wall of legalism at the leadership level, the congregation only feels reaffirmed in their own legalism. Even in progressive churches, it’s common to see the pastoral leadership urge more progressive lay leadership to remain silent about their views on music, alcohol, or politics. I remember being told on several occasions an entire list of theological and practical topics that I couldn’t mention in my teaching in a progressive fundamentalist church. So I stayed silent unless the text addressed the matter explicitly (and even then, I often avoided hitting the issues head-on if possible).

Let me say this to my progressive fundamentalist friends: If your requirements on your pastors and lay teachers in terms of their standards of conduct and expectations of silence on certain issues would exclude even Jesus from serving at your church, you’ve lost track of the Gospel.

I was one of these recipients of forced legalist restraints. After studying Scripture and wrestling with the arguments on the issue, I came to the position that it wasn’t a sin for a Christian to drink alcohol in moderation. On a couple of occasions I spoke with those who were forcing their view on this issue on others and told them that they had no Scriptural ground for doing this. My approach (while in line with Scripture) got me branded as reckless or unbridled. But here’s the irony, throughout the entire time, I never drank alcohol myself (and still never have). One day my wife and I posted anniversary pictures in a fine dining establishment that served our non-alcoholic drinks in stemmed glasses. Months later, the pastor of my progressive fundamentalist church and I were discussing how I could help in the church and he proceeded to mercilessly attack me over this photo for being “insensitive to the consciences” of my fellow church members. He told me that my behavior was “not pastoral” and cast into doubt future opportunities for service in his church or any other church. Eventually the deacons and pastor of the church would tell me that, on a “subjective” basis, future opportunities for ministry had been significantly paired back and they encouraged me to leave the church. But this kind of unbiblical hard line on extra-biblical standards is necessary within the context of fundamentalism if a church wants to retain its position in the movement and avoid provoking any issues with legalists in the church.

There’s an even scarier bit of nonsense that floats around progressive fundamentalist churches, and it runs like this: “if someone is going to be disenfranchised in the church, it needs to be the Gospel-centered crowd, because the legalists complain louder.” I think this perspective likely leads to some of the glacially slow rates at which progressive fundamentalist churches address legalism in the congregation. Instead of moving the church in the right direction while the wind is in their sails, the progressive fundamentalists wait until the momentum has all but died out as they try to make the legalists comfortable. By the time that the progressive fundamentalist churches are ready to make the next move, those who were moving with them have abandoned ship. For many of us, it’s no longer a tenable option to wait another 5-10 years to be part of a healthy church. Pastors: stop putting a Gospel-centered course on hold at the expense of your flock. Both the progressives and the old guard fundamentalists need your leadership in a biblical direction.

Progressive fundamentalists have lines which they feel that they cannot cross due to their seared consciences (1 Tim. 4.1-5). No, these aren’t driven by their interpretation of Scripture, but by the sociological pressure of fundamentalism. Do your next-generation leaders have the freedom to publicly practice their Gospel liberties in your church, or are you running scared of the legalists and then have enforced those restraints on your sheep? Break the cycle! I’m all about telling someone that they probably shouldn’t order a drink when they’re out to dinner with a recovering alcoholic, but if you’re with a fundamentalist, go ahead and order two (both for the fundamentalist). The weaker brother may (but may not always) need to be accommodated (Rom. 14.1-12), but the legalist deserves no quarter (Col. 2.4, 8, 16, 18). Don’t adjust to the climate of the Body on these issues. Lead by example and shut down any possibility of being used as a reason for a congregation’s ongoing legalism.

Some of the legalistic restraints of fundamentalism that need to be addressed and pushed back are:

  1. Not allowing certain Bible translations.
  2. Expecting “Sunday morning best” (often set by the pastor)
  3. Not allowing or shaming women who wear pants to church
  4. Expecting monolithic views on issues such as eschatology and free will/divine sovereignty.
  5. Not allowing cooperation with other evangelical churches or ministries in your area.
  6. Not allowing the use of materials from evangelical writers or ministries in your church.
  7. Expecting full backing of the Republican political agenda
  8. Not allowing believers to openly use alcohol in moderation
  9. Not allowing for music in worship that has been written by evangelicals
  10. Not allowing for stylistic variation in music or worship liturgy
  11. Not allowing for alternate forms of church governance such as elder polity

You must introduce diversity into the church Body beginning with your leadership.

Leadership within fundamentalism is protected like a castle. Any semblance of lay leadership is vigorously defended; pastoral leadership is even more so. If someone doesn’t possess the proper fundamentalist pedigree or maintain the appropriate legalistic standards in public (see above), they’ll only be shut out of ministry at a variety of levels. I would urge the leadership of progressive fundamentalist churches to immediately begin pursuing diversity in the lay and pastoral leadership of your church. Encourage and equip men to teach who haven’t had a background within fundamentalism. Let the church learn from those who’ve been moved by God without sharing in their same linear background. Hire other pastors who have no familiarity with fundamentalism. In doing so, you’re helping to breathe life into your church and to equip the church to take steps to move beyond the gasping and choking movement.

I remember talking with someone who was involved in the hiring process for a position at a progressive fundamentalist church a couple years back. One of the men on the committee told me that they had a perfectly suited candidate, but he had received 100% of his education and mentoring in Southern Baptist circles. The committee member told me that “we discussed this with the pastors and we just don’t feel that the congregation is at the point where it’s ready to hear that Southern Baptists are okay, much less hire one.” That’s the predicament of progressive fundamentalism.

Another quick thought on diversity: diversity also means that leaders in your church are going to come to different opinions from you. This should be welcomed and mutually respectful dialogue should be maintained. A proper implementation of a plurality of elders allows for more than one perspective to be heard in the church. Your fundamentalist background resists this kind of diversity of thought, but the Gospel’s all-nations, slave and free, Jew and Gentile bounds reminds us that the diversity of the body and the diversity of the leadership is not just a good thing but a godly thing (Gal. 3.28).

You must preach a full Gospel.

Fundamentalism thrives where a small gospel is preached. The gospel of fundamentalism is the thing that people believe in order to get saved and to escape hell. The end. As mainstream and progressive fundamentalists have begun to appreciate the Gospel in its fullness over the past decade, there has been a decisive shift toward conservative evangelicalism. The Gospel’s power in the life of the believer is the problems I’ve outlined above. The Gospel shows us the Jesus of humble service rather than Pilate of political power plays. The Gospel shows us that God cares about the outsiders and the hurting even to the point of moving past those who think they’re okay (Matt. 9.12). The Gospel eliminates the need for legalistic standards that we use in order to make ourselves look better than others. The Gospel shows us a God who is passionate about diversity in his Church. A church that gained a deep appreciation for the Gospel will move away from fundamentalism.

So don’t neuter the Gospel. Progressive fundamentalists know that the Gospel strikes hard against the legalism of fundamentalism, and it’s easy to pull the punch of the Gospel in order not to hit legalism with all the power that Scripture allows. Many progressive fundamentalist pastors know that the Bible warrants preaching a full Gospel address of a particular topic. Let’s call this a 10/10. But instead, the preacher will beat around the bush and preach a 7/10 because he knows that he has some in the congregation who will get angry at what the Gospel has to say about their legalism. These 4/10 types will sit for years in the congregations of progressive fundamentalist churches and believe that they appreciate and apply the Gospel, but, in reality, they’ve just been coddled by church leaders who can’t or won’t be bold with the Gospel.

Preaching the Full Gospel

I recently heard of a progressive fundamentalist pastor who was bold enough to preach a message that addressed some of the legalism of fundamentalism explicitly. But a nearby fundamentalist parachurch organization that employs many of the members in the church conveyed to the pastor how disappointed they were about the sermon. A compromise was reached where the sermon available online was modified to leave out the most damning portions of the message in order not to convict the legalists. To me, this is Gospel equivocation. The Apostles would be ashamed of this kind of milquetoast behavior.

Don’t back down. Glorify God by making much of the Gospel. Give your people the hope that is found in the Gospel. Be Gospel Militant!