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Begin Here: Transforming Conflict in Congregational Settings

Stephen F. Staten — Chicago, Illinois, USA

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When left to their own devices, conflict and lingering problems can be extremely costly to the wellness, growth, and finances of a church congregation. It costs little or nothing to pursue concerns before they escalate. Ideally, there are capable representatives within the church body who can offer guidance, as well as some understood local practices for helping conflicted parties be in their best form and minimize the need for more expensive help.

Much of the foundation for conflict resolution in congregational life is grounded in the Old Testament’s dictate for the use of competent third party guides, the requirement for impartial investigations and the pursuit of justice, although Christ’s Sermon on the Mount significantly upgraded the call for forgiveness and reconciliation. It is being suggested that church leaders do as Moses did—set up wise, understanding, respected and impartial representatives to run point, on matters in their local tribe
(Dt. 1:9-18, 1 Cor. 5:5).

In the Old Testament, a problem handler might be a tribal leader, a priest, a king or other dedicated officials (Dt. 1:15, 21:5, 1 Kings 3:16-28, 2 Chr. 19:4-11). According to their mandate, the figure must not be a party to the concern itself, have skin in the game in terms of the outcome of a matter, or be perceived as being prejudiced towards one party. The primary goal of processes was to seek “justice and justice alone” (Dt. 16:20) with the general hope that parties would be satisfied with the outcome and/or the fairness of their hearing (Ex. 18:23).

The words concern and problem are used here in a broad sense to refer to the following: conflicts over sin/offense, unsatisfactory feelings with respect to an unmet need, an unresolved dispute/grievance, difficult relational dynamics, or a contest over competing values. It is important to identify which of these are present, and if there are more than one, so that the guiding intermediary can start from the best position.

It is important to establish two crucial practices. First, it is often the case that one party usually feels the problem more than the other. According to Jesus, the subject of a complaint, innocent or not, should be proactive in clearing up a matter (Matt. 5:22-23). Second, if the concern is a sin, then there must be witnesses to the perceived offense in order to utilize the simple path prescribed by both Moses and Jesus in Dt. 19:15-18 and Matt. 18:15-17. Witnesses to the offense are to be vetted because their testimony matters. If a matter has become one person’s word against another it is no longer a Matthew 18 issue—it is a relationship to be mediated or a grievance for arbitration.

The following recommendations for the third party problem-solvers and peacemakers are meant for more difficult situations, where actual witnesses don’t exist or are viewed as party to the conflict. A reasonable way to proceed is for the congregation’s leadership to deputize someone to be the third party facilitator, with the agreement of the disputing parties, and with the possibility of the third party facilitator continuing on as mediator or arbitrator. 

If you are a church leader or a church member needing to engage in a process of conflict resolution in your congregation, here are some first steps you can take:

1.Propose an Opening Process. The facilitator will assume responsibility for gathering the concerned parties and assimilating them into a mutually agreeable process for improving general clarity. This includes coming up with a safe location, ensuring everyone knows who will be in attendance and why (parties, witnesses, advocates, other resources). The facilitator should speak to the main parties in order to agree upon the topics to be discussed, then release an agenda of no more than three to five general topics. Parties should have options available to them to ensure that the sessions are agreeable. It should be communicated that the upcoming meeting is not intended to resolve the matter, which takes pressure off of everyone.

2. Gather Parties to Obtain Clarity. The facilitator should begin with warm words of hope and prayer, and then guide the first discussion to obtain helpful background history. He should then discuss the agreed upon topics and reframe them in the most useful and least offensive language. Future sessions can then make use of the increasingly clear picture, which usually comes into better focus as progress is made. The facilitator seeks to understand and record each party’s felt interests, makes a timeline and records personal observations. There is no pressure to solve the matter in this session. The goal is to obtain an integrated perspective of the issues and to inspire confidence in future resolution. 

3. Determine the Roadmap. The facilitator is now ready to make a few decisions. First, he must decide if the clarified matter requires mediated relationship, arbitration, a separate moderation process or a combination of these options. Second, the facilitator is ready to determine if he is competent to proceed, or needs to form an assisting team, or must turn this matter over to a more qualified third party. Third, the facilitator should now identify everyone who will take part in the process, obtain their consent to continue, and determine what their roles related to the matter are, as well as review everyone’s schedules and general availability.

4. Preparing the Parties. In many cases, even those not requiring mediation, the parties will be relationally strained. Even secondary parties are sometimes caught in the crossfire. It is recommended that difficult problems be accompanied by spiritual and emotional guidance. Two resources are Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and a free PDF workbook that I wrote, entitled Preparing for Mediation.

5. Mediate Before You Moderate. Do not attempt to resolve an issue of doctrine, decision-making or preference of worship styles, etcetera, without first repairing a relationship which has been broken over those issues. It is more straightforward to solve a problem when two parties are thinking alongside each other. Two examples of moderation are in Acts 6:1-7 and Acts 15:1-35. Moderation uses representation and reasonableness to negotiate and address needs (such as food distribution) and values (such as obligations for Gentile believers). This subject is beyond the consideration of these pages; however, it is worth reemphasizing that moderation of problems is very difficult to accomplish when there are unresolved feelings between the parties.

6. Mediation and Arbitration. The difference between Christian mediation and arbitration is more evident near the end of their processes. Mediation aims to reconcile the relationship, and arbitration is about deciding an outcome; sometimes they occur concurrently. In both cases the third party focuses on creating the atmosphere for parties to give voice to their views — he draws out and listens, reframes, and nudges the parties. Private caucus is used to address topics deemed too risky for group discussion.

“Reconciliation,” Coventry Old Cathedral, Great Britain

“Reconciliation,” Coventry Old Cathedral, Great Britain

Below is a list of the kinds of things which typical conflict resolution specialists strive to accomplish:

  1. Mapping Dynamics—in which we discuss the conflict in its historical context, relationship dynamics, et cetera.

  2. Recognizing Each Party’s Interests—sometimes hidden drivers include unmet needs, respect/honor, hopes, fears, et cetera. A facilitator will draw these out when the parties are feeling safe, either privately or during a mediation.

  3. Obtaining Responsibility — throughout the process, it is important to seek appropriate expressions of lessons learned, owned responsibility, sympathy, appropriate defense, meaningful mea culpa and healing words—wherever appropriate.

  4. Explore Outcomes—forgiveness, various types of reconciliation, and negotiated steps for improved dynamics.

Closure—the parties create written statements, including lessons for a better future. Determine who needs to hear of the outcome. Prayer. Planned follow up.


Stephen F. Staten is the Founder and an Organizational Health Consultant at Bridging International.

PHOTO CREDIT:

Reconciliation, Coventry Old Cathedral. In 1995, fifty years after the end of The Second World War, this sculpture by Josephina da Vasconcellos was given by Richard Branson as a token of reconciliation. An identical statue has been placed in the Peace Garden at Hiroshima on behalf of the people of Coventry. Both statues remind us that, in the face of destructive forces, human dignity and love will triumph over disaster and bring nations together in respect and peace. © Copyright David Dixon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.







Jesus, the Master Discipler

by Gordon Ferguson -- Dallas, Texas, USA 

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If you have the world's most important message and you want to get it to the most people, how do you do it? Jesus had that conviction, and he had that concern. However, most Bible readers make some very erroneous assumptions about the ministry methods of Jesus. For years I was one of those people. I was very impressed with the times the Master Teacher worked with large crowds. I thought about how great it was for him to have exercised such magnetism that he was able to attract thousands at one time. 

And yet, Jesus spoke to the crowds more as a means of training his apostles and other future evangelists (such as the seventy-two) than to "convert" the crowds. Of course, he was vitally interested in sharing God with those multitudes, but he wasn't naive enough to suppose that teaching in those large groups was going to really do the job of changing their lives. He realized that a more individualized approach was going to be necessary, and he was preparing some very special men to provide just that approach. 

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How We Learn Spiritual Truths

Most of what we learn in life is learned by OJT (on-the-job-training). We watch big brother tie his shoes, and then we imitate him. We watch Dad change the tire on the car, and we quickly know far more than if we had spent a couple of hours reading the manual. Becoming a carpenter is a process: a journeyman repeatedly shows an apprentice how to do carpentry. Just about everything we learn in the early years of our lives is learned in this manner, as is most of what we learn in the later years. It is the fastest and easiest way and in many cases the only way to learn. Nowhere is this principle more important than in learning spiritual truths. Discipling is all about learning from someone else as they are following Jesus. 

As we study the Scriptures, we see that there can be no "loner" Christians. We play an absolutely essential role in each other's lives. The gospel cannot be spread effectively without the human demonstration at the heart of it, nor can those who accept it be brought to maturity without those relationships (Matthew 28:19-20). 

The Bible alone is sufficient to reveal the content of the truth to man, but to grasp its power, we must read it both in black and white (pages) and in black, white, brown, red, and yellow (people). Can you see the point here? Discipleship has not been tried and found wanting; it has simply been found difficult and not often tried. However, when it is put into practice, lives change radically, and others are drawn to that magnet of visible change. Discipling works! And it is all that works! It was and is, without question, the plan of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world. 

The Plan of the Master 

Years ago, when I was first learning about discipling, I read a very helpful little book entitled The Master Plan of Evangelism. Coleman shows quite conclusively that the Master's method was men, plainly and simply. He poured his life into men, especially the Twelve, and when he returned to heaven, he left them to evangelize the world. They very effectively carried out his mission because they followed the same plan of pouring their lives into the lives of others, who repeated the same process over and over and over. 

Christ's purpose was never to personally convert the masses, for in a physical body he was limited to one place at one time. However, through his spiritual body, the church, he could be everywhere at once. The masses are converted one by one. As I shared my faith yesterday with a young couple in a restaurant, disciples all over the world were doing the same. And as I slept last night, members of Jesus' body were carrying out his mission all over the world. Yes, the plan of Jesus was certainly the master plan! 

The basics of his plan were as follows. First, he called men to follow him (Mark 1:14-18). Second, he kept men with him in order to train them and later send them out to share his message (Mark 3:14). Third, the training process included practical assignments, for we truly learn and retain only that which we practice. Finally, Jesus gave his life for what he had taught. Until we have something worth dying for, we have nothing worth living for. 

After Jesus had been resurrected from the grave, he spent forty days preparing his trained men for the coming of the kingdom and the task of spreading it all over the world. He then ascended back to heaven, leaving these few ordinary men with the extraordinary task of being (not just preaching) Jesus to the world. As Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 5:20, "We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us." Jesus' method was to pour his life into men, and once they were fully trained, they would be like him (Luke 6:40). Having been thus discipled, they were able to "go and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20). It was a simple plan with a high price tag of a tremendous personal investment in training individuals -- but it worked. It remains the same simple plan, and the price tag is just as high. No other plan has ever worked, can ever work, will ever work. We either do it this way, or we fail miserably. 


Reprinted from The Greater Houston Church Sunday Bulletin, January 21, 2018, No. 02


Photo credit: Carpenters: KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Tech. Sgt. Kalon Pang and Master Sgt. Cindy Dickson, instructors assigned to the I.G. Brown Training and Education Center on McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base, assemble a doorframe August 18, 2015, that will be used in a home building project. About a dozen military volunteers took part in the two-day Habitat for Humanity project here inside the organization's wood shop. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Mike R. Smith/Released)

 

The Power of Story to Divide or Unite Us

by Michael Burns -- Roseville, Minnesota, USA

Conversations That Can Unite or Divide

Stories are incredibly important. Every person and group has a story. Stories help to shape and craft our identities even when we don’t realize it. The grand stories that shape our self-understanding and the way we view and interact with the world are often called meta-narratives. When it comes to groups and societies, these meta-narratives are passed down from generation to generation. The impact of embracing these meta-narratives can be felt by future generations even if they have lost all or part of the meta-narrative itself.

The Grand Story and Identity of God’s People

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One example of an identity forming meta-narrative comes from the biblical text. Each generation of Israelite children heard and read the incredible story of the Passover. They thrilled as their parents and grandparents recounted the events that led their ancestors to the revelation that they were God’s special people. They marveled at all that God had done as he led them out from under the enslaving hand of Pharaoh.  And this set their self-identity in stone. They were God’s people and would never again be slaves to anyone, regardless of circumstances that might seem to temporarily point to a different conclusion.

In John 8:32 Jesus challenges the identity created by the Passover meta-narrative. He implies that the children of Abraham need to be set free which elicits a series of protests and emotional responses. That response was, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone” (John 8:33). Any other group of people would likely not have taken such offense at the implication of being enslaved, especially when Jesus explains that he is speaking of the universal slavery to sin (John 8:34). But meta-narratives and their ensuing identities are powerful. These identities become deeply held and we cherish them without typically fully realizing how important they are. The Passover meta-narrative had cemented in the nation of Israel’s mind that they were God’s children. No matter what tough temporary circumstances they might face, like the occupation of their homeland by the Roman Empire, they were still God’s family and would never be slaves. Jesus challenged both of those dearly held foundational identifiers.  The pushback and vitriol were palpable. 

Conflict is Unavoidable

Whenever two people are involved relationally to any significant degree, conflict is virtually inevitable. In this context, conflict is simply the incompatibility between two or more perspectives. Conflict itself is not necessarily sinful. You can have conflict without overt sin. Conflict will happen. The difference is in how we handle that conflict. The danger, of course, is that most human conflict does lead to sin.

In fact, it will happen often in a family of churches like ours.  The more diverse a group is socially, historically, and culturally, the more opportunities there will be for conflict. We will have different perspectives, experiences, cultural expectations, history, preferences, and so on. This will be a constant challenge to our unity, especially when difficult subjects such as race and culture are being discussed.

Yes, conflict will happen. But when that conflict involves pushing up against one or more meta-narratives, that conflict can get passionate, and negatively so, rather quickly. That’s when conversations and even relationships can start to break down.

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Healthy Families Talk

By way of example, let’s say that a Bible talk group sits down to discuss an incident that has been in the news involving a white police officer and a young man of color, resulting in the tragic death of the young man. As the group begins their conversation, conflict quickly erupts. Some in the group identify with the police officers and are prone to trust them and take their side without much in the way of questions. Others may or may not realize it, but somewhere deep down, they don’t trust police forces inherently. Even though we have a room full of disciples of Jesus Christ, tensions rise and before you know it there is a heated debate. Within twenty minutes, factions have formed, divisions have arisen, and hard feelings have developed.  What’s even more pronounced and problematic is that these divisions are often (though not always) along racial or ethnic lines.

In situations like this, what often happens is that an awkward fear develops in one or both groups and they determine that the best solution is simply never to talk about these matters again within the body. This is deeply problematic. Healthy families talk. In fact, healthy families can talk about virtually anything. The degree to which there are off-limits or taboo subjects is the degree to which a dysfunction is bound to develop in that family. 

Going Below the Surface

Here’s the real problem. In many situations, the different meta-narratives that we have lead to sharp disagreements. But we tend to not recognize that it is these underlying identity-forming stories that have led to our very different perspectives and resulted in severe conflict. Because of that, we stay at the level of the surface conflict and never get to the roots of it.

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Let’s go back to the Bible talk group and see how this plays out. Some probably grew up in a middle class, predominantly white environment like mine where the police force was always presented as a positive thing. Every year we would have “Officer Friendly” come to our school and spend time connecting with the students. We looked forward to seeing police officers in town because they would hand out baseball cards to the kids. We were always told that they were the good guys; they would save us and help us if we ever needed it. This is why so many defend and support police officers before they may even know the specifics of a case. They just trust them naturally. That was my meta-narrative and many of you may identify with that. It formed a specific aspect of my worldview and identity in relation to those that are given the responsibility “to protect and serve.”

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My wife is African-American and grew up with a very different community meta-narrative. The roots of many police forces, especially in the deep South where her family migrated North from, were as slave patrols. After slavery, those forces morphed into police forces, but they often had the objective of keeping black community members “in their place.” The lines of justice were frequently blurred and they often intimidated, brutalized, and terrorized the black communities. So, the meta-narrative formed that policemen were not a group that could be automatically trusted. They were to be rightly feared and meta-narratives like this are powerful and do not easily go away. They are passed down as wisdom from generation to generation. Even if a group is removed from the original context, the story and worldview often remain in place. And events that might seem like unfortunate, isolated incidents to those from one meta-narrative, serve as powerful reinforcements of the negative image for those from a different meta-narrative.

It can be incredibly destructive if we are unable to get down to that level of understanding one another in our church life. When we stay at the surface level of conflict, we simply argue. We waste our breath trying to convince one another but will very rarely be able to succeed. It is like two people staring at a white wall, one with rose-colored glasses on and the other with blue glasses on, who insist on arguing about what the color of the wall is. They will never get anywhere if they focus on the wall and fail to recognize that they have on different-colored glasses. 

That’s how it is with these meta-narratives. We must go beyond the conflicts and seek to understand each other. Ask deep questions. Try to comprehend not just what a person believes or what they perceive, but why. They may not even fully grasp their own meta-narrative at first. There are many members in my wife’s family that were raised with an inherent mistrust of authority figures like the police but have little idea of why or where that fear comes from. 

This is not taking sides on an issue or any specific incident involving police. If you’re focused on that, you’ve missed the point of this article. That was simply a relevant illustration to help us understand the powerful forces at work that can weave conflict into our relationships. The next time you find yourself in conflict with a brother or sister over a serious matter of this nature, don’t stay at the surface level of the conflict. Go deeper. Ask questions. Hear one another. Find out what some of their identity forming meta-narratives are (and we all have many).  We may not ever fully agree on everything, but we can at least start to understand the different perspectives that others may hold, and we may learn a lot more about ourselves.  When we understand one another’s meta-narratives, their perspectives start to make a lot more sense and we often feel empathy and a desire to reconcile rather than pull away or continue the conflict.

Practical Steps Forward

Here are some practical steps to help us begin to discover and navigate the waters of the meta-narratives of others.  First, I have a big warning though. Don’t attempt to do this with others until you have examined your own meta-narratives and presumptions. Only then can you have a reasonable chance of understanding and empathizing with others.

1.    When a conflict occurs, don’t focus on the “what,” become curious about the “why”.

2.    Ask as many questions as you can to respectfully pull out someone’s background and story, where they might be coming from and why they see the world the way they do. Some sample questions from the above example involving responses to the police might be:

a.    Do you think you tend to automatically give the benefit of the doubt to police or official government versions? Why do you think that is?

b.    Do you think you tend to automatically mistrust police and people in authority? Why do you think that is?

c.     What has been the past experience of yours or previous generations in your family with police officers in the past? 

d.    Do you think you have had any pre-conceived notions or beliefs about those in power or the underdogs in society that might influence your thinking?

3.    Everyone’s worldview makes sense to them given their meta-narratives, so seek to understand as much as you can about a person’s views from the perspective of their meta-narratives rather than your own.

4.    Listen to other’s story without comment, objection, or rebuttal. You are trying to learn and understand not teach and educate at this moment.

5.    Try to avoid the “whats” in a conflict until you have a really solid grasp of the other person’s “whys.”

6.    Together you can examine, not the meta-narratives themselves, but the identities and presumptions that have resulted from them. Are they in sync with a kingdom worldview, a godly perspective of others and a biblical response?

7.    Together, do either of you see that perhaps some of your identities formed by your meta-narratives need to change in light of the gospel?  How do you go about that?

8.    You may have to agree to disagree at times, but at least you now hopefully can better understand the perspective of your brother or sister and respect and understand their views rather than thinking that they are just “out of their mind”.

Deep Waters

Proverbs 20:5 says that “The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out.”  Our meta-narratives are certainly deep waters and when we take the time to learn our own and draw out those of others, we move one step closer to the kind of unity in Christ that God desires for his people.  A willingness to examine your own meta-narratives and identities and those of others, won’t solve every problem but it is a very healthy step in the right direction.

 

A Brief Review of STEP : Scripture Tools for Every Person

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Joey Harris  --  Augusta, Georgia, USA

The STEP Bible (STEP stands for “Scripture Tools for Every Person”) is a free digital Bible software project run by the Bible and religious book publisher, Tyndale House.  The underlying software powering the project is based on the popular open source SWORD Project, managed by The Crosswire Bible Society.  Many volunteers, publishers, Bible societies and others contribute to the STEP Bible by volunteering time and by donating translations, tools, commentaries, interlinears, dictionaries and other resources to the project. 

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There is a vast array of easy-to-access tools for scholars as well as the average Bible reader like you or me.  There are dozens of English translations and commentaries, in addition to dozens of ancient language versions (great for the scholars among us).  You can easily research multiple translations in modern languages (including both the NIV and ESV as well as many others), mouse hover Hebrew/Greek/Aramaic original words behind the translations, definitions, cross references, commentaries, original language grammatical help, interlinears, and concordances in original languages as well as modern languages.  I was very impressed with how easy it was to use and with the extremely organized and well-designed user screens.  There is generous use of popups so that you remain on the screen you’re already working on as much as possible.  You can easily look up every instance of a Greek or Hebrew word in both directions (e.g., every time the word “love” is used and the different Greek and Hebrew words translated as “love” in your English translation OR every time the Greek word “agape” is used in English (even when it’s not translated into English as “love”).

All of this is available not only online (and works fairly well on a smartphone and very well on tablet browsers), but there are also free, downloadable apps available for Microsoft Windows™ and Apple Macintosh™ desktop computers.  Finally, you can download the entire project onto a thumb drive and distribute it for free to people without an Internet connection.

I highly recommend the STEP Bible for all users, from those just beginning to study the Bible to veteran students and scholars of the Bible.

 

An Introduction to "Crossing the Line" by Michael Burns

by Michael Burns -- Roseville, Minnesota, USA

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In 2007, my wife and I moved to Appleton, Wisconsin, with our twelve- and four-year-old sons to lead the Fox Valley Church of Christ. Despite the idyllic scenery, small town charm, and loving church family, it was not all roses; especially not for our older son. I am what society has labelled “white” and my wife is what society calls “black.”  One day our older son was confronted by another student who informed him, in “joke” form,  that the difference between a bench and a black man is that a bench can support a family. 

Not long after that, he went to sit by a friend at lunch in the cafeteria and was told by another boy that he had entered the “whites only” part of the lunchroom and needed to take his “nigger” self somewhere else. He was in a school of nearly 1,500 with fewer than ten black students and didn’t have many positive options available to him and talking to the school officials yielded little to nothing. 

In the end, nothing much happened, and our older son struggled in that environment until 2012 when we finally moved to the Twin Cities and I began to serve as the Teacher in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Church of Christ. 

What he, and to a lesser but still significant extent, my wife and younger son experienced in the community at large, was a sharp contrast to our experience in our family of churches, the International Churches of Christ. In fact, the racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity was the first thing that drew us into the Milwaukee Church of Christ where we were converted.

We have continued to love the ethnic and cultural diversity in our family of churches but along the way, we learned that this beautiful diversity has its challenges. The more varied and diverse a people are, the more difficult it will be to create and maintain unity. That’s a fact. And while we heard of and experienced little dustups or complaints over the years, for the most part what we saw and felt was this amazing and manifold kingdom of God that consisted of people of every tribe, language, and nation, so to speak.  

But division is Satan’s specialty; and, like anything, cracks in our unity and diversity have started to appear over time. Not on the surface, of course. You can come any Sunday morning and see the same amazing mix of cultures. But in the day-to-day life of the community, tensions seemed to be rising. 

As my wife and I have travelled across our fellowships we have learned that most disciples love their church and they love the kingdom of God. They love the ideal of being God’s one family of all nations, and they love their brothers and sisters.

But we also found that many of our brothers and sisters of color were grieved, and a part inside of them was in mourning; not all, but a definite majority. What I heard primarily was fear. Fear that the prejudices and inequities of the world had crept into our beloved church. They were bothered by the pattern of silence in the face of incidents of racial injustice that were playing out in the media. They were concerned at the perception of a mounting lack of representation of people of color in all levels of church leadership.

As I continued to listen, I heard a growing pattern of dissatisfaction in many churches about the cultural environment. People of color, particularly African American brothers and sisters, often felt that there was a dominant white culture in the church and that their voice and culture were either allowed only token input or not heard at all (although there are a few cases where the opposite is true).  Many have expressed the feeling that they tend to feel welcome in the church as long as they “act white” and embraced expressions of white culture.  And many have confirmed that even in our beloved fellowship they have experienced cases of prejudice or bigotry. Not to the level or degree of the world, but still, it is there.

I don’t think that we can ever end ethnic and cultural divisions, and institutions like racism in the world, nor is it prudent to even try. What we can do, however, is to address these issues openly and honestly in the family of God and to stand out like a bright light in a world of division and sectarianism. 

Why talk about this? Imagine what would happen if my wife came to me today and requested that we have a heart-to-heart talk about some issues that she would like to address in our marriage.  Rather than listening to her, though, I tell her, “No, we’re not going to talk about this.” She looks a bit taken aback, but before she can respond, I continue. “We have a great marriage; things are good. Why are you trying to mess that up?”

“Think of this biblically,” I go on. “The Bible makes it clear that we were once two separate people but when we came together in marriage, we became one flesh. That’s all there is to it,” I proudly state. “Why dredge up things from the past?”

She listens to me and then calmly says, “I want to talk about something from this morning.”

“Ahh,” I quickly blurt, “that’s the past!”

“Right now we are unified,” I continue, “because we are one. It’s great to be one. I love that we are one. That’s biblical truth. Nope, no argument there. No conversations needed. I think we’re good and we should just move along and enjoy our goodness.”

It probably will not take you a long time to figure out that if this was my actual response, the rest of the week is probably not going to be a pleasant one for me.  You don’t get married, become one, and now the work is over and all that’s left is to preserve the perfect unity and oneness that you have achieved.

In the same way, imagine if a black brother or sister wanted to talk to me about what they have experienced in their multi-ethnic church, why they feel culturally marginalized at times, or the hurt they feel from what is happening in our country. What if I responded in that conversation the way I described speaking to my wife? What if I said, “Brother, why are you trying to cause division? There is just one race, the human race. The Bible is very clear on that. The only answer to racism is not to complain or see it as a boogey- man behind every bush. We are all one in Christ, so you need to repent of this divisiveness. God has already joined us together and there is no black or white.”

And imagine that, when my friend asks if it’s a conversation that we could have as a church and maybe even do some teaching on it, I respond by telling him that such conversations are pointless because they’re just going to dig up conflicting feelings and perspectives and divide our fellowship.

Yes, we are one in Christ. There is no question that there is great truth behind this and similar ideas, but if we leave it there, such beloved truths of God’s kingdom can quickly become empty platitudes.

The truth contained in those statements is that we are all one in Christ. That’s an undeniable biblical reality for those that have been immersed into his life. There is only the one, human race, say the Scriptures. But as in a marriage, this is the starting point. When God’s people seek to obey the Scriptures by being comprised of all nations and people groups, a difficult process has begun. What comes next is a lot of hard work. These little slogans that we toss out, like “There is just one race, the human race,” and “We should all be colorblind” often serve as conversation enders, not starters. If I responded to my wife with the idea that she shouldn’t bring up issues or try to work on our marriage because we are one, that would be flippant. It would twist a truth into an agent of stagnation. The same is true if we toss out platitudes when it comes to the topics of racism, race, and culture.

Here’s the rub: statements like “We are one” are true, but they only remain true if a lot of effort, honest conversation, and difficult changes are constant. The minute that that environment fades away is the moment that those statements cease to be true. Bringing up concerns and wanting to talk about them in an open and real way is not disruptive; it is the foundation for true unity and continued growth.

The fact is that being a family of all nations is central to the Gospel (Matthew 28:28-20; Galatians 3:7-9), so the idea that we won’t constantly need to address issues of racial unity and cultural inclusion is naïve at best and dangerous at worst. 

There is no question that issues of racism, race, and culture have once again taken center stage in our society. These are issues that bring out deep passion and potential conflict in the world; and because disciples live in this world, they affect us, our mission, and our unity.

If we’re not careful and don’t address these topics biblically and with great love, patience, and grace, they could wind up ripping Christians apart. Every potential problem like this, though, can be a pitfall or a platform. It can be our undoing or an amazing opportunity to put the power and wisdom of the true gospel on display. It is encouraging that these conversations are now taking place in some locations. I am under no illusion that this book is the beginning of something. It is a continuation and it is a call for learning, understanding, and, most of all, open and honest discussion.


Michael Burns is a Teacher in the Minneapolis-St. Paul church of Christ. He is a graduate of Wesley Seminary of Indiana Wesleyan University (MA). He taught high school history in the central city of Milwaukee for nearly ten years. He is a national and international biblical teacher at churches and workshops. He is the founder and director of the Ministry Development and Training Academies centered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and serves as an instructor in Ministry Training Academies in Africa. He is the author of the twelve-volume C.O.R.E. Curriculum books.  He married his wife, MyCresha, in 1997. They have two sons and reside in Roseville, Minnesota. 

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"Let Each One Be Careful How He Builds"

(1 Corinthians 3:10)

A Study of the Statistical Narrative of the International Churches of Christ (ICOC)     

 -- The Initial Growth Phase --

 

by Andy Fleming -- Kiev, Ukraine 

ABSTRACT

Today is an important moment for the International Churches of Christ(ICOC). As the movement enters its second generation, understanding our history, our strengths and our weaknesses, has never been more vital. Although God’s word has world-transforming power and he desires for the whole world to be saved, there seems to be internal resistance impeding a gain in momentum and forward motion. I believe that part of this resistance can be attributed to lack of faith and discouragement, and self-focus rather than God-focus. At this moment, in this situation, we need the faith of Abraham as much as ever:

"Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, 'so shall your offspring be.' Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was a good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead." (Rom 4:18-19) 

That our movement has slowed in growth is a fact, but that does not change what God is able to do through our faith and faithfulness. What God wants to be done in this world, can only be done through his strength and wisdom. 

From 1979 to 2002, the ICOC grew from a single congregation of about 30 members to a worldwide fellowship of 439 congregations and 135,072 members. Although the growth was perceptibly slowing in the latter part of this period, the organizational collapse and loss of membership in 2003 were severe and largely unanticipated by the leadership. The purpose of this in-depth statistical analysis is to examine the available data of this “initial growth phase” and look for trends and patterns that might have served as indicators and warnings as to what was about to take place. Some of the most significant findings of this study can be summarized as follows:

http://www.missionstory.com/let-each-one-be-careful-how-he-builds-(2018).html

·      1999 was the actual “tipping point” for the ICOC’s growth where the rate of members leaving began an irreversible trend (without radical or divine intervention) to outpace the rate of members joining, thereby showing the events of 2003 as the inevitable outcome;

·      1990 marked the end of global “exponential growth” and the beginning of “linear growth”;

·      Certain strategic decisions like “building mega-churches” and “church planting schedules” were made and implemented without including the means for effective evaluation and strategic redevelopment;

·      Signs of weaknesses and flaws in the church growth paradigms were showing as early as 1990, but due to the attention given to the ongoing successes of geographic expansion and the planting of new churches, these warnings and indicators were minimized or ignored, and thereby unknown to much of the membership;

·      The ICOC developed an identifiable growth pattern that manifested itself across World Sectors and churches of all sizes—these universal growth trends demonstrate that the underlying causes were fundamental and connected to shared strategies and assumptions;

·      Although the Los Angeles church was supposed to become the model and solution, it shared the same growth pattern and experienced its own crisis;

·      The 6-year plan compromised a number of the well-established “church planting” principles, and in the end multiplied weaknesses and not strengths;

·      Beyond the statistical evidence, the similarities between the Boston and Los Angeles growth narratives also demonstrate the outcome of shared strategies and assumptions;

·      The focus on numerical growth and expansion above all else, eventually created imbalanced ministry practices where the needs of the church were not the priority;

·      The first part of the Great Commission was considered more important than the second part, and so the goal of making new converts held priority over supporting and helping the already converted;

·      Some of the fundamental assumptions like “one leader,” “one congregation in a city,” and “one movement,” need to be reevaluated through examination of the Bible’s teaching and example.

This knowledge doesn’t change the facts or the past, but gaining insight into past failures and challenges can help us dream and plan more effectively as we move forward in faith. It’s time for a new generation and new growth phase for the ICOC, and the priorities are still clear: “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matt 6:33)


SALT

Part 2 of 2

 by Kay McKean -- Sterling, Virginia, USA

 

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Don’t people complain about unsalted food?
    Does anyone want the tasteless white of an egg?
My appetite disappears when I look at it;
    I gag at the thought of eating it!

(Job 6:6 – 7 New Living Translation)

The passage above is one of the oldest scriptures ever written, and what is Job’s complaint? Food without salt!

The book of Job contains a host of hypothetical questions. He was searching for a reason for his suffering, and was left unsatisfied. In this passage, the question he asks is almost humorous. But he brings it before God as an imploring complaint regarding his unanswered requests for clarity. Some take this passage to refer to the conversations that have been going on around Job, meaning that they have been insipid and meaningless. Whatever was on Job’s mind at this point, it’s absolutely accurate to say that food is not as tasty without salt. He refused to eat what had no flavor!

Certainly things haven’t changed through the centuries. Although we’ve admitted the modern dangers of overly-salty processed foods (see Part One – “Salt”), we have also acknowledged the true danger of living without a supply of salt in our bodies. We truly can’t live without it.

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As we move through the centuries following the time of Job, we see further reminders of the importance of salt as a part of the covenantal relationship between God and His people:

 Whatever is set aside from the holy offerings the Israelites present to the Lord I give to you and your sons and daughters as your perpetual share. It is an everlasting covenant of salt before the Lord for both you and your offspring. (Numbers 18:19 NIV)

Season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings. (Leviticus 2:13 NIV)

When God gave the Israelites the instructions about sacrifice, he promised this as a covenant of salt. Salt was the emblem that represented that which was incorruptible and permanent. Therefore, this covenant was one that would last. It was a binding alliance. Salt was also used in the grain offerings to the Lord. So we see salt as the symbol of the eternal nature of God’s covenant with Israel.

God was always willing to keep His promises, but unfortunately the political turmoil that followed the Israelite nation revealed that the people weren’t always willing to keep theirs:

Abijah stood on Mount Zemaraim, in the hill country of Ephraim, and said, “Jeroboam and all Israel, listen to me! Don’t you know that the Lord, the God of Israel, has given the kingship of Israel to David and his descendants forever by a covenant of salt? Yet Jeroboam son of Nebat, an official of Solomon son of David, rebelled against his master. Some worthless scoundrels gathered around him and opposed Rehoboam son of Solomon when he was young and indecisive and not strong enough to resist them. (II Chronicles 13:4 – 7)

Abijah, the rightful king, was appealing to those who knew that the royal line of kingship should come from the line of Judah. David was from that line, and the dynasty was to remain with his descendants. When civil war broke out, Abijah, David’s great-grandson, addressed the rebels by reminding them of the “covenant of salt” – an agreement that was to last for all time. Although the rebellion began by the poor leadership of Abijah’s father, he still maintained that to resist his kingship was to resist the Lord.  The message was clear: regardless of poor leadership and the mistakes of the past, the commitment to God’s plans were to be upheld.

Salt continued to play an important role in Israel’s history as we come to the time of the prophet Elisha:

The people of the city said to Elisha, “Look, our lord, this town is well situated, as you can see, but the water is bad and the land is unproductive.”

“Bring me a new bowl,” he said, “and put salt in it.” So they brought it to him.

Then he went out to the spring and threw the salt into it, saying, “This is what the Lord says: ‘I have healed this water. Never again will it cause death or make the land unproductive.’” And the water has remained pure to this day, according to the word Elisha had spoken. (II Kings 2:19 – 21 NIV)

Elisha was the protégé of Elijah, who had just been taken into heaven. So the incident with the water was Elisha’s first official miracle before the people. In this case, the salt was an emblem of purification. It brought about the healing of the water. While we understand that one bowlful of salt will not purify a spring, we do know that God can purify it. Elisha was clear in emphasizing that it was the Lord who healed the water.

The Jews weren’t the only ones who recognized the important nature of salt. Later in history, the Greeks exchanged salt for slaves. That’s where we get the phrase, “He isn’t worth his salt.” The Romans gave salt rations to their soldiers, calling it “Salarium Argentum”, which eventually became our word, “salary”. Even today, the traditions surrounding salt are plentiful. The British made it a point to bring salt to a newcomer’s home. Nelson Mandela made this appeal: “Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.”

When Jesus declared that His followers were to be the “salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13), He meant it in the best possible way. Salt was one of the most valuable commodities of His time. It was crucial for survival. Jesus calls each of us to see our incredible value. He wants us to remember the eternal covenant that we have been invited into, knowing that God will keep His promise to us. His desire is for us to keep our commitment to uphold His leadership in our lives. He wants us to see that because of God, we are instruments of purification and healing among those that are in our sphere of influence.

         Hopefully, these thoughts will make you look at salt a little differently. It’s not the enemy some make it out to be! Otherwise, Jesus would never have said “Salt is GOOD!” (Luke 14:34) When you say, “pass the salt”, consider it as a reminder that you are to add flavor and hope to the world.

References:

http://time.com/3957460/a-brief-history-of-salt/

https://www.britannica.com/science/salt

Mark Kurlansky, “Salt: A World History” Published by Penguin Books, 2003

What is Prayer and Why Do We Pray?

A mini-study on Prayer

by John Oakes -- San Diego, California, USA 

Let us start with two questions:

1. What is prayer to you?

2. Why do you pray?

Either write down your answers to these questions or at least take the time to voice your answers to yourself.

 

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I. What is prayer?

Think about your prayer life.   Is your prayer talking to God or is it talking with God?

Also, what is the purpose of you praying?

For myself, as I grew up as a Christian, the model for prayer was what I saw in a public prayer.  When people are praying in public, obviously they talk.  If they stop talking, then the prayer is over.  So, to me, prayer is talking to God, or at least that is how I viewed it for many years.

But there are two problems with this. 

1. Communication is a lot more than words, and

2. Communication, by its very definition, is two-way.

Romans 8:26-27 reads,   "In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness.  We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will." (NIV)

Think about that moment when you communicated your deepest desires and feelings to someone whom you deeply love.  If you are a married person, it might be that look you exchanged with your spouse when the two of you first realized you were in love with each other.  That look said it all.  Words simply do not express our most profound feelings.  Prayer is not just talking.  Prayer is feeling.  Prayer is receiving a message.  The Holy Spirit helps us to express those deepest feelings to God.  And this is a two-way street. He also communicates God’s deep desire for us.  Sometimes in our prayer we need to stop talking.  We need to “be still and know that I Am God.” (Psalms 46:10).

There is a spiritual discipline that most of us have not developed, and I will add myself to the list of novices in this area.  It is meditation.  Prayer may be talking, but it is also meditation.  Meditation is not just for our Hindu friends. We need to take it back for use in Christian prayer.  David meditated, not by saying a mantra, but by contemplating God’s glory.  In Psalm 119:27 he tells us that “I will meditate on your wonders.” In Psalm 77:9, Asaph tells us, “I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds.”  This cannot be done while talking.  In Psalm 48:9 the Sons of Korah tell us that, “Within your temple, O God, we meditate on your unfailing love.”  Prayer that God seeks from us includes meditation.

What is prayer?  It is a lot of things.  To break it down to just one of them is a mistake, but one of those things prayer involves is communicating on the deepest possible level our feelings and desires to God and God doing the same with us.  Let us consider prayer, not just as talking, but as feeling and meditating.  Let us consider the role the Holy Spirit plays in this and let us consider being trained to be still—to stop talking and to meditate on God—on his wonders, on his works and on his unfailing love.

 

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II. Why do we pray?

If we have a more complete understanding of what prayer is, then we will have a greater understanding of why we (hopefully) pray.  Of course, one reason we pray is that we are commanded to pray.  But consider your most valued relationships.  If these relationships are truly valued, then surely you do not communicate with those you love because you “have” to. In fact, if you have to, then that is not love.

Here are three much better reasons for you to consider as to why we pray. Our purposes in prayer include:

1. To give glory to God.

2. To align our heart with God’s will.

3. To influence God and be influenced by him through relationship.

Probably the best go-to place, both for how to pray and why to pray is found in Luke 11:1-4 and Matthew 6:9-13. Here the disciples, who have been praying their whole lives, realize that Jesus is the master prayer. Therefore, in humility, they ask him how to pray.  In his response to them, we can see all three of the points above.

First, Jesus begins his model prayer by giving glory to God.  All honor and praise belong to God and to God alone. My personal favorite example of this in the Scripture comes, not surprisingly, from the mouth of the second greatest prayer of all time—David. It is in 1 Chronicles 29:10-20.  “Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor.” By this time, David is consulting his thesaurus, as he is running out of words. But he is not running out of reasons to give Glory to God.  First and foremost, the reason we pray is to give glory to the God who created us—to the God of all comfort, love, power and dominion, who deserves our eternal praise and who sits in glory in heaven, amen!

Second, we pray so that our hearts and desires can become aligned with God’s will for our own lives  and for the world as a whole.  Jesus says in his model prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Does this mean that God’s will is not always done?  I thought that God was totally sovereign.  In fact, God’s will is not always done because there are creatures who have free will, whose wills very often do not align with the will of Him who created them. In prayer, we seek to align our desires with those of our Father in heaven. We offer ourselves in submission.  We pray for things, but we expect God to give us those things only if it is according to his will, right? In 1 John 5:14-15 we are told that anything we ask that is in accord with his will we will receive. For this reason, as we pray, we are trying to align our will with his will.

The third reason we pray goes back to the first part of this lesson. The greatest purpose of prayer is to give glory to God.  In prayer we align our free wills with God’s will. Both true, but in the end, prayer is two-way communication. In prayer, God presents his deepest desire for us—his will for our lives and for the whole world.  But in prayer, we also lay bare our deepest desires to God.  It is surely one of the greatest mysteries that the Creator of the Universe wants to be influenced by puny little us. In prayer, we move the universe.  Well, it is not exactly we, moving the universe, but it is we moving God, who then moves the universe.  In his model prayer, in Matthew 6:11, Jesus prayed that God would “give us our daily bread.”  In prayer, we present our requests before the most powerful person in the universe, knowing that if it is according to his will, that he will make it happen.  “By prayer and petition, with thanksgiving,” we “present our requests to God.” (Philippians 4:6)  Our prayer moves the universe, and this is one reason we pray, because when we ask, we receive.  But let us remember a few things about this.

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1. First, let us give glory to God.

2. Second, let us first do our very best to align our desires with God’s will.

3. Third, let us remember that our presentation to God of our desires will be greatly helped by the Holy Spirit, who speaks for us in groans that words cannot express. Let us sometimes stop talking, meditate, communicate and let us “be still and know that I am God.”

 

12/6/17

Published January 9, 2018 on www.disciplestoday.org

The Truth About Christmas

Douglas Jacoby - Marietta, Georgia, USA 

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I remember the night. It was chilly, especially for Florida, and Dad had a fire burning in the hearth. Even as a seven year old, I realized that this spelled certain doom for the jolly man who later that night would squeeze down the chimney. I mustered the courage to ask Dad, 'Is there really a Santa?' I was devastated. Doubts soon began to flood my mind as to the existence of 'the Stork,' the Easter Bunny, even of God himself. In later years I learned that Santa Claus (alias Father Christmas, Saint Martin, der Weihnachtsmann, Père Noël) was merely a corruption of Saint Nicholas, a Roman Catholic bishop of the 4th century. His attributes (red suit, reindeer, residence at the North Pole) derive from a blend of pagan legends with traditions about the saints. Good heavens!

25 December?
When was Jesus born? Does anyone really know? Early Christians were unsure. Cyprian thought 28 March, Clement of Alexandria guessed 20 May, Hippolytus supposed 2 June. If these early Christian writers (3rd century), who lived close to the time of Christ, had to guess the date of his birth, how is it that we know better?

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The Shepherds
According to Luke 2:8, the shepherds were 'living out in the fields' keeping watch over their flocks at night.' But what is Israel like in late December, the time traditionally assigned to 'Christmas'? It is cold. It is the rainy season (Ezra 10:9, 13; Song 2:11). The shepherds would not be found dwelling in the fields in the winter season, and certainly not at night. It is therefore unlikely that Jesus was born after Halloween! Whence then the notion that he was born on the 25th of December?

Roman History
In 274 AD the Emperor Aurelian, influenced by the Persian cult of Mithras, designated 25 December as the 'birthday' of the sun god, 'Sol Invictus' the invincible sun. (In Mithraic tradition, the deity was born 25 December, and celebrated for twelve days. Sound familiar?) In some circles worship of the sun became identified with worship of the Son (see Malachi 4:2). Then in 354, Liberius of Rome ordered Christmas celebrated. This was popular among the Romans, who had already been celebrating the Saturnalia (12-24 December) as well as the Brumalia (25 December) -- times of merrymaking and exchanging presents. Houses were decorated with greenery and festal lights. Gifts were given to children and the poor. Yes, Christmas has pagan origins. On top of all this, it is not even the actual birthday of Christ!

Teutonic History
As with the Romans, the Teutonic peoples, too, had their celebrations of the winter solstice. The idea was that the sun god was dying or dead, and that there were certain things one should do to assist it on its way, thus speeding the recovery of the world from its winter torpor. As the days lengthened after or around the 22nd of December, there was great rejoicing and partying. Thousands of years of Teutonic history make their contribution to the customs of Christmas, and these customs spread with the people into Central Europe, Gaul, and Britain. At the Yuletide, special cakes were consumed, Yule logs were burnt as an incentive to the waxing sun, fir trees were adorned with lights in honor of the tree spirits, special greetings and gifts were exchanged, many went a-wassailing, and of course there was the mistletoe, under which one stood and began (only a kiss, mind you) the headlong rush into a night of pagan revelry (1 Peter 4:3)! Remember that all of this was going on long before Christ was born.

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Shopping Sprees
What would Christmas be without the frenzied shopping that characterizes our society? Listen to Libanius, a 4th century Roman writer, as he describes the scene in pre-Christian Rome:

"Everywhere may be seen 'well-laden tables'. The impulse to spend seizes everyone. He who through the whole year has taken pleasure in saving'becomes suddenly extravagant'a stream of presents pours itself out on all sides."

Yes, Christmas 'spirit,' often sustained by big business to sell merchandise, is nothing new, but rather an ancient and time-honored tradition.

Closing considerations
We have seen that 'Christmas' is essentially 100% tradition -- and non-Christian at that! Yet traditions are condemned in the Bible only if they directly contradict the word of God (Mark 7:6-8). Jesus commanded us to remember his death, yet there is no harm in commemorating his entrance into the world. As one of the few who understands the true origins of this holiday, you can now enjoy the season in a more enlightened manner. So be of good cheer!

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Merry Christmas!

Click here to listen to Douglas' ten-minute podcast on Christmas

Reposted from www.douglasjacoby.com

Photo Credits:

USA Stamp 

The Shepherds and the Angel

DC: Ye Olde Yule Log by , Wally Gobetz, December 2000

 

 

    Bringing Back the Stray

    Douglas Jacoby - Marietta, Georgia, USA

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    Since the Lord restores our souls (Psalm 23), and those who are spiritual ought to restore the brother caught in sin (Galatians 6:2), bringing back the those who have strayed isn't restoration in the original sense of the word. Keep in mind:

    • To bring back the stray is Christ-like.
    • This is a process of freeing a drifting brother or sister (Hebrews 2:1) from the allure of the world and bringing him or her back to the fold. This process takes time. It is much more than simply adding someone’s name back to the membership list based on assurances of future commitment.
    • It is to be carried out gently (Galatians 6:2). This means caring for the individual, hearing him or her out, not rushing but carefully retracing steps back to the place he or she got off the narrow road. More often than not, those wishing to return to the fold already have plenty of guilt and shame. They need assurance, not an “I-told-you-so” telling off (2 Corinthians 2:6-8).
    • Not all Christians are able to bring back the stray. Maturity, experience, and spirituality are essential. This is a pastoral duty, though not necessarily limited to church leaders.
    • All Christians are “shepherds” of the flock in some sense. Many congregations contain plenty of mature Christians, and these are the ones who will be most qualified to bring the wanderers home.
    • The process itself is somewhat precarious by its very nature. The temptation to over-identify with the lapsed disciple, taking on his attitudes or championing his grievances, is more than some disciples can handle. In some cases, the sin in which the person to be restored must relinquish is still ongoing.

    Practicals

    • Always ask, What are the causes of the person’s leaving the church? We must make sure that we are dealing with true causes, not symptoms. Otherwise, after being welcomed back, they may slip back into the same well-worn ruts.
    • Remember that God holds the individual responsible for quitting—no matter what (Romans 2:5ff).
    • Sometimes it is largely a leader’s fault. Shepherds, through harsh leadership, can scatter the sheep (Ezekiel 34). In addition, sometimes people fall through the sin or lack of forgiveness of another (Luke 17).
    • False teaching also has a role in dragging many back to the world (2 Peter 2:1-3).
    • Spiritual “starvation” (1 Corinthians 3:2) may also be an issue. Lack of proper appetite may be a factor, but so may lack of proper diet. Milk and meat are both needed. Shallow preaching and or humanistic leadership inhibit our potential to grow. (Still, the onus is on the individual.)
    • Always speak to those who were involved in the person’s life before he lapsed. Realize, in addition, that in some cases there are “two sides” to the story (Proverbs 18:17). Make sure you are properly informed.
    • Call for additional help as required.
    • If someone is not open to returning at the moment, “leave the light on and the door open”! (The Parable of the Lost Son shows the example.) Don’t be resentful or take sinful decisions personally. This only causes us to turn a cold shoulder to them, and it prohibits them from coming back.
    • Be urgent to see the person progress, but don’t rush him. Beware of flash-in-the-pan decisions. Give them time to once again implement spiritual disciplines (personal devotional times, to begin with) and to re-integrate the church schedule into their own routine.
    • Study the Bible together. Pray together. Expect them to do the same on their own.
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    • When they have true conviction, they will probably start sharing their faith with their friends again.
    • If the lapsed Christian is married, ask the spouse what he or she thinks about the change. The spouse probably has a better vantage point from which to evaluate what is going on than anyone else.
    • While not withholding gentle assistance, expect the individual to exhibit initiative. Ultimately, it is not hand-holding that will set them back on the path to the Lord’s heavenly kingdom (2 Timothy 4:18).

    Conclusion
    In most cities around the world there are not only active Christians, but also a number of men and women who have turned back from following the Lord. We must reach these individuals to “save their souls from death and cover over multitude of sins” (James 5:20).

    Shared from www.douglasjacoby.com, originally posted March 1, 2015

    Photo Credits: Stray sheep on the railway track at Bryn-y-Felin Bridge,
    cc-by-sa/2.0 - © David Tyers 

    Bible open to Psalm, CC0 Public Domain