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Sunday, April 17, 2016
GAZING IN THE MIRROR
I’ve been a minister for longer than I am going to tell you here today. A number of years ago, I was first introduced to a few principles that have shaped my thinking and ministry ever since. These principles are even at the core of my devotional books about divorce, and are principles that make a huge difference in how one approaches ministry, and how one views the work of the church they lead or attend. I’d like to share with you the things I learned, because perhaps they will be helpful in your own context.
The first principle I learned when visiting with an acquaintance who, though technically a member of the church I was at, was not actively involved at the time. He made the comment to me that though he didn’t claim to know a lot about church, he did think that the sermons were being preached in the wrong place. Based on what he saw in the evangelistic appeals when he watched Billy Graham, he thought his church was acting in a misguided way: he thought that they were preaching in the wrong place on the wrong day. Instead of Sunday in a church pulpit, he thought God’s people ought to be down at the local bar on Saturday night instead, because he believed that was where the people were who needed to hear the message of hope. Good point, huh?
The next event came out of some things I read or conversations I had a few years later. Though I don’t remember the exact source, I remember well the point, which was that it is important for church folks to learn to see their building and their service through the eyes of someone from the outside. This was easily illustrated by just noticing whether someone coming into the building for the first time could easily find the restroom if they needed to visit it, or would they have to go through the embarrassment of having to ask a stranger. The challenge is to walk through one’s facility attempting to view it with the eyes of a first time visitor. I once led a worship service designed to help teach that very thing, accomplished by simply making significant changes in our worship service so as to include unfamiliar hymns and readings, or for things to be way out of order, including standing when we normally sat and vice-versa. That kind of experience can help a long time member begin to get a sense of what it must feel like to visit a new church for the very first time.
The goal in both cases is to be able to identify the unnecessary and sometimes hurtful barriers we create for those who might be interested in deciding to follow Christ. The final piece is a logical conclusion of those considerations along with a thoughtful reflection on scripture. The conclusion is this: if we want the Christian message we proclaim to be relevant to the lives of those who are not part of a church, we have to learn how to meet them on their turf, with sensitivity to their needs, perspectives and experiences. The scriptural mandate is clear, but often unnoticed. The Great Commission challenges Christ’s followers to GO into all the world, not sit in their buildings and expect the world to COME! (What does this have to do with divorce? Bear with me…)
After developing some of those thoughts, the thread went one step further when I had opportunity to hear Rebecca Pippert and read her wonderful book, Out of the Saltshaker, Into the World. She told the story of a time she and a friend bumped into some students on the beach and visited with them for a while. Her friend was disappointed that the students did not accept Christ, and that the friend didn’t get to present “all the steps” of the gospel. Rebecca responded by asking her friend the names of the students, which he could not remember. The more questions she asked her friend, the more she realized her friend was far too focused on his own agenda and being able to check the boxes on the list showing he said everything he wanted. That also meant he was NOT focused on the individuals with whom he talking, and inattentive to any needs they have. A corollary is that when one approaches individuals from that perspective, we often end up helping them based on the needs and help WE think they need, which may or may not be the appropriate way to address their concerns or the primary need they are experiencing.
This all leads to the principles that we do best when we are willing to take a long hard look in the mirror at our church and ourselves, and risk seeing how we are seen by those outside the faith. I find it VERY significant that the religious leaders were the individuals whom Jesus challenged most and who were most uncomfortable and resistant to what Jesus said. Those who were “publicans and sinners” loved being around Jesus and felt welcome and comfortable in His presence. And that is a major reason why I wrote the devotional books about divorce. It has been my experience (even in my own pre-divorce ministry) and in almost every church I have attended or visited, that most churches and those in them tend to be clueless and ineffective at best, in how they (we!) minister to individuals going through divorce. Even our good attempts, such as a ministry I found helpful myself, DivorceCare, the program is designed for a far shorter time period than the time divorcing individuals struggle, and contains occasional assumptions that result in disconnects here and there. I still remember one in particular that struck a sour chord in me as I worked the program, because of assumptions underlying the teaching.
This has been on my mind of late, because I have been reading again a marvelous book called, Jim & Casper Go to Church by Jim Henderson and Matt Casper. The whole book is built around presenting the honest perceptions of an atheist as he visits and experiences worship at a variety of churches with a variety of styles. While there are points here and there in the book that I might take exception with, it remains such a wonderful resource to help us Christians recognize whether we truly are letting the light of Christ shine through us, or whether it is something else that gets through. I think far too often the light of Christ is NOT what is shined on individuals struggling in the midst of divorce, instead it is all too often a harsh and judgmental posture, or the expectation that someone recently divorced needs to just get over it and move on…all of which demonstrates the great disconnect that exists. Well worth reading, I assure you.
It is my hope that my devotional books, and this little blog, can provide not only hope and encouragement for individuals struggling in divorce. Beyond that, however, they can also be good teaching resources to enhance the ministry effectiveness of pastors and laymen who seek to be used of Christ to encourage their struggling friends. I learned of a group of pastors who chose to read through the books together as a way to enrich the effectiveness of their ministries, since few of them had been divorced. I heard that one person in the group, who had been divorced, made the comment that, “this is way too real!” I had another friend who commented that she thinks it would be great for any pastor to read them, so as to have a real sense of what his people are experiencing when divorce strikes. Regardless, I would encourage you as a reader to look around you in life, and seek to notice the individuals who might need a word of encouragement or hope from you…maybe because of divorce, maybe for other reasons. When you notice that they are there and then start to listen to what their needs and experiences are, perhaps you could then also start to take a long, hard look in the mirror to determine whether there are ways you could be more effective in ministering the love of Christ.