How to Talk to A Complete Stranger about Church

man_walking_dogTwo Sundays ago, at the suggestion of preaching professor David Lose, I challenged my congregation to ask people if they go to church and if not, to ask them why.  I try never to ask my congregation to do something I’m not willing to do myself, and so, on the way home that day, I asked someone.  Here’s what happened, as reported on Facebook:

Actual conversation on my way home from church today:

“Excuse me,” I asked the stranger walking his dog on my street, “Do you go to church?”

“No,” he said. “I believe in God, but I don’t go to church.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Honestly? Because a lot of churches are too judgmental.”

I told him I was a pastor and that I was trying to help my congregation be less judgmental. He asked where and I said First Baptist. He wanted to know where it was and what time we had services. And then he said this:

“I believe in God. In fact one night I was lying there in my bed and I said, ‘God, if you’re real, show me.’ And then my bedroom door opened, not once, not twice, but three times!” (tears came to his eyes, and he got choked up).

He asked again where my church was and then said, “I might not come to church, but if you want to talk to me on the street anytime, I’d be glad to.”

So, that was two weeks ago.  Last Sunday I saw the same guy on the same corner as I was walking home from church.  This is what happened:

He: Pastor Jim!

Me: Hey, aren’t you the guy I talked to a couple of weeks ago? What’s your name?

He: Edward.

Me: Right! You told me the story about knowing God was real because of your bedroom door opening and closing three times one night.

He: Right.

Me: I shared that story on Facebook! A lot of people were really moved by it.

He: I almost came to church today, except I didn’t wake up until 10:45. I work late, you know. But I am reading the Book of Isaiah.

Me: You’re kidding! I talked about Isaiah in today’s sermon. I said I thought it was a book Jesus grew up listening to, and one that helped him understand who he was and what he was supposed to do.

He: Well, I’m on chapter 65, so…just one chapter to go.

Me: Good for you. That’s amazing! And listen, I hope you’ll come to church next week. We’re having one big worship service at 11:00 and then dinner on the grounds afterward. If you come I’ll buy your lunch!

He: Okay!

I don’t know what will happen next, but #churchjusthappened both times I talked to Edward.  Maybe you could try it yourself this week.  Somebody might be hoping for just that kind of conversation.

–Jim

KOH2RVA: Day 235

cats and dogsThe conversation on this blog over the past two days has been fascinating and yesterday, especially, it had the feel of a lively roundtable discussion among people with very different views, but very respectful attitudes. I want to thank Anne especially, for hanging in there when many disagreed with her views. She was unflappable, and never appeared to get angry. Near the end of the day she was almost cheerfully suggesting reading material to her new friends Don and Daniel.

I admire that.

I do have more to say on this topic, but I’m not going to say it today. Today I’m going hiking with my brother Greg who has been working as a missionary in North Africa for the past year. We’re going to huff and puff our way to the top of Old Rag Mountain, pausing from time to time for long, thoughtful conversations (and a chance to catch our breath). I won’t have a cell signal for most of that hike, and therefore won’t be able to moderate discussion on my blog (nor should I, when I have the chance to walk and talk with my brother). So, I’m going to make a suggestion:

Do something today that brings heaven a little closer to earth, and at the end of the day tell me what it was.

I appreciated Melissa Ansley Brooks’ comment on my Facebook page when I mentioned that I’d had 1,588 views on my blog on Tuesday. She wrote: “Could you give my contact information to all of those people who viewed your blog…because I’ve got some Kingdom work that needs doin’….poor kids to feed, motherless babies to rock, middle schoolers to tutor, widows to comfort, sick people to visit…and I need some help!”

For those who have ears to hear it, it could be the voice of Jesus himself.

KOH2RVA: Day 213

Wind_blowing_by_xpuszakxI’m preaching an Easter season series called “The Acts of an Easter People” (thanks, John Ballenger, for a great title).

One of the things I love about Acts is the way the Spirit not only blows where it will, but seems to blow God’s people wherever it wills. After the stoning of Stephen in chapter 7, for example, some of the disciples end up in Samaria (of all places) where they preach the good news to the Samaritans and make a number of converts. Later Philip preaches the good news to an Ethiopian eunuch (of all people) who also becomes a believer.

Crazy, right?

It’s one of the reasons I love hearing from Jeremy and Monica, the church planters I’ve told you about before. They are a young couple who don’t look much like evangelists, and yet they can’t stop talking to people about Jesus. They talk to all kinds of people. The Spirit blows them wherever it wills.

I wanted to share with you today a prayer request Jeremy sent out before a recent event, and then tomorrow follow up with the results, just so you’ll have the satisfaction of finding out what happened. First, the request:

Yes! This is so cool! Please pray!

1. This Saturday is our FIRST gathering for people who are seeking answers on questions of “faith.” It’s an open discussion, yet oriented toward defending and defining a Biblical understanding of faith. The sorts of people we invited are from a range of pantheist, pluralist, atheist, agnostic, post-christian, post-catholic, apathetic, NOT apathetic (some of them REALLY care!), some are ignorant others are well informed “religiously,” and others who have been invited are somewhat neo-pagan (spiritual consumers just taking whatever they want, ignoring what they don’t want, and ignoring their own inconsistencies). Pray that the Holy Spirit will move and that nothing prevents them from coming to the gathering! Depending on who comes, we will also be partnering with a few people from Imago (our local church) who will also be there for the purpose of being a light.

2. Due to the recent opportunities in sharing Christ, I am developing a small follow-up handout to give to people AFTER we have a gospel conversation. This is NOT a tract, rather it is a handout that will keep the dialogue open and provide a few directions for those we talk with (the goal is to keep the gospel at the forefront and point them towards more questions/answers and scripture!). Pray for me for wisdom and brevity as I create that.

So just an example of why that follow-up info is needed: This week we explained passover and the gospel to two neopagans and one girl who is starting to believe in Christ. In our conversation, the gospel was core and we were able to enter into a deeper understanding of the lives of each person present. Recognizing that the Lord has just provided an excellent window of opportunity into their hearts, we want to provide a few follow-up directions on PAPER so that they can take something with them (especially because this community is HIGHLY transient, so opportunities may disappear quickly)! Obviously we will follow up anyway in person, but this is just one way to practically keep planting the seed and keep the gospel in FRONT of them!

And so the Excellent news continues to go forth in Richmond!

May the peace and joy of Christ be with you all!

Jeremy and Monica

Tomorrow: what happened on Saturday!

KOH2RVA: Day 87

come inRemember Jeremy and Monica, the church planters who invited their Muslim neighbors over for dinner?  Well, they’re at it again.  Take a look at this letter I got from Jeremy yesterday:

————————————

Meet Sasha:

This past month we connected with a young VCU student who, for the sake of confidentiality, we will call “Sasha.” Sasha is from a Catholic and Eastern Orthodox background. I would describe her as having a “casual respect for God, Jesus and the Bible,” but as having no understanding of who Christ is, or the message of the Bible! She connected with Monica at the VCU Gym and then we had her over for an evening, which turned into an 8-hour conversation!

We ate dinner, and Sasha immediately began asking us about what we believe as “followers of Jesus.” The conversation was an excellent opportunity for us to start to plant seeds about what it means to live by faith and to have a genuine relationship with Christ. After dinner, I went to a meeting and when I came back a few hours later, Sasha was STILL THERE with Monica and she had opened up about so many difficulties in her life and then she opened up to both of us asking for advice concerning her difficulties. So we shared some biblical counsel with her, and then the conversation went back to what it means to be a true follower of Jesus (and, surprisingly enough, SHE is the one who brought the conversation back to that issue too!).

We see her a few times a week at the campus (just interacted with her again last night!). Please be praying for Sasha as she has heard the gospel and is rethinking her own stance towards Christ. Please pray that she will come to a conviction concerning her need to submit and surrender her life to Christ, pray that we will have wisdom, discernment, humility and boldness in our interactions with her!

God is moving, it is SOOOO exciting! The doors are opening! Pray for MORE doors for the gospel to open up, and pray for those who are hearing the gospel, that they may put their faith in Him and that His love may SHINE into their lives!

————————————

One of the things I love about Jeremy and Monica’s approach is the way they offer hospitality to strangers.  When they open the door of their home, they literally open doors of communication and understanding.  And I don’t get the feeling they’re being disingenuous about it—they’re not pretending to be nice in order to convert people to Christianity.  They genuinely love people, all kinds of people, even (or perhaps especially) people who don’t know Jesus.

I think we need to talk about this more on our year-long, every-member mission trip.  How can we practice the kind of radical hospitality that welcomes people into our homes, into our churches, and into our lives?  How can we share with them the hope that is in us, not simply so we can carve another notch on the spines of our Bibles, but because these are people God loves, and because he calls us to love them, too?

 

How to Read the Bible, Part II

Someone forwarded an email recently that made me think again about how we read the Bible.  It began like this:

On her radio show, Dr. Laura Schlesinger (a popular conservative radio talk show host in the USA) said that homosexuality is an abomination according to the Bible (Leviticus 18:22), and cannot be condoned under any circumstance.  The following response is an open letter to Dr.  Laura, penned by James M. Kauffman, Ed.D.

Dear Dr. Laura:

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination… end of debate.

I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other elements of God’s Laws and how to follow them.

1. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination (Lev. 11:10), it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality.  I don’t agree. Can you settle this?  Are there ‘degrees’ of abomination?

2. Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify?  Why can’t I own Canadians?

3. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do youthink would be a fair price for her?

4. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord – Lev. 1:9. The problem is my neighbors.  They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

5. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it?

There are more examples, but I think the writer has made his tongue-in-cheek point, which is that since many of the Old Testament laws no longer apply, it is ludicrous to insist that this one—concerning homosexuality—does.  But here’s my point: I believe it is just as wrong to reject the parts of the Bible you don’t agree with as it is to quote only the few verses that agree with you, and there are people on each side of this argument who do both.   I believe there is a better way, and that is to ask of every part of the Bible (even the difficult ones): “What is God trying to say to us through these words?”

With that in mind we might look at Leviticus 18:22 differently.  Instead of saying, “That settles it: homosexuality is a sin,” or saying, “That just goes to show that the Bible is old-fashioned and outdated,” we might learn to ask, “What is God trying to say to us through a law like this?  How do these words reveal themselves as God’s Word?” 

That’s when the conversation gets interesting, or, more hopefully, that’s when it becomes a conversation instead of an argument.  Instead of simply stating, “It is an abomination for a man to lie with a man as with a woman,” we begin to ask, “Why is it an abomination?  What does God find abominable?  Is it the act itself, or is it the idea that sex is meant for procreation and homosexual activity is not procreative?  Was this sort of thing common in that time and place?  Was it common in other cultures?  Was God trying to create a culture that was different from the culture of Israel’s neighbors?  Was that the point?”

Do you see what I mean?  In asking such questions of Scripture we begin to take it seriously, we begin to listen carefully to what God was saying then and there (exegesis) and consider how it might apply here and now (hermeneutics).  

When I led a Bible study on Old Testament Law for the young adults at my last church I asked them to think of it as “people-making literature,” and challenged them to imagine what kind of people would be made by following those laws.  They were surprised to learn how many of the laws were about caring for neighbors, and strangers, and donkeys (yes, donkeys*), and began to see that following these laws could result in a nation of remarkably compassionate people.  They wondered if that was what God meant when he said to Israel, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2).  They wondered if holiness was God’s word for compassion (as Jesus implies in Luke 6:36).

As you can see, we had some interesting conversations about Old Testament Law, far more interesting than standing on opposite sides of the room shouting at each other about homosexuality (although our study could have easily gone that way; there were people on both sides of that issue).  Instead we tried to look for the underlying principles beneath the surface of all those laws.  We tried to listen for God’s Word as it came to us through those words.  Again and again we asked the question:

“What is God trying to say to us?”

—————————————-
*Exodus 23:5 is a good example: “When you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting it free, you must help to set it free.”

Not a Black Eye in the House

Hear or download this post: Not A Black Eye in the House (mp3 file – 3:01)

Some of you may be eager to hear how the second round of Holy Conversations came out.  Let me give a brief summary and then we can move on to other, less important, things (like my next trip to the DMV).

We had another overflow crowd in the Dining Hall at Richmond’s First Baptist Church last night.  I started by thanking everyone for following the ground rules I had laid out the week before, and then asked them 1) to tell me how they felt about the idea of changing our membership requirements to include Christians from other denominations who had not been immersed, and 2) to try to do it in two minutes or less.  You could almost feel the tension in the air.  It was one of those moments when everyone sensed that things could either go very well, or very very badly. 

I tried to set an example, saying that I felt we should change our membership requirements, and that I felt that way because I knew too many sincere Christians who were hurt because they were being denied full membership in the church.  The next speaker said he didn’t feel we should change our requirements because believer’s baptism by immersion was the New Testament model, and that’s what we should follow.  With minor modifications to those two essential arguments (and occasional rhetorical flourishes), the rest of the evening’s speakers followed suit. 

Someone noted that if the Greek word baptizo had been translated (“immersed”) rather than transliterated (“baptize”), we might not be having this conversation.  Someone else noted that we welcome Christians of other denominations to take communion with us, but not to be on our church rolls.  One person said that the answer to the question “I’m not Baptist, may I join your church?” should be “Yes, if you want to be Baptist.”  Another implied that we are living in a post-denominational era, and we need to get over ourselves.

The remarkable thing, to me, was that the arguments didn’t get louder and louder, no one offered to punch anyone else in the eye, and we finished the evening with a sense that we had talked about a divisive issue without being divided.  It was what I had been praying for–a truly holy conversation.

From here our feelings (which were carefully recorded on a flip chart) will go to the deacons, who will pray over this issue for a month or more, discuss it, and decide whether or not it needs to go on to the church for a final vote.  If that happens we will vote as a congregation and live with the outcome.  I will live with the outcome, even if it’s not the outcome I was hoping for.  To me that’s just part of what it means to be Baptist, and it may be an even more important part than how much water we use when we baptize.

If you’d like to weigh in on this topic, please click on the word “comments” below and tell me how you feel.  And if you are a member (or think you might want to be), I will be glad to pass your feelings on to our deacons.

My Way vs. Your Way on the Way to Our Way

Listen to Holy Conversation #1: Baptism (October 22, 2008) (mp3)

 

I started last night’s “Holy Conversation” with a story about a time, early in my marriage, when I decided to surprise Christy by washing the dishes.  I filled one basin with warm, soapy water and the other with clean, scalding water.  And then I washed all the dishes, starting with the cups and saucers, ending with the pots and pans, washing them in the warm, soapy water, rinsing them in clean, scalding water, well on my way to surprising Christy when…she came home early.  She asked me what I was doing.  “I’m washing the dishes,” I said, magnanimously, waiting for her praise.  “That’s not how you wash dishes,” she said, patiently.  “You just turn on the tap, let a little warm water flow, and wash the dishes under the stream.  That way the water is always clean and you’re not washing dishes in (she looked into the murky wash basin) that.”

 

For years I’ve been telling that story to couples as an example of how conflict can crop up in a marriage when you confuse “a” way with “the” way.  I was doing dishes my way, the way my mother had taught me.  And Christy did them her way, the way her mother had taught her.  It didn’t dawn on me until years later that I did dishes the way I did because we didn’t have running water when I was growing up.  Washing them under that warm stream Christy recommended wasn’t an option.  We had to haul water, heat it on the stove, and pour it into basins.  Often there are good reasons for doing things the way we do them, or at least, there were good reasons.  What Christy and I had to figure out for the sake of our marriage was a way of washing dishes that was neither my way nor her way but our way, together.  And we did.  These days we simply load the dishwasher, push the button, and move on to other things.

 

That little parable served as preface to last night’s meeting in which a crowd of some 400 people engaged in conversation about the Baptist way of making disciples (baptizing believers by immersion), and the other way (baptizing infants who are later confirmed as believers).  Former Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and others, stood up and talked about their experiences while lifelong Baptists sat and listened.  Some of the experiences were funny, like the woman who remembered that when she finally decided to be immersed a girl who was baptized along with her wore a swim cap, so as not to ruin her gorgeous new hairdo.  Some of them were humbling, like the man who said he resisted being re-baptized, but when he finally submitted out of a sense of obedience found it to be one of the most meaningful experiences of his life.  Some of them were powerful, like the young man who remembered his confirmation in the Methodist Church, and the sure sense that in that moment he had received the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Some of them were sad, like the woman who told us her Presbyterian way of being Christian had never been accepted in 25 years of Baptist churchgoing.

 

What I’m hoping for in these holy conversations is that we will talk to, and listen to, each other long enough to come up with a First Baptist way of receiving members that is neither my way nor your way but our way together.  I’d like to think we would continue to make disciples as we always have—baptizing believers by immersion—while opening the door of membership to let in those who have been discipled in other ways. 

 

I’ll have to wait and see how things turn out, because one of our Baptist ways (and one I affirm wholeheartedly) is a congregational form of government that doesn’t permit the pastor to make the church’s big decisions.  Instead, as in a healthy marriage, we talk about these things, listen to each other, and make our decisions together. 

 

That’s just our way.