Author Archives: Josh Hilty
Leaving our church has been a loss, and with loss comes grief. I believe firmly that these three months, however disconcerting and discomforting they’ve been in the search for what’s next, have given us space to grieve. We would not have had this had we immediately transitioned to another ministry. For this, I am most grateful.
Jamie and I have laid awake at night talking about who we miss, what we wish we could return to, and how moving far away will mean we won’t be able to see many of our friends again. The grief comes in unexpected forms. Some days, our children will break down crying for no apparent reason. We ask all the normal questions: Did you hurt yourself? What did [your sibling] do to you? What happened? The first time it happened, I was so at a loss for why our oldest was sobbing—I had no clue she was grieving, too.
And there is almost nothing we can do to ease the pain and loss our kids feel. FaceTime is the best salve we have. But it’s a BandAid approach at best. The screen goes dark, friends, disappear and continue their lives in Michigan, without us, and we, without them.
My grief bubbles over into anger some days. Being the pastor and the one who is “responsible” for us leaving, it is easy to make this all about me. My fault. My decision to leave. My driving the minivan across the country. How easily I forget that God called us and we obeyed. It is no more my fault than His (as if blaming God was logical). There is a small sense of peace in that, with simultaneous frustration in not having anyone to blame. Grief wants a cause.
Our grief is largely out-shadowed by our joy, though. We have reason to rejoice because we know that God is going ahead of us, that He knew the journey we would be on, that there is an ending. There is a place for us, and it will be sweet when we are given knowledge of it.
And so you’re not mistaken, most days are full of joy and peace, the fruit of the Spirit who is at work in us. We rejoice in the homeschooling and extended time we have with our kids. We get to teach Brennan how to read. We get to see Isabelle come alive learning about God’s creation in science and how to multiply and divide in math. We got to be fully present during Maryn’s recovery from her broken leg.
This kind of presence with ourselves is something we all crave. We were just as guilty as any other family of living under the same roof while being overextended, harried, and absent from one another while we were in ministry. We know our friends in Michigan experience this, too. It is a societal sin. God has given us a gift of presence, just like He will give all of us a gift of His presence at His appearing, His second coming. There will be no more grief on that day.
And we rejoice in the unknown. I think of Mary, who was told by the angel that she would bear God’s Son. She did not know how God would accomplish His will, only that He would. She faced shame, ostracizing from her friends, and grief over those losses. Yet she praised God! “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant” (Luke 1:46b-48a).
Grief. Joy. The road of faith is not smoothly paved. It is a Michigan dirt road, and we rejoice that we get to be on it.
In the last post, I mentioned that one of the ways I’ve been able to contribute to the church here in Virginia was through a sermon, which I called “Responding Like Ruth.” Here’s a condensed version. I include this here because there is rarely a time when what I preach is not for me, too. The point I was making was that we respond to the difficult uncertainties like Ruth did–with loyalty, sacrifice, love and blessing. God has continued to challenge me over the last months with these four things.
What do you think of when you think of church? Probably not the line from the Nicene Creed, which states, “And we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”
One. God is one in three Persons, and the church is one through our common worship of God. We strive to live out Ephesians 4:3-6 (a passage which is followed by an expression of the diversity found in the church). There is unity in diversity.
Holy. God is holy and is making the Church holy, like Ephesians 5:25-27 says. The Holy Spirit empowers us to fulfill the great commandment to love God and neighbor together.
Catholic. Affirming this means two things. First, the church exists everywhere in the world, not just in one place. You don’t have to go to Rome or Jerusalem to be part of the church. Second, it implies inclusiveness. The church embraces men and women, Republicans and Democrats, whites and blacks, Northerners and Southerners, rich and poor. This is Galatians 3:28. The church is a place where dividing walls are broken down as we forgive one another and carry out the ministry of reconciliation given to us, as in 2 Corinthians 5:17-20.
Apostolic. Finally, the church is apostolic. It is sent on a mission from God. The Church doesn’t have a mission, but God’s mission has a Church. There would be no church without God first being on mission, sending His Son, who then commissioned us in Matthew 28, John 20, and Acts 1.
Now, you may be wondering, “Thanks for the lesson in theology, but what does this have to do with me?” The tension comes into play when it seems like Christ, the Head of the Church, the one who said that the gates of hell would not prevail against her, is letting the Church down. It comes when, if we were God, we would’ve done things differently.
Question: How will we respond?
The story of Ruth in the Old Testament is one of a person who moved from her homeland into a foreign country. The way Ruth responded has keys for us today. Some of the earliest church fathers—pastors and theologians who lived in the centuries after Christ—interpreted Ruth as a picture of the Church.
Ruth is such a short book that you could read it rather quickly. The story begins with a famine that forced Elimelek and Naomi to move to Moab.
Moab was located east of the Jordan River and because of its geography, rarely experienced draughts and famines. It would’ve been an enemy of Israel during this time, and yet there must’ve been relative peace between the two groups if Elimelek felt like he could move there. But that doesn’t mean this wasn’t a desperate move. To relocate his family wasn’t like what we do today. No moving trucks. No packing up everything you own and doing a change of address form.
Moving meant carrying whatever you could with you, maybe with the assistance of a donkey or cart, and starting over. In Israel, when they settled the land, each tribe was allotted land and each family unit would’ve lived in the same spot. In Moab, they lost of all this. Foreigners in a strange place.
To make matters worse, Elimelek dies and Naomi is left with her sons and their Moabite wives. Evidently the famine lasted quite some time, because they had been there at least ten years and then another unfortunate event took place. Her sons died, leaving her in a precarious position for a woman in the ancient Near East. Without a man to provide for her, she was dependent on others to come to her aid. Scholars believe that by the time Naomi decided to return to Bethlehem, she would’ve been in her mid-forties, with Ruth and Orpah in their mid- to upper-twenties. Naomi was destined for a life of dependence on others, wondering where her sustenance would come from. Unless someone responded.
She heard, though, that the LORD had provided food in Israel. The famine was over. It was time to go back home.
Naomi went back home and kindly offered for her daughters-in-law to stay in Moab. One did, and one came with her. Ruth said in 1:16-17, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”
- We live in a culture where loyalty is not valued anymore. We switch insurance agencies to get the best deal. Stores go out of business because people quit shopping there. We give up on friendships and marriages when things get sticky or rough. The number of children who grow up without one parent is staggering.
- We do a cost analysis on all of these things and then determine if they’re worth sticking with. Our tendencies toward the expedient and avoidance of pain have shaped us into people more worried about the affect loyalty will have on us than what it could do for a relationship. We are more concerned over our potential loss than we are in what leaving someone else does for them.
- And yet, loyalty is one of God’s characteristics. It’s what makes Him God. Over and over again in the Old Testament, one word pops up. In Hebrew, it is chesed, God’s faithfulness. Just a few examples (from Gen. 39:21; Ex. 34:6; Isa. 54:10; Ps. 136).
- In Ruth 1:8, Naomi uses this word. “Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the LORD show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead and to me.’” Ruth doesn’t wait for God to show her kindness or faithfulness back home, but instead exhibits it with Naomi.
- Here I challenged the church to respond with loyalty because by doing so, they would be exhibiting the oneness of the Church.
- Ruth’s commitment to Naomi demands to be held in high regard. This is no small move.
- She is detaching herself from all family ties—her mother and father cannot rescue her from poverty or the uncertainty ahead.
- She is detaching herself from her culture and language—she will now become the foreigner, in danger of ethnic persecution due to the complicated animosity between Israel and Moab.
- She is detaching herself from her way of life—knowing the streets, the sellers in the marketplace, the children who played near her home, the people who spoke her name with kindness and familiarity.
- She is detaching herself from her support system—the other women in her hometown, her family.
- She is detaching herself from her god—Chemosh, the national god of Moab, who enabled them to win military victories.
- The Christian life is full of sacrifice. Jesus said we must take up our cross daily and follow Him. That sacrifice gets magnified when we gather as God’s church. When one person sacrifices, it can impact everyone. When one person holds their ground, it also impacts everyone. The difficult thing is that you cannot forecast the ripple effect from your sacrifice or lack thereof. The only way to know what might happen is by doing it.
- Here I challenged the church to respond with sacrifice, as in doing so, they would be living out the apostolic nature of the church–leaving the familiar for the foreign for the sake of the gospel.
Transition in Ruth’s Story.
- Ruth’s story progresses as they move to Bethlehem. Ruth is sent to glean in the fields and happened to end up in the field of a relative. His name was Boaz. He showed her kindness and favor and let her glean. Boaz found out in the process that Naomi was going to sell the land that belonged to Elimelek.
- In Hebrew Law, the land was to be redeemed by a close male relative so that it wouldn’t end up in the hands of another family, if at all possible. Boaz approached a close relative and asked if he would do it, but this man was unwilling to do so because it also meant marrying Ruth. Any baby boy born to them would be thought of as Elimelek’s heir, not the redeemer’s heir. Faced with the possibility of losing all the property he would have bought, this man declined. Boaz didn’t. He bought the land and married Ruth. We then read Ruth 4:11-17.
- After all of this happens, Boaz announces that he has done it to the people and elders of the town. It’s official. Notice what the women of the town say to Naomi in verse 15—Ruth is the one who loves Naomi and is better to her than seven sons! This is what she is known for. This woman, who at the beginning of the story was empty and felt as if the Lord’s hand was against her, that God had become her enemy, now experiences the love of God through Ruth.
- Now we know that the greatest commandments are to love God with all our hearts and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Christ said so. John Wesley said that this love is singleness of intention. We are on longer duplicitous, sometimes longing for selfish gain and other times putting others first. We truly love others will all our hearts.
- This is the love Ruth showed Naomi. Her every action placed Naomi first, and in the end, she became known for it. I wonder what it would take to be known as people who love? God calls us to respond to this current circumstance by loving the people in Radford and in Christiansburg.
- On the south side of Kansas City, on the border of Kansas and Missouri, there are remnants of an old town called Little Santa Fe. It was the first stop on the trail from Independence, Missouri, to Santa Fe, New Mexico—where people traveled during the 1800s to search for gold. They also called it Blue Camp 20, because it was next to the Blue River and just 20 miles from Independence, Missouri. If you were on your way to Santa Fe, it would’ve only taken you one day to reach this first stop. By 1850, the camp had turned into a little town because some of the pioneers stopped pioneering. They figured it was better to settle down there than continue on.
- We are all tempted with Blue Camp 20s in the Christian life, to stop short of the call of love. When we first become Christians, the love of God burns within us and we long to know Him and live for Him. But as the years pass by, it becomes easier to have this love tamed. It’s why one the churches in Revelation has lost its first love. So God brings us to moments like this to test us once more, to push us to renew the love we once had.
- Pete Greig writes, “At transitional moments in life, God tests our hearts…. Why? Because he knows that the choices we make at the crossroads determine our future direction and destiny. The priorities we establish in the gear-change moments of life set our trajectory for years to come. And of course, the choices that matter most in life are not functional, strategic, or territorial, but relational” (Dirty Glory, p. 123). It’s when a child is born, a friend is given a terrible diagnosis, it’s time to move, get married, etc.
- Here I challenged them to choose love, and therefore to put the holiness of the Church on display.
- Ruth has shown loyalty, sacrifice and love. This all culminates in blessing. As we look at the responses given by the women in Ruth 4:14-17, it is Naomi who is said to have a son. The women rejoice with Naomi because her life will be sustained and renewed. And Naomi gets to take part in caring for her new grandson, Obed. Ruth has blessed her mother-in-law, who once was empty and had lost every man in her life. She now has hope for the future. Ruth’s choice to move with Naomi ultimately ended in blessing.
- As I thought about the various people in Scripture who moved, I made two lists. You may think of others, but here’s who I thought of.
- Adam and Eve—forced to move out of the Garden of Eden because of their sin.
- Cain—left God’s presence and lived east of Eden in Nod (Gen. 4:16).
- The people of Babel—scattered by God after they tried to reach heaven in their own strength (Gen. 11:8).
- The sinful people of Israel and Judah—sent into exile for their idolatry.
- Sin’s consequence is being uprooted. Then there are other moves in Scripture, not for sin, but for the opposite purpose.
- Abraham—moving from Haran to Canaan (Gen. 12) in response to the call of God.
- Israel—moving from Egypt to the Promised Land
- Ruth—moving from Moab to Bethlehem with Naomi
- The apostles—moving from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth
- In every case, the purpose of the moves is blessing someone else. This is the distinct call of God at work in their lives, moving them to the right spot, with the right people, in order to bless them.
- Here I challenged them to choose blessing others, and to live out the Church’s catholicity—the ministry of reconciliation.
We ended by asking people to commit to living out one of the four–loyalty, sacrifice, love or blessing as the church began its merging process.
I started searching for a new ministry position just after resigning. It has been six-plus months of spurts and stops in scanning job postings for Christian colleges, Wesleyan pastorates, churches in other denominations, parachurch organizations. I’ve had contact with 17 churches so far, with a few of them still active. For one reason or another, we’ve not landed yet.
One reason, we know, is that we’ve been needed here in Radford, Virginia. When we left, we had asked Jamie’s parents if we could stay with them “for a few weeks, if necessary.” You know, because the plan was not to be on the lookout for this long. Right, God?
Staying in Radford was Plan B, a just-in-case-we-need-to option. We are so grateful for the way that our Plans A and B and C and whatever other letter are irrelevant to God. He does not start in alphabetical order, even if he is the Alpha and Omega. He knew, beyond our wildest imaginations, that being in Virginia for three months was and is a part of his intentions for our family and the churches here.
Jamie’s dad is a pastor, and his church, through a long, windy, Virginia-mountain-drive kind of way has found itself without a building and now, has entered into the beginning stages of a merger with the closest Wesleyan church, 10 miles away.
If we were not here, we would’ve missed things like a church moving sale, multiple trailer loads of moving church furnishings and office supplies, introducing and implementing Orange as a new children’s ministry, preaching a sermon about how the church might respond in a situation like this, sharing the platform in a Hilty-family special music number (including, but not limited to, a 5-year-old boy swaying his hips as he sang along. If you know our son, you can laugh out loud here, because it was just as funny as you are imagining).
We would’ve missed the late night conversations with Jamie’s family about the what-ifs and hey-there-God’s and the opportunities to intercede for one another. We would’ve missed time with grandparents spoiling their grandkids.
Our Plan B has turned out to be all about blessing. Seeking to be a blessing to these Wesleyans as best we can. Not that we are what they’ve been missing, or that we are somehow saviors they were in desperate need of. Far from that. But like Abraham, God calls each one of us who are children of Abraham through the faithfulness of Christ to be a blessing to the world.
We moved, like Abraham’s trip from Haran to Canaan, not initially intending to heed God’s call to be a blessing, but finding ourselves smack dab in the middle of the story he was writing in this neck of the woods of the kingdom. And we’re grateful for being included, grafted in, to the churches here. While we long for the phone call that says, “You’re hired!” we wouldn’t trade the waiting or expedite the timing. Our Alpha and Omega certainly isn’t going to, so why should we?
Three months ago, we left our church. We said goodbye to dear friends and left town with the clothes and other things we thought we’d need for an indefinite interim period. If it didn’t fit in the minivan, it didn’t make it.
I have hesitated to publish any of my thoughts publicly, but feel the need to do so, if only for a way to express what has been my family’s story the last few months.
Leaving our friends and this place that had become home to us over nine years of ministry was painful. We did not want to leave. Like so many others in Scripture—Abraham moving from Haran to Canaan, Joseph’s family leaving for Egypt, Israel wandering through the desert toward a promised home, Ruth trekking with Naomi—we heard God saying it was time to move.
Jamie and I prayed for months. Literally months of back and forth, questioning, wrestling, begging God for more time, until we surrendered to His leading. Yes, Lord. We will go.
I believe God gave us the faith we needed for that step. I certainly didn’t conjure it up.
The story of Abraham featured front and center in our devotional times, in sermons preached by my senior pastor, and in books I was reading. The man who fathered a nation, who obeyed without so much as a flinch when God said, “Go to the land I will show you.” This man’s faith paved the way for mine. When I didn’t want to submit to God, when I wanted to remain as Jacob, wrestling until God would bless me, He would place Abraham once again into the fore as if to say, “I will be with you, just as I was with him.”
I wrote my resignation letter just days before my birthday and handed it to my senior pastor and best friend on that day. What a birthday gift, right? Speaking things, putting them to paper, means they cannot be taken back. Handing Peter the letter was a line in the sand for me. It was a way of communicating even to myself that there was no turning back on God, no pretending to have faith, no thinking about it but doing nothing, no looking in the mirror and forgetting what I look like.
The faith God gave in those late days of March, He supplied all the greater in the months to come. Faith begets faith. Again, not that I somehow had more self-confidence and could more easily say Yes to God from within. But He provided peace and rest that I hadn’t had during the wrestling. It didn’t make telling our close friends and church family any easier. It didn’t make finding an “opportune” moment immediately following my daughter’s 8th birthday party any more fun. It didn’t stop us from wishing we could stay.
But the peace and rest were part of the confirmation. He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
So we took that step of faith. The fog we felt during those months of wrestling lifted, but only for us to enter a new fog. We had characterized the first fog as one of uncertainty of whether to go. This second fog still hasn’t lifted. It is the fog of where and what. Where is this land God would show us? What is He trying to teach us in the meantime? What are these days of obscurity and cloistered wandering all about? And it is the fog of when. When will He take us by the hand and lead us? We do not want to be like Abraham so much that we resemble the description of him in Deuteronomy: My father is a wandering Aramean.
In alphabetical order, these are the books and websites I value most when it comes to personal self-awareness. Obviously our closest friends are some of our best resources, too.
- Abba’s Child by Brennan Manning. Manning calls us to fully embrace our identity as God’s beloved and to recognize the imposter within. This book has been life-giving to me multiple times.
- Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero. I’ve blogged about this book/concept here. Where were we before he alerted us to this gaping hole in our spiritual formation?
- The Gift of Being Yourself by David Benner. Anything Benner writes is profound. This one is on my reading list.
- Invitation to a Journey by M. Robert Mulholland. This is a book about spiritual formation, but Mulholland integrates an understanding of the MBTI in it.
- Living Your Strengths by Albert Winseman, Donald Clifton, and Curt Liesveld. I’ve also blogged about this book here. If you’re familiar with the Buckingham and Clifton StrengthsFinder, this puts a biblical twist on it. Includes a code to take the assessment online.
- Sacred Pathways by Gary Thomas. He has identified nine “pathways” that Christians have found are the ways they connect with God the best. I plan to blog through this book at some point.
- Streams of Living Water by Richard Foster. Foster’s book is less about understanding one’s self and more about understanding the modes of faith we come from. He speaks about the contemplative, holiness, charismatic, social-justice, evangelical and incarnational traditions as the six great traditions of the faith. A thick book that reminds me I don’t have the monopoly on faith.
- 16 Personalities Test. This is a free online test based on the longer MBTI (Myers-Briggs). You get your results and can look up a definition of your personality type.
- Spiritual Gifts Survey by Lifeway. This is free as a PDF. I plan to blog about the main biblical passages on gifts soon.
- The Absent-Minded Christian. Blog post from Biola University. Being self-aware and conscious of God’s presence each moment go hand in hand.
Jesus is famous for asking questions in the gospels. Questions deserve answers. It is why they are a powerful part of any teaching. Too many questions and you overwhelm someone. Questions that are overly simple, and you get the easy Sunday School answers. Learning how to ask questions is an art perfected with practice. But who better to learn from than our Master, Jesus? After looking at all the questions Jesus asked, I’ve grouped them into 10 categories, with 3-4 examples from the TNIV with each. Think about them as you prepare for your next small group.
Jesus asks rhetorical questions that expect a certain answer. He expects that those listening will already know the answer to the question, and yet he uses it to reinforce his point. So it’s not a question for dialogue, but for teaching. Examples:
- You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? Mt. 5:13
- If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? Mt. 5:46
- And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Mt. 5:47
Jesus asks questions about why people (sinfully) act the way they do. He doesn’t let them justify their actions as okay, but asks why they live in a sinful way. Whereas we would be prone to ask whether or not a person struggles with sin, Jesus knows they do and asks them about it directly.
- Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye, when all the time there is a plank in your own eye”? Mt. 7:3-4
- Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? Mt. 9:4
- Why do you call me Lord, Lord and do not do the things I say? Lk. 6:46
Jesus asks questions that force a decision or a concrete answer. They are line-in-the-sand moments that cut across our tendency to waffle, equivocate, or hold things in tension. For Jesus, some things cannot be held in tension. You are either all in or out.
- John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men? Mt. 21:25
- Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill? Mk. 3:4
- If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say? Jn. 5:46-47
Jesus asks questions about our desires. He knows that what we want is as important as what we do. He wants to help us get behind actions to motives.
- What do you want me to do for you? Mt. 20:32 (asked of two blind men who had called out for mercy)
- Do you want to get well? Jn. 5:6
- Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments. Mt. 19:17
- What is it you want? Mt. 20:21 (asked of James’ and John’s mother)
Jesus asks questions that force people to revisit the Scriptures. They thought they understood it, and Jesus tries to illuminate and correct their reading. He especially does this to the religious leaders. Sometimes it is to help them see that it was written about Him, and others to see the intended meaning.
- Is it not written in your Law, I have said you are gods? If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and the Scripture cannot be broken—what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Jn. 10:34-36
- What is written in the Law? How do you read it? Lk. 10:26
- Have you never read in the Scriptures…? Mt. 21:42
Jesus asks questions about our lack of faith and understanding. After a miracle or a teaching, He was so often misunderstood. Asking the question reminds those watching and listening that they are missing something.
- (To Peter) You of little faith. Why did you doubt? Mt. 14:31
- Are you still so dull? Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? Mt. 15:16-17
- Where is your faith? Lk. 8:25
- Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? Jn. 8:46
Jesus asks questions about His identity. People were always asking about whether He was a prophet, demonized, from God or not. He asks people to tell Him who they believe He is.
- Who do you say that I am? Mt. 16:15
- What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is He? Mt. 22:42
- Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Jn. 14:9
- Is that your own idea, or did others talk to you about me? Jn. 18:34
Jesus asks questions about our priorities. We all tend to place other things of value in the spot reserved for God alone. Jesus knows this and challenges us to let them go.
- What can you give in exchange for your soul? Mt. 16:26
- How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God? Jn. 5:44
- Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? Mt. 6:27
Jesus asks questions after/as a parable to drive home his point. The audience has to choose a character from the parable in answer to His question.
- What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? Mt. 18:12
- Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into a pit? Lk. 6:39
- Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? Lk. 10:36
- Tell me, which of them will love him most? Lk. 7:42
Jesus asks questions that demand a commitment to Him. In a time following a difficult circumstance, Jesus doesn’t miss the opportunity to call for complete commitment. He knows people will be tempted to walk away from Him, and asks them to reaffirm their commitment.
- You do not want to leave too, do you? Jn. 6:67
- Do you believe in the Son of Man? Jn. 9:35
- Simon, son of John, do you truly love me more than these? Jn. 21:15…
When I lived in Wisconsin, I learned quickly that I was different from many around me. As a pastor at a Wesleyan Church, I had committed to abstain from alcohol. No problem for me, but certainly a regular part of life there. My wife and I felt like outsiders at lunchtime, wedding receptions, and more. The average person, though, had been raised to not blink an eye at its consumption. They had been enculturated, whether they knew it or not. We were the weird ones.
This is one small example of a process that occurs in every area of our lives, from religion to politics to eating habits to exercise. You name it, you learned it through enculturation.
I was introduced to the concept of enculturation by John Westerhoff in his book, Will Our Children Have Faith? He defines it as “the process by which an individual learns the traditional content of a culture and assimilates its practices and values.”
Enculturation assumes a process. Individuals, whether they are newcomers to a culture or have been a part of it for their entire lives, are still undergoing, whether consciously or unconsciously, enculturation. No one person embodies the values and practices of a culture completely. This is the assimilation component. No one drops their previously learned and lived values and practices completely, but rather adds to them.
In the church, as we seek to make disciples, we are calling people into the kingdom of God, into God’s values and practices. Just how do we do that? Westerhoff mentions eight areas. I list them here along with questions a small group leader could ask as they pertain to groups. This could apply to a church as a whole or to our families, also.
- Rituals—repetitive symbolic acts (word and deed) that express and manifest the community’s sacred narrative.
- What can people expect to hear and do at your small group every time? How do those things shape them?
- What is missing on purpose?
- What is missing on accident?
- What do your words and actions symbolize? Does everyone know it?
- How do your words and actions express the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus?
- Environment—all that people see, taste, touch, smell, and hear.
- How do you arrange furniture in your space?
- Are people sitting in rows or a circle?
- Are you physically positioned as the one who knows all or the one who facilitates?
- Are you ever able to eat food that fits with the study for the night?
- Calendar—how people remember significant events.
- How does your small group celebrate Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Passion Week, Easter, Pentecost?
- What other significant events do you celebrate, such as people’s birthdays and anniversaries? Kids’ events?
- How does the school calendar affect your group? The national calendar? Are they given more weight than the Christian year?
- Time—how people are encouraged to spend their time, energy, talents and resources.
- How do people involve themselves in the group beyond attending?
- How does your group help people become more involved in the life of the church?
- In what ways do you call people to actively care for one another?
- Do you ever choose to ask people to spend money on projects or missions?
- Relationships—decision-making, settling differences, living together.
- Do you make all the decisions, or are others allowed to help make decisions?
- What do you do when people disagree doctrinally or otherwise?
- How do you love one another, as Jesus commands?
- Role Models—those who the community establishes as examples to be emulated.
- Are you living as one to be emulated?
- Do you lead people to Jesus rather than to yourself or your way of thinking?
- Do you confront negative role models our culture has accepted?
- Behavioral Activities—those disciplines practiced regularly by the community.
- What are you expecting of those in your group during the week? Prayer? Bible reading?
- Similar to rituals, what things do you do over and over in your group?
- Language—the way we name and speak of things.
- How do you speak of God?
- Of Scripture?
- Of humanity?
- Of the world?
- How do you joke?
Ask the questions of your group. Let them change the way you lead and facilitate conversation.
What are we studying? A common question and often deciding factor for those participating in a small group. Small group leaders need to be ready to wade through the myriad of choices Christians are pumping out. If you’re like most of the small group leaders I know, you don’t spend time browsing Christian publishing house websites. You’re not familiar with the latest content. You have a life!
So when it comes time to finding the next thing, you’ve got a little bit of time to make a decision. There are ways to narrow things down and pick something that will meet the spiritual needs of your group.
I created a small group curriculum tool for our church that is pretty comprehensive. You don’t have to answer every question to make it work. The goal is for you to think about each aspect of a curriculum as you pick one.
It covers topics like:
- Group members suggestions
- Scripture and theology
- Christian life and life application
- Format and timeframe
- Small group leader prep time
- Small group members and learning
- An appendix of suggested authors
- A list of websites to consult
Download it here as a PDF.
Theologians seeking to account for the way God rules the world say that He does so in two ways: through coercive power and persuasive power. In His coercive power, God causes things to happen regardless of what we do. Things like creating the world, raising Christ from the dead, sending the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and the return of Christ all fit here. In His persuasive power, God allows things to take place but does’t determine them in advance. He works to persuade people and cooperates with His good creation, us, in how the world works. Things like giving prevenient grace that leads us to salvation all, God’s commands in Scripture to us, and even allowing suffering all fit here.*
I like what John Wesley writes in his sermon “On Divine Providence”:
“He is infinite in wisdom as well as in power: And all his wisdom is continually employed in managing all the affairs of his creation for the good of all his creatures. For his wisdom and goodness go hand in hand: They are inseparably united, and continually act in concert with Almighty power, for the real good of all his creatures.”
Wesley says that God continually governs and manages “all the affairs” of His creation in His infinite wisdom and power. This seems to speak to God acting in coercive power. If we read on, though, Wesley balances it with these statements in his next paragraphs (forgive me for the long quote but it is all worth reading):
“Only he that can do all things else cannot deny himself: He cannot counteract himself, or oppose his own work. Were it not for this, he would destroy all sin, with its attendant pain in a moment. He would abolish wickedness out of his whole creation, and suffer not trace of it remain. But in so doing he would counteract himself; he would altogether overturn his own work, and undo all that he has been doing since he created man upon the earth. For he created man in his own image: A spirit like himself; a spirit endued with understanding, with will or affections, and liberty; without which, neither his understanding nor his affections could have been of any use, neither would he have been capable either or vice or virtue. He could not be a moral agent, any more than a tree or a stone.
“If, therefore, God were thus to exert his power, there would certainly be no more vice; but it is equally certain, neither could there be any virtue in the world. Were human liberty taken away, men would be as incapable of virtue as stones. Therefore, (with reverence be it spoken,) the Almighty himself cannot do this thing. He cannot thus contradict himself, or undo what he has done. He cannot destroy out of the soul of man that image of himself wherein he make him: And without doing this, he cannot abolish sin and pain out of the world. But were it to be done, it would imply no wisdom at all; but barely a stroke of omnipotence. Whereas all the manifold wisdom of God (as well as all his power and goodness) is displayed in governing man as man; not as a stock or stone, but as an intelligent and free spirit, capable of choosing either good or evil. Herein appears the depth of the wisdom of God, in his adorable providence; in governing men, so as not to destroy either their understanding, will, or liberty.”
Wesley basically says that God governs humanity in the way He made them, allowing them to exert free will, and in doing so shows His wisdom. God governs us as people who have free wills, not as any other part of His creation.
What does this have to do with being a small group leader?
As small group leaders, we cannot force anyone to submit to God’s authority for their lives and make Him transform them, but we can point them to the God who has the power to do it. We can be persuasive with our lives and words.
As we lead discussions, we can help people notice the ways God has been at work in their lives. We can be careful not to attribute things to God that really were the fault of human decisions. And we can take responsibility for the times we have not responded to God’s persuasive grace.
*I am drawing from an article by Dr. Chris Bounds called Divine Leadership in the World written for Wesley Seminary.
Yesterday, my daughter asked me if someone could be a Christian without being part of a church. She’s eight. I told her it was possible, but unlikely that he/she would stay a Christian for long. Her natural follow up: Why?
Because Christ built the church, loved the church, and died for her. And He made us to have faith together, not alone.
Her thoughts were for a school friend who she knows attends our church only on Wednesday nights and whose parents don’t seem to have faith. I reminded her that God knows about her friend and that she’s going to be okay.
As our chat ended, I thought about how hard it is to neglect being part of the church when you remember who God is. Father, Son, Holy Spirit.
- The Father is the Father because of His relationship with the Son and Spirit. The same goes for the Son and the Spirit.
- They are free–not from each other but for each other.
- They are not subordinate to one another, but freely submit to one another in love.
- They are love by nature.
To be made in God’s image, as Genesis 1 says, means that we are made for relationship. We could go even further to say that those who lack significant relationships with others become less than human, less than what God intended.
Colin Gunton says that a person is defined in terms of relationships with other people, while an individual is defined in terms of separation from other individuals. Good grief that’s so true.
Being human means being together. Not like shopping in the same store while avoiding eye contact. Not like attending a Sunday morning service a few times a month and quickly skating out before meeting people. Like what could happen in a small group. I say could because we all know churches and groups that fail to look much like the relationship God has with Himself.
It’s with this in mind that I think a small group can be valuable. I don’t know about you, but I want to be all that God created me to be. And I can’t become that person as an individual.
The question becomes, “How might a small group do this?” Here are my suggestion, based on the understanding of the Trinity above.
- I begin to identify myself by my relationships. I am friend, father, husband before I am pastor.
- I begin to view my freedom as something that is for others. As Paul said, be slaves to one another humbly in love (Gal. 5:13).
- I begin to honestly submit to others–with their preferences, their quirks, their desires–rather than placing myself first.
- I begin to both give and receive love–here defined as doing what is best for one another in accordance with Scripture.
We could list more. In time, we become more fully human as we are in deeper relationship with one another. It is why the friendships that are formed as we meet consistently matter just as much as the content we cover. It is why we make time for a small group. It is why we challenge small group leaders to put relationships first.