January 1, 2003
About a year ago I was contacted by Fred Peatross, a noted author within the churches of Christ. Fred, who is currently Director of a Nuclear Medicine Department, has also spent many years serving as an elder, minister and missionary (spending a good deal of time in the Ukraine). He has authored several books and is a sought after speaker in Christian Lectureships.
When Fred contacted me, I was informed that he was beginning a project to publish a series of in-depth interviews with "a few of Christendom's best thinkers." I was both surprised and honored, therefore, that he selected me to be his first interview. He would later interview such noted leaders in the One Body as Dr. Leroy Garrett, Dr. Milton Jones (with whom I attended graduate school; we received our MA degrees together), Cecil Hook, Brian McLaren, and others. These interviews have been made public on his Grace Awakening web site, and have been made available in several different mediums.
Fred is a good friend and a devoted servant of the Father. I am truly humbled that he should select me to participate in this series. The text of that interview with Fred follows for your prayerful reflection.
Question #1 --- How would you summarize the changes in the minister's/shepherd's role from 1985 - 2002?
Fred, you ask fascinating questions, and I appreciate them. This question, as well as your others, not only causes us to think, but our very focus in ministry is challenged. That is commendable, and those in leadership in the One Body need such times of evaluation and reflection.
Obviously, I can only respond to the above question based on my own personal observation and experience, which may or may not reflect that of another disciple within the Lord's One Body. In the past two decades, the time frame you specified in your above question, I have been blessed to have labored for the Lord in several unique settings. In the early to mid-80's I was the minister for the American congregation in Kaiserslautern, West Germany. In the latter part of the decade, and in the early 90's I served in Santa Fe, New Mexico, during which time I was also engaged in prison ministry for seven years (during which time I baptized a young man on death row, and then later stood by his side in the death chamber as he was executed). After eight years in Santa Fe I spent the next six years in Honolulu, Hawaii preaching for the Keeaumoku Street congregation. I have now spent four years in southern New Mexico with the Cuba Avenue congregation, with which I also serve as an elder. Additionally, I am the Commander of the hospital chaplains corps for the regional medical center, with oversight of 23 chaplains (all of whom are local ordained ministers).
Thus, I have witnessed firsthand, and directly participated in, the roles of both minister and shepherd, and I have done so in several different cultures and settings. I share all of this only to provide some background, and perhaps explanation and perspective, for my following remarks.
As I began full-time ministry almost three decades ago, one of the concerns I had early on was the wide-spread lack of understanding I perceived in the purpose and function of both located ministers and local elders. The practice in place, at least in my experience, was that too many elders were a board of directors who hired, fired, and supervised various junior executives in the corporation, chief among whom was the minister. There was definitely a "clergy chain of command" -- elders, ministers, deacons, and then "regular" Christians/workers. The model of the corporate world was being imposed upon the family of God, and we were literally going about the Father's "business." There were "board of directors" meetings in closed session, "business" meetings of the stock holders, and the hiring and firing of a parade of "professionals" depending upon whether the "profit margin" was acceptable to the "board." It was a most distressing time, in my opinion.
I presently perceive God's people rapidly moving away from this corporate model, and embracing instead the more biblical view that we are the family of God; sons and daughters serving together in the household of our loving Father. We have varying responsibilities and varying abilities, but we are all one in Jesus Christ; none superior to the others. I am seeing elders stepping out of the "board rooms" and mingling with the flock. In ever-increasing numbers they are learning the significance of shepherding sheep instead of governing from afar. Rather than handing down decrees, they are laying their hands upon the downcast and afflicted. They are comforting rather than commanding.
As more and more shepherds begin to actually shepherd the flock, I am seeing more and more preachers begin to focus on preaching the Book instead of pleasing the Board! I am seeing more involvement with the communities in which these leaders live, and less isolationism and exclusivism. I am witnessing a partnership among spiritual leaders that recognizes the unique talents of the other and the worth of each God-ordained position of service in the One Body. When preachers preach the Word, and when shepherds lead by example, the flock will prosper and growth is inevitable (both spiritual and numerical).
I must also point out that in many locations elders are now stepping back from "administrative" duties and allowing deacons to fulfill their ministries. Micro-management is becoming a thing of the past, and genuine spiritual leadership and direction from men of vision is becoming more the norm. I am seeing elders meet to pray for the flock by name. I am seeing preachers preparing others in the congregation to preach, rather than protecting their pulpits. It is all very encouraging.
Fred, I am excited about our prospects for the future as shepherds learn anew the meaning of shepherding, and as preachers learn anew the value of preaching the Word, and also as deacons learn anew the importance of being responsible servant leaders of the various ministries of the church. I truly rejoice as I witness this much needed transformation in leadership roles and inter-relationships within the One Body of Christ Jesus.
Question #2 --- For a few years now I've noticed the struggle to walk the fine line between wholeness (God loves you just the way you are) and holiness (but He loves you too much to leave you that way). How do you balance those two themes?
We live in an age of "political correctness." It is no longer considered socially acceptable to characterize certain behaviors as unacceptable, much less sinful. Homosexuality is deemed an "alternate lifestyle," for example, and to dare to speak against the practice of this lifestyle as being abhorrent to God is to risk being labeled a "homophobe," or worse. In such a climate it is only natural that religions will often seek to accommodate themselves to the cultures within which they find themselves, godless though these cultures may be in some areas. Thus, the message goes out that "God loves you just the way you are." This has an element of truth, of course, but the implied conclusion is: it is not incumbent upon you to alter your lifestyle to conform to the teachings of Scripture. God will simply accept you as you are.
I firmly believe God loves us and accepts us "warts and all," as a beloved, now deceased, brother in Christ used to declare. We are all unique persons, both in regard to weaknesses and strengths, and yet "Just As I Am" I can find grace and acceptance from the Father. The grace of God is not license to forgo the need to become conformed to the image of His Son, however. God loves us enough to call us to be His children even when we are lost in the darkness, yet He values our fellowship enough that He provides us with His Spirit that we might become capable of walking in the light where He abides.
In my teaching of those who have yet to embrace the Father through His Son, I try to focus less on their failings and more on His grace. To paraphrase an old axiom: rather than curse the darkness, why not instead turn on a light. By lifting high the Light of this world -- Jesus Christ -- we stand a better chance of drawing souls from out of the darkness than if we constantly preach on the failings of living outside of the light.
As people are increasingly attracted to the Light, we can then begin the process of showing how they themselves can become visible lights set on a hill. This transformation is really the key to your question, Fred. God loved us enough, while we were dwelling in the darkness, to send the Light to show us the way out of that darkness. However, when we have emerged, He values our continued fellowship within that light enough to provide the way for us to project that same light of holiness in our own lives. His Spirit transforms us, and we take on the image of the Light of the world.
"God loves you the way you are" manifests His grace and His call to come unto Him. "God loves you too much to leave you that way" manifests His holiness and His call for you to be holy as He is holy. It is vital for us to preach both to a lost and dying world. Any message that leaves either truth out is imbalanced. The good news is that we can be transformed. God doesn't leave us to effect this change on our own. For those of us willing to come to Him "Just As I AM," there is grace sufficient to begin that process of change so that we shall one day be "Just As HE IS."
Question #3 --- How do you balance the older, long-standing members' need for security and familiarity with the younger generation's need for the fresh and unexpected?
I suppose every generation in the One Body is going to be called upon to face this challenge at some point in the history of a congregation of God's people. We are a family, after all, and in most families there are young and old inhabiting the same space. Thus, some degree of accommodation is required for peaceful coexistence to occur. The battles are usually waged over the degree of accommodation required, and who must "give in" the most. This especially has the potential for becoming "heated" in the context of the "worship assembly."
Some are unwilling to deviate from the "tried and true," the "old familiar ways" of the past which contain for them special memories and significance. Those who are younger, many of them, do not have this investment in the past, and thus they are less willing to hold on to what they perceive to be outdated expressions of a bygone generation. They seek a spiritual identity of their own, rather than living and worshipping within the shadow of their forefathers. They seek not to abandon the faith, as some suggest, but merely to express it in a way relevant to themselves. Sadly, the older disciples often perceive the younger as casting off the faith and abandoning God, while the younger too quickly judge the older generation as out of touch and irrelevant. Neither side is correct.
Rather than perpetuating the practice where both sides stand apart from one another, looking askance at each other, I believe it is time we try to facilitate communication and interaction between the groups. The goal would not be for one side to submit to the other, but rather for both sides to learn to accept and embrace the other; not pass judgment on the differences, but celebrate the differences. Let the younger respect the years of dedication and devotion of the older generation and assist them in experiencing worship unto the Father which is truly meaningful unto them .... and let the older disciples rejoice that these younger ones have a faith that yearns to worship their God in a manner meaningful to their generation, and then assist them in finding avenues for such expression.
Yes, this means compromise to some degree. In a family, nobody gets their way all the time. We must all give if we are to live in harmony. If we love one another such giving in is not really a giving up at all. Perhaps a congregation can mix traditional and contemporary songs on occasion, if that is the issue. Perhaps now and then an entire assembly can just be given over to the younger generation, while the older generation supports them by their presence and participation. What an example this would set.
The real key is communication among disciples who differ and involvement in the lives of brethren from different generations. I would encourage the leaders of such congregations to plan times when the older and the younger can work alongside of one another in some endeavor. Give them opportunities to get to KNOW one another, and to DIALOGUE. It's amazing how much we will accept in another when we LOVE that person. Children playing loudly may annoy an aged man, but that same man will sit for hours and bask in the playful sounds of his grandchild. A child may think an aged man a "fossil" for his outdated views, but will regard grandpa as a hero!! Such are the wonders of intimate relationship.
The solution to the imbalance of older and younger generations in the One Body is communication with one another and both groups becoming intimately involved in the lives of the other. It is in the development of genuine loving relationships that we find the key to overcoming the many needless squabbles that too often plague the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. "We be brethren," and thus we should not be harming and hindering one another.
Question #4 --- How important is creativity in presenting the gospel today?
I am certainly not an advocate of using gimmicks to attract disciples to Christ. Indeed, if one draws people in with gimmicks, it will most likely require gimmicks to keep them there. This is placing greater emphasis on the method than the message.
Having said that, I also strongly believe that there is no excuse for presenting the glorious gospel in a cold, lifeless, unenthusiastic manner. This is the most wonderful news ever given to man, and our presentation of it should reflect the same. There should be a sense of excitement, as well as urgency, each time the Word is shared with others.
I also believe there is a difference between being creative in one's presentation of Truth and utilizing mere gimmicks. Creativity involves being inventive and using one's imagination to find relevant ways to convey Truth to others, and doing so in a manner that will capture their hearts and minds and fill them with a sense of wonder.
For example, I sometimes preach what I call my "$20 Sermon." I believe this is an example of creativity in teaching a lesson, rather than the employment of a gimmick to draw people in to the assembly in the first place. At the beginning of the message I will place a $20 bill on the pulpit and inform the crowd that it is being freely offered to all, and that the first person who gets up out of their seat and walks up to the pulpit and takes the $20 can keep it. It will be theirs, no strings attached. They don't have to mow my lawn later. It is a gift. I point out, however, that at the end of the lesson I will take the $20 back if no one has come to take it. I then go on with the lesson and don't mention the money again until the end.
There will generally be a period of time during which people try to figure out what I am up to. Then some brave soul will rise from their seat, approach the pulpit cautiously, take the $20, and return to their seat. I don't stop the lesson while this person approaches, but keep presenting the message.
At the end of the lesson I make the application. I point out that we are saved by grace through faith, and that baptism is not a work performed which merits our salvation, but rather a demonstration of our faith in God's gracious gift of salvation. I then point out the relevance of the $20. It was freely offered to any who would simply come in simple, trusting faith and receive it. No one had to work to earn it. It was a gift. However, belief in my offer alone was insufficient to acquire the $20. The members of the audience could sit in their seats all through the lesson and believe my offer was genuine, but that belief alone, without accompanying action, would not make them $20 richer. It was belief coupled with action that gained the prize. The act of coming and getting the money in no way earned or merited that money. It was not a "work" performed. What they received was truly a gift. But, unless faith is demonstrated (i.e., an active, visible faith, rather than a passive one) it stands alone, and achieves nothing.
Every time I have used this little object lesson (and I have done so several times in several congregations), someone has always been immersed. It is a powerful and creative demonstration of a biblical Truth. One man came and took the $20 and then gave it to his son. The son placed it in the collection basket later. I got some good lessons from that. The most recent time I did this a young teen came up and took the money. He was just visiting with a friend (who was a member). He went home and told his Dad what had happened, and the Dad made him bring it back to me. He said it was just a trick to "buy" the heart of his son. The son gave it back due to pressure from his family. There were lessons there also.
I am all for creativity in presenting the eternal Truths of God's Word. There are ways to do this that do not distract from the message itself. That, I think, is the key. If our creativity calls attention to the message of Truth, rather than the messenger of Truth, then it can be a positive evangelistic tool.
Question #5 --- Can you tell us a little about your personal method of teaching the gospel one-on-one?
Let me preface my remarks by hastening to state that I certainly don't advocate my methodology as the only methodology, or even the best. It is simply what works most effectively for me. If something entirely different works better for someone else, then by all means utilize it.
I'm one of those rare types who has never much appreciated the use of film strips and videos and slides. I also don't care for those series of little question-and-answer tracts that one studies through with a seeker. I believe an open Bible on the table before an open mind is the ideal in personal evangelism.
I don't believe in door knocking (which a noted evangelist once characterized as "cold turkey evangelism"), but rather in simply living Jesus before others and developing close personal relationships with those about us with whom we come into contact. Get to know people, and in that process God will provide opportunities to share one's faith. When a friend asks a question, simply provide the biblical answer.
If the time comes when one desires to sit down and study from the Word in greater depth, then sit down with the Word and study it together. This means we must invest the time to truly KNOW God's Word intimately. It's hard to teach a subject we ourselves know little to nothing about. We must daily be engaged in equipping ourselves to share the gospel with others, and that simply means knowing Jesus and knowing His teachings.
Effective one-on-one teaching also involves knowing intimately the person with whom we are studying. Know their spiritual background. Come to understand their beliefs, not for the purpose of condemning them, but for the purpose of best perceiving what they may need to examine from the Word at that particular time in their life. What are their doubts? Their struggles of faith? Their questions? Their fears? Their hopes? God's Word has relevance for any person, regardless of who they are or where they may be in their search for Truth. How can we truly make that Word personally relevant for that seeker, however, if we don't know either the Word or the seeker intimately?
My one-on-one studies will almost always be with people I personally know who have seen something in my life that they consider worth obtaining themselves. "Lifestyle evangelism" is the first step for faithful disciples seeking to share their faith. Be a light to the darkness around you. It will draw people, and you can then share with them the Source of that light. When you share the good news with people you know, this will help you know where to begin with them. If I don't know a person, then before I ever open up God's Word and jump into the deep end of the pool, I will invest the time to try and discover who they are and where they are in their search for Truth. Doctors typically take a personal medical history prior to treating patients who come to them. Perhaps more of us would do well to actually get to know those with whom we hope to share the good news.
Developing relationships is critical to increasing the borders of the kingdom and to building up those within it. Rushing through film strips to baptize a person whose name we can hardly remember, just to move on to the next "contact" immediately afterward, as some tend to do, is unconscionable. Yes, there is a greater investment in time and energy when we truly get to know a person, but when that person is led to Christ they will enter Him with close companions already in place in the One Body. It is far more likely that you will retain these new brothers and sisters, because they already have tasted of family through your loving relationship with them.
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