College was a special time for me. I still remember the day when my Dad dropped me off and drove away. It was a hard day for both of us, but especially for him. I had never lived on my own before and had very little clue about what life for the next few years held for me. In those years, I would find out much about myself, as well as how to function without the help of my parents. To be honest, those years were some of the best years of my life. Many friendships developed, and a few of them I keep track of today. One particular friendship near and dear to me was my college roommate. We were very close – like brothers from another mother. At one point, we had lived together for almost two years, sharing the same 15’x15’ dorm.
I remember one night, we were both heading for bed and were brushing our teeth. Something came over me at the moment as I looked at him in the mirror with toothpaste running down my cheek – “are you going to take your contacts out?” He looks at me, slightly puzzled, and says with a smirk, “when do you ever remember me taking out or putting in contacts?” I thought about it for a second, and then said, “Well, I don’t.” In fact, there was no contact solution, contact case, or any sign of contacts that have ever been in our room. He didn’t wear glasses, and he never squinted in class. He had perfect vision. But for some reason, I had been convinced all along that he wore contacts.
It’s funny how well you think you know someone only to realize that there is so much you don’t know. In extreme cases, a person can think they know someone and be completely wrong about them in the first place. Lots of dating relationships have ended with one party screaming (or worse, texting🙁) the other party saying, “well now I know the real you!”
The Secret Life of Being Well Known
Knowing other people can be a tricky thing. But being well know can be even trickier. Living in 21st century America, it doesn’t take long to realize the paradox that exists in most of us. Seemingly all of us have a desire to be known. Think of the whole social media phenomenon. We have followers. We have groups. We have pictures of our meals. We have the selfies where we get to take pictures of ourselves in action. We are people who want people to know us. Yet, on the other hand, there is an aspect of our lives that human beings seem desperate to hide. We post the beautiful cake we made on Instagram, but not the three cakes we ruined in the process of making that one. We post our best pictures, not the ones that make it look like we have a double chin. We don’t post our fights and failures. We post the medals and success stories. That leads us to our present time – we’ve never been more well known while being radically unknown at the same time.
While our culture frantically looks for ways they can be known, yet live in secrecy, what if I told you the Christian life is radically different? I know, I know – there are many professed Christians out there who live isolated lives, not knowing others and settling for the hashtag life of the world around us. They emphasize their own walk with Jesus. But is that really the best life? Is that really how our lives were designed to be lived?
All About Me, Or All About Them?
If you grew up within churches, especially if you are in the South, one of the phrases your ears have heard over and over again is a personal walk with Jesus. Growing up in this culture, one of the things I’ve noticed is the unsaid rule of not pushing in too closely to those in your church. Living in South Georgia, this culture and mindset are alive and well. “That’s between me and Jesus!” can often be the slogan.
But is it? Whatever “it” is – is “it” really just between you and Jesus?
Before moving on, I think it is important to look at the way most religions in the world work. Most religions function by emphasizing one of two things: 1) the individual believer, or, 2) the “congregation” as a whole. Let’s give two quick examples that show us the extremes of each of these:
- New Ageism (almost 100% individual) – New Ageism is one of those religions that has a particularly American flavor. Usually associated with meditation, harnessing the power of crystals, and feeling the spiritual life from within, this religion has found increasing popularity in American culture. This is mostly because New Ageism makes no claims on a lifestyle one should or should not live. To many, that seems as American as apple pie. It is a religion by your own rules. It allows a person to feel spiritual while not being tied to any moral standards. In the end, New Ageism, in some sense, is about the individual at the end of the day.
- Roman Catholicism (almost 100% corporate) – While you might hear some of the same terms in Roman Catholicism that you hear in Christianity (“Jesus,” “God,” “salvation”), there are some things you will rarely (if ever) hear about in a Mass gathering. One of those is a personal relationship with Jesus. Why is that? Because Roman Catholicism, while referencing the individual believer now and again, is almost completely about the Roman Catholic Church. That is where the spotlight always shines. You need to go to the Church for salvation. You need to go to the Church for grace through the sacraments. Whether in life or death, you need the Church as a whole all of the time. Therefore, you cannot live a faithful life and find salvation apart from coming to Mass. Indeed, the Catholic Church, in some sense, is about the Catholic Church at the end of the day.
Almost any religion you find will either venture off into one of these two extremes. Either it is all about the individual, or it is all about the congregation as a whole. But which of these does Christianity fall into?
Most evangelicals would probably think it falls into the first category – 100% individual. After all, don’t we need a personal relationship with Jesus? After all, that is what “gets us to heaven,” right?
One of the things I’ve noticed about evangelicals as a whole is we certainly can be extreme people. We emphasize certain aspects of our faith until blue in the face. For instance, we evangelicals know we aren’t Catholic. Catholicism is all about the Catholic Church. So what we do is peel out in the opposite direction and make it all about a personal relationship with Jesus. But where has that gotten us? I would have a tough time finding someone who thought Christianity in American is in a good place. We’re driving in the opposite direction as fast as we can, but the thing we might not realize is that we are driving that Chevy right off the cliff.
100% of Two Things
This is where, as Christians, we must turn to the Bible for clues. Is Christianity almost 100% personal or 100% corporate? Let’s list a few verses
- Mark 1:14-15 – Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
- Romans 10:13 – “For whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
- Acts 2:37-38 – Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
If you believed Christianity was merely something individual, you would feel great about the above verses. These verses – all popular ones many grew up hearing – demonstrate for Christianity to be Christianity, there must be an emphasis on a personal relationship with God. Hence in the Mark passage above, Jesus’s call to the people to personally repent (i.e. “repent and believe in the gospel”). The same situation occurs in Romans 10, although significant baggage exists with these verses. Most Christians have heard Romans 10:13 in regards to the altar call – a borderline sacrament in Southern religion. However, this is not what Paul is talking about. He is not referring to an audible, one-time call at the end of a church service. Paul is referring to a life-long act of turning from sin and trusting in Christ. But notice, that call is personal. It is something the individual must do. Even the first sermon ever preached after Jesus rose from the dead had a personal aspect to it. The people who heard Peter preaching in Acts 2 asked, “what shall we do to be saved?” Notice what Peter said – he put repentance in the hands of each individual. He calls each one to “repent and be baptized.”
However, as we will see, that is not the whole story. For Christianity to truly be Christianity, it cannot be only personal. See how some of these verses break the mold of individualistic faith:
- 1 Corinthians 12:4-7 – Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
- Ephesians 4:1-3 – I, therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
- Galatians 6:1-2 – Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he mentions how God has given each individual a spiritual gift if they have been born again. But notice what he says here in chapter 12 about the purpose of that gift; a person is to exercise that gift for the common good. Whatever spiritual gifts are, they are predominantly for other people. That is far from a Jesus-and-me view of the faith.
Still, yet more, the Galatians passage highlights an important role in the life of Christians – walking with one another through sins and struggles. Paul tells them that if anyone has been caught in a transgression (which is, ohhhh, everyone in their life as a Christian from time-to-time), it is the job of the members of the church to help them. They are to “bear one another’s burdens.” That is quite a job. That is one of the reasons God established his church here on earth: they are a community of believers who help one-another defeat the stranglehold sin has on their lives. This will be a controversial line, so I will clarify it after I say it: that means we can’t merely pray for others and trust God to overcome certain sins. Notice the fifth word in that phrase: merely. I’m not saying a person shouldn’t pray. I’m not saying a person should not trust God. I am saying that, when God gives us a primary tool for fighting sin (the local congregation), we can’t pretend like he didn’t give it and just start praying for deliverance as if that is the only thing we are to do. No way – pray…but do your other job, too! Get your hands dirty in their life, and pray for the humility to let others do the same in your own life in your fight with sin.
From what we saw above, Christianity must emphasize the individual, but it can never do so without simultaneously emphasizing the congregation. Christianity finds itself in an odd place when compared to man-made religions like Buddhism, Roman Catholicism, and Hinduism. It is both 100% individual and 100% corporate. In this sense, the Christian life must involve the individual and others for it to be uniquely Christian. If you de-emphasize one, you lose the essence of the faith. You might be wondering at this point: is this where we find ourselves in our current church culture? Evangelicals have emphasized the personal relationship with Jesus to such a point that we have been making out with a religion very different from Christianity. Her voice sounds like Christianity from afar (talking about Jesus, “breaking chains,” and connecting people to God) but in reality, it is more like New Ageism with Christianized lipstick.
Questions, Questions, Questions…
Assuming most of those reading this article will struggle more with involving other church members in their lives, what can do about improving in that area? Maybe the real questions are as follows: 1) How can we allow ourselves to be known? 2) How can we know others? Let’s take a brief look at the first question, and then an elongated answer for the second question.
So how can I allow myself to be known? Whew! Isn’t that hard? There is something in us that just wants to hide at the idea of someone knowing parts of us that we would never want to reveal. Yet, that is part of the Christian life. There is unbelievable freedom in that. I think the only way for this to happen is for the gospel to absorb into the fibers of our lives. This is why we must read the Bible (again, not just devotionals about the Bible), meditate on the Bible, pray for a love for the Bible, pray throughout our day, and utterly build our life on the Savior. It must be a day-to-day thing. When this happens, the Christian begins to believe something they have already known. What is it? It’s the fact that, on the cross, Jesus said worse things about us and our sin than anyone else ever could. You might read that and think, how is that helpful David? Stay with me here: if the Father – who knew all the secrets of my heart, all the wicked things my hands have done, and all the wicked things I will act on tomorrow – looks on me and does not condemn me because of Jesus’s crosswork, I suddenly become a lot less concerned if others think I’m a freak because I struggle with ________ sin. There’s nothing new under the sun, and that includes the sins I fight. I’m not a freak, I am normal in the worst kind of way until Jesus returns. And so are you.
The second question, how can we know others? is a little more tricky. Yet, there is a particular answer: questions, questions, questions. Knowing others, in one sense, is all about questions. It’s about asking, not just questions, but the right kind of questions. Let me give some examples below, first of some not-so-good questions and then some questions that are examples of good questions:
Stinky Questions that Usually Lead to Nowhere
- How are you?
- What’s going on?
- What’s new in your life?
- How’s your week been going?
- How’s your marriage?
There are two things you might notice about these questions. The first: these questions are the go-to questions of most churchgoers. If you walk into a church gathering on a given week, you will undoubtedly be asked one or all of these. The second thing you will notice about them: they can all be answered in one or two words. Let’s go down the potential answer for all five: Good. Not much. Same ‘ole. Good. Pretty good. Here lies the main problem with these questions – one can easily evade them or answer them in a shallow fashion just out of habit.
So if these questions don’t cut the mustard, which ones do? Let’s take a look at some examples:
Questions that Help You Minister to Others
- Questions regarding your week
- What was the worst part of your week? (Follow up question: And why’s that?)
- What was the best part of your week? (Follow up question: And why’s that?)
- Questions regarding relationships
- What has been the greatest struggle with your wife/husband?
- How have you encouraged your spouse recently? (Follow up question: What’s something your spouse has done recently that has encouraged you?)
- What’s been the hardest part about parenting _______ recently?
- What specific ways have you seen your singleness as a gift recently?
- What specific ways has your singleness been a struggle recently?
- Questions about emotions
- Where have you been tempted to doubt the Lord’s goodness or power recently?
- What is something that has made your heart for the Lord leap recently?
- Questions about their spiritual pulse
- If you had to use three words to describe your alone time with the Lord in the past two weeks, what would those three words be?
- What is one key thing the Lord has taught you through his Word during the last week?
- What are some things you have been praying for recently and haven’t seen?
- What are some things you have been praying for and you have seen the Lord grant?
- Who was the last person you got to share the gospel with? (Follow up question: How did it go?)
- What sins have you been struggling with the most this past week? (Follow up question: In what actions did you see them come out in your behavior?)
- Where have you seen growth in your fight against sin recently?
What do you notice about some of these questions? Most importantly, you can’t answer them without thinking. This is where the job of you, the congregation member, becomes so important. Listen for clues as to how the person is doing. This will tip you off on how to pray for them, how to speak the promises of God to them, and ultimately how to continue to walk with them through the struggles of life.
Caring for people in a truly Christian way is not something we are naturally good at. We often avoid the mess, afraid of what others will think of us if we begin to pry a little. But with the Lord’s help, he will use us in their lives just as he will one day use someone else in your life. Until then, arm yourself with these two things: good questions and a listening ear.