Conspicuously Spiritual, but…

Last week I posted something old and something new. First, I posted an article I wrote in 2006 that described what happened when I first taught a group of church planters in Sierra Leone to do 3-column studies. I had seen a reference to such an approach in a file on my mentor’s web site. No one had ever shown me how to do one. It just sounded like a format that could be easily implemented. (Of course I promptly complicated the process by envisioning ways to make it easier to get people to do a 3-column study, but God corrected my error.)

Then I wrote about God’s directives for any new king. That passage from Deuteronomy caught my attention because I have recently been training Americans to do 3-column studies. It gives me a text that directs leaders to write out Scriptures and then spend time every day meditating on the implications for their realm of influence.

Let’s spend some time evaluating the purpose of each of the three columns. The first column slows me down and causes me to hear the words. I must do this or I will be unable to complete the second column. Even when I used to cut and paste the text into the first column, I always had to re-read the passage numerous times to understand how to state its meaning in my own words. Writing the passage out has me handling the text. It gives me a measurable activity that indicates I have spent time with this word from God.

The second column provides proof that I have used my powers of observation. I can answer the journalists questions (Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How?). By restating the passage I verify to myself that I can help someone else hear its meaning. There are many passages that I find this to be harder to accomplish than I earlier imagined. Sometimes the more familiar I am with the passage the more difficult I find the second column to be. If I cannot put it in my words, then I do not understand its meaning. If I cannot restate it I cannot share it with someone else. While column 1 is for me, column 2 is for others. It prepares me to speak a word from God into the life of another person.

David Watson has shocked many believers by saying, “People don’t want your religion! They don’t! Now if you are truly spiritual, some of them will want to be around you, but they don’t want your religion. You have to be conspicuously spiritual without being obnoxiously religious.” I really wanted to argue with him when I first heard that statement. It was a blessing that I could not because I was listening to it on MP3 recordings. After I got beyond my initial response I began to think, “You know the word ‘religion’ generally has to be qualified in Scriptures.” The first text I thought of was the one in James where he says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). The use of “pure and faultless” warns us there is impure and fault-filled religion.

Conspicuously Spiritual

This part of David’s affirmation made perfect sense to me. This is what Jesus was talking about when he described the good deeds of disciples lived out in the open. He said that our lives should be so ministry-filled that people see what we do and give God glory. Jesus said,”You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16). Conspicuously (readily seen) spiritual (God-like in nature) is to be our hallmark.

Without being obnoxiously religious

Here is the hard part. How much and what kind of religion will others find obnoxious? Should I really give other people the right to judge my actions? How can I avoid being obnoxious in the eyes of others?

The key, in my judgment, is giving people the freedom to opt out at any point of a discussion. One of the best ways I know to do this is make a statement like, “I learned something new about God yesterday.” Anyone who hears me say this has the right to question, ignore or scorn my affirmation. If she/he is curious then there will be the question, “What did you learn about God?” By asking me this, I am being given permission to pursue the conversation a little further. If she ignores my statement, then she is not open yet. If he scorns my comment then I know he is closed to spiritual discussions with me at this time. To push the discussion with the later two will be viewed by them as obnoxiously religious because they have opted out.

With the person who queries me I will need to use care. So far, all he/she has communicated is curiosity about my affirmation. This person may just think I am crazy. He may wonder if I am hearing voices. She may be curious whether or not this is a trap. I suggest you just give a brief statement that summarizes what you studied. For example, I could say, “I learned God want me to hand write my own copy of the law.” Now the ball is in this person’s court. My response will give him/her the opportunity to decide whether or not to proceed further. As long as I do not dump a whole load of judgmental-ism our conversation can go as far as this person is willing.

What I am looking for in the conversation is permission to help this person discover God’s character for himself/herself. I know it will be best if this discovery process can happen in a context of this person’s significant relationships, but I first need to find out whether or not there is a willingness to participate in a discovery process.

By writing out column 2 I am preparing myself for that kind of dialogue. I am discovering something about God that is fresh, new and intriguing for me. My passion for this new insight is more likely to capture the favorable attention of another person, especially someone on whom God’s Spirit is already working. (Jesus describes such an individual as “a person of peace” in Luke 10:5.) I believe we need this kind of process to help us be conspicuously spiritual without being obnoxiously religious.

Column 3 prepares me to obey the passage I have written and paraphrased. It pushes me to open myself to being convicted by the Spirit of God. It reminds me what the Lord authoritatively demands of my life. It pushes me to be honest with God, myself and another human being (I will share at least one of these with my small group and expect them to ask me next week how I did being obedient). This column pushes me to stop deflecting the passage by spending my time discussing what others need to do to obey it. Column 3 tests my honesty and integrity. It gauges whether I am a wise man or a fool (Matthew 7:24-27). Am I going to show Jesus my love for him by obeying him? Am I going to play the fool by hearing him and then refusing to apply the word to my life?

Let me return to the Sierra Leone story for just a few moments. It looks likely that every village in the nation will have a church by the end of 2010, or at the latest 2011. When that happens this will be a remarkable example of saturation church planting. This is happening because thousands of people are hearing God’s word and being obedient. Using 3-column studies (among the literate) and teaching S.P.E.C.K. to everyone, especially the illiterate, they are being equipped to hear and obey Scripture. The Anglican bishop of Sierra Leone calls my friend every three days or so to tell him about his personal devotions with 3-column studies and about the exciting things happening in the Anglican church as a result of CPM. In addition to training every leader in his own fellowship, my friend has trained military chaplains who are going into the civilian communities to serve, and planting CPM-type churches among civilians. Civilians are also coming onto military bases to participate in the churches there.

Since late 2005 God has used these people and study methods to shine beacons of light into a nation that only recently came through a horrible civil war (the movie Blood Diamond was based on the war). Imagine what can happen to our lives through this process.


  1. John, thanks for re-sharing. Sometimes it’s great to take the time to walk-through the process again. I also appreciate your dedication to our blogs. Very encouraging and inspiring!


    1. Kyle, glad to share. I enjoy your blogs, they give me great encouragement to see your attempts to live out the training you have received. Your situations challenge me to think through the issues behind them. Worldview is so important for cross-culutural work, especially understanding how our own worldview impacts us. Often we do not really examine our personal worldview until we have to interact with people who have vastly different worldviews. Your blogs help me stay alert. They also make me proud and hopeful for the future. Papa is doing new things! Blessings.


  2. I have served in Anglican circles. I am happy to see the local bishop embracing this approach and that they are embracing CPM. It would be interesting too see how it fits into their structure…


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