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.

Training Trainers: An Attempt to Train Church Planters in Training New Disciples in Doing Their Own Inductive Bible Study

[NOTE: This is an article I wrote in early 2006 that has not been published. I am posting it here because of its relevance to my greatest passion–training people to train others in a simple process of learning God’s heart and becoming obedient to His word.]

Likely we have all heard the old adage, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day.  Teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”  What if we raised it to a higher power?  “Teach him to train his village to fish and you feed them all for a lifetime.”

Replication is one of the fundamental principles of Church Planting Movements (CPM).  Disciples of Jesus should replicate the Master’s ministry of pouring himself into people who will in turn teach what they are learning to others who pass it on . . . Churches also should be reproducing pregnant churches.  At its fundamental center Church Planting is about understanding and practicing this call to replication from day one.  It also serves as a basic test for all methodology.  Disciples should be discipled in a manner that they can replicate (e.g., if evangelists are going to be working in village settings it is best if they are trained in methods that will be readily available in the villages).

In the spring of 2005 I was commissioned with the task of developing and implementing an approach to training people to train others in doing their own inductive Bible study.  This assignment came because there was a weakness in this critical Bible study approach in Sierra Leone.  As David Watson trained church leaders there in CPM earlier that year he identified this deficiency.  With this insight, Jerry Trousdale and Shodankeh Johnson encouraged me to return in November 2005 and train a group in doing Inductive Bible Studies.

As I sought guidance in developing a strategy for accomplishing this task I was reminded that such learning is “only internalized through practical work.” I was reminded that church planters should be lead “through a time of struggling with passages that relate to the biblical basis of CPM, both as a way of solidifying their understanding of how the inductive process works, as well as being personally sharpened in looking for a theology of CPM.”

Where Should They Begin?

 “What is my theology of CPM?” and “What passages do I encourage disciples to investigate to discover the biblical basis for CPM?” were questions that kept arising in my thinking.  The answer was the Ephesus material.

Let me point out, that as a Bible student, few practices trouble me more than “proof-texting.”  Selecting a few verses from random biblical sites and stringing them together as the proof for a position is always tenuous at best.  While it may be acceptable when under severe time constraints, this methodology is very susceptible to abuse.  I much prefer finding a block of connected material and carefully studying it rather than skipping around.

Few cities rival the prominent position of Ephesus in the New Testament.  Jerusalem, Antioch of Syria, Corinth and Rome are possible candidates.  But when you consider them in light of CPM, Ephesus has more to offer.  Paul desired to work in the Roman province of Asia during the early stages of the second missionary journey, but the Holy Spirit prevented that from happening (Acts 16:6).  God’s Spirit had already prepared persons of peace (Lydia, the jailor, Dionysius, Damaris, Titius Justis, etc.) in Macedonia and Achaia and the apostle and his church planting team heeded divine directions.  But Paul was able to close his second church-planting trip with a short stay in the capitol of Asia and left with a promise, “I will come back if it is God’s will” (Acts 18:21).

Acts 19 tells the wonderful story of the successful launching of a church planting movement.  An opponent testifies to the impact of Paul’s ministry.  A silversmith named Demetrius was angered that the apostle’s work adversely impacted the “bottom line” of his business.  He pointed out to the other silversmiths, “you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia” (Acts 19:26).  We know that churches were planted in nearby Laodicea and Colossae during the time Paul was in Ephesus.

The three years Paul labored in Ephesus was his longest time spent with any of his church plants.  Many believe he rarely stayed longer than six to nine months in the cities where he planted churches.  I believe the reason he stayed unusually long in Ephesus was he essentially established a church planting training center in the “lecture hall of Tyrannus” (Acts 19:9).

When you examine Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, and 1 Timothy through this Acts material some interesting insights arise. (It is also interesting to note that John’s Gospel, his letters and Revelation may well have arisen in this context of Asia,too.)  In Ephesus Paul modeled Jesus’ teaching about seeking out persons of peace (Luke 10).  He quickly focused on training local leaders so indigenous churches would develop.  Much can be learned about doing church planting well by investigating the Ephesus material.

How Do You Train in Three Days?

 How do you train people to do their own inductive Bible study, introduce them to the Ephesus material and guide them in the process of discovering their own nascent theology of CPM in three days?  That was my dilemma.

After prayer and through dialogue with colleagues I decided to introduce the church planters to inductive study by giving them the one-page chart that had been developed by David Sargeant.  This Inductive Bible Study Approach—Outline is a succinct tool that encourages Bible students to answer basic journalistic questions:  who, what, where, when, why and how.  It calls them to think about the text in a way that equips them to re-tell it in their own words—basic exegesis.  Then it pushes them to think about how the passage should be applied to their own lives.  Through the S.P.E.C.K. method and additional discussion questions the students are led to determine how they will obey the text they are studying.

The first day in Sierra Leone I passed out copies of this outline and introduced the students to the issues it raises.  After some time was spent on this approach I divided them into six randomly assigned small groups.  Each person was given a 3-Column format to use in reporting the results of their inductive study.  Unknown to them, each group was assigned a different section of the Ephesus material.

Acts19:1-22, Acts 19:23-20:1, Acts 20:13-38, Ephesians 1:1-23; Ephesians 3:1-4:16 and Ephesians 6:10-24 were the texts I selected, formatted and gave out copies.  Each small group was encouraged to spend time discussing the questions raised on the Inductive Bible Study Approach.  Also, they were taught that the first two sections of that outline would be helpful in completing the “Exegesis” column and the rest of the sections would be helpful in completing the “Application” column.  After spending time as a group examining their texts they were dismissed to use the rest of the day to complete in writing their 3-column study of their assigned text.

On the second day a representative of each group presented his/her rephrasing of the assigned text.  After all six passages were retold, then a different representative of each group shared what he/she heard God calling for obedience from the assigned text. 

Quickly the students realized their assumption that all the groups had been studying the same texts was incorrect.  But they also began to recognize that the other passages related directly to their text.  By teaching what they had encountered, each group broadened the knowledge of the other five groups.  Then the students turned in their 3-column papers.  This process took the first half of the second day.  That afternoon we began the process of distilling principles related to Church Planting that appeared in the texts:

  1. The importance of prayer was recognized first.  Paul’s practice of praying for those he was discipling was clearly seen in the Ephesians texts.  His conduct while in Ephesus and Miletus shows the importance of prayer in his church planting strategy.
  2. The role of obedience was mentioned second.  This is especially evident in Paul’s dialogue with the Ephesian elders in Acts 20 and it is also seen in the choice of Ephesian believers to destroy their magical stuff (Acts 19:18-19).  We noted that Paul’s desire that they know Jesus would have entailed behavior and not just head knowledge.
  3. The issue of spiritual warfare being a part of church planting was noted.  The riot in Ephesus and Paul’s words to the elders about them not seeing him again, were coupled with the “spiritual armor” text in Ephesians.  There was the recognition that some will find the spread of the gospel has an adverse effect on their income and will oppose the work.  It was noted by some of the participants the importance of remembering that the war is not with “flesh and blood, but with principalities and powers” (Eph. 6:12).
  4. The need to develop indigenous leaders was discussed.  This insight was gained from Paul’s dialogue with the elders.  It was also noted that Paul’s conduct in Ephesus, during the time he taught the disciples in a rented school, shows him pouring himself into others.  I also pointed out that Colossians and Philemon are additional letters Paul wrote to believers who lived in the province of Asia and would be worthwhile for them to study in this context.
  5. The fundamental significance of having a servant heart was examined last.  Paul’s lifestyle was held up as an example for the elders to incorporate into their lives.  His practice of tent making was discussed as a way of looking at using a trade as a means of furthering the spread of the gospel.  Some of the participants shared that there are times when such will be beneficial rather than a hindrance to their efforts to plant churches.

Church Planters recognize these are important elements of CPMs.  These students discovered these within their investigation of the assigned texts.  Their sense of the biblical basis for CPM is stronger because these elements arose from connected texts.  Through the discovery process their inductive skills were sharpened as they exercised them.  While my original goals seemed overly high, I believe they were realized.  Did any of the students develop a full-blown theology of CPM?  No, that did not happen, but students of very diverse skill levels were benefited.

Those who had stronger study skills were kept interested because of the purpose of strengthening their theology of CPM.  All were presented with a study methodology that can be replicated.  Their homework for the third day took this issue of replication to a new level.  Every student was assigned 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and 4:11-16 to be studied overnight and bring in a 3-column format.  This time they were not given these texts already typed out.  They were told to write the texts in the first column and then do their exegesis in column 2 and the application in column 3.

The third day they were directed to turn in their homework on these texts.  They were asked to report on the texts.  Several complained that it was much easier to do the work when the texts were provided in the 3-column format.  I asked, “How many of you work primarily in a village setting.  Most said that is where they would be doing their church planting.  Then I asked, “How many of the villages have photocopy machines?” 

“None of the villages,” was their answer.

“How many of you have computers and internet access to format such studies?” was my follow-up question.  Very few had such capability.  I introduced the issue of reproducibility at this point.  While I have the ability to expedite their study in this way, they do not and the people they will be training to teach others in the village how to study will not have such a capacity at all.  They were challenged to make sure they utelize resources to which the people they are teaching will have access.

We can (and often do) unintentionally make the process unattainable for our target audience.  When this happens we program them to not replicate themselves.  Their study in 1 Timothy which focused on the personal qualities of pastors and evangelists gave them additional insights into planting churches in such a way that they can plant churches which plant churches.  We must not allow technology to get in the way and prevent indigenous churches from arising.