Pass It On

Four days ago I exposed more than 30 people to Discovery Bible Studies. We spent most of our three-hour gathering learning how to do an Oral DBS. But I also spent a few minutes talking about doing a written discovery process that is called a 3-column study. I gave each person a copy of a format that I have developed. One of the class members emailed me to ask for a digital copy of the form, so she would not have to re-create it. After I sent one to her in pdf she wrote back, explaining how she hopes to use this:

I have a lovely, bright and gifted 5th-grader who is having trouble understanding how important it is to have self-control over his tongue. I have been praying for him for a week or so, and I woke up in the middle of the night the other night with the idea to give him the 3-column bible study on a series of proverbs that have helped me immensely to control my own tongue. I believe it will be fruitful for this newly saved and baptized young man. I’ll let you know what God does!

Here is my reply to this teacher:

Years ago I was attempting to catalyze DBSs in the local jail. I started working with the one person I knew who was incarcerated there. He began a group study, to pass on what he was learning. When we knew he was soon to be released I asked him to pick the best candidate to keep it going. I started meeting with that guy, too. Every time the leader was about to be released we repeated this process.

Eventually I noticed generational degradation (copy a copy of a copy long enough and the quality deteriorates). It reached its lowest when the only guy who was an option had damaged his mental capacity greatly by using illegal substances—especially smoking wild mushrooms. His attention span and impulse control were negligible. I really agonized with whether or not I was wasting my time. But my bare-bones requirement for meeting with him weekly was whether or not he would do a 3-column study. He kept attempting to write one out, so I kept working with him. Months later this guy was transferred to the state penitentiary two hours away. Writing letters was our only contact. His last letter shared what he had recently discovered (all on his own) about the work of the Holy Spirit in his life. He wrote out the verses he had discovered, how he understood them and how he was trying to live them. It blew me away! I believe the Spirit “re-wired” some of his neural pathways. The 3-column studies became a spiritual discipline that the Spirit used to help him recover from some of the abuse he had done to himself.

While this young man you are working with is not that extreme an example, I praise God this approach may be a blessing for him! I pray it will equip him to experience Romans 12:1-2 “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

Two suggestions connected to this: keep the passages short (I suspect that you will already do that since you are going to use Proverbs) and do a 3-column study yourself, on the same passages. Show him your sheet when you read over his. Share with him how you are obeying–putting into practice—each passage. Model for him the process as well as teach him to do it and hold him accountable.

John King

Maybe you know a place where this process would be helpful. If so, just email me a request for the form (preacher at by replacing the spaces and “at” with the symbol. I will be happy to share this resource with you.

When Did We See You in Prison? (part 4)

Justin’s group sent me some 3-column studies.  Their insights into passages (the first time they have ever attempted to do this) continue to amaze me.  As is true of most, some prefer to speak of what “we” or “they” should do in the third column, but I continue to point out that this will be more beneficial if each point begins with the words, “I will…”  This process truly is about discovery, not preaching or teaching.

Recently Justin was moved out of the pod.  He was transferred to the state offices to assess his status on a parole violation.  There he received a favorable ruling due to following some counsel Austin gave him months ago.  Rather than waiting until his release to assess this legal matter, Austin recommended Justin write the parole board to notify them of his incarceration.  At the hearing it was determined that his time served from that postmark forward would count.  He will only have to complete one additional week when he finishes his current sentence.  Justin gave God the glory for this determination.

I asked Justin who might be willing to attempt to restart the study group.  He said Matthew (one of the guys who had recently sent me his first ever 3-column study) was the only one he anticipated was a viable candidate.  The others in the pod who had participated when Austin led the group had stopped attending.  It appears likely that Justin’s personality did not work well as the facilitator of the group.  He had followed through on his commitment to me by teaching Matthew.  Maintaining contact with this pod would hinge on Matthew’s willingness to be the person of peace.

I wrote Matthew identifying myself and giving a sketch of my work with Justin and Austin.  Also, I included the article on doing a Discovery Bible Study written by Paul Watson.  I invited this inmate to become the point person for a group in the pod.  He would have to request that I be listed as his pastor before I could schedule a visit.

A few days later I received email confirmation from the chaplain acknowledging the request had been approved.  I scheduled a visit for Friday, November 30, 2007.  That very morning I received a letter from him accepting my invitation.

Matthew wrote, “Yes sir I received your letter today.  I will love to be the one to keep the Bible study going.  I have to be honest I don’t know a hole lot about the Bible so it will be a learning experience for me to.  It’s weird because for the past week or so I have been wondering what God wanted me to do with my life and how I can repay him for the blessing that he has gave me then all the sudden I get your letter.  So to me I feel this is another blessing and God’s way of answering me….To be honest I am going to need a lot of help with this because like I said I don’t know to much about the Bible but I want to chang my lifestyle and I ask that you would help me with that because I think it’s time for me to start doing for God instead of always wanting him to do for me.”

The work continues.

[ * Note:  The names of these men have all been changed.  All the other details are accurate.]

When Did We See You in Prison? (part 3)

Spiritual warfare began.  It especially dated to Austin and myself beginning to pray for an opening to teach Hispanic guys in the pod.  Soon after these prayers began, INS picked two of the Hispanic guys up.  Another was transferred to the state penitentiary.  The only Hispanics left in this pod spoke little English.

A couple of weeks later a couple of trouble-makers instigated a sit-in breakfast strike that resulted in half of the guys being removed from the pod and taken to the Maximum security pod.  The number of guys in the group study dropped from eight to three.  Austin was disappointed in what had started so well being so quickly depleted.  He began to pray and decided to hand-write an invitation to the group studies and slide it under each cell door (he could do this since he had more freedoms as a trustee).  Several new guys began attending the group.

I had never seen Austin without a smile.  His disappointment was apparent when I arrived for my next visit.  I anticipated something had gone wrong because Austin was no longer on the fifth floor.  I had to visit him on the fourth floor.  He told me what had transpired since my visit the previous week.

Another attack came from some members of the Crypts gang in the pod.  The leader resented the influence Austin was gaining.  He showed his displeasure after Austin reached out to him with the gospel.  The guy directed the other Crypts to begin charging Austin with violating rules.  His desire was to cause Austin to lose his trustee position.  When the charges proved untrue, the administration did not strip Austin of his job, but they realized there would be additional trouble in this pod if Austin remained.  They chose to move him to another pod on the fourth floor and make Austin the assistant trustee there.

My visits for the next couple of weeks were spent encouraging him and focusing on getting a new group started in the new pod.  We also discussed who would be a good candidate to reach out to in that fifth floor pod.  Austin suggested I write Justin * to see if he would step into the leadership position.

Justin was interested in meeting with me.  The group had continued to meet each evening to pray for one another and any other requests that other guys in the pod shared.  They had not continued the study since all the materials had been taken when Austin was moved.  I sent Justin a set of the God and Man studies so he could resume where Austin had left off.

It was interesting to start working with one of the guys Austin had been discipling.  He had mentioned Justin to me on a couple of occasions.  This guy had always asked deeper questions.  His inquiries often resulted in Austin writing them down and bringing them to me on my next visit.  Austin believed Justin had a desire to understand the Word.  He was right.  I started with him the same way I did with Austin—I would continue to teach as long as Justin would make an effort to teach what he was learning to someone else.  He agreed.

Meanwhile, Austin was excited and anxious to have me meeting with Justin.  He wanted me to assess whether or not he had done a good job.  Justin often wanted more depth than Austin could provide, so he had been a challenge in some ways.  Austin wanted this feedback so he could incorporate any needed changes in the new group he was launching.  He had some fears that he had done some things “wrong,” but he wanted to know so he could do a better job this second time around.

Austin’s second start has gone much better.  He earned the respect of the guys in this new pod by his lifestyle.  His infectious smile and his joy in the Lord were apparent.  Also, during the first couple of weeks, when he was still in shock over the move, he cleaned up the pod (part of his job assignments).  This pod was grungy.  They did not have adequate tools or cleaning supplies.  Austin knew what was available on the fifth floor so he respectfully requested the same items for this pod.  Instead of using a worn-out scrap of a mop, he requested and received two new mops.  He requested and received bleach that he used to scrub away the mould and mildew that had developed.  As he cleaned the place he learned that there had been quite a bit of sickness on this floor and people felt that what he was doing was going to make it a healthier place for them to live.

This group study quickly has grown to a high of sixteen.  They are alternating their study between the Old Testament and Matthew’s gospel.  They continue to study some of the God and Man stories as a foundation for their understanding of God and as a way to prepare themselves to teach others these important insights into God’s character.  During their studies from Matthew they are watching Jesus develop spiritual leadership in the men he called to be his disciples.

Because of this move, Austin has become more aware of how important it is to not only get the group to learn the biblical material, but also to be discipled in the process.  He is becoming more intentional in looking for leadership potential in the group and pouring more into the guys who exhibit potential.  Justin is also understanding at a deeper level because of what happened.  Also, he is gaining greater insight into why Austin did things the way he did.

[* NOTE: Names have been changed. All other details are accurate.]

When Did We See You in Prison? (part 2)

I had encouraged Jason to teach what he was learning to other guys in the pod.  This was a principle that I had been learning from listening to the CPM training CDs that recorded David Watson’s seminar in Freetown, Sierra Leone.  You learn quicker and more deeply when you teach others the new material you are learning.  Jason had been teaching others in the daily Bible study group, but he was especially discipling Malcolm.

I continued meeting with Jason, but added a weekly visit with Malcolm, too.  It was encouraging to begin to see how much Jason had passed on.  Discipling someone to disciple another really works even though it may seem counter-intuitive.  Involve your disciples in the process of discipling someone else from day one.  Do not wait until they get some body of knowledge down, start them immediately.  Make this a condition for you continuing to disciple them.  They learn more and deeper because their information is coupled with experiences.

Malcolm was farther along than I could have imagined.  I began encouraging him to disciple other guys in the pod.  I wanted him to prepare for the eventual day when he would be released.  He would have to pass on what he was learning to keep the fire burning in that pod.  As time drew near for his release Malcolm told me that there were two young guys he wanted me to meet with.

I began meeting with Paul * and Jimmy * after Malcolm was released.  Here I saw some evidence of generational degradation of information (a copy of a copy of a copy…shows real losses).  David Watson had talked about this in the training CDs emphasizing the need for training centers that bring each generation up to the original level.  There were some pieces of the discipling process that were not repeated in subsequent generations that resulted in significant weaknesses.  This was an important realization for me to experience.

Jimmy did not disciple anyone.  Paul wrestled with being shy and not easily finding someone else to teach what he had been learning.  I began to wonder if I had failed to keep the process alive and question whether I had invested too much time in people who were not teaching what they were learning.  As Paul’s release approached I asked him to pray about someone else in the pod who would like for me to visit each week.  Paul informed me the next week that the trustee, Austin *, would like a visit.

Having learned from my failures, as well as successes, I decided to start out differently with Austin.  From the first day I communicated my expectation that Austin would have to teach what I taught him if my visits were to continue.  He agreed.  Quickly he began to tell me of his efforts to teach Tommy.  Eventually I learned that Tommy brought his cousin into the study group that was forming.  Austin was taking seriously the expectation and the pace was picking up.

While spending some time with David Watson he asked how Austin’s 3-column studies were going.  I said I did not know.  David suggested I provide money for Austin to be able to photocopy his studies and send them to me through the mail.  I noted that the inmates do not have access to a copy machine.  I decided to have Austin hand write a copy and mail it to me.

Soon Austin sent me a stack of 3-column studies that had been completed by several others in his pod who were now participating in the group.  Each exhibited insights into the text and showed evidence of grasping the need to apply the passage.  Several needed to work on stating the third column in the “I will…” format that forces personal application.  These were mailed back to Austin to redistribute to the participants.  (Regretfully, these were never returned to Austin.  I do not know if they were lost in the mail or misplaced at the jail. Months later they were finally returned to me, because inmates are not allowed to receive mail from one another, they refused to deliver them all to Austin.)

[* NOTE: Names have been changed, but all other details are accurate.]

When Did We See You in Prison? (part 1)

One of the counter-intuitives of Church Planting Movements states:  “Expect the hardest places to yield the greatest results.”  In my attempts to obey Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25 I am experiencing the truths of this irony.

They had not attended the church long when Jason * confessed he would be going to jail soon to pay for his crimes.  He had been using drugs and alcohol and violated driving under the influence laws.  While on probation he again became intoxicated and was caught shoplifting.  The judge was angry and Jason realized things were in a mess.  He wanted a spiritual family to accept him, his wife and children without condemnation for his sin.

We spent several weeks getting to know this family and learned to love his humble spirit.  This man acknowledged he had violated the law.  He was disappointed that his previous church chose to ostracize him and his family.  He wanted to come clean.

Our worship minister became friends with Jason and began to visit him in jail after he had to report.  Eventually he approached me to relay Jason’s request for additional biblical resources.  Within a few months, Jason had completed every Bible correspondence course the jail chaplain had on hand.  The worship minister felt like he would benefit from visits by someone with a formal theological education.  I agreed to visit Jason.

Before that first visit could be scheduled I had to complete a visitation form and agree to a background security check.  When that was cleared I began to visit weekly.  I quickly sent Jason an additional correspondence course on the Gospel of John.  Jason, his cell mate and some other guys in their pod who were meeting daily for a group Bible study quickly completed this ten lesson course.

Jason requested assistance in getting ACT study manuals for some of the other inmates who wanted to prepare to get into college upon their release.  The Rutherford County Jail is not your stereotypical place of incarceration.  The inmates are not allowed any TVs, no radios, CD players or any other type of electronic devise.  There are no hard-backed books allowed.  Family or friends could provide paperbacks, but they would become the property of the jail library.  The church where I pastor began to assist with some educational materials.

Jason requested I find a college or university that would offer correspondence courses that he could take—especially Biblical ones.  With today’s technological advances these types of programs have transitioned to video or web-based formats.  Such prevented this type of study.

Eventually I discovered the Perspectives on the World Christian Movement reader and workbook and purchased a set and had them mailed to Jason.  He was grateful to receive such an in-depth study that would give him greater insights into God’s work in our world.  After a few weeks he asked if I could get another set for his cellmate.  The two of them had been sharing one reader and workbook since the original set had arrived.  I purchased one for Malcolm * and it was mailed to him directly.  Less than two weeks later Jason was moved down two floors so thankfully each had his own study materials.  Before moving Jason communicated that Malcolm would like to visit with me each week to continue learning.

[* NOTE: The names of these men have all been changed.  All the other details are accurate.]

Captured Ministry

I thought my work among the incarcerated ended. Maybe it is transitioning rather than coming to a close. God seems to be bringing people across my path who have connections to my experiences.

About a month ago I received a call from a man who has been interviewed to be the executive director of a prison ministry. He heard of the model I used and wanted more information. Then I did a four-week training in facilitating DBSs and discovered that some of the participants had done time in the local work house. Recently I heard from a friend. His son has been incarcerated. Because he is concerned for his son, he asked me to pray that this young man will experience a spiritual awakening while in jail.

I offered to write his son, if the dad would provide me his address. Below is the basic information I included in my letter. Maybe this will be helpful to someone else.

Over a five year period I was able to help about 20 convicts by training them to do a simple Bible study method. It is called a 3-Column Study (Click here: 3-column-study-format). You can actually do the same thing with a blank sheet of paper. Turn it wide side up. Draw two vertical lines.

In the first column copy a section of verses straight out of the Bible—word for word. While some people find this boring, it slows you down and focuses your mind on what the passage says. In the second column re-tell that passage in your own words. Until you can paraphrase it you do not really understand it. This also helps prepare you to share what the passage means with someone else.

In the third column use the word S.P.E.C.K. to start thinking about how you should apply this passage to your life. The letter S. stands for Sin. Does this passage identify a sin that you struggle with in your life? If so, write out that sin. Does this passage contain praises to God, a prayer to God or one of God’s promises? If so, list all found in it. That is for the letter P. The letter E. stands for example. If this passage gives an example of how someone should live, then write that down. The letter C. prompts you to look for any commands that are in this passage. Write them. Finally, the letter K. causes you to note any knowledge about God’s character that is revealed in the passage.

After you have done the S.P.E.C.K. exercise you are ready to write out two or three “I will…” Statements. These communicate ways you will obey this passage. How will your life change when you put it into practice? What you write in this column should be a specific action(s) you will do to live the teaching of this passage you have written, re-told and will have to do with one of the S.P.E.C.K. items.

Doing this type of Bible study has benefited several men who were in jail. They found it very helpful. It helped one guy who had pretty much fried his brain on wild mushrooms. God’s Word re-wired his mind, but more importantly, his spirit was renewed.

I encourage you to give this a try. If you want to correspond, I will be honored to write back. But I have one condition—any letter you send me must be accompanied by a copy of a 3-Column Study. You keep the original, but send me a copy. Yes, I know it will be boring to copy it, but even that will be a valuable process.

If you do not have a Bible, request one from the chaplain. They will provide you one. I suggest you start with either the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7) or the book of Ephesians. Do five or six verses at a time. Doing one of these a day will be an exercise that God will use to bless you.

Here are links to other articles I have written about some of what happened while I was working in the local jail:

Maybe there is more God will do in this area. I am looking forward to talking in person with the man about the prison ministry. I hope the young man chooses to open himself to God’s Word. Maybe some of those who learned how to train others to facilitate Discovery Bible Studies will be able to pass it on to folks in the work house. Join me in praying that Jesus’ work of “setting the captive free” will come to pass!

It’s a Wrap!

Our investigation of the counter-intuitives of Disciple Making Movements (DMMs) was completed with last Thursday’s post. These are general observations we have noted from the movements we have tracked for the last six years in sub-Saharan Africa. They are not mathematical equations. Wisdom must be utilized when one seeks to evaluate new regions and new people groups in their light.

This is one of the challenges of DMMs—one size does not fit all. While every tailor knows how to measure, cut and sew material, every new suit will be different because of the differences of the size and tastes of the client. While every baker measures, mixes and bakes cakes, no two wedding cakes are likely to be identical because of the differences in the wedding parties.

Learning from diverse DMMs gives us insights into how things might be done, but the tactical choices will be impacted by many factors. The analogy I have used to get some people to think about this comes from the NFL. Professional coaches often script their first twenty offensive plays. These choices are arranged in hopes of capitalizing on the defensive tendencies that have been discovered through hours and hours of film study. Coaches hope to be able to score on that first drive to grab momentum and apply pressure to their opponent. But they are also hoping to discover what adjustments will be made to overcome said tendencies.

Consider these counter-intuitives as evidence of tendencies. But recognize that our enemy is always making adjustments. One size will not fit all. “Trial and error” learning is often demanded. Standing on Jesus’ promise that the gates of hell will not prevail (gates are always defensive structures), probe the defenses of Satan by scripted attacks. Recognize that you cannot script the whole game before it begins. Faith demands trusting the Holy Spirit to bless the things you do and to give you needed information in making needed adjustments as you move forward. But recognize that you will not learn these new insights sitting on your good intentions.

Recently I spoke by phone with a brother who is being considered as the executive director of a prison ministry. As he described the organization’s vision I was impressed. They are already targeting the inmates who refuse to attend traditional ministry outreach efforts. They utilize sports to gain the attention of these inmates. But this brother has heard about the DBSs. He has been exposed to 3-Column Studies. He is four generations removed from me and we have never met. Recently the second generation brother met him and they started talking about his possible new position. Because I cut my teeth in prison/jail ministry it appeared maybe we should chat.

Not everyone will be called by God to minister to inmates. To make prison ministry a necessary piece of DMM training would be unwise. It is one of those “hardest places” that sometimes yield the greatest results, so I am excited to be able to share my experiences in a few weeks. Long-term, I may end up training this brother, his organization, these prison missionaries and/or some of the Persons of Peace they have already discovered (but would not yet call them that).

Re-read these articles periodically. Pray that Papa God will bring people, situations and needs to mind from your context as you read them. Ask him to unlock the creativity and wisdom he has already placed in you. Ask him to give you insights on reaching the unreached.

Send me an email. Ask me to help you think through your situation. I will probably ask you to write out a description of the people group you are called to reach. This will help me to capitalize on your insights. It will assure me that you are already doing what you know to do. Ultimately, I cannot make decisions for you—only you should do that. But I will be honored to help you process. If I am at a loss I will reach out to the more experienced strategists that I know and trust God to give some great suggestions. Use these as resources. Blessings!

Nothing Grows in the Desert Except…

Wow! It has been five years since I first went to the Rutherford County Jail! My regular visits there will stop at the end of April. It is hard to comprehend what God has done through those regular stops.

My first visit was late in 2005. Jonathon had been meeting Jeremy regularly and came to me to say that he was asking Bible questions that were too deep. He said I needed to schedule a visit. I had no idea what was about to happen.

The jail became my learning lab. It became the place where abstractions I was learning from seminars had to roll up their sleeves and put on work gloves. Theories were transformed into realities—hard realities. God blessed me by first calling me to this ministry through a true learner (teachers have to motivate students, but their challenge with learners is staying ahead of them).

David Watson (the brother who has discipled me for years) always stressed that discovery-based discipleship is messy. I got a rude introduction to that reality before my first visit to the jail. While waiting in the lobby to go up to see Jeremy I was shocked by the large list of rules for the family members who were arriving. Some made perfect sense like, “No weapons or drugs allowed.” Others were surprising like, “You must wear underwear.” I have seen why each of these rules had to be spelled out.

This jail is a hard place. No TV or internet. A small radio might play for a couple of hours a day with the news. There is no exercise yard outside and no weights inside. On good days a garage-type door is raised and lets the sun and fresh air into the thirty-foot cube called the ODR. Here the guys walk in circles around the perimeter or play volleyball or hackey-sack with a balled up sock for an hour. Others might sit in a corner to do a discovery Bible study. This facility has often reminded me of a Kevin Youngblood quote from a class on Jeremiah, “Nothing grows in the desert—except faith!” This jail is a desert.

Jeremy, Chris, Michael, Aaron and at least fifteen more became discovery Bible study facilitators during those years. Most of them were in the “hardest” of the sixteen pods. Here many guys passed their days playing cards–gambling for soap, shampoo and other items inmates can buy from the commissary with money their loved ones put on their account. The sharks loved displaying their winnings as though they were gold medals. But a small group of men prized themselves in hearing from God and finding ways to obey what they heard.

The toughest times were learning that a loved one had died and not being able to go to the funeral. Missing your oldest son’s graduation. Hearing the judge’s ruling denying your motion for early release, or being told you could reapply for parole next year. The guys grew to realize others were watching at such moments wondering whether a Bible would be slammed in the trash can and God’s name blasphemed for not answering prayers.

Several of these men grew by leaps and bounds. Their growing faith often amazed me. But none of them were blessed more than I was. God gave me this place to walk out one of the oddest of the CPM Counter-Intuitives—“Expect the hardest places to yield the greatest results.” Guys in this jail took the truths I was sharing to heart because they discovered them for themselves and they were certainly in a hard place. Little did I know that their story would inspire others in Europe and Africa to begin making disciples in jails and prisons. God’s ways are not our ways.

It was bitter-sweet to notify the current chaplain that my regular Bible studies at the jail will end on April 22. I will never drive by 940 New Salem Highway without thinking about how much my faith grew there. God is good. He often takes us on the strangest paths to get us where he wants us to go!

Why Not Here?

Recently I was asked if I have a theory for why Church Planting Movements (CPMs) happen in some places and not in others. I do and I am sharing that answer below.

Simply put, the more “churched” people are, the more likely they are resistant to disciple making movements. We have always seen a strong correlation. CPM works in the highly resistant, radical Hindu and Muslim areas of northern India more than in the southern areas where Churches of Christ, Baptist, et al missionaries have operated for generations.

Our approach (what Western people grew up experiencing) is actually a highly contextualized gospel presentation/modeling that developed in response to the highly individualistic rationalistic-enlightenment of Western Europe and the U.S. But the very same reasons why it appealed to several generations of Americans are the same reasons why it is being rejected by post-enlightenment people in those same regions and why it bore little fruit in pre-enlightenment people groups in other parts of the world..

I know, you are glazing over. I understand. I do too, just reading back over it. While I am tempted to delete that last paragraph, I will leave it because it may connect with other things you have read. Let me use an analogy, though.

Near where I live there is a large farm that is surrounded by subdivisions on two sides and an industrial park on the other two sides. It is just a matter of time before that land is bought out and converted to one of these two uses. Until that happens, there is some high-tech farming going on there to raise cotton. They use herbicides to poison the ground cover in the spring and then use huge no-till equipment to plant the cotton in perfectly aligned rows. At the peak time they use some Star Wars-like apparatuses to apply more herbicides to the weeds growing between those rows and fertilizers on the cotton. Recently they have used specialized machinery to harvest that cotton and pack it in bales about the size of a tractor-trailer trailer.

All of that technology works here in Murfreesboro. Would it work in sub-Saharan Africa? Yes, but would it be practical? No.

Highly educated people like me have tried to take a highly contextualized gospel presentation/modeling method (comparable to the high-tech farming) to people groups who rejected it because it is so foreign. Yes, even if they know it will work for us here, they are quite sure it will not work for them there. Even if we use it there successfully, they will attribute that to us because we are different from them. They have seen lots of our stuff work only as long as we are there to prop it up with our money and our foreign ways.

But Jesus lived and discipled in a far different culture than our Western world. His life was lived with people with worldviews much more like those of sub-Saharan Africa and rural China than like ours.

CPM feels like a natural fit to people groups who still have a strong sense of multi-generational extended family. Such families feel like our Western evangelism is more closely akin to kidnapping and brainwashing (like we might view a cult). To reach them it is best to use a slower process that simultaneously exposes many of the family members to the worldview-shaping stories of Israel’s God and Jesus, the Father’s final answer to humanity’s problems. When such a process is facilitated by a family member, he/she intuitively raises issues as an insider, unlike we would because we are outsiders. Here the family comes to consensus.

Now here is the challenge for us, if I am correct. How much are the people there in your situation more like the Western worldview than the pre-enlightenment worldview? Maybe the region of the world where you live is in transition. Because of rapid urbanization and increased financial resources, mega-cities more nearly resemble the Western world from the outside. But are they?

Likely you’ve heard the old adage: “You can take the boy out of the country, but you cannot take the country out of the boy.” How does this apply? While they may be doggedly pursuing Western wealth, fashions and power, are they still rural people in their inner being? I do not know.

I firmly believe that the CPM critical elements will have to be applied differently in urban settings than in rural settings. They will have to be tailor-fitted for each people group.

Within one of the African nations where a friend worked extensively, there are multiple CPMs within the same geographic region. One is among people who grew up in an ancient church heritage (comparable to the Russian Orthodox). There is another for Muslim Background Believers. There is another for former Animists. The starting worldview for these three groups is radically different and attempting to address all in the same setting with the same strategies would preclude reaching any of them.

Okay, I anticipate you want me to ground all of this in Scripture—as you should. Think with me about why there are four gospels in our New Testaments.

Each is an accurate presentation of the good news of Jesus for four different people groups with four different worldviews. Matthew presents Jesus for the Jewish background believers. Mark presents Jesus for the Roman worldview. Luke presents Jesus for the Gentile background believer. And John presents Jesus for the Eastern worldview people who were conducting their trading excursions into the province of Asia.

The Jesus film has met with more success in Muslim African regions than in most of Asia. A young Cambodian church planter told a friend he knew why. “The Jesus Film uses the wrong gospel. If it used John’s gospel instead of Luke’s it would be more fruitful here,” he opined.

Now what do we do here in America? We chop up the four and then put the pieces together in chronological order and call it a Harmony of the Gospels. Our actions could be seen as presumptuous. It looks as though we believe God needs our help to get it right. I believe this is an example of our cultural imperialism.

Back to the opening question, again. Why haven’t any of the guys I worked with in jail become church planters planting churches that plant churches? I am attempting to do this in a highly churched area. Every guy in this jail (except possibly a couple of Laotians at one point) brings a mental image of “church” to every Discovery Bible Study. Some of their experiences help and some hurt. Much like a marriage counselor working with a couple, they bring their family of origin and their marriage experiences into every discussion of family—whether they realize it or not. You can deconstruct that (and sometimes you must) and/or you can try to quickly train them in healthy ways to deal with challenges rather than digging through their past dysfunctional coping skills.

I’ve tried the later. My fruit says I probably need to also do more of the former. I thought the brother who trained me was too confrontational on these matters and wanted to try a different approach. I think I have kept some people engaged in the conversation longer than he would, but he certainly has room to challenge whether or not that has produced the results I wanted. He stays overly busy with people who want to give something new a try so he does not worry about those who will have to chew on this for a long while. Because I have stayed with a congregation that I had already spent 13 years modeling very traditional approaches, I was forced to attempt different approaches.

I pray for the day when there are CPMs in middle Tennessee. I am currently training a group of six and then also a couple of individuals who have a passion for refugees and/or college students in this area. Recently I have heard that there are some exciting things happening among Hispanics and Latinos in California. I pray for the day when it happens among some of the 136 different people groups in the Nashville region.

DBS in Jail

Every other Friday I facilitate a discovery Bible study at the Rutherford County Jail, here in Murfreesboro, TN. There are usually about 20 guys who sit on the concrete floor with their backs against concrete walls wearing their bright orange or dull green jump suits (signifying they have not yet been sentenced or were found guilty of a felony and are awaiting the outcome of their appeals).

Today they had obviously been in the recreation room (a thirty foot concrete cube with a four-foot by twenty-foot window that can be opened to let in the only sun they ever see unless they are being transported to or from court) for a while. Their Bibles were open and it appeared that  one of them was sharing from a favorite passage.

I honestly had not selected a text prior to arriving, so I asked where they were reading. Psalm 52 was their text so I asked the inmate who told me the text to read it for all to hear. He read the nine verses from the NIV translation. I asked for one with a KJV to re-read it since these are the two translations the chaplain gives out most of the time.

I asked if any of these guys had a twelve-year-old son or daughter. Then I asked one of the men to re-tell the text in his own words as though he was explaining its meaning to his son or daughter. After he finished I asked the rest to fill in additional details that stood out to them.

Psalm 52 is an interesting text for twenty inmates to be reading. It says, “

Why do you boast of evil, you mighty man? Why do you boast all day long, you who are a disgrace in the eyes of God? Your tongue plots destruction; it is like a sharpened razor, you who practice deceit. You love evil rather than good, falsehood rather than speaking the truth. Selah

You love every harmful word, O you deceitful tongue! Surely God will bring you down to everlasting ruin: he will snatch you up and tear you from your tent; he will uproot you from the land of the living. Selah

The righteous will see and fear; they will laugh at him, saying, “Here now is the man who did not make God his stronghold but trusted in his great wealth and grew strong by destroying others!”

But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God; I trust in God’s unfailing love for ever and ever. I will praise you forever for what you have done; in your name I will hope, for your name is good. I will praise you in the presence of your saints.

Collectively they touched on every significant section of the psalm. The last one to commented about God’s mercy. After re-stating what he said about God, noting the NIV translates this as “God’s unfailing love” (52:8), I asked them, “What else do we learn about God from this Psalm?”

One noted that God will punish the wicked liar being mentioned here. Another pointed out that God blesses the godly.

Next I asked them, “What do we learn about humanity from this Psalm?” They said that some of us become arrogant and speak boastful things. They discussed the metaphor of the tongue being like a razor (52:2). I asked if they could have a straight razor and was quickly told, “Of course not! It would be used as a weapon and someone would be cut!” We pondered the ways we can use our speech to cut someone down.

Then I asked them what the meaning of the second metaphor of a man being “like an olive tree” signified. Since no one had a suggestion I noted that grain, wine and olive oil were three of the items that were exported from Israel. Then I asked, “What was olive oil used for?”

One noted it was used for anointing. I added that it was also used as cooking oil and as a fuel in lamps.

When I asked them again what the significance was for this word picture was, they responded differently. One said, “This is like Jesus talking about not putting a lamp under a bushel basket.” Another noted that good men are to be a blessing for the people around them. A third man said, “We have to disseminate good things to others.” (Not everyone in jail is uneducated!)

I used the last comment to ask them who they know in their pod or family who needs to hear the message of this Psalm. Several looked as though they were going through their mental list of associates.

Then I asked, “What do we need to do to obey this passage?” I could tell they were taking the text seriously.

One replied, “It troubles me to hear a guy talking all the time at Prayer Call and at church and then cursing every other breath back in the pod!” He went on to say that our walk and our talk needs to be the same.

I reminded them that the passage ends with a statement about praising God. Then I asked, “What has happened lately that you praise God for?”

Some praised God for what they were learning from incarceration. One praised him that he was arrested for a minor crime rather than the serious trouble he was headed toward. Another wanted to praise God for the patience he had been learning.

At that point one of the guards and a nurse were giving out daily medications to the inmates in one of the pods. Several of the guys had to step out of the exercise room, back into their pod. Most had returned and then there was loud angry shouting. The last two guys returned and the doors behind them were noisily slammed by the guard.

There was a moment of awkwardness because one of these guys was the one who suggested we look at Psalm 52. The other was the one praising God for learning patience. Non-verbal clues indicated these two are among those who talk better than they walk.

Imagine getting that deep into their world in less than one hour. Imagine how all of us felt stripped bare of our usual facades.

Our silence was interrupted by the same guard entering the adjoining pod, calling for anyone who needed meds. Oddly enough there were none, so he felt compelled to step into where we were to make sure they heard him. As he exited the walls shook as he slammed the two heavy steel doors.

“Why does the devil always have to mess up a good thing?” one of the two guys, who had been part of the earlier angry shouting match, asked. I let the question hang in the air.

One of the inmates said, “Sometimes we just have to turn the other cheek.” Another said, “I know I must be doing something right if Satan feels like he has to come after me.”

You have just witnessed what can happen when people open Scriptures and ask some basic questions. I entered that exercise room wanting to model a discovery process. I chose to go with the text one of them had already opened. I did this to demonstrate that the approach works with any section of the Bible.

There are some basic questions that can be answered from every text:

1. What do we learn about God here?
2. What do we learn about humanity?
3. Who do I know who needs to hear this?
4. What will obedience to this look like?

We modeled praising God for the good things he is doing in our lives. We modeled asking him for the things that we need (the one who had praised him for patience and then promptly lost it asked us to pray for him).

All I try to do with guys in jail is show them how to hear from God. All I try to do is model for them a study method they can use for the rest of their lives. All I want is for them to open themselves to hearing, trusting and obeying God’s will for their lives.

Will they change? Will they put this into practice? I do not know. I am responsible to plant the seed and/or water it. God gives the increase, depending on the soil. But I have no doubt they will never forget today’s study! The Holy Spirit was in control. I could not have planned what transpired. I got the joy of being an instrument in God’s hands. I was able to be a catalyst. I anticipate some good fruit will come from today. That’s my prayer!