BY GREG WEST
Are you sharing your story frequently? If not, ask the Lord to revive you, to awaken you to His Presence, power, grace and glory! If you want to or are sharing, here is a good framework to help: 1) My life apart from Christ 2) Coming to and encountering Christ 3) My life in Christ. Two mistakes we can make in sharing our faith are reducing faith to a formula and treating people as projects. Avoid these! Below is an example of a framework I use when meeting with someone I haven't seen in a very long time as well as some tips for having conversations with those who deny the existence of God.
Here is an example of a framework I use when meeting with someone I haven’t seen in a very long time. After catching up on some life events I ask:
Me: “Are you a person of faith?”
Them: “Yeah, I am, just trying to figure it out.”
Me: “Cool, I’d love to tell you my story if you’re up for it.”
Them: “Of course.”
I begin with my emptiness and my longing for something more, which made me a “Seeker.” I continue with my discovery of the Person of Jesus as revealed in the Gospels and hearing people share how God is active today.
“This shattered my previous image of God that I had – the lazy-boy-God. You see, I believed in God, but thought that God was a distant observer; a God who got things started, did some great things in biblical times, but is now in recline position watching what's going on here on planet earth. It’s hard to get excited about the lazy-boy-God. The more I read the Bible and sought God in prayer, the more I sensed a presence, an affirmation a drawing power that compelled me to seek more."
Here are some questions for someone who rejects the idea of God and may be an atheist. They likely don't want to be bothered by religion or a higher authority. Therefore, they deny the existence of God.
“Have you had any bad or negative experiences with the church or people of faith?”
This can be a whole conversation where if the answer is “Yes,” you can listen and empathize with them. I have on numerous occasions apologized for the “church” when a person shares a story of hurt, abuse or betrayal by the church.
“I am so sorry that this happened. Do you see that this person/these people were actually betraying Jesus by what they did/said?
The implication is Jesus remains faithful and true in spite of His followers.
When the person doesn’t seem to have negative experiences with the church and they are rejecting God on a more intellectual basis I ask:
Do you believe it’s more likely that everything came from nothing or that there is an intelligence behind all that is?
If the answer is “everything came from nothing,” i.e. atheism, here is a good follow up:
“So you think things like miracles in the Bible are not real, things like the virgin birth of Jesus and the resurrection of Jesus? Don’t you think it takes more faith to believe everything came from nothing in contrast to there seems to be a design and order to humanity and the universe, so there is likely a Designer and Orderer to all that is?"
Here’s one more:
“You say that you don’t believe there is a God. Do you deep down, hope that you are wrong?”
The answer to this question may give you an opportunity to ask them more personal questions or to share how your life changed as you came to know Jesus.
BY ASHLEY KLINE
You know the types of Christian books you see at the checkout of Hobby Lobby or in the book aisle at Target? The devotional and study resources written by popular preachers and lay scholars? l I tend to be skeptical of such works due to my presupposition of such resources as being filled with “quack theology” to use the words of my theology professor and renowned Wesley scholar Dr. Ken Collins. I tend to prejudge these books as being filled with ideas about God and Scripture that someone came up with while sitting on their couch attempting to string together encouraging words for the sake of sales, whether they be true or not. I’ve also silently accused the authors of such works as trying to play scholar, attempting to transmit intelligent ideas with good intent but with no proper training in theology or biblical scholarship to ground them in.
Ironically, I was given one such book as a gift recently, which I coincidentally enough saw at the checkout of Hobby Lobby. This work, “The Mothers and Daughters of the Bible Speak” by Shannon Bream, was a surprise as it appears to be rooted in sound theology and biblical scholarship, even making proper use of original languages. It reads a bit too much into the text for my taste, but that’s beside the point.
The book’s chapter on Ruth and Naomi struck me and brought up points about the text that I failed to recognize the significance of. The relationship between Ruth and Naomi demonstrates the importance of relationships to evangelism. Naomi and her family being in relationship with Ruth is what led Ruth to embark upon a relationship with YHWH. It was neither a priest nor synagogue leader that brought Ruth to faith, but an average, everyday family, attempting to make it through day to day by relocating to Moab following famine in Bethlehem. Ruth’s faith flourished as she went through life with Naomi, a seemingly insignificant woman going through the very human experience of grief as she witnessed her family gradually perish. As Bream says,
"So often when we think about evangelism, we assume we need to prepare a three-point presentation, quoting Bible verses and complex points of theology to convince someone to accept Christ. But evangelism isn’t always about a polished presentation or theological defense. Sometimes, it’s just about being with another person-spending time with him or her, building a relationship, living out our faith in front of the person, and talking about God in the natural conversations that arise."
By the time Ruth agrees to follow Naomi in Ruth 1:17, she had formed a connection with Israel’s God possibly equal to that of native Israelites. This is evidenced by Ruth using the proper, divine name of Israel’s God, YHWH, as opposed to the generic term for god, el/elohim. In the Psalms, it is common for the psalmist to use the term elohim to reference God in passages declaring distance or isolation from God (Psalm 22:1-2). When making proclamations of faith, steadfastness, praise, and worship, it is more common to see the psalmist refer to God as YHWH (Psalm 22:8,23,26-28).
When Ruth makes her oath to Naomi stating, “May the Lord punish me severely if anything but death separates you and me” (Ruth 1:17), she invokes the divine name of YHWH. We do not know whether she adopted legitimate faith simply through formal talks with her husband and other members of her new family. However, what Scripture does tell us is that Ruth spent her days sharing life with a family of those believing in the Judeo-Christian God. Somehow, by going through life with these believers, her relationship with the Lord surpassed worship of Him for the sake of her husband. Her connection was personal and extended beyond mere formalities associated with being married to a man who worshipped YHWH. This idea is consistent with the themes that permeate the entire book of Ruth. This book focuses upon self-sacrifice, faith and loyalty for their own sake rather than for the sake of adhering to social customs and coercion.
Ultimately, the book of Ruth shows us that it is not simply the job of religious leaders to shepherd and evangelize. Furthermore, we are not to reach out merely through formal proclamations or carefully crafted arguments. On the contrary, we are to evangelize by doing life with others and exemplifying the power of our faith through our actions and relationships. Let this be a lesson to us all!
BY GREG WEST
Isn’t it fascinating that when the Son of God came from heaven to earth, He did not start a mega-church? He chose the twelve disciples and had female disciples among them. They were a constant part of His ministry. When He commissioned the disciples He also commissioned you and I to: “Go and make disciples of all nations ...” He did not mention small groups, but he didn’t have to; it was implied. He spent three years with His disciples in a mobilized small group, all the while drawing in more disciples to His ministry. His method was apprenticeship within a small group.
As you know, I’ve spent many years working with churches to equip them for small group ministry. I’ve recently partnered with a group of people who are passionate about recovering the small group ministry modeled by John Wesley’s “Class Meeting.” This model isn’t a Bible study. Rather, it allows the Bible to study us! We aim to recover small groups that seek to live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ and obey God’s Word. In our groups, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we create an atmosphere of “grace and truth.” Most of the meeting time is dedicated to inviting each person to answer the question: “How is your walk with Christ?” After this, the leader either gives or prompts encouragement and guidance for each member.
In the original Class Meetings of the 1700s, non-Christians were welcome to join too. Often when we think about small groups in the church, we only think about discipleship, not evangelism. We need to also create groups that welcome seekers, doubters, the disillusioned and broken. As we welcome them into Christian community, the Holy Spirit will draw them to Christ through our love, our stories and struggles as the Spirit sovereignly works!
Our goal is to assemble 12 churches or ministries that want to have this small group training and coaching with the goal of establishing small groups that can be replicated. Our training will use Kevin Watson’s book, The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience. Our heart is to recover “a vital method of Jesus” by bringing people to life-saving faith in an environment where they can help one another to deepen their love and service to Christ. In this initial launch, we are seeking churches or ministries in the Hampton Roads and Peninsula areas.
BY ASHLEY KLINE
Last month I had the pleasure and honor of hosting Dr. Ellen Davis from Duke Divinity. I have long admired Dr. Davis’ scholarship and look up to her as one of the few females in biblical studies of broad renown. The time I spent with Dr. Davis was pleasurable, enlightening and, most importantly, convicting. I was excited to hear that Dr. Davis wanted to be picked up from the house of her good friend, Wendell Berry. For those who do not know, Wendell Berry is a Kentuckian author and activist, primarily focusing upon environmental sustainability. He also speaks out regarding issues impacting those in Appalachia as he advocates for reform in the coal mining industry. Anyone who is familiar with Berry’s work knows he enjoys a simple and sustainable lifestyle in the beautiful rolling hills of Kentucky. His life is based around living in the moment. Thus, he limits distractions by refusing to purchase a computer, not owning a television, and only having a landline telephone.
Despite knowing that Berry enjoys an off the grid style of living, when we went to pick up Dr. Davis my travel companion and I were shocked to see that the address for the Berry’s was not even on the map! We decided to simply put in the address to Port Royal, KY where he is based, and planned to call his wife Tanya once close. After several wrong turns, driving longer than we should have without signal and waiting for directions from Tanya, we finally made it to the Berry’s house an hour later than planned. In our frenzied state, we also tried to back down the driveway upon arrival once I remembered halfway into our ascent the instructions Tanya had given us for our own good: park at the bottom of the driveway. Their driveway was incredibly steep, causing us to veer off into a ditch while coming down. Not only did we get stuck, but also crashed into the Berry’s wooden fence! Luckily there was damage neither to the car nor the fence and Wendell was able to drive us out.
Sometime on the drive home I realized that despite how frustrating the Berry’s style of living appeared in the moment, there was something beautiful about it. As my friend and I struggled to find our way to the Berry’s and continuously lost signal, we were able to make some incredible memories we would not have gotten the chance to otherwise. This gave us space to commune with one another. Additionally, this gave us the chance to bond with Dr. Davis as we all shared many good laughs about the situation.
During her trip to Kentucky, Dr. Davis spoke in one of the seminary’s chapel services. The sermon she delivered hit a similar note regarding the beauty of a distraction free lifestyle. One of the major points of her sermon was that a distraction free lifestyle can positively impact our relationship with God. Reading Scripture is hard and making sense of it can and does take up a great deal of mental energy. Thus, “distraction is the bane of the Christian life” to use Dr. Davis’ own words. She stated that we should approach Scripture the way we approach a friend, or someone whose opinion we value. This means giving Scripture the respect it deserves by intentionally avoiding distractions, actively listening, and hopefully not putting words in its mouth or making assumptions about what it is going to say. Would you pick up your phone to text, check social media, or play a game while your friend was speaking, unless there was an emergency? If not, then we should not do so as we listen to God while searching the Scriptures.
Ultimately, these are words I felt very convicted by, particularly as an aspiring biblical scholar. When you intend to build your life around being in Scripture, it is easy to treat reading the Bible as merely a job as opposed to a conversation with God. Therefore, it is easy to let distraction seep in and continuously think, how much longer do I have until this assignment is done? However, being in Scripture is a conversation and God deserves the same respect given to anyone else.
One of my professors recently commented upon our tendency to unconsciously assume that the Israelite way of life is built upon the same foundations as our own. This is simply not so. So much of our modern culture is based around free time. In contrast, living in an agrarian society, the Israelites did not have the time for distractions to be an issue. More free time means more distractions. Even if the Israelites had access to phones, would they have the time or space to use them? Perhaps the lack of distractions enhanced the Israelites' relationship with God and their ability to hear his voice.
Dr. Davis concluded by saying that only way we can combat our propensity for distraction is to focus upon the call God has placed on our lives and strive towards whatever calling that may be.
How do we make sense of the great evil in this world? How do we not yield to despair in the face of such evil? I am, like you, a bit overwhelmed with the tragedies in our nation: the murders at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, the murders at the Taiwanese Church in California and the murders at Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, New York. The list goes on and on.
Our “world view” is a big deal. It is how we perceive reality. Everyone has a worldview, even children. Their world view may include the tooth fairy, but it is still a world view. The Christian, or Biblical, world view says that in the beginning the world was “very good.” There was a time on earth when evil did not have a foothold. Yet, evil entered and humanity fell for it. Satan, a fallen angel, rebelled against God leading humanity into temptation. Humanity rejected God by turning to their own ways. This resulted in separation from the good and holy God. Jesus said, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18). Jesus clearly believed in fallen angels and the demonic realm. Evil has a personality.
Of course, there are many skeptics who don't believe this perspective. I would challenge them to explain the source of evil in the world in a way that is coherent and comprehensive. It seems to me that the Christian world view makes more sense than any other world view that I've heard. The demonic realm is real and evil to its core. Evil also has found a foothold in humanity. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn articulates the Biblical worldview well in this statement, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts."
Why does God allow evil in the world? Great question! What does God want most from humans? LOVE! For love to be real it must be freely chosen. A robot cannot love! A puppet cannot love. God could eliminate all evil and suffering. However, this would cancel out our freedom and thus our ability to love. Human freedom is more important than the absence of evil. We do not need to despair in the face of evil. Jesus clearly demonstrated his power over the demonic and gives that power and authority to his followers. Jesus came to give us new hearts, to not only forgive our sin, but to break its power in us, so that we do not live for evil and sin, but for God and for good.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, our calling to make disciples, be peacemakers, reconcile the lost, bring healing and lift up Jesus are urgent. I encourage you each day to draw near to Christ, to be filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13), receive from him and be available throughout your day to be his ambassadors wherever you are. You are called! You are part of God's solution as His Kingdom overcomes the wickedness of this fallen world. Ultimately, the Word declares that the demonic realm will be judged and cast away forever (Revelation 20:10). Then good news follows:
"And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.'” Revelation 21:3-4.
Praying . . . Thy Kingdom come,
BY ASHLEY KLINE
Doubt in God’s existence, and therefore God’s presence, is a common struggle experienced by believers and non-believers alike. Recently, I realized a truth I once refused to confess: I too had doubt.
Since coming to faith, I have constantly struggled to see God’s presence due to doubts regarding His existence. Were the selfless acts of those who surrounded me in the body of Christ really a reflection of God’s presence within them, or was I seeing no more than the influence of faith in God? Were these acts simply a result of mind over matter? When looking at early church martyrs, is it possible that their faith in God alone equipped them to choose death as opposed to the pres- ence of God himself? Having a psychology degree, I believed in the infinite power and capacity of the human mind. How- ever, I did not fully believe in the presence of God. This pre- vented me from being able to recognize so many examples of God’s existence and presence.
A few weeks ago over lunch, a good friend of mine spoke a beautiful word into this doubt: our God is beyond human con- ception and understanding. If our God is unable to be con- ceived, how is it we can have faith in Him in the first place? When looking at other religions, it becomes clear that what we see are gods crafted by human hands.
For example, it is typical for other gods to have origin sto- ries. In Hinduism, some state that the creator god, Brahma, one of the main gods along with Vishnu and Shiva, was born from an egg. Others have him originating from Vishnu’s naval. In either case, there is an explanation of where he came from. In contrast, our God is said to be eternal, having neither beginning nor end. The origins of the Judeo-Christian God are un- known and unexplained, going against our human inclination to have as thorough answers as possible regarding our origins (Psalm 90:2 – “From everlasting to everlasting you are God”).
Additionally, many gods from other religions possess very human characteristics. When assessing many indigenous reli- gions, those practiced by smaller native communities, we tend to see trickster gods. Tricksters are those characterized by deception and fraudulence, both very human.
On the other hand, the trinitarian Judeo-Christian God pos- sesses characteristics counter to our human inclinations. Therefore, such characteristics would be difficult for the hu- man mind to construe. For example, consider how our God abolishes the principle of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” and moves us from this principle to the completely counterintuitive “Love your enemies!”
Ultimately, I hope this brief blog post can help you through any personal doubts, or at least equip you to help those in your life experiencing doubt. Doubt need not equal the abolishment of faith but is oftentimes a critical part of the faith journey. There is little doubt that doubt is widely experienced and therefore should be more widely discussed in the church (Mark 9:24 - “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief”).
For a long time, the United Methodist Church has remained united in form, though not in practice. In recent times, we have watched as the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church, and the Lutheran Church split. However, there was hope the UMC could avoid such a split. The General Conference (GC) is the international gathering of delegates from the UMC which meets every 4 years to guide the church and legislate changes. Approximately 850 delegates are elected from every Conference around the world. There has been a long-standing division in the UMC regarding the authority and interpretation of Scripture, the practice of homosexuality being the main issue presenting the divide. At every GC since 1972, this topic has come up and each time the church has affirmed the clarity of Scripture. The UMC’s Book of Discipline, which contains, among other things, our doctrine and principles of organization, reads: “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Therefore, United Methodist pastors are prohibited from officiating at same sex weddings and those practicing homosexuality are prohibited from serving as pastors.
As some may recall, there was a special called GC in 2019 to deal with the divisions based upon issues of human sexuality. The prohibitions against the practice of homosexuality were upheld. Those taking a progressive point of view, who are pushing for full affirmation of homosexual practice, see the issue at hand as one of justice. Those taking a traditionalist viewpoint, see the issue at hand primarily as one of Scriptural authority, considering homosexual practice as a rejection of God’s Word. Thus, we have an impasse. It became clear the divide was not going away. The direction of culture was made equally clear. In 2016, a group of United Methodists who had a high regard for Scriptural authority gathered and formed the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA). They agreed that if the UMC did not uphold the clear teachings of Scripture, they would start a new denomination.
In summer 2019, Kenneth Feinburg, a world renowned mediator, met with a group of theologically diverse United Methodists to see if a solution to the long division could be found. They came up with the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation. Amazingly, traditionalists, centrists and progressives agreed on this being the best way that the UMC move forward. Yes, it was a split, but a peaceful one. It was a way to end the decades long division that consumed far too much time, energy and resources that could be used to fulfill Jesus’ Great Commission! Things looked hopeful.
Then, the pandemic hit and General Conference 2020 was postponed until 2021. Some progressives felt they could not wait. Therefore, they split and formed the Liberation Methodist Connexion. The GC 2021 was postponed until 2022. In March of this year the announcement was made: General Conference further postponed to 2024. On that same day, the Wesleyan Covenant Association announced that the Global Methodist Church, a new denomination, would launch May 1, 2022. A short time after these announcements, a pastor who served on the Commission on General Conference wrote an open letter to the church stating that the decision to postpone GC for the third time was done without integrity and was part of a strategy to prevent the UMC from splitting. You can read his letter here: Why I Resigned from the Commission on General Conference
So, it appears that the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation’s promise is on life support. Now, churches across the nation are making plans to separate from the UMC. Rather than one clear plan for separation accompanied by reconciliation and grace, a splintering is occurring. From my vantage point the whole thing is sad. Rev. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, has a sermon entitled On Schism. In this sermon, he states that splits in the church are always grievous, yet sometimes necessary.
We have a shared covenant as a church, the Book of Discipline (BOD). For decades leaders in our church, including bishops, have openly rejected it and taught others to ignore certain parts of it. We have whole jurisdictions of our church that have voted to reject and ignore parts of the BOD pertaining to human sexuality. However, Bishop Sharma Lewis, our current Bishop in the Virginia Conference has held to the covenant, upholding the BOD.
I grieve that when the historical questions of Rev. John Wesley are asked to those about to be ordained, many are not answering truthfully. “Do you know our doctrines and discipline?” – “Yes.” “Are you in agreement with them?” –*fingers crossed* . . . “Yes”. When I shared this with a friend who serves the UMC in Connecticut, he said in his Conference, they answer that second question with, “No,” and they ordain them anyway. We are already split and have been for a long time. The crucial question is can we formalize the split in a peaceful way. I pray the answer to that question is, “Yes.” I humbly ask you to pray for the UMC.
Before I became a Christian my mom would talk to me about Jesus and the ways of God. However, I was stubborn! I countered her sharing with objection and nonsense because of my pride and sinfulness. My mom came up with a good strategy for whenever this happened. She’d ask, “Can I pray for you?” I answered, “Okay,” often rolling my eyes. The truth was that I liked it when she prayed for me but didn’t want her to know that! My mom would pray the Scriptures over me, and my spirit was confronted with God's truth and love. Prayer after prayer, my resistance melted away. There was a power in prayer that I could not deny, and I kept opening up.
We Christens often take it for granted that we have numerous people around us that will, and regularly do, pray for us. There are people you know who haven’t had someone lift them up to the Lord with love and concern. Recently, I met with someone outdoors at a restaurant. We had a great conversation about Jesus and His ways. Before we left, we prayed for each other. Then, as we were leaving, a woman sitting nearby said to us, “That was wonderful. I don’t think I’ve ever seen two men pray like that.” This began a great conversation about prayer and gave us an opportunity to share Christ with her. She was somewhat receptive and open to us praying for her and receiving some information on a nearby church.
I had another great experience with a pastor friend recently. We were eating at a restaurant and after the waitress took our orders, he looked at her and said, “We’re going to be praying before the meal, is there anything you could use prayer for?” She teared up and shared some difficulties she was going through. Then she said, “I was thinking about not coming in today, but now I’m really glad I came.” It is very simple and yet so powerful both in witness and in terms of our Father in heaven hearing us and answering our prayers. Let’s be bold in our prayers and reach out to people who don’t know that Jesus’ arms are open towards them!
Isaiah's prophecy that the Messiah would be born of a virgin. This was written more than 700 years
before Jesus's birth.
Isaiah's prophecy that the Christ will reign forever on David's throne.
Hosea's prophecy that the Messiah would be in Egypt was written more than 750 years before Jesus's birth.
Micah's prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem was written more than 700 years before Jesus's; birth.
Elva McAllister wrote a powerful and insightful Christmas poem called “On Fragrant Hay.” In it, she shines light on our attempts to sanitize that first Christmas in our art re-creations of the scene. In doing so, we distort reality and minimize the breathtaking humility and awesome grace of God as He willingly comes into our messy, fallen world.
"'Sweet infant,' trills the smiling choir. 'He sleeps on fragrant hay.' And Christmas card Madonnas smirk all thoughts of pain away. How was it really when He came? Did Mary moan and scream and grind her teeth and retch (Poor wretch) before His star could gleam its gleam above that inn yard barn? He slept on fragrant hay? Perhaps. But sheep and cows were not made then of plastic, nor of Styrofoam and paint. Half-rotten straws and stinking wet manure were surely winter odors Joseph smelled, not sweet new hay, nor clover blossoms. No dainty crèche had been prepared and kept detached from stench of urine-mingled mud where ox feet stood, where ox teeth chewed or dribbled fodder. God did not come to antiseptic scented neatness, but to a winter barnyard’s muck and filth. God always comes; to things as they are and not to wished-for rearrangements of the facts.”
Let’s welcome Jesus anew into our messy lives and let Him bring His order, His cleansing and His Life into ours! Also, during this time of year people are more open to talking about the meaning of life and about Christ. Jesus will lead us, if we are willing to follow.