We’ve seen out of scripture that God has not given up on those people. We’ve also seen that Christ modeled the stance for us – that we should take – when He told us that He came to seek and to save those who were lost. So, if we’re going to follow His example, then we need to do that, too. So, today we’re looking at various ways – and through this series as well as today – various ways that we can seek those who’ve gone away from God. We’re using a template – an overlay – a way to think about what’s happened and what needs to happen in the future.
Our primary premise is that people leave because they’re discouraged . And we’re using that word in the Ablerian sense, in that to be dis couraged – the literal meaning of the word – is to take away courage . So far, we’ve seen that there are four systems in the human brain that have been discovered that respond to encouragement. We’re talking about how to engage these four natural encourage points in the brain. Last time we talked about the first one, which was belonging. We all want to belong to our family – to our church. And when we feel like we belong, we’re encouraged to participate in it.
A secondary premise is that – we also saw this previously – relationships with those who have left are the bridge over which we can build a sense of belonging to them. Faith is transmitted via relationships.
It’s interesting. I was on the plane yesterday, coming back from Thanksgiving, and my wife, who was sitting across the aisle from me, handed me a Sports Illustrated magazine that she found, I guess, in the seat back. Right? It had a big cover on the front of the Duke basketball team, which is supposed to – according to the sportswriters at Sports Illustrated – go undefeated this year. They were talking about something new that’s been added to that team. Coach Krzyzewski has required the freshman to park their cars. They can’t drive their cars their freshman year. The point of that is – they all, by the way, stay way out on the edge of the campus in the dormitory way out away from things – the upper-classmen on the basketball team are supposed to go out and bring them back and forth. Every upper-classman is assigned a freshman to mentor. The point guards work with the point guards, the centers work with the centers and so on. The point that they made about this is, that the freshman class at Duke is one of the most highly competent groups of freshmen that any university has ever seen. They were attributing that to the relationship that has developed between the upper-classmen and the freshmen. They have very high skills.
So today we’re going to look at that second system of encouragement which is competence . When people have a way to contribute to their family, or to their church, or to their basketball team, they are encouraged. One important way to contribute is through the use of personal skills or competencies. The Duke freshmen, certainly, would be a good example of how that works. They’ve been taught the ins and outs of the game by those that already know it, and they’re starting to feel like they really can contribute to the basketball team. So, when they come in, they’re not as nervous and they know what to do.
So, the question for us is, “What part can we play in God’s effort to stimulate spiritual competencies in those who have left?” It might sound like a very difficult thing to do. And it’s something to think about, for sure. But if we’re going to help people come back, we’ve got to start thinking about these difficult issues.
In the second presentation of this series, we discussed the failure and frustration that many young people feel when they think about church. Many of them feel uncomfortable explaining their beliefs. And many of them never found a place in their congregations. No one ever taught them the skills necessary to fit in. They saw, when they came to church, a group of people who appeared to enjoy church, and who saw a need to go to church, and yet somehow they didn’t seem to get anything out of it. They couldn’t figure out why people thought it was so important to go. So they felt left out – like they were missing something – no way to contribute, because they realized they were missing something that other people seemed to be getting. Consequently, a lot of them have left, looking for something that they couldn’t find with us – something to fulfill their spiritual needs.
So, if we can, somehow, encourage those who left to use their talents, it can make a huge difference for them. Now that might sound far-fetched to you, but if you’ll just think with me for a minute. Have you ever seen someone, who is not a member of your congregation participate at some project because they thought it was worthwhile?
A few years ago I volunteered our teens to prepare food for the Children’s Grief Center in New Mexico. And the lady who offered to help was a Girl Scout leader as well as a member of our congregation. She approached all the girls in her troop and offered them a chance to help with that project, and they all volunteered to help, because they saw it as something that was helpful to other people. Have you ever seen something like that?
I can remember a number of youth group fundraisers, such as firewood parties, where people who never attended services showed up to help because it was for the kids. All people – if it hasn’t been extinguished in them, or atrophied from lack of use – have a desire to participate and to help other people. The ones who know how to run a chain saw tend to show up for the wood-cutting parties. The ones who know how to cook tend to show up for food service. That’s because people like to use their skills, or their resources, or their competencies to help others. So that’s kind of where we’re going to go with this today.
All of us, when we’re able to use what we’re good at want to help other people. It makes us feel good. If we have a great singing voice, and we can use that to inspire others at church, it makes us feel worthwhile. But many of those who have left us never experienced that feeling at church. And that’s one of the reasons why they left. So helping them experience that feeling with us can help them to come back.
Now, we’ve said that these four components of encouragement are systems that are built into the organization of the brain. We know that God designed the brain. We consider the Bible our handbook for living. So surely, if these structures are built into us, as this new brain research is showing us, God would also use them to motivate us, wouldn’t He? There would be evidence of it and instruction about these structures in the Bible.
In our last presentation on belonging, we saw the Apostle Paul telling the Thessalonians that he loved them – that he cared for them gently, as a nursing mother cherishes her children. So that becomes our model for our efforts to reestablish relationships with the disaffected. And his approach goes right to the first of these structures of encouragement, which is belonging. That’s what he’s doing when he appeals to the Thessalonians, who’ve been disaffected. He tells them how much he loves them – seems to him as though they belong to him as a father.
But what about this tendency to be encouraged when we have tools to make a contribution? Turn with me to I Peter 4, and verse 10. Very interesting scripture as related to the topic we’re talking about.
I Pt. 4:10 – As each one has received the gift, minister it to one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. See, God has designed us so that the use of our competencies encourages us to participate and feel a part of whatever it is that we’re using our competencies in. Then He gives us a spiritual gift – a talent – so that we have something to contribute to the church. And that will help us to feel a part of it. Isn’t that interesting how that works? So these four areas of encouragement that are built into the brain…we’ve already read scriptures that point to the fact that God stimulates two of those already. He’s given us a way to belong and He’s given us a gift – a talent – so that we can contribute and use our spiritual competency to help feel a part of things.
Now, as you’re sitting listening to this sermon, do you know what your gift is? If you don’t, perhaps that lack of awareness is at the root of your own spiritual malaise and discouragement. Perhaps you’re discouraged about your place in Christ’s body. My belief is, that until we all learn what our gift is, it’s really hard for us to get excited about helping other people find theirs. All the people that have left the church have been given a spiritual gift that they could have used to contribute to the church and feel a part of it, but for some reason they never got to do that. That’s a sad thing, isn’t it? I think a lot of that is because we have never really focused on it before.
Let’s look in I Corinthians 12, and verse 7.
I Cor. 12:7 – But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all . So there it is – that manifestation of the Spirit, which is that gift, is given to each one – nobody gets left out – for the profit of all. There’s a way something is given to each one of us so that we can help everybody else. For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the same Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills. For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. So God gives us different gifts so that we can help take care of other people in the church.
The need to take care of other people is also a fundamental human drive. And yet, that’s something that we’ve never focused on in the churches of God. We focused on being doctrinally correct. We focused on having the chairs all lined up in straight rows. We focused on being in control, on being ordained – looking up to people who are ordained, and the ordained people looking down on on the people who aren’t. And we focused on structure and hierarchy and all those sorts of things, but we have not focused on taking care of each other. And yet God has given us gifts for the specific purpose of doing that. He also provided each one of us a gift – via the Holy Spirit – so that we can – each of us – contribute to the group. He’s given us a spiritual competency – each one given an area of spiritual competency. It’s just so interesting to me that we’re now learning that one of the four areas of encouragement built into the brain is competence. So God gives us each a way to experience competence and to have courage added to us to participate – to be encouraged. He gives us something to contribute.
When people are first introduced to this idea of spiritual gifts, there’s usually a lot of confusion about what their gift might be. Some look at the list of gifts in the Bible and see that they are not good speakers, or naturally gifted teachers, or we haven’t spoken in tongues in the last week or two, or done any miracles, or things like that. So some conclude that they got left out. But they forgot to look at the other gifts that are mentioned in the Bible. For example, we’ll just take one of them – the gift of helping – you know, that willingness to help people. That’s listed as a spiritual gift.
For my part, the issue really is to put people to work doing what they like to do and what others like them to do. You know, I like to sing in the car when I’m by myself. It’s lots of fun. But I’ve noticed that others don’t like to be with me when I do that. So I’ve concluded that I’m not gifted with a good singing voice. It sounds fine to me , but the acid test is whether it sounds good to other people. Some people want to give sermons, but others don’t want them to – aren’t as excited about them giving a sermon as they might be themselves. Well, that would be a clue that they are not gifted in that area. So the key is to put people to work doing what they want to do and what others want them to do.
If you show up with your chain saw at a work party, everybody wants you to be there! That’s a sure-fire winner. You just can’t lose on that one. But the gift there – there’s no spiritual gift of wood cutting – it’s the ability, or the desire, to help and to make a contribution that is the spiritual gift.
So it’s very important to help our children and our teenagers and our young adults figure out what they’re good at early on and get them involved in doing those things, because that encourages them spiritually and because God gave them the gift to help the church. If somebody’s not using their gift, that weakens the congregation. The congregation is weakened and the person who doesn’t get to use their gift, well, they’re not encouraged because they’re missing out on a feeling of belonging and contribution.
Let’s think about how we might apply this principle in the real world. It’s fun to think about encouraging those who don’t attend to use their talents to help the church, but if they’re not attending, how do you do that? How do you get them involved in that? Well, let’s think about keeping the ones we have first. We need to begin thinking about how to put them all to work so they can contribute and feel a part.
I recently went to Northern Arizona for services, and after services we had a potluck and what proved to be a pretty long Q & A. Then after that, as it was starting to get dark, it was time to clean up. And I noticed that all the young people there just jumped right in and began working side-by-side with the adults to clean up the food, straighten up the chairs and pick up the place. I noticed, too, that there was a thirteen-year-old who sang special music that day. And so all of these young people obviously felt like they belonged and they all found a way to take part. They weren’t the ones giving the sermons, but I think some of them probably helped prepare the food at home and all of them helped clean up afterwards. So they had that gift of willingness to help out. You could tell that they felt like they belonged to the group. They were very attentive as I was talking about the issue of what the church needs to do to help them. They very much felt a part of it. It was very obvious.
But if people are not with us, how does that apply? How do we help them? How does it apply to people who have left us? It doesn’t if we haven’t done the first principle – the one we talked about last time. If we have some kind of relationship with them – some kind of connection – then there is a possibility that we can engage them in some sort of work for the church. And why would that be attractive to them? We might think, “Well, they’ve left, so they don’t want to have anything to do with us.” Well, it would be attractive to them because all people want to make a difference. They want to make a contribution. So we might say, “Hey, we’re having some friends over for a potluck. Would you like to come?” Or, “I remember that lasagna you made a few years ago. Could you bring that?” I was talking to someone on the phone just the other day – a young person – and she told me that she was making lasagna. And I said, “Well, when you come visit us will you make that for us?” And of course, the answer was, “Yes, we want to do that.” We might say, “We’re having a music night at my house and I thought of you because I know you like to play the piano. We really need somebody to do that. Would you be interested in helping us?” We’re not inviting them to church. We’re inviting them into relational settings where they can participate with us in something that’s what they are good at. “A group of us are going to play canasta at the nursing home tomorrow. I know you like older people and wondered if you would like to go with us.” “Our congregation is sponsoring a canned food drive for the homeless. Could you drive your pickup for us?” Of course, the people that have pickups always get asked to do all that stuff, don’t they? “We’re trying to set up a website for our congregation. Can you help us do that?” “Our congregation is wanting to advertise in the paper, but we need an artist to lay out some material. Would you be interested in helping us with that?” “I was thinking of starting a mom’s group on Wednesday mornings, and I know you’ve read a lot about infant attachment and wondered if you could come. We’d like to learn more about it.”
Things like that. There’s all kinds of ways to include people in – things that are semi-related to church that might use the expertise that they have.
In our last presentation – the third one of this series – we talked about home fellowships – another opportunity to let people participate in a meaningful way. Just being at a home fellowship gives us the feeling of contributing because everyone can talk. So it’s okay to invite people to attend with you. It’s not church services where they have to sit straight up and wear a tie and a suit and listen to somebody talk about something they’re not interested in. It’s a chance where we talk about what the people at the table are interested in doing.
So these are just a few examples. Each person, each group would have different opportunities to invite those who have left to join in and to use their talents. Very important to think about those things. Of course, we can’t always find a way to engage people. We can’t always think of a way. But if we are all mindful of it, if we know that people long to make a contribution – to make a difference – and if we’re thinking about opportunities – looking for things that we might do – I believe God is going to provide opportunities for us. Maybe He won’t provide one for each one of us, but if we’re all thinking about it, He really only needs to stimulate one of us in a group before someone is invited into that group. Right? So, we all need to be mindful of it so that God can work in us. We need to keep our minds open to what He might want to do. And who knows? Maybe we can strengthen a relationship and draw someone closer to coming back to God again. You just never know what’s going to happen.
So it’s hard to talk about Plan A – step A and then B and then C – when we talk about things like this because it’s mostly about knowing what should be done and keeping our mind open to the possibilities – or the opportunities – as He presents them to us.
Now at this point what I’m going to mention next doesn’t really fit in exactly with the topic today, but I want to mention it to you here because we’re talking about a way to draw people back into a connection with other church people. Many of those who have left remember church as a judgmental, cold, critical place where people argued over doctrine, and wrestled over control, and where people were obsessed with form, while they ignored spiritual substance – or perhaps thought form was spirituality. So they have a negative impression of how the church was when they were younger. If we work to make our congregations healthy places, where people focus on taking care of each other, then they will be pleasantly surprised when they finally come.
If they come, and it’s the same old, same old, they’re going to leave assured that they made the right choice a long time ago. So we have to make sure that our groups are different – better, warmer, more peaceful, more loving – where people are closer. They know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, problems, and where they pray for one another, where they’re more aligned with Godly values than in the past. If we work to make our group like that, people who come and haven’t been for a long time, will notice the difference. And it will be a good difference to them. Guy Swenson and I do a conference on evangelism from time to time. And it’s all based on the idea that healthy congregations attract people. That’s so , so true.
I was talking to some young adults recently who had started a home fellowship. They mentioned that it was tough going because there were some that they had invited who always wanted to push their own doctrinal agendas. The host of the Bible study was telling me that no matter what topic they were discussing, he always manages to direct the discussion to his area – you know, where he wants to change our minds. So, when that happens to you, you have somebody there who is spiritually immature – who thinks that he has to force his ideas on other people, who values his opinion more than he values peace and relationships in the group.
Let’s go to II Timothy 2:23. We’re told what to do when these things come to us. It says:
II Tim. 2:23 – But avoid foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they generate strife. So, I guess what Paul is saying here is, that disputes are foolish and ignorant, because they generate strife. So anybody that would engage people in a dispute at church about something is foolish and ignorant, because they value what they want to argue about more than they value peace.
Titus 3:9 – It says, But avoid foolish disputes, genealogies, contentions and strivings about the law, for they are unprofitable and useless.
So how would someone avoid an argument with the person that I just mentioned? Well, my read on it is, that “birds of a feather need to flock together.” It’s good to meet with people who don’t have doctrinal axes to grind, unless you are one of those. And then you should meet with other people who want to argue doctrine with you. Meet with people who focus on peace and about caring for one another. And those who want to press doctrinal issues should go with people who want to talk about that. Then we’ll probably have more peace in our midst.
I think we all have slightly different beliefs at the least, so why don’t we just consider that God taught us what He wanted us to know and be secretly pleased with that. And let other people be pleased with what they know so we can get about the business of loving each other in spite of our differences. I mean, Paul did say that love is the most important gift, didn’t he? So why don’t we make it the most important gift?
I was talking to a young woman recently who’d stopped attending services. There was an altercation at services, where someone disrupted things at church. And this young woman liked all the people involved. She liked the person that was doing the disrupting and she liked the people that the woman was attacking verbally. And so it was very difficult for her to be there, because she cared about both of them. It was very hurtful to her. So she decided not to go back because she’d been wounded spiritually and it was such an ugly scene. Do you remember the millstone scripture? Yes, that one where Jesus said we should put one around our neck and jump in the sea if we cause that kind of hurt to young people. Someone may be wearing one over that incident sometime in the future. Many have left us over things like that in the past – church politics, power struggles, doctrinal division, personal feuds, pig-headed resistance to what the other people in the group want to do or believe. Better to get ourselves aligned with what God says is important so that when we do succeed in drawing people back to the church, it’s different than they remember it – a place of peace and filled with care and love.
It’s so important that everyone in a group or congregation be committed to peace and caring for others so that the group can be stable and peaceful. New people and children need stability and peace.
When I first came into the church and I encountered that scripture about the millstone in Bible class, the instructor in the class told us that this scripture about the millstone not only applied to children, but it applied to new people. And that if we offend someone who’s new, we might as well take a millstone and hang it around our neck as well. And that’s because children and new people need the same thing. They need stability and peace. Many of those who’ve left have been wounded by church upheavals and they especially need to come back into a caring environment. And that only happens when the people in the group are committed to it above political considerations.
So today we’ve talked about the need to help people find and use their spiritual gifts and the encouragement that it provides. We provided a few specific examples of the kind of things that we can do. But I hope that you won’t limit yourself to thinking just about the examples I have given. One size does not fit all. Each group has its own way of doing things. And each person looks at things a little differently. So there may be as many different ways to do this as there are people in our group. It’s all about serving and taking care of people and meeting their spiritual needs. It’s about thinking about people who are no longer with us and consciously trying to build a relationship with them, even if it’s just casual or social, all the while thinking about what that person might need spiritually.
So if you’re moved to become mindful of those who’ve left, ask God to stimulate your creativity. Think about how you can apply the principle in your spiritual environment. Next time we’ll examine the third system of encouragement, which is autonomy , and consider how we might activate that system of encouragement to spiritually stimulate those who have left us.