All posts from "September 2012"September 27, 2012
Cultivating and wielding female strength
Not long ago, when I was pregnant with my now-infant son, I must admit that it came as quite a shock to me when I found out I was having a boy. I was sure that I was having a girl. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind. And because I was so certain of my child’s gender, I had already begun to think about how to raise a faithful Christian woman.
As I thought about my future with a daughter, there was one fear that weighed heavily on my heart, as well as my husband’s. In fact, it weighed so heavily on my husband that he secretly wanted to have a boy!
Although it is probably sheer coincidence, my husband and I both had negative experiences with “bossy older sisters.” Within our own families and others, we observed a recurring family hierarchy in which the first child, a daughter, reigned over her siblings like a queen. And to be perfectly honest, I was that sister. I have one sibling—a younger brother—and for reasons I cannot explain to you now, I was bossy. Really bossy. In fact, I think my 30-year-old brother still has flashbacks whenever I raise my voice too loud.
Again, our experiences could be pure coincidence. I am quite sure that not every older sister is a nightmare. I am certain that many female first children are magnificent and caring and responsible and good. But the pattern in our own lives led me to wonder if there was anything behind the trend. As a mother, how could I prevent my daughter from becoming a bossy little girl?
As I mulled over this question, I formulated a hypothesis, and I would be interested to hear your own thoughts on it. So here goes:
When I was growing up, adults were very intentional about teaching boys to harness their strength. This emphasis manifested itself in many different ways, but it was especially apparent in the commandment that under no circumstances should a boy ever, ever hit a girl.
I am grateful that adults took the time to convey this message to boys. It’s an important one. But the funny thing is that adults spent less time teaching girls how to harness their strength. Perhaps this is because girls are, in general, smaller and less physically threatening, but that is not the only way to measure strength. Girls and women are very strong, and one of the ways females exercise their strength is through verbal communication—the abuse of which is sometimes bossiness.
That said, I can’t help but wonder if these different approaches to raising boys and girls are the reason some girls misuse their power. If girls are not taught that they can hurt people with their strength in the same way boys can, they are probably more likely to abuse their power. And sometimes they do.
Moving beyond my “hypothesis,” we see plenty of examples of female power in Scripture. The Bible provides us with countless examples of both the good uses and horrible abuses of female strength: Rebekah cunningly manipulated her sons and deceived her husband to acquire Jacob’s blessing; Esther courageously used her influence to save the Jewish people; Delilah exploited her marriage to bring about the downfall of Samson and his people; and Joanna, manager of Herod’s household, financially supported Jesus and the disciples.
Although journalists like Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn have shed light on the powerlessness of many women throughout the world, and we must continue to advocate for those women loudly, it is also worth remembering that women are strong. God has granted us unique strengths that we can use either to build up God’s Kingdom or in selfish rebellion.
Whether or not my hypothesis about little girls is true, women undoubtedly have strengths that need to be cultivated correctly. The more common conversation among women in the church concerns hardship and overcoming struggle, but that narrative needs to be supplemented. In addition to helping women overcome, the church should also help women identify their gifts and their strengths. If we fail to do this, the strengths of Christian women are not only likely to go unused, but might even be misused.
Sharon Hodde Miller is a blogger, freelance writer, and PhD candidate who lives in the Chicago area. You can find her at her blog, She Worships.
I repeated Hezekiah’s mistakes—and learned the same lessons
How does one start with passion to serve Jesus, fearless, strong, and ready to take on large challenges, and have a heart of pride growing inside? It’s easier than you think. In Part 1 of this article, I mentioned two triggers to watch for, which encouraged the growth of pride in my personal life and ministry and can lead to the downfall of a leader. My struggles were similar to what I noticed in the life of Hezekiah, King of Judah mentioned in 2 Chronicles 32 and Isaiah 38-39. The final two triggers to watch for are outlined in this second part of the article.
Trigger 3: Good Intentions
I had a disconnect between my intentions and my actions. We tend to judge others by their actions rather than intentions, while we judge our own actions by our intentions. This is particularly dangerous to the life of a leader if she can’t distinguish between what she intended to do and what she actually ended up doing. I was one who couldn’t distinguish the difference.
My intentions were to serve God with a pure heart and love people, but my actions were fed by underlying pride and approval addiction, producing artificial results. Yes, I could produce numbers that looked good from a church-growth perspective, but the quality of my heart was neglected as I looked to further ambitious outcomes rather than cultivate a well-balanced spiritual diet of introspection and authenticity.
Hezekiah also seemed to display a disconnect between intention and action. On one hand we see a courageous leader, fully trusting in God’s provision and defense (2 Chronicles 32:6-8), doing what was right in God’s eyes, taking care of the poor in his nation, tearing down the high places, and calling his people not to be unfaithful or stubborn toward God, but to yield to God (2 Chronicles 31). Yet on the other hand, we see Hezekiah giving God no credit for the provision he bestowed because of a prideful heart (2 Chronicles 32:25). He humbled himself only to stop God’s wrath from coming in his lifetime.
Leaders need to be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking just because we’ve said it (or read it), we’re living it. What is taught out of our mouths isn’t necessarily done through our actions. We have to be just as intentional, if not more, about how we apply what we are teaching so we don’t sink into this deception. This disconnect only leads to justification of actions that “don’t apply” to us. We can easily trick ourselves into thinking whatever we’d like to give grounds for why we are the exception. It’s important to be brave, look inside, and allow God to take a true inventory of what’s going on and make adjustments. The life of our leadership and those we lead depend on it.
Trigger 4: Myopia
I was consumed with thinking about success in the moment, not about leaving something valuable to the upcoming generation. The irony of this is that I was in children’s and youth ministry and preaching about raising up the next generation of leaders! This was easy to preach from a pulpit, but my daily actions and allowing pride to remain in my heart turned my leadership into something selfish. I want you to know that this is something I have been able to see only in looking back. In the moment I was full of fervor and most of my actions were done out of a heart that wanted to do my best for God and those I served. I wanted transformation in my church, community, and city. But I had underestimated the value of the little things: the little choices that built up over time, creating a bigger message that wasn’t focused on leaving a legacy but covered with excuses about my negligence in the little things.
Little things matter. The daily choices we make as leaders build to tell a story about us that speaks louder than the successful moments we want to believe are louder. Hezekiah’s choices in the little things, such as creating treasuries for himself and showing them to the enemy, not giving God benefit for adding to his life, and allowing pride to enter his heart without notice, all built up into a bigger story that was passed down to his son.
Hezekiah was rebuked by God, through the prophet Isaiah, for showing his treasuries to the king of Babylon. God declared that a day was coming when “everything in your palace—all the treasures stored up by your ancestors until now—will be carried off to Babylon” (Isaiah 39:6). Nothing would be left; his sons would also be taken. Yet Hezekiah called this a good message, for at least it meant there would be peace in his days. He showed no concern for his son’s generation going into exile. I’m not sure how a leader gets to this point, other than from my own experience of not paying attention to the little things and placing more emphasis on moments of success. Hezekiah’s son, Manasseh, became king after him, only to bring more evil into Judah than ever before, going as far as practicing witchcraft (2 Kings 21).
I wonder what would have happened to the future of Judah if Hezekiah would have cared about the next generation? Would his son have ruled in godliness? Would the rebuke of a coming exile have been lifted? Would Hezekiah have experienced a transformation of the heart, resulting in repentance from pride?
As leaders, we have been given responsibility toward those we lead and those leaders who are coming up behind us. We need to care more about what we are leaving behind than a preoccupation with the moving target of success. We need to cultivate honest hearts that can see between the lines of intention and action. As mentioned in Part 1 , we need to guard our hearts against bitterness and see the gifting of God as something we steward, not own. If we tend our hearts well, we will see lasting fruit from our labor.
Connie Jakab is a blogger and author of Culture Rebel: Because the World Has Enough Desperate Housewives. Connie is an active speaker and worship leader, and lives with her husband and two boys in Calgary, Alberta Canada. She can be found on twitter @ConnieJakab.
I repeated Hezekiah’s mistakes—and learned the same lessons
I was in my early twenties when I took my first ministry assignment. I soon experienced what I call quick fruit—favor and multiplication of my ministry. I had many offers for highly influential positions at a young age. For example, I was appointed a district leader to more than 180 churches in British Columbia.
My heart was full of love for my Savior and passion to serve him. I was fearless, strong, and ready to take on large challenges—but I didn’t see a heart of pride growing inside me. It eventually destroyed my heart and ministry.
Now years later, after repentance, transformation, and needed restoration, I can watch for key symptoms of pride in my personal life and ministry. I see these same symptoms in examining the life of Hezekiah, the King of Judah written of in 2 Chronicles 32 and Isaiah 38-39. Hezekiah tore down the idolatrous high places and brought Judah back to her God. Yet four triggers in his life made him susceptible to pride’s destruction. Perhaps you’ll find these same four triggers in your own life.
Trigger 1: Ownership
I took ownership and credit for the talents I possessed, which resulted in my getting caught in the trap of success and measurement of results. The problem with measurements of success in ministry is that they are moving targets. I justified my ambition by calling it “love for the ministry,” but inside of me pride was taking root without notice.
God had given Hezekiah immense riches, wealth, and honor, and he prospered in all he did. With all his wealth, the Bible says he created for himself treasuries of silver, gold, precious stones, spices, and shields; storehouses to produce grain, wine, and oil; and pens for all kinds of cattle and sheep. Scripture also states he made great cities for himself.
When Merodach-Baladan, King of Babylon, and his officials came to visit Hezekiah, he was pleased to show them all his treasure. (I’m not in the army, but am I wrong to think that showing the enemy your armor is a bad idea?) “There was nothing in his palace or kingdom that Hezekiah did not show them” (Isaiah 39:2). Here’s the key: God had left him alone in this matter “in order to test him and to see what was really in his heart” (2 Chronicles 32:31).
Did you catch that? My treasure. My fruit. My ministry. We forget we are only stewards of the gifts and the call, not the owners. The root of pride shows its ugly face when we dare claim to be the authors of such greatness. This became easier than I thought even while I was praying for God to guard my heart against pride. Each time I strove for more success, more results, seeing people as projects rather than those I was called to serve, pride grew undetected.
I’ve got to say, it’s wonderful experiencing quick fruit in ministry. It’s a great reward for hard work and seems to confirm the call of God on our lives. But it also is a very scary place to be. The church as a whole idolizes leaders with quick fruit and creates a celebrity status that isn’t healthy for the life of one called to serve, despite the obvious fruit. What does this say to those who toil with a pure heart but see nothing? Can you see what granting celebrity status and idolatrous celebration of quick fruit does to the heart of a leader, especially a young leader without seasoned wisdom? This only models ministry as a means to gain success, not to serve the least of these.
Trigger 2: Keeping Score
I believed God owed me for serving him. I never would have believed that about myself if you would have called me on it, but looking back, I can see this attitude all over my life. When ministry was going well, I rejoiced in God’s goodness. When ministry doors instantly closed and my dad passed away from cancer all within three months, I blamed God. I thought he was angry with me. My life became filled with shame and bitterness. I wondered how God could allow such awful things to happen to me, considering I had given him my life and served him with all my heart.
I was surprised to see Hezekiah struggling with the same attitude. When the prophet Isaiah told Hezekiah he was going to die, Hezekiah wept bitterly, telling God how he had lived in truth and served God with a whole heart up to that point (Isaiah 38:3). I could hear my complaints echoing in Hezekiah’s voice as I read the Scripture. “How could you do this, God? I’ve served you! I don’t deserve this!”
Despite his attitude, God did something wonderful for Hezekiah. He added 15 years to his life and promised to deliver him from the King of Assyria. The sign God gave him was nothing short of a miracle as he moved the shadow on the sundial back ten steps right before Hezekiah’s eyes (Isaiah 38:7-8). What a beautiful picture of God’s grace. Even in our darkest hours, God is there showing himself faithful. Do we see him moving on our behalf, or are we blinded by our own remorse? This exact posture held me captive for two years.
Bitterness is dangerous to the life of a leader. Once it has taken hold, no matter how gifted, that leader is at risk of losing all she has built. Not only are we unable to recognize God’s provisions, but we take on an independent heart that says, “I’ll do it on my own.” We lose our dependence on God, because in our minds, he has failed us. Once this shift in trust has happened, gratefulness has left the building. My two years of independence from God was void of thankfulness for the times I had seen good things come from my efforts. Second Chronicles 32:25 says, “But Hezekiah did not respond appropriately to the kindness shown him, and he became proud.” Leaders, we need to keep our hearts from the sting of bitterness.
These triggers are dangerous to a leader’s heart condition: taking ownership for the gifts God has trusted us to steward well and believing, even subconsciously, that God owes us for our efforts to serve him. We are called to guard our hearts, which determine the course of our lives (Proverbs 4:23).
Next week, Part 2 will explore the two remaining triggers.
Connie Jakab is a blogger and author of Culture Rebel: Because the World Has Enough Desperate Housewives. Connie is an active speaker and worship leader, and lives with her husband and two boys in Calgary, Alberta Canada. She can be found on twitter @ConnieJakab.
If you don’t know how God is leading you, you won’t know how to lead others
Leaders of churches and Christian organizations are often successful in the secular marketplace, or even church ministry, but have had little instruction in or preparation for the process of discernment. They might not even understand discernment to be part of what they have been asked to do. In this kind of scenario, a Christian leadership team might be composed of:
• A successful investment banker who is very sincere and has a lot of money to contribute, but is such a young Christian that he barely knows what discernment is, let alone how to practice it in a leadership setting.
• An attorney whose approach to leadership is shaped more by her training as a lawyer than by any spiritual preparation.
• A construction company owner who was raised in the church his family helped plant. He stopped growing long ago and is committed to maintaining things “the way they’ve always been.”
• An executive who climbed the corporate ladder by thinking strategically and learning how to “work the system.” While he is a committed Christian and is enthusiastic about the mission of the organization, he relies primarily on his ability to think strategically. Since he came to faith fairly recently, there is very little integration of his business experience and practice with his spirituality. The idea that the wisdom of God is foolishness to this world is fairly incomprehensible.
• The pragmatist who has not yet had an experience of God that is beyond her own comprehension. She believes in the Holy Spirit in theory but is uncomfortable with the idea that the Spirit actually speaks to us today. In fact, she believes too much talk of the Spirit leads to mysticism.
Such individuals do have valuable gifts to bring to the leadership setting, and our churches and organizations would be impoverished without them. The problem, however, is when individuals bring only the training, experience and influences of a secular mindset without preparation in the areas of spiritual discernment. Without spiritual discernment it won’t matter whether you have a clearly articulated discernment process, use Robert’s Rules of Order, or just offer perfunctory prayers to bookend your meetings—discernment is not going to happen! The people aren’t right and they’re not ready.
While it is tempting to seek a technique that will enable a group like this to jump right to corporate discernment, it is a grave mistake to assume that these folks have a basic understanding of discernment or that they are practicing it as a way of life. The next step to becoming a leadership group that discerns God’s will together is to cultivate a shared, working knowledge of the basics and to begin (or make sure people are) practicing discernment in their own lives. When even one person in the group is not habitually practicing discernment, it can derail the best attempts of the whole group. Five foundational beliefs are the building blocks of a sound discernment practice.
The first is that spiritual discernment, by definition, is a process that takes place in and through the Trinity. The Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, “comprehends what is truly God’s” and interprets the deep things of God to us (1 Corinthians 2:11-12). The Holy Spirit has been given to us by God, at Jesus’ request, to lead us into truth (John 16:7-15). Commitment to discernment as a personal and communal way of life presupposes commitment to Christ and the real presence of the Holy Spirit, who has been given to lead and guide us on Christ’s behalf. The Spirit is an immediate presence who can be heard and responded to through disciplines and practices that help us to listen.
Paul Anderson, professor of biblical and Quaker studies at George Fox University, makes this bold statement:
There is no individual discernment outside a communal setting and no communal discernment without individual discernment. Each individual profits from the communal activity of discernment and the community profits from each individual’s discernment.
One great need of the church today is to experience the dynamic leadership of Christ as its Head. . . . The Scriptures promise us that Christ’s Spirit will be with us, will guide us, and will lead us into all truth. This is the most striking implication of one’s belief in the resurrected Lord. If Christ is alive he desires to lead his church. If Christ desires to lead his church, his will should be sought. If his will can be sought, it can be discerned; and if it can be discerned, it deserves to be obeyed. This is nothing more than the basic Christian life.
The second building block is to realize that the impulse to discern—to want to respond to Christ in this fashion—is in itself a “good spirit” that needs to be cultivated. When individuals in a leadership group have a deepening desire to move beyond intellectual prowess and self-effort to spiritual discernment and all that it requires, this is evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work among them. And this is pretty remarkable, because, as David Benner points out, even though we may desire to become more discerning, egocentricity and self-control are fundamental dynamics of the human condition. We know we are supposed to surrender to God’s will and may genuinely want to, but most of us continue to face the almost irresistible tendency to assert our own will. We overhear Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane—“Not my will but thine be done”—but have trouble making it our own.
This means that leaders who want to move into discernment mode have to rely on the Spirit to help them learn to distinguish between willfully asserting their own wishes (which can be cleverly disguised in so many different ways) to willingly surrendering to God’s desires. They must learn how to submit to the work of the Spirit, who alone is able to transform our willfulness into willingness.
The third building block is a deep belief in the goodness of God. Any good Christian leader can wax eloquent about the goodness of God; it is, after all, one of God’s attributes. But many of us don’t believe in God’s goodness enough to trust God with the things that are most important to us. We may have suffered things for which we subtly blame God. Perhaps God disappointed us when we trusted him with something important. God’s people have disappointed us. The process has disappointed us. Many of us are self-made people; we rely on ourselves and are proud of it. Truth be told, we don’t really want to trust anyone but ourselves. How can we give ourselves to someone we’re not sure will be good to us?
The only way we can freely participate in a discernment process is if we trust that God is good, not merely as a general attribute but as it relates to us specifically. Many of us will need to work at getting this building block set in the foundation of our discernment process. In order to surrender to the discernment process, we need to go beyond intellectual assent to cultivating a deep, experiential knowledge that God’s will is the best thing that can happen to us under any circumstances. We need to hear God’s voice whisper words of assurance to us, “I know the plans I have for you, plans for welfare and not for your harm” (Jeremiah 29:11), and believe them in the depths of our being.
The fourth crucial building block for discernment is the conviction that love is our ultimate calling—love for God, love of self, love for others, and love for the world. It is clear from Scripture that there is no other adequate measure of success for us as Christians (Matthew 22:37-40; 1 Corinthians 13; 1 John 4:7-12). That we are to love God and others (including our enemies) is one thing we know for sure is the will of God!
This simple truth is easily lost in the press of church and organizational life. We rarely hear leaders ask what love might be calling them to do in the context of making major decisions. We can often detect a slow drift—imperceptible at first—from serving people to using them, from loving people to doing what is expedient, from being honest with them to spinning truth ever so slightly. By the time we notice how far we have drifted from this most basic aspect of God’s will, we are in very dangerous waters!
The good news, of course, is that the Holy Spirit has been given to us to provide in-the-moment guidance for understanding the demands of love in the particularities of our situation. When seeking to discern God’s will, it helps to keep before us the question of what love requires, and then create space for listening to what the Spirit says in response.
The fifth building block is that we are committed to doing the will of God as it is revealed to us. It does no good to discern the will of God if we are not committed to doing it—but sometimes that’s the hardest part! Chuck Olsen and Danny Morris note, “The question of willingness must be answered before the process of discernment begins: Are we willing to do God’s will even before we know it? Or do we prefer to play games with God by saying, ‘God, show me your will and if I like it, I will do it.’ Spiritual discernment is not a game, and playing games with God leads to nothing but frustration.”
Jesus is very clear that “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:50; Mark 3:35). As we are faithful to discern and then actually do the will of God, we become the intimate family of Jesus.
Taken from Pursuing God's Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups by Ruth Haley Barton. Copyright 2012 by Ruth Haley Barton. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.
A true story for women in ministry
Ever walked past a mirror to catch an unexpected glimpse of yourself? “Yikes, I hoped skinny jeans might make me look skinny.”
I serve in a church that projects our service onto what we call “The Jumbotron.” It’s not exactly the scoreboard at the Superdome, but it’s a jumbo enough tron to elicit a similar arresting gasp when I see myself on it.
When I’m up front leading worship, I have moments of God-honoring bliss when my soul laps up every drop of God’s glory. When song and Scripture splash together as if an angel wrote the sermon then pressed it into the palms of our keyboard player. Eyes closed. Arms raised. My heart laid prostrate.
There are also moments when I catch a glimpse of myself on that screen and wonder who let me out of the house without a proper haircut and shoes from this decade. Who listens to this disheveled mess?
Fretting over our appearance as worship leaders should not matter, but we all know it does. Just ask the hipster pastor who spent an hour making sure his hair did not look like he just spent an hour on it. Oh, vanity of vanities.
One Saturday I stared down at my hands and noticed my mangled cuticles. I was preaching the next morning, and when I speak, my arms typically flap about like wings on a caffeinated bird. I needed a manicure. Can I be this vain? Could I put this extra 15 dollars in the offering plate instead?
I settled on the manicure.
As I flopped into the chemical-saturated room, I stared up at the mani/pedi Jumbotron, an 80-inch plasma TV bolted to the wall where Hillary Clinton waxed eloquent about bombing in Sudan. I felt like a loser, waiting for a woman to drizzle Pomegranate Punch across my nails while other people scrambled for their lives.
Suddenly the room lit up with conversation. Women began to yammer about Hillary’s new haircut. “Did she have work done?” They balked. “She looks terrible, her forehead is too big. Someone needs to reshape her hair.” I thought to myself that I would prefer the Secretary of State fret about the Sudanese people than her haircut. I also thought it was a good thing I got this manicure before tomorrow.
Would they have listened to her report if she had looked less gauche? Perhaps. Would people listen closely to my sermon with a nifty manicure? Not sure, but for good or ill, image plays a huge role in worship. Pastel ties on Easter, marvelously coiffed hair on big-name Christian celebs, the deliberate granola-goatee look on most youth pastors from Colorado. Somehow all this helps us connect with the crowd.
That Sunday morning I also donned an enormous pair of silver earrings. Post-sermon, a woman grabbed me in a tight hug. “I love me a preacha in dangly earrings. I listened to every word you said.”
And there you have it.
"Sredael Detfig” is the everywoman among church leaders. She is you, me, and the female church leader next door. You might say Sredael knows church leadership backwards and forwards. She has some funny stories about church ministry, and she has agreed to share those stories, along with what they’ve taught her about ministry and the God she serves.
Learn to transition ordinary conversations into sharing Christ
It is far easier to introduce storytelling than traditional evangelism openers. For example, you might simply say, “I’ve been learning to tell stories. The trainer has asked us to practice each story with ten people. Would you be willing to listen to a five-minute story and tell me if you understood it?”
A friend of mine has used this approach: “I love stories. Do you? Could you tell me one and then I’ll tell you one?” This works especially well for someone working cross-culturally and wanting to hear stories from that culture. This way you can be learning language and culture at the same time as sharing the gospel.
Sue was a new Christian who wondered how God could use her to share stories. She had one skill—hairdressing—and just enough money to rent one room and cut hair. Every time she cut someone’s hair, she offered a “free story” as a gift. Many people accepted this bonus offer. Over time she saw numbers of people accepting the greatest gift of all.
Another approach is to establish a reputation as a storyteller. When someone asks, “What do you do?” you could say something like, “I’m a teacher—but what I really love to do is tell stories.” Establishing this reputation means you’ll seldom have to start a gospel conversation from scratch. People will start asking you for stories. Sometimes this is as easy as carrying a prop with you. I started telling stories in a park and discovered that carrying a small pink plastic stool with me signaled to people that it was story time.
After moving to a new house, Bronwyn went to buy new shower curtains. A saleswoman smiled at her, leading to a brief conversation about Bronwyn’s surprising ability to speak Mandarin. “Are you a teacher?” the saleswoman finally asked.
“No, I’m a storyteller,” Bronwyn replied. The conversation finished and Bronwyn moved on. A few minutes later the saleswoman came looking for her. She wanted to know where Bronwyn told stories and to whom. Bronwyn explained that the stories were for anyone, at any place; yes, even at McDonald’s. “To my excitement, she gave me her name and number so that I could contact her and arrange a time to come and tell stories,” Bronwyn reports.
You can also wear something that sparks curiosity. A T-shirt that contains questions, symbols from early stories or a Bible verse might stimulate questions, to which you can reply, “There’s a story that goes with this shirt.”
I wear a necklace with the Chinese character for “righteousness.” This is an unusual character to wear and I chose it because others, such as “love,” are commonly worn by nonbelievers and wouldn’t garner much attention. I hoped people would ask me why I wore that character, especially when they realized it was not linked with my Chinese name.
One day I had a meal with a traditional Chinese family at a restaurant. I was seated opposite two women in their 20s at a long table. The younger one asked me why that character was on my necklace. I asked her what she thought the word meant and then told her it was linked to the stories I tell. However, I warned her that a thorough answer would require me to tell a long series of stories because the answer was contained in stories four, five, six and thirteen. I promised to not tell them in their entirety. Intrigued, the girl and her sister listened to the whole basic set. I drew several pictures on my paper placemat. They became animated as they worked out the significance of why Jesus was crucified on Passover and why the temple curtain ripped at his death.
On another occasion I cleared customs too early at the airport and so had to fill in time. I wandered through some of the duty-free shops and a lady at the jewelry counter inquired about my necklace. She and another sales associate listened to my first two stories, then I explained about the lamb and bridged into how Jesus was the lamb who came to “take away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). I left them with a small portion of Scripture, Genesis 1–4. For my next flight I again arrived early, hoping to follow up.
I discovered that these women had told two others, a man and a woman, and they’d all read the Scripture portion. I now have to turn up early each time I fly as there are five people who’ve heard stories up to the exodus and are waiting to hear more.
Questions are another great way to bridge into stories. For example, ask, “How do you think the world got here?” Listen to the person’s point of view (this is essential), then ask if you can tell a story you believe addresses that question. Another easy conversation starter: “Why is the world such a painful place to live in?” Almost everyone has an opinion on that. Listen first to that opinion, then ask if you can tell a story. You can still tell the creation story first by saying, “The world was originally perfect. Can I tell a five-minute story about that first and then explain what went wrong?” Letting people know the length of the stories is useful because it lets them know this won’t be an endless conversation from which there is no escape.
Mr. and Mrs. Lim, handbag sellers, had just experienced a natural disaster that buried their hometown in mud 12 feet deep. They shared their grief and pain, which enabled me to ask (very gently), “Why do such terrible things happen?” Their viewpoint was formed by their religious upbringing. They wondered what terrible sin their town and they as individuals had committed to result in this disaster. Our discussion led me to tell the Genesis 1–3 stories. Normally I would tell these in two separate sessions, but that day it was the second part they needed to hear. Rather than skip the creation section, I used it to set up the contrast between the perfect world God created and the current one marred by sin.
Sometimes we find ourselves in a situation where there’s no interest in stories. A “pre-story” that keeps some details under wraps might be one way to arouse curiosity. I’ve just started experimenting with this method with an older couple who are not ready to hear the creation story. Their adult children have heard many stories, but I would like the whole family to listen together in hopes that this extended family might become a new house church.
In Taiwan the seventh lunar month (about August) is “ghost” month. The Taiwanese believe that the spirits of people whose families don’t worship them or provide for their needs at this time are released from hell. During ghost month families need to make three offerings at specific times and follow certain rituals. One evening during ghost month I told a story at a crowded meal table.
Before the story I asked, “What do the Taiwanese fear?” My dinner companions mentioned ghosts and spirits, graveyards, the dark and death. I asked about ghost month and why they made their offerings. Did they truly believe in ghosts or were they just following a tradition? Some of the family really seemed to believe in ghosts, while younger members just did the rituals to keep their elders happy. After listening to their responses, I told this story:
Two thousand years ago there lived a man who terrified his neighbors. He was possessed by a group of ghosts, or evil spirits. He lived in the local graveyard next to the sea, and was so wild that he didn’t wear clothes, he cut himself, and he often cried out in a loud voice. The local people tried to restrain him with chains, but the spirits made him so strong that he just snapped those.
One day a boat drew up to the shore next to the graveyard. A man got out and 12 others followed him. When the spirit-possessed man saw the first man, he ran and fell to his knees in front of him and said, “What do you want with me, son of the most high God? Swear to God that you won’t torture me!” For the man from the boat had already told the spirits to leave. The spirits begged the man not to send them into the abyss. Instead, they asked permission to go into a large herd of pigs. They did and were drowned.
The pig herders ran into the local town and told everyone what had happened. The people came to see, and right away they noticed the man dressed and in his right mind sitting at the stranger’s feet. The people were afraid and they asked the stranger to leave. The freed man begged to go with go with the men in the boat, but he was told, “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” So that is what the man did.
Originally I told the story with Jesus’ name included, but now think it would have been better to be vague and ask, “Who was this stranger who had such power?” I concluded by saying, “This story comes from a book of stories. It’s toward the end. I’d love to tell you stories from the beginning and then tell you more about this man.”
The town where I live is a fishing port. My coworker and I spend time each week walking and praying for our town street by street. We’ve met several groups of fishermen chatting and drinking tea. I think telling a few of the Bible’s fishing stories would lead to interest in hearing more. I could perhaps tell these as “fish stories,” such as, “Have you heard the one about a man who lived three days in the belly of a fish?” Or, “Have you heard the story about the men who caught so many fish that their boat nearly sank?” Or, “Did you hear about the fisherman who walked on water?” Pre-stories could be selected to communicate with farmers, business people, medics, prostitutes and tax collectors.
Though you might think finding an opening for stories is difficult at first, it becomes easier with practice and as God gives you confidence. Lynne recalls her early experiences of telling stories in Central Asia:
Over the last four years I have sat at an uncountable number of local parties, and each of them was the same. We would sit on the floor around a tablecloth filled with bread and sweets, about 20 ladies in the room, and the ladies would gossip while I would sit there silent and frustrated, wishing I could share something that would lead them to know the Lord but not knowing where to begin. Starting is always the hardest, isn’t it?
Then as I began to grow in confidence telling the creation and Fall stories to individual women, I started to realize that there are opportunities to begin all over the place. The more I would tell the stories, the more links and ways to begin I would see. I also noticed that the Lord was prompting me and I was often just too fearful to open my mouth. By the time I got up the courage, the conversation would have moved on. I determined that, with the Lord’s help, I would try to act immediately on any idea he gave me.
Surprise, surprise, at the very next party I went to, a lady had come back from years living as a “foreigner” and “stranger” in Russia and spoke of how hard it was. They all turned to me and commiserated with me that I was also away from my homeland. There was my opportunity! “But I hope you realize that I’m not the only foreigner here,” I said. “Actually we are all foreigners, away from our true homeland because none of us are in the special place God created for us. Let me tell you a story from the holy book . . . ”
Do Whatever God Leads You to Do!
If we’re doing Bible storying it is never a waste of time. Stories are so powerful that they will have an impact on people’s lives now or decades into the future. It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to share a whole set with someone but even better to share more.
Lynne reflects more of her early storying experiences:
Two things had really been holding me back from storying more widely and more often. The first was that as a woman I felt I should not share stories with men. There were many reasons for this: my church background, which is strongly against women teaching men, an assumption that my message would be ignored because in this [Muslim] culture men do not normally take advice from women, and so on.
The second barrier was that I felt embarrassed to retell a story in front of someone who had already heard it. My Westerner’s brain reasoned that it would be boring for them to hear it over again.
Long taxi drives are wonderful places to practice telling stories. The passengers are bored and the driver likes anything that helps keep him awake. So on a long and dusty trip to the capital city, over two mountain passes with perilous drop-offs littered with car corpses, I began telling my first few stories to a local friend I was traveling with. I needed the practice and she desperately needed something to take her mind off how carsick she felt. The stories were rough-and-ready—but all the people in the jeep listened in.
A week later was the return journey, with the same friend and same driver and two new passengers. One of the new passengers, a man, was intrigued by something I said, and when I said it was explained in a story, he pressed me to tell it. But the driver and my friend had heard before! And two of the listeners were men! God was about to change my assumptions and free me from lies that were stopping his word from going out.
So I told the first two stories. I have never had a car full of people so engaged. The taxi driver even began to help me to tell the story. Although my language was understandable, he began to throw in idioms and jokes that really made the story come alive in their language.
As you consider this method of evangelism, what do you struggle with in implementing it? What needs to change in your life so that you can prioritize people and focus on evangelism? What do you fear most in evangelism? What words in Scripture would speak directly to these fears? What method for sharing the first story appeals most to you? What other ideas do you have?
Finally, go out and try telling a story you’ve learned to five to ten people. Rate your experiences as:
a. Positive: The person was interested.
b. Neutral: The person listened but didn’t interact or ask questions.
c. Negative: The person became angry or asked not to hear any more stories.
What did God teach you from your storying experiences?
Taken from Telling the Gospel Through Story: Evangelism That Keeps Hearers Wanting More by Christine Dillon. Copyright(c) 2012 by Christine Dillon. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press PO Box 1400 Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.
Keeping volunteers happy
I have been an unhappy volunteer. I have felt unappreciated and underutilized. I have also felt humiliated and used. Because of some of my earlier ministry experiences on the receiving end as a volunteer, when I began leading women’s ministry at my sweet church, I vowed to be a different kind of leader.
Ephesians 4:11-12 is pretty clear. Christ gifted us to be leaders for the sole purpose of equipping “God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ.”
As a leader, we are not to do the work of the ministry on our own. This means we need help. Not slaves. Not minions. Not secretaries. And certainly not mini-me’s. We are to find and train women for works of service to build up the collective body of Christ together.
Ten years of leading women’s ministry, organizing small groups, and hosting seeker-oriented and believer-focused events with a revolving team of gifted women taught me volumes. Nothing as true as this: volunteers are not icing on the cake…they are the cake. They aren’t just a good idea—something to check off our to-do list, names to fill holes on a spreadsheet. They are essential. And if you want to keep them around, you need to keep them happy.
It’s All in the Fit
I did my best to make sure upfront that I was placing women where they would fit…if not perfectly, then as close to perfectly as I could. I would ask them what they enjoyed doing. I’d test them for their spiritual gifts and areas of passion. I would move them around within the ministry until they felt at their best, and if it turned out I’d filled a niche with just a breathing body, I’d release them and help them find something they loved in another ministry. Because if they were doing something they liked to do, then burnout would be staved off.
You Can Do It!
I intentionally encouraged my team members. At the beginning of each year, I sent each one a note telling them what I was looking forward to doing together.
At one of our kick-off team meetings, I got down on my hands and knees and washed each of their feet, telling them that this would be our mindset as we served the women of our church and community this coming year.
I’d pray for them throughout the ministry season, asking them what they needed prayer for and then checking in with them on that request.
At our meetings I reminded them why we were doing what we were doing.
After events I’d thank them for what they did, being specific in my praise.
I’d occasionally get them gifts just for the heck of it.
We ended each year with a fancy dinner to celebrate all that God did through us.
Basically, I befriended the women on my team. I shared my life with them and I tried to be attuned to what was going on in their lives.
What’s in Your Toolbox?
I equipped my women with resources for their areas of service. Our communications gal, for instance, had a budget for materials she could enjoy playing around with. It made her task not only easier, but also more fun.
I would take them to conferences when possible. We would read leadership books together.
When they’d learn a new skill, I’d walk alongside them, give feedback, and let them go. One of my main jobs was to make these women ready for what we felt God wanted us to accomplish.
Bottomline, as John Ghegan said, “If I had to do it all over again, I’d get help.” And I’d add to that, I’d make sure my help knew how much they meant to me and keep them coming back for more.
Elisabeth K. Corcoran started and led the women’s ministry at her church for ten years, then went on to other church ministry roles. She is the author of five books, including At the Corner of Broken & Love: Where God Meets Us in the Everyday (Westbow). www.elisabethcorcoran.com