A Mennonite bishop once pointed out to me that there was an area where Jesus didn't send his disciples. In Acts 1:8, when Jesus told his disciples that they would be his witnesses "in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth," why was Galilee omitted?
The bishop answered his own question, "Galilee was home to all the disciples, except Judas. Jesus didn't send them home."
That message has worked in my life at an unconscious level through decades of ministry. The problem with preaching at home is that we get swallowed up in the culture of which we are a part. The Gospel loses its cutting edge when it is "at home" in any culture. I hear that again and again from British Christians who say that England used to be a "Christian nation." Now, less than 10 percent of the population identify as Christians. Nonetheless, there is a state-church structure. There are mandatory religious assemblies at school, and bishops are a part of the House of Lords (roughly equivalent to the Senate in the United States).
Living in a secular nation with its roots in Christendom challenges me to reflect on my understandings of what it means to be a Christian and to share the gospel in our world today.
The first half of my ministry in the United Kingdom was as a pastor and church planter. But after Sue, my wife, became seriously depressed — leading to three separate hospitalizations – and I recovered from burnout, I began the second half of my ministry as a Christian counselor.
I am now retired after 20 years of counseling. What have I learned after more than 18,000 hours of counseling experience?
- I have learned that I don't know as much as I thought I did, and I have grown in humility. The easy answers of faith and the exciting times of spiritual ministry crash against the hard walls of mental illness. The certainties I had as a young pastor have had to yield to the uncertainties of a journey with Jesus in an unbelieving world.
- Many people have been hurt by the church. I learned from some clients that they were damaged by their experience of a church that wielded abusive power and control. When people outside the church see this behavior, they don't see good news. But others of us have experienced a church full of compassion and acceptance. Out of these very different stories, I formulated a proverb: "True Christianity is not about being good enough to be loved, but about being loved enough to be good." I've realized that effort to be good enough (in order to be loved) is a painful and impossible journey. The apostle John put it so simply: "We love, because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19).
- As victims of abuse talked about their lives (and there are many more than I imagined as a young pastor), I saw that most of my faith answers were based on a very limited view of redemption. That view was limited to forgiveness following an individual's expression of repentance for sins committed. While this kind of redemption is real and powerful, it is only half of the answer. How does a child repent of being sexually violated? How do they repent of being yelled at and beaten? They cannot! So, what answer does Christianity have for those who are the victims of sin rather than the perpetrators? That has probably been the focus of my deepest wrestling.
I have come to believe that redemption is much more profound than my previous understanding. The power of grace is more than forgiveness — it redeems and transforms. However, for that to happen, Christians need to be much more relational. I have come to believe the gospel is much more than a proclamation of a message. It is a lifestyle of lovingly being there with Jesus for others.