Here are Matt Pamplin’s abridged sermon notes from his sermon “Understanding the Spiritual Journey of the 20’s”:
A Snapshot of Life in the 20’s
Paula Darcy says – 20’s are about saving the world.
This is a decade there is a lot happening – lots of big decisions – marriage, job, where live, buying a house etc, start having a family.
A decade of diversity among our friends. In this decade we can have friends who are single, dating, engaged, married, have a family all within our friendship group.
Claudia Hammond in a book about nostalgia says that we reminisce most about the 20’s because it’s a decade of first time (major decisions)
20’s is about feeling invincible. I am healthy, I am now educated, watch out world here I come.
Decade of opportunities – there is so much choice of what to do and not a lot holding me back. Travel opportunites mean I can go anywhere.
Maybe the word that best describes this decade is adventure
The Major Spiritual Challenges of the 20’s
Transitioning into owning my own faith. It’s no longer my parent’s faith. Lots of different world views and philosophies that collide at this time.
You start to realise that some of the things that were important to you about your faith are no longer that important. In fact you don’t know if you even believe them anymore! You are asking lots of questions.
Learning to follow Jesus even when life seems ordinary – how do I follow Jesus radically now that I have a family, house etc?
Practically following Jesus – now that there is no-one to keep me accountable to go to church, read the scripture, serve etc.
The transition of not just believing in Jesus but trusting him.
Big Picture – what’s happening?
What am I doing? How do I make the big decisions that are in front of me?
For the very first time – life might not be turning out as I expect. Not married, not in the job that I expected.
Time for making big decisions – career, spouse, where to live etc. But a pressure to make the “right decision”
The Bible and the 20’s
Matthew 7:24-29 / Luke 6
First thing Jesus says is – “anyone who hears these (my) words” (personal). Are we listening to the voice of Jesus? Jesus says that everyone is building towards something. Earlier in Matthew 7 he has said there are 2 roads that we can take. So Jesus says our life is heading towards something. When we look to build a foundation for our life who are we going to listen to?
Second thing (Jesus goes onto say) There are 2 guys building 2 houses. He seems to imply that the house look the same from the outside. There doesn’t seem to be a difference when you look at them but it’s what the houses are built on. Jesus says you will know how well the house is built when the storms come. Are you willing to take the time to build well? How you build now will have implications for the rest of your life. It takes time to build a strong foundation, Its not instantaneous.
The Third thing Jesus says is – “the wise man is the one who puts my words into practise”. So Jesus says “practise my words” but what has Jesus said in the sermon on the mount. It’s really important to notice what IS in there and what is NOT. Jesus never mentions – Safety, comfort, financial wealth, instant gratification, security or success.
But Jesus does say – Love your enemies, fast, pray lots, give to the poor, don’t worry about material things and what true blessing looks like.
The North American lifestyle is not the gospel of Jesus. I am not saying all parts of it are bad but we have got caught up in thinking this is the goal of your life when Jesus says following him and his kingdom are the goal of your life. In Matthew 6 Jesus has said “if you seek my Kingdom first then don’t worry about the rest”.
So when making decisions what filter do you use?
Advice for 20-somethings
Seek God and his kingdom, may your big decisions be based on this.
When you make a decision (this is coles notes) Pray (surrender to God, check your motives). Read the scripture,Seek wise counsel (people who will challenge, not just people who will tell you what you want to hear). Then actually step out and do something.
Prioritize being part of a church. Commit to being involved even if you don’t get something out of it. Being in a community of people who are not like you will help shape and form you.
Disciplines not feelings that shape us. Be formed by the disicplines you are practising (prayer, reading scripture, fasting, giving, serving). Don’t be formed / make decsions just by your feelings “if it feels good do it”.
Sabbath rest not busy noisiness – Learn to practise Sabbath. Its hard to claw it back later. Sabbath is about playing and praying. But Sabbath primarily reminds us that we are not God….God is.
How can the church support those in their 20’s?
1. Celebrate – We need to celebrate we have some great 20 something’s at Grindstone. As a church we are fortunate to have so many wonderful 20’s. I often hear from different churches that 20 something’s are great but they don’t contribute as much financially. They do contribute financially but why not look at their passion and how they stretch us to grow. Let’s look at how blesse we are to have so many vibrant, passionate 20 something’s.
2. Listen / ask – Often we see groups of 20 something’s but take the time to ask them their name, listen to their story. People who are older need to come alongside and support and help (mentor them). We need to learn from each other.
3. Pray – It seem obvious but take time to uphold them in prayer. This is a significant decade.
A friend recently asked me about the process I use to write my sermons. In putting my process down on paper for her, I thought it might be interesting/helpful/enlightening to post the process I work through here on my blog.
I entered into a regular preaching pattern about five years ago, and during that time I have learned a ton about how to craft a sermon that is biblical, engaging, and God glorifying. Although I’ve tried many different processes over my five years of preaching, here’s the most current iteration.
Ok, so it’s not that easy. 😉
From start to finish, a typical sermon is built over four phases:
Phase 1: Exploration and Information Gathering (4-6 hours)
This phase happens the week before I’m scheduled to preach. I’ve usually landed on a main passage for my message by this point, and will research it as thoroughly as possible via my Logos software and any other pertinent books I own. I have two goals for this phase: i) get comfortable with what the text is saying so I don’t mishandle it, and ii) begin to note the themes/ideas that seem to be jumping out at me.
Phase 2: Team Brainstorming (1 hour)
This phase happens early in the week I’m scheduled to preach, usually 4-5 days after I’ve completed Phase I and let the ideas incubate a bit. I usually sit down with Matt Pamplin, Kristi Gringhuis, and Richard Saunders and go over the skeleton of my message. They then offer any feedback on my proposal: Scriptures I should include, stories I should emphasize, examples within our community, hesitations or cautions if the message’s theme is sensitive, etc. This is one of the most helpful steps in the sermon preparation process, because it allows me to get out of my head and bounce ideas off of others whose input I respect and value. Sometimes these discussions lead to major alterations in the proposed sermon, and at other times they only lead to a minor tweak here and there. Regardless, they are always extremely helpful and make my sermon much stronger in the end.
Phase 3: Constructing the message (8-10 hours)
In this phase I take about a day to pull all the pieces together. I usually have 50% of my message “done” in my head by the time I start this process, and spend the day putting everything down on paper, making sure everything fits, flows, and “works” as it relates to the goal of the message. I’m a big believer in writing out my message word-for-word. I used to rely on bullet points in the past, relying on my skill as an on-the-fly presenter, but I believe that taking the extra time to write the sermon out in full has made me a better preacher. For some (many?) pastors, writing their sermon out word-for-word feels too constraining. However, I think my preaching has gotten stronger as I’ve worked down into the details of exactly what I’m communicating and how I’m communicating it.
Phase 4: Review and Rehearsal (2-4 hours)
This final phase has a few parts to it, and is often a very, very difficult one.
By the time I’m done crafting the message, I usually have a 10-12 page Word document that I need to trim down to 9 pages. While whittling things down is usually excruciatingly hard for me (I don’t want to leave anything important out!), the following questions help me keep my message “lean and mean”:
1. What is the MAIN point of my message, or am I trying to squeeze two (or more) sermons into one?
2. Do ALL of my teaching points reinforce the sermon’s main message?
3. Does the sermon have any unnecessary tangents?
4. Have I spent too much time explaining any one particular teaching point? Could I say the same thing more efficiently?
Then, I usually ask myself the following questions to make sure the sermon will have resonance with my church community:
1. Have I answered the question, “Why should I care about this?”
2. Have I answered the question, “What do you want me to do about this?”
3. Have I include at least one element that speaks to the four different “types” of Christians in my church: Heart types, Soul types, Mind types, and Strength types?
4. Does the message explicitly glorify Jesus and direct people to him?
After I’m comfortable with the sermon after working through these questions, I try to rehearse it out loud at least once. This helps me to discover any elements of the message that “look good on paper,” but don’t work as intended once you’re delivering them out loud.
Writing a sermon is tough, grueling work. But it’s also extremely satisfying. It’s a privilege to be able to teach others from the Word of God, and I don’t take that calling lightly. I aim to do my best with each sermon I preach, and pray throughout the process that Jesus would use the message as he sees fit. My goal as a preacher is to “make straight the way for the Lord” (John 1:23). For me, that means crafting a message that makes it as easy as possible to see Jesus and come to him.
I read through Deuteronomy several times recently for a message that closed out a teaching series our church was doing on the Pentateuch. Deuteronomy is a fascinating book that is incredibly powerful when it’s understood in it’s narrative context.
Here’s the story Deuteronomy finds itself in. The descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (called the Israelites) are enslaved and oppressed in Egypt. God sends a deliverer (Moses) through which he performs signs and wonders that both challenge the authority of Egypt’s gods (including Pharaoh–believed to be a god), and force Pharaoh’s hand in letting the Israelites go that they may be free to worship the LORD (Yahweh) in the wilderness.
Israel takes part in an exodus (“exiting”) from Egypt and are led by God into the wilderness (desert), where God enters into a covenant relationship with them through the giving of the law (Ten commandments and the Mosaic law of Leviticus). The people are humbled, excited, but also terrified that the true and living God would actually bind himself to them in a covenant! Who are they to deserve such a gift?!?!
God then leads them through a time of testing in the desert, to prepare them to be his people, for his glory and the world’s good. They rebel. They complain. They reject God’s leadership in several ways, so God condemns those 20 years of age and up to death in the wilderness for their stubbornness and lack of trust. When that generation has died off (40 years), God brings then succeeding generation of Israelites to the plains of Moab, which were located south-east to modern day Israel. There, Moses gives three “sermons” to the people. Deuteronomy is basically the record of those sermons.
As I studied Deuteronomy, three major themes stuck out to me. On the threshold of moving into a new land and taking an enormous step in their identity as God’s people, God through Moses called them to three major commitments:
1. Remember the LORD; Remember your story. 16 times God tells his people to remember who he is, who they are, where they’ve come from, why they are here. 11 times God says “don’t forget.” Don’t forget your oppression. Don’t forget Egypt. Don’t forget my deliverance. Don’t forget that you are here because of me. In what may be the emotional climax of Deuteronomy, God reminds the Israelites why he has redeemed them from Egypt:
“7 The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. 8 But it was because the LORD loved you” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8).
2. Smash your idols. God warns the people again and again that there will be seductive forces once they enter into Canaan. They aren’t to “play with fire,” that is, toy with the anti-human, anti-God practices of the pagans they find in the land. They are to smash the idols and smash any intention to build their own. The LORD is there God; there is no other.
“1 These are the decrees and laws you must be careful to follow in the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess-as long as you live in the land. 2 Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains and on the hills and under every spreading tree where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. 3 Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places. 4 You must not worship the Lord your God in their way” (Deuteronomy 12:1-4).
3. Embed the text into your life. Moses recaps much of the covenant law given to Israel at Sinai, challenging them to integrate God’s wisdom and revelation into every aspect of their life as a community. The Text is to be central for them as a people. One of my favourite verses from Deuteronomy sums this point up nicely:
“45 When Moses finished reciting all these words to all Israel, 46 he said to them, “Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day, so that you may command your children to obey carefully all the words of this law. 47 They are not just idle words for you-they are your life” (Deuteronomy 32:45-47, emphasis mine).
As I reflected on those three themes, I came to see how important they are to those entering into a “new land.” Whether we’re talking about a dating relationship, marriage, university/college, a new career, parenthood, etc., we’re often a little too eager to jump right into the next phase of what God has in store for us. Studying Deuteronomy really helped me see the importance of not just rushing into the new, beautiful, exciting thing God is opening up to me. Instead, I need to get better at pausing on our own Moab in order to remember the Lord; remember my story. Smash my idols. Embed the text into my life.
If you’re unfamiliar with Ray Vander Laan, he’s a teacher who focuses on the Jewish context of the Scriptures. That’s a bit of an undersell really. He’s probably one of the most dynamic and powerful teachers alive today. I’ve had the chance to see him live, and his passion to help people pursue discipleship to Jesus is infectious. I’m continually amazed at how RVL (as he’s commonly referred to) is able to make the message of the Bible come alive in such a haunting and powerful way.
Yesterday, I stumbled upon this video from his latest DVD release With All Your Heart. It’s tremendous.
The following is an excerpt from Mere Disciple, chapter 9.
As we invest in our relationship with God, hope becomes one of the pivotal virtues we need to be building into our lives. Few people think of hope as a virtue, but that’s what it is. Hope is more than just wishful thinking; it’s the deliberate decision to live out of the inevitable conclusion of God’s story—the complete redemption of creation. History is going somewhere, and our hope is born again when we fasten it to God’s promises and His faithfulness.
In the book of Job, a tree is used to underscore human hopelessness in the face of life’s hardships. Job was a man who understood the hardships of life. It’s not an overstatement to say that at one point he had lost everything. In the midst of his darkest times of mourning, confusion, and sorrow, Job lamented the following from the core of his heartache:
We’re all adrift in the same boat:
too few days, too many troubles.
We spring up like wildflowers in the desert and then wilt,
transient as the shadow of a cloud.
Do you occupy your time with such fragile wisps?
Why even bother hauling me into court?
There’s nothing much to us to start with;
how do you expect us to amount to anything?
Mortals have a limited life span.
You’ve already decided how long we’ll live—
you set the boundary and no one can cross it.
So why not give us a break? Ease up!
Even ditchdiggers get occasional days off.
For a tree there is always hope.
Chop it down and it still has a chance—
its roots can put out fresh sprouts.
Even if its roots are old and gnarled,
its stump long dormant,
At the first whiff of water it comes to life,
buds and grows like a sapling.
But men and women? They die and stay dead.
They breathe their last, and that’s it.
Like lakes and rivers that have dried up,
parched reminders of what once was,
So mortals lie down and never get up,
never wake up again—never. (Job 14:1–14, The Message)
Job thought that it would be better to be a tree than a human, because at least a fallen tree had a chance, however small, of coming back from the trials of this life. Our fate, Job believed, was to eventually get crushed under the weight of life and “never wake up again—never.” That’s a pretty bleak perspective.
However, we see the symbolism of the tree being used very differently within the first psalm. Instead of being a symbol of man’s lack of hope, the tree is used as a symbol of the profound hope those rooted in a relationship with God can enjoy:
Blessed is the man
who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
or stand in the way of sinners
or sit in the seat of mockers.
But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither.
Whatever he does prospers. (Psalm 1:1–3)
This hope-filled symbolism also characterizes Jesus’ own use of trees within his teachings. Jesus regularly used the tree as a central image within his teaching ministry (e.g., Matthew 7:17; Luke 6:44; John 15:1), and through it highlighted the importance of staying connected to his love, grace, and power. In John’s gospel, Jesus repeatedly told his disciples to stay rooted in him and his teachings:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:1–4)
“If a man remains in me . . . he will bear much fruit.” I’m positive the disciples immediately thought of Psalm 1 as Jesus spoke those words, recognizing their rabbi was echoing the promises found there. What would have shocked them in particular was the fact that Jesus seemed to be localizing the source of Psalm 1’s blessings in himself! He is the one who causes us to thrive and flourish in our calling to be God’s image-bearers in the world—humans fully at home in their relationship to God, each other, themselves, and creation.
In light of this, Job’s lament can become a source of transformative encouragement and insight if we read it through a lens that was impossible for him: the lens that we are trees sustained by and rooted in Jesus’ life and power:
For a tree there is always hope.
Chop it down and it still has a chance—
its roots can put out fresh sprouts.
Even if its roots are old and gnarled,
its stump long dormant,
At the first whiff of water it comes to life,
buds and grows like a sapling. (Job 14:7–9, The Message)
Throughout our lives we will face many trials and hardships, but no matter what we face, no matter the forces that plot against us, in Jesus we will always have an enduring hope. To live with guaranteed hope is an incredible thing, and that is precisely what is available to us through Jesus.
It doesn’t matter what parts of us have been “chopped down” by circumstance, misfortune, or the selfish acts of others.
It doesn’t matter what places within us feel “old and gnarled” due to bitterness, regret, or shame.
It doesn’t matter what aspirations and hopes lie “long dormant” after repeated failure or disillusionment.
In Jesus we can still grow “fresh sprouts” (i.e., new beginnings). We can come back to life, budding and growing like a sapling that’s been born again. All Jesus needs is for us to stay rooted in him.
When I became a Christian, one of the first things that was drilled into my head was the importance of daily, personal (i.e., individual) devotions. I was encouraged to spend 10-15 minutes each day studying the Bible (usually through a devotional booklet of some kind), praying about what I’d learned, and jotting down ideas how to live out the principles and truths I’d been exposed to. It was a practice that served me well as a teenager, and one that has continued to shape my spiritual formation as an adult.
However, over the past few years I’ve really begun to question the effectiveness of personal devotions. Obviously they aren’t bad (millions of Christians would claim they are an integral part of their spiritual walk with Christ), but when I take an honest look at the times in my life that have been the most powerful in terms of wrestling with the Bible and letting it (re)shape me, there is one common thread: at least two or three were gathered (cf. Matthew 18:20).
In high school, my best friend Mike Garner and I would do personal devotions each morning (sometimes the same one), but we’d discuss it (and sometimes debate it) during our walk to and from school. I can still remember particular conversations we had–moments standing on a street corner for an hour talking through an idea or Scripture. For the life of me I can’t remember one personal devotional time during that same period in my life.
In university (Redeemer University College), our weekly dorm devotions were some of the most incredible, intense times of faith formation, and not because they were full of kumbaya moments either; they were often heated, challenging, and relationally demanding. I can still remember conversations and interactions that even to this day bring back a flood of fond memories. I know I did countless personal devotionals during my time at Redeemer, but once again, I cannot recall even one.
Even today, I might have to point to Elevate (Grindstone church’s high school group) as one of the most significant arenas through which God continues to stretch me in terms of my understanding of Him, His word, and His calling on my life. I can say unhesitatingly that Monday nights with our Elevate leaders and students are amongst the most influential in terms of my own spiritual journey.
I once heard someone remark that sermons (and for the purposes of this discussion, personal devotionals) are like meals. Often, we can’t remember every meal we’ve eaten, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been the source of energy through which we’ve grown and been strengthened. That’s why I wouldn’targue that personal devotionals are unnecessary. But I have begun to push myself and others to consider some of their limitations:
a. Personal devotionals are one-dimensional. The one-dimension? you. Like, literally, it’s just you in the room (well, God’s there, but you know what I mean).
b. Personal devotionals aren’t an intuitive learning style for many people. Many people do not learn well in a context of social isolation and invidual reflection.
c. Personal devotions aren’t often energizing or interesting. Because there’s no one there to build on your thoughts and reflections (or disagree with them), it’s easy to just go through the motions and check it off the discipleship “to-do” list.
d. Personal devotions often feel like an uphill battle. Maybe this is the most telling limitation of them all. Many people spend tons of energy trying to be faithful to a daily devotional habit, but with very limited success. Maybe the continued frustration we experience isn’t because we’re spiritually lazy or weak–maybe it’s because God’s Word was designed to be read, studied, and wrestled with (primarily) with other people and not in the corner of the room by ourselves.
I’m no expert on the ins and outs of devotional practices throughout historic Christianity, but I do believe that the Scriptures have traditionally (and predominantly) been engaged with through community–where two or three are gathered. In fact, I’d love to find out exactly when the evangelical obsession with personal devotionals came into prominence.
The more I think about it, the more difficult it is for me to picture Jesus sending off his disciples to complete their personal devotions. Throughout the Bible, community and spiritual formation seem to be assumed partners, not optional tag-ons or extra credit for keeners. While men and women of faith clearly had an intensely personal commitment to God, worship, prayer and Scriptural study were collaborative, community disciplines. To grow in their faith, people gathered–they didn’t scatter.
Again, I want to be careful not to slam personal devotions, but I wonder what kind of difference it would make if I/we did fewer personal devotionals and did more collaborative devotionals–devotionals that were structured the same way as personal devotionals, but were done with at least one other person.
Clearly, this is done already: bible studies, small groups, etc. But I’m asking a slightly different question. I’m asking what difference would it make if the default mode of engaging the Bible was through community study and not, as it so often is, via individual study?
I know so many people (especially students) have an extremely difficult time reading/studying the Bible alone. I think a lot of those difficulties can be traced to the limitations I cited above. If we eased our emphasis on personal devotions and encouraged group or even tandem studies more, would more consistent and transformative encounters with the Bible emerge? I’m increasingly suspicious that’s exactly what would happen.
Some immediate ideas I’d like to try:
1. Limit myself to 2-3 personal devotional times a week, while attempting to do a tandem or group devotional study 3-4 times a week.
2. Encourage students to take a hiatus from personal devotions and instead encourage them to study and discuss a devotional with a member of the same gender 4-5 times a week (i.e., tandem study). This may include reading the devotional alone at one point in the day, but making sure to discuss it with your study buddy later in the day.
If you aren’t reading Richard Rohr, you need to be.
“The final chapter [of history] will be ‘the universal restoration’ (Acts 3:21) that Peter speaks of in his first sermon. The good, the true, and the beautiful will have the last word, not the evil, the false, and the ugly. That will be the ‘second coming of Christ’ in all his glory, and God’s true victory. Trusting, therefore, that our failings and killings will not draw history into a final sad whimper, we live inside of a cosmic hope.” Radical Grace, Daily Meditations p. 387, day 402
I love the language of “a cosmic hope.” Christians don’t simply live with a hope for their life–they live within a hope that is rooted in God’s redemptive plan for the cosmos! Following Jesus doesn’t just lead us into a larger view of our life and purpose; it leads us into a grand cosmology that redefines our categories of faith, hope, and love.
The following is an excerpt from Mere Disciple, chapter 9: A Tree of Life
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:1–4
How do you and I stay rooted in Jesus? How do we remain connected to Him so that we can experience this great life and extraordinary hope regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in? How do we keep Jesus’ call to discipleship front and centre, especially when we are assaulted by countless distractions and difficulties? How do we avoid being overwhelmed and choked out by the cares and worries of this life? Staying rooted in Jesus begins with and is sustained by a commitment to four priorities.
Engage the Bible everyday. Whether it means reading, studying, discussing, or memorizing, staying rooted to Jesus means staying rooted to the Scriptures. We need to continually stretch our understanding of what the Bible says and how that should play out in our lives. The gospels should be read consistently and carefully, because declaring ourselves to be disciples of Jesus means we’re trying to embed the values, attitudes, and priorities of Jesus into our lives. The importance of reading, studying, memorizing, and discussing the Bible is a value most Christians agree on but few actually practice. However, everyone I see flourishing in their discipleship walk is engaging the Bible everyday.
Develop a strong prayer life. Developing a strong prayer life is very challenging for most people. Personally, prayer is an area I read about, talk about, and think about more than I actually do anything about. Prayer is very hard for me, because quite honestly it feels like a waste of time. It feels inefficient and sometimes ineffective compared to physically doing something, but I’m pushing myself beyond those faulty assumptions. I’m in the process of exploring different forms of prayer because I want to develop a strong and intimate relationship with Jesus. This intimacy will never happen if I neglect communicating with Him honestly and openly. Although it may not be easy for us, taking time everyday to share our hearts with Him—and taking time to listen for His still, small voice—is critical to our growth as disciples.
Invest in a local church. I will be the first to say that church can suck. You know it and I know it. But here’s the reality: I’ve never, ever met someone who powerfully inspires me to love and serve Jesus who isn’t invested and connected to a local church. I don’t think church is some kind of magic bullet when it comes to discipleship. However, I believe that discipleship outside of a church commitment just doesn’t work. I also know how tempting it is to bounce around and check out the latest ministry, church, or preacher. But discipleship requires roots, and you can’t grow deep roots if you’re continually uprooting yourself in order to be a part of the next new thing. Therefore, if we are serious about discipleship to Jesus, we have to make it a priority to plug into and invest in a local church community.
Serve others. Following Jesus as a disciple means continually reminding ourselves that in Jesus’ kingdom leaders are the ones who serve (Luke 22:26) and greatness is measured by one’s ability lay down one’s life for others (John 15:13). Our days are filled with opportunities to bless and serve others in both simple and profound ways, and Jesus calls us to adopt a servant heart that places our preferences secondary to the interests and needs of those around us. Jesus said that His kingdom is one that will be characterized by servant leadership (Matthew 20:25–28), so if we aren’t consistently serving others we’re operating out of ego and self-centredness.
These disciplines, however, may strike us as overly simplistic or obvious. Because of this, it’s common for us to overlook them in order to look for something that sounds deeper and more profound. But these four practices form the foundation—the root structure—of the Christian faith. If we ignore, dismiss, or abandon them, we’ll soon find ourselves feeling old, gnarled, and lifeless.
After years of discipling, mentoring, and observing many young adults, I’ve noticed a huge difference between those who just talk about these things, and those who actually do them. Jesus said a disciple is someone who “hears these words of mine and puts them into practice” (Matthew 7:24, emphasis mine). It’s easy to extol the virtues of Bible study and prayer, hold lengthy conversations on the nature of community, and discuss new justice initiatives. However, none of these things lead to transformation in Christ. Those who have been truly transformed are those who have consistently done these things and not just talked about doing them.
To order a copy of Mere Disciple: a spiritual guide for emerging leaders, click here.
The following is an excerpt from Mere Disciple, chapter 5: The Beautiful Risk.
Over the years, I’ve put together a list of what I consider to be the top relationship advice for dating Christians (or those interested in dating). The list has emerged through countless conversations and discussions, and offers some great ground-level wisdom on how the call of discipleship should steer our journey through romantic relationships. This is not a list where it’s all or nothing—that is, in order to be a disciple, all of these ideas need to be in place. It’s important to remember that discipleship is a process and a journey. Those who have taken to heart even one or two of these principles have told me that it has had a dramatically positive effect on their life, and has helped immensely in the process of controlling their negative sexual habits and impulses.
Keep your passion for Jesus central.It’s easy to give Jesus priority status when there’s no competition. When we start dating, however, it’s common for many of us to slowly channel the energy that we’ve been investing in our relationship with Him into our newfound love. But Jesus isn’t our relational back-up plan, someone we put first until someone better comes along. He needs to stay central for us regardless of whether we’re single, dating, or married.
Relationships flourish when Jesus and His kingdom are the priority of both people, but falter when they aren’t. When Jesus is our first priority, our view of love, sex, and relationships is enhanced and enriched. But when Jesus is relegated to being our second, third, or fourth priority, our entire view of love, sex, and relationships becomes distorted. Knowing Jesus intimately is critical if we want to know what authentic, life-giving expressions of love, sex, and relationships look like. If we’re not anchoring our heart’s deepest hopes and longings in Jesus, our romantic relationships will always end up disappointing and frustrating us. We’ll be placing unrealistic expectations on our relationship that can only be fulfilled by God.
It’s a wonderful thing to fall in love and find someone with whom we can share our lives. However, we need to be careful that even good, healthy dating relationships don’t become stumbling blocks that cause us to forsake our first love (Revelation 2:4).
Don’t rationalize an abusive relationship.It’s common for many people (especially women) to find themselves in an abusive relationship at some point in their lives. Maybe it’s a boyfriend who is physically abusive, or a girlfriend who is controlling and emotionally manipulative. Regardless, I often see the rationalizing of major dysfunction. Many of us would rather put up with abuse and dysfunction in our relationships than be alone, so we go to great lengths to minimize or deny any abusive behaviour.
“Well, she’s not like that all the time.”
“It isn’t really that bad.”
“It’s no big deal. That’s just the way our relationship is.”
No relationship is perfect. Each one has its fault lines and issues, but there comes a point when a challenging relationship becomes a destructive one, and when abusive patterns have emerged that line has been crossed.
Sometimes denial can run deep. If we don’t identify and end the abusive relationship until it has run its course, we will be heartbroken and devastated. Or maybe we believe we’re the one sent into this person’s life to do the saving, to make them a better person, and so we wear the abuse as a kind of badge of honour. Maybe it brings us some kind of self-righteous satisfaction that we’re suffering for a greater purpose and are willing to love someone so “complicated.”
Regardless of your particular situation, if you are involved in an abusive relationship—whether the abuse is physical, emotional, or sexual—you need to end it. You know it’s unhealthy, and chances are it’s negatively impacting every area of your life, including your relationship with God. You should talk to a friend, parent, or pastor you trust who can help you transition out of your relationship.
Don’t believe that romantic relationships are the key to happiness and fulfillment. This piece of advice often comes from one of my high school students when we brainstorm relationship advice together as a group. All of us go through a stage where we assume we’re a boyfriend or girlfriend away from having it all. We believe that if we could find our “true love,” all the issues that bring us down will fade into the background. We believe that love, peace, and joy will flood into our lives and give us our “happily ever after.”
Falling in love and being in love is awesome, but if we think a relationship is what will save us from loneliness, low self-esteem, and purposelessness, we’re just wrong. No matter how good, godly, and healthy a relationship may be, it cannot fully satisfy the deeper spiritual hungers within you. To enter into any relationship with the expectation that it will be the key to a happy life is to place an idolatrous, unhealthy, and unrealistic expectation on it. This expectation will only suffocate any potential for the relationship to grow in a healthy way. We must never ask or assume another person can provide what only God can. When we stop looking to a relationship to be the key that will unlock the potential of our lives, we open up space for healthy relationships to emerge into what they are meant to be.
Only date someone who has a passion for following Jesus with their whole lives. “Christians should only date Christians.” That opinion is repeated in countless books on Christian dating, and yet from my point of view it’s just not a helpful way of approaching things. The statement is clearly well-intended, but like many things within the church the attempt to simplify in order to communicate things clearly has created new problems.
For example, the overly simplistic categories of Christian and non-Christian can be an enormous stumbling block. If the discussion centres on dating Christians vs. non-Christians, we can quickly (and mistakenly) substitute “people who go to church” with “Christian” and unintentionally lower our standards to anyone who shows up to church on Sunday. But should a Christian relationship be validated by something as trivial as church attendance?
I think it’s much better to frame the discussion within the larger context of discipleship. If we want our central passion to be Jesus and His kingdom, does it make sense to date someone who doesn’t share that same intention? If discipleship to Jesus is something we take incredibly seriously, does it make sense to date someone who supports us in our faith but isn’t actually committed to it themselves?
No, it doesn’t. That’s why I encourage people to pray for and seek out someone whose passion for Jesus is profound, undeniable, and inspiring. That is the kind of person, that kind of disciple, is someone you should pursue. Too many people settle for someone who’s churched instead of prayerfully holding out for someone whose discipleship commitment expresses itself in dynamic, passionate, creative ways. If you want your love for Jesus to deepen throughout your life, committing to only dating (and eventually marrying) someone with a strong and vibrant faith should be non-negotiable.
Never settle. Personally and professionally I’ve never seen anything good come from relationships that started with, “Well . . . you’ll do.” That being said, I’m not an idiot; I know how difficult it is to be the only person without a boyfriend or girlfriend, and the ache that situation creates. But we need to have the courage to move into and through that discomfort, trusting God to somehow satisfy what we’re longing for, even if we can’t anticipate how.
Make a list of qualities you want in your future spouse, then work backwards. If you want someone who is fun, spontaneous, spiritually intense, wise, and playful, that’s not going to happen if you date someone who is some of these things, some of the time. Obviously this means we’ll have to do a bit of reflection on our future marriage partner before we start dating, but isn’t that a good thing? We date in order to allow God to help us find a kindred spirit with whom we can become a soul mate through marriage. If someone told me they were ready to date but couldn’t articulate what they were looking for in someone beyond being attractive and funny, I’d tell them they just aren’t ready to date. If we don’t know what we really want in our dating relationships, the likelihood of us settling for something “good enough” is exponentially higher.
Before I met my wife, I spent a few months putting together a list of character qualities that I wouldn’t budge on. If someone only had three out of ten, I wouldn’t date them. eight out of ten? Sorry. I wanted a perfect score. Why? Was I some kind of unreasonable jerk with an inflated sense of entitlement? No. I knew what kind of marriage I wanted, and I’d lived and learned enough about myself to know the kind of person I needed to hold out for. That didn’t make times of singleness easy, but because I had a razor-sharp clarity about what I wanted and needed, settling for anything else became much harder.
Avoid the Romeo and Juliet syndrome. Romeo and Juliet were star-crossed lovers who were so in love they could never be separated. They quickly melted their own identities into each other and made each other their entire world. This syndrome is all too common in dating relationships. We’ve probably all known a friend who started dating someone and then stopped hanging out with everyone except their new love. All their spare time was spent with their Romeo or Juliet, and the relationships and priorities that were previously very important were disregarded and pushed aside.
The Romeo and Juliet syndrome is closely linked to the assumption that was addressed previously in this list (i.e., romantic relationships are the key to happiness and fulfillment). Out of this assumption we look to another person to be the emotional saviour we’ve been waiting for, and we do all we can to surround ourselves with this person as much as possible. This trap is easy for us to fall into, so my advice here is to put limits on the amount of time we’re spending with our boyfriend/girlfriend, so that we don’t (intentionally or unintentionally) make them the focal point of our daily routines and habits.
Set boundaries. It’s really important to establish boundaries before we enter into a dating relationship. If we don’t, we’ll find ourselves in a literal free-for-all in terms of what is done, said, and experienced together, and this is always destructive to everyone involved. Healthy relationships need boundaries, and they need to identify and decide what boundaries are going to be in place as it relates to four dimensions of the relationship:
a. Physical. What physical boundaries need to be in place in order to protect each person’s dignity, reputation, and purity?
b. Emotional. What emotional boundaries need to be in place in order to ensure the Romeo and Juliet syndrome doesn’t take hold?
c. Social. What social boundaries need to be in place in order to ensure that each person is investing in healthy relationships outside of the dating relationship?
d. Spiritual. What spiritual boundaries need to be in place in order to ensure that each person is growing spiritually as individuals and not just focusing their spiritual growth on the context of their relationship?
Ideally, the couple should meet with a few older and more experienced couples to help them define what boundaries will be in place for them. These older couples can also play an important ongoing mentoring role in the new couples’ lives.
Learn from your mistakes. We all make mistakes. As much as we parade around ideas of personal holiness, the biting truth is that imperfections and blunders seem to be the rule rather than the exception within our lives. Even during seasons where I feel an uncommon clarity of purpose, strong sense of conviction, and deep connection with God, I’m ashamed to admit how easy I’m seized by sins like lust, envy, pride, and idolatry.
But as I look back over my life, it seems to me that the only sinful slip-ups that have really cost me in the long run have been the ones I’ve stubbornly repeated, knowing precisely what I was doing. Proverbs 26:11 states, “As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly.” That’s the cycle that can destroy us if we’re not careful. So when we make a mistake, regardless of what kind or what severity, we need to realize that beating ourselves up is of limited value. Genuine repentance doesn’t always need to be a tearful exercise in self-pity. Sometimes it expresses itself with a clear decision and focused intention to put together a game plan to avoid repeating the mistake again. After reflecting on my own journey and many years of pastoral ministry, I’m convinced that God won’t let our mistakes define our lives if we’re willing to learn from them and seek restoration in Him.
Take three months between dating relationships to reflect and learn. The temptation to rebound with an immediate dating relationship after one has ended is enormous. Why? Because we’ve been in a relationship long enough that we’ve become accustomed to having someone to call, touch, and hang out with. To go from that to nothing feels like the rug has been pulled out from under us, and our first instincts are to get ourselves back into a relationship as soon as possible in order to avoid the awkwardness of readjusting to being single. But when we start relationships in order to avoid being single, we’re actually just using the new guy or girl for our own selfish ends. That foundation isn’t going to take us very far, and we should expect more heartache to come if we just rush into new relationships after ending old ones.
If a relationship doesn’t work (for whatever reason), it’s always important to take some time away from dating relationships and recalibrate our hearts and minds. We need to carve out time to reflect on what went wrong, and why. We should explore how we need to grow from our experiences in the previous relationship so that future relationships are healthier and more Christ-centred. Relationships teach us a lot if we’re willing to listen to the lessons. Be sure to carve out at least three months between dating relationships so that you can focus on learning whatever lessons God wants to teach you during your time of transition.
Break up well. This might be one of the most surprising and overlooked pieces of advice I share on the subject of building healthy relationships, but it’s so important. Nothing tests the genuineness of our discipleship commitment to Jesus than our willingness to refuse to blame, badmouth, or hurt the other person during a break-up.
A break-up usually results in a lot of hurt for everyone involved. Two people who once thought of each other as “true loves” now become enemies looking to strike back at each other. However, it’s exactly in this new and awkward context that Jesus’ challenge to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44) comes into play.
If we’re the ones doing the breaking up, we need to do so in a way that minimizes the emotional damage for the other person. We’re going to cause hurt, so we need to be as gentle, reasonable, and kind as humanly possible. Being rejected is a horrible feeling, and we don’t need to escalate those feelings (even if we think the other person deserves it). We should strive to be gracious and kind, and after the break-up never speak badly about the other person.
If we’re on the receiving end of the break-up, the emotions that flood into our hearts are going to make it very easy for us to justify hatred and retaliation. We need to fight those impulses with everything in us. That doesn’t mean minimizing how much it hurts to have someone dump us, though; it just means refusing to let the hurt we’re feeling morph into a cancer of anger and bitterness. Getting dumped sucks, but striking back through hatred and retaliation won’t provide the healing we’re looking for. That can only be found when we pour our energy into our relationship with the One who is “close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalms 34:18).
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