Practicing What We Teach
– March 3, 2020
God is telling a story in the world through His Word and His people. It’s a story of His power and provision, of His justice and mercy—of how He rescues us from the just penalty of our sin, the power of Satan, and, ultimately, from the pain and devastation sin has brought into the world. Put more simply, the ancient Church used to speak of Christ overcoming the enemies of God: sin, death, and the devil. This overcoming helps shape the Christian story.
Followers of Jesus are called to be faithful to that story, and that faithfulness shapes who we are and who we are becoming. God’s story comes with practices—actions or habits—that help us live it out in our daily lives. God called Israel to live by certain rituals in the Old Testament that shaped them and their expectations: In Christ, God himself embodies that story (Heb. 1:1-3)—proclaiming His story in word and deed. The church is likewise designed to reflect His character both in the story we tell about Him and in the way we live as citizens of His kingdom.
Practices for Transformation
The New Testament often uses the language of “put off” and “put on.” God’s story allows us to see our sin compared to God’s holy love so that we might then repent of our sinful attitude and actions; but it doesn’t stop there. We “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:8) through a new set of practices that fit with His design so that we can rightly and fully tell His story.
Let’s look at a small example. In Ephesians 4:28, Paul writes: “Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.” A sinful habit (stealing) is rebuked, and we are called to replace it with a practice that fits God’s design (work) so that our lives tell a better story (the full-circle transformation from stealing to generosity).
Practices in Community
As we “put off” sin and “put on” righteousness, the church should be the place where this transformation is encouraged and supported by a community of God’s people. If you’re struggling with slander or lust, you don’t just need to be told not to do those things. You need to be surrounded by a community that helps you reimagine what life will look like if you no longer practice those things.
That community of faith understands that people will encounter difficulties and the challenges along the way—but we also experience the goodness of God’s grace. The truths of Scripture are not simply abstract ideas. The church really matters. People really matter. A “lived-out” faith matters. Together we learn what it means to steal no longer and we learn what it means to give freely to others.
Practices in Poverty Alleviation
We’ve said before that broken and destructive formative practices are one of the five causes of poverty that every holistic ministry should address.
When we try to help people who are materially poor, we often focus on the habits that we think they need to change. Certainly, people’s bad habits can contribute to material poverty. But what about our habits? How do our practices connect (or disconnect) with ministry alongside the materially poor? Here are a few ideas:
- Before we try to serve others, we need to take time to be in community with them. In American middle-class culture, we often live our lives in such a way that we fail to recognize our dependence on others. But the Bible’s idea of human flourishing includes healthy dependence on God and other people. We need to understand the importance of community and having our habits challenged. Otherwise, we will just bring broken practices of self-sufficiency to our work with people who are struggling under the weight of poverty.
- We should recognize and respect others’ dignity through listening. We should approach ministry with a humble learning posture, not acting as though we have all the answers, because we don’t! We should know people well enough to know how we can best serve them, seeing how God has already blessed both of us, and not missing opportunities to grow together. We should invite people we are working with to have a say in the ministry, not bringing in all our ideas from outside a community.
- We should work together with everyone we serve. Asking people to contribute time and effort to a shared project is often much more meaningful than gifts alone, and puts all of us on equal footing, giving everyone a stake in the ministry.
- We should start new ministries only after we’ve carefully explored other areas where God is already at work in our community. If another church or organization is already serving in the same neighborhood doing similar work to what you are trying to do, look for ways to work together to support what is already going on. Using your wealth, influence, or charisma to start something “better” can do untold damage to existing relationships and work. It may absolutely be that God is leading you to do something new, but don’t automatically assume you’re the only one who has ever thought about it.
Let me share a story from a sister ministry that we love. Years ago, they started a thrift shop in a neighborhood that was mired in material poverty as a way to care for the community with dignity. Taking donations of products from other parts of their city and selling them in the community at very modest prices allowed people in the community to obtain needed items with choice and agency instead of as handouts.
They operated this ministry for some time, but had a nagging sense that something was wrong. Eventually, they started asking people in the community, “Is this what you needed? Is this what you want?”
And do you know what their neighbors said? “What we want is a grocery store. There’s none around here. And we don’t have the kind of transportation that allows us to go elsewhere. We’d love a grocery store here—with fresh fruits and vegetables.”
And that’s just what the ministry did. Because they listened, they took a risk and went to their donors and supporters to figure out how to change their work to allow the community members’ dreams to become a reality—which it has!
They had the humility to learn. They didn’t come and say, “This is what you need.” They started to listen. In that process of putting God’s story into practice, everyone involved in the community was reshaped, relationships were strengthened.
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