I.D., please…

The older I get the more amused I become about the world’s attempts to confine me to various boxes.  Who I should hang-out with, what I should eat, where I should live, when I should be happy, why I spend my money the way I do, how come I hate golf.  The list goes on and on.  And as if that weren’t claustrophobic enough, most of these have a negative side as well (the most painful being “what I should not eat”).  Sometimes I wonder if I resemble the shape of a box, and that the cartoon character Sponge Bob might be a distant relative or that I might be the human manifestation of the proverbial square peg.

Amusement shifts quickly to annoyance, however, when the subject becomes Christianity.  People of faith are this way, not that way; and since some believe this, others must find it acceptable – right?  At first blush it appears that only those living outside Christ are the ones who suffer from these cases of mistaken identity.  Curiously, though, Christians are also plagued by the same identity crisis, perhaps explaining in part why we question who we really are in the world order and succumb to the travesty of allowing internal and external divisions to prevent us from fully uniting under Christ’s authority.

Of course, oversimplification is a risk here, but I am a firm believer that we make life far more difficult than God ever intended it to be.  So, though it may be a bit naïve and almost certainly incomplete, I offer the following points, grouped as simple statements of being and belief, about Christians in general as an attempt to dispel the boxy notions about our faith.

I am part of the wondrous demographic diversity God always intended.  I am a member of all rungs of the socio-economic ladder: poor, middle-income and wealthy.  I am tall and short, fat and skinny, male and female, old and young, black and white and every shade between.  I am educated: GED to Ivy League, street-smart to multiple PhDs, blue collar to white collar.  I am a resident of all towns, tribes, cities, states and nations in this beautiful world.

I am interested in more than just religion.  I am a concerned citizen who reads the newspaper, votes regularly and gets involved in community affairs.  I am worried about the environment and want to do my part to leave our children a healthy planet.  I am someone who struggles to be a good spouse, parent, grandparent, child, employee and friend.  I take seriously God’s mission for my stage in life.

I am honest about who I am.  I am a sinner.  I am someone who desperately needs God’s grace and mercy and who wants to be held accountable.

I believe in the one and only true God, creator of all.  I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s own son and my savior.  I believe the Holy Spirit is alive and well convicting the world of its sins.  I believe in the Bible as the inerrant word of God.  I believe there is only one path to eternal life with God.  I believe only one human being has ever lived a perfect life, and the rest of humanity is equally imperfect.

I believe in the sanctity of life from the moment of conception to death.  I believe in marriage as the sacred union between one man and one woman.

I believe the cross of Christ transcends any party or side of the political spectrum and trumps the self-serving rhetoric of mass media commentators.

I believe a church’s name or parent organization is far less important than what it actually stands for or against.

I believe that holding a Biblical opinion gives me needed direction and the confidence to handle what life throws my way.

I believe fame, power and wealth cannot compare to forgiveness, grace and mercy – just ask anyone who has fallen from the limelight, been pushed from office or rendered penniless.

I believe few things (if any) are more open-minded and less judgmental than a savior who accepts anyone as long as they accept Him.

I believe religion has often been misused throughout history, and that Christ will sort things out when He returns.

I believe in freedom of religion, speech and the press, but I also believe these freedoms are regularly abused.  I believe censure is wrong, but many forms of expression are nothing more than blatant profanity worthy of nothing more than the garbage heap.

I believe that Christianity and fun are not mutually exclusive.  Just pay a visit to any thriving youth group to witness the proof.

I believe it is God’s privilege to determine what is right and wrong, despite human laws that may say otherwise.

I believe that if science wants everyone to believe it is strictly fact-based, then all scientists need to consider every possibility instead of indiscriminately throwing some out.

I believe that my faith is an integral part of who I am and everything I do, so asking me to set any portion of it aside for any reason keeps me from being my best as an employee, spouse, friend or family member.

In the end, it all comes down to a struggle for consistency: are we really honest about who we are and what we believe, and do those statements of being and belief play-out in our everyday lives in such a way that we cannot help but package ourselves into a gift-wrapped box for presentation to our Lord?  If so, then we can leave all pretense behind and state with full confidence: “I am a Christian.”

The Accountable Christian

College was an exciting time of my life. The exhilaration of newfound freedom and endless opportunity conspired to push me away from the entire reason for being at school – to learn. Distractions were available at every turn, it seemed, and I quickly realized that one of the life lessons I needed to learn was how to discipline myself to stay focused on what was important so that I could grow as a person. Fortunately, a friend introduced me to the concept of study groups, and once I embraced this tool many things fell into their proper perspective. The habit of getting together with others to tackle calculus and history instead of trying to do it myself helped me to be successful when I could have easily floundered. This same lesson can be applied to a person’s walk of faith, too.

Freshly minted Christians often emerge from baptism with boundless enthusiasm and a hunger to tell the world about Jesus. They are quick to join Bible study groups, volunteer for church activities and lead any group of which they are a part in prayer. Unfortunately, the struggles of this world poke one hole after another in their helium-filled exuberance, and soon they are faced with the reality of maintaining their Christian growth. What can be done?

King Solomon found the solution! In Proverbs 27:17, he writes, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” The answer is found in getting together on a regular basis with other Christians who are interested in strengthening their own faith. In doing so, each person is made better because they struggle together, and by virtue of their interest in each other, they become accountable to one another.

Your church may already have a good number of accountability groups who have been meeting for sometime, so you may be able join one of them. But the close-knit nature of existing groups may preclude your participation, so it may be easier to start from scratch. Let’s look at the steps involved in forming a new one.

If you are feeling led by God to start an accountability group you have already been selected not only to participate in one but most likely to lead it as well. When choosing whom else to include, keep in mind that the gravity of the commitment you will be asking for cannot be treated lightly. Therefore, it is important that you pray for God’s guidance in approaching like-minded individuals rather than simply selecting friends. In its most advanced state, an accountability group will force each member to answer difficult questions about their private life, and if you and your friends cannot do this in front of each other then the effort is wasted. Size is also important. Groups of 4-6 people tend to be the most effective because it’s easier to get to know everybody, and, perhaps more practically, you’ll be able to finish in 60-90 minutes. Finally, you’ll want your group to be all male or all female because greater openness will result as each individual realizes that they are struggling with similar problems that are common to other men or women. Said another way, a man would be more likely to admit to a failing marriage due to his violent temper in front of other men. If you are ever in doubt about whether to include someone or not, look to God’s wisdom.

Now that you’ve got your list, it’s time to begin inviting people. Start by setting up a private meeting with each one – over coffee or at lunchtime, for example. Begin by explaining your belief that God has led you to start this group and follow by saying that you’d like for this person to join because God laid it on your heart to invite them. Most likely, the person will be flattered, and it is here that you need to temper this emotion by stressing the seriousness of the commitment. This will be a small group of people – not just the two of you. Attendance at every meeting will be expected, hard questions will be asked and confidentiality will be mandatory. The invitee may need some time to consider these rules to make sure he or she can abide by them. This is fine as long as they understand what they are agreeing to once they say, “Yes.” If you do get an affirmative answer, have the invitee offer you at least two days of the week and times of day when they are open to meet. This will reinforce your interest in their participation and allow them to feel like they are helping to build this new group. If the invitee chooses to turn you down, thank them for considering your idea. Perhaps the Holy Spirit will move them to ask if they can join at a later time, and you don’t want to close the door to this possibility. No matter what the answer, close your meeting with a prayer thanking God for sending this person to you and asking for His blessing as you move forward.

Logistics can either be the simplest or most difficult part of the project. If you are lucky enough to find a common opening in everyone’s schedules, set the day and time immediately and start looking for a good venue. If an agreeable meeting time cannot be found, try each person’s second choice, and if this doesn’t solve the problem you may have to call each member to see if they can give you their third option. Remind the group that accountability isn’t easy, so sacrifices may have to be made if they are serious about the commitment. Once the schedules mesh, it’s time to pick a location. Be creative! Some groups have been known to select a different setting for every meeting, while others prefer to frequent the same spot. It’s worth noting that food always seems to bring people together, so a restaurant may be the ideal choice. The only requirement is that you find a place for your whole group to sit comfortably and somewhat privately, as you’ll be engaging in some delicate conversation at times. It’s also worth noting that others may overhear your discussions. Don’t let this deter you. In His parable of the sower (e.g. Luke 8:5-8), Jesus indicates that the word of God will sometimes be trampled under foot or choked out by the affairs of the world, but other seed falls on good soil and yields a huge crop. Your choice of location and the sounds of your serious but good-hearted conversation may pay dividends for the Kingdom that you could never have imagined – let this inspire you as you move ahead.

The group is seated, casual conversation trails off and all eyes turn to you. What’s next? If you’re meeting at a restaurant, you should obviously thank God for the food when it arrives, but do not let your prayers stop there. Open the session by asking the group if they have any prayers of praise or needs to be lifted up to God. Some may not know how to pray or what to pray for – what an opportunity! Perhaps one of them will feel comfortable leading this portion of future meetings, or maybe it becomes a shared responsibility. In addition to prayer, suggest that the group read and discuss a chapter a week of a Christian book on a subject that is topical to the group. Perhaps you are all parents, or maybe you’ve all been through a divorce. Whatever the subject, there is a wide variety of materials to choose from at your local Christian bookstore, and this will provide a framework for discussion. Finally, introduce the concept of accountability by explaining that each person will be asked at every meeting whether he has read his Bible and prayed daily. Lead the group through each one of these exercises for the first few weeks while they get a feel for how all of this is going to work. Complement those who honor their accountability and encourage those who don’t to keep trying. Ultimately, your comfort-level and efforts to organize and move the group forward will, in time, propel you toward the final step.

There is no definitive boundary crossing to tell you when to move on to more advanced accountability. As leader, though, it will be your responsibility to monitor the dynamics of the conversations and look for some telltale signs that it’s time to stretch yourselves. For example, has attendance stabilized? During the first 6-12 months, it is possible that you may lose a member or two because the meeting turned out to be different than what they expected. Others who were initially invited and declined or who weren’t invited and heard about it may want to join. This is natural and should not be viewed as a black mark on your leadership. Instead, use this as an opportunity to pray together for God’s guidance and act accordingly. The point is that the group’s make-up should settle for a reasonably long period of time to allow the crucial ingredients of friendship and trust to blossom in order to elevate your overall effectiveness. Along with a stable membership, you’ll also want to determine how the group is responding to accountability so far. If they seem to have embraced the weekly queries about prayer and Bible reading, it should not be a tough sell getting them to deeper questions. A lukewarm reaction should be explored further to determine the problem. Has there been a breach of confidentiality? This could be grounds for dismissal from the group – it’s that important! Are members struggling with prayer and/or Bible reading? Perhaps this can be handled by encouraging one of the more mature Christians in the group to provide mentoring services. When you are ready to move ahead, take the lead by writing a list of 5-10 tough questions for yourself and distributing a paper copy of it. Continue to include Bible reading and prayer since the goal is to build on what you’ve already worked hard to accomplish, but add other questions that demonstrate your own imperfect nature. Allow the members 1-2 weeks to consider your draft and create one for themselves. At the end of this time encourage the group to share their individual lists, thank them for their courage and re-stress confidentiality. Finally, institute the practice of going around the table to answer the questions at each meeting with generous helpings of complements and encouragement as needed. This is not an easy thing to do, but sharing your answers to 5-10 probing questions that are custom designed to your individual struggles and temptations with a small group of committed and trusted friends will do more to improve your Christian walk than almost anything else.

In his book The Seven Seasons of the Man in the Mirror, Patrick Morley makes the following observation: “When no one holds us accountable for how we live our lives, we live them however we want.” Few Christians lack the basic knowledge of what God expects out of their lives, but many struggle in vain to fulfill this expectation because they toil alone. Accountability groups go a long way toward solving this problem by giving Christians a practical tool to improve their walk with God in a way that is both personal and safe.