I remember my first impression of our family of churches. By the grace of God, I was invited, cold contact, to a Bible discussion at the University of Oregon in the fall of 2013. I met my future wife at that Bible discussion. She was another incoming Freshman and already an amazing disciple. It was an intergenerational and ethnically diverse group centered on the gospel. They were all together, seeking God
and loving one another. They shared about Jesus authentically, not in a “used car salesman’, “pyramid scheme” or other controlled and forced way. I was the guest and I was instantly drawn into this loving community. Though it started as cold contact, it quickly became a center of red hot faithful relationships in my life.
Six months went by, and I got busy with classes. I had come out to the Bible discussion almost every week. The discussion leader switched, and slowly the singles transferred out of the group as more campus students joined in. Early on, one brother gave me a church card and invited me to check them out on Sunday. To their surprise months later, I showed up. Another brother invited me to hang out with the campus ministry at his place one evening. We played “Just Dance”. Another time some of us caught a movie, and I felt like I was on a pseudo date, which was an honor. Of course, it being college, we met up once or twice on the turf field for ultimate frisbee.
I liked the disciples and I wanted to seek them out more. One time I came and brought pizza for the group. Another time I came and no one else showed up. Eventually I googled the group and added a few of the disciples on Facebook, which was one of the first places I connected with them outside of the Bible discussion. It was six months of great social events, but I was curious why this group was a group and what motivate
d them to do what they were doing. After six months, I wanted to know what they knew, because I knew that they cared about me. They were genuinely great people, and I wanted to know what made them genuine, so that maybe something could rub off on me.
“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”
I remember thinking at that first Bible talk; “Why isn’t anyone asking if I’ve been saved like my past mega church? Why aren’t they praying Jesus into my heart and sending me on my way? What’s the program here?”. The group was great, but I wanted more depth. After months of going to the group, I was delighted when a brother asked me to study the Bible.
“Absolutely!” I said. Nothing happened. A whole month passed by. Then in January of 2014, the brother asked me again.
“Hey, I need to repent. I asked you to study the Bible and didn’t follow through. Would you give me a second chance?” He asked. Hungrier than ever for the Word that seemed to inspire all of these amazing disciples, I accepted. Two months later, I finished studying and was baptized into Christ that spring.
Amen for repentance and the willingness to ask twice. Amen that God sent that intentional brother into that Bible discussion, where no other disciple was willing to ask me to study for a whole six months. Amen that I survived that long. As much as I loved the friendship of the whole group, I thank God that I wasn’t depending on that friendship alone for my salvation. I’m thankful that God sent other brothers into my life, where the first few chose not to share the truth. That brother lead me to Christ and I decided to become a disciple of Jesus, rather than just a group attendee or audience member.
Years later, Madison and I were married in the Kingdom and we answered the call to plant God’s church in Bend, OR. I could no longer be an outside critic, accepting the responsibility to lead the church. We recruited an amazing mission team and started as a house church. We loved worshipping in the living room, having communion meals, sharing our faith all over town, and fellowshipping late into the evening every day. We often had guests come by who shared that they had never seen Christianity like this, where it was really all about Jesus. Then a worldwide pandemic occurred, just as we were growing beyond the living room. Some of our team left Bend and we went into crisis management, surviving the chaos of 2020. Slowly we began to emerge again in 2021 with in person services and weekly Bible discussions for outreach. It was then that I was personally discipled by two church guests.
We still had an amazing fellowship of committed disciples, where it was really about Jesus, but two guests who visited us saw some blind spots as we languished out of the pandemic. I’ll call them Peter and John. Peter came one Sunday because of our website, where he saw all of our videos from the previous evangelistic summer.
“I was really impressed by your website” he said. “It seems like you guys do missional stuff throughout the week. I think that’s what the church should be every day. I’ve never seen a church going out and making disciples like that. Are you doing anything this week I can join?” I explained to Peter that while we were going out every week for evangelism the previous summer, we currently only had a singles Bible discussion for an evangelistic event. I encouraged him that he could ask any member to meet up and share their faith together, but we currently didn’t have anything like that facilitated by the church. I invited Peter out a few times after that to share his faith with me, but we stopped hearing from him. He expressed; “I’m looking for people with an outward focus and a missional church”.
Peter made me think. I wanted to be defensive and prove to him that disciples were sharing their faith naturally throughout the week as they went along, but I couldn’t show Peter the fruit of this. I wanted to disregard his perspective. After all he seemed like he lived out of his car and he only came one Sunday, so what does he know about us? I could tell him that we were a mission team as our website claimed, but at that time I couldn’t show him that we were a missional church throughout the week. I couldn’t point to something we were already practicing for him to join, because we weren’t practicing it. The intent of our hearts for the great commission did not match the fruit of our actions. That particular Sunday, Peter saw a gathering of Christians, but he did not see sent Christians going to the lost.
Later, John came out to our Bible discussion. In fact he came out to several singles discussions, though he himself was married and had children older than us. He had been through a lot in life. There was current trauma and past baggage that he was working through which hindered him from being consistent, though he was very sociable. Eventually he had come out to about a dozen events, and I had gotten with him a few times for prayer and getting into the Word. Another brother joined his studies. Then one Sunday I noticed John get up and leave early, right in the middle of the sermon. I called him up after and asked if everything was okay.
“People literally moved away from me” he said. “I do not feel welcome or any love. I feel like an outcast. It’s obvious people do not want me there and Jesus says that you’ll know his disciples by their love. I need to find a place like that”. Again, I wanted to defend myself and my family. I wanted to point John to the facts of how people had loved him and to get him to give the benefit of the doubt for why they would physically distance themselves, during a worldwide pandemic. I wanted him to own his actions in the inconsistency of his communication. In short, I wanted to justify my own shortcomings. What hit me the most was that John quoted Jesus from John 13.
"By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:35
I had always defined this verse by saying that our relationships needed to be different than the world’s. The practical application was that we needed to have relationships outside of church events. It looks like getting each other’s numbers, checking in to see how we’re doing and being involved with each other. Somehow, John didn’t make it from being a Sunday guest to experiencing a loving family, devoted to one another. Was John right? Was I lacking in my love? If a disciple pointed to this scripture, I would be quick to reconcile any fault. It stung to hear these words from John. The truth does that in our hearts.
If these criticisms were untrue, I could ignore them, but they stuck in my mind. Sometimes we can write off the Johns and Peters God sends into our life as guests, critics, the world, but what could we actually learn from them? What is God teaching us through them? I think back to when I was a guest, and I realize that their outside perspective can be so valuable. How could we respond? When a guest, neighbor, coworker, or anyone outside the church gives you criticism do you get bitter or get better? Do you respond to correction as a loving disciple? All I could do was ask for forgiveness and a second chance to show that we were a missional, loving family. As disciples we will struggle at those things sometimes, but let it never be said that as disciples we’re unwilling to grow, learn, change, and repent.
It starts with you. Not the person on your left or your right. I know that renewal has to occur in my own heart, before I can lead others and affect the status quo. In fact, it’s best to assume that other disciples are doing their part. It’s easy for someone to criticize a group they don’t fully know, but you can respond as a disciple by assuming the best in others and only speaking for your own actions. Be self critical, with a healing heart.
By the grace of God, guests do sometimes give us a second chance. Even after I fumble social interactions and studies, and they have two or three or four bad first impressions of my fellowship or my preaching, the Holy Spirit can manage to get someone through to be baptized into christ. I remember the words of the brother who asked me to study the Bible a second time years ago; “I need to repent”. He put his own pride aside so that the Word of God could be shared with me, and Christ could shine through his life. Those words meant everything to me. Have you ever said that to a guest you haven’t studied with or haven’t loved beyond church events? When a guest disciples you, will you allow criticism to make you better or make you bitter? Have you ever asked for their forgiveness as you follow Jesus and help them do the same? When guests disciple us and we fall short, let us praise God for his sanctification and bring him glory by aiming to do better.