This year I had the opportunity to attend and lead some workshops at two training events sponsored by Easum, Bandy, and Associates. One of the more powerful vision casting tools that I watched in one of the main sessions was a training talk in the form of dramatic email dialog that occurred between two individuals. The emails were read and visuals (emoticons) were put up on the screen at appropriate times to help enhance emotion in the message. While this may sound like an unusual way to communicate in a live seminar format, it was very compelling. So much so that I did a teaching for our church based on the concept centered around casting the vision for small group community. Rather than describing how to use this type of communication tool, I'll just share the example that I did and perhaps you could adapt it to a training need you might have.
"You have mail … "
What you are about to hear is a hypothetical series of email conversations between a sincere but spiritually challenged first-century Colosse resident and the Apostle Paul. The Colosse resident is someone who has taken some first steps toward Jesus, but whose eternal relationship with Jesus is unsure, not unlike those who might have found their way into your 21st-century small group. The Apostle Paul is someone who had not been to Colosse, but knew how Jesus was wanting to move towards those who were seeking Him—those who needed to move from spiritual interest to a love relationship with Jesus.
And so, Paul wrote the book of Colossians. Much of the email dialog from the Apostle Paul comes from Col. 1:25-2:5.
During the dialog, you are going to hear the email conversation as well as the private prayers offered by both the Apostle Paul and the Colosse resident. From time to time, you'll hear a break in the dialog. At that point, we'll stop our dialog and let you have some dialog with your neighbor sitting next to you or with the group that is with you at this training. You may find some of our dialog brings up tensions from your own experience, or you may hear something that stirs you to action. During your discussion times, share those thoughts and feelings with the folks you are seated near.
Colosse Resident: Mr. Paul—I'm sorry I don't know your last name, or maybe that is your last name —anyway, the link on the church's web site only listed you as "Paul, church planter and spiritual guide." Anyhow, I'm from Colosse. I know you haven't been here and you haven't met me personally, but recently some friends of mine have gotten connected to a small group of folks who call themselves Christ-followers here in Colosse. My friends just keep talking about this group of Christ-followers and it has sort of gotten my interest up. Anyway, a couple of folks in that group said they met you in another town and they talk about how your life was changed by this person named "Jesus." You know, most days, I feel like my life could stand some changing, if you know what I mean. So, I wanted to email you. About my life, well to get right to the point, I've done the "church" thing before. I went to the local temple shrine a few years ago and even got involved in a small study group. I know a little about this higher power God stuff. One of my church teachers at that time told me the secret to being a "really good" Christian (whatever that is?) is to go to church, give some money, and know the scriptures—you know read it, listen to people teach about it, know where certain verses are—that kind of stuff. Well, I went out and bought a King James Jewish scripture book, you know Genesis, Exodus,… (although I don't see a darn thing in there about that King James guy). Anyway, I've been reading it…pretty interesting stuff. But, I guess I still don't know it well enough because I still can't get over this nagging sense that my life just isn't complete? I don't know—I guess going to church just isn't the "thing" for me. What's going on?
Mostly confused, seeking@Colosse.tr
Paul: "Dear Lord, open the eyes of this person's heart."
Dear Jesus Seeker, Thanks for emailing me! From your words, I can tell you are beginning the greatest journey of your life. But to prepare for this journey there's some things you need to know—some news I need to break to you. I hope you're sitting down.
First of all, there's no such thing as a "really good Christian," only really sinful Christians who live in the grace and mercy of a really loving God—so when you hear someone tell you how to be a really good Christian, ignore them and get over it!
Secondly, you say you don't know the Bible well enough … and you don't! But that's not the point. The nagging feeling you have about not knowing it all comes not so much from not knowing the Scripture as much as it comes from not knowing Christ. I recently wrote a letter to those Christ-following friends of yours in Colosse and told them the true "secret" to being a Christ-follower. What is the secret? (Which by the way, God wants completely out in the open.) The secret is that Christ lives and works in His followers. There is no other secret or silver bullet than that; it's about Jesus possessing our lives. That is what I told the folks in the letter to your town. I said it like this, "I proclaim Jesus, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect or complete in Christ." Not perfect or complete in "Bible-knowledge" but in "Christ-knowledge," which comes from talking to God (prayer), listening to God (Bible reading/teaching) and developing a lifestyle where those things are happening frequently and repeatedly.
And thirdly, remember when you said that "going to church" wasn't the thing for you. I would agree whole-heartedly. In fact, I need to break the news to you that it's impossible to "go to church." The church is simply the children of God who are called out of the worldly community to live in God's community. You might think about it this way, it's like defecting from your current citizenship there in Colosse in order to gain a citizenship in God's Kingdom, and then, God appointing you to be an official ambassador back to the country you just came from! That's what the church is. I hope you find a home in this community of ambassadors for Jesus!
Colosse Resident: Paul, your words certainly shed a new light on things for me. But, when you started using words like perfect, complete…and church in the same sentence, let's just say that my experience of church has not exactly been perfect or complete.
Slightly Cynical, seeking@Colosse.tr
Paul: Dear Jesus Seeker, Yes, I understand your concern. Let me explain. The perfection that I spoke of in my letter to you Colossians implies a couple of things. One is the fact that Jesus' death and resurrection provides the pathway for us to be seen as perfectly innocent of the penalty of sin that both you and I have committed before God. Let's face it, we're not perfect and won't be on our own, but when Jesus possesses us, in a sense, we are presented to God with Christ's perfection rather than our own imperfection. That's the starting point for perfection, but the other sense of perfection in my letter, and the one that may trouble you most, is the idea of that our relationship with God is a process that moves us to perfect completeness. Jesus seeker, have you ever been perfectly completed by a relationship? Have you delighted to spend time with someone, and know that someone finds delight in spending time with you? Have you gotten to know that person's desires and character and wanted to please them because of who they are? That's the kind of perfectly complete relationship that God wants you to experience with Him. That's the other way I want people to be presented "perfect" in Christ. But let me tell you something important, there are plenty of people who are missing this kind of completeness. They would say "life is hard and then you die." But I say "to live is Christ, and to die is just more Christ!" Life is more than just hopping on the gospel train, more than just buying a hell-fire insurance policy. No, there's a "life" Christ is calling us to live. A life of connection to Christ? Absolutely! But to be perfectly complete in that connection, there's another connection that's also got to be present. The way I said it in my letter to you folks what that "I was working hard to see you all get united or "knit" together in Christ's love so you would have the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." That word united or knit that I used in my letter is the same word I use in my tent making business when I tie several pieces of canvas together to make a complete tent. I sure hope you start taking God's knitting class so you can figure out how to get knit together with a few other Jesus-followers! Oh, and by the way, when you figure out how to knit, you'll figure out what perfection is!
(Debrief with your neighbor for 3-4 minutes)
Colosse Resident: Dear Paul, Now I'm really confused. What knitting class? What's the big deal about getting knit together? I read your letter, but isn't this "knitting together in love" that you talked about just the way God tells us to be nice to one another? You know, peace on earth, good will toward man, cleanliness is next to Godliness—that kind of stuff? seeking@Colosse.tr
Paul: Dear Jesus seeker, Obviously, when I used the idea of being knit together, it surprised you, and maybe confused you. Let me explain it this way, if the church were a guitar and each string was person, then every string would vibrate independently of one another, right? Pluck one string and only one string vibrates. Sure, if you tune them just right and pluck them all at the same time, it can make a nice sound. But that's still a bunch of strings all doing their own thing without a lot of connection with one another. But, Christ's church is more like a spider web. When you pluck on one strand, the whole web vibrates. What's the point? When Christ is at work in someone's life and you have a web tight connection to that person, when Christ moves in them, more than likely your going to get moved too. You see having close connections to other Christians, people who have the very Spirit of God living inside of them, actually allows us to see what Jesus is like and gives us access to God's transforming work. Let me tell you a story of a man in the City of Ephesus, not far from where you live. Some time ago, he gave his life to Christ. As a young Christian, his life circumstances led him into a period of depression. He prayed fervently to God rescue him from his circumstances and heal him from this discouragement—zap him and make him better. He said he thought that "zapping" was how God liked to work, he thought that was God's "Plan A" of working in people's lives. During his depression, he joined a house church group there in Ephesus—he thought, "what could it hurt." As he made friendships with folks in this home group, he started to learn things about how he related to people … and to God. His new found friends showed him a love that was not based on performance or accomplishment like most of his relationships had been based. He was surprised that in areas of his life where he was clearly messing up, these friends confronted him in love. At first he felt bad and guilt-ridden when confronted, but later he learned the freedom that comes with being confronted in love because he knew these people were for him and not against him. Another thing happened in this same community, many recognized that my friend had a particular gift for making other new people feel at ease around him. They encouraged him in this gift of hospitality. Not only that, he watched as individuals modeled confession of sin and forgiveness one to another. All the while, he told me he was feeling an increasing desire to study the Bible and to pray. He said that his depression and feelings of emptiness were going away. He said he actually felt good about life and about how God was using him. Although, … . he went on to say, he was a little disappointed that God didn't "zap" him when he prayed for healing from the depression.
He said, "Don't get me wrong, I'm happy that other Christians helped me through this process, I know God uses people too, but I think I just got the cheap-seats from God." So, when I wrote a letter to the Ephesians recently I told him and the rest of the church there that, "From Jesus the whole church body, joined and held together by every person as a supporting ligament, grows, and builds itself up and heals itself in love, as each part does its work together." You see Jesus Seeker, my friend from Ephuses did not get second rate treatment from God—in fact he got God's Plan-A. God's plan is for His Spirit to work through His people in relationship with one another, people with a variety of gifts who are all necessary to create "health and growth," spiritually speaking, for a church community. Like I said in the letter to you Colossians, the reason I'm working so hard to see people knit together is "so that you may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that you may know the mystery of God, namely Christ." Jesus seeker, I'm praying you get drawn into that type of community.
Colosse Resident: "O God, you know there's been so much pain in my life. Help me!"
Dear Paul, I hear what you're saying about this knit together stuff, but you need to know the truth about me. My life's not had the greatest track record with relationships. There's a quirkiness about me that makes it hard for people to connect with me. I find that I do better when I'm functioning independently. I still remember a time when a friend of mine was really critical of the way I was raising my kids—I could never really face that person in the same way again. And, then there was the time I said something to a couple of other people, in confidence, and it got back to me through some people I hardly knew. You know what, I have a hard time getting past stuff like that, so, I figure why take the risk. No thanks, I'm not taking that risk again. To be honest, doing life in relational community, this being knit together stuff, just seems to be a lot more messy and awkward. It just seems like we are constantly stumbling over each other's goofiness. You know what I mean? We are all kind of messed up when our lives are out in the open. It creates and lot of tension and conflict sometimes. It's just easier to avoid all that tension and risk of rejection rather than being known for who I am. Is that too much to ask?
Still hurting, seeking@Colosse.tr
Paul: "Lord, help this poor soul to hear your words and not her words echoing around in her own brain and heart."
Dear Jesus Seeker, I very much understand how you may feel. It's like I told the church at Rome, most days I too feel like an idiot, knowing the good I should do, but not able to do it…instead I do those things I hate. Yes, I understand the tension that comes from living the life Christ has called us to live. But, you have to realize that God's "secret" plan, which isn't much of a secret now, is for you to live in relational connection to God and to others. I can tell you this, if you are hiding from people, you are most assuredly hiding from God too. You may think avoiding relationships will protect you from emotional hurt and damage, but the truth is you'll never find true healing and transformation outside of those relationships.
It's that truth that I have invested my whole life in; that truth that has now landed me in the jail cell that I write to you from. Yes, I have felt the pain of isolation even in the last few days. But, that makes me more determined not to shrink back from my purpose to see people united with Christ and each other in His love and encouraged in heart. Because I know that the full riches of complete understanding and the treasures of wisdom lie in Jesus when we connect with Him and one another. It sounds like you've got some new friends who have found the secret of loving God and loving others, getting themselves knit together in oneness in Christ. It sounds like they are inviting you to do the same. That's what I'm doing. So, what are you going to do?
In anxious anticipation, Paul@apostles.com
(Debrief with your neighbor for 3-4 minutes)
Colosse Resident: "O Lord my God! Thank you for inviting me into your community, your family and thank you for healing me!"
Dear Paul, It's been a few months since I last contacted you. Praise God for what He is doing in my life, or should I say in our life after fully surrendering my life to Jesus. I have been meeting with a small group of Christ-followers and seekers in a home here in Colosse. Has it been easy? No. As I got to know the people better, I found they really loved me, but they also loved me enough to not leave me where I was. They encouraged me, sometimes to the point of challenging me to go beyond my comfort zone to confession, service and mission. With their support, I've confronted some tough issues and begun the process of working through those issues. I'm still dealing with some relational tensions in my life and, even with some wacky dysfunctional folks in our group (and me being one of them), I've definitely seen the process of transformation begin in my life as I've truly surrendered to Jesus as we live-out the Scriptural way of relating to each other. And, did I mention, our group has really grown! A couple of my co-workers are now coming to our home group as well as several other people. We've max'd out the house we are meeting in … and now the group is talking about multiplying—birthing they call it? I'm still thinking about that idea, and I don't know if I like it yet. I figure they can call it whatever nice word they want, but I know what it means…we're going to get split up! It just seems horrible when you're just getting close to a few people, you might not get to see them as often. Although, I have gotten to the point where I know and trust these people enough that I know that, with God's help, it will work out.
Signed—Multiplying or Dividing, seeking@Colosse.tr
Paul: "O Lord, help me and this dear Jesus seeker find your heart for both in-reach and outreach."
Dear Jesus Follower, I am so excited for your new life in Christ's community, the church! One of the greatest blessings of a life lived for Christ is the privilege to give that life away to another person. You're a little concerned right now about losing some life-changing relationships, but let me tell you something, you're not going to lose life-changing relationships unless you choose to. God is going to keep bringing people into your life. Whether you help lead someone to Christ, or help a small group birth a new small group, or even help a church birth a new church, God's heart is to see His kingdom grow and He's decided to give us a huge role in that process.
I'd encourage you to rejoice in the opportunity to participate in that! Who knows how God may use this opportunity to use you in a new way and even increase the depth of your relationship with God and others!
In Christ, Paul@apostles.com
(Debrief with your neighbor for 3-4 minutes)
Colosse Resident: (now emailing another person) "Oh Lord, use me."
To my dear friend Rebecca, I'm so glad you spent some time with me and some of my Christ-following friends last night at our newly formed small group. I really appreciate the questions you asked me about Jesus and our community. More than anything, I just want you to experience a connection with people who pray with you and for you, who can honestly hold the Word of God up to life experiences and know what's right and what's not. Have you been knit together with a group who can unselfishly give their time to you and take pleasure in seeing Jesus formed inside of you, a group which delights in you enough that it is a micro-example of what heaven must be like? I just want you to know how vitally important it is to be connected or knit together with people like that. In fact I know first hand the pain of being disconnected from God and people—I'd like to talk to you more about that sometime soon … .
"So everywhere we go, we tell everyone about Christ. We warn them and teach them with all the wisdom God has given us, for we want to present them to God, perfect in their relationship to Christ. I work very hard at this, as I depend on Christ's mighty power that works within me.
I want you to know how much I have agonized for you and for the church at Laodicea, and for many other friends who have never known me personally. My goal is that they will be encouraged and knit together by strong ties of love. I want them to have full confidence because they have complete understanding of God's secret plan, which is Christ himself. In him lie hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge."