What Is a ‘Nervous Breakdown,’ Really?

I once worked with someone some years ago who had several times in her life which she described as ‘nervous breakdowns.’ In one of them she described times when she would go catatonic: she would go to her room, wrap herself in a blanket, and remain motionless and expressionless for hours. From what I know of what was happening in her family and marriage at the time, it’s no wonder that she felt overwhelmed and unable to cope. I was reminded of her experience through my recent reading through a biographical account of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald by an English professor, and it’s noteworthy that Zelda was institutionalized several times when she became delusional and dysfunctional, and sometimes these are called mental breakdowns.

Unfortunately, the term ‘nervous breakdown’ or ‘mental breakdown’ really isn’t a term of clinical psychology or psychiatry. It’s more a popular term and colloquial description, and it seems to have its roots back into the earlier half of the 20th century, when the term ‘nerves’ was used to describe ‘anxiety’. It isn’t used that much any more; panic attack nowadays is used much more accurately of some of these incidents. In other words, ‘nervous breakdown’ is not a professional diagnosis from either a qualified psychiatrist or psychologist, and probably has not been anything close to one for many years. It’s been for a long time a sign of amateur psychobabble and of amateur misdiagnosis. In the case of Zelda Fitzgerald, I think that the historical record might be well enriched by a forensic analysis by a professional psychiatrist in the light of more contemporary diagnoses and treatment.

Here are some online sources, some from professional psychologists and psychiatrists, which describe more of what people have meant by the term:

It’s valuable for pastors and Christian leaders to read over these descriptions, since it can help them to avoid jumping to wrong conclusions about what people are going through in their lives. Deep and overwhelming panic, hurt, disappointment and grief can often provoke a strong outward reaction in the people who are experiencing those emotions, and pastors and Christian leaders are often the closest person to be able to minister to those people. For instance, in some communities, someone experiencing the grief at the loss of a loved one may break out in loud crying and wailing. Most of the people going forward do not become dysfunctional in their lives nor do they show signs of delusions, mania, or catatonia, and are not living afterwards ‘on the verge of a nervous breakdown,’ as the cliché goes. They may live in sadness for a while, and may need to make some significant adjustments, but they may not need any kind of medication and certainly not need to be institutionalized, since their reaction is necessarily not the sign of something organically wrong with that person. I personally would not even call it ‘mental illness.’ Rather, I would call it a sign of deep psychological injury, along with those who are seeking to change the terminology to distinguish between organically based mental illnesses such as some forms of schizophrenia, developmental and character disorders such as narcissism, and psychological injury such as post traumatic stress disorder. These outward signs of psychic pain would thus correspond to the same signs of crying and screaming as when someone receives a very painful physical injury.

Usually in the Christian community, when someone tries to market a psychological condition such as depression or burnout, that person points to the dejected Elijah sitting under the broom tree (I Kings 19:4). Rather, the most perfect, sane and sinless person who ever lived once went through a brief period of extraordinarily deep sorrow and distress – measured in an hour or two — and prayed himself through it. That person was Jesus, and he went through this kind of great torment in the Garden of Gethsemane — he was overwhelmed. This is how he described his emotional experience: “My soul is extremely sorrowful, even unto death” (Mark 14:34). And this is how his praying is described: “And while he was in agony he prayed fervently, and it happened that his sweat became like drops of blood which fell upon the ground” (Luke 22:44). I would never, ever, though, apply this term of ‘nervous breakdown’ to the experience of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, because that term also has implications from the past that for someone experiencing a ‘nervous breakdown’ the next step is an institution, and I would never want to put anything close to that implication on Jesus. Rather, I think that we miss the reality of how deep that experience was for Jesus, because throughout the trial and crucifixion we see the same sane, calm, compassionate and truthful Jesus that we see throughout the gospels. But even more, for anyone going through  deep waters, the truth is that Jesus understands what you’re going through, and he is able to help you more than anyone else: “ . . . [he] in the days of his earthly life offered prayers and supplications with strong cries and tears to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission . . .  for we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but who was tried in every way like us – apart from sin. Therefore let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and that we may find grace in times of our need . . .  since he is able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through him, since he always lives to intercede for them” (Hebrews 5:8, 4:15-16, 7:25).

Advertisements

God Does Not Demand Toughness; He Provides Overcoming and Enduring Grace

I never had anything approaching a conversation with Rex Humbard during the time that I worked in his ministry during the late 1970s and early 1980s. He might have recognized my face as someone among the dozens that worked there, but I doubt that he knew my name or anything about me. But there was something that has stated with me all these years which I overheard when I walked by him once when he was talking with several other people in the mailroom.

Rex was talking about the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah. He said something to the effect that he didn’t think that he personally could have lived through the kind of conditions under which Jeremiah had his prophetic ministry, during the years from about 605 to 586 B.C.E. Rex’s point was that Jeremiah saw practically no response from anyone to his ministry; perhaps Baruch, maybe a few others, but there were very few, if any – and there was a lot of personal rejection, hardship, persecution, ostracism and imprisonment.

One thing that I can see from the ministry of Jeremiah was that his personal toughness had nothing to do with his ability to endure to the end in his prophetic ministry. In fact, Jeremiah is widely regarded as one of the most sensitive men in the Bible. He didn’t react with bluster and defiance to all that he went through; rather he often reacted with lament and tears. It’s not for nothing that he’s been called The Weeping Prophet. Yet God didn’t taunt him with his weakness; rather, he commanded him to be faithful and deliver his word, and he would make Jeremiah able to stand in the face of that would come against him:

“Thou therefore gird up thy loins, and arise, and speak unto them all that I command thee:  be not dismayed at their faces, let I confound thee before them. For, behold I have made thee a defenced city, and an iron pillar, and brazen walls against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, against the princes thereof, against the priests thereof, and against the people of the land. And they shall fight against thee: but they shall not prevail against thee, for I am with thee, saith the LORD, to deliver thee.” (Jeremiah 1:17-19).

These promises came to Jeremiah when he wasn’t much more than a teenager (Jeremiah 1:7-8), but God promised that he would give his word to Jeremiah, and Jeremiah would be his messenger (Jeremiah 1:9). Moreover, God pretty much repeated the same kinds of promises of enduring grace in the face of opposition and adversity during the renewal of his call to Jeremiah (Jeremiah 15:20-21).

So, the man that God chose and used during this time was a sensitive, weepy man – maybe someone that some today would call a wimp or a wussy – someone who reacted to the apostasy of the people of God and his constant persecution with tears and laments — but God gave the enduring grace and strength to make him the iron pillar in the midst of a difficult, defiant and apostate nation. Jeremiah wasn’t a tough talker, standing up to them, facing them down, not letting them get away with anything and making sure that they knew who was boss. And I think in the face of all this, anyone who uses Jeremiah 12:5 as a taunt of personal weakness against anyone going through a hard time with other people (“If thou has run with the footmen, and they have wearied thee, then how canst thou contend with horses?”) is misusing this verse. Rather, in the light of God’s dealings with Jeremiah, it can rather be seen properly as a call to find the strength of God to endure.

Pretty much same can be said of the warrior king and poet David. Throughout the Psalms you can find someone who reacted to ridicule, slander, rejection and betrayal with tears, lament and prayer. Yet he has been well regarded as the best king of Israel, a proven ruler and warrior as well as a poet. But even his prowess with the bow and spear he attributed to God:

“It is God that girdeth me with strength,
and maketh my way perfect.
He maketh my feet like hinds’ feet,
and setteth me upon my high places.
He teacheth my hands to war,
so that a bow of steel is broken
[bent] by mine arms”
(Psalm 18:32-34).

Just as much could be said about Jesus. He wept over the grave of Lazarus (John 11:35-36) and over the city of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41). He endured the crucifixion endured not out of a hard bitten and defiant toughness ethic, but with obedience to the will of the Father. Even so, he received strength through the ministry of an angel (Luke 22:43) and offered himself up through the Spirit (Hebrews 9:14).

At times the apostle Paul has been cited as an example of toughness. But he could also weep and pray over the needs of the churches and express his relief at Ephaphoditus’s  recovery from a near fatal illness (Philippians 2:27). And he did not ascribe one bit of all that he did to his own ability, strength or toughness, but rather to the grace of God. “For I am what I am by the grace of God, and his grace to me did not become empty, but rather I labored more than all of them, but not I, but the grace of God with me” (I Corinthians 15:10). “And he [the Lord] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, because my power comes to its completion in weakness.’ Therefore I will most gladly take joy in my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may overshadow me. Moreover, I will take contentment in weaknesses, in insults, in difficulties, in persecutions and deprivations, on behalf of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (II Corinthians 12:9-10). It’s noteworthy that the apostle did not respond with trash talk (“Is that the best you can do?” “Bring it on!”) or denial of his limitations and weaknesses, but rather, sought for the power of Christ through the grace of God to overshadow his weaknesses and difficulties.

So here’s the thing. The kingdom of God is not just for the tough guys among us. God’s purpose in no one’s life, man or man, is not to make a tough guy or gal out of us; rather, his eternal purpose is to make us like Christ (Romans 8:28-30). Even more, God does not call us just to tough out our hardships and afflictions in this fallen world and in the face of spiritual evil through the power of our own broken and fallen human nature.  For instance, no human being, no one made of flesh and blood, has the power and strength to endure in this world against the principalities, the powers, the rulers of the darkness of this world, the spiritual wickedness in high places. The kingdom of God does not advance by, “Only the strong survive,” or “When things get tough, the tough get going,” but by “ . . . be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.” (Ephesians 6:10).

So then, in the light of scripture, the toughness ethic can be easily seen to be often both overrated and overemphasized. Scripture is notable in its absence of Marine Corp pep talks or taunting and browbeating to those undergoing affliction. Rather, the idea of persistence and toughness is most appropriate in some cases to physical and military training, but  it is horribly inappropriate to apply it to many or most situations in church ministry and business and family life. For example, I’ve had a number of friendships with physical trainers and coaches – some of whom are fine Christian men and women — and the most ineffective ones are those who have no other tactic in their repertoire than to taunt and browbeat people to perform to a standard. Rather, they instruct and encourage first. And in military training, it’s insane to attempt to taunt and browbeat someone until they have actually been instructed how to do what they are intended to do.

Over the years I’ve sensed that especially among Christian men, there is too much reliance in the different circumstances of their lives upon a ‘toughness’ ethic which often turns out to be simply ‘pretending to be tougher than you are.’ This ‘pretending to be tougher than you really are’ is what scripture calls hypocrisy and living a lie. Most Christian wives eventually come to realize that this is simply empty bluster. I’ve found that it’s very like something that Stephen Ambrose recounted in his books on the United States Army in World War II: some of those who talk toughness to others and give the greatest bluster in fold like cheap umbrellas in the time of minor adversity and opposition. And sometimes this reliance on ‘toughness’ is characteristic of Christian men who have served in the military. But there needs to be the realization among them that most of their fellow believers, men, women and children, have not served in the military, have not gone through boot camp, and cannot be regarded with contempt or disdain if they do not react to their hardships, afflictions and opposition with the toughness demanded from a Marine drill sergeant of a recruit in boot camp.

Even more, this toughness ethic can become for a man in our culture a  counterfeit of the fruit of endurance which turns out simply to be a reliance on the power of fallen human nature. I’ve noticed that this counterfeit tends to result in harsh, stubborn, hypocritical Christian men very unlike Jesus Christ. Those who try follow this kind of ethic actually tend to be quite prejudiced toward others who don’t live up to their self styled façade of toughness and tend to label others with cruel labels of weakness simply for not acting hard and impassive when undergoing hardship, rejection and opposition. In fact, this false toughness ethic sometimes goes along with abusive family relationships. For example,  someone who is in the habit of attempting to prove or display his or her personal toughness may often tend to do so through cruelty to other family members – sometimes the youngest and most helpless. And it does happen that abusers do try to whitewash for personal abuse of others with the excuse, “It’s for their own good, since I’m trying to toughen them.” So, if this results in bullying and abusive behavior, it is leading a person to behave directly contrary to the command of God, and into conduct for which that person will answer to God directly. And finally, this counterfeit ethic tends to produce men who are not suitable for church leadership nor qualified for eldership within the church.

I have also seen those who adhere to the counterfeit toughness ethic in times of persecution. A person habitually set to prove and display his or her toughness in the face of personal opposition will often react with retaliation and defiance in situations of persecution, directly contrary to the command of Jesus. Rather scripture repeatedly calls for a reliance on the Holy Spirit to give words to reply in times of persecution (Luke 21:12-15) and to demonstrate utter Christlikeness in the face of persecution (Luke 6:27-36).

Next, it may also feed a tendency among some men to label some things as unmanly because they do not fit the toughness façade, and this may lead to an inability to appreciate the beauty and kindness of a godly woman (see the Song of Solomon) and to function as a caring and compassionate father, as a loyal and honest friend and to appreciate beauty of God’s creation in nature and man’s work in areas such as art, architecture and music.

Finally, it is certainly true that Holy Spirit produces endurance, and over the course of our Christian life God will seek to grow us in endurance. But the responsibility for that is from God himself, not from any human being and certainly no malicious or abusive conduct toward any other human being made in the image of God can be excused by saying that it’s to toughen that person. Rather, let God bring about those circumstances that produce the fruit of endurance, and every other fruit of the Spirit. The production of the fruit of the Spirit is not the responsibility of anyone in leadership or any fellow Christian in the life of another believer. Rather, the need is simply to take care to produce a strong, loving, compassionate, faithful and obedient fellowship of believers growing in faith in and obedience to Christ through his Word. And even more, there needs to be a recognition that endurance is only one of the fruits of the Spirit (one of the aspects of scriptural patience), and that there needs to be balance of the fruit of the Spirit in the life of the Spirit: love and gentleness as well as patience and endurance, for example. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control; against these kinds of things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23).

So we need to see that the call to endurance in the scriptures is not the same as demand for toughness. Rather, we need to put the call to endurance in the proper perspective:

  • Never, ever lead with a demand for toughness to a fellow believer undergoing any kind of affliction. The call to toughness to someone in affliction can be putting a heavy burden like the Pharisees – “They tie down heavy and practically unbearable burdens on the shoulders of other people, but they themselves are not willing to lift one finger to move them” (Matthew 23:4) . Rather, scripture more often calls us to, “Bear each others’ burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
  • Never presume that you know or any other human being knows what God’s will is for a person in affliction. Rather, stand with that person in prayer to receive the wisdom of God about what to do (James 1:5, Philippians 4:6-7), and for the strength to endure and show the fruit of the Spirit until God provides his conclusion to that situation.
  • Understand that for someone in an abusive situation, the demand for toughness may well amount to aiding and abetting a abusive, malicious person, and that an abusive and malicious person often wants the target of their abuse and hatred to remain in hardship – which, incidentally, falsifies any claims of having ‘good intentions’ toward the target of their abuse and malice. I personally would never, ever advise ‘suck it up and tough it out’ to any wife or child in a physically abusive situation – certainly civil laws are being broken in those situations.
  • Understand that God does not necessarily intend for any kind of affliction to be perpetual in this life (I Peter 5:10). Rather, this is more often the pattern which is his intention:

“For thou, O God, has proved us:
thou has tried us, as silver is tried.
Thou broughtest us into the net:
thou laidst affliction upon our loins.
Thou has caused men to ride over our heads:
we went through fire and through water:
but thou broughtest us our into a wealthy place”

(Psalm 66:10-12).

  • Understand that God does not always intend for us to enter or continue in any kind of affliction. God’s wisdom often means avoiding dangerous and perilous situations which stubborn naiveté may seek to plod through to unnecessary suffering (Proverbs 22:3,27:12). It may often mean removing oneself ethically and legally from that situation, such as in a workplace situation with an abusive boss or coworker, and recognizing that the situation is not worth one’s life, health and sanity, and that  the abusive person is finally responsible to God. For example, for someone in slavery, the apostle Paul advised, “By all means, gain your freedom if you can,” (I Corinthians 7:21), and did not counsel that person to remain in that situation with any kind of idiocy like, “You don’t know what lessons God has yet to teach you through your slavery,” or, “You might eventually lead your master to Christ.”  And some situations God simply calls us to use common sense to remove ourselves from the situation. For example, if someone comes into a church with a gun and starts shooting people, there’s no need to pray about what to do or to stand there stiffly to prove your toughness in the face of affliction. God’s will for you is simply to take cover, do what you can to protect others, and work within the law to have the shooter apprehended or stopped from shooting.
  • Understand that the scriptural call to endurance is more than undergirded by God’s promises of power to endure, and that Jesus’s statement “ . . . apart from me you can do nothing . . .” (John 15:5) applies to these situations also, where we are called to produce the fruit of the Spirit through abiding in him.

“We Can’t Let Him (or Her) Get Away With That . . .”

But if you are a believer in Christ, and if you are seeking to follow Jesus Christ as Lord in your life and his Word as your inspired guide to life, you may have to ask to be excused at this point.

This is one of the lines that is often used by some people to try to involve others in trying to punish what they deem as reprehensible conduct by others. The person who is being solicited may in fact not have been affected adversely by the person seeking to instigate the punishment. Usually it involves no honest discussion of whatever happened with whoever had committed that conduct. Usually the person trying to instigate some kind of punishment against that person starts either to try to outline a plan of attack or to brainstorm a plan of attack against the offended person. Often enough, there is no statute of limitations either on the offense or the length of the punishment.

Scripture gives several reasons why the believer needs to avoid being caught in this vengeance scheme.

First, scripture forbids believers to pursue private vengeance, but to leave vengeance to the Lord. “Do not return evil for evil to anyone . . . do not take vengeance for yourselves, beloved, but give way to wrath, because it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay,’ says the Lord.’” (Romans 12:17, 19, Dale’s sight translation).

Second, scripture calls taking up the quarrels of others folly, and advises believers not to go down a path where they will suffer the consequences as meddlers in other people’s business:

“Like one who seizes a dog by the ears is a passer-by who meddles in a quarrel not his own.” (Proverbs 26:17, New International Version).

“ . . . don’t let any of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or a wrongdoer, or even as a meddler in other people’s business,” (I Peter 4:15, Dale’s sight translation).

There are usually some viable alternatives that the believer can suggest. The first is to suggest that the offended person speak to the person who may have caused the offense. Next, if that person is a believer, reminder of the scriptures that forbid vengeance, command private correction, as well as forgiveness and patience, is in order.

Two Articles on Tim Tebow and Their Significance

I’d like to draw your attention to two articles recently shared on the Wall Street Journal’s online site that deal with the recent publicity about Tim Tebow, the forthrightly Christian quarterback for the Denver Broncos pro football team.

The first article, Does God Care Who Wins Football Games?, is by Fran Tarkenton. Tarkenton is a former pro football quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants, and is arguably the best quarterback in the NFL that never won a Super Bowl. He puts a wonderfully positive spin on what has been happening this season with the attention that Tim Tebow and his outspoken Christian faith has received. That Tim Tebow finds reason to praise God in a touchdown pass is wonderful; that he finds time and joy in visiting death row inmates and sharing the gospel with them should encourage every believer in Christ. 

The second article, The Secrets of Tebow Hatred, by the conservative Jewish commentator Michael Medved, has some more sobering thoughts. It reminds us that if we follow Christ, we may attract envy and hatred from others, especially if we show Christlike purity in our lives, and remain faithful to him even under intense scrutiny. In some people it comes down to Schadenfreude – the desire to see an upstanding, virtuous person fall, and to gloat over that person’s misfortune, especially if that person seems too good to be true. Medved mentions the discomfort that someone who seems to have so much going for him can do to make people who feel their imperfections and limitations more strongly.

This kind of schadenfreude is something that believers also need to be aware of as they live and work in this world. Certainly it’s possible for some believers to have been blessed with physical and intellectual capabilities that others do not have, just as some receive adversities. Certainly it is possible for some believers to excel and to prosper in this world, especially in the Western world, and  especially if they work hard and act with financial wisdom, and escape such financially ruinous situations as divorce and addiction. But just as certainly, we need to make sure that this kind of Schadenfreude does not infiltrate our churches and our relationships with other believers. And here’s why.

If I am a believer in Christ, Tim Tebow and I are both members of the body of Christ. His prosperity is in some way mine also, and any scorn or rejection heaped on him is mine also.

It was the same way also with the scorn and hatred that came to the Rutgers women’s basketball team as part of the Don Imus controversy. I listened to the coach and the women on that team express their strong Christian convictions as the controversy heightened, and I realized that what they experienced affected me in some way also.

So this also applies to the brothers and sisters in Christ in our church fellowships. What they go through in either blessing or suffering is in some way that of us all. And this is a reason why when there are social competitions and jockeying for position, rivalries and guerilla wars in our churches, they are so cancerous, and why even those who are not directly involved are affected. And this is a reason why when something happens that signifies honest blessing to one of us, that it also blesses the rest of us. “And if one member suffers, all the other members suffer together. If one member is glorified, all the other members rejoice as well” (I Corinthians 12:26).

Denizens of the Empire, Not Necessarily Citizens of the Kingdom

“But our citizenship is in heaven . . .” (Philippians 3:20).

I recently visited a number of Amish businesses in Holmes County, Ohio, to look at furniture. I was impressed by the variety and craftsmanship, saw that they did take their work seriously, and enjoyed talking to the young men and women from both Amish and old order Mennonite backgrounds. I was also impressed by the number of scriptural phrases and other Christian themes in the decorations that they had hanging around their shops. Certainly there would have been a witness to many who may have visited their businesses who were unfamiliar with the actual words of scripture. I found myself wondering, though, whether it would become old hat to many inside their businesses and organizations, and whether they might become insensitive to what was actually being said. Even more, I wondered how much someone could simply learn and repeat the accepted words and phrases and behaviors and seem to be genuine even while never having received the truth and reality into his or her heart.

But it’s not as if the young men and women that I met never had a choice. Those from an Amish background were old enough so that they might have had a chance to go through rumspringa. This would have been where they had a chance to view what the outside world had to offer and make a choice for themselves. A few months ago, when I was taking the Jet Express ferry from Put-In-Bay to Port Clinton, Ohio, I met with a group of Amish adolescents who were probably on such a foray into the outside world.

What I just wrote was in no way to criticize the Amish or Mennonites, though. Rather, I can see a tremendous parallel in the world of what we call evangelical.  With our church day cares, Sunday Schools, home schools, Christian school, Christian colleges and universities and Christian seminaries, ministries and organizations, it may well be that many of our young men and women are growing up as denizens of an evangelical empire perhaps as insulated as those who grew up in an Amish school and worked in an Amish farm and business, and who view going to a college or university as their chance for an evangelical rumspringa or escape from an environment which they found suffocating and in which they had no other choices than to say the words and participate in  the activities.

I personally didn’t grow up in that environment, and I don’t claim to have much of what goes on in the thoughts, emotions and motivations of those who have. Often enough, those who try to treat me as if I had – who try to push the buttons of the customary evangelical influence by preaching, lecturing, scolding and guilt trips – find that they are trying to press buttons in me which were never installed, and they get very frustrated with me. Occasionally I get some honest accounts of what it was like during private conversations with my brothers and sisters in Christ who grew up and eventually made their decisions to live as conscientious disciples of Jesus Christ – perhaps even after a time spent living apart from Christ. But the most complete account of what this is like I found in, of all places, Jeff VanVonderen’s book Good News for the Chemically Dependent. His account of how he grew up was that he found himself scripted not in following Christ in the grace of God, but in people pleasing behaviors, and thus he found himself falling into the partying lifestyle when he went to college through peer pressure.

I think that Jeff’s story of his being raised within the evangelical empire and doing all the accepted things, and then going off into the partying lifestyle is a typical face behind many of the statistics that are now being put forward. Apparently 20% coming through as denizens of the empire go on to follow Christ as adults, according to the exit polls. My own first impression when I heard these stats was: do we think that the parable of the Sower (Mark 4) did not apply to those who come up through the empire?

First, it should never be a surprise to us if false conversions are found among those who have come up as denizens of the empire but have not become citizens of the kingdom. I don’t thing these situations are less than rare, or any reason for a witch hunt for false conversions among us, but I do know of these kinds of situations. They include a pastor’s son, a Bible college student and even a fellow pastor – and they all confessed openly to playing the game before they really found the Savior by faith, and they shocked everyone around them when they truly did come to Christ.

Second, there needs to be a greater understanding among us that eternal life is the relationship with God through Jesus Christ: “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3, King James Version). I don’t think that we hear enough preaching and teaching that mentions that it’s not saying the  things approved within the evangelical empire and participating in the activities of the evangelical empire that save, but the heart relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ. And even more, growing in Christ is growing in that relationship, not in getting better at repeating the language of the evangelical empire and taking on more ostentatious activities within the evangelical empire. Rather, here it is: “As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus as Lord, so walk ye in him: Rooted and built up in him, and stablished in the faith as ye have been taught, abounding therein with thanksgiving” (Colossians 2:6-7, King James Version).

A scriptural example of someone who was showed the outward signs of godliness only when under the godly influence of another is King Joash of the southern kingdom of Judah: “And Joash did that which was right in the sight of the LORD all the days of Jehoiada the priest” (II Chronicles 24:2, King James Version). The story of how he showed all the outward signs of being faithful to God when he was under the guidance of Jehoiada, but quickly led the nation into idolatry after the death of Jehoiada under the influence of his idolatry and peers needs to be mentioned in these days.

Last, when the denizens of the evangelical empire go out to their lives in the secular world of work and university study, I personally would keep them reminded of this passage from Romans: “And that, knowing the time, that now is the high time to wake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. Let us walk honestly, as in the day, not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof” (Romans 13:11-14).

Evangelizing Adults: The Misleading Statistic

Some months ago a friend of mine mentioned to me that most churches no longer have active evangelistic programs aimed at reaching adults. One reason for this may be a misleading statistic that’s been bandied about, about how most believers in our churches came to Christ by their late teens. Child Evangelism Fellowship, for instance, uses this statistic to emphasize the need for support for their ministry, to reach children with the gospel when they are young. Many churches may therefore have neglected ministries to reach adults in favor of ministries to children and youth – and unfortunately, many times these don’t reach very far outside the families of regular attenders and leaders.

I don’t think that this statistic actually means very much as a guide for ministry. It reminds me of the pro football color commentator who said something dramatically about a team, that they would be in trouble if they went into the final quarter of the game trailing in the score, since they hadn’t scored very much in the fourth quarter all year. The truth is that team hadn’t scored very much in the final 15 minutes of the game in a few previous games didn’t form an impassible barrier to them scoring enough to win in the final minutes of the games. If that was linked to something concrete like that team not having sufficient physical or mental stamina to play through the final quarter to win if they were trailing or a deep enough series of plays to do different things to win, then it would have meaning – and then good coaches and teams could deal with that to produce a win. But the previous record of something having happened in a certain way does not mean that it cannot happen differently if the people involved look at the determining factors thoughtfully – and in the case of evangelism, scripturally and prayerfully.

I can remember one source that looked at the same statistic, and came to the conclusion that churches rather need to develop more effective methods to reach adults with the gospel. Certainly that is the more reasonable conclusion in view of the basic reality that that statistic simply is absolutely no justification for any church to abandon evangelistic ministry to adults. In fact, except for the incidents mentioned in the gospels where Jesus placed his hands on children and prayed for them, the ministry of Jesus and the apostles was directed mainly to the adults around them. It was rather the apostolic instruction for parents to evangelize and disciple their own children – to bring them up in the nurture and instruction of the Lord. And Christian leaders and churches throughout the ages who have impacted their communities and nations have put their efforts into evangelizing adults.

For instance, the evangelistic ministry of John Wesley evangelized adults, from the coal miners who came to his open air preaching to the many others who heard the gospel from a man who had come to Christ as a adult, in his account of his famous Aldersgate experience of trusting in Christ alone.

Billy Graham himself, who came to Christ in his late teens, also concentrated on evangelizing adults. Though he also sought to reach students, and held special youth crusades, many, many adults have come to Christ through his crusades.

In addition, Dr. D. James Kennedy likewise did seek to reach students, but he primarily sought to evangelize adults with the Evangelism Explosion ministry. That ministry equipped many for witness and brought a clear presentation of the gospel to many casual church visitors and attenders through a church centered evangelistic ministry. Perhaps many churches need to admit that they let that ministry die more because it became unfashionable compared to the fad of ‘seeker friendly’ churches and because many believers found it required more self discipline than they were willing to invest.

Here are, I think, the factors that come into the effective evangelization of adults, from those that I know who came to Christ as adults:

  • Prayer: The Christian relatives and friends who cared about the salvation of someone prayed about it for weeks and months.
  • Realization of the ultimate need of salvation for eternity through Christ: The Christian relatives and friends who shared the gospel believed that the real and ultimate need of the person for which they were concerned was eternal life through Jesus Christ – not to be brought into conformity to someone else’s expectations.
  • Faith in the power of Christ to change lives through the gospel: The Christian relatives and friends who shared the gospel believed the first and foremost change in the person for which they were concerned would come through Christ, not their guilt trips, manipulations and Christian button pushing.
  • Power of the Spirit: those who shared the gospel recognized that the real power of evangelism is the power of the Holy Spirit.
  • Complete, scriptural gospel: The people who shared the gospel took care to present the gospel from the scripture and allow the Word of God to speak for itself. There were certainly different presentations and gospel outlines used – sometimes not from an ‘official’ training program, but rather from the scriptures, such as Luke 24:46-49 and I Corinthians 15:-11. The common emphasis was on presenting Jesus Christ as the crucified and risen Lord, the Savior and the Son of God, and the response of repentance and faith in him as the scriptural response to receive eternal life. There most certainly was very little attempt to dumb down or over-explain or paraphrase scripture and scriptural terms, but simply to present the scriptural gospel. Often enough, the real cost of discipleship was presented, and those who heard were allowed to wrestle with the claims and call of Jesus.
  • Answering questions and objections: There was an honest attempt to explain questions and objections from the scripture, since there was a recognition that there is a real offense to the scriptural gospel when someone hears it for the first time, and the need to deal honestly with objections and questions as a part of scriptural persuasion.  
  • Patient and loving follow-up with those who had come to Christ: There was a recognition that a person who has come to Christ as an adult does not have every habit destroyed and every difficult personal, family and vocational situation immediately fixed as a result of simply saying the Jesus prayer.

Pretty much these kinds of elements are common now in the Alpha Course, and have been in some other group Bible study programs and materials. Other personal witnessing programs, such as Evangelism Explosion, have incorporated these elements. Historically, though, leaders, churches and the everyday witnessing believer have all found that these elements are well within scriptural teaching and practice and have sought to follow them even without an explicit program and set of steps and formulas.

Something I Once Heard . . .

Some years ago, when I was driving through southern Ohio in car with only an AM radio, I picked up a sermon on that radio from an African American preacher. His style of delivery was unique, but I’ve never forgotten the point that he was making: “God isn’t interested in the best that you can do; he’s interested in the best that you can do through the Holy Spirit.”