Jerry and I have been talking for several months about how to see God working around us and how to help the gospel advance among our everyday acquaintances. A few weeks ago he volunteered to lead a discussion group with a good mix of confirmed believers and people who sought the freedom to explore Christianity with friends. I knew that Jerry was excited but fearful going into it, so I was surprised to see him light up when I asked how it was going. Great, he said. Wasn't it difficult? No, he said, I ask a few questions and then I just listen. I thought: Jerry got it right. He understood that his one essential role in the group was to be a trail marker and that the main way to fulfill that role was to be a listener.
I know that I have spent the better part of the last fifteen years running away from the label "Bible Answer Man". Our principle role in advancing the Gospel should be exactly the opposite. I even at one point made up a rule to live by: Don't answer questions; ask them.
Several years ago, my wife Judy was leading a discussion at the home of a friend when another friend of the host dropped by on purpose to check out the group. After introductions and a short explanation by the host of the purpose of the discussions (reading the Bible together and discussing the Gospel), the host said: Explain it to her, Judy. My wise wife resisted the temptation to explain anything. Instead, she asked. What did the newcomer think about the Bible and faith? Christine said that she was an atheist. Again, wisely avoiding debate, Judy asked a great question: Tell me, how did you come to be an atheist? The woman then launched into her story, a sincere and really sad one, where eventually she came to the point where Judy said, You know, if that had happened to me, I would be an atheist too.
Judy asked. She didn't answer. She didn't debate. She asked. And she was ushered into a person's life and experience to the point where she was able to identify with her and affirm her. Christine and her family later visited us in America. They spent several days with us, and the discussion kept coming back to the Gospel. Christine is open and the Gospel is moving in her family. As God gives us opportunity to be together, we ask, listen and affirm what they are learning. Judy said, You.
As we walk and talk the Gospel among our friends, one of the principle roles we need to embrace is what I sometimes call a trail marker, a sounding board, or a guide. And the best way to fulfill that role is to:
1.Ask questions, especially the ones that invite people to tell their stories ("How did you come to . . . ")
2.Listen, because it is infinitely more important, at first, for you to understand their story than for them to understand yours. In fact, your listening helps them untangle and make sense of their own stories.
3.Affirm whenever possible, whenever people are honest and say something that has the ring of truth.
There is a Bible verse that compares this fundamental role to that of a guiding "star" in the midst of a twisted world.
Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life. - Philippians 2:14-16
God urges us to live out this important role recognizing our contrast with the world in which we live. What are we fundamentally about? As believers, we should not be principally known for complaining or arguing. Twisted thinking and shortsighted persuasiveness are not what we are about either. That describes the generation in which we live. But what are we? The word translated "stars" here is special, the only place where this word is found in the New Testament. It means "luminaries" or "guiding lights". We are like the North Star. Because of what God has begun in our lives, our very steady presence can give people bearings as they work at trying to figure out life. Consider the task:
God made me a channel buoy; I help people navigate the rivers of life.
God made me a trail marker; I help people find and stay on the trail.
God made me a beacon; I guide clearly through clouds of confusion.
God made me a guiding star; No one need stay lost with me in the sky.
Asking, listening, and affirming will keep me on the job.