A healthy church is a place of life transformation. One of the great hindrances to life transformation is an atmosphere of judgmentalism. In such an atmosphere people are encouraged to hide their stuff, and that which is hidden can never be dealt with. Oh, the spiritual power that comes when the people of a church live into Jesus’ command, “Judge not, lest you be judged” (Matthew 7:1)! But how does this happen?
One of the best bits of practical advice I picked up from seminary is the admonition of a pastoral care and counseling professor. He admonished us to learn to be shockproof. He said that when people confess to you their past sins or present state learn to hear it without conveying the least bit of being shocked by what you have heard. In so doing you are creating an atmosphere of trust.
By learning to be shockproof we are fulfilling the words of Galatians 6:1-5 which tell us to recognize we’re just as susceptible to the power of temptation as anybody else, and we truly shouldn’t be shocked by what we hear. Our being shockproof is grounded in reality. We’re all sinners dealing with constant temptations to sin. We shouldn’t be shocked by those who find themselves having gone down a destructive path. Truth be told we all have.
Which brings me to another practical bit of advice from seminary. This time from a preaching professor. He admonished us to speak not so much in terms of “you” as in “we”. By including ourselves in the sermon we are acknowledging the truth that we have no ability to speak from a position of being above others. We are in this together.
All of this is grounded in a right doctrine of the human condition. It’s not an empty acceptance based on overlooking sin. In fact, a church where members are shockproof and think in terms of “we” should have a greater ability to call sin what it is because people will know they’re not going to be judged for having sinned. They know their past and present sins are going to be treated in a matter-of-fact manner, as that which is common to all humanity.
It’s in this atmosphere of genuine acceptance that people can be led to life change, and real life change happens only as people are personally convicted about a particular thought or desire, word or deed. Only when a person is personally convicted about something can they genuinely change. The process goes like this: genuine conviction leads to sorrow and confession, renunciation of sin, and longing for grace (Evangelical Catechism question 79).
Only the Holy Spirit can bring about the gift of genuine repentance (John 16:8), and the Holy Spirit works by means of the word. As people become open and vulnerable to the word (in an atmosphere that breeds trust) they will become convicted about sinful attitudes and actions (and they’ll have to do something about it one way or another). God does the work in and through us, and we get to participate in seeing lives changed!
The word for the church atmosphere I’m describing is fellowship (koinonia). Fellowship means we’re in this thing together. It is “we” and so we bear each other’s burdens. We refuse to be shocked because to be shocked would be to undermine God’s work among us and would convey a lie (the lie that it’s somehow shocking to us that people sin).