Sunday, February 23, 2014

Fulfilling the Great Commission… in the Internet Age

Fulfilling the Great Commission… in the Internet Age
(Originally published in Albanian, "Ilira Revistë")

By Marie Notcheva

How is Social Networking Changing Us?

Despite the fact that we live in a society where it is now possible to contact someone across the world through a Skype call, instant message, or video chat, the technology that makes global communication possible now makes us less likely to interact in person.  A 2010 British study showed that one quarter of adults socialize more online than they do in person. Eleven percent of people choose to stay indoors and talk online, even when the opportunity to go out with friends arises. Many sociologists observe that social media is destroying our interpersonal skills.

I have also noticed that attention seeking, self-absorption, and depression increases among young women with their social media use. Social media, by definition, encourages self-promotion – or rather, promotion of a carefully-designed image one wants the world to see. I have seen girls as young as 13 dressed immodestly, striking provocative poses – to get positive feedback. Many young women, including Christians, fall into the trap of promoting a “bad girl” image online, which does not represent their true personalities. This presents an additional challenge to having spiritual conversations online: which “self” am I speaking with? The image that the young woman wants to present to the world (through her pouting “selfies” and tormented Tumblr pictures), or the hungry soul inside, seeking Christ?

In 2011, a Christian website claimed: Online Evangelism Ministry Reaches 687,000 in One Day!” A ministry which records Gospel presentations based on website hits claimed that of that total number of “hearers”, 56,854 people indicated a decision for Jesus Christ by clicking a button. In total, the ministry said it presented the Gospel 112 million times in 2010.

Is this really what the Lord meant when He commanded His disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations”? Can we really reduce the Person, work and call of Jesus Christ to a digital page?

The goal of online outreach is ambitious. Using available technology to spread the Gospel is a worthy endeavor, and social media should be used for God’s glory. The fastest, most effective way of communicating a message is to use the Internet for transmission to the furthest corners of the globe. However, it is just this mindset – the fast-and-effective, “microwave” mentality – that is the undoing of online evangelism. We can’t pre-package the Gospel and expect instant converts.

The Importance of Relationship

Church planters who have studied evangelism methods say that most people who have trusted Christ did so because of an influential Christian in their life. In 2013, my church surveyed members about their conversion. Many people cited a friend or relative’s personal witness; someone who cared and was willing to invest time and love in their life. Clearly, God’s plan to use His people as His ambassadors to a lost world has not changed.

The key to effective online evangelism – as well as ongoing discipleship and counsel – lies in establishing relationship. The relationship should be two-fold, however: both between the online “mentor” and seeker (or new believer); and subsequently, between the new believer and his/her local church. Establishing a connection in a local, doctrinally-sound church is a crucial part of “online ministry”. Without personal connection, a new believer is unlikely to grow – even if he has someone on the other end of a computer answering his doctrinal questions.

Cyber Discipleship and Biblical Counseling: Advantages and Pitfalls

There is no greater joy than watching a friend accept Christ and grow in faith, especially if you have had a part in it. In fact, younger believers often find it easier to confide in someone online than to discuss their concerns with a pastor. But no virtual mentoring, no matter how solid, can replace in-person guidance. A good way to view “online discipleship” is simply to be there, as an encouraging friend, while helping new Christians get connected to a local church. Online discipleship cannot take place in a vacuum – believers may benefit from your contact greatly, but still need personal teaching, corporate worship, and fellowship (Hebrews 10:25).

Daniel, a Russian missionary, shared a story which demonstrates how social networking can be used as a springboard for effective evangelism. Twenty-year-old Dmitriy asked Daniel to teach him more about God and the Bible, which Daniel did, through Facebook. They had several exchanges before Daniel contacted a fellow believer in Dmitriy’s city and asked him to meet with him. Two weeks later, Daniel received a message from Dmitriy, saying that his “second birthday” had come…and thanking him for helping lead him to Christ.

Such stories are common in this age of global communication. A crucial component, however, was Daniel’s arranging for Dmitriy to meet with a local believer. Dmitriy’s needs and questions could be addressed in person. One difficulty in attempting to “disciple” online is not being able to determine when a professed Christian actually does not understand a spiritual concept. Often, someone will say “yes, I see” or agree without true comprehension. Later on, you may discover you are attempting to “disciple” someone who still lacks saving faith. Another difficulty is accountability – a necessary component of discipleship. You cannot really know what is going on in an internet friend’s life unless she chooses to share it with you; and she is free to reject your counsel or stop communicating.

Counseling is similar to discipleship, in that its goal is to equip believers to grow in obedience to Christ’s commands, but usually deals with a specific problem. Much of our training is in systematic theology, and our task is to then communicate truth that the Christian may apply to her life and solve the problem biblically (Romans 15:14). Many counselors now offer the option of “traditional” or “Skype” sessions. Although I have counseled many women around the world by Skype and e-mail, I believe it should only be used as a last resort when there is no other possibility.

Voice-over-IP programs such as Skype, instant message, and e-mail have made counseling possible to believers world-wide. Biblical counselors are somewhat scarce in most countries, and being able to provide Scriptural support to a struggling brother or sister abroad is a privilege.  When counseling sessions are done from a distance, the non-verbal cues we notice in personal conversation are now absent. Using a webcam helps, but meeting in person enables the counselor to pick up on subtle body language. Does the counselee understand what you are teaching? Does she agree? Is she telling the truth? If you are speaking through a computer, it is harder to determine!

One 18-year-old I counseled was from a Christian family. She had attended my church for several years and been baptized, but within the first 10 minutes of our initial session it became clear to me - from her hesitant answers and confusion in her eyes - that she did not understand salvation. It certainly would have been much harder to catch that confusion so early if the encounter had been through instant message (or even Skype). The “counseling session” then turned into a very successful evangelism encounter!

How, Then, Shall They Hear?

The internet has made information sharing possible on a scale the early Church could not have imagined. As Gene Edward Veith Jr. writes in “Christians in a .Com World”, “Just as Christians latched on to the printing press, so should they grab hold of the Internet for the Kingdom of God. The whole universe is His domain, including the world of information translated into data packs, fed through high-speed routers, and sent off on fiber-optic lines. This new technology is a chance to exercise discernment, take some risks, and possibly change the world.”  The key to using it wisely is realizing its limits. Some questions to keep in mind when discussing the Gospel through a written medium include:

·         Is the person to whom you are witnessing a seeker? Is he asking questions, on his own initiative; or did you initiate the discussion?
·         Is the person willing attend a local church?
·         Do your friend’s questions, responses and contributions to the discussion indicate a true understanding of regeneration, is she simply “agreeing” with what you say?
·         Are your conversations two-way, or are you giving a theological monologue?
If you desire to impact your online friends for Christ, there are many ways to do so. Every situation is unique, and there is no right or wrong formula for a “successful” encounter. In all cases, avoid thinking of people as “projects” or strictly as potential converts. Relationship is of paramount importance. Remain faithful to the Gospel message and accept that you may be simply planting a seed, and may not be the one to see conversion or fruit in a new believer’s life. Be willing to point a believer to a local church for long-term discipleship. And above all, be prepared to love unconditionally – to stay involved in an online friend’s life, no matter what happens spiritually.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Biblical Counseling Coalition Reviews "Redeemed from the Pit"

My book was reviewed last week by The Biblical Counseling Coalition

Redeemed from the Pit: Biblical Repentance And Restoration From The Bondage of Eating Disorders by Marie Notcheva

Redeemed from the Pit is a solid read for the biblical counselor who is looking to expand their understanding on this important topic and for anyone seeking to overcome an eating disorder or is ministering to someone who is enslaved to the lifestyle. The personal story victory and practical application of Gospel truth makes this a great resource.

In the Pit of Despair

As a biblical counselor and as a person who was once diagnosed with bulimorexia, I took on the challenge of reading Marie Notcheva’s book, Redeemed from the Pit: Biblical Repentance and Restoration from the Bondage of Eating Disorders book for both personal and professional reasons. I have had a love/hate relationship with food all my life. Like Marie, I once struggled with binging and purging and I alternated those behaviors with starvation.  
From the introduction to the end of the book, Marie makes it clear to the reader that eating disorders are not a physical disease from which a person recovers but a spiritual disease from which a person must repent. 
Marie’s personal story is weaved throughout this great book. She gives vivid details of how her early years provided the perfect mental and emotional set up for the development of her eating disorder. The culture of the late 1960’s and early 70’s that subjected women to consistent expectations of thinness and beauty fueled the fires of shame ignited by her family’s careless words about her weight and appearance. Her mother in particular (who appeared to struggle with her own food issues) was exceedingly fearful Marie would be overweight and suffer consequences to her health. She enrolled Marie in a toddler dance class to slim her down and restricted her access to sugar and starches.
At age 11, Marie began taking gymnastics. By 14, with gymnast Nadia Comaneci as her idol, she began a lifestyle of severe calorie restriction and over exercise. The highly competitive worlds of gymnastics and dance fueled her desire to become sylphlike. While she got the desired results through constant exercise and living on Slim-Fast and vegetables, the following year she determined to eat as much as she wanted, eliminating the food binge through vomiting.
In a very short amount of time, Marie’s binge/purge lifestyle was out of control. It was clear to everyone around her she needed help. Her health was in serious jeopardy. While referred to psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists, they were unable to breach the concrete protecting her heart. 

A Way Out

In her sophomore year at college, she joined Campus Crusade and put her faith in Christ. She continued her secret lifestyle while active in Cru, Bible study, and discipleship. A job abroad followed college and her slavery to bulimia remained an active part of everyday life. She also began to drink heavily as a way to medicate the constant guilt and shame she lived with.
Marriage and children did not expose or alter her bulimia, although her husband did express concern about her drinking.
Marie writes at length about the self-disgust she experienced. It caused her to question her salvation and consider herself a hypocrite. She felt hopeless and at times she feared God had rejected her. However, she had such a desire to return to Him that she continuously tried to turn away from her sin. In desperation, she met with a small group of Christian women who prayed over her. It was then that she began to find freedom from alcohol and bulimia.  
From this point forward in the book, Marie develops the inward battle of change at the heart level. She describes her battle with overcoming her eating disorder both on the physical and spiritual level and does not shrink away from describing the difficulties she faced or her failures in overcoming the desire to binge and purge. She notes, “Overcoming an eating disorder requires our constant, active commitment to inward change” (7). 

Living Free

She urges the reader to “be one who believes” in the power of the Gospel as the means to transform life from victimhood to victorious in Christ, rightly emphasizing the critical need for repentance in overcoming an eating disorder.
“Forgiven, cleansed, and given a new start, He expects you to get up off your knees and get started—walking in repentance” (6).
Marie carefully breaks down the numerous issues of the heart that a person with eating disorder behaviors must repent of to overcome this sin and live victoriously. There is an entire chapter devoted to the believers position in Christ, which is very important for a woman with an eating disorder to understand since so much of her thinking is performance oriented. Marie brings forth the truth about the role emotions play in how a person thinks about food. This is vital since those with unhealthy eating habits believe many lies about food.
Throughout the book, there are application steps that make use of charts and Scripture memorization. There is also an entire chapter on practical issues that a person with disordered eating faces. Marie highlights the refining benefits of a biblical counseling relationship and involvement in a local church. 
This book is a solid read for the biblical counselor who is looking to expand their understanding on this important topic and for anyone seeking to overcome an eating disorder or is ministering to someone who is enslaved to the lifestyle. The personal story victory and practical application of Gospel truth makes this a great resource. 
Julie Ganschow

Julie Ganschow

Julie Ganschow has been involved in biblical counseling and discipleship for over a decade. She ministers to women through Biblical Counseling for Women and writes a daily blog on counseling issues. She is a staff member at Reigning...
Read More about Julie Ganschow →

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Futile, Powerless God of Henri Nouwen

"Today I personally believe that while Jesus came to open the door to God's house, all human beings can walk through that door, whether they know about Jesus or not. Today I see it as my call to help every person claim his or her own way to God." – Henri Nouwen 

The parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 used to be my favorite Bible passage. Until a contemplative mystic priest named Henri Nouwen ruined it for me.

Several years ago, I wrote about my brief encounter with "contemplative Christianity", which I was introduced to through the works of Brennan Manning, Richard Foster, and Basil Pennington. Although I was a much younger Christian and could not discern that their practices of "inner seeing" and "hearing" God were not biblical (through trance-like meditation, extreme fasting, repetition of mantras, "breath prayers" and other mystical practices), I started to get the sense that something was just "off" about it all. Naturally, unbiblical practice and adding "spiritual disciplines" (that have more in common with paganism than Scripture) will shape one's theology.

These men, and many more like them - Thomas Merton; Henri Nouwen; David G. Benner - claimed to be Christians at one time, (gradually transitioning to a theistic Buddhism - Merton converted entirely to Buddhism while still a Catholic monk) but in fact their theology has more in common with Eastern religions than Christianity. Christian mysticism is itself an oxymoron - see here for more info about contemplative spirituality, and it's connection with the New Age.

Contemplative prayer, by design, focuses on having a mystical experience with God. It was while reading one of Benner's books, "The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call of Self-Discovery" that God gave me a wake-up call. I began what would become a 10-year journey, researching theistic philosophies such as pantheism, panentheism, universal salvation, trancendental meditation (which contemplatives call "the silence"), etc. Another four years of theological training to become a biblical counselor helped solidify my ability to "test all things", and compare teachings to the Bible's clear teaching.

Nevertheless, it was with some anticipation that I picked up Henri Nouwen's "The Return of the Prodigal Son" recently, as a Christian friend recommended it. A meditation (in the Christian sense of the word!) on Rembrandt's famous painting, I settled in to enjoy the sensitive priest's insights into this beautiful picture of God's love.

As I began reading, two things emerged by the end of the Introduction: Nouwen was a man who sincerely loved the Lord and His people. And, he was firmly in the contemplative/mystical camp (a fact I already knew), but the casual reader, unfamiliar with the New Age terminology used by contemplatives, might not pick that up. Words may be ascribed different meanings by different people, which makes doctrinal error so slippery. I began to take notes.

The Good, the Bad, and the Blasphemous

There was much that was very, very good in "Prodigal Son". There was nothing mystical in his analysis and personal reflection on the painting per se, or in how he inserted himself into the parable - to identify with each of the three main characters. Many of his points about grace, accepting forgiveness, and the unconditional love of the Father were excellent, especially coming from a Catholic writer. “More than any other story in the Gospel, the parable of the Prodigal Son expresses the boundlessness of God’s compassionate love. And when I place myself in that story under the light of that divine love, it becomes painfully clear that leaving home is much closer to my spiritual experience than I might have thought.” Nouwen deeply sought fellowship with Christ. The problem, as evidenced by his faulty theology, is that he was seeking it in broken cisterns - not in the Word of God.

Before the end of the first section, a study on the younger son himself, Nouwen referred to "inner light", "inner seeing", and "inner healing". All of these may sound like fairly benign terms to one unfamiliar with mysticism, but they all point towards the "going within to find enlightenment" theophostic philosophy taken from Eastern religions. (Christianity, by contrast, teaches us that we need a new spirit and a new heart - and to look to Jesus). In all of the ways Nouwen mentioned how he "heard from God" - most notably, "in the center of [his] being", he never once mentioned the Bible. For even an immature believer, this should be a major red flag - the way God specifically reveals Himself to us is through His Word. Not through mystical means, which are condemned in Scripture (Deut. 18:9-12a).

The vast majority of what Nouwen wrote about our propensity to "flee to the wilderness", away from God's love, and the thought-patterns (insecurity; pride; comparison and jealousy) that harden our hearts was excellent. His insights into the human condition and how we relate to God rivaled those of any Reformed biblical counselor. I would just start to relax and enjoy the book when I would be blind-sided by a heretical statement such as "Judas sold the sword of his sonship" (and thus lost his salvation), or "I am touching here the mystery that Jesus himself became the prodigal son for our sake.”

A Powerless God?

According to Nouwen, God is "powerless" to prevent His children's rebellion (p. 90); "naive" (p. 99); "both Father and Mother" (p. 94); "she" and "her" (p. 96); "needs me as much as I need Him" (p.99) and the real sin is "ignoring [our] 'original goodness' (p. 101). The final section of the book, on the Father, is where Nouwen's faulty view of God became most apparent and the entire analysis fell apart.

Let's compare Henri Nouwen's god with the God of Scripture. Sovereignty means that God, as the ruler of the Universe, has the right to do whatever he wants. He is in complete control over everything that happens. (Psalm 115:3; Daniel 4:35; Romans 9:20.) He has no need of anything outside of Himself; and He is not standing like a beggar, hat in hand, needful of our love (as is the case with Nouwen's god.)

Further, Nouwen's idealistic view that ALL are children of God and have "original goodness" completely contradicts what Scripture states about unregenerate man: Abominable – Rev. 21:8 Sinners – Rev. 22:15 Fault finders – Job 41 Corrupt – Psalm 14:1,3; Rom. 3:10 Evil – 2 Tim 3:13 (just to name a few unsavory characteristics).

Perhaps most bizarre was Nouwen's dogged insistence - straight out of Wiccan and New Age belief systems - that God is feminine as well as masculine; both Mother and Father. The Bible clearly teaches that God is Father; it's not really open to debate or interpretation.

The Price of Error

False teaching is often hard to spot, precisely because it sounds so good. It's usually mixed in with just enough Truth to be palatable. But to anyone with a strong grasp of Scripture, the problem with Nouwen's doctrine - especially his view of salvation and the nature of God - should have been obvious. (I had deliberately NOT shared my personal opinion while pointing out the book's shortcomings, but followed a clear-cut format: "Nouwen says: X. The Bible says:Y.") Scripture speaks for itself.

How can Bible-believing Christians, when faced with such clear-cut instances of deviant theology, not spot the error? How is a blood-bought child of God not horrified by Nouwen's powerless God; rejection of original sin and depravity of man; universal salvation (many paths lead to God), and blasphemous statements that God is "Mother" and Christ "became the Prodigal Son"? I have only one answer to this: deception by emotional investment. It is willful deception that, when shown the clear words of Scripture, rejects them for the sake of defending the heretic. I will never be able to read Luke 15 again without the bitter taste of false teaching in my mouth.