Basal GangliaHave you ever heard of your basal ganglia? Yeah, me neither. But I’m telling you now, and I beg you, please do not waste your basal ganglia. Let me explain why.

In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg talks about how habits are formed in the brain. There is in our brain a golf-ball size lump of tissue called basal ganglia, which is integral to the formation of habits. Duhigg writes how, in the mid 1990’s MIT researchers began experimenting with rats to determine how the basal ganglia plays a role in the formation of habits as the rats performed dozens of routines. Rats were placed in a maze with a partitioned entrance, and with the sound of a click, the rats wound wander up and down the maze walls, scratching and sniffing, looking for the reward of chocolate. Eventually the rats would find their reward. What researchers discovered during these experiments is that the basal ganglia of rats worked furiously and exploded with activity with each new sight or sound. They discovered that the basal ganglia was the center for processing new data with each new adventure.

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I have been listening (via Audible) and reading again through Robert Coleman’s classic book, The Master Plan of Evangelism. It has been over a decade since I last read it, and I am finding more and more jewels than before (hopefully a sign of discernment). This morning, I came across a profound observation from the ministry and method of Jesus in shaping and forming his disciples. In his chapter on “Supervision,” Coleman writes:

Here is on-the-job training at its best. Jesus would let his followers have some experience or make some observation of their own, and then he would use this as a starting point to teach a lesson on discipleship. The fact that they tried to do his work, even though they have failed at it, gave them greater awareness of their deficiencies, and hence they were more disposed to the Master’s correction. Moreover, their encounter with life situations enabled Jesus to pinpoint his teachings on specific needs and to spell it out in the concrete terms of practical experience. We always appreciate an education more after we have had the opportunity to apply what we have learned (96).

Jesus’ method of instruction and training was intensely practical. He employed his disciples in the work, and quite often they failed in it or did not understand the life Jesus was calling them to embrace. Having been confronted with repeated failure and disappointment, the disciples learned humility and greater dependence upon their Master. Being conformed into the image of Jesus meant a constant chipping away at their lives so their thoughts, desires, and actions were brought into complete submission to the way and will of their Master.

I find this method of Jesus rather foreign to current methods of training and discipleship today.

For example, when someone trained for leadership in the local church is told they should go to Bible college or seminary, they are brought into an environment of the classroom where they gain a considerable amount of knowledge. But where is the intensely practical training? Where is the opportunity to fail? Where is the molding and shaping of everyday life where they model their teacher? When these are absent, what we find is disciples to correcting others rather than being corrected by their Master. Because they know more, the “practical application” is exercising that knowledge to make a point, win an argument, or demonstrate their superior intellect – all manifestations of spiritual pride.

One of the reasons we do not have a movement of disciple-making in America is because we have bought into methods of training different from our Master. We are setting ourselves up for failure, and when we wonder why evangelism and disciple-making are waning, we ask those in the classroom to hold a conference or present a lecture on evangelism and disciple-making.

What we need are a bunch of failures who have stubbornly continued in deeper and deeper levels of humility to follow Jesus in his ways of loving people and sharing the gospel in everyday life. We need practitioners who view the front yard as their classroom, the neighbors as their disciples, and their community as their mission field. We need people who have felt the cuts and bruises of daily conformity to the ways of Jesus as their pursue the kingdom of God and pray it down in their hearts.

Where are these people today?

We need them.

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“Clearly Jesus did not leave the work of evangelism subject to human impression or convenience. To his disciples it was a definite command, perceived by impulse at the beginning of their discipleship, but progressively clarified in their thinking as they followed him, and finally spelled out in no uncertain terms. No one who followed Jesus very far could escape this conclusion. It was so then; it is so today. Christian disciples are sent men and women—sent out in the same work of world evangelism to which the Lord was sent, and for which he gave his life. Evangelism is not an optional accessory to our life. It is the heartbeat of all that we are called to be and do. It is the commission of the church that gives meaning to all else that is undertaken in the name of Christ.” – Robert Coleman, The Master Plan of Evangelism

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Evangelism is not an optional accessory to our life.

“Now those who were scattered went about preaching the Word.” – Acts 8:4
“Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch…” – Acts 11:19

Those who read the book of Acts will notice the influence of two major churches: the church in Jerusalem and the church in Antioch. Jerusalem was the city where the New Testament church started through the preaching of Peter at Pentecost, and Antioch became the missionary sending center for Paul and Barnabas throughout the Gentile world. But there is an amazing connection between these two churches that can get easily overlooked while reading about Stephen’s martyrdom, Paul’s conversion, and Peter’s dreams. It’s the ordinary life on mission from the no-named army of disciples who preached Jesus everywhere they went.

In Acts 8, the church scattered from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria due to persecution from the hand of Saul and his accomplices. They were identified as “those who were scattered.” The persecution that sent them did not stop them or silence them. Providence pushed them toward proclaiming Jesus, and they “went about” their lives doing just that. How did the gospel get from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria? It happened as Spirit-empowered disciples bore witness to Jesus and His resurrection and preached the Word as they stepped out on mission.

Fast forward a couple of chapters and you see that same gospel seed spreading from Judea and Samaria to the Gentile world, completing the promise of Acts 1:8. But how did it get there? More specifically, who took it to the Gentile world? Did God use Phillip, Peter and Paul? Absolutely. But notice the language of Acts 11:19.

“Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arise over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch…”.

The gospel went from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria because of no-named disciples on mission to make much of Jesus. And the gospel went from Judea and Samaria to the Gentile world because of no-named disciples on mission to make much of Jesus. Is it any wonder, then, that the church in Antioch would be the sending center for the early church in the book of Acts? It was comprised of disciples whose spiritual lineage descended from disciples who made disciples who preached Jesus in the power of the Spirit. They had the missional DNA from the beginning because the gospel seed was so generously and faithfully scattered by ordinary disciples “going about” their ordinary lives on mission to preach the Word and tell others about Jesus.

We will never know the stories and the sacrifices of “those who were scattered” in the early church, but they have a legacy that continues generation after generation among people from all lands and languages of people who have no name or recognition other than the everlasting fruit they leave in the wake of their life on mission.

May that be true about our generation and our cities today. The way God will reach our world may be through a Peter or Paul. But it also may be through “those who were scattered” that went about their lives making much of Jesus and sowing that gospel seed day in and day out.

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Dave Ferguson argues, “God’s way of reaching and restoring the world has always been through a blessing strategy.” He asks, “How do we in a very practical way that’s theologically grounded explain to people how they could bless people in places they are incarnating?” He answered this question with five ways to bless your neighbors with the acronym B.L.E.S.S. that I find helpful. Check it out:

B Begin with prayer. We want you to ask, ‘God how do you want me to bless the people in the places you’ve sent me to?’
L Listen. Don’t talk, but listen to people, their struggles, their pains, in the places God sent you.
E Eat. You can’t just check this off. It’s not quick. You have to have a meal with people or a cup of coffee. It builds relationships.
S Serve. If you listen with people and you eat with people they will tell you how to love them and you’ll know how to serve them.
S Story. When the time is right, now we talk and we share the story of how Jesus changed our life.

Be encouraged to be a blessing to your neighbors today!

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“It is so important to love your neighborhood and its culture. As we sense our growing marginalization with the wider culture, it is all too easy to view it as a threat. But viewing the culture around you as a threat is not a good starting point for reaching people with the gospel.”
– Steve Timmis and Tim Chester, Everyday Church

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A Good Starting Point

I love me some Keith Green. Few people have stoked the embers in my heart for the glory of God and salvation of souls than this brother. Consider this lyric from the song below:

“The world is sleeping in the dark that the church just can’t fight
’cause its asleep in the light.
How can you be so dead when you’ve been so well fed,
Jesus rose from the grave, and you can’t even get out of the bed.”

Living in ordinary life with gospel intentionality cannot be sustained with ordinary love. We need prophetic passion, a fire in our bones, that channels a life of overflowing joy and sacrificial love into genuine, humble pleading for sinners to know Jesus. How can we love our neighbors well if we have no love for their souls?

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The average person will eat three meals a day. Most people do not think strategically about how they spend their meals, but meals play a strategic and vital role to missional engagement on the block. A practical way to invest in your neighborhood is to “tithe” your meals for mission.

Can you take two meals a week and use them intentionally to build a relationship with someone or a family? Perhaps you can set aside a specific night each week as a rhythm for a “hospitality meal” where neighbors are invited ahead of time. Take the other meal to develop a relationship one-on-one or two-on-two. The meals do not have to be fancy or impressive. The point is to spend time together over a meal getting to know one another. People will not be impressed so much by how well you cook as how well you listen and love.

Over time, meals create opportunities for barriers to come down and interest to build up. Shared interested and bridges into each others’ lives are forged as we learn our stories. Tithing meals for mission does take as much work as it does intentionality and prioritizing your life such that it does not get crowded out by other urgent or important matters. Life happens, but mission does not happen. Meals, however, a great place to start.

/// Previous Neighboring 101 Posts:

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I love learning from others who are leaning hard on God as they love their neighbors well. Let me introduce you to Kristin Schell. As her story below explains, she took a simple command with small steps of faith and watched God work through her intentional life of obedience. I first heard of Kristin from responses to my neighboring 101 post on “pick your yard” where I encouraged folks to be front-yard people. Well, that is exactly what Kristin and her growing tribe has done, and it is beautiful to see.

What can you do with a picnic bench in your front yard? Probably more than you could imagine!

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“Love and hurry are fundamentally incompatible. Love always takes time, and time is the one thing hurried people don’t have.”
– John Ortberg

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Love Always Takes Time