One of the more influential books I’ve read over the past year is Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. Listen to how McKeown summarizes the way of the Essentialist:

“The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default. Instead of making choices reactively, the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the nonessentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage. In other words, Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.”

When I first read this book, I read it through the lens of an organizational leader with varying degrees of responsibility in a number of areas that seemed to make life complicated and difficult. This book was instrumental in helping me get to the essentials and drill down deep from that perspective.

In recent months, however, I have been thinking about the idea of essentialism specifically through the lens of living as a Christian. Could it be argued that the reason why we have so few people living an abundant, spirit-Filled, fruit-bearing life is because Christians have unconsciously adopted a non-essentialist approach to Christian living? Have we been “living by default rather than by design”? Of all people in the world, should not children of God be living by design? If so, then why does so much of our lives seem reactionary? Is this not another away of simply “being conformed to the world” as in Romans 12:2?

These are the questions that I’ve been asking myself lately. As a result, I have begun a pursuit of living an “essential Christian life.” But that, I mean a disciplined pursuit of less so that I can make my highest point of contribution to the kingdom of God. By design, I want to live with such intentionality that I am willing to say “No” to a host of good but trivial things so that I can say yes to the vital few that should mark my life as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

When we hear that inner voice expressing frustration that we don’t have the time, we are simply too busy, we don’t know how, or it just doesn’t work, why have we not first asked ourselves how we got here in the first place? Have we uncritically adopted a manner of living entirely incompatible to the Great Commission given to us by Jesus and justified our being out of step with the gospel because “everyone else is doing it”? If we could acknowledge the essentials to healthy, fruit-bearing Christian living, would we be willing to have the “disciplined pursuit of less” as Christian essentialists so that we can make our highest point of contribution for the spread of the gospel, love of our neighbor, and advance of the kingdom of Christ? Isn’t that what we should be doing after all?

There has been a debate over the past several years in evangelical circles about being “radical” for Jesus and living “ordinary” for Jesus. While I that conversation certainly has merit, why don’t try to address Christian living from a different angle? How about essentialist versus nonessentialist Christian living? Would this perspective not shed a little more light on the status of evangelical Christianity in North America?

So the question then begs for a definition and description of essential Christianity. Let me propose five aspects of Christian essentialism:

  1. Jesus  – who Jesus is, what Jesus has done, and why that matters for all of life
  2. Scripture – the revelation of what God has said and done, the story of God,
  3. Kingdom – the entrance, nature, growth, and impact of the kingdom of God
  4. Great Commandment – love God supremely and love neighbors sacrificially
  5. Great Commission – make disciples of Jesus by the power of the Spirit

I know there is so much more that could be argued for Christian essentialism. But the point of essentialism is to determine the “vital few” (pursuit of less) and build a “systematic, discipline approach” for making our highest level of contribution for the cause of Christ. All we need to do is take 10 minutes in a Christian bookstore to see how rampant nonessentialism is in our world today. Let’s not go there. How about we pursue a few things and execute on them with priority and passion so that they produce a lifestyle that makes a difference as disciples of Jesus?

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If you’re like me, you tend to forget things, especially names. I’m the worst at this, people. But there is nothing like meeting someone for the first time, and days or weeks later calling them by their name, even better, if you can remember the details of whatever conversation you had with them. What does that communicate to someone who once was a stranger to you? It tells them you want to be more than a neighbor. You want to be a friend, to be in community. You tell them that they matter to you. They are not just a random passerby. They are your neighbor whom you call by name. You listen to their story and can retell it as if it was yours.

Now how is that possible unless you write it down? You may have a photogenic memory, but I don’t, and neither does 99% of us in the world. So do you want to love your neighbor? A simple way to start is by learning to write it down. Have a way to capture and retain information you learn about people. Whether on your phone, voice recorder, notebook, or computer, make a point to memorize and retain what you have written down. Have a way you can add, update, or edit what you have written down as future conversations are documented in your head, to your hand, and ultimately to your heart.

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“Everyone is busy, and we all have different stories and struggle with different issues that compete for our attention and time. We all should be concerned about how much we cram into our schedules. If we truly want to be great neighbors, we are going to have to make some adjustments. And that may mean God will call you to say no to some good things so you can focus on the things that are really important.”
– Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon, The Art of Neighboring

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Great Neighbors Make Adjustments

At the dinner table tonight, we experienced something profound, and profoundly lacking in our lives. As we enjoyed some Mexican takeout, we asked our kids to share about their favorite events in life so far. After each family member chimed in, we proceeded with round 2 of favorites. Then round 3, and round 4. Everything from favorite food to favorite chores were talked about, and there was no shortage of commentary and attention grabbing interaction.

But then the conversation slightly changed when one of our children mentioned something that his brother was good at. I decided to go with it, this time asking each of our children to think of something they could say to each other, affirming something they are particularly gifted in or excel at doing. One by one, they began sharing things how their brother is good at baseball, their sister is good at dancing, their mom is a good teacher, and dad is good at walking the dog and picking up his poop. For a good 10-15 minutes, we just took time affirm the virtues and blessings of having each other in our lives.

Sadly, as a leader in our family, I have not shepherded our conversations to learn the grace of affirmation. I call it “grace” because it is contrary to our human nature. Our sinful nature wants to receive the praise, not give it. In an attitude of pride, we want to be the center of attention rather than having a spirit of humility and make others more important than ourselves. Only grace, only Jesus can cause us to get over ourselves to focus on the beauty and blessing of the community we are so privileged to enjoy.

I have been deeply convicted tonight to lead our family better, to shepherd our conversations by grace to edify and build each other up. Enough complaining and whining and tattling. Enough looking for each others’ faults and highlighting our failures. It is time to highlight God’s grace and look for each others’ virtues. And say it out loud. Say it to each other, looking in their eyes, connecting our heart to theirs, and knowing the sincerity of the words are trustworthy and true.

If we can train each other to practice the grace of affirmation, how much different would our lives be? How would it impact how our children treat one another? How would it change the community we live in? Not just our family but our neighbors and church family? No matter how difficult a person may be, how down they may be on life, how different they are from you or me, they are made in the image of God with dignity, worth, and value. Though marred by sin, there is yet something beautiful despite their brokenness. While not denying the brokenness, can we yet learn to look for the beauty reflecting the handiwork of their Creator?

So in repentance, I am learning from my children, and in doing so, looking to lead them better by affirming one another and cultivating conversations littered with blessings rather than being defined by the curse of sin and brokenness. With God’s help, we will be a family that will focus on what is right with each other than what is wrong. Not as an attempt to prove our righteousness or goodness, but to point to the righteousness and goodness of the gospel freely given through the life and death of Jesus Christ, breathing in His perfect obedience, and breathing out a life directed to glad submission to His sovereign reign and rule in our lives.

Let’s make disciples of Jesus, beginning with our children, and in our families, cultivate a community marked by affirming grace, whether common or covenant. I believe we will love God and love our neighbors better when we do.

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“We can’t do our work of pointing sinners to the Savior unless we spend time with them. The first thing Levi does after following Jesus is to throw a party.”
– Tim Chester, A Meal With Jesus

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Throw a Party

11 Marks of Gospel Community

Tim Brister —  January 20, 2016 — 1 Comment

A couple years ago, I share the following characteristics of gospel communities. Living on mission is not a maverick endeavor. It happens in the context of community, but not just any community, a gospel community. Here are 11 marks I have discovered to be distinctives of healthy gospel communities.

  1. Believers practice confession instead of trying to make an impression.
  2. People are defined by a lifestyle of repenting rather than pretending.
  3. You embrace truth at all costs, not agreeing for each others approval.
  4. Light exposes & wounds and love covers & heals – both/and not either/or.
  5. People are happy to be holy not content to be comfortable.
  6. You own your mess because of His mercy instead of hiding them because of your shame.
  7. Functional saviors & heart idolatry are lovingly confronted & challenged by Christ’s reign & rule.
  8. Unbelieving sinners & believing sinners together look away from themselves & look to Jesus.
  9. The pleasure of God in Christ to save you liberates you to passionately serve others.
  10. Hospitality is given to those on the margins & those not like you are welcome in your world.
  11. Individual preferences take a back seat to community purposes of loving God and neighbor.
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“Many of our approaches to evangelism still assume a Christendom mentality. We expect people to come when we ring the church bell or put on a good service, but the majority of the population are disconnected from church. Changing what we do in church will not reach them. We need to meet them in the context of everyday life.”
– Steve Timmis and Tim Chester, Everyday Church

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Meet Them in Everyday Life

The yard you choose to use says a lot about how you feel about your neighbors. The back yard approach is typically closed off from the rest of the neighborhood. Whether it has a fence or not, it says “we don’t want to be seen, and we don’t want to see you – this is our private space.” This approach is very typical in suburbia, enforced by gated communities, guard dogs, and the like. The goal is to keep people out, only letting them on the rare occasion we feel like it, on our terms.

The front yard tells a different story. This approach says “we want to be seen, whether you drive by in your car, walking your dog, or riding your bike.” The front yard creates anticipation for community, looking for people who may have hobbies or interests in common. The front yard encourages engagement and looks for opportunity to connect with others. The walls are not there. You are not hiding. You want to know others and be known by them.

Moving from the back to front may make your front yard look a little messy. We brought our kids’ picnic tables, plastic slides, etc. that normally is in the back to the front. We play our football and wiffle ball games out front. Basically, whatever we once did in the back, we have made an effort to do in the front (grilling out, throwing parties, playing games, or just hanging out on the porch).

What kind of difference does it make? It tells your neighbors you are present, you are open, and you are welcoming them to join in with a spirit of hospitality. While that may not sound like much, I believe you will be surprised by the difference it makes.

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“If we don’t take Jesus’ command (to love our neighbor) literally, then we turn the Great Commandment into nothing more than a metaphor. We have a metaphoric love for our metaphoric neighbors, and our communities are changed–but only metaphorically, of course. In other words, nothing changes.”
– Jay Pathak and Dave Runyan, The Art of Neighboring

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Abandon the Metaphor

This morning I took a few minutes to jot down 10 reasons why I believe a life devoted to neighboring well is important for a Christian.

  1. Loving your neighbor is central to Scripture’s teaching. Jesus summarized the teachings of Scripture in the Great Commandment to love God supremely and love your neighbor sacrificially (Matt. 22:24-40). To identify with Jesus and not obey this command to love your neighbor is to call Him Lord but do not do what He says (Luke 6:46).
  2. Jesus modeled loving your neighbor well. Disciples are learners and followers. Those who follow Jesus will model their lives after Him in how they love their neighbors. Whether the woman at well, Matthew and his friends, or Zacchaeus on the tree, Jesus engaged people where they were, loved them well, and spoke truth that changed their lives.
  3. Love is the great apologetic for Christianity. The world will know we are disciples of Jesus by the love we have for one another (John 13:34-35). The most convincing argument for the gospel of Jesus Christ is the loving, sacrificial life it produces. When the world looks for the best lovers, they should find Christians completing that list.
  4. Neighboring involves ordinary life on mission for every disciple of Jesus. In recent years, I have had so many people share with me that they believe God calls all Christians to live on mission, and yet they do not know how or what that looks like. Neighboring well is accessible to all Christians regardless of personality types, giftings, stage of life, or geographic location. Where you live, work, and play can and should be controlled by a desire to love neighbors well and make disciples of Jesus.
  5. Neighboring well is part of Scriptural requirements for elders in a local church. While often overlooked in elder qualifications, 1 Tim. 3:7 says “he must be well thought of by outsiders…”. Who are the outsiders? How should a church honor this prerequisite and search it out? Would it not be his neighbors? Those outside of Christ in his community? If a man is being considered for the office of an elder and does not know a neighbor well (or better yet, they don’t know him well), should he legitimately be considered to lead a church?
  6. Neighboring well gives practical expression to seeking first the kingdom of God. Matt. 6:33 is a verse I see everywhere in Christian bookstores (paintings, coffee mugs, bumper stickers, etc.). Kids are taught to sing it when they are young. Yet when I ask people, “What does seeking the kingdom first in your life looks like?” I get a blank stare. What does prioritizing the kingdom look like? How do we pursue it? Neighboring well and life on mission provide practical expression and follow through to that command of Jesus, to see the invisible kingdom made visible in your world.
  7. Neighboring well provides a building block for gospel growth and multiplication. When Christians learn how to live on mission, love neighbors well, and make disciples through those relationships, this slow, steady progress builds a gospel infrastructure for growth and multiplication in a community. Disciples who make disciples form the DNA for a gospel community that starts new gospel communities, that in turn gather into healthy growing churches. Planting churches without this DNA make be possible through events, but they will not create a movement.
  8. Neighboring well and life on mission prepare Christians to serve on mission cross-culturally. A Christian cannot export into another culture and context what they are not already doing in their own context. You cannot put on the missionary t-shirt when you get off the plane and somehow expect to do in another country what you have been unwilling or untrained to do in your own front yard. The best missionaries over there are the best missionaries over here.
  9. Life should not be considered a series of events to attend; rather the grand event is ordinary life itself. I am afraid that if Christianity wants to make a mark in the world, we have to do it with a big event or crusade. We need less crusades and more crusaders who humble live in obscurity with the joy of sharing the light of the gospel where they live, work, and play. Events are not all bad, but if you look at how Jesus made His mark in the world, it was in the small, in the few, in the almost hidden moments of His life that eventually turned the world upside down.
  10. Neighboring well is a practice transferable and reproducible for anyone. Whether you are a business executive or stay-at-home mom, a college student or a retired senior, an introvert or extrovert, a young Christian or been one for decades, neighboring well and living on mission is a way of life any Christian can embrace, invite others to join, and reproduce in word and deed. How much of what our churches do to reach the community can be accomplished by the everyday Christian in everyday life?

So there are my ten reasons from this morning’s reflection on neighboring well and living on mission this way. Let me know your thoughts and feel free to push back.

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