“Counsel” is what we consider to be that arm of gospel application that restores the addict and comforts the victim. By all means, it is certainly that. How desperately does the addict need to become a new creation who worships and enjoys God most! How desperately does the afflicted one need to see the God who really is and reinterpret what their life’s story really says! These are great testimonies, when those on the fringes are rescued: their eyes turned to God and their wounds bound. It is not bad in and of itself to think: “They really need biblical counsel to turn them back to God.” We long for God to make light of the “tough cases” just as Jesus made light of the extreme shame of the cross. God is greater than any circumstance.
But if that is all we think when we think of counsel, then there are at least two things we’re not seeing clearly. First, the fringes are not the lives of “them out there” but rather of “us in here.” The church is full of people living on the fringes, but our Sunday facades will not quickly reveal this. Second, the real fringes may not always look like the fringes. We ignore certain addicts and hardened sufferers because they don’t cause much visible disruption. In this post, I want to consider the first issue: that we, not they, live on the fringes. In the next post, we’ll consider the second issue.
In Knoxville, worldly shame carries a lot of weight. We actively avoid appearing like we are something shameful even if we know we are not that thing. Perception is enough to move us to active avoidance to protect our reputation. We pacify serious situations with jokes. And if we are something society holds shameful, then so long as nobody knows about it (or it’s “in the past”), we are not ashamed. The judgments of other people matter a lot to most of us. What they see and find out matters as much as, if not more than, what is actually true. What does this mean for Legacy Church? It means that sin will mostly be hidden, even in the leadership. Sundays are simply not the main context for real community work. The only time shame is exposed is when a certain level of trust is reached or when the person grows into Godly shame and out of worldly shame.
The problem with a culture that thinks counsel is only for the really serious situations is that we might actually run across maybe 1% of serious situations out in the open. The stigma of certain struggles along with the stigma of seeking counsel combine to further alienate the struggling person. For sure, it is their own sin at work that truly alienates them. Yet Galatians 6 basically says, “you who think you are high, if you are indeed high, then you will come low and get your hands dirty with the lowly!” Do we blame tough circumstances for the alienation of the struggling? By no means, their own sinful desires do that. But are we not commanded by Christ to skillfully and whole-heartedly pursue the afflicted and needy just as God pursued us? Yes and amen! And we will be held to account for this. If having a restrictive church culture does not move us to concern and action, then we really need to see God’s pursuit of us more clearly.
The point is that we don’t just need counsel for “those people out there.” We really do need it for “us in here.” We don’t have to look beyond our walls to find lives in desperate need of redemption, though we certainly do counsel evangelistically as well. There is plenty of overwhelming suffering, disillusionment, addiction, and bewilderment inside Legacy Church, in us. Most of it, likely even still, is hidden or known only marginally by very few. We largely only show people the tips of our ice burgs, and usually that ice burg is portrayed as “something in the past that I mostly have control of now,” when if we’re honest, it’s still as active and ravaging as it was years ago.
I’ll be honest just to say that already in Legacy (not to mention what I’ve seen in past churches), there are struggles nobody would ever guess on the surface. And this shouldn’t surprise us because it’s normal in any church. Do you and I have a tougher marriage or tougher parenting than we let on? A secret struggle with fantasy and masturbation? A secret struggle with substance abuse? A secret longing for a different life, whatever that may be? A secret anger problem we haven’t really confessed? A secret bitterness toward God? We need to cultivate a culture where sins and shame can be exposed and the gospel applied.
This post is admittedly, so far, just a diagnosis of a problem. The solution, I think, will be to work toward a culture shift where Legacy Church’s community groups become a place where real-life neediness, rawness, and dirtiness are exposed instead of hidden. And culture follows the leadership. Real life gospel application cannot thrive in an environment where it is not really needed. We really need to discuss how we as leaders can help to jump this hurdle of shame and stigma. Shame exposed leads to shame exposed. It’s a picture of how Christ became shame on our behalf: the Son of God hanging as a bloody mess like a common criminal inviting society’s dregs to hang in shame with Him, be clothed by Him, and become new creations that the world will simply never understand. Counsel is needed in Legacy church, but first, we must address the stigma, and I think the cross gives us a lot of cues for this: How did Christ invite shameful sinners to behold Him and live?
How do we begin our work toward lifting the stigmas of various struggles, sins, and sufferings: abortion, homosexuality, rape, divorce, abuse, pornography, obesity, racism, parenting tough children, disabilities, AIDS, prison? How does Christ’s life, His cross, God coming as a poor man — how do these things speak to our own lives and actions at Legacy? How do they shape our approach? Will we, as a church, own the reality that weneed the heavy counsel, that we do indeed have fringe struggles in our lives, that weare still the needy ones, and not only in the past? How can we become a place that’s safe to expose our dirt without judgment yet not safe to love our dirt or to stay dirty? What does this look like in everyday community interactions? Let’s script them out and pray for God’s power to work in us.