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Outcasts All

Everyone has a message he or she needs to share.

There’s a saying in church circles that everyone has at least one sermon in him. What I mean when I use the expression is that each person, no matter how long he or she has been a Christian, is passionate about at least one thing, one topic. Each person has a message which he or she feels other Christians, or the church as whole needs to hear.

The message might be a very positive one, for example, an aspect of God’s blessing or His grace which this person understands or has experienced more than others. It might be a message of encouragement and hope when others are in despair. It might be a message of comfort in the face of distress and grief. It might be a message to motivate. Or, it might be a message of rebuke to the complacent or those who are drifting away.

The tragedy is that most people never have the opportunity to share that special message with the rest of the church. All too often not only our assemblies and classes but the whole congregation are dominated by one or two individuals who do the speaking. At best, someone with a message that others need to hear might get to share it in a small group.

The lack of opportunity for people to express what is on their hearts has at least two unhealthy consequences. The first is that the church never gets to hear their message. And, because we never hear those messages, we remain bereft of much wisdom, guidance, insight and encouragement. Scripture tells us not to quench the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19). Yet how many times do we do precisely that because we have cut ourselves off from the guidance the Spirit is trying to give through the agency of someone whose voice the church has stifled? How ironic that we, as a church, pray for leading and direction, yet so often are blind and deaf to it unless it happens to come through the “anointed” few we allow to occupy the pulpit!

A second unhealthy consequence of stifling the voices in the congregation is that people do not get the opportunity to develop their gifts and talents. In just about all the congregations I have attended, there is a perpetual lack of teachers, counselors, encouragers, exhorters, and those who know how to share their testimony. Yet, many of the same people who seem so incompetent in expressing themselves in spiritual things, perform well in their jobs. Why are they competent at work but not at church? I suggest it is because we have not allowed them to be. How can anyone grow and develop without opportunity, without practice? People don’t have confidence in their ability to express themselves because we haven’t given them the opportunity to do it.

There’s a corollary to this. I read someone, it may have been Tozer, who pointed out that each Christian inevitably feels lonely and isolated. The reason is that we all grow in our spiritual walk at different rates. As a result though we are all in Christ, to a certain extent, we travel alone. I suggest that there is another reason Christians feel alone and isolated. It is because their voices are not heard. They walk in silence, unable to express that one sermon or message God has given them. Even though they are in God’s family, they feel like outcasts, pariahs because they have no voice.

Everyone Has a Story

What got me started on the above rant is that there is a similar saying in the literary world. “Everybody has at least one novel in him.”

There are an awful lot of people out there who want to write a book. Many of them have been toying around with a concept or a plot for years. The problem is that very few people ever get anything down on paper. Someday they’re going to sit down and write it out, but someday never comes. Of those who do start to write, very few ever finish.

I was no different. Over the years I’ve had ideas for several novels. I even did a fair bit of research for one of them. But somehow, I never got around to writing anything except for a few notes and the beginning of one scene. Though the idea of writing a book was very alluring, actually doing it was daunting. There was always a good reason to put off the writing for another day.

Then something happened which changed everything. About a year or so ago I heard about a program that encouraged people to write a complete novel in a single month. Since the month was already over by the time I heard about it, I more or less shrugged my shoulders and forgot about it. And really, writing an entire novel in a month? The whole idea seemed rather preposterous anyway.

However, every once in a while I’d run into another mention of this annual event. Finally, I decided to do a little research and found the website. It turns out that National Novel Writing Month is not the fly-by-night gimmick I had thought it might be. Every year, hundreds of thousand of people from all over the world attempt to write a novel of at least 50,000 words during the month of November.

My daughter encouraged me to make the attempt. So eventually, with some trepidation, I signed up. With the exception of a few short stories, all of my writing has been non-fiction. Since articles and lesson plans generally take me several days to complete, I honestly didn’t know whether I’d be able to write 50,000 words in only a month. I also didn’t know whether I could come up with a story that long. I didn’t know whether I’d be able to force myself to work through those times when the words just don’t want to come.

Much to my relief, and somewhat to my surprise, the writing came fairly easily. In fact, I found that I was able to write enough each day to get ahead of the game. My novel came in at a little over 53,300 words, and I finished it early. I am now an official winner. I was amazed at what a sense of accomplishment that’s given me.

Why write about this? Because in the process I learned some things about achievement and motivation which I think are directly applicable to the problem I mentioned earlier – allowing people in the church to deliver their message.

A Positive Culture Which Breeds Success

What makes NaNoWriMo successful? Here’s what I observed:

1) They break the task down into achievable steps. 50,000 is a large number. Thinking of writing that many words is daunting. If the goal of 50,000 was the only thing they held before us, I doubt that many people would even attempt it. Instead, they broke the number down into an average daily word-count that would add up to 50,000 by the end of the month. Yes, 50,000 is daunting, but 1,667 words in a day is very achievable. I ended up averaging about 2,200 a day, roughly four pages, and I am not a fast typist.

In the context of church we, all too often, expect people to somehow automagically become fully formed and competent speakers and teachers from their first attempt. This is what happened to me 30 years ago. I had no experience, yet one day the preacher told me I was going to be the teacher of a youth class. Total cold-turkey. To say it was daunting doesn’t begin to capture the terror I felt. How much better it would have been if the task had been broken down into small, incremental steps and he had allowed me to build up to it!

2) They celebrate milestones. There’s a section in the NaNo forums for what they call shoutouts. People may still be a long way from reaching 50,000, but they’re encouraged to let others know when they’ve reached a goal which is significant to them. Reached 5,000? Let people know! Hit 25,000? Take some time and celebrate making the halfway mark!

As Christians, our goal is to become like Christ. That’s daunting. It doesn’t happen all at once. There may be many areas in our lives where the Holy Spirit still has significant work to do. But how often do we allow people to celebrate the mileposts on the journey? Do we let them share their victory over that habit? How can we rejoice with them when they are able to master their temper if we never hear about it?

3) They applaud progress and growth rather than dwell on failure. There are a lot of people who don’t make the whole 50,000 words. Sometimes, people have tried for several years and still can’t do it. However, one thing I noticed, both on the NaNo site itself and in the forums is that there are no put-downs. Instead there is positive appreciation and encouragement for whatever has been accomplished. Did someone only manage to get 800 words written? Instead of chiding them for not putting out 49,200 more, they congratulate the person for the 800 they achieved. Hey, it’s 800 more than you had before! That’s good!

How often at church do we concentrate on what people have not done, or the distance they still have to go, and ignore the progress they’ve made? How often do we express appreciation for honest attempts to grow in the Lord? Do we congratulate people for the progress they make in becoming a better speaker or expositor, or do we continually point to their weaknesses and how far they still have to go in order to meet whatever standard of competence we’ve created?

4) They provide help for those in trouble or who are discouraged. There are many potential pitfalls for the would-be novelist. Perhaps we suddenly realize that we have no idea how to train a dog or fix a computer. Perhaps we don’t know proper operating room procedure. Maybe we don’t know what all a pilot checks off on his list before takeoff – or a million other bits of data that we need to stick into our novel in order to make it believable.

Perhaps we have all the facts and procedures we need down pat, but are having trouble with plotting, structure, character names or…

Maybe we just get discouraged with the whole process. The words aren’t flowing as we’d like. Or, we’ve written ourselves into a corner with no visible out and feel like throwing in the towel.

There are sections in the forums to help in all these situations, and more. People are willing to help you chase down that elusive fact. They can make suggestions on structure or how to express an emotion. There are suggestions to help with character names. Most of all, they are willing to lend an ear or a shoulder to lean on when the whole process just gets to be too much.

It’s made me wonder how supportive we are to one another in church. Do we listen? Are we willing to help out when someone has a question? Can we offer advice? Do we have a word of encouragement when the going gets rough? Doesn’t Scripture say something about spurring one another on to good works? Doesn’t it tell us to bear one another’s burdens?

5) They do not insist on conformity. The stated intent of NaNo is to write a novel. The stated goal is to churn out 50,000 words in one month. However, there are a substantial number of people who don’t want to write fiction. Instead they want to work on their memoir, or a cookbook or some other non-fiction project. Some want to write short stories rather than a novel. Instead of aiming for 50,000 words, some just want the discipline of writing each day. Some set goals of as little as 200 or 300 words a day. The point is that there is room for all these people in the NaNo tent.

Now I’m not trying to suggest that when it comes to church there are no standards. I’m certainly not saying that we should be inclusive to the point where we look the other way from sinful behavior. No, there can be no compromise in exhorting people to live holy lives. Becoming like Christ is not an option – it is the essence of our covenant relationship with God. Scripture also tells us to be like minded.

However, there are areas where I think we harm ourselves and the church by insisting on conformity in non-essentials. I’m thinking in particular about speaking styles. How often have voices been silenced because they didn’t line up with someone’s preferences? A person isn’t “dynamic” enough to address the congregation. Someone else dares to use a “teaching” style and engages the congregation in dialog rather than the approved “preaching” monologue. Another person likes to pace, or puts his hands in his pockets or… I’ll let you fill in the blanks.

I can’t help but wonder how much the church has missed because it won’t listen to someone who doesn’t fit the approved stereotype. How much depth could we have gained if we were willing to hear people coming at Scripture from different, but still very valid, perspectives. What riches have we missed by not listening to the “small, still voice?”

6) They provide a true sense of community. One of the things which makes NaNo work is that the people who participate have a real sense of doing this thing together. Periodically, the originators or sponsors will email pep-talks and encouragement to everyone. They remind us that we’re in this thing together and that we’re not alone when we face obstacles and challenges. There are parties where people are encouraged to talk about the novel they’re working on. There are write-ins where people who live in the same geographic area get together in the same location and write. And so on.

Our church assemblies and small groups are supposed to give us that sense of community as well. To some degree they do. Yet all too often, I’m afraid, we don’t have that sense of all going the same direction, of all striving for the same goal. Part of the problem is, I think, that we often forget what the goal is – becoming like Christ. Instead we get side-tracked by secondary, sometimes trivial, issues which not every one can agree on. Instead of our assemblies drawing us together, they give us the sense that we’re headed down different roads.

But another reason I think we often don’t have a sense of community is that we’re prevented from communicating. Most of the communication which does take place in our assemblies is one-to-many instead of the rich, many-to-many communication we catch glimpses of in the New Testament. Whatever the reason, all too often, we end up feeling like outcasts instead of like the family we’re supposed to be.

7) They trust, yet offer validation. NaNo is based on trust. If you say you’ve written 15,782 words, they take your word for it. Your progress bar (which is visible to everyone if you post to the forums) will show whatever word-count you happen to supply from day to day. They figure that the only person you hurt if you cheat, is yourself. On the other hand, if you want to officially be counted as a winner, and get the certificate, you have to validate your word-count by pasting your novel into the official word counting tool on the site. Even then, no one checks to make sure you haven’t just copied one word 50,000 times.

I wonder sometimes how much further along we would be in our congregations if we had more of a culture of trust. I freely admit that it’s sometimes hard to give people the benefit of the doubt. It can be hard not to suspect motives. But we have to remember that Christ is the Master, not us.

A Matter of Quality

“But what about quality?” you ask. “It’s one thing to bang out 50,000 words in one month, but how good are they? Will your novel be worth publishing?”

In most cases, probably not. I don’t know whether my novel is any good or not. Authors are notoriously unable to judge the quality of their own work.

But if you can’t be sure of the quality of what you have at the end of the month, then what’s the point? The point is to turn off the inner editor and critic and just get the words down. The people at NaNo point out that you have to have something to edit. If you never get the words out, you can’t correct them. Remember what I said earlier about most people never writing their stories at all?

But there’s another point, too. You only get good at something, no matter what it is, through practice. Your first novel or two may be dreadful, but each one gives you more practice. It’s only by doing that you discover what works and what doesn’t. It’s only by writing that you discover your unique “voice” which distinguishes you from all other authors. It’s only by practice that you learn to use the “tools” of your trade.

This concept has a direct bearing on our church experience. We want competent, fluent and articulate teachers and speakers. Yet how can they ever develop those skills and talents unless we give them opportunity to do so? We complain about the incompetence of our people, yet withhold from them the very things they need (opportunities to practice and develop their skills as well as constructive criticism) in order to gain competence.

“What’s your novel about anyway?” Glad you asked. It’s about a teacher who is asked to set up a training program for church leaders in a foreign country. The working premise is that, in one way or another, we’re all outcasts. Through various circumstances, God fills the voids in our lives and shows us that we belong. “‘…I will restore you to health and heal your wounds,’ declares the LORD, ‘because you are called an outcast, Zion for whom no one cares.’” (Jeremiah 30:17 NIV)

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