Growth Spurting Or Hurting?


In the book Everybody Always, Bob Goff writes, “People grow where they are truly accepted, not where they’re merely informed.”

For many decades, the American church has used a discipleship model known as “Christian education”. As the church at large continues to shrink in our country, it might be time to rethink that particular strategy for spiritual growth. People aren’t beating down our doors to attend Sunday school, but they are starving for relationship and for God’s grace.

I remember visiting an inner-city church once where I met someone on the stairway outside smoking a cigarette. The person was nervous and trying to gather the courage to walk in the door and attend the service. They were dressed a little shabby, not as well as everyone else and knew they would stand out. People would see that their life was a mess. The fear of judgement and potential rejection was palatable. In order to reach God, many people first need our acceptance.

Another word for acceptance is favor. We all need favor, meaning we need people to like us just the way we are, warts and all. The insecurity we are bound in shuts down our hearts so that God’s grace-undeserved favor can’t take root.

Christians are good at talking about giving grace, but it’s definitely a practiced skill to pull off effectively. I’m definitely still learning. People can pick up on our tentative approval of them. It can be a subtle hesitancy that we think is unseen, but others may see as a flashing warning light. Our body language can speak louder than words.

“People grow where they are truly accepted, not where they’re merely informed.”

At the ministry I lead, New York City Relief, we operate outreaches to thousands of people challenged with homelessness every year. We connect people to vital resources such as shelter, food, job training, detox and rehabilitation. These resource connections can mean the difference between life and death, but so much of our effectiveness depends not so much on what we do but how we do it.

Unless the unconditional acceptance is there first, people won’t be able to make steps forward. Human beings don’t care how much we know, until they know how much we care. Acceptance opens the gates of people’s hearts so that information can come in.


New York City Relief Director of Outreach, Brett Hartford (at left), tells the story of a woman named Marissa who he and a team of volunteers accepted warts and all during a night of street outreach. The positive growth was dramatic and almost immediate:

“Marissa is homeless. She is overweight, rude, judgmental, crass, and quite racist. She doesn’t have personal awareness. She has a foul mouth. She outwardly accuses everyone of picking on her and looking to harm her-and the list could go on about the outward flaws this girl has.

“I invited Marissa to walk along with us while we looked for other people to help. Within 5 minutes of talking with Marissa, she yelled at one of my co-workers, complaining that they were the reason she was arrested, she yelled at me for a question I asked, and she referred to people of different races than herself (white) in quite unpleasant ways.

“If you are looking for someone who has flaws, sins, or really just is a mess, Marissa fits the bill.

“That’s what we do. That’s what I do. I know that I have things I equally am bad at (and probably worse), but I lower my things on the “sin meter”, because I’m not as bad as Marissa, so I’m ok.

“But really, I am Marissa.

“Everyone has flaws. Everyone. Some people’s flaws are just easier to hide than others.
“I’m not addicted to heroin. I’m not an alcoholic. I don’t steal. There’s nothing that I do to negatively affect my outward appearance, thus, nothing blatantly points to those negative characteristics. But they are there.

“I’m a hypocrite. I’m a glutton. I really struggle with lust. I put LOTS of things above my relationship with God. I coast on the fact that I work in ministry day in and day out. I use it as an excuse to not read my Bible or go to church. I say mean things to my wife when we fight. Sometimes I put people’s approval of me over doing the right thing.

“The list could really go on and on. I am Marissa.

“But, just like there is hope for Marissa, there is hope for me.

“All night long, Marissa was cared for, listened to, encouraged, and loved. She spent the entire night’s outreach walking alongside one of our street teams. They did EVERYTHING they could to make sure she knew she was welcome anytime. They even took her out for dinner!

“The team showed compassion and patience to someone who had earned neither. At the end of the night when I saw her again, she was glowing! She couldn’t stop talking about everything they had done. Get this, she shared the food she had been given (A Monster energy drink and Nutter Bars) with our team – even giving her only Monster drink to one of our African American volunteers – and that cane from someone who “didn’t like black people”.

“I earn nothing by way of my failures and sins, but God loves me anyway? He listens when I complain, am rude, don’t give Him credit, am prideful, and a jerk? That makes no sense, But He does.

“Marissa earned nothing by way of her rudeness, but we too, love her anyway.

“In the same way, I believe we are being like Jesus when we do such things:

‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.’ John 13:34-35

“I am Marissa, but God loves me anyway. I’m thankful for that.”-Brett Hartford

As Brett explains, in order to fully accept others, we need to see ourselves accurately as sinners saved by grace. Then we can fully embrace others who are sinners as well, not as the other, but as friends.

As Christians we need to be less like the chiding school teacher giving moral lessons and more like the hospitable neighbor who welcomes people into our lives with no strings attached. We need not fear that sinners imagine that we are putting a stamp of approval an ungodly lifestyle. Our job is to love deeply: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” 1 Peter 4:8

Jesus was a magnet to sinners. They undisputedly knew that he liked them. His favor was upon them and he welcomed them to come close. Rather than watch from afar, the adulterers, drunkards and tax collectors came to him like moths to a flame. Jesus ate and drank with them with no thought of how it affected his image and had no fear of appearing to endorse their unrighteousness.

He preached a strong message and I believe that one of the reasons they were able to accept and receive it was that they themselves were loved and accepted fully by him. People grow where they are truly accepted. Thank God that he accepts us despite ourselves so that we can pass on the favor to others.

“Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” Romans 15:7


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