Book Review: Gospel Conversations  by Robert Kellemen

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Two years ago, as I was preparing for a new year with the incoming interns at our church, I was searching for a resource that would assist them in better connecting relationally with those they would one day minister to. With well over a decade in ministry under my belt, I know that effectiveness in ministry is not just what we say but how and when we say it. In fact, if you neglect your emotional intelligence as you minister to others, you will most definitely come up against frustration.

After culling the available resources at my disposal, I came across a resource called 5 GRACE Biblical Counseling Skills by Bob Kellemen. This great little resource – a 25-page PDF developed from a larger work by Kellemen called Spiritual Friends: A Methodology of Soul Care and Spiritual Direction – was perfect for our interns. Though written primarily for biblical counseling contexts, I was struck by its potential broader application in giving anyone language and skills for relating effectively to others. And after using this resource for the last two years, it has done just that, exceeding my expectations.

I recently had the privilege of poring over Kellemen’s newest book, Gospel Conversations: How to Care Like Christ and Kellemen – the executive director of the Biblical Counseling Coalition, the founder and CEO of RPM Ministries, and Vice President of Institutional Development and Chair of the Biblical Counseling at Crossroads Bible College – has provided us with another outstanding resource. In Gospel Conversations, Kellemen accomplishes exactly what he set out to do with this resource, “…to give careful thought and attention to how to use the gospel to encourage one another to resist temptation and to respond with suffering with love for God and one another.” (15)

In Gospel Conversations, Kellemen provides a comprehensive and highly practical manual to equip pastors and lay persons alike around what he calls four “compass points”: 1) sustaining (offering biblical care for hurting people), 2) healing (offering biblical comfort and encouragement for suffering people, 3) reconciling (offering biblical help for people struggling against besetting sins), and 4) guiding (offering wisdom for people growing in Christ).

A Deep Appreciation

I sincerely appreciate Kellemen’s emphasis on the centrality of the gospel. He says that a gospel conversation is to “promote personal change centered on the person of Christ through the personal ministry of the Word.” (16) Too often in our ministry towards others, we default to first giving “common sense” advice (this seems to make the most sense) or “street smarts” advice (this is what I’ve experienced, so it must be true).

While experience and logic can be helpful tools in conversation, they should not be the starting point nor the grid we continue to press help and change through. The gospel, as understood in the Scriptures, should be the focal point and end game for our conversations in ministry. Kellemen says as much, “The essence of gospel conversations is helping one another to understand and apply the gospel to the details of our lives as saints who struggle with suffering and sin.” (16)

Here’s a great example. In chapter nine of Gospel Conversations, “Reconciling through Grace-Maximizing,” Kellemen does a masterful job of explaining the tension between helping expose heart sin and its affects relationally, rationally, volitionally, and emotionally and the importance of applying the comforting grace of Christ.  He says, “Since little counsel can be received when the conscience is in intense turmoil, biblical counselors refuse to let sin overwhelm the conscience. The worst sin of all is denying grace…Sin can be forgiven, but believing sin can’t be forgiven leaves [one] hopelessly despairing.” (285)

So what to do? Be quick to extend the Spirit of sonship. Kellemen says that that this “liberates the spiritual conscience, causing it to understand that it’s now under freedom of grace and forgiveness of God.” (285) To this end, Kellemen says that to calm the conscience, we may need to remind our friend that “Christ always loves you accepts you” and ask the very practical question, “What scriptural meditation can you use to keep this truth in the forefront of your mind?” This is just one of many illustrations of how Kellemen weaves the tapestry of grace throughout this book. The “axis” that Gospel Conversations revolves around is rightly the liberating grace of God in the person and work of Jesus.

A Minor Caution

For the lay person wanting to grow in their ministry effectiveness in relating to others, Gospel Conversations may be somewhat challenging to navigate. Though it is not, as Kellemen says, “your father’s textbook,” it truly is a highly robust “how to” handbook (read, a 393-page opus). Kellemen successfully leaves no stone unturned in his attempt to provide, as he says, “an experiential training manual.” (17) For someone not accustomed to this kind of writing, it may take some time to digest. There are many hypothetical situations, acronyms, diagrams, and questionnaires to meditate on and absorb throughout the book. But for those willing to dig in, it will be worth the effort.

I wholeheartedly recommend Gospel Conversations for anyone desiring to grow in their ability to connect the gospel in conversation to those that they minister to.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

 

Fatal Attraction: All That Glitters is Not Gold, Part 2

Anaconda

Cross-posted from Gospel Centered Discipleship

I’m a sucker for the occasional B-movie escapism. Replete with a low budget, painful dialogue, and a severely undefined story arc, it can be the perfect silliness for a Friday evening. Enter Anaconda. As only 1997 could deliver, the film chronicles a documentary crew headed into the jungle to shoot footage on a mysterious Indian tribe. On their way, they pick up a stranded man who then takes the team hostage on his quest to capture the world’s largest and deadliest snake: a record-breaking green Anaconda.

The thrust of the storyline in one sentence (spoiler alert!) is: people scanning the crest of the river to determine where this deadly snake might be. That’s it. You can imagine the dialogue: “Is that it?” “Did you see that?” “I think I heard something” “Watch out, I see it coming!”

I’ve been thinking lately about the ways we pursue happiness and my drifted to Anaconda. Though most of us wouldn’t articulate it this way, we stroll through our human existence, scanning the surface of our hearts until we find what we think we are looking for. Our time, our energy, our attention, and even our money is devoted to a quest of self-assurance and self-significance.

The Great Hunt

We want to be loved. We want to belong. We want to make a difference. We want to feel important. And we’ll look endlessly until we have found something we think might satisfy us—much like the documentary crew looking for what lies at the crest of the river. But the fruit of our self-salvation projects lie at the surface of a greater hunt in our lives.

Want happiness? It’s important to identify what is at the surface of our hopes and desires. In order for us to find real satisfaction, we must start here. We must ask, “Is that it?” “Did you see that?” “I think I heard something” “Watch out, I see it coming!” The Bible calls this self-diagnosis idol detection (1 Cor. 10:14). Today, we discussing step one of this self-diagnosis: unearthing those idols that lie on the surface.

Many times these idols are easily discernible. You can identify them by listening to your prayers. What do you ask God forgiveness for? Maybe it’s an anger problem. Maybe it’s an issue with lust. Maybe you have bitterness in your heart towards another. Anger, lust, and bitterness are exterior sins indicating deeper root sins. These are branch idols. You can see them easily but the root sins are what’s actually feeding them.

Hunting for Your Idols

Here are some questions as you look for your surface idols.

  • Do I need to be esteemed by people?
  • Do I demand order in my world?
  • Do I compare myself favorably to others?
  • Am I angry or defeated if things are not accomplished immediately?
  • Do I have to be the center of my family life, my job, or my church?
  • Do I dictate that people must submit to me?
  • Do I think my opinions are all-wise and correct?
  • Do I do whatever pleases me?
  • Is my appearance—whether religiously or physically—ultimate?
  • Do I desire to be accountable to no one?
  • Do I have to win at everything?

If you notice, these questions require a sense of self-awareness. Tim Keller says that one way you can identify your surface idols is by looking at your most uncontrollable emotions.

Just like a fisherman looking for fish knows to go where the water is rolling, look for your idols at the bottom of your most painful emotions, especially those that never seem to lift and that drive you to do things you know are wrong . . . when you ‘pull your emotions up by the root,’ as it were, you will often find your idols clinging to them.

So what are your surface idols? Look at where the water is rolling on the crest of your heart and you will locate them. It’s an essential first step to reversing the fatal attraction of idolatry in our lives.

Next time, we will look at why we can’t stop at just identifying our surface idols if we want to find true significance and happiness. To find real peace and contentment in life, there is something that lurks beneath the surface that we must address because our surface sins are only symptoms of much deeper sins.