When I was a young kid, I watched my dad do other things besides parent and work. We moved to Littleton, Colorado when I was almost four. My dad had a new job and two young kids. For some people, this season of transition with children would have been a good reason to step away from lots of church activities and focus on the family. Our pastor, however, had a special talent for identifying the unique gifts of people in our congregation. Knowing my dad was an ex-high school basketball and baseball coach, he asked my dad to help coach various high school, junior high, and women’s sports teams that were part of the church’s ministry. My dad agreed to serve the family of God in this way. As a result, I spent many of my childhood evenings playing underneath bleachers during basketball and softball games. I enjoyed numerous Saturday mornings accompanying my dad to basketball practice for the church’s junior high basketball team.
Little did I realize that my dad was doing something profoundly life-changing by serving the body of Christ in this way. In fact, years later, when my dad moved back to Colorado after a fifteen-year absence, he had members of the old basketball team come up to him and tell him, “I’m a Christian because of you and the youth basketball program at church.” Another previous basketball player who had converted to Christ through the basketball program told him, “I’m a pastor today because of you.” My dad’s involvement in this form of church ministry also changed my own life. I realized I learned something important through all those activities: life did not and should not center on my activities and my world. No, we were made to focus on the well-being of others (Mt. 16:25). My dad cared about and contributed to the body of Christ through his coaching skills. Beyond this extra service, my dad served as a deacon and faithfully took us to church and countless church activities. My earthly father helped me understand what it meant to be an active part of Christ’s body.
What I Didn’t Learn in Ethics Class that I Learned through Christ’s Body
God has bestowed some identities upon us in which our choice plays no part (e.g., being made in his image, being a son or daughter). However, some other identities we enter into through God’s grace and an act of our will (e.g., being a friend, college student, a husband or wife). In this latter group, the most important identity involves our commitment to be a member of Christ’s body. Our membership in the body of Christ is so important because it has a profound influence on how we think about and live the good life.
I encountered this healthy influence my first semester in college when I took a philosophical ethics class. Here’s one ethical challenge I was given in the class: if you were an inn keeper, would it be ok to lie to a vicious looking person at the door with an ax who asks for someone who just ran into the inn looking scared? 1 As a Christian, something seemed wrong about the focus of this whole discussion about ethical principles and the class as a whole, but I could not put my finger on it at the time. Focusing on rare scenarios that hardly anyone actually encounters seemed to miss whole areas of the moral life.
In contrast to the one-off cases of my ethics class, through the body of Christ, I learned to join in a glorious, and all-encompassing moral cause with a group of brothers and sisters. We sought to follow Christ and battle Satan, sin and evil, just as believers have been for centuries. I also learned that certain virtues are key to engaging in this quest with the body of Christ, such as sacrificial love, forgiveness, humility and servanthood. Key practices also helped such as worship, prayer and giving. In contrast, my ethics class did not mention Satan, sin or evil, or any one of the virtues or practices Christ emphasized. As a result, whole parts of the moral life I embraced that seemed more important were neglected in this discussion. Only slowly, throughout college and graduate school did I fully come to realize that Christ’s body had much, much more to offer than the philosophical ethics I encountered my first year in college (although fortunately virtue ethics has now reemerged).
Recently, I helped survey seniors at my university regarding their faith and character development in college. Here is one of the things we found. Frequency of religious service attendance was positively associated with overall GPA, major GPA, Christian orthodoxy, Vertical Faith Maturity, Horizontal Faith Maturity, and sense of belonging. Seniors who actively attend a local place of worship also report stronger peer relationships on campus. I should note that qualitative research reveals that the positive influence comes less from worship time or sermons and more from involvement with college ministries, small group Bible studies, and mentoring relationships with older students and adults.
One of the most important elements for moral and spiritual formation students need in college is mentors from the body of Christ. Certainly, we can find mentors in the Scriptures and the curriculum. During college, I found my eyes opened to a whole new world when I started taking classes that covered important parts of the church history (e.g., the late Roman empire, the Reformation) in which professors had me read Augustine, Luther, Calvin and other church fathers. I realized that the problems with which I wrestled were not new. Christians had been pondering these matters for centuries and these church fathers had great wisdom to offer.
Yet, being part of Christ’s body on and off campus puts us in touch with living mentors that we desperately need in college. Dan Kirkley and his wife Candy—opened my eyes to what the Bible says about the poor. In addition, they acted upon it. As a high schooler, I always remember traveling by a battered house on my way to church feeling sorry for whoever lived there. When I became a youth pastor intern at the church over the summer, I found the children I had felt sorry for were now attending our church. Apparently, Candy Kirkley visited this family and invited them to come to church through the church’s van ministry. Like Jesus, they not only knew what the Bible said about the poor, they reached out to them.
Another church member, Bunny Martin, took me into prisons to light a match I held with my lips (this will make sense in a moment). Bunny Martin won a national yo-yo contest and was known as the national yo-yo champion. 2 Fortunately, he used his talents for the Lord in multiple ways. One of those ways was to serve in prison ministry. He would take other church members into the prisons with him to do a variety of yo-yo tricks, one of which involved lighting a match a person holds with his lips, with his yo-yo. This experience would give me confidence during my college years to work with a ministry that visited the state penitentiary to share Christ with prisoners.
There was also Lindsay Graber who I met in a church in California while in graduate school. She and her friend Karen had started making breakfast every Saturday morning and had a Bible study for a group of homeless men in this area of Southern California. She had become inspired to do this ministry after going to an Intervarsity Urbana conference. She invited me along and modeled what it meant to care for the homeless in a practical way.
Finally, there is the church I currently attend. My wife came down with something called Guillain-Barré syndrome eleven years ago. For a year following her initial illness, she was primarily confined to her bed as she recovered. In the midst of that I tried to do the best to take care of my wife as well as our four and seven-year-old boys while working. I can remember at the end of the day, trying to make my boys’ lunches and just feeling physically and spiritually depleted and overwhelmed. Fortunately, during that whole year she lay in bed, our church Sunday School class brought us meals. Our kids got rides to school from friends. Various people from our Sunday school class came by and mowed our lawn. Others helped in special ways. While my wife lay in bed on her birthday, a colleague’s wife who decorates cakes professionally brought over a cake. As a birthday present, women from the church came over and cleaned the house. Another woman asked her hairdresser to come over and cut our whole family’s hair. Still, others brought over containers and labels to help our four and seven-year-old organize and put away their rooms. These were incredible acts of love and kindness that helped sustain us.
These were men and women of action who modeled the good life in church, showed me how to follow them, and exemplified Christ’s words, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:34-36). Through being part of Christ’s body, they showed me and mentored me in how to live the good life. I will be forever thankful for their examples and inspiration.
This blog is adopted from Perry Glanzer’s new book, Identity in Action (ACU Press, 2021). Used by permission.
- In case you’re wondering, the famous philosopher Immanuel Kant argued no, although his reason has more to do with making sure the state functions properly than following God’s commands. Immanuel Kant, “On the Supposed Right to Lie from Benevolent Motives. See http://www.sophia project.org/uploads/1/3/9/5/13955288/kant_lying.pdf, i.
- “Bunny Martin,” Fellowship of Christian Athletes Hall of Champions, http://hall.fca.org/1998/bunny-martin/