In a little bit more than a month, I’ll be turning 30. I’m wrestling of the finality of the end of my 20’s. Looking on the last 10 years, I see some things I am really glad I did, some things that I really wish I had done, and the overwhelming grace of God in using even the most stupid choices I made to form me into the person that I am today. But here are a few things I wish I could tell my 20-year old self.
Join a strong gospel-centered church.
The older I get, the more I realize the value of a strong local church. I really passionately started following Jesus around when I was 20 and I left my old church when I was around 26. Being in my present church makes me appreciate some healthy marks of my present church.
A. Strong Biblical Preaching- In many ways, I am a self starter when it comes to learning the Bible. There are a lot of resources out there, and if you have the drive, you can learn the Bible even if your church has weak preaching. But, there is such a blessing in having the Bible taught well to you week after week. It shapes not only you, but everyone in your church. You begin to have common conversations about the sermon and how it highlighted parts of your life that need to change. And when you invite people, you can be sure that they will hear the gospel and may be that much closer to meeting Jesus.
B. Accountability- My current church has spaces where we confess sins and suffering to one another, usually though small group settings. Not only does this overcome sin patterns but it draws you closer together. You realize that you are not alone in your struggles and you are able to pray for one another and become stronger together. There’s a danger to this, mainly to your reputation. But being in a community that has a pattern of this type of confession can help you get over this hesitation.
C. Discipleship structures- I use the term “structures” intentionally. You can disciple believers in any setting. But if you have set blocks in your calendar set aside specifically for that purpose, you are more likely to do them. I can’t tell you how many times that I have wanted to not attend a small group, but was blessed and was able to bless tremendously just because I showed up. It is not enough for a church to emphasize discipleship, but the church needs a plan.
D. A love for the nonbeliever- Christianity should be characterized by loving people that are not like us, and through that, bringing them to love Jesus. And the church needs to be willing to take on the requisite messiness to do so.
E. Proper contextualization for the mission of the church- Now this needs some explaining, and probably its own blog post, but here goes. I love Tim Keller’s definition of contextualization, “Sound contextualization means translating and adapting the communication and ministry of the gospel to a particular culture without compromising the essence and particulars of the gospel itself.” (Center church, p89) Now, one thing that I have to make clear is that everyone contextualizes. It is not the case that the blue-jeans church contextualizes while the jacket-and-tie church just isn’t smart enough to contextualize. The casual church will draw a certain crowd and the formal church will draw a certain crowd. Now, I went to a bilingual church, where people spoke as the secondary language a south Indian language, Malayalam, predominantly spoken in the Southern state of Kerala.Now, language is the most straightforward mode of contextualization. But along with that came other, more subtle things that would brand us as “Indian.” Now, being so, we were contextualized very well for reaching people from Kerala, but the non-Christian circles that me (and most of the people in the church) ran in. Which meant that we were well contextualized as a church to reach a demographic that we were not in. Inversely, we were not contextualized for our context. I’m not saying this model can’t work, but a healthy church will contextualize to the population they are trying to reach.
Have zero tolerance for neglect of spiritual disciplines
A. Prayer-I developed a consistent discipline of prayer mainly because of my first job as an attorney. I was working with victims of domestic violence and I was fresh out of law school.My supervisor was in another county and I had no idea how the law worked. It went about as well as eating soup with chopsticks. Figuring out the nuts and bolts of the legal system while juggling both a heavy caseload and emotional needs of my clients brought me to the end of myself. I remember asking God, day after day, for just enough grace to get through that day. But through that, I have a discipline of prayer. I wish that it didn’t have to take that to get me to pray consistently.
B. Bible- Someone once said that if you cut John Bunyan, he would bleed the Bible. That’s how a Christian needs to be. It is not enough to know the text, but also to have that text seep into you, coloring your actions, decisions, and thoughts. You don’t do this by sitting down and learning the whole Bible at once. You read a little bit every day, and year by year, the Bible will flow down into your blood.
C. Fasting- This is the most painful spiritual discipline, and because of that, probably the most neglected one. But through a (still shaky) routine of fasting, I have learned humility, self-control, appreciation for the gift of food, empathy with the hungry, and the mercy of God in answering prayer.
Evangelism is one of those things that social pressure grates against. What I mean by that is ordinarily, non-christians don’t like hearing the spoken, saving story of Jesus. Because of this, there is tremendous pressure to be quiet about Jesus while making up for it by doing more acts of service and work among believers. Now, building up believers and serving others is needed, but because we don’t want to face the social pressure against evangelism, we can get unbalanced. Looking back, what I often convince myself is tact is, in fact, cowardice. I would tell my 20-year-old self to make sure that he is bold and has an intentional plan for evangelism. I would encourage him to have three unbelieving friends that he would pray for every day, contact regularly, and openly tell about Jesus.
I had way more time in college than I thought I did. Plus I think my college even had Biblical Greek as an elective. Plus, with the internet, there are incredible resources that would help me learn. If I had started the language and stuck to it, I am confident I could be reading and writing by now. I will be reading the Bible for the rest of my life and I am firmly convinced that knowing the original language of the New Testament would help me, both in teaching others the Bible and in my own personal devotional life. I would tell 20-year-old me to work on a little Greek every day, and to be consistent.
Read more than I think I can
There are few things that have shaped me more than the books I have read. Good books have not only given things to say to others, but they created a framework from which I see the rest of the world. I’ve been instructed by theology, inspired by missionary biography, and challenged by books on prayer. I’ve used things I’ve read to encourage myself and other believers, and intrigue non-believers. I have very few original thoughts. But there is so much more I could have read. I think of how many books I could have read if I had read at the challenging but not impossible pace of 4 books a month. I would tell 20-year old me to read at that pace, to constantly hold that pace, and to make use of the knowledge.
Get married earlier
I love my wife. I got married at 25 and I am constantly amazed both at how much I’ve grown as a disciple of Jesus and how many more people I can impact since Neziah and I have been married. Marriage allows me to see myself for who I really am, with all my selfishness, irritability, and anger. And as I see these things surface, I am able to Jesus into those things and be changed, although sometimes at a painfully slow pace. Beyond that, Neziah and I have been able to pour into other couples in a way that would be difficult for a single person.
It is also such a joy for us to invite singles into our lives. To model what marriage should look like (and sometimes what it should not).The longer that I am married the more I realize that men and women have unique gifts to bring to the mission, and together they can accomplish a lot. I would tell a younger me to find Neziah and marry her a lot earlier. We would both still be in school, but we live in Oklahoma. It doesn’t take a lot to get by; we would be fine.
Move out sooner
For most of the time since I was in college, I was pseudo-moved out. I had an apartment in my college town, and I would drive back on weekends to stay with my parents and attend church. Though it was incredibly generous for my parents to let me do that, If I could go back, I wouldn’t. My parents would send food and groceries for the week, each week, which meant that not only did I not learn to cook, I didn’t learn to buy groceries.
Secondly, I was never really able to set down roots in my college town. It was almost like I had two lives, no one that I was discipling or speaking the gospel to would drive the 30-40 minutes back to my parent’s church. To my credit, my last year or so of law school I stopped taking groceries and food from my parents; it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I learned quickly how to live on a budget, how to pay bills, and not to take things for granted. There are so many lessons in discipline, thrift, and self reliance that you can learn no other way. I would tell my 20 year old self to really move out instead of dabbling in semi-adulthood; to create a hard break and take responsibility for myself.