Your Conscience: Are you Neglecting It?

Recently I taught a Sunday morning message on the human conscience. Afterwards a seasoned Christian told me that in all his years he had never heard anybody talk about the conscience. As I reflected over my 45 years of following Christ, I, too, have never heard anyone speak about it. So, in this post I make the case for paying attention to our conscience, developing a healthy one, and if you are a pastor or teacher, teaching on it.

What is the conscience? We intuitively understand it as that part of us that reminds us when we do wrong. We use conscience in our vocabulary: he has no conscience, I had a guilty conscience, she has a clear conscience. The word conscience (suneidesis in Greek, a combination of two words: together + know) was one of the Apostle Paul’s favorite words. He used it over 20 times. Scripture records one of his most famous uses in Acts 24.16 when he stood in his own defense at a trial and said, “I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.”

Conscience is akin to a moral compass. A conscience controlled by the Holy Spirit points the way that pleases God, although not perfectly for we are fallen creatures. I believe conscience works to our benefit in these three ways.

  1. Convict us when we have sinned. That is, the Holy Spirit uses it to cause the unpleasant sensations in our bodies when we feel guilt or remorse over sin.
  2. Commend us when do right. Again, the Holy Spirit uses it to give us an emotional sense of peace and joy when we do the right thing.
  3. Serve as a moral GPS to warn us when we are about to cross a moral or ethical line.

In summary, our conscience is a silent but deeply felt witness to spiritual and moral truth, behavior, and the satisfaction of choosing right over wrong. It is a God given capacity of our minds and souls that we exercise through our bodies when we make both good and bad choices. It monitors our beliefs and attitudes against our behavior and signals our bodies and souls when we are aligned with or out of alignment with biblical values. We can strengthen our conscience, desensitize it, or destroy it.

Five inputs that fashion and form our conscience.

  1. Nature: our genes. Some people are simply born more sensitive to right and wrong (the rule keepers).
  2. Nurture: our parent’s influence. How our parents raised us impacts the health and accuracy of our conscience, especially as it relates to whether or not we experienced a stable and consistent attachment to them.
  3. Daily experiences of life.
  4. Our spiritual maturity.
  5. Our body’s physical state: if we are tired or sick

Why does conscience matter?

  1. Because without it we would have no moral guide.
  2. Because a clear conscience gives us confidence before God (2 Cor. 1.12).
  3. Because a clear conscience gives us confidence in our relationships. Without we have to hide.
  4. Because a clear conscience gives us personal peace.
  5. Because a clear conscience promotes real love. With a clear conscience we are most free to truly love someone else (1 Tim 1.5)

The 7 kinds of consciences:

  1. Natural. Every person is born with a conscience. A natural conscience would be one of a person who is not a follower of Jesus. To a degree our conscience is hard-wired. Most people intuitively know the difference between right and wrong. It’s called natural or general revelation. (Rom 2.14-15). When a person comes to faith, however, the Holy Spirit makes his or her conscience come alive to the things of God.
  2. Weak. A weak conscience is an underdeveloped and uninformed one. Paul speaks of this kind of conscience in 1 Corinthians 8 in his discussion about new Christians who struggled with more mature Christians who ate meat offered to idols. At the point in their spiritual growth, they still hadn’t separated meat from idol worship when meat was eaten after those pagan ceremonies.
  3. Tired. When we resist temptation, our willpower to resist it soon thereafter is drained a bit. It’s called ego depletion (and a related term decision fatigue) Read more about decision fatigue here. Our conscience gets tired and less able to function when we don’t rest and sleep properly.
  4. Seared. Repeatedly refusing to listen to the voice of our conscience degrades and desensitizes our conscience to the things of God (1 Tim 4.2, Eph 4.19).
  5. Shipwrecked. The inevitable result of a seared conscience is what the Apostle Paul described as a conscience that shipwrecks faith (1 Tim 1.19). Such a person, because he continually refused to heed the Spirit’s promptings through his conscience, destroys his faith, now approving of what at one time he readily admitted was sin.
  6. Hypersensitive. This person lives with a perpetual vague or even an acute sense of guilt, even though he or she is not guilty. They constantly second guess themselves, ruminating over experiences and wondering if they offended someone or did something wrong.
  7. Clear. This is what we all desire, what Paul said he strived to keep. A clear conscience gives us a lightness to our soul, freedom with others, and confidence to be ourselves since we have nothing to hide or conceal. Peter wrote about having a good conscience toward God. (1 Pet 3.21)

When we understand more about our conscience and apply such truth, I believe we can most please God, bless others, and experience personal peace.

Have you ever heard a message on the human conscience? What did you learn that you could share?

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Coffee Stains on the Auditorium Carpet: A Key to a Successful Sermon?

NO FOOD OR DRINK ALLOWED IN THE AUDITORIUM! I’ve seen such messages emblazoned in the lobbies of many churches where I’ve attended or where I’ve served. In one church we allowed food and coffee in the auditorium. Yet, I was often miffed at how many stains our carpets incurred from coffee spills and donut smudges. The carpet looked terrible. We’d often pay extra for carpet cleaners to clean them. Since I don’t drink coffee, I secretly wished we hadn’t allowed anything in the auditorium except people. But apparently I’ve been very wrong to want that. Coffee stains and donut smudges may have actually helped my sermon be more successful.

I’ll average 15-20 hours preparing a sermon praying that God will use it to change lives. I’ve prayed that with the Spirit’s help the message would persuade others to live more like Jesus. Often I’ve wondered to what degree my message actually stuck in the listeners’ minds and hearts. Surprisingly, the number of stains may actually have indicated my sermon’s stickiness.

Some time back a Yale University study that examined how eating and drinking influences a message’s persuasiveness (Janis et al., 1965). Colege student volunteers first filled out a questionnaire about their views on certain subjects. Researchers then presented them with four unpopular or unlikely views like, “It will be over 25 years before a cure to cancer is found.” The students then read articles that attempted to persuade them otherwise. One group of students was offered Pepsi and peanuts while they read the articles while the other group wasn’t offered any food. Later they completed a second questionnaire about their views on the same subjects.

The Pepsi-peanuts group consistently changed their viewpoints on those issues to more favorable ones. The non-food students’ viewpoints changed very little.

The implication?

When others eat food or drink coffee while they listen to your sermon, it may actually make your message stick better. So, paying a few extra dollars to clean those coffee stains and donut smudges may be worth the price. Perhaps we should actually encourage people to bring food into the service.

What is your church’s policy on food in the auditorium?

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References:Janis, I.L., Kaye, D. & Kirschner, P. (1965) Facilitating effects of ‘eating-while-reading’ on responsiveness to persuasive communications. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1 (2), pp.181-186.

How the Brain Stifles Church Change

If you want your church to thrive you can’t avoid church change. Yet it is seldom easy, even though we leaders see the benefits of change before others see them. One hidden reason that makes it so difficult comes from how our brains respond to change. I believe that the more we know how the brain works, the more effective change managers we’ll become. In this post I explain how brain processes in stifle change in your church.

In a prior blog about the brain’s influence on change I wrote…

Our brains are wired for us to want certainty in our lives. When something feels ambiguous or uncertain, we subconsciously feel threatened. When we feel threatened, it creates an away response, rather than a toward response. In the case of church change, an away response might be negativity, fear, passive resistance, or complaining from people. On the other hand, a toward response would be excitement, support, and good gossip, how we hope the church would respond. The more uncertain and ambiguous church change appears, the less support we’ll get and the more difficult the change will become.

Ambiguity about changes we propose, plus many other brain factors, influence how well people in your church will respond to your leadership. I knew of one church in the southern U.S. that was preparing for significant change by attempting to raise several million dollars for a building renovation. However, several key players and church members at that time had yet to embrace the plan. The resistance to the change rose from these core issues.

  • Fear that this fund raising effort would hinder other fundraisers that several ministries depend on.
  • Sparse information given to the church before key milestones in the process.
  • Resistance by some about going into debt.
  • Older church members who felt uncomfortable with the change.

Based on brain insights, I’ve listed five ways that this church or any church should consider to best manage such change.

  1. Leaders should first understand that two fundamental brain systems are at play in the people they seek to lead. One process, called the “X-system,” got its name from the ‘x’ from the word reflexive. This system is more emotional, reactive, habitual, impulsive, spontaneous, and fast. It’s the non-thinking, automatic process that most people live by day-to-day. It’s what prompts someone to emotionally react to a change. The other process, called the “C-system,” comes from the ‘c’ in reflective. It’s more intentional, controlled, slower, and causes us to think before we speak or act. This system prompts people to reflectively consider the change. Simply knowing how the brains of your people work can help you manage change better. If you want to learn more about these processes, read, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.
  2. Recognize that change can create an away response in our brains and our emotions (see the quote above). If we feel threatened and fearful (caused by an away response), we’re less likely to embrace change. Older church members may feel especially threatened due both to the effects of age on the brain and to their long term ingrained church habits that aren’t easily changed (Williams et al., 2008). Therefore, leadership should publically acknowledge that they understand that change is difficult and scary and that it’s scary for them as leaders as well.
  3. Bring key players into the conversation. If key players believe they’ve been excluded from the process they can feel that they are in the “out” group. When they do, resistance to change will be higher because it also creates an away response in the brain (Rock, David & Cox, n.d.).
  4. Over communicate using all means possible. The more information church people receive, the less ambiguity and more certainty they will feel. As a result, they will be less tempted to fill in the information gaps with worst case scenarios and will become more open to the reasons you give for the change.
  5. Finally, seek to minimize something called cognitive dissidence. This term simply describes the inner tension we feel when our belief conflicts with our behavior (i.e., I want to lose weight but I’m eating a bag of Cheetos). Cognitive dissonance creates anxiety that can make us less open to change. One way to help minimize it is to preach and teach to change people’s beliefs about the change you’re proposing. If you can help them agree that the reason for the change is Biblical (i.e., reach more people), you can help them shift their behavior to align more with the change (i.e., their willingness to sacrifice convenient parking during the renovation). Behavior change follows change in belief.

God has given us this incredible thing called the brain. The more we learn how it works, the better leaders and change agents we will become.

What insights about change have helped you in your ministry or job?


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Sources:

Rock, David & Cox, C. SCARF in 2012: updating the social neuroscience of collaborating with others. Neuroleadership Journal, (four).

Williams, L.M., Gatt, J.M., Hatch, A., Palmer, D.M., Nagy, M., Rennie, C., Cooper, N.J., Morris, C., Grieve, S., Dobson-Stone, C., Schofield, P., Clark, C.R., Gordon, E., Arns, M. & Paul, R.H. (2008) THE INTEGRATE MODEL OF EMOTION, THINKING AND SELF REGULATION: AN APPLICATION TO THE ‘PARADOX OF AGING’. Journal of Integrative Neuroscience, 07 (03), pp.367-404.

4 Ways Pastors can Refill their Depleted Souls

Have you ever felt depleted? As a pastor I have. Recently I heard the president of Heritage College and Seminary located near Toronto give an uplifting talk about how pastors can refill their depleted souls. He spoke at a monthly gathering of pastors and Christian business leaders in London, Ontario, where I serve as a pastor. With permission, I share his insights below.

Rick based his thoughts on this passage in the Gospel of Mark when Jesus Himself got away from the crowds.

35   Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.  36 Simon and his companions went to look for him,  37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” 38   Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else — to the nearby villages — so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”  39 So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons. (Mark 1.35-39)

Here are four ways Rick suggested that can refill a depleted soul.

  1. Disengage from ministry demands.
    • This passage said that Jesus did just that. Although fully God, Jesus was also fully human and got tired just like you and I get. The Scripture says that Jesus went to a desolate place. In other words, he removed himself from the hustle and bustle of ministry life. He separated himself from the crowds.
    • Question to ponder: Do you take a day off  when you truly disengage? Or, do you keep yourself tethered to your cell phone or your email ‘just in case’ someone needs you?
  2. Seek communion with God.
    • Notice that Jesus didn’t just get away from doing something (direct people ministry). But he disengaged so that He could engage more fully with His Father. We not only need to rest our bodies from the demands ministry places on us, but we need to fill our souls with spiritual nourishment.
    • Question to ponder: Do you regularly engage with God’s Word simply to fill your soul? Or, do bible reading, reflection, and contemplation have an end game to give you material for your sermons?
  3. Build supportive friendships.
    • Rick noted that in other places in the Gospels Jesus often took aside his disciples when He withdrew from the crowds. Disengaging does not mean that every day off we spend in solitude. Occasionally that’s a good idea. But God uses friends to fill our souls as well. In this post I list several qualities to look for in a safe friend.
    • Question to ponder: How many close friends do you have with whom you feel safe to share your joys and sorrows?
  4. Focus on your God-given calling.
    • Sometimes we pastors have bad weeks, really bad ones. People criticize us. Crises interfere with our study time. Offerings come in really low. When that has happened to me, I’ve taken great comfort and received renewed energy when I recall my call to ministry. I remind myself that then God calls us to vocational ministry, he provides everything we need. One simple practice has helped me do this. Two to three times a month when I plan my upcoming week, I review my personal mission statement and values. This simple practice reminds me to remember my calling when I experience a bad week. In this post I explain a process to help you refine your mission and personal values.
    • Question to ponder: When was the last time you recalled your call to ministry?

Rick concluded his talk by noting that although we intuitively understand how to refuel ourselves, we often don’t do it. He challenged us to ask why we don’t. He suggested that these five issues often keep us from consistently refueling.

  1. We need to be needed too much.
  2. We undervalue our communion with God.
  3. We overvalue what we can accomplish.
  4. We confuse many relationships with deep relationships.
  5. We can’t stand to disappoint people.

That simple talk that day reinforced my commitment to regularly refuel my soul.

What would add to either list?

If you want to follow Rick you can read his blog posts here.

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5 Qualities to Look for in a Youth Pastor.

Occasionally I offer a blog by a guest blogger. Today’s post comes from my friend and youth pastor expert Jeremy Best. Jeremy has served in student ministry for many years and is one of the most knowledgable guys around on the subject. He speaks with wisdom on the qualities to look for in a youth pastor.

You’re looking for the wrong qualities in your youth pastor.

I’ve been through the hiring and interview process a few times, have helped churches design job descriptions, and I’ve walked with other youth pastors as they’ve gone through the job hunt. Through all of this a few trends have emerged, but one stands out clearly – churches don’t have a grasp on the type of person their youth pastor needs to be. They get caught up looking for someone who checks off the boxes in the usually unrealistic job description and who seems to have that classic youth pastor look and feel (which is entirely subjective and typically based on the past experience – good or bad – of the people conducting the search). Because of this, churches often either hire the wrong person or miss out on great candidates that didn’t happen to meet their criteria.

So, let me submit 5 qualities to look for in your next youth pastor.

1. Horses over Cattle.

What does it take to get a horse to run? Not a whole lot. It’s in their nature. In fact, if you’re riding a horse you’ll hold on to the reins to slow the horse down or change its direction. But, what does it take to get cattle to move? A prod, an electric stick that shocks the cow to get them to move. Sure, cows are easier to control, but you’re much better off hiring a horse that you have to rein in from time to time than a cow that you’re constantly prodding just to get them moving.

2. Character over Charisma.

Charisma is by definition, attractive. People are drawn to charismatic leaders. Churches will often look for a charismatic leader whom people will be drawn to. Charisma isn’t a bad thing to have in a youth pastor, but it shouldn’t be a priority. What you need in a youth pastor is someone who will draw students to Jesus, not to themselves. Hire character. Look for a person who is deeply respected by those that know them and that is deeply in love with Jesus. This person will lead students to Jesus. If they happen to have charisma too, bonus!

3. Potential over Pedigree.

It seems every church is looking for someone with a master’s degree and 5-10 years experience.  They want someone with a good pedigree, and for good reason. Experience is extremely valuable. But, don’t limit your search based on how many years someone has been working. Look for potential. Look for someone who wants to prove they can do the job and is willing to work their butt off to do it. That person could be someone who has the education and the experience, but it could also be someone who’s still looking for their first shot.

4. Relational over Relevant.

Relevance is likely the most overrated quality churches look for in youth pastors. The idea that typically lies behind it is a good one – hire someone who the teens can relate to.  Yes, do that. But that doesn’t mean a youth pastor needs to dress like, talk like, or act like a teenager. What a youth pastor needs to be is relational. Find someone who cares deeply about teens and legitimately enjoys spending time with them, and that person will become relevant to your teens because he cares about them.

5. Curator over Custodian.

A custodian’s task is important, but limited. They are hired to care for a space, to keep it clean, tidy, and in good working order. However, a curator is a specialist in their area and are hired, typically by museums and art galleries, to design exhibitions. Curators determine what pieces are important and how they should be displayed. Many churches are looking to hire custodians for their youth ministry.  They want someone to make sure the program runs well and to keep the kids out of trouble. Aim higher for your church, hire a curator. Hire someone who will specialize in youth ministry and youth culture. Then trust and empower them to create a program that meets the unique needs of your church and community.

What quality would you add to this list?

Jeremy blogs at jeremyjbest.com.

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