A Conversation With Don McLaughlin (Mar 2012)

By Matt Dabbs

By Fred Peatross

Don McLaughlin has served as the Senior Minister at North Atlanta Church of Christ since July, 1997 (14 years, 9 months at present), and also as an adjunct professor at Harding University since September, 2006 (5 years, 7 months). He is married to Sue. Their five children are pursuing their undergraduate and graduate studies around the country while Don and Susan are enjoying ministry and the empty nest. Don graduated from Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas with a bachelor’s degree in Bible and a minor in New Testament Greek. From 1999 to 2001 Don continued his education at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. Prior to serving at North Atlanta, he and his family served with churches in Anderson, Indiana and Byesville, Ohio. Don also conducts seminars and workshops on spiritual growth, communication, leadership, and personal effectiveness in the U.S. and around the world. He especially enjoys working with universities, young people, churches, and corporations. His first book, Heaven in the Real World, is available through Simon and Schuster publishing. (There is also a Kindle edition.)

Fred: If you were given the honor of addressing the largest gathering in the history of Christendom and your assignment was to give a ‘sort-of’ State of the Union talk what would you consider to be the two most important things to say?

Don: A) Christ is sufficient for everything you will ever need in any arena of life. Our nagging sense of inadequacy and insufficiency is God-instilled. It is his built-in warning system to remind us that we are made for Someone (and something) greater than this world has to offer. Our insufficiency will continue to haunt us until we embrace our sufficiency in the all-sufficient Christ.

B) God is working as mightily today as he ever has, and willing disciples are experiencing his guidance and power. There has never been a time when God was more at work in his world. We imagine that the “days” of creation or the “years” of incarnation are the high-water marks of God’s activity in the world. We drift in our imagination to the years of the Patriarchs or the Apostles. We cast a longing eye toward their time on earth and wish that only we had been there when God was really “showing out.” But we miss the amazement all around us. He is here…NOW…performing his mighty deeds in our time.

Fred: There are reports suggesting that younger evangelicals have a distinctly different perspective than their elders on such issues as gay identity and marriage, the environment, how to address poverty and other social justice issues. Is this a window into what we can expect the future beliefs of Christianity to be? What are your thoughts?

Don: The reports are true, to some extent. There is no doubt that the perspective has changed and is changing. But gay identity, marriage, earth care and addressing poverty (along with many other issues) are really only the visible/audible changes we are experiencing. The real changes are rooted in how younger evangelicals are experiencing life through integrated technology, how they are learning, the family structures in which they are being raised, the globalization of their world, their experiences with a variety of religious expressions and political theories, and how they imagine God.

There is still an amazing level of interest in the younger evangelicals in the Story of God and how to engage with God in what He is doing in the world. But perhaps the most significant shift lies in how they will view the Book of God (the Bible) in relation to how they understand the Story of God. For many younger evangelicals, the Book of God is a partner in understanding the Story of God, along with experience, conversation, contemplation and prayer. But the Book of God is not necessarily the “Senior Partner” in this relationship.

The Bible is still important, but they will have to wrestle with what role the Book of God will play in the formation of their beliefs. Will it be an authority or primarily an inspiration? Will it be a guide for the specifics of life and doctrine or something like a compass that generally points us toward a life with God? How the younger evangelicals assimilate the Bible into their faith will determine what we see through the window.

Fred: “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me …”

Anyone who takes their faith serious is familiar with the above Scripture and the mandate to love God over all others. Practically speaking, how do humans who live in flatland love a being of another dimension more than their family and their friends, common fellows of a known dimension – people of feel, touch and see? (the Flatland concept is taken from a book by Edwin Abbott) Your thoughts?

Don: Our definitions of love, hate, and relationship come into play. It seems as though all humans are “flatlanders” to one degree or another. It is true that some cultures have a more conscious awareness of the spirit world. Some cultures have a rich language of interaction between the world of the tangible and the world of the unseen.

The West seems to waffle on this. We are somewhat inconsistent. I think the West is more religious than spiritual in some ways, and this plays out in our definitions of “love.” For example, the West is fairly open and friendly culture which might cause people to think we are strong in personal friendships and love. But our divorce rate and our isolated living arrangements might paint another picture. Friendliness and friendship are quite different. One can live next to one’s neighbor and obey the rules of “neighborliness” and still have no real connection with them.

We enjoy love because of how that kind of interaction gives us security and significance. But we also struggle deeply with what Tim Keller calls the “Deep Idols” of Approval, Comfort, Control and Power. And these deep idols can seize upon a relationship and either keep love from ever taking root, or uproot it after it has been established. We can seek to use relationships as a way to meet the ravenous appetites of our deep idols. So when someone is not approving of me, or making me feel comfortable I can either assume they do not “love” me or I can decide that I no longer “love” them. And these responses may be my ways of attempting to control the relationship and express my power over another person.

I asked my dad once, “Do you think anyone actually loves their spouse-to-be on the day they get married?” He answered, “I suppose some do. But you can’t really know if you love someone until they give you a reason not to. As long as both are pleasing each other, a relationship can actually be a very selfish exchange. Both are getting what they want and calling it love. But true love as demonstrated by God is giving your best to, and doing what is best for, another.” Hmmm. Pretty good observation!

Love is a decision. Herein is the heart of my response to your question. When we live willfully under the lordship of God, obeying him as a free response of submission, it is a sign of love. When our commitment to obedience guides every decision we make, (even taking precedence over the wills, wishes, and wants of our family) then it is a sign that we love God the most. <br><br>We can still feel a different kind of love for our physical family that is so intense we can’t imagine a greater “love” for anyone, even God. But perhaps we are confusing the core of love—the decision of our will to fully give ourselves to and for someone else—with the feelings of love, which are normally related to a tangible experience. This is not to say that we will not have rapturous experiences of love in our hearts to God like what is expressed in the Psalms, or even in the overflow of the heart at the birth of a baby. But the “loving of God above all else” is thematically tied in Scripture to the concept of obedience and submission to Him.

Fred: From your observations where are you seeing the activity of God today? More in the church or more in the world – and how so?

Don: Reggie McNeal writes in Missional Renaissance, “God is not more interested in developing people inside the church than those outside it.” So I do think we can see God at work in and through the church, but also in as his sovereignty is expressed in his world.

I see God at work in those who see and make connections. There are many believers who are seeing the possibility in others whether they are believers yet or not. They are building partnerships with people who are open to doing good, and creating opportunities for believers and those who do not yet believe to walk together, serve together, and sacrifice together. These partnerships are not only leveraging amazing resources to respond to the huge problems in our world, but they are engaging believers more as salt and light in the world.

I see God at work in those who label people as “loved by God.” There are many labels people place on others. The trust and sense of safety in our world has always been tenuous because of the presence of sin. But one of Satan’s most insidious weapons against us is the use of labels to categorize others.

If you want a very interesting study on this, do a Greek word study on the use of the Greek word for “accuse” in John 8:6 (and don’t miss another form of the same root in Revelation 12:10). Behind our penchant for labeling others is the practice of categorization.

When we succeed in categorizing someone with a negative connotation, it gives permission to humans to do very inhumane things. The Holocaust is always the poster-experience for this truth. Hitler’s ability to “label” the Jews a certain way transformed Germany. It created an atmosphere where a “Christian” Germany would be remembered not for its epic contributions to Christian thought and service but for its killing camps and bloody purge. The English word “accuse” in Scripture often translates the Greek word “categoria” from which we get our English word “category.” In Revelation, Satan is called the “kategor”. He is the ultimate labeler.

When we negatively categorize others it gives us a mental picture of them that they are less than us, and perhaps even less than human. In light of this mental picture, we can then abandon the Golden Rule in regard to them. This is the root of abuse, slavery, prejudice and segregation, and a whole host of sins. When believers reject “categoria” and simply label all people as “loved by God” it leaves an indelible impact on the world and is a powerful witness for God.

I see God at work in global shifts of power. Right now, there are hundreds of thousands confessing Christ in China, other parts of Asia, Africa and South America. While I was in the hospital last summer I met a nurse who came with her husband to the U.S. from Korea as missionaries to our nation. How exciting is that! Brothers and sisters from around the world seeing our need for God here in America and joining us in our work. This is very encouraging.

We recognize that China as a country and economy is a world force. It is exciting to imagine what can happen in the kingdom of God as China’s economy grows and millions of Chinese missionaries fan out across the globe. It is also awesome to consider the redemption and freedom that will rise on the African continent as more and more people embrace Christ. These are exciting times.<br><br>(There are so many more I could answer with pages!)

Fred: In your mind is there a difference between a church with a missions program and a missional church? What are the differences if any?

Don: There is huge difference, but like question 2 above, it is important to clarify perspective. Two helpful books on this distinction are, Ministry of the Missional Church by Craig Van Gelder and Missional Renaissance by Reggie McNeal. The key differences lie in the “scorecard.” How do you evaluate your work? <br><br>The missional church is focused on measuring every effort by the transformed lives of people. The missional church sees its “mission programs” as a resource people can use as they develop in Christ. In fact, the missional church sees and evaluates everything through this lens. For example, a missional church might have a Sunday School program, just like a church with a missions program. But the missional church would measure the Sunday School “program” by changed lives. They would ask, “Are the people who are making use of the Sunday School resource growing in their love for Christ? Are they measurably serving the poor? Are they measurably better husbands, wives, parents, children, neighbors, co-workers, etc?”

In a missional church, if the program is not measurably serving as a resource to develop people, then the program is dropped or exchanged for one that will. And it does not matter how many people are attending Sunday School. In the missional church you could have 100% of the Sunday morning attenders coming to Sunday School, but it would still be measured by transformed lives and not by numbers. So even if 100% are attending, if their lives are basically no different, if the status quo drags on year after year, then the missional church will end the program or exchange it for something that will produce transformed lives.

The same is true in how they evaluate any kind of mission. The question isn’t, “how do we plant a church in another county or country that is comfortably like us?” Rather, the question is, “How do we engage with people in another location (at home or abroad) in such a way as to help them develop into the likeness of Christ?” So a missional church would not judge the validity or success of the mission effort by the number of baptisms or attenders, but by the measurable evidence of transformed lives. This is a significant difference.

You cannot tell the difference between a missional church and a church with a missions program on the surface. A church with a missions program could actually be functioning “missionally” if they are evaluating their missions by the developing Christlikeness of the people they touch versus evaluating by numbers. On the other hand, you can find churches that have missional vocabulary and a more up-to-date appearance but still be evaluating their success by how many people attend, how much money they give, and how many activities they are involved in. The missional church evaluates everything by God’s mission to redeem his creation and restore people to the image in which they were created.

Fred: What, if anything, wakes you up at 3:00 in the morning?

Don: Other than drinking too much coffee after ten o’clock, what wakes me up at 3:00 am is often a wonderful inspiration of God in regard to a ministry idea. This could be the “missing piece” of how to organize our efforts around a particular need in our community. It could be a way of explaining a biblical truth in a lesson. But most of the time it is God generously helping me understand something important that has been elusive in my thinking.

There are the normal hurts, pains, and hardships that go with serving in the family of God and in our community. These might also result in a 3:00 am wake-up call, but these are often moments where I have witnessed God ministering to others in powerful ways. Some amazing ministry happens in the middle of the night sometimes.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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