J. Michael Feazell: Welcome to You’re Included, the unique interview series devoted to practical implications of Trinitarian theology. Today we’re talking with Jeff McSwain, founder and Executive Director of Reality Ministries of Durham, North Carolina. Jeff earned his Master’s degree in theology; he studied with Alan and J.B. Torrance at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews. His passion is to combine sound theological teaching with the everyday practice of youth ministry.
Jeff, it’s good to have you here.
Jeff McSwain: Thanks, Mike.
JMF: Could you tell us about Reality Ministries?
JM: Reality Ministries is an inter-church, community-based, 501(c)(3) faith-based nonprofit ministry in Durham, North Carolina. Reality Ministries’ mission statement is “helping adolescents to live into the loving presence and life-changing reality of Jesus Christ.”
JMF: “Live into”?
JM: “Live into” in the sense that “you are included, you are involved, you are implicated in what Jesus Christ has done and in his life on your behalf, his ongoing life on your behalf. You belong to him. Grow up into that reality, learn to live and breathe in that reality.” We want kids to know that they belong to Jesus Christ not because of what they’ve done but because of what he’s done.
We have a big banner up in the Reality Center that says “I am for you.” We want everything that we do at the Reality Center to be Christ-centered. We want them to know that we are for them. Many of the kids we work with are disadvantaged youth, marginalized parts of the adolescent population. Our young friends with disabilities have been overlooked and underserved. We want every single student who comes into the Reality Center to know that we are for them, and the reason that we are for them is because God is for them. He has done everything for them to include them and to reveal himself to them through the person of Jesus Christ so that they might know they are beloved sons and daughters of God.
JMF: The kids you’re serving are all in Durham?
JM: All in Durham. When we started the ministry, we were forced out of another organization. It’s interesting because they came up with a document called “The Non-Negotiables of Gospel Proclamation,” and I was asked to sign off on every detail of that document — every line, every part of the document. The interesting thing about it was that it was a document that endeavored to solve an age-old question of “How do we synthesize Arminian thinking and Five-Point Calvinist thinking?”
This organization, like many evangelical organizations who have tried to make sense of some of the scriptures that put more emphasis on God’s initiative, some more emphasis on human decision, this document was a way to try to reflect as best as possible what it means to “preach like Wesley but believe like Calvin.” For many years, I thought that was the only thing we could do—that was the best we could do, was to preach like Wesley and believe like Calvin (although, and I’d have to qualify that a little bit by saying I’m not sure Calvin would really want to be known as a Calvinist).
The Calvinist way of thinking is that only some people belong to God. The Arminian way of thinking is that no one really belongs to God, he is not Savior and Lord, he is not their Father until a decision is made. An Arminian way of thinking about belonging is that “nobody belongs until a decision is made.” The Five-Point Calvinist way of thinking would be more “some do belong, but only some, and Christ died for only some.”
JMF: Regardless of decision.
JM: Regardless of decision. What we believe in Reality Ministries is neither one of those two options. We believe that everyone belongs because of what Jesus Christ has done. That in no way minimizes human decision. As we’ve said other times, it actually gives us a more personal and more free response because we are responding from within the truth, and we know the truth sets us free.
In Reality Ministries, we want every person to know that he or she belongs to God and that’s where everything starts…that he is for them, that he who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him, as Paul says in Romans chapter 8? And so, if God is for us, who can be against us?
We want them to know that, even in spite of the fact that some of their circumstances are really horrendous. The poverty in terms of some of the kids that we are working with, in terms of the at-risk youth, the challenges that are there for our young friends with disabilities. They might be tempted to think that God is against them. We want them to know that that’s not the case, that they do belong.
I have never been more certain of giving kids their belonging as a starting point of evangelism than I have been after these last two years, when we had begun to work with these kids who have been beaten down in many ways throughout their life and are looking for somewhere to belong. Their families are fractured. Folks with disabilities, their mom and dads have a lot less likelihood of staying together in marriages because of the strain it’s put on a family because of a child with disabilities.
When you’ve got low-income parents who often are not two-parent households, and you have a lot of single moms and absent dads, there’s a real need for belonging. The last thing I want to do with those kids is say, “You can belong to God if…” Not just because that would be farther out of their reach and be a mean thing to say, not that at all, but I don’t believe it’s true.
JMF: Most youth programs, or most churches, take that kind of approach where God is not for you until you say the sinner’s prayer, until you confess your sins and accept Christ. Now Christ changes his mind toward you because of your action, which he may have led you to or whatever. But not until you make that decision, does what Christ has done for your salvation actually apply to you.
JM: Right. As I’ve said in other places, even a Five-Point Calvinist who knows those few, the elect, belong to God, but he can’t say that on the front end to everyone, because not everyone does belong. So he has to hold the good news back, give the bad news first, act as a functional Arminian, and then after acting as a functional Arminian… because Calvinists, Five-Point Calvinists and Arminians can agree on one thing — we start with sin and then we’ll figure out everything after that.
JMF: So the starting place in trying to teach the gospel to people is “you’re a sinner, you need to admit your sin, look for the sin in your life, admit that, and then God will move on your behalf.”
JM: The topical memory system is what a lot of evangelists are trained on. And the B-pack of the topical memory system is called the gospel. The first verse is Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” It doesn’t finish the sentence out. I wish it did. It stops at the comma. Because the second part of that sentence is one of the most beautiful sentences in all of Scripture, and yet it’s just, “start with that point of sin and then if a person decides to follow Christ, then they belong at that point.” A Calvinist will say, “and then I can tell that person, you belonged all along, I couldn’t tell you that upfront because I didn’t know if you were one of the elect.”
That way of Reformed thinking is what I call back-door Reformed theology, because you have to wait until a person responds before you can give them their belonging, before you can give him or her belonging, because you don’t know until they decide if that’s the case. It’s like a retroactive type of belonging.
I’m a front-door Reformed evangelist. I believe we give everyone his or her belonging, because Jesus Christ is the Lord of all, Savior of all, he’s the head of the human race, he is the second Adam in whom all men and women are included.
Giving that belonging, making that claim on a person’s life is very powerful. That cuts through a lot of the desire, to belong oneself to God, or to belong oneself to a gang. When we come right down to it, a lot of these kids we deal with are tempted to join gangs. They’re looking for some belonging, some semblance of a community. Even though it’s a destructive community, that kind of belonging is attractive to young teenagers that we work with.
In the evangelical world, what I sense happening is that there is a group of people on the more conservative of the right wing of the evangelical camp who are circling the wagons fairly tightly and who don’t want to give belonging away to anyone upfront. But what I feel is happening is, and I feel like we’re a part of this somehow as God has orchestrated it and as we’ve navigated through these first couple years, somehow we’re a part of a greater story that’s happening within the evangelical world where there are a lot of people in evangelicalism who really do believe that everyone belongs by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Because of the circling of the wagons on the right wing, there’s created a huge swath of discontented evangelists in the middle and left side of the evangelical camp (I’m just talking about the evangelical camp) who say no!
In this generation, this broken and blended generation more than ever, we’ve got to start with belonging. We’ve got to start with every young person knowing that he or she belongs to God. To me, it all comes down to “are we going to define reality by Jesus Christ?” If we are, then there’s at least four points that I think are in direct contradistinction to the four points in the extreme right side of the evangelical camp. Those four points would be
1) Do we belong to God because of what Jesus has done, or because of what we’ve done?
2) Second, are we reconciled to God because of the work of Christ, or because we made a decision?
3) Third, are we forgiven before we ask, or are we only forgiven when we ask? I think you can see the interpenetration of all these themes.
4) And fourth, are we a child of God when we decide we want to be, do we adopt ourselves into God’s family, or are we adopted into God’s family and made sons and daughters of God by the grace of God and what he’s done in revealing his heart through Jesus Christ and in the person and work of Jesus Christ?
On all four of those counts, the conservative side of evangelicalism would disagree with me. But I believe there is a robust and passionate group of gospel-proclaimers that I see popping up all over the place who feel like they have a greater zeal for evangelism than ever before because this really is good news. In Reality Ministries, we want to be the heralds of that good news.
JMF: Some people would argue that what you’re talking about sounds good to us, plays to our sense of fairness and so on, but it’s just our wishful thinking, or your wishful thinking, but it’s not a biblical stance and that theirs is the true biblical approach.
JM: I was in a staff meeting yesterday morning and we talked about Jesus Christ being the most exclusive and the most inclusive person that there is. All I can say in answering a question like that is “let’s go to the Scriptures together.” Let’s talk about Jesus Christ being the most inclusive and exclusive. Inclusive — John chapter 12, Jesus said, “When I am lifted up (speaking of his death on the cross), I will draw all people to myself.” That’s inclusive. Exclusive — Jesus Christ says in chapter 14, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” That’s right there in two chapters, in John 12 and John 14 — the greatest inclusivity and greatest exclusivity that you can find.
Then, John 17…what do we want these kids to know? They’re included, but you don’t just leave it at that. “Oh, they’re included, they’ll be fine, they’re in the flock.” No. We want them to know the Good Shepherd. We want them to know Jesus Christ. John 17, Jesus says, “What is eternal life? This is eternal life, that they might know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom he has sent.” He’s making the inmost connection between Jesus himself, between himself and the Father, and he wants us to know the Father’s heart by knowing him. That’s what we want these young people to know.
Yes, they’re included, but it’s because they’re included, that we want them to know how exclusive the claim of Jesus Christ is on their life. It’s the claim of truth. To live opposed to that, or in resistance to that, is to live in the economy of the lie and the father of lies, the deceiver, who wants to take the truth and twist it and distort it. He’s done that even in using the word “reality,” because usually we think of the word, thanks to Satan’s ploy, reality usually has bad connotations. It has connotations of the harsh realities of life, the brutal realities of our existence. “That was a great experience at camp this week, now it’s back to reality, back home in the rat race.” The word “reality” has been twisted around. That’s because the father of lies wants it that way.
We want kids to know, “The reality, the deepest reality of your life, is God’s love for you and your inclusion in his life in Jesus Christ.” That’s the deepest reality. That is the deepest, most fundamental reality. All the other realities of our fallen contingent existence are only contrasted and counterfeit to the ultimate real, the kingdom of God.
So when those kids walk through that doorway, we look at them, we treat them, and we act as if they are our brothers and sisters regardless of whether they have come to belief in the Lord or not. It’s our hope that they would want to live at home with the Father in the love of Christ by the Holy Spirit, but, as I’ve said before many times, many are lost in their thinking, but that lost-ness needs to be couched within the found-ness. It needs to be “a person cannot be lost unless he has a home.” We want them to know what their home is, who their home is, and how they can walk in relationship with this great God that we know.
JMF: What are some of the passages that are used by those who would say we’re not included, and that “the decision” is the lynchpin point?
JM: It was interesting on that “Non-Negotiables” document that I was telling you about. I said, “Wait a minute, is everybody, is everybody in this, is everybody in this mission going to have to agree to every part of this paper? That’s going to be tough to do, because there are parts of the paper that don’t agree with each other.” It’s going to be hard to get everybody to agree on every part, because there are parts that don’t agree with each other, and the reason is because there were some Arminian elements and there were some Five-Point Calvinist elements in the paper, and they were all mixed together.
Belonging, in the Five-Point Calvinist mindset, is only given to those who belong to God, or those who are his sheep, those who are died for, those who are his beloved, those are the people of God. Those are the ones who belong, and that’s been settled from all eternity. They’ll use different templates from Scripture to explain that, like, “The road is wide that leads to destruction and many are on it, the road is narrow that leads to eternal life and a few are on it.” They’ll use that, and project that into eternity, and say that’s basically the way it is. There’s more people who don’t belong, in that paradigm, than there are who do belong.
On the Arminian side of the coin, you’ve got a passage like, “God has given us eternal life and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life. He who does not have the Son of God does not have life.” In that passage, it makes it sound like Christ is something that we possess. It’s like a container. It’s like we’re a God-shaped vacuum, Christ is out there somewhere…if we invite Christ to come in, Revelation 3:20 is often used in this way as well, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door I will come in.”
The idea is that we’re the one who has the power to let Christ in or not let Christ in. We’re the empty container, we can invite him in, and until we invite him in, he has nothing to do with our life at all — we’re just walking around totally separated from God. That smacks against the idea of God’s omnipresence, and it smacks against the idea that what God has done in Jesus Christ is become Immanuel, God with us, and that there is nowhere we can flee from his presence.
We want kids to know they are in his embrace, Christ has embraced them at their worst, and we’re not the center of reality, where we can invite Christ in as an accessory to our lives, or even to be the center of our life. Christ is always the center. He’s never anything but the center. Because of what he’s done in Christ, he’s the center of everyone’s life. That sounds heretical to some in the evangelical world, but when you think about it, how heretical does it sound to say that Christ is not involved, that Christ is not the center, but we make him the center? To me, that sounds a lot more heretical.
JMF: That kind of language is used constantly — “make Christ the center of your life.”
JM: Right. And how can we do that? How can we make Christ the Lord? How can we make him the Savior? He simply is the Savior and the Lord. I saw a bumper sticker a little while ago that said, “George Bush is not my president.” Well, either that person wasn’t a United States citizen or he could get away with that, but if he is, George Bush is his president. He may not like it, he may not decide it, he may not want it, he may not believe it, but George Bush is his president.
Jesus Christ is the center of reality. He is the center of everything. He’s the center of everyone. And that’s what makes sin so bad, is because we are bucking the reality of our lives. We are bucking it, we are violating God’s economy, we are violating ourselves, when we act as if we make Jesus Christ the Savior or the Lord or the center of our lives.
We know that he is the one. “When you’ve done it to the least of these,” he says, “You’ve done it unto me.” We know he is the one who has come near and become a part of our lives in a way that if he wasn’t, we wouldn’t even be able to walk around. We wouldn’t even be able to breathe, because even in creation it talks about God breathing his Spirit into us.
A lot of times we’re not used to that kind of language, because we’re used to the container way of thinking. We’re used to the idea that we invite Christ in, we add him in, and he is not in our lives until we say that he is. So I think we have to re-train ourselves to think about the incarnational union that Christ has made with all of us. It has to do with a fancy word called ontology, but right out of Paul’s sermon in Acts 17 at the Areopagus when he says, “In him we live and move and have our being,” this idea that all human being exists inside of the being of God, and Jesus Christ is God.
All human being exists in Christ, and in every human being Christ exists — not manifest in the same way, and hopefully by the Holy Spirit those who believe in Jesus Christ will manifest the fruit of the Spirit and will live a life of Christian worship and obedience. There is a big difference between Christians, or should be, between Christians and unbelievers.
What we want these kids to know at the Reality Center is that Jesus Christ is so near to you he has violated your personal space with his love. Usually violating someone’s personal space is a bad thing, and I hesitate to mix those understandings, but here’s the point I want to make: If you’re walking across the street and a big Mack truck is coming down the road and I run out and I tackle you and save your life, are you going to say afterwards, “Jeff, I can’t believe you violated my personal space!” Of course not!
JMF: Especially if I didn’t know there was a truck coming and didn’t believe you.
JM: You might not realize the danger you were in until after you realize the rescue has taken place. A lot of times that’s the way it is in our lives. After we come to know Jesus Christ as Savior, we begin, after being given that safe place, we begin to be able to acknowledge our sinfulness at a new level, and instead of managing it or putting a good face on it, we can actually confess it. What we want are not sin managers as disciples of Christ, we want sin confessors.
I’m going through a Bible study with this group I have at the Reality Center called Real Men. It’s made up of a group of mostly at-risk young people. They are at risk of dropping out of school, they’re at risk of joining a gang, they’re at risk of domestic violence, they’re at risk of substance abuse, all kind of things that we mean when we say “at risk.” This is called Real Men, and the whole premise of it is, I want you to learn what it means to be a real man, which means to depend on Jesus Christ — not to live as an autonomous captain of your own ship or pretend that you’re independent from God.
I asked them, using the story of Jesus in Luke 18, I said, “Which person is growing more in his relationship with Christ? The one who prays, who reads the Bible, who fasts [and I explained what that was], who tithes [gives money, I explained what that was], and that everyone thinks is a godly man because of those things, or the person who’s a liar, and a thief, and a cheat, just a crook and a corrupt business person. Which one of those two people do you think is growing more in his relationship with God?”
It’s a trick question. Most people, if they haven’t thought about this story before, will say it’s the person who values the Scripture and who’s tithing and who’s fasting, who is growing more in his relationship with Christ. But this story that Jesus tells about the tax collector and the Pharisee at the temple has a different outcome. It’s the crummy guy, it’s the worst guy in town (as tax collectors were known to be) who’s going home [counted as] “right in God’s eyes,” it says, because he trusted God’s nature and God’s love. He was able to be real with God, because somehow he trusted that God was generous, that God was kind, that God was loving. And because of that, he was able to bare his soul, “Have mercy on me, for I am a sinful man,” he says.
I told the guys, “That’s what a real man is. A real man is someone who trusts God’s love enough to where he can be real with God. And in turn, God becomes more real to us when we do that, and we become more real with each other and with other people.” That’s what we’re doing at the Reality Center. Not only do we think that it’s a great opportunity to tell kids stories from the Scriptures, but we want them to know that Christ is involved in recreation. We want them to know he’s very involved in their educational progress, in their educational opportunities. We want them to know that he is a God who has made us mentally, physically, spiritually, and emotionally for himself. Everything we do at the Reality Center, hopefully, is to develop that whole person in the wholeness and healing of Jesus.
JMF: Thanks for being with us. Time flies by so fast, we barely get started and we’re finished.
JM: It does. Right.
JMF: We appreciate your time.
JM: I love talking about Reality.
JMF: We’ve been talking with Jeff McSwain, founder of Reality Ministries. I’m Mike Feazell for You’re Included.