A few years ago I read “I Knew Jesus Before He was a Christian, and I Liked Him Better Then.” (2011) This book touched several nerves with me. Over the years, I have reread it and continue to use some of the truths I gained from Dr. Rubel Shelly. In a recent trip to Nashville, TN, we caught up with the author and our friend Dr. Rubel Shelly. In our conversation, available on our Embrace Your Everyday podcast, Dr. Shelly opens up some profound topics he addressed in this book such as religiosity and tribal divisions.
Rubel Shelly (Ph.D., philosophy / Vanderbilt University)has spent his adult life in Christ-focused ministry through preaching, teaching at both graduate and undergraduate levels, and writing. His commitment is to a non-sectarian presentation of the gospel. Dr. Shelly has taught at Lipscomb University, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine (Medical Ethics) , and Tennessee State University. He is known primarily as a preacher. Shelly has been involved in debates and academic lectures on Christian apologetics, ethics, and medical ethics. He and his wife, Myra, have three grown children and nine grandchildren. All this and a longtime friend of my husband, Tim Simpson. They grew up in the same hometown of Middleton, TN.
It is easy to be a Christian on Sunday morning, but the reality of faith must have a practical everyday value that each day real life. Living alert to the impact of intentional growth and responses is transforming. My heart is revealed in the way I deal with frustrations or challenges or disappointments. Sunday morning is a time for refilling for those of us who Dr. Shelly refers to as amateurs. He contrasts professional Christians with amateurs who are in the trenches doing to daily everyday grind of pursuing Christ-likeness. Cocooning ourselves with those who have homogenous sins only limits us. The gospel must be seeded by all of us who love the Lord and desire to walk beside Him in our daily life for the kingdom of God. The very best outcome is to identify authenticity and kingdom purpose. The life of a Christ-follower linked with the community of a like-minded church marries our best opportunity for a life lived well.
“Professionalizing the church” distracts us from everyday opportunities to live out the gospel. It is about embracing our everyday with practical, daily living with Christ. Religiousity is the idea of living churched, not changed. Being pharisaical is the opposite of walking beside the un-churched. Didn’t Jesus sit and eat with sinners? Didn’t Jesus heal the outcast, the leper? Didn’t Jesus save the worst criminals of society like the man beside him on the cross?
Dr. Shelly reminds us that if the church is functioning correctly, leaders are training, guiding and nurturing while all members are active in serving. This is what is behind his celebration of being “pro-church and “pro-Jesus.” While we celebrate the community God created by instituting the church we read about in Acts, He leads by example regarding how we are to walk out our daily interactions outside the church.
Luis Palau makes a point with a metaphor most would understand. He says the church is like manure. Spread it around, and it will give life, make things grow and produce fruit. Keep it all collected in one place and it stinks. We all need to be worthy representatives of Christ. Walking this out means abstaining from evil desires, doing my tasks with integrity and otherwise, being Christ’s representative in all the places that my everyday life takes me. (pg. 169)
One of my favorite takeaways from this book has been the concept of “religiosity.” Being an active participant in a body of believers is not always compatible with being a follower of Christ. You may just be churched. Dr. Shelly cautions “us against substituting the husks of religion for the nourishment of authentic spirituality.” Therein lies the rub. Our daily habits and responses offer true transparency to our hearts.
So, embrace a community of sincere, God-loving people. Do life together. Encourage together. Grow together. Train together. Organize together. Heal together. Evangelize together.
Some of the essence of the gospel is fleshed out in our responses to the situations each day. When we smell the odor of the world and when we find dirt under our fingernails, we face the reality of walking out the gospel Jesus calls us to share. Living humbled by my failures and embracing my own capacity for sin allows me to be oriented to God’s purpose for my life.
Disorientation occurs beside brokenness, tragedy and loss. Covid. Job loss. Divorce. Betrayal. Cancer. Loss of a child, a parent, a spouse, a sibling or a friend. Living in a physical world marred by sin has created a bombardment of ugly and painful. Coming beside our brothers and sisters in Christ and those God places in our daily paths of our opportunity to live like the Jesus we see in the scriptures. God has created a good world. Sin distorts and destroys what God has created for our benefit. Life cycles in orientation, disorientation and reorientation. The perspective of living through times of dehumanizing and disorientation with the truth of God’s goodness and who I am in Christ offers hope and healing. The person who comes through life’s challenges with eternal perspective gains greater orientation.
A healthy way to think about church is to picture it as “a microcosm of the kingdom of God that focuses the great variety of personalities, gifts and passions of people to the single task of honoring God in the world…with different groups of Christians seeing the good in one another.… What if the church were to embrace a lifestyle of humility and obedience, faith and love, integrity and virtue?” (pg 179) When “church” becomes something we do daily, the church on Sunday is just a time for recharging. Even on Sunday, it is critical that true Christ followers be alert to the divine appointments right beside them. This reminds me of the lyrics to “If We are the Body” by Casting Crowns.
It’s crowded in worship today
As she slips in trying to fade into the faces
The girl’s teasing laughter is carrying farther than they know
Farther than they know
But if we are the body
Why aren’t His arms reaching?
Why aren’t His hands healing?
Why aren’t His words teaching?
And if we are the body
Why aren’t His feet going?
Why is His love not showing them there is a way?
There is a way
A traveller is far away from home
He sheds his coat and quietly sinks into the back row
The weight of their judgmental glances
Tells him that his chances are better out on the road
Jesus paid much too high a price
For us to pick and choose who should come
And we are the body of Christ
Early Christians operated from the margins. Nothing is really different today. If we are truly modeling Christ-likeness, we are really in contrast to the culture. Our saltiness offers a pathway to eternal life with our Father God. The invitation is to live in kindness and community with those who are lost in this maze of one dimensional reality of the earthly world. Offering life-giving words and the TRUTH of the gospel is life altering. Sensing the reality of spiritual power and peace when living close to Jesus every day brings unfathomable purpose and joy.
Living with open eyes allows me to open my heart and then open my hands.
If you are crazy curious on all that this title implies, order your copy of Dr. Rubel Shelly’s book I Knew Jesus Before He Was a Christian and I Liked Him Better Then.
Listen to two conversations with Dr. Rubel Shelly at Embrace Your Everyday. Our conversations are full of great stories such as the birthday party for a prostitute at 3:30am. Yep, it is a true story.