An Interview with Stephen Smallman

 | 
Share

I recently had the privilege of interviewing Steve Smallman about, among other things, his work on the “spiritual birthline,” the gospel, evangelism, discipleship, and being “missional.”

Stephen, can you tell us a little bit about yourself–your family, vocation, writing, etc.?

I’m from an unchurched family and came to faith in a Fundamentalist church in the 50’s. From there I went to Bob Jones University, and over the course of time there I came to an understanding of Reformed theology and became presbyterian. I went on to finish at Covenant Seminary and went to McLean, Va, a suburb of Washington, DC, to serve a small PCA church in 1967. I was there for 30 years, and the congregation and I grew up together. During our stay in Washington Sandy and I raised four children. They are all grown and married to Christian spouses and have given us ten grandchildren.

We now live in the Philadelphia area. We moved here when I became the Executive Director of World Harvest Mission, a ministry devoted both to spiritual renewal through the gospel and gospel expansion. After serving WHM I returned to the pastorate, serving until last year. I’m now a teacher for several institutions, primarily for CityNet, a ministry supporting church planting, leadership training, and mercy ministry here.

My writings are largely used as pastoral helps for new believers. I have a set of communicant class lessons and three small booklets, all published by Presbyterian and Reformed. Crossway published my first book, Spiritual Birthline, and this spring they will publish a book of meditations on knowing God entitled, Forty Days on the Mountain. I have a website: www.birthlineministries.com, where there is additional information about my ministry and writings.

How did you come to faith? As noted above I had no church background at all. When I was a teenager, the Lord used an invitation to play basketball to introduce me to a gospel-centered church. I had no clue what they were talking about, but I liked the people and kept coming, gradually understanding more and more, as well as becoming aware that whatever they had that made them so attractive, it was something I lacked. In that setting I finally realized that I needed to be “saved,” and walked the aisle at a revival meeting and prayed the sinner’s prayer. I’m one of those who can actually date the time of my conversion. But coming out of that experience, one of my prayers is that I would never forget what it was like to be in a church and Christian setting totally ignorant of the words that were being said. Of course, it took the effectual calling of the Spirit to open my eyes to the truth of Christ, but on a human level I have tried to preach and teach with an assumption that someone listening to me knows as little as I did at one time. In Spiritual Birthline you write that the goal of this book is “to help understand in practical terms how people actually experience the new birth.” Why is this been such an important part of your ministry? Why is this important to grasp?

In my own pilgrimage, the study of “effectual calling” in a theology class at Bob Jones suddenly gave definition to what I intuitively knew–that my conversion was a consequence of God working in my heart, preparing me to surrender to Christ. It was one of those formative insights that put a real foundation under my personal experience. Since then I have been working to make this idea practical for “ordinary” Christians. With all the focus on the work of Christ on the cross (necessary, of course), I think the work of the Holy Spirit in transforming our hearts leading to conversion has been overlooked. It is certainly a standard part of theology, but for some reason there is little popular teaching on the subject. In older writers I began to discover references to the pastor as a “physician of the soul,” and realized that in an earlier era pastoral ministry had much to do with guiding seeking souls to understand the work of God drawing them to Christ. I find this skill sadly lacking in pastors today. Even if we do “evangelism,” it tends to be a mechanical application of gospel formulas. And if pastors are unskilled in the “cure of souls” (another lost term), that is only compounded in those they are teaching. At the heart of the book is your “spiritual birthline” diagram, which compares spiritual birth to physical birth in order to help people understand what it means to experience the new birth.

How and when did you develop this concept? Can you walk us through it?

The first time I drew out the birthline was for a group of inmates who were brought to Washington by Prison Fellowship, the ministry of Charles Colson. The day before I had preached a sermon on John 3, suggesting that a way to understand spiritual birth was to reflect on our physical birth–which is certainly what Jesus caused Nicodemus to do. If physical birth is really a process, marked by an event when the unborn baby goes public, doesn’t that help us understand the process of spiritual birth? After the sermon some of the Prison Fellowship staff told me that was the first time anyone had ever explained “God’s part of salvation” (their words) to them. They asked me to tell the same thing to a group of inmates. When I drew out the birth process on a timeline I had no idea it would become a basic paradigm of how I do ministry from that time forward.

Briefly, the parallel of physical and spiritual birth makes it clear that they both should be thought of in terms of process rather than event. I present this by first walking through the familiar experience of physical birth. If there is a key moment, it has to be the point of conception, which is private and virtually invisible. Over time that new life grows until it inevitably “goes public.” We don’t speak of life as beginning at the time of delivery, but now the child begins a new phase of growth–through infancy, childhood, and adulthood. I suggest that helps to explain the process of spiritual birth: it begins when God sovereignly begins a new life in our dead souls. Jesus made it clear (John 3) this was a work of the Holy Spirit, and in fact “born again” can be properly translated “begotten again,” or “begotten from above.” But rather than instantly appearing, the new life grows like a spiritual pregnancy until we are compelled, in one form or another, to “go public,” and we “call on the name of the Lord.” This is the experience we commonly label as conversion–it is our response to the inward calling/convicting work of the Spirit when the truth of the gospel burns itself more and more into our consciousness. Reformed theologians typically speak of this season of spiritual pilgrimage as “effectual calling,” and Paul frequently reminds believers in the beginning of his epistles of their calling to Christ (Rom. 1:6; 1 Cor. 1:2, 9). The Westminster Shorter Catechism (#31) explains that the work of effectual calling by the Spirit brings us to the point where we “embrace Jesus Christ freely offered to us in the gospel.” I represent that “embrace” or conversion with a dotted X. At first I simply drew it as an X on the timeline, but as that helped people to think through their actual experience of conversion I began to appreciate the remarkable variety of ways people came to the place of actually expressing faith. In the end we can only say that when the Spirit calls us it will bring us to surrender to Jesus, but the form or time that takes cannot be confined to a moment or a formula.
Finally, what the birthline makes clear is that the process begun by the Spirit will continue into what we typically define as sanctification. There tends to be so much focus on the conversion experience in our evangelical culture that spiritual growth is viewed as a good thing, but not necessarily present with all converts. But a biblical understanding of salvation assumes that those whom the Lord calls to himself will continue in that calling, and I try to reflect this in the idea of the birthline.
I should add that I use the birthline as a helpful tool to explain the invisible, supernatural work of the Spirit; what Jesus referred to as the “wind blowing where it wills.” We are in the presence of divine mystery in the work of God in the soul, and there is no final way to describe it. Some reviewers of Spiritual Birthline insist I am trying to artificially force spiritual experience into this model of physical birth, but that is not my intention at all. If it doesn’t offer insight, people can use the picture of resurrection or re-creation or one of the other images of spiritual birth. Is spiritual birth an event or a process? What difference does the answer make to our understanding of conversion?

Spiritual birth is essentially a process, during which there may be an event or many events when the Lord becomes real to us. I think the insight that coming to Christ is really a process gives people new appreciation of the work of God in their lives over a lot longer period of time than they may have considered before. It also serves to give people much more patience as they work with others who they see being drawn to Christ.

I have been particularly gratified that this idea of process has been very helpful to many raised in godly homes and churches who honestly cannot remember a time when they didn’t trust Jesus. In many cases they have spent years trying to identify “the” time they became a Christian to legitimize their conversion in the eyes of others in their churches. A chapter in the book specifically dealing with this has been particularly well received. How do you define regeneration and conversion? Why is it important to distinguish between these two?

Regeneration is a work of God in the soul–specifically, God the Holy Spirit. If you read the theologians they will differ about when regeneration actually occurs–is it that point of conception I picture on the birthline? Is it at the end of effectual calling? Or is the whole process regeneration, so that effectual calling and regeneration are really the same? But however defined, there is consensus that regeneration, a work of God, precedes and makes possible a genuine conversion, which is our response of faith, repentance, and a life of discipleship.

In popular teaching regeneration is essentially synonymous with conversion, or stated in a way that “accepting Jesus” causes our new birth. If that is the case, then virtually any form of persuasion or even manipulation can be justified to provoke people to make their “decision for Jesus,” for in doing so we are saving lost souls. So understanding this distinction between the work of God and our response will have a big impact on our view of evangelism. Conversion can be a purely human experience, so just getting “converts” may not be a result of the Spirit’s work.

I also find it makes a difference in how we teach the Christian’s walk. When we work from a conversion experience, the appeal of preachers is typically that we should be thankful and therefore we should obey–almost a payback. On the other hand, I find Paul almost always begins his teaching of Christian living by reminding his readers of what God has done for them in transforming them into new people. It is not just that we ought to be different, but we are different because we have been united to Christ, and therefore the new walk is an overflow of the life given by the Spirit (Galatians 5:25 is just one example).

I explain my views of regeneration and calling in more detail, with citation of many sources, in a paper called “Understanding the New Birth,” that can be read or downloaded from my website. You suggest in your book that how we conceive of conversion affects how we do evangelism and discipleship. Can you explain?

I think the short answer to that is a statement I make several times in the book: “We are not called to be salesmen for Jesus–working to close the deal, but we are called to be ‘spiritual midwives’–there to help with the birth.” If discipleship is the idea of coming alongside someone as they follow Jesus, then discipleship actually begins in those early stages of their walk, before they even believe. This is much closer to the model of the Great Commission where Jesus commands his disciples to “make disciples.” That discipleship process includes “baptizing them,” that is bringing them to the place where they publicly confess Christ, but it also means “teaching them to obey all things,” which means training in the new life that is found in Christ. I view evangelism and discipleship as two phases of “making disciples.” Why is it important for us to know and to be able to retell our own story?

I’m impressed with how often Paul encourages people to remember their experience of being taken from the old life into the new (Titus 3:3-8 is one example) as a way to celebrate the work of grace in their lives, that came through “renewal in the Holy Spirit.” More than simply “giving their testimony,” I try to encourage people to recall the ways the Spirit worked to point them to Christ. And in many respects, having a more God-centered understanding of their experience allows people to tell it to others in a more natural way–it is who they are, rather than a “canned” story about something they decided to do. You commend “missional congregations.” Can you explain what that means and why such congregations are important?

My own understanding of the essential nature of the church was radically changed a number of years ago through an encounter with John 20:21, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” These were virtually the first words the risen Christ said to his disciples who assembled together on the first day of the week (clearly a picture of the church). The sense of the Greek is not just that Jesus was commissioning his disciples, but that he was passing along to them the mission that had been given to him by his Father. Little study is required to recognize that mission as proclaiming and demonstrating the presence of the kingdom of God. I set about to define the kingdom in practical terms and then think about what it meant to lead a congregation in an affluent suburb toward living out the kingdom in in the way we did ministry. I think we made some progress in that direction. That to me is a “missional church,” and when that term appeared in literature a few years later I thought it was a very appropriate way to define what we are all about. I know it is a new word, but I hope people will ask whether the church shouldn’t define itself essentially in terms of the mission given to us by our King. I think we should.

What are “spiritual midwives,” and what role do they play in conversion?

The second half of the book is an attempt to take the insights of the birthline and help those in ministry be sensitive to what the Spirit is doing in those they are working with. I think “midwife” is a good term to describe our role in seeing people come to Christ. We are there to answer questions, encourage and support, and even know when it is appropriate to “push” as people come closer to actually embracing Christ. But the Spirit is the one causing the new birth, and we need to learn to work in concert with what the Spirit is doing–which usually takes longer than we expect. It is an awesome and humbling privilege to have even a small part in a genuine conversion–we are part of his new creation. In many instances I have had people tell me that this understanding of our role revived their desire to become involved with the spiritual lives of others. These have frequently been people who have been trained in more aggressive forms of evangelism and have become discouraged when they either saw no results, or the decisions they did see did not seem to be genuine over the long run.

Do you see the “spiritual birthline” diagram as a tool to be used in evangelism? Is so, how?

The birthline diagram is not the sort of tool we would use in street-corner evangelism or in most conversations early in the process of a person coming to Christ. Its value is primarily a framework to help us believe that the Spirit may be at work in almost anyone we meet and we pray for discernment about how much someone can actually hear of gospel realities. As a pastor it was more typical for me to see people coming to church who were already beginning to feel drawn to Christ on some level. I think years of reflecting on the process of effectual calling gave me a desire to create an environment in which people were welcome to take as long as they needed to understand who Christ was and what it meant to follow him. So conversations about where people were spiritually were very natural. There have been many occasions when I would discuss the new birth with people and explain that if the struggles they were having were the work of the Holy Spirit then it would mean that at some point they would surrender to Christ. Often, I do draw out the birthline in these conversations with the X representing a surrender to Christ. This picture stays with people and opens the way for future conversations.

I think perhaps the most useful aspect of understanding the birthline is that it moves evangelism away from the exclusive focus on “the decision” and instead makes that conscious choice to follow Christ as one important step in a much larger process of spiritual journey.

Can you explain your concept of “gospel discipling”?

I think we have allowed the gospel to be defined totally by its use for unbelievers. So it is commonplace in our churches to think of moving on from the gospel when we do “discipleship.” And then we wonder why it doesn’t result in real spiritual transformation. I maintain that the chief tool of discipleship needs to be the gospel–defined in a much broader sense as the unfolding of all that Christ is and all that we have in Christ. So the challenge of “gospel discipling” is to learn to preach and teach the gospel to the church, to those who have already embraced the gospel on an elementary level. “The gospel is the power of God for salvation [much more than conversion or justification] for those who are believing [a present, progressive sense] (Romans 1:16). How to do this is a challenge I have been trying to think about for several years.

In my view the four elements of gospel discipling are (1) Focus on the gospel itself, and the centrality of Christ; (2) Help people understand how they came to believe the gospel (the birthline); (3) Teach the gospel doctrines (particularly justification, sanctification, and adoption); (4) Teach living that grows out of the gospel. On my website there is a paper, “What Is Discipleship?” that gives more detail, including how I see this outline unfold in the book of Romans.

By the way, I should add that learning to apply the gospel to the life of the believer is hardly original to me. In this era the work of Richard Lovelace (Dynamics of the Spiritual Life) and his call for a “depth presentation of the gospel” had a major impact on the ministry of Dr. C John Miller, who founded World Harvest Mission, Tim Keller, and many others. I think I first heard the term “gospel discipling” from someone associated with Tim’s ministry. So there is a great deal of rethinking about the gospel and discipleship, and I’m happy to make a small contribution. I also think the recognition that the gospel is a kingdom proclamation is very healthy. The vision for the Lordship of Christ over the nations is integral to the gospel itself and therefore integral to gospel discipling.
Share
Learn more about the relationship between TGC and the blogs we are honored to host.
LOAD MORE
Loading