December 18, 2020

How Do We Challenge New Believers From Chaotic Backgrounds?

Imagine this: A lady in her thirties comes to faith. She has four kids by three different men, with two of those kids currently in care. The two that live with her are quickly becoming little terrors—they have no real structure, discipline, or boundaries at home. The school call her at least once a week saying her kids have done something outrageous, been bullying other kids, or have been shouting abuse at the teacher.

She is living with another man at the moment. She is on a methadone programme and smokes a joint at night to help her sleep. She has low-level mental health issues. She fell out with her Dad a good number of years ago because he was abusive towards her when she was growing up. She has a very volatile relationship with her Mum, who stays in the same stair as her. She does have help and support from a drugs worker, health visitor, social worker, and the community mental health team. She hardly has enough money to feed the kids and put money in the meter because she always makes sure she has her stash of green, fags, and lottery tickets for the week.

A Familiar Story

If you’ve lived in a scheme—or a poor community in another part of the world—for any amount of time, this story will sadly be all too familiar for you. Even more sad is that this is actually quite a ‘good’ story in comparison to some I have heard.

If you were discipling this lady, where would you start bringing challenge? Would you start with the fact that she is living with someone who isn’t her husband or even the Dad of any of her kids? Or with her nighttime joints or the methadone? Or maybe with her lack of parenting skills? Would you start with her relationship with her own parents? Would you focus on her mental health and make sure she is coping with that? Would you start with her trying to get her other two kids back? Or perhaps helping her budget and use her money appropriately?

Gives you a headache just thinking about it all, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, one of the downsides of ministering in a scheme is that we very rarely encounter someone who has just one major issue going on. People don’t come to Christ in the schemes with a blank piece of paper. It’s not enough to say, “So glad you’re a Christian now, here’s a Bible and some quiet time notes, see you at the midweek prayer meeting and on Sunday.”

Someone like the lady I described needs more input than that. She needs almost daily contact, checking in to see how she is coping. We should try and put ourselves in her shoes. All she has known her entire life is chaos, broken relationships, scraping by, and blaming everyone else.

Now she has come to Christ and she is entering a world that is totally foreign to her. People are kind to her and her kids, they want to help out, they listen to her, and they want to be her pal because they like her, not because they want something from her. All of this is going to take some getting used to and lots of the Holy Spirit changing her from within.

Where to Start?

Thinking back to those questions about where you start . . . another thing to contemplate is this: Is it actually our job to rebuke her on those things? Should we leave it up to the Holy Spirit to bring about conviction? It is so easy to fall into the trap of saying “Now you’re a Christian you need to stop doing x, y, and z.”

The problem comes when we say something like that and they stop doing x, y, and z for us, rather than doing it because the Holy Spirit has brought about conviction. If they change behaviour for us, it won’t last. They will soon become discouraged because they are trying to do it in their own strength. If they are making changes to please us rather than the Lord, it will be half-hearted, and they may even end up walking away because “they tried that Jesus thing and it didn’t work for them.”

When discipling someone from a chaotic background, it is super important to get the balance right between challenge and encouragement. Every time you speak to them you don’t want to be bashing them over the head with a load of rules. That will soon wear them down and discourage them. It is important to ask good questions. Try and get them to think about the difference Jesus should be making in their lives, from big decisions to small ones. Pray that as you study the Bible and chat to them that the Holy Spirit would bring conviction.

In gentle but direct ways you can and should bring challenge when things come up in conversation, but as I said earlier, use discernment. Remember, it is the Holy Spirit’s job to bring about real and lasting change, not yours!

Author John Crotts puts it like this:

Since God is the one who produces change within others, He wants His people always to speak to one another in ways that honour Him and demonstrate belief that He is in control of all things.

Our sinful, egotistical natures want it to be us that bring about change so that we feel and look good. You know the type of thing, when someone says: “Hh isn’t Julie doing so well, she has really changed” and inside your thinking: “Yeah, I’ve done a great job discipling and teaching her!” Beware of this type of sinful thinking. Guard your own heart in the midst of discipleship relationships. We can so easily get a ‘saviour complex’. By that I mean that we think we are their saviour rather than Jesus.

Discernment and Love

So, to wrap all this up—remember, the Lord rebukes and corrects his children. As Hebrews says, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:11). We need to change our thinking, rather than let people go merrily along with their wrong thinking or sinful behaviours. It is actually much more loving to correct them.

Should we challenge other believers? Yes, with discernment and love. The Lord has entrusted us to do this. It should be a normal and natural part of our conversations with other believers. Challenge doesn’t necessarily mean having a big showdown. Let’s be praying that the Lord would continue to work in and through us as we serve Him. That as He works in us, He will use us to help other believers grow in their knowledge and love of Him.


This is the final blog in a series on challenging well. You can read part one here, part two here, and part three here and part four here.