Mailbag - Church Issues, Dating Someone with a Controlling Mom, Freedom from Depression & Loneliness


"Should I leave a church that does not preach the Word exegetically?”

Anonymous / Los Angeles (CA) 

It really depends what you mean by “preach the word exegetically.”

If you’re defining it stylistically as in preaching through a Bible passage verse by verse, then no, because it’s entirely possible to capture the meaning of Scripture without detailed analysis of every passage.

But if you’re defining it philosophically as in the preacher preaching the actual meaning of a Biblical passage, then yes, you should at least try to understand your church’s view of the Bible and discipleship.

The reason I suggest this is because the role of the church is to make disciples (fully formed followers of Jesus). One of the ways Jesus taught us to make disciples is to teach for obedience (Matthew 28:20). This is why one of the central roles of the pastor is to teach and preach (2 Timothy 4:2).

But the teaching comes not from new material on the whim or cleverness of the preacher, but a personalized packaging of unchanging, old, divine material: the Bible. The church needs to preach the Bible - not what the church wants the Bible to say, but what it actually says.

Therefore, if a church is not doing this, it means that the church is not participating in its call to make disciples. This means that the church is forfeiting a core mission of its divine existence. In other words, you will not be Biblically formed disciple of Jesus Christ nor be able to reduplicate a Biblical disciple.

But before you jump ship, I would ask you to have certainty of how you’re using the term exegetically and furthermore, to have a conversation with a church leader you trust in order to glean greater perspective. Begin a long journey and speed up slowly.

"As someone who leads small group on a weekly basis, I struggle at times to facilitate engaging sermon discussion. I believe a part of this is my own weakness but another part is that many people in the church are simply bad at listening to and synthesizing the content of the sermon and could be better equipped. From a preacher's perspective, do you have any tips on how to be a good sermon listener/thinker?”

Anonymous / Fullerton (CA)

I would suggest that listeners take detailed notes through their phone, pen/notebook, or even laptops.

Here’s why I suggest this: Synthesis can only be done through retained content and information. You can’t synthesize that which has not be retained. It’s like trying to mold without clay or paint without colors. So if someone listens, doesn’t take notes, and tries to come up with questions a few days later, it will feel like trying to create content out of a blank piece of paper (literally).

But what if that paper wasn’t blank? What if it was filled with copious notes and ideas? Then, the individual has actual content to work off of (synthesize).

Another suggestion might be to actual prepare personalized questions on the spot as the individual is listening (which will require practice) or to prepare the questions on the same day the sermon was given since memory is fresh. In this way, the individual is able to share specific moments where the sermon connected which will likely set up more conversational points of connection. 

Another suggestion might be what’s known as “active listening.” Active listening is to have an inner dialogue as the sermon is being heard. This is much different than merely hearing auditory words but intentionally processing through an internal conversation. It’s where the listener asks, “Why?” “Ok I get that.” “But how?” as the sermon is being preached. It’s a simultaneous secondary conversation as the sermon is happening.

I would however, add another layer. While I certainly do agree that some people in the church struggle to effectively listen to sermons, I also think the style of the preaching can be a contributing factor.

By way of imagery, there are some college professors whose lectures are difficult to retain while there are other professors whose lectures are impossible to retain. Part of it is certainly the listener, and a part of it is certainly on the communicator.

From your question, it sounds like the system your church utilizes is what’s known as “Sermon-Based Small Groups (SBSG)” (North Coast Church Model). This model is that the discussion content of the small group is largely facilitated by the preached sermon. In other words, the sermon content drives the small group.

I’ve noticed that churches that utilize this model tend to utilize fill-in-the-blank handouts on the day the sermon is preached. This means that the sermon content is simplified, crystallized, and driven for application/personalization. In other words, the content of the sermon is packaged in such a way that synthesis is not difficult.

If the church is really aiming for SBSG model, then the preacher needs to adjust. If the preacher is unwilling to adjust, then the small group philosophy must adjust, or perhaps a middle ground could be accomplished where the preacher himself provides meaningful questions and/or coaching.

"I am currently dating a person in a serious relationship. From the beginning, I noticed that this guy’s mom tries to control almost every aspect of his life. She’s pushing him to go into med school and he is currently on that route. Though he has a vague idea of what he likes to do, he’s a bit unsure and is just listening to what his parents tell him to do. He always says that this is actually what he wants, but I feel like what he wants has been shaped by his parents. We are both seeking a Christ centered relationship but I can’t help but feel worried for what the future holds. I don’t want to get into disputes with his mom in the future in regards to raising kids, finances, etc. However, I don’t know how much I should look into that. People tell me that as long as he is strong willed, it would be okay. I don’t even know what it looks like for him to be strong willed. I also don’t know if his behavior will change in marriage because of the idea to “leave and cleave”. Is this a relationship I should stay in?”

Alice / (CA)

Thanks for the question Alice.

I understand and sympathize with your position. After all, if this person is going to be your future husband and the person you’re hoping to spend the rest of your life with, you certainly want him to have a little backbone, be able to make his own decisions, form his own opinions, and stick to his convictions.

Here are a few of my thoughts:

  1. There’s a wide spectrum of what it means to be “strong-willed.”

    For example, does “strong-willed” mean that someone should be able to create their own direction and stick to their guns no matter what? Or does “strong-willed” mean that it’s okay to be uncertain but to have an enduring stick-to-itiveness once a decision is made? Or does “strong-willed” mean to be humble enough to receive input from others in order to form a communal decision rather than be a prideful solo rider? In every single one of those cases, "strong-willed” has subtle differences.

    It is entirely possible that your boyfriend’s mom might be a crazy control freak (yikes). But it’s entirely possible that his mom actually knows her son really well.

    She might know that he’s tough once he makes a decision, but he has a hard time making a decision. She might nudge him along because she knows that’s what he needs. After all, you said he has “a vague idea of what he wants to do.” That doesn't sound very certain to me. And yet at the same time, it seems like that’s what he wants. So it does sound like his parents play a guiding role in his life.

  2. Relationships are, by nature, influential/shaping.

    Influence is unavoidable in relationships. There is no one who has not been shaped by another. In fact, that’s a key implication of any relationship - the ability to influence and shape and conversely the willingness to be influenced/shaped. It comes with the territory.

    So yes, your boyfriend may have been shaped by his parents. But on the flip side, you’re actually trying to shape him too. You want him to be less shaped by his parents, but isn't that a form of shaping in it of itself?

    Where it gets tricky is, that there is arguably no set of relationships more influential than the influence of mom and/or dad. Sure, there may be adolescent years when someone is more influenced by one’s friends, but pound for pound, parents have an amazing effect on their children in the long run. This is the case for your boyfriend, for yourself, and for every single person around you.

    Can this change? Absolutely. Should it change, especially in the context of marriage? Yes.

  3. Boundaries may be the key.

    The issue may really boil down to boundaries.

    Does your boyfriend exercise good boundaries with your parents and vice versa? Can he make a decision for himself? Or do his parents come swooping in like giant hands moving the chess pieces of his life? Can he say “no” to his mom? How would his mom handle that?

    Furthermore, is he able to maintain boundaries with you? Can he say “no” to you? Can he stand up for himself in a disagreement? How about when it comes to his friends?

    It is entirely possible that people in his life don’t exercise good boundaries with him because he has enabled and allowed the people in his life to take control over his life. If this is the case, it wouldn’t so much be a “controlling mom” issue, but a much deeper issue. It’s a boundary-less person issue, a him issue.

    But it may also possible that he has decent boundaries with his parents, but you’re experiencing a little culture shock due to his family’s culture being different than your own.

So should you stay in this relationship? I can’t answer that for you.

But what I can say is to dig deeper on the issue of boundaries (For a recommended reading, check out “Boundaries” by Henry Cloud). See if your boyfriend is aware of these things, whether it’s a concern to him, and whether he’s willing to make adjustments in the case of boundary-lessness. And do the same for yourself. Don’t accuse him, or blast him, but walk with him.

Be an example of healthy boundaries for him as you talk to him about healthy boundaries. And if you feel like this journey is too overwhelming or not at the time-table you want, then you also have to be honest with yourself regarding the future of this relationship and maintain good boundaries as well.

“I read a lot of articles about depression or lonely hearts and they all say things we know, like God is sufficient, God is with me and for me, God is hope, etc. and these things are all true. But for some reason when you are in depression and loneliness, it’s easy to KNOW those things but hard to FEEL those things. And I know it’s not about emotions and feelings, but I guess what I’m trying to say is... how do we surrender it? We don’t get depressed or lonely on purpose, so how can we surrender it to find freedom from it?”

Anonymous / Cypress (CA)

Thanks for this question. This is a complex question because I don’t know the precise nature of your depression and loneliness. Your depression, for example, could come from a lack of exercise (seriously), or be a result of circumstantial changes, or it could be clinically diagnosable requiring medication.

So because I don’t know the precise nature of what’s going on, I will do my best to interact with the words and terms you’ve given me.

Off the top of my head, here are two things that come to mind for consideration:

  1. The terms '“Surrender” and “Freedom” are not simplistic or always consistent in their relationship to one another.

    Some of modern American Christianity use the term “surrender” to describe a type of spiritual release where we “give to God” our problems, issues, pains, and obstacles in a way that produces a “freedom” or a complete liberation from those very things.

    While I certainly think this can be true, it is certainly not the entire truth.

    “Surrender” for one is not simply a “giving to God” but could also be a receiving of God’s strength to endure in and through our circumstances. Furthermore, surrender does not always lead to personal liberation, or the removal of our pains.

    Paul the Apostle had a thorn that troubled him according to 2 Corinthians 12. He continually prayed to God and asked God to take it away. He surrendered, but it was not taken away. Rather, God’s grace was proven sufficient.

    “Freedom” for Paul was not the removal of the thorn, but a greater grace which enabled Paul to move forward despite the thorn. “Freedom” was not the removal of an obstacle, but a sufficiency in Jesus to carry on.

    In fact, Jesus himself surrendered at Gethsemane, but He still had to carry His cross. And sometimes, surrender means precisely that - it means the willingness to carry our cross, our circumstances no matter how difficult it may be.

    The point being - yes, if we feel depressed, we ought to give it fully to the Lord. However, the answer may not always be a removal of our depression, but the grace to walk in and through our depression by His power.

    In this way, this is a more profound “surrender” and “freedom.”

  2. The sufficiency of God does not negate the reality of human design or help from other humans.

    If you feel lonely, it does not mean you’re unspiritual, it means you’re a human being created in the image of God designed for relationship. If it wasn’t good for man to be alone prior to the fall, it’s certainly not good for you to be alone after the fall. This doesn’t mean you should get married as soon as possible, but it does mean having meaningful community.

    “But isn’t Jesus enough?”

    He is enough for what He said He’s enough for. But He also said we should have human relationships. His prescriptions ought to be enough for us as well.

    Therefore, to get intensely practical, “surrender” can absolutely include not just prayer, fasting, and repentance, but it could also involve a Saturday morning hike with a couple of close friends followed by a nice lunch and coffee for conversation. “Surrender” could also mean integrating a work-out regiment to not just work on the heart, but also the body, (which is connected to the heart, where the mind and emotions reside). “Surrender” could also mean seeking good Christian counseling and saying, “I don’t understand, and I need some professional help.” These could all be wonderful and legitimate forms of surrender.

Please know that you are not alone. So many Christians wrestle with depression and loneliness. Be patient with yourself and embrace the long journey forward.

Even as I write this, I’ve taken moments to stop to pray for you. You don’t have to go at it alone. I hope that you’re part of a healthy local church that isn't afraid to talk about loneliness and depression. I hope you have good friends you can open up to and be honest with.

In the end, please know that we have a living hope and God will finish the good work he started in you.