Friday Five Interview: Sam Crabtree

September 23, 2011

Sam Crabtree is a former public school teacher and has served as executive pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis since 1997. He is the author of a wonderful new book, Practicing Affirmation. This book gives the Christian case for refreshing others through encouragement and God-centered praise. A much needed book for the Christian community.

Sam was kind enough to stop by and answer questions for today’s Friday Five:

The subtitle of your book encourages “God-Centered Affirmation.” Can you define that? 

“God-centered praise of those who are not God” draws attention to the fact that every single human being, redeemed or not, is stamped in the image of God; there is something of God to be seen and commended in each and every person without exception. He is at work everywhere, and if we don’t notice it, call attention to it, and affirm it, God does not get the honor he deserves, and the person doesn’t get the encouragement that is so life giving.

The Bible says the heavens are declaring the glory of God. But God doesn’t get as much glory from what he is doing in those heavens if we don’t notice it and say, “Wow. God is doing something marvelous.” It’s just like that when a person exemplifies some Christlike character quality (e.g., patience, boldness, gentleness, decisiveness, love, joy, etc.) and we fail to commend his work in them. He doesn’t get the glory he deserves, and they don’t get the affirmation that builds them up.

We can say to a small child, “Thanks for picking up your things,” or we can say, “God is helping you to become like himself, for no one in existence is more orderly than God. He does everything decently and in order, and when you pick up your things, he is helping you be like him! That pleases him and pleases me!” Do you see how that draws attention to the work of God? And still the child receives the encouraging refreshment of the affirmation. And we gain a hearing with the child.

Do you think Christians sometimes refrain from praising someone because they’re worried about flattery or idolatry? 

Without a doubt. They’re also concerned about inflating pride, and they are

wise to be on guard against a kind of self-esteem ideology that ends up in idolatry. Our prisons are full of people who have plenty of self-esteem.  But God-centered affirmation is not about esteeming people, but esteeming the work of God in people. He is doing the work and he deserves the honor for it. Every good development taking place in our lives is owing to the grace of God.

Flattery tends to be mercenary (expecting a short term payback from the one being flattered) and often exaggerates complements. In contrast, God-centered affirmation commends what is honestly commendable and expects no reward from the recipient of the commendation. In due season, God will grant rewards. He who refreshes others will himself be refreshed (Proverbs 11:25), but the boomerang refreshment might not necessarily come directly from the one who received the refreshment he gave.

You say, “God grants mercy to those who refresh others.” This ministry of refreshment is really an overlooked duty of Christians, isn’t it? 

Overlooked, yes. But I don’t think of it as a duty (which sounds like a burdensome law-keeping thing), but as a privilege and opportunity. Christians should desire to be like God (as little children, be imitators of God – Eph 5:1), and as radical as it may sound to some ears, God himself praises people. In fact, I argue that there is something defective about the person who doesn’t want to hear God almighty say to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” This is not man-centered, for what God commends in us is what he gives us in the first place by his grace. He is the source of every good and perfect gift – life, breath, and everything else.

Further, when we affirm the Christlike things we see in others, they are energized, morale is lifted, it makes us easier to live with (the people around you tend to be glad that you read this book), we are more on the lookout for the workings of God in people, we showcase God’s workmanship, we earn a hearing with those we commend, and besides all that – commended behaviors are more likely to be repeated.

You argue that affirmation brings respect, that people tend to listen to those who believe in them. How could this principle reinvigorate relationships? 

Sadly, many relationship have grown cold of stagnant simply for lack of practicing affirmation. In over three decades as a pastor, I have yet to know of a marriage that fell apart while affirmation was practiced regularly. Divorce is always accompanied by a dearth of affirmation of what God is doing in each other.

In the book I describe some deeply alienated relationships that were restored simply by practicing affirmation.

How do leaders (parents, pastors, employers, civic leaders) establish a culture of affirmation? 

Model it. Commend the commendable wherever they see it. Ask God to help you become a conveyor belt of commendation in the lives of the people around you. Find a good book on it that includes a chapter something like “100 Affirmation Ideas For Those Who Feel Stuck” and absorb such thinking until it becomes second nature.