Posts Tagged ‘evangelism’

Evangelism outside the walls

Posted: May 24, 2013 by J in Mission
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newman2If our insistence on bringing in the authority of Scripture is being a barrier to mission, then how can we do things differently? How can we talk about Christian faith with people who don’t yet accept that authority?

In marketing, there’s a technique often used where some of the product is put outside the ‘paygates’, so it’s free for customers to access without cost. It might be a free sample or a test-drive, it might be a trial period for software, it might be a website with limited free functionality, where the rest of the site is for paying customers. The idea is, customers can get a taste of the product, find out if they like it, without having to commit themselves. Then they have a chance to find out whether it’s worth paying. Theory is, they’ll be more likely to take the plunge and dish out for a product they’re already involved with, for a known quantity, than they would be for something quite unknown.

My suggestion is, we can do the same thing with Christian faith. If our friends and neighbours are going to be Christians, they’ll need to accept the authority of Scripture. Eventually. They’ll need to go through that ‘paygate’. But it doesn’t need to be upfront, the first thing they encounter. It could be a later result of commitment to Jesus. It could be some way down the line. And accepting the authority of Scripture cold-turkey is a big sticking point for ordinary people out there. So let’s stop putting that paygate upfront. 

Here’s what I’m suggesting: we can afford to put a whole lot of the content of Christian faith outside those gates. Look at how the apostles announce the good news in Acts. They talk about Jesus, about his death and resurrection, his establishment as King, about the Holy Spirit, about forgiveness of sins, about judgement – all without appealing to the authority of Scripture to prove their claims. People from the greek world who heard them certainly wouldn’t have automatically accepted the Scriptures. If they accepted Jesus, that would be something they’d have to learn about. But at the start, it’s not an obstacle, epistemology is not a distraction from the gospel.

We could do the same today. Everyone in our culture is hung up on epistemology, no one knows how to prove anything to be true. Soccer Dad spent about 20 minutes quizzing me about the Scriptures, about dating and authorship etc. I didn’t raise it – he did. On both sides of the divide, we’re obsessed with these issues. But we could push them to the background, de-emphasise them.

I’m not suggesting we hide the fact that we believe the Scriptures. Just that we stop putting it in the spotlight. Let’s de-centre epistemology and bring the spotlight back onto content: i.e. Jesus.

How can we do that? By telling the story. Instead of rabbiting on about how we know the story is true, let’s just tell the gospel to people. You can do it like this:

In the Christian faith, Jesus is the one God specially sent to bring us back to him.

Or like this:

Jesus’ apostles tell how he rose from the dead, not as a spirit, but bodily, so they could touch him.

Or even like this:

Christians have always believed that God is active among us today by his Holy Spirit, bringing in his kingdom

It can even work to say:

In the New Testament, Christians found that trusting in Jesus brought a new joy into their lives.

All of these statements have in common that they de-emphasise authority questions (‘how we can be sure it’s true’), and highlight the content of the truth statements themselves. They invite people to think about and engage with the gospel story, rather than provoking their epistemological hangups. None of them are functioning as arguments to logically convince. They are rather examples of storytelling.

I have found that if you take the spotlight off the point of maximum tension (‘how can we trust the Bible’), you can have full and helpful discussions with people about Jesus. People get exposed to him and his message of the kingdom, they can get a feel for him and have a chance to respond, without distractions.

That’s powerful stuff. People fall in love with Jesus pretty readily! The Holy Spirit is going to take those stories and make them stick, and disturb people’s hearts, and draw them to Jesus. If only we don’t let our own insecurities about epistemology derail things!

It will take courage, we will feel a bit insecure talking about faith without ‘proving’ our assertions. We will feel exposed. we will be exposed. Because what we’re really doing, is to walk outside the gates to where people are. It would be going out to them to meet them on their ground. Where it’s not safe. There’s no agreed foundation for knowledge out there. People might make fun of our beliefs. We will be tempted to retreat to the safe territory of ‘but the bible says it’. They might try to push us there, challenging ‘Why should I believe any of that?’ We know where that will end – in a half hour argument about epistemology. I’m suggesting we just don’t take the bait. Don’t go there. Not in a first encounter. Not in a fourth encounter. Starve this obsession of oxygen. Let’s leave it in the background, and let people say what they like.

Once people are feeling attracted to Jesus, there’s time to talk helpfully about what the Bible is.

So how do we answer when pushed about authority?  Try to get back to the story, don’t let it derail a helpful conversation. Try something like this:

Jesus had these followers, his disciples, and they reported all about him, and people believed them and put their trust in Jesus. And the stories were published, and we can read them.

You’re still telling the story, see. You’re still not trying to prove anything. You are inviting the question, should we trust the apostles’ witness? That’s a good question, a helpful gospel-story question. Not at all the same as the abstract question ‘Is the Bible an authoritative source of truth?’ – which we get hung up on. That’s the one to avoid.

There’s an epistemological wall that threatens to cut us off from our society, so we live in parallel universes, never truly engaging. Christians have always known what to do about walls that divide. We go through them to those on the outside, we follow Jesus who went outside the city, and was crucified there.

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A dad at soccer training tonight figured out that I’m a pastor. He immediately told me a story he was frustrated about. He is a practising catholic but from a liberal tradition – but he has an adult son, who has joined a pentecostal church. Soccer dad recently tried recently to engage his pentecostal son in a discussion about Christian faith.

He asked him, ‘What do we really know about Jesus? Who is he? Son of God? Is that literally true, or is it a metaphor for something?’

Son replied, ‘We don’t have to ask that question. The bible tells us Jesus is God’s Son, so we know he is.’ – at least that’s how Soccer D heard the reply. Pretty annoyed he was about it too. ‘Don’t tell me what the bible says!’ he replied angrily.

He was disappointed too, I think. He felt his son effectively shut down the conversation. There was no way to talk about it any further.

It struck me afterwards this whole story is a metaphor for something. For the divide between evangelical Christians and the rest of the world.

Think of the irony of the story. The skeptic wants badly to discuss Jesus. The orthodox believer is unable to, because his use of the bible leaves him feeling there is nothing to discuss. Or perhaps that such a discussion is not safe with a non-believer. Skeptic cannot get access to help from evangelical, and feels shut out.

In my time churchplanting, I’ve discovered that many, many people want to talk about Jesus. About God. About the Church (whatever that is!). Many of them have not been able to talk about these things for years, but they want to. When I give them half a chance, they go for it. I’ve never had so many conversations about Jesus before. All started by neighbours.

Funny thing is, I never before thought of ‘ordinary people’ in this way – that they were bursting to talk about faith. Why don’t they do it more often?

My feeling is that there’s no one for them to talk to. Most people know nothing helpful. And the evangelicals are not accessible. Why not? Partly there aren’t many around, and they tend to keep to themselves. But it seems to me it’s also this thing about how we use the Bible.

Think about this son’s response. He goes straight to the fact of the bible, claims its authority, and thus short-circuits the question. Bible-authority is the only ground on which he is willing to play. It’s the entry point into faith discussion. But his father is not willing to accept this authority. So he can’t even get into the discussion. They are left with no common ground, no shared language in which to talk. All they can do is miss each other, and feel frustrated.

The son is using the Bible to provide what is called epistemological foundations. I.e., he’s wanting to start by finding a solid basis of knowledge. How can we know anything about religious stuff? How can we arrive at definitive answers to faith questions? The Bible is the authority. Let’s look there.

These sort of epistemological questions have loomed large in the western mindset for about the past 200 years. Before that, people didn’t use to talk so much about how we know things. They just talked about the things. Christians didn’t use to discuss ‘the Bible’ that much – they talked about the things in the bible, about Christian faith.

Nowadays we feel we have to justify our beliefs carefully, and ‘the Bible says it’ is the standard approach. We’ve brought epistemology right to the front in how we talk about the faith. This has helped us feel ok about holding beliefs that our society doesn’t respect any more. By putting our commitment to Scripture’s authority at first base, we evangelicals have given ourselves a strong shared language in which to discuss our beliefs, a level playing field on which to debate faith issues in relative safety. But it’s come at considerable cost.

The cost is mission-failure. That’s what happened with Soccer Dad. Other people, like him, don’t share our commitment to the authority of Scripture. Of course they don’t. They’re outside those epistemological gates. But all the dialogue goes on inside the gates. They’re not going to buy into our view of Scripture straight away. But until they do, it’s difficult for the outside world to communicate with us. We lack a shared language, a piece of common ground on which to have the conversation.

It goes like this. Some of our beliefs seem fair enough to outsiders: God the creator and so on. But others seem pretty odd: Noah’s ark, resurrection from the dead, Trinity. If people are interested, they might try to investigate, and they’ll probably do it by questioning. How can God be one and three? Do you really believe that? Why do you believe that?

We tend to interpret this questioning as an attack on our faith, we feel under threat, and so retreat to our safe position: the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it. Probably it’s the only answer in our manual.

That works ok for us. But not for them. Either the discussion breaks down at that point, as it did for SD, or else it degenerates into yet another debate about epistemology: ‘Why do you trust that old book?’ ‘Wasn’t it all written down hundreds of years later anyhow?’  ’How do we know stuff anyway?’

Either way, the questioner doesn’t get help with their questions. We either bar them or else sidetrack the discussion. What we don’t do is talk to them helpfully about Jesus.

This epistemological paygate effectively creates a great barrier to faith-dialogue, with evangelicals on one side and the rest of the world on the other. If people want to discuss real faith content with us, rather than just discussing the preliminary question ‘how do we know stuff?’ they really need to come through the gates, over to our side first.

Most people won’t do that. So no gospel conversation is possible. There’s no way forward for them to explore Christian faith. At least not with us.

What’s the alternative? It takes a bit of courage, but I think there’s another way. A way to remove the paygates. Without compromising our view of Scripture. I think this because we’re doing it all the time here at our church, every time someone asks us about Christian stuff.

Enjoying People

Posted: April 9, 2013 by J in Mission, Theology
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I want to confess to you an obstacle to mission here in Canterbury that I’ve found in myself. I don’t find it easy making friends with non-Christian people.

It’s not just that I have less in common with them, or that I can’t tell them my favourite joke about Pentecostals. It’s also that when I do get friendly with someone who doesn’t know Jesus, I start to feel a bit guilty.

It’s like this: as I get to know people, I find myself liking  them. Even enjoying them. But I know from my evangelical theology that God basically disapproves of them. So if God disapproves of them, who am I to go enjoying them? Won’t that send the wrong message to my neighbours? How are they going to learn that God disapproves of them, if the main Christian dude they know actually likes them?

So I feel kind of bad about it. I feel like it would be more faithful for me to be pointing out their sins, and kind of distancing myself from these people, so they’d know they’re not ok the way they are. I see other Christians doing this all the time, what’s wrong with me that I don’t do it? It’s true that many of these Christians don’t seem to have actual friendships with non-Christian people. But at least everyone is clear about where they stand, right?

In fact, as I think about it, isn’t liking and enjoying really an intrinsic part of being a friend? So now I’m wondering, is it a good idea to befriend non-Christian people at all? Because if I as a Christian express pleasure in knowing a non-christian person, doesn’t that sort of imply that my God also takes some pleasure in them? I can’t see how they can avoid the conclusion that God feels friendly toward them, if people like me are friendly in Jesus’ name.

Wouldn’t it be a better witness to avoid the whole friendship thing, if it is intrinsically misleading? Wouldn’t that better express God’s disapproval, help them to realise that they cannot be accepted the way they are?

Which makes me wonder about this whole ‘Jesus, friend of sinners’ thing. I mean, was that really wise? Had Jesus thought through the implications, what message he was sending about God’s heart? I know that Pharisees and co. were the bad guys, but you can kind of see where they were coming from with their concerns about Jesus’ behaviour. He’s just confusing everything. What happens to the holiness of God if people like Jesus or you and me make friends with sinners?

Imagine if after all our efforts in local mission, our neighbours ended up with the idea that God might get close to them, and be a friend – the way they are? What a disaster. No, I need to rethink this mission thing, it’s all a bit problematic.

Does anyone have a copy of the Pharisees’ Mission Handbook I can borrow?

Quite a few local people have started attending our Sunday gatherings. We haven’t actually invited any of them. Here’s why.

1. It’s too easy for us and too difficult for them. We set up a meeting that we feel totally comfortable and happy with, which is chock-full of our ‘church’ culture, but which is quite foreign and unfamiliar to our neighbours: a church service. Why would we make that meeting the thing we invite new friends to? There’s a lot of work to be done building bridges to our local communities.  But if people would just come to church, we wouldn’t have to build them! We dream of establishing a connection with people on our terms, from the start, not on theirs. It’s not kind or thoughtful.

2. We too easily use it as a shallow substitute for sacrificial, loving friendship. Entering into people’s lives, getting to know them on their own turf, meeting them where they are, serving them – all of this is costly. Time consuming. Messy. Exhausting, even. Much easier if we can just get them to come to our meeting. Not much self-giving involved in that. We impose our agenda on the friendship, instead of learning about their agenda. That’s not true friendship.

3. It tends to short-circuit or trample on the work of the Spirit. God is at work in our neighbours, drawing them to Jesus. Often he is doing this through us, through the Christians they know. But there is a pace to this. People’s hearts are changing bit by bit. Their thinking about Jesus, about themselves, is in transition. This calls for patience and sensitivity. Where is this person at now? What change has happened? What are they ready to engage with? What do they need from us at this point? Instead of asking these questions, we apply a one-size-fits-all treatment to them: ‘Come to church!’ As though God was not at work here, and we could do what we liked.

4. We’re trying to dispel the impression that church is an event, that being a Christian is about showing up there. That’s a bad impression which people already have: a version of Christian discipleship that’s essentially non-relational. We want people to learn that being a Christian is about trusting Jesus and joining his new community. The Sunday gathering is only one (important) expression of that, and it certainly doesn’t have to be the first one. So we invite them to all kinds of community stuff, whatever is going to work for them, where they are at the time. We give them plenty of ways to get to know us, give people a taste of Christian community.

5. Most people bring themselves along to church – when they are ready. A bunch of our neighbours have begun to attend our Sunday gatherings over the past two years. None, to my knowledge, have come because we’ve invited them. They’ve invited themselves. That really helps, when they eventually do come. They aren’t there to please us, or because they want our friendship. They already have that! They’re not feeling pushed. They’re there because they wanted to come – and they know it. That really makes a difference in how people experience our Sunday gathering once they come. People tend to love it, because they’ve come with such a positive mindset.

6. We actually do invite people to church, just not usually to our Sunday service. We’re always inviting people to our church – maybe to our home, in a hospitality setting. Maybe to the park. Or to our playgroup. Or wherever. They get to meet our people and see us sharing our lives together in real ways, they get to join in with that, they see us pray together, they hear people chatting about Jesus, they learn about our plans to bless our neighbourhood in practical ways, maybe they get involved in that, and experience serving alongside us. As they show interest, we get someone to open the bible with them, talk and pray with them, whatever they are receptive to. By the time people come to our Sunday gathering, they are generally pretty much part of the church community already.

(To clarify, we don’t have any rule against inviting people to our Sunday gathering – it’s just we don’t find it a helpful or effective way to reach people, in most cases).