Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Evangelism as an act of love

Last night I had the opportunity to study Acts 22, in which Paul rather fearlessly recounts his testimony to an angry Jewish mob as he is being arrested by Roman soldiers. We discussed how Paul starts by establishing credibility with the audience through his backstory (v. 1-5), tells the story of his conversion and how Jesus appeared to him (v. 6-16), and how the Jews listen to him intently until he mentions how God sent him to the Gentiles (v. 21-22). I had this beautiful image of Paul standing on the barracks steps addressing this mob with care and the tragedy of how they turn on him afterward.

And then (you see how nonlinearly my brain works) the question came to me: what is the difference between fearlessly testifying to the gospel amid opposition, as Paul did, and bludgeoning people over the head with it so that they resent you and want nothing to do with your Jesus? This question troubles me because it is easy for us as Christians to want to just turn off our shame of the gospel (Mar 8:38) and just expect it to offend people (see Matt 10:32-42), thus justifying out handling the gospel in ways that only serve to drive people away from Jesus. But if Jesus is supposed to be a "stone of stumbling and a rock of offense" (Rom 9:33), is authentic preaching then expected to drive some people away from Jesus? Are we preaching the real Jesus for people to accept or reject, or a caricature? These questions have no easy answers.

Then I came to a sobering realization. We talk about sharing the gospel with people as if it's the most loving thing we could do for them—sometimes even more so than taking care of their physical needs. Preachers often utilize appeals to our compassion for "the lost" when calling for evangelism. But though we say that sharing the gospel is an act of love, often we don't actually do so as if it was—but more as if we were trying to sell something, or even to trick our hearers into having a conversation they don't want to have. How else do you explain the wealth of opening lines, "survey questions", "seeker-sensitive" events, and all of the other evangelical devices for drawing people into a conversation that is supposed to be the best thing that's ever happened to them? Yes, you may say, but how else can we get them to talk to us? Well, what if people don't want to talk to us about Jesus because they're suspicious of inauthentic salesman tactics?

I thought about it some more, and I think I see at least three characteristics that should describe us when we are proclaiming the gospel to people.


For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience, that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you. For we are not writing to you anything other than what you read and understand and I hope you will fully understand—just as you did partially understand us—that on the day of our Lord Jesus you will boast of us as we will boast of you. (2 Cor 1:12-14)
For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ. (2 Cor 2:17)
But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Cor 4:2)
This strikes at the heart of the uneasiness I've felt about attempts to effectively "trick" people into hearing the gospel, such as PULSE Twin Cities about two years ago, which attracted potential gospel-hearers with the promise of a free Owl City concert. Of course it did deliver on this promise and people were (I'm sure) given forewarning and a chance to leave before the event switched to a straight-faced presentation of the gospel. But the main point of the event (the gospel presentation) was not the reason people showed up (a free Owl City/Family Force 5/Grits concert, or for those in the know, to invite and accompany friends they wanted to hear the gospel). For this reason the whole thing made me deeply uneasy and I very deliberately didn't go.

I wonder what was going through the minds of the people who left when they learned someone was about to share the gospel with them. If I can be allowed to speculate (and my own blog seems like the safest place to do so), I'd guess it was something like Oh, there those Christians go again, always pushing their agenda. I should have guessed they were going to talk to us about Jesus! Why couldn't they just let me enjoy the music?

Imagine (in an inversion of the similar MAZE event that swept through the midwest a few years ago), you hear from some excited friends about a magic show that will be coming to your student union in a few weeks. You are told that other schools in your area have already been amazed by this show and you can't wait to hear what all the hype is about. When you go, the show lives up to your expectations: it has two magicians doing card tricks, juggling, people "losing" limbs, a water tank escape, and plenty of mental magic and predictions, to name just a few, all while making you laugh with wit and humor. Interspersed throughout are some interesting reflections on the tricks the duo is doing, the nature of illusion, and the mind's propensity to believe what it wants to believe that makes their magic possible. You are equal parts amazed, intrigued, and entertained by the show and find yourself applauding enthusiastically after every trick. Then, just before an intermission, you are told that the second half of the show will be an exposition of why there almost certainly is no God and how you can learn to think critically and rationally instead of believing in fairy tales. The magical duo is Penn & Teller and this show is one more stop on their project to enlighten young minds about religion and pseudoscience. You leave in a huff, feeling tricked and betrayed into coming to and enjoying this show that spits on everything you, a good Christian, believe in.

Of course, this probably wouldn't happen because Penn & Teller's atheism is fairly well-known and I can't see them using such a bait-and-switch tactic when they have few qualms making their beliefs known through more direct methods. So why do we feel the need to defy Paul's example and hide the gospel—purportedly the best news our listeners will ever hear—in candy coating so people won't notice it until we have them where we want them? Could we be driving away more people by making them feel tricked, pressured, or manipulated than with the actual content of the gospel? What if our openness and honesty in clearly telling people what we believe and why could be more attractive and conversation-starting than any gimmick or "spiritual survey"? What if our conduct showed that we were not ashamed of or secretive about the gospel, "but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God"?

But in addition to open and honest, we must also become at least two other things in our preaching the gospel...


For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. (1 Cor 9:19)

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (Jam 3:13-18)

Whence came the Satanic delusion that being forgiven through Christ makes us in any way superior to those who haven't? Are we any more moral, enlightened, or respectable than they? Maybe, maybe not—none of these things are the "point" of our Christian faith and we reject Jesus if we turn our eyes from Him to them. The point of the gospel that Paul tries to hammer into peoples' heads over and over (e.g. in Romans and Galatians) is that we are in no way better for having been saved, because this salvation is based not on anything we did to deserve it but God's free grace in giving it. In other words, we have nothing on those who don't know Jesus except that we do know Him—except if we really do know Him, we will not want to lord it over anyone but to do everything possible to invite them to share in this gift. "Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith." (2 Cor 1:24)

But not all preaching reflects this. Our attitudes toward "the lost" range from compassionate, welcoming acceptance to rather condescendingly viewing them as targets in need of salvation to openly belittling them and scorning their lack of faith. We put ourselves above others by viewing ourselves as their teachers and guides, without ever considering that God may use them to teach us a thing or two. We think that we possess "the truth" that people so desperately need to hear, forgetting that the Truth is a person who reveals Himself to people as He wishes and doesn't need us to do it, and that we still need Him just as much as they do (because salvation is not a single event but a process).

What is really going on when we forget humility in our preaching of the gospel is that we are applying a worldly rubric of greatness where it doesn't apply: because we are "saved" and know the gospel, we are in some way greater than those who aren't or don't. Remember what Jesus said about greatness: "The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves." (Luk 22:25-27) The greatest being in the universe came to us as a humble servant of all and never once lorded His status (even as a teacher) over anyone. Should we do any less?

Honesty and humility—two essential components for evangelism, which should also be...


For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Cor 9:19:23)

I've already written a two-part post on this topic for my church, which I will attempt to briefly summarize. We hopefully believe that the gospel message is for all people at all times, i.e. there is no one it "doesn't apply to". But if the crux of its truth is the person of Jesus Christ and not reducible to merely a series of facts or statements, then the way we tell this message may sound different to different people. As a Biblical example (besides Acts 17, which the second above-linked post covers extensively), consider in brief how Paul and James write to their readers—one downplays the role of works and discourages focusing on them in favor of simply believing, the other emphasizes the importance of right living in addition to right belief (see more on this distinction here). So, is the gospel for or against works? Neither—it depends on the context you're in!

What breaks my heart is when I see the gospel handled in a very inflexible way that rejects contextualization, out of fear of "watering down" its message as though we were in a competition to see who can proclaim the straightest gospel. We make doctrines like total depravity, the justice and holiness of God (as intolerance for sin), and satisfaction theories of atonement into essential components of the gospel, sending the message that to be saved, you don't just have to believe in God—you have to believe in God like I do, and go through the same steps to belief that I did. And so we may unintentionally put obstacles in peoples' way, where to believe in God you must first believe a laundry list of other things.

Look at Acts 17: when he is invited to the Areopagus to present his "new idea" to the Greeks, Paul spends most of his words not enumerating four points or teaching doctrines, but simply establishing common ground with these pagans. His message is not that they are desperately lost, in rebellion, and in need of a savior, but rather that they already worship the true God (v. 23), albeit without really knowing Who they are worshipping, and that "he is actually not far from each one of us" (v. 27). He does give a call for repentance (v. 30), but with no mention of sin or human depravity; judgment, but no law that we have broken; the resurrection of Jesus, but not the crucifixion (v. 31). His presentation of the gospel is hopelessly fragmented and incomplete by today's standards—but it works! He isn't as concerned with getting the Greeks to believe in the same doctrines he does as to get them to believe in the same wonderful God that he does.

It takes imagination and creativity outside the scope of this blog to see how the gospel applies to every person's situation where they're at, and not just once they've been convinced of the logical truth of Christianity. Quite often we can't see ourselves, and can only watch and be amazed as God shows up in ways we could never have predicted.

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