I was driving to speak at a men’s conference about two months ago when I saw a church marquee that caught my attention. It said:
What would you need to see on our sign to get you to come to church?
Hmmm. Now, granted, it was a more traditional church with no inkling of forward motion in a while. But the sign angered me. It essentially said to the unchurched in the area: “Come to us. We’re not coming to you.” Or maybe we could put it this way: “We have the truth. If you’re seeking it, you should probably show up here at our predetermined service times. This may inconvenience you. But the truth is worth your inconvenience.” What would someone need to see on that sign? Nothing. Because the message of that sign speaks to a bygone era. The cold hard fact is that the days of “propositional” evangelism are gone.
Let me explain what I mean. Propositional evangelism is the idea that sharing the gospel with someone involves reciting a series of facts that others are supposed to believe simply because you have informed them. A couple of things are wrong with this. First, this type of evangelism assumes that information changes someone. And some information does change us and our perspective on life. But spiritual truths run deeper than a pamphlet or the “Roman road.” In the U.S., the idea that you can share the basics of Christianity with someone and they will smack their forehead and said, “Oh! I had no idea!” really doesn’t exist anymore. The second issue revolves around truth. In our postmodern age, there are truth claims that compete against each other…and no longer is Christianity held as the highest pinnacle of truth attainment. In every area of society, we now live in the “marketplace” of ideas – a giant supermarket full of ideologies that are all marked half-price.This makes those who are into propositional evangelism extremely angry… because they have no leg of established credibility to stand on since their “market share” is the same as everyone else’s.
What does exist is relational or trust-based evangelism. Since no one has to “buy in” to the Christian paradigm anymore, people come to understand more about Jesus through their relationships with others and the slow and steady trust built through long-lasting friendships. People are certainly interested in ultimate truth – they always will be. But the doorway to speak to others about that truth has nothing to do with the accuracy of truth claims. Those with the relationships will ultimately be granted the opportunity to answer questions about truth. This is bad news for many of us in the evangelical camp… because we are lazy. We’re not used to having to work at relating to others simply because we assume that everyone will be enamored with our wisdom. They’re not.
I heard a quote several months ago by a pastor named John Lynch. He said:
Truth is never received unless it is given in the context of trust.
That doesn’t mean the truth is up for grabs. But it does mean that the method by which it can be relayed as changed drastically. Only when I have earned someone’s trust based on friendship and service am I able to share with them what I believe about God. After all, that is the message of the gospel. Jesus scrapped all his positions and titles to live amongst us (Philippians 2). And by living with us, he showed us how to live.
Every Christian is taught in church about the importance of mission work, evangelism, and “sharing” their faith with others. We teach classes on the topic, take up missions offerings at VBS, and a whole host of assorted religious activities surround the idea of activism. For the record, I think we do it wrong. Quite wrong actually, particularly in light of how Jesus reached out to others. Let me explain.
Most Christian mission work throughout history has been by those with resources attempting to “enlighten” those without. The intentions have generally been good – people want to give to others, after all – we want to provide for those who have need. But the gifts tend to be conditional. People accept the gifts we give knowing that we will then attempt to convert them to Christianity. It’s a business contract in a way…and an unbalanced one at that. Why? It places someone with power in relationship with someone who doesn’t have the means to “negotiate terms” – in this case, the terms are conversion. Kinda ugly when you put it that way, huh?
Jesus did something very different. He placed himself in positions of helplessness throughout his ministry. And it was in those moments of “leverage” that he made significant strides with those considering a life of faith. In John 4, we find Jesus waiting at the well without his leather water bucket – each traveler is responsible for carrying his own. Jesus sent his with the disciples as they went into town, but still remained at the well – the place he would have needed it the most. When the Samaritan woman approached, he basically said, “Help me. I have no way to drink water.” He asked her to compensate for his weakness. Only after he establishes her dignity by giving her the chance to help him does he engage her. He does the same with Peter in Luke 5 – Jesus requests his help by asking to use his boat as a speaking platform. Only after that does he approach Peter about his spiritual life. Jesus’ personal abasement reaps spiritual conversion. He taught the disciples to do the same: in Mark 6, Jesus sends out the disciples and tells them to take nothing with them they might need on the journey. In essence, Jesus said, “If you need something, ask for it.” Leaning on the natural hospitality of others, the disciples could interact with others on a personal level. The entry-point to dialogue was not power or resources or influence. It was helplessness. Weakness.
Why does this idea make us uncomfortable? Well, mostly because Christians are supposed to have it together. We can witness because Christianity brings success rather than failure. Riches not poverty. Notoriety not obscurity. But Jesus did the opposite. He ministered out of humility. While many ministers today are busy building a platform, Jesus had to ask for one. In all of those stories, power is involved - words of knowledge, healing, provision, etc. – but only after the “playing field” has been levelled and God alone receives the glory for that power. This is the way D.T. Niles puts it: “To serve from a position of power is not true service but beneficence…The only way to build love between two people or two groups of people is to be so related to each other as to stand in need of each other.“
There’s much talk about the “weakness of God” in religious and philosophical circles today. Personally, I welcome it. It moves our understanding of a stern and dictatorial God towards the One that dies for those who barely understand why. And that revelation captured in Jesus’ “theology of mission” wounds my pride and self-sufficiency. And I’m deeply thankful for it.
Wow. How about Barack Obama? As the election results rolled in last night I thought about several different things…
1) The religious/evangelical right did not exist as a block vote in this election. In fact, a lot of Christians voted for Obama, in spite of many “conservative” Christians who believed his Senate voting record and stance on abortion were antithetical to family values. Maybe this had to do with McCain’s tendencies towards liberal policy as well, but in the past, McCain’s pro-life stance would’ve counted for more. This time, it didn’t. Will the evangelical right show up in four years? If the trend among my generation of Christians and the one beneath me continues, the answer is probably not.
2) With election results in, the media immediately shifted from national and international issues to racial dialogue. Obama was no longer the Democratic candidate for change this morning; headlines state he is the first African-American president. The majority of broadcasters highlighting this historic racial moment (and it certainly is one) were white. That tells us something very important that no one else has the gall to mention today: yesterday’s vote was more about the voters themselves than the candidates. Issues of qualification and policy, though important, went out the window in favor of a larger rallying cry. White people are proud of the fact that the world will now see them as culturally aware and globally enlightened. We’re tired of Europe making fun of us. I’m not taking anything away from Obama and his potential for greatness as a U.S. president when I say that. I hope he excels and helps our nation. But I also think that in the same way that people sometimes do good deeds for recognition, some people may have voted to be part of the Obama “movement” so they can internally pat themselves on the back.
3) How much money does it take to win an election? 640 million. McCain only raised about half that amount. Money makes a difference.
4) America is slowly moving towards a secularized society like Europe. Cultural liberalism is in vogue. I don’t mean that in some Rush Limbaugh way. I mean that pluralism has taken full root in every area of society. We live in an open society where specific ideologies no longer restrict individual choice. In other words, (other than media influence) there is no over-arching intellectual conformity in America. And that was just a matter of time. To me, Obama represented that trend as the ultimate “melting pot” candidate and proved it with his landslide victory. Of course, our interreligious landscape has already shown us this. Honestly, that doesn’t bother me. If anything, it will make Christianity among those who see it merely as a cultural concession willing to show their true colors. It will also make those who have an authentic faith treasure it more. That’s actually a good thing.
5) With a democratic house and senate, Obama will have the chance to enact change in a lot of areas if he wants. It will be interesting to see how he handles the next four years. Will he be the unifying force he’s promised to be, or will his past voting record (one of the most liberal) tell the true story? In a way, he’s already given us an answer. Obama had the chance to pick a more moderate/conservative choice to shield him from criticisms of being overly progressive. He didn’t. He chose someone with a voting record just like his. That tells me something, too. Obama just might believe that he stands on the cuff of idealism and progress with little regard for those who may feel he is unbalanced. His VP pick ignored those conservatives who took a risk in voting for him yesterday. And that’s actually does scare me. Check back in four years and we’ll have our answer.