Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Rethinking Evangelism: Demonstration is the Key - Part IV

My encounter with my Facebook friend over my "missional reinterpretation" and the exchange of the word "preached" with the amplified "demonstrate," has me on this quest of rethinking evangelism. God works all things together for good, for honestly its been a while since I last seriously considered evangelism. Not that I haven't engaged in an occasional conversations with a non-Christian about Jesus. I do that fairly regularly. However I know I have lacked the intentionality I would want in my witness. My ministry isn't focused on evangelism rather on mobilization, but we are all called to be witnesses and proclaim Christ with our lives. Like Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York City, we should regularly ask, "how am I doing?" with respect to this vital task all Christ followers are called to.

Evangelism should be recalibrated as a lifestyle that regularly connects our life with others and connects others to Christ, which is why friendship (as mentioned in Part III) is so vital to the process. That is part of the "missional" life Jesus calls us to. When evangelism becomes more about method or formula, than a life on life journey, we miss the example Jesus set and the life he calls us to - making disciples. Sharing the Good News of Jesus should be something all Christ followers do naturally, but it is one that most of us struggle with. Perhaps that is because of how we have viewed the task and the fact that Biblical evangelism (I'll develop this more in the next post) just isn't taught as the priority it should be. 

It is not our charge to make converts to Christianity but to be witnesses who make disciples for Jesus. That idea needs a lot of rethinking, but somewhere along the way this core concept of Christ's, making disciples, got lost in our definition of evangelism, as well as in our eccleisology (we'll have to revisit that one).  Conversion became about a decision which then manifested itself in our prevalent modes of and thinking about evangelism."I have decided to follow Jesus," isn't a one time decision but a daily discipline.

One thing that is lost in this convert-oriented evangelism is the very definition of "convert." From the Greek epistrephō,  "convert" means "transitively" or "characterized by or involving transition." In other words, conversion isn't about a decision but about a series of decisions, actually a life-time of making the decision to follow Jesus. By our decisions, we are transitively being remade into the likeness of Christ. Yes, we are new creations (2 Cor. 5:17) but every new creation takes time to form into the fullness of its intended design. The worm doesn't become a butterfly over night. Neither do we get formed in Christ in an instant (Gal 4:19).

Somewhere in the decisions we make we confess that Jesus is Lord for the first time (for a fine illustration of this I recommend C.S. Lewis story of how he went from being an atheist to mere Christianity). There are decisions though that we make before that big decision and decisions we must make afterward. We make a decision how to respond to God's saving grace, we make a decision to confess Jesus is Lord, and we must make decisions after our initial decision to continue in God's sustaining grace. Failing that we can always return to God's grace (Luke 15:11-32).

The problem comes when evangelism is focused on decisions rather than on disciples. Then we end up with the cultural Christianity so pervasive today. People think they are "saved" but show no or very little evidence of their salvation, except a decision card they signed years ago or recalling a prayer they once prayed. They haven't continued in their decisions or somewhere the decision process got stuck, so they haven't transitioned into a process of daily decisions called repentance (which simply means change of thinking), toward the fullness of life that makes the Good News truly great. Our evangelism must be rethought on the basis of whole life transformation, not just a one-time decision.

Jesus didn't just say "follow me" and leave it that. He said, "follow me and I will make you..." (Matthew 4:19). He then invested the next 3 1/2 years into his disciples lives making them disciple-makers. Jesus never asked the crowds that followed him for a "decision." Rather, he showed his love and compassion for them and demonstrated who he was to them (Matthew 9:36, 14:14). In fact, Jesus chased away most from any decision to follow Him (John 6:66-67) because the true Christian life is to be demonstrably different than the culture around it. But that is not what is taught in our traditional evangelism, which is why we need to rethink evangelism with demonstration as the key.  

Jesus life, death and resurrection, was and is the Gospel which we are to demonstrate. Jesus life calls us to live incarnationally, Jesus death calls us to a life of forgiveness, and Jesus resurrection makes it all possible. What Jesus demonstrated to his disciples was how to live as the redeemed of this world. The Good News makes that life possible in Christ. Only through demonstration of a redeemed, transformed, and incarnational life, does the world see that we believe what we claim. Only as we share it with others do they know we live as we are called  (which was the point of Penn Jillette's quote in Part I). That doesn't guarantee the world will follow our lead but it is the way to live as a disciple of Christ's.

I want to now move on to the "how" of demonstrating the Gospel. In Part III, I said that I believe the way to do so is to live as a cross-cultural missionary, even in a dominant culture context. Just because we are all Americans doesn't mean that we all see the world the same way, especially in our multiethnic and multicultural land of immigrants. Today we also have the influences of postmodernism to contend with, plus numerous subcultures who see the world through their own lens. The "one-size fits all" approach to evangelism is no longer effective in 21st Century America, which is why we need to think like missionaries.

There is a process that missionaries go through in entering a culture. To begin with, part of the missionary task is to understand a culture at the worldview level, asking the question: "what makes these people tick?" That questions goes way beyond the "they're sinners and need Jesus" attitude. Of course they are sinner and need Jesus - we all are and do. The "what makes these people tick?" starting place means we have to enter their world and understand their needs, just as a missionary would. Missionaries must go as learners, which is the implied definition of disciple.

To begin to frame this "How to," in the balance of this post I want to share the following comments from my friend Tim Ahlen, Executive Director of the Great Commission Initiative. Tim, was answering the following inquiry, which speaks to the need of understanding worldview in our quickly changing world:

"The world has changed. We can change our methods but not the message. How do we catch up with the new world?" 

Tim answers: 
 "This is a great question. In some ways, the world has changed. Technology, communication and travel have all served to shrink our globe and expose massive numbers of people to different cultures, and different ways of seeing the world.

However, in other ways, the fundamental issues of the world have not changed. Mankind is still in rebellion against God, living in fear, shame, alienation, impurity and guilt. Satan and his minions are still the rulers of this world system, doing all they can to enslave humanity and keep us from God. Jesus Christ is still God's unique and chosen solution for mankind's predicament. By shedding His blood on a cross, He provided the only way for mankind to have our fear, shame, alienation, impurity and guilt removed, and our relationship to God restored.
In generations past, communicating this truth was not a problem for most of us who claim the name of Christ. Why? Because everybody with whom we came in contact shared our worldview. To communicate the Gospel, we simply had to explain it the way we understood it-- Four Spiritual Laws, Steps to Peace With God, the Roman Road, etc. Those methods "worked," unless we went to a "foreign country" as a missionary and had to communicate in a different language to a different culture.
In the last fifty years or so, global migration, technology, the decline of Western culture and the corresponding rise of non-western cultures, have brought the mission field to our doorstep. As a result, we can no longer assume that our understanding of the Gospel will resonate with our next door neighbors. Before we can communicate the Gospel effectively, we have to listen to our neighbors carefully. If we do, we will find that our Indian neighbor from a Hindu background will be framing his questions about life differently from my African neighbor who has an animistic background. My Muslim friend may not feel guilt as I do. But his sense of personal shame before God, which he understands as the primary consequence of his sin, will drive him do whatever it takes to restore honor to himself and more importantly, his family.
What are the implications of these different world views for gospel communication? Well, for the Western individualists, continue to communicate the gospel in terms of guilt and innocence. Press the point of individual responsibility and "accepting Jesus as a personal savior." After all, "our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water" (Hebrews 10:22). But for my Muslim friend, I might want to talk about his family coming to Christ and receiving a position of highest honor-- joint heirs with Jesus Christ. For the Scripture says,
See, I lay a stone in Zion,
a chosen and precious cornerstone,
and the one who trusts in him
will never be put to shame.” (Rom. 9:33; 1 Pet. 2:6)

And what about my animistic friend, who is scared to death of the evil spirits and desperately trying to appease them? He needs to hear the clear call of Jesus to "Fear not, for I am with you. Be not dismayed for I am your God."
So, the question does not automatically suggest a lowering of standards. Nor does it allow a business as usual, this is the way I have always done it approach. The changing world should drive us back to the Word of God that does not change, so that we might discover passages that answer the fundamental questions about life that others are asking, in a way that will resonate with their view of the world..
I guess I am making an appeal for all of us to have the attitude of the humble sinner, instead of the proud publican. It does little good to focus on the shortcomings of others, when I have my own problems keeping me from being as effective in my ministry and witness as I could be. I haven't been in Monterrey, but I have spent some time in Guerrero. The lostness is disheartening. On the other hand, the vitality of the believers was equally astounding and a testimony to what God does apart from expensive programs,huge buildings and highly paid clergy. On a recent trip to Acapulco, GCI provided training to more than 250 church planters, none of whom were looking forward to full time pastorates or large buildings. They knew that their future was going to entail suffering and persecution, and they were willing to do whatever it would take. As hard as that is, it is the price we have to pay if we are going to fulfill the Great Commission." 
Tim shares so much in his brief comments that demonstrates others are thinking about rethinking evangelism. Perhaps the Lord is up to something? There are several point to be revisited in the next posts...all for living sent today.  

What is the Holy Spirit saying to you about your own witness?

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