Thursday, July 18, 2013

Rethinking Evangelism: Demonstration is the Key - Part VI

In the last post we looked at the recent Barna Study that reports that 7 out of 10 Christians aren't doing a good job of living out the actions nor living with attitudes of Jesus. Only 14% or about 1 in 7 the study found exemplify both attributes. The majority of believers tend toward the Pharisaical, demonstrating an unloving attitude and uncaring in our actions toward a lost and dying world. The majority of Christians aren't living out a Christ-likeness and I believe there is an important reason why I want to continue to explore in this post.

What the Barna study reveals is that while the Church has produced to some degree morally conscious citizens, we haven't often done what Jesus asked us to do. Our evangelism has been too frequently content to make "decisions for Jesus" the primary focus. But here's the thing, Jesus never told us to get "decisions," rather he told us we "must be born-again" (John 3:7) at the beginning of his ministry and he also told us we must "make disciples" at the end (Matthew 28:19). There is a big difference between "decisions" and what He commanded which is the reason we're seeing results like this Barna study. There also is a connection between the two - being "born again" and making disciples - we need to understand.

I made a "decision for Jesus" once. What I mean is that I made the decision to "accept Jesus into my heart." I was 24, which was a long time ago. I had been invited to a non-denominational worship service on a Sunday morning. At the time I was totally unfamiliar with the kind of evangelistic message I was hearing that morning. I had grown up in a home with an agnostic dad and a devout Roman Catholic mom and had become a professing atheist at the age of 18. I had decided to go to this service only because some buddies were going as part of a business function we were attending. 

That Sunday morning I was hearing that if I didn't "know" Jesus I should get an "asbestos suit." I needed to "turn or burn" forever under the worst torment imaginable, if I didn't accept Jesus as my Savior. This was a shocking and unfamiliar message so I decided that since I didn't really want to suffer such an eternal fate, and if there was any truth being told, I would go forward at the "altar call." After all, what did I have to lose and since my friends were also going forward it made it easier to tag along. That day I made my decision to "accept Jesus into my heart." I prayed the "sinner's prayer" as instructed, following the lead of the evangelist, and whamo I was "saved!" or so I believed.

I really had no idea what it was I was "accepting" or what it meant to be "saved" beyond recalling from time to time that initial decision and knowing I wouldn't need an "asbestos suit." I had bought my "fire insurance" and was good to go - to heaven. I don't recall being told to study the Word, I don't think I even had a Bible, I know I didn't really pray, but I did serve at a local traditional church because those same buddies were serving there as well.

One of the funny things about that church was that they quickly made my new wife and I deacons. Here we were, newly minted "saved" people and asked to serve in leadership. In an aging church youth does have its privileges. But no one discipled me, no one mentored me, no one became my spiritual father. I don't recall anyone even asking how I was doing spiritually. Not that I would have understood what that meant. I did cook a big Mother's Day brunch for the ladies of the church one year and figured that had to count for something.

I am the classic case of the problem with decision-oriented malpractice, sorry I mean evangelism, that to often leaves people lost - and I was so lost. I was lost in the world for the next 12 years until at the end of my human strength, with major problems in my life, alone in my car one evening, broken and contrite I called out to God in a real sinner's prayer: "God if you're real you need to change things, I can't live like this anymore. If you change my life, I will serve you the rest of my life." No phony words, no peer pressure just a real decision - I needed God to change my life. I was ready and willing to repent and confess that Jesus was not only my Savior, if in fact he had been, but also Lord of my life.

Decision based evangelism is focused upon getting people to say the "sinner's prayer." The problem with this approach is that it produces experiences like mine. You can think you're good with God, you may even want to trust and obey but there is something terribly wrong as the Barna study revealed. Praying the sinners prayer doesn't mean that you have been "born-again,"  although you may think you have. There was no real evidence in my life that I had been "born-again." I mean, if you've been "born from above" (perhaps the better translation), you should know it and live like it, right?

Jesus calls us to repentance (Luke 5:32). Repentance demonstrates the effective work of God in our lives (2 Corinthians 7:10). And it is the only way to be "born-again." We have told people that all they need to do is say the "sinner's prayer," believe in Jesus and their salvation is assured. The result is many are convinced they are "saved" but their lives bear little witness to the fact, just like mine from the age of 24 to 36.

The fact is, Jesus can see right through our "decision," especially when our decision to "accept him" are based on anything but a heart level change in our thinking. That is the story we read at the end of John chapter 2:
"Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people. He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person."
Isn't Jesus for everyone? Absolutely but that doesn't mean he necessarily believes our "profession of faith." I don't believe he believed mine in 1985. Saying the "sinners prayer" doesn't change the fact that Jesus knows what is in each person. The "sinner's prayer" too often only produces people who believe in what they have experienced in a particular moment, the "signs" that they see, just like I had, and just like the people at the Passover Festival in John 2. The "sinner's prayer" is not a mystical formula for being saved. Too often is has been a manipulative, though perhaps well-intentioned, "sign."

In the next post we'll look further at being "born-again," and what that means for living sent today.

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