Monday, September 15, 2014

Mission Monday: Putting the "Personal" Back into Personal Evangelism

If our culture has excelled at anything over the past decade, its polarization.  Offending someone is perhaps the easiest exercise in the west, and navigating conversation, let alone deeper relationship, without making someone angry can be a great challenge.

Even among the body of Christ, the tiniest disagreement can turn into a great offense.  Last week is a great (or maybe horrible) example of this.  I made a public statement about supporting Israel, but criticized some of their recent actions.  While most of the interaction was civil and appreciated, a few vitriolic Zionists accused me of being anti-Semitic.  Meanwhile, more strict Covenantal thinkers accused me of compromising the Gospel because I would be in favor of the continued existence of the Jewish state.  "Hot button" issues sometimes build their deepest heat within the body of Christ.

And this kind of polarization gets worse when we move outside the body to interact with the larger world.  On November 16, various religious, cultural and political leaders will be joining together for the Mid-Atlantic Summit on Faith and Culture.  In helping put this conference together, I've been accused of compromising the Gospel by my willingness to appear publicly alongside leaders of other faiths.  I've also been chastised by those in the wider culture who think I'm too "narrow," because while in the presence of those leaders, I'm not shy about my belief that salvation only comes through faith in Jesus Christ.

The labels we apply to people often don't help matters either.  "Democrat," "Liberal," "Fundamentalist," "Homophobe," "Tea Party," "Pervert," "Muslim," "Republican," and a host of other terms immediately stir strong feelings. And in the midst of this polarized world, very little actual evangelism actually happens because we are too concerned with "what it would look like" if we actually crossed an aisle to befriend someone on the other side.

I"m sure glad Jesus didn't do that.  Otherwise, we all might be burning in hell right now!

And the truth is, Jesus didn't do that.  He didn't stand on the precipice of heaven and preach a sermon of condemnation.  Instead, He became a man, incarnating Himself among people who were in no way like He was.  He lived among us for more than three decades, and then offered His life as a ransom for sinners.  Then post-resurrection, he says this to His disciples: "As the Father has sent me, so also so I send you." (John 20:21)

In other words, Jesus' ministry was personal, and if we want to be servants who truly follow our Master with the same effectiveness, we need to put the "personal" back into personal evangelism!  That requires a few things though:

1. Unconditional Friendships:  I direct cultural engagement and evangelism for a religious denomination made up of more than 560 churches, and with my heavy work schedule among our churches, I still manage to spend as much time outside my work with non-Christians as I do with followers of Jesus.  Our kids play together, we share meals with each other, and we get to know each other.  Would I like them to know Jesus as I know Him?  Of course!  But that isn't going to happen if I turn every relationship I have with a non-Christian into a "project."  Sometimes I get the impression from believers--even pastors--that if I can't get someone converted in a short amount of time that continuing to share life in relationship with them is a waste of time.

That attitude makes me very sad, especially when I consider that Jesus Himself walked with unbelievers for a long period of time. The span of time between "follow me," and "you are the Christ, the Son of the living God!" was more than just a few days, and as it turns out, one of those guys wasn't even a real follower after all.  Yet he was present for Jesus' very last meal, and the Lord dismissed him in great sorrow.  That is how Jesus treated someone who betrayed Him!  And we aren't even willing to be friends with people simply because they believe differently than us? If you want to know why the church in the west is on a steep decline, this may indeed be one of the reasons!

When you share your faith, it should be more than a sales pitch.  You should be expressing the deepest and most profound part of your being, and that doesn't happen at its fullest outside the context of intimate friendships.  If we don't care if our friends come to faith in Christ, then we don't truly love them.  But if our friendships are conditioned on whether they make that decision, then they aren't really friends at all.  They are just "projects."

2. Seeing People as People.  Every person on the planet is far more than any label that could be attached to them.  If you are a Democrat, you tend to see every Republican in a certain way.  If you are on one side of an issue, and discover someone else is on the other side, both our culture and the church encourage you to keep your distance.

Again, I'm sure glad that wasn't what Jesus did!

Non-Christians, to put it bluntly, are going to have VERY different understandings of a LOT of things than I have.  But when I look at that guy in my neighborhood who practices Wicca, I see a guy who shares my concerns about the neighborhood's future development.  I see a guy who wants to provide for his family and keep his children safe just like I do.  Similarly, I meet with a close Muslim friend of mine about twice a month.  When we sit down together, I don't see only Islam.  I see a guy who made it to the United States, is thankful for the educational and vocational opportunities here that have allowed him to build a family.  The last time we were together, we talked about his plans to buy a home in the near future.  The gay couple at my kids' school?  Yep, we treat them the same way.

Sharing your faith, in most contexts, means sharing life.  And you can't share life if you don't see people, first and foremost, as merely people.  Be determined to look past the labels our culture puts on us.

3. Start your story in the right place.  If the Christian narrative is to be told accurately, it will involve four "chapters," all of which pop clearly out of the text of Scripture:  Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration.  The biggest problem I've seen in modern evangelicalism is that we tend to start the story with chapter two.  I'll elaborate more on this in a subsequent post, but for now, I'll just say that when sharing your faith and connecting it with the larger Christian meta-narrative, make sure you start the story in the right place!

To be sure, we can't skip chapter two and still be faithful to Jesus' message.  We are--ALL of us from birth--separated from fellowship with our Creator, and because from the moment we are volitionally able we willfully rebel against Him, we all begin this life at odds with One who promises ultimate justice.  Without that hard truth, redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus in "chapter three" makes no sense.

But the Christian story doesn't start in Genesis 3.  It starts in Genesis 1 with both out parents being created in the very image and likeness of God.  Though that image has been shattered by the fall, it remains indelibly on each of us--believer and non-believer.  So before I see any other label on another person, I need to see a label that reads "image-bearer of God."  Compassion, love, understanding, and a willingness to walk alongside them in life as Jesus did for us all come from that recognition.

In a world in which various factions are increasingly isolating themselves from the others, perhaps the most counter-cultural thing that can be done by followers of Jesus is to cross those barriers that our culture, and unfortunately many in the church, believe to be uncrossable.  Jesus has already bridged the most impossible gap in the universe--the gap between a just God and those He created who rebelled against Him.  When we intentionally cross barriers to build relationships and demonstrate love to those not like us, we mirror what He has already done for us, and what we hope He will do for them.

But to get this done, we must put the "personal" back into "personal evangelism."

1 comment:

Mark said...

Our current sermon series is on this exact topic. I appreciate what you wrote here. It resonates with where we are going in this series.