Imagine a room. There’s a table, there’s nearly always food, and it’s a safe, friendly place for people. There’s often laughter. It has a special purpose: It’s where Christians and inquiring non-Christians can talk together about Jesus, the Kingdom of God, and all the most important things in life. Sounds good, don’t you think?
Many such spaces exist. You’ll find them in kids’ clubs, nursing homes, Alpha courses and cafes. And it’s not too hard to open up new ones. I get to talk to people all around the country who are doing just that. And consistently, they tell me the same shocking thing.
They tell me that it’s much, much easier to get inquiring non-Christians into the room than it is to get the Christians in.
The idea that “Australians are not interested in Jesus” reverberates around churches so often and so loudly that it usually goes unquestioned. But it is a myth, and it needs to be named as such. Like all myths, it serves a purpose – to excuse ourselves from mission. We tell ourselves that evangelism is like force-feeding someone who’s already had a gutful, shoving unwanted stuff down people’s throats.
But many people who are doing evangelism say that it’s much more like trying to feed lots of hungry mouths out of one small kitchen. Over and over I hear them quote “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.”
So which is it? Is our mission in Australia weak because of low demand for the gospel, or low supply?
One thing that can blur the picture and reinforce the myth is this: We pick certain people that we want to become Christians – friends, family members, people like us that we’d quite like to have in our church. When we sense their resistance to the gospel we assume that applies generally. But there are other people, not of our choosing, who would LOVE a bite of what we’re trying to shove down our friend’s throat. Often they’re overlooked: Children, seniors, immigrants, the poor, the injured, the marginalised.
Jesus said that the work of the Kingdom is like fishing with a net, you spread it wide, and then draw it in and see what you’ve caught. Do we sometimes chase one particular fish with a spear, brushing aside many others as we go? Does Moby Dick mission blind us to what God is doing? If your line’s slack, is there someone nearby buckling under a heavy net that you could help?
It’s true that many Australians aren’t currently interested in the gospel. But there’s plenty that are! They’re entering the room where Jesus feasts with sinners. The big question is: Are we?
Why is it so hard? Reaching Australians with the great news, I mean. Every sacred agent knows more than a few people that just seem a billion miles away from “getting it.” How do we make sense of this, and what can we do?
Has the gospel lost its life-transforming power over the last few decades? No! Have we just lost the guts to tell it enough? No, I think it’s more than that. It’s that we no longer “speak the same language” as them. By this I mean much more than just the use of Christianese jargon. What I mean is that many of the people we meet don’t just have different opinions to us. They have different paradigms, different world-views.
Once we could just “tell the message” and people could “receive it” because society still had a Christendom way of looking at the world. Those were Billy Graham’s days (and he did great!). But now we seek to tell our message and experience a huge disconnect. It’s not just like people speaking a different language – it’s like they live on a completely different planet!
But take heart. Jesus has given us, indeed demonstrated for us, an interplanetary vehicle that can bridge such vast differences. What is this interstellar supervehicle Jesus used? It’s not actually rocket science.
Think about it – Jesus knew very well the frustrations of trying to communicate with people who were on a significantly different wavelength. First century Palestine was a melting pot of all manner of Martians and space cadets – Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, Romans. But stories – little stories – were an incredibly efficient vehicle that could go such a long way.
Arguments change opinions, but stories are what change paradigms and cultures. In the current “culture wars” it often seems that the enemies of Christ are effectively using story (casting Christians as haters) while the church responds with argument.
If we could rediscover this art, this interplanetary science, we’d be far better equipped to bridge the paradigm divide and take the gospel to infinity and beyond!
Sacred agents have a great message. The good news of God’s kingdom stirs us, Christ’s love compels us, and sometimes … our wonderful uplifting message goes down like a lead balloon. What went wrong? And what happens next?
What went wrong? Quite possibly, nothing – at least on our part. If our measure of success is that we are always well received, aren’t we attempting to be better agents than Jesus? On hearing his message, some went out and plotted how to kill him. “A servant is not greater than their master,” he reminds us. “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.” So we should expect nothing more than the mixed results that Jesus himself received.
It’s a massive mistake for us to take only those opportunities for witness that are guaranteed to be well received. There’s the obvious negative reason: It’s selling out our mission. If we filter out all the parts of the gospel that Western culture doesn’t agree with, what’s left is western culture. We will no longer be distinct in any way. We’ve lost our saltiness and should hand in our agent’s badge. “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory.” But there’s also a big positive reason: What can happen next…
What happens next? How we respond under abuse, under rejection, under fire, is perhaps THE MOST powerful form of witness we will ever get to make. History has proven again and again that Christians’ cheek-turning, extra-mile-going, blessing-the-cursers love for enemies has enormous missional impact. It’s how the west is won.
But are we willing to have enemies at all? To suffer rejection at all? And when we do, instead of departing the scene with tail between legs, beating ourselves up for “putting people off” – can we sit peacefully with the tension and respond in a Christlike way?
When we’re not well received, we should reflect on it honestly, because there is also the possibility that we were clumsy. But when mission goes pear-shaped, it just may be an early sign of really good fruit.
Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist most famous for developing his “Hierarchy of Needs.” Often presented as a pyramid, it says that our most basic needs (at the base) are for the body – food, water and shelter. Once those needs are met, we next desire safety, then love, then esteem. And once we have gotten ourselves all these, at the top we seek “self-actualisation” – to become all that we can be. It’s in this last category that many people put spirituality and religion. It’s a rookie mistake theologically, but we westerners fall for it over and over.
Scripture presents God’s kingdom as laying at the very base of our needs, and vitally connected to all the others. “Humans don’t live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from God’s mouth”, Jesus quotes Moses. “Anyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give will never thirst again”, he tells the woman at the well, whose pyramid of needs has become a pile of rubble.
Jesus is the foundation, not the decoration! God’s kingdom isn’t the icing on life’s cake – it’s the yeast that makes it rise in the first place! Yet people continue to think of Jesus as the gift for “the one who has everything,” and Christians as folks who have their lives in order and then play religion with their leftover time, energy and money. (Do we prove them right?)
If we present Jesus as “the final piece in the puzzle” to those who have tried every other form of entertainment/stimulation/inspiration and found them wanting – well, they’ll soon find him wanting too. He just won’t fit as the final piece, he won’t be chaplain to our self-actualisation. To the one who had everything, Jesus said “Go and give all your possessions to the poor; then come and follow me.” Jesus is the gift for the one who has nothing, surely.
What does this mean for sacred agents? Firstly we must denounce the distinction between spiritual and physical. “Offer your bodies as living sacrifices” says Paul. We must rediscover the all-of-real-life Jesus who works powerfully in and through the mundane.
Secondly, if Jesus is foundational, the danger of silent service is that we help people build a tower that won’t stand. Why give someone a car and then walk away with the keys in your pocket? If Christ is the real key to lasting transformation then we cannot keep this secret or leave it till last.
How do you feel about a new church opening just a kilometre from your church? We all like the idea of church planting in general – just “not in my back yard.” How can we make sense of this? How do we ensure that a spirit of territoriality doesn’t block the extension of the gospel?
Let’s think about how we think about church territory. If we assume that there is certain number of “church likely” people in our city, a fixed number (say 144,000!), then the more churches that are planted in our city, the less share there’ll be for each church. It’s like rainfall. If you have a large catchment area, you can gather a lot of water into your dam. If someone else builds a dam upstream, they’re robbing you, because there’s only so much rain.
But I don’t think the gospel works like that. Churches aren’t meant to sit there expecting streams of people to flow into them. What if we thought more like farmers than water barons? What if we saw that our viability rests not so much on how much land we have, but on how well we work it?
When churches think about their “area of influence”, they usually draw a circle on a map representing a 20-minute drive to their building. If you step back and look at all the circles drawn by all the churches, it appears that Adelaide is well and truly covered! But driving time is not influence.
Each church should draw another circle – the area in which it is actively engaging its local community. Where is your church regularly prayer-walking? Where are you letter-boxing or door-knocking or active in the local school? If we did that, most churches would draw tiny circles, and we’d see how much room there really is for more pro-active gospel work.
So when a church plant is mooted and a nearby church cries foul, my question is this: When was the last time your church really engaged that particular neighbourhood? Are you thinking catchment instead of going catching?
We don’t need more catchment churches, but God’s always raising up catching ones. The issue isn’t how close that new church is, but what sort is it? And what sort is yours?
I remember the stares and smirks on people’s faces as we walked past. It was the middle of the day, I was about 12 years old, and we were on holidays at Penneshaw on Kangaroo Island. My friend and I were bored and decided to go fishing. We grabbed our gear and began the walk around the bay to the jetty.
Most of Penneshaw is built looking over Hog Bay and it’s always easy to know when the fish are biting: You just look out your front window and see how many people there are on the jetty. Hence the smirks and shakes of the heads as we trudged past houses on our way – the jetty was completely empty.
Still, it was something to do. We walked out along the jetty and fumbled around with our lines. I’d never liked fishing and had little idea what to do. So it was pretty surprising when, not five minutes later, we’d caught a fish! And then another. And then more – almost as fast as we could reset our lines a new fish would jump on. Within a few hours we’d caught 81 fish (81 more than we knew what to do with), and you guessed it, most of the town were out there on the jetty getting their share too.
I won’t say that I learned to fish that day. But I did learn this: If no-one’s fishing it doesn’t mean no-one’s biting.
One of the myths that holds us back from effective mission is the idea that no one’s interested in God any more. It’s just not true. But if we believe it to the point where we stop fishing for people, we’ll prove ourselves right – in a way. I guess it’s true that fish won’t bite if you give them nothing to bite on.
So I wonder are you willing to walk that “walk of shame” to the jetty, and have a go even if you’re no expert? Like my friend and I that day, you might catch fishers as well as fish!