Author Archives: andrewiturner
Suburbs can be tricky places for mission. Neighbours barely know neighbours. Families are securely locked up behind high fences and no one sits on their front porch to interact with passers-by. But in my suburb, all that changes on one evening each year. Families and gangs of partying kids roam the streets and dare to actually knock on doors – it’s Halloween. Ten years ago it was something we only saw on American TV, but its Australian apparition is undeniable.
For many Christians, including me, this has been an unwelcome and uncomfortable development. Do we really need more American culture? And any more celebration of death? What is a sacred agent to make of it?
On the one hand, there is the outright rejection. When the neighbourhood kids knock on the door you could refuse to open and simply yell out “I’m a Christian, I don’t do Halloween!” On the other hand, you could dress up as the Grim Reaper and join right in. I don’t think either makes for good mission. Is there a better option?
What if we were well prepared for this terrific opportunity to interact with our neighbours? What if we had plenty of the best sorts of lollies? And to go with them, what if we printed up small ‘collectable’ cards that on the one side carried our church logo and details and said:
Did you know? Halloween began as a Christian festival – when we remember heroes who have gone before us and set great examples. This year our church Smithville Baptist is remembering Francis of Assisi – a real legend. We’ll be telling his story this Sunday.
On the other side could be a picture of St Frank himself and a brief kid-readable biography. A good quote to cap it all off might be John 10:10 “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
On Halloween, there’s no need to join the dark side, but nor is there any excuse for being dull. There’s a long Halloween tradition of using humour and ridicule to confront the power of death. “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? … Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Every church says it’s a missionary church. The mandate for outreach will be right there in the Core Aims section of the constitution. But in practice? For many it’s mainly an aspiration. It’s what we all agree is our absolute top priority … once we’ve got everything else sorted.
If we agree with Charles Spurgeon that ‘Every Christian is either a missionary or an imposter’, then it follows that every church is either a missionary church or an imposter church. How can we break out of the “mission as aspiration” pose and make real ground towards being real? Here are some practical, do-able suggestions:
1. Get Accountable: Have a set agenda item at every members meeting where you report on the church’s mission over the previous months, and outline future plans. Don’t you always have a finance report, even if (especially if!) no one’s giving? Be as specific as possible. How many people are now following, or closer to following, Jesus because of God’s work through us?
2. Look Right Under Your Nose: Yes, there are many people around who aren’t interested in Jesus. But there are people in your life and around your church who are. Make a list – yes, an actual list – of the names of the non-church people you know who are interested in Jesus. Your church leadership can keep and update that list, pray over the real names (for privacy some may be truncated e.g. “Jim F”) and remind the church how many there are. “Church, we have 37 people around us wanting to know about Jesus.” We need our eyes opened to the harvest. In aspiration churches such people are invisible.
3. Preach to the Choir: Have a “Gospel Spot” in church every Sunday, where someone is asked to share their testimony or to briefly and creatively share the gospel. Often in church there’s more than the choir present (‘invisible’ people!), and even if not, (a) it’s good practice; (b) it gives members confidence that if they invite a non-church friend, there’ll be something at their level; and (c) the gospel is the great call to worship.
4. Fill the Tub: Have regular baptism classes, perhaps every 6 months. Plan, announce and advertise them even if no-one is requesting baptism. You may be surprised. And if no one comes, turn it into a prayer meeting, and don’t lose the courage to do it all again 6 months later.
That’s four quick ones off the top of my head. Do they spark more and better ones in yours?
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.