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If you’re a preacher or a regular afflictee of sermons, you’ll know what exegesis is. It’s the practice of very careful reading of the text, so as to truly hear what it actually says. Not what we want it to say, not what we’ve always assumed it says, but to receive it as it is actually given to us. Good exegesis yields remarkable insights, but it takes time. You can’t skim read a text deeply.
Effective sacred agents do this well, always coming back to the gospel, looking over and into it, constantly exploring its depths. It almost goes without saying – a messenger needs to know the message well.
Experts in mission also talk about cultural exegesis - the need for sacred agents to immerse themselves in the culture where God has placed them, to understand its rhythm and language and how it ticks. That’s good mission but it takes time. And like Biblical exegesis, it’s a skill that you acquire and sharpen. You learn how to look.
So sacred agents are messengers, ambassadors, priests. We need to know the message well and the recipients well to be able to convey the message effectively.
But let’s take this even further. As sacred agents we are sent not just to a culture, but to individual people. If we know a person’s culture well but don’t take the time to know them individually we will make assumptions of what they are probably like, and quite probably miss the mark in reaching them personally. So let’s practice personal exegesis. We might be familiar with a person, but do we really know them? As biblical exegetes know, familiarity leads to skim reading.
What might result in our making a deliberate choice to take time to really read the individuals we are sent to and familiar with? To take time to ask better, deeper questions and to learn how to pay attention to their answers? To learn how to really observe? And in doing so, to constantly consider ‘What is God’s message to this particular person?’
It takes time. And it takes lots of us. With a microphone we can speak to 10,000 people at a time. But we can still only listen to one at a time.
This is my third post in the series “Making Evangelism Less Fuzzy”. In the introductory post I suggested 3 broad contexts or “fishing pools” that a church interacts with simultaneously – Friends, Neighbours and Kids. “Friends” are those people with whom we have an existing relationship. We discussed evangelism with them in the previous post. By “Neighbours” I mean the people who live in proximity to your church’s meeting place, but whom you don’t know personally. (So I am not talking about each of our next-door neighbours – those I include under “Friends”, even if they’re enemies!)
If your church is an average suburban church, then there are about 3,000 people living within easy walking distance of your place of meeting. Chances are, yours is the most near-by Christian church to them. But is it really “near-by”? Are they aware of your existence, or are you invisible to them? Do they feel they could approach you as they might the local library or medical centre? Or do you seem inaccessible? And the reverse question must also be asked: Is your church aware of them? For many suburban churches, the disconnection is so strong that the church and its local neighbourhood are essentially invisible to each other. What might be done about that?
(1) Increasing Awareness
Your church leaders, or entire church, could be encouraged to walk the neighbourhood, or be taken on a tour of it. Walking is good exercise, a simple map could be printed and space given for people to write down what they notice – What schools, businesses and other clubs or institutions are there? What kind of houses? What does this tell us about the people? Interviews with church members or people you know who have lived in the neighbourhood for many years can also bring out insights. Who are these people? What makes them tick?
(2) Focused Prayer
Prayer for the neighbourhood street by street, suburb by suburb, business by business, school by school is a great way to step forward into local mission. Much of this can happen through prayer walking, but the importance of praying for the local neighbourhood during the church’s main weekly meeting shouldn’t be underestimated. It signifies that this is core business for your church. Unfortunately, a great many churches go week by week barely ever mentioning their local community. If you gave me a transcript of all that is said at your worship meeting, would I be able to tell where your church is? Or might it just as well have come from the other side of the world?
(3) Being Present
Much of what I’m about to write is presently very out of favour, and easily labelled “attractional” rather than “missional”. Knock yourself out. But as your church takes a missionary stance towards its local neighbourhood, it will know that being present is important, that first impressions count, and that it does no good to put unnecessary stumbling blocks in front of people. What do the locals see of you? They see your place of worship, they see your signage, and if interested, they see your website. This is your public face, and it’s worth paying attention to. A good-looking website (like this one!) can be put together for free and in just a few hours. Don’t pay thousands. Do keep it up to date and fresh. The web is the natural place for anyone interested to check you out. Once you have it functional, put your web address on your signage. Try to read your signage and look at your buildings with the eyes of an outsider – or even ask someone who’s never been to come and have a look and tell your their first impressions. You’ll be surprised! They will point out things that have become invisible to you.
Another, and perhaps even more important way of being present in the local community is to be personally present. Is there a local sporting club? Are any of the members participants in it? Or could the church sponsor the club? Similarly with local businesses – members could be encouraged to shop local and take time to get to know people in that way. And schools are perhaps the most important of all. They can be a real hub of the local community. Even if the church doesn’t have any kids in those schools, there are lots of other ways for the church to show up and serve and get involved. If the school has a CPSW (chaplain), a conversation with him or her is a great way to start.
(4) Letterboxing and Door-knocking
In Australia door-knocking should be done with extreme care as it is not appreciated by many people. Still, there are circumstances and styles through which it can be effective. Letterboxing, on the other hand, is quite acceptable so long as you respect the people who label their letterboxes with “No Junk Mail”. Much care should be given to what it sent, though. I don’t actually recommend the purchasing of generalized evangelistic material which is then overprinted with your church’s details. Better, I think, is something clearly produced by your church, even if it is of lesser quality, with a warm invitation, and information about what you are on about and what your church offers. Be unashamedly Christian. You’ll find that people respect a church being open, honest, sincere and friendly.
(5) Including the Community
Too often a church can see itself as having it all and the local having nothing. An “us and them” mentality can be pretty strong. So when we think of putting on events, we often immediately think of “us” doing stuff for “them”. A church might have a jumble sale and do an enormous amount of work, and only invite the local community to be customers. What if, instead, the church organized a community jumble sale – where locals are invited to come and sell, and bake, and participate – all raising money for a unquestionably good cause? Look for things you can do with your community, not just for them. It shows respect, when too often Christians come across as “acting superior”.
(6) Visit Your Local TAB
There – I said it! Years ago I wrote a note on the agenda to an upcoming leaders meeting at our church: “In the week leading up to this meeting, please spend at least 20 minutes either at the Adelaide Casino, or at the local TAB [betting agency].” When the church leaders turned up at my house, I asked them about their experiences. Sure enough, fully half of them had not done it, ostensibly because they thought surely I wasn’t serious. Another third of the leaders knew they should, but just couldn’t bring themselves to go and do it. One said “I just couldn’t go through that door.” Another said “I was afraid that someone I know might see me.” And there were just a few who managed to do it. All I said on reflection was this: “That’s exactly how hard it is for people to come into our church for the first time.” Many local people are positively inclined towards your church. Some are outright curious. But there’s a lot of fear. It’s up to us to take the steps to signal “Fear not! For we bring good news that will be of great joy for all the people…”
This is the second post in the series “Making Evangelism Less Fuzzy”. In the introductory post I suggested 3 broad contexts or “fishing pools” that a church interacts with simultaneously – Friends, Neighbours and Kids. Of course you may discern more or different “pools”, but I do recommend keeping it simple.
I defined the “Friends” pool as people whose names we know. People with whom we have an existing relationship. So “Friends” is a broad category that includes family, colleagues, acquaintances and even enemies! And it includes local neighbours in your street whom you know.
Evangelism with friends needs to take a different approach to that with strangers. In Acts 17, Paul does some magnificent evangelism at the Areopagus. As a newcomer to their setting, he brought good news in a way they could relate to. But should we then do the same thing among our relatives at Christmas lunch, or in the staff room at work? I think not. So here are some suggestions. They are by no means exhaustive – in fact barely scratching the surface. I am really just suggesting a framework with which real, tangible, practical conversations can be had that will lead to more fruitful mission.
1. Exemplary Life
The people we know also know us. They see us at our best and also at our worst. So the message, the impression they get from us is more action than words. Now, none of us are perfect. But that shouldn’t stop us from (a) being open about our struggles and failures, (b) being quick to apologize when we hurt or let people down, (c) thinking back over the history we share with people and making right, where possible, wrongs from the past, and (d) pressing on to live lives that are really worthy of the gospel. Putting off sin, putting on righteousness. “Live such good lives among the pagans,” writes Peter, “that though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” Let your light shine. Go that extra mile. Turn the other cheek. Love the people you know with the love of God.
I’d like to give three easy steps to this. But there’s every chance the easy steps have already been taken. It’s hard. All I can say is that in the ongoing pursuit of a godly life, don’t compare yourself with the people you’re sent to, or even with your fellow sacred agents. Fix your eyes on Jesus and press on into the transformation he wants to work in you by his Spirit. And spend time with heroes who will spur you on. I can’t read Peter’s “Live such good lives among the pagans that though they accuse you of doing wrong…” verse without thinking about Daniel in Babylon and the practices that sustained him (prayer 3 times a day etc, but that’s for another post).
2. Prayer By Name
It’s a powerful thing to name people before God in prayer. And in this pool, you at very least have that advantage – you know people’s names. A church can hardly help but be fruitful evangelistically if it forms the habit of interceding for the thousands of people in its personal network by name. I just can’t see God letting it happen.
In my early days as a youth pastor we had the grand idea of forming the youth into a “Prayer Force”. In typical OTT style, we divided everyone into “squadrons” and each group was to pray for friends by name, a few blocks of the neighbourhood specifically, and an overseas missionary. Well, designing the logos and everything was fun, but putting into practice – well, it fizzled. My particular group met for a few weeks, gradually decided that “prayer-walking” our few blocks was less boring that sitting around praying. But even that didn’t last for long. I put it down as being an “odea” instead of an “idea” and moved on. But about a year later, our list of people to pray for turned up somewhere, and we were stunned to realize that fully half of the people on the list had come to know Christ! We were hopeless, but God wasn’t!
3. Literature Evangelism
Literature – in which I include video and other media – is a greatly under-utilized tool in evangelism. Too often when we think of evangelism we picture ourselves doing all the explaining – at least I do. But there are others who do it particularly well. Like CS Lewis. In the 60-second window of opportunity when my friend is open and interested, I could fumble my way through an overview of 2 Ways To Live or Bridge to Life or Four Spiritual Laws – but it’s likely to end up with what my friend YanYan calls “massive awkies” (significant awkwardness). Alternatively, if I use that 60 seconds to say “I think you might be really interested in this book – it’s by CS Lewis, you know, the guy who wrote the Narnia books and all that.” Well then, if my friend takes up and read, instead of 60 awkward seconds from me, they are likely to spend hours hearing from one of the most eloquent advocates of Christianity history has known. And the further advantage is this – the message is coming from CS Lewis, not me. I can have a safer conversation about my friend’s response simply by saying “Well, what did you think of that?” My existing relationship with my friend is not compromised – and if they are not receptive, the friendship lives to fight another day.
Churches could invest so much more in this. It does take preparation – that is, buying up great books (and videos etc) and having them handy to give away. Search them out. Apart from Lewis’ Mere Christianity, I have seen Don Miller’s Blue Like Jazz be well received. The trick is to have a stash, a supply of a range of the best stuff. Any other suggestions or recommendations?
4. Invitational Evangelism
The same benefit applies to inviting a friend to an event that will feature a gospel presentation of some sort by someone else. You get to be the supporting friend, the beggar helping another beggar find food, rather than playing the soup kitchen to your friend – a power imbalance they would no doubt sense. Of course, it’s a bigger thing for a person to come to a Christian event with you, than for them to read a Christian book you lend them. So be wise with this.
5. Sudden Opportunites
Be on the look out and indeed pray for these! You never know what they are going to look like, but every now and then you’re with a friend and that window opens up. They might voice a deep wonder about the meaning of life. Or have a sudden emergency. Or be particularly cruel to you. These are powerful moments where your response is likely to get past their exterior defences. We all can think back over such opportunities missed. The trick is to be ready – somehow – for them. With experience and growth in Christian character it perhaps happens more naturally. But it doesn’t hurt at all to ask the Holy Spirit to help you spot the moment and be used powerfully by him in it.
OK, so that’s just a few thoughts off the top of my head. Leave a comment to fill it out some more. But this can be a great exercise to do in a group with a whiteboard.
Next post in this series will be on Evangelism with Neighbours… …stay tuned!
Welcome to the Sacred Agents blog. Learning to represent the great Kingdom of God in the everyday world is an amazing adventure. But it sure isn’t easy. If you often feel more like Maxwell Smart than James Bond, then this site is for you! Join in the conversations and we’ll fumble our way forward together…