Where Do I Even Begin?

It’s wonderful to receive the good news of the gospel. But we get to be bearers of it too. What an honour … and how daunting. What if we don’t get the message right?

If you’re worried about making a mash of the message, remember that no-one nails it. You can never tell the whole gospel, not if you talked for a thousand years. Read all the gospel-speeches in Acts and note how much each one leaves out! In Athens, Paul omits to mention Jesus’ death! So sacred agents are never telling the whole truth … simply because we can’t! It’s not our calling to tell everyone everything.

So where do we start, then, and what do we say? In his helpful book Beyond Awkward, Beau Crosetto outlines four major components of our news about Jesus. With admirable alliteration, he points out that Jesus offers:

Pardon – He is the Son of Man with “authority on earth to forgive sins”, and “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”.
Power – He is the Stronger Man who outmuscles the “strong man” holding us captive under sin, injustice, evil and death. The gospels show Jesus continually rescuing people from hopeless situations.
Purpose – He calls his followers to a grand adventure, to participation in a story of cosmic proportions and to real responsibility as ministers in his government. Sacred agents, even.
Presence – He is Emanuel – God with us. He presents to us a Father who numbers the hairs on our heads, cares for every sparrow and us even more, and promises “surely I will be with you always”.

Crosetto is not saying that every gospel message should cover all of these memorable points. He says we should start by being present with people, asking questions and listening well. In doing so we’ll likely find that one of the four ‘P’s is a need keenly felt by our neighbour, and therefore a great starting point for sharing about Jesus.

Pardon is very good news, and might be what your neighbour needs to hear first. But it’s not the only news. The other three ‘P’s show how Jesus is good news not only for the guilty/ashamed/underperforming, but also for the stuck/addicted/out-of-control, the wandering/drifting/groundhog-dayed and the lonely/abandoned/marginalised. If your neighbour is lonely, you don’t need to begin with convincing her that she’s guilty.

Each ‘P’ is a way into a gospel conversation, and each has a wealth of wonderful stories behind it. (There’s a good group exercise.) But ultimately all four are things we all deeply need, and no matter which way in, four aspects of an enormous and enormously good message.

We’ve been given so much to give. Truly as Jesus said, teachers who have been instructed in the kingdom are like a rich person who constantly pulls out of their storehouse new and old treasures to share!

PS We’re building a Gospel Sharers Network here in SA. To join us visit sabaptist.asn.au/evangelism

Frank Reflections on the Graham Tour

On February 21st nearly 10,000 people overflowed Titanium Security Arena here in Adelaide to hear Franklin Graham’s message. About 400 responded to his altar call. I was one of the thousand or so watching on the big screen outside.

After a Planet Shakers worship frenzy to disconcert the unchurched, and a short set by Crowder to re-concert them, the 66-year old American in a suit took the stage.

Now I’d heard the chatter among some thinking Christians about the Graham Tour, and there’s much I agree with. Here’s a summary of their concerns:

  • He has identified too strongly with right-wing politics in general and Trump in particular.
  • Flying in an American to sweep across Australia in a whirl-wind, pre-packaged stadium tour breaks just about every rule of missiology. (I don’t remember him even using the name “Adelaide”. It was just “your city” – sigh.)
  • His ‘old school’ gospel message overplayed the Penal Substitutionary view of Christ’s Atonement (focusing on sin as our moral failure before a Righteous Judge) as opposed to other biblical facets of the gospel such as our being lost and in need of a Finder or captive in need of a Rescuer. In ‘old school’ evangelism, awareness of guilt is a key step on the way to Jesus, and the sins he gave time for special mention were selective … the classic ones.

All these things unsettle many Christian thinkers – but do you know what drives us most crazy? That 400 people nevertheless responded, saying that they want to be reconciled to God through Christ.

I turned these things over in my mind as I drove home and have come to this conclusion: The only type of evangelism that works is the evangelism that actually gets done. If any of us think that we can do it better, then we really should. We really must.

I’m convinced there’s still a place in our day and our culture for ‘event evangelism’, where a Christian community combines its many gifts to create a hospitable experience for enquirers that culminates in a gifted and well-prepared evangelist sharing the message and calling for a response. We do it in small ways when a church runs Alpha or an equivalent. We do it in medium ways, for instance through Easter Camps. Event evangelism stands on the shoulders of everyday witness and has the great advantage of creating a moment-for-decision that calls out a response.

So if God can use a Trumped-up sexagenarian regurgitating a 1950s version of the kingdom message with a ‘Merican accent, then what might He do through you and me?

PS If you have the noble task of sharing the gospel with others, either conversationally or through prepared messages (spot talks, devotions etc), please join our new Gospel Sharers Network. First gathering is Tue April 2nd 7pm at Trinity Baptist. For those who aren’t in Adelaide … why aren’t you?

The Shame Spiral

For fourteen years Margaret from Accounts had admired Geoff from HR but felt unworthy. For the same fourteen years he felt she was out of his league. What a waste of a decade and a half! It was nothing to do with lack of attraction and everything to do with personal shame.

There’s a phrase I’ve heard a few times from people in my neighbourhood, about my church: “Oh, you wouldn’t want someone like me.” At first I took it as a polite way of turning down an invitation. Then I began reading into it, and got defensive, thinking: “What – do you think we’re a bunch of superior Pharisees looking down on everyone?”

Then finally, having heard it several times, I began to wonder about taking it at face value. What if it’s an expression of shame? What if shame is a major reason for people to avoid church and decline invitations? Then a big question: What if we hear the declining of the invitation and it brings out our own shame? Are our events not good enough? Is our music not musical enough? Is our teaching boring, our morning tea too mundane, our people too ordinary?

We redouble our efforts to put on an even better event next year, and the invitation is knocked back again. It’s frustrating. We stare across the sparsely-filled car park at the neighbourhood and silently wish we could somehow be good enough for our neighbours … who may be staring right back from behind their lace curtains, a bit bitter at the church that would surely reject them.

Where this dynamic is true, we have a different challenge in our outreach. Not to persuade people of Jesus’ magnificence or the church’s excellence, but of the enormous value of each person and how deeply wanted they are by God and us.

I remember receiving the business card of a Korean pastor. His contact details were small, but in large letters across the front was this simple sentence: “You are very important to God.” To those who say or think “You wouldn’t want someone like me” we need to find a way to respond with “Oh, if only you knew!” What a strange moment when Margaret from Accounts and Geoff from HR finally connected and discovered what had truly been going on all that time. The spiral of shame robs us all, but Christ has overcome it. As his agents, perhaps it’s time for us to be a little more shameless in reaching out? And more sensitive to the shame of others.

In Praise of Rosters

I love a good roster. There, I’ve said it.

I know many Christians disagree, seeing them as a necessary evil, a secret shame. “Rosters seem so artificial. Why have some people ‘on duty’ and others ‘off duty’ at a gathering? Shouldn’t it be more natural and organic? Can’t we all just follow the inner voice of the Spirit and be prompted into ministry in the moment? Isn’t ‘organised religion’ what puts people off the most, and what Jesus himself fought against?”

No.

If you think organised religion is ugly, have a look at disorganised religion. Everyone simply following the ‘inner voice’ of the Spirit sounds great but fails on two fronts: Firstly, we’re not good at distinguishing between the inner voice of the Spirit and the inner voice of ourselves. We can find ourselves only drawn to ministries and situations that we enjoy the most. We can confuse the way of Christ with the path of least resistance. Secondly, the Spirit also has an ‘outer voice’ – when He speaks to us through others. This is a massive way in which God works, but time and again we miss it because we think it’s just Helen asking us to help out.

A good roster helps us to be the body of Christ – all different parts, well co-ordinated under the Head. It reminds us to work together in harmony, to submit to one another, to take turns stepping up or resting while the whole body moves on. All of this can itself be a witness – by this will everyone know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

So a good roster requires a lot of love, and not just from the coordinator. It’s a spiritual discipline to communicate promptly, clearly and humbly with the poor soul putting it together. Signalling flexibility, willingness for others to have turns at your favourite roles, and willingness to fill in other roles if needed; are just as important as making clear when you’re unavailable and the limits of your sustainable service.

Jesus wasn’t fighting against organisation and coordination, so that everyone might be free to simply be themselves and do whatever they want. That’s not the Spirit of Jesus, that’s the spirit of the age. One of the most radical things a sacredagent can do is to commit to a local Christian community and ask “What needs doing? How can I help?”

For discussion: (1) What was Jesus fighting against? (2) When some says they don’t like organised religion, what might they really be saying?

Responsibility Begins with Response

“In the unlikely event of an emergency, oxygen masks will fall from the ceiling.” If you’ve flown before, you know the drill. And the next part of the safety message: “Be sure to fit your own mask correctly before assisting others.” It makes sense, doesn’t it? The faster you get yourself sorted, the sooner you’ll be able to help others.

But it doesn’t seem to make sense to many of us sacred agents. When we share the gospel, we often forget that part. Calling people to a response – to ‘hurry up and get themselves sorted’ with God – seems a bit pushy to us. Aussies don’t like to be pushed. And Jesus isn’t pushy, is he? Is he?

Actually, the urgency of being reconciled to God is all through his teaching. “Reconcile quickly with your adversary, even on the way to the judge.” Won’t a king facing a stronger king “send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and ask for terms of peace”? And all those parables about being ready because we never know when we’ll face the Master.

Our news is not merely that God loves everyone. If our message can be met with “that’s good to know” or “that’s lovely to think about” then it’s much less than the gospel. Imagine Fred proposing to Helen over and over and getting that response … and then Helen’s agony when she sees Fred finally marry Susan instead! Jesus is not just the pilot announcing “It’s all going to be OK, go back to what you were doing.” He calls people to action – to come and belong to him and join his mission.

The people who do so – who emphatically and publicly say “Yes” to Christ in baptism,getting themselves quickly sorted with God – these are the ones who (masks fitted and breathing in the Spirit) will go on to help others also find life in Christ. For responsibility begins with a response.

“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself in Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation … We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5)

The Justice of Evangelism

There’s two words you don’t see together very much: Justice and Evangelism.

Each of them is a buzz-word, a shibboleth (a word from the Book of Judges that helps you know who to kill and who not to).  If you go around using the “E Word” you’re this kind of Christian, and if you go around using the “J Word” you’re that kind of Christian. But sacred agents need to be savvy enough to rise above that false dichotomy.

Because the two are deeply, indeed perfectly, connected.

If you have plenty of water, and a neighbour is thirsty, is it justice to not give them some? (We get that, don’t we?) But if you know the source of plenty of water, the location of a Spring – is it justice if you don’t tell thirsty people where to get it? So with the Living Water we know comes only from Christ.

Justice calls us to evangelism. When we sit on the explosively great news we have, we’re not only doing the wrong thing by Jesus (who said “Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory”), we’re doing the wrong thing by our neighbours and the wrong thing by the world, which will never thrive whilst estranged from God.

And as justice calls us to evangelism, so our evangelism calls people everywhere to true Justice. Like Paul’s message to the Athenians, ours points people to a coming Judge, and therefore to a real repentance and new life that goes far beyond sitting around with our friends in delightful echo chambers. It calls people to follow Jesus and join his ministry among the poor, the marginalised, the oppressed and the overlooked.

No one wants change more than Jesus does. But He shows us that the world is not improved through nagging, shaming and propaganda. These things perpetuate the ‘fight’ and bring a self-satisfying sense of struggle, but they don’t result in the lasting just-peace people claim to be fighting for. Real, lasting transformation, from selfish to responsible living, comes when people meet Jesus, find peace with God, and have their hearts and minds transformed by the Spirit. Have we not known this for some time?

So if you love Jesus, or if you are concerned for this dying planet and its suffering inhabitants, or maybe possibly even both, then live by the Spirit and give as freely as you have received: openly point others to the Source of life and Key to lasting change.

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