Jesus sure asked some tough questions. But he also asked some really easy ones, like “Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” Of course not. Even kids know that you get grapes and figs from the IGA.
When occasionally I’m tempted to despair as a sacred agent, I find myself repeating this over and over: “They don’t pick grapes from thornbushes. They don’t pick grapes from thornbushes.” When the media increasingly derides Christianity and lauds secular humanism, what hope do we have of reaching people? Well, plenty. Jesus was pointing out that the difference between good and bad philosophy comes to light through the kind of communities they produce.
Over the last decade, during which Christianity has faced very hostile press, parents have been falling over themselves to enrol their kids in Christian schools in unprecedented numbers. Why? Because when it comes to the crunch, when it really matters – such as your own kids’ future – people have a good nose for good fruit.
It happens very locally. Many Australians hate the idea of Christian chaplains in public schools, but love the actual chaplain in their own local school. My kids’ first school firmly resisted chaplaincy and any whiff of Christian input. The result? Parents were constantly asking us whether their kids could attend our kids club at the church next door to the school. Those parents had a nose for what’s stale and what’s fresh. It’s just common scents.
Which hints to me a tangible way forward for mission in Australian culture. If we don’t despair, but live fresh, distinct, communal lives invigorated by God’s Spirit, and simply be visible to and smellable by others, the ‘aroma of Christ’ will do its thing and many prodigals will come to – and follow – their senses.
“Everyone will know you are my disciples if you love one another,” said Jesus. Is your church that kind of community? And do you have ways for the neighbourhood to get a whiff of it?
If you were asked to explain the good news of the kingdom in one minute, would the Holy Spirit get a mention? What if you had two minutes? Five? The ‘traditional’ (habitual) evangelical snapshot of the gospel has been shown to have many serious flaws (NT Wright and Scot McKnight are very helpful on this) but significant among them is this: We might talk about the Father sending the Son, but we don’t mention the Spirit. Here’s the result:
- We omit the good news of transformation. The life-transforming power of God is replaced with inspiration at best – “realising” that God loves us is implied to be what makes the difference. We reduce Christianity to a philosophy and that’s a massive reduction. We are meant to be inviting people into a thoroughgoing transformation – to become a new creation! To be born again! Not just to be moved by some ancient story.
- We omit the good news of community. When we don’t mention the Spirit we don’t talk about how God knits us together into a new humanity, into the body of Christ, diversity in unity. If we’re not sharing about the Spirit, there’s every chance that we’re sharing an individualistic message that looks more like our culture than God’s kingdom. We leave out the Spirit of adoption that calls and enables us to live as brothers and sisters in the family of God.
- We omit the good news of the present reign of Jesus. When we don’t mention the Spirit, we don’t talk about how God is presently at work in us and the world. God is absent – Jesus has gone to sit at the right hand of the Father and we’re left just waiting.
- We imply a new legalism. If we don’t talk about what it means to live by the Spirit, what do we leave people to live by? To try to follow Jesus’ teachings instead of or as well as the Old Testament law? It’s one thing to try to follow Jesus as an aspirational admirer, but you just can’t keep up with him! To be baptised with the Spirit and with fire, though – that’s what Jesus has in mind for us and all who will come to him.
The good news is big news, rich news, and I know you have to start somewhere and often can only say so much. But the Spirit is not God’s afterthought, so nor should He be ours.
We don’t think of fishing as a team sport. When I think about fishing, the image that first pops into my head is someone standing alone out on a jetty holding a fishing rod and trying to keep themselves warm. At most, they nod and grunt to other individuals who are doing the same thing nearby. Often we imagine fishing for people in the same way.
When we think of worship, we imagine Christians together in something approximating harmony, but when we think of evangelism so often we imagine ourselves (or someone else!) performing a solo. This is to our enormous detriment, and not what Jesus has in mind. The ‘you’ in ‘I will make you fishers for people’ was plural, and he was talking to fishermen familiar with the importance of teamwork. Right at that moment they were mending their nets, and it’s time for us to mend ours.
Teamwork is vital in mission for so many reasons. Jesus said “everyone will know you are my disciples if you love one another.” That’s hard to do alone. Effective mission also involves all the parts of the whole body of Christ. Fruitful mission needs spokespeople (evangelists), yes – but also hospitality, mercy, service, encouragement, teaching, stewardship, pastoral care and leadership. In teams we can each bring our God-given strengths and cover one another’s weaknesses. Teams – at least good ones – tend towards mutual accountability and regular reflection and feedback. Teams can allow a continuity of mission even as individual members move in and out. Teams are the perfect environment for new members to have a go and be developed.
Show me a church where baptisms are common, and I’ll show you a church that organises for team mission. And yet, do many? Even in churches where we feel that most of us are called primarily to individual witness – do we seek the help, support, intercession and coaching of others? Or are we alone out in the cold, happy that at least there’s no-one else to see our empty bucket?
I have worked my cat out and I’m just trusting that he’s not reading this. Whenever I call Ossie he goes in the other direction as a matter of principle. This is a simple power struggle. The only exceptions to this firm rule are if I have been away for at least 3 days, or am visibly offering ham. He has been training me for nearly three years now in understanding my place.
If I seek him outside he will head down the street. Not over a fence, not under a car, but always just out of reach. He is taking me for a walk to give me some exercise. If I seek him inside there will be ten minutes of dashing from under the table to under the stairs and back.
But, fellow humans, the revolution is beginning! I have realised that if I simply sit down on a step (inside) or in the gutter (outside) and look in a different direction, he will come and rub against me within 30 seconds. It’s simple cat whispering. The only key elements are getting down to his level and looking in a different direction. The only surprise is that it’s taken me three years to work this out.
But I wonder whether we’ve worked it out as missionaries? In Australia, talking directly about religion is a cultural taboo. People tend to withdraw, and then if we follow them they withdraw some more. But this doesn’t mean that Australian’s aren’t interested in Christianity or drawn to Jesus. It is culturally acceptable to set up spaces within our culture where religion can be discussed. For example, in a church building on a Sunday morning, Australians would be surprised if it wasn’t.
And there are other, simpler such spaces that also can be set up. A Bible study in the lunch break at work. A Christianity Explored course at someone’s house. A youth (or ex-youth) camp. If it’s not done in complete secrecy – if gentle signals are sent that enquirers are welcome to join – then you may be surprised by how many get curious about this group that is right there at their level, but looking in a different direction.
Some things are very difficult. Ranking right up there with licking your elbow and contacting a government department is this: Trying to remember a tune while listening to a different one.
Sacred agents live with a similar difficulty 24/7. If the world into which we are sent was merely cacophonous, it wouldn’t be so hard. But it tends to play a particular song of its own, while we are called to march to a different beat. If that makes you feel and look a bit unco then you’re no Robinson Crusoe. So how do we do it?
I like to think of Daniel and his amigos. Somehow they sustained that art of living with one’s feet in Babylon and heart in Jerusalem – the double-life of a sacred agent. How did they cope? By hitting Pause and hitting Play.
None of us can claim to have more responsibilities or a busier life than Daniel, yet paused three times a day to physically open his windows to face Jerusalem and pray. It was a conscious act of reorientation which he needed 21 times a week. How many quiet times can I afford not to have? Or am I stronger than him? Daniel switched off the Babylonian lullaby that constantly sought to spiritually pacify him and tuned in to Radio Jerusalem.
And they pressed Play. If they weren’t the authors of Psalm 137 then it was someone with the same heart: By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion … How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land? / If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill / May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy. They never wanted to forget the heavenly tune of God’s kingdom. They needed to be able to whistle it even in (especially in) the direst of trouble.
What are your practices of pressing pause and play, of tuning out and tuning in?
When I coached my daughter’s basketball team, the first thing I wanted to teach them was how to get rebounds. Having the ball makes a lot of difference in most sports. So I told them what I’d learned from watching Dennis Rodman in the Chicago Bulls’ glory days. I asked them ‘What makes the most difference in getting rebounds?’
Being tall? No, that’s the 4th most important factor. I saw Rodman constantly outdo much taller players. Being skilled? No, I’d say that’s the 3rd most important. Even the cleverest players would come up empty handed when Rodman was nearby. Was it getting in the best position? Well, I’d say that’s the 2nd most – and very – important. But I still saw Rodman pinching rebounds that taller, more skilful players were in the prime position to get. So what makes all the difference?
Far and away the biggest factor is simply wanting the ball. Watching bad-boy Rodman on TV, it was really obvious. No one wanted it like he did. Quite short for a power forward, he lead the NBA in rebounds seven years in a row and his team won five championships.
It also got me thinking about evangelism. If there’s one thing we could work on, what should it be? Do we need people ideally shaped by God for evangelism? Yes, but it takes more than that. Do we need to train people in the skills and techniques of evangelism? Absolutely, but that doesn’t make it happen. Do we need to position people in just the right place, working, befriending, eating and drinking with sinners? Definitely. We’ve worked on all those things and I hope we continue to.
But my question is: Do we really want the lost sheep like the Shepherd does? Is the bottleneck to evangelism not so much in the skills of our hands and the knowledge of our heads but in the desires of our hearts? Do we talk and pray about this honestly? Because if deep down we prefer our warm fellowship not to be disturbed by outsiders, what will happen is this: We’ll go through all the motions of attempting the rebound – wanting to be seen to be trying in the eyes of the Coach – but never coming up with the ball much.
Meanwhile, God uses the Dennis Rodmans of our churches – often uneloquent, amateur odd-bods – to win people for the kingdom. And their point of difference is just this: They have in their hearts God’s heart for the lost that he fervently loves.