In the movie “Saved”, there’s a hysterical scene where a group of born-again Christian teenage girls try to kidnap their wayward friend and bring her back into their fold. One literally throws a Bible at her and declares that she is “filled with the love of Christ.” Although it would be easy to dismiss such scenes as over-the-top satire, sadly they are painfully close to real life. In my tenure as pastor of Vision, I have met people who have been struck by Bibles and also those who have done the striking. In both cases, the persons involved are now disillusioned and are now seeking something better, a better way to hear about God and a better way to speak about God.
Bad experiences with evangelism, both as perpetrators and as targets, have left many of us willing to leave the whole concept behind. Indeed, for the past few decades, much of mainline protestantism has done just that. Now with the decline and even demise of these denominations looming on the horizon, there is renewed interest in evangelism and church growth.
It’s not just more liberal denominations who have been willing to leave evangelism behind, many of us have neglected it on a personal level. Although we think of ourselves as followers of Jesus, people who are willing to put even the most challenging of Jesus’ teachings into practice, we are wary about practicing one of his final commands - “Go and make disciples.” It just seems so - preachy.
It is tempting to note how much the world has changed in the two thousand years since Jesus. Some of the ways Christians have spread the news of Christ to the world are simply no longer acceptable. We can no longer spread the Gospel acting as privileged white westerners who condescendingly invade the developing world and destroy indigenous cultures. We can no longer spread the message of Prince of Peace using violent images and the language of conquest. We can no longer invite people to follow Jesus by shaming them, condemning them or manipulating them. If we agree that this is the case, what then can we do? Is there some way to invite people into the fullness of life that Christ provides? Can the sacred stories of the early Jesus movement provide us any examples? Fortunately, they can.
The Book of Acts tells us a story of a time when the apostle Paul preached in a context much like our own. This story provides us with some guidelines about how we can tell people about Jesus in our time. This story is so different from how Christians usually approach evangelism, that it does so by telling us what not to do. I share these not as some magical step-by-step technique, but as some principles that can help us reform how we speak about Jesus to others.
First, don’t separate yourself from the world.
Paul was on a sort of layover in Athens, waiting for his friends to return so they could continue their missionary journey together. While waiting he immersed himself in the city and its intellectual culture. This was not some sort of “friendship evangelism” gimmick for Paul. It wasn’t a sales strategy. He was genuinely intellectually curious wanted to engage with the leading philosophies of his day. Paul spends time in conversation with Epicureans and Stoics, and even goes so far as to stand up and speak in the Areopagus, the philosophical marketplace that city.
Athens was a city of diverse cultures and ideas. It was much like our own culture today. Christianity is no longer the only game in town for people. People have a wide variety of spiritual choices and we need to invite them to follow Jesus for a reason other than, “you should or else God will be mad at you.” Rather than view the surrounding cultural landscape as a threat from which we need to be protected, we need to be like Paul and view it as an opportunity to connect with more diverse community.
Second, don’t condemn people.
Paul spent a lot of time in Athens encountering statues of many Greek gods. Clearly, it wasn’t his thing. But rather than respond by standing up and preaching a sermon of anger and condemnation, Paul starts with “People of Athens, I can see you are very religious people.” He has the wisdom to spot their spiritual yearnings and build on what they all have in common. That was not easy for Paul, I’m sure and it won’t be easy for all of us.
A few years ago, a visitor to Vision told me he “wasn’t sure how he felt about the fact that our band plays secular songs.” I have learned that “I’m not sure how I feel about” is Christian-speak for “I don’t like.” Ironically, this person was a rock musician who played in a secular band. In their view, their Christianity was something that needed to be compartmentalized from other areas of their life and not integrated into it. Paul teaches us to look for the Spirit already at work in the culture. When I hear a song like U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” I don’t wag my finger at them and say, “Almost, but not quite guys. When you write a song called "I Finally Found What I’m Looking For In Jesus', then we can sing it in church.” Instead I see the longings for God in our popular culture that often describes itself as “spiritual but not religious.” That’s not an excuse to dismiss or condemn the world around us, it’s an invitation and opportunity to engage it.
Third, don’t quote the Bible.
Usually Paul speaks to an audience of fellow Jews. When he does, he freely quotes the Hebrew Bible, its stories and imagery. In Athens, such stories would be useless. Instead, Paul talks about a statue he saw dedicated to an unknown God, and helps the Athenians to see that the God they are already acknowledging and searching for is the God Paul knows through the pages of his Bible. He does so not by quoting Moses or Isaiah to them, but by quoting their own philosophers. Interestingly the line “In Him we live and move and have our being” is a line by a Greek philosopher, not Paul.
Many church websites have a drop-down menu of “What We Believe”. In many cases each belief named has a Bible citation listed beside it. We believe in the Bible (1 Thes. 3:16). Do people even know that’s an abbreviation for Thessalonians, let alone that Thessalonians is a book in the Bible? Why should they even care? Clearly such web pages are preaching to the choir and aimed at getting people from other churches. Our calling is not to move people from one church to another. It is to invite new disciples into our communities of faith.
Although the Bible is authoritative to those of us who follow Jesus, merely telling someone “The Bible says” is irrelevant. They may well reply. “Really, the Bible says that? So what. Eckhart Tolle says this.” Sure, we want people to come to know the stories of the Bible and find their own place in its narrative, but merely citing it as an authority doesn’t cut it anymore.
Hearing these guidelines may bother some of you. You may protest, “that doesn’t sound like evangelism to me. It doesn’t even sound like you’re talking about Christianity.” But hold on. There’s another principle of evangelism Paul teaches us and sounds almost contradictory to the other three.
Fourth, don’t water down the message.
Although Paul speaks intellectually and respectfully to an audience of diverse beliefs, he never disguises his own. His message is not the least common denominator platitude of much interfaith dialogue. Unlike the religions of his day and the generic spirituality of ours, Paul doesn’t reduce his message to, “You know guys, all our religions teach pretty much the same thing.” Not only would that degrade Paul’s beliefs. It would degrade the belief’s of his audience as well. Although it sure beats killing one another over religion, reducing the dialogue to “we’re all pretty much the same so let’s just agree to be nice to people” is not much better.
Paul doesn’t wimp out here. He doesn’t, as many people of faith on Facebook do, just post a controversial article and add a non-committal comment like “This is interesting.” He tells the Athenians that this unknown God, the Creator is now commanding that everyone repent, that is turn toward this God because there will come a time when all of us will be held accountable by a man this God raised from the dead. Wow, repentance, judgement and resurrection - three of those particular characteristics of Christianity. Paul doesn’t back away from the particularity of his faith, he embraces it as passionately as he engages the culture of Athens.
When Vision began ten years ago, I would often invite people to come and check us out. Mistakenly, I would always describe us in terms of what we didn’t believe and what we weren’t. I thought that would be appealing in a community that was often searching for new forms of spirituality. Slowly I began to realize that people were not seeking something non-specific, they were seeking something very particular. Not particular on the sense of rigid and inflexible. Not particular in the sense of claiming absolute truth and certainty. But particular in terms of believing whole-heartedly in something. In a notoriously fickle and uncommitted culture, I discovered that many people are just looking for something to grab on to and for something to grab them.
As a church, we have been called to invite people into a relationship with God so that the Spirit would transform them into students of Jesus. We believe that it would be better for people personally, as well as for the whole world, if more people followed the transformational path of Jesus Christ. Through the story of Paul in Athens, God teaches us that that is still possible today. We can do it with people individually and we can do it as a church.
Sometimes knowing what not to do, makes it easier to do what we are called to do.