Tuesday, August 30, 2011
The Gospel: For Here or To Go? (Part 6 of 6)
*This is the final installment of this excerpted series of articles from the book. Download the PDF for free or purchase the book online (in English or French) to read the entire book
RELIGION OF COMPASSION?
One of the most disheartening things, when you listen to non-believers talk about why they are not followers of Jesus, is to hear things like, “My boss is a Christian and he’s the meanest person I know”, or “Our neighbors are Christians but they are just as screwed up as we are, why would I want to join them?”
One thing that’s clear when we look at the early church is the fact that they were living radically different lives from those Jews and pagans around them. It was the curiousity such living provoked that drew the majority of early converts to the Jesus Way of life.
Early Christians did not pass out printed tracts about salvation, they did not market their religion, and everyone knew that to join them meant becoming an outcast within the culture, possibly even arrested and put to death because of aligning oneself with Christ.
Yet the early church grew by leaps and bounds. Hundreds of thousands of people gave up their lives to follow this Jesus, in spite of the lack of evangelistic crusades and the threat of persecution. Why is that?
Many scholars are convinced that the lifestyle of those first and second century disciples was, in itself, the main reason. Some even suggest that their lives of service to the poor and their inclusive nature was as important as the miracles performed in their midst by the Apostles, perhaps even more important.
Historian, Henry Chadwick, for example, attributes the practical application of Christian charity as the “most potent single cause of Christian success in the ancient world..” and German theologian George Krestschmar has said that it was not so much the miraculous signs and wonders that followed the early church but unbelievable conduct of the Christians that had such an impact on the world of its day. He calls this, “the propaganda of the deed” where the generosity of the early church spoke louder than the doctrine or the healing of the infirmed.
It was the overwhelmingly generous lifestyle of those early believers that transformed the world and overcame persecution. Their lives demonstrated that Christ was more than powerful enough to change their hearts and the evidence was their ongoing care for others.
The sad truth is that, in our day, especially here in America, the line separating the pagan and the self-proclaimed Christian is difficult to see.
You don’t have to read too many Barna or Gallup polls to see that attending church services and proclaiming oneself to be “Born Again” doesn’t make any noticeable difference in the sort of life you may live on a daily basis. Many experts on Church Growth and Evangelism see a direct correlation between the lower ethical standards of those who claim to be Christian and the kind of evangelism we’ve been practicing for the last century.
“They’ve simply believed the story we told them,” says Todd Hunter, President of ALPHA Ministries USA. “We’ve made the story of the Gospel reductive in the absurd,” he says. “It’s like that old bumper sticker that says, ‘Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven’. Is that all we are? Just Forgiven? What about living a life of radical transformation where we are learning to live our lives like Jesus?”
Granted, the sound-byte culture we live in has encouraged the Church to present a watered-down version of the Gospel to the world around us. Most have heard our story over and over again and have decided that it doesn’t work.
The real question is what sort of Christianity are we calling people to? Are we really calling people to surrender their lives to Christ? Do we even really know what we mean when we say this?
Sadly, most of us do not think of conversion as a surrendered life to Jesus as our Lord and (yes), our Savior.
Most of us think of salvation as the answer to the question, “If you died tonight do you know you’d be in heaven tomorrow?” and perhaps the better question we should ask is, “If you knew you’d be alive tomorrow (and most of us will be), then whom will you follow and how would you live your life?”
Christianity is a way of life. Jesus calls us to die to ourselves in order to walk in his path.
Maybe we’re asking the wrong questions? If so, we’re offering the wrong answers too.
This would explain why the majority of people, both inside and outside the Church misunderstand what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
Nothing illustrates this better than a comment made by the son of former President Ronald Reagan after the death of his famous father. In a New York Times exclusive, Ron Reagan Jr. was asked about his outspokenly Christian father and his own opinion of Christianity in general. Here’s what he said:
Q: Now that the country is awash in Reagan nostalgia, some observers are predicting that you will enter politics. Would you like to be president of the United States?
Ron Reagan Jr. (RRJ): I would be unelectable. I'm an atheist. As we all know, that is something people won't accept.
Q: Do you ever go to church?
RRJ: No. I visit my wife's sangha.
Q: So you sometimes practice Buddhism?
RRJ: I don't claim anything. But my sympathies would be in that direction. I admire the fact that the central core of Buddhist teaching involves mindfulness and loving kindness and compassion. ... One thing that Buddhism teaches you is that every moment is an opportunity to change.
The sad truth is that, in the private life of his Christian father, Ron Jr. saw nothing about Christianity that felt real to him, or relevant. Furthermore, he didn’t think of Christianity as a religion that promoted compassion or loving kindness.
While we might blame the first part on Ron Junior’s parents, we have to take the blame for the second part ourselves.
It would have been virtually impossible for an unbeliever living in those first three hundred years of Church History to ever reject Christianity on the grounds that it lacked compassionate people or failed to teach loving kindness.
In fact, we have testimony from many of the most hostile pagans who lived during the first three hundred years of Christianity who were put to shame because of the overwhelming generosity of the Church. Julian, the Apostate wrote of this frustrating situation when he said, “..The godless Galileans feed not only their poor, but ours also.”
Christian philosopher Aristides (125 AD) wrote about the radical charity of the early Church also, recording the fact that, “…if there is among them a man that is poor and needy and they have not an abundance of necessities, they fast for three days that they may supply the needy with their necessary food.”
Radical compassion indeed.
Where have we gone wrong? Perhaps we’ve forgotten that our first and greatest command was to love.
GHANDI ON CHRIST
One quote which has always haunted me comes from a great man of peace named Mohatmas Gandhi who said this about Jesus Christ; “(He was) a man (Jesus Christ) who was completely innocent, offered himself as a sacrifice for the good of others, including his enemies, and became the ransom of the world. It was a perfect act.”
As encouraging as those words may be however, Gandhi had little good to say about those who call themselves the followers of Jesus. “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ,” he said. “If Christians would really live according to the teachings of Christ, as found in the Bible, all of India would be Christian today.”
Have we missed our opportunity to change a nation for Christ because of our inability to live out the Gospel on a daily basis?
THE WAY BACK
Mike Pilavachi, the founder of Soul Survivor Ministries, uses a great illustration of our modern evangelistic efforts when he describes the Church as a great castle that, out of guilt, lowers the drawbridge annually to embark on an evangelistic crusade. Traveling in large groups, (for safety), we pass out tracts, launch “Bible Bombs” at people, play Christian music or perform pre-recorded puppet shows for those poor, lost people. Somehow, by sheer luck, we manage to convince one or two of them to pray a prayer and join us inside the castle where we raise the drawbridge and begin to teach them our quirky “Christianese” so that, a year later when we launch out again, they can’t talk to non-Christians either.
It may be funny, in some ways, but it’s the Truth. We have to change the way we think of non-Christians and we have to start changing our approach now.
First, I believe we need to lose the “drawbridge” mentality. The Church in current times desperately needs to stop treating non-believers as if they have social leprosy. We need to lower our defenses and learn to express the love of Jesus in practical ways to those in need.
Secondly, we need to expand our concept of evangelism to include an intentional discipleship to this person known as Jesus. As long as discipleship is optional, all our efforts at evangelism will lack the necessary proof that the kind of life Jesus offers is worth a dime.
Third, we have to take the calling to love others personally. It’s not “The Church” that needs to have a reformation of the heart, it’s you and I.
CONVERSATION – COMMUNITY – CONVERSION
The only formula I can see, at a basic level begins with conversation, which at some point leads to community and relationship, and then, somewhere in the course of all this, conversion takes place. Our role is simply obedience and the practice of unconditional love towards everyone God leads into our path.
Recently, my wife and I left our role as pastors at a local church we had helped to plant more than three years earlier. Our dream was to start a new sort of a church. One where everyone took following Jesus seriously. One where the practice of compassion to others was expressed in the giving of 100% of the tithe to the poor and the needy.
Our conviction was that everyone who called themselves a follower of Jesus was, by default, a missionary to their culture. Because we wanted to be reminded of this, we called our new church, “The Mission”.
Just a few weeks ago, we started a Sunday Morning “Kids Club” in our neighborhood. Four elementary-aged children came, along with our two young boys, to spend five weeks studying the life of Jesus. We sing songs, play games, and have fun together while we learn more about how Jesus loves us and can change our lives.
For over a decade my wife and I have taught Children’s Ministry in the local church, and many of those children came to faith in Christ as a result. We are thrilled for that experience and we applaud all of those who serve in this way. However, we felt a tugging in our hearts for those children who played with our sons every weekend and yet did not know Christ. So, we decided to host a Sunday School program in our living room on Sunday mornings for all those children who weren’t going to church anywhere.
Now our plan is to get to know the parents of these children and to eventually invite them to join us all on Sunday Morning for a few songs, some Bible Study and free coffee and bagels in our living room.
This is the way my wife and I have felt called to express our calling as missionaries in our neighborhood. Your talents are probably different than ours. Your area of ministry is probably a little different too. But your calling to “Go” is exactly the same.
Our challenge has been to inspire this sort of activity within our own weekly house church gathering. While we’ve called ourselves, “The Mission”, not everyone has come to the place where they have their calling figured out completely. This is where discipleship comes in. Our goal is to lovingly assist everyone in our house church to discover their gifts, their talents, and their mission field.
So far, the experience of house church has been amazing. We patterned our group after that of the early Christians, gathering in homes, breaking bread together, and sharing and ministering to one another in the power of the Holy Spirit, with God as our leader and teacher, not as a select group of qualified professionals.
So far we’ve enjoyed the simple joys of being the family of God. We’ve seen healings, we’ve seen miracles, and better yet, we’re all learning how to “be the Church” and not how to simply attend one.
Whether or not you decide to start a house church is beside the point. The issue of who we are as Christians is still just as important, if not more important, than what we say we believe in our heads. However we decide to express this, the truth is that we must begin to live out the truth and the power of the Gospel in our everyday lives. We must begin today.
Evangelism, like following Jesus, is all about going to where the broken and the lost and the forgotten are and loving them as Christ loved us. It’s not, I am convinced, about finding new ways to get them to come to us on our terms and to learn to believe the way we believe.
Jesus commanded us to “Go” and the command is still valid today. If we have any hope of accomplishing this command, it will only be as we go out in the power of the Holy Spirit and as we cooperate with Him in the process.
I encourage you to engage others in conversation. Tell your story, and listen to their story. Share your experiences with God in natural ways, not rehearsed speeches, but with a genuine voice of concern and compassion. Love others the way Jesus loved you. Invest in people. Trust that God loves them far more than you ever will, but ask God to teach you to love them more anyway.
And, whatever you do, “Go”!