One of the issues that bugs people who stay away from church is the concept of Hell. It even bugs a lot of church-goers. The thinking is, "An all-loving, all-good God cannot possibly desire the eternal conscious torment of souls in flames." Many people are offended by "preachers" who proclaim a "Turn or Burn" ideology. They find it offensive that someone proclaims themselves as judge and condemns people to hell. In my own life experience, I remember hearing a number of messages at large youth events and other Christian gatherings that pushed listeners to think about death, and invite the hearer to ponder "where will you go when you die?" My response is, if that's the choice, then who in their right mind would even see hell as an option. Of course the person will choose Heaven! Duh! Maybe a better goal isn't choosing a final destination, but whether or not I have a relationship with the living Lord Jesus Christ, and living as his follower.
A Two-Fold Problem
One of the ways to get around this issue is to explain away hell, either it doesn't exist, or it means something other than what we (21st Century Culturally-influenced Christians) think it means. The response to that is usually, "that's great, but...scripture says...do you want to take that chance?" There is a great book about the interpretation of Hell in scripture titled "Her Gates Will Never Be Shut" by Bradley Jersak. I highly recommend you read it with a teachable spirit. Regardless of the interpretation of what hell is, or whether or not it exists, the real issue I see is two-fold: Condemnation and Manipulation.
Judgment and Condemnation
As I described above, the problem most of us have with Hell is how it's used in trying to convince people to be Christians. Most people don't like being stereotyped and judged, yet that's often how people hear this type of preaching. It doesn't fit with the concept of "God's love" or the character of Jesus Christ. I don't see Jesus telling the lost, "Hell is coming! You're going to burn!" He says, "The Kingdom of God is near!" This is Good News. It baffles me how often The Good News is lost because of the way Hell is used as a tool to condemn people.
Manipulation By Fear
The other problem I have with how "Hell" is often used is it feels like a manipulative tool. I have people ask me if I'm a "Fire and Brimstone" preacher. I assume they mean do I warn people of hell and how terrible it is. No, that is not me. I like to focus on the Good News of Jesus. We are all afraid of death. A lot of preaching about hell pushes us to reflect on the temporary nature of life and the fact that we will face death. This plays on our fears. To me, using fear to get someone to make a decision is unethical. I want people to make an informed decision. One that you're sure of regardless of your emotions. It can be emotional to decide, but it's not only emotional, or even primarily emotional. If anything, it's a relational decision. Will you walk with Jesus Christ, the way to God, the truth and the life? Kind of like getting married or other big commitments we make with people. You can be persuasive without using Hell and Fear as a tool to manipulate.
The Good News
So, I am okay with the concept of Hell just not how it is typically used. Jesus obviously spoke of it, and warned us about judgment. But mostly, when it came to preaching to and helping non-religious people, the least and the lost, the poor and the oppressed (those fully aware of how Hellish life is)--Jesus proclaimed the Good News of Heaven. He attracted people by heavenly miracles, and wondrous teaching. When he did speak of Hell, he usually spoke with the overly-religious hypocrites about Hell, the ones who thought they were "in" and better than others who were "out". The Good News is Jesus has overcome death and hell. Heaven is here! And Jesus is the Way to be a part of it. Love like Jesus and see what happens! Jesus doesn't need manipulation. He doesn't mess with your mind, and play off your fears. Jesus Christ is so awesome, so good, so abundant with love, he is calling your name and drawing you to him. He is The Healer. He is The Forgiver. He is The Liberator. He gives life and peace. He is Love...like you've never known before. He will change your life in ways you didn't imagine possible. Will you be his disciple? Will you be a part of Heaven? Live like Heaven. Love like Jesus.
Unity and Diversity are not mutually exclusive. They are not diametrically opposed to one another. Unity does not mean "same." And Diversity does not mean "divided." I believe Unity and Diversity are core values that Christ instilled in his disciples and handed on to the Church. I also believe we are failing. We are divided, and we tend to group together by our sameness. I can't really blame anyone in particular or point the finger and find fault with some individual, or a movement, or a denomination, etc. It has just kind of happened. And it pervades our culture in the U.S.A. as much as it does The Church.
I worry about our country (U.S.A.) and The Church in the U.S.A. because of the division that seems to be prevalent. It seems like everything is either/or. You're either Pro-Life, or Pro-Choice. You're either Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives (Police Officers) Matter. You're either for Same-Sex Marriage or you're a bigot. You're either Republican or Democrat. We have developed this divisive attitude of "you're either with me or against me." And most often, it seems like we find a reason to be against some group group of people.
In the Church in the U.S.A. it seems to be a Evangelical vs. Progressive, Conservative vs. Liberal. And in the United Methodist Church, even those who claim to be "in the middle," who identify with ideologies on both "sides," can't seem to agree. I recently read this post from the "United Methodist Centrist Movement": http://umcm.today/the-true-center-of-the-united-methodist-church/ and it made me sad. It saddened me because it seems like we Christians, in this case specifically United Methodist Christians, have a hard time stating our case and making a positive contribution without tearing down someone else. The UMCM seems to be responding to writings and actions by the Via Media Methodists: www.viamediamethodists.wordpress.com. Both the UMCM and Via Media seem to support Unity and finding a way to work together, but then they tear each other down. What is up with that? I guess this is sibling rivalry among brothers and sisters in Christ, and it's to be expected. But we are playing it out in public for everyone to see. I'm not sure that's what we should be doing.
Like James (you know, that book in the New Testament) says, "This should not be so." People want and need to see Jesus in us. They need to see the power and work of God's Love. Yet, we seem to carry our conversations in such a way that it looks like this:
If you disagree with me, you're not a good Christian.
Or, If you don't interpret the Bible the same way I do, then you're not a Christian. You're a false teacher. You don't take the Bible seriously.
Or, I'm a better Christian than you because I believe X and you don't; therefore, you're not "Orthodox" (or fill-in-the-blank with whatever viewpoint/standard you use).
Or, I'm more Methodist than you because I emphasize this or that Wesleyan idea better.
Can we stop framing things in those ways? This way of doing things divides us instead of bringing us together. I would rather us have an attitude of "sincere love" (Romans 12:9). Like Paul directs in Romans chapter 12 verse 14 "Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them." And then in verse 16, "Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart." Can we have more humility and more building up the body of Christ?
We can get so busy fighting against each other that we neglect the greatest commands Jesus gave us: Love God and Love Others. Those two are so utterly intertwined that it is near impossible to separate them. In fact, scripture in 1 John chapter 4 has a number of verses explaining this connection:
8 The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love.
I'm not perfect at this. But I'm working on it. By God's grace, I'm working on it. One of the things that has always been appealing to me, from a Wesleyan heritage, is the way that we can hold seemingly opposite ideas in tension with one another. Our culture seems to push us into an either-or distinction, but we need to be the people of both-and, Unity and Diversity.
Christ calls us to Unity, and yet the we the Church don't seem to get it. Every Sunday, we silo off into our separate spaces and ideologies, and we suffer for it. Think of all of the resources at our disposal to change and revitalize our communities if we were joined together and cooperate and collaborate. Surely we could make a huge impact. The love of Christ compels us to work together for the good of all humans, all of creation. But even United Methodist congregations in close proximity have a hard time working together (at least in my experience) and catching a vision that brings us together for the good of God's Kingdom in our community.
Ironically, the path to Unity may be through allowing for more diversity (a local option, or a seemingly more congregational polity, or maybe less polity altogether, a thinner Book of Discipline). I know that by now the phrase "Generous Orthodoxy" (credit to author and church leader Brian McLaren) is laden with progressive baggage heaped on it by many, but can we be more generous with our grace? Isn't the very nature of love generosity? "That God did not spare His own Son, but gave him up for us all..." (Romans 8:32). There is no way we can out give God, but we should try. Our generosity of love should exceed all of our qualities. We give without expecting anything in return because it's our very nature. I've always been intrigued by the sheep in Matthew 25 whom Christ commends as righteous and to whom he gives the inheritance of God's kingdom. They didn't even realize how good or righteous they were. They just did it. Our love needs to be the same way. Then, the goats, they deceived themselves. They thought they were being good and righteous, but really weren't. Things didn't turn out so good for them. It looks like humility goes a long way towards obeying the command to love generously.
Diversity multiplies generous love. It's a multiplication of the varied gifts and affinities we have to share with people. The ways we are different from each other help us reach people who are different. You can reach someone differently than I can because of your unique gifts and characteristics. We each make up a valuable part of the Body of Christ. Unity also multiplies generous love. It strengthens it because of the sheer numbers working together. Like the proverb says, "A cord of three strands is not easily broken" (Ecclesiastes 4:12). When we stand together, we stand up to and overcome the forces working against God's Kingdom.
Honestly, I'm not sure what we are so afraid of. 1 John 4 continues the idea of love saying "perfect love casts out fear." Perhaps we should focus more on perfect love, than perfect polity. God has an amazing way of working things out beyond our abilities, and our ability to understand. I wish I had a definitive answer or plan or polity change that would keep us from damaging our Christian and United Methodist witness in the world. The best I can come up with is the scriptures above.
I want to finish up by connecting this to my personal experience. When I hear about the decisions that lie in front of us as the UMC, I can't help but think about the experience of divorce in my family. If an upcoming decision ends up dividing us, I see a similar set of emotions. I'm going to love dearly and have family on both sides, which means I may not feel completely at home with either. Or to put it another way, if I'm forced to choose, then it's like I have to leave behind ones I love, a "damned if you do; damned if you don't" or "catch 22" type of situation. In the end, much like my parent's divorce, the decision will be made and forced upon me to deal with. Fortunately, the future is not yet written. I hope through our conferencing, our love grows on to perfection.
Note: Scripture quotes are primarily from the Common English Bible (or whatever version was in my memory, typically NRSV or NIV).
In order to live, we have basic needs: food, water, shelter, air, etc. There's one on the list that gets neglected because we think we can go without it: LOVE.
Are You Sure Love Is Necessary?
When human beings are first created, God says, "It is not good for a human to be alone." (Genesis 2:18) And as great as dogs are as companions, God searched through all of the animals and found no suitable companion among them. So he made more humans, in God's own likeness, God formed man & woman. What is God's likeness? "God is love." God is Three-In-One, Trinity. Relationship. In that likeness, we human beings are made. The perfect image of that Love in the flesh is Jesus Christ. Jesus knew that we weren't made to live alone, but in love, so he gathered close friends, disciples and taught them to do the same. We need Love, God's Love. It is part of our God-given nature, the way we were originally created to be. Even though hunger, thirst, safety and oxygen often seem more urgent, what's the point of surviving if you don't have love?
Denzel Washington and The Apostle Paul
It went viral this past week, Denzel Washington's address to the graduates of Dillard University. In it, he gave some pretty good advice, but one thing in particular stood out to me:
In this text, tweet, twerk world that you've grown up in, remember that just because you're doing a lot more, doesn't mean you're getting a lot more done. - Denzel Washington, 2015
Most of us, stay pretty busy doing a lot of things, with little time to add much else. In one of the most quoted scriptures on the subject of Love, The Apostle Paul says something similar about doing things. All those things you do can be empty or meaningless:
Paul makes it clear that love is "the most excellent way" of living. In fact, living without it is no life at all.
First, I think we need to clarify what Love is. With the word "love," it is often a Princess Bride type of moment: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." Is it a feeling? Is it an action? Is it a belief or a thought? Are there different degrees of it: infatuation, attraction, etc.? In many ways, it is hard for all of us to conceive the same concept of love. We use the word a lot, but often, I'm not sure we are all saying the same thing.
In this particular instance, we are talking about the Greek word used in the new testament: AGAPE, God's love. It may at times look similar to other loves we see because romantic love and family/brotherly love have similar characteristics. There are two main passages of scripture I use to define love. One I've already partly quoted above: 1 Corinthians 13. In it, Paul defines what it looks like for the church to share God's love. It was a way to bring the church together in unity even though they all had different gifts/talents/abilities/roles/positions. Love is their higher calling, a deeper purpose and meaning.
The other is Jesus' words in John 15:13,
No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.
Not many of us get the chance to actually physically die for our friends. Some do, but not all. So I don't think Jesus wants us to go around looking for ways to die for each other, but he is giving us himself as an example. Our sacrifice of love is not one time on a cross in physical death, but daily taking up the cross to love generously. It is sacrificing our selfishness, and finding ways to live selflessly.
Because there is such a diverse understanding and implementation of the word "love," I wonder if in the church, we shouldn't use a special word to talk of Agape, God's Love. Let's call it, Grace.
I was born and raised United Methodist. If there is one word I hear used over and over again to describe God's love in Jesus Christ, it is Grace. In fact, when I was 10 years old, my grandmother had me memorize Ephesians 2:8-9, "For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and not by works, so that no one may boast." Emphasizing reliance on Grace is great! But sometimes we get confused on what that means.
Sure, God's love is a free gift that you didn't, nor could you earn, but that doesn't mean you do nothing. Too often, that's what I see and hear. People claim God's love and grace as a "get out of hell free card," which it is not intended to be. One may sit waiting for God to do something, when it's perfectly within her/his means and ability to do something of their own (empowered by God's love). Or, one may keep doing harmful things, things they know aren't right, and claim grace saying, "God will forgive me." Yes, but you're making a mockery of God's love.
Grace Is Meant To Be Responded To
God's love, Grace, is intense. It is overwhelming. When Paul writes "Love is Patient," he's not just telling you to be patient and wait. He's inviting you to think about how Patient God is with you. All of your wandering (and wondering). All of your failures, your doubts, your brokenness, your fears, your lies, your mistakes. All of the things that you've done wrong, or have been done to you. Through all of it, God is patiently loving you with open arms. Longing for you to see His Grace. That is a patience that we can only hope to achieve in a lifetime. God longs to be your first love, THE love of all loves. Sure, you may not believe it, but God loves you anyway. You may have seen Christians fail at it, badly, but still God showers us with Grace and Love. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13:8, "Love never fails." And the Psalmist many times says, "God's steadfast love endures forever." It is the one constant truth you can rely upon for eternity. That's why you need it so badly, and life without it is not much of a life at all.
This concept of love is overwhelming. It's more than an emotion or action or thought. It is all of that rolled together. It inspires crazy things (just Google "crazy things people do for love" and see the stories). Love inspired God to leave the perfection and power of heaven to become human like and me, just so there could be more love. Radical Love suspends our logical thinking, and I'm glad it did for God too. I have Life because of it.
Grace compels a response. Grace is not opposed to Effort. It is opposed to Earning. When you love someone, you show it. You show it whether or not they love you back. You show it, even if there is little chance of receiving it back. Do the same with Grace, God's love. It's not like you will run out. Love will even inspire you to love enemies (I think Jesus said something about that too).
Do The Right Things
Grace is not an excuse to not show effort. In fact, God's grace is so transformative, it should produce the most effort you've ever put into anything. You do a lot of things in the day. Some are substantial, others are trivial. Do they all lead to Love? Is your life busy, yet empty? Maybe you're missing the one thing you really need: Love. Let Grace grow in your heart and life. Let the knowledge of God's love in Christ Jesus overwhelm your being. Respond to it and show it. Let it increase more and more, not because you earned it, but because God's love never ends. Love first, then see what happens.
Growing up evangelical, I was taught that saving people from eternal torment in hell was why telling people about Jesus was important. Now that I've been shaped by more voices and experiences, that doesn't seem to be good enough anymore. In fact, "turn or burn" preaching seems to be a real turn off to most people, adding to the perception that Christians are judgmental and condemning. Besides, as effective as it is, I have never really thought that using fear as a motivator is ethically or morally correct. Meaning, I don't think God wants us to use fear to motivate people.
Let's take a look at the question: "Why is reaching the lost important?" First, who is "the lost." That's pretty judgmental to assume that some one or a group of people are "lost." What does it mean to be lost? In a literal sense, it means some one who doesn't know where they are, or how to get where they want to go, or maybe they don't know where they're going. In Christian circles, I've heard some say it means "people who don't know Jesus." I thought this for quite a while, and still do to a degree. The more I think about it "lost" isn't a judgment of someone's character or pre-eminent eternal destination if they're not "found." I tend to think of lost as "naive" or part of unjust systems without knowing it. In this sense, we are all "lost"...almost hopelessly. We all participate in unjust/sinful systems without knowing it, and many people bury their heads in the sand. We go through life trying just to be "ok" and survive with some enjoyment here and there. Occassionally, we may become aware of how we participate in unjust systems, but we find a way to push it aside, deny it, and get back to being "ok." Could this be what it means to be lost?
I think most people come to a place where they realize just how lost they are. You get to a point in life and you think, "How did I ever get here?" Then we find a way to get back to "ok." We buy some more stuff, or change jobs, or move to a new place. We change our relationships even through difficult things like divorce. All trying to find some kind of existence that's "ok."
What if, Heaven is real, and there's more than just "ok"? What if all of this stuff we're using to feel "ok" is keeping us distracted from the reality of the kingdom of heaven? What if we've been led astray by shiny things that promise to make us "ok" when really, there's abundant life breaking in to every moment all around us? This abundant life isn't things that decay and fade, but things that last: love, joy, peace, hope.
For me, reaching the lost is urgent and important, not because I'm afraid God is angry and going to punish and torture them eternally, but because with each breath, and each day that passes is a day they're missing out on The Kingdom of God. It's another day they're missing out on The Abundant Life (John 10:10) that Jesus brings us. It's another day of missing out on the deep joy of life with Christ. It's another day of missing out on the celebration of heaven.
I don't want anyone to miss out on another day of life with Jesus Christ. I don't want anyone to miss out and live another day without the radical, extravagant Love of God in Jesus Christ. I don't want anyone to miss out on another day of 'real' heaven. Heaven on earth that is already here, but not yet complete. That's why sharing my faith and showing God's love is important and urgent.
Since last night and in the days leading up to the announcement that the grand jury did not indict Darren Wilson for fatally shooting young Michael Brown, I have seen numerous people encouraging peace in Ferguson. A number of my friends responded to last night with simple calls on social media to "pray for peace." I think we need to be careful about that because it too easily sounds like "get back to normal."
A few months back, the Pastors Today blog with Thom Rainer had a post about risks pastors can and should take. It encouraged leaders to "play it safe" theologically because that is a risky thing to do these days. You can find the post by Eric McKiddie here. In it, he claims something that I've heard and felt before, that having conservative theology is the key to having a healthy growing church. Here's what Eric says:
We don’t need to guess whether maintaining a conservative theological position is best long term. Church history has played this saga out for us already, and has proven that the riskiest theological path is the one that veers left. One century later, look at the mainline denominations. One decade later, look at the emerging church. They took the risk that budging on the authority of God’s word would keep them relevant in our culture. They lost.
The argument is pretty convincing, and has been around for quite some time. It basically says, God blesses a church with numerical growth when they get their theology right. I'll be honest, I've gone along with that because it makes some sense. However, as I've continued to develop my thinking, I'm not sure it is totally correct. (What seems to be the key to church growth is an outward-focus toward the community, rather than an inward-focus.)
In fact, the way Mr. McKiddie has phrased things here is really offensive. I know of a number of churches that are growing that probably espouse a non-"conservative theological position." Honestly, the "safest" theological position to have is an "historically orthodox" position. It is left of conservative, but still not ultra-progressive. But that's not my point here.
The point is this, where is the ecumenical spirit? Where is the love of Christ? Aren't we one body of believers? Baptized in one spirit? One Lord? To say that some are winners and some are losers because of theological ideas is just ridiculous. What does the Lord require of us? To do justice and love mercy. It will take ALL of us to do and be that for a broken world. We need to quit saying "I'm better than you because my interpretation of the Bible is clearly better than yours." We need to come together working to show God's love in our communities.
Basically Eric, I see two things that you need to work on here. You needn't call out Mainliners and the Emerging Church as losers because of their theological stance. In fact, most of the mainliners and emerging church leaders I know are not trying to be "relevant in our culture," instead they are trying to be authentically faithful to their core convictions and values. Things that they think the Bible clearly teaches, just like you, Mr. McKiddie, stick to what you think the Bible clearly teaches. See, there's something in common with your "loser" brothers and sisters in Christ.
The other thing to work on is how we talk about the Bible, and what it clearly teaches. We all have different interpretations, and in its history, the Church has always had these discussions. That's a big reason why we had the Protestant Reformation. It's not going to be resolved any time soon. A good rule of thumb that was passed on to me from the Wesleyan tradition is: "in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity." Now, we will probably argue over what is essential and what isn't. But in all of that we must have charity--Love. In fact, this is what scripture teaches us in 1 Corinthians. Paul responds to "divisions" in the church, and says "I will show you a more excellent way...LOVE." It's easy to say, harder to do. We need to quit fighting over the Bible and demonstrate the Love that it teaches.
Eric McKiddie, I don't know you, but I love you. Because you're my brother in Christ. And, overall, your article about pastors taking risk is pretty spot on. Risk is an important part of faith. Without risk, there is no faith. We must lead our churches to take risk. And I like to lead by example. I think the greatest risk we can take is to live the radical love of Jesus Christ in real ways in our communities. Fighting over biblical interpretation isn't going to help grow the church. Showing how much we love one another will.
(This post is the first "answer" to a series of questions that haunt pastors. You can submit a question here. I have a great one to start next week, so check-in on Monday and discuss with me.)
Am I making a difference? I asked myself that as I drove home after church one Sunday afternoon. The question was still with me the next day when I woke up and went running. Running has always been a good time for me to think. So I started re-phrasing the question and being more specific about it.
Many pastors probably wonder about this, and we attach our value to "how church is going." If it's going up, we feel up. If it's going down, we feel down. That's not a very good recipe for longevity of effective ministry. Let's dive in and explore this a little more. What am I really asking when I ask "Do I make a difference?"
First, I think I mean specifically: "are there any changes in the lives of the people who hear me preach?" That is a question that I cannot answer directly. I can observe how people live and try to connect it to my influence. I can listen to people give compliments after a sermon. I even get compliments from people after months of hearing my preaching. But the cynical side of me has a hard time receiving them because I've always thought "actions speak louder than words." So what actions do I see among the people who hear me preach regularly?
Again, the cynical side of me has an easy time coming up with negative responses to that question. I'll be honest, it's hard for me to find things to celebrate. Maybe I expect too much, or I expect it on a faster time-frame. A friend and mentor responded to my question on Facebook saying, "Look for the small advances." That's great advice. In fact, at our last Church Council meeting I had people share things they thought the church could celebrate, and hearing the responses was very encouraging. I'll be honest though, I'm inpatient, and I want to see big things. So, looking for the small advances helps, but it's not always satisfying.
Another issue is how my denominational system tracks "fruitfulness." The main focus has been worship attendance, which can trend up over time, but has dips in between. So if you measure each week by that, it can be a stressful roller coaster ride. We also track "professions of faith" (a.k.a. conversions/commitments/decisions/confirmations), the number of people in "hands-on" mission & service, and the number of people involved in regular discipleship groups. We are always reminded that every number is a person, and every person matters, but a value ends up getting attached to the number. I just can't attach my value to numbers.
So, what's the answer to this question about making a difference? What am I asking? What do I really want to know? That my life's work is not in vain, but has a value for eternity. I want to know that the preaching, the visits, the evangelism, the youth trips and camps, the VBS, etc. has impacted people's lives in such a way that those who have not had a close relationship with Jesus, will know him for eternity. My experience with Youth Ministry has shown me, that I may not see that until the students have grown into adulthood and choose to live as Christ-followers. And some students I may never see again in this lifetime. I may not know the answer to this question until eternity. So why ask?
I think part of it is doubt, which we all face. It's one of those self-doubt voices that you have to be very careful about listening to. Too often, I forget that God in Jesus Christ has said "You, Ben, are valuable, my son. Your life is important to me. You will be apart of the great things of My Kingdom." In one sense, I already know the answer to my question: Yes, of course I make a difference. I am a beloved child of God. As long as I am faithful to God's call, God uses me to make a difference for the Kingdom of God. (If I am unfaithful, I am choosing to abandon God's call and kingdom even though God still offers it.)
I am also reminded of how much encouragement and appreciation people need. I'm not the only one asking this question. All of us want to know. Have you taken time lately to go out of your way and show appreciation and encouragement for the Christ-followers who have invested in your life? Let them know they make a difference.
Here's the answer:
I do make a difference. I know it not because of a number, and not because people like me, and not because people do what I say. I know it because God proclaims it through Christ's death & resurrection, and God's willingness to adopt me as His own. Through Jesus Christ, I know it more and more each day, and one day...one glorious day, I will know it fully and completely in eternity.
Many of my clergy friends are moving and have moved to new contexts for ministry in the past weeks and I thought this is relevant to getting to know people.
When Zachaeus climbs up a tree, Jesus tells him he's going to his house today...at least, that's how the song goes that I was taught. Looking at Luke 19 verse 5, it's pretty clear that Jesus just invites himself over to Zach's house. I don't know what the culturally accepted (or expected) way of doing things was back then, but I know that today in the U.S.A. That's not typically how it works. That's called "inviting yourself over." It could also be called "party crashing." At least Jesus made contact first and gave a warning. Jesus didn't just show up at Zach's private residence, but he did invite himself over.
Can/should we follow Jesus' example today? Is it ok for me as a Follower of Christ to just invite myself over into people's homes to spend time with them? What's the balance between respecting culture and violating etiquette? Let's take a deeper look at the story.
Jesus does not just invite himself over out of the blue. Zach made a clear effort to try and get to know Jesus. Jesus responded and said, "I'm coming to your house." So, it would not be best to walk up to some random stranger and say "I'm coming to your house today." If that "stranger" is an acquaintance (or on the way to becoming one) and shows an interest in you and what you're about, then you can invite further conversation and invite yourself to their home.
Also, notice that Jesus knows Zach's name. Whether it was divine foreknowledge, or if Zach was a well-known public figure, the story doesn't say. But, Jesus knows Zach's name. Again, this is not just a random stranger out of the blue. The story says Zach is a rich leader among tax collectors. Zach is a person of influence, and probably known in the community, which can be negative or positive (in this case, probably negative because he's a tax collector). And Jesus knows his name and calls him by name. I imagine Zach also knew Jesus' name. Why else would he be climbing a tree to try and see him? Ok, maybe he just did it because everyone else was crowding Jesus and Zach just wanted to see what the spectacle was. But even then, the buzz was probably going around: "Jesus is here." So they both probably knew of each other, but didn't necessarily know one another. So if you know a persons name, and they probably know yours, then you can invite yourself over to their home. Are you following me?
Why am I discussing this? Because breaking cultural norms to reach people for Christ is tricky business. I need to fit in culturally, and speak the language, and follow the "rules," but the cause of Christ compels me to push the boundaries and take risks. Inviting myself over is a daunting risk, but if I know the person's name, and they've made an effort to know me, then I'm just returning the favor and seeking to know them more. This is how relationships start, and a relationship with me is a start to a relationship with Christ.
So don't pass up the opportunity to violate etiquette and invite yourself over to strangers homes. They won't be strangers for long, and you have the chance to share your relationship with Christ by starting a new one. Take the risk. It's worth it.
What do you think, is inviting yourself over going too far? How is it different from door-to-door evangelism? I think if you keep the above thoughts in mind and the person is becoming an acquaintance instead of a total stranger, then you're good to go. But honestly, for me, it's a very daunting task to step out, risk rejection and build a deeper relationship with some one I don't know. Again, the risk is worth it for the sake of Christ. I'm working on growing in this area myself, and I'm finding that yes, taking the risk is worth it. I
Ok, I have another chart for you. The last one I stole from facebook.com/journeychurch.org but this time I just kept the layout and changed most of the words myself. I'm trying to highlight a key difference about how evangelism is viewed or done differently. I'm calling it Attractional vs. Relational Evangelism.
In the attractional model, it's all about getting people to come to you. In the relational model, it's about going to meet people where they are in ordinary life and living as a Christ follower. Attractional methodology works to draw a crowd as quick as possible and offer a product (give a sales pitch). Relational methodology takes an investment of time and friendship.
I'm not sure these are mutually exclusive. I think there is possibly a hybrid option here. BUT, I prefer the relational side. It makes sense. I've encountered Jesus Christ and that changes me and how I live. It should be natural that my relationship with Christ has an effect on all aspects of my life, especially all my other relationships. I do not draw myself out of culture, but I engage people through culture, at least the parts where my life intersects theirs.
Relational takes a long-term view of building a relationship. The aim is to populate the kingdom of heaven on earth, not simply fill pews. The Relational Evangelist (which every Christian should be) brings the kingdom of heaven to people where they are, much like Jesus is depicted doing in the Gospels. We work to bring to the world: peace, justice, beauty, creativity, love, blessing, health, reconciliation, forgiveness, redemption--the values/ideas/lifestyle of Jesus Christ, the kingdom of heaven. Relational methodology is about influencing the people around you by the way you live (as Christ).
The problem most of us "church people" face is that we "joined" a church and quit making new friends outside of church. We've disengaged. The way I've been taught to alleviate this problem as a leader is to have "bridge events" where we create space for "church people" to interact and build bridges with "non church people" (lack a good term for that). What if we took a different approach and used the events/activities that are already going on in our everyday ordinary lives?
For example, I recently convinced another church to open their gym for some time for men to play basketball. I saw it as a way to invite people and build relationships with guys I don't know well. It is working. That is happening. But now I feel like I have to pull a "bait-n-switch" tactic to get them to "come to church". A better way would probably have been to go join an already existing basketball league/program in my community. Then I could build relationships and live out my faith in noticeable ways that my new friends would want to investigate further.
A hybrid methodology is possible, but it is hard to avoid feeling a bit deceptive about a "bait-n-switch". The bridge event would need to have no hidden motive other than the stated good that the event does for the community. It would still provide a space for relational evangelists to mix and interact with "non church people" and begin building bridges and relationships. I consider this hybrid because you're still doing some marketing to get people to come to something instead of sending "church people" to go where "non church people" are and build relationships.
What do you think? Am I on target? Any adjustments that you would suggest?
I am a Software Developer, a career shift made in 2018. So far, I have experience with C# .Net and Angular. I continue to let curiosity lead me into learning new technologies. I plan to share what I learn along the way about technology and personal/career life. Previously, my vocation was United Methodist pastor. So in addition to coding, I'll share about theology, the Church and The Bible. I also enjoy running, music, and I'm a deeply committed father and husband. Maybe my experiences will help you. I know it helps me to share.