The Fiery Breath of Pentecost

pentecostToday we celebrate the coming of the Spirit upon the Church at the feast of Pentecost. Luke gives us the account in Acts:

The Coming of the Holy Spirit When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4)

While there’s much to draw our attention here, the connection with the feast of Pentecost, the giving of the Law, the divided tongues connecting to the preaching of the Gospel in diverse languages, one feature in particular deserves our attention today: fire.

Why is it that the Spirit’s gift appears in the form of flaming tongues? As usual, Calvin’s comments are wise and instructive:

Without all doubt, it was a token of the (force and) efficacy which should be exercised in the voice of the apostles. Otherwise, although their sound had gone out into the uttermost parts of the world, they should only have beat the air, without doing any good at all. Therefore, the Lord doth show that their voice shall be fiery, that it may inflame the hearts of men; that the vanity of the world being burnt and consumed, it may purge and renew all things. Otherwise they durst never have taken upon them so hard a function, unless the Lord had assured them of the power of their preaching. Hereby it came to pass that the doctrine of the gospel did not only sound in the air, but pierce into the minds of men, and did fill them with an heavenly heat (and burning.) Neither was this force showed only in the mouth of the apostles, but it appeareth daily. And, therefore, we must beware lest, when the fire burneth, we be as stubble. Furthermore, the Lord did once give the Holy Ghost under a visible shape, that we may assure ourselves that his invisible and hidden grace shall never be wanting to the Church.

Commentary on Acts 2:4

Without going into the biblical-theological appropriateness of associating the work of the Spirit with fire in the OT and so forth, Calvin cuts to the heart of the matter: “the Lord doth show that their voice shall be fiery, that it may inflame the hearts of men.”

The giving of the Spirit at Pentecost is what gives life to the preaching of the Gospel through the church. Without the efficacious work of God’s own Spirit, we should have no confidence in our own faulty and paltry voices. Yet now, because of Pentecost, we are called to preach the Gospel boldly, with great power because through it, God is working to “purge and renew all things.”

Soli Deo Gloria

“I used to be a Christian, but…” and the Importance of Questions in Evangelism

Why? Because Seinfeld. That's why.

Why? Because Seinfeld. That’s why.

“Oh, I used to be a Christian. I know all about it.”

“Man, I was raised in church and then saw through it.”

“I’ve studied Christianity, so…”

Ever been talking about the gospel with somebody and heard something like this? It can be intimidating, right? You’re trying to talk about the good news and it turns out they already know about and have rejected it.  I know I’ve been hit with that sense of uncertainty before. In fact, it happened to me just the other day at a coffee shop.

I, once again, somehow managed to end up talking to an avid young philosophy student. Now, in the course of things, he mentions that he was an atheist, but had been raised Christian, gone to a Christian school, studied other religions in college, and was now “kinda bored” with the subject. I thought, “Okay, well, I’ll bite”–because, clearly, you don’t offer the college pastor the unsolicited bit of information that you’re “bored” with religion, if you don’t want to talk about it. So I followed up and asked a question I was curious about, “Hey, so, just to be clear, I’m curious: what do you think the main message of Christianity is? Like, at the descriptive level, what is the main message or ‘good news’ Christianity teaches?”

What followed was a fascinating little pop-explanation of how religion came about through ignorance, fear of the elements, and a need to justify morality. So I asked him again, “So, what’s the main message of Christianity?” And essentially, he boiled it down to morality with the threat of the deity to enforce it. Nothing about grace, Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection in our place, the forgiveness of sins, the kingdom of God, or anything approaching the message of salvation found in the New Testament.

So then, despite his professed well-researched understanding of Christianity, he actually didn’t know the gospel.

On the Value of Doubting Stories – Reflecting on this the other day, I was reminded of a thought-provoking piece by Alastair Roberts, drawing on philosopher/critical theorist Slavoj Žižek,  in which he suggests that we ought to be a bit more suspicious of our autobiographical stories:

Personal stories can have the most profoundly distorting effect upon our moral judgment. By playing up the ‘luxurious’ details of personality and the ‘depth’ of individual character, we can blind ourselves to the true ethical nature of actions. Žižek’s phraseology is important—‘the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing’—and captures a number of important matters. First, ‘our story’ is not some eternal truth, but an account told by interested and unreliable narrators—ourselves—and should be handled very carefully as a result. Second, not only are we the narrators of our own stories but we are also the primary hearers—it is a story we ‘tell ourselves about ourselves.’ We are the ones most easily and typically deceived (usually willingly) by our own unreliable narration. Third, it is a story told ‘in order to account for what we are doing.’ As such it is a story typically designed to help us live with ourselves and our actions. It is usually a rationalization, an attempt to make sense of our actions retrospectively, in a manner that acts as a defence against the harshness of the ethical or rational judgment that they might otherwise provoke.

You and I tell ourselves stories about ourselves all the time. Sometimes they reflect reality accurately and sometimes they don’t. Actually, often-times they’re half-truths used to make ourselves feel better, smarter, more righteous, and justified in our actions than we really are.

What conclusion does Roberts draw from that? Among others:

We ought to be a lot less indulgent when it comes to personal stories more generally, a lot more alert to the ways that they are most fertile grounds for the deception of ourselves and others, and a lot more prepared to call them into question. Personal stories, while they should not be excluded, should not be treated as ‘sacred’, but subject to testing and judgment.

Now, very quickly, let me say this: I don’t bring this up in order to tell you to ignore, demean, or knee-jerk reject whatever someone says about themselves. Far from it! What I want to do is simply call our attention to the fact that we have reason to slow down, and do a little digging in our conversations about the gospel. With that in mind, I want to suggest two simple lines questions to ask in your conversations about the gospel.

Great book on asking questions. (Click cover for link.)

Great book on asking questions.

1. Ask Them About Their Story – First, legitimately ask them about their story. You’ll find out who they are, or, at least, who they think of themselves to be, which is good in itself. Real love genuinely wants to know people. Also, as you ask questions, you’ll also find out what they actually mean when they say things like, “I used to be a Christian”, or “I studied Christianity.”  Their Christian experience could be anything from a few months in youth group, or getting catechized as a child, or having an emotional experience in a church once, or a long, adult experience in a solid church.

For instance, I remember talking to one young lady who described herself as formerly Christian. As I asked her about her story, I came to find out she went to the school of a local, barely Christian mega-mega-”church” (and, to be clear, I’m not one who holds mega-churches in contempt), and rejected “Christianity” when a teacher she had respect for was summarily dismissed for budgetary reasons. This wasn’t some long, thoughtful rejection of Christian doctrine, but the angry disappointment of a young teenager with no exposure to the true gospel, in a group of hypocritical adults. With that in mind, the conversation I pursue with her is going to take a very different shape than the adult who has rejected a maturely grasped faith.

2. Ask Them What The Gospel Is – Honestly, this one’s basic, but so important. America is an increasingly post-Christian culture where a large portion of the population, especially younger generations, have little-to-no working knowledge of Christianity. Even in putatively religious communities, this is true. Living in Orange County as I do, I’m around a lot of people who’ve been in or around church, and so it’s very easy in conversations to assume a basic knowledge of the gospel that people don’t actually have. Whether because of poor, moralistic teaching, or just spiritual incomprehension, even some of those who’ve grown up around church their whole lives can’t tell you what the message of Jesus is.

Returning to my new friend in the coffee shop, by asking him about his own understanding of Christianity, giving him an opportunity to demonstrate he didn’t actually get it, I was given an opening to briefly present and explain the gospel properly, by way of contrast. If I’d have just taken his story at face value, I might have been led down any number of apologetic rabbit-trails without ever actually addressing the fundamental truth at issue. This is important for a number of reasons, but most of all because one of the greatest obstacles to people accepting the good news is never having properly understood it.

Of course, I am not saying everyone who tells you that sort of story is lying, confused, or only rejecting the gospel because they don’t understand it. Some have heard the gospel and have knowingly rejected it. That’s a real situation you’ll come up against. And that’s fine–God works in those situations too. I’d still encourage you to do feel free to do a little digging in your evangelistic encounters. A key question can make a world of difference.

Soli Deo Gloria

11 Marks of a Culture of Evangelism

71pxt9GWcYLLast week I managed to make it to the Together for the Gospel conference in Louisville, Kentucky. The focus this year was evangelism and being unashamed to share the gospel with our neighbors, our culture, and our world that desperately need to hear it.  The messages were a blessing and, in some ways, a heavy but encouraging burden to come home with. In order to make sure I didn’t lose what I learned and looking to gain some practical guidance on how to put it into practice, I dove right into J. Mack Stiles’ little 9 Marks book Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus.

Though small in size, it packs a solid gospel-punch, clearly and succinctly outlining a biblical theology and philosophy of evangelism that takes their proper roots in the whole church, not simply the efforts of a select few with the “gift.” Eschewing programs and gimmicks, Stiles says that evangelism is best done by the local church by cultivating a “culture of evangelism” among its members.

What’s a culture of evangelism you ask? Well, if evangelism is “teaching  people the gospel with an aim to persuade”, then a culture of evangelism is the kind of environment where this activity is the air the congregation breathes. To give us a picture of what that looks like, Stiles gives us 11 marks of a culture of evangelism (pp. 48-61):

1. A Culture Motivated by Love for Jesus and His Gospel - 

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.  And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. (2 Cor. 5:14-15)

This is a culture that doesn’t have to be pushed and prodded to share the gospel, but is drawn to share the news of Jesus because of its joy and delight in the message itself.

2. A Culture That is Confident in the Gospel - 

I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation (Rom. 1:16)

This is a culture that isn’t caught up in gimmicks or tricks meant spruce or sex up the gospel, but fully expects God to work and convert through this saving message.

3. A Culture That Understands the Danger of Entertainment - 

 “As for you, son of man, your people are talking together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, saying to each other, ‘Come and hear the message that has come from the Lord.’ My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to hear your words, but they do not put them into practice. Their mouths speak of love, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice. (Ezek. 30-32)

This is a culture that doesn’t confuse a funny speaker who can pack the seats with the true preaching of the Word that can save souls.

4. A Culture That Sees People Clearly - 

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. (2 Cor. 5:16a)

This is a culture that does not judge by outward appearances, but sees people truly through the light of the Gospel, as a broken Image-bearers who need to, and are capable of, hearing the gospel through the work of the Spirit. No one is beyond God’s reach.

5. A Culture That Pulls Together as One - 

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, (Phil 1:3-5)

This is a culture where everybody is on deck, pulling together from the greeter, the usher, to the person simply sitting in the pew, because they all realize they have a part to play in showing non-believers the gospel.

6. A Culture in Which People Teach One Another - 

…always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. (1 Peter 3:15b)

Follow the pattern of sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. (2 Tim. 1:13)

This is a culture where experienced believers train newer believers to teach and share the gospel as a matter of course, passing on the knowledge from disciple to disciple that all might be prepared to participate in the church’s great task.

7. A Culture That Models Evangelism - 

What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (2 Tim. 2:2)

This is a culture where we don’t just teach the practices of evangelism cognitively, but actively model it to new believers, encouraging them along the way.

8. A Culture in Which People Who Are Sharing Their Faith Are Celebrated - 

I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you. I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare. For everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel. (Phil. 2:19-22)

This is a culture where the evangelistic efforts of our brothers and sisters are encouraged and praised, so that others may be stirred up to similar boldness.

9. A Culture That Knows How to Affirm And Celebrate New Life -

We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we hear of your faith in Christ…just as you learned it from Ephaphras our beloved fellow servant. (Col. 1:3-4, 7)

This is a culture that celebrates the work of Christ to bring new believers to life in himself, all the while pushing then to future faithfulness.

10. A Culture Doing Ministry That Feels Risky and Is Dangerous - 

I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. (Phil. 1:12-13)

This is a culture where non-Christians and atheists are coming to Jesus because the church is taking risks–social, physical, and financial–to meet them where they’re at with the gospel of Jesus.

11. A Culture That Understands That the Church Is the Chosen and Best Method of Evangelism -

And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor wit all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:46-47)

This is a culture where the local church of brothers and sisters, imaging the gospel, is seen as Jesus’ best tool for making his name known and drawing others to himself.

Of course, Stiles goes into greater detail than I can here. Still, I hope this encourages and provokes you to examine your own church and see if you’re cultivating a culture of evangelism. If not, I’d commend you to pick up Stiles’ little book and begin to put it into practice immediately. Evangelism is no ancillary call, or extra task to be added to the regular working of the church, but central to its essence and well-being.

Soli Deo Gloria

See also this article by Stiles on “How to Create a Culture of Evangelism.”

C.S. Lewis: “Failure On This Paper Should Mean Failure On The Whole Exam.”

Lewis thinkingDifficult translation sections are included in the ordination exams of various denominations. Candidates are required to show their proficiency in both Greek and Hebrew, in order to demonstrate their competence in handling the texts they are to preach from the Word of God.

C.S. Lewis thought translation sections were a good idea, but recommended a different sort:

In both countries an essential part of the ordination exam ought to be a passage from some recognized theological work set for translation into vulgar English–just like doing Latin prose. Failure on this paper should mean failure on the whole exam. It is absolutely disgraceful that we expect missionaries to the Bantus to learn Bantu but never ask whether our missionaries to the Americans or English can speak American or English. Any fool can write learned language. The vernacular is the real test. If you can’t turn your faith into it, then either you don’t understand it or you don’t believe it.

– C.S. Lewis, ‘Version Vernacular’, The Christian Century vol. LXXV (31 December 1958) pg. 1515, reprinted in God in the Dockpg. 338

Nearly 60 years ago, before all the talk about contextualization was hip, and Lesslie Newbigin taught everyone that Western Culture was a mission-field too, Lewis was advocating for training in basic cultural literacy on the part of pastors and preachers. He saw the need to learn how to speak “American” and  “English”.

This is one of the two or three keys to understanding his appeal and genius: Lewis was a brilliant translator. It’s only years (and a number of heavy theological treatments of the subject) after reading Lewis’ treatment of the Trinity at the end of Mere Christianity that I can appreciate its disguised brilliance. It’s plainly-stated Athanasian and Nicene orthodoxy for beginners. As an absolute statement, it might be bit of a stretch to say that if it can’t be put in the vernacular, it probably isn’t understood or believed (cf. certain finer points of trinitarian doctrine such as the filioque, etc.). Still, as a general test for how well you actually grasp most of your professed theology, I’ve found it quite helpful. Teaching basic catechetical courses to youth or new believers is often a more challenging proposition than writing a paper for grad-level seminary courses.

Theologically-minded Protestants especially need to take heed of this. It’s fine to celebrate Luther, Calvin, Tyndale and the rest of the Reformers for giving the Bible back to the congregation through their vernacular Bible translations and worship. We need to be careful we don’t take it away from them again in rarified preaching filled with abstract, unexplained theological jargon. I have no problem with doctrinal preaching or using big words like ‘justification’ or even ‘perichoresis’, as long as we use a lot of little words to explain them for those folks without seminary training. To insist that our hearers always come up, unaided, to our theological level is “shameful”, and an implicit denial of the Gospel of a Word who comes among us by taking on our flesh–1st Century Jewish flesh, to be exact.

Pastors, as you prepare to teach and preach to your people, work on your Greek, brush up on your Hebrew, but please, please, for the sake of the Gospel and your people, make it a priority to practice your ‘American.’

Soli Deo Gloria

The Morality of the Story (Mere-Orthodoxy Guest Piece)

So, I wrote a piece a while back on the way looking at our lives in the narrative key shapes the way we understand our moral situation. After some tuning up and heavy editing, Matthew Lee Anderson was kind enough to give me the honor of publishing it over at Mere Orthodoxy. You can read it HERE.

Soli Deo Gloria

“Out with Philosophy! Just Preach the Gospel!” Or Something Like That

thinker

Looks like he’s philosophizing. STOP THAT!

For a long time now Paul’s discourse at the Areopageus in Acts 17:16-31 has been a favorite text of mine. As a philosophy student in college I loved the picture of Paul debating with the philosophers of his day, quoting their poets and philosophers, and engaging the best of their thought in order to clear the way for the proclamation of the Gospel. I’ve long seen it as a model for understanding how to properly contextualize and challenge the thought of the culture while at the same time maintaining a faithful witness to Christ.

It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I found out about a certain line of interpretation, particularly in some hyper-Reformed circles, that sees this whole engagement as a failure. The idea is that Paul here, instead of engaging in some straightforward Gospel-preaching like he does in other places, makes the mistake of trying to make the Gospel presentable to the philosophers, ends up getting laughed out of court, and from there on resolves to “know nothing but Christ and him crucified.” (1 Cor 2:1-5) Silly Paul, philosophy is for pagans!

Now I’ve always thought this was a forced interpretation. Then again, what do I know? D.A. Carson on the other hand, well, he’s got an actual case for it:

There are good reasons for rejecting this false reading:

  1.  This is not a natural reading of Acts. As you work your way through that book, you do not stumble upon some flag or other that warns you that at this Paul goofs. This false interpretation is achieved by putting together an unnatural reading of Acts with a false reading of 1 Corinthians 2.
  2. The theology of the Areopagus address is in fact very much in line with the theology of Paul expressed in Romans.
  3. The Greek text at the end of Acts 17 does not say that “a few men” believed, as if this were a dismissive or condemning assessment, but that “certain people” believed. This expression is in line with other summaries in Acts.
  4. In Athens Paul had already been preaching not only in the synagogue to biblically literate folk, but to people in the marketplace who were biblically illiterate (Acts 17:17). What he had been preaching was “the good news” (Acts 17:18), the Gospel.
  5. Transparently Paul was cut off in Acts 17 before he was finished. He had set up the framework in which alone the Gospel is coherent: one transcendent God, sovereign, providential, personal; creation; fall into idolatry; the flow of redemptive history; final judgment. He was moving into Jesus’ resurrection, and more, when he was interrupted.
  6. Paul was not a rookie. He had been through twenty years of tough ministry (read 2 Cor. 11), much of it before pagan biblical illiterates. To suppose that on this occasion he panicked and trimmed the Gospel is ridiculous.
  7. Acts 17 shows that Paul thinks “worldviewishly.” Even after 1 Corinthians 2 Paul still thinks worldviewishly: 2 Corinthians 10:5 finds him still striving to bring “every thought” into submission to Christ–and the context shows this refers not to simply isolated thoughts but to entire worldviews.
  8. 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 does not cast Paul’s resolution to preach nothing but the cross against the background of Athens (as if he were confessing he had failed there, but against the background of Corinth, which loved eloquence and rhetoric above substance. The apostle does not succumb to mere oratory: he resolves to stick with “Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

-D.A. Carson,  For the Love of God Vol. 2, February 15

Kids, the moral of the story is that Paul isn’t confessing a ministry flub in 1 Corinthians 2, and repenting of his foolish decision to engage with the philosophers in a contextually-specific way. So if you’ve ever thought that it helps to know and be able to discuss the actual thought-processes of your neighbors and peers in order to present the Gospel to them effectively, don’t worry, so did Paul.

Soli Deo Gloria

Shoot First, Ask Questions Later (Or, 3 Tips On How Not To Talk With Someone About Jesus)

evangelism

Some of us are scared we look like this. Others of us should be.

Some of us don’t talk about Jesus because we’re scared we’re going to screw things up. We don’t think we know what we’re doing, so we timidly hold back and hope someone else will step up to the plate with the person sitting next to us. Some of us realize we are that “someone else”, but screw things up because we’re not scared enough–or rather, we have a zeal, but it’s not a zeal in accordance with knowledge. We mean well, mostly, but for some reason when we try to share Jesus friendships end, restraining orders get filed, and we end up wondering where it all went wrong.

Believe me, I’ve been there. (Well, not the restraining order.) I’m not a naturally quiet kind of guy, so I’ve had my share of evangelism catastrophes. I’m not an expert at this. I still fumble. I walk away from conversations replaying various missteps, thinking, “I should have said this right there and waited a bit for that.” At the same time, over the years, through trial and error, various lectures, sermons, books, and plenty of the Holy Spirit working on me, things have gotten better. I can generally walk away from conversations having said something true, sometimes even uncomfortably true, about Jesus, and not have the person hate me, or scuttle away every time they see me. Sometimes that plays out into something more like being able to hand them a book, or invite them to church.

In the spirit of helping people who want to witness to Jesus more effectively, I offer 3 tips on what NOT to do:

1. Shoot First, Ask Questions Later – Let’s be honest, we have things to say. We have a Gospel message, a Bible-full of truth to share. Great. Awesome. I’m just going to point out, that if they don’t care, it doesn’t matter. You want to say something that means something–to them. According to Jerram Barrs, Francis Schaeffer used to say, “If I’ve got only an hour with someone, I’ll spend the first 55 minutes asking questions, and only then will I try to say anything.” See, unless you know something about the person you’re speaking to, you’re just going to be speaking at them. Instead, try listening first. Hear their story. Ask them about their life, their passions, interests, personal history. Often-times it’s only after knowing something about them that the Holy Spirit will guide you to speak some Gospel truth that actually connects with their lives and renders open to hear more. It’s better to plant a seed that takes root, than to try and ram a full-grown tree down into the soil with no prep. Even if it’s only something small, you have no idea what that seed will sprout into.

Update: My friend Sean Kelly adds, “Also be ready to share yourself with the other person. Asking them questions about their life is a great place to start, but they’re not going to take you seriously unless you’re willing to open up to them as well. Even if it’s just discussing simple, unimportant, everyday happenings. Otherwise, it just feels like an inquisition.”

2. Find Out What’s Wrong First – In a sense, the Good News is only good against the back-drop of some bad news. Forgiveness is beautiful in light of a ruptured relationship, meaning and hope in light of apathy and despair, grace in light of law, so on and so forth. Aware of this reality, many of us immediately go looking for what’s wrong with a person, whether spiritually, emotionally, or intellectually, pounce on it, and then move to introduce the Gospel. Instead, maybe you look for what’s right first. Try looking for those points of truth, goodness, and beauty that the person acknowledges through common grace and the Image of God and start working from those shared values towards the truth of the Gospel. For instance, work from their sense of justice to the beauty of biblical justice, or from their sense of the value of art, to the firm rooting that God gives for creative activity. If you’re a pastor, you should probably try doing the same thing in your preaching.

3. Assume the Other Person Is a Strung Out, Fornicating, Blasphemer Ready To Eat Your Babies – This one may be obvious based on the last two: don’t assume the worst about whoever you’re dealing with. Do not condescend. Do not self-righteously huff and puff about with your moral fervor. Yes, theologically-speaking, they are sinners, depraved, with a darkened heart and mind, in need of the light of the Gospel (just like you).  At the same time, theologically-speaking, they are made in the Image of God, objects of his love, mercy, and the common grace of God, and have consciences that are often-times more finely-tuned than most Christians. Realize this: you might be talking to someone who doesn’t know Jesus, but is a much better person than you by most standards of moral evaluation. It is completely possible for you to learn about loving your wife, raising your kids, studying in school, general work ethic, and general life-knowledge from someone who desperately needs to know the Gospel. When you take that into account, it changes the way you to talk to them.  Again, first stop, listen, watch, and then speak.

At the most basic level, all of these tips boil down to one: when you’re talking to people about Jesus, do it with respect. We are told in scripture to “always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” and yet we are supposed to “do it with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15) Treat people with the dignity that the Gospel requires–the dignity that Jesus himself commands.

Soli Deo Gloria

All Things to All People? Really, Paul?

If you’ve heard more than 1 or 2 sermons on evangelism or outreach you’ve probably heard Paul’s declaration: “I became all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Cor 9:22) Paul here makes the point that he has used his freedom in Christ, not for selfish gain, but in order to identify as far as possible with people in all cultural, racial, and socio-economic categories in order to present the Gospel to them. We would expect no less from the Paul who says that, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)

Paul preachingPaul was about reaching everybody and so should we be. Right. I think a lot of us might pay lip-service to this but we don’t understand the real scope of who Paul interacted with–the fact that for Paul this wasn’t just a preacher’s hyperbole, but a straight-forward description of his practice. Historian Robin Lane Fox gives us an eye-opening summary of Paul’s ministry in his magisterial account of the Christianization of the Roman Empire:

Paul admitted to being “all things to all men,” and our best account of a Christian mission, the Acts of the Apostles, bears him out. Paul’s churches included slaves and people who needed to be told “not to steal”: Paul himself referred to the “deep, abysmal poverty” of his Christians in Macedonia. Yet his converts also included people “in Caesar’s household,” slaves, presumably, in the service of the Emperor. At Corinth, he converted Erastus, the “steward of the city,” another eminent post which was often help by a public slave: it is quite uncertain whether this man could be the Erastus whom a recent inscription in Corinth’s theatre revealed as a freeborn magistrate, the aedile of the colony. He attracted women of independent status and a certain property, people like Phoebe, the “patroness” of many of the Christians at Corinth, and Lydia, the “trader in purple,” a luxury commodity. These women ranked far below the civic, let alone the Imperial aristocracies. But Acts adds a higher dimension which we might not otherwise have guessed: Paul was heard with respect by one member of Athen’s exclusive Areopagus and by the “first man of Malta.” He received friendly advice from “Asiarchs” in Ephesus, men at the summit of provincial society, where they served at vast expense as priests in the Imperial cult. On Cyprus, he impressed the Roman governor, Sergius Paulus, by a miracle which he worked in his presence.  –Pagans and Christians, pg. 293

Paul’s boast was not empty; his contacts range from prisons to palaces. Now, aside from having Jesus come to personally knock him off his horse and commission him to preach the Gospel, Paul was a uniquely gifted man. Orthodox, brilliant, and cosmopolitan he was able to relate to the upper echelons of intellectual culture and society with ease. No doubt this is what impresses many of us–it should. Not all Christians can interact at the high levels at which Paul did. God calls and equips some of us for these extraordinary levels of witness and that deserves a special appreciation for the gifting and sacrifice that requires.

What ought to be even more fascinating in the example of Paul though, is that a man of such native talent and ability did not count it beneath him to pastor people who “needed to be told ‘not to steal’.” Part of what captivates us about Paul’s high-level contacts is that we would love to rub shoulders with the elite, the rich, the social movers and shakers. It’s a glamorous ministry to most of us. (Of course, Paul got a lot of these opportunities after getting arrested or having the tar beat out of him, so it wasn’t that glamorous.) Still, much, if not most, of his ministry was not to the social elite but to the outcast–both racially (Gentiles), and socially (slaves, barbarians, etc.) He humbled himself, made himself as nothing, going to dregs of society in order to share the Gospel. Of course, in this he was only following his master. (Phil 2:6-9)

That’s something for us to consider in this new year: am I striving to become the kind of person of whom it could be said “she became all things to all people” for the sake of the Gospel? Even of the poor? Even of the dregs? Even of the outcast? Are our churches the kinds of places where pastors need to be continually reminding people “not to steal”? Who is welcome among us? Who catches our attention as an object of God’s grace in the Gospel? Have I been humbled by the Gospel enough to follow Paul, who followed Christ?

For those of us struggling with this, it might be helpful to recall Paul’s words to the Corinthians when they were getting too big for their britches:

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

1 Corinthians 1:26-31

Soli Deo Gloria

Quick-Blog #9: Tim Keller on 3 Things You Should be Praying for Your Church

This man is praying. Also, he has an amazing beard. Two reasons to imitate him.

So, as I already mentioned, I’ve been working through Tim Keller’s book on Gospel-centered ministry, Center Church. It’s really a must-read for anybody in or even connected to ministry, whether pastors, elders, directors, group leaders, volunteers, admins, etc. I cannot recommend it highly enough. One section that really convicted me last week was in the chapter on Gospel renewal in a church. First off, you should know that Gospel-renewal is “a life-changing recovery of the gospel.” (pg. 54) At the church-wide level it has historically been called a revival. (Think the first Great Awakening–you know, the good one.) Keller lists a few things that contribute to Gospel-renewal in a church including preaching, which is what most of the chapter is dedicated to, but right at the top of the list is “extraordinary prayer.” (pg. 73)

Drawing on the work of C. John Miller, he makes a distinction between “maintenance prayer” and “frontline prayer.” Maintenance prayer is focused on keeping the church going–maintaining what’s happening currently. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s not particularly passionate about the mission. By contrast, frontline prayer is focused on the advance of the Gospel, the forceful spread of the Kingdom in human hearts. He lists three particular traits these prayers possess:

  1. A request for grace to confess sins and to humble ourselves
  2. A compassion and zeal for the flourishing of the church and the reaching of the lost
  3. A yearning to know God, to see his face, to glimpse his glory (pg. 73)

As I mentioned, I was very convicted by this. I mean, I pray for my ministry, for my students, but to be honest it’s mostly been maintenance work. I haven’t been on my knees pleading with the God of heaven that we might be a people humbled, confessing, and passionate to see his glory for a while. I think many could probably relate. In the flow of ministry, prayer doesn’t so much get lost, but squished in between everything else.

Last week I resolved to repent of this and have these three traits mark my prayers. I would encourage you to do the same. It doesn’t matter if you’re a pastor, or not. If you’re a part of the body, then you’re in ministry. Pray for these traits to mark your church and your church’s prayers–not in a rote, mechanical fashion, but from the heart. You can’t manipulate the Spirit into working for you on command. And remember, he’s the one doing the renewing; Gospel-renewal is a gift of grace. Still, pray boldly. Pray this for your members, your pastors, the congregation, the preaching, the worship, the service, and everything else connected to the church. Pray and look for God to move.

Soli Deo Gloria

Quick-Blog #5-How to Meet People in Coffee Shops

I meet new people in coffee shops. All. The. Time. (Seriously, 4 people in 2 days last week.) I mostly like this. I’m a decently friendly guy and I enjoy getting to know different, interesting people. On top of that, I’ve got a bit of an evangelistic streak in me. You probably won’t ever hear me roll through the 4 spiritual laws over an espresso, but it’s unsurprising to find me in a conversation with someone I’ve met 20 minutes prior, discussing their church history and views on Jesus. Still, every once in a while I feel like I have “Talk to me” written on my forehead. I’ve tried to think about how I happen to get into these conversations and I’ve come up with some reasons, both serious and silly. So, if you want to meet people in coffee shops you might try some of these methods, especially if you’re looking to be “missional” and relational in your approach to sharing the Gospel.

1. Read interesting books. Seriously, read interesting books, or at least ones with interesting covers. Then, leave them out on your table. Usually every couple of visits to a coffee shop somebody’ll ask me about the book I’m reading and we”ll start talking. Funniest conversation like that was when I was reading Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion I got to explain that it was social commentary and American religious history, not a biography of the band.

2.  Smile. This is simple, but I generally smile at people when I see them walk in, or we make eye contact. When I’m studying, I look up a lot and almost by reflex find myself smiling at somebody. I might have no intention of talking to them, but somehow, we end up in a conversation because I guess smiling is rare. We live in an increasingly suspicious and cynical culture. In a culture where the biggest cause of depression is loneliness, signs of life and warmth are attractive. Of course, this can easily be misread. Beware the creeper smile. Still, be friendly.

3. Notice People and Ask Questions. If you’re bold and want to be the one to start the conversation, notice people and ask them questions. People are so used to going through their days without anybody taking an active interest in them and their activities that an honest question about something you’ve noticed (again, something not creepy), will usually invite an answer that you can build into a conversation. Noticing books, unique shoes, inquiring about what they’re studying, etc. will usually draw people out of their I-don’t-know-you-keep-the-traditional-3-feet-away shell. Thing is though, you should actually be interested in those things. Don’t ask about something if all you want to do is cut to the chase and get at what you’re really interested in. Be interested in the person. In any case, you probably won’t have anything useful to say to them unless you’ve first paid attention to who they actually are.

4. Commit to Being Somewhere. Place is important. Investing time and committing to going regularly to particular places at particular times, or at least on a regular basis gives you a great opportunity to become familiar with and familiar to regulars as well as randoms. It gives you the opportunity to just start saying hi, and then building out relationships from there. So, pick a place and plant yourself.

5. Have a huge mustache (Men only). Okay, this is a joke, but I seriously get comments on my mustache from random strangers 3-4 times a week. On more than one occasion this has developed into a long conversation about Jesus and inviting them to church. Just sayin’, it’s something you pastor-types might want to try out.

6. Pray. Really, if you want to meet people, engage them about life, truth, and Jesus, then pray before you go anywhere. Pray God will give you opportunities, and wait for God to work. Sometimes you meet nobody, then there are days when you end up talking to a total stranger about their deepest convictions about life, God, and reality. You really don’t know what God will throw your way if you ask him.

Alright, that’s about it. I’m not an evangelism expert, but hopefully some of these tips can help you meet the people that God has placed around you “so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him.” (Acts 17:27)

Soli Deo Gloria