“Look At How Jesus Worked For Me!” (A Reflection on Testimony and Gospel Preaching)

There is a bit of irony of the preaching and spread of the gospel after the dispersion of the Church in Acts 8.

And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.

Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. (Acts 8:1-4)

peter preachingWhat was this preaching like? Whatever it was, it must be something a bit different than what we often hear in churches and pulpits when it comes to evangelism. Often we’re told that all we must do to share the gospel is share our own story. All we need to do is share of the marvelous things God has done in our lives to change our circumstances, our families, our jobs, and our general outlook on life.

In a sense, we’re told to share a story whose essential core is: “Sign up with Jesus! Look at how it worked for me!”  Some of this is due to our Evangelical history of sharing our testimonies of faith. Beyond that, though, it is reinforced by with our culture’s current emphasis on the power of personal stories and truth something we arrive at through our own narratives.

But how does that work for those who were “scattered” after Paul was “ravaging the church” in the midst of the persecution in Jerusalem? What about those devout men who buried Stephen and made a great lamentation over him? It’s hard to imagine them heading out into the hillsides and cities of Samaria and Judea saying, “Sign up with Jesus! Look at how it worked for me!” Losing your home, your job, your family, any and all social standing you might have had, freedom, security, or even physical health doesn’t really look like Jesus “worked” to most people.

No, there had to have been something more compelling than that. And indeed, if you look at the preaching in the book of Acts, there is. Take, for instance, Peter’s speech to the crowds in Acts 2 is paradigmatic:

“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. For David says concerning him,

“‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’

“Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,

“‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’

Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:22-41)

What do we see here? A personal reflection on the way Jesus has changed Peter’s life? A recounting of Jesus’ personal forgiveness on the shores of Galilee? A narrative about Peter’s own relief and growing sense of personal confidence because of his encounter with Jesus? No. What we find is a recitation of the good news of Jesus’ story. Over and over again we see this discernable core message that God has kept his promises to save the world. He has done so by sending the Messiah, the King of Israel who is indeed the King of the Whole World. And this king has lived, taught, died a death for sin, risen again to new life, and is even now seated on the throne of heaven offering forgiveness for their rebellion and salvation to all who believe in him. This is the gospel message that comes with power even when the messenger seems outwardly weak, and their story doesn’t seem to “work” according to most outward, human principles.

This is the message that Luke talks about when he says that Philip went about after the dispersion:

Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did.  For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city. (Acts 8:5-8)

And later, in his encounter with the Eunuch, we see him preach to him on the basis of Jesus’ fulfillment of the prophecies of Isaiah (Acts 8:26-40).

Where am I going with all of this? I don’t want to ignore, or deny the power that sharing our personal testimony has in leading someone to faith, or in encouraging the faith of other believers. Peter’s story (besides establishing his renewed apostolicity and place in the church) is a personal comfort and a demonstration of the gospel at work to transform an individual’s life. There is a proper place for our stories.

But what I want us to remember that there is another, deeper story that forms the heart of the gospel. Peter’s story only matters because it’s based on a prior story about God and God’s Messiah, Jesus, the Crucified and Resurrected Lord who is bringing the kingdom, making all things new and inviting sinners to be forgiven and participate in the process. That is the invitation that underlies all of our stories and the one that should be the focus of all of our sharing and evangelism.

In other words, the story that ultimately changes us is the one that says not, “Look at how Jesus has worked for me!”, but “Look at Jesus’ work for me!”

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.”

Five Reflections on #T4G 2014

t4gWith thousands of others from across the country, and indeed, world, this last week I had the privilege of attending the 2013 Together for the Gospel conference in Louisville, Kentucky. Far too much happened for me to adequately give an account for it all. Still, I had a few brief reflections on my experience I figured were worth sharing:

  1. Hospitality and Generosity – I only made it to T4G because of the generosity of others. I couldn’t have afforded it myself. From my friends on twitter lobbying to get me to the conference, to my gracious benefactor providing the ticket, my parents helping with airfare, and good friends giving me lodging, every single bit of this trip was due to the gracious giving of others. Along that same line, I was deeply struck by the hospitality of friends, in particular that of my hosts, the Clarks. Richard (my editor at Christ and Pop Culture) and his wonderful wife Jen put me up–and put up with me–for the whole of the conference, providing me with lodging, rides, and the warmth of their care. All of this without us ever having met in real life! I told them a number of times, either I have really low standards of hospitality, or they are champs at it. The entire experience left me with a deep, concrete picture of our generous, hospitable God who gives abundantly and makes undeserving sinners welcome in his home.
  2. New York Calvinists – I find I tend to live a parochial existence in my head. As much as I might affirm the existence of a global church where every tribe, tongue, and nation will one day (and even now) worships King Jesus, I don’t think I have a thick, lived sense of it most of the time. This is why it was such a delight to have the opportunity to meet, if only briefly, brothers and sisters serving, preaching, and teaching the same gospel all around the nation. I think of one brother I talked with briefly, serving young adults in a difficult area of Baltimore. Or again, of the pastors from Albany I ran into, talking in thick New York accents in the airport terminal about the love and wrath displayed in the cross. Or finally, my brother Johnny from New Jersey, serving youth in Detroit, who prayed with me for my college students as I was away from them on Thursday. God-centered ministry is happening in sorts of places that it never occurs for us to think of as centers of gospel-work.
  3. Hey, I Follow You on Twitter – Following off that point, I met a bunch of people I follow on Twitter (and occasionally, those who follow me.) I think I noted this last year after the TGC conference, but it’s lovely to find out that the people you see tweeting and blogging all of this encouraging material actually believe it and are living it out. Beyond that, fellowshipping in the flesh with them made me realize both the blessings and the limitations of technology. I love that I know, laugh with, and am stirred up to service by so many that I know only through social media. That said, being in the same place, able to shake hands, embrace, and grasp hands in prayer made me keenly aware of the blessing of physical presence. As I think of the new friends I’ve made, and older friendships deepened, I begin to feel the weight of Paul’s longing to commune and worship with his brothers and sisters he can only write to and pray for in a new way.
  4. Evangelism is Awkward – So, the conference topic was evangelism and I have to say it was convicting and encouraging. I got on the plane Friday morning looking for new ways to engage my fellow passengers, or fellow travelers in the airport with the gospel, and you know what? I didn’t really get to. I mean, I’d strike up conversations, keen to look for opportunities to mention the gospel, and try as I might, I hit wall after wall. I don’t know if it was that I wasn’t bold enough, prayerful enough, or these were particularly difficult crowds (I mean, once people find out you’re a pastor, things either open up or shut down fast), but it just didn’t go anywhere. Why do I share this? Shouldn’t I wait until I have a nice little story with a bow on it about converting the atheist or the Muslim in the seat next to me? Maybe, but we need to be prepared to hit some difficulties along the road when it comes to sharing the gospel. It’s easy to get discouraged by one or two failed encounters and stop trying to find ways of sharing the news of Jesus. It’s also simple to fall into the trap of thinking this sort of thing just happens naturally and easily for pastors. It doesn’t. We have to work on it too. But remember that God is at work even in our “failed” attempts, working in our own hearts and lives, preparing us for greater service in his kingdom. God is a father who is pleased even with our stumbling efforts in his name.
  5. We Don’t Really Want What We Pray For – Finally, I’m once again reminded of God’s sense of humor. I rarely miss a college group, or am missing for it, so I tend to get a bit anxious the few times I have been away. This week was no different. Though I had my very trustworthy and capable buddy covering for me, great volunteers, and a pretty normal week, I was still kind of worried. That night, though, I prayed with a friend that God would show me that he could glorify himself in the group without me—that he remind me of my essential unnecessariness (not sure that’s a word) in his works. Well, about an hour later I call and check with my wife who tells me the group packed, there are new people, things are bumping, and my first reaction is to think, “Oh great, the one week I’m not there to run things…” Then the thought struck me, “Isn’t this what you prayed for? For things to go smoothly without you? For God to show you he’s perfectly capable of handling things without you there?” And that’s when I was reminded of the reality that so often I don’t actually want the sanctification I pray for. I pray for patience and resent the situations that build it. I pray for compassion and try to harden my heart to opportunities to demonstrate it. Thank God that in his faithfulness, he answers according to our actual needs, not our whims.

As always, there’s more to say, but I’ll cap it there. All in all, the conference was another good gift from God’s hands whose blessings I can’t begin to number.

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

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