In the wake of Osama Bin Laden’s death, perhaps the most stunning revelation was that Osama Bin Laden had a pornography stash on his computer. To most outside observers, Bin Laden was a mass murderer, so it seems that his pornography issue was a few notches below mass murder or Bin Laden’s other moral problems. But for those of us who wrestle with what missional evangelism should look like, Bin Laden’s pornography is a living example of the tension in our lives -- the tension between individual transformation and cultural change.
The modern era was the age of individualism, and the theological child of the modern era, Evangelicalism, has reflected the values of individualism for many years. Evangelicals have always been concerned with getting individual souls into Heaven by focusing on making personal (existential) decisions to be Christian. We use phrases like: “Accept Jesus as your personal savior” to describe our desire to see faith as more than what we adopt from the social structures around us. Faith for Evangelicals is personal; it changes us from the inside out. Personal piety and dealing with one’s own sin and brokenness is highly valued for Evangelicals. This focus on existential commitment has made the Evangelical movement a defining force in American culture.
But there is a shadow side to this individualistic focus. If faith is only about the individual, our expressions of faith quickly become consumeristic. Our conversations focus around having my needs met, finding a church that fits me best, or finding a music program that fits my tastes and programs that meet my needs. In extreme cases, one could call it spiritual narcissism – getting God involved in our lives where we are still the center of the universe.
Moreover, our place in the broader world, according to Evangelical practice and theology, is akin to being a passenger on the Titanic: we are a lot less worried about saving the ship (this world) than we are about getting people into lifeboats (heaven). In the church I grew up in, I was told that Jesus said, “the poor will always be with you”1 so worrying about oppressive systems, racism, and the overall health of planet earth were futile concerns. We loved to talk about the rapture and would reflect with a longing affection for the day Jesus would come and rapture us out of this pathetic world so that we didn’t have to deal with it anymore.
Until about a few hundred years ago in Western culture, this idea of an autonomous individual did not exist. For most of the world, people live their lives in the context of a community. It is the community that defines their identity and the community that gives them meaning. Faith has value to the individual, but mostly in the way in which it transforms the community.
In the 20th Century, there were various theological movements in the US that attempted to rediscover faith less in individual terms, but in social terms. What we now call “The Social Gospel” came from theologians like Walter Rauschenbusch who were less concerned with individual transformation and focused instead on the transformation of oppressive systems and helping people become fully human.2 Addressing issues like greed, crime, alcoholism, racism, education, and health became ways of expressing Christian discipleship.
In recent years, writers like Leslie Newbigin have pushed Christians to think of faith not in terms of EITHER for the individual OR for the betterment of society, but as BOTH/AND.3
Faith is for BOTH the individual AND the broader society. Newbigin cites God’s call to Abraham in Genesis:
GOD told Abraham: “Leave your country, your family, and your father's home for a land that I will show you. I'll make you a great nation and bless you. I'll make you famous; you'll be a blessing. I'll bless those who bless you; those who curse you I'll curse. All the families of the Earth will be blessed through you.”4
The great heresy of monotheism, Newbigin says, is hearing only half of the Abrahamic blessing. Yes, God will bless, make us famous, bless those who bless us and curse those who curse us. This is Evangelical passion: the transformation of individuals so that our individual lives can be blessed, good, rich, full, and meaningful.
The second half of the Abrahamic blessing is just as important: “All the families of the Earth will be blessed through you.” We are blessed in order to be a blessing. God does his transformative work in us as individuals so we can be the kind of people who take His grace, love, and goodness to others. Brian McLaren likes to say, “We are never end-users of the gospel.”5 God’s blessing, grace, and Gospel always comes to us on its way to someone else. We are not meant to simply be receptacles of God’s blessing, but conduits of His love and grace and mercy to the rest of the world.
Which brings us back to Osama Bin Laden’s porn stash. Part of Bin Linden’s delusion was that through suicide bombers and mass murder, he was partnering with God’s transformation of the world. He had millions of supporters in the Islamic world for his cause. As misled as it was, Bin Laden’s spirituality went beyond his own personal faith to something bigger than himself – a Jihad against the Western world and its infringement on Muslim faith and values.
As a result, the porn stash of Osama Bin Laden is more than just a late night TV joke. In the Muslim world, Bin Laden would famously preach against the evils of the US and the dress of American women and could rally the faithful to double their efforts at personal piety. But underneath it all, Bin Laden’s personal life was full of hypocrisy. Trying to change the world without authentic transformation of one’s inner world smells a lot more like a grab for power than an expression of one’s heart.
Missional evangelism believes both aspects are important. We get our own sin and brokenness healed and transformed by Jesus’ cross (individual) so we can be part of his agenda for the world (corporate). God’s hope for the world is what Jesus called “The Kingdom of God coming to earth.”6 Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”7 But Jesus’ kingdom will generally not come through rallies, protest marches, and legislation. The way Jesus focused on changing the world was by investing his life in 12 people whose lives were radically altered by a profound existential encounter with Himself. In this regard, evangelism – the individual transformation of people in to Jesus’ likeness – remains one of the most important tasks of the church.
VIEWS OF EVANGELISM
I have three kids, and like every other parent, I came to quickly recognize that they are all very, very different. Some kids are stubborn and need lots of discipline. Some kids are adult pleasers and need coaching in how to not be co-dependent. The point is that every child is unique. Every child will have their own unique struggles with life. Simple parenting formulas don’t work; parenting must be tailored to every child.
God’s children are also like this. One of the most important realizations of the last decade is that discipleship is not a cookie-cutter approach8. Because of the infinitely different ways in which we are wired, we learn to be followers of Jesus in an infinite number of ways. Moreover, what drives a person to an existential encounter with Jesus is different for every person. Over many years of pastoral ministry, the people I have observed making existential decisions to follow Jesus tend to fall into at least four categories:
Ken: Personal Crisis – Ken was married to a woman who attended my church, but he had very little interest in God or spiritual things. When Ken’s cousin was killed by a drunk driver, it shook Ken to the core. After his cousin’s funeral, Ken and the rest of his cousins went out drinking to drown their sorrows. After a few too many beers, one of them suggested that they pay a visit to the drunk driver and give him the “what for”.
Neither Ken nor his cousins had thought through the plan much when they showed up at the guy’s house. When the guy saw who was at the door and the state they were in, he locked the door and called the police. This only infuriated the mob of cousins more, so they began to yell and taunt and demand that he come out of the house. Ken had a handgun that he carried with a concealed weapons permit and shot into the air two or three times.
When the police arrived, they arrested the cousins for disturbing the peace. However, since Kenny had discharged a gun, a Washington State law mandated that he had to serve time in the state prison. Kenny was sentenced to six months in the state prison.
I arrived to visit Kenny during his first week of prison and was brought to a drab, institutional green room where I could talk with Ken privately. Ken was in an orange jumpsuit and escorted to a metal folding chair by two prison guards. They un-cuffed him and closed the door behind them.
The moment I heard the door slam shut, without saying a word, Ken buried his face in hands and began to sob. I have never seen a six foot three inch fully grown man cry like that. When he finally pulled himself together, the first words he said to me were “I need God in my life.”
Ken’s story is what we typically think of when we think of evangelism – someone hits rock bottom and comes to realize that they need God. It may be a relational crisis, an addiction of some kind, a financial meltdown, or some other major crisis. When we come to the end of our rope, people instinctively cry out to God. I like the way Eugene Peterson paraphrases Jesus’ beatitudes: “You are blessed when you are at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”9
But most people we know who are far from God are not having a major life crisis. In fact, their lives may be going quite well. Evangelism for them might require a lot more patience.
Steve: Persistent Love – Steve and I met because our kids attended the same preschool. Our wives became friends because our kids played together. After our three year olds had a couple of play-dates, our wives conspired to have the four of us hang out.
Steve owned a successful small business, was a good husband and father, voted, and gave to the United Way. As a young child his grandmother would take him to a small Presbyterian church for Sunday School but once he turned ten, he never went back.
Steve and I shared an interest in Major League Baseball and since the Seattle Mariners were making a playoff run that year, it afforded a lot of conversations. Once baseball season ended, however, I had to think of new reasons for Steve and I to hang out. I offered to help him with his house remodel. Between me messing up some parts of his house with the best of intentions, Steve and I would talk about life, family, and work.
A couple weeks before Easter I told Steve, “Easter is coming up and it’s practically un-American to not go to church on Easter. You should come to our church.” He and his family did. But they didn’t come back to church right away.
Steve and I kept talking baseball and fixing stuff together in the months that followed and slowly they would attend church more and more. It was starting to be a habit. Steve would ask me questions about the Bible and issues in his life where he struggled. One day Steve and I were working on his house and I said, “You have been hearing a lot about Jesus the last few months. Do you consider yourself one of His followers?” Steve let his cordless drill drop down to his side and looked past me. He paused and I could see the wheels turning in his head. Then he looked me in the eye and said, “Yea. I think I am. I don’t know when that happened, but I am.”
Sometimes people come to Christ slowly. One thing I have learned from my African pastor friends is that Americans are way too impatient. Sometimes it takes years of being a spiritual advocate for someone -- loving and caring for them-- before they understand the beauty and goodness of God. Because of our cultural demand to see results quickly, we sometimes give
up on what God is doing in someone’s life. In Africa, many of the strategies to break into “closed” countries involve 15-20 year plans. Sometimes our role in people’s lives is to be a patient and faithful friend.
But some people are not passive in their spiritual quest at all. For some reason they are in full pursuit mode of meaning, purpose, and truth. This was the case with my friend Danya.
Danya: The Spiritual Quest – Danya started attending our church because she was dating a guy who came on occasion. Danya grew up in a very conservative Jewish home - her father lived most of his life in Israel until Danya was born. Danya spent her formative years attending private Jewish schools that taught her that Jesus was a “Jew gone bad” who was trying to drag all the good little Jewish children down to Hell.
Danya worked for an alternative radio station in our town that boasted the highest rated morning drive time audience. Danya was the weather and traffic girl and sidekick to a shock jock named Frank on “The Frank Show.”10 During their Monday morning on-air banter, Frank would ask Danya what she did over the weekend. The Monday after Danya first visited our church, she surprised everyone by declaring, “I went to church!” Frank replied, “Church?! You are not a church kind of person.” Danya told Frank, “I know. But I’m learning that Jesus has some interesting things to say about life.”
As the weeks went on, members of my church would listen on their Monday commute as Danya updated Frank on her spiritual journey. For Danya, Jesus was becoming no longer the “Jew gone bad” but someone whose life and teachings were captivating. There was something to this man, but she couldn’t put her finger on it just yet.
Danya had a lot of questions for our community: questions about Jesus’ life; questions about how Jesus viewed the Old Testament law; questions about grace; questions about being kosher; and questions about why Christians had abandoned the Jewish festivals. After many conversations, reading books and countless cups of Starbucks coffee, Danya began to see Jesus in a different light.
All of Danya’s questions weren’t perfectly answered, but one Sunday afternoon Danya was laying on her bed thinking about the spiritual journey she had been on when she felt overwhelmed by a presence. She said, “It felt like hands were holding me up and supporting me. I can’t explain it other than I was overcome with emotion and knew that I was loved by a gracious Messiah would never let me go.” Danya invited Jesus to be her messiah and announced on the Frank Show the next morning that she was now a follower of Jesus. A couple weeks later, through tears and sobs, Danya blubbered through her story to our community and was baptized in one of our member’s swimming pools.
Sometimes people like Danya come to faith because they are in full pursuit of truth, meaning, and beauty. In these cases, our job is to be a kind, spiritual coach and mentor, helping them think through their journey. By far, however, the most common type of spiritual conversations I have with people revolve around coming to grips with the spiritual baggage of their past.
Kacy - The Baggage of Religion – I first met Kacy at the concert of a mutual friend. It may have been due to the number of drinks that Kacy had, but when she found out I was a pastor, she shared an unsolicited description of her spiritual past. It turned out that Kacy grew up in a house church in a small town. The small house church was very exclusive. In fact, they believed that their small movement was the only group that was going to make it to Heaven. Kacy’s childhood was full of rigid and legalistic practices.
When Kacy hit her late teen years, she began to wonder about her family’s church. She had a lot of questions for the leaders of her church, but questions were strongly discouraged in their sect. At some point shortly after high school, the cognitive dissonance of her life became overwhelming. If her church was so amazing, she wondered, why did it make people worse human beings and not better people? Not knowing any other alternatives, she left the only faith that she knew and gave up on Jesus.
As the years went by, there was a nagging in Kacy’s soul. She realized a lot of the religious baggage from her childhood church had nothing to do with Jesus. She also knew that underneath all that baggage there was something real. There was something undeniable that she couldn’t live without.
So in a noisy concert hall late one Friday night, Kacy spoke over the music and asked me, “How can you separate those things? How do you get around the baggage of religion to what is really real?” I didn’t know how to give her a short answer so I said, “Come and do life with our community of faith.” To my surprise, she did.
Kacy has been at our church for a few months now, interacting with the people of our community. She even joined a small group for the first time. A couple weeks ago, I asked her how she was doing on her spiritual journey. Kacy’s eyes began to well up and after a long pause she said, “When I am able to get some words out, I will try and tell you.”
More than anything, people like Kacy need to see examples of a healthy community. They need to see firsthand the power of the local church. Bill Hybels is fond of saying, “There is nothing like the church when it is working right.”11 But I would add a corollary to that axiom: “There is nothing more messed up than the church when it is dysfunctional.”
Ironically, to be effective at evangelism in a post-individualistic era, we need to focus less on old formulas and sales pitches of evangelism methodologies of the past12 and more on understanding people as individuals. What drives a person to an existential encounter with Jesus is different for every person. What all of these experiences have in common is this: a person may learn something about Christian truth-claims through a sermon or a book, but the beauty and goodness of the Christian faith can only be evaluated and experienced through a relationship with a live Christian, called an “advocate” by Lewis Rambo13 A real life human being embodying the love, grace, and beauty of God is how God reveals himself to humanity. The gospel can change the world. As Jesus modeled, this happens through the transformation of human beings through a personal encounter. The word for that is evangelism.
1 Matthew 26:11
2 Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for The Social Gospel. (HardPress Publishing: 2012).
3 Leslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to The Theology of Mission. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing: 1995).
4 Genesis 12:1-3; The Message
5 Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), p. 107.
6 cf. NT Wright, How God Became King. (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2012).
7 Matthew 6:10
8 Hawkins, Greg L. and Cally Parkinson. Reveal: Where are You? (Chicago: Willow Creek Association, 2007).
9 Matthew 5:3 (The Message)
10In an ironic twist, it turned out that Frank is the son of a Nazarene Pastor. Frank’s website can be found at: http://www.klpx.com/page.php?page_id=17
11 Hybels, Bill and Lynn Hybels. Re-Discovering Church. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997).
12 Kennedy, D. James. Evangelism Explosion. (Grand Rapids: Tyndale, 1996).
13Lewis Rambo, Understanding Religious Conversion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).