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Is it wrong to talk to strangers?

22 Apr
Run. Always run.

Run. Always run.

Last week I got into a conversation with a friend about whether or not Christians should approach people with whom they have no relationship in order to share the Gospel. We got onto the subject in the context of a training I assigned, asking students to go find someone and simply ask “What do you think about Jesus?” using questions rather than statements to steer the subsequent conversations.

The argument against talking to strangers was rooted in several factors, but the ones that emerged as the most deeply felt were: possible harm done by freaking people out/upsetting them, no relational context for follow up, ineffectiveness of the strategy, no prompting from God to do it – an arbitrary task, and a lack of scriptural precedent.

If these things were all true then I would agree that we should probably not talk to people we don’t already know, however this just doesn’t seem to be the case in my opinion. I’ll briefly look at each objection.

Damaging the cause of the Gospel

The type of person who could do damage in a 2 minute conversation is probably the same type who would do it in a relationship. Similarly, a humble and winsome approach should diffuse any tension – even if the conversation is awkward. In the worst case scenario, the approached person should walk away saying “Well, at least that Christian was less annoying that the usual type.” It’s not the duration of the conversation or our relational status entering the conversation that matters but how we treat the person we’re in dialogue with. (SPOILER ALERT: we should treat them with dignity and respect)

Some object that a particular church does contact evangelism and their ministry is doing more harm than good. The same response works here though: that church we have issues with probably still prays and reads the Bible. We aren’t going to abandon those core pillars of the faith because someone we disagree with practices them as well, and I don’t think we should abandon the practice of approaching folks we don’t know just because some churches may be terrible at it.

No relational context

This is an easy fix: give them your email address. If they don’t live in the same town, and they’re actually interested in following up you can help connect them with a local church in the area if you know anyone there, or at least use your network to try to find one that would be welcoming. Even in the worst of “hit-and-run” scenarios the seed sown might be cultivated by someone else. It might be less effective, but that doesn’t make it wrong or totally ineffective.

Ineffectiveness

Being a witness is not like being a middle manager at some company: our goals aren’t efficiency and results. Our goal is obedience. I agree that sharing the faith in the context of an established and ongoing relationship is more effective, but again this doesn’t render talking to a stranger ineffective or pointless. Part of the intended outcome of the exercise was for the student leaders to grow in their conversational evangelism skills in a low stakes environment. Even if the folks they engaged with remained uninterested, the students took a risk, became more comfortable in conversation, and maybe heard something they weren’t prepared to deal with that will spur reflection and study.

No prompting from God

The simple truth is that we rarely hear the audible voice of God commanding us to do something, and we rarely find ourselves drawn to something that is unnatural and risky for us. If we are waiting for that moment where we feel totally compelled we will likely wait in perpetuity. I consider being a witness a discipline just like praying and reflecting on the Word. There are times when I don’t feel like doing those things but know the outcome will be good (even if I don’t have a mind blowing God moment), and so I do them. In the same way it is worthwhile (though not necessary) to be in the habit of occasionally risking some comfort to engage with a person who you otherwise would not. It will grow and stretch you and can possibly impact the person who you speak with.

Lack of Scriptural precedent

This one surprised me because I feel like there is scriptural precedent all over the place. Jesus sends out the 72 in Luke 10, Jesus talks to the random woman at the well in John 4, Jesus talks to Zacchaeus in the tree. Philip approaches the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. There are probably more, these are just the examples that occur to me off the top of my head.

Jesus commands us to go into all the world and make disciples. Paul explains that people can’t believe unless there is someone to teach them the truth. These are universal commands that always apply and aren’t nullified simply because we haven’t already met someone.

Conclusion

It doesn’t invalidate your faith if you don’t talk to strangers, and I know some people have done an awful (read: “super, duper, awful!) job of approaching people in the past – but we don’t have to own that. It will grow you as an individual and could impact someone else’s spiritual trajectory. There is no downside other than fleeting embarrassment as long as you remember to not be a jerk.

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Hell. Not the one in Michigan.

18 Apr

So far this week I’ve posted about Earth and Heaven, today I’ll try to deal with Hell. (Although Jesus already did! Christian joke – BOOM!)

Most of my recent thinking on this topic has been shaped by Erasing Hell by Francis Chan. It’s a brief and generous response to Love Wins by Rob Bell. Bell represents the most popular summation of the inclusivist position: God will save everyone. If God is love, and wants no one to perish – then love will win. Simple, and sounds good right? On the surface, sure – but as we dig deeper it begins to fall apart.

There are two issues to consider: the “in-house” theological issues and the conversational approach. These things differ not because we want to lie or sugarcoat our beliefs to folks who don’t share them, but because it’s such an offensive and massive concept that we have to couch it in terms of respect and love in conversation, something that can obscure our meaning if we’re trying to get to the essence of the doctrine.

Theological issues

Although CS Lewis wished hell didn’t exist and that it wasn’t part of the package deal (see Mere Christianity) it turns out that Jesus didn’t shy away from the topic at all; in fact he lead with it! We can retain Lewis’ desire that no one go there and utter hatred of such an existence while still embracing the reality that God does punish those who rebel against him.

We don’t know tons about hell, just like we don’t know tons about heaven. It is a separation from God, we won’t like being there, it is intended as a punishment and it was not made for people at all but for Satan.

Speaking about hell

“So you think I’m going to hell?”

I never really know what to say. Most of the times I communicate that every single person will have to face God’s judgment. I ask if 99 out of 100 won’t be an A+ but a failing grade – do they think they pass with a perfect 100? I am certain that I would fail that test.

“I don’t want to believe in a God who would send people to hell then!”

Here is the rub. Everyone is ok with the God who sends people to heaven, but no one (sane) wants God to send people to hell. There are a few points worth mentioning, and I cover some or all of them in conversation.

  • Actions have consequences. God didn’t send the suicide jumper to the pavement even though God is responsible for gravity. Similarly, our decision to rebel against God has a consequence: his judgment. The reason hell is the destination is that we would not be capable of inhabiting heaven in our rebellious state.
  • Hell is simply getting what we’ve wished for. As rebels we want to be in control of our own destiny and subject to no authority other than ourselves. Heaven is also called the Kingdom of God, because he is the sovereign authority. If our chief aim is independence and autonomy then we would be miserable in a place where we were subject to rule.
  • See previous post on heaven re: God’s rule is good, enjoyable, exciting, fulfilling.

We are eternal beings, not mere mortals. That means we all have an eternal destiny. The Bible gives us no reason to suspect that we can alter outcomes after our Earthly life is over so the stakes are high. Hell should frighten, but no one (in my opinion) can make a lasting and genuine commitment to God out of fear. That may motivate our search but in the end it is God’s immense and unyielding love which draws us to Him and enables us to lay down our weapons of war against Him.

The things I feel I must communicate are that everyone will face judgment because actions have consequences. There are only two options: being found righteous and being found guilty. God loves each individual and makes a real offer of salvation to every person, contingent on repenting of sin and placing trust in Jesus. Hell isn’t where all the rockstars are partying for eternity, and we won’t enjoy it.

“if I believed what you and the church of God say that you believe, even if England were covered with broken glass from coast to coast, I would walk over it, if need be, on hands and knees and think it worth while living, just to save one soul from an eternal hell like that!”

– Death row inmate Charles Peace, to the prison chaplain before being executed in 1879

That place where Johnny Cash and Lassie are…

17 Apr

In my last post I detailed how I might explain our current reality to someone: the world is broken and we’re all part of the problem. We have to own our own tendencies to do wrong before we can receive any correction. (It’s worth noting that the gospel isn’t there to correct our behavior: sinful actions are a symptom of a sinful nature. We must fix the source – our hearts – and only Christ can do that). Today I’ll detail a future reality that believers expect to participate in: heaven.

The pendulum continues to swing back and forth in church culture between focusing on heaven to the detriment of our effectiveness here and ignoring heaven to the detriment of our effectiveness here.

I tend to fall into the second camp because I’m afraid of the accusation that I’m just subscribing to some ‘pie in the sky’ fairy tale. The thing is, if it’s a true fairy tale then why shouldn’t I share it with my friends? Heaven is spoken of as a reward, a home, a Kingdom, and a city (among other things). Though plenty of books have been written and the best theologians of history have addressed it – we still don’t know all that much that isn’t speculative.

There will be no pain and no death. There will be no sickness and no sadness. There will be no hatred and no envy. We will be alive and aware. We will have physical bodies. God will be there and that will fill us with joy beyond anything imaginable here. We were designed to be with Him. Our hearts yearn for his presence (even if we deny or suppress that truth). This is why the knowledge of God is the most precious commodity on Earth – and it will be ubiquitous in heaven.

Um, seriously? I was told there would be cake...

Um, seriously? I was told there would be cake…

A common fear is that heaven will be boring or monotonous. I can’t explain why it won’t be. Imagine being free from all worry, all fear and instead being with the person you love the most at the height of that love. Amplify that by a magnitude of infinity and you have heaven.

Heaven really matters – Jesus spoke of being with him in the Kingdom. We shouldn’t become ‘so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good’ – but I suspect that if we have the real heaven and the real God in mind, this is impossible. We are told to pray that God would make Earth like heaven, and that we should participate in that process to the degree that we are able. This means we will be doing good as often as possible in creative and unexpected ways. Jesus sought the very margins of society and then brought hope and healing, this is the Kingdom I want to be a citizen of.

I don’t share about heaven frequently when I’m sharing the Gospel – I’m not sure how to present it in a way that doesn’t feel like bait. (And I’m not sure someone who doesn’t yearn for Christ would even see it as bait). I’d like to though. I’d like to paint a picture that calls the heart back home. Pascal’s wager makes the point that a bet on infinite joy while risking nothing is more logical than a bet on nothingness while risking infinite sorrow. This doesn’t sway people to believe, nor should it, but it ought to illustrate how high the stakes are.

After re-reading this post, I realize that it’s less conversational instruction and a little more of me just spilling my guts on heaven. The takeaways are that (a) God will be there and that matters a lot because this relationship supersedes all others, (b) it won’t be boring in any way, (c) everything negative that you can imagine will be eliminated while everything positive will be amplified, (d) it won’t end.

The world isn’t perfect, and we’re part of the problem.

15 Apr

Sharing the gospel requires you to explain the truth about our current reality as well as our future reality. We must be able to communicate what things are like now, and why; as well as what things will be like and why. I’ll spend this week covering these topics in three posts: Earth – Creation to present, Heaven and Hell. Some people claim to be Christians while denying the historical Christian teachings about one or more of these subjects but I find the support for those denials unconvincing. (I’m mainly referring to the concept of Hell, as most Christians embrace the notion of Heaven and no one denies that we actually exist and that the world is broken in some major ways)

Coming to an agreement about the current state of the world is not difficult: just ask someone to recite what types of headlines they read or what types of stories dominate the news. Occasionally there are feel good pieces but the bulk of our news reflects tragedy. War, theft, murder, famine, sickness, child abduction – the list goes on. Part of the difficulty in sharing the gospel is connecting ourselves to the broken world we live in. I often hear people say “I can be good without God” or “I just try to be a good person.” My responses are usually something like “Well I can’t” and “So do I, but I fail sometimes.”

Who, me? (Yes. We are ALL part of the problem.)

Who, me? (Yes. We are ALL part of the problem.)

I lead with my own brokenness and ask if they are perfectly good or if they just aim for being good, hoping that they have the integrity to admit that they aren’t perfect. Then I explain that the same things that we do on a small scale (white lies, lustful looks, anger) lead to the awful stuff going on in the world on a large scale.

If they go with me that far I’ll press in a little, asking how they think we got this way and if it was always this way. Increasing knowledge isn’t actually leading to better people – we still have the same crooked tendencies. Once they share their take I ask if I can share what God says in the Bible.

This part is pretty simple: God created everything and it was good. People didn’t have these rotten desires and there was harmony between people, the planet, and God. The very first people God made chose to rebel against God, believing that he was holding something back from them. By this act, evil entered their hearts and unfortunately it’s genetic. The reason we turn on the news and see death, and the reason that we sometimes do things we know we shouldn’t do is that we’ve inherited this selfish, rebellious attitude from our parents who got it from their parents before them and so on.

If someone tracks with me this far I want to tell them that the story doesn’t end there: there’s hope! Jesus makes it possible, and I share the Gospel with them. But sharing the Gospel of ‘Jesus Saves’ carries little weight with someone who thinks they are fine. The first step is to take a step back and look at the world and our own actions, asking if things are the way they ought to be. The answer is a clear no, which then opens the door for finding possible solutions.

The two most important planks of wood ever…

28 Mar

Why did Jesus have to die on a cross? It seems barbaric and unnecessary.

I will leave the task of explaining the depth of meaning behind the cross to better theologians and better wordsmiths. My task here is to simply respond as if someone had asked me in conversation, which conveniently, someone has.

Sin.

The short answer is sin, and we cannot explain the meaning of the cross without first making sure our friend has an understanding of the nature of sin and its consequences. I usually make a reference to the laws of our country, asking what happens if someone gets caught breaking the law. My friend usually observes that the lawbreaker pays a fine or goes to jail, etc. Exactly. Every human breaks God’s law. We know this because the law is impossibly difficult to keep: Looking lustily at another person is the equivalent of committing adultery. Harboring anger is tantamount to murder. The elevation of anything other than God to a primary place in our hearts (even our spouses, our kids!) is idolatry. We have all sinned, we have all broken the law.

Justice.

We would be incensed if proven rapists, drug traffickers, and murderers got no penalty for their crimes. We have a deep sense of justice and want evil to be repaid with punishment and good to be repaid with reward. This is natural and good (as long as we realize that we, as individuals, shouldn’t be making those judgment calls). The same is true on a cosmic scale: evil merits punishment and good merits reward. God is the final judge and his justice is perfect. The only problem is that we’re all evil. This doesn’t mean we don’t understand right and wrong, just that we’re crappy at picking right. If we stop at 99 consecutive red lights, run one, and then stop at the next 99 lights we are still guilty of an infraction. The same is true with regards to God’s law. If we’re super nice most of the time but act selfishly even once a day we’re still subject to punishment. The punishment for sin is death. Seems harsh, no? Remember, the law is a high standard. I am not a fibber – I am a liar. I’m not angry – I am a murderer. I’m not checking out that girl – I’m cheating on my wife. Because God is perfect and holy there is no middle ground for people who are mostly good. We must be perfect and holy as well or own up to our wickedness and rebellion, it won’t get swept under the rug because we’re good ‘most of the time.’

Mercy.The cross

It’s been said that the cross is the place where God’s justice and mercy kiss. Jesus was innocent of any violation of God’s law – though he did violate some of the human customs of his day. He bore no guilt and yet was given a criminals death. In this moment God’s justice was satisfied as his wrath (the penalty for sin) was poured out onto Jesus who paid the price (the ticket so to speak). His perfect mercy is evident here as well because all are free to put their faith in Jesus and claim his righteousness for their own – allowing the guilt (and thus the punishment) of sin to be removed. Many will say this is the free gift of God but I’m reluctant to use that term, knowing that there is always a cost. The cost for us is our very lives: “he who wishes to save his life must lose it.” We exchange our will which is bent on serving ourselves for God’s will which is bent on God’s glory. Conveniently we were built to glorify God, he cares about this world more than we do, and he’s better at it than us – this means that the exchange of wills actually frees us, we are more satisfied, and we do more good in the world. The caricature of coming to faith is giving up fun things to become a prude, the reality is leaving the bondage of self to truly live.

So when someone asks “why the cross?” you must explain that we are spiritual criminals who deserve sentencing in a spiritual court. Instead of charging us God has charged his own Son with the crimes of every human of all time and sentenced him to die on a cross – which Jesus did willingly. Our option is to proudly refuse this kindness like someone who won’t let a friend pay for a meal at a restaurant or to humbly submit to Christ’s Lordship and find freedom from the tyranny of self-interest.

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