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.

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 wrong crowd…

4 Apr

filterbubble1If you find yourself living a day to day existence that doesn’t ever include sharing the Gospel, chances are that one of two relationship circumstances is present in your life. As many before me have established (and as I maintain): being a message bearer is a non-negotiable aspect of following Jesus. We cannot shun this responsibility by crying that our lives are different and we share the Gospel through our actions for this will not do. Unless our actions carry some accompanying signifier we just have a pile of good actions (soiled by some not-so-good ones because we’re not perfect) that mean nothing to the outside world. Assuming you’re convinced sharing the faith is necessary and good – why aren’t you? Plenty of reasons abound, but living at one pole of the relational spectrum is a prime suspect.

The Bubble

During my years in ministry this has been the most consistent trap for me, and the most likely trap for my students as well. We find Christian community, we live our lives, rinse and repeat. The problem arises when our network of meaningful relationships includes Christians exclusively – at this point we don’t have any significant relational capitol with folks who don’t believe and therefore we shy away from giving away our faith and become greedy with it.

The best way to test for this is simply asking yourself how many people you could call/text/email right now to hang out without it being weird. A lot of us think “Oh there are so many non-Christians at my work/school/etc.” without realizing that they’re almost all acquaintances and we know very little about who they actually are.

If this is you consider being more intentional with folks in your regular spheres of life. If your regular spheres are composed of Christians exclusively (i.e. you are a minister, missionary, attend a Christian school, etc.) then try joining a group or club without religious affiliation. Salt is not effective if it remains in the shaker surrounded by more salt and a candle provides no illumination in the sunlight.

The Desert

At the other end of the spectrum we find Christians who are totally alone (or think they are) in their relationships. These folks find themselves either devoid of Christian friendships or with very distinct Christian and non-Christian communities. I have not ever personally found myself in this situation but have seen many students fall into the trap. Their closest friends and communities are all secular and they begin to fear rocking the boat. As time passes and routines are established the idea of being vocal about matters of faith becomes less and less of a possible reality. The people advising them and investing in them all have no connection to Jesus and therefore don’t integrate him into their counsel. Over time the believer falls into the trap of thinking “they’re such nice people – surely God will be pleased with them.” (If this seems a stretch read the first chapter of Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus). Eventually they must compromise some of their Christian identity to maintain their connection to the individual or group because they’ve never established a pattern of respectful disagreement or asserted that their faith is indeed valuable to them.

We often refer to Paul’s instruction not to be unequally yoked as advice about marriage but I think it extends to all relationships (romantic, business, friendship, etc.) This doesn’t mean that the Christin shouldn’t start a business with a non-Christian friend or that we should shun relationships with those who disagree (see “The Bubble” above) – but rather that we should prioritize at least a few close friendships with believers and find a meaningful Christian community where we can be known. This allows us to be ‘in but not of’ the world as we live and work and relate as aliens in a foreign land. Without a deep and life giving connection to the body of Christ the individual will ultimately succumb to the pressure of falling in line with the culture. In the west this means “you can believe in Jesus – just don’t suggest that I ought to as well.”

If this is you, I am glad that you are able to connect and value those who don’t share your most deeply held beliefs, but know that finding a significant connection to the body of Christ is vital for the survival of your faith.

Conclusion

Again, these are not the only two reasons people who otherwise think it is right and good fail to share their faith. Nor am I suggesting that you must fit into one of these two categories. I think we have a tendency towards one or the other and both are damaging both to us as individuals and to the work of the Kingdom. Assess your relationships – who you actually spend free and unscheduled time with – and ask if there is balance or if your relationships are weighted too heavily towards one end of the spectrum.

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