Speaking of Jesus: The Art of NOT Evangelism is all about the primary ways we interact with people who don’t know Jesus. So it’s a book about evangelism, or, as the subtitle suggests, a book about NOT doing evangelism the way we used to.
The author, Carl Medearis, will be the main presenter at the Michigan District All Pastors’ Conference in October. As a preview, I’d like to share three take-aways from the book. These aren’t hard and fast rules, or even necessarily sage advice, just three things that helped me in my parish ministry.
Sometimes Medearis gives me a way of saying things I was already feeling; sometimes he challenges me to say things differently, and I’m still trying out a new voice. But either way, Speaking of Jesus has found its way into my vocabulary. Here are a few example of how.
Stop Being on the Defensive
I’ve never been one who enjoys conflict, though I see how a healthy disagreement can bring growth. One of the things I dislike about what we typically call “defending the faith” is how easily apologetics can turn into atheist bashing. I once heard it said that if you disagree with me, you must be either stupid or evil. It’s easy to assign non-Christians one or both of those designations.
Don’t do it.
There are some really decent and intelligent people who don’t know and follow Jesus. Our mission as church is not to blow these pagans out of the water. Rather, we are to point them to Jesus. You can’t actually do both at the same time.
The whole concept of being “in attack mode” or being “on the defensive” fits well within the “Argument is War” thinking in our culture. When we feel under attack, we respond to non-Christians in a reflexively combative way.
Medearis is pretty good at encouraging people to give up on winning the war with non-Christians and to stop trying to beat people into submission / into the Kingdom. Here’s one of many helpful quotes on the subject:
But when injured, we change. Under fire from a hostile and misunderstanding world, we grow defensive, begin challenging and targeting different opposition groups, demolishing the characters and teachings of individuals through media outlets, pamphlets, and even sermons. It becomes very difficult to “love the sinner, hate the sin” when we hole up in a defensive posture (170).
Medearis wants us to give up on trying to defend the faith or the church to unbelievers; instead, he wants us to talk to them about Jesus. The goal is to engage people as people and not as enemies. We can hold the Truth in an open palm, making it available for others to see, poke at, or maybe even borrow … If we know it’s the Truth, we can stop being on the defensive; we can hold Truth loosely enough to let others have some, too.
Keep Jesus at the Leading Edge
I think most of us would say we want to keep Jesus at the center of our theology; as long as we are only talking about theology, I think that’s exactly the right sentiment. I’m all for being Christocentric in our preaching, teaching, and systematic theology. The Gospel message is at the heart or center of who we are, and while all theology connects back to the center, some of our theology is admittedly more at the periphery.
As long as this metaphor of central/peripheral describes the importance of different theological formulations or expresses a desire to be centered (focused on) Jesus, sign me up: I am there.
When we confuse our theological system with the Kingdom, however, some bad things happen. We begin to see ourselves as “in” the Kingdom with Jesus and others standing on the “outside.”
In this scenario, the peripheral issues in our theological system become blended with the outside boundaries of a kingdom “container” which includes US but not THEM. The place we encounter outsiders becomes the boundaries of our container: the outskirts of our theology, or the boundary issues of our morality.
In other words, we tend to confront / encounter new people in the context of moral debate (gay rights, life issues) or theological boundary issues (close communion, infant baptism).
If we keep Jesus in the center but all of our conversation with outsiders takes place on the periphery, guess what we never get a chance to talk about? Jesus.
That’s right. The single most important and life-changing thing about our faith—the person of Jesus—is kept at the center, and therefore miles and miles away from outsiders.
Stop it. That’s just not right. Put Jesus back at the leading edge of our encounter with outsiders (while keeping Him at the center of our theology).
Don’t make someone conform to your political, moral, or theological view before you will talk to them about Jesus; you’ll never get around to it.
I remember moving the creation/evolution presentation out of the first session for new people while I was still on vicarage. It’s not that I don’t think creation is a vital part of our faith; it’s just that if someone leaves that first new member class scratching their head and wondering if they’ll ever be back, I want the stumbling block to be Jesus crucified and risen. I still teach on creation, but I lead with Jesus.
I find Speaking of Jesus to be very helpful in this regard. Medearis shows a strong sense of the visible and invisible church and suggests we spend less time worrying about the boundary you have to cross to be “in” the Kingdom and spend more time actually talking to people about Jesus. Here’s just one of many quotes along those lines:
Instead of trying to define the line that separates the saved from the unsaved, we point to Jesus. We don’t have to “own up to” Christendom this way. We simply follow Jesus … If we’re saved into the boundaries of a circle, we owe our allegiance to that boundary, and we’re going to try to bring others inside it (72; 74).
“How can we go to someone who doesn’t live like I do, or vote like I do, and love them in a such a way that invites them to follow Jesus?” That’s a question that confronts the church in our current culture. And I think Medearis helps us ask the right questions. And he might even help us keep Jesus at the leading edge of our encounter with unbelievers.
Distinguish between Jesus and Mere Religiosity
One of the most important (and difficult to hear) messages of Speaking of Jesus is that our own religious structures can get in the way of introducing people to Jesus. Most Christians understand one thing by the term “Christianity,” while most of the unbelieving world understands something quite different.
In some ways, that disconnect proves the point: as long as we insist on external packaging of any kind, including good, helpful practices or labels, we run the risk of using tradition to obscure the Gospel.
Of course, I would like to say that we Lutherans, especially in the LCMS, are least susceptible to this, if for no other reason than we have been waving that particular flag from our very beginning. But the problem with the proverbial church-going fish is that it has no unbiased vantage from which to view the water.
So we must always be asking, “What do we do that helpfully delivers the goods for some, but may stand in the way of God’s mission for others? What about our life together runs the risk of being merely religious instead of pointing people to Jesus?” As Carl points out: “Everyone lives in a context and it’s good to be sensitive to the American Christian context as much as any other (37).”
It’s hard to be aware of how much our context influences our message, but one of the things Speaking of Jesus taught me is that it is possible. It’s possible to set aside religiosity and focus on Jesus.
It’s not easy, but it can happen. And when that focus on Jesus makes its way into conversations with outsiders, it’s a lot easier to get at the heart of what’s important (by that I mean JESUS) a lot faster.
This response from a Muslim is typical to the stories Carl tells in his book. I want people to say these kinds of things about me, too.
“If this man had talked about theology or doctrine or even Christianity, I wouldn’t have been interested. I’ve heard all of that from my Christian friends. But he talked about Jesus in a way I’ve never heard before and had never thought of. I thought it was amazing (37).”
I guess I take comfort in the fact that this kind of talking was something Carl had to grow into, too. Of the early part of his ministry, Medearis says: “I was so busy trying to convert people to Christianity that Jesus never had a chance (38-39).”
Could that ever be true of our congregations or our ministries as well? If so, what can we do to raise that awareness? What might we say to make people less comfortable with external religion and long for knowing Jesus a little more? How do we distinguish between Jesus and mere religiosity?
When we meet together at the Michigan District All Pastors’ Conference in October, we will have the unique pleasure and challenge of getting to know Carl Medearis and his one-track mind. It sounds overly simple and rather obvious, but it bears repeating: discipleship is all about JESUS.
So stop being defensive; keep Jesus at the leading edge; and distinguish between Jesus and mere religiosity. And register for #APC2015! Every active pastor who registers will receive a copy of Speaking of Jesus when they show up for the conference. I’m looking forward to seeing you there!