This is part of a series in which I’m reposting old blog posts to explore my current thinking on the ‘big stuff’. They were first posted in 2011/12. I’m aiming to write a reflection after each topic commenting on any evolutions since this point in history.
Most of you will know that I was raised in the Salvation Army. I’ve mentioned it in previous posts, and shared how it’s shaped so much of my world view – in particular leaving me with a profound desire for a faith that seeks transformation here and now for our whole world, rather than simply being concerned with spiritual enlightenment and whatever heaven may be.
Another bit of Army DNA that remains with me is the desire to see others share in the life that I have through following this intriguing, revolutionary Jesus. This Jesus whose life, death and resurrection provide us with a tantalising glimpse of what life might be when directed completely in the service of God. The Army came into being through the burning desire of a group of men and women to bring hope to the darkest parts of Victorian society, who believed that salvation wasn’t just an eternal destiny, but being saved from whatever darkness overwhelmed those lost lives.
There are many phrases I could use to describe this, but I suppose the one that might be most familiar is ‘evangelism’ – literally, the sharing of the good news about this Jesus, the good news that God is at work recreating his creation and inviting us to participate in it. The problem is that this word has come to carry with it a massive amount of baggage – particularly linked to some kind of aggressive attack on those who don’t share our beliefs, a philosophy that seems to view threatening people with hellfire and damnation as an appropriate way to encourage people to embrace life in all its fullness, a life eternal. As if fear is the best way to change someone’s mind.
Another approach to this all is making faith incredibly simple – a kind of cosmic ABC that we only have to buy into to ensure eternal life. As wonderful as Alpha has been in bringing many people into church and faith, it perhaps falls into this trap – making faith bite-size, easily digestible, not at all profoundly disruptive – a decision that literally turns everything upside down, changing our entire world view. That isn’t simple. It can’t be.
Those who are particularly good at ‘sharing the good news’ are known as evangelists – particularly good at engineering opportunities to speak about the gospel persuasively, helping people to open up to the message, helping to change their ways. These are the people who make it all ‘simple’, but perhaps who sell a version of faith that although at first is easy to swallow, doesn’t provide real sustenance for when the going gets tough. Often they’re trying to answer questions that people aren’t even asking.
Doubt is swept away under the rug. But it has a habit of re-emerging – and if we don’t know how to properly deal with it, if we think doubt is faithlessness, then faith can soon disappear.
One of the essays those of us who trained as Salvation Army ministers during my time had to complete was titled ‘Evangelism is Mission, but Mission is more than Evangelism’. For those of us who had been fed a diet of the importance of proclaiming the good news of Jesus at every possible moment, this seemed one of those statements that didn’t make much sense. Evangelism is mission. Mission is Evangelism. The two things are the same thing, aren’t they?
As time has passed, I’ve come to realise the depth of this statement. It means that speaking about Jesus to those around us is only a fraction of the bigger picture of what God is up to. We’re invited into the kingdom to experience this fullest possible life, but also to be co-creators of a world that reflects the beauty of who God is. There’s the famous statement attributed to St Francis (or at least to his followers) that we should “preach the gospel, if necessary using words” – the sense that we live out the good news as much, if not more, than speaking about it. I suppose the key point is that if we’re not living it out, our words are worse than useless. If we’re not showing love, generosity and patience, we may as well give up. As Paul says in the famous passage in his first letter to Corinth, without love, we’re nothing but noise.
I’m also aware, however, that the only way that people are going to learn about this God is if we have the confidence in the story that we’ve given our lives to, confidence enough to want to share it. Confidence that it can and does transform, that although we can’t explain it, life with Jesus is beyond our wildest imagination – not without difficulty, disappointment, pain – but with a hope that says that death is not the end of the story. A hope that also says that we are part of something radical and revolutionary, that is worth life itself. A life that looks beyond the actual to the possible and seeks to live it out. But people won’t get that just from our actions. They’ll see good being acted out, they’ll realise that there might be something different about us, but unless we’re willing to explain what’s going on, then they’re not going to think much beyond that.
I suppose that what I’m saying is that a willingness to speak about who God is and what he means to us needs to be as natural as breathing.
The problem is that we’ve been taught that there’s a certain pattern of words that we need to use to tell people out Jesus, a certain prayer that they need to speak that will get them ‘into the fold’. We’ve told ourselves that if we’re not good with the slick sales patter, we should keep our heads down. If we haven’t got all the answers, we shouldn’t even begin the conversation.
I told myself this for a long time – that I wasn’t built to be an evangelist. I had too many unanswered questions, too many doubts to be persuasive enough. I told myself that my job was to equip others to ‘do the business’…that my job was a behind the scenes kind of thing. But maybe what we’d got wrong is what it is to be an evangelist.
You know, what I’ve discovered is that people who don’t have a faith appreciate it far more when you stop and listen to their story. When, if you start to speak of faith and admit that it’s difficult, that you don’t have all the answers, that faith is fundamentally the act of embracing the uncertainty – that’s when they start to want to listen. Dialogue happens. Perhaps we actually learn something about Jesus by listening to those who don’t believe in him. Perhaps, in some way, as Peter Rollins says, we are evangelised by them. We learn about ourselves, about what our faith is really about. Evangelism is as much listening as speaking.
I believe that we have a duty as Jesus followers to share the story that we carry with us. The story that echoes through the ages, of a God who created us, who invites us to commune fully with him and realise our potential. We have this hope, a hope for a different world that we simply can’t keep to ourselves.
We use words, when we have opportunity to do so – not worrying about how slick or how basic they may be. We use actions to show the goodness of the kingdom of God whenever we can.
We live hope. We are hope.
We are transformed. We are the transformation.
Peter says it this way in his first letter in the bible:
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…
Be prepared to explain what’s going on. No matter how foolish it or you may sound. Don’t worry about how crap your arguments may be. Don’t give easy answers. Don’t duck difficult issues. Be authentic. Embrace them. Journey with them. Take your time – don’t think that you’ve only got one shot at getting this right. Don’t try to force anyone to decide something that they aren’t ready to. Don’t use force. Simple. That’s not the way of the kingdom. Don’t engineer, be organic.
Faith is meant to be shared. It’s not ‘something personal’ – it’s something that defines us, that invades every corner of our life. Speaking of it has to be as natural as breathing. But that doesn’t mean that it has to be rammed into every conversation.
What if our broken words, and our doubts are exactly what people need to hear. That we don’t have to have it all sewn up to follow Jesus. Speaking of that hope becomes as natural as breathing, because to be natural is to be honest.
I guess that’s what I’m trying to be and do now