Pondering Evangelism

I live a strange life, just like everyone who is serious about following Jesus does. His teachings are insane to this world. I can hear him challenge us to give to everyone who asks, turn the other cheek to an attacker and walk a second mile with our oppressor that forces us to walk the first. His ideas are almost intolerable and in most of my life they are just about unacceptable. Yet I trust Him...Or I should say I am really trying to.
I have never been much of an evangelist. I have ‘gone out evangelizing’ before because I felt pressured by a leader or teacher but have never been very comfortable with the process. I have even ‘led folks to the Lord’ that way but still feel odd about the whole thing. I have also been out with friends and become the victim of another Christians evangelism, feeling attacked or at least annoyed. There have been moments where peoples boldness about Jesus has really impressed me and there have been more occasions that people creeped me out with what seemed like irrelevant and religious language. I still think about the preachers on the lawn at USF where I went to college. They would stand in the middle of the campus with a bible in their hand and just shake their fists as they proclaimed the judgement of God to the college. People would gather around them and it would become a huge spectacle. There would be fights, arguments, and ridicule but never dullness. These preachers would call everyone sinners and holler about them burning in hell for all of eternity. At the time of my first encounter with these guys, after starting college, I knew very little about faith. I would have called myself a Christian but that would have very similar to informing you that I was a male or that I was white. It was just an nominal identity that I inherited from my family. College is a great place to be shaken out of those prescribed roles and it wasn’t long before I was sitting in the lawn, probably after a philosophy class, and thinking to myself “I will never say I’m a Christian again.’ I remember thinking that if that these jerks screaming at people represent Christianity then I was definitely a Buddhist. I couldn’t possibly believe in a faith that made people into such assholes. That very day as I said that to myself my journey began. I got up and walked away from the religious idiots in the lawn and as I walked,there was an old man with a box and he handed me a pocket sized Gideons New Testament and said “here is a little something to help you along the way.” I kept it and thought to myself how useless of a gift  this was. I remember thinking that he was probably with the jerks I just walked away from and I also remember thinking that this bible probably wasn’t real anyway. Well I went back to my dorm and found a bible to cross reference it with. It was a real new testament and for some reason I began carrying it around in my back pocket from that day on.
There was this dude Jeff that lived down the hall in my dorm. I remember him saying “Its against my religion” whenever I would invite him to do something he didn’t think he should do. I always got a kick out of that and never thought twice about it. I just thought it was a funny way to say no thanks. Well one day I got into a conversation with Jeff about those preachers on the lawn and he had an interesting perspective. It wasn’t that he thought that Christians were jerks but that he didn’t think these jerks were very Christian. He would talk about things that Jesus said in contrast with the kind of condemning things that they would scream at people. Jeff was a really really great artist and one day he came flying into my room and was excited to tell me about his art project. He made two paper mache figures, one was Jesus and the other was the preacher on the lawn. Jesus was made out of pages of the new testament and the preacher was made of newspaper and holding a bible in hand. Then Jeff pulled out a tape recorder and hit play. He had sat outsite and written quotes from the preachers rants and recorded them on this tape. He alternated between quotes from the hellfire preachers and the words of Jesus. It really made a powerful statement. The piece wasn’t complete until he got up early the next morning and set it up in the very spot that the preacher would soon be. He hit play and crowds gathered around the piece and began laughing and discussing this brilliant work of art. Then the preacher man showed up and he was pissed. He actually smashed the paper figures in his rage. It was then Jeff turned to me with a huge smile and said, “now my piece is finished.” I will never forget it.
There were other things that happened around these preachers too. One day I was sitting there listening as I often would as I at my lunch and a guy walked over and asked me what I thought about what was being said. I think he asked me if I really thought people would burn in hell for smoking pot. I had a lot of really interesting conversations with others out there. One day as I looked around the crowd I wondered to myself how many of the conversations were, in some way, touching on ultimate questions and concerns.  They did get people talking even if they personally had nothing to offer anyone. After I really became a Christian, I had to trace a lot of the questions and conversations i had back to those idiots in the grass. I always laugh and remember that it wouldn’t be the first time that God spoke through an ass. (Num 22)
After becoming serious about my faith and really considering myself a Christian I remember one such conversation in the courtyard with an agnostic friend that really shook me up. He asked me if I believed in hell. He said that if you really believed that people were gonna die and burn in conscious torment for all eternity unless they hear about and believe in Jesus, then this seems like the most reasonable way to act. hmmm....
I have always thought about those guys out there and wondered about what it is that they are doing and how it relates to the way that I live out my faith. Its really a question, like my agnostic friends question, about applied theology. Our lives and the way we live them are the manifestations of our beliefs.
If I thought I had a cure to the disease that was killing someone in front of me then wouldn’t it be criminal not to give it to them? Does this analogy have anything to do with the way we think about and talk about our faith?
The Gospel is often thought of in terms of propositional truths that we either accept as true through some intellectual assent or which we doubt, question and sometimes flat out reject. We are told or are telling others that this world was made by God to be good but through sin and rebellion it has fallen into disarray and that Jesus is the only hope for us to be restored in relationship to God. We speak of a heaven or hell that is awaiting us in the afterlife and we urge others to believe so that they do not perish. I am not calling the truth being presented into question as much as I am questioning the presentation of truth in such terms. I have known terrible people that would confess that they believe these truths and I have know saintly agnostics who would never claim to believe such things that have awed me with the way their lives resemble the Jesus that I read about in the New Testament.
Most everyone has heard that St. Francis of Assisi said “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” Well besides the fact that there is no trace of this line in any of Francis’ writings or texts about him from within 200 years of his life it does have a very Franciscan spirit. In Chapter XVII of his Rule of 1221, Francis told the friars not to preach unless they had received the proper permission to do so. Then he added, “Let all the brothers, however, preach by their deeds.” I always hear this “use words when necessary” in a way that troubles me because it seems to forget the fact that Francis and his little brothers were prophets that preached all the time. His life and ministry seemed to point to the fact he also believed that it was very necessary. What I really love about this quote is its call to live out the message. Not in some spineless and arrogant hope that others will see it and be moved to ask us what makes us so different  from everyone else but in true faith. I am reminded of the words of James that “faith without works is dead.” He said things like “you believe that god is one, good, so do the demons” and they shudder because of this belief. If I believe that you are about to punch me then I flinch. When a community believe the reports that a hurricane is headed their way they buy up all the bottled water and canned foods from the market, they board their windows in preparation for the storm. Faith manifests itself in the reality that is our everyday lives.
People often believe deep down that they are worthless, unwanted, disliked, and failures. We believe these things because they have been echoed to us through our own interpretation of years of personally traumatic experiences. Our parents may have neglected us, bullies may have picked on us, maybe we let people down in team sports and perhaps we have been broken up with. These experiences leave scars on our hearts and whether we admit it to ourselves or not, deep down, we believe these things about ourselves. It is out of these skewed identities that we live and act in this world. It is out of my own insecurity that I try to control things and power up. For others they cope with there pain by self medicating, staying busy, accomplishing tasks, eating, sleeping, eccentricities, or sometimes evangelism. Evangelism is one of those activities that you are right and know the truth and can really help others right? It is an activity that implicitly puts us in a position of power. We think that we are unselfish and sharing this good news in compassionate concern or possibly obedient faith. Meanwhile we draw lines in the sand by acknowledging truths that most of our lives actually deny.
So what's better? To believe all the right things about Jesus and His Kingdom or to live lives that are actually surrendered to Him as our Lord. Any inclination for us to answer such a question reveals our misunderstanding of faith all together. Paul wrote, in his first letter to Timothy that he should, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” Life and doctrine can save. I have heard these described as two wings of an airplane or the separate blades on a pair of scissors. Neither is sufficient in itself and both are necessary for the salvation of both you and those to whom you are preaching. Do we really think that the God of this Universe that would empty himself and take on the form of a servant to be killed as a criminal is ultimately concerned with our thoughts about Him? Isn’t the incarnation itself a testament to mission and action that is lived out in this world? I have become increasingly bothered by evangelism that is not actually discipleship. Jesus never told us to go make orthodox theologians out of every tongue tribe and nation but to make disciples. He gave very clear instructions about how one might go about doing this as well. Baptize them in my name and teach them to obey all that I have commanded. A disciple of Jesus, according to Jesus, would be one who “deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23) Evangelism then, in my mind is the first of many calls to follow Jesus. It is a call to surrender and a call to action. It is a call to see in Jesus, a God that can identify with your suffering and rejection, the path to redemption of yourself and the whole world. His disciples are those who would embrace the cross, a symbol of humiliation, guilt, shame, and rejection for the sake of this world. They bleed and die for their enemies. The turn the other cheek, they go the second mile, and live in a way that makes religious people crazy.
Well that changes things doesn’t it? I mean it does for me. I am always trying to make disciples. I am daily telling myself, those with whom I have influence, and really anyone that will listen that they should follow (as in mimic) Jesus. Evangelism then, seems to be the first call to surrender that will be followed by hundreds more every day. It also pushes me to realize that my own faith, if based on propositional truths, will not cut it for such activity. I need to live my life as though I really believe that Jesus is to be mimicked, trusted, and surrendered to as Lord. What's even more frightening is not that I might not be cut out to make disciples but that judgement itself won’t be as much of a pop quiz about doctrine as an examination of the ways that I loved the poor, the sick, the prisoners, and the like. Christianity is not a religion that you identify or agree with but it is a lifestyle that you struggle and strive for. It is the living out of Jesus prayer that he taught his disciples about the kingdom (Gods will) coming to the earth. It is a discipline as one might conclude by the implications of the word disciple.
I have done my best over the last several years to really take Jesus seriously. My life has been insane because of it. I lived for years in an intentional community in the inner city that had homeless friends over all the time. We shared our house, our food, and our lives with the poor of our city. We struggled daily to apply our theology in the most ridiculous of situations. One night I came into the house and found a crack addict who had stolen from us on many occasions doing dishes in our kitchen. We have spent time praying with those who burglarized our house. We folded the laundry of the man who stole our car as we anticipated his release. We didn’t ever know the right thing to do but we were striving and struggling daily to seek Jesus among the poor and see his will be done in those relationships. People who are not in need came over a lot too. We had friends from school, work, old neighborhoods or whatever that came over as well. Our house hosted many guest and was often the venue of parties. Lots of people came through our doors and we were often asked why we live the way that we do. The only answer is Jesus. Why is the guy who stole from you back over for dinner? Jesus. Why do you do without so many things that our culture considers necessities? Jesus. Why don’t you take more precautions and give more consideration to your own safety and security? Jesus. Jesus is the reason we grew our own food, He is the reason we didn’t use air conditioning or water heaters, He is the reason we chose an abandon and poor part of town to live, He is the reason we host dinners and bible discussions every week, He is the reason our house was on the sex offenders list last year, He is the reason. I do not want this to come off like the ‘people will ask us why we are so different’ approach to preaching that I find so weak and timid but at the same time, when you live radically, people will ask. Our life is our belief. We do not believe in a vacuum and just like your insecurities affect the way you live and interact with others, so will your faith. We all act on what we believe. I believe with all of my heart that Jesus is Lord; His incarnation is the focal point for all theology, His teachings are the standards for ethics, His life is an example of humility and compassion, His death is redemptive and His Resurrection is the dawning of the Kingdom which is both here and still on the way.
I do not understand any evangelism that exists outside of the fullness of his reign. I am in no way opposed to telling the truth about God to people and calling them to follow him. In fact, in case nobody has told you, you are a dirty sinner and need some serious help. Forget the laws of God, you don’t even live up to your own standards. Look we are all in the same boat but Jesus is making all things new and is capable of breathing new life into you. He has given his very life in His effort for you to know his love. He longs to be your strength, your peace, your Lord, your savior, and really your everything. I better warn you know though, this ain’t just some doctrine you will hold in your heart. Jesus will absolutely destroy your life! He will turn everything upside down and will never stop calling you forward. He will see your transformation through by any means necessary. His love is unrelenting and your life will be anything but comfortable. If it is security and comfort you are after then maybe you don’t want to follow Jesus. It is easier to drive an SUV into a storm drain than it is for the middle class to inherit, as in acquire as their own, the Kingdom of God and the values that come with it.
For those of you who decide to go for it and cast your lots with Jesus, remember we love because he loved us, we serve others because he has called us to, we care for the poor because it is His way, we speak truth to others because we think they deserve it and because we long for justice. We are not out here trying to convert people, that is his work, we are serving, loving, giving, preaching, and praying in his name, for that is ours.