“If we’ve practiced building relationships in the church and can share our faith respectfully and without embarrassment, chances are we’ll be able to share our faith outside the church as well. But we will not share only what others tell us we should believe. We will share our own commitments, even when they don’t fit the ‘party line’. We will share our doubts as well as the things we find funny or peculiar. And we will share our curiosity about the beliefs and commitments, practices and experiences of others, even those who are very different from us. As we do, not only will we bring Jesus into the world, it’s likely we’ll meet Him coming to us from the edges, from the wilderness, where we should never be surprised to find Him.”
— Heather Kirk-Davidoff, An Emergent Manifesto of Hope
Over the past few years I’ve come across some Christians on Facebook who were trying to share their thoughts on Christian faith in response to things that I had shared concerning my own thoughts.
I’ve observed these same people having similar conversations on their own Facebook pages with people who think differently than they do. Maybe the people who think differently than they do are more progressive in their thinking of Christianity or maybe they’re more liberal in their thoughts on theology or maybe they think God and His Bible are big jokes altogether.
The problem, though, was that it didn’t really feel like these Christians were trying to have a conversation with me or those other people as much as it felt like they were trying to tell us that we were wrong.
They were right.
We were wrong.
And the things they had been taught are more relevant and accurate and “truthful” than the things we had been thinking through.
Maybe you’ve come across these kinds of Christians, too — they’re the people who come out of the woodwork every time someone posts something that they consider to be “heretical”, or (in other words) something that doesn’t line up with what they’ve been told we’re supposed to believe.
For example, about a year or so ago I posted something on my blog that put a different light on the church’s understanding of hell. I had been reading some books by guys like Rob Bell, Pete Enns, Brian McLaren, and others and I said something along the lines of …
“Maybe there is a hell or maybe they’re isn’t a hell. How do I know? I mean, I’ve never been there. And I have no desire to go there, either.”
And then I said that …
“Maybe if there is a hell (and I think there is, mind you, although I think it’s a whole lot different than the hell we usually preach about in churches), maybe it’s not a place of eternal torture where God sends people to burn for all of eternity because they failed to believe the right things about Jesus during their short time on earth, but maybe it’s a place where everyone passes through on some level so as to burn away all the stuff in our lives that isn’t going to fit too well in God’s Kingdom of love and mercy and grace.
Maybe some people will be exposed to the fire for a long time to burn away lots of stuff.
And maybe some people will be exposed to it less because they don’t have as much junk.
Maybe that’s what Jesus was referring to in the book of Mark (9:49) when He said that ‘everyone will be salted with fire.’
I mean, don’t we all have that kind of stuff? The kind of stuff that needs to leave our lives before we cross over into God’s Kingdom? I know I have some stuff. A lot of stuff, actually.”
“Because”, I said, “I think that sounds a whole lot more like the God Jesus tells me about. The Bible says that God wants all people to be saved and that God’s heart is for the people who are lost, the people who need a doctor. The Bible paints a picture of a God who never stops pursuing people and never gives up on them, a God whose door is always open. The door of His house remains open to the Prodigal and if the Prodigal doesn’t come home, He chases hard after that 1 sheep that is lost — He doesn’t let it wander around by itself … He goes out, and He doesn’t come back until He finds it.
Besides, if the Bible says that God wants all people to be saved, I’m not too sure I’m ready to say that God isn’t going to get what God wants when all is said and done.”
“I don’t know.”
“One thing I do know, though, is that throwing people into fire for billions of years because they failed to believe the right thing during their 70-ish years on earth sounds really un-Jesus-like to me.”
Apparently that idea was a gigantic kick to the hornets nest because people came out in droves and told me exactly what they thought. People left comments, sent me direct messages via Facebook, email, etc.
“How could you say that?”
“You’re denying the very things that Jesus taught.”
“You call yourself a pastor?”
“I used to value your teaching.”
“You’re leading people astray.”
In short, they were upset with me not so much because I was sharing an idea, but because the idea I was sharing was very different from the ideas that they had come to value and hold dear to their hearts.
“There is a hell”, they’ve been taught, “and it’s a terrible place filled with people who failed to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. The Bible says so.”
I’m not going to go into the details here, but other than what I briefly explained above, the reason I have such an issue with this teaching isn’t because I can’t accept it or because I’m trying to soften the Gospel Message or even because I don’t have a high regard for the Bible.
Quite the contrary.
In fact, I consider my regard for the Bible very high, so high, in fact, that I think we have a duty and responsibility to understand how the Biblical writers understood hell and how they talked about it and thought about it and what they meant when they used the word and, frankly, a burning lake of fire filled with the souls of people who failed Jesus’ pop theology exam isn’t it.
My point in sharing this with you isn’t to stir up a debate about the afterlife, but to point out that THIS is how the church so often evangelizes to people.
Not by talking to them.
Not by sharing with them.
Not by befriending them.
Not by loving them.
By coming at them with a list of doctrines that they need to believe and a prayer that they need to say in order to be considered part of the insiders group.
“This is what we believe. This is what the church has always believed. This is what the Bible means. And in order to be on our team and in order to be welcomed into heaven when you die, you need to believe it too. No questions asked.”
And when we do that, I think we really miss out on the opportunity to discover Jesus in other people who think differently than we do because as the quote I opened with says, when we begin to be curious about the ideas of other people and when we begin to take interest not only in what they believe about spiritual things, but also in their stories and their lives and their world, it’s then that we can meet Jesus in truly profound and powerful ways.
Because instead of meeting Him within the confines of our own safe 4 walls with our own safe groups of people who believe like us and think like us and talk like us and understand things the exact same way that we do, we (instead) meet Him in the stories and ideas of other people in whose lives He is working and has been working and will continue to work just as He has been doing in you and in me.
We listen to them.
They listen to us.
We have a conversation.
We have a dialogue.
Not to prove one another wrong.
Not to elevate our understanding over theirs.
Not to push them down.
Not to show them the right way.
… But to genuinely understand who they are, what they believe, where they’ve come from, where they’re headed in life, what they hope for, what they dream of, how they understand the Bible, how they understand faith and God and Jesus and heaven and hell and spirituality and church and religion and more.
I think THIS is evangelism.
It’s kind of like when Jesus was eating at Matthew’s house. Matthew was a tax collector and one night he invited Jesus and a bunch of his friends over for dinner and as the church people stood outside and watched, they muttered to each other …
“Why does this man eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
I love that.
Jesus didn’t come down to earth and hang out in the church with people who grew up in the church, talked like the church, thought liked the church, and had the Torah nailed down to a “T”. Nor did He come here to hit everyone with a long list of doctrines and theologies that they need to believe and accept and sign their lives away on.
He hung out with the outcasts, with the people on the edges, with the people way out in the wilderness of life, well beyond the walls of the church and the people in it. He hung out with them, He ate with them, He listened to them, He laughed with them, He cried with them. He did life with them.
And so when we do likewise — when we go to those kinds of places and when we talk to people who think and believe and live differently than we do, when we do life with them — is it any surprise that we would find Jesus hanging out in those places, with those people?
… Inside of those people’s lives?
Is it any surprise that He’d show up and teach us something new about Himself, something that we never before knew or saw or understood?
That’s where He was way back then — with the outcasts, on the edges of society.
I think that’s where He is today.
I took a class in seminary last semester and the professor was talking to a student about some important piece of theology. They were going back and forth right in the middle of class and were clearly coming from two different places and coming to two very different conclusions. The student pressed the professor for a while and finally said, “well we’re saying the same thing, but differently.”
I loved the professor’s response.
He paused and said, “Before we move on, I just want to make it clear — I do not agree with you. I think, in fact, that you are way, way off. I also realize that you don’t agree with me and think I’m way, way off. And you know what? That’s OK. Because you can learn from me and I can learn from you and we can both say that we’ve met Jesus more because we had this discussion.”
And then he moved on with his lecture.
What if we took that approach to evangelism? Like, what if evangelism wasn’t so much about trying to get people to believe what we think are the right things, but what if it was about dialoguing with people? Like, what if when it came to evangelism, what if instead of counting how many conversions we have on Sunday morning during church, what if we counted how many conversations we had during the week? What if we shifted our thinking from recruiting people into our club or tribe or church or whatever and instead focused on cultivating relationships just as Jesus did in the Gospels?
I don’t claim to have all the answers or to have arrived at some novel idea. But, this is where I’m at. I’m beginning to see evangelism not as conversions, but as conversations and not as recruitment, but as relationship. And I wonder what that kind of shift in thinking might do for our churches? Like, I wonder how much brighter they might shine in our communities if instead of being viewed as the places that think they have all the answers, they were viewed as the places that are safe places to ask questions and share ideas and converse about the issues of life and all the questions and problems and anxieties that arise from them?
… Places whose doors always remain open to the prodigals, places whose people never stop searching for the lost sheep and coins of the world because they are filled with God who does the same.