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Why I Believe in Dialogue, Respect, and the Gospel Commission

Why I Believe in Dialogue, Respect, and the Gospel Commission

angrymanfist-300px_redI’ve recently said and written a few things about the gospel commission, including my claim in my concluding presentation for my video series on eschatology that eschatology is all about the gospel commission. You’ll hear more about this in my foreword to Dave Black’s new book Running My Race. It’s in the final stages of production and should be available soon.

This isn’t a new perspective on my part, but as soon as I start using words like “evangelism,” “mission,” or “the Great Commission,” I start getting questions about whether I believe in dialogue or whether I’ve started to think that all non-Christians are horrible people.

On the other hand, each time I start talking about respect, interfaith dialogue, inclusion, and similar topics, someone is bound to ask me whether I’ve given up on evangelism and mission. Perhaps I no longer think Jesus is important.

So let me put both of these things together. First, I am never going to abandon the Gospel Commission. It’s what being a Christian is about. I follow Jesus and I help others follow Jesus. I am a witness to Jesus as I follow Him. I proclaim his good news, and that good news is the central fact of my life. If I didn’t believe that, I would not be a Christian publisher. Frankly, while there are many things I enjoy about publishing, it’s hard work, the pay isn’t as good as it is for my other occupation (small network technical support), and I’d hardly keep at it without this greater “joy set before me.”

Second, I believe that respect and love for one’s neighbor are central to the gospel. If I don’t love my neighbor as myself, I am not following Jesus Christ, and in turn I can hardly be effective in making other disciples, who would, in turn, be expected to love their neighbors as they love themselves. (There’s a “loving God” thing in there too, but see 1 John 4:20 for my emphasis in this case.)

Contrary to the perception of many Christians, not only is respectful dialogue not opposed to carrying out of the gospel commission, it’s essential to it. But there are reasons it so commonly doesn’t seem so.

Evangelism is tainted, I believe, by two false directions, each of which bears an abundance of poisonous and rotting fruit.

The first false direction is the idea that evangelism is about giving the maximum possible number of people their “get out of hell free” card or, seen more positively, getting them their ticket to heaven. In this diversion from the gospel message we look for ways to get people to say the right prayer, then wipe the sweat from our brows (evangelism is hard work!), and say, “One more person saved.”

This leads to other spiritually dangerous activities, such as promising people prosperity if they accept Jesus, emotionally manipulating them, or even converting them at sword point or gun muzzle. We can justify whatever behavior we might engage in on the grounds that even if we did use underhanded methods, the person should thank us for not burning in hell forever.

This can also (or even in turn) lead to other shallow approaches to faith, such as the meme I saw on Facebook today built around the old idea of the wager of faith. As I understand faith, the wager simply isn’t—it isn’t faith and it isn’t even a wager, since there’s nothing of value on either side. Believing in Jesus isn’t an “in case” sort of thing. It’s not a wager, it’s a total commitment. Pascal’s Wager is an intellectual approach to a spiritual problem.prohibitionsign2-300px

Further, this sort of evangelism doesn’t actually represent love for one’s neighbor. It’s a sort of concern, but it’s more like the hunter has concern for the deer. No, I don’t mean the killing part, though that can happen as well, but rather the concern is for how the deer will fill the hunter’s needs.

The second false direction is one of church growth. In this case, evangelism is simply the process of adding members to the church, and more specifically your church. At least this has a longer term goal, i.e., to get the person into a church community. But far too often, this simply feeds into another selfish numbers game. The value of the person is not in who they are or who they can be, or even what God wants them to be, but rather on church statistics. While evangelicals are more likely to go for the first diversion, even progressive churches can fall for this second one.

As the saying goes, however, sitting in church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car. I think we can identify what’s really important to us by what we pay for and what we report on, and in many of our churches I’m afraid that the concern is increasing membership, which, in turn, is to produce increasing financial support, which will allow us to get more members.

What I believe about evangelism is this: It’s a lifestyle. You live as a disciple of Jesus, and you will, in turn, make disciples. I don’t mean that we should all shut up. Of course you talk about your faith because it’s not just important it’s fundamental. There’s another dichotomy between living our faith and proclaiming our faith, but I think it’s also false. Talking about our faith is one way we live it. If we’re talking too much, that’s ineffective living of our faith. I do not keep silent about something that is fundamental.

In looking at motivation, I can say that it is a command, and it is. But at the same time it simply follows essentially from what Jesus has done for me. I will share a good thing. Sharing a good thing doesn’t mean forcing others. It’s a natural and friendly thing to share, just as it’s a natural and friendly thing—not to mention loving—to let the other person make their own decisions, including about how long they want to listen.

Conversion, in turn, is something between God and the person converted. It’s gotten almost cliched to say that I can’t convert anyone; God does. But unfortunately we turn right back around and pretend it’s all about us. Grab hold of that mustard-seed of faith (I usually feel that I have somewhat less than that, but whatever) and trust God with salvation, conversion, and the spiritual health of others.

Further, however, trust God to let you know how you need to be involved, and listen. Listen to God. Listen to other people. God loves each person involved more than you do. He even loves you more than you do.

In studying eschatology (and I just completed a video series), I’ve found that God is deeply concerned about the spiritual health of God’s earthly children. I see the story of Revelation as being one of repeated opportunities, with the bottom line message that God does have this under control. Our part is to follow Jesus and make disciples.

That doesn’t require being rude, obnoxious, manipulative, violent, or disrespectful. It requires love, and love values the other person, not some imaginary thing I think that person should be.

Church as a Social Occasion

Church as a Social Occasion

Or perhaps as the social occasion.

Thom Rainer has a post titled Seven Things Church Members Should Say to Guests in a Worship Service. It comes complete with a header picture of people who, to me, look like they’re forcing excessive smiles. I probably see it that way because I’m an introvert. I suppose that there is nothing wrong with these seven things, though I must note that I prefer that the restrooms be well-marked with signs so that I don’t have to ask someone where they are, and I’m very likely to be the guy who forgets who you are even though you’ve been down the pew from me for months. In fact, I’d just as soon you let me sit there, think, and pray as come try to make a social occasion out of it.

There’s nothing wrong with being the social person. There’s very much right with being a friendly person. Yet I’m left with several questions. The most important question is just what it is we’re trying to accomplish.

It seems to me that all of this is aimed at getting more people to attend your church service. The goal is to make people “church-going” and to make sure that an adequate number attend your church. In order to accomplish this we try to make church a great social occasion with a friendly atmosphere (provided one likes that sort of thing).

I confess that I may be hypercritical here. But all of these lists, and in fact a huge percentage of the talk about church growth seems to center around how many people we have in church. So if you have a church that is a very strong social club, you’re a successful church.

But in reading the gospel commission I can’t seem to find the part about making sure large numbers of people attend church once per week. That isn’t even mentioned, much less presented as a goal.

Someone’s going to say that this is the goal. We get them into church and from there we make disciples of them. But I don’t seem to see as many lists of ways to make disciples out of the people you manage to get to attend your worship service. I don’t see nearly as much about getting the people who are good, church-going people to go out and make those disciples. I don’t see nearly as much about getting those people to observe the things Jesus commands.

I recall a pastor recently who said to the church: The only excuse for a church to exist is to be a witness to Jesus Christ. I’d refocus that to this: The only excuse for us to have a church service is to help us be and become better disciples of Jesus.

This means that there is a good reason to get people to attend church, provided that church is about becoming better disciples. As I’m been reading about fellowship, I think there’s much more to the idea of communion as a shared meal celebrated regularly. Our church gatherings are not so much services as training and motivation to become active servants. In order to do that we need to be reminded of who we are and of how we are part of a body.

Perhaps if we built these times around a common meal where interaction involved more than greeting and attempting to remember names, singing a few songs, and listening to someone lecture, we might be able to build the body of Christ as a community that serves, and in fact embodies Jesus Christ for the world. That might mean we need to break up some of our huge congregations and spread out into the community in smaller groups.

I’m no expert on church organization or church growth. I’m pretty sure that, despite my own tendency, Sunday morning isn’t designed as a time of individual prayer and meditation for me. I can do that many other times. Yet I can’t help but get the impression that our church activities are centered around that Sunday morning worship service. If singing hymns and listening to a lecture of variable quality doesn’t light up your life, you’re just the wrong type of person.

But do these worship services really help us to be Christians? Do they carry out the gospel commission? Are the spaces in which we do these activities well utilized in pursuit of the gospel? Despite being a person whose habit it is to be in church every week almost without exception, I’m seeing it as less and less productive.

Perhaps our problem is that the goal is the wrong one. Filling our church sanctuaries on Sunday morning was never the aim of the gospel commission. Making disciples was.

Is it?