Jesus-Shaped Evangelism for the 21st Century

FROM THE DI ARCHIVES: Prior to my current ministry role  I spent a few years living “missionally” in a smaller town community where God called me to use new and innovative means of reaching unchurched and ‘de-churched’ teens for Christ. Check out The Revolution. I wrote the following reflections while in the trenches trying to effectively reach teens with the message and mission of Jesus.   -JB

There is a strong movement within the church today toward becoming “Missional.” The idea driving this movement is that we do not go to church, but we are the church. Christianity is more than attending a weekly service and participating in various programs. Rather, the church is revisiting its origins as an irresistible, loving, counter-cultural community of people whose strikingly beautiful way of life together draws others to Christ and his Kingdom simply by the faith, hope, and love they manifest, and the truthfulness of the redemptive story they embody. They don’t merely preach the message of salvation, they embody it in their calvary-shaped common life together.

This is a healthy move away from the unfortunate tendency within the church to make “Missions” a separate calling for an elect few of “professional missionaries” who usually then commit themselves to some overseas endeavor with the rest of us providing the prayerful and financial support. In this traditional model, back home the rest of us focus on sharing our personal faith with our friends and neighbors, inviting them to church or youth group, and attempting to win souls to Christ. When someone “comes to Christ” (meaning, accept certain beliefs about the faith), they are then invited to get involved in the discipleship process. As one matures in their faith (through Bible Studies, small groups, Alpha, etc.) they are then encouraged to take the next step and get involved in a short-term mission trip or local service opportunities. The progression looks like this:

Evangelism (Message)–> Conversion/Salvation –> Discipleship –> Mission

I believe this model has worked in the past, is certainly a biblical model but often ineffective and short-sighted in reaching outsiders for Christ in today’s western post-Christian culture. Let me share a few thoughts regarding the weaknesses of this particular model and offer an alternative approach to consider.

1. First, the traditional model is ignores the huge barriers keeping today’s skeptics from Christ. What I mean is this: Many of today’s young outsiders reject a caricature of Christianity that is all about people trying to sell them the right beliefs so they can avoid hellfire. Teenagers today will immediately turn and walk away the minute they sense we are trying to tell them what to believe or make our religious sales pitch. Call it sin, pride, a hard heart or whatever — I just call it a huge barrier keeping the emerging generations from ever encountering the person of Christ and hearing about his mission in the first place (which I don’t think is offensive at all to today’s outsider). Don’t get me wrong, I believe one is saved through faith in Christ as savior, that one eventually needs to repent of their sin, make a decision to follow Jesus and turn from their old life. And I know what Romans 10:13 says. I just think sometimes young skeptics (especially teenagers) need time to know and experience Jesus before we should expect them to accept some cerebral propositions about him. When we start our conversation with outsiders by offering them a creed, heavy doctrine, four spiritual laws, or a set of beliefs to sign off on, have we really introduced them to the person of Jesus Christ? It’s not an either-or; its a matter of neutralizing the surface so seekers can genuinely see the love of Jesus behind the Christian stereotype of judgmental bigot.  This is basically what is known as “pre-evangelism.”

2. Second, related to what I just said, this traditional model has a narrow concept of “evangelism” by which we hope outsiders will come to faith (i.e., conversion). By evangelism we normally think of offering someone simply the MESSAGE of salvation, and inviting them to respond to that proclamation. However, a person can be just as moved, swayed, impacted or spiritually challenged by a redemptive EXPERIENCE or PERSONAL ENCOUNTER than by a redemptive proclamation. For example, I experienced the life-changing, world-rocking love of my wife long before she finally spoke the words, “I love you.” Her words confirmed, clarified and described more fully what I had already tasted, experienced, and come to know and believe deeply in my heart long before she put it in words. And I was drawn to her far more by my overall experience of and relationship with her than by certain truths I came to believe to be true about her. We need to widen our concept of evangelism, and remember that people can come to know the redeeming love of God just as powerfully through a personal encounter with a Christian, a transforming experience at a retreat or concert, or a life-altering missions trip to serve the poor as they can through a clearly articulated gospel message. “Evangelize” means simply to bring the good news of Christ’s saving reign to other people. Remember St. Francis’ famous words: “Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.”  I think words are eventually necessary; just not always the first step in the process.

3. Thirdly, I believe Jesus offers us a different approach in his life and interactions with outsiders. In fact, it would seem that Jesus may almost flip the entire thing around and go about things the opposite way. While Jesus was hardly systematic in his ministry approach, and certainly was not intending to give us a rigid model or fail-proof formula, I do believe a pattern emerges in our reading the Gospels that would allow for the following approach to reaching people for Christ:

Mission/Evangelism –> Discipleship –> Conversion/Salvation

EVANGELISM WHILE IN MISSION

For Christ, the good news he shared was the mission he embodied. Christ went about the countryside manifesting the redemptive reign of God breaking into history through himself, bringing healing, restoration, and forgiveness to every person he encountered. Jesus’ approach to evangelism was to meet everyone with an invitation or call to join his community-in-mission. They weren’t met initially with a statement of faith they must sign before they could join the mission. They didn’t need to take membership classes before they could tag along with this traveling band of emerging disciples. They didn’t need to “say the prayer”, “bow their head and walk the aisle” or anything of the sort before they found themselves curiously following Jesus around in his mission.

All Jesus required was an openness to the cause, and a commitment to follow him where ever they might end up. Some followed, some didn’t, and some probably followed initially and left later. In the gospels, however, we see nothing close to an idea of “Missions” as some secondary, additional calling for a select few later after maturing through various levels of discipleship. Those who follow Christ are always in-mission, because Jesus is always in-mission. The church exists as a missional community. And when someone comes into a relationship with Jesus, and their entire life begins to change for the better, they have truly been “evangelized.”

DISCIPLESHIP WHILE IN MISSION

If a curious outsider decides to join this active, missional community of Christ-followers they then enter into an apprentice-master relationship with Jesus the Rabbi. In the context of a personal relationship with Jesus, a friend they have grown to trust, they will hear all about the redemptive purposes of God, Jesus’ unique, salvific role in God’s plan, “the Romans Road”, the four spiritual laws, etc. and naturally begin grappling with their own need for repentance, forgiveness and salvation. In community they will all learn to mimic the life, words and actions of rabbi Jesus, and gradually become more like him along the way. By definition ‘discipleship’ is relational — even if churches have traditionally narrowed it down to a set of courses to take on Sunday morning or Wednesday nights, or some spiritual disciplines to practice by oneself. Discipleship then happens as long as we travel in Christ’s missional community and as long as we commit our lives to our Rabbi’s ways and daily take his yoke upon us. Discipleship often begins to take place after we choose to join in the work of Jesus’ mission of bringing God’s forgiving, restoring, renewing reign to a broken world — or at least that’s how it seemed to work in Jesus’ ministry.

So, here we have it again:

Mission/Evangelism –> Discipleship –> Conversion/Salvation

IMPLICATIONS & APPLICATION

What would it look like to put this approach into practice with teenagers today? How would this change our approach to evangelism? How does this change the way we view our own personal responsibility to go out and share Christ with out friends and neighbors? Should we begin inviting outsiders into the mission of Jesus before they have confessed faith in Jesus? Should we build trusting relationships with outsiders before we begin challenging them with their personal sin and need for repentance? Does Christ offer a different model than the Apostle Paul? Does Paul offer aProclamational Model and Christ a Relational Model? If so, which model should we follow?

These are some of the thoughts, questions and convictions behind the approach of The Revolution in Mound. This is an honest experiment in postmodern student ministry, and I have only one goal in mind: To find the most biblically faithful and culturally effective way to reach today’s anti-religious teen culture with the life-transforming, saving gospel of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom.

A COMMON CRITIQUE

Some will object to my attempt to use Jesus as my example and model for evangelism.  They’ll say, “We are not supposed to re-live the pre-cross/pre-resurection movement of Jesus as if we’re wandering around the countryside as a rabbi seeking disciples.”  They’ll remind us that we’re living in the next Act of history, called to preach the message of the cross and resurrection of Christ, and bring that gospel to bear on the new situation we find ourselves in.  I agree and have long wrestled with this critique and am not sure exactly where I stand.  I just know that Jesus is the supreme model for warm, inviting summons to the Kingdom movement and we cannot go wrong in following his example as we try to make disciples in our world today.

These are just my thoughts as I wrestle with the day-to-day, in the trenches challenges of building bridges to young teens who are running in the opposite direction of the church but who are very open and receptive to the person and message of Jesus.

Long live the Revolution!

3 thoughts on “Jesus-Shaped Evangelism for the 21st Century”

  1. Jeremy,

    Hey brother. It’s been a while. I couldn’t find your email address but I thought posting here might work. I was hoping to pass along this link and get your thoughts: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2009/11/24/deyoung-on-the-new-gospel-vs-the-old-gospel/#comments . Justin Taylor (of “Between Two Worlds”) links to two recent articles by Shane Claiborne and Kevin DeYoung. While you might be able to guess which one reflects my view a bit more closely, I’d be interested to hear your take. Coffee soon?

    Grace & Peace,

    Dave

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