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Evangelism outside the walls

by on May 23, 2013

newman2If our insistence on bringing in the authority of Scripture is being a barrier to mission, then how can we do things differently? How can we talk about Christian faith with people who don’t yet accept that authority?

In marketing, there’s a technique often used where some of the product is put outside the ‘paygates’, so it’s free for customers to access without cost. It might be a free sample or a test-drive, it might be a trial period for software, it might be a website with limited free functionality, where the rest of the site is for paying customers. The idea is, customers can get a taste of the product, find out if they like it, without having to commit themselves. Then they have a chance to find out whether it’s worth paying. Theory is, they’ll be more likely to take the plunge and dish out for a product they’re already involved with, for a known quantity, than they would be for something quite unknown.

My suggestion is, we can do the same thing with Christian faith. If our friends and neighbours are going to be Christians, they’ll need to accept the authority of Scripture. Eventually. They’ll need to go through that ‘paygate’. But it doesn’t need to be upfront, the first thing they encounter. It could be a later result of commitment to Jesus. It could be some way down the line. And accepting the authority of Scripture cold-turkey is a big sticking point for ordinary people out there. So let’s stop putting that paygate upfront. 

Here’s what I’m suggesting: we can afford to put a whole lot of the content of Christian faith outside those gates. Look at how the apostles announce the good news in Acts. They talk about Jesus, about his death and resurrection, his establishment as King, about the Holy Spirit, about forgiveness of sins, about judgement – all without appealing to the authority of Scripture to prove their claims. People from the greek world who heard them certainly wouldn’t have automatically accepted the Scriptures. If they accepted Jesus, that would be something they’d have to learn about. But at the start, it’s not an obstacle, epistemology is not a distraction from the gospel.

We could do the same today. Everyone in our culture is hung up on epistemology, no one knows how to prove anything to be true. Soccer Dad spent about 20 minutes quizzing me about the Scriptures, about dating and authorship etc. I didn’t raise it – he did. On both sides of the divide, we’re obsessed with these issues. But we could push them to the background, de-emphasise them.

I’m not suggesting we hide the fact that we believe the Scriptures. Just that we stop putting it in the spotlight. Let’s de-centre epistemology and bring the spotlight back onto content: i.e. Jesus.

How can we do that? By telling the story. Instead of rabbiting on about how we know the story is true, let’s just tell the gospel to people. You can do it like this:

In the Christian faith, Jesus is the one God specially sent to bring us back to him.

Or like this:

Jesus’ apostles tell how he rose from the dead, not as a spirit, but bodily, so they could touch him.

Or even like this:

Christians have always believed that God is active among us today by his Holy Spirit, bringing in his kingdom

It can even work to say:

In the New Testament, Christians found that trusting in Jesus brought a new joy into their lives.

All of these statements have in common that they de-emphasise authority questions (‘how we can be sure it’s true’), and highlight the content of the truth statements themselves. They invite people to think about and engage with the gospel story, rather than provoking their epistemological hangups. None of them are functioning as arguments to logically convince. They are rather examples of storytelling.

I have found that if you take the spotlight off the point of maximum tension (‘how can we trust the Bible’), you can have full and helpful discussions with people about Jesus. People get exposed to him and his message of the kingdom, they can get a feel for him and have a chance to respond, without distractions.

That’s powerful stuff. People fall in love with Jesus pretty readily! The Holy Spirit is going to take those stories and make them stick, and disturb people’s hearts, and draw them to Jesus. If only we don’t let our own insecurities about epistemology derail things!

It will take courage, we will feel a bit insecure talking about faith without ‘proving’ our assertions. We will feel exposed. we will be exposed. Because what we’re really doing, is to walk outside the gates to where people are. It would be going out to them to meet them on their ground. Where it’s not safe. There’s no agreed foundation for knowledge out there. People might make fun of our beliefs. We will be tempted to retreat to the safe territory of ‘but the bible says it’. They might try to push us there, challenging ‘Why should I believe any of that?’ We know where that will end – in a half hour argument about epistemology. I’m suggesting we just don’t take the bait. Don’t go there. Not in a first encounter. Not in a fourth encounter. Starve this obsession of oxygen. Let’s leave it in the background, and let people say what they like.

Once people are feeling attracted to Jesus, there’s time to talk helpfully about what the Bible is.

So how do we answer when pushed about authority?  Try to get back to the story, don’t let it derail a helpful conversation. Try something like this:

Jesus had these followers, his disciples, and they reported all about him, and people believed them and put their trust in Jesus. And the stories were published, and we can read them.

You’re still telling the story, see. You’re still not trying to prove anything. You are inviting the question, should we trust the apostles’ witness? That’s a good question, a helpful gospel-story question. Not at all the same as the abstract question ‘Is the Bible an authoritative source of truth?’ – which we get hung up on. That’s the one to avoid.

There’s an epistemological wall that threatens to cut us off from our society, so we live in parallel universes, never truly engaging. Christians have always known what to do about walls that divide. We go through them to those on the outside, we follow Jesus who went outside the city, and was crucified there.

From → General

4 Comments
  1. Thanks Jonathan, I was hoping and waiting for this follow up article! I like your thoughts and suggestions and will try to give them a go sometime!

  2. Charlie Ellis permalink

    Interesting approach. This is very different to way I thought I was lead to Christ. Or is it….? I like your thoughts. It’s going to take discipline for me to not don the old suit of armour. But will give it a go. Do you find Muslims engage with your method?

    • Thanks for the feedback, Charlie. I like how you are open-minded to different ideas. That is a rare and special quality!

      We don’t meet many Muslims around here, so I’m not sure.

    • btw Charlie I like your ‘old suit of armour’ image. That sums up the psychological situation pretty well for us evangelicals talking to the ‘outside world’.

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