“Wherever you go, make disciples, baptizing…
and teaching them everything I’ve taught you.”
True disciples make disciples. Sheep who follow the Great Shepherd are to reproduce; leaders feed them. In an age of specialists, the Church, too, has turned this critical task over to professionals, as if they can do the better job. However, the body of Christ is remarkably similar to the human body; living cells must come from other living cells. Healthy growth comes from healthy cells in every tissue and organ making new cells; unhealthy growth, such as cancer, comes from the rapid reproduction of cells, prompted by rogue cancer cells. Where churches grow rapidly from the work of a few specialists, it is often unhealthy growth with new cells weak and short-lived. In healthier situations, those specialists lead and train all members to reproduce and rear new disciples. One path produces a sick, ineffective body; the other, a healthy, fruitful one.
Today, passive, self-absorbed people fill the pews. They may be nice people, although many seem to think and act remarkably like their non-believing neighbors. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world;” light provides direction for others to follow, leadership in other words. “You are salt of the world, but if you lose your saltiness, you are worth little more than garbage.” Salt subtly seasons but its absence not only makes things bland and tasteless but also leads to corruption. Believers should possess character and attitudes that lead, flavor, and preserve what is righteous and just. Concealed, indistinct, and unredemptive, such Christians may believe but aren’t very useful.
Unfortunately, the problem is not a superficial one. As I think back, I see several basic problems in the attitudes of people that make effective engagement difficult. At one time, I thought the key was the rejection of authority and tradition that was typical of counter-culture rebels of my generation. While I tend not to value institutional loyalty as often in conflict with faithfulness to Christ, these forerunners to the postmodernists rejected all authority and saw themselves as free from all restraints. Closely related, I noted the pervasive abandonment of absolutes of any kind; today truth is seen as subjective, and dishonesty is common.
Somewhere along the way, I began to appreciate another problem, summarized in “trust your feelings.” In religious terms, this manifested in an appeal to subjective experience. Churches seemed to thrive that emphasized personal experience; as a result, there appeared to be a drift away from objective, substantive Bible teaching. As a further consequence, Christians have become progressively less knowledgeable of Scripture, theology, and rational discourse.
Recently, I read Ideas Have Consequences, and author Richard Weaver asserts that a movement away from reason and goals to a feelings-based, purposeless outlook was noticeable back when he wrote (He published in 1948). John Taylor Gatto, in his Underground History of American Education, describes an intentional discouraging of the ability to question and reason that goes back much further. It is disheartening to see the depth of argument in older books compared to recent publications; even those educated decades ago may find reading older works a difficult challenge. I once thought that the common scorn for education among many church folk was a spiritual problem, not realizing that schools were, indeed, encouraging it.
So if these trends are true, even just some of them, then how do we reach people today? I think of some of the things I have taught and done in the past, and I realize that many approaches will fail if we ignore the way many people think today. Several things I have learned remain true.
First, our access to a person must be love. In earlier times, we might have been able to make a simple, direct approach to a stranger; the concern represented by sharing the gospel may have been sufficient. Today we live in an age of direct sales, junk mail, and spam in which people regard anyone trying to “sell” anything with varying degrees of skepticism. Before we can get an honest hearing, we must prove ourselves credible and trustworthy. Love is the key, a love characterized by listening. Once we have shown that our concern is genuine, then people may be willing to listen. In fact, if we have “loved our neighbor as ourselves,” they may ask us for an explanation.
“Always be ready to offer an explanation” implies that we have done something to make people ask about “the hope we have.” In a loving relationship, the kind that marks true friends and good neighbors, people will be near enough to see our hope in action, not just an assertion without proof. This “apologia” or reasoned defense is the sort that answers questions and assuages doubts. How sophisticated will it be? In today’s culture, that’s hard to say. Many people lack the mental disciplines and reasoning skills for some kinds of argumentation. Like the child who asks where babies come from, we need to be careful not to provide way more information that the question requires. If we say too much or give a response too intellectual, the intended listener will tune out, sometimes simply because they are incapable of following a complex answer in unfamiliar terminology. A loving relationship will also help by providing an awareness of how to answer questions appropriately.
I have come to believe that asking questions is also a valid method for challenging the attitudes and ideas that people have. “How’s that working for you?” is a simple way to ask if a person’s current worldview, goals, or beliefs are producing what a person truly desires. Good questions show interest while also revealing a person’s hopes, dreams, and aspirations. If the gospel is true, as I believe it is, then God’s way will work better than Man’s way, in every situation, but it may require learning to explain in a way that a particular individual understands. Questions can help with that as well.
Lately, I have begun to see another tool in creating effective engagement. If cultural trends and education have deteriorated, as I have noted, then most people are trapped in a worldview of low expectations. They have been sold an idea that love, distorted in this worldview, possessions, and money will make them happy. Their goal is to be happy, but most people are anything but; their worldview doesn’t work because it is incorrect. Living on feelings, focused on an eternal present is an empty existence. God created humans to work and to find satisfaction in using their gifts to create and to serve a purpose. The world attempts to fit everyone into a one-size-fits-all view of life and happiness; God designed each of us to be individuals, free to find our own individual path to contentment and joy, but by a path of working toward achieving meaningful goals.
As a pastor, I was always surprised at how much adults seemed to enjoy children’s sermons when I gave them. I have never tried to intellectualize my messages, but I realize now how easy it is to talk over people’s heads, when the people have been encouraged not to use them. Today, we not only must teach but we must educate people in the importance of learning and of being able to reason logically; we have to teach them that thinking is good and then show them how to think rationally. This isn’t an easy assignment, as we go against a mindset created by the enemy, using an educational establishment that many still trust, entertainment sources that many feed on constantly, and media that often propagate the same vacuous ideas.
Is there a simple answer? In one sense, the key to effective engagement is extremely simple. Rather than becoming skilled at explaining, we must become skilled at understanding people well enough to explain to them. This is the difference between sales and marketing. Sellers know their product, but marketers know the people who are the market. Sellers try to get people to buy their product by telling them how good it is; marketers learn what people want and then give it to them. Disciple-makers must learn what people believe they want and then help them discover that Christ has what they truly desire.
Of course, in another sense, the answer is not simple, at all. To be able to understand people requires learning skills that don’t come naturally to many Westerners. We have learned to value things and skills in order to perform well at a profession or craft. We tend not to put the same effort into valuing people and cultivating an appropriate manner of dealing with them. It seems ironic that, as the number of people increases and we find ourselves in ever closer proximity to more and more people, we Americans work harder to avoid spending time with them, learning to appreciate them, and becoming more effective in relationships with them.
Furthermore, understanding people is just half the answer. The other half is having the breadth of knowledge and rational skills to present the gospel in the form a particular person needs to hear. Anyone should be able to explain the reason for the hope he or she has in Christ; that is the most basic step in giving an answer. As we come to know others, we will discover that everyone has different needs to satisfy, at least as they see it. We need to be able to tell them how Christ is the answer to their perceived need. This is certainly why Paul encouraged Timothy to study, to be a workman, and to be able to properly handle the “Word of Truth.”
Recently, young Christians have challenged me, simply by asking questions. Sometimes they are looking for answers; sometimes they disagree with what someone has taught them or even with me (Imagine that!). Recently, I have wondered how I might reach out to particular individuals whose lives are an awful mess. How can I challenge them to consider a wholly different way of life when they seem so deeply rooted in their current situation? I am grateful for both, because it has made me rethink and explore better ways to communicate. God has helped by leading me to authors that are dealing exactly with matters relevant to my deliberations. In other words, God will provide the tools we need to develop our abilities and to make us more effective, especially in engaging men and women to consider the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
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Who would have thought that I would become a fan of symphonic or operatic metal music? I was at a cappuccino place where I often work and suddenly realized that I was hearing choir, orchestra, and a heavy beat. I left in a hurry to take a student to an appointment, forgetting to ask what I had been playing. I called…I like it that much! The barista told me it had probably been Epica. I Googled Epica, and I have been listening regularly since then.
This style of music is Scandinavian, for the most part, but much of it is performed in English. Epica deals with false religion and religious oppression, some coming from the ugliness of radical Islam. I cringe, occasionally, thinking I’m listening to critics of what I believe. Then I look carefully and observe that they are really criticizing hypocrisy and thoughtless religiosity. About those issues, I agree.
And I like the sound, even the raspy voiced moments that intersperse the music, a style typical of metal music, but even that, for some strange, irrational something, I like. That isn’t music, but it makes me smile. It’s an odd appeal I grant, but I seem to be hooked!