Jeff Iorg Blog


Standing for Something

Mar 17 2014

I met this past weekend with a group of national ministry leaders who work quietly, but seriously, to make disciples – primarily among young men. One of our agenda items was discussing the issues related to helping Christians stand for their values when their convictions are labeled hate speech and may be prosecutable offenses. We discussed several options – all of which were focused on avoiding needless controversy and diminishing our efforts.

No matter how hard we worked, or how creative the options we proposed, we kept coming back to the same conclusion. We now live in a culture where expressions of historic Christian convictions about morality are illegal. And, no matter how much we wished for a different conclusion – the reality is Christians are paying fines and may be going to jail in the United States for voicing their convictions in public places, in workplaces, and in educational settings.

The larger question for many American Christians is, “Should we avoid this at all cost?” The global church laughs at our timidity. Harassed and/or persecuted Christians around the world have been grappling with these issues for years. One pastor friend told me, “When they held the gun to my head and asked me to renounce Jesus, I couldn’t do it. I expected to die that day.” That’s the way many Christians live every day. We are just beginning to experience the first inklings of harassment – and we are already calling it “persecution” and worried about how to avoid it.

We concluded our responsibility as leaders is helping believers understand the consequences of living by convictions and counting the cost before voicing those convictions publicly. We can’t cower, denying what we believe to keep the peace. Neither should we be rude or offensive. But reasonably and deliberately standing by our convictions is our responsibility. Keeping the peace at all cost simply is not our goal. Let’s ask God for wisdom to know when to take stand, what convictions to stand for, and how to accept the consequences without whining!

 

Reallocating Resources

Aug 05 2013

Southern Baptists have never had more money, more trained leaders, more materials and programs, more technology, more of a national presence, and more of an international reach. Yet, despite all this, we are becoming less and less effective at communicating the gospel and baptizing people – the first public step of discipleship. In 2012, we baptized fewer people than any year since 1948. Why?

The reasons are many and varied. Over this summer, I am blogging about some of the reasons – making no attempt to write a comprehensive treatise, just sharing some perspectives from my vantage point.

We are a prosperous people – probably the wealthiest denomination of Christian churches in the world. When you add up the money, facilities, and property owned by 45,000+ churches, 42 state conventions, about 1200 associations, and a dozen SBC entities – our assets are in the billions. Just considering the hundreds of millions we receive in offerings each year would be enough to distance us from almost every other group. We are, by any measure, a wealthy people.

You might be thinking, “Well, someone else’s church or association or state has a lot – but not ours.” If you think that way, it’s only because you are comparing your resources to other SBC entities - not churches or denominations on the global economy. When you compare us to other global groups, we are rich by that standard.

The sad reality is we spend so much of our wealth on ourselves. We borrow billions to build extravagant facilities to compete with the church down the street. We spend additional billions on programs to meet our wants (not our needs) for recreation and fellowship. We employ people to do ministry, rather than expect people to learn and lead voluntarily. Our selfishness is staggering. Yet, it’s hard to get any one of us to admit to the problem. What seems like extravagance to others viewing our situation, we justify as a real need in our case.

To reverse the decline in evangelism will require a radical reallocation of resources. We must – churches, associations, states, seminaries, and mission boards – ruthlessly evaluate how we are using our resources. We must prioritize spending on projects, programs, facilities, and staff that reach lost people – not provide more and more services to believers. This will be painful – very painful – to those who believe their church or denomination exists to meet their needs.

How can you help with this process? Get honest about your personal finances. If you are a leader, you can’t lead an organization to do what you aren’t personally modeling. Ask your church leaders to do a thorough review of its spending. Find out how much is being spent on initiatives actually reaching people who have never heard the gospel or who are not members of any church. Don’t be mean or divisive! Just participate in an honest analysis. Work toward incremental change if that’s all that can be done, moving as quickly as you can to get more and more money into front line evangelism projects.

Money matters. Where your treasure is, your heart will follow. Let’s put our money on our priority of reaching people.

 

Get Better at Urban Strategies

Jul 29 2013

Southern Baptists have never had more money, more trained leaders, more materials and programs, more technology, more of a national presence, and more of an international reach. Yet, despite all this, we are becoming less and less effective at communicating the gospel and baptizing people – the first public step of discipleship. In 2012, we baptized fewer people than any year since 1948. Why? 

The reasons are many and varied. Over this summer, I am blogging about some of the reasons – making no attempt to write a comprehensive treatise, just sharing some perspectives from my vantage point. 

For the first time in the history of the world, more people live in cities than in rural areas. This is true globally and also true in the United States. This is a problem for Southern Baptists. We are a rural denomination, with thousands of small churches scattered across the countryside. We are specialists at the small church, started historically by farmer-preachers, and led now by bi-vocational pastors. We have shunned cities as sources of evil influences. We have also avoided city ministry because it is so much more expensive than rural ministry. Just paying enough salary for a rental house for a church planter in San Francisco costs more than an entire church plant would cost in less expensive (and less populated areas). We have had a hard time finding future pastors, usually reared in rural churches, who can work effectively in cities. 

If we are going to evangelize large numbers of people in the future, we must learn how to effectively reach people in urban areas. This will be a denominational paradigm shift. NAMB has been pushing this change, and their leaders have sometimes been criticized for their efforts. While they may have made some mistakes along the way, the overall thrust of what they are doing is right. We must, no matter how painful it is, refocus our resources – human and financial – on evangelizing in population centers.
 
This doesn’t mean rural ministry must be diminished. It simply acknowledges the importance of allocating resources according to lostness. Where the most lost people live, we must focus our efforts at spreading the gospel most effectively. If you want to read a more thorough presentation on this issue, check out my book The Case for Antioch. 

This ends my musings on some key issues to reversing declining evangelistic effectiveness among Southern Baptists. Thanks for thinking with me about these issues. You may have a better list. If so, publish it somewhere and let’s continue the conversation until we find the right answers. The eternal destiny of millions depends on how we resolve this issue.

 

Out of Balance

Jul 22 2013

Southern Baptists have never had more money, more trained leaders, more materials and programs, more technology, more of a national presence, and more of an international reach. Yet, despite all this, we are becoming less and less effective at communicating the gospel and baptizing people – the first public step of discipleship. In 2012, we baptized fewer people than any year since 1948. Why?

The reasons are many and varied. Over this summer, I am blogging about some of the reasons – making no attempt to write a comprehensive treatise, just sharing some perspectives from my vantage point.

One reason churches are less effective at reaching unsaved people with the gospel is an over-dependence on “attraction strategies” as their primary means of evangelism. In my book, Live Like a Missionary, I outlined three general kinds of evangelism strategies – attraction, engagement, and infiltration. Attraction strategies are events designed to gather people to hear the gospel. Engagement strategies are programs to meet needs of people for the purpose of sharing the gospel. Infiltration strategies are efforts to take the gospel to people where they live, work, and play.

All three approaches are valid. All three are most effective when used in concert - with synergy coming from the strengths of each approach. The problem today is the church is out of balance. We are far too dependent on attraction strategies – seeker-oriented services, celebrity-centered events, and large gatherings like fairs, festivals, and block parties. All of these have their place, but they also have their weaknesses. They are expensive, labor intensive, and require significant equipment or facilities to do well. Worst of all, they reduce “witnessing” to inviting someone to attend an event.

Today’s church is weak on infiltrating culture with the gospel. In a previous era, we called it “lifestyle evangelism.” We are weak at taking the gospel to school, the workplace, and the gym. We don’t know how to engage people in spiritual conversations, naturally share our faith in Jesus, and invite people to join us in following him. We have lost this ability through lack of modeling by leaders, lack of training, and being wrongly told our best method for fulfilling the Great Commission is inviting someone to a Christmas pageant!

What can be done about this? First, we must reclaim the biblical mandate for personal witnessing. Every believer is responsible to share their faith in Jesus with people in their circle of influence. Many Christians no longer believe this – defaulting on their responsibility to share the gospel to their pastor or other church leaders.

Second, we must redefine witnessing as sharing faith – naturally, honestly, and without guile – rather than arguing people into the faith. You don’t have to be a trained apologist to share your faith. Sincerity is more important than the ability to conduct a cross-examination. Somehow, we have forgotten that most people are open to hearing a personal story of redemption from a friend. That is the essential core of real witnessing.

Third, we must free Christians from so much church activity – just keeping the machinery running – so they can invest time with people who are not yet Christians. Encouraging people to take lost friends to dinner, have unchurched friends in their home, and linger after community activities to build relationships with friends must become part of our definition of good churchmanship.

Making this change will take time but the best time to get started is now!

 

Personal Evangelism

Jul 15 2013

 Southern Baptists have never had more money, more trained leaders, more materials and programs, more technology, more of a national presence, and more of an international reach. Yet, despite all this, we are becoming less and less effective at communicating the gospel and baptizing people – the first public step of discipleship. In 2012, we baptized fewer people than any year since 1948. Why?

The reasons are many and varied. Over this summer, I am blogging about some of the reasons – making no attempt to write a comprehensive treatise, just sharing some perspectives from my vantage point.

What happened to personal evangelism training by churches? In the first twenty years of my ministry – corresponding to the last twenty years of the last century – personal evangelism training was a normal part of healthy church programming. There were many options available – like Evangelism Explosion, Continuing Witness Training, Lay Evangelism School, and others with more niche audiences. There were also less formal approaches like using the Roman Road or a booklet like Steps to Peace with God or The Four Spiritual Laws. In the past decade, these type of training programs have become rare.

This kind of training was not a “one and done” effort. It was systematic – meaning it was a normal part of church life, made available once or twice each year and repeated year after year so members could participate when convicted of the need for the training. Churches chose the approach that best fit their situation or context and, through this training, continually motivated their members to fulfill their personal responsibility to share the gospel.

These days, it’s hard to find a church that has this kind of disciplined approach to training its membership to share the gospel. Our denomination has struggled in recent years to produce a national program to assist with this effort. LifeWay promoted FAITH for a few years, and some churches are still using that program. The North American Mission Board has rolled out evangelism initiatives, but nothing with the national prominence or staying power of the programs described above. Don’t blame these agencies, however, for supposed shortcomings in their efforts. Offering these opportunities cannot overcome the apathy in many churches to adopt this kind of disciplined personal evangelism training.

So, what can be done? As a church leader, recognize people need training to effectively share their faith. They need information, but more importantly, increased confidence that comes from on-the-job training offered in a good training program. Choose an evangelism training program appropriate for your setting. Make a commitment to routinely include this training as part of your church’s discipleship strategy. Stick with it for three years, then reevaluate. Expect to start small and build slowly. Don’t worry about record numbers of participants. Allow God to enlarge the effort through the testimony of those who participate. Allow the results, people coming to faith in Jesus and presenting themselves for baptism, to provide the motivation to attract future participants.

Rediscovering evangelism training – routine, systemic, and systematic – is an important step to reversing the decline in our effectiveness in reaching new people with the gospel.

 

Properly Reformed

Jul 01 2013

Southern Baptists have never had more money, more trained leaders, more materials and programs, more technology, more of a national presence, and more of an international reach. Yet, despite all this, we are becoming less and less effective at communicating the gospel and baptizing people – the first public step of discipleship. In 2012, we baptized fewer people than any year since 1948. Why? 

The reasons are many and varied. Over this summer, I am blogging about some of the reasons – making no attempt to write a comprehensive treatise, just sharing some perspectives from my vantage point. 

Behavior always emerges from belief. Last week, we considered the first of two theological issues impacting evangelism in the SBC. The first issue was universalism – officially denied, but quietly embraced by many people. The second issue is Calvinism or Reformed Theology. 

Before you blow a gasket or jump to a wrong conclusion, calm down a minute and read carefully. The SBC recently heard a report – put together by a special study committee – to call Calvinists and non-Calvinists to emphasize their common ground and work together, rather than dissipate so much time, energy, and money arguing with one another. The report was well-received by the convention and if we follow its recommendations, will lead to positive steps forward on this issue.
My goal in this blog is not to rehash the report or open wounds it attempts to heal. My perspective on Reformed Theology, as it relates to evangelism, is it only undermines evangelism when defined with a perspective on election that mutes efforts to persuade people to follow Jesus. Some in this camp do this, but many (if not most) do not. 

Our seminary has a few self-described Reformed or Calvinist employees. One of them is a leader of street evangelism in the Bay Area, often taking students with him to share the gospel in public forums. The other is an evangelistic pastor of a growing church. He regularly talks with me about their efforts to win more people to faith in Jesus. While both these men strongly affirm the doctrine of election, neither claims the capacity to discern who’s elected and who isn’t. They rightly understand the biblical mandate to share the gospel with everyone, letting God elect who he will and save those who experience his grace. Their theology motivates personal witnessing and evangelistic church programming. It’s hard to find fault with that! 

Any theological position which undermines the church’s missionary mandate, no matter its high-sounding label or historic place in church history, is suspect. Any theological position that motivates the church’s missionary endeavors is helpful - to the extent it does not compromise other important doctrinal positions. 

Rather than defining yourself by one of these historic labels, can I propose a new category? It’s my blog so the answer is yes! Let’s divide into two camps – Theology motivating gospel-sharing and Theology eliminating gospel-sharing. However you choose to define yourself, make sure you are in the first category. Then, do the same things I suggested last week – preach on these themes and lead church-based doctrinal studies reinforcing sound theology. Over time, you can establish a foundation of belief leading to the behavior we need – more effective evangelistic work by churches and individuals called Southern Baptist.

 

A Most Important Lesson

Jan 07 2013

Over the past two years or so, the most important lesson I have learned about sharing my faith is how to recognize a person’s readiness to hear the gospel. I have many friendships with people who are not yet followers of Jesus. I want them all to hear the gospel, but parroting it every time I see them isn’t practical or helpful. That’s a good way to have fewer friends! When to share the gospel – or even introduce the idea of the gospel – into the conversation has been challenging to discern. But I have learned a new way of solving this problem. 

A fellow sports chaplain shared his approach with me. His ideas became a catalyst for a fresh idea for me. Here is what I have concluded. People are almost always open to the gospel when one of the four things happens to them. Those four life experiences are summarized with these phrases: people die, relationship struggle, health fails, and things break. When a friend experiences any of these circumstances, they are likely open to hearing how God can intersect their life in the midst of their pain. 

My new approach to sharing the gospel is simpler than ever before. I keep my spiritual antenna up, looking for one of the four previously mentioned circumstances. Inevitably, one or more of them happens. When it does, I gently but directly interject God into the conversation. Without fail, the response has been positive. Hurting people appreciate spiritual solace, appropriate prayer, and hearing truth about their situation. 

It happened again a few days ago. A friend told me about a relational disaster he was living through – partly his fault, but also the result of bad choices by others. It was a mess! Tears in his eyes revealed the depth of his pain. After hearing him out, my response included counsel about how relationships grounded in God’s truth are the healthiest in the long run. He listened to my gospel presentation about developing a relationship with God, which will in turn change his way of relating to others. At the end of the conversation, he said, “This is a big moment for me. I really need to decide about what you are telling me. I think my future depends on it.” 

I am now praying for him to respond affirmatively to the gospel. His gospel readiness was evident in our conversation. Now, my prayer is his gospel responsiveness will complete the process leading to his conversion. 

Do you want to share the gospel more effectively with your friends? Sure you do! Stop stressing about how to do it. Wait for one of these pregnant moments: people die, relationships struggle, health fails, or things break. When one of these events happens, step in gently and firmly with the gospel. God will use you in those moments to make an eternal difference.

 

Gospel Urgency

Oct 15 2012

Many leaders today have abandoned preaching the gospel, anticipating the Holy Spirit will produce conviction of sin, calling people to repentance, and giving them the opportunity for public response (leading to baptism). Leaders who make this choice have bought into the myths that preaching must be needs driven, PowerPoint illustrated, and delivered in a casual, non-aggressive way. Further, a good sermon offers options rather than seeks to persuade. 

There is some truth to these statements (but when taken to extreme become devilish lies). Good preaching always connects with the needs of the hearers. Preaching should be seeker-accessible, meaning anyone can understand the vocabulary and follow the reasoning. Using visual support like video or projected slides can be helpful. A preacher’s tone should be approachable, even friendly. But the spiritual power to change a person’s eternal destiny is not connected to any of these stylistic choices. 

Many modern leaders have allowed these goals to supplant preaching the gospel. When gospel preaching, including calling for immediate commitment to Jesus is neglected by church leaders (no matter how positive the reasons might sound), the church is neutered of its core life-saving, eternally-significant message – the gospel. 

The problem also shows up in today’s evangelism strategies. The deceptive phrase “share the gospel, use words if necessary” undercuts both the biblical pattern and practical reality of how people understand the gospel. If you think your holy, loving life will convert others - without a verbal witness – think again! Not even Jesus could make that strategy work. He lived a perfect life, but still had to tell people what it meant to believe in and follow him. Many Christians, even leaders, are reluctant to tell another person about Jesus and ask them to become his follower. They adopt the gospel song, “They will know we are Christians by his love” as their evangelism strategy. It’s true, the Bible teaches unbelievers will know we are Christians by our love – but they will not know how to become a Christian by our love. They will not know how to become a Christian unless someone tells them the gospel. 

Leaders must resist these deceptive practices. We must overcome our cowardice and model courage about our message. We must resist substituting spiritually-soft preaching for the gospel. Our personal witnessing must be about Jesus – not some self-help or life improvement program. We must boldly challenge people to follow Jesus, asking them to make a genuine commitment to him. 

Call people to Jesus! Have the courage to share the gospel – both through preaching and personal evangelism. Be bold!

 

Patient Discipleship

Sep 10 2012

About a year ago, a friend of mine committed himself to Jesus Christ. He happens to have a high profile occupation. The conversion was genuine and the spiritual growth over the past year has been consistent. A few days ago, he shared his faith in a public forum for the first time. It was a short testimony – powerful not for its length, but for its clarity. 

It may surprise you that I encouraged my friend to grow for a while in his commitment to Jesus before making too many public statements about his faith. While he has been very open about his new faith with his family and friends, it was important his commitment be stabilized before he made a public statement. 

Over the years, it has frustrated me when athletes, politicians, actors, or other public figures were rushed into public pronouncements about their faith. In too many cases, these new believers were expected to be public witnesses just because they are well-known. That is a poor qualification for taking the responsibility to speak out about the Christian faith. Before a person takes that responsibility, they should mature enough in their faith to handle the expectations of public life as a believer. Christians sometimes get caught up in the celebrity culture and think any well known person who commits to follow Jesus should immediately start speaking, preaching, or singing about their faith. That does them a disservice and leads to embarrassing gaffes by people not yet ready for that kind of responsibility. Worse, it hurts the reputation of the gospel and the credibility of the church. 

Every person who commits to follow Jesus should be willing to share their faith. But why does it have to immediately be from behind a microphone? Let’s encourage people to start with their family and friends, maturing a bit before we rush them into a public venue. So, the next time a high school athlete, city councilman, or business owner in your community becomes a Christian – let them grow a while before you have them speak at your church or otherwise go public with their faith. They will be served by your patience and when they finally begin speaking about their faith the impact will be even more profound.

 

Challenges

Apr 09 2012

Some days, the challenges of being a Christian and living in the San Francisco Bay Area are daunting. Easter is one of those days. While churches are full of worshippers celebrating the resurrection, thousands of San Franciscans gather in Dolores Park to mock our faith. For the past 33 years, the Sisters of the Perpetual Indulgence (a self-described cross-dressing group of nuns-of-fun) have been sponsoring an Easter party in the park, complete with their Hunky Jesus contest. 

Yes, you read that right – a Hunky Jesus contest. Their party culminates with a parade of men mocking Jesus. You can find video of past contests on various websites and You Tube. Be warned - these videos are not for the fainthearted. They are, however, a revealing window into what many in the homosexual culture really think of Jesus. He is an idiot to be made fun of, an object of derision, and a homophobic cult leader whose teachings should be rejected. 

The news reports about the Dolores Park party are full of happy children, alternative lifestyle families, and good vibes. The hypocrisy of the reporting is astounding. No negative comment is attached to a homosexual group attacking Christianity on its holiest day. Imagine the outcry if San Francisco churches organized a party to do the same thing on Gay Pride Sunday. We would be attacked for our insensitivity, labeled bigots, and shunned for our intolerance and insensitivity. But Jesus being lampooned in a public park by thousands on Easter – well that’s entertainment! 

Some of you might respond to these events with dismissive anger. That won’t accomplish anything. Instead, let your response be steely resolve. Commit to pray for pastors and other spiritual leaders in San Francisco. They have the toughest mission field in America. Commit to give to start new churches in the City. We have been helping a new church plant for the past year. It is growing nicely. The gospel can transform lives and churches can be planted in San Francisco. Consider moving to the City – the heart of San Francisco, not just to the region. Strong Christian professionals who relocate, join churches, and support the work are needed in every church. 

And, finally, pray for and support Golden Gate Seminary. Our faculty, staff, students, and graduates are working hard to make a difference. Jesus - the real One, not some hunky parody – loves every person and wants a relationship with them. We are determined to share that message.

 

Transformation

Mar 12 2012

Watching a new Christian transform is a miraculous process and awe-inspiring no matter how often you have seen it happen. A few months ago, it was my honor to assist a young man (about 30) at his conversion to becoming a follower of Jesus. It was a powerful moment of simple prayer, repenting from sin and placing faith in Jesus alone as Lord and Savior. The immediate change – relief, happiness, a sense of newness – was obvious. But the change since then has been equally amazing. 

After his conversion, my friend asked me, “Now what?” I told him, “Start reading the Bible ‘like it’s your job.’” I walked him through a Bible reading plan that emphasizes the New Testament and Proverbs. He has been using it, shall we say “religiously.” He reads the New Testament every morning and Proverbs (the chapter for the date of the month) with his wife every evening. On his own, he started keeping a “Jesus book” as he calls it. It’s a little notebook he records insights he gains from his daily reading about living for Jesus. 

Not long after his conversion, he asked, “When can I start telling people I am a Christian?” Oh, that every believer was asking that question! I told him, “Today, just tell your friends and family what’s happened to you.” He has been, with good results. Last month, he called and said, “My dad is homebound and in poor health. He is asking me questions about God. Do you know a pastor in his area who could go talk with him?” I did and the pastor has now met with his father twice. My friend is now praying for his father’s salvation. 

Technology has made “discipleship by text” a new method I am using with my friend. He texts me questions and I shoot him back short answers. It is challenging to drop the blah, blah, blah preachers are famous for and text direct answers. I am enjoying it and he seems to be soaking it up. Discipleship by text – the next new thing? 

What makes this kind of life change happen? Not methods – not even new ones. Two things produce real change – conversion to Jesus Christ and obedience to the Word of God. New birth creates an infant, but the milk and meat of Scripture matures a person. The gospel and its application are transformative. Nothing else really changes people. 

Evaluate your ministry methods, strategies, and practices in light of this conviction. Too many Christians are content to be nice, do good things, lend a helping hand, or otherwise make the world a little better place. Don’t miss the opportunity for real change. Share the gospel! Guide people to encounter and apply the Bible! When you do, supernatural results always happen.

 

A Simple Question

Jan 30 2012

Many Christians who want to share their faith are intimidated by the difficulty of introducing spiritual issues to a conversation with friends or family members. Last week, we considered a simple way to do this. Rather than manipulating the conversation or otherwise artificially trying to open a dialogue, my advice is to look for open doors of opportunity when people are naturally thinking about spiritual dynamics. Those doors are summarized in four short phrases: people die, health fails, relationships struggle, and things break. 

When one of those life events happens, I have learned a single powerful question that almost always initiates a meaningful conversation and frequently paves the way for future spiritually-focused dialogue – including sharing the gospel. The question is, “May I pray for you?” 

That sounds too simple for many Christians. Do you know why? Because we pray for and are prayed for and hear other people prayed for all the time! Support groups, Bible classes, home fellowships, worship services, and church hallway conversations for most Christians include prayer requests and promises “to pray for you.” We hear it all the time and wrongly assume everyone has the same spiritual support. Wrong! Most people don’t have people praying for them or expressing this level of spiritual interest when they are struggling. Most people call out to God when they are hurting – often secretly, silently. Seldom do they have someone who cares enough about them to pray, out loud and by name for them. 

My experience, repeated over and over, is friends in crisis are deeply grateful for my offer to pray and always say “yes.” Often, when I ask the question, I mean “may I pray for you – later?” But people usually think I mean “right now.” They are hurting and thus unembarrassed by prayer in public places – which still surprises me no matter how often it has happened. 

One acquaintance was cordial but never conversed past a polite greeting. Then his father died. I sent him a text(!) asking if I could pray for him. He replied, “Yes, pray right now.” The next time we saw each other, he immediately thanked me, told me about his father, and talked about many spiritual issues related to his father’s death. A woman’s husband, a friend of mine, was injured at work. I arrived at the hospital to wait with her while the extent of the injuries was determined. After a few minutes, she blurted out, “Would you say a prayer for me?” I felt a bit foolish I had not asked her, but prayed with her. After the” amen,” she filled the rest of our time together telling me her spiritual story and asking questions about God and his plan for her life. 

Sharing the gospel isn’t difficult when people are open to the conversation. Look for open doors – life’s incidents producing vulnerability – and step through those doors. And, if you don’t know what else to say, just ask “may I pray for you?” You will be amazed at the response.

 

Open Doors

Jan 23 2012

One of the challenges of maintaining ministry or witnessing relationships is knowing when and how to offer spiritual input into another person’s life. It’s easy when “visitation” of people who first visited your church is your only model of sharing the gospel or offering ministry to others. You know the purpose of the meeting, the other person knows it, and the conversation isn’t really started until the spiritual purpose is introduced. That’s fine in that context. 

But what about your family members – the people you share holidays, family events, and life’s ups and downs? What about your co-workers, neighbors, friends at your gym, or other people you interact with on a consistent basis? Every conversation isn’t about the gospel or other spiritual issues. In fact, if that is all you talk about you may find you don’t have too many of these people in your life. They see you coming and go the other way. 

As Christians, we have a responsibility to share the gospel. We want to do that as often as appropriate. We are also supposed to be kind, not browbeating people or otherwise being a nuisance. When that happens, the good news becomes bad news! None of us want that. So, when and how do you help your friends and family consider spiritual issues, particularly the gospel? You look for open doors of opportunity. 

Paul used this imagery in 2 Corinthians 2:12 and reported praying “God may open a door for us” in Colossians 4:3. The image of an open door means “a created opportunity.” We should pray for and look for these in the lives of people around us. That begs the question, “What does an open door look like?” 

Working with people, particularly as a corporate chaplain in the baseball world, has helped me to crystallize an answer. These four phrases encapsulate the “open doors” we are looking for: people die, health fails, relationships struggle, things break. When any of these things happen, and one or more of them is inevitable, the opportunity to speak up about the gospel (and other spiritual resources God provides) is presenting itself. Pay attention and walk through the open door! 

For example, a few years ago a friend’s mother died. I showed up at the funeral. He asked, “What are you doing here?” I replied, “I thought you might need a friend today.” Through tears he replied, “Thanks.” That moment opened the door for further conversation about his life, his mother, and his questions about life after death (and the gospel!). In another instant, a friend was injured in a work-related accident. I showed up, sat with his wife while he was being treated, and she said, “Can you say a prayer for us?” After that, we freely talked about God, the gospel, and his care for us.

Pay attention to what’s happening to people in your circle of relationships. Don’t stress about how to bring up the gospel or otherwise dialogue about your faith. Just watch for open doors – and have the courage to walk through them. Remember, when people are hurting most other people avoid them – afraid of saying the wrong thing or uncorking emotions they can’t handle. Don’t be that person. Have the spiritual maturity to draw close to distressed friends. When you do, amazing things happen. 

Next week, I will let you know the single most powerful question I have learned to ask people in distress and how that question has changed my ministry relationships. 

For more insight on this important subject, check out my new book Live Like a Missionary.

 

Implementing infiltration strategies (part 2)

Nov 28 2011

Missional Christians consider themselves deployed, not just dispersed throughout the culture. Christians are already embedded at schools, companies, and neighborhoods where they study, work, and live. They are deployed with a mission to infiltrate their community with the gospel. Following up from last week, here are some additional steps to accomplish this goal. 

Be available. Engaging people with the gospel takes time. My commitment to being a corporate chaplain requires me to decline other ministry opportunities. It also takes time away from family and personal time. Finding the balance in all this is important – but so is making time to build and maintain witnessing relationships. Part of my responsibility is being available – having time for spontaneous conversations, answering phone calls, returning text messages and emails, sharing meals, counseling sessions, attending weddings, funerals, and baby dedications. Some of these events can’t be scheduled, yet a timely response is necessary. Seizing the moment for ministry-connection leading to gospel-presentation is essential for missional advance. 

To create flexibility in your schedule may require you, particularly if you are a busy church leader, to evaluate how you are spending your time. Are you completely enmeshed in Christian activity to the exclusion of missional involvement with lost people? If so, some “transactional adjustment” of your schedule is required. Transactional adjustment means you must take something out of your schedule before you can put something else on it. You can’t keep adding more and more. Minus one proceeds plus one for the scheduling equation to work. As you create more time for engaging unbelievers, you will most likely start by deciding what current commitments must be deleted before anything new can be added. 

Another part of this is creating “margin” in your life so you can respond to serendipitous opportunities to share the gospel. When a non-Christian sportswriter asked me to have lunch to talk about spiritual questions, it became a priority! Other lesser obligations had to be pushed back or canceled. Keeping your schedule flexible enough to respond to unexpected opportunity is challenging, but essential for connecting with people – on their timetable – about the gospel. 

Be yourself. People can sense a phony! If you want to share the gospel, living an authentic life – not a perfect life – is essential. The people you live and work around know the “real you.” Be yourself. Be a genuine Christian, not a person acting out the role of a believer. One common devilish lie is Christians can’t witness to people who know them well until they live a perfectly committed life. Not true! Unbelievers know you aren’t perfect – so stop thinking you have to be. It is far better to admit your mistakes, apologize for them, and move on. You will be surprised at the response. Most non-Christians will respect you more for your honesty – and be more open to hearing the gospel from you. 

Trevor is trying to live a missional lifestyle at work. He is implementing several of the steps outlined in this chapter. After a series of problems with his boss – some his fault, some not – he exploded in anger in front of his co-workers. He vented his frustration is blunt terms, including profanities he thought were erased from his vocabulary. Trevor called me, discouraged, feeling his “witness was lost” with his fellow workers. My counsel: go to work tomorrow, accept responsibility for your actions, and apologize. To his surprise, the response was positive among his co-workers who told him “No problem, just forget it.” A genuine apology, expressed humbly, defuses conflict and restores relationships. Your non-Christian friends know you aren’t perfect. Authenticity trumps duplicity every time so admit your mistakes and move on. 

Be patient. The final step to implementing an infiltration strategy is patience. Some people are ready to hear the gospel and respond now. Share the gospel, win them to faith in Jesus, and disciple them to spiritual strength. Many people, however, take time to open themselves to the gospel. You may pray for months or years, always looking for an opportunity to share the gospel, yet feel stymied in the process. When you finally do introduce the gospel into the conversation, the response may be tepid or even resistant. Many witnesses give up at this point, assuming they have failed. Not necessarily. 

Some people open themselves to the gospel over time. God orchestrates circumstances to bring unbelievers to the end of self-trust, to convince them of his love, to remove objections to faith, or to clarify the gospel as a grace-gift apart from any works. Some people process the gospel more slowly, truth dawning on them over time rather than having a dramatic revelation. Some unbelievers are watching you, wanting to know if the gospel is really transformational before making their commitment. Finally, some lost people are just plain stubborn – self-sufficient and unwilling to repent. Unfortunately, being broken by life’s disappointment is often part of their path back to God. Your steady friendship may facilitate their progress to salvation through the pain of a broken life. 

When you commit to living a missional lifestyle, you will probably find people more open to the gospel than you imagine. After thirty years of sharing my faith, my overall impression is most unbelievers are either open to or at least tolerant of gospel-dialogue. My truly negative experiences in sharing my faith can be counted on one hand. Most non-Christians, when approached appropriately, are not antagonistic about discussing religious issues – including hearing a Christian’s testimony and Jesus’ story. Many of the barriers to sharing our faith have been erected by us – not the people around us. Religious barriers to communicating the gospel can be removed – but only by the same people who built them. You can remove religious barriers to sharing your faith.

 

Implementing Infiltration Strategies (part 1)

Nov 21 2011

Based on the responses, my challenge to implement “infiltration strategies” has hit a nerve – in a good way. Here are some suggestions for implementing these, excerpted from my new book Live Like a Missionary. I will share some more next week. By the way - A church just ordered 400 books and plans to go through it with the whole congregation! Maybe your church should do something similar.

Missional Christians consider themselves deployed, not just dispersed throughout the culture. Christians are already embedded at schools, companies, and neighborhoods where they study, work, and live. You don’t need to “get outside the walls of the church.” You live there already! Every Christians has a relational network, even though some may be limited because of years of immersion in the Christian subculture. When you adopt a more missional lifestyle, becoming more connecting to your community will involve two options – maximizing current relationships and/or purposefully creating new relationships – all in the context of your normal life patterns. Let’s consider examples of both options for infiltrating your world with the gospel.

George committed his life to Jesus, but decided to keep racing automobiles as an avocation. He started telling his friends about his conversion and encouraging them to become followers of Jesus. His race team organized a car show, on a church parking lot, to connect his racing friends to his church friends. Note this distinction: George connected this lost friends to his church friends but in the context of an activity central to their lives, not the church’s. He maximized existing relationships for sharing the gospel.

Lisa, a young mother, moved to a new community and wanted to establish friendships with other women like her. She could have joined a church-based group for mothers of preschoolers. Nothing wrong with that! The church program was Christian-focused with unbelievers welcome – a classic engagement strategy. But Lisa wanted to meet more women who needed to know Jesus. She joined a local “play group,” operated by a community center. Lisa met about a dozen women who became her friends. Over time, she discovered none of them were Christians – or even had any connection to a church. As a missional Christian, this became a relational gold mine! Liz had a bi-weekly opportunity to interface with women who shared her life concerns, pressures, and frustrations. It was easy to talk about her faith as the solution to these issues. Talking about Jesus was part of the conversation – along with diaper rash, dealing with colic, developmental concerns, and laughter about the funny things children do. Choosing to infiltrate a play group is an example of initiating new relationships for the purpose of sharing the gospel.

Whether you are maximizing existing relationships or initiating new ones as part of your missional commitment, there are four principles that will help you implement infiltration strategies. These are simple steps to improve your effectiveness in sharing the gospel.

Be intentional. Sometimes, the perspective described in this book is derided as an excuse for diminished church involvement or a watered-down relational approach that soft-sells witnessing. Both of those criticisms can be true if a person isn’t intentional about sharing the gospel. Living a good life among unbelievers and hoping your spiritual aura effects life-change is insufficient. Intentional strategies make the difference. One of the simplest strategies is to make a prayer list of unbelieving friends and pray regularly for their salvation. This practice accomplishes two purposes. First, it asks God for something within his will and with biblical precedent (see chapter 3). Second, it continually sensitizes you to the spiritual needs of the people you are praying for.

Another intentional strategy is maintaining a record of your progress in sharing the gospel with your friends. Andy kept a small notebook in his car with a page for each person he was trying to reach with the gospel. It also doubled as his prayer list (described above). Any time he had a spiritual conversation with one of this friends, he noted it. He also included significant life events (births, marriages, promotions, etc.) as well as life struggles (sicknesses, deaths in the family, etc.) that might contribute to his connecting the gospel to their life needs. While you may be so relationally sensitive you don’t need a “spiritual spreadsheet,” keeping records of your witnessing attempts and the progress you are making can be helpful for those with shorter memories!

A third intentional strategy is having Christian literature, books, DVDs, CDs, and web site addresses to give to others. When witnessing to friends and family members, the gospel is often shared incrementally. Recently, my friend Braylon, responded very openly to a question I raised about his spiritual background. We talked for about twenty minutes about the gospel. He had to return to work, so I offered him a gospel-tract about salvation. He agreed to read it. The next time we are together, I will ask him about it as the basis for our continued conversation. When a friend expresses spiritual interest, one very good way to extend the dialogue is to share a resource related to their concern. Andy, the same man with the notebook, also taught me this practice. He always had a zip-lock bag of materials in his car and office, ready to distribute at a moment’s notice. Now, with electronic resources, you can text or email a web address as a follow up to many conversations.

Check back next week for three more implementation ideas.

 

Why infiltration strategies are resisted by Christians

Nov 14 2011

The first reason infiltration strategies are difficult is Christians do not control the venue where they are deployed. In the examples given last week, a common characteristic of infiltration strategies is someone other than a church or Christian leader sets the rules, controls the schedule, establishes the policies, and most importantly, determines the moral values of the organization or program. This is a problem for many Christians who are intimidated by secularization which contradicts their core values. Missionaries, however, live like this all the time! Missional Christians embrace living among secular people as an opportunity to model and speak the gospel – even when they can’t control the setting. 

Too many Christians, even leaders and prospective leaders, can’t fathom intentionally choosing to work or play outside the Christian subculture. Our seminary’s primary campus is located in the San Francisco Bay Area, a hotbed of politically liberal, religiously indifferent, secular thought. There aren’t many churches – and very few large churches – since evangelicals comprise less than 3% of the total population. When prospective students visit our area – they usually reach one of two conclusions. Some wonder how they can live with no Christian schools, recreation programs, day care centers, or extensive church ministries to support their Christian faith. In short, they wonder how they will survive without a Christian subculture – a comfort zone they are not prepared to leave. Those students don’t normally choose our school. 

On the other hand, some prospective students are drawn to our area because it requires joining the community to find the services listed above. They understand the absence of a Christian subculture means they must engage the culture – and in doing so build relationships with unbelievers. Believers who consider themselves deployed, not just dispersed, see their role as infiltrating cultural networks and systems with the gospel. Christians in similar situations see their setting as a gold mine of spiritual opportunity. Missional Christians, like missionaries, embrace living where very few people are followers of Jesus. 

A second reason infiltration strategies are more difficult is Christians are afraid of being tainted by the culture. They are uncomfortable hearing profanity, sharing meals where alcohol is served, sitting in the smoking section, hearing off-color humor, or socializing with secular people. They prefer insulation from offensive aspects of culture, rather than infiltration of it. Christians also shy away from serving on boards, committees, or community organizations with people who don’t share all their values.
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This raises an important question related to personal holiness among deployed believers: Do you violate Christian standards by befriending people who behave in sinful ways? The answer is a resounding NO. Jesus modeled living among sinful people, yet without sin. Relating to people who make poor choices isn’t the same as making those choices yourself. Missional Christians must have the spiritual self-discipline to relate to unbelievers based on who they are (a person God loves), not what they do (act reprehensibly toward God). As you infiltrate the culture with the gospel, you learn to relate to people without judging them. You love people, overlooking their inappropriate behavior because you know it is a symptom – not the cause – of their lostness. 

One word of caution, however, as you develop relationships with non-Christians and take the gospel into secular situations. Some behavior may be so tempting for you, it would be wise to avoid associating with people involved in it until you are sufficiently capable of resisting the temptation. Newer Christians often must break old patterns by completing disassociating themselves from past behavior (and sometimes friends involved in it). This may be a temporary decision during a season of spiritual development, or a lifelong choice if the temptation is unrelenting. Missional Christians must be mature enough in their faith to resist temptations while they reach out to unbelievers and know situations they need to avoid all together. 

It’s also important to remember, some behavior is always inappropriate for Christians. Spiritual discernment and personal discipline are required to walk these fine lines. 

A third reason an infiltration strategy is difficult is many Christians have poor spiritual-esteem. They aren’t really sure about their faith’s legitimacy in the marketplace of competing religions and ideologies. They feel threatened when unbelievers share gut-honest, critical opinions of church or Christianity in general. These Christians lack a robust faith capable of standing up in the marketplace. What passes for “discipleship” today has too often produced weak-willed believers without the spiritual stamina to make a difference in their communities and work places. Our faith is a “greenhouse” faith – capable of thriving only in controlled environments. To infiltrate culture with the gospel will require faith able to withstand hurricane force opposition – spiritual, philosophical, and ideological. 

The Christian faith is personally transforming, intellectually defensible, spiritually empowering, and practically livable in every life setting. You can develop the spiritual self-esteem to represent the gospel boldly, without reticence, to the people in your circle of influence. A missional Christian has an authentic faith, confidently shared no matter the spiritual climate. 

Adopting infiltration strategies is also difficult because church and denominational leaders seldom celebrate Christians who adopt this lifestyle. They celebrate what happens in church buildings (attendance, baptisms, and offerings) or what happens through church programs (even those directed toward unbelievers) – not church members who devote significant time to infiltrating the community with the gospel. They promote programs and projects they control – contributing to the definition of “community deployment” as “supporting church-based outreach to the community.” 

Christians with a robust faith must infiltrate public schools, sports programs, Chambers of Commerce, factory floors, country clubs, foster care systems, and countless other venues with the gospel. Believers who choose this path must be celebrated, not criticized, by church leaders and viewed as missionaries with an apostolic mandate. These believers aren’t merely social workers or spiritual activists. They are gospel-tellers who seek intentional ways to introduce Jesus to every person. They are more than a spiritual presence. They talk about Jesus, win converts, and make disciples. When the results of their work become evident, wise church leaders celebrate the victory and encourage others to join the work.

For a more complete discussion of this concept, see my book Live Like a Missionary

 

Infiltration strategies

Nov 07 2011

Churches today, and most Christians who support their work, focus on attraction and engagement strategies to communicate the gospel to their community. Let’s define those two concepts. An attraction strategy is a Christian event or program designed to accommodate unbelievers and introduce them to Jesus Christ. For example, seeker-friendly worship services or Christian coffee houses are attraction strategies. They are designed for Christians to invite unbelievers to hear the gospel, experience Christian fellowship/worship, and observe Christian community. 

An engagement strategy is an event or program designed to extend ministry to unbelievers and introduce them to Jesus. For example, a church-based sports program or neighborhood block parties are engagement strategies. They are also designed for Christians to invite non-Christians to participate in activities with believers and sample Christian fellowship. Both attraction and engagement strategies have their place and should not be abandoned. They are, however, inadequate for gospel-penetration of a post-Christian or never-Christian culture across North America. An infiltration strategy must be promoted by churches and celebrated by church leaders. 

What is an infiltration strategy and does it differ from attraction and engagement strategies? An infiltration strategy is the deployment of believers throughout the culture to introduce unbelievers to Jesus Christ in their context. Consider the following comparisons to help clarify the differences in these three approaches. For example, starting a church-sponsored softball league for the community is an attraction strategy. Creating a church-sponsored softball team and playing in a community-sponsored league is an engagement strategy. Joining your company’s softball team – practicing, playing, and staying for the after game refreshments – is an infiltration strategy. Inviting a friend to Sunday school is another example of an attraction strategy. Organizing a Bible study at your workplace and inviting friends is an engagement strategy. Volunteering as a corporate chaplain and seeking out opportunities to share the gospel in the workplace is an infiltration strategy. Another attraction strategy is starting a children’s home. An engagement strategy is developing a church-sponsored mentoring program for at-risk children. An infiltration strategy is becoming a foster parent through the state controlled children’s services division. 

Many Christians find living an infiltration strategy lifestyle more difficult than participating in attraction or engagement strategies. There are several reasons for this, rooted in the characteristics of infiltration strategies and the church-based culture supporting the other alternatives. We will consider those reasons in more detail next week.

 

What About Those Who Have Never Heard?

Mar 31 2008

One of the outstanding younger theologians in Southern Baptist life today is Dr. Chris Morgan, Professor of Theology, at California Baptist University. In the past two years, Dr. Morgan has edited two important books – Hell Under Fire and Faith Comes by HearingA Response to Inclusivism

If you can judge a man by the company he keeps, these books reveal much about Dr. Morgan. He has assembled outstanding writing teams that produced significant contributions on two subjects of vital importance. Golden Gate is a Great Commission-centered institution. Grappling with the present condition and eternal state of those who have not heard about Jesus Christ is part of spiritual formation for our students. Dr. Morgan’s books are well-reasoned, well-documented resources for students thinking through this challenging subject. 

Faith Comes by Hearing is a particularly important book because it addresses a fundamental issue in our world – the unique claims of Jesus Christ. Most people do not mind interjecting God – as a generic concept - into almost any discussion, situation, or arena of life. But Jesus is another matter. To follow him, and espouse his exclusivity as a means of salvation almost guarantees you will receive the most onerous modern negative accusation possible – intolerant! 

One of the reasons I like Dr. Morgan is he has a pastoral perspective on theology. He is a professor…but also a pastor of a “rank and file” Baptist church. Something about preaching weekly, leading the typical people found in a normal church, struggling with church problems and challenges, and helping lost people become vibrant disciples keeps a person’s perspective from being skewed by the ivory tower of academia. Dr. Morgan writes like Christians should live – with uncompromising biblical conviction, but also with love and respect for persons with different beliefs or conclusions. 

Dr. Morgan represents the best of Baptist academic life – serious biblical scholarship coupled with passionate missional practice. Our Golden Gate faculty also has many men and women like this. It is an honor to serve with them and partner with Dr. Morgan and the team at Cal Baptist as we train leaders on the west coast.

 

The Prophet on the Bus

Mar 24 2008

A few days ago, my rental car shuttle bus driver greeted me as I stepped on the bus with, “God bless you.” When I thanked him for the blessing and told him I was a believer, he started telling me about his dreams and visions. During the seven minute ride to the car lot, he told me about several experiences in which God “told him” various things about the future (talking while looking in his rearview mirror at me!). 

Most of his observations were innocuous, until he started telling me about China attacking California, Russia backing China, Israel then attacking Russia, and everyone going to war in the Middle East. He was so sure of his vision, I expected him to pull the bus over and show me a chart of the whole process – including dates. 

After listening to his impassioned sharing, I tried to respond gently (affirming his love for God) but directly about the importance of judging all spiritual impressions by revealed objective biblical truth. I encouraged him to read the Bible, get in a small group Bible study, and hear a pastor regularly preach messages based on the Bible. I hope he does this and balances his intuitive sense of God’s presence with the stabilizing force of biblical revelation. 

The conversation, however, is a significant example of a common experience in today’s culture. People today seem more spiritually minded, and more willing to talk about their spirituality, than at any time in my ministry. When I was first learning to share my faith, the trainers spent considerable time on how to open a conversation and get people thinking about spiritual things. That was appropriate 25 years ago. But today is different. People are open to spiritual conversations. 

Don’t confuse “spiritual conversations” with a stereotypical understanding of discussing the Christian faith. While people are more open to dialogue about spiritual issues, they aren’t automatically inclined to discuss the gospel. Our role is to introduce Jesus into the conversation as the Source of true spirituality. Doing this isn’t difficult. Sharing Jesus and your relationship with him as your spiritual story is a terrific way to engage someone with the gospel. 

Sharing your story, however, is not enough. The gospel must be explained. The gospel stands apart from your experience. Sharing the gospel is communicating timeless truth about God’s love, humankind’s sin, Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the possibility of conversion by grace through faith. 

There has never been an easier time to engage people in spiritual conversation. So, listen to the spiritual stories of others. Discern God’s work in their experience. Share your experience of knowing Jesus. And, share the gospel – the good news of God’s offer of true spiritual life.

 

Changing Perceptions

Feb 25 2008

As I mentioned last week, I have been reading unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity. This book, by David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, summarizes extensive research about the opinions of 16-29 year-olds in the United States about Christianity. His conclusions, particularly about those he calls unChrstian, are troubling.
 
The book makes a strong case for developing new ways for believers to connect with nonbelievers, new attitudes to drive our efforts at building relationships through which the gospel can be lived and communicated. For almost 20 years, I have lived near Portland, Oregon and San Francisco, California – two of the more secular cities in North America. During that time, my experience resonates with just about everything Kinnaman wrote in his book. I have befriended hundreds of nonbelievers and shared the gospel with many of them. Here are some of Kinnaman’s suggestions for changing our attitude toward nonbelievers (p. 194-195), voiced from their perspective with some personal illustrations. 

First, listen to me. My doctoral project was on developing listening skills for personal witnessing. This has been a passion for me for almost 30 years! You begin sharing Jesus effectively, not by talking, but by listening – really listening – to your friends. 

Second, don’t label me. Learning this was a painful lesson for me. Soon after we moved to Portland to plant a new church, a family in the community befriended us. They invited us to their home. In the course of the evening, they asked why we had moved to the area. When I told them, “To start a church” the woman said sarcastically, “So, you’ve come to save us poor pagans.” For the first time, I realized how pejorative our words sound to others. By the way – we are still good friends with this family and still praying for them to commit themselves to Jesus. 

Third, don’t be so smart. Learning to say, “I’m not sure” is not part of most Christian witness training programs. It should be. We often act like we have all the answers. We don’t. Admitting it strengthens our credibility. 

Fourth, put yourself in my place. This was foundational to our church planting experience. We determined everything from the Bible translation we used to the starting time for our worship services based on the perspective of nonbelievers. Some other Christians criticized us for these practices, but we consistently tried to look at our witness through the eyes of those we were trying to reach. 

Fifth, be genuine. Relax. Be yourself. Let people know the real you. Your friends already know more about you than you realize. So relax and be yourself. Transparency builds credibility in relationships. 

Finally, be my friend with no other motives. Nonbelievers can tell quickly if you are only interested in them as an object of evangelism. Some of my best witnessing has been done over a period of years, working hard to build a relationship that really valued the other person.

 

unChristian

Feb 18 2008

I’m reading a new book, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity. It’s a tough read. This book, by David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group summarizes extensive research about the opinions of 16-29 year-olds in the United States about Christianity. His conclusions, particularly about those he calls unChrstian, are troubling. 

We have a saying in our family, “The truth is the truth. Deal with it.” Facing reality and responding appropriately to hard, difficult truth takes maturity. Responding to the facts in this book will require a disciplined, focused effort by Christians like us. 

Kinnaman found an overwhelming negative impression of Christianity among those he studied. What are the primary objections? We are viewed as hypocritical, too focused on getting converts, antihomosexual, sheltered from reality, too political, and judgmental. Ouch! I wish I could say my experiences contradict Kinnaman’s findings. They don’t. 

As a sports chaplain (aiming most of my ministry at this age group), I have heard many of these same objections by those I have engaged about the gospel. As a frequent “airplane” witness, these same issues come up over and over. All three of my children are in this age group and are active, witnessing believers. These are the same issues they call me for help in learning how to dialogue with their friends. 

So, what do we do? Do we just give up on sharing Jesus with this generation? No way! Kinnaman underscores one conclusion his research indicates we must not do. He writes (p32-33), “Some Christians respond to outsiders’ negativity by promoting a less offensive faith. The unpopular parts of Christian teaching are omitted or deemphasized. They hijack the image of Jesus by portraying him as an open-minded, big-hearted, and never-offended-anyone moral teacher. That is entirely the wrong idea of Jesus.” 

The solution proposed by some believers is to soften Jesus and his message, to make him more palatable for this generation. I believe, strongly, this is the wrong approach. Our task is to present the real Jesus – who he is, how to know him, what he demands of us, and his power to change lives. Presenting Jesus, the real Jesus, not a caricatured, sanitized, or stylized version is our message. 

Jesus, presently honestly, will sometimes offend. The message of the cross does that. But he will also attract. His life does that. And, his name, his power will change any life open to genuinely meeting him. The resurrection guarantees that. 

So, Kinnaman’s findings are hard to face. But face them we must. While we must not compromise our core message, we must learn how to present Jesus more effectively to this generation. I’ll share more about that in the next week or two.

 

The Recovery in New Orleans

Jan 22 2008

My travels sometimes take me to interesting places – like New Orleans last week for a meeting related to our accreditation process. This was my first opportunity to visit the city since Katrina hit a few years ago. 

My first impression was the recovery evident at the airport and tourist areas. Much work has been done to restore essentials services in areas related to reinvigorating tourism as an essential economic resource. If you only traveled in these areas, you would not realize the devastation that occurred. 

A second perspective came from my two cab drivers – both women and New Orleans natives. The first told me about five feet of water in her house and the scattering of her family to shelters in other cities. The second had a more tragic story. While she and “her man for 20 years” survived the storm and its aftermath, the recovery stress was too much. Her partner took his own life a few weeks later, unable to cope with the financial and emotional pressure of losing so much. Both of these women personalized the human suffering and helped put it in perspective for me. 

A friend took me on a driving tour to give me another view of what happened and some of the recovery. We drove through the Ninth Ward, a particularly hard hit area. House after house still sits empty, with the painted code on the front indicating they have been searched, how high the water was, and how many bodies were found inside. It was sobering. 

But even in these neighborhoods, it was exciting to see churches open. On one street, the empty houses and FEMA trailers lined both sides of a street with buckled pavement. But on the corner was a refurbished church – with a lighted sign that said, “Open for business.” That made me smile! 

Another interesting impression came from a fellow conference attendee from New York. He said, “You know, people in New Orleans say Southern Baptists were the first ones in and provided the best relief services.” One New Orleans native told me about a letter to the editor that said, “Let the Southern Baptists run the recovery. They know what to do!” God has used our disaster relief efforts to create favor for our witness in New Orleans. 

Finally, I toured our sister school – New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Their recovery is amazing. Their campus is beautiful with most of the damage repaired. They still need to build some replacement housing and it will be underway soon. They are one of the strongest schools in the city, making a much more rapid recovery than other colleges and universities. Why? God’s grace, the Cooperative Program, good fiscal planning on their part, and the “can do” attitude of Baptists.

 




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