Getting in touch with the power that drives the Universe...
Currently at SonRise I am teaching a “Sunday school” class entitled Coffee Shop Conversations. I ran across the book shortly after the church had purchased the coffee shop in town. We had planned as a church to utilize the shop as a social “well” where we could introduce people to Jesus, learn about the culture, work for the common good of our community and develop our own faith through evangelism. I hoped that the book might give me some tools to personally help me in witnessing about God’s love. Now that I’ve lived with the book for over a year, and have taught some of its precepts, I understand how fruitful this experience has become!
The book is written by the husband and wife team of Dale and Jonalyn Fincher. Their writing is unusual in the sense that it is tempered by their sharing of personal flaws in their faith development and evangelism practices. As we read the book it is painful to share in the prideful, inconsiderate, hurtful ways in which they evangelized as teens, college students and young marrieds. They are brutally honest in describing and admitting their misrepresentations of the God of love; of showing judgment, sin-sniffing and “inspecting and expecting the fruit of conversion before it is harvested.” Simply put, they are sinful, broken people with whom I can identify. But through the pain and difficulties of living their witness wrongly, they exemplify hope for those of us who have either failed at evangelism, or who don’t even dare to attempt it.
As there are 14 chapters in the book, I consciously decided to pare down the number that we would address in the class. As I told the class participants, chapter 2 is the essence of the book. “If you have the opportunity to read only one chapter, this is the one you should read.” Chapter 2 outlines the core of the book and it is called “Loving Discourse.”
These are the 7 “Manners” of loving discourse (conversational evangelism) per the Finchers:
Respect one another
Step into their shoes
Wrestle on your own
Never judge a thing by its abuse
Update your opinions of others
Share your personal experience
Allow others to remain unconvinced
Dale and Jonalyn begin their writing by sharing a philosophical framework for their own evangelism.
Manners work best when they’re two-way, but we are called to practice them with love and grace even if we do so alone.
They should never be used to manipulate others.
Manners are ways to honor human dignity, foster smart dialogue, and protect each other’s freedom of conscience.
Here are my thoughts on what I think are the three most important Manners:
For Manner #1, the Finchers counsel that “Because every human is uniquely made in the image of God, Jesus commands all his followers to equally value adherents of other faiths, or even people who (have no faith).” They advise that “differences in belief cannot make a human unworthy of our respect.”
They wisely suggest that “we can test our level of respect for others by noticing how we talk about non-Christians when we are with other Christians. Do we mock them? Do we ascribe unverified motives to them because of their beliefs? For instance, do we find ourselves suspicious that a neighbor is godless or deceitful because she had an abortion? Do we snicker at a co-worker who wears amulets and prays to the Goddess? Do we stereotype and denigrate gays with our lunchtime buddies?”
In the same vein they share that “If we are eager to talk about Jesus’ sacrifice, we need to show them our own willingness to love them with sacrifice. We may find ourselves welcomed into someone else’s life when we lay down our sword of ridicule. Mocking others, even behind their backs, destroys our capacity to respect them when we speak face to face. As C. S. Lewis points out, real merriment can only exist between friends who take each other seriously— no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”
“Respect entails godly tolerance”, they write, “which allows us to say, ‘I’ll be open with my journey; will you be open with yours? Maybe we can help each other find our way through this world.’ Tolerance of this kind offers to others what we’ve found to be good, true, and beautiful. It listens to what others have found.”
Skipping down to Manner #3, this one had immediate, stunning relevance to me and the other participants of a recent City of Refuge inner city mission trip. As is our custom, we walked the downtown streets near Horton Square engaging homeless people in conversation, praying for them and gifting them with small bags of personal-sized toiletries and snacks. It gives us a chance to “step into their shoes” (Manner #2), practice a non-judgemental attitude (Manner #4), and “update our opinions of others” (Manner #5).
But manner #3 was more than we bargained for!
It was put to the test when we met Bryan, a young man possibly in his mid-to-late 20’s. We had essentially finished our evening and were walking back to our vehicles when Bryan walked past and to the side of us. He appeared fairly well-dressed, albeit casually so. He carried a nice backpack and was clean-shaven. We guessed that he really wasn’t homeless and may have been living on government support and possibly employed. Just out of habit, we asked him if he would like a toiletry bag and he somewhat awkwardly said yes. So we gathered around him and inquired about his story; his truth; his impression of homelessness and even of God. He shared a tale of habitual alcohol abuse developed in the military followed by a violent drunken confrontation in which he was kicked in the head and rendered brain damaged. He suffers seizures and continues to have cognitive difficulties. He really can’t get on with his life it seems.
As I looked Bryan in the eyes while talking with him, it seemed that there was somewhat of a “fog” in his demeanor. I wasn’t sure if he was understanding me or if, quite possibly, he might be irritated with my probing. I felt uncomfortable for myself, but especially for the young people and adult women surrounding us. After hearing his story and asking a few more questions, we prayed for Bryan, and surprisingly, he led us all in the Lord’s Prayer! At the conclusion of our prayers for him, he elected to rearrange his backpack so that he could more easily stow our gift bag.
That’s when it happened. Bryan took two large bottles of liquor out of his backpack.
As they sat there on the sidewalk, our minds and spirits raced! Our throats silently gulped and gasped. We were stuck without response!
Later, after he had stowed his things, we said our goodbyes, then returned to the mission house for a debriefing of the evening’s events. We were slow getting started but when the topic turned to Bryan, everyone wanted weigh in on what had happened. To a person, we all felt we had missed an opportunity to offer removing Bryan’s liquor bottles to help him with his substance abuse. We wondered out loud why we had not engaged him about the incongruity of his prayer and his habit. I myself shared that perhaps we were victims of our own American culture that cherishes individual autonomy of choice. Yet still we lamented that we had not said something. We vowed that if such a situation ever happened again that we all would speak up. The Finchers call this “wrestling on your own.” As a group we came to understand the name Old Testament name of “Israel” as “one who struggles with God” or “God contends.” Wow, did we struggle! We all knew in the moment that we needed to speak up, or do something, yet all of us had failed. This was Manner #3 in-the-flesh! Bryan’s struggle became ours! Rather than a defeat, it emboldened us to speak up next time and contend on his behalf with the Lord. To seek out the Spirit’s will ahead of time through prayer and pay attention to His nudges as we minister to street people. This struggle no doubt helped all of us define our own stories of faith and be more capable of sharing those stories.
Which leads me to close with Manner #7, allowing others to remain unconvinced.
Often times we present Gospel love in the inner city only to be ignored, reviled or even persecuted. Due to our own broken Christian culture of agenda-driven evangelism, many are predisposed to discount our message before they get to know us. Some listen attentively but are unable to respond due to their personal circumstances, distractions, or temperament. We’ve learned that the sacrifice of time and attentiveness is essential in developing relationships that can be trusted. This is expensive!!!
And more than that, it’s challenging with respect to maintaining a relationship. We have to take the long view that others may harvest the fruit of our efforts. That ours is simply the task of planting and watering. We have come to realize that we may never see the outcome of Christ’s healing work in the lives of the people we minister to. We love them sacrificially!
But sometimes, as in the case of one young man, we do see the fruit. We were stopped in our travels that night by a tall man who crossed our path, did a double-take, and returned to thank us profusely for ministering to him some 2 ½ years previously (he recognized our own special Samantha Chavez!) We were blown away and not quite certain how to respond, other than to thank God for this special acknowledgment of our work.
And so it goes. We are learning and practicing these 7 Manners of loving discourse. They work! They are refining and reshaping our faith and confidence in God to do the work He gives us. Evangelism is not so scary now; it’s more like an adventure. Almost like a party spent opening rare and extravagant gifts! I’m so thankful that there are thoughtful, authentically experienced authors like the Finchers to guide us, and a loving God Who talks to us through them.