Getting in touch with the power that drives the Universe...
God has told us through His Word that we must, at all times, be ready to give an accounting for our faith in His son, Jesus (1 Peter 3:15). This has always been a daunting task for me; one that I have never completely embraced nor accomplished. Seems to me that a lot of us get caught up in thinking that we need to memorize key Bible verses or have a comfortable, commanding grip on most theological principles. We need, so to speak, to be able to give a brilliant and convincing explanation to others about why they should believe in our Savior and turn their lives over to Him. It’s a kind of intellectual approach. If you’re like me, this isn’t a very attractive formula for sharing the gospel with people.
This reminds me of a passage from Todd Hunter’s book, Outsiders (1). “No matter how many Biblical smart bombs you drop down someone's soul chimney, ultimately it all comes down to whether or not they like you. If they like you, they will be more open to your ideas, and if they don't they won't. We've been told if we get too close to sinners, we risk becoming like them, and we have been told that if we hang out with nonbelievers, we need to have an answer for them. But what if they aren't asking the questions we've been trained to answer? ...for Jesus, morality was never an abstraction. It was a concrete reality that had to do with alignment (of our lives) to the ultimate intention of God. This is what allowed Jesus to hang with various sinners and prostitutes. When pressed about these things his standard answer was: 'I only do and say what I see and hear from my Father.' For Jesus, morals were always rooted in the story of God."
I often wonder if anxiety about this challenge of spoken evangelism keeps many of us away from the mission field or witnessing to people in our home, business or community. Church leaders once provided us with “tracts”: little folded documents that reviewed the 4 basic Spiritual Laws, or answered questions about what happens to us after we die. Kind of like a resort profile or an equipment brochure. Nice to know, but not particularly motivating. I’ve never felt comfortable with tracts because they weren’t “my” story, and I had to almost read them word-for-word to others. But I was out of my depth and really had no more information of my own to back up the concepts in the tracts.
Years ago my teaching experience caused me to consider Jesus as the Master Teacher that He certainly was when He walked the land of Israel. One of Jesus’ most powerful tools of teaching was the parable. The dictionary defines a parable as “a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson, as told by Jesus in the Gospels.” Although Jesus, as the Son of God, is the author of theology, he chose the simple medium of storytelling to convey some of the most abstract, difficult concepts of life and His kingdom. He used stories (parables) to evangelize seekers and instruct believers. Why did He approach Kingdom teaching (mission and evangelizing) in this way?
I’ve often wondered what it must have been like to listen to Jesus telling His parables. I can imagine it must have been somewhat easy for his followers to visualize and grasp the literal meaning of each parable. After all, they probably had sheep they took care of, or mustard plants they harvested, or lost objects of value that they had inadvertently misplaced. Taking the story home in their minds, it must have occurred to some that they themselves were the sheep He was talking about, and He, the Good Shepherd. Therein lies the power of story: “...stories draw listeners into the lives of the characters. Listeners not only hear what happened to such characters; through the imagination they vicariously enter the experience.” As Tom Steffen points out, “stories have a way of tapping those feelings that we habitually anesthetize.”2
Secondly, stories are adaptable to the audience segments that hear them. A shepherd might hear Jesus’ assertion that he was a “door” to eternal life differently than a city dweller. Such a shepherd would know that he uses his own body to hem in his flock at night in rocky enclaves. A city dweller might think of the substantial wood door on her dwelling that protected her and her family from the outside, uncertain world. A levite might think of the curtain that separated the interior of the Temple. Each listener would then hear a parable in ways that would be most meaningful and memorable to them.
A third and most significant benefit of stories is that they come from the teller’s own experience and are therefore perhaps less offensive or threatening than a simple statement of theology or doctrine might be. I remember once sharing the interaction I had with a young Ugandan boy who had been disfigured by a rebel faction attack in his refugee camp. His face was mostly covered by a large scar, and he had hands that had lost their fingers to amputation. I told the salvation story of this child and his mother (through a chain of events and people) to a colleague who was a stoic atheist; a woman who had been in parochial schools as a child and had long ago written off a relationship with God. The story brought her to tears. I had (imperfectly) shared with her the concept of a kinsman redeemer yet it moved her beyond her skepticism and unbelief. Did I convert her in that moment? Definitely not! But the story of that little boy had left her open to the possibility of a pursuing, sacrificing, loving God who might actually be real, and pursuing her!
Being a fan of social digital media, I also recognize in storytelling powerful attributes that can be utilized to spread the Gospel: 1) It’s easy and fun to repeat a good story; 2) good stories get retold and 3) stories create other storytellers.2 They develop an ethic of storytelling. Remember Ben Franklin’s motto? “If you would not be forgotten long after you are dead and rotten, either write things worth the reading, or do things worth the writing.” This really resonates with my life. I want to be one who shares experiences with others that motivate them to formulate a personal understanding of the Gospel, and then share it. The mission field is an amazing “laboratory” where this can happen and be practiced.
A personal example might be the two young Black men that approached our City of Refuge mission group shortly after the Ferguson riots centered around the police shooting of Michael Brown in that city. The fact is that these two young men came to us as we were hearing the testimony of a homeless woman outside a liquor store in a depressed area east of Petco Park. The men had heard us praying over several homeless folks and interacting with them regarding their Christian faith. They came asking for prayer from us because they sensed we were “close to God”, and that “He was listening to us” through our prayers. They wanted to seek His blessing through our prayers because they knew we loved God. And so we did pray for them, although they weren’t able to comfortably share the nature of their needs. They were relieved; we were stupefied at the prospect of Black youth asking White folks for prayer in a week of extreme racial and social division. If I may be so bold to interpret this event, I think it was the Gospel being discovered, shared and extended in the lives of a small gathering of souls on a desperate street corner. It was us joining Him in the Gospel work He was already doing on the mean streets of San Diego.
Steffen also wrote a very revealing paragraph in his essay2 on storytelling. “Is it possible that stories reveal some truths and experiences in a way that no other literary form does? What does the Bible communicate through our imagination that it does not communicate through our reason? The Bible was not given to reveal the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but to reveal the hand of God in (their lives); not as a revelation of Mary and Martha and Lazarus, but as a revelation of the Savior of Mary and Martha and Lazarus.”
So it is in this sense that I invite you to join me and others on the local and international mission field as the opportunities present themselves. Some are as short as one evening or morning (Bread of Life, Brother Beno’s, Feeding America), one day (City of Refuge), or one or more days in another country (Mission to Ensenada, Spectrum Ministries). There you will see the Gospel being lived out in the lives of people who may not be familiar to you, but are well known and loved by God. There you will be able to observe and formulate a personal Gospel story that you can confidently share with world that is God-estranged and desperate for hope. I think you’ll find, as I have, that God:
“...will make you into a great nation,
and (He) will bless you;
...will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
...will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you (He) will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
Jump in, won’t you? Become part of God’s story. Explore the mission field and create your own unique testimony about how God is working to redeem the world and your own life. You will be blessed! And others will be blessed through your story.