Does it matter how people hear the gospel?
Someone asked me recently why I don’t simply come straight out with a presentation of the Christian faith to the people I meet, describing an occasion when he’d done just that. Out for a drink with an acquaintance, he’d asked for permission to explain his beliefs, and was gratified to spend the rest of the evening in a detailed discussion of Christian beliefs and practices.
The question was challenging: yes, why don’t I just come out with it? Why do I spend time building relationships, exploring spirituality, trialling gatherings of different kinds to bring people together? Why has it taken two years to begin to speak about Jesus with some of the people I’ve got to know? Am I a coward, watering down the gospel, afraid of personal rejection, misguided about the nature of conversion, or doubtful of the power of the Holy Spirit to reveal the truth to people? Well, yes…possibly all of the above!
But I wonder if the way people come to faith has an impact on the way they exercise faith later, and what they understand church to be. My objective in growing a community through which people are invited into an encounter with Jesus is to try to keep the medium of the gospel as closely in line with the message as possible, and to give an accurate expectation of what it’s like to be part of a church.
It’s one of the most counter-cultural aspects of the gospel in our generation and the hardest for us to grasp: that this business of salvation isn’t primarily ‘all about me’ (to misquote a well-known Christian chorus). I think the translation of the New Testament into English is partly to blame, or the fact that the English language no longer distinguishes between singular and plural forms of ‘you’. So generations of Christians in the English-speaking world have read Paul’s letters to the nascent churches around the Mediterranean as though they were written to them personally and individually, when they were actually addressed to whole communities and meant to be applied in the plural.
Add this to a highly individualistic consumerist culture, and a decision to follow Christ can be just one more expression of personal identity with no implications for post-decision life. From a one-to-one discussion of the gospel an enquirer might construe that Christianity is an individual matter, a question of intellect and rationality that a person can assent to or dismiss, that can be kept separate from the rest of their life experience.
Faith is a communal matter. It is caught from members of the community, its shape and character is learned from a community, and arguably, an equirer needs to have a taste of the community in question before committing to it.
Simply outlining theological concepts and personal beliefs seems a mono-dimensional way of inviting people into a new way of being. What I’m trying to do is gather a load of people tentatively interested in exploring ‘the God thing’, and as if they were standing round in a circle with Jesus at the centre, help them to move closer to him by moving closer to each other.
It’s more like barn-raising than a kind of contractual exchange of ideas. And I hope for multiple objectives achieved: relationships multiplied, community engendered, stories told, teams built, skills grown, gifts discovered, laughter shared, a distinctive expression of church posited that’s deeply rooted in life as it is lived day-to-day. So the means of growing into faith is aligned with the way it is lived out.
It’s altogether fuzzier, riskier, trickier and scarier than adding new believers to a known church entity one by one. I still don’t know if this is just an ill-conceived idea or an inspired one. I’ll post a photo of the barn if and when it’s up!