If this is the first post you are reading, feel free to start at the beginning here
If you had asked me, as a young man living in a large city attending a large church with a wealthy missions budget, if I knew what missions was I would say yes. It’s taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth. It’s making disciples. Duh, read the Bible.
I knew what the Bible said. I was on board. But in retrospect, I missed out on my application because of a misunderstanding of my context. I was soon going to have my perspective enlarged.
So I found myself sitting listening to a Seminary grad turned musician talking about his experiences sharing the gospel with his fans after music shows. I’m on board with that. But here is where the story gets interesting. He described the challenges of sharing the gospel with his audience – not because they didn’t know about the Gospel – but rather because many of them had. They had church exposure and church experiences but for various reasons had left.
Now before we write these people off – and argue that ‘no one should get the chance to reject the gospel twice before everyone has heard it once’, what do you tell a guy who recounts his experience going to a church youth group and getting physically thrown up against the bus by the youth pastor? Think of how impressionable you were in high school. Were you ever thrown against a wall? I wasn’t but I can imagine that if I were I would have a hard time trusting that guy.. or his friends… or his god. Can you blame that guy for leaving the church (especially given his non-Christian home life)? If you have had a similar negative experience and stuck with the church then feel free to disagree. Otherwise, without a similar experience, I think you lack the authority to say that this kid just should have stuck it out. Face it: the church failed him. And he deserves a second chance.
What this musician realized is that there are many in the American culture who recognize Christian words and organizations but for whom these words and organizations represent legitimate pain and fear. The church for them is not a safe place. Not because of an attack on their sin but because of a violation of their personhood. “It’s the kindness of the Lord that brings us to repentance” but many of these haven’t seen any kindness.
I began to see, as this musician was describing, a huge subculture – or cultural drift of those who were geographically close but spiritually far. Who were familiar with the words but interpreted them very differently. Who, like my painful roadtrip to a girlfriend’s house made painful but fanatical teaching, had painful experiences needing resolution and new positive experiences for formation.
In college, a Navigator staff guy showed me a line representing people’s journey to Jesus. Along this line were several obstacles.. a lack of hearing, family baggage, etc. One of the obstacles was a stained glass representing church issues, perceptions and experiences that kept people from coming closer to Jesus. Do we recognize that often times its not just a matter of verbal communication but that there is more going on? Are we lowing those barriers for people or raising them?
Far too often, these obstructing stain glass issues are the same things which are considered sacred cows by the church. This is often the complex reality, but this is another discussion for a later post.
For our musician, communicating healing truth required a whole new vocabulary. Certain buzzwords carried a lot of painful associations for people so once they heard them they would put up walls and end the dialogue. This pressed him to think through what the buzz words actually meant and forced him to clarify his understanding so he could communicate spiritual truth with real words. This is hard work but I believe it is the task of the missional: to share the gospel in the local language of the people.
It may also mean caring enough to listen to others until they trust you… until they are ready to share their story. It means having the self-control and concern to not push a blanket answer on their real concerns. But now I’m jumping ahead to my next post about a poetry café.
Live it Out:
Here is an exercise for you with a condition attached.
Talk to someone who you know well who is not a believer. Ask them what they think when they hear the term Christian. Level with them. Tell them you are reading this online Christian writer (who wants to help Christians be less stupid – that’s actually one of my goals) and he gave you homework.
This is a good way to find out how good of friends you are. If they really trust you and if you are genuine friends, they may be painfully honest and express some surprisingly negative views – of the term Christianity. If they are, thank them for their honesty.
You may be tempted to defend Christianity but don’t. There will come a time for that. But the whole point of this exercise is for you to listen and to understand and to regain lost trust. I repeat, don’t defend. If you respond and try to change their view, you may feel like you are accomplishing something but you are likely shutting down the conversation, negating their painful experience, and actually adding to it.
Don’t feel guilty about not responding. Those are old voices from old ways. And honestly, those old voices have been around a long time but those old voices haven’t open the conversation with them. but this new voice – my voice – or rather this exercise – is that one that opened this door so please respect this process. It won’t be wasted. Listen to their frustrations with the church. Feel free to ask clarifying questions. Try to see it from there perspective. But don’t assess. Don’t correct. If you can validate their frustration – and affirm a correct error on the part of the church, do it! Bonus points. You are learning how to listen.