Headlines from First Thoughts

Friday, March 28, 2008

Listen to the Missing

Easter is the season for sharing this good news, a concept modern Christians call evangelism.
Everyone at church has received the good news, but the idea of evangelizing a nonbeliever is as intimidating to believers as nonbelievers. Either we can tell the story of a really bad Monday night cold calling on the doorstep of a very leery church prospect, or we would just prefer to follow parents’ advice—“Don’t talk about politics or religion with anyone.”

In the Gospel of John, Jesus engages people where they live in a series transformational conversations using the right questions at the right time. For Jesus, evangelism is not about selling a product, telling people what they need, or forcing God down others’ throats. It’s certainly not about knocking on doors Monday night. It's not about counting how many conversions you have.

John shows us that Jesus loves people who are missing from the kingdom of God. He demonstrates that love by showing them how much he needs them in his life. He asks critical questions to Andrew, the Samaritan Woman, a man at the pool of Bethesda, the disciples, Mary, and Peter. Through listening, conversing, and being real with others, he reveals to us how we can simply be ourselves. We listen, we respond, we ask questions, we learn from others, and the Spirit changes lives.

Ironically, he uses the platforms of daily life as the place to converse. A fishing spot, a community water well, a healing pool, a business, a cemetery, and a beach all become the venues for friendship. In today’s language, we call these platforms a family, a Starbucks, a hospital, a job, a funeral, and a beach.

I'll be sharing more thoughts on this post as well as recommendations.

Go Deeper
I've posted some book recommendations to the left of this blog.

Ask Great Questions
Here are some questions you can ask a nonbeliever that lead to greater opportunities for listening and open the door to conversations about life and faith.

1.) How are you really doing?
2.) What are you looking for in life?
3.) It sounds like you're struggling with this issue, may I pray for you?
4.) How is your family dealing with this crisis?
5.) Do you want to get past through these struggles?
6.) What have all these things taught you?
7.) Will you help me with this project?
8.) What do you think I should during this struggle in my life? Why?
9.) What role does faith play in your life?
10.) What is your perspective on church people?
11.) What are some of the greatest challenges today? How would you address them?
12.) Is there a way that I can help you with this issue/crisis/struggle in life?

The Conversations in John
Jesus counted conversations, not conversions. The opening chapter of John is like a week in the life, a series of the first 8 days of Jesus’ life that set the stage for the rest of the book—how do you go about discipling future disciples? That is, how does Jesus go about the process of getting from point A to B. John doesn’t deal with the same things the Synoptics discuss for a lot of reasons, but one reason (of several) is that the church in Ephesus to whom John has already written three little letters and now a biography, is struggling with this issue—we have a great story to tell. We know the resurrection, we know that Jesus is alive, we know that he died for us. Good information. We’re actually motivated to share it. We’re actually willing to do something about it. We’re actually wanting to attract others to this community of faith.

Jesus shows us all throughout the Gospel of John is that he knows how to use the power of personal networks—the network in this case of a family fishing business (John 1:35-51) to ask perhaps the most significant haunting question of Peter, Andrew, Philip, John, and even Nathaniel’s life—what do you want?

There are lots of ways to ask that question, aren’t there? If you’re standing in the line to see Santa Claus for Christmas—"what do you want for Christmas?"-- is one way. If you’re ordering from the menu at a restaurant, the temptation is to just say "what do you want tonight?" as you look for the hamburgers.

But this question translated from Greek has this effect- "what are you seeking? What are you really wanting out of life? What are you looking for?"

The only way Jesus can ever get the point where Simon can trust him enough to answer the question—is for Jesus to listen, to pay attention right there in the midst of the fishing village.

Peter is responds conversationally—where are you staying. Where are you going to be long enough so I can have access to you—it’s the same language that Jesus later uses to abide, or to remain in God—where are you remaining long enough so you and I can live, work, breathe, touch, I can talk, and you can listen.

Other conversations will follow--
John 3- Nicodemus
John 4- Samaritan Woman
John 5- Lame man at Pool of Bethsaida
John 6- Disciples on a Mountain
John 11- Mary and Martha at the Cemetery
John 21- Peter on the Beach

New Vocabulary
When you’re listening to the missing, you can’t use the same words any more. Here are a few to drop from your vocabulary.

“Soul-Winning”- it’s not a contest any more. This word is not in the Bible. Who really wins anyway if the missing person is rejects Jesus because the Christian is arrogant?

“Going witnessing”- it’s not a program. Christians are always witnesses—good, bad, or otherwise. That’s part of our problem. Everything counts. Even when you’re stuck in traffic or in the grocery line.

“Lost”- you lose things, not people. People are always missing.

“Leading people to Jesus”- something the Holy Spirit does. We don’t lead anyone anywhere. We listen, they talk, we pray, love, and ask great questions.

“Presenting the gospel”- it’s not a speech. It’s news, good news in fact that can be shared conversationally; and the only news we have is the latest way that God is working in our lives.

Everyone needs a platform for making friends with the missing. I preach from a platform every Sunday, but it's not a good place for relationship.

In John, Jesus' platforms were
Family relationships in a fishing business- John 1
Water Well- John 4
Healing pool- John 5
Mountainside- John 6
Cemetery- John 11
Beach- John 21

By extension, our platforms can be the natural places of life where we run into the same missing people every day.
Family relationships
Coffee Shop, Starbucks, Panera Bread. A "Third place" in between home and work.

New Attitude
The most important step a Christian must take in developing a relationship with nonbelievers is in his perspective on the relationship. We actually need missing people.

In John 4, Jesus demonstrates how to talk from a position of need rather than a position of superiority or arrogance. He asks, "Will you give me something to drink?" The question is not a strategy; it's a simple request for help. The question indicates how we should approach nonbelievers. We need them, we want them, they can help us, we can learn from them. The process creates conversations, dialogue, and in the case of the woman, conversion.

Imagine how this might revolutionize our relationships and our churches. We have so much to accomplish as Christians in the work of the gospel. We have good news to share, the poor to feed, justice to deliver, mercy to show. We cannot do it alone; we need our communities, friends, and neighbors. We need believers and nonbelievers alike. Non Christians actually share many of our desires. They want to help the poor, serve communities, make a difference, love neighbors, and volunteer. When we ask them to help us, we create opportunities to have conversations. We give them a chance to change their lives. And we learn again what it's like to follow Jesus' model in relationship with others.

Take one example from my life. Mr. Holt was in charge of the bus ministry at First Baptist Pensacola, Florida, when my parents joined in 1972. They picked up kids in the neighborhoods, brought them on Sunday mornings and had a special children’s church for the bus kids. In the 1970s, this was one of the many popular ways to draw people to Jesus, drive up attendance, baptize a bunch of people, and yes, do evangelism. The church bought 5 used buses from schools, retrofitted them for church, painted them blue, and emblazoned them with large letters, “Follow me to First Baptist.”

Mr. Holt recruited two people for each of the five buses. One was a college student who could knock on doors, invite kids, and maintain order in the back of the bus. The second was an adult driver who could navigate the neighborhoods. For bus number 5, he asked the son of the local district attorney, Jimmy Magaha, to ride along. Jimmy knew every B.J. Thomas hit on the radio especially two that he loved to sing and taught to all the kids—“Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” and “Rhinestone Cowboy.”

He asked my dad to drive Bus #5. My dad was everything a late 1970s conservative Baptist church in the South was not looking for in a member. He drank; he smoked, even while he was a member at First Baptist. He had been married previously. At the time, it was not your average “church leader” or volunteer resume. This was still the era when the Southern Baptists prided themselves on how much better they were than the culture. Somehow none of that mattered to Ed Holt. He needed a driver, my dad was willing, and Mr. Holt knew something. That sometimes the best recruits come from the ones who actually need to be needed.

Mr. Holt could tell that my dad was very good at relationships. He was usually the quiet guy in the back of any party making funny witty comments under his breath. And he had a natural warmth about him around others. My dad wasn’t the type to just sign up to volunteer. Like most people, he needed to be asked because he didn’t think he was qualified for most church positions. Even if they sent around a list, he would not have signed his name. But Mr. Holt did not need a list. He had met him at church, and that was enough to qualify him.

So on Sunday mornings, my dad became the first evangelist I ever met. He never preached a sermon; but because someone needed him, he was willing. He became the best church bus driver there ever was. He drove Bus #5, and I sat side saddle on a small metal box that fit my backside perfectly between the steering wheel and the driver’s sliding window. I’m sure today the police would have arrested us.

Early Sunday morning, we drove the Pontiac station wagon, got the keys out of the church office, unlocked Bus #5, and met Jimmy McGaha. From neighborhood to neighborhood we drove knocking on doors and singing to the top of our lungs, “Like a Rhinestone Cowboy, riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo.”

The bus ministry did not last forever, but the memories, and the legacy, still do. For me, my first good taste of church life did not happen on a pew but when someone had the vision to ask someone in need if he could help meet a need.

Missing Healthcare
Video of RAM's Work in Knoxville

Healthcare is the buzz these days. Politicians, pundits, and pollsters have their spin. What about preachers?

Jesus walked by the first century version of a hospital in John 5. The place was the pool of Bethesda. He demonstrated that we can love the missing who are sick, paralyzed, blind, and lame. All needed physical and spiritual healthcare.

The issue of healthcare in America runs much deeper than insurance coverage, pharmaceutical companies, and lawsuits. For Christians, healthcare is a platform for listening to the missing. You can find them at the doctor's office, Emergency Room, clinic, or in the case of one group in Knoxville- the Chilhowee building on Magnolia Avenue. In this video, RAM set up a clinic in Knoxville, treated 920 patients, gave away 500 pair of glasses, administered 94 mammograms, and pulled 1006 teeth. They turned 400 people away.

In John 5, Jesus showed us that for believers, healthcare is about two things--

1.) Showing up. No matter what you think about the political solution, Christians show up during a time of crisis. Jesus demonstrated how to go and be with this one paralyzed man.

2.) Asking a question that invites someone on a journey. Jesus' question, "Do you want to be made well?" is more than just, "Can I fix you?" The question implied, "May I journey with you into your soul?"

For the believer today, the most important question we can ask someone we know in a healthcare crisis is, "May I pray for you?" This question has the same effect as, "Do you want to be healed?"

As we pray, we share their needs with others. People become engaged. We remember the other person's needs. We look for answers together, and most importantly, we listen to their spiritual needs. We provide relationship, friendship, and introduce them to the one who offered something more than a new body. He offered eternal relationship that was worth something in the present.

One person at a time, all of us are made well.

Graduating into the Missing

Christians and especially churches have created the culture of the missing. We’re the ones that have caused many people to go missing. How? We have treated evangelism as strategy, labeled the nonChristians as the only sinners in the world, have turned funerals chances to threaten people out of hell, have outsourced healthcare and disease to someone else, and all the while overlooked the missing in need of relationship right before our eyes. When the paralytic needed additional assitance, we were too worried about whether it would cost too much. When an immoral woman came knocking on our door, we were too busy arguing about worship styles. When over 5,000 hungry people needed to be fed, we were too busy arguing about problems at church.

And when high schoolers, college students, and young adults cried out, we answered with programs, trips, and gymnasiums. But not relationships. This is especially true for our high school graduates. Everyone knows that most people who attend church as young people drop out of church after high school. We assume they'll eventually return, but unfortunately they're just going missing.

One of the most haunting books that I have recently discovered is Unchristian by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. The authors describe the world of former church attenders and non church attenders, primarily age 18-35.

We’ve always noticed that people leave church after high school. No surprise there, but this generation departs faster than we can imagine, and fewer return by age 35 than ever before in America. Roland Martinson, in a recent study of Lutheran demographics said, “75% percent of young men and women leave the church between ages 16-24, and 40% who leave return by age 35; 30% of those who return go to other denominations.” This is probably the same for Baptists.

Kinneman and Lyons report that 40% of people age 18-29 (about 24 million people) are outsiders to Christanity; that is, they are not Christians or are not attending a faith community of any sort. That’s the highest rate of any generation in America today. Compare that to Baby Boomers. About ¼ of all Boomers go to church (21 million people).

Kinnaman and Lyons are beginning to identify the reasons why. 9 out of every 10 people age 18-35 know someone who is a Christian in our country, and most have attended at least one church for several months at a time. The statistics suggest that 9 million young people have said they have had negative experiences at church with Christians or with Christians in general.

Young people who do become Christians, however, make the best evangelists. They’re so dialed into these bruising experiences that most of them try to organize their time in such a way to have friendships with nonbelievers so that they can explain their side of faith. They know how badly we’ve handled it, they want to have a chance to get in another perspective. (Kinneman and Lyons, p. 34)

On these weekends, where we watch graduates walk through newly-opened doors, we are also praying for new ears to understand the language of the missing.

"Listen to Me"
“Listen to me….when I am lonely. Oh, I know most people think that because I am busy I have a full life. And I am glad I have been successful in avoiding their pity. But sometimes, when nights have been long, the club meetings few, the volunteer work routine, the neighbors busy, and the telephone silent, I want to cry out for human contact, but there is no one there to listen to me.

Listen to me….when I am angry. And if I tell you I am angry with God, will you reject me?

Listen to me….when I want to celebrate, or express joy, or tell of a success without appearing to be a braggart. And, please remember, if you are listening to me, you won’t top my success with one of your own, or stick pins in my balloon of joy by telling me what problems may arise.

While you are listening to me, for those moments that I am the focus of your attention, you are giving me a part of your life. This gift will help validate me, help me see myself as a person of worth. It could even happen that through this gift of yourself, I may be strengthened in my awareness of the infinite power of love. And in spite of the confusion, the anger the fright, and the loneliness I may be experiencing, when I again feel love, I am touched by God.”

--Written by a Stephen Minister at First Presbyterian Church, Enid, Oklahoma.

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