Last week I wrote about how evangelism in the way of Jesus expresses both a high degree of connection with others as well as a high degree of distinction from those same people.
Because it was more of a paradigm-shifting post than a practical one, I received a couple questions asking about the practical implications of doing evangelism in the way of Jesus. How do we actually DO this stuff?
For example, I got an email from a family who is starting to connect with other families in their neighborhood, but are unsure of how to take a next step.
“Thanks so much for your insights. The grid you drew up really helped to provide clarity on doing evangelism the say way as Jesus. I would like to know more about how Jesus was able to have high distinction and high connection at the same time. What does that actually look like? How do I actually play that out?”
No Formulas, Unfortunately
How indeed! It’s one thing to see that Jesus embodies a different way of evangelism, but it’s another to figure out how to start following him in it. Often there is a lot of deconstruction work that needs to go on before we find that right “first step.”
The other thing that can be troubling about this is the fact that there really isn’t a “formula” we can apply. We are constantly searching for some kind of silver bullet that will release us from the tension of exploring our motivations and desires at a deeper level.
So unfortunately, there is no formula for evangelism in the way of Jesus. There is no one set of questions that will yield guaranteed results every time.
But, that doesn’t mean there aren’t practical steps we can take. It’s just that we have to give up our search for the silver bullet before we’ll be able to take steps that are actually helpful.
Instead of looking for tips and techniques, what we need to learn is a new posture and presence that will carry us through every encounter. So in one sense the answer is always the same: we are constantly learning to live, love and lead like Jesus.
Gospel fluency, not biblical literacy
One practical way we can begin to step out in this new way of evangelism is to train for gospel fluency instead of biblical literacy. (Gospel fluency is a term I first heard from Caesar Kalinowski.)
Here’s what I mean. If we train people for biblical literacy, they’ll “know the Bible” but honestly that won’t do much good.
Think about it: in Jesus’ day, the Pharisees knew their Bibles better than anyone alive, and they completely missed the boat. Jesus reserved some of his sharpest critique for the people who knew the Bible the best. Their Bible knowledge ended up doing them and everyone else no good.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t read our Bibles, but I am saying that we shouldn’t read them like the Pharisees did. And when we strive for “biblical literacy,” that’s exactly what we’re doing most of the time: training people to read the Bible like Pharisees.
- Biblical literacy trains people to have answers, but Jesus hardly ever gave anyone a straight answer. Instead he asked a lot of questions.
- Biblical literacy trains people to prove others wrong, but Jesus didn’t seem very interested in this kind of “right and wrong.” Instead he called people to follow him, no matter how correct their theology.
- Biblical literacy trains people to be “in control” by standing “over” the text, but Jesus always subverted our desire for control. Instead he called people beyond the confines of their narrow, wooden interpretation of the Law into the frightening freedom of grace, where we have no control.
- Biblical literacy trains people to trust the correctness of their beliefs, but Jesus never encouraged people to trust anything except him. Instead he called people into relationship with him and from that place they could grow.
But now I’m preaching. Sorry, I didn’t mean to do that. 🙂
In an attempt to get a bit more practical, let’s talk about the difference between biblical literacy and gospel fluency.
- First, there is a difference between the Bible and the gospel.
- Second, there is a difference between literacy and fluency.
Let’s take each in turn.
The difference between the Bible and the gospel
It’s important to realize there is a difference between the Bible and the gospel.
There was a gospel way before there was a New Testament. Let that sink in. Decades before the first words of the New Testament were written (and hundreds of years before the official New Testament was canonized), there was a gospel.
The gospel was the announcement of the good news of Jesus. It wasn’t in the Old Testament (except in seed form). It was an announcement of something that had happened, and the faith that grew from welcoming that announcement was what formed the church.
We can read the Bible through all kinds of lenses and make it say all kinds of things. The Pharisees were well versed in their Scriptures, and they completely missed the fact that Jesus was fulfilling all of it and ushering in a new era.
Many people today who are extremely well-versed in biblical literacy don’t really believe the gospel. It’s exceedingly easy to read the Bible seeking information that confirms our already-established biases. It happens all the time in churches across the world.
So don’t read your Bible like a Pharisee. Read it like a Christian. What that means is that we read the whole Bible through the lens of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ himself is our hermeneutic. He is the way we read Scripture. He is the center of it all.
We read our Bibles, but we submit our understanding of the written word to the Living Word. Jesus himself, the Living Word, is the full revelation of who God is. The written word testifies about him, but let’s not forget that he himself is the Word. One day we won’t have a Bible, but we’ll always have the Word (because he’s a person now).
(If this is a completely new concept to you, I encourage you to read Christian Smith’s excellent book The Bible Made Impossible.)
The process of discipleship can be described as gradually believing the gospel more and more deeply. Trusting God’s word that comes to us in Jesus Christ. The word that says, “Neither to I condemn you, go and sin no more.” The word that says, “Go in peace, your faith as healed you.” The word that says, “I must come to your house today.”
Gospel-fluency means learning to really trust Jesus, instead of just have the correct information in our heads.
The difference between literacy and fluency
There’s also a difference between “literacy” and “fluency.”
- Literacy is about comprehending a static text. Fluency is about navigating a dynamic conversation, speaking and listening.
- Literacy is about knowledge of facts. Fluency is about wisdom in relationship.
It’s one thing for me to be able to read a text and comprehend the meaning. It’s entirely another to be fluent in a language where I can not only speak, but listen to others.
I can do biblical literacy all by myself. But I need relationships to practice gospel fluency. If I am in a relationship with a neighbor, and all I have are correct facts from the Bible, all I can do is throw them at my “prospect” and hope that some of them “stick.”
But if I am fluent in both the context of my neighbor’s life AND the life-giving message of the gospel (understanding it as a many-faceted jewel), I can actually have a conversation!
A conversation where I am free to actually care for my neighbor by listening to her story, noticing where the grace of God is already at work, and proclaiming it to her as good news! But before I know what facet of the good news she needs to hear, I need to take time and truly, empathically listen to her.
Gospel fluency eats biblical literacy for breakfast every day of the week
Okay, I didn’t mean for this post to get this long, but we’re almost done. Putting some new labels on our previous matrix may help aid understanding here.
Here’s the connection/distinction matrix we introduced last time.
You’ve probably heard of the term “content in context.” For our purposes, the gospel is our “content.” That’s the message we have to share, the good news that God is reconciling the world to himself through Jesus Christ!
But that wonderful content has to be shared in a context. Many contexts. Every conversation is a new context, and it demands that we know the context, that we understand it deeply, so we know when, if, and how to communicate the content.
We’ll put “content” on the horizontal axis, where we put “distinction,” because believing the gospel is what makes us distinct as the people of God.
We’ll put “context” on the vertical axis, where we previously put “connection,” because the context for our mission is always the people we are called to connect with in relationship.
Here’s what it yields:
When we are in tune with our missional context, but we don’t have a deep understanding of the gospel, we end up with a cultural relevancy focus, which is the same thing as the “friendship evangelism” culture: nothing much happens.
But likewise, when we are in tune with our content, but we won’t listen to or seek to understand our context, we get a biblical literacy focus. We’ve talked about the pitfalls of that already!
The gospel fluency culture implies that we have a deep experiential knowledge of both:
- The gospel (our “content”), and
- Our missional context.
It means we know how to listen to God and hear his gospel word to us every day. It also means we know how to listen to our neighbors and compassionately seek to gather around the grace of God in their lives, however it is being revealed.
Knowing and embracing the gospel every day as a disciple will make you distinct (it can’t NOT!). Knowing and embracing your mission context through asking genuinely curious questions will make you connect.
Which makes this way more than a “technique” for evangelism. This is just how we LOVE people. The other quadrants aren’t expressions of love. We’re either using people as a pawns in our “winning people to Christ” game (biblical literacy), OR we are so concerned about their approval that we can never do anything except parrot their culture back to them (cultural relevancy).
Dwell in the gospel and ask questions
To sum it all up, if you want to grow in Jesus’ way of evangelism, try to do these two things as often as you can:
- Immerse yourself in the gospel and trust it more and more every day.
- Ask lots and lots and lots of questions of other people, and ask God to show you where he is at work in their lives.
Doesn’t that sound refreshing and simple? It’s so much better than the pressure of making a presentation, and so much more productive than just being vaguely “friendly.”
Best of all, it leads us toward the posture and presence of Jesus that he carried everywhere he went: love. That’s really what we need to learn how to do. To love people. That’s all evangelism is (and parenting, and discipling, and running a business, and being a friend, etc…).
I’d love to hear from you on this. Stories of struggle or breakthrough? Questions? Leave a comment below!