Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Holy Conversation - Week 3

8:30 So Philip ran up to it and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. He asked him, “Do you understand what you’re reading?”8:31 The man replied, “How in the world can I, unless someone guides me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. (Acts 8:30-31)
Have you ever given, or received, an evangelistic tract? I consider them to be something akin to street preaching, not a particularly effective tool but not one I can say is 100% ineffective.

Sometimes those things make us look bad. Sometimes they make us look really bad. Take, for example, this old Jack Chick tract. Although Dungeons & Dragons isn't a particular bugaboo these days, you'll still find folks who think Harry Potter is going to indoctrinate their children into the occult. All the same, the RPG community still passes around poor Blackleaf as a joke. I realize that even the most genuine attempts at evangelism can open a person up to ridicule, but I think we can all agree that something that sticks around as the butt of a joke for 30 years is a problem.

The point of the chapter for week three was that evangelism is almost entirely about relationship. Most tracts are used in a "fire and forget" manner, shoved into the hands of passersby on the street in the hopes that someone will read it. What if they do? Who explains the meaning of the text to them? Who helps them find a Bible to actually look up the things that are said in the tract? Who helps them connect to a body of believers in their area? Who helps explain to them what being a Christian even means?

It's not even just tracts. When I was in college, we used to hand out food as a means of "ministering" to our community. The hope is that someone receives some free food, sees the love of Christ behind that action, and becomes curious enough to probe further, offering an opportunity to share the gospel. We used to make care packages (instant drinks, ramen noodles, candy, etc.) for the new freshmen. We'd hand out snowcones at the festival showcasing all of the student groups. We'd hand out hot cocoa to people during the winter. In the spring, we'd hand out Poptarts. I was part of that for four years, and I can probably count on one hand the number of people who even stopped to ask why we were giving away food, much less wanted to ask about this "Jesus" fellow.
From PRC's study on the "nones"
It only compounds the problem further that Christianity is becoming much less "standard" as far as cultural knowledge goes. As the general public moves away from church, it's much less likely for anyone to even know the basic Biblical stories, much less what specific terms of theology mean. As with Philip and the eunuch, how can they understand if there is no one to explain it to them?

I won't discount the potential for one person to sow while another person reaps. However, so much of the world views us as uninterested in the person we are talking to, instead seeking another notch in our belt, another conservative voter, another tithe in the church coffers. If we want people to take our attempts to share our faith seriously, our attempts have to look genuine. If evangelism is like a meal, we need to sit down and grab a menu, rather than hitting up the drive-thru.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Holy Conversation - Week 2

The subject for week two of the study was on the value of stories during evangelism and spiritual conversations. Illustrative stories can be very helpful for explaining an idea; Jesus always seemed to have a parable at hand to explain the nature of God or the Kingdom. Paul began his speeches before gentile audiences with stories. It's just a well known idea, people like stories. There's no faster way to draw in an audience than with stories.

More specifically, however, this chapter looked at stories from your spiritual journey. This can be a tricky area. It can be easy to ignore, overlook, or even ridicule the stories others have of experiencing the supernatural. They can be brushed off as coincidental at best and signs of mental illness at worst. The experiences are no less meaningful to folks, however, so it's important for Christians to understand how to respond to these stories and use them as tools of evangelism. Incidentally, it's not just Christians who have stories of the supernatural or spiritual experiences.

From PRC's 2009 study of the rise of the "nones."
One of the points we discussed was just how important being able to share these stories can be. I thought I'd use this week's post, then, to share one of my own stories, one in which I almost died.

(Continue reading)

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Holy Conversation - Week 1

Last year, I was in charge of my church small group discussions about Calling. I decided to write about the material in addition to leading the discussion. (All of those posts should be available here.) I'm leading the group again this fall, so I thought I would write about it again. This year, we're going through the book Holy Conversation by Richard Peace.

The overall point of the book is that evangelism is in a wayward state in our current cultural climate. For a lot of people, it means tracts and pamphlets, brimstone condemnations, self-righteous judgment, that sort of thing. Even if you dial that back, just the act of telling someone that their beliefs are wrong or their actions sinful is the worst possible social blunder, impolite at best and offensive, bordering on a human rights violation, at worst. On the other end of it, many Christians have taken such cultural frowning on proselytizing to heart to the extent that even talking about their faith is uncomfortable. The goal of the book is to move back towards a model of relational evangelism, purposeful and personal without being offensive.

I'm not unsympathetic to the idea. Drive-by, shotgun-style evangelism is a net with very big holes in it. I can't say it doesn't have a place, but it's not going to catch a lot of fish. Religion has become a very personal thing, not a public expression, in the last several decades (for better or worse.) Even Pope Francis is on the same page:
He smiles again and replies: "Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us. Sometimes after a meeting I want to arrange another one because new ideas are born and I discover new needs. This is important: to get to know people, listen, expand the circle of ideas. The world is crisscrossed by roads that come closer together and move apart, but the important thing is that they lead towards the Good."
I feel like the Pope is a bit too heavy handed with the Universalism-angle in this interview, but that could be the translation. The bottom line is that conversion is a different process for everyone, and that makes it a very personal thing. Formulas and presentations aren't necessarily the way to go, but a direct relationship can make for a much more natural progression.

The first week focused on the idea that everyone is on a spiritual journey, and half the battle in having a productive conversation about faith is understanding where your friend is on their own path how to address them in that place.

Frankly, I think I missed the point of the study in the first week. The goal of the study is to help make evangelism a natural process, getting away from heavily religious terminology that might scare or confuse folks, working on a personal level. What did I do? I prepared a discussion that tried to form a biblical basis for the idea that everyone is on a spiritual journey. I tried to establish a connection between the ideas Peace was laying out for the conversion process and traditional theological ideas. If you're used to thinking in technical ways, it's hard to break away from that.

Hopefully the coming weeks will be more natural. It's frustrating to me so far that each session is very light on material; preparing an actual "lesson" seems counter-intuitive to the goal of the study, but hoping that three pages of material focused on a single idea can generate 1-2 hours of conversation seems overly optimistic to me. Still, I look forward to seeing how the study turns out.