The journey of faith can be a bit like stepping out of the front door and travelling a very long way. It is unlikely it will be undertaken by someone on their own, but who will travel with them? In ‘the hobbit’ Bilbo Baggins has travelling companions as he undertakes the heros journey which, as Gandalf puts it, will be good for him. We are called to be witnesses…perhaps we are also travelling companions of each other? But we need to travel from the doorway of someone’s life, not wait until they are a good way down the road.
By Revd. Andy Gray, edited and proof reading by Stephen Taylor 4December 2017
This article discusses a way of looking at the journey of faith from association/context>inspiration>declaration>explanation>revelation, and attempts to show that the Alpha course and similar courses are not made for evangelistic events. Nor should evangelistic events be teaching events, but rather they should be inspirational, and what inspirational looks like in terms of the gospel. In turn this points out that we can ALL tell inspirational stories of faith, even in the every day, and whilst it might be right for people coming to faith to come to a course, this is much further down the road than we might think. The important first stages of association and inspiration leading to declaration belong to each and every person, and no formal training is necessary. Just living a life for God of prayer and seeing answers to prayer, and willing to give a reason for our hope and belief. It encourages this sharing of the gospel by inspiration to take part in the every day, dismisses the ‘under the sound of the gospel’ attitude (and shows why that is a bad thing); and debunks the professionalisation of evangelistic ministry. Lastly I raise the point that we should let the context audience minister to us as much as we want to minister to them and why we should do that.
Recently I have been reflecting on how people come to faith.
Over time, there have been various different ideas about this. Back in the day (er…a long time ago!) it was that everyone was a believer until they rejected Christ. Before that even baptism didn’t happen until your death bed so that you could get rid of all your sins…then there was that you got baptised after the youthful passions were over. Then there was quick, get the baby done before it has chance to die, since aren’t we all born with original sin? (no, we aren’t, as it happens. That was a heresy to fix a theological problem they created for themselves which revolved around how they viewed women…).
Then the journey of faith was queried if not as a default, then perhaps there is a way of believing. Such as belong, then believe, then behave. That is belong to the church, then you come to belief, then you behave in the right way.
Perhaps people need to behave the right way, then they can believe the same as you do, and then belong provided they don’t try to change anything? (Definite no here but some places do fall into that trap)
Or maybe you belong, then behave…then believe?
But what about if you believe first? Then…
And there are good arguments for all these. But what do you do when someone professes their faith one day, then sins the next, then recommits? Actually you are supposed to recommit yourself to God everyone morning, but again, that’s another story.
As I said, there are arguments for each and every point. Many of them long, taking up many books.
One such discussion builds around the idea of ‘bringing people under the sound of the gospel.’ Nothing wrong with that on the surface, so long as the gospel goes out to people. But so often what people interpret that as is ‘bring people to something where we will tell them about Jesus, in such a way that of course they will commit their lives to him’. Even when I first trained a quarter of a century ago this was no longer a truism. Faith back then was understood as caught, not taught. And yet the idea persists, stubbornly.
The current guise is even penetrating lay led fresh expressions of church and the question is often asked of contextualised community groups, ‘yes, project X is good, but when are you going to tell them about Jesus?’
It’s a good point, that you must have the objective of sharing Jesus, but the truth is that you need to be ready and willing to share the gospel, not strategically plan it. In fact, doing this can ruin communities – Yet we still need to be ready and willing. So when is the right point? And in what way?
The sound of the gospel
Another error comes out of this ‘sound of the Gospel’ attitude. It goes like this:
Lets pretend that I am a person who believes that I must take someone to church to hear about Jesus. I hold this belief because I haven’t been trained to tell people about Jesus, that is the vicar’s job. I don’t know enough. But my friend doesn’t want to come to church, he doesn’t like it. It feels weird. This means my friend can never ‘come under the sound of the gospel’, so I don’t tell them any more about Jesus.
What you are asking people to do today in our modern context is come to a church, and then to start believing. Yes, this is not unheard of and some great friends of mine have had this happen to them. But actually, their journey to faith started outside of the church, with Christians. Maybe through family or friends, but certainly outside. Not every case admittedly, but I am talking generalisations here.
Did you know that church is for worship? And worship is what believers do. Early church there was prophecy and stuff (still is in some parts) but it was a different sort where people coming in would fall under conviction. That doesn’t tend to happen now. I’ve not actually even heard of it happening.
Into all this I want to offer something which came to me the other day as a possibility of how we might look at the faith journey process which takes all of this into account. Not a deep theological idea. But something a bit more simpler.
An map for the journey?
How about if faith could be thought of as 5 steps (with possibly a 6th…I’ll add that at the end, though by rights it belongs at the beginning).
- Association (Fresh expressions uses the word ‘contextualisation’ which is similar in meaning)
A bit cheesy, but stick with it.
I’ll explain what each bit means, and then the theology, then where I think we get things wrong in our process of telling people about Jesus and how to make disciples.
- Association. Getting to know people where they are comfortable. Going out to them and building real relationships formed on trust and respect so they are willing to listen to what you have to say and, crucially, acknowledge what you’re saying.
- Inspiration. When you inspire people you tell people about amazing things that have happened. They want to go discover this for themselves, is it true? Is it that amazing? Think of the ads on tv. Or a life story you’ve read in a book. Or the journey of athletes…especially the Paralympics.
- Declaration. Saying with your mouth something you believe in.
- Explanation. Now you are able to get your head around it, you are ready to actually dig deeper.The ground is tilled. Now the seed can start to germinate.
- Revelation. With all the other parts in place you get a deeper aha moment. It all makes sense. And you may in fact now go in an explanation/revelation cycle as you put more and more learning on.
So where do you see this in the bible? Loads of places! But I shall share with you where I first came across it a week or so ago.
Lukes gospel, chapter 9. You get the feeding of the 5000; then Peter’s confession of Christ; then Jesus tells them about himself; and finally Peter, James and John receive the revelation of the transfiguration.
Association by going to the people, and allowing the context to shape the message, not staying in the temple and expecting people to come to Him. Inspiration at the feeding, declaration by Peter, now they are ready to hear deeper explanation by Jesus, and then they are ready for revelation. Prior to this the disciples have been following Jesus and begun to know him as a friend, they have seen Jesus performing miracles and other inspirational activities. What is also interesting here is that even before this deeper revelation they are performing miracles in Jesus name. They are already witnessing before fully understanding, which is another question we could ask: why do we deny people being involved in ministry until they are properly trained, or said the right things…. Again, another story!
Ok, so how does this work in our current situation? Lets look at our models and critique a little.
If we believe that the sound of the gospel is teaching alone, and a person has yet to be inspired and recognise who Jesus is, then the teaching will result in nothing. Alpha courses work only with those who are already in a place where they know that Jesus is someone special, possibly even God’s son. The teaching leads to the revelation…what we would know and express as a personal commitment.
What about if we wanted people to declare Jesus is Lord, and then assume that they had made the full journey. Perhaps they were just caught up in the moment and there they will stop. They haven’t had a revelation, but we can pat ourselves in the back as we think we have now done our job.
It’s all a bit worrying, how do we make a difference? But here’s the exciting thing. We are all called to be witnesses. Essentially being a witness is sharing how Jesus has changed us. Telling people your inspirational story. Our story. And we can only do that in the context of friendship. When a person trusts us we then have the place where we can share the inspirational story.
You see, the expert is passing away now. We ministers are no longer all that special. In fact, because of many factors we are sadly seen as trustworthy as used car salesman. Apologies to used car salesmen everywhere. One assumes used car sales women are seen in a more favourable light. Where people go for their experts is the people who agree with them. Online, or elsewhere. People don’t want to be with people who disagree anymore, which is a pity since how can we grow unless we are given alternate views. This is sadly happening even in Universities.
We have to go out and meet people in their own communities, under their own terms because they won’t come to us. Increasingly they won’t trust those in positions of power, just those who are ordinary everyday people. This means the gospel is now down to you, the people in the pew. The sound of the gospel is your voice. And it starts with association.
It takes time to build friendships. And friendships come from associating in a community. Start where you are. Break out of the church bubble. How many non-Christian friends do you know? Don’t strike up agenda based friendships just to make Christians, its creepy. Be a genuine friend no matter what. If you don’t have any non-Christian friends, go and join a different community. Or even start one. Anything to build trusting friendships. Be always willing to give a reason for your faith…but aim to live peacefully with all. Pray about it, and you’ll be amazed at how many times there are to tell of some small thing or other that God has done for you recently. Answers to prayer. Or when someone is struggling, offer prayer, but they will only be happy if they trust you. And then they become inspired.
And once you have shared your inspiration, then they will begin to say that Jesus is for real. I’ve seen this happen many times, even though they are not yet part of a church. They declare who Jesus is. They will even help with mission.
Then comes the time for explaining. The time for the invitation to the Alpha course. Don’t bother until they are saying they are praying, or at least believing in Jesus.
And after that you may just see revelation.
Application of the model
My final suggestion is one of logic. Just keep an eye out for what point in the journey someone is. And don’t be pressurised into ‘leading them to Christ’. They may not be ready. Just look for the signs. Do they trust and respect you enough to value your opinion? If not then spend more time together sharing a common hobby. If they don’t think Jesus is for real, then keep telling them inspiring stories. If they believe Jesus is for real, then teach them something about Jesus or go with them to an alpha course or something…or allow them to quiz you over your faith. And leave the Spirit to reveal himself to them in good time.
In closing, I said there was a sixth that by rights belongs at the beginning. This is from a friend of mine.
To be truly ready even for inspiration, perhaps people need sometimes to be in desperation. Because then truly the good news finds soil for the inspiration is all the sweeter.
Reason verses inspiration
So lets examine this in terms of where it didn’t work out so well for St Paul.
One of the oft stated places of Pauls mission and evangelism was on Mars Hill, where he used the surrounding items of belief to explain the Christian message. (that is, Paul in Athens: Acts 17 vs 16ff). He begins with reasoning (vs 17) and from that is pulled before the council there, and he reasons still further. Nothing wrong with that as it was good contextualisation. However, only a few responded and wanted to know more (vs 34).
Next St Luke reports that Paul headed to Corinth (chapter 18) and again it appears he was reasoning with the audience (verse 4) but this time there appears a difference which comes to light in the letter which he wrote to them: 1 Corinthians, chapter 2.
“When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom, as I proclaimed to you about the testimony of God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.” (NIV, 1cor2 vs1-5)
When Paul uses the surrounding items of belief to explain the gospel, he has shifted immediately into explanation mode without having first inspired. This was a place where people liked new ideas, and so a new philosophy was going to go down rather well. But he was just another view point. He wasn’t capturing their full attention outside of being a novel thought experiment. (This is how those listening will have approached new ideas). When he goes to Corinth it appears he has changed tack and now comes with fear, trembling, God’s power. All the stuff that makes for inspirational engagement. Ever wondered why no one comes to faith because you have tried to argue the case for faith? It’s right there. I have been frustrated many times by people who ‘just wanted a good debate’, so much so now that I will directly ask at the beginning of such conversations if people are actually genuinely interested, or if they just like to disagree. You can only love people into the kingdom, not argue them from a point of none-belief.
Examples of being ready
There is another area which we need to explore, and that is of humility for which we have useful reflections, that of teaching and that of marketing.
A teacher is only successful when the students are willing to learn. That is that they become humble to the teacher and agree that the teacher knows more than they do, and that the subject itself is worth learning about. Otherwise they are not interested. For a good teacher they will then engage them with awe and wonder. For example, chemistry is dry and boring from a text book. But you do and experiment where something explodes or catches fire and the kids want to know why, and how they can do it.
Marketing has a phrase, which is know, like and trust. If you are going to be able to sell something to someone you must first build a relationship with them, and it’s a two way street. Know what the customers needs are. Then build a friendship so that they like you. But they will only buy from you when they trust you. Now I don’t want to reduce the gospel to a sales technique, but people will only ‘buy’ the gospel when they know, like and trust you.
Marketing also goes on to say that people will only buy when they are ready to. Same with the gospel, you can’t just find a process that works with one set of people and assume that it will work for everyone. Mission Shaped Ministry (the book which launched Fresh Expressions) expressly speaks out against this when talking about church plants.
So where does that leave us?
People need to be in a place where they are ready to listen. They need to see that Christianity has a value before they can hear the lessons of the bible and of faith. They need to trust it. Then they will be humble to scripture otherwise they can never learn from it. And you, as Christians are the example of what the good news will do.
Speaking of which, we hear that word ‘good news’ banded around quite a bit. When asked to share the good news more often than not a person will launch into telling a bible story.
Remember the chemistry book? Dusty and dry, it’s the actual example which gets us to the point of wanting to know why and how. If you think that the gospel is telling a bible story, or illustrating a solution to their problems from a bible passage then forget it. They don’t recognise the authority of scripture.
However, if you are their friend and they know, like and trust you then personal stories carry their own authority. So long as it’s a two way street. If your personal story has been shaped by the gospel then you can tell a person what you did, and explain that you responded to such and such a passage in the bible that teaches xyz, and applied it. And this was the benefit to you.
You see you haven’t at any point in this tried to tell them it is the solution to their problem, rather that it is a solution to your problem which was similar. If you don’t have a similar problem, then the other way of looking at it is to say that if you were faced with that particular problem the choices to make would be xyz. Now, at this point don’t say that it was from the bible that you would make those choices, since if they did not believe the authority of the bible they would immediately dismiss it. But because of your friendship they will accept it as just wisdom.
But treasure these things. If they put your suggestion into practice THEN tell them it was from the bible. Wahoo!!!!! Inspiration, right there.
The two way street which facilitates contextualisation
One of the most remarkable things that I have discovered is that people listen when you are weak. I have so many imperfections its brilliant. From a little aspergers, to clumsiness, slowness, awkwardness…. It even got me a job once as the interviewers leapt to my aid. It got them involved. It was at that moment that it dawned on me I didn’t need to be perfect. Unfortunately as a minister people do have a tendency to think that you should be able to do everything, which is sad because most ministers can’t. You have to work as a team. It may be that you are better than the minister at pastoral care, chairing the PCC, management, preaching, evangelism, or encouraging and inspiring others. It would be hoped that your minister would be good at at least one of these. In fact he has done training in preaching, evangelism and pastoral care, though do note that it doesn’t mean that is his or her gifting. They may even feel intimidated if you are better than they are at it. So tread gently. Though if you and I worked together I would be delighted.
But this weakness has aided me brilliantly with working with other people. You see, when people help you they trust you. You are vulnerable. You can’t just abandon them. But you can work with them and let them bring their talents to the mix.
This is, I think, the second and often overlooked meaning behind the sending out of the 72. Jesus told them not to take anything with them. Its interpreted as ‘because the Lord will provide’. And of course he does. But something else is going on there. The people have to RELY on the host community to look after them.
This puts them in the vulnerable situation. It makes them humble. That’s when you can trust people when you ask for help. Even better, if you ask for help to do something which will benefit them.
Lets think about the 72. They went to go healing. But to do that they needed to be taken care of. SO the household which looked after them was actually helping their community at the same time. A two way street of help me to help you.
Secondly in this story is about investment. We are too fond I think of not going deeply enough with our relationships. So in this story we understand that we shouldn’t go from house to house but stay there. And yet in our evangelism programs we dip in and out. In fact the house we go back to is the church. We don’t stay with the people.
You see although we work with the wider community, what we are doing is building a close relationship with individual people whilst out there. Once the penny drops for each individual then they become a very powerful evangelist because they are visibly inspirational through the way their lives turn around. People notice.
So go to a place, let them help you to help others. Inspire them.
What happens if you don’t do that? Many anecdotal stories exist of where a mission team has gone into an area. They do lots of good things, but with the attitude that ‘they know best’. They don’t need anything because ‘well God has provided and we just want to bless you’. They haven’t gone in humbly. And it all dies along with them when they find it too hard. There is even one case where after a few cycles of this the residents said to the newest team to arrive ‘oh, so you gonna give up too?’
Let’s not give up. Let’s keep trying to build new or join existing communities, helping them as they help us, inspiring them to come to Christ by showing them how Christ has and is affecting us. And Let’s allow the Holy Spirit to work through us in this way.