I dedicated the Sharing Jesus book to our first grandson Lincoln and his generation. You see a picture of him above. There is no cuter little boy anywhere in my humble but accurate opinion. Our zeal and effectiveness in evangelism doesn’t only affect us. We have a generation following; let’s leave them a vibrant faith flowing from an advancing movement, not the stagnant faith of institutional religion.
Tomorrow in young pros we will recognize 9 graduations and acknowledge some couples getting ready to head overseas. It’s a time of celebration and transition, which is a common part of young adult life. Helping young pros navigating our changing times with the unchanging Word means a lot to me.
To see where we are going we need to first look back, so let me channel my inner history nerd to give a very simple overview of church life in recent history. Over a century ago the Industrial Revolution led to mass production as large factories drew people to cities. Henry Ford and others after him perfected the assembly line and the capacity to make large numbers of products en masse. This reality and the rapid urbanization of the times matched perfectly with the most effective tool of evangelism in the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the urban mass meeting. D. L. Moody pioneered this approach that others then followed. While Ford mass-produced his automobiles, the church witnessed mass conversions in these meetings.
As factories grew and urbanization increased, more and more people worked with others in increasingly impersonal workplaces, developing the forty-hour work week, which in turn created a growing yearning for the weekend and less appreciation for the job. For too many, one’s job became a necessary means to a greater end (the weekend, vacation, leisure) and less a place we valued. “Punch your time card, do your job, and live for the weekend” became a reality for millions. No wonder so many today have the “3 S’s” mind-set toward church: As long as I show up on Sundays, serve in some way (take up the offering, sing in the choir, and so on), and am a steward (give a little money), I’m doing just fine as a Christian.
Millions of American Christians have no idea that this is practically how they live out their faith. Show up, check in, consume some religious goods, and then live your life as you like.
In the middle of the twentieth century, things changed somewhat. Mass production continued, but we also saw the rise of mass media. The television escalated this shift, making advertisers grow in influence. “Try this product”; “Use this brand,” we were told. It was the day of the Fuller Brush salesman going door-to-door with his prepackaged sales pitch. At this time, we saw the rise of programmatic approaches to ministry in the church, including packaged evangelism training.
The Church Growth Movement arose as well, offering specialists to help diagnose issues in a particular church setting and offer processes for change. This proved to be as effective in this era for a time as mass crusades had been previously.
Don’t read this and hear me saying these specific methods are all bad, for they aren’t; they have in fact helped millions turn to Christ and countless believers to grow. They fit well with the times in the past and can still reach people today. But they had the unintended consequence of showing believers that the way to grow as a disciple of Jesus is not by your own ability through the Spirit’s work to self-feed and grow daily, but by attending as many programs at the church building as possible. This has also created a lowest-common-denominator, one-size-fits-all approach to discipleship that has condemned entire generations to unintended spiritual mediocrity.
But times changed again, and they can change in the church as well. We have moved from a mass production age to a mass media era to the information age. The Internet has changed everything. This has led to our time currently, in which ideas rule the day, and especially ideas that are spread through stories. Look at television today and see the infomercials using testimonies and note the reality shows in which your neighbor could be a star. Add to that the sudden ascension of social media as the dominant force on the Internet. Everyone has an idea today, it seems. Individuals can have great influence, whether it’s Mark Zuckerberg inventing Facebook, or the founders of Craigslist or Wikipedia, or lesser-known people who sell their wares on Etsy. We live in a time when the individual has been given again the opportunity to let their ideas flourish. What an amazing opportunity for believers to recover the biblical reality that you have been given in Christ all you need for life and godliness. You were made in the image of God uniquely to bring glory to him unlike anyone else.
Don’t be mistaken; the church is still vitally involved in this process, keeping us from either doctrinal error or rampant individualism. But the church must do a better job of helping each believer have the tools to grow spiritually, to study the Word, and to share your faith without being dependent on a prepackaged program or a gifted evangelist. You can, by the power of the Spirit, through the wisdom from the Word, with a life bathed in prayer and connected to the local church, be a self-feeder who becomes not a clone of other believers, but one who, uniquely made in the image of God, can reflect Christ as God created you to be and to do.
[Adapted from the Sharing Jesus Book]
* I’m indebted to Seth Godin for helping me think through the changes in the modern era.
In my classes on the first day I encourage students to make this a daily prayer:
Lord give me
- An opportunity to speak to someone about jesus
- The wisdom to see it
- the boldness to take it
My friend Preston Nix teaches at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He has a helpful, practical definition of boldness. Boldness is one step beyond your comfort zone.
Why not make this a daily prayer and see how God gives you eyes to see his work around you?
In a now famous study of popcorn by Brian Warnsick at Cornell, movie goers were given two sizes of popcorn buckets. Each of the buckets was massive, too large for one person to consume all the popcorn. The question: when given an overwhelming amount of popcorn to eat, would the size of the bucket matter?
The result? Those with bigger buckets ate 53% more. The interesting reaction of people in the study is they didn’t believe the results. They couldn’t believe simply changing the bucket size had such an impact on their actions. Beyond the obvious application to diet (want to lose weight? Use smaller plates and order smaller portions when eating out), Warnsick discovered how hard it can be to help people see the need to change.
His conclusion: sometimes what we think is a people problem is a situation problem. Let me apply this to the church. Sometimes we pastors (I currently serve part time as a pastor at my church) we think people in church are apathetic and only want to do the minimum for God. I’ve preached in over 2,000 churches, and in my experience most people do care, but they also do the minimum. Why? They do what they do because they’ve been taught what they’ve been taught. For too many, the situation believers find themselves in is a Christianity focused on pleasing ourselves, not rocking the boat, and giving more attention to moralistic behavior change or simple felt-needs advice on making it in the world than living out the mission of God daily in the culture. The gospel has moved from an announcement of a great message to advice on how to be happy.
Why would I say that? Exhibit A: the largest study of youth and religion in American history, the National Institute of Youth and Religion, concluded that overwhelming numbers of young people have been taught a perspective of the Christianity called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. The Bible is taught more as a collection of moral stories to change behavior and help people be nice than a great epic of redemption. “Follow Jesus as Savior, then follow our standard of behavior” is too often the implied narrative.
This is fascinating to me as I minister a great deal to the next generation and those who minister to them. Barna discovered when a church shows young people how the good news in Jesus directly affects their future career plans, they are four times more likely to stay in church. I would submit the inverse is true as well: when they get a vision of the faith that is more like “don’t have sex, and invite a friend,” they are more likely to leave.
I meet so many church leaders who see the need for renewal in evangelism and discipleship. They long for a new day of effectiveness in making disciples from a lost culture, growing those disciples so they in turn make more disciples, who do the same. Disciples who make disciples who make disciples is the need of the hour. We all know this, but we aren’t seeing it to the level we desire. How to we experience a disciple-making shift?
Take a moment and read Acts 8:1-8. Philip, an early leader, has been run out of Jerusalem in a wave of persecution. He goes down to Samaria—you know, the place Jews liked to avoid—and he witnessed a movement of God. He ministered in a cultural context hardly favorable to Christianity. It seems to me so many Christians today live in fear and have made a shift, but it’s a shift to protectionism and fear of the culture rather than a shift to make disciples in the culture. We are at a far better place in America than Philip and the early church!
Here’s a suggestion to begin recalibrating your disciple-making: Rehearse the gospel of Jesus every day until it consumes your affections, informs your perspective, and guides your decisions.
This is why Chapter 2 of my Sharing Jesus book focuses on the gospel, and encourages the reder to take a week and start getting in the habit of rehearsing the gospel to yourself before you share it with others. Why are so many Christians living in fear? We have forgotten the greatness of the good news in Jesus and how it affects not only our church lives, but in every aspect of our lives.
Look at Acts 8:4-5: “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there.”
The difference between the early church and the current church is they only had hope in Christ, while we have hope in Christ, and our bank account, and our culture (either to like us or leave us alone), and our circumstances. We live divided lives that create weakened convictions about both the providence of God and the call of God to make disciples no matter the society’s perspective on the gospel. Too many of us talk more each week about our sports team than our Savior and fret more over our financial portfolio than the lost around us.
We can understand the gospel in at least a couple of ways. One is the essence of the gospel: the announcement of the good news of Jesus Christ made possible through His death and resurrection. The gospel is never less than this. And yet it is more. The gospel also can be seen as a great epic: the grand narrative of redemption seen from Genesis to Revelation, the Story that makes sense of all stories. In his wonderful book Fool’s Talk, Os Guinness reminds us the gospel is both truth and a beautiful story. We need to recapture the wonder of the gospel story while affirming its truth. Or as the early church father Ignatius observed: “Christianity consists not merely of persuading people of ideas, but also inviting them to share in the greatness of Christ.”
In the great awakenings people recaptured a wonder for the glory of God. Dramatic movements of evangelism, church planting, and social justice erupted from these works of God. But central to these movements was a renewed vision of the gospel. Great awakening preachers did not preach “how to have revival” sermons; they preached the gospel. We don’t talk about Jesus with our lost friends because we don’t talk about Him enough in our churches!
[adapted from an earlier post]