Once upon a time, there was a large family where Dad was very wealthy and the firstborn son was faithfully devoted to his father, but the rest of the siblings were selfish and greedy. One day, the younger siblings approached their father with a request. “Why should we wait until you die to collect our inheritance?” they said. “We want it now!”
Saddened at their greed and foolishness, the father nonetheless agreed, and the children scattered to the four winds to squander their newfound wealth — all except the elder brother, who remained faithfully with his father. The faithless siblings wandered far and wide, and when the money inevitably ran out, found themselves destitute, friendless, and alone.
Meanwhile, back at home, the elder brother came to his father with a proposal: “Your children are out there, unable to care for themselves. I am going to go and bring them back.”
And so he went. When he found one of the wandering children, he always said the same thing: “Come home. You have a place with us.”
“I can’t,” they would say. “I spent all my inheritance. I have nothing left to offer.”
“You don’t understand,” the older brother responded. “I still have my inheritance — and everything I have is yours. There’s more than enough for all of us.”
Some of them refused, but some of them came. The father ran to meet them, and his servants rejoiced each time a wandering child came home. And each child who came home, the older brother deputized to join him in searching for their lost siblings, and they went out two by two, delivering their elder brother’s message as they went.
When Jesus told His parable of the prodigal son, the elder brother — representing the Pharisees and scribes — was stingy and resentful. But today, we’re able to tell the parable with a very different ending, because Jesus came to be the elder brother we’d never had.
The essay on proclamation that started this conversation is a reflection on a key aspect of living in that parable: how best to announce our elder Brother’s generosity and our Father’s forgiveness. The current historical moment presents some interesting challenges, and we’re profoundly grateful to Matt O’Reilly, Richard Bledsoe, and Bruce Ashford for joining the conversation and giving us a lot more to think about.
Our original essay didn’t arise out of a noble effort on our part to “recover” evangelism, but rather arose out of a lexical insight regarding the word kerusso that struck us as rather far reaching. But having our lexical insight validated by our respondents, Matt O’Reilly’s question does seem to be the next step, “How do we recover evangelism as proclamation? How do we equip Christians to embrace such language and the posture that goes with it?” Having only recently begun our own journey in proclamation, we won’t pretend that we have a fully developed answer to the question, but we are far enough along to point to a couple of guideposts that will be helpful in training and equipping believers to embrace a posture of proclamation.
In our initial essay, we made reference to the way in which being publicly known as a Christian used to be a social good, then became considered a harmless eccentricity, and now is generally a social negative, which dramatically changes the way a public proclamation is perceived. (We borrowed that framework from Aaron Renn, and neglected to give him credit for it in the original essay — sorry, Aaron! See his Masculinist #13 for more details.) The shift happened quickly — Renn dates the shift from positive through neutral to negative spanning the two decades from 1994 to 2014 — and the church has not really adapted.
For those who grew up in a positive or even a neutral world, “sharing the gospel” was fruitful often enough; after all, you were sharing something that was generally desirable. We are now living in a world that is generally negative toward Christianity. That requires that we recalibrate our evangelism to a new reality. Here’s where proclamation has something to offer in our unique time — the truth doesn’t care whether you like it or not; it just sits there being true all the same. It might even possess an anti-marketing appeal. Imagine your spiritually interested millennial surveying available religious options: all offer some kind of true-for-you therapeutic, and some have instagramable accoutrements. Then someone proclaims the good news, that Jesus is seated at the right hand of the throne of God and sits on high above with authority over everything — including the gods of all other religions. The bracing claim that there is one King and all other religious claims are false may not sound like a winning message, but at least those who come face to face with that message and reject it are rejecting the real Christianity, not a watered-down substitute.
This is why it is critical that we expose Christians to the ways in which we have been guilty of framing the gospel in accord with the secular truce. We noticed that none of our respondents expressed surprise at the secular truce as we framed it in the initial essay. Many of the Christians we have explained this to have found it both convicting and liberating; especially in the way that “I believe” language signals that we are playing by secular rules. I have found it personally difficult to stop saying “I believe” in my public witness. It’s easy to tell myself that I say it because it’s true; I really do believe it. But why bother saying it? I say it because it makes the conversation go more smoothly — because I know deep down that it gives them an illegitimate true-for-you out. That has to stop.
Another answer to O’Reilly’s question is to live an egregiously Christian life. In a negative world, personal ethos is king. “Our church has a homeless ministry” means nothing — nobody trusts institutions, especially religious ones — but “Come with me, we’re gonna feed some folks” is powerful. Living generously can’t be faked.
The point here is that you either are, or are not, the sort of person who does these sorts of things. Christians should be. We do these things because Jesus loves people, and He taught us to seek His Kingdom and pray for it to come, but one of the side effects is a position of tremendous credibility.
In order to live that way, we have to get inured to a higher level of personal inconvenience. this is a valid use of the ascetic streak that runs through Christian piety: we need not seek out privations and difficulties for their own sake; we simply need to be aware of the opportunities that are being presented to us. When you pass a guy with a cardboard sign, and all you really have is your lunch? That could be an excuse to do nothing…or it could be an opportunity to fast. When a friend calls for help at 10 pm, and you realize that if you pick up the phone you’re not going to bed till 4? That’s a vigil, and Jesus is worth standing vigil for. When the cops bring your neighbor’s kid home at 2 am, do you watch through the blinds, or do you go over and see what they need? Risky, right? Uncomfortable. More comfortable to tell yourself you’ll pray for them…and then forget to do it. Develop an ascetic’s suspicion of such comfort.
The author of Hebrews encourages us “to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.” The sacrifice word choice is deliberate: we worship in the heavenly tabernacle, where we offer new covenant sacrifices to the living God. Wherever we happen to be standing when such an opportunity overtakes us, we have the authority to ascend and lay our offering — food, money, time, sleep, comfort — on the altar before God’s throne. As David Field told us in his course last year, “There is nothing you possess that you did not give up in principle the day you decided to follow Jesus.” Amen!
What is the gospel we proclaim? Our answer to that natural question in our initial essay was short: Jesus is King. We proclaim the Kingdom of God. We appreciate the interaction on this point from Bruce Ashford. Paul’s summary of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15 is perhaps his most direct and succinct framing of the gospel in all his writings, and we do well to use it as a guide. We notice as well that in the many places Paul preaches the gospel in Acts, that some or even many of the elements he includes in 1 Corinthians 15 are left out. His address to the philosophers in Athens includes very little of what’s included in 1 Corinthians 15; indeed, one would learn that God raised someone from the dead and that one day that person would judge the world, but not that his name was Jesus.
It is okay to play the long game. When we are engaging in evangelism, it is often more important to proclaim one or two relevant truths clearly and with grace than to try to make sure we include everything just to feel as though the job has been completed. God is working in the hearts of unbelievers, and He will continue once our conversation ends. We will often have the opportunity for follow up conversations, but even if we don’t, the work of God will continue.
If we are faithful in proclaiming the gospel when God gives us the opportunity, then we can expect that His word will be faithful in converting souls. But it works as He intended it, and we need not expect perfect obedience to the gospel in the hearts of the newly converted. Of course, all authority in heaven and on earth currently belongs to Jesus, and one day every knee will bow, and every believer will be fully consecrated to Jesus in obedience. God is on His throne and Jesus is seated at His right hand, and we can enjoy victory even if the Lordship of Jesus is not fully realized in the heart of every believer. We’ll be greatly frustrated if we over-realize our eschatology in a way that makes us impatient with human failure. God is pleased for sanctification to be a process.
We’re also grateful for Ashford’s helpful taxonomy of different approaches to evangelism. For those of us who were trained in a four spiritual laws style of evangelism, we resonate with the freedom that comes from seeing the many different approaches exemplified in Scripture. It turns out to be far more effective to just be an attentive listener and respond to the needs of the person in front of you as you are led by the Holy Spirit.
Proclamation is always challenging but need not be rude. Proclamation can find a home in any of the modes of evangelism listed. Your hospitality only serves to bolster the strength of the proclamation of the gospel that comes along with it. In other words, proclamation should not be seen as one option among many approaches to evangelism, but an indispensable aspect of any approach to evangelism.
Understanding who we’re talking to is important, and to that end we should come ready to ask lots of questions. O’Reilly rightly rejects the standard heaven-centric (and positive-world) diagnostic question I (Tim) grew up with: “If you were to die today, and God were to ask you, ‘Why should I let you into my perfect heaven?’ what would you say?” His point — “I fear we’ve won a lot of people to heaven without winning them to Jesus” — is well taken. I share that concern, and I want to add another: the standard heaven-centric question slanders God. It implicitly presents God as the gatekeeper of an exclusive club, eager to reject and reluctant to save. The truth is, God will never ask anyone that question; in fact, He conspired with His Son to provide an answer to it. Now, there is someone in the courts of heaven who wants to know how you, laden with sins, can enter heaven. He accuses the brethren before the throne; he asks this question constantly, and he will never understand the answer. We are speaking, of course, of the devil, and it is not good to attribute his characteristics to God.
O’Reilly’s better questions don’t have that drawback and offer a great starting point. We also appreciate Bledsoe’s suggestion that we front the fatherhood of God as part of the good news we’re proclaiming. In a culture that’s so obsessed with creating identity, the fact that you already have an identity that’s been given to you as a gift is powerful good news. We also find in practice (at least, here in Denver) that we can safely assume no one has told our interlocutors what the cross really means: “You’ve heard of Jesus dying on the cross for your sins, right? Well, here’s what they didn’t tell you….”
Ashford notes rightly that “Although there is nothing wrong — and everything right — with announcing the good news to people who are predisposed against the gospel, there is something profoundly fruitful about operating from a stance of blessing toward those who may very well be receptive.” We certainly agree but would hasten to add that all the categories are important here. It is possible to take a stance of blessing toward those who are predisposed against the gospel; indeed, we are called to bless those who persecute us.
Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 provides an illustration of blessing your enemies even as they are persecuting. He proclaimed the gospel to them first in a way that cut to the heart, but as he was being stoned, he blessed them, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” It’s tempting to think of blessing as a tool to win people over, a means to an end. People can smell this from a mile away; they know when they are someone’s project. We take a stance of blessing because that’s who we are; we are priests of the most high God. We trust that in God’s providence, the stance of blessing will be fruitful, but that’s not why we do it.
Isaiah illustrates another category. God told him to go to the people and preach to them to make their hearts calloused. Sometimes we are called to proclaim the gospel to people who will reject it — Isaiah even knew up front that he was going to be “ineffective.” Neither proclamation nor blessing are techniques we utilize to produce results with specific kinds of audiences. We proclaim, we bless, because Jesus did, and God calls us to be like Him.
We’re particularly grateful for Richard Bledsoe’s deep dive into the un-connected nature of our society right now. We live among a people who truly are “weary and scattered, like sheep without a shepherd.” It can be hard to see. We drive home to our suburban homes, drive into the connected garage, punch the button on the remote, and walk into the house without ever even seeing a neighbor. Maybe if the weather’s nice, we’re out on the back deck — does anybody sit on the front porch anymore? — separated from the yards next door by a 6-foot privacy fence. What little we see is consciously manicured to hide the problems and present a picture of success and ease. This is not a sign of health; it’s a symptom of the disease.
It’s hard to see how people are weary and scattered when we barely see people at all. It’s easier to have a conversation with your Starbucks barista than with your next-door neighbor. This we ought to have done, as the Man said, without leaving the other undone. But “to us has been committed the ministry of reconciliation,” and that means it’s our job to go and get them.
This has been a big deal in our ministry — we literally wrote a book on it — and we highly commend the practice to you. Be the one on your block who crosses the street to have a conversation. I don’t care if you’re an introvert. Me (Tim) too. It’s hard; I get it. Do it anyway, because Jesus would, if He was living in you. Which — if Galatians 2:20 actually means what it says — He is willing to do. Ask Him for help and cross the street. Trust Him to deliver.
Of course, it’s enormously helpful to have something to invite them into. It’s easy enough to put on a pious face and say, “I’m inviting them into a relationship with Jesus!” Yes, you are. But Jesus Himself intended people to experience that relationship in close community. As Peter Leithart points out in Theopolitan Mission, the Church bursts into a world of Jews and Gentiles already “a third race, with customs of her own” which are immediately present in the days following Pentecost (Acts 2:41-46). We subsequently see Paul founding similar communities all over the Roman world: on the biblical evidence, this is what the Spirit wants to make.
This goes double when we’re talking about the poorest of our poor. A growing problem nationwide, homelessness is no longer confined to a few rough neighborhoods in our big cities. Many of our communities are awash in people who literally have no place. It’s easy to blame mental health, substance abuse, de-institutionalization…but what do we actually do? If it’s hard to connect with a suburbanite, it’s harder still to engage, converse with, and touch someone that we don’t want to see.
Here again, the solution is to tangibly, personally live for the Kingdom. There’s nothing wrong with cutting a big check to a ministry that does that kind of thing (please do!), but there’s no substitute for taking steps yourself. It can be as simple as a ziploc bag of chewy granola bars, tampons, and fresh socks tucked in your glove compartment for the next time you see someone with a cardboard sign. Don’t be afraid to start small. This is just like saving money or giving: if you do a little, you’ll find ways to do more, but if you do nothing, then you’ll keep doing nothing.
Starting small can lead to a lot more. Here in Englewood, Joe fostered cooperation among the ministries, businesses, and agencies that work with our friends on the streets so that the resulting network could create a road map out of homelessness. Over the past several years, many people have followed that map, and today are successfully housed. Others, of course, have no interest in doing what’s necessary to get off the streets, and we’ve done what we can to address the dire needs that chronic homelessness creates both for those on the streets and for the community as a whole. One of us (Joe) ran for city council (and won!) in part to unseat a council member who was launching unprovoked attacks on the ministries that serve our poorest citizens. The other (Tim) leads a congregation that is 90% homeless, providing a Saturday evening meal, good company, and church.
But as Desmond Tutu said, “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.” In our time the discourse of “root causes” has been greatly corrupted by some very stupid and morally bankrupt ideas, largely because most of the people involved simply do not understand human sin. But it remains a good question, and simple human sin is only part of the answer. We should not be afraid to seek the rest.
Part of the answer is simple laziness and cantankerousness. Some folks really would rather sleep on a pile of cardboard behind a dumpster than get along with people the bare minimum required to hold a job. But that’s not the whole story. Good numbers are hard to come by, but I (Tim) would estimate a quarter of the homeless folks I know here have jobs, and yet still can’t get housing. We have supper together Saturday evenings — I can tell you their names and their stories, and their growing desperation to get housing as winter approaches.
There are ways that we as a culture have actively pushed people into homelessness, and those need to be repented of and fixed. We have decided that we will not allow poor people to live in our neighborhoods. We keep them out with laws demanded by our citizens and enforced by our community development departments. We use occupancy requirements, minimum lot sizes, minimum unit sizes, required off-street parking spaces, neighborhood aesthetic standards, property maintenance and other measures to do the dirty work. If you are a developer who wants to provide low-cost housing to the poor, be prepared to face a mob of neighbors who definitely do not want that in their neighborhood and usually have the leverage with their elected officials to make it stick. Many of these measures are not evil in themselves, but the net effect of these laws is an incredibly high minimum housing cost such that poor people cannot afford to live in our neighborhoods…and we like it that way! If you can’t afford that minimum, we will make it illegal for you to live anywhere but the street. Then we’ll ban camping within city limits. And all the while, we make ourselves feel good by working to care for the homeless, even as we live in neighborhoods that are actively hostile to the presence of the poor.
While it’s true that in the West we live in a post-Christian culture, that framing misses an important fact: you can’t outgrow the truth. Truth may not be fashionable, but it’s timeless nonetheless. In the world God actually made, you can ignore the truth, you can suppress the truth, you can contradict the truth, but you can’t actually be post-truth, any more than you can be post-gravity. Fail to reckon with reality, and you will go splat into something solid. And they have. Increasingly, the prodigals have run out of money. They’re tired, disconnected, malnourished, lost — and mostly, they know it. The world around them tells them that’s all there is, but we know it’s a lie.
Jesus said the fields are ripe for harvest. Too often we tell ourselves the opposite. “Nobody wants to hear it,” we say. “They’ve already rejected the truth.” That is mostly an optical illusion. Nobody’s interested in what they think Christianity is, true enough — but not one of them in twenty has actually heard and rejected Jesus as He really is. We have the opportunity to tell them, if we will face the rhetorical challenge of doing so. In the Church, we have no shortage of skilled communicators, but we have been too willing to stick to our well-worn patterns and afraid to confront the actual task before us: to present the gospel as good news, connecting the dots from their breathtaking need to its answer in Jesus the risen King.
That is the answer: Jesus is King. Do we have the courage to say so?
Tim Nichols pastor at large with Headwaters Christian Resources, Englewood, Colorado.
Joe Anderson works with Headwaters Christian Resources.
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