Skeletal Evangelism

5 July 2009

Having recently become acquainted with Duane Garner through his Church Music Through History series, I have been listening to some of the other things he’s done, most recently a couple of lectures from a series titled “The Christian Imagination: Creativity, Fiction & Poetry.” The following quote comes from the second lecture, starting at 41:55:

So, trying to do theology and to read the Bible, and to live without engaging the imagination — it leaves us without an image of the future, it leaves us with very little in the Bible that we can actually benefit from.  Take out the stories, take out the poetry, and what are you left with?  It’s difficult for me to relate to the sort of mindset that’s only content with the barest and weakest and most anemic expressions of faith : “If we could just boil this down to the essentials, then we’ve got it.”  Wouldn’t we much rather become a people who are enraptured with the stories and the songs that the Bible gives us, even if we don’t understand them all, even if there’s some mystery there, and then bust out with a creativity of spirit that says, “How can we celebrate this; how can we sing that; how can we recognize this; how can we mark that?”
It’s the very nature of our five senses to pull us into whatever is there: scent, rhythm, texture, vision.  This is the way God’s word pulls us in.  It draws us in with its beauty to participate in it.  And so the mature Christian imagination is concerned with story, and poetry, and creativity.  We hear the stories, we know the stories, we see their beauty, and we see our own part in the story, and the continuation of the story.  The Christian imagination understands life as meaningful history, the structure of which is revealed in Jesus.

Indeed.  And nowhere is this observation more applicable than in evangelism.

We try to make evangelism easier, less intimidating, and we generally do this by boiling it down to seven key statements, or four laws, or three points, or a saving proposition, or whatever.  We want to be able to tell people that they can be confident they’ve “given someone the gospel” when they have said X — whatever X is.

We do this to equip our fellow believers, to build them up so that they can evangelize confidently, and that’s a commendable goal.  But the way we’re going about it has a heavy cost: we lose sight of what actually happens in evangelism.

In evangelism we introduce people to Someone we love.  Relaying a couple of key facts is, at best, only a decent start.

When I try to describe my wife to someone who’s never met her, I may search my memory for that one story or factoid that perfectly captures Kimberly’s quirky sense of humor, or her wit, or her boldness.  But once I’ve relayed that one thing, I don’t sit back and think to myself, “That’s it.  That’s all anyone needs to know.”  No single fact or story could possibly capture the richness or depth of the delightful woman that I married, and when I want someone to know Kimberly, to see her as I do, the stories and facts pour forth without effort.  I’m not concerned to tell them the least they need to know; I want them to know far more than that.

How much deeper and richer is Jesus?

Jesus promises us the life we were always meant to live: harmony with God forever as His image in the creation.  He is able to make that promise because He died for our sins and rose the third day, the firstfruits of the resurrection in which we will all one day partake.  And He does all this for us while we are His enemies. You wouldn’t want to try to convey what Jesus is like without that part of the story.

But there’s so much more.  He’s the kind of guy who tells homespun fables that make us see respectable, self-satisfied leaders as disobedient children, or murderous tenants, or inhospitable soil.  Aesop’s got nothing on Him.  When they ask Him what kind of holy teacher hangs out with hookers and drunks, He asks them what kind of doctor spends all his time with sick people.  When He walks into the temple and sees a house of worship turned into a continuing criminal enterprise, He calls it like He sees it — and starts flipping over tables to clean the place out. When the wedding party runs out of wine, He supplies more than a hundred gallons of the very best.  In His presence, the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the gospel preached to them — and God blesses those who do not shy away from all that Jesus is.

Jesus did not live a minimalist life; the Bible does not give us bare-bones accounts of it.    Why are we so desperate to know how much we can hold out on our unbelieving friends?


Competent to Counsel?

11 January 2009

Within the evangelical, Bible-believing, American church in the last four decades, an awful lot of things have happened which I fervently hope my grandchildren will have a hard time believing.  But among a truly embarrassing heap of incongruous strangenesses, there are a few that really stand out, and I’d like to talk about one of those.

Starting in the late sixties, our counselors — those specialists in explaining to us how people in disagreement can sit down and have a peaceable discussion like grown-ups — divided into two camps that were, for the most part, utterly incapable of peaceable dialogue.

Let me say that again: Our conflict resolution specialists could barely speak to one another, let alone resolve their intramural conflicts.

And these are the people who are supposed to help us get along with our in-laws.  “Tell it not in Gath…”

David Powlison unfolds half of the sad tale in Competent to Counsel? The History of a Conservative Protestant Biblical Counseling Movement.  As the title indicates, Powlison is writing a history of the biblical counseling movement, not a history of the debate between it and the evangelical psychotherapists. As far as the debate goes, this is hardly the whole story.  But thus far, it is the only serious, scholarly attempt to chronicle the biblical counseling movement — which is valuable in itself, and addresses the conflict from one side in any case.

Why does it matter?

Because if we want to avoid similar decades-long battles in other areas — like, say, over the exact content that one must believe to be saved — then it is helpful to see what our brothers have done wrong (and what they have done right) in past conflicts.

Just one example:  When Jay Adams began writing and speaking about counseling, he almost completely bypassed the evangelical psychotherapists and went straight for their constituents.  His message was “The Bible has the answers for problems in living; seek the answers there.  Don’t listen to these guys; they’re not basing their responses on the Bible, and in any case they are an illegitimate secular pastorate and their function needs to be returned to the church.”  (My paraphrase, but he was at least that blunt.)

Now, the response was predictable as sunrise: the psychotherapists fought back tooth and nail, or ignored him.

Adams had to know that was going to happen.  He seems to have made a decision that he was unlikely to win them over in any case, so he would take his argument to the broader church as fast as possible, using deliberately inflammatory rhetoric to make friends quickly where people agreed with him — at the cost of making enemies quickly among the psychotherapists.

Now, I think Adams had an important message, and the wider church needed to be brought into the discussion.  But the biblical standard for engaging fellow believers is “Consider one another in order to stir up love and good deeds….”  Instead, Adams chose a course of action practically guaranteed to maximize animosity and bad deeds among the evangelical psychotherapists, with predictable results that largely persist today.  While there are pockets of biblical counseling here and there, the evangelical world as a whole has weighed it and found it wanting.  The reasons for that state of affairs would fill a book, but it surely hasn’t helped that while bringing much biblical content to bear on problems in living, the movement simultaneously behaved unbiblically toward one group of fellow believers.

For those of you conversant with the present gospel spat, this ought to sound familiar.  Think we can learn anything from history?

News: We Got Sound!

11 December 2008

I’ve upgraded! For the paltry sum of $20 annually, I can have sound files, and 5Gb of extra storage. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it all — that’s a lot of space — but for the moment, I’ve put up the Living the Living Word lectures. In a nutshell, it’s a 10-week exploration of the idea that the Bible teaches us how to study the Bible, complete with enough suggestions for further study to get you at least to a Bible college-level workload, if you want to do that much. The extra work is not required, however, and the lectures are designed to be beneficial for people who just want to listen.

I’ve also posted my personal recordings of last year’s FGA panels on assurance and the cross, for those who’ve perhaps read about the discussions but haven’t had the chance to hear and judge for themselves. Links to both are also now posted on the Gospel Discussion page.