Beyond Justice, parts 1 and 2 were written by R. York Moore and are the full, non-filmed manuscripts for the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA and World Vision ACT:S campaign project, “Beyond Justice,” or “Get ACT:IVE” campaign.
The world is alive around her-charged air, pulsing ground, high hanging blue sky. The city with all its magic whirls around the couple walking hand in hand along the water’s edge. Strappy heals dangle from her hand as she walks barefoot, feeling the grass beneath her feet. A sweet smell fills the air as a summer breeze carries the hum of some unknown band. Cicada beetles and cardinals echo throughout the city streets as she brushes her fingers through the dense air of a hot July day. She tucks her head beneath his chin, imagining what could be. A life together of joy, of endless summer nights-peace, safety, security-most of all togetherness-she breaths out a wishful sigh. It is a place of magic, a dream that every once and a while we get to smell and taste and touch. Every now and then we lose ourselves, forgetting about the worries of this world, we let go and feel the grass beneath our feet and just dream. Joy, peace, contentment, safety, companionship-these are some of the things that we long for. True happiness, love, and freedom, this is the texture of a world just beyond our reach. It is the fabric of another place that we know exists in our hearts. There is a place our soul calls out for, another place that our soul remembers.
We are aware of another world peaking and poking into ours, tearing at the fabric of our souls and bringing both hope as well as dissatisfaction. We are aware of this other place not only during times of intense pleasure and joy but also during times of suffering and injustice. Exploitation, abuse and neglect, death and disease, destruction and displacement-there are many conditions we see and possibly experience ourselves in this world that cause us to dream of another one. For some, the suffering and injustice of this world causes them to lose faith, to doubt the existence of this other place, but for others it causes them to put their lives on the line, it inspires great acts of bravery and heroism, it drives some to give their all to reach for the dream. History is filled with the stories of millions upon millions who hoped against hope for another world and who risked their lives to establish justice in their pursuit of joy. There are lots of obstacles to this other world. Our world is broken in so many ways. Children die in countless numbers from diseases that are entirely treatable or preventable for lack of medicine that the wealthy can obtain at nearly every corner drugstore. Poverty and greed form a vicious cycle and often it is the children of the world’s poor that end up paying the ultimate price. More than 2,000 children under 5 die from malaria each day-that’s one child every 40 seconds. Malaria kills nearly one million people each year but 85% are children under 5. Each year an estimated 250 million people get infected with malaria. That’s equal to 83% of the U.S. population. But it’s the poorest of the poor that suffer most. Malaria is the fourth leading cause of child deaths worldwide and second leading cause of child deaths in Sub-Saharan Africa. Slavery, death from disease, displacement, hunger-we know that this is not the way things are supposed to be so we long inwardly for another place, a place of hope.
Detroit-A Place of Hope
For several decades in the city of Detroit where I live hope was all but lost but now there are many who dream again. There are corporations and government officials, teachers and civil servants, business leaders and scholars who know the secret of Detroit and the rich heritage that this city of hope has. Something always drives us back to hope. For countless slaves in the south, the dream of freedom once had a name and that name was Detroit. It’s hard to think of Detroit as a city of hope but for many slaves who had escaped from the Deep South, this city and the Detroit River was a dream that inspired them to risk their very lives to see. For scores of abolitionists and slaves alike, Detroit was the destination of hope. The trek along the Underground Railroad, a system of safe houses and safe people, led escaped slaves to Detroit-a year-long journey of over 1,000 miles. A trek fueled by the hope of freedom, opportunity, safety, but most of all, joy. The dream of joy is really at the center of the heart of every woman, of every man. Often it is the goal behind the goal, the greater dream of a thousand aspirations and for countless slaves, it fueled prayerful miles and expectant singing. Their dream may have started with the longing for freedom from the injustice and suffering of slavery, but there was something behind that dream. What do we do when justice and freedom have been obtained? We live the life we were meant to live-this is the dream that is beyond justice, the dream of joy. They would sing about the Jordan River, speaking figuratively of crossing the Detroit River into Windsor, Canada, finally being free of fear and the repercussions of their decision to pursue their dream. For many of my ancestors, slavery was all they knew. They were born into the slave system, often separated from their parents and shipped off to fields throughout the south. They never knew the dream of freedom.
The Source of Hope
What is it in the heart of a woman that dares to dream of a world she’s known nothing of, a world without rape or exploitation where she is free to choose her loved ones and run her hands through the hot July air? Where does the dream of a boy come from, a dream of a fantastical world of play, when all he’s known is the work slavery? I believe the quote of an unknown slave says it all: “All my life I been called a slave. They tell me I belongs to my master. That may be true about my body, but my soul remembers a time when I was free, so when I get a chance I will run.” Our soul remembers. I believe because we’ve been made in the image of God that our soul remembers. The world that pokes and peaks into our world of injustice and suffering connects powerfully with our soul because it was the world we were made for, a world of joy. A world where cicadas echo through streets of giggles and strappy heels dangle as bare feet walk through lush green grass. You see, there is something beyond justice that we all long for, a dream that we share with the rest of humanity. Millions have risked their lives and are risking their lives today so the dream can come to pass. A dream can change the world, literally. There are ways in which we use the concept of dream to refer to a wish, a desire, or a hope. Real change, however, comes through conviction, passion, power, and action. During the civil rights era that brought real and lasting change to millions of African-American’s, it was the dream of one man coupled with the real actions of Whites, Blacks, Asians, Latinos and others that brought that dream to pass. Dreaming is not incompatible with action; in fact a dream of substance, of real conviction and vision requires action. God’s dream is the same way. To say that God has a dream is an understatement. The culmination of all history is heading somewhere; it is heading to a place that is beyond justice, a place of joy.
The Dream of God
God’s vision and passion for another world are coupled with His power and will to accomplish His dream. God’s dreams come to pass and the exciting part is this; they include us, they include our action, our faith, our longings. Some wonder why God doesn’t just snap his fingers and bring about his dream right away. God invites us to join him in setting things right, of helping the world around us in both small and big ways begin to look the way it is supposed to be. In Revelation 21 (3b-5a NASB), God gives us a glimpse of the day he will bring his dream to pass. It says, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” The dream of God is a dream to make all things new! God could, in fact, make the dream come alive instantly but as we will see, this wouldn’t be good for everyone. The dream of God is not only of another world of beauty, order and joy. It is also a world of severe consequences, particularly for those who have put their faith and trust in a world that is incompatible with God’s dream. God will make all things new and this is not good news for all. The first thing we need to realize, however, is that there is a dream behind our dream, a longing behind all our aspirations that we seldom can put our fingers on.
Our dream is a dream that is beyond justice-one that is rooted in another place. Our soul remembers this place because we’ve been made in the image of God. The dream of our heart is anchored in the eternal dream of God. This is what is beyond justice. When adjusted for population, there are more slaves living at this moment in history than at any other time, more than were trafficked cumulatively over the four centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Millions of people live a life of horror, of degradation, of hopelessness and despair. Such things should not be. The reality of suffering and injustice causes most people to experience what the Bible calls “holy indignation,” or anger. Indignation is that “strong displeasure at something considered unjust, it is righteous anger.” There is something holy about righteous indignation-it brings out the best in humanity. Emerson wrote, “A good indignation brings out all one’s powers.” If you are like most people, as you see the suffering and injustices of the world around you, you long to do something, to be an agent of transformation. Kevin Jenkins, President of World Vision International expresses this holy indignation this way, “We don’t accept that any child should have to go to bed hungry. We don’t believe that mothers should watch their children get sick and have no way to help them. We don’t believe that fathers should work 16 hours a day and still not be able to provide for their children. We don’t believe teachers should give lessons to children who have no textbooks, paper or pens. We don’t believe governments and rebels should recruit youths to kill, or that girls should be bought and sold, or that parents must sell their children to pay their debts… There is a righteous anger at the heart of World Vision. But at the same time, we overflow with love for all those with whom we are called to serve.” Indignation causes us to reach for the dream, to band together across racial lines, across economic lines, across religious lines to do something greater, something that none of us could possibly do alone-to reach for the dream. The realities of injustice and suffering cause a deep sense of dissonance and rage within us and this rage at the injustices and suffering of others is a demonstration that we are made in the image of God. The commodification of people is as old a practice as civilization itself but in the dream of God, God Himself will reverse this in what the Bible calls the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is a reality where the deepest longings of our hearts for justice and abundance are fulfilled because God will be in control instead of corrupt governments, greedy corporations, or broken systems of law.
The Kingdom of God is the Dream of God and it is this Dream where we find our hearts wandering. It is in this dream where we can feel the density of the air flow between our fingers and the green grass beneath our feet. Throughout the Bible, God gives us glimpses, small snapshots of a world that that can barely be imagined given the world we live in today. In Revelation 18, God gives us a horrific glimpse of the judgment that will come to those who exploit the poor, the world’s resources, and those who traffic in human beings. In Rev. 18, we read about the future destruction of a city of sin, where people make millions from the exploitation of the poor. The city is referred to as Babylon, but it represents for us every city where evil is allowed to flourish. Listen to the words of Rev. 18:11 (Message), “”The kings of the earth will see the smoke of her burning, and they’ll cry and carry on, the kings who went night after night to her brothel. They’ll keep their distance for fear they’ll get burned, and they’ll cry their lament: Doom, doom, the great city doomed! City of Babylon, strong city! In one hour it’s over, your judgment come! “The traders will cry and carry on because the bottom dropped out of business, no more market for their goods: gold, silver, precious gems, pearls; fabrics of fine linen, purple, silk, scarlet; perfumed wood and vessels of ivory, precious woods, bronze, iron, and marble; cinnamon and spice, incense, myrrh, and frankincense; wine and oil, flour and wheat; cattle, sheep, horses, and chariots. And slaves—their terrible traffic in human lives. Everything you’ve lived for, gone! All delicate and delectable luxury, lost! Not a scrap, not a thread to be found!” In the dream of God, we see the great anger and wrath of God, we see divine holy indignation in action. Many people have a hard time with a God portrayed as vengeful, who would bring destruction to people and places, who would judge the world, after all, isn’t God supposed to be loving? When we consider that men will fly across seas to commodify young boys and girls, that daily there are those who will pay to rape a child, when we see the expression of absolute evil in our world, the question shouldn’t be, “How can God punish the world,” but rather, “How can God not punish the world.” God is loving and His dream is rooted in joy and freedom but God is also holy, He is pure and it would be a nightmare, not a dream, for the world to continue as it is today without a course correction. According to the U.S. Department of State, an estimated 50 percent of all trafficking victims are children under the age of 18. Every year 1.2 million children are trafficked for child labor; another 1 million are trafficked for sexual exploitation. Every day, millions of children live the nightmare, not the dream. God hates injustices and He cares deeply for the hurting and the poor-this is what authentic religion is all about. Our world needs a course correction, we need God to bring an end to suffering and injustice, to bring the Kingdom of God, His great dream, to pass-this is why our dream is a dream beyond mere justice.
The Course of History
The things that cause us anger do so because we are made in the image of God and in the dream of God, God will make all things right. All of history is heading toward this cosmic collision, a day where God will judge evil and bring an end to injustices and suffering. In Rev. 11:15b-18 (NASB), we read of this day of judgment, “and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever.” And the twenty-four elders, who sit on their thrones before God, fell on their faces and worshiped God, saying, “We give You thanks, O Lord God, the Almighty, who are and who were, because You have taken Your great power and have begun to reign. And the nations were enraged, and Your wrath came, and the time came for the dead to be judged, and the time to reward Your bond-servants the prophets and the saints and those who fear Your name, the small and the great, and to destroy those who destroy the earth.”” All history is heading toward a cosmic collision, a time of great punishment and wrath against the actors of evil-those who enjoy victimizing the poor, who enslave the weak, exploiting the world’s resources, while indulging in every luxury known to mankind.
Beyond Justice: Biblical Foundation for Mission and Justice Part 2 of 2
Beyond Justice, parts 1 and 2 were written by R. York Moore and are the full, non-filmed manuscripts for the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA and World Vision ACT:S campaign project, “Beyond Justice,” or “Get ACT:IVE” campaign.
Our Dream is Realized Through Jesus Christ
Before we begin to think that the dream of God is some far off, ethereal idea, I want to say that God’s dream is coming to pass right now, all over the world-particularly in some of the most dire situations. The Kingdom of God is not merely a place and a time in the future. The Kingdom of God is showing up and transforming our world. The Kingdom of God begins with the good news of Jesus Christ. All history is heading toward the day when Jesus Christ will reign, where he will set all things right but the good news of Jesus is that it has already begun. Jesus declared the Kingdom of God a present reality in his first public address in Luke 4 (NASB) where he said, “THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED, TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD.” From this point forward in history, the Kingdom of God has been advancing toward God’s dream with the power of the present Christ. Notice Jesus’ emphasis on the poor, on those in bondage, the sick, and the oppressed. Justice is God’s heartbeat and the Kingdom of God revolves around making all things right, particularly for those who suffer. When Jesus told his followers to go and preach to the cities of his day, he told them to heal the sick and to announce, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” (Luke 10:9, NASB). God’s Kingdom dream has always revolved around good news to those who need it most-this is the mission of the followers of Jesus, to announce the good news of the Kingdom of God and to invite the nations to join in the dream! The Kingdom of God is a reality that is now, not just a future reality. Because of what Jesus Christ has done, the dream of God is breaking into our world, reversing injustices, freeing slaves, healing the sick and restoring hope. Isn’t that exciting!?!? What’s more is that Jesus invites us to be actors in bringing the Kingdom of God to bear upon the broken and unjust places of our world. This is the best way to think about what it means to be an activist. We live in an age where we long for change; we are more knowledgeable than ever about the plight of those who suffer. We want to change the world.
Change We Can Believe In
In our faith communities, the concept of a ‘justice activist’ is taking hold as Christians begin to realize the centrality of justice in the teachings of Jesus. Being inspired by the dream of God of a better world is fueling new expressions of Christian faith and a generation of ‘justice activists’ are rising up to take the gospel to the poor, the message of freedom to those enslaved, healing to the sick, and the message of forgiveness in Jesus Christ. Being an activist whose vision is rooted in the person of Jesus Christ and whose hope is the coming Kingdom of God is sustainable activism that bares consistent, long-term good. We all want change we can believe in and in Jesus Christ we find it. The dream of God is ultimately realized only through the person of Jesus Christ. When we think of an 8 year old who has been sold by her mother in Myanmar to an international sex tourist for $200 or a father who would sell his son as a bonded laborer in India to bake bricks, we see what kind of evil we are up against. Ultimately, injustices always trace back to a spiritual brokenness, a soul sickness. In the state of Ohio alone in 2010, there was an estimated 1,000 U.S. born children, most under the age of 15, sold as forced prostitutes. We can legislate against such realities, prosecute those who traffic in the flesh of children, and build after-care facilities for victims but without addressing the hunger that would give rise to such a rape of humanity, we are failing to be holistic in our approach to evil. Real evil exists in our hearts and in the world around us and that is something that requires real spiritual power to address. This is why we need the power that only comes through the person of Jesus Christ. In the life and death of Jesus we hear the echoes of another world, a world where couples stroll, laughter flourishes, and the streets hum with music.
The Dream Making Work of Christ
When Jesus died on the cross, he dealt once and for all with the evil in the world out there and the world in here. As Jesus hung on the cross, his death paid the full price for all the things that we’ve done, all the things that we’ve left undone that are incompatible with the dream of God. We are not just victims in this world or neutral observers of the world’s suffering-we have all contributed to the wreckage of the world in many ways. Jesus’ death on the cross enables us to begin again and to experience God’s forgiveness. The Bible also tells us that Jesus, three days after his death, returned to life-he was raised from the dead. And it’s this power that raised Jesus from the dead that is available to us today. The spiritual life we find in the person of Jesus is given to us who would follow Jesus as Kingdom activists, proclaiming and demonstrating the Kingdom of God to the world around us. This is how the dream of God advances, as God’s activists, Jesus’ followers, take the power of God and apply it to those places that are broken, to people who are suffering, and to our own lives as well. Divine history is going somewhere. All that God is doing is pointing to another time and place, it is culminating in the grand dream of God. In contrast, human history can be summarized in its totality as the dialectic rise and fall between our pursuit of the dream we remember and its vicious counterpart, the nightmare of injustice and suffering.
The Dream Becomes Reality
What does God’s dream look like in its fullness? What picture does Jesus give us of this coming Kingdom? In the book of Revelation, we get a vivid snapshot of the dream of God fulfilled. We are introduced to a city unlike any city we’ve ever seen or read about. American cinema and literature have done us a disservice by giving us images of Heaven as a place where we’ll lounge partially nude on clouds, feeding from clusters of grapes while eternally honing our harp playing skills. But the dream of God revolves around a city, a unique city where infrastructure and agriculture are intertwined; a city where beauty and order coincide with population density and activity; a city of purpose and pleasure. This city that we read about stands in diametrical opposition to the city of Babylon we read of earlier. It is the city that is the antithesis of every broken and exploitative system in our cities today. Listen to the picture that has long fueled those who follow Jesus to reach for the dream. In Rev. 21 and 22 we read this description: (Rev. 21:21-27, The Message), “The main street of the City was pure gold, translucent as glass. But there was no sign of a Temple, for the Lord God—the Sovereign-Strong—and the Lamb are the Temple. The City doesn’t need sun or moon for light. God’s Glory is its light, the Lamb its lamp! The nations will walk in its light and earth’s kings bring in their splendor. Its gates will never be shut by day, and there won’t be any night. They’ll bring the glory and honor of the nations into the City. Nothing dirty or defiled will get into the City, and no one who defiles or deceives. Only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life will get in.” (Rev. 22:1-3a, Message) “Then the Angel showed me Water-of-Life River, crystal bright. It flowed from the Throne of God and the Lamb, right down the middle of the street. The Tree of Life was planted on each side of the River, producing twelve kinds of fruit, a ripe fruit each month. The leaves of the Tree are for healing the nations. Never again will anything be cursed.” In this city of hope we see a river of life, a tree of healing-abundance and restoration. God’s dream is a dream beyond justice though it includes the judgment necessary to establish it. Notice in this description that nothing dirty or defiled will get into the city-it is a holy place. God’s dream goes beyond holiness, beyond justice, God’s dream is a dream of flourishing. Like many cities, the city of Detroit even at the height of its grandeur held only a shadowy resemblance of the city of God. Detroit was never the final destination of slaves-they dreamt of something better, it was the dream behind their dream that fueled their journey. At best, this city or any of the other cities of this world are mere symbols of a dream that lives in our hearts because our souls remember. Malan, New York, Vancouver, Beijing, Buenos Aires, Dubai-all these and many other great cities hold aspects that are alluring to us. Beauty, transcendence, natural treasures, the arts, fashion, abundant resources, power-all these things in some way are attractive to us because our soul remembers. In the dream of God realized through the person of Jesus Christ, we see the culmination of divine history in this city of God.
Our Dream is an Invitation to the Dream of God
“All my life I been called a slave. They tell me I belongs to my master. That may be true about my body, but my soul remembers a time when I was free, so when I get a chance I will run.” What does it mean to respond to the dream, the world we remember? I believe this unknown slave has the right answer-we run! The dream God has put in our hearts is really an invitation, an invitation to pursue something greater than ourselves, greater than the façade around us-it is an invitation to run toward the dream. Feeling the dense air flow between our fingers, to see the sights and sounds of life the way it ought to be, and to hear the sounds of a world made right-this is what we can experience when we choose to run. How do we make the dream a reality? How do we respond to the dream God has for the world and each of our lives? How do we sustain our commitment to actualize God’s dream for justice. These are the questions we will explore together. When we choose to run, we reorient our lives. When someone chooses to run a marathon, they set goals, they practice and train, they endure strict regiments. When we choose to run after the dream of God, we choose to follow Jesus who sets the pace and the direction for the dream. We learn from him and submit to his way of thinking and doing. As a result, we begin by living a more active faith – by seeing our lives differently and joining a purpose bigger than ourselves. The reality is that whether or not you’ve noticed it, Jesus is already setting the pace and giving your life direction. The passion and drive we have, the joy we find in life are usually indicators of where the Kingdom of God is touching your soul. What dream has God placed on your heart? It might be tutoring children living in poverty in your own backyard, helping to right the wrong of modern-day slavery, helping end a preventable disease like malaria in your life-time, or something else that God has uniquely placed on your heart. Where do you see this other world tearing at the fiber of your soul?
The invitation that God is making to you now is an invitation to be more like Jesus and to pursue a world that is more like God’s Kingdom than the world of pain, suffering and injustice. Pursuing this world requires condition. Just like a runner will condition their body in pursuit of a goal, God invites us to condition our heart. God wants us to begin to see the way he sees and care about the things he cares about. The founder of World Vision, Bob Pierce, used to pray a prayer that is now famous the world over, “Let me heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.” Conditioning our heart to reflect the heart of God requires us to connect deeply with Jesus Christ. Through prayer, reading the Bible, and seeing what is going on in our world we can begin to develop a heart like God. Our souls remember so we will run. The great news is that the run Jesus invites us to is not a solitary one-he invites us to do it together. Moving beyond justice requires a movement. We can only do so much on our own to change our soul or to change our society and so God’s dream is to be pursued in community. God’s dream is about both individual transformation and global restoration – and it requires each of us to do our part and all of us to do our part together. It’s not enough to simply live a more active faith individually; we must share God’s heart for the world with others and invite them to run with us.
There is something beyond justice and its joy. There is a place our soul calls out for, another place that our soul remembers. Our response to God’s invitation begins when we imagine what could be-a life together of joy, of endless summer nights-peace, safety, security- and most of all togetherness. God longs to restore the world and that will come to pass in a final way one day but today, he invites us to run with him in bringing the Kingdom of God to our world today. Our response to God’s invitation is to run, to run toward this place of magic, to breathe in and dream with God and to join him in making all things new.
God’s Greater Eschatological Vision: Platform Message Delivered at Orlando 2011
It was a mystical moment with sloshy streets and ice ruts guiding our car that Sunday morning. The sun was fresh, hitting the slosh, making steam rise all around us like a fog machine in a movie! We left early from the abandoned building we were living in and were on our way to something called “church,” a thing I had never heard of in all my 10 years as my Atheist parents meticulously hid all signs of God and religion. We had hit bottom, however, and this thing called “church” had recently provided financial assistance, food, clothes and were working to get us off the streets so my Mom said, “We are going to ‘church.’” Our car careened off the ice slots and bumped onto the curb as we piled out of our rickety car-what a site we must have been to those White people! I ran right up to the front door with all my wild hair, buckled shoes with no socks, and obvious lack of Sunday morning etiquette but I had to see this thing called ‘church.’
I stood with my back to the cold foggy world behind me and my face toward the strange world of pews and pulpit. The scene inside this little building was as mystical as the foggy snow outside. People stood side by side singing except it was like no kind of singing I’d ever heard! These strange people sang with a twang but their song had a mystical pull on me. Though I would not return to church again for nearly 10 years, I would remember this first encounter- I would replay the song, recall the people’s faces for years to come. Only years later, after I met Jesus Christ for myself as a an Atheist philosophy student at the University of Michigan would I fully realize what a ‘church’ was, or why White Southern Baptists would help Black kids with no socks and wild hair from Detroit. Only years later would I rediscover the song these kind people sang with a twang: “Would you be whiter, much whiter than snow? There’s pow’r in the blood, pow’r in the blood; Sin-stains are lost in its life-giving flow; There’s wonderful pow’r in the blood.”
I stand here today because I was introduced to a mystical world called the church, a magical power called the gospel, and a Majestic person named Jesus Christ! The Church’s message is of a new world and the power to live into that world through the name of Jesus Christ! Too often, our evangelism focuses merely on the individual and her need for the forgiveness of sins and salvation from hell. As an evangelist, I want to make it clear that this core element of the gospel is indispensible but it is not all there is to our proclamation. As I stood small in the middle of two worlds that day I needed a Jesus who could both save me from the hell I was in as well as the hell to come. With an open door to my back that day, the cold damp world of fatherlessness, of poverty, and of drugs stood in diametrical opposition to the mystical world those people sang about and preached. May I say to you that the Jesus we serve through the same nexus moment of the cross and resurrection is able to save to the uttermost!?!? May I say to you that we serve a Jesus who doesn’t need to choose whether or not to save a boy from the despair of this world or the damnation of the world to come? There is power in the blood!
The American Church is in need of a larger eschatology because a larger, more holistic eschatology inspires us, it free us to practice a more Biblical, holistic, integrated evangelization. The word eschaton means ‘last things,’ but our evangelical heritage has placed the emphasis on the wrong set of last things. We believe in the future personal return of Jesus Christ, the judgment of the living and the dead, the Lake of Fire, but also the re-creation of the world and the eternal blessing of the nations. Our heritage has placed its fare too much emphasis on the former set of realities to the expense of the latter. Neo-evangelicals in their pursuit for Kingdom integration and cultural relevance have begun to deny the great eschatological realities of hell and judgment and to preach a gospel with no need of the cross. This will ultimately rob the gospel of its purpose and lead to nothing more than another iteration of cultural Christianity. While this is true, the long history of our evangelical heritage placed too much emphasis on the wrath of God and far too little on the wonder working power of God to re-create the nations-to transform not only soul, but society as well. Our story doesn’t end with crucifixion, but resurrection. Our hope is not in the destruction of the world but in its re-creation. The work of evangelization is the work of bringing echoes of a mystical world to come, because there is wonder working power!
Throughout John’s vision of the eschaton in Revelation, there are still nations, there are still cities-not separated by oceans but filled with life. Trees and rivers, lakes and mountains-the new world is not some sci-fi visage of an altogether different universe (Gr: heteros). An eschatology that emphasizes life and renewal leads us to practice a more holistic evangelization of restoration and shalom.
A larger eschatology also inspires innovative and effectual evangelization. It inspires us and frees us to integrate, not dichotomize, the proclamation of the Gospel and the practice of the Kingdom. For the last 10 years, I’ve worked as a justice evangelist, an evangelist and abolitionist to bring political, business, medical, and legal leaders together with the Church and academic institutions to address the commercial sexual exploitation of children and to help people meet Jesus through the lens of justice. My calling to this integrative work of justice evangelism came in the midst InterVarsity’s global missions conference, Urbana 2000, after hearing Gary Haugen of the International Justice Mission speak. I’ve had the privilege of giving the evangelistic message and call to faith for the past two Urbana conferences where hundreds have come to faith as they heard the gospel through the lens of justice, particularly the fight to end modern day slavery.
I’ve also worked to develop justiceinvitationals which are week-long campus campaigns around justice issues where the gospel can be preached in a new light. Through these campaigns, not only has the Church been mobilized for justice but the nominally churched, the non-church, and the anti-churched have heavily participated in Kingdom work while encountering the person of Christ! In the last campaign at the Ohio State University, we had both a substantive engagement of the issue of the commercial sexual exploitation of children as well as a true and effectual proclamation of the gospel.
Throughout the campaign, we empowered front-line non-profits like World Vision, the Not for Sale Campaign, Hagar International and the International Justice Mission! We raised money, a house, mobilized thousands to advocate politically for the Child Compact Act, educated over 20,000 citizens about modern-day slavery, and helped state lawmakers pass State Senate Bill 235 which will bring Ohio from the child prostitution capital of the United States to one of the states with the toughest anti-trafficking legislation. Because the Gospel of Jesus Christ was clearly proclaimed during this campaign, over 300 students repented of their sin and came to faith in Christ. This is what the gospel can do because there is power in the blood!
For the lost, when we give this generation a vision of God’s future Kingdom, of His wonder working re-creative power, it both inspires Kingdom engagement as well as repentance from sin. For the Church, a larger eschatology re-shapes our limited understanding of global evangelization, it inspires innovation as we partner with God to re-create the world around us! We don’t serve an either or Jesus-he wants it all-not just souls but society, not just the future, but the present, not just Heaven but Earth-He will not stop until “…The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ…” In God’s great eschatological vision the work of evangelization is to live into both of these realities simultaneously-not to do evangelism at the expense of the Kingdom and not to pursue the Kingdom with no care for the eternal state of the soul! Biblical, effectual, innovative, and integrated evangelization is a both/and, it is to to ping echoes of a mystic world, a magic that can transform the soul and transform society, and introduce those who are damned in this world and the world to come to the Majestic One-Jesus Christ!
The Building is On Fire: Our Responsibility to Soul & Society
The message of the gospel is the power that can change a world-the worlds within worlds multiplied billions of times over throughout the globe! The gospel can change the world of every person who would respond to its power. The gospel changes the world of individual people, transforming them from the inside out. The gospel is the good news of the death, resurrection, and Lordship of Jesus and is good because we stand already condemned before a holy God with the death sentence already handed out to humanity! In the gospel we see God’s glorious grace, his strong desire not for mere reform but for renewal. In the gospel we see God’s power to literally make us right and to restore our lost state of grandeur.
In the gospel, however, we also see the power that can change the world, the entire system that has crashed and merely wobbles about simulating the world intended for us by God. There is little debate that the world we live in is not the world God intended for us. There are wars in this world, enduring poverty too. There is debasing addictions along with the oppression of women and children. In this world, people die of preventable diseases by the hundreds of thousands all the time. This world seems to offer so little purpose, so little hope that even when we have plenty we still throw away our families for cheap thrills, our abilities and gifts for mere consumption and our dignity to feel connected to another person, if even for a moment. Our world is damaged and no quick fix, no political party or reform, no amount of money or determination will fix it. What we need is a supernatural, superspiritual, supra-human, extra-dimensional solution of power and the great news is that we have such power in the person of Jesus Christ! Yes, Jesus is able to save our world, but He is also able to save the world!
If it is true, that we have the power to change the world, than what do we do with it? What would you do if you could carry around with you, in your jacket or purse, a device so powerful that if it were unleashed it would literally impact everything and anything around you? Would you release it? Probably not if it were a nuclear device, an incurable virus, or a poisonous gas but what if it were an unstoppable force of hope, a contagion of love, or an enveloping power for restoration? Where would you first introduce such a power? As Christians, we do have such a power, the power to change the world! Unfortunately, most of the time, we leave it in our purse, our desk drawer, glove box, or cached on our disk drives, making sure that it changes nothing and nobody around us. Often, this power has been cemented like a memorial to a time gone by, a faith tradition that used to impact communities, countries, and continents. We have the power to change the world and we need to use it, but where and how?
Recently, I was asked by two students in two separate conversations about how to discern God’s call and how to invest themselves in God’s broad world and Kingdom. I shared with them that there are some things God calls all of us to. “It is God’s will for everyone to be evangelized,” I said, “so you are always safe including personal witness as God’s will for your life.” I said, “God wants us all to always pursue knowing Him so I’m pretty sure you should do that too.” In both conversations, however, they specifically wanted to know about the vast universe of things Christians are doing, “What about AIDS orphans, and clean drinking water for the poor, and sex slaves, and Scripture translation, and Muslims and Hindus, and unreached people groups, and…and…and….” The students felt overwhelmed by both the responsibility of the power entrusted to them as well as the vast needs and ways to use that power in the world. I think we can all sympathize with being in this place at one point or another.
I continued, “One way to look at it is as if the world were a high-rise apartment complex and we live on one of the floors. Let’s say there was a fire on one of the floors. Now, if the fire were in apartment 14B and everyone got out, it might be the Christian thing perhaps to send money or a nice card to express care for the material loss of the tenants in that unit.” I continued, “However, let’s say there was a raging fire on the top floor and the lives of many were at stake. In this case, rescuing them might require special abilities and gifts, not the least of which would include bravery and physical strength-in reality only some people would be helpful in rescuing people on the top floor of the burning building.” I ended by saying, “Now, if there were a raging fire on the first floor, threatening to spread upward to consume each and every floor, every apartment, every life-certainly you would say that we would all be called to do something for ourselves and our neighbors in the building, right?” Both students agreed. I brought the illustration to a close by pointing out, “…some fires in our world are apartment 14B fires. 14B fires matter to God and they should matter to us but our response shouldn’t be to rush in and risk our lives to rescue the material possessions being consumed-it is good enough that the people got out and will live to rebuild their lives. We can and should share our love and concern with people during their time of loss.” Continuing, “Some fires threaten a great many people and require a concerted and passionate response requiring special gifts and bravery. God equips many to respond to these needs even though in doing so they themselves may perish. Such people are heroes to us, people of whom the world is not worthy but we are not all such people-God chooses those heroes.” Finally, “There are many issues we as Christians face, however, that are like the fire raging on the first floor of the building, fires that if left unchecked would simply consume all of humanity. These fires are complex and often reflect not one gigantic blaze but rather a series of smaller interrelated fires. These fires,” I said, “require all of us, no matter what our calling or gifting is, to respond with everything we’ve got.”
It is true that our world is in shambles and there is no end to the need before us, both temporally as well as eschatologically. Each and every person is lost and everywhere we look the impact of that reality is felt. The fact that those without Christ are dying and on their way to hell is a first floor fire. No matter what we do for people temporally, unless we also share the message that can change their world, they will perish and the eternal suffering they will endure will make all suffering in this world pale by comparison. I believe the interrelatedness of modern-day slavery, aggressive secularization, the simultaneous rise of global poverty and the super-rich, the dehumanization of women and children, and mass deaths as a result of preventable/curable diseases are examples of more first floor fires. We are not given a choice by God whether to address first floor fires of the soul or first floor fires of the material world, the Church is called to them all. We must care about all suffering, whether temporal or eschatological. It is not my place to determine what are 14B or top floor fires, and people that have particular calls to such ministries that focus on these fires would not find my opinions on the matter helpful or empowering. It is clear, however, that we all must contribute what bravery, what super powers, what faith we have to doing all we can to put out the blaze that threatens to consume the soul and consume society. Again, the great news is that we have such power, the power to change a world and the power to change the world. The question is will we use it?
The Role of Wonder in Witness
Twenty years ago when I began my journey from Atheism to faith in Christ, nearly all conversations about God included debate or at least a discussion of evidences for the rational foundation for faith. American cultural postmodernism has altered the way most younger people view the role of debate and discussion. While Christians need to be “bi-lingual,” speaking both the new language of postmodernity while still able to defend the faith with traditional dialogical processes, when it comes to postmodern witness, a new emphasis on wonder is needed.
In the past such words as “mystery, wonder, the unknown, and awe” immediately raised red flags for hearers. Such concepts were seen as holes or limits on one’s ability to demonstrate the rationality of propositional claims. Subjective experiences that express mystery and wonder today are not only welcome elements of Christian witness but are now often seen as evidence for the personal relevancy of faith to our hearers.
True wonder, or the state in which a person is filled with a sense of awe, comes from experiences with the Divine, albeit an inescapably subjective experience. In fact, it is this articulation of wonder and its associated outward expressions (e.g. fear, immobilization, spontaneous worship, brokenness, demonstrative repentance…) that mark the unique experiences of women and men throughout the Scripture when confronted with the Divine. Two great examples of this come from Mark 5 in the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac and the resurrection of Jairus’ daughter.
Our experience of God may not always be as acute as our mountain top or defining encounters with God but true Christians should be marked as people of wonder for we relate to God in an on-going fashion. Our relationship with God should go beyond rituals such as prayer, Bible study, and fasting and should include actual encounters with the Divine. This is the one universal thread that draws the Biblical narrative together across characters from Genesis to Revelation. This should come as no surprise since God is in the business of encountering His creation. Such encounters are inherently “alien” and produce the kind of reactions we see in the Biblical narrative (again, fear, flight, spontaneous worship…). While it is true that we are God’s offspring, He is our Father, there is something so terrifying about the Divine presence that we are left with few voluntary, rational responses in the immediate moment.
When it comes to relating our understanding of and encounters with God to others, there is great value in our transparency in this area. In fact, the current cultural milieu is so desperate to mystically connect with the Divine, the hunger to hear such encounters amongst crowds and individuals is palpable. While this opens the door to all kinds of deceptions and potential manipulations, authentic wonder and delight in mystery within the Christian faith is an asset, not a liability. Seeking to root our experiences and the interpretation of such experiences in Scripture cannot be overstated but such authentic, transformative encounters with God are not confined to Scripture reading. We cannot manufacture such experiences but hope and wait for God to ‘condescend’ and connect with our hungering hearts.
Whether through film, television, music, or on-line and platform gaming, pop culture is riddled with illustrations of a desperate generation trying to manufacture encounters with the Divine. Such attempts to connect with God through the mundane and even through debauched behavior illustrates just how hungry this ’mystic generation’ really is. Christians ought to have much to say in this area. We have authentic, transformative encounters with a God who is intimate with us and longs to love us. We have the means (community, prayer, fasting, Bible study, worship…) to make ourselves available to God and thus encounter the Divine.
Whether through re-telling and applying testimonial encounters to others or inviting others into Christian disciplines and practices where encountering God is likely, evangelism today needs to include much more emphasis on wonder. Apologetically, when it comes to sharing Jesus relevantly with postmoderns, we need not run from or hide the fact that our faith, while an historic faith first, is also a faith of mystery. Unlike the pagan mystical religions of Jesus’ day, our faith is a faith in an historic person, which makes authentic mystery possible! We leave room for and appreciate wonder and mystery simply because of God, while familiar, is also the awful God of dread, alien, and full of wonder.
The culture at large appreciates wonder and mystery as can be seen in the hit television show, “Lost” or the console game, “God of War.” Within the often avoided grotesqueries and debauched expressions of American culture is a deep soul cry for the transcendent and we connect with such a cry through the story of the cross, the resurrection and with our on-going story. In the past, classical composers, expressionist painters, and gritty philosophers expressed this soul cry but today it is the film maker, the poet/singer, the manipulator of pixels and sprites, and those who clamor to consume such shadowy expressions of another world. While such value is not universal and may be unique to the N. American cultural context, it is nonetheless real and represents a real open door for the brave new world of evangelism.
Adding to Their Number: The problem of counting decisions
Evangelism has always been an inexact science to say the least. How to count who made what kind of decision to which kind of call is a difficult issue. Often, critics of proclamation evangelism use this difficulty as a basis to discredit evangelistic preaching or other forms of public evangelism. Others insist on standards for counting that are too strict, standards that are not modeled for us anywhere in Scripture. Still others give up altogether and do not try to assess decisions for faith, leaving it up to “the Spirit.” All of these mistakes are intensified by the ambiguity of the definition of “decision.” What is a decision for Christ? How does “decision” differ from “conversion?” Can we have any certitude in either a person’s decision or their conversion this side of Heaven? How do we count, celebrate, follow up, and shape a decision maker’s profession of faith? These are all live and legitimate questions.
The first post-resurrection evangelistic sermon was preached by Peter in Acts 2. A stirring message in itself, the end of the message and subsequent message commentary give us some initial footing in addressing the counting/decision/conversion issue. In Acts 2:40-41 we read, “With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation. Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” A few observations are helpful to us struggling with the messiness of evangelism today.
First, the count: The count was 3,000 added to their number that day. The text does not say 3,000 people were converted or that their names were written in the lamb’s book of life or that they were saved-simply that they were added to “their number.” The text also doesn’t say that the 3,000 were first verified as legitimate or there was an assessment period to see if their decisions bore fruit. What does the phrase “added to their number” actually mean? Prior to this message, in chapter one, the female disciples along with the 11 apostles were together with a larger group-all totaling around 120 “Jesus followers.” What is interesting is the repetition of the phrase “was added” and the emphasis in chapters 1 and 2 on numbering. Numbering appears in 1:13,14,15,17,21,26 and 2:39,41,47. In 2:47, the Lord “added to their number” and then the phrase appears “those who were being saved.” It would appear that the way in which the counting of the 3,000 and those “added” daily who were being saved is used in the same manner. Luke throughout Acts records numbers of people who are “added” to the community of the “saved” in a way that may be bothersome to many today. Luke records the “add” as the total number of those being “saved.” How can he be so sure? What about those who turn their back on Christ and the Way? To be sure, this happened all the time and of those being added daily or of the 3,000 added after the first evangelistic message, we can be almost certain that some of them eventually rejected their decision.
Second, the warning: The second important observation in the text is the fact that Peter warns the crowd to “save themselves from this corrupt generation.” The evangelistic call had a sense of urgency, of drastic separation from an already condemned generation of which the hearers were a part. He did not try to give an assurance of salvation or calm the fears of those perishing, he sternly warned them to save themselves. Obviously, Peter did not mean that they, in and of themselves, could literally save themselves, but in the context of his larger message, the call to repent and place faith in Christ’s finished work was the means by which they would be saved. His warning demonstrates what we are calling people to and what we are calling them away from. We are calling them to change allegiances, to recognize sin, to leave their identity and become a part of Christ’s new community of repentant and faith-filled believers (the grand picture of which is provided for us at the end of Acts 2). This is important in what we count. Often, counting decisions gets corrupted because the call to Christ is not clear. This is where legitimate criticism can be aimed at much evangelistic preaching as often the call is so ambiguous, so watered down that we cannot be sure what people have responded to. In such cases, we are almost always left to allow the respondent to self-assess what happened before we count. This was not the case in Peter’s message. He called for repentance, people demonstrated their response by coming forward to be baptized and the community took at face value the legitimacy of all 3,000 who came forward. There was not a re-assessment after the follow-up team had meetings with the 3,000, there was an immediate celebration and recognition of full membership in the “they” Luke refers to as the entire community of faith throughout chapters one and two. The warning, however, places the burden on the decision maker. Peter’s instruction is in the present tense and throughout the epistles, the warning to “be” saved, or walk according to the grace given us remains a source of challenge for all who follow Christ to re-examine continuously our allegiance to Him.
Third, the baptism: Water baptism is so much more than a mere physical indication of a person’s inner decision but it is at least that here in the text. In my evangelistic preaching I’ve used various physical mechanisms to give the decision maker an opportunity to visibly demonstrate her faith. Whether they’ve been items like glow sticks, water, sand, fire, marbles, free-standing doors, coloring on walls, receiving an empty glass to be filled, or simply coming forward, securing some visible and often external item to express faith is important. It is important for two reasons. A visible appropriation of faith (see my larger article on “Re-Thinking Alter Calls” at www.tellthestory.net) allows us to see who and how many people have responded to the call to repent. Second, a visible appropriation of faith is a powerful experiential component to an otherwise personal and inner experience. It would appear from Scripture that there was almost always some visible way, whether miraculous or through human volition, for decision makers to be counted as “added to their numbers.” Water baptism in this passage served this function, though it was certainly not limited to a mere visible appropriation of faith.
Let’s get practical:
There are a number of different “decisions” that can be made when the call to repent is clear. They include:
•First Time Decisions: A decision by an obvious or self proclaimed non-Christian to follow Christ or a “nominal/cultural Christian’s” decision to become a true Christ-follower.
•Rededicated Decision: A decision to re-affirm one’s salvific faith, to repent of patterns of sin, and re-commit to following Christ as Lord.
•Journey Engagement Decision: Often confused as a salvific decision, people will often respond to a call to repent but not intend to give their lives to Christ as Lord. Such decisions often mark a pivotal point in a faith journey but are short of full trust in Christ.
•The Confused/Unintentional/Insincere Decision: Almost without exception, some will respond to a call to repent because they misunderstood what was being asked of them (no matter how clear the call was) or; they did not intend to respond but were interpreted as doing so or; their response was intentionally insincere. The insincere decision maker responds for all kinds of strange reasons-“I wanted a glow stick,” “I wanted to see what the stage looked like,” “I wanted my picture taken with you,” “I didn’t want you to look bad when nobody came,” “I just wanted to lead the way for others.” These and many other reasons I’ve heard over 20 years of evangelistic preaching.
Let’s make some observations about each of these decision makers. The first time decision makers are more obvious and readily accepted for “the count” when they are known or self identifying non-Christians but the count gets messier when a worship leader stands, or an elder or clergy member or life-long church member. Often, event organizers immediately conclude that such respondents are confused/unintentional/insincere decision makers. However, frequently these are nominal/cultural Christians who are authentically making a first time decision. Whether we refer to these as Lordship decisions or 1st time decisions really is immaterial, the decision maker in this category through her response has chosen to “save herself” and she should be counted as being “added” unless there is clear evidence to the contrary.
A “nominal Christian” is a Christian in name only, not in fact. Because of this, a Lordship decision of this type is really a 1st time decision because the nominal/cultural Christian has never been converted, merely religious. Socialized Christians are not converted though they often appear so through their habits and interest in Christian community. They often find themselves serving in leadership roles because they know the culture and language of community but have never repented of sin and placed their trust in Christ. Using this definition gives us permission to include in the count people who have experienced a “spiritual awakening” or “adult decision” and who now consciously follow Christ.
This definition is admittedly very broad; however I think there are 3 reasons why this broad definition for counting is indeed appropriate.
1) The lack of gospel clarity in the church: Many churches in America do not preach the true gospel message or do so unclearly. Also, they rarely call people to faith. Thus, many people who think they are making a recommitment to faith are in fact responding to the gospel for the first time or are making their profession public for the first time. In either case, we should include them in our “count.”
2) The lack of Biblical literacy outside the church: Most people lack the conceptual framework and language for explaining what is spiritually going on inside them. They cannot articulate often what kind of decision they are making are what the implications are when they do so. Again, the precedent in Scripture is to count all responders at face value, to celebrate them and begin enfolding them into community. The rule of thumb should be we count unless there is extant evidence not to do so (admission of confusion, unrepentant life-styles of sin…).
3) Decisions are measurable, conversions are not: Even though we are often still using conversion language (saved, converted, new Christian), we can never truly know whether a person has been saved. We are left with merely the visible representation of people’s decisions and the subsequent spiritual fruit or lack thereof. This means that there will always be ambiguity along the way toward maturity in Christ for people who indicate a decision and even seeming maturity in Christ can be deceptive as many fall away later in life.
Let’s say un-churched Anna makes a visible decision at a conference as a result of an alter call but a year later wants nothing to do with Christ while Hassan, a cultural Christian, makes a visible decision to “recommitment himself to Christ” at a meeting and over the course of the next several weeks begins to bear fruit for the first time in his life. Let’s say Jill makes a decision to follow Jesus as Lord in every area of her life after a life-long tradition of attending church. Jill has significant areas of her life that have never been submitted to Christ including areas of deep sexual sin and relational brokenness but now has been set free and is beginning to joyfully serve in Christian community. Finally, let’s say Tom indicates a “first time decision” on a response card at an evangelistic outreach but later realizes he came to Christ long ago and is only now making a public adult profession of faith. I’ve dealt with these and many other confusing scenarios over the years. Such circumstances make counting a very difficult issue.
Let’s consider why each of these four decision makers should be included as we count those “added” to our numbers.
Anna: Though it is heartbreaking, some decision makers do later go back on their decision, perhaps indicating that they never sincerely came to Christ in the first place. Regardless of how we theologically interpret the range of possibilities, at the time of Anna’s decision, illustrations from Scripture would indicate that we should count Anna, celebrate her decision, hold her to the spiritual expectations of Christian discipleship, and weep later when she turns from Christ, doing all we can to help her hold true to the word of life. In the beginning, however, we count her as a decision maker.
Hassan: Though Hassan has self-identified as a Christian all his life, he has never demonstrated the fruit associated with being filled with the Holy Spirit. He has likely never truly followed Christ though he may have been open all along to authentic discipleship. Hassan needed a clear explanation and call to faith and once he encountered Christ, naturally connected with Jesus and began to demonstrate salvific faith for the first time. Though we may be tempted to consider Hassan’s decision as a recommitment, perhaps he would even say so, in reality his decision is more likely a first time decision as it is associated with first time spiritual fruit demonstrating the regeneration of the Holy Spirit.
Jill: Jill would likely never say of herself that she “became a Christian” since in her interpretation of her spiritual journey, she has been Christian all her life. The evidence of regeneration, however, and freedom from deep bondage may indicate she has become born again. The spiritual fruit emerging in her life is indicative of a person who has encountered Christ and given long-term patterns of bondage and willful disobedient to Christ, the likelihood is that she too has made an authentic first time decision and should be counted.
Tom: Tom’s a slightly different story. Tom’s decision is obviously not a salvific decision but rather an affirmation of previous spiritual realities and decisions made in the past. For young people emerging into adulthood, however, it is important that they own their faith in a conscious way. Tom has already been “saved” but has never truly owned this spiritual status for himself. Many Christian youth find an important right of passage by responding publically as adults. Many times when alter calls are made where emerging adults are present, people like Tom wish to publically profess faith to have confidence in the authenticity of their faith or because they’ve never been given such an opportunity to do so before. Either way, the likelihood is that they’ve not been counted before and the fact that they as emerging adults wish to be counted now should be honored.
“Don’t Count Me”
Finally, the question is who should not be counted as first time decision makers. Obviously the confused/unintentional/insincere decision makers with a little bit of interaction will rise to the surface, often immediately after the decision is indicated. Additionally, clear Christians who merely wish to rededicate themselves or repent of specific struggles and incidents of sin should not be counted either. Often, these are interpreted as “Lordship” decisions but true “Lordship” decisions are more often than not authentically first time decisions for what kind of faith can be saving faith that is devoid of submission to Christ as Lord? It would seem from each and every evangelistic message in the book of Acts that the apostles believed salvation necessitated the eventual confession of Christ as Lord.
A journey decision should also not be counted as a first time decision. This category often takes the most work to follow up with and gain certainty. This is particularly true since frequently journey decision makers lack the sufficient language and theological constructs to self-interpret where they are or what kind of decision they have made. These standards leave a wide latitude open for us to include many who indicate a decision for Christ. This seems to be the practice of the first Church and there really is no reason why we should depart from their practice.
The New Language of Evangelism
“There is power, power, wonder working power in the blood of the lamb. There is power, power, wonder working power in the precious blood of the lamb.” This hymn represents a powerful truth of the Christian religion. A full explication of the atoning death of Christ would still do little to communicate the full power and impact of the realities behind these simple words. The blood of Christ is not a mere theological construct. The fact that there is power is also no mere propositional claim. There is, in fact, real transformative power in the “precious blood of the lamb,” but how do we speak this today? How ought the speech-act of gospel proclamation be conducted in light of such seemingly esoteric utterances about blood and wonder working power? Rightly so, in evangelism we must work to contextualize, to interpret, to exposit into culture through the lens of culture but there are limits to translation.
The fact that Jesus is portrayed figuratively as “the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world” is something that needs background and time to develop for our un-Churched friends. Often, we do not have the luxury of such time or the relational clout to develop such concepts through teaching. We often choose to avoid such symbolism and “advanced” theological concepts. What would have been an immediate “ah ha” connection for a Jewish audience presents itself as an obstacle for hearing to our audience today. There are still some concepts that ought not be translated, some symbols that are too “precious” to contextualize and must be taught.
In Kallenberg’s seminal yet short work Live to Tell: Evangelism for a Postmodern Era, he states, “…postcritical thinking transcends modern views of language…put simply, conversion involves the acquisition of a new conceptual language,” (pp 38-39). When we come to Christ (and are coming to Christ) our conversion must include, amongst other things, connecting to our world, to God, and to others through the use of an altogether new language. Because of this, evangelistic practices must not seek to merely contextualize, as important as this is. Evangelistic proclamation must also always teach the new language of faith. Certainly, different groups will need different forms aspects of faith contextualized and there are certain symbols of faith which may be appropriate for one group while obstacles for others. Having said this, the “precious blood” and its transforming power seems to be one of several realities we need to teach our hearers to understand and take on.
The centrality of the cross and the resurrection in time and space represent so much more than mere symbolism, they are the essence of the message of faith. There is no faith without the blood shed on the cross, no hope without the power of the resurrection-simply put, there is no gospel without the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. A bloody Jesus may appear to be a stumbling block for some people groups but unless we export this grotesquery into all cultures intact we run the danger of losing the connection with the existential referent itself. Of all things, it is the death and resurrection of Jesus that must be pressed into because therein lays the power for transformation. The fear, particularly for us “experts” on culture and contextualization is that we will be seen as cut from the same cloth as those “old timers” or fanatics. We must not shy away from this but instead recall and recite another great hymn, “Give me that old time religion-it’s good enough for me!”
Into the Funnel: How Do We Know When Postmoderns are Saved?
While many evangelicals have often touted their theological sophistication concerning conversion with the phrase, “I have been saved, I am being saved, and I will be saved,” such soteriology is about to get a serious challenge. As the culture in America has shifted dramatically in the last decade, so has our understanding concerning evangelism yet discipleship and postmodern apologetic strategies and paradigms have been slower in coming. We in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA are experiencing an unprecedented uptick in our multi-year conversion numbers. We have found that the shift into postmodernity and the associated commitment to global “kingdom-centric” values and issues has placed our organization in a unique position to capture the spiritual hunger that is also accentuated by this shift. We are finding it normative in most parts of the country to see consistent and large numbers of students coming into community and choosing to follow Christ. As exciting as this is, one of the largest challenges this brings to an historic evangelical organization is what to do with people after they are converted? How are students who have “been converted” to be “being converted” or transformed as they follow Christ?
The overall secularization of our society and the cultural shift into postmodernity have made our traditional models of discipleship and apologetics not only ineffective but quite honestly often an embarrassment. People coming to Christ and community are given a compelling experience with the Living God and radical exposure to authentic transformative community and are, with little resistance, coming into the Kingdom. After a decision to join Christ and community, however, the realities of the narrow path begin to threaten the authenticity of the decision and the lack-luster vision often casted through modernistic apologetics and discipleship tools gives the new convert the sense that they missed something at the checkout counter. An example of this is Brent, a third year student who came to Jesus after experiencing Christian community and being challenged to give his whole life to God during a sex trafficking outreach in the Midwest. After Brent’s decision to follow Christ and join community, he began to meet with the InterVarsity staff worker to study the Bible every week. Initially, this was a very exciting mark on Brent’s schedule but after a few weeks, Brent began to be combative, wrestles, and resistant. What began as a place of joy and excitement turned into a battle ground for Brent’s soul. Brent began to come face to face with the hard teachings of Christ and the Bible concerning sex, sexual identity, dependency on the Spirit verses drugs and alcohol, the necessity to be kind and honest, and a variety of other personality and ethical issues. The staff worker became confused and even wondered if Brent’s conversion was real. “Did we sell him an easy-believism faith or water down the gospel?” He asked himself. After carefully reviewing the facts that led up to Brent’s decision and the high call to Lordship placed in his call to Christ, the staff worker was convinced that this wasn’t the case. The staff worker decided to give Brent C.S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity,” remembering his own first encounter with the book and how reading it was like a second conversion for him. When meeting with Brent, however, he discovered the book had little interest to him and even intensified his growing resistance to his new found faith. Brent continues on with Christ and the InterVarsity community but on both sides, there is an uneasiness and uncertainty that wasn’t there even before Brent’s decision. What is happening here? Did Brent get “converted,” and is he “being converted?”
The normalization of ramped sexual promiscuity, the entrenchment of homosexuality into our understanding of diversity, and the laissez-faire approach most familial and academic authorities have taken in their lives have placed significant challenges before us when it comes to discipling postmoderns. In order to establish a more integrated discipleship approach, we need to do more than download creeds and ethical instruction into their heads, we need to also deal with the spiritual and sociological needs of postmoderns. This requires us to simultaneously address a number of things in our time with new believers. Think of time spent with a new believer as a funnel by which we pour into their lives a number of distinct things. The essential things poured into the funnel initially are formative and will establish a person’s life-long trajectory. Though there may be other things added or added later, at least the following five contributions to a new believer’s walk with Christ and community should be repetitively addressed through the discipleship process:
- Relational Equity: Postmodern’s place a high value on connectivity, authenticity, and dependability. They have become disillusioned with the hopes of mere cyber-relationships and are longing to connect with a transformative community through real, face to face experiences. Because of this, relational equity needs to be established through the discipler and the new believer but not in isolation from the community. Discipleship appointments, while not exclusively communal, should be normatively conducted with several others who share in this spiritual journey phase. The discipler should establish a prophetic and leadership voice in this community but should make space for learning to be done as the group processes together. In the past, relational equity was obtained through one on one mentoring, teaching, and coaching but such a strong emphasis on intense one on one relationship is foreign and will likely lead to suspicion and resistance. This is not to say that relational equity cannot or should not also include some one on one mentoring and coaching but this should be an added benefit to group membership to the new believer, not the central thrust of discipleship. Relational equity for the discipler grows as the new believer experiences his/her leadership in the context of community.
- Relevant Instruction: It has been a long standing mistake to assume postmoderns are not interested in truth; it is just that they are first interested in relevance. For the modern, the assumption was that if something were true it may or may not then become personally relevant. For the postmodern, the first question is almost always, “Is this personally or communally relevant?” Once this question is answered, later on the question of truth will come. Because of this, much of our modernistic discipleship tools and paradigms that revolve around helping new believers understand the truth of God’s word will often seem foreign and create confusion. Teaching new believers the truth of God’s word and the beauty of the creeds handed down throughout Church history can never fade from our discipleship efforts but we need to help new believers understand first the relevance of God’s word and the question of the truth of God’s word will follow. For instance, the centrality of the tri-unity of the Godhead, while traditionally taught in a theological vacuum, is the perfect doctrine to help a postmodern believer understand her soul-need for connection and interdependence on other people. Because God is a community and she is created in God’s image, she is also communal. Since we are connected to others at a soul-level, we have a responsibility to their well being and owe them love and this will begin to go to build her sense of purpose and obligation to God and others. The doctrine of the trinity is relevant, extremely relevant, for postmoderns and needs to come to the new believer first as such and subsequently all of the glorious theological nuances and substantiations can follow. Discipleship into the theological truths of God’s word and the creeds of the Church can never be excluded from our efforts but we do need to place them first in their “real life” contexts if we hope to help new believers today have a world-view change.
- Prophetic Leadership: Postmoderns do not reject authority as many have articulated-they reject authority positions that do not have the associated power or charisma figures behind them. Whether it is a political authority figure with charisma and power like President Obama or the powerful justice-ethic voice of rock star Bono, postmoderns do respond and respect authority. In discipleship, we need to establish our voice of authority and power based on our position in ministry, the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, and the relevance of God’s word. We can do this primarily through exercising prophetic leadership. Prophetic leaders speak and act on behalf of God consciously, intentionally calling people to change and action based on God’s call on their life. Prophetic leaders tend to speak for God instead of merely about God. With Brent as an example, a prophetic leader at one point would say, “Brent, God is doing a powerful work in your life right now. You may not fully understand it but you know what I’m saying is true-you need to embrace your doubts and take them to God. God is leading you to face the core of the decision you made and not to settle for a watered down commitment.” Brent doesn’t need merely endless arguments about the historicity of the Bible and how it is a trustworthy document, he needs to be prophetically led into the Scriptures with a voice of power. We’ve been given such power by God in our calling into ministry, through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, and through the relevancy of God’s Word.
- Prayer Ministry: Prophetic leadership goes hand in hand with prayer ministry. Postmoderns are mystically hungry. They aren’t interested in settling for a religious infrastructure or a mere spiritualized worldview-they want to hear from God and to have him touch their lives. Prayer ministry is the fundamental way postmoderns will be able to encounter God in the early stages of their discipleship. In the context of community, a discipler should make space for God to show up and move in power to continue the redemption process begun at the point of decision. Prayer ministry should also be experiential. Leading postmoderns through prayer should never be merely dialogical, but iconic. Postmodern prayer should include the arts and experiential learning such as the writing of poetry or the use of symbolic objects to help them grasp concepts concerning God and his work in their lives. While fundamentally written for evangelism and preaching, Mark Miller’s book, “Experiential Storytelling” can be contextualized to develop rich ideas for experiential and iconic prayer. Finally, postmoderns typically have a deep desire to change the world around them first and foremost. The redemption of the world around them is as important as the redemption of the world inside them so postmodern prayer ministry should never be entirely focused on the individual needs of the believer but should include an outward, missional focus.
- Kingdom Involvement: Discipleship and mission should never be dichotomized. The best discipleship tool has always been and continues to be real, hands-on involvement in Christ’s Kingdom. From evangelism to addressing global issues of injustice and local manifestations of suffering and need, getting postmoderns involved in the work of the Kingdom is central. Kingdom work shouldn’t be seen as something that occurs after a person is rooted or grounded in the truths of Christianity-it is how those truths get rooted in their hearts and minds. Finding ways for new believers to do evangelism, serve, reach out, and apply their gifts and talents to real needs is as important as teaching them the Bible and how to pray for in so doing we connect who God has made them to be and their purpose in community with the truths and person of God. Often for this justice generation, kingdom involvement will actually play a significant role in their initial conversion but as they are being redeemed, continued involvement in community for the Kingdom will be key to their maturation. Missional Christians grow out of missional work led by prophetic leaders and to set this as a precedent at the point of decision and early on in the discipleship process is key. Regular application discussion opportunities in the context of community will bring such work into focus and help to avoid the all too common drift toward mere activism instead of discipleship to Christ.
Finally, we need to recognize that not only have new contours in our society emerged in terms of culture and values, but the old restraints of the Judeo-Christian worldview have eroded. Because of this, the typical assumptions we were able to make concerning issues like sexuality, honesty, and the intrinsic value of life can no longer be made. The boundaries of social convention aided us in discipleship in that we could begin with general assumptions concerning what was right and wrong-an appeal to the normative moral code or law. Very frequently now after a person becomes a Christian, they begin to wrestle with a new moral code that accompanies the new worldview they are adopting that is at odds with a lifetime of formal education and socialization, particularly concerning sex and sexual identity. At one event, after speaking I was approached by a young Latino student who, with tears in her eyes after professing Christ, asked sincerely, “Now, what does God have to say about the fact that I’m a lesbian?” Addressing such issues after conversion is difficult for some with still others disqualifying the conversion due to such evidence of known sin still lingering in the person’s life. However, the process of postmodern conversion can and should make room for approaching new believer’s lifestyle and moral convictions in the same way the old modernistic approach did for issues of intellectual assent and submission. This is to say that just as we expected a new believer to eventually come to understand and submit their mind to a good deal of core theological truths after conversion, like the doctrine of the trinity, so in this new postmodern age we expect new believers to repent and grow into their conviction concerning issues of sexual identity and sexual promiscuity. Evidence amongst the Corinthians to this end is ample and if we broaden the issues out to less controversial sin and worldview issues like financial stewardship, one can easily see how with all of us God has been, is, and will likely always be graciously in process with us.
The Need for Sin
Evangelism often is about nuancing language, contextualizing ideas, and negotiating communication and cultural differences. Eventually, however, every time we share the message of Jesus there are “compulsory” concepts that will be articulated if the message is to be complete. Concepts like sin, death and judgment, the righteousness of Christ, his death and resurrection, and the Lordship of Christ are all in this “compulsory” category. Talking about many of these issues is difficult for so many reasons. If our hearers are aware of the ideas and categories, often they are misinformed or have warped, self-made perceptions of them. If our hearers are unaware of the Biblical concepts in this category, beginning to actually explicate them can cause even the most committed Christian to internally say, “This sounds strange to me, how will it sound to them.” There is a fantasticalness to the gospel that can hinder our passion and willingness to articulate it, or at least portions of it. Probably no greater concept elicits apprehension in the Christian’s personal witness more than sin.
Sin is hard to talk about with people, let’s face it. We often have no problem talking about God’s love, how following Christ can heal us and set us free from various forms of external evil or suffering. We have no problem talking about the promises of God or how much He has changed our lives but sin, really!?!? Can’t we just skip over the fact that the person we seek to share God’s love with is a sinner, was born a sinner, and will die a sinner only to face the eternal consequences of her sin in a place of horrific suffering and separation from God? That may sound nice, it may sound more effective, but here are several reasons why leaving sin out of the picture is not only inadequate evangelism, it is also, ultimately, ineffective.
1. The Problem of Causality: Without the concept of sin there is no cause for the extreme measures to which God has gone in providing his Son as our sacrifice. God did not merely inconvenience Himself in sending Jesus. Jesus did not merely die a normal death, he was mercilessly beaten, scourged, spit upon and ultimately died at the hands of sinful men. Isaiah 53:10 tells us that it was the Lord’s will to “crush him,” thus signifying that Christ’s death was a result of God’s direct wrath and judgment, poured out on Him on our behalf. In fact, for thousands of years before Christ, all divine history pointed to this cosmic act and all divine history after Christ’s sacrifice is interpreted through the cross. Nothing in the Christian story makes sense of this except the problem of sin. The fact that we have transgressed the law (Grk, hamartema) necessitates a punishment for what we’ve done or left on done through the transgression.
2. The Problem of Culpability: Without the concept of sin we have no personal responsibility to God or to others for the decisions we have made or the actions for good that we fail to make. There is a sense in most people that they owe a moral debt they cannot pay. At some point, we feel the weight of our wrong doing but even when this is not readily apparent, the Christian message of the gospel requires justification for the command for “all people everywhere to repent,” (Acts 17:30). The commandment of God for repentance and the subsequent requirements for total submission to Christ make sense only in light of the fact that we are, in the depths of our being, sinners. The problem with this in communication is that we often soft-pitch sin as merely “bad things that bad people do.” The Greek word hamartia does not mean to merely miss the mark, a gross under-representation of this robust Biblical concept. Hamartia, often translated as “sin or sinful” refers to a corruption of spirit, a soul sickness and because of this our problem is not merely our actions. We are sick unto death as our friend Kierkegaard tells us and we are responsible before God not only to answer for all we’ve done but also to seek him as the only Physician who can heal us and impute to us a new righteousness found only in Christ.
3. The Problem of Consequence: Without the concept of sin there is no justification for the wrath of God or the consequences to be faced in the afterlife. There are real and dire consequences to sin here and now but also after this age. It is unbearable to think of loved ones who have passed on without knowing Christ, who now are suffering and will forever suffer the darkness, the despair, the absolute torment of hell and later the lake of fire. Such thoughts are too painful for us to dwell on but nevertheless a reality for all who have not had their sin cured and their sins washed away. Because sin is as serious as God says it is, he went to the extreme measures He did to save us from not only sin but also its consequences. This is not insignificant for the hearer of the gospel. She needs to understand the justification for the fantastical consequences, the cosmic horror that awaits her and this can only be explained by the veracity of sin.
4. The Problem of Categorization: Without the concept of sin we have no categories to understand the horrors of the world or our self-propensity toward immorality. We all sense it, as Neo tells us in the Matrix-there is something terribly wrong with the world around us. From the sexual exploitation of children through the commercial trafficking industry to our own inability to change disgusting and deflating addictive behaviors, we need a concept to help us make sense of the brokenness of our world and of our lives. When there is something wrong with us medically, when we suffer chronic pain and the panic of the potential causes of our symptoms, there is a relief in the diagnosis-even when that diagnosis is life threatening. We want to know what is wrong eventually. We spend much of our time evading death, sickness, suffering and thoughts of such but ultimately we want to know what is wrong with us and with our world. The answer is sin. Sin is what is wrong with everything-it is sin that causes us to struggle with porn, to commoditize women. It is sin that causes us to abuse our bodies, to tear others down, to distrust those who love us, and to marginalize ethnic groups we don’t understand or value. Sin helps us make sense of it all. In fact if it were not for the concept of sin, the world would be nothing more than the twisted fantasy of a deranged monster but because of sin, we can see and appreciate the beauty and meaning that still resides in our broken world. Through the lens of sin we see a life just beneath the surface that is free and beautiful, where all things flourish and are as they should be. Only the problem of sin helps us recognize this.
5. The Problem of Conceivability: Without the concept of sin it is hard to truly believe the whole of the message as the problem of sin makes sense of our world, God’s actions, and the consequences of ignoring our sin problem. The whole of the gospel can only be seen as a cohesive, consistent and sensible message when we name the problem. The concept of open and corrupt embrace or the love of sin (Grk, hamartano) that we all gravitate toward without God’s intervention leads to the absolute moral bankruptcy or worthlessness of our souls (Grk, adokimus) and it is this decaying process that helps us believe the totality of the message of God’s actions. More importantly, it is this decaying process that helps us understand our need to abandon all to follow Christ. The Lordship of Christ is necessitated because any other captain at the helm will only lead us further into the deep seas of death and judgment. Sin itself separates us from God, preventing us from living the life of flourishing we’ve been designed for but the concept of sin in our articulation of the gospel gives us motivation to abandon all in favor of Christ’s transformative Lordship.
In the end, there is no Christian message, no understanding of God’s grace, no need for Christ’s sacrifice, and nothing to be set free from if we and our hearers are not sinners. We have been born into sin (hamartia) and have actively sinned against God and our world (hamartema) and are in the process of embracing a love for sin (hamartano) which will lead to our eventual absolute depravity and worthlessness (adokimus). This multi-dimensional understanding of the problem of sin and the rationale sin provides us in making sense of the world and God’s actions gives us confidence as we articulate the fantastical, calling our hearers to leave it all and follow Christ as Lord.