With the turn of the year, many churches will be concentrating their focus on a ‘Passion for Life’.
This national initiative of local churches to present the gospel within and to our communities will reach its climax at Easter time. Part of its appeal is that individual congregations, partnering wherever possible with other like-minded churches in their neighbourhood, can join together to proclaim the good news through special events as well as their regular church programmes. We can do more together than we could ever do as single units.
Confidence in the unspectacular
But it is as individuals that we serve the Lord, day by day, often in quite isolated contexts. So, perhaps we need to pray that God will help us to recover our confidence that he can use the unspectacular, but faithful, witness of ‘ordinary’ Christians like us to make those vital first connections which open doors for the good news to be heard. We often, rightly, say that our gospel is truth-centred, not need-centred. There can be no accommodation of its unchanging message to the prevailing norms of our secular culture. But the way by which that message is first heard and considered nearly always involves some form of personal contact and some connection with the needs of the person approached.
Of course, these are not necessarily their felt needs. Sometimes the Lord does bring people into our lives who are in the midst of overwhelming difficulties and only too aware that they need help. One thinks of situations like personal or family illness, bereavement, job loss, marriage break-up and so on. These may be times where there is an unusual openness to hearing God speak, though for many it can equally become a time for hardening the heart: ‘Why should God allow this to happen to me?’. But I am thinking of the more everyday situations, where the underlying needs of each human life are very rarely articulated or explored. It was this which Augustine was reflecting in his famous saying: ‘You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you’.
Life is like a radio
In a recent debate on addiction, one doctor, with many years experience in the field, drew attention to the evidence that addictions of all types are attractive either because they seem to give meaning to a person’s existence or, at least for a time, they appear to cover up the hole that is at the centre of their life. These may be extreme responses to the central dilemma of human existence, what used to be called the ‘human condition’, but the issues themselves of who we are, why we are here and what is our significance will always be there just beneath the surface in every human being, simply because we are made in the image of God. Every human life is like a radio which the Holy Spirit can switch on, at any moment, to receive a message which has always been on transmission but never actually heard until now.
It is striking how Jesus was able to use this initial contact point, as a way to revealing and dealing with the much deeper, eternal issues. Nicodemus comes by night for a private interview, which he probably thought would take the form of a rabbinic theological dialogue, only to be told: ‘You must be born from above’. The Samaritan woman knows that she needs water to quench her thirst, but is soon directed to the living water, which springs up to eternal life. This is a long way from off-loading a routinely-learned evangelistic ‘package’, which will always tend to generate a mechanistic approach. Rather, Jesus demonstrates a deeply personal concern for the individual and builds a relational approach for his hearer to receive what is, after all, a highly relational gospel.
Restoring the relationship
God is about the business of restoring the relationship between himself and his fallen human creation, which is ultimately the restoration of the image of God within each believer, through the indwelling Spirit. That is personal work. It demands a love which listens and understands, empathises and gently challenges, rather than a steamroller delivery of what can often sound like just another sales pitch. I would never choose to sing ‘I vow to thee my country’ because its first verse promotes the idolatry of nationalism. But its second verse has one line of real insight when it speaks of the heavenly country and the eternal kingdom: ‘And soul by soul and silently its shining bounds increase’. That is always how the kingdom of heaven grows. Personal evangelism is relational evangelism. In time it may feed the larger, corporate events, but the essence of our witness is in making these initial points of connection, as we live our lives lovingly and expectantly, making ourselves prayerfully available for God to use each of us, in the everyday.
David Jackman is the past President of the Proclamation Trust and writes the ‘Notes to growing Christians’ column for EN.
This article was first published in the January 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
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