EVANGELISMQ&A ings had been a circus — until now. It was a difficult start to the evening for everyone. Why? Because, in the presence of “the other,” everything had to change. Our tone, our language, our goals, our methods. Our guests asked us questions, curiously, patiently. And we had to speak in plain English instead of “Christianese.” They asked us about what we carry inside and why we want to tell others about it. By the end of the evening, our gracious guests actually helped us name the pearl that our Christian community had been holding — Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God. We abandoned our plans to put on a show about fulfilled prophecies of the Bible and instead — as simply as we can — explain some of the teachings of Jesus.That’s what they wanted to know about. They evangelized us! God “trespassed” outside the boundaries of our religion and then visited us in the stranger, as God did so often in the Bible.
On Being Evangelized LEARNING FROM “THE OTHER” WITH SAMIR SELMANOVIC Samir Selmanovic is an author, speaker, and community organizer known particularly for his work in interfaith dialogue. Born and raised in a culturally Muslim but atheistic family in Croatia, as a teenager he joined an underground group of believers and became a Christian. His religious studies took him to the US, and he eventually came to work as a pastor in New York City, where he dealt with the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 2001 and founded a multifaith community called Faith House Manhattan. He is the director of Citylights, a Christian community that seeks to “learn to love well.” PRISM asked him about his deep passion for connecting with those outside the Christian faith.
PRISM: What are some of the common pitfalls in terms of evangelistic efforts of Christians today? SS:The main one I think is to tend to distrust the gospel while sharing it. God does not need to be defended, and people do not have to be manipulated.The kingdom of God is above that. When Christ tells me to go out to the world and share his teachings, he asks me to embody that teaching, namely to treat others the way I want to be treated (Matthew 7:12).This command, which has come to be known as the Golden Rule, excludes turning other people from subjects to objects, even the objects of my best intentions. I would not want to be objectified by their efforts to reach me, so neither should I objectify them. If I am to reach them, I should also be reached by them. The Golden Rule turns the tables on our religious impulses. If we want outsiders to attend our events, we must attend their events. If we want them to be spiritually open to us, we must be spiritually open to them. If we want them to change, we must be ready to change. If we want them to read our Scriptures with trust and respect, we likewise must read their holy texts.We must not be afraid to be changed by them. In the kingdom of God, there is no room for fear. Without modeling learning and receiving, we cannot expect others to learn and receive from us.Yet, this goes further. Our openness to “the other” is not just a method of approaching them. We really do need them. They comfort us, bless us, teach us. Some of us have been living under the assumption that while the world needs Christians, Christians don’t need the world.There is no reciprocity or interdependence.When we objectify the world and other religions, they have no significant commission to us.
PRISM: You say that an evangelistic encounter with “the other” is a two-way street. Can you give an example of this? Samir Selmanovic: At a strategy meeting for the evangelistic efforts our church hoped to undertake in our neighborhood, the chairman of our church board asked, “Who are our targets?” The next day I approached people on my street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and said, “Our church, the one with the red doors over there, has been trying to convert you for decades.Without success.We believe that Jesus Christ is the best thing ever. Could you please come to our next planning meeting and help us be better at it?” A few folks looked back at me quietly, then glanced at the church, noticing it perhaps for the very first time. “This is no prank, and there is no hidden camera,” I reassured them. “This would be a neighborly good deed on your part.You can think of it as an anthropological field trip you can tell your friends about. And I’ll throw in a gift certificate for your favorite restaurant.” At our next meeting, I made space around the table for the two brave souls who accepted my invitation. “This is Barbara, and this is Mark,” I introduced. “They are our ‘targets.’ Who wants to shoot?” I thought that was funny. Nobody else laughed. One person said I was making a circus out of the meeting. I said our meet-
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By receiving, we concede the fact that they are blessed. I think we have come to the historical moment when we can say that “it is in receiving that we give.” PRISM: So what do you do with the Great Commission? What role does evangelism play? SS: Instead of designating the call of Christ as the Great Commission that establishes Christianity as a God-management system and Christians as brokers of God to the world, perhaps we should embrace the call of Christ as the Great Invitation. Christians are sent out into the world with an extraordinary message:The self-giving God calls humanity to self-giving love! However, instead of having a commission to bring God out to the world, we are in reality invited into the world where God already is, not only to bless the world with Christ’s teaching but also to receive the blessing from God that is already in that same world. We are called not only to go, but also to welcome; not only to teach, but also to learn; not only to give, but also to receive. In a Great Commission, the world needs us and we don’t need the world. In the Great Invitation, we humbly embrace our creaturehood and sit at a large table where not we but God presides. The Great Commission demands conversion from them; the Great Invitation demands transformation from us all. By working with people of other faiths I have discovered that while every religion has its own mystery, our mysteries still need one another. We live on one increasingly small planet, and the challenge for us Christians is to abandon the fantasies about Christian supremacy and get on with learning to be a part of the whole.
eternity without Jesus would look. I did not plan to say any of that. I just said what I know we are saying to people.They looked at me; I looked at them. I stood in my hole before them, silence between us. I waited for the good Lord to fulfill his promise of giving me the right words when I needed them, and suddenly I blurted out, “The good news could be a lot better, huh?” The group broke into laughter, and the pressure was released. But I had not meant this to be funny at all. In fact, I was on the verge of tears. I had given our common good news testimony and realized that what we had to share was neither good nor new. As with the guests who came to my church, who helped us better understand evangelistic outreach, the day at the rabbinical college finished with hugs and delight and mutual blessings. And they insisted that I explain why I really stick with Jesus! Much has been said and written about what we mean by good news. Liberation theology and the emerging church movement have pushed the conversation towards deeper and broader understanding. What has been driving and should continue to drive this conversation are two questions: (1) How is the good news good?; and (2) How is the good news new? This requires some serious commitment to honesty, plain language, and recognition of God’s presence in us, among us, and outside of us, the kingdom of God everywhere. I ask myself regularly, “Do I have a God worth worshipping, a truth worth embracing, a way of life worth practicing, and good news worth sharing?” And when I open the Bible, meet with my Christian community, and apply myself to a life of practice, I can exclaim “Yes!” I believe there is no Christianity without evangelism. But it also stands that evangelism without Christ is no evangelism at all.
PRISM:You did not always take this approach in your ministry to nonbelievers.What kind of experiences caused a shift in your thinking about how to approach sharing the good news? SS: When I am invited to speak somewhere, I often start by honestly sharing what I feel at the moment and end up expressing something I’d rather hide, something from my shadows, digging myself into a hole so to speak, without a plan on how to get out.This is intentional, based on the premise that, as Leonard Cohen puts it, “the cracks are there so that light may come in.” God pulls me out of the hole, usually. And some light comes out of it. A while back, when speaking at a rabbinical college on the topic of pluralism, I began by telling the students and faculty why many of us who are Christians feel an urgency to convert them. I told them about the hopelessness and meaninglessness of life without Jesus and the futility of being one’s own savior. Then I told them about the end times and how
Samir Selmanovic is the author of It’s Really All About God (Jossey-Bass,2009).Learn more about his work at ItsReallyAllAbout God.com, FaithHouseManhattan.org, and CityLightsCommunity.org.
EVANGELISMQ&A “We Are Always Doing Evangelism”
This generation is both idealistic and practical, and they want to know if the Christian faith delivers any real good to the world, and if not, then it’s not worth it. So the current blame being placed on religion for the problems of the world is a major obstacle to the Christian faith, and believers need not only an answer from our mouths but also from our lives.
NAPKIN-SKETCHING WITH JAMES CHOUNG
PRISM: In your opinion, do most Christians know the Big Story, or do they themselves need to be evangelized before they can go around telling others about it?
James Choung is the national director for InterVarsity Asian American Ministries and has also served extensively in multiethnic settings in both the church and campus worlds. He is the author of True Story:A Christianity Worth Believing In and its companion booklet, Based on a True Story, both published by InterVarsity Press. He has distilled the “Big Story” of the gospel of Jesus down to a fourcircle diagram, which he regularly sketches onto napkins in coffee shops, sharing the news of Christ’s love with students across the country. PRISM asked him what he hears from folks when he’s out and about.
JC: I think most believers who grew up in the church have some sense of the biblical story. I would guess that most can recount creation, fall, and redemption.These seem agreed upon. I’m not sure if they would have a strong picture of the end of the story — but even the picture of the end is debated in the wider church. At the same time, I don’t think Christians often equate the gospel with the biblical story. Perhaps this is where some further teaching is necessary. The gospel is often presented as a small slice of the larger story, often lopping off the creation account. In the past, that made sense: Many people in America grew up in churches or at least had some familiarity with the Bible. So did the Jewish people of Jesus’ day. Both groups were primed for a more truncated message, because they understand the background behind it. But today biblical literacy is in free fall. So if you just make the gospel about fall and redemption, you lose on two major counts. First, God will seem like a distant, demanding perfectionist who would kill you in a heartbeat for cheating on an exam but who provides Jesus as a way out of the trap he’s set up. That doesn’t sound like good news! When you add creation, however, then you have a picture of God who delighted in designing good for all creation and everyone in it. That’s the kind of God who is easy to worship. How someone views God will determine whether he or she wor ships or runs, and by lopping off creation from the gospel we unknowingly distort someone’s vision of God.
PRISM: What are the most pressing spiritual questions that young people are asking today? James Choung:A couple of generations ago, the spiritual question of the day — especially on campuses — was,“What is true?” Absolute truth still had great value, and you could assume that if someone saw something as the truth, they would bank their lives on it. So Christians often responded to their friends and acquaintances with historical evidence and rational questions to address this question. But a generation ago, the spiritual question of the day shifted as the idea of an absolute truth gave way to something more relative.The young people saw how their parents’ generation used the idea of absolute truth to arrogantly shut out other viewpoints, and so they asked a different question altogether: “What is real?”They didn’t want a deluge of fancy arguments or a list of historical facts, but instead wanted to know if your faith was authentic and real, because Generation Xers are, in general, the best spin detectors on the planet. So ministering to this generation meant admitting our hurt, pain, and failure in our spiritual journeys; and in our being “real,” people found connection. Today, the spiritual question seems to have shifted once more for young people. As a campus minister for the past 15 years, I have found the shift to be drastic and sudden. Instead of asking, “What is real?” they are asking, “What is good?”
Second, a gospel that focuses only on fall and redemption also loses a sense of mission.Where is God leading the world? What happens after we get “saved”? All of these answers depend on what we think God is doing in the world now and where we think he’ll take it. Without this picture, Christians often don’t know what being with Jesus means for today. Our faith is often presented, unwittingly, as waiting to die to receive the faith’s benefits, instead of truly living an eternal kind of life today as well. Then Christians seem selfish, because they don’t care about the ills in the world, but just wait to escape it for their own piece of heaven. Again, this won’t sound like good news, but escapism. Thankfully, our Scriptures present a bigger story. It’s not a new story — if it’s new, then it’s probably heretical. It’s an old, old story. And if we lean more powerfully on the larger biblical story, then we’ll present something that will sound more like good news to people today.
JC: In reality, we are always doing evangelism.Whether or not we are actively talking about Jesus, if people know we are Christians, what we say or don’t say, do or don’t do, will inform their opinions about Jesus. If it doesn’t come from us, then they learn about Jesus through what Christians do in the media, and that often puts us in a bad light. Even our reticence to talk about spiritual matters with our friends — or evasiveness or lack of clarity when asked point-blank about what we believe — makes it seem as if we don’t have solid footing for our faith or we’re embarrassed about our faith. All of this speaks volumes about who we are and the Jesus others think we love and serve. So, the question is not whether evangelism is optional or essential, but whether we want to do evangelism well or poorly. Because we are always sharing our faith with someone, even when we don’t know it. Learn more at JamesChoung.net.
PRISM: In today’s postmodern culture, what are the most effective forms of evangelism?
Beyond Bumper Stickers
JC: This seems like a trick question, as if there were certain forms that work best in any given generation. There’s no tool — not even the Big Story! — that can overcome a script, some spin, or the sense of being someone’s project. Some aids can be helpful, but they are not silver bullets or magic wands that will automatically work every time. But if our genuine faith exudes love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, then there may be something in our lives that our friends might want. And if our church communities have concrete expressions of that kind of love and mercy, then inviting our friends to such things would be helpful. For example, the New England Region of InterVarsity hosts a Katrina Relief Trip each year. It asks college students to give up sunbathing in Cancun to pull out rotten floorboards and put up drywall for homes in New Orleans. All the while, they’re studying the Bible and learning more about God as well. Of the 200 or so that go every year, a third to a half are unbelievers.They love the sense of doing good in the world, and along the way they get a sense of a community that’s genuinely following Jesus in some of the hardest-hit places in our country. And they get interested in the God we love and serve. Things like the Big Story help when the time is right, but it’s always done in the context of relationships (even if they are brand-new ones) and where the Holy Spirit might be moving.
A CONVERSATION WITH DAN MERCHANT Dan Merchant thinks that America has become a bumper-sticker culture. “We’re way too comfortable with one-way communication,” says Merchant. “We like to tell people what we think, but we don’t like to listen.” To remedy this, Merchant hit the streets of Times Square decked out in a white coverall plastered with an array of worldview-distilling bumper stickers: God Spoke and Bang It Happened; God Wants Spiritual Fruits Not Religious Nuts; Overturn Roe v.Wade; Free Jesus; Real Men Pray; Get the Hell Out of My Way, I’m Late for Church; Who Would Jesus Bomb? You get the picture. Merchant’s suit — along with his open countenance and large microphone — drew out passersby and sparked countless conversations, all of which were filmed for his documentary, Lord, Save Us from Your Followers, and captured in his book of the same name (Thomas Nelson). Among the questions he asked were, “What is something Christians are known for?” and “What is something Jesus Christ is known for?” His search for honest dialogue was rewarded as people of all stripes shared
PRISM: Is evangelism optional or essential?
THE ROAD TO HEAV IS A ONE-WAY STRE EN ET
their true feelings about Christians and about Christ. PRISM tracked him down to hear what he discovered as he crisscrossed the country in search of genuine conversation. PRISM: What did you learn about Christians from your project?
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DM:We amassed over 100 hours of footage shooting interviews and segments for the film over a span of threeand-a-half years, and I had my soul turned inside out in the process — so this is a big question. The most surprising, emotional moment was setting up a confession booth at a Gay Pride event in Portland, Ore., and confessing my sins and those of the church I love to members of the gay community. My offering was graciously received, and I had many shockingly beautiful, healing, and open conversations during that day in the confession booth. No arguing, just talking and crying and laughing. Amazing what happens when you aren’t afraid of a little humility, when you are open and transparent and you invite God to sit with you and some new friends. I was blown away by the openness of those who visited the confession booth.Their generosity, willingness to engage, and thirst to talk about God, love, and faith assured me that we’ve been doing this all wrong for years. Love first and let God do his thing. Other highlights include interviewing Al Franken as he began his successful bid for a Senate seat; talking with Dr. John Perkins, the wisest, deepest soul I’ve ever met; hanging out with Dr. Tony Campolo, a powerful intellect; getting to know William Paul Young, a sweet and thoughtful man who articulates God’s love so beautifully in his book, The Shack. And, of course, Sister Mary Timothy, the flamboyant gay nun of the San Francisco order of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, whom I now call my friend.
Dan Merchant: Often, Christians don’t realize how we sound to others. We come off arrogant, strident, and condescending when we think we’re being gracious and charitable. Perhaps we’re so used to talking amongst ourselves that we’ve developed a shorthand that doesn’t translate to those unfamiliar with Christian-speak. Also, many of us have become hung up on “being right” as opposed to answering Jesus’ call to love one another.We feel, at times, that unless we’re fulfilling the self-appointed rule of “defending the truth,” we are somehow going to let the side down. The remarkable thing, of course, is that “the Truth” is the amazing love of God, and when you spend time with Christians who are sharing that with others unconditionally, God shows up and all kinds of weird and beautiful things happen. So I learned that the Christians who are trusting in God’s truth and grace and are figuring out ways to love people and meet their needs seem to have a much better idea of what Jesus was getting at than those Christians who prefer to shout at those they disagree with on social and political issues. PRISM:What did you learn about people outside the Christian faith?
DM: I was surprised to learn that most people who have a problem with Christians don’t have a problem with Jesus. They may not identify Jesus as the Christ, but nobody seems to want to argue that “loving the least” is a bad thing.The fact that many don’t associate Christians with the actions and principles of Christ was a bit disturbing, of course. But this disconnect also illustrates that a communication breakdown may play a major role in the social conflicts we’re enduring, as opposed to fundamental disagreements of how we really ought to be treating each other. I was quite moved by the response of agnostics and atheists to the film.The moments in the film that illustrate self-sacrificial, unconditional love touched them deeply, inspiring many to join alongside Christians into service of those in need. The love of God brings hope and understanding. I’ve seen it firsthand, repeatedly. We believers just need to be sure we’re the conduit and not the obstacle.
PRISM: What do you believe is the solution to our bumpersticker culture? What are some practical ways — that don’t involve donning a bumper-sticker suit and hitting Times Square! — to nurture and engage in real conversation? DM: Ultimately, conversation is an easy place to start. Bring a little humility and engage those who aren’t like you, and you will learn about yourself and God as well as “the other.” We spend a lot of energy being around people who are similar to us while there is so much to be learned from those who aren’t like us.Think about what “venturing out” might mean to you. You can go to a religious service or denomination that is foreign to you. Try volunteering with a group or serving a group unfamiliar to you.
PRISM: What were the most surprising experiences you had while working on this project?
You can start in your own sphere and widen your reach from there: Is there someone at work whom you despise? Try to see them as God sees them and figure out how to engage them in a new way. Is there someone in your neighborhood you just plain don’t like? Get out of your own way and reflect a little of God’s love. Create a little space in these difficult intersections and see if God doesn’t show up. If there is someone you know in need, figure out a way to meet that need. If you have a gift or a talent that is burning a hole in your heart, find a place to share it, find out who needs what you have to offer. Love trumps the simplistic “rightness” of the bumper-sticker culture, which is probably why Jesus boldly commanded us to love one another. Let’s start there and see what happens.
ever, Henderson and his co-authors sought out, sat down with, and listened to dozens of young people from across the country. PRISM caught up with him to find out what he learned. PRISM:What did these interviews reveal to you, about both Christians and non-Christians? Jim Henderson:That Christians come in all shapes and sizes. In general they’re well-intentioned but lack insight, which in and of itself isn’t so bad, but when coupled with a devotion to “certainty” creates mean-spirited, arrogant people — nothing like Jesus was aiming for. Non-Christians are burdened with the same biases and confidence in “certainty,” but when you find one who is humble and curious it’s like finding the treasure hidden in the field that Jesus mentioned.
Dan Merchant’s documentary was just released on DVD (Virgil Films/ New Day); it includes small group discussion videos and other bonus features. Learn more at Merchant’s blog (LordSaveUs.wordpress.com/) and at LordSaveUsTheMovie.com.
PRISM:Who was the most memorable person you encountered in these interviews? JH: Rio in Denver. On the face of things she appeared to be the most “on fire” Christian we encountered, which she probably was at one time in her life. Hearing the painful journey she has been on since coming out as being gay was disturbing, heartbreaking, and revealing. Her unwillingness to make a commitment to being gay for life made her even more fascinating. Lots for Christians to learn in that interview.
Atheists Are Our Friends SIPPING COFFEE WITH JIM HENDERSON
PRISM:What are some practical ways to nurture and engage in real conversation with people outside our faith?
When an atheist put his soul up for sale on eBay, Jim Henderson bought it — for $504. Then he asked the young man, a graduate student from Chicago, to help him evaluate churches from an “outsider” perspective. That experience led to a website called ChurchRater.com, where folks can check out churches and submit their own evaluations. Henderson learned so much about Christians from the experience that he brought on another atheist to continue the project. Henderson is the author or co-author of Evangelism without Additives: What If Sharing Your Faith Meant Just Being Yourself (WaterBrook Press, 2007); Jim and Casper Go to Church: Frank Conversations about Faith, Churches, and Well-Meaning Christians (BarnaBooks, 2007); and the just-released Outsider Interviews: A New Generation Speaks Out on Christianity (Baker Books, 2010). Curious about the stories behind the statistics indicating that young adults are more disenchanted with the church than
JH: 1. Be open to being influenced by the people you hope to influence. 2. Be transparent about what you truly believe. 3. Ask questions about them instead of about their beliefs. 4. Tell them about your doubts and failures. In other words, give them some ammo they can use against you and then see if they do. 5. Ask them the following questions: a) What would you say to Christians if you thought they would listen? (Then take notes.) b) How do you navigate life spiritually (or not)? c) How are you? (Then put something in your mouth and listen. See my headshot for an example of how to do this.) The Outsider Interviews is both a book and a DVD. Watch the trailer atVimeo.com/11050648. Learn more about Henderson’s work at JimHendersonPresents.com and OfftheMap.com, an “idea lab” that aims to energize the church.
Check in with some of the church's most innovative thinkers on the subject of sharing the good news: Samir Selmanovic, James Choung, Dan Mer...