Christian

What makes someone a Christian?  As a pre-teen I remember an “End-Times” speaker coming to our town and talking about how all the planets would line up in 1982.  He speculated that this would signal the beginning of the end or the start of the “tribulation.”  I was so afraid that I would be left behind when Jesus came to “rapture” the real Christians that I went forward every night to accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior.  Becoming a Christian had something to do with praying the right set of words.  Confession of sin and asking Jesus to sit on the throne of my heart needed to be included in the prayer.   I kept going forward every night because I wasn’t sure I prayed the prayer correctly. The fear of not having done it right haunted me for years.  More than once I snuck out of my bedroom at 2 AM to check on my parents to make sure they hadn’t been raptured away.  It took years to realize that the rapture theology that consumed my youth was a non-biblical scam made up to sell books.  There has been much freedom in discovering that Christianity is so much more than a way to avoid “The Tribulation.”

This journey into a new understanding of Christianity has only intensified the “what makes someone a Christian?” question.  During Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus in John 3 there is a fascinating conversation about entering into a process of rebirth.  It would seem that Christianity has something to do with resetting, rebooting and starting over with a clean slate.  In Matthew 25 Jesus tells a strange story about sheep and goats.  Eventually the sheep are invited into the kingdom of God and not because they prayed the right prayer.  There is no indication that they ever went forward at church and accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior.  They are invited in because of how they lived their lives in service to others.

The more I read scripture the more I am convinced that Christianity has everything to do with who we are and how we live our lives.  There is a song from my youth that says well what I am trying to say, “They will know we are Christians by our love.”

There are still well-meaning people who want a Christianity defined by rules and formulas.  The reasons for this grow out of the best of intentions.  The problem is that the God of Scripture has no interest in rules and formulas, no matter how well-intentioned they are.  The closest Scripture comes to a formula is love, radical and unconditional love.

Acts 10 & Evangelism

Last week I had the opportunity to share about the mission and ministry of DOOR with a group of pastors. They were exploring the possibility of hosting a DOOR program in their city. After I finished there was a time for questions. As usual the questions ranged from the practical to the theological. The first 20 minutes or so were spent answering questions about facility, hosting and staffing needs. Then the discussion shifted. It started when a pastor offered an observation of what he had heard so far and ended with a question. It went something like this:

“It is clear that DOOR does a good job of introducing people to the city and its needs. Feeding the hungry, helping out with local VBS programs, addressing the “isms” (race, sex class), allowing local leaders to share their stories with participants and working side-by-side with community members are all good things to do. I want to applaud DOOR for engaging this. It seems to me that DOOR is not asking participants to do the most important work of evangelism. Do you train DOOR participants to lead people to the Lord?”

To be honest I was not surprised by this person’s assessment and question. I have had to respond to similar comments and questions many times over the past two decades. My response has evolved and changed over the years. There was a time I would have arrogantly suggested that this pastor take Scripture a little more seriously. When Jesus does talk most directly about separating people into two camps – the story of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46, the four spiritual laws never come into play. Getting into heaven has everything to do with feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner and giving a cup of water to those in need.

These days I look to Acts 10 when thinking about evangelism or conversion. It is the story of Peter and Cornelius. Many scholars understand this chapter to be the passage that officially makes space for the Gentiles, everyone who isn’t Jewish, within Christianity. So it is an important section of Scripture when it comes to evangelism.

As a child I remember being told that this was a story about the conversion of Cornelius. I agree with that assessment, but it is an incomplete understanding. The story starts with Cornelius, a Roman Gentile, receiving a word from God that his prayer had been heard. Then the story skips to Peter having a dream. He is told that “unclean” animals are OK to eat and he is to go to Joppa. Peter goes and ends up giving witness to the work God is doing among the Gentiles. The interesting question of Acts 10 is who is converted or evangelized? I have come to the conclusion that both Peter and Cornelius are evangelized.

What are some lessons we can draw from this? Could it be that evangelism is a mutual experience? I don’t know how we arrived at a one way perspective of evangelism. In my mind conversion and evangelism happen when two or more people meet and are all led by the Spirit to a place none of them expected to be. This is what happens is Acts 10; read it for yourself.

In a small way this is how DOOR approaches evangelism. It is our goal to bring people who might not normally connect with each other together and create a space for mutual evangelism. When this happens the Kingdom of God begins to appear in powerful ways.

A Case for Short-Term Missions

According to David Livermore  this year 4.5 million Americans will participate in a short-term mission experience at a cost of $2.5 billion.  DOOR, the organization I work for, will host .06% or 2,500 of these folks.  Over the last two decades short-term mission trips have grown from a novel idea to big business.  This growth has not come without criticism. Critics of short-term mission range from those who worry about the wasted resources to those who fret about the cultural insensitivity of short-term participants.  Couldn’t the money be better spent on long term sustainable projects?  What does it mean to be respectful of local cultures?

The critics do have a powerful case against short-term mission/service trips.  It costs a tremendous amount of money to send and host folks for a short period of time.  Hosting short-termers means that someone has to redirect their energy from local ministry to working with visitors.  Short-term participants often show up with all their prejudices and stereo-types intact – this can be destructive to host communities.

Why host short-term trips?  When done with fore-thought and concern for local communities these experiences can become opportunities for conversion.  Not conversion in the “I have the answer for your deepest need so listen to me,” but rather conversion in the Acts 10 sense.

In Acts 10 Peter is asked to visit Cornelius, a Roman centurion.  In an unexpected turn of events it seems that the Christian faith has expanded beyond the Jewish community.  Through a dream, mostly about eating unclean meat, Peter is convinced to visit Cornelius.  In the process of meeting each other, both Cornelius and Peter end up experiencing God in a new way - conversion.

When done well, short-term mission trips provide a space for conversation and mutual conversion.  When both the visitors and hosts end up in a new space, God moments happen.

Space

Last week I met with a group of church leaders. Near the end of our time together, I asked the following question, “What do you do well?”

One person immediately responded, “We provide breathing space. This is what we do well.”

At first I wasn’t sure how to respond. I didn’t get what was being said. What does breathing space mean?

Luckily I didn’t have to wait long for clarification. Other folks quickly jumped into the conversation.

“I have felt the freedom to be me.”

“People have been patient with me as I have struggled with God’s call on my life.”

“I could be angry with God and wasn’t condemned for feeling this way.”

Hearing stories of how people were given the space to work through their faith without manipulation and condemnation was powerful. Allowing people to truly walk their own faith journey is a rare event in our culture.

We often ask, “But what happens if they come to different conclusions and understandings than me? Or think, “It is important that Christians know the truth and that truth better line up with my truth!”

This is why we have confessions of faith. It gets everyone on the same page. It creates unity.

But I cannot help but wonder if we sometimes confuse uniformity and unity. Do we all have to agree before we can be unified or does something powerful happen when we give people breathing space?

Read Acts 10. Who gets converted: Peter or the Centurion? Maybe conversion is what happens when two people come together, share their faith journeys, and both end up in a place they never expected.