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.

Bounded and Centered

A few years ago while taking a class on evangelism I was introduced to the notion of “Bounded” and “Centered” groups. These were two very different ways of understanding salvation. The “Bounded” people were interested in knowing standards, rules and procedures for determining who is saved and who isn’t. Visually this way of thinking could be represented by a circle. Those on the inside are part of the kingdom of God and those on the outside are the non-Christians. There is a sense in which this desire to know the rules is what got humanity kicked out of the garden. You can read about this in Genesis 3. The “Centered” folks are most concerned about the direction someone is facing or moving. For these people you are either moving toward or away from the center. This is the drama that plays out in Acts 10 where Peter comes to the realization that all people who seek Jesus, including the Gentiles, are included in the Kingdom of God.

I must admit that I have a strong affinity with the “Centered” approach. There are “risks” with the centered approach. The clearly defied rules for membership (salvation) blur. It may mean opening ourselves up to the possibility that God works in ways we don’t approve of. Taking this line of thought to an even more radical place, it may mean that God fully accepts and includes people we don’t approve of.

In 1 Corinthians 13:11 Paul challenges the reader to put an end to childish ways. We need to move past the mentality of Adam that caused him to listen to the serpent and attempt in vain to be like God, knowing the difference between good and evil. Quite frankly that didn’t work out so well for him and it hasn’t worked out well for the church.

Putting away childish things means finding the courage to move past old ways of operating. It means being open to the possibility that who the church excludes misses the heart of God. Declaring who is in and who is out is both immature (childish) and out of sync with the heart of God.

Diversity on Sunday Morning

This past Sunday, Easter 2013, CBS Sunday Morning ran a story about diversity in houses of worship. Apparently 9 in 10 churches in America have no significant racial diversity. Not a big improvement from 1956 when Martin Luther King Jr. lamented that the 11 o'clock hour on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. When almost every other segment of society has embraced differences and diversity why is the church so resistant to change? In the evangelical world there are white and black understandings. When it comes to social issues there are the progressive churches, those open to LGBTQ people, and there are the conservative churches, the hate-the-sin-and-love-the-sinner people. Denominationally there are Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, African Methodist Episcopal, non-denominational, emergent and anarchist varieties. There is high church and low church. Peace churches and Patriotic churches. There are traditions that make space for women in leadership and churches that call men to retake their God-given headship. There are house churches and mega churches. From what I can tell everyone thinks they have "the" correct understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

This is not a blog intended to persuade you to my particular understanding of the Christian faith. To be honest my goal is simpler and possibly more radical. My thoughts go all the way back to my time in seminary when I participated in a church planting class. The entire course revolved around one central idea - the Homogeneous Unit Principle. In short this principle says that churches will grow when you bring people together who look the same, believe the same, are of the same economic status and hold a similar world view.

When I look at much of the church today the truth of this principle is certainly born out. People want to worship in spaces where they will feel comfortable. I understand this desire; I am just not sure if this desire is particularly Christian.

From what I have observed the Homogeneous Unit Principle tends to benefit the powerful. In its most dangerous form the powerful, read Conservative Christian Church, assumes it has the right to speak for everyone, including God.

Now, back to my proposal, when it comes to the life of the church we need to understand the Homogeneous Unit Principle as appalling evil. Christianity was never intended to be a gathering of people who are exactly the same. It sort of flies in the face of the children’s song “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” Paul’s image of the body, Jesus disciples, and the entire book of Acts are a few other examples that highlight the wonderful diversity of the Church.

Imagine with me for a moment. What would happen if progressives joined conservative churches and conservatives joined progressive churches? Not with any agenda beyond recognizing that we are children of God and have much to learn from each other. Can you imagine suburbanites worshipping in urban churches and urbanites being welcomed as full members into suburban churches? How about Catholics worshipping in Mennonite congregations and Mennonites participating in the life Southern Baptist congregations? Understanding develops empathy and empathy creates a space for conversation, conversation opens the door to conversion and all of this leads to a Christianity that changes the world.

Judgment

I bought a new bible last week. Cokesbury is closing all its retail stores so now is a great time to get a great deal on a new bible! This whole process of looking for a new bible sent me down memory lane. I still have the bible I used as a teen. On the inside cover I found the following quote:

“No two Christians are exactly alike, some wear their hair quite long, others wear it fairly short, some Christians have black skin, others have skin that is yellow or white; some Christians have little education, others have graduate degrees; some Christians are poor, others are rich; some Christians enjoy using guitars and drums in church, other are opposed to using any instruments.”

A day or two after purchasing my new bible I was part of a phone conversation where the person on the other end of the line declared that I was clearly not a Christian. He then proceeded to pray the sinner’s prayer over me not once but multiple times. I must say it is interesting to be thought of as a person without faith.

This experience has caused a lot of reflection in my own life. Not about my commitment to Jesus, but about how many times I have questioned some else’s faith or commitment to their faith simply because it did not reflect my commitments.

I am known for telling people that God does not come to us for permission. We, humanity, are not the gatekeepers for God. Declaring someone outside of the kingdom of God has never been our responsibility. Allowing God to be God is not easy or comfortable. If you are like me you want God to be on your side. I would like to think that my values line up with God’s. This is what the church is called to do, remind us of God’s values. The struggle to be as radically accepting and inclusive as God can be disturbing.

In my work I get to see and work with Christians of all stripes. There are the patriots and those who call us to a global citizenship. I have worked side-by-side with pro-life and pro-choice believers. Some believers are convinced that the rapture is coming and others see it as the greatest scam ever pulled on Christians. This list could go on for quite a while. Here is my point, for reasons that are only known to God Christians don’t always agree. Our disagreements can seem quite significant. These disagreements should never be cause for declaring that someone is outside the kingdom of God.

How would Christianity be different if we started with the supposition that everyone is a child of God; that each person’s beliefs, political positions, immigration status, and citizenship are simply inconsequential?

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.

Unfinished

I like Jonah.  A grumpy Old Testament prophet – he was asked by God to speak to his enemy.  Jonah didn’t like the idea so he runs (sails) in the opposite direction.  God sends a storm and transportation (belly of a fish) back to Nineveh.  Jonah preaches a short sermon, the enemy responds, God forgives and Jonah is upset, mostly with God for being so forgiving. I like the messiness of this story.  The anger and frustration directed at God is almost comforting.  Jonah is 100% human.  He helps me to feel less guilty when I get mad at God.

The best part of this story is not “the miracle in the fish” but rather that it is an unfinished story.  We are never told what happens to Jonah.  Does he turn into a bitter grumpy prophet or does his heart soften?  Did Jonah and God make-up?

Like Jonah, we are also unfinished stories.  In this there is hope.  Tragedy is not a forgone conclusion; triumph is still possible.

Jonah helps us to understand what it means to be a Christian.  People who define themselves as Christian must respect the “unfinishedness” of other people.  As long as someone is unfinished there is the possibility for the story to end well.

There is a sense in which Christians are called to be eternal optimists.  Writing people off as too lost, evil or sinful cannot be a Christian option.  Yes, this has political implications.  When leaders use “enemy” as a way to define persons or countries they are acting in ways that are anti-Christian.

Jonah closes with a grumpy prophet sitting outside the gates of the city, waiting for God to finally understand that some people are so bad that they are beyond forgiveness.  I wonder who won that discussion?

Evangelism

One of the most enjoyable aspects of my job is entering into theological discussions with our summer staff.  I especially like these talks when I am the one doing the pushing.  It becomes less fun when I am pushed. This past week in Atlanta one of our worship leaders suggested that the secret to evangelism is becoming that which you wish to save.  My initial reaction was mostly dismissive.  It is a helpful way to avoid rethinking and it gives me time to come up with a strategy to regain the upper hand.

The farther away I get from the conversation the more I have become convinced that my negative reaction to his thoughts had to do with the nagging suspicion that he might be right.  The potential implications of this are seismic.

This means that evangelism is something other than sharing the four spiritual laws or getting the person to pray the sinner’s prayer.  Becoming that which we wish to save speaks to identification and relationship.  Isn’t this what Philippians 2 is talking about- a Savior who gave it all up to become like us, human.   Jesus entered into relationship with humanity and could identify with the human predicament.

What does this mean for us?

Does evangelism among the poor mean becoming poor?

Can we cry with those who are crying if we ourselves have never cried?

Can you do multi-cultural ministry and live in a mono-cultural neighborhood?

To be honest, I am still thinking through the implications.  I sort-of want him to be wrong.

Becoming is costly.  It may mean stepping out of a comfortable world.  Authentic evangelism is much more than a brief encounter and a short prayer.  It has the potential to impact where I live, how I spend my money, the church I attend and who I spend my free time with.