Tag Archives: Evangelism

The City and the Redemption of Creation

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

From AdamL212 on Flickr

I try not to talk or write about politics very often as a normal course of my ministry.  My congregation is composed of people of all political stripes, and I strongly believe that no one political ideology has a corner on the Gospel.  However, something has been disturbing me as of late about the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall campaigns. It appears that there is a new opposition in the race: the City of Milwaukee.  I have received mailings, at least twice a week, from the campaign of Governor Scott Walker.  I understand that politics is dirty business, and I understand that Mayor Tom Barrett (the mayor of Milwaukee) is the opposition candidate, and as such his record is up for criticism.  However, many of these mailings have criticized Barrett by criticizing Milwaukee.  Many of them have highlighted Milwaukee’s unemployment rate, Milwaukee’s school troubles, Milwaukee’s poverty rate.  In fact, in his primary victory speech, Walker said, “…we don’t want to be like Milwaukee, we want to be like Wisconsin…” (you can hear his speech here).  This anti-Milwaukee rhetoric is what bothers me most about the whole political climate in Wisconsin. Additionally, as an urban minister, this has served as a catalyst for my theological reflection on urban centers in general.

Right out of seminary, I was interested in urban ministry.  It was a pull that I cannot completely explain.  I grew up in a small town (no traffic lights, not even a blinking light), and a city was certainly not part of my upbringing.  It was a summer field practicum in an inner city ministry that I felt the internal urging to ministry in an urban setting.  I have found that among others, there is often a lot of fear about cities, particularly low income inner cities.  For some, it is the natural anxiety that accompanies the unknown; for others, they may have been taught that cities are dangerous places, bad places, even God-forsaken places.  I know the narratives that cities are riddled with crime, gangs, drugs, and debauchery of all sorts.

I am certainly not going to argue that cities are some kind of utopia, or a place where the Kingdom of God is more evident than in suburban or rural communities.  However, I grieve the fear and, at times, hostility to cities.  I do not feel called to urban ministry because cities are somehow more deserving or more important than other communities, but because I want to work against the history of churches moving out of urban communities into suburban communities which have tended (at least in the last fifty years) to be more homogenous and have a higher socio-economic level.

I believe that God is very present in cities, and that cities have played, and will continue to play, an important role in the church’s mission in the world.  Until recently cities have been the major centers for industry, business, living, and culture.  Every day as I walk the streets of Milwaukee, I see remnants of the thriving city that Milwaukee once was (and will hopefully become again).  Further, cities have been central to my denomination’s history.  It was in a city that our denomination was first established on this continent, and it is in cities that people continue to encounter Christ, and continue to be formed into disciples of Christ.  I think that there is something unique about a city and God’s work in cities.  In fact, in the vision of the redeemed and restored heaven and earth, we see the image of a city — the restoration of human relationships and the model of people living in harmony, peace, and wholeness together.

The cities that we know and experience are certainly no where near the ideal of people living together in peace and harmony, but this does not mean that they are completely lost.  Cities continue to hold great potential for the Gospel to be spread and for God’s redeeming work to be observed.  There is, to be sure, a great deal of suffering and brokenness in cities (as is the case everywhere), it just seems that in many ways, the brokenness of those in the inner-city is more visible.

This vivid description of a city, the ideal of what a city should be, in Revelation 21, tells us that God’s plan is not to abandon cities or to abolish cities, but God’s plan is to redeem cities.  I think this is something for us to learn from.  The church cannot abandon cities, the church cannot ignore cities, and the church cannot simply look the other way from cities and the challenges of cities.  As Christ’s body on earth, it is our job to follow God’s leading, and I think that, in part, God is calling us to work for the redemption of cities, to work for the restoration of cities, and to seek the peace and welfare of cities, because when our cities are thriving, we will thrive (Jeremiah 29:7).

Milwaukee is not the city of God, neither is any city here and now.  However, I still believe that in the new heaven and new earth, we will be living in a city, in the perfect city with perfect relationships.  Until that complete restoration happens, however, I will continue working in my neighborhood in my city, always looking toward the peace and harmony that we are created for.  If God’s work of redemption has already begun, then it stands to reason that we can see signs of it, even (or especially) in the midst of a big city.

Accepting Jesus as Personal Savior? (Part 2)

In the first part, I discussed exegetically and theologically some of the challenges when talking about “accepting Jesus”.  In this second (and much shorter) part and conclusion, I will address the problems with the second part of the statement, referring to Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior.

The terminology “personal Lord and savior” is problematic because it is not biblical in any way. Scripture never calls Jesus our personal savior, scripture refers to Jesus as the savior of the world. Our relationship with God is not simply “me and Jesus” but it includes the Body of Christ, the church, with whom we must be joined in order to be a faithful follower of Jesus. When we speak of Jesus as our personal savior, then we have no need of a broader body. For instance, I have a personal computer that I do not need to share with others and I have a personal refrigerator in my office which I purchased, and which belongs to me, and is used for my items.

Jesus is not my personal savior or your personal savior. Jesus is the savior of the world. You see, either God is God or not. If Jesus is our personal savior, then the door opens for us to understand others to have different personal saviors, which would certainly be okay because person a can have a personal savior and person b can have a personal savior, but since they are different people, their personal saviors can be different. This reduces the stretch of God and opens the door for pluralism (or universalism), something which evangelicals (those who primarily use this “accepting” and “personal” language) certainly do not want.

Finally, scripture tells us that we did not choose Jesus, but Jesus chose us (John 15:16). Perhaps a better way to talk about this experience is that we have responded to God’s call. There certainly has to be some sort of response, because if God has called us we will bear fruit. Rather than asking if someone has accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and savior, perhaps it would be better to ask if they have felt the call of God. This is more likely to open up a conversation, I know it would with me, and holds the potential for a more fruitful interaction, and a better way to discuss the real issue at hand.

Accepting Jesus as Personal Savior? (Part 1)

I cringe every time I hear someone ask me if I’ve accepted Jesus as my “personal Lord and Savior”, primarily because I don’t know how to answer.

I identify as a child of the covenant. I was baptized when I was an infant, and when I was growing up, I responded to the promises that God made in my baptism. So while I do identify as a Christian, and a follower of Jesus, and a child of the covenant, I never had a time that I “accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior” and I never said the “sinner’s prayer.” I also cringe, because I do not think that this is the best way to think about it. I think that the language of “accepting Jesus” and “personal Lord and savior” are both problematic.

The language of “accepting Jesus” is appealing to the ear of American individualists, but it is problematic for two main reasons, the first of which we will discuss in this first part: talk about accepting Jesus is not entirely biblical.

The Bible, particularly the New Testament, does not speak of “accepting Jesus”.  Some English translations do use the word “accept” in various places (such as the NIV), and below are some of the different ways that it is used.  I have also included the lexical form of the Greek word that is used in each instance.

John 5:43, “I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; if another comes in his own name, you will accept [λαμβάνω] him” (NRSV)

John 14:17 “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive [λαμβάνω], because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you” (NRSV)

Romans 15:7 Welcome [(NIV: Accept) προσλαμβάνω] one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed [(NIV: accepted) προσλαμβάνω] you, for the glory of God” (NRSV)

Romans 10:16 “But not all have obeyed [(NIV: Accepted) υπακούω] the good news; for Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our message?'” (NRSV)

Romans 14:1 “Welcome [(NIV: Accept) προσλαμβάνω] those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. ” (NRSV)

1 Corinthians 2:14 ” Those who are unspiritual do not receive [(NIV: accept) δέχομαι] the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are discerned spiritually. ” (NRSV)

The easiest words to explain are υπακούω (hear, listen, understand, learn from) and δέχομαι (take, take up, approve or accept things, put up with or tolerate someone or something).  The word that appears more often and requires a bit more discussion is λαμβάνω.

λαμβάνω generally means “take”, but it can have several connotations.  It can mean to actively take as in take a hold of something or grasp, it can mean to take into one’s possession, it can mean receive or accept things, such as takes, it can mean to passively receive something or get something, and it can mean to take up receive including recognizing authority.  This last interpretation is what we see above in John 5:43, and this is probably the closest way that one can talk about “accepting Jesus” as in recognizing Jesus’ authority.  Another interesting aside, the usage of λαμβάνω in John 5:43 is descriptive rather than prescriptive, and denotes something that did or did not happen (or will or will not happen), not necessarily a command to do something.

While the Bible does not talk about “accepting Jesus” it does use two other words: believe and confess.

Romans 10:9 “because if you confess [ομολόγησις] with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe [πιστεύω] in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (NRSV)

Acts 16:31 “They answered, ‘Believe [πιστεύω] on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ ” (NRSV)

The word ομολόγησις refers to confessing as an act and not as a state of mind or a thought. The word πιστεύω refers to belief as in believe in something, to be convicted of something, to let oneself be influenced, convicted, trust, have confidence in.  These are all connotations of πιστεύω, and these have the more intellectual or affectual undertones.  I find it interesting that the passage above in Romans contains the words ομολόγησις and πιστεύω but not λαμβάνω, and moreover, it includes both an outward action, as well as an internal intellectual/affectual movement — which I suppose is similar to saying the “sinner’s prayer”. It is also important to note that Romans says to confess that Jesus is Lord, not accept that Jesus is Lord, and to believe that God raised him from the dead, not accept that.

The terms confess and believe referring to Jesus are far more biblical terms than “acceptance” which often carries the connotation of giving approval to or to give admission to, neither of which adequately describes our relationship to God.

Additionally, theologically speaking, it places the locus of control on us. I speak from a Midwestern American context, and in such a context we like to be in control of our lives. We like to feel like we can stand on our own two feet, and we like to feel as though we can control our own destinies. We like to feel as though if we fail it is because of bad choices, and we like to feel as though our successes are because of good choices that we made. It is only natural, then, that it should be up to us to accept Jesus or to reject Jesus. After all, it would not seem right for that decision to be made by anyone else but us. Moreover, talking about accepting Jesus places us in a position of control over God. If I apply to a job, they are the ones that have the power over me, because they do the accepting or the rejecting. Therefore, this acceptance language almost is as if we are in a position of authority over Jesus and we are the ones determining whether we should accept him or not.

This is problematic is because it places everything upon us. Our entire relationship to God is then dependent on us, as though none of God’s work was effective until we make it effective. In this worldview Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection only has meaning insofar as we give it meaning, and it has any efficacy only insofar as we accept its efficacy. This, certainly puts us in a position of power over God as we are the ones who determine if God’s work has any ability to restore or redeem.

I think the better question for us to ask is if Jesus will accept us!

Recovering Evangelism

Let me begin with a confession: the word “evangelism” makes me cringe. It’s not that I don’t like talking about God, I certainly love doing that. It is just that I associate “evangelism” with programs: Evangelism Explosion, The Way of the Master, or other simplistic techniques: the Roman Road, the EvangeCube. I often find that evangelism,. as I have experienced it, is somewhat anemic. We are called to make disciples, not just converts. Additionally, the focus is usually solely on getting to heaven and after-death salvation, as if this world is simply a waiting room for heaven. Therefore, if we just go and evangelize, are we really fulfilling our call to help form disciples?

In studying for my sermon on Sunday, the appointed Gospel text is from John 1:

“Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.'” (vv. 45-46).

What I find fascinating about this, is Philip’s simple response, “Come and see.” Now Philip’s response was first and foremost an invitation. Philip didn’t say anything about heaven or hell, he didn’t try to give irrefutable proof of why he believed that Jesus was the one whom Moses and the prophets wrote about, he didn’t try to convince him that he was a sinner who was destined for destruction unless he said the sinner’s prayer. Philip simply offered an invitation, “come and see.”

This simple invitation says so much in so few words. First, this invitation is to come along with Philip and not “go”. Philip didn’t say, go see him and see for yourself. Philip was going that way, and he invited Nathanael to come along with him. Second, Philip appeared to truly believe that Jesus had something to offer them right then, not simply after they died. An invitation such as this only works if you think that one’s faith impacts life right here and right now, not only after death. Third, his invitation focused on the good of Jesus. He didn’t condemn Nathanael for asking such a question, he didn’t try to convince Nathanael that without following Jesus he would be lost, Philip knew that Jesus had something good to offer Nathanael and Philip invited Nathanael to come and see for himself. No threats, no promises, simply an invitation.

This is the business that we as Christians need to be in. We must always be offering people the invitation, “Come and see.” We cannot threaten people, nor can we promise people particular things, all we can do is offer an invitation, “Come and see.” We cannot even offer anything, only Jesus can offer anything, we can only extend an invitation. While I won’t be walking around with an EvangeCube any time soon, nor will I be asking people if they think that they are “pretty much a good person”. However, I will continue to invite people to “come and see.”