Monday is for Missiology: Engaging Well, part 3 -- Preaching Christ
For the past few weeks, we've been in a series based on a sermon I gave at a pastors conference which served as a primer on contextualization for pastors. Entitled "Engaging Well," part one discussed the need to discern the times, and part two discussed the need to understand the era in which we live. We finish with a simple, yet pivotal reminder: Preach Christ.
Paul demonstrated a clear understanding of those he was trying to reach. Most importantly, he knew what to preach. His pattern was to preach Christ repeatedly. Notice the bridge Paul built from something familiar to his Athens audience to someone familiar to him--Jesus: "For as I was passing through and observing the objects of your worship, I even found an altar on which [is] inscribed: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD." I am all about building a bridge to culture, but something is intended to cross that bridge. Paul revealed the identity of God, previously unknown to the Athenians, as Jesus Christ.
If you're only building a bridge to culture so people can find your church, then you'll be captured by the culture because your goal is a crowd. The goal of the gospel is more disciples for Jesus, not a big congregation for you. The right reason to build a bridge is for the gospel to cross over to the people in the culture.
Paul found an altar to an unknown God in Athens and confronted their worship done ignorantly. He understood what an incredible barrier this god was to the people of Athens being able to find Jesus. Paul resisted the temptation to let the fear of offending his new friends stop him from proclaiming the truth. Ignorance is not exactly in the list of sweet-feeling words.
Paul proclaimed, "The God who made the world and everything in it--He is Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in shrines made by hands" (Acts 17:24). He also built a bridge from their poets: "For in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we are also His offspring'" (Acts 17:28). Paul goes again from what is familiar to them to something familiar to him--the message of Christ. "Therefore, having overlooked the times of ignorance, God now commands all people everywhere to repent, because He has set a day on which He is going to judge the world in righteousness by the Man He has appointed. He has provided proof of this to everyone by raising Him from the dead" (Acts 17:30-31).
LifeWay Research did a survey that was picked up by USA Today and CNN. I was invited on CNN to speak live and in person about this research. Needless to say, I was nervous, mainly because our own research painted Christians in a negative light. Just before going live, I found out from the producer they thought LifeWay Research was an anti-Christian organization. The news was too bad to be released by Christians. If you watch the YouTube clip it's me, the anchor, Mike Galanos, and the onscreen tagline: "Attacks on Christians?" That was not the theme I was hoping for!
I explained in the research and on CNN that the vast majority of unchurched respondents to one of our surveys (79%) said Christianity is more about organized religion than about loving God and people. Also, 72 percent of the respondents said the church is full of hypocrites or people who do one thing but say another. Perhaps the one stat that garnered the most attention was this: 44 percent of the unchurched surveyed said Christians "got on their nerves." It is not exactly the conversation one wants to have on CNN--or with anyone in your neighborhood.
I wanted to be like Franklin Graham. He gets on the news shows and brings everything to Jesus. Larry King would ask, "Well, Franklin, how's your dad today?" Franklin would reply, "You know, Dad's doing well, and he's having a good day. You know, Larry, this is the day the Lord has made. This kind of day reminds me of a day 2,000 years ago on a hill outside Jerusalem when Jesus died on the cross for your sin, in your place; and, Larry, today could be your day of salvation!" He always preaches Christ in this manner and in this content. We must start where people are, but never leave them without hearing the good news of the gospel.
On CNN, we talked about the research, but I kept trying to point to Jesus. Finally, I said, "Mike, this message never will be popular. There's always going to be what the Bible calls the stumbling block of the cross. It's always going to be hard for people to [understand] that God sent His Son who died...About 90 percent say I've got a close friend who considers himself or herself a Christian. So I think, ultimately, Christians have a faith that, by nature, needs to be shared. So I think we need not to be afraid of that, but proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and let people hear the message."
Part of the challenge is a lot of people are tripping over the stumbling block of Christians before they get to the stumbling block of the cross. I don't know that I succeeded, but what I tried to do was speak of Jesus, the need for men and women to trust and follow Him and repent of their sins.
My point then and now is simple: Too many churches love their church culture more than they love Christ's mission. Yet if I follow Paul in the way he followed Christ, I will care for people of the culture who exist outside my church. The gospel has not changed. The mission has not changed. It is still on a mission of reconciliation, pleading on behalf of Christ, "Be reconciled to God" (2 Cor. 5:20).
So if we're going to endure today, to be faithful in faithless times, we're going to have to leave where we are comfortable. We're going to have to go and tell, not just wait for them to come and see. That may mean reshaping some of the ways we preach and lead the church. We always must build a biblically faithful church, but live in the context where we find ourselves.
A biblically faithful church in Seattle should look different than one in Selma, Alabama. A church in Selma should look different than one in Senegal. The bottom line is that where we are may influence the way we have conversations about Jesus, but the conversations always are about Jesus.
Paul was unashamed to say, "What you have worshiped in ignorance, this I proclaim to you." We live in a world where people are unaware of the true gospel of Jesus Christ. The answer for being faithful in faithless times is to take the unchanging gospel message to build bridges, start conversations and engage in relationships with people who are far from God.
The problem is that many of us have forgotten that ministry must be less about us and more about Jesus, His Kingdom and His mission. When I look to Paul, I am struck with his boldness and savvy. May we all be bold and wise as we engage an increasingly hostile and confused culture around us with the greatest news the world has ever known--Jesus Christ, the way, the truth and the life.