It all started in a Starbucks, by accident. I'd been working as a barista in a huge Starbucks in a Borders bookstore, finishing up my Master's degree, paying my bills, and trying to make my way back home to America after serving in Wales as a missionary for seven years. After being asked so many times about The Da Vinci Code while working behind the bar, I decided to start a reading and discussion group about it for "one night only." Thirty unchurched people turned up. At the end of the night, they said, "Can we do that again?" When I asked them why, the response floored me, "We were able to drink coffee, ask questions about Jesus, and nobody yelled at us."
They wanted to come back and talk about Jesus because we respected them enough to listen to what they had to say. When this reading group became a church, our two-hour gathering incorporated a two-way discussion for the final 30 minutes.
John's gospel is filled with conversations between Jesus and other people. It's not a collection of polished sermons that Jesus preached, but a record of discussions. That's why so many people connect with it. Discussion allows unbelievers to raise questions, and it gets to their obstacles to faith. When you listen to people, you can respond to their questions, struggles, and dilemmas instead of merely rehearsing a monologue. When Paul went into the synagogue in Corinth, he sat down and presented the gospel in a blend of teaching and discussion. As he reasoned with Jews and sympathetic Greeks in the synagogue, the Corinthian church was born.
Primed for conversation
The Internet seems to connect us, but only in trivial ways. People are becoming less authentic in their communication. They can watch a girl cut herself to the bone, but they're unable to help her in any way. The reaction of most in the pixilated e-arena is to mock or post crass comments, because they've been desensitized. It's their only choice; their ability to act compassionately has been stripped away by the glass barrier of their monitor. In the area of conflict, things aren't much different. People say things they wouldn't dare say face-to-face, because the Internet provides little or no accountability. Yet an illusion of fellowship is created in this virtual community.
As I survey the cultural shift of recent years, I hear my heart echo Jesus' parable: "an enemy has done this" (Matt. 13:28). There is a demonic agenda to keep us from talking face-to-face by giving us a false sense of connectedness in a virtual society. Genesis demonstrates that man was made as a relational being. It was not good for man to be alone, yet since the Fall, man's disconnectedness from others has been the direct result of his inability to connect with his Maker. Man is still hiding, but this time it's not behind a bush; it's behind a computer screen. He's still ashamed, and the Internet takes away much of the social pressure. Pseudo-intimacy in a cyber community will sabotage interpersonal relationships, and from the enemy's point of view, that's ideal. If the gospel is anything, it's social. It takes root through community and interpersonal communication.
True ministry is incarnational. If this wasn't true, then Jesus wouldn't have come in person. He'd have been content to share his opinion through the spoken and written word. But true ministry is done face-to-face. Jesus, who took on flesh, was proof of that, embodying the word he'd spoken long ago through the prophets. Jesus literally "fleshed out" his ideas. Paul too emphasizes the irreplaceable experience of face to face communication: "We were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you" (1 Thess. 2:17). "For I long to see you … that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith" (Rom. 1:11-12).