Now, as Bonhoeffer said, "You cannot hear the last word until you've heard the next-to-the-last word." The next-to-the-last word is the law; it makes us feel guilty, trapped, judged. Only then are we ready for the Good News.
Evangelists who ignore the person's journey are missing something important. Or, we make the mistake of listening once and then freezing people in that state of rebellion. They may have spoken more outrageously than they believe; they may have only been trying to shock us; or they may have moved on from their first rejection of Christ. We must keep hearing the clues and moving along as they move.
G. K. Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy about five steps in his journey as a young man:
"One, I felt in my bones; first that this world does not explain itself. It may be a miracle with a supernatural explanation; it may be a conjuring trick, with a natural explanation. But the explanation of the conjuring trick, if it is to satisfy me, will have to be better than the natural explanation I have heard. The thing is magic, true or false.
"Second, I came to feel as if magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have someone to mean it. …
"Third, I thought this purpose beautiful in its old design, in spite of its defects, such as dragons.
"Fourth, the proper form of thanks to it is some form of humility and restraint. We should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of them.
"And last, and strangest of all, there came into my mind a vague and vast impression that in some way all good was a remnant to be stored and held sacred out of some primordial ruin. Man had saved his good as Crusoe had saved his goods. He had saved them from a wreck, and all this I felt, and my age gave me no encouragement to feel it.
"And all this time I had not even thought of Christian theology."
What a slow but elegant orbit he makes toward the Living Center.
Our part in the mystery
In the Bay Area where I live, I sometimes make jokes at the expense of a small town called Milpitas. Once while speaking on radio, I said, "You know, Beethoven is not on trial when the Milpitas Junior High Orchestra plays the Ninth Symphony. And Jesus Christ is not on trial when you or I or even C. S. Lewis tries to express the faith in a conversation or a sermon."
Then about a year later it occurred to me: But were it not for the Milpitas Junior High Orchestra, who would hear Beethoven? Even if badly played, it is better than no playing at all. Who plays Beethoven perfectly?
Some people trudge from church to church looking for the perfect rendition. They'll never find it. W. H. Auden once observed that even though the line is smudged, we can read the line, and that is the mystery of evangelism: even though we smudge the line, it can still be read. You can whistle the tune of the Ninth Symphony even after listening in the Milpitas gymnasium.
Evangelism is far greater than any of us. That is why it takes time. But without us, it would take an eternity. And human beings do not have that long to make up their minds.
Leadership Journal, April 1, 1984