Talking about Jesus in 2021
Current creative trends in mission & evangelism.
Maybe you’ve said it before, I certainly have. “Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.” (and no, it was not St. Francis of Assisi who said it.) I love the general sentiment of the quote. The slight problem is that the gospel requires words. If we live our lives without interpretation, we entrust that interpretation to the observer, who will think things like “what a nice person” and “they must have had great parents” and “how remarkably selfless”, but will never think to themselves “Oh I bet Jesus of Nazareth died on a cross and rose from the dead to unleash his redemptive Kingdom into the world through a blood-bought people, sent saturated in his love, grace and power...”
It’s a both/and. The Kingdom is proclaimed and demonstrated. Proclamation alone without demonstration is lacking. Demonstration alone without proclamation is lacking. 15 years ago I ached for disciples to live radical lives in line with their words, but today, in a world obsessed with social change and progress, I ache for disciples to use their words to interpret their radical lives, to speak of Jesus and the Kingdom and our hope.
So, like a scientist, I’ve paid close attention over the last few years to how missionaries in our network of microchurches are innovating and contextualizing how they are talking about Jesus with others. Here’s some of the trends I’m seeing:
- Through the Lens of Social Change
No surprise, the 4 Spiritual Laws, Romans Road and Bridge Diagram are less effective in an age with much less concept for universal moral standards, individual responsibility or ethics. There is an increased usage of gospel sharing tools that assume interest and common ground on a hope for social justice and an ache with the world’s brokenness. I’m seeing more missional disciples using tools similar to The Big Story / The New World / The Four Circles, which helps unearth some of that common ground, while proclaiming sin as the root source of that brokenness and Jesus as our ultimate hope. I’ve found these tools are accessible to people a little nervous or inexperienced at spiritual conversations, and also extremely helpful at setting up an invitation to follow Jesus.
2. Free Taxi for a Story, Free Coffee for a Story
For several years now, narrative has unseated apologetics as the primary context of spiritual conversation (exploring my reasons for believing this is an entire different conversation). That’s the backdrop of so many innovations I’ve seen over the past couple years which aim to get people sharing their stories with one another, cultivating immense opportunity for disciples not just to share their own testimonies, but to highlight the ever present grace of God in the lives of others. My favorite two: (1) a free late night taxi service, similar to Uber, all the ride costs is a story. I’ve actually tried this one a few times, and had some of the most rich spiritual conversations I can remember in a decade. (2) I have a friend (lookin at you Sammy!) who is a serial-experimenter that spent lots of time in a Starbucks with a sign that read “Tell me your story for a cup of coffee”. Very similar concept, and I loved hearing about his random encounters with strangers that would turn toward divine opportunities to share about Jesus.
3. Power Encounters — The Naturally Supernatural.
In spiritual conversation with non-Christians, we should always be “dialed in” to what the Holy Spirit is up to, more attuned to the Spirit and less attuned to our own spinning thoughts and feelings. The people we’ve seen take this seriously, and really try to live this out, are loaded with stories of the supernatural: prophetic words and healing that cracks people open to Jesus more than lock-tight reasoning ever could. “When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” Plenty of resources out there to help equip you in this area, but most recently I appreciated Alex & Hannah Absalom’s Healing the Sick and would recommend it to you.
4. Incarnational in the Marketplace & the Neighborhood
“Relational Evangelism” took off in the 90s and is here to stay, we typically use “incarnational” language in our community, to intentionally create Proximity, Presence, and Powerlessness among a people to win a hearing to Proclaim the good news of the Kingdom (the 4 Ps). Once upon a time, gospel tracks were effective because trust was not required to have an open and curious conversation. Now we are living in a post-trust society, where people won’t give you the time of day without earning it through trust. While incarnational ministry is not new, I do see a shifting trend in the pockets of people being engaged. Ten years ago it was more common for this kind of vision to be pursued toward affinity groups (sports leagues, gamer clubs, hobby communities…etc), but I’m seeing more people embrace a robust theology of place and take more seriously the kinds of relational rhythms that can be stewarded where we live (I still recommend Art of Neighboring as a good primer) and where we spend money (isn’t it more relationally strategic to get coffee from the same place instead of twenty different places? isn’t it more relationally strategic to buy my groceries from the same checkout at the same day/time so I build up a relationship with the same clerk?).
“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”