Monday, January 28, 2013

Areas of Influence and the Purpose of Life

[Adapted from “The Point of It All” in What's Wrong With Outreach.]

The typical model of how evangelism is supposed to work divides people into two categories, Saved and Lost. These categories are completely distinct and separate from one another. Every individual is in one category or the other. No one can be in both, or anywhere in between. This view could be illustrated like this:
There might be secondary differences within each category—among the Lost might be those who are apathetic to the gospel, those who are actively hostile, those who are devoted to other religions, and those who are atheists and have no supernatural beliefs at all; among the Saved might be those who are new converts and need instruction, those who are strongly committed and growing, those who are relatively apathetic, and those who are enthusiastically “on fire.” But these divisions are considered more or less intramural and aren’t really connected with the overarching goal of evangelism. The only distinctions made would be in relation to technique—how one goes about trying to reach a particular group from among the Lost—or impetus—how one goes about trying to motivate those from among the Saved to do evangelism in the first place.

It should be noted that there is some biblical support for this sort of dichotomous view. As in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus and the biblical writers often categorize people in just these sorts of terms, and after the Last Judgment, all people will be either in God’s kingdom or out of it. Whatever may be found to be the defects of viewing humanity exclusively by this model, it must be admitted that it is at least one valid perspective.

So according to this model, from the point of view of the Saved, the primary relationship that should exist between themselves and the Lost would be characterized as outreach. Any friendships, acquaintances, business relationships, associations, and the like that may exist are ultimately there to serve the purpose of outreach. God put that person into your life in order for you to be a witness to him or to her. You are in that job, you are in that club, you are in that neighborhood for the express purpose of being salt and light to the people who are there. And to the extent that you don’t have associations with the Lost, you should intentionally cultivate them in order to find means of reaching out to them.

The goal of all this outreach is to produce the result of Conversion. We want to bring people from the category of the Lost into the category of the Saved. This conversion process is accompanied by various sorts of indicators: recital of a sinner’s prayer, response to an altar call, overtly and publicly making a decision for Christ, renouncing past sins and expressing repentance, identification with and participation in a faith community. So our diagram could be expanded to reflect these interactions between the two basic groups:
Once again, there is biblical support for this model. Jesus and Peter and Philip and Paul and many others do engage in overt outreach to get the message of the gospel out to those who are unbelievers; people like Zacchaeus and the Philippian jailer have clear and overt conversion experiences. To some degree, at least, this model describes exactly what the church’s mission is, and I would not want to be thought to minimize it.

Nonetheless, this model also seems to be a bit reductionistic. As earlier noted, it fails to take into account varying degrees and varieties of Saved and Lost people. It also fails to take into account the fact that, at least on the level of our own human perceptions of one another, the division between saved and lost can sometimes seem less of an absolute gulf than a sometimes blurry line. God certainly knows the heart of the apathetic churchgoer, as well as the non-churchgoer who has a longing for God but has been hurt by organized religion in the past. As human onlookers, however, we don’t. Even the self-perception of people in both categories can be faulty: some people falsely believe themselves to be saved (or without a need to be saved); some people have a faith relationship with Jesus but struggle with wondering whether they are actually saved or not. Any pastor has dealt with many people of both categories. God certainly knows where each person is, but it may be that in his wisdom, our categories don’t actually make sense. We might ask, “If you were to die tonight, where would you go?” but since God may know that that person is not, in fact, going to die for the next twenty years, the question of where that person would go at any particular point in time is moot. That person may be in a God-ordained process going from darkness to light; the question of what point in time, exactly, that person went from a state of being Lost to one of being Saved might possibly be meaningless. Even if it’s not meaningless, it is hidden to us humans.

So another way to look at human beings might be that of a spectrum, instead of two discrete categories. There might be varying degrees of unbelief and belief, ranging from outright hostility or indifference to the gospel on one end to fervent and growing spirituality on the other. The range might look something like this:
It should be clear that this model, in its own way, is just as deficient as the distinct Saved-Lost model. It’s difficult to assess whether being hostile or indifferent is further away from the Saved side of the spectrum, and sometimes people who are outwardly the most hostile to the gospel are in fact closer to a dramatic conversion than those who appear to be seeking—Saul of Tarsus comes to mind, by contrast with Simon the Sorcerer (Acts 8:9-24). Moreover, if we view people’s spiritual journeys as traversing the spectrum from left to right (or perhaps the reverse), we can see that people seldom make the kinds of smooth transitions that the spectrum may suggest—few people, when converted, slide from being seeking unbelievers to nominal believers. When someone is converted, they generally go a lot further than that; the nominal believer is often someone who has been a professing Christian for some time but has stopped growing and has become stagnant. But despite its limitations, the spectrum can be nonetheless useful in recognizing another means by which evangelism can occur.

Let’s imagine George, a person with a rough past who was saved as an adult through a dramatic conversion experience. That person has a great deal of life experience as someone who was unbelieving, even hostile to the gospel. Besides a newfound zeal for Jesus and for reaching other people for him, George has something else that is invaluable with regard to outreach: a deep understanding of how someone thinks as an unbeliever, the doubts that unbelievers may have, the types of intellectual, emotional, and relational inroads that made it possible to come from a life of unbelief to faith. George also knows the language, the mannerisms, and the environment in which he used to live, and has a certain comfort level in that environment. There may be a period of time after conversion during which George might need to stay out of his previous surroundings, in order not to relapse into former patterns of sin. But once George is fully grounded, he may be able to move within that milieu and reach people in a way that someone without that life experience may not. The range on the spectrum that encompasses George’s life experiences, from hostility to the gospel to present-day experience, might be represented on the spectrum in this way:
The shaded triangle would represent George’s area of influence, the region in which he might be able to reach out to others effectively, based on the life experience that allows him to connect with others in those areas of the spectrum. The object would always be to draw people from wherever they are on the spectrum toward the right hand side, closer and closer to a deep relationship with Jesus. The bottom of the triangle ends on the right hand side where it does because it is generally impossible for someone to help draw someone else further toward Jesus than the person doing the drawing already has come. There are exceptions, but that’s generally the rule.

George may well be an excellent evangelist. Having covered the spectrum, he should be able to reach out effectively to many people on the Lost side. It is important to note that this effectiveness is not merely a function of what George is personally comfortable with; it is mostly a function of the people who are likely to be comfortable associating with a person like George. Those who don’t know the language, the mannerisms, and the environment of the people that they are trying to reach are highly unlikely to be able to reach them with any effectiveness, no matter how willing or passionate they are. This is one of the first things that those who do missionary work are taught. This is what the Apostle Paul meant when he said that he became “all things to all people” in order to reach them where they were (1 Cor. 9:19-23). The more like you I am, the more you are likely to be willing to listen to what I have to say (assuming, of course, that I am being like you in ways that don’t compromise my message). Missionaries sometimes spend years learning the language, culture, and customs of the people they are going to attempt to reach; native converts don’t have that hurdle to cross. Someone who comes to faith from an unbelieving subculture has exactly the same advantages when trying to reach back into that subculture.

Now consider Grace, a person who grew up in a Christian home, made a commitment to Jesus at an early age, never rebelled in a significant way, and whose life experiences are largely bounded by the Church. Grace is going to be able to reach a different segment of the spectrum in a different way:
Grace is not going to have the background that will give her a rapport with people who are significantly distanced from Christian circles. However, there are people that she can influence in a godly direction, from people who might just be seeking, to people who are nominal believers, to  those who are faithful but not deeply excited or growing in their faith. Grace might help develop someone who has just come to faith or rescue someone who is sliding away from a formerly zealous relationship with Jesus. She can be an invaluable help within the body of Christ, and accomplish things that George couldn’t.

But on the original model, where the Saved and the Lost are considered as two very separate, discrete categories, only George is truly accomplishing his purpose of outreach to the lost. Grace might do a bit of evangelism when the opportunity arises with someone who is genuinely searching, but in general, Grace’s most natural venue of ministry is going to be locked within the Saved circle. In an environment where outreach to the Lost is the only thing that truly matters, Grace’s most natural area of ministry is subtly invalidated.

All of this, of course, refers to the typical and natural areas of influence that most believers will operate in. It has nothing to do with supernatural empowerments that God may give to an individual believer. God empowered a deeply zealous Jew named Saul to become the most influential early apostle to the Gentiles. In recent times, he used a sheltered rural Pennsylvania pastor named David Wilkerson to reach out to hardened street gangs in urban New York. God can and does use any number of people to reach various sorts of other people in many unexpected ways, and it’s often suggested, subtly or otherwise, that those who don’t reach out much to unbelievers lack either the faith or the willingness to be drawn out of their “comfort zone.” But what this does, in those situations where a person is not specially gifted or called for such an unusual form of ministry, is to discourage believers from doing what they would naturally be good at and channel their efforts into avenues of ministry that are frustrating and unfulfilling to them.

When George and Grace are both allowed to focus on their most natural areas of influence, an interesting thing happens. As a relatively new believer, George is in Grace’s area of influence. As Grace uses her influence to help George develop in his faith, George’s own passion for God continues to grow. He is enabled to minister to his own area of influence more effectively, as he understands his faith and lives it out better. Since his area of influence includes many unbelievers, some of them may come to faith. Grace will continue to grow in her own faith as she continues to use her gifts; George will continue to grow and begin to be able to mentor younger believers, including Gary, who came to Jesus by means of George’s influence, and who now has his own area of influence. This creates a current effect, in which each person draws the next person toward the right side of the spectrum.
Discipling younger believers has the overall effect of bringing new people into the “saved” region—possibly a greater effect than if someone like Grace were to try to directly witness to those who are still unbelievers.

All this relates to the basic question: what is the purpose of the Christian life? Aside from having our sins forgiven and going to heaven when we die, what exactly are we doing here? The typical evangelical response is evangelism. We are here to bring other people to Jesus, to save other people from hell. For those who have a calling toward it, that view is fulfilling and self-evident. What could be better than sharing with others what we ourselves have received?

But for many—probably most—who do not have a clear calling to evangelism, the answer is a bit more complicated. The purpose of life is to exercise whatever gifts and talents God has given, to do our best with who we are, to worship God and serve others, and by doing so, to be a part of accomplishing God’s larger purpose, which involves redeeming both a people and a world, restoring both to the pristine state they should have had before sin corrupted and distorted it. That is, individual people living out the individual purposes dictated by their individual gifts work together, not only to bring as many people as possible to Christ, but to help them to become as much like Christ as possible. Maybe your effect on others is to draw them to being willing to listen to the gospel. Maybe you effectively deliver the gospel to those who have been so prepared. Maybe you take people who already know the gospel and bring them to the next level of maturity and obedience. “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow” (1 Cor. 3:6).

That’s the answer. In Christ, you get to be yourself, only better. You get to be the you that you could never be, maybe the you that you could never even envision. You get to be the best you imaginable. But it’s you, not the prefab cookie cutout that someone else, however well intentioned, thought you should be. It’s the you that your creator thought you should be, actually created you to be, to perform the part in the great drama that could only be fulfilled by you.

If you like this post, you may be interested in my book, What's Wrong with Outreach?

What's Wrong with Outreach?

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