Sunday, 29 October 2017

Bridging the Gap by Keeping the Focus on the Gospel

In my last post, I reflected on the growing gap between believers and non-believers, as well as those attending church and those who don’t go to church. This separation is evident in the ignorance of many people--there is no longer an understanding of what the Bible teaches or of mainstream Christian beliefs. Children are not taught these truths in school and parents have stopped sending their children to Sunday school. Adults don’t discuss religion and don’t see how anything the Bible could have to say would be relevant to them.

I have recently started taking a book table with free Christian books out in my local town centre for a few hours a week. I thought it would be a pretty non-confrontational way to get Christian literature into the hands of those living in the town. It is a different type of low-key evangelism aiming to build contacts and, in time, get people to church.

A few weeks ago I was sitting quietly reading near to the table, but not on top of it. I try to keep a distance so people don’t think I’m going to pounce on them and preach a sermon if they show a flicker of interest. I can usually sense whether someone wants me to talk to them or not by their body language as they look at the books.

Anyway, on this day, my peace and solitude was suddenly disturbed by the noisy arrival of a white van man. He crashed to a stop directly in front of me obscuring the table from view. He then jumped out and marched to the back of the van where he began opening then slamming doors. He was a youngish man wearing shorts and casual clothing. I did not expect to have any interaction with him.

I watched his activity thinking that, based on his appearance, (I know this is a stereotype but we all do it!) he wouldn’t even cast a glance at my books. I was also silently praying that he would move along quickly so that my table would be visible again. However, there was an “Oy love” or something similar shouted in my general direction followed by something about Bibles. Confused, I immediately felt a stab of guilt, this man was actually a lost soul looking for a Bible and I had been wishing him somewhere else….

“You are looking for a Bible?” I keenly asked him.

“No, I said, what version of the Bible do you use?” He responded as he continued loudly going about his work.

Still thinking he was looking for a Bible, I said “Well, I have some John’s Gospel’s here and my church uses the New King James version.”

“You know that’s corrupted,” he responded. He then proceeded to tell me the reasons why, at length. At times he was shouting at me across the street as he moved around his vehicle. This was obviously drawing the attention of passers by. Nothing like a loud debate about religion to draw a crowd.

I patiently waited for him to finish before explaining why the Bible wasn’t corrupted. At this point, he changed the subject and still in the same loud voice began explaining why Christians should use the “flat earth theory” as their foundation for evangelism. (You think I’m joking but there are an increasing number of these people around.) He even had proof of the effectiveness of this method in the form of a recent convert, or so he said.

After discussing some of these issues somewhat fruitlessly with the man who was becoming more and more aggressive as I refused to accept what he was saying, he disappeared into a shop. Re-emerging he tried to continue insisting that I needed to watch certain videos on Youtube and to change my methods of evangelism and the Bible I was using etc etc. I changed the subject by asking him which church he was involved in. Turns out, he doesn’t go to church, corruption there as well….

Why have I relayed this story? Not to highlight the absurdity of this man’s beliefs, or to express my frustration with this type of situation. Purely to demonstrate what happens when the focus of our faith becomes something other than the Gospel. It makes me very sad that this man had become so fixated on two areas that don’t have much, if anything, to do with forgiveness of sin through Jesus. He was so desperate to convert me to his way of thinking that he wasn’t hearing the true message that I was trying to convey to him.

This man claimed to be a Christian yet he was willing to spend time debating these issues aggressively in public in the presence of many non-believers. What an evangelistic tool a conversation between two believers in the street could have been if we had been able to encourage each other with truths from the Bible, whichever version we happened to be holding.

Similarly, in my town, I have been attempting to befriend a drug addicted lady who mixes with some pretty dangerous people. I learned, the hard way, in the Philippines, how to try and truly help people with these types of problems. I also developed a thick(er) skin for self preservation!

This lady was ranting and raving abuse at me whilst standing smoking behind my book table. Clearly, the situation was less than ideal not only because passer’s by probably assumed she was my ministry partner which raised some Christians eyebrows and kept the rest well away, but now because she was screaming and swearing at me.

It crossed my mind that the police might be called which would be tricky. She was upset because I was trying to draw some basic boundaries about what I was and wasn’t prepared to do to help her. This involved reminding her constantly that I could and would give her short term help on the day she needed it, but that long term help could only come from God and that her true need was to get right with Him.

Afterwards, it occurred to me that this was probably akin to gobbledegook in her drug induced rage and that I was probably frustrating her by referencing a Deity that she could not comprehend or see the relevance of, for her immediate problems. This became evident when she calmed down sufficiently for me to offer to buy her lunch at a nearby cafe. After initially refusing due to a sudden stab of conscience and not wanting to “use me,” she consented.

We sat down and she began eating. I tried to broach the God topic again, this time with more urgency as I honestly didn’t know how long this woman could continue living in her emaciated body with the risks she was taking on a daily basis. I could see that she was softening towards me, probably due to the food. She realised that she needed to show willing and that all I really wanted was for her to listen to me talk about God. This is what she said….

“Do you mean like when the man gets some bread and …er…does something…and dips it in something and er……”

“No, look, forget all that.” I cut her off abruptly with a wave of my hand. Perhaps, I shouldn’t have told her to forget her vague idea of Communion but that could be dealt with at a later stage.

Improvising, I looked around and grabbed two sugars. I placed them on different sides of the table then placed a teaspoon in the middle. “This is God,” I said, pointing to one of the sugars. “This is you, and me.” I pointed to the other sugar which she was staring at intently. “This spoon is all the bad things we do. It keeps us separated from God because He is perfect and holy and cannot get close to us because of it. That is also why we cannot get to heaven.” I looked around for something else and grabbed a ketchup bottle, it helped that it was red but I think this aspect was lost on her. “This is Jesus. He died for the bad things we do. He died instead of us and took our punishment. He is like a bridge between us and God.” As I said this, I picked up the spoon and balanced it on top of the ketchup bottle. My presentation had become even more urgent as I was just desperate for her to understand. She was still staring at the hastily assembled items then she looked up. Making eye contact she spoke softly, “I get it now.” She cried then about her life and everything that had gone wrong. We talked for a long time, I made sure I explained how she could get right with God and filled in some of the gaps, then she went home.

I saw her again a few weeks later and she seemed a lot calmer, something was different in her general demeanour, she was less frantic. She had started making gradual changes and was trying to keep off the drugs. She mentioned the sugars, spoon and ketchup bottle and how she had heard bits of this message over the years but hadn’t understood it. Now, she said she did. She took a John’s Gospel from my table. She asked to come to church.

We arranged to pick her up but she didn’t turn up at the meeting point. The next time I saw her she blanked me in the street. This is where the thick skin comes in and I have to trust that if God has His hand on her, she will be back. I sense that she is lost in the darkness of the underworld and that she can see the light of Jesus hovering at the edge, that she is starting to grasp for it but that things are getting in the way. Please pray for her.

This story is another example of the gap between believers and non-believers. I established later that the lady had been thinking back to a time when she had been given Communion, or their equivalent, in a Greek Orthodox church. Christianity had become about this vague ceremony in her mind.

A Christian recently told me how excited he was that a local school had allowed a vicar in to give all of the children Communion. I was shocked commenting that most were probably not Christians and that this would surely do more harm than good, according to the warnings in the Bible. However, this man felt that the fact that there was Christian influence in the school through the Communion was a good thing. Is this not, though, just another way of getting side-tracked from a person’s true need?

During evangelism, it is essential that we stick to the core truths of the Gospel and simplify them to the level of the person we are speaking to. This is where debates about methods fade into obscurity because we cannot plan for every situation. Sometimes, when we are faced with someone ready to listen and in a desperate condition, all we will have is two sugars, a spoon and a ketchup bottle!

In our town, a group of churches (not including our church,) have regular healing meetings on the street. They combine this with preaching. A fair number of people stop and receive prayer for healing. At least one of the main leaders believes that it’s always God’s will to heal and I’m sure he’s communicating this to the non-believing community.

Will these people go away and find peace with God as a result of this intervention? What will happen to them if they aren’t healed? Surely then, the gap between believers and non-believers will be wider as they won’t trust anything that is said by Christians in the future. Perhaps, they will also doubt the God that the Christians claim to represent when they promise healing in His name and He doesn’t deliver. If God does deliver and heal the person, will they know enough of the Gospel to realise that their greatest need is forgiveness of sin rather than just earthly healing?

We must keep the focus on the Gospel during our evangelism. Forgiveness of sin through Jesus is the only way that a person can be saved eternally. We can bridge the gap between believers and non-believers by communicating the life-saving message in a way that the recipient can understand and relate to.

“If you confess with your mouth Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart God raised Him from the dead. You will be saved.” Romans 10 vs 9

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