How to Talk to a “None” About Jesus

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Perhaps you know that the Northwest is home to many nones. Nones are those who say they have no religion, which includes more than 30 percent of those living in the Northwest. Forty-two percent in Portland and 37 percent in Seattle say that have “no religion.”

What does this mean for those sharing the good news of Jesus Christ in the Northwest? First, it means that many of our neighbors have no faith system that they must “leave” to come to Christ. Leaving Islam or Buddhism presents multiple difficulties that do not exist for the nones. Coming to Christ from Islam means breaking with family and community, as well as Islamic teachings. It can even put one’s life in jeopardy. By contrast, those with no religion are not “leaving” a faith system as much as they are filling a void, i.e. the God-shaped hole in every human heart. Many of those coming to Christ are coming from this kind of background. In China, for example, tens of millions are coming to Christ from atheism and agnosticism.

Secondly, Jesus Christ provides the only satisfying answer to the deep needs of the heart. These include forgiveness, love, and hope, but I want to speak of two which you might not have considered, but which exist for every person, including the nones.

First, every human being yearns for justice, but without our God, justice cannot be had. On June 17, 2015 nine people were murdered during a Bible study at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. In Syria and Iraq, thousands of Christians, and others, have been slaughtered by ISIS. These and other atrocities demand that justice be done. But how do you secure justice for those so grievously wronged? They are dead. Even if the killers are caught and punished, how does this help the victims? If there is no God, a God who is holy and all-powerful, so that He knows what is right and has the ability to produce the right, there is no ultimate justice. Without a just God to whom all must give an account, this world is reduced to “winners and losers.” Winners are those who get the most “stuff” and live a long and happy life. Losers are those who don’t get the “stuff,” and whose lives are cut short or impaired through bad health or bad luck (like being born in Afghanistan!). Ultimately we all lose because death comes to all.

To be clear, if there is no God, there is no justice, and therefore Adolph Hitler was a “winner” in comparison with his victims. Hitler died at age 56. For many years he enjoyed great power and luxury. By contrast, Anne Frank, one of Hitler’s victims, died at age 15. She suffered terribly under Hitler’s tyranny, as did millions of others. Little children, young men and women, were slaughtered by this evildoer. If there is no God, and no hope of ultimate judgment and resurrection and eternal life, then there is no true justice for the most evil among us, and their victims are life’s losers. This is a reality that nones and all unbelievers need to confront. Jesus Christ provides the only hope for justice and fairness.

Secondly, every person wants to live in peace, but without our God, there can be no peace in the truest sense. In the Middle East, we are not hoping for peace. Worldly diplomacy and military engagements are merely intended to end the killing and produce what might be called “peaceful bigotry.” The goal of the United Nations is not to make the Palestinians and the Jews love each other. The goal is simply make them stop the killing and live beside each other. If the killing stops we will call it “peace,” but really it’s a “peaceful bigotry” because there is no love. The same could be said of those fighting in Iraq, or even in the streets of some American cities. Our political and judicial system is meant to keep order, not produce peace. Only God can produce peace because peace requires a heart-change. In the human heart there is a longing for peace, but without Christ the best we can hope for is a peaceful bigotry.

We are privileged to live in one of the most beautiful places in the world, which at the same time is one of the world’s great mission fields. About four percent of Northwesterners are in church on Sunday. But we have a powerful Gospel. We have the only message that addresses the great needs of the human heart, including the needs for justice and peace. It is a good day to share the gospel of Jesus Christ in the Northwest.

Friendship Matters: Loving Our Homosexual Neighbors

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I spent the early part of this week at the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) meeting in Columbus, Ohio. The highlights were the Tuesday evening prayer service in which thousands gathered to pray for spiritual awakening in our lives, our churches, and our nation; followed by a missionary commission service on Wednesday morning. Although these were the highlights, the matter that has captured national attention is the stand we took upholding traditional marriage as defined and described by the Bible. This subject was timely, and necessary, because of the imminent Supreme Court decision on whether same-sex marriage will be deemed a constitutional right. If it is deemed a “right,” there will be serious implications for all believers, churches and religious institutions. Indeed, we are already seeing this happen in the Northwest, where same-sex marriage has been made legal in Washington by popular vote.

The Northwest Baptist Convention of churches has already taken a step to address this matter by affirming the Baptist Faith and Message as our statement of faith. The BF&M describes God’s plan for marriage as a union between one man and one woman, for life. As an NWBC member church, your church is protected, in part, by this statement of faith. Ashley Seuell, attorney with the Northwest Baptist Foundation, has drafted a document that can provide further help in this matter.

The discussion of same-sex relationships that I found most helpful at the SBC was a panel discussion which included a university professor who had lived as a lesbian, but whom Christ saved, delivering her from her unbelief, and ultimately also delivered her from her homosexual lifestyle. Her name is Dr. Rosaria Butterfield and I want to briefly describe for you what she said.

First, she said that friendship matters. Her journey to Christ began through friendship with a pastor and his wife. They ate in each other’s homes. They welcomed her into their lives. When she decided to write a book about why Christians “hate” people like her, they encouraged her to read the Bible as part of her research. She took the challenge and read the entire Bible seven times in two years. The result of her time in God’s Word was that she wanted Jesus. She wanted the Jesus she came to know through the Scriptures. She was powerfully drawn to Him. In describing her salvation she said, “I wasn’t converted out of homosexuality. I was converted out of unbelief. Then God went to work on the rest.”

One of Dr. Butterfield’s primary lessons for the church is this: We need to be an accessible community where unbelievers are welcomed and friendship is real. Friendship matters. Friendship in which there are no conditions is vital to reaching people. Butterfield said that the homosexual world provided her with community, and it was critical to her conversion that the pastor and his wife provided community as well.

As I heard her speak about the need for Christians to truly befriend unbelievers, I thought of the late British missionary Leslie Newbigin, who spoke of two conversions. First, unbelievers are converted to the church, or some part of the church. Then they are converted to Christ. He meant by this that people first ask questions like, “Do I like those people? Do I want to spend time with them? Are their lives attractive?” Only when they receive satisfactory answers to these questions do they listen to the gospel message that we proclaim.

A matter related to friendship is the words we use to help deliver people from unbelief. Butterfield said, “Your words should be no stronger than your relationship.” That is a wise statement. As Christians, we are commanded not simply to speak the truth, but to speak the truth in love. Love is communicated through relationship. To say that we love all people is theoretical. It is philosophical. Love requires relationship, which brings us back to Dr. Butterfield’s point that the church must be accessible and friendship with unbelievers must be real. This is the context in which we become legitimate and our words will find consideration in the hearts and minds of unbelieving friends.

Same-sex marriage will remain an issue in the Northwest, regardless of what the Supreme Court does, because Washington residents have voted for it. Churches will have to deal with it, as will individual Christians because of how it affects the work-place, and even our own families. Already one of our churches lost their place of worship because the owner of the building objected to the church’s view on same-sex marriage. But these challenges do not remove Jesus’ command that we love our neighbors. Friendship provides the avenue for love, and, we pray, for transformed lives.

Nighttime in the City

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A couple of days ago I listened to a Ted Talk in which a pastor described an experience that forever changed his ministry, and, eventually, his city. The church that he serves is in the area of a city that, 20 years ago, was extremely violent. The homicide rate was staggering, as was prostitution, robbery, and illegal narcotics use.

The change came when the pastor awakened to the knowledge that he knew his neighborhood and city as it was before 9:00 PM, but he knew nothing about life in his city from late night to the early morning hours. That’s when he determined to get to know his community at night. He began to walk the nighttime streets and he recruited a few others to join him. He engaged the “young toughs” and the others too, many of whom were just trying to survive.

As he developed relationships with these people, and as he learned the needs and issues of the city at night, the church crafted ways to respond. They had functioned as sort-of-a “9:00 to 5:00” island in the community in which people could stop by if they chose. But now they became a church that reached out, and reached out in multiple ways and at various times. No longer a cistern from which people could draw water when the church was open for business. The church became a “spring of living water,” pouring ministry into the neighborhood beyond bankers business hours. Over the next several years the neighborhood changed, the homicide rate plummeted and lives were forever changed.

What this pastor learned of his city is true of yours and mine. Every town, large and small, is comprised of multiple communities. There are the daytime people and the nighttime people. There are multiple neighborhoods, many spoken languages, the rich and the poor. One person told me that in his Northwest city less than half of the students graduate from high school. Less than half! The world that they occupy in their city is a different world from the corporate types, and, almost certainly, the church attenders. How many who attend your church are functionally illiterate? Probably very few. The kids who go to college diverge quickly from the kids who don’t, and they occupy a different space and time in the city.

Getting to know a community takes time and intentionality. Recently my wife and I took a walk through our neighborhood. We were amazed that several dozen new homes have been built over the past year. They are built deeper into our neighborhood than we are required to drive. We drive to our house, and we drive out to the world beyond. But just a few blocks behind us the community is expanding significantly, and we didn’t even know it.

As you seek to reach your town or city for Jesus Christ, seek ways to engage the multiple peoples that live in your city. Get to know your city at night. Drive different routes to and from work or the store or the church. Wander through different neighborhoods with eyes open. One person told me that he makes a point of travelling through his city using different modes of transportation. You experience different things, and hear different conversations, when you ride the city buses, take the train, walk, or ride a bike.

One thing I’m trying to improve is my ability to observe. Listening, watching, and observing are important skills for Christian workers. It takes effort to see our community clearly. We must work to listen well, so that we understand our city better, in all its variety and with its various peoples and needs. Cities are fascinating. You can live a lifetime there, and only know your city in part. But as Christian leaders, we must do better. And we can do better. So, make a plan to explore your town or city. Visit new areas of the town and do so at different times of the day. You might be surprised what you learn about your town, even if you were born and raised there.

Joy – A Ramp to God

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When 17 missionaries arrived in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1820, Hiram Bingham volunteered to preach the first sermon. His text was the angelic announcement of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds in the fields: “Behold, I bring you glad tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people” (Luke 2:10). It was not Christmas, and it was not a Christmas sermon, but it was a message that the Hawaiian people needed. Trapped in superstition and fear, with nothing in their beliefs that enabled them to know God and have spiritual security, the message of a Savior who is Lord of all was, indeed, “glad tidings of great joy!”

Someone asked Mother Teresa what the job description was for anyone who wished to work with her in the grimy streets of Calcutta. She said two things: the desire to work hard and a joyful attitude. Is there any attribute more appealing than joy?

Speaking of joy, David Brooks, the influential New York Times opinion writer, has been attending a Bible study and reading theology. Jewish by background, he has become enamored with Jesus Christ. He is especially inspired by the authentic Christian joy of what he calls “incandescent souls.” While Brooks has not yet submitted his life to Jesus Christ, he has spoken about the power of Christian witness. In a speech to Christian philanthropists, Brooks was critical of Christians who erect “walls” to separate themselves from the secular world, but he applauded authentic Christian joy which he said could build a “ramp” to the secular world (Mark Stricherz, Aleteia.org, 4/19/15). The sustained joy of true believers has deeply impacted David Brooks and he believes it could impact others as well.

When writing his spiritual autobiography, C. S. Lewis said that he was “surprised by joy” when he came to know God. He titled the book Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, and in it he likened joy to a signpost, pointing the way to God.

“But what, in conclusion, of Joy? To tell you the truth, the subject has lost nearly all interest for me since I became a Christian….It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer. While that other was in doubt, the point naturally loomed large in my thoughts. When we are lost in the woods, the sight of a signpost is a great matter….But when we have found the road and are passing signposts every few miles, we shall not stop and stare. They will encourage us and we shall be grateful to the authority that set them up. But we shall not stop and stare, or not much; not on this road, though their pillars are of silver and their lettering of gold” (Lewis, Surprised by Joy).

Lewis’s point is that knowing God and walking with Him is what he valued and what was most important to him. The experience of joy served as a signpost that he had found God and His path. Once he knew God, he was no longer interested in the subject of joy, for to know God is to have joy. In another paragraph, Lewis describes his salvation experience in this way:

“I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. ‘Emotional’ is perhaps the last word we can apply to some of the most important events. It was more like when a man, after a long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.”

Isn’t that a great description of the experience of coming to know God? To know God is to awaken from a deep sleep, with the result that we step into joy. Lewis further describes joy as a “technical term” which must be “sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again… I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.”

Because joy is “never in our power,” but is experienced in our relationship with God, it is foreign to those who do not know the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, to experience joy is a “surprise.” This is why David Brooks believes that joy could be the “ramp to the secular world.” Interestingly, Brooks doesn’t claim to have joy, but he does recognize it in some believers.

Joy is the unique experience of the Christian, but it can be observed in us, at least in part, by the unbeliever. But to see it they must know us. And they must know us quite well. They must know us in our walk with God. True joy is not easily seen from a distance. An exception to this might be extreme incidents of persecution, during which believers suffer uniquely. But joy is most often seen up close, in relationship, as we walk with God.

Are you one of those “incandescent souls” of which Brooks writes? Are you, and is your church, building ramps of joy to the unbelieving world? I used to remind the church leaders where I served as pastor that two things ought always be expressed and experienced when people gather for worship – joy and gratitude. I wanted all in the congregation, and especially guests in our church services, to observe a people who were grateful to God and who had His joy. If we expressed gratitude and joy, we wouldn’t go far wrong. Indeed, we might even be a ramp to God for some joyless soul to cross, much to his surprise.