The Taser's Edge

Christianity Beyond Belief: Following Jesus for the Sake of Others by Todd Hunter (and Ramblings for the Sake of Something by Me)

Christianity Beyond Belief: Following Jesus for the Sake of Others
by Todd Hunter (IVP, 2009)

After reading Tim Keller’s Generous Justice (reviewed here yesterday), my faith was restored that there might be some great books and authors I am missing because I often pass over books of ‘popular’ Christian theology.  Unfortunately, this is not one of those great books, and Hunter presents basically nothing new here.

It may be that I don’t hear what Hunter is saying because he’s not talking to me.  I don’t particularly need to be told that salvation needs to matter for this life, not just the next.  I already know that the church matters, and that personal salvation is only part of the picture.  I don’t need to be told that choosing community with one another furthers God’s purposes in the world.  And that’s about all Hunter has to say (although his Three-Is-Enough strategy can certainly do a lot of good, even as I prefer the larger small group format because it insures that you’ll be in close relationship with someone you don’t naturally get along with, which is the basic human piece of becoming a saint).

As for the subtitle, “Following Jesus for the Sake of Others,” I love the idea, but I hate the terminology.  The idea is that the church exists to bless people and the world by living into God’s call and the Spirit’s empowering to love our neighbors.  The terminology, however, (and I know it’s unintentional, but I personally am having a hard time getting past it) makes it sound that the church exists for ‘Them’ as opposed to ‘Me’ or ‘Us,’ and I just don’t believe Christians need an Us and a Them in our evangelism or in our love for the neighbor.

I’ve heard Hunter make the comment a couple of times (both in this book and then in a great lecture from the recent Anglican 1000 summit podcasts, available on iTunes now) that folks my age (and I think he’s definitely talking about me) are uncomfortable with evangelism.  There’s a generation gap between his understanding (and plenty of middle-aged evangelicals) and mine of what evangelism means or should mean.  His question to us in our discomfort with evangelism is this: “What if no one had shared the Gospel with you?”  And he’s totally right.  We have every reason to need to share the Gospel, from God’s love growing in us, to various words of Jesus and other Scriptural prescriptions, to the answer to his very practical question.

However, he misses my personal discomfort.  Often, the call to personal evangelism is presented as the call to make friends in order to lead them to Christ, many times explicitly in those terms.  My discomfort here is that rather than loving the neighbor, this often (although part of me wonders if that is necessarily or not) becomes using the neighbor.  If you actually become honest in that relationship, what of that uncomfortable conversation, “Wait…so you’re telling me you befriended me because you thought I was lost, thought that you had what I needed, and so you became my friend specifically so you could change me?!”

—The review now trails off, and a rambling meditation on evangelism begins (for more on Hunter, do check out his name on iTunes and check out those podcasts from Anglican 1000—

It gets worse.  I’ve met Christians who are embarrassed to admit that they have engaged in ‘evangelistic dating.’  Yes, choosing to date someone so that you can develop intimacy in order to share Jesus with them.  In praise of the one or two folks I’ve known who have done this (who did it years and years ago), they truly see it as something both totally misguided and even as needing to be confessed as a failure and sin against their neighbor, and they were dumb and young at the time.

[Note: This would be a brilliant plot for a painful-to-watch romantic comedy.  That scene of planning who to date, because that hot guy has a large ‘sphere of influence’ as captain of the basketball team, or that girl has good grades and therefore could be a great Christian lawyer or Christian doctor some day.  Another scene would have a group of ‘dating missionaries’ meeting to pray and discuss their progress.  And of course, there would be the actual falling in love, finding that the ‘missionary’ has something to learn about love from the target of their efforts, the truth coming out, the breakup in the rain after prom, then hope of reconciliation but a purposely ambiguous ending where both people know they are changed by the experience but don’t know if they can ever really date each other again.  If you steal this idea for your screenplay, just don’t add a baloney piece of all religions being basically the same or whatever, and don’t sell your script to anyone who will add that in.  But feel free to say that people can still love each other and disagree on religion.]

As for relational evangelism (which is jargon used to describe any sort of friend-ish way of relating to people and eventually moving to share the message of the Gospel with them), the term should be considered ridiculously redundant.  Yes, please talk to someone about the transforming power of Love incarnate, crucified, raised, and inviting us to join in the life of Love, and just try it without relationship.

We are called by Christ to love God and neighbor.  So maybe we should start there.  Love…and see what happens.  Love…and experience what God has.  No, it doesn’t mean that you never talk about your faith because you don’t want to offend, but it does mean that you don’t make a friend in order to convert them.  This is a matter of discernment (contemplation and conversation with people and with the Scriptures) and action.

The rule of thumb is that the loves of your life will come up in conversation with the people with whom you are in relationship.  If Christ is the love of your life (and I hope he is daily becoming more so), then Christ will come up.

If you are in a friendship that is fairly deep (i.e., not brand new), and you can’t talk about the meaning of your life (in diverse and developing ways), then that friendship has problems (not death-of-relationship-problems but problems nonetheless).  If you are a Christian and you can narrate that ‘meaning of your life’ without reference to Christ, then there is a problem (which may be a problem with the life being narrated or may be a problem with the narration).  Even getting beyond ‘meaning of your life’, when we are in relationship with people, we talk about things that we think matter.

Now put all those pieces together–if you are growing in love and relationship with someone, and you believe that having met the person and reality of Jesus Christ and the Father through the Holy Spirit has changed your life, you will talk about it.  And when you do, you will be evangelizing.  The words of the evangelist to her friend are not “This is what you need even though I don’t know your needs.”  They are, “Here is The Good News of God as I understand it to be a transformational reality in this small life I have, a life in which you are a cherished piece.”

Or something to that effect.

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