An intriguing commonality between those who follow the Jesus way and non believers is a general distaste for evangelism. Certainly this dislike doesn’t apply to everyone, believer or not; nor does it stem from an accurate understanding of what evangelism is all about. But the dislike is there. From the world’s perspective it’s an aversion to anything smacking of proselytizing, any attempt to “convert,” alter, or change another person in the area of faith. From the Christ follower’s perspective it’s a deep embarrassment about sharing something as profoundly personal as the experience of being in relationship with God through Jesus; it’s a strong fear of being seen as manipulative, coercive or simply overbearing. The negative image of the televangelist looms large in all our consciences. Mary Chapin Carpenter sings about this sense of leeriness in her song I Take My Chances (CD: Come On Come On):
I sat alone in the dark one night,
tuning in by remote.
I found a preacher who spoke of the light
but there was brimstone in his throat.
He’d show me the way according to him
in return for my personal check.
I clicked my channel back to CNN
and I lit another cigarette.
I take my chances…yes…forgiveness doesn’t come with a debt.
Yet those who follow the Jesus way actually have great news to share: the truth (to mention only one) that forgiveness really doesn’t come with a debt! And that news, when shared as it should be, is not the least bit coercive or manipulative. But our dislike for faith sharing is so great, our fear of being lumped in the same category as the preacher who speaks of the light but has brimstone in his throat is so paralyzing, that Christ followers have abdicated the witness of our faith to others, seeing it as something that happens at special times, in special places, led by special people with special gifts.
How sad that sharing the good news, news the world so desperately needs to hear, has been limited to such special (and seemingly rare) environments, when instead it could be a natural part of the relationships of trust that make up our daily lives. How sad that we’ve missed the foundational concept of faith sharing – that it is incarnational.
As Christ followers, our relationship is with an incarnational God – a God who came to us in the flesh, willingly choosing to become human in Jesus. That’s not just part of the message we proclaim, it’s the model for the way we live in the world and the way we share our faith. When we come to see following the Jesus way and sharing our faith in that way – as an incarnational undertaking – we realize the importance of entering the world of those we seek to reach – being with them in the flesh, not just on the surface. As the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, entering our world fully and completely, we seek to be vehicles through which Jesus enters the worlds of those around us – our co-workers and friends, our neighbors, strangers we meet as we go about our day.
Incarnational thinking broadens our understanding of what it means to share our faith, moving it beyond special events and attractions toward a more holistic concept, one that emphasizes entering the worlds of others fully and completely, through word, deed and sign. Our entire existence as Christ followers – the connections we make between our faith and our daily lives, the way we live in the world – should be laid on the holistic framework of word, deed and sign. A deep and lively faith will always hold these three elements in balance.
As we live each day, we proclaim the good news – both formally and informally – in our conversation, in our expression. This is the framework of word. The world hears our words, the words of every Christ follower, not just those of our preachers and teachers. All those beside whom we live and work and play hear and listen. When we struggle, they hear our struggle. When we celebrate, they hear our celebration. When we enter their struggle – in the flesh, not just on the surface – they hear those words as well. When we share their celebration – in the flesh, not just on the surface – their joy is enhanced by the sound of ours. For every divisive word spoken by a Mark Driscoll, or other polarizing figure, the world waits to hear a word from us – what will our word be? A word of confirmation or a word of the gospel?
As we live each day we proclaim the good news and we act – practicing what we preach and preaching what we practice. In this way word and deed come together. They are as intimately entwined as breathing in and breathing out. As Eddie Fox has always said, deciding which is the most important depends on which one you did last. As the world hears our words, the world watches our actions. The world watches as we live out our faith – in the flesh, not in theory – even in the most mundane elements of our lives. The world watches the way we treat or mistreat others, the way we reach out or ignore those who suffer, stand with or against those who are oppressed, work for or against reconciliation, trust and love. What will our next step be? Will our actions reflect our words? Will our words ring true when illustrated in the flesh, by our behavior?
As we live each day we proclaim the good news, we act in ways that provide evidence for that good news, and we engage in activities of significance that point to Jesus Christ. This is the framework of sign. We participate in and provide opportunities for those around us to experience signs of our living God, those visible tokens of invisible realities that are spiritually significant – Eucharist, prayer, art, music, miracles, healings – any and all pointing to Jesus Christ and his redemptive power.
Word, deed and sign. In the flesh, not just in theory or on the surface. That’s the only way to follow in the Jesus way with integrity and faithfulness. That’s the only way to avoid the world’s image of Christians as those who speak of the light but have brimstone in their throat. So what is your next step? What will you do next? Word? Deed? Breathe in? Breathe out? I suppose it depends on whatever you did last.