A few days ago I wrote a post titled The Problem With Relational. Though convicted by the ideas, I was convinced I would lose some virtual friends once I made it public. I was unfortunately right… I’ll miss the interaction with those who decided to disassociate themselves with me, but I would respectfully restate I fully believe in what I said. I have also immensely enjoyed the numerous conversations I’ve had over the weekend. My parents (who have been in next gen ministry since 1970) even got in on it and provided compelling and encouraging responses. I’m so thankful for everyone willing to engage this challenging conversation. I believe we are at a very special and extremely important moment in history, especially concerning the church. This is the largest generation gap in recorded history and we’re at the very end of the Modern Age. The choices we make in the next 10 years will be felt long into the future. The way we approach evangelism in particular could potentially determine eternity for generations.
In order to make sense of this post, I would encourage you to read part 1, The Problem With Relational. I’ll be referring to some of the language and concepts introduced there as we explore The Solution To Relational.
In my last post, I made the claim that the Church’s growing mantra of ‘relational’ ministry has led us down a dangerous road. I said, “By replacing the propositional with the relational, we have effectively perceived and employed relationship as a technique. This categorically violates the very nature and sanctity of relationship…” In other words, using ‘relationship’ as a device or mechanism to accomplish a ministry purpose destroys the very thing we’re trying to create. Our whole mission is to develop relationship with others (Christian community) and point people to Christ in hope that they discover new life in a relationship with Him. Relationship is at the heart of the Gospel, but using it to fulfill a purpose devalues everyone involved: you, your friend, and Jesus. The question I left for you at the end of the post was this: “So, if the propositional approach makes no sense to this generation, and if we are to preserve the purity of relationship by resisiting our present inclinations to use it as a means to an end, then where does that leave us?” What’s the solution? How do we engage this generation with the Gospel for the purpose of leading people to Christ and urging each other on in pursuit of deeper intimacy with Him?
Take a look at John 6 for a moment.
After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick. Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number. Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted. And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten. (John 6:1-13, ESV)
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:35-40, ESV)
I have no doubt most of you know this story very well, but I want to explore it from more of an evangelistic approach. The first question needs to be, ‘who did Jesus perform this incredible miracle for?’ At first glance, we naturally assume its purpose was to satisfy the urgent hunger of the masses. And He certainly does, right? The disciples even collected 12 basket-fulls of leftovers–a sign that no one went without a full belly. I would contend, however, that Jesus had a larger purpose for His intercession. I believe Jesus did this (and many of His other works) for His disciples.
Consider the disciples for a moment. Strip away our knowledge of who these men ultimately became and just look at who they are at this point in time. The reality is that the disciples, though they were physically committed to following Jesus, could not at this time be considered ‘Christians’ as you and I consider ourselves. Exploring the validity of that statement is warranted, and I encourage you to do so as I have. I’ve heard some say Peter confirms his conversion just before his experience on the Mount of Transfiguration, and some would even claim it wasn’t until the Holy Spirit initiated His indwelling at Pentecost. I believe it’s safe to say though, that at this point in time they were open to the idea of Jesus being God, but they were still on the journey towards that revelation.
So, if the disciples were seekers at this point, and if you consider that the miracle on the hill was done for their benefit, then what was Jesus trying to accomplish? The narrative tells us that while Jesus could have just gotten it done and over with on His own, He instead chooses to include the disciples in both the conversation and the actual work of the miracle. He includes Philip by asking him for a solution to the problem. He includes Andrew by listening to him offer a suggestion–one that to Andrew seemed a bit ridiculous but proved to be central to what Jesus was doing. He included the disciples in the distribution and the collection of the food. Then, later on, Jesus makes a statement. He uses bread as an illustration and makes one of His most powerful presentations of the Gospel that we have on record. Yes, Jesus had a larger purpose in mind for this miracle; the salvation and sanctification of 11 men upon whom He would build His church. He knew these men would not only need to be convinced of the Gospel, He knew they would need to be left with no question of their role in it.
Creating an Experiential Framework
By including the disciples, non-believers with whom He has a relationship, in the work of the ministry, Jesus creates an experiential framework through which He is able to articulate the message of the Gospel in a way that leaves no fodder for argument, no loopholes for relativism, and no room for anything but belief and joy. This is the key to reaching and leading the next generation today, right now.
I can hear some of you say, “Well, we’re doing that. It’s called contextualization.” There’s a key difference between contextualization and creating an experiential framework though. Contextualization seeks to understand existing culture and then develop the message of the Gospel in a way that makes sense in light of it. Creating an experiential framework is environmentally formational–instead of responding to an existing culture, it builds a new culture based on the Gospel. When a non-believer is invited into this new space, he becomes the vessel through which the Gospel flows into others. He experiences its joy, but that joy is often confusing to him and requires explanation. “I am the bread of life…” Verbalizing the Gospel no longer demands lengthy theological propositions to a non-believing friend who now has an experiential framework. Attempts at making sense of the Gospel through fragmented stories and illustrations becomes unnecessary. Like Jesus, we only need to tie the message back to the experience. This inevitably provides the ‘ah-ha!’ moment (Peter says later in John 6, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”) People really get it, no one is confronted, and more importantly, the sanctity of relationship is preserved.
Creating experiential framework means that the church needs to shift the way it sees serving in our cities and communities. We’ve typically approached serving in 2D, if you will. The first dimension is us, the faithful followers of Jesus, seeking to fulfill the mission He began. The second is the recipient of the service: the hungry, the homeless and the hurting. Our hope is that by meeting their physical needs, we will build trust relationships and begin to address their spiritual needs in the process. While countless churches are truly accomplishing God’s work through this approach, it often leads to a ‘project’ or ‘event’ mindset, where we compartmentalize these endeavors. The result is that we create a disconnect between our “Christian lives” and the rest of our life. When that happens, we fail to create an experiential framework and we lose our primary opportunities to point people towards Christ–the people who God places in our lives every day.
Our view of serving in the name of Jesus becomes 3D when we apply John 6.
Dimension 1: US
Dimension 2: THE NEEDY
Dimension 3: OUR NON-BELIEVING FRIENDS
This doesn’t mean in any way that the needy are somehow less important than the others–to Jesus, they were always at the center of His work. Meeting their needs was paramount for Him, and it should be for us as well. But Jesus was inclusive in His methods. In a blink, God could eliminate poverty and hunger completely. Have we considered that maybe He calls us to serve in order to draw us nearer to Him? Of course we have, but John 6 reveals to us that He intends to draw non-believers in also. I’m not suggesting that we start ordaining people who deny Christ, just that we include these friends of ours at the basic levels of serving. We’ve gotten used to inviting our friends to ‘be at’ the church, but Jesus was inviting His friends to ‘become’ the church.
For the sake of your eyes I’m going to finish here, and in a few days I’m going to post Part 3 and give some phenomenal examples of what creating an experiential framework looks like today. That’s right–there are churches and ministries who are doing it and the stories are astounding. In the meantime, I would love your insights. Please join this important conversation and comment below.