Monday, 14 July 2008

St Francis Evangelism

I expect to be blogging a bit about WYD as the week goes on. This is probably inevitable. For my own part, I feel like the man who is about to enter the darkened theatre for a showing of a film that has been recommended to him but, having seen no previews or synopses, is unsure what to expect.

A few preliminary thoughts then.

Whatever the result of WYD be (and I do have high hopes), I think JPII was onto something when he first came up with the idea. Our culture is such that it needs to be shown things. It has a high intolerance for hypocrisy, double-dealing and insincerity (one could analyse how this flows naturally from the philosophical "turn towards the subject", but I'm not going to do that). Being very individualistic, it also abhors imposition or manipulation of any kind (while, ironically, the media have become consummate masters of the latter- but this too is a rant for another time). Most of us, I suspect, are put off by solicitors (not lawyers- the other kind) and spruikers.
In addition, as a consumer culture, we also like assurances (warranties, try before you buy, etc.) before we make commitments.

Today, a colleague at work related this story to me. A close friend of hers was at a train station last week when a lady approached her. Without introduction, the lady put this question to her, "Do you want to be saved?" Not altogether surprisingly, my colleague's friend avoided making reply and escaped the encounter by leaving the station.

What was wrong with this approach? Presumably the lady in question was sincere and well-meaning in her intent. One would also assume that she actually desired the person's salvation. Yet this method of evangelism, clearly, has done nothing to attract her to the gospel; if anything, it has repelled her.

The reason is not difficult to discover. The lady, whatever her inward intentions, has not displayed charity or interest in the person she is evangelising. The love of Christ for the individual is nowhere to be seen. The desire of the solicitor to get somebody-anybody!- to sign on the dotted line, however, is plainly in evidence. In this case, the question, "Do you want to be saved?" is roughly equivalent to "Do you want to sign up for a Platinum credit card?" And since one finds it more difficult to simply reply "No" to the former and have done with it (saying "I don't want to be saved," is only going to extend the encounter, not end it), my colleague's friend has simply avoided the encounter entirely.

As Christians, all evangelistic endeavours are undergirded by certain facts, and we do well to keep them in mind. Firstly, God has created every individual freely. They are unique creations of His and have innate value simply because they exist. Furthermore, they bear His image. This is an extraordinary fact. And it is true of every human being. In addition, He has taken on flesh for our redemption. That means that every human being now has something in common with God that not even the angels have. God, in our own humanity, has borne the sins of each of us, out of His supreme love of us. Therefore, every person I meet is a person whom God loves more deeply, richly and abundantly than I can begin to grasp, and a person for whom He has died. They are therefore of infinite worth. And they too long for God, whether it is articulated in that way or not. Each person longs for love, longs for joy and happiness, longs, in other words, for union with God, for the Beautific Vision. In the end, nothing but Jesus Christ can satisfy that longing. And if I really believe all of that, I ought to act as if it were true.

This principle applies to evangelism between individuals. When it comes to evangelism on a grander scale, the same truths are writ larger.

Which brings me to WYD. There are myriad folk who think, deep down, that Christianity is a bunch of humbug, and that the chief message of Christians is "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!" There are also myriad folk who are afraid that behind the facade lies nothing much, emptiness, a teleological abyss. So we protect ourselves from silence and solitude with countless distractions, whether they be the busyness of our jobs, a non-stop social life, a thrilling television series or the rugby. We have become, as one person put it, " a Paris Hilton people in a nuclear age". Those for whom distractions fail yield to depression and perhaps suicide.

Sitting quietly in the midst of the cacophany is the good news of the Gospel, the good news of a Creator who is not a tyrant but a father, of God Who removes misery and suffering from the world not by divine fiat but by suffering it Himself, Who lets His children kill Him to save them.

This good news is not a promotion but an announcement. It is, moreover, an announcement that is more than just words. It is a reality to be witnessed.

Standing on the rooftops proclaiming things which may or may not be true is not going to satisfy a culture such as our own. Whatever university lecturers may claim, ours is an age with little interest in ideas for their own sake. We like to see results. WYD proposes this simple concept- flood a city with young people who hope. Let the citizens work out why.

I expect many of the older generation (and not a few of the younger) to be baffled at such an event. But to us young people who have placed our hope in Jesus Christ and trust Him for both the future of the world and also of our own individual lives (for He directs both according to His own purposes), it is our responsibility as witnesses to the gospel to answer questions after they are asked rather than before. Every human heart longs for God. Not every person recognises that longing for what it is, but the chances are good they will recognise its satisfaction when they see it and want to know why.

To bear witness in this manner is by no means a new concept. I believe it was St Francis who said, "Preach the gospel at all times; use words when necessary."

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