Author: David Hood

Our Journey Towards Church Planting Part 2- The Seminary Years

So there I was, thinking I was destined for beautiful, historic Oxford, an ancient university with awe-inspiring libraries, the pictures of which have made me weep. But alas, it was not to be. I had to stay here, in Canada, where the oldest university was founded in 1663 not 1096. I didn’t really know what I was going to do now, I had been dreaming about and planning this year at Oxford for so long. I was going to become a vocational apologist, defending the coherence, integrity, beauty, and truthfulness of Christianity on university and college campuses. Now it seemed that was not what God had for me. I searched around online for something similar, but let’s be real…nothing is Oxford. I confess I sulked for a little bit, but really this ‘closed door’ allowed me to explore something else that had been stirring within me for a while, an interest in vocational pastoral ministry.

During my university years I was a member of a church in the Plymouth Brethren tradition and so we didn’t have pastors in the sense of full time, paid staff pastors who did the majority of the preaching and teaching and soul care. Our churches were governed by a plurality of elders who were all volunteer. They shared the pastoral responsibilities but also allowed other gifted men to do these things as well, so I had opportunity to preach and teach and lead ministries even as an unordained guy in his early twenties with no formal education or training. In some ways it was beautiful, I was given opportunities that most of my peers in other churches weren’t, however, I also look back with some regret at a lot of my early sermons…they were bad, just plain bad, some equipping for the task would have been a good thing. But what I did discover during those years was that I really liked teaching the Bible, and I really enjoyed impacting peoples’ lives with God’s truth and watching them make spiritual breakthroughs in their journey with Jesus. I was really alive in those moments and I found myself reading a lot about pastoral ministry. I was also becoming very convicted about the need for excellent teaching in our churches that applies God’s timeless words to our everyday lives so we can embody and live out the good news of Jesus in our present culture. I thought, maybe I’m destined for a life of preaching and pastoring, but as I said, there were no vocational pastors in the assemblies. We did have itinerant preachers who would travel around teaching at different churches, but that life never really appealed to me because I liked the idea of investing in a group of people for their maturing and flourishing, being a rooted pastor-teacher in one church or a small network of local churches. I didn’t really know how this would work in my tradition but was feeling increasingly like this was what God wanted me to do.

After a lot of prayer and discernment, I headed off to Tyndale Seminary in Toronto in 2009. I really did feel like I needed, for a time, to give myself to studying the Bible and theology. I wanted to go deep into the languages, customs, and culture of the Bible. I wanted to know what the brightest minds of the past and present were saying about this text and that doctrine. I wanted to understand what Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Pentecostals, Christian Reformed, Wesleyans, Methodists, Anabaptists etc… believed and why. I wanted to know what the issues and points of disagreement were, and where better to do that than at an inter-denominational seminary.

When I started attending Tyndale, I was a young dude in my early twenties who thought he knew everything. The world was very black and white for me. Seminary disturbed my established little world. There were definitely conversations and classes where I felt very uncomfortable, sometimes downright upset, but more often than not I felt humbled. Not everything was as clearcut as I had once thought. You could read the Bible and come out a Calvinist. You could read the Bible and come out an Arminian. The amillennialists, historic premillennialists, dispensational premillennialists, and even the postmillennialists, all had verses to back up their views on the millennial kingdom and the timeline of Jesus’ return. The Charismatics could actually make a strong Biblical case for the continuing use of the “miraculous” or “supernatural” gifts in the church today (as they’re called, although every spiritual gift involves supernatural anointing). And maybe, just maybe, Genesis 1 could be read as exalted prose narrative rather than literal history. Conversations with my peers really humbled me, and I also happened to be attending a Plymouth Brethren church where the people were very open-minded about a lot of things, or at least willing to explore and dialogue. Theological conversations that were not dogmatic were regular occurrences for me, and I came to realize I had never really studied the Bible for myself. Most of my convictions had been given to me, they weren’t truly mine, they hadn’t been formed by hours of deep study. To be frank, I had often prepared sermons in my early days by rewriting what I had heard approved sources say about any given passage or topic. I taught the “right” interpretations I’d been taught. I didn’t really do my own study. This was a deeply humbling realization.

During this time I learned about the distinction between what some call open-handed doctrines and close-handed doctrines. This principle has helped me immensely. Close-handed doctrines are those doctrines that if you remove, neglect, or distort them, you lose the heart of authentic Christianity, doctrines like the incarnation, virgin birth, sinless life, substitutionary death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus, and that salvation is by faith alone in Jesus alone by God’s grace alone. Indeed, you endanger peoples souls to teach against these things or mess with them. That is what heresy is, a distortion of gospel truth. However, there are a whole host of doctrines that Christians can disagree on and the heart of Christianity is not lost. Souls are not endangered. These are open-handed doctrines, and I gave examples of a few of them earlier.

Another way of looking at it is primary and secondary doctrines, but I actually like primary, secondary, and tertiary doctrines. Primary doctrines are the close handed doctrines. We die for those. Secondary doctrines are those that we need to agree on as a local church to be able to function, things like gender roles in ministry, church government, and whether the miraculous gifts are for today or not, but these doctrines do not keep us from working in gospel ministry with other churches that differ with us on these issues. Tertiary doctrines are those doctrines that we can disagree on even within our local churches and still have happy fellowship, things like the timing of the rapture and whether Genesis 1 is literal history or poetry. And then there are opinions, personal convictions people have about issues that are informed by somewhat related Biblical principles but that the Bible does not really speak to directly, things like whether Christians should vote.

Not everyone is going to agree completely on what doctrines fall into the secondary and tertiary categories. Some doctrines, while not necessarily primary, are close enough that they can’t really be deemed secondary, in that a church might not feel comfortable working with another church that disagreed with them on those doctrines i.e. the inerrancy of Scripture. That is why some have divided Christian doctrines into “what you must believe”, “what you must not reject”, and “what you should believe.” The third category allows you to say, you don’t have to believe this to be saved, but you absolutely should believe it and if you don’t it’s not healthy for you spiritually. There’s a longer, more complex conversation here, but my point is that it was helpful for me to see that there are beliefs we cannot mess with or we lose Christianity, but there are a whole host of doctrines that we can disagree about, and sometimes passionately, but as brothers and sisters; as family. There is “one body and one Spirit…one hope…one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).

There were conversations I walked away from in seminary where I thought “that person is crazy” (and they presumably felt the same way about me), but there were more where I walked away humbled. I grew. I changed some of my convictions during seminary. Many of my convictions have remained exactly the same, some of them have been strengthened for having heard the arguments for the other side. And some of my convictions I still hold to, but in a softer way, they’re more nuanced, and I have a greater appreciation for the other side, for diversity. I think diversity can often keep us from flying to extremes. It makes us more balanced and thoughtful. It can protect us from distorting the gospel in a subtle way, where we add layers upon layers to what a person must believe to be truly saved. The different “ists” and “ians” need each other; together we clarify what the gospel is and isn’t, and we move each other farther away from the theological fringes and closer to Biblical truth.

If you were to ask me, what was the greatest thing you learned at seminary, it is the need within the Church today for more dialogue that is humble, respectful, and civil, and where the participants don’t assume the worst of each other. In seminary, I started to learn how to listen, to really take in what the other person was saying, and to wrestle with it with the Bible (still learning, far from perfect). It was more satisfying to believe things because I’d really investigated them. Some of the things said in my classes or by my peers were wrong, just plain wrong, but now I was able to see that because I had truly wrestled with the text- is this person’s interpretation legitimate given what the verses in their context are saying? No!

It was liberating to be able to disagree with someone’s beliefs without fearing them. It was exciting to see just how large the Christian family really is, it isn’t just me and my tribe. There’s more that binds us than divides us, and indeed the divisions never need to be so deep that we cannot work together in some capacity for the gospel and have each others backs and learn from each other. I was introduced to the Kingdom of God, which is far grander in scope and scale than my denomination or tradition.

Even as I write all of this though, I am compelled to state that there are foundational beliefs that we cannot relinquish; we do so at our own peril and at the peril of countless others, and it has been eye-opening over the years since seminary to see just how quickly, how subtly, and how easily one can go down the wrong path and start abandoning truths that the edifice cannot remain standing without.

What I learned at seminary is that the gospel is foundational, and if we have that at the centre we can work with a wide diversity of churches and ministries and make far greater gains for the Kingdom than if we make everything about our secondary and tertiary doctrines, and that kind of unity is what Jesus wants (John 17) and the world needs to see and we need to experience. God will bless and use that unity. He already has. And that unity opens the doors for revival. But what I have learned in the years since seminary is that we have to get the gospel right, and that is where the real challenge is. The gospel can so easily become all about social justice, political action, advocacy, good works, cleaning up parks, hosting great parties, helping the poor, resettling refugees, and all kinds of other really good, Biblical things, but the very simple, life-altering message that “God saves sinners”, that we need to repent and believe in the crucified and risen Son of God to be saved, gets lost. When we lose that message, we start shedding other essentials, and our walk and our churches become something other than they should be.

Perhaps that’s why we stay within the borders of our tribe sometimes, it’s safer, simpler, easier, cleaner…and it is…but as my wife says, “good things are hard.”

Let’s get the gospel right, keep it central, and work together for the fame of King Jesus.

More of our story to come.

Our Journey Towards Church Planting Part 1: The Call of God

If you had asked Diana and I ten years ago if we wanted to plant a church we would have said a hard no. Church planting was not even on our radar. We knew it existed and that some people were doing it, many overseas but an increasing number in the West, but we had no ambitions to be church planters ourselves. We did not even know what that involved, and yet now we would tell you that church planting is what God has called us to, and that the Alta Vista ward in Ottawa is where God has called us to plant. How did we get here? Before I get into the details of our journey and what we have learned along the way, it seems necessary to explore this idea of the “call of God” because I feel like there is so much misunderstanding and anxiety around it, especially for young people, and yet it is a very real thing that needs to be understood, embraced, and enjoyed. The Christian life is an exciting adventure full of courageous risks.

The Call of God

In church circles we often talk about the “the call of God” or “God’s calling on your life”, but what does it mean to be “called”? God has called every Christian to many of the same things (loving neighbours and enemies, forgiving, making disciples, marital fidelity, holiness etc…), but there is also, I believe, a unique call that God has for each of His children, the thing that He made you to do for His glory and good pleasure and the advancement of His Kingdom. We see this everywhere in Scripture, judges being called, prophets being called, Paul being called as a missionary to the Gentiles and to plant churches in many major urban centres around the Middle East and Europe. Unique callings are everywhere, but how do you discern what your calling is? How does God call someone to something, and how do you know you’ve been called and you are not just following your own personal passions and interests?

I know a lot of people who would say that God does not speak anymore outside of the pages of the Bible illuminated by the Holy Spirit, but then I talk to some of those same people and they seem to know God wants them to write, sing, lead this ministry or launch that initiative, be in medicine, law, education, social work, or architecture. They sense that this is where God wants them and this is what He made them for, but how do they know? Clearly God is guiding people, prompting them in certain directions to make certain choices, but these directions are not coming from the pages of the Bible. You cannot ask the question, “should I study philosophy or neuroscience” and expect to get an answer from the apostle John or Paul or Peter. God calls every Christian to make disciples, but no one can read the Bible and say “I feel like I need to make disciples in Nigeria or Toronto.” Yet many Christians feel called to make disciples in certain cities, countries, and amongst certain people groups. There is a general call, “make disciples”, and then there is a specific, unique call, “you make disciples here.” Where does that come from? Does God speak to people in an audible voice? Should we look for signs? Can God give prophetic words through others to share with us? Does He communicate through inner promptings, a gut feeling that we should do this or that? Does He reveal His will through dreams and visions?

I’ve heard people say, wherever you feel most alive or wherever your passions lie, where you ache for more, that is where God is calling you. But not everyone experiences that clarity. For instance, one of my closest friends is a very skilled doctor, but he is also a talented musician, a creative, a natural leader and pastor, a gifted preacher and teacher, and an aspiring writer. He has varying degrees of passion for each of these things. Which is his calling? Or is it all of them?

I just met an Australian who felt God audibly say to him 15 years ago, “go to Canada”. He had no idea why, no idea when, no idea how, and for 15 years God clarified for him what he and his family were to do and He did this through visions, prophetic words, opportunities, experiences, encounters, and so forth. The call was revealed over 15 years by various means and about 2 years ago he felt a real urgency to “go now”, and by God’s enabling and miraculous provision, he, his wife, and his kids are in Ottawa and he is the pastor of a small church that has been praying for a pastor for the last, you guessed it, two years. That is wild!

I say all of this because I am not convinced God calls in a formulaic way. Nor do I believe that God only calls you to one thing, or that the thing God calls you to is what you are called to for life, or even that God reveals the whole of His call for you in a moment. And quite honestly I am not convinced we can always know in a moment what next step God wants us to take with our lives. Sometimes we end up doing something and we look back and see how God guided us to where we are and we just sort of find ourselves in the will of the Lord. Sometimes we have multiple good options in front of us and we just need to weigh the pros and cons of each, pray, ask, talk to trusted friends and coaches, listen well, and then make a choice and do something. Far too many young people are paralyzed, unable to commit to anything because they are not getting any clear directives from God, but is that how it is always supposed to work?

Growing up I always had this view of God’s call that went something like this- there are five options in front of you. None of them is an overtly evil choice, but only one of them is God’s actual will for your life and you have to discern, with minimal help, which one it is. If you choose wrong you are messed up for life. Yes God can redeem your poor choice and bring good out of your decisions, but you will go through the rest of your life not really experiencing God’s best, the life He really wanted you to have and now someone else has because God still needed to do that thing and so called somebody else who was clearly more discerning than you.

I have come to realize, thankfully, that this is absurd. This is not how it works. Some people do receive visions, are given prophetic words, hear an audible voice, have an overwhelming prompting to go here and do this (and I think God prompts us to do a lot of things every single day if we are sensitive to it), but I think for most people we pray and listen and think and make choices, and oftentimes it is not until we make those choices and step out in faith that we experience the kind of confirmation we have been looking for that this is where God wants me and this is what He made me for. Proverbs 16:9 certainly seems to confirm this: A man’s heart plans his way, but the LORD determines his steps. God knows where He wants us to go and He is going to get us there, but we have to make choices along the way.

God will get you to where He wants you

For many years my ambitions were all over the place. When I was a kid I wanted to be either a preacher, a farmer, or a comedian. Odd combination I know. When I was in high school, I wanted to be either a writer or a lawyer or somehow both like John Grisham. When contemplating my university education I thought about journalism, photo-journalism, law, and politics. I dabbled in religious studies, literature, and philosophy, but eventually settled on history (science tells us how life works but the humanities make life worth living they say). Initially I wanted to be a high school history teacher because history is absolutely fascinating and necessary but most youth hate it because it is taught so poorly (probably why most young people are completely ignorant of history and it seems to be repeating itself). But then I wanted to be a history professor, because I got pretty excited at the thought of being able to not only teach but also research and write, and for an introvert like myself a professorship seemed ideal, spending my days locked away in a room full of old books. Dreamy. But then I went to a conference in Toronto and heard John Lennox, the Oxford mathematician, philosopher, and ethicist give 3 life-changing, for me, talks on the beauty and veracity of the Christian faith and I wanted to become, first, a professor at a secular institution who could encourage Christian students in their faith and use his credentials to talk to academics, influencers, and change-makers who would otherwise never engage with the church, and then second, a full-time vocational apologist defending the coherence, integrity, and truthfulness of Christianity on university and college campuses and wherever.

As you can see I was all over the place. My wife is a saint, her future changed almost every week in those days and she was, and still is, tremendously patient with me. The only thing that stopped my plans to become an apologist by studying at Oxford with John Lennox, Ravi Zacharias, Alister McGrath, and others, was that my wife was not able to work in the UK as a nurse because she had not had enough domestic experience yet. As a result I had to figure out, do I go for my PhD in history (I had my Masters at this point) or do I dream something else up? It was in this season that I felt God moving me into vocational ministry in the church. What that looked like and how it started us down the road to church planting is the content of my next post, but I share all of this to show just how messy our journey towards God’s call has been. There was no audible voice. There was no moment when we just knew, but rather through a series of decisions made over time, with many mistakes along the way, God has given us greater and greater clarity and an increasing sense of peace and confidence and courage, and now I can look back and see how God brought my wife, my family, and I to where we are now.

I am 34.

Take courage. God will get you to where He wants you. Pray. Listen. Keep your eyes open. Make choices. Trust.

My Story

In my previous posts I started to talk about the “why” and necessity of planting missional churches in Canada and how, given our post-Christian context, we need to do evangelism and discipleship differently from how we have done them before. I promised that I would write some posts on the how of evangelism and discipleship in our brave new world, but I feel like I need to push pause on that potential series of blogposts for now and spend a little bit more time telling you who I am and the journey I’ve been on for the last several years. Who am I? What’s my story? Why do I believe what I believe? Why am I planting a church? I want to answer these questions over the next while, and I want to share with you some of the ecclesialogical/theological paradigm shifts I’ve experienced over the last while as well that have informed the vision, values, and ministry philosophy of our church plant. For now, it makes sense to start at the very beginning, giving a brief overview of my background and how I came to be a follower of Jesus.

I grew up in a Christian home, went to church from a very early age, was taught the Westminster confession and catechism, prayed a prayer to receive Jesus as my Saviour when I was around 6 years old with my Sunday school class, and lived a relatively undramatic life. I was a good kid. I didn’t really rebel even in my early teens, those years when every adolescent is supposed to go off the rails. I never felt much need to do that. I was a good kid, a kid who though he received Jesus as Saviour never really felt like he needed Jesus to save him from anything. Hell was for bad people. Jesus died for bad people. The gospel, when it was preached on a Sunday morning, was for those sinners in the room who needed to know they weren’t right with God. I was not one of those people. I had believed in God since before I can remember. I knew my Bible inside and out. Everyone at church complimented my parents on what a good kid I was. I had received Jesus but I had no real clue what that meant other than it was one more thing in my favour, along with winning Bible quizzes and being at church every Sunday morning and evening while the less devout were at home watching football. And it wasn’t that I didn’t understand because no one explained it to me, the gospel was very clearly shared with me on many occasions, it just never seemed to click as being for me. For me, I was a Christian by virtue of my heritage and my upbringing, my church attendance and participation, my Bible knowledge, and my relative lack of conscious, wilful disobedience to my parents’ and God’s commands. These were the things that made me right with God. These were the things that earned me His acceptance, love, and favour. These were the things, unbeknownst to me, that I was trusting in. Some people needed Jesus’ help, but not me.

However, as time went on there started to be more of a dissonance between who I was at church on a Sunday morning and who I was the rest of the week. I started behaving inconsistently with who I thought I was. I was exploring and trying to find out if the grass was greener on the either side, but I still didn’t really see myself as sinful. The people around me were sinful and I sometimes followed their lead, just to see what it was like, but I was still a good Christian kid, just exploring. I explained away my behaviour, justifying it, blame-shifting. It wasn’t who I really was. Finally one day when I was 16 I went further in my exploration than I was comfortable with and I started to feel real guilt and shame. I was very rattled by some of the things I had done. I started to get scared that I was becoming a bad person. One night I was praying and reading my Bible looking for some kind of comfort, some kind of reassurance that I hadn’t totally blown it and forfeited God’s acceptance of me, but that night I got the exact opposite. God made me deeply uncomfortable. My eyes were finally opened. I became heart-wrenchingly aware that I was not becoming a bad person, but that I had always been a bad person. I looked good on the outside, but my heart was “desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9) full of selfishness, pride, lust, and self-righteousness. I was a sinner. Jesus died for me. That cross that Jesus was crucified on, that was my cross, that is what I deserved, but Jesus had substituted Himself for me and taken the blame for my sins, He endured my punishment in my place so that I could go free. He lived the life I should have lived, and He, the innocent One, died the death I should have died. I came to realize that my heart was sinful, broken, and messed up, and it always had been it just hadn’t had a chance to manifest itself so spectacularly until recently, and I realized I needed Jesus just like everybody else in the world needed Jesus.

I also came to realize that my religion was repugnant to God. Yes, I knew my Bible inside and out. Yes, I went to church faithfully every Sunday and wasn’t overly rebellious or habitually immoral. Yes my parents were Christians. Yes I knew all of the answers to the Bible quiz questions, but I didn’t do any of the things I did because I actually loved God. I didn’t have a thriving, vibrant, living relationship with God. I didn’t know Him as my Heavenly Father. And I didn’t love His Son. I didn’t see my need for Him. I didn’t sing songs of worship on Sunday thinking “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see” or “Thine eye diffused a quickening ray, I woke the dungeon flamed with light, my chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee”. Those words were not a reality in my life. I didn’t need Jesus’ sacrifice. I didn’t need saving. I was making myself right with God, ignoring what God said about me and about what I needed, trusting in myself instead that I would someday get to the pearly gates and be able to say “let me in, I am not like other people- cheaters, sinners, adulterers…I fast twice a week…I give you a tenth of my income” (Lk 18:9-14). In all my religious activity I didn’t realize I was far from God, not trusting in Him but myself, not loving Him but myself, not centering my life on Him but on myself, not dependent on Him but on myself. And I didn’t realize I was not a lover of people. I was a good church kid, a God kid, of course I loved people I thought, but the reality was I looked down on people who I thought were not as good as me. I blamed them when I took a wrong turn, they were bad influences on me, they were sinners trying to corrupt me. They were lost and needed Jesus, but I didn’t. I judged people and didn’t feel the kind of compassion for them that God did. In my religiosity I was proud, arrogant, and self-righteous. I was lost even though I was a relatively moral and religious person.

My eyes were finally being opened to all of these realities. In one evening! It was an overwhelming, world upending, emotionally tumultuous evening, but it was a glorious evening in that it was the evening I stopped being my own saviour. I repented of my sins, and I entrusted my salvation and my life to Jesus. I acknowledged and confessed that I am a sinner deserving of hell, but Jesus took my hell for me that I might get God. I finally, in tears of joy, acknowledged and confessed that I needed Jesus, that through Jesus alone could I be forgiven and fully embraced, accepted, and loved by God. My right standing was no longer dependent on me, but it was dependent on what Jesus had done on my behalf. He took my messed up record as His own and took my punishment, and He gave me His perfect record as my own so that when God sees me He doesn’t see my blemishes, but He sees me as He sees Jesus, He sees me as His blameless son. God sent Jesus to live, die, and rise for me because He loves me, and Jesus absorbed God’s rightful justice against my sin that I might only experience His love, His perfect, unwavering, unceasing, unconditional, irreversible, and unfailing love. I am His and He is mine. Now, I have a relationship with Him, though its rocky from my end on many days, and I love Him, though imperfectly, and I know His love for me, though I still get distracted and believe lies. Now I am a Christian, and I get what it’s all about, it’s about trusting Jesus every day and living a changed life out of the deep heart knowledge that through faith Jesus has forever made me a child of God and nothing can separate me from His love (Romans 8:31-39). This frees me to live with real joy and peace. This frees me from my fears, anxieties, worries, and insecurities. This frees me to love people, not condemn them or look down on them because who am I. Jesus needed to have His body ravaged to the point of death to save me, who am I to condemn or look down on other people. Pride and self-righteousness has no place, but I am to be kind, selflessly loving, gracious, and forgiving to all my neighbours whether they deserve it or not, as God has been all of these things to me even though I don’t deserve it. This frees me to love God, because He is not an unpredictable cosmic tyrant to be feared, but a Heavenly Father who gave His all to have me. And this frees me to serve Him joyfully, not out of fear, not out of a striving to be good enough, comparing, justifying, blame shifting, self-glorifying, but out of grateful joy. The phrase that Tim Keller often uses to contrast religion and the gospel is, religion is “I obey, therefore I am accepted,” whereas the gospel is “I am accepted, therefore I obey.” I had not really understood this before. I was obeying as a means of saving myself or of maintaining my right standing, which actually put me at odds with a gracious, merciful God and pulled me away from Him, and it made me an unloving, shallow, self-righteous, unrepentant, selfish, and proud person who practised an empty religiosity and a superficial morality and who thought he was close to God and heaven bound when he was in fact far from God. The gospel shattered my illusions that fall evening when I was 16 and I understood the depths of my sinfulness but also the amazing, unfathomable grace of God. Jesus died for me. Because of Jesus and Jesus alone I am forever loved with a “wonderful, never-stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever love” (Jesus Storybook Bible), and God forgives me, accepts me, cherishes me, delights over me, and is pleased with me, and out of the deep heart knowledge of this acceptance, I obey, I live a changed life. This is the gospel. This is Christianity. This is relationship.

My journey of following Jesus, which for many years I thought had started when I was very young, started when I was 16 years old, the day I truly understood the gospel, the good news that Jesus saves sinners, “of which I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:15). And it has been quite a journey.

What is Evangelism?

I want to explore with you all how to do ministry in our post-Christian landscape, but before we talk about that it makes sense to define our terms. In my last post I asked What is the gospel? In this post I am asking What is evangelism? Before we talk about the how of evangelism, we need to talk about the what.

What is evangelism?

The definition or summary of the gospel that I gave in my last post was this:

The gospel is the good news that: Through the person (Son of God, God-man) and work (sinless life, substitutionary death, bodily resurrection) of Jesus, God the Father has rescued us from judgement for our sin, reconciled us to Himself, adopted us into His family (the church), broken the power of sin and the devil in our lives and given us His Spirit so that we can live, though imperfectly in this life, as a new humanity in a broken world, and someday He will utterly vanquish all evil, completely transform us body and soul into our perfect selves, and usher in a new creation, free from the presence of sin, in which we can enjoy our new life with Him forever.

To evangelize is to “gospelize” people, it is to speak this good news into peoples’ lives. And this good news is needed by Christians and non-Christians a like. Non-Christians need to know Jesus can forgive their sins, make them right with God, empower them to live a new life, and give them a new destiny in the New Heavens and New Earth. Christians constantly need to be reminded that Jesus has saved them, is saving them, will save them. Christians need to be reminded that they do not need to obey God to earn His love, favour, and acceptance, they already have all of that in Jesus, and they get to obey out of grateful joy knowing there is grace for all the ways they will mess up. Christians need to be reminded that they are not slaves to sin anymore, they don’t have to live defeated, beaten down lives, they can overcome by the power of the Spirit of God that lives in them. Jesus has started a good work in them and He is going to complete it (Philippians 1:6). Christians need to be reminded that although the world is chaotic, their futures are secure. God will fulfill all His promises. Evil will not win. The church will not be eradicated. Nothing of eternal value will be lost to them. They can never lose what ultimately matters. Christians need to be reminded of these things, sometimes daily. Evangelism isn’t just what Christians do with non-Christians, it ought to be what Christians do with each other. Sometimes I am overwhelmed at the brokenness of our world and all that needs to be done, and I need a fellow Jesus follower to come along and say to me, ‘David, you aren’t the saviour of the world, it doesn’t all rest on you, Jesus is the Saviour, let Him live His life through you and trust Him that He will build His church (Matthew 16:18), He will make all things new (Revelation 21:5), not you.’ I need this. I need to be gospelized, to be evangelized. I need to re-believe the gospel almost every day, not to be made right with God but to stay close to God and live the life of full joy that He has welcomed me into through Jesus.

Evangelism as telling an alternate story

Evangelism is something of a dirty word for some people, and some of this is reaction to how poorly evangelism has be done (and is being done), but it doesn’t have to be. For me, evangelism isn’t about imposing my religious beliefs on someone. It isn’t about winning converts to enlarge my tribe and diminish someone else’s tribe that my people might have more influence in culture and politics. It isn’t about winning an argument, and it isn’t about explaining a series of propositional truths and then asking people to intellectually assent to those truths (although the gospel is not less than a set of propositional truths). Evangelism is about speaking into peoples lives a different story and inviting them to explore, believe, embrace, and live into that story. The reality is is we are constantly telling ourselves stories: we need to be in control, we need to be approved of by these people, we don’t have any value if we don’t have this or that etc… And our culture is constantly telling us stories: look out for number one, live for your happiness, do what feels good for you, buy this and you’ll have joy, do this and you’ll be significant, be this and you’ll be accepted, this is what is wrong with the world and this is what will fix it etc… Everyone in our society is telling us stories all the time. Celebrities are telling stories, politicians are telling stories, late night talk show hosts are telling stories, satirists and comedians are telling stories, activists are telling stories, artists are telling stories, advertisers are telling stories, everyone is telling stories, and the gospel is a story, a story that gives a beautiful alternative to the narratives of self-salvation, self-service, self-glorification, liberalism, conservatism, materialism, consumerism, individualism, capitalism, hedonism, relativism, socialism etc… that we so often hear and that have left us wanting, and it is a story that I believe to be true, as have millions of others throughout the ages.

Evangelism as personal story-telling

Evangelism, however, isn’t just about sharing the gospel story, it is about sharing our stories. The gospel is not just a story that is out there. My testimony is the story of how my life story and the story of the gospel intersected when I was 16, and so for me evangelism is not just about sharing a story, but it is about sharing how the gospel story has changed my life story; how my life story has become absorbed up into this far grander narrative that transcends my time and place. The gospel has redeemed my past and present, the chapters in my story that I wish weren’t there, and it has given my story a far greater ending. It has also added a ton of transformative and exciting, though rarely painless, chapters leading up to the ending that I would not have written on my own. Evangelism, therefore, is deeply personal, and it should be for every Jesus follower. It is me telling people who I believe Jesus Christ to be, but it is also me telling people how He has changed my life and how I believe He can change the lives of others. When I evangelize a Christian or a non-Christian I am speaking an alternate story into their lives, a story that has profoundly changed and shaped my story.

Evangelism as showing people how Jesus is good news for them

To evangelize is also to step into peoples’ stories and show them that Jesus is good news for them, He is the answer to their questions, the solution to their problems, and the satisfaction of their deepest longings and desires. He is the One they have wanted all along, the One they have looked for in other people and things. For example, in an honour-shame culture, we can talk about how Jesus takes away our shame and our guilt and restores to us our dignity, value, honour, and worth.

In a culture that cares deeply about justice and human rights, we can talk about how Jesus is coming back to make all sad things come untrue. He is the rightful King who will vanquish all evil and will usher in a restored creation where there is no racism, sexism, xenophobia, human trafficking, inequality, sexual abuse and exploitation, war, genocide, terrorism, bullying, food insecurity, poverty, slavery, corruption, greed etc…

In a culture where people desperately want to be seen as good, we can talk about how Jesus was good on our behalf so we don’t have to be perfect to be accepted, and how Jesus, if we give our lives to Him, gives us His Spirit and starts to make us truly good, not just externally but internally at the heart and motive level.

In a culture where people want to belong, we can talk about how Jesus adopts us into God’s family, the church, where, because of Him, we are all equal and we all belong despite differences of age, experience, race, socio-economic status, family or origin, gender, education, career, ability, mental health, or whatever else divides us in society.

In a culture where people want to be forgiven, we can lift up Jesus as the One who has secured ultimate forgiveness for us from God. Because of Jesus we are fully forgiven and acceptable to God. We are unconditionally, unwaveringly, and irreversibly loved and delighted in. God is pleased with us through Jesus.

In a culture where the dark forces are believed in and feared, and religion is all about placating unpredictable demons, we can talk about how Jesus is stronger, and He has defeated the devil and his demons, and through Jesus we can overcome them as well. “Greater is He who is in us then he who is in the world (the devil)” (1 John 4:4).

In a culture where death is feared, we can talk about how Jesus has conquered death and rendered it a means by which we enter into the very presence of God in heaven. We can talk about how death is not the end of our story but the beginning of a new chapter that never ends. Though our bodies die we will be with the Lord. Though our bodies go into the ground, someday they will be resurrected and transformed into perfect bodies, bodies incapable of sickness, injury, ageing, decay, and death, and we will live forever with God in a New Heavens and New Earth, a world where there is no darkness, pain, suffering, or death; a world where everything has been set to rights and is as it should be.

In a culture where suffering and pain are feared, we can talk about how Jesus’ suffering resulted in the salvation of the world. He redeemed suffering and showed that all suffering can be a means by which God saves us, peeling away the layers of our brokenness and selfishness and liberating us to truly live (Jesus’ suffering makes us right with God, but our suffering can bring us closer to God, it purges out our darkness and forms us into the image of Jesus).

In a culture where self-actualization is supreme, we can talk about how Jesus came to show us what a fully lived human life looks like and He can empower us to live the way that He lived, making us into our true selves, who we were meant to be and created to be.

I could go on and on but I think we get the point. To evangelize is to speak into peoples’ stories and show them how Jesus is good news for them (this is not to say we don’t share the whole gospel with people, we will have to do that eventually, but we need to start here). He is the Saviour, the Friend, the King, the Redeemer, the Hero, the Liberator, the Priest, the Prophet, and the Advocate they need, and He gives them access to the God who is the Father they need, and He fills them with the Spirit who is the Teacher, Guide, Comforter, and Empowerer they need.

Conclusion

Evangelism often seems like an overwhelming and terrifying thing. We don’t want to do it. When we think of evangelism as winning an argument, winning converts, enlarging our tribe, and presenting propositional truths to be intellectually assented to, then it is impersonal, dry, lifeless, and terrifying and overwhelming. But when we think of evangelism as telling an alternate story, as sharing how the gospel story has transformed our life story and how it can transform the life stories of others, and when we think of evangelism as showing people how Jesus is good news not just in general but for them, and when we think of evangelism as inviting people to explore, believe, embrace, and live into this story, then it becomes personal, life-giving, do-able, exciting and adventurous. It ought to be natural for every Jesus follower. Anybody can do evangelism this way, and it can be done a million different ways in everyday conversations over the fence, at the coffee shop, on walks with the dog, and around the BBQ. When Jesus commissioned us to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), to “go into all the world and preach the gospel” (Mark 16:15), He was sending us out on an exciting adventure. He has sent us into a world full of stories to tell an alternate story, a story that is our story, a story that is beyond our story, a story that every other story is a shadow of, a true story, the story.