By David Timms
The statistics are enough to alarm any Christian parent. One study suggests that as many as 70 percent of Christian teens will stop attending church for at least a year and put their faith on hold when they head to college. Parents and ministers across the country feel vexed. We want our high school seniors to be able to share their faith, but many of them are struggling to simply hold onto it.
Of course, the issue extends far beyond teens and young adults. Generation after generation within the church has failed to find ways to witness well and witness wisely.
Some commentators conclude that the rise of biblical illiteracy has undermined the confidence of congregants to share their faith. In essence, we don’t have all the answers, so we are afraid to say anything. But perhaps we need to ask an uncomfortable question: Is the struggle to share our faith a product of insufficient theological information (about God, the Bible, and faith)—our usual excuse—or insufficient experience with the transforming reality of Christ?
When we turn to the New Testament—and particularly the Gospels—we find a surprise or two.
The Gospel Surprise
Theologians throughout the centuries have produced volumes of systematic theology. They fill their writing with reason, analysis, and argument. Consider, for example, John Calvin’s 16th century Institutes of the Christian Religion. Truth is neatly packaged and laid out sequentially. Everything appears orderly and sensible. Clear headings. Sharp explanations. Mystery, for the most part, steps aside and makes way for logic.
The Gospels, however, follow no such format. The Gospel writers clearly share both their faith and the faith, but they do it through surprising means—small snippets of teaching and a large emphasis on stories. They do not begin with the nature of man (anthropology), move to the problem of sin (hamartiology), then progressively deal with Christ (Christology), the Spirit (pneumatology), the church (ecclesiology), and finally the new age and things to come (eschatology). It’s just not that clean and tidy. Instead, we read about Jesus and the people whose lives he touched: an unclean woman, a desperate leper, a grieving father, a blind beggar, a skeptical follower, and so many others.
Doubly surprising, perhaps, is that when Jesus does teach, he does not seem to work from predetermined formulas. Indeed, much of his teaching involves stories—again, about people: a king, a gracious father, farmers, travelers, widows, and the like. The good news was never a philosophical conversation for the elite but a profoundly practical message for the afflicted, grounded in real life. There were no Four Spiritual Laws (though we may find them useful) for him to list. No systematic Romans Road (though many have come to faith via this canned presentation). He didn’t have an Evangelism Explosion tract that probed a person’s readiness for eternity.
Curiously enough, not only did Jesus seem to shy away from pre-packaged formulae, but so did the early church. And for good reasons.
The gospel is intrinsically a message about the incarnation (God-in-flesh) and therefore demands an incarnational (in-flesh) context. We cannot reduce it to mere words and statements, doctrines or “truths.” The early church understood that the power of the message resides heavily in the experience and life (and personal testimony) of the messenger.
Yes, the Gideons have a valid ministry placing copies of the Bible in hotel room drawers. Many lost souls have come to a saving knowledge of Christ because of this ministry. Similarly, the Lord has used movies, videos, and books to touch hearts. But the gospel is fundamentally about a person we trust, not merely a historical figure whom we affirm. And trust requires story—the intertwining of our personal story with the Christ-story. The gospel message cannot stop with reflections on the historical Jesus but must bear witness to the current reality of Christ.
Jesus did not see his ministry in terms of an assembly line. He did not knock on unfamiliar doors and accost strangers with religious questions. His ministry emerged far more from the heart than the head. While he chided the religious elite of his day, he listened deeply and intently to the cries and the pleas of the common folk. They mattered to him. Their personal suffering provided the context for the gospel.
It’s also significant that, to the best of our knowledge, Jesus did not hold Monday morning team meetings to report on the “success” of the previous weekend. He did not send out his disciples to invite folk to come and hear him speak at a special rally, and then count the “nickels and noses.” Instead, he sent out his disciples to do the work of ministry despite their imperfect understandings, their spiritual immaturity, and their deeply flawed character.
In Luke 10:1-16, Jesus sent out his disciples, 72 of them, in pairs to every city and place he planned to visit. They were not the advance marketing campaign. They were the ministers, instructed to bless the homes that they entered (v. 5) then fellowship with their generous hosts (v. 7) and finally (after both blessing and eating together) proclaim the kingdom of God (v. 9). How often do we get this backward? We start with preaching and perhaps never get to fellowshipping or blessing. Perhaps it’s because we feel the tyranny of time. But this urgency is one of our own making.
As we read the Gospels, we discover that the gospel is embedded in lives and personal testimonies. Perhaps we have come full circle.
In many ways, the 21st century mirrors the 1st century. We want “good news” that produces true hope and real transformation, not just platitudes. If the gospel fails to touch my life, why would you think it could touch yours? If I am unchanged by the message, why would you embrace it? If this good news doesn’t deliver me from the burden of sin and brokenness, why would you have any interest?
In a day when authenticity is everything, heartbroken and sin-sick souls shy away from shallow sayings and superficial suggestions. They crave examples. In a culture intoxicated by pragmatism and desperate for help, the question is not merely, “What do you believe?” but, “What is working for you?”
To a large extent, our society has lost confidence in words detached from reality. The value—and perceived truthfulness—of what we say depends heavily on our integrity, character, trustworthiness, personal experience, and testimony as messengers. Our neighbors and colleagues watch our lives before they listen to our words. It seems from the New Testament that Jesus walked among similar people.
The Original Question
So we return to the opening question. Is the struggle to share our faith (which so many of us face) a product of insufficient theological information or insufficient experience with the transforming reality of Christ?
We often gravitate toward piling on the information—“10 Ways to Know God Exists” or “20 Ways to Defend Your Faith” or “15 Things Every Christian Should Know”—but these bricks of information lack the cohesiveness to build anything of substance. They have no more power than “10 Best Apps in 2014”—interesting to some; compelling to none.
As we re-read the Gospels and the New Testament, we rediscover that the good news ought to confront us, transform us, and radicalize us. When it truly grips us, it seizes us and carries us to places we’ve never been, to do things we have never done. It turns everything upside down, leaving nothing as it once was. It heals, restores, and reconciles, refusing to make concessions for our sin and selfishness. And, in the process, it saves us. Good news, indeed.
When we experience daily the transforming power of the gospel in our own lives, when we allow it to shape us and renew us, when we have felt the irresistible call and touch of grace, we will witness well and witness wisely. And we’ll walk in the steps of Jesus. No formulas needed.
David Timms teaches at William Jessup University in Rocklin, California.
Learning to Share
As you incorporate sharing the gospel into your life, you might find these books helpful. They aren’t formulas, but rather offer encouragement.
Eats with Sinners: Reaching Hungry People Like Jesus Did
by Arron Chambers (Standard, 2009) Item 021520309
The Insider: Bringing the Kingdom of God into Your Everyday World
by Jim Petersen and Mike Shamy (NavPress, 2003)
Becoming a Contagious Christian
by Bill Hybels and Mark Mittelberg (Zondervan, 1996)
Honest Questions, Honest Answers: How to Engage in Compelling Conversations about Your Christian Faith
by David Faust (Standard, 2012) Item 025485412