Before I went into ministry, I worked in a very highly paid job where I saw great success. Although in the world’s terms it was very rewarding, I knew there was more to life and that God had a higher calling for me. Eventually a door opened for me and I began to serve God by working for an international Christian youth organisation.
A few months into my new role I had the chance to have lunch with my best friend and colleague from my old business, Helen. I was super excited because I decided that when we met I would share my faith with her. More than that, I totally imagined what it would be like as I led her to faith in the restaurant. Spoiler alert, things didn’t go the way I planned!
Although this encounter took place more than 25 years ago, I can still recall the incident as if it was yesterday. As we tucked into our main course at a TGI Friday, she was intrigued about my work. She told me she often went to her local Anglican church. She liked the hymns, she liked some of the people and she enjoyed being part of an historical community that was the back bone of what made England, well….English! I knew this was my chance and I said to her “Its about so much more than that. It’s about a relationship! It’s about giving everything you have to Jesus!”
I will never forget what she said next “Oh no, that doesn’t sound attractive at all. I don’t want to do that. Why would I want to do that?” I was a bit taken aback but then, in my naivety I pulled out my gospel big gun question “Helen, be honest, as you look into your heart don’t you see there is something missing, a hole that can be filled only by Jesus”
Here is her response:
“Gary, you live in a room in a rented house, I live in a 4 bedroom detached house in a desirable part of the city. I am happily married, you are unhappily single. I earn a lot of money, you earn less than my husband and I spend on our holidays. Your car is a Ford Escort, mine is an Audi Quattro. My suit is tailored by Christian Dior and yours is more Christian worker. Finally, I am paying for lunch because I can afford to pick up the bill and frankly you can’t! I cannot see what you have got that I want. Can you?”
That lunch did not go the way I imagined it would. We remained friends but I am not sure we ever truly recovered from that bruising encounter. You see, in her world she felt like she had everything and there seemed to be no benefit to giving her life to Jesus. I presumed she would know her life was empty and could only be filled with a saviour. And whilst that might be true, she hadn’t come to a place of recognising this.
Over the years I have reflected on this episode, and I realised that not only was I naïve but also my approach was at odds with how Jesus engaged with people.
I want you to think about the classic way that we often preach the gospel. In simple terms it sounds a little like this:
You have a problem – in other words, you are a sinner. It might present itself as you are a drug addict, you are lonely, you know there is something missing.
Jesus is the answer – not much need for explanation!
If you accept Jesus into your life, your ultimate issue (salvation) will be resolved.
It has been argued by various thinkers, including William Williamson, that this approach is more akin with scientific thinking than the bible. Let me explain. In the age of enlightenment one very popular form of not only education, but also entertainment, was attending lectures by eminent scientists and engineers. Their presentation would be:
We have a problem e.g. we need to move a heavy object
This is the solution – We have invented the wheel
The wheel means now we can move the heavy object.
Arguably, ministers at the time adopted this form of presentation as a way of presenting Christ. Many apologists still use this approach still.
Now let’s consider a story that we and every child who has ever been to Sunday school knows. The story of Zacchaeus.
“Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd .So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.” (Luke 19:1-4)
Everywhere that Jesus went he was ushering in the Kingdom because where the King is, there is the Kingdom, which allowed him to say, “The Kingdom is in the midst of you” Luke 17:21
“When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.’”
All we can fully know about how Zacchaeus at the beginning of the story is that he wanted to see Jesus. Then Jesus connected with him and the story continues;
“So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’ But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’”
When the tax collector spends time with Jesus his life is turned around. In other words, he repented, and the fruit of his conversion is backed with actions. (Faith without works is dead). His personal transformation is evidenced when the messiah declares:
“Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.’”
So what does that tell us about an alternative presentation of the gospel? Well maybe we could say it looks like this:
Jesus is the answer
Against him I have a problem
If I accept Jesus into my life, my ultimate issue (salvation) will be resolved.
This approach does not see people in deficit. It is not judgmental. It talks of what we are for, not what we are against. Who knows maybe if I had shared with Helen all Jesus is and what he meant and means to me, then perhaps this would of allowed her to be more receptive to this truth, Jesus is the answer to her deepest questions.
So here are a few questions for you to consider:
Do you have a template for how you share the gospel?
Is it like the “enlightenment model”? If so, how did you arrive at it?
Can you see merit in the alternative, “Jesus first presentation”
Will you try it?
Written by Gary Smith.
Gary lives in Wales with his wife Lesley, working as the UK Hubs Director for The Message Trust and Director of Cardiff Street Pastors.