by Ken Shigematsu
Some time ago, I was walking through Vancouver’s Stanley Park with a former seminary professor from Gordon-Conwell. He asked me, “How have you developed theologically since leaving seminary?”
“I haven’t read a lot of theology as of late,” I said, “but some theological truths that I learned in seminary have taken color in the ‘field of ministry’.”
One of those truths is prevenient grace, the doctrine which says that God has been at work in people’s lives long before they were consciously aware of it. Philippians 2:13 tells us that it is God who works in us to will and to act according to his good pleasure.
Jesus taught (John 5:17, 6:44) that no one will ever respond to God unless that person is first drawn by God. Jonathan Edwards and Puritans viewed conversion as something God was doing to them, rather than something they were initiating. Conversion was more a recognition of God’s sovereign working in their lives, than a “decision” for Jesus.
As Steve Eason said, “God is the one who ‘flips our lid and connects the wires’.”
When it comes to evangelism, I used to be much more concerned about having to say things the right way, getting through a 4- point outline… I used to experience more neurotic stress about people “responding to the invitation” because I felt the leverage point of a Gospel presentation lay in my ability to persuade.
I now see conversion as much more of a mysterious “work of God” in the life of a person, which began long before I arrived in his or her life, and which will continue long after I’m out of the picture.
A person’s movement to God is not typically a majestic Lebron Jameseque arcing leap to the hoop, but more like a series of little steps.
I think of my friend Alex.
Alex had been a successful financial investor but found that the business world left his soul empty. As a teenager Alex had been recognized as an outstanding artist. He had been admitted to one of Canada’s finest art schools, but because of financial difficulties that his family was facing, he pursued a business career. However, after he became successfully established in business, he decided to leave the business world and (to use his words) “follow my bliss.” He turned to Buddhist writings. But he sensed a yearning for something more, and then through a friend he was led to our church. After about a year, his friend and people in the church community helped him to see that God’s hand was upon him and that he was being drawn to Jesus. Alex’s experience of business leaving him feeling empty, his pursuit of beauty through art, his dabbling in Buddhism helped prepare him to be brought closer to Jesus.
In Traveling Mercies Anne Lamott speaking of her own journey writes:
My coming to faith did not start with a leap, but rather a series of staggers from what
seemed like one safe place to another. Like Lily Pads round and green, these places
summoned me and held me while I grew. Each prepared me for the next leaf on which
I would land, and in this way I moved across the swamp of doubt and fear. When I
look back on some of these early resting places—boisterous home of Catholics, the soft
armchair of Christian science mom, adoption by ardent Jews—I can see how flimsy and
indirect a path they make. Yet, each step brought me closer to the verdant path of
faith on which I now stand.
Some years ago Leighton Ford was listening to author Anne Lamott speak somewhere here in North Carolina. She described God being like her cat following her around the house. Into her kitchen, into her bedroom, wherever she would go her cat would follow her. Anne finally said to God, “ah F_____ come on in.”
The doctrine of prevenient grace shows that God has been at work in a person’s life long before we got there.
If God is already at work in a person’s life, our calling as a “friend on the journey” is to help a person discern God’s work in his or her life. Evangelism is very similar to spiritual direction as we gently help another person discern the movements of God personally. According to Paul in 1 Cor 2:14, a person outside of a relationship with God will have difficulty in perceiving the things of the Spirit. Our role is help a person discern how God is at work in their lives (which they themselves may not recognize).
Some time ago, I was traveling from Vancouver to LA. I had been in a long meeting, and I was tired. But as I got on the plane, I prayed, “God if you want me to talk to someone I’m available, but if you don’t, I’m very OK with that, too.”
I had an aisle seat and no one sat beside me (the plane was far from full). I was about to doze off when at the last minute a tall young man walked onto the plane. Though the plane was relatively empty, he ended up sitting beside me on the window side. He reaches into his duffel bag and pulls out a copy of Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl.
I thought, “ Lord, maybe you want me to talk to this guy.” We got into a conversation. He was coming up to Vancouver to see the NHL All Star game. He had gotten tickets from Wayne Gretzky’s agent.
I found out he was an actor. When he discovered that I was a minister, he said “I’m really glad I sat beside you.”
He started telling me his life story. He told me he grew up on the East Coast of the U.S. and ended up studying business in the Boston area. After graduating from college, he had pursued a business career for a few years, but found that unfulfilling and meaningless. He then decided to go to Hollywood and pursue acting.
He said, “When I told my uncle at a party that I was leaving the marketplace to pursue an acting career in Hollywood, he laughed in my face… But now I’m getting a fair number of number of acting roles… and I’ve met a number of the top twenty actors and I’m still empty and I know if I ever make it in the top 20, I’ll be empty, too.”
I listened, then I simply pointed the ways I sensed God was working in his life, awakening a desire in him to connect with something greater than himself.
Steve is someone I know from the gym. He doesn’t believe in a personal God, but in a kind of impersonal higher power. Recently, while riding his bike in Vancouver, someone suddenly opened a car door in line with Steve’s front wheel. Unable to swerve, Steve’s front tire hit the door and he went flying into the air and landed in the middle of the street. A truck screeched to halt a few feet from Steve’s prostrate body.
This experience has awakened Steve to the gift of life and I sense God has drawn him a little closer to the mystery. I feel I am in his life, in part, to help him become aware of the mystery that is already at work in him.
If God is already at work in people’s lives, then a large part of our role is to listen and help them discover that. If conversion is primarily the work of God in a person’s life and our role is to help him or her discover God’s work in their life, then the best context for evangelism is a relationship.
As Gary Davis rightly points out, the best context for evangelism is not confrontation, but safety–the safety of a relationship.
Gary Davis says, “Get out and love the hell out of people.”
Someone from a New Age background gave me a birthday card some time ago and wrote something I won’t forget. This person wrote, “I thank God that he brought someone into my life that I could trust enough to lead me to Christ.”
I don’t know that I am that kind of person, but I want to become the kind of person who someone can trust enough to point them to Jesus.
My wife Sakiko leads a small group Bible study in our home for Japanese-speaking people. A couple are new believers. A couple are on their way to Jesus from Buddhist backgrounds. One is clearly a sceptic, but likes the chance to relate to people in her native language.
But it is not just a group where people study the Bible, it’s a micro community where people share their lives with each other both in and outside the context of the small group. Because we have relationships with each other and are able to share about our lives with each other, it’s an ideal context where we can see how God is at work in the lives of different members.
In the old paradigm, a person made a decision to believe, maybe at a crusade and then they were “followed up,” and hopefully came to belong in a church. Generally speaking, “Believe and belong” was the older paradigm.
The current paradigm is that you first belong, and then believe. You belong in a relationship with a person who knows God, or you belong to a community of people, some of whom know God, and then you come to believe.
If spiritual awakening is primarily the work of God, then it makes sense that the best context of our evangelism would be personal relationship, but the greatest power is prayer.
In Ephesians 1:17-18 Paul earnestly prays people’s hearts would be enlightened with the reality of God.
Bob Logan, the church planting guru, says, “Prayer is not preparation for the work, prayer is the work.”
Mother Teresa says, “We pray the work.”
In C.S. Lewis’ wonderful story, The Silver Chair, the young girl Lucy enters this magical land… and meets Aslan the Lion, the Christ-figure.
Lucy says, “I met you because I called out for you.”
Aslan replies, “You would have never called out to me unless I had first called out to you.”
Some people describe themselves as being on some kind of spiritual quest, but no one ever seeks God unless God has first been seeking that person. When we pray for people to come to know God, it seems that God seeks them out with greater intensity.
Think about your own story and conversion. I bet that people were praying for you.
As a teenager, I was getting involved in drug use, shoplifting, joy riding, etc. My dad as a conservative Asian was VERY concerned about me and took me on a “field trip” to visit a local prison. He later said, “I just wanted you to see your future home.”
My mother went to a prayer meeting at church and expressed her concern for me. Walter Fender, an elderly prayer warrior, offered to pray for me every day. A few months later I was caught shoplifting and through that experience of being busted God began to prepare my heart for him. Several months later I heard the Gospel and gave my life to Christ.
Through prayer, God begins to call out to people and create the spiritual atmosphere in people’s lives where they are more likely to respond to God.
Each Monday I pray for family and relatives, most of whom do not a have a relationship with God. In the last year or two, I’ve seen some make movements toward God.
I have a cousin in Tokyo whose parents don’t believe in God and are hostile to Christianity. Materially they have everything they could want. Within the last year this cousin committed her life to Christ and followed Him through the waters of baptism—the first in her immediate family of seven to do so.
I have another cousin from a nominally Buddhist family in Vancouver. She also has given her life to Christ. A year ago last Easter she was baptized (the first in her family of six to do so), and in May of this past year she married a Christian.
There are a number of people in my life whom I’ve been praying for where there is NO clear visible movement toward God, but I believe that praying for someone does create the kind of spiritual environment where the person is more likely to believe.
If conversion is primarily the work of God, we are called into relationship with people. We are called to pray for God to work in their lives and we are also called to “read” the movements of God in a person’s life. To best do that we must be pure.
If God is at work in people’s lives, our primary role in helping people enter a relationship with God is to help them discern how God is at work in their lives; and to best discern the work of God in a person’s life we must be pure.
Jesus said, “blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).
C.S Lewis said our bodies are the telescope through which we see God…
The instrument through which you see God is your whole self. And if a man’s (or a
woman’s) self is not kept clean and bright, his (or her) glimpse of God will be
blurred–like the moon through a dirty telescope.
We see God through our whole self, and so we ask God to purify the lens of our heart.
The ancients believed that there was a direct connection between our ability to know, i.e. with epistemology and our character. So they valued purity of heart and a certain kind of “virginity.”
People today don’t value purity of heart—we’re addicted to information and experience!
People in our culture are not anxious about keeping their heart pure, but they are concerned about “missing out” on some kind of “experience.”
If we want to be able to read the movements of God in a person’s life, we will seek to be pure and set apart for God because we see God through the lens of our whole self.
One of the greatest motivations for purity in our lives is not to avoid zap judgment from God, but so that we have a clearer life lens to discern the work of God in the lives of people.
Post-modern Parables (or motifs)
This past year, at our Sunday services before Christmas, I did dramatic monologue acting as if I were a Magi who was granted the privilege of coming back to earth.
As we know, Scripture is the primary and the most powerful medium that God uses to draw people to Himself, but as the story of Magi illustrates, God can and does also use other means to draw a person closer to himself. In the case of the Magi, God used a star. He used what first century Jews (and we) would consider as the idolatrous practices of astrology to invite the Magi to the birthday party of his Son.
God can use the “messages” that he encoded in creation to prepare people’s hearts for the Gospel. As “friends on the journey,” we can use the motifs and storylines already present in people’s lives as a bridge to Jesus.
Through the history of Christianity we see this. For example, several years ago, I had the privilege of going to Ireland to study Celtic Christianity as part of a group under Leighton’s guide. One of our guides, Rev. Chris Pemberton, pointed out that when Christians first arrived in Ireland the people there were worshipping the sun and the moon. The people had set circles throughout the land as symbols of the sun and moon. The Christians took the circle and used it to teach people that God was eternal. Our guide explained that Christians attached the circle to the cross and explained that the cross symbolizes death, but the circle represented Christ’s victory over death. Celtic Christians believed that pagan religions, while misguided, were a sign of spiritual interest and could be used by God as a bridge to point people to Jesus Christ.
J.R.R. Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings, when trying to reach friends like C.S. Lewis who were steeped in fantasy literature, argued that the death and resurrection of Christ was not just a myth—but THE MYTH, the myth that all the other myths pointed to, the myth that actually happened.
Tolkien argued that the pagan myths of the gods dying and reviving (e.g. the myths of Balder, Adonis, Bacchus and others) were simply glimpses of the truth and reality that were fulfilled in Christ. The story of the God who created us, then dies for us, and comes back to life, is the great myth, the myth that came true at a particular time 2000 years ago, under a particular leader, Pontius Pilate.
We can use the motifs in our culture to point people to God.
Curtis Chang, a pastor and former Inter-Varsity staff worker in the Boston area and author of Engaging Unbelief, points out that across the history of Christianity there have been different parts of the Gospel which have been emphasized. In the early church, people were familiar with sacrifice, so the Gospel was often explained by sacrifice of the Lamb of God. In the medieval times, where people were culturally familiar with the feudal system of Lords and serfs as well as the practice of buying the freedom for soldiers captured in combat, the Gospel was often presented as ransom and redemption. In the modern era, with its consciousness of universal principle of truths and justice, the Gospel has often been explained with court room scene of judicial satisfaction.
Each of these images contains important truths of the Gospel and as Curtis Chang notes, should not be discarded.
Curtis Chang explains how he trains his students for evangelism by teaching them to compose a 3-minute story. But when they get to the point where they are to talk about why Jesus had to die, he says they tend to stumble trying to present a courtroom story about sin’s penalty and death with God as the judge and Jesus as the one who will bear the penalty.
He points out that in his own experience he could pique a person’s interest of the possibility of a wider reality, but then he’d take the card of “judicial satisfaction” and fling it hurriedly (and ineffectually) in the person’s direction.
He argues that we need to use motifs that relate more meaningfully with the people we are connecting with. A couple of motifs that I think are relevant in my context are “homecoming” and “freedom.”
Motif of Homecoming:
In my context, many people are marginalized or come from broken homes, so the Jesus’ metaphor about the Gospel as home-coming is one that connects.
The central purpose of a human being is to know the living God. And when we are able to show people their way back to God, we’re helping them discover the central purpose of their lives, we’re helping them to experience home-coming.
This past summer, I saw a TV story about how the Japanese army invaded China, before World War II. During the war when the Japanese were driven out, hundreds of Japanese children were left orphaned. Some of them were institutionalized, some were adopted, but because they were the children of the “enemy” they were all marginalized. Many became de facto slaves. A Buddhist priest decided to go to China and find these people (now adults) who had been separated from their biological families during the war and bring them back to Japan to reunite them with their biological families (their parents were often dead so they were often reuniting with brothers, sisters, and cousins). The Japanese do not show affection or emotion, but as these “lost” adults were reunited with their families, they wept and embraced publicly.
Like that priest, when we help people reunite with a God from whom they have been estranged, we help them discover their Father and Maker and we offer them the greatest homecoming.
Jesus’ teaching also brings healing and freedom.
Motif of Freedom:
Some people view Jesus’ commands as restrictive–but they are ultimately freeing and healing. Jesus’ teachings bring healing because they are consistent with who we are.
When you stand beside a 747 jet on the runway, its massive size and weight make it seem incapable of breaking the holds of gravity. But when the power of its engines combines with the laws of aerodynamics, the plane is able to lift itself to 35,000 feet (higher than Everest) and travel at 600 miles per hour. Gravity is still pulling on the plane, but as long as it obeys the laws of aerodynamics, it can break free from the bonds of earth.
So it is when we obey the teaching of Christ… we can fly.
God is at work in people’s lives. The best context for evangelism is relationship and the most powerful force is prayer. Our role is to help people discern God’s work in their lives. We help people connect with the Gospel through “God’s messages” encoded in the culture, but we also do it by actually proclaiming the Gospel.
I remember Bill Bright sharing the story about an upright Christian man who decides he would just preach the Gospel with his life. One day one of his colleagues approached him and said, “Bob, I’ve noticed there’s something different about you (and Bob thinks it worked!), you’re not like the rest of us (Bob believes this is “my moment”), there is something unique about you… Bob, Are you a vegetarian?”
We enter into relationships with people, we pray for them, we help them see how God is at work in them. But there also comes a time when we share the Gospel either one-on- one, or in a group setting.
Before going to seminary, I worked in Tokyo, Japan, for a couple of years for a secular corporation. My roommate, a native Japanese, was a prep school teacher and Christian. He suggested that we have a Christmas Crusade… I said that was a great idea… he said, “I’ll organize it if you preach.”
I said, “Give me one good reason why I should preach, instead of you.”
“Because you remind me of Robert Schuller. Besides, you’ll look good in a blue robe.” (He actually got an old blue choir robe for me…)
A few days before our Christmas outreach, my roommate sat me down in his room, looked me in the eye, and gave me instructions on how I should preach. He said, “The students who come from my high school have not been to a church before. They’re only coming to experience the mood of Christmas.” Then he looked me in the eye and said, “So whatever you do—don’t try to convert them!”
On the Saturday night of our outreach, we wondered if anyone would come to our tiny chapel. About 55 high school students showed up. They filled our little chapel and as we looked out at the faces from my seat on our little platform, I saw students looking around the chapel, fidgeting in their seats–it was clear that these kids had never been to church before and would likely not be going to church in the future (it isn’t part of the Japanese culture for people to go to church).
When I realized that for these kids this night would be the first and the last time for them to hear the Gospel, a wave of fear swept over me–as I thought about how these young people were facing a Christ-less eternity… I thought about how at the end of the evening, I would have to answer to my roommate for what I said, but how at the end of my life, I would have to answer to God…
So I began my message by sharing stories of Christmas in Canada, about making snowmen and my belief as a child in Santa Claus. I then began speaking of their impending university entrance exam which would literally determine their career and life destiny. I then talked about the exam they have before God at the end of their lives (communicating parts of the Gospel using their motifs, their stories). Then I pointed out from Scripture that God took that exam for them in Christ. At the end of the message I gave an invitation for people to receive Christ and about 15 kids raised their hands…
I thought, “This can’t be happening in Japan.” So I said, “Put down your hands.”
I re-explained the Gospel… the cost of following Christ. I said, “Your life is going to be harder if you follow Christ” and gave another invitation. This time about 20 kids raised their hands… The church had no youth group at the time. The church now had an instant youth group…
As Don Posterski points out in the Brian Maclaren article we need to avoid “microwave” evangelism like the plague. There are occasions, however, where the Holy Spirit moves in such a powerful way, he accelerates the normal pace at which a person typically comes to God.
We love people in relationships, we pray, we help discover God’s work in their lives, we point to analogies in the culture that offer glimpses of the Gospel, and as the Spirit of God provides opportunity, we proclaim Christ.
In Luke 15 Jesus says that there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner that repents, than over ninety-nine who need no repentance. Billy Graham was preaching in Anaheim some years ago. During the time of invitation, which is typically solemn and reverent, people were breaking out in applause. As people were coming forward, people in their section started to clap and cheer… Mr. Graham thought people should not clap, as this is a “holy moment.” Why were people clapping during the invitation?
People at the stadium were seated according to their languages to help best facilitate interpretation. There was a Chinese section, a Spanish section, a Punjabi section, etc., and as their people would stand and respond to the invitation to receive Christ, they would cheer and clap.
When Billy realized what was going on, he said, “We’re in Angel stadium and the Bible says that the angels rejoice over one sinner, so go ahead and clap.”
When I was working in Japan, my grandmother heard a rumor that I was preaching. She remembered me as a little brat whose favorite book was the Sears Christmas catalog, and she recalled I used to always ask her, “Grandma, how can I be rich when I grow up?”
She found out that I was preaching from time to time at this little church in the northwest corner of Tokyo. She was both intrigued and amused, so she decided she would come and hear me preach. She had not been to church in over two decades, but on this cold, wet February morning she rode the Tokyo subway and buses for an hour to come to our church.
She sat in the second pew from the back row on the right. I got up and gave a short message on the work of the cross from Galatians chapter 2 and sat down. The eighty year old pastor came up to the podium and said, “Brother Shigematsu, after that kind of message, you should have given an invitation.” He continued, “Come up here and give an invitation.”
I was unprepared and embarrassed. The mood in the little chapel grew tense and awkward, but I had recently watched Billy Graham on video–so I just plagiarized him.
I said, “If you are here and don’t know Christ, if you need to make your commitment or re-commitment to Christ, I want you to stand up and come… by coming you’re saying in your heart, ‘I commit myself to Jesus’.”
As we sang the closing hymn I looked up after the first stanza, no-one was coming. My heart sank. We sang the second stanza, again no one was moving. After the third stanza, one woman began to slink her way to the aisle and came forward… We sang the final stanza, I closed the hymnal. I looked up and there were seventeen or eighteen who had come forward… my grandmother was among them.
I jumped off the platform to see if she was okay. With tears streaming down her face, she said, “This is the happiest day of my life. I’ve been a Christian my whole life but today for the first time, I understood why Jesus Christ died on the cross for me.”
I often think of that day—one of the greatest days of my life–because it was the day my grandmother experienced peace with God.
When we point someone to Christ, it may not be our grandmother, but it is somebody’s grandmother, somebody’s son, somebody’s daughter, somebody’s sister, somebody’s dad, somebody’s “person.”
We proclaim Christ, and as people are drawn to Him, we share in God’s passion and joy.
At my ordination service, Leighton said, “Sometimes the fire will burn high; at other times it will burn low. Pray that it will burn on!”
We have the greatest privilege in the world, the privilege of helping people discover the God for whom they were made.