Making Mucho of Jesus
Sometimes the least Gospel-centered thing we can do is to talk about being Gospel-centered.
One of the hardest aspects of bringing the gospel to a new community is to separate the culture of the messenger from the gospel message itself. Yet this is one of the most important factors to consider when beginning to disciple new believers. Are we helping them walk with God? Or are we just indoctrinating them into our culture?
The story of David and Goliath provides insight into some of the same dynamics that are involved in launching a new movement (or planting a new church). At the beginning of 1 Samuel 17 King Saul and the Israelites are encamped on a hill opposite from the Philistines. Goliath the giant is sent out to challenge the Israelites to a winner-take-all duel of fighting men. The Hebrews are scared out of their minds and have “lost all hope” (1 Sam 17:10).
Finally David, the lowly shepherd boy present only to deliver lunch to his brothers, steps up and offers to fight the giant. He is taken to the King and, after some convincing, Saul finally agrees to let David fight Goliath. Saul then proceeds to outfit the shepherd boy in the finest armor the Israelite army has to offer. But David refuses it, grabs a sling and 5 stones, and proceeds to kill the giant and rescue a nation.
Popular Christian lingo is Saul’s armor.
Staring a movement from scratch is not all that different from slaying a giant. It feels like God is calling you to do the impossible, plant a gospel movement in a place where it has not flourished before. Soon people begin to trust Christ. They start to grow in their faith and begin to own the growth of the movement for themselves. Suddenly the thought hits, “They need equipping!”
So we turn to the thing that is most familiar to us — lingo that is popular in the Christian community that we’ve come from. We start telling the infant movement that they need to create “gospel-centered missional communities” so they can “make much of Jesus”. We pull out Saul’s armor, totally missing the fact that it doesn’t fit the new movement.
It’s understandable that we would look to where we came from to equip the new movement. After all, it is often the teaching clothed in that lingo that propelled us to follow the vision of launching new movements or churches in the first place. Just like Saul’s armor did for him, it has served us well and grown us in our faith. There’s nothing wrong with it, in and of itself. But just like Saul’s armor, it often doesn’t fit the people we’ve been called to reach.
Professor Charles Kraft shares how often many ministers make this common mistake:
[The communicator] may use a type of language that he understands well but that loses his listeners…. Many preachers, in fact, spend a large part of their ministries preaching to their homiletics professors [from seminary]. They have not learned that they need to use a different style to reach the people in their pews, so they simply continue to speak within the frame of reference that they learned to use in seminary.
God, however, is not like that. He uses the language and thought patterns of those to whom He speaks…He moves into the cultural and linguistic water in which we are immersed in order to make contact with us.
– Charles Kraft (Communicating the Gospel God’s Way, p. 10-11, emphasis added)
“Gospel-centered missional communities making much of Jesus” is forcing new believers to wear Saul’s armor. David needed to fight Goliath. He needed to imitate being a warrior, but he needed the freedom to do it in a way that was true to who God had called him to be. Saul’s armor was good for Saul. It was detrimental to David and his ability to do battle. We do the same things when we ask our converts to “imitate us as we imitate Christ” but then load them down with the Christian lingo we’ve been using to do battle.
How Should We Then Communicate?
If it was wrong for Saul to try to make David fit into his armor, what should he have done? Saul should have listened when David shared his stories of killing wild animals (1 Samuel 17:34). It should have clicked in the King’s mind that the boy knew what he was doing. Saul should have helped David find the best stones possible and encouraged him to use his God given talents to rescue the nation. Instead, Saul turned to the only thing he knew, his armor.
Our job as movement launchers is to learn the language and communication styles of our audiences. We then step towards them and communicate in ways that make sense to them. We listen to their stories and help them lead out of the experiences God has already given them. Few things are more disheartening to me than hearing a Hispanic student as a new believer talk about “the centrality of the gospel” in the books they are reading. Why? Because the phrase is bad? Not at all. But it is Saul’s armor. It doesn’t fit the way the student naturally communicates (does any college student use the word “centrality” in their everyday speech?) . It doesn’t come out of their story and their language. It makes no sense in their context. It is imported from the outside.
Shouldn’t Our Disciples Sound Like Us?
But what about when Paul says, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.?” Shouldn’t our disciples be learning from us and imitating us? Shouldn’t they sound like the language we use? Yes and no. Our disciples should have lives that have the gospel at the core of all they do. But they should sound like themselves, not like a little Mark Driscoll, Mike Bickle, Bill Johnson, or Joel Osteen. They should still be able to speak to their old friends and make sense.
It is a hard tightrope to walk, helping a movement grow in the principles talked about in the Christian subculture without being co-opted into it. For the dignity of our movements and their effectiveness at spreading the gospel I pray that God will help us to live in this tension well.
Does your language represent the culture of the people you are trying to reach? Or does it better reflect the Christian subculture?
Can you go an entire semester of ministry without mentioning a Christian celebrity or popular Christian lingo? (in your talk, in discipleship appointments, in conversations with students, on twitter or facebook)
When you recommend a particular Bible translation to a student, is it because you know their story and what would fit them best? Or is it because a Christian celebrity told you it was their favorite translation?
photo copyright: NICOLAS LARENTO