-- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
About six years ago, I sat in my mentor-pastor Mike Ayers's living room and tried to express my convoluted thoughts on the call of the Church to the lost. At the time, Mike and I had been off and on working on a book on evangelistic ecclesiology. I remember trying to say some things to him that evening way back when and having no idea how to say them. All I had was the feeling that the way we were inviting people to follow Jesus was fundamentally flawed.
What we were doing seemed to be working in some respects, though. The church he had founded and in which I had served had seen the conversion of Jewish intellectuals and atheistic philosophy nerds and rebellious kids from broken homes. We were doing some things right. But the basic issue for me then was an odd feeling of being in limbo between competing evangelistic theories. We were rightly dismissive of the practice of the sort of churches we had left behind, in which after every service a minister would present what essentially amounted to Pascal's Wager to the congregation and then got those who decided to take the bet to sign on the dotted line for some fire insurance.
On the other hand, so-called "seeker churches" like ours, at the time, seemed to follow the same philosophy but just made it more comfortable. If not that, what seeker churches seemed to offer prospective converts was some sort of glorified self-help philosophy. Make your marriage better, your kids well behaved, your career more successful, your life peachy keen. I will not doubt the benefits following Jesus can have on all of those things, and I won't deny that the Bible speaks to some of them, if not all. But Christianity is not a tool to make life better; it is life itself.
I am more articulate on these matters today than I was then. I basically just unloaded an aimless ramble on Mike, not even sure then what I was trying to say. To his great credit, Mike was getting it and, thankfully, was feeling much the same way.
What I remember saying was my point was that I felt like we should be calling the lost into something, not just away from something. Obviously, conversion entails confronting our sinful nature and repenting of our life of sin. Obviously the fear of hell and separation from God are worthy motivators to choose the alternative. But calling people away from sin and death into Six Steps For Successful Living won't keep people for long. It's just a switch from one set of life management skills to a more explicitly religious set.
Basically, my hope is that we are inviting the lost into an alternate reality, into a kingdom life that buzzes and hums with God's active presence and abundant grace and love. As a writer, I like the analogy of Story as it relates to the life of discipleship. Even back then, I remember telling Mike something like, "Imagine if we could invite people to take part in a great Story that is going on." We invite people not to merely incorporate church into their lives as something helpful and beneficial, but to incorporate their lives into the Church, the community of persons following Jesus together, as something radical and revolutionary in their lives and in the life of the world.
The way conversion is sometimes expressed these days is that the Christian life gives us tools with which to write our own pretty good story. But really it is more like the Christian life finds us smack-dab in the middle of a Story that is already being written -- indeed, we are nearing the fantastic and climactic finale. (Best to play our part as soon as possible!)
We cannot write this Story into existence; we must recognize that it is already being composed by a far greater Artist than we, and we must jump in, immerse ourselves, and see where our character arc goes.
Once again, Pastor Bonhoeffer:
We are torn out of our own existence and set down in the midst of the holy history of God on earth. There God dealt with us, and there He still deals with us, our needs and our sins, in judgment and grace. It is not that God is the spectator and sharer of our present life, howsoever important that is; but rather that we are the reverent listeners and participants in God's action in the sacred story, the history of the Christ on earth. And only in so far as we are there, is God with us today also.
An earlier version posted in 2004 at Thinklings.