The Conversations the World Is Having

The key to harnessing ministry in public space is to enter the conversations that the world is having. Sam Chan’s Evangelism in a Skeptical World has a chapter on “How to Give Evangelistic Topical Talks” that reinforces this principle. The subtitle of the chapter is “Beer, Sex, and Santa Claus.”[1] “Every good conversation starts with good listening” goes the anonymous saying. Conversations are a two-way street and, in Acts 19, prior to talking, Paul was listening. He listened to the unspoken conversations by walking around the city and noticing their superstitions and fears, and finally locked on their FOMO tendencies, seeing that they had even covered their rears by sculpting a statue to the “Unknown God.”

The church counteracts the postmodern apathy and the existential despair that grips the media. The church, in its purest form, stands for grace and grates against hypocrisy instead of harboring it. The church embraces absolutes, preaches purpose, champions dignity, and announces a higher calling for humanity as God’s image-bearers. All of this has resulted in a wave of orphanages, hospitals, universities, homeless shelters, rehabs, leper colonies, and charities, like Habitat for Humanity. The world would be poorer without the voice of the church. It has always had, has now, and will continue to have, something to say to the world around it. 

For the purpose of this chapter, I’ve included some topics with the Harness, Redeem, and Transform Framework from chapter 11 for your groups to engage with and even practice talking about with unbelievers. Many of the conversations we avoid as Christians are the low-hanging fruit that have prepped people for the gospel. For example, Philip Yancey asks, “On what grounds do we feel outrage if we truly believe that morality is self-determined or scripted in our genes?” He quotes Nietzsche’s philosophy of nihilism, and ends with Hitler’s conclusion, “Nature is cruel, therefore we too can be cruel.”[2] Therefore, a discussion on where morality comes from is a springboard for leading people to understand man as created in the image of God.

Interaction

There is a lot of talk about being relevant, which comes from the word relate. Can we relate to people? Can we relate to our times? When you read the Gospels, you quickly realize that Jesus knew how to relate to people and, as an even greater compliment to his way of witnessing, they could relate to him.

If we’re going to relate to people, that means we’re going to have to learn to talk to people. John’s Gospel is the most evangelistic book of the New Testament. Have you ever noticed that it’s a collection of discussions between Jesus and people? The entire thing. What does that tell us about evangelism?

Sometimes I think the church has always believed in drone strikes. For most of the history of military campaigns, armies have had to set foot onto enemy territory if they want to take it. Drone strikes are initiated from bases far away from their targets. Nonetheless, the church sets up a base of operations and never leaves it. They hope that the enemy will simply walk in and surrender to them, or they can drop some evangelism on people from a distance. I have bad news for you: the drones aren’t coming.

When John Wesley and George Whitefield rode the wave of the Holy Spirit during the Great Awakening, they established small groups throughout the country called “societies.” They were convinced that life change happened in circles, not in rows. They found conversions in the field and discipleship in the living room. There were churches. Lots of them. But the churches weren’t reaching people, so Wesley and Whitefield went outside.

This took huge faith and gumption. They had to exegete their culture. Whitefield went to the coal fields because the miners worked seven days a week and couldn’t hear the gospel at church. The Methodist preachers were soon down the mineshafts, taking church to the people “in the pits.” Their gambit payed off and the revival spread.

Wesley originally thought it “a sin to preach in the fields” when he heard of Whitefield, but within a few months, he was preaching to crowds of 20,000 people. Our models often hold us back and keep the kingdom from expanding. In the Great Awakening, and in most times of revival, what God was doing happened outside the church walls. So did Jesus’s ministry. Did you realize that? He wasn’t found where religious people were. He didn’t have a church. The Son of God came and barely set foot inside the temple for three years. His ministry was outside of the church. My first church plant was in a Starbucks. My second was in in a public park. My third is getting ready to plant in a gas station in the inner city.

What the Youth Already Know about Your Sucky Church

Churches have largely lost the youth, due to a failure to facilitate the important conversations they were having outside the church. According to a study, 86% of unchurched people say that they can have a good relationship with God without belonging to a church.[3] I n my book Church Zero, I included a conversation entitled, “Why your Church Sucks,” which was written from the perspective of a young person in today’s interactive world. The discussion was intended to highlight the dilemma that faces us as a church trying to play an 8-track version of good news to a Spotify world:

Perhaps you’ve overheard someone saying the following, “I don’t need to go to church. I can still have a relationship with God at home. If I want to listen to a sermon, I’ll download something from the internet. If I want to worship, I’ll hit my favorites off of iTunes. I’m not really missing out on anything by staying at home. Watch the show at church or watch it at home—what’s the difference?” How do you answer that?

Do you tell such a person that he should go to church because the presence of God is there and he’ll miss it if he stays at home? I’ll tell you what he’ll say: “Why would the Holy Spirit refuse to meet with me just because I wasn’t physically sitting in the building? I can spectate just like anybody else from the comfort of my own home. I can be blessed in the worship and be edified from the Word and save gas, all at the same time.” Of course, you’ll be quick to talk about Hebrews 10:25: “Don’t forsake the gathering of the saints together.” He’ll be quick to respond with, “Well, I do meet with other Christians for coffee like we’re meeting now. We’re talking about Jesus.” 

But the truth is that he’s getting more fellowship with you as you are speaking into his life in an attempt to get him to church than he would if he came to church! He definitely won’t starve from missing out on the chitchat he’d get drinking coffee in the lobby after the service, talking with the few people who actually stick around instead of burning rubber during the final song. You might even answer that he needs pastoral leadership, but we’ve already established that he’s not really going to get pastoral care at most of our churches. Unless he can fit into the pastor’s schedule, or he’s lucky enough to have penetrated the iron curtain of secretaries and receptionists, he’ll never see the great and powerful Oz.

As long as the church is set up as an audience on a Sunday morning, there’s little to say to the departing youth. There’s nowhere for them to get involved. They sit at home in the neon light of their monitors because all they need in church is ears, eyeballs, and legs. All we ever ask them to do is sit. We never ask them to use their mouths. And they’ve got so much to say.[4]

Synagogue Style Evangelism

When we say synagogue, we mean dialogue. Synagogue-style teaching was when the rabbi sat in the middle of a group and asked questions designed to engage the learners to think on a deeper level. I discovered this accidentally but have since become very intentional about it. Reinforcing this drive to engage people in group interaction is the way Jesus taught in the Gospels. Did you know that he asked 308 questions, was asked 187, and only answered three directly?

I want you to think for a second about how much of Jesus’s teaching in the Gospels is actually in dialogue form. Many of the things that we think Jesus spoke as a sermon were actually responses to a question or an observation and were part of an ongoing discussion.

Observe how Jesus, the master of conversation, handles a question about fasting:

Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast. No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” (Matt. 9:14–17)

Observe that he asked a question in response. He also did this when told about his mother and brothers waiting for him outside, and also when he was asked by the rich young ruler how he could obtain eternal life. The list could go on with nearly thirty examples in Matthew’s Gospel alone.

Monological or Dialogical

Dialogical preaching is a two-way conversation between a speaker and an audience. Contrast this with monological preaching, where the speaker takes the entire time to speak at the audience. Dialogical preaching is fast becoming popular. In 2005, we lucked our way into this approach by hosting a reading group around The DaVinci Code, but it added to our monological practice, rather than subtracting from it. 

People with strong opinions so often attempt to force us to choose between two options, as if they are the only two choices in front of us. This staged either/or scenario is known as a false dilemma, or a false dichotomy, and is considered an informal fallacy. We shouldn’t have to choose between monological or dialogical preaching. Both have their uses and are prevalent in society. They’ve also been prevalent in Scripture. Paul entered the synagogue to engage in conversations “as was his custom … and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures” (Acts 17:2). Paul knew that conversations equal conversions. 

In my experiences with the churches I’ve planted, striking a balance between proclamation in short bursts followed by discussion in short bursts was best. In the same way Ezra read the law from the platform and also sent his priests into the crowd to dialogue and explain teachings with which the crowds had difficulty, so we set up our church for both.

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