Good News that Crosses the Divide

Slide1For those of you I’ve never met, my name is Dave Benson. One of the roles I’ve had over the years was as the “Evangelism Pastor” for a church in Brisbane. This position was both a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing, because I was paid to spend most of my time mulling over how we could better share the best news this hurting world could ever hear. What’s the good news, you ask?  Simply this: God, the creator, hasn’t abandoned us, our society, or our spinning blue planet to the forces of destruction. Instead, He’s implemented a rescue plan through Jesus to restore everything to good and reconnect everyone to life-giving relationship with Him.  Responding to Jesus is as simple as admitting that we’ve ignored and despised God, abused others, and vandalized the world—we are all-deserving of God’s judgment.  But because of Jesus’ payment on our behalf, we can be freely forgiven, turning from our agenda to align with Jesus and His Kingdom so we can together heal the world in the power of His Spirit.  For those who have responded to Jesus, we’ve been given the “ministry of reconciliation.”  Paul puts it this way in II Corinthians 5:19-20:

God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.  God made him who had no sin to be a sin offering for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

“Reconciliation” is about restoring a broken relationship with God, and aligning our lives with divine purposes.  It’s about building bridges that cross the divide between God and our world.  All this is the heartbeat of “evangelism,” which simply means, “to announce good news”—a public announcement about a public event intended for the public realm of life.

Perhaps here’s where the curse of being Pastor of Evangelism begins.  You see, this message has been announced for over two millennia, oftentimes invalidated by the church’s poor witness—crusades, inquisitions, abuse, greed, excess, and irrelevance.  After a while, this good news starts to sound old.  And in a world that prizes progress, change, and the new thing, this spells disaster for evangelism.  Walker Percy, in Message in a Bottle, poignantly describes the challenge of sharing good news to jaded listeners: “The Christian novelist nowadays is like a man who has found a treasure hidden in the attic of an old house, but he is writing for people who have moved out to the suburbs and who are sick of the old house and everything in it.”

Add to this indifference the fact that there are hundreds of other voices challenging our good news and offering another form of salvation—whether through better education, evolutionary progress, the five pillars of Islam, or Buddhism’s eight-fold path.  In this pluralistic society, we quickly learn that it is impolite—or worse, intolerant—to foist your particular beliefs upon the masses.  One newspaper compared Christians proclaiming Christ as the exclusive Saviour with jihad-bent terrorists destabilizing society.

This brings me to the challenges of my role: many Christians run for cover as soon as the “evangelism” word is brought out.  We’re often fearful and reluctant messengers.  And I can understand that.  Even if you believe we have good news to share, who wants to be sent into a public place bearing the gospel-bomb?  And that’s how some of you perceive the call to evangelize: a suicide mission that’s sure to blow up your reputation and relationships.  “Sure, I believe what Jesus said, and I’ll follow it in my own life.  But don’t start talking about my responsibility to share this with others.  I’ll ‘preach’ the gospel with my life, only using words when it’s absolutely necessary.”  It’s like there’s a huge divide, not only between God and humanity, but also between us (Christians) and our culture.

Culture, Christians and God

Picture from Dan Kimball, “They Like Jesus But Not the Church”, 2007, p. 235

How have you dealt with this gap?  I’ve seen a whole range of responses, though three groupings seem to cover it all.  The first group of Christians are Sunday Christians.  They live their faith one day a week, on the Christian side of the divide.  For the rest of the week they are incognito in the culture, blending in and so similar to those who don’t know Christ that they fail to prompt any evangelistic conversation.  The up-side is that it’s really safe—your reputation and relationships may well remain intact.  The down-side is that you’re disobeying Christ who sent us into the world to make disciples (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8)—you’re depriving those you supposedly love from hearing the good news that can bring them life.  That’s hardly loving.  So the second group want to keep their allegiance to Christ intact, so they’re firmly entrenched within church culture.  The church becomes a kind of one-stop shop for all of life’s needs.  The church is also a fortress where you keep safe from the world, and every now and then you fire a few gospel bombs over the divide to the enemy culture around, or engage in a crusade or two to convert the heathens.  The up-side is you feel safe with numbers, and you are less tempted to compromise your witness.  The down-side is you have still disobeyed Jesus by not loving the lost (Matt. 5:13-16; Luke 15:1-32)—your “good news” isn’t backed up by “good deeds,” and it comes across as manipulative and inauthentic to those on the other side of the divide.  So what’s the third way?

The third group follow Jesus’ model of “incarnation,” crossing the divide to make God’s love and message known in the midst of the culture (John 1:1-14; Phil. 2:5-11).  The third group are bridge builders.

Perhaps an illustration will help.  Last year Nik and I had the chance to visit the Grand Canyon in Arizona.  Ten miles across, one mile deep—only the intrepid would ever cross the divide.  The barriers seemed insurmountable.  For most of America’s history, there was a North-South divide in the heart of the country—no transport, commerce, tourism, relationships—separated by the Colorado River eating away at the rugged rock.  This all changed in 1929.  It took some pioneering spirits with fresh eyes to set up the historic Navajo Bridge, forming the only connection point for 600 miles.  They surveyed the edge of the canyon until they found the narrowest divide.  And then they built.  It took time.  It was costly.  But when it was complete, journalists called it “the biggest news in southwest history.”

In your context, what does it mean to be a bridge-builder?  What are the barriers to your neighbours taking our good news seriously?  How wide is the divide?  And where is the point of closest contact?  How can you go about building trust, dispelling their misperceptions, and helping them understand the problem of sin and their need for a Saviour?  How can you be in but not of the world (John 17), reconciling those across the divide with a caring community and a compassionate God.

Our hope with Traverse is to spur on the thinking of best practice, passing on what we hear as fellow bridge builders.  None of these ideas are definitive—they’re all conversation starters that may hopefully prompt you to boldly live your faith and break out of the Christian ghetto with fresh ways to share the good news. We would also love to hear from you, so go to our contact page and share your stories. And who knows . . . perhaps together we might construct a Navajo bridge that crosses the spiritual divide at the heart of our country.

Dave Benson is founding director of Traverse, a PhD Candidate, and a lecturer at Malyon College.