Core Value 3: Contextualizing Our Mission

September 29, 2019 Speaker: Michael Graham Series: Core Values

Topic: Default Scripture: Acts 17:16–17:34

I was a sophomore at UF when 9/11 happened. Three years later I was a missionary with CRU in Europe when the War in Iraq was kicking off and the Bush vs. Kerry election cycle was in constant global news. Students at our Italian University desperately wanted to talk about it - they would constantly ask “Bush o Kerry?” It was a very simple question that I thought had a really simple answer to…  so that whole Fall I would always answer “Bush.” It took me a long time to realize how much my approach to answering this common question unknowingly and dramatically undermined my Gospel ministry on campus...

 

Let me hit pause on that story and we will come back to it.

 

This is the third week in our sermon series preaching through our core values and today I am preaching on Acts 17 as it pertains to our core value of "Contextualizing Our Mission" -

 

Our big idea this morning is this: 

If we want to become more fruitful as a local church, we need to learn our city, relate better, and tell a better story.

 

So, we will look at those three points starting with, Learn Our City, in verse 16, Relate Better in verses 17-21, and Tell a Better Story in verses 22 to 34.

 

I am going to read part of our Scripture text. I am going to do it a little different this week. I will be reading the sermon passage interspersed throughout, so the actual text is fresh, and you can also remain seated for this - Acts 17:16 says this:

 

            Paul in Athens

16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.

 

Learn Our City (Acts 17:16)

So, we find Paul alone in Athens, the most important and intellectual city in Greece. It was also a commercial hub with an important port. While Paul is walking around he would have observed a stadium, a large theater, a massive lecture hall, numerous pagan temples, the Parthenon, and numerous statues to Greco-Roman rulers and/or various gods. 

Paul is technically waiting for Silas and Timothy to arrive but he doesn’t waste any time to seize some key ministry opportunities. He walks around and observes the city. This was his habit. A new city means a whole new mixture of wants and fears. A new city means new dynamics of culture, language, idols, rituals, and symbols. A new city means new history, art, literature, poetry, food, music, and architecture.

Paul was bothered deep in his person by what he saw the Athenians worshiping and this drove him to learn their city and seek to communicate the Gospel to it in ways that would be comprehensible to the Athenians.

Tim Keller defines contextualization as “Translating and adapting the communication and ministry of the gospel to a particular culture without compromising the essence and particulars of the gospel itself.”

Another writer, Mike Cosper, adds, “Contextualization makes the offense of the Gospel comprehensible.”

 

To illustrate this, I want to tell you about a 20th century British missionary and pastor with a funny name - Lesslie Newbigin. From age 27 to age 65 he and his wife were missionaries in Southern India. In 1974 he returned to the UK after nearly 40 years away to find a very different and decidedly post-Christian country. What were barely noticeable incremental cultural and philosophical shifts over a long period of time to those in the UK, for Newbigin were very noticeable and clear. He was one of the first people in the Western world to really see the wave of post-Christendom that was washing over Europe. He began advocating for serious Christians to see themselves as cross-cultural missionaries in their own culture. His thesis was that even though you and your neighbor might hold similar jobs, be of the same ethnicity, belong to the same socio-economic class, pull for the same football club, and speak the same language… that fundamentally you are part of a different culture and you need to acquire the skills that global missionaries are trained to possess in order to dissect, study, interact, understand, and comprehend a new culture. Newbigin was saying this 45 years ago and it is ringing ever more true everyday. Just because we speak the same language as someone else and have other things in common doesn’t mean that when we speak that actual communication is taking place. 

 

In this same line of thinking, there is a parable that I’ve shared here before but is worth repeating:


There were two fish swimming along, an older fish and a younger fish… and the older fish said to the younger fish, “the water is fine” and the younger fish said to the older fish, “what is water?”

 

Let me say that again:

 

There were two fish swimming along, an older fish and a younger fish… and the older fish said to the younger fish, “the water is fine” and the younger fish said to the older fish, “what is water?”

 

Water is culture. Sometimes you have to be removed from your culture for an extended period of time to even realize that you have a culture. You live in water. You have a culture. OGC has a culture. Our city has a culture and there might be aspects of that culture that others find difficult or offensive. It is good to be increasingly aware of every aspect of our own culture and all of the various cultures around us. Ignorance of these things will hurt our fruitfulness.

 

Let’s circle back to my intro story… what I didn’t realize back in the Fall of 2004 was that I was quite ignorant to really important historical and cultural backstory to the place I was trying to minister. All of the information was readily available, however, like a lot of things, ‘I didn’t know what I didn’t know.’ You see in post-World War 2 Italy, unlike Germany, there was no Marshall Plan to rebuild the country. In reaction to the far right fascism of Mussolini, far left communism arose, and the far left and the far right had really bloody terrorism filled battles in the streets of Italy. To this day many of these crimes have never been solved. Tangentially related to this was the friendship between George W. Bush and then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi is a very complicated and controversial man. Imagine an American who owned the equivalent of the Yankees, Publix, construction companies, Fox, Comcast, who also made very embarrassing gaffes, had multiple wildly inappropriate relationships, and dominated the political scene for over 20 years despite being wildly unpopular among large swathes of the population. Berlusconi had a habit of rubber stamping Bush’s U.S. foreign policy and had committed and deployed several thousand troops to the War in Iraq. I didn’t understand that the primary touchpoint that the Italians would have with the U.S. election was the foreign policy of their authoritarian oligarch. Italian sentiment against involvement in the war was quite strong and very few people cared for Berlusconi despite his being a fixture in the Italian political scene. Of the nearly 100 people who asked me the question, “Bush or Kerry?” only one was excited about my answer… and I learned later that he was the head of the Universities’ Fascist student group. Our entire team saw zero people respond to the Gospel until after the election, after which we saw quite a few people profess faith.

 

My historical and cultural ignorance cost me some huge quantity of unknown relational capital on something that mattered zero to my primary mission of the Gospel on campus.  

 

The older I have gotten and the more my relational networks have expanded, the more I have come to realize that I have repeated this same kind of mistake many times over. Some of these things pertain to how I viewed mercy ministry, navigated ethnic differences, my understanding of power dynamics and social structures, and how I relate to persons who have experienced trauma. 

 

Culture, language, and history matter. Like in my story, we can unnecessarily alienate people without even know it. 

I think that most of us here fall into one of two categories of understanding with respect to how we know Orlando. For those of us who have been here a long time, our understanding of the city is usually frozen in the time frame when we first came, and sometimes we have had trouble keeping up with ongoing developments. For those of us who are newer to the city, we are more aware of who the city is today, but we are often unaware of the historical developments. In order to be more effective here, we need to be increasingly understanding of both the city as it exists today and how we got there historically.

 

Church, and especially those of you who have been here more than a year, we need to have an honest and hard conversation, because we have a problem. Here is the problem: we have had only one person baptized in this pool in the last 3.5 years. I find this to be a personal source of shame and my greatest pastoral failure during my tenure here. It means that I have failed to pastor you well. While our city might be increasingly post-Christian, it isn’t THAT post-Christian… and if Jutty’s church of 30 folks in Italy can see 7 folks be baptized and 10 respond to the Gospel this year alone, the hostility of your culture is NOT an excuse. We need to be honest with ourselves and admit that we have a problem of how we understand our city, how we relate to people, and how we communicate our story. We need to prayerfully ask God to illuminate these things to us, give us help to grow relationally, and seek healthier rhythms of gathering and being sent back out.

 

I don’t think I am saying anything controversial here. In our missional survey the #1 weakness that we all identified for us individually and as an organization was our mission to the city. Not far behind at #2 was ministries of mercy and justice. We all know and understand that this is an area for us to prayerfully seek sanctification and growth.

As leaders, we have thought a lot about how can we better equip you all to do the work of the ministry to our city. We firmly believe that God has thousands more people here who have just yet to see and hear the good news. This is why we did the missional survey this past week. We have in our strategic plan under our 3 to 5 year goals that we would have less unnecessary cultural distance between us and the city and we would grow in our understanding of the needs of our city. For months Jim and I have been writing a series of roughly 10 blog posts on key developments in the history and future of our city. Also, we have been planning, scheduling, and producing an Orlando specific podcast season interviewing key ministry leaders in the city. The blog posts will hopefully help flesh out some key storylines or dynamics that you may not have been previously aware. The podcast will hopefully illuminate who our city is today, what are the needs of the city, and what are the challenges in taking the Gospel in Word and deed to our city.

We have put a lot of time and energy into this with the primary purpose of helping you all understand our city better, relate more effectively with people, and tell the Gospel story better. 

So, here is my first application point. When we start publishing these blog posts and podcast episodes in a few months, read them, listen to them, and if they are compelling - share them.

 

Excellent contextualization involves actually understanding the nuances and complexities of everything as high altitude and broad as the city as a whole… all the way down to the nuances and complexities of the story of a single human being. Contextualization involves us becoming better educated and we hope between some of our writing and podcasting, to reintroduce you to our city in the months to come. 

 

All that being said, you could be really educated on our city and be really ineffective. Remember our big idea:

 

If we want to become more fruitful as a local church we need to learn our city, relate better, and tell a better story.

 

This brings us to our second point that we need to relate better with people. 


Relate Better (Acts 17:17-21)

Let’s look back at the text as I read verses 17-21:

17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.18 Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. 19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.

Paul has three scenes in our text - the synagogue, the marketplace, and the Areopagus. The first scene had a primarily Jewish audience and the 2nd and 3rd scenes at the marketplace and Areopagus were primarily intellectual Greek men. For those in the synagogue he did the same kind of reasoning in other cities. However, when he got to the marketplace he made the appropriate observations to the cultural and philosophical differences and adjusted his Gospel message accordingly. 

You see in the text that some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers are listening and conversing with him. Even though it didn’t seem that they understood what he was saying, he was relating with them in a way that was charitable enough for them to want to whisk Paul off to the Aeropagus, a hub for these kinds of conversations.

We see in the text that Paul was troubled. Paul has concern and compassion for these folks because he saw how the idols of the city were lying to the Athenians. 

Relating better means that we need to be empathetic to the wins and losses, ups and downs of other human beings. I think that in our current cultural moment, most of this boils down to cultivating intimate relationships with people. 

Church, ministry to people is gardening and not a factory assembly line

I am so weary and tired of approaches to ministry that just treat people like these brains that just need the right facts dumped into them. Does the Gospel involve truths about God that are utterly essential? Yes, BUT we are far more complicated creatures. We emote. We have stories. We have pain. We have trauma. We have joy. We have wants. We have fears. 

Ministry is gardening

I am so weary of the modality of people gaining just enough relationship or employing bait and switch tactics with people to ram your non-Christian acquaintance onto the assembly line of mere accurate information about Jesus. 

The assembly line approach had its time back when big tent crusades, booklets, door-to-door stuff, and street preaching actually influenced some. These times are gone, especially in Post-Christian cities like Orlando. 

You are gardeners. You reap in a different season than when you sow. You sow not knowing if there will be a harvest but you tend to what you have sown as if it will bear fruit. Why? Because you know that the Lord of the Harvest is good and is in complete control.

I can guarantee you this though... if you do not sow and tend to what you have sown, then you will NOT reap. 

It wouldn’t be a Mike Graham sermon here if I didn’t have some kind of custom made graph or Venn Diagram. So, you check that off my sermon bingo card:

 

IMG_0045 (1)

 

This first graph here outlines a theory that I have. When you have people who are either very close culturally to you OR very very culturally distant from you, those people are easier to minister to. However, when you are both part of the same culture and are familiar with all the socially acceptable norms, behaviors, mores, and taboos but have different worldviews, beliefs, habits, or values then the difficulty to minister becomes much higher. When I was in East Asia, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, or Central America nobody knew that it was taboo to talk about faith and Jesus in America, so we could get away with cutting to the chase faster than in my own country.

 

When I went back and analyzed over a decades worth of people being baptized here what I noticed was the following trend. Pretty much everyone who responded to the Gospel could be plotted at one of two points on this graph:

 

IMG_0046.JPG

 

That first X is primarily people being baptized who have been members of your households and that second X is primarily people who are very culturally distant, folks like international students or persons who were on the margins of society. I praise Jesus that we see the children of believers follow in that faith legacy and when we see some fruit in our city… but let me unpack this phenomenon a bit. 

The lionshare of people in our city exist at the top of this curve as such:

 

IMG_0048.JPG

 

Most of our city resides in that GREEN area. These people are your next door neighbors, the person who you see at the gym every week, your co-worker, and that person or two that God just keeps putting in front of you. 

I am very pleased that we have grown significantly this year as a church body but the lionshare of that is new folks moving to the city and other folks curious about what is going on here. That growth is not coming from people in this green area responding to the Gospel and becoming lifelong followers of Jesus.

Our heart cry is that we would be more fruitful in ministering to the folks in the green area and we would in turn be more effective in equipping you all to do that as well. We don’t have all the answers but we should commit to asking ourselves some hard questions: 

  1. How do we need to grow? 
  2. How do we need to change?
  3. How do we need to be more self-aware?
  4. How do we need to be more others-aware?
  5. What do we need to repent of?
  6. What unnecessary roadblocks are we putting up for people? 

Like my initial story from my ministry failure in Italy… I am confident that I am doing the equivalent of telling people “Bush” in other areas of my life… but I am just not self-aware and others-aware enough to know it yet.

I want to introduce another new idea. This room is a reflection of who all is at your dinner table. I am using the term dinner table here loosely to include the sum total of whom you break bread, have in your home, or are otherwise deeply relationally connected.

Here is what I am saying, if there are people in the city that we want to be worshiping here with us, then they are probably going to need to be at your dinner table first. If we want to see your neighbors here, your co-workers here, your gym acquaintance here, or the person God keeps putting right in front of you here… then they need to be at your dinner table. If you desire this church to look more like our city in any way then it is going to have to happen at your dinner table first. As you relate to people who are a little different than you at the top of the curve that is going to involve having people who share very different thoughts, experiences, or storylines from you. That means you are going to have to do a lot of listening. 

What if one of the best ways to garden was to be vulnerable and a great listener?

If you spend time with people because you are genuinely interested in them as another image bearing human being and genuinely seek to connect, understand, and empathize, opportunities will often arise. We aren’t a thinking culture or society anymore. We are society that operates from the heart. You can bemoan that all you want but you are powerless to change it, so we all need to adapt on some level to that reality.

Are you someone that other people find safe?

Do people readily trust you with confidential, painful, or traumatic parts of their story?

These are mission critical aspects to being fruitful today. In zero way am I ever asking any of us to compromise on any aspect of the high cost of discipleship and the actual offense of the Gospel. However, what I am saying is that the medium is the message. In other words, how you communicate deeply impacts what you are communicating. Any married person has had the, “honey, it isn’t what you said, but how you said it,” conversation.

Can we be honest about reformed baptist types for a moment? We aren’t exactly known as being the most warm and fuzzy people and that is probably hurting our ability to be fruitful here. I need to grow in this area and you probably need to as well. Given enough time, the people that you have around your dinner table will eventually be the people who we are side by side with singing the Gospel together here in this room. 

 

Take a look at this map of Orlando with me:

 

Orlando Ethnicity Map with Star and Percentages

 

This is an ethnic breakdown of every person in Orlando. Based on the 2018 Census Bureau’s statistics if we are considering Orlando as being Orange and Seminole counties combined, Orlando is 47% white, 19% black, 30% hispanic, and 4% asian. Orlando is minority white. Yet Orlando is a diverse yet largely still a segregated city. There are complex and sad reasons for some of these things that Jim and I will be unpacking in our forthcoming blog series.

Let me speak primarily to the white folks in the room for a moment. I hope on some meaningful level that we don’t want to only minister to the 47% of our city who are white. If you feel that way, I would encourage you to consider God’s global plan. All the way from the covenant God made with Abraham to bless all nations in Genesis 12, all the way to Revelation 5 and 7 where every tongue, tribe, people, and nation are worshiping around the throne. On the one hand, I was encouraged to see that nearly 80% of folks desired to see a more accurate depiction of our city in this room. On the other hand, I kinda wish that was 100%. We have corporately and individually already identified our biggest weakness is our mission to the city. Well, this is who are city is… by population the city is primarily non-white.

Can we all commit to asking God to give us the same heart for Orlando that He has for Orlando?

If we want to the other 53% of the city here, then there are a lot of things that we will have have to humbly admit that we don’t know. We will have to humbly understand that there are cultural preferences that make it difficult for the other 53% of the city to choose to worship with us here and now.

One of the things that was really powerful at a recent conference I attended, was a sermon delivered by a Presbyterian pastor in Cape Town, South Africa. He remarked that he hoped that his kids would be able to see a church that was reflective of their whole country within their lifetimes but one of the challenges of ministering in Cape Town was that “apartheid had a 400 year head start on our local church.” Like this pastor in Cape Town, our city has its own unique history that has had a long head start on our local church. Those are hard realities.

Has your dinner table even remotely reflected the city that we live in today?

I know mine hasn’t. I’ve had numerous personal cringeworthy moments looking in the mirror while writing this sermon. If this sermon is stepping on your toes, realize that I am preaching it first and foremost to myself in hopes that I can change and become a better disciple and better leader. Part of our preaching these core values is we are preaching these things to ourselves first. Myself, Jim, and our elders are disciples and church members before we are pastors and elders. Look, I also understand that many of you are insanely busy with zero surplus time and little or even negative financial resources. I am genuinely empathic to that. The Christian life is a marathon and some seasons are really challenging and intense. Our capacity will ebb and flow. That being said, my aim here is that we wouldn’t necessarily be adding anything to our calendars and weekly rhythms but that we would be intentionally and naturally bringing people alongside the things we are already doing. We do this in a way that doesn’t treat people as projects but we do that out of genuine affection for them and with an appropriate measure of relationally vulnerability on our part.

 

I don’t know what your dinner table is. For me and my family, us our dinner table are walks and runs in our neighborhood, our soccer friends, and all the people who are connected to our kids. I am not trying to blow up anyone’s calendar here. I am merely asking you to be more intentional in all the rhythms of life and habits that you already have. I want you to do an audit of your time ­and see what it is that you already naturally do and then I just want you to add empathetic Gospel intentionality inside of to those regular rhythms. Eating, playing, walking, play dates, studying, working out, running, pets, hobbies, whatever… seriously just look at what you already do, open your eyes and see who else is doing that regularly right in front of you and be a normal human who expresses genuine interest in other people.

 

I don’t care whether the vehicle is your physical dinner table or some other rhythm. But we all need more real, empathy filled, and vulnerable relationships.

 

 

 

Remember our big idea:

 

If we want to become more fruitful as a local church, we need to learn our city, relate better, and tell a better story.

It isn’t enough for us to know our context and relate to people with greater empathy and vulnerability… We also need to learn how to tell a better story.

 

Tell a Better Story (Acts 17:22-34)

Let’s look back at the text as I read verses 22 to 34:

22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man,[a] 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 for

“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;

as even some of your own poets have said,

“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’

29 Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 So Paul went out from their midst. 34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.

 

Paul sets a good example for us here in the text in verses 22 to 34. Those at the second scene of the marketplace take him emphatically to the Areopagus because they were really curious about what Paul was saying.  The Areopagus was a governmental entity that exercised jurisdiction over ethical and religious matters. Some have speculated that there is a sense in which Paul was being detained and interrogated. This location was similar to our Supreme Court and had a direct view to the Acropolis, where the famous Parthenon is located. At the Areopagus, most likely Paul is being brought before a counsel of city officials (and whatever crowd may have gathered) who are curious to evaluate his foreign ideas, particularly those pertaining to the resurrection. 

Paul uses their groping after God to create common ground in his message. Paul employs their ignorance of an idol to an unknown god to create knowledge. Paul then emphasizes how much greater God is than the little gods that require humans to physically make and create them - rather, the God that he proclaims is the Creator and we are the creature, not the other way around like all of the idols found throughout the city. That creator God remains active and sovereignly controls provision, national boundaries, and what peoples are dominant and which ones are not. Paul expresses that God can be found and He is close to us, we need not grope around blindly anymore. Paul then quotes two of their own pagan poets to borrow some of the categories of their understanding of Zeus and instead reapply it to a new understanding of us as humans being made in the image of our Divine Creator God. Paul uses common critiques of idols found elsewhere in the Scripture at the ridiculousness of inanimate idols.

 Now in verse 30 Paul turns the corner to his application - Paul charges his audience with ignorance, a bold move for people who just made fun of his intelligence. However, remember he opened his speech referencing their own idol to an unknown god. He makes clear that God is very actively engaged in making them a part of His plan for His global kingdom and that Paul is proclaiming the merits of this God. Paul preaches that those present need to repent of their ignorance and idols, in view of the judgment of God and the reality of the resurrection.

At the Areopagus, there were three responses:

  1. Mocking
  2. Keep an open mind
  3. Belief

 

  1.  Some mocked and sneered at the mere idea of the resurrection of the dead.
  2.  Others decided to keep an open mind.
  3. Some men and at least one woman joined and believed him

 

Paul understood his audience. He employed a wide variety of things he learned from their culture. Not everyone we minister to is going to respond positively but some kept an open mind and some responded to the Gospel.

 

What is Orlando’s Areopagus?

 

We don’t have a central place where the whole city gets together to share ideas but we do have a kind of cultural equivalent. It is Walt Disney World.

 

Consider for a moment the defining aspects of these particular cities:

 

IMG_0069

 

Rome worshiped power. Jerusalem worshiped tradition. Athens worshiped knowledge. Orlando worships stories.[i] Now it happens to be that those stories manifest themselves in family-centric theme parks and movies.

 

None of us are sitting in this room and even this room doesn’t even exist were it not for Walt Disney. You have to ask yourself why did 75 million people visit Orlando last year? We are the number one tourist destination in the world. Why? The answer is supremely simple. Walt Disney was great at telling compelling stories.

 

We have a four chapter Gospel:

  1. Creation
  2. Fall 
  3. Redemption 
  4. Consummation

 

Creation - God made everything and it was good. Including making humanity in his image giving us tremendous dignity.

Fall - Man disobeyed God’s rules and everything in existence became cursed.

Redemption - God sent His Son, Jesus, fully God and man to obey all God’s rules, and through his death and resurrection to trade his perfect obedience for all the disobedience of His people, starting a process of rolling back the curse.

Consummation - Jesus returns and makes every single aspect of creation new where there is nothing but truth, goodness, justice, peace, and beauty everywhere.

 

In the 20th century the Gospel focus among evangelicals was on chapters 2 and 3 and there is a certain logic to that. Chapter 2 is the problem and Chapter 3 is the solution. This played really well into a American, pragmatic, linear, and solutions oriented culture - particularly for the Greatest Generation and Baby Boomers. Billy Graham, big tent evangelism, church growth movement, and the attractional church are all more or less are working from that playbook.

 

The problem is that while it is true it is only a partial Gospel and a Gospel that many don’t connect with in the 21st century. Imagine for a moment interacting with your friend or coworker who is an environmenalist, activist, and/or democratic socialist. They probably speak often and care deeply about global warming, economic inequality, and justice for the powerless and disenfranchised. Well okay... if I have a four chapter Gospel I can actually work with that. If I set aside whatever policy differences we might have in that moment. What that friend is longing for is actually Jesus’ consummated kingdom. In many ways the desires they have for stewardship, justice, and equality are all good desires and they resonate with certain aspects of our the very end of our Gospel story. These longings come from the world that Jesus is recreating in His second coming. They want chapter 4 of the Gospel during the era of chapter 3. If you only have a two chapter Gospel, then you don’t have the categories to connect with this person and help channel their utopian ideals into Jesus’ future government. Jesus loves creation deeply and in his kingdom there will be no want and no injustice. Great… I just found you common ground in some new ways. There are hundreds of ways to do this because the Gospel is such a multi-faceted diamond that refracts so many different themes off it that speak to so many different cultures, people, and individual stories.

 

I can guarantee you if you begin thinking about the Gospel as a 4 chapter story instead of just a 2 chapter one that you will find dozens of new ways to connect with people, especially other people who you might view as most distant from you. 

 

People worship stories. Stories tell you about the world. Stories tell you about yourself. They give you a framework for the wins and losses of life. They help you process your wants and your fears. We must get better at telling stories here. I challenge you to go back to the Gospels and Acts and study Jesus’ and the apostles interactions with people. Jesus wasn’t always just sitting there waiting for a pause in the dialogue to back up the Gospel dump truck and unload on someone. The man was a genius of parable, story, and good questions. 

 

I don’t know many apologetics geeks that see many people respond to the Gospel today. We aren’t a thinking culture. We are a feeling and experience based culture. People are less concerned with whether Christianity is true. They are more concerned with whether Christianity WORKS and whether Christianity is GOOD for the world. So, we tell a better story in two ways - 

  1. Word
  2. Deed

by becoming better storytellers verbally and by demonstrating the Gospel physically by valuing, mirroring, and imaging the matters of mercy and justice that God has revealed to us in His book. 

 

One of the really nice things about the widening gap between Christians and the broader culture is that reality of who a serious kingdom-minded Christian are and who society perceives them to be are reaching caricature or parody levels. The net effect of that is that it lowers the bar of what it takes to surprise other people. If everybody assumes that you are going to be a racist homophobe but then you wow them by treating other people with dignity as fellow image bearers, well you’ve have just created curiosity out of thin air. It is in this way that I believe that ministry is actually getting easier in some respects as we become increasingly Post-Christian.

 

Take advantage of that. 

 

Remember our big idea:

 

If we want to become more fruitful as a local church we need to learn our city, relate better, and tell a better story.

 

The ultimate example of this is Jesus. He left an eternity of perfect community in the triune Godhead to forever take on human flesh. He had to learn humanity, culture, and a bunch of different cities. He dealt with people with tremendous grace, truth, compassion, mercy, empathy, and understanding. He told the best story in the world because it is a true story - creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. Let the truth, goodness, and beauty of that future consummated kingdom drive us to communicate the Gospel with greater sensitivity and urgency in our city.

 

Conclusion

By helping to make the offense of the Gospel more comprehensible, contextualizing our mission properly will help us become more fruitful. Excellent contextualization means that the only hurdles that people should have to becoming a Christian is the actual offense of the Gospel. Woe unto us for adding any additional hurdle or for taking away any hard aspect of the Gospel itself.

 

I think I would rather quit my job here before we went another 3.5 years between baptisms. I do not accept that as normal or healthy. I will continue to pray, repent, learn, and beg God to move. He has more sheep here. Mature people bear fruit. I need more maturity.

 

I don’t care whether the vehicle is your physical dinner table or some other rhythm. But we all need more real, empathy filled, and vulnerable relationships.

 

I am about to close this sermon in prayer, during our response time and throughout this week, I want you to think about these three questions:

 

  1. Who does God keep putting in front of me where both of us really seem to connect?
  2. How can we naturally spend more time together?
  3. How do I need to grow in understanding our city, relating to others, and telling a better story?

 

[i] Um and Buzzard, “Why Cities Matter,” pp. 110-111.

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