By Erin Edgeman
No one really talks about it. Most of us probably don’t even know that there are more slaves now than ever in human history. Depictions of human trafficking are often seen in movies and television shows, but we don’t think of it happening in the United States.
Regan Kramer, a Florida native, didn’t either. That was until she went to a Passion conference (www.268generation.com) that highlighted the topic of domestic human trafficking. From there, Kramer said God led her on the path to bringing awareness of the issue to the campus of Florida International University in Miami, where she serves as the associate director of the Wesley Foundation.
“It really burdened me when I came home,” Kramer said. “I knew I had to do something about it, especially when I realized it was happening in Miami.” She soon learned that Miami has the third-largest number of human trafficking cases in the United States.
Sarah McKay, a US-2 missionary working with FIU’s Wesley Foundation, partnered with Kramer because of her passion for social justice. “[Sex trafficking] is a reality that pains me so deeply when I attempt to understand it,” she said. “Something that I’ve realized is central to caring about an issue — such as sex trafficking, and more importantly the people being exploited through sex trafficking — is having the opportunity to learn about it.” McKay is now speaking out against it.
The statistics of human trafficking are staggering. The number of adults and children currently in forced labor, bonded labor and forced prostitution is 12.3 million, citing figures from the 2010 U.S. Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report. Human trafficking involves sex, labor and organ harvesting, and it’s one of the fastest-growing crimes in the world, according to the U.S. State Department. Only drugs are now a larger criminal enterprise.
UNICEF reports the global market of child trafficking is at more than $12 billion a year, with more than 1.2 million child victims. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, about 2.8 million U.S. children run away each year, and within 48 hours of hitting the streets, one-third of these children are recruited into prostitution and pornography.
Kramer said girls living in poverty or from abusive households are more likely to be recruited into prostitution. The average age for girls being coerced to perform sex acts is 12 to 14. They are often manipulated by an older man or woman they think loves them, and they are often forced to take drugs. And that is why once in these situations, it is so hard to get girls out of them.
After hearing the facts, Kramer knew she had to do something on her college campus. Quickly, FIU 4 Freedom was launched. The group is a network of students and clubs at Florida International University that partnered with organizations in South Florida working to bring awareness and stop “modern-day slavery.”
In less than a year, Kramer said the group has made an impact on the campus and saved lives. To bring awareness, FIU 4 Freedom set up a “Freedom Week” in March and then again in October 2012 in which there were informational events across campus. A mock brothel, of sorts, was set up in the student center to shock students to what is actually going on in this country.
Kramer said students could walk into the display adorned with signs that read “Girls, Girls, Girls” and “All Nationalities” to grab their attention. Inside was a bed with a young girl’s dress and a pair of men’s pants lying across it. “When you are inside, it creates this reality of what people go through,” Kramer said.
A survivor even shared her story during one of the panel discussions. Katariina Rosenblatt, another Florida native, regularly shares her story. She formed an organization, There is Hope (www.ThereIsHopeForMe.org), that works to get victims out of sex trafficking and lead them on a path to recovery.
In 1985, Rosenblatt and her mother had escaped her abusive father and were living in a Miami motel. She was 13 when an older teenage girl befriended her. She said the 19-year-old offered her friendship and support that she needed at the time, but soon she learned that the woman was a recruiter for a child-trafficking ring.
Rosenblatt said she narrowly escaped losing her virginity to a 65-year-old man for $550. Others attempted to recruit her into trafficking in later years but she finally spoke out.
Rosenblatt said she knows what she is doing is making an impact. “I gave four school talks in the last four months and 18 kids came forward,” she said. All had either been approached for trafficking or had been bought and sold, she said. Of all of the things McKay has learned over the past year, she said Rosenblatt’s presentation made the biggest impression.
“It was shocking to hear about a childhood plagued with such confusion, pain and manipulation,” she said. “It brought forth for us all the important truth that this is happening to real people — real people who have grown up and lived through something that no person should ever even have to imagine.”
Kramer said after the March Freedom Week, she knew that trafficking was occurring on her college campus. One girl, she found out, was recruited out of her FIU dorm room.
After Rosenblatt’s presentation, a mother who had felt led by God to come to the campus spoke to Kramer and Rosenblatt. The mother said she was afraid her daughter was being trafficked. The mother said her 17-year-old daughter had been studying psychology at the university until she met a man who persuaded her to drop out of school. She said her daughter had come home asking for her passport, telling her mother she could no longer see her and that she was leaving to become a porn star.
Rosenblatt insisted that the mother contact the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI investigated and found the daughter was being held in a brothel in Miami. “God used us to help rescue a girl,” Kramer said. “That is amazing.” Rosenblatt said she is now mentoring the teenager, who was reconnected with her family. She is now attending a college in another part of the state.
The Rev. Paul Massingill, Wesley Foundation executive director, said the student response to the events sponsored by FIU 4 Freedom has been “amazing.” “Many students are shocked, horrified and angered that so much slavery still exists and exists in their own city,” he said. “Raising awareness has already led to students getting more educated and involved in these issues locally … .”
Massingill said he encouraged Kramer to form FIU 4 Freedom because he wanted the Wesley Foundation to be involved in social activism. “Young adults want to see faith embodied,” he said. “Many are cynical about the church, and skeptical of the integrity of Christians.”
Kramer said she isn’t sure where she wants to go next with her mission. At first, she wanted to be on the streets and in strip clubs saving girls herself, but she soon realized that she could make a difference by bringing awareness to college students. Other college campuses already are following FIU 4 Freedom’s lead and starting their own groups.
“Just that clicking in people’s minds is a huge step from where we were 10 years ago,” Kramer said. Bringing awareness to a college campus not only will save women who could fall victim, but it also could spark action in students to bring change.
“My passion is to see students using their fields and talents” to bring change, Kramer said. “We are helping people care about it so they can use their vocation to make a lifelong impact.”
Erin Edgemon is a freelance writer in Montgomery, Alabama. Distributed by United Methodist News Service.
By Allan Bevere
“One of the flaws of the most characteristic Liberal portrayal of Jesus was the unlikelihood that anyone would have wanted to crucify such an attractive moral teacher. In recent questing it has been more widely recognized that a test of any hypothesis’ viability is whether it provides a satisfactory answer to the question, Why was Jesus crucified?”
– James D.G. Dunn
The great challenge for preachers of the Gospel in the West is to overcome the intellectually shallow and theologically inept summaries of Jesus’ life and ministry being first and foremost, primarily, and basically about love. The focus on the concept of love marginalizes cross and resurrection, which ironically in turn undermines the radical nature of the kind of love Jesus displayed.
Stanley Hauerwas likes to get at this problem by asking if it’s possible to imagine Jesus walking around Judea and saying something like,
“Hey, Guys… I have this radical idea. I think we should love each other. And the response of the religious establishment is, “What! Love one another! We can’t let this guy spread his subversive message! Let’s string him up!
Now before I get all the comments and emails reminding me of how much Jesus and the New Testament writers mention love, let me respond by saying that I know such is the case. I am not exactly ignorant when it comes to Scripture. The problem is that the modern tendency to dehistoricize and detheologize Jesus and his ministry into principles and concepts robs us of the context which makes the biblical notion of love intelligible. Without it we lose what it truly means for Jesus to tell his followers to love one another. The great sacrifice of cross and the wonderful victory of resurrection by which Christian love is understood is replaced by the modern romanticism of love as primarily a feeling, as the justification for behavior without consequences, and living a life devoid of transformation. We move from Jesus’ statement that no greater love can be displayed in laying down one’s life to it doesn’t matter how we behave because God loves us no matter what.
It doesn’t take a profound thinker to know that the primary motivation for this dehistorizing and detheologizing of Jesus is to domesticate his life and work into something more palatable to modern sensibilities. The Jesus who comes to us from the pages of the New Testament demands too much from us. Moreover, in our modern cosmological reductionist assumptions, we simply cannot have a Jesus running around doing miraculous things. So in Bishop Spong and John Crossan fashion we first demythologize Jesus and then we remythologize him after our own image and our own expectations. Jesus now becomes safe to follow. Yes, Jesus is still presented as a radical, but he is a domesticated revolutionary. He is one who looks like a hippie from the 1960s or a political activist whose methods of power and coercion look no different from the politics of the nations. But a domesticated revolutionary will not bring about serious change; he will just reinforce the agendas of those who are frankly doing nothing more than using Jesus as a prop to get what they want. Jesus was crucified because he presented a true alternative to the ways of the world that could not and will not be displayed in the politics of the current age. Jesus was not killed for promoting right-wing violence on behalf of the state, and he was not crucified for advocating a progressive social agenda. Jesus was crucified because he presented a serious threat to the status quo in all forms; and it will not do just to present his life and ministry as supporting any modern political and social agenda. And those Christians who attempt to do so are domesticating Jesus into doing their bidding.
But the real Jesus, the Jesus who comes to us from the pages of the New Testament, will not be so domesticated. Jesus has not come to conform to our expectations. We must conform to his. You don’t get strung up on a cross by running around telling everyone to love each other, and we won’t be able to understand the nature of discipleship without knowing that cross and resurrection stands at the heart of what it means to walk with Jesus. Cross and resurrection are about more than what God has done for us (and what God has done for us is much more than sentimental niceties about love); they also provide the blueprint for how Christians are to bear witness to the love of God in the world.
Allan Bevere is a pastor appointed to the West Akron Regional Ministry, in Akron, Ohio, and located at Akron First United Methodist Church. He is also a Professional Fellow in Theology at Ashland Theological Seminary in Ashland, Ohio.
By Adam Hamilton
I want to thank Rob Renfroe and Tom Lambrecht for the gracious critique they offered to the op-ed piece I wrote for the Washington Post. It is a model for how we as United Methodists might discuss issues over which the church is divided. I see them as brothers in Christ and I value their commitment to the renewal of The United Methodist Church, a commitment I share.
The underlying issue regarding the church’s debate over homosexuality is how we read scripture. The question is not the authority of scripture. Rob, Tom and I agree that the Bible has authority in our lives and for the church. Nor is this a question of our love of scripture and desire to read and live it. We each read the Bible daily and seek to be shaped by its words.
At the same time United Methodists recognize the complexity of the Bible. It is inspired by God, but written by men whose words were shaped both by the needs and circumstances of those to whom they wrote, and by their own worldview and theological understanding. This is why biblical interpretation is so important.
In the Washington Post, I lifted up slavery as an example of the biblical text reflecting the culture and times in which it was written. Rob and Tom are correct that the seeds of liberation are scattered throughout the Bible, but it took 3,000 years for Jews and Christians to see clearly that slavery was inconsistent with the character of God. Moses himself could not see this in his day.
There are some things taught in scripture that we rightly question. Examples include the killing of infants and children in the conquest of Canaan, the command for the daughter’s of priests who become prostitutes to be burned to death, the death penalty for crimes such as disrespecting parents and working on the Sabbath.
In the New Testament Paul taught that women were to “learn in silence and full submission,” pray with their heads covered, and he prohibited their teaching men. It took nearly 2,000 years for us to understand that Paul’s commands were a reflection of first century culture and the needs of the early church rather than the timeless will of God.
Which leads to the question of homosexuality. Levitcus 20:13 states that same sex intimacy is “abhorrent” or “detestable” and that those who engage in it are to be put to death. Rob, Tom and I agree that the last part of this verse does not capture God’s will for today. We disagree concerning the first part of the verse.
Do the handful of verses that mention same-sex intimacy in the Bible capture God’s heart concerning gay and lesbian people? Or do they reflect the understanding of ancient Israelites and first century Jews regarding what is “normal,” “natural” or “clean”?
On these questions many conservatives seem clear, the first half of Leviticus 20:13 reflects the timeless will of God that gay and lesbian people cannot share their lives together as heterosexual couples do. Having seen gay and lesbian families who love one another selflessly, who love their children, who love Jesus and exhibit the fruit of the Spirit in their lives, I am persuaded that the first half of Leviticus 20:13, like the second half, does not reflect the timeless will of God concerning gay and lesbian people.
This article was written in response to “A Matter of Interpretation: Engaging Adam Hamilton” by the Revs. Rob Renfroe and Thomas Lambrecht.
This engagement was sparked by the Rev. Adam Hamilton’s article “Homosexuality, Slavery, and the Bible.”
By Rob Renfroe and Thomas Lambrecht
In his recent Washington Post column, the Rev. Adam Hamilton stated that Bible verses that prohibit same-sex intimacy “capture the cultural understandings and practices of sexuality in biblical times, but do not reflect God’s will for gay and lesbian people.” This is not a new position for him to take. He came to the same conclusion in his 2010 book, When Christians Get It Wrong (his chapter on homosexuality is available at www.AdamHamilton.org).
Good News has great respect for the ministry and leadership of Adam Hamilton. His ministry is biblically based and effective. His written resources for congregational study have helped hundreds of churches engage Scripture and grow spiritually. We consider Adam to be an orthodox believer who affirms United Methodist doctrine—a brother in Christ. On this issue, however, we believe that Adam gets it wrong.
Not all interpretations of Scripture have equal validity. It is important to examine the supporting evidence for a particular interpretation of Scriptural teaching. Adam’s question, “Are the Biblical passages forbidding same-sex intimacy culturally bound and thus not applicable to us today,” is a fair and valid question. The biblical evidence, however, does not support his answer.
Adam compares the Bible’s teaching on sexual morality to the teaching on slavery. He maintains that the Bible’s teaching that “tacitly approved” slavery was culturally conditioned, even though at times in church history those same teachings were used to justify the practice of slavery, which we now believe to be unjust and immoral. In the same way, he says, it is possible to read the Bible’s teaching on same-sex intimacy as reflecting the cultural conditions of Bible times and not representative of God’s will for today.
However, the comparison between the Bible’s teaching on slavery and on same-sex intimacy breaks down. The Bible never commands the practice of slavery, but regulates (in the Old Testament) a practice that was already embedded in the culture. As a matter of fact, the most memorable image in the Old Testament is Moses standing before Pharaoh on behalf of the enslaved Israelite nation, announcing God’s demand, “Let my people go!”
In the New Testament, the apostles advised slaves how to live as Christians in a circumstance that they could not change. But the most compelling image in the New Testament is Jesus speaking in the Nazareth synagogue proclaiming “freedom for the prisoners” and “release to the oppressed.”
By contrast, the Bible’s teaching clearly forbids same-sex intimacy. It is not simply acknowledging a practice in existence, but actually commanding Christians not to engage in it. There is no ambivalence about this teaching throughout Scripture. That makes it less likely to be culturally bound.
The Bible’s teaching on slavery contains within it the seeds of slavery’s demise. The Old Testament regulations of slavery made the institution more humane than the ways it was practiced in surrounding cultures. In the New Testament, Paul encourages slaves who have the opportunity to become free to take that opportunity (I Corinthians 7:21). Paul also subtly encourages Philemon to free his newly-converted slave Onesimus (Philemon 15-16). Most importantly, the New Testament asserts that in Christ all are equal—there is no slave or free (Galatians 3:28). Paul reminds masters that they are subject to a Master in heaven, who will not regard them more favorably than their slaves (Ephesians 6:8-9). The reason for the apostles’ advice that slaves should serve their masters “with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ,” is to maintain a winsome Christian witness—“so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive” (Titus 2:10, also I Timothy 6:1-2).
All these qualifications and tempering of the Christian view of slavery show it to be culturally conditioned, and these qualifications eventually led to the ethical conclusion that slavery is immoral, not in keeping with the timeless will of God. There are no such qualifications or softening of biblical teaching regarding same-sex intimacy. Therefore, it is far less likely that such teaching is culturally conditioned.
In his book, Adam uses an interpretive lens to determine which Scriptures are applicable to today: love for God and love for neighbor. He believes any Biblical teaching that is inconsistent with those two commands is not currently binding upon us. We do not agree with the approach of taking one passage of Scripture as a filter by which to evaluate all the rest of Scripture. Instead, it is best to take each passage in its own historical and theological context. However, even using his approach does not necessarily yield a definitive answer on this question.
Is it loving to use gay slurs or “jokes,” hateful language, or even violence against gays and lesbians? Of course not, and we condemn such hateful behavior in the strongest terms. Is it loving for the church to place its stamp of approval on any behavior that people feel attracted to, as long as it doesn’t “hurt” another person? That is a weak definition of love, inadequate for our calling to “transform the world.” Is it loving for the church to condone what God has forbidden? John describes love this way, “This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. This is love for God: to obey his commands” (I John 5:2-3).
Adam mentions “a handful of Scriptures (five or eight depending upon how one counts) that specifically speak of same-sex intimacy as unacceptable to God.” But we believe the Bible’s teaching on sexual morality and God’s intention is based on far more than a few isolated verses. The thread of heterosexual monogamy runs throughout Scripture. (We recognize the presence of polygamy in Scripture as an aberration from the New Testament norm and God’s ideal.)
God created male and female for each other (Genesis 1 and 2), resulting in the two becoming “one flesh” and representing the image of God in their complementary maleness and femaleness. Jesus reaffirmed God’s original intention (contrary to the law of Moses’ accommodation to the people’s hardness of heart) in defining marriage as the exclusive permanent union of a man and a woman (Matthew 19:1-12). God designed the union of man and woman in marriage to symbolize for us the union of Christ and his church (Ephesians 5:21-33). The culmination of God’s plan is pictured as the great “wedding supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9).
This constant thread of heterosexual monogamy throughout Scripture, along with the specific prohibitions of certain sexual behavior (adultery, prostitution, promiscuity, same-sex intimacy) give us the basis for determining God’s timeless will for expressing our human sexuality. New Testament scholar and Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright puts it this way, “When you look at the grand narrative about male and female, from Genesis right through to Revelation, this isn’t just one or two arbitrary rules about how to behave with bits of your body. This is about something woven into the deep structure of what it means to be created in the image of God, what it means to be citizens of this God-given world. And until we learn to see ethics in that way, we haven’t actually got to first base.”
There are only a couple verses in the New Testament that explicitly criticize polygamy, which is otherwise “tacitly approved” in the rest of Scripture. Yet, based on the thread of heterosexual monogamy, along with some of the adverse consequences also recorded in Scripture, the church has come to see polygamy as contrary to the timeless will of God.
There are only a few passages in Scripture that explicitly address sex before marriage (rather than adultery or promiscuity). Yet, based on the thread of heterosexual monogamy and on religious traditions carried over from biblical times, the church has consistently affirmed that sexual relations ought to be reserved for marriage alone.
In our current culture, it is tempting to want to lower the bar of Christian expectations. Recent surveys have shown that 63 percent of young adults believe same-sex intimacy should be accepted by society. This is part of an overall trend in which another recent survey found that 44 percent of single women and 63 percent of single men have had one-night stands and that 42 percent of single adults would not date a virgin.
Good News believes that it is the wrong course for the church to abandon its teaching on sexuality in the face of the rapidly declining moral standards of our society under the guise of attempting to make the Gospel message “more attractive.” The Gospel message and the ministry of Jesus Christ will only be attractive to the extent that they demonstrate the power to transform lives and elevate human behavior to the original intention of our Creator.
Eminent theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg summarizes Good News’ perspective: “The reality of homophile inclinations, therefore, need not be denied and must not be condemned. The question, however, is how to handle such inclinations within the human task of responsibly directing our behavior. This is the real problem; and it is here that we must deal with the conclusion that homosexual activity is a departure from the norm for sexual behavior that has been given to men and women as creatures of God. For the church this is the case not only for homosexual, but for any sexual activity that does not intend the goal of marriage between man and wife, [including] particularly adultery.
“The church has to live with the fact that, in this area of life as in others, departures from the norm are not exceptional but rather common and widespread. The church must encounter all those concerned with tolerance and understanding but also call them to repentance. It cannot surrender the distinction between the norm and behavior that departs from that norm.”We understand the pastoral dilemma that causes Adam Hamilton to wrestle with the Scriptures over this contentious issue. Many of us have wrestled with the need to be pastoral, while also being faithful to Scripture, in leading people to the most important reality: a saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We are ultimately unconvinced that surrendering God’s ideal for human sexuality in the face of cultural pressure will result in faithful, world-changing disciples of Jesus Christ. Presented with love, understanding, and compassion, we believe Christ’s call to holiness of heart and life is the way to invite a fallen world to follow the “Author and Perfecter of our faith.”
Good News hopes that, as we continue to discuss the crucial constellation of issues around sexual morality, Scripture, and the church’s teachings, we will do so with grace and respect for each other. We encourage clergy and laity alike to delve more deeply into the interpretation of Scripture, including resources available on our website and others, so that we can move toward a common understanding of the church’s proper ministry in this age of sexual chaos.
The Rev. Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News. The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht is the vice president of Good News.
This article is in response to “Homosexuality, Slavery, and the Bible” by the Rev. Adam Hamilton.
The Rev. Adam Hamilton responds to this article HERE.
By Adam Hamilton
Homosexuality is one of the most divisive issues within churches and across our country today. The issue has become, for some, a litmus test on fidelity to God and the scriptures. The divide is not just between the progressives and conservatives. It is also a generational divide, with younger Christians generally seeing this issue differently than older Christians.
I recently delivered the sermon for the National Prayer Service at the presidential inauguration. While in Washington I took my family to the Lincoln Memorial. This iconic structure stands as a reminder of America’s great dream of equality and President Lincoln’s role in the emancipation of America’s slaves and the abolition of slavery in America. The words to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address are inscribed on the north wall of the memorial’s interior. In them Lincoln noted that at the center of the conflict over slavery were very different interpretations of the Bible. Lincoln said of the two sides in the war, “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.”
Southern preachers and slave owners believed the many references in the Bible permitting and regulating slavery (well over 100 verses), in both the Old and the New Testaments, were clear evidence that the institution was a part of God’s social and moral order. Abolitionist preachers argued in their sermons that the verses related to slavery in the Bible were a reflection of the cultural context and times in which the Bible was written and did not reflect God’s endorsement of slavery. They argued that there were “weightier” scriptures on justice, mercy and love that superseded those on slavery. This was the position that Lincoln himself adopted.
At the center of the divide over homosexuality today is the Bible. Conservatives and progressives “read from the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.”
There are a handful of Scriptures (five or eight depending upon how one counts) that specifically speak of same-sex intimacy as unacceptable to God. Conservatives or traditionalists see these as reflecting God’s timeless will for human relationships. Progressives look at these same scriptures in much the same way that progressives in the nineteenth century looked at the Bible’s teaching on slavery. They believe that these verses capture the cultural understandings and practices of sexuality in biblical times, but do not reflect God’s will for gay and lesbian people.
In my own life, it was both reading the Bible’s passages on same-sex intimacy in the same light as passages on slavery (and violence and the place of women) and coming to know gay and lesbian people that led me to see this issue differently, particularly children who grew up in my church who loved God and sought to serve Christ. As I listened to their stories I saw that they did not fit the stereotypes I had been taught about gay and lesbian people. The love they shared with others looked very much like the love I share with my wife – a deep friendship and companionship. And their faith was as authentic as that of anyone else in my congregation.
For many Christians today, particularly young adults, the handful of Bible verses related to same sex intimacy seem more like the 100 plus verses on slavery than they do the teachings of Jesus and his great commandments to love God and neighbor. Their gay and lesbian friends are people, just like them, in need of love and community. I believe that in the years ahead an increasing number of Christians, not only progressives, but also conservatives, will read the Bible’s passages regarding homosexuality as all Christians today read the Bible’s passages on slavery. And the sermons preached from America’s pulpits decrying the rights of homosexuals today will sound to future generations much like the pro-slavery sermons sound to us today.
Adam Hamilton is the senior pastor of The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, and the author of several books including When Christians Get it Wrong (Abingdon, 2013). This article originally in The Washington Post entitled “On homosexuality, many Christians get the Bible wrong.”
A response from the Revs. Rob Renfroe and Thomas A. Lambrecht to this article can be found here: A Matter of Interpretation: Engaging Adam Hamilton
A response from the Rev. Adam Hamilton to Revs. Renfroe and Lambrecht can be found HERE.
By Jack Jackson –
Last Christmas season, my family walked through the downtown community where we live. In one of the store windows we passed were a small set of woodcarvings that included a baby, two adults right next to the baby, three kingly-looking persons nearby, and a scattering of cows, donkeys, and ducks. I still am not sure of the significance of the ducks, but we were looking at a crèche.
One of my children’s friends pointed out the Nativity scene. He said it was the strangest thing he had ever seen. Cows never hang out with ducks, much less people, he said.
“What is this?” he asked.
My wife responded by saying it was the Nativity scene.
“What is that?” came the response.
“It is the story of Jesus’ birth in the stable.”
To which our friend said, “Never heard of it.”
It is not necessary to recap the growth trends of people leaving Christian places of worship. Recent polls suggesting that 20 percent of U.S. citizens have no connection to any religious tradition surprise few. Most of us also know that there are people in our communities, like my child’s friend, with virtually no awareness of the basics of the Christian gospel. And yet evangelistic and missional practices in many churches seem to assume an awareness of the Christian story that clouds effective evangelism.
While “unchurched” was the term to describe the majority of people outside of the church a generation ago, a term that better describes people not part of a church is “never-churched.” This term reflects the reality that new generations did not grow up as part of a community of faith, and in turn never became part of a church to leave. Evangelistic ministry that brings never-churched people into the Christian faith and initiates them into the reign of God is different than in the past.
Seen as a Journey
Evangelism is a journey, not a moment. Over the past century, evangelism came to be seen as a quick process where people heard the gospel and were expected to make an instant response of conversion and faith. Churches today that effectively incorporate never-churched populations realize discipleship, and in turn evangelism, takes time.
Servant evangelism has grown in importance in recent years, and will continue to do so, because it acknowledges that many never-churched people truly see the church as first and foremost out for itself. Servant evangelism is a practice that seeks to serve individuals and communities regardless of their ultimate response to the gospel, while at the same time inviting people to faith or into a community of faith. Servant evangelism links practices that serve (such as handing out free water bottles at a community event or cleaning up a neighborhood after a storm) with the reasons why people serve (living out the gospel through a local church), and an invitation (to faith and/or to a local community of faith).
Yet servant evangelism exemplifies the reality of evangelism as a journey. Most people don’t respond to the gospel story the first time, but rather must hear the story multiple times before knowing enough to even “awaken” to the idea that faith is important. Evangelism in never-churched populations that assumes instant conversion to be normative is destined to feel hollow to those who hear the message. The normative path toward repentance and faith is one that meanders through the ups and downs of life for a season, facing questions and doubts, and that in time draws people to a place where they can make real, life-changing turnings towards Christ.
Evangelism in never-churched populations looks more like a series of coffee-shop conversations that builds a friendship between people, and ultimately invites them into friendship with God, as opposed to a streetcorner evangelist announcing that Hell is the destination for all who don’t profess Christ.
Churches are encouraging the relational aspects of evangelism in a number of ways. Some offer a simple Q and A time with the preacher after the sermon. Others establish an online forum for those more comfortable in a digital environment. Other churches find that never-churched people will often help serve at community work projects such as Habitat for Humanity; the door is open for church volunteers to have conversations with those outside the church while they work together to help others. Still other churches design a small group ministry that is as much for those who don’t believe as for those who do, so that never-churched persons can address their questions and doubts, which are often much different from those of long time Christians.
Centered on Listening
Churches that acknowledge and build evangelistic ministries around the first two traits are then ready to incorporate the critical next three traits of evangelism, the first of which is listening. In never-churched populations, listening requires the most emphasis. Many people imagine an evangelist as one who only proclaims the gospel, but it is important to listen first.
Churches today are listening in a variety of unique ways. Some churches set up tables at community events that specifically ask, “How has the church hurt you?” And the church people at the tables simply listen to stories and apologize. They don’t argue and they don’t defend, they simply apologize for how the church has hurt people. Other churches invite guest speakers, not always Christians, to speak at special events on contemporary issues, providing a forum through which church leaders can hear the questions and concerns of never-churched persons. Most importantly, churches are building into small groups and pastoral responsibility an environment for never-churched people to tell their stories before hearing the story of Christ. By listening, evangelists will learn the thoughts, hopes, fears, and dreams of those evangelized, allowing the evangelist to articulate the gospel in pointed ways appropriate to those persons and their specific concerns.
Listening is never the end of Christian evangelism. Listening must be accompanied by a specific articulation of the gospel and an invitation to life in Christ. Churches that articulate the gospel to never-churched populations do two things very well.
First, they make no assumptions about what others know of the gospel and their commitment to God in Christ. The lack of biblical knowledge and awareness is well documented in contemporary Western culture. Yet Christians who journey with others in their life, build relationships, and listen to other’s stories, know which basic aspects of the gospel must be articulated with specific people, and can over time articulate Christian hope, repentance, and faith. Second, these churches clearly identify the gospel’s uniqueness, even as they acknowledge the church’s failings. Critical to evangelism of never-churched populations is a clear and specific articulation of the revelation of God in Christ.
Blossoming from this articulation is the invitation to this gospel story.
Invitation to repentance and faith has been part of evangelism for many years, but in never-churched populations, the invitation to awakening and sanctification is critical as well. John Wesley understood the first phase of discipleship as a gradual awakening from the “natural state” to a place of awareness that God might be real and that Christ was perhaps the unique representation of God on earth. If someone was in the “natural state,” then the invitation and subsequent response to the gospel represented an awakening. People were then invited to repentance and faith, and finally to an ever-deepening relationship of love in sanctification. Still today, the invitation is not to experience instantaneous conversion, but to take the next step on a journey of faith.
One tool that many churches find helpful for invitation is The Alpha Course. Alpha is a short course on Christianity that helps people intentionally engage the Christian story in a relational community where their questions can be addressed and where they are invited to awaken, repent, and believe, and then grow in holiness. While many churches tweak Alpha to fit into their own theological spectrum, its emphasis on a natural and personal invitation to Christ is effective for many churches.
These five traits of evangelism with the never-churched today build on methods that were central to early Methodist evangelism. Spiritual maturation from ignorance to awakening, through an evangelical conversion from repentance to faith, to the culmination of Christian discipleship, namely sanctification, was clearly seen as a journey. Wesley, of course, never believed justification to be the endpoint of Christian discipleship, but rather a precursor to sanctification. Some early Methodists were only “awakened” for a few weeks before repenting. But some spent years struggling with faith, sharing their questions and fears, all within a relational community that listened, and then proclaimed the gospel and invited them to life in Christ.
When evangelism is seen as a journey lived in relationships, never-churched persons can address their questions, hear the gospel articulated, and then respond to the invitation to take the next step in faith.
Jack Jackson is the E. Stanley Jones Assistant Professor of Evangelism, Mission, and Global Methodism at Claremont School of Theology. This article originally appeared in the Circut Rider and is reprinted by permission.