Vegetable Love: Part Two

Turnip

In light of my previous post the issue can be summed up thus:

How does the missional church maintain an evangelistic thrust that is not swamped by a commitment to long-term, low key relationship in which there appears to be no interest in the gospel over an extended period of time?

In other words, can we keep growing the “holding pen” of friends who do not know Jesus, or is there a point when we need to take stock and reassess the level of time commitment to those friendships?  And if we do decide to keep growing the holding pen, doesn’t that put at risk the very raison detre for missional church in the first place? Below are some concerns and some possible, and humbly offered,  solutions.

Concern#1: Thin Relationships

A key concern in our culture is that our relationship connections are increasing in quantity, but decreasing in quality.  People are time poor, live at fast pace over greater distances, and involve themselves in more activities. Ad hoc catch-ups once a month are poor substitutes for more meaningful relationships and, given the depth of relationship required to have a significant spiritual discussion with a person, would seem to preclude effective evangelism – particularly in a post-Christian culture in which the average person has no latent grasp of the biblical worldview.  The problem is, can those committed to a long-term, low-key missional approach to church really slow down the pace of life without “dropping out“? After all no one else is slowing down their lives on the off-chance you have an amazing message about Jesus to tell them. If we don’t keep pace with people what are the chances they will slow down for us?

Solution1: Prayer

You cannot talk to that friend at the soccer club every day, and probably not very often at all over summer, but you can talk about that friend every day to God. The God who created time has more time and more concern for your friends than you do.  Do you have a written out list of people to pray for? You should! Praying for friends is the most obvious way to ensure that they remain high on your agenda, and certainly extremely high on God’s.  Pray that they may also meet someone else who is a Christian in another avenue of their life and that as they converse, they start to connect the gospel dots back to your friendship also.  After all, if we believe that God is sovereign (we DO believe that God is sovereign don’t we? – Ed), then he is more than capable of ensuring that your friend for whom you are praying meets another Christian with they can also spend time with.

Solution2: Get Off the Catch Up Merry-go-round

It’s ok to NOT catch up with someone who says “Oh, we must catch up!” If you are able to prioritise a narrower set of friendships who are high rotation, rather than a wider set at low rotation, it may serve you well.  You will have to allow your “No’s” to give meaning to your “Yes’s”.  If you are part of a missional church plant you have done this already (haven’t you?) when you decided that you would prioritise the brothers and sisters in the plant over those Christian friends from your old church.  You need to have the conversation with those old friends kindly, but firmly.  You need to explain that the limited time you do have you are going to use to prioritise new non-Christian relationship for gospel reasons. Now that you have done it once you have to learn to do it all over again – this time by concentrating on those relationships in which you have been able to have gospel conversations – if mission and evangelism is to remain a priority.

Concern #2: People Pleasing

This piggy-backs off Concern #1. Why do we feel compelled to “catch up” with so many people?  Because if we don’t, we often feel the pang that derives from our fear of what they may think of us.  People in the West are driven by “catch ups”.  What happens when you stop playing the game? Outwardly we don’t want to make people “feel bad” if we don’t catch up, but inwardly the real concern is often fear of what others might think of us if we constantly say “no”.  The number of “have to’s” that we feel compelled to attend for the sake of others can often breed resentment and a passive anger.

Solution: Fearing God

Dylan sang that we all “gotta serve somebody”, meaning either the Devil or the LORD.  The same is true of our other relationships .  We either serve/fear others or we fear God.  In other words, we find ourselves giving significant weight to the opinion of other people about us, or we give significant weight to the opinion of God about us. Fearing God, in the knowledge of his goodness and kindness towards us in Jesus, is incredibly liberating and often leads to a new sense of clarity and direction in our lives.  Over recent years I have been learning to say “no” to many good things that I have been asked to do. The initial sting of saying it, has been more than compensated not simply by the relief at having a space in my diary, but by the knowledge that God accepts me and loves me, regardless of the disappointment the other person may be feeling by my response.

This fear of God has a bonus for our long-term, low key relational evangelism.  The more we invest in a relationship the higher the stakes.  Should a long-term investment relationship fail, it is more likely to crush us than if a short-term one were to fail.  However the problem with long-term low key relational evangelism is that the quality of the relationship is often inversely proportional to our ability to share the gospel into it.  Not always, I might add, but if you have made friends with people who do not know Jesus, the longer you don’t mention him, the harder it will be to do so at a later date. The worst place to get to is when your friend commends you on your friendship with them precisely because you don’t “push the Jesus thing” at them.  That’s a recipe for conflicted emotions, I can tell you.  At one level we feel proud about that, because it shows we are not some fundy nutbar, but on another level we are ashamed, because everything in us is screaming “tell them about the greatest thing in your life (not a  Thermomix in case you were wondering – Ed) Getting to “the Jesus thing” early is the solution.  It will either result in the relationship cooling off, or it will result in someone knowing more about him, seeing his work in your life, and perhaps coming to know him themselves. And you will only be able to get to “the Jesus thing” early if your fear of people is overcome by your fear of God.

Concern#3: The Size of the Task

In Romans 15 when Paul states that he has preached the gospel all the way from Jerusalem to Illyricum he is not saying every person every where.  And there is no way that he could have done that long-term, low key relationally.  Now, granted we are not Paul, and granted that we do not have the missionary call he did.  But somehow he just decided to “carpet bomb” the region with the gospel.  Not everyone is called to be a “carpet bomber” evangelist, but some are.  Australia is growing, and growing quickly. Perth, where I live, is throwing up houses in its northern and southern suburbs at such a pace that shocks the annual holiday maker trying to get out of the burbs. We’re not scratching the surface evangelistically.

Solution: Find the Carpet Bomber

I believe it is the role of the missional church to identity those who are “carpet bombers” and help build teams around them who are equipped to do long-term, low key relational evangelism.  Each new church plant should have someone willing to go out and do the dirty door-to-door stuff that most others shy away from.  Greg Lee from Hunter Bible Church  told some of us recently that occasionally he rocks up at the office, says to the staff “Off we go”, and, like it or loathe it, they go on a door-knocking expedition together in Newcastle for the morning (and they thought Monday morning staff meeting was going to be at Gloria Jeans).  It’s his way of keeping that carpet-bombing impetus in the church.  How would anyone else in Hunter Bible Church be compelled to gossip the gospel as far and as wide as they could, if the leadership doesn’t demonstrate that it is its priority. I wouldn’t want to make too big an issue of this, but there is something about the carpet bombing approach that enlivens and quickens the long-term, low-key relational approach. Perhaps there is something that unlocks spiritually when we do, perhaps it is it simply cause and effect. Either way I am convinced that if a missional church plant is not committed to both, it will eventually do neither. I once met a group – a self-consciously styled missional community group – that had been the same fifteen people for more than a decade.  Something got lost in translation folks.

Conclusion

I’d be interested in responses to this.  If experience tells me anything it is that the overwhelming reaction is that I am diminishing true relationships by seeing people who don’t yet trust Jesus simply as “targets” or “numbers”.  I truly don’t.  I truly want us to have deep, encouraging, enriching relationships.  But more than that I want those relationships to continue into the age-to-come, and for that I would make no apologies.

3 Comments

  1. I must admit I wasn’t going to post a comment on this series, mainly because on this issue we are poles apart and the thrust of what you are saying disturbs me. I think that what disturbs me is the concentration on numbers, although you deny this, otherwise why the critique on the missional church that did not grow in numbers? It was thirty years before Jesus got into any “ministry.” Thirty years of growth as a person? Thirty years of waiting for the timing of the Father? My criteria for whether a group of people have “failed” is if they have not followed their calling, is there no fruit? Perhaps the fruit is elsewhere? If they have served the call of Christ faithfully in their community, I would call that a success. If they have demonstrated love towards others, I would call that a success too. Maybe there was even a growth in another congregation? Maybe in demonstrating stickability in relationships our own children will see the value and not stray from their own walk with Jesus, that is growth too.

    Allowing some relationships to fall away maybe a good thing, if those people had no desire to maintain that relationship anyway. However, that might be a critique of the depth of relationships we develop. Recognising who is on our journey and who is meant to be a travelling companion and who isn’t, I think is a necessary part of growing up. We might want to be popular and journey with lots of people but if God is calling you to invest in two or three people for that part of your journey then by all means concentrate on them, some people may come and go on that journey too. Who knows what seeds we have sown, who am I to say who will come to the harvest on my watch, until then I will continue to till the soil, plant the seeds and watch what grows.

  2. “We might want to be popular and journey with lots of people”

    Joanna, I don’t feel this is a fair assessment of the motivation behind what Steve has discussed. If anything, letting go of friendships, risking being seen as a loveless proselytiser who treats people as projects, and saying no to ‘catch-ups’ is a pretty effective way of becoming unpopular. And most of us generally feel time-poor and thinly stretched, so it would be much easier and more comfortable for me to just stick with my existing ‘holding pen’ and not look beyond that.

    The point is, I believe, wanting to see *as many people as possible* have a chance to respond to Jesus’ offer of salvation. Not because we value quantity over quality, or are too lazy or shallow to bother with deep relationships, but because the time is short, the workers are few and the harvest is enormous! And each person is as valuable as the next. It might *feel* more loving to invest enormous amounts of time and energy into a few relationships, and sometimes that is the right thing (like in a marriage or parenting or whatever), but it’s also not loving to withhold the gospel of Christ from those around us with whom we may never have the luxury of developing deep and long-lasting relationships.

    Personally it’s a tension I do feel, but I certainly don’t believe it needs to be either/or. And I’m pretty confident Steve agrees.

    Also, with the fruit/timeline issue, I’m not convinced that Jesus’ 30 years of growth prior to his public ministry is a logical analogy to the life of the post-pentecost church. I think Acts is a better ‘model’ for what we should be expecting in the life of the body of Christ, and the overwhelming themes as far as I can see are those of: 1) rapid and significant growth in number, 2) lots of opposition, and 3) the movement of Christians ‘outward’ to take the gospel to as many as possible of those who’ve not yet been reached. Of course, in the espistles we see the complement to that – deep, long-term relational investment, but interestingly it seems that the focus of that is on discipling and strengthening those who are already Christians, to grow them to maturity.

    Anyway, thanks Steve. It’s a tricky one for Prov! But definitely a conversation worth having.

  3. I, too, have wrestled with this question. I agree with everything that Steve has written, although it is hard not to RECEIVE it as abrasive. In my life it’s become a non-issue. I see a few old friends very infrequently and colleagues, church family and local community friends frequently. It just seems to have panned out that way. There are abundant natural exit points for long term relationships of all kinds and we don’t need to feel guilty about not catching up, as though that invalidates the friendship that was. I would say the measure of a truly deep friendship is – can you see each other every five years and pick up where things left off? And then part ways for another five years!

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