Our greatest desire is to reach people with the gospel of Jesus, to see people respond to that gospel in repentant faith, and to see them following Christ in a life of faithful obedience. But how do we do that? How can we take the timeless good news to a generation that treats Christ as a thing of the past?
Every year Carey Baptist Church in Reading faces that predicament as they seek to witness to thousands of young people who descend upon the Reading Festival, the largest music festival in the UK.
On the one hand, some would rightly be quick to remind us of the truths which cannot be altered. We must preach sin and its consequences, we must preach Christ as the only way of salvation, we must preach confession and repentance.
On the other hand, others would (also rightly) be quick to remind us of Paul’s desire to be all things to all men so as to save some. Surely this means we must engage the culture, we must become relevant and applicable to modern society.
Often these two are portrayed as mutually exclusive: either we preach a fully-fledged gospel message, or we fight for relevance. But why should these two be seen as opposite extremes between which we need to find a ‘balance’? The apostle could never have been accused of neglecting the message of ‘Christ and Him crucified’, nor could he be accused of neglecting his responsibility to ‘do it all for the sake of the gospel.’ So following the example of Christ’s first messengers, we ought to pursue a thoroughly Christ honouring gospel, while also engaging in a manner which is relevant and accessible.
In our experience at Carey, we tackle this in two main ways: by demonstrating Christian love and by proclaiming the gospel. The church was able to show Christian love to those attending the Reading Festival, by serving free soft drinks, teas and coffees as well as distributing maps to help people find their way around. These acts of charity are always extremely well received and grabbed a lot of attention including local news and radio programmes. What a great platform to achieve our second (but actually our primary aim) to proclaim the gospel. While our endeavours would be far from perfect, here are some essential ingredients.
Get them thinking
Contrary to popular belief, the atheistic worldview that many have adopted under the guise of ‘no evidence for God’, has not been particularly well thought through. Many in the younger generation have simply taken the view that seems most acceptable to society. That is not to say they are unintelligent; it is simply to say that the prevailing worldview has pressurised many into agreeing without due consideration. So in seeking to engage the culture, we at Carey simply tried to get them thinking. We did this through various means: questionnaires, worldview maps, picture boards and (my personal favourite) ‘life boxes’.
These life boxes were a series of boxes with the questions ‘Is this it?’, ‘Is this the end?’ and ‘Is this relevant?’ painted on the front. We asked people to look inside to find (respectively) a mirror (self), a skull (death) and a Bible. Young people were all too ready to offer their opinions on these questions, but quickly their lack of clarity betrayed them and left them open to hear a clear message of Christ, his life, death, resurrection and relevance.
Society is full of opinionated people, but not all have thought it through. So listen to their opinions and get them thinking, and for those who have looked into deeper things before, simply listen even more closely and seek to understand why they came to their conclusions. The crux of the matter will soon emerge, and at that moment you have your opportunity to share Christ.
Keep it simple
Salvation, redemption, regeneration, substitutionary atonement, propitiation. These words are excellent words, words that express deep theological truths that should make our hearts sing for joy. However, at the Reading Festival, when speaking to a teenager who spent the previous night listening to the rap stylings of Eminem, maybe I could choose my words more carefully. Even the concept of sin is difficult to use rightly. It is not that we should avoid these concepts, far from it!
But rather than salvation, why not say ‘rescue’?
Rather than redemption, why not say ‘paid for our freedom’?
Rather than regeneration, why not say ‘gave us a new life’?
These concepts are essential and cannot be withdrawn from our evangelism, but we cannot expect the man on the street to have swallowed a theological dictionary before bumping into the unprepared evangelist. At times, this may mean that we need to use more words (especially if we want to explain propitiation). However, when it comes to expressing the truths of Christ, we will never be wasting our breath.
Stay on point
Here we come to a word of warning. The generation to which we are now sent out is one with many hot topics. Several promising evangelistic conversations were almost derailed at the Reading Festival by questions like, ‘Do you think being gay is a sin?’ or ‘Do you really believe the world was made in six days?’. That’s disheartening and frustrating. While sometimes those questions can be asked in a helpful and genuine matter, often they are thrown out as a defence mechanism to avoid the real heart of the issue. It is important when those questions are asked that we don’t take the bait, and instead we stay on track. After all, you may be able to convince someone that practising homosexuality is sin and that Genesis 1 is historical, but those things don’t make that person a Christian.
In trying to respond rightly to those issues, at the Festival, we would try to lead the conversation back to the fundamentals without ignoring the question. For instance, when someone rejects the gospel because of Christian views on homosexuality, we can respond by asking, ‘Surely you’re not saying that because of what Jesus said about homosexuality, he can’t have risen from the dead?’ After all, what he taught doesn’t change what he did.
Or perhaps another response could be, ‘What Jesus says about anything is only important if he actually died and rose again. So the question we need to ask is not whether or not I like his teaching, but whether or not he rose from the dead, then we can discuss his teaching.’
Society will continually throw us the hot potato topics, but we must simply throw them back and calmly carry on speaking about Jesus. Only he can transform their hearts and give them eyes to see morality as defined by God!
And that is what it boils down to: only Jesus can transform hearts. In getting people thinking, keeping things simple and staying on track we are hopefully able to proclaim the gospel more clearly to a culture that has put its fingers in its ears. But even as we work to make our voices heard, we cannot bring a single soul to repentance. For that, we rely on the Spirit to take our words and to take our feeble attempts to be faithful and relevant and to bring sinners to the cross to have their sin dealt with by Christ.