We may believe that God is the one who saves people’s souls but we can’t stop ourselves from giving him a helping hand. And I don’t mean the necessary and commanded work of telling people about Jesus. I mean the spiritual equivalent of driving a transit van up to a passing pedestrian, sliding the door open, grabbing holding of their collar and yanking them into the van. Spiritual mugging. Or abduction.
We will have your spiritual adherence, and if you don’t want to give it we will find a way to get it out of you. It could be seeker-sensitive or hellfire and damnation. Passive aggressive or just down right aggressive.
What matters is your salvation whether you like it or not.
Now, in the spiritual mugger’s defence, if the passing pedestrian is about to be caught in a bomb blast and doesn’t know it, then pulling them off the street might be a heroic act.
If saving someone from death is what matters most then doing it at all costs becomes legitimate. The ends start to justify the means; the means anyway to ensure the greater good. Do we care for people or only their salvation?
It’s easy to hide behind complexity, easy to cite tensions, easy to say it is both and not either or. That we are caring for people by caring for their salvation. And we can be and we do.
But I still think it’s a cop-out.
It gives us a get-out clause for insensitivity, a carte blanche for rudeness. When we design services to be primarily about getting people to stand up, raise a hand, come to the front, say a prayer, we are reducing salvation to a moment, and not the moment that matters. That happened 2,000 years ago on the cross of Calvary.
Our practice, if not our theology, tells us that getting in from under the burning curtain matters most, and either side of that moment is window dressing. When we push for commitments our energy is channelled towards a single purpose that loses sight of the grand work of redemption going on. It forgets we have lives to lead in the light of salvation, it forgets we can serve the world so that all will benefit even if only some are saved. And it pretends salvation is the end of the story rather than the beginning.
And our role in bringing about God’s new creation is sidelined if not entirely ignored. Because if getting saved is about a ticket to heaven, then the world we leave behind is of only marginal importance; an awkward present reality. It means we can drive SUVs to the corner shop, chop down trees, live like we just don’t care because some day we will be gone.
But if we have a strong conviction that the world we are in matters. That there are lives to be redeemed, as well as death to be averted, we act differently.
Last week I listened to two men who passionately believe that the gospel changes lives like nothing else. Andy Hawthorne in Manchester and Mez McConnell in Niddrie, a housing scheme on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Working in some of the most deprived communities in the UK they know a little bit about the need for hope. They know the limits of warm words and government programmes, and that the gospel does more. The good news of Jesus Christ that brings liberty to captives, food to the hungry and shelter to the homeless.
The person chairing the discussion kept trying to work out what was more important for them: social action or evangelism. And they both rejected the premise, rejected the dichotomy it was trying to portray. It is both, together, always. We talk about Jesus, they both said, all the time, because he is the one who changes lives, but we do a lot more than talk, we act.
Evangelism isn’t defined by the recitation of spiritual laws or the distribution of tracts. It is a life lived in the full power of the gospel, it is showing what it has achieved for us, it is demonstrating its power for others and it is hope for people in need of nothing more.
Tom Wright says in his discussion of the final words of Matthew 10: “Those who lose their lives will find them. And, at the end, the remarkable chain reaction of those who serve their fellow human beings out of love for Jesus. Give a cup of cold water to one of Jesus’s least significant followers, and you’re giving it to Jesus himself; whatever you do for Jesus, you do, not just for Jesus, but for God (‘the one who sent me’). If Jesus’s people today could relearn this simple but profound lesson, the Church might once again be able to go out with a message to challenge and change people’s hearts.”
It takes time, it takes commitment, it takes love. If your evangelism is like yanking someone off the street into a transit van, I’d suggest you think again.