What the Church Forgets About Lost People

It’s been a little minute since I wrote to you last.  My last post was entitled “Still a Strange Way to Save the World” right around Christmas of 2022.  And well, for someone who says he is a writer, four months without picking up the pen is writer sacrilege, and I get it.  

I guess you could say I have been writing though.  In fact, the result of that writing is put forth each week on my YouTube channel: The Narrow Path-Live and in Color.  Though it’s different admittedly, as I study through the book of Romans to try and put forth something that’s been said countless times yet maybe not said in the way we need to hear it these days, I am still studying and writing each week.  I guess you could also say I have felt that this task has taken some precedence for me because, as the title of this blog suggests, I’m not so sure the church in America really understands cooperatively what God is saying, and also “not” saying.  And for the purpose of this blog, I really feel that their inability to truly communicate to lost people is on life support with the flat line in clear view.

Knowing Your Audience

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Now I like to think I know a little something about this, though I would not call myself an evangelist per say.  However, I have in some form or fashion been a communicator my whole life, both in written and in spoken forums.  From being a full-time pastor once upon a short time, to a long stint as an account executive in the world of business, and to always being a preacher at heart in my spare time (YouTube, Blogging, occasionally preaching), I’ve learned a thing or two about “knowing one’s audience”.  Something that is of course a prerequisite to understanding how to both communicate, as well as to potentially win someone over to your side of an argument, to the point that they are willing to concede that your solution is better than the one they’ve currently been working with.  And admittedly, in times such as these, this has never been a more arduous task.  

Now I’m pretty sure the gospel writers, and particularly two of the pillars: Peter and Paul, would also have something to say about this topic. And in fact, they do quite regularly. And at least part of their understanding, which does not seem to be so much ours for eons now, is that they know the stark difference between “preaching to the choir” (those who should know better and who already agree with us) and preaching to those who would rather blow up the damn choir, rather than have it sung to them out of tune yet again! And by and large, they are those who now consider our constant yacking as if they are the choir and as something akin to a dripping faucet. You know, that pesky drip coming out of a faucet that everyone can hear (and I mean everywhere) and yet nobody can seem to turn it off! And as someone who has given it more than a college try for years now to communicate with thoughtful nuance depending on my audience, somehow; I fear that the church, in the midst of a Post Constantinian framework we have been in for some time, has either forgotten it, or probably more accurately, are outright oblivious to its reality right about now.

A Good Example of the Disconnect?

Now the case I am putting forth in not knowing how to communicate to lost people is often seemingly bypassed by the church across the board, for reasons that I’m not quite sure of.  Perhaps it’s because the church can’t preach the gospel and equally know their audience at the same time I propose.  Maybe chewing bubble gum and talking at the same time is far too complex.  Or maybe they misread the beloved apostle Paul’s own earlier admonition about this very thing that he wrote about to the Corinthian church (the lost Corinth letter), about not hanging around with worldly, pagan people with all sorts of sinful deeds that they participate in.  And so, like us it seems, Paul then must bluntly correct their misunderstanding in the second letter we call 1 Corinthians, where he says in chapter 5: 9-13 these words that we should always keep in mind:

I wrote to you in my letter (the lost earlier letter) not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy, and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world (Eureka!).  But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.  For what have I to do with judging outsiders?  Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?  God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you’”.

And rather than succumb to the temptation that these verses beg to have unpacked for us and thus reverting to, “Oh, there’s a squirrel” tendencies, I will simply leave you a sermon from my YouTube channel that I preached on this very thing some three or four years ago now: The Letter We’re Still Sorely Missing

Towards a Theology of Lostness

So now that we’ve gotten our focus off the myriad of squirrels we could chase down, another pillar, Peter himself, gives us another great reminder (and there are others) in 1st Peter 3:15 where he pens these profound words,

But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for that hope that is within you yet do it with gentleness and respect”.

The point being made here is that lost people, by default, initially think we have lost our minds to believe in things such as a man dying on the cross saving the world, much less the resurrection from the dead.  For to them this is synonymous with utter credulity.  And so, because of their default framework of unbelief, it is incumbent upon us to somehow be able to give them some “reason”, outside of simply “The Bible says” (though more credible than they realize), for the “hope” (as Peter reminds us) that should be within us.  And then he adds that this is to be done in a gentle manner (not combative), and with an extra modicum of respect towards them despite their rather resolute and stoic rejection of our faith.

Selah

A Template in Corinth

Now our brother Paul adds many more discourses on how to communicate with lost people, so much so that it goes beyond the scope of the blogosphere to really unpack.  But I would like to mention at least 3 texts that you can go to for your own understanding of what I’m talking about. 

For instance, we find from 1 Corinthians 9: 19-23 a masterpiece of a text on communicating to the different types of people who are lost that we will encounter along the way, and one that shows us the actual art of “becoming all things” in order to win some.  In fact, Paul goes to great lengths here to give examples of three different kinds of communication and identification he needed to make sure that the gospel spoken was not rejected for any other reason other than for what it was, and certainly not due to miscommunication of its essence.  

So though Paul, after full out rejection over time from his audience might get him eventually to “shaking the dust off his feet” and moving on (a point we should also note), he would not do so until he had put himself on the level of his audience to both understand them, be able to hang out with them on their turf, and, so that he would eventually, through that relationship, earn the right to put forth what he believed.  And I would like to say that this is a lost art that we need to resurrect sooner than later.  For it seems that professional missionaries (at least more often than us) have understood this rather keenly, but for those of us nestled comfortably in the so-called Christian West which was once a bastion of the freedom of ideas, one wonders if we have ever even entertained the idea.  

A Template from the Book of Acts

Paul gives us another case study on Mars Hill in the book of Acts where he gives us an actual template of a sermon he preached to lost people (i.e., Gentiles comprised of Stoics, Epicureans, Platonists, and those who worshiped a pantheon of gods and goddesses) for us to glean from.  This is found in Acts 17, and I encourage anyone concerned with this topic I have put forth to also spend a great deal of time here understanding the brilliant ways Paul communicated, and here’s the kicker: by knowing his audience and seeking first to understand before being understood (Steven Covey).  And though this is one in which I would love to dig into more with you, in the interest of brevity, I want to unpack just a wee bit, another passage of interest in Colossians that is one we’ve also either forgotten, skirted by too quickly, or simply tossed aside as somehow irrelevant to the monumental task at hand.

The Colossians 4:2-6 Template

In Colossians 4:2-6 Paul writes these profound words,

Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.  At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.  Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time.  Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person”.  

Now again, in the interest of my particular vehicle of communication here, I want to be brief, yet highlight several things as a template that should be in our prayers and thoughts as we seek to communicate with lost people.

First, there is something about being “vigilant” in our own prayer life with a view towards this type of regular communication.  But also, there is a secondary aspect of then being equally attentive in praying for open doors for those on the frontlines and the sidelines, in lock step with making sure we also communicate the gospel to lost people ourselves as a way of life.  Now I will also add to that the caveat of having a life that wreaks of Christlikeness (no easy task), not just in the sins we don’t participate in with the world (hint, hint), but also in the sense of being equally as winsome in our willingness to hobnob with lost people, at least as much as we do our own church choir.  

Selah

Secondly, I believe a much-overlooked piece of this communication is the willingness to not only present real facts (and there are plenty) as to why we hope the way we do, but also in being able to equally communicate in mysteries.  This idea was especially the case initially in the world of the initial pillars of that faith, whose population believed in mostly nothing.  And this is specifically the case now that we are back where we started, where an increasingly growing population mostly believe also in nothing.  In that sense, we need to be able to speak both from an intelligent framework of logic and reason (lost and dying art forms) against the competing philosophies and plausible arguments against our belief (Colossians 2), but also in a way that emphasizes the mysterious elements of the faith that are equally compelling.  Answers that people can also feel, and a story whose depths go far beyond anything we could ever fully plunder in this life.  A story of an upside-down kingdom if you will.  A communication mind you that fits well into a postmodern ethos that thinks communally (for good or bad), and who also love a good mystery to work through and even “feel” through with their community.  They are those who don’t mind chasing a good rabbit trail if eventually they find some actual substantial rabbits on it.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that a gospel communicated that lacks either facts or the ability to speak in glorious mysteries is to do the gospel story and the lost themselves, a great disservice.  

Selah

Thirdly, it is equally incumbent upon us to make our communication clear as to both what we are matter-of-factly saying, and equally what we are not saying as I alluded to earlier.  This of course takes some time that most “quick fix” westerners can’t fit into a “four spiritual laws” spiel, a “romans road” trajectory, or the dreaded “chick” tract you find in restaurants and stinky gas station bathrooms.  Yet typically, and unlike the original peddlers of the gospel that at least had a framework of “religious” people in the roman world that were genuinely interested in talk of deities, and many who were in fact Jews who at least understood part of the story, we are now increasing living in a godless society.  And for the record, some of the godless blood may be on the church’s hand, who for so long put all communication in the context of “commands” and “ultimatums” rather than in the form of winsome talking points (logic, reason, mystery) and perhaps an apparent novelty such as love to gradually lead someone (through an actual relationship) to come to the same conclusions.  Or better yet, to see some of the winsome talking points in lived out observable shoe leather.  

Fourthly, this type of interaction encompasses Paul’s unction for us to walk in wisdom towards outsiders (those who do not currently hold our viewpoint), which I take to simply mean that.  We must understand their worldview first, truly.  We must then equally understand what life experiences have shaped this worldview for good or for ill.  And we also need to be able to keep the gospel message down to its core instead of adding to it things that either aren’t there, or that won’t mean a hill of beans to a person until they have walked with Christ for some time and can fully take it in.  In other words, walking in wisdom means just that: “think deeply and spiritually before you speak”.  

Fifthly, Paul reminds us about what he calls “redeeming the time”, which means essentially to “buy up” all the opportunities available to communicate to lost people.  So instead of being fast and loose with the gospel, or being hurried in our approach, we make the most of all the opportunities we should communicate as we have proposed, yet also recognizing the need to behave in lockstep with that communication in such a way to attract rather than repel.  Now to be sure, Paul also reminds us that the message we bring will be to some a sweet aroma leading to life, and simultaneously, sometimes it will necessarily be the “stench of death” to those who are perishing (2 Cor. 2:15-17), simply because it’s always darkest before the dawn brings the needed light.  Meaning here, that right before someone truly repents and believes the gospel due to our winsome efforts, the weight of it all will bear down on them and they will feel the judgement that comes from God rightly for their sins, but not from the likes of us.

Lastly, Paul talks about seasoned, graceful, and salty speech to those outsiders.  It is the kind of sparkling conversation that is both witty and clever, and overall speech that gives flavor to the discourse and recommends it to the pallet as something that would (as much as it is up to us) be good and refreshing, rather than rote or formulaic, and that which adjusts our discourse accordingly based on the person we are speaking with.  So, here’s a newsflash!  A “one size fits all” approach might be easy and gets the job done, it’s just that it doesn’t work when you no longer live in Kansas, and there’s no longer even a yellow brick road to trod along.

Stay tuned for Part 2

Selah

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