Wednesday, January 01, 2014

To preach or not to preach?

When is it an appropriate time to preach the gospel, and when is it not? Is it possible to be too forceful in our presentation of the gospel to people? Is there a time to not preach the gospel?

Even as I ask these questions I hear a myriad of responses from people who will likely not agree with me. I will try to answer some of these, but know that people will want to throw more at me.

The first and most important thing to remember is some of the ways that we are actually exhorted to preach the gospel. A couple of examples come to mind. Peter says that we should always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us. (1 Peter 3:15) That is be ready, but this does not mean, always preach. Another is when Paul tells Timothy to "be prepared in season and out of season". Again, this is about preparation and readiness, but does not mean to always preach regardless of the season. (2 Timothy 4:2).
Paul also teaches that people can not believe unless they have heard. (Romans 10:14) There is a strong implication here that the gospel must be taken to everyone. But are we actually required to take the gospel to every individual, or is our individualistic world view an obstruction to the gospel? Jesus teaches that the gospel must be preached to all nations. In fact there really is an approach to the gospel in scripture that is more centred on nations than on individuals. This could be unpacked quite extensively.

When Peter tells people to be ready to share the gospel, he tells them to do it with gentleness and respect. I would argue that this is something that often gets left out. In fact many Evangelicals often take the approach that their only job is to preach, often without any love at all, and that once they have "preached" their responsibility is done. Often such people are very quick to damn someone to hell if they do not listen to a forceful presentation.

Therefore, I want to challenge the evangelical presupposition that we should preach the gospel to every individual and propose that we should only do so when someone is ready to listen. (I am sure this sounds heretical to some, and at least highly controversial to others.) Let me present from scripture why I believe this to be so.

A key concept in understanding the preaching of the gospel is how Jesus did it. Jesus did not in fact preach to everyone. John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus. A key part of this was the baptism for the repentance of sins. A maxim is used to refer to how many received this baptism- all of Judea, minus the rebellious pharisees. So for starters, Jesus was not actually too interested in preaching to rebellious pharisees. Most of his conversations with the pharisees saw Jesus answering the pharisees attacks, but doing so in ways to cryptically throw them off their attacks. Other times when the masses followed Jesus, Jesus preached in such a way as to again be cryptic, telling parables so that people would be "ever hearing, but not understanding", so that only those who were really hungry would seek the truth. (Mark 4:12, Matthew 13:14, Acts 28:26, Isaiah 6:9). This is consistent with other things Jesus taught- "blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness" (Matthew 5:6)  and "whoever seeks the truth will find it" (Matthew 7:8).

A lot of that description of Jesus' method sounds a little reactive. That is, so many were flocking to him because of his miracles that he was forced to react in how he preached the truth. He wanted to make sure that he was actually preaching to those who wanted to listen and were not just seeking the fireworks show. A common argument might be, "well, we can't actually compare ourselves to Jesus, we need to do things differently."  But, Jesus was deliberate in actually telling us how to go about preaching the gospel. He was not only reactive, he was proactive.

Jesus did have a plan for spreading the gospel (i.e his message, the truth) to people. He actually outlines this plan very clearly twice in the gospels, in Matthew 10 and Luke 10. Jesus sent out his disciples two by two. Let's have a look at what he told them to do.
1) Jesus told the pairs (among the 72, not just 12, which included women who were among his closest followers) firstly to go into the harvest. (Luke 10:2) That is, the harvest was ready to be collected.* (More on this a bit later).
2) Jesus told them to take nothing with them. In a first century middle east context they could easily go from village to village. The commonality in a 21st century Siberian context is that we should approach a village or other context in need, depending on hospitality.
3) Jesus told his disciples to greet someone's home with "May the peace of God be on your home." If this was received, then it was a key indicator that this person was ready to listen.  If the host did not receive the peace of God, Jesus intended for his disciples to move on, that is not to persist with a person who was not ready or willing to listen.
4) When received, Jesus then wanted his disciples to (a) receive the hospitality offered to them (b) heal the sick and (c) preach the Kingdom of God.
5) When not received in an entire town or location, Jesus basically tells the disciples to move on and not waste their energy on stubborn people.

There is some context worth looking at in the above example. First century Jewish villages had all of God's word and law. They were in no ways naive about what they were rejecting if they chose to reject God's peace and kingdom. When going to an unreached context this needs to be approached a little differently, taking the time to patiently and contextually explain the truth. Unreached people however are not as big a stranger to God's law as we might think, and there is still a time for not preaching even in such an unreached context. Where Jesus told his disciples to shake the dust off their feet in a Jewish context, this could mean going away and praying and waiting to come back in the future in a different context.

Jesus' method is deliberate and proactive. He wants us as his disciples to seek out those who are ready to listen. A good way to refer to such a person is a "person of peace". This method is employed by Jesus many times in his ministry. Jesus seeking out the woman at the well in Samaria is a classic example. He found a specific person who was ready to listen, and through her the doors opened to an entire community where he stayed for a couple days teaching about the Kingdom of God. He actually does the same thing with the man named legion, who he heals from demon possession. That man opened the doors to an entire community when Jesus later returned there. If we are to be deliberate about following Jesus' proactive example, this is the best way to preach the gospel- find a person of peace who is ready to listen and reach an entire community through them. It could even be argued that it is counter productive to do otherwise. We end up spending so much time and energy convincing ones and twos and removing them from their community, where as God has a plan to transform entire communities and see rapid multiplication of the gospel.

The argument needs to come back to the idea of whether we are obligated to share the gospel with every person we meet. Firstly I would say that Jesus' name and truth should always be on our lips. We should not hide our light under a table, we should put it high on a stand for all to see. But, and this is a big BUT, we need to be ready in gentleness and respect to stop when people do not want to listen. This can be very hard for us to do at times. We tend to take it upon ourselves that if we do not give someone a full gospel presentation that they may never have another chance to hear and seem to think we could be personally cosigning them to hell. Surely if we had done more we could have prevented this! Or could we have? Or should we?

I will go on record as saying I am not a calvinist. I really do believe in free choice, given by God. I know my ideas seem inconsistent with this. Perhaps the biggest question we should ask is, who is better at preaching the truth, us or God? Let's have a look at where God does preach to people.

In Psalm 19 we learn:
The heavens proclaim the glory of God
The skies display his craftsmanship
Day after day they continue to speak
Night after night they make him known
There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard
Their message has gone throughout the earth
And their words to all the world

Those are some amazing facts! There is not a language where the voice of God's glory has not been heard. This message has gone to all the world! That is a little staggering to realise, if we think the responsibility is all ours. This means that all ethnicities, all people groups have already been hearing something from God. Our part as disciples is to be obedient, not to question God's methods. He tells us to preach the Kingdom of God, but there is a proactive way we should do this, and a way we should avoid.

Often in theology we reduce God's preaching to a patronising "general revelation". As if to say, "well God can only give some vague message to people himself, and it is up to us to fill in the gaps". Have a look further at the context of Psalm 19. The rest of the Psalm goes on to say what the heavens, the skies are preaching about. Verse 7 and 8 tell us that they are giving us the instructions and commands of the Lord. What? That doesn't make sense surely? Surely God went to great efforts to give us his law, and then to even greater efforts to come as Jesus, the Word made flesh. But Psalm 19 is telling us that God is even teaching us his instructions and commands through his glory being revealed in the skies. Again, our part is to play obedience and bring people to Jesus so they can be disciples and follow Jesus' commands closely. But still, we are not allowed to say that God doesn't do more than simply make people aware of his existence, he preaches so much more to them.

Of course the Romans scripture can not be ignored.
Ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities- his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. 
This verse (Romans 1:20) actually sounds remarkably similar to Psalm 19, that people can know God from what he has taught us in the sky. This also lines up with Genesis 1, day 4, that God created the stars to bring light on the earth. So we can see from scripture that people in all parts of the world should know something of who God is, something of his glory and even something of his instructions and commands. In fact Paul goes even further in chapter 2 (verses 14-15).
Even Gentiles, who do not have God's written law, show that they know his law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it. They demonstrate that God's law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts accuse them or tell them they are doing right.
Really, this is quite a lot of scriptural evidence to let us know that God most definitely speaks to all peoples before we ever turn up on the scene.

What this all means is, if someone rejects the peace of God when we bring it, they are cognisant of their actions. This doesn't give us permission to communicate the gospel in a culturally insensitive manner (gentleness and respect = cultural sensitivity), but it does give us permission, in fact even requires us to pull back when people reject God.

We have to consider our actions. So often we can come in with a lot of pride and force and insist that people listen to our entire presentation. This approach is not loving. In fact it's not even wise, not what Jesus asks us to do. Jesus asks us to seek out people who are ready to listen, people who have noticed his glory in creation, people who have God's law in their hearts. When we are obedient to Jesus this way, doors will be opened wide into entire communities or people groups.

This should give us a lot of relief. God is in control. We should not be preaching to everyone the entire gospel presentation. We should be opening our mouths and speaking out God's glory, and when people show their curiosity we have a perfect opportunity to go further.
I can think of times in my own life when I believed that I had to push through and convince someone to listen to me. I can think of times here in Russia where other workers here have sat in taxis or trucks with me and pushed through, handed out tracts when the driver has indicated that they do not want to hear. I can even think of a time, when having told my believing brother that this was insensitive, it lead to a big argument and falling out, because he believed he had to preach the full gospel to everyone he met.

Be ready, be prepared, in season and out of season. Always speak the name of Jesus, do so in love with gentleness and respect. Seek out people of peace who are ready to listen. Remember that God has already been preaching to people. Remember that in obedience our job is to go into the harvest and collect the harvest* that God has already prepared. When people do not want to listen, don't push them. You are not letting them down if you don't give them a "full presentation". God is far better at preaching and revealing his glory to people than we are. Often we can get in the way of God getting through to a person. By our backing off, we give God the chance to keep speaking in his own way. Then when someone is ready our job is to be ready to give the reason for the hope that is within us and hopefully even collect a harvest!

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