Wednesday, January 14, 2009

God the Problem-Solver

"How many of us have treated the gospel as an object that can answer a deep-seated need (for acceptance, happiness, companionship, a clear conscience), and in so doing approached Christianity in self-interested weakness, hoping that it will be the pill that will cure us, the liquid solution that will provide the ultimate solution. Bonhoeffer wondered whether it is possible to embrace God out of love and lightness of heart, out of a seduction that is caught up in the call of God rather than the need of God." - Peter Rollins, The Fidelity of Betrayal

The evangelical group that I was a part of in college advocated the use of a couple small booklets to aid in one's "witnessing to" another. The premise of these wasn't too terribly complicated, which may have been part of the reason why I never really liked them. Essentially, these booklets contained a few drawings showing a chasm between a person and God, and eventually the cross acted as the bridge between the two that allowed the person to cross over and be with God. There were a few individual Bible verses plucked out of their context to aid in these illustrations.

Ultimately, of course, the booklet's point was to make the "unsaved" person aware of his or her need for God - a need to which, in the ideal of circumstances given this booklet's unspoken assumptions, the object of such tactics was completely oblivious. This booklet frames the need in a particular way: "You're a sinner destined for hell by God. You need God to forgive you through Jesus." And let's ignore God's case of Multiple Personality Disorder for the sake of discussion. This booklet created a need, and then told its reader how to find the solution.

This is one of the first examples that I think of when I read the Rollins quote above. It's provided a lot of food for thought over the past several days.

The booklet used by this and many other similar ministries is one example of a traditional way to think about evangelism. Moreso, it's a traditional way to think about theology, church life, and discipleship. We begin with humanity's problem: call it sin, or the need for inclusion, or oppression, or the need for forgiveness, or some combination or something else entirely. We have a need, we need to tell as many other people about this need, and once people understand their need we can tell them about how God can fix it.

Rollins names the way that Christians typically go about constructing a theology of evangelism: we begin with our need, and then move to how God can fix it. This can be seen across the board, from parachurch ministries to megachurches to evangelicals, even to liberals. It's how marketing works. We have something that you want or need: a place to belong, a more exciting form of worship than the church down the road, the means of salvation from something we'll let you know you're dealing with. And participation in our programs will help you continue to address this need.

It's the second part of Rollins' quote that intrigues me, the part that presents a new approach to how we may approach telling others about God and inviting them to be part of a faith community. Instead of telling people about what they need and then presenting God as the answer, we can begin with helping to cultivate a space where the presence of God may be experienced, through which the call to respond may be heard.

We see this in various places in scripture. Isaiah, Peter, and Paul all first have a God-experience, then realize their call and something about their true place in the world; in God's world. Isaiah laments his unclean lips in the Temple, Peter throws himself at Jesus' feet after witnessing a miracle, Paul changes his entire sense of mission after the road to Damascus. As Jesus interacts with others, many of them realize a call to follow; to seek the kingdom of God. True, many come to him to be healed, but they are not left merely with a need for physical healing fulfilled...they also experience a call into God's kingdom, to proclaim what happened, to tell of the closeness of God's presence.

What if the church began with a call to service rather than a need-solution message? Or to put it another way, what if we changed our message from our own needs to the world's needs; from God's miracle solution to God enacting solutions through us?

There are so many people who discredit the church for being too self-involved, its message diluted by people seeking to have their personal needs met. In the meantime, people are looking for ways in which the church makes a real difference in the world, and many more have given up on whether or not that's possible.

Changing our thinking can help show people that it is possible, that Jesus wanted this possibility to begin with, and that we take that possibility very seriously. An encounter with God through Christ and the ensuing life of service can be very transformative.