Thursday, August 16, 2012

Multiply! Maturity, Sex and Evangelism.

Apology: Sensationalism and Provocation

“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” This was a provocative rhetorical question asked by Tertullian (AD 160-225), one of the early Church Fathers.  He was critical of the use of Greek philosophy in the early church and his question has spawned countless debates, books and articles over the centuries. Today I want to be provocative in this sense; I want to ask a question that will ruffle some feathers, not for the sake of sensationalism, but in order to provoke thinking, discussion and hopefully action. This is the question: What has Sex to do with Evangelism?

Sex is a sensitive issue among Christians [understatement]. At first glance many of the biblical references to sex are related to the sin of sexual immorality. However the bible has a lot more to say about sex—as Jerry Root, one of my professors at Wheaton College, says (paraphrasing Plato), “An abuse does not nullify a proper use.” Sex has its proper place in God’s created order. He established sex as the means of reproduction, and commanded Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply. Sex existed before the fall; and we can often forget that when almost everything the world says about sex is void of anything wholesome and good.

That being said, missions and sex haven’t always been good bedfellows. Perhaps one of the most unfortunate etymological disasters is the term, ‘missionary position,’ which was created (possibly maliciously) by Alfred Kinsey in 1948 to describe a sexual act.  ‘Missionary dating’ is another term that has a derogatory connotation among evangelicals.

Almost anyone who attended a church youth-group while growing up probably heard a message discouraging ‘missionary dating,’ that is, becoming romantically involved with someone with the hopes of him or her becoming a Christian—however, there may just be a theological principle (impulse) hidden in this common phrase. I believe that there is a biblical link between evangelism and sexual reproduction. In today’s blog post we will continue our ongoing study of the biblical theme fruitfulness as we explore the Great Commission’s command to make disciples as it relates to Adam’s commission to make image bearers (i.e. babies).

Understanding Maturity: Physical and Spiritual

“How do you know if a plant or animal is mature?” I have often asked this question to make a point—almost everyone I have asked this question to knows the answer immediately: they can reproduce. This is Biology 101.  Physical maturity is linked with the ability to bear offspring. A plant is mature when it can produce fruit, birds when they can lay eggs, mammals when they can give birth. The human body goes through a process called puberty after which persons are physically capable of reproducing even if they are not cognitively ‘mature.’

Organisms are designed by God to reproduce. If they reach the age of maturity and are unable to have offspring there is something wrong—either with their environment or their health. While this is a simple biological truth, it is surprising that it is so often absent when talking about ‘spiritual maturity.’

Are you spiritually mature? How about your church? There are many Christians and churches with the illusion of maturity but without any fruit to show for it. In the New Testament fruitfulness is linked with disciple making (Matt 28:18-20 *see the first post in the series on fruitfulness) and sanctification (Gal 5:22-23, Fruit of the Spirit; Philippians 1:11, Fruit of Righteousness). Mature believers should be able to lead people to Christ and disciple their families. Mature churches should be growing through reaching their communities and neighborhoods with the Gospel by equipping believers to share their faith—and they should be planting new churches!

Show me the fruit!  Jesus says in Matthew 7:16-20, “Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”

Some organisms are unable to reproduce because they are unhealthy. Sometimes this is the result of disease, but it may also be because of environmental factors. Organisms that are ‘fit,’ are more capable of reproducing. Full disclosure: I am overweight and unmarried. I have come to terms with the fact that many women do not find me attractive. My inability to find a mate is partly due to my lack of physical fitness. I am obese, this is a physical reality that I can improve with exercise and diet to make it more likely for me to get married and have children. Obesity of a different kind is epidemic in the church.

We have churches full of consumers-of-Christianity. Many Christians attend church regularly, have believing friends and family, read Christian fiction novels, and tune into Christian music on the radio—many are consuming a 4000-calorie-a-day diet of Christian media, but very little of this is put to any use. It is very easy for people to become morbidly spiritually obese. Spiritual obesity (linked with consumer-Christianity) is one of the biggest problems in the Church. We have many hearers of the word, but few doers of the word. They create the illusion of fruitfulness by being busy with Christian activities, but are not actually producing any of the fruit that the New Testament says is the mark of a believer.

Just like an obese person thinking about going to the gym for the first time, many Christians are intimidated by the thought of sharing their faith with their family, friends and neighbors. Running on the treadmill can be like a parade of shame—and the same cringe occurs when we think about what we will say when sharing Jesus with others. It takes rigorous exercise and diet to fight physical obesity and the same perseverance and discipline is necessary to combat our spiritual lethargy. But with Rachel, we need to recognize our infertility and cry, "Give me children, or else I die." (Genesis 30:1)

Sex and Evangelism

Sex sells; our culture is obsessed with sex. There is no need to convince anyone as to its desirability; from the time that our bodies reach puberty we crave sexual intimacy. Evangelism on the other hand is a PR nightmare. Often, the thought of evangelism sends cold shivers down the spine of even the most committed Christians.  Most sermons on evangelism emphasize duty and obedience—I have yet to hear anyone make the case that evangelism is anywhere near as desirable as sex—so I guess I have to buck the trend.

Complete the following analogy: ‘Disciple Making is to Evangelism as Childbirth is to ___________.”

Dallas Theological Seminary Professor Doug Cecil, in introducing his Evangelism course says, “I can’t believe God gave us the Great Commission to make life miserable for us. I can’t believe that. So if evangelism is one of those places where in your spiritual life you are either frighten scared, or it is misery or a guilt trip, then something’s wrong… something’s wrong in your spiritual life… because I can’t believe that God gave us the Great Commission to make us miserable.” (Available on iTunes U). This is such a challenging and through provoking idea, and one that I have been wrestling with—because in spite of my experience in ministry, I still frequently get cold feet when it comes to bearing witness to Christ.

Lets bring back that idea about missionary dating from the intro. Some people use missionary dating as an excuse to be with the person they selfishly want to date—while in some rare occasions, a person may actually start with the desire to witness to Jesus and become romantically involved with the person they wanted to share their faith with. Most often missionary dating fails—or works in reverse. But the principle is what I was really interested in: evangelism should be pleasurable!

The analogy between sex and evangelism cannot be stretched very far—but it is a useful thought experiment. Both evangelism and sex have the purpose of creating new life. Both of them are linked with maturity—physically mature people are capable of having children, spiritually mature people are capable of making disciples. But one of them is very desirable while the other is frightening—wait, which one? To be honest, the sex portrayed in media is much different than the real thing (or so I have heard). Statistics show that married people have more sex, and more satisfying sex than sexually active unmarried people—in spite of what is portrayed in the movies.

We are terrified of evangelism, but lets consider it more honestly. Evangelism is messy, uncomfortable and often falls short of our expectations—so it is almost exactly like sex. What makes sex good and evangelism bad? Experience. More people have experienced good sex, or been sold a bill of goods; while many people have never had a positive evangelistic encounter. Maybe we are put off because many of us have discouraging mental images of Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons going door-to-door—or more likely, we have encountered rejection.

As a culture we have bought into a myth of sexual fulfillment—but since sexuality is not permanent or eternal, it cannot fulfill. It cannot satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart. People long for intimacy, but that desire is only satisfied in the God who created it. We have the opportunity to invite people into a relationship with God that truly gives life and keeps its promises. The promises that the culture of sex makes it cannot keep—God, however, is faithful.

When God works new life in our hearts as believers, we are instinctively given a desire to reproduce that life through evangelism—but the enemy wants to stifle that desire. Just as the body has a sex-drive, so spiritual life has an evangelism-drive. However, due to disobedience, sin and fear we quash what God is trying to do through us. Many of us are not spiritually fit enough to reproduce our faith. We have bought into the lie from Satan that evangelism is ugly, obnoxious, frightening—we have let rejection keep us from being faithful to the Great Commission. Just as Professor Cecil said, I have a hard time believing God gave us the Great Commission to make us miserable—in fact I believe the opposite; I believe that when we have the opportunity to lead another person to Christ in cooperation with the Holy Spirit, it is an experience that is better than sex.

When finishing his parable about the woman and the lost coin, Jesus said, “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents." (Luke 15:10) This chapter contains three parables, and they all represent God’s pursuit of sinners. Each of them ends with celebration! We have an eternal celebration to look forward to—and it begins whenever anyone puts their faith in Jesus.

Understanding the amazing transaction that is occurring when someone becomes a Christian is one reason to consider it better than sex: they are being reconciled to God, (Romans 3:24) God is creating new life in him or her, (2 Corinthians 4:6) filling them with the Holy Spirit, (Ephesians 1:13) and seating them spiritually with Christ in heaven! (Ephesians 2:6) All of that is going on whenever anyone puts his or her faith in Jesus! And you get to be part of it. It is physical interaction that causes an embryo to be fertilized, but it is God that gives life—in the same way, we get to participate with God in someone being given Eternal Life! The fruit of evangelism lasts forever.

So What Now?

Want to start experiencing evangelism in a new way? Pray. Pray a lot! Write down your testimony—one page: before you knew Jesus, how you encountered Jesus and your life since you became a Christian. Practice reading your testimony to yourself in the mirror. Share it with your Christian friends. Ask for feedback. Be able to share it from memory.

Pray some more. Learn a simple Gospel presentation—whether it is Training for Trainers (pdf),  the Bridge illustration, Romans Road, the Four Spiritual Laws, or something else. The important thing is to be able to share the central truths of the Gospel in a concise and repeatable way. Practice.

Put them together. Write down a list of your friends, family and neighbors that need to hear about Jesus. (Don't have any non-Christian friends? Well that is an environmental factor that is hindering your health as a Christian--ask the Lord to help you to meet people to share your faith with). Pray for them. Pray for them every day. Find some people in your church or among your Christian friends to keep you accountable and start to witness! You will be surprised at what God will begin to do.

Sounds too simple? We often make evangelism much more difficult and scary than it needs to be—we dwell on worst-case scenarios and hold onto rejection in our hearts. Think about evangelism like dating; you’re going to get rejected sometimes. Well how does one go about dating? Do some sit-ups, buy a couple new pieces of clothing, get a hair cut, hang out in a place where there are people, take up a new hobby, attend the singles fellowship at church? It isn’t all that different; it’s mostly about initiative.

Appendix: Herbivore Men and Theological Masturbation

Young Japanese men are becoming disinterest in sex (One third of Young Japanese men not interested in sex)—this is in spite (or possibly because) of having one of the largest pornography industries in the world. The name given to this developing trend is Herbivore Men (there is a similar trend among women called Dried Fish Women). These are men and women who can’t be bothered to reproduce.

While an interesting phenomenon in Japan, especially considering the declining birthrate—it is shocking if applied to the church. The truth is, that the church is filled with Herbivore Christians (aka CT Studd’s The Chocolate Soldier). The term Herbivore Men was coined by Maki Fukasawa who described them as men “not without romantic relationships, but has a non-assertive, indifferent attitude towards desire of flesh.” Simply put: commitment issues.

These men are not interested in getting married or starting families—they have delayed adulthood, preferring to live in permanent adolescence. They do not necessarily dislike women—but are unwilling, or incapable of being in a relationship with one. In the same way, many young men and women in the church today are disinterested in reproducing their faith—this is understandable because of the stigma attached to evangelism, but it needs to change!

There is one last trend that I would like to tie in to this appendix and that is what I am going to call theological masturbation (in keeping with the theme of sexuality). Last night I was talking about some guys and the topic of Apologetics came up—there is an interest in Apologetics within the Western Church right now in spite of the lack of zeal for evangelism and personal witness—and I fear that much of this is selfishly motivated.

Many of the people who are involved in Apologetics movements that I have met over the years don’t seem to know any non-believers besides anonymous names on internet message boards. For the most part they are disinterested in sharing their faith, but obsessed with proving their mental stamina and being right. I know, because at times I have been guilty of this. It is like Don Quixote tilting at windmills.

Losing the opportunity to share your faith in a winsome way is worse than losing the argument.  Instead of focusing on philosophical questions that almost no one really thinks all that deeply about (and which are usually a defense mechanism for hiding the real reasons that keep people from Jesus, namely disobedience or rebellion), think about what brought you to faith. Was it a really good argument for the existence of God, or was it encountering God? If your study of apologetics, theology or ministry is about you, and it isn’t about leading other people to faith in Jesus Christ, then it is theological masturbation. Start being fruitful.

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