12 March, 2006

When Has Someone Heard The Gospel?

Maybe this is a silly question but it is one that I have been thinking about for the last few days. On Thursday before we met to discuss Patrick, Karl had me do a quick video interview with Cormac. The question he was asked: when did you first hear the gospel? Although he grew up Catholic, knowing and hearing much of Scripture and having godly parents, he said it wasn't until much later in his adult life that he really understood the gospel. He had the chance to ask some tough questions, get clarifications and then decided he wanted to live life like Christ through the power of the Spirit.

I had asked this same question about a month ago when I was reading Alleluia America!: An Irish Journalist in Bush Country by Calole Coleman about a month or so ago. Carole was the Washington correspondent for RTE from 2000 to 2004. She noted that after George W. Bush's re-election, pollsters declared the vote was swung by moral values and the Republican's courting of religious America. Carole decided to explore those groups and States that voted red in the last election and see for herself just who re-elected Bush. The book is an account of those interviews and experiences and is a good read.

At one point she interviews an Evangelical from a Baptist church in Monroe, Georgia. She had arranged to meet Stephen, the preacher's son on a Friday night when a gospel concert was going on at the church. They spoke for a bit about gospel music but then moved on to Stephen's testimony...
"When I was five years old I accepted Jesus Christ as my saviour and from that time everything pointed me in the direction to serve in a ministry," he told me. I didn't know children needed to be saved or born again, but here in Georgia it is not unusual.

"Yes. It happens at different ages for different people. You have to realise you are a sinner... God's word tells us that the penalty for sin is death, and death is hell, so there is no way out but through Jesus Christ. Some people see it at a young age, others never do. At five years old I heard this and I realised I didn't have a way to heaven except through Christ. So I accepted him as my saviour. That is, 'born again', saved - same thing."

The idea of being born again is not new. It dates back to the Bible itself. In John 3:3, Jesus mentions the idea to Nicodemus, who is startled and wonders if Jesus is asking him to get back into his mother's womb. But Jesus explains that he is talking about entering into a relationship with God, through faith. Virtually all Americans who say they are evangelical claim to have been saved. Millions who are not evangelical or part of the Christian right also claim to be "born again" or to have experienced a spiritual conversion. "Except a man be born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God." This one line from the Bible convinces evangelicals that no matter how much money a man gives to charity or what good work he does, if he doesn't accept Christ as his personal saviour, he has no hope of making it to the next life. President Bush claims to have been born again in his early forties"
I read this and the thought crossed my mind that here is a journalist who has essentially written down the four spiritual laws via Stephen's testimony and yet I'm not convinced has encountered the gospel. She is aware of who Jesus is, again growing up Catholic and being taught by nuns in school but for Carole, as she expresses in her book, her faith is something deeply personal and familial, perhaps even national but not necessarily based in her understanding of Scripture or in a relationship with Jesus Christ. And how could it be? I mean she heard the four spiritual laws straight up: But the message "God loves her - She is a sinner - God has paid the price for her sins - She must accept it personally" doesn't make much sense to anyone who can't relate to it. I know there are some who hear that presentation and it resonates with them, with how they have been experiencing the world, with how they perceive themselves, with how they perceive God but usually they have some experience in their lives that allows them to do so. Many do not. If they cannot relate to the gospel, how can they really understand it? How can it have any meaning in their lives?

Is it possible to hear, grasp, and encounter the gospel but still reject it? I mean could Carole by all means really get it and just not want anything to do with it? Yep. She could. But our aim in presenting the gospel (and I don't mean just by words but by actions too - the gospel is much bigger than the four spiritual laws) only occurs when it is done in a way that it can be understood. I think that the four spiritual laws method often falls on deaf ears, even ears that can reproduce the main points word for word back to you. When has someone heard the gospel? When they have experienced it. When it is not simply a bunch of nice ideas, or a good way to live, but when someone shows up at your door to help you clean your house when you're sick, or when someone sits and lets you just vent and doesn't try to give you advice, or when a friend shares about how God has shaped their life. This is the reason I believe relationships are so important in missions (and by missions I don't mean going any farther than next door). If we have no relationship with people, with a culture, then how can we present the gospel to them?

So here's to presenting the gospel of love in our community. May it be heard.

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