Words are not enough

‘Seeing you on that horse makes me feel hungry.’

My wife was embarrassed and told me off, and the friend we were out walking with feigned shock, but fortunately the woman I’d addressed my comment to just burst out laughing.

It was mid-February (at the height of the horsemeat scandal that was saturating the media). If we’d passed the same equestrian party in the same park and I’d said the same thing only a month earlier, it would have made no sense. There would have been no shock, no embarrassment and no laughter ? just blank faces and a puzzled silence.

It’s for the same reason that we sometimes have limited success telling people about Jesus. We’re trying to do evangelism in a post-Christian culture in which people have no framework in which to comprehend what we are seeking to communicate.

‘Many of us struggle to communicate our faith to our friends,’ writes Gerard Kelly on the Spring Harvest website, in relation to this year’s Spring Harvest theme The Source: Encountering Jesus Today (springharvest.org). ‘We often find ourselves stuck for words when people ask questions about what our faith means to us…“The Gospel” finds its source in Jesus himself. It is in who Jesus was, in the words he uses to declare the Kingdom and the actions by which he proclaims it that the Good News can be found.’

It would be great if more people in our society were asking 'who is Jesus?', but they are not

How not to communicate your faith

My friend J John says, ‘When it comes to evangelism, most Christians are like arctic rivers ? frozen at the mouth!’ I have more than 100 books on evangelism. Not all of them are helpful. But there is one that I have quoted to successive generations of students. In a chapter entitled ‘Everyday Opportunities to share Christ’, it lists a few suggestions for helping people communicate their faith:

1. When on a plane journey, and someone asks you ‘What’s your destination?’ The answer, ‘Heaven’ will provide a good opening.

2. Get the city phonebook, and, starting at A, phone everyone with the message, ‘God has burdened me to phone you, what is your relationship with Jesus?’

3. Always keep a pile of tracts by your front door, ready for any visitors who might call.

4. Put an evangelistic message on your answer phone.

5. Other exciting places to share Christ: petrol stations, public toilets.

These examples (not surprisingly) often have the effect of disempowering Christians to communicate their faith. One reason for this is they are presupposing a Christian worldview ? that people will have a framework for concepts such as ‘heaven’ or ‘relationship with Jesus’, so that these ideas will be readily comprehended.

Another reason is that this form of evangelism is seeking to export something that people do not want, or at the very least, feel they do not need.

Answering questions no one is asking

Jesus stands in the middle of Mark’s Gospel and asks: ‘Who do people say I am?’ (Mark 8:27). He stands in the middle of time and asks the same question to all people in all eras. It’s a good question. The problem is that not many people in our era are asking it.

It would be great if more people in our society were asking ‘Who is Jesus?’, but they are not. People are asking questions. Good questions ? just different ones.

When George Harrison died in 2001, I remember a clip being played over and over again of an interview he gave in 1992, in which he said: ‘The purpose of life is to find out who am I, why am I here, and where am I going? That’s what we all need answering.’

Harrison was stating that for him the enigma of life led him not to ask questions about Jesus, God and salvation, but about identity, purpose and destiny. People generally aren’t asking a theological question (‘Who is Jesus?’) but a philosophical one (‘Who am I?’). 

Knowing you, knowing me

So is Jesus’ question ? the most important question of all ? redundant for our age?

We need to ask why Jesus is asking it. If I said to my students, ‘Who do the people of Watford say I am?’ they might think it a little odd. They could be forgiven for thinking I was exhibiting telltale signs of issues of ego and insecurity. But Jesus is no insecure egomaniac. He issues the question for a very important reason.

He asks it because he knows that the key to finding out who we are is in finding out who he is. It turns out that the question ‘Who is Jesus?’ is very relevant. Not the question most people are asking, but the key to answering the question most people are asking. So, many of us are on the right lines, but starting the conversation in the wrong place.

Back to the source

If we are to be effective in communicating our faith in today’s increasingly secular world, then we need to get back to the source, and encounter the Jesus of the Gospels afresh.

It turns out that Jesus knew lots of useful stuff. John 13:3 states:

‘Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God’. In a rare insight into the inner psychology of Jesus, we are informed that Jesus knew three things. These three things Jesus knew liberated him in his own relationship with the Father and were the key to him fulfilling his own mission to be, say and do the gospel.

Firstly, we are told that Jesus knew ‘that the Father had put all things under his power’ ? he knew his spiritual authority. This enabled Jesus to be the gospel.

It was said of him ‘he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law’ (Matthew 7:29).

Authentic authority doesn’t need to declare or justify itself. I was at Oxford when former US President Bill Clinton flew in by helicopter to collect an honourary doctorate that the university was conferring on him. As I watched the President’s entourage make its way to the Sheldonian Theatre, I remember thinking how lacking he was in the traditional vestiges of pomp and power, and yet how he exuded authority. Spiritual authority is something Jesus had by virtue of his position, and it is something we have because we are in Christ. It is not something we need to acquire. Many Christians are trying to raise the mortgage for a house they already own!

Secondly, we are told that Jesus knew ‘that he had come from God’ ? he knew his identity. This enabled Jesus to say the gospel.

Why does knowing our identity in Christ precede speaking to others of Christ? Because the most effective evangelism is a by-product of something else ? of knowing we are God’s dearly loved children. We are sons before we are servants. And it is only when we are walking in the experienced reality of the love of God that we will be able to truly extend it to others.

Henri Nouwen stated, ‘Jesus came to announce to us that an identity based on success, popularity and power is a false identity ? an illusion! Loudly and clearly he says: “You are not what the world makes you; but you are children of God.”’

Thirdly, we are told he knew that he ‘was returning to God’ ? he knew his destiny.

This enabled Jesus to do the gospel. I remember a teacher at school who used to say, ‘Some Christians are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.’ But I’ve never met such a person in my 33 years of being a Christian.

The reason why I’ll never meet a Christian who is so heavenly minded they are no earthly good is that truly heavenly minded people do the most good. Those who have drunk deeply of the truth that they are citizens of heaven and are mindful of their eternal destiny are far more likely to do the gospel.

As Paul exhorted his fellow believers: ‘If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth’ (Colossians 3:1-2, ESV).

My belief is that what was true for Jesus is true for us. We need to know our spiritual authority, identity and destiny if we are to fulfil our calling.

Power for Christ-like service

The context of this amazing statement (John 13:3) is that Jesus is about to perform one of the most ignored and misunderstood acts of all time; a prophetic and countercultural act of mammoth significance which embodies the very essence of what Christian leadership is all about. He is about to wash his disciples’ feet. It is an enacted parable in which Jesus is, says and does good news. ‘You call me “Teacher” and “Lord”, and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet’ (John 13:13-14). What is unique about this is that Jesus refers to himself as ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’ to the disciples.

We are used to the ‘messianic secret’ of the synoptic Gospels, where Jesus seems almost self-effacing about his true identity, wanting the disciples to piece it together using the messianic job description given them in the prophetic scriptures. Yet here he declares with boldness that he is indeed Teacher and Lord. Is it more than a coincidence that the one place this bold assertion occurs is when he has been on his knees with a towel wrapped around his waist? It is in this context he declares himself Lord ? being a servant to his apprentices, the Creator of the cosmos kneeling in humility, and washing the dirt and grime from the feet of those he created.

Jesus gives us an amazing example of how we can be, say and do the gospel. May we, following his lead, know our spiritual authority, identity and destiny that we may point others to the liberating truth that to find themselves they must first be found by him.

Questioning Faith

It might have sold a million bracelets, but is What Would Jesus Do the right question?

Gerard Gempf

Gerard Gempf

Look. Jesus trained up disciples; Jesus called Paul. They were some of the first and greatest witnesses for him. Did they do what Jesus did? Uh…no.

Jesus avoided calling himself Messiah; they pretty much made it his last name. Jesus taught by telling parables; they never seem to have. Jesus went to villages ? avoided the cities; they went to cities. Jesus did his stuff within Israel; they went to all the nations. They didn’t try to be like Jesus. They didn’t each gather 12 disciples. They didn’t set their faces to Jerusalem for a showdown and a cross.

They didn’t do what he did. They did what they did. Maybe you should do what you do.

Except this: there is one way that they were like Jesus. And when they wrote things like ‘imitate me, just as I imitate Jesus’ (1 Corinthians 11) there was one thing that they had in mind: Other. They did things because they belonged to God, and they did things for other people.

We’re all called to do that ? called to imitate and live out his motivations more than his actions. But we stay ourselves. Or rather, by being conformed to him we become ourselves ? each distinct from him and from each other, despite a certain family resemblance. Through the Spirit, we get to look more and more like him.

What would Jesus do? Never mind. There never was a time when it was right for Jesus to play the saxophone. There might be a time when that is just the perfect thing for you to do. Make it sing! But sometimes do it off the stage. Do it out of sight. Just the music. Just the accompaniment. See? Accompaniment. Other. Oooo. You looked a bit like Jesus just then. Cool.

Conrad Gempf is a lecturer in New Testament at the London School of Theology. His new book How to Like Paul Again (Authentic) will be out in May

Jim Cymbala

Jim Cymbala

WWJD is good and bad to me. It’s good in the sense that it reminds us that we’re Christians and it gets us to ask, ‘What would Jesus do in this situation?’ because we’re to be imitators of God ? you know, ‘love one another even as I have loved you’. So it’s a good thought.

Where it can become very problematic is it can lead to legalism, or a self-effort religion, like the imitation of Christ can do ? the great St Thomas Kempis classic. Which is, ‘Ok, I read in the Bible. What would Jesus do? I’m going to try my hardest to do that today’ ? which is not Christianity at all. Christianity has nothing to do with me trying to be like Jesus. It has to do with yielding to the Holy Spirit who lives within me, walking in the Spirit, being controlled with the ‘first springs’ (as someone has said) of thought and desire; that he would affect my first springs and first desires and thoughts, so that I would be what Jesus wants me to be but it won’t be me ? ‘not I, but Christ who lives in me’

So it’s a good thing, but then I’ve seen people get totally hamstrung by it, because every day they’re saying: ‘What would Jesus do? I’ve got to try harder; oh, I messed up again; I’ve got to try harder; I’ve got to read more of the word to do what Jesus did.’ That can get into a really frustrating religion and not the freedom of the Spirit.

Jim Cymbala is senior pastor of The Brooklyn Tabernacle church

Debra Green

Debra Green

I think it is a good principle. I know people who wear the bracelet and it’s something we need to think about. The Bible talks about us being more Christ-like and that’s a process that happens as we grow in Christ and seek to follow him. However, we sometimes think about it in quite a simplistic way, and we have to look at the massive cultural differences between the time Jesus walked the earth and today.

If people were seeking to answer the question in terms of what did Jesus do in the time he was on earth and trying to relate that to what should be done today, I think there would be some discrepancies in following that approach.

It’s a different culture and we need to think in terms of how we can apply the gospel today, and that would look different. Provided we can do that ? make that jump and apply some of the principles in a 21st century context ? I think it is a relevant question.

Debra Green is founder and executive director of Redeeming Our Communities

George Carey 

George Carey

I think that asking ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ is an excellent way of getting guidance in life, and I’ve often asked it myself.

If you are faced with a predicament and it’s not clear ? because there are many moments in life when the morality of the thing could take you in more than one direction ? if you actually then ask ‘What Would Jesus Do in this situation?’ I think you begin to get a very clear answer from him.

It could be in terms of relationships or a job, or whatever it is; to actually position yourself by saying, ‘Lord, where do I go with this particular job?’ then there will come, if not a clear view, a kind of steer. I’ve been there and I’ve known that is a very helpful question indeed. It seems to me that these days we do need some clarity.

I’ll just put one proviso ? when you look at the Gospels, Jesus didn’t always give clear answers himself because he wanted people to make up their own minds, and therefore he told parables, he told stories to guide them. But I think the way he told the stories indicate the clarity of his thinking and his mind.

Lord George Carey is former Archbishop of Canterbury

Tom Wright

Tom Wright

It really depends whether the glass is half full or half empty. I remember being in a meeting once where some Christians were grumbling that their children were wearing these What Would Jesus Do? bracelets and saying, ‘Really, that’s such a shallow view of Jesus.’ And I said, ‘I should be so grateful if my teenagers would even think of asking the question “What Would Jesus Do?” at any point.’

Of course, Jesus didn’t come just to tell us what to do. Jesus was much, much more than a great moral teacher. He came to do something which changed everything, which rescued the world and us with it ? and as a result of that, of course we should follow his teaching. Jesus is a good place to start.

Paul says ‘imitate me like I imitate Christ’, and if that was good enough for Paul, then I think we should be prepared to use that. Of course, Paul knew that there were plenty of specific things that Jesus did that were unique to that situation ? his overturning of the tables of the moneychangers, for instance.

In that same conversation, one person said that she had told her daughter to clean up her room, and said, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ and her daughter had replied ‘Oh, he would zap it clean.’ That’s the kind of trivialisation which one gets into.

There’s another story which really illustrates the good use of this: A Jewish professor in Jerusalem had a student who went to study in Germany with another professor who didn’t like this Jewish professor’s ideas at all. The German professor gave the student a very low mark, even failed him in the course because he just couldn’t stand those ideas. Sometime later, the German professor sent a student of his to study with the Jewish professor. On the course, even though the student hadn’t done very well, the professor said to the teaching assistant, ‘Give him an A ? this I have learned from Jesus.’

I thought that was a hugely profound thing ? ‘This I have learned from Jesus.’ In other words, ‘We’re not going to take revenge. We’re actually going to do something utterly positive and extraordinary, and filled with grace and hope.’ And it seems to me that there are lots of things like that where we would do well to look at Jesus and learn from him.

Tom Wright is a leading New Testament scholar and former Bishop of Durham

Doug Williams

Doug Williams

You’ve got to have a handle on how to respond to certain situations in life, and I think having the model of Jesus is fantastic for Christians to think ‘I want to be Christ-like in how I handle situations’. How would he do it? What would his sentiment and heart be? What would his practical actions be in a particular situation?

My dilemma is that finding out what Jesus would do has to be based on a secure biblical hermeneutic. When I’m looking back into the scriptures, how secure am I that Jesus would do these things? I don’t know if everybody has done their homework, because when you go back and find the historical Jesus, we are constantly surprised at what we thought he said and what we thought he did. That’s the challenge ? helping people have a clear understanding of the background, the history, the context of the day.

We need to go back to the text to find out the principles. There we find a Jesus who cared for the poor, for the disabled, his generosity, his sharing, happy to throw a meal for four or 5,000 people, his concern for the lonely, for a widow whose only son is dead and is on her own. Those kinds of things are the principles.

Another projection might be to look at concerns that Jesus is going to come back. But what are the priority issues? When he comes back, he’s going to be looking for people who did what he said about ‘when I was in prison, when I was sick, when I was hungry’. Here’s an idea. Most churches could put those as headings on a whiteboard and then attach some sticky notes for all the activities that take place in their church. Then let’s see how much of what we do fits into the columns of the things that Jesus is coming back to assess. That way we’ll know what priorities we put on stuff compared to the priorities he puts on things. That’s the kind of thing where you can look into what Jesus would do because you’ve got the principle of where his priorities fit. 

Doug Williams is pastor of Emmanuel Christian Centre in Walthamstow, London