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Through Lattice Windows: Good News, Bad News

"It never fails to disturb me when Christians start talking about evangelism. The word "evangelism" means "the act of spreading good news", and yet it is so often an exercise in spreading bad news,'' writes Leanne Hunt in this thoughtful column.

It never fails to disturb me when Christians start talking about evangelism. The word "evangelism" means "the act of spreading good news", and yet it is so often an exercise in spreading bad news.

Turn to Jesus or you will burn in hell. Accept the gift that God is giving you or accept torment for ever and ever. Put up your hand to receive Jesus as your personal Saviour or miss the chance and run the risk of dying before you get another one.

From my present vantage point, I can see that all these statements constitute bad news, but in years gone by, I was not so sure. If my leaders told me they were good news, then they were good news. Never question your leaders.

I recall, for example, a meeting at university when about six of us sat in a holy huddle and strategised about how we were going to manoeuvre conversations towards a discussion about death. We talked about illness and accidents, and how we would plant certain doubts in the mind of the person so as to make him question what he believed to be true. When the person asked what we thought, being completely ignorant of our underhand motives, we would say with heartfelt conviction, "There is no other way to secure salvation. You have to accept Jesus or you will not enter the narrow gate." Beyond that, we would address whatever other questions would arise, but at least we had presented our "good news" message in clear terms.

On another occasion, at a home cell meeting comprising about 20 individuals, we planned a kind of undercover crusade focused on prayer. The idea was that we each picked a soul target to focus our spiritual energy on and share with the group in the weeks following how things were progressing. The first week, which was devoted to thinking up a likely victim was relatively easy because it fed into our sense of spiritual superiority; I have a relationship with Jesus but he doesn't, therefore I will pray for his rotten soul to be saved. Forgive the sarcasm, but it was really that bad. Identifying losers was fun. It was reporting on progress that was hard because we soon discovered that our targets were happy with their lives and didn't think they needed changing. So much for rescuing the lost and restoring them to happiness.

Later still, there was a new approach; run a course about the life and ministry of Jesus and invite non-believers to join. Here, people came because there was free food and an interesting discussion. Sometimes the group wasn't even led by a Christian; it simply ran under its own steam according to a package of books and videos, with opportunity to discuss key issues afterwards. This method proved pretty successful in demonstrating the value of community, the essence of what church is about. However, if the subject of avoiding punishment by God came up, there was often opposition. People didn't believe in a punishing God. They believed in emotional hell.

And why not? In the days when the Bible was written, psychology wasn't around. There was no vocabulary for talking about stress or dysfunction or cognitive dissonance. Hell was fire and brimstone because these were images of horror that spoke to the people of Abraham and David's time. But what if, for example, the story of Sodom being engulfed by fire is really an allegory? It depicts well the violent breakdown of a dysfunctional society. The two strangers might stand for the chief witnesses of that breakdown - indeed, they may represent the soul and spirit of Abraham as he interceded for Sodom to be saved. The story of Lot's family fleeing after the men of the city had been struck with blindness is then a representation of an attempt to put immoral practices behind them. The story of Lot's wife turning around and being transformed into a pillar of salt, for its part, becomes a metaphor for the paralysing effects of ambivalence; wanting to be free from the past on the one hand and harbouring regret on the other. The contents of the story speak volumes to us over the expanse of centuries. When deciding that enough is enough, one needs both redemption and resilience, so as not to end up in worse bondage than before.

Back to the two witnesses who went into the city of Sodom while Abraham was interceding for it. We may recall that Jesus mandated his disciples to "be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the uttermost ends of the earth." We use the scripture to support the ministry of evangelism, but what kind of mandate is it, exactly? Not simply a command to relate the story of Christ. Nor an order to save souls. Nor a directive to run outreach programmes in disadvantaged communities. It is much more than that. It is a call to contemplate situations that seem strained, to reach out with love and power, to pray for the resolution of problems, to notice dysfunction in that resolution, and to somehow help the victims see an escape route where others see only barriers. Put plainly, it is a mandate to extend oneself into hopeless situations and bring freedom for those who truly want to escape.

Christ is ever our example for witnessing. He witnessed pain where others saw only the mask of respectability. He died on the cross to demonstrate his commitment to sharing in the suffering of the oppressed. By rising again and confronting his disciples in their fellowship, he proved that witnessing a crime did not equate to involvement in that crime. A person could rescue souls from traumatic situations and still escape intact, able to forgive and forget the terrible scenes they had observed.

This is good news, but on a completely different level to the good news of redemption. The sinner seeking redemption needs to know that someone cares enough to notice and take action. The redeemer needs to know that there is life beyond entering a dysfunctional situation. Neither have to do with punishment or hell as such. The one has to do with freedom from oppression while the other has to do with surviving a confrontation with evil. Thus, the need to pick on soul targets and strategise ways of manipulating conversation towards the subject of their imminent end is unnecessary.


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