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Living the Tension in the Gospel
Parachute, Maxim, United Future, Journeys, Vision Network NZ, Shine television . . . . In recent years, homemade initiatives like these have given the gospel message in New Zealand a boost. And yet, the challenges keep flooding in. Take the 'dumb and dumber' lawmaking regarding both drinking ages and prostitution. Is the traditional family unit following the moa into extinction? What about the combined influence of September 11 and increasing levels of immigration which has seen dramatic increases in enrolments in World Religions classes in New Zealand?
How can our initiatives be even more effective in meeting the challenge to bring the gospel to New Zealand? Inspiration comes from some simple and familiar verses of Scripture. Verses that revolve around someone Jesus is and something Jesus says. Let's take a look.
Who Jesus is
After centuries of keeping his glory hidden, God chooses to reveal it. It is time for that cosmic drum-roll. His glory receives its explanation, according to John 1:14, in the person of Jesus - specifically described here as being "full of grace and truth". This is how the glory of God will be expressed. Furthermore, this phrase becomes a summary statement, a table of contents, for the entire gospel of John.
The Jesus who is "full of grace" is found here: with Nicodemus, with the woman at the well, and with the disabled beside Bethsaida. Later, in the Upper Room, he washes the feet of the disciples. There is a "let not your heart be troubled" here and a prayer for unity over there.
Then, on the cross, we see the tenderness with which he addresses his mum. Later his first post-resurrection word is a quiet and gentle one — "Mary" — and he takes time to settle the fear of the disciples and the doubt of Thomas. Everywhere and with everyone, Jesus overflows with the grace with which he is full. Jesus is soft and spacious, motivated by compassion. It is glorious.
The Jesus who is "full of truth" fills this gospel as well. He asserts that he is "the way, the truth, and the life". The statement "I tell you the truth" is more frequent than the chapter divisions. That same woman at the well is told to "worship in spirit and in truth". Those same disciples are left in no doubt: "If you hold to my teaching . . . you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."
What about the Spirit? He is the Spirit of truth who will "guide you into all truth". What about the devil? He is a murderer, "not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him." And let's not forget that Pilate's enduring question — "what is truth?" — is prompted by Jesus saying, "I came into this world to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me."
Everywhere and with everyone, Jesus overflows with the truth with which he is full. Jesus can seem hard and restrictive, motivated as he is by conviction. But this, too, is glorious.
Stand back from this for a moment. Doesn't contradiction circle above these twin realities? Is there not some tension between the softer 'full of grace' Jesus and the harder 'full of truth' Jesus? Yes, there is.
We find this tension incarnated in the lives of Christians today. Because it is hard to live with such tension, we tend to opt for one or the other. Some more easily elevate grace, muttering and shuffling their way through the truth-stuff, embarrassed and uncertain — wishing it would all just go away. Others among us elevate truth, mostly from perches on rooftops and at street-corners, unable to get ourselves afflicted with grace at all.
And yet, it is this very tension that provides the structure for this gospel through which is pulsing a missional purpose: "these things are written that you might believe".2 It is a tension we need to keep alive.
What Jesus says
Alongside the scene-setting beatitudes, Jesus places his most basic teaching on mission: "You are the salt of the earth . . . you are the light of the world."3 What did he mean? What images surfaced in the minds of his first listeners? Does a 21st century exegesis based around salt 'n vinegar chips and spotlights on the stage really mark the way ahead?
Maybe the interpretive key resides in the fact that Jesus was speaking before the arrival of electricity. In a world without electricity, salt is mixed into the fish and the meat to prevent them from going rotten. It is a preservative. After all, there are no refrigerators!
So, what is Jesus saying to his followers? "Mix in and be involved — at every level and in every possible way. If you do not, the world around you has characteristics that will see it begin to decay. And I want you to be part of its redemption, not its rotting. Be that salt."
Also, in a world without electricity light is prized. There is no switch to flip. There is no residual urban glow to lighten the blackness of a clouded night sky. And in such a world, even the flickering flame of a feeble candle is valued. Because light is so fundamentally different from darkness, even such a flame can banish the darkness with all its tripping and bruising troubles.
So, what is Jesus saying to his followers? "Be distinctive — as much as light is distinctive from darkness. Be different. Be that fragile flicker which climbs onto that lampstand and is prepared to let itself shine. If you do not, the world around you has characteristics that will keep it a dark place. Be that light."
But, again, doesn't contradiction circle above these twin realities? Is there not some tension between a salty 'being involved' and an enlightening 'being different'?
Yes there is, and again we find the tension incarnated in the lives of Christians today. Some more easily elevate being salt: "Hey, God loves this world". And so, motivated by compassion and justice, they throw themselves into it. Others elevate being light: "Hey, this world rejects God and is at war with him". And so, motivated by holiness and purity, they are more guarded as they keep themselves separate.
Plotting the tension
This rediscovery of who Jesus is and what Jesus says uncovers a pair of colliding truths. Once in a world of such collision, it is helpful to image the truths as a graph4 with a vertical and a horizontal axis. Each axis measures from 'empty' to 'full', or 'low' to 'high'.
In the grace/truth graph (Figure 1) these axes become measurements of compassion and conviction, whereas in the salt/light graph (Figure 2) they are measurements of involvement and distinctiveness. Furthermore, areas on the graph can then be specified by adding a couple of further lines with the subsequent creation of four quadrants — identified as Q1, Q2, Q3 and Q4.
In Figure 1 (grace/truth), Q1 describes people who are relatively empty of both grace and truth, mixing little conviction with little compassion. This is the nominal nonsense that can so afflict the church's mission.
In Q2 we find people and strategies which are compassionate, but which can lack conviction. Q3 reverses this, while in the top right hand corner of Q4, for the sake of this argument, Jesus can be located as one who is 'full of grace and full of truth'.
As a way of illustrating how Figure 1 might operate, consider two TIME magazine cover stories from June 2003. On June 16 we had "Where Did God Go?" — providing the reader with a twenty-first century reframing of the apologist's concern for the reality and existence of God. God seems to be disappearing — but so also is apologetics.
It has fallen on hard times. Why? Is it not because it has a reputation as a solely Q3 activity: full of truth, but empty of grace? Apologetics only has a future if it can reinvent itself, migrating into Q4 by grasping Q2.
Then, on June 30, the cover screamed it out: "Should Christians Convert Muslims?" This raises the pluralist dilemma that all Christians right around the world are facing — be they in the 10/40 window, or looking out a Mt Roskill window. It could be argued that the article then describes both Q3 responses (for example, the Jesus video) and Q2 ones (eg the Mennonite 'keeping the faith without preaching it' approach). And yet it is in the strengths of both quadrants — as Q4 is understood — where the missional strategy in a pluralist world must lie.
ith Figure 2 (salt/light) the quadrants are similar.
Q1 is more nominal nonsense marked by little involvement in the world and little distinctiveness from it. Q2 describes those deeply involved but not so very distinctive, whereas in Q3 those realities switch places. Again, for the sake of this argument, Q4 identifies what Jesus had in mind in the Sermon on the Mount.
As a way of illustrating Figure 2 we stick closer to home. While in intermediate school my son attends a birthday party. All his mates are there, but no other Christians. As the afternoon drags on, someone has the idea of a video. What about The Spy Who Shagged Me?
My son faces a dilemma. He knows this to be inappropriate. Should he go home and preserve that distinctive Q3 life? Should he occupy Q2 by staying with his mates and watching the movie? He chooses: "Nah — forget the movie, why don't we go outside and play some soccer? We have enough for two teams." An embryonic Q4 response: involved, but distinctive.
Alternatively, take my friend Carl. The rugby game is over. He is gathering with his mates for the 'after match' back at the clubrooms. They are perched on stools around a circular table. All eyes are drawn to the drinks in the centre: brown . . . brown . . . brown . . . brown . . . pink".
Yes, his raspberry sits alongside their DBs. The inevitable question emerges: "how come you aren't drinking, bro?" Q3 has him go home after the shower. Q2 has him staring only at the colour brown. But the point of his story is this: visual contrast demands explanation. Choosing a raspberry at the 'after match' enabled an authentic Q4 opportunity: involved, but distinctive.
I cannot count the times I've drawn these graphs on a napkin, or an envelope, or a sticky post-it. The conversations that they spark are endless. However, within the constraints of this article, two implications will suffice.
The first has to do with identity: how we view ourselves as followers of Jesus. It is hard to live with the tension of Q4. It is far easier to hang out close to the vertical, or the horizontal, and be clearly Q2 or Q3.
Individual Christians, local churches and even entire denominations opt for this identity. It is possible to be a committed follower of Jesus in Q2 or Q3 and forget that Q4 is the destination.
Forgive me if I use myself as the individual example. Each of my grandparents was impacted by Joseph Kemp's Baptist Tabernacle ministry. This was in the same decade that my future in-laws were training alongside Billy and Ruth Graham and Jim and Elizabeth Elliot.
With this as my heritage, I find that Q3 comes so easily and naturally — my inner default setting is all about being 'the light' and holding fast to the truth. Frankly, Q2 can be hard work, which (to my shame) can mean it is overlooked. For me to become all that Jesus wants me to be I need 'Q2 people' to inspire me, drawing me into Q4 — without the loss of the Q3 which I already have.
Alternatively, take our denominations. Whereas the 'mainline' churches cluster in Q2, the Brethren and the Pentecostals tend to be in Q3. These are equally valid places in which to live and worship, but neither of them provide us with the destination. Q4 remains the goal.
Mission in New Zealand struggles because Q4 is so sparsely populated. But what a space to occupy! Can you imagine being part of a people-movement celebrated for its kindness and headlined for its gracious way with others — then, at the same time, being under deep conviction and prepared to draw lines in the sand — knowing full well that others will find gospel-truth to be foolishness and cross-truth to be an offence? That is Q4 in Figure 1.
Can you imagine this same people involved in every pocket of society, having the compassion which so powered Jesus, being the servant which so identified Jesus — then, at the same time, being so intriguingly distinctive that others are drawn to the Jesus living among them like moths to the light? That is Q4 in Figure 2.
Here is the irony: does this not identify what being an 'evangelical' is all about? It is a tragedy that in New Zealand evangelicalism still gets pilloried as fundamentalism — an ugly horizontal-gravitating or vertical-hugging extremist life, as far from Q4 as it is possible to be. Something from which evangelicals separated a full five decades ago. Don't blame the media. We have no one to blame but ourselves.
he second implication has to do with strategy: how we conduct this mission in New Zealand. Here two familiar words surface.
The first is 'relevance'. Aren't we a little besotted with the pursuit of relevance today? This word bestrides our mission as much as 'economic' bestrides government policy. And yet, 'relevance' as it is commonly understood rarely escapes Q2.
Be it models of church, or approaches to leadership style, or attitudes to music, the point of reference for relevance is always something happening in society that we must duplicate or in which we must participate. We are trying to be saved by good sociology, adrift from good theology. This is shallow and shortsighted. Unless it is a relevance that moves into Q4, it may be successful for a time — but it will only be 'for a time'.
For those infatuated with relevance, Q4 can only be reached by embracing Q3 realities: living a distinctive life which sparks some intrigue, arouses some curiosity, and displays the attraction of difference.5
Another word that needs re-examination is the word 'Christian'. What does it signify when it is used to create phrases like 'Christian schools', 'Christian political parties', or 'Christian media'? Just as in the pursuit of relevance we can mistakenly think Q2 to be Q4, so also the advocacy of 'Christian' in this way can mistake Q3 for Q4.
This adjective 'Christian' is too easily accompanied by a withdrawal, rather than an engagement. This is the challenge facing the strategies of local churches. And it is the challenge that faces Christian organisations like those mentioned at the beginning of this article.
In the past two years I have heard some of their leaders articulate their visions. You know what? Each time their Q4 heart has stirred me. It is there. They need our encouragement more than our criticism. And yet, they would concur that an authentic movement from Q3 into Q4 is a strategic challenge they all face.
Where to from here?
Here are two practical ideas with which to finish. Both draw their inspiration from the financial world.
Periodically, why don't we conduct a missional audit of all that we do? Be it parachurch group, or mission society, or local church, or denomination, or individual . . . why not sit down with Figure 1 and Figure 2 and plot on to them everything we do? And then go on to ask hard questions. "That Childcare centre is Q2-effective, but how can we add the Q3-touch so that it achieves its Q4-potential?" "That Saturday night youth event is crumbling down to Q1. How can we inject massive doses of Q2 and Q3 in order to see it find a niche in Q4?" "How should I behave at the school ball next week?"
Take the hottest issue of all — Christian music. In what quadrants would you plot Hillsongs, U2, Creed, Charles Wesley, the Lads, Parachute Band, and dc Talk? And what does that say about their potential for Q4 mission?
What about disciplinary procedures and conflict-management processes and ethical issues? Do we default back to Q3 or Q2, rather than finding the balance of Q4? The need of the hour is both the vision to resource Q4 and the wisdom to know how to shift Q2 and Q3 into Q4.
hen, we need to make an investment. Our youth and young adults need help. A recent forum on mission at Carey had their advocates pleading with us to be spiritual mothers and fathers. The hardest place to be a follower of Jesus is in our secondary and tertiary worlds. It is a bombardment. Sex, alcohol, drugs, music, movies, TV, chat, surfing, txt trashing, relationships, foul language . . . so many choices and so many decisions to make. How are they meant to cope?
We need to mentor them with Figures 1 and 2. We need to surrogate-parent them, asking them what Q1, Q2, Q3, and Q4 responses might look like with every tough choice they confront. In so doing we lay a foundation — first in their own lives, and then in the missional life of the people of God through this next generation.
Yes, this gospel vision from John 1 and Matthew 5 is foundational. It is elemental stuff. It is the hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon that make organic mission combinations.
Let's recognise that where we are ineffective in mission it might be because the colliding truths inherent in the person and teaching of Jesus are not yet fully present in our understanding and experience.