Telling Stories

“Flasher evangelism.” That’s what Bowen calls those abrupt spiritual conversations with a stranger on the street that mark certain evangelistic methods. (See his book “Evangelism for Normal People.”) Relying on a Margaret Atwood short story, Bowen exposes the way others often perceive our attempts at evangelism as “disgusting,”  if not abusive because of our attempts to suddenly access a deep level of personal intimacy with someone we’ve never met.  Admittedly, I’ve gone there before.

I remember sitting on a tram in Budapest. I was 18 and was in Budapest on a 2-week mission trip, focused primarily on street evangelism and giving our testimonies in some schools. Despite seeing all sorts of signs that God had been opening opportunities for me to go on this trip (donations from unexpected sources, my passport coming in on the last possible day, etc), I sat frozen in this tram, completely uncertain of what God wanted me to say and completely nervous about talking to a complete stranger. One of the leaders noticed my hesitation. It was hard not to as I was quite literally sitting in the back corner several seats away from everyone else. He came over, sat next to me, and encouraged me to trust that if God had done so much to bring me to Budapest, certainly God would provide me with the words to say to some one sitting there. With my leader’s encouragement, I moved up a few seats and struck up a conversation about God’s love with someone I had never met before.
I don’t remember how that person responded. I do recall that our team passed out hundreds of tracts in those two weeks. I had the opportunity to share my testimony in front a school full of students at a special assembly and talk with people around tables, in hallways, and in the middle of the market. And during our time there, I prayed with lots of people – young and old – to receive Christ in some of the most unexpected places including fast food restaurants. I have no doubt that God worked powerfully through those encounters – that God took those moments and used them to shape his people in Budapest.  I also continue to look back on this mission trip as one of the most formative times in my own life. I came home persuaded that God was calling me toward mission and full time service in his church.
Yet, for a long time now, I have felt a certain uneasiness with the evangelistic methods we used there. They were not rooted in personal relationship and were largely disconnected from what other Christians were doing in the area. With the fall of the Berlin Wall being a fairly recent memory and Russian soldiers still lingering around Budapest, we were pretty convinced we were bringing God to those who had been deprived of any knowledge of God for the past 50 years of Communist rule. What we’ve learned  – are still learning – in mission conversations about cultural intelligence and the short-comings of short-term mission trips was a long way off at that time. We trained on how to give an elevator pitch, going from “Can I ask you a question?” to “God has a plan to save your life,” so that we could turn any conversation into a “spiritual” conversation at the drop of a hat. The fact that we had very little follow up in place for those who would pray to receive Christ has stuck with me. I’ve wondered, “we’re we there for them or for us?” What we measured was the number of tracts handed out and the number of conversations and prayers. I came home knowing the names of only a couple of the people I had spoken with. And though, as I mentioned above, I am convinced that God worked through this trip, I remain uneasy with the evangelistic approaches we used.
I’ve been recalling my time in Budapest a fair bit the last few days in part because of a story in the Gospel of Mark. It might well be the earliest account of Jesus commissioning a person to “go and tell” good news. (Mark 5:1-20) While its a powerful story of God giving freedom to a demon-possessed man, its the end of the story that is sticking with me. After being released from the Legion of demons that had possessed him, this newly healed man begs Jesus to let him come with him. But rather than welcome him into the company of disciples, Jesus instead sends him home: “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”
There are a whole lot of reasons why Jesus’ response here is remarkable. The man Jesus heals and sends is not Jewish, which is an anomaly that’s arguably not repeated again until after Pentecost. Jesus commands him to tell others instead of to tell no one, a command that is the exact opposite of several other instances when Jesus heals or casts out demons. The man had barely known Jesus for part of a day, and yet Jesus commissions him for mission outside of Israel. The disciples would walk with Jesus for three years, be called “you of little faith,” prompt Jesus to ask why they still don’t get it, and require proof of Jesus’ resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit before they are sent to make disciples of all nations and are sent to the ends of the earth. And here, we have a man, who after one encounter with Jesus is sent out to a city that would be in the “ends of the earth” description after Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria. And on top of it all, the man actually asks to follow Jesus but Jesus denies his request and sends him away! There is so much in this little story that just doesn’t line up the way we would expect it to.
As this story has been working its way into me, I’ve found myself wondering who I am in this story (admittedly, a slightly narcissistic post-modern tendency that I’ve picked up along the way). Our North American Christianity has trained us over the past 20 years to ask the “WWJD” question, so that we can model our ethics and our mission after Jesus. But the longer I engage this text, the more I am convinced that is the wrong approach here (and perhaps in many other texts, too; but that’s a different conversation).
If we attempt to engage mission based on Jesus in this passage, we would be tempted to think that mission is about dropping into a culture different than our own, providing a miraculous confrontation with a legion of demons, and then leaving, having saved one person. And while we might not advertise exorcism in our typical short-term mission applications, we do present mission as going somewhere exotic or foreign to us, often reassuring ourselves that our all our efforts and approaches are justifiable if we can save just one person while we are there. The perceived outcome becomes the rationale for not examining the assumptions we have regarding our approaches to mission and evangelism. And what better grounding to continue in our unexamined methodology than to say “This is how Jesus did mission with the demon-possessed guy.”
But if we enter this text from the perspective of the demon-possessed man, our approach to evangelism and mission changes. His mission was simply to tell his story of an encounter with Jesus. He was the one who needed a savior. He was the one on the receiving end of God’s work in Jesus Christ. And in the end, he was the one whom Jesus sent.
And its how Jesus sends him that is catching me. Jesus doesn’t set him up as an apprentice to one of the Twelve. He does not send him off to proclaim the good news in another land. He does not sit him down for a theological exam to make sure that his theology is correct and that he fully understands what God has done for him. He doesn’t even make sure the man knows what it will take to maintain well-developed spiritual disciplines in the midst of mission – all good things, mind you. Instead, Jesus commissions him in the most ordinary of ways: “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”
What if mission starts at home? What if we understood our mission as first and foremost about telling stories about what God has done for us? What if evangelism is not something we go elsewhere for, but simply part of the story-telling fabric of our normal, ordinary days? By looking at mission through the lens of this formerly demon-possessed man, we can see that evangelism is not all that complicated. At the heart, evangelism is story-telling: telling God’s story through our stories with people in our home cities and cultures.
I am thankful for my experience in Budapest. It has served as a deep-well for continuing to understand the abundance of God’s grace and God’s mission. And yet, I am cautious and more aware – as many of us are – of how our evangelistic approaches are often perceived by those around us. I’d rather not come across as an evangelistic flasher, abruptly entering a level of intimacy that’s inappropriate for the relationship and the context we’re in. To that end, mission in this passage is rather inviting: “Go home and tell them what God has done for you.”
It’s a simple starting place that’s open to anyone who has had an encounter with Jesus: What has God done for us? How has God had mercy on us? And if we can give an answer to those questions – even if we’ve only known Jesus for part of a day – then we, like the formerly demon-possessed man, have a story to tell – a story that needs to be told.
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