Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: evangelism

Intriguing book titles

These are two of my recent reads, with titles that seem to need a little explanation. Randy Newman’s book, Questioning Evangelism, is not about questioning the value of evangelism, which might be your first impression. Rather, he is advocating asking questions as a means of evangelism.

Forty-five years ago, Tom Skinner published a book entitled If Christ is the Answer, What are the Questions?  His theme was that we are not helping anyone find salvation if we prattle on with ready-made answers but don’t know what are the pressing questions of the person to whom we are speaking. Randy Newman takes us down that same road, with suggestions of how to deal with some of the pressing questions of our day.

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Yes, Nazis had a conscience. Adolf Hitler was a powerful evangelist for his cause and inspired the masses of the German Volk to believe in his promise of renewed purpose, purity and hope. He proposed himself as the role model of revived German manhood. And yes, he had a hidden agenda. For many years he said very little about his belief that the Jews were the main obstacle to the promised renewal of the German Volk, only dropping hints here and there to reassure those who believed as he did that he was still heading in the right direction.

By the time he got around to putting his final solution into action, he had the German people solidly behind him. When he spoke to a crowd, often for an hour or more, he was very adept at reading their mood and leading them to believe that he alone could bring the renewal for which they longed. In the end, the majority had fully bought into the belief that the only right thing to do was to eliminate those people whom Hitler told them were the obstacle to realizing their dream.

The Nazi Conscience is a chilling book; Claudia Koonz has thoroughly researched the Nazi era and brings to life evidence of how the well-educated German Volk reacted to a charismatic leader who offered them hope.

Why am I juxtaposing these two books, so different in their message? For one thing, I’m not so sure that they are so different. Both books lead me to question the trustworthiness of charismatic leaders who work on people’s emotions. Both books are implicit warnings about having a hidden agenda.

If we are going to share the gospel we need to get to know the people around us, understand their deep questions and longings. We should make sure we understand them before we leap in with an answer. A few thoughtful and considerate questions might help us to understand and lead them to look at things a little differently. That will often be the most appropriate starting point for us.

We should not be looking for the approval of people who think like we do, rather we should try to introduce a new thought to someone who has never looked at things quite that way before. To do that, we need to speak plain English. Slogans and religious jargon that are readily understood by people within our circle are meaningless to those outside that circle.  

A popular saying in our day says : “be the change you want to see in the world.” That’s good advice, as long as we don’t think that we have attained to a higher level of understanding and need to help others to climb up to our level.

Another danger is to think that other people’s sins are worse than ours. We can’t help them if we only want to talk about how horrible their sins are and never admit, seem quite oblivious to, our own sins. Our task is to point people to the Creator and the Saviour, not to ourselves.

Sometimes we hear it said that the people around us are not interested in the gospel. Could the real problem be that we are not interested in the people around us? Randy Newman ends his book on a hopeful note:

I believe that the soil in which we now plant gospel seeds is better fertilized. Plausibility structures are being rebuilt. Assumptions are more favourably disposed in our direction. And the notion that faith is  relevant to all of life is no longer considered nonsense. The opportunities for evangelistic fruit might be about to increase dramatically.

Questioning Evangelism, Engaging People’s Hearts the Way Jesus Did, © 2014, 2017 by Randy Newman. Published by Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids MI, The quote above is from page 259.

The Nazi Conscience, © 2003 by Claudia Koontz. Published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA

The brief career of a fervent preacher

Levi Young was born in Eastern Pennsylvania in 1841. The date of his conversion is not known, but he became a member of a small Mennonite denomination at the age of 21. Not long after, he became an itinerant minister and evangelist in that group. He never married.

He was on fire for the Lord, striving to do His will in all things and always ready to speak a word for the Lord. By the summer of 1865 he became troubled about the church to which he belonged and came to the conclusion that he needed to separate himself. In June he travelled to Wooster, Ohio to visit John Holdeman, the leader of another small Mennonite church. He spent several days visiting with Holdeman and other members of his church, then returned home.

Over the following months Levi Young exchanged letters with John Holdeman and received a visit from him. In December he returned to Wooster, Ohio and was baptized by John Holdeman.

From there he travelled with John Holdeman to Wakarusa, Indiana where there was a congregation of Holdeman’s church. They returned to Ohio and on the last day of the year left for Ontario.

It appears that this was at least the second visit of John Holdeman to the Baden, Ontario area as Levi Young identifies several people as brethren in his diary: Jacob Litwiller and wife, bro. Yutzy and bro. Schott. Meetings were held most evenings, often in homes, at least twice in a school house and once in Hamacher’s meeting house of the Evangelical Association. Several times Levi Young mentions that “I preached and brother Holdeman exhorted.”

Levi Young then returned home to Pennsylvania and continued preaching in homes when that opportunity would arise. It is evident from his diary that he was a sick man and growing weaker. He makes plans for the disposition of his goods after his death and the last entry in his diary is from July 13, 1868, breaking off in mid sentence. He died August 14 at the age of 26 and was buried near Coopersburg. It appears likely the cause of death was consumption, now known as tuberculosis.

It is interesting to me that John Holdeman encouraged a newly baptized brother to preach in his evangelical outreach in Ontario. That kind of does away with any picture I may have had of John Holdeman as a stern, authoritarian person. John Holdeman returned to Ontario another 25 times. The members in Ontario mostly moved to various locations in the USA in later years and have numerous descendants in the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite.

Another point of interest is that during the last two years of Levi Young’s life the two families he had the most to do with were Minningers and Stauffers. Thirty years later, in 1898, John Holdeman and another minister visited near Souderton, Pennsylvania and Hiram and Lottie Mininger were baptized, as well as Lottie’s parents, Isaiah and Lavina Stover. Stover is a spelling variant of Stauffer, and Souderton is not far south of the area where Levi Young lived. There were more baptisms in that area in later years; Hiram Mininger became a very active and well-known minister in the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite.

JOY

“I don’t know why we are here, but I’m pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.”
― Ludwig Wittgenstein

A bleak, hard and cold view of life. Wittgenstein, a native of Austria who spent much of his life in England, is regarded as one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century. He feared that people didn’t understand what he was trying to say. I certainly don’t.

A century ago, Billy Sunday, the most prominent U.S. evangelist of his time, said “God is not an explanation, God is a revelation.” We can label that statement as simplistic if we wish. We can call Billy Sunday simple-minded, too. But he was right.

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If we ignore what God has revealed in His Word and believe only what is revealed by our mind we will be like Mr. Wittgenstein. The heroic endeavour to make the human mind the measure of all that exists has led many great thinkers to conclude that all is empty, meaningless, hopeless, joyless.

If we trust what God has revealed in His Word we will find that life is full and meaningful. There is hope, and there is joy. Despite the dour and drear thought of Mr. Wittgenstein, it is God’s will that we should enjoy ourselves.

Psalms 5:11 But let all those that put their trust in thee rejoice: let them ever shout for joy, because thou defendest them: let them also that love thy name be joyful in thee.
Psalms 16:11 Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.
Psalms 30:5 For his anger endureth but a moment; in his favour is life: weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.
Psalms 32:11 Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, ye righteous: and shout for joy, all ye that are upright in heart.
Luke 2:10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
John 15:11 These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.

Happy 2019

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A friend was going from place to place, checking and re-filling displays of gospel tracts that had been placed in various businesses. He walked into a grocery store in a small town with some tracts in his hand. Seeing that he needed more, he left those on the counter and went back to his car. When he came back in, the clerk at the cash register was reading one of the tracts.

“Don’t read that!” he said, “— unless you want to change your life.”

She looked up at him and said “Doesn’t everybody want to change their life?”

I suppose that’s why the making of New Year’s resolutions appeals to so many. Even if they know they’ll never be able to keep them and it’s just an exercise in futility. Here is a better way:

Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.
(Proverbs 3:5-6)

May we trust in the Lord throughout the coming year and allow Him to direct us in all we do.

WISHING YOU A BLESSED YEAR IN 2019!

The truth can stand by itself

A friend likes to preface many of the things he says with:“Without a word of a lie.” For some reason I don’t find such a statement all that convincing. It makes me wonder if he is not accustomed to telling the truth.

I guess that’s why Jesus instructed us: “But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil” (Matthew 5:17). In other words, tell the truth all the time and people won’t have to wonder whether or not you are telling the truth this time.

Sometimes we attempt to shore up the truth with big words and adjectives, for fear that the unadorned truth is too weak to stand on its own. We’ve got that wrong. Our attempts to buttress the truth, to make it stronger, weaken it.

Do we plant dandelions and thistles in our flower beds for emphasis? If that sounds ridiculous, and it should, it’s just as ridiculous to think that we can add emphasis to the truth by throwing in a bunch of adjectives. They draw the hearer’s or reader’s attention away from the truth we are trying to present.

Christian jargon is just as bad. We may know exactly what we are trying to say, but to the hearer it is probably an unknown tongue. Words and expressions that have a profound meaning to a Christian have no meaning at all to most other people. If we wish to communicate the truth we need to use simple words that everybody can understand. That may take some time and effort on ur part. The thing about jargon is that after a number of years it becomes a way to avoid thinking about what we are saying.

The truth of the gospel does not need our help to stand. But it must be told. Let’s tell it simply and often.

Turbulent waters

Our planned evangelistic services were imminent; a preacher and a men’s quartet would be arriving on Sunday. Our pastor didn’t want the disaster cleanup to distract from that effort, so he let people know that no more volunteers were needed.

He thought flowers for the church would be a nice touch so he sent one of the ladies to order flowers. All the flower shops in Moose Jaw were owned by one extended family. The basements of two family hames had flooded and volunteers had cleaned them. The pastor told the lady that if she casually mentioned that the flowers were for the church that had done the cleanup they might just offer to give the flowers at no charge. The strategy worked.

Really, all the members of the church had day jobs and all the work had been done by volunteers from out of town, but the news media gave all the credit to the church. The first night of the meetings, the mayor of Moose Jaw came to thank the church on behalf of the people of Moose Jaw.

I found all this a little disconcerting, but it would get worse. The men from Linden had left a bunch of tracts with us and we read most of them. Chris read one that taught about how a Christian woman should cover her head when praying. At a Bible study shortly after the evangelistic meetings, Chris innocently asked if that was still a requirement for Christian women. The unanimous answer was no. Many remembered that their mothers or grandmothers had worn head coverings, but didn’t know why and were happy the practice had stopped. One lady said “The Bible also says that a woman shouldn’t wear men’s clothing. As long as I wear pants I’m not going to worry about a head covering.”

I was working evenings at the Post Office and didn’t get in on that discussion. But I was in church to witness the aftermath the following Sunday. The pastor began his message by saying “The question has been raised about whether women should wear hats to church.” He went on from there to ridicule the idea of women wearing big flowery hats to church that would look ridiculous and hinder the view of people behind them in the pews. That wasn’t at all the question that Chris had raised and he never did address the teaching of the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians chapter 11.

When we got home, I told Chris “You hit a nerve.” The pastor’s desperate attempt to stifle any discussion of this topic would have been humorous if it hadn’t been so sad. Perhaps it did work for those who were already of that mind, but for us in our search it seemed like there might be a truth here that he was afraid to even look at.

Then we got a phone call from one of the men from Linden who had been to Moose Jaw. He told us that there were tent meetings being held at Osler, north of Saskatoon. That was almost a three-hour drive, but we decided to go Sunday evening when I didn’t have to work. The tent was set up on a vacant lot just off the highway. We had no trouble finding it and soon we were attending our first service of the Church of God in Christ Mennonite. We enjoyed the singing, the preaching was more straightforward than we had heard before, no beating around the bush.

There were a couple of travel trailers parked behind the tent and we stayed until 1:00 a.m. visiting with the ministers and got home at 4:00. That was fine, since my work shift didn’t start until 3:00 the next afternoon.

We went back to the Moose Jaw church the next Sunday and they were markedly uninterested in our trip to the tent meeting. Finally we decided that we were travelling a different path than the rest of the church and stopped going.

We made a trip to Linden on a long weekend that summer and thoroughly enjoyed it. There were two tiny congregations of that church in Saskatchewan, one at Hague and one at Bredenbury. Each one was a three-hour drive, but we visited each several times.

There was a stumbling block, though, that prevented us considering membership in this church. They believed that their church was the one that Jesus was building and that all others were man-made churches.

That fall the Sutera twins came to Moose Jaw to hold revival meetings, sponsored by all the evangelical churches in the city. We attended as many as we could, they went on for several weeks; the attendance outgrew the church where the meetings began and the meetings moved to a larger one.

The meetings were aimed at born-again Christian people and the messages all came down to the point that if you had sin in your life and were not willing to repent and forsake it, God could not bless or use you. The messages were good as far as they went.

We were well enough acquainted to know what was going on in most of the evangelical churches and knew there was some level of strife and dissension in each of them. That was never addressed, but I wondered if the theme of Ralph and Lou Sutera didn’t especially apply to churches. How could God bless or use a church that knew there was sin in its midst and saw no way to do anything about it?

Trying to swim upstream

Duyring the winter of 1973-74 our pastor spent several weeks in California taking in a seminar on church growth. Upon his return to Moose Jaw, he called  a meeting at church to talk about what he had learned. He began the meeting by asking “What makes a church grow?”

One lady responded with what seemed to her the obvious answer: “The Holy Spirit.” This was the lady whose mother had recently been converted. Evidently this was not the answer the pastor had anticipated: “Well, yes, but, er, um.”

When he could get back to his train of thought, he expounded to us the principles of the church growth movement. To succeed at evangelizing a community you had to divide it into demographic groups with a natural affinity for each other, based on ethnicity, occupation or other criteria. Then you designed a congregation and a message thart would appeal to each of these homogeneous groups.

I agreed with the lady who thought the Holy Spirit was the key. I also thought that the gospel was supposed to bring people together, not separate them. But no, mass marketing advertisers had proved this approach worked and now it was time to use it to expand the market for the Christian faith.

The congregation began planning evangelistic meetings for spring. A committee was formed to plan and I was elected to it. Everybody was mobilized, the women got together weekly to discuss and pray for the outreach.

Meanwhile, there had been record snowfall in the winter and when spring came there was unprecedented flooding in low-lying parts of the city. As the waters began to abate we began to talk of what could be done to help. Mennonite Disaster Service is an inter-Mennonite organisation that could call out voluteers to come and help. At one of our evangelism planning meetings one member talked of how he had contacted city hall to offer help from MDS. He was told that someone from the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite at Linden, Alberta had already called city hall and said a group of men would be coming.

No one in our group had ever heard of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. Except me. I got as far as explaining that the men wore beards when the pastor rushed to the phone, called city hall to get the number of the man from Linden and called him. “Everything is being taken care of, we have a lot of volunteers coming already. You don’t need to go to the trouble of coming all that way.”

The man on the other end decided they would come anyway. The last thing the pastor wanted before this great effort of evangelism was a group of bearded Mennonites being seen about the city. But he made the best of it and offered that they could bring sleeping bags and stay in the church basement.

Before any out of town help arrived we men went out one evening to remove furniture and other belongings from a house that had been flooded to the eaves. That was the end of any cleanup work for me. That night I had an allergic reaction to the mould inside that house that left me incapacitated for almost two weeks.

But I could man the phone at church. Insurance adjusters had to do their investigation before anything could be done to a house. They would inform city hall when a house was ready to be cleaned out, city hall would phone me with the address and when a group of volunteers was finished with one house they would call me for directions to the next one.

That put me in place to visit with the men from Linden when they came in from their day of work. A dozen men came for a week and went home for the weekend. Three others came the next week. Chris came in the evenings after work and our discussions helped us get a better idea of where we wanted to go.

This was when it dawned on me that the churches we had been attending were all happily flowing downstream toward the gulf of diluted Christianity, while we were trying to swim upstream to find the source of living water.

Sidetracked?

The purpose of the church is to share the gospel and make disciples in all the world. It is also important to keep the church pure. Is it possible that so much time and energy is spent on this maintenance that it becomes our main mission?

Wouldn’t that be like a farmer who spends all his time maintaining and adjusting his combine and never gets it out into the field for the harvest?

Adapted from Guidelines for Christian Living, first printed in 1971

A living faith

I CAN NEITHER TEACH NOR LIVE BY THE FAITH OF OTHERS. I MUST LIVE BY MY OWN FAITH AS THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD HAS TAUGHT ME THROUGH HIS WORD.
-MENNO SIMONS

THE TITLE ITSELF (MENNONITES) HAS NO SAVING POWER, IT’S VALUE LIES ONLY IN THE FACT THAT MENNO’S TEACHING IS ENTIRELY IN ACCORD WITH THE TEACHING OF JESUS AND THE APOSTLES.
-REUBEN KOEHN

*These were among a series of quotations posted yesterday on Operation Noh’s Ark. To see all the quotations click on the link at right under Blogroll. I first translated these two into French and posted them on my French blog – Témoin anabaptiste

Missionary hymns

I think the old missionary hymns leave many of us feeling a little uneasy. Those references to carrying the gospel to every dark land  – was there a deliberate inference that lands where white people dwell are more enlightened and the lands where darker skinned people dwell are in spiritual darkness? I fear that idea seemed self-evident to white people 100 to 200 years ago.

It’s not so evident today and I think we should stop singing those hymns. I don’t believe that we should stop missionary activity, but perhaps the greater need in our day is right under our noses. While Christianity has taken root on other continents, it is in danger of being uprooted in Europe and North America.

That leads me to the other concern I have with the old missionary hymns – many of them take it for granted that missionary activity can only happen in lands that are across the ocean waves.

Churches in Nigeria have taken note of the increase of unbelief, paganism and idolatry in Europe and North America and are sending out missionaries to do what we seem to have forgotten how to do. In our nearest city, Saskatoon, three Nigerian denominations have placed missionaries and are establishing congregations.

I wonder what kind of missionary hymns they sing in Nigeria?

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