When it comes to outreach, we have a problem with Jesus.
Not a problem with who Jesus is, of course. Jesus is the answer to all our deepest questions and longings. He is the compassionate one the broken search for, the forgiving one the flawed need, the strong one the weak can cry to, the challenging one the self-righteous require.
In evangelism, as in all ministry, if we’re not talking about Jesus, we’re missing the point and we’re missing the power.
So what’s the problem? It’s with the simple word “Jesus.” As soon as you read that word at the end of the first sentence of this post, you had a mental sketch of this man in your head. You filled the word “Jesus” with a heap of content.
Your image of Jesus is (I hope!) informed by Scripture. He’s the incarnate, crucified, risen, ruling Son of God — the original Jesus of history.
But that’s not the image most people have of him. When you say “Jesus,” they have an identity for him in their heads. It’s just not the real one.
This is a function of the times we’re living in. I work and (try to) witness in the United Kingdom, and while most trends head eastwards across the Atlantic, unfortunately the UK’s main cultural export to the US (apart from Downton Abbey) is de-Christianization.
In that sense, we’re all moving back to the context of the first-century Gentile world — pluralistic and un-Christian.
The difference is that the early church outside Israel was witnessing to a pre-Christian society. In Athens, when Paul talked about the risen Christ, they’d never heard of him. They mocked the apostle for “advocating foreign gods” (Acts 17:18).
We speak into an increasingly post-Christian society. That means that Jesus isn’t foreign; he’s domesticated. He’s a somebody, not a nobody — and you can take your pick about which somebody he is. There’s a whole smorgasbord of cultural “Christs,” and you just select the “Jesus” who best fits your mindset and lifestyle, and run with him. If ever you need to trade him in for a different version, that’s fine.
So you want a good teacher whose advice you can accept or ignore? Welcome, Good Teacher Jesus.
You’re after a freedom fighter with a blank placard onto which you can write your own slogan (violent revolution or lower taxes or more defense spending or no war)? You’ll love Freedom Fighter Jesus.
You’d like to reject Jesus as out-of-date and bigoted, and get on with living how you like? You need Intolerant Judge Jesus.
The one Jesus our culture doesn’t offer, and can’t stomach, is Original Jesus — the one who can’t be changed, but who calls us to change instead.
And that’s why we have a problem with Jesus in evangelism.
As soon as you say “Jesus,” people hear “Intolerant Judge,” “Children’s Story,” “Distant God,” and so on. And then they hear whatever you say next — your explanation of the wonder of the cross, or the joy of the empty tomb, or the reality of judgment — within that false category they have of Jesus. Therefore, the gospel makes little sense and does not sound attractive, even though it’s the only thing that makes total sense and is infinitely wonderful! In a conversation where two people talk about Jesus, they are, in fact, often talking about two different people.
Making the Connection
What does this mean for our witness? First, we need to accept that the way we witness (though not its content) must change as society does. So we need to take the time to ask questions and listen well to people, so we know what image comes into their head when they hear “Jesus.”
Then, we can connect their pale imitation Jesus with the full, technicolor high-definition glory of the Lord Jesus. Not by showing them how wrong they are, but by connecting with their image in one of two ways:
Jesus is better than you thought. “Yes, Jesus is a good teacher. But look, he’s a good teacher who can calm a storm. So he can’t be just a good teacher — he’s God, teaching. That puts Jesus in a whole new, more exciting, category, right?”
What you think of Jesus is better than you think. “Yes, Jesus is an intolerant judge. He’s very intolerant of evil — aren’t you? And he will judge evildoers — and deep down I think you would like him to. Actually, it’s good news that Jesus is an intolerant judge. But it’s troubling news too . . .”
Meet Jesus, The Original
So when it comes to evangelism, we do have a problem with Jesus. But we also have a wonderful opportunity. In every way, the Jesus of history and of heaven is more genuine, and brings more joy, than the domesticated fake Christs of our culture. It’s our privilege to be able to say to someone, “Let me tell you about my Jesus. He’s more compassionate, more controversial, more compelling than you ever imagined. And he’s real. Wouldn’t you love to know him?”