The other day as I was finishing my last half hour of my shift at Starbucks, I wrung up the order for two young girls. They looked to be in their mid-late teens, and their frappaccino orders solidified suspicions.
I noticed instantly that these girls were carrying large Bibles – not unlike the one I got from my parents as a gift when I graduated from high school. It was actually mandatory for a few of the classes I was enrolling in my freshman year.
As I handed the change back to one of the young girls, she handed me a tract with a very sweet smile – and I froze. My entire feeling changed. When they first came up to me at the register I felt a tenderness towards them – they reminded me of me. I was endeared by the idea that they were studying the Bible together at Starbucks, and I marveled in my heart at the work the Lord does in young lives. It was a real sweet feeling I had. Until she handed me the tract.
I cannot even begin to identify all the feelings I had. I know for sure I was hurt and offended. I was disappointed, defensive, and pretty soon I was enraged. I half smiled at her and said; “no thanks, I’m good.”
To be certain, my pride was where I first felt the injury. My instincts were to interrupt their Bible study when I got off work and explain that not only was I “saved”, but I’d given my life to Jesus in a continual act of sacrifice and submission. To me, believing in God was a lifestyle that I suffered for daily – not some reassurance about where my soul will spend eternity. Thoughts of self-justification and defense rolled around my head as I turned around to make their $5.00, 16 oz frozen sugar treats. I wanted them to know that I love Jesus so much I’d never pay full price for a frappaccino – I get mine for free! 🙂 (yes – I hear how ridiculous I sound)
After I handed them their drinks my thoughts shifted. I knew I had to put to rest my personal offense – that I didn’t need two 16 yr olds to know that I loved Jesus more than they would imagine. As is customary when something gets me – my thoughts took a turn and, like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, spun me into a deep, disorienting well with flying objects of life experience flashing before me as I fell.
I thought about the summer where I was trained to cold-turkey share my faith with strangers. I remembered how good I was at the first part – striking up conversations – but how bad I was at the second – sharing the Gospel. I thought about the young kids I was left in charge of leading in the same process.
I thought about the soup kitchen at a local church where I’ve sat and listened to a Gospel presentation week after week presented by a well dressed college student practicing his preaching skills, which actually amounted to a string of Christian clichés (rarely making logical let alone theological sense) to the rows of homeless and poor I sat among. I thought about being forced to shake hands with him and the other volunteers (sitting away from us all) as we filed through the church to receive our free dinner.
I thought about the elderly Unitarian minister I met when I first visited Uptown who was dogmatically against me coming into his space to spiritually and psychologically attack the poor. I remembered how long and hard I worked to win his trust – and what an honor it was when I did. I’ll never forget the day he gave me a talking Jesus doll saying; “you’ll need this more than me.” To this day Jesus sits on a cupboard, or ledge, or window sill reminding me of my sweet friend Bob who had been so hurt by evangelical Christians – and of the Man whose life I long to have live through me.
I thought about my co-workers. Many of them have no significant exposure to Christianity and a few of them “escaped” from very abusive Christian upbringings, clinging passionately to inclusivity and acceptance for everyone. I wondered how I would have felt if one of them had been given the tract.
Ultimately my thoughts rested on a core issue I have with traditional evangelism – one that, up until that moment, I had mostly only been sympathetic to. This core issue with most traditional evangelistic tools is the underlying assumption that those we are evangelizing, in fact, need to be evangelized. This is actually a compound offense – as when we assume “they” need evangelizing, we also assume we don’t.
Perhaps you can see this pretty easily in the example of the young girl handing me, a total stranger a tract. Maybe you even agree with me – I think handing out tracts has lost a lot of its popularity in the last few decades. However, I would venture to suggest that it is harder to identify this unhealthy mindset in our “good deeds” among the poor.
One of the overwhelmingly inaccurate assumptions among many evangelicals I have encountered is that a big part of the work we as Christians are called to, is to tell poor people about the saving love of Jesus.
I need to stop and say this:
In my nearly 33 years of life – I have unequivocally encountered the saving love of Jesus among the poor and from the actual mouths and lives of the poor than among the affluent evangelicals that the majority of my life has been spent surrounded by.
My neighbors have not been theologically trained and often get their Bible stories mixed up. Sometimes our Sunday night Bible study sounds more like we’re debating urban legends than theology. However, my neighbors have shown me what the Gospel looks like lived out. My neighbors have shown me Christ. While I am not trying to water down the Christian belief that the Good News is firmly rooted in the historical death and resurrection of Jesus – I am afraid if we don’t start with a transformative understanding of the actual person of Jesus – then His death and resurrection are simply check marks of agreement.
From my experience, I am more compelled to believe in the sacrificial life and death of Jesus as I live among suffering people – than I was when surrounded by ministers and church leaders who wrote sermons and lead churches and “movements” from the comfort of their books, buildings and leadership development tools. It is not that these years of my life were void of encounters with the Gospel message – but in no other season has Jesus’ life been more real and daily alive than since moving to Uptown. Doing life among the affluent while serving the poor is not a model that easily mobilizes us towards the cross. The kingdom will not be segregated. The kingdom banquet will not be divided. In fact, our lives as Christians have been mandated to provide legitimate encounters with the Kingdom of God right here – and right now. I might also add that the suffering, poor and marginalized can be found in every neighborhood and in fact, every family. You do not need to live in inner city Chicago to find Christ among the outcast. Just find the outcast wherever you are. Don’t go to them to rescue them – go to them to listen and receive from them. I guarantee you’ll encounter Christ there.
My neighbors have shown me love. Sacrificial, vulnerable, restorative love. I believe this kind of love is the way of the cross.
When we approach the poor with the assumption that they need what we have, we are horrifically missing out. However, when we approach the poor ready to receive from them – then not only do we encounter Christ, but we will eventually find the gift of reciprocation. This gift of reciprocation is the reality that Christ in us will gravitate to Christ in them, giving us opportunities for mutual conversion.
(** For further reading on this topic, check out Lance Ford’s new book, Revangelical. JUSTembrace is honored to be one of MANY of the stories he tells of believers imagining a new way of evangelicalism. There is tremendous hope for the Church!)
13 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.