The Power of Story

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unsplash.com_HVuMinh

Stories are powerful. They engage our imagination and emotion. Stories can transport us to faraway lands and imaginary settings, and they convey truths in subtle yet powerful ways.

But when it comes to communicating biblical truth stories may seem too simple. How ironic since most of the Bible is composed of stories!

Throughout the Bible, there's a narrative arc that conveys the message of God's redemption of the human race. Each story reveals facets of the whole redemptive narrative.

@@Stories are a powerful way to engage people who haven't experienced God's redemptive grace@@.

God's redemptive story and us

@@If we don't understand the depth and fullness of God's redemptive story it's hard to make sense of everyday life@@. Not that we'll understand every event in every day of our life, but when we understand more of God's redemptive narrative we'll begin to see how it connects with our life.

Sometimes we look too hard at all that goes on in our life and try to figure out each detail fits into God's plan. As the saying goes, we can't see the forest for the trees. All we see are trees and we forget the larger context of the forest.

@@A western mindset tends to over analyze every detail and misses the larger picture@@, while eastern thought sees the whole but may not see how each detail fits into the picture and why they do. This is an oversimplification but the point is that we need both views to see the full picture.

Looking at the whole biblical narrative and how each of the various stories fit together enables us to see the depth and fullness of God's redemptive story. As we look at our life story arc with the biblical narrative in view, we should see how much of our own story matches the stories of other people in the Bible.

Back to the beginning

But first things first. @@How can we hope to understand the Bible's narrative unless we see it from the beginning?@@ Going back to Creation we find the all-important why of redemption—why it is necessary.

The story of humanity begins with the creation of "the heavens and the earth" and nothing—the earth was a big blob, empty and dark with God's Spirit covering over it like a mother bird protecting her nest (Gen 1:1-2).

Then God begins the creation process by proclaiming, "Let there be light." So there was light and darkness was separated from it and the first day came to be (Gen 1:3-5).

On five successive days, God brought life and light into the dark, empty orb of the earth floating in the universe (Gen 1:6-25). After each day God was satisfied and said it was good.

On the sixth and last day, God said—

“Let us make humans in our image, in our likeness. Let them rule the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the domestic animals all over the earth, and all the animals that crawl on the earth.” So God created humans in his image. In the image of God he created them. He created them male and female. (Gen 1:26-27 GW)

This is the heart of why God sent His Son Jesus as the Redeemer of the world—for all people everywhere. Because He created us in His image.

Looking ahead

Next week I plan to unpack the beginning story of humanity's need for redemption. If we go too quickly to the usual beginning point of the redemption story, we miss the heart of why God went to great lengths to redeem the human race.

@@There's more to redemption than, "Jesus died for your sins."@@ This is a true statement, but it only tells part of the story. We need to see things from the heart of God and His intended purpose for those whom He created.

Over the next several weeks (perhaps with some interruptions), I plan to look at five representative stories in the Bible.

Each story holds an important place in the story of God's redemption of humanity. Each one reflects a facet of the full picture of God's redemption. Each should help reveal the full purpose of God's redemption. Until then...

What is your own recollection of the story of Creation?

How do you understand God's redemption story?

Can you share either of these with someone else in your own words (IYOW)?

Let me know on Word-Strong's FB page!

 

An Unknown God—part 2

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unsplash_RPelati

Formulaic ways of presenting the gospel—the message of God's redemption of humanity—have been developed and taught to many eager evangelists. But I wonder how many times someone, prepped with an evangelistic formula, shares the gospel only to meet with disappointment and rejection? I know I've experienced this on both sides of the gospel—hearing it and sharing it. 

As a young man lost in my own spiritual search, two clean-cut college guys approached me at the beach to share the gospel with the four spiritual laws, telling me I could be a Christian and still own a sports car. Their approach was far off the mark for me. I experienced several other off-target attempts as I've shared before.

As with so many things in life, we can set ourselves up for disappointment with unrealistic expectations. Formulas and approaches go along with our penchant for results. But more and more I want to equip people with the story and heart of the gospel. Reading through all four gospels and the book of Acts it's hard to find any set methodology.

A city full of idols

As mentioned last week, when the apostle Paul arrived in Athens he saw a city filled with idols (Acts 17:16). This disturbed him but he still went to the Jewish synagogue to share the gospel, as he had done in other cities and regions.

He also went into the public market area to preach among those who were not Jewish (Gentiles). While engaging in discussions with those in the marketplace, he was questioned about what he taught, since it seemed so foreign to them.

Some philosophers wanted to hear more about this Jesus he spoke of and about the resurrection, so he was invited to Mars Hill (the Areopagus), the city court where much debate took place (Acts 17:17-21).

Paul's message to the Athenians

Paul realized the gospel he preached in the synagogue was foreign or strange to the ears of these philosophers, which is much like what cross-cultural missionaries experience overseas. It's also similar to sharing the gospel with those who have a postmodern mindset.

Based on this context, Paul adjusted his presentation of the gospel for a people who were ignorant of the Scriptures and the theology revealed in them.

I see three general parts to Paul's message at Mars Hill focused on connecting with the Athenians at a level they would understand. The text for Paul's message is found in Acts 17:22-31.

Connection

Paul first acknowledges they are "very religious," what we might call superstitious, as he sees all their objects of worship (idols). He establishes a connection with the Athenians by noting an altar to "the unknown god" (vs 22).

Paul says to them, "What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you" (vs 23). By saying this he stirs their interest because those gathered at Mars Hill "would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new" (vs 21).

He also establishes himself as an authority regarding this unknown God. He preaches to them, but in a way they can relate to as philosophers.

Creator and Sustainer

The first thing he tells them about this "unknown God" is that He is living and is the Creator of all (vs 24). Not only the Creator but the Lord over all He's created. He is transcendent above all and doesn't live in a temple or shrine created by humans. He wasn't imagined or designed by anyone.

He's not in need of anything people can offer. Instead, God is the Sustainer of all humanity to whom He gives life itself, breath, and everything else (vs 25). Paul goes on to speak of God's relationship with people from God's perspective.

All humanity began with one person (vs 26). It's God who established the seasons within a year and set the boundaries of earth, the oceans, and our atmosphere, as expressed in the ancient book of Job (chapters 38-40).

God makes Himself known and seeks people out so we may know Him and have a relationship with Him (vs 27). He is the Sustainer of all life and Paul relates this truth to what their own poets have said (vs 28), making another point of connection with the Athenians.

Challenging the status quo

Paul begins challenging them to think differently about God, "the divine being," since we are "God's offspring" (vs 29). God isn't like any of the idols or images their artisans have imagined because God is Spirit and not restricted to human or physical constraints.

Then Paul tells them that their ignorance of God, whom they call unknown, is no longer acceptable to God. A day of judgment is coming and people need to repent and turn to God for the timing of this judgment day is already determined by God (vs 30).

He then introduces them to Jesus but not by name. There is one person whom God has appointed as the one who will be the judge. This person is known by His resurrection from the dead (v 31), an unparalleled supernatural event.

The resurrection is the open door into a personal relationship with God and eternal life. This is a truth Paul made clear to a church he planted not long after this message (1 Cor 15:20-22).

Response

One of the criticisms I've heard about Paul's message to the Athenians is the poor response to it as if the response to Peter's message on Pentecost in Jerusalem (Acts 2:41) is some kind of norm. It wasn't the norm then nor is it now.

Most of the reaction of those who heard this message was to the concept of the resurrection from the dead. It's a great dividing line of faith. Although some mocked the resurrection others wanted to hear more, and some believed and joined Paul (vs 32-34).

As I've made clear in an earlier post, we American evangelicals tend to be very results oriented. It seems to be in our Christian-culture-DNA. But we don't see this with Jesus nor the early church leaders. They were committed to discipleship which is a long-term investment in people.

Evangelism or discipleship? Both!

Jesus invested more than three years in His chosen apostles. Paul spent a year (with Barnabas) teaching the church in Antioch, then a year and a half in Corinth, and two years in Ephesus (Acts 11:26; 18:11; 19:10).

Evangelism needs to be linked with discipleship to be effective in fulfilling the Great Commission (Matt 28:19; Mark 16:15), for church planting (the book of Acts), and to equip the church for ministry (Eph 4:11-13).

There should never be a choice between evangelism or discipleship, as to which is better. It's not either-or but both in concert with one another.

So, what are your thoughts on all of this and sharing the gospel in our times and within our culture?

Be sure to look at the notes and cross-references below and please share this with others if you find it helpful!


Here are some cross-references to go with each verse and the 12 elements I see in Paul's message to the Athenians—

  1. Paul observed the religious pursuit of the Athenians (vs 22)
  2. They focused on "objects of worship" [idols] (vs 23)
  3. Paul identified the altar "to the unknown god" as a point of connection (vs 25)
  4. He presented the Living God as Creator of all (vs 24)
  5. God is transcendent above human or earthly origins (vs 24)
  6. God is the origin of life for all people and all that exists (vs 25)
  7. All humanity is descended from one person and God is sovereign (vs 26)
  8. God makes Himself known and seeks relationship with people (vs 27)
  9. God is the Sustainer of life and connects God's nearness to all with their own poets (vs 28)
  10. God is Spirit and not restricted to human or physical constraints (vs 29)
  11. A day of judgment is coming, people need to repent and turn to God (vs 30)
  12. Jesus is the judge and proven to be so by resurrection from the dead (vs 31)
  •  Here are the Cross references—
    • vss 22-25– Psa 19:1-6; Rom 1:20; John 4:24
    • vs 25– John 1:4-5; Gen 2:7; Isa 42:5
    • vs 26– Gen 5:1-4; Dan 4:35-37
    • vs 27– Rom 1:20; Eccl 3:11; Psa 139:7-16
    • vs 28– Psa 82:6; Col 1:16-17
    • vs 29– Psa 115:3-8; Rom 1:22-23
    • vs 30– Matt 4:17; Luke 24:47; Rom 3:23-26
    • vs 31– John 5:21-27; Acts 2:22-24; Rom 2:11-16

An Unknown God

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unspalshcom_RLukeman

Black and white—the epitome of contrast. This contrast may bring various things to mind for you, but what comes to mind for me is the dualistic dilemma we all face. It's a carry-over from the first humans who ate fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen 2:17; 3:1-13).

As a rule, we tend to divide most everything in life into either-or categories—good-bad, right-wrong, big-small, etc. But life isn't that neat and tidy. There's a lot of color within the color spectrum between black and white.

Black is the absence of light and color, whereas white is the presence of light and all colors. Aren't you glad life in this world isn't just black and white?

I'm thankful for all the vivid colors that exist and that life can't be categorized into either-or categories. Neither does God nor His story of redemption fit into neat categories.

A lesson learned

Many years ago I taught a workshop to a group of pastors and leaders in the southern region of the Philippines. I needed the assistance of an interpreter, as I taught them the basics of Inductive Bible Study (IBS).

I tried to emphasize the importance of the biblical text as it's written in black and white. But my interpreter added his own take on what I said with, "It's either black or white."

I learned two important things that day. First, I need to be clear how I say things if I want to be understood. Secondly, I need to have confidence in my interpreter and be sure he or she understands me. True communication results in a fruitful dialog.

Words and ways of connecting

Last week I alluded to ways of sharing the redemptive message of the gospel other than traditional or trendier ways.

My experience as a cross-cultural missionary helped me learn how to teach in a simple yet effective way. I first needed to learn about the people I hoped to teach. This required time, many observations, a lot of listening, prayer, and guidance from the Holy Spirit.

As I gained more insight, I looked for ways to personally connect with those I taught and relate what I taught in words and ways they could understand.

This is what I see the apostle Paul do when he encountered people in a situation different from his typical experiences sharing the gospel.

Reception and resistance

Acts chapter 17 begins with Paul and his ministry team's encounters in Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-9). Paul went to the Jewish synagogue as was is custom. He reasoned with them for three days concerning the purpose for the death of Jesus the Messiah on the cross and His resurrection.

But when the Jews became jealous of those who believed the gospel and began to follow Paul's teaching, things turned rowdy. So they moved on to a town called Berea. Again, Paul went to the Jewish synagogue to explain and prove the gospel from the Scriptures.

The Bereans were honorable men and serious students of the Scriptures (Acts 17:10-12) and received and believed the gospel of Jesus the Messiah. Once again, things turned badly when men from Thessalonica came to stir up trouble for Paul (Acts 17:13-15). So, Paul was sent off to Athens until the rest of his ministry team could join him.

Provoked and challenged

Arriving in Athens, Paul walked around the city and his spirit was disturbed and provoked by what he saw—a city full of idols. He went to the synagogue as usual but also preached in public at the marketplace.

The philosophers in the marketplace thought Paul was preaching about foreign gods because he spoke of the resurrection as he shared the gospel. Wanting to hear more from him they brought him to a place called Mars Hill where much debate took place (Acts 17:16-21).

The context of Paul's message to the Athenians helps us understand how and why he shares what he does (Acts 17:22-31). He speaks to them about the One whom they call "the Unknown God." Paul explains how this God is greater than any manmade image or religion.

A matter of perspective

The message Paul shares with the philosophers at Mars Hill serves as an example for communicating the gospel to people who are not familiar with Christianity or the Jewish Law, so it's well-suited for a postmodern, post-Christian mindset.

How Paul conveys the gospel at Mars Hill has come under fire by various Bible teachers because he doesn't present the gospel in a more typical direct evangelical approach. Some of my friends who are solid Bible teachers say Paul's message wasn't effective because the blood of Jesus and the crucifixion aren't mentioned.

But is this valid criticism? I think not, and nothing in the book of Acts or the NT epistles indicates that is was lacking validity. The problem comes from our own perspective of how it ought to be.

But that's exactly the issue—it's our perspective and doesn't take into account how others hear it. Or, in many cases, how they don't hear it because they have no frame of reference to understand a more direct modern evangelical presentation of the gospel.

Seeing a new perspective

I see 12 elements in Paul's message to the Athenians on Mars Hill where the redemptive message of the gospel is clearly expressed. Next week I'll go through those twelve points with cross-references to support each one.

Until next week, I encourage you to read through Paul's message at Mars Hill (Acts 17:22-31) to see if you can identify these twelve points. Look at the context of the entire chapter (Acts 17). This should help provide the why to how Paul expresses his message.

The goal is not to pick Paul's message apart from a western evangelical perspective but to understand why and how he communicates the gospel the way he does.

Understanding this will provide greater insight for reaching people who don't have a Judean-Christian framework of understanding, whether in America or anywhere in the worldwith any unreached people group.


My interest in Paul's message at Mars Hill was originally stirred through the teaching of my friend Danny Lehman at a missions conference several years ago. He's a long-time and well-traveled missionary who speaks a lot about evangelism and has written quite a bit about it.

I highly recommend his book,  Beautiful Feet– Steps to a Lifestyle of Evangelism, if you're interested in learning how and why to share your faith with others.

A Results-Based Dilemma

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unsplash_number_keys-ABranch

Let's face it. America is locked into results. We measure and quantify everything, even our leisure time. Think not? We post life events or moments on social media, then check to see how many "likes" we've received. It's an epidemic and it's not healthy.

Christian believers are not immune to this epidemic. It infects churches and other ministries. We measure the sizes of congregations and buildings and responses to various types of ministry efforts.

Jesus wasn't results oriented in the way we are. He did expect results but not the kind we do.

One of the Lord's closest followers betrayed Him, the others abandoned Him at a critical point, and then He died. From a human point of view, that would seem like a failure. But of course, there's far more to the story than that! And far more to Christianity than measuring results.

Dwindling results

Much has been written about the dilemma American churches face today. In general, Millennials are not too interested or engaged with church, many in older generations have given up on church and become part of the Dones, and the majority of America's pastors are getting grayer.

Personally, I see this stemming from a lack of personal, intentional discipleship, which requires long-term investment in people and commitment. This is what we see the Lord Jesus model in His ministry on earth, but it's not easy to measure in terms of progress.

Perhaps this stems from the approach the church takes with evangelism—presenting the gospel, God's redemptive message.

American-style evangelism

Evangelism in America reflects our national cultural roots. We tend to be confrontational and analytical, so we present the gospel as if it was a legal argument in court or a debate that requires a yes-or-no answer.

Decisions can be measured, like the responses to a large-scale crusade or an altar call invitation at the end of a church service or evangelistic outreach.

I'm not saying these approaches are wrong. They reflect our historical and cultural identity and they appeal to our inclination to measure results.

How can we quantify God's Kingdom?

But is the Kingdom of God quantifiable? Was Jesus concerned that His followers—His church—be able to measure the results of their efforts at fulfilling the Great Commission?

Instead of counting decisions as a measurement, we need to make disciples who will also make disciples. There is no measurement that brings a point of completion for this, it will continue till we see Jesus face-to-face.

Another approach of presenting the gospel or sharing one's faith falls into the category of friendship evangelism. A current trend of personal evangelism is summed up with the unverified quote attributed to St Francis of Assisi, "Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary."

Life example is vital for being a living witness of Jesus Christ to others (Acts 1:8), but words are essential for communicating the truth of the gospel.

A better way, or another way?

I love preaching and teaching and know they are still viable and valuable to present the gospel to others. Most people who respond to an invitation at a crusade or evangelistic rally, or in a church setting were brought by a friend or a family member.

But the evangelical church as a whole is not reaching the present generations as well as we could.

Is there another, better way? How about asking—Is there another approach to presenting the gospel to a postmodern, nearly post-Christian generation?

There is and I'll look at one such approach next week. But let me be clear. This is not the next best thing, it's just one more approach to presenting the gospel, and it has a biblical foundation.

Are you curious? Check back next week!


Talking Into the Air

unsplash.com_JRosewell

unsplash.com_JRosewell

Engaging someone in a conversation can be very satisfying, even when there's a difference of opinion. There's a sense of give-and-take, of listening and responding. This is true dialog.

On the other hand, you've probably experienced a more lop-sided conversation where you're doing all the listening, or perhaps you're doing all the talking. One-sided conversations aren't really conversations, they're monologs and aren't very productive.

What's even less productive than a monolog is when one person talks over another without listening. Even worse is when a person speaks in another language or uses terminology foreign to whoever is listening. This is like talking into the air.

Another language

One day while walking across a small island in the Philippines, I engaged a young man in conversation as we both carried a cooler full of drinks and food. He listened and nodded as I went on and on.

Years later, he told me how little he understood of our conversation at that time because he didn't understand much English. I spoke little of his dialect but thought he understood me. In reality, I was just talking into the air while he listened.

Since then, we've known each other for over 20 years and developed a fruitful relationship of mutual respect. I've learned to listen more and he's become more confident in communicating what's in his heart and mind. In the beginning, I was the teacher and he was my student. Now we are friends and partners in ministry.

4 Insights for more effective communication

This story illustrates and provides a few insights for me that I'll share here. These are some basic things to help make communication more effective so we're not just talking into the air.

  • @@Language and wording are important, that is how we convey what we say to someone@@
  • @@We need to know and understand our listeners to whom we're trying to communicate@@
  • @@We need to find a common point of reference or interest with whoever we speak to@@
  • @@Find the most effective means or way to express and convey what you want to say@@

As pointed out last week, effective communication needs to be a dialog, not a monolog, and listening well is essential.

Language

@@Words and phrases are like containers for our thoughts@@. Even with sign language, each gesture expresses some meaning or idea. If we want people to understand what we're saying, we need to make it easy to open these containers that convey our thoughts.

Two simple ways to make them easy to open are—use simple words and translate terms and expressions or idioms into our own words.

Working overseas with students who are non-English speakers I ask them to put answers to my questions in their own words (IYOW–in your own words). This requires them to process what they are learning so they understand it better.

Putting things in simple wording also requires us to process what we're trying to communicate, and helps us to hear things more from the point of view of those who hear us. When we bring things it a simple level, we make it easier for others to understand what we're trying to say.

Understanding

As a pastor or teacher, or with any public speaking opportunity, I observe who I'll be speaking to before I get up to speak. I consider the demographics of the audience. Who are they? Where do they live? What to they do in life?

Basically, I'm looking for the most common factor among those gathered. When working with the division of fractions in arithmetic, we look for the lowest common denominator. That's the idea I have in mind.

I look beyond the better-educated people and those who seem like they'll grasp what I say more easily. I aim for those who might have a harder time understanding what I want to say to the whole group. If it's a church, I look for the younger believers and whoever might be non-believers and aim my message at them. They're my most important listeners.

Common point

@@Part of understanding who I'm speaking to involves finding a common point of reference@@ with them as a group, or maybe a couple different points of interest. If the people are older or younger, I try to relate things so they will receive it best. I tailor illustrations, examples, and stories to fit them. I even try to use idioms and words that are most familiar to them.

Jesus is our prime example for this. It never seemed to matter who was in front of Him, He knew how to communicate so they understood Him. What Jesus said to the woman at the well (John 4:7-26), is different than how He spoke to Nicodemus (John 3:1-12), or how Jesus spoke to Zacchaeus who climbed up in a tree to see Him (Luke 19:1-10). 

I don't speak to young IT students the same away I do to farmers in the mountains of the Philippines. I need to adjust what I'm saying and how I convey it in a way that relates to them best. Believers can quote Paul who said, "I have become all things to all people" (1 Cor 9:22), but do we really do this?

Ways of communicating

All of this leads up to how we communicate to others or the way we convey what we have to say. @@Different situations or circumstances also impact how we communicate@@. I'm not going to preach a sermon to a small, informal gathering. I'd rather engage people in discussions rather than talk at them.

Some of the ways I'll speak and communicate with people is to use stories, questions, or find some way of listening and responding to them. Basically, whether preaching, teaching, or just talking with someone, I want to engage them in dialog in a way that interests them.

Jesus used questions and provocative statements many times with His disciples and even in public gatherings (Matt 16:5-12; John 7:37-39). He used stories (parables) that connected with the people who gathered to hear Him (3 parables in Luke 15). As noted above, sometimes Jesus simply engaged people in conversation.

@@I've found people much more open to hearing God's redemptive story after I engage them in genuine dialog@@ rather than to immediately launch into a presentation of the gospel. I've also used each of these ways to engage people while traveling and while teaching and training leaders.

Final thoughts

These four ways of developing effective communication are useful in whatever role you have in life or in various life situations. They work for pastors, teachers, cross-cultural missionaries, writers, supervisors or staff, coaches or teammates, leaders at any level, or those who listen.

Again, @@listening well is critical to good communication. It shows people we're interested in them@@ rather than our self or our own agenda.

Practical application

@@Discipleship is a long-term investment, not just a training course to equip believers@@. Pastoral care involves understanding, patience, listening, along with a practical application of mercy and grace.

Good teachers build a strong foundation and framework for learning before delving into a deeper understanding of the truth. Cross-cultural missionaries need to find bridges and points of connection between their culture of origin and the culture of the people they want to reach.

Effective leaders need to understand the goals, passions, and struggles of their staff or team members. People in the trenches of life and work need to understand what's expected of them.

All of these life roles and situations work better when communication is done well. Those of us in roles of leadership at any level need to model these ways of making communication more effective.

For example, as a teacher, when my students aren't understanding what I'm trying to teach them, then it's my responsibility to find a way to help them understand. I need to model for them what I want them to learn to do.

When we can connect with people in these ways, we'll communicate better and make the world better around us.

How about you? How can you put these insights into action in your life?


Resources–

  • Here's a simple Glossary for some Christianese terms from the addenda of my book
  • If you'd like to know more about developing questions for an interactive Bible study, check out the Bible studies under Inductive Bible Study on the Resources page.
  • If you'd like to know more about how to tell stories in your own words (IYOW), contact me via email through the Contact form at the bottom of the Resources page.