Where Can the Gospel Be Preached?
"Indeed, those against whom Allah’s decree of torment is justified will not believe—even if every sign were to come to them—until they see the painful punishment. If only there had been a society which believed before seeing the torment and, therefore, benefited from its belief, like the people of Jonah. When they believed, We lifted from them the torment of disgrace in this world and allowed them enjoyment for a while. Had your Lord so willed O Prophet, all people on earth would have certainly believed, every single one of them! Would you then force people to become believers? It is not for any soul to believe except by Allah’s leave, and He will bring His wrath upon those who are unmindful." - Quran, Surah Yunas 10.96-100
Why open with a quotation from the Quran? I will assure you that story is coming!
But first, another question:
Where can the Gospel be preached?
The good church answer is too easy: anywhere, anytime, to anyone. But boots-on-the-ground we want to make it more complicated. We put "gospel preaching" at the end of an "order of operations" or "continuum of care." A rudimentary understanding of "Maslow's hierarchy of needs" puts "Spirituality" at the top. Meet all of a person's other needs first, and then "religious" or "spiritual" concerns can be added unto you. All of this contributes to serious doubts about our gospel ministry.
Doubt that it is appropriate.
Doubt that it will be received well.
Doubt that that "Jesus" is the solution for a particular problem.
Doubt becomes delay, delay becomes damnation. Believe later is just as much a lie as believe never when the time is short. And the time is indeed short.
Doubt and delay like to dress themselves up in piety. We've perhaps heard the adage, "You can't preach the gospel to someone with an empty stomach." Its a corruption of the real quote, " You cannot warm the hearts of people with God's love if they have an empty stomach and cold feet.” William Booth said that, and he founded the Salvation Army. His point was not that you had to first fill the stomach and warm the feet and then, when all else is taken care of God's love can warm a person's heart. No, on the contrary, his point was that you can and should do both.
In Booth's view, "Salvation Lighthouse" was the first and most powerful step out of the "muck and mire" of human poverty.
I have a huge poster of this on the wall of my office. It's an inspiring reminder that its not "one or the other" in the Kingdom economy.
So the Gospel should just get preached anywhere, to anyone, at anytime, it ought to be preached immediately, early, and often.
That being said, the moment I say that, I can sense all of the usual hesitations and criticisms cascading in:
Does that mean you put your finger in people's faces and call them sinners?
Does that mean you pass out those obnoxious tracts all of the time?
Does that mean you won't help people unless they "become Christians?"
What does that mean?
I suppose I should be sympathetic to these worries because the cliche of the annoying "street evangelist" are real. (Also as real: using the cliche as another excuse to cloak doubt, delay, and our darkest fear: embarrassment.) So I am sympathetic. No, I don't mean any of those things... unless God so leads. I think that our worries in this area actually stem from a misunderstanding of the Gospel. If we think that the Gospel is a pithy little bit of theological trivia that "ought to be believed" so that one "can go to Heaven when they die" then it does seem a bit beside the point if someone is dying of hunger.
But what if the Gospel is the brave announcement that King Jesus is real, and really present, and in His really real presence we are spiritually, metaphysically, totally transformed? What if the Gospel is the announcement that God Himself is pouring out his superabundant grace upon all of those who get in joyful step with His wondrous will? What if indeed?!
And what if the alternative is truly horrifying?
That is the sobering question that we must all wrestle with, whether we are Christians or not.
This is where the quotation from the Quran comes in.
In the picture above, all the way to the left, you can see a black blob. That is my friend "King"'s tent. King has been moving camp down the edge of the freeway for about 6 months now, sludging slowly along the edge of the drainage ditch that runs its length.
He started out with a big group, ended up with just one woman, and is now alone. His journey down the edge, the margin, tells its own story.
I brought a five-gallon jug of water down to King's camp and he invited me into his tent to hang out for a while. It is always meaningful to be invited into anyone's "home," and these times are no exception. He had been reading the Koran, and honestly didn't have a clear idea that it was any different than other "scriptures." The passage quoted above stuck out to him, and he wanted to talk about it.
"Why do we wait until we "see the torment" to believe?," he asks. "Why do we wait until it is too late?"
Its a deep question, and goes to the heart of what I have been writing about. Why do we try to organize our entire lives without God? Why do we wait until after things go badly wrong to listen to God's ideas about how things can go right?
A passage from the Quran was the jumping off point for a wonderful discussion about these things. Those familiar with the Bible will know that there are numerous passages that this points us to, not least among them Jesus' denunciation of all the people who saw his power, but waited until it was too late to be saved from destruction.
20 Then [Jesus] began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.” Matthew 11:20–24 (ESV)
Jesus had displayed his power and authority to these cities, and the people there still rejected him. They had other priorities.
Listening to Jesus requires that we re-orient our own priorities.
Unless these are in order, how will we ever help other people see that there is another way to live? If we aren't following his command, how can we expect others to do the same? How could it transform our "charitable ministries" if we took His words in the Sermon on the Mount seriously?
So while I fully agree with Booth's assessment that we may need to warm the whole man if his heart is to be warmed by God's love, I don't ever want to leave someone without knowing that even "after the torment" has come redemption is still possible!
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. - Matthew 6:33 (ESV)