After briefly flirting with church attendance, one TV sitcom character chalks up his experience as generally beneficial because “I finally learned what that guy in the end zone holding up the big card that says ‘John 3:16’ on it is talking about!”
It may come as a big surprise to longtime churchgoers, steeped in a biblical, Christian experience, accustomed to hearing religious-sounding words and seeing religious-looking symbols, that we now live in a genuinely post-Christian culture, or what I prefer to call pre-Christian culture. Our society is defined far more by all those people who have no clue as to what that guy in the end zone is trying to say than it is by those recognizing the citation of a biblical chapter and verse.
Twenty-first-century Christians need to take Philip’s evangelical style and enthusiasm to heart. Instead of standing around trying to determine if we should wade into all this haphazard spiritual seeking, let us stride right into the middle of the stream, confident in the strength of our own spiritual tradition. Like Philip, about when we read in Acts chapter 8, we should not hesitate to go where the Spirit sends us, no matter how unlikely the territory or how odd its inhabitants.
The Ethiopian eunuch embodies a classic model of a spiritual seeker. In fact, by following the same rules of engagement Philip demonstrates in today’s Acts text, we can reach out to our postmodern, pre-Christian, but “desperately-seeking-God” culture that is in such soul pain. Here are some hints for meaningful evangelism..
The first reality Philip accepted was that no matter how spiritually hungry seekers may be, they are not going to come to Christ by themselves. They need an escort, a guide, a messenger. The Great Commission is the mandate, not of religious professionals, but of all believers. Every single one of us is called to “do the work of an evangelist.”
Faith in Jesus does not come about “naturally.” The story of Christ’s life and ministry, his crucifixion for our sakes, and his resurrection from the dead cannot be discerned simply by gazing at the mountaintops or praying at a river’s edge.
Christ requires our witness, the excited retelling of the story from one generation to the next, in order for the Good News of the Gospel to be heard. One of the great truths of Christianity is its “scandal of particularity.” Christians dare to declare that one man, one event, one time, one place made a difference for all eternity. That is why every Christian must be a voice, telling the story, passing the peace along.
We are all escorts for a tumbling culture that has lost all sense of spiritual direction. Philip willingly wandered out into the middle of a barren desert roadway in order to offer the greatest words of guidance any traveler could ever hope to hear – that Jesus Christ is the Way.
When Philip saw the Ethiopian eunuch’s chariot approaching, he ran after the traveler. Philip didn’t expect the Ethiopian to stop and ask him if he wanted a lift. He didn’t complain that he didn’t have a horse to ride alongside. He simply did what he could with what he had. He used his own two legs to catch up with him.
We had better get used to change, for in postmodern culture, it’s the only thing that’s not changing. Does anyone need to have it pointed out that the future is hardly sauntering along? What is more, the nature of change itself has changed. Change is no longer incremental, but exponential. The invention of the microchip will have a greater impact on this planet than the discovery of fire. The speed of a microprocessing chip, which some say doubles in power and halves in cost every 18 months, reveals the rate of change and development.
Increasingly, our very lives are being forced to move along with that same kind of speed. If we want to reach out and capture the attention of the spiritual seekers in this age, then Christians also must learn to “run alongside” the fast paced chariot of postmodern life.
After Philip catches up to the Ethiopian’s chariot, he doesn’t insist that the man stop so that they can have a quiet talk. Instead, he earns himself a seat aboard the fast moving vehicle by speaking to the eunuch about that which is obviously of most immediate concern to him.
The eunuch is reading from Isaiah, obviously musing about the contents of that scroll. Philip doesn’t begin asking the eunuch the state of his soul or what kind of life he is living. Instead he focuses on the matter squarely before this man – the contents of the scroll: “Do you understand what you are reading?”
We must be willing to meet all people on spiritual quests at the point of their own individual concerns and needs. The church’s witness will only reach postmodern seekers if it sits alongside them and fearlessly steps into the world they must live in every day. For some, this may mean feeding their stomachs before attempting to feed their souls. For some, this might mean offering a physical space of peace and quiet before revealing to them the peace of Christ. For some, this might mean an offering of human warmth and loving concern before sharing the joy of God’s ultimate love and salvation through Christ. We must master a variety of evangelisms: individual evangelism, cell evangelism, social evangelism, niche evangelism, justice evangelism, in order to fulfill our Kingdom mandate.
No matter what tack Philip might have considered the best in order to address the Isaiah text the eunuch was reading, he let the seeker ask his own questions and answered those first. The eunuch asks about whom the prophet was speaking, himself or someone else – a question that might not seem to point to a personal lesson on salvation. But Philip lets the eunuch ask his own questions and direct the course of the conversation so that he will feel the answer he receives is genuinely directed toward him.
Likewise, a 21st-century Christian must deal with the agenda spiritual seekers bring to the table. Christian tradition from an earlier, more confident age declared that “all roads lead to Christ.” Can’t we have the same confidence in our faith that no matter how theologically challenging or scientifically stated, eventually all questions can find their resolution in the gospel news?
This culture is in the midst of a huge “God Rush.” The number one high-fashion magazine in the world, the high-gloss W, even goes as far as to say that anyone who is anybody, (i.e., a “star”) has a new addition to his or her entourage. Along with the requisite agent, accountant, lawyer, chauffeur, and bodyguard, there is now a sixth person: a spiritual guide.
But like earlier “gold rushes” in American history, there is a lot of “fool’s gold” out there. Counterfeit spiritualities abound. While all questions can lead to Christ, all roads don’t lead to God. When Philip shared “the good news about Jesus,” Philip let the eunuch know that the real God in his own personal God rush, the only real gold in the hills and vales of his own life, was the God of Israel, who revealed the essence of who God is in Jesus, the Christ. Philip “Good Newsed” the eunuch with the message of God’s love through Jesus. “Whom will you ‘Good News’ with divine love this week?”
Dr. Fred Andrea is the pastor of Aiken’s First Baptist Church.