As followers of Jesus Christ, we have a story to tell. It is a story that the world desperately needs to hear. It is a story of salvation. Quite literally, lives depend on it. Unfortunately, I think that we, as individual believers, and as the church, often get it wrong. We are not the subject of our story. We are not what the world needs. Quite frankly, more church isn’t even what the church needs. Not really. We need Jesus. The whole world needs Jesus. And Jesus, he sounds pretty good! Because he is!
There is growing concern among church-going Christians in North America that their neighbors and fellow citizens are less and less interested in doing just that: going to church. We may think they are similarly uninterested in Jesus, but recent research indicates that that may not be the case. A Pew Center survey found that 70% of Americans who don’t attend a church nonetheless believe in God and regard religion as important. Some don’t attend for health or other reasons, but the majority simply make a choice. The church does not entice them. This does not mean, however, that they are indifferent to Jesus.
Consider the stories of the Gospels. People were immensely attracted to Jesus. They came around him in droves! They found him wonderful, compelling, loving, and life-changing. Jesus was none other than God in the flesh, revealing himself to humankind by caring, embracing, healing, forgiving, and proclaiming a new life of mercy and liberty (Luke 4:18-19). He then died and rose again for the same.
People around the world still find this Jesus attractive. They may live where they’ve never seen a church. There may be no gathering of Christians in their community. But many of them hear the Gospel, in some form – written, audio, or from a friend or passerby – and they meet Jesus. He compels and attracts them as he did when he walked the earth. It’s what he does. He draws people to himself.
Don’t get me wrong. The church – and by this, I mean the gathering community of believers – is important, even essential for the Christian. But the church doesn’t save. Only Jesus does. Ideally, of course, we live out and reflect the very love and grace of God in Christ, but with all of our human failures and deficiencies, especially as an institution, we simply may not appear all that attractive to the world. It’s often a very different story, though, when the world sees Jesus. The question we must ask is this: Are we showing them Jesus? Are we, like John the Baptist, pointing them to the Lamb of God? Are we being the kind of witnesses Jesus has commissioned us to be?
Our witness, our purpose, and our mission must be Christ-centered, not church-centered. I fear that all too often even “church-planting” endeavors miss the mark in this regard. In Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim contexts we simply do not envision that people are looking for a church, and increasingly we shouldn’t assume that in North America. People everywhere, however, are looking for hope, healing, forgiveness, and peace. Thankfully, these are found in Jesus. We can’t profess to provide any one of them in a truly meaningful fashion, except to give witness to Jesus, telling the story of what he has done – for the world, for us, and for them.
Back when I was a college professor, I began a course on evangelism by asking students to write out their personal testimonies as best they could, with an understanding that they wouldn’t be graded. When they brought them to the next class session, I instructed them to circle the subject in each sentence they had written. Not surprisingly, they themselves were the subjects of most of what they had written: “I this…” and “I that…” Some saw to their unexpected chagrin that not even once did they acknowledge Jesus or God as the actor in their stories. Not surprisingly, I suppose, their stories were all about them. As the next step in the assignment, they found it challenging, but also inspiring, and even worldview-altering, to rewrite their stories with God or Jesus as the subject of every sentence. That is how a story becomes a witness. That is how Jesus would have us understand our lives. It is how he would have us, and the church, tell our stories.
Together, we are the church. Jesus, the Savior of the world, is the loving and powerful subject of our story. We are not the “doers” or even “bringers” of salvation, but merely – and at the same time marvelously – witnesses of that salvation. We don’t save anybody. We simply tell the story. Jesus does the saving. Really, there’s nothing better.