I’ve never been to a doctor who has given me a prescription without first taking my vital signs, asking pertinent questions, and then given a specific diagnosis. I think sometimes we do prescribe the Gospel before we give a more specific diagnosis in our evangelistic efforts and Gospel conversations.
Gospel Dumptrucks and Hand Grenades
When I was a non-believer I had a few conversations where I certainly felt like the person sharing Jesus with me just wanted me to shut up so they could back their Gospel dump truck on me and verbally unload. Maybe this has been you before – I know I have been on the giving and receiving ends of these conversations. How do we weave the Gospel into our conversations such that we aren’t backing up the dumptruck or lobbing a Gospel hand grenade and running? How can we speak more to the root of the unbelief and less in generalities and/or avoid tangential topics.
Smokescreens and Scuba-Diving
Reformed circles are relatively clear with regards to the essentials of the general Gospel prescription (creation, fall, redemption, consummation). What seems to be unclear is a road-map of how we get to those conversations and how we do winsomely.
The big thing that seems to be missing in all of our evangelistic and/or apologetic dialogue is basic listening and counseling skills. From my perspective most objections to the Gospel fit very broadly into one of three categories: head, heart, or hands. Of the head (intellectual objections), heart (emotive and idol-based objections), and hands (experiential or hypocritical objections) types of objections to the Gospel – so much of our conversations get stuck in head (ie. problem of evil, NT reliability, existence of God…) or hand (ie. ‘Christians are hypocrites’ [duh!], ‘I had a bad experience’, or ‘look at the Crusades’…) type objections to the Gospel. From my experience most of these objections are mere smokescreens meant to derail or parry the conversation away from the idols of their own heart – the real source of their unbelief. For people who have honest (head or hand) questions/objections give them, “honest answers,” as Francis Schaeffer said. To be helpful in our dialogue we must ask questions that get to the heart of the unbelief.
Scuba-diving is the term we use at our church for the art of asking questions that get to the heart and more root level idols. Here are some helpful scuba-diving questions:
-What are you looking forward to?
-What does that do (the potential surface or root level idol) for you?
-If you didn’t have to work (be a mom, study…) what would you most rather be doing?
These are all variations on the basic question, “what do you want?” The answer to the “what do you want” question can sometimes be helpful in diagnosing at least surface level idols (sex, money, laziness). Sometimes you will be able to connect the dots to more root level idols like comfort, escape, power, and control. Sometimes you hit brick walls because you lack the rapport or relationship needed to ask some of these questions. There is an art to scuba-diving where you must re-pressurize every so many feet that you dive and you have to know yourself and your relationship well enough to know how deep you can safely dive.
At the core you are trying to get a better picture of what is more beautiful, compelling, or joyful to them than the Gospel? What is it that they spend their time, money, and thought-life on? What do they want? What the heart wants reveals what the heart worships. The Gospel has so many metaphors, summaries, themes, aspects, touchpoints, and facets. Different Gospel analogies, themes, or metaphors (truth, security, fidelity, fear, anxiety, addiction, adoption, justice, grace, suffering, power, freedom…) can speak more winsomely to different idols. When we take a genuine interest in the other person’s soul we are more prone to ask questions and listen. Questions increase the depth of the scuba-dive. When we see with more specificity what the lost person’s heart wants, then we can speak the Gospel more directly to the idol(s).
Affirmation and Deconstruction
Once we have taken a look at the wants/idols of the person we have something like a diagnosis. Typically, idols are disproportionate manifestations of good things – for example the control idol is the good thing, leadership, absolutized. Before challenging an idol with the sledgehammer of the Gospel consider affirming the elements of it that were once good. Paul did this in Athens in Acts 17:22-23
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.
The folks in Athens worshiped the idol of new knowledge. Paul stroked the idol before he deconstructed the idol. Earlier in the passage Paul gets chased out of Thessalonica and Berea and heads down to Athens to wait for Silas and Timothy. While Paul is waiting he goes into diagnosis mode in verse 16:
Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.
Paul diagnosed the idols of the city before speaking the Gospel at them. On a more corporate level, this allowed Paul to affirm the Athenians desire for knowledge before he challenged the inadequacy of their gods. How ineffectual does your pantheon of other gods have to be to have an unnamed god that covers up the weakness and inability of all the others?
One might argue that the Gospel itself already has a diagnosis in it and you would be correct. All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. The kind of diagnosis I have in view here is more specific than it is general. The common state of mankind is helpful to draw out in Gospel conversation and is a necessary component of the Gospel. What I have in view here is connecting the Gospel with more specificity to the idols of the heart. Every idol has a short-run payoff but ultimately all idols over-promise and under-deliver. Good diagnosis allows us to show how the idol will not satisfy in the long-run and show how the Gospel will.
When diagnosis precedes prescription it helps to bring more precise focus and clarity as to how Christ is better than their surrogate god(s). May Paul’s prayer for clarity be the same as ours:
At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison— that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. – Col. 4:3-4