In the movie, Walk the Line, a young Johnny Cash and brother, Jack, are in their bedroom about to go to sleep. Both are in bed and Jack is reading his bible. Out of curiosity Johnny asks why he’s always reading it. Jack responds by saying, “If I’m gonna be a preacher some day, I gotta know the bible. I mean, you can’t help nobody if you can’t tell them the right story.”
Ever since seeing the movie, this scene has stuck with me. There’s something profound in Jack’s statement about the power of a story. Stories have the ability to capture the human condition, give people hope, bring people together and inspire individuals to change the world. And when a story is properly told the storyteller invites the listeners to be participants in that story.
I used to think missions was something to be done. A box to be checked. A service project to be accomplished. A soul to be saved. But now I am convinced mission is a story to be lived.
Just like Johnny’s brother, Jack, my shift in thinking came from reading the right story. Actually, it came from reading the bible as one cohesive story. When I did, I was surprised at what I discovered.
I always assumed that individualized salvation (i.e. – getting into heaven when we die) was central to the biblical narrative. Turns out I was wrong.
In my previous post I commented how for the longest time my missional imagination was nonexistent. But when it eventually was piqued it was all about “getting people saved.” Essentially, that was the story into which I was living. Therefore, mission was all about getting people to “ask Jesus into their heart,” and I had a well crafted presentation designed to make it happen.
My gospel “pitch”, if you will, was motivated by and built on guilt. I thought it was my job to convince people that they were sinners and if I could emphasize it enough eventually they would feel bad and guilt would set in. And once they were so overcome with remorse, I drop my “Jesus bomb” of good news on them. And if that didn’t work I had a back up plan. I would scare the hell out of them, literally. I would use fear. I would articulate a contrived description of an eternity in hell hoping they would be frightened into the kingdom.
To me, this was mission.
But when I started to read the entire bible as a story, I came to realize God’s definition and trajectory of salvation was much more robust than mine. My story of salvation was all about what we were saved from, but had no vision as to what we were saved for.
Now I’ve come to believe God’s story of salvation is so much more than getting into heaven when we die. Salvation is about new creation. In the final chapters of Revelation the Apostle John sees a vision of a new heaven and a new earth. He sees the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down from the sky to rest on earth. And he hears a voice saying, “Behold, I am making all things new.”
And here’s where my mission paradigm was completely shattered. God’s “new creation project” isn’t something that’s far off in the distant future. It’s actually in process right now! God’s new creation, His new world, was launched when Jesus rose from the dead and walked out of the tomb. After the resurrection Jesus wasn’t a disembodied spirit. He had a physical body with flesh and bones. He had an appetite and was able to eat food. And somehow, while still carrying the scars of His crucifixion, He was made new!
Reading the story of scripture in this way has HUGE implications on how we approach mission(s). As Dallas Willard says, “God’s story of salvation isn’t about getting into heaven when you die. It’s about getting into heaven before you die.”
Mission(s) carries with it a vision for renewal; physical renewal. spiritual renewal, mental, emotional, and cultural renewal. Like Willard says, this renewal doesn’t only take place after die, but it can happen in the here and now. And as followers of Jesus we should be cultivators of it.
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew writers called this shalom. We translate shalom peace. But our english word for peace doesn’t do justice to the meaning of shalom. The biblical concept of shalom is about universal flourishing for all people and all relationships. Shalom is present when a community seeks the good of everyone in that community no matter their ethnic background or economic status.
Francis of Assisi once said, “Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” Only Jesus can fully bring about shalom, peace on earth. But as Christians, when we live into this story now, when we disadvantage ourselves for the sake of bettering someone else, we are pointing people toward the final fulfillment of God’s redemptive plan.
And when we have the opportunity to express the gospel with words, we don’t have to share a contrived “gospel pitch.” We just simply share with them the story into which we are living and invite them to be a participant.
Into what good news story are you living?