“For though I am free with respect to all,I have made myself a servant to all,so that I might win more of them.To those under the law I became as one under the law . . . so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law . . .I became as one outside the law so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak,so that I might win the weak.I have become all things to all people,that I might by all means save some.I do it all for the sake of the gospel,so that I may share in its blessings.” — I Corinthians 9: 20-23
In his presentation on the vision of Solid Rock UMC, one of our TRC pastors, Mike Bass, likes to point out that we are living in the age “after Christendom.” Part of what he means is that we are living in a time and culture when we can no longer take it for granted that the people we see around us each day have any real knowledge of what Christian faith is all about: and often the image that they do have is one that bears little resemblance to the kind of real, vital, and living faith that we all treasure.
Other writers have pointed out that the church’s current position in society is a lot like the situation encountered by the early church: where many people have little idea of what Christians really are - and if they do have some notion, it revolves around some of the same kind of negative stereotypes that Romans had toward those first few strange people who followed the crucified Jesus. Thus the recent George Barna poll finding that the three words non-Christians most often associate with Christians are “anti-homosexual, hypocritical, and judgmental.”
Add into this publicity nightmare the several recent screaming secularist tracts that describe faith in God as an anachronism of the past, as well as the fact that so many people are weary of having their life intruded on uninvited by others with things to sell, and it is easy to see why so many seem ready to put the church in its grave.
It is enough to make us wonder what in the world evangelism, a true, faithful sharing of the gospel, might look like in such a time as this. What should we do?
When so many are trying to put the church in its grave, perhaps we should dig our own grave.
I was talking with a pastor about all of the funerals he had performed recently, when he mentioned that he has taken up a new practice surrounding funerals. After the graveside service, after the last prayer from the little black worship book, after the hugs, after the family climbs back into the funeral car, he takes off his suit jacket and walks over to the grave-fillers standing apart in the distance, and he volunteers to help them.
It all started, he said, when he led the funeral of someone in the community whose family could not afford a proper burial. To help the family, the pastor arranged for some volunteer people from the church to help in digging and filling in the grave, under the guidance of one funeral home director. He found it to be such a powerful practice, such a moving ritual, that he resolved to try to repeat it. Since then, not only has he found that grave-digging has more deeply connected him with the dead, but that it has made new connections with the living. Each time, he says, he has good conversations with the grave-diggers he helps, many of whom can’t believe that any preacher would ever do this kind of thing. One of the grave-diggers has even come to his church a few times.
The apostle Paul would approve. The man who wrote the following words knows what that pastor is up to:
“For though I am free with respect to all,I have made myself a servant to all, so that I might win more of them. To those under the law I became as one under the law . . . so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law . . .I became as one outside the law so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel,so that I may share in its blessings.” (I Corinthians 9: 20-23).
“To those digging graves I have become as one digging graves . . .”
This image of the pastoral gravedigger, of Christian servants graciously rolling up their sleeves and joining people in their (often grim) work, of doing slightly conspicuous or odd things that help people re-think church, of performing deeds that fascinate and captivate the imagination, and that would make absolutely no sense unless Jesus really is Lord – this, I believe, is the present and future of evangelism.
It’s also a pretty good witness to a Savior who joined mortal humanity so deeply and fully that he went all the way down into a grave – and who still does some of his best work of resurrection in the cemetery.