by Anna Rapa
Some of the things I’ve learned on my 10 year journey.
It was a Passover not too long ago. My modest house in a lower-class urban neighborhood was filled to the brim with people. Around a candlelit table sat all manner of people: a retired minister-turned-appellate-attorney, three law students from different ethnic backgrounds, an engineering entrepreneur, a typical Dutch west Michigan man and his wife, my two globetrotting roommates, and me. Our spiritual backgrounds were just as diverse. Some had grown up in the faith but were apathetic. Some had lived and worked as missionaries and pastors. Some had fallen away from faith, and some had no interest in Jesus at all.
As we sat around the table, we talked and laughed and told stories. We also experienced a Messianic Passover Seder. During the cup of the redemption, where Jesus offered bread and wine to foreshadow his own death on the cross, we reflected upon the death and resurrection of Jesus. Then I read 2 Corinthians 5 and shared how choosing to follow this resurrected Christ transforms a person’s life and draws that person into mission with Jesus.
Fast forward a year. Several of these same people still gathered sporadically with others in my home for a meal or dessert and a story about Jesus. Each week, someone read a story, we re-told the story, and then we discussed it. We asked questions like, “What did you wonder about?” and “What did you notice for the first time?” Each week, we concluded with a time of reflection on a question like “What questions do you have for Jesus?” or “What is Jesus inviting you to do?” During the reflection time we played music in the background and handed out markers, crayons, and colored pencils. People drew or wrote their responses, and then we shared and prayed for one another.
After seven weeks of Encounters with Jesus, none of us was the same. During that sweet time of fellowship, I saw some people take that all-important step from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. Some learned to pray to God personally. Some begin to relate to Jesus as a person rather than an idea. Many surrendered their lives to him. And I was blessed by their commitment to our community when my father died—each of them showed up for me in very meaningful ways.
None of the attenders was part of a church at the time, and none was really interested in going to church. All were part of that generation increasingly missing from our churches—Generation Xers or Millenials, who are either leaving our churches in droves or never getting there in the first place. And somehow, after years of prayerful pursuit and a willingness to lay down my life for my friends, they met Jesus and were transformed by him.
I grew up as a pastor’s kid and then a missionary kid. Very early on, I gave my life to Christ and sensed a call to ministry. But growing up in a ministry family, and being a relatively normal Generation Xer, I had an inherent distrust for mission agencies and the organized church. Even so, I spent a couple of years after college working as a missionary with at-risk youth in my neighborhood. I loved the work, but there were significant misunderstandings between myself and my sending church. Although the conflicts were likely mostly based upon our cultural differences, they seemed insurmountable, so I left the ministry and my church.
But that left me stymied. I felt a deep calling to ministry, but had no way to express that in the church. For a while, I worked a clerical job in a secular environment. There, I learned that I love building intentional relationships with secular people. Eventually, I went to law school, wondering if I’d ever do ministry again.
While in law school, I struggled to find an identity. Law was stimulating and challenging, and I was good at my classes. But I had a hard time relating to my peers. I grew up overseas, and we had none of the same interests or values. Although we shared the experience of law school, it wasn’t enough to build deep relationships. Then in 2006, I went to the Urbana Student Missions Convention and sought the face of God about my ministry calling. He led me to embrace who I am and find a way to use that to build relationships with people who don’t know or follow him. Eventually, I started a non-profit organization with the thought that I could bring other people in as interns or employees. While fighting for justice in this very unjust world, I’d have the opportunity to live out and share my faith in relationship with them.
Shortly after law school I began a criminal defense practice and continued my work with the nonprofit. I soon found that I had many people in my life for whom I could pray and to whom I could reach out. I’m an introvert and hate big groups, so many days you’d find me at lunch with this person or that one. Slowly, I built relationships. I spent time talking to people and finding out what made them tick. At home, I’d be praying for them. Over time, I had countless opportunities to explain why I drive a beat-up car and live in the inner city, why I give so much of my time to pro bono legal projects, and why my faith impacts my life the way it does. I also invested a lot of time in relationship with people who were hostile toward faith in God or the church, but who were willing to be my friend.
There came a point when I saw several people leaving their hostility behind and becoming more interested in faith in general and Jesus in particular. At this point, I had the Passover Seder in my house. Over the next year or two I continued to invest, and eventually some of my friends were interested in talking a little more deeply about Jesus. They were still not ready to go to church, although I invited them. And they were not committed enough to the idea of Jesus and his teachings to wade through scripture to figure out what it meant for them. But a story about Jesus and great dessert? They could do that!
Things I’ve Learned along the Way
It was more than ten years ago that I left my church-based ministry to go into the world. It’s been a challenging decade as I’ve tried to figure out how to best impact the world around me. Few resources are being produced with an eye toward equipping lay people to be ambassadors of Christ in their own worlds. I’ve made many mistakes along the way, but early on I committed to share what I’ve been doing and learning so that others will be resourced. To that end, here are some of the things I’ve learned on this journey.
1. People’s barriers to faith are often more emotional than rational. For many years, the predominant way people made decisions was based upon rationality. We thought through things, and then we acted. When we made a commitment to marriage, we kept it, come what may, because that was our word. But culture has shifted, and the younger generations generally do not play by these rules. Instead, we fall in and out of love, and our loyalties shift accordingly. We decide to do things because we want to, and we avoid things because they don’t feel right. We have no problem holding two beliefs that are logically mutually exclusive. Our decisions are made with our guts instead of our heads.
This has enormous implications for how we invite people to follow Jesus. Although we have hundreds of years’ worth of apologetics resources, my friends are not asking those questions anymore. And even if they do bring up logical questions like creation vs. evolution, often these are a smokescreen for the deeper questions really holding them back. With few exceptions, my friends’ barriers to faith have been based upon things like how they could like—let alone worship—a God who sends people to hell, or how God could allow evil things to happen to good people. Although there may be a logical element to these questions, the real question is about who God is and how or why I should trust him.
Unfortunately, there are almost no resources available that help people recognize and respond to another’s emotional barriers to faith. Wim Rietkerk wrote If only I Could Believe a number of years ago, and it’s recently become available again. We desperately need more minds and resources engaging with this type of barrier to faith.
2. It is essential that people meet and fall in love with Jesus if they are truly going to surrender their whole lives to him.
People who have emotional barriers to faith cannot be convinced logically to follow Jesus. And they’re not going to sign up to believe something about God just because you can logically argue it to be true. Instead, they must meet Jesus and get to know him. They must learn to trust him.
There is an element of knowledge here, and we have the Gospels to illustrate who Jesus is. But for too long we have seen the Gospels as something to be studied and picked apart rather than an introduction to a living, breathing person. In order for my friends to become followers of Jesus, they had to know him personally. They had to interact with him in prayer. They had to ask him their hard questions about why he does things a certain way.
One way that I chose to introduce people to Jesus was to creatively share the stories behind seven important dialogues he had. Taking background from commentaries and imagining the person’s emotional response to Jesus, I wrote the Encounters with Jesus stories. They read like a testimony, and they tell the story of meeting Jesus from the blind man’s or the woman at the well’s perspective. Similar to the way you might share about a friend before you introduced someone to her personally, these stories serve as an introduction to Jesus. But they also take people one step further by inviting them to engage with him at a relational level.
I believe that the Encounters with Jesus series is an effective tool. But it is just one tool. We need more to help introduce different types of people to Jesus relationally.
3. Regular people who live or work in the world are your greatest assets for evangelism. As I’ve studied the cultural shifts in our communities and churches over the past decade, I’m more convinced now than ever that the future of God’s Church is going to depend upon equipping and sending out lay people to share faith in the context of their normal lives.
The younger generations are not joining the church. There is no question of this. But there is little agreement about what to do about it. I’ve heard people say they’re just waiting for my generation to have kids so that they’ll want to come back to church. I’ve seen articles written about attracting these folks to church. But I believe our only hope is to send people out, relationally and incarnationally, to the places where unchurched, non-believing people are. The good news is that we already have hundreds of thousands of people there—in neighborhoods or jobs or communities. The bad news is that we have not equipped them to talk about faith as they build intentional relationships with people around them.
The Encounters with Jesus stories and a number of other evangelism training resources are available for free at www.dawbarhouse.com. It is my deepest desire to be a catalyst to inspire many more discussions around emotional barriers to faith. I am also committed to continuing to create and provide resources to reach our post-Christian culture. Will you join me?
Anna Rapa practices criminal defense law and actively ministers in her post-Christian marketplace. She grew up as a third-culture kid and uses her cross-cultural skills to help the church bridge the generational divide. She is the author of Second Story: Seeing What’s Not Being Said and blogs regularly at annarapa.blogspot.com
EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 4, pp. 478-482. Copyright © 2013 Billy Graham Center. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.