Event-speech as a Form of Missionary Education
by Gene Daniels
A brief look at the teachings of Jesus and the early Church show that event-speech (responding to immediate events through Spirit-guided speeches) was the preferred method of evangelism.
While on furlough, I once tried to explain to an American pastor about the flow and form of a typical house-church meeting in Central Asia. I described how some of the pastors I know, simple Muslim-background men, wait for normal conversations over tea and a meal to determine what they later teach in that meeting. I went on to say that by using this as the primary means of imparting Christian doctrine, they are being relevant to the spiritual needs of people who do not usually think in the abstract. After struggling to get his mind around this paradigm-shattering idea, my friend became annoyed and asked, “But how can you call that preaching?”
Some time later, I related this conversation back to one of those house-church pastors I had referred to. He was just as piqued when he replied, “If I stood up and gave a speech like you do in your Western churches, people would think I was crazy! No one would ever talk that way in real life.”
Hopefully, this illustrates the degree to which cultural conditioning affects our presuppositions about what is the appropriate form for “Christian” communication. Unfortunately, this is something that cross-cultural missionaries often ignore to their own detriment.
“CHRISTIAN” SPEECH FORMS“
In the West, we have become so accustomed to certain speech forms being the primary, if not exclusive, means of communicating the gospel that it is hard for us to remember that there are other potentially fruitful ones. The main speech forms that have become entrenched in our Church traditions are (1) Christian “preaching” or “teaching,” highly structured public performances for mainly Christian audiences, and (2) the usually well-rehearsed religious semi-monologue we call “witnessing,” for use with outsiders. Although preaching, teaching and witnessing are certainly biblical words, or derivatives of the same, I believe the current range of meaning in the modern evangelical world is significantly different from the original. Furthermore, there are a number of other words that should inform the structure of our gospel communication if it is to be truly biblical. However, this is an extremely broad subject, and neither of these points is the purpose of this article. We will not attempt to explore the entire range of useful missionary communication models, but rather a particular form that I think has been nearly forgotten by westerners.
Although uncommon in many parts of Christendom, there is a neglected form of speech that is found frequently in the Bible—something I have termed event-speech.1 At first hearing, this expression may seem a bit odd, but what it describes is familiar to anyone who has spent significant time reading his or her Bible, particularly the Book of Acts. In this narrative of early Church mission, we find that events were more than simply the setting in which a predetermined message was spoken. Rather, events were the moments, pregnant with meaning, that gave rise to the content and structure of the words which followed.
PETER AND JOHN AT THE GATE CALLED BEAUTIFUL
One well known example of event-speech as missionary communication is found in Acts 3-4, unfolding first at the gate called Beautiful, where the apostles were caught up in a series of events that became opportunities for God to speak. Acts 3:11-12 says,
- While the beggar (who had just been healed) held on to Peter and John, all the people were astonished and came running to them in the place called Solomon’s Colonnade. When Peter saw this, he said to them, “Men of Israel, why does this surprise you?”
And the next day, as they stood before the Sanhedrin:
- The rulers, elders and teachers of the law met in Jerusalem….They had Peter and John brought before them and began to question them: “By what power or what name did you do this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them… (Acts 4:5, 7-8)
These are two of the many times in Acts when we see the apostles using this model to communicate the gospel. They did not plan the moment; they seized it. There was no sermon outline nor was this an evangelism program of any kind. Rather, as God’s spokespersons, the apostles allowed the miracle and its aftermath to give substance and form to what they said.
PAUL AT THE TEMPLE
Miracles were not the only times that gave occasion to event-speech in the Book of Acts; some of Paul’s most famous speeches were of this kind. An example of this is found in Acts 21, where he is arrested in the temple:
- When Paul reached the steps, the violence of the mob was so great that he had to be carried by the soldiers. The crowd that followed kept shouting, “Away with him!”….[Paul then asked] “Please let me speak to the people.” Having received the commander’s permission, Paul stood on the steps and motioned to the crowd. When they were silent, he said to them in Aramaic… (Acts 21:35-40)
Again we see the moment as the driver, an event happening in real time that the Apostle Paul understood as a divinely-given opportunity to speak the mind and will of God to the people around him.
Event-speech as a model of New Testament era preaching is not limited to Acts. In fact, it could be that the main reason we see so much use of event-speech in apostolic preaching is that they were only following the model given to them by Jesus. A number of Jesus’ sermons recorded in the Gospels were in response to questions or comments from others.
Unfortunately, we do not have enough room in this article to catalogue all the instances. In fact, so much of Jesus’ evangelistic preaching and discipleship sayings were in the event-speech model that it is difficult to find clear examples of anything else! Outside of the Sermon on the Mount and possibly a few of the parables, it would be hard to press the case for the existence of formal speech in Jesus’ teachings.
With this in mind, one example should suffice—a sermon that has embedded itself deeply in our Christian souls, a teaching we commonly refer to as “the Lord’s Prayer.” Its context looks something like this: “One day, while Jesus was praying in a certain place, when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.’ He said to them, ‘When you pray, say…’” (Luke 11:1-2a). What followed is one of the most beloved discipleship tools we own in the Church today, one that arose in the simple context of the answer to a question. Today, this profound lesson is usually presented as part of a highly-structured children’s lesson or some other public religious homily. While this does not rob it of its power, placing it in this context does cast a certain misperception over the means, methods and patterns of discipleship of which it is a part.
THE MODEL EXPLAINED
As you may have noted above, the event-speech model involves a certain measure of human curiosity. Sometimes it is overt, as in when someone asks a question. Other times, it is only implied, such as when a concrete situation or event causes thoughtful people to wonder, “What does this mean?” But either way, the beauty of event-speech is that it is practical and concrete; it speaks to thoughts, questions and concerns that are on the minds of people at that moment. Sometimes, the event-speech sermon is occasioned by a miracle or another public happening; other times, it is the result of a private or semi-private question. The common thread is that it is shaped in real-time, not prepared in advance. Therefore, this form of missionary communication is extremely relevant to the concrete moment in which people are living, not a dangling application at the end of a discourse on the theoretical.
The model is not complicated, although we may find applying it in our ministries to be a challenge. But what would happen if we started to realize that as God’s spokespersons, we have been ordained to be in a particular place, at an exact moment, for a divine purpose? Thinking in terms of event-speech is an opportunity for God to speak into the immediate world of those watching, questioning and listening, whenever we are willing to be his voice on earth.
HINDRANCES TO FOLLOWING THE EVENT-SPEECH MODEL
If event-speech is a major communication pattern in scripture, particularly in the Church’s mission handbook, Acts, then shouldn’t we wonder why it is largely missing from our modern missionary toolkit? Likely, there are a number of reasons why we tend to ignore this form; however, three stand out as major causes.
1. We fear we will be out of control. A church leader from Southeast Asia once told me that he thought the “national sin” of Western missionaries was the need to be in control. This includes everything from the way we deal with people in our organizations to the way we manage our finances. While he did not say it, I also believe it has a major effect on the way we present the gospel, something my own experience bears out.
Most missionaries I have known over the years (myself included!) are much more comfortable using speech to create an event than operating in the reverse, allowing a particular moment to create a spiritual event. We organize evangelistic meetings and other kinds of “outreaches” in order to gather people, trying to orchestrate a moment that we can then fill with meaning. I believe the primary reason we do this is because we like to be in control. We find it hard to trust God when we do not know what is going to happen next. Whether it is a church service or public evangelism, we much prefer that we know what to expect.
A giant of the faith who has spent many years in the Muslim world once told me of being caught off guard when some angry Muslim authorities confronted him, demanding that he give his opinion of the prophet Muhammad—all the while knowing they were asking a volatile and potentially deadly question. Immediately, Jesus’ words flashed in his mind: “Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit” (Mark 13:11).
With quiet confidence he then said the words that were rising in his heart: “I have studied both the lives of Jesus and Muhammad for many years; as a result, I have come to love Jesus.” These few words not only defused the trap of his enemies by saying nothing against Muhammad, but they also bore powerful witness of the Lord Jesus in an explosive situation. Although I hope never to be faced with this particular scenario, I am trying to develop a deep confidence in God’s sovereignty that will allow me to bear witness of Christ even when events are out of my control. Yet to take advantage of such moments requires us to trust that God can and will order events to his liking, although not necessarily to ours.
2. We have a fear of operating in spiritual authority. It would appear that the apostles, much like the prophets of the Old Testament, saw themselves as interpreters of God’s purposes on earth. When it was apparent that God’s purpose was breaking into the natural world, or that a particular situation was an illustration of the will and mind of God, they were willing to speak on his behalf.
I think this frightens many of us. It seems too “prophetic,” too close to the image of a loose cannon shooting off its mouth all over the mission field. Obviously, even the most solidly biblical models can be abused; however, since we are not talking about any kind of “infallibility,” I believe these fears are mostly unwarranted. Operating in the event-speech model simply means that we have the confidence to speak for God in the moment, and with spiritual authority.
Although for some this raises the debate about the degree and meaning of apostolic authority as it is applied to current-day missionaries, I believe there is enough common theological ground to allow us to deliberately move closer to this first-century model. Surely, all streams of evangelicalism can agree that rigorous Bible study equips us to have some understanding of God’s will regarding the events of life and that missionary “sending” implies divine authority to speak to those to whom we are sent. This is enough to allow us to interpret unfolding events in light of God’s purposes for a watching world.
Several years ago, I met an old Muslim man who was clearly “a seeker.” Once while visiting him, he informed me that he had known since the night before that I was coming because he had a dream foretelling my visit. He proceeded to tell me the details of the dream and then asked for the interpretation. Since I had presented myself as a man who knew God, he fully expected that I would be able to tell him what God was saying in this dream—yet I sat there dumbfounded. I had a theology that believed in God-given dreams; I had even experienced them myself. But when the moment came that I needed to interpret God’s breaking into this man’s personal history, I lacked the nerve to do so. I knew what I should say (the dream was quite straightforward in its meaning), but to actually “interpret” his dream meant that I had to be so bold as to definitively speak for God on the spot. Unfortunately, I was not prepared to wield this kind of spiritual authority on a moment’s notice. This story is all the more disheartening because his dream had been a very clear call to leave all and follow Christ. (Thankfully, this dear Muslim grandfather later decided to “walk on the Jesus road” despite my failure that day.)
3. We have not been trained to think this way. As seminary students, we spent hours and hours preparing detailed sermon outlines with slick mnemonic devices for the main points. We were taught that what-ever connection our words might have to the world that people actually live in should be included under the heading “application,” this usually being a small section relegated to the end of the message. Furthermore, we were often trained in methods of evangelism that were very programmatic, with too many leading questions and canned answers to relate to the current events and concerns of the people to whom we were witnessing. Unfortunately, this kind of training cultivates the exact opposite of the mentality required to take advantage of divine moments with event-speech.
A missionary I know was trying to buy auto parts in Central Asia when a Muslim fundamentalist came up and started railing at him, making a number of accusations about Christian doctrine. After calmly giving time for his antagonist to vent, this man quietly said, “Oh, God forbid that I believe such things! Those are terrible errors. But it seems you really do not know what I believe, so may I explain my beliefs to you?” The fundamentalist was caught off guard and agreed. This servant of Christ was then able to share the gospel with not only the fundamentalist, but also with the eight to ten men who had been drawn by the spectacle!
Although this missionary had been a pastor back in the United States, trained and experienced in traditional preaching and teaching, his many years in Central Asia had prepared him to seize this opportunity for event-speech. He had not chosen the time or subject for this “sermon,” and in many ways was not prepared; however, he was astute enough to recognize what God was doing and took the opportunity for an impromptu evangelistic meeting.
ALWAYS SPONTANEOUS, YET ALWAYS PREPARED
Most of us were taught that good Christian speakers are well-prepared for the things we say when we preach. Unfortunately, this has driven much Christian communication closer to a performance than to God speaking to the world he loves. If we are not careful, our focus on preparation can slide into an air of artificiality that becomes a serious impediment to our mission. However, this would be a good moment to clarify how event-speech relates to preparation. Advocating this model as a better means of missionary communication does not mean we are calling for completely extemporary speaking based on a total absence of preparation. Paul, who preached a powerful, spontaneous sermon about an “unknown god” in Acts 17, later told his protégée Timothy to “preach the word, be prepared in season and out of season, correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2, emphasis added).
After reading this, I cannot believe that the same man walked into Athens and up Mars Hill without having given any thought to what he would say when he got there. Rather, I think Paul’s sermon in Acts 17 demonstrated a great deal of previous theological reflection on the nature of the one true God and how it related to Greek mythology. In the same way, if I am to be a good steward of my calling to the nations, I should spend significant effort reflecting on biblical themes in light of what I know about the people, culture and history of those to whom I am called. I should consciously and diligently channel the living waters of God’s word into the well, my heart, from which I will later draw in ministry.
One Muslim-background evangelist I know has read Isaiah more than two hundred times. He told me that the reason he focuses his devotional life on this book is because its style and grand themes touch a deep nerve with his people. By soaking his heart in Isaiah, he is very deliberately preparing himself to speak God’s revealed perspective on matters of great relevance to his own people. Whenever opportunities arise, the words of Isaiah are common currency to him, thus making his event-speech more than something spur of the moment; no, they are steeped in the Word of God.
CHANGING OUR PERSONAL PREPARATION
I must be honest and say that I have found staying “prepared in season and out of season” to use the event-speech model much harder than preparing sermons and weekly Bible studies. It is one thing to recognize something as biblical, another altogether to avail myself of it. This requires that I make changes in my methods of personal ministry preparation.
Not long ago, a wandering Muslim mystic I know came to believe in Jesus, mainly through repeatedly watching Campus Crusade’s famous Jesus film. Being illiterate, he cannot interact with any other scripture portions, so he has a completely “Lukean” theology. I did not really know how to properly disciple an illiterate person with whom I have unscheduled and irregular, yet intense, times of contact. On the advice of a colleague, I am now steeping myself in Luke, reading, rereading and meditating on it. I need to be able to speak fluently in the words of the theological framework he and his neighbors are developing from watching and rewatching this film. I am not preparing material to teach him per se, but I am preparing my heart so I can speak into his life whenever there is an opportunity, and to do so with words that are anchored to the only Word of God he knows.
If we honestly believe we represent a God who acts in history, then we must be ready to interpret the events unfolding around us in light of his character, acts and revealed word. This is what we have called event-speech. It is the act of giving divine interpretation to events and questions as they occur, recognizing the divine moments in life and speaking into them rather than saying what we have previously prepared and hoping that it meets people’s needs. Event-speech thinking means we develop a new praxis—the habit of walking through our days, and through our neighborhoods, in a theocentric mode. We become much more aware of what God might be trying to say to our Hindu neighbors or to the Muslim shopkeeper down the street. We must be conscious of the fact that God is constantly at work, and may at any moment call on us to speak on his behalf.
However, none of this is meant to imply that event-speech is the only correct pattern for missionary communication, or a magic cure for all the difficulties of preaching and teaching cross-culturally. Rather, this is simply a call for us to consider moving beyond the missionary communication patterns that are comfortable to us.
This radical change of missionary communication models excites me as I reflect on the past several years in Central Asia. How many opportunities have come my way in the normal course of life? How many moments were pregnant with divine meaning, just waiting for someone to interpret them? Admittedly, I have not taken advantage of most of these, but by God’s grace, that is going to change.
1. This is a slight twist on an anthropological term, speech-event, which is used to emphasize that words must be kept in their context; however, I have reversed the word order to put greater emphasis on the event that occasions the speech.
Gene Daniels (pseudonym) and his family have been serving among unreached Muslim people groups in Central Asia since 1997.
Published in: EMQ Vol 44-1, pp 80-87
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