Growing up in church, kids always got special treatment. At my church, for example, there was some unwritten rule giving all adults in church “special” permission to “discipline” us as though we were their own kids. Doyle Braden was an arm-grabber, as I recall. Mr. Lettow would flick the backs of our heads. Sean’s dad pinched ears. Hard.
Church kids didn’t have to listen to sermons. We were allowed to draw on the backs of bulletins and take naps. The sermon was for “grownups.” The kids, well, we were told “Bible stories.”
I remember my Sunday School teacher pulling out the flannelgraph and using felt-cutouts of camels, caves, and men with beards retell (okay- summarize) the stories of the Bible. Noah and the Ark. The Fiery Furnace. The Good Samaritan. Great stories, all told in kid-friendly ways. You know, like on Sesame Street.
And that was the problem. Our little kid brains had a hard time telling the difference between Bible stories (which, I presume our teachers believed to have really happened or, in the case of the Samaritan, to have really been told by Jesus) and every other story we had been told. After all, David and Goliath had a giant, but so did Jack and the Beanstalk. Jesus was resurrected by the power of God, Sleeping Beauty was revivified by the Kiss of a Prince. To us, it was all kind of the same.
To make matters worse, our teachers often oversimplified the stories, diluting them into moralistic tales that they were never meant to be. Adam and Eve, Jacob and Esau, and Achan, taught us that is was bad to tell a lie. David and Jonathan showed us that sharing made us a good friend. Jonah was a lesson in obedience. Sunday morning Bible stories were like lo-tech Saturday morning cartoons. Only boring.
Looking back, I recognize that each “story” was an opportunity to share the gospel; to demonstrate our need for a savior and to recognize God’s provision in Christ. But instead, we learned that sharing and using good manners made Jesus happy. As we grew up, those stories were left behind for more practical topical Bible studies and the abstract “meat” of Pauline theology.
Of course, we eventually learned that The Three Little Pigs, The Seven Dwarfs, and all the other protagonists in our childhood stories weren’t real. How were we to know that their Bible story counterparts were?
I suppose what I’m getting at is that we need to be careful how we communicate things. The Bible isn’t God’s Cautionary Tales. Sure, there are lots of examples in the history of the Creator’s interaction with creation, but there’s more to it than that. Everything recorded in the text points to humanity’s relationship to God, made right only through the life, death, and real resurrection of Jesus. The way we talk about that history will affect how it is understood by those we tell.
The fundamental problem with “unfinished Task” strategy is that it substitutes evangelism for the Great Commission idea of discipleship. Evangelism is not the same thing as Missions. In fact, there are many good and well-respected mission sending agencies that have built strategies and missiologies around a profound misunderstanding of the missionary task. Somewhere along the way, we mistook “reaching” people for making disciples. Disciple making requires acute cultural awareness and mature faith in Christ. In order to obediently share our faith with people of a culture different from our own, we must become experts in that culture. We must learn the language to understand the worldview, and only then will we be able to culturally translate the message of the good news. But this takes time and energy. Instead, we are content to pass out tracts and Jesus films, and remain ignorant of how culturally irrelevant we are. According to Jesus’ words in Matthew 28.18-20, our task is more than evangelization. It is to make disciples, and that requires us to abandon our human-centered strategies and walk in total dependence on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, going where He leads, in His timing.
Maybe it’s our affinity for convenience that has led us to settle for marketing-campaign dissemination of information over the long-term disciple-making relationships Jesus modeled with His disciples. But discipleship is not sharing information, public discourse, or debate. It has little to do with the materials we have available, and is not quick and easy. Discipleship is a relationship. In fact, the Good News is a relationship. The gospel itself is a relationship, and relationship is the context through which it must be shared.