Q&R with Brad Jersak – Turning from or turning to? A question about evangelism

Photo by Wesley Fryer – Flikr – I-35 Paul’s Valley, Oklahoma

Question

Hey, Brad! I was just listening to a podcast you did with Bruxy Cavey about evangelism. I think I received some insight and I’d like to hear your thoughts. Here’s what I’m thinking: evangelism isn’t “get rid of this, get rid of that–and receive Jesus.” It’s more like an addition: “Add Jesus.” Not as an accessory but instead, like what Jesus spoke of when he compared the kingdom of heaven to yeast that works its way through the whole lump of dough; or the mustard seed which, although it’s the smallest of seeds, it grows into the largest tree and becomes a home to others.

Response

I hear what you’re saying. We absolutely see that dynamic in the story of Cornelius’ conversion and in Paul’s sermon at Athens. My own experience is that so much evangelism has been focused on “turning from” and loaded with condemnation, loathing and even mockery of the other’s current attachments. It felt less like an invitation to Someone wonderful and more like shaming ‘the pagans’ for what we disapproved of and threatening with ultimatums to join our moralistic religious system. I think your suggestion shows a godly sensitivity to that toxic culture and so I do resonate … but with the following provisos: 

I think evangelism (sharing good news) in the New Testament still included some sort of “turning from” (stated or just implied) intrinsic to our “turning to.”Menatoia (repentance) is about redirecting the nous (our spiritual heart-mind core / the eyes of our heart) toward the love of God. Redirected from what? That depends on you. There are clear calls in both Testaments to turn from idols, for example. And I think it’s likely that Plato coined the term in his analogy of the cave, where the turn is from delusion to truth. Or frequently in the NT, there’s a turn from darkness to light. 

Some define this metanoia as “change of mind” … but the nous isn’t just my “mind” and the turn isn’t merely rational. Those who reduce it to that are rightly rejecting the self-loathing version of the hellfire evangelists, but it’s an obvious over-reaction, swerving into the other ditch. The word “conversion” is more accurate (according to usage) because it includes more than new thinking. There’s a transformation involved–we’re made new or renewed or becoming new. Take, for example, the Prodigal Son as Christ’s model for the gospel. Coming home does tend to include leaving something behind or letting go of the old, the past, etc. He left something awful and empty and made his way back to the Father’s house. The cool thing in that story is that it’s a RE-turn. He was never disowned, he was always a son, lost or not.  

Because of the shenanigans of fire-stoking evangelists of recent centuries, evangelism has become a noxious byword. But for those of us who feel that God’s love revealed in Christ is good news for the world, we aren’t inclined to pack it in just yet. If we share, we might want to have a direct conversation about what someone is desirous of leaving (e.g. if they want to leave bondage to fear or slavery to addiction). At other times, it could be just as you said: we invite them to embrace to the One who’s embraced them and leave them to decide with Christ what letting go may be involved in that embrace. 

Reader’s Reply

Thanks for the response. I agree that there’s both a “turning from” and “turning to.” When I was younger, it seemed like the emphasis was always more on “turning from,” as if to say to the convert, “Jettison everything you’ve previously known and enjoyed. Besides, Christ will replace it with better things” (usually “christianized” copies of the same thing–at least in America).  Personally, I think “conversion” is a good description, as you said. It’s a continual, cooperative turning–it’s about transformation. 

I also like using the language of a dance. In Song of Songs 6:13, I’ve been told that the Hebrew term there is “the dance of Mahanaim” which means “the dance of heaven and earth.” (Most translations render it other ways.) Nonetheless, in a dance, one leads and the other follows. And both parties move to the same music. But only the one who leads has to really know how to dance. The other’s role is to relax and let the movement of the lead dancer guide them in their movements. The follower doesn’t even have to hear the music but it helps.

Evangelism is when Jesus, through us, asks someone to dance with him. All they have to do (in this analogy) is leave their seat and step onto the dance floor into his embrace. 

Thanks so much for your time. You’re in my prayers.

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