The Salty Life
by Rebecca Manley Pippert
You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?
The gospel is good news, the most glorious news ever to grace our weary and battered planet. So why do so many of us feel inadequate when it comes to being a witness? That is a question I have long wrestled with in the years I've been in ministry. For the past 10 years, my husband and I have conducted evangelism training conferences and evangelistic outreaches on six continents. We have taught Catholics, Anglicans, Orthodox, and Protestants in both traditional cultures in Africa and Asia and postmodern Western cultures like North America, Australia, and Europe, perhaps the most difficult place in the world to talk about the good news. What have we learned both here at home and abroad?
In every culture we find people raising the same issues, especially as it relates to personal witness: What if we offend? What if they ask us questions we can't answer? How can we be a witness when our own lives are so imperfect? How do we share the gospel in ways that are culturally relevant, biblically faithful, and contextually sensitive?
Fortunately Christ gave us a model, a message, and the means to both incarnate and proclaim the good news of God's transforming love in our broken world.
The model: Embody the story
Our model for evangelism is the incarnation of Christ, a theological prism through which we view our entire missional task in the world. Our inspiration, motivation, and practice must come from understanding the unique act in history where God entered into our world and our human condition in the person of Jesus Christ.
Jesus said, "As the Father sent me into the world, so I send you." Jesus is telling us that our mission in the world is to resemble his. Just as he entered our world, so are we to enter others' worlds.
Jesus said that the essence of the law is to "love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and your neighbor as yourself " (Luke 10:27). The trinity, the law, and the ministry of Jesus all point to the same truth: The kingdom of God is profoundly relational. When we reach out and express God's love to others we are reflecting the deepest reality of all—the very triune nature of God. Jesus loved the sinful, the lost, the maimed, the marginalized—and so must we. Emulating God's compassion must be at the heart of everything we do, and it is fundamental to our understanding of evangelism. It isn't enough to simply walk alongside seekers—genuine authenticity requires receiving and learning from each other.
But how do we demonstrate God's love to seekers without compromising our own identity? The incarnation of Jesus is the supreme example of identification without the loss of identity. People in Jesus' day thought holy men could only be found in synagogues, but Jesus went to the marketplace. He had a "go-to-them" rather than a "come-to-us" approach. But Jesus remained in the Father: He knew who he was and therefore was not at risk of giving in to the culture around him. Likewise, Jesus invites us to remain in him and promises to remain in us if we do (John 15).
I asked a student at Queens University in Belfast, N. Ireland, if she was developing authentic friendships with seekers. She responded, "Oh, my church wouldn't approve of me socializing with unbelievers. The marching order from my minister before I left for university was 'Just come back to us a Christian!'"
I feel sympathy for this pastor. I understand his fear that in living in a culture that is increasingly hostile to faith she might be swept away and her witness compromised. Yet how can we be Christ's agents to a hurting world if all we offer is a "fortress" mentality whose only goal is preservation? Jesus didn't call us to a "holy huddle" but to be "light" and "salt." How can we be the salt of the earth if we never get out of the salt shaker?
The message: Tell the story
Expressing the love of Christ in the context of relationship is foundational to witness: being respectful, listening carefully, loving sincerely. But establishing loving friendships isn't all that God requires of us. He also asks us to bear witness to the truth. That means we must also tell the story. But therein lies the crunch, especially in the West. How do we bravely, faithfully, creatively proclaim the gospel in our age of relativity that denies the possibility of truth in any absolute sense? When the truth of any truth is under suspicion and the validity of gospel truth is either denied or ignored? Yet we are told these unflinching, foundational truths: "By this Gospel you are saved, that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, that he appeared" (1 Cor. 15: 2-5).
While I was speaking in Finland to university students from all five Nordic countries, a Swedish student told me that he had invited a skeptic friend to a debate on campus between an atheist and a believer. The Christian won the argument with a spirit of graciousness. But the skeptic student told him afterwards, in what has to be the ultimate postmodern response: "I agree that the Christian had the better arguments. But I'm offended to think someone would try to defeat another person merely on the basis of rational argument." Hello? Isn't that the point of a debate? But it underscores our dilemma. How do we communicate the truth of the gospel to someone who finds any claim of truth offensive? Whose belief in tolerance makes the claims of Christ seem outrageous and arrogant?
One approach that we've found helpful is, once friendships with seekers are established and there is freedom in discussing spiritual issues, to consider inviting them to a seeker Bible study. This is a study in which the majority of people who come are seekers or skeptics, not Christians. We invite them to come to a neutral place (our home, our school dorm, at the back of a restaurant) to look at one of the Gospels and examine the life of Jesus. We tell them they don't have to believe in God or believe the Bible is the Word of God. We simply invite them to "come and see." The atmosphere is fun and relaxed. They come with their questions, and after refreshments the facilitator asks questions about the text (possibly using a seeker Bible study guide), and the conversation begins.
We've found this tool effective worldwide, because it isn't a slick program or a gimmick but is based on relationships. We're not inviting strangers but friends. People who wouldn't darken the door of a church feel comfortable coming to our home where they are with people like themselves—people with lots of unanswered questions. We provide a safe place for people who may never have read the Bible or whose understanding of Christianity is sketchy at best. And while some may have been turned off by religious organizations like the church, many are still curious about Jesus: Who was he? What was he like? What did he say and do? I believe the greatest shortcut to evangelism is focusing on the person of Jesus, because Jesus is irresistible! Whether they become Christ-followers or not, I have seen even the most cynical feel drawn to Jesus, which bodes well for future discussions.
Another reason seekers respond to a small group investigation of the person of Jesus is because it is not taught but explored through questions. It is dialogical, not didactic. Truth is presented through story, not a sermon. It is process-oriented and fosters authentic relationships.
We have seen seeker studies started in nearly every country where we minister. After one of our Salt Shaker Conferences for mainland Chinese, a woman in Bejing wrote that she was leading a seeker study for her professional colleagues: "The people came because they trusted me. We were already friends, and they'd become curious about my faith. These are people who had never read one word of the Bible and knew almost nothing about Jesus. But we Chinese love a good story! They quickly became engaged and their curiosity aroused as we read the passages each week. But what fascinated me most was how Jesus became alive to them. They commented on their surprise in seeing how relevant these Bible stories were to their own lives. Several in the group have now given their lives to Christ."
A microbiologist in Italy invited her research colleagues to come to her apartment for pasta and a study on "Who is the real Jesus?" Most of them were atheists and, as fellow research scientists, had had countless conversations on science versus faith, the New Atheism, evolution, etc. What drew them to come was their respect for her, her obvious love for them, the fact that she took their questions seriously, and her irrepressible joy. She recently wrote to us again to say that the most vociferous atheist of the group had just committed his life to Christ.
The greatest shortcut to evangelism is focusing on the person of Jesus, because Jesus is irresistible!
A seeker study is currently being held in inner-city Chicago for men who want to get off the streets or have just been released from prison. What drew them to Jesus? "They see in Jesus someone they can identify with," the study leader told me. "The authorities don't like him; the religious leaders taunt him about being born out of wedlock; he has no place to lay his head at night; and he befriends prostitutes and lepers. The marginalized people loved him and he loved them."
The obvious question is how could reading Bible stories about Jesus who lived 2,000 years ago possibly seem relevant to modern people from cultures so vastly different? The late French philosopher Simone Weil was on to something when she wrote, "to be always relevant, you have to say things which are eternal." In other words, true spiritual power lies in utilizing God's eternal resources: his Word (the living Word and the written Word) and his Spirit. A seeker study is effective because it is centered in authentic relationship while at the same time utilizing the power of God's Word and Spirit—which makes it eternally relevant!
One of my fears is that the world looks at Christians from a distance and concludes that Jesus' primary task is to help us have devotions and to keep us from swearing. But when they encounter the biblical Jesus, they realize this Jesus would never flee from someone struggling with a sexual addiction, substance abuse, or eating disorder. He doesn't walk away from brokenness. He is willing to wade into our mess and love us where we are. Most people can't imagine a God who is willing to become deeply involved in our messy lives. But that is our task—to emulate Christ, to show them who he is, and to share how he has mended our own brokenness.
The means: Feed on the Spirit
But we need more than communication skills and solid content to be an effective witness. We must depend on the power of the Holy Spirit. Our lack of dependence on the Spirit's power is perhaps the single most glaring deficiency in the modern Western church compared to the early church or churches in the global South. If we are going to be witnesses in the 21st century, it is critical that we have the power of the Spirit residing in us, flowing through us, bringing the character of Jesus into us. We must rediscover that prayer is a holy weapon to be used in evangelism and in our spiritual battles. We must ask God to empower us with the gifts of the Spirit.
We don't simply impart information when we share the gospel. We need the Spirit's power to give our words meaning and effectiveness. It is the Spirit of God that produces transformed lives—not our ability to communicate the gospel perfectly. We must be convinced that there is no greater power in the world than the power of the Holy Spirit who goes before us and who speaks through us.
Evangelism is a life before it is a task. We are on dangerous ground when we allow techniques to take precedence over theology, when human strategy replaces trust in God's Word, and when we rely on programs instead of the power of the Holy Spirit. We have been given an infinitely credible gospel—so let us be credible messengers who demonstrate not clever methodology, but authenticity, integrity, and spiritual power.
The world is rife with suffering, evil, and death. The only power that can overcome this and transform individuals, communities, and nations is the power of the gospel. The gospel is not static, but a powerful living force with the ability to transform in ways that surpass even the hopes and expectations of those who carry and plant the initial seed. It is the gospel that has brought life, light, and hope to darkness—for this world and for the next. It is a gospel worth living for and a gospel worth dying for.
Not everyone is called to be an evangelist, but we are all called to be witnesses who live on the very frontiers of God's redemptive involvement in our world. Being available to the Lord of the harvest in whatever way he chooses is not only the most exciting way to live—it is the only way to live. If the world is to be evangelized in this century, if by God's mercy we are to see revival, it will take genuine repentance within the church, divine cleansing, holy living, and fresh empowerment by the Holy Spirit. What we need is a renewed vision of who Christ is and what he has come to do: heal, restore, and transform all of life! If we live out this vision as true disciples, evangelism cannot help but happen.
Rebecca Manley Pippert is an internationally esteemed speaker, author, and evangelist. She is the founder of Salt Shaker Ministries for evangelism training. Named senior advisor for global evangelism by the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelism, she is the author of nine books, including the modern classic Out of the Salt Shaker and into the World, which has been translated into 25 languages, as well as several seeker Bible study guides that have been used around the world.