I have always enjoyed a visit to the city. Urban life is very different from where we live in rural Arkansas. This has really been underscored as Cath and I have visited downtown Toronto. Toronto is a city of about 2.5 to 3 million people. Actually there is more than 5 million in the greater Toronto area. This is a major urban center and our hotel is about a block or two off the major city center called the Eaton Center (equivalent to Time Square in Manhattan).
As is always the case the urban center is a melting pot of ethnic diversity. I don’t believe that I have met anyone who was from here originally. There are strong Indian, Asian, Hispanic, and African influences with each having respective communities in the city. There are also Europeans of every flavor and they have their particular areas as well. It is truly a cosmopolitan city.
Of course religion is visible though not apparently a focus of very many people’s lives. Down on the square the other day there were Christians and Moslems passing out tracts attempting to evangelize anyone who would listen. And it didn’t appear that anyone was. Both were equally extreme in there appearance and presentation. On the Christian side I noticed a lady standing on the corner with a homemade sign that said, “Jesus is the way to heaven”. She didn’t look very happy about it, and I noticed that people seemed to give her a wide birth. Other groups were also passing out other sorts of literature; everything from event promotion to radical propaganda with social agendas. Later we made a visit to “Little Italy” and as we strolled back to our hotel we passed a Hindu temple and then there was an Eastern Mysticism Education Center. Sadly we have seen very few churches, and what we have were mostly old and dilapidated. Clearly out of touch with the flow of culture, irrelevant I would say.
As I was thinking about all the sights and sounds of the city, I thought about how the city is a microcosm of the world in one location. It is sort of like seeing the entire earth with all of its cultural diversity in one ten block area. Perhaps the way God sees it.
My visit to the city has reminded me that there is still much to be done. But we had better find a better way to do it. As I thought about the mission of the Kingdom, I could not get that Christian lady off my mind and her misguided though no doubt well intentioned attempts at evangelism. Here are some ideas that spilled out of my mind as I sat at my computer at the hotel.
1. We must be careful to connect the Gospel to people’s lives in a relevant way. Many Christians and churches are like that woman I mentioned, standing on the corner at Eaton Center with the entire world passing by while she stood holding a homemade sign with six simple words, Jesus is the way to heaven. Now I agree with the sign, the message is true. But she hurt the truth of the message with her presentation. It is as if she purposely wanted to look like someone on the social fringe, instead a member of mainstream society who happened to be a believer. The message became invisible because she made herself the focus, galvanizing the world’s suspicion of the message because of her presentation. It was as if she not the message was the point. Now I love the church, it is my calling, so I’m not trying to be critical, but as I watched her I realized that I was really looking at many churches metaphorically in the woman; clearly out of touch, with a scary appearance and apparently more interest in being right than introducing others to Christ (who is the way the truth and the life incidentally). Christianity is not just a philosophy to be considered or a doctrine to be debated, but rather a life to be lived. We should find creative ways to connect the Gospel (Good News) to people where they are hurting.
2. We must build a relationship. With the woman on the corner, there was no engagement, not really. She was just standing there holding the sign. Standing on a street corner shouting (in one way or another) at the world as they pass by is not true engagement and provides little hope for a relationship. We have to get them to stop for a moment. There must be a service rendered as an application of the message that creates a door of invitation and opportunity. It becomes a testimony of sorts by which they can see themselves in the storyline. It’s what Jesus did. He would heal a lame man or open the eyes of the blind or open a supermarket in a wilderness. Meet a need that they have, show a real interest in them on a human level, and they will stop long enough for you to share the Gospel.
3. We must start a conversation. We are in the information age! If we insist on communicating only through a monolog medium to a dialog World, we’re not ever going to get the job done. When Jesus met people he engaged them in conversation. In the majority of the encounters between Jesus and “lost people” in the New Testament, questions were asked either by Him to them or vise versa, engagement. He talked with shepherds about sheep and farmers about sowing and harvest. He connected with people where they were, in the middle of them living their lives. He never preached at people, He talked with them about issues that concerned their lives and families. He did teach spiritual truth but He was careful to present it in a relevant package.
So let’s not be like the woman on the corner. Let’s take a look at our sign, in fact maybe we should put our sign down with our ego and logo and find someone to talk to. Let’s find someone to serve, to encourage and infect with hope. Let’s make our churches people service centers lest we become more like museums or worse shrines to something from the past.