Wise peacemakers | How to love your culture by triple listening (1/5)
I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. – Matthew 10:16 Wise Doves Being a ‘wise dove’ w...
They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, ‘It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.’ Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread. While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them,
‘Peace be with you.’
– Luke 24:33–36
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.
– Romans 1:16
Evangelist Leighton Ford once asked, ‘How do we proclaim the gospel as fresh bread to those for whom it seems stale?’ In this final article in the ‘Wise Peacemakers’ series, we face this potent question head on.
As we’ve discovered so far, transforming the places to which God has called us requires us to listen to one another’s everyday experiences (our frontline stories) and reflect on the world’s attempts to explain this confusing moment we’re all in (our culture’s stories). Having listened well, we are positioned to imagine what should be going on, receiving wisdom for what it could look like when the places around us are situated within the mission of God from creation to consummation (God’s story). Listening and imagining then fuse in our call to create a better story, sustained by spiritual practices which renew us as a community of character, and lived out in healing action as fruitful lives serve up a taste of heaven in the here and now.
For many of us, we’re tempted to stop here, short of our mandate to communicate Christ to the world. Good deeds are great as we listen, imagine, and create, but please don’t ask me to share in whose name they’re done as part of this larger cultural conversation. Can’t we play our part without proclaiming the cross and that awkward call to repent?
Perhaps we’re struggling, like Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus, to make sense of what we’ve seen and heard. Jesus revealed himself to us, but how do we explain that to fellow believers, let alone convey the good news to connect with people on our frontlines? Or, perhaps in these strange days when the church has fallen from favour, characterised as a danger to the common good, and the gospel is dismissed as offensive, we’d rather keep our head below the parapet and stay silent.
American writer Walker Percy searched for an analogy to capture how disinterested and even annoyed many are with hackneyed gospel presentations in our post-Christendom western context, and our frustration at trying to promote what repeatedly fails to connect: ‘The Christian novelist nowadays is like a man who has found a treasure hidden in the attic of an old house, but he is writing for people who have moved out to the suburbs and who are entirely sick of the old house and everything in it.’
This situation has only become more challenging as our novelty-addicted digital culture is screaming for attention, drowning out wisdom who cries out in the streets for us to turn and find life (Proverbs 1:20–33). We desperately need a ‘disruptive witness’ that can cut through the noise of a culture buffered against the transcendent God and fixated on life in the here and now. We need fresh words that faithfully convey the old story, connecting with our neighbours through a message that responds sensitively to their particular situations. We must reclothe the gospel in a better narrative that speaks to our neighbour’s deepest yearnings for ‘Quadruple-A Christianity’: authenticity, awe, agape, and adventure.
While we must reimagine evangelism and scrutinise our ways of communicating faith, we must guard against watering down or side-stepping the call for every follower of Jesus to proclaim the gospel. It’s part of disciplemaking 101 (Matthew 10:7; 28:18–20; Acts 10:42), where our good deeds are a conduit for the kingdom coming near, and we say ‘Come!’ in response to the reality our neighbours are experiencing.
The gospel remains the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes. And when we’ve been in Jesus’s presence, our hearts burn, our feet turn, and we head out to point people to Jesus in the places we hang out in everyday life. Deep down, I suspect we all know this is the case. For God chose us as his ‘special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light’ (1 Peter 2:9).
But the question remains: what to say?
What is the gospel, after all? And how do you share it? If you’re working through this article with others, take the risk to be honest concerning how you feel about the call to communicate your faith.
How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’
– Isaiah 52:7
Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come’, he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’
– Mark 1:14–15
First things first, we need to expose some bad theology lurking behind many of our favourite ways of sharing what we believe to be ‘the gospel’.
Evangelism is not a sales pitch for finding your best life now, courtesy of Jesus. Nor is it fire insurance so isolated individuals can escape this burning planet and hell to come, instead chilling on the heavenly cloud that is our true home after death. Given that this patch of Planet Earth is all any of us have ever known, and most of us are dedicated to cultivating it, should we be surprised that our neighbours dismiss as bad news any message that can only talk about life after death in some other place?
As theologian Tom Wright explains, we are earthlings deeply connected to this planet. God made us to cultivate creation, so when we went awry, it would be a bizarre distortion of the story to finish with an escape to some other place. Rather, Jesus models what it means to be the true humanity, and saves us by his sacrifice so that we can enter his resurrection power. Rather than being saved from this place, we are saved for this world, where our heavenly citizenship serves the shalom of Earth as our true home.
Evangelism, then, is a peace-full proclamation that calls everyone to rethink their way of being and align with God’s reign, through Jesus who is Lord over all.
The core of the gospel and its radical power to redeem all things is centred in Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension – a fulfilment of Jewish hopes for a Messiah to complete what King David began (Acts 2:14–41; Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthians 15:3-4). But Christ’s saving work must be nested in a larger story of God’s mission to bless the world, spanning history from beginning to end. Failing to locate the cross within this sweeping account leaves gentiles of every age entirely befuddled (cf. Acts 17:16–33). I’m referring to the ‘gospel of the kingdom’, a more compelling and attractive vision and message than simply saying sorry for the bad stuff you’ve done and getting a ticket to heaven when you die.
In short, we need to rethink evangelism as not only a moment of decision where our neighbours respond to a one-off call to faith, but the ongoing transformation of people to become the new humanity that looks like our Saviour. More than isolated individuals being saved from their sins, God is forming a community – the church – who are an audio-visual witness to what God’s reign looks like in the here and now as a tangible kingdom. And while our hope definitely includes the afterlife, it’s centred on the call to follow the way of Jesus as a whole-life disciple on mission in the everyday.
Of course, that’s a lot more detail than you’re going to share at the pub after work on a Friday! In the next section I’ll suggest some ways of sharing this expansive story in a way that lands with our friends, family, and colleagues. But to sum up, unless we understand and are captivated by this bigger gospel, it’s unlikely our attempts to communicate will bear any lasting fruit. Riffing off Tom Wright, ‘the gospel is that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Lord of the world. And that his death and resurrection transform the world, and that transformation can happen to you. You, in turn, can be part of the transforming work.’ Can I get an amen?
So how do we translate this richer theology into regular words that connect with people on our frontlines? The good news is that it naturally flows out of the six-act framework we’ve already applied as we listened, imagined, and created (below). It’s not a separate task tacked on the end. Rather, it’s the culmination of every other stage.
Here’s the gist, capturing how the gospel is good news for the individual, community, and all creation:
The Big Story. Artwork by Deb Mostert (2011). Adapted from the 4-circle diagram found in True Story by James Choung. Copyright (c) 2008 by James Choung. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, USA. ivpress.com. The 5th circle, ‘Set everything right!’ has been added to the original 4 circles.
Now, before you allergically react to any pre-defined way of sharing the gospel, let me clarify what this is and what it isn’t. It’s a tool to help you frame the gospel in a way that makes sense, is biblically faithful, culturally sensitive, and expansive enough to capture that this is truly good news for individuals, communities, and even the whole of creation. It’s not some formula for success, as though everyone will respond if you say the right magical words. Besides which, success in evangelism is simply sharing the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit and leaving the results up to God.
Instead, consider ‘the big story’ like scales to a musician or training sessions to a footballer. In real life, pieces of music and football matches rarely include the repetitive drill. But, through constant practise, rehearsing the ins and outs of the actions, it becomes part of you. It becomes a core building block so you can improvise faithfully and fruitfully when the opportunity presents. In the same way, the more you practise saying the headings, sharing the story, and even drawing the diagrams, the more naturally you’ll communicate when the time comes. Some idea is better than no idea, even as we we must move beyond rote evangelism to Spirit-empowered spontaneity as we respond sensitively to people on our frontlines.
However faithful a pre-packaged gospel message may be to the biblical text, without attention to your actual context it is quickly snatched up by the enemy as a dormant seed on the hard path of a closed mind (Matthew 13:19). So, prayer must bathe every step. Being drawn to God and regenerated in Christ is, after all, a work of the Spirit, not human persuasion (John 6:44; 1 Corinthians 2:14). Still, God is pleased to use our artful communication and persuasive words, like he did with Paul on Mars Hill, as a means of grace to draw even sceptical people to saving faith (Acts 17; 19:8; 1 Corinthians 1:18–25). Whatever you say, it should emerge from a heart warmed by having been with the Messiah. Tell gospel stories that speak to you and might resonate with your neighbour, and don’t be embarrassed to lead with why Jesus is good news to you, as your personal reason for the hope you have (1 Peter 3:15).
What opportunities have you found to share the gospel with those on your frontline? How do you bring gospel perspective to bear with wisdom for everyday life, also testifying to Jesus’ contribution to who you are and the way you do things in the places you share with these colleagues, friends, or neighbours?
In the spirit of learning a drill that will set you up to faithfully improvise when the time comes, try telling the gospel on your own using ‘the big story’ tool above. How did it go? What might you tweak to more naturally share this good news in your own words?
Authentic evangelism necessitates ‘double listening’. For Christian witnesses stand between the Word and the world, with the consequent obligation to listen to both. We listen to the Word in order to discover ever more of the riches of Christ. And we listen to the world in order to discern which of Christ’s riches are needed most and how to present them in their best light.
– John Stott
With this ‘big story’ in place, what happens if we also listen deeply to the real person standing before us, engaging with them as a fellow image-bearer who shares the place we live, work, or play?
Cast your mind back to Part 2, and the call to hear people’s hearts. Here are the questions we asked:
Further, we saw in Part 3 how this dovetailed with the biblical story of God’s mission from creation to consummation, and in Part 4 how this six-act framework could fuel healing action. Bringing all this together, there are hints at every stage as to how the gospel might connect to both your frontline culture and the particular concerns of your neighbour, who you’re called to love in word and deed. As appropriate, with trust earned, we may be able to ask questions that invite them to open up and take a step toward the true, good, and beautiful, at the edge of their experience. As you gently and prayerfully receive their story with gratitude, ask for God’s wisdom to make the connections:
There’s no need to awkwardly segue from the sporting results to spiritual laws. Instead, as people made by and for God, whose hearts are restless until they find their home in him, our everyday conversation signals where to dig deeper. Led by the Spirit and conversing with love, you’ll unearth a spring of gospel water waiting to gush to the surface, if they’re willing to open up. And, having listened to their situation, you’ll be able to respond.
Take Joe, for example. I got chatting at a party with this twenty-something son of a friend about our shared love of drumming. He felt happy when finding a funky beat that perfectly fit a given song’s groove, and hoped to one day play in a jazz band where musicians just worked in harmony, improvising freely and having fun in the process. It was as close to the transcendent as Joe ever came. And yet, this seemed out of reach right now. While he’d had some help with drum lessons over the years, learning from a master in one-on-one tuition, he’d fallen into depression after some rough times overseas, seeing the sheer desperation of majority world poverty and the hypocrisy of many not-for-profits including Christian groups. Everything seemed pretty meaningless in comparison, even his former cause of mentoring younger drummers to play well and keep in time.
Can you see the gospel connections?
When my faith in Jesus came up, he bristled, damning institutional religion as playing games that make no difference to a hurting world, instead virtue signalling at the cost of the poor. He respected Jesus, but had nothing good to say about the church. He used to believe there was a God, but how could any deity worth worshipping leave the world in such a mess without stepping in to help?
What would you say?
I prayed, and listened some more. And over time, the Holy Spirit helped me see how his story was located in the big story of the gospel, from creation to new creation. I suggested that maybe God didn’t set us up to fail, but designed us for good, with immense freedom, to discover the beat we love and mesh with the groove he laid down. The soundtrack is sweet, and we’re most happy when we love God and our neighbour, and use our gifts (like music) to make something great in and of the world. Culture-making, like the drumming Joe loves, is core to what God made us for. And our final hope is a jam session where the whole cosmos is in sync, reverberating in time and tune with the harmonious triad of Father-Son-Spirit from which everything was made.
But, God doesn’t force us to play in time. Ever listened to a band where each musician thinks they’re a soloist? There’s no song, just cacophony. And it’s no different when we pretend we invented both ourselves and the song, demanding the Creator bend to our conducting. Every single person has done this, and we’ve all been damaged by evil, losing our identity as we ignore or reject God. Joe saw the social impact, as selfishness and corruption destroyed individuals and institutions overseas, everyone taking advantage of the mayhem for their own gain, vandalising God’s good creation. While I got his anger, it’s hardly fair to damn the one who composed a beautiful song when poor musicians botch the performance.
Now, we could just redouble our efforts to heal the world through human ingenuity – whether starting another not-for-profit to better help the poor, or founding another drum school to reform the tone deaf and help laggards stay on the beat. However, Joe knows the problem runs deep. The heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart. No technology or self-help will make it right. We need a saviour to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves. Just like his old drum teacher, being restored for better will take humility to recognise we don’t have it all together. We submit to the master musician, and over time are remade from the rudimentals up to make better music.
But God does so much more. He not only descends from heaven’s chorus into earth’s dissonance, but takes the blame for every wrong note across all of history. We beat him down with blame, but Jesus – the very one who created the song – just takes it. All goes silent – but out of the mayhem, new music begins. It’s a beautiful tune no one’s ever heard. We’re all invited to jam along, and discover how to play together – but only those who acknowledge they’re out of time and trust the composer are able to participate, spreading this new way of playing along to all who are willing. Ultimately, God’s song will be broadcast across the whole cosmos, and no-one will stop the party. Everything will be set right, and I’d genuinely hate for my new friend to miss out.
There’s no compulsion for you to do anything other than what you want, Joe. But hopefully the way you’ve seen me and my friends who follow Jesus love each other and live for a better world gives you a preview or the kind of soundscape God’s crafting. And you’re welcome to come along for the journey. Denying there’s a beat or ceasing to play for a greater song only brings you down. But Jesus came to give you a new score, a new community, and hope that even our off-key notes will resolve in the fullness of time.
All in all, we chatted for perhaps forty minutes that night. I fell short of Francis Schaeffer’s 55–5 rule, but by God’s grace, it was a genuine dialogue throughout, rarely slipping into preaching, which would have turned Joe off. He said at the end that this was one of his best conversations ever, and really made him think. It cut through the noise by using his own story to speak to his heart. I’m still praying for Joe each month, and trust that when the time is right, the conversation will continue, and perhaps he’ll be drawn by God’s grace in a way that makes sense to him. Like I said, no analogy entirely works, and it’s best for these conversations to unfold over time. But perhaps in this fairly messy dialogue between Joe and me, you get a picture of how the Spirit wants to unearth connection points to the big story, if only we are prepared to listen.
Thinking of a particular person on one of your frontlines, where do you see convergence between their story and the gospel, in terms of life, pain, wisdom, support, purpose, and destiny – that is, the six ‘H’s: happy, hurt, hear, help, heal, and hope? How might you share the good news to connect with their life?
Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’
– Matthew 28:18–20
What a privilege to journey with you over this series, as Christ himself stands in our midst and says, ‘Peace be with you’. Yes, we desperately need shalom in this uncertain cultural moment, as we seek to be wise peacemakers partnering with God for the life of the world, starting right where we stand.
We’ve listened to what’s going on and why on our frontlines, and imagined our context within God’s unfolding plans to redeem all things. We’ve prayerfully created spiritual practices and strategic action suited to wherever God has called us Monday through Sunday. And finally, we’ve found fresh words to humbly communicate the gospel as genuinely good news that makes sense to our neighbours as it emerges from and is tailored to the contours of their particular lives. Getting into the habit of pausing, contemplating how best to respond to the person and situation in front of you, will only make this easier. In all of this, we are joyfully taking up the commission of Jesus to make disciples of all nations, as full-time missionaries on home turf, whatever we do, wherever we are, whoever we are.
As helpful as I hope this series has been, simply reading each article is unlikely to change anything. We’re made for community. The shared wrestle of working through this process and prayerfully applying it to our particular context is where the transformation begins. Every year, we offer a number of events like Wisdom Labs, and courses like Reimagine and Be Wise to help you do just that. The cultural conversation awaits, and you’re always welcome as we grow together.
So, may we each practise triple listening to the word, the world, and one another. May we discover that the sacred is in the secular, and our transcendent God is in this mundane place, though we knew it not. May we reimagine all of life as part of God’s good plans to bless his planet, through whole-life Christian service starting on our very street. And as we listen, imagine, create, and communicate, I pray that we each ‘spread abroad the fragrance and knowledge of Christ’. It’s repellant to some, and yet irresistible to those who desire life to the full (2 Corinthians 2:14–17).
God bless as you seek wisdom for the way to shalom. We need not be ashamed of this narrow path, for it leads to life. Instead, stand firm ‘with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace’ (Ephesians 6:15). For how lovely are the feet of those who bring good news. Peace be with you.
 See, for instance, Stephen McAlpine, Being the Bad Guys: How to Live for Jesus in a World That Says You Shouldn’t (The Good Book Company, 2021).
 Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other (Picador, 2000 ), ch. 6 sec. 4.
 See Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018) For Noble, evangelism in such an age requires our church communities to cultivate a prophetic imagination of speaking truth to power, capturing attention through radical lives that look like the kingdom. As we live in this countercultural way, we become a kind of inspired performance art, depicting signs of God’s reign that draw attention, creating opportunities to explain how Jesus alone makes sense of who we are, and what we say and do.
 Quoting Mark Greene in the ‘Liberating Pathways: Drawing People Closer to Christ’ session of LICC’s Reimagine course from 2019. See also Jayson Georges’ work on ‘The 3D Gospel for Guilt, Shame, & Fear Cultures’, also here.
 Going deeper than I can in this limited space, see Antony Billington’s articles on ‘Light on the Gospel’ and the ‘Whole-life Gospel’. For my work on the gospel and holistic witness, see: ‘Sign: Pointing People to Jesus’; the essay, ‘A Theology for the 21st Century of the Church in Mission and Evangelism’; and the Malyon Theological College course, ‘Principles of Evangelism’.
 N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008). See also J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), with an earlier article version online here.
 These three movements – from decision to transformation; from individual to community; and from the afterlife to the mission life – come from James Choung, True Story: A Christianity Worth Believing In (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 195–200.
 See James Choung, True Story: A Christianity Worth Believing In (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 205–222, as illustrated in my various ‘Epic Story’ tracts, instruction video, and sample sermons, all online here. Additionally, you can read a series of short blog posts intended for a post-Christian audience which draw on this framework here. In particular, see ‘The Epic Story’ Part I and II, and ‘What’s So Good About the Gospel?’ This approach to evangelism and apologetics has been carried forwards in book form by Dan Paterson and Rian Roux, Questioning Christianity: Is There More to the Story? (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2021).
 As LICC’s Mission Champion Mark Greene often teaches, we can make ‘Three Safe Assumptions’ about evangelism, each of which shows why ‘it all starts in prayer’: (1) God wants people on your frontline saved; (2) God is the evangelist; and (3) You have some role in this – however small.
 John Stott, The Contemporary Christian: An Urgent Plea for Double Listening (Nottingham, UK: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 110–111.
 These amazing interconnections between music and the identity and mission of God are woven together well by theologian and musicologist, Jeremy Begbie. Christ is Lord over all, so keeping looking for organic analogies!
 Cited by Jerram Barrs, ‘Francis Schaeffer: The Man and His Message’, Reformation 21 (2006): ‘If I have only an hour with someone, I will spend the first 55 minutes asking questions and finding out what is troubling their heart and mind, and then in the last 5 minutes I will share something of the truth.’