Standing Up for Jesus

Way back in 1959, American evangelist Billy Graham came to New Zealand and conducted a series of very “successful’ Christian missions round the main centres of New Zealand. I say successful, because people in their thousands flooded forward for prayer and to make a personal commitment to faith in Jesus Christ. But I put it in quote marks because my Dad was a parish minister at the time, and he found that a number of folk who were “converted” had been attending our church for years. Some might take that to mean they had never before heard the gospel, but I know that to be wrong. They had heard the gospel preached faithfully, and broadly, but perhaps they had never before been asked if they wanted to take a public stand for Jesus, and make a positive declaration of personal allegiance to the Christian Way.

Rituals are very important ways by which people of every culture express what is important to them. The opportunity to enact something spiritual by making a physical declaration (such as going forward in a football stadium, or being immersed in a pond of cold water) is found all through the Bible, and in many forms in the history of the church. The danger – and the Billy Graham crusades certainly testify to this – is that we think that is all there is to it. The journey of discipleship is a process – even the metaphor of rebirth makes that clear - and in most cases it is a process that requires the support of a faith community. Where there was an existing or newfound connection with a Christian church, most of those who “went forward” went on to have a robust and growing faith. Where this was absent, sooner or later many folk dropped out of their faith commitment.

I’ve been thinking about this all week, because our Ministry Team at church is wrestling with a question asked at a training session for our “Prayer Ministry.” Every week we offer, at the end of the Sunday service, the opportunity for people to receive prayer – for guidance, for forgiveness, for blessing, for healing, for deliverance. It is a widely-used ministry, and there are usually a number of folk wanting to receive prayer each week. But what do we do, asked a young man, when someone wants to “become a Christian”? Is there a standard format, such as a booklet we use, or a special prayer, or is it just left to the individual prayer counsellor? There was wide agreement that we should be aligned in some way, but how to do this? Experience with a Billy Graham-type explanation (Steps to Peace with God) at a recent Easter Camp had been helpful, and the Navigators Bridge Illustration is also popular, and but in recent years that emphasis on the substitutionary atonement has been challenged, even at Baptist seminaries. There are many gates into the Kingdom, and not all wanting to follow Jesus today come with the acute awareness of sin that is expressed in the traditional Sinner’s Prayer. Today there are other more inclusive formats, such as the one developed at St Matthias in Sydney. Wouldn’t it be helpful to be trained in the use of at least one such format so that we had it readily accessible in our minds and Bibles when the need arose?

A counterargument was offered: The booklets and diagrams offered present an unacceptably simplistic approach; the starting point for following Jesus needs to be getting to know him, by reading the gospels and talking with others about this amazing person. Learning how it is that someone we have never clapped eyes on can be the most defining influence in our daily life. Thinking about world views, and identifying what is distinctive about Christian faith. Pondering what it means to give our allegiance to Jesus Christ and his church, and what that might require of us over the long haul. Instead of a sinner’s prayer, we need a “Seeker’s Prayer”, a commitment to go deeper with God.

This is good stuff. I have intentionally adopted such a “process” approach for the last fifteen years, since hearing a very compelling presentation by a group of former youth workers called Signpost Communications. They pointed out the inadequacies of the “Buy Now” propositional approach to evangelism, and prefer to use a journey or a jigsaw as a metaphor. People need to know there is a cost to discipleship, and that it will take a lifetime to work it through. But that doesn’t solve the problem of the person presenting at an Easter Camp, or after a great sermon, and saying “I want to become a Christian.” There is a time for enabling people to step over a line. I did this myself, when after 14 years of getting to knowing Jesus as both Friend and Saviour, I was challenged to "believe and receive" - to accept him as Lord. That ritual of going forward was a critical point in my faith journey, a moment when I took all I had learned in my Christian family and adopted it personally as my lodestar for life; I “stood up for Jesus.”

Interestingly, many Baptists attribute the same sort of “tipping point” role to believers’ baptism. We know that going under the water will not completely banish sin and temptation from a person’s life, that for all its dramatic power, baptism is but one step on a long and demanding journey of obedience. But we use words like “the old life is gone,” and “being raised to new life” – Scriptural concepts yes, but poetic, and so potentially misleading - just as much as saying a person is reborn because they uttered the three sentences of the Sinners' Prayer. And perhaps too, we attribute far too much significance in baptism to the consent of the believer, when the theological reality is that the Spirit has been at work, lovingly drawing that person into the faith family, since before they were born.

Its clear to me that symbols are powerful, and that our experience of reality, and connection with others and with God, is often mediated by signs. I believe our churches can embrace a process model of evangelism, but still offer opportunities to mark important spiritual transitions. We can rediscover what McClendon calls “the performative force of the word,” and integrate mind and heart with appropriate rituals, both private and public. We may (judiciously) find a use for a simple explanatory formula as a seeker launches out into the deep that is God, and celebrate together that Christ is truly at work in our midst.

To Chew Over: What part has ritual played in your spiritual life? Was an altar call or a sinner’s prayer a turning point for you? How? If not, is there something else to which you look back as your “point of turning” in faith?

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Charles Wesley.