by Tamara Cissna | firstname.lastname@example.org
Todd Hunter (Dmin ’05), national director of Alpha USA, believes an oversimplified sharing of the gospel hinders serious Christian discipleship, and consequently, evangelistic efforts. A George Fox Evangelical Seminary alumnus and adjunct professor, Hunter says a life-changing relationship with Christ in community is the only witness that speaks to today’s ‘post-Christian’ culture.
George Fox Journal: How are traditional evangelism methods working today?
Todd Hunter: We now have 30-40 years of data demonstrating that systematic or mechanistic approaches to evangelism do not work as far as producing actual followers of Jesus. All the research I’m aware of concerning the church growth movement — from David Kinnaman in UnChristian, George Barna’s Revolution, the Pew Research Center, and Gallup — agree that the systematic marketing approaches to evangelism haven’t really worked, not in terms of making genuine disciples.
People who developed these approaches were doing the best they knew to do at the time. But having said that, something really tragic happened when a reductionist rendering of the gospel got married to the American marketing machine, which by definition demands fitting concepts into sound bites, slogans, and banners. So there was a perfect storm of reductionisms that basically said: Say this prayer so that when you die you can go to heaven. Or when the gospel got reduced to a bumper sticker that said: Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven. Really? That’s all Christians are — just forgiven? No Holy Spirit, no Kingdom, no serving others, no personal growth, just forgiven? Then that makes one ask: Why is forgiveness so important? And the standard answer is: So you can go to heaven when you die.
GFJ: How does that standard response miss the mark?
Hunter: If you think about it, we’ve basically given people a religion for death. We’ve said this is all about making it to heaven when you die. When, instead, what we need is a more full-bodied gospel that gives people a vision for life — life in the Kingdom. I love the way Eugene Peterson gets it in The Message. He often translates eternal life as: life, life and more life. I think he really nails it because in the New Testament the Greek term for eternal life has nothing to do with space. It’s not just about going to heaven — heaven construed as out there beyond the stars somewhere. And it doesn’t have anything to do with chronology — as in, heaven out there sometime after you die. Eternal life in the Bible is a qualitative term, it’s a different kind of life. It’s life derived from and lived in the Kingdom of God.
GFJ: What approach to evangelism does work?
Hunter: What can and will work is telling a more full-bodied Christian story that begins with the intention of God, not with our sin. The question is not: Did you sin and how can you be forgiven? The question is: What did God intend for you when he created you? Sin needs to be seen within that story. Sin only has real meaning when you embed it in a story, a story of what God intended for humanity. And putting it simply, sin is living contrary to God’s will or intention for humanity. That’s why forgiveness is so important. Of course, we do go to heaven, but I think a big message we need to get across is that in this story heaven is not the goal; heaven is the destination. The goal of Christianity is spiritual transformation into Christlikeness.
GFJ: What’s the difference in heaven as the goal versus the destination?
Hunter: There is a big difference. Someone could get drafted by the new York Yankees and say, “I’m going to New York City.” But that’s not the goal; that’s the destination. The goal is to play baseball in the major leagues. So, yes, Christians are going to heaven when they die, but that’s not the goal; that’s the destination. The goal of Christianity is spiritual transformation into Christlikeness for the sake of others.
The reason God created Adam and Eve was for them to work with him in his creation. Then we have the fall, and God creates Israel to fix that. But Israel sins and fails dramatically to be the people of God. Then God fixes that in Jesus. The continuity is, God has always wanted a people who would be his cooperative friends — people who would live consistent lives of creative goodness for the sake of others through the power of the Holy Spirit.
I think the number one thing that can get the attention of the world is for people to actually be Christians.
So if we can tell that story, that starts undoing the stuff that Kinnaman is seeing — that people feel Christians are hypocrites and all the studies that show Christians don’t live any different from non-Christians. To put it succinctly, I think the number one thing that can get the attention of the world is for people to actually be Christians.
GFJ: What effect will this have on people in the postmodern culture?
Hunter: We hear a lot that the culture today is postmodern and post-Christian, but there’s another very important “post” going on. The vast majority of Americans are post-secular — meaning they know that a purely materialistic, secular view of the world is bankrupt. Studies all show that most Americans believe in God and they know that there’s a nonmaterial world that’s every bit as real and important as the material world. They just don’t know how to access it or what it means. That’s why there’s a lot of pluralistic, relative thinking going on.
Underneath this is an opportunity; this is not just a threat. The opportunity is that people genuinely are seeking what it means to be fully human. And they know that to be fully human involves their spiritual selves and the spiritual side of life. And that’s often gone out of Christians’ imaginations because we have talked about Christianity as if it only had to do with sin and death. We haven’t been very good about giving people a vision for Christian life. So spiritual formation has always been the right thing to do; it just so happens that it’s now become strategic. If Christians don’t begin to pursue spiritual formation into Christlikeness, we will completely lose our voice in our culture. It doesn’t matter how great our marketing schemes or church-growth schemes are; they’re going to connect less and less.
GFJ: Some Christians are feeling a void in churches.
Hunter: I don’t mean this cynically, but if we’re going to keep it real and get honest, I think we have to say that in some cases the church has actually become a barrier to authentic spirituality. And this is why the focus of evangelism swings back on to the church being the church. Leslie Newbigin, the famous British missiologist, said that he thinks the greatest explanation for the gospel in our lifetimes is a community of Christians living as if they believe the gospel is actually true.
There are many churches that aren’t really practicing Christianity, and they feel so bankrupt, empty, and vacuous to people. It just feels like a disconnected church service, and people don’t know what to make of it. There’s often not a real life that’s being practiced. It’s kind of a mental religion that’s all about going to heaven when you die versus an embodied religion that’s actually changing lives.
GFJ: How can churches keep it real?
Hunter: Donald Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz, says the two biggest questions he hears in culture today are, first: Do you like me? Because what people suppose is that if we like them — and they can generally see it in our eyes and our body language — then they suppose maybe our God will accept them and forgive them. The second thing Donald says they want to know is: Are you becoming a better person because of your religion? That gets to the whole question people ask these days; instead of asking if it’s true, they ask if it’s real.
When people ask if it is real, I don’t think they mean to say they don’t believe in truth. But the way they access truth is asking: How is it working for you? Is it healing your heart? And if they can see that it’s real, then they start supposing it’s true. So it’s not that they’ve thrown out truth, it’s just that they don’t access it so much mentally. They access truth socially and embodied. They need to see it embodied in a person, and they need to see it embodied in a community of persons who are practicing their religion in a way that others experience as good for them.
GFJ: This need is more critical now than 20 years ago?
Hunter: Our mechanistic approaches worked when you had a vaguely Christian world. In some of Billy Graham’s latest interviews, he says he realizes in hindsight that he basically went around to the Western world saying, “Come on home to what you know to be true.” Back then he could say, “the Bible says,” because everyone knew the felt-board Sunday school stories of the Bible. But now in a more post-Christian world, we don’t have the luxury of doing that anymore. People don’t know our story or doctrine. There’s no Christian home for them to come back to. So it requires us dropping approaches that seemed sensible in a Christian world and adopting post-Christian ways of doing evangelism — which has more to do with faithfully being the people of God.
I always want to be quick to say that your average person at a coffee shop or the local grocery store doesn’t say you have to be perfect for them; they just want to know if it’s real. And I think we have to be honest and admit that so much of the time it hasn’t been real. It’s been mental, and it’s been disembodied rather than embodied. And it’s not been communal. Many Christians just go to church for an hour a week, and there’s no real community of faith where you see this being worked out.
GFJ: How has this happened?
Hunter: Most churches end up being pseudo communities because everyone is driving from 20 to 60 minutes away. They might get to church five minutes early and say hi to a couple of people, go through the service, maybe have lunch with their family and a friend, then go home. Then the best of the best go to home group on Wednesday to meet in a living room with several people who again have commuted to get there. That’s a step in the right direction, but what if in the places of our lives where we have most organic and natural forms of community — typically where we work, or a gathering around a hobby, or in a retirement home if you’re an elderly person — that was our place where we do both discipleship and missional engagement with the world? And then we happen to come together once a week for a service. That changes the whole emphasis, and it allows us to have authentic community.
GFJ: What does the world need most right now?
The meaning of humanity
in Christ is to be his cooperative friends living lives of creative goodness for the sake of others
through the power of the
Hunter: One of the things we need is an overall life-orienting story. If I were to ask you: What is the meaning of your life? If you can’t answer that question, you can’t organize your life. But if you know that the meaning of humanity in Christ is to be his cooperative friends living lives of creative goodness for the sake of others through the power of the Holy Spirit, well, now you can start answering moral questions.
What the modern world did in an effort to put science in the center and marginalize religion of all kinds, was to boil life down to what an autonomous human being can know. What that does is leave us with no basis of ethics because that basically means you can do whatever you want — in terms of your sexuality, your economic ethic, your relational ethic — you can do whatever you want as long as you don’t harm me.
But as soon as you say humanity exists in a story that’s bigger than merely our sexuality, bigger than our money, and bigger than our relationships, now you have a basis to understand what it means to be human. That’s gone in our society, and we need to recapture that for the world.
GFJ: How can we share that story without fueling postmodern people’s sense of our arrogance?
Hunter: The basic things postmodern people would want us to acknowledge are that we are sharing our perspective within an American 2008 context and that our language about this isn’t perfect.
But we can be natural about sharing our passion. When I was a kid anybody who knew me knew that my whole life was oriented around wanting to be a major league baseball player. Nobody took it as though I was forcing that on them, or that I was somehow being arrogant. They could just see a simple childlike passion to be something. And it’s possible for us to do that, to just say we’re followers of Jesus, and to the best we know, our family story is in the Bible.
To borrow a principle from New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, the Bible to us is something like a symphony that is 60 minutes long, and the composer has left the last eight or 10 bars for us to finish. So now to the best of our ability, we try to finish that symphony in harmony and continuity with the symphony he wrote.
You see how that seems open and inviting? It has to be something you can embody, a narrative that pulls you in rather than propositions that we’re putting on people. That’s where it starts feeling proud, like we’ve got it all figured out.
GFJ: Paul said he’s to be pitied above all men if there is no resurrection.
Hunter: Again, heaven is the destination, but it’s not the goal. The goal is to be God’s people, healing and redeeming the earth. And it’s almost like a spiritual discipline; it’s not so much that we’ll win. You could with all your whole heart pick one country in Africa and determine to alleviate AIDS or to make sure everyone has clean water. Well, you would probably die before you could do that, and that doesn’t mean you’re a failure. You were a rousing success because, even if you weren’t able to eradicate AIDS, you became a different human being. You aligned yourself with the will or the story of God.
An evangelism tool for today’s culture
More than 10 million people worldwide have attended the Alpha Course, a basic introduction to the Christian faith commonly advertised as “an opportunity to explore the meaning of life.” The course allows people to explore the Christian faith in a relaxed setting over 10 weekly sessions, with a day or weekend away. Each session begins with a meal, followed by a talk, and then discussion in small groups. “We try to create an atmosphere that’s emotionally, intellectually, and relationally honest,” says Todd Hunter, director of Alpha USA. “We also say no question is naïve. so if someone has no Christian background, we make it OK for them to ask anything.” The Alpha course, which originated with the Church of England, is currently offered in more than 160 countries and in many Christian denominations and runs in tens of thousands of churches of all denominations, and at universities, in prisons and on military bases around the world. There are more than 5,000 Alpha courses running in the United States (AlphaUSA.org).
Another way to think about this is that our projects are hardly ever God’s projects. You’re God’s project. Even if you do brilliant work, it’s not going to last in the new heaven and the new earth. But the kind of person you become is what you will take into eternity. So it doesn’t matter that you should have built five more wells before you died. It’s not that. It’s not this neurotic pursuit of perfection.
GFJ: So eternal destiny is not the complete end goal?
Hunter: If you think about it, you can’t tell me one passage where Jesus ever tried to help somebody go to heaven when they die. It’s just not there. He just never said anything like the way we talk. The way he talked was: Change your life. God’s kingdom is here. Renew your plans for living. He called people into alignment. Now again, I ’m not questioning heaven; you do go to heaven when you die. I ’m just saying that was not Jesus’ agenda. Jesus’ agenda was how you can be faithfully human. And he was the model and teacher for that. And, of course, his death made it possible for us to become the humanity God intended. So in the story that I’m telling, he made it possible for us to enter this new life that’s now energized and animated by the person and work of the spirit.
Now the course of life includes our eternal destiny, as people like to talk about. It’s just that eternal destiny has become everything, and life has just shriveled away to nothing. So people are saying: I don’t get it. And that’s why I ’m saying Christian life is what’s going to help people get it. People are looking at us and saying, I don’t get it, because there’s not much to get.
They look at us and say, You’ve got some beliefs in your head that I can’t see. And you tell me that because of those, you’re going to heaven when you die, and I can’t see heaven. But I could see how you live. I could see changes in you. People don’t expect us to be perfect; they just want to see that we are real.
And that’s going to be a huge evangelistic power. To circle back to where we were at the beginning, if the mechanistic type things are losing importance, what’s gaining importance is a real life, lived in God, that other people can see is real. I think that’s sort of a new evangelism. And that’s why just having relationship, and conversation, and inviting people into communities is so vital. You get 90–100 people together who really care for each other, trying to become real-life Christians ... lots of people would just go bananas for that.
Todd Hunter’s upcoming book with Intervarsity Press describes the inseparable link between spiritual formation and effective 21st century evangelism. Prior to working with Alpha, Hunter was involved in church planting and leadership development for 25 years with the Association of Vineyard Churches.